Sunday, May 17, 2015

Why I want Andy Burnham to be Labour's next Leader

Despite his genuine but in my opinion misguided loyalty to Everton FC I believe that Andy Burnham should be Labour's next party leader. He isn’t a factional politician but is rather a party loyalist from a working class background who has worked hard and succeeded in politics while staying true to his roots. 

He talks 'human' and will be a leader who will focus on the needs and interests of all working people. He also recognises that wining the leadership of the party will be the easy bit, he will then have to win back the trust and confidence of the British people.

Can he do that in 5 years and secure a Labour led or Labour majority government? Of course he can but only by recognising that he must use the next few years to urgently set about renewing the party's structure, its message and its organisation.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Where does Labour go from here?


 


Coming back from a defeat of this magnitude will be very, very difficult but not impossible. Since the 1920s the story of the Labour movement goes something like this: Labour supporters are near euphoric when victory is achieved there is then a period of hard slog as the party faces up to the harsh responsibilities of being in government. The party then accuses the leadership of betrayal and the leadership accuses the party of ingratitude. Supporters then become disillusioned which leads to defeat at the polls. We then experience a long period of Tory Government before the next outbreak of euphoria and so on and so forth.


The truth is that Labour has often been far better at defeating itself than the Tories have ever been. Labour’s own members want it to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic; to be a party that proudly honours its past whilst not neglecting to shape both its and the nation’s future; to champion the state whilst being part of the market; to tackle poverty but also support aspiration. The lessons of defeat are always the same. Values unrelated to modern reality are not just electorally hopeless, the values themselves become devalued.

What works? By successfully occupying the centre ground, by modernising and reaching out beyond its own activists Labour under Tony Blair ended up turning the Tories into a replica of what it used to be itself – a party with a narrow base, a party obsessed about the wrong things and a party seen as old fashioned and out of touch. David Cameron has understood all of this and it is why he has been busy in attempting (with, as the 2015 results indicate, some considerable success) to re-brand and re-position today’s Tory party. In 2005 the Conservatives woke up to the fact that in order to be taken seriously they needed to be seen as the future, to be heralded as the bearers of hope and the deliverers of change.


There will be two Labour trains departing the tracks in the next few weeks. One will be taking the difficult, but ultimately rewarding, track that leads to renewal whilst the other will be seeking to reverse its way from the platform along the track that is signposted ‘political wilderness.’ This is why the real challenge to the continuation of the pursuit of a progressive political agenda comes not from the SNP or a re-energised Tory party but from the defeatists, pessimists and cynics that exist within the Labour party itself. If Labour is to secure an unprecedented fourth term then it must urgently set about renewing itself, its message and its organisation.

 

A renewed party needs to reflect the aspirations of ordinary people but it also needs to be realistic about the challenges that lie ahead. Ambition, hope and aspiration are far more appealing than a constant reciting past achievements. Telling the electorate that things were much better pre-2010 is the political equivalent of living in the past. We have to forget the polls, they as relevant as last year's weather forecast for tomorrow's weather. Its five years until the next election and the first rule of politics: there are no rules.

 

Labour has won in the past not because it surrendered its values but because it had the courage to be true to them. The British people will lose faith in us only if first we lose faith in ourselves.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Faith and the politics of dialogue.


Faith and politics do not mix, at least that is the common assertion made by many political and social commentators in modern Britain. The good news is that we are not alone in struggling with this issue. In the United States, President Obama has often expressed his despair that his own party has all too often been reluctant to engage in serious dialogue about the role that people’s religious belief can play in the political process. According to Obama "we [Democrats] may try to avoid the conversation about religious values altogether, fearful of offending anyone and claiming that - regardless of our personal beliefs - constitutional principles tie our hands." Obama recognises that the reality of political engagement is that we have to meet people where they are - even if we do not agree with or even like where they are. If, as a progressive nation, we are to communicate our hopes and values in a way that is relevant to the lives of others, we cannot abandon the field of religious discourse. Obama has often argued that secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into public debate. Indeed, he makes the case that the majority of great reformers in American history - he cites Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause.

