Thursday, November 19, 2009

Labour's PPB: Fisking the fiskers

A variety of right-wing blogs[1] link to a 'fisking' of Labour's most recent party political broadcast, in which a Liberal Democrat activist attempts to reveal that all the claims made about Labour's achievements are false. A friend who is a historian was kind enough to send me an analysis of their claims:

Broadcast: "“They said that working people were not fit to govern - so we formed the Labour Party”

Criticism: A party where the intellect, stimulus and money was supplied by the decidedly middle-class Fabians and their friends.

Answer: To suggest that early Labour politicians, thinkers and organisers like Kier Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, George Lansbury, and many others were "decidedly middle-class" or that a party bankrolled by the trade union movement relied for funding on 'middle class Fabians' is a rather weak claim.

Broadcast: “They said that women didn’t deserve the vote”

Criticism: "This glosses carefully over the fact that Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the main suffragette movement, WSPU, was refused membership of the Independent Labour Party after she was encouraged to do so by her friend Keir Hardie. The refusal was on account of her gender. Several years before her death, Emmaline became concerned by socialism and joined the Conservative Party. We are of course still waiting for a woman to be elected leader of the Labour party, let alone become a Labour Prime Minister. The legislation to extend an equal franchise to women was brought in by Baldwin’s Conservative government in 1928."

Answer: Just before the First World War a male MP resigned his seat to fight it on the issue of Women's Suffrage. He was not a Tory, nor a Liberal, but Labour MP George Lansbury. And given that until 1929 Labour had only had one minority term in office, for a few months, the legislation is hardly an impressive point.

Also worth noting that Emmeline Pankhurst was actually a member of the ILP. To be fair, you have to read halfway down the Wikipedia page to find this out, rather than just the first three paragraphs - I guess to expect this level of research in a fisking is rather unreasonable.

Broadcast: “It seemed impossible to stop the tide of fascism, until Cable Street and a few good men and women got in the way”

Criticism: The ‘good men and women’ were not organised by the Labour Party. Sadly the riots led to the Public Order Act that outlawed political marches without permission. We can see its authoritarian legacy in New Labour’s recent ban on protests near Parliament.

Answer: Er, not in the party political broadcast. If you watch it, you'll see so.

Broadcast: “The shining vision of the NHS was for many an impossible dream, until we created it”

Criticism: The legislation may have been enacted during a Labour government, but the NHS was down to Liberal economist and reformer, William Beveridge, after a report was commissioned by the wartime coalition government. Only three years after the introduction of the NHS as a free at the point of use service, the Labour Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell pushed through prescription charges of one shilling per item and charges for half the cost of dentures and spectacles.

Answer: So if a Tory government passes a voting act it's only thanks to them, but if Labour actually sets up the NHS (against the votes of Tory MPs) it's nothing to do with the Labour Party. The NHS was also set up completely differently to Beveridge's model.

Broadcast: “They said we were wasting our time making a stand against apartheid and that things could never change, but they did”

Criticism: At the 1964 general election, most candidates expressed support for sanctions against South Africa, But once elected, Harold Wilson told the press that the Labour Party was ‘not in favour of trade sanctions’. And whilst the best known anti-apartheid campaigner is now a Labour MP, he was then very much a Young Liberal. The release of Nelson Mandela and the dismantling of apartheid owed nothing to the UK Labour Party.

Answer: The ANC's archive seems to disagree: "Nevertheless, Labour Party support was still vital to the campaign." See here for more information -

Broadcast: “And Northern Ireland too”

Criticism: Tony Blair may have got the credit for the grinning photos, but the Prime Minister who made the Good Friday agreement come about was John Major, bravely and often under verbal fire from his own side.

Answer: But funnily enouigh it wasn't until years more of negotiating by Blair and Labour Minister that the Stormont Assembly worked and the IRA renounced violence in 2005.


[1] I don't think a 'variety' is quite the correct collective noun for right-wing blogs - 'a tedium' ? 'a knee-jerk' ? Suggestions gratefully received

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Divide and rule with the Resolution Foundation

The Resolution Foundation works to achieve better outcomes for low earners, which it defines as "living on below average income but independent of state support. For analysis, we use income deciles 3, 4 and 5, which currently means living on between £11, 750 and £27,150 per annum."

