Archive for February, 2011

Compass Is Losing Its Way

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Sunny Hundal has written persuasively today about why Compass’ moves to open up their membership are misguided. I am adding this post to the debate because I think its really important.

There are plenty of organisations whose remit is to bring together “progressives”. Compass had a remit to be the voice of the Soft Left within the Labour Party, and just as they could have come into ascendancy as a dominant force in the way Progress did for New Labour, they are blowing their chance.

Labour voters and members deserves an organisation that is dedicated to improving Labour, and making sure we have the best possible offer for the next General Election. There will be many voices clamouring to be heard in that debate. Weakening Compass in this way at this time weakens their place in that debate. It lets down people like me who have been members from the start, but joined an organisation dedicated to improving Labour.

I get that Labour was not what Compass members wanted it to be in Government. But unlike Compass, I also get that no Government ever will be. That’s democracy. Compass started well, but its endless attacks on the Government were never well coordinated so in the end lost their potency. Labour organisation attacks Labour is only  a useful tool if it happens in a rare but spectacular way. Not if it’s a weekly bitchy email campaign.

I realise I may be burning a few boats here, but I’ve been disappointed in the strategy and output of Compass for some time. It has gone from being somewhere that proposed interesting and detailed policies that could make a real difference to somewhere Labour members could have a comfortable whinge. I don’t think Labour is short of those places.

What is, was and will be needed is a vehicle for the substantial promotion of the Soft Left agenda and policies within the Labour Party. If Compass makes this change it no longer has the option to be that. Other people can fight for the progressive whole, but some people have to be dedicated to making sure Labour is the best part of that it can be. I’ll be doing that, but I will be looking for a more suitable vehicle to do so than Compass.

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I’m Putting Down a Marker

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

It is becoming clearer and clearer that anti-Labour tribalism is swallowing Liberal Democrat activists whole. Now I’m no one to talk, I am a proud and partisan Labour tribalist. But at least I have the self knowledge to recognise it. Lib Dems have pretended to be different and above Left Right tribalism for so long, that picking a side has had an extraordinary effect on them.

Mark Ferguson at Labour List has written excellently  about Labour’s adjustment to being out of power and our recognition of the long hard slog we have ahead of us. There are also often written screeds about how well individual Lib Dem ministers are or aren’t adjusting to power. But what is little remarked on is how poorly the Lib Dems as a party are reacting to being in power – or more realistically, to not being in opposition. And the truth is they are adjusting very, very badly.

What seems to be lacking in the Lib Dem machine is any understanding of medium to long term strategy. This is totally understandable in a party that only ever saw itself as opposition, as there was only ever a need to be reactive. But as soon as it became clear that that a hung Parliament was on the cards there should have been better moves to bring in fresh blood that would understand how to be in power and how to maintain long term equidistant prospects while temporarily forming an alliance. They haven’t and have combined a strategy of there being not a cigarette paper between the Lib Dems and the Tories on policy with a continued policy of vitriolic attacks on Labour at every level from activists like those linked above to President Farron.

This combination – along with the fact that those Lib Dem voters and supporters on the left who can’t stomach the coalition with the Tories are likely to have drifted away from the Lib Dems by 2014/15  – mean that the Lib Dems have permanently readjusted themselves to the right in the minds of both voters and supporters. This isn’t true for all supporters but is a strong enough to be the absolutely dominant narrative of Lib Dem thinking at the moment and for the next few years.

So here’s my marker:

If at the next election a there is a hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party, you will see articles in the Guardian and Independent and pieces on blogs like Lib Dem Voice etc outlining the following argument:

Voters have passed their record on the coalition Government, and as such have returned a coalition majority. While it may be true that Labour may win the most seats/votes they will not have achieved enough to win the full confidence of the Country as the coalition parties have. Therefore, if there is a hung Parliament, the Lib Dems should stick with the Tories as that’s what voters who supported us expected us to do.

Labour needs to do two things to counter this threat.

Firstly – and frankly of course we should be doing this anyway – we should be fighting elections as if we are up against the whole coalition. This means that while the polls at the moment are good, they aren’t enough. We are only rarely beating the combined Tory/Lib Dem numbers. Our strategists (I should be one, me me me!) should be looking seat by seat at our resources to maximise seat gain at the expense of the Lib Dems and the Tories (perhaps at the cost of seats where we might be fighting Plaid Cymru for example).

Secondly, our politicians need to take every opportunity to back the Lib Dems into a democratic corner, where they make a committment (a pledge perhaps? Perhaps not…) that in the event of a hung Parliament, once again they will deal first with the party with the most seats. It won’t stop them from regneging (and when/if they do, expect further David Laws style fairy tales about how unwilling to deal the Labour team were (though our team should have a deal thrashed out that we can be happy with in advance so we aren’t stupidly and pointlessly caught on the hop again)) but it could shame enough delegates to their triple lock conference into not allowing an undemocratic government to stand.

