Archive for January, 2012

Why I am endorsing Johanna Baxter for the NEC

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

I have made a decision to only endorse one candidate for the NEC this year. I don’t do so in any formal capacity, and my doing so is not a reflection on any of the other candidates – some of whom are excellent, and may well earn my vote when the time comes.

But Johanna Baxter has earned my vote, my support and my endorsement now. Tomorrow, I will share with you an interview that Johanna gave me to talk about her time on the NEC and her ambitions for her time to come. Her passion for the Labour Party in that interview is clear, and dimmed only by her passion for Labour Party members. Putting members first for Johanna isn’t a slogan, it’s a way of life.

Over the last two years I’ve got to know Johanna pretty well. We meet on the rare occasions she isn’t visiting a CLP for a quick meal. When we do, what she talks about is Labour members. We became close over our commitment to the principles of Refounding Labour. Our desire for an open and transparent policy-making process which all members could understand and engage proactively with. Jo understands Labour members needs like no one else I know. Probably because she’s doing her damnedest to meet every single one of them and ask the simple question that no one else seems to have though of “what do you want?”.

The NEC is the governing body that guides the direction and policy making processes of the Party. Like the board of shareholders of a large company, they can seem remote and disconnected from the wider business. Labour has called for employee representation on company boards, believing this will increase transparency, accountability and fairness. I believe it is for precisely these reasons that we need Jo standing up for ordinary rank and file Labour Party members on the board that oversees our interests.

Jo describes herself as not a member of any slate. Her first loyalty is to the member she represents. Slates are  grey and dull and  a 21st century roofing material. The roof of the future is grass. Grass has roots and for the roof to hold, those need to be nurtured. Jo is the grassroots candidate.

If you are a Labour Party member reading this, I urge your to ask your CLP to nominate Johanna Baxter for the NEC. And when the time comes, I urge you to put your X next to Johanna’s name when you come to vote for your CLP representative on the NEC.

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Are expertise and democracy antithetical?

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

The passage of the Welfare Reform Bill has thrown up significant problems for those of us on the left. I’m not talking of the content, though of course that too has caused its fair share of consternation, but of the process of scrutiny, and the fact that this has been largely sub-contracted to the apolitical groupings in the House of Lords.

It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last, but the high profile rebellions in the Lords have shown the value of having independent expertise in the policy making process. Where the elected MPs and most of the party affiliated Lords voted along Party lines (with the exception of a few brave Lib Dems and even Conservatives) the Crossbenchers and the Peers provided the scrutiny so missing on this area of controversy.

This reminds me of the case of Professor David Nutt, the Labour Government’s drugs advisor who was sacked for giving advice on, um, drugs. Nutt, like the Lords wasn’t an elected politician, though it turned out his job was at the caprice of one. As such, he felt his job was to present evidence and hope that would be what policy would be based on.

But that isn’t how democracy actually works.

I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’d like to run for Parliament one day. But if I ever become an MP, I am under no illusions of the limitations of that role.

An MP, especially a backbencher, has a very limited amount of political capital. On most issues you will be a long way from being an expert and will have to listen to advice and  lobbying from your constituents and from pressure groups.

The most successful backbenchers fall into two categories generally: the trusted pair of hands and the campaigner.

The campaigner has a single cause that they dedicate the majority of their energy to. They expend the majority of their political capital on pursuing that issue doggedly and focusedly.

The safe pair of hands has a say in many policy areas, but rarely takes the lead.They understand the politics and the process and they help their Parties get things done. They are expeditors.

Neither is wrong, neither is doing politics wrong, both are essential to the functioning of our present system of democracy. One will play a role in many small decisions that are important to many, one will play a leading role on an issue that is essential to some.

But political capital, parliamentary time, resources and the patience of colleagues are all finite. If I were to dedicate my time to a controversial position, such as campaigning for a rationalist drugs policy, that’s time, capital and resources I wouldn’t have to dedicate to other priorities and issues.

Equally, if I were to campaign on a controversial issue, I would not necessarily be representing the views of a majority of my constituents. So my ability to develop that profile may be effected by many external democratic factors. There’s no point in campaigning on something for five years only to lose your seat and see all your advances reversed by your successor.

So decisions on what to vote on, what to campaign on and what to focus on as elected representatives rely on answers to so much greater questions than “what is right and what is wrong?” and it would be naive to think otherwise.

Crossbench Peers generally don’t have to consider these factors. The non-hereditary Peers are usually there because they are considered experts in their field, whether that field be business, charitable, scientific etc.

