Monday, 28 February 2011

Mandateless Cameron's election amnesia

The theme of the next election will cause problems for all politicians of all parties.

It will be the "why should anybody believe a word you say" election.

Jeremy Paxman et al will have a field day, so astonishingly cavalier have both David Cameron and Nick Clegg in neglecting the need to even attempt to reconcile what they said before the election with what they did afterwards. This goes far beyond the compromises of an hung Parliament and the coalition which resulted from it, since the parties concerned have not given unequivocal public commitments much if any weight in subsequent negotiations with others. As John Harris points out in his Guardian column today, this means that "the merchants of anti-politics have conclusive proof that some politicians will say anything to get elected".

Around the time of last year's comprehensive spending review, some highlighted a "democratic deficit" between what was being proposed and what the Tories and Lib Dems had put before the public. The Fabian Society's Sunder Katwala accused David Cameron of "amnesia about what he did and did not ask for a mandate for". As Katwala pointed out, the central deceit was embodied in a reading of the election in Cameron's 2010 conference speech: "The result may not have been clear-cut when it came to the political parties. But it was clear enough when it came to political ideas." It takes Etonian chutzpah to spin a line as disingenuous as that.

The comment quoted was sparked by David Cameron having clearly quite forgotten what he told the country on the weekend before the election - that he would not allow any frontline cuts while reducing the deficit.

At the level of ideas, the election was contested between two parties (who won a majority of the votes) accepted the need for deficit reduction but warned about spending cuts being too deep and too fast, and one which was prepared to make £6 billion of cuts in year one but wanted the voters to be clear that the structural deficit could be entirely eliminated in one Parliament without cutting any services which the public value.

"What I can tell you is any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: 'Here are my plans' and they involve frontline reductions, they'll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again. After 13 years of Labour, there is a lot of wasteful spending, a lot of money that doesn't reach the frontline."

I can never quite decide whether it would be more damning if he had believed this at the time he had said it or (as is much more likely to be the case), he knew it would not be true when he appealed for votes on that basis.

It would be quite unfair to Nick Clegg should the electorate regard David Cameron as more likely to keep a promise

The uncertain election outcome reflected the fact that key groups of voters rather rationally didn't trust this claim, but the Conservatives were fortunate that the Liberal Democrats then decided not to negotiate at all on the deficit, and probably not because they believed Cameron's solemn pledge.

This government may believe it is necessary to break this and other pledges - such as that not to have any major reorganisation of the NHS. What they can not claim is any democratic mandate at all for these enormous political gambles.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Why soup kitchen ban is only first skirmish in coming battles over homelessness

The richest Tory-run Council in the country is seeking to ban soup kitchens for the homeless from an area around Westminster Cathedral. Labour Uncut has provided the documents to prove that they really hadn't made up the story with a "you couldn't make it up" feel to it.

A controversy over banning soup kitchens could prove particularly toxic for the "big society". Coming so soon after much 'big society tsar has too little time for the role' satire, the big idea could certainly do without another existential credibility controversy, while Steve Hilton seeks to patiently nurse it back to health after Andy Coulson's attempt to kill it with kindness through benign communications neglect.

There is legitimate debate about the role of soup runs in providing help to the most vulnerable. The LSE produced a balanced report on the issues in Westminster. While homeless charities are keen to promote alternative provision, it seems very unlikely that civic voices which are widely trusted would support the ban as a way to do this.

Westminster Council dropped a push for a London-wide soup run ban in 2007, as Ekklesia reports. Critics suggest one foreseeable effect of the current proposals will be to push rough sleepers to other boroughs.

Homelessness will return as a political issue this year - and this may come to be seen as one early skirmish in a much broader policy and political battle. As Next Left has noted before, the Tory-led Coalition government is quietly planning to weaken current statutory homelessness provisions.

Westminster Council has been leading the push on this - lobbying ministers over a series of specific ways in which the government might weaken the legal duties of councils to house the homeless, believing that this will be necessary to handle the fallout from their housing benefit changes.

This is not a discussion that Coalition Ministers are keen to have in public at this stage - and Liberal Democrats with an interest in social housing, such as Simon Hughes, or local government will be put on the spot if and when the plans are unveiled. Lord Freud has publicly suggested that the legal duty to provide "adequate housing" could be redefined, as it may seem rather too strong.

Freud said it could be "quite valuable" to revise the current criteria in place, arguing: "We have found it very difficult to define homelessness in this country. The estimates [of homelessness] go from a few thousand to hundreds of thousands depending on who you are talking to."


"Clearly the common view of homelessness is nothing over one's head at all. The statutory definitions are different to that, and they are adequate housing."

Westminster Council is claiming its proposed bye-laws are motivated only by what is best for the homeless.

You can be pretty sure that the Coalition government will claim the same, when it does produce plans to weaken statutory duties to assist those who are homeless.

Can't somebody teach the Mail some history?

The Daily Mail often campaigns for more history teaching in our schools - something on which we would very much agree; and this blog was able to conduct some citizenship education, at the end of which we could happily agree with the Mail on who counts as British too.

But it seems that much more needs to be done to promote the case for more history teaching for the Mail newspapers' editorial teams too.

Mr Dacre's team on the Mail on Sunday are very happy this morning with the apparent triumph of their campaign against putting Britain on "Berlin time".

If the Mail doesn't want to put the clocks forward, then perhaps we can understand the case for that.

Yet they are even gloating at the unfortunate histories of their rivals.

The proposal was even backed in a Leader page opinion piece in The Times – perhaps appropriately, given that the same newspaper backed the appeasement of Hitler in the Thirties and Stalin in the Forties

A hat tip to Christopher Cook of the FT who tweets:

Mail attacks The Times for its support for appeasement in the 1930s. Did none of them think to check the Mail's line?

Some people would say let bygones be bygones.

But if the Mail disagrees with that, then it seems inevitable that they are going to end up with people dragging up all of that unpleasant business of the Mail's own Hurrah for the Blackshirts editorial of 15th January 1934, in which the newspaper set out the case for Mosley's British Union of Fascists

"a well organised party of the right ready to take over responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed"

Or noting some of Lord Rothermere's many other sustained and insistent objections to anti-Nazi scaremongering (though he sounds not so keen on the Germany-bashing of today's Daily Mail).

"These young Germans have discovered, as I am glad to note the young men and women of England are discovering, that it is no good trusting to the old politicians. Accordingly they have formed, as I would like to see our British youth form, a Parliamentary party of their own. . . We can do nothing to check this movement [the Nazi's] and I believe it would be a blunder for the British people to take up an attitude of hostility towards it. . . We must change our conception of Germany. . .The older generation of Germans were our enemies. Must we make enemies of this younger generation too?"

This meant ignoring pesky leftie hysteria in trying to imply the Nazis were not splendid chaps.

They have started a clamorous campaign of denunciation against what they call "Nazi atrocities" which, as anyone who visits Germany quickly discovers for himself, consists merely of a few isolated acts of violence such as are inevitable among a nation half as big again as ours, but which have been generalized, multiplied and exaggerated to give the impression that Nazi rule is a bloodthirsty tyranny.

The German nation, moreover, was rapidly falling under the control of its alien elements. In the last days of the pre-Hitler regime there were twenty times as many Jewish Government officials in Germany as had existed before the war.

Under editor Geoffrey Dawson, The Times self-censored its news reporting of German affairs, patrticularly anti-semitism, to suit its pro-appeasement editorial line, in which Dawson was closely involved as a player in diplomatic policy-making as well as a public champion of the Chamberlain government's policy. Of course, that is not a proud chapter in The Times' long history.

But The Times would have struggled to match Lord Rothermere's enthusiasm for appeasement, and was certainly not nearly so keen on Nazism itself.

On 1 October 1938, after the Munich agreement, Lord Rothermere telegrammed Hitler

‘Frederick the Great was a great popular figure in England. May not Adolf the Great become an equally popular figure? I salute Your Excellency’s star which rises higher and higher.’

On 28 March 1938, when the Nuremberg laws had long been in place, the Daily Mail wrote regarding Jews attempting to flee Nazi Germany:

‘To be ruled by misguided sentimentalism would be disastrous. Once it was known that Britain offered sanctuary to all who cared to come, the floodgates would be opened and we would be inundated by thousands seeking a home.’

The current Viscount Rothermere was born in 1967. Clearly, while he has an important position in public life because of his many inheritances, he could not be held personally responsible for the past. But it would be as well to acknowledge it, and perhaps just occasionally to reflect on whether anything might be learnt from it, or, if that seems too much, they might be well advised (again) to at least desist from throwing stones from a glass house.

Proof that you can have the X Factor without being first-past-the-post

Ed Hall gets himself completely confused on ConservativeHome, managing to argue that it would be bizarrely incomprehensible and unfair if we didn't have first-past-the-post voting for the X Factor on television.

