A collaborative blog for Current Affairs and Policy Debate

Posts Tagged ‘Ed Miliband’

A Change of Programme

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on July 9, 2012 at 7:22 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

Today the government faces the threat of defeat on a high-profile piece of legislation: Lords Reform. Specifically, the government are looking vulnerable on one particular programme motion. Ed Miliband says he supports the principle of Lords reform, but that the government should not limit discussion on the bill to 23 days, which is what the programme motion would do. Mark Ferguson at Labour List, in this article, correctly to my mind, reads this not as an opportunity to beat the government at the somewhat tedious game of Commons divisions, but to stick to principles. He exhorts Miliband to reverse his decision, stick to his principles and vote for the programme motion.

Now, the issue is only salient because 100 or so Conservative MPs are threatening to break their party whip on the programme motion. This means that the government might well lose the vote on the programme motion; and the last time a Lords Reform Bill had its accompanying programme motion defeated, the whole Bill had to be scrapped entirely. Hence Ferguson’s exhortation to vote for the programme motion – while Miliband can inflict a momentary defeat on the Coalition have a tremendous laugh about it, such an action would risk undermining Labour’s commitment to an elected Lords. Ferguson thus invokes the supremacy of principle over short-term political gain to advocate a change of course.

However, this is to ignore the arguments against the programme motion. They centre around the fact that the Lords Reform Bill is a constitutional motion; moreover, it is a constitutional motion of some importance. Previously, bills that made significant changes to the constitution have not been time limited, to allow full discussion on the floor of the Commons, rather than limiting it to a bill committee with a limited timeframe.

This is particularly important considering the range of issues that haven’t been fully discussed. Are there sufficient safeguards for the primacy of the Commons? Ought there to be a referendum on such a substantial change, as Labour have argued? Will the new composition of the Lords secure the same representation for minority groups as the current composition (see, e.g. this piece on ConHome that argues that disabled people will be less well represented)? If new Senators are elected to 15-year non-renewable terms, how does the electorate hold them to account?

These are clearly not specious questions, though they may be deployed speciously against the programme motion. The 100 or so Tory rebels are 100 or so Tories who do not want to see the Lords become elected. Miliband is undoubtedly leading his 250 odd Labour MPs against the programme motion to allow these 100 or so Tories to spend hours upon hours arguing against their government on every conceivable point, creating an impression of disunity in the Coalition and frustrating the remainder of its legislative programme. These 100 or so Tory rebels would dearly like to make life hard for Nick Clegg, who, by abstaining on a confidence motion, made life hard for Jeremy Hunt.

So what really niggles me is that these procedural arguments – though they may be tedious, they are exceptionally important – are taking second fiddle to the realpolitik of the situation. It’s easy to see why. But we simply assume that there are 100 Tory MPs voting against the government solely to spite the Lib Dems, that Labour MPs are voting against the motion simply to spite the Coalition, and no-one is actually thinking about the content of the programme motion itself. There are definitely MPs on both sides who want this bill to pass with proper scrutiny, and they arrived at this conclusion without the influence of realpolitik. It’s doing a disservice to our MPs to assume that all they are interested in is getting one up on one another; Miliband may actually have an embarrassment of good reasons to be opposed to the programme motion while supporting the second reading of the Bill.

David Cameron used the argument in the Commons today that we have talking about Lords Reform for 100 years, so now’s not the time to have yet more debate. We have also been debating the disestablishment of the Church of England, a European Community of Nations, the Monarchy, Ulster, Scotland and many other important constitutional questions for 100 years. That the issues have proved complex and intricate, contentious and important for a substantial period of time is no argument for curtailing debate on the questions: if anything it demonstrates that more and more careful thought is required. Especially when a government committee as promised in the Coalition agreement could not find anything approaching a consensus, and the current bill has been shot down by a Join Committee of both houses.

The instinct – to shut down the issue within 23 days and move on – betrays a government that is eager to get many things done, but also one that does not welcome the scrutiny that should be brought to such an important question. I would speculate that this is because, in our age of 24-hour news, politicians have lost the knack of carefully considering and reworking proposals; after all, if there was a news vacuum, a small change in an important bill might look like weakness.

I happen to be against this particular Bill for reforming the House of Lords. Perhaps that’s why I have time for the procedural points on the programme motion. But I would like to think, if there was a major constitutional change I did support, I would at least have the time to appreciate the importance of the matter and the patience to listen and take on board objections, and not guillotine debate. Debate on the Lords Reform Bill should not be guillotined; constitutional matters are too important to be rushed. That, Mark Ferguson, is a point of principle also.

Advertisements

Refinding Labour

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on August 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

For those of you that didn’t already know, before the riots cluttered out all other political commentary, an almighty tiff was going on over at Labour List. So almighty, that it makes the Brown-Blair relationship look like a well-functioning friendship. Which is saying something. James Purnell, erstwhile of the cabinet, and a thinking Blairite (surely not, I hear you cry!) made the suggestion that certain benefits, like Winter Fuel Payments, should be means-tested. In the Liberal or Conservative Party, this is not an unheard-of suggestion. People would thoughtfully weigh the political consequences and moral dimensions of such a move against any likely financial saving that would be achieved.

Not so at Labour List. Articles have flown off the iPads, variously chastising Purnell for his rabid not-left-ness or defending Purnell for his pragmatic attempt to cast the welfare state in a more positive light. The strongest called Purnell a ‘heretic’ and demanded he leave the party. Presumably he won’t be burnt at the stake any time soon, though – this, other than a VAT cut and a ban on circus animals, is the only substantial policy suggestion to have made it into the sunlight this summer.

Leaving aside our actual views on what the policy may be, it is revealing about the status of discourse in the Labour Party. Ed Miliband is (apparently) holding a policy review, and he seems to have left absolutely everything on the table. We don’t know if the party intends to join the Euro or not. We don’t know if the party approves of the withdrawal date from Afghanistan. We think we know that the Labour party supports Alistair Darling’s deficit reduction plan, but both the Leader and Shadow Chancellor campaigned against it in their leadership bids. And even if they have come round to reason, we don’t how they would implement it. And just what is post-neo-classical endogenous growth theory?

In fact, the whole policy review seems a bit vague. Labour, apparently, has working groups on policy. Where are they, with what responsibilities, chaired by whom? Go on the Labour website – I’ll be amazed if you can find a coherent articulation of policy. For sure there are the odd snippets of anti-this-or-that, but nothing united. If you go to the Conservative website, you can find all the policy you want (just click on the policy button at the top of the page). There is no such button on the Labour website.

Contrast with the Cameron policy review. Committees were established and publicised; people knew who the chairmen were, and anyone was invited to contribute. Certain policies were established as beyond the scope of review – opposition to the Euro, an increase in the aid budget, and more. The Conservative party retained a platform from which to make objections and contributions. It retained a political stance in the perception of the electorate. It gave the party a nucleus around which to gel; it resulted in a rather odd fusion of One-Nation Conservatism and Thatcherism, that could somehow cast the ultra-Thatcherite Iain Duncan-Smith as doing something so obviously in the interests of the nation that no-one has mounted criticism against the overall plan (remember welfare reform, without cuts, would have happened had the economy not gone tits up).

And despite the huge gulfs there were in the Tory party – over Europe, over tax cuts – it somehow stuck together. And no-one was called a heretic, no-one was encouraged by members to leave the party (although Quentin Davies did leave of his own volition). The same is pretty much true of the coalition; by forming central pillars on which there is substantive agreement with an electoral mandate, other issues can be pushed to the side – married tax cuts, nuclear power, Europe.

Any evidence of this in the Labour Party? Certainly not on Labour List. The division between Blue (Old) and Purple (New) Labour grows daily more pronounced, and more visceral. Wait for Ed Miliband’s first reshuffle where his hands aren’t tied by shadow cabinet elections. I expect a butchering of the Blairites. Much unlike the cohesive cabinet Cameron constructed, which includes Ken Clarke and Liam Fox, people who were previously regarded as holding unworkably distant views on every important topic.

