Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Kevin Rudd on social democracy and a new capitalism

Those looking for some light pre-G20 reading might enjoy this essay by Australian premier Kevin Rudd, on the global financial crisis, the end of the Hayekian era of neo-liberalism, and the challenge for social democracy published in Australia's The Monthly.

Here's a snippet.

In the current crisis, social democrats therefore have the great advantage of a consistent position on the central role of the state - in contrast to neo-liberals, who now find themselves tied in ideological knots, in being forced to rely on the state they fundamentally despise to save financial markets from collapse. This enables social-democratic governments to undertake such current practical tasks as credit-market regulation, intervention, and demand-side stimulus in the economy. The uncomfortable truth for neo-liberals is that they have not been able to turn to non-state actors or non-state mechanisms to defray risk and restore confidence, rebuild balance sheets and unlock global capital flows. This is only possible through the agency of the state.

Of course, not everybody will agree with this. I had the pleasure of doing a BBC Kent radio interview with Mr Daniel Hannan on Friday night. He could not see why his advocacy of the Icelandic economic miracle was relevant, whereas I felt that advocating minimal national and international regulation was the problem, not the solution, Hannan did seem to counter that the crisis had indeed arisen from too much regulation rather than too little.

Also on the theme of reforming capitalism, LabourHome is hosting a lively debate about the James Purnell speech on 'egalitarian capitalism' which was published here on Next Left. It is good to see that James Purnell has also braved the fray to offer a few responses in the comments.

New deal of the mind

Perhaps the most innovative and interesting response to the recession so far from outside government is the New Deal of the Mind project.

This began as a New Statesman article by Martin Bright in January.

If this [recession] turns out to be as deep and long as some now suspect it will be, there will need to be some seriously creative thinking, a "New Deal of the Mind" to equip people who work with their brains or in the creative industries for the challenges ahead. Clearly, this would not be cost-free, but if ministers have decided to go down the route of work creation backed by borrowing, they should at least do it with some imagination and flair.

But, as does not often happen with commentary pieces, there has also been a sustained follow through to try to make the idea a reality, leading to a launch discussion at Number 11 Downing Street last week, on which Lynne Featherstone and Martin Bright have blogged.

Matthew Taylor believes the ideas need to be more focused to become a serious runner, and particularly need to avoid becoming just a general pitch for greater arts funding. No doubt he is right about that, but it is also striking how much momentum and progress has been made in just a couple of months. And Matthew has come up a particularly interesting example of the type of project which would meet the needs of the moment and merit support:

Why not create a national scheme to give newly redundant regional journalists, and those emerging from journalism course with no chance of a job, start-up funds to create strong community web-sites ... Assuming the site developers work from home and can use shared resources developed by the national body, a year’s set-up cost (enough time to see whether the site can succeed), including basic pay for the person running the site, would cost about £30k per site ... So, a pot of about £30 million could fund a thousand community web-sites adding real social value, employing at least a thousand workers with valuable skills and offering some great opportunities for graduates and school leavers. What’s more, this spending can be fast and direct.

Youth unemployment - including graduate unemployment - is going to be one of the most urgent issues of 2009 and 2010, and this strikes me as precisely the sort of response that is needed.

(PS: Rather more parochially, Martin is not happy about the Observer letter challenging Nick Cohen's claims about the liberal-left betraying liberal Muslims. There was an interesting panel at the Orwell prize shortlist: David Davis and Douglas Murray from the right. For the left, Frank Field and Nick Cohen! Nick was looking to start a new spat or three, as you can see for yourself on YouTube. New olive branches please!)

Monday, 30 March 2009

1959, Civil Rights And All That Jazz

Following the tradition of the esteemed Sunder Katwala with his Clough blog, I’m going to write about one of my biggest interests, jazz, and create a link to politics. Please tell me if I succeed. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a leading Fabian who was (or is) a saxophonist or a crooner, but I’m sure we can dig one out among all the Executive members over the years. I certainly know of a former Fabian intern who fits the bill, so that should count.

BBC 4 broadcast an excellent documentary to mark fifty years since 1959 and concentrated on four records that changed the course of jazz (well, three in my opinion). The link to politics is that all these records to larger or lesser extents came out of the social events of the time. The documentary had a few fascinating clips of life in America focussing on the Civil Rights movement, and also the social paranoia over a looming nuclear threat.

Much of jazz music in 1959 conveyed a seething anger and musicians like Davies and Mingus would openly show contempt for their audience by scowling or walking out of performances. Jazz was partly about playing fast and challenging music that the ordinary player or listener could not keep up with, demonstrated by Coleman in particular. This, I would argue, stems from the social reality of the time.

Charles Mingus was an extraordinary but often violent individual who took up the bass rather than the cello because it was a black instrument. Black rights was at the heart of the thinking behind his music and he gave songs titles such as Modal for Integration and Fables of Fabeus, The documentary footage showed counter Civil Rights demonstrations outside the Texas school governed by Senator Fabeus, which defied the Eisenhower government over black/white integration. There were chilling pictures of a white crowd cheerily singing ‘2, 4, 6, 8, We don’t want to integrate’ before cutting to footage of black people being set upon. The army had to intervene to restore law and order, and to escort the black pupils to school away from the baying mob. The Mingus tune has no words but its awkward and looping riff clearly mocks Fabeus, and would have sent out a very explicit contemporary message.

In contrast, Dave Brubeck is famous for a softer and more accessible side of jazz. He is white (is because he is still alive) and came under pressure to keep to an all white line-up. But, to his credit, for musical reasons he took on a black bassist even though it surely lost him marketing opportunities. Ironically, among the mainly black jazz world, there was a lot of envy against Brubeck despite the fact that he hired a black bassist, because he got the radio time and the front covers even though he was not the greatest innovator. Brubeck was chosen by the American government to tour to the edges of the Soviet Union in order to showcase the clean-cut wonders of the United States. He recalled how he was uncomfortable doing this knowing the reality of the situation back home, while he was putting on a show of harmony.

One of the contributors to the documentary said Obama would not be in his position today if it wasn’t for jazz. Perhaps that is over-stating the point, but I do think jazz had a contributory role in the civil rights movement. It revealed to sections of white America that African Americans could create a unique and highly skilled art-form out of the dust of their oppression.

P.S. If you want to see one of the other musicians featured in the documentary, Ornette Coleman, he is leading the Meltdown festival at the South Bank this summer, and will probably take along his friend and great admirer, Lou Reed. Be warned, if you are expecting easy back-ground music, Ornette Coleman is not the one for you.

Why We Should Protest the G20

Should social democrats protest the G20?

The case against: protests like those planned for April 1 and April 2 are largely organized by ultra-leftist groups who have simplistic 'solutions' to the problems of financial crisis and climate change, not to mention a minority who think that progressive objectives are effectively advanced by lobbing bricks at bankers' windows...or bankers...or the police. One should not go on such protests because this sends a message of agreement with oversimplistic analyses of our situation and with morally dubious 'tactics' of so-called 'direct action'.

I think that's a strong case. But what about the other side of the argument?

The case for: political elites are simply not facing up to the urgency of our problems, particularly as regards climate change. While the more progressive of them acknowledge the need for the 'reform' of capitalist institutions, on a domestic and global level, it is not clear that they have grasped the scale of the change that is needed. Events like the protests at the G20 are vital to bring home to the political elites just how urgent increasing numbers of citizens regard these issues and how dissatisfied we are - or should be - with what they are offering thus far. Done properly, they can help to raise wider public consciousness, adding to the pressure on politicians. The fact that some people on the protests might be looking for violent confrontation is all the more reason for non-violent protestors to go on the protests so that such events cannot be dismissed by politicians or the media as expressions of a misguided minority rather than as authentic expressions of popular will.

More fundamentally: history tells us that social democratic reform is not the gift of enlightened elites, but the outcome of popular struggle changing the environment in which elites make their decisions. Elites have to be constrained by popular forces, or else they will be pushed around by the constraining influences that economic elites can always bring to bear.

On balance, I judge the 'case for' to overwhelm the 'case against'.

So shouldn't we be out there on April 1?

Labour men and the time to "get" real women

Guest post by Jessica Studdert

At the recent Fabian Change We Need event I got slightly side-tracked by a snide comment from a member of the audience, who patronisingly referred to panellist Catherine Mayer as ‘sweetheart’ as he dismissed her comments. When she half-joked that she was too shocked to retort, her fellow panellist Alastair Campbell helpfully pointed out that it probably wasn’t the first time she has been called sweetheart.

