Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Andrew Harrop: "We need to have the average age of people retiring rising with life expectancy"

Andrew Harrop, Head of public policy at Age Concern and Help the Aged, stated that the average age of retirement should rise in step with life expectancy, at the 'Tackling Worklessness in an Ageing Society' Fabian Fringe event.

"We've had rapid growth, but we need to continue growing the over fifty work force at that rapid rate," explained Harrop. "We need to have, over time, the average age of people retiring rising with life expectancy each year."

Angela Eagle MP Minister for Pensions and an Ageing Society said that increasing life expectancies created by industrialised nations should be celebrated, instead of being viewed as a "demographic time bomb":

"When the Beveridge report created pensions, a man could expect to claim his entitlement to a pension for a year before shuffling off the mortal coil, now it's 20 and for women it's greater. We're expecting life expectancy to be going up even more, so this fact should be celebrated, and gets us away from regarding this as a demographic time bomb. We need to change our language on this, so we get away from it being a problem."

Ageing Secretary calls for need to "change cultural assumptions"

Angela Eagle MP, Minister for Pensions and an Ageing society has called for a change in the public perceptions of elderly people while speaking at the 'Tackling Worklessness in an Ageing Society' Fabian Fringe event.

"If you were to examine our general media and general approaches to older people, you'd find an image of them as very frail, shivering in dark somewhere, afraid to be attacked by vicious thugs - that is the image public has of older people. We need to change cultural assumptions."

Eagle explained reformed attitudes to the elderly are essential to dealing with the challenges of ageing in modern society:

"In many societies usually considered less 'advanced' than us, older people are the font of wisdom, wheras in our consumerist society, they're considered a burden and that has to change - the experience of life older people can bring is something we need to celebrate."

Alan Milburn joins PoliticsHome exodus

Next Left can exclusively reveal that former Health Secretary Alan Milburn is among the latest senior political figures to withdraw from the PoliticsHome 'insider' panel, as questions grow about the site's independence and integrity from a wide range of different perspectives.

We understand that he was keen to see his image and name removed from the site at once, as he did not want them used to promote the commercial interests of Conservative deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft.

The site has also lost schools minister Jim Knight and Gisela Stuart MP, the independent-minded Labour MP who has been a thorn in the side of the government over her support for a Lisbon referendum.

Liberal Conspiracy this week revealed that Jean Eaglesham of the Financial Times, Stryker McGuire of Newsweek and Andy McSmith of The Independent were among the journalists to leave the panel.

We have naturally been focused on other issues this week but have had a number of people in touch with us following our reporting of earlier developments.

After late night investigative reporting here in Brighton, we can now add a further name to the media list too - Chris McLaughlin, the editor of Tribune, has also resigned - and can reveal that Progress Chair Stephen Twigg has also decided to resign from the panel. Following the departure of Richard Reeves, the panel has now lost the head of Demos, the Fabians and Compass and the chair of Progress from the centre and centre-left think-tanks, again raising serious questions about its claims to viability.

Finally, we have heard a credible rumour of another senior Liberal Democrat MP's departure: we will try to confirm this definitively when conference ends. It would be interesting to see if PoliticsHome would be prepared to reveal how many LibDem MPs remain on their panel at present.

Chris Mullin: I hadn't realised the Sun was on our side

Next Left asked Labour MP Chris Mullin, who was traduced by the Sun for his efforts to reverse a major miscarriage of justice over the Birmingham Six, to comment on the scale of attention being paid to The Sun's very effective marketing stunt.

He said:

My first reaction was mild amusement. I hadn't realised The Sun was on our side in the first place. And any student of the writings of Mr Trevor Kavanagh over the last 12 years could be forgiven for thinking that it never has been.

My second reaction, watching that rascal George Pascoe Watson on Newsnight last night, was anger. How dare they? Who elected him? By what right does an American (or is Murdoch still an Australian?) billionaire subvert the British democratic process? And are his interests necessarily the same as those of 'Sun' readers?

Of course, to some extent New Labour only has itself to blame for sucking up to him in the first place. I would have pursued a different strategy...

Chris Mullin's diaries revealed that John Major had commissioned research on how foreign ownership could be curbed.

With David Cameron and Andy Coulson's increasingly close links to News International - and Tory deputy chairman Michael Ashcroft seemingly building up his own mini-me-Murdoch empire, I don't think we'll be hearing much about that.

It has been interesting how little critical comment there has been about the acknowledgement that the decision was made by Rupert Murdoch, not the editor.

Guido Fawkes among those to suggest that controversial ex-NOTW editor Andy Coulson may have had an influence on the timing.

As Nick Assinder writes, Murdoch's current obsession with undermining the BBC could mean that the increasingly close Cameron-Murdoch relationship is bad news for the BBC.

Assinder, an ex-BBC, Mail and Express journalist, recently resigned from PoliticsHome over the principle of media integrity.

Cooper backs universal child benefit

“We have to keep a sense of the important things that save money but are also just the right thing to do to support families,” said Yvette Cooper, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. This means keeping universal child benefit and keeping Sure Start. Some welfare should be specifically targetted she said, but not child benefit which importantly legitmises everyone contributing to all children.

We may not see the benefit of current early years' investments, such as Sure Start, for a decade but it will come and it will save other services money as well, she went on.

Cuts are inevitable given the £177 billion deficit but the government remains committed to eliminating child poverty. She insisted this should be done through proper investment in public services which in future would provide more joined up work with schools.

Helping those in low paid work must be Labour's “new crusade" Cooper said- the focus must not simple be getting people into emplyment. Once there, up-skilling and continuing training are important. Tax credits have made a massive difference to many families already and will continue to help lift more out of poverty.

For Tim Montgomerie, Conservative Home, the solution to supporting families was more about funding the voluntary sector than public services. “Every problem is being solved by some organisation somewhere,” he said, “but a lot of the voluntary sector has been repeatedly recycled and is stale.”

He wants to see a restructured and renewed voluntary sector, one that is venture-capital oriented and less rick averse. A decline of church groups has meant less community based support and so there is no one to help past 5pm when public service workers go home.

The Power 2010 moment

Like many people on what I think of as the pluralist and republican wing of the left, I am extremely disappointed by the ideas for political reform set out by Gordon Brown in his speech to the Labour Party conference.

Most of all, I am disappointed by the commitment to hold a referendum on AV after the next election. For me the issue is not simply, or even primarily, that the referendum would be held after the election, but that it would be held on whether or not to change to the Alternative Vote.

Although AV has a large number of supporters at the top of the Labour party, the case for AV as the direction for electoral reform has always been weak.

As I argued in an earlier post, replying to Peter Kellner's case for AV, PR is intrinsically fairer in terms of rewarding voters with seats. AV is not a proportional system; indeed, at some recent elections it would have delivered even more disproportional representation than the current system. If, as Peter suggests, you switch the focus from intrinisic fairness to long-term consequences, then there is research - which Peter seems unaware of - which shows that PR systems deliver better outcomes of the kind the left cares about in the long-run: greater economic equality. And, to anticipate, it is not true that PR necessarily severs the link between constituents and MPs.

Given that the argument for AV over PR is so weak, it is hard not to suppress the thought that the Labour Party leadership prefers AV out of partisan self-interest: it expects there to be more Labour MPs under AV. This is, I should say, barely a criticism of Labour's leadership, for virtually every party looks at electoral reform in terms of its partisan self-interest. That's what parties do.

The implication of this, I think, is that we have to look outside of the conventional party system for the kind of pressure and momentum that will bring change. This is the insight behind the call for a citizens' convention which we heard so much about earlier this year. Brown's disappointing speech only underscores just how important a citizens' convention and related popular campaign for reform is. Earlier this year, Real Change took up the call. It has now passed the baton on to a successor organization, Power 2010.

Far-reaching and fair reform of the political process is not going to be delivered by this Labour government. This is not just a matter of Gordon Brown's alleged circumspection. It is because it is difficult for the leadership of the party (as of any party) to approach the issue in a way that isn't distorted by calculations of partisan advantage.

So for those of us in the Labour party who do want fair-reaching and fair reform, the time has surely come to join and support organizations that are struggling for this outside, and against, the conventional parties. It's time to put our energy behind Power 2010.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

It was never the Sun wot won it for Labour

However hard Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair sought the endorsement of Britain's biggest selling newspaper, it was never "The Sun Wot Won It" for Labour.

The paper's vigorous and personal campaign against the party and Neil Kinnock in 1992 did influence the tone of that low campaign, though the paper later did acknowledge that its famous headline had overclaimed. And I doubt that Labour's inability to persuade the voters that it could govern was primarily about the media attacks on it.

The academics agree - as this John Curtice paper on how much influence papers do and don't have shows. It is not that papers don't have a good deal of influence in framing debates - but this is much magnified by the power which the politicians attribute to them. And the ability to influence voters is often much exaggerated by media discussion too.

As Curtice writes.

There was little evidence that newspapers had much impact on the aggregate outcome of elections. Between 1987-92 and 1992-5 the net movement of voting preferences amongst the whole electorate was very similar to what happened amongst those who did not read a newspaper at all ... when it comes to the outcome of elections, the disposition of the press does not make much difference at all.

