Thursday, 29 December 2011

Is the 'Tory Trap' the Future for the Labour Party?

Yesterday, Ben Jackson and Gregg McClymont published their pamphlet: Cameron’s Trap – Lessons for Labour from the 1930s and 1980s.
The report, which received some publicity in the press, seemed quite controversial, and was reported by Nicholas Watt in the Guardian as follows:

“Ed Miliband will lose the next election if Labour falls into a trap set by the Conservatives and allows itself to be defined solely as the defender of public spending, one of the party's leading frontbench intellectuals has warned … Labour will avoid the Tory trap only if it resists the temptation to appeal to its core supporters in the public services.”

Coming out of Peter Mandelson’s think-tank group, the report has thus been perceived as a right-wing attack on Ed Miliband, and has provoked negative responses from Sunny Hundal and Eoin Clarke.

The Limits of Historical Parallels
Being an historian, of course, I was especially interested in Jackson and McClymont’s approach, which was to draw comparisons between Labour’s position today, and the situations in which Labour found itself in the 1930s and the 1980s. The majority of the report, indeed, consisted of a relatively dry historical review of Labour in opposition last century.
A lot of the points made by the authors were quite interesting, undeniable factually correct, but essentially ephemeral for current debate:
- they were casting back through history looking for parallels and, hey presto, they found some; this is a far cry from saying that the situations were parallel or that their ‘lessons-to-be-learned’ were valid.
- historical situations only carry ‘lessons-to-be-learned’ if the situation today is the same as the comparable situations in the past … and of course it isn’t.

What the Authors Actually Said
Above all, however, I found that – far from being a right-wing diatribe against Ed Miliband – when you read the actual report (and not its summary in the newspaper), it became clear that the article was anything BUT a contentious attack on the Labour Left … and was, in fact, a rather banal statement of commonly accepted truths interlaced with some significant concessions to the left-wing of the Party.

So, before we go rushing to imagine a Party split, let’s remind ourselves of the points the authors actually made (you can read them for yourself here):

A. The Conservatives benefit from economic recessions
They manage successfully to blame the economic problems on previous Labour fiscal incompetence.
They introduce politically-motivated austerity measures, but dress them up as ‘in the national interest’, claiming that there is ‘no alternative’.
Thus the Tories get re-elected even when they are presiding over a failing economy and, indeed, going into an election cutting benefits and seeking confrontation with the Unions actually benefits the Tories, because they are then able to brand the Labour opposition as a ‘tax-and-spend’ party in thrall to the Unions.

B. To sidestep this ‘Tory Trap’, Labour must do four things:
1. refuse to be driven back to its core support – an unnecessarily controversial phrase, by which the authors merely meant that Labour should not imagine that it could win the next election simply by opposing the cuts in welfare benefits and public services ... such would simply play into the Tories’ hands. Rather, Labour must avoid simplistic ‘borrow-and-spend’ or ‘tax-and-spend’ solutions based wholly on opposition to the cuts, and instead propose a pro-active economic policy for growth.

2. mount a contrasting manifesto to the Conservative ‘small state’ policies based on an ‘activist state’. This – the authors stated – is an area where Labour can take on the Tories, and where Labour can win.

3. highlight the regressive nature of the Tory cuts, and propose instead an alternative policy ‘offering more progressive funding mechanisms, and developing new welfare policies that reduce economic insecurity’.

4. focus on the ‘economic underperformance and relative decline [of the economy], presided over by an out of touch Tory elite’ (my italics).

A Significant Lurch to the Left
Couched in these terms, the pamphlet presents itself, not as a right-wing attack on the Left, but as a substantial move by the Right-wing of the Party to reconcile itself to the Left.

Let’s look in turn at the article’s four proposals:

1. Surely everybody on Right and Left agrees that – as indeed I pointed out in an earlier article on this blog – that the Tories are just lying in wait for us to start opposing the cuts so that they can label us ‘the profligate party’. To say so is a truism, not a statement of a right-wing position.
It is something that the left-wing of the Party can justifiably concede:
- Eoin Clarke has consistently stressed the need to cost all Labour Left proposals.
- NOBODY suggests (or indeed has even suggested) that we can keep on borrowing to fund a revenue shortfall.
- and whilst there is probably some pretty hard bargaining going to have to be done between Right and Left over just exactly whether and how much a Labour government would increase taxes, surely NOBODY is suggesting indiscriminate taxation, especially of business (my own personal inclination would be gradually first to close the tax loopholes, perhaps target bonuses and the super-rich … and then see where that takes us).

2. The pamphlet’s proposal for an ‘activist’ state is a radical departure from right-wing laissez-faire policies, and something that left-wing Labour can thoroughly agree. The authors use the term ‘activist state’, but they might as well have said ‘Courageous State’ – the intention is evidently similar.

3. The authors’ proposal to offer ‘more progressive funding mechanisms’ is surely a major concession by the Right to the Left of the Party. This, surely, is what the Left have been arguing for; now we have Mandelson’s protégés implicitly accepting the need to rebalance wealth, to tax the super-rich and the close tax loopholes. Again, there will have to be some hard bargaining over exactly what form any ‘new welfare policies’ might take – I can see Right and Left of the Party having some pretty polarised views on this issue – but at least we have moved away from a Darlingesque ‘cuts’ agenda towards a more proactive ‘welfare-reform’ agenda.

4. Again, do you not see a considerable concession here, as Jackson and McClymont explicitly reject the suggestion that the Tories have ‘got it right’ on the economy, and instead wheel round behind the Left’s assertion that the Tories are out of touch and elitist. OK, it’s not quite ‘vicious blood-suckers’ language, but the explicit assertion that the Tory cuts are political and unnecessary is a significant lurch leftwards from the Right of the Party.

A Basis for Discussion
Thus it is incorrect to label this article a right-wing attack on Miliband and his attempt to move the Party a little to the left. Indeed, in places it conspicuously echoed Ed’s ethical capitalism speech at Conference, and it would not be too difficult to find significant parallels with Ed’s 2011 (and, if we are to believe Dan Hodges, 2010) New Year’s message.

It would be a disaster if the Left were to accept the Guardian’s caricaturing of this article as a right-wing attack on Ed, and to reject it.

I read it as a significant concession by the Right of the Party towards the Left, and – personally, for what it is worth – I would be quite happy to take its proposals as a basis for further discussion.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Conflicting Messages for Labour's Future

Labour List sent me two reviews of the year today.
To a degree, it’s distressing that these observations are coming in just before Christmas, when we’re all too busy wrapping presents and peeling sprouts to consider them properly.

But here, for what they're worth, are my thoughts on them...

Michael Dugher: Have Confidence
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and Shadow Minister without Portfolio. His review made me laugh out loud; it reminded me of the LP sleeve which said: ‘Crisis, what crisis?’
He is clearly pitching for a better post in the shadow cabinet at the next reorganisation.

Mr Dugher believes that, apart from ‘a good joke at Prime Minister’s Questions’ (omg, not that again!), Labour has made ‘remarkably good progress’ in 2011. ‘Normally speaking, a new government tends to enjoy a comfortable lead early into office’, but Ed and his team are consistently giving the Tories a bloody nose in the polls. We are winning by-elections, party membership is up, and Ed’s concept of ‘the squeezed middle’ has become big news.

‘History tells us that once Labour is defeated, disunity and disarray almost inevitably follow. Yet far from turning in on ourselves as many predicted or feared, Labour has picked itself up and showed from the outset that we can be an effective opposition,’ opines Mr Dugher. ‘On issues ranging from police cuts, tuition fees, benefits to cancer patients, the NHS and News Corp’s planned takeover of BSkyB, Labour has embarrassed and exposed the Government … We are not only opposing, we are beginning to win some big arguments too’ – not least on the economy.
Etc., etc., etc.

