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Every now and again there comes along an article that gets us all talking.
Sadly, what we’re usually saying is “Why are you Labour?” or even worse “Why aren’t you a Tory?”. These articles are either yet another swipe at Ed and his leadership or a policy proposal, the content or presentation of which puts us both on the wrong side of our shared values or on the wrong side of the electorate.
Some of the authors of such pieces have served the Labour Party for many years, though they spent much of that defining themselves against the membership of the Labour Party. In 1987 there was more justification for such a stance. But the worst salesmen for the continuation of the best of the New Labour strategy are those who still cling closest to the label. Those who have allowed “New Labour” to crystallise into a dogma of its own rather than the rejection of dogmas that exemplified its early years.
Worse, some of the authors appear to have made a conscious choice to define themselves as cankers. Stars have risen on this basis. Reputations must be fed and controversialists must remain controversial.
But for those of us who would like to present a more balanced picture of the views of the Labour Party and the membership beyond the Westminster bubble, a reaction as reactionary as the original pieces is just creating more noise.
The problem is that screaming “Tory” at Labour members who don’t agree with us about the direction of the party from the right is about as helpful as those who shout “Trot” at anyone who questions us from the left. It’s destructive and self-defeating. It leaves you with nowhere to go and no argument to have. It allows the argument, not the policies, to become the focus, and leads to endless playing of the man and not the ball. And our own men at that. While the opposing team laugh their heads off at us.
Most of all, it’s not the kind of nuanced response that best articulates the democratic part of our democratic socialism. Collectivism is a Labour value I hold dear. It’s one of the principle reasons I support the leadership taking their time with the policy reviews and listening to as many members and experts as want to feed in. I’m genuinely hoping that the Leadership get a myriad of ideas from my left and from my right, and that they and we on the NPF pick the best and brightest from wherever they emerge to build a strong, coherent, radical and electable platform for Labour.
We cannot do any of this if we close down debate. We cannot do any of this is we simply reject as Tory any ideas put forward without making it clear why they don’t match our value of putting power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few. I can have those arguments. I can do so from both sides. I’m as likely to believe that some of the policies put forward by the hard left are as unelectable as I am to believe that some of the policies put forward by the ultra right are contrary to this aim. Like most Labour members I want to strike the balance between being electable and being elected for a purpose beyond beating the Tories.
Yesterday, fed up with yet more disconnect and discontent I tweeted the following:
“Labour Right Blog Formula: 1. Insult members. 2. Praise Tories. 3. Something vaguely sane. 4. Something off the charts dumb 5. end on a joke”
It was a response to how tired I am of reading what essentially boils down to the same article from the usual suspects reproduced in a variety of places. But it was deeply unfair to the majority of the Labour right wing who are loyal to the party and are making a far more interesting and nuanced contribution than those who give them the poor reputation. If they feel anything like the way I did about some of my fellow travellers on the centre left during the years Labour was in power, I know that they are probably find these interventions even more frustrating than I do, less able are they to shrug off the hurtful words of those they are close to.
I don’t like reading endless criticism of the party and the leader. I find it dull and repetitive, aimed at creating a poisonous atmosphere for the vast majority of Labour members in order that the privileged few can continue to play their power games.
But even more than this, I don’t like the response to these articles that I read. Dismissing someone as a “Tory” is not to defeat their argument. Reaching for hyperbole leaves you with no place to go. Equally, it gives those who share the majority of our values but offer different prescriptions no place to go. It isn’t right for us in the centre ground of the party to dismiss either our left or right flanks. We need them both for balance and inspiration. We also need to be a party that can be grown up and inclusive. We need to be able to agree to disagree, but also having disagreed, to move on.
If we don’t we are all – me included – giving the Tories a free and easy ride. And if we can agree on nothing else, we can surely all agree that we can’t have that.
This piece was first published on Labourlist
There was an important post on Labour List this weekend about one of the real uphill battle the Labour Party has to face. It’s a problem I have battled with for years. It’s a matter of our legitimacy, our ability and our credibility. And we are shying away from it.
In all the reviews of Labour’s policy making and party structures there is something missing. Any discussion of root and branch reformation of the Party staff. The Party staff work long and very hard. But I am unconvinced – sceptical even – that they are led to do so in the right way with the right outcomes in mind.
Everyone has a story about the control freakery of the Party. From the “lost” submissions to the press releases not viewed by candidates; from queries never answered to open derision aimed at member bodies. From the canvassing for votes and strongarming delegates at conferences at which you were supposed to listen to the will of the party to ignoring what came out of those votes when it didn’t go as planned. But few in a position to do so ever speak up further than complaining at our branch meetings.
