Monday, 30 May 2011

Honeymoon reading for Ed Miliband

Even readers of Next Left will hope Ed Miliband won't be indulging his interest in political philosophy on his honeymoon. But if he does want a fix, I have a comment piece in today’s Guardian, weighing in to the current debate bubbling away within Labour over the role of the state.

This is in many ways a strange debate: after all, who actually gets up in the morning and thinks ‘What’s my view of the role of the state today?’ But underlying it are some big political differences about the direction Labour should take, so it’s important to resolve these debates on progressive terms.

My target in the piece is some of the noisy anti-statism we’ve been hearing in some sections of the Party of late, with a growing number of voices seeming to argue that Labour should be defining itself in opposition to the state. Of course Labour must not be monolithically statist; no-one advocates that. But a knee-jerk anti-statism would be equally dangerous, and bears little resemblance to how most voters think.

My piece warns that the rhetoric of empowerment is being used lazily to advocate a range of decentralising or individualising agendas (localism, mutualism, choice-and-diversity, etc.) in such a way that these have almost become an end in themselves:

Labour should handle empowerment rhetoric with care. Lest we forget, 'redistributing power' was also how old Labour used to justify its obsession with nationalisation. The last thing Labour needs in the 21st century is for another lot of means to get confused with ends.

Yes, empowerment must be a central objective for Labour, but it doesn’t follow that it's like giving out sweets, and if the central state has more then citizens must have less. So rather than assuming people will feel empowered by decentralisation, we should scrutinise these agendas closely to see if they actually do empower.

I also argue that if you don’t get popular state collectivism, you’re going to get your politics badly wrong:

In the coalition's botched attempt to sell our forests, it was fascinating how much the public loathed the suggestion – put forward as the acceptable face of privatisation – that communities could club together and buy bits of forest for themselves. They felt they owned them already – yes, that "big government" owning forests, meant them.

Politicians as different as Nye Bevan, Bill Clinton, Enoch Powell and even Ronald ‘government-is-the-problem’ Reagan all grasped how people can feel a sense of agency through large-scale collectivism – and harnessed it to supreme effect in their politics. But some in today’s Labour Party don’t get this.

Of course, there are massive challenges for social democrats in rethinking the role of the state – not least how we fund the increase in services needed in an ageing society, and how we balance the role of government-as-provider against other important roles: government-as-guarantor and government-as-enabler.

But my argument is that while Labour’s rethinking of the state will need to be well out of the Fabian comfort zone, it needs to be out of the New Labour comfort zone too.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Lessons from football Europe

Watching the European Cup final is the single largest continentai shared experience that we currently experience as Europeans. (The misnomer of the UEFA Champions League is surely all the more obvious on Cup final night and everybody in the real world knows that both United and Barca are competing to win their fourth European Cup).

I imagine most people watching in England will be supporting Manchester United, though not nearly as many as ITV will doubtless tell us. I have a lot of respect for Sir Alex and the chapter he has added to the history of Manchester United, but that doesn't mean I can support them on the pitch. So I will join the sizeable minority of English football supporters in Manchester itself, Merseyside, Yorkshire, north and west London and across the country cheer on Barcelona. Similarly, much of Madrid might perhaps be seen to be demonstrating cosmopolitan transnational sympathies in cheering on the English against their Catalan rivals.

It is in that spirit that we have got the tapas and cerveza in for the evening. I should probably squeeze back into the Barca shirt I picked up on a tour of the Nou Camp which was serendipitously added to our honeymoon trip to France and Spain a decade ago. Since I had my photo taken with a replica of the European Cup, it may be an inauspicious omen not to.

I doubt it will make the difference.

So enjoy the game. And may the best team win. Tonight, let's see if we are right about which team that (probably) means.

The English game, its insularity once symbolised by Alan Hardaker at the FA trying to convince both Chelsea (successfully) and Matt Busby's United (unsuccessfully, shortly before the tragedy of Munich 1958) to have nothing to do with these fancy continental schemes, has been transformed and Europeanised in our recent lifetimes.

But I suggested that there could also be political lessons from football Europe in the Fabian Society and FEPS pamphlet “Europe’s Left in the Crisis” published earlier this year.

The traditional arguments for the EU and European integration (and perhaps those against them as well) may resonate much less for a generation for whom the first cultural image thrown up by the idea of ‘Europe’ is more likely to be the Champions League than the Second World War, or even the fall of the Berlin Wall,

But we might learn something for our politics from the shared European experience of the Champions League.

Champions League Europe reflects the transformation of Europe’s football clubs by migration across the continent and around the world, yet they remain the focus of intense local pride, community and identity.

The clubs compete at national and European level, after proposals that they exit national football to create a ‘European super league’ were rejected as they lacked public legitimacy.

The matches, played simultaneously around Europe, are the single largest shared continental experience which Europeans do together. Yet, beyond a small cosmopolitan elite, the sports pages and TV coverage primarily focuses on the national clubs’ participation in the shared European space, until the final approaches.

European football offers a policy laboratory of different approaches.

FC Barcelona – a supporter-owned mutualist cooperative – plays against PLCs and private companies purchased with leveraged debt.

Different national priorities are reflected in domestic regulation – with Germany paying more attention to the interests of its national team than the English, while trading off the ability to maximise income to keep free-to-air TV broadcasting and lower ticket prices.

But there is ongoing discussion too about the Europe-wide rules needed to maintain a fair and level playing field. New European-wide ‘financial fair play’ regulations will be introduced, ending unfair competition through billionaire oligarchs and to prevent a bubble economy imploding in football.

The political lesson to pro-Europeans is to earn permission for the multilateralism we need. The British have a reputation as reluctant Europeans. New YouGov polling commissioned for this book shows why this is, yet it also shows how the British are now very moderate Eurosceptics, with majorities perfectly open to deeper integration wherever it makes practical sense.

The endgame: why the Coalition won't last to May 2015

Andrew Grice, political editor of the Independent, has a must-read column on the increasingly fractious atmosphere inside the Coalition government.

It includes one of the first public discussions of the discussions inside both parties about how they might try to conduct an amicable divorce, so as to avoid a much more . That is now a political strategy question of fundamental importance to both partners, since the fallout from the AV referendum has finally ended all talk of pacts and deals to seek re-election, making the cover story that it is something they will be thinking about much closer to 2013 highly implausible.

Grice writes:

Holding the Coalition together is suddenly much harder work. It is not coming off the rails. But the new phase has provoked speculation about how and when it will end.

The Tory backbench rumour mill suggests that Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, is dusting down the rules about how a "confidence and supply" arrangement would work. This would mean Liberal Democrat ministers leaving the Government and Mr Clegg's party supporting the Tories in crucial Commons votes in return for an agreement on key policies. Ending the Coalition would not mean an immediate general election. A Bill is going through Parliament that should ensure it takes place in May 2015, which suits both parties.

The Tory grapevine suggests the Coalition could be scaled down to a "confidence and supply" deal a year or even 18 months before the election. Perhaps it is just wishful thinking, a symptom of Tories' frustration at the Liberal Democrats calling the shots on health.

Yet Liberal Democrat strategists, who had drafted a "confidence and supply" agreement for either Labour or the Tories before last year's election, admit the idea could be revived for the "decoupling phase" ahead of the next one. On the one hand, it might help their product-differentiation drive. On the other, it might allow the Tories all the credit for a tax-cutting eve-of-election Budget.

"It is an end-game question, a long way down the track," said one Clegg ally.

The Grice thesis chimes with the analysis of polling expert John Curtice, who told an ippr/open democracy discussion immediately after the May elections, that it was difficult to see how the Liberal Democrats could recover politically until they leave the Coalition, making it extremely important that the party sought to find an exit strategy from the government that does not precipitate a General Election.

These are my notes of what Curtice said at that seminar, in which he suggested that, if anything, the scale of the Liberal Democrat "drubbing" had been underestimated.

“It is true that the Liberal Democrats have been in this much trouble before”, said Curtice, citing both the Lib-Lab pact of the 1970s and the post-merger doldrums of the late 1980s.

“How did they get out of it? They got out of the pact. Why did the leave? Because the government didn’t give them what they wanted on electoral reform.

After the merger, how did they get out of trouble? By winning by-elections against an unpopular Tory government. That is not an option available to them at the moment".

So Curtice’s message to the LibDems was “they do need to think seriously about their exit strategy before 2015”.

He did not expect the Coalition to come under immediate pressure, but he thought there was a greater chance of the Liberal Democrats wanting to get out of the Coalition in the winter of 2013/14, particularly if the party could find a way to leave the government without precipitating an immediate general election, which the Conservatives would also prefer to avoid until the new Parliamentary boundaries were in place.

Poor local election results in 2012 and 2013 would in effect wipe out 20-30 years of local government. It was at that stage that Curtice expected there to be much greater internal pressure

It was difficult to see how a stronger economy would assist a LibDem recovery, Curtice suggested. “The fundamental problem for the Liberal Democrats is that the economic strategy they are defending is the Tory economic strategy – so it is very difficult for the Liberal Democrats to claim credit” if it did work.

So each of the Coalition parties are currently entertaining the theory that they would be better off dividing a good way before the short election campaign. But it is less obvious that they can both be right.

The shared problem for each is the threat of a General Election.

