No plans… and the higher ground

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We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT” said David Cameron.  He then raised VAT.

Having just raised National Insurance, Tony Blair told Jeremy Paxman that “At the time of the election we didn’t have plans to increase national insurance or any other tax“.

I was reminded of the past absence of plans when Tory Backbencher after Tory backbencher popped up during the Queen’s speech debate to ask Ed Miliband if he would rule out raising National Insurance after various news reports said Labour was considering the idea.

The Labour leader dismissed these planted questions. Did he have plans? He wouldn’t be tricked into saying – because this was the sort of politics that people hate.

He’s right, I think, in more ways than one.

He’s right because the questions were an attempt to distract him from a genuine attempt to lift the political debate to slightly higher ground.

Miliband had opened his speech by talking about the mistrust in politics revealed by the European elections, the rise of UKIP and the large numbers of abstentions. He argued that these were major challenges that required a serious, considered response, and the tragedy of the Queen’s speech was not that the measures were bad, but that they were insufficient to the times.

While he attempted such a big argument, whipped efforts to skewer him on his plans for National Insurance must have seemed particularly petty.

There’s no good answer to such a question – rule it out and you’ve tied your hands. Rule it in, and you’ve handed your opponents a great big scary poster for the election campaign. So you dodge the question, as Cameron did, and Blair did, and yes, as Miliband did.

That’s politics, annoyingly. If Miliband dodged, he dodged because dodging is what you do when someone tries to chuck a custard pie at you. What else was he supposed to do?

It was a powerful opening, a plea for a politics better than the codes and artfully constructed pledges that can characterise modern politics and which drive distrust and even disgust. The trouble is, it’s hard to stress the need for plain speaking when you’re ducking and diving.

When his inquisitors were asking, in that sly back office way about the cost of his own plans, Miliband found himself forced to speak in the language he disdained moments before.

Miliband did not want to answer such a question. To soon. Too much of a trap, too easily misrepresented. Too… risky.

Yet if you seek the higher ground, if you wish for trust, perhaps such questions must be confronted. Their implications made clear.

The list of issues we need to change in Britain is long.

Yet sometimes politicians appear to give the impression that all it would require to fix them is the election of their party, while declining to explain what negatives might accompany their choices, what difficulties they might face in implementing their plans, what costs there might be to their hopes, and why despite those costs, it is still worthwhile, and needed, and valuable.

Perhaps what has left mainstream politics adrift. We all have challenges we prefer to discuss, and consequences we find harder to confront.

For the Tories, the acceptable challenges are about the deficit, the need for growth, the need for more jobs and expanding businesses. For Labour, the good challenges are about fairness, about those left behind, about the need to reduce insecurity and inequality.

The Labour party is right to argue that insecurity and inequality are defining issues of our age. I am proud to support a party that believe this.

But ultimately these challenges are not separate. To speak of inequality and insecurity while avoiding choices you must make on taxation and deficits and spending to remedy these leads you to a politics of smoke and mirrors, of no plans and silences and taunting backbenchers.

To boast of growth and expansion without action for those who do not benefit is horrific.

Of course there is far more to achieving equality and security than tax and spend, more to delivering growth than deficits and prudence. There are rights and responsibilities, powers and privileges too. But there is a hollowness to a debate without a clear boundary on these issues. Always the questions: But how far will you go? How much will it cost? Who will bear the burden? Who will get the rewards?

At their best, Miliband and Cameron rise above these limiting agendas. Cameron talks of the need for the minimum wage to rise. Miliband speaks of business growth and local banks. But even these welcome steps rarely involve a critical look at their own agenda

Too often, the impression is given that a list of bills a Labour government would pass, or the mere maintenance in office of the coalition is a sufficient programme for a better Britain.

These would present no problems, no costs, no need to raise VAT, no increase in NI, no need to trade off business freedom with worker security. There are no plans for any pain. At least none that can be admitted. Yet when we talk among ourselves, we know the costs are real, the limitations great, that the bill for our hopes will be presented.

I think Ed Miliband is right that the higher ground is there to be claimed, and voters are hungry for a leader to embrace it.

To do so, I think, will require a politician prepared to speak as frankly about the challenges their own dreams face as of the flaws in their opponents plans.

In other words, perhaps voters in order to trust us, perhaps voters want to hear the detailed plans, whatever they might cost.

The era of no plans is dead.




How we talk; Politics and people

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Reading Buzzfeed’s excellent and revealing interview with Ed Miliband, the first thing to strike me was a realisation of how politicians and journalist and hangers-on can talk about one thing, and inadvertently communicate something completely different.

At the beginning of the article Miliband is recounting a story about the real cost of government cuts:

“A man approached him to say that his part-time job at a petrol station wasn’t paying enough to take care of two children. This is an anecdote of the sort Miliband is always telling in his campaign to lower Britain’s cost of living, but what the man said next was “chilling.”

“He was really, really desperate because he felt couldn’t properly provide for his family,” Miliband recalls. “He was thinking of ending it all because he just couldn’t make ends meet.”