Do I need to spend long on Mr Dugher? He clearly inhabits a different universe.
In the real world, the polls have been fairly disastrous, and in the most recent council by-elections the Tories’ share improved in Brighton, and in Walsall the Labour share fell.
To be truthful, Labour has consistently failed to ‘embarrass and expose’ the government outside Parliament, and as I write the shadow cabinet is meeting to try to find out why Labour's argument on the economy is failing.
And as for Party unity? I think we all realise that this bold statement from the shadow-cabinet is a sign that in fact they are scared that the edifice is beginning to fragment. If they are not, they are idiots – the party is seething with debate.

And I think we can similarly dismiss Mr Dugher’s proposal for the future, which amounts merely to ‘more of the same, in confidence and unity’.
Not good enough, I’m afraid, Mr Dugher!

Anthony Painter: A Pretty Bad Year
From the ridiculous to the seditious?
If you know my blog, you will be aware that I gave the Party leadership a pretty good bashing, but my efforts pale into insignificance compared to Mr Painter’s assault!
The Party, suggests Mr Painter, is a sinking ship: ‘The party is struggling. So is its leader … This has been a pretty bad year for Labour.’

As for the leadership, Mr Painter clearly does not feel any need for friends:
‘The upper echelons of the Labour party is [sic] dominated by brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, and friends. They are a group and tribe of their own and they don’t speak to or for modern Britain … It’s a disaster. It’s who you know not what you know. It is a guild – a nepotistic one.’

Indeed, far from appealing for Party unity, Mr Painter calls for rebellion:
‘The highest value within Labour is now loyalty and unity. This isn’t serving the party well. There needs to be more (constructive) disruption … There is no point uniting around defeat. In fact, it’s dumb.... Neither leader nor party is served by the silent suffering of those who can see where things aren’t working and need to be put right.’
And he concludes: ‘I’m afraid one or two or the party’s officer class are going to have to be braver in 2012’.

Anybody familiar with my blog will appreciate that I warmed much more to Mr Painter than to Mr Dugher!
- the leadership HAVE failed to develop a message capable of impacting on the public;
- Ed has had a disastrous time, particularly at PMQs;
- the Party DOES need to speak out more clearly and bravely on things like pensions, benefits, tuition fees etc.

And yet, do you not think Mr Painter goes too far?
Disintegration is not an option; there merely needs to be a DEBATE … and a controlled and constructive one at that.
THAT is where Labour needs listening leadership, strong enough to conduct a dialogue with its own members to discover what they (and the public) WANT it to say.

A Social Problem
Yet Party unity isn’t the main issue on which I disagreed with Mr Painter’s thought-provoking article.

What made Mr Painter’s review most interesting is his suggestion that Labour’s problems were social, as well as systematic and political.
Labour’s malaise, he suggests, lies in the fact that society has changed, but Party attitudes haven’t.
Both Old Labour and New Labour, goes his argument, interpret the Party in terms of two groups – the ‘core [working class] membership’, and the ‘ethical middle class’ attracted by Blair. They disagree over how to achieve it, but both sides see winning the next election as a process of getting both these groups ‘back on board’.
You will appreciate that I was particularly intrigued and challenged by Mr Painter’s ideas here, because I have in the past argued precisely in such terms.

For – says Mr Painter – this social model is no longer appropriate. Society has fragmented into a string of action groups and single-issue campaigns. Megalithic ‘Party’, therefore, is no longer appropriate. It’s not just that the Party organisation is unfit for purpose; the Party as a concept needs to adapt to a new societal situation.

A Neo-Neo-liberal Strategy
Which brings us to Mr Painter’s solutions.

Actually, at this point, Mr Painter throws a bone to the Left. Labour lefties, he acknowledges, have also realised that Labour’s problem is that it does not match society’s needs. However, he summarily dismisses the Left’s solution – which he stereotypes as: ‘they now argue that politics has to change society’ – in a single phrase: ‘it’s stark raving mad, frankly.’

No; instead, Mr Painter suggests that the Party must reflect society:
‘There are some bottom lines and non-negotiables, eg on economic competence, tax, crime, the NHS, welfare and immigration. Beyond these, it is up to you to craft a resonant story for our times … You do it by combining a nuanced conversation with authentic leadership.’

For Mr Painter, successful politics is about playing the percentages. You take the (alleged) current neo-liberal consensus on the main issues, make clear statements of intent, and then hope that people ‘forgive’ you on those issues where they disagree.

Two things strike me about this argument:

Firstly, admittedly dressed up in fancy language, ‘a nuanced conversation’ threatens to amount in the last analysis to nothing different to what Ed is doing already – mouthing enticing words to the various campaign groups whilst trying desperately not to upset anybody else.

And, secondly, quite frankly, if this ‘nuanced conversation’ does include ‘bottom lines and non-negotiables’ of unremitting austerity, tax cuts for ‘wealth-creators’, corporatisation of services and infrastructure, with a strong underline of parochialism and ‘loranorder’, then I’m not sure personally it is WORTH winning. We might as well stay with the conservatives
at least we will have someone else to blame.
The reason I am in politics is that I want different policies on the issues that matter -
economic competence, tax, crime, the NHS, welfare and immigration – and I refuse to accept that there is only one way forward on these matters.

A Labour Party CAN Be Relevant To Today’s Society
You see, I do not buy the current, post-Thatcherite, ‘there-is-no-such-thing-as-society’ line. OF COURSE society is made up of many different groups with many different proclivities. And was there EVER a megalithic ‘Labour Party’ with a single, shared policy?
In fact the skies are just as much a different colour in Mr Painter’s imaginary world as they are in Mr Dugher’s world – they are just significantly murkier.

I assert that there exists, out there in modern English society, the propensity to unite huge numbers of people around left-wing values.
Talk to the rank-and-file membership – the ‘core membership’ whom Mr Painter thinks no longer relevant. Many of them are getting on in years, but all of them warm significantly when you suggest that it might be OK once again to hold core socialist values.
And, yes it is inchoate and infinitely varied, but there are the first rumblings amongst young people of an ethical radicalism which surely will be prepared to put its vote, if not its faith, with the Labour Party if the Labour Party will just say something to convince them that it isn’t the right-wing lackey of the establishment.

Ultimately, we need to re-politicise the working classes. Partly this might be done via the Trade Unions. Mostly, Labour’s opportunity lies in the increasing misery and anger that the government’s coming welfare cuts will create.
It isn’t just a matter of Labour cynically harnessing this misery to get itself elected; Labour needs to throw its weight behind the victims, and fight for them – they are our modern equivalent of the meek, and they need someone to mobilise and represent them. Labour is the true and natural home of the working-class and we need to create a space for them once more.

Mostly, we need to realise that it is NOT ‘stark raving mad’ to try to convert people to a Labour Left way of thinking.
As he stood before the promised land all those thousands of years ago, Joshua must have been aware that he controlled not a single acre of it. But the message was, nevertheless, to advance: ‘Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened neither be dismayed … every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you.’

Both Mr Dugher and Mr Painter are far more influential than I, but – as we move into 2012 – whose philosophy do you find most sensible:
- Mr Dugher’s head-in-the-sand, hum-and-hope approach?
- Mr Painter’s pander-to-the-neo-cons message of despair?

Or an approach which campaigns to win new support for Labour with a message of realistic
, ethical, courageous socialism?

Where do YOU think the Party should go next year?

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

How the Tories Are Solving The Electricity Crisis

Edna is in her late 80s. She rarely goes out nowadays – except for medical appointments, most of the people in her life go to her.
She is financially still sharp, and lives within her income.
One thing that she watches like a hawk, however, is her electricity and gas usage; she is well aware that fuel prices are becoming an issue.

