Monday, 7 September 2015

The migrant crisis requires leadership not pragmatism

"The voters are wrong, and what is required is a louder exposition of their wrongness." These were the sarcastic words written by Rafael Behr in his Guardian column and were meant to mock the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and their desire for Labour to challenge the prevailing Tory wisdom on the economy, welfare and immigration. The success of Corbyn has uncovered a divide in politics, especially left wing politics, between those who believe that we should give the voters what they want and those who want to change what voters want.

The former has been the dominant approach to politics from the mid-80s onwards. It took over when we abandoned grand narratives of changing society and settled for governments which make minor adjustments. The established economic doctrines have not been challenged since Thatcher and a cynical following of the established narrative has been embraced in order for left wing politicians to be "electable". The fact that other than Blair, all of these electable Labour platforms have failed to win elections is usually overlooked when arguing that Labour should give the voters what they want.

This cynical acceptance of right wing arguments is nothing short of tacit support for the establishment, but it is often packaged as being realistic or pragmatic. The pragmatists' argument usually goes thusly: "It's not that I am cynically pro-establishment or have a complete lack of will to change the status quo I am invested in, I am just being realistic about what we can achieve with politics being the way they are". This is the attitude which has allowed neo-liberalism to go unchallenged for over 30 years.

This acceptance of a timidly pragmatic approach to politics has dramatically reduced our belief in what politics can accomplish. The majority of the fault for this needs to be laid at the feet of spineless politicians who are more concerned by what spin doctors have to say than what people need. We now think that politics cannot change society or achieve great things, however we are still faced with enormous challenges that require radical solutions and not timidity. Climate change, growing inequality and decreasing social mobility are long term trends which need a radical solution. In the short term, a situation which right now needs a radical solution is the European migration crisis.

Tackling the crisis requires politicians to have vision and leadership, and at times it will mean telling the voters when they are wrong. Most people in the last election voted for a party which offered some form of controls on immigration; a pragmatist would say this shows there is no electoral will for helping migrants despite any obligations we may feel to those in need. The migrant crisis is an issue where we need politicians to tell the voters and the public what they may not want to hear want to hear. Right now the photographs from Turkey may have increased sympathy for the migrants, but helping these people in dire need will mean leadership from politicians in the long run, when the issue fades from the headlines and when it is not politically advantageous to appear sympathetic to migrants.

We need our leaders to show courage and fly in the face of public opinion if that opinion is against helping people who are suffering. We need politicians to give an exposition of voters wrongness. Little has been done to challenge the anti-immigration rhetoric and the public perception of immigrants is at an all time low. This has led to a humanitarian crisis across Europe from Greece to Italy, from Hungary to Calais. There is a lot of suffering by people who have lost their homes, their livelihoods and even their families. No one can deny the plight of these poor people the victims of war, failed states and totalitarian regimes. Political will is against helping these people because of this pragmatic acceptance that helping migrants is a vote loser.

We have a duty to help these poor people as we are able to help them. They are not asking for much, food, shelter, a place to work that is free from war and tyranny. This is not a lot and involves us giving up so little of our vast wealth to help some of the world's most unfortunate people. We also have a duty to help them as we caused their suffering. Through attacking Iraq and Libya we created the chaos which groups like ISIS have exploited to seize power, groups which many of these people are fleeing.

We are also responsible through our inability to help in the people who live under totalitarian regimes or in war zones like Eritrea and Syria. Our governments show huge ability to influence poorer nations when we want something from them (usually natural resources) but when it comes to helping the world's least fortunate people we shake our heads and say there is nothing to be done. Our inability to solve these problems has brought the victims of war and tyranny to our doorstep and we are obliged to help them here if we cannot help them in their country of origin.

It may be unpopular with small minded little Englanders, who thinks our duty of care extends as far as providing a fertile ground for business to prosper but goes no further - conveniently these people are often business owners and live in prosperous communities - but we need to stand up to these voters and give an exposition of their wrongness. The pragmatists will dislike this but because it requires challenging people's opinions (including opinions they are sympathetic to) but we need to stand up to the pragmatists as well. The migration crisis is a case when the voters are wrong and giving the voters what they want will lead to more suffering.