The Conservatives are more nervous about the path to a Parliamentary majority than they appear in public - not least because none of their leadership team shared the confidence of the party and its press supporters that it was heading for a clear victory next time. So the Tories would certainly not want an election without the new boundaries. And the reason for the LibDems to not want an earlier general election is, at present, rather more existential.

Hence the return of the idea of "confidence and supply".

But can it work? The conundrum there is how the LibDems would explain that they no longer believe that they should be part of the government, and prepare to campaign against it, while being still responsible for sustaining a Tory government. That could simply cost them the support of those voters who thought they did the right thing in the first place, without winning back the trust of lost LibDems who feel betrayed.

Still, the LibDem case for support if the Coalition lasts right up to a May 2015 campaign is quite difficult to articulate too.

In this endgame scenario, the post-Coalition Liberal Democrats would naturally need new leadership in order to seek to differentiate themselves from their erstwhile partners in government.

That makes it impossible to see how the Liberal Democrats can attempt an amicable divorce without current leader Nick Clegg having previously made his own decision that he would prefer a new challenge on the international stage to defending Sheffield Hallam at the next General Election

Chris Huhne's availability is now in doubt, making Tim Farron the likely frontrunner for a party looking for new direction and leadership.

How to achieve that within 12-18 months is more difficult. So the risk is that the party might do even worse if it seems to be running away from its record in government, rather than running on it, so exacerbating the damage of having been in the government during its most unpopular phase, and then absent when the war-chest is unlocked.

If it looks like a case of 'damned if you do, and damned if you don't' then that conundrum will be causing plenty of headaches among Liberal Democrats at Westminster.

A long time before 2015.

Friday, 27 May 2011

How to defend the (relational) state

Labour needs to change how it thinks about the state in order to defend it, argues Jon Wilson in this guest post continuing Next Left's recent discussion of Blue Labour, Fabianism and the state.


Most people love the state.

Or at least, people love the institutions which Labour activists and policy-wonks use that name to describe. In fact though, we're more likely to talk about our local school, hospital, library, university, forest, BBC radio station or childcare centre. The affection we feel is for institutions that are entangled in our lives in a practical, real way. Most importantly it's about our personal relationship to people we clumsily call public servants - the fantastic midwife who delivered our baby, the brilliant paramedic who sewed our knee back up, the great teacher or fantastic broadcaster.

Labour must always be the party which organises to protect public institutions against their erosion by the forces of the free-market. That's why we need to attack coalition plans to introduce greater marketisation of public services hard. But at the moment, every time that attack turns simply into a defence of the state, we lose the argument. Everyone understands how schools, hospitals, children's centresmake a real difference to our lives. But unless you're a Labour activist or political philosopher, it's hard to see 'the state' as anything other than a clunking monolithic which takes our money but doesn't do give us much in return.

Amidst its great achievements, the biggest tragedy for the last Labour government was the fact people thought we'd stopped caring. Every Labour politician understands why - we were too cold, too technocratic, too managerial. Too often we governed through interventions dreamed up in Whitehall after statistical analysis, without thinking through how they'd look after being bounced down through layers of bureaucracy. We spoke the language of the Treasury not the people. Tax credits are the perfect example - great in theory, they really helped a lot of people, but have you tried to fill in the form? Public sector reform often simply increased the pressure on public servants without improving the quality of their 'output'. As we know from successive social service scandals, crises created an expansion in formal compliance procedures at the cost of the common sense needed to protect vulnerable members of the community.

The story I'm telling is not a new one. Virtually every shadow cabinet member has made criticisms of this kind. The point now is to ask how criticism forces us to rethink Labour's attitude to government.

What Labour lost, I think, was a sense of why we believe in 'the state' to start with. As Labour activists, we believe in the virtue of common endeavour. We think markets are good at many things - but we also believe the power of collective action is often needed to civilise them and protect the power people have to live and lead lives that have meaning. Labour is about a solidarity or I nothing. As Tim Horton suggests in a recent nextleft post [link] ‘the state can be a powerful platform of reciprocity and solidarity’. But to exist, solidarity needs to be felt in our real lives – you can’t have solidarity with someone else and not know it. The trouble is, too often, the state is perceived as a distant power that doesn’t help us lead better lives together.

A lot of debate on the left about the place of the state in Labour thinking doesn’t help here. Arguing – as Tim Horton seemed to in his recent discussion of Blue Labour - about the virtues of centralism or localism, or state-run against mutual forms of organisation makes us forget that what matters is the way people relate to public institutions rather than their formal structure. There are plenty of highly bureaucratic mutuals; just as there are parts of central government provision which are wonderfully responsive to local society.

The core insight of the political philosophy which Maurice Glasman terms ‘blue labour’ is that the relationships we have with each other shapes everything we do; and that Labour politics is about bringing people from different backgrounds, with different interests together, to build relations so they can protect their livelihoods and flourish. A state obsessed by statistical outcomes and performance management targets treats people as bodies or economic units - above all as asocial individuals not people who have a common life together. The argument now shouldn’t be whether the state is a good thing, or even where formal power should lie. Instead it is how we can create a state which is capable of relating far better with ordinary people’s common lives.

This must be the new agenda for Labour public sector reform. It needs some difficult thinking about how public institutions are organised, and how they can expand the scope for real local participation in their management. More importantly, it will involve a long-term change so that the culture of public institutions is relational and respectful not managerial. Why not start by insisting that every public manager has to have at least two long, open-ended one-on-one conversations with patients or service ‘users’ each week about their lives, to get things started?

Democracy must involve more than a local service provider being accountable to a civil servant who is told what to do by a minister – it means treating the public as neither statistics nor patients but as people with stories that need to be recognised and citizens who should have a say in management. The best answer to a postcode lottery is not for Whitehall mandarins to continually increase the details of their instructions to local providers – the most centralised system is incapable of eliminating local variations. Instead, it is to ensure ‘users’ are organised to effectively demand that their local hospital offers the services they are entitled to as citizens. Running through everything a future Labour government does with the public service should be the question: how does this make it easier for people to get together, to develop the social relationships which best allow us to thrive, to create a common life?

David Cameron’s ‘big society’ is based on the liberal idea that people’s capacity for self-government is best exercised outside politics, beyond the state. We need to prove him wrong, by creating a Labour approach to the public sector which makes sure the ‘state’ is interwoven into the fabric of every local society.

Guest post from Jon Wilson, who is a lecturer at King's College London. He is a contributor to the new e-book 'The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox' (PDF)

Monday, 23 May 2011

Who ate all the jam?

He may be up against David Cameron's latest (fourth, we think) relaunch of the Big Society, but Labour leader Ed Miliband is to expand in a speech at the Royal Festival Hall today on his mission to restore "the British promise" - that each generation aspires for its children to have greater opportunities - and how this risks being broken for a next "jilted generation".

Miliband believes that this should be central to the optimistic vision for Britain which he believes must be central to Labour's pitch that it should govern the country, as he told Progress on Saturday.

The Labour leader was among the interviewes for Anne McElvoy's recent The Jam Generation Radio Four series, expanding and updating the analysis which she first set out in The Spectator. That captured the generational influences on the teenagers of the 1980s who currently dominate all of the three major parties at Westminster.

The danger may also be that the dominance of the politics of austerity may give rise to an excessively pessimistic politics - "Jam Yesterday", so to speak.

Miliband's argument is that the opportunities which the Jam Generation expected, and perhaps took for granted, are becoming squeezed out for what risks becoming the "jilted generation" which follows it, adopting the title of a recent book by journalists Shiv Malik and Ed Howker, which was itself in some ways a response to David Willett's challenge to the baby boom generation.

If there appears to be a growing engagement across the political spectrum with the idea of intergenerational justice - from what it costs to go to university and the distribution of housing wealth and assets to climate change - there is a sharp political and policy difference about what that means for the biggest policy issues of the day.

The government argues that future generations are the beneficiaries of seeking a rapid path to deficit reduction (if it works). But it would seem undeniable that the sharpest direct and psychological pressures of the falling living standards of the "squeezed middle" will be felt, across the educational and class spectrum, by those who have not yet got a foothold in their careers, still less thought about mortgages and assets, while the quickly increasing shadow of student debt makes the idea of getting a deposit for a mortgage a much more distant prospect for many, even if credit hadn't become much tighter too.

The age of first time buyers has been rising, especially for those without access to the 'bank of mum and dad' for help with a deposit. Miliband is expected to warn that it could soon rise to over 40.

In the week which ends with his marriage to partner Justine, Ed Miliband will make probably his most personal remarks about his own young sons, exemplifying a concern

“For us, our boys, Daniel and Sam, will be the most important people at our wedding and I’d like to speak today, not just about them, but about the prospect oftheir whole generation.

I suppose every father says this, but becoming a parent changes your outlook on life.

Sometimes it’s too easy to be sucked into work, into the day-to-day, but when you begin a family, your perspective broadens, you begin to consider thekind of future you might wish for your children.

I am worried - and every parent should be worried - about what will happen to our chidren in the coming decades. About what the future holds for us, our children and our country. About what sort of place Britain will become.

David Cameron has set out his benchmark of success: dealing with the deficit.

It is the over-riding concern to which all others are sacrificed.

But his claim to be protecting the next generation by making this his only priority is blown apart because they are bearing so much of the burden for his decisions: from cuts to sure start to the end of educational maintenance allowances to the trebling of tuition fees.”