Why did I find this so offensive? It’s probably naive of me to expect more from the ultimate alpha male of the Labour Party. Certainly, the man who made the initial snipe was cut from a Labour activist mold that seems to be standard issue in many CLPs – an angry, belligerent old man railing against ‘the system’. He was there during militant, there in 1997, so he’s been around far too long to accept the musings of a mere young female who the Fabian Society happened to deem expert enough to put on a platform. And for most women, being called “sweetheart”, “darling” or “love” is part of everyday life so it shouldn’t have more impact than water does on a duck’s back.

But the reason I find such flippant sexism so galling is that the Labour Party I joined is, for me, primarily the party of equality – whether of gender, income, ethnicity, sexuality or others. We have a good story to tell about gender inclusion. Since the 1990s deliberate efforts like all-women shortlists have led to more women in the PLP than ever before. We can look across the floor at the grey-suited Tories and Lib Dems and hold our heads high on that front. More women in positions of power has had important policy implications - from investment in childcare to the current debate we’ve started about extending young girls’ access to information about contraception. We’re beginning to break out of the policy silos that so-called women’s issues can often fall into - the first female Home Secretary has put concerns that uniquely affect women to the top of her department’s agenda as never before – launching initiatives on rape, domestic violence and prostitution, that have often been sidelined.

But are we as a party yet comfortable with these moves towards equality? It seems to me that having our roots as a movement for the rights of the working man, some have a hard time accepting new realities. Many of my female friends in the party have encountered attitudes from our "brothers" that range from sexist to the downright bizarre. We have an unofficial ‘list’ of male parliamentarians who we can expect to talk to our chests, in lieu of making eye contact. One friend had the delightful experience of having her neck licked by a particular notorious MP in whilst queuing for the bar in the House. It’s no different in the local parties – another friend felt the need to wear a badge that read “Labour women make policy, not tea”. A Fawcett Society report uncovered the extent of sexist attitudes women in CLPs had to deal with. One woman standing for selection was told that the party men imagined her in her underwear when she was speaking.

It may be that we are experiencing something of a backlash against enforced all-women selections. A party and a wider labour movement that is still, in my view, far too ‘male, pale and stale’ has a long way to travel before a shift in attitudes can create a genuinely diverse and welcoming movement. In the lasting words of a previous leader – lots done, but lots still to do.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

The G20: Alternative Views

Next week could change the economic direction of travel of the world economy, or could involve a lot of political gloss, endless photo-opportunities with Obama and lofty but unrealistic aspirations and not a lot else. Two articles in the Observer sum these opposing views up.

Will Hutton as usual has a glint in his eye (not only because of his mug-shot) and is very optimistic about the week ahead. He welcomes rather than fears the popular protests, and believes this is part of the unstoppable momentum that will project the politicians forward toward momentous decisions. He does state that breaking Fred Goodwin’s windows was wrong, but qualifies that with a ‘But’ to start the next sentence. His anger against bankers and the bonus culture is palpable and he is all in favour of people protest if it puts pressure on politicians to be bold.

Hutton believes the G20 could be the most significant economic summit since 1944 and will ‘...extraordinarily...’ regulate hedge-funds, bonuses and tax havens. There will be general agreement that governments must support banks and policy must stimulate demand within the economy. As you read the article, you can almost hear Hutton’s breathless enthusiasm: Keynesian theory is back in practice! and all the cynics will be proven wrong. To be fair he does make one or two realistic qualifications, but the thrust of the article is optimistic in the extreme. After reading it my sunny disposition (see my previous blog) became even brighter.

However, over the page is just one of the cynical voices Hutton dismisses. (Perhaps I am being a little unfair because Andrew Rawnsley is looking at the G20 through political eyes rather than the economic perspective of Will Hutton). I was interested that Rawnsley explained why the G20 has now supplanted the G8, because I was getting confused with all these G summits. According to Rawnsley, it’s down to Brown seeing that he could create a link between saving the world economy and saving his own political skin. In other words, it’s in Brown’s interests to make the summit a huge political event, despite the fact that the G20 is attended by finance ministers and advisors rather than global leaders. But, rather like the teenage party where the guest list gets out of hand, Rawnsley believes Brown is now concerned that he has created such high expectations that people will be disappointed.

Regarding civil disobedience, I think next week will have some ugly clashes. Unlike countries such as France, there has not yet been any outlet in Britain for the frustration over the economic crisis. Furthermore, many other protest groups are coming together, so this may turn into an outpouring of dissatisfaction and unrest. I am not sure how the Government will react to this impending situation: obviously they will speak out very strongly against violence if and when it happens, but they, just like Will Hutton (see above), may qualify their words. Their problem is that it has been politically convenient in the last month to divert attention away from the political decisions that made this situation possible and instead to attack the bankers, with emotive words such as ‘outrageous’ and ‘appalling’. If politicians have legitimized anger, what can they say when protestors express this in violent terms?

Let’s see what happens.

P.S. On reading this following my last blog an hour ago you might guess I spent Sunday in the company of The Observer (scattered around the bed-room) and my word-processor. You might even guess my mother in law was in my flat. I really can’t comment...

Why The Economic Malaise Can Help Child Poverty

On a bright and sunny morning this occasional NextLeft Blogger felt even more sunny when reading The Observer head-line Darling To give Budget Cash Boost to Poorest. This is a Fabian birthday present with candles, cake and balloons twice over. On reading the article it wasn’t quite as exciting as the head-line implied, because the decision has yet to be made. But, over 100 MPs have signed an open letter calling for the Government to renew their child-poverty targets following the decision to enshrine this commitment in law. This may hardly seem ground-breaking given the Government’s past pledges on child-poverty, but what is very encouraging is the timing before the budget and the number of high-profile signatories’ which is a vital indicator that it will probably happen. The letter specifically mentions that it makes economic sense as a fiscal stimulus because the poor are more likely to plough the money back into the economy. Such arguments would not have been aired so widely half a year ago. Apparently Darling is seriously considering a bold move which will give money to the poor in some form in the next budget, which is even better news.

The current economic situation has strengthened such calls and at last made the case for re-distribution stronger in political terms. Crucially, re-distribution is an argument which Labour now really feels they can present to the country (I hope I am not being naively optimistic), as long advocated by extensive Fabian research on child poverty by Louise Bamfield and others. The Government will, of course, argue for re-distribution in terms of child-poverty, because this is an issue in which everyone can agree upon: nobody can argue that a child deserves to be in poverty, even though this case is so often made about adults nowadays (the deserving poor with parallels to the Poor Law) and is sadly barely ever challenged. If child poverty is reduced it goes without saying that all poverty will be reduced because children exist within family/social structures, and you cannot improve the quality of life for a baby without improving the quality of life for families as a whole . Therefore, the child poverty campaign can be seen as a tactical way of reducing poverty within society without spelling it out in such terms. If the current economic malaise makes it possible to present social re-distribution, perhaps it is a blessing in disguise in the long-run.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

A constitutional pickle

An interesting post over at political betting raises a thought that has (oddly, because it is rather obvious) never occurred to me before. What would happen if this vote scenario played out? (caveat – it is based on a universal swing calculation, and one thing we know is that universal swing is becoming less and less useful to predicting political outcomes).


This would create two problems. First for the Liberal Democrats. As the post over at PB asks, who should they negotiate with first? They have a choice between Labour (the largest party in the Commons, and probably still their closest ideological bedfellows) and the Conservatives (who have won the popular vote and are led by Mr. Cameron – someone with whom the Lib Dems could probably do business).

But a second thought strikes me. I might be misremembering this, but in the event of no overall control it comes down to the Queen to ask a party leader to form a government. I think she essentially has a free choice about who to ask, but precedent dictates that she makes the offer first to the party with the most seats. So such a result might put the Head of State in a difficult position – would she go with the seat split spat out by the first past the post system, or break with established practice and ask the popular vote winner? It just goes to show how far into uncharted territory we are here.

[First published on my personal weblog]

The fall of Callaghan

Today is the 30th anniversary of the vote of no confidence which brought down the minority Callaghan government, leading to Margaret Thatcher's victory in the May general election, is being marked by an evening of programming on the Parliament channel from 6pm tonight. (There will be no television footage of the debate itself, of course, as cameras had not been admitted).

There was a very interesting Roy Hattersley insider account, in last Sunday's Observer magazine. It was perhaps somewhat buried, and I thought it was worth flagging up here.

Hattersley still believes the government was wrong not to bring a dying MP 200 miles to the Palace of Westminster, where his vote could have counted had the ambulance been parked outside. (A tie would have saved the government, which lost by one, were the MP still alive). Without the rigours of the trip, he died a week later.

Hattersley was also keen to buy Enoch Powell with a vague promise of a gas pipeline, which Callagan refused to countenance.

