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.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

University admission: time for affirmative action

The next Labour government may well take office at a time when social mobility in Britain has stalled, if not declined. For example for most of the past decade students who leave some of England’s highest-performing state comprehensive schools with the equivalent of at least three A grades at A level are a third less likely to go to one of the UK’s 30 most selective universities than their peers at independent schools. In fairness it is not unreasonable that any parent should want their child to do as well at school and in life as they have done themselves; often they want them to do better. In a free society if some parents choose to secure advantage and privilege by sending their children to elite schools there is little the state can do about it. However there are clear consequences for future social mobility that a future Labour Education Secretary would be wise not to ignore. British public schools have always been a production line for the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, with as many as two-thirds educated in the top 20 British universities. They can and do raise their fees steadily, they select their pupils; have a growing endowment income from their benefactors and some of the most impressive sporting and extra-curricular activities. What's more they have recruited from a middle-class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage. One consequence is that state school children are still not reaching the highest levels in influential professions So what can be done? One answer might be to adopt the approach taken by the US state of Texas. Several years ago in one of the boldest-ever college admissions experiments, the Texas legislature passed HB 588, which guaranteed high school seniors who graduate in the top 10 per cent of their class admission to any Texas public college or university. HB 588, popularly known as the ‘top 10 per cent law’, sought not only to recover the drop in Black and Hispanic representation at its flagship institutions following the judicial ban on affirmative action, but also to increase the number of high schools that sent students to the four-year public universities. Has it worked? In 2008 a report carried out by researchers at Princeton University found that HB 588 ‘has triggered powerful mechanisms that, combined with the changing demography of the state and the automatic admission regime, have broadened access to the public flagships to high-achieving students from the entire state of Texas’. The report also found that by strengthening ties between the top universities and high schools with low college-going traditions the initiative had begun to improve high school climates and significantly raise the number of economically disadvantaged students attending university. Could this work here in the UK? The Texas model is ‘limited’ to a distinct geographical area, but for a similar scheme to work here in the UK a future Labour government could require each of our top universities to link to schools in a particular region or locality, schools that do not have a track record of sending their most able students to our premier institutions. If any student at one of these schools meets the entry requirements he or she would be guaranteed a place. Far from abandoning the very idea of social mobility, Labour should seek to legislate for measures that will reduce the very real barriers that prevent young people from certain social backgrounds achieving their full potential. This does not mean that personal progress should never be measured by the extent to which individuals escape their social background, but we must also accept that in order to overcome entrenched privilege and vested interests we must actively seek to open up society and end the present ‘closed shop’ that has, for too long, stifled meritocracy by supporting an aristocracy of the elite. If the conservative state of Texas can embrace affirmative action then surely a progressive Labour government of the future can as well.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Why I am supporting Lee Carter as the Labour PPC for the Wrekin

Wrekin Labour party members have a tough decision to make in the next few weeks: who will they be backing to become Labour’s PPC for the Wrekin? This task has been made all the more difficult due to the excellent number of able and committed individuals who have put their names forward. Having met most of them, listened to their views on various topics I have decided that I will be backing Lee Carter. Why? For 3 main reasons: Local person – it is important that we select someone who knows the area, knows the issues and knows the people. Track record – Lee has a superb track record as champion of community based activism. Conviction – Lee believes that collective endeavour is both a strength and a virtue, that as a society we are stronger when we act in the common interest. Lee is also a candidate who can reach parts of this constituency others will not be able to. He is my first choice, I hope he will be yours too.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

My letter to Mark Pritchard MP

Below is the text of the letter I sent to Mark Pritchard MP in July 2013 - still no reply... perhaps he is too busy! Mark I know from things you said in the past that you believe that working as an MP is a privilege and the highest honour in a democracy. I agree with you but I also believe that being an MP is more than this; it is a public service that must not be misused. That is why I welcome Ed Miliband’s proposal to impose a limit on MPs having paid second jobs. Such a move will prevent conflict of interests and abuse of privilege and go some way to restoring public trust in our political representatives. In my view I think that an MP elected in 2015 should be banned from having any remunerated contracts to be directors of commercial companies or consultancies. Last year it is reported that you earned in excess of £75,000 in consultancy work which is greater than your current salary as an MP. You have also recently stated that you believe that MPs deserve a pay rise but not just yet. I have read your comments that as a nation we do want to go down the route of only the wealthy, whether with inherited or earned wealth, becoming MPs and living off their savings and their inherited wealth. This is a staggering assertion to make given that, according the Tax Payers’ Alliance, in the general context of UK earnings MP’s are amongst the top 3 per cent in terms of income. You have also stated that sensible people would recognise MPs’ pay was too low when compared to politicians from other European countries. Surely the counter argument is that many hard working people here in The Wrekin recognise that many of your European colleagues are paid too much! In light of this I would ask that you make clear that should you retain The Wrekin parliamentary seat – assuming you are standing - in 2015 you will: • Decline any pay rise that may have been awarded to MPs in line with commitments being made by your colleagues across the political divide. • You will not take on any other paid employment or consultancy work for the period of the next parliament. The people of The Wrekin rightly expect their MP to be full-time in representing their interests. That, surely, is the purpose of all MPs elected to Westminster. Best wishes, Mike