Archive for October, 2011

Both Sides Now: Occupy

Monday, October 31st, 2011

There are some issues on which I can genuinely see both sides of the argument. Occupy is one of them. Following a conversation last week with a friend and colleague I thought I’d try and offer my take on the protest at St Paul’s. The Occupy movement is – of course – bigger than this one example, but it makes sense to me to examine the one closest to home.

When i talk about examining both sides of the argument, I talk as I have before about the civic and political left, not of left and right, which is a discussion for a different commentator.

The political left have – in several places – criticised the Occupy movement for the lack of clarity in their aims. For me, this misses the main point the movement is trying to make. The civic left are quite right to highlight the complete political failure that has led not only to the credit crunch and global financial crisis, but to almost total paralysis in its wake.

While swift action was needed and taken to stop the crisis turning immediately into a disaster, since then an inertia has settled in. Project Merlin was a damp squib, and while Ed M makes timid gestures towards trying to move away from the current model, he’s so besieged by all sides every time he does so, he rarely gets further than identifying a problem we all know exists.

You shouldn’t have to be an economist to demand that something be done to change our economy. You shouldn’t have to be a party activist to demand that politicians take actions. We don’t demand of those protesting the price of fuel that they solve the thorny twin problems of climate change and dwindling resources so why ask that protestors demanding economists and politicians do better produce detailed policy solutions on this even more complex issue?

The political left are failing to comprehend what it is the protestors are demanding because it doesn’t fit the more familiar pre-2008 model of campaigning which assumed change was only possible within the static framework of a settled, successful capitalist system. Since the crash showed us all the man behind the curtain, protestors are no longer simply trying to stop or promote particular actions or policies. They’re now trying to have a wider, deeper conversation about what happens now the house of cards has fallen.

However, the Occupy movement is equally stymied by those very things that it draws strength from. While it should be recognised that polling reflects the fact that a majority believe it is asking the right questions, it does also need to recognise that you can only question things for so long before you either become irrelevant, are expected to find answers yourself or join with those who will. This should be where the civil and political Left join forces. Sadly, there is little indication from either side that this is a recognised desired outcome.

Equally, the protestors desire to be inclusive has led to them becoming a repository for a rather mixed bag of protests. Even though I accept their desire to start the discussions about the failure of Laissez Faire Capitalism, it’s pretty hard to do so when the message is delivered by people wearing Libertarian paraphernalia such as the V for Vendetta masks. It takes a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to protest a lack of adequate regulatory brakes on the worst excesses of human nature as a libertarian. Are they a movement calling for better, stronger regulation – something that can only be delivered through additional governmental mechanisms –  or a movement calling for less government? If there are to be successes, a choice will have to be made.

Equally, the Occupy movement is in danger of becoming a meta-protest. A protest about the nature of protest itself. Nearly all of the messaging around the row with St Paul’s have been about the right to protest, distracting from the original intention of the protest itself.

Just as the political left have failed to grasp the reality of just how unstable our existing polity has become, so too the civil left fail to grasp the serious threat to their movement of the simple threat of inertia.

Brian Haw is often cited as a hero of the civil left. But – harsh though this may sound – Brian Haw failed. Brian Haw didn’t stop a war. He lived in a tent for several years, lost everything, and didn’t stop a war. If the civil left fail to come to terms with that most simple of lessons they too could be doomed to the same failure. In the end, because he was always there, Brian Haw became easy to ignore. So while Occupy are right that the law should not time limit their protest, their own desire for effective outcomes should.

The Occupiers will be too easy to ignore if they stay but shouldn’t lose the momentum they have built. If they can come up with some intermediate steps that continue the questioning of what lies beyond market capitalism, that bring those those with a passion for change together with those with the expertise to help design that change, then this could be the moment and the movement it has the potential to be.


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Women Can’t Win

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Can you imagine the fuss if there would be if every time the Cabinet discussed a policy, every single time, Harriet Harman, Yvette Cooper and Caroline Flint tried to start a discussion about its impact on women? They would be accused of time wasting at best. That lovely old nickname would come out in the press as the leaks inevitably occurred.

So you’d think the Labour dinosaurs would be happier about a separate meeting of the Female members of the Shadow Cabinet to discuss David Cameron’s women troubles and how to capitalise on them. Reading the actual facts (which are careful hidden between the bigotry) in this Mail article it seems this group have met twice so far this year – once in Summer and once in the Autumn. Seems to me a quarterly meeting to discuss the impact on women of the Caolition’s policies and how to translate this into political campaigning and capital is an eminently sensible idea.

