Archive for November, 2012

House of Comments: UKIP if you want to

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

I am delighted that the lovely Lib Dem blogger Mark Thompson have agreed to revive his previously excellent House of Comments podcast. As we don’t currently have a regular Tory contributor, we will be having guests join us as often as possible. If you’re interested in taking part, drop me a line through the contact page here.

We will be talking politics on a weekly basis for your entertainment and the first installment – in which we talk about the UKIP adoption, Leveson and sexism in politics is now available.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here (note – this is a new feed so if you used to subscribe you’ll need to do so again).
Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.
You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.



Ed Miliband as Margaret Thatcher has downsides

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

When Ed Miliband says he wants to be like Margaret Thatcher, he doesn’t mean by devastating the working class, the north and presiding over a bitterly divided country. But he should know that that is exactly how his party will hear it, so why does he say it at all?

Read more…


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Your Britain is our website… and the good news is the Party think so too!

Monday, November 26th, 2012

It’s very easy to be cynical about the Labour Party’s policy making process. My God is it easy.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that it’s not just easy, but the rational thing to do. If we take Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. “ then cynicism as Labour launch their latest way of involving members in the policy making process is probably the sanest mindset possible.

But here’s the problem. If those who – like me – have urged the Party for years to open up our policy making processes, to trust members and to allow an open and frank conversation to take place approach this latest initiative with disengaged cynicism it will fail – but this time, it will be our fault.

I spend a great deal of my time talking about how the Party must open up policy making to members. Having been given a preview of the Your Britain website last week as a member of the National Policy Forum; and having talked to the policy team whose job it is to shepherd the website into existence and then develop it as it grows organically, I believe that the Party is making a genuine attempt to do just that.

There is a new spirit of transparency in the air at Brewers Green that I’ve not encountered before. It must be all those windows. There’s also a sense of adventure that is new and tangible; A can-do, let’s-give-it-a-whirl attitude that is about doing and learning from doing, not about over-cautious not doing.  The feeling I got, is that the staff are up for it.

That presents cynics like me with a challenge. We’re being given a real chance to prove ourselves. We’ve got a real chance to give Party members a voice. But it will need champions.

It is so much harder to be a champion than a cynic. You have to encourage people through the lean beginnings when there isn’t much content. You have to take part, put yourself out there and get involved. If we want to convince our leaders there is an appetite for policy discussion in the Party, we need to start by getting involved in that discussion, and getting others involved too.

If we don’t; if we start by believing it won’t work so why bother, we prove those who don’t trust us with the policy process right. We’ll have nothing to show for our lack of efforts except the truth that this time we will have failed our Party – not the other way around.

Let’s not let that happen. Let’s go out to our Constituency and Branch meetings armed with publically published policy papers for discussion. Let’s note those discussions and feed them back into the process through the website (where you can post as a branch or Constituency if you so choose). Let’s comment on each other’s ideas. Let’s encourage others to comment on ours.

The first few weeks of the website will be a precarious time. As the Labour Party is being completely open, they are open to abuse. With anyone allowed to comment, at first anyone will. People who exist only to be unpleasant will have a field day. If those of us who  are enthusiastic about member engagement don’t get involved in equal measure, we abandon the field to them. That’s no way to win a campaign.

If we can garner genuine member enthusiasm – the way we did with some of the responses to the Refounding Labour process – and couple that with the genuine desire of the staff and of the Chair of the NPF Angela Eagle to make this work, this has a chance. If we can make this the go to place for Labour policy discussion, the Shadow Cabinet will have little choice but to engage. They need to know what’s going on after all.

Things happen in the Labour Party all too frequently that activate my over-developed cynicism gland. But I’ll be damned if I let that natural reaction lose me the chance to champion the one thing I’ve been urging the Party to develop right from the start: an open, interactive policy process.

Three cheers say I, until I am proved otherwise.

This post first appeared on LabourList.


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Doing politics in plain sight

Friday, November 9th, 2012

This is a post about political engagement. Except it really isn’t. Or at least it really shouldn’t be. The fact that we in politics actually use terms like social mobility and political engagement shows how far we have to go before we achieve any such thing. Because people at the sharp end don’t talk like that. People who don’t vote don’t think like that.