Mostly we rightly blamed the leadership. And we will be right to do so again if Ed doesn’t get a handle on this problem. But we can’t ignore a whole aspect of the Labout culture that exists and reinforces itself among the staff.
What has happened at head office is understandable in a historical context. When Labour was tearing itself apart, an over emphasis on their role in our internal discipline wasa essential to bring us back from the brink. But what was once essential is now habit. Current and former party staffers I meet take pride in defining themselves against the members, despite the members having grown and matured away from the undisciplined rabble we have been. We don’t need a nanny anymore, and clinging to that role is making you an inadequate provider of what is needed.
The Party is about to appoint a new General Secretary. I urge whoever that is to be far bolder than any person in that role has managed for years and remember why you are are. Remind the staff what they are for not just what they define themselves against. Introduce member feedback and modern mechanisms and understanding of politics. Don’t just have a Movement For Change officer, have a genuinely changed ethos.
I want to support the staff in continuing to do the hard, hard slog of getting us back to power. All I ask, all I want is that they decide to support me and the millions like me in doing the same.
This column first appeared on Labour List:
The world is changing, and the Labour Party needs to change with it. Our methods of communications are infinitely more sophisticated which open up new worlds of opportunity for everyone. New ways of linking with people that a decade ago we wouldn’t have known existed make it much easier to make real and valuable human connections on a global scale. I have real and genuine friends made online, who I met in the flesh for the first time at my wedding (also to a man I met online). I spend hours debating online with people I have never and will never meet. And where ten years ago this might have been considered odd, it is increasingly the norm.In light of this, Labour needs to look again at what we mean by communities and community activism. While I am excited by the valuable work being done to recognise the importance of Labour engaging in local communities, and would in no way seek to change or downgrade this work, we need to recognise that the way people identify as communities is evolving.
In the past, it was only those with money and considerable leisure time who could engage in communities of interest that were not geographically based. Now anyone interested in a particular issue can learn from and engage with others and these groups bear all the hallmarks of communities. Labour must engage these communities too as we reach out to look outside of ourselves to broaden our appeal.
Thankfully, Labour uniquely already has an excellent vehicle for engaging with these communities of interest. Labour’s Socialist Societies make up a wide range of communities and interest groups formally affiliated to the party. We combine expertise in a variety of key sectors with reach into the relevant communities of interest. At our best, socialist societies act as a perfect bridge between expert communities and the party. On housing, environment, science, law, education, health and with LGBT, Jewish, Tamil, Chinese, disabled, student and Irish communities, Christian socialists and the broad interests of the Fabians and the Labour Clubs, the Socialist Societies offer the unique combination of practitioner and campaigner expertise and Socialist beliefs.
There is a wealth of knowledge in these organisations, and a depth of commitment to bettering the policies of the Labour Party as a result. I have been proud to run one of the societies in my time, and now serve on the Executive of another and am always proud of the contribution we make to debates both in our own expert contributions and our ability to pull in knowledge from outside the party. I am also currently the Secretary of the Socialist Societies Executive, a group formed to ensure cross society cooperation in the best spirit of the Labour movement. We work together on projects to bring together policy expertise on green homes, or the effect of education on health outcomes.
While we live in an ever more interconnected world, people’s interests are becoming more separate. I believe one of the reasons for the decline in mass party membership of all parties is the tendency for people to pursue their individual passions through niche organisations. The Socialist Societies have in the past proved an excellent recruiting tool for the wider party, and I know several people who joined SERA first and the party second, convinced through their experience of an active Socialist Society of the wider value of party membership. The party could gain not just expertise and links to wider communities, but if they promote the Socialist Societies more widely, an excellent recruiting tool too.
We have often served as a bridge between frontbenchers and the communities of interest. However there has been less engagement between the societies and the policy development team within the party. This is an area I and others will be urging Peter Hain to look at during the review of our policy making processes. With Labour so under-resourced, it would be a tragedy not to take the fullest advantage of a loyal and dedicated group of expert volunteers.
Perhaps we are Labour’s own Big Society, one that actually works.
This column first appeared on Labour List:
At the same time that the term “spin” has gone out of fashion, the call for a Labour narrative has become ever stronger. We need to have a better understanding of how communications can and must work as a vital part of modern British politics. Before I go on, I should add that I have never worked for the party in any capacity, and while I work in communications, I’m far from being a spin doctor. This isn’t a self-justification, but a call for an understanding of the art and necessity of political communication.
