Thursday, January 27, 2011

The 2010 election explained


"I suspect the dividing line between the Continuity Blairites and everyone else on this[economic policy] is as follows: Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, and Ed Balls actually realised how awful the Tories would be and that there was a real risk of a double dip recession, and that therefore it was necessary to fight the “language of cuts”. Balls did get to cut loose on this towards the end of the campaign. I suspect Labour would have done better to define against them on this.

However, conventional wisdom demands that Brown be seen as an egghead with no grasp of campaigning. The media-savvy eye catching initiative peddlers, however, were the ones who ended up campaigning on a line of “cuts! cuts! cuts! but not like those evil Tory cuts!” which wasn’t clear or convincing."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why the Big Society failed...and what Labour should learn

Philip Blond and Steve Hilton had a ‘crisis meeting’ last month about the Big Society…

…Frontline workers “haven’t a clue” what the Big Society is meant to be about, and are “shocked to learn how little money is attached to it”.

…Phillip Pullman launches a withering attack on it in front of hundreds of people campaigning to stop library closures.

…The Chief Exec of the Royal Society for Arts writes that “if the Big Society doesn’t get more substantive and granular quickly, it will feel like the only credible thing to do is knock the whole idea.”

…Charities which provide vital and innovative services are cutting their services or even closing completely.

…A group of young volunteers get involved with a community group to produce a film mocking the Big Society.

…Tory MPs describe the Big Society as “intangible and incomprehensible...odd and unpersuasive”.

Its critics mock it, volunteers and charity workers despise it, its creators are briefing against each other, and its core supporters in the Tory Party and the think tanks are turning against it. The only remaining question about the Big Society is not whether or not it will succeed, but how long it will be before the government quietly drops the term. John Major’s Traffic Cones Hotline lasted three years and three months, and it would be a surprise if the Big Society staggered on much longer than that.

Problems with the Big Society are too numerous to mention, but to highlight just a few – its supporters can’t explain what it means, it has become associated primarily with closing libraries, it is very easy for opponents to mock, the people who have to deliver it don’t understand or support it, and the few detailed proposals are being appallingly badly implemented. Any one of those problems could be lethal for a government programme – let alone all of them together.

The only thing which the government could do now to save the Big Society is to throw some money at it – reverse the library closures and the cuts to charities, fund their community organiser training programme properly (rather than training people and then expecting them to be able to fundraise for their salaries), invest in the infrastructure, create a level playing field for government procurement and build the capacity needed to ensure, for example, that their neighbourhood plans don’t get dominated by a vocal minority.

But even given the political will, the fact that the Big Society could only be saved by the Big State chucking money at it highlights the flaw at the heart of the whole idea. Anyway, if the government wants to spend some money on new projects to win back public support, why would they risk these projects flopping by associating them with the Big Society?


It is worth remembering as the Big Society collapses into chaos and ridicule quite how popular it was amongst the political elite when first announced. A whole “Big Society industry” sprung up over the summer, soaking up thousands and thousands of hours of civil servant and policy researcher time in conference after conference, seminar after seminar. Labour thinkers from Demos’ Open Left project to Jon Cruddas argued that it was a brilliant strategic move which posed a deadly threat to Labour, and would define the future of political debate. Others called for Labour to embrace “the Good Society”, or “take back the Big Society”.

Instead of taking back this mess, I think Labour’s approach should learn from the Big Society in the following ways:

First, ensure the “Big Society” fiasco does maximum political damage to the Tories. Labour's team should invest just a little time in making sure that the Tories aren't able just to drop the term and walk away, and that “Big Society” becomes to David Cameron what “Cones Hotline” was to John Major – a well known policy disaster which also highlights a wider message about the government’s mistaken approach.

Second, impose the “Philip Blond test” on all new policy ideas for Labour’s policy review. The Philip Blond test is simple – if Philip Blond would support the policy proposal, bin it. This has the advantage of (a) weeding out daft ideas and (b) avoiding the risk that Philip Blond tells all his friends in the media that Labour is listening to him.

Third, make sure that they understand the policies that they adopt, and can explain them to others. This should be obvious, but was in many ways the biggest failing of the Big Society. The people on the ground who could have made the Big Society work were alienated by the insulting, top down way that millionaire, out of touch politician David Cameron announced that his Big New Idea was that they should do what they had been doing anyway, except with no money.

Fourth, listen to people outside of the political elite who can show how their ideas work in practice. The people who fixated on the potential of the Big Society and who thought it was a work of strategic genius missed the big story, which was that the Big Society was popular with political insiders, and a disaster with everyone outside of the Westminster bubble. It is easy to imagine Labour repeating the mistakes of the Big Society by, for example, adopting the new wheeze from someone like Neal Lawson as our Big Idea, spending a year trying to explain it to people who are largely hostile or indifferent, and then getting slagged off in the newspapers by Lawson for failing to implement his brilliant ideas correctly.

