Archive for November, 2011

Failing for the first time

Tuesday, November 29th, 2011

This government will not lose when it fails on Labour’s terms. It will not lose the next election on the NHS, cuts to frontline services or climate change, despite conspicuous failings on these three fronts and many others about which Labour activists and voters care deeply.

They won’t fail on these terms because – for a variety of reasons covered interminably here and elsewhere – at the last election, and for at least six months after that, we let the Tories set the debate, and the debate was about the deficit.

Voters were convinced that the deficit was the single most important issue. Yes for enough of them to be convinced that they could stomach voting for a “nasty” party, they needed the huskies, the NHS pledges, the hoody-hugging. But once those votes were cast, people didn’t want to think they were wrong in the choice they made.

That need to have made the right choice reinforced the importance of the deficit as the only measure that matters. Ok so the Tories actually remained that nasty party all along, but maybe that was what needed to bring down the deficit and get the economy moving again.

And every time voters began to question the primacy of deficit reduction above all else, that message was reinforced. While Labour tried to fight the coalition on the myriad different fronts the Coalition audaciously opened up, the Tories and their Liberal cohorts were on the most disciplined messaging campaign seen outside of a dictatorship.There was no issue that couldn’t be sold as solving the “failure of the last Labour Government to control the deficit” no measure introduced that wasn’t going to “bring down record debt left us by the last government”.

That the Government have set the terms of debate for this Parliament is undeniable. Whether in the end this will be a success is still completely up for debate. Because here’s the rub: the Government have set the terms for success, and by their own terms they are publicly and spectacularly failing.

The Government planned on the economy following a more traditional contraction and expansion. They bet the PLC on the economic cycle continuing to turn. Osborne put everything on black. Today he had to announce that the figure has come up red. George is not going to make it back into the black before 2015.

Now the Government have plenty of time to change the narrative. Or they could decide that their failure is still less toxic to the public than Labour’s and continue this narrative. Labour need answers on this stuff too – and soon.

But the Government today reneged on the deal they made with the electorate. Having built up the deficit into the only thing that matters, they now can’t do what they promised and wipe it out. All the while also reneging on the secondary promises they made about the NHS, crime, climate change etc.

This Government has failed on the one promise they convinced voters mattered. This may well be a defining moment.

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Thatcher’s Last Triumph

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Margaret Thatcher is a frail 86 year old woman. The ultimate Big Beast of politics may not be with us for long, But with a new film coming out celebrating her life, Her last act may well echo her Premiership: long, drawn out and a disaster for the Left.

I loathe Thatcherism. I revile the damage it did to this country from which we have never fully recovered. Communities were torn apart by its worst ravages. A generation who lived in the forgotten areas of Britain lost their jobs and never worked again, their children were abandoned in under-resourced schools, parked in portakabins with decades old textbooks. Their elderly parents suffered as the NHS was battered by Tory indifference.

There is a sense of inevitability about the hype surrounding The Iron Lady. Tories are already goading Socialists into saying stupid things about Thatcher. In part they do this because they do genuinely worship her. There may never be another Tory leader that gives them quite as much of what they want. They know that. That’s why her passing from political life, as much as her eventual passing is an occasion not of solemnity for some, but of garment-wrenching anguish.

But however formidable a politician Thatcher was, she didn’t act alone. I loathe Thatcherism, but Thatcher is just one person. I won’t mourn her when she goes, but Thatcher’s death won’t change her legacy. It’s the death of the Thatcherite ideology I will celebrate, and we ain’t there yet.

There are many on the left who don’t agree. When the time comes,  I don’t ask them not to be cheered by the end of an era.

But Labour are supposed to be the party of the many, not the few. That means we must be a party who understand and exercise empathy. We need to understand that for the majority of the unengaged public, the death of an elderly former Prime Minister is not a cause for celebration. We need to see that a snarling, public celebration is off-putting to them. It confirms the stereotypes the Tories feed them about the left. It makes us look weird, detached from the decorum that normal people instinctively understand should accompany the death of a public figure.

One of life’s ironies is that the only power that Thatcher has left is in the gift of the Left to deny her. If we allow the solemn passing of a once great enemy, we have the opportunity not only to hasten a victory over Thatcherism, but to do so with the dignity that victory deserves.

And if we don’t, we hand Thatcher one last PR victory over us. And for what? What will we have gained? To many in the country, we will look as nasty as those Tories burning effigies of Barack Obama. We’ll have had a nice time doing it, but is the hangover of one last victory handed from us to them worth the reckless drunkeness of the night before?

