Liz Kendall for Prime Minister

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I’m going to be putting this blog to sleep for a while.  That’s because I’ve decided to support Liz Kendall for Leader of the Labour party, and hopefully one day as Prime Minister.

Five days after a crushing, horrible election defeat, talking about the next Labour leader as a possible Prime Minister sounds like rather dark humour.

The Labour party is in a bigger mess than in my entire adult life. Reversing a New Labour cliché, we just went backwards, not forward.

We lost Scotland en masse. Huge numbers of Labour MPs I hoped to see as Ministers lost their seats. We all know the most familiar names, but the loss that hurt most for me was Gregg McClymont in Cumbernauld. He would have been a fabulous Pensions Minister.

I haven’t even been able to text him to say how sorry I am. I can’t find the right words.

Nor, as Stella Creasy says, is the survival of the party guaranteed. There’s no law that says the Labour party must exist, only the support of the people who choose to vote for us.

Our party faces enormous challenges. We all know that.  So it’s tempting to put the case for Liz in terms of how the Labour party will recover the seats we have lost and win new support. How she might win back that ground we just fought over, inch by leafletted inch.

But that’s not why I want her to lead our party.

What makes me want to see Liz as Labour leader isn’t that I think her political judgement is sound, though it is. It’s not that I think she’s the strongest media performer, though she was brilliant on the Sunday Politics. It’s not that she’s got the best chance of winning or the strongest following in the party. Bluntly, right now she doesn’t.

It’s not even that when the Watford-born daughter of a Liberal Democrat councillor and school governor mother talks, I hear a voice capable of challenging the perception of the Labour party across swathes of the country.

No, what made me want to support her is simply that I can imagine her leading the country, and changing it for the better.

In my day job, I’m lucky enough to hear a lot of Labour frontbenchers talk. Not the speeches in parliament  or the clips on the radio, but the ever-rolling cycle of campaign groups, industry dinners, fundraisers, policy groups and discussion panels that eat the time of the people supposed to be running the country. Usually, the events are dull, the food bad, the speeches platitudinous. If you’re really lucky, you get someone like Ed Balls, or Maurice Glasman, who aren’t actually capable of being boring.

My experience of frontbench politicians over the years is that they are faced with an impossible challenge. They are supposed to be knowledgable about everything in their subject area, though they’ve probably only been doing the job part-time for a year, with a energetic 23 year old to help out with the tricky bits. They’ve got to be loyal to every aspect of party policy, not just verbally, but in their body language. They’ve got, most of all, not to fuck up while at the same time being totally persuasive.

In response to these lunatic pressures, there are two natural reactions. One is to close down. You become robotic and stiff and stick only to what you know, unless you know you’re in a safe space. The second is to appear all-knowing, perfect in your understanding of the issues and certain of the needs of the future, ready to answer every problem with your seven point plan that cannot be questioned and is perfect in every detail (as long as you don’t look too deep).

Brilliant, funny, charming people turn into empty automata or grinning masks under this pressure to know everything. Sometimes they end up as an empty automaton in a grinning mask, and you’re never quite sure what’s real and what false, what’s meant and what’s meaningless.

That’s the cartoon politician you see on TV. That’s where and why they get formed and defined.

It was at one of these type of events I heard Liz speak. I think she was there because Andy Burnham couldn’t make it. Actually, she didn’t even make a speech. It was a discussion about health and social care with people who knew loads more about the subject than I did. I was there to fill the room, and I expected nothing but an evening of silence broken by the occasional thoughtful nod.

Liz was just somehow different to any other frontbencher I’d seen. It was a private event, so I won’t say what was said, except that it was loyal to a fault. What I can say is that it was a debate that was also inquisitive, challenging, funny, modest and engaging, while at the same time being entirely convincing.

I’d seen Liz on TV before, and thought more or less nothing. She’d just done the lines, at best competently, as a lot of them do. Yet I walked out of that room and immediately texted a friend that if Liz ever ran for leader, I’d support her, no questions asked.

That was a long while back. On Sunday, I had to decide whether to redeem my promise.

Now, no private meeting in some stupid conference room should convince you who to vote for. I know that.

But here’s the thing. Politics is about people. A leader of a party, even more a leader of a country, has to make a million choices a day, based on imperfect information, choices that will annoy and delight, help and hurt. We think we know what the challenges are – the economy, better public services, an aging population, housing, education, inequality but the actual choices a leader will face are a mystery.

There are brilliant people with policies on all these things. But a large part of whether a decision gets made, and if it is made, actually gets done, is the person who has to make the decision, and their attitude to the world around them.

That’s why I get annoyed when political types sneer at voters who choose governments based on their attitude to the people at the top, not ideology. Actually, your view of a leader and their team is a really smart way of judging how they’ll react to the unknown.

The same was true for me that night. I saw someone I just knew could be Prime Minister. Who should be Prime Minister. If I’m right, hopefully more of you will see that quality in her over the coming weeks.

So the question for me was whether I meant what I said back when it didn’t matter at all.

This is where the actual politics comes back in.

I’ve accused the party of being in our comfort zone often enough over the last five years. Truth is though, it wasn’t just the party in a comfort zone, it was me as well.