In modern politics, a winner should be a winner. Try it round your dinner table or next time you watch the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing. Everyone votes for their favourite book, film or act: surely the candidate with the most votes wins? How would the BBC or ITV possibly explain or justify a programme format with public voting in which the candidate that got the most votes did not win?


Hall immediately acknowledges that reality TV does have preferential voting, instead of choosing the first round winner by first-past-the-post. ("Of course you do get to vote again in the TV formats as the candidates are knocked out, and the next week's programme starts, but do we really want General Elections every week until we get a winner?", he writes, which (while introducing a new red herring) has of course just destroyed the entire point he was trying to make the first time around.

(Back in November 2009, the X Factor case for electoral reform might just have been made on Next Left before anybody else).

We now know that the most recent two winners of the X Factor Matt Cardle and Joe McElderry would have lost under first-past-the-post voting on first preferences, since ITV have released the final round voting figures at the end of the last two series. (I haven't seen totals for previous series).

Most people did not seem to find this difficult to understand at all. It was simply that they had more support and popularity among the whole audience than the person who started off with the most votes the first time around. Matt and Joe were crowned as having the X Factor because they were the most popular candidates, without being first-past-the-post.

X Factor voting over several weeks has much more in common with the preferential voting system of the Alternative Vote than to first-past-the-post, because both systems make winning candidates seek majority support rather than choosing the candidate who is most popular first in a large field. (The X Factor does see more shifting of votes between rounds than would happen in a multiple ballot political election, such as in France or the Tory leadership, largely because music TV preferences are rather more fluid and volatile than political ones).

In 2009, Joe McElderry was not the first-past-the-post winner, but was placed third on the first round.

Danyl Johnson 27.1%
Stacy Solomon 12.9%
Joe McElderry 12.7%
Olly Murs 6%
Others 42%

However, McElderry led on all rounds once only six candidates remained, including 42% of the vote and a 20 point plurality once only those four candidates in the race. The full results can be read here.

He held over 50% with three candidates left. But he lost the first-past-the-post election in the first round.


The first-past-the-post winner last year was not Matt Cardle, but Mary Byrne, who had 22% of the vote in a 16 candidate race.

Mary Byrne 22.3%
Matt Cardle 15.1%
Cher Lloyd 10.3%
One Directin 10.0%
Aiden Grimshaw 9.8%
Other candidates 33%

Byrne was somewhat controversially eliminated by the judges when placed fourth with five candidates left.

The X Factor winner Matt Cardle, was second placed on first preferences, though he had the most first preferences once there were 14 candidates left and led on every round after that.

Or, as those champions of first-past-the-post at the Daily Mail put it:

The semi-final voting pattern shows that Matt Cardle was the clear winner with more than 35 per cent of the vote, followed by Rebecca Ferguson with 26 per cent, and One Direction with 17 per cent ...

This year’s winner Matt Cardle won the vote almost every week, apart from in the first week when Miss Byrne did. Runner-up Rebecca Ferguson was regularly in second place.

Of course, it is quite possible for the first-round winner to be the winner after transfers if they are the most popular candidate overall. The differences between the systems is when they pick different winners.

So the argument for first-past-the-post is that X Factor viewers have picked the wrong winners.

Bring back social Europe!

This week's Tribune carries a short report on last weekend's Fabian Europe conference.

How could pro-Europeans seek to close the stark class gap in attitudes towards the EU - and what type of social Europe agenda would be most relevant to the current economic challenges we face?

Claude Moraes, deputy leader of Labour’s MEPs, told a Fabian conference on the future of Europe on February 19 that ending an “austerity first” message and putting social Europe back on the agenda is essential if the European Union is to address voters’ concerns.

Mr Moraes said the last Labour Government had “confused people” by instinctively opposing most social legislation when in power, and said he believed leader Ed Miliband could see the strong case for protecting the rights of agency workers.

A YouGov opinion poll for a Fabian Society/FEPS book, Europe’s Left in the Crisis, reveals a stark class gap in attitudes to the EU, with C2 and DE social groups saying British membership is a “bad thing” by 53 per cent to 13 per cent. The 40 per cent gap compares to a 12 per cent gap among ABC1 voters.

Yet the poll also found strong majority support in Britain for common labour standards across the EU to prevent minimum conditions being undercut.

“What we have got is the Treaty of Versailles and what we need is the Marshall plan”, said David Coats, the former head of economic affairs at the TUC. He argued that “austerity Europe” would not win public support for extending the single market without a strong social dimension.

More from Tribune - and how to subscribe.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Political earthquake in Ireland - but will anything change?

What an electoral reckoning in Ireland, as the counting begins. That it was so widely anticipated should not mean we overlook a result perhaps without comparable recent precedent in any established western democracy.

The RTE exit poll shows

Fine Gael 36.1
Labour 20.5
Fianna Fail 15.1
Independents 10.1
Greens 2.7

Compare the 2007 result to see what an avalanche that is.

Fianna Fail 41.6% 77 (-4)
Fine Gael 27.3% 51 (+20)
Labour 10.3% 20 (-)
Green 4.7% 6 (-)
Sinn Fein 6.9% 4 (-1)
Prog Dem 2.7% 2 (-6)
Ind 5.2% 0 (-8)

Fianna Fail best the British Tories as the most electorally successful western democratic party of the last century. Only in the 1990s did they briefly dip just a smidge below 40% of the vote - to 39% in 1992 and 1997. You have to go back to the party's first Dail elections in 1927 to find them at 35% or below.

Behold now the mighty Fianna Fail on 15% of the vote in the RTE exit poll.

That's less than half of the share of the vote achieved by John Major's devastated Tories in the British election of 1997.

The Irish electorate have wreaked vengeance on the party of government. Whether they have noted for change is less clear. Irish politics being what it is, the pendulum swings from one side of the centre-right to another, with Fine Gael topping the poll. But the new governing party's emphasis on austerity too may well have cost it hopes of a majority in the final fortnight.

Irish Labour have achieved their highest ever poll with 20% of the vote, compared to 10% four years ago, and top of the poll in Dublin but falling short in the last few months of the heady heights they hit in leading the polls last year.

The result looks likely to put Labour in office alongside Fine Gael.

The new government has the toughest possible inheritance. It might be wise to be dreading the next elections already.

If this blog takes a passing interest in Irish politics partly for reasons of personal history - my late grandmother would never hear a word said against de Valera - even if plenty might have been said - it should hardly be without interest for anybody else. Yet again the British media has shown less interest even in the most dramatic of European elections than it would in a New York gubernatorial race, or the Republican party's skirmishes a year before any primaries begin. The BBC Parliament channel will take RTE's results coverage from 2pm.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Who would win an EU referendum?

Saturday's Fabian Europe conference invited pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics to set out competing visions for Britain's role in the EU. In this guest post, Ben Shimshon of Britain Thinks, who spoke at the conference, looks at public attitudes evidence to ask who would convince the public if there was a referendum on British membership, and says that pro-Europeans could learn from lessons from Eurosceptic campaigners.


Snapshot polls suggest that a large proportion of the UK public instinctively support withdrawal from the EU.

Were a previously unannounced referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU to be held tomorrow (perhaps via phone or email), the polling evidence suggests that the public would be more likely to vote in favour of pulling out of the EU than staying in.

The last few times the public have been asked the “in or out” question, the response has been fairly decisive: In the absence of any information other than their pre-existing views, just under half of people say they are in favour of pulling out, about a third say they are in favour of staying in, and the rest say they don’t know. (YouGov, Sept 2010, showed 47% in favour of pulling out, and 33% in favour of staying in; Angus Reid, Dec 2010, showed 48% and 27% respectively).

This hasn’t always been the case. In the decade up to 2007, when they stopped tracking the question, Ipsos MORI’s polls were slightly more likely to show greater support for ‘staying in’ than ‘getting out’, although the tendency was for about 40% on either side of the argument and 20% undecided.

These ‘snapshot’ polling numbers need to be considered in the light of the overall salience of the EU for the British public. The last round of Mori’s issue index showed only 1% mentioning EU/Euro/Common Market as the main issue facing Britain, and only 3% mentioned it when prompted to come up with other issues facing Britain. The last time the EU was mentioned by more than 10% was in summer 2005, when the UK took over the presidency, and before that, in 2004 when the Fifth Enlargement took place. The signing of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2010 hardly registered at all.

The euro-sceptic view expressed by many in the British public in opinion polls is underpinned by a widespread, and commonly held, set of underlying associations with the EU. A Fabian/FEPS poll conducted by YouGov in November 2010 confirms the public’s baseline negativity towards the EU: 45% feel that membership of the EU is a bad thing for Britain, while 22% feel it’s a good thing and a similar number say neither. The same poll shows that the public instinct bends towards loosening ties, rather than greater cooperation (Fabian/FEPS/YouGov, Nov 2010) Angus Reid’s December poll shows that fully 59% of Brits feel that EU membership has been negative for the UK, while 29 feel it has been positive.

