Archive for June, 2011

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – A Review

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

This is an extremely timely book. Class is just beginning to resonate again in the popular consciousness. The causes of this are varied, but it is the right time to have a full examination of what has happened both to the working class and popular attitudes towards them.

Owen Jones is a very engaging and passionate writer and this is an excellent book. It’s a detailed examination of how the working classes were knee-capped politically, then humiliated for being unable to stand up. It’s easy to read and nod along to and it doesn’t pull its punches where they are needed.

Owen is right to blame the de-industrialisation of the Thatcher era for so much of the state that formerly proud working communities found themselves in by the mid-nineties, and equally right to blame Labour for not doing enough either to rectify or  – more worryingly – to recognise it at all.

I have a couple of minor quibbles (and they are very minor, and don’t detract from the overall value of the book). The first is that the author has a tendency to over eulogise every working class character he come across. Possibly this an attempt to rebalance the very imbalance so well illuminated in our media and popular culture, but it is not one that always works.

The most glaring example for me is the authors discussion of the phenomenon of Jade Goody. My confession here is that I was a total Big Brother addict. I never missed an episode. The problem sometimes comes when an author you are looking to as an authority takes on a subject about which you know more and gets it wrong. Jade was a bully, she bullied in every series she was in (including Back to Reality). As were other middle class contestants who have been equally reviled by the public (just look at “nasty” Nick Bateman). There is a great and fascinating book to be written about the class struggle which was evident in a great deal of the tensions that made Big Brother compulsive viewing for some ( I could write a chapter alone on the triumph of working class Aisleyne Horgan-Wallace over spoiled middle class brat Nikki Grahame). But I strongly suspect Owen Jones doesn’t watch Big Brother, and while I can see the ease with which the Jade phenomenon looked like ith should have fitted the “Vicky Pollard” narrative, in fact it was Jade’s very multi-dimensional personality (she could also be terribly sweet) and the access that we got to it that makes them very different. When you do know a ridiculous amount about a subject and it is – in your view – misinterpreted, it can make you question the whole. I don’t think in this case it is justified to judge Owen’s book on the basis of the inclusion of what must have seemed like an obvious case.

Secondly, the author seems to see no differential between elites and the middle class as a whole. He will often use the term “Middle class” while referring to the wages and wealth of the top 10%. While a useful polemical construst, this denies the stratification of the middle class and if we do that, we also deny the fellowship that can exist between the different sections of the classes and must exist and be mobilised to improve conditions for lower middle classes as well as working classes.

 Overall though these are minor quibbles. Owen Jones has done an excellent job at outlining the recent history of the war that has been waged against the working classes and the way all parts of the upper echalons of society are culpable. He’s made me think seriously about where I fit in the class spectrum, having always identified as middle class, many of the pressures Owen rightly ascribes as predominantly working class phenomena seem to fit my daily worries, and that sense of there being a party you never get invited to but keep hearing about – so prevalent in Chavs –  is certainly an insecurity I face.

In order to know where we are going, we need to know where we are. Owen Jones has set out the challenge with pin point accuracy. I look forward to the next books where we stake out where we are going and how we get there!


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Labour’s Family Values

Sunday, June 26th, 2011

I want to tell you a story about an incredibly inspiring group of people I know. I’ve known most of them since we were all teenagers. They don’t work in politics. They work in retail, in childcare, in restaurants, in leisure centres, in clerical and administration jobs in housing and for the council. Some of them are now mature students, but when I first knew them, few ever went further in school than GCSEs. Most but not all of the women in the group had children at a very young age. Very few of the fathers of those children are still involved.

Hilary Clinton once famously said “It takes a Village to raise a child”. None of these people would have read much of Hilary Clinton (and if I said that to them, they’d laugh at me and point out they live in Hackney not a village – they don’t suffer fools or policy wonks gladly), but they are the prime example of the lived experience of this motto made good. Everybody in this group is responsible for the childcare. Every child knows that if they act up, they don’t just have their Mum, but the group to catch them out. The men have actively chosen to be role models to the boys. To ensure that they see men who go out to work and who value these children and their schooling, their behaviour and their futures. One – then childless – woman, actively took on the role of secondary carer for her friend’s two young children after she had been abandoned – while pregnant – by the man who begged her to have a second child.

