Thursday, May 29, 2008

Stan Taylor

Some sad news. Stan Taylor, a former councillor and leader of Oxford City Council from 1994 to 1996, passed away this morning.

I got to know Stan when we represented neighbouring wards in eastern Oxford between 2002 and 2004. He was always full of good advice and respected by councillors and local residents regardless of their political affiliation. He was one of the kindest and gentlest people I've ever known, with a sharp and dry wit. Every contribution that he made in the Labour Group or in public meetings was measured, thoughtful and he had a tremendous knack of getting to the heart of an issue and making suggestions which people on different sides of an argument could see the wisdom of (an extremely valuable skill on the Cowley Area Committee).

He grew up and lived all his life in Oxford, and he was an amateur scholar of the history of the city, full of fascinating anecdotes and nuggets of wisdom. He was a socialist in the very best kind of way, someone who spent his time not seeking personal glory or advancement but instead serving his community and using his considerable talents to help other people and improve the city and community where he lived and which he loved.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Public service thank you

This is a really good idea:

"Public service thank you is a movement to encourage appreciation and thanks to all the people doing fabulous things in public service roles. This website is a space to say thank you to people working in public services, especially those we normally forget.

We want to help create a culture of appreciation and encourage a society that is more thankful and aware of people."

(via Tom)

Cometh the hour, cometh the moron

The Crewe and Nantwich by-election seems to have kicked off a special variant of moron poker in which prominent Labour thinkers share their thoughts about what the Labour Party needs to do to ensure total obliteration, rather than mere defeat.

Neal Lawson, as ever, kicked this off, quickly to be trumped by Phil 'not the singer' Collins with his call for the Labour Party to 'liberalise or die'. These pieces in turn inspired a quite stupendous trump from long time moron poker favourite Denis MacShane.

MacShane's argument is that what is needed now is to cut public spending in order to reduce taxes. In essence, his article was a retread of the incredibly popular and persuasive Michael Howard argument from the last election - there is all this (unspecified) government waste that could be got rid of with no difficulty whatsoever in order to fund tax cuts. It was an article so good it featured in the Telegraph, with a shorter version in the Guardian with fewer anecdotes about loony left councils and less about how someone had told him all about how there is all this money wasted.

It doesn't read like an article which he spent a lot of time over, hence sentences like "But a third of voters in the recent London mayoral election are individuals." [what's happened to the other two-thirds?]

The best/least coherent theme is about how local government flourished under the Tories because all the Labour council leaders (except for the loony lefties who were bad) did all this good stuff and regenerated cities under a ruthless regime of cost-cutting [what do you mean, you don't remember the northern cities flourishing under Thatcher and Major? Less is more when it comes to community regeneration!] Sweden is good because they raise and spend taxes locally. Councils in the UK are bad because they inexplicably choose to raise the council tax by more than inflation.

And what should central government do instead of spending? MacShane suggests that we need to see 'encouragement to councils to build council homes' [he didn't have space for the bit where he explains how councils can build lots of new homes with less money than they have got at the moment].

Finally, there is his assertion that what's needed is a 'counter-cyclical programme of increasing community spending power by allowing individuals to have a little more cash and the state a little less'. The idea that if the public sector spends less money, it will lead to the empowerment of the individual works rather better in theory than in practice. Examples of this 'counter-cyclical programme' could be found in Oxford, where the Liberal Democrats wanted to close a load of play areas to save the individual about £1 per year, or in Liverpool, where keeping council tax rises down involved closing down respite care centres for elderly people. It's a cruel trick to force parents to drive for miles or keep their kids at home because there is nowhere local for them to play, or to turf elderly and vulnerable people out of care homes. But it takes a true moron to claim that this is the right thing to do because it 'empowers' them.

Money, money, money

The four reasons why Labour is trailing in the opinion polls, as explained to me last night:

1. The government hasn't got any money.
2. The Labour Party hasn't got any money.
3. People haven't got any money.
4. The Tories have got lots and lots of money.


The elections for the constituency reps on the Labour Party NEC are coming up, and I haven't really decided who to vote for. Any suggestions welcome.

