Let Labour Face The Future

For an established political party, every defeat is painful. But some defeats hurt more than others: surprise losses are the worst. Labour expected defeat in 2010, but the idea that it wouldn’t at least improve its position in 2015 seemed all but impossible. And yet within hours of the close of polls in May, commentators (even so called ‘left wing’ ones) were rushing to write off the party’s chances in 2020.

Labour’s prospects do look bleak. The obliteration of the party in Scotland; Conservative plans to gerrymander by cutting the number of MPs to 600 (a number which happens to return the greatest proportion of Tory MPs); and now the financial devastation of the party threatened by the Trade Union Bill means only a groundswell in energy and support can get the party over the line at the next election.

But a more nuanced view of the party’s position is needed. In England it made a decent series of gains in marginal constituencies: were it not for losses in Scotland, Labour would have made a net gain of around 15 seats. The left is more united: Liberal Democrats are no longer in a position to divide the left in the costly way they have done for the past 30 years, whilst any seats lost to the SNP still have MPs that will support a Labour government and oppose a Conservative one. Moreover, it must be remembered that, for all the hype, the best the Conservatives have been able to manage is a majority thinner and weaker than that of the Major government of the 1990s.

As soon as the leadership election was called, three schools of thought emerged in the Labour Party about the best direction to take.

The first is that Miliband frightened off voters by moving the party to more traditionally left-wing positions. The key to electoral success is to make the party ‘credible’ with voters, mirroring Labour’s evolution in the 1990s. The theory is that by committing to iron discipline on spending and fiscal policy and prioritising the interests of business and the middle classes, Labour can convince voters that it is mature enough to govern once more. These ideas are espoused most vocally by leadership candidate Liz Kendall (presently trailing very badly in the race) but carry a lot of influence, particularly amongst older Labour MPs.

The second is that Miliband hit on broadly the right ideas: his moderate brand of social democracy balances the interests of different sections of society. And it’s true, the policy platform Labour fought on in May was a very strong one that was very popular. Proponents of this argument say that the perceived weakness of Miliband as a person coupled with the unchallenged ‘Labour overspending ruined the economy line’ put voters off an otherwise sound offer. This is the majority view within the party, one Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are broadly aligned with.

The third school at first looked very marginalised, and appeared to have no advocate within the race until Corbyn scraped together enough nominations from MPs to enter. That is that Labour’s offer was too uninspiring and offered little help to the young, the poor and the disaffected. An offer that promised more austerity, tweaks to the market and only gestures at ending inequality. Labour recognised the anger and pain that much of the country is feeling, but chose to position itself within the Establishment. Thus angry people went in their droves over to the SNP, to UKIP or, in most cases, didn’t bother to vote at all.

When Corbyn entered, everybody assumed that he would represent the fringe. Like other hard left candidates before him, he’d make a bit of noise and provide an outlet for angry members. If he was lucky, he’d win a little over 10% of the vote before falling back into obscurity.

Now Corbyn has a decent chance of winning.

It’s true that Labour’s centre of gravity has shifted since 2010. There has been a huge influx of new people at every level, from MPs to humble members, who have high hopes for the progress a Labour government could bring. The domination of the the party by Blairites and Brownites has ended, with both factions reduced to a rump of right-wingers and technocrats whose relevance diminishes by the day. True, some of the new blood of the party lies on its right, such as Chuka Umunna or Wes Streeting, but they are more ideologically flexible than true Blairites.

But in fact, thinking in terms of different wings and factions will only get us so far because these aren’t so important in this vote. This election is about hope.

Burnham entered the election as the heir apparent, poised to win on enthusiastic support from the grassroots, impressed with his performance as Shadow Health Secretary, and MPs, confident in him as an electoral asset. However he made the tactical error of responding to attacks on him as the ‘trade union’, ‘left’ or ‘continuity Miliband’ candidate by abruptly distancing himself from those labels. He joined bandwagons attacking the previous leader as ‘anti business’, he declared his support for the benefits cap and further spending cuts. By doing so he disappointed so many within and outside the party who want Labour to stand for meaningful change. By doing so he turned into a ‘vanilla’ candidate. By doing so he created the space for Corbyn.

The reason that Kendall’s campaign has collapsed is that she can offer activists and MPs nothing more to hope for than going into the next election fighting for a continuation of the Conservatives’ agenda. Even if that resonates with voters (it won’t- the Conservatives are more convincing conservatives than Labour and always will be) then what will the prize? Nothing will really change, just the seating arrangement in the House of Commons.