I want to be equally clear with people. I have a different benchmark of successand the next Labour government will have a different benchmark of success.

It’s not enough just to deal with the deficit. Our country will be stronger only if we act to restore The Promise of Britain for the next and future generations.”

The speech appeals directly to an increasingly politicised younger generation. But they will want to know whether and how the promise of jam tomorrow can be kept.

So what the "British promise" and the commitment to intergenerational justice means will be a major issue for Labour's policy review, still in its early stages.

The centrality which the Labour leader is giving to the "jilted generation" should be music to the ears of the Young Fabians, who are making the theme of "squeezed youth" central to their engagement with the policy review.

The case for a high priority to ensuring young people get jobs is strengthened by evidence about how an early period of unemployment creates a lasting "wage scar" on future earnings.

It will surely also be difficult to raise the issue of intergenerational justice in an era of tight fiscal constraints without opening up the issue of whether those who benefitted most from windfall gains in the value of property, assets and wealth will need to contribute more to give the next generation a fair shot too.

The younger Miliband was rather more reluctant to engage with this issue in the leadership campaign than his elder brother, David, who was at least in this respect slightly more "red" than Ed, in being prepared to propose a variant on Vince Cable's Mansion Tax. The Cable policy was considerably more popular with the public than the newspaper editors (who do not, as it happens, tend, themselves, to form part of the 'jilted generation', and who may also be at least partially confident of trying to protect their own children from some of the consequences).

Getting the politics of intergenerational justice is tricky - but not impossible.

Returning to the issue of whether those with most assets must constribute a little more will have to be an issue addressed by anybody who wants to spread the jam more fairly across the generations.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Labour can't become a party of the status quo, Ed Miliband warns Progress

Ed Miliband went to the Progress conference, to speak to the flank of the party which (rightly) emphasises the importance of Labour leaders to be prepared to speak uncomfortable truths to the party.

So the Labour leader rather appropriately thought it important to ensure that he challenged the Progress audience to get out of their own comfort zone too, taking aim at what could now be called the 'old new Labour' politics of defensive consolidation.

His speech did warn the party more generally that opposing cuts would not be enough, before ending with a pointed, if politely articulated, statement of where the leader believes that the analysis being pursued, both publicly and privately, from the party’s right-wing risks making a fatal strategic mistake, by warning of a series of “false choices” – an argument about pursuing Tory or LibDem votes, and about pursuing equality or aspiration – in internal party debates about the party’s mission and electoral strategy.

Some of this shouldn't need saying

Miliband particularly wanted to challenge the argument that Labour’s political strategy to build an alternative majority should be based on accepting the Coalition government’s Thatcher-echoing “there is no alternative” defence of George Osborne’s economic strategy.

This, he said, would be an excessively fatalistic Labour politics of pessimism, giving the party no platform on which to stand for office while also in effect giving the Conservatives a couple of years notice that they had every opportunity to frame the next General Election on whatever terrain they choose.

Let me end with this thought about the journey we are on together.

There is a prevailing idea that this is a Conservative country.

That there is little we can do apart from accommodate to that fact.

I think the people who believe that are wrong. Not just because the majority of people at the last election voted for parties other than the Conservative party.

But because I know that voters want something more than this government can provide.

Just as we should not accept a politics of pessimism for our country, so we shouldn't for our party either.

But to deliver that better, optimistic politics requires ambition for our future, for what our politics can achieve. We could accept a politics of decline and pessimism. But we cannot let the Conservatives pessimism stunt our ambition for our country or our party.

Miliband was able to persuasively argue that Labour’s crushing defeat in Scotland reflected a failure to recognise how much the vision thing mattered, as had the party’s May 2010 focus on the risks of change. (Steve Richards has set out in his study of the Brown government ‘Whatever it takes’ how Ed Miliband’s front-seat view of Gordon Brown’s three years in Downing Street have hard-wired this belief for the Labour leader).

Today’s passage also returned to a theme of his leadership contest in noting that new Labour had begun in the mid-1990s as an open and insurgent project seeking broad alliances for a vision of change, but had surprisingly narrowed into a rather dogmatic ideology, too attached to the status quo to challenge the forces of conservatism as it once had. So Ed Miliband certainly finds much to study and emulate in the way in which early New Labour made a broad one nation appeal to the country, probably finding considerably more of value of what Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair did when they “owned the future” than the advice they now offer as elder statesmen).

What should be preserved from the market?

Ed Miliband made his own social democratic case for Blue Labour, by focusing on those parts of that project which involve seeing the limits to markets as well as their benefits, and being willing to check markets in the name of other social goods.

Some have presented this as a nostalgic vision of the past. The Labour equivalent of warm beer, bicycling maidens and the thwack of leather on willow.

(For those who don’t recall, that was something John Major said).

I think this is to wholly misunderstand what this is about.

It starts from what we see in our country. A sense of people being buffeted by storm winds blowing through their lives. A fear of being overpowered by commercial and bureaucratic forces beyond our control. And a yearning for the institutions and relationships we cherish most to be respected and protected. You see it in the concerns people have about what is happening to their local high street, post office and pub.

The sense of loss in Birmingham from the takeover of Cadbury's. The football supporters fed up with billionaires who see their clubs simply as financial assets.

The campaign to stop the Port of Dover being sold off to the highest bidder.

The justifiable suspicions people have about the Government's real agenda on the NHS.

We can't save every pub. We don't want to preserve every high street in aspic. And we can't stop the takeover of all British companies.

But let's face it: our apparent indifference to some of these issues told people a lot about us. It made us seem like remote technocrats who defended the market even when people wanted protection against it. And it spoke to a deeper sense about us.

Were we really people who cared about or defended traditional British institutions?

The answer to that was no. There may be real trade-offs here. “We can not save every pub”, nor become economic protectionists. But Ed Miliband’s appreciation of Blue Labour insights involves an acknowledgement that New Labour ‘s neophilia meant that it did not care much at all “about defending traditional British institutions” – with that great Fabian exception of the NHS – as seeking to invent new, with little success, millennial traditions of its own.

Miliband grew up politically observing the radical contradictions of Thatcherite Conservatism: that uneasy combination of market liberalism and social conservatism must choose which to prioritise when there is a clash between the creative destruction of markets and the traditions and institutions which conservatives seek to protect from change. Thatcherism’s commitment to markets made it ultimately a disruptive and anti-conservative project inspired by the radical market liberal right.

That history is echoed in Miliband’s challenge to the Coalition for having “an almost Maoist contempt for any institution that doesn't conform to their ideological beliefs” – language previously used by the Business Secretary Vince Cable, as reported by Andrew Rawnsley, and later outed by the Telegraph sting.

The new politics of inequality?

Ed Miliband offered another counter to a recent party debate in arguing that Labour ought not to see tackling inequality and supporting aspiration as a trade-off, though he will have more to do to make the case, and identify the means, for a greater weight on interventions to affect the 'pre-distribution' of earned incomes, rather than relying heavily on later redistribution through tax and benefits.

Opinion within the Progress right is divided about this. Some retain a residual fear of the implications of explicitly talking about inequality as Labour’s driving mission, but I suspect that many more on the party's right do not share that hang-up. That argument appeared to be largely settled a few years ago, and the fear is much less plausible when both Coalition parties have adopted the rhetoric of more equal life chances. (When George Osborne can say he thinks it is important to narrow the gap, it would be odd if Labour chose to be the only party which felt that it could not).

It is also a rather recent misreading to see being in favour of addressing inequality as a “left” position within Labour debates, when it has always been a driving argument of the modernising and egalitarian social democratic centre-right of the party, exemplified by the emphasis which David Miliband placed on why he believes tackling inequalities remains Labour’s animating mission when speaking to Progress a year ago.

John Rentoul objects to Ed Miliband’s characterisation of Labour’s record on inequality, arguing that it is insufficiently proud of Labour’s overall record on poverty and inequality.

I am not sure about this challenge. Rentoul’s general point about Labour’s record being both more nuanced and rather better than general Liberal Democrat/Guardian discussion of this is valid. But Labour has a leader who knows each of the IFS’ poverty and inequality indicators – the Gini, 90:10 inequality and so on – inside out, and the speech describes the record fairly.

Rentoul’s objection to “People see a growing inequality between those at the top and themselves” depends on what Miliband – and, more importantly, people in general – mean or understand when they talk about “the top”.

Rentoul says the perception is wrong, because the Gini is no longer rising.

But this depends on what is meant by “the top”, and where they mean the super-rich, they are right. It is useful to Miliband to articulate that sense of dislocation felt even by those 10% from the top with what is going on among the top 1%, and especially the top 0.1%.

For example, this could be one reason why many higher rate taxpayers – including those on family incomes not much over £40,000 who are to lose child benefit - do not feel excessively exercised by the idea that a 50p tax rate which nobody pays on the first £12,500 a month, or particularly that they have so much in common with Boris Johnson, Fred Goodwin or Wayne Rooney. That may be one reason why a majority of 40p taxpayers support the 50p rate, rather than seeing it as a penalty on aspiration.

