Sunday, June 28, 2009

Learning the lessons from the local elections

Ann Black sent round an e-mail to Labour Party members with five questions which she will feed back at Labour's next National Executive meeting. It's a discussion which I hope as many members as possible will contribute to, but also might be of interest to Labour supporters who aren't members. So here's the questions and my answers - do reply to Ann's e-mail or leave your own thoughts in the comments and I'll pass them on:

> 1) reasons for Labour losses, both local and European, and
> reasons for any good results against the overall trend;

Apart from the obvious comical and ridiculous national nonsense, the main problem is that in most areas we haven't developed our local campaigning to be able to persuade people about why it is important to elect local Labour councillors even if they don't think much of the national party. As a result, local councillors who got elected because of the efforts of the national party in 2001 and 2005 were unable to win when the elections were not on the same day as a General Election. We need to put a lot more effort into developing the ability of local parties to campaign and do well rather than being tied to the fortunes of what happens at Westminster. There are plenty of councillors who didn't knock on a single door between 2005 and 2009, and that was a much bigger reason why we lost so many councillors than Hazel Blears.

Obviously, an example of how to do this is Oxford. "Where we work, we win".

> 2) what the party leadership can do to rebuild towards the
> general election, organisationally and politically;

Stop doing stupid stuff, and remember that they've still got a healthy majority and nearly a year in power and pick 2 or 3 things which would help make Britain fairer and more equal and do them.

> 3) how members’ views can be taken into account in policy-
> making. The national policy forum “Warwick” agreement dates
> back to last July, before the recession, and needs reviewing, but
> time and resources do not allow another full-scale forum with
> thousands of direct amendments. Are members and local parties
> happy to work through their NPF representatives, and if not, what
> is the alternative within the Partnership in Power framework?

The NPF and Partnership in Power are a load of old nonsense. But the process doesn't matter as much as the outcomes. There's abundant evidence about members' views, from NPF amendments to opinion polling etc. In the medium term, we need to get a different way of making policy, which makes use of the knowledge and experience of Labour members and supporters, rather than just a small clique at the top of the party.

But in the short term, there are any number of obvious policies which a majority of members would support which the government could just get on and do, e.g. :

- build council houses
- scrap ID cards
- reduce child poverty
- not privatise the post office
- cut taxes for lower earners and raise them for the rich

> 4) what policies represent “Labour values”?

As above.

> 5) whether conference should return to resolutions or stay with
> the experiment on “contemporary issues” introduced in 2007;

Resolutions are better than the experiment on contemporary issues, but the aim should be to give people a chance to help shape Labour Party makes policy, and neither does this very well.

Libertarians and democracy

Libertarian Lib Dem Charlotte Gore wrote recently about her decision not to stand for election for Parliament in Halifax. Amongst the barriers that she identified, the main ones were:

1. libertarian ideas are rancidly unpopular with the "people"
2. Halifax is a town which is "pretty much in love with the BNP" [sic], and there are very few liberal democrats who live there
3. election campaigns are a lot of hard work and involve being able to raise money, motivate activists etc.

I think Charlotte has probably made the right decision in not standing for election (not least, starting off a campaign by calling her electorate fascists is an unusual campaign tactic). But I'm not sure that her preferred alternative of writing a very strange letter to people in Halifax is quite going to do the trick.

If they want to break up the cozy consensus of the ConLibLab identikit politicians, Team Libertarian are at some point going to have to figure out how to address this problem about the "people" not wanting to vote for them[1]. Since every libertarian on the internet believes fervently that their policies would make everyone better off and free them from being enslaved by the state, it is rather a mystery why they are having quite so much trouble in doing this.

[1] I guess the alternative to winning popular support would be to wait for a military dictator to do the hard work of securing power and then persuade him to hire them as policy advisers, as in Pinochet's Chile. There's nothing quite like having the overwhelming might of the state to crush dissent to enable libertarian ideas to get tried out.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Rewarding hard work

Following on from the previous post about attitudes to economic inequality, here's an example of how the interests of the poor and the middle are much more closely related than many people realise:

One criticism of the welfare state is that once you include tax credits, child benefit, housing and council tax benefit and so on, a lone parent who is not in paid employment and has two children has roughly the same income as a single person who works and gets the average wage.

One possible reaction to this is "that's a disgrace, and it shows that benefits are too high." This is the one which you will read a lot in the newspapers.

But another is "that's a disgrace, and it shows that wages for the average worker are too low."