Good Political Communications people don’t lie. They know it’s dumb. I know that most of the responses to this post will use the phrases “sexed up” and “dodgy dossier” (especially if the commentators don’t read past the headline) and I totally understand why. We have a misunderstanding of the role of political communications officers. We see a Malcolm Tucker/Alastair Campbell model of macho swagger and intrusion into policy making as the norm, when in fact a lot of what got Campbell into such trouble towards the end (and I’m sure inspired the character of Tucker) was well outside the usual communications remit.
Party communications are about presenting the arguments in favour of our policies, and against the Tories. They are about tying the policies together to form a coherent story of what Labour is about, what we are for and why we deserve the trust and votes of the electorate. They aren’t there to set policy, nor are they there to debate its pros and cons. That’s what the party itself is for. That’s where Campbell’s generation went wrong. They confused the medium with the message and as a result the outcome of communication trumped the outcome of policy too often.
As the world develops, and the way messages are distributed change, the Labour press and comms team will have to learn to be flexible. They will still craft the message, but its dissemination will more than ever happen through members on Twitter, Facebook and blogs like this. Innovative spinners will see parallels on this to the trend towards community organising as a model. People trust people who aren’t paid to tell them things. We’ve always known that the best way of getting our messages out is on the doorstep, but technology is expanding what our notion of that “doorstep” is and can be. Good spin doctors will want to utilise the different ways members will adapt the message to suit their own audiences, rather than try to retain central control at the expense of nuance.
So far, so positive. But there is another side to political communication that we are failing on too often. In the West Wing, when being taught how to handle a press conference, Vice Presidential candidate Leo McGarry is told “If you don’t like what they’re asking you don’t accept the premise of the question”. All too often, we accept the premise of the Tory attacks on us, on the government we left behind and on the things we hold dear.
If we start using the language of “non-jobs”, if we start to accept not that cuts are going to happen (they are) but that its ok that they are going to happen – particularly cuts that lead to unemployment – we accept the premise of the question. Nobody does a “non-job”, they fulfil the functions they are employed for according to the priorities of their employer according to their strategic plan. If we want to return to being able to provide all but base utilitarianism in the future, we need to stop denigrating jobs which perform those “nice-to-have” functions that actually make life worthwhile. Like diversity workers and arts officers.
Labour would make cuts, yes, we would be forced to. We are also being forced to implement Tory cuts on a local level. But we don’t want to change either the employment prospects of those who work for the state and its agencies, or the provision of services of clients of the state and its agencies in a permanent way. Our cuts would be a brutal necessity, not a rebalancing away from inefficiencies.
I understand that in the short term and to all of us who are frightened about the effect the cuts are going to have on our lives, this may sound like the worst of spin. But ideas are important, and they are important because they effect change. If Labour is going to be in a position to build anew a thriving public sector, we need to lay the foundations now. And at least a part of that is in convincing the people of the necessity of doing so. We need good effective communication, clear red lines of difference between us and this government and their cruelty and we need to remember not to accept the premise of the Tory attack on the most vulnerable and the things we cherish.
This column first appeared on Labour List:
I am an idealist. I look at Britain, and I think about how I want to take its best and make it better. I am a realist. I look at Britain and see the problems we have and the greater problems we face and I want to make it better.
Politics is the art of balancing realism and idealism. Too much realism, we become overwhelmed by the problems, unable to imagine our way out. Too much idealism we lose touch with voters, leaving them behind and wondering at how different our perception is from theirs. The Labour Party cannot and must not devise policies for an ideal world, but for the world in which we will find ourselves in 2015. We need to offer realistic ways to solve real problems in ways that speak to our ideals.
I believe the Labour Party at its best is about promoting active change; about pursuing progress towards equality not simply legislating against the worst effects of inequality. We are not a conservative party by name or by nature. We are a party of work and of workers, we strive. Ideally we would live in a society in which all people were treated equally, had equal opportunities to succeed and where health, wealth, race and gender were not factors in people’s ability to live happy and fulfilled lives. But if the Labour Party were to base its policy making on the assumption of such a society, it would make it harder to achieve. In order to achieve such a society, for the moment we must continue to legislate to overcome the inequalities that exist.
The upper echelons of British life do not reflect the diversity contained within this great nation. This is the reality. No amount of wishing it were otherwise will make it change. The only thing that will change it is action. In an unequal world, we can choose either to perpetuate inequality by doing nothing, behaving as if we exist in a vacuum, or we can challenge inequality by taking action against it. There is not a third way.
