Archive for June, 2012

Globalisation and Internationalism

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Last week I was delighted to spend the first half of the week in Strasbourg visiting and learning about the European Parliament. Anyone who – like me – had found their instinctive Europeanism wavering under the onslaught of austerity driven by Germany through European mechanisms could do a great deal worse than to do the same. The European Parliamentary Labour Party (EPLP) welcomed me with open arms and when speaking to them one-on-one you get a real sense of the ways they are working within the Parliament to improve lives in the UK and over the whole of Europe.

It’s not an easy time at the moment. Europe is largely led by centre-right governments, and with the best will in the world, it will always feel like a remote institution. But the culture of the place that I visited was one of openness and positivity. There were children everywhere as MEPs and staff members brought them to the building with them. Voting was done electronically and was quick and decisive – it was also immediately displayed on screens in the Parliament so everyone could follow the results. Even the process of whipping is more open with the whips making roman emperor style thumb gestures to indicate to their grouping how they have agreed to vote (or Ed Balls style “flat-lining” motions to indicate abstention!). In my time there we talked about trade, green energy, housing, women’s rights, the Tobin tax and a variety of other issues. There was an openness and approachability about the MEPs that you simply don’t get in Parliament. By the end of my visit I was more than ready to declare “Je suis une Européene!”

As I travelled back across France, I started thinking about why more people, particularly those of the left don’t feel this way. I got to thinking about the other side of the European project and the impact that the particular model of capitalism which is prevalent in Europe both in individual countries and in the mechanics of the EU.

Labour have always had an internationalist tradition. We have never believed that our common humanity stops at our borders, not do we believe that our borders are there to repel those in genuine need of our help. We have a proud tradition both of welcoming immigrants (the Windrush generation and law changes by the Attlee government in 1948) and pursuing internationalist aims (supporting the fight against the fascists in Spain in the 30s for example). This is why arguments about the drugs trade, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are made so much more complex, because the impacts differ beyond our borders, and as such, decisions can’t be made by those with an internationalist bent, simply on the basis of their impact in Britain.

But in the last 30 years or so, and certainly during the time of the last Labour government, the newer phenomenon of globalisation took hold. If internationalism was about a sense of solidarity with the many around the world, globalisation has seemed a much more top down affair. Internationalism is something we do together, globalisation is something that is done to to us.

I raised this at the National Policy Forum in our session on Social Europe, and I think it’s essential to an understanding of Ed’s speech today on immigration. I also think it holds the key to how we deal with attitudes to and about our relationship with Europe.

The protection of all workers within the EU that come from the Parliament are those values writ large. These are the values most frequently threatened by the forces of globalisation, and the notion that a company can and will uproot all production and business unless wages are depressed and protections are weakened.

But the narrative of globalisation is being used to attack those very institutions that are most protecting us from these forces.

The idea that the globalisation of power is removing rights is a constant refrain from the doggedly anti-EU press, who are also doggedly right-wing and in favour of the kind of capitalism that favours the globalised, top-down approach.

Labour needs to rescue the narrative of internationalism and reapply it to our relationship with the EU. The EU has it’s faults. As the governments of the moment are largely in favour of austerity, the EU is the body through which a great deal of that is being enforced. The EU, and its institutions are being used as a tool of top-down globalisation but it is not necessarily the cause of top-down globalisation.

If we can fight for a more internationalist approach, through the Parliament and the Council, them the EU has more potential to protect its citizens from the forces of malign globalisation than almost any other. That can be and should remain Labour’s vision for Europe, and it is one we can and should be inspiring people with.

It is – in part – the conflation of globalisation and internationalist narratives that makes it so difficult for Labour to talk about immigration.

Some Labour people don’t like to talk about immigration because they fear that simply to raise the subject is to appease those whose anti-immigration stance is a thin veil for their racism. To read Twitter today was to see that argument repeated ad-infinitum. But the racists are not the only ones talking about immigration. We know this and we’ve known it for a long time. Ed’s speech may have been badly trailed as a classic “tough on immigration” stance, but reading it, it simply was not.

It was, however, tough on the effects that we have allowed immigration to have on our labour market, in ways that are simply bad for the most vulnerable workers, whether they be from Britain or abroad. There was nothing that should challenge the narrative of internationalism that speaks of the rights of workers to be the same the world over. But there was a sense that reinforcing those rights and addressing the economic impact of immigration on jobs and wages in Britain is an approach coming not from a stance of mindlessly limiting immigration but from the stance of mitigating those effects.

These effects are very real, and felt by Labour and other voters on a daily basis. Being working class and worrying about job and wage security, worrying about housing pressure and the changes to your community does not make you a racist. It makes you a greater victim of the culture of globalisation than those who have benefited from influxes of cheaper labour.