Qualitative research explains why these ‘knee jerk’ perceptions are often so negative. In focus groups with middle of the road swing voters, asking what comes to mind when they think of the EU typically elicits a predictable, and very narrow, range of responses. These tend to align with views that are loudly and persistently proclaimed in some of the UK’s most popular newspapers. The EU is seen to be the source of many of the perceived problems that are tied up in the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’:

• Wasting public money
• Human rights law that seems to protect criminals at the expense of victims
• Unnecessary regulation and bureaucracy – straight bananas, abolishing pounds and ounces
• Employment law that stops people being sacked
And, most difficult of all,
• Immigration laws that have led to what many respondents describe as ‘a flood’ of new arrivals from Eastern Europe into ‘their communities.’

Focus group participants discuss each of these in an incredulous tone of voice, agreeing vehemently with each point as it is made, and shaking their heads in disbelief at each example. Often, the whole discussion is capped-off by the assertion that the UK is being ‘taken for a ride’; the belief is widespread that places like France and Italy just ignore the rules and regulations that come out of Brussels and that it’s only the ‘soft touch UK’ that plays along.

Negative feelings towards the EU are also bound up in a unremittingly bleak narrative about politicians and politics generally. Ask a focus group of typically informed Brits what they think an MEP does and, if you’re not met with silence, you’re likely to receive a tirade about things like ‘gravy trains’ and being ‘in it for all they can get’. The sense that the EU is fundamentally unaccountable underpins the public appetite for a referendum – no matter whether the question is about being in or out, or about a particular treaty – pollsters continually show that the public wants the opportunity to take decisions about the EU. A YouGov poll for the Sun in January this year showed 41% saying there should be referenda on all new European treaties while 31% felt that there is no need for ‘minor’ treaties. At the time that the Lisbon Treaty was signed in Dec 2007, Ipsos Mori found that 54% of people wanted a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – but even then, only 4% would mention the EU as a top issue.

The mess around the Lisbon Treaty provided no end of ammunition for the ‘venal politicians’ point of view’, with both of the main parties seeming underhand and unwilling to trust the people; Labour because they signed the treaty without holding a referendum; the Tories because they ended up having to choose between backing down or insisting on a referendum that couldn’t change anything. Calls for a vote on Europe are likely to be a continuous feature of the coming months and years. In the focus groups, we often find that people believe that the Conservative Party have promised them an ‘in or out’ referendum – something which may prove difficult for the Government to navigate further down the road, especially as their coalition partners actually did promise a referendum on membership at the time of the Lisbon treaty.

What if there really was a referendum? Should it ever happen, a referendum on membership of the EU would be accompanied by high profile pro and anti campaigns, with all the coverage and press interest that entails. The question then becomes about how far an increase in saliency will be accompanied by a shift in perceptions about the EU as the public begin to pay more attention and think beyond their existing views.

Those who are in favour of continued membership of the EU clearly have the most work to do, both in terms of addressing the existing perceptions about the EU, but also in finding the messages that can actually chime with what the public care about. Both sides will attempt to connect the EU to other, more salient, issues in the public mind. Immigration, which was felt to be the number one issue facing Britain in the months and years preceding the downturn, is already closely (and negatively) connected to the EU in people’s minds. Doubtless the pro-withdrawal campaign would leverage those concerns, alongside tapping into ‘stock’ issues such as accountability, waste of public money, “bizzare” court judgements, and laws that fly in the face of “common sense”

The Fabian/FEPS poll suggests that, despite the prevailing winds, all is not lost for the pro-membership groups. Asked a general question about cooperation between EU countries, the UK public are more likely to favour ‘loosening the links’ between countries (49%) rather than cooperating more closely (21%). However, when it comes to almost any particular issue, they are more likely to support closer ties between EU countries every time: Climate change; diplomacy; tackling terrorism; regulating banks; financial recovery are all areas where respondents were more likely to advocate closer ties than looser ones. That means there is space for the pro-European voices to develop messages around high-salience issues such as the economy, trade and defence in order to promote a more favourable view of the UK’s EU membership. Those messages could be about the ‘positives’ of membership, but it may well be that the potential negative impacts of withdrawal - in terms of isolation, lack of power, loss of favourable trading partners – have the most potential. The challenge for advocates of the EU in the UK is to find the messages, words, images, tone of voice and spokespeople that can get those messages to land as powerfully as the anti-EU messages do.

At the moment, though the anti EU voices are winning the battle. Their arguments, and their ways of framing the debate, are cutting through and chiming with the existing perceptions and preoccupations of the UK public.

Those who want to make the case for the EU must do the same – and would be well advised to do so, whether they end up fighting a referendum or not.

Ben Shimshon is a director at BritainThinks, having joined Deborah Mattinson and Viki Cooke at the founding of the company. You can follow Ben on Twitter: @BenShimshon

Why Mandelson's 'gloves off' New Labour offers the narrow politics of the 'small tent'

Peter Mandelson was a key figure in the creation of New Labour and the most influential electoral and political strategist of his generation. But it is also pretty likely that he cost his favourite candidate the knife-edge leadership election of 2010, by making an unsolicited (and unwelcomed) attempt to polarise the race around the question 'New Labour or not'.

His advice to David Miliband in the paperback edition, exclusively published in a Labour Uncut scoop, was that Mili-D should have welcomed the Blair-Mandelson embrace, not tried to deflect it.

[David] was fearful that if he championed a renewed New Labour vision too strongly, he would be living up to Ed’s stereotype of him as an establishment figure tied to Tony’s coat-tails. He ended up in something of a no-man’s land – wanting to be the New Labour standard-bearer, but terrified that this would lose him many activists’ votes. He did defend New Labour’s achievements when his brother started to single out a number of them for criticism. But I felt then, and still feel, that he missed an opportunity to take the gloves off and mobilise those in the broader party membership who still celebrated our three terms in Downing Street – and who would have followed a leader with a plan to update and reinvigorate our governing programme rather than bury it. (p.xxii)

Though David Miliband was pipped at the post, the evidence rather suggests that the Mandelson strategy would have fared less well than the strategy actually adopted by the candidate and his campaign managers Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy.

Here are three reasons why.

What would Tony have done?

Political mythology would have it that David Miliband should have followed the Tony Blair 'bold' strategy in running such a leadership contest. The problem with this theory is that Tony Blair did no such thing in 1994.

That is why the Blair leadership campaign famously fibbed - and said that Peter Mandelson had no role within it, as Donald MacIntyre recounts.

While Brown sealed Blair's victory by standing down, [...] Blair did not feel confident enough about the effect on either the wider party or his immediate lieutenants - among whom Peter Kilfoyle was the most vociferous Mandelson opponent - to engage Mandelson openly as his senior adviser ... The secrecy was thought necesssary for the Blair campaign to appeal beyond the ranks of modernisers ... Mo Mowlam, though initially hostile and part of the original Blair campaign, began consulting Mandelson regularly, while carefully maintaining the fiction to others that he had nothing to do with it.

Even though he had agreed to it, Mandelson was frustrated, even hurt, by Blair's insistence on keeping his role in the dark. It was a kind of denial. His vexation surfaced early in the campaign proper. Andy Grice, briefed by Mandelson, had led the Sunday Times with a comprehensive account of Blair's campaign themes, headlined (to Blair's extreme annoyance) BLAIR REVEALS SDP MARK II. Mandelson had remonstrated with Grice - as was his wont - but when a copy of the front-page was faxed up to him in Islington Blair uncharacteristically went into what a friend described as 'meltdown', partly because of its potential impact on trade union support and partly, perhaps, the headline was a little too close to the truth for comfort. Mandelson was correspondingly upset, protesting that he did not write the Sunday Times' headlines for them'

This doesn't sound much like taking the gloves off for New Labour - though it helped to secure Blair 52% of the trade union and affiliate vote in a 3-way race. The plan for a new Clause Four was carefully kept under wraps too until the following Autumn (when 90% of members happily endorsed it).

The narrowing of 'New Labour'

But what was 'New Labour' anyway? New Labour was enormously popular from 1995 to 1997, and for a few years beyond, with the public. It also had a broad majority coalition in the Labour Party behind it. And this was reflected in its agenda, which was centrist and centre-left but had plenty of content to bind a broad progressive coalition.

The history of New Labour was more complex than that. New Labour was popular as the party of macreconomic stability and caution on income tax rates, but also a windfall tax on the "fat cats" to pay for jobs for the young unemployed. It schmoosed the City - and took on the CBI over a minimum wage. It was tough on crime, and its causes. It was patriotic but intended to be pro-European too, and it was committed to the largest programme of political reform (devolution, freedom of information and the rest) since 1945. It promised to "save the NHS" - and ended up increasing taxes to pay for spending. It championed aspiration and pledged to end child poverty. It was in favour of both investment (money) in public services and reform to improve them, putting "schools and hospitals first" - over tax cuts - in its 2001 election campaign.