“Suddenly bacon sandwiches look slightly beside the point,” Miliband says.”

It’s not quite clear at what point in the interview this story is recounted. Presumably, it’s in a discussion about the media, and the real purpose of politics. Back up a bit, though, and think about what happens in this story. A man approaches a politician. He tells him that he has a job, but it doesn’t pay enough. He goes on to say that he is thinking of killing himself, leaving his two children fatherless.

At which point, he disappears from the story.

What happened to him? Maybe Miliband didn’t say, or did say, and the journalist didn’t recount because he thought we wouldn’t be interested in it. In a sense, it doesn’t matter, I’m not trying to slag off either Ed or Jim, just observe what we talk about and how we talk about it.

Either way, the point Miliband was trying to make: -that people are more important than political point scoring and media kerfuffle- is undermined by the way this very human story is treated. This man is left paused, his story half told, its conclusion unaddressed. He says he is going to kill himself, he is so miserable, and we -speaker, interviewer, reader- move on.

To us at least, whether politician, or writer or audience, this man is less important than a point about media priorities.

My reaction to this was to wonder what Miliband said to the guy, what advice he gave him, what help he offered. I’m sure, because Ed is a decent man, that he did this, and offered comfort or aid, and help.

Yet in this anecdote, this disappears, as does the man himself, and we move back to bacon sandwiches, twitter and Baseball apps, all of which is fascinating. That’s not snark. It’s genuinely good, fair writing and as a result I think it’s a very enlightening interview, especially on Ed Miliband’s attitude to globalisation, personally and for others.

I’m glad it was done, and I learned a lot.

I’m just also left wondering what happened to the man who wanted to kill himself.

Once more, with feeling?


Emma Burnell has demonstrated that Buffy references are the way to open a discussion of Labour strategy. Who am I to argue?

Ed Miliband’s office should write Lord Oakeshott a thank-you card. Oakeshott yesterday resigned from the Lib Dems in an almighty huff. In doing so, he sucked the air from Labour’s internal debate. A flurry of Labour writers and former names have offered their opinions, but among current politicians, there has been little more than ‘talk about immigration‘ and ‘put me on Telly more‘.

This has given the leadership a clear hand to define Labour’s response to the election results. The purest distillation of this comes from the New Statesman’s George Eaton, who is in receipt of regular communication from a source who, one suspects, can always see the wood for the trees.

This source leads Eaton to state ‘That Miliband does not feel the need to lurch or to U-turn stems from the extent to which he believe the rise of Ukip confirms his existing intellectual and psephological analysis‘.

This analysis, according to the source, is: “We’re reaping what we sowed back in ’97 through to 2005, when we gave the impression to our working-class heartlands that they were communities that we took for granted. We kept on talking to them about globalisation, but that was passing people by”.

This decade long political lag is remarkable.

A year and a half ago, Labour were in the mid forties in the opinion polls. Less than a year ago, friendly columnists, like George, were being told by their sources that Labour would win because the Labour brand was the least toxic and UKIP would divide the right.

Perhaps the undoing of this is because we have spent that time talking about the benefits of globalisation, and the voters have spurned us?

It seems not. I go back to January 2013 to find Polly Toynbee approving of Labour’s change of stance on immigration.

“So Miliband was right in his Fabian speech to say that worried voters are not “bigots”, as Gordon Brown called them: Labour “got things wrong” and should “listen”. Acknowledging legitimate fears that immigration takes jobs and depresses low wages is an important step, but damage limitation is all Labour can hope for, with no chance of out-toughing the Tories.”

Back then, the analysis was that  success had vindicated Labour’s new approach. Now the analysis is that decisions taken a decade ago have undone those successes, and that Labour’s new approach is more essential than ever.

So the Fabian speech last year is no different in analysis, or in prescription, to the Thurrock speech yesterday. This is the intellectual self confidence Eaton refers to, which sees the core problem of modern society being inequality, libertarian predation and low incomes, which drive social insecurity, exploitation and division, and the correct response as always intervention to offer stability, security and protection for the fearful and weak.

There is a pleasing consistency to this. Further, it has hardly been hidden from the voters, who strongly approve. Proposals like energy market intervention, higher levels of the minimum wage, regulation of tenancies, strengthening of communities, limitations on capital and labour movement, all have been frequently expressed and highly rated.

Yet Labour’s support has gradually declined.

Perhaps, as George’s source suggests, this is because Labour’s embrace of the liberal modern in the late nineties poisoned the well. Yet if Labour was successful two years ago, and has followed the agenda above with announcement after announcement since, then why are we less popular now than we were then?1

The answer from the top seems to be that the voters have not yet heard us clearly enough. We will spell it out  ‘once more with feeling‘ in order to channel the electors rejection of modernism and liberalism into a more progressive path.

