Monday, 30 January 2012

Is The Holy Grail Of Member Involvement Achievable?

Today, an article appeared on the Progress website entitled Labour's Holy Grail. It was a very poor article, and I rip it to pieces below ... but it nonetheless made me fear that we will never be allowed to achieve our dream of meaningful member involvement in the Party's policy-making process.


I’m going to get into trouble for writing this blog from a number of my friends on the Labour Left facebook group.
Because I am going to criticise an article on the Progress website.
This will distress and even anger members of the Labour Left group, because most of them are systematically determined NOT to countenance or encourage anything which smacks of schism
anybody saying anything which looks divisive gets short shrift!

But things need saying, and so I’m going to put my head in the noose!

What is ‘Progress’?
If you haven’t met it before, Progress is the New Labour pressure group within the Labour Party. Its website features a message from Tony Blair. Its chair is Andrew Adonis and its President is Stephen Twigg. One of its advocates is the enthusiastic and able Luke Akehurst, an NEC constituency member.
Progress’s contribution to the policy debate has been the ‘Purple Book’, but its website regularly also features ‘Black Book’ articles; thus Progress stands generally to the ‘right’ of the Party. Most of all, Progress members acknowledge that, unless Labour captures the politically-centre, middle class vote, it cannot win the election.

Progress is well-funded, and is currently running a nationwide series of conferences to spread its message. In particular, it runs an excellent website with a blog that is usually well-worth reading …

Labour’s Holy Grail
Apart from today, that is. For today, the Progress website hosted an article by an anonymous blogger named ‘the Progressive’. You can get an idea of his political standpoint if I tell you one of his previous posts was entitled: In defence of TESCO.

Today, ‘The Progressive’s’ contribution was an article entitled: Labour’s Holy Grail, which discussed ‘the Labour party’s current quest for the “centre-ground” of modern politics’.
It was a confrontational article, which might well have had as its aim a desire to split the Party. When Labour has achieved its Holy Grail, it started off by telling us, the Party ‘will likely be … an inhospitable terrain hostile to old-style leftwing politics’.

After an irrelevant and indulgent introduction about ‘monomyths’ – apparently derived from Wikipedia – the author advanced a set of assertions (not ‘arguments’), every one of which made my blood boil.
I invite you to read it for yourself and see what you think, bit this is what I thought:

1. Are we REALLY sure that the critical ‘swing voters’ in the next election will be ‘middle class or skilled working class’ with the political attitudes that the author ascribes to them? Merely continually asserting such does not make it true. What evidence have we that supporting politically popular Tory policies will attract these people? It may well be that there is a political sub-class out there who, if we pursue fiscally-conservative policies, might vote Labour … but what evidence is there that their impact will be critical in the critical constituencies? Most of all, can they be persuaded to join in sufficient numbers to compensate for the membership haemorrhaging from the left of the Party as a result of the right-wing policies we are adopting to try to woo these ‘centre’ voters?

2. I was irritated by the article’s reference to Foot and the 1980s. It is SO just a cheap propaganda point which surely nobody actually believes. I witnessed the battle to oust the hard left in the 1980s, and I can assure you that ‘Labour Left’ are no Militant. Similarly the cautious and Keynesian Trade Union leaders who momentarily voiced their disappointment with Labour’s post-New Year policy announcements are far from wannabe Arthur Scargills. And therefore to relate the current situation to the 1983 manifesto is a crass and meaningless ploy; EVERYTHING about 1983 was different – the people, the economy, labour relations, the international situation, the deficit etc. etc. I would actually probably agree that a manifesto which called for ‘a major increase in public investment in transport, housing, and energy conservation, a huge programme of construction, and a crash programme of employment and training’ would lose us the next election … but to ‘prove’ this simply by invoking 1983 is intellectually barren.

3. Above all, this article read like an ultimatum. Its message to the left wing of the Party was clear: Your dinosaur ideas are going to turn off the political-centre and lose us every election until 2030. In a recession Labour needs to be ‘more brittle, less altruistic, more receptive of conservative rhetoric about self-reliance’. We need to be seen to follow increasingly right-wing policies on ‘immigration, fair taxes and benefits, the state of the high street, antisocial behaviour and jobs’. And although it does not state so explicitly, the language of necessity made its message clear – if you don’t like it, leave.

Ironically, it is ‘The Progressive’ (rather than my consensus-seeking colleagues from Labour Left) who seems stuck in the 1980s. He or she is still fighting a New Labour battle with Militant, a win-or-die battle for Labour’s future. The writer seems to feel that the left must be ‘defeated’, whatever the cost, or Labour will be unelectable.
It is the language of confrontation which can only divide and weaken the Party. Militant and the 1980s are long gone, and the Party which remains is generally desperate for an end-to-squabbling, and a clear lead on how we might get rid of these wicked Tories.

The Holy Grail of membership involvement in Policy-Making
What depressed me most about Labour’s Holy Grail, however, was the light it threw for me on another of Labour’s current struggles – the attempt to get greater membership involvement in policy-making.

How we increase member-involvement in policy-making is an expressed objective of the Party. There is a consultation, which ends tomorrow, which explicitly asks that very question.
In addition, almost every NEC candidate whose platform you can find is promising us that they will ‘lobby for a rethink in the policy process to ensure all members and CLPs felt they had been listened to and had a voice in Party policy-making’ [or some such]. You have to wonder whether they are just saying this to get elected, but the mere fact that they feel they need to say it shows how prominent this matter is in the Party’s agenda.

On the Labour Left group, three of us especially – Jon Lansman, Peter Kenyon and myself – have all thrown our efforts into this campaign. For many on the Left of the Party, it is this reconnection with the core vote – rather than any generalised appeal to the middle class centre vote – which will be the difference between winning and losing the next election.

The reason that Labour’s Holy Grail depressed me so much was that, after I had read it, I realised that we will NEVER achieve our aim. We will NEVER be given a greater say in Party policy.

Why Member-Involvement will flounder
Consider the following, simplistic political spectrum:

Hard left <*> Labour Left <*> Progress Labour <*> Centre <*> Tory <*> Nazi

Now, postulating that the rank-and-file Labour members were to be given a say in policy-making, where do you think Labour’s policies would end up on this spectrum?
Would it not – after a constructive debate – reach some kind of compromise around the asterisk between ‘Labour Left’ and ‘Progress Labour’ … i.e. somewhere in the middle between the two wings of the Party?
In fact, seeing as we all know what the rank-and-file think, there is every chance that a consensus involving the wider membership would end up more to the left than to the right of that asterisk!

The Party heavy-weights who support the Progress narrative about the need to appeal to the ‘centre’ vote, however, can never allow that to happen. For Labour to win, they believe, Labour Party policy cannot and must not fall anywhere to the left of centre. Their minimum-acceptable decision would be somewhere around the asterisk between Progress Labour and centre and – since they believe so fiercely that those centre votes are the difference between winning and losing, the further to the right the better. They can NEVER allow a policy-making process which might move policy leftwards!

These Party heavy-weights know this full well, and have known it for some time. Which is why rank-and-file involvement in policy-making has slowly been excised. Conference has been reduced to a show-case. The National Policy Forum is moribund (it has
allegedly not met for more than a year). The current consultation has been poorly advertised, post-dates the real policy-decisions, and publicly has been more about mobilising the rank-and-file than involving them.

Let’s face it, are they ever going to allow us a say in policy!

Conclusion
So I’m going to make a very cynical prediction of how Labour's Holy Grail made me fear that things may go.

Little will come from the current consultation apart from maybe some window-dressing. What does will be more about propagandising than policy-making. Successful NEC candidates will forget their promises. Policy will remain in the hands of the Party elite of leading MPs, academics, journalists and ‘advisers’. The Left will continue to hope, but – with or without Ed Miliband – Labour will go into the 2015 election on a platform which is essentially ‘Disraeli-Tory’-with-heart.

Is this what we have to look forward to?
I can only hope that Progress is better than this...

