Wednesday, September 26, 2007

'Clever Young Men' vs Norman Tebbit

I didn't really want to hear that the latest Tory to praise Gordon Brown was Norman Tebbit. I just hope he doesn't get given a policy commission.

The consolation is that it doesn't really mean anything more than the Tories are still fighting the civil war which they started when they got rid of Thatcher, and that they mostly still enjoy fighting each other more than they would enjoy being back in power. Hence Tebbit's description of the leader of his party,

"David and his colleagues - the very clever young men they have in Central Office these days - are very intellectually clever but they have no experience of the world whatsoever.

He has spent much of his time in the Conservative party and as a public relations guy. Well, it's not the experience of most people in the streets. That's the real attack and that's damaging to him, I think."

Good Old Boy #36

From the Q&A with Gordon Brown, Labour Party members were given the chance to ask questions about education policy. What would they choose to focus on?

"Ms Frostrup asks for questions about education. It's three questions at a time.

A delegate from Richmond, North Yorkshire, begins unpromisingly by saying his question is not really about education. Ms Frostrup is not impressed.
He says that rural communities are in trouble and he wants acknowledgement of support for Labour members in his area.
We're now on to the Freedom Pass (free bus passes for pensioners in London) and whether Mr Brown would extend it to the rest of the country."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Public attitudes and political leadership

Ed Miliband, speaking at conference earlier today, explained ministers' vision for how policies should be developed in the future,

"We need a Labour Party that can reach out again, changing minds and attitudes on issues from child poverty to climate change. And we need to recognise that real change in communities only comes when people are part of it. Whether it is a new zebra crossing, getting drug dealers off the streets, or better youth services, we can only do it by being rooted in communities we serve. As a local MP I say to people: I can't solve the problems on my own. I need your help."

There's a lot of truth in that. But what makes me nervous about this line of argument is that it can let politicians off the hook. The responsibility for changing public attitudes about child poverty or climate change doesn't lie just on MPs, but nor does it just lie with grassroots activists and campaigning groups, with politicians only taking action once opinion polls show that a majority of people have been convinced. This shift in responsibility is implicit in Miliband's speech, and explicit in speeches by government ministers who claim to want to do more about child poverty, but feel that they need 'permission to redistribute'.

In fact, as research has shown, people listen to the leaders of the party that they support for cues on what to think and feel about the central questions of the day where there is no obvious consensus. When issues like climate change get talked about, people draw on arguments which they've heard which sound sensible and by people who they trust.

This can lead to big shifts in public opinion over a matter of a few months. In the USA (where distrust of politicians is at least as high as in the UK), opinion about American involvement in Iraq was equally divided in July 2006, after three years of vocal grassroots anti-war campaigning, but weak and mixed messages from the Democrat Party. It was only after this point that Democrat candidates starting to attack the President's Iraq policy and outline a clear alternative. By November, public opinion, including amongst the politically vital Independent voters, had shifted and was heavily anti-war. (This example taken from Drew Westen's excellent book, 'The Political Brain').

On both of the causes which Miliband mentions, climate change and child poverty, Labour leaders have offered mixed messages and policies over the past few years (and still find it hard to publicly justify effective policies such as paying higher benefits to families). On the economy, health and education, where ministers have been clear about what they are trying to do and why, they have built a strong consensus, which even the Tories are paying lip service to. It would be hard to argue that this consensus was created by local people and local communities - it was created by Gordon Brown and a small group of his advisers, and then modified and deepened with the responses from local communities and activists.

There are a lot of people at the moment who are worried about the gap between rich and poor in this country, and crime and anti-social behaviour amongst (and suffered by) young people. They instinctively don't like the rhetoric about the 'broken society' being pushed by Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron, but don't have a clear idea about what the alternative might be.

In the Comprehensive Spending Review, Gordon Brown has to decide whether or not to commit an extra £4 billion per year to reducing child poverty (mostly on increases in cash benefits to families), or whether instead to abandon the commitment to halving it by 2010. If he chooses to spend the money, and to explain how reducing (and ending) child poverty will help reduce the problems which worry people and what else needs to be done to tackle poverty, then it offers a clear alternative, and will quickly change minds and attitudes about child poverty, as people talk about his proposals with each other in their communities.