The thinking of many Labour members is that we lost two elections when we weren’t really fighting for what we believed in, so what would be the point of a third? Labour is running out of time: this time it lost Scotland, next time its heartlands in Wales and the north of England could fall if it doesn’t resolve what is becoming an existential crisis.

Jeremy Corbyn is an electoral risk. He is more left wing than I am on many issues, such as defence- and I know I hardly represent the moderate, cautious centreground! Political orthodoxy screams at us that Thatcherism can win votes but socialism does not. That’s why some voices in Labour argue that it would be immature, even cowardly, to elect a ‘right-on’ leader who may not impress voters. The tiresome expression is that we must avoid our ‘comfort zone’

I agree. But it’s Labour politicians who must vacate their comfort zone. They must be prepared to stand up and fight for principles and change that the people can believe in. Labour can commit itself to perpetual decline as a softer alternative to the Conservatives, or it can re-engage with its historical mission to stand up for the working people of Britain. That course is a gamble but Labour should try it before people stop listening altogether.

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Hands Off Our Charities

Just when you think that the Coalition’s attitude and policies on welfare cannot get any worse, they manage to surprise you with something even more horrible.

Now some parts of the Government are attacking charities.

In the past week, we learned that a “senior aide” to (Work and Pensions Secretary) Ian Duncan Smith threatened the head of Trussell Trust that his charity could be “shut down” for its supposed political opposition to the Government. Trussell Trust runs most of Britain’s foodbanks, whichhave now sprung up in almost every town in the country.

This comes hot on the heels of a successful call by a Tory MP, Connor Burns, for the Charity Commission to investigate Oxfam for a poster warning about the “perfect storm” of economic conditions and benefit cuts and the consequential surge in poverty in the UK. Burns said that Oxfam was guilty of partisan campaigning. Oxfam countered that discussing poverty “should not be a party political issue”.

It is disappointing that the Conservative Party, having done much to demolish the invaluable Welfare State in the past four years, now appears to be turning on the organisations which fill in the gaps left by their policy programme. If the foodbanks weren’t there, we’d be faced with a growth in crime as desperate families sought to feed their children. Or worse, we’d be faced with a surge in homelessness or even starvation. So it’s fortunate that there are no serious moves by the government to impede the work of foodbanks. However, the hostility towards them has been amply demonstrated in the past, with ministers refusing to accept EU aid for foodbanks.

My understanding of the classical right-wing view of the welfare system is that it should be run by charities, funded by donations rather than taxation. To that end, many Tories have worked well with charities. Whatever you think of the idea, at least they are consistent in their approach. Unfortunately, their representatives in the Government seem to be hostile towards both the state and charities.

Courtesy of “Downtowngal” under Creative Commons license

If it is alleged partisanship by the charity sector that annoys the Coalition, their anger is unjustified. Oxfam would campaign against poverty-inflicting measures if it was a Labour government imposing them. The same applies for a UKIP or Monster Raving Loony government, for that matter. All that these charities have pointed out is that poverty is on the rise, and certain decisions by the Government have contributed to it. Yes, it’s political. Charities are political; their very existence says that there is a need the rest of society is not fulfilling. However, it is not party political.

Do Conservative MPs want to intimidate charities into keeping quiet about the hardship that is befalling so many people? Even if they can, that won’t blinker the public. The signs are everywhere, visible to all without the need for campaigns, studies or statistics. For example, I’ve noticed that there are many more homeless people on the streets.  It is now rare to go a day without coming across somebody lying on the pavement in a pile of dirty blankets, totally cut off from the rest of society. I don’t know if this is a widespread phenomenon, but authorities have responded with cuts to emergency housing services; studs on the ground to deter rough sleepers; the removal of streetside benches; and the infamous Bedroom Tax to price people out of social housing. And homelessness is just one symptom of a sick society which is neglecting its people.

The public will notice increased rough sleeping; the opening of a local foodbank; and the anecdotes about people living in crumbling flats. They don’t need it pointed out to them. So proponents of the ‘austerity agenda’ shouldn’t worry about the public learning of the new social problems Britain is imposing on itself. They should focus on ensuring that the public don’t care. It can be done: remember how easy it was to turn the welfare system into a toxic issue? And that is what the rest of us must guard against.

