Archive for April, 2012

the Lords referendum is Cleggs to choose

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Ahhh Lords reform, we meet again. Back when I was young and still considerably more naive, I got involved in various campaigns to reform the House of Lords to a fully elected chamber. After the mess of 2003, where there were so many options on the table that MPs failed to properly back a single one, I vowed never again. Life is too short, and there are and always will be far more important issues.

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A new energy?

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

I haven’t been the happiest of campers lately. I’ve been frustrated at the disorganisation of Labour’s journey of change and frustrated by our inability at times to lose some of the worst habits picked up in Government. At times I, like others, have questioned whether Labour has a proper theory of change and a sense of how to implement it.

But today, the role of Labour optimist will be played by… me! Yesterday I read same interview that Mark Ferguson read and agreed with Mark’s assessment that the intent should be congratulated. I completely understand Mark’s caution about whether these words are enough on their own. However, they don’t come on their own. Because elsewhere in the Guardian is a practical innovation being considered by Ed that could be revolutionary in its implications.

The idea that Labour will become a conduit through which people can save money on their energy bills has several important implications.

Firstly, this gives Labour a whole new way of relating to voters. It’s not just saying “we understand your pain” when talking to people who know how hard it is to make ends meet (a conversation that is ultimately frustrating and peripheral for both parties). It’s offering a real and practical solution. Labour may actually go onto the doorsteps with an offer for – rather than an ask of – voters.

Secondly, this is not a solution that requires Labour to be in Government, but does (from what I understand of the way the scheme would work) require us to reach a critical mass in local communities. It’s something that will help us to make a practical difference to people’s lives in ways that aren’t cruelly curtailed by a change of Government. While at the same time the need to build up a large enough customer base to make the scheme work will need Labour to be and remain outward focused in constituencies and communities in order to deliver the promise.

The critical mass needed will also be a reason for voters to talk to each other about Labour. This scheme may well be a way of developing relationships with people not normally accessible to Labour. I have to admit that I was unsure about the idea of the Labour Supporters Network. I wasn’t clear what the relationship would be or how, other than in terms of money, it would differ from a membership relationship. But this idea has energised my understanding of how Labour can change its staid understanding of relationships. I can see how, by becoming a champion of people’s consumer rights not just in policy terms as I have been promoting for some time, but in delivery too, labour can develop all new relationships with people unwilling to join a political party.

This move also puts real flesh on the responsible capitalism bones. And by delivering this project, Labour will be actively shown not to be anti-business. It won’t be stopping anyone from consuming, but will be supporting them in consuming wisely. Businesses that are nimble enough to recognise that will, in fact, benefit. It’s a working example of the translation of these values from speeches that please wonks (eventually) to delivering on promises.

Finally, this truly reinforces Labour’s local election message “With you in tough times”. I’m not always a big fan of political slogans. Too often they are a meaningless babble of vague but positive sounding words (Forward, Not Back anyone?). But if Labour pursue this idea and see how it and the ethos it exemplifies can be developed, maybe we can live up to this basic promise in a way that reenergises our relationship with business, with our activists and members, and most importantly with voters.

 

This post first appeared on Labour List

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Don’t get complacent, Labour

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Three polls came out yesterday showing Labour 10-11 points ahead in the polls. The Tories are as low in the polls as they have been since the formation of the coalition government. The government’s credibility is in free-fall. For the first time in one of those polls, Osborne and Balls are neck-and neck for who could best manage the economy. Meanwhile the budget debates stumble on, each week seemingly bringing a new issue arising from it. First it was grannies, then pasties and now charities.

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Are Lib Dems proving that coalition works?

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

One of the frequently cited reasons for Lib Dems remaining in the Coalition is that they are proving to a nation that was clearly sceptical of coalitions that such a government can and does work. It’s fair to say that ostensibly, they have certainly done so. The Government exists, it has a programme of work that it is implementing and while it is frequently dysfunctional I think all audiences would largely accept that this is not the preserve of multi-party government, but more of multi-humans government! The Lib Dems have achieved a fair amount by taking the country on this journey. But whether they have succeeded in proving that coalition “works” would, I believe, depend entirely on who you were trying to convince of this and what is meant by working. I thought I would take this time to examine some of these audiences and definitions, trying to be as dispassionate as possible, and see where there have been successes and failures.

The first success is the area most hyped up before the last General Election. The Conservatives and their supportive media went hell for leather to convince us all that a hung Parliament would spook the Bond Market, threatening Britain’s fragile recovery. This simply hasn’t happened. The stability of the Coalition has soothed this particular tempestuous beast. There hasn’t been a run on the markets. This fear has been completely negated, and it’s to the credit of Government that this is the case (the fact that the Government’s own policies have separately halted recovery is a different issue for a different post).

Secondly, they have convinced the less far-right sections of the Tories that coalition works. In fact, despite the moaning of sections of their backbenchers, they have in fact been delighted with how well coalition has worked for them. Until Osborne blew the Budget, Lib Dems were taking practically all the flack for unpopular decisions. Before the 2010 election, the Tories were running Party Political Broadcasts warning of the dangers of a hung Parliament, now there is talk of coupon elections. It remains to be seen if the Tory leadership will either feel weak enough to need to do this, or if their backbenchers will feel strong enough to let them, but no one seriously believes it is completely out of the question.

