Saturday, September 30, 2006

How America is different from Britain #1

I was watching a documentary on American politics called 'The West Wing', and in America it takes a nuclear accident for a seven point opinion poll lead to be wiped out. In Britain, all it takes is for the Labour Party to get together and spend a week in Manchester without us all slagging each other off too much.

By the way, Rhodri told me that the New Republic had an article a little while back, titled 'Can Democrats win in coal mining areas?' I tried a search for this, but couldn't find it - has anyone got a link I could use?

Friday, September 29, 2006

Clause 1 Socialism

One leftie hobby is to try to categorise other lefties by dividing them up into different political boxes as 'Trots', 'Brownites', 'Blairites', 'Real Labour', 'New Labour', 'Compassites' and so on. While this is occasionally helpful, often it serves to create artificial differences between people who agree on a lot more than they disagree on.

Personally, if I must get categorised, I am a Clause I Socialist. I am a socialist because I believe in working to create a society where people contribute according to their means and receive according to their needs, and where co-operation is more important than competition. And I am a Clause I socialist because Clause 1 of the Labour Party is that the purpose of Labour is to "to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party", or as one comrade summarised it, 'the point of the Labour Party is to win elections.'

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Conference II

This was the first time that I'd been to Labour conference, and I never realised how much fun it was. The best bit is just spending time with other Labour people, from spin doctors, people who work for charities or grassroots members.

I would recommend it to anyone who is feeling a bit down about the Labour Party at the moment, it really was cheering, and whatever your political views within the party you'll find plenty of like minded people to spend time with.

If you can't go as a delegate or any such, and you have the time to take off work for the time of conference, spending time as a volunteer is something I can recommend. You don't have to agree with everything the leadership says or does; volunteers, whether as stewards or in the media office or anywhere else, spend their time trying to make conference run smoothly so that the people going along have a good time. And hopefully by next year they'll have sorted out the administration of the passes and the leadership so it will be even more fun than this time.

Reaching the Limit

One of the nice things about Labour conference is that there are more interesting meetings in a day then in most months. After Clinton's speech I went to a meeting hosted by Child Poverty Action Group and End Child Poverty (Donald Hirsch from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation was interesting, Kate Green, director of CPAG, was brilliant, Ed Balls was a bit rubbish). Then in the evening was a policy wonk event on whether Labour had reached the limit in terms of tackling poverty. The speakers were Pat McFadden, Vera Baird, Victor Adebowale and Lisa Harker, so a minister with direct responsibility for social exclusion, one of Labour's best MPs, the chief executive of Turning Point and the child poverty 'tsar', all of whom I was interested in hearing from.

Three of the four speakers (Lisa Harker didn't actually get to speak because of the African drumming band which started up on the floor below) all suggested that Labour hasn't reached its limits on tackling poverty, and that the next stage was to help people be able to access support and change their behaviour, which is causing their poverty. The way to do this, essentially, is for managers to redesign public services.

Unlike other events that I'd been to, this one didn't have anyone speaking who had direct experience of poverty. The tone of the discussion, as a result, was very much about how do 'we' help 'them' to change their behaviour, and how do we reduce the number of 'problem people', the things which the powerful people aren't (usually) rude and obnoxious enough to say in public, but which are actually the way that even some of the most committed and best of them actually think about the issue.

Whatever clever managerial reforms are made, whatever sanctions or incentives special advisers can think up to encourage people to do to behave differently, Labour will reach the limit in tackling poverty as long as it is only seen as a managerial problem about what to do about 'them'. The whole point of having a Labour Party is that poverty and inequality are caused by forces beyond the control of any one individual, and that the best way to reduce poverty is by listening to, involving and giving power to the people in our society who have the least.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Turning Point

Best speech at Labour conference? I was in the hall when Tony Blair spoke at conference for the last time as leader, and Bill Clinton today was very good. But the most moving, powerful and inspirational speech I heard was by a man called Dave Wright.

Mr Wright is involved in the Bottling It Up campaign which Turning Point are running, seeking to help the 1.3 million children whose parents are alcohol misusers.

I took some notes during his speech, which might put across just a very little of the power of his speech:

Dave spoke about his family, his three sons and a daughter. They all were aware and suffered from his drinking while they were growing up, both when he was living with them and then when he abandoned them.

His oldest son took a lot of the responsibility of looking after his alcoholic father while still just a child. He now has a child, who he is extremely protective of and anxious about, and although is he just 28, he looks more like he is forty, having been deprived the chance to have a proper childhood.

His second son is set on emulating his father, and in his mid-twenties is well on his way to being an alcoholic, because he thinks that he is just like his father. He is in a relationship, but refuses to have children or caring responsibilities.

His youngest son is "a little bit crazy". Having been abandoned by his father when he was eight years old, he found him five or six years ago when his father was in a hostel drinking himself to death. He refused to allow this to happen, and helped to support Dave to give up drinking.

Dave's daughter is eighteen years old. A couple of years ago, after he had managed to stop drinking, she wrote him a letter (which he read out at the meeting). She wrote that he had chosen drink over his children, that she had only received one birthday card from him ever, that she remembered him as a dirty, violent drunk, that he'd never got to know her and that she wasn't sure now that she wanted to get to know him. She wrote "I hoped for years that you would become sober, I lost hope. I know that you are sober now, but that doesn't change anything."