Edna’s Bright New Monitor
Hitherto, she has done this by going, each day, into the pantry to read the meters, but recently her electricity company, E.ON, has given her one of those new-fangled meters.
It is about the size of a large cell-phone, and sits on her kitchen worktop.
It feeds her usage figures back to the company – so no more visits from meter-readers (which is a good thing).
And also – now she has learned how to use it – it tells her from moment to moment how much electricity she is using, how much per unit it is costing, and how much she has spent this day/week/month/billing-period on electricity.

To be fair, Edna is delighted with it: ‘Turn on the kettle,’ she enthuses, ‘and see what happens’.
I dutifully turn on the kettle. The large yellow light on front of the gadget turns bright red.
‘That shows when I am using too much electricity,’ Edna tells me. ‘You’d be amazed what turns it red.’ Culprits, apparently, include the microwave, the washing machine and the outside light.

My Wife Sees Red
But when I go home and tell my wife about Edna and the new E.ON gadget, she becomes angry.
On reflection, having heard what my wife had to say, I become angry too.

‘That wretched gadget will stop her boiling her kettle,’ says my wife, ‘and she will stop making herself a hot drink when she needs one. It’ll stop her turning on electrical things.’

Knowing Edna, I suspect my wife’s judgement will prove correct.
Edna does not live in fuel poverty. She has plenty of money to pay for her gas and electricity.
But that does not mean she is not obsessed with her fuel costs.
Her house has gas central heating and a new boiler, but she only heats the room she is in. When she needs to go into a new room, she turns on the radiator to warm it up, and she turns the radiator off when she leaves. Only the living room is kept permanently comfortably warm.
So I can well believe that she will start turning off electrical gadgets when that wretched light turns red.
Edna does not live in fuel poverty, but the danger is that – for fear of that red light – she will end up living as though she were.

And, of course, that is what the government and the energy corporations want, have wanted all along, and are working to bring about.

A Government Which Is Killing Its Own Citizens
We are entering a period of fuel crisis. Many of our power stations are reaching their sell-by date. The new energy sources we are introducing to replace them are massively expensive. In order to sweet-talk the companies into paying for the new turbines and other renewable energy sources, the government has negotiated a system of ‘ROCs’ which allows the companies to charge the consumer two and three times as much for the electricity they produce. Prices are rising beyond what a family can comfortably bear. The number of people in fuel poverty is rising rapidly.

And what is the response of the government to this shortage of power and rise in prices? Is it, for example, to force the electricity companies to charge a fair price, to reduce their profits below the obscene?
Of course not.
Our government is ‘making’ the companies put these monstrous gadgets into the homes of poor and vulnerable people, so they can become frightened by how much electricity they are using …
… and cut down their usage.

That’s how this government are solving the power crisis and the spiralling costs – they’re fixing it so we use less power, whether we need it or not.

And in home after home, people are going to do without hot drinks and to eat their food unheated, are going to turn off the electric fire and to eschew the electric blanket, are going to disconnect the outside light and use a towel instead of the hairdryer, etc. etc. – all just to stop the evil eye of that bloody E.ON monitor turning red.

People are going to get ill and are going to die – some of them, even, when they could afford the electricity they needed!

Welcome to the Tories’ dark new world.

There Are More People In Danger Than Ed!

A little while ago I wondered whether Ed’s recent flops were the last straw, and maybe it was time to think about replacing him. I was not the only one, of course, and who listens to me anyway, but others were saying what I was thinking.

HUGE error. I wish they hadn’t said anything.
Because today I have been assaulted by a welter of tweets recommending Luke Akehurst’s article: No Need For Jitters.
In fact, if anything was likely to make me think that Ed truly is an endangered species, then this blatant and frantic ‘Save the Miliband’ campaign has done nothing to reassure me.

Is it a good article? No it isn’t. It is a very sloppy article by someone who is probably very well connected amongst the nomenklatura, but has clearly lost touch with the rank-and-file.

Before I Start
Before I start on Mr Akehurst’s article, can I make one thing absolutely clear.
I do not want to get rid of Ed.
Whether Ed is, or is not, the leader of the Party is, at this moment, an absolute irrelevance to me.

What I want is a leader who is doing better than Ed is at the moment.
What I want is a leader who is speaking out with a clear message on the issues that matter to ordinary people at the moment.
But if Ed ups his game and becomes that leader, that’s fine by me.

I simply do not feel the need to protect, or sympathise with, or feel sorry for Ed Miliband. As it says in the Bible, it is not the duty of the sheep to take care of the shepherd.

The ‘Joke’
I must confess that Mr Akehurst’s article reduced me almost to despair.
First, his opening words made me want to scream: ‘In the last couple of weeks we’ve had an outbreak of panic on Twitter and blogs caused by one good joke by David Cameron at PMQs’.
How far is it possible to miss the point?

First, it was not a joke; it was a particularly nasty jibe which sought to avoid the question by causing personal hurt. It was not just ‘cut-and-thrust’; it betrayed a viciousness which reveals the moral poverty of this bully of a Prime Minister. To ask about a possible rift between the Prime Minister and his Deputy was a valid matter of state; to answer it with so personal an attack was beneath contempt.

Secondly, what is all this about who told the better joke? People did not desert Ed Miliband because he lost a joke-telling contest; they questioned him because – faced by so puerile a jibe – he went to pieces. Where was the withering comeback? How did he miss the opportunity to crucify this charlatan of a Prime Minister whose arrogance is his weakness and Ed’s opportunity?
It was not the joke that lost Ed support, but Ed’s reaction to it.

The ‘Blip’
Next, Mr Akehurst turns his attention to the opinion polls, which he dismisses as a ‘blip’ – a word which has featured frequently in official pronouncements from the Party.
(As an aside, I do get so heartily sick of these ‘official lines’, where our leadership seem not to have any character or personality of their own, but simply parrot from an obviously-pre-prepared script, following ‘the Party line’.)
Again, the heart sinks.
Yes – we all KNOW that it’s a blip! That’s not the point.
The point isn’t even Ed’s disastrous personal ratings. How dare you think I’m so shallow that the first time there’s a blip in the polls I’m shouting: ‘off with his head’!

The problem lies not with the blip, but what it indicates.
Cameron HAS benefitted from the EU bounce, and some of his recent statements (e.g. on problem families and Christianity) have played well to his white middle class constituency.

But the issue for Labour is whether the Party leadership has been playing their hand well enough too?
For the past four months I have been asking the Party leadership to say something, do something, about the devastation that this government is wreaking upon our benefit system, our human and working rights, our economy. I know I am not the only one. And the response has been – to be kind – lukewarm.
Just like a good teacher whose pupils suffer a sudden drop in their results would wonder whether he should improve his teaching approach, the question which the Labour Party ought to be asking itself as it suffers a (hopefully temporary) drop in the polls OUGHT to be: ‘to what extent is this our fault’ and: ‘how can we do better next time’ … NOT: ‘don’t panic it’s just a blip’.

‘Just a blip’ it may well indeed be, but to pat me patronisingly on the head, and reassure me that it is ‘just a blip’, is to betray criminal complacency and lack of accountability.
It’s not the polls I’m worried about – it’s the complacency and continued lack of movement in our leadership.

The Defeatism
The reader of Mr Akehurst’s article is then treated to a long passage in which we are reminded of the HUGE problems facing the Party – the biggest defeat since the 1920s, the collapse of the Scottish Labour Party, the lack of ‘experienced, or widely publicly recognised, grey-haired senior figures still on the frontbench’(!), left-wing activists who are dragging the unions ‘in the opposite direction to the electorate’(!), ‘we have lost our reputation for economic competence’, the boundary ‘gerrymander’ etc. ad nauseam.
I fear that, for writing this rebuttal, I may be accused of ‘undermining the Party’. But after Mr Akehurst’s list of Labour’s failings and obstacles I wanted to slit my wrists. I have rarely seen such a negative and defeatist set of statements from someone who was
supposed to be leading and inspiring me to greater efforts.