1997 was an interesting test case, because the 'Tory press' backing Labour offered an opportunity to study whether papers changing their minds influenced readers to change theirs. But the case for a decisive influence in 1997 was particularly weak.

The Sun had no choice but to back New Labour in 1997. A populist paper has no choice but to back a party if it thinks it is going to win.

And it could not back William Hague when he ran his rather unpopular populism campaign in 2001, even he was often largely running on Sun editorial policy.

So the paper is following the political weather more than making it - though it had a significant policy impact on New Labour because of how much weight was given to the symbolic importance of winning the party and keeping it on board.

Of course, this means that they know that David Cameron is favourite now.

So the Tories will champion their non-electoral milestone. And The Guardian will doubtless report it as a major story too. Newspapers do influence other newspapers, rather a lot.

Getting on to the bandwagon before Cameron has sealed the deal may mean that The Sun will want to extract a price from the New Tories too. But their EU policy is already mad as toast and completely incoherent. Still, freed from the Murdoch embrace, might it be time to look at how some of the detail of David Cameron's policy is happily convenient for the News International empire

But we are the underdogs now. Underdogs need causes to fight for - and sometimes they need enemies too.

The dividing lines in British politics just got clearer.

Neal Lawson: "I feel patronised, I feel angry and I feel frustrated"

Tempers were raised, proclamations made and pledges for renewed campaining were made at a packed and heated Rally for Reform session that followed Gordon Browns annoucement about a referendum on AV this afternoon.

“This is history moving forward and it is an opportunity we have got to take,” John Denham told the Rally for Reform during a heated debate. Brown's annoucement for a referndum on AV in the next term was tribute to those who have been part of the long slog to get reform on the agenda, Denham said.

Many in the audience were sceptical- they have been let down on electoral reform before. There was also anger from Neal Lawson, Compass: "I feel patronised, I feel angry and I feel frustrated. If ever there was an oppotuniry to change our electoral system this was the moment...Brown flunked the test.

The annoucement has moved us from hung party territory to a safe Tory win, Lawson claimed.

Everyone was disappointed and emotions ran high. Panel and audience members were agreed that Brown stopped short of creating representitive politics they want. One man even annouced he was leaving the Labour Party.

Dave Rowntree had a more raational response. "An elected house of lords a great step forward. No one has got everything we wanted, but are we going to campaign against the government? No."

Darling says no to high pay commission

"I'm worried about the bonus culture ..but it is worth reminding banks and ourselves it isn't a case of having a go at banks," said Chancellor Alistair Darling at a Fabian Economics Question Time.

He added: "It is in their interest as much as it is in all of our interests that the system is cleaned up."

It was about getting a "properly regulated, properly supervised" system so that a global credit crisis was not set off ever again, said Darling.

Finance select committee chair John McFall said: "We need good corporate governance. .....the lack of corporate governance means that people have got away with murder."

CBI director-general Richard Lambert argued that the financial sector need to be thinking more deeply about the ethics of their actions. "Ethics is something we need to be thinking about, if business is not going to exercise the judgement that needs to be taken, then they will be regulated. You need a conversation about ethics."

But Darling said explictly that the government was not thinking about a high pay commission.

"It would be extraordinarily difficult for a government to operate something like that."

Gordon Brown's communitarian core

Gordon Brown's speech seemed to me very effective in rallying the Labour party to fight the election like their lives depended on it. I imagine its core themes would resonate with a broader public too (though one can not judge from inside the bubble).

The speech showed how the challenges of presenting a sharper electoral choice and entrenching a Labour policy can be linked. The last 200 days of government ahead of the General Election and certainly going to be busy.

I think the symbolic aspects of this agenda are a good idea. Putting the UN 0.7% target for aid into law is a good way to ask the Conservatives to 'ratify' Labour's enormous achievements in international development. And there was also good electoral sense in the moves on social care, on cancer (with a Jed Bartlett West Wing influence), on prioritising education, on free childcare for 250,000 2 year olds, and commitments to protect and increase the minimum wage and child benefit. There is good electoral segmentation. One experienced campaigner told me "there are a lot of issues here which, with a bit more detail, we can turn into good leaflets to campaign on".

Rather than trying to compete with the snap political responses from journalists, I thought I would highlight a few of the thinkier influences behind the speech.

Gordon Brown is a communitarian, not a liberal. That came through very clearly in a speech focused on the core values of fairness and responsibility, though there were some things - no compulsory ID cards and a manifesto commitment to electoral reform - to appeal to liberals too.

Brown's electoral focus on the "squeezed middle" does show how the Fabian Society's attitudes research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has been carefully picked over in Downing Street, which showed that almost everybody self-identifying as the middle. And there was quite a lot in Brown's speech to appeal to what we identified as the "angry middle" too - both in the challenge to bank excess at the top, giving local councils powers to stop 24 hour drinking, and in the challenge to free-riders in the welfare system too.

But this is not simply electoral. The rights and responsibilities communitarianism are Brown's core political beliefs.

But I spotted a couple of lines which suggested some of Neal Lawson's Compass messages do get through - the argument that finance must be the 'servants, not the masters' of the public, while the importance of 'a good local school no matter where you live' is a refrain often heard in local Labour discussions, influenced by Fiona Millar.

Making the idea of reciprocity central does chime with Labour values: it can be difficult for some on the left, though there is strong support in the party for action on anti-social behaviour.

There is a significant progressive case for earlier family intervention - and for effective strategies to reduce teenage pregnancy. But a big part of the challenge is when to go with the grain of public attitudes and when to challenge them. And the right policy might not be the most eye-catching one. There are significant dangers in balancing ideas of intervention with headline messages which sound tailored strongly to the right.

So I imagine the approach to teenage mothers will be highly controversial - I don't know what the detailed proposals are.

For it cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own.

From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That's better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.

I suspect that the Labour audience clapped the opening line because of the ambiguity introduced by ending on "and be left on her own".

But I fear that this could well end up unravelling- like promises to deport all foreign criminals or other eye-catching initiatives from both Brown and Blair. It does throw up images of the Victorian workhouse or of single mothers being packed off to nunneries.

But if that causes a row, it must be one that the Prime Minister wanted to pick.

If the Tories haven't changed, that is bad news for Labour

Anybody - on left or right - attending last night's Tory "meet the Fabians" fringe would have left in little doubt that the party's heart beats firmly on the right, as The Guardian's John Harris notes.

Of course, the Conservatives have changed in their acceptance of a more socially liberal Britain, particularly in trying to diversify the face of the party and be more open to non-white, women and gay candidates, and conceding that they were wrong on issues like section 28. I think this is an important and welcome shift.

But the Conservatives did not - after 1997 - believe that they needed to change their ideas and core beliefs to come back.

After 2005, after three defeats, David Cameron's argument for change was accepted - yet the ambiguity was always about how deep that change would go. In 2006 and 2007, this was an open question, and it was often suggested that arguing that "the Tories haven't changed" would seem churlish and unconvincing.

In the last 12 months, the argument on the right has shifted again. And the David Cameron project, after the recession, no longer challenges his party's Thatcherite instincts on public spending, as it did when he was pledging to stick to Labour spending plans. (And last night we heard Tim Montgomerie argue that the new green Toryism - the highest profile brand decontamination exercise to date - hasn't convinced the party that tackling climate change matters.

There are two problems with this.

Firstly, even if it is rather more convincing to argue that the Tories haven't changed than it might have seemed two years ago, Labour risks this becoming almost 90% of its public argument, and crowding out Labour's positive argument and definition of its own fairness cause and agenda, and argument about what it wants a further term in office for.

Labour does need to define a clear electoral choice between itself and its opponents. But Daniel Finkelstein is convincing on the danger for Labour of talking too much about the Conservatives (and perhaps saying more about itself in the way it does so). Labour can define the Conservatives best by testing it on content, by setting out clear Labour arguments and policies and seeing if modernised Tories accept them or not.

What Labour can do most to define the Conservatives is not to talk about them; it is to be us.

Secondly, note too that it is not only the Labour party which wants to argue that the Tory party hasn't changed. It is also an argument being pushed from the right of the Tory party too - to challenge any sell-out to Fabianista social democracy.

I wrote about Cameron just before he became leader in 2005 for Prospect that the scale of the Cameron project would be an important indicator of New Labour's long-term legacy.

"Long-term political change is embedded when you convert your opponents. If David Cameron makes a serious attempt to modernise the Tories, Labour should welcome it."

In 2007, Cameronism was largely a conservative politics of accomodation, coming to terms with a new Labour settlement, and doing the traditional conservative thing of persuading his party to live with change.

So pointing out that the Tory party remains a largely Thatcherite force is giving Labour a morale-boosting way to rally the troops and take their fight to the country.

But, in the long-run, it also suggests that 12 years of Labour government have done less to shift the centre of political gravity than they should have done.

Why a TV election debate won't be a game-changer

A series of election debates in which Gordon Brown would be the first Prime Minister to debate his rivals for the job during an election campaign is a good idea.