Labour said in 1998 when we introduced the Minimum Wage Act that labour has a minimum value. Ed said at the National Policy Forum last week that nobody should be in work and in poverty. If we believe this, we believe this of all workers no matter where they were born. If you’re under our jurisdiction, you should be paid at least the minimum amount that we value labour at and we should enforce that. If that enforcement makes employers less likely to cut corners by employing workers who would be willing to work for illegally low wages that is a good thing. Not because it brings less immigration to our country, but because it brings less exploitation.

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A spring in my step

Monday, June 18th, 2012

This is not the blog post I expected to write. I’ve been on the NPF for just under 2 years, and those two years have been filled with little but frustration and a depressing sense of going through the motions like so much herded cattle. First in Gillingham, then in Wrexham my hopes of having a constructive, proactive and meaningful part in Labour’s policy making process were dashed.

So I set out for Birmingham with a heavy heart. Sure there had been some changes. We’d been given discussion papers quite early, and had even been allowed sight of the submissions from the CLPs and affiliates we were elected to represent. Both were revolutionary moves full of common sense and grown up, joined up decision making. Things that should always have happened but never did.

Still, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and so I wasn’t expecting much. I knew we’d get the set pieces – a good speech from Ed and his usual excellent performance in the Q & A, but beyond that I was not expecting much.

At first things progressed much as I had feared. My first policy session was on the rather large topic of “Sustainable Communities” which takes in the work of DECC, Defra, Transport, Communities and Local Government and Culture, Media and Sport. This session had a hour scheduled to it. An hour.  To devise, test, examine, cost, cross-examine and finalise a range of policies for 5 separate ministries. Yeah, right.

So we did the usual dance. We all sat in a circle of chairs. We all got one go each. We gave an idea. Some were on housing, some on transport. A few on the Environment and climate change policy. The Shadow Ministers present nodded and responded. There was little hope or expectation of more. So far, so gloomily familiar.

There were interesting innovations though. Having a series of session on Europe was an excellent idea and was well managed with integration of our MEPs and shadow cabinet members to work together. And at the afternoon’s plenary of the process, it became clear that there had been a sea change. That finally, attitudes so embedded they had barnacles attached to them, were beginning to shift. The anger and frustration voiced in the room didn’t just belong to the delegates, but to the new Chair of the NPF and other officials. The next day’s policy sessions were changed. Instead of repeating the big, vague policy sessions scheduled on the agenda, they became sessions to discuss the top two policies that had come out of the morning session in more detail. There would be discussion. Possibly even examination. Maybe one or two debates! What is this new Nirvana?

Ok, so let’s not get carried away. The timing was daft, with tensions from NEC and NPF candidates occasionally on display. There’s still plenty to be done. An extra hour to focus on housing still doesn’t allow us a great deal of time to investigate policies in any depth. Promises about an NPF website and discussion forum where we could discuss policy between meetings remains vague and shrouded in “when it’s a financial priority” rhetoric. Though my advice that a skills audit would reveal several Labour Party members who would be happy to work on such a service for free (volunteers don’t have to deliver leaflets you know!), was well received. It might even get acted on.

 

 

The process is a long way from perfect. But it’s also a long way from what I and others experienced in Gillingham and Wrexham. The staff and new Chair of the NPF Angela Eagle have been rightly praised for the changes already made, but I hope they know it’s just a first step. It’s a foundation to build a proper, working policy process that involves the elected representatives of members and affiliates, but it is not the end point.

I left Birmingham today with a spring in my step. But the words of John Cleese in Clockwise were echoing around my head too “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand”. Expectations that couldn’t get any lower have been raised. Let’s all work together now to ensure that they are lived up to.

This post first appeared on Labourlist.

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Welcome to your conference

Friday, June 15th, 2012

This year, thanks to one of the best measures in Refounding Labour, many CLPs will be sending delegates to conference for the first time in ages. Many will be first time delegates, with little idea of what to expect. I remember my first time at conference I had no idea what was expected of me, what was required of me or of what I could expect or ask for. It was an incredibly exciting and an incredibly daunting experience.

My first conference was in 1994. I was 19. I came alone, stayed with my uncle in Blackpool and as a very shy teenager spoke to few people. It was the year Tony Blair declared an end to Clause IV in his conference speech, and few people had time to explain to a naive girl what was going on as they threw themselves into factional battle.

Few of the new delegates coming to this year’s conference will be 19 and fewer still will be as shy or befuddled as I was back then. I don’t know what their expectations will be of Conference, but from the conversations I have with ordinary members, what none of them will want is to be stuck in the very-cross fire between two warring factions fighting a battle they feel has nothing to do with their constituency, their fight against the Tories or even much to do with the formulation of Labour Party policy.

