Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Two strands of Tory thinking

The possibility and difficulties of cross-party political consensus was the theme too of a Fabian Society and Webb Memorial Trust fringe event, in association with the Centre for Social Justice and the End Child Poverty campaign.

Iain Duncan Smith and Martin Narey were again on the platform as our ‘child poverty challenge’ fringe roadshow moved from Manchester to Birmingham, though we had lost Polly Toynbee to commitments in London. IDS thought he had better say pretty much the same thing to his own party as he had said to Labour. The panel also included Samantha Callan, Ben Page of MORI and myself as a late substitute for Polly T.

We were addressing the question: Child Poverty: is it the warmth or the wealth? This was partly a tribute to the Conservative leader, who told his conference last year that he could not offer a hard luck story as he had a fantastic upbringing but that ‘it wasn’t the wealth; it was the warmth’. Or, perhaps more seriously, while everybody agrees that addressing poverty must be about more than income, is there still a disagreement about whether income poverty must remain central? And have the Conservatives converted, or not, to the idea that poverty must be understood in relative terms?

IDS’ emerging theme is that intergenerational problems can not be dealt with effectively if there is a stop-go approach where one party coming to power tears up everything the other has done. On this, he is right. The ambition should be a poverty prevention settlement which is as deeply embedded as the NHS was in the post-war political consensus. And that is why many of us on the left concerned with inequality and poverty pushed for, and then welcomed, the Conservative shift on the language of relative poverty and inequality – including the apparent willingness in 2006 to acknowledge that relative poverty matters, and to at least aspire to the progressive goal of ending child poverty. This was, at least, a major improvement on John Moores' claim in 1988 that poverty in Britain had been abolished.

Yet we remain a very long way from a consensus on ending child poverty which is fit for purpose. There have been major shifts across the parties in political language, but not on policy. That all parties talk about child poverty and inequality is progress – but, while the Labour government has delivered progress since 1999, none can claim to have done enough to will the means.

Most of the civil society and non-party experts on poverty and inequality believe that the Conservatives have moved backwards since 2006. The extreme vagueness of any Tory policy agenda undoubtedly increases scepticism that the aim was a rebranding and repositioning exercise. The frontbench have done nothing substantial to address that at this conference, as both Stuart White and Jenni Russell report that they found when trying to pin the jelly to the wall during yesterday’s ippr fringe,

But that is not a charge that I think can fairly be levelled against IDS. I would certainly differ on several points of analysis and policy recommendations with the social justice agenda he is developing on the centre-right. But his sincerity can not be in doubt. He is pushing his party to go further – but it is unclear how big a constituency he will have.

Tonight, there was a lot of consensus on the importance of the early years. IDS said he had criticisms of SureStart, but argued that his party should not rip it up. Rather he wants to see a cross-party agreement over increased investment in the early years over the next twenty years.

Martin Narey had some eye-watering examples to support the idea that this would be, in the long-term, extremely good value for the taxpayer. It will be expensive in the short-term.

I am not sure how far we got on relative poverty. IDS was pretty clear that ‘of course, income must be part of this’ but stressed the wider social determinants. We don’t know how the Conservatives will respond to the government’s commitment to legislate on this ‘progressive end’

What struck me is that there are two different approaches influencing Conservative thinking in this area, which point in very different policy directions. One possibility is that the small c conservative instinct – that conservatives adapt to change once it has happened – will see a perhaps reluctance acquiescence to New Labour innovations, like the early years. This was the Conservatism which informed Churchill and Macmillan after 1951 – it was politically highly effective, if rather philosophically promiscuous and unrooted, and the public politics of Cameronism stand in this tradition.

But the other instinct points in an opposite direction: the right’s renewed interest in social justice has also revived a long-standing right-of-centre critique of the welfare state, as crowding out voluntary provision and individual initiative. This is a much more radical prospectus, challenging the foundational principles of post-war welfare provision, and indeed links directly to the arguments of Helen Bosanquet against Beatrice Webb’s 1909 arguments for a welfare settlement along the lines of what was to become the Beveridge settlement. It is an argument which combines localism with a desire for a significant rolling back of the state – and a sometimes vague hope that a ‘rolling forward’ of society might follow.

Both of these strands of thinking can be found in Conservative social justice thinking and analysis. It is too early to judge as to which will prevail. However, it is interesting that the detailed research of the Centre for Social Justice on areas like relationships support, and the early years, is leading to detailed policy recommendations which challenge the simplistic analysis of ‘state failure’ in which rather too much of the new would-be progressive Toryism is still couched.

Gordon Brown: a dream speech

Last night I had a dream, in which Gordon Brown appeared and made a speech which went something like this (it was more eloquent, but I can just about remember the gist):

'Good evening. All of us are worried by the financial turmoil that has hit the world economy in the past couple of weeks. Rest assured that my government will do everything necessary to prevent the crisis hurting your savings and prospects.

But as we get to grips with the immediate crisis, now is the time to ask ourselves some searching questions about the kind of world we are living in - and the kind of world we want to live in.

Is it right - is it right - that our hard-earned savings and wealth can be at the mercy of such an unstable system? Is it right that our livelihoods are subject to the unpredictable swings and roundabouts of a financial system that offers huge, undeserved rewards for a tiny minority? Capitalism is one thing; but this 'casino capitalism', as it has rightly been called, is quite another.

Now I know what some of you will say. You'll say: 'But Gordon, this has happened on your watch. You sat back and let the financial sector have the freedoms it demanded, the very freedoms that have produced this mess.'

I have to tell you, in all candour, that you would be right to say this. It was a mistake. Now we must put this mistake right.

But why did we make this mistake? We made it because after the huge changes that Margaret Thatcher brought about, and the collapse of Communism, virtually everyone started to believe in the free market. People of all parties - Labour, Liberal and Tory - believed that the way forward was through privatization and deregulation.

But the difference between Labour and the Tories is this: as social democrats we are always ready to learn the hard lessons of experience and to do what is necessary to bring capitalism back under control. That is why I am announcing today the setting up of a new Royal Commission to consider what reforms are necessary to the financial sector. Finance must serve the real economy, and not the other way around.

Perhaps the Tories will support us in this. But probably not. After all, the philosophy of deregulation which has brought us to this mess is, more than anyone else's, their philosophy. It is what - since the days of Margaret Thatcher - they have been in politics to do. That is why their ideological soulmates in the US, the Republicans in Congress, refused to support the vital rescue plan for the US economy. Be in no doubt: the blind free-market ideology of the US Republicans puts our economy at risk as well as their own. That free-market ideology threatens us all.

In 1979, Margater Thatcher led our country in a new direction: away from the state and towards the market. That philosophy, whatever its strengths, has been pushed to excess, and we are now all suffering the results of that. This is the moment when the Age of Thatcher comes to an end. This is the moment when we must learn not only that the state has to be put in its place, but the market too.'

Washington's blame game

The House of Representatives vote to reject the $700 billion bailout, by 228 votes to 205, has sent shockwaves through the financial markets, hitting London this morning following the dramatic fall in the US in response yesterday.

Efforts are being made to rescue the rescue, but almost as much energy seems to be going into the blame game. House Republicans split two to one (65 to 133) against the bill, though 95 Democrats also opposed it, with 140 (60%) of Democrats in favour. That was about ideological aversion to government intervention - but it was also about electoral politics. Nate Silver's analysis shows that representatives in competitive races voted heavily against.

Still, Republicans want to blame House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for making a partisan speech, though it is hard to credit the idea that this could have swung a dozen Republican votes.

Few have taken John McCain's dramatically erratic interventions in the bailout negotiations seriously - not least because he didn't manage to find time to read the original three page Bill, still less to express a clear view on it. But McCain had already claimed the credit for bringing the House Republicans on board, somewhat prematurely.

And John McCain's latest response - its time to leave the politics out of it, as long as everybody realises that this is the fault of Barack Obama and the Democrats!

Our leaders are expected to leave partisanship at the door and come to the table to solve our problems. Senator Obama and his allies in Congress infused unnecessary partisanship into the process. Now is not the time to fix the blame. It’s time to fix the problem.I would hope that all our leaders, all of them, can put aside short-term political goals and do what’s in the best interest of the American people.

Shameless. But at least it isn't working. The economic crisis has significantly damaged McCain's prospects of winning the White House.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Inheritance tax: will Labour take a stand for fairness?

At today's ippr fringe event on poverty policy at the Conservative party conference ('Can the Conservatives be the Party of the Poor?'), Martin Narey of Bernado's criticised the Conservatives for proposing to raise further the threshold at which inheritance tax is paid. If ending child poverty is truly a Conservative aspiration, then why give up this crucial stream of revenue that could make all the difference between hitting and missing the child poverty target?