This isn’t the language of the street and the supermarket, of the pub and the park, but of the think tank and the select committee. Using language that doesn’t reflect ordinary conversations simply acts to exert our separateness. Even when talking about bringing more people into politics, we do so in a language that highlights our otherness.

For as long as I can remember, we’ve been looking at this debate from the wrong end. Too often we’ve discussed well-meaning initiatives to bring people into our world. But instead of looking at ways to get more people involved in our politics, we should be looking at more ways to get our politics involved in people’s lives. To make thinking politically a natural part of people’s day-to-day experience, linked to the things they care about.

People think politicos are all the same, because in many ways we are. We all look the same and dress the same; We speak this bizarre language of social mobility and macro-economic policy; we talk of policy reviews and implementation strategies. When I talk to my sister and her friends about why they have no interest in politics they tell me “it’s because they don’t talk like me Em”. They think we’re separate and self obsessed, talking to each other in a code designed to stop them understanding or getting involved. They’ve never discussed social mobility in their lives. They just want to get on. They’d be astonished to hear that what we call getting on.

What is needed is plain English politics. Not to patronise voters. Not because voters aren’t more than capable of assessing what we’re offering – it’s a very foolish politician who thinks that – but because we should be talking about our ideas in the same way everyone else will. That way lies conversation rather than speechifying. We should be talking in a way that isn’t mediated through the comfort of jargon but that everyone agrees feels relaxed and normal. That we can all understand without an interpreter.

At present, Westminster can be a really forbidding place if you haven’t got the right networks behind you. If you didn’t go to public school or to Oxbridge, even if you didn’t get involved in politics until later in life, so have no background in student politics, some of the meeting rooms of Westminster can be the loneliest places in the world. I may be reasonably well connected now, but I constantly struggle with feelings of “outsiderness” without any of these networks of support to fall back on. If I do, imaging how much worse it is for those without the connections I do have? If you don’t have an academic career or a string of publications behind you, it can be a struggle to have your voice heard, or even when heard, valued. What chance is there for someone who left school with a few GCSEs but a real practical passion about making a difference?

There are practical measures that can – and must – be implemented that widens access in the first place, such as paid internships, political apprenticeships and support for up and coming candidates.

But we must change the culture too.

Supporting those trying to break into politics isn’t just about getting a diverse range of candidates, but of having a culture that recognises that politics isn’t everything. In fact when it becomes all-consuming, it loses touch with the way most people are living their lives. For example, how many times have think tanks held seminars running late into the evening to discuss the work/life balance or the costs of childcare (thus ensuring we have no time with our family and friends and have to pay the childminder extra)?

We all talk about wanting politicians with some experience of life outside Westminster. That shouldn’t be simply the first act of your life before giving oneself over to politics completely. All politicians should have the option of having a normal life outside of politics, and we need to look at how we change the way we do business to make that happen. If we don’t we will only be represented by – and representative of – the obsessed. Making politics a more attracticve option will also help to reduce the barrier between those who involved and those they represent. At the moment, few people can see why anyone would want to put themselves through it, other than for financial gain.

Jargon-free politics is not just about making our communication with the electorate better, but about changing the very nature of our relationships. Let’s all start a conversation we’ve been avoiding for so long, with the people we’ve always needed to talk to, on their terms and on their turf.

If we are going to create a One Nation politics, it must be one which everybody can speak the language fluently. No more barriers. No more buzzwords. No more hiding.

This post first appeared on Shifting Grounds.



Austin Mitchell MP has still not examined his privilege

Tuesday, November 6th, 2012

There was some degree of upset last week when Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Grimsby tweeted the following message to departing Tory MP Louise Mensch:

“Shut up Menschkin. A good wife doesn’t disagree with her master in public and a good little girl doesn’t lie about why she quit politics”.

Now I’m no great fan of Louise Mensch or lover of Tories in general. But this isn’t football. the point is not simply to beat the other team, but to be better than them. When a Labour MP behaves in this sexist and misogynistic way it cheapens all of us.