This matters. It matters more than the short moment of catharsis that these public celebrations would bring. Labour members at every level need to be spending every single moment, every ounce of our energy, every bit of our fight on securing a Labour victory at the next election and destroying any hopes the Tories to make this a Thatcherite century.

This January, when people talk about The Iron Lady, instead of allowing it to rile us, we should politely suggest they try Boys from the Black Stuff as well if they’re interested in the history of the 80s.

When Thatcher dies, I will stay at home, quietly sipping a whisky, and listening to Elvis Costello in my own private moment of reflection. When Thatcherism dies, that’s when I’ll be throwing the biggest street party London has ever known. To hasten the latter, I urge you all to join me in the former. As someone who lived through the difficulty of a striking parent, who was educated in a school that leaked every time it rained, and another whose boiler broke every February half term, whose family – though far from the worst effected – remember the Thatcher years with a shudder, I urge you not to give her or the Tories the last laugh.

This post originally appeared on Labour List.

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Outside the Box

Friday, November 18th, 2011

We’re angry. We see the destruction that is happening everywhere. The chaos that is the tip of the iceberg in our NHS , the violence on the streets as the rules of society fail, the loss of cherished services, the dreams of the children of all but the richest being crushed by a crisis that was not of their making.

We’re scared. We worry about our own debt. We live daily through our terror of an interest rate hike raising mortgage costs; fear of yet another rise in energy prices making monthly bills simply unaffordable; worried about another year with salaries frozen and inflation through the roof.

We lash out. At our leaders for not doing all that we want. At the Tories for making the plans we loathe even worse by implementing them so ineptly. At the Lib Dem patsies for allowing this to happen. At each other over minor disagreements.

Fear and anger make us mean and small. They turn us in on ourselves. We question everything, but only in whispers. We save our volume only for howling in anger and railing in fear against the world.

Fear and anger have taken our ideals, our hope, our passion and hidden them from ourselves in a tightly sealed box marked “not for these serious times”. The box is always guarded. We fail to recognise the guard. The guard is our fear, the guard is our anger. The guard is us.

We need answers. We all know that. But we’ve become so stiff while squeezed into this box, we’ve forgotten how to find new answers. So we repackage and reinvent old solutions. But we’re stiff and cold so we can’t sell those properly. We start to ask the right questions. But all too easily, we allow fear and anger to put us back in our box.

We must remember our moral cause, unpack it from the grey and dull wrappings we’ve been keeping it in, reframe it and display it with pride.

We must once again recognise that we can be at once a party of beautiful ideals and practical leadership, a party both of concrete and quicksilver, a party of ethereal ideals and a party of implementation. The NHS, the minimum wage, of Sure Start and The Human Rights Act are triumphs of both. But more, far more than that, we are the party of tomorrow. We have to be. This is what we have already done. Imagine what we can still do.

This is a political moment. It’s not the moment any of us would have chosen but it is the most important most of us will see in our lifetimes. The challenge to capitalism is not being played out through proxies. While we continue to fight the culture wars, the class war – the one the moneyed have been waging against the rest of us – is being spoken of once again. Not just by people in tents, but by people in shops and pubs, on buses and in the gym.

We need to find the unguarded moment; to escape our fear and allow our minds, our rhetoric and our ideals to soar. We need to rescue ourselves from the box. No one else is going to.

This piece was first posted on Labour List

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All male panels must end

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

I’ve written about this before in the context of the Labour Party conference, but it’s a wide spread problem and if anything it seems to be getting worse. Panels at political events are, more frequently than ever, men only affairs. I’m very glad today to be a signatory to a letter in today’s Guardian calling for a stop to this practice.

When I wrote about this last time, I was (yawn, of course) accused of tokenism. I suspect I will be again. Here’s why that’s so much nonsense: in the decade that I’ve been managing successful political events – on topics as wide ranging as the environment, democracy, housing, culture, science and a host of others – I never, not once have had an all male panel.

In fact, I am so confident that it’s twaddle, I challenge my challengers. Find me an all male panel – in fact, find me any topic on which you could reasonably hold an informed public debate – and I’ll give you the names of five women who could hold their own on the panel. It’s not tokenism you see, it’s research.

And it matters. It matters because women are being shut out of public debate. We don’t see other women on panels, delivering their thoughts to a roomful of people waiting to be inspired. Just as when we close our eyes and think of a politician, we think of a bloke in a suit, so too do we picture him when we think of a political speaker.This is taking it’s toll. Women are vastly under-represented in think tanks for example.

Having run events for so long, I know that the easy thing to do is to invite the bloke who was good on this topic the last time it was discussed. But it’s the lazy thing to do. It’s part of what is making our political discourse so stale, jaded and unable to cope with the really big questions of our times.

