Friday, 24 December 2010

What a year it's been

Ok, apart from politically, that is (er, we lost a general election and things are looking a bit ropey for Labour right now). But momentous it certainly has been.

And sorry for giving you 2 posts in 24 hours but, in marked contrast, at The Centre Left - and we don't like to crow - things seem to have gone...rather well. Here, in case you missed them, are the guest posts we got going on the main Labour sites:

Labour Uncut: (from last night)

LabourList:
Left Foot Forward:
Anyway, just wanted to say thank you so much, dear readers, for your support during 2010 (and some of you even before that). We will be continuing to observe, comment and generally get things off our chest at The Centre Left during 2011.

Merry Xmas and here's to a better year for Labour.

Rob

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Osborne is right (but no, not on economics)

You can certainly find argued, by far better-qualified commentators than I - Martin Wolf and Paul Krugman, to name but two that Tory economic policy is wrong-headed, dogmatic and bad for the country. That said, I now have to admit to something which rather pains me. Yes, I have misjudged George Osborne as a politician. He seemed to me quite plausibly to fit to the stereotype of Tory Boy, that delightful creation of Harry Enfield, or his stupider brother (must be something about that hair). And I now recognise that it was lazy thinking on my part, because he’s not.

On the contrary, on recent evidence I have found him to be rather intelligent, albeit carrying out a policy I don't believe in. Now, if you don’t feel we ever have anything to learn from our political enemies, you can happily stop reading here. But, for those open-minded souls who are prepared to accept they don’t have all the answers on political strategy – not policy, I stress, political strategy – read on.

Where Osborne is right is in the following: in the reliably forensic John Rentoul’s article “No Short Cut to Office” last week, he quotes from an Osborne article in Prospect magazine:

“There is a lesson, too, for governments from recent political history. If you are not pushing forward the frontiers of reform, then you end up being pushed backwards by the forces of reaction. There are powerful forces ranged against any attempt to improve the way things are done”

What is fascinating from the article is that he has learned this truth through long years in Opposition on the opposite side of the political fence from us: but it’s universal, and there’s the nub of our current situation. While we maintain our current mode of comfort zone politics, do we not pander to the natural forces of reaction that are in all of us? As a Labour activist, I want us to examine policies which scare us a bit. Arguments which make us think, not arguments which reinforce our own natural prejudices. Like our jobs and relationships, our politics should challenge us a little, shouldn’t it?

That is to say, listening to the party membership (and, I hope, the public), is important, yes. And we will doubtless be doing a lot of that over the next couple of years. But so is saying tough and challenging things to each other, which are going to make us all think. We seem to have heard precious little since the 6th May – to be fair to Ed, that includes the other candidates in the leadership campaign too – which truly challenges our prejudices. Where is the thinking of the unthinkable? Where are these unpalatable truths, which all politicians must grapple with in order to grow? Where, in short, is the grit in our oyster?

We seem to have happily accepted the relief from daily hard choices that Opposition bestows on us as a blessing, and not a curse. Perhaps it’s monumentally unfashionable to quote him, but on Wednesday one former Prime Minister made some comments in an appearance last week alongside his old pal Bill Clinton which could be applied here, in the US or anywhere in the world:

“…the truth is, in my experience, the right wing always win when we retreat in our comfort zone and don’t keep breaking new ground, and that’s what we’ve got to do.”

But irrespective of whether we personally like or agree with Tony Blair, we can be sure of one thing: that David Cameron would be delighted with the prospect of our corralling ourselves in. Indeed, he is already sending out the sheepdogs, braying and barking, to the centre ground, to gently steer us away from any difficult politics which might wake us up and cause us to be a threat. We, for our part, are wont to willingly stand aside for them and abandon the centre, rather than challenge, because we truly believe we are at our ideological limits where we are and can go no further. As, indeed, they stood aside for us for many years.

Rentoul ends by observing,

“I’d say Labour are going to have to think quite deeply about how to oppose this lot.”

He’s right. Cameron has taken his party in a direction it does not really want to go on touchstone issues like the environment – and even maintaining relative silence on Europe – because he understands that challenging his party is a prerequisite for winning and maintaining power. The Tories and the Lib Dems are politically wrong-headed, and sometimes unscrupulous, as we have seen from the tuition fees saga: but they have both already taken on that essential element of change: challenging the comfort zone within their own parties in order to provide a workable agenda for government. We, since the election, have not. We need to.