I’m not going to presume to advise Ed Miliband on policy. He can find my articles here if he wants to pilfer any of my ideas. But when James Purnell makes a sensible suggestion, that is well grounded in pragmatic politics – even though it may be ideologically objectionable – he should be invited to contribute, not shut out. He is one of the more respected Labour figures in the country – opposition to Gordon Brown tends to lend at least an ounce of popularity.

Ed Miliband needs to give Labour a platform to stand on, rather than simply picking and choosing where he thinks the government can be made to hurt most. Tory strategists are looking at the Labour lead of 8 points and laughing. The Tories should be scraping the low 20s – not the high 30s. This is the worst moment in the strategy; the cuts are biting and the economy is at its slowest. 8 points is eminently closable. Particularly when no-one knows who Ed Miliband is, nor what his signature policies are.

So, Ed should define a policy or two. Doesn’t particularly matter what so long as it is big, and ideally mostly cost-free, and something people don’t expect the party to commit to. Commit to raising the Minimum Wage. Commit to a permanent bank or oil levy. Commit to capping commercial interest rates or energy prices or EU migration. Whatever you can argue has a mandate, or, has a really good reason rooted in the party ethos. Ideally, this should tie neatly into to something the party articulated – or something it can be convinced it was trying to articulate – by his election.

But this may be the problem. Much like William Hague in 1997, Ed Miliband was elected on an ooh-err mandate: the party didn’t want to back the left option of Ed Balls, or the right option of David Miliband.  Hague was unable to control Portillo and got slammed by Heseltine after a rebranding exercise led to a complete mish-mash and inclarity after the situation necessitated U-turns on the minimum wage and Bank of England. Blair had a nicer economy than Cameron, so Hague did not gain a single seat for the Tories. Due to the ending of the Liberals as we know them, Miliband will not do that badly. But if local election results are anything to go by, the Tories will continue to gain seats despite the cuts.

At least the encouraging view from the comparison this implicitly invites is that Ed Balls and Harriet Harman will not become leader.

Just a thought on the leaders’ response to the riots. Cameron has been on top form. Iain Duncan Smith has turned into political gold-dust. The ‘Broken Britain’ theme has been an essential part of the narrative (to use a Blairite term) that Cameron has wanted the nation to buy into. It’s a theme the aforementioned have been careful to include just enough, every now and again, for the  past ten years or so. They have their analysis of the problem, and, importantly, they have policies and policy ideas ready to go to solve the problem they see.

It doesn’t matter whether the ‘Broken Britain’ motif is true or not. The likelihood is that politicians will never be able to encapsulate something as multi-faceted as the recent riots into one or two campaign slogans. But the Tories have a narrative. Labour does not. Miliband can huff that the Prime Minister is coming to knee-jerk judgements. He can huff that the causes are more complex than ‘Broken Britain’. Maybe they are. But as long as Miliband cannot impose a narrative on them, he will lose the political argument. If Cameron has any sense at all (and he does), he will let the Labour Party hold its own inquiry. He will let Miliband gaze very intently at his own navel, while Cameron gets a few months, unopposed, to shape the issue in the public consciousness and suggest and even implement the solutions he proposes. Then Cameron will pick the Miliband review to pieces using the Home Affairs Select Committee review. He will get especial pleasure from this, as Home Affairs Select is chaired by a Labour MP.

This ‘lack of narrative’ has been true of the Labour party even before the riots. The government is cutting ‘too far, too fast’. May be true, but it’s not a narrative. It defines no positives that enable the electorate to understand the world. The Tories have a narrative about spending cuts: it begins with a profligate chancellor (who happened to be advised by most of Labour’s top team), and progresses to economic hubris, followed by a catastrophic collapse, and then the Conservative Party rushes in as the knight in shining armour, to deliver an economically stable and successful Britain. Labour’s attempted narrative is “something went wrong somewhere else. It’s a bit complicated. But basically, it will be fine.”

It doesn’t particularly matter which one is true. What both Conservative narratives have is a problem, an evil, and they are the solution, the hero. Labour’s narratives, on the riots and the economy, don’t really have a problem. Because if it did, people would ask why they didn’t get round to it in thirteen years of government. But no problem means no solution. The Labour party isn’t the solution because there is no problem – or if there is a problem, it was of no-one’s making, and no-one can really fix it. Labour just happen to be slightly more fluffy and loveable than the Tories. 

It’s hardly a compelling narrative. It’s a narrative that will consign Miliband, and his party, to utter irrelevance until beyond the next election. No matter how good Miliband’s policies are. 

This all comes back to this thing about policy. In 2005, Cameron had a narrative about Labour, about Britain. It was sketchy, true, but he built his policy around that narrative. In 2011, Miliband does not have a narrative. Consequently, his policy will be a hotchpotch. Contributors, like James Purnell, are unclear what the vision, what the narrative is for the country. So they take a stab in the dark at what they think it might be. And everyone else, who thinks it’s something else, screams.

James Bartholomeusz has written on this site before about Blue Labour, which I categorised above as ‘Old Labour’. It is not quite ‘Old Labour’, but something that attempts to re-carve a narrative from the very deep memories of the party’s past. Cameron did a very similar thing with his ‘Broken Britain’ narrative – recast deep Tory instincts and fashioned them around the present. It is maybe too early for Blue Labour – it took the Tories to their fourth go to find a fresh yet old narrative. Miliband doesn’t seem keen, either. His instincts have been to centralise the Labour party, abolishing shadow cabinet elections and hiring business men to streamline the party structure, rather than take the more decentralising options offered by Blue Labour. But the ‘Broken Britain’ narrative was at least there in skeleton by the time of Iain Duncan Smith. Maybe this narrative will someday come to the fore.

And if you think that all this stuff about policy and narrative and coherence is just my thoughtless musing, I leave you this exchange from the Queen’s Speech, 2000:

Rt Hon William Hague MP: In more than 20 years in politics, he has betrayed every cause he believed in, contradicted every statement he has made, broken every promise he has given and breached every agreement that he has entered into… There is a lifetime of U-turns, errors and sell-outs. All those hon. Members who sit behind the Prime Minister and wonder whether they stand for anything any longer, or whether they defend any point of principle, know who has led them to that sorry state.

Rt Hon Tony Blair MP:  He started the fuel protest bandwagon, then the floods bandwagon; on defence it became armour-plated, then on air traffic control it became airborne…. Yes, the right honourable Gentleman made a very witty, funny speech, but it summed up his leadership: good jokes, lousy judgment. I am afraid that in the end, if the right honourable Gentleman really aspires to stand at this Despatch Box, he will have to get his policies sorted out and his party sorted out, and offer a vision for the country’s future, not a vision that would take us backwards.

What became of the Likely Lads?

In Home Affairs, The Media on July 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

In politics, three is indeed the magic number: major parties, modern ideologies, even decades of economic consensus. The growing debate about the welfare state and the poor is no exception to this rule – three examples depict the different dimensions of the debate. Firstly, the tabloid stories which surface with alarming yet predictable regularity, hacks having searched for the most egregious examples of benefit fraud and mapping them onto the entire welfare state, as if every recipient were a calculating schemer intent on wringing the taxpayer of all their hard-earned funds. Secondly, the Tory-led government’s welfare reforms spearheaded by Iain Duncan Smith, which look to simplify welfare provision into a single universal credit whilst cutting the amount available to claim. Thirdly, and perhaps least surprisingly, Ed Miliband’s salutary broadside into the debate in the form of his 13th June speech on responsibility, professing the intent to make jobseekers work for their benefits. As a play to the ‘squeezed middle’ it is likely to push the right (and Right) buttons, but it understandably attracted criticism from Left-leaning commentators such as Medhi Hasan, who questioned the morality and mathematics of equating the damage done by welfare recipients with that of City bankers. Read the rest of this entry »

Cameron Should Have Been in the Commons Today

In Events, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, The Media on July 11, 2011 at 10:46 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Most days, the Prime Minister doesn’t turn up to the House of Commons. Most days, he doesn’t have to. Most government policy-making and implementing occurs outside the House. Not today, however. The business today was Education Questions, the Public Service Reform White Paper, Jeremy Hunt’s Statement on Phone Hacking and the last stages of the Europe Bill – as well as a debate on crime victims in the EU and an adjournment debate, both scheduled so late (crime started at 21:00) to make any movement supremely unlikely. Cameron had reason to attend all the important business of the day.

