Thursday, 30 July 2015

Build your own Labour leader

How did it come to this? In my first post just two and a half months ago I argued that the Labour Party's predicament was nothing like as bad as it seemed; that a broad offer from a charismatic leader could easily overturn that twelve-seat Conservative majority and build momentum behind a rejuvenated Labour Party returning to power in 2020. Apparently, what seemed to be an obvious and realistic solution to a fairly uncomplicated problem proved to be a more ambitious proposition than I could ever have imagined. The Labour leadership election now presents us with four different versions of the future, none of which obviously leads Labour back to government. Each of the four candidates has their strengths and each of them has said at least something that needs saying by the new leader of the Labour Party. Indeed, if you could fuse the strengths of all four of them into one entity (many would say that is exactly what the Labour Party is supposed to be able to do- "by the strength of our common endeavour" and all that) you would have an excellent party leader and an even better PM. In this post I am seeking to "build my own Labour leader" from four component parts of the candidates we have available. Hopefully this way I can shed some light on an increasingly murky picture...

Component 1.) The eyelashes of Andy Burnham. Ed Miliband didn't just lose the election because of how he ate a bacon sandwich but it really didn't help. A party leader has to look good on television and they have to present themselves in a way that appears strong yet non-threatening to the public. I wish image wasn't important but it is and it makes a big difference to voters' perceptions of party leaders. Andy Burnham's dubious Kes/Brassed Off/Billy Elliot back story (you can't truly understand the day-to-day realities of a hard-working northern family unless you've cut your teeth at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge or served your time at the coalface as a special advisor to the secretary of state for culture, media and sport) and his polished, centred demeanour would certainly be an antidote to the gawkiness of Miliband or the "iron fist" of Brown. However, I still don't feel I know what there is behind the image or where he actually wants to take the party. I have a lingering sense that he is just saying whatever he thinks he needs to say to win and a vote for him would be a vote for nothing in particular. For this reason, at this stage in the race, I don't think I will be giving him my first preference vote.

Component 2.) The brain of Yvette Cooper. In terms of her prescription for Labour's development over the next few years, Yvette Cooper's views are those that most closely represent my own and I may yet end up voting for her as my first preference. I think she is the candidate whose position genuinely reflects the complexity of Labour's election defeat. With a poor turnout overall, a surge in support for UKIP and the SNP but also a solid showing for the Conservatives in middle England, she is the one candidate that understands the party must broaden rather than move. She has outlined throughout the hustings her view that Labour can't simply shift its narrow offer to appease its left or right wing, instead it must find the policies to embrace both and build an election-winning consensus. Her weakness in this contest has been her strength as a politician. Alex Salmond told the BBC's "This Week" programme shortly after the election that "the art of politics is not to lie", which is to say that by choosing their words carefully and ensuring they only commit to positions once they have become the settled will of their party, politicians can avoid getting caught out. The problem with Yvette Cooper in this particular election is that, because she is so skilled at this art, she appears to equivocate too much and, in an age when politicians are frequently criticised for "not saying what they mean" or "talking in soundbites," it means she doesn't appear to defend her (in my opinion, very appealing) position in this contest with the passion or decisiveness it deserves.

Component 3.) The voice of Jeremy Corbyn. For a committed champagne socialist such as myself, there is something wonderfully cathartic about the Jeremy Corbyn campaign but I'm far from sure that I actually want him to win. For the last few years we have heard Nigel Farage praised for being "plain-speaking" and "unconstrained by an out-of-touch Westminster elite." How refreshing to see a politician cast into the public eye now who speaks equally plainly, but in a way I broadly agree with. The prevailing consensus on austerity does need to be challenged, the way in which our utilities and railways are run does need to be reviewed (state ownership of these services is not a radical position; it is the norm across most of Europe) and Labour's commitment to mitigating inequality does need to be protected. I'm glad Corbyn has been part of the contest and I'm glad these discussions have been opened up but I also understand why so many in the party are concerned. Especially if Tom Watson is (as those ever-reliable polls suggest he will be) elected as deputy leader, the charges inevitably made by the press that Labour was being run by "dinosaurs" would eventually stick in the minds of voters in key marginal constituencies. I think there's every chance Corbyn's brand of straight-talking principled politics could actually increase Labour's share of the vote even in England but, under the First Past the Post system, that is not how the Tories will be defeated. It is seats that matter and it is hard to imagine Corbyn being the man to persuade the voters of Nuneaton, Peterborough or Northampton that it's time to start voting Labour again. That said, if Corbyn does win, it will be because none of the other candidates could persuade Labour supporters to back their position with the same conviction. And if they can't convince the party, I don't believe they could convince the electorate either.