I’ve always been in favour of a fully elected House of Lords, and I’m not yet quite willing to give that up. I believe in democracy and I believe the will of the people should be sacrosanct. I was briefly involved in the democracy movement in the UK, and watched frustratedly as good people with good intentions failed to reach an agreement on what a predominantly elected House of Lords would look like. At the time I was so sure of the bad motives of the blockers.

To quote the second best North American songwriter of the last century “Good and bad I defined these terms, so clear, no doubt, somehow. But I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”*.

Now I recognise that to move to a fully elected chamber would be a great gain for democracy, but would also entail a loss. A loss of dispassionate expertise, unhindered by the need to make that expertise palatable, popular or even pleasant.

Is there a circle to be squared between expertise and democrac?. I’m not convinced there is and I see the value of both. Which is why I suspect that once again, Lords reform may prove far more difficult to implement than expected and less sweet a victory than was once anticipated.

* Bob Dylan, My Back Pages. The number one being – of course – Canadian Leonard Cohen.

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Two pieces from elsewhere

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Sorry to be a bit quiet here this week. I have been writing and have had two pieces published elsewhere, but I don’t know their rules on reposting, so I will just link to them here:

The first was on the Monarchy and the fact that its designed to make us question it at times of personal crisis for the Roay Family on the Huffington Post.

The second is my Stagger’s debut on the effect of Thatcher on the Labour Left.

Enjoy!

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Opposition sucks and we suck at opposition

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Something is really frightening me. Have you heard about the Shadow Cabinet minister who said something disloyal? How about the daft blogger with a superiority complex? What about the policy forum that shouts into a bottomless void? It’s waking me up in the night. Every time my mind wanders, it wanders ends up here, and my heart starts to race.

I don’t think the Labour Party know we lost the last election.

At the very least, very few of us are acting as if we know we’re in opposition.

Being in opposition sucks. It really sucks.

Do you know how much you can invest in growth from opposition?

Nothing.

Do you know how many jobs you can create from opposition?

None.

Do you know how many cuts you can prevent from opposition?

None.

Do you know who are implementing the cuts? Who have choked off the growth? Who are causing rising unemployment?

Do you?

Because from the tone of the conversations I’ve been seeing in the last week, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s Ed Balls who is responsible for causing the damage, not just proposing dealing with the fallout.

The fact that opposition is painful, frustrating and humiliating is no reason to pretend it’s not happening. But that’s what we’re doing.

We keep screaming at each other as if we were still in government and capable of doing – rather than simply discussing – things with which we disagree. We keep talking about ourselves, our leaders, our personalities, their leadership and their personality clashes; reducing leadership to a particularly daft edition of Heat magazine.

I’m amazed we haven’t focused on Ed’s cellulite, or Yvette’s top tips for shifting that baby weight. Then criticised her for her acceptance of the fact that her body has changed.

Not that our cabinet members are acting like they understand opposition any better than the rest of us.

Opposition is a time for ambition, and a time to evaluate our ambitions upwards after the long slog of Government. It’s a time to look again at what we failed to do and why. What we’d like to do and how. What we need to do by when. Right now, our shadow cabinet are acting like jaded ministers in a dying government. They can’t step out of that mind-set. They can’t set themselves free from the shackles of Government enough to turn themselves into the kind of opposition that becomes a new and fresh government.

If we start a government muted and technocratic, God knows what we’ll be like after five years of the compromises of power. We need our cabinet members to shake the timidity of Labour government (for who is accusing this Tory government of being reticent) and grasp at the new nettles of 21st century challenges.

We’ve retained so many of the bad habits we gained as we got comfortable in government. Internecine warfare, insider briefing, poor discipline and easy, opportunistic in-fighting. We’re all at it; we’re all as bad as each other.

We’re holding on to so much of what made us less effective as a governing force. Timidity, managerialism, lack of a sense of an egalitarian destination. A tendency to tinker not to change.

If we can’t – individually and collectively – pull our fingers out and start to focus outwards on the country not inwards on ourselves, we don’t deserve to win again.

And the thing that really, really keeps me up at night?

Do some of us, deep down, prefer it that way?

This post first appeared on Labourlist

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How not to win an argument

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Some time ago I responded to a piece on Labour List entitled You don’t have the right not to be offended by doing my level best to offend the author. I called him many things including, but not limited to, intimating that he was a slang term for the female genitalia. (Anyone who wants to see a better, more grown up response to this sort of thing should read this by Grace Fletcher-Hackwood).

Do I think these things of the author Jonathan Roberts? No. I don’t know him from Adam. I just found the piece he had written annoying and insulting to my intelligence, and given its topic and headline, I thought I’d have a bit of fun with it.

I was reminded of this incident when reading two posts over the last week.