We cannot afford to adopt the liberal idealist position that affirmative action is a form of discrimination and therefore automatically bad. The Liberal Democrats have largely adopted this position, and as a result are a very white, male middle class party. I strongly believe that this lack of membership and representation from those most affected by the cuts is what is in part to blame for their inability to create for themselves a narrative that understands their public perception.
All actions that change the balance of society discriminate against the former winners, from slave owners who lost profits in the abolition of the slave trade to men who have fewer options in seats they can apply for as Labour candidates (and just to be completely clear, I am in no way suggesting a moral equivalence here). Taxes take money from the rich and pay for services enjoyed by all. Tax money that is spent on one group in society is not then available for others. All choices are discrimination. If we are realistic about that, then we can have the strength to stand up and make the right choices.
Mark Ferguson at Labour List has written about how Labour must be wary of the fact that 49% of people still blame us the most for the cuts. I completely agree that it is essential that we continue to keep this at the heart both of our policy and our presentation of current and past policy as we go forward.
The problem I have, is that we don’t know why they blame us.
Do they blame us because the Tory narrative that we overspent on public services has caught on? It’s a populist narrative that probably does have a lot of traction despite both a lack of serious veracity and the fact that until the crash the Tories were planning to match us for spending.
Do they blame us becuase we failed to regulate the banks and failed to balance the economy properly away from fragile economic areas like finance, leaving us too exposed to the crash? If so they are quite right to do so.
It is vital that Labour conduct extensive polling and focus grouping to understand the reason for the blame so it can formulate a response to the question that resonates. That may not mean accepting wrongly apportioned blame, but it will mean moderating the language of regret to match the expectations of voters.
I suspect the truth is that the answer is mixed, but is mostly the former (if I had to I’d put it at an 80:20 split) which is difficult for Labour. We can and should apologise for and learn from the latter, but I don’t believe we did massively overspend before the crash. We can promise to ensure that investment is sustainable, strengthen and make more independent the OBR and give it some teeth to ensure that there are guarantees that we won’t be able to over-stretch in the future. That way we can promise not to do in the future what we don’t believe we did in the past, while adding independent verifiers. But we can’t promise not to invest. Investment will be needed. It’s how we articulate that while working hard to regain credibility that will be the difficult thing.
It is becoming clearer and clearer that anti-Labour tribalism is swallowing Liberal Democrat activists whole. Now I’m no one to talk, I am a proud and partisan Labour tribalist. But at least I have the self knowledge to recognise it. Lib Dems have pretended to be different and above Left Right tribalism for so long, that picking a side has had an extraordinary effect on them.
Mark Ferguson at Labour List has written excellently about Labour’s adjustment to being out of power and our recognition of the long hard slog we have ahead of us. There are also often written screeds about how well individual Lib Dem ministers are or aren’t adjusting to power. But what is little remarked on is how poorly the Lib Dems as a party are reacting to being in power – or more realistically, to not being in opposition. And the truth is they are adjusting very, very badly.
What seems to be lacking in the Lib Dem machine is any understanding of medium to long term strategy. This is totally understandable in a party that only ever saw itself as opposition, as there was only ever a need to be reactive. But as soon as it became clear that that a hung Parliament was on the cards there should have been better moves to bring in fresh blood that would understand how to be in power and how to maintain long term equidistant prospects while temporarily forming an alliance. They haven’t and have combined a strategy of there being not a cigarette paper between the Lib Dems and the Tories on policy with a continued policy of vitriolic attacks on Labour at every level from activists like those linked above to President Farron.
This combination – along with the fact that those Lib Dem voters and supporters on the left who can’t stomach the coalition with the Tories are likely to have drifted away from the Lib Dems by 2014/15 – mean that the Lib Dems have permanently readjusted themselves to the right in the minds of both voters and supporters. This isn’t true for all supporters but is a strong enough to be the absolutely dominant narrative of Lib Dem thinking at the moment and for the next few years.
So here’s my marker:
If at the next election a there is a hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party, you will see articles in the Guardian and Independent and pieces on blogs like Lib Dem Voice etc outlining the following argument:
Voters have passed their record on the coalition Government, and as such have returned a coalition majority. While it may be true that Labour may win the most seats/votes they will not have achieved enough to win the full confidence of the Country as the coalition parties have. Therefore, if there is a hung Parliament, the Lib Dems should stick with the Tories as that’s what voters who supported us expected us to do.
Labour needs to do two things to counter this threat.