But no, some Labour men are up in arms. Luke Bozier described the move on Twitter as “ridiculous and divisive”. Bleating on as so many of them are apt to do any time Labour moves towards positive equality.

Sadly, they don’t seem to have any problem with the phrase quoted in the article from someone with access to to Shadow Cabinet meetings who actually described this move as “a load of politically correct, feminist claptrap”. So this is either a Shadow Cabinet member or a senior Party official using the term “feminist” as a stand alone derogatory. But of course its the idea that –  in a world where that is accepted without comment – women might feel more comfortable exploring some ideas without the presence of such men that is divisive.

Please imagine for a moment how it feels to have a colleague describe the movement for the advancement of your equality in what remains a vastly unequal world described in such terms? My heart has sunk and my blood is boiling. Imagine the phrase used instead were “a load of politically correct, anti-racist claptrap”. There would – quite rightly – be outrage. But no, the only outrage this morning is at the fact that some women don’t feel it would be helpful to discuss the best way to campaign and govern for women in such an environment.

If this group works, what it will do is come up with areas of policy and messaging that will ultimately appeal to women. This will ultimately help to advance the cause of all Labour politicians, even the dinosaur quoted in that disgusting piece. Which is a shame, but one I’ll live with if it means better and more robust policies on the day to day issues that affect women. But if I ever find out who he is, give him five minutes alone with this feminist. I’ll show him what happened when I trap his clappers.


Emma on the Daily Politics

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

After writing this post, I was invited to make a short film for the Daily Politics to discuss the Government’s Obesity “strategy”.


Uncompromising: or why the left rarely wins

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

So, the 99% movement.

I don’t write about movement politics much, because it’s not my area of speciality. I’m an evolutionary not revolutionary socialist, and my chosen path for attempting to affect societal change is through the Labour Party. Party politics isn’t perfect, in fact it’s frustrating as hell sometimes, but in my long experience, it is the best way to achieve a majority of your objectives.

But the collective nature of Parties, the slow rate of change and the hierarchical structures don’t appeal to, or work for, everyone. Those who believe in revolutionary change, those focused on a single issue, those who prefer to work outside of traditional democracy.

So we have among the broad left, two distinctive traditions, which for brevity’s sake I shall refer to as the political left and the civil left.

Unlike Anthony Painter, I don’t feel that the most constructive way for the political left to engage with the civil left is to sneer them into submission. I agree with him (and with Sunny Hundal) that these movements can tend to elitism and internal division, but that doesn’t mean that all those involved in such movements are wrong.

I don’t know about Anthony, but my first instinct when faced with a large group of people willing to give up their Saturday afternoons to politically engaged action isn’t to mock them, but to wish they - or at least some of them - were doing so for the Labour Party. I don’t believe that belittling the action they are currently taking is the best way to do that.

For the most part, I (and I think Anthony) want what they want - a fairer world with better systems to manage that fairness over the longer term. I am concerned that the vagueness of such demands may mean that protests like this are lead to eventual disappointment and disillusionment. But unlike Anthony, I hope that isn’t the case.

This is not to say that all campaign movements achieve nothing. There are a list of legislative achievements that were brought about – at least in part – by people protesting creating the energy and space that supported politicians in getting legislation through. From the Poll Tax to the recent debacle over Forestry  the political Left have been aided by the Civil left kicking up a stink about issues close to their heart. I have been told by former ministers when trying to pass challenging legislation on Climate Change that the noise of the protesters outside their windows pushing them to go as far as possible helped shore up support within the system. That’s a good example of the political and civil left coming together, bringing all their strengths to a common cause.

It is also worth remembering that protest doesn’t simply belong to the left – despite the stereotypes in Anthony’s article. Some of the most successful protests of the New labour years were organised by the right wing against high fuel prices and road charging. The Countryside Alliance march may not have stopped the ban on fox hunting, but I suspect it had a considerable amount to do with it being one of Blair’s major regrets. And that regret will impact on other potential policies. I suspect several other measures were quietly shelved that might otherwise have found a champion.

However, just as I don’t agree with Anthony’s attitude to the protesters, I equally can’t agree with Sue Marsh’s response. Her attitude to the political left is a scornful and demeaning as Anthony’s to the civil left. It denies the demands of democracy and the paradigm withing which politicians must operate, and berates them for not living up to an ideal that the paradigm fails. Politicians are far, far from perfect. But so are protesters. They both exist within different restrictive structures and change what they can.

So now we have a face off between two sets of people with broadly similar objectives but very different methods. If the right want a reason to be cheerful, it’s this: That instead of pooling our effort and resources – or at least working together where we can – we’re at each others throats over the methods we use.