Hopefully, I will never need to pull this post out in a future game of “I told you so”. Hopefully Labour will win a majority and start to undo the damage the Government is doing. But this must be an eventuality we expect and for which we are prepared.

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The Personal is Political: Sex, Sexual Politics and Politics

Friday, February 4th, 2011

Guess what? I’ve had sex.

In fact, I’ve had lots of sex. Not as much as I would have like to at times, but lots none the less. I’m very glad that the best sex I have had is also with the man I married. I continue to have sex with him. He’ll be pleased to know I don’t intend to have sex with anyone else. But I was hardly a virgin when we met. Neither was he for that matter.

Right now I’ve got that off my ample, heaving bosom, here’s my question – does the fact that I’ve had sex make me any less intelligent? Does the fact that I have an ample heaving bosom make me any less intelligent? Does the fact that I have a penchant for tops which compliment and reveal parts of my ample and heaving bosom make me any less intelligent?

We live in 2011 and it’s a world full of sex. From vagazzles to the English Collective of Prostitutes. But it’s a world which remains very confused about sex and its relationship to gender politics. This is partly because feminists are just as divided as everyone else. So I can’t claim to be speaking for anyone but myself, but if I could change one thing about the tone of political discussion in this country (and most others to be fair) it would be to raise the level of debate above the shocked prurience of 12 year old public school boys.

There is plenty to be said about the way that a woman’s appearance is used to denigrate her publicly in a way that just doesn’t happen to men. In the wake of the Sky Sports debacle there is a real debate to be had about how women are still treated as second class citizens professionally. But it can’t be had by nuns and virgins. It must be had by real men and women with real life experiences.

I’m neither proud nor ashamed of my sexual history. But like every other human being on the planet, I talk about sex with my friends. As I happen to live in the 21st Century – some of this discussion is online for all to see. I’m neither proud nor ashamed of that. But if I choose to have a career in public life, someone somewhere will trawl through my facebook page (and those of my friends I suspect) and will find photos of me worse for wear, photos of me looking quite sauce and photos of me that they think will embarrass me (they won’t). I don’t have a problem with that, but I do have a problem with the idea that it should have any bearing on my ability to do the any job I am chosen for. It won’t and I won’t let it.

I don’t judge anyone on who they happen to have sex with. I judge them on how they treat people. That’s really all that matters. I will only accept judgement if I fail on these terms.  I have of course not always lived up to the high ideals of treating people as well as I’d like, but I do continue to try. I will never accept that my sexual behaviour, with other consenting adults is a criteria to judge me on. I reject the premise of the question that there is anything to be judged.

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What Labour is For (and What it is Not For)

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

After scenes of confusion and idiocy from a small but loud minority of marchers last weekend there has been a great deal of controversy over what the Labour Party should and shouldn’t be doing in relation to the anti-cuts movement. There has been on Labour blogs an almost existential howl. If Labour aren’t with the marchers on the barricades, where are they? If they aren’t articulating the anger of the weak what are they for? If they don’t exist to bring down the Government, what are they for?

I understand the emotions driving these calls. The cuts are starting to be felt. Redundancy notices are going out and the ripples are being felt everywhere. People are scared and they are looking for champions. The easy thing to do would to be for Labour to seek this easy popularity, to stand up and call for the Government to go. But however easy, however tempting, it isn’t the right thing for the Labour Party to do.

Don’t get me wrong, as individuals, Labour Party members and politicians and should be out there on the marches. I’ll even go so far as to say that Eds Miliband & Balls should both address the big March for the Alternative that is being formally organised and run by the TUC. But they can’t and shouldn’t address every march that is springing up. Partly because a lot of them are being organically driven and organised by people Labour should be raising up – not speaking to from platforms  – and partly because a few of them are being organised by a rabble of numpties up for a ruck. Partly they shouldn’t address every march because they will not have a new message each Saturday and will dilute the power of thier message through repetition (as the marches themselves may well do). But mostly, because being the head of a protest movement is not what the Labour Party is for. And the second we start to believe it is, we self-defeatingly condemn this country to another term of Tory Government.

We may not like it much, but Labour lost the last election democratically. I don’t subscribe to the lazy commentators view that the public voted for either a hung Parliament or this coalition (neither were on the ballot) but this Government was formed democratically and there will not be a revolution. Anyone equating the horrible monetarist policies of this Government with the hideous political and economic oppression suffered in countries like Egypt and Tunisia have lost their sense of perspective. Yes, this Government’s policies are going to have terrible consequences, with the poor at the sharp end. But when we say sharp end in the UK we still mean it metaphorically. When we dislike a Government as much as we dislike this one we have a chance to oust them in 4-5 years as an election is called.

