Friday, 22 May 2015

Why Labour need to resist the urge to go blue

Only minutes after Ed Miliband resigned two weeks ago, the traditional period of party soul searching was declared. Almost immediately there were comments and commentaries saying Labour lost because of the EdStone, because of UKIP, because of fear of the SNP or the ghost of Tony Blair. There have been points and counterpoints (our own can be found here but I want to focus on specific school of thought that is likely to become more prominent in the near future and that is Blue Labour.

Blue Labour is the brainchild of Maurice Glasman, a former adviser to Ed Miliband. The central tenet of Blue Labour is a return to a 19th century vision of socialism and refocusing the Labour Party as a social movement and not a political party. It focuses heavily on localism, workers co-operatives, and the involvement of religious organisations and community groups in the business of government.

I disagree with some of the core principles of Blue Labour for a few reasons. Localism, a focus on co-operatives and faith groups, empowering people in their communities and giving them more of a say in government are certainly policies I support. In fact, a more regional and local focus in politics will be essential moving forwards. However, behind this misty eyed reverence for 19th century Romanticism lies an at best misguided, or at worst dangerously outdated, view of what Labour’s future should be.

My first criticism of Blue Labour is that high minded and academic conference rhetoric about empowering communities and localism are fascinating and produce great material for Guardian articles and politics blog posts, but what do they mean in application? Blue Labour has at its heart a mistrust of the metropolitan liberalism, which is viewed as leading the party away from its core white working class support. I am worried that Blue Labour is likely to be translated into UKIP baiting rhetoric on immigration and social justice. It is worth noting that Glasman was forced to resign as an adviser after making comments that he would support a total ban on immigration.

The urge to become UKIP-lite or nice-UKIP in order to regain the support of working class Northerners must be resisted by the Labour Party as it only plays into the hands of UKIP. It is also somewhat patronising to assume that the best way to win back Northern working class voters is to adopt a tougher stance on immigration. Policies on employment, housing, the NHS and regionalism are more likely to win back lost support than simply assuming that everyone north of Watford is against immigration. On a more practical note, socially liberal metropolitans are the only supporters Labour seems to have left and it cannot afford to alienate them.

The small c conservatism at the heart of Blue Labour comes with their desire to return to a 19th century vision of socialism in small communities. This might seem appealing if you are a white, hetero-sexual male but it is unappealing to women, ethnic minorities or members of the LQBTQ community. It is telling that when Glasman mentioned the local movements Labour should connect with he did not mention grassroots feminist campaigns - the most successful grass roots left wing movement of recent years. Labour must not adopt a strategy of empowering local groups at the expense of hard won liberties. Rowenna Davis put it better than me in an open letter she wrote critical of Blue Labour:

“liberal rights and the role of the state has done a lot to help women – and many other groups for that matter – break out of community bonds that have often been oppressive, unaccountable and male dominated” – Rowenna Davis in The Guardian

Undoubtedly Labour has lost the support of a lot of people, especially Northern working class people, and steps need to be done to rectify this if the party is ever going to win a majority in the future. However a small c conservative approach will alienate women, ethnic minorities and members of the LGTBQ communities as well as their allies many of which are Northern, white and working class but still recognise the importance of solidarity with other oppressed groups. Solidarity is a core value of Labour and small c conservatism is opposed to solidarity.

The white working class Northerners have been alienated by Labour because of the Blair year's complete acceptance of globalisation and governments' failure to counter its negative side effects. Namely that those who are "uncompetitive" in the new globalised economy are pushed to the side. It these people who now vote UKIP, but they are fuelled by a dislike of globalisation and the professional political class which support it more than Farage's anti-immigration rhetoric.

This anti-globalisation has taken the form of UKIP style English nationalism, across the border in Scotland those who are opposed to globalisation are supporting the SNP and Scottish nationalism. Blue Labour overlooks the rise of nationalism, it says nothing about the votes for the Tories which were votes against Scottish nationalism and their influence in a future Labour government.

The rise in English and Scottish nationalism is the same as any other nationalist rising in that it has the three common principles that all nationalist believe:

1. They believe they are different from other nationalist risings.

2. They believe they are restoring a natural order or the way things should be.

3. They believe they are settling a historic injustice.

This is why we have Scottish nationalism directed against London and English nationalism directed against Brussels, but there is no East Midlands nationalism directed against London because it does not seem natural that the East Midlands should govern itself or that the East Midlands is particularly oppressed by London.