For Dave, although he had stopped drinking, it couldn't undo all the hurt that he had done to his children.

Earlier this year, he got involved in the Turning Point campaign, and appeared on the radio to talk about his experiences. His daughter heard him, and got in touch to ask him to see her, for the first time. When they met up, she hugged him and kissed him, for the first time since he walked out when she was six years old and he was too drunk to notice. She'd heard him on the radio and just said "Thank you for taking responsibility".

Just being involved in the campaign had transformed Dave's life. He finished up by saying, "If there had been the support services for children of alcoholic parents, then maybe my kids would have gone along, maybe they would have got me to go along, and maybe I wouldn't have done the damage I did."

I don't know how someone finds the courage to get up in front of a roomful of strangers and speak about their life, about the hurt that they have caused the people that they love the most, and about what they are trying to do to stop others from suffering in the same way. But more than any other speech at this conference, that was the one that inspired me.

Exclusive: Independent to relaunch

One of the things about being a New Labour spin doctor is that occasionally you get to hear bits of media news and gossip. One such is about the relaunch of the Independent newspaper later this year.

The Independent is a publication which has a picture of a bird on the front cover, a front page devoted not to news but an attempt to highlight a particular issue using sensationalist and often wrong reporting, and its content is of interest mostly to Liberal Democrat voters. This puts it in direct competition with a very similar sort of publication, and as its sales figures show, it is suffering, hence the decision for a merger and relaunch.

From the beginning of December, the Independent will not be sold in newsagents, but instead delivered door to door by volunteers. Rather than having one edition for the whole country, its content and editorial line will vary by area, right down to street level. This hasn't been confirmed, but it appears that the headline being planned for the first edition is 'It's a Straight Choice'. And, finally, its name is going to be changed from 'The Independent' to 'Focus'.

Local Government TV

For those who enjoy the coverage of the agricultural committee of the House of Lords on BBC Parliament, news of the launch of Local Government TV will come as a thrill. They were demonstrating it at a local government reception, with footage, challenging all stereotypes of local government, featuring a man with a beard walking up some steps to go to a meeting.

What I want to know is how the discussions went which arrived at the conclusion that what Sky needed to increase its range of channels was one specifically devoted to local government, and who the target audience might actually be. As an incentive, there will be a modest prize for anyone who can contact me with proof that they have actually watched the channel themselves, or know of anyone else who has done so.

Show Boring People the Red Card

I went yesterday to an event organised by Save the Children, which was a discussion between five young people from the Cynon Valley in South Wales, and government minister Jim Murphy. They talked about what should be done to reduce poverty, and how it is a struggle to make ends meet, both for those who couldn't find a job and for those who were working.

One particular issue that they raised was about the problems of transport - the public transport was not very good, and they couldn't afford even to get a provisional driving licence, let alone maintain a car. This made it hard to attend job interviews or combine working with looking after their children.

I thought Jim Murphy was very good, he seemed genuinely interested in listening and responding honestly and openly, both about areas where the government wasn't going to do anything and in following up on tackling particular problems and looking into ways of sorting them out.

One thing which worked well was that each of the young people had a red and a yellow card. If they didn't understand something which was being said, they held up a yellow card and the point had to be explained, and if a speaker was going on for too long, they showed the red card and the speaker had to finish speaking. This helped to give them confidence to take part to ask if they didn't understand some piece of jargon or anything like that, and not to have their time wasted. As with many meetings, one of the members of the audience launched into a rambling, repetitious and only tangentially connected question - the difference from most meetings was that rather than him being allowed to dominate the meeting, the chair was able to shut him up as soon as the other people attending had had enough.

Good Old Boy #5 and #6 - Job Applications

"Hello, I'm John Prescott, and I will be standing for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party.

Well, every other bugger is, so I thought I might as well."

"Hello, I'm Ken Livingstone, and I will be standing again in 2008 to be Mayor of London.

You may have heard that the Tories will be having an open primary to choose their candidate. So I thought I might go for that. I'm sure I can sort out getting the Liberals to support me as well, so we won't even need to bother with all the expense to the taxpayer of having an election."

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Policies not personalities

The message for this week at conference is that we are not interested in the personality politics of who the next leader is going to be, but in the policies which will help to take Britain forward and meet the challenges of years to come. Thanks to my implant, I can believe this even despite reading the opposite in every daily newspaper.

Some people do more than just try to persuade sceptical journalists of this message. Anneliese was speaking to a woman last week whose son had been attacked because he had a learning disability. If someone is attacked because of their race or sexuality, it is treated as a more serious offence, but the same does not apply for disability, and there is a wide variation in terms of how different police forces react to what is in fact a hate crime. The best police force is in Kirklees, and it would make a real difference to people's lives if every police force was as good at helping disabled people who are the victims of crime as this force is.

Anneliese promised this woman that she would try to raise this issue, and used the opportunity of a fringe meeting to mention it to ministers and charitable campaigning groups - the people with the power to get things changed. They've now taken this up and are looking at what can be done to improve this situation.

I reckon this conference probably won't resolve who is going to be Labour leader. But it might well lead to a change in the law and how police forces work to help disabled people who are victims of crime. It's that sort of thing that Labour conference really should be all about.

What kind of Labour supporter are you?