Of course we must be the Parliamentary voice of the weak and dispossessed. Part of being credible in opposition will be in trying to curb the excesses of the evils this Government is bringing about. We must be the voice of the people who elected us even when not in Government. But as important as this is, it is more important that Labour are there to offer an electable alternative. It is the Party’s job – first and foremost – to provide an alternative different enough to undo the harm the Government is doing, radical enough to engage our supporters and electable enough to appeal to a majority of voters. That has to be our unbending focus. Becuase if we get swept up in the romance of opposition, these vital tasks will not be fulfilled. We will look like a great opposition, not a great alternative. And if we don’t make ourselves electable again, we will not only be unable to support those being crushed by the Tories now, but will franchise the Tories crushing another generation. And another, and another. Until that tough lesson is learned.

I think Labour’s leadership get this. I hope Labour’s membership get this. I hope it doesn’t take us another 18 years to understand what the Labour Party must be and cannot be.

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A Call for Collectivism

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

This post first appeared on Labour List

Recently there has been a lot of focus on individual players within the Labour Party. This is inevitable, and – as Mark’s recent piece observed – leadership matters. I understand this – trust me, I wouldn’t have devoted my summer to Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign if I didn’t – but it’s not the only thing that matters, especially in a party such as ours. It was Ed’s recognition of the value of our collective nature that – in part – led to my support for his candidacy.

The ranking of cabinet ministers by their profile in prliament and the press has some superficial attraction. We can see who is best placed at taking our messages out to the public, and who has the ferocity and forensic skills to represent us in high profile parliamentary briefs. Both of these are important in attracting future voters and scrutinising the current government. But there is something missing in this assessment, and that is the job some are doing in making the party itself a vehicle capable of winning and governing again.

It is very easy to fall into the trap of looking for a messiah to lead us from the darkness, believing that our path back is all about one person – the right person – and to ignore all the other things we need to do. The idea that we should put all faith and decision making into the hands of a charismatic leader has served us well in the past, and Tony Blair’s charisma and strength to carry out much needed reform worked well for Labour for many years. But then it stopped working.

It stopped working in part because Blair got tired and picked his battles less carefully, allowing the initially brilliant strategy of New Labour to become an inflexible dogma that in the end destroyed it. But it also stopped working because it can only ever be an illusion that policy and governance can be achieved through the work of one person.

It’s a dangerous illusion too. Because the more we believe it, the more we seek a person, the “heir to Blair”. Brown’s inability to be that person was in part his failure to understand that he didn’t have what it took, but more a failure to understand that if you aren’t, you need to offer something else, not just attempt to shape yourself into a leader. If we spend all our time seeking personalities, we will continue to play in the shallows of personality politics giving less attention to the truly difficult bit, the building of a party than can work together, using all its resources, to create policy that is both ideologically and politically satisfactory, and to build a narrative together that adapts to our separate communities. Some will read this article as an attack on Ed Miliband. It isn’t, not one bit. It is actually applauding the fact that I believe Ed sees the importance of this strategy.

This is why seeing Peter Hain ranked so low under the measures used concerns me. Because I’ve heard from Peter several times as he works with me and the party to have a conversation (one people can actually believe in) about how to change our party. I know that Peter is doing the work that won’t get him in the pressn and won’t get him parliamentary coverage but that is an absolutely essential part of making us able to win and fit to govern. He’s rebuilding the Labour Party from one that only functioned through the control of a small, exceptional group managing the message, policy, direction and process, to one where every member feels they have a real connection to the party and the ability (if they want it) to contribute to our policy making. It isn’t sexy, and it won’t generate press coverage, but it is the start of rebuilding a movement that has long term appeal in our more democratic age.

We don’t yet know what the outcome of the Partnership into Power review will be. I hear the same cynical voices as everyone else does about what has gone so wrong before with the NPF and the process until now. But if we are going to make Labour policy and politics about more than the personalities and something all members can be proud of being engaged in, we need to put aside that cynicism, and feed into an important process. If we take ownership of it, it will not only have the strength of mass acceptance, but it will also be far harder to dismantle or ignore. So let me return to conference next year and tell the Labour Party staff member who drunkenly told me that “the NPF doesn’t matter” that it (and the wider policy making process) does now.

Submissions to the policy review and in response to the review of Partnership into Power can also be made by email to PiP@new,labour.org.uk or in writing c/o Policy and Research Department, The Labour Party, 39 Victoria Street, London, SW1H 0HA.

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