To do this, we will use the left-right-left shuffle to explain to voters that if they’re concerned about immigration, Europe, welfare and a weak economy, they truly desire tenancy regulation, low pay and recruitment agency regulation, market intervention and a tax on bankers bonuses.

I dissent from this.

I think that the doubts voters have of us do not relate to our desire for a fairer, more equal society. I think they already know that Ed Miliband desires this, and that we who stand behind him seek the same.

I think they worry that our solutions for delivering it will not work.

Why might they worry? Perhaps because as we address our agenda, we will also have to fight battles over debt, and the need to raise taxes, and  what to do about public pay and mortgage rates and cuts and other such workaday things, and it sometimes appears that we don’t find these dull necessities of governance worthy of our grand vision of community.

Perhaps too, while we talk about the issues that concern voters and offer our consistent panaceas, the solutions we offer can’t match those of the idiot populists in the cure-alls-that-ails-you stakes. If you want lower immigration, what sounds like a better way to achieve it, closing the borders by leaving the EU, or a higher minimum wage?

Me, I’d go for this. Abandon the left-right-left shuffle and talk about the issues head on.

On immigration, the issue isn’t really agency workers, it’s free movement of Labour in Europe. So explain up front why ending this would be bad for Britain, if we think it is, and if we think it isn’t, have the courage of our convictions, even if it means a fight. If we think it’s a good thing, but raises demands for resources, like schools or housing, explain why it’s good, and how we’ll get better at meeting those local demands. Don’t patronise people by trying to sell them our fairness agenda in immigration packaging.

I’d focus on the practical. On budgets, and taxes, and housing I’d focus less on the why, more on the how. I’d talk not about the power of government, but about its limitations, the challenges to any positive change.

I’d actively reject promises, and use that as a platform to attack those who glibly lie about the consequences of their ill thought through policies.

I’d venerate competence over vision, reliability over intellect, practicality over ideology. Since I know politics is distrusted, and provisional, and awkward I’d deal with the world as it is, not try to sell them the world as I’d like it to be.

Would it work? I hope so, but in truth, who knows.

What I do know is that once more with feeling won’t.

It didn’t go down that well the first time.



  1. Let’s ignore the fact that the voters seemed happy enough with the embrace of the modern at the time, as things do change []

Death to the left-right-left pivot


One of the most tiresome political tricks of all needs to be assassinated.

It is the left-right-left  pivot. It’s been used again and again, never works but is unaccountably popular

The LRLP works like this: You’re a left wing politician. You want to do nice progressive things. Unfortunately, you’ve grown to suspect that the electorate want you to do some horrid right wing things.

This is no good at all. What to do about it?

Aha‘, one of your advisers says. ‘The right wing things your voters want you to do are very bad. But if you rephrase how you talk about the left wing things you want to do, and show how they’ll address the problem, it will sound like you’re being right wing and those people will vote for you.

So you pivot from left to right rhetorically, and then back left again in policy terms, hoping to take the voters with you on your little journey

It’s an easy trick to pull.

Crime: Voters want tough punishment for criminals? Ah, you say, but the only way to really stop criminality is our rehabilitation revolution which won’t let anyone stay in a life of crime.

Education: Voters want discipline in schools? Ah, you say, but the only way to really enforce discipline in schools is to hire more teachers, so we’ll do that.

Immigration: Voters want less immigration? Ah, you say, but what’s really bad is that it drives down wages, so we’ll increase the minimum wage.

It’s an attractive trick, isn’t it? You get to do what you want, and you get to give the voters what they want too.

Except it doesn’t work.

If  you need the support of voters concerned by issues you disagree on, you can agree with them, try to change their minds, or persuade them that something else is more important. You can maybe do a combination of all three. What you can’t carry off is an attempt to convince them you’ll do what they want, when you really just want to explain why what you want will solve their problem.

Why can’t that work? Partly for the simple reason that however good your solution is, it wont be as as direct or as straightforward as the one the voters already have in their head. So you’ll sound hollow and unconvincing.

Mostly though, it doesn’t work because you’re not addressing their concerns, you’re trying to find away to talk about something else entirely, something you’re more comfortable with, whether the need for more teachers, the need for rehabilitation, or the need for higher wages.

These policies might be useful, but it sounds evasive because it is evasive, a sign you’re afraid of the issue, or the voter, or both.

The left-right-left pivot is particularly popular among leftish thinkers who are smart enough to realise that the electorate can be quite conservative sometimes, but are unwilling to cause offence among their political allies by suggesting that many of the voters demands are reasonable, and should be met, and even less willing to acknowledge that parts of these arguments should be confronted.

Rhetorically, it’s how you get yourself into a mess like ‘British Jobs for British workers’ You want a policy all about skills and apprenticeships, but you want to sound like you’re talking about sacking Poles.

To pick my earlier examples, it is both harder and more meaningful to argue the following:

Crime: Yes, criminals who commit violent, outrageous acts must be punished severely, both as a deterrent and a punishment. We’ll do that. But we won’t introduce the death penalty, or  because that is both brutal and ineffective.