Giving women a platform to share their thoughts isn’t just good for those individual women, but for all of us – male and female – who understand the true value of diversity in voices and thought.

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Why I Blog

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Prompted by the opening of the Orwell Prize for blogging and this very interesting interview with Iain Dale and Mark Ferguson, I have been thinking more and more recently about why I blog.

I think it’s only right to be honest. I do want a certain amount of recognition. I was both amazed and secretly thrilled when approached at Conference as the author of Scarlet Standard. I’m pleased that the number of people who read the blog regularly is rising steadily and that the comments I get a broadly positive (I don’t publish the abusive ones, but they are thankfully far less common than for other female bloggers.

My impetus to start a blog was pretty simple. By the time I decided to create my own blog, I had been commenting regularly on Labour List for some time, even offiering them the very occassional piece. Having been part of a very argumentative and well informed Internet forum for some time, I had developed an online writing style that was rough around the edges, but that I felt was one that was largely missing from the online debate on the Left of Centre.

Also, I was between jobs at the time. I started to think about what I wanted to do for a living and basically it boiled down to – I’d like to tell the Labour Party how to create and run campaigns to get them elected and keep them electable. Sadly for both me and the Labour Party, no one was offering me that position. So I’ve had to force my way into the debate.

I’ve done well in doing so and I’ve had some enormously generous help from some great people along the way. I can say from the heart that I wouldn’t still be doing this without both Alex Smith and Mark Ferguson of Labour List.

I’ve become a much better writer over the time I’ve been doing this. I’ve taken a different journey from other bloggers, having moved from a spiky bolshy persona to writing which I hope is more considered (this doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven Alan Milburn though!). I’m a lot happier with the way I write now, and with more readers than ever, I hope you are too.

On Friday, I read Hopi Sen’s post on judging the Orwell Prize. I started to wonder if this was something I should enter. In fact what I was wondering was if I had the cheek, the sheer effrontery to enter. To put myself in the same category as the amazing writers who have won it in the past. Frankly, I was thinking no.

But then I shared my doubts on Twitter and something brilliant happened. People told me to buck my bloody ideas up. Friend and occasional commenter here David Lea pointed out that I’d just written about the damage women do themselves and others by not putting themselves forward. Quite frankly, I was hoist by my own petard.

So yes, this time I’m going to learn to stand up and say “I am worthy of your consideration”. I may not get long-listed, shortlisted or win. But I will have taken a step towards being more comfortable with self promotion.

I have a voice I believe in. I have a writing style I enjoy and I have something to say. The prize for me is in realising that.

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Fraud, Terrorism and the Patchwork Monkey

Monday, November 14th, 2011

When I was a little girl, I was read a terrifying, horrific, mesmerising short story called The Patchwork Monkey. My God that story scared me. For weeks afterwards it haunted my dreams. My sister soon learned that if she wanted anything from me, anything at all, all she had to do was tell me the Patchwork Monkey was going to get me and I’d give her anything she wanted. The Patchwork Monkey was the bogeyman of my childhood and I have never forgotten the power it had to scare me into submission.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when if the government wanted to pass a law that they knew would be unpopular with certain sections of the population, they would invoke a bogeyman of their own. Unlike the Patchwork Monkey, terror had a basis in fact. Real people were really out to get us. In fact it’s probably because the people in that government were themselves so frightened of those real people, that they allowed themselves to turn them into a bogeyman for them and for the rest of us. They allowed themselves to get carried away with the measures they took to prevent a recurrence of the horror they had witnessed. Lock them up, harass them. Lock up people who might be them, who might know them. Shoot people who might be mistaken for them. When you’re scared enough, you’ll convince yourself of the necessity for just about anything that makes you feel safer – no matter if actually you aren’t safer, you aren’t protected and are possibly storing up trouble for the future. Tonight we sleep safely.

Time moved on. Things changed, the government changed. The new government wanted to reject everything the last Government had done. They don’t talk much about terrorism. That’s probably good. Most of the sensible measures are still in place and the ones that were bogey-based are being quietly dropped. That’s good too.

But the new government learned a lot from the last one. They learned that appealing to base instincts like fear can help you do what you want. It empowers you. But the things we are scared of changed too. Terrorism seems like a bit too much of an existential threat when we’re faced daily with redundancies, pay freezes, cuts to the things we took for granted. Now we aren’t scared that we’ll die, we’re scared that we’ll lose our lives. The lives we have built for ourselves, the lives we have planned for ourselves. The lives we are clinging to by a thread as we ignore the latest credit card bill.

