One step beyond

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Who’s afraid of Jeremy Corbyn? Not me.

Labour people who might vote for Jeremy Corbyn have two possible rationales. One is political. These are the true believers, those who endured the cold, lonely years of power and responsibility in a sort of internal exile. I don’t hate those people. It takes a certain kind of iron will to dedicate your life to a political movement and consistently oppose it in power. I look at a Carswell or a Corbyn as a suburban vicar might contemplate a flagellant penitent. I don’t quite understand the point, but I rather admire the commitment.

The other appeal of Corbynism is more Dostoyevsky than Marx. Imagine you’re betting heavily on Red. Time and again, the wheel comes up black. It’s monstrous. Unjust. Incredible. How can you recoup those lost hours and resources? Concede that it is best not to play this game? Wonder why the Casino Manager welcomes you so?

That would be the rational response, perhaps. But I defy you not to examine the little you have left, see the Number 36, calculate the slender but real chance of triumphant redemption and not be tempted. Death or glory, comrades.

My point in this observation is not to sneer at Corbyn supporters. My motivations are no less doctrinal or emotional than theirs, as any reader of my twitter feed will attest. I just think I’m right and they’re wrong and don’t think I can persuade them.

If Jeremy Corbyn were to become leader of the Labour party, we would lose the next election with a likelihood of 99.99999% That would be a bad thing for millions of people. But Labour members, whether as true believers or desperate gamblers, will have known the risk and decided it was worth it. Fair enough.

No, the most dangerous people in the Labour party are not Corbynites or militants. The most dangerous people in the Labour party are the one-steppers.

Is this some long forgotten entryist sect? If only. One-steppers are simply people who have fallen for the greatest temptation in Labour politics. To be a one-stepper is to see someone saying something you largely agree with, but which others in your party do not, and to stand one step to their left and attack them for their heresy.

It’s an advantageous position to take, just one step to the left. You are not decrying everything the person to your right says, of course. They make many valuable points. Indeed, you would include much of their perspective in your own analysis. You’d appreciate their support. It’s just that here, and here, and here too, they depart from what is right and purposeful, from the values of our movement.

That is too far. It is not who we are, friends.

So moderate. So unifying. So reasonable. And so appealing to the base. You’re keeping the flame, preserving Labour values. Maybe even winning internal elections.

There are so many ways to be a one-stepper. You can one-step in pained disappointment. You can one-step in righteous fury. You can even one-step out of pure political calculation.

There have been one-steppers through Labour history. Wilson was a one-stepper until Gaitskell died. Gordon Brown became one around 2003, but only after the greatest refusal to one-step in Labour history. Ed Miliband one-stepped his brother and his old boss at once.

Why do I fear one-steppers so? After all, I agree with them on most things and it’s just one step. Surely that’s worth the irritation of their disdain for heretical thoughts?

I fear them because they lose elections.

Yes, sometimes they lose elections because they’re a step to the left of me, but that’s not really it. You can probably win an election a step to the left of me. Maybe even ten steps, if you’re willing to wait a few decades.

It’s not about the policy. It’s about the tactics.

The easiest political technique in the Labour party is to imply someone one step to your right is a Tory or  not one of our tribe. It’s so simple to question their grasp of what it is to be truly, really Labour and to use that to box them in and cut them off.

In that very ease lies the great danger. What do you say when someone appears at your left shoulder saying the same about you, and they really mean it?

That’s why one-steppers lose you elections. In the rush to tactical advantage, they forget there’s always a place one step to the left, and someone will always see the advantage of occupying it. One place to the left of Tony. One place to the left of Gordon. One place to the left of Ed. One place to the left of Yvette. One place to the left of Andy.  Or maybe the other way round.

After all, a leadership election can devolve into a contest to find out who one step to the left of who. Everyone loses that game, except the Corbyns. Spend your life working for the party, trying to make it electable, trying to keep the show together? Sorry, Harriet, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to one-step you there. Strictly business, you understand.

On and on it goes, until suddenly the steps are leagues, and you have lost again.

The problem with the one-stepper is not ideology. It is opportunism. That is what makes them so dangerous.

They think they’re the only step, but they’re just one of many, and at the end of that particular road you find only the true believers, the desperate gamblers, the cynics and, of course, the losers. What a swell party that would be.

A modest (and doubly stolen) proposal

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One of my personal political heroes is former Chilean Minister of Finance Andrés Velasco. Stop looking at me like that. It’s perfectly normal. In case you don’t pay attention to Chilean politics, Velasco was Finance Minister from 2006 to 2010. During that time, he first hoarded the results of a boom in tax receipts so that by 2007, Chile was running a budget surplus of some 8% of GDP.

