For personal reasons I will be taking a brief hiatus from blogging.
For personal reasons I will be taking a brief hiatus from blogging.
Aged 8, I coined my basic political philosophy: Labour good, Tory bad, Liberal funny.
Now obviously my political understanding has developed a certain amount of nuance since then. But I still find it hard to take the Lib Dems seriously. I never really knew what they were for, but at least before 2010, it used to be easier to understand what they were against. Even if that usually constituted “this sort of thing“.
I think it takes a great deal of comfortable self deception to look at the state of the UK and think the chief solutions are not about economic but libertarian issues. But that’s why I’m not a Lib Dem.
Labour and the Tories – being parties who primarily define on the left/right axis don’t have fixed positions on the Liberal/Authoritarian axis. Equally, it can be argued that the Liberals – having defined themselves on one extreme of the Lib/Auth axis, don’t have a set position on the economic axis.
This used to be what set them apart. During the Labour government, I lost count pretty quickly of Lib Dems who told me (with no small amount of superiority) that the real fights were about civil liberties. Everything from genuinely vital liberty threatening issues like 90 day detention to weird conspiracy theories about CCTV – this was, according to my (uniformly well off) friends what really mattered. Anyone still stuck caring about inequality, poverty or the distribution of wealth – as opposed to the distribution of votes – was a conformist square.
Let’s be honest – it was annoying. But on the other hand, as Labour went massively over the top in their response to 9/11 it was not pointless. There was a need for someone to speak up for liberal measures and to campaign to ensure they had a place in our politics.
Now the Lib Dems are in government. Now more than ever they have a chance to raise the profile of liberal issues. And let’s face it – having failed dramatically to make the slightest bit of difference to our democracy, it’s what they have left.
But the Lib Dems are going to end their first chance at government for the best part of a century having made no real liberal advances. Sure, they’ve stopped the Tories from doing some stuff – though not everything their members would like – but there is not going to be a single bit of legislation that they can point to and say “we made our kind of difference”.
When I point this out to my Liberal friends I get two kinds of answers. The “coalition” or the “electability” response. Neither are an excuse.
The coalition argument just shows how little faith they ever had in the arguments they made (and lost) about reforming our democracy. Sure they can’t get everything they want, but they aren’t getting anything they want. They are failing the arguments for coalition by failing to show how it might work beyond the shuffling of chairs & a few ministerial limos.
The electability argument is worse. Not only is it everything they accused me and other Labour supporters of being for 13 years, but it is also – unforgivably – bad politics. Refusing to campaign on the one thing that made you unique is now the one thing you won’t do. Because you’re frightened people won’t vote for it. Well you can’t win an argument if you don’t make an argument.
The Lib Dems have made it clear that their theme for this government is centred around their raising of the tax threshold. There are plenty of arguments to be had about this measure. But none of them are about the promotion of liberal values. None of them move the political conversation off the traditional left/right axis.
In the lifetime of half a government, the Lib Dems have failed to implement democratic change and have given up fighting for liberal values. It’s a joke my 8 year old self would appreciate.
This post first appeared on LabourList.
Episode 56 of the House of Comments podcast “A Pretty Straight Sort of Guy” was recorded on Sunday and was out yesterday. This week myself and Mark Thompson analyse Tony Blair’s latest comments about the UK political scene with respect to Labour in particular, Iain Duncan-Smith’s suggestion that wealthy pensioners should hand back their universal benefits and we look ahead to the upcoming local elections.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here (note – this is a new feed so if you used to subscribe to the old feed a couple of years ago you’ll need to do so again).
Empathy is a word much used and much abused in politics. We use it to describe what those we criticise do not have – hence the Labour focus on the millionaire cabinet and their inability to connect with the squeezed middle or the Tories criticising Labour for not showing due respect to the death of a former Prime Minister.
We also occasionally use it to talk about the less tangible qualities of our political leaders. Nick Clegg was seen as having empathy during the Leaders debates hence Cleggmania. David Cameron’s hugging hoodies and Ed Miliband “on a train” are clearly similar attempts to captures that feeling that whatever their policies, the leader is a well rounded and empathetic human being.
