Archive for February, 2012

David Laws is the wrong man for the Party Funding job

Monday, February 20th, 2012

I was shocked to read on Lib Dem Voice that Nick Clegg has asked David Laws to lead the negotiations for the Lib Dems on party funding. I simply can’t imagine anyone worse placed to do so.

Leaving aside the obvious questions around the man’s honesty, his positioning and history are completely wrong for the job. Return him to cabinet in a reshuffle if you want. The Tories would be thrilled. They’ve always seen him as “one of them” even trying to recruit him as far back as 2000.

But Labour neither like nor trust him, and with good reason.

We don’t like him because of his lack of empathy. The fact of the sheer glee he took, when being the first Lib Dem front man to wield the knife. As he announced numbers that we knew meant job cuts, worsened and damaged life, he was grinning like a kiddie who’d found the keys to the sweet shop. Frankly, we found it unseemly. Earlier in the week the scandal over his expenses broke, he had busied himself fussing over the cost of pot plants in his department, despite evidence they improve productivity. His governmental persona was set. No wonder ConHome polls had him scoring higher than some Tories.

All of which wouldn’t matter one jot if he were being appointed to a cabinet post. The opposition don’t need to like government Ministers.

But when it comes to cross-party talks, a very different type of person is needed: one that all sides can sit down with and at the least trust. Laws fails this very basic test for two key reasons.

Firstly, he’s already been involved in a high-profile negotiation. We know every detail of his heavily slanted, deeply biased take on that. He published it. Why on Earth would Labour open up and have the kind of honest conversations that will be essential to a proper negotiation around these sensitive issues to someone who can be reasonable expected to be looking for his next book deal – looking for the juicy story, not the moment of compromise? Putting such a person around the negotiating table is the clearest sign that Clegg has no interest in these talks actually getting anywhere.

So what are they for?

Well here we come to the second reason Laws is an odd choice for a negotiator: he’s hardly seen as equidistant.

There are Lib Dems who wouldn’t be a good choice, because the Tories don’t like them enough. Charles Kennedy for example has made his discomfort with the coalition semi-public. That would make him just as much the wrong person as Laws, even though Labour like him far better. On the other hand, there are MPs like Tim Farron who has made a point of viciously attacking Labour and the Tories in equal measure. He’s a fierce Lib Dem triballist – which is ok. In his position as Party President, he might have been in an ideal position to lead the Libs in these negotiations.

So what is Nick Clegg playing at? Well politics mostly. No one is expecting a great deal from these negotiations. They aren’t expected to achieve anything but the most incremental of changes. They will kick the difficult issue of state funding into the long grass. The stalemate on union funding and large donors will remain.

But Clegg is supposed to be restarting his differentiation strategy again, it having spluttered slowly to life with a few easily forgotten speeches over the last couple of months. If his MPs start to actually show a bit more freedom of thought and action (especially on issues not covered in the Coalition Agreement) he’ll need some red meat to throw to his Tory buddies.

What better than a manufactured row with Labour over their closeness to the unions (something about which we are rightly proud)? Who better to create that fake row than David Laws – who managed it so successfully before?

So maybe I’m wrong. For the sneaky job Clegg may really want done, there may well be no one better for the job than Laws.


Twitter is great – but it’s no doorstep

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

I love Twitter. I love the instant reaction to whatever is happening in the world. I love the silly jokes and memes . I love the people I talk to regularly from all over the UK and the genuine sense of community that is built up. I’m a long-time advocate of the power of online relationships, it’s how I met my husband – through a discussion forum. There were a small handful of people at my wedding that I’d chatted to night after night for years, but had never before met in the flesh.

Grant Shapps recently wrote a rather good 10 point guide for politicos on using Twitter. However I would add a very real 11th point (well 13th actually, like most things Grant gets up to the figures in his 10 point guide are so skewwhiff they contain  12 points – Grant is no numbers man).  This point may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at how easy it is to forget: Twitter is no substitute for the doorstep.

I see a great deal of self indulgence on Twitter that you simply don’t get away with on the doorstep. I see a lot of pseudo-intellectual pondering that would leave you unarmed and unready to face voters when it came to the real questions of the day.

For example, this week, Ken got himself in hot water again through injudicious use of language to make what was in fact a perfectly good and valid point. The first thing to be clear on is just because everyone’s talking about it on Twitter, really, really does not mean everyone will be talking about it on the doorstep. Where I live the big concern is crime. I was canvassing in Brixton last week, and people wanted to know if they’d be safer or not under Ken. I will go out again on Saturday week (It’s Ken’s manifesto day this Saturday) and I will give every reader of LabourList a big sloppy smooch if Ken’s slip up is the thing mentioned to me. Few but a tiny minority will bring up these attacks.

Secondly there opened up a weird sub-debate about Ken’s candidature. That’s fantasy politics, suitable to Twitter, but easily blown away when it comes to the real world. This fight isn’t between Ken and your own fantasy Labour candidate. It’s between a Labour Mayor and a Tory one, between Ken and Boris. And if you think Ken’s slips of the tongue are bad they’re nothing compared to Boris “watermelon smiles” “Chicken Feed” Johnson.