Currently stream of consciousness thinking is as follows:

I'm definitely going to vote for Ann Black and Ellie Reeves. I've usually voted mostly Grassroots Alliance in the past and I thought it was quite funny that Walter Wolfgang got elected last time. I'm particularly interested in any good ideas about tactical voting to reduce the likelihood of Peter Kenyon getting elected. I thought it was a shame that John Wise Man, the left wing IT teacher from St Helen's, didn't end up standing!! And it is a bit harsh that the reward for Sonika Nirwal for standing aside last year to let Virendra Sharma be MP for Ealing Southall is that she gets possibly to go to NEC meetings for a couple of years.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Boot camps: Not just nasty, but ineffective too

In an attempt to prove they are not the Nasty Party any longer, the Tories have decided that they want to introduce 'boot camps' for unemployed young people. With a Conservative Government, unemployed young people who don't find a job within three months will be referred automatically to a specialist employment provider, where they will be expected to take part in an intensive programme of work-related activity, so they say. The Tories pretty much invented youth unemployment, so it's always worth having a careful look at what they are up to when they talk about this issue.

Over 200,000 young people are out of work, but just 30,700 for more than six months and 6,000 have been out of work for more than a year. So paying 'specialist employment providers' to make sure young people get jobs, even though something like 90% of them would have got jobs anyway, is a waste of money. James Purnell pointed this out and is right to do so. The Tory vision for the future of the welfare state seems to involve expanding the number of companies which become dependent on government handouts to do things which would happen anyway even without the handouts.

These community work programmes will mean people doing the same things as other people are paid to do, but instead of getting a proper wage, getting less than £50/week. That's about £1.50/hour. The Tories claim to have accepted that there should be a minimum wage in this country, but this will directly undercut that. It's especially cruel when on the one hand they are pretending that it is people's own fault if they are unemployed and at the same time any Tory economist would argue that a healthy economy requires that there are a certain number of people out of work.

But even on its own terms, the Tory proposals are really stupid. There have been masses and masses of programmes in the UK and other countries aimed at getting young people off benefit and into work. One key part of all of the successful ones is that the people who take part actually wanted to be there. One key reason why many programmes have failed is because they have lots of people who don't want to be there and have only turned up because they were forced to. Here's just one example to demonstrate the point.

Anyone who's, say, ever been to school or done a job where there were a mix of people who wanted to be there and ones who didn't will know exactly what the problem is. And these specialist providers aren't going to be getting paid for providing interesting and meaningful programmes which are tailored to the needs of each individual, because those are very expensive. Instead the contracts will go to large firms with experience of writing bids and meeting statistical targets for the lowest cost possible.

And what about the young people who don't take part in these programmes? Apparently they will have their benefits stopped. Again, it doesn't take a genius what this will mean. Some will supplement their income with more drug dealing or burglary, while others who are vulnerable or victims of administrative errors will end up trying to cope with nothing at all. There was at least one case in Germany where a young man with mental health problems starved to death after his benefits were stopped. A decade after the welfare reforms in the USA which time limited benefits there, more than 1 out of every 100 Americans is in prison.

That's even before we get to their idea that these boot camps are going to make employers hire the young people who have been out of work rather than migrant workers. I thought that the Tories used to be in touch with the business community - there's nothing about how any of this will make someone who runs a small business choose to hire someone who is likely to have fewer skills.

Reading through the Tory spokesman's speech, he appears to have a utopian belief in the power of the government to pay private companies to run programmes which will solve serious and deep rooted social problems with 100% success and without any of the problems which these sorts of schemes have encountered in the past. Either that, or this is a load of cynical spin designed to grab a few headlines and sound tough but not actually achieve anything.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Missing word round

Guess which party is being referred to in the following piece:

"many [?] are horribly embarrassed by their party's positions and actions on fiscal policy, foreign policy, and social policy. Furthermore, many [?] feel that their party has lost its ethical compass.


Some argue for new leadership turning the party back to its roots. In some ways that old [?] Party would be better suited to today's world and to the future than the one we've seen over the past few years.

Other [?] forlornly suggest that before the [?] can really retool itself and rise phoenix-like from the ashes, it must first burn to the ground. It might even take more-sweeping electoral losses for the party to hit bottom, they argue. Only then, they say, could the [?] abandon its illusions and offer a more attractive vision for the future."

Not the Labour Party, but the US Republican Party.

Friday, May 23, 2008

'Grassroots' is not a four letter word

So who are all these people in Crewe and Nantwich? No one was predicting so many of them would go and do what they did on Thursday.

I refer, of course, to the 12, 679 people who went out and voted for Labour's Tamsin Dunwoody. Do these people not read the newspapers? Do they not watch the telly? Did they not understand how awful the Labour campaign was and how wretched this so-called excuse for a government is? Do they not realise that everyone is sick of New Labour and Gordon Brown?!!!?

Of course, this is a much smaller number of people than the hoards who did realise all of these things, and went and voted Tory. Predictions of a Tory win on a low turnout were wrong only in that the turnout was only slightly lower than at the last General Election. And it was a desperately awful result for Labour as everyone is saying.