This post also published at Labour Uncut.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Cameron's three Euro fig-leaves

Yesterday's main news was Italian President Silvio Berlusconi narrowly surviving a confidence vote in Rome’s Chamber of Deputies. Despite numerous reasons why he should be thrown out (not to mention, many would say, impeached), perhaps one of the clinching reasons for his survival was his claim that his country needed "continuity”, subtext for: Italy's in a pretty bad way, don’t rock the boat.

And, across Europe, the European debt crisis is being conveniently used by its crafty leaders as an excuse for, er, just about anything. In Spain, Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero is using it to plead for unity and stay in office, when his economic mismanagement really merits an early election. Their countries already bailed out, Ireland’s Brian Cowen and Greece’s George Papandreou are just about hanging on, till next year at least. Ultimately they will probably all have to go but, in the meantime, the crisis is providing a very useful fig-leaf for all of them.

The principal reasoning of these European leaders is this: the country is in such a delicate state that it’s not the time to get rid of me. It’s the time to stick with me through the belt-tightening/tough measures/savage cuts (delete as applicable) required to save the country/Euro/world. In one sense, they have a point: we are where we are. There’s no point cutting off our noses to spite our faces, i.e. waiting for countries to tip over the edge and hoping the Euro goes down the tubes - that clearly won’t help anyone, as I argued in another article here. Sooner or later these leaders will get their come-uppance anyway, at the ballot box.

But we can also observe that the European leader who has practically stitched together a suit from all these fig-leaves is Britain’s very own David Cameron, trying his utmost to link Britain with countries involved in the debt crisis.

If we had followed over the last six months the advice of the Leader of the Opposition, we would be linked with Portugal, with Ireland.
- Cameron at PMQs, 1 Dec 2010

And, not content with bandwagon-jumping with Berlusconi and Co. – nonsense in the first place, as Britain is not even in the Euro and its debt is not in any kind of danger – to try and justify his continuation as Prime Minister and ideology-fuelled cuts programme, he has strategically added two more.

The second fig-leaf is simple: it’s covering the old Tory divisions over Europe. Look at the state the Euro’s in: we always knew it would never work. We are finally vindicated, after all these years of isolation. We don’t need to get out of our bunker and address the dogma within our own party or the damage it does to Britain’s interests. Now, how convenient is that?

The final fig-leaf, though, is the most damaging to us: Cameron is using the debt crisis to cover his own sleight-of-hand on Labour’s economic record. The wider economic crisis is largely over for Britain, for the moment at least, but, by cleverly finessing the debt crisis to prolong the impression of a "danger period", he continues to make the country feel that we are on the edge, bolstering his own rewriting of history.

The economy, the economy, the economy. It’s where the Tories are actually weakest, because they have deliberately exaggerated the difficulties Britain faces and blamed Labour for everything. Much of the media, as usual, has followed their game but they are on shaky ground and they fear they may ultimately get found out. And, by hook or by crook, we must win this battle of words and ensure that the lie is nailed.

Why? Not just because the cuts programme needs to be challenged. But also because we went through most of 18 years with a bad reputation on the economy, frankly, largely deserved. It would be a genuine tragedy to go through the next 5 or 10 with a similarly bad reputation but, this time, largely undeserved. We made mistakes on the economy, yes. But we need to put them in context: while we are in post-traumatic self-flagellation mode, we are coming practically to agree with our detractors. We brand anything else as denial, which is foolish (the public were more annoyed with us about other things, such as falling short on public service reforms or Iraq). The Tories have given us a stick and we are happily beating ourselves with it. Please sir, may I have another?

As Alastair Campbell rightly points out in a post yesterday,

it is still not too late for Labour to take apart the claims made by the coalition about why they are ‘being forced’ to make all these cuts. It will not be done overnight, but over time, and it needs to be done strategically, with determination and confidence.

Alan Johnson made a start in his excellent speech at the RSA but we need a coordinated attack, to hammer this line home at every opportunity.

In short, we can choose to drop this now and let history record us as poor on the economy, when we were on the whole, over 13 years, rather good. But how then will we manage to regain that economic credibility, that sine qua non for election-winning, which it took us painful years to win and have now somehow lost in the blink of an eye?