But empathy can sometimes in short supply in politics at all levels and on all sides, and this is no clearer than when we look at the ongoing debate about welfare reform. It is only when debates become as entrenched as this one has that we truly see every side’s lack of understanding not just of what their opponents’ arguments are, but what their motivations are too.
(By the way, I am not seeking to aggrandise my own position. I too suffer from this disease of our politics. I get angry at what I deem to be Tory cruelty – or at least wilful blindness to the effects of their ideology. I have called Tory members evil. I was wrong to do so, but I would be equally wrong not to admit that I have done so here.)
I don’t know anyone who thinks the welfare systems we have now works. Whether you think Atos assessments are too harsh or too lenient; whether you think levels of work-related benefits are too stingy or too generous; whether you think that the system is too impersonal or too cosseting we all agree that the system is broken and needs change.
So everyone believes in change, but few agree what change means. We in Labour continue to have that debate and it is far from settled.
But the debate as it currently happening doesn’t make sense, because neither side are being honest about the motives of the others – so convinced are they thay playing to the gallery and playing up the stereotypes will win the day.
For example, the reasons Labour is concerned with the welfare of the poorest and most vulnerable in society are extremely far removed from the motives so frequently ascribed to us by Tory activists. As far as many Conservative commentators are concerned, Labour’s motivation in supporting and investing in the welfare state is purely electoral. They hold and espouse a fervent belief ithat Labour is determined to create a “client state” through use of welfare and benefits that will then vote Labour en masse.
Now in all the years I have been a Labour Party member – and in all the conversations I’ve had with members and leaders – I’ve never, not once, heard even an inkling that Labour’s concern for those in receipt of support from the state had anything to do with electoral calculation and everything to do with our belief in our moral mission to support and raise up the many and not the few and to be a voice and a party for all the people – including the most vulnerable.
However, we are just as guilty of misrepresentation. For example, the Tories are wrong – not evil. They too believe in a moral mission to rescue people from what they see as the ignominy of dependence. That their wrongness has evil consequences is something we are free to shout to the rooftops. But as we fail to understand their motives, we will fail to defeat their arguments.
But the lack of empathy doesn’t just occur between politicians. In our support of the most vulnerable, labour members have sometimes found it easier to ignore, misrepresent or lose empathy for the working poor. Those who live in communities where the very small number who do abuse their benefits also live are those who most believe that benefits are too generous and too freely taken. But some members see any discussion of these issues as a betrayal of our values – not as a part of the obligation our values place upon us to manage a system that those whose tax burden makes up a greater portion of their income than most can feel comfortable supporting. It is in representing those communities that we recognise that compulsion and compassion must both be part of our lexicon when we discuss our approach to welfare reform.
Just as they fail to understand what motivates Labour to fight for a fair and fully supportive welfare state, the Tories also fail to understand the role of empathy in dealing with those who will lose from the results of their moral quest. For example, the tin-eared semantic complaints about the branding of the “bedroom tax” has been an attempt to both sideline and ignore its victims. Their belief in the importance of creating winners denies the role that goes to those who lose out under free market fundamentalism.
The public want a party to be tough on welfare and welfare abuse. They think Labour are far too weak on this issue. But equally they don’t trust the Tories to get tough fairly. Their lack of empathy has cost them on an issue over which they should win. Our lack of empathy could deny us an all important hearing.
Empathy is not the same as patronage or agreement. One can understand the Tories position without agreeing with it. In fact to fight it effectively we must understand it better than we do. I often speak of the value of tribalism in politics. Politics is an oppositional occupation. But we can be proud of our tribe without misrepresenting our opponents. We can be successful in opposing our enemies without making them “other” though the language of evil. And it is only by doing so that we will earn our chance to make our arguments.
This piece first appeared on LabourList
Tony Blair is right. Labour can’t merely be an opposition crying foul at every move the coalition makes – however foul those moves are. If all we are pledged to do is reverse their damage to our institutions come the next election – with no sense of funding or ambition of our own – we will fail to be an alternative and fail to win the election that would even give us the chance to undo that damage.