I tell you plainly, if I was wondering before reading this article whether Ed Miliband ought to go, I was convinced after reading it that Mr Akehurst needs to go.

And the reason for this extended list of woes? Well, of course, it is building us up to the statement that the Labour Party has achieved its ‘realistic maximum level’ – to set us up for the ‘we’re-doing-as-well-as-we-can’ plea.

Just take a moment to dwell on that phrase and its implications: ‘realistic maximum level’.

Nowadays, we don’t accept that kind of answer. The teacher whose pupils are failing their exams can no longer cite their socio-economic deprivation; if he does, he is put on capacity proceedings. The hospital with a higher infant mortality or which is careless of its older patients is not allowed excuses; it is pilloried in the press and reorganised.
And, quite frankly, if it means that we must suffer a single moment more of this wicked Tory government, I could not care less how hard Mr Akehurst and his colleagues regard their task. They are our leadership, and their task is to deliver success; as far as I am concerned, they are all on informal capacity measures.

The Inaction
Mr Akehurst’s article ends, predictably, with a restatement of the current leadership line, including ‘a narrative about the squeezed middle’ and ‘developing a social democracy for austere times’.

So … just more of the same then.
And that’s where Mr Akehurst finally broke my spirit.

Recently, I have been pleading (along with others far more effective and influential than I) for Labour to start to get urgent about the government’s benefit cuts.
The leadership has failed to convey a strong message on the economy, compromised on university fees, had to change tack on the NHS, and wavered about the pensions strike.
Now, when they should be SCREAMING about the injustices of the benefit cuts, the Party leadership are merely issuing: ‘Business as Usual – Keep Calm and Carry On’ messages from HQ.
The leadership are defending Ed, rather than those on benefits.

Which is why I say that I wish nobody had ever mentioned Ed’s currently pathetic leadership – the only effect has been to make the Party obsess about ‘the leadership’, when it should be attacking the latest government injustices.

Mr Akehurst finishes his article with his attempt at an inspiring call for us to unite behind Ed.
I would have been more inspired by a call for us to unite to decry this, or this, or this, or this!

Ed and his leadership may be endangered, but they are not the ones we should be uniting and fighting to protect.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Labour MUST protest the benefit cuts

The cuts are beginning to hurt.

It seems months now since Lilith (a member of my local facebook group) drew attention to the bullying and cuts that were happening to those on JSA at the Job Centres. Then it all went quiet for a bit; then we were fully occupied with the pensions strike.
But recently there has been a dribble of articles highlighting various cuts – time-limiting of disability benefits, cuts to children's DLAs, a planned shake-up of widows’ benefits, the effect of limiting housing benefits, the difficulty of getting Disability Living Allowance. And there are more – for example, the cuts to Family Tax Credit.
Now the cuts seem to be flooding in thick and fast – as I’ve said before, too fast to respond.
Anger at these cuts has been limited until yesterday, when the case of @suey2y, who runs the blog Diary of a Benefits Scrounger, ‘went viral’ on twitter.

Hopefully, it marks the first stirrings of concerted resistance to this wicked government’s assault on welfare benefit?

In all this, three things strike me.

The Critical Battle-ground
Firstly, we need to keep uppermost in our minds the sheer devastation which these cuts in benefits are beginning to cause. Forget for the moment whether the cuts are ‘necessary’ or not. We need to focus on the hardship and the terror that losing hundreds of pounds a month from an already limited income will be causing, in family after family, this Christmas.
We need to be aware of the damage that these cuts are doing to people’s lives, and keep their needs at the forefront of the debate. This is a matter about right and wrong, care and cruelty, and we need to make sure that we do not reduce it simply to a strategic opportunity to attack the Tories.
Because – for all the nonsense about the EU, and all the intricate debate about the economy and tax havens, and even the battle over the reorganisation of the NHS – benefits is the battle-ground on which Labour OUGHT to fight the Tories … and CAN fight the Tories … and can win!

Recently Beverley Clack and Mags Newsome, in a seminal article for the Green Benches, hit the nail absolutely on the head. The Tories and their right-wing journalists have hijacked the debate about benefits, and redefined its focus into an argument about the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor.
This is something which speaks to a degree to everyone, but – surely people realise – it is a throwback to a bygone age. It was the Victorians who lumped the poor into ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’, and treated them accordingly, and it needed a number of ground-breaking reports (not least by Seebohm Rowntree) to make people realise that poverty has generally nothing to do which character, and that it is a more function of situation. The Liberal Party realised this as long ago as the start of the 20th century, and their ‘Liberal Reforms’ marked the move to the ‘personal principle’ of state welfare. By seeking to re-establish the concept of ‘undeserving poor’ the Tories are trying to take us, not just back to before the Welfare State, but way back to the New Poor Law of 1834 and the principle of ‘less eligibility’.
Perhaps it is not coincidence that 2011 saw increased publicity for the Rowntree Foundation’s annual report on poverty and social exclusion, which placed the emphasis for poverty, yet again, not on the faults of the individual, but on issues that the individual has little control over – unemployment, ill-health and educational opportunity.

Labour needs to fight these people’s corner, not simply because they might vote for us in 2015, but because – as Beverley and Mags write – ‘it’s time for Labour to enter the fight for Britain’s soul’.

Labour’s Inexplicable Silence
So secondly, where IS the Labour Party in all this?

Now, I have here to admit to the possibility that I may simply be ignorant.
As I understand it (admits in terror of lack of expertise) these matters have not gone through Parliament because they do not need new laws passing to make them. They are regarded simply as changes in regulations which can be implemented by decree by the different departments. (Could someone please correct me if I am wrong here?)
Nevertheless – whether I am right or wrong – we have a vast number of very damaging benefit decisions, being taken randomly and implemented viciously, popping up here, there and everywhere, as department sections seeks ways to reduce their spending.

Why is the Labour Party machine not collecting and publicising them?
I think someone needs to explain them as well; if you have never claimed a particular benefit, you are often unaware of it, and you are certainly unaware of the problems that will be caused by obscure changes to the detail of individual regulations … yet it is often in those apparently minor details that the worst hardships and the greatest injustices lie.

I am unaware of any co-ordinated Labour Party campaign on the issue. Neither have I noticed Ed Miliband taking the Prime Minister to task about them.
Today, as comment about Suey2y continues to rumble on – even making the Guardian – LabourList tweets ‘Ed Miliband's Christmas message to the armed forces’ and ‘Why people are still talking about Ed’s conference speech in Liverpool’.
About the benefits outrage, I have not seen anything from the Labour Party.

Now, as I say, this might be a function of my ignorance. I might simply have missed these things.
But if I have, I bet there are millions of people out there who have missed them too.
And lots of them will be on benefits.

A while ago, Labour entered the economic debate with the now-forgotten ‘five-points for growth and jobs’ campaign. When the Unions tried to make a stand for promised pensions, the message from the Labour Party leadership was equivocal in the extreme.
For the benefits scandal, this kind of lukewarm response will not do. With benefits, we need a MUCH bigger campaign. We need to be ripping Cameron apart on individual cases of injustice – there are hundreds, so why aren’t we calling him personally to account. Let’s ruin his Christmas like he has ruined the Christmases of thousands upon thousands of families. We need to state boldly what we would be doing about benefits. And we need to convince the people on Welfare benefit that a Labour government would treat them justly.

Avoiding the Tory Trap
‘Justice’ in welfare – now there’s a concept.

For having said that we need a campaign, I do not think for a moment that the Tories are not ready for such an attack.
The moment Labour mounts any criticism of welfare cuts, all the Tory big guns will come out trying to label Labour as the ‘spendthrift’ party which lumbered Britain with the deficit in the first place and now wants to ruin us further!