We won't, not any time soon.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Labour’s Catch-22

I wasn't at the Policy Forum on Saturday to hear Ed Miliband’s keynote speech. A shame, I would have liked to, and I ended up reading it and watching it on video (I’m sad like that). And the speech was important, one of Ed’s first opportunities as Leader to set the tone for what Labour will stand for over the next few years.

As I was listening to the speech, I got to thinking about the strategy Labour is pursuing to redefine itself politically. It’s coming across to Joe Public as this: to hold a series of funny meetings called Policy Forums, principally consulting the membership and unions (note: not, as yet at least, a wider group which includes supporters or the public, but that’s for another post). And first there needs to be a consultation about the format of the consultation. I mean, personally I like the idea of Policy Forums, but from the outside you can see how this might look like classic nerdy Labour Party obsession with procedure.

That said, I can’t really fault the idea that if we are looking for a radical rethink, we need to start from scratch and build up our new ideas over the next four years with a view to a complete, revamped manifesto for the 2014/15 elections. Quite right. And this post is not a beef about policy direction – on signals so far, I daresay I’ll agree with some of the final conclusions and disagree with others. No, it’s more an observation about the practicalities of arguing our case in Parliament and the media, and how we face them.

Now, in our first political gear-shift to come in the wake of a governmental defenestration in over 30 years, we have come to the conclusion that it’s necessary to make an unequivocal statement on ditching the New Labour policy agenda. Ok with that, that’s Party democracy.

But let me put it like this: since we have defined ourselves as making a radical change from New Labour, we now feel obliged to refrain from the natural fallback, in the absence of anything else to hand, of using pre-6 May policy to attack the Tories, or to rebut their own attacks on us. It needs to be something new. On the other hand, we are also now engaged in a multi-year programme which will come up with those new policies. Ed is certainly right in that you can’t and shouldn’t rush into defining a whole, detailed policy edifice. But you can see how the immediate need and the long wait could become mutually incompatible.

In short: we have pushed out to sea from our past, but with no clear course set for the future – yet. What do we do in the meantime? I mean, when a Shadow minister is on the Today programme, what do they say when someone asks “and what is Labour’s policy on this”?

And there’s the Catch-22. The truth is that you can’t keep silent for the next few years until the job is done, you need to say something in the interim. Inevitably, in the end a compromise will have to be found to achieve some immediate policy priorities. But I can’t help feeling that, in the end, it will be a reactive compromise, something quick-and-dirty that ends up undermining all that great bottom-up Policy Forum work, and that policy will ultimately be formulated elsewhere, perhaps even on the hoof, because needs must when the devil drives. My former colleague Hopi Sen put it very well in his article here (although perhaps self-flagellating a little more than might be necessary): that there are areas “that need a Labour response now, that will define much of this government’s success or failure.” He’s right.

All the while, we are giving Cameron a stick to beat us with, and he’s already using it ad nauseam: for example, he came up with the highly effective “He hasn't got a plan, so he hasn't got anything to say” in PMQs a few weeks back. It’s obvious that the Tories will be relentless with this criticism – after all, we were with them when they were in Opposition – so expect this line to be hammered home daily until we have tight, co-ordinated and costed policy proposals to come back with.

Labour’s Catch-22, then: can’t go forward - can’t go back. I don’t have the answer to this headache, but we surely need to fix it in order to be truly effective in all our parliamentary debates and media interviews. Fast.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

And if Spain should fall…?

On Monday the big news of the day was the Ireland bailout. Yesterday, the follow-on story is Portugal’s general strike and the possibility of it pushing that country over the edge. But the nagging doubt in everyone’s minds, I am sure, in the European power-centres today, will be neither: it will be the much worse possibility, remote or otherwise, that Spain might follow. Yesterday Spanish Euro spreads reached a record 260 basis points, meaning that it is now very expensive indeed for Spain to borrow.

There are enormous issues at stake here: in the worst-case scenario that Spain is bailed out, there is firstly a major problem which Ireland did not have: Eurocrats are concerned that they will not have enough funds to pull it off. Spain is a much larger economy - the world’s ninth-largest - compared with tiny Ireland. The potential impact on the Euro is immense, and could threaten its very survival.