But I'm interested in these 12, 679 Labour voters. It's not hard to work out the multitude of reasons why people voted Tory (every unhappy voter is unhappy in a different way and about different things, something which the pamphleteers who are trying to suggest that if only Labour adopts the ideas in their latest pamphlet then all would be well don't seem to understand). But why did people vote Labour yesterday?

There may have been a few who were outraged that the Tories didn't want to give the Poles ID cards or that they were soft on yobs. There would have been some more who thought the Tory was a 'Hooray Henry' (as one man put it), and out of touch with most people. A lot of people will have remembered Gwynneth Dunwoody, or been helped by her when they needed someone who was on their side, and many of these people will have supported her daughter.

But what's interesting from the (small number) of people I talked to, conversations with other canvassers and the vox pops in the media was that most of the people who were sticking with Labour said things which weren't mentioned at all in our campaign literature. Parents mentioned the extra money and help that they'd got to help them look after their kids. Other people talked about having a job (compared to being on the dole when the Tories were in charge). People talked about the health service and their good experiences with it. To my considerable amusement, I overheard one man say to James Purnell, 'Of course I'm voting Labour, I've always been a socialist'.

And they talked about the Tories - how they didn't like 'em when they were in charge, how they'd noticed the difference and how they didn't think they'd really changed. As one woman put it, "The Tories were making all these promises so we looked it up on the internet if they had to do what they were saying. They don't so we're sticking with Labour. Schools and childcare are important to us. Labour have done good things on that here."

When the overall campaign message is that our candidate is 'one of us' and the other one isn't, it is better to campaign on the issues that our supporters actually care about, and reinforce the things which they think are good about Labour, rather than trying to 'outflank' the Tories from the right on immigration and crime. This did, after all, work in this constituency in 2005, 2001, 1997, 1992, 1987 and 1983. One of the worst things about being a Labour supporter at the moment is that the leadership appear to have no confidence whatsoever in taking on the Tories from the left on any issue whatsoever when it comes to election time.

It would have been good if we'd have given more prominence in our campaign communications to listening to and featuring the opinions of our supporters, giving them the space to explain to their friends and neighbours why they were voting Labour. There was one leaflet which I delivered which was mostly taken up with an extract from an article in the Times about how David Cameron was like a harpoonist or something. This was never likely to be very persuasive.

In elections, people often end up doing what they imagine that other people like them are doing. The newspapers and telly, and opposition parties, were telling people that in this case everyone else was switching away from Labour and that they should do the same. To combat this, we had outsiders, many of whom had never been to Crewe before the by-election, deciding on how Labour would communicate the message that its candidate was rooted in the local community. In both the short and long term, there would have been good arguments for using fewer quotes from the media, and more quotes from local people.

For many of the people at the top of the Labour Party, talking about the 'grassroots' conjures up images of people who go to meetings to slag off the government and pass resolutions. But the real grassroots and foundation of the Labour Party are the ordinary people who stick with Labour through thick and thin, want Labour to stay in government and want to play their part in making sure this happens. Every Labour supporter who I spoke to on the doorstep had better and more persuasive reasons for voting Labour than I've heard from the Prime Minister or any other member of the Cabinet. There's a lesson there that needs to be learned sooner rather than later.

Crewe stats

Some interesting stats about the Crewe by-election from UK Polling Report.

The local elections on May 1st saw the Tories get 45%, with Labour on 28% and Lib Dems on 19%.

The first polls, a week after the local elections, showed Tories on 51%, Labour 30% and Lib Dems 15%.

A week later, Labour was up a bit, though still way behind, on 34%, Tories on 49% with Lib Dems down to 13%.

The actual result was Tories 49.5%, Labour 30.6%, Lib Dem 14.6%. So the short campaign period seems to have involved a modest up turn in the Labour vote, mostly at the expense of the Lib Dems, but then falling back again in the last few days.

Also worth noting that the swing of 17% was considerably less than the 26.5% swing against Labour in the Birmingham Hodge Hill by-election in 2004 (though obviously on a national level it is worse for Labour to be losing support to the Tories than to the Lib Dems).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Leftier than thou

George Monbiot attacks 'the most right wing government in history' (the current one, apparently).

He starts with a short list of things which he concedes the government has done right (it's got some odd omissions, of which more later), but argues that 'the catalogue of failures, backsliding and outright destruction is much longer and more consequential'.

Then there are four paragraphs criticising Labour for being allied to the Americans, and some of the consequences of that, from Iraq to arms sales. There's a paragraph on crime where he appears to be arguing that the UK has a more punitive criminal justice policy than China, Burma or Saudi Arabia. Then that the government hasn't regulated businesses enough, or taxed the rich enough.