Tony Blair is wrong in a number of his assumptions though. His binary view of politics – ironic for the man who campaigned on the dreadful slogan “forward – not back” sees only two alternatives – Labour of the 70s and 80s and Labour of the 90s and 00s. He (and many other critic of the Ed Miliband project) are fighting what they see as a rear guard action against old Labour incursion that doesn’t really exist.
But in doing so they are negating the chance to debate, mould and interact with the very real place that Labour is going: not back to either our old or new comfort zones but onto to more difficult and more contested terrain. Now is not the time for glib certainties – from left or right – but for the heavy lifting to be done to see how we really can move on from a consensus that has broken and how bold we can be when doing so.
Labour is moving towards a place where we are comfortable with state activism – while remaining sceptical of the state’s ability to deliver that activism centrally. That asks real questions of how we deliver the kind of changes we want to see. Below are a few answers to how Labour can make this work in areas which should form the key basis of our next manifesto.
1. Work at the heart of all we do
The clue’s in the name – we’re the Labour Party. A Party set up to represent those who work and those who want to work. This doesn’t mean buying into the Tories divisive rhetoric, but as unemployment his 2.56 million, any strategy for dealing with the economy must include strategies to get more people working. This means job guarantees (and yes, that means an element of compulsion). It also means a massive change in the way we provide and promote apprenticeships. Government loans, use of procurement rules (all along the supply chain) and investment in industries that will bring with them long term employment (see points 2 and 3) will all be essential parts of any Labour full employment strategy.
But we cannot stop at getting people into work. We must be better at looking after them when they get there. A living wage economy – again encouraged through agile use of procurement and the supply chain – and a retention of workers’ rights will be essential to building a workforce of the future that has the kind of positive bonds to their Labour that enable a good economy to work for everyone.
2. Investment in housing will repay itself
Thanks to Osborne’s continuing mismanagement of the economy, there is not going to be a bounteous economy in which everything can be fixed by further government investment. Labour must choose wisely how to arrest the cold fingers of austerity from its continual choking of our economy. But – while interest rates are at historic lows – it is insane not to invest in our economy now while we are on the downswing and do so in ways that maximise the return on that investment.
Housing is key to this. Labour should do everything they can to create a housing boom the likes of which we haven’t seen since after the war. For every pound invested in housing a further £2.4 are generated in the local economy. Well managed and well planned housing and communities bring money and jobs to an area like little else – and keep them there. Labour must pull every lever to ensure this happens – from restoring grants to social housing builders, bringing in measures like a Land Value Tax to counter land banking and taking housing out of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement to make it easier for councils to build.
3. Support for technologies that work
In office – up until the post-crash period – Labour was far too timid about “picking winners”. We cannot be so shy again. The next Labour Government should invest heavily in making the UK the world leader in the manufacture and design of renewable energy technologies. That means Government investment – in grants and low interest loans – at every level. It means changing the focus in schools to cover much more science and engineering. It means investing in our centres of research such as our universities. It means working with the new businesses who will be the world leaders of the future to ensure that Britain is the basis of that industry.
But those world leaders do not have to be like the corporations that we have now nor the Government owned industries that came before them. Encouraging cooperatives and worker owned companies to be essential to the industries of the future help us build a future that is not only self-reliant when it comes to energy – helping us help consumers (see point 5) – but also one that creates the kind of industry with a satisfied workforce to essential to the rebuilding of our economy.
4. Abandon technologies that don’t
I don’t have any ideological problem with carrying an ID card or a DNA database. I have a massive problem with the Government paying an enormous amount of money for any scheme that will not work. If Labour are to learn our lessons from our time in Government, one key one should be – stop trying to centralise everything and never, ever build another central Government database. Not because we’re all basically Big Brother coming to get you. I’m neither paranoid nor immature. But because they don’t work. They inevitably cause more problems than they were ever mooted to solve and they cost a fortune.