When I have conversations with people in the Labour Party about family values, it is to this group of people that my mind turns. This group wouldn’t define themselves as a family, but it’s exactly what they are. While the Tories may want to conserve the nuclear family in aspic, and bribe unhappy couples to say in loveless marriages, Labour must be the party that values all families. We can’t let the Tories claim to the be the party of the family and let them define what that means, leaving thousands of successful single parent families – like those who make up my group of friends – out in the cold.

Labour can’t just be the party of the family. I know plenty of childless, single people who find that equally isolating. But we also can’t let the right wing own the concept. When we shy away – as many have done in response to some of Maurice Glasman’s pronouncements – from offering a Labour definition of family values, we let ourselves down and deny ourselves a way to talk to the voters in their language. We know our voters value their families. Just because others have perverted that to suit their agenda, does not mean we should not offer our own vision of how we will value families. But all families, or all shapes and sizes.

We must be ambitious in our politics. We must be lofty in our ideals. But we must be grounded in the reality of the voters. If we don’t have the gumption to talk the language of the voters we can have all the ideas we like. But we won’t ever convince enough people they are right to enact them.

This post first appeared on Labour List


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Tradition and heritage

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

This weekend, I visited the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. I rode on a steam train from Grosmont to Pickering. It’s a wonderful day out and a great project and I urge you to visit it if you get the chance.

It led me to thinking about the difference between heritage and tradition. These words have – in some ways – become politically loaded.

In recent years, Labour has been very much about modernity, often at the expense of being about our heritage. Where I differ from Blue Labour, is in my differentiating between valuing heritage, understand where we cone from and what makes us who we are, and the wish to return to traditional values, imposing who we were then on who we are now.

Labour’s roots are important. If we forget we are a party rooted in the working class, we forget why we need power. But we must also be the party that fights the more modern fights against discrimination. We can’t let an understanding and valuing of our past, cloud the mission of our present.


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Refounding Labour: Winning Back Power

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

The 2010 election was a tale of two campaigns. On the one hand there were member-led innovations like Mob Monday and #Labourdoorstep which got activists targeting their support and pooling their resources.

Sadly, the campaign at the top seemed unable to capture this spirit and equally unable to really give the activists the space they deserved to lead the campaigns. The one opportunity I remember where this was attempted was the dreadful, disastrous “Fire up the Quattro” poster. When one considers how many people that went through for approval, it is astonishing that not one of them had the gumption to wonder about the public attitude to this pop culture figure. While one poster is not all that important in the grand scheme of things, this was emblematic of how distanced from the public and the lived experience of ordinary people.

To be a properly campaigning Party, we need to be a better disciplined Party. The astonishing situation we find ourselves in today is in many ways a mirror inversion of the situation of the 1980s. Party members – as a whole – are disciplined and focused on defeating the Tory-led government at every level. The staff and PLP are undisciplined, briefing anonymously, undermining the leader and therefore the members and defeating Labour in the public arena with scant attention to the feelings and needs of those they are supposed to serve.

I have already discussed issues around the staff. I believe it is also inherent that we change the way the PLP is organised and run. I believe that the events of the last few months have shown that it is essential that the Leader appoint his own shadow cabinet. As far as I can see it is the only way to restore some discipline into the PLP. While I supported Ed for leader, if any other candidate had won, and Ed supporter were behaving in the way some have done over the last 6 months I would be saying exactly the same. My loyalty is to the people of Britain and to offering them an electable Labour government.

Again I think that MPs need to have a contract with their CLP outlining what is expected of them as representatives.

In the 2010 Manifesto, we said:

“We will ban MPs from working for generic lobbying companies and require those

who want to take up paid outside appointments to seek approval from an independent

body to avoid jobs that conflict with their responsibilities to the public.”

I believe it is essential that we retain this rule while out of office and implement the lobbyist register as soon as we are returned to Government. We can never again be the Party where behaviour like that of Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon is allowed to take place.