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Labour should thank goodness for Cllr Mackenzie

Yesterday, there was a twitter-storm concerning a certain Cllr Mackenzie, who had called disabled protestors 'a bunch of unwashed people' who ought to move to North Korea.
This article argues that the Left-wing concept of social justice is currently less popular than the Tories' concept of 'fairness' in society. But people such as Cllr Mackenzie remind us that the idea of 'getting what you deserve' is ultimately a dog-eat-dog, proto-nazi concept which we need to resist.


Yesterday, reacting to the Welfare Reform Bill demonstration in Oxford Circus, a certain Cllr Luke Mackenzie from Basildon tweeted:

I hear there are a bunch of unwashed people at Oxford and Regent Street, if you don't like capitalism move to North Korea #UKUNCUT

The Oxford Street Protest
It was a foot-in-mouth moment of stupendous inaccuracy. The Guardian video of the demonstration gives a very different impression. The action was a protest by disabled people against the DLA elements of the Welfare Reform Bill. Far from being ‘a bunch of unwashed people’ the protestors come across as gentle, middle-class and very, very scared. For many, it was the first time they had protested about anything. A blind man handing out leaflets mocked himself for not being able to see if there was anyone there to take one. Another protestor thanked the TV for giving him airtime to advance his case. A lady in a wheelchair in the front line was overcome by the moment and dissolved into tears; a silver haired man in a wheelchair next to her patted her hand silently in comfort.

It was old-fashioned, decent British democracy in action. The bus driver bemoaned his luck at being moments away from getting through the traffic lights – but clearly bore the protestors no malice. After two hours, a kind policeman told the demonstrators firmly that it was time to end it now, and they obeyed politely.

It was the early 19th century campaigner Francis Place who first developed this kind of protest – parading good and tragic people before the public, to highlight the essential justice of their cause. UK Uncut had replicated his methods with genius. These were the people whom we have been brought up to protect – the meek and the poor – lovely people to whom life has dealt heartbreaking setbacks – and our Parliament is enacting laws to reduce even the meagre benefits we dole out to them.
#shameful

Cllr Mackenzie and his tweet
I feel quite sorry for Councillor Mackenzie. If you check out the picture on his Basildon council page he looks like a sixth-former. His position is ‘assistant to the leader’ – a gofer. He has waded in way above his head.

After a lifetime as a professional historian, I am quite good at reading between the lines, and I would like to bet you any money that his tweet was a simple misunderstanding – that, hearing that UKUncut were holding a demonstration in Oxford Circus, he assumed it was an Occupy London protest, and bashed out a scornful hate-tweet … only to find to his horror that he had inadvertently attacked the wrong people – disabled people.

You or I would simply have apologised – “Sorry! Wrong, wrong, wrong – I wish the DLA protestors well … sh*t what a goof!” But Cllr Mackenzie is young, arrogant, and I didn’t fully realise the awesome magnitude of his error:

“Deary me, it seems I have upset a few people”, he tweeted cheerily,
then:

“Question to the left, do you consider people with an income in the worlds top 1% as poor?”
and then:

“Here we go those supporting more than £26k a year in benefits, type £26k into here http://www.globalrichlist.com/ you are the 1%”

And finally, as the abusive tweets and emails piled in, he shut up shop.

A question of ‘Fair’
To understand the causes and implications of this twitter-storm, you need to understand that, whilst both Labour and Tories advocate a ‘fair’ society, they have very different approaches to what the concept ‘fair’ involves.

The Left tend to interpret ‘fair’ in macro-terms.
They talk about social justice in principle rather than about the reality of people’s everyday lives. If I were being bitter, I would suggest that part of the reason for this is that the Labour leadership has not talked meaningfully with its rank-and-file for two decades, but I will bite my tongue on that.
Nevertheless, when Lefties talk about ‘fairness’ in society, they tend to
make sweeping statements about the – admittedly incontrovertible – inequalities in society. They will tell you that 4 million children one in three are currently living in poverty in the UK. They will tell you that in 1997 the collective wealth of the richest thousand people in Britain stood at £99 billion; by 2009 it was £336 billion.

The Tories see ‘fairness’ in very different terms.
When she quarrelled about poverty with Owen Jones on the TV, Edwina Currie ridiculed the idea that ANYBODY in Britain was poor when they could walk round with the latest mobile phone. The now-infamous Cllr Mackenzie echoed a similar line of thought when he tweeted: “Question to the left, do you consider people with an income in the worlds top 1% as poor?”

To be honest, I’m more with Edwina than with Owen Jones on this. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: ‘A household is deemed to be in poverty if its income is less than 60% of average household income’ – i.e., for those of you who get lost off by fancy language: ‘you are in poverty if your income puts you in the poorest third of society’.
Now you don’t have to be very clever to realise that this is a ridiculous definition of ‘poverty’. If we define ‘the poor’ simply as those as those in the poorest third of society, it won’t come as much of a surprise to find that ‘one in three [children] are currently living in poverty in the UK’!
The poor, said Jesus, are always with you … but they are bound to be, aren’t they! If we define ‘poverty’ as the poorest third, a third of our society will always be defined as being in poverty. Indeed, by this definition, one in three of the children in Monaco’s millionaire gated communities are, as I write, growing up ‘in poverty’.

The Tories understand the everyday concept of ‘Fair’
And thus it is that it is the Tories who have put their finger on what Joe Public sees as ‘fair’. Cllr Mackenzie may be mealy-mouthed, but you can’t deny that he has the public ear on this.

How can we say that anybody in Britain is ‘poor’ when you see those programmes on your TV about the tip-dwellers in India, or about Romanian orphans? In a world where recession is biting, and some families live in genuine need, Britain continues to raise £_millions to help street-children in Brazil and tsunami victims in Indonesia, in the full knowledge that these countries have billionaires of their own, who should be reaching into their own pockets. So, yes, your average old lady KNOWS that she is in the top 1%, even though she cannot afford her electricity bill.

And that is the key to 'credibility', isn’t it? It is saying things that – whatever the macro-statistics seem to be telling him – the man-in-the-street KNOWS are true, because he sees them everyday in his experience.
The Tories are true in the micro (I suspect because 13 years of opposition forced them to listen to ordinary people).

So it’s no use bleating on that benefit fraud concerns only one half of a percent of claimants. Every single one of us knows at least one person who is defrauding the benefit system in some way or another … and if we all know someone who is doing so, how many must that make nation-wide? The statistics, however compelling, are rejected if they don’t conform to our personal experience.

And when I get up at the crack of dawn, and work all day every day for £12,000 p.a. doing a job I hate, is it fair that some families, apparently are gifted more than £26,000 a year for doing nothing? If I have an extra child, I have to put bunks in the boxroom and make my £12,000 stretch to an extra mouth; is it FAIR that when some families have an extra child, they can apply for a bigger house on the grounds of overcrowding, and be given more benefits out of MY taxes ... particularly when these self-same families are all too often a nightmare in the community.
Don’t even begin to try to talk me down on this one – I am capable of telling you all the caveats myself. I am simply telling you, on this, the Tories have won the propaganda battle hands down, totally and comprehensively.

And, as the recession bites, don’t think that working class attitudes will warm to the poorest third of society. As he finds his day-to-day life getting harder, your ordinary man-in-the-street will most likely become increasingly resentful of the benefitted classes, even more than the privileged classes. Tuppence-ha'penny looking down at tuppence
– the Tories have the future, as well as the present.

The problem of Tory ‘fairness’
The idea underlying the Tory concept fairness is the idea of deserving.

Why does Joe Public resent that family being given an income equivalent to a salary of £35000?
Because he has worked for his money, and therefore feels that he deserves it, and that they don’t because they haven't … it’s not fair.
And it is by playing on this sense of injustice that the Tories have captured the vote of many working class people, who see Labour simply as the Party 'which throws benefits fecklessly to immigrants and scroungers'.

The Labour leadership is well aware of this, and that is why they have adopted the ‘scrounger’ narrative, accepted the cuts and assessments, and support the cap in principle. To do otherwise, they say, is simply to reinforce the accepted misconception of Labour's fecklessness, and lose even more votes.