At the same time, the Labour leadership have to realise that the Tories – partly as a result of a constant stream of stories about benefit cheats in the newspapers – hold a sort of propaganda high ground on benefits. Anger at 'benefit scrounging' (whatever that might be) is not just a middle class matter - working class people are outraged about it too, and not just because they have been brainwashed by the Tory press, but because they can see examples living in their street.
That is why Cameron's policy towards the so-called 'problem families' has resonated so well ... because such families exist!

The problem for Labour is how to set a campaign for benefits alongside the undeniable truth that nobody in society has the right to sit back and do nothing, allowing the other members of society to feed and clothe them. (And the equally undeniable truth that a few individuals have made a career choice to do so.)
This is not a right-wing thing to say, by the way – I am reminded of the Communist dictum: ‘from each according to his ability, [as well as] to each according to their needs’.
We all have a duty to contribute what we can to society – there is nothing wrong with Labour boldly asserting that no one is entitled to a free ride.

So how can Labour campaign against the benefit cuts without conveying the impression that it is somehow 'soft on scrounging'?

I think the answer perhaps may lie in focussing on the criteria for welfare support.
We need to set out clearly where the new Tory criteria are heartless and damaging. And we need to define realistic and caring criteria about WHO should merit benefits, and WHAT they ought to receive. Doing so would make the distinction, not between 'deserving' and 'undeserving', but rather between criminal and legal. The Labour pitch has to be that we as a party would be properly hard on the criminals, but generously caring where there is need.

So, to be fair, I don't have all the answers - if I were running a debate, I would suggest that this rant was a 'discussion-starter' rather than the 'last word'.

But of one thing I am sure - we MUST as a Party be seen to enter boldly and decisively into the benefits cuts debate.
It is by portraying the Tories as a bullying government, which is taking advantages of the weakness of the weak, that we will rouse the outrage of middle-class Britain, and hopefully persuade working-class Britain that its safety can only lie in Labour’s hands.

To the man who has just tried to kill me...

We both know that I was in the wrong lane.

This was the result of a wrong lane choice half-a-mile earlier which meant that – as the traffic was moving quickly in two busy lanes – I was unable to change into the correct lane as we approached the roundabout.
Thus I found myself in the wrong lane on the roundabout.
Sorry, but it’s hardly the greatest traffic crime.

I tried to manoeuvre carefully. I went round the inside of the roundabout slowly, and waited for a break in the traffic in the outside lane.
Then I indicated left as clearly as possible, and tried to move across into the gap.
I did so apologetically (though you weren’t of course to know that) because it DID involve you allowing me to join your lane of traffic in front of you … perhaps you might
even have needed to slow down ever-so-slightly?

However, I object strongly to what you did then, which was to pull forward and close the gap. This forced me, first onto the cross-hatches, then into the middle of the road facing the oncoming traffic.
I cannot for the life of me explain why you did this – presumably you were trying to punish me for my incorrect lane-choice by forcing me headlong into an oncoming car?

Fortunately, the driver behind you was less homicidal than you, and allowed me to join the traffic, though it caused him a great deal more inconvenience than it would have done you, because by that time I was almost stationary.

You now know from this blog who I am, and if you care to contact me I am sure I can explain to you more forcefully what I think about your driving.

I want you to know that I regard your actions as attempted murder.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Some Ideas About Reconnecting With Our Roots

When you correspond with people all over the country on facebook or twitter, it’s not long before you find yourself getting sucked into a ‘Westmonster’ mentality, where how Ed performs in PMQs or whether he makes ‘the statement-we-want about the strike’ come to be seen as critical for the success or failure of the Party.
However – while you’d have to be an idiot to pretend that these things ‘don’t matter’ – we have to remember that they are not the be all and end all. The Lib Dems for many years proved that Party influence needs to be founded at least as much on local developments and strengths as on ‘Party’ issues and policies.
And – as I suggested in yesterday’s blog – we need to re-connect to our core roots.

A CLP Review
Recently, my own CLP beat the Party to it and conducted its own organisational review. The aim of the review was to reconnect to – and to reinvigorate – the membership. We found a membership which was loyal, disappointed, disenfranchised and activist all at the same time. We found lots of older people and a worrying lack of people below the age of 50. But we found people welcoming, motivated and prepared to embrace change.

At the end of the review, we took the findings to the CLP, which made a number of specific resolutions. I must stress that the following points are not those conclusions. I would not presume to speak for the CLP, and I suspect anyway that what happens over the coming months will matter more than what the CLP formally decided.
So what follows is my take on what I think we decided to try to do!
But I am tremendously proud of the ideas the members generated and believe that – if they are implemented – they will go some way to healing the disenfranchisement that many of the core membership admitted to feeling.
So I am humbly going to share those ideas with you.

The Primacy of the Branch
We decided that any renewal had to be based on the Branches.
That’s not to say that we didn’t consider downgrading the role of the branches and enhancing the role of the CLP. But in the end the members’ feeling for the Branches was just too strong. Historically, Labour has been built – at least in my neck of the woods – on its Branches, and they were seen as the ‘safest’ option to attract local people. It is at Branch level that ‘the Party’ gets closest to ‘real people’.
There will have to be success; there is no point in scaffolding a failing system. It was acknowledged that some branches can become moribund, fail to meet regularly, never get beyond ‘business’, form into a cosy cabal, and all the other problems we are well aware can happen ‘in a Branch near you’. Inadequate office function was seen as a major issue – particularly where a Branch secretary might not have email, fail to distribute information, fail to return documentation etc.. The CLP considered whether it might need to take a firmer line in insisting that all the Branches – if they are to become the basis of a new activism – are indeed active.
Nevertheless, we decided, the local Party would be much weaker without a vigorous Branch structure.

The Debating, Acting Branch
It is an ironic comment often made that some Labour members prefer to be in opposition.
It is certainly true that, when a Tory government is in power, there is never a dull moment in opposition. The current government is churning out foul suggestions and wicked proposals faster than you can read them, never mind debate them.
For a Branch (or CLP) whose membership might be feeling disenfranchised, however, this presents an opportunity for action at a simple and basic level. Rather than a dull ‘business’ meeting of attendance, apologies, minutes, matters arising, correspondence, Treasurer’s report etc., the review found that members would prefer these matters to be dealt with either cursorily, or separately in ‘executive’ meetings. This, it was felt, would free up time for discussion and debate of topical issues – be they internal (what policies people would like to see the Labour Party espousing), local (County Council consultations) or national (issues such as pensions and planning). It was resolved to ‘open’ some Branch and CLP meetings to members of the wider public, who would be invited to attend and participate in debates on subjects of local interest. And at the end, there must always be some ACTION – even if it is simply asking the secretary to write the meeting’s feelings to the relevant person.
Since organising such discussions properly can involve a great amount of work, the CLP decided that it needed a political education team to produce briefings that can be used by the branches and others as the basis of a debate.
People who are interested in politics enjoy discussing politics; sometimes they can get heated – the key is to remember your manners and realise that we are all in the same party at the end of the day.
People who joined the Labour Party often did so because they care about what is going on, and because they WANT TO CHANGE THINGS. If we are going to engage the rank-and-file, it is essential that the rank-and-file are given a voice, and that they leave the meetings feeling that – powerless though we may be – we have at least done something.

The Campaigning, Growing Branch
Ultimately, however, all of the above – even if it might make Party members feel good about themselves – will not get us back into power. The Review realised that, to achieve electoral success, the Party will need, at both Branch and CLP level, to become a ‘Campaigning Party’.

A good start, it was felt, would be a membership interest and skills audit which could form the basis for identifying future activists. Who can write letters to the local newspapers? Who can design the manifesto? Who has the skills to man the phones? Who is brave enough to go door-to-door? There will be few people who – however humble they are about their skills – cannot contribute in some way.

