Monday, October 10, 2016

Brexit: the four key tests

A suggested approach to Brexit for the Labour Party:

- We respect the result of the referendum. We are concerned that the incompetence of the Tory government and their UKIP allies will mean that they fail to negotiate a deal which reflects the will of the British people.

- To get the best deal for Britain, we recommend setting key tests for the outcome of Brexit negotiations.  This approach served Britain very well when we decided not to join the euro.

- There should be four tests: on the impact on sovereignty, immigration, public services and the economy. We will support a deal that meets these tests. Any deal which fails to meet these tests has not respected the democratic will of the British people.

- These tests are set out below:

  • We end the supremacy of EU law and the European Court. We will be able to kick out those who make our laws.
  • Europe yes, EU no. We have a new UK-EU Treaty based on free trade and friendly cooperation. We will take back the power to negotiate our own trade deals.
  • We spend our money on our priorities. Instead of sending £350 million per week to Brussels, we will spend it on our priorities like the NHS and schools.
  • We take back control of migration policy, including the 1951 UN Convention on refugees, so we have a fairer and more humane policy, and we decide who comes into our country, on what terms, and who is removed.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Labour's response to the Brexit crisis

This will probably be out of date in about ten minutes, but here's the outline of the policy platform which I think Labour should announce under their new leader to get Britain out of this mess.  This is based on the analysis and strategy outlined by Duncan here

-       Need to bring people together, we can only get through this crisis if we all pull together.  Condemn racist violence, reiterate all current people in UK are welcome here and announce plans to work with Labour councillors to start right now on new efforts to bring together people from different backgrounds to improve our communities.  We have nothing to fear, but fear itself

-       British people voted for Leave based on the claims that (a) continued access to markets and increased opportunities for economy, (b) cuts in immigration and (c) extra money for the NHS.  There is a mandate to trigger article 50 when and only when Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage present their plans to keep these promises

-       We all know they won’t do this, because they lied and lied and lied again throughout the campaign.  So we will set out a positive alternative for a strong United Kingdom where everyone has more opportunities, listening to people but being honest about choices

-       We will prioritise stabilising and growing our economy, getting investment back into our businesses, stopping the brain drain of talented people and backing the industries of the future

-       In order to keep our economy growing, we will need to keep free movement of people, and anyone who tells you otherwise is not being honest

-       But we will enable people to take greater control so that everyone benefits from a growing economy.  Rather than decisions about your future being taken in Brussels or London, we’ll make sure there are the resources to build the homes, provide the school places and create the jobs that we need in all parts of Britain, and you will have more control about what matters to your community

We believe the referendum was a mistake but respect the will of the people. But people can turn their backs on their mistakes just as once they turned their back on their friends. A Labour government would regard itself as having a clear mandate never to press the button on Article 50. Only a general election mandate could reverse a referendum result and that is Labour's commitment

-       Over the next few weeks, we will be listening to people and developing our manifesto for the election to come.  But we can make one specific pledge today.  Once we have stabilised the immediate economic crisis, we will spend the extra £350 million per week on our NHS which the Tories and UKIP promised but which only a strong Labour government can deliver

Monday, March 21, 2016

Be useful, be kind: the future welfare state

It would take a heart of stone not to enjoy Iain Duncan Smith's resignation and the ongoing collision between the promises that the Tories made at the last election and reality.

However, none of this makes it any easier for those of us who would like to see more decent and humane ŵelfare policy.  Recent research by Britain Thinks for the Labour Party summarised what swing voters think about welfare policy.  Their hope is that the government will reward people who contribute and 'sort out the scroungers'.  Anyone who thinks these attitudes are restricted to swing voters should have a look at this research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

How to respond to this?

Firstly, even before their budget fell apart, we know that the Tories won't achieve this.  Their welfare reforms have created a system in which people experiencing tough times are more and more likely to be caught out and punished by arbitrary rules, while people who just want to play the system continue to get what they want.

Secondly, the approach of telling voters that they are wrong to be concerned about benefit fraud and scroungers and trying to educate them to think differently isn't working.