'New Labour' was popular whenever it wasn't just the "think of something the Labour party doesn't like and double it" version. It was less popular when it was only narrowly defined as a particular view of public service reform, whatever the merits of the particular policy arguments. How much narrower it became, in the post-political Blair of The Journey, when it seemed to involve endorsing George Osborne on the deficit and rejecting Mandelsonian industrial activism, so that even Peter was not New Labour enough at the end.

Deal or no deal?

Mandelson may appear to somewhat contradict himself in then suggesting that David Miliband should have contracted a pact with Ed Balls to get across the finishing line. Of course, Balls was a significant architect of actually existing New Labour - its macroeconomic strategy and the Bank of England - but would be one of the people that "a take the gloves off" for 2010 New Labour would have been defined against.

You can "take the gloves off" or form a "unity ticket". I am less clear as to how you could do both.

A Kingmaker has much more limited powers than many people think, as this blog argued during the campaign, especially if advising transfers to go against where they are naturally headed. That was why John Redwood failed to secure the Tory leadership for Ken Clarke with their anti-William Hague pact in 1997. The Ed Balls MP votes split three ways - for Ed, David and abstention. However, given how close it was, Miliband could have won had a pact secured only the transfers of Ed Balls himself, his wife Yvette Cooper and one or two other MPs.

But I bet there would have been (rather overblown) briefings and commentaries about how David Miliband had sacrificed New Labour for victory!

David Miliband's real mistake

David Miliband fought a classic frontrunner's campaign, and it wasn't quite enough.

A Monday morning quarterback, with the benefit of hindsight, can see that he needed to have done more to insulate himself from being caricatured and dragged back into a "New Labour or Not" frame, as the Blair and Mandelson books dominated the airwaves just as the ballot papers went out. It was not that the Blair and Mandelson prescriptions were rejected by the party - almost half of the party is sympathetic to a version of it - but they were not the votes that David Miliband needed.

The 2010 contest was going to go for a candidate of "change" rather than no change - because of the scale of the election defeat. And everybody realised that the change needed to go deeper than not being Gordon Brown. David Miliband recognised this in emphasising the Movement for Change but, with hindsight, didn't do enough to project one major issue (it could have been the Green Economy of the future) which would enable him to say more clearly that "are you New Labour or not" was the question being asked by Labour's last generation, not its next one.


Peter Mandelson has himself recognised that New Labour became too narrow and opaque.

As James Purnell has put it well, it was a mistake to forget that New Labour was Labour as well as new, and to seek to narrow it into a sect of true believers.

One of the most attractive things about New Labour in the 1990s was how pluralist it was – with many strands of leftwing thought coexisting, and learning from each other.

Over time, New Labour became too much of a sect – we went from big-tent politics to small-gazebo politics. Perhaps in response, the left has become balkanised into smaller groups, based on small differences. If we recognise that our common goal is a more equal society, we may be able to remember that there is more that unites us than separates us. And where there are differences, we may just see that as an inevitable but manageable pluralism, rather than a reason for division.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Is Tony Blair secretly backing the No2AV cause?

That intriguing claim is made by Benedict Brogan, in a post which seems unnecessarily rude about some of the stalwart members of the Labour tribe who find themselves supporting the No campaign. As Brogan blogs:

Conservatives are contemplating the prospect of defeat. The penny has dropped. To begin with, they have noticed, rather late in the day, that they are locked in an embarrassing coalition with some of the most unattractive dinosaurs of the Labour era. The No campaign says that Lord Prescott, Lord Reid and Margaret Beckett are needed to persuade Labour voters to oppose AV, but plenty of Tories worry that their presence on the platforms and the TV screens will be a toxic reminder of a failed administration that was booted out barely 12 months ago. It is said that the campaign has even turned down a discreet offer of help from Tony Blair, for fear that he might make things worse.


I have no further information about how Blair plans to vote on AV - and whether the David Cameron-backed campaign would really turn down his support for fear that the ex-PM's support could further toxify their campaign.

It seems to me unlikely that Blair could get to May 5th without even indicating how he plans to cast his own vote. Given that Blair is now a rather polarising public figure, different people will have different views about whether Blair's support would in fact help or harm the Yes or No cause. (On balance, I would guess that a Blair intervention for No could help to legitimise a No vote with traditional Labour voters, who like him more than left-liberal activists who are already on the other side, though it would doubtless also offer the Yes side a chance to ramp up a "change" message against the same old politicians).

But however those tactical considerations come out, and whatever Tony may now think, it seems to me clear that the intellectually correct "Real/Continuity Blairite" position in the AV referendum is a Yes vote. If Jack Straw can be Yes to AV, surely Tony Blair could too. The thinking end of post-Blairism - such as Andrew Adonis, Peter Mandelson, Roger Liddle, James Purnell, Phil Collins, Progress et al - is strongly on the Yes side of the argument, often in alliance with many unusual allies on the Labour left.

But the post-political Blair of The Journey is a more conservative figure, who often eschews positions which Young Blair thought both popular and right in 1995.

If he is against AV, this would be a further example. Donald MacIntyre writes in his Mandelson biography of the first unofficial/authorised text of Blairism - the Mandelson/Liddle "The Blair Revolution" of 1995 that Blair was happy to be associated with AV at the beginning of his party leadership.

"Blair also approved the passage recommending a change to the Alternative Vote electoral system - which implies that he had already started to make a mental leap to this halfway stage towards a more proportional system. Mandelson would subsequently say that electoral reform was one of the few points of difference between Blair and himself; but the idea was Liddle's. Mandelson's ignorance of electoral systems was almost total"

But nor would it be so surprising for Blair to now have a different gut instinct about electoral reform. For he would always have preferred a Lab-Lib cooption where electoral reform was not the necessary price of consummating the dalliance.

That was because Blair was particularly suspicious of the argument of Robin Cook and external voices like David Marquand that this could help to root Labour more firmly on the centre-left. On this view, electoral reform risked becoming an alternative to ultra-modernisation and what he saw as the essential price of an electable Labour Party.

Blair also sets out in The Journey his view of why he thinks bridging the Lab-Lab divide was "absolutely desirable and entirely worthy, [but] entirely beyond reach". Essentially, Blair had become a pluralism-sceptic by the end of his time in office, essentially because of his fear that the need to have broader and cross-party support would make strong Blair-style visionary leadership more difficult:

My fear, amply borne out by events when the LibDems ended up opposing our public service reforms on what were basically Old Labour grounds - however they tried to dress it up - was that while we could agree on the easy stuff - or, if not easy, the stuff that didn't touch voters' immediate lives - they would shy away from the painful but thoroughly necessary changes in schools, hospitals, pensions and welfare, which most directly touched voters' lives, In other words, for me, the question was: is this cooperation for real? In the end, I'm afraid it wasn't, not through a lack of good intentions or good faith on Paddy's part - he was totally straight about it throughout - but because of what I thought was their lack of the necessary fibre to govern. In the ultimate analysis, the LibDems seemed happier as the 'honest' critics ... It will be fascinating to see whether the coalition conceived after the 2010 coalition holds. It may, since the LibDem desire for electoral reform is so intrinsic to them.

For Blair to vote no to AV would be one further final disavowal of the Blair-Ashdown project, particularly when the vote is on AV and not even the more proportional majoritarian system of AV+

What we can say is that the early, popular and pluralist Blair would have been very confident about the Alternative Vote and that the later Blair wariness reflects a view that increased public pressure on MPs under electoral reform would have made it harder to do things in power which proved unpopular, but that he believed were right.


Or as post-political Blair puts it himself in The Journey (p 659).

The difference between the TB of 1997 and the TB of 2007 was this: faced with this opposition across such a broad spectrum in 1997, I would have tacked to get the wind back behind me. Now I was not doing it. I was prepared to go full into it if I thought it was the only way to reach my destination. 'Being in touch' with opinion was no longer the lodestar. 'Doing what was right' had replaced it.

The 'nobody wants AV' myth: It's as popular a first choice as FPTP

David Cameron's former PPE tutor Vernon Bogdanor is a long standing advocate of electoral reform. He is also now the "(Real) People's Front of STV" chief spokesman in the May 5th referendum, being not at all gruntled about PR not being on the ballot in the May 5th referendum, though I rather suspect that Bogdanor's idea of a New Zealand style "preferendum" would very much suit advocates of the status quo in a British campaign.

Bogdanor's challenge to AV as a "paltry alternative" essentially revoices traditional Cleggism on this subject - 'its not what I want'. The Professor does not, as far as I could see, reveal how he will cast his own vote in the referendum that has now been legislated for, and that we are actually going to have.

Public opinion is also considerably more mixed than Bogdanor implies. Bogdanor is right that many electoral reformers would prefer some form of full PR to AV, but exaggerates in the claim that AV has no first choice advocates. (The mainstream factions of the People's Front of STV - aka The Electoral Reform Society - long ago leaving the Professor in a small breakaway splinter still knocking the alternative now that the real campaign has begun). Here, Bogdanor voices a No campaign talking point that "nobody wants AV" but there is a "real debate" between or first-past-the-post or PR. The evidence does not support this. In fact, there is a fairly even spread of opinion between all three options.