Spain under Zapatero has weakened economically for many reasons, some of which it seems fair to attribute to him, such as its failure to sort out its inflexible and two-tier labour market; and some of which it does not, such as its over-reliance economically on the construction sector. But he is very unpopular at home and, worse, is at the centre of a confidence problem on the international markets, as they don’t really believe he will do the necessary to bring the economy back into growth.

Today the governor of the Bank of Spain – perhaps somewhat unhelpfully – said that Spain needed to be “capable of convincing [the rest of the world] that we are capable of doing what we said we were going to”, which they clearly are not. And one European bank, Saxo bank, has already yesterday predicted that “Spain would be bailed out during 2011”. Oh dear.

So, Spain really could go. And, if it goes, the fallout will be huge. But the question of whether it goes or not is really a policy one at this point but a mathematical calculation on two questions. Are the funds supporting it deeper than the speculators’ pockets? And are governments prepared to support it no matter what? If the answer to either of these questions is “no”, we have a big problem.

The lesson for Britain? Look, no-one, not even the most ardent pro-European is happy with where we are on the Euro right now: perhaps, even, Gordon was right to keep us out. But the realpolitik is that we are where we are: it is not in our interests either for the Euro itself to fail, or to suffer a massive fall in value as it tries to right itself. The impact of this on British interests, so closely linked in to the fortunes of the Eurozone by trade ties, would surely be off the Richter scale, as it would for all other EU countries.

Now, there are two good reasons why people might sympathise with a “do nothing” policy:

  1. it creates what economists call “moral hazard” and will disincentivise countries to behave themselves in future, and
  2. after his widely criticised management of the economy over the past 6 years, Zapatero hardly seems to deserve a political boost to save his government.

These arguments we can hear out, although they seem to be clearly overridden by the immediate imperative of saving the Euro. What we should not do, however, is pay attention to what is probably uppermost in Cameron’s mind – the opinion on his back benches that Portugal, Spain and the Euro should be hung out to dry. Because that’s blind ideology, not practical politics pursued in the national interest.

In short, Cameron must support European governments in continuing to support the Euro – because if it fails, the results could be catastrophic for Britain, especially in its current, delicate state, with the Tories engaged in a dangerous game of cutting off nose to spite face.

Where does Cameron actually stand on the issue? Well, despite his warm words in support of his Irish colleagues, his real opinion seems to be more summed up his post-election statement: [Britain] “would not be agreeing to any agreement that drew us further into supporting the euro”. And, obviously, it doesn’t really fit well with his austerity agenda to be seen to give handouts to admittedly fiscally incontinent countries. Especially in Europe, the bane of his party.

So, let’s hope - perhaps against the odds – that he’s secretly on the phone to Angela, Nicolas and Silvio as we speak, trying to get together a big enough fund to see off the speculators. Because we are, as someone recently said, in this together.

We can act now and sort out the moral hazard later; or, alternatively, pass by on the other side of the road and end up picking up the pieces.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The judge, the protesters and the EU’s useless foreign policy

Last week’s newsreels of demonstrations in Madrid against the killing of at least 12 protesters in a Moroccan camp seem to have at last got people's attention. But it’s the tip of the iceberg in one of the longest-running and least-publicised conflicts in the Mediterranean.

Western Sahara is not Palestine. It’s not a complicated conflict, at least in terms of who is being reasonable and who isn’t in the eyes of the world. According to Wikipedia, Moroccan sovereignty over it is unrecognised by any individual state in the world, and its claim is based on proximity rather than ethnicity, i.e. what we used to call colonialism. The Sahrawis are asking for the right to self-determination, one of the basic freedoms enshrined by the UN. Their Moroccan governors refuse to give it to them. (In fact, they almost went for a halfway-house deal for regional autonomy in 2003, but then thought better of it.) Now the result is brutality, poor respect for human rights and now, much more worryingly, a partial news blackout which has led many to suspect genocide.

The EU’s brilliant External Affairs department even-handedly announced a week ago that this is something that should be left to sort out between the two parties: “Catherine Ashton deeply regrets the incidents that took place in the territory of Western Sahara and appeals to all parties to remain calm and restrain from any further violence." Well that’ll show them, then. (I’m sorry, I know Cath is one of ours, and perhaps her hands are tied, but this is not anyone’s finest hour.)