The first was written by Rob Marchant and appeared on Labour Uncut.

Rob’s article is basically bloody daft. It starts by fighting one of the most obvious strawmen ever constructed, and ends by demeaning even this diminished point with a manic exception to his self-enforced rule.

The worst part is, I agree with Rob’s basic point – that  people should be able and allowed to write what they want to on the internet.

Rob says “whilst one might not agree with much that blogger A or blogger B writes, their right to say it must be defended, because their ideas must sink or swim on their own, without interference from over-enthusiastic censors telling us all what to think.”

My question to Rob is: What’s stopping you?

Because this is where the straw man comes in. People already do say what they want to, up to and including some very odd writing about David Miliband and a stegosaurus (and no, I’m not linking and I advise you not to Google it either!). The point of the Internet is that everyone gets their say, including those who value collectivism and think Rob is being unhelpful.

The idea that the critics of Labour’s leadership, the soft left, Ed Miliband and Labour in general are being censored is – frankly – bizarre. On any given day, whatever position Labour are at in the polls, I can, if I choose to, read dozens of posts across the Internet and mainstream media criticising us from every possible perspective. These aren’t being censored.

So what does Rob mean?

Well the clue is in the opening line of his piece “During 2011 a number of people, often well-meaning, sometimes not so, have questioned the choice of some bloggers at Labour Uncut and elsewhere to analyse dispassionately, and sometimes brutally, not just the Tories and the Lib Dems, but the Labour party under Ed Miliband.”

Here’s the rub Rob: that questioning can’t and should be censored either. It is as valid an opinion as yours and deserves a hearing too. That’s how the freedom of the internet works. By complaining that people are complaining about what you have a right to voice, you yourself are seeking to censor people. Can you see why I think you’re being ridiculous? Or is any dissenting voice “group think” too?

I applaud Rob for his recognition that the control of medium, message and messenger that worked and then failed for Labour in the 90s and into the 10s is no longer a valid approach to communications. But he’s still far too focused on a power difference that is increasingly inconsequential between writer and commentator.

Rob as the piece’s writer does not have the right to control all responses to it. That’s up to the commentators and the editors of any site hosting the piece. If Rob wants to control the response to his writing, he should restrict it to his own excellent blog, where he has every right to censor what he chooses to.  It would be a shame, because despite rarely agreeing with him, I believe Rob has a valid voice and a right to be heard by a wider audience, but if his delicate sensibilities continue to be so disturbed by those who disagree with him, perhaps it would be for the best.

But Rob’s article comes a dim and distant second to a post today that – in it’s original title – compared fellow Labour Party members to cancer.** And this from the same person who spent most of last week going ballistic about the comms consequences of a typo. Real expertise on display there.

Like Rob, Luke has every right to his opinion and to publish it where he can. Mark Ferguson, editor of Labour List had a right to change the title as it reflected poorly on the otherwise excellent site, but I hope that Luke will reproduce the article on his own blog with its original title for all to see. I certainly wouldn’t want to censor that. I think it deserves to be judged on it’s original “merit”.

The article itself is Luke’s usual over-the-top messianic nonsense. A micro-grain of a point (Labour shouldn’t boo any former leader) is so lost in the gushing of a teenage fanboy for his idol and the poison towards non-Blairlevers. (Blair is reported to have once said that the Labour Party will have finally grown up when it learned to love Peter Mandelson. Personally, I think the Labour Party will have finally grown up when we accept that Blair is neither the Messiah nor the Devil but an equally brilliant and flawed individual whose time in politics has passed.)

But my question is what is the point of this article? I don’t question its right to exist or to be published, but I don’t know what Luke’s aim was when he put fingers to keyboard. On his website, Luke says his job is to “help political and governmental organisations and politicians achieve their goals through online communications.”  Christ. I hope for his sake he’s usually a bit more persuasive than this.

 Today’s piece is readable only if you already agreed with it or are so put off by Blairites that you need a new hate figure to get your juices flowing. It’s almost unreadable for anyone who doesn’t completely agree or violently disagree. It won’t persuade a single person of Luke’s argument that more Blairites should be encouraged through Party positions. It will further enrage those already motivated against that happening. It’s a classic example of counter-productive communications. It will win Luke some plaudits among those who already agree with and admire him. Maybe that’s all he wants. Maybe he doesn’t really want to convince me of ways in which the Party could become more open to business and ways we could engage the business community. Which is a shame, as that’s something I am interested in. But I have no interest in working with anyone who treats fellow Party members in this way- and that includes those who boo Blair as much as Luke. Because they’re destructive. All of them.