It was so bloody easy to sit back and wait for things to go wrong. To snipe a little bit when things were tough. To give grudging praise when they worked.

That also meant not having to really confront the things New Labour got wrong. Because of course New Labour and Tony Blair got stuff wrong, and we’ve got to do things differently now.

Do we have to find new answers for early years education and inequality among the very young? Absolutely.

Do we have to find a better deal for people stuck in private renting? Of course.

Do we need to change, as Ed Miliband  said again and again, the fact that most people didn’t benefit from either the boom or the crash?

Yes. Yes. Yes.

The world has changed. We have to change. All of us.

So from people like me, two things are required.

The first is a bit of humility and a willingness to listen to other people properly. There are aspects to all these challenges I don’t even understand, let alone can fit into some post-Blairite ideological box. They’re important and difficult and need more than one approach to fix.

The same is true of how we do politics. I’ve no idea how engagement and communication has changed in the digital age. I’ve a few ideas on how we reach out to people who think politics is pointless, but so do lots of other people and they might be right.

The second is the willingness to act on what you believe.

You know, maybe Liz won’t win. Maybe she’ll not even get the nominations (Though frankly the PLP would have to be mad not to have her on the ballot paper, and I’d say the same about all the declared candidates). Maybe some idiot like me will screw up her campaign and she ends up getting beat by Andy Burnham on transfers. Well, fine.

Because although everyone in the party, me included, is shitting all over Ed Miliband and his team, the one thing they got right, the one thing I admire them for above all else, is that they worked and worked and worked for what they thought was right. They were totally wrong that the electorate wanted it, but they were right to try, because otherwise what’s the point?

I look at Liz, and I think she’s right about the big issues for the country. I think she’s got the right attitude to the future. I think she has the hunger for new ideas and new approaches to politics we desperately need.  I think she’s got both the humility and steel to be a good leader.

Ultimately, I want her to be Prime Minister.

So I’m going to try my best to help make that happen. Because otherwise, maybe it might not.

Perhaps I’ll look an idiot in five weeks or five years.  Fine. Fair enough. But right now, I can see someone who might just be brilliant, and I’ve got a chance to help her.

So I’m going to.

Gulp.

Together, in the National Interest?

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The Conservative party could cause Labour real problems by making a ‘big, open offer’. They won’t.

On May 7th 2010, David Cameron made the smartest move of his leadership of the Conservative party. Having failed to win a Conservative majority by twenty seats, he could have tried to run a minority government. Instead, he stressed the importance of ‘strong, stable government’ and offered the Liberal Democrats great influence over the programme of government, a position that eventually led to a full coalition.

Five years on, a single party majority government is still very unlikely. Labour has made progress in England, but appears to be falling back in Scotland. The Conservatives have lost ground to UKIP but otherwise are holding their vote. The Liberal Democrats have lost support to everyone.

Crafting a government from these figures is difficult. Most projections now put Labour and the Conservatives on a rough tie, with some combination of the SNP, Lib Dems and minor parties needed for anything close to a parliamentary majority.

Unsurprisingly, the SNP is telling Scottish voters that they would be willing to back a Labour government in return for various ‘concessions for Scotland’1.

This seems to put Labour in a bind. Accept the offer of SNP support, and Labour would appear to be governing at the whim of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. Reject it outright, and you might allow a Tory government. As a result, Labour spokespeople have more or less avoided the question, though cannier Labour figures see that the SNP has no negotiating position. If an SNP parliamentary party sat on their hands and allowed a Conservative government in Westminster, it would destroy their radical credentials among newly converted former Labour voters.

Labour could therefore tell the SNP to do what they wish, but may lack the nerve to. Part of the reason for this is that some in England see the SNP primarily as a more progressive and successful version of the English left itself, a sort of Syriza on the Clyde. Why would you wish to reject a radical spur?

This is to mistake the primary purpose of the SNP. The party is what it says it is, a national independence party. The SNP cannot be treated as another potential progressive partner in an anti-Tory alliance. Their core aim is not merely to stop the Tories, but to stop Britain.

To secure this, they must win the support of Scottish Labour voters, but their aim in doing this is to expose the contradictions and tensions of the British Labour movement and so remove a bulwark of unionism. This is entirely legitimate strategy for an independence movement, but seeing the SNP as a potential partner to do business with is a huge mistake.

An SNP-Labour alliance would be fundamentally unstable for the very simple reason that the SNP would always be looking for a way to discover Westminster was betraying Scotland’s national interest, and so expose unionism as a fraud upon the Scottish people. There would always be another demand, another ‘vital Scottish interest’ which Labour could not accede to without destroying itself in England. Scottish Labour knows this, which is why it is hugely hostile to such an alliance.

This means there is a very real chance the coming election will produce a hugely unstable, ungovernable mess, with parties on the edges of British national life demanding significant concessions to support a government with little electoral authority.

All of which gives the Conservatives an opportunity.

There are many people in Britain who seek, above all, stable, non-partisan governance. The bickering of parties is for many voters a turn-off, a sign of immaturity and self-interest. The flip side of ‘They’re all the same’ is ‘Why can’t you just sit down together and sort it out?’  It may be mocked now, but ‘Together, in the National Interest’ was a genuinely popular proposition.