Nothing could be more disastrous. Because the Tory concept of fairness is a con-trick to justify an ideological attack on the rights of the poor, and to accept it is to fall, indeed, into the ‘Tory trap’.

The flaw in the Tory concept of ‘fairness’ is that the concept of ‘deserving’ (including ideas such as the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor, and of a ‘contributive’ principle under-pinning benefits) is based on foundations akin to
Social Darwinism'the survival of the fittest'.

Social Darwinism – the idea that the powerful and rich are powerful and rich because the powerful and rich deserve it – is also the theory that the poor and the weak are poor and weak because they are flawed or inferior and should therefore be given less because they do not deserve it.
It underlies the 'deserve' argument that causes you to resent the benefit ‘scrounger’ who is ‘stealing’ your taxes, but is the same argument that justifies the bankers’ bonuses and predator capitalism.
Ultimately, it is the same argument which the Nazis used to shut up the Jews in the death camps.


The Tory ‘deserve’ narrative which is used to justify the attack on the poor and the disabled also lies behind many of the economic injustices in our society. It is the foundation of the class system, and a justification of exploitation.
- How do I justify earning £1.2million with a bonus approaching £1million? Because I have risen to this high position and I deserve its rewards.
- How do we justify making £_millions of profit when old people are sitting in the cold? Because we are a global public company and we have the right to make these charges.
- How do we justify the highest rail fares in Europe? Because we are a monopoly service and people have no alternative.
- How do we justify paying our workers so little that they have to claim tax credits when our executives earn hundreds of times their annual wages? Because we are the bosses, and we have earned our privileges and position.

We live in a society where the wealthy are becoming wealthier, where workers are losing their rights and their powers, where benefits long-established are being reduced or withdrawn, where our public services are being handed over to the profit-mongers etc.
WE ordinary people are at the sharp end of all those developments, and we need to understand that the justification that lies behind them is the same as that which makes you support the cap.

The
desirability of a ‘getting-what-you-‘deserve’ society depends on who decides who are the deserving and what they deserve.

Labour should thank goodness for Cllr Mackenzie
And do not think that this is the end. This is only the beginning.

George Osborne, in his Autumn statement, suggested that Europe’s generous wages and benefit structures were pricing European firms out of the global market.
What is the implication of this, if not that we need a protracted period of falling wages and reducing benefits until our workers stand in the same position as those Indonesian child-workers whose labours are under-cutting our exports?
Is THAT the future we can look forward to in a ‘Tory-fair’ world?

“Question to the left, do you consider people with an income in the worlds top 1% as poor?” tweeted Cllr Mackenzie.
“@CllrMackenzie And the implications of this statement are...?” I replied.
Cllr Mackenzie did not reply, but the implications clearly are that the weak and the disabled in our society need to shut up and take any cuts and humiliations because – can’t you hear your grandmother telling you – ‘there’s always someone in the world worse off than you’.

Conclusion
The Left’s macro-definition of social justice in terms of greater equity in the division of the product of society does not ‘speak’ to ordinary people as powerfully as the Tories’ selfish-gene micro-concept of ‘fairness’, which gets the working classes all looking jealously at each other to see ‘what they are getting that I am not because they don’t deserve it’.

However, ultimately, the Tory model of social fairness is the thin end of a dog-eat-dog nazism, which will plunge us all into a stratified world of ‘ranks’, and set us in thrall to our ‘betters’ – who will self-define as the wealthiest.

So thank goodness that, from time to time, someone like Cllr Mackenzie comes out of the Tory woodwork to remind us what life will be like if we don’t resist this insidious Tory attack upon the benefits and wages of the poorest third of society ... and, ultimately, upon all of us.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Refounding Labour Partnership into Power Consultation - A Reply

This is my submission to the Refounding Labour Partnership into Power Consultation, which you can complete online at http://members.labour.org.uk/policymaking. Feel free to copy my answers, take my ideas ... or disagree completely. I know it might appear the most dreadful arrogance on my part to say so, but I am aware that many people appreciate it when I share my ideas; at least as a starting point.
If you are going to submit your ideas, the consultation ends on 31 January 2012.


1. How do we ensure that members feel closer to the policy making process and more able to participate?
The ‘Branch’ is the lowest level of Labour Party activity, and too often it has the lowest level of Labour Party activity. The CLP, one rung up, is too often no better. Yet it is THERE that the rank-and-file Labour Party membership are to be found.
The Party at the moment is a top-down organisation. Policy is decided at focus groups of university professors, journalists and politicians. All these groups are used to working in the same way – they ‘set out their stall’, hoping to attract people to what they offer. For this reason, they see Party policy similarly
as an ‘offer’ to ‘attract’ voters.
This is exactly the opposite of what a bottom-up, member-led policy-making process should do, which would be to ascertain what members want, and then reflect that in the policy. (This explains why policy announcements such as those in the New Year sometimes ‘get it wrong’).
If you REALLY want to ensure that members feel close to, and able to participate in, the policy-making process, you need to create circumstances which will allow you to answer the following question positively: ‘How vibrant and effectual is our communication on matters of policy with the Branches and the CLPs?’

2. What more can we do to support policy discussion at local level?
Despite their reputation as dull affairs which merely plough through ‘business’ and ‘reports’, most branches enjoy discussing political issues, especially when that discussion is well formed and well-led.
One way to support this would be to issue ‘Policy Discussion Papers’ – including a brief informative/factual narrative, followed by a set of consultation questions to answer, with an address to send the response. To a degree, this has already been done on four issues – as per the four summary papers at http://fresh-ideas.org.uk/annual-conference-2011-documents.
A central political education/policy-making body (NPF?) would devise these
‘Policy Discussion Papers’ and send them out as a means of garnering intelligence BEFORE a policy was created/finalised. If the Party had ‘discussing branches’ and ‘discussing CLPs’ which were used to considering and commenting on policy issues, even if the leadership felt it unavoidable then to set a policy at odds with members’ wishes, that policy could be mediated/spun appropriately and sympathetically.
The KEY would be a feedback mechanism by which party officers would receive and summarise the possibly-hundreds of submissions, and pass their analyses on to the policy-makers.
There is no point in ascertaining members’ thoughts if the Party leadership are not prepared to receive and consider them; this should be an obligation of leadership.

3. What can we do to reach out to the public, charities, community groups, businesses and policy experts to ensure the issues they care about and raise on the doorstep with Labour activists are reflected?
Once a simple, appropriately-pitched ‘Policy Discussion Paper’ has been produced, there is no reason why it should be limited solely to Branches and CLPs. The National Party, Regions and CLPs could easily arrange meetings of open or invited groups from the community; the same discussion questions would do. Branches could organise ‘open’ meetings for interested members of the public to attend. (These meetings would ultimately
be recruitment, as well as consultative, meetings.)

4. How can we make the NPF more transparent and accessible for members? What should the documents that the NPF produces look like? What should be the role of NPF representatives in the process?
It would be helpful if the NPF ever met; that might be a starting point.
Within a system where there was vibrant and effectual communication about matters of policy between the Party leadership and the Branches/CLPs, there would be no need for an NPF. Within an imperfect system, however, the function of the NPF members should NOT be to represent their own ideas – it should be to garner and analyse the ideas and wishes of members as expressed by the Branch/CLP submissions and other consultations.
It would be madness to give this bottom-up process the whip hand in policy-making. The wisdom of the leadership and the knowledge of experts and advisors must always be an invaluable if not overriding influence.
Thus the leadership must retain a power of proposal in policy-making, but no policy announcement should be finalised/announced until it has been discussed/approved through the NPF, in the light of the Branch/CLP submissions and other consultations.