Equally we must be a united force against the coalition. Any MP or Peer working for this Government in a formal capacity, as John Hutton and Frank Field have done, should have the whip removed from them. There should be no question of Alan Milburn getting a peerage.

The selection process should be better staggered over the life of a Parliament. I think the Island seats are a great idea, and selecting early in this way will have a positive effect on our chances of winning these seats. I realise that the boundary review is going to make other early selections difficult, but there should be a timetable rolled out for seats after that. A constant drumbeat of selections will help Labour to campaign long term.

We need to encourage MPs who want to stand down to announce that they are doing so as soon as possible. At present this is difficult as MPs fear they will lose power and status. I propose that MPs who announce early that they are going to step down should form an emeritus committee to consult on manifesto issues and processes, essentially formalising their role as Party grandees. I believe that this committee should have access to the manifesto process, but that retiring MPs should not be part of the Clause 5 process, as there is too strong a chance of a potential conflict of interest.


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Refounding Labour Submission: Renewing Our Party

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

I support Harriet Harman’s suggestion that we formalise the lucky situation we find ourselves in at the moment where we have a balanced representation at the top of the ticket. If anyone feels that it isn’t necessary to do this in the modern Labour Party, I tell that that I was called a “Barmy  Ballbuster” by a fellow Party member on Twitter for even suggesting it’s something we could look at.

All Women Shortlists have served us well and should remain until we find that we have achieved stable gender parity. I think quotas are vital in the world we live in. As has been shown by the dreadful recruitment rate in the Lib Dems and the lack of A-list success in the Tories, All Women Shortlists has consistently been proved to be the method that works best in ensuring that we get a more and increasingly representative party in Parliament.

But great women candidates don’t appear from nowhere. There need to be far greater support for women taking positions in the party at all levels to give them the experience and confidence to come through and challenge – particularly in areas that have traditionally been male dominated. We also need to make sure working class women are also coming through, and getting the support and networks that they need to continue to make our representative of the working class.

I support the idea of a 50% quota for women in the cabinet. The idea that this will stop “the best candidates” is a straw man. For any job, there is no perfect candidate, but a set of criteria, and a number of candidates who match this criteria to a greater or lesser extent. All this does is add an extra level of criteria in the essential category. In politics we all know that there have always been other factors than simply “merit” in appointing people, and that this is true in all parties. Factionalism is far more damaging to politics than gender balancing but is allowed to carry on regardless as it’s an informal rather than a positive and formal rebalancing.

We have a great deal of talented women in Parliament – certainly more than enough to make up half a cabinet of experienced women in Parliament, and a new generation of women in the new intake who can be inspired to take these leadership roles on. A cabinet with for example – Anne Begg, Karen Buck, Yvette Cooper, Angela Eagle, Harriet Harman, Meg Hillier, Margaret Hodge, Tessa Jowell, Meg Munn, Dawn Primarolo, Joan Ruddock and Joan Walley – is not a cabinet stuffed with also-rans but is vibrant and interestingly diverse in terms of political positioning (something I think would be an inevitable part of making the pool you are choosing from smaller).

I hope this wouldn’t be a permanent measure, but one designed to permanently change the culture until it makes itself unnecessary – like All Women Shortlists.

Anyone unlikely to vote for a party based on this issue alone, is always going to be unlikely to vote Labour. On the other hand, this single measure gives us back a sense of radicalism and transformative politics that has been missing from the Labour Party for a while. It could have the power to further inspire the base, particularly the women, and to bring in a generation of women who see Labour taking real and direct action to improve our reflection of them in Parliament.

Traditional models of political engagement for the working classes have largely broken down. It used to be that the unions were the best recruiting ground, but with workplaces becoming smaller and more atomised, unions have had less reach to the 21st Century working class, the telesales workers and shop assistants who are being exploited as much, if not more, than ever. The Labour Party must work – with unions where possible – to bring together small businesses and entrepreneurs with the workers they need to find solutions that ensure decent wages and lifestyles but also allow economic growth and don’t stifle the best of industry.