But here I offer something that Anthony “Mandelsonian triangulation” and self described “happy little, card carrying, Blairite” Sue Marsh might both appreciate: A third way.

Labour should not try to own the protests. It speaks too much to the easy stereotypes of our party in opposition. But neither should we condemn them. I haven’t seen the Boulton and Co Interview in which Ed is reported to have said “protests aren’t the solution to the problems out there’” so I don’t know if it followed with a cheery “but good luck to those raising these issues” or a continued condemnation. If the latter that’s a shame, because getting political activists out on the street is a tough ask and we in the Party could do with more of them.

The civil left and the political left need to stop wasting their firepower on each other and concentrate on what unites rather than divides them.  If the civil left continue to push away those who could help them -  that’s a shame. If the political left deny itself a possibility to build up its activist base, that’s a shame too.

Because if both sides are too busy sniping at each other to actually focus on the civil and political battles we need to win, that’s a tragedy.

UPDATE: edited to add the words “Sue Marsh”.


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@Scarletstand’s first foray into Parliament

Monday, October 17th, 2011


Emma Addresses Conference

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak up for the Socialist Societies at Conference this year.


The press and politics: the sands are shifting

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Sunny Hundal has a very interesting post at Liberal Conspiracy about how out of touch the press is in it’s unbalanced reporting of where Ed Miliband and David Cameron are seen by the public on the ideological spectrum.

(I won’t go off on one about the fact that due to the statistical tool used, journalists reporting this story are routinely able to overdose on describing the left as negative and the right as positive because life is too short.)

Sunny rightly points out that much of the coverage of this follows a pretty slavish “can Miliband shake the ‘Red Ed’ tag” message without focusing on the fact that Cameron is considered one point more extreme than Miliband (43 to 42 respectively) I accept that these are completely within the margin of error, but the point is not that Cameron is considered more extreme, but that despite this evenness, Ed is nearly always portrayed as the extreme in contrast to a centrist Cameron.

Sunny has called it right to say that the press are “out of touch with public opinion”. But beyond this there is an interesting narrative to draw out about the current and changing role of the press, and the effect that is having on politics and politicians.

Politicos take the press very, very seriously. We fear them, we worship them, we live and die by them. We do so because they have always been the conduit for our messages to voters for the moment, they remain so – I’m not arguing that the game is already up. Sometimes that conduit is clear and direct, but most often it is filtered through the experience, prejudices, hopes and fears of the journalist reporting or commenting on the story.

‘Twas ever thus. But could these figures be – in part – an indication of the public’s increasing awareness of this? Trust in journalism is plummeting And was falling sharply even before this summer’s explosions in the hacking scandal. Perhaps the public’s refusal to buy Miliband as more extremist than Cameron is indicative of a wider public unwillingness to take reporting at face value?

If this shift is real, it is not one that is reflected in the attitudes and behaviours of the main parties. Labour’s activists at Liverpool seemed extremely united, but united by an understanding of the mountain they have to climb and the obstacles in our way.

If I’d had pound for every activist I heard bemoaning our treatment in the press I wouldn’t have had to return to work on Monday morning. Equally the staff strategy seemed to be a confusingly skittish mixture of boldness followed by wild amelioration, which didn’t betray a confidence a perception of this power shift might have allowed them.

Meanwhile reports of the Tory Party conference say that despite predictions, it too was a flat occasion. I apologise that I can’t remember whose conference round up I’m quoting when I say that I read that overall the Tories were – like Labour pretty united. They were happy to be in Government despite the presentation of the splits from the Tory right and that they weren’t at all worried about Labour under Ed Miliband. That sounds like a nice way to feel but an extremely poor way to campaign to me. If you aren’t a little bit afraid of your opponent, you don’t know where he’s going to find your weak spot. You aren’t watchful. The Tories seem to have been lulled into a sense of security for which there is no guaruantee of truth or falseness by a media who largely see themselves as compliant and friendly without either of them noticing that the public might, just might, have different ideas.

The media’s relationship with the public is changing. If we grasp that we can change our relationship with the media. But we aren’t the party in the biggest danger from this. Unless the Tories stop sleepwalking through a pre-crash dream, they will not become the formidable electoral force they are capable of being. By being content to listen to the unprovable flattery of friends, they are condemning themselves to be deaf to new lessons.

This is not a post that makes a definite statement about the shifting relationship between our media and our politics. But it is a post which asks why we aren’t thinking more about the way this relationship is and will change. I don’t offer answers, but I do offer questions I haven’t yet heard asked in this way.