Instead go back to the kind of bottom up, people based approach which is so often missed from our addiction to technocratic solutions and encourage the correct sharing of information through relational workplaces. It may sound unrealistic – but have you heard what this Government thinks is going to work for Universal Credit? It could never, ever be worse than that.
5. Put citizens at the heart of their consumption choices
We need to make people feel valued again. This is essential in their work but also in the way they are able to interact with the world around them. At present, most of the key areas of our lives – how we heat and light our homes, how we manage our money, how we communicate with each other, how we travel even how we get basic necessities like food and water – are controlled largely be a few extremely large companies. These companies purport to compete on price (and do so to the limits of their regulation) but offer no sense of customer control or service. They don’t have to. They run these cartels of disrespect, knowing as long as they’re all as bad as each other it isn’t something they have to invest in or compete on.
Labour must continue to break up these cartels and crack open the markets wherever possible and have started developing innovative ways of doing so in terms of the energy companies and encouraging local saving through credit unions. We need to see a great deal more of this as we progress.
In the past, we have confused “consumer choice” with choosing consumption. This is not the same thing. Consumers must be given real power over what they can choose in each area of their lives, but along with that power must come the responsibility of choosing wisely. A consumer should not be able to choose to harm others in order to save themselves money. So retention of the smoking ban and further moves to shift the tax burden from positives like work to negative behaviours must continue.
This isn’t a manifesto. It’s not even answers to all of Blair’s questions. Not all of Blair’s questions were – frankly – relevant in today’s society. I haven’t even touched on the NHS and Social Care (a doubly long essay all of its own). But it is a spine from which to build a vision of a Labour future. Not old, not new, but ours.
This post first appeared on LabourList
As I’ve said before, Labour needs to move on from Blair. Not because New Labour was an intrinsically wrong approach to the issues Labour and the country faced in 1994, but because Continuity New Labour is the intrinsically wrong approach to the issues Labour and the country are faced with in 2013. Mark Ferguson is quite right that the old fashioned and out of touch nature of Blair’s calls for a bloodless, pre-social media, message managed approach that simply has no place in modern politics.
New Labour was born from terrible beginnings. The architects were right that Labour had become an electoral disaster stuck in a comfort mode of simply opposing and not offering a fully coherent and attractive alternative government. Labour cannot and must not fall into the trap of just being oppositional. But this is not a binary choice. We don’t have to choose between highlighting the cruelties and failures of the Tory approach and offering our own alternatives. A good opposition must do both.
I get that the result of the 1992 election scarred a lot of people in the Labour Party. But we need to move on from that too. Because the 1997 – 2007 way of doing things has become just as much of a comfort blanket to some Labour members as has the 1980 – 1987 approach.
There seems to have settled in some less imaginative members of the Labour Party an idea that there are only two ways of being Labour – new and old. If you aren’t one, you simply must be the other. But to those of us who are neither it’s deeply insulting. We’ve moved beyond both. Which is good because neither have the answers we need now. This is not about the battles of the past – be they Foot Vs Thatcher or Brown Vs Blair. It’s about the battles of the present and the battle for the future.
Just as Thatcher set the tone from the 80s for those who would follow her from Labour, so too did Blair set the tone for those who would follow him from the Conservatives. That’s why Lance Price is so wrong to argue that Ed Miliband is in trouble if the Tories agree with Blair’s analysis. The truth is quite the opposite. If Ed Miliband really is determined to be a politician who changes the consensus – as I believe he is – then surprising your opponents is essential. Cameron and Osborne are dealing with their own comfort zones too. Between their Thatcherite policy making and sub-Blairite politicking they show little attempt at truly being a Government that can change the political consensus. Cameron and Osborne agree with Blair simply becuase they lazily took on his approach to political analysis and communication rather than ever trying to define and carve out their own space and define their own style.
Ed isn’t doing that. Ed has his own analysis, and his own approach. That’s quite right but it’s also quite unsettling for those whose approach he is moving away from. But that’s why it is a million miles from either of Labour’s stifling comfort zones.