But they are unlikely to prove a "game-changer" in an election campaign. The idea of the "knockout" blow is overstated.

TV leadership debates seem to me almost as likely as game of noughts and crosses to end up as a draw.

But the recent German election was something of an exception. It saw SPD Kanzler-candidate Frank Walter Steinmeir won a points victory over Angela Merkel. That lifted the SPD's flagging morale for the last fortnight - but it had little impact on the general election outcome itself. (The Greens, Free Democrat and Left leaders took part in a separate debate, on the grounds that their leaders were not genuine candidates for Chancellor, an approach to the third party which Britain would not emulate).

Still, the German debate is also a good reminder of why a debate is a good idea. It is a reminder that the common 'Americanisation of British politics' objection to a leadership debate is a highly parochial red herring. After all, TV leaders' debates are a regular fixture in parliamentary democracies - also Portugal (where socialist Jose Socrates was re-elected to government on Sunday, Spain, Ireland, Austria, Australia, Greece, Portugal, New Zealand and others - as well as Presidential systems like France and the United States.

What a debate will achieve is this: it will increase knowledge and understanding of policy and politics.

Millions of people will pay more attention to the election than they would otherwise have done. 14 million viewers watched the German debate. International experience suggests a British debate might well be watched by one in four voters, or possibly more.

So for all of the anticipation, it might well lack drama. And this will be some of the most straight and old-fashioned "talking head TV" any of us have seen since the black and white golden age of AJP Taylor.

The media will complain at the lack of a 'knockout' punch. The think-tankers will note how key issues got ducked. The bloggers will fisk every answer, and the twitters will complain that the format has not been transformed to one which is social media-led. Yet, for all of the traditionalist complaints about 'soundbite' politics as the leaders attempt to come up with a memorable zinger line, it will see the largest numbers of people who watch any part of the election listen to more detailed exchanges on policy issues than they will hear in any other news or broadcast coverage during the campaign.

My prediction would be that Cameron will probably come across, on such an occasion, pretty much as he often comes across: as articulate, fluent, likeable and a little lightweight.

Gordon Brown will probably gain more than Cameron. I think he is likely to come across as serious, intelligent, informed about the issues and committed to making a difference, getting a less mediated hearing than in most political coverage.

Perhaps Nick Clegg would gain more than either of the two party leaders, since it might well be the first time many voters have seen him speak for more than a sentence or two.

Labour does need a "game-changing" intervention - but that depends on how it uses the using the next 200 days in government to make choices which can frame the political argument. Being ready to debate opponents as often as possible before and during the campaign is a good idea - but a less risk averse approach to Labour's election campaign than in 2001 and 2005 depends on much more than this.

What I would predict is that there would quite probably be an upwards bump in trust in the political process. Even the lacklustre and barely visible 2005 campaign saw a short-term increase in interest in politics and trust in the political process rise, according to the authoritative Hansard Society audit of political engagement.

So whatever impact a debate has on the fortunes of the parties, it is likely to be a pro-politics force.

PS: The obstacle to a debate may now be differences between the broadcasters more than the parties. The Times reports that Sky " refuses to join the BBC and ITV in setting up a negotiating team, fearing that the terrestrial broadcasters will fail to give it an equal share". (The two companies share ownership).

I can't see what the "equal share" claim could be. It ought to be a basic democratic principle that all of the events must be broadcast free to air on terrestrial television, though there should be no problem with any satellite broadcaster then also carrying the programme. The report could well lead to the suspicion that Sky's recent campaign over this long-standing issue is more about its profile within the debates than the idea of a leaders' debate itself).

Monday, 28 September 2009

Miliband: Britain as a "hub", rather than a bridge.

"The problem with bridges is that they get walked over," said David Miliband, in discussion at the Fabian Labour conference fringe event “David Miliband in Conversation: How Labour will win a fourth term on foreign policy.”

Rejecting the idea of Britain as a bridge between America and Europe, Miliband said: “Some people want to believe that you can have a special relationship with the US without having a relationship with anyone else. The fact that Britain is at the heart of the EU is good for the special relationship."

“What has come together in a post world war, post cold war world is that power is shifting from west to east. It is shifting from governments and markets to individuals. That poses challenges for foreign policy. For Britain it is not to be a bridge but a hub."

Miliband made it clear that Britain's foreign policy is distinctive: "It is important that people know that we stand up for our own values and laws."

“What is Britain’s role? We can develop a distinctive answer to that. Hillary Clinton talked about smart power. The fact that we are the country with the fastest growing aid budget, but willing to do the difficult things is important. “

Miliband condemns 'dangerous shorthand' of 'torture' accusations

David Miliband offered a sharp attack on the nature of British media and public discussion in accusing the British government of being 'complicit in torture' arguing that this was a 'dangerous shorthand' and a misleading account, not based on the facts, which could lead to "a half truth gets three-quarters of the way around the world before the truth can get its boots on".

Steve Richards of The Independent put a question to the Foreign Secretary, speaking at the Fabian/FEPS fringe event on foreign policy. Richards suggested that politics is always about compromise, especially foreign policy. But maintaining the special relationship with America has depended on an extraordinary level of compromise. "Do you find that difficult - the role of realpolitik in foreign policy?"

Miliband replied:

"What I find difficult is that words like special relationship, words like torture and words like complicity are thrown around in the same sentence.

That is a dangerous shorthand to start using.

Explaining detail can be complicated. But I think it is important to say clearly to a public audience that we have our own laws and our own values - and that when we need to say to the US that they can't do that in our system, we do that".

David Miliband said that he would recommend that people read what the select committee report on intelligence had said about the issue, to understand the detail.

Foreign policy does involve matters of life and death. It is in some ways different for that reason. But because it involves the biggest issues that anyone can face, it is really important that a half truth doesn't get three-quarters of the way around the world before the truth can get its boots on.

"The right position for Britain is to be unambiguously pro-Europe and unambiguously pro-reform," says Miliband.

David Miliband put Britain at the heart of Europe at a Fabian discussion on how Labour will win a fourth term on foreign policy. “Pro-Europe, pro-reform is the right place to be. Our future, not just as an economy but as a foreign policy player is tied up with our membership of the European Union. It is not the sum total of our foreign policy but it is a big part of it.”

Speaking at the Fabian Labour conference fringe event, David Miliband In Conversation: How Labour will win a fourth term on foreign policy, Miliband explained why foreign policy is also important in the upcoming election:
"“I think that the economy is the central feature of political life in industrialised and developing countries. If we are honest about our own insight, it’s no longer possible to separate the foreign from the domestic."

He continued: "The old notions of solidarity and community are as important as ever but have to be applied beyond our borders. We are in a war in Afghanistan, which has cost lives. We are a member of the Security Council facing the biggest challenge to the non-proliferation treaty in generations, with Iran. We are in a leading place in Europe. Our European future is important. for all the issues, like immigration and climate change. The same tests we apply to ourselves and the opposition should be applied to foreign policy as well."

Red Tory attacks LibDems over child trust fund

There has been a dizzying array of reds, yellows, greens and blues debating politics at the Fabian fringe in the last couple of days - and we're finding out quite a lot about the thinking bubbling under in each of the parties as a result.

And here's a small bulletin which should cheer up Stuart White in his long-running campaign to reverse LibDem opposition to the child trust fund.

He has an ally in 'Red Tory' Phillip Blond - who has attacked the LibDem opposition to the policy as bizarre, and says that he would be against the Conservative party also moving to scrap the Child Trust Fund.

New Tory generation not convinced on climate change, says ConHome editor

The Conservative party is not fully convinced that climate change matters, according to Tim Montgomerie, editor of the influential ConservativeHome website, speaking at the Fabian Society's "Who are the real Conservatives?" debate at the Labour party conference in Brighton.

Montgomerie said that his party was enthused by David Cameron's commitment to making environmental issues a high profile Conservative issue - but were not sure that this should extend to the issue of climate change, predicting that this would become a big internal debate over the next few years.

I don't think the parliamentary party or the grassroots are convinced about climate change.

He suggested that rising commodity prices would lead to a major internal debate about whether to return to coal.

"As someone who is very sceptical about what we can do about climate change, I think keeping the lights on will prevail", he said.

Personally, I am somewhat surprised by Montgomerie's analysis.

It would be enormously difficult for Cameron to retain any credibility on green issues if he were to resile from cross-party commitments on climate change. But they do suggest that there might be very little internal political pressure for the commitments that are needed to meet Britain's carbon reduction targets.

Montgomerie is influenced by his own scepticism about the climate change issue - but I fully acknowledge that he understands the Conservative grassroots and what the party feels in its gut much better than I do.

It would be interesting to know whether the ConservativeHome survey's of candidates views provide any evidence about this.

Cameron acclaimed as true Tory (if polls allow)

"Will the real David Cameron please stand up" is the question we hope that our Fabian fringe with Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome, 'Red Tory' Phillip Blond and new Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, along with Tim Horton of the Fabians, with Polly Toynbee as circus master.

Tim Montgomerie is clear that David Cameron is committed to Conservative values - "a lot of nonsense is written about how David Cameron is not a true Conservative".