Education: We’ll give teachers greater powers to enforce discipline in class, and allow detentions, suspensions and expulsions for disruptive behaviour. We’ll hold parents accountable for the behaviour of their children in school. But we won’t re-introduce corporal punishment, because that’s damaging to children.

Immigration: We’ll focus on deporting illegal asylum seekers1, and we’ll do a better job in encouraging integration among migrants, but it’d be a terrible mistake to block all migration, because we need skilled workers and access to other markets.

I hope you can see the strategic difference between the two approaches. One takes the electors concern, and tries to pivot back to an entirely different agenda, implying that the concern itself is somehow wrongheaded.

The other addresses the concern head on, accepts some of what is desired, and delineates why the rest is a bad idea.

The left-right-left pivot is one of the most regularly used and most frustratingly useless political devices around. It’s easy to fall into, because it’s so easy to convince yourself you’re sounding moderate while in fact proposing only things that will neither offend nor persuade, a political combination that is both dull and a waste of everyones time.



  1. Update: Chris Brooke points out I should have said ‘Failed’ not illegal. He is right. My error []

Euro elections: Strategy, not tactics.


Well, who cares about the Euro elections, anyway?

Barely anyone, except the candidates, party workers, and pale obsessives like me, who divine auguries from the erratic flightpaths of political avians. “Ah,” we say, “the yellow bird has flown lower than ever before. This presages much laughter“.

While European Elections are about as useful in predicting the political future as birds on a Roman hilltop, being an augur still has its place. All elections have meanings, and they need to be considered.

So, what can we say?

First, any talk of Labour’s electoral floor can at last be consigned to history.

I’ve lost count of the times eager Labour people have told me that because of 2010 Lib Dems it was almost impossible that Labour score less than 29+6 at the next election.The 29 being the score we got last time, and the 6 being the bedraggled left refugees from Nick Clegg’s naifs crusade.

We just scored 25% in a national election, a little over a point ahead of the Conservatives.  If 35% was our floor, we’re in the cellar.

This should end forever the era of complacency about the likelihood of a Labour victory thanks to a progressive realignment and the split on the right, a complacency that was clear from some advisers public pronouncements and private briefings, whether in asserting the superiority of our ground game to claiming we were setting the political agenda even as our poll ratings declined.

If one good thing comes out of the campaign, it should be the death of that undeserved easy confidence. We are going to have to fight like hell to win, and not just fight, but change.

Second, don’t blame the election campaign. John Woodcock is right here. Whether it’s bacon butties or whether to put out leaflets attacking Farage, the campaign itself could only have made a marginal difference.

Three weeks ago, we were not heading for a landslide victory, and the campaign did not change that. The trends that have bought us this result have been clear for some eighteen months or more. Also, while it’s arrogant to claim our ground game was superior to the Tories as the data tells us voters in marginal got roughly the same contacts, that doesn’t mean the ground campaign wasn’t effective and well organised. It may have just been outspent.

Third, don’t rely on tactical solutions to strategic questions. Labour did well in London. So one temptation would be to say that all we need to do is replicate London’s campaigning in the rest of the country. Or to recruit an army of volunteers, or raise a few million more in campaign funds, or develop more sophisticated voter targeting and conversation mechanisms. All of these things will be useful, and are worthwhile in themselves, but their absence does not explain why we are level pegging with the Tories with a year to go.

What can we do positively?

Not panic about discontent for a start. Politics can work even in an age of scepticism and doubt. It can work by going with the grain of voters doubts about politics, not asserting that all that is required for solving our national problems is a change of party in government.

We should never lose confidence in politics to improve lives, but we should never assume that others agree, and we should modulate our claims accordingly.

One place to look is where a left wing party has overcome huge public scepticism, a disappointing election result, defeated a populist surge, and done so in a country obsessed by immigration fear, with a weak economy, facing cuts to services and distrustful of their political class.

I am talking of Italy, where Matteo Renzi just scored the 40% that Labour strategists and advisers have dreamt about for years, and done so on a higher turnout than any other country in Europe. This victory is as astonishing as his rise to power but has had barely a fraction of the attention Labour gave to the stumbling victory of President Hollande.

How has Renzi done it? Not by relying on a progressive consensus, but setting forward a plan that is at once optimistic and hardheaded, reformist and realistic, and designed to appeal to voters distrustful of both politics and the old italian left.

Renzi will fail eventually, as all politicians do. For now though, he shows that a centre left strategy can motivate, excite and inspire voters to the polls. Perhaps we can ask Alexander and Axelrod to visit the Palazzo Chigi?

After all, Renzi showed that overwhelming victory is possible a year after an embarrassing stumble, simply by adopting a better strategy. That is a lesson worth learning from, surely?

Immigration and England: A metropolitan liberal elitist writes…


In which I write to the english voter, lovingly praised by sundry Labour MPs, Gurified peers, left wing journalists and others, who argue that liberal (or worse, neo-liberal) elitists don’t understand the true soul of England, or have betrayed the interests of the English working class, in favour of deracinated cosmopolitan elitism and so forth:

Over the next few weeks, you’ll be hearing a lot from my friends on the left who think you’ve been ignored.