There are myriad reasons why the EU does not want to make a firm statement: firstly because the French government is Morocco’s chief ally and has no intention of allowing it; then because the Spanish government would like to, ideologically, but lacks the nerve to follow through when the Moroccans threaten porous borders and trouble in the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla (beautifully summed up on Z-Word here); then because it doesn’t want to upset the US, which is scared an independent Western Sahara might end being a failed state which harbours terrorists (something which becomes more likely with each passing day that this goes unresolved); then because the West is currently terrified of intervening in any largely Moslem state as, after all, these are the reasonable Moslems, not the crazy ones, and we don’t want to upset the applecart, do we; and finally because, frankly, they can’t really do anything unless all 27 countries agree, which they’re sure as hell never going to.

Meanwhile, back in Madrid, Judge Balthasar Garzón took a break a couple of years ago from pursuing corrupt Spanish politicians, to take advantage of a wonderful loophole in his national law and investigate the Sahrawi’s genocide claim. Spain allows its judges to try people for crimes against humanity, whether or not the supposed offence was committed in Spain. That’s right – effectively, a Spanish judge can go to any country in the world and, with sufficient evidence, request that the authorities hand someone over. This can’t possibly work in practice, you say – oh, but it can. The proof is there from the same Garzón’s most famous case: that of one General Augusto Pinochet, who he had successfully arrested in London in 1998 and then began the first of a host of trials which were only to cease at his death eight years later. Sadly, in a hugely controversial decision, Garzón was suspended by the Spanish legal establishment earlier this year, who didn’t like him poking into Franco-era injustices.

So, an odd loophole and a crusading judge has been, strangely, doing what the EU should be doing – bringing pressure to bear on the Moroccan government to end their intransigence, sit down at the negotiating table again and hopefully prevent thousands more deaths, to add to those already committed and being committed.

Now, we Brits were rightly proud of our action in Kosovo, and we now regret our tardiness in Bosnia. I should also add, to be fair, that Western Sahara is not Rwanda in terms of number of people involved or the general brutality of the regime. But murder is murder. You have to ask the question: if EU External Affairs can’t say anything useful in the event of a supposed genocide on its very doorstep – what the hell is it for anyway?

So, please: empower it, or get rid of it. But at the moment, as this case perfectly illustrates, the EU’s foreign policy is meaningless.

Monday, 8 November 2010

End of a decade: Labour’s geography (and history) lesson

As we close the decade with Barack Obama licking his wounds after the midterms, it’s perhaps a good moment to take a look at the tectonic plates of Western geopolitics. And, I don’t want to scare you, but it doesn’t look that inviting for us on the left.

First of all, this shift is just one more example of the political centre of gravity moving decisively to the right over the last few years. Now, the Bush administration’s rule over most of the decade has meant that that is not a great surprise, but the recent economic crisis has confirmed a sharp turn rightwards across the West, not just in the US. Canada and Europe’s Big Four - France, Germany, Britain and Italy all have right-wing governments. When was the last time there was so much alignment in global politics? Russia and Japan have their own special, idiosyncratic politics which don’t really relate to ours, but leftist they’re generally not. Obama is emasculated. In short, not much chance of progressive ideas breaking onto the G8 summit agenda any time soon, then.

In short, the left is on the back foot all over the place. That is not, God forbid, to suggest we should be defeatist – but the job of our political strategists is, we hope, to see the realpolitik, as told to us by the people, and position accordingly to fight back.

In a global context – and, God knows, we should try and think in one in the 21st Century – we are, then, in a less welcoming climate for a left government than in 1997. Neither are we the shiny new kids on the block any more, as we were then. All it seems Cameron needs to do is follow the global tide, which is going his way for now, steal a few centrist policies from the last government and add a few swingeing cuts to please the Daily Mail, in order to hold things together. Oh, and a couple of oddball policies to keep the Lib Dems on board.

So, in light of all this, why do many of us, all our union backers and even some on our front benches seem to feel that what the world needs now is for Labour to provide a more sharply left alternative? To put "clear red water", if you will, between us and the Tories? Let's examine the wisdom of that as a potential strategy.

We could start, perhaps, by observing that as a party we still have an instinct to try to fight 21st Century battles with 20th century policies. Globalisation is a fact. Our system of pensions and National Insurance cannot possibly survive in the same form, and neither can the NHS. Some use of private capital has come to be a generally accepted way of funding public investments for all Western nations, although we debate a lot about exactly how it is used. Not all of these things are necessarily good or pleasant, and they make us uncomfortable, but they are here. They have been since Kinnock's time. Global terrorism is another reality which much of the European left, as well as our own, is ignoring, ostrich-like, as it paints itself into a corner about the unacceptability of anti-terrorism measures. Or worse, as Nik Cohen regularly points out, it cuddles up to nasty terrorist apologists. (To be clear, being against the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is a legitimate, honourable position; defending terrorists and their apologists is not.)

