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Posts Tagged ‘Labour Party’

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.


The Labour Shadow Cabinet

In Events on October 10, 2010 at 12:04 am

By Polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Ed Miliband has announced his frontbench team, which, his rhetoric suggests, he would like to take into government as soon as possible. There are several reasons why this cabinet would be strained in actual government, yet several reasons why this cabinet is politically sound for Ed Miliband in the immediate present; perhaps he would be better either with a cabinet reshuffle upon entering office, or hope the ballot falls kindly in two years time. I shall deal with the shadow cabinet members in the order that they are listed on Wikipedia, which is in rough order of seniority:

Harriet Harman: Shadow Deputy PM and Secretary for Development. Saddled with this somewhat abrasive feminist as deputy leader, Ed probably owes her a favour or two for not standing in the leadership election. Her performance as acting leader was not incredibly strong however, and so they are only small favours. Hence DfID, a ministry that wins very few votes, but still allows her to make noises about women. Labour’s record on DfID, however, is not administratively strong (eg CDC/Actis), though they did put money towards it. In short, a ministry that minimises the effects of some of Harman’s more interesting political ideas and keeps her (for the most part) out of the public eye, but allows her to pursue some of the notions close to her heart.

Alan Johnson: Shadow Chancellor. A bold decision. With both Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls placing ahead of him in the poll, it seems a somewhat dangerous choice. Johnson is associated with the trades unions, which can again leave little doubt as to where Ed thinks his money is. Johnson is not, like Balls, a lifetime economist, but he has shown a dogged determination in office. Given that Johnson will be too far-gone next time around to present a serious leadership threat, it is safe to leave him in the high-profile of chancellor, though the increasing influence of the unions will be a cause for concern for the average voter. He does have the advantage of being somewhat more telegenic than Osborne, but at least Osborne actually has a degree (though it is indeed not in economics, as was noted ad nauseam before the election).

Yvette Cooper: Shadow Foreign Secretary and Minister for Women. The traditional role of Harman (women) has passed on to this new woman (aka Mrs Balls), who shadows Theresa May, who also serves a joint role (she will face Mr Balls as Home Secretary, however). Ed has been shrewd here. Cooper topped the poll, and thus could expect a senior role. Her husband couldn’t muster enough charisma to be elected leader, a quality she does not lack. Consequently, giving her the (non-)role of Shadow Foreign Secretary is clever; people will feel she has received due acknowledgement, while she spends much of her time doing little and even more outside Westminster, wherein she might drum up support for a future leadership campaign. However, this will mean that both Mr and Mrs Balls hold high-profile cabinet roles, and still have to raise children. With one parent spending much of the time abroad, something (child-rearing or ministries) have to give. This might make this current arrangement untenable.

Ed Balls: Home Secretary. Ed Miliband could hardly have placed Balls as chancellor, given their diverging views on cuts during the leadership contest, nor could he not, with Ed Balls receiving many votes in the poll and economic policy being his particular forte. Resentment will bubble, particularly as the less well-qualified Johnson has received the role, and the difficult strains that Ed Balls will face because of Yvette’s role as Foreign Secretary. Ed cannot count on the David Miliband supporters however, to back a coup unless Ed makes at least two serious mistakes, so Ed Miliband will probably get away with it. However, there will almost certainly be a high-profile casualty or high-power supporter of an opponent sometime in the future. It may have been better to come to some sort of accommodation on the chancellor role and place Yvette as Home Secretary, which suits both of these two better. This Johnson/Balls gamble is the big one of this cabinet.

Rosie Winterton: Opposition Cheif Whip. After Ed forced the Brown-era whip from office, this protegé of Harriet Harman was elected unopposed. While chief whips do not often fly high very quickly, they can find some interesting dirt, which might have influence on any leadership campaigns Harman might wish to support, or run herself.

Sadiq Khan: Shadow Lord Chancellor and Secretary for Justice. Ed Miliband’s campaign manager could have expected a nice role, though I thought that this was much more likely to fall to Alan Johnson. Sadiq is known for being quite set in his views, which could jar with the judges of the legal system.