Component 4.) The spine of Liz Kendall. She is not a Tory and she is not a traitor but I disagree with a lot of what Liz Kendall has said and the behaviour of some of her backers is utterly disgusting. Not satisfied with calling the MPS who nominated Jeremy Corbyn "morons" John McTernan, an advisor to Tony Blair during the era when he was hemorrhaging support, then called for Corbyn's immediate removal if he were to win. John Mann MP, meanwhile, is unwilling to wait that long and instead wants the leadership election halted now because his preferred candidate isn't winning. Of course, Tony Blair himself also called for Corbyn's supporters to have a "heart transplant". When you consider all of this, I look with some bafflement at Chuka Umunna's assertion that it is Liz Kendall's opponents who are behaving "like a petulant child." The irony is that my first thought, the morning after the election, was that Umunna himself looked like the obvious choice for Labour's next leader but he ruled himself out of the contest within days. Now these outbursts from people who should no better have left me tempted on numerous occasions to vote for Jeremy Corbyn just to give them what they deserve! The prescription of all these people seems to be the opposite of Corbyn's. Rather than ignoring the Conservative voters of middle England, they want to make them Labour's only target, pretending that the SNP and UKIP don't exist and ignoring the millions of people at the election who told canvassers that they simply "couldn't tell the difference" between the two main parties. Personally, my instinct is that attempting to recreate Tony Blair's victory exactly now could utterly destroy the party. If Labour agrees with most of the Tory narrative on austerity, welfare and inequality and tries to redefine itself on their terms I suspect the reaction of many Conservative voters in middle England will be "oh good, Labour have now understood that the Conservatives are right. I like Labour more and I'll carry on voting Conservative." In this climate, moving a narrow party right (Liz Kendall refuses to endorse even popular "left-wing" policies like re-nationalisation of the railways simply because they are "left-wing") could be even more catastrophic than moving a narrow party left. For that reason I will almost certainly be putting Liz Kendall fourth on my ballot slip but I do admire her tenacity in standing up for what she believes in and she has been absolutely right to deliver some difficult messages that not everyone in the party wants to hear. In particular, Kendall has spelt out more clearly than any of the other candidates the need for Labour to reach out beyond its core support, particularly to small business owners who, by pioneering enterprises that challenge the monopoly of large corporations, should be exactly the people the party wants on its side.

The last set of polling data had Jeremy Corbyn some way ahead of Yvette Cooper in second place but it didn't specify how second and third preferences would come into play. I imagine the majority of Liz Kendall's supporters will have Jeremy Corbyn in last place on their ballot paper and I imagine most of Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper's supporters will back each other before Corbyn. In that context the narrative being gleefully advanced by the right-wing media may not be entirely accurate but he does appear to be in the lead. My hope is that Yvette Cooper can find her voice in the final weeks of the campaign, take the fight to both narrow wings of the party and show us that she can make her case (which, as I said, is the one I think makes most sense in this day and age) with clarity, energy and passion. If she doesn't Jeremy Corbyn will win and it will be pointless for the rest of the party to blame anyone but themselves. 

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The Reunited Kingdom

Forget left and right. Division was the theme of the 2015 General Election and it will be the theme of this parliament. The next election will be won by the party who can heal it. That party can and should be Labour.

First, the bad news. The Conservatives have won a parliamentary majority on the basis of a manifesto most Labour, Green, Liberal Democrat and SNP supporters find genuinely quite scary. No matter how much we rant about the influence of the press barons or what we may rightly or wrongly perceive as a refusal by the electorate to properly scrutinise what they were being offered, this government is in power and they are going to implement their programme. Yes, I hope a strong team of shadow ministers will challenge and scrutinise them all the way to 2020, I hope we can return a Labour Mayor in London next May and I hope Labour can play a decisive role in determining the UK’s future relationship with Europe.  Ultimately, however, the political ground of the next five years is lost and those of us who wanted Labour to win have no choice but to fall back and prepare to fight for our lives in 2020. We can probably no longer prevent the abolition of the Human Rights Act, the £12billion of welfare cuts or the attacks on our schools, our social housing stock or our capacity to care for the vulnerable and the elderly. If your politics are anything like mine you may find this thought thoroughly depressing. And the scale of that gulf in perception between us and those who voted Conservative is just one of the many fault lines along which our country has become so dangerously divided, but it is by no means the most serious.

The SNP won 56 seats in the UK parliament
There is, of course, the great divide between two nations and two nationalisms in England and Scotland following the electoral success of the SNP and the not incomparable success (in votes if not in seats) of UKIP in England. The divide between rich and poor is bigger than at any other time in modern British history, there are tensions between the public and private sectors and there is a divide between pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics which will dominate many of our news headlines over the next year or two. Worse still perhaps, there is an increasing feeling of resentment by the young towards the old as a result of soaring property prices, rip-off rents and a general feeling that the younger generation will not enjoy opportunities comparable to those taken for granted by the generations before.