Rising nationalism is troubling and I am worried that Blue Labour would do nothing to stop this but would instead support it as a means of connecting with “ordinary people”. Labour should challenge our assumptions and not accept them out of a fear of looking like a “metropolitan elite”. The other reason why I am opposed to nationalism (both English and Scottish) is because there are things we need from a large government from, both in London and in Brussels. In short there is an argument for statism.

Statism is unpopular with traditional liberals and small c conservatives for ideological reasons, and with everyone else because the state is dogged with scandals and is viewed as inefficient. Leaving aside the point that an efficient state is a tyrannical one, localism is seen as the solution to both the problems of individual liberty and efficiency that statism throws up.

Localism and supporting community groups are great ideas, especially when central government is dominated by unpopular “grey suits”, but there are things we need a national government for. Organising transport planning cannot be done at a local level, for example, everyone agrees we need motorways but no one wants to live near them so a localised government would never be able to build them. It sounds callous, but there are some things which need to be imposed on us by a central government and most of these are unglamorous but essential things like power stations and sewage works.

Another thing we need imposed on us is taxes. If communities set their own taxes no one will pay tax as every community will think the burden should fall elsewhere. Also local communities have no power to stand up to large corporations, Blue Labour may draw inspiration from the socialism of the 19th century, but we did not have trans-national corporations in the same way back then, and certainly they did not involve themselves with every aspect of people’s lives.

This is why our modern globalised economy needs institutions like the EU and other trans-national organisations to reign in the power of multinational companies, ensure they pay their taxes and that the money is used to benefit those who are disproportionately affected by globalisation. Clearly there are problems with governments not doing this, especially the EU, but they are the only group capable of doing it and Blue Labour threatens to shrink the central government to the point where it cannot carry out this role. A strong central government can stand up to big companies, that is my argument for statism.

It is obvious that Labour needs to change direction to be in government again and radical new ideas are needed but as a party we need to look to future and not the past. Our new vision cannot be based on what the Labour was like in the 19th century, it has to respond to 20th century changes, globalisation, the need for statism and the civil liberties movement. Statist socialists like myself are as bad as Blue Labour for idealising the past, but we need to think about how socialism will operate in the 21st century and not be overcome by a misty eyed view of the past. The Labour party needs new ideas, informed by the past but not made of it.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The Party’s Over

The party’s over, and along with it, our hopes for a more progressive Britain. As we clear away the emptied bottles and filled ashtrays, as the dust settles, there’s one opinion we’re going to hear a lot of: Labour lost because they were too left-wing. From the usual pundits, naturally, but from within the Labour Party as well. You can almost hear the steely scrape of Blairite knives being sharpened, (like here, for example).

It’ll come as no surprise that Red Train disagrees with this reactionary interpretation. But, as Labour’s right-wing is so fond of reminding us, the party hasn’t won an election without Tony Blair since 1974. So how the hell can we justify our position?

Looking back, Labour has had a rather bi-polar election campaign, lurching about from issue to issue almost as much as the Tories - at least until the latter lighted upon the electoral goldmine of fear of the SNP. Attacked by the Tories from their right, they’ve also had to fend off – not very effectively, as it turns out – attacks from the left in Scotland. The party’s response to the rise of the SNP was to put arch-Blairite Jim Murphy in charge, for the party to be quickly and memorably dismissed as ‘red Tories’.

The SNP’s success cannot be easily dismissed as just about nationalism. Of the thousands who voted SNP on Thursday, not all of them can have voted for independence a few months ago. This was about Scotland, having been presented with a viable alternative, thoroughly rejecting the neo-liberal consensus of the main parties. Who’s to say that England, given a genuine alternative, might not have done the same? As discussed here before, the Green Party are neither consistently left-wing enough, nor diverse enough, to be that real alternative. The SNP, conversely, look and sound like their own voters.

My argument for a left-wing Labour leadership actually has very little to do with left-wing ideology, and more to do with my interpretation of the political game itself. If you’ve watched any news channel in the past few weeks, I’ll bet that I know what’s the most common criticism of party politics you’ve heard: the three main parties are so similar, you can’t even fit a cigarette paper between them. You hear it equally from people on both extremes. From potential Green Party voters. From potential UKIP voters. From potential non-voters. And it isn’t popular. It turns people off not only the Labour Party, but off party politics in general.