Education questions [WATCH] were the least important to attend, but the Conservatives have by far the most comprehensive policy on education. Michael Gove has made some strong announcements on school discipline of late, and Cameron would only benefit from being associated with those. Michael Gove is also an amusing performer, and it would have done Cameron no harm to laugh at some of the more witty jokes.

Cameron pre-empted the public service bill [READ] at a press conference in Wapping, of all places (where, famously, News International is based). Oliver Letwin then got up in the House [WATCH] and did it better. While Cameron should not have led on the paper (after all, he didn’t write it), it is an important plank of the Big Society agenda. Since this is the least understood part of the Tory position, Cameron should have attended the presentation of the paper that builds on his signature themes: people power, choice, decentralisation. While his press conference brought the move some initial publicity, it was buried in the live feed of Hunt’s statement.

And he should really have been present for that one. Ed Miliband was planning to turn up, as was half the house. To be seen during Hunt’s statement [WATCH – SHORT] [WATCH – LONG] – or even giving a statement additional to Hunt’s – would have made him appear strong. He would have been vulnerable on points about Andy Coulson, and may even have had to say that Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff, did not communicate concerns about him, or else face total embarrassment. But, as it was, Alan Johnson was able to make a wise crack about the monkey being present and not the organ grinder, and Hunt was unable to provide answers on points about the Prime Minister’s staff. Hunt, for his part, performed well, despite the rather pathetic set of cards he had to play, and even made some purchase against Ed Miliband’s rather shrill attack by saying that the matter transcended party politics. This tactic would have played even better if the Tory backbench had got the hint and not taken to asking partisan questions. Cameron’s additional gravitas would have helped the backbench get the message, and would have enabled him to at least put a brave face on the matter and face down Labour’s criticisms, even if he only provided a politician’s answer.

The Europe Bill (Lords Amendments) [READ] is a more extended piece, and Cameron need only have stayed for the first few speeches. Europe is an issue on which the Coalition may fracture, and is an important issue for those on the right of the party that he has, as yet, been unable to carry with him. His presence would have given the impression that he remained concerned about Europe, like many backbenchers and party members.

Cameron missed a trick by not making a statement directly following Hunt’s. He will take questions from the Commons on Wednesday, and unless Greece or Italy defaults on their debts or Birmingham falls into a black hole, Coulson will dominate. If he had answered questions today, he would have fulfilled his duty to the House to answer questions, and be able to present Labour, as Hunt tried to do today, as excessively partisan. Labour MPs brought half a dozen points of order saying that Cameron should come to the House for a statement – while the Speaker does not have the power to compel the Prime Minister to come to the House, it is bemusing that journos now regularly get in ahead of MPs, and on different days, doubling the amount of negative headlines for Cameron.

In short, Cameron today gave Labour an open goal, and missed several opportunities to bolster his brand, and, while he was at it, the House of Commons and the political class. Jeremy Hunt appeared weak and isolated, with senior cabinet members, such as Osborne and Hague, also conspicuously absent. This undermined Hunt and the government. It would have been worse risking embarrassment, even if he had turned round, said that he got that one completely wrong, and would not make that mistake again. Honesty is, usually, the best policy. Hiding behind other news stories just delays the inevitable bollocking.

Blue Labour: broadly good, but don’t lose the party’s identity in the process

In Ideology, Party politics on June 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

We live in an era of slippery political language. We have a coalition government which is Conservative but not conservative, very liberal but with too little Liberal input, and politicians of all colours skirmish over the mantle ‘progressive’. The latest thread of opposition thinking is a similar misnomer: Blue Labour, whose philosopher-in-chief is Lord Maurice Glasman, and whose primary figures hail from very different wings of party, from Progress’ James Purnell to Compass’ Jon Cruddas. It also, perhaps unusually for a fledgling movement, has attracted the attentions of the leader Ed Miliband. Both movement and leader have had no qualms about an unsentimental appraisal of the party’s record in office, and both have been keen to give a voice to traditionally Right-wing concerns, such as the cut in police budgets or the prevalence of benefit fraud. I would argue that Blue Labour offers a broadly positive and constructive vision for Britain, but its problem, paradoxically, is its over-willingness to jettison some of Labour’s greatest triumphs in pursuit of Right-wing populism.

Contemporary Left-wing thinkers such as David Marquand have identified two major threads in Labour’s ideological inheritance, which might be termed ‘rational’ socialism and ‘ethical’ socialism. Rational socialism is rooted in science, and linked to the intellectual Leftists and the Fabian Society of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries – socialism, in this model, is scientifically superior to capitalism. This corresponds to what Sidney Webb once called “democratic collectivism” – power is centralised with a managerial state apparatus, which administers socialism from above. This had been the dominant thread since the 1945 landslide victory, manifested primarily in the NHS, the welfare state and the nationalised industries. Furthermore, this rational socialism transcends the apparently cavernous divide between Old and New Labour. Under both, power was (bar some of Blair’s constitutional reforms) centralised and administered from Westminster. Blair and Brown might have been in thrall to the market, but their attitude to power was remarkably similar to that of Wilson and Callaghan – a technocratic liberal elite of ministers, civil servants and business leaders operates the market-state mechanism from on high, and the country is managed in pyramid formation.

The second thread, ethical socialism, has been an undercurrent for the latter part of the 20th Century. It can trace its origins back much further than the last century to iconic English radicals such as John Milton, Thomas Paine and William Morris. Rather than claiming scientific improvement on capitalism, it instead stresses its moral superiority. Whereas rational socialism at its worst treats humans as mechanically as capitalism, ethical socialism stresses the importance of human relationships, reciprocity, mutualism and community. As opposed to the top-down centralised state model of the Webbs, it grew out of grassroots civil society movements – the trade unions and cooperatives, and Christian socialist, feminist and anti-imperialist groups. Equally, its leading figures, Keir Hardie, R. H. Tawney, George Lansbury and their ilk, were not social scientists but humanitarians. This was not an ideology of a liberal elite, but of ordinary citizens taking action for the betterment of themselves and their fellows. It was Lansbury who described socialism as “love, cooperation and brotherhood in every department of human affairs”. It is this ethical socialism which the Blue Labourites are in the process of recalling from the historical abyss.

Glasman’s vision of the ‘good society’ – a direct response to the Cameron’s and Philip Blond’s ‘big society’ – seeks to re-elevate this tradition of mutualism and grassroots activism above the statist approach which has been overarching from Atlee onwards. He traces Labour’s heritage back to a synthesis of Aristotelian virtue ethics and the “rights of freeborn Englishmen” which finds its expression in, amongst other aspects of British history, the Magna Carta, the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt and the radicalism of the 17th and 19th Century democrats such as the Levellers and the Chartists. He also looks to vindicate the role which religion has played, both historically (the alliance of Catholics and non-conformist Protestants in the 1891 London Dock strike) and contemporaneously (Citizens UK’s Living Wage campaign). In ideological terms, cooperation and the valuing of local culture and legacy comes before abstract egalitarianism. In policy terms, mutualised banks and public utilities come before nationalised or privatised ones.