Richard Reeves, of Demos, argued that while this proposal doesn't necessarily undermine their anti-poverty credentials, it does throw a question-mark over the Conservatives' wider claim to be a party of 'fairness'. Invoking the radical liberal, John Stuart Mill, Richard argued that it is obviously very unfair to tax transfers of inherited wealth to a much lesser extent than labour incomes.

It is a year since George Osborne turned the political tide against Labour with his speech announcing the Conservative intention to raise the threshold at which inheritance tax is paid (back then, only to £1m). Labour's response then was one of panic and retreat. This time round, as the Conservatives call for further cuts, will Labour be willing to take a stand for fairness?

Tories: a poverty on policy

I am just back from Birmingham where I chaired an ippr fringe event, 'Can the Conservatives be the Party of the Poor?' Greg Clark MP, shadow minister for Charities, Social Enterprise and Volunteering, was the Conservative tasked with convincing the audience that the answer is 'Yes'. Other panelists were Lord Victor Adebowale (Turning Point), Richard Reeves (Demos) and Martin Narey (Bernado's).

So, do the Conservatives have a credible anti-poverty policy?

Well, its hard to say since Greg Clark was rather vague on what Conservative policy is. His main presentation focused on what he saw as the weaknesses in New Labour's approach: too much focus on a specific child poverty target and on poverty as a purely cash phenomenon.

This led Jenni Russell of The Guardian to ask, quite reasonably, what the Conservatives themselves would do. Greg Clark replied, in essence, that the Conservatives would seek to 'empower communities'. To this, Jenni Russell replied, quite reasonably: 'Yes, but what would you DO?' Richard Reeves concluded that the Conservatives had not yet made the shift from a critique of New Labour to offering any concrete alternative. (Jenni Russell has written up her account of the event here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/30/toryconference.economy)

Moreover, what we do know about the Conservative approach is worrying. Greg Clark was keen to stress the multidimensionality of poverty. But this seemed to mean that we shouldn't place so much emphasis on the present government's income-based child poverty target. Two or three people, including Kate Green of Child Poverty Action Group, expressed concern about this. The good thing about the current child poverty target is that it offers a very clear way of holding government accountable for what its doing on poverty. The target offers a clear benchmark against which progress can be gauged. If the target is deemphasized, how do we hold a Conservative government accountable for its policy on poverty? What other target would the Conservatives set so that we could judge the success of their policies? So far as I could tell, Greg Clark had no answer to this question.

So the Conservatives, apparently, have little or no concrete policy on poverty and, apparently, little or no concrete idea of how to measure success or failure of any policy that they happen to develop.

Not exactly a 'government in waiting'....

Who are these New Tories and what do they think?

Meet the Shadow Cabinet, is the enticing offer on a gizmo on the flash new Conservative website.

It is a chance to see if you can do better than the general public, who can recognise only David Cameron and William Hague.

The Sunday Telegraph spot poll of forty voters found one in ten could recognise Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, but just as many thought he was David Miliband. That is enough to give Osborne the bronze, as third most famous Shadow Cabinet member. There are more amusing alter egos and possible career changes in the public responses. But, to be fair, even those unusually well informed followers of politics who can spot a Gove or a Willetts at fifty paces may struggle to tell their Jeremy Hunts from their David Lidingtons.

More important than face recognition is what the new Tories think. What, if anything, is different about them? Lesley White's long Sunday Times Magazine group profile tries to dig behind the smooth David Bailey photoshoot and lift this shadow of anonymity.

She concludes:

In my conversations with Cameron’s chosen few, I find myself listening hard for a hint of disavowal of their past, the way one used to hear it from new Labour in the run-up to 1997, admitting that their government had been feeble against the unions, stifled social mobility and enterprise. But I hear no Conservative equivalent.

Nobody I speak to believes Mrs T’s necessary economic reforms went too far, that the deregulated markets and focus on individualism had contributed in some minor way to Cameron’s “broken society”, despite this being what turned millions away from the “natural party of government” in 1997. None of these senior strategists engaged in the “remoralisation” of politics seem to consider that the Lady’s moral agenda of “community care” and frozen child benefits was flawed. I hear only that the party has been misunderstood. That there has been a problem “of perception”. And when Sayeeda Warsi announces that the Tories have always been on the side of the poor because it’s Conservatives you find working in charity shops, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

White finds that the party's heart still beats very much on the right. There is a similar message in the ConservativeHome grassroots poll, reported in Saturday's Independent.

But the Shadow Cabinet may find cheer in a glowing accolade in this morning's Times from William Rees-Mogg who finds the 'brightest and the best' to be the most impressive frontbench for fifty years. Former Times editor Rees-Mogg, who has an unparalleled record for making astonishingly inaccurate political predictions, doesn't find time to mention that two of his children are contesting key seats for David Cameron at the next general election.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Political earthquake in Bavaria; uncertainty in Austria

50 years of conservative dominance of Bavarian politics are over following state elections in which the Christian Social Union (CSU) won 43 per cent of the vote, fully 17 points down on its 60% share in the 2003 elections.

It is difficult to imagine a greater shock result in European politics. The CSU's dominance far outstrips that of Labour in Scotland, for example. But the party has struggled to modernise its appeal or to emerge from the shadow of its strongman leader Edmund Stoiber, who dominated the state's politics for fifteen years before resigning amidst a political scandal last year.

This was not a great result for the Social Democrats, who polled 19 per cent. A coalition between the CSU and the pro-market liberals of the FDP seems the most likely outcome.

But the Bavarian result could considerably shift the prospects for the national election. Angela Merkel has had a difficult relationship with the autonomous sister party of the Christian Democrats, but the centre-right has been much boosted by the contribution of the Bavarian bloc to their national share. The Christian Democrats have been confident that Angela Merkel's popularity would make them the leading party at the next election - and perhaps polling 40% - but this result may see a rethink.


In Austria, the Social Democrats have come top of the poll, defeating the centre-right partners with whom they governed in a fractious grand coalition. Both coalition partners have lost support - but the Social Democrats lead on 29.7% (down 5.6%) because the People's Party have dropped further by 8.7 points to 25.6%.

But most attention will go to the improved performance of the two right-wing populist parties, the infamous Jorg Haider's BZÖ and the Freedom Party from which he split. Together they have 29%, outpolling the main centre-right party.

Another Grand Coalition seems the most plausible outcome - the two far right parties detest each other, and so the question of whether a controversial deal with the more centre-right People's Party is possible is unlikely to arise.

There is a detailed discussion and analysis on PoliticalBetting.com - including on whether it makes sense to regard the two right-wing populist parties as 'far right' or not.

Labour have learned from Northern Rock

Labour have learned from the Northern Rock crisis: just witness the relative alacrity with which the government are taking Bradford & Bingley into public ownership, compared to the protracted and tortuous scramble for a private buyer for the Rock last year. Perhaps they have been imbued with some of the curious interventionist confidence of Hank Paulson and the Bush administration. It's a dire situation, of course, but it's good to see that no longer does a fear of "back-to-the-70s" jibes from the right stop Labour from taking necessary steps to stabilise the economy.

And though it's hopelessly naive to see the post-conference "bounce" as indicating any certain trend back to Labour, rather than predictable voter capriciousness, the party should be heartened by the fact that voters now prefer (albeit very marginally) Brown and Darling on the economy over Cameron and Osborne. The Conservatives start their conference today planning to convince voters they can manage the economy - but look increasingly out of step with these strange new economic times. Vince Cable - that wellspring of economic literacy and common sense - said Osborne was "not living in the real world" in trying to keep B&B in the private sector. Osborne's concentration on "reckless" public debt looks particularly peculiar given that, at 43% of GDP, UK public debt is a lot less than many comparable countries, and will surely have to rise in this situation, as Yvetter Cooper argued yesterday.

So there is some clear blue water between Labour and the Conservatives. And between Labour and the Lib Dems, too - Vince Cable notwithstanding. "Move to the right" was always a crude way of saying what the Lib Dems are doing, but in a sense it is correct. Cutting tax for low earners is good, as is restoring the parity between capital gains and income tax. But their tax cuts do aim at shrinking the amount the state takes in taxes, and that is a move to the right. Moreover, and more subtly, the Lib Dems are being pulled along by this Cameron-Conservative narrative which says that Brown's "top-down" "centralised" "bureaucratic" (etc., etc...) method has juddered to a halt, and that further attempts down this route would just be an exercise in idly "throwing money" at things which are inevitably more complex than crude, simple money can get a hold on. (See Vince's speech to conference, and Norman Lamb's, for some good old-fashioned public bureaucracy bashing.)

Labour should see that they have something worth defending, and worth advancing, in the face of the other parties. On the face of it, Labour look like the right party for the job. Now is no time to worry about the political costs of, say, nationalising a bank - the political costs of being perceived as "ditherering" are far dearer. Voters will reward those who act with conviction and certainty.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Debate verdicts: as you were

If there was no clear winner, most people seem to have ended the night thinking pretty much what they did when they began. A debate transcript is available from RealClearPolitics.