This argument over the somewhat totemic 50p rate does symbolise a significant difference in between the Ed Miliband analysis of southern discomfort to that of those like Tim Allan and Peter Mandelson. The Labour leader believes that their vocal objections to his challenging bankers' pay misreads the pressures and concerns on above-average earners in southern marginals like Reading West, where Ed Miliband has pointed out that the median income is £21,000.


Ed Miliband has been a collegiate party leader. That reflects both his personal style and instincts, as well as the politics of the knife-edge leadership contest.

He has been keen to offer all strands of opinion a fair hearing, and to be seen to do so, but must combine that by leading and define key debates about the party’s vision and strategy, and about the practical changes within the party which will be needed.

Today’s technique of respecting his audience enough to articulate areas of contention as well as common ground echoed his Fabian new year conference speech.

There Miliband, as a committed Fabian social democrat, warned against the idea of thinking, or being seen to think, that the state was always the answer by also championing Labour’s mutualist and cooperative traditions, as Anthony Painter noted for Labour List on the day.

The leader was also well received at Progress today. He will consider it important to have achieved that on the basis of having made clear that he remains a candidate of change, rather than more of the same.

Weekend reading: On Ed Miliband, Progress, Blue Labour and the Wombles

I spent most of last week away from both the office and the blog (and even, for two rather refreshing days, having any internet connection at all), moving house and celebrating my youngest son’s second birthday on Thursday. There has been plenty going on politically so, to catch up, here’s a brief round-up of a few things that have caught my eye.

The big political event of the day on the centre-left is the Progress Annual Conference. There is a packed Progress conference schedule, and there should be plenty of tweeting at #pac11.

Labour party leader Ed Miliband gives the keynote speech, a role played last year by his elder brother David as the Labour leadership contest got underway.

Ed Miliband again demonstrates his instinct to be a collegiate and pluralist leader, as he seeks to build bridges to the right-wing of the party.

He will also want to convince his audience that the party must change to win. And there is a gentle rebuke to some on the Progress wing of the party in Miliband's Guardian commentary today, where he rejects the proposition that Labour "could just fight on his [David Cameron's] ground and accept the terms of debate set by him", as an approach which would fail".

(This is a rejection of the argument put by voices such as former party general secretary Peter Watt who argued this week that Labour should support the Coalition government's spending cuts. But most on the Progress right of the party do share a version of the 'too much, too fast' critique, while favouring Labour being more candid in identifying some of the cuts it would support within a more moderate strategy for deficit reduction, consistent with that of Alastair Darling).


How the party needs to change is also the theme of the Refounding Labour project, being led by Peter Hain, on which Hain spoke at last weekend’s Fabian post-election conference.

Give your views on what you love and what you would change about the Labour party before 24th June.


Ed Miliband also last week offered a warm welcome to the ‘conservative left’ of Blue Labour, writing the foreword to an engaging e-book collection 'The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox'. The full book (PDF) can be downloaded from the Soundings website.

This draws on a series of Oxford-London seminars, with essays from Maurice Glasman on blue Labour, Marc Stears on leadership and party politics, and Jonathan Rutherford on a left conservatism, with Stuart White of Oxford University (and a contributor here on Next Left) among a wide range of political and academic respondents. The Fabian Society, Progress, Compass, Soundings and the Christian Socialist Movement are among those associated with the collection, in order to promote debate across the party.

The collection goes some way to answering some of the questions as to what the Blue Labour project is all about (which is something Alex Canfor-Dumas was wondering about on LabourList this week, while David Lammy set out why he believes blue Labour voices an important part of Labour's plural tradition.

Reform or die?

Progress also published a couple of pieces about the Fabians this month, triggered by our search for a new General Secretary. (Applications close this Thursday, for any of you still pondering whether to throw your hat into the ring. (PDF) Having called for a Fabian "Clause Four moment” in their magazine’s think-tank column, they followed this up by issuing David Chaplin’s “reform or die” call for greater Fabian transparency and member involvement .

In writing my weekly post for Labour Uncut, I issued a reciprocal challenge arguing that the 15-year old post-Blairite group should now be ready to think about when to have a clause four moment of its own. Having platformed Chaplin’s call for think-tank transparency and internal democracy, Progress will surely want to practice what they preach. Emulating the Fabians’ democratic structures could give Progress’ own members some voice and power in the organisation. Progress would not tell me how many members they have; and reporting that for the first time would be an obvious, if rather overdue, small first step.


The AV inquest

There have been several more reflections on the lessons of the AV referendum. Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome has a useful round-up of Yes inquests, as well as his and Dan Hodges' reviews of how the No campaign won.

Anthony Barnett published an important post on OpenDemocracy on Tuesday, drawing on some of the published accounts of the campaign to call on the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust – a major funder of the Yes campaign and, with the Electoral Reform Society, the group which was most closely involved in its organisation, staffing and strategic direction – to conduct a transparent inquiry into the campaign’s defeat and the lessons to be learnt from it.

He is right to highlight the extremely important role which the JRRT has played in supporting pro-democracy and civil liberties campaigning in recent decades. That makes it all the more important that the JRRT should respond to his call. He is among those to note that the one success of the Yes campaign was to engage and mobilise a new generation of democracy activists on the ground, and that there is an important principle of accountability, and indeed an enlightened self-interest case too for a powerful body championing reform, to ensure those efforts are properly valued and respected in the aftermath. A willingness to openly discuss and to learn the lessons must be central to that.

Anthony has probably unmatched credentials as a committed democratic reformer to lead that constructive call for transparency in pursuit of democracy. As with much of the pluralist wing of the Labour party, I was much influenced by his successful mobilisation of Charter 88 in the late Thatcher era, which did a great deal to open up what was the most important period of democratic reform since 1911. The AV referendum reverse looks like the book-end of that era, which naturally leads to a focus on the limits of reform. Nevertheless, several of the piecemeal changes – particularly devolution, as well as freedom of information and human rights legislation – will have enduring impacts.


Best of the blogs

Graeme Archer won the Orwell prize for blogging.

It is a very well deserved award for his beautifully written and often off-piste personal take on politics for ConservativeHome. You can read his winning blog-posts here.

One of the attractions of Graeme's writing is that he doesn't seem to have quite the same sense of raging ego as some others on the blogosphere. Perhaps this prestigious prize might yet change that!

The other shortlisted and longlisted posts (including mine!) can be read at the Orwell prize website.

Jenni Russell won the journalism prize, and the book prize was awarded posthumously to Tom Bingham for The Rule of Law.

How the Arab Spring came to Washington

President Obama's speech on the middle east was the big foreign affairs event of the week. There was a superb long backgrounder on the debates within the Obama administration by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, which set out some of the thinking behind the speech, and indeed explains some of the gaps left in it too.


Match of the day

On the football field, thoughts turn to Premiership relegation and how to avoid it tomorrow, an occasion (like the Championship play-off) in which commentators and reporters too often quantify what is at stake in financial terms, instead of footballing pride.

But the match of the weekend is definitely AFC Wimbledon versus Luton Town this afternoon for a place in the Football League.

Both clubs have endured so much trauma since they contested an FA Cup semi-final 22 years ago. So today’s game is not just another nail biting play-off match at the end of the season, but is above all a brilliant celebration of the commitment of grassroot’s football supprters to what they believe in.

When I was a teenager, Luton Town were once right up there with Liverpool and Manchester United as one of my least favourite football clubs, thanks to their plastic pitch, ban on away fans and their appalling Thatcherite ‘nasty party’ chairman David Evans MP. But, like Wimbledon and Watford, they were also a club who, on the field, showed that the natural order could be upset. Today’s game at the Manchester City’s new stadium also evokes memories of David Pleat’s crazy dance down the touchline as they escaped relegation at Maine Road to send once-mighty City down.

Wimbledon were not always the most popular of giantkillers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as their immense achievement in climbing the entire football ladder had only a nodding acquaintance with the principles of the beautiful game. I can’t say that I remember a great deal about the occasions on which I saw my team, Everton, scrap in the mud at ramshackle Plough Lane.

The condition of being a football fan often involves taking vicarious pleasure, as a spectator, in what our heroes do or don’t achieve on our behalf. What the fans of AFC Wimbledon have done in refusing to let their club be killed off is an inspirational achievement, whether they win or lose. That's the Good Society in action. So let’s hope it is rewarded with promotion in Manchester today.


Do please let me know what you're reading and about other blog posts you’ve found most interesting.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Tories could be real winners from return to tribalism, Vince Cable warns Fabians

Vince Cable, the LibDem Business Secretary, was an unannounced surprise guest as the Fabian progressive fightback conference, joining Labour's elections coordinator Andy Burnham at the opening session of the conference as it took the temperature of British politics after the May 2011 elections.

Vince Cable said he thought tribalism in British politics had reached a new pitch, and suggested this would suit the Conservatives most.

We have reverted to an extraordinarily tribal way of looking at politics. We all paid lip service to the local contests. Good councillors and bad councillors were treated the same way. This was a referendum on national government. That risks there being no respect for local government - both libraries, which are a local issue, and the NHS, which isn't.

Cable suggested that the Conservatives would be the main beneficiaries of a tribal and polarised politics.

Trbalism has always been part of politics, but it is now at a different pitch. Some in all parties like Tony Blair, Cameron, many Liberal Democrats have tried to have a more open, less tribal politics, but we now have a very rancourous return of political tribalism.

The question is where does it lead?