Political communication is about expressing ideas in ways that are open, honest and approachable. Political criticism is vital to a healthy democracy, but will only work if your criticising something that actually exists (i.e. not censorship of criticism of Ed Miliband) or do so in a way people will actually hear (i.e. not accusing them of being a malignant force).

**  Edit: One week after writing this blog, Luke defected to the Tories. Good. Bye.

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The personal is political: Poverty and me

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

A number of my posts over the last year have been about relating my personal experience to wider political issues. I believe the early feminists were right. The personal is political. Our experiences of power and powerlessness, separateness and community and equality and division shape the way that we think about the world around us. As a result, I have re-branded these posts and will continue this occasional theme of testimony and politics.

I’ve written quite a bit about welfare reform recently. It hasn’t been without controversy or challenge. I stand by my view that those who can work should work.* I believe this is what is meant by “from each according to their ability to each according to their need”. I know that this requires not just a functioning safety net, but also an active and aggressive full employment strategy, and that these must always go hand-in-hand, but since when was it wrong to be ambitious about what we can and should do with our politics?

One of the things my critics get most wrong when opposing my ideas on welfare reform is that I have no concept of what it is like to struggle on either income support or low wages. The fact is, this simply isn’t true.

In my late teens, my life fell apart. A series of rows with my parents, a terrible boyfriend and a dreadful first flatmate had led to a situation where I was unemployed and living alone in a basement flat in Lewisham.

The flat was cold. There was only one working fire which was in the living room and there was no natural light to be had through the windows. I remember days when I felt I could afford the electricity, I would put my duvet over the portable heated towel rail for ten minutes before crawling into bed, just to stop it feeling like ice. I lived there for 9 months, and could see my breath in the air for most of them.

I lived on Income Support which for me in 1995 was £36.80 a week. I had a key meter for my electricity and gas, which charged exorbitant rates. I was drinking too much, having discovered my local off licence did bottles of wine for a pound. I was eating terrible cheap food and smoking when I could afford to. I became nocturnal.

These were not good lifestyle choices. You don’t make good lifestyle choices when you’re where I was emotionally.

I was an unhappy, unhealthy, lost little girl, struggling and largely failing to keep my head above water. Looking back now it was quite clear that I was heading towards a breakdown. Thankfully, in the end I had just about enough of ME left to apply to university and turn my life around. I don’t think it is any exaggeration to say that doing so saved my life.

Having been accepted to university, I then got a job in a call centre. It paid £5 an hour, which after Income Support was a bonanza. As they ran shifts, they agreed to let me come back in my University breaks. The work was dull and repetitive. And fulfilling. The two months I worked there before going to university helped me to reintroduce some discipline into my life. They gave me some more of ME back.

My second and I sincerely hope last bout of unemployment came in 2002. I was made redundant from a telesales job in the January and decided to pursue a change of career. I applied to many, many jobs, never quite making it past interview. I was far better supported in doing so by the job centre this time around. I also had a much better support system in place, as while I was still living alone, this time it was in a flat above my sister, so she and her boyfriend were around to offer support. Eventually, I did a part time, unpaid internship, living on bowls of flavoured rice (stock cubes are a marvellous resource when you’re unemployed). This eventually paid dividends and I got a job at the Fabian Society. I remain eternally grateful to them for taking a chance on me. It’s what has led me to the pace where I have a good and improving living, a nice place to live and a great life.

But those who think I don’t know what it is to struggle are wrong. It is precisely because I have known the grinding dull ache of UK poverty (which is obviously at a different level from the rates of poverty seen in the developing world because we do have that essential safety net) that I feel as strongly as I do.

Living like that isn’t good for people. The things that are missed though the many benefits that work brings is about more than simply money. Saving money on welfare reform may be a motivator for Liam Byrne, but for me it isn’t the financial cost of the welfare bill that is a scandal, but the opportunity cost to people’s life of living on welfare. That’s what I want Labour to fight to change. That’s why I want Labour to dedicate itself to getting people off benefits. And let me be unequivocal: I would want us to do so, even if running a system that made this happen were to incur a larger upfront cost (which is perfectly possible, as a\ well run, well organised system does cost money initially – though I strongly believe we would save billions in the long run through recouped tax revenues and savings in health, crime and social care bills.

The value of work is a precious thing to me. Even work that is dull and repetitive has brought me pride, discipline, socialisation and the ability to be a part of a greater whole. It also gave the the chance to make my societal contribution, as according to my ability. That’s the ambition I have for everyone in the UK. And you’ll never take it away from me.