It was felt to be vital that we re-recognise the important contribution of the trade unions and union members, and that we explore ways to re-engage with the Unions. Many Party members joined up when they joined the Union as apprentices, and it was feared that we are losing our ties with the organisations which originally gave Labour life. More ambitiously, it was also felt that we needed to improve our engagement with the wider community including schools, hospitals workplaces, care centres etc. Just how we might do this was less clear, and I suppose in a year’s time we will be able to judge our strategies on their success.

And young people? People always bang on fondly about ‘the young people being the future of the party’ as though this was a revelation. But – let’s be honest – few of the people who attend Branch meetings have a clue how to relate to young activists, and I have met few young activists who were keen to attend Branch meetings. The County has a very enthusiastic and active ‘Young Labour’ group, and the CLP agreed to let them do their own virtual twittering thing. It was acknowledged that we need to listen to young people – they have a lot to teach us – but I think we were more frightened about scaring them off than about appropriating new ideas.
In the meantime, it was accepted that ‘young people’ for many branches meant people in their 30s and 40s … and perhaps both the Branches and the CLP needed to sit down and consider how we might go about attracting them.

Once More Unto the Branch
As one of the people who collected the data which informed the Review, what most impressed me was the kindness of the members, and their preparedness to do what was necessary to win the next election. We are sometimes sold this vision of a local Branch as a group of aged curmudgeons who yearn for the days (and ways) of Harold Wilson. Well, if there are any, I didn’t meet them. What I met was a people – aged though they might have been – who were intensely loyal to Labour, and still keen to campaign within their capabilities. And as we talked, it was from THEM that the concept evolved of the debating, acting, campaigning, growing Branch-based party I have outlined above.
They were VERY prepared to move towards this model, the CLP validated the concept, and now we just have to make sure that the intention doesn’t fizzle out, and that we do what we intend.

And I suspect that the success of the Party at the next election will depend, likewise, on hundreds of Branch Parties, all over the country, setting about renewing themselves, and campaigning at local level.
Because THAT would at least be a start towards re-establishing Labour connection with its core working-class membership.

Did Blair Destroy Labour?

This post is a response to Eoin Clarke's article: The most damning evidence I have seen yet regarding the damage caused by Blairism. In it, Eoin argues that evidence of increasing voter apathy at the polls, and that voters can see less difference between the parties, is damning evidence that 'the neo-liberal consensus alienated millions of Labour voters'.

This is an incredibly interesting and important article; thank you Eoin.

Not Proven, But Still Correct
Of course – as I think Eoin would be first to agree – the facts don’t necessarily prove the conclusion.
The fact that Blair’s period in office correlated with a rise in electoral apathy doesn’t mean that he was the cause of that apathy.
Equally, the fact that Blair's time in office saw a decreasing perception of difference between the two parties doesn’t prove a causal link either – arguably, Blair had occupied the middle ground and it was the Tories who moved into the centre to join him. (Only when they got into power did people realise they were lying.)

Nevertheless, the figures reflect two underlying truths:
Firstly that since 1997 Labour has been losing it core, working class voters to apathy,
And secondly that – whilst Blair might have been correct in thinking that Labour would never win an election without the centre, middle-class vote – it has also proved true that, without its core, working-class support, Labour cannot win an election.

Where Blair Went Wrong
Unlike many on the left of the Labour Party, I do not hate Blair or his legacy. He was my constituency MP, and I found him a nice chap, who genuinely did want to accomplish social good.
Where Blair went wrong, I think, is that he thought that the best way to go about government was to do things which (he believed) would benefit the poorer members of society, whilst pitching to the middle and upper classes.

I would suggest that this was based on a misunderstanding whence his support from the middle classes came.
I did not become a Labour activist in 1994 because Blair abandoned Clause 4! I started to support Labour (along with millions of other middle-class people) because I was horrified at the effect of more than a decade of Thatcherism -
i.e. it was an ethical decision.
Mistakenly, Blair believed that he had gained that support by moving Labour’s policies away from socialism towards a neo-liberal ‘Third Way’.

Losing ‘The Working Man’
Eoin has well-documented how this misconception went wrong in the 2010 election.
Labour did NOT ‘lose’ the centre middle-classes in 2010 – in fact its vote there seems to have held up quite well. Middle-class people like me, once they have made their ethical decision, are often quite tenacious in maintaining their beliefs.

No, the problem in 2010 was that, after 13 years of pandering to the right/centre – as Eoin has shown us in his article – Labour had utterly lost the support of the working class who, genuinely, no longer believed that Labour as a party represented them. Millions of people could not see any difference between the parties, and could therefore see no point in voting.

The story I usually recount is that of one elector, leaning on his green wheelie-bin, in front of his council house, with its new double-glazing, new kitchen and new doors, looking out over the impeccable flower-bed onto the recently-refurbished play area, who aggressively asserted that he did not intend to vote. ‘What,’ he asked, ‘has the [Labour] Council ever done for me?’
Blairism had looked after him quite well, but it had failed to convince him that it was the Labour government which was responsible.

And what is true on the micro-level is, of course, true on the macro. We are just beginning to hear people saying that, maybe, Brown did a brilliant job in 2008. But how many people went into the election fully believing that Labour was responsible for the recession?

Where New Labour failed – and it indisputably did, or we would still be in power – is that it lost the confidence of ‘the working man’.

So Where Now?
The pertinent question now, of course, is, what do we do to get that working-class support back?

There are those in the party who argue that we need to consolidate our appeal to the middle class by, if necessary, moving further to the right. That, imho, would be a disaster, though a fascist line on, say, immigration and benefits, would no doubt win the hearts of certain working people.

And there is always the argument that – as they find the switch from Labour to Tories hitting their prosperity and their families – Labour’s core ‘working class voters’ will come back automatically. Again, imho, I would not want to rely on this as an ultimate election strategy.

No. Is it not the case that Labour needs to seek a way to appeal
once again to its core support-base?

Tony Blair realised (correctly, I would aver) that Labour needs to appeal to the ethical middle class; the problem was that he took his working class core for granted.
By contrast, Labour’s leaders today need to realise that Labour must again reach out to win the core working class; only this time it must not in doing so lose the middle class support it possesses.

Labour, currently, is in a ferment of debate about where it should go, and how it should do this. Within that debate, Eoin’s Labour Left and the assertion in its Red Book that ‘the only way is ethics’ must be allowed to play a significant part.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

A Cow-based Economics Lesson

This isn't mine, but it is so amusing that I couldn't resist posting it here for you (and with regards to the unknown wit who wrote it):

You have 2 cows.
You give one to your neighbor.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both and gives you some milk.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both and sells you some milk.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both and shoots you.

You have 2 cows.
The State takes both, shoots one, milks the other, and then throws the milk away.

You have two cows.
You sell one and buy a bull.
Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows.
You sell them and retire on the income.

You have two cows.
You sell three of them to your publicly listed company, using letters of credit opened by your brother-in-law at the bank, then execute a debt/equity swap with an associated general offer so that you get all four cows back, with a tax exemption for five cows.
The milk rights of the six cows are transferred via an intermediary to a Cayman Island Company secretly owned by the majority shareholder who sells the rights to all seven cows back to your listed company.
The annual report says the company owns eight cows, with an option on one more.
You sell one cow to buy a new president of the United States , leaving you with nine cows.
No balance sheet provided with the release.
The public then buys your bull.

You have two giraffes.
The government requires you to take harmonica lessons.

You have two cows.
You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows.
Later, you hire a consultant to analyze why the cow has dropped dead.

You have two cows.
You go on strike, organize a riot, and block the roads, because you
want three cows.

You have two cows.
You redesign them so they are one-tenth the size of an ordinary cow and produce twenty times the milk.
You then create a clever cow cartoon image called a Cowkimona and market it worldwide.

You have two cows, but you don't know where they are.
You decide to have lunch.