Instead, we should pay attention to the people whose ideas actually have been shown to work in practice – people who work and volunteer in community groups, councillors, public sector workers and so on.

Just to take one example from thousands, David Robinson has some brilliant ideas about how early action can prevent social problems from happening, rather than public services just picking up the pieces after the problems have been caused. He is worth listening to because the charity he founded has run projects which cut crime by 50% and which has the best record in Southern England in helping unemployed people get jobs.

At the moment, too much attention gets paid to people whose only credentials are that they have a think tank in central London and good media contacts. Instead, Labour needs to listen to the people who can show that their ideas work in the real world.

Lastly, recognise that even popular ideas about how to improve communities get tainted by association with politicians. Donating money at cash points was a popular idea – until it was suggested by government as part of the Big Society. As Julian Dobson notes, “you’ll find very few people ready to buy a message about society promoted and preached by a government that’s generally perceived to be undermining society.” It's not just the Tories, living wage campaigners worry about their campaigns being weakened if they come to be associated too closely with the Labour Party.

Rather than Cameron’s top down approach, Labour needs to develop a different way of doing its business, building from the grassroots and making sure that the people who are going to have to carry out our policies understand them, support them and were involved in designing them.

Monday, January 17, 2011

How the Big Society works

2004-2010: Number of people working in voluntary sector rises by 200,000, in a steady upwards trend.

May 2010: Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition formed. They pledge to roll back the state and give new opportunities to voluntary and community groups to run services and take action to make society stronger, as part of their flagship "Big Society" programme.

Jul-Sep 2010: Number of people working in the voluntary sector falls by 13,000.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Evidence based policy

Nic Dakin: To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions what evidence he used to determine that planned changes to housing benefit for those out of work for over 12 months will increase employment levels.

Steve Webb: We did not make any specific assumptions about the impact on employment levels of this measure. Research shows that the reasons for long term unemployment are complex. However we believe reducing housing benefit after 12 months will provide an additional financial incentive for jobseekers to take up work.


So the government has no evidence that cutting benefits for people unemployed for more than one year will impact on employment levels, but they are going to cross their fingers and hope that the fear of becoming homeless will force people into work.

In other news, their Universal Credit scheme (which will add nearly £2 billion to the welfare bill) will make 1.4 million people worse off, increase marginal tax rates and reduce work incentives for 1.8 million people, and penalise savers and lone parents. The government is yet to explain how the Credit will interact with housing or caring costs, and they currently plan to require every local council to set its own rules on who is eligible for council tax benefit, which will make the benefits system even more complicated.

And the whole thing relies on setting up an earnings database which tracks people's earnings on a real time basis and which is going to be set up on the cheap after the Treasury slashed the amount of money available for it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The welfare trap

At his press conference yesterday, Ed Miliband got asked about which cuts he accepted, and replied that Labour has accepted the need for welfare cuts.

The hope, I guess, is that this sounds sensible and moderate. Miliband aims to position Labour against the government making excessive cuts, and against the unrealistic lefties who oppose all cuts. By supporting cuts to a sacred cow like welfare, he shows Labour's credibility and prevents attacks from hostile journalists. And it sort of worked in its own terms, judging by the next day's newspaper coverage of his press conference.

But this kind of triangulation on welfare is a big strategic error.

At the next election in 2015, George Osborne is aiming to pose a choice between the Tories offering tax cuts and Labour offering higher welfare spending. His hope is that faced with that choice, a majority of people will opt for the tax cuts and the Tories will win the election. In order to get to this dividing line, he will be prepared to cut, cut and cut again at the welfare budget over the next few years.

In response to this, Labour could decide to accept every single welfare cut the Tories propose, no matter how ill advised, savage or counter productive. Or they could agree with the need to cut welfare spending overall, but pick a few specific examples to oppose - as Miliband did over child benefit for higher earners, and as his brother did by suggesting a mansion tax instead of the housing benefit cuts.

But both of these are pretty weak options. People affected by the cuts will quite reasonably conclude that there is little point in supporting Labour if they accept the need for massive welfare cuts - whether or not they pick out one or two specific cuts to oppose. And people not affected by the welfare cuts will definitely pick Tory tax cuts over Labour's alternative at the next election if our message for the next four years is "we agree with cutting welfare, but slow down a bit".

Instead, we need to challenge the basic assumptions of the Tory case. The Tory approach to welfare policy is to pick a handful of highly unrepresentative examples of how the system works and pretend that all the money gets spent on them, and to make up their numbers and facts. Their cuts are making millions of people worse off, and thousands homeless or destitute. Their policies involve cutting support which used to help people live and work with dignity, and then spending more on picking up the pieces when people lose their jobs or are forced into residential care.

