Archive for January, 2011

We need to talk about class

Monday, January 24th, 2011

The Labour party has always understood and been uniquely informed by the class struggle and the struggling classes. This is not to say that we are solely a party of the working class – that has never been true. But our strength has been in the finding of common interests between the working and middle classes, and formatting policies that allowed both better lives for themselves and better dreams for their children.

This was considerably easier when the social strata of the UK was more clearly delineated. To paraphrase the Frost Report, the upper classes wore bowler hats and the working classes knew their place. But if class ever was that clear-cut, it certainly isn’t now. It’s a more elusive beast, shadowy and ill-defined by a combination of our jobs, education levels, property ownership and history.

Most people who would once have fit the bill as working class don’t define themselves as different from those who define as middle class. So with David Cameron claiming to be the “sharp elbowed middle class” (despite being related to the Queen), thus putting himself in the same category as an admin assistant living in a one bedroom flat, class consciousness is not the political incentive it once was. In some ways, John Major was right, the classless society has almost come about, with the middle class engulfing all but the underclass and royalty – the welfare classes at the top and bottom.

Labour only works as a party when we attract an alliance of working class and middle class voters and speak to their concerns. This is why I like the phrase “the squeezed middle” and agree with Ed’s attempts not to define this too restrictively. The squeezed middle as a group of voters instinctively recognises itself without needing that definition. Far more of us than live in the actual median of income self-define as middle, and boy do we feel squeezed.

Recently, much discussion of class has also been an examination of racial politics, and of the “white working class”. This has been greatly exposed in places like Oldham and Barking and in smaller ways in towns and cities around the country. Labour must not fall into the trap of pandering to racism or playing with the fire of race politics. It would be as destructive as it would be divisive and would ultimately cause real harm to the body politic and to Labour. But equally, we cannot simply write these voters off as racist bigots who deserve no audience from Labour. They have real and genuine concerns which Labour can address without making impossible and ungenuine promises on immigration.

The white working class is part of the totality of the working classes that Labour is there to represent. If we don’t represent all the working classes – and a chunk of the middle too – we will never have a democratic mandate to represent anyone.

They may not express the same ideas as some of us in Labour on race, but I don’t believe these voters are inherently racist. They are suffering from the lack of decent housing and a squeeze on services that come when shifting communities aren’t kept pace with by school, hospital and housing services as well as employment opportunities.

Labour should be the party championing  great public services for all anyway. Targeting them at poorer areas which have really felt the squeeze is the right thing to do as well as being electorally beneficial. Planning strategies for public service supply from communities could give Labour a better idea how to run national services that don’t leave these communities behind. That is a far better strategy than either turning our backs and abandoning them or attempting to game their anger to our electoral advantage.

There is plenty negative to be said about our current government. The havoc they are wreaking in just about every area of public life is horrendous. But Labour can’t sit back and wait for voters to return just because the Tory-led government is so awful.

We need a positive offer to take forward to voters. Perhaps by listening to the concerns that lie beneath the divisive language, concerns that actually straddle those divides, we can start to see what it is we need to offer voters and start to work out how to do that.

This piece first appeared on Labour Uncut.

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Why More Choice is Not the Best Medicine

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

This is a guest post by Nik, Emma’s husband and frequent user of the NHS.

Picture the scene: a GP’s surgery. I’ve made an appointment to discuss the chest pains I’ve been experiencing for the last couple of weeks. As a diabetic of (at the time) 13 years’ standing, I’m no stranger to this environment and have calmly described my symptoms to my doctor. The doctor’s response, however, takes me by surprise.

“What do you think it is?”

I’m caught off-guard by this unexpected question. In my head I want to answer “I don’t know; I figured that as I’m not medically qualified (and know better than to submit myself to the mental torture of trying to self-diagnose by Googling my symptoms), I’m not as well-placed to answer that question as, say, someone who’s studied medicine full-time for the best part of seven years, and is paid a not inconsiderable amount to practice it as his day-job. So what do you think it is?” Obviously I don’t say that, partly because I’m too polite, but mostly because I actually only just figured out the wording of that reply a couple of years later. In reality I say something about how I know diabetes is linked to increased risk of heart disease and normal service is resumed.

The point still stands though – I’m no more qualified to make fundamental judgements and decisions about my own medical care than my GP would be qualified to wander into my workplace and start rummaging through Linux logs to try and figure out why a service has crashed again. Not as far-fetched an analogy as it may seem – just as my health care (obviously) affects me, my GP could be trying to access a website that depends on that crashed service. The point is that while we may care (to varying degrees – there’s a reason he’s paid more than me) about the outcome of each other’s work, neither of us would feel comfortable getting too involved in the decision-making, research and diagnoses that lead to the end results.