Thirdly, the best ideas come from the people who use ŵelfare services, rather than think tanks and the political elite. Compare and contrast policy disasters such such as the Work Capability Assessment and Universal Credit, to the living wage or the ideas of the Spartacus Network.

So let's start by assuming that when people say that they want a system to reward contributors and sort out scroungers, that our goal should be to come up with ideas to make that happen rather than telling them why they are wrong.  This will require different policies from those of the government, and we should listen to people at the grassroots as they will have the best ideas.

Swing voters dislike a system which seems to be all about what people can take, and where there seems to be no relationship between what people do for others and what they receive.  Similarly, those who need support are frustrated by a system which often seems to put barriers in the way who want to help others, with arbitrary assessments and inadequate help which isn't suited to their needs. To get support, you need to understand how to work the rules to show what you can't do and make sure that your problemsare seen as sufficiently serious.

I was recently reading All our Ŵelfare, Peter Beresford's excellent book on the welfare state.  He defines welfare as being about 'how we look after each other in society'.  He also makes a powerful and compelling case that rather than experts assessing what people need, people should be able - with advocacy and support - to identify what support they need to do the things that they want to do.  Rather than starting with what people can't do, this approach starts with what they can do.

So here's a suggestion.  What if welfare services in future started not with a diagnosis about whether people are eligible for support, but instead was organised around two questions:

What do you want to do to help other people?
What support do you need to be able to do this?

In other words, the welfare state becomes about what people can give, and enabling them to give more, not what they can take.  Rather than the toxic divide between "taxpayers" and "scroungers", this draws on the ideas and priorities of people who use services to respond to the swing voters.

This also recognises that paid employment is one way to contribute and help others, but that raising a family, volunteering to help others with the same health condition and many other activities are also ways of contributing to our general welfare.  That's something we've known for many years, but which some in the Labour Party with their tokenistic talk about different benefit levels for people depending on how long they have worked seem to have forgotten.  

It would also make the welfare system open to and useful for many more people - people who are self employed or running a small business and who want help to be able to develop their business, hire more people and so on, as just one example.  It would recognise that people with disabilities aren't passive victims, but that it is all of our responsibility to change society to help them to fulfil their potential.

This intentionally isn't a detailed shopping list of policies.  A system designed on these principles will keep some of the existing system and get rid of other bits, and involve people who provide and receive services in deciding what works and what needs changing.

It is easy to see how a system like this would do more to reward contributors.  That would, after all, be its starting point and main aim.  But how would it sort out the scroungers?

Firstly, it would be much tougher for people who are only interested in what they can take, or in taking benefits as a lifestyle choice.  At the moment, they just need to learn the rules and jump through the hoops.  It is much tougher to do this if the starting point is about what you can do for other people, rather than what you can take from the taxpayer.

But more than that, here's a real life example of what it might mean:

Down on Benefits Street in the north west of England, there lived a Hard to Reach Scrounger.  Every year, he received thousands of pounds in benefits from the taxpayer, and hundreds of thousands more indirectly in support from a whole range of different professionals for his various problems.  Every day, he would call 999 several times, and the police would have to come out and respond to whatever the drama of the day was.

So one day, the police tried a new approach.  Rather than waiting for him to call 999, they sent someone round and had a chat with him.  They found out more about his life, about his skills and about how he had had a breakdown which meant he had quit his job and got into the problems he was experiencing.  Then from this, they worked with the other professionals to put together the support he needed for his drink and drugs addictions.  Then they helped him to get a job.  

They needed someone with construction project management skills for the Jobs, Friends, Houses project they were running where people coming out of prison were hired to refurbish homes: learning new skills and doing something useful.  He used to be a project manager and had the skills they needed.  Now instead of being a scrounger, he is working hard and using his skills to help others.

There is no tick box or one size fits all solution to helping people to help each other.  Any system will need to be complicated and flexible because people's lives are complicated and what works for one person won't work for another.  But treating people with respect and supporting and challenging them to help others doesn't just reward contributors.  It also turns scroungers into contributors.

*

President Obama recently summed up his hopes for his children in four words: "be useful, be kind".  If that is good enough for the children of the President of the United States, it sounds like a good aim for the welfare state too.  A system which enables people to be useful and kind to each other, and which itself is useful and kind: surely this is a worthwhile alternative to the mess which Iain Duncan Smith has left behind.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

What can Labour Iearn from Lego?

