Wednesday, 29 July 2015

It isn’t the ‘80s anymore

It isn’t the ‘80s any more. I can tell because I’m not writing this whilst listening to a New Order LP and chain-smoking Player’s No. 6, not to mention that I’m doing so on a home computer connected to the internet. Oh, and politics might have changed a bit, as well. With that in mind, the endless comparisons of Jeremy Corbyn to ‘unelectable’ former Labour leader Michael Foot are tiresome and irrelevant.

If we must keep banging on about Labour’s catastrophic 1983 election defeat, at least let’s dispense with the selective memory. Yes, Labour were badly beaten and yes, alright, they did so whilst standing on a left-wing manifesto (albeit a manifesto which was, in some ways, a logical progression from the victorious 1945 one). But there was a lot more at play than that. Thatcher – deeply unpopular in Ghost-Town Britain only a couple of years before – was riding high on patriotic euphoria following the Falklands War. Not only that, but the Lab-SDP split had just occurred, with the breakaway party taking a chunk of Labour votes with them , Labour were lucky to avoid coming third in ’83.

Both of these things, I’d argue, had at least as much to do with the defeat as their manifesto. Whilst the Tories may yet be lucky enough to fight an opposition riven by an SDP-style split in 2020, they’re unlikely – given their currently tiny majority – to have the good fortune of a quick, victorious, popular war to draw votes.

Granted, Foot was an imperfect leader who had the misfortune to take the helm in the choppiest of waters. But he was also a kind, intelligent man, who was treated with appalling cruelty by the press (Milliband’s bacon sandwich episode doesn’t even compare). In the early ‘80s, the newspapers were at the height of their opinion-forming powers. But there’s no way they wield that level of influence now, in the era of the internet and 24-hour news. Social media in particular – for all its faults, not least its tendency to act as an echo chamber for opinions you already hold – has arguably democratised the way we consume news. Never again will that copy of The Sun someone left in the canteen be your sole source of current affairs coverage for the day, however casually you consume your news.

The other factor that’s changed since then is that inequality has increased along many lines, not least generationally. The apathy of the current generation of young people is being killed off in death by a thousand cuts. Already disadvantaged compared to their parents by university tuition fees (thanks to Blair), ridiculous housing costs and fewer job opportunities, they’re now – like a bloke who’s just been beaten up having his wallet nicked by a passing mugger – being deprived the same benefits and minimum wage that over-25s get. Is it any surprise that a major part of the surge in support for Corbyn is amongst young people?

Every generation can be said to live, to some degree, in the shadow of the previous one (or two). But it’s especially acute for the current generation of young people. Structurally disadvantaged and discriminated against in so many ways, they’re also being collectively told by their elders not to bother with all that idealistic, let’s change the world stuff. We already tried it, say the older generation, and take it from us, it doesn’t work. We learned to get with the programme (and create New Labour). Now, I don’t know about you, but that isn’t the most inspiring message to me. And if there’s one thing no-one likes, it’s being told to grow up and get real (least of all by Tony Blair).

These young people have no emotional affinity with the Labour Party. And why should they? The focus-group driven New Labour, with its slick PR, seemed to actively discourage a grass-roots movement. Whereas some old lefties may lament for a time when this wasn’t the case, today’s young people have never known it any different. They don’t give a toss what happened in the ‘80s. But they are getting fired up by Corbyn’s message. This is also why the accusations of ‘80s Militant Tendendy-style ‘entryism’ – an organised attempt to infiltrate, and change, the party - don’t ring true. If ‘entryism’ (if we must call it that) is indeed happening, in that people are signing up for the first time in order to vote Corbyn. I’d argue it’s primarily people who were previously too disengaged with mainstream parties to want to be involved.

Admittedly, some of Corbyn’s policies (unilateral nuclear disarmament, for example) have always been divisive, both within and outside of the Labour Party. But how have we been hoodwinked into believing that universal free education – in place for decades in Britain prior to Blair - is a radical, hard-left position? I think a lot of young people are wondering why, and finding the political establishment wanting.