Jim Murphy: Shadow Defence. Co-chair of David’s election campaign, he will be relatively gratified to get this job, perhaps a conciliatory move towards the 49.63% of the party who really didn’t want Ed. Decidedly on the right of the party, described by Ken Livingstone in an EDM as ‘intolerant and dictatorial’, a supporter of Israel, and a university drop-out, he scored well in the poll, and fits the brief for defence secretary quite well. One of the few appointments that marries ministerial considerations and politics.

John Denham: Shadow Business, Innovation and Skills. A chemist, Denham has served in several ‘skills’ rolls before, though he will find it hard to define himself against Vince Cable, who is busy sidling left (in my mind, for a potential stab at leadership of the Liberal party, though this by far from a consensus among the cognoscenti). At least he has some knowledge of the department he has got to shadow, though his support for tuition fees during Blair may possibly jar with Miliband’s opposition to them.

Douglas Alexander: Shadow Work and Pensions. The co-ordinator of the general election where Labour’s vote did not completely collapse has managed a little up on the greasy pole. Alexander is vocal for his support for the poor, whether for the very poor in Africa or the poor in the UK, and should make a good candidate for this role, though he comfortably lacks the depth of knowledge of Iain Duncan-Smith.

John Healy: Shadow Health. Second in the poll, having only held minor ministerial role, catapulted into a high-profile role. A Balls supporter, placed in role with no cuts to oppose. Politically savvy choice, though it leaves the Tories to do pretty much what they want with the NHS within their manifesto pledges.

Andy Burnham: Shadow Education. Somewhat gaffe-prone, which should make for some amusing exchanges between himself and Michael Gove. Solidly Blairite, placed in a ministry where few will really object to a raft of well-considered Tory policy, on which Ed Miliband has not yet come to a conclusion. This will lead to some lack of purpose in the Labour party’s response, and a glittering lack of attention for Burnham, who also co-ordinates campaign strategy, which he has never really had to do – he has always sat for a safe Labour seat.

Caroline Flint: Shadow Communities and Local Government. Famous for flashing her briefs in public, then decrying the window-dressing status of women in Brown’s cabinet, it is somewhat surprising she did not receive the women’s ministry. The former Europe minister continues on her treadmill of minor ministries, supported in her post by the fact she’s a woman, and Labour have to manage at least 6 in their cabinets.

Meg Hillier: Shadow Energy and Climate Change. This former identity card minister, who forgot her own identity card, prompts the question all Westminster is asking: who is she? Perhaps this is why Labour wanted ID cards – to identify nonentities of ministers.

Maria Eagle: Shadow Transport. The less popular but more intelligent of the Eagle twins, will find this transport brief interesting. However, no-one notices the benefits of sound transport policy for at least a decade, so don’t expect to see her for about that long. Until then, she might find an interesting role at another ministry.

Mary Creagh: Shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This parliamentary bruiser has been given the ministry no-one in Labour really wants as there are very few Labour votes to find; all the rural stuff goes Tory or Liberal unfailingly. At least her competence will be somewhat tested, as reconciliation between farmers and animal rights campaigners, free traders against fair-traders and conservationists against foresters looks even less likely than for the past 100 years.

Andrea Eagle: Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury. This popular and potentially high-flying Eagle has been tasked with shadowing Danny Alexander, who is gaily waltzing around Westminster with cuts. She will have to play second-fiddle to Johnson, so don’t expect much exposure since she is shadowing; not actually in office – Ed is clipping her wings.

Shaun Wooward: Shadow Northern Ireland. This quietly competent man was drafted into the cabinet, having failed to acquire enough votes. Labour’s record is good in Northern Ireland, and Woodward, if he continues in the vein he had while in government, will do nothing to destroy that.