The House Of Shuffles

Yesterday, the Coalition and the Labour Party both reshuffled their frontbench teams. To date, the Prime Minister has adopted the wise strategy of avoiding frequent reshuffles, but that policy appears to have slipped: we already know that Tory Cabinet ministers will be subjected to a bigger reshuffle come the spring: yesterday’s movement of junior ministers was a means of preparing some select loyalists for ‘High Office’. By contrast, Labour’s shadow cabinet has a markedly different complexion compared to 24 hours ago.

There are approximately 25 Cabinet posts and a further 75 junior ministers. This means that approximately one third of the governing party(ies)’ MPs in Parliament are awarded a ministerial post (and one quarter of the Opposition will shadow them). In that case, how can it be that the Prime Minister feels that there are too few women and northern MPs (both groups woefully underrepresented in the Government) on his party’s frontbench to promote to his Cabinet? The leadership is almost openly saying that it wants to look less universally white, ageing, male and southern, and yet it has so few junior ministers of counterbalancing groups that it can’t even appoint a few token women Cabinet ministers in one go! That’s a telling sign of the state of the parliamentary Conservative party.

Not that the Opposition is perfect either: women make up 40% of the shadow cabinet and continue to be a minority in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Anything short of a true gender balance (and that does cut both ways: I’d disapprove of men being underrepresented too) is imperfect.

That said, I do broadly approve of the changes Miliband has made to his shadow cabinet. Liam Byrne (former post: welfare), Stephen Twigg (education) and Jim Murphy (defence) have all been moved to less influential positions, which has led to media squealing about a “purge of the Blairites”. Though the changes do mark a shift to the left within Labour, I wouldn’t run away with the idea that this was Miliband’s only objective. For example, the installation of the relatively unknown Vernon Coaker in Defence is a means by which Labour can change its policy on the Trident nuclear weapons system without the pro-Trident Jim Murphy causing trouble (nobody knows what the change will be, but I gather it’s important). Similarly, a new Transport spokesperson will facilitate a U-turn on the High Speed Two rail project.

But the most important change is the appointment of Rachael Reeves to Work and Pensions. She will make a good opponent to Iain Duncan Smith: at last, Labour has a spokesperson who will apply real Labour values to the issues facing the welfare state and the employment market, rather than shaping policy on what the Daily Mail will accept. In summary, Miliband has shown a bit of leftwing steel just at the right time, and should benefit from a united frontbench centred on the soft left ideology he has come to symbolise.

Let us briefly return to the Conservatives. We can expect a much larger and more exciting reshuffle in the Spring, in a clear departure from Cameron’s good policy of not unrooting ministers every year or so. That is unfortunate, because government benefits when its day-to-day leaders are in posts for long enough to implement a coherent programme which they are responsible for and able to follow through on. That Cameron feels unable to do this is simply a cost of his government’s lack of windowdressing diversity. Not to worry, though. The Party will eventually modernise. In thirty or forty years.

Is It Now A Crime To Be Unemployed?

Conservative Party Conference is never a happy occasion for me. As the Cameronites make concessions to an increasingly dissatisfied and hurt Tory grassroots, they have turned Conference into one of the three spots on the calendar on which we are guaranteed a flood of divisive and vindictive policy proposals, of which a dangerously high number will make their way onto the statute books. One plan which is certain to be realised is a “reform” to unemployment benefit rules that will be outlined by George Osborne (curiously not Iain Duncan Smith, who, as the wefare minister, we’d expect to unveil this).

So, those who have been on Job Seekers Allowance for 3 years will now be subjected to “tough” new rules. They will be offered a choice between accepting daily Job Centre appointments, further “training” (on top of the 12 months they are supposed to have already had), or spend 30 hours a week doing “community work” until they find a job. It is difficult to see what point there is to any of these punishments other than to bash the unemployed further. Unconvinced? Let’s look at each one in turn, then.

Daily Job Centre appointments have little point to them, and the Job Centres themselves will be unable to cope. If George Osborne or IDS ventured inside your typical Job Centre on a normal day, they’d see that most advisors can scarcely find the time to manage the weekly sign-ons. Even if they do, they’ll causally leave claimants waiting for one hour, maybe two- sometimes with young children in tow- without any regard for the claimant’s time. Yet you’d need to have a death wish to be a claimant who is late for an appointment! If these centres had a few dozen people queuing up for several hours a day, what would they talk about in these appointments? The valiant job seeking done by these people in the couple hours they have left after waiting for an appointment?! Furthermore, the implication of daily appointments is that these people need closer supervision to find a job. If that is really the case, then why not closely supervise them from day one, not after three years of unemployment?