5. How best should we use new technology in a reformed policy making system?
There are presumably some 550 CLPs, and thousands of Branches. It will be impossible to send out 'Policy Discussion Papers' and receive replies by post. Therefore there MUST be some form of email communication.
Many older Party members do not have access to modern technology, but by my idea they would not need to – they would just turn up at their Branch and discuss the consultation questions. However, since it will fall to the Branch and CLP secretaries to receive the 'Policy Discussion Papers' and to send the replies, it needs to be made mandatory that Branch and CLP secretaries have a working email.
Any ‘Policy Discussion Papers’ could then be sent out as attachments, and Branch/CLP replies entered by their secretaries and collected online (as in this consultation).
Branch CLPs which did NOT reply would need to be chased and if necessary encouraged.

6. How can the structure and work of the Policy Commissions be improved?
What are the Policy Commissions? They clearly have not had noticeable impact.

7. What is the best way to create a fresh empowered Annual Conference with even greater democracy?
Anybody who has lived through the 1970s and 1980s will tell you that the last thing Labour needs is an ‘empowered Conference’.
Anybody who sees the process by which CLP delegates are selected for Conference will be aware that they are anything BUT ‘representatives’ within a democratic process.
So Conference is best left as it is – an PR arena to announce policies and secure their formal acceptance, and a vehicle to enthuse and train Party members.
If the process of policy-making is effectually bottom-up, then there will be no need for a policy-making Conference.

8. What role should the JPC play in defining priorities for policy making, and how should it interact with the National Policy Forum, and the policy commissions?
What is the JPC? It clearly has not had noticeable impact.

9. How can we better promote year-round policy discussion and deal with current issues?
If you adopted my suggestion, you would send out policy discussion-consultations on a regular basis year-round. To be honest, four at once is over-facing.
The Party should drip feed consultations to the CLPs and Branches, setting a realistic reply date.
Branches which meet once-a-month will have about 9 meetings a year when they will be available to discuss policy matters, so the Party could consult on up to 9 issues a year.

10. What should the timetable for developing a policy programme which leads to the manifesto look like?
Policy discussion should be an ongoing process; the Manifesto is the task of the leadership in the run up to an election. The latter will feed from the former, but you cannot write a Manifesto through a consultation process.
If the leadership HAS developed ‘a vibrant and effectual communication’ with the rank-and-file membership on matters of policy, it will be able to construct a Manifesto on the basis of knowledge, not guesswork.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

So It’s ‘No Change’ at Labour Central

Having alienated its Trade Union members, and missed the chance to oppose the government on the Welfare Reform Bill, has the Labour leadership REALLY retreated back to 'too far too fast' and a 'five-point plan for jobs and growth'?
It seems so...


Before Christmas, the Labour leadership were virtually silent.
There was the mantra ‘too far too fast’, and there was the really duff 5-point plan for growth and jobs – if you can remember them, you’re a better supporter than I.

But on all the issues that seemed to matter – student fees, pensions etc. – the leadership seemed to prevaricate.
Opportunities seemed to be being missed, and members were screaming for the leadership to start OPPOSING the Tories.

The New Year Blitz
After the New Year, however, the Shadow Cabinet seemed to come out swinging.
Liam Byrne made a statement about welfare, Jim Murphy about defence. There was a keynote speech by Ed Miliband and an announcement at the Fabian Conference by Ed Balls.
There was a great deal of excitement.

At first, latching onto a few sentences in Ed Miliband’s speech which had been highlighted by the Guardian, I saw a good deal of hope that the speech marked a move LEFTWARDS in the Party’s policies.
Mr Miliband had indicated that there was going to be a new direction which included sharing society’s wealth more fairly, creating jobs and growth, and tackling vested interests.
I was a lone voice.

Almost immediately after, Ed Balls gave his speech in which he pledged to accept the Tory cuts and pay freeze, even beyond the next election.
Now, to be fair to Mr Balls, he made it quite clear that Labour was having to accept this as a dreadful necessity because the Tories were making such a huge mess of the economy that there was not going to be any money in 2015 to reverse the cuts.
But, taken in association with Mr Byrnes identification with the ‘scrounger’ narrative and Mr Murphy’s warnings on fiscal credibility, the new Balls-Miliband policy statements were taken by most people (even that arch-cynic Dan Hodges) as a lurch RIGHTWARDS in the Party’s policies.
Union leaders, in particular, spoke out against what they interpreted as a capitulation to the right. Recently, Welsh Labour has also refused to accept a pay freeze as a tenet of Labour policy. People ARE leaving the Party; the polls HAVE swung against Labour.

Back to Square One
So – as the dust clears – what has been the outcome of all this houha?

Yesterday, Ed Miliband gave his report to the Party’s National Executive Committee.
You can read the full report of what he said here – it DID include statements that indicated that Labour would insist on a re-distribution of wealth within the limitations of the deficit and the recession, by ‘a whole agenda of fairness that differentiated us from the coalition but would not involve extra spending, such as tackling tax loopholes, high energy costs and fares’. It DID make it clear that there would be no money to spend in 2015.
But the core of the message was that … ‘we continued to say the cuts were too far and too fast and that our answer was the five-point plan for growth and jobs’.

Today, the government announced dreadful economic figures which proved that we were sliding back into a double-dip recession. Growth is down, and borrowing up.
In the light of this, Ed Balls made a statement, which you can read in full here – it DID repeat that Labour would inherit a deficit in 2015.
But the core message was clear – that ‘Labour’s five point plan for jobs would help get our economy moving’ and that the government was ‘clobbering the economy with spending cuts and tax rises that go too far and too fast’. In fact, in a 350-word statement, he mentioned jobs and growth three times, and ‘too far, too fast’ three times.

Conclusion
So, after ALL that excitement, we’re back to where we started – the mantra ‘too far too fast’, and a really duff 5-point plan for growth and jobs.

And in the meantime, the Labour leadership have alienated their Union members, and have missed the opportunity to score some real points on the Welfare Reform Bill – the latest opposition to the bill is being led in the Lords by a Conservative Peer.

And one is left wondering what has happened.
Is it true, as David Cameron suggested in PMQs today, that Ed Miliband had tried to move right, but ran for cover when the unions kicked off?
Or has all this fuss really been about next-to-nothing … about introducing a few nuances into the overall policy?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Triangulation, framing and credibility … or why Dan Hodges is wrong

Having ruled the country for 13 years, the Labour leadership is trammelled by the misconception that they have to produce a ‘policy’ which is ‘credible’ in government’s terms … when in fact they need to be producing a strategy which is ‘credible’ for an opposition.


A basic, if underhand, trick of argument is to use obscure specialist terminology – it keeps your audience in its place when you are using words they don’t understand, and makes you look cleverer than you are.
Thus, in recent days, we have seen increasing reference to ‘triangulation’, ‘framing’ and ‘credibility’ by Labour writers.

‘Credibility’
Let’s face it, Cameron is winning the argument. The Tories have cleaned up. ‘Joe Public’ is generally convinced that Labour caused the economic crisis, that austerity is necessary, and that the welfare state is unaffordable and beset by ‘scroungers’. (And that’s before we’ve even begun to talk about immigration and justice.)
You can see this in the weekly debacle which is Prime Minister’s Questions. Whatever Ed Miliband asks, Cameron ignores the question and swats him away with a reassertion of currently-accepted assumptions.

It is for this reason that analysts such as Dan Hodges have stressed the need for ‘credibility’. At the moment, they say, Labour’s arguments are so discredited in the public’s mind that nothing we say is having any effect.
So, they say, if EVERYBODY believes that Labour caused the economic crisis, that austerity is necessary, and that the welfare state is unaffordable … let’s say so! Ed Balls’s statements last week (supported by Byrne and Murphy) about accepting the cuts were an attempt, pure and simple, to do this.

And whilst all the evidence seems to suggest that accepting the cuts has damaged Labour’s showing in the polls, the ‘realists’ (as Hodges and Painter call them) argue that until we have re-established ‘credibility’ there is no point in arguing anything else. Indeed, Dan Hodges today takes hope from the fact that – whatever the overall polls – Labour ‘credibility on the economy’ has risen five points.