One of the most interesting pieces of analysis is from Nate Silver on The New Republic's The Plank blog, arguing that the pundits don't understand why voters put Obama ahead.

The CNN poll [detail] suggests that Obama is opening up a gap on connectedness, while closing a gap on readiness ... Specifically, by a 62-32 margin, voters thought that Obama was “more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you”. This is a gap that has no doubt grown because of the financial crisis of recent days. But it also grew because Obama was actually speaking to middle class voters.

But here are the best of the pundits' verdicts anyway ...

Ezra Klein says that McCain's passion came from contempt for his opponent and a failing ideology.

McCain has every right to be angry: He would have been an excellent, maybe unbeatable, candidate in 2000 or 2004. Instead, he's facing down the excesses of his own ideology in 2008. And that's what McCain doesn't understand. He's not behind because he doesn't deserve this, or because he's not served his country honorably. He's behind because events have disproven his agenda. Because the success of the surge does not outweigh the blunder of Iraq. Because the appeal of tax cuts does not outweigh the costs of deregulation and wage stagnation. And even the best debate performance can't obscure that.

Joe Klein says McCain was tactical where Obama was strategic.

Obama emerged as a candidate who was at least as knowledgeable, judicious and unflappable as McCain on foreign policy ... and more knowledgeable, and better suited to deal with the economic crisis and domestic problems the country faces ... Neither man closed the sale, and I don't think many votes, or opinions, were changed.

Matthew Yglesias says McCain failed to gain the ground he needs.

All things considered, it’s about a draw. McCain got a couple of good punches in and so did Obama. Insofar as the idea is supposed to be that McCain has a domineering advantage on national security he certainly didn’t prove that point. And for the candidate who’s losing, a tie amounts to a loss.

Jim Geraghty of National Review thinks it was a surprisingly strong night for John McCain, after a bad week, perhaps proving his own point.

My guess is, everybody thinks their guy won tonight. From where I sit, McCain had a surprisingly strong night — it'll change the storyline from "uh, what was he thinking?" ... it's really hard to say McCain had a bad night, and I think Obama seemed a little shaky at times tonight - his performance didn't boldly and clearly say, "I know I'm new on the scene, but you can trust me; I am ready to succeed in the hardest job in the world."

Andrew Sullivan - an Obamacon - believes the Democrat was more focused.

It strikes me as a mistake for McCain to end the debate on his commitment to staying in Iraq indefinitely. Obama's emphasis on the broader global conflict and our broader responsibilities will reach more people. His vision seems broader, wiser, and more focused on ordinary people. A masterful performance tonight, I think. Obama's best ever debate performance. McCain was fine, but it's wrong for him to attack his opponent at the end. And then he gave a slightly rambling defense of his experience. I give Obama an A - and I give McCain a B.

Chris Cillzilla of the Washington Post thought McCain gave his most relaxed debate performance to date and is not convinced that Obama pinned the Bush record on McCain.

Obama had a simple goal in this debate: tie McCain to the policies of George W. Bush. Right from the start, Obama sought to link the economic policies responsible for the financial crisis to Bush and McCain; he noted at another time that although McCain as casting himself as a maverick, he had voted with the current president 90 percent of the time ... It's a smart strategy on paper. But, will the average voter become convinced that McCain and Bush are one in the same? Remember that the lasting image most voters have of McCain is as the guy who ran against Bush in 2000.

Michael Tomasky of The Guardian wants more time to decide before accepting the instant reaction.

Let's watch what happens over the next two or three days. The McCain campaign, as I've written a hundred times, is geared toward winning news cycles. They will see the above numbers and go into overdrive to counter-spin. I don't think Obama's win, if that's what it was, was so decisive that the McCain team can't reverse spin it. It's McCain who's behind, and it's McCain who needs to change minds here.

McCain snark hands Obama slight edge

There was no great dramatic moment, certainly no knockout blow, in a close fought and reasonably substantive opening Presidential candidate's debate.

John McCain began shakily on the economic crisis, where Obama was better. However, the Democrat made a tactical error in allowing the discussion to remain so focused on a traditional 'cut government spending' debate about earmarks for so long. McCain's detailed view of what should happen on the financial bailout remains rather opaque, yet was largely untested.

On foreign policy, I felt that Obama had the better of the exchanges on Afghanistan, and probably Iraq too. McCain's strongest debating passage was on Georgia and Russia, where he projected his experience most effectively. However, his claim that he saw only the letters 'KGB' behind Vladimir Putin's eyes sat slightly oddly with, in more or less the next sentence, his assertion that he had no interest whatsoever in any new cold war. On negotiations with Iran, what Henry Kissinger has said is somewhere in between what both candidates claimed: he has been for direct talks, without preconditions, but preferably at Secretary of State level.

The most important question of the night was whether uncommitted voters who have not followed the race closely would think Obama as qualified to be President. McCain's strategy was to consistently say "what Senator Obama doesn't understand". This came across as snarky. When he finally decided to say outright in his closing remarks that Barack Obama was not qualified to be President, he muffed the line, with Obama barely even needing to retort.

By contrast, Obama was consistently gracious. The McCain camp have issued an instant campaign video drawing on the times he acknowledged points of common ground. But this was a foreign policy debate and that is a major part of Obama's claim to bipartisanship, which is supposed to be part of McCain's "reform" credential too.

So Obama passed the 'ready to lead' test comfortably, being Presidential, knowledgeable, fairly robust in his views and carrying off his somewhat Kennedyesque persona in a substantive way. Voters worried about the experience gap will probably have felt that Obama held his own on his opponent's specialist subject. And Obama was considerably better at connecting foreign policy issues back to their domestic impact, which is an important part of the framing of the final month.

The economy is back at centre stage, McCain has had an erratic week, and the Palin pick looks somewhat less smart as time goes on.

So a drawn debate would have been to Obama's advantage. And he may just have done a little better than that. The "snark" factor may well explain why each of the instant polls of debate viewers had Barack Obama ahead on the night, though not dramatically so.

If John McCain was seeking to get a major boost from the debates, this may have been his best opportunity. And if his response as the underdog is to become more aggressive in the next two encounters, it may well do him more harm than good.

Overall, last night's debate didn't change the Presidential race very much.

So this remains the Democrats race to lose on November 4th.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Twittering the debates

election.twitter.com has been launched at midnight yesterday.

I've managed to resist twittering to date (unlike No 10 Downing Street) - but this looks like it could be the way to watch the '08 debates. So I've signed up but I don't know whether I'll be chipping in.

Hat tip: The Caucus blog at the New York Times.

Great debate moments

It's game on. John McCain is going to turn up for the first Presidential debate.

Time has put together a good package of 10 of the most memorable debate moments.

The Obama campaign has put out an expectations memo which doesn't just talk up McCain's experience, but circulates reviews of their own useless candidate - "“Lifeless, Aloof, And Windy.

This is almost beyond satire - but Amy Sullivan of Time recommends a classic 2004 Daily Show clip which tries to keep up with reality.

It's not 1931 yet

Least likely prediction of the week comes from Martin Bright in the New Statesman ...

If the financial crisis is as serious as many in the government suggest, then extraordinary times require bold solutions. There is an argument for saying that the Prime Minister should invite David Cameron and Nick Clegg to Downing Street and tell them the time has come for all good men to come to the aid of the country. A national government would allow Brown to bring in expertise from across the political spectrum.

'Matchsticks' McCain

The suspension of a campaign is the continuation of politics by other means.

John McCain is back on his 'Country First' campaign slogan, after the highly political, partisan and polls-focused selection of his running mate. And so tonight's candidates' debate remains in doubt, though Obama's analysis that public scrutiny of the would-be Presidents is more important than ever makes sense.

Joe Klein has an incisive analysis on Time's Swampland blog of the Washington talks, particularly on Republican doubts and divisions over a Wall Street bail out, which are a combination of small government ideology and possible political opportunism.

The suspension move fits with McCain's character - both his integrity and his impulsiveness - but it also strongly suggests that he believes he is very much the underdog now that the focus is back on the economy, and so is taking risks that might change the game.

Tonight's debate theme would be on McCain's core territory of security and foreign policy. McCain wants to be Commander-in-Chief. Yet that is only part of the Presidency. And he has been pretty clear about the weakness of his grasp of economic policy.

In this, McCain rather resembles the long-forgotten former British Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, who succeeded Harold Macmillan in 1963. Home was a man of integrity and experience in foreign affairs. But he knew little about domestic policy, and especially not economics, and could never escape his admission that he worked out difficult economic problems with matchsticks

Peter Hennessy reports, in his book The Prime Minister, that Home later told him of how this arose from an Observer interview before he emerged as a surprise candidate for the Premiership.