Unions have some work to do on themselves to transform into 21st century vehicles for the aspirations and needs of the modern working class. Labour should support them as close but critical friends in this process. The union link is essential to Labour, but equally we need to represent the majority of Britain. We need to help unions to find a way to do that with us.

A supporters network is an interesting idea, but I don’t think it is the solution to why busy people aren’t getting involved in politics. I believe Labour could make far more of the Socialist Societies who already offer those with a particular interest to engage with Labour on a less formal basis. Socialist Society members who are not members of other parties are already allowed to vote as part of the affiliates group in Labour’s electoral college, and if the Societies are better strengthened and promoted they can work in much the way a supporters network would while allowing a legitimate route for policy engagement from sympathetic non-members.

We should also work with unions and Socialist Societies to engage their members in questions about the Party. Asking unions to survey their members regularly to find out what they expect from their affiliation fees would be a useful and interesting and nuanced exercise and would tell us more than simply expecting their General Secretaries to speak for them.  

At their 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. We can be proud historically of the contribution we have made to debates both in our own expert contributions and our ability to pull in knowledge from outside the party.

I bow to those better placed to talk about community organising, and look forward to hearing about how the Movement for Change is going to work. I add the caveat that it must be real and genuinely of the grassroots. If it becomes another way for the well connected to add a feather to their already over-stuffed caps it will fail.


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Refounding Labour Submission: A Voice for Members

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

There are a number of ways we can strengthen the voice of the members in policy making at every stage. This needs to be done with a sense of responsibility on both sides. If we are to practice the collectivism we preach, we need both to make and accept collective decisions. That goes for me campaigning publically for a party fighting to keep Trident, as much as it goes for the Party agreeing to review that decision if the members choose to do so.

I recommend not just an audit trail for any ideas submitted by CLPs, Unions and Socialist Societies to any policy making body, though that is an important first step. I recommend a clear story of the submission. We need to know what body has considered it. If it was accepted for further consideration, we need to know where it goes to next. If rejected, we need a reason why. Not an essay perhaps, but a cogent explanation.

We could reward activity with invitations to be more engaged. If people are giving up large quantities of their spare time, it is unlikely to be out of a sheer love of delivering leaflets. People get involved in politics to be and stay inspired, and to change things for the better. Yes, leaflets are probably important (though when was the last time we tested that, as I don’t think many people read them). But delivering them isn’t enough to make people feel they are making a difference.

MPs need to remember that for every Labour Party member who makes it to Parliament, to Government, to leadership, there is an army of people who made this happen. The lucky few who make it aren’t uniquely blessed by God, they were chosen among a number of other suitably qualified candidates and fought for by a determined army. We praise and appreciate their talents, but don’t ever think that doesn’t mean that we aren’t equally aware of their weaknesses. They are there because of us, and while they are elected to serve the country, their first mandate is to do so in the democratic way that we as a party agree is the best way forward. We have different ideas from the other parties, and we know in our hearts that ours are right. They should never, ever forget that they are there as our representatives. They are not bigger than the party, and the way we all know this is that they wouldn’t be elected as independents.

We don’t work this hard for the betterment of another person’s career, but because we believe in a better way of organising society. That’s important to us. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need or want to be challenged. We understand the need to be constantly evaluating what this organisation means and would mean to our modern citizens. It does mean that when we take a person on as our representative, this underlying belief is what they are there to represent; That we will only accept a challenge when presented through the prism of our unchanging values.

Having an army of volunteers work for you must feel good. I can understand how MPs may come to think that it is their unique talent that is important and not the collective values they are there to represent. My understanding this doesn’t make it right. It isn’t.

So each MP should have a contract agreed with their constituency, a minimum standard of engagement to which they are expected to adhere to. A contract that – in the final instance – is enforceable by the NEC. This should not restrict them politically, but ensure that where they do disagree with a majority of their CLP on an issue they are at least expected to attend discussions to explain their decision making process.