He is an economic conservative. He has put debt and public spending at the centre of public debate. He is a social conservative, on backing marriage. He is a hawkish conservative, on backing the military interventions. He is a Unionist. He is a Eurosceptic. He is comfortable with all of the great Conservative traditions.

Tim Horton agrees with this. He suggests there is a difference between the right-wing pledges that David Cameron made - leaving the European People's Party in the EU and the inheritance tax cuts (which were kept), and those which faced left - such as on spending, criticising grammar schools, where there was a retreat.

And Fraser Nelson is cheered up by that

There's nothing better than hearing how secretly right-wing the Conservatives are ... it really cheers me up

Though he isn't sure it will be true.

David Cameron has an opportunity to be as radical as Margaret Thatcher. I hope he has the stomach.

But Montgomerie suggested that the public politics of Cameronism are profoundly shaped by years of defeat, which create an obsession with "a desire never to get too far ahead or too far behind it".

Cameron and Osborne have been used to defeat for twenty years. They have been on the back foot. Only recently people were talking about the Conservatives never being in government again. So every Conservative activist will forgive that focus on the electoral challenge. My question, to which I don't know the answer, is whether that is a tactic, and if they are in Downing Street they will become bolder, or whether that obsession with has entered the DNA of the Conservative party.

But Montgomerie suggests that the emerging generation of candidates will shape the Tory agenda "long after the manifesto has been written".

The Tory candidates are not thoroughbred Cameroons. They will guard a lot of the Thatcherite inheritance as well.

And Montgomerie is enjoying himself at Labour conference - says he has only had one argument at the Labour conference - with Peter Hitchens late last night - and he thanked Labour members for their warm welcome.

In Operation Fightback, Labour needs to be frank

In “Operation Fightback”, Labour needs to think big, and they need to be frank. As two more in a long line of nostrums for Labour’s ills (the most recent being Ed Miliband’s “boldness”), these recommendations may already sound a bit wearying - but if now is not the time for recommendations, then when?

One year ago, as the financial crisis really began in earnest, everything politically solid really seemed to melt into air. The scope of political possibility widened, as old economic certainties crumbled. Mainstream media started suddenly started using words like “capitalism” and “crisis”. The sense of possibility was quite palpable, especially as voters in America looked poised to vote Obama into power.

But in the past few weeks, we have seen a vertiginously quick narrowing of the political debate: where once it looked as if fundamental questions about the nature of our economic life seemed up for question, now the political debate is all but exhausted by the rather tawdry debate about whose decisions on spending cuts will be the “toughest”. Now the lexicon of political debate does not take in fundamental terms like “capitalism”, “state”, and so on; it stretches only from “savagery” to “kindness” in cutting spending. The only political possibilities seem to be those of taking up positions on this grim spectrum.

With all this, there has been a concomitant shift of responsibility for our economic woe – from bankers to ministers, from the unregulated free market to the hand of the state.

It’s not just that – as Cameron egregiously charged of Labour – anyone is singularly guilty of “rewriting recent economic history”, but that, collectively, we seem to be suffering a dangerous and strange bout of amnesia about our shared economic history. As Joseph Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi have written, this is a crisis of capitalism whose “roots lie as much in structural causes as in the loose regulatory framework of the financial sector” – structural causes related to the economic settlement that has dominated our politics for 30 years. If you’d just been paying attention for the past three weeks, you could be forgiven for thinking that Gordon Brown had single-handedly pushed the British economy off the precipice and into the abyss.

There is certainly enough intellectual firepower in Labour’s arsenal (e.g. David Blanchflower) to lend credence to the view – should Labour wish to make a stronger case for it – that the gravest challenge we face is not yet public debt, but still the crushing consequences of unemployment, especially on the young – and so that the rush into the cuts debate can be coherently resisted.

Labour should resist this rush, and keep open the bigger, more fundamental debate which the financial crisis made possible.

But Labour should also be frank about its mistakes. Lord Mandelson tells the Economist that the crisis shouldn’t upset the conclusion that New Labour got its approach to the economy and to finance “fundamentally right”, and that the lesson of the crisis is one only of the perils of a lack of oversight, in a structure otherwise sound. In my economic semi-literacy, I can still tell a contradiction when I see one – and there is a stark one here between Mandelson’s evaluation and Stiglitz and Fitoussi’s. Keeping open the more fundamental debate which Labour needs to take to the Tories means ipso facto being frank about the fact that, as Ed Balls admits, New Labour did not always strike the balance between the state and the market quite right.

Of course, Labour should stand the achievements of the last twelve years. But Labour’s fightback must be, in part, a frankness also about that period's shortcomings – only given this frankness can Labour reopen the “big” debate, which does not get drawn into the Conservative/Liberal race to the bottom on cuts, and into the perverse air-brushing of history to which we have been subject over the past few weeks. Of course, this opens up territory which should be the natural home for social democrats and progressives - and it is therefore territory in which the left are well-equipped, and the right ill-equipped, to win the argument.

Charles Clarke attacks the 'crude politics' which prevent coalitions

At the Fabian Fringe event - 'Is this the last chance for a progressive coalition?' - Charles Clarke said 'crude politics' gets in the way of the formation of successful Labour/Lib-Dem alliances. The round-table discussion attempted to discover if there are areas that progressives from different political parties could work together, and the former home secretary said this needed to happen:
It is almost inevitable contests arrive which can be very personal, I understand that and I don't claim that Labour is holier than though. It's a shame if all our time is spent slagging each other off because of the party polticial situation we face at the moment. Our ambition should be to see what we have in common.

Clarke also argued that not only does more need to be done to overcome a factional way of thinking, the economic worries the country is facing makes the situation more pressing.
We need to have a form of discussion about how we would address the issues that are facing the country. At no time in my political life has this been more needed, because of the consequences of the finanacial and economic crisis. I would say that now is the time to be putting forward centre-left proposals.

The problem with Ed's Milibandwagon

Shares in Ed Miliband rose once again inside the Westminster-on-sea bubble following his rallying call to the Labour party yesterday.

Last year, he had to remain loyal to his boss and his brother, as the possibility of a leadership challenge dominated the party conference. That he did so, quietly and with his own reputation enhanced, confirmed the general view that he is among the brightest and the most personable of Labour's emerging generation.

But, with a planet to save, and a party-saving election manifesto to write, he is not keen to encourage the swirl of speculation about his prospects in a future leadership contest sometime after the next General Election.

At last night's Fabian Question Time fringe, I noted that Ed Miliband is now reportedly the favoured candidate of both Derek Simpson and Peter Mandelson, which would make writing the campaign platform rather fun.

But the coalition turned out to be broader still. Tory blogger Iain Dale was keen to point out that he had been an early adopter, tipping Ed M for the top in his GQ profile of the Milibands.

I hope that won't keep Ed awake at night worrying about whether Lord Ashcroft might be next to endorse him (or even purchase the Milibandwagon outright) but he already appears well on course to constructing one of the biggest tent ever constructed in British politics.

Broad coalitions are a very good thing - as James Purnell and Jon Cruddas discussed yesterday at the Fabian fringe.

And there are many good reasons why membership of the Ed Miliband fan club is growing.

He speaks openly about Labour values, and the Copenhagen climate brief may give him additional exposure to ideas about the new 'movement politics'. He has put a good deal of effort of engaging with respect on the manifesto across the broad range of party opinion in a more open and inclusive way than before. That is a very good thing for the manifesto coordinator.

But, however well liked Ed is, he can't be all things to all people forever.

Right now, the hypothetical idea of an Ed Miliband led Labour party seems to be becoming an opportunity for everybody to project their personal idea of what their ideal Labour party might be. That is easy enough as Ed's role as manifesto coordinator mean he has focused on Labour's broad argument and mission, while feeling it would be inappropriate to pitch heavily in to major open policy issues. .

So there is a strange echo the 'waiting for Gordon' period between 2004 and 2007. Apart from a handful of Blairite ultras and Campaign Group lefties who stood out against the broad consensus, everyone else imagined that Gordon Brown would do whatever it is that they wanted.

Well, politics never quite works like that.

Still, there will be plenty of time - some time after a General Election - to hear more from Ed Miliband and the rest of his generation, and there is no point whatsoever in a leadership contest by proxy when there is a General Election to fight.

Once we find out what he (and others) really think, it might be a good sign it may be a good sign if at least a few people in British politics are clear that they have found something to disagree with.

PS: Ed has not stopped doing "people mistake me for David" jokes, But David does now increasingly do "people mistake me for Ed" jokes, as at last night's New Statesman party. Close Miliband-watchers think it is time for a mutual ceasefire.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The German Left Splinters

The German elections are a disaster for the left - Germany now has a five party political system and the three parties of the left: the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left have managed to come off worst. Chancellor Angela Merkel has got her way. She can drop her Social Democrat allies and form a coalition with the free market Liberals (FDP).

Why has the left done so badly during the recession?Above all because it is divided. There are the Greens, a middle class protest party which has survived beyond the 68ers but has still has only managed to poll around 10 per cent and has no vision beyond an end to nuclear power. Then, there is the Left or die Linke, an uneasy combination of old east German communists and left wing social democrats such as Oskar Lafontaine and finally the Social Democrats themselves who sank in this election to a record postwar low with only 23 per cent of the vote.