The tuition fees issue is symptomatic, because the terms of the debate surrounding it all too often both contribute to, and reflect, the rampant, selfish individualism so prevalent and unchallenged in society. Someone has to pay for universities, the Right argue, and it’ll either have to be those who go – or those who don’t go. Whatever happened to the idea, once held on the right as well as the left, that wide access to higher education was beneficial to society as a whole?

Look at Corbyn, by contrast, and the way he talks to the public on the assumption that people care about how society gets on in general, care about other people. The other candidates talk to the public as separate, self-interested individuals, and play to their assumed individual aspirations for themselves. This, for me, is one of the clearest dividing lines between Corbyn and the other candidates, who indirectly seem to take for granted the Thatcherite myth that there really is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. Only Corbyn is seriously challenging this. Without his presence in the race, there’d barely even be a debate.

On a personal note, after the last election, I’d begun to come to terms with the fact that a more compassionate, kinder politics simply wasn’t what most people wanted. But the unexpected rising tide of support for Corbyn – especially amongst young people, who’ve been given the message that the Left is beaten, marginalised and irrelevant their whole lives – gives me hope. Meanwhile, the Blairites tell us that electing Corbyn would consign Labour to merely becomming a protest movement to oppose Tory cuts. Well, as the old joke goes, it would be a start though, wouldn’t it? Perhaps it’s the necessary first step on the long road toward towards becoming relevant again, and rebuilding a movement that people can connect with and relate to.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Why Labour needs Corbyn to start winning again

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will have guessed that I am backing Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader. I am on the left of Labour Party and his views most accurate represent my own. I think it is time that Labour put forward a genuine left-wing alternative in mainstream politics.

At first the rest of the Labour Party dismissed Corbyn as either a dinosaur or a crank. Now there is a chance he might do well in the ballot, perhaps even coming top in terms of first preferences. Now the concerned voices are being raised in the Guardian, the Independent and by former leader Tony Blair, that he is too leftwing to win a general election.

The argument that these articles and others are putting forward is that choosing Corbyn as a leader would be a mistake as he would drive the centre of the electorate into the hands of the Tories. All these articles take it as read that Labour lost this year's general election because the platform they stood on was too leftwing. Personally I don’t think that a manifesto that contains austerity and controls on immigration can be described as especially leftwing. The commentators overlook this and claim that the election was an endorsement for the centre right.

These articles are quick to point out southern English voters did not trust Labour with the economy and thus voted Conservative. Although they never mention the voters Labour lost to the SNP, or the Greens, who stood on an anti-austerity platform similar to Corbyn's. These articles also seem to claim wide electoral support for austerity. The truth is that the voters were given little alternative to austerity, which is not endorsing it. Many chose to reject austerity, especially in Scotland, and these are the voters that Corbyn can win back to the Labour Party.

Articles which proclaim the unelectability of Corbyn also do not mention all the people who did not vote at all in the last election. The convergence of the two main parties on a narrower and narrower section of the centre have alienated many people whose views lie outside this thin section. Many of these people are poor or from monitories and are completely disaffected by mainstream politics. In the last election 34% of people did not vote, enough to profoundly alter the result. This represents a huge pool of voters a candidate of principle, whom a candidate outside the narrow centre ground of politics like Corbyn could appeal to.

Many voters are put off Labour because the party is seen as indistinguishable from the Tories, a problem which is not helped by Labour failing to stand up to Tory welfare cuts, their use of anti-immigration rhetoric and their support for austerity. As a Labour Party supporter I find it hard to see how an Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall government would be different from a David Cameron or George Osborne government is any meaningful way. Undoing Ed Miliband’s minuscule step to the left will not win back all the voters who are put off by how similar to the two main parties are. Having Corbyn as a leader will differentiate Labour, there is no point being an opposition if you are not seen as different.

The articles also fail to mention the significant UKIP vote in the general election. On paper Corbyn is unlikely to appeal to UKIP voters, however UKIP were effective at stealing voters from Labour with rhetoric against the "Westminster bubble". Burnham or Yvette Cooper will not be able to connect to the voters alienated by how distant Westminster politics appears from their lives. Corbyn talks with conviction about the problems people are facing in their lives. He is also clearly outside the Westminster bubble and not another cardboard cut out politician. Corbyn's politics are very different to that of UKIP, but he could win over people who distrust mainstream politicians.