They say we need to recognise your concerns, and acknowledge the legitimacy of what you’re worried about, and make sure we raise up some unsullied representatives of the English working classes to high office in order to give voice to your needs and wants and desires.

Well, sure, yes. In theory. But not in practise. You see, the reason that the established political parties don’t tend to implement what they imagine to be the authentic views of the English working class is because they also imagine said authentic working class political demands to be pretty much total bollocks.

What do they think you want? Politically, the agenda can be summarised like this: An end to immigration totally, or as near as dammit. To remove Britain from the European Union. To crack down on scroungers, and cheats, and unending praise  for the english worker whose word is his bond,  does a fair days work and expects only a fair days pay.

To which I say this. If they’re right, and the soul of Englishness is like this,  we have a problem, because that agenda is self-destructive. No amount of middle class cultural cringe, no apologia from elitists for their desire for coffee served with frothed milk will alter the basic problem that this agenda either won’t work, or will cause active harm.

Want to leave the EU, end immigration, and cut the welfare budget by half? Well, then the people who will suffer will be.. the English working class, who rely on foreign investment for jobs, get most working age benefits, and who rely more than anyone else on disability and state pensions.

End immigration, or cut it to purely high skilled workers? Well,  the only way we could do that is by leaving the EU. Right now, our immigration issue isn’t one of asylum seekers or economic migrants from developing countries. It’s workers from other EU states. Cut them off, and they would cut us off. Would that be a problem? Yes, because we need businesses to invest in the UK, and we need to access the EU market  to do that.

But let’s say the Anti-Europeans are right, and there would be no immediate economic cost to leaving the EU. Even if Nigel Farage negotiated the most incredible deal, and we could ban all EU migrants and still get free trade, it’d still be a terrible idea.

Why? Because those young Poles who work hard here aren’t going to go away if we don’t let them in.

They’ll just be working hard in Poland, or Germany, or France, or Holland. They’ll be making those economies stronger, paying taxes there, making businesses invest there. Sure, we’d be cohesive. But we’d be cohesively heading for the scrapheap.

The good jobs are going to go to the well-educated, the literate, the mobile, the skilled and adaptable, wherever they are. With them will go the good housing, the good schools, and the chance for future growth.

That’s where success will be. That’s how we’ll make life better.

If we’ve failed the English working class, it’s by the patronising attitude that they can’t or don’t seek these essential qualities, or that attaining them is somehow un-English or inauthentic.

You hear this in the political slogans that imply that all you want to do is ‘work hard and play by the rules’.

Stuff that. If we want to prosper, just working hard isn’t going to do it. We have to be smart, and get our kids to be smarter too.  Government can help with that, but it can’t wish away the need for it to happen.

If you’re concerned about immigration, you’re not bigots, and you’re not racists, but your children with have to compete with bright young kids from all over the world whatever governments do with borders.No-one can stop that, not a latte-sipping elitist or a beer swilling populist (Not craft beer, though. and it’s fine to like instant coffee in a mug. The iconography of class is complicated)

Want it in slogan form? Instead of trying to hide our children behind a wall, we have to build a platform for them to stand out. That’s harder in the short-term, but the only answer in the long terms

Some of my leftish friends don’t think you really want to stop immigration, or at least they don’t think it’s the wellspring of your discontent. They see these political demands as an expression of a sort of cultural neglect.

You want us to recognise the importance of ‘identity’ and ‘community’. Translated from pompous, this ends up meaning one of two things. Socially, it leads to a desire to wrap the country in an infinite Diamond Jubilee, with compulsory Morris Dancing and Union Jack tea towels.

You know what we do when we want to appeal to ‘England’, to show how in touch we are with the spirit of Englishness? We organise a fete, and invite the cameras to record politicians in some suburban street, feigning enthusiasm for coronation chicken.  The good politicians feign with shameless alacrity, the bad ones with a hunted, fearful look. The latter are at least honest.

Alternatively, it means giving more powers to local bodies to decide things. Said local bodies being more in touch and somehow authentic. But don’t get too excited, because if you want to, say, deny all local hospital and schools services to immigrants, that wouldn’t be allowed.

This analysis, I think, relies on a fundamental oddness. It creates a definition of authentic Englishness that is deeply fearful, and can’t be given its head because it’s outcrops are wrong and dangerous, but also demands cultural obeisance from the guilty privileged elite.

This defines a defensive, pessimistic and insecure social class, and then attempts to assuage it by bunting, English lessons, talk of our finest hour and endless meetings in parish halls. It ends up being the same thing, hammy praise to a fake Englishness, all chips and pearly queens and bullshit.

I think my friends are patronising the hell out of you. No created cultural identity will protect you. No local devolution will make your voice only a very little louder, mostly because most people barely bother to speak now. Yes, Immigrants can be taught English, but almost all of them want to anyway, precisely because that’s the way to succeed. The ones who don’t who can’t are the elderly and the home-based. They’re not your competition.