Despite Angela Merkel's win though, it is not the greatest night for her Christian Democratic Union, which used to be the other dominant party. They have polled lower than in 2005 and have now been forced into an alliance with the FDP. It used to be that the CDU had four or five times as many votes as the FDP who remained clearly the junior party. In this coalition they and their leader Guido Westerwelle are likely to be much more powerful and call a lot more of the shots.

There is no comfort from this election for Gordon Brown, but there is a warning for those fighting over the future of the Labour Party. To splinter is catastrophic.

Balls and Dale slug it out over tax and spend

Tory blogger Iain Dale and Schools Secretary Ed Balls faced off over tax and spending policies at the Fabians' Question Time session.

Dale said he disagreed with George Osborne's plan to ringfence the health service and international development. "I think that's not the right thing to do. No one in this room would say there isn't an ounce of waste in the NHS."

He added: "I don't rule out tax rises...but there has got to be a balance."

And later Balls said he ruled out means testing child benefit, while Dale refused to be drawn.

A passionate debate raged with argument ping ponging between Dale and Balls.

Balls said: "I do think we need to make the tax and spending central (to the general election campaign)." We are resisting calls from the Conservative Party to cut spending now and this year. We are increasing spending precisely to get through the downturn."

Fabian general secretary Sunder Katwala argued that Labour had to stop the focus on the Conservatives. "I think we do risk talking too much about the Conservatives. Even if it is true that Conservatives haven't changed, that's not Labour's main message.

Let's do something else that's like the minimum wage's got to be a different vision, a different set of values. We believe something quite different from the Conservatives and that needs to come across."

UPDATE: Iain Dale's blog post reflecting on the fringe - fun with the Fabians.

Some policies aren't as effective but Labour hasn't failed on equality, Denham says

John Denham, minister for Communities and Local Government, has conceded that some Labour policies on benefits have stopped being as effective. Speaking at the Fabian Society's 'Do Brits Hate Benefits?' debate, he argued that Polly Toynbee was wrong to state that the party had failed when it comes to inequality, saying:

'We must not depress ourselves - we have not failed on inequality the way Polly has said. We closed the gap progressively over the last ten years. Of course it's much more difficult in the global recession and we're beginning to see the limits of some of the policies methods we've used. What are the next ideas we move onto? Ideas like the living wage have to be part of it.'

The MP for Southampton Itchen also said policy presentation has to reflect the way individuals view issues like benefits to reassure them that the system is fair.

We have to choose our weapons, tools and policies in a way that is in tune with the people of this country. People have some quite profound notions of fairness and it's going to be summed up in our practical campaigning by those who who say 'I played by the rules, pay my taxes and yet don't get much out of the system.' Fundamentally our approach to welfare needs to be based on that profound sense of fairness that effort should be rewarded - people who play by the rules should get a fair return.

Labour follows the Daily Mail's flow on benefits, says Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee has accused the Labour Party of pandering to the Daily Mail's agenda on benefits. Speaking at the Fabian Society's 'Do Brits Hate Benefits?' debate, the Guardian columnist criticised the Mail's negative coverage of families and individuals who receive benefits, saying:

It's always so easy for the Daily Mail to produce shameful pictures. Labour has failed to make the case that these are anecdotes and stories, and failed to talk about the experience of most people who are poor. Labour could have done much more and has taken fright and gone with the flow of the Daily Mail.

When questioned by Tim Horton, research director of the Fabian Society, Toynbee immediately discounted the idea that journalists would see a moral responsibility to present a balanced and nuanced appraisal of the benefits system.

Journalists never feel like they have any responsibility. The terms of engagement with the media mean you are dealing with a force of nature, mostly malevolent. On the whole that's the problem. I never have any illusions about the press, it's not about what should the public know.

Who's doing the whining?, Cruddas asks Prescott

Jon Cruddas was not impressed by John Prescott's interview in yesterday's Independent, speaking at a Fabian fringe event in conversation with James Purnell and Mart Riddell.

Did anyone see it? It was an extraordinary piece of work. He let fly at everyone. Except David Cameron, who seemed to get away.

Firstly, the deputy leader of the party for wanting to do more for equality, which is a strange criticism to make of a Labour Cabinet Minister. And then everyone else.

And I thought, blimey, if that is going to be the tenor of the discussion this week, we could be in trouble.

But in the last couple of hours, it hasn't been like that. I have found the mood to be upbeat. Apart from John's intervention, everyone else has not been focused on internal issues. They are more focused on David Cameron and how we take the fight to him - and about alternative policy ideas we need which can bring us hope. WIthout hope, there is no vitality. That creates huge issues with our leadership as to whether they are going to be bold. But I think the tempo is upbeat.

We know David Cameron is getting away with murder. If you look at what they are doing in councils in London, and in Essex, they are laboratories for a quite extreme Thatcherite agenda. They want to step up and have a row about that.

Both Cruddas and Purnell have cited Paul Keating's comeback victory in Australia as evidence that the party can't be written off at the election.

Paul Keating held an election that he won. He called it "an election for the true believers" and he won it. You don't have to be Wittgenstein to work out that its going to be tough.

And both dismissed the idea of fighting a factional civil war in the party.

"If we were to lose, and I don't think that is certain, then the big question would be how we hold it together and rebuild the party as a vibrant and plural coalition. John Prescott suggests that anyone who thinks think-tanks have a role in that is some sort of class traitor. I think it might be part of the resurgence we need", said Cruddas.

"I don't think there is any chance of civil war", said Purnell, commending John Stuart Mill's idea that "we don't know which of our opinions are wrong, or they wouldn't be our opinions" as an insight too often forgotten in politics.

"We think other people having different views are a reason for denunciation - rather than a conversation. I think Jon is right to say that when Labour has failed is when it has fallen back into a conservatism - whether it is a conservatism of the left or the conservativism of the right", said Purnell.

We need to be best of New Labour and Old Labour, says Purnell

James Purnell says that the government's agenda - and the future of the party - can not be defined for or against New Labour, and that attempts to do so from the right or left of the party continues a debate which is "at least a decade out of date".

His argument amounted to a New Labour apology to those in the party who felt that the creation of the idea of "Old Labour" caricatured the Labour party's enduring core values.

I think New Labour was necessary - to show that we had changed. Some of the collateral damage of that was that Labour people who were not part of that New Labour tribe felt that the party was defined against them. And it is important to admit that this was a straw man to a certain extent.

"The party - and the government itself - combined the best of New Labour and Old Labour", said Purnell, pointing to both achievements of the government like the New Deal for jobs, and the current agenda on the fiscal stimulus or the jobs guarantee.

Guaranteeing jobs for every graduate, fighting climate change, trying to go for 100% literacy and to break the link between education and family background, you could put together a very compelling agenda for people.

And sometimes its pretty hard to say which is New Labour or which is Old Labour", said Purnell.

"And, on the other side, you have people who want to say that New Labour is dead and who want to dismiss our entire record. Both sides of that are part of a debate that I think is at least a decade out of date", he said.

This had an electoral impact. Purnell noted that Labour's lost voters are, on average, to the right rather than the left of the party's remaining supporters - but suggested that the debate about heartland and swing voters had become sterile.

It is very important we don't just try to put together a patchwork of different social interests. We should look at what Obama's people did", said Purnell.

The Democrats had been too focused on communication and how to put a coalition together. The Obama argument began with values and was able to build a new coalition.

"We need to look at how to create a new majority. A lot of what Jon is talking about is being caught on the dilemma of a heartland vote and a wider vote - and we need to revisit the way we approach that whole question from the start".

Fabian Fringe '09 Next Left with Jon Cruddas and James Purnell

The Fabians kick off the public fringe events with Next Labour: What Next For Progressives? - featuring Jon Cruddas and James Purnell. You can also follow us on Twitter @thefabians and read more on the Next Left blog.

How to use 200 days of power

You can count them off on the calendar. As Labour gathers in Brighton this morning, just 222 days remains until Thursday 6th May 2010, the most likely General Election date. How often the gathered Labour tribe will be told they are wasting their time; that there is nothing to do but wait for a Cameron Coronation.

So everybody has written off the 200 days of governing power which Labour has before the campaign begins. Yet there is no reason why these should be days of stagnation as a battered Parliament limps to a close. Claims that Whitehall is already on stand-by simply ignore how often those 200 days involve massive decisions – from the priorities for public spending at home, to global negotiations on climate change and nuclear disarmament – that will last long beyond May’s election, whoever wins. They could just offer Labour’s best chance of making a fight of the election too.

Peter Mandelson’s argument that Labour must campaign as underdogs is not just an acceptance of political reality. It should often mean the opposite campaign strategy to that of 2001 and 2005. Then Labour was risk-averse, always kicking long-term choices like NHS spending and pensions into the post-election long grass.

How far it can kick that habit may determine how much impact these 200 days can have.