The reason Labour lost the election was because they tried to retake the centre ground of politics which the Tories occupy. Supporting austerity, benefit cuts and controls on immigration do not make you appealing to centre voters if they Tories are offering the same thing and are already in a position to deliver it. The centre does not like change, so if they are satisfied with their government it will not change.

The Tories are unlikely to lose this centre ground over the next five years and it is clear that Labour needs to change direction if they want to win in 2020. Running the same campaign as Miliband ran with some minor adjustments, as Burnham will most likely do, will result in another Tory victory.

Corbyn offers a genuine change in direction and thus a chance of winning in 2020. Kendall does offer a change of direction but it is towards the centre which the Tories will most likely keep control off. If Labour want to win then they need to start thinking about the voters they lost to the SNP and the Greens and the people who voted UKIP or did not vote at all because of their dissatisfaction with mainstream politics.

The chance of Corbyn winning in 2020 is small, but the chances of Burnham, Cooper or Kendall winning in 2020 are also small. There is not a winning candidate amongst the alternatives to Corbyn; this is why he is ahead in the polls. If Labour cannot win then they should at least offer a genuine alternative to the Tories, which will attract more support for the future.

A change of direction towards those disaffected by Labour offers the only chance of success in 2020 or post 2020. Aiming for the centre again will only repeat the 2015 outcome. Labour need to broaden their appeal to those put off mainstream politics, the marginalised and the angry; Corbyn can achieve this. It may not be what the centre of the party wants but if we listen to the centre of the party we will lose in 2020.

One of the reasons I support Corbyn is the way the political establishment has their knickers in a twist over him. They are shocked to see a leftwing politician speaking his mind and applled that people are actually agreeing with him. It makes them question all the certainties the Labour establishment thinks it learned in the 2015 defeat. It shows that 2015 was not the triumph of the centre right. The Labour establishment and their centrism have not been threatened like this in a long time. They genuinely frightened that the left of the party might get what they want and might be popular, all those compromises of Blair will be for nothing.

Chasing the centre, following austerity, being bland, none of this will help Labour win in 2020. Being different will help Labour win, reaching out to new people will help Labour win, showing they care will help. Not being like every other party will help. Corbyn can do all of these things; Corbyn can expand the appeal of the Labour Patrty. The other leadership candidates cannot. That is why we need Corbyn as a party leader if we are going to start winning again.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Mayor of London

The rein of the tyrant King Lol Bojo is coming to an end. There was abuse hurled at taxi drivers. There was millions wasted on the dangleway. There was an endorsement for Gordon Gekko. There was a plan to immortalise him with his own airport on and island and. Next year it all comes to an end, which means we have to choose a new mayor.

This leads me to ask: what do we want from a Mayor of London? We want someone who will focus on the issues that are specific to London. Someone who will keep alive that magic, which makes it special, and not package it up and selling it off to Qatari princes. Someone who will look after ordinary Londoners and protect them from the demands that the central government places on the capital, from supporting the Olympics to being the national cash cow.

It will surprise no one that I think that having a Labour Mayor is in the best interests of the people of London. Yet, what should the Mayor actually do, from a left-wing point of view? I can sum it up four key policy areas. Tackle the housing crisis by bring down house prices for ordinary people. Prevent the exploitation of huge numbers private renters. Tackle the rising problem of homelessness, up 37% in the last year. Improve the capital's council housing stock. Fortunately Labour has six candidates putting themselves forward for job and took the opportunity to evaluate their ideas against these four policy areas.

The main issues in London is lack of affordable housing and all six Labour candidates are infavour of more affordable housing, but how is it best to go about getting more affordable housing? Many developers use the viability studies, engaged in before a site is developed, to avoid their legal rights to build affordable homes. Sadiq Khan and Christian Wolmar are in favour of tightening the rules around viability studies to do achieve this. Diane Abbot has raised the issue of what does affordable actually means, £250,000 for a one bedroom flat maybe affordable by London's standards but it is still out of the reach of most ordinary people.