There's the quickfire round, the government has made it too easy to build houses (boo!) and hasn't built enough houses (boo!), has closed post offices, GPs surgeries (this is the only mention that the NHS gets in his piece) and not done enough about climate change. And to finish off, Labour has also destroyed hope by delaying electoral reforms which would have benefited the party that George Monbiot supports (again, no mention of the Scottish Parliament or Welsh or London Assemblies).

How to respond to this? There are some criticisms which most Labour supporters would probably agree with, even if the overall picture is rather distorted, and where change would be welcome.

Another point to make that people like George Monbiot were writing in 1999 and 2000 that the Democrats were so right-wing that it would make no difference if America elected a 'compassionate Conservative', and there's rather less excuse for this kind of argument now that we know how that turned out.

There's clearly a challenge for the government and for all of us who don't want David Cameron to be Prime Minister to make sure that people don't just dismiss all the achievements of the past eleven years, or only think of the NHS in the context of whatever has been most recently in the news like GPs surgeries.

But I prefer to respond to this article in the style of George Monbiot himself. I note that in his entire article he fails to mention even once the creeping menace of Identity Cards. Or the plight of the Palestinians. It's no surprise that we have such a corrupt and authoritarian government, is it, when establishment commentators like George Monbiot don't even use the platform that they have in the media to hold them to account for these disastrous policies.

Role models

I liked the Virtual Stoa's idea:

"Under the Tories’ new plans, can lesbians just write “David Cameron”, “George Osbourne” or perhaps even “Andrew Lansley” in the bit of the form where they have to mention a “male role model”, or is it a bit more complicated than that?"

But now we know, any responsible parent looking out for a male role model for their child need look no further than Sir Patrick Cormack:

"No one has a right to a child; a child is God-given. Assisted, yes, but assisted by a man and a woman, sometimes by a doctor, sometimes by a test tube, but a child who is deliberately brought into the world with no desire for a man and a woman is at a disadvantage,"

The sad thing is, that probably wasn't even close to being the least coherent contribution to the debate.

Labour minister Tom Harris joined Sir Pat, Iain Duncan Smith and others in their bid to send a message to society about the importance of fatherhood. He might have had an inkling that he wasn't exactly lining up on the side of tolerance and equality under the law from the following bit of good old boy banter:

Huw Irranca Davis indicated he was going to vote the same way. “Stay close,” I whispered out of the side of my mouth. Inside the ‘Aye’ lobby there were hordes of Tory MPs and a few other Labour MPs. I told Davy Hamilton, the Midlothian MP, that Huw was there to hold my hand. “Well, you’re in the wrong lobby then,” he observed.

Monday, May 19, 2008

By-election stories

My favourite moment of helping in Crewe yesterday was when I was leafleting in one of the villages. A very big car pulled up on the other side of the road, and a man wearing an expensive suit and a massive blue rosette got out. I thought about going over to ask if he wanted to be in a picture for our next leaflet, but discretion proved the better part of valour.

There are different ways of describing the Labour campaign for the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. 'Well-organised' is definitely one of them. 'Successful' - we'll see on Thursday. But 'very nasty'? Not so much.

The Hodge Hill by-election campaign from 2004 was an example of a 'very nasty' by-election campaign. But there is an obvious and massive difference between drawing a dividing line on the issue of 'one of us vs Tory toff', as in Crewe, and 'do you want to give handouts to failed asylum-seekers', which was the most repellent theme of the Hodge Hill campaign. People whose applications for asylum have been refused are some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in Britain. Picking on people weaker than yourself to try and get votes is the act of a bully (Liam Byrne's career since being elected shows that it wasn't a one off, either).

By contrast, 'Tory toffs' like Edward Timpson are well able to look after themselves, using their substantial inherited wealth, their contacts, and the fact that at the slightest hint of criticism, other wealthy people will spontaneously rally to their defence, using the newspapers that they own and write for to howl about 'class warfare', 'hypocrisy', 'discrimination' and repeating allegations of 'dirty tricks' without feeling the need to ask for any proof or evidence that these tricks took place. It may or may not be sensible to take on powerful and wealthy people as the main theme of the election campaign, or to do so in the way that the Labour campaign has chosen to do, but it's certainly not an example of nastily picking on people weaker than you.

(All of that said, I do feel sorry for anyone who had been selected as an election candidate for a general election and then finds themselves thrust into a by-election campaign).

One of the objectives of any political campaign is to try to influence what the media report as being the main issue of the election. The Labour campaign seems to have managed to do this quite successfully in focusing the attention of the media on reporting about the relative qualities of the different candidates, rather than solely focusing on reporting it as a referendum on the Prime Minister/the government/particular unpopular policies. This seems like quite a smart move, in that 'who's the best candidate?' is not what the Tories want people to be thinking about when deciding who to vote for.