It was a purely chance remark at lunch because Kenneth Harris said to me "Do you think you could be Prime Minister? And I said, "I really don't think so because I have to do my economics with matchsticks." But it stuck, of course ... Harold Wilson wasn't going to miss something like that [another chuckle]"

The 1964 British election campaign - dominated by young opposition leader Harold Wilson - who had a Kennedyesque appeal at that stage of his career, representing a new generation of socially mobile Brits - dominated the political agenda.

Yet the election was still a knife-edge affair, with Labour squeezing home with a majority of 4.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Ruth Kelly and the 3am news cycle

24 hours on, I have given up on trying to make hear or tail of the competing theories, claims and counter-claims of why the confirmation of Ruth Kelly's announcement of her resignation took place in the small hours of Wednesday morning.

The Fabian staff missed the 3am excitement in the Midland Hotel bar, arriving there a little later on for a very welcome cup of tea having been somewhat reluctantly dragged from the excellent ippr party dancefloor (where Schools Minister Jim Knight perhaps shone most brightly of all).

My first reaction on being told the news by a reporter was that this wasn't surprising - it had been reported as probable in the Sunday newspapers earlier in the month - but that the timing seemed very bad for Gordon Brown, and risked overshadowing the positive reaction to his conference speech. A few hours later, watching the news over breakfast, Kelly's clear insistence that this was a purely family matter seemed a setback for those seeking an end-of-conference 'spectacular' to destablise the Prime Minister. (The BBC's Iain Watson almost having a John Sergeant moment as Kelly came out to make her statement during his live report),

Nobody gains, as far as I can see. But the episode also tells us something about how our political and media culture is changing - and probably not to the credit of either side.

The rise of internet reporting, following on from 24 hours news channels, makes more in-depth reporting and analysis possible, in principle at least. For example, blogs from several political insiders makes the Westminster village more transparent.

But the lines between news, briefings, rumour and gossip have never been more blurred.

So I can see that the reporting of David Miliband's alleged comments about a Heseltine moment, criticised as 'hearsay' by the Foreign Secretary, could be (if solidly verified) defended as legitimate. But something that might once have been a diary item or an aside in a column was the primary news angle around his speech. And the intensity of short-term coverage sees process overshadow substance, and is often combined with a loss of perspective: as, for example, with the sense that the Palin phenomenon had broken everything we know about how much Vice-Presidents affect elections in November.

Over the last fifteen years, the response on the political side has been to fight for every headline and every news cycle. Increased professionalism in handling the media was an understandable, and necessary, response to Labour's traumatic defenestration under Neil Kinnock in the '80s and in the 1992 election. But it was obvious within a couple of years that New Labour's news management techniques, so effective in opposition, were much more problematic in government.

When fighting for every news cycle means 3am briefings, while Cabinet Ministers are asleep, knocking the PM out of the headlines, then it must be time to think again.

Will hope or fear govern the result of US election? Podcast from Fabian fringe

Listen to Democrats' Abroad Bill Barnard on whether the US election will be about hope or fear. Barnard argues that Americans are by nature optimists.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

After Manchester

Gordon Brown gave the speech his party wanted and needed to hear. He is a good man leading a good government, which is proud of much of its record, but not satisfied that it has done enough or should merely defend past achievements. Labour is clear that it has not exhausted its ambitions for change, and so must now try to persuade the country of that too.

The speech was often moving. Its themes unite the party. That was the Gordon Brown that Labour wants Britain to see, fusing his personal mission with his party’s fairness DNA.The leadership question has been postponed and Brown considerably strengthened in his own party, compared to his position just this last weekend.

But none of us in Manchester can know whether or how far the argument will also be heard by the voters. The one regret is that he did not make that speech a year ago, when all of the attention and momentum was his, yet the argument for fairness was muted.

Now, in tougher times his personal and political fightback has begun. The global economic and domestic political crises have together altered the political climate. At a low ebb, the government has become less risk averse and more explicitly social democratic.

One announcement which is perhaps more important than many people realise: Gordon Brown’s commitment to legislate for the goal of ending child poverty offers an important example of entrenching Labour’s legacy, defining its future agenda and testing the Conservative claim to be ‘progressive’ go together.

I write more about this in a piece at Comment is Free.

Arriving soon hot schools meals

Schools Secretary Ed Balls' announcement of a trial programme to bring free school meals to all primary school children in deprived areas will no doubt be welcomed by Sharon Hodgson MP, who argued for the measure in the summer issue of the Fabian Review.
The benefits in terms of attention and performance for children who are eating healthily are well documented.
Teachers in a deprived areas say they see a real improvement in children's behaviour in classes where the kids are eating a decent meal.

'Fairness' is not enough

Gordon Brown was absolutely right to make 'fairness' the central theme of his conference speech. Labour urgently needs to recapture its idealism about social justice. This is the way, first, for those of us in the party to refire our enthusiasm, rebuild our self-confidence and reconnect with core supporters. And, second, it challenges the wider public perception that Labour is exhausted, cynical and so it is 'time for a change'.

But there is a problem with the idea of 'fairness'. Everyone believes in it. Yet they don't all mean the same thing. Channel 4 News did some interviews with floating voters who had watched the speech. One man said that of course he believed in fairness. But fairness meant doing something about the tax burden on 'Middle England'. In particular, it meant abolishing inheritance tax.

So its not enough to talk about fairness. Labour needs to talk about its distinctive understanding of fairness. Of course, Brown did some of this in his speech. He linked fairness to ending child poverty, freer health-care (the move on prescription charges), and so on. But Labour needs to do a lot more of this - and do it in a different way - than it has in the past. Above all, Labour needs to link fairness more explicitly with the 'E word': equality.

Labour should first put the idea of 'equal life chances' centre-stage. It is an affront to human dignity that - to use an image that Tony Blair once used - two children born at the same time in the same hospital ward can end up with such profoundly unequal prospects because of the social class of the parents who take them home. Labour has done a lot of admirable work on this problem since 1997 - Sure Start, progress on reducing child poverty, the Child Trust Fund. The party should boast about what it has done and at the same time launch a public campaign for further, urgently needed measures. It should take a principled stand against suggested tax changes, such the Conservative proposals for more cuts to inheritance tax, which will widen inequality in life-chances - and it should say that this is why it opposes such cuts.

Second, Labour needs to start questioning inequalities in market rewards. Hardly anyone thinks that we should all have the same income. But a lot of inequalities in reward are undeserved. Labour needs to have the confidence to say this. The emerging criticism and review of City bonuses could be a tentative start in this direction. But the argument needs to be pressed far more widely.

Labour's decline from a position of parity with the Conservatives to being 20% or more behind in the polls started almost a year ago when the government caved in to the Conservative assault on inheritance tax. Only if it regains the courage of its convictions, can Labour haul itself back up.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Prescriptions pressure brings progress

Gordon Brown's move on cutting prescription charges on cancer patients was extremely popular in the hall, as Labour members acclaimed the 60th anniversary of the NHS, and is a good example of popular fairness which should resonate in the country too.

That cancer patients have to pay prescription charges shows how out of date the list of exemptions has become.

So this is an important victory for the campaigning of the major health and cancer charities.

And Brown argued that this should be part of a bigger 'fairness' agenda to end prescription charges for all patients with long-term conditions.

And this is not the limit of our commitment to a fair NHS. In the long term, as the NHS generates cash savings in its drugs budget, we will plough them back into abolishing charges for all patients with long-term conditions."

The government may not have (yet) gone quite as far as Tim Horton and I proposed in Fabian Review and Tribune articles last May (reported here), as we submitted for the Labour manifesto process proposals for the phased and gradual abolition of all prescription charges as resources allow.

But this is a major progressive step down that road.

Again, it offers a challenge to the opposition. Cameron says his priority in politics can be summed up in three letters: ‘NHS’. I expect he will concede on this one pretty easily.

And reducing charges gives money back to people – though in a different way from tax cuts.

Testing Cameron on child poverty and inequality

David Cameron’s whole argument is that he shared the ‘progressive ends’ and disagrees about the means.

So Gordon Brown's legislative commitment to end child poverty offers an important strategic challenge. The supposed consensus on the ‘end’ is what the government is asking the Conservatives to sign up for, mirroring the all-party consensus on the climate change bill.

But child poverty might be harder for the right. Whisper it, but this is an income inequality target. Will they want that on the statute book or not? If not, then they should not turn up to the End Child Poverty coalition's 'Keep the Promise' march in Trafalgar Square on October 4th, where the major children's charities will be trying to bring the cause to much greater public attention.

The new pledge answers the challenge set out in the Fabian Review editorial on this issue.

An Autumn fightback must involve popular, progressive policy tests of the warm words of political opponents, above all on finding the means to entrench the commitment to end child poverty as the progressive cause of this generation.

I will publish more later on how it could be done in practice.

Does Dave back Boris' new airport wheeze?