* And I mean those who really can work. I unequivocally support the right of those who qualify (and by qualify I don’t mean fail to be weeded out by ATOS’s cruel and capricious tests) for  ESA and DLA to support that provides a full and decent standard of living.  This post is NOT about disability benefits.

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How Ed can be bold without being macho

Saturday, January 7th, 2012

Gosh Ed’s getting a lot of advice at the moment. Well, I say a lot, most of it seems to boil down to the same two key elements: Ed needs to define himself better and Ed needs to be bold. Sometime Ed is told to boldly define himself, sometimes to define himself boldly. But those are definitely the key themes, boldness and definition.

I agree that Ed has not yet properly defined his leadership with the public. The Westminster Press themselves are stumbling from Red Ed to Odd Ed via Dead Ed and Fratricidal Ed along the way. Ed needs a bold moment of definition, he needs a game changer.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think most of the voices calling for Ed to be “bold” actually mean bold. I think they mean macho. They want Ed to adopt some of Blair’s swagger, or Brown’s clunking fist. Even Ed’s admirers talk of his “core of steel” – a pointless hangover from too many comic book, 2D interpretations of what a hero is and can be.

But Ed is not macho. Nor does one have to be macho to lead. In fact the worst thing Ed could do now would be to attempt to adopt a macho pose he could in no way sustain, simply to appease those voices who would then turn around and decry him for being no good at it. It wouldn’t be bold. It would be a facsimile of what a political class has become used to being told is bold. It wouldn’t work.

For Ed to change the game, he needs to change the rules. I agreed with those who said that the post-hacking cries of “let Miliband be Miliband” were largely hubristic and overly indebted to what was, at the end of the day, a work of fiction that took a great deal of faith-leaping for granted. But actually, to be bold now, Ed must play to his strengths, and these include his thoughtfulness and reasonableness.

So how does one change the game by being thoughtful and reasonable? I would suggest, by doing so in an unexpected high-profile and unexpected arena. Where better than PMQs?

Ed Is regularly lambasted after PMQs for not being macho enough, and for letting Cameron win the battle of the jibes. Ed will never regularly win over the Bullingdon Bully if he continues to play by his rules. But PMQs is one area where the opposition can set the tone. The PM may have the last word, but he must respond to (but not –  as we’ve see –  necessarily answer) the questions put to him by Ed.

So Ed. I offer you this question for the opening of PMQs next Wednesday:

Would the Prime Minister agree with me that these are serious times, deserving of a serious debate? That, in his words, this isn’t the time for Punch and Judy politics? Will the Prime Minister join me in putting an end to the bluster, bad jokes and boorishness – from both sides – and agree to join me in an adult, dignified and informative debate on the issues the public care about?

At the same time, his team should release a statement saying:

In this time of unprecedented uncertainty in so many areas of our public life, the public deserve an opposition more interested in holding the Government to account than scoring points. I know I haven’t always done that.

David Cameron has some good jokes  – some of them not even about my Brother! – and I’m happy to accept that this is an area he excels in. But this isn’t Britain’s Got Talent, it’s the one opportunity a week for the Prime Minister to be asked and to answer questions about the big issues his Government is dealing with.

I like a laugh as much as the next person. I love it when my backbenchers laugh at my jokes. I am human after all. But right now I think it’s more important that we get the answers the public deserve to the questions they want answered.

So here is my promise to the Prime Minister. I promise to treat the office of Prime Minister with the respect it deserve, and to work with the Prime Minister – if he’ll agree – to restore the dignity to these proceedings that he and the office he holds warrant. No more one-liners, no more point-scoring, just real questions that deserve real answers.

And to you the public I promise this: I will raise your concerns with the Prime Minister. Every week, anyone who wants to can email PMQs@labour.org.uk with questions they feel the PM should answer. I can’t promise I’ll ask everything you send me, but I can promise I won’t let a week go by without raising your concerns alongside my own.

These are serious times, deserving of a serious debate. I hope we can work together to change the way we talk to each other in politics and public life, for the benefit of all those we serve who have been asking us to do so for so long.

So far, so bold. And here’s the thing – were Ed to take up this idea, I absolutely expect him to be crucified for it. At first. And that’s where the nerves of steel are going to have to kick in. I firmly believe this could be the game-changer Ed needs, but like many of his successes in challenging the orthodoxy it won’t be accepted overnight.

 

I’ve said before, that what Ed can most learn from Tony Blair is not his style, but his confidence in his own style. If Ed sticks to his guns, refuses to return to the jibes and point scoring, but merely illuminating the impact of the Government’s programme, does the kind of politics that suit him (and incidentally, do not suit the less serious David Cameron)  this could be a Clause IV moment of his own, in his own style.

This post first appeared on Labour List

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