Democratic engagement makes demands of religious believers. It demands that those who are religiously motivated act to turn their concerns into universal, rather than faith-specific, values. Democratic engagement demands that the values espoused by people of faith be subject to argument and debate. For example, if I am opposed to abortion on religious grounds and would seek to see the time limit for abortions reduced from 24 to 20 weeks, it is not sufficient to simply invoke the teachings of the Catholic Church to support my views. I will also need to explain why abortion violates some strongly held principle or set of values that are accessible to people of all faiths and none. Politics, and in particular democratic politics, involves the art of compromise, the art of what's ‘doable’, what's achievable and what's possible. For some people of faith this is the greatest challenge that living in a democracy raises. For some people, having faith is having certainty; what matters is not what can be done given the circumstances, not pragmatism, but principle. Therefore what is needed is a sense of proportion and a willingness to engage openly and fair-mindedly.

During his campaign to become a US senator, Obama received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago medical school saying: "Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you." The doctor described himself as a committed Christian who understood his own beliefs to be "totalising". His faith had led him to a strong opposition on abortion and gay marriage. But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for Obama was not simply the would-be senator's position on abortion. Rather, it was because he had read an entry that Obama's campaign had posted on his website, which suggested that he (Obama) would fight "right-wing ideologues who want to take away a woman's right to choose". The doctor went on to write: "I sense that you have a strong sense of justice ... and I also sense that you are a fair-minded person with a high regard for reason ... Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded." This had a profound effect on Obama. Re-reading the doctor's letter he felt a pang of shame. He wrote back and thanked the doctor for his advice and the next day he changed the language on his website to state, in clear but simple terms, his pro-choice position.

According to Obama, it is people like the doctor who emailed him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion and politics. The doctor represents many (possibly a majority) who may not change their positions on issues such as abortion, the death penalty or gay rights, but are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in fair-minded words.

This then is the challenge for those who describe themselves as progressive politicians. They too must become more "fair-minded", more willing to engage with people of faith so that they might recognise some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of modern Britain.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Labour must reaffirm its preferential option for the poor


To be honest with you people like myself - in full-time employment, with mortgage rates at an all-time low - have been relatively unaffected by the cuts imposed by the Tory-led coalition government. However as the IFS reported last year, George Osborne's spending cuts are - and will continue to - hitting the poorest far harder than the better off.

Over 100 years ago Seebohm Rowntree carried out some preliminary research into the amounts and types of foods, the levels of rents, cost of heating and lighting, etc. deemed necessary to maintain 'physical efficiency'. Rowntree's estimates of the income needed to avoid poverty were set deliberately low in order to test whether there was any level of income at which people could not maintain a non-poor lifestyle no matter how hard they tried. In his report Rowntree distinguished between:


'Primary poverty’ - families whose income was insufficient for the maintenance even of 'physical efficiency'
'Secondary' poverty’ - families whose income would have been sufficient for the maintenance of 'physical efficiency' were it not that some portion of it was absorbed by other expenditure.

When you read Rowntree's report today, especially in light of the savage cuts to welfare, housing and adult social care, one is left contemplating exactly how we might today define what physical efficiency means. For Rowntree it meant the following:

'A family living upon the scale allowed for must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. They must never go into the country unless they walk. They must never purchase a half penny newspaper or spend a penny to buy a ticket for a popular concert. They must write no letters to absent children, for they cannot afford to pay the postage. They must never contribute anything to their church or chapel, or give any help to a neighbour which costs them money. They cannot save nor can they join a sick club or trade union, because they cannot pay the necessary subscriptions. The children must have no pocket money for dolls, marbles or sweets. The father must smoke no tobacco and drink no beer. The mother must never buy any pretty clothes for herself or her children, the character of the family wardrobe as for the family diet being governed by the regulation nothing must be bought but that which is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of physical health and what is bought must be of the plainest and most economical description'.

So how, exactly, will today's poor be affected by these draconian, brutal and according to many commentators, unnecessary cuts? The coalition cabinet was drawn almost exclusively from the financial elite, people who simply have no concept of what 'physical efficiency' means for the millions of their fellow citizens who exist on modest incomes but who will bear the brunt of this ideologically driven spending round. Too many of David Cameron's Conservatives are the ‘right kind of people’ – i.e. his people: privately educated and from a background of immense wealth and privilege. Under Cameron, the Tories still believe the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who embrace their own particular political, economic and social outlook.