Alison McGovern, one of Labour’s most thoughtful and interesting MPs, recently wrote a blog calling for universal free childcare.  As she explains, “universal childcare – where parents would have access to free, good quality care for children during working hours – would make a seriously radical change to the choices available to families."  I agree completely.  This would benefit parents, businesses, help to tackle poverty and improve the life chances for children.  

One problem, though is that universal free childcare would be a big new state programme.  Alison is worried about this, because the British Social Attitudes survey shows that younger people distrust the state and are more individualist.  She asks, “is this [lack of access to affordable childcare] a modern problem to which we are offering a big centralised state solution?”*

Perhaps we could learn something from Lego, who in recent years have faced a similar dilemma.  In Lego's case, big data analysis and surveys showed that their customers increasingly demanded instant gratification and had shorter attention spans.  It seemed like Lego might go the way of social democracy, popular in the mid to late twentieth century, but out of tune with what people want in the twenty first.  But after talking to Lego fans in more depths, they found out that the analytics only told part of the story:

"At that moment, it all came together for the LEGO team. Those theories about time compression and instant gratification? They seemed to be off base. Inspired by what an 11-year-old German boy had told them about an old pair of Adidas sneakers, the team realized that children attain social currency among their peers by playing and achieving a high level of mastery at their chosen skill, whatever that skill happens to be. If the skill is valuable, and worthwhile, they will stick with it until they get it right, never mind how long it takes. For kids, it was all about paying your dues and having something tangible to show for it in the end."

More detail here  - the whole story is definitely worth a read.

And so they responded by making their products more intricated, more detailed, and going against the conventional wisdom about what customers wanted.  And last year, they became the biggest toy company in the world.

This offers a possible solution to the dilemma which Alison is grappling with.  Labour doesn't need to choose between dogmatically sticking with outdated ideas which aren't relevant to the modern world or junking our principles.  We can be aware of the big trends in society, and also learn from people when they seem to be telling us something different from the surveys and polls.  Then we can synthesise this information, and apply our values to develop effective and practical solutions.

In other words, if people are telling us that universal childcare would really help them out, that is probably telling us something important about the limitations of surveys on how people are rugged individualists and hostile to the state.  This combination of big data analytics and conversations with people at the grassroots offers the best way of staying relevant and meeting people's needs, whether you're selling toys or trying to bring about social change.

*Alison argues that universal childcare doesn't have to be a big state solution, because it can be delivered in a localised way.  Quite apart from the surveys which show how people dislike the "postcode lotteries" that would occur, if people don't like the centralised state, they aren't going to be any keener on big new programmes delivered by local councils or new quangos.  Localism is a diversion from the real political challenge here, not a solution to it.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Ed Miliband: my part in his downfall

There has been a lot written about why Ed Miliband and Labour lost the last election.  But most of it seems to be people explaining what others got wrong, or #whylosingmeansiwasrightallalong.

I think we need something a bit different to help us learn and win next time. So here, for your viewing pleasure, is my story of what I got wrong about the 2015 election.  Here's my part in Ed Miliband’s downfall.

I met Ed Miliband only once.  In the run up to the 2010 election, Ed was touring the country showing a film about climate change for reasons which must have made sense at the time.  He was planning to go to Stroud to show the film, but the local Labour MP had just been endorsed by UKIP and it was decided that Ed needed to go somewhere else.  So I helped put together a visit for Ed to show it at short notice to a group of supportive but bemused Labour activists at the Asian Cultural Centre in East Oxford.  

As it turned out, this was quite a good metaphor for his leadership – doing anything to avoid talking to potential UKIP supporters, and instead doing awkward publicity stunts.  But I digress.

When Ed came to Oxford, what he saw was something which looked like the future of election campaigning and seemed to offer him the path to power.  The local campaign was based on the idea “the more people we talk to, the more will vote for us”.  By mobilising hundreds of volunteers to talk to tens of thousands of voters, Labour was able to identify and turn out its supporters and persuade people who were not natural Labour supporters to back us.