Then, when the Global crisis struck, he moved counter-cyclical policy in the opposite direction, putting in place the second largest fiscal stimulus (relative to size of the economy) in the world. Truly, a hero for a hard Keynesian!

On Monday, thanks to Policy Network’s ‘progressive politics in fragmented times’ conference, I had the chance to hear him speak, and to have a brief conversation with him.

Velasco’s overall talk was very interesting – reflecting on the differences and similarities in the world economy seen from the perspective of an emerging economy, rather than a developed one – though he noted that Chile’s PPP GDP/Capita was not that far below that of Greece before the Crash, and may well be higher than Greece’s now.

He also reflected on the successes and failures of his time as Finance minister – the successes including the acceptance of fiscal responsibility as a progressive aim by the centre-left, even when Budget surpluses were particularly strong. The failures including a lack of communication of the ‘why’ of this political value – a sense that instead of having a moral and political purpose, budget rules were mere desiccated technocracy.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Chilean fiscal rules is that they specifically include reference to the uniqueness of the Chile as a major commodity exporter. To put it crudely, a large part of the Chilean governments tax base is dependent on the price of copper. In the boom years, the contribution of copper to the Chilean budget was somewhere between a fifth and a third of total receipts. So when the Chilean government looks at their structural fiscal position, they explicitly include the price of copper in their calculations. If it is high, then the government has to run a higher surplus. That’s why the budget surplus from 2005-2008 was so high. Norway has a similar approach to the price of oil.

This is something that has gnawed away at me for a while when it comes to the UK. One of the most effective critiques of the last Labour government is that its fiscal optimism was based on a continuing surge in finance sector growth. As Tony Dolphin put it for IPPR:

“In the last decade, the UK was so dependent on financial services to produce growth that the share of financial and insurance services in total output increased from 5.4 per cent in 2000 to 9.1 per cent in 2008 and to 10.4 per cent in 2009 (when activity in other parts of the economy was hit harder by the recession than in the finance industry). Back in 2007 this expansion of finance was widely seen as the UK exploiting a competitive advantage; now – given the effect of the financial crisis on the rest of the economy – it looks more like foolish over reliance on a single sector.”

The UK Finance sector contribution to the exchequer wasn’t quite at Chilean Copper levels, but was significant. Just before the crash, the City of London estimated the financial sector contributed some 13.9% of Fiscal revenue (obvious source warning, however).

This had huge post crash consequences too. As Nick Pearce has pointed out

” Fully a quarter of all corporation tax came from financial services, but this revenue fell from £10.3 billion in 2007/08 to £4.5 billion in 2009/10, while stamp and share duties fell from £14.1 billion to £7.9 billion. As a result, with a similar loss of output to Germany and a proportionately smaller stimulus package, the UK registered a fiscal deficit of 11 per cent of GDP at the peak of the crisis, compared to only 4.3 per cent by its continental neighbour.”

Others have gone so far as to call Britain’s economic situation as suffering from a ‘Finance Curse’, similar to the ‘Resource Curse’ of commodity exporters.

One answer to this is diversification of the economy. This has been a regular post-crash reference point for politicians of all parties, whether in the form of  marches of makers, regional growth, small business support and innovation investment. Theorists and political economists have talked on much the same lines.

Important though this is, it is damned hard work to deliver. Indeed, much of the debate over the ‘varieties of Capitalism’ debate in political economy is over whether such a shift is even possible.

This leads me to think a rule-based response is required as much as a political economy one. Put simply, if the UK exchequer is highly exposed to variation in the financial services industry, shouldn’t we incorporate that exposure into our fiscal rules, much as Chile does for their commodities exports? If Financial Services tax income is rising quickly, we shouldn’t include all that income in our short-term spending models.

This is not a new idea, or my idea at all. Nick Donovan and Victoria Barr proposed a creating Financial Services ‘Rainy Day Fund’ for the Fabians in 2012, based on exactly these principles.

I did get the chance to ask Mr Velasco whether such an idea might work in the UK, though. While we were only chatting informally, he said that it could. Perhaps it is a successful social democratic idea we could profitably steal.

 

Osborne’s gift to Labour

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A National Living Wage. That’s the headline George Osborne’s advisers wanted from this budget, and it’s likely he’ll get it. It’s an audacious raid on Labour territory, but it disguises a big concession.

The retreat isn’t about improving family finances. There, the depressing details undercut the nice headline. What the Chancellor has done isn’t introduce a Living Wage, but to mandate future increases in the minimum wage for over 25s, while slashing tax credits and in-work benefits for everyone.