There’s one last component to how we’ll patronise you. We’ll tell you that not enough of the working class are insufficiently represented in our elites. That’s right.

But we’ll propose, instead of equipping more working class people with the tools to succeed, a sort of pickled industrial working class authenticity, where only if your grandparents were miners, or you left school as soon as you could, or you retain your accent, do you qualify as a true voice of the people, and a number of these should be given prominence in our national debate. Not enough to win a victory, of course, but enough to be placated on a narrow point, a sort of informal Miner’s bench in the House of Lords.

Naturally, the people writing this stuff don’t tend to desire such dead-end authenticity themselves. They make sure their kids get a good education, and they push like hell to get them into university and the professions, because they know that’s the ticket to success. They write for newspapers with their own coffee shops, and they support leaders whose idea of career development is a year at the Kennedy school of Government.

Look at our politicians and polemicists. Can you imagine any of them being delighted if their kids left school as soon as they could? Can you imagine them advising a daughter of a friend to stay in the same town for their entire career?  I want a society where every child gets the chances of a Toynbee, or a Miliband, or a Cameron, or a Johnson, or a Dromey, or a Benn.

The tragedy of the last half-century is that we paid so little respect to our citizens that we dared not be honest to them about what the decline of the industrial society meant for being working class.

We’ve offered to worship at the altar of a declining industrial working-classishness, instead of devoting enough resources, money and effort to giving our citizens the skills needed to succeed in a  post-manual labour world even our elites are a little afraid of.

The problem is not that there are too many latte-sipping elitists, but too few, and those there are so nervous and guilty about defending their gains they have little interest in sharing the spoils of what is, basically the ticket to a better,  easier, less laborious and drudge-filled life.

I want to end this.

I’m a social democrat. I believe in the ability of every citizen. I’m also a realist. I don’t believe that the state can protect you from everything bad and unknown and risky about a changing world. But I do believe we can prepare your children better than we have.

If you want an apology it should be for our failure to do that.

I’m sorry, not for immigration, but that we didn’t make British emigrants feared in Europe for their skills and inventiveness.

I’m sorry, not that Romanians are taking fruit picking jobs, but that any British citizens should want such jobs.

I’m sorry, not for not listening to ‘England’ but for pickling England in brine.

I’m sorry, not because there aren’t enough working class voices in parliament, but that we’ve not given enough working class children the chance to decide for themselves what a modern working class voice should sound like.

We can change that. But not by telling you that you don’t have to adapt to a changing world. We all will.

Today’s metropolitan elitists are the ones who got the chance to adapt most easily.

That’s what’s unfair. That’s what’s wrong.

Election night: What they didn’t say


I always feel sorry for politicians given the job of commenting on election results as they come in. They have to be loyal, not throw their party leader or unpopular policies under the bus, while ensuring that their positivity bears at least a tangential relationship with reality.

As a result, they tend to resemble more or less advanced automata remotely controlled by the twitter feed of the party press office.

What the party representative says is designed to not cause trouble, while not sounding utterly stupid. This is rarely interesting. In the old days, this was done by pager, so at least they’d get the briefing first, but now most people watching the local election results at 2am get the party line direct from the same twitter feed the MP does, and are a bit bored of it by the time the shadow paperclips minister regurgitates it.

On the other hand, what they don’t say is very interesting.

This is because if things are really going well, your lines to take get proportionately stronger. Win 60% of the vote, gain a thousand council seats and see your new council leaders carried aloft by a grateful populace and you might suggest that this is a thumping endorsement of your visionary leader and their inspired strategy.

This means you can calibrate how well a party really thinks it is doing by the praise their spokespeople fail to utter.

What was missing last night?

UKIP: Little reference to their policies beyond immigration and a plague on all your houses politics. More importantly, little conviction about any chance of winning parliamentary seats.

LIB DEMS: No mention of electoral recovery, or of voters coming back, or of the political pay-off for years of hard choices becoming evident. This is because there wasn’t one, they’re not, and it isn’t.

TORIES: No mention of any electoral reward from voters for the recovery. This is because most people haven’t felt the recovery, so don’t reward the Tories for what they haven’t got.

LABOUR: The usual step for an opposition after successful local or European elections is to call for a General Election. I don’t think Labour have yet made such a clarion call. Nor have they argued that these results indicate increasing public desire for a Labour government. I wouldn’t presume to guess why.

I submit that what wasn’t said is a far better guide to the mood and expectations of the various parties than what they have said, which has mostly been the selective use of data to convince themselves (and potential in-party troublemakers) that things have gone well.

Stuff that works

1 comment

My articles and posts have been getting more and more verbose recently.

I don’t mind that this will repel many readers. My attitude is there’s only a few hundred people in the world who could possibly be interested in what I write.

Best to leave everyone else alone, I reckon, especially if they’ve got a short attention span.