As we struggle to redefine our direction, we are filling many column inches with our introspection but constantly defining ourselves in relation to New Labour, either criticising - or failing to criticise enough - that phase of the party (mostly the former – we currently seem to be in full-on self-flagellation mode). Well, perhaps New Labour is dead, perhaps it lives on. Who cares? What all of this debate seems suddenly to have diverted us from focusing on is the principal reason for any serious political party’s existence: securing power. What about positioning ourselves for that?

Historically, when defeated – 1951, 1979 – our instinct is usually to drift to the left – our comfort zone. (And it may not even matter, in this media-obsessed age, whether we really move to the left or we are merely perceived to move to the left. There’s no doubt about which way the right-wing media, and the Tories, will try and paint us as moving.) Having ceded the centre ground, we then spend soul-destroying years trying to get it back.

It’s a trap. We would do well to take heed of the tectonic plates, as well as our own history, quietly calling us to do otherwise.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Labour's New Generation and the economy (stupid)

Well, we're now starting to see more of how the Opposition is going to shape up over the next few years. The jury's still out - but there are some slightly worrying signs. On the positive side, Ed's smart enough to realise that he needs to make reassuring noises to the business community if he is not to veer into Labour-in-the-Eighties territory - hence the warm speech to the CBI.

On the other hand, his PMQs effort on Wednesday, centred around an attack on Housing Benefit, came off wrong. To be fair, the wind was rather taken out of his sails by Cameron's party trick of reading out from a leaked memo from his office, which he took in good part (not that he had much option) - watch it below (at 0m:55s).



But much more serious was the exchange on Housing Benefit itself. Ed was clearly raising the legitimate concern that indiscriminate cutting could hurt the most vulnerable in society. He's right. But it was the wrong subject at the wrong time, and it failed to answer the pressing question: what's wrong with capping the amount that people can claim, to stop people claiming for ridiculous rents? Since we don't have an answer to that question (or at least, not now that Jamie Purnell is gone from the front benches) which is palatable to the Party, Ed effectively lost the argument and Cameron was Mr. Reasonable. Worse, as someone on LabourList pointed out, the capping policy was actually in Labour's manifesto, author one E. Miliband.

John Rentoul's Independent article is indicative of where things could go wrong. I accept that Rentoul may indeed be a closet Tory, as various people alleged on LabourList, but that is a cop-out, if he has a good point to make. Now, unlike him, I don't believe that Ed is allowing wholesale drift, but he surely needs to hold a tighter rein.

We, the public, are still unsure what the Big Idea is. Ed is said to be "collegiate" in his leadership style. Well, I'm afraid Harold Wilson was also "collegiate" and his governments were a mess. Factions to appease, unions to get on board, compromises to be made. But political leaders need to lead from the front, not try and achieve consensus (name me a successful consensus-based government of note, if you disagree).

It's also fairly obvious where the real flaw in the Coalition's plans are. As Clinton could have told you, "it's the economy, stupid". Simply put, they are cutting too far, too fast and endangering the economic recovery. Not just Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, but also that, er, unreconstructed leftie Martin Wolf of the Financial Times say it's the wrong policy (his excellent article talks of the Coalition "going economic rock-climbing without a rope"). That's the real, intellectually coherent issue which strikes at the heart of the Coalition's key weakness - poor judgement. And we are talking about it; but it needs to be the only, and a fully coordinated, attack. Not just various ministers saying "the cuts are wrong because they hurt people". That's true, but it's not good enough for much of the electorate. Cuts always hurt someone, but that in itself is not always sufficent argument for avoiding them.

Right now, we need to stop playing to our own gallery. Leadership means caring much less about what the Labour movement thinks, and worrying much more about what the country thinks. The first 100 days of a leadership is the time to establish the ground rules - so time is short.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Up to his old tricks?

Interesting debate going on over at LabourList between Darrell Goodliffe and Mark Ferguson on whether or not Ken has damaged the Party and should be disciplined over his support of independent candidate Lutfur Rahman.