Almost all of us have to put our complete trust in medical professionals at one time or another. We (ultimately) pay them to know more about the human body than we could ever hope (or want) to. We also pay them (doctors, nurses and yes, managers) to be able to make choices regarding our health care. We (as patients and taxpayers) have the right to expect them to not only make these choices so that we don’t have to, but to have the knowledge to make whatever decisions will give us the best possible service and care to help make us well. (Just as we pay MPs to research and take advice about the subjects of bills so we don’t have to spend every waking moment voting in referendums – too much democracy and too much choice are equally undesirable.)

Giving patients choice over matters of little consequence other than convenience – the most obvious being when they can attend GPs’ appointments – is obviously a good thing (within reason – we can’t expect surgeries to be open for non-emergency appointments 24 hours a day). Expecting patients to make uninformed decisions about how they are treated and by whom places an unwelcome burden on them. I’m fully aware that my lifelong condition is likely to lead to complications later in life. (I try not to dwell on it too much, otherwise I’d be in a permanent state of terror.) If/when this happens, I’ll have quite enough to think about without wanting to worry about having to choose between treatment x or treatment y (at hospitals a, b or c), not least because I’ll be too busy coming to terms with the knowledge that I’ve got illness z to be able to take in any explanations of their pros and cons, no matter how beautifully marketed they are. What I’ll actually want is a highly-trained (and well-paid, naturally) doctor, with a charming bedside manner that I can literally trust with my life (because he/she isn’t competing with other doctors for my custom, but is instead working with them for my benefit) to make those choices for me.

Oh and a stethoscope around their neck, to make them look like a proper doctor, if it’s not too much to ask.

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A Radical Idea for a Progressive Majority

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

On Saturday I attended the always excellent Fabian New Year Conference. This was a particularly interesting year, being Labour’s first in opposition for some time. There I had the opportunity to pitch an idea to the “democracy Den”. Based on Dragon’s Den, with Dragons Mehdi Hasan - political editor, New Statesman, Deborah Mattinson - author of Talking to a Brick Wall, Mary Riddell Telegraph Columnist and chaired by Sadiq Khan MP . The idea was to present one radical idea that would also win the votes of the progressive majority.

I was up against Claire French who proposed a register of media interests, Simon Norton who proposed that we ask Nick Clegg to name his price to break the coalition (this was the idea rejected by the Dragons as being undemocratic and unworkable), Maurice Glasman who proposed a democratisation of the corporation of London and Sunder Katwala who proposed a 20% tax on Public School fees.

We each had a minute and a half to pitch our ideas and were then grilled by the audience and each dragon in turn. I was delighted to not only get unanimous approval from the dragons, but also to win the vote in the hall.

reproduced below is my initial pitch (this first appeared on Next Left)

In 1997 Labour imposed a windfall tax on energy companies which raised £5bn. I propose that in 2015 we propose a windfall tax on the banks designed to raise £7bn.

This money should be ring fenced, and used to build 100,000 social homes, bringing further investment from social housing providers and kick starting a moribund construction industry which is likely to suffer from the Tory cuts disproportionately as infrastructure investment is slashed.

This could be the start of a re-balancing of the economy from an over reliance on a London based financial services industry to a broad based construction industry bringing much needed jobs and investment as well as desperately needed homes.

This should come on top of increasing a commitment to building more social homes every year, reversing the disgraceful 63% cut to the Governments housing budget brought in by the Tory led coalition.

There are currently 4.5 million people in housing need and we are building fewer homes than at any time since the Second World War.

Housing was barely mentioned during the election campaign, but we know that it is a massive issue for voters. This policy would give us a positive way to counter anti immigration sentiment, which has at least in part been cause by a lack of affordable, decent housing.

This is not just the right thing to do; it will also be electorally popular in areas Labour need to win back. Seats like Harlow, for example, where there were 6,165 people on the housing list in 2009, and the average house costs 9.7 times the average local salary.

It will also be populist, with banks seen as not giving back to the people whose taxes bailed them out. This would be a quick, simple measure to ensure that the banks are putting something back into society and helping those in need.

So popular, affordable and the right thing to do – how can you refuse?