We have a lot of people in this country who will be disenfranchised in a much more tribal political culture.

In the short-term, it is very bad news for my party. We get very badly hammered if politics retreats into its core votes, though we did discover we had a core vote of our own of around 15%. If you had asked me what our core vote was a year ago, I would have said it was a lot lower than that.

My question to the Labour party would be this. Do you really believe, in that return to a more strongly tribal politics, which party is best placed to mobilise 40% of the vote - with the ground machine and the funding base to do that. If you think its the Labour Party, then I would say you are going in the right direction.

Cable was warmly received by the Fabian audience when he made his surprise appearance during the event. He spoke of how he had always been committed to engaging with Fabians and debates across the Labour and LibDem party boundaries. His call for a less polarised and caricatured debate about the causes of the economic crisis implied a distancing from the Liberal Democrats leading partisan attacks on Labour's record, though Cable defended his own track record on arguing against a 'back to business as usual' approach to the crisis.

But Cable was criticised and challenged from the Fabian members when he described the differences between the major parties over spending cuts as "an extraordinary ideological war around microscopic differences over spending cuts", and was challenged over why he had changed his mind about the need for early spending cuts in particular.

Andy Burnham, Labour's election coordinator, won applause for questioning whether anger at the Liberal Democrats from their own voters could fairly be described as tribalism.

It might be too convenient to label the anger that many of those who voted Liberal Democrat feel as tribalism. There are a lot of people felt that their votes had been stolen. They were centre-left people, voting for a centre-left party. They were not tribal people. Many of them had voted Labour in 2001 and then LibDem in 2005. It was the people who were not tribal who were most angry with the Liberal Democrats.

Cable acknowledged this point, noting that Liberal Democrats, included himself, had won a fair number of votes from those who were Labour people, voting LibDem to keep the Conservatives out, while other LibDems won anti-Labour votes from Conservatives: "we are having to operate in a different world; our base is going to change", he said.

Burnham had told the Fabian progressive fightback conference in London this morning that Labour needed to focus its fire on "the real enemy": the Conservatives. But he couldn't resist one observation on the political troubles of Nick Clegg, arguing that the LibDem leader had Stockholm Syndrome, but that Labour's advances against the Liberal Democrats had now changed the Coalition.

"Our progress has brought a significant political consequence. It has changed the Coalition. David Cameron's cover has been blown. He cannot hide behind the Liberal Democrats any longer.

We have released the human shield from the hands of his captors - but it's clear that he's beyond saving. The more I hear Nick Clegg talking about life in the Coalition, the clearer it is that he has a classic case of Stockholm syndrome. He could go free, but he is drawn back to his captors, pathetically grateful.

Now, 'muscular liberalism'. That could be the theme for a Fabian pamphlet.

It sounds a bit dodgy to me. If all of us were to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and write down one hundred objectives about the Liberal Democrats, does anyone think that the word 'muscular' would appear on them.

I could go on but I will stop myself. The electorate have made up their mind about the Liberal Democrats. Labour must now get down to the real business and focus all of our efforts on the real enemy", said Burnham.


Earlier, Burnham had told the Fabian conference that the trauma of Labour's 2010 defeat was easily underestimated:

"We may not have been sparked out on the canvas, as the Tories were in 1997, but we were stopped in the tenth round, looking pretty bloody and beaten up". The result had been a "low point in Labour's history", only just exceeding the party's share of the vote in 1983.

Labour should not have a rose-tinted view of its local elections results but had made progress, particularly recovering centre-left support from the Liberal Democrats.

Burnham argued that it was important that Labour had recovered as a campaigning force - with 50,000 new members joining in the last year, helping the Labour party to make more contacts in the first four months of 2011 than in the same period of the General Elecion year, speaking ahead of a session with Peter Hain on the 'refounding Labour' process this afternoon.

Progressive dilemmas for the Labour tribe

The Fabian Society today holds its 'Progressive Fightback' conference, the first chance for Fabian and Labour members and other campaigners to debate what the fallout of the 2011 elections mean for the future of British politics. Andy Burnham kicks off the conference at 11am. Follow @thefabians on twitter for live updates. We will have reports on Next Left.

Here General Secretary Sunder Katwala argues that the Labour tribe needs to think harder about how to achieve its goals in a society where there is no majority political tribe.


“There is no progressive majority”. That is said to be the lesson to take from the heavy defeat of the Alternative Vote referendum. The Yes campaign for AV failed badly. It was unable to mobilise anything like a majority of votes, and barely tried to do so.

But excessively simplistic lessons risk being drawn from this. There is no automatic progressive majority. But there is no right-wing majority in Britain either. (That is a point which the tiny minority campaigning for deeper spending cuts today are probably aware. Indeed Mark Littlewood of the IEA seeks to persuade the public to stop blaming the bankers instead of "the collective greed of the voting population of this country. We need considerably more cuts".)

British politics contains two large minority political tribes – Tory and Labour – of roughly equal size.

About one in three voters broadly identifies with one of these two tribes – while a similar number bear no particularly allegiance to either, instead being scattered across all other parties and none.

So May 2011 might yet be seen as a moment of hubris when the Tory party burnt its bridges. The strategic axis at the heart of the government has shifted from Cameron-Clegg to Cameron-Osborne. The campaign for a Tory majority is very much on. The Tories dream of their new boundaries (though John Curtice this week warned that they will make less difference than the Tories hope and than Labour fears). Still, the Tory tribe is cock-a-hoop, believing that the next election is probably in the bag. But do ask them to remind you why they failed, in uniquely favourable circumstances, to win the last one under Gordon Brown.

It may be trickier than many think for the Cameron-Osborne plan to negotiate its way to 2015. The Tory ability to govern depends on LibDem votes in what ought to become an increasingly fractious hung Parliament. It will become increasingly obvious that their electoral strategy demands the electoral destruction of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats across the south of England, to emulate the damage done to the LibDems by Labour in the north.

Still, the Tories once again have a plan, as they always do, and they know what it is. Jettison assumptions of a progressive majority and a central progressive dilemma remains: why does the right-of-centre tribe win more often than its overall political and social strength would suggest?

That was David Marquand’s question about the Conservative twentieth century – which had a major influence on different strands of centre-left thinking, from Blairite New Labour and Paddy Ashdown’s LibDems to the pluralist democratic socialism of Robin Cook. The pendulum swung, but with a noticeable bias to the right. From universal suffrage to the millennium, the Labour party was never re-elected after a full term in office, while the Conservatives often were. If you count up the Parliamentary majorities in double figures after the introduction of universal suffrage, the 20th century score was Conservatives 13, Labour 3.

One answer: the Tory tribe is often more ruthless in acting on what it believes to be its strategic political interests. But with a twist. Paradoxically, part of that Tory tribal ruthlessness is that it has habitually involved a much greater willingness to reach out beyond the tribe. The tribe’s leaders often seek to cooperate with and to co-opt outsiders, showing an impressive ability to make common cause in order to pursue conservative causes and to defend conservative interests.
Look at how the Cameron-Osborne alliance have deployed the Liberal Democrats to attack Labour’s economic credibility, while working with northern Labour allies to humiliate Nick Clegg. Having a Coalition with the Liberal Democrats to get into power, the Tories have managed to persuade LibDems to vote through the boundary changes which it thinks crucial to its chances of dumping its coalition partners to govern alone. In the trade, the junior partner got a humiliating slap in the face. Yet how was that delivered? The Yes campaign could not bring together a majority of Labour and LibDem support, Conservative Central Office had no trouble donating Tory donor funds directly to members of the Labour tribe fighting a ground war to damage the deputy prime minister on his home turf in Sheffield.

Labour tribalism can be an important asset of the Tory tribe, as it can make the contrast with their own dominant Tory tradition of pragmatic statecraft in pursuit of ideological interests a crucial strategic advantage.

I am myself part of the Labour tribe, which the Fabians were central to creating in the first place. But successful political tribes need their external ambassadors and bridge-builders too. There are some strange and often unexamined assymetries and contradictions to how the most tribal elements of the Labour party think about politics.

If you are tribal Labour, you think of David Cameron’s government – like the National Governments of the 1930s – as an essentially Tory government.

Wouldn’t it then follow that a Labour-led Coalition would, by analogy, be an essentially Labour government? No. Quite the opposite. That wouldn’t be a proper Labour government at all, however large its majority. (As John Prescott has now said publicly as well as privately: “I did say to Tony Blair if Paddy Ashdown walked in the front door I'll be out the other door”).

The Labour tribe’s instinct is “ourselves alone” and it is most comfortable with the idea that ‘everybody should fall in behind us’, being hurt and bewildered if that does not materialise.

If you believe that the only real politics that matters is Labour versus Tory, then anybody who refuses to fall into line easily gets labelled a crypto-Tory. (Independent Councillors are closet Tories; the SNP are Tartan Tories, and so on).
This means that those who say they hate the Tories above all tend to reserve a moreintense rage for those non-Tories who “collaborate”: the ‘betrayal’ of Nick Clegg mirroring that of Ramsay MacDonald or Lloyd George after 1918, or of other ‘splitters’ from Joe Chamberlain to David Owen.

This is not, on the whole, a particularly attractive way to build alliances, whether short-term tactics or more. Labour is at its least attractive when it projects an assumption ofentitlement. As Douglas Alexander has put it, it needs to resist its instinct of thinking that Liberal Democrats are simply people who got lost on the way to the Labour Party committee rooms.