I stumbled across a purely hypothetical situation today which involved a dilemma. There is no right or wrong answer, but I'd still be interested in what answers people might give, as it is an interesting guide to different priorities and different ideas about what is most important at conference. Here's the scenario (which, I stress, is purely hypothetical) :

For reasons beyond your or the Labour Party's control, there are lots of people waiting for their passes to be able to get into conference. There is a very long queue of people, and all but one of the printers that you are using has broken, so you have to choose one of the following people to get their pass on time, and disappoint the rest. The question is, whose pass do you print first out of the following people:

1. The Delegate, who will not be able to vote on behalf of their constituency to decide which issues get discussed at conference unless they get their pass now.

2. The Senior Journalist on a national newspaper, who is up against a tight deadline to write their story and who has been queueing for several hours and who is looking extremely fed up.

3. The Stallholder, who has to get to the conference straight away to be able to set up their stall before the hall closes for the day.

4. The Former Minister, who is due to speak at a fringe meetings which lots of people will be attending specifically to hear them speak in a few minutes, and will not be able to do so unless they get their pass now.

5. The Teenager from a community project, who is meant to be speaking at a meeting to share their personal experience of growing up in a deprived area, and who has never been to a conference or spoken in public before.

"Radical not punitive"

I have to confess that I thought that the fringe meeting about tackling poverty through welfare reform would be one to endure rather than enjoy. It turned out to be thought-provoking and interesting.

It was organised by One Parent Families, and John Hutton and Carey Oppenheim of the London Child Poverty Commission were speaking. Their speeches were mostly about how helping people into work was the best way of reducing child poverty and examples of different pilot projects which could help with this and with particular problems like people being worse off in work than on benefit particularly because of the cost of renting. They also made the point that for very many people being a lone parent was a stage in people's lives, lasting on average about five years, and that new policies needed to be 'radical not punitive', and people needed to be supported to take risks and not be dependent.

This was all reasonably familiar, but the discussion afterwards was the highlight of the meeting, with interesting questions and the speakers being prepared for the most part to engage with the questions and give thoughtful answers. The questions included the possibility of an extra amount on tax credits for people living in London, the need to consider the needs of children and not just their parents when deciding on policies to reform welfare, the need for more support during the first 3-6 months of a new job for people who haven't had a job for a long time, the need to improve opportunities for childcare. The most impressive contribution was from a woman (a delegate from her CLP) who had been a lone parent in the early 1980's and had suffered from policies which were a mix of Old Labour and Thatcherism which acted to make it very hard to get a job after being out of work, how the current situation had improved a lot from then, and also raising the issue of how debt and loan sharks harmed lone parents and people in poverty massively.

My question was about how many lone parents feel that the challenges that they face and the hard work that they do is not appreciated by government and decision-makers, and that they aren't involved in deciding what policies to help them should be adopted. I asked if the speakers agreed this was a problem and what could be done about it.

The answers were interesting (necessarily brief because it was a relatively short meeting with a lot packed into it). Carey thought that the best solution for the problem was through devolution of services, with people being involved in deciding on how the services that affected them worked. John replied by saying that there was definitely more to be done to emphasise the central role that caring for people played in our society - caring for children was one of the most important things that anyone did and that this needed to be better recognised. He suggested that the reforms in pensions, designed to recognise not just people's financial contributions but also their caring contributions (i.e. those who didn't work to look after children), provided a possible for model for how other areas of government and policies could be redesigned to give greater emphasis to the importance of caring for others.

Good Old Boy #4

"The older George Bush has four sons. The first is President of the United States. The second is Jeb, governor of Florida. Then he has two others. Bliar in Britain and Busharraf in Pakistan"

Labour-supporting Taxi driver in Manchester (and councillor in Pakistan), Saturday night.


This week I am mostly being a New Labour spin doctor. I will endeavour to share experiences of Labour conference, but the implants that they put in as part of my training for this role may result in inadvertant self-censorship.

Regrettably, being a spin doctor doesn't seem to involve misleading the press or briefing against colleagues or any of those exciting things which I had heard about, but there are still some other interesting things happening.

I went on the anti-war march on Saturday, which was a decent size but nothing like the march at the last Labour conference I was at in February 2003. The march seemed heavily dominated by Respect, SWP and Quakers (plus some union branches), and I admired the entrepreneurial spirit of one man who was going round selling Lebanese flags.

I agree broadly with the stated aims of the march (which is why I went on it) but the issue of calling for troops out of Iraq is one I'm not sure about. I rather fear that it will be a disaster if British troops remain in Iraq, and a disaster if they leave, and that the choice is between which disaster will be greater. I'd be interested in thoughts of anyone else who was involved in anti-war campaigning in the run up to the Iraq invasion but has since got a bit uneasy about the way that the Stop the War line has developed since the fall of the Ba'ath Regime.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Car Park

A lot has been said and written about the need for renewal of the Labour Party and how it can win back support. None of the accounts, to the best of my knowledge, have mentioned the crucial importance of better parking facilities.

I was a councillor for four years, for most of which time it would be both sad and true to say that my life revolved around the council. I did my best to let the people I represented know what I was doing, to help with problems and to try to make the improvements that they suggested. There were particular things that I cared about, like trying to keep open a community resource centre which helped people learn computer skills, and improving the local play areas to make sure that children and young people had more fun stuff to do, and others which I tried but never had much success, like getting the roads resurfaced more often.