Policy shouldn't just be decided by politicians and then handed down to the people. But nor should politicians just read opinion polls and listen to which lobby group can shout loudest. Instead, a different kind of relationship is needed, where politicians are in touch with the people that they represent, but also have a duty to make use of the power that they have, and take the lead in suggesting and implementing solutions to problems.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Divide and rule

The weekly prize for 'worst article in the Observer' is going to have to be renamed 'worst article in the Observer not written by Henry Porter' [this week's Henry Porter article - people have become psychologically dependant on Labour and so won't listen to the really clever ideas that David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and Zac Goldsmith have come up with].

With the disqualification of Henry Porter, this week's worst article prize is won by Jasper Gerrard. He writes what he seems to think is a courageous and liberal defence of immigration, against the likes of MigrationWatch. So far, so reasonable. Until he gets to:

"But in this 'honest debate' [about immigration], shouldn't we ask why we need imported labour?

Surely it's because we have several million derelict natives who can't or won't work. Immigrants are a symptom of a problem - the problem of our underclass. Oh, and global forces producing massive population shifts beyond the powers of government."

So rather than blame immigrants, Gerrard would have us blame what he calls 'the underclass'. In fact, this kind of argument is very close to that of MigrationWatch, the only argument that they have being about which group of poor people to blame.

Immigration has been used by employers as a way of holding down wages during a period of general prosperity. That isn't the fault of people who have come to Britain from Eastern Europe and work very long hours while living in shared rooms in substandard accommodation. Nor is it the fault of someone who gets sacked from their low paid job for taking a day off to look after their sick child and then can't find a job which is compatible with the childcare which is offered to them. (Incidentally, someone in this situation is, according to Gerrard, 'derelict').

If we're going to have an open and honest debate about immigration, then the fact that people at the top of companies have made very substantial amounts of money from holding down wages and using (and, often, mis-using) the talents of people from all over the world needs to be acknowledged.

It doesn't have to be like this - one big city firm found that by giving low paid workers a pay rise of £2/hour everyone benefited, with lower rates of absenteeism, staff turnover and higher productivity. It is a criminal waste that the debate is instead dominated by the divide and rule battle about whether immigrants or natives are to blame, while the divine right of employers to pay as little as possible goes unchallenged.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


I'm not going to be at Labour conference this year. I went last year as a volunteer New Labour spin doctor, but Gordon Brown has got rid of spin so there's no need.

The big issue of interest only to members of the Labour Party (and even then, only to a minority, but bear with me) is whether or not there will be votes on Contemporary Resolutions. A contemporary issue is one that has arisen since the 31st July, and affiliated trade unions and constituency Labour Parties can propose resolutions. Resolutions which are passed become the policy of the Labour Party (though not the government). Gordon Brown is trying to abolish this, as part of an overhaul of how local Labour Parties can get involved with policy-making.

In recent years, conference has passed motions on renationalising the railways, against using the private finance initiative in the NHS, against foundation hospitals, in favour of letting councils borrow money to improve council houses and in favour of making company directors liable for the deaths of their employees. None of these have been implemented by the government.

It should not be hard to design a better system than this, which is a product of decades of fudged amendments to a system designed about eighty years ago. If the Labour Party were being established now, there is no way that anyone, whatever their ideological affiliation, would say, 'What we need is to make sure that every local party can submit a resolution, and then three quarters get ruled out because they discuss issues raised before the 31st July.'

But there are lots of different ideas about what change should involve. Should it mean making sure that the government doesn't suffer any embarrassing defeats on matters of policy? Should it mean ensuring that members can pass resolutions which are binding on the government?

There is also a lot of mistrust. Many of the same arguments used in favour of Brown's proposals were advanced in support of the 'Big Conversation' and 'Let's Talk', and many think that by definition any attempts to change current systems are aimed at preventing members from having a say about policy and cementing the dominance of the leadership. Meanwhile, others think of Labour Party activists as a threat, people who love turning up to meetings and passing resolutions denouncing the government, and nostalgic for the days when Labour conferences were week long showcases of how much people in the Labour Party hated each other and were not fit to run a whelk stall, live on national telly.