In this review of Labour’s policy making and party structures there is something missing: Any discussion of root and branch reformation of the Party staff. The Party staff work long and very hard. But I am unconvinced – sceptical even – that they are led to do so in the right way with the right outcomes in mind.

Everyone has a story about the control freakery of the Party. From the “lost” submissions to the press releases not viewed by candidates; from queries never answered to open derision aimed at member bodies. From the canvassing for votes and strong-arming delegates at conferences at which they were supposed to listen to the will of the party, to ignoring what came out of those votes when the strong-arming didn’t go as planned.

Mostly we rightly blamed the leadership. And we will be right to do so again if Ed doesn’t get a handle on this problem. But we can’t ignore a whole aspect of the Labour culture that exists and reinforces itself among the staff.

What has happened at head office is understandable in a historical context. When Labour was tearing itself apart, an over emphasis on their role in our internal discipline was essential to bring us back from the brink. But what was once essential is now habit. Current and former party staffers I meet take pride in defining themselves against the members, despite the members having grown and matured away from the undisciplined rabble we have been. We don’t need a nanny anymore, and clinging to that role is making them an inadequate provider of what is needed.

The Party is about to appoint a new General Secretary. I urge whoever that is to be far bolder than any person in that role has managed for years and remember why you are there. Remind the staff what they are for, not just what they define themselves against. Introduce member feedback and modern mechanisms and understanding of politics. Don’t just have a Movement for Change officer, have a genuinely changed ethos.

I want to support the staff in continuing to do the hard, hard slog of getting us back to power. All I ask, all I want, is that they decide to support me and the millions like me in doing the same.

Finally, I envisage a completely different way of running our conferences.

A reconstituted NPF (one in which every elected member can inform any one of the policy commissions) would prepare documents based on their discussions and submissions in time for Easter.

Instead of a spring conference that feels like a smaller, less important version of the autumn conference, we would instead invite delegates from every CLP, Union and Socialist Societies as well as 10 MPs selected by lottery to participate in a direct democracy event lasting over several days. These would be closed to the media and be a modernised version of the old compositing events.

Split into manageable tables of 10 with a facilitator and laptop at each table there would be discussion around each section of the documents produced by the NPF. Feedback would be inputted to a central point by the facilitators and the networked laptops would display comments for groups discussion and take in all the input.

The outcomes of these discussions would be voted on by everyone in the room. These would them be put back together again with reference to the voting and comments by the Labour Party Staff for the NPF to sign off to send for final approval at the Autumn conference.

This level of input and scrutiny should give members a real sense of control over the policy making process, while the staff and NPF can keep it on track. Having the initial discussions away from the cameras will also help to ensure that we don’t replicate the terrible conferences of the 1980s while keeping members in charge.

This would also free up more time for the autumn Party conference to be a more outward looking event, where Labour sets its stall out to the nation.


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Refounding Labour Submission: An Outward Looking Party

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Constituency Labour Parties vary wildly as do their individual issues. It is the case that the most active and vibrant CLPs are to be found where there are also elected Labour members. However, it has been my experience, that those CLPs without elected representation are often those who came to feel most disconnection from the central party and least able to have any say at all in how the Party is run, how it formulates policy and how it governs. With no MP over whose final vote the CLPs might have an influence, and with policy seemingly presented to them often as a fait acompli, these areas lost members and energy because all but a very loyal few could see the point of their membership.

If – as I hope – we are to open up decision making to members far more and make that process more transparent, this may start to attract those members in the Tory heartlands whose active membership is essential to giving Labour voters a sense of some Labour presence, but whose rewards for doing so are often scant at best.

I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to managing CLPs. There isn’t a magic bullet that is suddenly going to make CLPs across the country lively and vibrant places to be. There are however plenty of good ideas out there. So far the Party has presented CLPs with a somewhat binary choice for change: remain with a GC structure or open up to all member meetings. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and work for CLPs of different sizes and characters.

I suggest that the Party produces a booklet sent to every CLP Secretary and updated every 5 years with a series of menu options of differing approaches to local structure, and best practice advice for each. At CLP AGMs, as well as choosing officers, CLPs could also vote on how to conduct their business over the forthcoming year, picking and choosing from different parts of the booklet and deciding how they want to run themselves. While this might make the AGM a lot more procedural, it should avoid procedural wrangling during the rest of the year, as procedure – as well as those who implement it – is chosen by all CLP members.

