Archive for April, 2011

Fear: An Apology

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

This column first appeared on Labour List:

I talk a lot about the fear I find among the more die hard New Labourites in the party. The fear, driven into the souls of a generation of party modernisers by the devastating defeat of 1992, has crystallised into a dogmatic fear of anything that veers even slightly to the left-of-dead-centre. I have seen this fear destroy good campaigners ability to run good campaigns and passionate politicians constrain themselves to turgid technological arguments in the mistaken belief that it is this that makes them “credible”.

What I’d forgotten when I chastised people for having the fear is how easy fear is to fall into.

The Labour Party is by its diverse nature a party which has disagreements. In the 1980s, those disagreements became nasty infected factional wounds that damaged our party for a generation and as much as anything else, kept us out of power. I was young then, but I remember those battles, I remember members screaming at each other with a fiery hatred over issues both real and trivial. I vowed never to let that be me.

So while I am happy to contribute to a critique of New Labour, I don’t want to destroy those who believe in its tenets. While I think that the marketisation of public services is the wrong approach, I want to defeat ideas of markets with ideas of communities, replace the objectification of competition with the championing of solidarity and find the threads that unite us in our common belief in democratic Socialism. I want to work with all members, who – by their joining of Labour – I know I share common beliefs and values with.

Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes I am not the example of my values I would like to be.

I remained loyal to my party, even when it did things with which I profoundly disagreed. I feel the Labour Party is closer now than it has been for some time to being a truer vehicle for my values. But even when it was a challenging ride, I didn’t let go. It was always worth staying and fighting the Labour cause.

I’m very happy with the direction that the Labour Party is currently taking. I think we are doing the hard work – the long, slow, unrelenting slog – of building a party that isn’t simply a credible opposition, but that when the time comes will have a viable, exciting programme for government. Back to the drawing board is hard. But it can be the most rewarding thing you can do. I believe in our long game and the way we are playing it.

But I need to accept that there are others in the party who are not happy. Almost by dint of my being satisfied, those who were satisfied when I was not will not feel we are on the right course. They of course have a right to feel this way. I admit when I first heard about The Purple Book, I was pretty hacked off. Like Luke Akehurst and Johanna Baxter, I felt the timing was inappropriate and the tactics and quoted language gauche at best. But despite these misgivings, I now feel that my initial reaction – anger at what I felt to be an ostentatious display of disunity – was the wrong one. It was a reaction born of fear. It was the same reaction I accuse others so easily of having to me and to the policies and strategies I champion.

So I offer today two apologies. Firstly I apologise for jumping to conclusions about the motivations behind the Purple Book. Even if my conclusions were right, I was wrong to dismiss the need of those behind the project to be listened to, if not necessarily agreed with.

But more importantly, I apologise to those whom I have judged for their fear. I still disagree with your analysis, conclusions and strategy, but I am wrong to dismiss how easy fear is to fall into and how hard it is to escape from. I will not stop challenging you, I will not stop promoting the things you fear, but I will try to be more collegiate in my doing so, and to be more understanding that fear happens to the best of us, and to me.


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A quick blog about patriotism

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

I grew up in a time when the left was very uneasy about patriotism. It was closely associated with nationalism, and the National Front had taken our national symbols and corrupted then for their own narrow, nasty and violent ends.

But I am proud of a lot of what has been fought for and won in this country. I don’t think being British makes us inherently better than anyone else. But I do feel lucky to have been born into the country that has provided so well for me and my future.

I’m happy to call myself a patriot where my parent’s generation might not have been. However I do not define my patriotism as “my country right or wrong” but by a desire to continue to improve the lot of those who live and work here. I don’t believe that you can be a patriot and not criticise your country. My love for my country includes the desire to see it be the best it can be, not to hark back to a mystical past that never really existed.

So for me, I am happy to celebrate the country of the achievements of Wat Tyler, David Bowie and Tim Berners-Lee. But don’t ask me to cheer the bloody royal wedding!


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Why I have finally decided to vote no to AV

Saturday, April 16th, 2011

I have been struggling with my feelings on AV for a really long time*. Not least because I don’t really care that much. It’s quite a small change and there are good arguments on both sides. Sadly both campaigns have been utterly, utterly dreadful. Badly managed, insane tactics, negative shouty-fests over the lowest forms of argument. I hope if nothing else comes out of this debate, we at least have a look at how we campaign on the issues in this country. We have nothing to be proud of in the way this national discussion has been conducted. Most of the arguments put forward by both official campaigns have been specious at best. AV will patently not cost £250 billion, nor will it solve the problems of an unresponsive and out of date body politic.

 I have tried extremely hard not to base my decision on my tribal allegiances. This has been made easier by the fact that there is no compelling argument one way of the other about whether AV will hurt or help Labour or the BNP which seem to be the two most often discussed parties. Frankly, I would rather beat the BNP on the issues than a technicality. As for Labour I want to see us in power. I don’t think there is clear-cut evidence that AV would have an effect on that (for example, experts say our majority would have been even greater in 1997 under AV, but so would the Tories in 1987).

There are good reasons to vote for AV. Having been six and two threes throughout the campaign, I know what they are. I get that people who live in a safe seat will get to express their preference, even while preferencing the leading candidates. Every 5 years, in the voting booths, people will feel they get a better chance to have a say in how they are represented, and that would be a good thing.