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Thinking Counter-Intuitively on the Politics of Economic Recovery

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

The accepted wisdom is that if the economy recovers, the Tories will win the next election. Voters will reward their bravery in making cuts and will thank them with their votes at the election. The only opportunity for Labour if the economy does improve will be if the improvement is a jobless one, with people then blaming the Tories for cutting badly and not improving the economy in the right way. While we can take nothing for granted, I think we should be cautious about looking to either of these outcomes.

Firstly and most obviously, Labour people should not hope for or even be seen to hope for high unemployment. We can warn that we think it is highly likely from the path being currently pursued, but the people we represent will not be clothed and fed by our saying “I told you so”.

Secondly, and counter-intuitively, it won’t necessarily be the Government who benefit politically from economic recovery. Excellent pollster and thinker Deborah Mattinson speaks often about the fact that voters rarely reward governments for past performance, but vote for them on the basis of the forward offer. When I asked her whether – given this – it mattered whether the coalition did bring about economic recovery, she said that it might not, but would matter if Labour didn’t recover its reputation for economic competence. All about the forward offer.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with my uncle shortly after the 1997 election. My uncle isn’t especially political. He’s intelligent and I think he mostly votes Labour, but beyond that thinks me and the political activists in my family are all a bit odd. I remember him saying that the feeling he got in 1997, was that people who sort of believed in redistribution, only really feel comfortable voting for it when times are good. He said his friends felt more comfortable in 1997 and so better able to vote Labour.

The policy outcomes of this thinking are unclear, beyond the immediately obvious that Labour needs to recover a sense of competence on the economy autonomously – not just comparatively to George Osborne and Danny Alexander. But maybe it gives us a way of thinking through a positive narrative of the Labour forward offer, and an understanding that if we stagger our way back through the economic cycle, all is not lost electorally. I’m not claiming we should be optimists - either for Labour or the UK recovery. But maybe the realists among us should persuade the pessimists we need a plan B?

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Should Socialists Privately Educate Their Children?

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

This is a response I have also posted to this piece at Labour Uncut. I promise this blog will become about more that just response to Labour Uncut, but the Localism Bill is taking up most my my waking moments at present!

Socialists are people who believe that an even society is better for everyone. Not just for the poor, but for the rich and middle class too. That being the case, that should be the society we want for our children, and so should not actively perpetuate the status quo by ensuring that there remains an uneven society (however they may work in other ways to make it a bit fairer), but at least our kids get to be at the top of the heap. To give up on the chance of an equal society for your child and the belief that such a society is the best for your family is to give up your Socialist beliefs. Which is ok, but don’t kid yourself it’s anything else.

There seems to be an implied judgement that Socialists with the means to do so who don’t send their children to private school & aren’t “lucky” enough to live in an area with good schools are not doing “what is best for their children”. I think they are doing precisely that. Frankly, I couldn’t afford it in a million years but even if I won the lottery tomorrow, I hope that when and if I do have children, I will love then enough to never even consider stunting their cultural, social and emotional development by sending them to a place of “elites”.

Most the post in question is the answer to a question other than its headline. It’s not the answer to “Is it ok for socialists to pay for private education and healthcare?” but “Should Socialists tell others that they can’t send their children to private schools and use Private hospitals?”.

My answer to that would be no, we shouldn’t say people can’t send their kids and family privately, but we should work everyday to make that a pointless choice. We should change society so that a tiny percentage don’t get this perceived advantage simply because they can afford it.

One exception I would make to that is that we should demand this of our Labour politicians and those who work for the party. For myself it’s because I want people representing us who still believe in our values and are actively working towards them. According to those espousing the argument that this is ok for Socialists,  I can’t see how you can disagree. If – as the article puts it  – “If people are forced to choose between fairness for all and what is best for their family: they will choose their family every time” then it is essential that when representing the interests of the vast majority of MPs constituents and preparing the policy that will be implemented by those MPs this conflict is as inevitable as you believe it to be, they simply would be unable to do their jobs properly if their children were privately educated and their kidneys privately removed.

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Will Cameron Call an Early Election?

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

There’s a very interesting post on Labour Uncut today, from Tom Watson. Essentially Tom is repeating gossip from a senior Tory that they might consider breaking the coalition and going for an early election in May. 

These ideas aren’t plucked from the ether, and Tom has clearly been given this line by someone, but ideas like this don’t always get floated because they will happen.

Sometimes they are floated because people want to see what the reaction to the idea would be before deciding whether or not to implement it. A negative response means the idea will quietly be dropped while it remains unattributable gossip, a positive response might elicit a stronger action.