This should provide ample material for a tough, principled opposition to inflict major damage on an extreme right-wing government, particularly when most people already think that the Tories are more concerned with looking after the rich than ordinary people. And yet this is an issue where Labour is running scared and where our leaders appear to believe that credibility involves pretending we agree with the Tories rather than taking their flawed, lying policies to pieces.

Labour can't win on this issue by splitting the difference between the Tories and the people that the Tories are trying to hurt. And they can't rely on civil society, disabled people's groups, women's groups and all the rest, to defeat the government on its own. Even if there wasn't an absolutely overwhelming moral case for opposing welfare cuts - and there is - it would still be the right thing to do.

A tale of two coalitions: using German opinion polls to predict the future

Guess who:

This party achieved its best election result in a generation recently. Then it went into coalition with the main Centre Right party, since when its support has collapsed.

It is, of course, the German Free Democrat Party, who achieved nearly 15% of the vote in the 2009 elections, and then formed a governing coalition with the Christian Democratic Union. Fifteen months on, one recent opinion poll showed the FDP polling at a mighty 3%.

The German elections took place seven and a half months before the UK elections, and both resulted in a similar outcome. So I wondered whether there were any other parallels in how public opinion in the two countries has changed since the elections.

To find out, I took monthly data from Forsa opinion polls in Germany and YouGov opinion polls in the UK. I compared the opinion polls results for each successive month after the election (so the first poll compared October 2009 in Germany with June 2010 in the UK, and the latest comparison was between May 2010 in Germant and January 2011 in the UK).

- After 8 months, the FDP in Germany had lost just over half their support from the election, going from 15% to 7%. At the same point, the Lib Dems had also lost just over half their support, from 24% to 10%.

- In contrast, support for the CDU and the Tories had stayed roughly the same as at the elections (CDU was down 2% after 8 months, the Tories were up 3% after 8 months). As a result, the governing parties lost 10% of their support in 8 months in Germany, and 11% in the UK over the same time period.

- Labour's level of support was almost exactly the same as the combined score for the SPD and the Greens at the same point after the election. After 8 months, combined support for SPD and Greens was 42%, for Labour was 41%. With the exception of one month, Labour's opinion poll rating has been within 2% of the combined SPD/Green score for every month since the election.

- Labour recovered support more rapidly than the SPD/Greens in Germany, gaining 12% in 8 months compared to 8% - possibly a result of more effective leadership and campaigning? However, they started from a worse position. In the 2009 election, the combined SPD/Green vote was 34%, 15% behind the CDU/FDP. In the 2010 election, Labour got 29%, which was 32% behind the combined Tory/Lib Dem score.

There are considerable differences between British and German politics (a Left Party which gets 10% of the vote in Germany, different electoral systems, different economic policies, leaders and much more). However, it is interesting to note these similarities in trends in opinion polls since the respective elections and formation of a Conservative-Liberal coalition. If these similarities persist over the next few months, we could expect the following:

1. At the local elections in May, the combined vote of the Coalition parties will be just 4% more than the Labour vote. Labour's share of the vote will peak at 46% during the summer.

2. The Lib Dems will continue to decline in support, and by next July or August will be at 5% in the polls. The Tories will continue to poll close to their score in the General Election over the next six months.

3. Other parties outside of the Big 3 or 4 will continue to get a similar share of the vote as they did at the General Election.

Lessons from Latin America: how to reduce inequality

Over the past decade, the gap between rich and poor in most Latin American countries fell, in contrast to the rest of the world where it rose.

Recently published research found that there were two key reasons for this. Firstly, there was a decrease in the earnings gap between high-skilled and low-skilled workers; the second was an increase in government transfers to the poor.

Market forces in Latin America were likely to produce and maintain inequality unless government action equalised opportunities and outcomes. Furthermore, these countries are likely to benefit from redistribution not only through improvements in equality but also through improvements in growth.

The research found that social democratic left-leaning regimes have been more effective at reducing inequality and poverty than both non-left and radical left regimes. Inequality fell more quickly in Lula's Brazil than in Chavez's Venezuala.

To sustain the reduction in inequality, the researchers argue that it will be essential to help the disenfranchised to mobilise and to act collectively through political parties as well as to promote the strengthening of legislatures and the restriction of presidential powers. Sustaining equity over time requires a permanent redistributive effort through progressive income and wealth taxation of the very top incomes in particular. They also find that progressive fiscal policy is consistent with prosperity.

There's a lot here that we could learn from in the UK. Reducing the earnings gap between high and low paid workers and cash transfers to the poor really does make a difference in tackling poverty, and government action to counteract market forces can increase prosperity. And social democratic parties which closed the gap between rich and poor won landslide election victories.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Lib Dem Doublethink

Lib Dem Voice has an article called "One Good Reason to vote Lib Dem", which concludes:

"The decision really is that simple for OE&S Conservatives. Vote Conservative, UKIP or just stay at home to cause chaos and give Labour and the Trade Unions a blank cheque for mayhem, or vote Lib Dem to send Parliament an MP that will sit beside Conservatives and vote for Conservative Policies along with Lib Dem policies and Coalition policies.