Which brings me to the final way in which you can tell the difference between a doorstep warrior and an armchair one: The “why do you only highlight the Tory errors” gambit. Possibly the stupidest gambit of them all, and one that you rarely see outside of Twitter.

For anyone who hasn’t yet grasped the true nature of politics, it’s a winner takes all game and we want to win. We want to win because we know we can better help those people we meet on the doorsteps and Ken is the man we have chosen to lead that fight. We’re up against a particularly hostile media in London, and it’s the fight of our lives, for the lives of 8 million people in a city we love. I want my home to be run by a mayor who cares about the things I care about. To win that, it means not only highlighting the excellent work Ken is doing, but also showing the many, many ways in which Boris is an inadequate, second rate and very, very Tory politician. Showing Londoners how different his priorities are to theirs and drumming that message home in every way.

I urge every member of the London Party to join the thousands of us already taking action and get out on the doorsteps. Meet the real voters of London. Listen to the experiences. Work hard to make sure that in May, we elect the Mayor they deserve.

This post first appeared on Labour List.


Politics is about morals, it has to be

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Morality is an incredibly difficult topic for politicians to discuss. Increasingly, the temptation on all sides is to shy away from a discussion of morality and to defer to a more technocratic debate about management and means.

It’s easy to undersatand why. No one is perfect. Everybody, at frequent opportunities fail their own standards of morality, never mind the myriad standards to which others would hold us. Setting ourselves up to fail could be considered an odd political strategy.

Equally, with everyone having their own interpretation of morality, it is hard to appeal to a general code of morals.  There are so many variables, that the idea of a jointly constructed morality is splintering. Even in  the major religions, there are many wildly varying interpretations of the moralities that are essential to the faiths.  As more human beings communicate to each other more often,  we are learing so much about our differences, our nuances and our limits than was ever before possible. Which is great, but is also making it clear that what were once considered moral constants can be anything but.

Morality is a difficult tool in campaigning too.  Bash people over the head about “doing the right thing” too much and they’ll simply tune out, turned off by your lack of nuance. However, if you fail to activate the moral core of the individual, their actions will be less altruistic.

Finally, as soon as a politician starts talking about morality, the press and the public start thinking only of sexual morality. This may well be the most interesting part of morality, where the most immediate and prurient failures can be exposed, but in 21st century politics, its probably the morality that has grown furthest from the central debates in politics.

So yes, Morality is difficult. But so is politics. No one gets into this arena becuase they fancy the easy life. As people who are hoping to contribute to the democratic representation of the people, whether that be in becoming a representative or in supporting representatives through the Party structure, we have a duty to accept that part of our heavy lifting is in making moral choices.

As Nye Bevan said “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism”. An acceptance that we can’t do everything within a functioning democracy (an evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach to Socialism) means that we must prioritise. Once we prioritise, we have to accept that there will be winners and losers within those priority levels (or, if you prefer politically, earlier and later winners).

There also need to be an understanding that moving towards a more equal society means people going down as well as up. There are self interested reasons for the top 5% of society to oppose social equality, and for them, protecting the elevated position of their nearest and dearest is their own moral imperative.

Questions of morality are never, ever clear cut. Anyone who thinks they are have not examined the morality behind any decision fully. All decisions have consequences both examined and unexamined; Every pound spent here is a pound not spent there. Money spent on truly moral high-level intervention into one social crisis may be money saved later, but is money not spent on another equally deserving cause right now. A decision made for moral reasons may not be a decision that s popular democratically. As a representative, personal morality has to be balanced against the morality of going against the will of an electorate. A life saved from dictatorship may well be at the expense of a life lost in a war against that tyrant. These aren’t easy decisions, but they are moral ones.

This is the case. We can try to shy away from it with endless and dry discussions about managed economies and the role of the state. But when we talk to real human beings, we need to talk in real human terms. We need to say that we have a morality that informs our politics and that it is differnt than the morality that inform Conservatism. We need to speak not just to their financial but to their moral aspirations.

We need to address the issues of the day, from Hester’s bonus payment to welfare reform through a moral prism. For me, these issues are fundametally linked as they are about the value we place on human beings in our society and how wide we will allow the gap to be between the lowest and highest paid in society; about the moral value of contribution where possible and support where necessary at all levels of society and about the necessity of represeting a resentful electorate without making damaging long term choices.

Labour have fallen into a habit of hiding their moralism behind managerialism. There are those who advcate that this is the only way we will be taken seruiously. But our electorate need not just a sense of our policies but our purpose; of our values as well as our evaluation.

Politics is a moral cause for everyone involved in it. Labour is its own moral cause. We should be proud of that.


*Given that I’ve stated in this post that I reject black and white attitudes towards moral choices and that Labour has also had it’s fair share of failing its own morality, I will be exercising the rules pretty strongly to engender a more interesting debate.


My slate is Labour Party members – an interview with Johanna Baxter

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012



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