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What is it the proles like again?

Friday, March 21st, 2014

“So long as they (the Proles) continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance.

Left to themselves, like cattle turned loose upon the plains of Argentina, they had reverted to a style of life that appeared to be natural to them, a sort of ancestral pattern…Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, petty quarrels with neighbors, films, football, beer and above all, gambling filled up the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

? George Orwell, 1984

I like bingo. I used to play with my Nana on the seafront at Broadstairs. She was a demon at it. She was also a Tory Street Captain.

I like beer. Those who know me will attest I’m not averse to a pint or two. Sometimes I’d have a beer with my Tory Councillor Grandad.

I wonder what on earth my grandparents would have made of Grant Shapps truly inept online poster – tweeted out last night. How utterly patronising to the life they had worked hard to build for themselves to reduce it to such a crass stereotype.

My Grandparents loved Thatcher. It was something on which we were never, ever going to agree. (I left the arguing about this to my parents – I talked to them about other things as families who disagree do.) They loved her because to them she stood for the values they believed in and had benefited from. Social mobility – though never expressed in those terms – was a key part of their Toryism. As far as they were concerned, she was on the side of people like them. People who had worked their way up from less to more and wanted more for their kids.

The word that really stands out in that poster is “They”. The stereotype is bad. But worse is the sense that the Tories have simply “othered” anyone who isn’t “one of us”. This is Cameron’s noblesse oblige approach to leadership writ large. Pacification not power sharing.



How many people at Conservative Central Office saw that poster before it was published? How many in Grant Shapps office alone? Who was the digital person who designed it? Who wrote the text?

How did not a single one of them spot how awful it was? How have the Tories drift so far from the sense of surety they had in their relationship with certain sections of the working and lower middle classes?

It strikes me that this ad is part of an ongoing effort to deal with the Tories’ UKIP problem. Farrage himself – or at least the carefully crafted image he chooses to project – is almost as much of a patronising stereotype. He’s the saloon bar bore made good.

But people believe Farage is one of them. He appeals as one of them. Not as someone who will dole out the odd treat, but as someone who will stand up for the things they worry about. I wish they didn’t feel this way about Farage (much as I wished the same about Thatcher) but I can’t deny that they do.

They do not feel this way about Cameron’s Conservatives and a couple of pennies off beer and bingo isn’t going to change that. Nor is being patronised about it.

In the end, this poster is a Twitterstorm in a teacup. It will blow over. It is not the poster itself that matters. In the longer term, what matters is how badly the Tories have drifted from Thatcher’s ability to speak to all classes (if not all communities – there weren’t many like my Grandparents in the North East). If they can’t arrest this shrinking of their own interests, if they continue to other those who didn’t go to the right schools and have the right ancestry, then they will continue to be the party that is not seen as representing “people like me”

A major critique from Tory commentators of Ed’s response to the budget yesterday was to call his tactics “Class War”. This Crosby-like line is a relic from the 70s we will hear a lot as the election approaches and Labour continue to push hard on the inequalities that are endemic in our society and are failing all of us.

But this poster exposes the real class warriors. Not those who wish to fight for greater equality for all, but those who simply cannot see those who aren’t like them as a true part of the conversation. They Tories have chosen – deliberately or unconsciously – to be the party where “us” is the 5% who own 20% of our national wealth  and “they” is the rest of us.

Ultimately, this is what will be their undoing.

This post first appeared on LabourList



Stop telling tenants “Success doesn’t live here”

Friday, March 14th, 2014

This column has been on my to do list for a long time. I kept thinking “oh, I must write about that next time the right are attacking Bob Crow about living in social housing”. I never thought I’d be writing it under these circumstances. I never thought I’d write it as they attack him on this issue amid a cloud of other – grudging – praise and eulogy.

I didn’t always agree with Bob Crow. But I did admire him. I admired the job he did for his members. But the thing I admired most about him was his staying in his council house. Bob Crow understood the true meaning of social housing. The right hated him for it, but as with so much, the right are wrong.

By all measures, Bob Crow was a very successful man. He rose to the very top of his chosen profession. He stayed there for 12 years until his untimely death. According to some, this success meant that he should have given up his home. Moved away from his community. Left all that behind.