In any event, if anybody who is “not Labour” is usually considered tantamount to being a Tory anyway, doesn’t this negate the cry of betrayal, if they simply go and do what they were already being accused of.

So the gut instinct of this Labour tribal position is often to prefer the clarity of a Tory government to a hung Parliament, or the politics of negotiation and compromise, though this is rarely owned openly.

So it has been the Conservatives who have habitually been the party of Coalition in British politics. The Tories have been part of every peacetime Coalition government in Britain for 150 years; Labour never. The Tories have usually swallowed up or spat out their allies and partners – the Whigs and Liberal Unionists, National Liberals and National Labour – while the Tory tribe has sailed on.

The 2010 coalition talks saw a Tory premier-in-waiting adopt an archetypal strategy of Tory statecraft in Cameron’s “big, open and generous offer” to the Liberal Democrats. The third party was lured seductively in to what may well turn out to be existential danger. A Labour leader who had finished seven points ahead at the polls would most likely be advised to go it alone (as the party did in 1924, 1929 and 1974).


The two great political tribes will be with us for a long time yet. Their disappearance is habitually predicted – but the obituaries have often proved premature. Each of the two tribes demonstrated sufficient bedrock resilience to recover from near death experiences and prove premature obituarists wrong. There was still an English Tory bedrock of 31-32% who preferred William Hague to Tony Blair when New Labour was at its height. Enough Labour voters kept the party in second place in the 1980s, against the Social Democratic challenge, whatever was in its manifesto in 1983.Yet the tribes are slipping too. Their joint share of the vote has been in long-term decline.

If David Cameron does maintain his coalition until a 2015 election, he will be seeking to win the first Tory Commons majority in a General Election for 23 years, almost a decade and a half after either party came close to 40% of the vote. (There is no sociological or political inevitability in this. The third party’s entry into government may see a rally back to the main two standards, but that would be unlikely to herald a return to the party allegiances of the 1950s, and a fair part of the LibDem vote may scatter in many different directions).

It is at least an open question as to whether the straight two-party era of 1945 to 1970 which frames so many of our assumptions about British politics should be considered the ‘norm’, or rather the anomaly in the British political history. In a less bipolar political world, one important question is how far the rest of the electorate takes an ‘anybody but Labour’ or ‘anybody but the Tories’ view.

In the 1930s and 1980s, it was Labour that was isolated, representing the depressed rump of the industrial north, Scotland and Wales, as the Tories sought more affluent support. Ahead of 1997, the mainstream of British politics seemed to become a broad anti-Tory popular front, with many of the debates that mattered taking place between different strands – Blair and Brown, Labour and LibDem – on the centre-left.

The Scottish elections of 2010 and 2011 show how voters can switch very quickly on this question of which of the two tribes they want to punish. Even in this so-called ‘Labour heartland’ territory, there is an anti-Labour majority as well as an anti-Tory one. In May 2010, the Scottish focus was on keeping the Tories out at Westminster. Uniquely across the UK, there was a swing to Labour. Yet in May 2011, there was a strong swing against Labour to the SNP. Labour’s vote fell only marginally but the story of the election was the SNP sweep of the Tory and LibDem vote. ‘Anybody but Labour’ proved a potent enough appeal, combined certainly with a much greater SNP confidence about Scotland’s future than seemed on offer from anybody else, for pro-union voters to be willing to vote for a pro-independence party in very large numbers.


If Labour is instinctively suspicious of the politics of cross-party cooperation, so many of its major achievements have been founded on a range of different forms of centre-left alliance or partnership.

Keir Hardie certainly didn’t like or trust the Liberals. But, as Next Left has set out, examine the political career of this great champion of Labour independence, and you will find that he advanced whenever he was in (tense) alliance with the Liberals, and faltered badly whenever relations broke down. These were alliances of necessity rather than affection.

Labour’s ability to establish a Parliamentary party in 1906 was the product of a (secret) electoral pact which contributed to the Liberal landslide.

The greatest Liberal achievement in power in the 20th century was victory in the great constitutional crisis of 1909-1911. In truth, this was a Lib-Lab achievement too, for it was only a Lib-Lab understanding about candidates which prevented the Tory minority winning a majority of seats in the crisis elections of 1910. Labour votes were then needed to sustain the Liberal government in the hung Parliament which resulted.

The social liberalisation of the 1960s was led by the great liberal icon Roy Jenkins as a Labour Home Secretary, while the abortion bill was introduced by David Steel and carried with much Labour backbench support. The post-1997 constitutional reforms, the most significant changes to British polity since 1911, were achieved by the educative force of the liberal pressure group Charter 88 on Labour opinion, and by Lab-Lib cooperation in opposition and briefly in Cabinet committee during Labour's first term.

At other times - in dealing with the unemployment of 1920s and '30s, or facing the Thatcher challenge of the '80s, - progressive forces have been scattered and divided, resulting in Tory dominance.

Nick Clegg was right to warn against arguments assuming a permanent realignment of the centre-left or centre-right. Democratic politics shouldn’t do permanent, despite the presentism of so much political commentary. A Blair-Ashdown deal in 1997 would not have delivered permanent centre-left government. It would have shifted the centre-of-gravity to the centre-left, by speeding up the Cameron reality check to the Tories. If, by 2010, the Tory party was several points ahead of Labour, then a centre-left coalition would have been replaced by a centre-right one.

We will now hear much less of the widespread claim twelve months ago that this coalition meant that there would be a Cameon-led realignment on the centre-right .

With the LibDems in most trouble of all, the main battle is once again between the two dominant and dwindling political tribes. But either tribe has a good deal more to do to broaden its appeal a great deal to get close to 40%.

Most of the Tory tribe has now forgotten its own leadership’s analysis of why they hit a 36% ceiling last May.

Labour tribalists need to realise that their vision of Labour governing alone requires a broad electoral appeal which goes well beyond the tribe, as was achieved in 1945, 1966 and 1997.

So “there is no progressive majority” is at one level a statement of political reality, yet at another it is being used to drive a political analysis which risks leaving Labour in far too narrow a political cul-de-sac.

While Labour certainly needs Tory votes, there are different arguments and strategies to appeal to them: a blue Labour ‘left conservatism’ appeal would be different to a Blairite one, for example. Those who say the only votes which matter will be Tory ones are setting an electoral ceiling of 35%.

The Labour tribe will need to do better than that.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Why George Lansbury wasn't Labour's greatest leader

"I would close every recruiting station, disband the Army and disarm the Air Force. I would abolish the whole dreadful equipment of war and say to the world: "Do your worst"
- George Lansbury, leader of the Labour Party, message to the voters in the Fulham East by-election, June 1933.

"This day I believe – 1 October 1935 – is a watershed moment in the history of the party ... The removal of Lansbury in 1935 marked the fundamental change in the character of political leadership. The victory of the pragmatists and political operators over the prophets of Labour"
- Jon Cruddas, tribute to George Lansbury, May 2011.

An intriguing part of the Blue Labour project is its wish to make a new interrogation of the party's history part of the contemporary argument about the party's mission and identity. But with a twist. For the target often seems to be less New Labour's conscious choice of modernising amnesia - "forward, not back", so to speak - but rather an attempt to disrupt and overturn many of the shared narratives and understandings of Labour's history which much of the party continues to cherish.

The Labour party's proudest moments and its most sacred myths arise out of the 1945 landslide. It is a proud, patriotic story - "Now win the peace" - of how the country thanked and threw out Churchill, so that promises of a people's peace which had been dishonoured after 1918 were this time kept, so that wartime solidarity, contrasted with the memories of unemployment and appeasement of the 1930s, could be parlayed into the commitment to protect each other from the worst risks in life, through the National Health Service, welfare state, and a broader vision of a fairer and more equal Britain.

The most eye-catching heresy in Blue Labour's revisionist challenge is to refuse allegiance to Labour's finest hour under Major Attlee, instead regarding this as the moment where it all went wrong. The aim is not only to reconnect Labour to its own traditions, a laudable project for sure, but also to disrupt and disconnect the party from the currently dominant narrative, dethroning Attlee and Bevan, to replace a celebration of their contribution with an alternative mythology of paths not followed.

This may be part of what lies behind Jon Cruddas making perhaps the most daring attempt yet to manufacture some new blue Labour myths to challenge Labour's existing shared understandings of our history as a movement.

In his heartfelt tribute to George Lansbury last weekend, Cruddas makes a laudable and elegant plea for Lansbury to be better remembered as a great prophet of the Labour pantheon. Cruddas goes on to make the quixotic and implausible claim that Lansbury was Labour's greatest leader, and extends this through the indefensible argument that Labour should regard the day he lost the leadership as a tragic turning point in the history of the party and movement.

The Cruddas tribute to Lansbury is a moving one, made with great verve and rhetorical elegance. But I can not see how he could choose to be more wrong in his argument about 1st October 1935 being a dark day when Labour set out on the wrong path.

Cruddas eloquently sets out many reasons to remember Lansbury better. But the expression of regret at his being dispatched as leader in 1934 could, if taken seriously, hardly have more appalling consequences.