About a year after I started as a councillor, the local residents association raised the issue of a car parking area which was on council land, but which was in a very bad state of repair, looking horrible and dangerous to pedestrians, with roots growing up through it. They'd tried to get something done for a while, but had not had much luck. I said I'd find out, and persuaded the council to spend some of the money for local improvements on doing the work. They did an excellent job, and redid the car park so it looked really nice and was much easier to park in.

The local residents were really pleased, and one in particular decided to come along regularly to the residents association and get more involved, as he was impressed that they had managed to get the problem sorted and he had been particularly concerned about the car park ever since his wife had tripped and hurt herself while walking back through it one day. This resident was a great asset to the association, and when the person chairing it chose not to continue, was chosen as the new chair, in which role he worked with me and others to sort out problems and get improvements.

So when I was leaving the council to start a new job, I asked him to consider standing for Labour to be my successor. He threw himself into the campaign, going out and meeting people every night and talking to them about their ideas for what needed doing. He'd lived in the area for nineteen years and been involved in a wide range of different community activities, so lots of people already knew him.

I was down on election day reminding people to go and vote, and our supporters were really enthusiastic and motivated to go and support us (which isn't always the case, particularly not with the current national situation) because they'd read our leaflets and agreed with us about what the important issues were and liked what we said we would do about them, and because so many of them had met our candidate and felt that he was on their side.

I always hoped that when I finished that I could see that I had made a positive difference, that things were better than when I started, and part of that was trying to make sure that I handed over to a Labour councillor rather than losing the ward to anyone else. I thought that the election would be very close, even on the day when things seemed to be going so well. We got to the count, and it turned out to be a rout, Bob had won by nearly 300 votes, including many people who had never voted Labour before. He gave a graceful speech, and we celebrated into the night.

Bob will be an excellent councillor, and a great Labour representative. I bet when he first came along to the local residents association he didn't realise he'd end up getting sucked in to the world of local government, but I'm delighted that he did, and that I managed to get the council to do something about that car park.


Lye Valley ward in Oxford was one of the most marginal in the city, with just 21 votes between Labour and the Lib Dems.

I say 'was', because there was a by-election on Thursday, and the result is:

Bob Timbs (Labour) 784
Nathan Pyle (Lib Dem) 487
Judith Harley (Tory) 150
Larry Sanders (Green) 64

Swing from Lib Dem to Labour 9%.

Bob is going to be a great councillor, and the only way I could be more happy is if my feet didn't hurt so much.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Great Repeal Act

Via Lib Dem blogger of the year Stephen Tall, I got to hear about the idea of the Great Repeal Act, which is Nick Clegg's plan to identify thousands of laws and sweep them away to undo a generation of illiberal regulations and build common ground with their new Tory friends. Their website has got a top ten list of laws to be swept away, and lets you e-mail in your own ideas, which is at least reassuring in that it will keep constitutional reform enthusiasts happy.

It does look like they might need some help in finding these thousands of laws to be got rid of, given that law number three is the one which allowed bankers accused of fraud to be tried in the USA (which no one who is not a banker could reasonably object to) and law number eight, which is:

"8. Public interest defence for whistleblowing

Official Secrets Act 1989
It is important that national security is protected, but sometimes it will be the case that it is in the public interest that malpractice or illegal activity is exposed. The Official Secrets Act includes no public interest defence, however – so whistleblowers remain unprotected, even if their action is very much in the public interest."

Now introducing a public interest defence for whistleblowers sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea to me. The one concern that I have with it being included in a list of laws to be repealed is that, um, it would require a new law to introduce.

Maybe it's just me, but I do think it weakens the argument that we have too many laws when even the people proposing a Great Repeal Act can only think of seven before they start coming up with more new laws that need to be introduced.

What do the Lib Dems and Melanie Phillips have in common?

In the good old days, every year, the Lib Dems would have a conference where their activists get to vote for policies which are off the wall, reactionary, unworkable or a clever combination of all three. In the new, modernised Lib Dems, policy is made not by the harmless eccentrics, but by professional hacks, and the emphasis is less on the well-meaning but loopy policies, and more on the unpleasant.

Here's what Melanie Phillips says about why legislation gives anonymity to people who bring charges of rape against men, but not to men accused of rape:

"Giving women the protection of anonymity means it is more likely that women will make such false accusations. But then, the monstrous presumption beneath this bill is that all women are truthful and all men who are accused of rape are guilty...the cardinal tenet of extreme feminism - the assumption that men are intrinsically rapists, wife-beaters, child abusers and generally violent individuals, that women are their prey and that society additionally loads the dice against the female sex."

And here is what Rape Crisis says:

We must have anonymity for the victims otherwise women will not come forward to report. Most of the women who contact rape crisis have never reported to the police. We must respect the courage for those who do. It is not easy or pleasant going through all the police interviews and the courts. We must at least retain anonymity.

We must not treat the accused in rape cases any different from murder or child abuse. You cannot have special rules for the accused in rape cases as this will feed the myth that women who report rape are lying, that it is easy to report rape etc…

Anyone accused of rape should not be named until charged with the offence. Sometimes police forces do not adhere to this. On being charged it can be useful for the name of an accused to be published, as other women who have been raped by him, often with the same modus operandi, may be encouraged to report."

