Archive for August, 2012

The Office Politics of the Labour Party

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

So yesterday I tweeted that the poll that rates Ed Balls highly shouldn’t bother Ed Miliband. That Balls is seen as doing better than his opposite number is good news – for Ed Balls, for Labour and for Ed Miliband. We are – after all – a team whose collective success comes together or not at all.

Sadly it seems some of those close to both Ed’s didn’t get the memo. They have allowed their egos to elevate their petty office politics over the essential national politics of removing the corrosive Tories from office and getting our economy working again for everyone.

Mark Ferguson is right – these people should shut up. Not least because in acting the way they are, they demonstrate little understanding of politics nous; something I would have thought pretty essential in a “senior advisor” or Shadow Cabinet Minister – even an unnamed one. Guys, you’re making fools of yourselves; sadly you’re making fools of the Party too.

Ed M’s team have demonstrated before a lack of discipline. Both Ed’s have come from the worst possible experience of rancorous personal relationships and the mismanagement of petty squabbling. They more than most must know how divisive and ultimately counter-productive it is. They are the ones who will need to get a grip on this now. In essence, the failures of their staff lie with them and their cultural leadership; the buck stops with them.

I’ve worked in a lot of different office places with a lot of different management structures. One thing I have learned is that you cannot and will not stop staff gossiping with each other and having opinions that often differ from management as to how things should be run. It’s perfectly natural for those at the sharp end to have such opinions, but where things are well managed, they don’t feel the need to share these thoughts with outside organisations.

Good managers work with their staff to ensure they are able to have an input and feel a part of the organisation. This ensures they excel at their jobs and have the ability to learn and develop as they do. If they don’t, these frustrations spill over into tensions. In this case, they seem to have manifested in anonymous briefings. I guess that’s more likely in politics than in any of the other places I have worked. The political lobby act as if every day is a basically a gossip session behind the bike sheds and being listened to by a big name journalist can make you feel very important, especially if no one else is listening.

I was going to write a post about my anger and disappointment in those who have been briefing, but Mark has already done a superb job of articulating how let down Labour members are by this kind of behaviour. Ultimately though it is the responsibility of the leadership to change what is happening. They must instil a culture where this kind of thing is not just not tolerated, but is not necessary.

I have also worked for a real variety of managers. I know good management when I experience it. I’ve been very lucky in that I have experienced it often. Sometimes I have been less lucky. I have also been a good and a bad manager.

Good organisations recognise and cherish the art of management. Management should not be an add-on to a promotion – a hoop you have to jump through in order to earn more and progress through an organisation. Management is a skill that must be developed and nurtured. It must be supported by proper management systems that are embedded and respected within the culture of the organisation.

There is no shame in not being a born manager. It is not the same thing as being a born leader. It can be learned and should be developed. It must be valued. Learning how to give and receive management advice, to give and receive feedback and appraisals and to ensure a continuous open and trustworthy relationship between line manager and staff is vital. It aids productivity and the positive feedback loop that a decent working experience can bring.

Recent changes at our Head Office seem to reflect this and have – as I understand it – made the chain of command clearer and brought management responsibilities into sharper focus. The same must be done with our party in Westminster – particularly it seems with those close to the leadership.

Yes, our staff members should not be running to tittle-tattle to the newspapers. But do they have a forum for constructive criticism? Do they have a space when they can tell their manager their concerns and know how those concerns will be addressed? If not, this is not just a failure of the staff members, but a failure of our culture. That’s what has to change.

This post first appeared on LabourList.

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What if I were raped by a comrade?

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

Trigger warning: this post contains descriptions of the aftermath of a fictional rape – there are no descriptions of a rape event.

The aftermath of rape is different for every victim. I don’t want the anger I am feeling at present to lead me to generalisations. I do not know how I would behave because I have not been raped. On this occasion, I cannot write from experience. I don’t want anyone to read this and believe I am making light of their experiences to make a political point. I am trying extremely hard not to do so, while also trying to release the feelings that have been building up in me over the last week. This isn’t the first time I have spoken of my disgust with the hypocrisy some of those on the left show when turning a blind eye to the unadmirable actions of those they admire before. Sadly I suspect it will not be the last.