This approach to campaigning had been tried and tested at local, European and at the General Election in places across the country between 2006 and 2010, and been shown to work.  Academic research from the US confirmed its effectiveness.  I wouldn’t claim credit for coming up with this idea, but I certainly thought it would work in the 2015 election.

A political strategy built around mobilising volunteers to speak to voters has a number of implications.  If the key to success is getting enough people to volunteer, that enables a more left wing set of policies than a policy platform aimed at centrist, swing voters.  If a political party can run a strong enough localised campaign with lots of personal contact with voters, then it is possible to bypass the national media and get to people directly rather than by building relations with Rupert Murdoch and other press barons.

I'd love to claim that the reason my brilliant idea didn't work was because of how other people implemented it.  But that just wasn’t true.  All over the country, led by a superb team of party organisers, people implemented this strategy brilliantly.  It was constantly refined, developed and achieved far more than anyone could have asked for.

On General Election day, I ran a committee room in a marginal constituency.  Just in the ward where I was involved, we had over sixty volunteers – more than the Tories had in many marginal constituencies.  In that ward, an urban, working class area, we had a 5% swing from Tory to Labour backed by the best local campaign which anyone could remember.  At 9.59pm, I didn’t know if it would be enough to win the constituency, but if replicated across the country, I was sure it would definitely be enough to see Ed into power.

We all know what happened next across the UK.  In the constituency where I was campaigning, what happened was in the wealthy rural areas, there was a big swing away from Labour and to the Tories, more than enough to cancel out our local work and then some.

So, what went wrong?  I think there are a few different things.

Some of the assumptions were wrong.  Intensive local campaigning didn’t work as a substitute for a national media strategy, a set of policies which appealed to swing voters or a leader who people could believe in.  It was wishful thinking to see this as a replacement for getting these basics right.

We didn’t get the most out of it.  At a local level, one of the most powerful things about talking to lots of people is that it generates lots of great ideas for what to prioritise and how to explain things in a way that resonates.  The ability to listen to millions of people should be a great resource for policy development, but it didn’t seem like it was used in this way.

Doing it right might be too resource intensive.  It is probably no coincidence that many of the places where Labour ran effective local campaigns are university towns.  The presence of a university means that there is a higher than average number of potential volunteers, and urban areas are easier to canvass than rural areas.  Doorstep contact is also most effective when the conversations are followed up.  For MPs, this is relatively straight forward, for prospective candidates, this can be a significant expense in time and money.

Our localised campaigning was better, but so was that of the Tories.  In 2010, the Tory local campaign was hopeless.  In 2015, we were facing incumbent MPs who had mostly spent five years building their profile and support, and who were backed by more money than Satan.

I’m sure there is more to it than that.  But at least that starts to suggest some of the things we might look to do differently in future.  It is still the case, I think, that the more people we talk to, the more will vote for us, even if it turns out there aren’t enough of those people to make Ed Miliband Prime Minister.  But inspiring volunteers to speak and listen to voters should sit alongside the other basics of a good campaign strategy rather than be a short cut to replace these.  We should experiment to find ways of doing this kind of campaigning in areas where it is harder to mobilise volunteers, and look at how to make it less resource intensive.  And there should always be a clear link between the people we listen to and the policies we develop.

If any Labour activists are reading this, I’d be fascinated to read your equivalent to help Labour to do better in future.  What did you get wrong about the last election, what can we learn from it, and what was your part in Ed Miliband’s downfall?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Why Labour needs a new leader

It should not be controversial to say that things are not going very well for the Labour Party at the moment.  Some thoughts from the perspective of a leftie Labour supporter about what's going wrong and what to do about it.

Jeremy Corbyn's unexpected victory in the Labour leadership election came before the organisation and wider infrastructure was in place to build support for socialist ideas and values, or he had the chance to learn the basic skills needed to be leader.  

As a result he and his advisers have been a target for the press, internal opponents within Labour and the Tories, and the majority of the public have already decided that he is not fit to be prime minister.

At present, the Labour Left's energies are soaked up by coping ineffectively with day to day crises, and working towards winning a vote at conference on Trident which will not bring the day of nuclear disarmament a single day closer.  Meanwhile, support amongst activists and voters is being eroded by the poor opinion poll ratings and failure to hold the Tories effectively to account.