The pragmatists' arguments collapses when confronted with any situation where taking the easiest route out is not an opinion. On the issue of welfare these pragmatists get what they want a lot, because it is easier to cut benefits (or to allow the Tories to cut benefits if you support Labour) than to challenge the prevailing opinion on welfare. In regards to the migrant crisis, the pragmatists do not have a solution because there is no solution that involves giving the voters what they already want. The pragmatists' solution is to ignore the problem so that it goes away. This will clearly not work.

The reason why the pragmatists do not have a solution is because the solution is leadership and challenging the prevailing opinion. The time and the case for radical leadership has never been greater as we are faced with great challenges. Not just international problems like the migrant crisis or climate change, but the problems of the UK require radical leadership to tackle them. How do we rebalance our economy away from London? How do we provide a reasonable standard living for people across the entire country when even middle class jobs are threatened by automation? How do we care for the growing percentage of old people? How do we share the benefits of technological advancement? These are not problems with easy or pragmatic solutions. To face these challenges we need radical leadership, the challenges are great but I am confident that together we can rise to them.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Corbyn train wreck

Something which no one anticipated has happened – there has been a major shake up in the Labour leadership contest, and it looks likely that Jeremy Corbyn will win a landslide victory. This has come as a shock to everyone, including Corbyn himself, but on some level it was inevitable. The surge in support for the Greens, the SNP and UKIP over the last parliament shows that voters are fed up with carefully-tailored, spin-doctor-managed politicians who talk a lot and say nothing of value.

Corbyn's success is partly because the other Labour leadership candidates are all so hopeless. However, Corbyn's success is also partly because he has a narrative that members have engaged with, a narrative that Labour can return to its traditional socialist values rather than drift to the right.

Having a successful narrative is essential to politics. Labour lost the election because the electorate did not trust them with the economy. This could be more accurately phrased as the electorate bought the Conservatives’ narrative that Labour over-spending caused the recession and the Tories are sorting the problem out. This is why, despite Labour's spending lock and commitment to austerity, voters still felt they were not economically credible.

Corbyn has given the party hope that politics can change society for the better. His narrative of what is wrong with the country has engaged people with Labour politics on a scale not seen since the halcyon days of Blair. I greatly admire the way in which Corbyn has engaged so many people alienated by politics in general and the Labour Party in particular.

Corbyn's narrative is a radical departure from what senior Labour Party figures have been saying for a long time, and it conflicts directly with the narrative which both the Blarities and the Conservatives are putting forward as to why Labour lost the general election. This is one reason why so many Labour bigwigs have lined up to warn party members not to support him in the leadership election.

A narrative of a return to socialist values speaks to a lot of people about what they think is wrong with society – namely, that there is too much focus on wealth creation and not enough on inequality, and there is too much privatisation driven by ideology and not enough public ownership. It appeals to people who think there are too many benefit cuts and too much blaming the poor for being poor. We are becoming a less caring, meaner and more selfish society under the Tory government, and a narrative that is counter to this is engaging many people.

Corbyn is the only candidate saying we should not blame all of our social problems on immigrants and benefit claimants. Corbyn is the only candidate saying we need to tackle our environmental problems and invest in infrastructure. Corbyn’s narrative is based on values Labour should remember and that the Blarities have tried their hardest to forget. It is a narrative that has changed the leadership election and could become the narrative of the Labour party as a whole.

This new narrative does not fix all of the Labour Party's problems. The main issue with it is that it is a fundamentally backwards-looking narrative. Corbyn's policies are traditional old Labour socialism: nationalisation, higher taxes, more spending, re-opening the coalmines, and withdrawal from NATO. All of these, apart from the last one, are policies I support but they need to be accompanied by a narrative that looks to the future and not the past.

What the left needs right now is powerful narrative about the sort of society we want to create in the future. Ideas like redistribution, basic income, and solutions to the crises being faced in health, education and housing. The left needs to think about how capitalism will change, how to protect the environment and how to protect a minimum standard of living in a world where machines now threaten to take away middle class jobs. The left needs a narrative that brings old Labour values into a current context.

None of the other Labour leadership candidates have any form of narrative, which is one reason why Corbyn is so far ahead in the polls. The other candidates have no means to explain what is wrong with society and how they could change it for the better. Corbyn's narrative of going back to the past is better than the empty sound bites that the other candidates offer.

