Archive for March, 2011

If we’re going to have nuclear power, can we please be honest about the role of the state?

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

I have been reading with interest George Monbiot’s change of heart on nuclear power. I have followed a fairly similar path myself, though am less willing to commit myself to full support of the industry than George is. I would now describe myself as a sceptical agnostic, which is considerably closer to acceptance than I was a few years ago when I was vehemently against.

My concerns about the safety, efficiency and byproducts of the nuclear industry and the its culture remain. But they are increasingly offset by my concerns about the safety, efficiency and byproducts of the coal industry, and sadly in the UK at least, we do seem to have set this up as a zero sum game. If we have to have one or the other, I’ll take nuclear.

But here’s the thing. Everyone, from every party – and I include former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband – is completely disingenuous when they talk about the funding of nuclear power. Everybody claims they can guarantee that there will be no state funding of nuclear power. They simply cannot guarantee this.

The logic behind this statement is clear and demonstrable by very recent history. When an industry that is essential to the running of our country fails, the public sector has to step in. I understand why the banks were “too big to fail” and the absolute necessity of supporting them through public subsidy.

The nuclear industry is practically the dictionary definition of “too big to fail”. Currently nuclear energy provides about a 5th of our energy consumption in the UK and this is likely to increase. We cannot go without this energy without massive shocks to our economy and to our daily lives – just as with the banking crisis. And just as with the banking crisis, the Government of the day would not let that happen. So if the private sector withdraws from nuclear power, the public sector would have to step in. Given we are talking about an industry that creates thousand year problems to be dealt with, I think the odds are probably pretty good that this will happen at some point in the lifespan of nuclear energy in the UK.

So if we are going to have nuclear energy, I think we need to be honest up front about the role the state has to play as a back stop to the industry. If we don’t we will find ourselves negotiating in a crisis as we did with the banks, which helps no one but the few who grow rich by gambling wildly with the future of others.

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I plough a lonely furrow

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

The problem with being a reasonable moderate is that everyone thinks they are a reasonable moderate.

As I continue on my Labour journey it is astonishing how different the reactions I get to my blogging can be. When I try to examine how Labour can and should temper its message to the whole country, I am roundly derided as a Blairite out-runner. When I try to explain that this doesn’t mean capitulation on either message or medium, I’m decried as an idealist Leftie with my head in the clouds.

I don’t think I’m that different to most Labour Party members really, generally excepting those with a high profile. I also don’t think that Labour Party members are from Mars, and that we are as close to the mainstream as everyone else. Edging our way through the vagaries of life.

Most members I meet want Labour in power, but want that for the purpose of achieving economic and social justice. We want to see a proud and confident Labour Party that know what it believes in and how to achieve it, but we want that to also be a consensual process.

The problem I have is that I rarely meet people who are confident of the soul of the party and values, who also want to fight for a slick media operation and presentational structure. And I rarely meet people who want the Labour party to have the kind of presentational values that a modern Labour Party needs who are confident in the heart and soul of the Party.

I am trying, with this blog and my work elsewhere to persuade the Labour Party to be comfortable with and of itself in all its forms. Doing that means disagreeing with each other where necessary, but being loyal too.

It recently struck me that while this is the stance of practically every Labour member I meet, this is not a very popular stance on the Internet. Those who shout the loudest, or who come up with the most outrageous positions from either the left or right of the party generate much heat but little light. Luke Bozier’s recent rant is a particularly good example, but there are just as good examples of Ed being attacked from the Left  (Ed, if you’re being attacked by both sides, it’s because you are getting the balance broadly right).

Balance is a tough thing. If one is only critical of the leadership, that criticism loses its punch. When Dan Hodges writes yet another anti-Ed column what used to annoy me now bores me. Equally, I am sure if Dan reads this, he gets bored of my supportive columns. I try not to be a cheerleader, but on the whole I think Ed is doing a good job, and I’m not going to lie about that just to be a sensationalist, however much it might propel me into the spotlight to do so.