I suspect it would not lead to massive upheavals year upon year, but would give members who felt their CLPs were not operating at full capacity a chance to debate how to change that without forcing an officer’s position on them, something to which not everyone is inclined or suited, nor always able to invest the time and energy required. 

Doing this annually also gives CLPs an opportunity to test what works and what doesn’t and a duty of CLP secretaries should be to report this back centrally for further compilation and discussion. This helps the Party to be an enabling framework, rather than a rigid bureaucracy, but also ensures a realistic amount of two way communication and responsibility.

Labour need to look not just at affiliated unions, important though this is, but also at the Socialist Societies and how they can help to link in with community groups. For example, local and active members of SERA are likely to be an excellent bridge to local environmental campaigns which are tied to the community.

While it is essential that Labour is involved in local communities, we need to remember that people – particularly in the 21st – engage in communities far beyond where they live. The world is changing, and the Labour Party needs to change with it. 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. In light of this, Labour needs to look again at what we mean by communities and community activism. 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. 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, for example on green homes, or the effect of education on health outcomes.

I am not and haven’t been a councillor, so I feel my opinions on this section should carry far less weight than those who do dedicate their time and energy to the party in this way. However, I do feel that there can be a compromise between meeting held for their own sake and no meetings at all.

Labour Housing Group are currently trying to organise regionally based networks of councillors with housing responsibilities or opposition housing briefs to share best practice, campaigning and policy expertise. This is an uphill struggle, as it is at present almost impossible to get the national party and the staff to assist in the promotion of such an event (I don’t mean dedicating staff time, but sharing email lists with trusted affiliates (or even sending email invitations on their behalf)) that few others are even attempting what could be a valuable way of having councillors network, inspired, better informed and working together to formulate Party policy.


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The Problem with “Why Aren’t You a Tory?”

Friday, June 17th, 2011

Every now and again there comes along an article that gets us all talking.

Sadly, what we’re usually saying is “Why are you Labour?” or even worse “Why aren’t you a Tory?”. These articles are either yet another swipe at Ed and his leadership or a policy proposal, the content or presentation of which puts us both on the wrong side of our shared values or on the wrong side of the electorate.

Some of the authors of such pieces have served the Labour Party for many years, though they spent much of that defining themselves against the membership of the Labour Party. In 1987 there was more justification for such a stance. But the worst salesmen for the continuation of the best of the New Labour strategy are those who still cling closest to the label. Those who have allowed “New Labour” to crystallise into a dogma of its own rather than the rejection of dogmas that exemplified its early years.

Worse, some of the authors appear to have made a conscious choice to define themselves as cankers. Stars have risen on this basis. Reputations must be fed and controversialists must remain controversial.

But for those of us who would like to present a more balanced picture of the views of the Labour Party and the membership beyond the Westminster bubble, a reaction as reactionary as the original pieces is just creating more noise.

The problem is that screaming “Tory” at Labour members who don’t agree with us about the direction of the party from the right is about as helpful as those who shout “Trot” at anyone who questions us from the left. It’s destructive and self-defeating. It leaves you with nowhere to go and no argument to have. It allows the argument, not the policies, to become the focus, and leads to endless playing of the man and not the ball. And our own men at that. While the opposing team laugh their heads off at us.

Most of all, it’s not the kind of nuanced response that best articulates the democratic part of our democratic socialism. Collectivism is a Labour value I hold dear. It’s one of the principle reasons I support the leadership taking their time with the policy reviews and listening to as many members and experts as want to feed in. I’m genuinely hoping that the Leadership get a myriad of ideas from my left and from my right, and that they and we on the NPF pick the best and brightest from wherever they emerge to build a strong, coherent, radical and electable platform for Labour.