Ironically, he [Norman Tebbit] leaves a great advertisement for the Lib Dems to the progressive community, stating that a Lib Dem win would shift the coalition further to the left and further from Conservative policy. Not sure whether to vote Green, Lib Dem or Labour? A vote for Lib Dem is a vote to make the Coalition government just that much more progressive."

So Tories should vote Lib Dem because the Lib Dems will vote for Conservative policies, and the "progressive community" should vote Lib Dem because they will shift the government further away from Tory policies, according to, erm, Norman Tebbit.

Only a true master of Lib Dem Doublethink would be able to follow a paragraph about why Tories should vote Lib Dem with a paragraph about how voting Lib Dem will shift the government away from Tory policies. Normally, they at least have the decency to put the pro-Tory bit on one set of leaflets on blue paper and deliver it to Tory-supporting households in one part of the country, and the pro-Labour/Green bit on red or green paper and deliver it to another set of households in a different part of the country. But I suppose it is all a bit more difficult now.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Civil Society and the Big State

Maurice Glasman is one of Labour's rising stars. A founder of London Citizens, he was recently made a Lord and is one of Ed Miliband's closest advisers.

Writing in the Fabian Review, Glasman sets out a critique of how Labour lost its identity, and what needs to be done to reconnect with its core purpose.

For Glasman, the rot started in 1945, as "the triumph of Labour in 1945 was based upon the defeat of the Labour movement. It placed all hope in its continuing control of the state and moved from organisation to mobilisation at elections, from the good to the right, from democracy to justice, from reciprocity to fairness." This led in turn through Crosland to New Labour and a focus on managerialism as a means to achieve equality. Labour needs to learn James Purnell's "crucial insight" that it was "too hands on with the state, and too hands off with the market".

Instead, Glasman argues, Labour "needs to rediscover and then embrace the meaning of the Labour movement as the democratic resistance of organised working people to the commodification of their lives and environment. And it must do so without resorting to the state as the exclusive instrument of regulation but also turn towards a balance of power in corporate governance through the democratic representation of the workforce."


I think this analysis, while interesting, is deeply flawed. It simply isn't the case that the "ultimate end" of the Labour government of 1997-2010 was equality, nor that there was the level of continuity between the Attlee, Wilson and Blair governments which Glasman's case would suggest. If James Purnell really believed that Labour was being "too hands on with the state", he had a pretty funny way of showing it as a minister. And so on.

But for the key weakness in this argument, let's return to 1945. Why did Attlee and his government choose to nationalise the coal mines and create the National Health Service, and was this really, as Glasman argues "a defeat of the Labour movement"?

In fact, the reforms of the Attlee government were shaped by the experiences of the Labour movement and organised working people. Civil society demanded the nationalisation of the coal mines. And the poor experience of being treated by a range of different charitable health providers in the 1930s and before was precisely the reason why the creation of the NHS was - and remains to this day - so popular.

The Big State, in other words, was created by and in response to the demands of organised working people. And the approach which Glasman calls for, of a strong civil society built on relationships of organised people where equality is an active practice, will lead to calls for more action by the state, not fewer.

Consider the causes which London Citizens has adopted in recent years. They range from requiring councils and businesses to pay a "Living Wage" to an earned amnesty for illegal immigrants, a cap on interest rates to a statutory charter on responsible lending, getting local councils to provide wheelie bins rather than plastic refuse bags to closing down betting shops to improving road safety with a new traffic crossing.

These are all excellent causes, but it is hard to see how responding to the economic crisis by capping interest rates, for example, is an example of being "less hands on with the state".

On the same day that I read Glasman's piece, I also saw some excellent research by Community Links, an anti-poverty charity in East London. Like Glasman, Community Links noted the importance of good relationships between professionals and clients in areas such as helping people find work, do well at school, live healthily and get advice to sort out problems.

They have found that public service professionals (whether they work in the public, voluntary or private sector) need autonomy, time to build relationships with clients, access to training and skills development, and positive attitudes towards clients.

This strikes me as a very serious challenge to New Labour's (and the current government's) approach to public services, and offers a very helpful way to think about how to redesign public services for the future. And it is interesting that, like Glasman, it focuses on the importance of taking time to build up good relationships with people as a means to strengthen society and improve outcomes.

But this approach is not going to work if the aim is to roll back the State, which is the aim of both Glasman and the "Big Society". Instead, it needs to be about helping to make the state more effective in meeting people's needs and aspirations, and in using the state and civil society together to resist the domination of capital.