The events I allude to in this post clearly centre around the Asaange case. In the interests of balance & justice, it is important to note that no charges have yet been made in this case.

What would happen if I were raped by a man of the left? That’s not a question I’ve ever felt the need to ask myself before this last week. Now, it’s a question that is haunting me.

What if the man who raped me had done great things? If were an incredible orator, a superb thinker and writer? A man by far my intellectual superior? A man whose achievements in life I could not hope to equal. A man who was put on a pedestal by many of those whom I myself admired.

Would I feel any less violated? Would he be any less guilty of violating me? Would I be any less raped? Would he be any less a rapist? NO! NO! NO! NO!

But after what I have seen this week. I believe that if I were to suffer such an attack, there would be those who believe themselves to be my comrade in the fight for equality who would seek to deny me justice, to denigrate my claim, to make me not just the victim but the perpetrator of a greater crime. They would name and shame me. They would show how I have been open in my past about my sexuality, about my sexual history and about my feminism and championing of women’s rights as trumping religious and cultural customs as if they had any bearing on the case. As if my sex life had any bearing on my rape life.

Key “left-leaning” newspapers might hire one of my rapists greatest champions to make his case over and over again. Leading feminists will argue that I can’t have my justice because that isn’t what the case is really about. If I am lucky enough to see the police pursue justice to the fullest of their ability, my fellow feminists – both female and male, despite being largely supportive, will publicly voice their discomfort at the lengths being taken to achieve justice. Will argue that this pursuit of justice is not about my rape, but about my rapist’s politics. Robbing me further of my power and bolstering his once again. And there will be those who either deny my claim outright or who belittle the importance of my experience next to the importance of their great man and his great cause. Some will trample all over my rights in their commitment to their champion.

I know too that the vast majority will not be like this. That there will be many hundreds and thousands who do believe in my right to justice. Too many to link to every one. The left, of which I remain a proud part, have not been shouted down by their small malignant minority.

But, just as it is not when the innocent are put to death but when the terrible are that you find out how you really feel about the death penalty., it is not when a villain commits rape that we find out how women’s rights have advanced but when it is a hero who stands accused.

The sad, terrible and shocking truth is that there are parts of the left who have been exposed in this last week, not as champions of equality, but as defenders of a patriarchal hegemony that denies women politically inconvenient sexual equality. And I now know, with a sad and shocked certainty, that were I to be a victim in these circumstances, my rape would be denied and dismissed by those who DARE to call themselves my fellow champions for equality.

You are not. You will never be. You have bankrupted your right to call yourselves fighters for equality.

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It’s not about posh, it’s about privilege

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

I wasn’t going to write about Benedict Cumberbatch’s complaintthat the UK is too ready and willing to “posh-bash” for two reasons – one I quite like him and I think he’s probably badly phrased a sentiment about being typecast.

Two, because this is a quite effort to raise his profile before his new show (about a very aristocratic aristocrat – funnily enough) comes out.

But his comments do raise a common problem – that of conflating the questioning of privilege with the questioning of background. And as such, I think this question – rather than the more simplistic “Do we bash the posh too much” line – is worth examining.

Read more…

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Young, bright and heartbreaking

Saturday, August 11th, 2012

I’ve just watched Young, Bright and on the Right the documentary about two participants in Tory student politics at Oxbridge. I was told beforehand that my reaction would be one of horror and in many ways it was. But not horror at the two central participants, but at the worlds they were inhabiting. I also found myself unable to stop – quite literally – bursting into tears practically every time Chris came onscreen.

Joe’s was the more moving story. His triumph was extraordinary and to find it so blocked and dented by the braying prejudice he encountered at Oxford was awful. But Joe seems to have a core of steel. I look at Joe, and I know he’s going to be OK.

Chris worries me more. Chris doesn’t have people skills and doesn’t understand people skills. At one point his Mum tries to chide him into at least pretending to have some, but he clearly doesn’t understand what she’s trying to say.

When the older, more confident boys are trying to subtly tell Chris he doesn’t have a chance in hell of being on their committee, he thinks they’re being encouraging. When he’s told he’s not on the committee despite there not even being enough spaces for an election, Chris believe the Chair lost the forms.