Labour’s support base can be divided into two broad groups, both economically Left-wing but differing in other aspects. The first are the traditional working class – blue-collar C1s and C2s, typical readers of The Mirror, and socially authoritarian. The second are middle class service workers – the educated white-collar Bs and C1s, typical readers of The Guardian, and socially libertarian. The first group tends to be more homogenously white, whilst the latter is more ethnically diverse and incorporates many socially mobile immigrants. Blue Labour, as opposed to New Labour, might be seen to favour the former over the latter, drawing back electoral support from those supporting the BNP and EDL in protest. But it also has tremendous electoral potential because it reaches out beyond these groups to those in rural communities who have never voted Labour before – who saw, and still see, the party as the haven of unionised urban workers and their liberal elite leaders, with no respect for nation or tradition. This potential is if anything strengthened Cameron’s pathetic inability to form any kind of critical judgement on the free market. New Labour, with its historic majority, was ultra-liberal – Blue Labour, with its fusion of socialism and conservatism, may paradoxically be more successful. In fact, ConservativeHome’s review of Blue Labour thinking identifies it as a potentially fatal threat to an ultra-liberal government which has more in common with Ayn Rand than Enoch Powell.

This, at least to me, sounds pretty good in theory. The problems come, however, when one begins to consider the practical applications of some of this ideology. Firstly, a break from New Labour’s particular kind of liberal elitism is certainly welcome, but how conservative is Labour to become? Since 1945, Labour has been the praetorian guard of social liberals in promoting gender equality, legalising homosexuality, ending discrimination in the workplace and housing, and, more recently, ensuring the environment is a concern of government. One could be forgiven for thinking that the “family, faith and flag” feel of Blue Labour strays dangerously close to the territory of the American Tea Party movement, with its exceptionally reactionary approach to civil rights. If, as Glasman seems to suggest, the new moral watermark should be the general opinion of the white working class, then we may well see regressions unpalatable to many progressives, such as a very hard stance on immigration and a punitive crime policy. New Labour was notorious for triangulating policy decisions based on the stance of the Tories and tabloids: might we, under Blue Labour, see the same done for the BNP and EDL? Even Marxists are under no illusions about the need, in some respects, to educate in the working class rather than pander to bigotry. One of the defining features of socialism is that it views liberalism as necessary but not sufficient to building a good society: what happens, then, when liberalism is thrown out of the mix entirely?

Secondly, if the new vogue is localism and British historical culture, what is to become of the guiding beacon of socialism: equality? Former Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley was quick to criticise Blue Labour for forsaking the party’s historic commitment to evening out the “postcode lottery” brought by arbitrary birth and market. The belief in the redistribution of wealth has been the most persistent aim of party policy, whether through Old Labour universal welfare payments or New Labour targeted tax credits. In searching for a lost British (or, in Cruddas’ case, English) identity, the Blue Labourites may lose Labour’s one.

Thirdly, where does internationalism stand in the Blue Labour vision? From social democracy to communism, a responsibility to the oppressed of other nations has been central to the concerns of the European Left throughout its history. This is a tradition which still holds strong, with, most recently, British trade unions campaigning in solidarity with the Arab Spring revolutionaries. In a globalised world, most social-democratic policy must have some kind of international dimension if it is to succeed, yet Blue Labour has yet to contribute a position on, for example, environmental degradation. In a similar vein, the Blue Labourites want their party to be much tougher on immigration. A contentious issue already, this is likely to enflame a rift within Labour between those who want “British jobs for British people”, and those who feel the UK has a duty to those from less prosperous nations looking for work or asylum. Multiculturalism has been an iron-cast commitment of Labour’s for decades now – the party being by far the most ethnically diverse of all three – and there are those who are understandably wary of a renewed national and local pride returning some of the spectres of white racism. Cameron’s vacuous “muscular liberalism” may yet be surpassed by a far more solid “muscular conservatism”.

Nevertheless, as the latest renaissance in British Left-wing thought, Blue Labour has a lot to offer. Its vindication of grassroots activism and alternatives to a managerial statist approach are its most welcome aspects, and a respect for national and local cultural identities has arguably been too long neglected by the party. But the Blue Labourites have been too quick to reject three traits which have guided Labour through opposition and government in the last century: liberalism, the commitment to equality, and internationalism. Unless it forms a less hostile response to this trinity, Blue Labour risks treading perilously near the territory of the BNP.

Soapbox debates: The Alternative Vote

In Constitutional Spotlight, Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Soapbox Debates on May 4, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Stephan Wan, polarii, David Weber, James Langford, Jack Blankley, Ronald Collinson

With the referendum on 5th May rapidly approaching, The Daily Soapbox has decided to help any remaining floating voters make up their minds about AV (the Alternative Vote), by using it for the first of our written debates, in which 6 of us give our views about AV, along with how we intend to vote in the referendum.

At present, the UK uses the ‘first past the post’ system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the ‘alternative vote’ system be used instead’? Yes or no?

Stephan Wan: YES

This is not a perfect question. There is no doubt that in an ideal world, we would not be seeing just a choice between Alternative Vote (AV) and First Past The Post (FPTP), but also with other voting systems. However, this is not an ideal world, and ultimately we are faced with a simple choice. Is the AV system better than FPTP? The answer is yes. The AV system is both a more legitimate and more effective voting system, that has both fairer process and fairer outcomes.

Firstly, in what sense does AV involve fairer process? A good electoral system must seek to accommodate and realise the preferences of the electorate – the more a system takes into account the wishes of the voters, the better a system it is. AV allows exactly this – the system gives every voter the right to rank the candidates from the one they want the most, to the one they want the least. In comparison, FPTP allows no such choice – it does not reflect what views you have on other candidates, or your preference relations between them. This problem leads to the phenomena of tactical voting; currently, the voter may vote for a candidate other than the one they most support, in order to prevent another candidate from winning who they least support. AV eliminates tactical voting, by allowing these preferences to be shown on the ballot paper. AV is a better system for reflecting voter preferences.

AV graph

Secondly, in what sense does AV involve fairer outcomes? A good electoral system must also seek to result in the election of candidates who have the support of the majority of the electorate. The greater the correlation between the outcome of the election, and the preference of the electorate, the better the electoral system it is. FPTP has a poor record of correlation between outcome and preference – constituencies can have MPs elected on as little as 30% of the vote. AV will in theory work in a far better way – candidates must gain over 50% of the vote to win, either outright through gaining 50% of first preference votes, or through the reallocation of second and subsequent preferences. AV thus ensures that over 50% of the voters will have in some way chosen the winning candidate over all other candidates. This is more legitimate than FPTP – AV is a better system for fairer outcomes.

polarii: NO

Before laying out my case against AV on the issues of practicality – Ronnie and James will have much more to add in other respects – I shall briefly rebut some of Stephen’s points. He argues that tactical voting is a problem; why then, does he advocate a system that encourages it? In FPTP, when a ballot paper is marked, some electors do indeed consider the wider ramifications of voting, rather than just what they want. In AV, voters also consider the wider ramifications, but simply mark a second preference to indicate their ‘tactical’ choice. Instead of removing the problem, it legitimises it.

Furthermore, where preferences are not filled to the bottom of the ballot, there will be a significant number of ballots will be blank, which will be counted as ‘spoiled’ after round 1. So it is not necessarily true that MPs elected under AV will have 50% of votes cast.

AV is used in Australian, Fijian, and Papua New Guinean Parliamentary elections, and Irish and Indian Presidential elections. In Ireland, a major party is always returned to the presidency, and half the elections have been uncontested since 1980; the Congress Party has won every Indian election since its formation. Though both have had fewer hung parliaments than the UK, Australia and Fiji have only two main parties; PNG has only one. The ‘third party’ in Australia, the Greens, took 11% of the vote, yet received 1 seat of 150.In Fiji, only 4 MPs do not hail from the major parties; and unrepresented parties receive over 10% of the vote. However, in the UK, the highest party not to receive representation was UKIP at 3%. These statistics do not suggest that AV is more representative – in fact, it may even be less so.

In Australia, the parties distribute leaflets showing people how they should use all their preferences for the maximum advantage of their preferred party.

Moreover, there is significant disengagement with the system. Turnout in Ireland is 47%. In Australia, 7% prefer a fine to voting; 5% spoil their ballots and 55% admit to following a party-issued card that says how to rank the candidates. This is indicative of serious problem; people are not really convinced in these countries that their vote will matter, or are very unsure about how to use their system. The system does nothing to solve any democratic deficit created by FPTP. In fact, it may even make it worse.