For Mr Hodges, the choice is simple – accept the Black-Book right-wing reality, or stay in opposition for ever.

Winning the Argument
For most of the Party, however, a strategy which advocates little better than ‘capitulate or fail’ is unacceptable. We lose either way.
And only a fool would argue that we should go into an election advancing the same policies as the government on the matters that matter.

Consequently, attention has turned recently to ways in which we might shift the argument to grounds on which we CAN win … and this is why Labour strategists are busily discussing ‘triangulation’ and ‘framing’.

Triangulation
This is basically stealing your enemies’ clothes. Where a political argument is polarised (e.g. Keynesianism v monetarism etc.), what you do is steal a whole swathe of your opponents’ ideas and build them into a third, synthesis argument. In that way, your opponents find it very hard to contradict you.
Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ (between left and right) is a prime example of ‘triangulation’, as is Cameron’s moving over to criticise excessive bonuses.

The most cynical and simplistic form of ‘triangulation’ is where a politician seeks to ‘rise above’ the dirty details and tries instead to occupy the ‘higher moral ground’ – Ed Miliband’s attack on ‘predatory capitalism’ is a perfect example.
Similarly, in its way, Liam Byrne’s attempt to move from a cuts-versus-no-cuts debate and to get ‘back to Beveridge’, can also be seen as an attempt at ‘triangulation’ of the welfare debate.

Ed Balls’s attempt to integrate a fiscal-freeze into Labour’s economic policy was a particularly bungled attempt at ‘triangulation’, because most people have simply interpreted it as an outright capitulation to the Tories.

‘Framing’
Closely linked to ‘triangulation’ is ‘framing’.
The winning side in an argument will always try to insist that you ONLY talk about matters on which they have the upper hand – that the argument is conducted (‘framed’) within their terms of reference. This forces their opponents continually to argue a case which they have already lost.
As Ursula Le Guin wrote, if all roads lead to Rome, whatever direction you are travelling, you are always on the Rome road.

One answer, of course, is to change the argument altogether. Again, Ed Miliband’s attack on ‘predatory capitalism’ and ‘vested interests’ is an attempt to reframe the economic argument. Or if you want to see a particularly brilliant example of ‘framing’, look at Mehdi Hasan’s explanation (with, of course, the benefit of hindsight) of how he would have approached welfare benefit reform.

The ‘Credibility’ of Opposition Lies in Opposing
The problem with both ‘triangulation’ and ‘framing’ is that they are – at the end of the day – simply debating tricks. And all the tricks in the world won’t do you any good when you are out-gunned.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the Labour leadership have not realised that there is a difference between ‘credibility’ when you are in government, and ‘credibility’ when you are in opposition.

When you are in government, you ARE obliged to be pragmatic. Your policy MUST ‘work’ financially and you need to have worked out how you will implement it. You are trapped in the specifications and schematics.

An opposition is not so bound. An opposition will never be asked to implement its plans – that is what made Jim Murphy’s list of defence spending decisions he would make simply ridiculous. In fact, most of the current crop of ‘what-we-would-do’ announcements by the Labour leadership fall into much the same category – pointless pipe-dreams. Ed Balls is busily defending his ‘accept-the-cuts’ policy against desperate attacks from the Unions … and all for nothing – it will ALL be irrelevant in 2015, when perhaps Mr Balls might find himself in control of the economy.

Having ruled the country for 13 years, the Labour leadership is trammelled by the misconception that they have to produce a ‘policy’ which is ‘credible’ in government’s terms … when in fact they need to be producing a strategy which is credible in opposition terms.

What does this involve?

Firstly, the task of opposition is to oppose
It is the Tories who are producing the policies. Let them. They are the government – that is their job. Our task is to find the flaws.
You don’t NEED an alternative as an opposition; if the government’s suggestions are unworkable, or evil, or damaging, then it is the government’s job to find an alternative. The task of opposition is simply to point out (constructively or destructively) the inadequacies of proposed government legislation.

At the moment, Labour is tying itself into all kinds of knots because it feels it needs to support the pay freeze, or because it agrees in principle with a benefits cap etc. And the result of this is that it is alienating all its potential supporters who are opposing the freeze and the cap etc.
But if Labour was doing its job and opposing the government’s legislation even on these issues – finding the flaws/ pointing out the damage – its popularity and ‘credibility’ would steadily grow, not because it was defining a viable alternative, but because it was forcing the government to address the failings in its own legislation.
If the Labour leadership don’t know how to do this, the recent articles by Tim Leunig and Polly Toynbee are two brilliant examples.

Cameron is just LOVING ridiculing Labour’s suggestions of what we would do, so we need to set about attacking – from microscopic detail to broad principles – what HE is doing! We’ve allowed him to turn the tables on us.

Secondly, the task of opposition is to give people a vision of a preferable future
In Labour’s case, people need to be given a vision of a fairer Britain.
But there is no need to provide a pragmatic, costed plan … Cameron showed us how to deal with a government’s accusations that your plan won’t work financially – you simply say that you don’t have access to the necessary Treasury figures and that you will work out the details when you get into power.
An opposition’s vision is to the government’s what an
architect's impression is to a civil engineer’s schematics. The job of an opposition is to define the PRINCIPLES by which it will govern, not the practicalities of how it will do so.

Conclusion
In my view, the Labour leadership is getting things wrong on both counts.

It is failing to oppose Tory legislation vigorously enough, and is thereby losing supporters and ceding its ‘opposition credibility’ to other organisations and campaigns.

And it is failing to hammer home the principles which define Labour as different to the Tories, in a fruitless bid to reclaim ‘government credibility’ from a government which has a stranglehold on the narratives of austerity and ‘scroungers’.

It is rare for an opposition to ‘win’ power. Labour under Kinnoch, for example, failed to do despite leading in the polls; at the last moment, voters simply decided to stay with the devil they knew.
At the end of the day, governments fall because the public is sick of them. In 1997, they were so desperate to get rid of the Tories that they even elected a Labour government which was promising to maintain the government’s policies for the first couple of years or so. The actual content of policies was an irrelevance – people were prepared to buy into the (very limited) suggestion that ‘things can only get better’.

The Labour leadership MUST abandon their desperate attempt to convince the public that they could administer the government sensibly IF they were in power. It is irrelevant because conjectural.
Instead, they need to reassert Labour PRINCIPLES, and then set about proving to the public just what an evil set of uncaring fascists this dreadful Tory government is.

Only if we go into the next election with the public convinced that the Tories are wicked or incompetent will we have a chance of winning over the voters.



Sunday, 22 January 2012

One Small Voice From The Blogosphere

Some time before the 1997 election campaign, I suggested to Tony Blair that he needed a campaign song, and that the song should be You’re The Voice, by John Farnham. He said something along the lines that the matter was already in hand, and of course it wasn’t long before we were all clapping along to Things can only get better.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression about my relationship with Mr Blair. I am sure he won’t remember our exchange and it might be worth putting a fiver on whether he remembers me at all!

But, all the same, I always thought my idea was better:

You’re the Voice, try and understand it
Make the noise and make it clear,
We’re not gonna sit in silence
We’re not gonna live with fear,

Why Labour Got Elected
You see, when Labour was elected on a landslide in 1997, as he well deserved, all the commentators looked to Tony Blair for the reason – was it his charisma? the New Labour narrative? … or maybe Labour’s ‘Clause 4’ moment? The Blairites STILL emphasise New Labour’s credibility with the middle class, and it is their belief in a ‘realistic’ (i.e. centre-right) approach to industry and capitalism which informed Labour’s recent attempt at another ‘Clause 4’ moment, when the Eds announced that they would keep the Tory cuts beyond 2015.

But I was around in 1997, and I can tell you for a fact that it wasn’t New Labour’s ‘Clause 4 moment’ that got it elected. In fact, as a newly-active member in 1994, my first speech at my CLP was to oppose the renunciation of Clause 4.
(I was heckled, and Mr Blair’s agent John Burton, bless him, rescued me.)
No.
The reason that I became a Party activist in 1994 was because – along with hundreds of thousands of others – I had had enough … had enough of Major, had enough of Thatcherism, had enough of the Tories. And it was time for them to go.