That isn’t how those in any other tenure of housing have their success rewarded. I’ve never heard discussion of how home owners should be forced to trade up once their income reaches an arbitrary level marked out as “success” – despite the massive demand crisis that also occurs in home ownership. If I increase my earnings, should I be forced to give up my Outer London flat for a Central London one to free up the space for those desperate to get on the housing ladder? Move miles from my family?

Of course not, that would be a crazy idea. So why is it any less crazy for those living in social housing?

It isn’t. But there is a tendency from the right to believe they have a right to sit in moral judgement over the lives of those in social housing. Just look at the hideous, misconceived, arbitrary and downright cruel Bedroom Tax. What is that but a moral judgement about a person’s right to occupy space?

And what does this judgement say to those who do live in social housing? It is a simple message “success does not belong here. Success gets out. You are still here. You are a failure. Those you love are failures”. Imagine growing up hearing that message drilled into you every day. About your parents, your friends, your children.

Supply of social housing is very short. Too much of it has been sold off and not replaced. Too little of it is being built. We face a very real housing crisis. We will solve this crisis not by demonising tenants. Not by forcing those of too little means into more expensive private sector accommodation by grasping at their housing benefit. Not by trying to shame those who achieve financial success out of their own neighbourhoods. We will solve it by building lots and lots of good quality social housing that people want to live in and care for. We will solve it by building neighbourhoods and communities that work. Mixed communities where children grow up with a huge variety of different models of success to emulate.

We will not solve our housing crisis by changing what we mean by social housing. By turning it into short term crisis accommodation. By refusing to allow people to grow roots as they grow in their lives, we disconnect them from their sense of place. Which in turn runs down those very places we say we value so greatly, we demand absolute control over who gets to live there.

People in social housing have a stability of tenure many of us aspire to. Let us not allow the right to use the politics of envy to denigrate their rights. Let us instead use our understanding of the vital importance of that stability and expand it across tenures.

A real win is celebrating thousands of success stories of those reaching their own personal stars from social housing. A real win is expanding security into the private rented sector. A real win spreads success – it doesn’t punish it.

This post was first published on LabourList.


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Tony Blair is as much a part of the Labour story as Len McCluskey

Friday, March 7th, 2014

One Nation.

We use that phrase a lot. Because we use it so often, sometimes we are in danger of not thinking about what it actually means.

To me, it means that we are a Party that tries to bring as many people as possible to our cause. That we hold certain core values to be essential, but how we persuade others of those values is up to us. Our conversation about what those values mean in terms of policy is constantly evolving in pace with the changes we see in the world around us.

I am a very long way from being a Blairite. I didn’t vote for him in the leadership and I found some elements of our time in Government incredibly disturbing. The Iraq war was a hellish mistake we should never have been dragged in to. Our post 9/11 attitude to civil liberties was uncivil and frankly, took liberties. I don’t believe the private sector always have the answer, and I believe we became too bedazzled by wealth at the expense sometimes of tackling inequality head on.

But I also believe that the Minimum Wage is one of the best things any government has ever done to change the lives of the people at the sharp end in this country. I believe that the injection of funding that the Blair government put into our public services, so devastated by years of Tory neglect, saved and transformed countless lives., I believe that in Kosovo intervention headed off a potentially catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

I am no McCluskeyite. I did not choose to use my vote in the last Unite General Secretary election. But I am proud of the changes that the union movement has made to the working lives of ordinary people. In my time in the union movement, I met some incredible Unite reps who work extremely hard – with the backing and support of their union – to make their workplaces better for everyone. I saw lives literally transformed through work Unite did to bring adult education to the work force.

I strongly suspect neither Tony Blair nor Len McCluskey is a Burnellite. And that’s OK. We’re bound to disagree on some things and agree on others. That’s human nature.

I am proud of Labour’s historic links with the trade unions and equally proud that we have chosen to modernise that relationship to make it more personal, more relational. I am also proud of Labour’s record of achievement in government. I will own both – warts and all – as part of who I am when I declare myself a proud Labour tribalist.

So what does any of this have to do with One Nation?