Whether an Autumn 1979 election would have seen the government do better than in May is difficult to judge. Probably, the seeds of destruction were sown much earlier. Might it all have been different if Callaghan had not led the Cabinet opposition to the Wilson-Castle trade union white paper 'In Place of Strife'?

Friday, 27 March 2009

Labour wins in Oxford!

The trendy London metropolitanites at Fabian HQ have doubtless been blissfully unaware of a mammoth political struggle which has been unfolding over the past few weeks in the streets of Oxford. What else could explain the complete absence of any Next Left commentary - well, until now - on the city council by-election in the hotly contested seat of Headington Hill and Northway (HHN)?

HHN is in the Oxford East constituency held by Andrew Smith for Labour. At the last general election Andrew's majority fell from around 10,000 to (if memory serves) around 1,000, with the Lib Dems in second-place. I recall pacing the streets of Headington Hill with my Labour leaflets taunted at almost every step by lurid orange Lib Dem posters in the windows.

City council seats in HHN have often been narrow fights between Labour and the Lib Dems, with the Lib Dems often getting the edge. However, in the city council elections last year, Maureen Christian took back a HHN city council seat for Labour. Indeed, bucking the national trend, Labour gained 4 council seats in Oxford - not enough for overall control, but enough to make Labour the largest single party on the council. One interesting feature of the race in HHN was that the Lib Dems were actually beaten into third place, coming behind a very energetic young Tory candidate called Mark Borja.

After many years of great service to the community, Maureen sadly died in February, making a by-election necessary. Labour selected Roy Darke as its candidate, Mark Borja reentered the fray, and the stage was set for a tough three-way fight between the main parties. (The Greens were also involved - I'll get to them later.)

I did some pacing of the streets and Labour leaflet dropping, but I really had no idea how the race would turn out. I had a shock when my neighbours across the street erected a placard in their garden for the Tory candidate. And then another Tory poster appeared in a window down the street. The Tories had come a close second in 2008. Was this the big breakthrough moment, the moment in which the Tories would get their first city council seat in Oxford for...well, a very long time?

No. Labour won with an increased majority.

I'm not an expert on election dynamics, but my reading of the situation over the two city council elections is that the revival of the Tories has actually split the anti-Labour vote in HHN. Some of the Lib Dem vote has gone their way, knocking out the Lib Dem competition to Labour; but not enough for the Tories to catch up with Labour. So Labour wins. (Not automatically of course - there's a lot of hard work to get the vote out!)

The news from HHN is obviously good for Labour in that it means Labour consolidates its leading position on the city council. But does it also offer some tentative clues as to how things might work out at the next general election? Will a Tory revival cut into the Lib Dem vote in Oxford East, so helping the Labour candidate? If I were a Lib Dem, this would be my concern.

I promised to mention the Greens. They had a terrific candidate, Katherine Wedell, and her 62 votes really don't do her justice. I watched the progress of her campaign very closely. I had no choice - she's my wife.

James Purnell: The new egalitarian capitalism

A Next Left exclusive from the progressive governance conference in Chile, where James Purnell, work and pensions secretary, is just delivering this speech setting out how the progressive left must respond to the economic crisis with a more confident and radical political project.

I keep on hearing that this is a centre left moment. I hope so. But we don’t know yet – the financial crisis of the 1930s looked like a centre left moment for a while and then turned in to a very nasty far right moment.

Whether it is a centre left moment depends on the decisions we take. But the really important decision is never when you are in the eye of the storm. It is the moment after. The action that you take, in immediate response and then later, on reflection, are the truly defining moments. The Depression of the 1930s was not made inevitable by the Wall Street Crash of 1929 but by the immediate retreat behind tariff walls.

We are still dealing with the aftershock of a very severe banking crisis, the consequences of which have spilled over into the rest of our economies. The immediate policy response has, in my view, averted a comprehensive disaster. It is important too that we follow the admirable determination of the British Prime Minister not to allow the crisis to be a pretext for protectionism.

But the crucial decisions come next. This crisis has melted away the political certainties. It has melted many things we thought were solid into air. It makes us all think again about the arguments we use. It makes us search for the things that we must do differently as a result of the crisis.

The current economic problems have the neo-liberal intellectuals on the run. But that doesn’t mean voters will inevitably turn to the Left for answers.

We need to show that we can not just diagnose the roots of this problem but provide the right answers. As Kevin Rudd has said, this is the traditional role of social democracy to save capitalism from itself.

We need to do so without over-reacting. We come neither to praise capitalism nor to bury it. We want to change it, by reforming it, and I want to argue to make it into a more egalitarian capitalism. That means that, coming out of the crisis, the progressive political project needs to be both more confident and more radical.

Globalization is not a force of nature. It is a man-made phenomenon which, on balance because of the opportunities it offers, is a good thing. But it shifts the burden of risk, it creates uncertainty and insecurity along with prosperity and riches.

The purpose of the Left in politics has always been opportunity and security. Those twin beliefs are more necessary now than ever. People are worried about the extraordinary instability that was bubbling below the long boom of the last two decades.

We can’t promise to end instability. But the crisis does reinforce three key progressive arguments of the last decade. They should give us confidence that our political thought is a good guide to recovery.

The first is the need to invest in human capital. Over the last decade the British government has done more redistribution than any other developed nation. It has been possible because of the growth in the economy. And that growth, in a nation trading on its skill in high value-added occupations, requires a well-educated workforce. The threat to growth means we need to redouble our efforts to educate our workforce, from universal childcare to globally competitive universities.

Then there is another side to falling growth. Human capital policy equips people for the future. A supportive welfare state equips them for the present. The people who lose their livelihoods are the victims of instability. They do not deserve their unfortunate fate. And, because of that, they deserve public support.

There will be a distinction between Left and Right on this point. The Right will, in due course, use the downturn as their pretext for reducing the generosity of the welfare state. Where they think the welfare state is the problem, we know it is part of the solution. That support needs to be matched with responsibility - we need active welfare not passive welfare. But it is in the troubled times that you truly realize the value of that support.

The third point that is becoming clear is that the years of rapidly expanding spending on public services are over. The continuous improvement to public services which we have seen for a decade now cannot stop. But more money will not be its motor force. We will be forced, by sheer weight of necessity, to get more for each pound. That means the debate about how to reinvent public services, how to improve outcomes through reform, is an urgent necessity. In a world of change, we cannot promise people a quiet life.

So, our beliefs in education, a supportive welfare state and the courage to reform public services grow in strength from the current situation. But in other areas we need to change.

We do not yet know for certain that we are at a historic inflection point. But we may be. 2009 may turn out to be a revolution. But whereas 1989 was a revolution against the consequences of arbitrary state power, the anger of 2009 is against the consequences of arbitrary market power.

The question now is how to help people protect themselves when markets go wrong? How do we replace the rapacious aspects of financial capitalism, in which too many of the spoils went to the undeserving, with a capitalism that is in tune with basic fairness?

In ten years time, we will all still live in capitalist societies. But it needs to be a more egalitarian capitalism, both because it is fairer and because it will grow quicker.

What would egalitarian capitalism mean for policy?

It means the left no longer needs to be shy about equality. But we should be smart about it. We can't create equality in the old way. We can't simply take money from one set of people and give it to another, and call that equality. That is a palliative. It is trying to compensate for an unequal society not trying to tackle its causes.

Instead, the left needs to remember that it started off as a movement about power. We need to recognise that income inequality is just part of a wider struggle against the inequality of power. The greatest injustice is when people cannot achieve their goals because someone else with power stops them.

The credit crunch was a power failure. Too much power was invested in bankers and too little in regulators. Too much power went to the market and too little to democracy. We had the power all in the wrong place - too concentrated, too many bankers with monopoly power. So disperse the power and don't allow one interest to predominate.

This simple idea will serve us well in policy: get power down to the lowest possible level. And don't let too much power gather anywhere. Power needs to flow.

Give people power over public services so that the services they receive become the services they need. If they are not happy with their hospital or school, let them choose another one.

Give people power over politicians. Progressives should care as much about choice in democracy as choice in public services.

Make sure people have assets they can fall back on in times of difficulty, or use to get on, in times of opportunity.

Abolish child poverty and make sure that no one who works full time is below a country's poverty line.

Make sure that nobody gets trapped in a life of benefits, dependent on others, deprived of the nobility of labour.

Never stop inquiring into whether inequalities are merited. Too many inequalities are written off as just the way of the world. But we have a hand in making the world. Inequality has to be justified as the fair rewards of effort and creativity within a fair system, not the consequences of unchallenged privilege.

And then, way beyond the street and the neighbourhood, beyond local and national government, starting at the G20, get power in the right places, with the right nations round the table, to fix supra-national problems.