If he wished, David Cameron could become the voice of such voters. He could make another ‘big, open offer’, without preconditions. He could say that for all the differences between Labour and Conservative, for all their debates and arguments, they at least share a common belief in a stable, strong Britain. That belief should take precedence over anything else.

On that basis, he could offer Ed Miliband a deal – whichever of the two main parties won a plurality of votes and seats, the other party leader would allow them to pass their Queen’s speech by abstaining, in order to keep out the SNP and prevent the distortions of forming a fragmented coalition with minor parties.

In return, the opposition would be fully consulted on budgets and the detailed legislative programme, a deal not dissimilar to that reached in Sweden to prevent the Sweden Democrats bringing down the government. It wouldn’t be ‘grand coalition’, but a return to Baldwinite national interest pragmatism. It wouldn’t bind a future opposition leader to approve a single law, but prevent a minority government having to scrabble around for an alliance. Frankly, it’s not even that different to what it takes to get legislation through the House of Lords right now.

Of course, Labour would have to refuse. A deal with the Tories of any sort is anathema. It undermines Labour’s message of change.

The reverse is not true for the Conservatives.  Proposing such a deal would allow the Tories to claim to put country above party interest and might persuade floating English voters the Tories were no great risk to their interests. As Labour would have to refuse the offer it would also put some genuine edge on the question of what sort of ‘left’ government might be attempted with the likes of Salmond and Bennett.

If Labour’s offer in this election is change, the Tories best offer is national stability. Offering to put Britain before party might be the best example of this the Tories could make. It won’t even be a deal they have to keep, because Labour would have to turn it down.

Of course, they won’t do it, because the Conservative party appears to think that power is best enjoyed alone, or not at all.

 

 

  1. This would presumably involve junking their previous commitment not to vote on English only matters, but never mind []

Putting the Boots in.

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As I grew up in Nottingham, I’m a big supporter of Boots. Raleigh bikes too. (I have mixed feelings about John Player).

So when it came down to backing Boots or the Labour party on the matter of business policy, there was only one side I was going to endorse.

May I quote the Chairman of Boots?

“When we build factories in which it is a joy to work, when we establish pension funds which relieve our workers of fears for their old age, when we reduce the number of working days in the week, or give long holidays with pay to our retail assistant, we are setting a standard which Governments in due time will be able to make universal.”

That’s John Boot, Chairman of Boots in 1938.  Couldn’t agree more. See, I’m totally pro-business.

Who are you trying to persuade?

3 comments

Winning elections is about two pretty simple things. You’re either trying to change a voter’s mind about you or, if they like you just fine already,  giving them a poke to get them off their arse and to the polling station.

The two major party campaigns are doing lots of voter-poking. Barely an hour goes by without a press release intended to remind voters that the other lot are rubbish and we better stop them do their rubbish things. The NHS is being privatised. The Economy could be wrecked. The Economy could be privatised. The NHS will be wrecked. So it goes.

Fair enough. It’s just that with both parties in the low thirties, I’m not sure why the ‘changing voters minds’ bit of winning elections is being neglected. Labour and Conservatives are now both polling what William Hague was scoring in early 2001. In January 2001, Mr Hague was scoring between thirty-one and thirty-four points. Let’s be even more unkind. Both major parties are scoring roughly what John Major was getting in January 1997. This is not very good.

Of course, these elections were very different to the ones we face this May. Yet there are lessons. Danny Finkelstein might correct me, but I suspect Tory strategists knew that persuading remaining Conservative supporters to vote was not enough to ensure victory. They needed to persuade some new people too. They just couldn’t do it (( They were stuck with either trying to persuade potential Labour voters that they were buying a Kinnock in a poke (1997) or describing what Labour policies in increasingly apocalyptic terms)).

Telling voters about the awfulness of the other lot is a form of persuasion, yes. You dissuade those open to voting for your opponent as well as poking your own supporters with the cattle-prod of fear.  It’s just a rather limited form of persuasion.

The relevant problem is if you’re both unpopular, you can’t be certain that persuading voters that your opponents are awful will help you. If you spend a very high proportion of your time denigrating your main opponents and they spend about the same amount of time attacking you, would a voter being foolish to conclude that  you are both wazzocks? (I imagine it being a bit like the end of the first Rocky movie. You’ve spent 15 rounds smashing each other, and both collapse at the end for a dodgy points outcome.)

Of course, if you have a strong support base of your own and a healthy lead, you don’t fear wazzockification, which is why the most effective political messages of this sort remind us of landslide victories (Tories in 1983, LBJ’s Daisy ad, Hague/Thatcher in 2001)1.

Whatever else we say about contemporary politics, no-one is campaigning from a position of strength. So why are parties trying to do so little to change voters minds, instead reminding voters of what they already know? The Tories tell us they care about economic growth. Labour politicians talk passionately about the values of the NHS. Whatever the merits of either case, this is absolutely confirming voters opinion of both parties. When you’re on thirty-two percent, shouldn’t you be aiming to change some minds? Even William Hague regularly tried to persuade us he was a different kind of Tory, until he got sick of people laughing at the notion.