Well the point is that not everyone in the country nor everyone in the Party is going to agree on everything. But that shouldn’t stop us seeking consensus both internally and externally. Finding our common ground and achieving more together than we do alone.

Ed Miliband has taken a lot of criticism from his internal and external critics. Sometimes either covertly or overtly by Blair and McCluskey. But he has built a party that can now be confident enough in its own identity and strength to accommodate both. Both are part of the story we have to tell. They speak to our past and our traditions. They speak to our divisions and our confidence in our ability to have our debates freely. They are a part but not the whole of the narrative we are forming about our future.

A Party that is the home of Len McCluskey and Tony Blair is a party that is confident it has answers to suit both and answers that go beyond both. That is the One Nation ideal. That is the Party that Ed Miliband is leading today. That sounds like the kind of party that wins elections.

This post first appeared on LabourList.


Have the No More Page 3 Campaign got the Sun on the ropes?

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

I have long been a supporter of the No More Page Three campaign. Tits aren’t news. Sadly, the reduction of women to sexual objects isn’t news either. Page three has been around my whole life, shaping my views of what a “sexy” woman is before I even knew I had them.

I wasn’t sure this was a campaign I expected to be successful. The Sun may have lost some of it’s cache, but it’s still pretty powerful. It’s still the paper with the highest circulation. Page three has many vocal champions in powerful places. The succession of editors who have run the paper are simply too intransigent, too unwilling to be persuaded as to what is right by a bunch of uppity women.

The No More Page Three campaign is – by contrast – a scrappy insurgent. II was satisfied that the campaign was fulfilling many secondary objectives. It allows a space for the discussion of female objectification. It offered an alternative viewpoint so young girls might be allowed not to believe that naked and pouting is the role of women in public life. That alone is worthy of the attention that this David and Goliath contest has had.

However, it turns out, David is Davina, and she has a great, clunking birth canal.

Today, the Sun have launched a campaign against breast cancer. Sorry, no, Page three of the Sun has (this was announced on page one).

Tying this campaign explicitly to Page Three is – presumably – intended to make Page Three harder to attack. I’m guessing the line will run: if you attack page three you want women to die of cancer. It’s a very, very poor move on the part of the Sun.

Firstly, it acknowledges for the first time the strength of the opposition to Page Three. Until now, the Sun and it’s supporters’ tactic was to shrug off the campaign as marginal. To sideline it just as they mainstream soft porn. His volte face shows they are running scared. Shows they feel the need to protect Page Three – to attempt to legitimise it. This may look like an aggressive counter move, but make no mistake – it is a retreat.

Secondly, the Sun are the ones trying to play games with cancer victims. Let’s suppose that the wonderful women behind the No More Page 3 campaign don’t instantly capitulate like the weak little girlies the Sun clearly think they are. What if they keep going and eventually, the Sun do bow to the pressure to do the right thing. Are the Sun really going to withdraw funding from Breast Cancer care and research (as the Sun’s campaign is behind a firewall I don’t have the exact details, the Times I will pay for, but this is a step too far even for you my dear readers!) ? And do they think that by doing so, they will be able to shift the blame on to the anti-page three campaigners? Hardly seems likely!

Finally, what about women who are survivors of breast cancer? Has anyone asked them how they feel about this move? Or about page three more generally? I’d be willing to bet some – particularly those who have had more severe surgical treatments – might not have a 100% positive attitude to the objectification on display. Some might want to see a greater variety of women’s shapes and sizes recognised as sexy for example. Not just the same pert parade day in day out. One of the sexiest things about the human race is our capacity for variety. This is overlooked by the hard of imagination editors of the Sun.

I used to be a resignedly sceptical supporter of the campaign to end Page Three. As a republican it’s a feeling I am used to. But this move shows how rattled the Sun truly are. How close therefore we are to victory. One last push (up) women. We’re with you!


My speech to Labour’s Special Conference

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

Comrades and Friends, My Name is Emma Burnell and I am proud to be here today representing the Socialist Societies.