When I’m Labour Leader… (or Why I’ll never be allowed to be anywhere near the music choices for conference)

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

Ok so after the mild diatribe of my last post, I thought I ought to clear the air! So here are the ten somgs I would insist on being played in the conference hall while delegates waited for me to make my speech!

1. Sunshine on Leith – the Proclaimers

2. Not the Trembling Kind – Laura Cantrell

3. Union Maid Fight Song – Common Rotation

4. Frontier Pschiatist – The Avalanches

5. Smalls Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana

6. Push It – Salt N Pepa

7. Sheila Na Gig – PJ Harvey

8. Piece of Sky  – The Wonderstuff

9. I wanna be adored – The Stone Roses (honest no?!)

10. Win in the End – Mark Safan




Team Ed Miliband desperately need discipline

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

I wrote some instant reaction to Miliband’s for Labour List. Overall, my assessment was positive and I retain that. But having seen it on television as well as in the hall (well overflow room) I think Ed’s delivery and style still need some work. But then you see the Q and A he did just the next day and you see him at his relaxed best. So something is constraining Ed. Something is stopping him being the very best he can be. Most of that is up to Ed, of course. But the way the speech and the conference played out is down to more than just Ed. So while conference has mostly left me upbeat and encouraged, this is a bit of a diatribe, open letter to Team Ed. I promise an upbeat post straight afterwards, but here are some things that just need saying.

The root of the problem is a combination of a lack of discipline and breakdowns of courage. All the other problems stem from there. The team seems ragged and undisciplined. There isn’t a coherent leadership – from the leader or anyone else – and so we get endless trailing of half-formed messages which are either rowed back from immediately or left to dangle with no support. There seems to be a great deal of bravery in a speech on Tuesday, only for it to be weakened in the spin on Wednesday.

For God’s sake learn how to play the expectations game. Apparently before the speech, different team members were giving different messages – from speech of a generation to Ed needs to stop doing a conference speech. Where there needed to be a coherent playing down, it felt like the only (unnamed) staffer doing so had gone rogue. You need a line and it needs to be stuck to.

Even more importantly than expectation management before the speech, there needs to be far greater discipline after the speech. If – as Mark Ferguson has reported – Ed’s team are a little too addicted to the West Wing, they are overdosing on the episode ‘Game On’ in which it is decided that post-debate spin is unnecessary, so brilliantly has their candidate done. Word had it that there was  no one in Ed’s team with the lobby hacks immediately after the speech. That was the 10 minutes in which cynical hacks – with no feed in from Ed’s people – set the agenda. Not to be there was insanity, or at the very least West Wing style idealism not grounded in the reality of modern political debate outside of the NBC studios.

Equally the writing of the speech seems to have been a chaotic process, from what we can see of the outcome. My instant response was to the messaging, most of which I liked a lot. The stuff that’s driving the Labour right wing nuts on business was clunkily expressed, but – as Gareth Siddorn points out – fleshed out could be a really strong place for us to be; if we hold our nerve. But we need to do a better sales job on it. We need to write both soaring rhetoric and have a coherent argument to back it up. We don’t need to sound like we backed away from using the words “new deal” at the last minute and ran the whole speech through a find and replace search. Equally, the stuff that the Labour left is pissed off about I’m OK with too. Not least because I have been writing about the importance of ambition and the value of work for a while. But it was too buried. There were too many key themes. The speech should be shorter. It should be delivered off the cuff. It should have one consistent voice.

These themes of a lack of discipline and coherence and a need to either achieve lofty expectations or manage them better is also reflected in the Refounding Labour process. Ambitions for this project were high and writ large. The name alone suggests a fundamental change in the way Labour is run. But in the initial document and throughout the process, there has been little or no talk of one issue that has got most in the way of empowering members – Changes to Victoria Street. I added it to my response, and I know others’ I have spoken to did the same. But despite a promise from Ed, the submissions were never published, so we may never know how many submissions called for the same thing. Equally we know a draft of the final document was written and eventually leaked before the closing date. That doesn’t empower members – or give them a feeling they are due to be empowered. Again this is a discipline issue. The leadership need a head office that support and implement their ambitions. Especially when their ambition is to re-empower the membership.

Ed’s office need to change up a gear. Dammit I seem to have greater ambitions for Ed than they are currently displaying. They need to bring in people who can enforce discipline and they need to bring in people who can find a common path between his optimists who leave it to the rhetoric and the nihilists who can’t even support the vision for 48 hours. Get it together people – you owe all of us that.


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