As for the idea of further training, do I have to day anything? There are only so many first aid and food hygiene certificates that will be attractive to employers. Beyond that, only proper further education (FE) will have much value. Unfortunately, a one size fits all approach has been adopted by ministers, meaning that there is only limited consideration in the proposals for the different needs of, for example, a NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training) young adult and a middle aged graduate. And yes, even an intelligent, experienced.graduate can find themselves long-term unemployed. It does happen, and it doesn’t reflect on their ability.

Then there is the nastiest part of the plan. The long term unemployed will be forced to do “community work” for 30 hours a week. This means litterpicking, fencepainting, and other tasks that are used in sentences for petty criminals. Maybe the two groups will be made to work alongside each other, both in bright orange fluorescent overalls to ensure that the public know that they’re being punished for being scroungers. After all, they mustn’t pretend to be workers: workers would be paid minimum wage. By my reckoning, £72 divided by 30 hours equals just 40% of the wages that workers are entitled to by law. How dare this government blackmail people into working for less than its own statutory minimum wage?

It would be nice if we treated the unemployed with the respect that any other adult receives. It would also be nice if benefits conditions and terms were designed to help the able to find suitable employment, rather than simply grinding the unfortunate further into the ground. But then we don’t have a nice government.

The Audacity of George

On this website, we have a habit of ‘rambling on’ about George Osborne. This is something for which I make no apology, as the moral compass of the second most powerful figure in the British Government must have never developed. Yesterday, in one of the most extreme cases of low political point-scoring the world has seen in recent years, the Chancellor has cited the case of Mick Philpott as evidence for the need for the savage welfare cuts that he is inflicting on the country.

My international readers may not be aware of the details of the Philpott case, which has dominated the news here for the past 24 hours. Allow me to enlighten you:

Mick Philpott has been jailed for life for being the “driving force” behind a plot to torch a Derby home which led to the deaths of six children, with the trial judge describing him as a disturbingly dangerous man with no moral compass. Mrs Justice Thirlwall said Philpott, 56, should serve a minimum of 15 years after a jury at Nottingham crown court convicted him on six counts of manslaughter for plotting the fire, which he and two others started in May 2012.

Philpott’s wife, Mairead, and friend Paul Mosley were both sentenced to 17 years for helping the plot. They will not be eligible for release until they have served at least half their sentences. The judge said the plot to set fire to the house and rescue the children was “a wicked and dangerous plan”, adding that it was “outside the comprehension of any right-thinking person”. The judge said Mick Philpott, a father of 17 children, aimed to frame a partner who had dared to leave him, and the court heard of his long history of violence and control of women, whom he regarded as his “chattels”.

The judge said he used his conviction for attempting to murder a girlfriend in 1978 to terrify other women, adding: “You have repeatedly used that conviction as a means of controlling other women, terrifying them as to what you might do to them if they did not follow your will.”

The case, which the judge said was unique, has angered the public. As the trio were sentenced there were shouts from the public gallery of “Die, Mick, die.” Philpott made an obscene hand gesture as he was led away to prison….

The children were Jayden, five, Jade, 10, John, nine, Jack, eight, Jesse, six, and 13-year-old Duwayne. The jury on Tuesday convicted Philpott, 56, and Mosley, 46, unanimously. Mairead Philpott, 32, was convicted by majority verdict. The judge accepted that Mick Philpott did not mean serious harm to come to any of the 11 children who were in the house, but added: “What you did intend, plainly, was to subject your children to a terrifying ordeal. They were to be woken from their beds in the middle of the night with their home on fire so you could rescue them and be the hero. Their terror was the price they were going to pay for your callous selfishness.”

The judge described how firefighters and neighbours tried to rescue the children during the blaze, and chastised Philpott for his lies afterwards. “Ever since the fire your life has been a performance for the public and the police, and then in this court,” she said.

“Your conduct has been punctuated by collapses and shows of distress designed to evoke sympathy where none is merited, designed to manipulate emotion.

“I accept you have lost six children. I very much regret that everything about you suggests that your grief has very often been simulated for the public gaze.” Philpott ensured his wife and Mosley stuck to their stories, and the judge said the wife too would have been expendable for Philpott.