Rowntree's 1901 report exposed the senseless, soul destroying and economically dire implications of a laissez faire, non-interventionist state - we owe it to today's poor to ensure that his sound advice and analysis are not dismissed on the grounds of the inevitable consequences of deficit reduction. If we really are 'all in this together' then we cannot allow millions of people to be condemned to live lives that result in physical insufficiency.

Politics that seeks the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution can be a powerful force for change. At home and abroad it is time for Labour to reaffirm its preferential option for the poor. It is time to take sides and end the political cross-dressing of the 1990s. As a political party it is time to be clear about who we are, who we were and what we want to become.

Ed Miliband and the politics of optimism


The Labour government "contributed almost nothing new or imaginative to the pool of ideas with which men seek to illuminate human nature and its environment". This is not a comment about the Blair or Brown years; rather it is a quote from a 1954 New Statesman biographical piece about Clement Attlee and the 1945-1951 Labour government. Amazing as though it may now appear, some contemporary Labour figures of the period were lambasting Attlee's post-war government for its lack of ambition and for it not being "socialist" enough. In fairness we have been here many, many times before. It is an established truth that most Labour members and supporters simultaneously hold opposing requirements. We want our party to be both passionately principled and sensibly pragmatic: to be a party that proudly honours its past whilst also helping to shape its and the nation's future; to champion the state while being part of the market; to tackle poverty but to also support aspiration.


When Labour took office in 1997, Britain was suffering from what Tony Blair later described as a "progressive deficit". What he meant was that Britain was far from being a modern social democratic nation. The constitution was failing, with Scotland and Wales denied proper government and hereditary privilege still the foundation of the House of Lords. Unlike many of our European neighbours, Britain lacked quality childcare and universal nursery provision or schools and hospitals with proper equipment and enough well-paid staff. In the years up to 1997, Britain was a country that had spent billions of pounds keeping able-bodied people idle because of boom and bust, where unemployment often exceeded three million, and where the absence of a national minimum wage condemned millions to poverty pay.

In its first few years in office Labour made significant headway in addressing this progressive deficit. On the constitution, Britain is now a much more pluralist democracy with devolution for Scotland and Wales, Mayors for London and others cities, House of Lords reform, freedom of information and the Human Rights Act. For working people, Labour delivered progressive rights that many other countries took for granted - a minimum wage, four weeks paid holiday, better maternity and paternity rights, the basic right to join a trade union. For communities and families torn apart by crime, anti-social behaviour, racial intolerance and drugs, Labour established major programmes of inner city regeneration, Sure Start, and additional investment in youth and sport facilities.

The truth is that many of the changes Labour made in 13 years of government - on the constitution, economic policy, the minimum wage and public services - are likely to last. The challenge for Ed Miliband will be to secure a progressive consensus around the further changes and improvements that need to be made whilst at the same time challenging and exposing the Tory party’s obvious, ideologically driven desire to reduce the size of the state which will result in more charging, less investment, good services for the well-off and second-class services for the rest.

The difficulty that Ed Miliband faces however, the real challenge to progressive politics will come not only from the Cameron led, ‘Thatcherite’ dominated Tory party but from some of the pessimists and cynics that exist within the ranks of his own movement. Miliband’s new generation politics needs to frame political debate in terms of progress versus conservatism and the world not in terms of right and left, but right and wrong. Throughout this campaign Ed Miliband has spoken about how all too often political debate seems irrelevant to the reality of ordinary peoples’ lives. He understands that too many voters feel that politics is too polarised, that parties and politicians portray their opponents as either pro-business or pro-unions, pro-growth or pro-environment, for civil liberties or against them, as progressives or dinosaurs.

History shows that the public trusts leaders who have the courage to lead. It is surely no coincidence that, in recent history, when governments have acted boldly on issues as varied as debt cancellation, the introduction of the congestion charge or smoking bans, public support has quickly crystallised behind it. If Labour is to win next time round then its best prospects lie not in appealing to what it has done, not in defending the status quo but rather in campaigning against ugly realities of health and education inequalities and showing why these warrant further state action.

