Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Labour needs to be tactical as well as strategic

If Labour is to have any chance of winning in 2020 then having a credible Leader and a sound, well thought through political strategy will be vitally important but some good old fashioned localised tactics are also essential. In 2010 and 2015 the Tories won a number of seats by applying some effective local tactics. To Labour needs to get back to being more tactically aware and astute.
In order to win or retain marginal seats in 2020:

CLPs must be allowed to select as early as possible to allow candidates to become active, develop local campaign issues, recruit new members and build a supporters' network

PPCs should adopt a policy of 'extreme 'localism' - does your hospital need to charge for parking? What is policing like in particular wards? Are there car parking issues on a particular street? They should be encouraged to focus a campaign on local community issues as much large macro issues.

Adopt a policy of positive campaigning - PPCs should resist the temptation to slag off their opponents and should focus on issues and not personalities

Hard working people like hard working candidates - PPCs should regularly provide local people with evidence of their endeavours and of the impact they have had and are having.

There must be no 'no-go' areas of the constituency in terms of canvassing and campaigning.


Monday, June 08, 2015

How Labour can be bolder

'At our best when at our boldest' - the words of one Tony Blair to Labour's annual conference in 2002. Labour remains - despite the cynics who argue otherwise - a centre-left party, not a centre-right one. Let's not forget that the party's recent centre-left credentials are impressive: the introduction of the minimum wage, the abolition of the assisted places scheme and the hereditary principle in the Lords, huge investment in public services, debt cancellation for the poorest countries, civil partnerships etc, etc. The problem today is that the party has become 'more of a machine than a movement'  to quote Stella Creasy, it has been fixated on being competent but not radical, managerial but not inspirational.
 
So to help us start thinking about what might a 'bolder' agenda look like I have come up with the following:
 
  1. Lower the voting age to 16
  2. Add 1% to all NI contributions and call it NHS +1
  3. Introduce PR (AVS) for all parliamentary and council elections
  4. Abolish the House of Lords, create a new, second chamber and move it to Manchester
  5. Create a 'People's Bank' with branches on every High St and in every village and call it…The Post Office!

Friday, June 05, 2015

Why I support lowering the voting age to 16

The voting age in Britain was last reduced nearly 40 years ago. Since then, there have been major changes in society's expectations of young people, and in young people's contribution to their local communities and wider society. Currently, 16 and 17 year-olds can work, pay taxes, join the armed forces and get married. They are often invited to set up school councils and youth councils, urged to take part in consultations, sit on local government and Ministerial boards, volunteer in their local community, keep out of trouble and work hard at school. Many will have caring responsibilities, a lot will have a job, some will be parents, and a minority will be leaving care or custody – but they cannot elect those who govern them.

A few years ago the Electoral Commission carried out a public consultation on the voting age which found that 72% of respondents were in favour lowering the voting age to 16. Interestingly the consultation attracted huge participation including 8,000 young people which suggests that when issues are made relevant to them, young people are more likely to vote and engage in matters of public importance. If the Government is to successfully deliver on its promise of helping to create more sustainable communities then it must ensure that all members of the community are fully engaged in the shaping and delivery of local services. Young people represent an important proportion of that agenda.I strongly believe that as a nation we must take the aspirations and desires of young voters much more seriously. Rather than young people being disinterested in politics (as opposed to voting), the more real danger is that we have become uninterested in them. We bolt on campaigns for young voters rather than build them into what we do. This needs to change, and we now have a once in a generation chance to make that change and listen to what young people are saying. We should dispense with old political assumptions and acknowledge that we are dealing with a different generation.

A first-time voter in a 2015 general election was only just born when Labour came to power in 1997. To them we seem like the establishment. I also believe that the divide between organised politics and young people is a symptom of a wider disenchantment. People who feel alienated have little trust in the institutions of our society. This adds to the wider sense of disaffection and makes it more difficult for our politics to work. Surely young people’s belief in politics could only be helped by them knowing that they had a direct influence in choosing who represents them. In Austria - where they recently lowered the voting age to 16 - in the last local and regional elections the turnout amongst 16 and 17 year olds was close to 75%.