On the other hand – and for me the most likely scenario – the idea is being floated not to test its popularity, but to remind some people that it is a possibility.

The possibility of the Tories breaking the coalition will terrify the Lib Dems, putting them firmly back in their boxes,  and (partly) assuage the Tory right, who will be pleased to know this option is being considered. If we let it, it could also wrong foot Labour who are (rightly as I have said) taking their time to renew and revise our policies.

Cameron can’t really want an election now, as the electorate would punish him for turning on his own five years built to last rhetoric, and Osborne would be furious if Labour got a chance to get their hands on the instruments of power before the cuts had a chance to be fully embedded and the state shrunk.

Ironically, I’m willing to believe there is a strong possibility that the possibility of the coalition being broken is being floated in order to remind MPs on both sides what they get from it, and to strengthen it through its current wobble.

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The Tyranny of the Daily Tracker Poll

Monday, January 10th, 2011

If, like me, you’re a political geek (and I have to assume that if you’re reading this site, you take at least a passing interest), then you’ll be following the YouGov daily tracker polls. Every night we see how the parties rise and fall. Will we be ahead? By how much? How low will the Lib Dems fall?

Like an underlying drumbeat, the tracker feeds into our daily narrative on the state of politics and the Labour party. Some people celebrate wildly each new time Labour pulls ahead of the Tories and the Lib Dems fall behind “Others”. Conversely, for some Labour supporters it seems to depress them even further, as they convince themselves that Labour is becoming complacent in reading these celebrations.

I try to fall between the two. I think Labour has a long journey still to take, but I take heart from the polls, they make me optimistic for the future. And I channel that optimism into working harder all the time for a Labour victory, taking nothing for granted.

Ed Miliband and his team should be doing the same. That is what the voters – not the hacks – expect. To hear some commentary, you’d think that we were weeks from the next election.  But we’re not, and the public knows it. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition will hold, and as the polls get worse for them are cemented together. No politician – and especially not one as wily as Cameron – would go to the polls by choice with a 20 point disapproval rating. Their programme is clearly designed to ensure that a 2015 election will be at the best possible moment economically. Labour and Ed have time to get this right. There will be hundreds more tracker polls before the only poll that counts, and both optimists and pessimists must learn to take the daily ups and downs for what they really are – a snapshot.

That’s not to say we don’t need a short term strategy. 24 hour news, social media and daily tracking of voter intention are changing the speed with which narratives are set, and Ed’s apparently slow pace worried some. But taking his time and getting it right (and being proved to get it right) has started to become Ed’s modus, and it’s working for him. He’s done humility and voters have heard that. Now he’s taking his time to get the policy right, and that’s the right thing to do. It’s not the public calling out to know what would Labour do – it’s our opponents trying to pin us to policies that may be wildly inappropriate in 2015.

However, we must find a way of maintaining the recent levels of visibility while we are reviewing our policies. Ed’s recent hits have landed well and he’s forced significant U-turns on school sports and Bookstart. His last PMQs was strong, and he landed the best hit yet on Cameron with his Bullingdon jibe. The start of the year has been owned by Ed with his narrative on the VAT rise chiming well with voters. If, next week, Labour can pull off a convincing win in Oldham East and Saddleworth, the continuing transformation of the narrative (both internal and external) from invisible Ed to steady Eddie will give his new team a great place to work from.

Keeping up a high profile dissection of the Tory cuts and Lib Dem embarrassments and the impact they have on communities far from Westminster will be essential. Recent moves to reclaim Labour’s reputation for economic competence must be maintained alongside an alternative economic narrative that shows why the cuts are so damaging to our economy, our public services and our social fabric.

Labour are a nose ahead in the polls. A recent comment on my blog argued that this meant we should fight as if we are behind, but I disagree. One of the strengths the Tories have always had is their belief in their right to rule. This makes them naturally seem like leaders because they believe they are leaders. It also helps them implement the most radical of policy programmes with the slimmest of margins. If we can act with the confidence of a lead without the arrogance of a landslide, we could make true Nick Clegg’s head of strategy’s prediction that this would be the Labour century.

The long term task is to get the Labour party ready to both win and govern again in 2015. We need to be a party of government, but also a Labour party governing with the values of our members at heart and the confidence to implement our own programmes based on a stance as principled as it is pragmatic. This is as easy to say as it is difficult to do, and building this kind of policy platform must take time. When we get it right, it will have been well worth the wait.

This article first appeared on Labour Uncut.

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