The biggest reason neither party is trying to change minds is both parties are confused about which minds they want to change. In the wake of big party unpopularity and the scuttling of the traditional lifeboat of voter discontent, a flotilla of alternatives have arrived2.

The Tories can’t decide whether they want to hoover up UKIP voters or floating ex-New Labour voters. Labour wants to simultaneously hold on to ex-Lib Dems, stop a loss of working class voters to UKIP, persuade swing voters in Tory marginals, fight off the Greens and inspire young voters. For both, this leads to a pushmepullyou  political strategy, with strategists sending apparently contradictory messages to protect each flank, while assuring themselves with a lowest common denominator internally unifying message.

What this fretting over the growing fringe misses is that for all the differences in how voter discontent plays out as policy demands, growth on the edges of politics derives from some pretty similar insights about the big parties.

UKIP and swing Labour voters will agree that the Tories are out of touch, disinterested in the many, complacent about growth and too close to the wealthy and privileged. From UKIP, Green/LibDem, and swing Tory voters, you might hear that yes, Labour is more sympathetic to the many, but wants to spend money that isn’t there, knows what it is against, but not how to change things, and doesn’t know how it’ll make voters better off.

Further, there’s a broad consensus that both parties are narrow, bad at doing what they say they want to do, will break their promises, and are more concerned with securing narrow political advantage than in working together for the good of the country.

The parties should see these similarities in voter discontent as their main challenge in changing minds. Worse, by attacking each other rather than worrying about how they appear, the parties are underlining the very discontent that fuels defection. Mutually Assured Wazzockification.

With both parties now suffering Hague/Major levels of popularity, I’d want to be the party that puts effort into changing minds about both our own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of politics as a whole, not defensively telling people the other lot are useless.

After all, people already agree that the other lot are shit. They just think we are too. Changing that last bit seems kind of important.

  1. The second problem is that your portrayal of the other lot has to match what they’re actually up to. It was no good for John Major to paint Tony Blair as a puppet of lurking leftist forces as Blair was able to demonstrate he was no such thing. Worse, the Tory message even helped Blair dramatise his own message – that Labour had changed. No good comes from giving your opponent the chance to prove you wrong []
  2. The change here isn’t big party unpopularity, by the way. It’s that the Lib Dems are not in a position to exploit it []

Is silence the price of loyalty?

5 comments

I am finding it harder and harder to write on politics as we approach the election.

This is because, believe it or not, I really want the Labour party to win the next General Election. You’d think a fierce hunger for a change of government would make it easier to write, but for me it’s the opposite.

The only thing required of a loyal party supporter during a General Election is to re-enforce the messages offered by their own party and to decry the stupidity, ignorance and boneheadedness of our opponents.

Any doubt, any internal questioning, any sympathy for the motives of political enemies becomes self-defeating. No point debating our own strategy or emphasis now, because the only value lies in punching the other lot in the face and not punching ourselves.

Journalists don’t face this problem, because they, rightly, avoid clear loyalties and have their own defined purpose. Either they are reporting, or they are employed to explain what politicians are doing. They have a reason, beyond securing votes, for what they do.

True, there are many columnists who come to politics with a partisan political agenda. These tend to resolve the problem of writing loyally about politics by either cheering louder for their own side and decrying opponents more full-throatedly, or by explaining why the political party they support is taking a particular approach, and why, even if that is flawed, the party is still worthy of support. The same is perhaps true of the new generation of political writers who came up through party-aligned websites.

Rather unfortunately for me, I have both clear loyalties and no real reason to write other than because I want to. No-one’s asking me to write about politics. I do it because I enjoy it. It’s entirely self-indulgent. There’s no need for me to ‘explain’ why X is doing Y, because doing so without any standing is to detract from the cause.

That leaves cheering my party on, which I can’t really do because while I really want a change of government,  I really don’t believe the way politics talks about itself, regardless of party. As elections get closer, the more I feel politics lies about itself and the less I feel able to amplify my own party’s signal.

That’s because if we change government in May, lots of things won’t change. Many things will be changed by events and people we have no control over. Some changes will happen that we do not expect, and we don’t know exactly what we’ll do about them, or what the right choice will be. If John Major had been re-elected in 1997, I expect we’d still have Amazon, and high-speed rail, and terror attacks by radical Islamic extremists. After all, France elected Chirac in 1995, and has all those things.

Despite all that unknowability, I do really want a change of government.

First, some specific things will change precisely because we change government, and even if they might appear small, these are incredibly important to very many people. I’m sometimes accused of believing in a politics of small differences. But small differences are a matter of perspective. If we build a few thousand more houses, or integrate health and social care in a better way, or have smarter immigration and welfare policies, those will be significant improvements for tens of thousands of people.

Second, in the next parliament many things could happen that I think, by and large, over the scheme of things, I would much rather have Labour politicians responding to than Conservative ones. In four years time, someone will come to the Minister for local government with a memo about social care budget distributions, and I would much rather that person be Labour than Conservative, even though I don’t know the choice they’ll face, who the minister will be, or the decision they’ll make. That’s a political leap of faith.