Labour’s strategic interest now is in opening up difficult issues to public scrutiny, so as to sharpen a real choice between the political parties.

Firstly, the spending debate is only just beginning. If all sides will acknowledge the need for some cuts, choices about what to cut will be much more difficult. Taxation has barely been mentioned. The closer that Alistair Darling comes, in the pre-budget report and budget, to a full spending round, the more that Labour can influence the long-term agenda.

Secondly, enormous global issues which will have an enduring impact. The Copenhagen climate talks offer a last chance to get a global deal on track on time. Next Spring’s Washington disarmament summit should be used to trade Trident renewal in a something-for-something multilateral disarmament deal, easing the fiscal pressure at home too.

Thirdly, Labour’s actions can often also have an enduring impact on major issues beyond the electoral frontline. Beyond spending cuts and (expensive) schools reforms, the Conservatives have almost no policy agenda to speak of. The answer is not a hyperactive blizzard of initiatives. Through a frank account of its own legacy, Labour could frame one central policy choice in each department, and set the direction of travel on issues from housing to transport; universities to social care where decisions needed soon will endure for generations.

All parties backed legislation to link the state pension to earnings after 2012. But would that survive a Tory ‘age of austerity’? Labour should bring the link forward to 2010: redistributing pension tax relief and freezing inheritance tax thresholds for five years could finance this and reduce public debt too. It should commit to the idea floated in the Green paper of funding social care for all by a compulsory hypothecated user charge. With everybody rhetorically for a ‘new politics’, Labour should let the people decide on the voting system in a referendum and back a citizens’ convention to set out on the road to a new constitutional settlement.

Some may think a focus on ‘entrenching change’ sounds undemocratic. That misses the point. There is little Labour could do in the next six months which a future Tory majority could not reverse. What can be demanded is that a public argument should be made to reverse them. Often, the Tory choice will be to close down issues, to rule out more radical moves for a Parliament at least, or (as over the 50p tax rate) to try to say nothing at all. Where they do want to put up an alternative, the electoral choice will become clearer.

Yet Labour never discusses its ‘legacy’ now. It used to do so openly. Douglas Alexander warned in 2004 that George Bush’s re-election showed that Bill Clinton had done too little to entrench change. That argument matters much more now. Economic and political crises has made New Labour’s claim to a legacy much more fragile. This has changed the right’s debate. For two years, David Cameron persuaded his party to accept what had changed. Now, the right feels its argument to shrink the state is back on top, even though this is hardly a repeat of 1978-79 when that is the ideology which caused this recession. Nobody can be certain where the centre of political gravity will end up.

So focusing the next 200 days on re-entrenching a progressive Labour legacy would be far from defeatist. By sharpening the electoral argument about what is at stake, it could yet be Labour’s best chance to fight back.

* This piece is extracted from Sunder Katwala's Fabian essay "How to use 200 days in power", published in the Fabian Review conference special.

Next Labour

Jon Cruddas and James Purnell kick off the Fabian fringe at 3pm, in conversation with Mary Riddell.

I have a commentary on LabourList previewing the Next Labour fringe event - suggesting that the Cruddas-Purnell dialogues have been important both in the tonality and their content in framing the longer-term debate that Labour needs to have.

Establishing that equality and the distribution of substantive freedom are core to Labour's mission demonstrates has narrowed the difference between different wings of the party. And showing that Labour can debate big questions, and sometimes disagree amongst ourselves, in an atmosphere of mutual respect is important to the type of pluralist coalition which we need across the centre-left if we are to govern.

And congratulations to the new look LabourList on its first ever conference. Can it really only be twelve months since a rather sweary Derek Draper was being warned on the Fabian fringe of the dangers of the politics of 'command and control' to the political blogosphere with his not yet launched website.

* Fabian public fringes take place at the Royal Albion Hotel.

The underdog strategy

That Labour are the underdogs in the election - but relishing a fight with Conservatives who believe a David Cameron coronation is in the bag - will be a constant refrain at the Brighton conference this week.

Perhaps Gordon Brown will take the stage on Tuesday to the theme from Rocky.

Peter Mandelson has made the "underdog strategy" central to Labour's thinking about the campaign. Following through on this means an "insurgency campaign" - and shaking off the tendency of a government to campaign in a cautious and risk averse way. Talking about being the underdog is not enough.

As Malcolm Gladwell has set out, underdogs can win a surprising amount of the time, as long as they adopt game-changing strategies which deny Goliath the advantage which he would have in a conventional contest.

The "underdog strategy" was set out in a Fabian Review editorial back before Christmas 2007 - some nine months before the Prince returned from across the water to bolster the Brown government.

The model was not so much Rocky, not John Major, but Harry Truman, whose 1948 Presidential shock victory remains the greatest political fightback of all time.

Underdog watch in this morning's newspapers ....

Peter Hain in The Independent cites John Major's 1992 soapbox fightback - showing how what was once among Labour's most traumatic defeats has now become a curious source of inspiration.

Peter Mandelson tells the Sunday Mirror that the Conservatives are "hugely arrogant. They are taking their victory for granted. They believe they have it in the bag. They can hardly be bothered to offer ideas or policies for people to consider or debate because they just think that will open them up to criticism.”

UPDATE, 2.20pm

Well, it's officially underdog fightback week .... This is Gordon Brown's "welcome to Brighton" email to party members and supporters this afternoon.


Greetings from a bright, sunny and beautiful Brighton.

As we gather at this conference we go into it clearly as the underdogs.

Over the coming days I want you to take confidence from the ambitious policy agenda that we will set out.

I want you to take confidence from our belief that although we live in a world of great crises, both political and economic, it is the values of our party that offer the solutions to the big challenges the world faces.

And I want you to take confidence from the knowledge that we took the decision as a Party to intervene to help people through this recession not just because it was the right thing to do but because it is in our instincts to do so.

The Conservatives took the decision to do nothing - to let the recession take its course. And today they would use the financial crisis as an excuse to cut support for jobs and families, because that is in their instinct too.

You and I both know that we are now in the fight of our lives.

But as a Party we also know that our greatest achievements have never come easy. From the NHS to the minimum wage – our greatest battles have been hard fought and they have been hard won.

So my message to you as we begin our Conference is simple - get ready for the fight of your lives, not for our own sakes, but because the fight we face is for Britain’s future – a fight we can, and must, win.

Best wishes


Saturday, 26 September 2009

Yellow peril for PoliticsHome as Clegg and Cable depart

News that LibDem leader Nick Clegg and deputy Vince Cable has left the PoliticsHome insider panel, after the site was bought by Tory deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft will surely bring to an end any debate about whether the website can continue to run a credible "insider panel".

James Graham has the scoop - and he is calling for all other LibDems to boycott the insider panel.

LibDemVoice has more.

Other new departures reported at Liberal Conspiracy include Stryker McGuire of Time magazine, Andy McSmith of The Independent, Sir Jeremy Beecham, Labour MP Kitty Ussher and Green London candidate Sian Berry.

Freddie Sayers of Politics Home yesterday published a response to my methodological concerns over the credibility of the PH100 insider panel. You can read it all here.

Your points are logical - these are all things that *could* go wrong if you were trying to conduct an exactly weighted representative poll of people in Westminster politics.

Even were it not overtaken by events, this was a very weak response, using the disappointing PR textbook technique of answering questions which nobody has asked, ignoring my questions as to how the site could ensure would remain “broadly credible as broadly representative” as verified by independent expert voices exercising “qualitative political judgement”.

There was more discussion at Left Foot Forward.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Reeves: Liberal, not Lib Dem Moment

Guest post by Richard Reeves

Nick Clegg thinks – hopes – that we are at a ‘liberal moment’. He’s right. But that does not mean that we are at a Liberal Democrat moment. In his Liberal Moment pamphlet for Demos, Clegg offers a compelling critique of Labour’s top-down, statist approach and unjustified assault on civil liberties; suggests that the Liberal Democrats are now the carriers of the ‘progressive flame’; and predicts that just as Labour overtook the Liberal Party in the early part of the 20th century, so the Liberals can now get back into second place.

Clegg is right on the first and second points, but wildly optimistic on the third. The only hope for the Lib Dems is a much better than expected performance in the general election followed by a near-meltdown within the Labour Party and the election of a leader who is mad, bad or dangerous (or possibly all three). It is much more likely that Labour will elect a new leader who shares much of Clegg’s critique and who will pull Labour in a more liberal direction – advocating more power for the users of public services, significant devolution of power down to local authorities and lower (David Miliband’s long-argued for ‘double devolution’), a renewed concern with inequalities of wealth and power and substantial constitutional and political reform, including PR.

Clegg is right to argue that much of Labour’s programme has been characterised by a ‘relentless state activism’ at the centre, underpinned by ‘a far greater pessimism about the ability of people to improve their own lives’. By contrast, the starting point for liberalism is ‘the fairer dispersal and distribution of power’. And although the Lib Dems had some seriously amateurish moments in their conference this week, on policy the direction of travel was good: taxing wealth rather than income, questioning the middle class benefits from the state and urging – echoing Demos’ work - ‘progressive austerity’. This meant looking hard at their policy on free higher education, which is a predominantly middle-class benefit, as well as other universal benefits – and ensuring that any tax increases are borne by the most wealthy.