We cannot do any of this if we close down debate. We cannot do any of this is we simply reject as Tory any ideas put forward without making it clear why they don’t match our value of putting power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few. I can have those arguments. I can do so from both sides. I’m as likely to believe that some of the policies put forward by the hard left are as unelectable as I am to believe that some of the policies put forward by the ultra right are contrary to this aim. Like most Labour members I want to strike the balance between being electable and being elected for a purpose beyond beating the Tories.

Yesterday, fed up with yet more disconnect and discontent I tweeted the following:

“Labour Right Blog Formula: 1. Insult members. 2. Praise Tories. 3. Something vaguely sane. 4. Something off the charts dumb 5. end on a joke”

It was a response to how tired I am of reading what essentially boils down to the same article from the usual suspects reproduced in a variety of places. But it was deeply unfair to the majority of the Labour right wing who are loyal to the party and are making a far more interesting and nuanced contribution than those who give them the poor reputation. If they feel anything like the way I did about some of my fellow travellers on the centre left during the years Labour was in power, I know that they are probably find these interventions even more frustrating than I do, less able are they to shrug off the hurtful words of those they are close to.

I don’t like reading endless criticism of the party and the leader. I find it dull and repetitive, aimed at creating a poisonous atmosphere for the vast majority of Labour members in order that the privileged few can continue to play their power games.

But even more than this, I don’t like the response to these articles that I read. Dismissing someone as a “Tory” is not to defeat their argument. Reaching for hyperbole leaves you with no place to go. Equally, it gives those who share the majority of our values but offer different prescriptions no place to go. It isn’t right for us in the centre ground of the party to dismiss either our left or right flanks. We need them both for balance and inspiration. We also need to be a party that can be grown up and inclusive. We need to be able to agree to disagree, but also having disagreed, to move on.

If we don’t we are all – me included – giving the Tories a free and easy ride. And if we can agree on nothing else, we can surely all agree that we can’t have that.

This piece was first published on Labourlist


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Blue Labour’s Communications Failure

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Tony Blair was in the Sun today, which was nice for him. The interview was all that we’ve come to expect. How you react to that depends largely on whether you agree with him or not. I’m a bit over all that. This is not another post about Blair.

What did interest me was the amount of people referring to Blair as Blue Labour. Which struck me as wrong. Blue Labour seems to be about a combination of taming the power of capital and reclaiming traditionalism. Blairism was about a sense of ultra-modernity and riding the tide of capitalism to try to lift all the boats.

Similarly, I found myself arguing with someone at least as intelligent as me (and probably twice so) about the Blue Labour focus on “Family Faith and Flag”. His contention was that these concepts in and of themselves belong natural and solely on the right and that we should not be focused on them. My argument, and from what I have read, I think Blue Labour’s (though I’m happy to be disabused as some of it is impenetrable), is that there are excellent leftist arguments for redefining what we mean by family values, i.e. valuing families of all shapes and sizes and supporting them, rather than the narrow right wing focus of defining families in a traditional way and only supporting those who fit the definition. Equally as I have said before, we should not let the right own the concept of patriotism, and let it become conflated with nationalism. We have to have a positive vision for Britain, and be patriotic enough to want to see it enacted. I’m less comfortable with the concept of religion and politics mixing, but equally, as someone with a great deal of interaction with the Christian Socialist Movement, I deny utterly that faith (of any denomination) is a right wing concept.

For now, it doesn’t really matter to the Blue Labour gang  – while they have Ed Miliband’s ear –  that people don’t really understand who they are and what they want. The leader will set the direction of travel and they will help him, whether the rest of us understand what they’re talking about or not.

But if they want thier ideas to become part of the longer term canon of Labourism, they need to democratise their presentation. They need someone who can translate their academicese to real people, real Labour Party members who, might be surprised by how much they find they support.


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A colourful vision for Labour: Welfare

Monday, June 13th, 2011

In 2014/15 (and, despite recent speculation, almost certainly not before) Labour are going to go to the voters of Britain with a vision for Government. This is my second in an occasional series where I give my best attempts to think about what I’d like to see articulated in that vision. These are not policy ideas, though I will offer those elsewhere, but principles that should form the basis of Labour’s policy making. Here I will be posing questions that should help Labour to establish how we move the arguments for Socialism forward and make it relevant to the 21st century and it’s new challenges. I will also start to offer my answers to those questions.