To me, the answer is simple. It isn’t about starting a new left-wing movement, or supporting a different party like the Greens or whoever. It’s about the whole flawed premise under which all of the main parties struggle along: electoral success is to be found exclusively in chasing the centre ground. In painstakingly ascertaining the public’s opinion, and then reflecting it back at them.

Problem is, it isn’t true. The public find themselves surrounded by yes men, and they hate it. Like third-world politicians who universally claim to be ‘for the poor’, without ever explaining what this might entail, focus-group chasing only angers and disengages people. Labour believe it hook, line and sinker, of course, and have done for ages. It’s this, rather than any policy decision, that kept the wind out of Miliband’s sails. Having taken a tiny, tentative step to the left under his tenure, the party cowers in fear of what the tabloids might have to say about it, backing off from any opportunity to actually put forward his views. We’re left, then, with the mostly unchallenged discourse about ‘Red Ed’, a dangerous radical who wants to take Britain back to the seventies.

In contrast, I think that the job of political parties shouldn’t be to obsess over what the electorate thinks, and then tell them what they already know. It ought to be to present a compelling vision of what kind of society they think we should live in – and then to do their best to convince us that it’s the right one. To finish every speech with ‘...well, this is what we think. If you agree with it, vote for us. If you don’t, vote for someone else.’ Now, how refreshing would that be? Moaning about the Miliband leadership’s lurch to the left completely misses the point. Like socialism itself, it’s impossible to say how this would have actually turned out, because it hasn’t really been tried yet.

When they haven’t been doing their best to sound exactly like each other, the parties have been shouldering each other out of the way to tell us how their plans have been meticulously costed, independently audited, checked and double checked by the economists. I don’t think I can imagine anything more depressing. Of course it’s important to be able to prove that you can afford to do what you say you’re going to do. But running a national economy isn’t as precisely similar to managing a household budget as the Tories would like you to think.

In buying into this narrative, Labour have confused vision with strategy. Vision ought to be about what kind of society you’re aiming for. Strategy is merely about how you’ll realise it. If you cannot convince people about the destination you want to set out for, it’s irrelevant whether you can persuade them about the cost of the train fare. Strategy without an underpinning vision, a moral vision, is surely redundant in an organisation like Labour.

Finally, to respond to a point that’s already been made a mind-numbing amount of times since Ed MIliband stepped down. Yes, it’s true that Labour won three elections under a right-wing, ‘business-friendly’ leadership from 1997 onwards. But – leaving aside the fact that a terrier clutching a Labour Party rosette between its teeth could have beaten John Major in ‘97 – the context’s completely different these days.

Back then, there was the feel-good factor. Life felt pretty good if you were in the middle of the economic sandwich; perhaps most voters were indeed, to paraphrase a New Labour grandee, intensely relaxed about people getting super-rich as long as things were basically OK for everyone else too. But times have changed so much since then it hurts. The ideology-free politics of those retrospectively golden, easy years simply cannot be applied to today. The electorate may not have wanted whatever it was that they believed Ed Miliband was offering. But what they also certainly don’t want is three parties who sound almost exactly the same as each other.

UKIP, as much as the SNP, are the manifest lesson in this. Abhorrent though I find their opinions, I do at least respect them for this: they became popular, to the extent of becoming decisively the third party in English politics, by speaking their mind, rather than blustering around trying to convert the latest opinion poll results into policies. More than any of the three main parties, UKIP were successful in projecting a compelling vision of what they wanted Britain to be, and what it shouldn’t be.

Now, doing this is relatively easy for parties of the right, because they prey upon peoples’ worst instincts. On their prejudices, their worries, their fears. To do this as a left-wing party is much more difficult, because it involves appealing instead to peoples’ better instincts. To the inherent belief in fairness, compassion and equality of opportunity that most people hold dear. To make this vision listened to is going to be difficult, for sure. But when it comes to the conversation about the future of the Labour Party we’ll inevitably soon be having, I can’t think of anything more worthwhile.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Why I am voting for Labour

Before I talk about voting Labour in 2015, I want to talk about the people who voted Tory in 2010, specifically the people who voted Tory because of David Cameron. Many people voted Tory because they believed in Cameron's plan to modernise the Tory Party, to move it away from its nasty party image, and his pro-business agenda. However some of these showed their support for Cameron by voting for a right-wing Eurosceptic local Tory candidate. These backbench MPs have dragged the Tory party to the right and now threaten to take Britain out of the EU. Whatever you think about the EU, most people agree leaving would be bad for business. Pro-business Cameron supporters damaged the policies they believed in by supporting right wing Eurosceptic candidates. The lesson from this? Who your local candidate is matters.