And who actually wants AV? Certainly not David Cameron, who is campaigning for FPTP. Certainly not Nick Clegg, who describes it as ‘miserable’. Maybe Ed Miliband, but he hasn’t said much about it. MPs report a complete absence of pleas from constituents advocating AV. Yet, it seems that if voting trends are the same, the Liberals will gain about 20 more seats – though it is not clear that UKIP will get one, for instance. This is the reason the Liberals are so eager to have it. And the people who run elections don’t want it either; elections will cost more, take longer, and be much harder to check.

In short, no benefit will come of AV. No-one will be satisfied by having it. And likely, fewer people will engage in democracy once we have it. FPTP is clear, popular and simple. There is no choice. FPTP receives not just my preference, but my vote.

David Weber: YES

What separates the Alternative Vote, in a bad way, from First Past the Post? This is the standard of proof those who oppose AV have to meet. It is no use complaining about the cost of the referendum, because it will happen anyway: our MPs have decreed it. So the ‘No’ campaign needs to demonstrate why we should reject AV in favour of the current system. It needs to demonstrate that AV is comparatively worse.

This is what polarii, in the previous speech, failed to do. His argument that AV is unrepresentative (backed up by an impressive array of statistics) is irrelevant. Both systems are unrepresentative, and for the same reason. In both, MPs represent a single constituency, including those who did not vote for them. This is what makes them unrepresentative, and neither can be criticised above the other because of it.

polarii also claims that AV ‘may even be less’ representative. Does he explain how? Does he corroborate it? The ubiquitous statistics are strangely silent on this point! In order to demonstrate this, he has to show that AV has additional problems, which he has failed to do. I invite you to re-read the previous speech if you wish, in case you don’t believe me.

A (hypothetical) AV ballot paper

A highly complex ballot paper

Nor do I think AV would increase disengagement with the system. It’s hard not to be derisive here; I find the idea that voters will be put off by having to number preferences both hilarious and outrageous. The slogan “it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3…” is possibly the only accurate campaign slogan in history. It really is as easy as 1, 2, 3. People are put off from voting for real reasons, not because they have to count in single digits.

So that’s why there’s no reason to reject AV in favour of the current system. Equally, why support AV over it? The answer, when it boils down to it, is actually very, very simple. If MPs do represent an entire constituency (including, as I pointed out earlier, people who did not vote for them) then they should have the support of as many of their constituents as possible.

The current system allows an MP to be elected even if a majority of the electorate vehemently opposes them. This is ludicrous. Representing people is not the same as winning a 100 metre sprint. It should not mean collecting supporters. It should mean seeking the support of as many you seek to represent as possible.

This is why no political party worth its salt uses FPTP. Labour uses AV to elect its leader. The Liberal Democrats also use it. The Conservatives use an almost identical system. It appears that there is consensus among all three parties in favour of AV for them — but not for us. I wonder why this is?

James Langford: NO


Firstly I would like to add my support to Mr Bagg for his excellent contribution into this debate. There are many strands of argument which I could hope to explore in this article but firstly I want to make some refutations to the proposition focusing in particular on comments made by Mr Weber. On a point of technicality Labour or the Conservatives do not fully use AV to elect their leaders – they have both invented their own electoral systems which incorporate procedure similar to that of AV. Moreover – he asks us why FPTP? Simply – it creates strong and accountable governments, gives us coalition at times of national uncertainty, works simply and efficiently during election periods with easily interpretable results, the list goes on…

Returning to my own argument I would firstly like to explore the background to this referendum. This referendum is a waste of money; it’s the voting system that no one really wants – people who want us to change our voting system, such as the Lib Dems, want fairer representation and representation for the smaller parties, but by switching to another majoritarian voting system neither of these aims can be realized. This is the wasted compromise. Those people need PR or STV – and if either of these voting systems had a solid base of national support or could mobilize such a base we would be having a referendum for one of those.

Now I want to bring us back to reality – the democratic idealists are proclaiming that ranking candidates is better but in this voting system safe seats will ignore rankings and tactical ranking will be widespread. Moreover in the marginal constituencies we will still see some MPs elected without 50% of the vote. In a voting system where two of the main principles of that system are not enshrined the average voter will be left confused. I’m not talking about the political nuts like ourselves but the ordinary people of this country, who may only ever engage with politics by voting once every five years. I’d also like to infer that given the increased complexity of this voting system and the lack of understanding behind the procedure, some will become disillusioned and give up voting altogether. In the pursuit of democracy we may damage our democracy.

Jack Blankley: YES

May I first say well done to all the contributions so far, they have been very interesting and this has been a very intelligent debate on a hotly contested issue.

First things first, I am not a supporter of the AV voting system. I believe it is a system which will not fully represent the British public and lead to only a slight improvement on the current system, which I believe is outdated and lacks sufficient representation of the population.

My main argument for supporting the change in the voting system is not so much about the empirical arguments against FPTP, which I believe are not fundamentally changed with the introduction of the AV system, but about wider politics in general. Over the past couple of years, are politicians have been riddled with scandals ranging from expenses claims to affairs, with the tabloid press coming up with imaginative names for our politicians, such as “2jag Prescott” and “Paddy Pantsdown”. A change in the way politics works in this country might help to bring people back into politics, which nowadays is seen as an elitist subject. This is the one thing politicians should be trying to avoid!

Even Mervin King, the governor of the Bank of England, says he’s surprised with the public reaction to the banking meltdown, saying people should be angrier. I believe nowadays people believe there is nothing they can do due to the British political system, and these views of “they’re only in it for themselves”, “greedy” and “out of touch” are comments regularly used in the tabloid press describing all 3 main parties. I know this arguement is hard to understand and even harder to try and write down! But this small change may be a way to reconnect with some lost voters showing that politicians are willing to change a system which the British people think is inherently flawed!

Finally the argument that the referendum is a waste of money is one I disagree with. A referendum is the fairest way to change constitutional practises and to suggest it a waste of money is to suggest that MPs decide how they are elected (which leads to a democratic deficit). The public should be directly involved in deciding on the voting system.

Ronald Collinson: NO

Mr Blankley’s post rounded off what has been a stimulating debate. Several of the supposed arguments in favour of AV have already been dealt with: against Mr Wan, Polarii and Mr Langford noted that it is simply untrue to say that candidates would require the assent of 50% of voters to be elected; against Mr Weber, Mr Langford noted that no major political party in fact uses AV to elect its leaders. Polarii also demonstrated the several respects in which AV may be less representative than FPTP.

It might be added that tactical voting remains possible under AV: the important question is which parties you want to make it into the final round; the order of elimination matters. It is therefore possible to model scenarios in which candidates might in fact be benefited if some of their supporters had given them second rather than first preferences, a clear violation of the principle that expressing second preferences should not harm first preferences. Of course, to exploit this system requires substantial local and national political knowledge – so tactical voting would not be eliminated, but made the preserve of precisely the political obsessives Mr Blankley railed against.

Mr Weber and Mr Blankley both claimed that changing the voting system would revitalise British politics. If that is so, the British people don’t seem to be aware of it: while the 2002 march in favour of the minority pursuit of fox hunting attracted more than 400,000 people, the electoral reform ‘rally’ in May attracted only 1,000; while even the deplorable Facebook group in support of police-killer Raoul Moat attracted over 38,000 members, the Electoral Reform Society has not even achieved 9,000. There is no evidence whatever to suggest that public malaise has anything to do with the electoral system.

Indeed, the aftermath of the expenses scandal was, if anything, a vindication of FPTP. Several MPs in supposedly ‘safe’ seats, like David Heathcoat-Amory and the ludicrous Lembit Opik, were duly unseated. There is substantial academic debate about how AV would change the distribution of safe seats, but there is clear consensus that it would not eliminate such seats. But the evidence of last May is that such seats are not in fact ‘safe’ against the force of local anger.