So I do really want change,  It’s just not the change I’m supposed to want.

Between elections, there’s no tension between being a rabid loyalist and someone who doesn’t really think everything will be massively improved by a change of government. Some things will be, and that’s more than enough.

The closer we get to an election though, the more I find it uncomfortable to write about politics, because electoral politics requires a pretence of certainty.

Our leaders have to state that everything they will do will be correct and worthwhile, even if that is literally an impossible thing for them to know.

They have to believe that they will deliver huge change, because how else do they make supporting them appear worthwhile? A politician dropping the stance that they’re always right and hugely significant is a politician inviting a punch in the face from someone less scrupulous.

Understanding their predicament, those of us who support political parties have to pretend their pretence is reasonable, because telling them to drop that protective stance is foolish and counterproductive.  Doubt the certainty of your own side or your own leaders, and you are undermining both them and the changes you do desire.

So if you’re writing purely for your own pleasure in politics, the closer to an election campaign you get, the more your choice becomes polarised to cheerleading, punching opponents or silence.

Others are better cheerleaders. I don’t see much value in punching, and silence is, after all, golden. So posting might be light, while I try to figure out a way to write about politics in a way that is both loyal and interesting. All suggestions welcome.

The cyclical theory of Labour

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One of my pet theories is that every quarter-century or so, the Labour party goes through a defining debate about the sort of party it should be. We’re overdue such a debate now.

The first of these defining rows was about whether a party of Labour was needed and if so, what form it should take. This began with the debate over the creation of the Labour representation committee in 1900 and was resolved with the formal creation of the Labour party in 1906, after a pact with the Liberals gave Labour MPs a significant parliamentary presence1

The second debate begins with the shattering failure of the MacDonald government.  From 1931 to 1935, Labour was led by Henderson and Lansbury, and while their radical energy was vital for the continued survival of the Labour party their tradition of political nonconformism tinged with pacifism was ultimately crushed by Union-led pragmatism and willingness to support a military build up and socialisation driven by a powerful central state.

The third debate came after the departure of Attlee in the late-fifties. The Bevanite rebellion predated the election of Gaitskell, of course, but the bitter debates over how the party should move forward was only fought to the (near literal) death after the old man and his authority left the scene.

Was Labour to be a truly socialist party, or a social-democratic one? This question led to a sustained Bevanite challenge to Gaitskell over issues like clause IV of the party and the extent of nationalisation, a debate only truly resolved after the death of both men. Gaitskell had, by 1963, established firm control of the party, but his death meant that a former Bevanite was able to steer a middle path between both forces, a course which was both electorally successful and ideologically inconsistent.

The last huge debate on the future of the Labour party came, not with New Labour, but in the mid-Eighties, when a genuinely radical alternative socialist ideology was put forward and ultimately defeated. That battle felt like one of life and death. It was resolved by victory of the diminished Social-Democratic wing of the party in supportive alliance with the more moderate section of those opposed to the previous Wilsonian pragmatism.

After that victory was won, the only open question was what compromises with the electorate was needed in order to secure victory. It took three elections and three leaders, but Labour finally found a satisfactory answer2. That led the way for a settled period of political direction that ended ideologically with the great recession and politically with the leadership of Gordon Brown.

What of today?

In many ways, the true achievement of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour party has been to avoid such rupture and schism. While there has been an attempt to establish various ideological Milibandisms (Predistribution, One Nation, Fairness, Together and so on) and the leadership of the party has been consistent in it’s renewed focus on the evil of inequality, the real mark of the Labour movement has been the attempt to bury differences in order to secure victory. In the Kingdom of Ed M, the Liam shall lie down with the Len.

This has been a noble and worthy effort. I’m not one of those who regards unity as a negative. However, I can’t see it lasting beyond the next election.

If we win, the challenges of government will force open the debate on what sort of party we should be. because there will be little room for even the maintenance of public spending without either public service ‘reform’ or tax increases (and most likely both).

Under such pressures, those who call for greater and more radical redistribution will feel little duty to be loyal to an agenda that they regard as unsatisfactory, while those who support a course of moderated restraint and strategic investment will not wish to see significantly increased services spending, wage increases or higher tax. Finally of course, there is the question of what sort of majority a Labour government will have, and to what extent it will need to rely on outside support to govern, which will invite the question of which, if any, support to seek.

That debate will be painful, but the duty and power of government will make it much more straightforward than you might expect. Power will hand authority and leadership to one group, should they choose to use it to set political direction. Ultimately, the dissenters (of any sort) will be forced to submit or leave.

If we lose, we will need to decide, in opposition, what sort of party we seek to be.

The choices will be pretty clear: Do we want to continue with the Nordic-Germanic social democracy we’ve pursued over the last few years, do we want to embrace the radical alternative that has been sketched by some socialist figures in the broader Labour movement, or do we want to attempt to redefine the Labour party in an era when the nature of Labour itself is in flux, perhaps offering a prospectus that is at once fiscally cautious, reforming on social and gender politics but radical when it comes to structure of politics and the state itself?

The bad news for the Labour party is that such battles tend to be pretty agonising.