Each stereotype has some truth to it. Brown's proposals claim to be based on a more deliberative, consensual model of policy-making, while offering members a chance to vote once every four years on a 'take it or leave it basis' for the whole Labour policy programme. The proposals themselves, as well, show little sign of having been modified by the input from the membership. Meanwhile, Labour Left Briefing is circulating a critique of the proposals which contains an attack on the principle that local Labour parties should reach out and try to engage local communities.

Brown's proposals are going to go through, and no 'review' is ever going to bring back contemporary resolutions. But if they are to achieve the aims of improving the ways that members can be involved in policy-making and linking Labour with local communities, then the leadership has to recognise that sometimes grassroots Labour members know better than ministers, and sometimes ministers ought to change their policies when members and the unions are opposed.

Because for all the inadequacies of the structures of contemporary resolutions, the resolutions which conference has passed in recent years - on housing, on the railways, on the NHS reflect not just the pet obsessions of Labour Party members, but the views and concerns of many council tenants, commuters, NHS workers and patients - taking issues rooted in local communities. This year, conference will discuss resolutions on closing Remploy closures and low pay for women workers. These probably aren't issues which came up when Thatcher or Damien Buffini last popped round to number 10, but affect a lot of people.

If Gordon Brown wants the new process for making policy to work, then it will mean that some government policies which he supports will need to change as a result of the ideas and suggestions of Labour Party members. It's hard to imagine that happening, but it would certainly mark a new sort of politics.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Different rules for different savers

Good on the government for (temporarily at least) guaranteeing the savings of Northern Rock customers and stopping a run on the banks.

Just one question. As Tim pointed out, if they could do this in the case of Northern Rock, why couldn't they do it (at a fraction of the cost) when Farepak went bust?

Selections #1 - 'if you're good enough, you're old enough'

Did you hear the one about the sitting MP who nearly got deselected in favour of the local party's youth officer?

Washington and Sunderland West, one of Labour's safest seats, selected its MP recently. Due to boundary changes, Sharon Hodgson, who currently represents just under half the seat, had to seek selection in a ballot of all members.

Contrary to early predictions, though, the main challenge came not from any of the local councillors or from the full time GMB trade union official, but from the local youth officer, Bridget Philipson. Bridget grew up in Washington, and after going to university at Oxford had come back to work for a local charity.

As well as spending time meeting with as many members as possible, and setting out ideas for building up a strong campaigning with a bigger membership and in touch with the local community, Bridget set out her ideas on some of the big issues facing the area and her ideas for what to do, on issues such as council housing, local transport, changing the welfare system to support families better, support for ex-servicemen and support for people with drug and alcohol addiction. These themes inevitably found their way into the leaflets of the other candidates a few days after she mentioned them.

Despite all the advantages that come from being an incumbent MP or from the support of a trade union, the final result ended up with Bridget securing 83 votes to 120 for Sharon Hodgson. The other four candidates between them got fewer than 30. It was even closer than that makes it look, because the third placed candidate had been encouraging her supporters to make Bridget their second preference. If it hadn't been for the understandable desire for many members not to deselect a current MP, Bridget would certainly have won.

The typical ways of becoming a Labour MP are either to spend time in London getting to know the movers and shakers before being parachuted into a safe Labour seat, or to serve your time in an area and wait for your turn.

It's really heartening to see someone seeking selection in the area that they grew up, campaigning on their ideas for the area and do so well. Hopefully, one of the other seats in the North East will be lucky enough to have Bridget as their MP when there is next a vacancy, and other people who are thinking about trying to become a Labour MP in the future will adopt this sort of approach.

The politics of amnesties

The Lib Dem policy on 'an earned route to citizenship' , amnesty for people who came to the UK illegally, but have been here for at least ten years, is a sensible one. It is also a very brave one. It will be an issue which the Tories in Lib Dem/Tory marginal seats will certainly highlight and give great prominence to.

Labour's already run one campaign - in Hodge Hill -on the issue of 'Lib Dems wanting to give handouts to failed asylum-seekers' (and promoted Liam Byrne to be Immigration Minister). That was a contemptible campaign, and Labour candidates should resist the urge to attack the Lib Dems on this issue to try to get a short term boost from people who don't like asylum seekers. There are, after all, plenty of other issues which divide Labour and the Lib Dems to campaign on.