You have 5000 cows. None of them belong to you.
You charge the owners for storing them.

You have two cows.
You have 300 people milking them.
You claim that you have full employment, and high bovine productivity.
You arrest the newsman who reported the real situation.

You have two cows.
You worship them.

You have two cows.
Both are mad.

Everyone thinks you have lots of cows.
You tell them that you have none.
No-one believes you, so they bomb the ** out of you and invade your country.
You still have no cows, but at least you are now a Democracy.

You have two cows.
Business seems pretty good.
You close the office and go for a few beers to celebrate.

You have two cows.
The one on the left looks very attractive.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Two Priorities for a Labour Opposition

The Fun of Online Politics
I had a great time yesterday. I was, in fact, spring-cleaning, but I was listening to Radio 4 while I did so. Every time the radio provoked a thought, I broke off, went on the computer, and tweeted it. Then I trawled through my twitter-feed, and passed on the best links to the two Labour Party facebook groups I follow.

One of my tweets was even retweeted
– so my thought was shared to thousands of people all over the world. Exciting!
Apparently, people spend hours (and money!) building imaginary farms and virtual neighbourhoods on the computer. I cannot understand it. Why waste your time on imaginary worlds, I remember thinking, when you can have a real effect on this one?

The Pain of Reality
Today started off as exciting as yesterday. I always love Tom Pride’s political satires, and today’s was hilarious! At the end, Tom invited us to comment, and so I scrolled down to the Comments.

And that’s where I read this, from a contributor named Janann. It is worth quoting in full:

I have had enough of living — life was bad enough in the 60s and 70s and 80s then came Labour — us single parent scum prayed that people would see we were not free- loaders but woman and sometimes men, whom by what ever means (for woman mostly running from violence or the father free to walk and never return) Even under labour life was not easy —– i have ill family — since these despicable lot has come into power (power being the tories buzz word and control, of the libdems, the puppets) have not just started destroying lives – they are digging us into early graves. people are afraid. terrified. The right wing press are spreading lies and it is breaking my heart – i am seeing on of my children fighting for their life daily………….we are human beings……..the cap doffing era belongs in the 18/19 and early 20th century……………i am so very afraid…….for my family…….regards A SINGLE PARENT SCUM NO-BODY OF THE UNITED KINGDOM.

I hope it affected you as much as it affected me. I am retired, and so not immune to this government, but – in all the excitement of politicking and tweeting and lobbying and signing petitions – I had for a moment
forgotten (and was comfortable and warm enough to be able to forget) why we are campaigning.

Politics is not a game for people like Janann; for people at the bottom of the pile, the people at whom this Tory government is taking main aim. I have a suspicion that, when historians of the future write the social history of the Cameron government, they will be much more likely to use Janann’s comments as evidence of the reality of poverty in Cameron’s Britain … than, say, a quote from Ed Milliband. We need to remember, in amongst the debate, that we are fighting to defeat REAL need, REAL oppression, and suicidal despair – the ‘Giants’ which Beveridge took on in 1942 and devised the Welfare State to destroy.

The Reality of Disenfranchisement
So, Janann was a welcome wake-up call to get back on task, a reminder of WHY I was tweeting and posting, but then I read on.

Janann was answered by someone called Steve. Steve said two things that concerned me greatly.
Here is his first thing:

i wont be voting tory in ANY future elections, and until they get rid of that weasle miliband i wont be voting labour either,, and as for the cleggie party, not a flaming chance,,, which leaves minority parties,,, time for a bit of research methinks!

But then he went on:

i dont know much about left and right, who is which, and or why they are there, all i know is, electioneering consists of making promises to win votes, which are then immediatly dropped once in office for the alternative policies with alterior motives.

It struck me that Steve’s was as much a cri de coeur as Janann’s. But if Janann’s was a world where the elite despised her, Steve’s was a world with no one to trust.

For Steve, all politicians are liars, ‘right’ and ‘left’ mean nothing – one is as bad as the other – and all the three main parties are discredited. Which leaves the minor parties … such as the BNP, presumably? You begin to understand why Hitler could rise to power in Weimar Germany.

The problem for the Labour Party is not just to drag its attention away from politics-for-the-sake-of-politics, but for it to persuade people that it is THE best alternative – the reliable alternative, the trustworthy alternative – to this wicked Tory government.

The Task
So there, Labour Party people, are our two priorities, laid out before us, incarnated in two people:
1. How can we best help Janann?
2. How can we recruit Steve?

Aaarrrggghhh! I think Cameron was Correct

Strange as it might seem, I could not care less whether Cameron has appeased his euro-sceptic back-benchers (which seems to be a major obsession of the media today).
I’m not even particularly impressed by the chorus of cat-calls that we have isolated ourselves from Europe.
So although I might be called ridiculous to say so, I’m mainly concerned as to whether he has done the best thing for Britain.
And, alarmingly, I suspect he may have.

Treat the disease, not the symptoms
There is an old wives’ tale: ‘Feed a cold and starve a fever’. It derives from the Theory of the Four Humours (so it’s nonsense), and I won’t bother you by explaining it!
But it contains a basic, immutable truth: if you’re heading in the wrong direction, the answer is NOT to carry on regardless. The answer is to turn round and go the other way.

Let’s face it, few people writing about the euro-crisis in the newspapers know sufficient about economics to understand it, and even the ‘experts’ who try to explain it are necessarily simplifying to the point of parody, and only – at the end of the day – advancing their particular theory.

As far as I can tell, suggestions seem to fall into two categories:
1. Lack of regulation
This approach lays the blame on ‘rogues’ – profligate governments, incautious bankers, blackguard speculators – and suggests that they have been given too much freedom to act fast and loose within the Markets. Solution: MORE regulation!
2. Over-constraint
This school (which usually goes on to predict the ultimate inevitable collapse of the euro) blames the constraints that the euro imposes upon the member states – red tape, workers’ rights, the inability to devalue or set interest rates etc. Solution: Deregulation, more freedom!

Now both these positions are political, and I suspect that each may be true its own way … or neither. I doubt that they are mutually exclusive. Within the suggestions, some will be more important than others. Honestly, I’m not clever enough to say, and I suspect NOBODY really KNOWS.

Have They Made the Most Dreadful Mistake?
Sarkozy and Merkel have no such reservations. They have made their choice – it is profligate governments who are to blame, the solution is fiscal regulation, and they want penalties for any government whose borrowing exceeds 0.5% of GDP. They wanted also a transaction tax (which would release funds from the Markets and damp down money flows).
If the problem is Lack of Regulation, then indeed they are doing the right thing.
And Cameron was a fool not to join them.

But what if the problem is over-constraint? What if the problem is lack of manoeuvrability for the governments of Greece, Italy etc.? If that is the case, then greater restraint, greater centralisation, and more power at the core will turn out to be exactly the WRONG thing to do.
The restriction on borrowing, particularly, is a straight-jacket which I find terrifying. Can you remember Black Friday, when interest rates soared because Britain was tied into the ERM? Similar straight-jacket. Unmitigated disaster.
When a recession strikes quickly, governments NEED to borrow, albeit temporarily (Gordon Brown demonstrated that). Tied to a 0.5% cap on borrowing, especially if it is running at maximum allowed borrowing, a government will find itself with one solution only – austerity – to meet a sudden recession. In plain man’s terms, unable to borrow, a government suddenly faced with a million more unemployed will either have to cut other spending, or refuse to pay them any dole. And it certainly won't be able to cut VAT to give a short, sharp stimulus to the retail economy, or bring forward all its infrastructure projects to stop the construction industry going into meltdown.