David Lammy has advocated building homes on the green belt, pointing out that 1 million homes could be build on 3.6% of the green belt. He claims that there is not enough space to build decent homes on brownfield sites (unless we build a lot of high rises) and that we need industrial land for business to prosper. The other candidates oppose building on the green belt and Khan was the most vocal in his regard, calling them the "lungs of London".

In my opinion we do need to build on the green belt if we are build the houses that London needs in the volume it needs and at a reasonable size. Tackling the way developers use viability studies to get around their obligation to building affordable homes is essential but we need genuinely affordable homes and not relatively affordable homes. We also need to build a lot more council homes, as well as affordable homes, to relieve the pressure of the private rental market.

The private rental marketing in London is dangerously inflated. Rents are astronomical and people are forced to live in tiny squalid homes not fit for animals. Abbot and Tessa Jowell advocate the establishment of a London wide landlord enforcement team to tackle landlords who are exploitative. Lammy went a step further to argue for expanding the landlord licensing scheme that, currently operates in, Newham across the rest of the capital.

Introducing a rent control scheme, similar to those in Paris, New York and Berlin was endorses by Abbot and Wolmar would help stop the inflation of the private rental market. Wolmar also favours greater stability in private tenure and more protection for private renting tenants. Khan endorses the idea of a London living rent, pegging rents to a third of the London mean salary.

I believe that the landlord enforcement team is a good idea and more rights are needed for private renting tenants. Rent controls are also a very good idea for stopping the run away growth in rents.

The candidates agreed that the main issue facing the homeless was the criminalisation of rough sleeping in some London boroughs. They also agreed that Tory cuts to homeless shelters and housing services was partly to blame. However no candidate identified the key issue that one of the fastest rising cause of homelessness is eviction from a private renting property. The issue of homelessness is linked to the issue of housing, namely that high house prices and the depletion of the council housing stock has placed too much pressure on the private renting sector.

The lack of social housing in London is a key issue affecting the least fortunate. Too many vulnerable people are being pushed into a private renting sector that cannot accommodate their needs. We need more social housing, which all the candidates are committed to. However what we do with the existing stock of social housing is key, particular the buildings that are deliberated. Jowell is invafour of regenerating estates and letting the original tenants move back into them. Lammy was concerned that estate generation is often a cover for social cleansing as poor people are driven out of valuable property areas so that rents can be raised. Garth Thomas has argued that any estate regeneration should be consented to by the current tenants.

For me the key issue is quality of social housing. Social housing has to be a vial option for people who need it. That means it must exist in sufficient quality and quantity. A lot of the estates that are pulled down as part of regeneration programs are better quality and have larger homes than what is being put up to replace them. A lot these builds need care and repair instead of being demolished. A lot of it does not meet current tastes in ascetics but that does not prevent them being quality social housing - or indeed beautiful in their individual way.

Other issues, outside these four I have discussed are important. Transport is a key issue and Thomas has suggested flattening fairs for the outer London transport zones is a good way to tackle the problem of rising transport fees. He also wants devolution to London. Although I am sure all the candidates would like the Mayor to have more powers, I feel that Thomas's plan is not achievable. Regional devolution is a great idea, not just for London, but the Mayoral debate needs to be on the issues the Mayor can affect.

London primarily voted Labour in general election and we now have an excellent opportunity to take back city hall from the Tories. The journey that led the Tories to a majority government started when Bojo became Mayor of London. What is important that Labour chooses the right candidate, who has ideas that can help improve lives once he or she is Mayor. After looking at their ideas I feel that the right man for the job is Christian Wolmar. However we will have to wait and see who the party chooses.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The devil takes the hindmost

It was 2am, I was drunk and in the back of a taxi heading home after a punk gig. None of these things are particularly remarkable. While I ranted, probably incoherently, to the driver I remember saying:

"What is important is that we look after the people who need help, the least fortunate in society."

"Yeah, you're right." The taxi driver agreed. "But what's also important is that we stop helping those who don’t need it."

My memory of this exchange is hazy but I got the sense that the driver agreed with me in the need for there to be a safety net but that she was concerned that is was currently being taken advantage of. Benefit fraud is not something that especially concerns me. The tiny amount claimed fraudulently is nothing compared to the amount of tax that is avoided and it seems ridiculous that we are so concerned about one and not about the other. Social obligations seem to only apply to the poor.