When we’re scared we get mean. Not everyone. Not individually. There are great example of many wonderful people and groups throughout history who go the other way. Who got scared and got inspired. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that’s how most of us react. We’re human. We need to recognise the best, the worst and the everything in-between in us if we are to make an offer to our fellow humans to lead them in briefly organising our society.

When we’re feeling scared and mean, we need a new bogeyman to lash out at. While the new Government has done well at making the last government the scapegoat for the people’s pain, the real bogeyman they have set up are the fraudsters. Those willing to take what little you could be entitled to. Who – according to the legend - do nothing while taking money they are not entitled to. Take votes from good citizens like you.

For those who wish to challenge the bogeyman there is a problem in how you frame the fight. Like terrorism, fraud is wrong. The fact that despite the minimal likelihood of their occurrence, they have been built up in the electorate’s mind like a giant Patchwork Monkey means that the public themselves are calling for action. When real people suffer – loss of life or deprivation – they, their neighbours, family, friends and fellow citizens want to know something is being done.

That often what is being done is not helpful and sometimes positively harmful does not and will not stop the public being scared. You cannot simply deny the existence of the threat, of that thing that your fellows are so upset about.

We can’t answer questions about benefit fraud with statistics about tax evasion. That doesn’t get rid of the bogeyman. We have to answer questions about benefit fraud with answers about protecting and enhancing benefits for the vast, vast, vast majority of those who aren’t defrauding people (and we need to stop putting the wicked witch  in charge of finding out who that is). We can’t answer stories of voter fraud with accusations of gerrymandering, but with calls for a decent robust system.

Fraud is the Emperor’s brand new terrorism. But we may have cried wolf once too often ourselves in the past to have permission to point this out. But don’t worry – they public will, and we will all get our happy ending.

This post first appeared on Labour List
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The way women talk about themselves

Monday, November 14th, 2011

It has been an honour and a privilege for me to get to know some amazing women through the Labour Party and through many other walks of life. From my wonderful mother who runs a small business to my friends who do jobs as diverse as theatre costume designers, solicitors, hairdressers, administrators and MPs.

Since putting myself out there through my own blog and this column, I have been extremely pleased to get approaches from many other women who are looking to get involved in politics but want advice and support in doing so. Some were looking to run for office in their constituency or branch. Some for the council. Others are – like me – considering running as an MP at some point. They may also be looking into blogging, frustrated at not having their voice heard.

Without exception, these wonderful, capable women have expressed their doubts about themselves to me. I did the same thing to my new boss yesterday, playing down my achievements in setting up Scarlet Standard (despite how deeply proud I am of her), my writing here and yesterday, my first real foray into television (if you ignore my brief game show career). I have made a concerted effort to change the way I think and talk about myself; to not blush when paid a compliment; to accept that I have something to say that people are interested in and skills to bring to the table.  I still fail at times – like with my boss. It still feels like a real effort.

I know very few women who know how to take a compliment – particularly in a less traditionally “feminine” arena such as intellect. I went on some fantastic training recently for aspiring candidates run by the Labour Women’s Network. I strongly urge all women who want to stand to go on this training. They are ruthless, they are brutal and they are extremely realistic. My only bit of feedback, is that in the midst of doing all that, and teaching us how to handle the criticism and attacks we would get, they could also have taught us how to react publically to people saying good things about us. That’s often when I’ve felt at my most flustered.

We women often – though of course there are some wonderful (and of course less wonderful) exceptions – aren’t very good at standing up in public and saying “pick me, I’m the best choice”. Though we must believe that, or we wouldn’t be standing. I read somewhere once that most men will apply for a job where they only meet 50% of the criteria in the Person Specification, whereas most women don’t apply unless they match about 90%. I’d say that’s reflected in the fact that women are vastly under-represented in areas that act as training grounds for political life including senior business roles and journalism. My own quick and unscientific trawl through the major left-wing think tanks showed we only make up about a third (at best) of senior roles there too. We need to see more women coming through at every level of the party and every aspect of the left. We need to make the effort to build the women leaders of tomorrow.

My advice when women approach me is that we should all look to our passion. Understand why we decide it’s time for us to take a stand. What in our backgrounds led us to this moment? What we hope to achieve, and what is it about us that guarantees that we will achieve it.

None of those questions is gender specific. But our experience might differ vastly from the men who make the decision to run too. Which is great,  as long as everyone else – men and women – recognise the need for a balance of those experiences in candidates, in the Party and in the policy and support networks that keep the whole thing moving.

Diversity is not just about ensuring that different kinds of people get on, but about ensuring that they don’t have to do so by changing.

This post originally appeared on Labour List.

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