There was somewhat predictable outrage from some parts of the left over the weekend, when Labour’s unloved DWP shadow, Liam Byrne, announced a new approach to welfare reform including emphasis on contributions, a full employment strategy and giving councils the option to give those who work or contribute to their communities’ priority on social housing lists.
Arguments around the contributory principle and full employment will continue elsewhere, but for me the really interesting part – and where most people are going horribly wrong – is attacking the idea of more flexible housing powers for social housing.
Tags: social housing
Nick Cohen at the Spectator makes the interesting point that the Tories have not achieved a poll bounce despite their supposed win over the welfare narrative this past week. His explanation follows the evidence of Lord Ashcroft’s polling that the public may quite like some Tory ideas, but they don’t like or trust Tories to implement them fairly. It’s my belief that they don’t trust Labour to do so either. In many ways the polls refusal to budge on an issue-by-issue, week-by-week basis is probably a result of the sense of “a plague on both your houses” that voters feel at the moment. Labour are doing better out of that because voters dislike the Tories and the Lib Dems more. UKIP are benefiting because they offer an alternative – even if that alternative is basically the boorish ramblings of a pub bore.
As has been said frequently, not being the Coalition is not going to be enough. even if it were enough to win an election it would not be a suitable basis for Government. But as I am not a nihilist, I don’t believe that “not the coalition” is what we are offering now nor what we will be trapped into offering at the next election. Labour can and should offer something vastly different on welfare that plays both ot our strengths and to the voters preconceptions of us. Welfare centred on work. Welfare that works. I think this is what is being fleshed out by Labour at present.
But if Labour are going to be as radical as they are talking about being and as radical as I would like them to be, I’m afraid they need a better salesperson. Liam Byrne is too associated with mishap, poor choices in terms of language and presentation and a bloodless technocracy that is an unfair caricature of the man (who has fought the Bedroom Tax magnificently for example). It’s not personal, but if this is going to be the brief where Labour takes it’s greatest risks both in terms of implementing real change and in terms or potentially alienating some of our more excitable supporters, then it’s time for Ed to display some of that famed ruthlessness that saw him snatch the leadership and move Liam to a role he would be far better suited to.
Whatever Labour decides to do however, the last week has not played as well for the Tories as it ought to have done if their plans to make this a wedge election issue are to work. Because most of the really damaging welfare reforms have only just come in, that damage is still – for the moment – largely theoretical. It is while the skivers of the imagination are at the forefront of everybody’s minds that the Tories have their best shot at storming a lead based on their tough on welfare stance. As the cuts get real, happen to real people with real friends, real children and real stories to tell, the narrative gets harder for the Tories.
I would say the Tories have a while still to pull ahead. The public are currently behind this narrative. But that will get harder as more and more faces are put to the Bedroom Tax. As more and more children suffer as a result of Benefits capping and as more and more disabled people suffer under changes to ESA. And as more and more people find that the Tories mean their benefits too. The ones earned by the honest, hard-working folks and not just the folk devils.
I have said before that I don’t believe there is anything Labour can do to out-bastard the Tories in the minds of the general public on welfare – despite us previously trying. It’s a dead end. A cul-de-sac. A lost cause. It’s not just the wrong thing to do (which it is) it won’t work. But there is a chance that Labour can move the debate on just a little bit to a safer place electorally. Add some nuance to the debate. It is the only chance we have of neutralising this issue for us electorally and equally the only chance to give us the opportunity to take the kind of radical action that is essential if we are to genuinely reform the welfare state to make it work.
If we can hold our nerve over the next few months we have a chance. If we capitulate to the Tory narrative – despite how little it is doing even for them – we lose that chance and lose that opportunity. Perhaps forever.
Tags: welfare reform
This has not been the week for calm and rational thought on any side of the welfare debate.
The right – up to and including the Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister – have gone off the deep end in linking the deaths of six innocent children to the fact that their household received help from the state. That this case reported in the same week as many of the changes brought in through the Welfare Reform Act – including the pernicious Bedroom Tax – was too much to resist. As has so often been the case, cuts to all welfare have been justified by the most extreme of cases highlighted as if it were the norm.