Jenni Russell, writing in the Guardian, reports that, "Clive Cowdery, the City financier who created the Resolution Foundation with £20m of his own money, is a passionate advocate for this group. These people are, he says, active, courageous, and determined to make something of their lives. That's why they haven't surrendered to a life on benefits."

So these people are not "the poor", or the "benefit dependent", and are independent of state support.

Here's a couple of stats from the Resolution Foundation's own research:

  • The average income of these "low earners" is £14,600 per year. They pay £7,100 in tax (the majority in indirect taxes like VAT). And they receive £12,600 in benefits (half and half between direct cash benefits and benefits in kind).
  • To put it another way, for every £1 in tax that non-retired low earners pay, they receive £1.06 in benefits. (Retired low earners receive more in benefits for the tax that they pay).

I'm slightly struggling to see the distinction between people who are "benefit dependent" and those who are not "benefit dependent" but receive about half their income from benefits.

The proportion of low earners' income which came from benefits rather than wages increased between 1977 and 1997, as well as between 1997 and 2009. Between 1977 and 1997 low earners got poorer relative to higher earners, since 1997 they have slightly closed that gap.

Fact is, about half the population, including those not officially classed as 'poor', don't receive wages which are high enough for them to live on. So the government has had to step in and top up their income. It happened under Thatcher and Major just as under Blair and Brown, and the Big Idea of Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice is that the government should spend billions more on topping up the wages of poorly paid workers.

Meanwhile the people at the top, like the man who set up the Resolution Foundation, have become vastly more wealthy, at least in part because they can boost profits while holding down wages. It's not the government paying benefits that cause "benefit dependency", but employers paying low wages.

The 12 million people who are classed as living in poverty, and the 17 million people classed as living on low incomes have many common interests and priorities, from good quality public services to jobs that pay a decent wage.

To prevent these people from coming together and using their power to achieve change, there is a constant flow of propaganda from the rich and powerful designed to drive people apart and set them against each other - about scroungers, illegal immigrants, lazy British workers and "benefit dependency".

The quality of the work that the Resolution Foundation does seems to be high, and they could use their substantial resources to do a lot of good. But their own statistics show that the division which they are trying to draw between low income people who are "active, courageous, and determined to make something of their lives" against those who have "surrendered to a life on benefits" is a false and misleading one, and is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A history of Britain without Thatcher

David Cameron's retelling of the history of state action to reduce poverty, from his speech yesterday, is worth a quick look:

"What was the effect of this state expansion? It is difficult to be completely certain because for much of the twentieth century, research on poverty levels used inconsistent measures. But from the evidence we have, we can say with some confidence that that up until the 1930s poverty fell compared to the years before.

Understandably, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression, poverty did begin to rise. But during the 1940s there was a fall in poverty of between ten and twenty percent compared to the 1930s. By the 1960s we are on firmer ground, as consistent statistics on household income began to be produced for the first time. And this data shows that between 1961 and 1968, the number of people living in severe poverty fell by 900,000 and the gap between the richest and poorest fell.

So the evidence suggests that up until the late 1960s, the expansion of the state to advance social justice was not only well-intentioned and compassionate, but generally successful. However, even in this period, it's important to look at the complete picture. Some state extensions helped tackle poverty, others were less effective. Some did so while encouraging responsibility and local pride at the same time others undermined these virtues.

But since the immediate post-war period, the most significant extension of the state has taken place under the current Labour government. In 1997, government spending as a proportion of GDP was 38.2 percent. Next year, it is forecast to rise above fifty percent....quite apart from the fact that it turns out much of this has been paid for on account, creating debts that will have to be paid back by future generations; a more complete assessment of the evidence shows something different - that as the state continued to expand under Labour, our society became more, not less unfair. "

Cameron reviewed the history of state action from the nineteenth century up until the late 1960s. He then skipped forward to 1997 before resuming the story. So why the gap?