AV does not, then, reliably make electoral battles more competitive; it restricts tactical voting to the voting to the elite; it violates its own preferential principles; it does not require victors to have the support of a majority of voters. It is, additionally, a much more complex system, lacking the easy transparency of FPTP in which the candidate with the most votes wins.

On this question of ‘the most votes’, Mr Weber ambitiously attempted to draw a distinction between ‘collecting supporters’ and ‘seeking… support’, claiming that under FPTP a candidate can win against an ‘opposing majority.’ But what is the significance of an ‘opposing’ majority if its representative is contingent entirely on the order in which other candidates are eliminated? National politics isn’t like a student union election: there is no option to ‘re-open nominations’. Voters must align themselves by one programme for government or another – simply voting on the basis of ‘not you’, which is surely the ruling logic of the alternative vote, can hardly be considered satisfactory.

________________________________

This marks the end of our first written debate. If you are interested in participating in future debates we choose to hold, feel free to email David Weber at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (dot) com, or leave a comment underneath this post.

David Cameron Welcomes New Liberal Democat to No. 10

In Home Affairs, The Media on February 16, 2011 at 5:25 pm

By polarii
Occasional satirist, TheDailySoapbox.org.uk
________________________________

The story broke earlier today, after a Downing Street source ratted the information to the Times.

Said a Conservative Party spokesman: ‘We’re delighted to add a new member to the Downing Street family. The Prime Minister has lots of experience looking after cats; Nick Clegg is David Cameron’s pussy.’

Ed Miliband was unavailable for comment, leading to allegations from Sky News that the Labour leader had gone to the dogs.

Justice Minister Ken Clarke quipped, ‘the cat’s got my tongue on this one. I never knew Dave could be so feline.’

Simon Hughes, Chairman of the Liberal Democats, said that they ‘had made great progress in making Britain more fur. It is only right,’ he continued, ‘that the Liberal Democats should get another cabinet seat, if only because Michael Gove thinks we’re too cute to move off the chair and into a basket.’ It is unknown how many basket-cases there are at Lib Dem HQ.

In a related story, several Labour peers were seen taking cat-naps in the House of Lords, though the effect of pointless news was disputed by the Guild of Journalists.

‘Miaow’ was the only comment from Ed Fur Balls, Shadow Chancellor.

Pundits suggest the rat problem at No. 10 is an encouraging sign for the government. “Rats tend to leave a sinking ship,” explained a spokeswoman for the RSPCA.

It is unclear what sort of rat problems the Prime Minister is facing. Britain’s most common is the Torat, which frequents all areas of government. However, a rare Liberal Demorat was seen scurrying across from No. 10 to No. 11. Liberal Demorats were previously thought to  inhabit only the Isle of Lundy and the Inner Hebrides. They are listed as ‘under threat’ by the electorate.

Fears were expressed for No. 11’s ‘ginger rodent’, Danny Alexander. And whether what we see in Downing Street is actually a Liberal Demorat has been seriously queried by several academics of note. “Liberal Demorats tend to live in disorganised collectives,” said Professor Phil Space, of the University of Former-Polytechnic, “whereas these rats in Downing Street tend to behave for individual ends, and drink lots of port. And unlike most Liberal Demorats, they have made their offspring pay for their own education.” The average Liberal Demorat has an IQ of 16.

Baroness Neville-Jones, the government’s counter-terrorism advisor, said the measure was necessary to deter cat-burglars. Balls of string and bags of cat food were seen being brought into the back entrance of No. 10 for the bankers’ new pet, George Osborne.

However, the problem was felt worthy of further consideration by Dr Schroedinger, of the University of Schleswig-Baden. He said “So long as the cat is in No. 10, we cannot observe it, and so it must be both a Liberal Democat and a Conservatabby.”

Aleksandr Orlov, the Russian internet tycoon, remarked, “It mere cat. Why make such fuss about it?”

An Ipsos/Mori poll for the Sun today suggests that 8 out of 10 cats prefer the Conservatives. The Conservatabby was unavailable for comment.

IN OTHER NEWS: Mark Thompson defends BBC News budgets – denies relevance of news is decreasing

UNLIKELY NEWS STORIES: Democracy in the Middle East

Two resignations. Two bad decisions?

In Events, Party politics, The Media on February 1, 2011 at 1:10 pm

David Weber

Before I begin, I would like to welcome our newest writer, James Bartholomeusz. I enjoyed reading his analysis of Labour’s past and future, and look forward to future articles.

On the face of it, Ed Miliband’s recent decision to grant the shadow chancellorship to Ed Balls following Alan Johnson’s resignation looks like bad judgement. It is the most potent way he could have gone back on his decision to sideline the Brown treasury team back in September, when he appointed Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper to shadow Home and Foreign portfolios respectively. Not only this, but there would have been a strong logic in offering the shadow Chancellorship to Cooper instead, given that she came first in the shadow cabinet elections and has taken a less vocal line over the economy. Given that Cooper is married to Balls, this would have been a less than meaningful decision, but it might have looked ever so slightly better.

The truth, however, may be more nuanced. We do not know that Miliband had any real choice in who to appoint to the position. Cooper and Balls, sensing weakness and a lack of alternatives, may have threatened to consider their positions if the outcome was not to their liking. Both have a significant number of supporters within the party, and Miliband must be keen to avoid the kind of infighting that characterised Labour’s last spell in opposition. Without knowing the internal politics of the shadow cabinet, which has arguably not been infiltrated by the media to the same extent as the government, or the previous government, it is hard to evaluate Ed Miliband’s judgement.

What it is possible to say is that events are increasingly conspiring against him. Ed Balls repudiates the nuanced and flexible position laid out by Alistair Darling prior to the last election. He stood for the leadership on a platform laying out his opposition to the need to cut spending at all. This article will not speculate whether or not he was right to do so, but merely note that the public disagreement between Johnson and Miliband over tuition fees will pale in comparison should Balls choose to disagree over deficit reduction. An agreed economic policy is essential.

It is all very well for the political freedom of ideas brought by coalition, but I suspect that this is more workable in government, where the need to make tough decisions is at least recognised by the public, than in opposition. And it is perhaps an irony of coalition politics that people may become more accepting of disagreements between parties, rather than inside them. The opposition’s task in the short-term is to bring a simple, well-defined and credible alternative to the table. Only then can it worry about the niceties of pluralism and diversity of opinion.

Incidentally, I do not agree with those who argue that appointing Johnson in the first place was a mistake. There are two lines of argument: one which points to Johnson’s mistakes since being appointed, which is obviously opportunistic, and another which points to his lack of economic experience or qualification prior to being appointed. The latter holds more weight, but fails to credit his experience in government, which is greater than most of the current government, and surely counts for much more than a degree in PPE from Oxford. The argument also has no evidential strength to back it up so far. If George Osborne, who has been criticised too for a lack of economic credentials, single-handedly wrecks the economy before long, it will be strong evidence that Alan Johnson’s appointment was not a good decision. But unless that happens, we will not know whether economic qualifications are needed to take the role of chancellor.

So much for Reddening Ed. What of David Cameron, whose judgement is now called into question with the resignation of Andy Coulson? For many commentators, the ongoing fallout from the News of the World hacking scandal shows David Cameron’s judgement to be highly flawed in allowing Coulson to continue, and actively supporting him, for so long. I will not pass comment one way or another on the case, however. I know too little about it. I will rather look at a tangent that stems from it.

I believe this is further evidence to suggest the tenuous theory that Cameron is a far more relaxed Prime Minister than either of his predecessors. Although Brown’s government was famed for dithering over certain matters; when it came to the continued existence of liabilities, it tended to be more because of the party political context than because of any evidence of the Prime Minister being particularly relaxed. And Blair’s behaviour earlier on in his tenure bordered on paranoid at times, so determined was he not to lose momentum through scandal. A particular example was the first Mandelson resignation, which was back-dated in an attempt to make it look as if he had resigned the previous day, to avoid the opposition taking credit.