Cruddas is right that Lansbury has been unfairly neglected in the party's popular memory. It took more than half a century for a full biography to be published. His life is a remarkable tale in so many ways. Lansbury was jailed twice for his political convictions, over female suffrage in 1912 and in his coup de theatre when refusing to set a rate in Poplar in 1921. As a campaigner against the hated Poor Laws, he was one of the Royal Commission minority who famously advocated the Minority Report on the Poor Law, which laid the foundations of the Beveridge welfare state (though Cruddas more than stretches a point in wanting to write Lansbury back into that history in claiming that he, rather than the Webbs, should be regarded as its primary author).

Lansbury was always prepared to articulate unpopular, minority causes, and to stick to them, whatever the political consequences. It is more difficult to make a case for him as a great political strategist, with many setbacks too, such as when he resigned his seat to force a by-election over votes for women in 1912, and lost it!

Lansbury had the courage of his sincere convictions when he was a brilliant and lonely pioneer of what we would all now see as simple justice and common sense. He also had the courage of his sincere convictions too when he was catastrophically wrong about the most important issue of the age, leading inevitably to Lansbury's defenestration, which Cruddas says he sees as a cause of enduring and existential historic regret.


However much plotting took place under Attlee, Wilson, Blair and Brown, George Lansbury remains the only Labour leader ever directly removed in the party's history, stabbed in the front in open daylight by Ernie Bevin at the 1935 Labour Party conference. Bevin's immediate cause could hardly have been more important - and it was incredibly important for Labour as a party that could ever aspire to be trusted to govern that he did so.

Lansbury's deep Christian pacifist convictions were absolute. So Lansbury absolutely opposed to the position of the Labour party and the TUC, which was that its support for the League of Nations, collective security and peace, had to mean support for sanctions against Mussolini's Italy and its brutal annexation by war of Abyssinia.

As Ben Pimlott explains in his great biography of Hugh Dalton, events had meant that Labour could no longer paper over a fundamental difference of views through a compromise formula.

"In 1933 Labour was essentially a pacifist party. By the end of 1937 it had become a party that believed in armed deterrence, a party that urged collective security through the League of Nations and a party that bitterly opposed Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. The architect of this remarkable change was Hugh Dalton.

Labour's official position in the aftermath of the 1931 election was the same as before it: the policy of Henderson and Dalton as the Foreign Office during the second Labour administration. Officially, the Labour party stood for multilateral disarmament by negotiated agreement, and security on the basis of the League of Nations Covenant. Unofficially, large sections of Labour opinion were opposed to the use of force under any circumstances. Non-pacifists and pacifists could cautiously agree on the official formula, even though it held out the possibility of the use of force - so long as the danger that force might actually be used remained remote. When Hitler came to power, however, this fragile unity quickly collapsed. The threat of military sanctions by member nations against an aggressor, laid down in the League Charter, suddenly acquired a new importance, dividing those who supported it from those who did not"

A coherent case for pacifism (as policy) is so much harder to make after the knowledge of the holocaust. But it is not difficult to understand the earlier appeal of pacifism in the early 1930s, with the echoes of the Great War still so loud in public consciousness. It was a decade when there were perhaps more Middle England votes in pacifism than rearmament. (Lansbury's greatest electoral achievement had come at the 1933 Fulham East by-election, a few months after Hitler's election, fought on a peace ticket following Germany's withdrawal from the League of Nations. There was a massive swing to Labour. It was that by-election which helped to convince Baldwin that there could be no public support for rearmament, leading Churchill to include his famous diary index indictment of "Baldwin, Stanley, admits putting party before country". Baldwin's policy also reduced the issue of arms as an issue of electoral controversy. It would now be contested within parties, in the House of Commons, where Labour's new position ultimately facilitated the crucial alliance with Churchill's Tory mavericks).

But, as the nature and intentions of fascism became clearer, this was emerging as the great existential question of the 1930s. It really mattered to Labour's core identity and mission what response it chose.

So Lansbury had to go. He knew it. His MPs knew it. The conference and the trade unions knew it. That Lansbury was a willing victim of what Ben Pimlott has called his "ritual martyrdom" means that Cruddas can score a point about the dignity of the process in his objection to the brutal vigour of Bevin's famous attack. What matters more is that Bevin was right about the issue, and taking an absolutely vital step to making Labour anything like fit for power. (Incidentally, and perhaps in partial defence of Bevin, Lansbury's preferred successor was not Attlee, but Stafford Cripps, even though he had already resigned because he could not support sanctions against Italy).


A secondary myth required to elevate Lansbury to the very greatest of Labour leaders is Cruddas' suggestion that there was the "possibility of a newly confident Labour Party gaining a majority and prime minister Lansbury".

The election of a pacifist Labour prime minister in 1935 would not have heralded a golden epoch for either country or party, but the problems of this fantastical scenario can be easily avoided, since I don't think any historian or politician has ever before seriously suggested that Labour could have won a majority in 1935.

Lansbury had secured Labour's status as Her Majesty's Opposition, as Cruddas reports, though the chances of a Liberal revival were already very slim. Having won just 52 seats in 1931, the party built on Lansbury's achievements to make 100 gains under Attlee's apparently caretaker leadership to advance to 154 seats in 1935 left the National Government with a massive, but reduced, majority. Labour might have hoped to win as many as 200 seats but there is no plausible case that being led by Lansbury would not only have won a few more of the urban seats which were the basis of Labour's recovery, but also been able to sweep away more than 150 other Tories and Liberals across the land.

In any event, surely what Cruddas finds attractive in Lansbury is surely not that he could have been Labour's greatest Prime Minister. The appeal is of a poet and a prophet, a man who could never have been Prime Minister. Lansbury was the closest thing Labour had to a Gandhi, as Attlee once remarked, thinking of this as a somewhat mixed blessing. (Gandhi knew he could never have been prime minister of India too).

Lansbury was an accidental leader, like Attlee after him, who had office thrust upon him. Unlike Attlee, he was never cut out for the leadership role. His inspirational contributions lay elsewhere, though the project to rehabilitate Lansbury will always be at least somewhat checked by how he, after being leader, remained a sincere and naive prophet of a disastrous cause. The Peace Pledge Union offers this account of Lansbury's exhaustive programme of visits to both democrats and dictators, seeking to persuade them not to go to war.

One of the few politicians ever formally to move withholding all money from the armed forces, and thereby to abolish them, Lansbury embarked on an arduous series of visits, under the name Embassies of Reconciliation, in which he talked not only to the heads of almost every democratic government in Europe, but also to the more autocratic heads of state in the Balkans and to the dictators Hitler and Mussolini. He went to President Roosevelt in the USA. He never gave up hope that by talking to each other, ideally in a formal conference, the world's leaders could avert war. Though this was not to be, his influence did secure the release of a few political prisoners in the totalitarian states.

The Peace Pledge Union pursued peace and appeasement well beyond Munich. Along with the British Union of Fascists, with which it formed an alliance on this issue, its Peace News paper became a prominent outlet arguing that German territorial demands were reasonable and should be conceded peacefully. The PPU took this well beyond advocating giving Hitler the Sudetenland at Munich. The PPU also divided the pacifist movement when it published Bloomsbury artist Clive Bell's pamphlet 'Warmongers', which proposed a 'Pax Germanica' in which Germany should be permitted to 'absorb' France, Poland, the Low Countries and the Balkans to keep the peace.


The most important achievement, in power, of the British Labour party. It was not what the party thinks: the creation of the still cherished NHS.

Rather, it was insisting that Britain rejected Mussolini’s offer to negotiate peace with Hitler in 1940, choosing to insist instead on the second world war being fought.

And this was a much, much closer thing than our sacred, but sanitised, mythology of national anti-fascist unity likes to remember, and that is why Labour’s role was so crucial.

After the fall of Norway, the Labour opposition had insisted on Chamberlain’s resignation as the necessary foundation of a wartime national unity coalition. It was more a matter of luck than design that Churchill, rather than Lord Halifax, got the nod. But, still, Churchill was opposed within his five man war cabinet by both of his fellow Tories, ex-PM Neville Chamberlain and his pro-appeasement ally, the foreign secretary Lord Halifax when Mussolini offered to negotiate.

Peter Hennessy tells the story in Never Again:

At least one member of the War Cabinet thought that disaster and grief might be avoided if the British took up the Italians' offer to mediate as a step towards negotiated peace. He was Lord Halifax. 'We must not ignore the fact' Halifax told his colleagues, 'that we might get better terms before France went out of the war and our aircraft factories were bombed than we might get in three months time'.

Churchill would have none of it ... Halifax persisted ... Chamberlain, a sick man but still a member of the War Cabinet, kept the old appeasement duo in business by saying he didn't see 'what we should lose if we openly said that, while we would fight to the end to preserve our independence, we were ready to consider decent terms if such were offered to us. Churchill countered with the view that the chances of being offered decent terms were a thousand to one against, and 'national which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished'

At this stage, it was two for mediation, one against. Everything would turn on the Labour members of the War Cabinet, Attlee and Greenwood. They did not hesitate. Attlee backed Churchill unequivocally. If negotiations began 'we should find it impossible to rally the morale of the people'. Greenwood said the industrial areas of Britain (which returned a preponderance of Labour MPs) 'would regard anything like weakening on the part of the government as a disaster.