So I’ll keep on talking tactically about what Labour need to do to win, which is my forte. I won’t be hitting the headlines, or become a darling of the blogosphere, but I hope that someone somewhere finds this interesting and useful.

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Labour’s Missed Trick

Friday, March 25th, 2011

This column first appeared on Labour List:

The world is changing, and the Labour Party needs to change with it. Our methods of communications are infinitely more sophisticated which open up new worlds of opportunity for everyone. New ways of linking with people that a decade ago we wouldn’t have known existed make it much easier to make real and valuable human connections on a global scale. I have real and genuine friends made online, who I met in the flesh for the first time at my wedding (also to a man I met online). I spend hours debating online with people I have never and will never meet. And where ten years ago this might have been considered odd, it is increasingly the norm.In light of this, Labour needs to look again at what we mean by communities and community activism. While I am excited by the valuable work being done to recognise the importance of Labour engaging in local communities, and would in no way seek to change or downgrade this work, we need to recognise that the way people identify as communities is evolving.

In the past, it was only those with money and considerable leisure time who could engage in communities of interest that were not geographically based. Now anyone interested in a particular issue can learn from and engage with others and these groups bear all the hallmarks of communities. Labour must engage these communities too as we reach out to look outside of ourselves to broaden our appeal.

Thankfully, Labour uniquely already has an excellent vehicle for engaging with these communities of interest. Labour’s Socialist Societies make up a wide range of communities and interest groups formally affiliated to the party. We combine expertise in a variety of key sectors with reach into the relevant communities of interest. At our best, socialist societies act as a perfect bridge between expert communities and the party. On housing, environment, science, law, education, health and with LGBT, Jewish, Tamil, Chinese, disabled, student and Irish communities, Christian socialists and the broad interests of the Fabians and the Labour Clubs, the Socialist Societies offer the unique combination of practitioner and campaigner expertise and Socialist beliefs.

There is a wealth of knowledge in these organisations, and a depth of commitment to bettering the policies of the Labour Party as a result. I have been proud to run one of the societies in my time, and now serve on the Executive of another and am always proud of the contribution we make to debates both in our own expert contributions and our ability to pull in knowledge from outside the party. I am also currently the Secretary of the Socialist Societies Executive, a group formed to ensure cross society cooperation in the best spirit of the Labour movement. We work together on projects to bring together policy expertise on green homes, or the effect of education on health outcomes.

While we live in an ever more interconnected world, people’s interests are becoming more separate. I believe one of the reasons for the decline in mass party membership of all parties is the tendency for people to pursue their individual passions through niche organisations. The Socialist Societies have in the past proved an excellent recruiting tool for the wider party, and I know several people who joined SERA first and the party second, convinced through their experience of an active Socialist Society of the wider value of party membership. The party could gain not just expertise and links to wider communities, but if they promote the Socialist Societies more widely, an excellent recruiting tool too.

We have often served as a bridge between frontbenchers and the communities of interest. However there has been less engagement between the societies and the policy development team within the party. This is an area I and others will be urging Peter Hain to look at during the review of our policy making processes. With Labour so under-resourced, it would be a tragedy not to take the fullest advantage of a loyal and dedicated group of expert volunteers.

Perhaps we are Labour’s own Big Society, one that actually works.

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It’s OK to Spin as Long as you Spin Well

Friday, March 25th, 2011

This column first appeared on Labour List:

At the same time that the term “spin” has gone out of fashion, the call for a Labour narrative has become ever stronger. We need to have a better understanding of how communications can and must work as a vital part of modern British politics. Before I go on, I should add that I have never worked for the party in any capacity, and while I work in communications, I’m far from being a spin doctor. This isn’t a self-justification, but a call for an understanding of the art and necessity of political communication.