Overall, I don't think the overall Labour campaign and message is either misguided or excessively nasty, and that's true whatever the result ends up being. More thoughts on all of this, though, after Thursday.

Bigot Bingo

On the train south from Crewe, I had the pleasure of playing an extended version of the game Bigot Bingo.

Bigot Bingo is a simple yet entertaining game. You start by writing down a number of issues which bigots like to talk about. Examples might include political correctness, immigration, red tape and so on. Then you find a bigot, listen to them, and when they have covered all the subjects on your list, you can shout 'bingo' and you have won. It can be played in a variety of settings including conferences, while canvassing, watching the telly, extended family gatherings and so on.

In this particular case, the man in the seat opposite on this journey played the role of 'caller', talking loudly and with great self-assurance about a number of issues of the day to his travelling companion. He started with a lengthy critique of the notion of human rights, then moved on to his company and the malign role of trade unions. After a short break to refresh himself, he started on the subject of lone parents and people who don't work, and related this to levels of taxation, which he found burdensome. Ignoring the increasingly desperate look on his friend's face, he proceeded from there to bad manners amongst people today and a decline in general levels of civility.

I waited with a sense of increasing excitement for him to move on to the subject of immigration (the last item on my bingo card which he had not yet 'called'), when much to my frustration the train arrived in Banbury and his friend got off.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Going the wrong way on welfare

One of the forthcoming pieces of legislation which we have to look forward to is a new Welfare Reform Bill. The government apparently wants to hear from the public about what they want from the welfare and benefits system. There should be a big opportunity here for the government, because the opposition has decided that the way to tackle poverty is to bring out new policies to improve the parenting skills of a family which appears in a telly programme and aren't actually real.

The outline of this bill is pretty vague, but the government has published a list of the things which it hopes the Bill will accomplish:

• Giving disabled people greater choice and control;
• Strengthening parental responsibility;
• Reduce welfare dependency;
• Greater requirements to undertake work, training or other activity in preparation for work.
• Increase personal responsibility within the welfare system;
• Deliver value for money for the taxpayer.

Or, in other words, ask not what your government can do for you, but what you can do for your government. In the world of the people writing this sort of stuff, the government has made considerable help available (that's the exact phrase used), and it is now up to people to fulfil their part of the deal and stop being dependent and irresponsible and a burden on the taxpayer. (A helpful tip, 'giving disabled people greater choice and control', an admirable objective, could start with a u-turn on upcoming plans to cut the benefits of many disabled people).

The basic principles underlying any and every welfare reform should be twofold. It should be about making sure that more people are able to live their lives with dignity, with enough money to live on and high quality services when they need them. And across our society it should be about reducing the number of people living in poverty and the gap between rich and poor.

This bill starts instead from the perspective that the reforms needed are ones which punish bad or irrational behaviour amongst welfare recipients. This is the same old politics which we already know ends up with policies which reduce dignity and increase poverty. We had eighteen years of a government which signed up to this analysis whole-heartedly, started from the belief that if people were poor it was their own fault (not that they were really poor anyway) and made policy accordingly. The result was far higher levels of worklessness, dependency and irresponsibility, at a far higher cost to the taxpayer.

The last eleven years of Labour government have been very mixed when it comes to welfare reform. But something which is absolutely clear is that focusing on reducing poverty and on helping people to live with dignity works on its own terms, and also helps to reduce dependency and worklessness. The extra spending on child tax credits and child benefit to try to reduce child poverty, and policies like Sure Start, New Deal for Lone Parents, extended schools and the minimum wage have all involved giving lone parents more cash and better services. And between 1997 and 2007, the percentage of lone parents in work went up from 49% to 60%, with a further 20% not working but wanting to.

In any area or any walk of life, there will always be some people who play the system, and in some ways it is worst of all when people like that take benefits which are meant for those who really need them (though the amounts of money involved pale in comparison to the amount of tax that some rich people are legally obliged to pay but don't). But the basic problem with the welfare debate at the moment is that the assumption is that everyone is either on the fiddle or too stupid to know what's good for them, that it's all about either dependency or irresponsibility. In fact, what's needed is a bit more help from the government, which would make sure that more people are happy and able to help themselves.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


26th April:

Neil Warnock, 'I'd vote Boris' [1]

13th May:

Neil Warnock's Crystal Palace lose 4-2 on aggregate to Bristol City


[1] In fairness to Neil Warnock, I don't get the sense that he actually went and voted. It's a semi-coherent Good Old Boy rant about traffic wardens and how Charlton or Milwall fans took the penalty notice off his car so he didn't know he'd got a ticket and had to pay a fine.