Or Chris’s projection of himself does. When you watch Chris’s hands twist over themselves again and again, when you listen to the way he talks as much as the things he says, you sense that a very real and core part of Chris knows these people he desperately wants to please will never let him in.

The last caption of the show revealed that Chris is no longer focusing on student politics. In my heart, I hope this was Chris’s choice – to get away from them before they rejected his desperately unlikely wish to be their President. But I suspect he was eased out by those with the confidence to know exactly how to do so and the viciousness not to care.

A quote I’ve seen a lot when discussing this programme in the last few days from Henry Kissinger puts it that student politics are “vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”. I’m unconvinced.

Despite being a member of the Labour Party since I was 15, I never got involved in politics at my university. I was in a pretty wild phase in my life, having only just pulled myself out of a complete nosedive. hopelessly insecure, I went to one meeting of the campus Labour Group and found the atmosphere of the thing baffling. I went to a few meetings in town, but mostly at university I got on with falling into bad habits and falling in love with the wrong man. With some study thrown in for good measure. None of the friends I met at university are in politics.

I’m in two minds about this. Obviously I wouldn’t change my friends! And having some people to relax with outside of political life is great – even though I now see them less and less. But when I look at the people I know through politics, the most successful are the best connected and most of those made those connections through the bonds of vicious infighting in their student days. Twenty years on, people will gather together in their tribes and tell of the old battles. Those battle lines still exist and continue to be played out between the different factions in the Labour Party. Maybe this is the reason I feel so tribeless – I came into active politics too late in life to be chosen or to chose in the blood and thunder way one would at university age.

So while the large P politics of student politics may not make a great deal of difference (though they may – I just may not have experienced it) that isn’t what people gain from it. They gain a tribe, connections and a network that help you through the rest of your political career. If you decide early enough that you want a career in politics, and if you are academic enough to go to a university with a good Labour club, I’d say that’s not nothing. Fighting to be a player in that game, with those advantages are pretty high stakes.

Neither Joe nor Chris share my politics. We’re I to meet them, I doubt we’d have a great deal in common ideologically. I believe they have taken the wrong lessons from the evidence they have been presented with. I’m sure they think the same of me. But we do share a common humanity. That’s what I felt as I watched Chris’ optimistic word being betrayed by his body language. What I felt as Joe’s family beamed with pride at their amazing son and his obvious and comfortable love for them.

They are two young men who want to make the world a better place. I will stop them trying to do that in the wrong way. But I still commend them for wanting to do so. I hope they find peace, happiness and a better path.

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Another day, another Tory headache

Friday, August 10th, 2012

David Cameron isn’t very good at politics.

When I first said this it was a controversial  statement. Now it’s pretty commonly accepted. He still has his moments, but right now he’s basically the badly burnt toast of the London Olympics. His party have limped their way to the Summer recess infighting and imploding all the way.

So no, David Cameron isn’t very good at politics. For example, today, he has been out maneuvered by the Lib Dems. Let’s say that again – outmaneuvered by the Lib Dems. Wowzers.

Today, the Lib Dems announced that they are going to run their candidate selection process according to the 2010 boundaries. the first and most obvious message to take from this is that the Lib Dems are confirming the seriousness of their intention to the Tories to stop boundary changes. That’s certainly the immediate message to be taken, but actually, this is cleverer and more subtle than just that.

This move leave David Cameron in a terrible hole. His Party are suffering from very poor polling, and while Labour is far from certain to win the next election, they are in a much stronger position than anyone predicted a year ago. His admirable stance on gay marriage is losing him grass root activist support, the number of Tory members already having slumped dramatically. the last thing he needs is something that’s going to make it harder for his activists to fight in their constituencies next time around.

But that’s exactly what he’s done.

As long as he insists on believing he will be able to change Lib Dem minds over the boundary changes (or think he can somehow pull off the Parliamentary arythmatic another way – something nobody things can be done) he will be unable to do as the Lib Dems did today and Labour did earlier this week and organise the selection process for Tory candidates at the next election under the most likely boundaries. To do so would look like capitulation and would bring the end of the boundary change argument forward before any vote were cast.