Through all of this, in policy that runs from the street you live in to the world you work in, we can see a thread. We want power to be spread and spread equally. The case for capitalism is that it spreads power. The case against is that it does so unequally. The case for government is to close that gap.

We are not yet into the light of day in this crisis and a clear road ahead is not yet obvious. But I do think we can pick out the outlines of the future from the gloom. Be confident that our investment in people is critical. That a supportive welfare state is indispensable. And that active government is the only way to provide both.

And then focus on the mission of the left not just for this generation but for every generation - to take power and multiply it by releasing it. This is the lesson of the centre-left moment - not that we, the politicians acting as the state, take more power for ourselves. Quite the opposite - we let it go.

Boris doesn't really get this bike thing

Not sure that Boris is quite getting the point of these city bike schemes. He is talking about introducing to London a borrow-a-bike scheme similiar to the excellent Velib one in Paris and the one that has run for years in Copenhagen.
Bike racks are set up around the city with stacks from which anyone can borrow a bike for a short time, for a small cost, and then return to a different rack, somewhere else in the city.
The idea is to cut down on the need for car journeys and give people an alternative form of transport. Why then is Boris suggesting he will not position the borrow-a-bike racks near railway stations in London as they would be too popular?
Err, that is the point Boris.

So who could oppose Royal succession reform? Here's who

Good news that the government is to move on ending Royal primogeniture and the religious discrimination against heirs to the throne marrying Catholics. These modest reforms were recommended in the Fabian Monarchy Commission of 2003, and have widespread support.

Evan Harris is now introducing his private members' Bill in the Commons. While it has no chance of becoming law, he has done well to prompt the government's move forward. A good deal of background, and relevant links to Hansard and other sources, about the recent history of this issue can be found in this earlier post about his Bill. It is good to see progress is being made, having been stalled by the extreme timidity on this issue of former Lord Chancellor Charlie Falcolner, in response to Alf Dubs' Bill and questions.

The Times had an excellent leader on this in December 2004, in support of my Fabian Executive colleague Alf Dubs raising this issue in his own Bill in the Lords:

The British constitution might always be puzzling. It should not take pride in being ostentatiously bonkers


The rules that surround the succession to the throne are among the most anachronistic and indefensible. The reform proposals would provide for new and far more relevant arrangements... it would be intriguing to see how any parliamentarian could publicly defend the present method of succession. "

So who could possibly oppose such a measure?

On Tuesday, I had an amusing phonecall which revealed the answer. The office of Mr Philip Davies, the MP who is Parliamentary Spokesman for The Campaign Against Political Correctness, got in touch to ask for some background on the issue given the Fabian Society's work on the issue.

I was happy to provide the relevant links from Next Left! I also asked for his position on the Bill. He would be against it. Was he against male primogeniture on principle? His office understood this to be the case. I was intrigued to know whether he saw the idea of giving first-born girls priority in the order of succession to second-born boys as political correctness going too far. I got the impression that this was the case, but an email inquiry asking for confirmation elicted only this:

Philip Davies will be talking the Royal Marriages Bill out between 9.30 and 2.30 on Friday. The precise fillibuster arguments he uses will be expressed then, but suffice to say he does not want it passed!

We will shortly found out.

The opposition frontbench rightly back a reform which should not be an issue of party political contention.

But what century do certain idiotic Tory backbenchers wish to live in?

European recovery plan: smoke and mirrors

The two most prominent speeches made in the European Parliament this week showed two very different attitudes to solving the economic crisis. On Tuesday, Gordon Brown spoke of Europe's role in leading bold global recovery efforts, and Wednesday Mirek Topolanek, the Czech Prime Minister and current President of the European Council, used his speech on Wednesday to call President Obama's stimulus package 'the road to hell'.

The truth is that, as Gordon Brown says, ambitous recovery plans, of the sort the new US administration is implementing, are just what Europe needs. The European Council and the European Commission are trying to hide the truth. To claim that Europe is investing 3.3% of GDP in recovery is pure political spin. Of course when unemployment is going up then benefit payments will go up too - but this is not investing in new jobs and cannot be presented as investment in growth. In fact we are investing barely 1% in stimulating the economy.

Europe still needs a serious, effective recovery plan and I want to see it presented on 7 May. A European employment summit was planned for this date, but Nicolas Sarkozy has since scandalously downgraded this to a troika. The unemployment crisis will not disappear because he refuses to discuss what to do.

Now the IMF is telling us that the economic recession is getting deeper and will reach minus 3.2% in the Eurozone, which probably means it will be even worse in some other parts of the EU. If Europe doesn't make a strong and urgent new effort now to invest in growth, as the recovery plan of the Party of European Socialists proposes, I fear unemployment will reach 25 million by early 2010. Europe must act, and must act decisively.

Parliament examines immigration stats row

This blog had a walk-on part in the argument between immigration minister Phil Woolas and the Office of National Statistics, with Woolas' critical comments about the ONS published here, following a Fabian seminar on immigration, and my successful challenge to Paul Dacre over the Daily Mail's mis-reporting on immigration and citizenship.

The Public Administration Select Committee held a public hearing yesterday to examine this, with Woolas and the head of the ONS.

The Daily Mail continues to take a keen interest, and reports on the hearing this morning.

A video of the evidence session can be seen on parliamenttv.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

The devalued Dan Hannan

Dan Hannan, polemical Telegraph journalist turned polemical MEP, journalist and blogger is the hero of the hour for the right-wing blogosphere for his rant against Gordon Brown. (The text can be read here, as well as the YouTube video).

I note three interesting things about this:

1. Many people got many things wrong about this crisis. I have yet to find anybody who was quite so extravagantly wrong as Dan Hannan. Let us not forget Hannan's paean of praise to the prosperous, deregulated Eurosceptic utopia that was Iceland: a model for Britain and us all.

Hannan loves Iceland dearly, having spent his stag night there to celebrate the fact that it had stayed out of the EU. (His best man, Tory ppc Mark Reckless, had been desperately keen to go to Greenland, as the only territory which has seceded: obsessive just doesn't cover it).

But I suspect the Hannan YouTube clip might be playing slightly less well in Rejkyavik now despite Hannan's 2004 Spectator piece 'Blue Eyed Shiekhs'.

In the ten years that I have been travelling to Iceland, I have watched an economic miracle unfold there ... Today, Icelanders are absolutely rolling in it. A people two generations away from subsistence farming have become international tycoons.


Look at the City of London, for heaven’s sake, which Brussels is doing its best to asphyxiate with its financial regulations.


Icelanders understand that there is a connection between living in an independent state and living independently from the state. They have no more desire to submit to international than to national regulation. That attitude has made them the happiest, freest and wealthiest people on earth.

So Dan Hannan surely ought to be the most devalued commentator or politician in Britain, Europe and beyond.

(Michael Lewis has a really interesting piece of reportage on the psychology of the Icelandic boom and crash in Vanity Fair).

2. The truly impressive YouTube numbers have been driven by this going viral through being made the lead by Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh and the US right-wing blogs (whose help Hannan generously acknowledges). Since the US right have not had much to cheer them up since Sarah Palin, we ought not to begrudge them this entertainment. Though the absurd right-wing attack blogger Paul Staines, who calls himself "Guido Fawkes", says that Hannan is now leader of the 'dittohead' wingnuts: "It is the speech that many Republicans wish they had someone to deliver to Obama"!)

3. If the right will take Hannan's popularity as further evidence that it has the blogosphere cracked, does it matter that all of their energy is on the anti-ProgCon right?

Hannan is perhaps the most strident Eurosceptic, no regulation, as little state as possible voice in the Tory party. (Though note that Hannan is very confident that David Cameron is privately much more Eurosceptic than anybody has realised, and campaigned for him to be leader on that basis. And Hannan won his vocal campaign against betraying the pledge to leave the EPP: after a heated internal argument, Cameron has divorced the parties of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy in Europe).

So Hannan's new found online fame will not help David Cameron persuade his party not to bang on about Europe. It is leading to questions about why Cameron does not himself turn into Mr Angry and just let rip too.

Are there shades here of the Bennite insurgency within the Labour party? At the risk of starting another Trot-off with Mr Luke Akehurst, isn't Dan Hannan something of a Tory Trot?

The political genius of Brian Clough

So how is your football-obsessive General Secretary going to persuade Next Left readers that last night's Brian Clough ITV documentary is a relevant subject for this political blog?

Very easily indeed.

1. For a start, there was my Fabian Executive colleague Austin Mitchell, in his Yorkshire television days, right at the centre of the most amazing slice of archive footage that they had: as the interviewer for the TV debate between Brian Clough and Don Revie, the predecessor whom he hated and who had gone on to be England manager on the very night that Clough had been sacked at the end of his disastrous 44-day spell managing league champions Leeds United.