Gladly, many other Labour members agreed. Including my Twitter friend Nate Barker, a Labour member in Reading West. Nate took the time to write to Mr Mitchell expressing his concern. With his kind permission, I am reproducing below both Nate’s original email and the response from Austin Mitchell:

Dear Mr Mitchell,

I’m just writing, one party member to another, regarding a tweet sent from your account (or one purporting to be you) regarding Louise Mensch’s resignation & related commentary in the media this weekend.

The tone of this tweet was completely unacceptable. Our political system is already unrepresentative of women in general (our party’s work in this area notwithstanding) and the House still has a “boys’ club” image. As an MP for our party, you have a duty to both your constituents and to Labour to always be in the vanguard when it comes to respecting women.

I appreciate the point you were trying to make – namely, an MP hungry for power & fame using her position to try and make a name for herself rather than serve her constituents, only to cut and run when it became clear no cabinet position was forthcoming. In there is a message of somebody elected to serve, only to renege on her duty and put her own interests first; it may sound callous, but her role was not to be undertaken lightly.

Instead, you risk contributing to the Mensch narrative of a good MP driven out by her familial duties – and in the midst of an election campaign!

We’re better than the Tories, but we still have to convince the country – and setting a good example at the top is part of that.

I hope you take my comments in the spirit in which they’re intended – concern from a grassroots member who knows the best hope for our nation is a Labour victory in 2015.

Yours faithfully,

Nate Barker

the response from Austin Mitchell came back:

Dear Nate Barker


Thank you for your reprimand.  It was my tweet.  It was meant as a joke but it`s been taken seriously by hundreds, resulting in a tonne of abuse descending on my head.  Indeed yours was the mildest and best expressed.


Political correctness never was my strong point but I don`t see that incorrectness is going to have any effect on Labour`s standing votes, or reputation, by turning a passing tweet into a monstrous assault on womankind.


I`ve written the clobbering up in the next edition but one of The Oldie since many of the people who tweeted back opposed sexism by ageist attacks on me as geriatric.


Yours sincerely



At the time, lots of people tried to blame the instant nature of Twitter for Mitchell’s “mistake”. And here Mitchell is trying to do the same while also employing the “It’s just a joke” meme.


I hate the “it’s just a joke” meme. It’s the most sly way of constantly denigrating a group of people. It’s a socially acceptable form of kicking down. As the excellent Everyday Sexism project demonstrates these aren’t “just jokes” they are weapons used to keep women in their place by undermining them on a daily basis.


So yes, Austin, your “just a joke” is a part of the daily assault on womankind. It’s part of the culture that diminishes us that thinks such a joke is funny. It’s part of the culture that diminishes us to think that Politcal Correctness – or being polite as sane people call it – is not a standard to aspire to but something to be avoided.


Equally, this issue isn’t just about Labour’s reputation, standing or votes. It’s not just about winning. It’s about being worthy winners.


However, if people have genuinely been attacking Mitchell for his age, that too is wrong. There is plenty enough to criticise him for, his age is neither here nor there.


I am – in many aspects of my life – privileged. I am a youngish, white, middle class, well educated, employed, able-bodied, straight, cis woman. It is only in the last of these areas that I find myself disadvantaged by society. Perhaps it is because I am so used to being in the priviledged group in all other areas that I am so concious of gender discrimination. Beacuse I recognise the advantages I have in life, I try to check my privelege when discussing issues that do not effect me personally.


So do some of the men – feminist or otherwise – I discuss sexism with. Sadly some of them don’t and try to waste endless hours of my time explaining exactly why I think they’re being sexist and patronising without undertaking the most rudimentary attempt at self-examination. Frankly, from now on, my life is too full to check others privilege for them.


But Austin Mitchell is a representative of my party. Like it or not, he is the face and voice of the Labour Party in Grimsby. As an MP he has an audience I do not and his words have a power mine cannot. If he will not understand why what he said was wrong, then I will not stop criticising him for saying it. Because these jokes, the attitude behind them and the culture they foster have no place in the modern Labour Party.


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