Tony Blair was my MP, and I thought he was a great and good man. He was the right man at the right moment. But, to be honest, I would have voted for a donkey if it had been wearing a red rosette.
We WERE ‘the Voice’ at that moment. We were sick of suffering in silence, we were sick of people living in despair and fear, and when the election of 1997 gave us our chance, we SPOKE. It was a momentous and a thrilling time to be in politics.

This time, we know we all can stand together
With the power to be powerful
Believing we can make it better.

And, my God, we DID!!!! I am proud of the tiny part I played in that election victory, and in bringing that momentous
first Labour administration to power.

Into the Blogosphere
Yesterday, Mark Ferguson wrote an article for LabourList on The State of the Labour Blogosphere.
It is an interesting and thought-provoking article.

In it Mr Ferguson reflects on how the Labour ‘blogosphere’ has shattered into a chaos of innumerable left-wing offerings. New blogs have arisen, he tells us – including ‘the verbose and controversial Dan Hodges and the eloquent new voice of the working class Owen Jones’ – but many others as well. Moreover, he expects, ‘those stories will need to be told with even greater force in the years ahead, so expect these online voices to grow louder and more confident as a result’.

‘The kind of blogs people write’, muses Mr Ferguson, ‘reflects what kind of politics we want too’. And the fact that he has subtitled his article ‘Into the Darkness’ suggests that he is not at all confident that this profusion of bloggings will necessarily yield a positive outcome.
I get the impression that, for Mr Ferguson, the explosion of left-wing blogs is a sign of a lack of clarity in Labour’s message, and of a loss of direction and confidence after our election defeat.

But, Mr Ferguson, as an unknown, barely-noticed example of the proliferation of bloggers, I have to tell you that I do not FEEL part of a confusion of direction, or a bewilderment in the wake of defeat.
Twitter, facebook and ‘the blogosphere’ have given ordinary people a Voice like never before. In the middle east it has toppled governments.
And I am part of the Voice.

We’re the Voice, try and understand it
I am stimulated by the challenging accusations of Dan Hodges, and I am inspired by the vision of Owen Jones … but, faced by this evil Tory government, I have my own outrage and I intend to exercise my right to tell the world what I think about it all.
And I have my ideas about what Labour ought to be doing to oppose the Tories and I intend to speak those out too!

I know that precious people few read what I write. But there are others, also, writing out their anger and disgust. Collectively, we are the Voice. And as the Tory cuts and injustices bite, that Voice will grow louder.

The explosion of left-wing blogs is not the out-fall of defeat, it is the beginning of the fight-back.
And that Voice – perhaps disparate and dissonant at the moment – will not be silent until our government is rid of the stench of Thatcherism, and a Labour government has been re-established.

We have the chance to turn the pages over
We can write what we want to write
We gotta make ends meet, before we get much older

You’re the Voice, try and understand it
Make the noise and make it clear,
We’re not gonna sit in silence
We’re not gonna live with fear.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Come Back Clause 4; All Is Forgiven

It is in those wonderful swashbuckling sci-fi movies, from Blade Runner to the Total Recall, that you see a vision of global capitalism at its darkest – those huge mega-corporations which dominate all life, show no compassion, and are prepared to stop at nothing. And it is a mark of our inner attitudes that the hero is always the individual who first defies, and then breaks, the system.

Socialist Britain
When Britain came out of the Second World War, a controlled economy seemed perfectly natural for an economy that had been totally dominated by the government during the war. If the economy had been directed for the nation’s victory during the war, why shouldn’t it be directed for the people’s good after the war?

We recognise the ‘Welfare State’ as the enduring product of that attitude, but in reality it involved much more than simply the provision of services.
The government controlled the economy using ‘stop-go’ Keynesianism (and anybody who has lived through those times is entitled to be sceptical about Keynesianism as a basis for economic renewal today).
And, of course, the government owned a significant sector of the economy through the nationalised industries.

This was the world I grew up in. We mocked the utilities for their inefficiencies (‘the gas man cometh’) but, you know, for both your electricity and gas, you could walk down to a town centre shop, pick up a phone, and get straight through to a person who would arrange an engineer’s visit. All social services were not only run, but were DELIVERED, by the public sector. Growing up in Bradford, I remember that the city corporation ran a fleet of trolleys buses, together with all the associated overhead wires, to every part of the city.

That world has almost totally gone now.
We have, of course, sold off all the nationalised industries (the family silver, as Harold Macmillan called them). All of our utilities – water, gas, electricity, phone etc. – are privately owned; many of them foreign-owned.

Local government, also, has been dismantled; I was talking to a councillor colleague the other day who was wondering how long it would be before we did away with County Councillors altogether – County Councils almost no longer deliver services, they merely commission them from the private sector (so why do we need hundreds of Councillors receiving allowances when County Hall is little more than a tendering exercise). My own County Council recently commissioned its waste-collection services from a German firm, including a move from weekly to fortnightly collections, without even informing the County Councillors, never mind the public.
Schools have moved from local government-controlled, first to LSM, recently substantially to Academies, now to Free Schools.; all those huge council education departments have been dismantled.

The NHS, it seems, will be the last to go, but this Coalition government intends to begin that process which will see the move from a government which supplies the services, to an administration which buys the services from private providers on our behalf.

Capitalist Britain
I cannot say I am totally happy with this. We have been conned into agreeing to it by being assured that, for some unexplained reason, private providers seeking profit would be so much more efficient than public sector providers motivated by ethics. We sat back and accepted the myth of the lazy public sector worker.
In truth, most of us have now found to our cost that – notwithstanding improvements in technology which would have happened anyway – the new private industries supply a much-reduced level of customer service. And where financial economies were achieved it was usually simply by paying a less-qualified and numerically-reduced workforce significantly lower wages … with all that meant for quality of provision.

What is happening now, of course, is that – having dismantled the state sector’s ability to provide the services – the private providers are beginning to turn the screw.
Prices rise steadily. The government rails against the electricity suppliers’ cartel … and can do nothing except urge us to shop around between its colluding members.
Nor, with a captive, dependent market, is there any motivation to innovate. In order to persuade the electricity companies to develop wind-farms, for example, the government has had to agree to allow them to charge the consumers double for the electricity they produce.
Firms will set up in peripheral areas … if there is a huge subsidy.
Bus companies will run ‘services’ to rural villages … if the County Council pays more.

My personal biggest beef is with PFI. For years, this has been ‘sold’ to us as the answer to our infrastructure needs. Private corporations have been allowed to advance money for schools, hospitals etc. as though it were a generous gift – at the end of which process the public finds it has signed a ruinous contract binding for decades. We are already beginning to see services going bankrupt under the pressure of huge PFI deals they now find they cannot afford.
The god of profit reigns, and we are at its mercy.

Recently, writers have begun to realise that the public finance of the private sector goes even deeper than this.
Huge multi-national corporations such as TESCO are being given a free workforce under the Workfare scheme – even if they only use these slave-workers for menial, manual tasks, it is saving them money and increasing their profit.
A recent report has highlighted, also, how all the large supermarkets fail to pay their employees ‘a living wage’ … leaving the tax-payer to pick up the difference under the working tax credit scheme.
Workfare and working tax credit amount, in effect, to a multi-billion subsidy of industry by the taxpayer.

Conclusion
In short, we are being ripped off wholesale by private industry.
It is very frightening.
Meanwhile – as Britain rushes headlong into a sci-fi world of rapacious corporations selling monopoly high-cost ‘services’ to governments and individuals – state-controlled industries are booming in China and India. Nationalised industries, it seems, are neither inefficient nor unprofitable.

Given all this, Ed Miliband’s campaign against predatory capitalism, and for responsible capitalism, is to be welcomed.

But one has to wonder how far such fine words and fair principles will count against firms who have well-and-truly got their claws into our public services, and who now have law and contract on their side.