However, I do accept Steve Van Riel’s argument that simple arguments work better politically.

So I’m taking a break from my 5,000 word opus on the centrist response to populism to state the argument in musical form.

Want to know what the political response to populism should be?

Have a listen to Guy Clark.



A good thing, guaranteed!


I’ve been thinking a bit this week about Labour’s GP guarantee pledge, unveiled this week. I’ve been thinking about it because it’s a promise that I think is useful, would do a decent amount of good, seems reasonably well costed and thought through.

Yet hearing it made me, a dyed in the wool Labour supporter and believer in the power of politics to do good, roll my eyes.

In my mind, I imagine how the pledge came to be.  In no particular order, I picture a discussion with patients about what their main frustrations are: the answer coming back “delays in seeing my GP“.  A focus group, confirming this, and saying that solving it would be popular. A meeting, somewhere in Norman Shaw South, or Brewers’ Green, discussing the need for a strong offer on the NHS, something to show the difference between us and the Tories.  A researcher, discovering that patient complaints are rooted in a real increase in waiting times, a result of policy changes since the last government.  A discussion of possible solutions with various healthcare experts.  A search for funding sources and waste.  The pulling together of all these into a coherent, tidy package. The decision to make it a guarantee.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this.  Far from it being the westminster bubble being out of touch, it’s what politics should be about.  Finding out what people’s problems are, trying to identify solutions, fixing the problem, making things better.

Why my muttering then?

Well, obviously, as an outsider, there’s a predisposition to grumpy malcontent.  I didn’t do it, so it must be wrong.  Let’s try to factor that in.  Let’s accept that fixing GP appointment times is exactly the right thing to focus on and that the hundred million identified to fund it is sufficient to the task.  I can believe that.  It seems like something important, and credible, and meaningful to a lot of people.  A hundred million is a lot of money.  I can believe that the application of money and a focus on performance targets will improve things significantly.

I think my problem starts with the guarantee.  We’re going to make sure everyone in England gets a GP appointment within 48 hours, and in 24 hours, if you need it.  That seems like quite a difficult promise to keep.  The NHS is massive.  A quick google tells me there were 340 million GP appointments last year.  That’s nine hundred thousand a day, nearly forty thousand an hour, ten a second.  Every second.  We will guarantee that every single one of those will happen in forty eight hours, or half that if it is needed sooner.

When you’re dealing with stuff on that scale, the natural human fuck up ratio is going to kick in, surely?  Let’s say that one time in every fifty thousand GP appointments, even with a perfectly functioning, well funded system, someone is just a bit crap at their job, and messes up  the booking.  That alone would lead to six thousand eight hundred broken promises every year, which when you think about it is absolutely tiny.  Unless it’s you, obviously.

As soon as that’s opened up, more doubts crowd in.  There’s my vague memory of NHS rows past.  I sort of remember GP appointment times being a huge issue before.  Yes, it was in 2005, when we had the row about GPs only allowing appointments in 48 hours so they could hit their targets.  That was back when we had the old 48 hour target, I discover.

I’m sure we won’t make that mistake again, but it makes me wonder how we’re going to monitor this guarantee.  It’s been hinted it’ll be contractual for GPs, but obviously some people will want appointments a week or a month out.  How will we tell the difference between them and people who’ve been fobbed off?  And another thing..

I’ll stop with the niggles.  The examples are not the point, my doubtful mindset is.  Even though I think the change would be a really good thing, my response to the promise is not ‘brilliant, I really want that‘ but ‘”gosh, that sounds complicated and expensive‘.  So I’m not as impressed as I might be, and instead of enthusiastically telling all my friends about the good a Labour government will do, I’m writing a nit-picky blog.

Hopi, you are a hypocrite, cried the ghost of pledge cards past

Here my past self catches up to me, and points out that I used to want lots of stuff like this on pledge cards.  “What are we supposed to offer the punters if you won’t let us even offer them something positive, understandable and reasonably deliverable“, he asks.  “Look, we even promised an extra hundred million to cut waiting times back in 1997“.

“Hold on” I reply to my bumptious (and somewhat fatter) past self “If a hundred million only treated an extra hundred thousand patients eighteen year ago and there’s 340,000,000 GP appointments..

Past me gets annoyed.  “You promised to stop niggling. That’s not the point, the promise is the point. What can we promise, you grey haired grouchy sod?

To which the answer is..  Well, I’ll come back to you on that. That’s a guarantee.  I promise.

The riddle of unpopular populism


Since last Summer, the Labour party has made a number of policy announcements on issues of major concern to large chunks of the electorate. Capping energy prices, limiting rent increases, introducing a 10p starting rate of tax, building new homes, and so on have all formed part of an intellectually coherent political agenda, one neatly summarised by Rachel Reeves and Emma Reynolds in today’s Independent.

What’s more, each and every one of these policies has been popular. Whatever polling mechanic is used, there is broad support for this agenda, popular approval that is enthusiastically recounted shortly after each announcement in Labour leaning websites and magazines.