The good news it that we usually come up with a pretty settled answer, one that last for a good couple of decades.

  1. a warning there for advocates of a UKIP alliance on the right []
  2. Of course the sad death of John Smith, like that of Gaitskell, meant that there was always a hankering among some in the party for a victory left unwon []

The Popular Centre: Links and files

3 comments

My new Policy Network  pamphlet on rebuilding the popular centre is out: You can read my article for Progress summarising the argument here: Thank you so much for the kind reactions.

I’ll be writing more about the subject, but I’ve had a few requests for kindle/Instapaper versions alongside the PDF.

So here’s my best shot at meeting those demands. Hopefully they work…

Original PDF

Instapaper friendly version: (no footnotess)

Kindle MOBI file (no footnotes)

Why I’m against the Mansion Tax

5 comments

Yesterday, I suddenly realised why I don’t like the Mansion Tax. What was the reason for this revelation? It wasn’t Myleene Klaas’s glass of water, or a sudden conversion to David Cameron’s way of thinking. Nor am I thinking of making a bid for Mayor of London, and am worried that the burghers of Blackheath will oppose me.

No, the person who made me see the flaw in the mansion tax was Ed Miliband, and he did so because I agreed with him.

You see, Ed did something clever at Prime Minister’s Questions. He contrasted the Government’s support for the Bedroom Tax with their opposition to a Mansion Tax, asking David Cameron to “tell us why he is so in favour of the bedroom tax but so against the mansion tax“.

It is a neat rhetorical move, sharply contrasting the governments willingness to extract money from people in social housing with their opposition to even a modest charge on houses worth over £2 million.

Defending himself, Cameron did not talk about the Bedroom Tax. Instead he backed the Spare Room subsidy.

At this point I had my flash of self knowledge.

I have no problem with progressive property taxes. You’d have to be a supporter of the poll tax over Council Tax to be concerned by the principle of such taxation.

I have no problem with increasing the share of property tax paid by those in the most expensive houses. The top rate of council tax currently has 135,000 homes in England based on a valuation of £320,000 a quarter century ago. The government estimates that there are currently 55,000 houses now valued at above 2 million, so effectively the Mansion Tax would be a ‘Band I’ of Council Tax aimed at the top third or so of current Band H properties, albeit one collected and spent nationally.

I even like our proposed method of allowing deferred payment of such a tax, through a charge on a property as it’s a neat solution to the ‘little old lady’ problem of property taxation. Maybe we could even extend it to an offer made to pensioners struggling to pay council tax, as we do already for social care.

So what don’t I like about the Mansion tax?

I don’t like the name.

Contained within the concept of a mansion tax is the idea that ‘Mansions’ are deserving of special tax treatment.

This is problematic, first because in setting up the image of a ‘mansion’ as what you seek to tax, you are immediately vulnerable to the charge that what you are taxing is not, in fact, a mansion.  You will inevitably be taxing some people who are not bloated plutocrats, and their complaints will appear to have more validity if you don’t appear to mean them. I’m sure Ed Miliband doesn’t think of himself as living in a ‘Mansion’, and neither will many who will be asked to pay.  This is what Myleene Klaas was arguing, of course.

Worse, the conceptual idea of a Mansion Tax contains, like its rhetorical fellows the bedroom Tax and the Spare Room subsidy, a whiff of moral judgement. To talk of taxing mansions specifically is to hint that the desire to live in and own a mansion is somehow a negative. It’s the same rhetorical logic that lies behind luxury taxes and sumptuary laws. Talk about a tax in such a way, and you are, somehow, making a moral judgement of those you seek to extract money from. Getting the money should be more than enough. The judgement gains you little.

Plus, I’m not sure that this is a moral judgement all of us share. I would quite like to live in a mansion, and even though I never expect to own a pleasant villa in Tuscany, even a hint that such a longing is unworthy and despicable causes a prickle of irritation entirely unrelated to the value of prospective tax streams, especially when those proposing it already live in nicer houses than I do.

You may as well call the higher rate of income tax the ‘I’m alright jack tax’.

Polly Toynbee makes a good point in the Guardian today, defending such a property tax. She reminds us that one of the purposes of Taxation is to generate the maximum amount of goosefeather with the minimum of squawk.

So here’s my suggestion.

Keep the tax but ditch the name. Instead of a Mansion Tax, propose to introduce a Band N of council Tax, (the N standing for National, and also for NHS).

It’ll be oh so boring, and entirely unjudgemental of people who live in, or would like to live in Mansions, and a unflashy and grey as taxation is likely to be.

What’s more, it’ll sound not like a tax we’re eager to extract from all who aspire to nice houses, but a rather dull administrative adjustment to a current tax policy.

Maximum Feather. Minimum Squawk.

Of course, I’m far too late with this. The rhetoric is set. Which is why I’m not paid the big bucks, and most decidedly do not live in a mansion.

The limits of Hashtag Loyalty

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‘The coup that wasn’t’ had a dénouement as predictable as a Tory split on Europe. Less revolt than a fearful shiver, it was always going to end in a rallying round.