Benefit reforms will end the “something-for-nothing culture,” Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has claimed in the past. Variations on this statement are constantly being uttered by top Tory politicians. It is a popular line, no one believes that the government you should give you something for nothing, especially in the age of austerity. The Tories claim they are ending the “something-for-nothing culture”, then they cut benefits. Then later they are claim the same again and cut further. It is as if the “something-for-nothing culture” cannot be ended while we still have a welfare state.

July's emergency budget is likely to contain £12bn in further cuts to the Duncan Smith’s DWP budget which means further cuts to welfare. As always the justification for this is that it will encourage the workshy to finally turn off daytime TV, get off their sofa and find a job. Apparently, the billion in welfare cuts so far have not achieved this but this time it will be different.

There is only one slight flaw in this argument, most people claiming benefits are in work. This will not encourage the lazy to be productive, but will instead punish millions of cleaners, check out staff, call centre workers and other low earners. Some of the country’s hardest grafters are about to be punished for having a low paid job.

The reason why most people claiming benefits are in work is that wages are low and the cost of living is high. This is mainly due to our lack of regulation of the energy, housing and labour market. State subsidies are needed to top up millions of low paid workers' basic income. How will cutting benefits encourages these people to reduce their energy bills, be paid more or have cheaper housing remains to be explained.

David Cameron publicly admitted that low wages and high cost of living are the main cause for the large benefits bill. Cameron identified the problem but his motivation in solving it is to reduce the national debt and not to raise living standards for low earners. He said we need to move from a "low wage, high tax, high welfare society to a higher wage, low tax, low welfare society".

Cameron's proposed solution will not improve the situations for those with low wages. His plan is to remove the tax subsidies which top up low earners income but not put any pressure on employers to pay more. There is no plan to raise wages, for example by raising the minimum wage to be the living wage. In fact is removal of the tax subsides means that the target living wage will increase, as wages will have to rise to cover the income lost from benefit cuts. No one expects a Tory government to put pressure on big business to pay their staff more.

I want to know the logic behind how this will make people better off? How will cutting tax subsidies to low earners when wages are stagnant and the cost of living is high help anyone? This cut will hurt Cameron's precious “hard working families” the most. The people in work, on low wages, who work hard but still do not earn a living wage. These people will be made worse off.

Many of these people want to earn more but cannot because wage growth is low and because underemployment is a major economic barrier. Many of these people want to work more hours to raise their income but the jobs are not available for them to go it. They are trapped in low paying jobs and now their living standards will fall. The only effect this will have is to drive some people to work harder and be exploited more by their employers who are still not paying them a living wage.

This is the devil takes the hindmost approach to capitalism, taking away the safety net from those who fall behind. These reforms serve only to punish people in low paid work for being in low paid work. It is a policy conceived by the wealthy and it says: “I am okay. What is the problem? Surely anyone can earn more money if they want to”. The simple truth is that many people cannot earn more and now will be worse off.

The sad thing is that these reforms will be greeted with cheers in the press and in the streets. Many of those who support the cuts will be on low wages because the Tories are once again bringing an end to the “something-for-nothing culture” of benefits and encouraging people to work harder.

If we are worried about the benefits bill then we need higher wages and lower cost of living. We needs laws to ensure employees pay their staff a living wage. We need better regulation of the energy and private property market to reduce costs of living for those on low wages. We also need to understand that people claiming benefits are not getting “something-for-nothing” they are exercising a human right. They need compassion, not jibes.

Many people still believe that welfare is paid to the people who can work but simply choose not to and that the only solution is to cut benefits so that these people will finally get off the sofa and get a job. It will be a difficult journey to change this attitude but we can start by focusing on one basic fact: most people claiming benefits are already in work. If we approach the benefits bill from this angle then then government's policy makes no sense and will clearly hurt the working poor.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Diet is political

I can tell that you are rolling your eyes already, but bear with me. This is not an article about being vegan or animal rights, although those are interesting topics of discussion. This is also not an article about the fact that women's diets are surveyed and commented on more than men's, although this is clearly a political issue. This is an article about the way we talk about diet and what assumptions underpin these discussions.