We are told, I think honestly, that these announcements score ‘off the charts’ in focus groups. As Jonathan Freedland said in September, the strategy is a populism of the left, and don’t be so damn sniffy, because there’s nothing wrong in politics with being popular.

When the Government struggles to respond to this popularity,  prominent leftish columnists declare that Labour has set the political agenda and there is a general presumption on the left that another step towards victory in 2015 has been taken.

As Polly Toynbee said back in December,

“Labour is some 7% to 8% ahead in the polls, and as I write today, making the weather on issues that matter most to people. What’s more, they are starting to shape what a future Labour government would do – on housing, jobs and wages that looks better than anything the Tories have, as yet, said about the future – except austerity and GDP growth that goes mainly to the top 20%.”

I have various disagreements with Polly Toynbee, but I think she correctly described both Labour’s strategy and our leading figures’ analysis of the party’s task in 2014. I think, by and large, that the party has delivered on the prospectus she set out.

Yet over the same time, Labour’s poll ratings have steadily declined.

According to YouGov, Labour was polling roughly 40% a year ago. Today, that figure is fluctuating between 35 and 37%. After a fairly dull debate, there is now pretty general agreement among poll watchers that this decline is a real thing, not merely random variation.

Nor have Labour’s image ratings improved. There has been no shift in the number of people who think Labour is on their side, or who think Labour’s heart is in the right place.

Number agreeing with statement for Labour:
May 2013
May 2014
The kind of society it wants is broadly the kind of society I want3027
Led by people of real ability1714
Able to take tough and unpopular decisiont1210
Seems to chop and change all the time2628

This raises an apparent contradiction.

If the ‘cost of living crisis’ is real, and Labour’s policies to address it are popular and well received, while the government struggles to respond in a coherent manner, what is going on?

Well, maybe it’s not that big a problem any more. Growth is returning and all that. Unfortunately the data doesn’t stack up for that. People are still feeling the pinch. The problem is still real. It’s just promising to fix it doesn’t seem to be shifting the polls in Labour’s favour.

If promising to cut the cost of living is not increasing Labour support, or even retaining existing voters, despite the overwhelming evidence each promise is popular, what does that imply for Labour’s plans to go back to the cost of living well again and again? Will promising to limit rail increases, or tackle expensive childcare, deliver better results?

One response is to ignore the trend. When ratings slip, someone usually provides a friendly journalist with a list of the reasons Labour will win, including the popularity of the most recent promise.  This gets written up, usually in the New Statesman, and everyone is re-assured (until the poll rating slips another point, in which case rinse and repeat)

Another response is to argue that the reason such popular pledges have not cut through is that they represent too limited an agenda. In this argument, while cheaper energy and lower rent rises are welcome, they need to make more of a difference to people. This usually finds its way into calls for greater boldness and radicalism from the party, whether in limiting executive pay, or increasing national insurance or the top rates of tax.

Politically, the argument here relies on a reservoir of unmotivated younger and working class voters, along with left leaning former Lib Dems, who need to be inspired to the polls. Well, it has the quality of clarity.

I want to suggest one other possibility. We are solving the wrong problem, politically.

Yes, the cost of living crisis is real. Yes, people would like to see petrol prices, and fuel bills, and rent, and mortgages, and shopping, cost less.

However, the challenge for the Labour party is not that people don’t think we would like to make life easier for them, but that they don’t trust us to do so. Bluntly, they think we, and most politicians, are a bit useless.

They have a point. If the crash taught people anything it is that self confident politicians are not in control of all things in the world, from the demand for housing to energy prices, to the movement of huge financial flows, so while it’s fine to point at things and say how expensive they are, how would making them cheaper actually work?

I think of this as the ‘fat man in a tie’ problem. Every time a bright young Labour spokesperson appears on the TV calling for things to be cheaper, they are followed by a sweaty chap in a suit from some trade body for the wealthy and terminally unpopular.

This greasy cowlick says something along the lines of ‘That all sounds very good, but would be a total disaster‘. As political cognoscenti, we see the sweaty greasy suit and our inspiring plain-speaking politician and think ‘score one to the red team‘.

Voters however, doubtful of our efficacy and our credibility, witnesses to a million broken political promises and fairly sure life will continue to be hard who-ever is in power, may conclude that the fat bloke might not be nice, but he could well know how the world works, as he has all the money.

This would imply that the more we tell people we will be able to make things easier and cheaper and better, the more unrealistic, worrying and unbelievable such pledges are. So a ‘bolder, broader’ approach would be unproductive.

Does that mean that a focus on the cost of living must be abandoned? No, it just means that the stress should be on the workability and credibility of the proposals. The ideal would be to leave that sweaty fat man being forced to agree that it could work.

After all, if your populism isn’t proving popular, the problem is probably in your believability.

Or, to put it as I did last yearFaffing on about prices is time that could be spent persuading people we won’t eff everything up‘.