Clough-Revie was Yorkshire's very own Kennedy-Nixon debate, said Mitchell: watching the footage (video), there was no hyperbole in this claim.

2. Interestingly, another former Fabian chair, Philip Whitehead, has a cameo role in the David Peace novel, The Damned Utd, as the MP tries to broker a peace deal between Clough, the board and the protesting fans after Clough resigns amidst acrimony having won the league championship for Derby. Oh, the European success they missed. Clough returned to campaign for his friend Whitehead in the 1979 election.

(Perhaps to secure the cooperation of the Clough family and Leeds players, I felt the programme was rather unfair on Peace's mesmerising novel. The Damned United film is reportedly rather different and somewhat warmer: something of a love story between Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor, who did not follow Clough to Leeds. (I have not read any of the David Peace books on which the major Red Riding adaptation was based: having watched the grim and gripping TV series, I now know that I couldn't face them).

3. Clough was, of course, a popular and populist socialist, if perhaps slightly less New Labour than Alex Ferguson. Clough twice turned down offers to be a Labour candidate. (I don't know the details: can anybody else illuminate us?)

And Clough remains relevant to Labour's fairness message today. He should also now be seen as the great champion of football's lost social mobility. Clough's achievement in winning the league championship with both Derby and Nottingham Forest, and then winning the European Cup twice with a small Midlands club on the basis of his mercurial talent, is no longer possible. If we study the causes and consequences of football's lost social mobility, it tells us something about opportunity and equality in society too. But that is a story for another time.

There. QED.

UPDATE: Alastair Campbell's take this morning. I think I've got more politics into mine?!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The wrong debate about a British Obama

A new piece of work by Robert Putnam is always worth reading and his collaboration with the University of Manchester promises to unveil some fascinating comparative information about social capital in the UK and US. It is also likely to be controversial as some of his findings from the US about the relationship between high levels of diversity and low social capital have been heavily criticised by many in the UK.

We got a sneak preview in this morning's Guardian where Putnam's writer Tom Clark talked about the impact of geography on ethnic minority representation both here and in the US . The subtext seemed to be that segregated communities had been good for minority representation and the lack of such communities here would continue to hold back minority Councillors and MPs. I have to say I found it a very odd piece. 

Firstly, we are comparing apples and oranges. There may be segregation in the UK (and we can debate the amount of that another time) but it is not the same institutionalised, Government-led forced separation that created much of the US's segregated cities and urban ghettoes. There seems to me to be no way you can compare the two - many minority communities in the UK have arrived and settled by choice as the result of immigration not in chains.

Furthermore, the new research seems to ignore the work that the Fabians themselves have done on ethnic minority selections. While our levels of representation are critically low and demand action, it would appear as though that action was at least beginning to happen.

Today's article also seemed to suggest that US-style segregation was a good thing. I hope it was simply clumsy editing because this is surely wrong. The notion of having easily compartmentalised communities each selecting their own representatives is just crazy. Yes, we want a parliament that looks like the country it purports to represent but we want our MPs to represent their whole community. We do not want more minority MPs simply to represent minority communities - we want them because they will be an indicator of social progress and make our democracy more legitimate.

Obama’s success has prompted much debate about whether he was able to transcend race. I believe we have to reserve judgement on that. Already, we have seen some interesting perspectives on race in the Obama age – not least Gwen Ifill’s fascinating book on the generational change in American black leadership. Both her work and other early analysis of Obama’s success would indicate that many minority politicians are able to move beyond being the ‘black candidate’. Indeed, this is hinted at in Clark’s piece today.

I will await Putnam’s book with interest. There is much to be learned from comparative research and his essay E Pluribus Unum is one of the best discussions on the challenges of diversity in the modern age that exists. However, today’s article concerns me. There is a great story to be told about race politics and progress in the Age of Obama both in the UK and US; this article does not do it justice.

Did the web or the ground game matter most for Obama?

There is an engaged critique of Change We Need from Anthony Painter over at Liberal Conspiracy, and an interesting nuanced discussion which Nick Anstead, co-editor, has also joined in, to suggest that "Obama didn’t win because of the internet, but he wouldn’t have won without it”. Anthony thinks the old-fashioned organising was more important. (I suspect they are both right). (Anthony is author of 'Barack Obama: The Movement for Change' and has a good blog at anthonypainter.co.uk).

Alastair Campbell's reflections on the event can be read on LabourList and his own blog.

Tom Miller was going to say pretty much what I said about Luke Akehurst. (Tom is a Compassite Fabian of suspiciously freethinking tendencies. He is also helping Mr Derek Draper in his declared intention to end the top down party (work in progress!) which does sound suspicously like a classic case of Entryism to me. On which topic there is a rather splendid post in the comments from David Floyd.

I remember in my young Labour days attending a Westminster gathering where a then member of the Young Labour National Committee, who I'd never met before, came up to me and barked "are you a Trot?"

Apparently it would've been too much to waste valuable denunciation time with a more polite "hello, I'm ?*^%, pleased to meet you, are or are you not a supporter of the replacement of the mixed economy with a socialist system based on the management of industry by a series of democratically elected workers councils?"

Finally, much outraged twittering suggests the event may end up being remembered for our Trot-bashing party hack's 'sweetheart' controversy. This has found its way to Iain Dale's blog, via an audience member who was also, like me, rather reminded of Life on Mars.

If you're posting elsewhere on this, do let us know in the comments. We'll keep flagging up the most interesting responses too.

It's not just the World Bank's problem

Guest post by Tom Stratton

Peter Townsend’s contributions to Next Left, and his chapter in the pamphlet published to mark the centenary of the Minority Report, forcefully put the case that global poverty must also be considered alongside the plight of the most disadvantaged in Britain. This is a most important point, however the focus of his ire is, in my opinion, misdirected; his views should be part of a wider debate concerning how much is expected of supranational institutions, particularly those covering the entire globe, and what the most effective way of policing issues that stretch beyond borders is.

Fundamentally, I don’t disagree that some of the World Bank’s policies have been counterproductive, but it is misleading to claim that it is the World Bank’s policies, above all others, which determine the developmental prospects of poor nations. Moreover, it is also fanciful to believe that the World Bank can act with autonomy from the national interests of the richest and most powerful nations on earth, nations that finance the Bank’s activities. The Bretton Woods institutions are part of a victors’ settlement in the aftermath of the Second World War and are, as such, shaped to remain under the control of those victorious interests.

In reality, the governance of international affairs is the politics of consensus and alliances. Gordon Brown’s trip to the US in search of a new set of rules and regulations for the global banking system is a prime example of this. There are no commonly accepted global institutions of governance that can oversee the international finance system, and consequently his job is to find some common ground on regulation that can be cemented at the G20.

With this in mind a pragmatic approach to reducing poverty and improving lives is necessary if any tangible results are to be achieved. Infringing on sovereignty and bypassing governments in the provision of services has been proven on numerous occasions to have negative consequences. Furthermore, arbitrarily imposing minimum wage standards and other employment conditions on countries is a step that would seem very difficult to enforce in emerging powerhouse economies, such as China, not to mention hypocritical coming from industrially advanced nations that built their wealth on cheap wage labour and raw materials from today’s underdeveloped countries.

Professor Townsend does allude to a more reasonable role for the World Bank in highlighting the failure to report ‘predatory corporate forces’. This is where the Bank, along with the IMF and other global institutions like the WTO and UNDP, can have a real impact. International corporations and national governments both fear their name becoming synonymous with poor employment conditions and wage exploitation in developed markets. Consumers en masse have huge scope to influence the practice of seemingly unaccountable corporations through removal of their custom, thereby depriving these entities of their lifeblood. A new initiative currently gathering pace is the engagement of businesses to fight poverty, not through Corporate Social Responsibility or charity, but in the form of large-scale investment with significant returns in mind. One factor in business’s reticence to engage in the developing world is the potential harm to their brand an exploitation scandal could bring. Although it might appear counterproductive to have such an impediment to investment, it is testament to the power of a body of consumers. The trick is to make the investment opportunities attractive enough that adequate labour standards are happily abided by.

Every person deserves the same protection from the scourge of poverty and exploitation as we enjoy in this country; however, the process will have to be incremental to be sustainable and cannot be imposed from the top-down by the World Bank or any other multilateral institution. There is no one source which can improve the lives of the poor on its own. The World Bank must be held to account, but it is part of a myriad of forces that must be harnessed for the good of those less fortunate. Examining our own power as consumers to hold corporations to account is surely far more productive than the search for a single scapegoat.

Iraq inquiry progress?