Boris Johnson "loves the idea" of building a major international airport on landfill in the Thames River estuary

Hilary Benn, speaking at a Fabian/RSPB and Greenpeace fringe on Can politicians save the planet and get re-elected? wants to know whether David Cameron is backing him

I am looking forward to getting back to the House of Commons and finding out whether this is official Tory policy or not. I haven’t got a clue and I don't think Boris has got a clue either

News flash: mob misses Hilary

Environmental campaigners indulging in a flash mob protest outside Manchester Town Hall obviously are in need of upping their green political knowledge. Defra Secretary Hilary Benn strolled right through their midst, nonchanchtly, while the protesters massed in their red t-shirts. No-one noticed they had the Environment Secretary among them.

Moose at large: Guardian party exclusive

News has reached us at Next Left of a new take on the obsession with Sarah Palin. A source close to the conference noted that a number of mooses were freed from the Guardian party last night. The moose heads were part of a country house decor, Alaskan style, at the celebrated night out. A number of people were noted smuggling the papier mache mooses out of the zone and freeing them in outer Manchester.

LibDems would accept non-PR compromise, says Lamb

Norman Lamb, LibDem frontbench spokesman on Health, stated publicly last night what most senior LibDems think: that the Alternative Vote would be an electoral reform compromise worth having.

Peter Hain was running late for the event, but he had a good opening line.

I am sorry for being late. But before I came here, I thought I had better go and give a speech on electoral reform.

This generated a hearty cheer from Lamb on the platform, as well as applause and laughter from much (if not all) of the audience.

To which Hain said:

But wait until you hear what it was. I am for the Alternative Vote - and not for proportional representation.

To which Lamb shouted: "We'll take that. We'll take that" from the platform.

This has long been the perfectly sensible position of most of the LibDem frontbench, though they may have difficulties convincing their party that AV is a step in the right direction if the holy grail of STV can not be gained. (Indeed Vince Cable offered a clear hint about that at the Fabian/CentreForum meeting on last year's fringe).

Still, the LibDem position is irrelevant without a Labour move on electoral reform. There is a pretty strong Labour consensus for the Alternative Vote among many of the advocates for PR (such as John Denham), long-standing PR opponents such as Jack Straw, and others like Ed Balls who had seemed somewhat agnostic on the constitutional enthusiasms of both sides of this debate.

Tony Blair failed with his Lab-Lib agenda. Gordon Brown missed a massive opportunity last summer to pursue this reform agenda from a position of strength (when I was among those pushing the argument). Its much harder to do it in the current political climate (even if, ironically AV would not do anything in the short-term for Labour at current levels of unpopularity, though might well help the reluctant LibDems to defend against the Tories).

But the deal that could be done is pretty clear. And it is one that all of those who muse about a "progressive consensus" and a "progressive century" may regret passing on, for a very long time to come.

(Though this will certainly cheer up Emily Thornberry of Islington, who successfully disrupted any of this Lib-Lab love-in nonsense with some tribal LibDem-bashing from the floor. She was kind enough to offer me a not totally sincere apology later on at the Guardian party, but succeeded in setting a partisan tone for the floor debate).

Ming's Paddytastic insomnia cure

Ming Campbell was a hit on the Labour fringe with several witty and warm reflections on being a long-time advocate of progressive cooperation at the Fabian/CentreForum event, ranging from drinking whisky with a "rather tribal" John Smith at two o'clock in the morning ("Why are you an [effing] Liberal? You should be Labour? Both of your parents were Labour?") and spoke warmly of his personal relationship with Robin Cook and the significant progressive gains made on foreign policy before Charles Kennedy pulled the plug on cooperation.

There is a sense in which we are cooperation with Labour MPs: we cooperate with the rebels in the House of Commons

His best line ...

If any of you suffer from insomnia, read Paddy Ashdown’s diaries and it is all described in detail.

If that agenda on constitutional cooperation have been carried through, then the prospects would have been very considerably advanced.

James Purnell on the Lab-Lib tragedy of 1997

A full house in Manchester Town Hall (as there was in Bournemouth) for the second Fabian/CentreForum fringe on the question 'Labour and the Liberal Democrats: Allies or enemies?'. There is a strong appetite for keeping this debate alive, though the Labour fringe event was a rather more partisan discussion than that at the LibDem conference.

James Purnell argued that

The question of whether the LibDems are our allies or are the enemy. That is not a question for us to resolve – that is a question for the LibDems to resolve through their actions.

But he had a strange variation on a Lib-Lab theme of the missed opportunity of what he called the tragedy of 1997.

It was not the (highly plausible) idea that Tony Blair should have consummated his long courtship with Paddy Ashdown.

Instead, Purnell's complaint was that the LibDems had missed a historic opportunity to move to the centre-right and destroy the Conservatives.

British politics could have been absolutely transformed in 1997 had the LibDems gone to the centre-right, we could have had a fundamental realignment in British politics, forcing the Conservatives to be the extreme-right party that they could have become. That chance was missed in 1997.

Yet Purnell criticised Charles Kennedy "fishing for votes to the left of Labour" yet also Nick Clegg's leaning rightwards, which he said was "the tragedy of 2008": "the courageous thing to have done would have been to argue for those progressive positions and to have made an argument for it", Purnell said, arguing that the LibDems now risked vacating the progressive space.

Purnell's analysis of what the LibDems should have done in 1997 was rejected by both Norman Lamb and Ming Campbell.

Health spokesman Norman Lamb said:

What we have in common is an absolute commitment to the pursuit of social justice. James’ suggestion that we should have in 1997 have positioned ourselves on the centre-right of politics would have been absolutely cynical positioning. I regard myself as a progressive. When you get up in the morning, it is about challenging the entrenched disadvantaged in our society.

And Sir Ming Campbell said:

I am a politician of the centre-left. I always have been. I always will be. The idea that we should have moved our tents to the centre-right to challenge the Conservatives is not one I think I would have been physically, emotionally or intellectually capable of doing

Monday, 22 September 2008

Welfare reform and Labour values

There is a lot of talk at this Labour party conference - and rightly so - about the need for Labour to reassert its core values. James Purnell appealed to these same values at conference in making the case for the government's welfare reforms. Was he right to do so? What do Labour values imply?

Central to Labour's welfare reform is the idea of 'conditionality': making benefits conditional on efforts to find a job or make oneself more employable. Many argue that this is inherently 'unLabour'. They are wrong. Purnell is right to stress the emphasis which early Labour thinkers placed on welfare as a support to enable people to work for a living, not as a replacement for work. The Labour ethic was that everyone ought to 'do their bit' for the community rather than living off the labour of others.

But Purnell's history is too selective. Early Labour thinkers, such as R.H. Tawney, certainly criticised the separation of income from work. But the main target of their criticism was not the welfare state. It was capitalism - or, at least, specific forms of private property. Tawney's great book, The Acquisitive Society, is a critique of landlords who enjoy big gains in land values without lifting a finger, those able to live off inherited wealth, and so on. It is not an essay about the unemployed poor.

What Tawney saw was the inconsistency and unfairness of applying the work principle to the asset poor and not to the asset rich.

New Labour's conception of social justice, however, has never taken this point on board. Indeed, while tightening benefit conditionality on the asset poor, the Labour government has of late lowered the tax burden on capital gains and inherited wealth. It has thereby made it harder for the poor to consume without working and easier for the relatively affluent to do so.

Of course, it is politically difficult to tax property fairly. But that is, surely, what social democrats exist to do. To get tough on the poor while leaving the more affluent to enjoy (more) unearned wealth implies a very peculiar conception of rights and responsibilities: 'Rights for the Property-Holders, Responsibilities for the Poor!'

I do not know whose values this slogan sums up, but they cannot be Labour's.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Ed Balls: era of light touch regulation is over

Ed Balls was quite clear on the need for social democratic regulation of markets.

Asked whether the week's events had seen a "paradigm shift" he said.

For those people who think that the global market can be run without regulation, or with self regulation, or with light touch regulation have been entirely routed; have been entirely disproved.

This was certainly intended as an attack on George Osborne and the Conservatives who, according to Balls, "to nudge markets rather to regulate them: there is a fundamentally different view between the parties".

But doesn't this remain an issue within government too? Remember Business Secretary John Hutton saying (in a Fabian speech no less, though one which The Guardian felt would raise eyebrows, as indeed it did) that we had come to the end of the road of the era of regulation.

And Balls was also perfectly clear that he was very far from 'intensely relaxed" about those who got filthy rich: "I don't want to live in a society that has a growing gap between rich and poor" ... and that "we need a fair tax system and fair rewards", though, unlike Jon Cruddas, he refused to talk tax rates, being unable to do so without treading on Treasury toes.

Podcasts of David Miliband's Fabian fringe

Missed the Foreign Secretary's Fabian speech? See our filmed podcast of David Miliband's speech at the Fabian fringe, by clicking here and here.