The Wisdom of Sitting on the Sidelines
So I, for one, am quite glad that Cameron has refused to join Merkel and Sarkozy.
Let’s be honest; their motives here were as much (if not more) about increasing Franco-German power within the EU as about solving the crisis.
If they had really wanted to solve the crisis, they would have named the ECB as lender of last resort.
But they had no intention of exposing their own economies in that way. They wanted a closer union, dominated to a greater extent from the centre, with the peripheral states bound by rules to stop them needing funding from the core …and they wanted the City of London to pay for it all.
I would have said ‘No’ too.

Cameron has NOT isolated Britain with Hungary. We are NOT in 'a minority of one', as BBC Radio 4 has just suggested. There are a number of countries which for the moment have decided to ‘wait and see’ – not least Sweden, that model of caution.

Britain is not a eurozone country. We do not NEED to ‘do something now’!
The Markets have not (yet, anyway) declared that the eurozone is right and Britain is wrong.
So let’s wait and see.
If Sarkozy and Merkel are right, and the answer IS fiscal regulation and closer union, we can always sign up later.
If they are wrong, and the euro is catapulting itself towards economic crisis and collapse, best stay well out of it.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Who Will Save Us From The Stench Of Thatcherism?

This rant is a gung-ho reply to a pathetic blog by Peter Watt: The Public Sector Cuts Must Go Further

Peter Watt represents old, defeated Labour’s bankruptcy in the face of the debt crisis.

Apart from some half-baked notion that we might tell people how they benefit from their taxes (which local government does already), he has accepted whole-scale the Tory concept of a smaller state.

Banging the ‘Back to Poverty’ Drum
When I hear people like this telling me that we can no longer afford the welfare state – that we can no longer afford to build roads, maintain hospitals, pay pensions or provide policing – then I am reminded of Gandhi’s assertion that there is enough for the world’s need, just not enough for people’s greed.

Is Peter Watt REALLY telling me that we are poorer as a nation than we were in 1945?
Is he REALLY suggesting that we need to go back to the 1930s?

The simple truth is that we need a change of heart at the top. It is not the poor who need to change their scrounging ways … it is the rich who need to see that – three decades after Thatcher told them it was OK to be selfish – it isn’t.

For three decades we have staggered on, believing against hope that we can make up with borrowing the money we have been told the rich needed to keep, to keep them interested.
Thirty years later, we find – no surprise – that it hasn’t worked. That we have, as a nation and personally, crippling levels of debt. And that, the more we give them, the more the rich (who are mainly impersonal hedge funds, corporations etc.) couldn’t give a sh*t. The more we give, the more they take, and the more they demand.

The Stench of Thatcherism
So things need to change. And the answer is to eradicate from our country, wholly and permanently, the stench of Thatcherism.

Firstly, we MUST get rid of the debt. Any solutions which suggest we can borrow to pay off our debts need laughing out of court. Lunacy. We need to take action to clear our debts – national and personal – and that includes those quasi-borrowing schemes such as PFI. Let’s explore ways to pay off our debts which DON’T include screwing the poor – e.g. acknowledging that we aren’t a world superpower any more and pulling out of Afghanistan. And if the government can suddenly rewrite the pension agreements of millions of public sector workers, why the hell can’t it re-write the ruinous PFI deals it made in the 1990s?

Secondly, we need to stop trying to squeeze more money out of those least able to provide it, and start taking it from those who can. We can start by closing the tax loopholes that allow corporations and the super-rich to avoid paying tax. Instead of coming to a deal with tax-evaders which lets them off with much of what they owe, let the Inland Revenue collect the full amount PLUS penalties which amount to multiples of what they owe. And when tax exiles like Lewis Hamilton set foot in the UK, let’s arrest them and collect the tax they owe.

The Need for a New Direction
We’re always being told that, if we don’t pamper the rich – the so-called ‘wealth-creators’ – that they’ll leave us and we’ll sink into recession.
Excuse me, but this feels very much like a recession now to me.
So I say call their bluff.
They make their money by taking it from you and me - they're not going to go away.

Peter Watt represents old thinking from an former fantasy world where unbridled capitalism would deliver the good life to us all. It is THAT world which has failed, and we need to set about creating a different one. Peter Watt has become an irrelevance.

The question is this: faced with the need to choose a new direction, do we choose a socially-fascist Tory world where the workers live like Chinese peasants so the rich can prosper?
Or do we choose a world where the national community cooperates to deliver social justice for all?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Osborne's Autumn Statement - Death to the Working Class!

As a Councillor you spend a lot of time listening to presentations … and you learn to smell a rat, too – that point where the speaker starts to talk a little faster, or glosses over an issue, or become a bit vague.
THAT’S the point to ask the question – to probe a little further into the matter.

Whether or not this applies in the House of Commons I can’t say, of course, but if I had been a Labour MP last week listening to George Osborne’s speech, these are the bits I would have been questioning.

Divide and Conquer
I can also announce that we are asking the independent Pay Review Bodies to consider how public sector pay can be made more responsive to local labour markets – and we will ask them to report back by July next year.

Some newspapers have picked up on this. What it LOOKS like is that the government intends some time in the future to pay public sector workers less in the north than in the south. One corollary of this will be to destroy the power of the national unions – negotiations will be done at local level. What chance do you think the north-east has if this becomes the case?

Mortgaging the Future
The Government has negotiated an agreement with two groups of British pension funds, to unlock an additional £20 billion of private investment in modern infrastructure.

This has been widely, and generally favourably, reported on the news and in the newspapers. It sounds to me as though it is going to be a variant of PFI – the pension funds will put up the money, but will get a return over time. I am worried that the Chancellor has given us no details just of what return they will get.
The point about both this scheme and PFI, of course, is that they don’t show up as borrowing, but they are nevertheless a kind of borrowing – except that, instead of paying the low interest rates it can get at the moment, the government commits the British public to some catastrophic contract for the next N years, by which we pay back much, much more than a mere 2%pa!

An Assault on Workers’ Rights
This Government has introduced flexible working practices and we are committed to fair rights for employees.
But what about … the right to work all hours running a small business and not be sued out of existence by the costs of an employment tribunal?
It’s no good endlessly comparing ourselves with other European countries.
The entire continent is pricing itself out of the world economy.

This passage of the Chancellor’s speech is by far the blackest and most frightening.
And it’s not just the phrase ‘the right to work all hours’ that British workers need to fear.
What Mr Osborne is saying is that all Europe – ‘the entire continent’ – is too soft on its workers to compete in the world economy. And the implication of that is that all Europe needs to be heading down a path to give European workers rights which WILL compete in a world economy … the same rights, for instance, as workers in China? or in Thailand?
That paragraph, Mr Osborne, was a glimpse of a TERRIFYING future for workers under this socially-fascist government.

The Youth Contract and its Implications
Finally, whilst outlining the new proposed ‘Youth Contract’, the Chancellor said this:
But as the Deputy Prime Minister has said – this is a contract.
Young people who don’t engage with this offer will be considered for Mandatory Work Activity, and those that drop out without good reason will lose their benefits.

This is ‘workfare’ writ large. It appears to be saying that young people will be offered an apprenticeship, without remuneration other than their JSA benefits. If they don’t (can’t) pursue this apprenticeship (and does this include if they are sacked, fail the exams, refuse to do certain tasks?) they will be set to ‘Mandatory Work’ … and anybody who refuses that will starve.
I’m reminded of the ‘them-that-don’t-work-don’t-eat’ philosophy of my mother’s boss during the war.
And you are blind if you cannot see the implications for the existing workforce of a large body of unemployed youths, available free to industry, and obliged to do anything their employer chooses to demand.

A Worry for the Future
When Mr Osborne was delivering his Autumn Statement, he was talking as much to the Markets as he was the people. He was wanting to assure them that – however successful the #N30 strike the next day – the government was still going do the Market’s bidding, still going to screw down the workers and maximise returns to business.
So he might simply have been showboating for the Markets.

But what ought to worry every worker – and especially those in the targeted Public Sector – is how far he meant what he implied.