To take just two examples, the withdrawal rate for tax credits will rise to 48%. For every extra pound someone on tax credits earns, they will lose 48p, not 41p. But there’s worse news. Currently, the ‘tax credit tax’ only begins to bite when you earn £6,420 a year. From next year, you start losing half your Tax Credits earlier, at £3,850. For thousands of working families, this Budget will mean lower incomes, not a pay rise. The ‘Living Wage’ is a confidence trick.

While it’s essential to point this hypocrisy out, the Budget also offers Labour a transformative opportunity, if we have the fiscal and political nerve to take it.

The gift lies in Osborne’s continuing failures in his quest for budgetary surplus. This is nothing new. When it comes to deficit reduction, the Chancellor hasn’t just missed his goal, he’s missed Alistair Darling’s. In March 2010, Alistair Darling projected borrowing of £74 billion in 2014/15. David Cameron called that “completely inadequate“. So when they took over in June 2010, the Government projected borrowing to be just £37bn in 2014/15. What was the result? Public Sector Net Borrowing for 2014/15 is £89.2 billion.

The essential question for Labour is how come Osborne’s failure to meet Darling’s target was accompanied by an ever-stronger belief that the Conservatives are the party of fiscal stability?

Bluntly, Osborne got away with missing his fiscal targets by billions because Labour cast him as an iron chancellor, relentless in pursuit of cruel austerity.

In setting himself a target Labour found it impossible to match, Osborne used Labour howls of outrage to protect himself from any critique of his failure to meet it. The more we complained at his aims, the less his actual record mattered.

Surprisingly, the Chancellor has decided not to try the same play again. Instead of outbidding Labour on deficit reduction and daring us to match him, he’s quietly moved the Tory fiscal plan closer to Labour’s.

Before the General Election, Labour promised to eliminate the current deficit by 2020. The Tories pledged to move the overall budget into surplus by 2018-19. Today, that ambition got put back again, with the fiscal path loosened significantly.

That the dramatic reduction in the ‘clear blue water’ between Labour and Conservative plans isn’t more politically prominent has little to do with fiscal policy and everything to do with political reputation. The lesson of 2015 is simple enough – forget the detailed plans; if the tone of political debate resolves down to the Tories being ‘for’ deficit reduction and Labour being ‘against’ it, nothing else really matters.

Yet by moving his fiscal policy baseline significantly closer to Labour’s stated position, the Chancellor has given Labour a huge chance to not make the same mistake twice. It should now be far easier for the Labour party to accept a non-partisan path of deficit reduction, while still proposing a political alternative that includes more investment in capital and infrastructure and a more equitable distribution of the ‘pain’ of cuts and tax rises.

A Labour leader able to exploit this opportunity would be able to destroy the perception of Labour being fiscally spendthrift, so more credibly objecting to Osborne’s choices in distributing the pain. In this budget, for example, the choice to cut inheritance tax while slashing disability benefit and support for working families.

Osborne is gambling that Labour won’t notice the chance he’s given us, or if we do notice it that we ignore it in favour of enjoying another five years of whining about the nasty Tories, pleasing ourselves but confirming public perceptions of our party and his.

The Chancellor’s past failure and future ambition means Labour has been given a huge chance to end our reputation as the party of fiscal irresponsibility. If we have the nerve, we can take the argument to Osborne and the Tories on our terms, because they are increasingly accepting ours.

To do that though, we will need a leader who actually seems to care about strong public finances even when it’s uncomfortable to say so.

If the last few years teach us anything, it’s that early definition matters in politics. If you’ve spent the last few months calling fiscal responsibility ‘swallowing Tory plans’ or allowing your friends to brief the media that it’s mere ‘Blairism’, you’ll never be able to reverse the impression you’re against it, even if you put in the occasional sentence about tough decisions in speeches. You’ll never be able to hold Osborne to account for his failure, or criticise his distributional mistakes, because he’ll be able to swat you aside as easily as he dealt with Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

She may have been attacked (anonymously and not so anonymously) as ‘a Tory’ for clearly stating her desire for budgetary balance, but Osborne’s budget just proved Liz Kendall’s instincts on fiscal policy right. The Chancellor has had to accommodate himself to a more gradual path of deficit reduction, one ever closer to Labour’s stated policy, if not to our rhetoric.

To seize this gift, Labour needs a leader able to take advantage of it, one able to hold Osborne and the Tories to account on fiscal policy failures and incompetence, a stance which in turn opens up the political space to make a more convincing argument on everything from the Living Wage to cuts to Tax credits. That’s the route to a Labour victory in 2020 and the chance to change the country thereafter.

The question is, do we want to take that opportunity, or do we want to be comfortably outraged for the next five years, then lose again?

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?

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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?

6 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

11 comments

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)