Cruddas: It could still be game on

MP Jon Cruddas has not written off Labour winning the next election. He thinks the party has grown up in the last few weeks, he said at a Fabian fringe, The Election Starts Here.

He said: "I can't accept it's inevitable that we lose." "It's a more mature party than it has been before....if we go and confront the electorate with a radical programme things could change."

Nothing was set in stone, and then it could be "Game on, if we get our act together over the next few months."

At the debate Secretary of State Ed Balls said: " We could go unite and fight. In 1986 Margaret Thatcher was 20% behind in the polls and came back and won."

Cruddas added: This is tough stuff and anyone who assumes that there some sort of easy path out of this and it is based around an individual is delusional."

The Dagenham MP said that was needed was to create "a vision of the good society we want to create and take it to the Tories. I see evidence this week that we do."

In reaction to polls showing Labour behind in the polls, Balls said: "The next year it can be turned around. We have to show the backbone and resilence to keep fighting."

Lammy: public service reform is not enough

Skills minister David Lammy told a crowded Town Hall room in Manchester that if Labour was "just the party of public service reform only we will not win the next election".
But it must offer the public hope of change, he said at the Lessons from America: Can Hope Win? Fabian fringe.
Pollster Peter Kellner argued that he did not want "politicians who listen to the public, he wanted politicians who led the public".
He said: "I don't think Gordon's personality is the core of the problem of the moment...nor do I think a major change would do much good".
Newsweek writer Stryker McGuire thought: "Some people are better equipped to move a movement than others."

The Lammy leadership checklist

A fascinating contribution just now from David Lammy as the 'Can hope win?' discussion has got into how political vision and values and personality interact.

Peter Kellner was making a cogent case that Labour's political difficulties go much deeper than the personality of the leader.

I don’t think Gordon Brown’s personality is at the core of Labour’s problem. I think it goes much deeper than that. Could Gordon do more to speak human? Yes, I’m sure he could. But I am not sure it is a massive contribution to Labour’s problems, nor would a massive change make much difference.

Lammy was warm and generous about Gordon Brown, and argued against the idea of their being a template for political leadership. But he also set out a fascinating checklist for effective political leadership;

I believe we will see Gordon Brown set out his vision and values powerfully to the conference on Tuesday. And I believe that politics accommodates different kinds of characters in political leadership.

I think there are six things you need to be effective in political leadership

To be a public communicator

To be able to express a strong vision

To have political skill

To have organisational capacity, to get people to do things for you.

To have a cognitive intelligence

To have an emotional intelligence

And what we see is that both of the US candidates have those things in abundance.

Labour's next generation for Obama

There is likely to be one Labour gain at the next General Election, even if the sheer gloom of The Observer marginal poll turns out to be true. And that will be Rushanara Al, taking on whatever the imploding Respect left turn into in Bethnal Green and Bow.

And she received an early if not entirely serious tip for the Premiership from Peter Kellner just now, responding to David Lammy's observation that the US election would see one historic first:

When in 2020 Gordon Brown retires after his third successive victory as Prime Minister to the cheers of generation, I would like to see a Labour leadership contest between David Lammy and Rushanara Ali to be Labour leader and Prime Minister, though I don’t know who I would support

I certainly couldn't get David Miliband to move an inch from absolute neutrality on the US campaign in chairing his Fabian speech this lunchtime.

Labour's next generation is able to be much more open about why an Obama victory matters. This is how Rushanara Ali put the case just now.

This election matters more to the rest of the world than ever before

Obama reminds us of an America that has an assertive liberal message – a message of generosity not just in domestic terms but to the rest of the world. He is a reminder of an America that can have the potential to provide lessons for the rest of the world, in a way that we have not seen recently, and that can act again as a peacemaker for the rest of the world in a way that it once did

Bush has left a really destructive message for the rest of the world. That is why Barack Obama’s message is so important, and why we as Brits are so engaged in what is happening in America right now and in the Democratic Party

To quote Bill Clinton, more than ever America needs to act more than ever before through the power of example and not through the example of its power – and that is the choice between the Democrats and the Republicans. It is a battle between hope and fear. That is the difference in America.

Ali went on to say that the Republicans have built a message based on fear – including a fear of government; fear of change and "even a fear of hope".

'Sarah Palin bubble has burst'

‘The Sarah Palin bubble has burst – and it was burst by the economics of the last few days’, Stryker McGuire, London Bureau Chief of Newsweek told the Fabian fringe debate on Can Hope Win? Lessons from America in his analysis of the US campaign.

"In the last week, McCain stumbled rather badly on the economy, while Obama played the steady if quite cautious statesman", he said.

Obama was now back ahead not just in the polls and in the projected electoral college but also in the political futures and political insiders markets. "Both Republican and Democrat insiders believe that, on November 4th, Obama will win", he said.

But McGuire was sceptical of the ability to translate many lessons from the US to Britain.

‘Labour and the Conservatives are ideologically miles away from the US parties. The Conservatives are to the left of the Democratic Party of the United States on many matters. If you take the question of universal healthcare, the plans in the US look nothing like the NHS which the Conservative Party has agreed to safeguard’

‘In terms of tactics and strategy, British politicians wander across the Atlantic looking for clues, which is perfectly understandable when the business of politics is so huge in the United States. I think more money was spent on the security for the Democratic Convention than in the whole of a British election campaign. And a huge amount of that is spent on television and radio campaigning which is not a lesson that is transferable'

‘In political terms, America and Britain share the same language but they don’t share much else', he said.

David Lammy: not 'what works' but 'what matters'

David Lammy speaking on Can Hope Win? Lessons from America was careful to declare his formal, governmental neutrality in the US Presidential election in which his friend Barack Obama is the Democratic candidate.

But he argues that the lessons from both the US parties should change the content of Labour politics, as well as changing the way parties campaign.

New Labour and the New Democrats were concepts that were inter-related. If at the heart of New Labour was the adage that what works is what matters, it is no longer about what works; it is about what matters.

Whatever you think of the positions Sarah Palin takes [on abortion, etc], she is absolutely a ‘what matters’ candidate.

There are subjects in the public realm that come onto the table. We have to be talking about the nature of fatherhood, about the nature of childhood, about masculinity. We have to talk about the market not just about what’s happened to our economy, but because we want to protect children from advertising, because we want to regulate the market because climate change.

Lammy argued too that Labour's renewal depends on connecting to new movements who could provide 'footsoldiers' for progressive change.

The other thing that comes out of the States is the idea of movement. At our best, we are a movement: in this country, we are born from the trade union movement; and our movement gave us the welfare state, the NHS and schools. Ours was a movement movement that took a position on gender, race and sexuality, that tapped into movements out there and brought them in

“The Obama campaign has galvanised a base that has its starting point in student campuses, has fired up the afro-American community, has links to the anti-war movement, For the Republicans, the selection of Sarah Palin has fired up a movememtn that has a view – that has footsoldiers keen to campaign for McCain and Sarah Palin. They have rifle clubs – and take a position on that

So we have learned something about a core electorate that wants to join up to a political party, that wants to donate funds, that wants to organise for a candidate. That is very different to what has existed in this country. We as a party have to be about movement: we have to be about progressive ties. We can draw something from that birth of footsoldiers on the centre-left"

Derek Draper versus LabourHome

The 'what can Labour learn from blogging' fringe - held by the Fabians, LiberalConspiracy and LabourHome - has descended into a (somewhat sweary) spat between Derek Draper and LabourHome, in the wake of the Independent front-page splash about LabourHome's not exactly scientific poll on the leadership.

Draper said:

If you want to wake up on March 2010 and say you were the star blogger of the election, and you got onto Radio Five Live twice, but the price you pay for that is costing Labour votes and David Cameron in Downing Street, then you can fuck off out of the Labour Party and run your own independent blog somewhere. But the point then is that nobody will be interested.

But Tom Harris, the blogging Minister speaking from the floor, defended the LabourHome website as a grassroots forum, arguing that Ministers and MPs should be seen to engage more, and that it was valuable to have a portal which most people used:

I agree with the need for discipline – though I haven’t shown it in every post. I have been mostly pretty much on-message because I am a government Minister. But I don’t think it helps to ask the grassroots, when they blog, to show the same level of discipline that government Ministers do.


The leadership debate didn’t start because LabourHome did a poll. The leadership question was out there, and so LabourHome did a poll because they wanted to be part of it. They can’t be blamed for the condition of the government and the Labour party

If you look at ConservativeHome, there is one single portal that is used by the Shadow Cabinet and MPs, and we need to think about whether we should be using LabourHome in the same way. If that means it continues with its Westminster focus, that is not a bad thing in my view.

I felt that Draper's willingness to move away from the 'command and control' model was far too limited and risk-averse, largely because of a sense that web engagement had more risk than reward.

The rest of politics will go on – and the blogosphere will slightly change the mood of politics; how its covered; the rhthym of it; but in quite a background way. But then something will propel something from the blogosphere on to the front pages. There’s the danger.