Labour: too left-wing for England and
too right-wing for Scotland?
All of this, we’re told, is bad news for Labour. This is how the story goes: at this election we were too left-wing for Middle England, too right-wing for Scotland and simply not racist enough for those simple-minded Northern folk who abandoned us for UKIP. Whichever direction we move in, we alienate one or more of these essential groups of voters and therefore the Labour Party is pretty much stuffed. In ten short days, this analysis of Labour’s defeat in the General Election, sagely advanced by every respected political commentator of both the left and right, appears to have been broadly accepted by pretty much everyone else. But it is simplistic, complacent, patronising nonsense and the only genuine reason why Labour can’t win and win convincingly in 2020 is if we succumb to woolly thinking like this.

The mistake manifests itself in the form of a diagram of the political spectrum that almost everyone who, like me, follows politics almost like a spectator sport, seems to have unintentionally created in their mind. The diagram looks like this:

Look, there’s Tony Blair, three election victories to his name, sitting proudly in the centre of the British political divide. There’s David Cameron on the right, but slightly closer to the centre than Ed Miliband who is, in turn, outflanked to the left by Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National party. Ed Miliband’s mistake was not, however, in deciding to position himself and his party in that particular spot. His mistake was in positioning himself in any one spot on this scale at all.
Triple election winner Tony Blair
When we say Tony Blair occupied the political centre-ground, we mean he introduced policies that appealed to a wide range of different people with left-wing and right-wing views. The introduction of the minimum wage, for example, was a genuinely radical “left-wing” measure whereas the use of PFI contracts to drive public service reform is usually characterised as “right-wing”. The same could be said of David Cameron. His welfare agenda is characterised as a right-wing policy (even though it enjoys considerable popularity with significant numbers of traditional Labour supporters) whereas the introduction of equal marriage is more likely to be associated with the left. A popular oversimplification espoused by the Blairite zealots within Labour is that parties who win elections win because they place themselves in a central position on the scale above. In reality they win because they create a policy platform that addresses a wide range of different people’s concerns: not just people on zero-hours contracts or people who use food banks, not just bankers and business leaders, not just small-business owners, not just public-sector workers. They choose policies that will appeal to a wide range of society’s different types of grouping and community and then they tie them together with a loose but resonant narrative that in turn becomes the political zeitgeist going into an election.
Nigel Farage's UKIP clothed a right-wing stance on
immigration with left-wing economic policies. 
UKIP have done this masterfully over the past few years. Starting out as the bastard child of the swivel-eyed Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party, they have reinvented themselves as the party of the disgruntled working man. Coupling right-wing policies on immigration with some significantly more progressive economic policies, such as taking everyone on the minimum wage out of tax altogether, they managed to come second in many of Labour’s northern heartlands at the election. In places like Derby, UKIP split the Labour vote so substantially that the Tories were able to win the seat. To liberal-minded North London Guardian-readers like myself, UKIP are easily dismissed a loathsome, divisive organisation well to the right of the Conservatives…yet that cannot be how everyone in Derby perceives them. A successful party advances its core agenda by surrounding it with a wider raft of policies that causes a much wider audience to sit up and take notice.
David Cameron campaigned on his "long-term
economic plan."
It has to be said that, in the recent election, the Conservatives didn’t do this particularly well either. Many parts of society were appalled by their message and even many who voted for them did so as the “lesser of two evils”. The narrowness of the Conservative message and its grim focus on the “long-term economic plan” was rejected in London, Scotland and most of Wales and the North of England but, in the absence of a sufficiently inspiring Labour alternative, it was enough. The importance of “finishing the job” begun in the previous parliament became the resonant narrative.
If we’re going to revise that simplistic diagram that has taken root in our mind’s eye, we at least need to take into account the variety of different policy positions each party takes on different issues. In fact it should look more like this:

A majority of the public are in favour of renationalising
the railways
Now it’s easier to see Labour’s problem. As we move on from this election, the answer is neither to move all those red spots right nor to move them all left. The answer is to spread them out and construct an offer that covers the full spectrum of left-wing concerns just as the SNP did so successfully in this election, but which also intrudes into the territory occupied by the Tories. This could be through a revised Labour offer to small business owners and young professionals looking to own their own home. Making reassuring noises to business would actually give the new Labour leader room to be more radical at the other end. There is significant evidence of public support for policies like renationalisation ofthe railways, substantial social housing building projects and revision of our drug laws. In these areas Ed Miliband’s offer was not radical enough for many “progressive” voters, and nor could it afford to be since there was so little to counterbalance such policies for more (small c) conservative voters who would be indifferent to that sort of radicalism.
Ed Miliband: more vocal about inequality than his predecessors
am not for a moment suggesting Labour should be “selling out” its ideals in favour of some sort of pick-and-mix, focus-grouped policy party bag. Indeed, even Tony Blair has admitted that Ed Miliband was right to be more vocal than his immediate Labour predecessors about the unacceptable levels of inequality in this country. On that issue (which has always defined what Labour is all about) Miliband showed courage and strength to stick to his guns. Where I believe he was wrong was in seeming to focus so much on that part of his policy platform at the expense of everything else. We expect Labour to tackle inequality but we also expect them to champion public transport, housing and the environment. We expect them to counteract the doom-mongering of the Tories with an optimistic vision of a better society for all our children to grow up in, whoever we are and wherever we live.
Michael Gove, now the Justice Secretary, was the
architect of the Tories' education policy.
 This fatal flaw in Labour’s approach has been staring me in the face at work every day for five years but, since the polls told such a misleading story right up until 7th May, it’s only with retrospect that I’ve realised the absurdity of it. As a primary school deputy head, I was bewildered throughout the last parliament at the lack of a coherent Labour message on what should be one of their flagship topics: education. For five years, the Tories have been busy creating a two-tier education system with virtually no opposition at all either from their coalition partners (remember the Lib Dems? Their earlier albums were much stronger) or from Labour. While their own children attend private schools or exclusive academies de-coupled from Local Authority control and the narrow new national curriculum (enforced by even narrower test syllabuses starting at the age of 7), Tory ministers have been busy converting the schools attended by the majority of children into soulless exam factories modelled on those found in many of the Pacific Rim nations. Music, sport, drama and art have become the preserve of the privileged while the rest of the population are brow-beaten, tested and straight-jacketed to create a numerate, literate and compliant workforce totally unable to challenge the supremacy of those who have had the benefit of a real education and a real childhood. If the Labour Party are looking to reconnect with the ambitions of Middle England's middle-class families, there could be no better place to start than by resurrecting Blair’s notorious old mantra: education, education, education. Instead there has barely been a murmur of opposition to Michael Gove’s redefinition of what British schooling is about other than a bit of hand-wringing and eye-rolling about unqualified teachers and class sizes. When Labour were making so little effort to speak to me as a public servant in North London, I can only imagine how alienating they must have seemed to a postal worker from Peterborough, a butcher from Bedford or a carpenter from Carlisle.
Labour pledged additional borrowing for investment
in infrastructure
Labour’s economic strategy, on the other hand, was actually very compelling, though by the time it was unveiled most voters were no longer willing to listen. The basic idea was that they would borrow but only to invest. That is to say, any money they borrowed would be spent on construction and infrastructure projects that, either by directly raising revenue or by helping to grow the economy, would end up generating net income for the exchequer.  If this point had been made earlier in the parliament and its implications spelled out for more people in greater detail, Labour might have gone into the election with a more resonant message.
But they didn’t. So Labour’s job at the next election is not to pontificate at every opportunity about how it sides with the poor against the rich but nor is it to compromise one single line of its commitment to challenging inequality. Instead it must reject the divides that have opened in recent years and articulate a message of unity. Labour must stand for investment in infrastructure powered by construction workers, delivery drivers, architects, caterers, solicitors, estate agents, distribution centre managers, fork lift truck operatives, receptionists, retailers and electricians. It must stand for strong public services that help everyone in all walks of life to achieve their goals assisted by teachers, social workers, doctors, nurses, civil servants, care workers, librarians, ambulance drivers, council administrators, refuse collectors, police officers, firefighters and the armed forces. It must promise a Britain where the public and private realms work together, not against one another but shoulder-to-shoulder. It must promise a Britain where an inspiring education and the promise of degrees and apprenticeships mean young people believe they’re part of a common endeavour that gives them real hope of a brighter future. It must promise optimism and it must promise unity and, whoever you are, it must promise hope.
So my plea to everyone who yearns for a fairer, kinder society is to unite. We are many and we always will be. If we give in to hatred and resentment in response to this election defeat, then we succumb to the very fear and prejudice that we claim to defy. Instead, join together and start telling a more cheerful story than the one which this government is offering. Start talking about a Britain in which everyone is welcome and everyone plays their part. You can wait a lifetime for a party and party leader to come along who will agree precisely with what you think on every single issue. Or we can join together now, acknowledge that what unites us is greater than what divides us, put the bitterness and acrimony of the last five years behind us and make an open invitation to everyone in all walks of life to come and join the Reunited Kingdom. It's an essential job and it's a job I believe only Labour can do.