But if we look at the individual facts of the case, and at some of the proposed solutions that have been posited from left and right on the matter of the benefits received by that household, we can see that this case is far more complex. There are some implications for welfare reform, but not necessarily the ones you will have read about so far this week.
So what do we know?
We know that the household received quite a considerable income from a combination of the cleaning wages of the two adult women Maraid Philpott and Lisa Willis, unemployment and housing related benefits recieved by Mick Philpott and Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits received on account of the children who lived in the household.
We also know that before their deaths, the children seemed well turned out and healthy, they had toys and were described by neighbours as happy. As there were eleven children living in the house until 2012 and six after that point, we can assume the cost of caring for these children was not inconsiderable. We can also assume that whatever proportion of the income that was received by Philpott for housing related benefit was paid directly to the landlord. But we also know that Philpott felt a sense of entitlement to a certain level of lifestyle. He built an extension to house a full sized snooker table and the house had two large televisions. Objectively we can ask how there was enough money to own these things, but we must also ask what his priorities would have been had there been less money coming in. Would the children have suffered more or would Philpott’s lifestyle have taken the hit? Given that this was a man willing to put his children at what turned out to be fatal risk, this is not a question that can be easily dismissed.
One suggested policy that has been re-proposed this week on the back of interest in this case is the limiting child benefit to two children (£). It is hard to understand how that would work when children have different parents. Mick Philpott had children with five different women. Even if each of those women had limited the number of children to two there would still have been ten children brought into this dysfunctional family. We rightly mourn the death of these innocent children. We should not use our outrage at the actions of their parents to further harm other children from large families by making their lives harder and more poverty stricken.
As Child Benefit is given to the person designated “responsible” for the child, each women could separately claim they are that responsible adult. Child Benefit will remain a benefit claimed individually rather than as part of the household based Universal Credit. So each of the women in this case could presumably continue to claim for at least two children. With both Lisa Willis and Maraid Philpott bringing a child into the relationship with them, there could – theoretically – have been six children in this household and a further six from former lovers covered by this notion.
I am assuming this is the reason right wingers keep bringing up the prosecution’s case (one which is not reflected in the judge’s summing up) that the reason Philpott wanted Lisa Willis back was financial as opposed to reasons of dominance, control and obsession cited by the judge. Mick Philpott was – from at least the age of 21 – an extremely violent and controlling man. The women in his life were always considerably younger than him and from insecure backgrounds. They were cowed by violence and kept for years in a near permanent state of pregnancy which Chief Executive of Women’s Aid Polly Neate described as a further form of control. Though they were forced to give up all their wages and benefits to Philpott, it is far from clear that the driving motive in this case was financial at all.
This is an extreme case from which the left neither can nor will gain too much from extrapolating. It is a case far more about domestic violence than it is about welfare dependency. But there is one area where these two themes meet that it is worth raising, and that is Universal Credit. One in four women suffer domestic violence. While each abuse situation is different, there are some common factors, one of which is the threat to withhold money. Under Universal Credit, couples will have to nominate one partner to receive payments that comprise any employment related benefits, child tax credits and housing benefit (it will not include child benefit). In a household where one partner is dominating the other, this may lead to a significant transfer of income to the dominant partner, which could make it harder for women to leave abusive partners.
This isn’t the time or the place to go into the problems I believe come with Universal Credit. But I hope that there are people in the DWP who will be considering this. Who – as the pilots are monitored and the scheme rolled out – are looking at these unintended consequences. It is also worth noting that Mick Philpott was able to have complete control of the finances of the two women who lived with him without the roll out of Universal Credit and I’m unconvinced he would have stopped having children by them if child benefit stopped at two children – however that were calculated. Neither my argument nor others is conclusively proven by this single data point. As has been rightly said many times, this is an extreme case and extrapolation from it should be undertaken with extreme caution.
But if we are to take lessons from this case and apply them to the welfare system, let us not make these lessons that could have made the short lives of Duwayne, Jade, John, Jack, Jessie and Jayden harsher. Let us not make it harder for women like Lisa Willis to leave.
Tags: Welfare state