Sending him to prison for life, Thirlwall said: “You are a disturbingly dangerous man. Your guiding principle is what Mick Philpott wants he gets. You have no moral compass. I have no hesitation in concluding that these six offences are so serious and the danger you pose is so great that the only proper sentence is one of life imprisonment and that is the sentence I impose upon you.”

Source: guardian.co.uk

And what was George Osborne’s response to the death of six children at the hands of a thoroughly twisted and unbalanced criminal? “I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state – and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state – subsidising lifestyles like that, and I think that debate needs to be had.” This is offensive on so many levels, and it also misses a crucial point: most of Phipott’s income came from women in his household who worked. There is an emerging stereotype, encouraged by the divisive elements in the Government (i.e. the Conservative Party) of the single parent (often a woman) who lounges around all day in front of the subscription TV, and supports their eight children with nothing more than a wide range of lucrative welfare benefits with no strings attached. This person will always be unashamed of the life that they lead, and inevitably, this person will be foreign, preferably an asylum seeker (which is obviously code for ‘state-sanctioned illegal immigrant’).

Then with a liberal scattering of hints, outright lies, and talk of “scroungers” or “shirkers”, this somehow becomes representative of the bulk of benefits claimants. Let us ignore the fact that half the welfare budget is spent on the over 65s, and that much of the rest supports either the disabled or low-wage workers. But no, Osborne can do one better, and imply that Housing Benefit encourages child killing. Unfortunately, left-wing outrage can only get us so far.

I am surprised that condemnation of George Osborne has split essentially along party lines, as opposed to being near-universal. It is deeply concerning that leading politicians feel able to make such snide and distasteful remarks, but we have a bigger problem if his calculation proves to be accurate, and voters agree.

Politics and Celebrity: A Growing Overlap

Earlier this week, the loud mouthed ultra-conservative backbencher Nadine Dorries was suspended from the Tory Party for unilaterally leaving parliament for up to 6 weeks to appear on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. For those of you who haven’t heard of the TV programme, or are lucky enough to live in a country which hasn’t discovered the concept yet, I shall cruelly correct the situation. ICGMOH gets a group of so-called celebrities, flies them into a jungle, and gets them to undertake a number of pointless and unpleasant tasks. Every week, a contestant is eliminated until there is one “winner”.

Nadine Dorries deemed appearing on this to be more important than being in Parliament to help her constituents, being present for the Autumn mini-budget (sorry, Statement) or voting on the budget of the European Union, which she is such a vocal critic of. Unsurprisingly, most people both within and outside of the Conservatives have taken a dim view of such casual lack of responsibility. She has been suspended from the party pending a meeting with the Chief Whip, and her constituency party is actively considering withdrawing their support.

The extreme case of Dorries has been condemned harshly by fellow politicians, but are they not all guilty of flirting with celebrity? From the 1980s onwards, a slick media persona has been becoming almost as important, if not more so, than the performance of an MP, leader, or Government.

New Labour marked the completion of this. Harold Wilson talked of the “white heat of scientific revolution” while Tony Blair invited soap opera stars to parties in Number 10. A good government has to be in touch with its people, and the traditional media remain key to this. But to what extent can that continue until the media shape not only our politicians, but also important matters of policy as well?

We’ve lost a crucial aspect of our nation’s political outlook. An MP can be as honest and well-intentioned as they like, but will struggle to retain influence if they get on the wrong side of the media barons.

Is the pragmatic (visionless) and media friendly (Murdoch serving) election model pioneered by the Blair/Campbell machine set to be the future of government for decades to come?

It’s too early to tell. Ed Miliband’s strengths, for example, lie in intelligence rather than offering a handsome grinning face at ease with TV cameras. He has faced a great deal of criticism for being a “nerd” and has has a largely right-leaning media eager to attack him for winning against David. Nevertheless, the public now want substance over style, and Miliband enjoys widespread popularity.

But let us not run away with the idea that Ed is a Michal Foot style quiet, awkward intellectual who is being victimised. As we saw at Conference, (and often at Prime Minister’s Questions) Miliband can be a hard-hitting orator who can do well on television.

In the days of 24-hour news and a new media in which current affairs is often picked apart in a more “tabloid” style, it would seem our political leaders will continue to feel compelled to operate as celebrities. It mayn’t be desirable, but as the electorate it is our role to decide if that is the future.