The most effective means of achieving all of this is to lower the voting age to 16 and the sooner we do so the better

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Oscar Romero was truly a man for all seasons


Below is an edited version of a piece I wrote for Tribune last year on political and social heroes.

The strap line to my blog reads as follows: ‘Aspire not to have more but to be more.’ These are the words of one of personal heroes, the late Oscar Romero Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 by the pro-US military junta who then ran El Salvador.

Romero was murdered because he provided moral direction to a grassroots movement for social change and sought to pierce the silence of repression and inform the population at large of ‘the facts’. Why should people on the left of the political spectrum be interested in a relatively obscure Catholic Archbishop who was shot to death in a tiny Central American republic over 30 years ago? Perhaps the words of a rather more famous Latin American may serve to elaborate the significance: Chilean Dictator General Augusto Pinochet famously uttered words to the effect that “We have nothing against ideas. We’re against people spreading them.”

What were the dangerous ideas Romero espoused? He was a passionate advocate for civil and human rights and his advocacy for justice for the poor was bound to bring him into conflict with powerful interests. Romero could variously be described as a ‘prophet of the people’, a mobilizer and a voice speaking against and into a violent void. Romero was an implicit supporter of what became known as liberation theology, a movement which took root throughout Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s and focused on helping the poor and oppressed, even if that meant confronting political powers. It was a theology that was later to be severely criticised as a ‘fundamental threat’ to the church by one Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became better known as Pope Benedict XVI.

Prior to his appointment as Archbishop Romero was considered to be a quiet, bookish and non-controversial figure and his elevation to the position of Archbishop was welcomed by many business, government and military figures who believed that he would be a ‘safe pair of hands’ who would  ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.’

By his words and actions Romero consistently attempted to unmask and denounce the ‘culture of silence’ imposed upon the oppressed majority of people in El Salvador by an oligarchic minority that was unaccustomed to opposition from such quarters. In doing so he was forced to confront a genocidal military-armed, trained and financed to a great extent by the United States of America.

In August 1978, four Salvadoran bishops issued a statement condemning a peasant’s popular organizations as ‘Marxist.’ Romero distanced himself from their comments and wrote in defence of the peasants .

In a pastoral letter that was read out in all Roman Catholic churches in El Salvador he defended the right of all working people to organise and criticised the fact that this right was consistently violated in El Salvador. In writing this letter Romero was publicly siding with popular, peasant led organizations and – more dangerously – becoming perhaps the most high profile mobiliser to their cause.

Aware of the implications of restricted press ownership Romero used his weekly radio address to condemn the numerous killings, abductions and incidents of torture.

Romero wrote directly to the then US President Jimmy Carter arguing that given the level of human rights abuse by the military, aid to the junta should be suspended.  In a sermon broadcast live on the radio on March 24 1980 he outlined what was in effect a moral justification for mutiny. After providing a theological framework for the statements that were to follow, Oscar Romero related some of the hundreds of cases of genocidal military action occurring during the previous week, citing an Amnesty International press release to confirm his accounts. Towards the end of this sermon he addressed the military directly:

‘I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, “Thou shalt not kill”. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered you consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order… In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you – in the name of God: stop the repression.’ (Cited in Leiken & Rubin 1987: 377-380)

Later that evening whilst saying mass at a small church attached to a cancer hospital a lone gunman shot Romero dead.

Romero was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize in 1979. When nominated he was asked about his humanitarian work, he told reporters:

‘When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.’

Romero is a hero of mine because he accepted that to fight against injustice; to commit one's life to the poor is not simply about taking a religious stance but a political and moral one. Romero understood that the true message of hope, the promise that the world can be fairer, more just and less divided often results in giving comfort to the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.


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.