Diet has a lot in common with politics; there are competing, sometimes radically different, ideologies fighting for dominance. What you eat says a lot about how you view yourself and the rest of the world. Not caring about diet is itself a statement about diet.

The people who hold the political opinion that we would be better off if we raised or lowered taxes want their views to be more widely adopted. Similarly people who endorse one diet or another have an agenda, an opinion they think would improve humanity if it were more widely adopted.

People who endorse one diet or another wish to alter the behaviour of others to help them and to help all of society, which in itself is noble. However there is an air of judgement when we talk about other people's food that is often cloaked by claiming that we want to help them. We do not make the same judgements when talking about other aspects of a person's behaviour, or health. Diet seems to be special in this regard. It is seen as more socially acceptable to comment on someone's diet than their appearance or body odour.

There is an expressly political aspect to the way we talk about diet. This arises when we talk about the obese using too much of the NHS’s resources. Using more than your fair share of health resources is seen as very bad in an age when we have a limited NHS - mainly due to Tory austerity. This overlooks the fact that not everyone is issued with the same set amount of health care, some people will need more and some will need less and the taxes of the people who need less will pay for the healthcare of the people who need more. This is the only fair way to run a health service. Despite this we still talk about the obese selfishly using more of the NHS than they are entitled to and there is even talk of the obese people being denied basic rights of free healthcare.

The way we talk about the obese as a society is similar to the way we talk about benefit claimants. Most people agree with the idea of benefits but a lot of people say that those on benefits are taking more than they deserve because of lifestyle choices. The same air of judgement is used in both cases. We talk of unemployment as if it is a lifestyle choice, much the same way we talk about obesity as if it is a lifestyle choice. Underpinning both these beliefs is the cold view that other people are lazy and society should not allow laziness to go unpunished.

If you hold this view that a lifestyle choice has entitled someone else to a greater share of society's scarce resources then this changes how you view other people’s behaviour. It changes other people's personal choices into social issues, which is what makes people feel entitled to comment someone else's diet. Talking about someone’s body odour is rude, but talking about someone’s diet is good for all of society because it could prevent someone from getting more of their fair share of scarce resources.

This is the language of the deserving and undeserving poor, and is linked in the mind of those who believe that bad diet and unemployment are solely the preserve of lazy poor people. People with this opinion generally do not mind rich obese people, it is poor obese people they object to. Incidentally unemployment is seen as a lifestyle choice based around laziness whereas wealth is not seen as a different lifestyle choice but a superior state of being, which we should all aspire too. This is the same way we talk about being thin and healthy.

This view is based on a classist assumptions that poor people are lazy and do not look after themselves. They sit around, not working, drinking lager, eating badly and then expect all this to be paid for by other people's hard work. In reality most benefits are claimed by people with jobs but on low wages. People who work hard jobs and are raising a family on a low income do not always have the time and the money to eat well. Bad diet and benefits are often not a factor of being lazy but of working hard and being paid little money.

Rather than saying that the poor should change their behaviour, we need to change their circumstances through better wages and working conditions. It is not enough for middle class people to say "I eat well so what is the problem?" This is based on the assumptions that poor people are lazy and it refuses to acknowledge the difficult circumstances other people face. It implies that poor people need to be forced to change, for the good of themselves, whereas in reality society needs to change to better accommodate the needs of the less well off.

Telling someone what you think their diet should be assumes that everyone else is in control of their own lives the way that a wealthy middle class person is. A lot of people are not, they are dependent on irregular work, they depend on benefits due to their low wages and increasingly they are dependent on the charity of others because of benefit cuts. If we want to make a positive difference in the lives of the less well off, and thus the health of the nation, then we need higher wages, more benefits and greater taxes on the well off to pay for all of this.

This is not an argument I hear people making very often, an argument for more government and more welfare, but it is the best solution to the problems caused by people not being on control of their lives – problems like obesity.

If, when we talk about other people’s diet, we really have their best interests at heart then we need to make an argument for better living standards and not just changing an individual's behaviour. Diet is political and my politics is about helping the less well-off and not just assuming they are lazy.

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.