It turns out, if you look at the evidence, that poverty and inequality continued to fall after the late 1960s. Inequality fell to its lowest ever level in 1977 and 1978. And then from 1979 it rose every year bar one until 1991, and reached its highest level in 2000, before falling again between 2000 and 2003, and then rising again.

In Cameron's history, state action used to be effective in reducing poverty and inequality, but stopped being effective in the late 1960s. Let's look at what actually happened.

In the 1970s, rises in the pension and incomes policies reduced inequality. In the 1980s and 1990s, the state actively pursued policies designed to increase inequality. Between 2000 and 2004, tax credits and other anti-poverty policies reduced inequality, and since 2004 the failure to increase redistribution has seen inequality rise again.

In other words, levels of inequality are highly responsive to state action - whether those actions aim to increase inequality or reduce it. That is as true now as in the 1960s or 1970s.

Cameron has a first class degree in History from Oxford, so he'll have been able to find this out for himself. In some ways, it is good to see a Tory leader simply airbrushing the entire period from 1970 to 1997 (when they were in power for 22 of the 27 years) out of history.

But the reason that he has to leave out two entire decades worth of evidence (and use dodgy stats for the past decade rather than the internationally recognised comparisons) is because the full facts don't support the conclusions that he has drawn about what needs to be done in the future. Public relations waffle about social entrepreneurs and community activists is not an actual anti-poverty strategy.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Community socialism / Local Action Network

Here's two Labour MPs, talking about some of the work that they do:

"In my constituency, if something moves in the community that we haven’t either started or been a part of we get worried. There isn’t a local community organisation, residents and tenants association, or environmental group that hasn’t either been set up by us or which isn’t organised by sympathisers.

The BNP and in the past the NF have always stood against me but we have managed to box them in because we are ahead of them in tackling community issues and concerns...having a Labour MP and local community activists addressing the issue and leading the campaigns denies the BNP the space to organise.

We call this community socialism and I always describe myself as a community MP and our local councillors describe themselves as community councillors."


"So we patiently started helping local people bid for money and projects, and things started to happen. E-Caffs started for teenagers. Training for people seeking work. Outreach among disaffected youngsters on our toughest estates. ‘Frustrated voices’ became community activists. And the community activists started joining the Labour party...They needed advice, connections, money and perhaps above all, someone who believed in them. That’s what we helped provide.

Today, many have not only joined the Labour party, but they’re out door-knocking with me on Friday nights. A month ago, one sought selection as a Labour council candidate. He won hands-down.

This is only one story of political change. But as I’ve talked to activists around the country, I’ve heard strong endorsement. One said “so basically you want the Labour Party to be a community service organisation like the WI or British Legion”. Another said “it sounds just like what the Church of Scotland do where my mum and dad live”.

I think that’s right. The Labour party needs to be the home of realistic radicals who change their local community."


John McDonnell and Liam Byrne are from opposite wings of the Labour Party. But whether you call it 'community socialism' or 'Labour's local action network', they are doing the same kind of work. John's been doing it a lot longer than Liam has, but it's something that every Labour representative should be doing. Starting from now.

Friday, November 06, 2009

An insight into the weird world of the Tories

This is a vastly entertaining story.

A student Tory who chairs one of their university societies used a racist term on twitter to describe one of the X Factor contestants. The following Tuesday, someone high up in the Conservative Party called him to tell him to issue a grovelling apology.

The student apologised, and then regretted doing so and resigned from the Conservative Party, prompting an outpouring of support from other grassroots Tory bloggers.

I don't know whether the most amusing bit of this is the whining by the student about how this incident shows how bad party politics is, or the fact that there are so many embarrassing student Tories out there that the Conservative Party feels it necessary to have a senior person on standby whose job it is to ring them up and get them to apologise.

Power 2010

Power 2010 is asking people to come up with ideas for the democratic and political reforms that are needed in Britain. You can submit them here, the deadline is November 30th.

These ideas will then be considered by a panel of citizens chosen at random, and the five ideas that they like most will become the 'Power 2010 pledge', which Power 2010 will try to get politicians to sign up to in the run up to the next General Election.