But to not do so means that Labour and Lib Dem candidates will have the run of these constituencies until the final vote in Autumn next year. It means that Tory MPs whose seats would be abolished under the changes will continue to face uncertainty. Shy, retiring types like Nadine Dorries for example.

So in failing to accept that he has lost the advantage he was seeking in changing the boundaries, Cameron has placed his party at a further disadvantage by making it harder for their candidates to establish themselves and giving his opponants a huge, huge headstart in so doing.

Well done Dave – yet another masterstroke of tactical politics.

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What do small businesses want from Labour?

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

This is a guest post from Jan Burnell - a successful small business owner. I asked her to think about what Labour’s offer could and should be to small companies and their owners. Here’s what she came back with:

 

I’ve been asked to contribute to Scarlet Standard as the owner and founder of The Centre, a small but successful training company, now 16 years old.  We really are small – six paid staff, including me, and a turnover of less than a million.  We’re about as far from Standard Chartered bank as it’s possible to be.

And yet, my business is, I believe, typical of hundreds of thousands of firms up and down the country, many of them run by Labour supporters.  In 2009, SMEs together ( enterprises with less than 250 staff) accounted for 99.9% of all enterprises, 59% of private sector employment and 49% of private sector turnover.  Within this larger group there were over 4.5 million businesses with no, or less than 10 employees.  So this is a sizeable interest group, one Labour cannot afford to ignore.

It’s got easier to start your own business in the last twenty years or so.  Banks were willing to loan and a very large number of people started their own business with a redundancy or early retirement lump sum.  The kind of people who did this don’t fit into a homogenous group.  Many of them are Tories and feel a kindred spirit with big business.  But many retain the ethics and values of the public sector from which they came or of the Trade Union that was their protection while they were in employment.  Many of them, enough to win several marginals, are Labour.

What do Labour small business owners want?  I believe that principally, we want to feel that someone knows we exist. We want to feel part of the discourse, a voice that matters, that must be listened to.  This means specific  policy issues as well as  using the right rhetoric.  Every political leader nowadays nods in the direction of small business but most restrict their policy approach to deregulation.  Small business owners who are Labour don’t want to cheat or bully their staff.  They don’t want to sack people without notice or reason, or to avoid employing women in case they get pregnant, or to cheat the revenue or the VAT.

They do want less paperwork and government tender documents are a key issue here.  I long ago gave up responding to invitations to tender, knowing that they would take me days to complete when in all  likelihood the successful company was already lined up and the process was a nod in the direction of fairness rather than a transparent competition to find good value.  This government has talked about making tendering easier for small firms – I’m yet to see how.

Small companies want access to more money.  Every business wants this.  But small businesses are often hampered by their lack of collateral when applying for loans.  What that means in practice is that you have to put your house up (if you’re lucky enough to own one).  I don’t feel comfortable putting my husband’s dwelling place on the line for my business and I don’t feel I should have to.  A Government backed scheme which guaranteed small business bank loans without needing to take housing assets into account would be a real boon for many.

Such loans should not be limited to new developments or innovation.  It’s when the going is tough that you really need a helping hand and that’s precisely when getting a loan is really difficult.  Clearly, there needs to be a viable plan to see the business through but there’s a difference between going through a bad patch and going bust, and a helping hand financially can be just what makes that difference.

In terms of ‘red tape’, I don’t believe small businesses want a complete absence of regulation.  What they do need, especially very small businesses like mine, is some help with the costs of fairness.  It’s right that long standing employees should get reasonable compensation for redundancy but if you’re losing the job to save money, it’s clearly difficult to find these kinds of payments.  Similarly with maternity pay.  I fought my whole adult life for women’s equality at work.  It’s still difficult to find another wage on top of the six I’m paying now out of my slender profit margin.  A government-backed insurance scheme which enabled businesses to protect themselves against these kind of risks would be a real help.

Above all, what small businesses need is a thriving economy where the public has enough money to go out and buy our goods and to pay the taxes that support our services.  The Coalition government has presided over some of the worst years since I’ve been in business, killing confidence, cutting support to my public sector clients and presiding over the worst recession since the thirties.  A properly managed economy where the welfare of everyone is guaranteed through fair contributions from everyone is what would help small businesses thrive.  It wouldn’t be so bad for everyone else, either.

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