Finally, they have – to an extent – convinced some sections of the Labour Party that coalition can work. With a second party either as compliant as the Lib Dems have shown themselves to be, or perhaps a nationalist party like Plaid Cymru with whom Labour has more in common than some leading right wing Lib Dems such as Clegg, Alexander and Laws. They are very far from convinced it is desirable, but are at least no longer convinced it is impossible.

These successes are not to be sneezed at. Large swathes of the establishment have gone from believing that coalition government would be a disaster to believing it to be a perfectly workable, if not ideal situation.

But there are other audiences whom are not convinced, not convinced at all. Interestingly, these should have been the audiences most likely to favour coalition government.

First and foremost has to be the voters. Specifically those who previously voted Lib Dem. this morning, Nick Clegg was once again running the line that if voters wanted more Lib Dem policies in Government, more of them should vote Lib Dem. quite apart from the deeply disingenuous context (he was talking about the tuition fees pledge, which was specifically designed for individual MPs in or out of Government) this line doesn’t seem to be convincing any but the absolute core vote. Regularly polling about a quarter of your last General Election vote is not mid-term blues. It is a sign that the people who elected you to do a particular job don’t believe that you are doing it right. As these were people who voted Liberal Democrat, we can safely assume that most of them would be more comfortable with the idea of coalition than people voting for the larger parties.

That so many of them believe that the Lib Dems are not making this coalition work in the way they envisaged when voting for them is not the sour grapes Lib Dem activists sometimes resort to painting it as. It is equally not a misunderstanding of how coalition government has to work and compromise. If the Lib Dems continue to push this line they will never understand what has gone so dramatically wrong for them. They are in real danger of proving to their most sympathetic voters that coalition doesn’t work. That the small party makes very, very little difference to the issues they care about. The lived experience of the Lib Dems former supporters does not support their PollyAnnaish championing of the 75% of their manifesto they are supposedly enacting (proving once and for all that all policies are not equal). The differentiation strategy does seems to have extended to a few rebellions in the Lords, but as they have always been overturned in the Commons it isn’t anywhere near to making the kind of difference needed to prove to former Liberals that the Party they voted for is making coalition work.

The second group for whom coalition is not proved to be working is civic society. Einstein once said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The modern equivalent seems to be pressure groups for whom Liberal Democrats who were their biggest champions before 2010 expecting at every turn that this time will be different. This time Simon Hughes, Tim Farron, Jenny Willot etc. will stand up for the values they have previously passionately espoused. Patience is wearing thinner and thinner as meetings with former allies get hand wringing agreement followed by solid trooping through the Government lobby. Once again, a group who might have thought that having two parties in Government would give them two bites of the cherry, two chances to put their case and make their arguments are instead simply greeted with two different sets of deaf ears.

It would be churlish to say that the Lib Dems have not proved to a decent extent that they have made coalition government work. They have. But I am far from sure that they have convinced the people who will ultimately decide their fate that it works for them. The elites may be more relaxed about it, but in the end, it simply won’t be them who decide the final fate of this Government.

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Labour should promise to solve the housing crisis

Saturday, April 14th, 2012

This is a moment Ed needs to grasp. Cameron’s ratings are slipping and Labour’s lead in the polls is stabilising, but we need something big to really start to build positive Labour support.

Ed has so far been clear that he doesn’t want to over-promise and under-deliver, and I agree that Labour cannot and should not promise the earth. But we do need one issue with which we can demonstrate the scope of our ambitions for a future Labour government and a Labour Britain. One in which we can demonstrate how a promise made by the UK government can be delivered by devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, and by local authorities. One which can and will provide a rallying cry for Labour activists.

We need a clean break with the biggest mistakes that Labour made and an offer that clearly defines us against the small and mean-minded instincts of the coalition.

We need an issue that speaks to the squeezed middle and the battered base. That speaks to the aspirations that people have for themselves and for their families while also speaking to Labour’s intrinsic values and theme of fairness.

We need something that helps us fight the Tories, but one that also shows those who are disillusioned with Labour in urban communities – where we may face a threat from local insurgencies – that we are listening to their biggest concerns. An issue which clearly demonstrates how a national Labour government will support local Labour and community ambitions.

Ed Miliband needs a bold, clause IV moment, but one that talks not of the Labour party but of the aspirations of a future Labour country.

Labour have an ambition to fulfil the British promise – that each generation is more successful than the last. To achieve this, Ed Miliband should promise that a Labour government will solve the housing crisis within a decade.

When Labour made its historic pledge to end child poverty, it was a remit that worked across every department and reached into every aspect of proactive government. Labour made huge strides towards achieving this target. But as I am sure we were warned at the time, this simply wouldn’t be achievable without tackling housing.

We live in the seventh richest nation in the world, yet some people live on the streets. We talk endlessly of property prices, yet so rarely of the cost of poor housing.