Cameron, in contrast, has shown little evidence of paranoia or dithering. He has wisely kept himself further from the forefront of the coalition in the media than Nick Clegg, investing his efforts (as far as one can tell) in its smooth running behind the scenes. This has worked well for his political momentum, as it leaves those out of the know more confused about his political positions, leaving him more room for manoeuvre and minimising accusations of dithering and U-turns. It also avoids the impression that he seeks to control every area of government, which ironically ended up costing Blair so much control.

So both resignations are at present very open to interpretation. Both risk accusations of bad judgement, slow decision-making and lack of control. Yet as we have briefly discussed, there is in reality very little difference to the way previous resignations have played out, other than in spin. Both were of figures who their employers were less than willing to lose; Johnson because of the political significance of his appointment, and Coulson because of the importance of his job. Both Miliband and Cameron may have been wise to play a relaxed game, letting events unfold leisurely rather than spin out of control as a result of frantic behaviour.

True, the wind may be blowing more in Cameron’s favour than Miliband’s; after all, when have more parties been united in government than opposition? When has the collected opposition lacked not just a majority of seats but also of votes? The other conclusion, which I was uncharitably tempted to disguise, is that this is a key lesson in the limits of pluralistic politics, such a key feature of my reasoning in recent articles. Oppositions, as I pointed out earlier, have traditionally had to put up an artificially united front in order to be seen as credible. This is a problem which needs addressing, but which it is difficult to see a solution to.

Hardie’s legacy and Labour’s civil society future

In Ideology, Party politics on January 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

At the risk of over-simplifying my first assertion, the history of post-1970s British politics can be seen as a binary conflict between the following spheres: state vs. market, Labour vs. Conservative, working class vs. middle class, wealth redistribution vs. wealth creation, equality vs. liberty. By the 2010 general election, a torrent of factors – national sovereignty being challenged by supranational unions (e.g. the Lisbon Treaty), economic autonomy being undermined by globalisation (the increasing power of the IMF and WTO), the 2008 financial crisis (ending the neo-liberal consensus) – have finally rendered this binary a deadlock. We are now drifting through an immaterial void, the new national order which will dominate the early 21st Century still forming in primordial soup. Cameron, in opposition, had the first opportunity to act, performing a volte face with the Conservative party and laying claim to civil society. The coalition has, so far successfully, painted Labour as the party of the out-of-touch managerial state and top-down reform. However, as I hope to show, the older and alternative thread within the Labour Party is of civil society activism and bottom-up reform, and that Labour’s recognition and revival of this thread is the key to its critique of the Big Society and re-forging progressive politics for a new generation.

The Big Society is a multi-form concept; a regeneration of British communities, a redemption for painful deficit reduction, a way out of the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite cul-de-sac. Whilst Thatcher famously declared at her zenith that “There is, as we now know, no such thing as society”, Cameron’s loudest mantra has so far been “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” Cameron’s aspiration for Britain is one in which the public sector is scaled back as much as possible, and power is devolved to local communities; schools placed in the hands of teachers and parents, hospitals in those of GPs, public services with business and the voluntary sector. This fits neatly with the constantly laboured necessity of dismantling Labour’s juggernaut-sized state in order to reign in the country’s spending deficit. Cameron believes that, with the state scaled back, people will be freer to run their own communities and lives.

As laudable and potentially inspirational as this rhetoric is, there are gaping rends in the ‘progressive conservative’ Big Society philosophy. There is such a thing as society, and it’s not the same as the state, but it’s not the same as the market either. Retracting the state does not miraculously make people free; in a huge number of communities, the state, however distant and bureaucratic, is the only force preventing the market from privatising all. Taking the example of education reform, Michael Gove wants to shift power from local authorities to create independent ‘free’ academies, and is doing so against the will of the vast majority of teaching staff who he claims he wants to empower. Aside from the concerns many have about the creation of a two-tier system, the overbearing workload for staff, the temptation for schools to opt-in in exchange for a short-term cash boost, and the likelihood of affluent ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle-class parents hijacking the process to best help their own children, these academies would be democratically unaccountable to children and parents. If an academy goes bankrupt, where does it turn? Why, to the line of businesses ravenous to rake in profits from running chains of them, of course. Companies such as Tribal, Edison Learning and Serco have already expressed an interest in buying academies, and Gove has publically stated he has “no ideological objection” to this. I know I’m not the only one who finds the commodification of education a repugnant idea.

Nor, though it may shock the coalition leadership to hear it, can the government through sleight of hand exchange the state for voluntary sector in public service provision. Before the election, Cameron expressed hope that charities and faith groups would perform the job of the public sector in alleviating poverty and providing welfare utility. In light of Eric Pickles’ confirmation that voluntary groups would not receive additional funding for this work, the last week of December saw David Robinson of Community Links and the Bishop of Leister joining the growing number of voluntary sector figures concerned about the workability of the Big Society in the face of a massive welfare scale-back. The latter commented that “This can’t be the throwing of a switch and saying the state walks out and the church walks in. It is completely irresponsible to say these people will be cared for by amateurs.” If Labour has sometimes been guilty of undervaluing the role of civil society, then the Conservatives are optimistic to fantastical levels about its ability to do the job of the state unaided whilst at the same time fending off the vultures of the free market.

So how can Labour respond to the Big Society, and ensure that the post-crisis order is one dominated by progressives? The largest hurdle it must overcome is, I believe, not its association with Gordon Brown’s economic mismanagement – that is only part of the bigger picture. The real problem is the legacy of Labour’s top-down managerialism, and the fact that the party compromised its values and vision to be elected under a neo-liberal consensus. The new shadow cabinet proclaims its progressive credentials from the opposition benches – public sector investment, equality legislation, the largest ever redistribution from rich to poor – but none of this, as the rolling coalition reforms show, is set to outlast the government which instigated it. Miliband cannot criticise Cameron’s privatisation, because, far from providing a counterpoint to Thatcher-Major privatisations, New Labour joined the fun by part-privatising schools and the London Underground. He cannot criticise the meagreness of the new banking levy or minimalist regulation, because New Labour was happy to let the financial sector steer Britain into the economic abyss. And he cannot criticise the government’s removal of ring-fencing and centralisation of funding, because Labour, New and Old, saw it as a virtue to keep the reigns of power firmly in Westminster’s grasp. Labour’s job is hard because, in many ways, Cameron is only pursuing policies from the Blair-Brown platform.

In fact, Labour has an often overlooked rich tradition of civil society movements. It was created in 1900 out of the efforts of trade unions, which represented a sizable chunk of the poor population disregarded by the Conservative and Liberal state apparatus. Its founder and first MP, Keir Hardie, is regarded as one of the greatest activists in our history – his sense of democracy extended beyond the market and parliamentary state to local communities, faith groups, feminists, trade unionists and anti-imperialists. Labour’s historic values, as Maurice Glasman has pointed out, are not only abstracts like equality and liberty – they are also solidarity set against liberal individualism, activism set against conservative servility, and mutualism and reciprocity against capitalist self-aggrandisement. In many ways, the post-war Old Labour of Atlee, Wilson and Callaghan is as guilty of equating progressivism and socialism with statism as its New counterpart. After Labour’s experience of wartime governance and the 1945 landslide, the idea that the only route to change was the seizure and steering of the central state became hegemonic within the party. By contrast, early Labour in the tradition of Hardie, Lansbury and Tawney was a true grassroots mass movement, the like of which we have never seen since.