Which of these - prioritising cutting benefits or raising wages for middle income workers - is more likely to help improve people's quality of life and make sure that hard work is properly rewarded?

Understanding attitudes to tackling economic inequality

The Fabian Society and Joseph Rowntree Foundation have just published the findings of research about public attitudes to reducing poverty and inequality. Some of the key findings:

1. Nearly all the participants in the discussion groups placed themselves in the 'middle' of the income spectrum, despite the fact that they came from the full range of socio-economic groups. They interpreted the income gap in terms of the gap between the 'middle' and the 'super-rich'.

2. Most participants believed that 'deserved' inequalities are fair. They were therefore not opposed to high incomes in general because they tended to believe that these were deserved on the basis of ability, effort, performance or social contribution.

3. Despite a widespread belief in 'fair inequality', participants strongly supported a progressive tax and benefits system – although they complained that the system is not generous enough towards the 'middle' (that is, where participants placed themselves)

4. Participants' attitudes towards those on low incomes were often more negative and condemning than their attitudes towards 'the rich'. For example, they placed far greater blame and responsibility on the former for their situation than on the latter.

5. Most participants were strongly attracted to a social vision founded on improving quality of life for everyone (more so than one founded on explicitly egalitarian objectives, and far more so than one founded on economic growth).

Couple of initial thoughts:

- Columnists like Polly Toynbee and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown have been suggesting that the government should remove child benefit and free bus passes for older people from middle class people and make them only available to the poor. This research shows how this is a totally misguided approach - setting the 'poor' against the 'middle' is entirely the wrong way for people who care about poverty and inequality to go.

- Maybe we should put more of a focus on the policies which would get people on low incomes and those in the middle on the same side. From child care to transport, housing to care for the elderly, there are no shortage of areas where the government could act to help people out. Historically, some of the best anti-poverty policies are the ones which benefit middle class people, from the NHS to child benefit.

In Touch

I could not care less about the election of the new Speaker. Apparently, though, this was a chance for MPs to choose someone to help rebuild the reputation of Parliament after the expenses scandal, and to show that MPs are not grotesquely out of touch with the people they are meant to represent.

I was, therefore, entertained to see that the overwhelming choice of Conservative MPs was a former Housing Minister in the John Major government who described homeless people as 'the people you step over when you leave the opera'.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Paskini's laws of elections (part 1 and 2)

Reading this vastly entertaining whinge by a Green Party candidate in the European elections reminded me that many people are not aware of Paskini's laws of elections:

1. If you want to win an election, you have to be prepared to work harder and do more disagreeable things than your opposition. "Disagreeable things" for this purpose includes spending time doing things like delivering leaflets, knocking on people's doors, phoning them up etc etc, but also includes concentrating on telling people about what they are interested in (even if you find it tedious), not what you personally are interested in. And it means working together with people who are on the same side as you, even if you don't like them or find them annoying.

Whichever party has more people who follow rule 1 will win an election. If, however, despite your best efforts you do happen to lose, then rule 2 comes into play.

2. If you lose an election, you should not spend your time whinging about the people who beat you, no matter how disgraceful their behaviour or how repulsive they are. Instead, you should figure out what you did wrong and put it right for next time so that you are able to beat them next time.

Public service announcement

Anyone with an interest in housing policy (which should include every leftie) should go read this.

MPs' expenses: officially brilliant

I know that there are trivial concerns about the lasting damage done to democracy etc., but I have now decided that the MPs' expenses scandal is officially brilliant.

The prejudice-confirming expenses of the Tories, from duck houses to servants' quarters have been highly entertaining, particularly when one of them said that people were just jealous of his big house.

But even better have been the positive effects on the government and parliamentary Labour Party. By my count, MPs' expenses have been partly or completely responsible for getting rid of Hazel Blears, James Purnell, Geoff Hoon, Tony McNulty and, now, Kitty Ussher. Not to mention tempting the Blairites to launch a massive and unprovoked attack on their own reputations, with lasting and possibly terminal damage to their faction.

What's not to like?

Preparing for the backlash

The You Gov poll after the European elections makes fascinating and depressing reading. The most interesting stats, though, aren't connected to the BNP. Instead, they show that those of us on the left are losing two arguments on important policy areas where our ideas have dominated for the past decade.

The anti-discrimination and equalities campaigns have achieved great successes over the past thirty years. The idea that women, black and ethnic minority people, LGBT people and other minority groups face discrimination, and that it is the duty of government and public services to help them get equal opportunities is currently part of the political consensus.