All in all, it took two hours to reach the decision to fight on; the most crucial two hours in modern Cabinet history"

It is that turning point in British and Labour history that should be better known and celebrated, rather than regretting the necessary defenestration of George Lansbury that led to it. For, of course, the Labour party's choice on 1st October 1935 was the foundation of its essential contribution in government not even five years later on the 28th May 1940.

It is from that moment in 1940 that the great Labour myths of 1945 should properly be traced.

These have been too powerful to ignore, even by those who sometimes seemed to wish that the party had sprung fully born, without any roots at all, into this new millennium. It was striking that New Labour simply didn't know what to do with the party's centenary in 2000. But Tony Blair could certainly not resist celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1945 General Election and of the creation of the National Health Service in 1995 and 1998. He claimed for New Labour those moments which most root proud, patriotic, egalitarian Labour, in touch with the hopes and aspirations of both the working-classes and the middle classes, in the British national story.

The 1945 landslide may indeed have been a very Fabian moment, but that is little reason for the Labour tradition not to celebrate its enduring achievements.

There are many fascinating and fraternal debates to be had about competing Labour traditions which help to form the plural alliances of a broad movement. All power to those who wish to celebrate neglected figures and strands, as Blue Labour and other fellow travellers seek to do. Blue Labour, of all projects, will perhaps be best placed to understand and indeed to feel why many in the Labour party may seek to resist any attempt to dispossess us of true stories which have become constitutive of the history and identity of our party and movement.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Charles Kennedy, the Union needs you!

Alex Salmond is the master of all he surveys in Scotland, having been sworn in as First Minister of the Scottish government yesterday with a majority of the Holyrood parliament.

The Westminster government appears to have, in effect, conceded to Salmond the timing and the content of a referendum on Scottish independence. Legally, Salmond's SNP majority does not give him the power to call a referendum, a reserved power. Politically, it does. So Downing Street has already made clear that its view is that a battle of legal technicalities would help the Nats stir up support for a breakaway.

Having conceded a good deal of territory, tactically, so as not to oppose Salmond on technicalities, it becomes ever important for those who don't want an independent Scotland within a few years to begin thinking now about how to win the argument for the relevance of the British union today on substance.

Scottish political leaders have been falling on their swords in surrender - with the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour all now looking for new Scottish leadership.

So who will speak for Britain as Scots prepare to debate and decide whether they wish to remain part of it?

If David Cameron and Nick Clegg to take the defence of the Union as seriously as they say that they will, one of their first steps should be to agree that they will need to appoint a new Scottish Secretary, as soon as possible. Michael Moore has a good claim to be the least well known member of the Cabinet having replaced Danny Alexander in the post when David Laws left the government in its first few weeks.

Moore seems a decent enough fellow to me, but he simply does not have anything like the profile to be a major presence in the Scottish discourse.

The risk is that Alex Salmond will have the Scottish political airwaves far too much to himself.

So the Coalition parties, both pro-Union, to take seriously the task of working out who would be their best possible lead public advocate for the Union. But this is difficult, when neither of the Westminster governing parties has a strong Scottish presence. The Tories have not yet shaken off their post-Thatcher toxicity. The focus on SNP triumph, Labour humiliation and LibDem meltdown meant the Scots Tories managed to get away without too many people noticing that they once again broke all previous records to poll their lowest ever Tory share of the Scottish vote. Yet that worst ever Scottish Tory performance was enormously better than what the LibDems achieved. Despite their traditionally strong Celtic presence, the LibDems polled extraordinarily badly in the list vote across Scotland, almost disappearing from the Scottish political map in the Holyrood elections, being reduced from 17 seats to five, holding two island constituencies, and three top-up list seats on the mainland.

The LibDems polled just 5.2% across Scotland on the list vote, well under half of the support of the Scottish Tories on 13.9%. The Coalition's contribution to the argument against independence clearly needs to form one part of a much broader and pluralist campaign.

My first choice for a Scottish Secretary to play a major role in the public debate would be former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy.

Kennedy didn't vote for this Coalition government at the LibDem Parliamentary and Federal Executive meeting a year ago. That independence may be another reason as to why Kennedy might retain the personal profile to transcend the Scottish eclipse of his party.

The story of the comeback of a politician who has retained much public popularity through personal troubles might provide some challenge to Salmond's own extraordinary public and political resilience.

So Charles Kennedy seems to me to be, and by some very considerable distance, the best politician that the Tories or the Liberal Democrats have between them to make the case for the Union with an ability to persuade rather than repel Scottish voters, and to work with advocates across the party spectrum and civic society to do so.

If we are going to persuade outselves that we want to remain, as citizens, within this British Union, then the defence of the Union can not be a project only of a battered Labour Scottish establishment, nor of Tory England.

It will be Scottish voters who decide on the Union for both Scotland and England. Those in England who want to remain British too have an important stake in this debate. Whether there is a positive British case to be made, and how, was a dilemma discussed at an informal post-elections gathering hosted by the ippr and Our Kingdom/Open Democracy yesterday evening. There was a strong sense from both Scottish and English participants that, if the English mood projected by the media is dominated by a sour English debate about the Scottish as subsidy junkies, or is dominated by a very English idea of what Britishness is all about, then those who want to stand up for staying British could harm the cause they believe in. (The Scottish elections should also now catalyse the debate in England about what the English case is for the Union, and what representation of the English voice the English might want, within or outside it).

So a willingness to enlist Charles Kennedy would also be one small step in symbolising something that David Cameron and every other English advocate of why we are better off together as the British need to think about - how to build the broadest possible coalition to make the positive and optimistic case for the Union which he has promised.

It is a case which should be made both north and south of the border.

So what should it involve?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

When Blue Labour met the Fabians

In a packed pub in Crouch End last night, I had a cracking debate against Maurice Glasman on Blue Labour and the Fabian tradition, a tradition which – if you’ve read some of Maurice’s commentary of late – you would think is the source of all Labour’s problems.

It is of course wrong to characterise Fabiansim as obsessed with centralisation; GDH Cole and his ‘guild socialism’ are just as much part of our tradition as the Webbs. But with voices from across Labour noisily attacking ‘the state’, a defence of it was long overdue. And, on behalf of Fabians everywhere, I was only too happy to step up to the plate.

First up, I should say I think Glasman’s Blue Labour project has much to offer. His insight is that Labour has too often neglected precious aspects of our identity and our relationships with one another, riding roughshod over popular attachment to the institutions, places and traditions that we hold dear. In the process, Labour has allowed the Tories to own too many symbols of national identity (why on earth was the campaign to ‘Save the Great British Pub’ a Tory campaign and not a Labour one?). Neither Blair nor Brown excelled at this politics of identity and belonging. It is something Labour needs to get much better at.

But what I think Blue Labour gets wrong is the idea that the state is somehow antithetical to this agenda. Glasman is intensely concerned to nurture institutions and practices that foster reciprocity and solidarity, but for him this has become synonymous with the small-scale: localism, voluntarism, and the like. In fact, the state can be a powerful platform of reciprocity and solidarity too. The building of the NHS was a huge expression of national solidarity, creating an institution that everyone feels an intense connection with. Yes, it replaced the 1930s friendly societies, which were important sites of human association; but clubbing together as a nation to guarantee each other’s health amounted to more solidarity, not less.

Our state institutions are often hugely popular too, and just as much part of our ‘tradition’ and ‘identity’ as local or informal institutions. Blue Labour often reaches back (somewhat arbitrarily) to pre-Fabian history in order to define our important ‘traditions’; that’s why Fabianism is seen as a destroyer. But 1945 is just as much part of our history as 1545. And few people today lament the disappearance of those friendly societies that struggled to provide our healthcare; but we love the NHS and its place in the story of our country.

Understanding this is important for Labour’s political strategy. For the last few years a political analysis has been doing the rounds on the right of the Party which sees the central state as unpopular and localism as a magical route to electoral recovery. It is hard to imagine a more bizarre analysis. Don’t get me wrong, I hope the future is more localist than now. But localism is often profoundly unpopular because people don’t want postcode lotteries. (And the reason, incidentally, that postcode lotteries are seen as unfair is precisely because people see our public services as vehicles of citizenship that should express our equal status and entitlement.) Advocates of decentralisation will clearly need to make their argument in terms of the benefits of decentralisation, not the attitudes of swing voters.

Last night’s debate also discussed empowerment – something that both Glasman and critics of the state on Labour’s right seek to champion. The key challenge to them both is to remember that outcomes can be just as empowering as procedures. We shouldn’t look in isolation at the types of empowerment that the structures of mutualism, localism and voluntarism generate, without also considering whether or not they will deliver empowering outcomes too. Ultimately, Attlee and Bevan were just as concerned with empowerment, but they understood that the quality, free, universal healthcare that the NHS delivered was far more empowering than the mutualism of those friendly societies.

From a Fabian perspective, I’d agree with Blue Labour and others that rethinking the role of the state should be an important part of Labour’s policy review process. A self-critical party must develop an account of where the state over-reached itself as well as where Labour neglected important non-state vehicles for social justice. And of course there are big future challenges to the role of the state that social democrats must take their heads out of the sand and start to confront.

But with the Coalition launching an assault on public services every bit as threatening as Thatcher’s and threatening to roll back a whole series of consumer and employee protections too, it’s clear that a defence of the state will need to remain an important part of Labour’s story.