It is just over a year since Gordon Brown made his first public statement that he agreed with the need for an Iraq inquiry. This came in correspondence with me, after I wrote to press the case, just ahead of the 5th anniversary of the 2003 war.

The issue returns to the Commons today, on an opposition day motion. So David Miliband's speech today should help to clarify the government's position somewhat, though it is not clear how much we will find out about the form or timing of an inquiry, which is expected by the Autumn.

The reasons which the Prime Minister gave to me last March as to why that was not the right time for an announcement are decreasingly relevant, as preparations are made for the withdrawal of most British troops this summer.

Paul Waugh reports that David Miliband should confirm that those troops who remain would not be a good reason to postpone an inquiry.

The issue of the timing of an announcement has gone on for longer than was necessary. And there is a good case for allowing other parties to input into the form which it takes. (Senior Liberal Democrats like Sir Ming Campbell might feel they have rather more to offer than Mr Hague).

An inquiry is important in itself, to learn the lessons of this major and controversial war. It is also part of the necessary process to examine and bring closure to one of the most controversial issues - and so forms an important part of Labour's wish to reconnect to progressive movements.

Forget giving rich tax breaks to friends of Fred - now

So Danny Finklestein is lining up firmly on Ken Clarke's side on the inheritance tax debate. Ken Clarke was right to think that this was not the right time for the Tory party to line up on the side of the rich by pursuing its blatantly unfair policy on inheritance tax, says Finklestein.
Good to hear that there is division in the ranks. With Clarke firmly slapped down by Osborne on Sunday, Finklestein has opened a new anti-Osborne advance on Tory spending and tax plans.
Finklestein's argument that public attitudes have changed from September 2007 when there might have been more support for IHT, certainly chimes with Fabian research carried out in the last few months showing resentment against those who take with one hand and forget to give back has powered upwards during the economic downturn.
Finklestein agrees that the Tories have to worry during this period about being seen as the party of the rich, and for the rich.
He says: The detachment from reality on the Right is extraordinary.
His argument and one which Alastair Campbell was making to some extent at our Change We Need debate on Monday is that the Tories are still vulnerable and could/should be doing better in the polls.
Finklestein, who ran William Hague's office, reckons the real problem with Hague's 14 pints story, was not that the public didn't accept Hague could drink that amount, but that they didn't think he would drink beer at all. This personification of the Tories as champagne swilling, posh boys has not gone away, suggests Finklestein, manfully.
The outrage over Sir Fred Goodwin could be restirred by the idea that he and others like him would benefit for the Tories' IHT changes.
If Tory central office is not listening to Finklestein, Number 10 should. The public quite obviously is more open to arguments that show taxation policies to be unfairly balanced in favour of the rich, and this is the time to make stronger, more public arguments about why inheritance tax is unfair.

Questions to which the answer is no

Has Dan Hannan put down a marker for next Tory leader?, asks Mike Smithson on politicalbetting.

If only.

But sadly not.

Can we remind readers of the quality of Hannan's own crystal ball.

Why we can't

Luke Akehurst is keen to stop all of this 'change we need' nonsense before we loved up Obamanauts get so carried away after Monday night's excellent launch (liveblog) that we end up infecting the lonely life of the Labour activist with what Hillary Clinton once called 'false hope'.

Akehurst's alternative vision of Labour's future would be comedically miserabilist if he wasn't foretelling a tragedy of progressive politics. Here are some highlights.

First, a week ago Luke wanted to warn against the dangerous fantasy of encouraging newbie campaigners rather than relying on our "knackered tens of activists" to win the General Election in each key seat:

To suggest there is any potential for creating a structure to harness mass volunteer enthusiasm a la Obama for Labour as incumbents in the coming General Election is a dangerous fantasy and a potential waste of time and resource. We need to work out how to deploy and get the maximum effect from our knackered tens of activists per seat, not dream about thousands of youthful fanatics who don't exist in our current political reality or if they did would probably be actively hostile to Labour. In any case as an organiser I know I'd rather have ten experienced activists prepared to canvass for ten hours each than 100 newbies only prepared to do an hour each - the output is the same but the organisational effort involved in training and co-ordination isn't worth it. Most dangerous of all are the hints at undermining Labour's structures ...

Secondly, yesterday, the call to embrace the bloody pain of the factional in-fighting to come.

There may well be a period before that when being a Labour activist means entering into a world of pain and political trench warfare, and we shouldn't kid recruits it will all be nice social events and a happy-clappy unified crusade ... we will be in trouble if we lose the next election, and meetings probably will be like that. When that's the choice, those of us who are what Brandzel calls "professional politicos" will have to get eight people of good will into the room to out vote the "seven loud and angry people". Unless you win those fights then the chances of ever getting "thousands of people" involved are nil as the people who actually want Labour to win elections will not control the structures of the party.

That doesn't sound like the change we need for me. It is a useful challenge, to flesh out the argument against a political reality check. And this is a common mindset about volunteer management and which contributions are valuable, articulating precisely what the pamphlet suggests needs to be challenged. (If we were to discourage people who want to make smaller contributions, where would our future activists to come from?)

The Change We Need calls for a fundamental break with the organisational structure and culture of New Labour. (Of course, New Labour was often schooled by Trots when it came to organisational methods, though not content). And it presents challenges to our activist cadre and culture too. Akehurst's response reflects that it is those who are both New Labour to their bootstraps and deeply tribal to boot to whom most change is suggested.

Luke agrees with the speaker from the floor who called for a "Trot infestation strategy". (This went down pretty badly at the launch: both on the substance, and because the language and tone was straight out of Life on Mars, exemplified by the contributor patronising Catherine Meyer by calling her "sweetheart"). But it was also that the audience felt Ben Brandzel had a convincing answer: it is worth quoting in full the relevant passage from his pamphlet for exorcising the nightmares which keep Luke awake at night. (The full chapter is available too).

I know the Labour Party in particular has been scarred before by outside invasion – I can’t go a day without hearing some horror story about the ’Bennites’ or the ‘Trots’ – but this is a different world.

In fact, by keeping the Party apparatus closed and small, you ensure your own vulnerability. Decisions made in cramped backrooms can always be overwhelmed by a few persistent malcontents who speak louder and longer than everyone else – or powerful special interests who can buy or coerce their way to the top. Mass movements open to anyone who can log on or get together when they have a spare moment will always be pulled towards the common sense centre. It’s why Wikipedia can self-police for accuracy, why Obama’s open forums never seriously embarrassed the candidate and why the London Citizens’ agenda called for things like ensuring the Olympic Village creates public housing – not erecting statues to Che.

What’s more, if the parties did open up, I truly believe the British system is naturally better positioned to foster movement-based change than the American one. Despite three decades where British elections have become increasingly
’presidentalised’, you still vote for a party and its platform, and not for an individual whose personal life must embody all your hopes and dreams. Movements form around values, issues, ways of seeing the world and longing for a better way of life. Individuals can certainly lead them, but for movements to be strong, single individuals cannot truly embody them. Your parliamentary democracy gives each party the chance to be about so much more than its spokespeople or officials. And your electorate is used to voting for parties whose values they believe in. Structurally, it’s a system ripe for movement politics – if only the institutions dominating that system would stop getting in the way.

If we tried to transform the Labour party's structures and cultures and failed, then entryism might be a threat. Any engagement that succeeds would see the threat disappears. How many "Trots" are there out there? If we are being serious - and talking about those (like Militant) who might join Labour with destructive intent, without sharing our values - it is several hundred; a couple of thousand at the most. (Luke may have a more expansive definition of Trot. I am with Bevan on an independent nuclear deterrent in the 1950s. But is it possible for some of us - like Charles Clarke - to take a different view in the post-cold war world without being caught in Luke's Trot-spotting crosshairs? But Luke can't mean that he wants to protect the party from everyone who disagrees with him on policy. And part of the challenge is to become more comfortable with the healthy internal pluralism of any successful political movement).

And Luke suggests he would be on for this, if only it were possible: "we can get to a position where mass participation means we can just out vote the crazies, as in 1994-1997, then great". But he fears it is a dangerous fantasy. For Luke, Labour is embattled, entrenched and knackered. If there is new energy out there, they probably hate us. Let's round up the usual suspects. Once more unto the breach. This is the psychology of defeat.

And Luke is wrong. It is possible. Here. Now. It is not an empty wish. We have a good evidence base. The Fabian Society's Facing Out research and YouGov polling (summarised here) showed that there is an enormous pool of people who are already politically active, who do identify their own politics as Labour (not the LibDems, Greens, etc), who already want to engage more but who are not being offered opportunities which could channel that energy for our cause.