The politics of optimism, of hope, worked for Obama and touched a chord with the mainstream in the US. Politics that seeks the liberation of people from poverty, injustice and persecution can be a powerful force for change. Ed Miliband should use the last few weeks of the campaign to ensure that the Labour addresses its own progressive deficit, to be clearer about who we are, who we were and whom we want to become

Friday, April 17, 2015

Labour must add the future of Trident to its Strategic Defence Review


One of the most interesting aspects of last night’s Leaders’ debate was the discussion about the need for the renewal of Trident. I cannot help but believe that Labour should think again about its support for the renewal of Trident and that the scrapping of Trident could end up being a vote winner and not a vote loser. In the past even some of the military’s ‘top brass’ have expressed their 'deep concern' about the need for a Trident replacement with the former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord Gutherie, has argued that a cheaper option to Trident should be considered, particularly as Britain strives for a world without nuclear weapons.


In the eighties and nineties, when the Polaris and its successor the Trident nuclear strategic defence system was brought into operation, its purpose was unambiguous. The missiles were targeted against the principal cities of the USSR, in order to deter an attack through the threat of an overwhelming response. It is probably the case that the balance of MAD (mutually assured destruction) did indeed prevent the cold war between the western and eastern blocs from breaking out into open warfare. However, the world has changed. In June 2006 the House of Commons Defence Select Committee published its report 'The Future of the UK’s Strategic Nuclear Deterrent'. It pointed out that deterrence against potential aggression might take various forms: economic, diplomatic, or through conventional forces. "The UK will need to examine whether the concept of nuclear deterrence remains useful in the current strategic environment." (para.55). The Ministry of Defence refused to take part in the proceedings of the Select Committee, and the report stated "We believe that it is essential that, before making any decisions on the future of the strategic nuclear deterrent, the MOD should explain its understanding of the purpose and continuing relevance of nuclear deterrence." (para.56).While the claim is that Britain must have its own independent deterrent, the truth is that as long as the UK uses Trident missiles as the delivery vehicle for its warheads, the system is hardly independent. The 2006 Defence Committee report distinguished between independence of acquisition and independence of operation (para.84). Britain does not have independence of acquisition and it is not clear whether we possess operational independence or not.

The truth is renewing Trident will be massively expensive and militarily pointless as it will not deter terrorists or nuclear blackmailers and will make it far harder for Britain to encourage nuclear disarmament around the globe.

What about the politics of all this - would a nuclear disarmament policy be politically damaging to Labour? A poll last year clearly showed – by a margin of 58 to 35 per cent - that the public wants Britain to scrap the Trident nuclear missile system. Such a policy would not necessarily lead to a charge of being soft on defence, since a significant proportion of the saved resource could and should be devoted on enhanced expenditure on conventional forces serving in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.

In my view, be it on military, political, economic, legal or ethical grounds, the case for the renewal of Trident lacks credibility. Labour - my party - should think again.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The next Labour government should bring back the BSF programme


If I were ever asked to suggest a strap line for the Department for Education (DfE) it would be:

Ambition drives success.

When launched in February 2004, Building school for the future (BSF) was the largest and most ambitious scheme of its kind anywhere in the world. Its aim was to transform education for the 93% of England’s children educated in the state sector. Thanks to the then Tory Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove (abetted by his Lib Dem allies) this opportunity, this ‘once in a generation’ opportunity was cancelled. So what should Labour do when it comes to office in May 2015?

Education goes to the heart of what the Labour party stands for, everything we must do to make a Britain a fairer and more equal society. Our record when last in power was one we can be rightly proud of. However the truth still remains that our education system has always been excellent for a minority. The cancellation of BSF was a denial of 5 star teaching facilities for millions of our young people and served to further entrench a three-tier system of the past: excellence for a minority, mediocrity for the majority, outright failure at the bottom.