Derek Draper also had an entertaining dismissal of much of the praise for the Obama campaign, but perhaps stretched the point a little too far.

"Lets keep this in perspective. The people who have been given tools in the Obama campaign are being allowed to email their friends to say ‘we need change’. Lets be a little bit realistic. American politics is not about allowing people to engage with their leaders on policy or ideology. Its about allowing people to be part of a big fucking fan club – and the internet has made that easier. But the idea that they are being listened to or helping to direct the strategy is ridiculous".

UPDATE (4.50pm)

In his final contribution, Derek has nuanced his position a fair amount which creates rather more common ground.

"I think this will be about protecting the brand that is the Labour Party but having a whole lot of other things around that are not part of the Labour Party, but can have various degrees of discipline.

A kind of hierarchy: Gordon on the number ten website is going to be pretty on-message but perhaps then Ministers like Tom Harris might tell it a bit differently and make quite a spiky point, and then beyond that you will have lots of other much more independent spaces like LabourHome and LiberalConspiracy and there should be more of them and I think there will be. The model of the Fabian Society over one hundred years [as an independent but affiliated space] is quite a good analogy.

It is about saying to the Labour hierarchy that, in my view, you will lose control. But what you get in return are increased respect; increased credibility and increased engagement”.

A change in discourse

Sarfraz Manzoor has an incisive commentary on Comment is Free on the white working-class fringe yesterday. His point that immigration was brought up substantively quite late in the fringe (though several contributors had mentioned it) prompted a good joke from John Denham:

'Coming to conference, twenty years ago, the complaint from the floor was 'Chair, the comrade hasn't mentioned socialism. Now, its 'Chair, the comrade hasn't mentioned immigration'. There is something of a change in our discourse and our politics there'.

Sunny Hundal also writes about his contribution to the fringe at Liberal Conspiracy.

Super Sunday on the fringe

If Sky Sports will be hyping up Europe’s (fading) Ryder Cup chances and a football match between Chelsea and Manchester United, the must-see political match-ups on the Manchester fringe have no reason to fear the competitition.

The Fabian highlights ...

David Miliband will give a Fabian lecture: ‘Can Foreign Policy be a Labour Strength?’ The Foreign Secretary, who has seven or eight minutes in the main conference hall tomorrow, will get to make a fuller argument on the fringe. I haven’t seen what he is going to say, but we are expecting a lot of interest in foreign policy today. (For time and venue, see official fringe guide – not announced here for security reasons - but delegates should turn up early and media need to register).

At 6pm (Town Hall), our theme is ‘Can Hope Win? Lessons from America’ with David Lammy, friend of Barack Obama and yet officially ‘neutral’ in the whole campaign thing; Bill Bernard of Democrats Abroad (officially not neutral), Stryker McGuire of Newsweek, Peter Kellner of YouGov and Rushanara Ali.

At 7.30pm (Town Hall), Gaby Hinsliff chairs a Fabian/Observer Question Time with Ed Balls, Jon Cruddas, Fraser Nelson of the Spectator, Zoe Williams of The Guardan and myself. We called it ‘the election starts here’. We meant the General Election at the time.

Then there’s the Young Fabian party (7.30pm – 11pm; One Central Street, details) and our Fabian party on top of that.

Elsewhere, there’s a chance to find out how many uber-modernisers you can you fit into a marquee. The conference mood among delegates is very largely loyalist but tonight’s Progress Rally (Banqueting Room, Manchester Town Hall) will be a focal point for most of those loudly whispering (to anybody who will listen that) though nothing may happen this week, we should watch out when Parliament returns on October 6th, or after November's by-election, or maybe next Spring instead.

Peter Mandelson and Alan Milburn are among the star attractions at a fringe which will platform many more Cabinet ministers than you could shake a stick at, including John Hutton, Hazel Blears, David Miliband, James Purnell, Andy Burnham

Ed Miliband and John Denham provide a little loyal-to-the-leadership cover: they will be in a very small minority of those who were at the Compass Rally (theme: the end of capitalism - and a plague on the plotters) last night and will be at Progress event (even newer, ever bolder New Labour forever) tonight.

That sounds like the makings of a unity ticket to me.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Hazel Blears 'attack' on Sarah Palin

There has been a fair amount of interest in Hazel Blears' relatively brief aside about Sarah Palin during the Fabian fringe this lunchtime.

Andrew Sparrow of The Guardian reported this on the Guardian politics blog earlier:

"Her politics are horrendous, but she's struck a chord with people - 'I'm a maverick, I'm not part of those powerful people' - and people identified with that."

The point was rather less about the US election and part of a broader argument about the nature of politics.

But I think the dangers of Labour figures commenting on what is the obvious and natural preference of every Labour MP are overstated. Downing Street went to fairly absurd lengths to observe 'protocol parity' during the candidate's visits. But the views of Harriet Harman and Hazel Blears on the Palin agenda are both perfectly obvious, given their political views, and in no way likely to affect anything whatsoever in UK relations with any US administration.

And we will be looking for the Lessons from America in our 6pm fringe at Manchester Town Hall on Sunday night.

IDS finds common ground with Labour audience and Polly Toynbee

"You think it is tough for me to come here – you wait until I go to my conference next week", former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith told the Fabian fringe audience as he spoke on 'Can Middle England care about equality?' alongside Martin Narey of the End Child Poverty coalition, Polly Toynbee, Liam Byrne and Dianne Hayter of the Webb Memorial Trust.

And IDS seemed to have given some thought to how to find some common ground with his audience.

First, in his scepticism about right-wing newspapers and his calls for politicians to not try to persuade the press first.

“The answer to the question ‘Can Middle England care about inequality?’ is: I don’t know. If by Middle England, we mean the Mail and the Sun, I think the answer is absolutely not. If by Middle England, we mean the places where people live, then I think perhaps we can reach out to those communities without going through the filter of somebody else, and waiting for somebody else to interpret our words"

Secondly, in trying to find common ground on social housing and fears about its residualisation, a common argument on the left, and the case for mixed communities.

As this is the Labour conference, you will say you sold the Council Houses [laughter, applause]. The first problem was in selling them and not investing to buy the conferences back. But the second problem was in the narrowing of who qualifies to get a council house ... So the answer of why middle England doesn't care about inequality is that they don’t really see it. It is taken away from them. It is ring-fenced. You don’t live with it – you live alongside people who have roughly the same income as you”

Thirdly, in becoming a champion of the 'early years' agenda. IDS said he felt a cross-party agreement on increasing spending across the next two decades of politics.

“We have looked at poverty as how much more money can you spend on this. I am not doubting that money is absolutely central to this. But the question is where do you spend it”

“Across both parties, we seem to have no problem spending lots of money banging people up. But if we could spend that on children aged 0 – 3, if we could spend that early enough, then we could change these people's lives and that of their children.

But this is something that will take 15 to 20 years: we should refocus our money on the earliest years, but it can not be done if we change our minds every four years and cut the budgets because Chancellors can not see it delivering a return quickly enough. So I propose that this area should be agreed earlier in the manifestos – and not subject to short-term cutting

This left-leaning argument slightly disarmed Polly Toynbee of The Guardian:

“Its very good to hear such resounding support for SureStart” (applause). It has been one of the great landmarks of the Labour era. It really is the absolute hope of the future and if you can persuade your party to keep it, and keep investing in it, and if you can persuade Local Conservative Councils to keep investing in it, and if you can persuade them to invest in social housing as there is often a great of reluctance”

“So I will resist the temptation to make partisan remarks of is Britain broken, and who broke it, and was it something to do with the 1980s, as it sounds as though you now understand the need to invest in children and the earliest years”

But IDS won agreement from Toynbee with a critique of whether SureStart was focused enough on its original goals:

"The one thing is that we both talk about the origin of SureStart and what it set out to do. Sure Start set out with the right idea. The first purpose was about early intervention, working with parents and children. The problem is that it has become too patchy, and almost all about childcare in some areas, and frankly not childcare for the people it was initially intended for>

Toynbee agreed: ‘If you talk about real help, it is professional support and it is expensive. It has to be more than an aspiration, it has to be a real commitment"

IDS suggested he might have a tougher time dealing with scepticism and selfishness on the Tory fringe (where he will speak to a Fabian/Centre for Social Justice fringe next week).

The way you might persuade Middle England about all of this. If you live in Middle England, you are dominated by a huge amount of self-interest. There is nothing nasty about self-interest; that is the natural aspiration to do better for yourself and your children.

You think it is tough for me to come here – you wait until I go to my conference next week. They will say: why should I give a damn. We worked hard. Why should I spend more money on this? Its their problem, not ours – and if they can’t bring up their children, put them in care or something”

IDS said the only answer to this argument was to appeal to self-interest: "we spend billions in the money spent in the care system – and yet their outcomes are even worse than if we left them with the most dysfunctional parents you could possibly have. Yet we are paying for that: you have to make sure people have got their heads around that".