Many of the above people did not know they were voting against what the wanted. Most likely they had not researched what their local Tory candidate actually stood for. They agreed with Cameron so they voted Tory. Ironically these people would have been better off voting Lib Dem.

This election campaign has focused on the party leaders and personality politics but what your local party candidates believe is just as important. They say that all politics is local; this is especially true with coalition governments. Supporters of a Labour/SNP or Tory/Lib Dem coalition may bring these governments down by voting for the rebellious backbench MPs whose rebellions will eventually unravel a coalition agreement.

I want to avoid this by focusing on who my local candidates are. I want a local MP I can trust to represent the values I believe in. This is why I am voting Labour: because of my local MP Stella Creasy.

The Labour party may be struggling to find its ideology but Creasy certainly is not. She is a socialist, a feminist and a supporter of the co-operative movement. She has spearheaded campaigns against predatory payday loans companies and the harassment of women online. She is committed to defending the NHS and repealing the hated Health and Social Care act. All this I am very much in favour of.

Creasy is an MP who is passionate about Walthamstow, which sounds cheesy but it is true. She supports the campaign for our local EMD cinema and she frequently tweets about Walthamstow. She shows the same interest for the area as the people who live here, which is the first time I can say that about my local MP. Creasy is someone who represents all of Walthamstow, not just the well off gentrifiers who have moved to the area recently but also the less well off who have lived in the area for longer.

To a degree, the national campaign is a factory in my decision to vote Labour. Under Ed Miliband Labour have moved further left than they were in the Blair/Brown years and I want to reward this move with my electoral support. This is mainly because if Miliband does not become the Prime Minister, this slight shift the left will be blamed and the next Labour leader will move the party to the right. Perhaps further to the right than Blair. As a Labour socialist, this must be opposed. It is difficult for me to argue for moving the Labour party to the left if I do not vote for them when they do move to the left, even if it is only a small drift in that direction.

One thing which is inspiring about the Labour party are some of the younger MPs and candidates who have solid left wing credentials. Not just Creasy, another example is Cat Smith, standing in Lancaster and Fleetwood, who is an outspoken feminist. It is inspiring to see Labour’s radical roots alive in this younger generation.

The Green Party do have a lot of passion and a lot of good policies, which is encouraging to a radical lefty like myself, however they are untested in government and I am wary of falling into the same trap I did with the Lib Dems in 2010. The Greens are also not as diverse as Labour and a true left wing movement for change would be made up of the people it is trying to help.

I am willing to trust Labour once more to be a decent party of the left. This is mainly because of new generation of left-wing MPs emerging like Stella Creasy, but also because I know that Labour can be a powerful force for making society better for all and not just the wealthy. I want to continue supporting Labour because I have faith in the roots from which the party came, I have faith in what the party has stood for during most of its life and I have that they can help the poor and disenfranchised.

Our society is dangerously divided and dangerously unequal. We blame the poor and immigrants for the problems caused by the wealthy. However Labour activists and Labour candidates are standing for the most needy in our society and they need our electoral support to be able to help the poor. In the worlds of Billy Bragg’s Between The Wars, “ I kept the faith, and I kept voting, not for the iron fist, but for the helping hand.” Don't let me down, Labour. I am trusting you.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Are the Green Party playing the game or changing the game?

The Green Party are likely to do better in this coming general election than the have done in previous general elections. Despite this the campaigning itself is not going especially well for them. Natalie Bennett’s media gaffes aside, the general theme of the current political debate is not around climate change or social welfare, which is where the Greens are strongest. The debate is focused on economic competence and deficit reductions, where they’re weak.

Elections are not won or lost based on how good your answer to the voters’ questions are; they are won when the voters ask the questions to which you have the best answer. The election is a battle to change the topic of political conversation in a party's favour, something the Green Party is not doing especially well. This is mainly because they are a small party and have less sympathetic friends in the media, but it is also because they are not connecting with enough voters.

When I mentioned this in discussion with a friend and Green Party supporter, she replied that what I described was "playing the game" and that the appeal of the Green Party is that they do not behave like the other parties, made up of career politicians and spin doctors. The Greens want to change the game of politics to something more accessible to ordinary people. This got me thinking, are the Green Party playing the game of politics or changing the game? Are they different from the other, more established parties, or they are just politicians of a different stripe?