Good Political Communications people don’t lie. They know it’s dumb. I know that most of the responses to this post will use the phrases “sexed up” and “dodgy dossier” (especially if the commentators don’t read past the headline) and I totally understand why. We have a misunderstanding of the role of political communications officers. We see a Malcolm Tucker/Alastair Campbell model of macho swagger and intrusion into policy making as the norm, when in fact a lot of what got Campbell into such trouble towards the end (and I’m sure inspired the character of Tucker) was well outside the usual communications remit.

Party communications are about presenting the arguments in favour of our policies, and against the Tories. They are about tying the policies together to form a coherent story of what Labour is about, what we are for and why we deserve the trust and votes of the electorate. They aren’t there to set policy, nor are they there to debate its pros and cons. That’s what the party itself is for. That’s where Campbell’s generation went wrong. They confused the medium with the message and as a result the outcome of communication trumped the outcome of policy too often.

As the world develops, and the way messages are distributed change, the Labour press and comms team will have to learn to be flexible. They will still craft the message, but its dissemination will more than ever happen through members on Twitter, Facebook and blogs like this. Innovative spinners will see parallels on this to the trend towards community organising as a model. People trust people who aren’t paid to tell them things. We’ve always known that the best way of getting our messages out is on the doorstep, but technology is expanding what our notion of that “doorstep” is and can be. Good spin doctors will want to utilise the different ways members will adapt the message to suit their own audiences, rather than try to retain central control at the expense of nuance.

So far, so positive. But there is another side to political communication that we are failing on too often. In the West Wing, when being taught how to handle a press conference, Vice Presidential candidate Leo McGarry is told “If you don’t like what they’re asking you don’t accept the premise of the question”. All too often, we accept the premise of the Tory attacks on us, on the government we left behind and on the things we hold dear.

If we start using the language of “non-jobs”, if we start to accept not that cuts are going to happen (they are) but that its ok that they are going to happen – particularly cuts that lead to unemployment – we accept the premise of the question. Nobody does a “non-job”, they fulfil the functions they are employed for according to the priorities of their employer according to their strategic plan. If we want to return to being able to provide all but base utilitarianism in the future, we need to stop denigrating jobs which perform those “nice-to-have” functions that actually make life worthwhile. Like diversity workers and arts officers.

Labour would make cuts, yes, we would be forced to. We are also being forced to implement Tory cuts on a local level. But we don’t want to change either the employment prospects of those who work for the state and its agencies, or the provision of services of clients of the state and its agencies in a permanent way. Our cuts would be a brutal necessity, not a rebalancing away from inefficiencies.

I understand that in the short term and to all of us who are frightened about the effect the cuts are going to have on our lives, this may sound like the worst of spin. But ideas are important, and they are important because they effect change. If Labour is going to be in a position to build anew a thriving public sector, we need to lay the foundations now. And at least a part of that is in convincing the people of the necessity of doing so. We need good effective communication, clear red lines of difference between us and this government and their cruelty and we need to remember not to accept the premise of the Tory attack on the most vulnerable and the things we cherish.

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Idealism and Realism

Friday, March 25th, 2011

This column first appeared on Labour List:

I am an idealist. I look at Britain, and I think about how I want to take its best and make it better. I am a realist. I look at Britain and see the problems we have and the greater problems we face and I want to make it better.

Politics is the art of balancing realism and idealism. Too much realism, we become overwhelmed by the problems, unable to imagine our way out. Too much idealism we lose touch with voters, leaving them behind and wondering at how different our perception is from theirs. The Labour Party cannot and must not devise policies for an ideal world, but for the world in which we will find ourselves in 2015. We need to offer realistic ways to solve real problems in ways that speak to our ideals.

I believe the Labour Party at its best is about promoting active change; about pursuing progress towards equality not simply legislating against the worst effects of inequality. We are not a conservative party by name or by nature. We are a party of work and of workers, we strive. Ideally we would live in a society in which all people were treated equally, had equal opportunities to succeed and where health, wealth, race and gender were not factors in people’s ability to live happy and fulfilled lives. But if the Labour Party were to base its policy making on the assumption of such a society, it would make it harder to achieve. In order to achieve such a society, for the moment we must continue to legislate to overcome the inequalities that exist.