Come back Clause 4; all is forgiven.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Have We Got Anything To Offer On the Doorstep?

Since the New Year, the Labour leadership has come out swinging.

In some ways, great! I spent most of last year pleading with Ed and his Shadow Cabinet to say SOMETHING.
And the best thing by far to come out of the New Year Labour Blitzkrieg has been the evident unity of message and purpose from the Labour ‘A’-team.
Rumours about Ed Miliband’s tenuous position continue, of course, but nobody in their right mind could suggest any more that the Shadow Cabinet is divided.

What Is Labour’s Message?
Of course, it is one thing to have the message, and another thing altogether to agree with it.
Don’t get me wrong – at the end of the day we HAVE to agree, don’t we! This is the Party we support and canvass for – we’re fairly much stuck with whatever it says (and have been for some considerable time).
But one has to admit that, sometimes, what they say is hard to stomach.

First it was Liam Byrne, with some very right-wing statements about Welfare; this provoked outrage from the ‘left’ of the Party, especially from the people who were at that moment mounting a campaign against the Welfare Reform Bill. It wasn’t that Mr Byrne hadn’t explicitly exempted disabled people from his statements; it was his apparent endorsement of the ‘scrounger’ narrative that hurt.

Then Jim Murphy prefaced some perfectly sensible statements about defence with a warning that Labour would have to grasp the ‘spending’ nettle, a message that was quickly followed by a similar statement by Ed Miliband, and then confirmed by Ed Balls at the Fabian conference.
Mr Balls was looking for economic credibility. Whether he has it now or not, NOBODY could now suggest any more that Labour is the borrow-and-spend Party. The full-on message was clear: Labour will accept the Tory cuts and the Tory pay freeze until beyond 2015.

Now it is true that Mr Balls made it quite clear that he had been forced into that position because the Tories had ruined the economy and therefore the future tax revenues of any government-in-power. Later statements (by such as Harriet Harman) tried to make it clear that Mr Balls did not approve of the Tory cuts, he just did not think he would be in a position to reverse them by 2015.
Indeed, today Mr Balls has creditably written a strong letter to George Osborne demanding fairness within the 1% cap, with the higher-paid bearing more of the burden than the lower paid.
But to be honest it is too late; the damage has been done. Mr Balls’s statements on public sector cuts and pay were to the Unions what Mr Byrne’s statement on welfare was to the disability campaigners – a complete slap in the face.

Add to this the fact that none of these policies had even been communicated to the Unions, and that led to the Union criticism of the Labour leadership at the start of this week.

Did The Unions Get It Wrong?
To tell you the truth, I found it hard to disagree with a word that the Union leaders wrote – it was most certainly NOT inflammatory frothings-at-the-mouth of rabid Marxists and anarchists … there was little more than perhaps a touch of Keynesianism at most.

The Unions’ main point seemed to be the fact that – by accepting the cuts – the Labour Party had completely undermined their campaigns to challenge the pay freeze, oppose the cuts and protect pensions.

I have heard it suggested that the Labour leadership ‘picked a fight’ with the Unions precisely because they wanted to underline their new anti-irresponsibility stance with the public. Personally, I always go for the incompetence theories rather than the conspiracy theories; the Labour leadership hadn’t consulted with its own membership, either. I simply think they didn’t think or care about what the Unions and the membership would say about the new policies.

Whatever, my main worry about the Labour leadership’s new ‘pro-cuts/pro-freeze’ position was that it gave me nothing to campaign against the Tory Party on.

You knock on the door, to be confronted with a public sector worker scared to death because prices are rising quickly and her pay has been frozen until 2015. She hates the Tories for it. But what alternative can you offer? She is going on a protest march this weekend – will the Labour Party support it? Erm – no.
At the supermarket you bump into your wheelchair-user friend, who is angry at the prospect of PIP. He hates the Tories for it. ‘Who is leading the opposition to this outrage?’ he asks. Erm – Sue Marsh? Tanni Grey-Thompson? Who IS the Labour shadow minister on welfare?
Or you go to the CLP. Three-quarters of the Labour activists there are loyal Union members too. Are we going to support their action against the cuts? Erm – no; in fact we’re committed to SUPPORT the cuts.

In fact, we’re not supporting ANY of these ordinary people who are watching their lives and their lifestyle slipping away.
So what support should they give Ed Miliband to maintain the lifestyle he has become accustomed to?

The Attack On Predatory Capitalism
Far from making the Labour leadership worry whether it had upset the bodies which supply at least three-quarters of their income, the Unions leaders’ criticism simply provoked an outcry of anger – notably from Luke Akehurst and Alan Johnson.

And, to allay the allegation that Labour now had nothing to campaign on, Mr Miliband today continued his campaign for responsible capitalism with a speech at the Which? headquarters in which he promised that Labour would protect the consumer.
He seemed to have missed the irony of the fact that Which? does this already, and that for all the world to ordinary people a campaign on bank charges and rail fares reduces the Labour Party to the status of a mere consumer group.

Am I being unfair? One person on twitter certainly felt so. For them, Mr Miliband’s stance on responsible capitalism was a left-wing coup:

“Ed Miliband writes about a toxic blend of capitalism & short termism IN THE FINANCIAL TIMES and the hard left still complain WTF do u want?"

Now this, for me, far from being a valid rebuke, fairly much sums up everything that it wrong with the direction of the Labour Party’s campaign at the moment!

“Thank goodness for this tweet”, I replied sarcastically: “I urge you, brother, to go down the Club TONIGHT, and ask the punters what they thought – when they read the FT today – of the Labour Party's push against the toxic blend of capitalism & short termism. If that won't win us their vote, I don't know what will.”

As if to emphasise my point that a campaign against ‘a toxic blend of capitalism and short-termism’ is going to go down like a lead balloon in the real world and with our rank-and-file supporters, Mr Miliband had posted a link to his FT article ... which could not be read without a subscription to the Financial Times.
#justaboutsumnsitup
To be a card-carrying involved member of the Labour Party today you need to be a subscription-paying reader of the FT.
And we wonder why the Unions are getting out of patience.

Is Labour Party Policy Irrelevant?
The problem with Labour Party policy at the moment is that it is being decided by focus-groups of wealthy university professors, journalists and politicos’. It is NOT being run past the unions and the rank-and-file even out of politeness.

And therefore it is hardly surprising that it is totally divorced from anything that a normal person can relate to.
I can understand what that man meant by ‘the toxic blend of capitalism & short termism’ - but then I'm an Oxford graduate. But how many ordinary voters do you think understand (or even care to understand) the concept?
Labour needs to be much more than an intellectual think-tank posturing to the City in the FT (and I am not unappreciative of the fact that Ed is trying to 'popularise' this by dumbing it down by talk about rail fares and bank charges, but the danger of that is that it just trivialises it).

If you've had your working tax credit cut so that you can no longer afford a car ... how pleased are you going to be that the Labour Party is protesting parking fees?
And if your pay has been frozen until at least 2015 so that - in a high-inflation economy - you cannot even think of going on holiday … how attracted are you going to be to a Party which promises to regulate booking fees?
This is what I mean by 'trivialises'; it reduces the Labour Party platform to middle-class twaddle about things which are irrelevant in the ‘real’ world.
The Labour Party needs to wake up and realise that it is not saying anything which even slightly relates to the real lives of its core voters.

To be utterly blunt I am getting tired of trying to pretend that an Edward-Heath-type bleat about the 'unacceptable face of capitalism' is in fact the best we can do for a policy in a Party which has embraced a Black-Book ‘cuts-and-freeze’ mentality; it is little more than a New Labour 'acceptable face of socialism' stance. It accepts the validity of capitalism and merely seeks to ameliorate it. Ordinary people cannot insert a sheet of paper between Cameron and Miliband on this.