The Green Party certainly do not make arguments like any other party. They are the only party openly challenging the neo-liberal consensus that has gripped politics for the last 30 years. They argue for benefits, in favour of immigration and for taxing the wealthy. The Labour Party do not openly endorse these policies, and the cabal of right-wing parties are completely against them. In terms of policy the Greens do seem to be genuinely different from the other Westminster parties – the regional independence parties are a different case.

Politics is all about establishing a narrative, the Tories have done this very effectively with their “Labour's borrowing caused the financial crisis and austerity will restore prosperity” narrative. The other Westminster parties are following this narrative to a greater or lesser degree; Labour have promised spending cuts if they are returned to government. The Greens are the main Westminster party that is challenging this narrative. However the new narrative laid out by the Green Party is a more radical change to politics.

The Green Party are challenging all of our established ideas on benefits, on spending and even on economic growth itself. They are the only Westminster Party making a strong case for benefits as a safety net for the less fortunate. They are the only Westminster Party making a case for public spending as the driving engine of not only prosperity but also equality. They are also challenging the idea of economic growth as a goal in itself and attempting to assert a new narrative about preserving our natural environment.

Such a radical change to our political narrative cannot be considered to be "playing the game". Labour are playing the game by signing up to the Tories narrative on spending cuts and deficit reeducation. The Greens are refusing to play this game and are attempting to assert a radical new narrative of their own.

A new narrative could also be considered “playing the game of politics”, changing the game would involve being a party that is different to the Westminster parties. A party made up of people disenfranchised from the game of politics. Westminster politics is dominated by white, male, middle-class, career politicians from public schools. A party changing the game would ne the opposite of this.

So how diverse are the Greens? On the surface they are very diverse they have a female leader and their only MP is a woman, which is certainly different from the other four Westminster parties. However their candidates, activists and supporters are mainly white and mainly middle class, this is true even of the their leader. One of the key problems the Green Party face is lack of working class support despite a raft of policies aimed at those with low incomes. They are incapable of shaking their middle-class Guardian reading, organic yogurt eating image and this is partly because of their lack of diversity from an ethnic and class point of view.

This Guardian video shows how undiverse in terms of race and class the Green Party activists in Bristol West are. It also shows the problems they are having in reaching out to voters who are not white and middle class. The Greens maybe trying to change the game of politics but from many disenfranchised voters point of view, they look the other Westminster parties.

Despite the Green Party’s lack of diversity they do have a lot of policies that could benefit disenfranchised voters abandoned by other parties. However the Greens still have a problem connecting with the people who stand the most to benefit from their policies. One reason for this is that they couched their radical vision in the language the other parties use. Bennett is quick to use phrases such as “fully costed”; to disenfranchised voters this makes them look the same as the other parties. The Greens have a different way of doing politics, but by using the language of the other Westminster parties they are not changing the game of politics and not differentiating themselves enough to disenfranchised voters.

The Green Party called for a peaceful revolution against the established order of Westminster but their revolution looks very white and middle class. From my point of view, a real revolution against the political establishment would both represent and appeal to the poor, the disenfranchised and members of ethic and social minorities.

The Greens are not popular enough with the poor and ethnic monitories which are overlooked by the other Westminster Parties to be changing the game of politics, nor do they adequately represent these groups - which would be necessary to change the game of politics.

The Green Party may not be leading a revolution, but they are challenging the established political narrative, which is a welcome change. The Greens are not changing the game of politics but they are playing it in a new and interesting way.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

TV Debate

I watched the TV debate as a potential swing voter. I am currently leaning towards voting Labour but the party’s proposed policies are a lot less radical than my own views. I feel a lot of sympathy for the Greens, who are genuinely passionate about radical change to our society. I watched the debates wanting to be convinced by Ed Miliband, but strangely found Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru and Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP more convincing.

Wood passionately defended the NHS in a section where she talked about how it had begun in Wales and needed to be funded by general taxation - something I very much believe in. Despite Miliband's best attempts to gain ground on the NHS, he failed to sound as passionate about the institution as Wood did. Wood also mentioned the skill gap which immigration fills, particular in the NHS, when the main party leaders were falling over themselves trying to appeal to the slightly xenophobic middle-Englander, something I found especially repugnant.