The upper echelons of British life do not reflect the diversity contained within this great nation. This is the reality. No amount of wishing it were otherwise will make it change. The only thing that will change it is action. In an unequal world, we can choose either to perpetuate inequality by doing nothing, behaving as if we exist in a vacuum, or we can challenge inequality by taking action against it. There is not a third way.

We cannot afford to adopt the liberal idealist position that affirmative action is a form of discrimination and therefore automatically bad. The Liberal Democrats have largely adopted this position, and as a result are a very white, male middle class party. I strongly believe that this lack of membership and representation from those most affected by the cuts is what is in part to blame for their inability to create for themselves a narrative that understands their public perception.

All actions that change the balance of society discriminate against the former winners, from slave owners who lost profits in the abolition of the slave trade to men who have fewer options in seats they can apply for as Labour candidates (and just to be completely clear, I am in no way suggesting a moral equivalence here). Taxes take money from the rich and pay for services enjoyed by all. Tax money that is spent on one group in society is not then available for others. All choices are discrimination. If we are realistic about that, then we can have the strength to stand up and make the right choices.

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These Days, What Voters Aspire to is Security

Friday, March 25th, 2011

This column first appeared on Labour List:

When Labour activists talk about tax policy, it’s a racing certainty that someone will bring up the extremely effective Labour’s Tax Bombshell Party Political Broadcast from the Tories in 1992. That advert, and the consequent election loss destroyed Labour’s belief in its ability to talk about – never mind act on – fairer taxation for a generation. A generation of Labour thinkers have been so cowed by this experience that they are simply unable to contemplate the new paradigm in which we now find ourselves.

Ed Balls talk of lowering the threshold of income tax isn’t bad politics if we can convince the majority of people that in doing so, they will be the beneficiaries. In all polls where the question is asked, the 50p tax rate is extremely popular. Unlike in the early 1990s when the popular narrative (rightly or wrongly) largely saw the city as a successful economic driver and therefore were more relaxed about the high earnings made there, people are more wary of high levels of corporate pay, seeing diminishing connections between top level pay and levels of productivity, talent and economic input. They want to see the highly paid giving more back.

Middle England is coming to terms with the limits of its aspirations – now Labour must too. If we want to talk to the real voters, we need to understand who they really are, what they really want and how we can really help. Ordinary people aren’t aspiring to earn £100k, they’re worrying about keeping a roof over their heads. They aren’t worried about the 50p tax bracket, they’re nervous about keeping their jobs. They aren’t hovering on the edge of the higher tax bracket praying Labour won’t lower the threshold, they’re desperately trying to work out how to hold things together as wages are frozen, inflation spirals and the child tax credits are cut. If we want to talk to the real voters, we need to understand who they really are, what they really want and how we can really help.

When Labour return to power there will be a lot to fix. The longer we are out of power, the more we will have to fix. So I would never advocate policies I believed would lock us out of power. On the other hand, Labour is not just here to come in and smooth things over after the Tories have wrecked all that we hold dear. We need to have a vision for a fairer society, and fairness works both ways.

Given the current levels of wage stagnation and the losses people are feeling through inflation, fuel prices and the VAT rise, it’s going to take an awful lot for people to feel they have advanced by 2015. A last giveaway budget in 2014 – as everybody is expecting – may not cut much ice by then. I’m not often one to link to the Taxpayer’s Alliance but this video from these traditional Tory supporters show just how untrusted Tory messaging on taxes is right now. Labour can be upfront about a tax they would impose on a tiny percentage of the country. Labour can say we are being honest about our tax plans, but we know the Tories will lie to you, and will continue to tax the poorest hardest.