Caring for the elderly

This is a good idea, via here, "Stephen Burke, director of Counsel & Care, points out that all care could be free with a levy of just 2.5% paid on every estate over £10,000 after death."

I know that I'm out of line with the majority in that I don't understand why so many people seem to think it is unfair to have to pay tax if you inherit more than £350,000. But surely even people who don't like Inheritance Tax for whatever reason can see that something like this makes a lot of sense.

It would guarantee everyone a high standard of care and dignity for a predictable and relatively small cost. Compare to the current system in which the amount that people can pass on to their kids depends on how sick they get and how much care they need, and whether you are able to live with dignity in older age depends largely on where you live.

In fact, the levy would need to be higher than 2.5%, because the current standards of care which most elderly people receive aren't good enough in this century, and the amount that people get paid to care for the elderly and vulnerable is disgustingly low. But even a 5% levy (i.e. taking all the current spending on care, and doubling it) would leave most families better off, and make sure that the people who contribute most are the ones most able to do so.

The comments on Polly Toynbee's piece are all 'stealth tax, punishing the people who save, we already pay too much'. But it's the current system that really hits middle income earners. For the sake of not paying a little bit more tax when inheriting money, they pay out several times as much in care home fees, not to mention all the stress and misery. Sometimes, taxes aren't an extra burden on top of all the other bills for most people, but cheaper and better alternative to what's on offer at the moment.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Things that are younger than John McCain

There are many good reasons why John McCain should not be the next President of the USA, and his age isn't one of them. But the website 'Things that are younger than John McCain' is still very informative.

Things which are younger than John McCain apparently include the Chocolate Chip Cookie, Scientology, MacDonalds, the ballpoint pen, Superman, the Polio vaccine and Alaska.

I think there is going to be quite a lot of this sort of thing on t'internet between now and November.

The end of the beginning

That's more like it - a tax cut for everyone earning less than £40,000.

The measures announced are only for this one year, so the issue will return in the run up to next year's budget (not to mention that there are quite a lot of people, substantially fewer than 1.1 million, who are still worse off even after these changes).

What I hope is that the government realises is that there has been some valuable political space in the longer term opening up as a result of the whole 10p tax fiasco. Next year's Budget needs to meet two key objectives. Firstly, by 2010, all of the low earners who were hit by the abolition of the 10p tax rate should be substantially better off, thus cutting the number of people in work yet still in poverty, and secondly the government needs to meet the target of halving child poverty, which at the moment they are going to miss.

The Tories have been making some very strong statements and basing their by-election campaign about how disgraceful it was to make low income earners worse off by scrapping the 10p tax rate. Labour shouldn't run away from having the argument about whose policies are better for lower earners, and shouldn't let the Tories and the media drop this issue after next Thursday either. Funding this particular tax cut through borrowing makes good political and economic sense, but a much bigger tax cut for low and middle income earners next year should come from those who have seen their incomes grow massively over the last eleven years.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Be careful what you wish for

From Frank Field to Cherie Blair to the Virtual Stoa, the emerging progressive consensus is that Gordon Brown has been a bit rubbish and ought to resign so that he can be replaced by...



If Brown were to resign, his most likely successor is probably Alan Johnson - the one who decided not to stand for the post last year because he didn't think he was up to the job. That'll terrify the Tories.

Or it could be even worse.

Paul Linford
, for example, floats a much more chilling prospect:

"What, then, about a backbench heavyweight - someone who could combine experience with the appearance of change, by virtue of not having been party to the debacle of the Brown premiership.

Of the obvious contenders, Charles Clarke has made too many foolish outbursts and hence too many enemies, while David Blunkett has made too many personal errors of judgement.

Potentially the most promising “change candidate” is Darlington MP Alan Milburn, whose still-youthful appearance belies his five years’ Cabinet experience."

Good Old Boy #53

The first time a Liberal Democrat member has got G.O.B. status, awarded for the best response ever to being telephoned by a politician:

"Hello, I'm Brian Paddick and I am standing as the Lib Dem candidate for Mayor of London."

"I'm voting for Ken Livingstone."

"Sorry, this is an internal competition to select the Lib Dem candidate, there are three Lib Dems fighting to represent the party."

"Well, I'm voting for Ken Livingstone."

"I know but before we get to that stage the party has to select a candidate to stand against him so can I rely on your vote?"

"No, I'm going to vote for Ken Livingstone."

"Can I just check, you are a member of the Liberal Democrats?"

"Yes, I am."