If the GMB pursue a rule change at conference, that is their democratic right. But it will be a catastrophic wrong to make the whole conference about this ridiculous, pointless fight.

We have an opportunity with this conference to Engage with more members than ever. To engage them in policy discussion, to train & share best campaigning practice, to inspire those who work hardest with least reward. Those of us who don’t want conference to become an ill-tempered, self-defeating rant-fest have a responsibility to make sure that new delegates see more of the best of conference than us at our worst.

I’ve been going to conference for well over a decade now. I’m a little more adept in it’s rhythms and practices. I’m happy to meet up with any new delegate looking to get the most from conference. Perhaps there are others like me who could offer to do the same? Make sure our new delegates are shown the best of Labour and conference as well as the worst face we’re insisting on showing them and the world.

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My vision of Englishness

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

For me, my life, my memories and my experience of Englishness was formed in Stoke Newington where I grew up. All those things that made me English, including, but hardly limited to my birth in this particular geographical location happened in or near there.

But I know Englishness when I see it. And I see it everywhere in England.

 

Read more…

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The full story on “expelling” Progress

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

It all started with an anonymous document.

Well no, it all started back in the mist of time. Back when the People’s Front of Judea (Splitters!) decided they would wrest control of the levers of power from the Judean People’s Front. But this latest chapter started with the document.

Read more…

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How the hell did we get here and how the hell do we get out?

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

I’ve tried to be pretty reasonable about the Jubilee. I recognise that as a republican, this wasn’t going to be my weekend. I’ve watched DVDs and drunk wine and stayed away from as much of the nonsense as possible.

But this story about the disgusting treatment of  “workfare” stewards, juxtaposed with the four day celebration of institutionalised wealth, power and privilege has made it impossible not to scream through my fingertips, down the keyboard at anyone still willing to listen.

Our society is collapsing. It’s been happening slowly for a very long time but now seems to be in free-fall. We do not have answers to the most basic of questions such as how to we ensure that everyone in society is able to clothe, feed and house themselves and their dependents.

When Workfare was first talked about the argument seemed to rage between those who believed that the experience of work on these schemes was valuable in and of itself  and those who believed that the enforcing of unpaid work with threats of the reduction of withholding of benefits was tantamount to slavery.

How have we got into a situation where it is essential to have experience to stack shelves? How have we moved in two generations from jobs for life to insecurity for most? Are the profits that are earned through the model of capitalism that is encouraging this behaviour being redirected into changing this for the better or into further perpetuating the difference?

I’m not a supporter of UK Uncut. I find their tactics off-putting and their aims vague. I believe that the best solutions are implemented politically through elected representatives as I believe they have the best chance at long term legitimacy. I’m an evolutionary not revolutionary Socialist. I don’t want to enforce Socialism at the point of a gun but persuade through the force of my arguments.

But when we have people coerced into sleeping on cold, wet concrete without the facilities you need to live a life of basic human dignity, there something going seriously wrong here. When complaints about the treatment of those people is shrugged off as lefty-whining, there’s something seriously wrong.

These people matter not because of the juxtaposition of their poverty with the wealth of those they are being asked to serve. They matter because they are people. They are worth just as much as the Queen, or Gary Barlow or Pippa Middleton or me. They have a basic right to dignity which is being abused by a company and a charity that are just bigger cogs in the wheel of a system that is failing us all.

As I watch the news at night I see the coverage of the situation in Greece and in Spain which has a basic sense of “well thank God we aren’t them”. But those people sleeping under London Bridge probably weren’t desperately trying to sleep safe in the knowledge that our bond market is a little more secure than Greece’s. The massively increased numbers of rough sleepers on the streets and the mothers skipping meals to be able to better feed their children are not feeling a sense of relief that capital markets were marginally more likely to invest in the UK than in Spain.

It is certainly true that we need (and do not currently have) a sustainably growing economy to be able to function. But we need so much more than that. At present, our definition of that seems to be one that appeals to the markets at the expense of its people. That is attempting to claw back credibility with the very people who caused such a disastrous contraction by proving how much we can hurt those that don’t matter to them.

Forget the economic lunacy of austerity during a contraction, that too is a question for the now. It too is a question that assumes the outcome is the same system running better in the future. Changing course, bringing in Plan B is all very well, for now.

But there must be better answers than just returning to running this broken down system better. There must be ways of managing our economy that don’t leave so many people behind. There must be answers that include dignity and humanity for everyone.

There must be answers that don’t leave people out in the cold. I don’t know these answers, I’m not an economist. But if someone can show me how it’s done, I’ll damn well dedicate my talents to being the implementer of such change. Because all I do know, is that we cannot go on like this.

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