Whatever happens between now and the next election, whatever is in the Labour manifesto at the next election, whatever state the economy is in at the next election, I can hands down guarantee you that the Tories will run a campaign based at least in part on the idea that a Labour government would raise taxes. They always, always do.  It worked so well for them after all in 1992. But what the 1992 scaremongers don’t mention, is that the Tories also ran this line rather less successfully in 1997. It’s perfectly possible to convince voters of a good idea if we can get them to listen to why we want to do it. As long as we can convince them that the top rate of tax is about the politics of their security and not the politics of envy; about fairness, not punishment and about getting them a better deal there is no reason in the world why Labour shouldn’t be perfectly successful electorally.

When Labour needed to change in 1992, we had the flexibility to understand what it was about our economic message voters didn’t like. We need to do so again to regain economic credibility. That doesn’t mean repeating twenty year old messaging in the hope it strikes a chord. We need to give voters a hope of a security they feel has been lost, and that doesn’t come by pandering to the aspirations of a few, but by supporting the needs of the many.

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Cautious Welcomes

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

I should probably blog about the Budget, but there wasn’t an awful lot to it. In the opinion of this non-economist, there didn’t seem to be enough there to boost growth. The corporation tax is a giveaway to companies already here, but  they will continue to be cautious throughout the next few years, particularly as consumer confidence contracts. It won’t trickle down, but they’ll be some happy Tory donors tonight.

I thought Ed’s speech was one of his best performances to date. He was very good with some great lines, and if consumers continue to feel the pinch, the down, down, down and hurting not working lines will get more and more traction.

But there are many, many places to get a better and more detailed analysis of the details of the budget.

What I thought I’d talk about was the stream of post budget press releases that inevitably go along with a big financial announcement from the Government (any government) and the thinking behind them.

Basically, unless your industry or sector has been totally royally utterly screwed, unless you believe it simply couldn’t get any worse, you will always give a reasonably positive headline. If you think you’re mostly screwed, but there is something to be salvaged, you might make that luke-warm (beware the cautious optimists -  they do not mean what they say). The detail is in the text.

The always amusing though never purposfully @torypresshq have been tweeting press releases they believe are supportive to the Government. For example, at 15.29 they tweeted

 ”#EdBalls quoted #EEF supporting him on #BBCBudget. They actually appear to be pretty supportive of the #Coalition http://bit.ly/dTbLPF

If you just read the headline of that link “Chancellor makes down payment on balanced growth – EEF Budget Response” you might believe it was a glowing tribute to the Chancellor’s measures. But the full text is littered throughout with “but” and “however”. The overall balance of the release has clearly been crafted to keep a decent relationship with the Government, as is essential, but it is overall pretty critical.

The only sector which doesn’t seem to go for the say something positive if at all possible approach is the charity sector. For example here is Scope’s response to the budget http://www.scope.org.uk/news/budget-2011 which strangely @Torypresshq have not seen fit to retweet.

Not all charities are uniformly negative, not all corporate and trade associations are uniformly positive. But if you want the real story on the response to the budget, remember to look beyond the cautiously optimistic headlines.

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What is the Cause of Labour’s Cuts Problem?

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Mark Ferguson at Labour List has written about how Labour must be wary of the fact that 49% of people still blame us the most for the cuts. I completely agree that it is essential that we continue to keep this at the heart both of our policy and our presentation of current and past policy as we go forward.

The problem I have, is that we don’t know why they blame us.

Do they blame us because the Tory narrative that we overspent on public services has caught on? It’s a populist narrative that probably does have a lot of traction despite both a lack of serious veracity and the fact that until the crash the Tories were planning to match us for spending.

Do they blame us becuase we failed to regulate the banks and failed to balance the economy properly away from fragile economic areas like finance, leaving us too exposed to the crash? If so they are quite right to do so.

It is vital that Labour conduct extensive polling and focus grouping to understand the reason for the blame so it can formulate a response to the question that resonates. That may not mean accepting wrongly apportioned blame, but it will mean moderating the language of regret to match the expectations of voters.