A REAL campaign would rail against the system itself, a failed and failing capitalism based on allowing the rich to rip off the poor. Strangely enough, that is something which your ordinary person CAN understand and relate to, because we are experiencing it every day.
A REAL campaign would shout it from the rooftops that the only reason there was 'not enough money' to enhance benefits and raise wages was because the rich were stealing much, much more than their fair share of society's wealth, and that the answer to the budget deficit was properly-progressive taxation … not maintaining Tory cuts and a pay freeze.

The Need To Be Sensible
I am not an idiot. I understand that we need to tread warily in a global capitalist world which can turn on us and destroy us with a keyboard stroke; I understand that a blatant Marxist platform would see the extinction of Labour at the polls.
OF COURSE we need to be sensible.

Tony Blair knew this; his explicit argument was that we could take the core vote for granted - it was the middle class we needed to appeal to if we were going to get elected.
But what Labour needs to understand is that 15 years of New Labour have lost the core vote - it has either left or died and we haven't been recruiting replacements.
And the recent demonisation of what are in fact very tame Unions shows that the Party has failed to realise the full extent of the alienation of the 'ordinary' lower classes. We need to repoliticise and recruit Union members, not drive them away.
There is no point pandering to middle-class sensibilities in order to 'win' a middle class (whose loyalty has in fact continued to stand up quite well) when we are losing the core vote at a rate of knots.

The odd thing about this debate is that I have argued on this blog that the government needs to contain its revenue spending within its tax revenues! I am a 'fiscal responsiblist' to coin a term.
But what I have argued very strongly is that there should be a re-distribution of wealth within society to drag money out of the places where it is ponding up, and to put it back in the pockets of the people who need it and will spend it.

The current Labour policy to accept the cuts and freeze public sector pay is not the only possible policy even within a fiscal-responsibility model.

Add to that the wide range of arguments by such as:
Richard Murphy - who regularly argues for a Keynesian-style reflation.
James Meadway - http://leftlinks.org.uk/3705
Owen Jones - http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jan/13/david-cameron-cynical-propaganda

and it is arguable that the Labour Party has backed itself up a blind alley, as we find ourselves down the pub, or in the branch, trying to tell ordinary people who are finding their benefits cut and their pay frozen that the Labour Party is accepting all that, but “not to worry, we're against toxic capitalism”. And my point is that this gives us nothing meaningful to say against the Tories on the doorstep - though of course there's plenty for the intellectualensia to blog about.

A ‘cuts-&-freeze’ policy not only antagonises our Union supporters, but leaves us with no doorstep appeal to the lives of ordinary people, who will not be able to see the difference between Miliband's 'responsible capitalism' and Cameron's 'moral capitalism'.
Dan Hodges has written a typically attritional piece in the Telegraph on this today (http://tinyurl.com/75s3w8y). Although I guess I would almost certainly disagree with Mr Hodges diametrically about what Ed Miliband's statement on the economy should be, I think he is correct in his assessment that this faffing about over the details of the best incarnation of capitalism will leave most of Labour's core voters cold.

Conclusion
It's not that I don't agree with moderating the excesses of capitalism, which is a perfectly fine principle in itself; I simply feel that there are issues much more pressing for the disability campaigners, for the pension campaigners, for the unemployed and public sector workers etc., than whether people in London can find a reasonably-priced parking meter.

Seeing as I am in 'coin-a-term' mode, I would suggest that the word 'Tinkerism' best describes what I think of the current Labour policy; tinkering at the edges whilst failing to notice the elephants in the room.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Members Matter - How The Labour Party Should Develop Its Policies

Every morning I spend a happy time tweet-chasing, scanning down my twitter-feed, following the likely-looking links.
Today, in the swirling chaos of the (not-always destructive) debate which is the current Labour Party…

Swirling chaos?

Yes, swirling chaos! The Labour Party as I write is not just divided between ‘right’ and ‘left’. It is a maelstrom of competing economic, social and political theories from right-of-Tory to Marxist revolutionary with every shade of prejudice in between. EVERYBODY ‘has a theory’. People are threatening to resign ‘left, right and centre’ – a ‘rightist’ blogger named Luke Bozier HAS recently done so, ironically just as Ed Balls took a massive lurch to the right ... a move which in its turn has provoked a similar threat by Len McClusky.

How The Labour Party Is Developing Its Policies
In all this swirling chaos, then, one article today caught my eye. It is by Simon Carr and entitled: Labour lost in thought (and time, and space).
It is a fascinating account of how ‘a group of Labour MPs, pamphlet writers, Stewart Wood and other interested parties met in a Commons committee room on Monday afternoon to discuss how to get the party out of opposition and into government’.
Then it goes on to describe what they all said.

Two things, of different importance, struck me about this article.

The first was how utterly aimless it was. The author (who I am sure is a nice man) fluttered from one opinion to the other, indulging in a bit of bitchiness here, irony there, in a register of detached academic amusement. There was no fire, no urgency – and above all no answer … just an ‘interesting’ mix of competing, unrelated statements, justifications and theories. Mr Carr was intellectually stimulated – enough to inspire his article – but all his involvement (and indeed the whole meeting) achieved was to add to the swirling chaos.

My second observation, however, is even more important. Because, reading this article, I got for the first time some idea as to how this Labour leadership is forming its ideas and its policies.
As an complete rank-and-file Labour member – I am not even a CLP officer, never mind of regional or national status – I have been utterly bewildered by the recent policy announcements.
To tell you the truth, I was delighted to see the two Eds united in their message. I even agreed with a lot of what they said. But I could not understand how they were making these seismic policy announcements, not only without running any consultation or even communication process through the Party, but before even the end of the consultation with members about what their role in policy-making should be.

In his article, Len McClusky exhibited the same bewilderment: ‘No effort was made by Labour to consult with trade unions before making the shift, notwithstanding that it impacts on millions of our members’.
Us too, Len, us too! No effort was made by Labour to consult with its own members before making the shift, notwithstanding that it is we who will have to campaign on this platform.

And this not just at member level. According to Peter Kenyon (and others) there have been virtually no meetings for years of the National Policy Forum, which has clearly fallen moribund.

So whence – since 2008 – has policy been emanating?
Well Mr Carr has given us an insight; from by-invitation-only focus groups of academics, journalists and MPs. And out of that rarefied, isolated, privileged elite are coming the policies that ordinary Labour members like you and I are then expected loyally (and that is the word advanced) to accept.

The Labour Party has become an oligarchy ruled by the intellectualensia.
There is no wonder things are going awry.
The is no wonder that Labour policy has degenerated from a pragmatic, agreed platform to a blue-skies debating society of ideas.

Labour Must Start To Consult Its Members
The solution is simple and I am by no means the first, only, or most important person to say so: THE LABOUR PARTY MUST START BY RECONNECTING TO ITS MEMBERS.

I have three ideas about this:

Firstly, there are soon to be elections for the NEC. Before you agree to support any candidate, tweet them to get an absolute assurance that – once elected – they will support member-consultations about policy, and a re-empowerment of the National Policy Forums. (And get them to promise that they won’t forget their promise when they, too, become by election members of the apparatchiki.)

Secondly, you are probably unaware that there is a consultation underway (final date 31 January, so you don’t have much time) asking members how the Party might better involve members in policy-making. You MUST complete at least the first question in this consultation (‘How do we ensure that members feel closer to the policy making process and more able to participate?’).
I would be delighted if somewhere also you could support my proposal for the Party to develop and send ‘discussion briefing-sheets’ direct to Branch Secretaries so that members at Branch level might debate and comment on Party policy and proposals … preferably before they are formally launched to the nation. At least that would help the leadership to make their wording less inflammatory, even if they ignored members’ wishes about the actual policies.

And thirdly, do you think there is any point in lobbying your MP? The Parliamentary Labour Party is quite as opaque as the Labour leadership, but one or two things I have been hearing have led me to suspect that they, too, feel excluded and bypassed. So perhaps they, too, could be recruited to campaign for greater democracy within the Party.

Conclusion
At the moment, the Labour leadership is making pronouncements based on academic analyses of the polls; it MUST learn also that it needs also to find out what its rank-and-file are thinking.

Or NO ONE will vote for them in 2015.