On a restrictive definition - counting only those actively engaged in a dozen NGOs - this is a pool of 2.5 million politically and civically active Labour people who we have not worked out how to engage. 9% of the group of politically engaged never-members were attracted by the idea of party membership, yet 64% were interested in becoming involved in local campaigns, 59% in national campaigns and 51% in campaigning against Conservative policy.

Labour is not hated by progressive activists in the way that Luke fears. Even within the next year, many more tens of less knackered people could be engaged. So let us drop the assumption of the inevitability of decline. (Among many small examples of successful engagement when we make politics engaging, Fabian membership has last month reached an all-time high in our 125 year history, and is 20% up on 1997. A good part of that is the largest and most active Young Fabian group we have ever had. Others will have similar stories of engagement and growth).

Most importantly, Akehurst thinks entryism is already a significant threat with our current structures: the case for no change must be correspondingly weaker, and the urgency greater. To defend failing structures quite as capturable as he describes would be madness indeed. Why should British progressive politics and the great Labour party and movement make itself quite as vulnerable to seven members of the bonkers brigade as he thinks it already is? Akehurst thinks there is no alternative to a hand-to-hand faction fight, ward by ward, constituency by constituency. We are in deep trouble if he is right, but this is a failure of political imagination.

This challenge from the hard-headed right of the party also shows that anybody who thinks this will be a predictable left versus right argument is quite wrong. Tribune have some similar fears about change to Luke, from the other side of the party. This will not be left/right. It is partly about open/closed, and it is definitely pluralist/tribal, though tribal loyalists need to work out where the party's future lies too.

It may well prove to be mainly a generational shift. It is surely now time to call time on the party reform argument which dominated the last half century. There can not be much that Luke does not know, like many of us, about Gaitskell/Bevan, Healey/Benn or NewLabour/SavetheLabourParty. But that doesn't mean he has to offer to put up the purse for the World Bald Men Championship Comb, round 111. Knowing and learning from the history does not demand we remain trapped in it. (That was once part of the point of New Labour which was, in 1995, a more historically informed 'project' than anybody now remembers. But revisionists revise. It might be the shibboleths of New Labour which could trap us now).

So many of those arguments since the 1950s have come down to the question of whether the leadership or the membership should control a monolithic party. They might be top-down versus bottom-up, but the principle has been 'all power to ... somebody': the leader, or the PLP, or the activists, or the members. Perhaps the biggest point of all about a party able to be part of a progressive movement politics is that the party structure will itself be less monolithic, more open and more plural. There will be top-down, and bottom-up, constitutionally defined procedures and activity beyond it on a let a thousand flowers bloom principle. Working out how that fits together is a necessary challenge. I can hear the Rulebook Tendency (Left and Right) fretting. But the cultural change matters so much more (and there is no question of major rule changes in the next 18 months).

This is a debate Labour would need to have anyway. I don't buy Akehurst's "cultural cringe" argument either. This will need to be a home-grown movement politics, which can draw on lessons translated from the US, Europe and elsewhere. New thinking about movement politics here did not begin with the US campaign of 2008. The Fabian Facing Out research - published in mid-2007, referencing the emerging Obama campaign in passing - set out how the party could connect to a progressive movement politics - finding more examples to emulate from the US and UK right than the left. That was influential with party opinion formers, but we didn't find a way to take it across the party. Obama's success has shifted enormously the possibilities of that emerging agenda. Of course, we should seize that and look in depth at the lessons it offers.

Everybody knows the stories of constituency parties who used to tell those enquiring about membership that the branch was "full up". I am told they are not apocraphyl. "No, we can't" is not the answer we need today either.

But challenging that requires more than chanting 'Yes We Can' at Luke as if we've been captured by the cult of Obama. It is now for Nick Anstead, Will Straw and others to clarify and test the arguments, and above all to turn it into a concrete agenda for organisational change which can be actively pursued. Those who advocate this approach and are trying to make it happen at constituency level - including ppcs such as Stella Creasy and Rushanara Ali, organisers and activists - will also need to take seriously Luke's call for a reality check, so that we take this agenda out of think-tank towers and across the party.

If this is the change we need, can Luke be persuaded to call the calling off off?

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Taxing times for Tory thinkers

One weakness of David Cameron's ProgCon modernising agenda is that he often lacks any advocates on the centre-right who are upstream of the leader himself. That seems to me to be one reason why, once debates become about anything substantive rather than image, the leadership comes under pressure from the right, and often retreats (grammar schools; tax and spend; Europe), or at least splits the difference (accept the new top rate; keep the inheritance tax pledge despite a Ken wobble).

Were I David Cameron, I would certainly be worried if my only 'outrider' was embedded at Demos, advocating a 'Red Toryism'. But perhaps that analysis unfairly overlooks the role of thinking Tory Daniel Finkelstein, now at The Times, who is among those (dozen? half dozen? three?) people in the party who are happy to call themselves "uber-modernisers" and who have long held it to be self-evident that a party that loses three elections might ask whether it should do something other than say it again louder.

So the argument between Daniel Finkelstein and Tim Montgomerie about Conservative tax policy is interesting and important.

Montgomerie kicked off this exchange by calling on George Osborne to 'get a grip'. The big argument is that, if they take over in a recession, the Tories could and should significantly shrink the size of the state.

Finkelstein wrote him a letter. He in principle shares that goal. But, in the real world, he notes that "Keeping spending growth below the level that Labour now plans will be very hard indeed. Very hard. I agree that Government currently does things it should not do and money can be saved. But each act will be a huge political battle with vested interests who represent real voters". (This is, of course, why neither Thatcher nor Reagan reduced government spending: it was not that they did not want to). The politics of bottling the argument about Labour's new top rate are "compelling", says Finkelstein.

Montgomerie has retorted further, and Finkelstein has replied again. (Even what an Observer ex-colleague is calling Katwala-Cohengate is going to struggle to keep up with this).

The important issue is not that there is a public disagreement: that is in the nature of politics; any party which wants to govern needs to construct a broad coalition to do so. It is what choice the party wants to make and why: I think that remains open, in part because this remains a debate where the leadership has not really fully engaged its own membership.

It is also only fair to note that there are several areas of substantive agreement between these Tory voices (they both have a "visceral reaction" to a 45p rate on the top 1% of earners, which 72% of their fellow citizens support), alongside their very significant disagreement about the party's political strategy. Finkelstein is advocating what is implicitly the leadership's strategy; in my view, part of the party's problem is that the leadership has been decreasingly willing to articulate that strategy publicly, as well as privately, perhaps since the end of 2006.

Alastair Campbell will not - like myself - be universally seen as an entirely popular or trusted observer of this debate. But I think he was right to say last night that an underlying reason for the Clarke gaffe is that Ken might be unsure as to what the party's instincts are now supposed to be. (The reasons for not opposing the 45p rate seem to me to apply precisely to the inheritance tax pledge, except that the latter was used to tickle the party's tummy to squeals of delight).

I would challenge two points about Montgomerie's reply:

* He seems irked that George Osborne chose last week to say they would support it. But I agree with Finkelstein that we all knew they would support it within days of it being announced: I posted about the media briefings to that effect last November.

* He says of the ConservativeHome (self-selecting) poll of activists that "80% of Tory members said we should oppose 45p or adopt a 'wait and see' policy". True - and yet that seems quite over-spun to me. By the same token, 55% said the party 'should support it or adopt wait and see'. (41% wanted to oppose it; 16% to support it; 39% to wait and see). Of course, most Conservative voters back the new top rate.

Of course, as we now see, the 'wait and see' policy was never going to hold. Neil Kinnock got into significant trouble trying to get through an election campaign in 1992 without giving a view about proportional representation. I would love to see the Tory leadership try to do so on the top rate of tax, but of course they needed to, in effect, promise to repeal it or to accept they would keep it.

A final thought: these kinds of debates between activists, columnists and other opinion formers (as opposed to between members of the frontbench team) can be healthy and useful. That was a major theme of last night's Fabian 'lessons from Obama' debate (liveblogged here), so I don't see any sense in screaming "split" when Conservatives hold an open debate about their values and aspirations for a government, and where taxes and a smaller state fit into that.

A particularly useful feature of the blogosphere is that it isn't simply a case of different views being projected past each other in "broadcast" mode, but of an interrogation and defence of positions. I think we would have a better internal Labour debate if there was more genuine and serious engagement across left, right and centre: Compass and Progress have held joint events together trying to do this, but too much of what passes for internal debate can still end up in mutual caricature.

Montgomerie and Finkelstein have taken the internal tax debate out into public. Even if the rest of us still can't be sure what the Tories think on tax.