The professor tries to infer voter preferences about AV, PR and FPTP from other questions. But the question has been polled directly.

It is simply wrong - as a matter of fact - to claim that "nobody wants AV", or to claim that almost everybody's first choice is either first-past-the-post or PR.

YouGov polled voters on first-past-the-post, AV and PR in the summer of 2009 for Fabian Review. (You can read the issue online). The pollsters briefly explained what each of the systems was before asking voters to choose their favourite and second choice system.

Which of these systems is your first choice?

The present system: first-past-the-post: 25%
The Alternative vote: 25%
Proportional representation 34%
Don't know: 16%

Which of these systems is your second choice?

The present system: first-past-the-post: 24%
The Alternative vote: 37%
Proportional representation 25%
Don't know: 14%

If you have a First-Past-the-Post worldview, you would have to say that PR has it.

"Nobody wants AV" rather entails "nobody wants first-past-the-post" too.

The current system could only tie AV to be second-past-the-post, and was the public's third favourite in this three-horse race overall. On this evidence, first-past-the-post is not the public's first choice of electoral system - and it doesn't look like it would even be their second choice either!

But supporters of PR can't celebrate so quickly, given their own worldview and principles. A first-past-the-post plurality of first preferences is not enough for an overall majority. (Perhaps the voting systems could rotate every third election!)

In an AV world, where we might seek the system with majority support, it rather looks as though either AV or PR would begin favourites to beat FPTP in a run-off. AV might also have a decent chance in a run-off with PR, as well as in one with FPTP.

So Bogdanor's challenge may have some merit from an actual supporter of PR, but it ought to blow up in the face of those first-past-the-post supporters who are faking a concern about this, and pretending not to hate PR for the duration of the campaign.

What PR supporters making this case often gloss over is why it would be difficult to win a majority consensus for PR.

This plurality for PR reflects a broader conundrum in public attitudes: there are public majorities both for and against PR, depending on what you ask. That appears to be primarily because voters have a long-established view that it would be the fairest way to elect a Parliament and allocate seats within it, but are not happy about whether they can see how PR allows them to elect a government at the same time. So, in one JRRT poll discussed in an earlier post, the very same sample of voters immediately after giving a strong pro-PR majority, with 63% support against 22% for PR (seats in proportion to votes) immediately also offered a contradictory 53% opposition against 29% support (wanting FPTP so as to choose one-party governments).

Some PR supporters might be confident of winning that argument, particularly if electoral geography erodes the long-term anti-Coalition case for first-past-the-post, so that the "one off" interpretation of 2010 proves wishful thinking.

Alternatively, those seeking to chime with and balance public attitudes on both of these fronts will examine the case for a more pluralist majoritarian system - that was the central thought behind Roy Jenkins' advocacy of AV+ and is also a motivation for AV itself, and particularly when combined with the check of a PR-elected upper house.

So there is a first-choice case for AV over the other alternatives as the best electoral system for the House of Commons. The evidence was marshalled especially well by Peter Kellner in his submission to the Jenkins Commission. PDF file. (This offers a particularly good in-depth analysis of how much to worry about AV's increased disproportionality if popular winners beat especially unpopular losers in elections like 1997, suggesting too that it is important to consider AV's advantage in avoiding FPTP's greater tendency to pick the wrong winning party altogether in close elections, because it is simply the geographical patterns of votes rather than voter preferences which are the tie-breaker).

And there is a good case for it as a compromise too. The Professor must surely know that the whole purpose of politics is to compromise where collective decisions are necessary. Back in 2007, I set out in a Fabian Review essay why AV could unlock a stalemate over voting reform, precisely because it preserves the valued features of first-past-the-post and adapts to a more pluralist system.

This explains why both Peter Hain and Jack Straw can prefer AV to both FPTP and PR - and would indeed reject a shift to PR - while John Denham as a long-standing PR advocate has also argued for the value of AV as an alternative for several years. Denham argued for AV combined with a PR-second chamber at the same time as I did. (By coincidence: we had simply followed the same train of thought, that the Jenkins compromise of pluralist and checked majoritarianism could be achieved across two chambers, as well as through a hybrid electoral system for the Commons). There was much discussion of whether electoral reformers would seek to unite around AV as Stuart Weir's article captures.

There is especially little sense in advocates of a full PR politics denigrating a politics of compromise, which is made more explicit and transparent under PR than in the compromises and broad submerged coalitions of first-past-the-post politics. I find that Nick Clegg is often less of a pluralist than he thinks - because he so often has a tonality, whether over the deficit before or after the election, student fees before or after the election, or electoral reform, where the only reasonable thing to do about a major policy agreement is to agree with Nick Clegg, even when he changes his mind from one side to the other.

AV is not going to suit purist PR opinion. The case for AV is its greater pluralism, not proportionality. But there is only a small sliver of 'no to AV, yes to PR' opinion, such as Austin Mitchell MP, who has blogged this perspective here on Next Left. It is much outweighed by long-standing PR-sceptics like Matthew Elliott, William Hague, Margaret Beckett and John Prescott, who are all really much more hostile to PR than to AV. So this is part of a disingenuous strategy "being nice about PR" by those who hate PR but are now pretending to be neutral or positive about it. This allows them to argue that AV "fails the proportionality test" while attacking AV on grounds ('more likely to create hung Parliaments') which are true only if it is more proportional than FPTP.

Meanwhile, we will await the Professor's final choice as to whether this is a referendum worth participating in - and on which side of it he will cast his vote.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

EU referendum would settle the issue for a generation, says leading Tory sceptic

An "in or out" referendum would settle the question of British membership of the European Union for at least a generation, and perhaps half a century or more, Tory MP Mark Reckless told the Fabian Europe conference 'Britain and Europe: In, out or somewhere in between?' at the weekend. (This blog will run several posts this week reporting on several different conference themes).

While there is an emerging discussion among a minority of pro-Europeans about the potential value of a referendum, many were very sceptical that it could "settle the question" for any time at all. Might Eurosceptics advance this issue with their pro-European opponents if they could promise that the 'in or out' question would not be put again for, say, twenty years?, I asked Reckless, who is a vocal advocate of Britain leaving the EU.

"At least [twenty years]. Perhaps it would be more like fifty years", said Reckless, arguing that the strongest case for a referendum was that nobody under the age of 54 had the chance to vote in a referendum, last held 35 years ago in 1975.

"The implication is that you wouldn't accept the result. That's wrong. You would have to accept the result", he said. The experience of Norway and Switzerland was that - even if politicians wanted to reopen the issue - the public would take the view that you've asked us, so don't ask us again, he said.

The idea of an in/out referendum was discussed by several speakers, having become a talking point in the EU debate after Shadow Europe Minister Wayne David said that Labour's policy review would address the question at a Policy Network event the previous week. Speaking at the Fabian conference too, David reiterated that position and also that he was personally unpersuaded - "and so, more importantly, is Ed Miliband" - identifying some of the barriers to the idea.

There are a number of real problems. The issue which is debated and voted on is often not the issue on the ballot paper. Whatever the result, it may not settle the question and it could coarsen the debate. It could becomes a massive distraction from the debate we need to have. We need to talk not just about Europe good or bad, or in or out, but about what kind of Europe the centre-left wants to create.

LibDem peer Shirley Williams, in opening the conference, warned against the idea.

Williams said she had been "deeply furious" when Labour MP John Silkin launched a Labour no movement to overturn the referendum result within just four years of the public vote, managing to put Labour on a pro-withdrawal ticket by 1980, a major issue in Williams and her fellow SDP founders deciding to quit the party.

I was deeply furious. I had gone along with a referendum reluctantly but I did think we would get at least ten years of constructive engagement and influence. Instead, we were right back in the civil wars ... So remember, the referendum is time and again the escape hatch for politicians who can't make up their minds ... It decides nothing in the long-term. In the short-term, you do get a chance to shift the argument. But it doesn't end the argument and it probably never will", she said.

But UKIP MEP Derek Clark, standing in for party leader Nigel Farage who had to withdraw from the event, suggested that whether anything was settled might depend on how close the result was.

If you think you'll win, then OK, do it - and you'd solve the problem for a generation and you'd kick us out of the European Parliament ... But the trouble with a referendum is the margin of victory on one side or the other. There might be a clear result. But if it is 49-51% one way or the other, then the losing side may say that the result does not have legitimacy and they would be right"

Former Tory MEP John Stevens, who left the party over its Eurosceptic stance, said that he had long been sceptical of the use of referenda, but had changed his mind.

"I have come reluctantly to favour an in or out referendum as the only way to settle this", said Stevens.

He predicted a "very rough read" in the next few years, but was confident of a clear victory for EU membership in a referendum.