Jeremy Corbyn's unpopularity is also damaging wider social movements as well as the Labour Party.  For example, the effectiveness of the peace movement will be affected by the fact that its most prominent advocate is someone who a majority of people do not trust to keep us safe.  This makes it harder to persuade people to support unilateral nuclear disarmament or other similar causes.

On current trends, what will happen is that Labour will limp along until 2020, and then suffer a heavy election defeat which makes left wing ideas impossible to put into practice in government for another generation.

There's a reason why Labour's most successful leaders have been elected part way through a parliamentary term rather than just after an election.  It is better to split the five years so that one leader creates space for new ideas and soaks up the initial attacks, and then someone else who has had a chance to think and prepare can come in, introduce themselves effectively to the voters, keep what's been popular and neutralise the weaknesses.

I think that the implications of all this for the Labour Left are that our priorities should be:

Prepare for Jeremy Corbyn to step down from the leadership next year.  It is not in his or anyone else's interests for Jeremy to fight the next election as Labour Party leader and be blamed for our heavy defeat.  If, instead, he steps down at a time of his choosing, he will become a much respected elder statesman and known as the man who put the good of the movement ahead of his own personal ambition.

In the mean time, focus on promoting those socialist ideas which have majority support amongst the public, and downplay those which do not.  We need our ideas to be seen as common sense, reassuring, and relevant to people's day to day lives.

Develop a cadre of future leaders, and ensure that they have the opportunity to develop their skills, experience and profile.  Invest in our policy development and organisational infrastructure so that by 2020 we have the ability to mobilise millions behind policy goals which can be implemented in government.

Strengthen the Left's strategic position by building bridges and seeking unity.  Back Dan Jarvis as the obvious outstanding candidate to be the next leader, drop the attempts to change policy on Trident, and in exchange ensure that popular left wing ideas feature heavily in Labour's manifesto for the next election, that rising left wing stars get the opportunities to become MPs and shadow ministers, and that the Labour has an open and welcoming culture which makes use of the skills and talents of its members to win power in 2020.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The tax low paid workers and make them homeless bill

I thought it might be useful to offer some ideas for opponents of the government’s ‘Tax low paid workers and make them homeless’ bill.

Firstly, describe the government’s plans according to their impact, rather than using their marketing speak.  George Osborne’s plans will reduce tax relief for low paid workers and make more people homeless.  So call it the ‘tax low paid workers and make them homeless bill’, rather than the ‘Work and Welfare Reform Bill’, which is a collection of meaningless buzzwords intended to obscure and confuse people about what its impact is.

Secondly, spell out an alternative.   As the name “tax credits” suggests, they are a way of providing tax relief for low paid workers.  Rather than cutting those, we could look at the other £100 billion plus of tax reliefs which don’t go to low paid workers, and make some choices about what to prioritise.  Liz Kendall, Stella Creasy and the Resolution Foundation have already done some good work here, and we should get on with that review as soon as possible so we are ready to pose some choices in time for committee stage.

As for the government’s various plans to increase homelessness, the choice here is ‘make more children homeless and give more taxpayers’ money to bed and breakfast owners’ or ‘spend roughly the same amount of money on preventing children from being homeless’.  This isn’t even a question of head versus heart, it is a question of spite versus maths.

Thirdly, make sure the campaign is led by the people who will be affected.  Every time a Tory minister goes on the TV to sell these policies, put up a low paid worker as the Labour spokesperson to ask why Tory MPs are reducing tax relief for people who work in low paid jobs while giving themselves a pay rise. 

Challenge George Osborne to tell a family to their faces about why he’s decided that they’ve got to lose their home.  Make him live with the fear that he might have to explain to one of these ‘hardworking people’ that he likes to talk about why he’s chosen to punish them for their ‘lifestyle choice’ to work hard and try to provide for their family.

Lastly, find the common ground which unites us, rather than divides us.  The system we’ve got of giving tax relief to low paid workers and preventing homelessness was built over many years by the combined efforts of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall and their supporters.  Let’s all step away from the circular firing squad and work together to win this argument.