Wood received the first applause of the evening when she stood up to Nigel Farage’s scapegoating of immigrants and scaremongering over HIV. I cheered when she told Farage that "he should be ashamed of himself" whilst defending immigration and the role immigrants play in society. I wanted Miliband to stand up to the embodiment of self-entitled English bigotry, but all he managed were a few hesitant points about peoples’ concerns, which did nothing to win me over and nothing to convince swing voters that Labour is "tough on immigration". The fact that Labour want to appear tough on immigration disappointments me, they should not be allowing the right to dominate this issue so much as it only benefits the Conservatives and UKIP, and Labour will never be viewed as credible on this issue.

Sturgeon also voiced her opposition to austerity and talked about the need to raise government spending to invest and create jobs. I was disappointed that Miliband is determined to emphasise that a Labour government would cut more from the budget, during a time when unemployment is still high, there is underinvestment in infrastructure, and inequality is very significant. Five years of Tory austerity has made us a harsher, meaner, less equal, more money focused society, governed by small-minded bean counters who would propagate suffering if it was cost effective.

We have come through the first recession in history where the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer. The vast accumulation of wealth and opportunity by a small fraction of society threatens the re-emergence of the class system and has broken the mantra that hard work is rewarded; this concept remains only as a political sound-bite. The Labour Party should be whole-heartedly opposed to this, however it fell to Sturgeon to defend the role of government spending.

We can fight inequality and self-interest through the government spending Sturgeon defended, through the NHS, through investing in homes, through welfare spending. Miliband appears to prefer a holding pattern above the point where the Victorian social structure would return, instead of defending the role of government. This is presumably so that a future Tory government can push us over the edge. I was disappointed by the Labour leader, but encouraged by the SNP leader’s arguments.

Sturgeon stood up to Cameron's plans for future welfare cuts. A Labour leader I could be proud of would have stood up to Cameron's plans to balance the nation's books on the back of the poorest whilst cutting taxes for the rich, but he did not. Most likely out of fear of offending the above mentioned small minded bean counters who will never think Labour are credible economically anyway. Labour do best electorally when they capture a spirit of optimism about the future, not trepidation.

I do not seem to be along in thinking that Sturgeon did well that night, she topped 3 out of 4 snap polls asking who had won the debate, one third of Labour and Lib Dem voters support Sturgeon and the most Googled phrase after the debate was whether a non-resident of Scotland can vote SNP. Clearly a significant section of the public, even the English public, agree with Sturgeon’s arguments, so why is Labour so keen to be out flanked on the left by Plaid and the SNP? Is it to gain the vote of the cynical self-interested centrist? I would prefer a Labour Party that appeals to our aspirations (as the SNP does and has Labour did when it won big in the past) rather than a Labour party that appeals to cynical self-interest. I am disappointed by how uninspiring Miliband's arguments are and those of Wood and Sturgeon pleasantly surprised me.

Miliband did have some good moments during the debate. I agree with his dismissal of trickle-down economics, which has only succeeded in creating one of the most unequal societies in history – even if he demonstrated little belief in an alternative. I also agreed with Miliband when he talked about the pressures on private renters and the exploitation of immigrants. These were good moments when he showed some genuine compassion.

Miliband was certainly not the biggest loser of the last debate. That was Farage who at best came across as a broken record and at worst as a dripping xenophobic imbecile, which will no doubt please his core demographic but is unlikely to sway anyone else. Miliband did well but failed to inspire me the way that Wood and Sturgeon did. I want a Labour leader who leads on left wing issues and inspires people to vote for them with a positive vision of a fairer, more equal future. I saw this from Wood and Sturgeon; I did not see this from Miliband.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Green Surge

The Green Party has been in the news, but this time it isn’t because they had a surge in membership or been invited to the leaders’ debates, it is because their policies were actually being discussed. On LBC they had a chance to put their housing policy directly to voters and the outcome was not good. Faced with some simple questions on financing their leader Natalie Bennett completely collapsed. The phrase train wreck does not begin to cover how badly it went - you can hear the interview and read the transcript here.

The story quickly became about how bad her performance was, which is a shame as we do urgently need more council homes to alleviate pressure on the private housing market, and no other party has seriously suggesting tackling the problem. Bennett also made a good point about how much of the housing benefit bill ends up in the pockets of private landlords, something I have been pointing out for years. The lack of a living wage means that benefits are used to subsidise both private landlords and the low wage offered by employers. If you are concerned about the cost of housing benefits, then look at who it really goes to: buy-to-let landlords, and not low income workers.