If you need further persuading, just imagine what MigrationWatch will say about the Lib Dem plans. There is a rule that any time you find yourself on the same side of an argument as MigrationWatch, there's something badly wrong.

Or as Brian Reade put it:

'[When the number of people leaving the UK was announced] MigrationWatch UK (think Crimewatch UK photofits but scarier) stayed silent.

Not the slightest tap of a jack-boot could be heard.

Fast forward to this week and unsubstantiated claims in our most hysterical newspaper that Britain is about to be invaded by thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian gypsies.

"It is unacceptable that thousands of gypsies should come here to live off the welfare state," boomed MigrationWatch's Sir Andrew Green, quicker than you can say Final Solution.


Doesn't it prove that this right-wing, rag-bag lobby should change its name from MigrationWatch to ImmigrationWatch - and admit they are the Ku Klux Klan without the pointy hats?'

Do we really want to end up alongside the Tories and MigrationWatch, and against people who have spent at least a decade contributing to our society?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Kamikaze Tories

Conservative Home has a list of 10 doorstep pledges which the Tories will be using if there is an Autumn election. Oddly, there seems to be little overlap between these pledges and the tens of thousands of pages of material from their policy reviews (why have these whole policy reports if they are only going to be used to annoy your supporters, remind people of the existence of john Redwood and John Gummer, and not to contribute to policy? Does that seem weird to anyone else?)

The green taxes which they've got planned are going to have to be quite something, because they will pay for tax cuts for families, handouts for married couples, an emergency pension fund, keeping open all current A&E units, keeping open all current special schools, more police and more prisons.

These pledges will fall to pieces under the slightest scrutiny of an election campaign - if they are for real, then we should definitely have an Autumn election.

The Tory activists, of course, have their own ideas about the doorstep pledges that are needed, in the comments. The most popular ones including ending immigration, bringing in a flat tax and breaking up the NHS, so its good to see that the political instincts of the grassroots about what's needed seem to be as good as those of their leadership.

It is a fascinating experiment for Tories like 'Kamikaze' Rob Wilson, the MP for Reading East, whose re-election strategy appears to be to smear Maggie Thatcher and make pledges to tax the motorist and businesses to meet the spending demands of each and every lobby group out there. Sadly for him and his comrades, there are no shortage of alternatives for right wing Tories to voting for this sort of thing, whether voting for UKIP, the English Democrats, or just sitting at home and polishing their car.

Continuing a tradition

The Liberal Democrats have an annual highly entertaining tradition, that around the time of their conference, they lose a by-election near where I live.

Well done to Labour Cllr Richard McLinden and everyone involved, for continuing this tradition and winning Warbreck ward by more than 770 votes on the eve of this year's Lib Dem conference. Back in 2004 the Lib Dems had a majority of 1,600. They won't be looking forward to next year's elections.

Monday, September 03, 2007

More new comrades

Our government is lucky enough to be getting advice from comrades Patrick Mercer, John Bercow and Matthew Taylor.

Apparently this is very clever politically and helps to wrong foot the opposition. I'm a little bit sceptical about this - there must be a significant risk that all of our new friends decide in a few months to resign as advisers and slag off Brown for not listening to them and just being a power-obsessed control freak.

There are plenty of cheerleaders in the press for the strategy of 'dominating the centre' by bringing Tories and Lib Dems into our big tent while picking fights with the unions about pay cuts and forcing lone parents out to work with threats of benefit cuts. But while we can win an election without the support of people who think like Patrick Mercer (as we did in the past three elections), we can't possibly win without the enthusiastic support of public sector workers and people working hard to bring up a family.

The increase in support since Brown took over has come from people switching back to us after voting Liberal Democrat in 2005, and Labour supporters being more likely to report that they definitely intend to vote for us next time. Securing the support of both of these groups is absolutely key to winning the marginal constituencies in Southern England on which Labour's majority depends. No Labour government has won an election while cutting pay in real terms for public sector workers - twenty-nine years ago doing just this triggered the 'Winter of Discontent'.

If politicians from other political parties have something useful to say about a particular issue, then fine, but since July it seems like there has been a lot of attention paid to courting people who are actually never going to support us, and not enough to the people whose support put Labour in power and who we will need to win next time. Hopefully this autumn and the upcoming spending review will change this.