So what did the Lib Dem conference vote for? To have policy in favour of anonymity for men accused of rape.

Say what you like about the good old days of Lib Dem policy making, but I bet they never used to line up with the likes of Melanie Phillips to help feed the myth that women who report rape are lying.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Race to the Gutter

I was watching the West Wing last night, and without spoiling for those who haven't seen it, one of the main themes was about negative campaigning, and how negative campaigning offers short term political advantage (in that people are more likely to change their minds about who to support because of a negative message about the opposition than a positive message about the candidate), but at a longer term cost to involvement in politics because people get put off by politicians constantly abusing each other.

Negative campaigning is something which every party does - Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, Green, Respect, UKIP, BNP and so on. What I wondered is whether we've got to the stage where the short-term advantage isn't worth the damage that it is doing.

Negative campaigning doesn't always work. I was up for election in 2004 (a difficult year for Labour), and I took the decision to make all of my leaflets etc about stuff I had done locally, and what I would do if re-elected. I didn't mention any other party on any leaflet. My ward was a top Lib Dem target (they ran their standard negative campaign), and that year they won 7 of their 8 target wards - and reduced my majority from just over 100 votes to ninety.

I think it would be really interesting to see the effect of all candidates in a particular area deciding not to take part in the 'race to the gutter', and instead all deciding to run positive campaigns about what they would do if elected. But then I realised that life doesn't, in fact, imitate the 'West Wing'.

Good Old Boy #3

"There is not much choice. There is not, because we screwed up," he said. "Not a little: a lot. No European country has done something as bone-headed as we have," he continued. "Evidently, we lied throughout the last year and a half, two years. It was totally clear that what we are saying is not true."

"You cannot quote any significant government measure we can be proud of, other than at the end we managed to bring the government back from the brink. Nothing. If we have to give account to the country about what we did for four years, then what do we say?"
"We lied in the morning; we lied in the evening,"

Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Redistribution of opportunity

I just read Alan Milburn's speech, featured on the Progress website (no, looking back, I don't know why, either). It's all about how the key challenge for government will be to empower citizens, and that the approach involves more of a flexible economy and making the state's role to help wealth creation thrive. That there might be a trade-off between empowering citizens and flexible labour markets doesn't get a mention, so hey ho.

Regardless, he uses on several occasions the phrase 'redistribution of opportunity', which apparently should be the new way out of poverty. Now I am pretty convinced that the only reason that the word 'opportunity' is in that phrase is because it is a favourite jargon word meaning 'unspecified good things', and he probably mean to say 'redistribution of power' or 'increasing opportunity' or something like that.

The thing about redistribution of opportunity, by analogy with redistribution of wealth, is not just that some people have increased opportunities, but that others have fewer opportunities. Which is actually quite a good point - the opportunities for people in poverty to get out of poverty involve a reduction in the opportunities for employers to avoid taxes or pay poverty-level wages, for example (rather than, as Alan Milburn would have it, that the way of reducing poverty is to give employers more opportunities to pay poverty wages and avoid taxes).

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Number crunching

All stats taken from Mori exit poll at 2005 General Election, broken down by newspaper readership:

For every Labour voter who regularly buys the Independent, 11 regularly buy the Sun

More Labour voters buy the Daily Mirror than any other newspaper

More Lib Dem voters buy the Daily Mail than any other newspaper

Not many readers of the Daily Star vote, but those that do overwhelmingly vote Labour.

Game On

A poll conducted by the Electoral Reform Society at TUC conference about who delegates want to be the next Labour leader. Just under a third of the 700-ish delegates participated:

59% John McDonnell
10% Gordon Brown
8% Alan Johnson
rest undecided/other/not voting

This doesn't, of course, mean that McDonnell is even going to get on the ballot (though it can't hurt in terms of trying to get 44 MPs to nominate him), and nor is it representative of all trade unionists (delegates to TUC conference tend to be amongst the more leftie members in most union branches). But recent internal union elections have pointed to the strong organisation of the lefties and this poll certainly backs that up.

A third of the votes for the leadership get decided by the unions, and particularly if there isn't a high turnout amongst affiliated trade unionists, then this base of leftie organisers is significant.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

social exclusion

It feels a bit churlish to criticise the new Social Exclusion Action Plan, published on Monday. The idea of 'ASBOs for babies' that was in the newspapers last week doesn't appear anywhere, the recommendations, while not backed up by new money, appear to be about using examples of good and successful local projects and trying to make sure more people can use them, and the five underlying principles are in some cases obvious but hard to disagree with: better identification and earlier involvement, identifying 'what works', multi-agency working, personalisation of services to fit the needs of the individual and supporting achievement and managing underperformance. In particular, everyone benefits if it is possible to provide help early on, rather than trying to pick up the pieces after several years of problems. Appallingly spun though the plan was, it's much better than it sounded. It'll be interesting to see how much it manages to achieve.

The action plan, and also Alan Johnson's (otherwise admirable) recent speech on tackling poverty, suffer from one significant flaw, however. There is nothing in either about listening to people in poverty, involving them in deciding on priorities, finding out from them about what is and isn't working and what should be done differently. New Labour ministers are very keen to decry the old monolithic, paternalistic, top down state, but their rhetoric about choice and empowerment always seems to be forgotten when it comes to considering social exclusion. Which is particularly regrettable when you think that Labour being in government and each and every Labour MP owes their position to the support of people living in poverty.