I avoided both shiver and rally. I missed the shiver because our current position is where I’ve expecting us to be for a while (bar Scotland). When the spasm struck, I saw no reality in it, so clocked off for the weekend, and wasn’t one of the thousands of Labour supporters who tweeted ‘We Back Ed’1.

As someone who is both a Labour loyalist and a polling pessimist, it’s not easy to respond to shivers of rebellion or hashtag loyalty. Neither are useful. I can’t pretend I think everything is rosy. Yet nor do I think regicide equals recovery2.

Hashtag loyalty is an easy but mistaken response to political problems. It devalues what is truly useful in party loyalty – a willingness to pool our political sovereignty to achieve something together – in exchange for uncritical endorsement of the Leader personally.

This masks real political choices, especially when the identity of the leader, is the least  important choice we face.

We shouldn’t confuse a choice over leadership with choice over a political project. One of the big problems with the Blair-Brown years is that loyalty to the man often eclipsed arguments over the political project. Blair’s praetorians saw the cult of personality as a very useful political tool and used it mercilessly. Still, it was at least reasonably clear what the cult stood for.

So I tend to find more fault with Brown, because when Gordon reached the apex it rapidly became clear that he had little by way of a meaningful political project and all the hints of values, winks at Compass lectures and nods at Fabian speeches soon dissolved into a mush that left Brown’s progressive supporters dismayed and the bruised ‘Blairites for Brown’ wondering what the long, brutal internal war they had just lost had been fought for.

So it is with Labour today. We mix up personal loyalty with loyalty to a project, and in so doing, lose sight of our real choices.

While I agree with Danny Finkelstein that Labour’s structure creates incentives that discourage effective conspiracy,  Labour’s main challenge is that we are trying to manage a series of gulfs in vision over what sort of party we are and seek to be.

This is not entirely separate from the question of leadership, because Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader marked a desire to bridge those gulfs as painlessly as possible. On this, Ed has delivered, better than anyone has any reason to expect.

Ed has, while naturally promoting close allies and pursuing his social democratic passions, carefully and skillfully navigated the shoals and eddies of Labour fissures – a nod to egalitarian radicalism here,  to public service reform and fiscal restraint there.

The unity of the Labour party over the last few years wasn’t accidental, it was a crucial part of Miliband’s appeal, of his political project, of what his offer to the Labour party was and is –  a love for what the Labour movement represents, a passion for our vague ‘radical values’, an interest in the traditional mission of social democracy and in binding the party together, rather than tearing it apart.

Can any part of the party, from Blairites to Campaign groupers claim to be entirely ignored, to not have their passions reflected somewhere in the party agenda? I don’t think so. Sure, some have felt the cold shoulder of indifference, but that has been more to do with who has been prepared to go along to get along than any particular ideological disenfranchisement.

Yet that loyalty to the idea of the party as a unified social democratic force contains its own contradiction. Unity for victory is only valuable if it is expected to win. In Labour’s current polling recessional, we have therefore seen a flowering of disloyalties.

Some don’t even see themselves as being disloyal – calling for expensive radicalism in policy, but quietude on personality.  Act as bravely as you speak, goes one cry. Yet to do that would destroy the leadership’s careful project of balancing the movement, electoral interests, and party unity. To ask Ed Miliband to commit electoral suicide by adopting an inauthentic tax raising radicalism is as disloyal as asking him to step aside. It is just a slower acting poison, not a knife to the guts3.

Others, like me, seek a policy agenda no less alien to that careful unifying project. No less divisive, no less risky.

The gamble the Labour party took with Ed Miliband was that we did not have to tear ourselves apart before recovering ground. In their different ways, the alternative choices would have led to the traditional internal fight in which it became clear who won and who lost.

What Ed Miliband offered was the hope this could be circumvented and a rapid return to government without an entire political reformation could be achieved.The gunfight has been avoided. That is the prize Miliband has given Labour. If it has proven incompatible with radical clarity, that is a feature, not a bug.

Replace Ed with any of his increasingly unlikely replacements, and the question that hangs in the air is not ‘would they look better eating a sandwich’ but what would they stand for?

If the answer is vague, it would end up in the same political result we face now, quality photo-ops or no.

If answer is not vague, it would be divisive. Which is why the party shrinks from it.

As much as the structures of the party, the dissension in the Party’s analysis of the future is Ed’s greatest political protection.

It is also a question the Labour party will have to answer soon, whether in office or out. If we lose, the debate will be inevitable. If we win, well if David Cameron teaches the Labour party anything, it is that skilful party management in opposition can rapidly become a divisive fracture in government.

Win or lose, the question for Labour isn’t about Ed’s political strategy. It’s about each of ours, about what kind of party, other than a united one, we want to be.

Hashtag loyalty is no answer to that challenge.