Liam Byrne: fairness must address 'have yachts' gap

A couple of fascinating snippets from Labour rising star Liam Byrne, usually thought of as one of the next generation's Blairite voices, speaking on Can Middle England Care About Equality? at the Fabian fringe event with End Child Poverty, Barnado's and the Webb Memorial Trust.

Firstly, Byrne's description of the last decade.

“This was the week when we really saw the risks and rewards of globalisation: the bull run of the Clinton/Blair years”

Secondly, his sense that the market for social democratic arguments about fairness is expanding:

“Many people think that this is becoming a world that is divided between the haves, the have nots and the have yachts. People see in the newspapers that people can earn $30 million for crashing a bank. And they can’t see why that is fair. And they are right: it is not fair".

But the cynicism that will come when politicians make that argument will be about delivery. And that is why we have to go local. Is this going to be a tale of two communities? We need to renew an attack on poverty by changing Britain’s poorest communities – to ensure that no community is left behind"

But Byrne acknowledged that Labour has not found the élan to make the argument for 'national unity' that could appeal across society:

One of the ways in which we marshall the political will is as part of a contest with political opponents. This is where you see in great big capital letters the fallacy that you can solve these problems by rolling forward society, the code for rolling back the state. If you look at the record, we are not short in investment in renewing civic investment, but we have not quite put that story together with the sort of political élan that we could. This is not something that just appeals to core constituencies. This is a story about national unity that can appeal to Middle England”

The inspirational Mr Miliband (Ed)

Ed Miliband's punchy pitch - "It’s time to take back our language .... It’s time to rediscover our idealism" went down very well in the conference hall as he rejected the idea of Tory men pursuing Labour measures.

And there wasn't much doubt about what the vision thing is - "a country more open than it is now, fairer than it is now, and more equal than it is now" ... "we have so much more to do to live up to our ideal of equal life chances for all".

The language of equal life chances (for equality, as well as fairness) is music to our ears here at the Fabians. It suggests that, if you try hard enough, the message can get through.

The financial crisis is giving Labour's younger generation of social democrats a growing confidence in rebutting the David Cameron and Nick Clegg arguments about "state failure". Miliband praised charities but rejected the idea that they could solve social problems without government as an approach which had failed in the 19th century.

And the stress on responsibility at all levels of our society suggests we may hear more about rights and responsibilities at the top - and not just at the bottom.

Let's hear it for the anti - anti-politics..

The popularity of Sarah Palin showed the animosity towards the political establishment in the US, and that same reaction was also present in the UK, said Secretary of State Hazel Blears at a Fabian fringe on the working class vote in Manchester.

"There's a huge amount of anti politics around."

The Sarah Palin effect shows that the public like a maverick they like people who are not part of the "in crowd", says Hazel.

Is that spirit going to show its face in Manchester? Without doubt.

That reflection on the US presidential election saga continued when one delegate yelled out: "if you put lipstick on a low paid job, it's still a low paid job."

Good point.

Cruddas: call for middle-class tax cut

Jon Cruddas speaking at the Fabian fringe debate 'Can we give the white working-class what they want?' argued that a new 'fairness' approach to taxation should mean a higher rate on top earners but also cutting taxes for middle-class earners, suggesting that this might done by moving the upper rate tax bands further up the income scale.

I think there is a big case for the windfall tax on the energy companies.

There is a big case for a middle-class tax cut too – to remove some of the people who have tripped over into the higher rate tax bands, such as teachers who can now be paying the same rate of tax as the big bankers, We could deal with that, and that would work across our electoral coalition too.

And some of the extraordinarily wealthy should take the strain, because the whole way we calibrate the tax system isn’t right.

And that is a coming debate.

Conference? I haven't been yet!

So it begins. On the train to Manchester, I overheard a journalist asking a Labour member, "Were you inspired by the Conference or disillusioned?". She quite reasonably replied, "I haven't been yet!". Very sensible. With Labour trailing the Tories by 28%, the clever person makes no predictions about what will happen over the next few days. Here are my two.

There won't be a coup. In fact, talks of plots and beheadings will be put off until after Glenrothes. The plotters (can people plot without consulting each other?) are very clear about who they are against. They are less clear about who they are for, which lessens their appeal.

The Economist suggests that Labour is failing because it has lost discipline and intellectual confidence. But is discipline returning (for some, at least)? This week's Cabinet backing for Brown contrasts with the lack of mention of the PM in David Miliband's infamous Guardian article. And will the positive reaction to this week's US government intervention restore a faith in the state's power to regulate the economy? Maybe. Are we pulling back from the edge? Can we prove the Economist wrong?

Prediction two - Brown's speech will be much bolder than most expect. There will be no apologies for past mistakes, but neither will he play it conservative and safe. It will be more 'jobs for workers and Britishness' than 'jobs for British workers'. This doesn't come naturally to the PM - it's a sign of desparation. However, without such a bold intervention, the despair will only deepen.

Over-optimistic? Maybe. Will conference leave us inspired or disillusioned? Well, things can only get better.....

Barber: Billionaires in UK pay only 0.1% in tax

TUC General Secretary General Secretary Brendan Barber told the Fabian fringe debate on 'can we give the white working-class what they want?' that any attempt to fragment working communities along racial lines needed to be resisted.

The real issue is the inequalities that still disfigure our society where too many people at the bottom of our labour market are struggling to get a fair deal.

And Barber said that the conference theme of fairness required action on tax avoidance by the super rich:

There are 54 billionaries in the UK. Research shows that they pay tax at an effective rate of one-tenth of one per cent. The loopholes that can be exploited by the super rich require greater attention so there is greater fairness in our tax system. We have seen in the financial system how worshipping at the altar of deregulation has brought us to the edge of a crisis. In the labour market, worshipping at the altar of deregulation will take us the same way.

Does aspiration speak to working-class voters?

Labour's focus on ambition did not speak to the lived experience of working-class voters, Labour MP Jon Trickett told the Fabian fringe,

But Hazel Blears insisted that it was the only basis on which Labour could forge a broad enough electoral coalition to govern.

The political outlook of the white working-class can be summed up in one word: ambition. It is not an exclusively working-class or white attribute. But they are driven people and they want to get on.

They want their kids to do better than they did: they want their children to go on to university. Most working-class people I know do not want to be constrained within a narrow environment


The dockers and miners who formed the Labour Party did it not through altruism but about ambition for a better life: building a platform by which working-class people could make progress and get some of those things which the better-off could take for granted. That was what the NHS and the Open University were about.


We have never won elections just based on the working-class. We didn’t win in 1945 or 1964 or 1997 on that narrow class basis. We had a coalition. We need the working-class but we need that aspirational middle-class vote and that broad coalition to be in power, to do something for the working-class people who depend on a Labour government”

Jon Trickett countered that Labour did not have a language that spoke to many on working-class communities, because extensive research into what swing voters wanted was never replicated with unskilled voters:

There is a cultural and linguistic gap between our government and that social group: there is a major problem of communication. We have done loads of work with the C1s and C2s and barely any work at all with the Ds and Es.

Any party which aspires to a majority in this country must reach out to all social groups. That is fully understood. But what happened in power is that the coalition which was the genius of Tony Blair began to fall apart. If you don’t look at the seats, but the votes cast, then the number of people voting for us dramatically fell by at least 4 million votes. This is not purely an issue of recovering the social groups D and E – but the movement within those groups has been larger than among other groups, and the propensity to abstain is larger than in other groups.

The messages being sent failed to understand people's anxieties about the pace of change:

There are 3.2 million people in social group D. The Leech report says that within 12 years, there will only be need for 600,000 such people: the unskilled working class. For those people, many of whom are struggling to survive, what the world of work which globalisation offers to them, and which we are in danger of accommodating, is redundancy every 6-8 years and a gradual decline of the social group of which they are part. What does Labour offer in return? Opportunitiy and aspiration, which nobody could disagree with like motherhood and apple pie. For them, it is the end of a way of life. We offer education but many of these people failed at school and don’t want to go back.

John Denham argued that governments could not promise to prevent social change, but that government support was essential to enable people to cope with change:

The Leech report was not saying that we are trying to create a white-collar future. But it was saying that the jobs which you used to get without training or a qualification are changing and disappearing.

People used to say there will always be jobs for those who do not have skills. But now refuse collectors have skills and qualifications.The content of the jobs which were seen as basic jobs are changing massively.

We can’t promise people a world in which there is no change in the number of unskilled jobs, paying well to people with no skills. We haven’t got the power to do that – what we have the power to do is to equip people to get the jobs which will be available.

Denham also challenged Trickett's argument about education:

In the last 5 years, our government has enabled two and a quarter million adults to learn to read and write. So don’t tell me that people who failed at school don’t want to come back. That in itself was worth having a labour governmnt for .