The Socialist Societies – in the form of our oldest group the Fabians– were part of founding the Labour Party. I’d like to thank Lord Collins and our NEC Representative Conor McGinn for all the work they have done to ensure that we remain at the heart of our Party’s work and are seen – rightly – as vital to the Party’s future.

As Lord Collins points out when identifying the challenge to Labour this review seeks to address:

Some people are less inclined to vote or become members of political parties. Many have an “a la carte” approach to politics, feeling more comfortable supporting organisations on an issue by issue basis.

This is where the Socialist Societies come into our own. We act as a bridge between communities of interest and the Labour Party. We are experts and practitioners in areas as diverse as housing, health, education and many others. We are members of the communities we champion. Whether your concern is LBGT rights, women’s rights or the role of the Irish Diaspora in the UK there is a Socialist Society for you.

And crucially, not just for you (though I urge Labour Party members to get involved). Much like the unions, Socialist Societies have been a path to Party membership for many people. You start with SERA and the environment and become involved with the Party as that relationship deepens.

The Socialist Societies are the ideal vehicle through which to build on movements that are central to the core values of the Labour Party and we will be proud to continue to do so by championing our affiliate members and bringing them ever closer to the Party at every level.


Now I don’t know about you, but at the last leadership election, I had 6 votes. (Ed, you’ll be pleased to hear I cast all of my first preferences for you!). Even understanding – as I did then and do now – the importance of our federal structure, that felt faintly ridiculous. What felt even more ridiculous was that it would have taken my having nearly 11,000 votes to have as much say as one single MP.

I bow to no one in my admiration for the work that our Parliamentary Labour Party do. It’s an incredibly important and often undervalued role. But however much I admire them, I simply don’t believe that one MPs vote should be worth more than mine, more than yours, more than anyone who wants a say in our Party and shares our values enough to choose to affiliate. That’s not how democracy works.

So I am delighted to support the move to One Member (or Affilated Supporter) One Vote. It is right that we do so. We have long been on this journey, and I commend Ed Miliband and Lord Collins for making these changes.

The Labour Party is opening ourselves up to the British Public. Through our work in communities up and down the country, we are making sure we are campaigning on the issues people care about. The Socialist Societies can and will be an essential part of continuing to make this happen.

That is why I am happy to commend this report and urge delegates to vote in favour of these changes.


Game Over Guido

Friday, February 21st, 2014

Guido is causing a rather silly stink about the percentage of Labour female MPs who have stepped down compared to Tory female MPs.

He has a post here which shows that Labour has a lost of female MPs of 11.1% to the Tories 10.4%. Which is true.

Here’s something else that’s true: Apart from the deselected Anne McIntosh, all the Tory women who are stepping down (or have already done so) so far were elected in 2010. In fact they have an average length of service of 7.2 years. 4.5 years if you count those who have voluntarily stepped back from the Tory Parliamentary Party.

Another true fact: The Labour women stepping down have an average length of service of 21.2 years. The longest serving, Ann Clwyd has been an MP for 31 years.

That’s quite a stark difference. As is the clear difference between an MP retiring and one stepping down after one term. Labour have had more women for longer. So of course some are coming up for retirement.

Still, you can prove anything with facts. You can also make a nonsense of those self same facts as Guido has today decided to prove!


PMQs: Change it – don’t scrap it

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

I have a piece over on Comment is Free defending PMQs (because someone has t0!) here.




Who’d be an MP?

Friday, February 14th, 2014

MPs are paid pretty well. That’s certainly true and it’s is worth saying right at the top. But this financial compensation doesn’t seem anything like enough to  make up for everything that goes along with it.

MPs work incredibly long hours, sometimes their formal work means putting in 70 hour weeks. And outside of those 70 hours, you are never really “off”. You live in your constituency, so every trip to the supermarket and every school run means meeting those you represent. Which is great a lot of the time, but sometimes there are days for all of us when we just want to race around Tescos anonymously buying crisps. That isn’t possible when your face is the one that represents the area.

And if it were simply a case of constituents expecting you to be available to them 24/7 (despite your party being the one that campaigned on and won important Labour laws such as the Working Time Directive and the right to paid holidays and weekends) that would be OK. Because you do love what you do, and you do love helping people. It’s why you got into it in the first place.