Firstly – and frankly of course we should be doing this anyway – we should be fighting elections as if we are up against the whole coalition. This means that while the polls at the moment are good, they aren’t enough. We are only rarely beating the combined Tory/Lib Dem numbers. Our strategists (I should be one, me me me!) should be looking seat by seat at our resources to maximise seat gain at the expense of the Lib Dems and the Tories (perhaps at the cost of seats where we might be fighting Plaid Cymru for example).
Secondly, our politicians need to take every opportunity to back the Lib Dems into a democratic corner, where they make a committment (a pledge perhaps? Perhaps not…) that in the event of a hung Parliament, once again they will deal first with the party with the most seats. It won’t stop them from regneging (and when/if they do, expect further David Laws style fairy tales about how unwilling to deal the Labour team were (though our team should have a deal thrashed out that we can be happy with in advance so we aren’t stupidly and pointlessly caught on the hop again)) but it could shame enough delegates to their triple lock conference into not allowing an undemocratic government to stand.
Hopefully, I will never need to pull this post out in a future game of “I told you so”. Hopefully Labour will win a majority and start to undo the damage the Government is doing. But this must be an eventuality we expect and for which we are prepared.
This post first appeared on Labour List
Recently there has been a lot of focus on individual players within the Labour Party. This is inevitable, and – as Mark’s recent piece observed – leadership matters. I understand this – trust me, I wouldn’t have devoted my summer to Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign if I didn’t – but it’s not the only thing that matters, especially in a party such as ours. It was Ed’s recognition of the value of our collective nature that – in part – led to my support for his candidacy.
The ranking of cabinet ministers by their profile in prliament and the press has some superficial attraction. We can see who is best placed at taking our messages out to the public, and who has the ferocity and forensic skills to represent us in high profile parliamentary briefs. Both of these are important in attracting future voters and scrutinising the current government. But there is something missing in this assessment, and that is the job some are doing in making the party itself a vehicle capable of winning and governing again.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of looking for a messiah to lead us from the darkness, believing that our path back is all about one person – the right person – and to ignore all the other things we need to do. The idea that we should put all faith and decision making into the hands of a charismatic leader has served us well in the past, and Tony Blair’s charisma and strength to carry out much needed reform worked well for Labour for many years. But then it stopped working.
It stopped working in part because Blair got tired and picked his battles less carefully, allowing the initially brilliant strategy of New Labour to become an inflexible dogma that in the end destroyed it. But it also stopped working because it can only ever be an illusion that policy and governance can be achieved through the work of one person.
It’s a dangerous illusion too. Because the more we believe it, the more we seek a person, the “heir to Blair”. Brown’s inability to be that person was in part his failure to understand that he didn’t have what it took, but more a failure to understand that if you aren’t, you need to offer something else, not just attempt to shape yourself into a leader. If we spend all our time seeking personalities, we will continue to play in the shallows of personality politics giving less attention to the truly difficult bit, the building of a party than can work together, using all its resources, to create policy that is both ideologically and politically satisfactory, and to build a narrative together that adapts to our separate communities. Some will read this article as an attack on Ed Miliband. It isn’t, not one bit. It is actually applauding the fact that I believe Ed sees the importance of this strategy.
This is why seeing Peter Hain ranked so low under the measures used concerns me. Because I’ve heard from Peter several times as he works with me and the party to have a conversation (one people can actually believe in) about how to change our party. I know that Peter is doing the work that won’t get him in the pressn and won’t get him parliamentary coverage but that is an absolutely essential part of making us able to win and fit to govern. He’s rebuilding the Labour Party from one that only functioned through the control of a small, exceptional group managing the message, policy, direction and process, to one where every member feels they have a real connection to the party and the ability (if they want it) to contribute to our policy making. It isn’t sexy, and it won’t generate press coverage, but it is the start of rebuilding a movement that has long term appeal in our more democratic age.
We don’t yet know what the outcome of the Partnership into Power review will be. I hear the same cynical voices as everyone else does about what has gone so wrong before with the NPF and the process until now. But if we are going to make Labour policy and politics about more than the personalities and something all members can be proud of being engaged in, we need to put aside that cynicism, and feed into an important process. If we take ownership of it, it will not only have the strength of mass acceptance, but it will also be far harder to dismantle or ignore. So let me return to conference next year and tell the Labour Party staff member who drunkenly told me that “the NPF doesn’t matter” that it (and the wider policy making process) does now.
Submissions to the policy review and in response to the review of Partnership into Power can also be made by email to PiP@new,labour.org.uk or in writing c/o Policy and Research Department, The Labour Party, 39 Victoria Street, London, SW1H 0HA.