But when the public were asked which group faces the most unfair discrimination, 40% chose white people, more than those which chose any other group. Only 7% think that white people benefit from unfair advantages, while more than a third think that Muslims or non-white people get unfair advantages.

Furthermore, right-wing people who want to whip up anger about this have the benefit of all the experience from the Republican Party in America, as well as most of the national newspapers "on message" and happy to continue to push this line.

In a similar way, one of the most cherished causes for any leftie is about reducing global poverty, and one of Labour's greatest achievements has been to increase the amount spent on international development, and get the Tories to commit to continue this.

But a majority of the public want to see spending cuts on international development. It's the most popular choice for the chop after government "waste" and quangos, more popular than getting rid of nuclear weapons, cutting benefits or tax credits or any other domestic spending priority.

So if the Tories win in 2010, and find themselves having to make big spending cuts, how long is their pledge to increase international development spending going to last? Politically speaking, it might even be advantageous to get criticised by lefties for a spending cut which most people support, particularly if it distracts attention from other, more unpopular, cuts.

Unlike immigration, which pits pro-business right-wingers against populists, or the EU, which hardly anyone cares about, equalities and international aid are two great issues for the right-wing to unite and mobilise "Backlash Britain" against an "out of touch" liberal elite. They will have their talking points ("it's now white people who are discriminated against"; "why should we give money to India and China?"), and well funded lobby groups with close connections to the newspapers.

So us lefties need to be ready to meet and defeat the backlash against some of our best achievements. The NGOs and lobby groups who stand up for equality and against global poverty need to work out how to make new and more persuasive arguments to win a majority of people over, rather than just preaching to the converted. We need to check and get rid of any examples where policies have gone wrong or could be seized on by our opponents, and we need to make sure people know about who really faces the most discrimination in our society, and how the money which we spend on helping others living in dire poverty saves lives and enriches all of us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Polly Toynbee's manifesto of unconditional surrender

Polly Toynbee has many qualities, but one of her significant flaws is that she doesn't seem to know anything about political strategy.

She wrote an article this week condemning Gordon Brown and Ed Balls for attacking Tory cuts and claiming that the choice is between Labour investment and Tory cuts. Instead she wants Labour to "be honest" and announce the following policies:

*Scrap ID cards and Trident
*Freeze public sector pay and cut back their pensions
*Freeze private sector pay and bonuses
*Raise capital gains tax to prevent house prices rising
*Cut spending on the NHS
*Promise to spend more money on services for the vulnerable which most people haven't heard of

She appears to think that if Labour did this, then we would be more popular, which is simply delusional (only the first of these might be popular, and as a package, they alienate just about all the people who might possibly consider voting for us).

It irritates wealthy newspaper columnists, but in fact Brown and Balls have found a good line of attack about Tory cuts, which causes the Tories a number of problems.

If the Tories spell out in detail how they intend to make their spending cuts, then many of their supporters will not want to vote for them any more and their lead in the opinion polls will collapse. They are also split about how deep the cuts should go, and don't have the experience or knowledge about how to save money without it affecting front-line public services. Their general approach to public services is kind of like Blairism without the redeeming features.

But if they continue to make vague promises about cutting "waste", promise fantastical and nonsensical savings on education and welfare and lead people to believe that their cuts will be relatively painless for most people, then they will probably win the next election, but risk being a one term wonder as people turn against them when they find that the cuts are far from painless and involve real and deep cuts to services which people care about.

What the Tories want, ideally, is to win the next election with popular support for big spending cuts which gives them the mandate to cut public spending significantly to reduce the budget deficit. The problem is that there is no evidence that there is any popular support for this. Every time this issue is surveyed, it finds that people are quite happy to see services which they don't use cut (or for taxes to be raised on other people), but opposed, for very understandable reasons, to paying more and getting less for it.

Polly Toynbee's manifesto of unconditional surrender would let them off this dilemma. If Labour announces that they are going to make most people pay more tax and get less for it, in order to increase spending on Sure Start, social workers and unemployed young people, then it makes it easier, not harder, for the Tories to slash these programmes and to claim that there is no sensible alternative to their own programme of cuts.