However, Corbyn’s narrative could cost Labour the 2020 election. Labour wins big when it has a vision for the future and is forward looking. What Labour needs right now is a "white heat of technology" moment, a narrative which describes current circumstances and how society will progress under a Labour government. Corbyn is not offering this.

There is another issue with the Corbyn campaign, and that is the messenger and not the message. Corbyn has supported a number of unpopular causes over the years, including the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah. Many of the groups he has supported have become legitimate political forces, such as the ANC, but some are still considered enemies of Britain by many voters. Regardless of how good his narrative is, it could fall on deaf ears because of his history and the hammering that he will get in the right wing press, In the end, Corbyn could alienate as many people from the Labour Party as he attracts.

Corbyn's opponents argue that his leadership could be a train wreck. The combination of a backward-looking narrative and a messenger who will be painted as a sympathizer of terrorists could alienate moderate voters and drive them straight to the Tories. If the Tories win in 2020, they will continue their plan to demolish the welfare state and privatize the NHS with a zeal we cannot imagine right now. The people who need an effective opposition the most will be the ones who lose out.

That is one possible train wreck narrative of the future. The other is the train wreck of signing up to the Tory narrative or of having no narrative – these are functionally the same, and are what the other candidates offer. Labour cannot help the people most hurt by the Conservative government by agreeing with benefit cuts, austerity and the mass transfer of assets from the poor to the rich. The Tories have the demographics locked down who support austerity and controls on immigration, and if Labour agrees with them it only makes the Tories look more credible to these people. The Tories could not win under Blair by matching his narrative of spending and Labour cannot win by agreeing with the Tory narrative – it needs to present an alternative.

I do not know which of these two outcomes is more likely. So far, Corbyn's narrative has worked very effectively for him. In just eight weeks he has gone from a no hope candidate to almost certain victory. Will he be able to repeat this on a larger scale over the next five years?

Personally, I feel that the greater trap is not having a narrative or accepting the Tory narrative, which is what cost Ed Miliband the election. A lot of voters want change from the direction the country has gone in over the last 30 years, and Corbyn's message of a return to traditional socialist values seems to be working.

The other candidates’ complete lack of a challenging narrative is a major problem. It will hand electoral victory to the Tories. Over Blair, Brown and Miliband years I have seen too many people of principal alienated by a Labour Party that is walked over by big business and the rich, while failing to stand up for the most disadvantaged people in society. Corbyn is offering a narrative that can change this. Will it be strong enough to counter the muck the right wing press will throw at him? That remains to be seen.

Maybe Corbyn can use his narrative to shift the support of the electorate in his favour. I hope he can. Make no mistake, the chances of a train wreck are high if he fails - but the chances of a train wreck are also high if we do not let him try.

Welcome to the new Tory Britain

NB: This blog post was written a while ago and not posted due to computer problems. The debate has changed since it was written, mainly because of Jeremy Corbyn, who will be the subject of the next blog post, but I felt it worth posting anyway. It was supposed to go up shortly after the budget was announced.

We were all surprised when the Tories won a majority in the general election earlier this year. Polls had showed Labour and the Tories neck and neck for weeks. No one expected what happened when the polling stations closed and the BBC announced its exit polls. The Tories were going to be the largest party in a hung parliament by quite a long way.

Paddy Ashdown's comments that he would "eat his hat" if the polls were right summed up the belief that this could not have happened. Over the next few hours, the results backed up the exit poll. The Tories would be the largest party and hold the balance of power. By the early hours of the next morning it was clear that even the exit poll was an under-estimate and that the Tories would form a majority government.

A taste of what the next five years would bring was immediately served in the form of July's emergency budget, the first purely Tory budget since Ken Clarke's 1996 budget 18 years before. The budget contained tax cuts for the rich in the forms of reductions in inheritance tax and corporation tax, the later to become lowest level in the G7 and joint lowest in the G20. The budget also contained £12bn worth of cuts to welfare, much of it for people in work but earning less than a living wage. The people who have insecure jobs, the people with low incomes, the people who have been suffering from years of stagnant wages, rising rents and high costs of living would bare the brunt of Tory austerity. We were told that it was essential to cut back aid to these hard working families in order to balance the books of the nation.