Friday, May 09, 2008

City council to raise minimum wage

This is great news, and what being Labour should be all about. From the Oxford Mail:

"Campaigners fighting for a minimum Oxford wage were celebrating last night after the city council decided to put its lowest paid employees on £7 an hour.

Those fighting for a rise in public sector pay want a living wage to compensate for the high cost of living in Oxford - are now hopeful other public sector bodies and businesses will follow the council's landmark decision.

A recent survey by Nationwide Building Society showed Oxford was the third most expensive place to buy a home in the UK after London and St Albans, with prices averaging £339,404.

Labour city councillor Joe McManners started the ball rolling by tabling a motion calling for a minimum £7-an-hour rate late last year.

The change will come into effect in April next year.

Mr McManners and campaigners said the national minimum wage of £5.52 was too low for Oxford and wages should be increased to cure the city's chronic poverty problem.

He said: "Oxford is one of the most expensive places to live in the country and it's about time that was reflected in people's wages.

"We are now looking for other public sector services and private businesses to follow the council's lead.

"This isn't just going to benefit workers. There's some good evidence employers who pay a living wage notice an increase in productivity and a decrease in the amount of sick leave."

David Hawkins, chairman of Unison's city council branch, said: "We have won the fight for workers and hopefully the council is going to be one of the main pushers for employers to follow this across the city."

There are currently 52 council employees earning under £7 an hour. The wage increase would be worth almost an extra £2,000 a year to the most poorly paid employees - all currently earning £6 an hour - based on a 37-hour working week.

There are more than 800 health workers in Oxfordshire registered with Unison all earning less than £7 an hour.

Mark Ladbrooke, secretary of Oxfordshire Unison health branch, said: "This is an excellent initiative from the council and now hopefully it will filter out to the rest of the public service workers in Oxfordshire.

"People are suffering. People work all hours of the day to make up for the fact they are on low pay often working two or three jobs and in some cases making themselves sick."

The move was welcomed by Ed Aldridge, a bar supervisor at O'Neill's bar in George Street, Oxford.

Now living in Cowley, the 20-year-old is currently paid £5.62 an hour - 10p above the minimum wage for his full-time job.

Mr Aldridge said: "£7 an hour would be a fair wage.

"All my bills keep rising above inflation - and my council tax went up - but the thing that never goes up is my wages.

"I can just about make ends meet, but I have to be very careful with the amount of gas and electric I use at the moment.

"It's even harder for some other bar staff I know who have kids and are trying to get by.

"Oxford should have its own minimum wage.

"The prices here are the same as London, but the wages are lower.

"The cost of a pint is pretty much the same as London, the cost of a cab is the same and grocery bills are very comparable. It is very expensive to live in Oxford."

Barry Wheatley, chairman of the Oxfordshire Federation of Small Businesses, said: "I can see where the campaigners are coming from, but this would be difficult to implement.

"Raising everyone to £7 an hour could be terribly inflationary.""

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The positive case for negative campaigning

Jock Coats was a Liberal Democrat candidate in a marginal ward in last week's elections. He is also an 'anarcho geo mutualist libertarian' who writes extensively about his personal views in a blog. Jock holds some views which are not currently part of official Liberal Democrat policy, for example that the vast majority of recreational drugs should be legalised.

During the election campaign, Labour put round a leaflet which included a selection of quotes from his blog, titled "'Drugs Laws are Pointless' says Lib Dem candidate". Jock ended up coming third in the elections, though his share of the vote actually fell by less than some of his non-anarcho-geo-mutualist-libertarian colleagues in neighbouring wards.

Writing after the election
, Jock describes this leaflet as 'scurrilous', 'one of the worst personal attack leaflets that some of his opponents had ever seen', and 'an attempt to drag the campaign into the gutter' instead of concentrating on issues within the remit of the city council.

There are clearly forms of negative campaigning which are unethical - for example the former councillor from another political party who had a habit of shouting abuse at Labour candidates when they were out with their children, and who claimed untruthfully in her leaflets and on the doorstep that her opponent this time was lying when he said that he did voluntary work with disabled children.

But this is a very different kind of case. If Jock felt so strongly that parties should avoid negative personal attacks, he could also have mentioned the Lib Dem leaflets delivered across Oxford, including, to the best of my knowledge, his own ward, attacking the local Labour MP as 'the most hypocritical man in Oxford' about post office closures (not a matter under the remit of the city council), let alone some of the leaflets that they've come up with in other parts of the country. When I last stood for election, Lib Dem leaflets said that a vote for me was a vote for the war on Iraq, even though I'd campaigned against the war.