Comments policy

I have just wasted nearly ten minutes of my life and I am still confused. Someone has been leaving comments on this site pretending to be someone called 'C4'. This is no bother, because I know about the 'delete forever' option for comments, and deleting ignorant Tory shite is both a pleasure and not time consuming.

I'm working from the assumption that whoever writes as 'C4' is someone who doesn't like the Tories and has chosen to write a parody of what a dim right winger with a lot of time on their hands would be like. What has confused me is that there is no clue anywhere on the whole internet (at least in the nearly ten minutes that I spent searching) about who hates the Tories enough that they have been doing this for nearly a whole year.

Just on the subject of comments, I featured a few years back in Holocaust Denier David Irving's list of 'traditional enemies of free speech' (a list of people whom he considers to have infringed his right to tell lies about the Holocaust). I am delighted that a colleague in the league of traditional enemies of free speech, the Austrian government, decided a while back to lock Irving up. There are plenty of places for abuse and/or spreading right-wing lies, any of that found here will be deleted or ignored depending on whether I can be bothered. All other sorts of comment, of course, welcome.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Team of Rivals

One of the most highly regarded books amongst Gordon Brown's supporters is Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. The three volumes that have been published so far have been beautifully written and range far beyond Johnson's life to the story of depression-era America, Texas in the early fifties, his early political campaigns, and the workings of the American Senate amongst much else.

Unfortunately, in thirty-odd years and three volumes, Caro has only managed to get to 1959 in Johnson's life, so the Brownites haven't got to read about how Johnson became President (probably a good thing for Tony Blair, that) and his successes and failures as President.

Since it doesn't look like the remaining volumes will be written in time before the leadership contest is settled, may I humbly recommend 'Team of Rivals' by Doris Kearns Goodwin to Brown and any other contenders for the leadership. It is the story of how Abraham Lincoln managed to best his more highly regarded rivals to secure the nomination for the Presidency, and then how he managed to persuade each of them to serve in his cabinet and devote their considerable abilities to the service of their country at a time of unprecedented challenges. It's an excellent story, told well, and a welcome antidote to the events of the past few weeks in the Labour Party.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

The next leader

Down for a meeting in Nodnol with the Paskini Mob, I was thinking about this question of who would be best as the next leader of the Labour Party, what qualities they would need.

They'd have to be electorally successful - capable of demonstrating an appeal to voters in some of the key electoral battlegrounds, with an appeal which goes beyond just tribal Labour voters.

They ought to have experience of investing in and improving important public services.

They ought to have good environmental credentials, with a track record of promoting radical policies and winning support for them in the face of the hostility by vested interests.

They need to have a strong commitment to social justice and greater equality - including achievements in boosting pay and working conditions amongst the low waged, and a track record of tackling discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, gender, age or sexual orientation.

It would do no harm if they had opposed the war on Iraq, and demonstrated that they would be independent minded when it came to relations with the Americans.

And it would be nice to have someone who is good at communicating, but who isn't afraid to take on the right-wing media.

Remind me, why isn't Ken Livingstone in the running to be the next leader of the Labour Party?

"The star who won't even play the last encore"

I don't imagine Tony Blair or his advisers watched the Italian Grand Prix this afternoon. A shame, really, because someone who wants to be the 'star who won't even play the last encore' could have learned a lot from watching the star of the past ten years defeat both the current leader in the Championship and the person who will be replacing him, and then announce his retirement while celebrating victory in front of tens of thousands of cheering fans - the motor racing equivalent of 'Progress' conference.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Good Old Boy #2

"I was tugging his shirt, he said to me 'if you want my shirt so much I'll give it to you afterwards,' I answered that I'd prefer his sister."

Materazzi added: "It's not a particularly nice thing to say, I recognise that. But loads of players say worse things.

"I didn't even know he had a sister before all this happened."

Now here's a good idea

I was reading Nick Robinson's analysis of the problems Gordon Brown now faces, that many of his colleagues are cross with him and so would not be able to stay in the Cabinet if he became Leader.

"Gordon Brown can have a Cabinet which does not include Clarke or indeed Milburn and Byers. Oh yes and the others he's fallen out with - Hutton and Reid. And let's not forget the PM's chums - Falconer and Jowell. And Peter Mandelson will be persona non grata of course. Indeed he could."

Now I know there are problems with them briefing from the backbenchs and so on, but I believe the technical term for all of the above getting sacked and not playing a future role in the government is 'hitting the jackpot'.

In any case, are people really going to start saying, "Well, I voted Labour last time, but I think I'll vote Liberal Democrat now Tessa Jowell is no longer a part of the Cabinet" or "I see that Peter Mandelson is briefing the newspapers that he is unhappy with Gordon Brown not doing what Tony Blair would have done in this situation, so I'm voting Tory this time" ?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Please let's not have another nine months of this

I thought it was nice of Tony Blair to offer to stop being Prime Minister to coincide with my birthday next year, and I thought that the idea of the farewell tour was quite funny (in a demented sort of way). But I don't see how him carrying on til May is a good idea, unless it is the case that Gordon Brown can't beat David Cameron at the next election, and therefore John Reid or Alan Johnson ought to be Leader.