At the same time as those who work hard for a low wage were having money taken away from them, Chancellor George Osborne has announced the sale of the publicly-owned Royal Bank of Scotland at a cut down price. The net loss to the public purse of this sale is £13bn. The conflicting message is our society cannot afford to be generous to the poor but it is essential that we continue to be generous to the rich, if we do not then the entire mechanism of our society would ground to a hault. If we give the poor money they will not work, but if we stop giving the rich money they will not create wealth.

This cut to the poor and subsidy to the rich represents an enormous transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest. The welfare state is being bled dry out of a sense of necessity, a necessity that does not extend to selling the government's RBS shares at market price. This shows what the Tories really believe in and what we will get for the next five years: help for big business and the rich, punishment the poor for being poor.

Osborne has pushed back his deficit reduction plans. The national debt will now be paid off in 2019, and it will take longer to repay the deficit under Osborne's plan than it would have under the plans laid out by Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling in 2010 and Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls in 2015. Both of these alternatives, dismissed by the electorate, involved fewer cuts to public services. The Tory plan is not to rebalance the nation's finances but to rebalance society in favour of the “wealth creators”. This not a conspiracy organised by a public school elite, it is simply what the Tories believe will encourage economic growth that will eventually trickle down to everyone. The mass transfer of assets from the poor to the rich is supposed to benefit the poor at some later date. However, that day never arrives and we are becoming an increasingly unequal society.

Following their surprise defeat, Labour are searching for a new leader. This has not prevented interim leader Harriet Harman from endorsing the Tory welfare cuts. The electorate sent a clear signal that they did not trust Labour with the economy, that they completely accepted the Conservatives’ line on Labour overspending, and they wanted the deficit cut. Harman wants to regain some electoral credibility for Labour during her brief time in charge and her approach to this is to sign up to the Tories plan to hack away at the safety net the poor rely on.

By signing up to the Tories’ anti-welfare agenda, Labour have moved the middle ground of politics towards scaling back welfare. When Labour fails to offer an opposition to Tory cuts they become more acceptable to the electorate. This gives the Tories licence to cut welfare further than they initially planned.

It is not a coincidence that on the day that Labour agreed not to oppose the Tory welfare cuts, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has suggested that workers save for their own sickness and unemployment by paying into a private fund out of their wages. This is fundamental redrawing of the social contract and an attack on the basic premise that the state provides assistance to those who are unfortunate enough to be sick or unemployed.

This new assault on welfare is partly ideological: there are many Tories who would like to abolish welfare alltogether and move to system entirely based on self-reliance. That would be a system entirely based on how wealthy your family is, which suits the Tories perfectly. Another reason for this assault on welfare is the cut and thrust of politics. The Tories have a simple plan: to paint Labour as a party of the unemployed and themselves as a party of the hard workers, and this was one of the reasons why they won the election.

The Tories will keep hacking away at welfare until Labour stand up to them, at which point the Tories will accuse them of being on the side of the scroungers and against the strivers. If Labour try to avoid being accused of supporting scroungers by voting with the Tories, then the Tories will cut welfare further and further. While the two main parties play games of positioning over the issue of welfare, the people who rely on welfare are losing their livelihoods.

Labour, and other people on left, need to stand up to the mass transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich through welfare cuts and discount privatisation. However, the position faced by Labour after the surprise electoral defeat is a difficult one. They need to find a new way to present themselves, because the way that former leader Ed Miliband presented Labour completely failed to resonate with the electorate.

While Labour are going through this period of introspection, we should appreciate the size of the challenge. The electorate voted for the Tories and gave them a mandate, however slim, to cut further. The arguments of Miliband fell on deaf ears, the electorate is not interested in a Labour Party that offers a milder version of what the Tories are offering. The electorate would clearly just prefer the Tories.

If Labour and the left are going to start winning again, then we need a pursue new narrative about what has gone wrong in the past and what will go wrong in the future unless we change direction. This new narrative needs to be bold, radical, different from what the Tories argue, but it also needs to resonate with ordinary people and their experience of the world.

For my part, I intend to write articles looking into this question of a new left wing narrative and what shape it could take. Whatch this space for new ideas of how we change the political debate. The Tories are rolling out their vision for Britain for the next five years and it is a painful vision of welfare cuts for the poorest and the mass transfer of assets to the richest. The need for the left to express a narrative which could oppose the new Tory Britain has never been greater.

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.