Note: I started writing this post last week, before I even know Ed would be making his speech today, but dallied over it for too long to have the kind of foresight I might have been afforded had I published on Thursday. However, some of my rewriting and completion of this post today has been coloured by Ed’s speech and even more by the response to it.

Welfare is an area absolutely fraught with dangers for Labour. We have to be honest about that if we are to take power again and create a system fit for purpose. Of the many apparently controversial policies the Tories are pushing through, welfare reforms rountinly poll extremely highly. Like it or not, at present and as it stands, the welfare state is not popular with the general public who fund it.

Labour is not a Party that can only do what’s popular. We must be a Party that also does what is right. But if we become a Party with a tin ear, we’ll be a Party that will never have the opportunity to do anything at all. There must be a balance.

Labour has a historic duty to protect the poorest and weakest in society. But we need to be honest about how we do this better than we have, and how we make sure we are doing the best by everyone.

Firstly we need to accept that some years ago, a generation of claimants of incapacity benefits were parked there because at one time this was an easy short-to-medium term solution to a range of wider social problems. These decisions weren’t made by one group of people, but were made by a group of stakeholders and only sometimes by the claimants themselves.

To an extremely large extent, this wasn’t about people themselves deciding to defraud the system, but systemic support for people whose joblessness itself was diagnosed – sometimes by doctors, sometimes by staff within the welfare system – as chronic. As the pendulum returned back to an economy of far greater employment opportunity, and the Government started to speak in real terms of the goal of full employment, the culture changed. There were clearly more people on incapacity benefit than statistics proved was realistic and so draconian measures were brought in to try to pinpoint those who were claiming a benefit they were not entitled to. Clearly from the horror stories we have seen the pendulum swung far too far the other way. Genuinely sick and disabled people are and have been treated with suspicion and contempt. There has been an assumption that people were shirking, which is massively out of proportion to the percentage of people who are – for whatever reason – claimin benefits when they could be working.

Labour is a Party that was founded on the basis of the value of work – of Labour – above and beyond the monetary value, important though that is. Though we are also a Party that must take our responsibility to those who cannot work seriously, we should not do so at the cost of denying the value that work brings us. If people cannot work they should be supported. If people can work they should be supported to do so. For the benefits their doing brings to society and to themselves. This isn’t about sending the disabled up ladders, or children up chimneys, but is about ensuring that as many of our citizens as possible get to experience the tangible and intangible benefits of work that cannot come with the simple monetary exchange of any form of benefit.

As a society, we should encourage as few people as possible to be on benefits. As a party based on the dignity and value of work, this should not be a controversial statement. We should work with those who can’t work to try to find other ways for them to experience the postive aspects of a contributory relationship with society. But if there are those who could experience this and are not, that should be a situation we strive to change.

If Labour is to protect the welfare state which we so value, we need to ensure that the buy-in to the system is as universal as the safety net it provides. If we don’t accept that we are not currently employing arguments in the favour of this that are working with the general public, we will lose the fight to protect the value of a universal welfare state and any recognisable and workable mechanism for providing it. If we continue to lose the argument, we will end up like Tories faced with a minimum wage. They don’t want it, they’ll try to stymie it, but they won’t be political able to abolish it. We will find ourselves similarly powerless in the face of a welfare reform jugganaught if we do not learn how to duck and weave.

Labour have to learn to be able to better talk abour welfare. The response I saw today to what was a pretty reasonable speech that outlined the values I’ve stated above was a wailing and gnashing of teeth because we’ve become so unaccustomed to talking about welfare that we expect every conversation to happen only through the prisms or ultra-violet and infrared. But the public – before whom we must make a case for a reasonable prospectus on welfare – just don’t view things that way.

If we don’t get this right, we will lose the welfare state. We will let the perfect pitch be the enemy of good provision. We will be so timid about stating that a work ethic is a Labour ethic, we’ll lose those we should be supporting.


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