  1. Nor am I much moved by today’s poll. Turns out leftish talk of a progressive realignment wasn’t a new political paradigm, but old-fashioned complacency. This is surprising? []
  2. On top of that, Public frankness and private loyalty is the least valued combination in politics, while loud loyalty and private discontent has many adherents, most with their eyes on the main chance. Certain Politicians and activists, I am looking at you []
  3. The soft left of the Labour party, the natural Ed constituency, are currently disappointed because they feel their strategy has not been tried, and they fear they’ll get the blame anyway. The reason it hasn’t been tried by Ed Miliband is that is an obviously incoherent strategy based on wishful thinking and Ed Milband can see as well as anyone that it can’t be pushed further than he’s pushed it without imploding. This is not welcome news to the soft left, but there’s little point telling them. They’ll just have to keep being frustrated by the repeated inability of any leader to convert their vaunted ‘values’ into a workable political strategy, and then getting into a cycle of self-loathing and blame at being used by people who have a strategy rather than just values []

Alex Salmond is a big fat fibber- and how to reform politics.

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I was lying in bed on Sunday when the visage of Alex Salmond appeared to me. He was doing one of those tedious Sunday morning political shows, and was using the opportunity to be distinguished from a ray of sunshine by batting the Scottish Labour party lightly around the head.

Well, fair enough, you might think. If SNP high-ups were prevented from popping the Scottish Labour party squarely around the chops, the world would be a less happy place. The Scottish Labour party is to an SNP Leader as a Policeman’s helmet is to Bertie Wooster. For Alex to cause a slight discombobulation among the heirs of Keir Hardie is the natural order of things, and we should smile beatifically at his attempts.

No, it was not the political poke itself that roused my ire, but the basis on which the assault was launched. Salmond chose to abuse Scottish Labour for the heinous and unforgivable crime of working with other people to thwart the SNPs own political desires and achieve their own, namely forming an alliance with the Scottish Tory party.

Quoth he:  “The role, hand-in-glove, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Conservative Party in the referendum campaign is not going to be either forgotten or forgiven for a generation in Scottish politics”

“Every single Labour personality who has been pictured in the referendum campaign in that pose… …will pay a heavy price for many years to come.”

And I thought to myself, Why Alex, you old rogue. You are fuller of it than a supersewer.

Notwithstanding Mr Salmond’s now legendarily loose definition of a ‘generation’, if any centre-left political movement in Britain has worked with the Conservative party in a matter of national import it is the SNP, and if there is any leader who has stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to get his business through, it is The Rt Hon Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond.

Now we all know of the SNP voting to bring down a Labour government in 1979.

Beneficiary and grateful companion in the Lobby: Thatcher, M.

Well, we shall let that one slide. After all, That was 1979, and the SNP were soundly defeated by the Scottish Labour party for several elections afterwards. Perhaps Alex was merely reflecting on his own long years in the wilderness.

So let us fast forward to Salmond triumphant, now first Minister of Scotland in a minority administration, and at last able to put those wretched Tories in their place, which he did by winning their support in order to pass his budgets. Not just once. Not just twice. Not just three times but four times, the SNP did a deal, and stood hand in glove, shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to pass their budget, usually in the face of Labour opposition.

As Salmond said, the SNP were harshly punished for this Tory partnership, only gaining twenty-three seats in the subsequent elections.

Let the warning bell ring out: Working with the Tories is fatal for Scottish politicians.

Of course, it isn’t and of course, Alex Salmond knows he is talking the most profound bilge.

Because while Salmond the political strategist knows that he can always make Labour supporters squirm by waving a Tory ghoul on a stick for Halloween, Salmond the working politician knows that voter reward politicians who work together, get deals done, know how to move the ball forward and don’t get stuck too often in the enjoyable mire of throwing mud at each other rather than the boring business of trying to secure the compromises that might make a difference.

Besides, if you do a deal with the Tories again and again and again, you can always claim it’s in the national interest, and if your opponents do it, you can claim they’re craven sell-outs who don’t have a principled bone in their body.

If they’re stupid, they’ll be so afraid of the charge they won’t notice the smart move is to do what you do, not worry about what you say.

This reminds me of what politics needs to do to see off the populists more generally.

We need to show that politics, as a whole, by and large, and pleasant celebratory moments of helmet-toppling excepted, can work.

When did this government most demonstrate that? when it was saying things like ‘together, in the national interest’, not bickering over free school meals.

So it should be with political reform. Voters are right that politics is out of touch and isn’t working, not least because we let ourselves get stuck in our own party interests, we don’t see the good we could achieve together.

If we want to reform politics, we need to recognise that every party has legitimate worries, reasonable grievances. The Lib Dems and Greens are right that the electoral system unfairly excludes them, especially at the local level. The Conservatives are right that the West Lothian question is increasingly problematic. Labour is right that the devolution of power to cities and regions is long overdue, and change is needed if we’re to deliver the housing and economic strategies needed for a balanced recovery.

If we want to show voters that politics works, we might do a lot worse than come up with a political reform plan that meets all of those legitimate concerns, and so gives voters more power – a greater say in local councils that stop being one party states, a better answer to the imbalance between England and the other nations of the UK, and a more power for the cities and regions in how they’re governed.

Such a deal is possible. It would be a profound answer to the cynics and populist and grandstanders who say politics can’t work, can’t change, can’t settle differences in a sensible reasonable way.

Want to beat the populists? Then do what Alex salmond does, not worry about what he says. Work together, make deals. Find a way to move the ball.

Then, if you’re lucky, you might be punished in the terrible, awful way that Mr Salmond was punished for his partnership with old enemies.