Moreover, if quoting Jock's views using his actual words is such a bad personal attack, what does that make his description of many politicians who get elected as 'psychopaths', or politicians who don't share his views on drugs as 'murderers'?

But it's not just the case that all parties do negative campaigning so no one should try and take the moral high ground.

There is nothing unethical about trying to hold candidates for election accountable for the views that they hold. There is a general presumption that if someone stands for election as a candidate for a party, that their views will be roughly in line with those of their party, not on absolutely every single issue, but on most. When someone has radically different views from that of their party on an issue which lots of people care about, it is relevant information which helps electors come to a more informed choice. If you stand for election, you should be prepared to defend or explain the opinions that you hold and which you've made publicly available. If you don't want to have to do this, then don't be a candidate, or don't write on the internet about things which you don't want people to know that you think.

The danger of this is that it ends up discouraging people who aren't prepared to tow a narrowly conventional line from getting involved in politics. Which is why I have one final observation. After they saw the leaflet from Labour, the Lib Dems decided not to respond to it except by writing about it on the internet (where hardly anyone would see it), and instead to continue with pushing the generic Liberal Democrat messages in their leaflets. I think this was a mistake.

Jock obviously really cares about his geo-mutualist-anarcho-libertarian views, on drugs and on a whole range of other issues, and didn't particularly care about the narrowly technocratic centre-right message about how it made such a difference to raise council tax by £2/year rather than £4/year. I think he'd have done much better to have defended his views and tried to win people over to his way of thinking.

All of us have some strongly held views which are opposed by a majority of people. If you cry foul whenever those views are challenged, and pretend to be something that you are not, then you will never get anywhere in democratic elections, and quite right too. But if you stand up for your views, then there's at least a chance that some will be persuaded, and others will admire you even if you don't manage to win them over.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Out of touch

I'm feeling a bit out of touch with the political situation just recently. In the past month, I've been lucky enough to be able to spend time campaigning in different parts of the country - Liverpool, Reading and Oxford - doing bits and pieces of canvassing and leafleting for some excellent Labour candidates.

Of the 15 candidates whose campaigns I had the opportunity to see up close, 13 got elected, one lost by 4 votes, and the other by 60. All of them saw their share of the vote increase.

I've read reams and reams of analysis and suggestions about why Labour lost, and what needs to be done now. But one point which hasn't been made enough is that there are actually existing examples of how Labour candidates managed to win, right across England from the flagship Lib Dem run council in Northern England to wards in marginal constituencies in the South East of England. Arguments proclaiming the death of the Labour Party, or which assume elections are just won or lost according to what happens in the Westminster bubble don't explain what I've seen and heard from people over the past month.

Amidst all the doom and gloom (I am still in denial about the London elections) it makes me really hopeful for the future, and so proud to be a Labour activist, to have met so many people who worked so hard and so successfully, and who will make first rate local Labour councillors.

It's not yet the case that all Labour candidates campaign all year round, call round to talk to local people and help sort problems out. It's not yet the case that most people find out about what Labour is trying to do from speaking personally to Labour activists or from reading local leaflets about the issues that they are most interested in, rather than from the telly, newspapers or radio. And it's not yet the case in every area and at every election that all Labour candidates are highly talented people from all ages and backgrounds who want to put their skills and knowledge at the service of local people and give something back to their community.

But where this does happen, the results have been spectacular.

More reasons to vote Labour

On the day after this year's local elections, I found that a local resident had posted something through the door of the house where I was staying.

It was a copy of our Election Day leaflet, which reminded supporters to go and vote, where the polling station was, a number to call if they wanted a lift and a bit called '5 reasons to vote Labour'.

One of the recipients of this leaflet had taken exception to this, and had taken the trouble to write to explain why.

They felt that it was wrong that we had only given 5 reasons to vote Labour, and that we'd missed something important. Underneath the five reasons, they had written:


6. You live here with us, and you have always worked hard to help us and our community. You've shared our hopes and our fears, our joy and our tears.


And then they expanded on this point at greater length on the other side of the leaflet.

Funnily enough, we managed to win that ward with an increased majority.

Tapping on doors

I was chatting on Sunday to a Labour councillor who, after months of hard work, had just been elected. I asked him what he'd spent his first day after the elections doing.

"Well, it was a nice evening, so I went round my ward, knocking on people's doors, introducing myself as their councillor and asking if there was anything I could do to help. It was really good, now that the elections are over - it's possible to have a longer chat with people rather than just making sure to try to get round as quickly as possible".

There are many lessons to be learned from the last set of elections. But I reckon that we can all learn a lot from the councillor who doesn't just work hard to get elected, but then promptly spends the day after the elections out talking to his constituents.