But it is hard to imagine half the Labour cabinet disagreeing with Clegg and his party on many of these points. There are plenty of Labour ministers who are deeply disappointed that the Party has not done more to devolve power down to local authorities and communites, has failed to live up to its manifesto promise of a referendum on PR and remains wedded to a centralist, statist model of social change. After the coming defeat at the general election, the battle for the soul of the Labour Party will commence. If Labour is to survive it needs to take on board much of Clegg’s diagnosis and prescription, and elect a leader able to so do. It is a liberal moment – but Labour can seize it.

Richard Reeves is the director of Demos

An unlikely alliance to end big donor politics

Cleaning up political funding is back on the political agenda.

Charles Clarke called on the government to "legislate in the final session of this Parliament to reform the system of political Party funding along the lines recommended by Sir Hayden Phillips, difficult though some aspects of his proposals are for Labour".

James Purnell, writing for Progress, agrees, but goes much further in wanting much lower donation caps.

We can debate what a cap on annual donations from individuals should be, but it should be in the hundreds of pounds – certainly not the £50,000 that Cameron wants, which would still mean parties chasing donations from wealthy individuals.

It sounds good. But is there any chance of finding consensus. It might appeal to the centre and to non-party opinion. But surely the right will be horrified.

But perhaps we could form an unlikely alliance.

For here is ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie, in the new Fabian Review, when asked for one issue which the Cameron Conservatives haven't talked about much which he would like to see become a priority:

Ending state and big donor financing of political so that all parties had to look to ordinary voters for their funding

It takes a few weeks to produce a quarterly magazine. And, this morning, Montgomerie is excited about the possibilities for ConservativeHome after Michael Ashcroft took out his Bank of Belize credit card to splash his cash on buying the site. And he mentioned his previous support for limits on big donors yesterday, in stressing his confidence in his continued editorial independence. (Does it, however, make the Westminster water cooler rumours that Montgomerie was wary of what the deal would mean for the site's independence more plausible?)

Anyway, I am sure ConservativeHome will be looking for ways to show very publicly in the next few weeks that they have not been muzzled in their robust grassroots independence, as a Times editorial this week feared could be the case.

So here's my modest proposal for the next big ConservativeHome campaign, and a great way to put those resources to good use while showing they remain as independent as ever.

Let's make common cause on what seems to be our shared conviction - that it is time to take the big money donors out of politics.

PS: Tim is not just writing in the Fabian Review but he is appearing on the Fabian fringe at the Labour conference too. And you thought we were the experts in the politics of permeation and entryism ...

Since the Labour party will spend much of next week talking about the Conservatives, we thought that the best way to address the question "Who are the new Conservatives" was to bring Tim Montgomerie, Fraser Nelson and Phillip Blond to Brighton, where they will discuss that question with Polly Toynbee and Fabian Research Director Tim Horton. It takes place on Monday night at 6pm. (Full listings on the Fabian website).

So the Fabian Review sees a tussle between Tim Montgomerie and 'Red Tory' Phillip Blond in the battle for David Cameron's brain and the soul of the right.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Bercow promises backbenchers super powers

The world of Parliament just shuddered a little: John Bercow had set out radical plans to create a new more powerful era for backbenchers, taking back the Commons from the hands of Government.
Bercow set out in his public speech tonight proposals for a shorter summer recess, and a return to September working as well as a welter of other reforms. He called it a time for the House to "look at itself in a full and frank fashion".
He gamboled with puppy dog eagerness through a list that should set hearts of parliamentary traditionalists beating a little faster and they hear of his outline of a new shaken and stirred parliamentary model.
Those traditionalists might find their hearts warming to the new Speaker's plans to hand more power to backbench MPs and remove them from the role of glorified councillor, something he alluded to when he set down why he felt the role of the backbencher had weakened in recent years, undermining parliamentary democracy.
For years backbenchers have moaned at the lack of power; how no one listens to them any more; how there is no point turning up to debates when there is no chance to contribute or change legislation.
Those who thought "denial, delay or dilution is a serious solution are deluded", Bercow suggested in a welter of alliterative enthusiasm, and then added that any scheme that failed at "the court of public opinion surely founders".
An end to all this, says the new super-Speaker, who one can see flying in with a special cape and other super democracy-fixing powers.
In a fluent and funny flow of words, he set the stage for a new era for the backbencher, one where they had more power to speak in the House, and for ministers to be called to respond; for ordinary MPs to organise more of the business of the House; and for the government to find its power a little depleted.
In one flash of his cape, super Speaker called for ministers in the Lords to be open to questions from MPs, just as their colleagues in the Commons are, and lo, he has a solution: there will be special sittings in the great and historic Westminster Hall for this purpose.
He suggested rather cheekily that Lords Mandelson and Adonis were champing at the Parliamentary bit for just such an opportunity, and they could hardly say otherwise.
A jokey aside about Lord Mandelson having more power than anyone since Alexander the Great also received a warm chuckle from this audience, which included academics, union reps for parliamentary researchers, and campaigners for an English Assembly - a real mixing pot.

Watch that Bercow space for a "backbenchers bill of rights" to include:

* 20 minutes in "primetime" for select committee chairs to make a speech on the day of a report launch

* moving private members bills to the middle of the week to give them more status

* more topical questions at the House at the request of MPs not government

* the Speaker to preside over more Friday sittings

Things in the borough of St Stephens may never be the same again. The rumbles of change are spreading, and, as Bercow pointed out, the centenary of the Parliament Act is almost upon us, they can be no more opportune time to spell out the need for radical change.

Myners' bid to publish pay scales shines light on gap

City minister Lord Myners' proposal to have companies disclose the pay of the 20 highest paid employees may go some way to detailing the breadth of the pay gap, if not providing the transparency to do something about closing it.
Myners also called for the pay of all employees to be banded in grades to show the width of that pay gap.
The publication of this information would shine a light on the practises of financial firms which choose to pay a group of people an enormous amount of money, while putting pressure on employees at the very bottom of the wage pyramid to take pay freezes.
Few people would disagree that if you have special talents or work particularly hard you should be rewarded, as a Fabian/YouGov poll on pay showed.
But it is the massive gap that the general public object to, particularly when astronomic salaries are being paid by publicly owned banks, supported by the tax of people on average salaries.
As yet those who are living on the bonus hog, have done little to acknowledge their enormous salaries have contributed to creating a pulled-out-of-shape economy and to out-of-control house prices.
Public tax money is now being used to prop up banks - which we do need as a public good in a modern society -- but the argument to use part of that cash to help prop up high level salaries is not appealing. Surely there should be safeguards in place to show that efforts are being made to use tax payers cash wisely - and that bonuses would be reigned back until loans are repaid?
This would be normal practise in a normal company, striving to pay back a loan, and survive a difficult market, so why isn't it being followed by the publicly backed banks?
Tax payers, who are struggling themselves, would feel happier about supporting a company that acted more thriftily in a tough market, than one that seemed to be continuing to pay senior staff at pre-recession levels.
Myners' plan would at least go some way towards throwing open the windows on the boardrooms of the City to reveal the culture of secrecy around boardroom pay.
And more could be done to communicate the value of paying tax - avoiding tax/offshoring is still seen as a macho achievement by many in the City.
While the Daily Mail and others have been running a campaign against the payment of decent public sector pensions to teachers, nurses and others who work hard to help Britain's core service to operate, it should do more to highlight high earners unwillingness to pay tax, while happily collecting tax benefits where they can.

Should PoliticsHome suspend its insider panel? A question of methodology

The PoliticsHome website yesterday faced the challenge for any media outlet when it becomes the story: can it remain objective, or does defending the organisation's interests and reputation take priority?

Editor Freddie Sayers set out a "business as usual" approach to restoring the trust lost by the controversial takeover in which Conservative party deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft has taken a majority stake in the site.

But this demonstrated a serious methodological question over ploughing on with the "insider panel" - yesterday asking about the Ashcroft question itself. The results on the past neutrality of the site were very good; the results on future confidence, though breezily presented, were very mixed.

Even so, only 42% of those still participating were confident that there will be no post-Ashcroft change in editorial line, with 21% believing editorial will be affected and fully 37% not sure. That total is boosted by 78% of Conservatives (21 out of 27) having such confidence. Of the 24 Labour-identifying panellists who remained still, only four expressed confidence in no editorial influence while twenty can not express that confidence at this stage. Seven believe that the editorial line will change; and thirteen don't know. Only 2 of the 6 LibDems could express confidence that the editorial line would not change: the other four were in "Don't Know" mode; and only one in five of the non-aligned participants expressed confidence, with 60% being don't knows.

So there is a significant divide - with low trust among on the left, a sceptical centre and a sanguine right. And, of course, the confidence numbers were affected (and boosted) by up to 20 resignations (around 10% of the panel), giving 10-20 less responses than usual.