Increasing the stock of council housing, coupled with other Green policies like a living wage, would reduce the housing benefit bill, move vulnerable people out of the private rented sector, increase standards of living for the lowest earners, reduce inflationary pressure on rents in the private housing market and provide more home security for those in need.

All of these benefits, which would help the Greens electorally, were overlooked because the story became about Bennett’s performance. The Greens do need to get better at pitching themselves, or else they will not be able to expand their electoral support. The fact that their leader fell completely apart during an interview that was not particularly difficult or pressing is not encouraging this close to the election. It looked like they were not expecting their policies to come under the same level of scrutiny that every other party gets.

Those posters asking "the boys" what they are afraid of look childishly overconfident now, especially as one of the “boys” Bennett will be up against is Nicola Sturgeon who is a very good debater and will make short work on Bennett if she cannot answer simple questions about figures without tripping over her own feet. That's without taking into account Farage's bolshie style of public oratory, Cameron and Clegg who have done this before and Miliband who has been able to held his own against Cameron during PMQs. The Greens could end up looking like amateurs playing in the professional party's league.

This home spun, ordinary-people, lack of professionalism is part of the draw of the Greens - up until the point when it stops them appealing to ordinary people who have little tolerance of politicians with a lack of media savvy– case in point, look at what happened to Gordon Brown five years ago.

This, and other, recent media gaffs are symptoms of a wider problem with the Green Party - and I write this as someone who is tempted to vote Green in the general election. The Greens appeared to have assumed that everyone would support their policies if they knew what they were. However this is because there policies have had little scrutiny outside the ranks of their supporters or people who are likely to vote for them. Appealing to a wide cross section of the general public is more difficult, and does not necessarily require changing of policies but it does involve expressing them properly.

Expressing them properly does not mean becoming the slick PR machine that the Tories are or raising the huge ground swell of volunteers that Labour have, it means framing their policies as the answers to the questions voters are asking and, where possible, changing the national debate to questions to which the Green Party are the answer. UKIP, remember, have only become relevant by making sure every question on every issue can be answered with ‘Europe’, ‘immigration’ or ‘political correctness’ – whatever you think about their worldview, they’re good at it, and they’ve been successful in getting these issues onto the agenda, largely against the wishes of the established parties.

It also means having a consistent message on policy areas such as the economy, health, housing, etc. Which are areas where it is possible to make gains from Labour among left learning people. They are doing some of this already, which is why left learning people like myself are inclined to vote for them, but they need to be better at it.

They also have to phrase their policies in a way which voters can clearly understand what the party as a whole stands for. A recent example, pointed out to me, is that the Greens want to legalise membership of groups like IS (who want to destroy our society) but will make criminals of small business owners who do not want women to breast feed on their premises. I think these are both good policies but when put together they seem very contradictory and are likely to alienate people who would otherwise support the Greens.

As a country we need the Greens to do well, they are the only party that is challenging the status quo - with the possible exception of the SNP. From safe guarding the environment, to protecting the NHS, to ending the scapegoating of those on benefits and immigrants, there are many reasons to support the Green Party, but the Greens themselves need to start acting more professionally or this Green Surge will not translate into electoral results.

The main piece of advice I would give to the Greens are to stop focusing on the details like the minutia of how policies will be funded and leave that the other grey suited politicians fighting it out to be accountant-in-chief. By focusing on the cost of policies the Greens are playing the other party’s game, a game they cannot win. A sustainable future and a fairer society is not something which can be subjected to cost benefit analysis.

To appeal to voters the Greens need a simple and consistent narrative of hope and change. They need to be the breath of fresh air that will clear away the old establishment and vested interesting and usher in a fairer, cleaner, greener future. They need a message of hope and change and not one of small-minded bean counting. This will engage people who want change and believe that the Greens can deliver it.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

It's the economy stupid

Economic performance makes or breaks a re-election campaign. In the absence of a scandal (and sometimes in spite of one) strong economic performance will guarantee a government’s re-election. The poor economic situation allowed Bill Clinton to beat incumbent George H. W. Bush in 1992, and then 4 years later the buoyant economic circumstances allowed Clinton to overcome the Monica Lewinski scandal to be re-elected. Economic performance allowed Blair to win three elections and Brown to win zero. Now with a general election almost upon us, the economy is centre stage again.

Economic "leadership" is seen as a winning trait in a perspective Prime minister and with inequality up, wages down, homes too expensive for most people to afford, trouble in the Euro-zone and another financial crash on the horizon there has never been more need for economic leadership.