My reason for voting  no is what happens in-between those 5 years. AV is currently being sold as a solution to all that ails the body politic. That is will make MPs “work harder” and that it will stop things like the expenses scandal. This is frankly insulting, but also a little worrying. OK quite a lot worrying. Leaving aside the insane notion that people working 14 hour days aren’t working hard enough, I worry that we don’t really know what we actually want from MPs. Do we want legislators or social workers? Constituency champions or Westminster players? If AV is adopted, I am deeply concerned that the actual changes that need to occur to the way Westminster is run to make it more representative both of the people and of the century in which we live will be kicked into the long grass. In fact it was in part this concern that kicked me over the edge when I saw the yes to AV broadcast.

However my main concern, is the effect AV and the race for second preferences will have on representative politics. I am strongly of the opinion that the need for parties to “reach out beyond their core vote” will mean them fielding more and more often candidates intended to appeal generally. This is fine in a individual seat. It works very well for example when choosing a Party leader, because being at roughly the centre of where your party are is not the same as being a centrist. But when replicated across the country, we will end up with a legislature made up from a far narrower group of people, with a narrower range of centrist stances. We will end up with greater freedom for voters to express their diverse opinions, only for them to be represented by a far less diverse group of elected representatives.

No electoral system is perfect. You just have to balance the negatives and the positives and make a choice. Mine won’t be a popular choice among my friends, but in the end, in a democracy, I have to vote the way I believe to be right.

*If AV+ had been on the ballot I would have voted yes in a heartbeat. I believe that this system would have balanced the flaw of local candidates appealing to the middle with the top up of diverse candidates. I still believe AV+ to be the best system of electing our representatives. But it’s not on the ballot.


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What’s the difference between a rich socialite and a struggling socialist?

Friday, April 8th, 2011

Well for one thing, I’m a better writer.

Jemima Khan’s stint as guest editor of this week’s New Statesman coincided with me leaving my phone at home and needing something to read on the bus. Given that it was the New Statesman or Heat Magazine I opted for the former in hopes of intellectual stimulation. It was there sporadically of course. The basis of the magazine is sound and it has some great journalists working for it, not least Medhi Hassan who is a genuinely refreshing voice from the left.

But the problem, beyond Jemima’s rather bland sixth form essay into, was that she was clearly booked for her book, her contacts. Her who’s who of this week’s “journalism”  include Russell Brand, Simon Pegg, Alain De Botton, Tim Robbins, Oliver Stone, A A Gill, Helena Kennedy, Rory Stewart MP and Zac Goldsmith MP (her brother).

Don’t get me wrong, I like and admire some of these people. And the piece where Hugh Grant bugged a journalist was a genuinely interesting idea. But these people are not bringing us anything new, they aren’t unpublished or unpublicised. So what did this guest editorship bring the New Statesman other than the increasing profile of rich socialite Jemima Khan?

A guest editorship should be a way to look at a publication afresh and challenge its internal assumptions. It could be a way to champion new voices and unearth different points of view. Sadly, even in intelligent publications like the New Statesman, It’s become a place for a bunch of celebrities to make each other feel good about the glossy sheen of their understanding of current events and politics.

Jemima got a pretty good scoop with Clegg’s self-pitying interview. But I still can’t help thinking that this was a misguided attempt to link our politics and celebrity culture. And I wonder what an edition of the New Statesmen with a truly challenging guest editorship could be like.


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Internal Struggles

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

I have been very torn about the current debates around unpaid internships. It’s one I have had with myself on numerous occasions. Because I have been an unpaid intern and I have hired them. I know the value that internship brought to me, and the hardship I had to suffer to do it (and I am under no illusions that though I did suffer hardship, I was lucky enough to be able to just about manage, no one in my circumstances living outside of London and no one with dependents could have done what I did). I also know that the organisations at which we had interns were funded such that they could not have done what they did without them. These were small, badly funded organisations that scraped by, but  did exceptional work, of which our interns were a massive part. I have never forgotten the part they played in the work we did, and I tried hard to make sure that they all know that.

In the end I had to find a balance. I needed the work the interns could give me, and I wanted to give the right people a start at their careers.

I had to set criteria that made the work as fair as possible. I was insistent that internship lasted a strict length of time to allow as many as possible to get the opportunity and experience over a manageable period of three months. I also recruited through CVs and covering letters. Like all good recruiters I had criteria, and one of them was to ask myself “How much will this mean to them?”. If I thought an internship would actually be a proper step on the ladder as opposed to a routine course I was more likely to take them on. I also insisted that all internships be part time so they could fund their giving us their time through part time work.

None of this was ideal. My hands are not clean on this issue. But there are struggling charities and small political organisations doing great work out there, and a lot of that work is being done by young, enthusiastic volunteers. What happens when those organisations can’t pay then is not yet clear. There are also organisations for whom paying their interns will barely touch the sides. Sadly those organisations who can least afford the free help are often those who most need and deserve it.

I don’t know the answer to this. I want to open up politics to all who have a desire and an aptitude. But I don’t think simply stopping free internships does that. This debate is important and it’s a start, but we mustn’t kid ourselves that these quick fixes are the answer.




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The views stated are those of Emma Burnell and the other occassional contributors.
They are not the views of any employer or organisation with which these individuals are involved.
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