The answer is, of course, that Ken has never really been a member of the Labour Party. Oh, he's had a membership card, on and off, but his real loyalty has always been to the Ken Party, a one-man campaigning machine with its own set of ideas. Now, don't get me wrong, Ken is an immensely talented politician and a not at all bad administrator, who has had more comebacks than the various members of Take That. He may even be mayor again. But loyalty has never been his strong suit.

Take this simple idea: most members would agree that campaigning for candidate in another party is a highly disloyal thing to do. In fact standing for another party is an automatic expulsion offence in this party, and always has been. I will leave on one side the fact that the somewhat twisted and unpleasantly race-tinged politics of Tower Hamlets combined with the Party's arcane (and occasionally cheated-on) selection procedures MAY have caused a candidate to be unfairly selected. Or, for that matter, that Ken has made the typical London-leftie mistake of cuddling up to nasty fundamentalist sympathisers like Rahman. The point is simply that, once you have a selection process, you stand behind it and your Party, come what may. Anything else just damages you and it. Or am I just old-fashioned?

But Ken has always played by different rules, and by cleverly pitching himself as David versus the party Goliath, dodges the charge of disloyalty and almost always comes out smelling of roses - as he did masterfully in the original mayoral race which ended up with him running as an independent. We shouldn't be surprised that these things happen - and, in particular, should we be if we really think about the constitutional changes we made only a few years ago.

You see, we're a party who has not quite got used to the decentralisation of power that we ourselves created. In the old days, as a member, you voted for the Leader and Deputy Leader and that was it. This, by the way, is a fact that neither Tony Blair nor John Prescott ever forgot - TB knew he could never sack JP because the members chose him, and you don't take on the membership lightly. So they always stuck close together.

Then, in 1999, it all changed, a fact not lost on a politician as wily as Livingstone. We had a candidate for Mayor directly elected by the membership, and suddenly there was another, albeit smaller, power base in the national Party. Once selected (and particularly once elected), this person would not be reliant on the patronage of the Party Leader, which of course was exactly what happened. Tony Blair was horrified when he realised what had happened, but was powerless to do anything. Ken then spent a modestly successful period as Mayor doing what he does best - i.e., just as he likes.

So, we could feel many emotions as we decide what the hell to do with this brilliant and talented but infuriating and ultimately self-serving man, who delights in making trouble for the leadership...but surprise really shouldn't be one of them.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Shadow cabinets - and this one

Well congratulations to my friends in Islington - not only won back the council in May, but now also a great result for Islington women. Mary Creagh (former LG leader) and Meg Hillier (former councillor and LGA member) are both in the Shadow Cabinet and Emily Thornberry (MP) missed it by a whisker.

Ed has done a good job of surprising people, not to mention a fine use of the talent of Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor. Clever putting Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper in important positions but balancing them out with the only remaining heavyweight. I think Ed is aware that Mr Balls will only truly be useful to the Party over the next few years if he can ditch his Brownite instincts and refrain from plotting. I hope that he and his supporters will get behind Ed.

But...but, but. The Shadow Cabinet elections, let's think about that phrase. I found a good and detailed critique of the process on the interesting Life:Downloaded blog but I'll just limit myself to the more obvious points.

Firstly, why do we do this strange thing in Opposition, tying the hands of the Leader as to whom he can have on his team? None of the other parties do it (and, frankly, I don't know of any other party that does it in the Western world, although I'm happy to be proved wrong on this). Do we mistrust our Leaders so much that we have to pre-pick their team in case we don't agree with it? And even if we do, why do we trust them to pick it in government? Let's at least be consistent in our mistrust. It doesn't make any sense.

Secondly, what's this about women quotas? I thought this Harriet-inspired madness had been stopped but it was only a brief reprieve. I just can't agree with my former colleague Hopi Sen that the number of women in the Shadow Cabinet is an urgent problem which needs addressing (it certainly isn't to the electorate, I can guarantee you). Ok, even if we agreed (which, incidentally, I don't) that in some dark corners of the membership there is a latent sexism and racism still lurking that clearly justifies positive discrimination in selection of MPs...surely with the Leader we have just selected, we would at least expect HIM not to be a sexist? So why not just let him choose? Hmmm, no, that doesn't make any sense either.