Labour shouldn't offer its many opponents in the Tory Party and the media the gift of spelling out in detail what tax rises and/or spending cuts it would make should we be in government in 2011, when so much about the state of the economy two years from now is uncertain. And they should definitely try to make the Tories decide whether they are confident enough about the next election to reveal their own plans for massive cuts and try to persuade people to support them. It is rather interesting that to date and for all their massive opinion poll leads, the Tories aren't that confident.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Oi Fatty, cop this

The latest in an occasional series, "things which I agree with exactly, expressed far better than I could, here:

"in response to the latest pieing episode (actually an egging of Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party), the usual crowd of wowsers and pursed-lip good-government types come out of the woodwork, sorrowfully wagging their fingers and telling us “this is just what the BNP want”, and “this sort of thing makes people sympathetic to the BNP”. And once more I say “where’s the evidence?” Nick Griffin certainly doesn’t look like he’s executing the culmination of a cunning master plan to gain favourable publicity – he looks like he’s being egged and not enjoying it. And I really don’t understand the sort of mind that would look at the chubby fascist with yolk running down his coupon and say to themselves “gosh they must have a really important point to make if the so-called anti-fascists have to stoop to these depths to silence them”. Rather than, say, my own reaction, which was roughly “Cracking shot, sir!”. As I’ve noted before, there’s a Laffer Curve implicit here. If nobody ever egged Nick Griffin, then he’d never get egged, which I presume nobody wants. On the other hand, if he was egged every single time he went out, then he’d never leave his house – result, no eggings. But I really don’t believe that we’re on the right hand side of that Laffer Curve, not yet.

And in this particular case, the egging itself is actually a very important speech act and a significant contribution to our national debate. Based on the fact that they got two MEPs elected, non-white British citizens might justifiably be looking with suspicion at their white neighbours today, thinking that a significant proportion of us were secretly harbouring fascist sympathies. In fact this isn’t true; the absolute number of BNP votes was slightly down on 2004, and their electoral success was purely an artefact of overall low turnout. It’s therefore an important point to be made, to our own population and to the world’s watching media, that Nick Griffin isn’t in fact a newly popular and influential political figure; he’s a widely reviled creep who not only doesn’t lead a phalanx of jackbooted supporters, but actually can’t even set up for a TV interview without being pelted with eggs. The voice of the British populace does not shout “Hail Griffin!”, it shouts, “Oi Fatty, cop this! [splat]”. And the only efficient and credible way to demonstrate to the world that Griffin is regarded as an eggworthy disgrace, is to actually and repeatedly pelt him with eggs."

Monday, June 08, 2009

Unity, hard work and Labour values

Responding to disastrous election results, one former cabinet minister wrote the following:

"The message from voters on the doorstep during the local elections was very clear. I lost count of the number of previously loyal Labour supporters who said, "Not this time". Again and again I was told: "Tell them they've got to get back on track, in touch with us before we start voting Labour again."


This renewal [of the Labour Party] must be guided by clear principles and an understanding of the position we are in. These principles can be described as unity, hard work and Labour values.

Unity: Spending time fighting between left and right, or Blairites and Brownites, would lead us to certain defeat. Unity is something which everyone needs to buy into, and cannot be demanded by people who are not prepared to show it themselves. In the short term, it requires an end to the destructive instability and speculation over the leadership.

Hard work: Keeping in touch with local people and making sure that we are prioritising the issues that they find important requires a lot of hard work. It means demanding and delivering high standards of service at a local level, and responding effectively and promptly to people's complaints. This is crucial in defeating the BNP and others who feed off disaffection in deprived areas.

Labour values: All of our greatest successes have been possible because of our underlying beliefs in a fairer and more equal society. To rebuild trust, we need to explain better how what we do in government is based on these principles. We also need to attract people who care about improving their area to get involved and join the party."

Timely as these arguments are, they weren't actually written in response to this year's disaster. In fact, they were written by Oxford East MP and former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Andrew Smith in 2006.

And in 2009, when Labour nationally was getting its worst result since women were first given the vote, Labour in Oxford, under Andrew's inspirational leadership, were making gains, defeating the best efforts of the Lib Dems, Tories and Greens to elect nine county councillors (nearly twice as many as four years ago).

I spent last week in Oxford helping with the campaign. I met dozens of amazing, talented and committed people who gave up their time to volunteer and help Labour win. As well as the nine councillors elected, there were another five who had worked so, so hard, who would have been great councillors but who narrowly missed out.

Unity, hard work and Labour values. Now, more than ever, that's what the Labour Party needs. It's not a coincidence that where these three principles have guided Labour, they've gained support and elected hard-working community representatives, and where they've ignored these principles, they've got hammered.