Given that the policy differences between Brown, Reid and Johnson are minimal, and the pleasing realisation that someone like Stephen Byers or Alan Millburn would get absolutely thrashed in a leadership election because of their close association with Blair, it does matter that we get the leader best placed to beat the Tories next time.

It is often said that David Cameron is following Tony Blair's strategy in the run up to 1997. A better parallel is with the Republicans before 2000. They realised that they couldn't win an election with leaders who talked about what they actually wanted to do, so they got a wealthy, reasonably personable leader who talked about 'compassionate conservatism' while making sure he kept the rich on side. And this strategy was almost enough to win the Republicans the election.

At the next election, the 'New Labour' coalition won't give us enough votes to win. Whoever the new leader is, there will be people who voted Labour or Lib Dem last time who will vote Tory next time just because the Tories will be making some kind of attempt to appeal to normal people for the first time in nearly twenty years. Given how small our majorities are in marginal seats in the South East, just this would be enough to remove our majority.

A new leader could build a new coalition, including people who have voted Labour through thick and thin, winning back some of the people who voted Labour in 1997 and/or 2001 but who have got disillusioned, and giving the people who identify with Labour, but who don't vote more reasons to use their vote to stop the Tories getting back in. We know that this 'compassionate conservatism' is a sham, and there are enough people in the country who prefer a Labour government to us having our very own George Bush as Prime Minister to win us the next election.

But we can't get started on building this new coalition while George Bush's closest ally is still Prime Minister, and while we have nothing but policies which are spun as cracking down and punishing the disadvantaged while appeasing the better off while we whisper about the good that Labour does. There is no reason to believe that Alan Johnson or John Reid would be any better at building this coalition than the leader in waiting who has been preparing for this for years. And a quick election where Brown faced a challenge from John McDonnell and a true blue Blairite, with some of the other able people contending to be deputy leader, would let us spend the next few years with a much improved government and every chance of winning again.

I didn't realise quite how much I wanted us to have a new leader until the last few days. Nine months of 'phoney war' where Blair's allies try to build up an alternative to Brown, followed by an election which leaves lots of people disillusioned and embittered, is a horrible idea, as is the idea of a nasty and bitter fight which splits the party now. We need a new leader, and we need Blair to accept this very soon. The irony is that if he does, then he's much more likely to get the positive legacy, the farewell tour and to leave the crowd wanting more than if he follows his present course.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Tory supporters prefer motoring to MORE green taxes

I have a real weakness for surveys and opinion polls which end up with really obvious but amusing or scary results, particularly about what right wing people think. There is one terrifying one which shows that something like 4 in 5 Americans wants to build a wall along the border with Mexico. I just found an amusing one, closer to home.

I missed it at the time, because it happened during April, but a survey was done asking people if they supported increasing the cost of motoring to encourage less driving. Lib Dem voters thought this was a good idea, Labour voters were about half and half, with slightly more opposing it. And Tories thought it was an absolutely terrible idea. Which is rather reassuring, as part of the point of being a Tory is having a car (preferably big) and taking pleasure from driving around in it.

David Cameron is apparently searching for a Clause 4 style issue to show that the Conservative Party has changed. I think it would be a wonderful idea for him to commit the Tories to raising taxes on cars, particularly gas guzzlers, and see what the membership thought. They seem happy to put up with him saying any old rubbish if it would help them get power, but I suspect the idea that he might actually attack the motorist would be the Tory equivalent of New Labour's abandonment of nationalisation and sucking up to the private sector. As someone who wishes the Tories nothing but ill, I'd enjoy the policy debate enormously.

As one acquaintance put it, "I don't mind having some yellow lines or residents' parking round here, as long as I can park my four cars outside my house."

How nice

Just looking at Bloggers4Labour, I discover that one of my old history teachers not only blogs (occasionally) for Labour, but was a candidate in the May election in Southwark council.

Sadly, she and the other Labour candidates got beaten by a couple of hundred votes by the Tories (even in 2002 2 of the 3 councillors were Tories, so it was always likely to be difficult), but it's always nice to discover that people who I like are secretly also Labour activists.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

People vs money

It is usually a chore reading the comments section of 'Comment is Free'. No matter how stupid, obnoxious or plain wrong the article, those choosing to comment on it always seem to manage to lower the bar even further, to the point where it is both deeply painful and tedious to try to read through more than a dozen or so comments.

It takes a very special sort of journalist to write an article which prompts lucid commentary, engaging critically with the points made and enriching the understanding of the subject. Unfortunately for Will Hutton, it is not to praise his article "Britain would benefit from Clinton's tough love" that people have come to comment, but to bury it.

Hutton writes that "Too many British live on benefit for no better reason than they don't want to work and there is too little insistence that they show determination and resource in finding some." Sad to say, but Norman Tebbit put this argument more eloquently twenty years ago, and it wasn't much cop then. The comments section deals rather well with his supporting evidence - that because hundreds of thousands of (mostly) young men with no dependants have moved to this country to work, benefit claimants in this country must be lazy. I rather like the idea of Will Hutton living six to a room and having to get to work at 7am every day to queue up to work for twelve hours. I certainly like that idea more than the idea that what Labour should be doing is cutting off the benefits of lone parents and people with disabilities or long term illnesses if they don't do this sort of work.