Reckless argued that the principle of a referendum should trump tactical judgements about which side might win:

"Instead of everybody predicting the result, and working back, we should ask 'Is this the sort of issue we ought to have a referendum about'. But another reason we might have a referendum is if both sides were confident of winning it", he said.

Meanwhile, Stevens predicted that the Cameron government would concede to pressure to hold a referendum on the EU during this Parliament, over Treaty changes rather than the in/out question.

"I predict that we will have a referendum on an EU issue before the end of this Parliament", he said, predicting that "the package on the euro crisis is going to lead to a more substantial Treaty change than most people think ... If that is the case, I think it is going to be extremely difficult for a British government to say 'this is nothing to do with us".

Back on the "in or out" question, Reckless wondered if "there could be a race to be the first party who is pushing it. ... David Cameron has shown on AV that he is willing, in order to gain power, to hold a referendum on something he doesn't believe in", he said, to laughter from the audience.


As I blogged on Saturday, this "in or out" discussion probably somewhat over-estimates the chances of Labour adopting a pro-referendum stance. The leadership is sceptical of the argument. An entirely unscientific show of hands among the largely pro-European Fabian audience (with a smattering of strong 'sceptics) saw a split of about two to one against a referendum, among those attending the final session of the day.

Former Europe Minister Keith Vaz told the House of Commons last month that he favours the move. But probably the most intriguing pro-European advocate of an in or out referendum is Tony Blair's Downing Street Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell, who discusses its potential historic impact in an article (£) for E!Sharp, the European magazine which was (coincidentally) one of our media partners at Saturday's conference.

What Tony Blair did not succeed in doing was winning the British people over to Europe. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, David Trimble said that Northern Ireland felt like "a cold house" to its Catholic population. That is the problem for Britain in Europe too. The British feel that Europe is something done to them by the French and Germans rather than something in which they have a shared leadership. If they felt more comfortable, the battle could be won. Euroscepticism in Britain is wide, but it is also shallow. If there were a referendum on :in or out", the sceptics could be beaten.

The Responsibility to Protect should set the limits to sovereignty

The Libyan government has been killing its own people, with fears that Colonel Gaddafi will order his armed forces to carry out his son's blood curdling threat to "fight to the last bullet" in a futile attempt to preserve his crumbling dictatorship.

In doing so, Gaddafi puts to the test the tension which has been at the heart of the UN system since its birth. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares "the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family", including "the right to life, liberty and security of person", and yet the UN Charter, while beginning "we the peoples" is founded in the protection of these rights by sovereign states. States are certainly needed to make human rights a reality – human rights can not exist if a state fails and society descends into ethnic conflict or Hobbesian anarchy. Yet, of course, states violate human rights too. If human rights are to be real then they will have to be able to trump state sovereignty in some cases.

What is so often overlooked is how the emerging norm of the Responsibility to Protect should help us to find broad common ground in this debate, following decade-long efforts to resolve the tension at the heart of the UN system, by defining the limits to sovereignty where a state either needs support to protect its own people, or must be prevented from itself terrorising its own citizens.

These efforts began well before the Iraq war, which was not considered to be a case reflecting Responsibility to Protect principles by the independent International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, co-chaired by Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia, and Mohamed Sahnoun, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General.

This norm has been adopted by the United Nations in 2005. It was also a significant theme of Kofi Annan's final speech as UN Secretary-General.

It also includes our shared responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity - a responsibility solemnly accepted by all nations at last year's UN summit.

That means that respect for national sovereignty can no longer be used as a shield by governments intent on massacring their own people, or as an excuse for the rest of us to do nothing when such heinous crimes are committed ... The lesson here is that high-sounding doctrines like the "responsibility to protect" will remain pure rhetoric unless and until those with the power to intervene effectively - by exerting political, economic or, in the last resort, military muscle - are prepared to take the lead.

However, it remains necessary to deepen the international consensus to both support and act upon this norm.

Yet the Responsibility to Protect idea has been almost absent from British domestic political debate, despite its relevance to the recurring debate about whether any form of "intervention" is possible after the Iraq war, even in cases of the immediate threat of widespread killing or genocide, such as took place in Rwanda (and which is distinct from a case for pre-emption against a possible future threat).

Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy has told Total Politics magazine that Labour's policy review should look at principles for intervention, as The Guardian reports:

"How do you stop one-and-a-half unpopular wars – with Iraq certainly being unpopular and Afghanistan at least partly there – creating an unpopular concept? The unpopular concept is that you have a responsibility beyond your own borders.

"We sat and watched what happened in Rwanda as an international community. Everyone said 'never again' after the previous genocide. How do you prevent people's genuine fury about Iraq stopping us from ever exercising force in the future without appearing like the 'more war' party. I don't want to let the anger about Iraq trump the shame of Rwanda."

Murphy identifies some important challenges for social democratic internationalism, and will develop his argument next month. He should seek to set out how the principles of the Responsibility to Protect can be used to develop and deepen international consensus that there are limits to sovereignty, and how that approach might provide an approach which can provide some important common ground.

I wrote in detail about the scale of this challenge of rescuing liberal internationalism after the Bush era in a Fabian Review essay The World After Bush' back in 2006, and have set out how an effective liberal multilateralism should offer its own critique of neo-conservatism, without rejecting the goals of promoting democracy and human rights, and returning to the goal of seeking to develop an effective and legitimate multilateral response. ("Any new rules will only work if we have reformed international institutions with which to apply them", as the pre-Bush Blair had argued in his Chicago speech in 1999, a proposition which would be rejected by the multilateralism-sceptics of the US right).

However, this debate often goes around in circles, not least because too many people seem primarily motivated by justifying yet again, via more recent events, the position they took over the 2003 invastion of Iraq, rather than seeking to find any common ground for the future. (Neither the neo-conservative claim that the Egyptian uprising shows that the Iraq war cracked open democratic possibilities, nor the left's argument that the fall of Mubarak shows that Saddam could have been overthrown by peaceful protests too strike me as particularly convincing).

The "responsibility to protect" is not primarily about military intervention. It might be best understood as being about the duties of sovereignty, and also about the shared international responsibility to prevent. There are a number of precautionary principles, and the responsibility to rebuild is also emphasised in cases where intervention takes place. The doctrine does identify that force may be required as a last resort in the case of egregious violations, but only when diplomatic or economic forms of coercion have been exhausted or would not work.

More immediately, events in Libya remain precarious and unpredictable. Nobody knows where else protests may escalate - or how governments might respond. The Bahrain government attacked protestors but has now withdrawn from further confrontation. Regional power and western 'ally' Saudi Arabia - whose government is trying to hide its own insecurity and nervousness - is reported by the New York Times to be concerned that the United States is no longer fully reliable all (which would be good news, if true), having themselves advised both Mubarak and the Bahrain government to stand firm against their protesting citizens.

With so much in flux, one small step to seek to deter future internal aggression on the Libyan model could be for the United States, the UK and our European Union partners, other major regional alliances and states, and the UN Secretary-General to all be clear about the scale of diplomatic isolation which will face any government which chooses to attack its own people. As citizens, we should pressing our own governments to go as far as possible in stating explicitly that any regime which launches significant attacks on unarmed protestors effectively surrenders any legitimate claim to sovereignty or any standing in the international community.

That does not necessarily mean intervening to overthrow any government which does this. It may still be necessary to extend a very limited form of recognition - for example, to reflect that a government still effectively retains de facto control of the territory - but the non-membership of the international community alongside legitimate states should be signalled through every practical and symbolic means that is possible.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Questions for a public services revolution: is Cameron's plan rather "one size fits all"?

David Cameron sets out in the Daily Telegraph his plans for public service reform. The argument is extremely close to that set out by new number 10 policy chief Paul Kirby, in co-authoring a KPMG paper on Payment by Results, which Next Left discussed on Friday night.

This might be a very big moment - the biggest change in the public services since Beveridge we are again told. As usual, the rhetoric seems rather overblown. Cameron says he is ending the "state monopoly in public services".

Eleven privately-run prisons in the UK suggests alternative providers have got quite close to the core functions of the irreducible state for some time. While there are instinctive responses from those who instinctively belief the state is always the worst-possible provider, and those deeply sceptical of the value to be added from private provision, the policy choices as to whether and where this approach could improve public services depend on answering a more complex set of questions.

Which services?

Cameron's argument is that state provision has to be justified. But he has already made up his mind - a "new presumption" - that there are very few cases where state provision should be justified, such as the judiciary and security services.

We will soon publish a White Paper setting out our approach to public service reform. It will put in place principles that will signal the decisive end of the old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you're-given model of public services.

Perhaps the Prime Minister himself risks falling prey to 'one size fits all' thinking which suggests there is a single Whitehall lever which can transform public services. That would certainly appear to be a legitimate critique of no 10 policy chief Paul Kirby's argument for a "without exception" approach to the urgent introduction of payment-by-results everywhere.