Labour must therefore make the case that it is no longer enough to simply talk about providing educational opportunities for all; educational achievement must be extended too. Creating an education system that extends opportunity and achievement for all whilst at the same time promoting equity and excellence, this must be Labour’s programme for government in the future. This isn't just a distant aspiration. The unambiguous evidence from our best all-ability schools today is that where aspirations are high and the parental support strong, then the great majority of young people can and do achieve in terms of good GCSEs at 16 and progression to further qualifications beyond, whether vocational or academic. In a successful school, achievement isn't a matter of IQ or social class: it is a matter of teaching, aspiration and hard work, underpinned by a school culture which nurtures all three.

The new Labour Education team must make the case for radical and progressive change. We can continue in the way the education system has for generations: tolerating the failure of some children because of the achievement of a few; accepting mediocrity for the many as the price of advantage for an elite; even going back to selecting children for failure at 5, 11 or 16. Or we can become a country which believes in every child and expects excellence for all; where the talent of every citizen is nurtured and encouraged, from the earliest years onwards; where no child's education is written off because of who they are or where they're from.

Labour was founded on educational opportunity and achievement for all and its commitment to rebuilding or refurbishing our nation’s schools under BSF was ambitious and inspired. An incoming Labour government should bring back the BSF programme, though this time it should be less bureaucratic and more focused on improving pedagogy. Our opponents will say that it cannot be afforded but the truth is that as a nation we simply can’t afford not to.

Was it really worth it Nick?

Was it really worth it Nick?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Labour: At our best when at our boldest


“At our best when at our boldest”: the words of one T Blair to Labour’s party conference in 2002. Blair was right of course, as a movement we – yes I am a Labour party member and supporter - are at our best when we seek to be radical and bold.

Under both Blair and Brown, Labour governed – despite the cynics who will inevitably argue otherwise – as a centre-left party, not as a centre-right one. Ed Miliband has given every indication that he will continue with a bold, progressive agenda. Labour’s centre-left credentials when in power were impressive: the introduction of the minimum wage, the abolition of the assisted places scheme, more help for pensioners, removal of the hereditary principle in the Lords, huge investment in the NHS, debt cancellation etc, etc.

However too many of the radical and socially progressive initiatives listed above were carried out during Labour’s first term. Post 2001 Labour, on the whole, aspired to be competent but not radical, to be managerial but not inspirational. What sets Ed Miliband apart as a politician is his passionate belief that government must do things with people; he sees political debate in terms of progress versus conservatism and the world not in terms of right and left, but right and wrong. Throughout this campaign Miliband has spoken about one of the main reasons for people being turned off politics being because all too often political debate seems irrelevant to the reality of their everyday lives. He understands that many ordinary voters feel that they are being manipulated because they are always being asked to make false choices: you’re labelled as either pro-business or pro-unions, pro-growth or pro-environment, for civil liberties or against them, a progressive or a dinosaur.

As Labour gears up for the final weeks of this election it is clear to me that Miliband needs to further emphasise his and his party’s centre-left credentials and spell out exactly what his ‘fairness’ agenda will mean in terms of outcomes for the British people. If he is to take Labour back into power then he will need to be ‘bold Ed’ not ‘timid Ed’.

Continuing to talk about fairness and the need to listen to the ‘squeezed’ middle class is fertile ground for Labour and as the polls show is making life distinctly uncomfortable for David Cameron. Under Cameron the Tories still believe that the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who embrace their political, economic, and social views. For these reasons, Cameron is reluctant to get into a debate about the super-rich and what they should or should not contribute via the tax system. These past few years the public has watched on in horror and disgust at the city traders who deliberately bid down bank shares, bet on the failure of key stock and companies and even – it is suggested – spread false rumours in order to line their own already very deep and very full pockets. If the Tories wish to seek to defend these excesses – in the manner in which, at the opposite end of the scale they opposed the minimum wage and defended poverty pay – then they will find themselves on the wrong side of the argument and further confirm the public’s view that Mr Cameron and his party are on the side of the rich and not the ordinary ‘hard working’ families that he talks about so frequently.

The dividing lines between an increasingly reactionary and ideologically driven Tory party and a renewed and re-enthused Labour Party are becoming clearer by the day and Miliband should not be afraid to use the last few weeks to spell out the bold and radical approach he will take when Prime Minister.

Why? Because he has little to lose either personally or politically but both he and the nation have, potentially, a good deal to gain.