Good housing affects every other area of our lives. Evidence suggests that poor housing is detrimental to our physical and mental health and to our educational attainment. Housing needs to be rethought, redeveloped and redesigned. It must help us grow properly as children and to live into our later years with dignity and independence.

Housing contributes to a quarter of our carbon emissions, but solutions to this problem have themselves the ability to contribute to a new wave of development in manufacturing and technological development. New housing development will need to be planned to ensure not just good quality houses, but bonded, well-functioning communities developed around successful jobs and transport hubs and links.

Sadly instead it took Labour far too long to wake up to what was urgently required on housing. We had so many ministers responsible for housing, few lasting longer than a year, that it was never championed or properly understood in government. It was only at the end, when Labour realised the desperate need for the kind of economic stimulus that a building boom can provide, that we started to get our policy right.

Housing policy under the coalition has been dominated by the most ideological housing minister the country has seen since the 1940s. But Grant Shapps’s vision is not for a housing policy where all live in and are proudly stable in the kind of tenure that suits them well. His vision is of the cleansing of the inner cities of those with the cheek to be poor enough to live in social housing. His vision is of the diminishing of the stock available at a social rent until it become truly housing of last resort, and the ghettoisation of those who live in a socially rented property.

Shapps cut the affordable housing grant by 63% then devolved the blame for the Orwellian-named ‘affordable’ rent to councils and housing associations who have to balance the desperate need for new homes with their inability to build at anything lower than 80% of market rents.

It was Labour’s lack of any narrative about housing that has allowed this to happen. Too dependent on the feel good factor of the housing bubble and too scarred by our failure to understand the political success of Thatcher’s original ‘right to buy’ policy until it was too late, housing was an area we left deliberately ideologically free. We thought we were being clever, but instead we were creating a vacuum ready for Shapps to walk right into and drag the whole housing debate miles to the right, with no established counter-balanced argument from the centre-left.

And what of those people who benefitted from the housing boom. Those who we worried would see us as too old Labour if we intervened in the market? Well, when the market crashed, many had their own homes saved by just such a market intervention. Now they watch their own children completely unable to do what they took for granted and get a foot on the housing ladder. The narrative of the housing crisis is just as much about their children’s futures as much as it is about those in chronic need. Housing for all is a slogan that many will respond to just as well in the affluent south as in the Labour heartlands.

Ed doesn’t need to make lots of unachievable promises. He needs to make this one big promise an achievable focused and vital goal central to the Labour offer. That makes the promise of a Labour future something we can all fight for.

This post originally appeared on Shifting Ground.

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Conservative self-belief and Labour self-doubt

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

It was 20 years yesterday since the Tories managed to win an election in the UK. Even against a battered and weary Labour overnment, whose leader had become so unpopular and whose time was clearly up, they failed to secure a victory in 2010. But despite this, the shadow of the 1992 election hangs far heavier over both Labour and the Conservatives.

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I don’t want to play Samantha Brick’s game, but I’m forced to

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

I have found the whole Samantha Brick episode wholly depressing.

Not because There’s a woman daft enough out there to both think such daft things and put such a sadly defensive and ultimately self-defeating twist on her inability to make and keep friends.

Not because the Daily Mail have twice allowed this woman to expose her neurosis twice in a clear search for the next Internet sensation, with little or no regard to the fact that there are clearly some underlying issues.

But because my immediate reaction wasn’t solely “what a silly, damaged woman”. That was part of it of course. But mixed in there was an equally strong feeling of “you’re not all that love”. And at that moment I fell into the trap.

The trap is there everyday. It surrounds us all, men and women, but it is especially difficult for women – the trap’s principle victims and worst perpetrators – to escape.

The traps takes everything that is good and bad about us, all our talents and failings, all our qualities and faults, the total of what we as human beings have to offer each other, and forces it through a judgemental prism based simply on our appearance. It’s reductive and it’s damaging.

Now it could be said that I was simply judging Ms Brick on her own criteria, but I wasn’t. Because while judging her on her looks, I was – at the same time – judging her for being looks obsessed.

It could also be said that the reason I don’t want to play Ms Brick’s game is that I’d lose, badly. Let’s face it, I look like someone drew a moderately pretty face on the side of an airship. The only thing I get offered on entering an airplane is a seatbelt extension.

And my unattractiveness does bother me.

I’ve written before about the difficulty of being obese and those difficulties aren’t simply physical, but connected to the emotions that come from being daily judged and found wanting. Like Ms Brick, I find it hard to break out of a prism where I let my looks and the world’s reaction to them (real or perceived) be the thing that defines me.

Because of the world we live in, I am daily forced to take part in Ms Brick’s game. But I refuse to let it define me. I’m sorry I sunk to the level of judging her on her looks. I’m not sorry that I do judge her world and find it hollow and lacking.

But more than this I’m sorry that the flimsy world of the Samantha Brick’s of this world is pervading every corner of every other world. Sorry that we all allow our continuing obsession with the superficial to impede our ability to develop beyond the surface. That every area of our lives – from politics, where politicians are told they’re too ugly to be prime minister to crime, where women are told that their appearance contributes to attacks on their person.

The real tragedy of the world of Samantha Brick is that we are all forced to live in it.

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