But alongside the lack of a private life is the constant suspicion. The constant abuse. Why are you out to dinner with your husband? That’s not what I pay my taxes for. What are you buying at Sainsburys? I bet you’re putting it on your expenses. You’re all the same. You’re all corrupt.

Then when you get to Parliament, you find that it’s hard (not impossible but not exactly encouraged) to get things done. You are just one of a large group. A group that is whipped to vote a certain way and whose choices are largely made by your party managers.

You don’t get a job description. You don’t get HR support. your future career choices are all made at the whim of your leadership. Want to apply the background knowledge you have built up on the environment? Sorry, your face fits better on the Health Select Committee. Want to apply your lifelong passion for the NHS? Sorry, we’d rather you took up the role of junior minister at the department for Transport. Maybe next time though…

I used to want to be an MP. I used to want to make a difference. Be part of the group of campaigners who make legislation. Be an important part of making a change to the world.

But I changed my mind. I wouldn’t do it now for all the tea in China. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve lost none of my zeal to make a difference, none of my passion for the Labour Party and Labour politics.

But the thing is – I have a life. A life I like. A life where my motives aren’t constantly under question or attack. When I go to the Co-op, the only person questioning my choices is me.

The expenses scandal was dreadful. A real nadir in our public life. But the scandal did not create the atmosphere in which MPs are viewed as little more than criminals on the rob, it merely confirmed those oft-voiced suspicions.

We frequently lament that there aren’t enough “ordinary” people in politics. Frankly, I’m surprised there are as many as we currently do have. Most ordinary people, when faced with the kind of life I’ve outlined would do exactly as I have – turn away. You have to be pretty extraordinary to put yourself through all this. Pretty resilient to keep going.

We deserve the best representatives in the world. We deserve the right to scrutinise them and to criticise them when they do wrong.

But if we want the best representatives in the world, we have to be open to accepting that those who choose to do it probably have good motives. If we constantly treat anyone who wants to be an elected representative with suspicion, then only those who don’t care about being seen as suspicious will apply.

The time of deference to our elected representative has – quite rightly – passed. But if we allow it to continue to be replaced only with an atmosphere of febrile loathing then we will continue to put off far better candidates than me. So if you want MPs you don’t hate, stop assuming everyone who is or wants to be an MP is automatically hateful. Because this self-fulfilling notion is itself responsible for the denigration of our democracy. And that harms us all.


What does success look like?

Friday, February 14th, 2014


Can you ever envisage yourself being delighted that a local hospital has been closed? Or a police station? It’s pretty hard to imagine.


But a truly successful NHS focused on early intervention and prevention would focus far, far fewer of its resources on acute care – because far, far fewer people would reach the stage where restorative rather than preventative medicine is required.


A truly successful care system would mean no elderly people in hospital because there was nowhere else for them to be cared for. Far fewer sent there as a result of falls or other preventable accidents.


And a truly successful crime strategy would prevent far more people from offending, meaning far less crime to be investigated and prosecuted.


These sound like good, if lofty, goals. But all would produce outcomes that would be very hard to swallow for the average Labour activist. Hospitals that are less needed would close. Acute care would be downgraded. We would pay less for that end of the NHS. Police Stations would close. We would pay less for the acute end of the criminal justice system.


None of this is to support the vandalism of the current government, who are doing all the closing without any of the reallocation of resources which has to come first. And not just first by a few months. This will take a generation to turn around.


Nor does it mean that all acute care can or should be driven from the system. It will still be necessary and for those with long term or acute conditions it will be essential. But imagine if we could add slack to the system by healing so many users before they fell into need? How much better would that be both for those never reaching the acute stages of illness, and for those with a system properly dedicated to specialising in the needs that remained.


We are not there. We are not anywhere close to being there. To get there would take a cultural shift of such huge proportions it is hard to imagine our getting there. Despite the obvious benefits, getting there would be a long hard task. longer than a parliamentary term.  And the money would have to be balanced across both systems as the changeover took place. A big bang would leave too many people currently in acute need with nowhere to go. As we are seeing from the rising waiting lists and falling standards the Tories are giving us now. No, this would be an expensive investment in a far distant future. Something no time limited politician is likely to be keen to sign up for.