There's been a lively discussion about these plans, here, here and here. I think the principle of the campaign is a good one, but have some questions:

1. How can we get ideas from a sufficiently wide range of people?

The campaign seems very orientated towards getting responses from politically engaged people who read and write blogs (it is possible to submit ideas via e-mail, by post or at public meetings - venues to be confirmed). The panel of citizens also need to have the chance to consider ideas from a much wider range of people - those who don't have computers, people who don't vote or follow politics closely, people from all parts of the UK. Maybe one way to achieve this would be to hold the public meeting in areas where there have been low levels of responses, in partnership with local community groups. Instead of London and Manchester, why not go to places like Rhyl, Sunderland and Glossop?

A campaign based on ideas from bloggers who don't like party politics is too narrow a base to build a popular campaign on, and a personal reflection is that most of the ideas highlighted so far are not ones which I can imagine leading to the creation of a credible pledge.

2. How will the top five ideas will be chosen?

I like the idea of getting a panel of randomly chosen people to evaluate the ideas, but what are the safeguards to ensure that (a) they don't choose some really off-the-wall ideas, while at the same time ensuring that (b) the organisers don't end up "fixing" the discussion. For example, if the panel chose 'take the vote away from all immigrants' as one of its top five, would Power2010 really campaign on that?

3. Why would any politician sign up to the pledge?

For this whole exercise to be successful, it needs to gain the active support of a significant number of candidates standing for election. Some might sign it because they happen to agree with the proposals, but to win over people who are unconvinced, Power2010 needs credible threats 'x number of people will not vote for you if you oppose this' or incentives 'you will be more popular/have a better reputation/get access to more funding and volunteer help if you sign up'. What's the plan to make these threats or incentive credible?


Some critics of Power2010 have suggested that the whole exercise is a waste of time, with significant opportunity costs. I don't agree with them, because I think a range of different progressive campaigns and campaigning techniques are worthwhile (it is not as if we know of any particular way of campaigning which is so amazingly effective that everything else should be abandoned). I'm particularly interested to see how the citizens' panel idea works.

At the same time, I think that, overall, us lefties and liberals put too many resources into 'insider' campaigns such as think tanks and lobby groups which spend their time talking to the small minority who are already politically engaged, and not enough into grassroots community organising which mobilises more people to join us and get involved. Hopefully Power2010 will be able to reach out further and mobilise more people to get involved and campaign for change.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Rethinking Mandelson

Labour activists gave him a standing ovation, journalists write admiring of him, by all accounts he is a relatively effective minister - but the evidence suggests that far from being an asset, Peter Mandelson is a drag on Labour's popularity.

For example, he was ranked 'least trustworthy' amongst leading politicians in a survey by Populus, and would be a less popular choice as a leader of the Labour Party than either Miliband brother, Ed Balls or Harriet Harman.

I think the difference is this. In political and government circles, there is a lot of nostalgia for the golden days of Blairism - the message discipline, refoming 'centrist' policies, clear political leadership and good relations with the media. These qualities are admired by Labour activists, David Cameron's inner circle, civil servants and journalists - particularly compared to the chaotic governing style under Gordon Brown.

But for most ordinary people, Lord Mandelson symbolises spin and sleaze, and the policies that he champions such as privatising the Post Office and 'wise cuts' are unpopular with the majority. He is also a leading member of an unelected and arrogant political elite, as an EU Commissioner-turned-Lord.

It is often said that after the election Labour will face a dilemma about whether to follow the advice of people like Peter Mandelson and continue to be the New Labour party fighting for what experts call the 'centre ground' of British politics, or whether to listen to the activists and adopt more left-wing policies which will put off 'swing voters'.

But the example of Mandelson shows that the dilemma is in fact rather different. The qualities which insiders most admire about Peter Mandelson, and which they will be looking for in future leaders of the Labour Party are exactly the ones which repel ordinary voters. Although it goes against the Conventional Wisdom, the more that Peter Mandelson is seen to be the dominant force in the Labour Party, and the more control he has over our message and policies, the more we will put people off from supporting us.