Payment by results should be implemented across the public sector without exception – where it exists already, it should be made more forceful and sophisticated, where it does not exist, it should be introduced with very limited transitional periods.

Kirby's blanket veto on exceptions looks very difficult to sustain, and the exceptions will extend beyond the Prime Minister's list of two. What the government needs to provide are clear criteria of where Payment-by-Results would be appropriate, and where it wouldn't, and the evidence base as to why it would succeed in the areas (almost everywhere, in their view) in the areas proposed.

Which results?

Payment by results depends on fundamentally on knowing what results you want, and these being highly measurable, not "gameable" by practioners, and genuinely contestable by alternative providers.

Most of the academic and practical evidence suggests these are complex issues. Any measure being relied on for measurement is likely to become an unreliable indicator of broader service quality.

There is little difficulty in, for example, in measuring success in the timely provision of passports to those who are entitled to one. Outcomes for heart operations are rather more straightforward than mental health; health prevention is perhaps more complex still. Bus services are rather more straightforwardly contestable than trains, (given sufficient demand); some of the core functions of central banking perhaps rather less so. I imagine that accountants could probable deal with any technical barriers to making fulfilling the functions of the Monarchy contestable between providers - after all, there is a history of global exchange and several potential foreign providers with experience in the field - but may struggle to do so while maintaining public legitimacy. This may provide a more significant "barrier to entry" than some realise.

The Canadian approach of measuring user satisfaction with services goes some way to dealing with measuring the wrong indicators - if you can fake that, you have solved any political problems at least - though the measurement of this is still somewhat gameable.

Which providers?

Supporters of the Cameron agenda will say it is about a "big society" plurality of providers, as the Prime Minister argues today.

everywhere else should be open to diversity; open to everyone who gets and values the importance of our public service ethos.

It is not clear how that test will be defined. Are there any organisations who would fail to meet it?

Sceptics believe big corporates will have the muscle and capacity to capture most of the action.

Cameron says

And to give our principle of choice real bite, we will also create a new presumption that services should be delivered at the lowest possible level

Yet that would need to be reflected in policy. in the Work Programme, the decision to contract on a regional basis means that smaller providers are squeezed out, even if they may have particular local expertise or ability to reach specific groups (like the disabled), unless they can persuade the holders of contracts. So this is not widely seen as a good example of promoting diverse provision, despite being one of the largest programmes involving the approach which Cameron advocates.

More accountability or less?

Is the focus too much on providers; too little on service users and citizens? The new Cameron approach risks having rather less to say to the citizen than John Major's citizen's charter which, though widely mocked for being incremental rather than visionary, proved quietly influential on public service reform over the last two decades.

The focus on making alternative provision will excite those who would like to compete to be paid, by taxpayers, for providing public services. The theory is that this will be good news for service users, as long as contestability drives an enormous positive shift in service performance. One reason for public scepticism that this is enough is that we all experience very different levels of service in the market - John Lewis tending to be rather good, while banks are widely thought to not very interested in their customers.

In public services, contracted-out tasks like the marking of exam papers turned out to be surprisingly difficult, even to meet timetables, aside from question marks about whether the job was being done professionally. It is not particularly helpful form of redress, if at risk of not getting A-level results in time to go to university, to hear that the marking company might well lose the contract in some future year.

What is needed is clarity about the level of service performance expected or guaranteed, real rights of appeal and redress against significant failure to perform these. Contracting out services to national government as a customer without providing such rights could well weaken accountability to users and citizens, rather than strengthening it. This promising alternative approach was set out by Tony Wright, then a Labour MP who was the widely respected chair of the Public Administration Select Committee, a few years ago in a Fabian pamphlet 'A New Social Contract: From Targets to Rights in Public Services', summarised in this Independent commentary

These issues of user rights and representation are, to some extent, separable from the issue of the provision of services, though they provide an important and contentful challenge to both marketisers and defenders of the status quo.

This proposal for service guarantees will not commend itself to two groups of people. It will be disliked by those on the right, for whom the ideological task is to roll back public provision of key services. They will not be attracted to an approach that has the potential to strengthen attachment to public services through a more explicit kind of contract. Equally, the proposal will not appeal to those on the left who are content simply to defend the state against the market, or to argue for more taxes and higher spending, but who dislike attempts to insist that the services provided by the state should be assessed in terms of their performance for users.

Kirby's paper argues there is a sharp distinction between personal services, and those where the customer is local or national government. It is implausible that there are not always overlapping demands here.

Three distinct customer roles should be created for each of the different types of service – personal, local and national – with these customers radically empowered to decide what they want and from whom

It would rather undermine the whole purpose if the end-user has a very weak voice where the "customer" is defined national or local government, who are then "radically empowered" to, for example, withdraw from a currently mandated level of service.


On the big society, the government has toned down the rhetoric, sensibly now arguing that change must be incremental and gradual, but it is ratcheting it up on public service reform, with Cameron struggling to match the temptation to not just match but considerably raise the (now traditional) Blairesque rhetoric of ever bolder radicalism and reform in public services.

That is a calculated risk. Promising a transformation in services and how they are experienced creates an expectation of delivering one, probably by the end of the Parliament.

But it also claims a sense of direction for a government which is a curious mixture of largely mandateless Maoism, determined to change the facts on the ground if it only gets one Parliament, and a nervous willingness to u-turn in the face of popular challenges.

The issues are rather more complex than Cameron's pitch suggests. It is a political choice too to define the agenda as a once in a century radical break, rather than an attempt to deepen previous reform agendas. Today's rhetoric does suggest that ambition. That will excite the right and embolden opponents of these changes. As Cameron says that he is proposing a radical break, this also potentially opens up political space for Labour to remain "pro-reform" (though this positioning term, considered important by commentators as a badge of centrism or moderation, is often largely meaningless) while being able to critique the reform package proposed, as long as they make the case for alternatives which would strengthen public services, and the voice and power of citizens who use them.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Coalition has "hokey-cokey" approach to Europe, says Mandelson

Peter Mandelson has charged the Coalition government with risking British influence through a "hokey-cokey" policy of one leg in and one leg out on the EU.

"We are in our usual half-in, half-out state of mind", said Mandelson,
speaking at a Policy Network conference in London last week, where he was chairing a panel discussion with speakers including LibDem business secretary Vince Cable and former EU Commissioner Mario Monti. His hokey-cokey theme anticipated rather well today's Fabian conference - "Britain and Europe: In, Out or somewhere in between" which takes place in London from 11am today. Perhaps we should have gone for "shake it all about" instead in the title.

I am looking forward to Shirley Williams opening the conference. Shirley, who is a former Fabian General Secretary and ex-Chair of the Society, has had a frontline seat over the topsy-turvy debate over British EU membership, having been among the 69 Labour MPs who broke the 3-line whip to support Britain joining the EEC, and having had a frontline seat through developments including the 1975 referendum and the SDP-Labour split in which Europe was significant, to the tensions and debates of the Major, Blair/Brown and now Coalition era. Next Left will bring some news and views after the conference, and I would be interested to hear from those who attend.

Here are some more of Mandelson's comments at the recent Policy Network event.

"We know that our own economic future is intimately linked" with the success of the eurozone countries, said Mandelson. "But we are, as ever, terrified of the political and economic consequences of greater integration". The issue was not about Britain joining the euro, he stressed ("heaven forfend"), but about our ability to engage with or influence major strategic decisions about the future of the EU which would deeply affect us.

"The Coalition government gives a good impression of not knowing if it is coming or going on its European policy. It is very hokey-cokey, one leg in and one leg out, and try to keep the whole show on the road".

Mandelson's comments raised a wry smile from Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable, who acknowledged that "we are operating in a political context". Cable said that he was seeking to pursue a policy which was pragmatic, engaged and "pro-European". "Within the eclectic range of views within the Coalition, we maintain that position quite well", insisted Cable.

Mandelson acknowledged that he could not develop his critique of current policy into a "Coalition-bashing tirade" since the Labour government had also had to respond to competing pressures over the EU, managing what he called "a sort of alright reconciliation" between the government's belief in pursuing national interests through EU engagement and political pressures

"We could hardly claim that we ended up with an absolute implementation of this European idea", he said, noting that he had himself become rather "impatient" with the government's approach after returning to Gordon Brown's government in 2008.


So is Britain always going to have a hokey-cokey approach to the European Union? What would positive outcomes could be achieved by less hesitant participation - and how should the political barriers to this be overcome?

I reported for Left Foot Forward that Shadow Europe Minister Wayne David told the Policy Network event that there was growing discussion of the pro-European case for an "in or out" referendum - and that the Labour party's policy review would consider what David, while unpersuaded, called a "finely balanced" question. Andrew Grice of The Independent reports on this today, in previewing the Fabian event. Jon Worth is sceptical, though not implacably opposed. Like several other voices at the Policy Network conference, he doubts that the "lance the boil" argument actually happens, and suggests that it instead crowds out a debate about the engagement within the EU that Britain should want, and that Labour and other pro-European forces should prioritise.