There is a whole genre of this kind of journalism, where the author imagines himself daring and controversial for bravely suggesting a new way of giving people less well off than himself a good kicking. Indeed Will Hutton has form for this, having suggested that social housing shouldn't be allocated according to need, but should instead be a universal right (think about it).

Peter Lindert's research, cited in the article, demonstrates a link between social spending and economic growth. The reason, Hutton says, is that healthy, well-educated workers who are not afraid of either retirement or unemployment work harder and take more risks. I'd agree with that. There are a group of people who have it within their power to improve the health, the skills and the income of low paid workers, to make work a more attractive option for people on benefits and hence to boost economic growth and make everyone better off. They are not migrant workers or people who are unemployed. They are called "employers".

If you do what Hutton obviously didn't and speak to people living on benefit, or in low paid work, then you'll find that employers have taken decisions which mean that there are few opportunities for training to help people get into work and stay in work; that employers are keeping wages low so that parents who work are often worse off than they would be on benefit; and that employers make their employees work long hours so that parents find it hard to spend enough time with their kids.

This is an issue Labour should address. In the long run we all benefit if employers invest in creating decent jobs which pay people enough to live on and to enjoy themselves - not just to exist, to have time to see their kids, and to increase their skills through training. The government already spends more than £13 billion trying to help people to do this through tax credits because too many employers are too mean and too short sighted to see the benefits of looking after their employees properly. There will always be people who suggest the alternative of cutting living standards for the least well off. We've tried their way, and it's failed. Even the people commenting at 'Comment is Free' know that there is a better alternative.

[Will Huttons' article is at:,,1863995,00.html ]

Friday, September 01, 2006

Let's hear it for the Nanny State

"When help is available it often seems conditional, rather than offered in a genuine spirit of support" concluded parents living in poverty who participated in 'Get Heard' workshops, designed to get contributions from people living in poverty about what government policies were working and which weren't. And should anyone doubt that they are correct, along comes Tony Blair, back from his summer holiday, to announce plans to, as the BBC reports it, 'tackle 'menace' children', including intervention in families before a child is born, and sanctions for parents who don't co-operate. He specifically mentioned families with drug and alcohol problems and teenage mothers as groups of people at whom this policy would be aimed.

Helping families who have problems and who often struggle to cope with looking after children is a good idea. There is currently a failure to provide help at a time when it could do the most good, which is early in a child's life. The consequences of this failure, for the families and for others, are enormous. The detailed proposals haven't been set out, but anything which genuinely helps parents with young children deal with the problems that they face, be it showing people where to get good advice or parenting classes, can only be an improvement on what happens now. There are things that can be done, and should be done, which would directly help improve the lives of thousands of parents and children, and indirectly help millions who suffer in one way or another from the failure to help people when they need it most.

What is sad is that the way of presenting this policy is all about punishment and coercion - "ASBOs for babies", "Tackling 'menacing' children", which stigmatises all parents who are living in poverty, and particularly those who have drug and alcohol problems, or who are young mums. This spin can't all be blamed on the government - the media decides which kind of headlines it chooses to write - but the policy won't work if it is seen as a punishment for parents rather than an opportunity to help them, and it is hardly as if this is the first time when the government has consciously taken the decision that the way to present new ideas is for them to be understood as ways of punishing the 'undeserving poor'.

In a better world than this one, the policy debate in response to Blair's comments would be about how to make sure as many people benefit from this kind of early intervention as possible, how best to make sure that it genuinely helps parents and children, rather than punishing them, and how to involve people who are having these problems in working out the best way to sort them out. Instead, the opposition, from both Tories and Lib Dems, is to the principle of the state intervening to solve problems, with Oliver Letwin suggesting that the voluntary sector should be encouraged to help people, and Norman Lamb not actually suggesting an alternative at all. The idea of the voluntary sector acting instead of the state is one of those ideas which sounds nice until you think about what, if anything, it means. At best, it could mean that the voluntary sector is better placed than the state to deliver projects which help parents, even though the only way that this would be possible would be for the voluntary sector to receive lots of money from the state to do so (presumably not what Letwin has in mind).

Reading Iain Dale's Diary, though, I get the feeling that what Tories mean isn't, in fact, about which sector is best placed to deliver early intervention programmes, but that trying to help parents who have problems looking after their children is a bad idea full stop. As Iain puts it, "it probably involves sending parents of the yet to be born little hoodie on a taxpayer funded trip to Barbados to let them discover their inner selves," and if that isn't an ignorant piece of prejudice then I don't know what is.

This is in fact the level at which the political debate is currently conducted - is it better to get tough on people living in poverty with tough new tough policies, or are these policies a bad idea because spending any money on the state intervening is wrong in principle because it all gets wasted as I know because I read something about how these social workers waste it on politically correct outings for chavs.

Anyone who is doing their best to raise children while still a teenager or while struggling with drink or drug addiction deserves extra help and support and is doing something hundreds of times more worthwhile than what Tony Blair or Iain Dale do. One of the many good things about political correctness is that it is impossible for mainstream politicians to speak with spite and venom about people who face certain kinds of discrimination and prejudice. Unfortunately, hatred and contempt for people who have drug and alcohol problems or who are teenage mums isn't just seen as acceptable, but is taken for granted when discussing new policies which will affect their lives.