But is is worth remembering to take a step back and look at what success really means. To think about the consequences of not changing the way we interact with the state when it comes to health, social care and crime. Because at the moment, success means beating the Tories off as they try to demolish our national health service. Hospital by hospital we fight the good fight and ensure that care is still provided wherever we can. It’s a good, brave and valid fight. And I have enormous admiration for those who fight it.


But it is not the only fight. The trickier one is to fight for a truly successful future model of preventative healthcare. The trickier one is to look to that time when those same campaigners can celebrate the closing of a hospital as the successful end result of vastly improved health outcomes.


Less people needing care is also what success looks like. We should remember to remember that.

This post first appeared on LabourList.




Arnie Graf offers a politics that is not just for the rich or weird

Friday, February 14th, 2014

If it is true that the smears on Arnie Graf being fed to the worst enemies of Labour are coming out of our own party then somebody has very real reason to feel extremely ashamed.

But if they think that smearing our allies and denying the empowerment of our membership as more than leaflet fodder is  how elections are won, they have very real reason to be considered extremely stupid.

It really is very simple: engaged activists do more. More engagment, more activists, more activity.

Some of them want to take part in more traditional activities like leafleting or canvassing. Some prefer to reach out to their communities in different ways. There is room for both in the Labour Party and anyone who wants to force a choice between these activities has neither the best interests of the members nor the electoral prospects of the Labour Party at heart.

It is an oft-repeated complaint about New Labour that they gloried in defining themselves against their activist base. This was certainly true to an extent. On a raft of policy measures, the leadership struck out to places the party didn’t want to go – be that 40 day detention, the Iraq war or our craven failure to invest in social housing. These are all areas where Ed Miliband has accepted that we would have been better listening to the membership on policy.

But this isn’t even about policy. It’s not about the decisions we will or won’t make in government. It’s about the experience of being a Party member.

Now I have a secret to divulge to whoever it is that doesn’t want to offer Party members new and old interesting ways of engaging:

Whisper it…

Membership of political parties is not in decline because party membership is just too much damn fun.

I know, shocking right.

Party membership has little to do with setting Party policy – particularly in government (as the Lib Dems are discovering to the increasing embarrassment of their once much vaunted “democratic” party). But for enough people to engage in to make politics the sport of the people not the preserve of the rich, powerful and weird, it has to work for the people.

Labour’s embrace of community organising is doing just that. It is about people up and down the country making things better in their communities. People who might then feel considerably more willing when the time came to deliver a leaflet or knock on doors. People whose first experience of activism wasn’t a despondent meeting in a freezing church hall, but a coming together of friends and friends-to-be to create, grow, run and build.

Now I am weird. I canvass, I bash the phones and sometimes I even leaflet. If (having recently moved) my new CLP get in touch and ask me to do so again, I will do. But my neighbours won’t. Because they aren’t weird. But they just might work together to solve the issue we have with our refuse collection. Or come together to create a community space.

Labour is losing nothing by offering different ways to get involved. No one is suggesting that community activism should (or even could) come at the expense of canvassing. If you like, if it helps, think of community activism as a gateway drug. The gentle high that will lead to the full on addiction and  a life on the GC. Not everyone will take that next step. But they are adding to the body politic in their own way. And they are not missing from the other types of activism they were never going to do anyway.

Party politics has be be cracked open. Labour have to adapt to survive. If those inside the party attacking Arnie Graf don’t see that then we are doomed. The current model is dying on its arse. We have seats with a contact rate of 0.2%. This is not what success looks like. It is not what I want those whose job it is to lead my party to success to believe it looks like. We need to inject new life into our old ways.

That doesn’t mean abandoning them, it means enhancing them. Doing them better and doing other things too. Doing what suits the contacts we make not simply Contact Creator. Working in ways that benefit others as well as ourselves and understanding how we can then share in those benefits.

Setting up a pointless internal fight between those who prefer to canvass and those who are enthused through community action is the biggest waste of political time I can possibly imagine. We have an election to win. Let’s all work together in our different ways to do so.

This post first appeared on LabourList.




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