But Joe Litobarski for Comment is Free thinks any referendum, whoever brought it about, would result in a yes vote, and would finally shake it all about by forcing a debate on the EU.

While there is clearly a live, somewhat eye-catching discussion, the chances of Labour proposing an "in or out" referendum could easily become somewhat overstated. Wayne David noted that an increasing number of pro-European voices (like Keith Vaz) support the prospect, but it does remain a minority view. David's statement that an open policy review will consider an issue is, in itself, unremarkable, and there is little or no reason not to consider the question. While I think that there are good grounds to be confident of a Yes vote - and potential gains from one as a way to shift the longer-term debate - there is a strong argument right now that any additional period of uncertainty about Britain's medium-term future could send a damaging signal, particularly in terms of investment in the UK where our participation in the EU is seen as important for long-term decisions. It remains to be seen whether our second UK-wide national referendum in 35 years - on electoral reform - whets the appetite for more direct democracy, or rather suggests a risk of referendum fatigue.

It seems to me that a quite plausible and potentially attractive outcome could be for Labour, as a pro-European party, to set out a case or being agnostic to primarily Eurosceptic campaigns for an in/out referendum, without agitating for a referendum itself but nor seeking to oppose or block one either. As a pretty unitedly pro-European party, Labour will support the principle of membership, whether in the Commons or in the country, while also respecting the right of Eurosceptic parties and strands of opinion to disagree democratically over our national future.

Labour might, while making the public case for British engagement perhaps also take an active decision to not oppose future referendum calls, for example in the House of Commons. A referendum would not be Labour's priority, or campaign goal, but it could decide not to offer a veto or block either. It would then be for Eurosceptics to show that they could democratically mobilise sufficient support from those who want to challenge the status quo, or could win the argument within the Commons (and the Conservative Parliamentary party) for a referendum. If so, Labour would be ready to go and make the case before a public vote, and would not be actively seeking to prevent one. (If that was Labour's position, whether or not we had a referendum would depend on the balance of forces on the right. It would be for David Cameron to decide whether to follow Harold Wilson, in seeing a future referendum as a way to keep a party of different views together, or whether to block a vote for fear of splitting opinion).


On his own blog, Jon Worth critiques that emerging referendum discussion and the broader "in, out or somewhere else" framing of the Fabian event as frustrating, because it keeps the debate stuck. I am naturally somewhat sceptical about this challenge: it seems to me to underestimate the political challenges of securing public consent for the bolder multilateralism we will need.

Worth writes that - "The only way to really put these matters right is to push for greater democratic accountability of the EU’s institutions – federalism essentially – and ensure the individual decisions at EU level are themselves legitimate". This seems to insist on settling one of the central question at stake, so that concerns about the accountability of ever closer union can be dealt with best only by completing a process of full federal integration so that it can be more democratically accountable. Moves in this direction - whether directly elected European Parliament or the so-called citizens' convention have often disappointed their architects by not doing more to create a European demos. Most people's locus and conception of democratic accountability remains primarily national. The 'connect with the citizens through a constitutional response to the 'democratic deficit' - the focus of so much EU activity across the last decade often seemed to do rather more harm than good in terms of its own goals and objectives, though it could be legitimately countered that this also partly reflects a parallel failure to politicise the supra-national institutions and spaces in a way that might engage people.

Worth's challenge does raise the useful question of different ways to frame general public discussions about future European policy, particularly aimed at reaching beyond the super-committed in the party, for example in fringe meetings or conferences. The new Fabian Society and FEPS book "Europe's left in the crisis" attempts to address the broader themes, of how social democratic parties which know that 'social democracy in one country' has too little purchase on economic, environmental and security challenges do secure sufficient political consent to both secure power and to pursue an effective multilateral approach.

A related challenge for opposition parties is whether 'Europe' (and 'the international' more generally) is the bolt-on final chapter of a policy review process and manifesto, where everything that is expected is said, or whether one can break the essentially silo-based and segregated frame of "what future for Europe" and Europe as a "foreign policy" issue, and internationalise the approach to the central political and policy challenges - a new political economy, above all. If we don't do this, then the EU debate will be conducted by MEPs and those who strongly self-identify as pro-European as a matter of political identity. And these issues will remain as marginal as they have for the last decade.

In my view, asking "in, out or somewhere in between" can raise a useful set of challenges about the nature and purpose of the EU itself and the UK's engagement within it, which beyond the question of whether we remain members of the club to the nature of our engagement with it.

Firstly, I think a first principles discussion can be useful, both in demanding that we think about how to articulate an engaging foundational case for EU participation, but also in opening the opportunity to interrogate what "out" would mean - a question mostly absent from public debate, despite the prominence of Eurosceptic voices. Imagine, for example, that Britain were to vote to leave the EU and join EFTA. What are the gains and losses - in economics, in political influence, in sovereignty and power? For those who want to leave to "regain sovereignty" would this address the core issues? Or could issues of democratic disconnection be exacerbated - as a non-member state made budget contributions and accepted regulations without voting power or a seat at the table? Are there other forms of "out" in he real world which address these better? Or can advocates of "in" address the issues underpinning.

Secondly, more mysterious still is what "in between" positions are available in the EU we are in. A position which can come to terms with the post-Lisbon status quo but will be sceptical in interrogating future integration prospects is primarily in. By contrast, an approach which demands a fundamental renegotiation of British membership seems to be primarily about seeking a route towards a divorce, or perhaps more amicable separation. The government's EU Bill was intended to sate Eurosceptic appetities, yet has been widely criticised by its intended beneficiaries, who regard its Referendum Lock as meaningless. Bagehot of The Economist suggests it could be rather more potent de facto veto power than the grumpily dissatisfied Eurosceptics think. Labour's Wayne David has noted that the referendum lock proposals could conceivably lead to the odd situation of a large number of referendums on small technical issues, but not on profound strategic issues about the future of the EU: "There would be a referendum on changes to the role of the Advocate-General in the European Union but not on the accession of Turkey to EU membership, which is probably the biggest change to the EU for a generation".

British public opinion is "somewhere in between" - partly because of the hard scepticism of a vocal minority, and partly because most people have mixed and sometimes conflicting views. As YouGov'e polling for the Fabian Society and FEPS shows, we tend to think of the European Union as a bad thing, and too and yet we want its members to work more closely together than at present on all of the issues we care about.

Thirdly, the question of the future development of the EU we are in is changing fast, yet is barely being much discussed in the UK at all outside elite civil service, business or think-tank circles. There. The Economist's David Rennie also writes about this in a Policy Network collection previewing their conference.

Now, however, 2011 could turn out to be the year that a multispeed Europe starts to look more like a two-speed Europe, with an inner core impelled towards closer political and economic union by the need to rescue the single currency.

The UK risks becoming a marginal voice, as European decision making is increasingly centred around the euro area. The French and allies are pushing hard for summits restricted to euro area leaders, who would meet to discuss "European economic government" within their inner core. In plain English that means calls for interventionism and weaker competition rules and an industrial policy to subsidise "European champions". It would mean demands for "social and fiscal harmonisation" (meaning pressure on low-tax, more flexible places like Ireland or many ex-communist countries to raise their costs and stop competing with old Europe).

For a long time, it seemed that German policy would strongly prefer stronger economic integration in a Europe of 27, not a Europe of 17, preferring the balance of liberalisation and integration with the UK and Scandinavian countries involved. Contested Franco-German moves towards greater economic coordination and "economic governance" might herald a major shift in this position.

Both Mandelson and former EU Commissioner Mario Monti, who remains influential in the EU as author of the "new strategy for the single market" paper acknowledged last week that critics of the initial design of the Eurozone were right about the need for much closer economic cooperation to make a single currency work.

"Many said at the time, and they were right but mostly ignored, that EMU needed a much stronger political and policy framework if it was to function in an optimal way", said Mandelson. It was now vital to "reanchor the Euro area in firmer foundations" for the success of all of the EU economies, including those like the UK which were outside the euro, he said, acknowledging the difficulties of doing so given diverse economies with a single interest rate, limited labour mobility, and internal imbalances of trade.

"It was a big mistake of the construct called EMU [Economic and Monetary Union] to pay so much attention to the M of EMU and to leave the E, economic integration, so much in the background". This was the point on which academic critics who had said the Euro would never see the light of day should have been listened to, said Monti.

Britain is outside the Eurozone, and will choose not to take part in the new bailout fund. The domestic political legitimacy challenge looks too great to choose to 'buy' a seat at the table. As the Financial Times reported this week, Nick Clegg and David Cameron have also been engaged in a significant Whitehall argument about whether and how far Britain should engage in the eurozone discussions from outside, where major economic questions

The divergences not just in policy but also between the discourse of British domestic political debate on the EU and the emerging developments in the eurozone perhaps suggest a drearily familiar theme that "somewhere in between" is the European position which British policy habitually gravitates towards.