However, economic leadership is not what we are being offered. Cameron offers more of the same from a future Tory government, more protection for big business, more cuts to public services, more blaming of the poor for all our economic problems. I doubt a future Tory government will raise wages, living standards or reduce inequality. This is mainly because they refuse to legislate to achieve these aims; Cameron prefers to ask business leaders nicely to do these things, so that they can easily ignore their social responsibilities.

Defining economic success is half of the election battle. Cameron would prefer it to be economic growth figures, as GDP is up and the economy is larger now than it was before the crash. Labour are viewed as weak on growth, mainly as a hangover from the 2010 general election, when Cameron was able to blame complex global macro-economic problems on the simple fact that Labour overspent. Labour would prefer economic success to be defined as growth in wages and living standards, which have remained flat since the Tories took office.

In terms of policy, Labour offer some economic leadership. Miliband's plan is to promote responsible capitalism, which is neo-liberalism with government intervention to prevent the worst inequalities and abuses. However, this is not leadership or putting forward an alternative to the dominant economic narrative of neo-liberalism. This is a slightly different variant on the narrative Thatcher established in the 1980s and has essentially remained unchallenged since.

Labour's plan is to exploit peoples’ fear. Fear that things will get worse, fear that wages will not rise, fear that ordinary people will not feel the recovery, fear that your children will be worse off than you are. This is a bad move as Labour achieved large landslides when they captured a spirit of optimism. This was the case in 1945 with the welfare state, in 1966 with the “white heat of technology” and in 1997 with New Labour. Appealing to our aspirations works better for Labour, not our fears.

Politicians from the main parties are appealing to our fears instead of our aspirations; this has led to voters being frightened about the future and unsure who offers hope. UKIP aims to exploit voters’ fear that immigration and the EU will drag our economy under, Lib Dems that the two main parties will unleash widespread suffering without them as a coalition partner, Greens that our economy will be wrecked by environmental disasters, the SNP that a collapsing English economy will sink Scotland as well.

If all economic indicators were improving then the government would be doing better in opinion polls. Let us not forgot that the Tories led us into a double-dip, almost triple-dip, recession. The economy is growing but people who are not already very wealthy are not feeling better off, this is a failure of economic policy.

If Labour were offering an alternative narrative then they would be doing better in the polls as well. By playing along to the Tory's narrative of austerity, instead of offering one of their own, they are playing a losing game. 2010 was not long ago and fighting the debates from that election again will not bring about a Labour victory. The lack of a counter narrative is playing into the hands of the Tories.

No one offers any vision or leadership on the economy, only fear. Economic fear has gripped us as a nation despite the return of growth. We are frightened about unemployment, uncertainty, anti-business agendas, rabid capitalism, wages, inflation, deflation, the cost of the NHS, the lack of an NHS, the cost of immigration, too many pensioners, house prices falling, houses being too expensive, anti-EU rhetoric, pro-EU rhetoric and our shadows.

The climate of fear and uncertainty that surrounds our economic future is a product of the lack of leadership from politicians on the economy. Politician of all stripes would rather let the market and unaccountable large companies control our economic future, and the result has been inequality, economic instability and a public who worries that control of the economy is out of their hands. This has led to a view that ordinary's people's concerns are not taken into account when economic decisions are made and now most people are frightened about their future.

In the 1970s economic uncertainty, fear about the future and belief that the economy was out of our control led to strong leadership from Margret Thatcher and a radical new vision for our economy. Now those views have been allowed to run to their logical conclusion and people are concerned about the state of the economy. Again we need bold leadership from politicians and a new economic narrative to change direction and regain people's faith in the economy and their own futures.

We need a new economic narrative to replace the neo-liberal mantra, which has led us to this place of fear and confusion. We need a narrative that makes us optimistic about our future and feel in control our own economic wellbeing, not at the whim of free-market forces or governments that looks after the financial futures of large companies instead of its own citizens.

The fact that both main parties have the same economic narrative is the reason for the political deadlock. As the economy is the most important issue to most voters, presenting a new popular economic narrative would be a huge vote winner for a party that did so. It was an adviser of Clinton's who coined the phrase "it's the economy, stupid" to describe how election campaigns turn on this issue. Both main parties should bear this in mind when they are considering repeating the tired economic clich├ęs voters are disillusioned with, or showing some leadership on this issue and presenting a new narrative.