The voices on the Left which have represented this bottom-up rather than top-down tradition since Blair’s rise – Jon Cruddas, Will Hutton and Neal Lawson prominent among them – are finally being listened to. And neither is this renewed commitment to mutualism, localism and active citizenship rather than passive consumerism purely intellectual. The Conservative government’s spending cuts have kindled a new wave of civil society activism rarely seen in the last 30 years of neo-liberal hegemony, but this is not Cameron’s ostensibly citizen-empowering Big Society, which is showing itself to instead empower unaccountable big business and quangos. This is a wave of new grassroots organisations created to battle against the slicing up of the public sector – there are now dozens of regional anti-cuts groups, national anti-privatisation groups such as Keep Our NHS Public, and others for single-issues such as the anti-tax avoidance UK Uncut. The Labour Party itself has gained 32,000 new members since May, 10,000 of them disillusioned Lib Dems. Seven months into this parliament, it seems that the only community Cameron has succeeded in building is one against his own government.

If Miliband is tactful, he will ride the wave of public outrage (only set to grow as the cuts begin to strike the poor and middle) and in the process shear off its violent fringe. In doing so, he will attain a democratic mandate at least as great as a government which was formed from a series of enigmatic backroom deals. This will lay the foundations of the civil society-centred platform Labour must fight the next election on.

I suspect that, given the renaissance ideas of community and civil society are enjoying at the moment, Labour’s policy review will yield such answers. There are already prominent examples of such policies in action; for instance, Lambeth Council is in the process of becoming Britain’s first cooperative local authority. Some service provision has already been mutualised with promising results; Community Freshview to revitalise derelict land, cooperative housing for poorer people to own whilst avoiding loan sharking, and peer mentoring to rehabilitate potential young offenders. Another case can be seen in Citizens UK’s campaign for the living wage, which Ed Miliband has backed, and has enriched low-paid workers by over £40 million since 2000. Unlike the Big Society, this is not to diminish the important role of the welfare state, but to localise it and make it work alongside communities and people, rather than managing them like employees of a gigantic corporation.

Labour must jettison the narrow liberalism not only of the Blair-Brown years, but the top-down, managerialism, centralising thread of its ideology which goes back to the post-war nationalisations. It must also reenergise its concept of socialism past Antony Crosland’s now canonical assertion of economic equality as the party’s sole creed. Perhaps most importantly, it must re-stake its claim to the Big Society which Cameron has hijacked for the Tories – mutualism, localism and solidarity must become core tenets of its vision once more, coupled with an unambiguous commitment to the environmental cause. The direction emerging from our national void-drifting is increasingly away from central state and towards the literal meaning of democracy: the empowerment of the people. For the sake of the majority at the mercy of unrestrained capitalism, Labour cannot allow itself to be left behind.

Oldham East and Saddleworth

In Events, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on January 9, 2011 at 6:45 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Right everyone! We’re back into the cut and thrust of real politics, and our first UK election since that momentous general election in May last year. Unfortunately, Oldham East and Saddleworth can’t be fitted into an upbeat opening in any conventional way, so I shan’t try. But the prospect of the first election of the ‘New Politics’ is exciting.

All the major parties are contesting the election, as well as a plethora of minor parties (see end of article for full list of candidates). And all the three major parties are in the running. The nearest in fourth is the BNP, which has consistently polled around 2000 votes in the last few elections (roughly 5%). The seat was narrowly held by Labour minister Phil Woolas in May, edging ahead of the Liberal Democrats; but the Conservative vote increased by over 8%. Woolas was subsequently convicted of making false accusations regarding the Liberal candidate, and was stripped of his seat. Hence a by-election.

National polls place the Liberal Democrats at around 9%, with one showing as low as 7%, and Labour and the Tories roughly equal, with Labour nudging ahead. However, polling targeted directly at the seat indicates that Labour enjoys 45% against the Liberal 28% – a massive swing from the Liberals. Considering that the Liberal figure is also bolstered by tactical support from Conservative voters, this is doubly worrying for the Lib Dems. One activist has extrapolated the national figures onto local elections, which would lead to the Liberals losing six of the seven local wards they currently hold (of a total nine), bringing Labour six, and leaving one for an independent and Tory each.

But I think there is limited ground for pessimism. The seat is in Greater Manchester, a Labour stronghold; it has gone red at every election since it was founded. The Liberals were riding off the back of an extremely successful election campaign in May; now they are tied up with the serious business of governance. They have just had to renege on some of their most high-profile election promises. The Labour party has an uninspiring new leader. In many places, they enjoy strong local support without it converting into Parliamentary seats – St Albans being the often-cited example. Frankly, that they are still capable of polling anything near their General Election value (in this constituency) is a cause to be optimistic.

And I think we can deliver a yet better outlook for the Liberals. This will be a tough year; the VAT rise and certain cuts are biting hard, the government should expect to take some hits in by-elections. Governments often lose by-elections, as people view them not so much as a choice between alternatives, but as a judgement on the government. Consequently, Labour could well poll higher than the result will be, as happened in the General Election, when the roles were inversed. People in the street may well express dissatisfaction with ‘the current lot’ and say Labour just to get the pollster off their back. And the likelihood is that they won’t vote anyway – turnout is normally less than 50% in such elections.

And this is where it could get interesting. There are good reasons to vote neither for Labour nor the Liberals. The former Labour candidate was clearly guilty of immoral practice, and the new leader is distinctly lacklustre. And the Liberal party has gone back on so much, and, in the public perception at least, sold out on so many of its values. In fact, if the Tories play their hand right, they could be in for a coup.

So here’s the scenario: everyone who votes on the basis of government policy votes either Labour or Tory, depending on whether they agree with it or not. Many of the tribal Liberals stay at home because of tuition fees, the tribal Labour don’t come out in droves for their dismal leader, and because of a corrupt former candidate, but the tribal Conservatives come out as for any election. Those who vote on the basis of who is the most upright vote Conservative, to avoid the illegal Labour and the unfaithful Liberals. Suddenly, we see a Tory majority being distinctly possible.

However, while we can get excited at the possibility of a major upset, it is also possible that disaffected Liberals simply vote Labour, and the Labour core vote gives Ed Miliband a chance, and they carry the seat. Tribal Conservatives, smarting at the low tone of the campaign and being angry with the coalition, may stay at home; other Tories will likely vote Liberal, drastically weakening the analysis previously offered. In such a close race, fourth party slip-ups from UKIP or the BNP could also carry quite a lot of influence; or, in general malaise with the state of the nation and its politics, a fourth party, most probably the BNP, could create an even greater upset.

This is part of the fun of the New Politics – we’re not sure if the tribal divide between Liberal and Tory, previously so strong in some areas, will have dissolved, with each party backing the most likely ‘coalition candidate’, or whether they still exist at root. And whether the electorate wish to delineate between the two coalition parties, or just consider them to be ‘the government’. This election is wide open, and the difficulty in calling it is further illustrated by trying to call second place as well. These things are clear: if Labour doesn’t win, Ed Miliband is severely weakened. If the Liberals win, the coalition is gently bolstered, and Lib Dem fears of being wiped off the map are almost completely confounded. Though it’s not so disastrous to either if they lose, unless they only poll around 10% of the vote. And Cameron is fine unless he is beaten by the BNP. And the whole nation needs a good pinch in the morning if someone else wins.

So, my prediction: Labour to win, the Liberals in second, and the Tories not far behind, possibly even clinching second. The BNP to poll around 1000-1200 votes. And turnout to be about 40%.

Stop (Word)Press: BBC Radio 4, on the eve of the election, was reporting that some Conservative party members were going to tactically vote for Labour to prevent a Liberal victory. An interesting gobbit: not only do the Tories still hate the Liberals, but they think they have a genuine chance of winning. With traditional votes split any number of ways, this election really is too close to call.

The full list of candidates standing in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election: Debbie Abrahams (Labour Party), Derek Adams (British National Party), Kashif Ali (Conservative Party), David Bishop (Bus-Pass Elvis Party), Nick ‘The Flying Brick’ Delves (Monster Raving Loony Party), Loz Kaye (Pirate Party), Stephen Morris (English Democrats), Paul Nuttall (United Kingdom Independence Party), Elwyn Watkins (Liberal Democrat).

The answer to the question posed at the beginning of State and Society was, of course, Tony Benn. Thanks to all those who voted, and congratulations to those who got it right!