The difficult art of polemical persuasion

Nick Cohen's dismissive response to the 'olive branch' letter does not much impress Sunny Hundal, nor others who think that it is a strange response, given that the challenge was that his column now too often predictably misses the mark with its unguided missile polemical lambasting of the entire liberal-left, to recommend that we all read his new book, consisting mainly of said columns.

But let's be fair, Nick has a book to sell. (Buy it here!). So I am rather putting my faith in Tariq Modood getting a little bit more sense out of him at the Bristol festival of ideas. Despite Sunny's disapproval, I am trying to remain in bridge-building mode. But it takes two to tango.

That Cohen no longer seems interested in trying to engage in a way which might persuade reasonable critics is strange, by his own account of why he writes. Democratiya - a journal of hawkish and anti-fascist liberalism, to which Nick contributes regularly - contains a review from Paul Thompson of the new Nick Cohen book. Perhaps the most interesting thing is a quotation from Nick Cohen, in defence of polemic but setting out how to make a polemic work:

Admitting in the book that he is happier when being miserable and firing critical missives, the piece in which Cohen's personal ethos is most likely to be found is the final one – The Reasonableness of Ranters. Likening his outlook to that of Christopher Hitchens, he offers his own broad back for receiving lashes of hate and affirms the highest status in intellectual life for the polemicist.

Such a person 'Produces a respect for argument that those who dismiss all polemic as mere ranting fail to see. If you can feel a need to make an unpopular case, and there is no point in being a political writer if you cannot, you must use your talent to win over a sceptical audience. You must acknowledge doubts and counter-arguments, and above all, you must write clearly' (p. 371).

But Thompson thinks Nick Cohen has stopped trying to do this himself, offering a similar critique to our letter in more detail. (I had a similar response to Cohen's "What's Left?").

It is a pity that this book does not back up those wise words. The barbs of a polemic have to be sharp and accurate to sting. Too many of these pieces are ill-considered, illogical and repetitive rants that will convince only those already converted.

Where I agree with Thompson is that this used to be among Cohen's greatest strengths. Cohen may believes that he is still acknowledging doubts, counter-arguments and trying to engage with critical arguments seriously. Yet some of us who know that he has an important point against value-free relativism - if only he would direct it accurately, with evidence, against those who hold those views - end up challenging his increasingly strident belief that just about everybody except Nick Cohen has gone mad.

The letter could help him to identify several new potential allies, particularly among liberal Muslims. While Nick notices that a couple of journalists - Peter Oborne and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown - signed the letter: he seems to be simply blanking out the liberal Muslims involved: he does not yet seem interested in the grassroots work they are doing. None of them have a history of violence or extremism. If there is less of a whiff of excitement about that, I don't think that should mean their views on challenging extremism should not count, alongside those who now repudiate their former extremism.

So I am left wondering whether Nick Cohen still agrees with himself about the art of polemical persuasion.

PS: But one can not fault his industry. Even while I have been writing this, Nick has added a footnote comparing his critics to Harold Shipman. ("Last Sunday I wrote about the willingness of doctors to go along with remarkably ugly standards in NHS hospitals. The comment editor has just warned me that a round robin from Lord Winston, David Tennant, Miriam Stoppard and Harold Shipman is on the way").

Personally, I think that is quite funny. But Nick is engaged in some nifty goalpost moving. He wants to claim I am challenging his attack on Jamaat-e-Islami. (On that I agree with him as, happily, do the voters of Bangladesh). He knows very well that my challenge was whether he might care to try to stand up his accusation that the entire liberal-left - and the Fabians and ippr in particular - have a policy of appeasing and condoning fascism.

Cohen thinks that was excitable and over-the-top. I think there are two possible reasons why one might agree with him about that.

1. Being accused of condoning and appeasing fascism is not a serious charge.

But I don't agree with that. That was why I asked Nick to make a serious attempt to defend his argument and to offer some evidence. (His main defence now seems to be that it was a hit-and-run smear, made near the end of his column!).

2. One is not meant to take seriously what Nick Cohen writes in newspapers.

Well, I disagree with that one too. But, if that was my mistake, I apologise.

Monday, 23 March 2009

We have got to get over Militant - and New Labour

From the floor of debate change we need.

- We had the voice of wizened old activism from the floor. "I remember the 1980s. The Trots will be back. We must have a Trot infestation strategy". Both Will Straw and Alastair Campbell have suggested these ghosts and nightmares are the main thing holding back the 'change we need', and here's the proof.

- But we've just have a very good rejoinder from the floor too: "We do have to get over Militant. We so need to do that. But we need to get over New Labour too". Those are now deeply alienating for new generations of activists. Let go of it all.

From the same speaker: "'Cynicism is boring' was the message from New York. If New York can get over cynicism, then Britain can".

Ben Brandzel has just taken this one head on: "I say in my chapter that I have not gone a day without hearing a horror story about the Trots or the Bennites. So thank you for keeping my perfect record. But we do have to get beyond that by addressing it. It was very dangerous". But Brandzel has a Trot defence strategy: it is not by closing down, it is by opening up the structures. It is not about checking and vetting everybody, so that you control them. 300 angry people can dominate a party which is failing. They can not if you don't try to check the bad apples, but to make sure you have opened up the party. If everyone has to be a vetted, signed and sealed community activist who is New Labour approved, then you are turning away thousands of people who want to help you.

"When all you have to choose from is professional politicos and the unemployed Trot newspaper-seller, then you are in trouble. Seven loud and angry people can dominate a small meeting", says Brandzel.

Loud applause for this. This is the answer. And this is a home crowd for the Change We Need argument.

And Campbell says: "I bumped into Derek Hatton and he said you do realise that I am now to the right of you. So they do move over time".

More seriously: "The Tories will get some of these ideas too. Let them do it and try. From where we are now, the Labour party has to take a few risks and starting doing it".

Campbell: Fault on both sides in Blair's failure with unions

Will Straw accepts the point from Dan Whittle in the audience that the trade unions were very important in the Obama campaign:

"I think Tony Blair tried to define New Labour against the trade unions. I think the left-right debate within the Labour Party is becoming narrower and changing, partly because of the economic crisis". A movement politics means engaging with unions, say both Straw and Brandzel.

Campbell: "I think Tony was trying to say that an old game which the unions used to play wasn't going to work". Gives example of minimum wage: Blair said to barons, it isn't going to be a case of you making a ludicrous demand and we then meet you halfway and we all go away happy. His message was to think seriously and to come back with what they really thought government should do.

"That was trying to develop a better dialogue with the unions. To be frank, it never happened. I think there was fault on both sides about that", says Campbell.

"We have to shake off our defensiveness about so much. We have to shake off our defensiveness about the unions. We have to shake off our defensiveness about the record. We have to shake off our defensiveness about what politics is for".

Campbell says he is sorry to keep banging on about government ministers, but too much of the instinct is to meet the negativity half-way. And there is no politics of hope and mobilisation in that at all.

And Campbell says to Brandzel: "I agree that there is nothing un-British about house parties or sitting and discussing. But there is something in your culture that makes it possible to ask without pissing people off the whole time. I fundraise for leukemia research, and people say 'all you ever do is ask for money' and I say well I am fundraising for charity. But again we have to shake off our defensiveness about that".

Tory brand has not been detoxified, says Alastair Campbell

"I don't accept that the Tory brand has been detoxified at all. It is a media thing", says Campbell.

"So what is the reason for their advantage in the polls then", interjects Ben Brandzel.

"Given how long we have been in power, given the state of the economy, I would not be that cocky if I was 10 to 12 points ahead in the poll", says Campbell. "I would want to be a lot further ahead than that".

"What has happened is that they have successfully presented a communications strategy that, because our media is so bovine and supine, and want to give them a fair shot, it is being taken up in the media as equivalent to the modernisation we undertook in the 1990s. And it is nothing like that".

The Conservative Party will struggle when the campaigning heat is on, because it simply has not decided what its instincts and messages are going to be, he said, saying that the taxation row was symptomatic of this.

"I think what happened today is that I don't think Ken Clarke just didn't know where their instincts are meant to be at the moment. Put under real pressure, they will make real mistakes because they do not know what they are meant to say and think at the moment".

"People always always say they don't like negative campaigning, blah, blah, blah. But you have got to give an account of your opponent's weaknesses", says Campbell.

Will Straw agrees with this: "You have to remember that Obama spent more money on negative campaigning than any candidate in US political history. He also did more positive campaigning than that. But you have to define your opponents", citing Obama's definition of McCain over Iraq and the economy.

Brandzel: "From a mobilisation point of view, being on the attack is incredibly important. I would also say that you don't only have to be against the other party. It can be about taking down the opponents of the general welfare, which is what governments should be for".

Lammy: "I think that is what we call the forces of conservatism".

"A very fine speech", says Campbell.