I would like to make a rather boring point of methodology. This doesn't matter if the panel is "just a bit of fun" like a poll of SkyNews viewers or Sun/Guardian readers, though that might mean that there was little point in it. But they are questions which need to be addressed were the "insider panel" to continue to be marketed as a credible, balanced and reportable snapshot of 'what the political class' thinks?

The panel's continued veracity and credibility depends on the remaining voices from the centre-left being credible as a broadly representative sample across centre-left opinion.

Having a similar number of left and right participants is not enough to achieve this. It may be necessary, but it is far from sufficient.

This is true if there is no significant difference (on ideology, strategy or policy issues,) between people who would regard it as difficult or impossible to continue to participate in the panel and those who would have no problem doing so.

But it is false if that is not true, should controversy among significant numbers of people or segments of opinion as to whether they could or could not be involved create a "sampling bias". (This was almost certainly the case with regard to the questions the panel were asked yesterday about Ashcroft).

For broader issues, that can't yet be proved either way - but there are good reasons to ask the question.

But why could this be the case?

1. What if views about the ownership of PoliticsHome - and Andrew Rawnsley and Nick Assinder's decisions to resign - were correlated with major political questions which the panel might be asked?

Could there, for example, be a significant correlation with views about state funding of political parties, and/or with other constitutional reform or 'cleaning up' politics questions more generally, or perhaps media issues, such as the role of the internet, or the libel laws? It seems to me quite intuitively plausible that there could be such a link, perhaps particularly about party funding.

This might extend to other "cleaning up politics" and reform issues. To take the major open issue dividing the Cabinet and Labour party, the resigning group strike me as distinctive in containing many people who do not just support electoral reform, but give it a high political priority (with Tom Harris an honourable exception). It reads like a roll call of the Vote for a Change supporters. So a poll on "should Gordon Brown announce an electoral reform referendum" could well, I think, give significantly different read-out of left opinion next week than it would otherwise have done.

2. What if there were differences from different 'wings' of the Labour Party. Might an "Ashcroft controversy" make it more difficult to get sufficient 'left' voices from the more Compass soft left or Labour Representation Committee wing of the party?

So far, the evidence might be against this thought. The initial group of resigners includes Tom Harris, Denis MacShane, Matthew Taylor and Charles Clarke who are all strong advocates of New Labour, soggy centrists such as myself and leftist voices such as Neal Lawson. (Though several of them may share a non-membership of the Gordon Brown fan club).

However, the question arises as to whether there might be any methodological bias if, for example (to make up an example), Dianne Abbott of the Campaign Group proved to be willing to contribute but, say, Chris Mullin or Michael Meacher from the left of the party were not, if that correlated with different views about some issues. (I have no idea whether any of these either do or would contribute: it is an illustrative example).

But, if the electoral reform problem were an issue, that would also affect broad questions of party strategy and party relationships - such as the approach to other parties, or to a hung parliament.

3.There might also be other 'sociological' biases: it is notable that several of those who were but are not now in the panel are either the main Guardian/Observer opinion formers (such as Andrew Rawnsley, Polly Toynbee and Nick Cohen) or those who are current or former Guardian/Observer staffers (including Rafael Behr, Observer leader writer, myself as an ex-Obs leader writer, Martin Bright and others). This no doubt reflects the high level of respect current and former colleagues have for the views of Martin Bright and Andrew Rawnsley, who encouraged or invited many of them to participate.

Other journalists - very notably Nick Assinder - have also resigned. And there might still be many Guardian/Observer voices still on the panel. I simply don't know. But, again, the question would arise as to whether either the media section or the left-liberal sections of the panel could represent media opinion with very limited participation from the most prominent of the two left-liberal media groups. (This might be correlated with 'concern about media ownership' or 'political reform' or it might not be).

4. There could be other effects. For example, would it matter if those on the right tended to be better known and more senior than those on the left? This could be the case if there was a significant 'refusenik' tendency on the left and among neutral media voices, but not on the right, as seems likely given yesterday's results.

Nobody doubts that PoliticsHome can continue to run large-scale public opinion surveys. (I am grateful to Oranjepan for providing a very plausible account of why the PHI5000 survey data might be among the most attractive reasons for Michael Ashcroft to be involved with the site, in answer to my Ashcroft mystery piece, which seems plausible given how much emphasis Michael Ashcroft paid to extensive private polling in the 2005 campaign, with enormous influence on the party, indeed perhaps excessive influence, in the view of Tim Montgomerie.

But I wonder whether they can continue with the Insider Panel. The professional approach may well be to suspend it for now while trying to put a credibly balanced panel back in place, or perhaps to simply drop it. (And I am not sure how central it is to its public offering of the site).

But how could these concerns be dealt with?

To test them academically, you would need to poll left participants against refuseniks. Short of that, I think you would need to ask a polling pointy-head from outside the organisation - a Peter Kellner type figure - to look at the robustness of the panel, and how to address these issues, or perhaps to get the British Polling Council or a similar body to scrutinise the issues.

To be clear, I do not think that the problem is not that editorial staff might deliberately "bias" or "fix" the panel to give particular results on major political controversies - like the Brown leadership or the Lisbon Treaty. But I think that there is obviously a risk that the pressure to maintain a sufficient Labour "quota" (as stressed in yesterday's poll report) might lead to these methodological questions being under-addressed or overlooked (as they were yesterday).

While these are partly issues of qualitative political judgement, I think the continued credibility would therefore depend on once again having senior independent external voices - with profiles similar to Martin Bright and Nick Assinder - with deep knowledge of party factions and strands of opinion in the different parties, with a good deal of editorial input so that they were willing to vouch publicly on those issues. Without that, I think the results carry little value.

Another possibility would be for PoliticsHome to attempt a significant rapprochement with its critics - for example, by revealing more about the board structure; setting out what guarantees of editorial independence were written into the deal, and once again putting in place organisational structures which credibly protect these.

But until that happens I do not think it has an Insider Panel from which it can credibly issue results - especially during the Labour Party conference next week - without issuing a health warning with the findings.

And I would argue too that how far it is seen to take these straight methodological questions seriously is now one early test of how far its independence, journalistic integrity and professionalism have survived under new ownership.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

What rights should a capitalist have?

Over at OurKingdom, William Davies has added to the ongoing discussion of democratic republicanism with a stimulating post on republicanism in the workplace. It draws on his recent report for Demos, Reinventing the Firm.

Underpinning Davies' post and report is a basic question which is perhaps too seldom posed these days: What rights should a capitalist have?

That is to say, if I put capital into a firm, what sort of claims ought this to give me over how the firm runs and with respect to the division of any trading surplus?

Historically, the British Liberal tradition has had very interesting and radical things to say about this, things which draw on or echo republican ideas.

First, Liberals have argued that there are properly limits on the control rights that capitalists have over firms. Workers should not work under authority structures which make them subject to the arbitrary power of owners and/or their managerial representatives. To respect their status as free persons, workers must have their own rights to participate in decision-making. Thus, when a capitalist advances capital for use in a firm, they must accept that their authority to direct the firm is qualified by the rights of workers to a say in decision-making.

As William Davies notes, contemporary management thinking is replete with appeals to worker 'autonomy'. But much of this discourse tacitly subordinates autonomy to an unquestioned priority of maximizing profitability. On the republican view, echoed historically by the Liberals in this country, respect for workers' freedom is actually a moral constraint on seeking profits - and one that should be enforced by means of legislation which democratizes the workplace.

Second, Liberals have argued historically that there are limits on the income rights that capitalists have over their firms. Liberals posited a 'normal' rate of return for capital (perhaps weighted according to the risk factors in a given industry) and argued that any trading surplus over and above this 'capital wage' should be shared equally between capitalists and workers. Echoing an idea that in fact goes back to the co-operator, Robert Owen, they argued that the trading surplus should not simply go to the capitalist by default.

One radical version of the latter idea is that workers' share of the profits should be automatically invested in capital. In this way, over time, workers can collectively build up a large stake in the firms in which they work, helping to erode the social division between workers and capitalists. 'Capital growth sharing' schemes of this kind were widely discussed in Western Europe in the late 1960s and 1970s, reflecting the power of organised labour at this time and the consequent pressure to create a more egalitarian and democratic capitalism.

But that was the 1970s. After a brief flirtation with Will Hutton's ideas about 'stakeholding', New Labour largely accepted as given an authoritarian, inegalitarian and unrepublican model of the firm. And, as I have pointed out previously, the Lib Dems themselves have retreated from their earlier radicalism, gradually diluting their commitment to industrial democracy to vanishing point.

However, William Davies's report is one of a number of recent signs of a renewed interest around these ideas. The Social Liberal Forum held a session on industrial democracy at the recent Compass conference. One can see how industrial democracy could fit into a new politics of the kind that Compass favours, one focused on quality of life rather than simply quantity of output. Nick Clegg's pamphlet, The Liberal Moment, also marked a return of Liberal interest in the topic. And it certainly fits well with James Purnell's emphasis on 'power egalitarianism'.

In the emerging Lib-Lab dialogues which Sunder has analysed, the ideal of a republican firm is one where there seems particular potential for fruitful discussion and cooperation. Let's put our heads together and reopen that fundamental question of what rights a capitalist really has.