I suspect the truth is that the answer is mixed, but is mostly the former (if I had to I’d put it at an 80:20 split) which is difficult for Labour. We can and should apologise for and learn from the latter, but I don’t believe we did massively overspend before the crash. We can promise to ensure that investment is sustainable, strengthen and make more independent the OBR and give it some teeth to ensure that there are guarantees that we won’t be able to over-stretch in the future. That way we can promise not to do in the future what we don’t believe we did in the past, while adding independent verifiers. But we can’t promise not to invest. Investment will be needed. It’s how we articulate that while working hard to regain credibility that will be the difficult thing.

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Liberalism and Politics

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Last night I had a fascinating discussion with an old friend about the current tensions between classical and social  liberalism. We weren’t discussing this in the context of the crisis of the Lib Dems which is different but related, but the implications for policy implementation. It was an interesting discussion about the kind of liberalism we would both want to see a Labour government implement and what the tensions were between freedoms, protections and responsibilities – both of individuals and of the state towards its citizens.

We discussed topics as diverse as the prevalence and necessity of CCTV, ID cards, mental heath provision and intervention, state education and healthcare. We didn’t always agree on where the limits of the state should or shouldn’t be, but it was an interesting and illuminating discussion.

The problem with our discussion – as we both acknowledged – is that it existed entirely on the Authoritarian/Libertarian axis and frankly that’s not where most people live. We are both women with a relatively comfortable lifestyle, but both of us raised financial concerns throughout the other conversations we had that evening. We both voted labour in the election based on economic factors. My friend is far less tribal than I am, and weighed up voting Lib Dem, but didn’t.

Most people don’t care about or vote on issues on the Libertarian/Authoritarian spectrum. We vote on economic issues. We vote according to our understanding and interpretation of the world and its daily influence on our lives and those of the people we care about. Unless you are at a point where the level of your wealth does not affect your daily life, these are the issues that are going to affect you. Are you and your family safe? Are you all warm and well fed? Are you protected in case of harm? Do you have work? These are the real electoral battlegrounds, and only one of these areas areas (safety) would be affected by policies on the lib/auth scale (though there are arguments to be had about which way threats to safety lie).

There are excellent arguments to be had about the balance between security and civil liberties. I don’t believe any of those reasons are about electoral advantage or democratic representation. We can see this in the fact that The Lib Dems core vote has proved to be so small as have seen their collapse in the polls and authoritarian parties have had even less success. Their contributions to the coalition – such as they are – have nearly all been on Lib/Auth issues, and on economic issues, the classical liberalism that gels their right wing with the Tories has held sway. If the oft cited argument of Lib Dems that they are above the Left/Right axis were true, their support would not have failed to anything liek the extent that it is doing. It also would not have been a financial issue that became the emblematic token of that failure, but a failure on their own axis.

I regularly advocate for Labour to be more liberal on issues around crime and justice and related issues like terror laws and drug laws. I believe this is a matter of values and that Labour should be socially liberal while rejecting classical liberalism as largely anathema to equality which must be our highest value. I am frequently shouted down by those who believe that authoritarianism is a better reflection of the value of protection of communities that is also a part of our core beliefs. I accept those arguments and that tension. Those debates need to be had to find the right balance.

I believe that a more liberal Labour party would not lose votes. I don’t believe it would gain us many (we could probably gain a few disaffected Lib Dems but might lose a few soft Tories), but it wouldn’t lose us votes either. I also believe that the corollary is true. Very few people really vote for parties on civil liberties/security issues unless they genuinely feel at threat. While this has been a factor in recent elections, it was only when people felt economically threatened that they changed their voting patterns in meaningful ways. So when Labour talk about this issue, we need to do so in the reality that we neither side are raising electoral advantage but competing visions of state activism. If we can do so, we would have a much better and more productive debate.

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Great Political Joke (nb Not Nick Clegg)

Friday, March 11th, 2011

I read this today on the ever wonderful NOTBBC and felt I had to share it:

A banker, a Daily Mail reader and a benefit claimant are sitting at a table sharing 12 biscuits.

The banker takes 11 and says to the Daily Mail reader: “watch out for the benefit claimant, he wants your biscuit”.

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