Anne McKechin: Shadow Scotland. Very Scottish – as her rather difficult name suggests – will not be able to attain much glory at the Scottish Office, as the Scottish Labour party, which will ascend to fill the current role of the SNP after the elections in May, will take all the credit for anything good that happens.

Peter Hain: Shadow Wales. Again, drafted in to fill the lack of Welsh MPs in the Labour cabinet, he will have good fun shadowing the (not Welsh) Welsh Secretary. However, his best days are behind him, and he cannot expect any more offices beyond this – which is good, because he has already spent 7 years in it.

Ivan Lewis: Shadow Culture, Media and Sport. Best described as unreliable, this MP has had allegations of harassment, u-turns from big-money lobbying and sedition. It will be very difficult to be Shadow to the dazzling Jeremy Hunt, so he is not one to watch.

Baroness Royall: Opposition Lords Leader. This Neil Kinnock lover has been elected beyond the power of Ed Miliband. Her time will likely be short due to impending Lords reform, but hard-left politics will make it more difficult to persuade cross-benchers and coalition rebels to vote with her against some of the government’s legislation that could easily be overturned in the Lords.

Tessa Jowell: Shadow Olympics. This arch-blairite, of whom I suspect even Ed Miliband wishes he were rid, has been given one of her favourite ministries. It’s a good choice for Ed too. Most of the decisions have been taken, and much of the catalogue rests with the Mayor of London. She can’t go around spewing forth Blairite ideas anywhere else if she has this job. If she’s going to embarrass anyone, it will be the government, not the Labour party.

Liam Byrne: Shadow Cabinet Office. Despite his lamentable ‘no money’ note, Byrne’s ability has seen him scrape enough votes (though only just) to get into the cabinet. Ed Miliband will do well to turn his formidable intelligence to policy formation, while not allowing him to become familiar enough with any department to identify another serious Labour failing, and proclaiming it to the world.

Lord Bassam: Opposition Lords Chief Whip. This directly elected post sees the founder of the Squatters Association in office. It will be interesting to see how long he – a political appointee – and the cronies he marshalls (formerly Tony’s) can squat in the Lords after reform comes.

Baroness Scotland: Shadow Attorney General. Beautiful, clever, a brilliant lawyer, she has all the qualifications for a minister and none for an MP. Dearly beloved by all at the Attorney General’s Office, Ed Miliband doesn’t have anyone intelligent enough to replace her, nor to spar with the clever-cloggs pedant Dominic Grieve.

Tony Lloyd: Labour Chairman. The incumbent, and strongly associated with the unions, if he plays his game right, he can control Ed Miliband. A few well placed ‘errs’ in cabinet meetings will tell Ed that the bulk of his support in the party (by which I mean the unions) will not approve of that policy, and so Ed will stop it. He has the left-wing-ness to make it happen as well. He could potentially rise up the ranks quickly if Ed Miliband has to promote union candidates to retain their grace and favour.

In short, Ed Miliband has been dealt a bad hand by these elections. It seems stupid to me that the party to not trust its leader to choose his team – or to lead, as all the other parties call it. Anyway, the Blairites – for which read supporters of David – with the exception of Johnson, who once described himself as a Marxist, seem to have been effectively marginalised. The Balls clan remains prominent, with enough potential supporters should the unions decide that they don’t actually like Ed Miliband. This cabinet, in more subjective terms, seems to lack the gravitas of previous shadow cabinet; I certainly can’t see some of these people retaining their offices for long in government. But that’s maybe because there are loads of new names, which is another weakness that may become a strength. However, if Ed does try to keep Labour in the centre, he risks a Balls/unions takeover, which accounts for the Lords positions and most of the top table. Also, three key ministries that need reform – DWP, MoD, Business and Skills, are left to safe but cautious people, who may not be the best foil for dynamic counterparts, IDS, Liam Fox and Vince Cable. But the fact that I’m calling IDS dynamic is a sign of how times have changed. Perhaps there’s method to this cabinet – but I think that it leaves Ed necessarily pandering to the left of his party, in order that Balls and the unions should be kept happy.