From the outside world, this political sideshow may at best look quaint. However, if you scratch the surface and look at what we are actually doing, we reinforce the impression that, while pretending to be a modern party, the way we run it is often byzantine, old-fashioned and, not to put too finer point on it, odd. While thinking we look terribly progressive and are a beacon to the right-thinking world, the net result is that the wackier ideas of the PLP and NEC mean we actually make the Tories look good at party organisation, which is going some.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Ed’s defining week

So, after the speech, we now have a much clearer idea of what kind of leader Ed Miliband will be.

With regard to the three points from my last post, he’s doing ok. Does he have a vision? Yes, I think he does. Although it borrows ideas from New Labour, it’s a shift. And despite his “broad church” efforts to maintain “it’s not about right and left”, and a righteous refusal to oppose every Coalition policy for the sake of it, it seems clear that it is a modest move to the left. What’s not clear is whether this is calculated crowd-pleasing for the benefit of Conference, or whether he really means it, but I'm not sure it matters.

When we say the left, we don’t mean, of course, the hard left of the eighties (thank God). It is the soft left, the Kinnockite left, the left of Compass and the more moderate unions. In fact, this was amply demonstrated by the unusually partisan comments of the great man himself – “we’ve got our party back”, he glowed. Leaving aside the fact that such a comment is spectacularly unhelpful in the current political climate and undoes at a stroke his loyal support for the leadership through 13 years of government, it shows that Kinnock was never truly comfortable with New Labour from the start – something you could have also predicted by a close reading of the Campbell diaries.

However, much as we love the man and what he did for the Party, and understanding that perhaps he deserves a moment of vindication after all these years, are he and his politics really the model for a Labour victory? Not meaning to be overly mean, but…he did lose us two general elections, didn’t he?

And so to whether Ed can win an election. We’ll gloss over his stage persona – although at times his speech felt a little like a conference speech from an over-enthusiastic sixth-former (shades of the teenage William Hague’s “the thcourge of thocialism”) – he’s new to big stages. Let’s stick to the realpolitik. If we take the lesson of history, we can see one thing clearly: you don’t need to drag the Labour Party to the left – it’ll go there all on its own if you give it half a chance. You need to drag it to the centre – because there lies power. If you hold it, you hold the initiative and you push the Opposition to where you want them, like on a squash court.

The Tories currently hold the centre, by cleverly using the Lib Dems as cover: those not that interested in politics, like a friend of mine, think the Coalition is in the centre, not the right. She told me the other day that she liked the coalition because the Lib Dems were acting as a brake on the nastier aspects of the Tories. It’s not like that in practice, of course - politically the government is Tory in all but name - but that’s how it’s perceived. And that’s why the Tories have got the centre sewn up right now.

We have to take it back.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The right Miliband?

Well, it was always going to be one of them. Good luck to Ed as he takes on a very tough job. As regular readers will know, I supported David, but I'm not so churlish as to believe that no-one else can do the job, especially someone with not dissimilar politics (as, in fact, 4 of the 5 candidates had, let's be honest). I also had a lot of time for Ed's work in putting climate change on the national agenda.

But it's easy playing to the Labour movement - now the tough part. Can he win an election? Has he a clear vision? And has he the good judgement he needs to get where he wants to go?

On election-winning: it's too early to tell. He's got a long way to go in winning back voter confidence and he's unlikely to get it with a "clear red water" strategy with voters who made a decided move towards the centre in the general election. He's good interpersonally but lacks Blair's gravitas and Clintonesque gift for working a crowd. On the positive side, he inherits a party membership and machine in a much better state than Blair did, so doesn't have to spend years reworking the party. And truly, although change is necessary, neither can Labour be so far away from where it needs to be politically, or the Tories would have won a majority in Parliament.

On vision: if he has a policy vision which is as clear as Blair's and Brown's or even Smith's and Kinnock's, it's not clear yet what that is (at least, to me it's not). This needs to change, as most voters have a lot less interest than I do as a political anorak, and if I don't know his vision I'm sure they don't. This does not augur well.

On judgement: in his leadership campaign he has cuddled up to unions whose views he does not necessarily espouse, when he may have been smarter keeping his distance. He now has the stark choice either of distancing himself from what he said to them during the campaign (which makes him look unprincipled) or deliver openly on whatever deal he made (which makes him look unelectable to a public which is largely not union-sympathetic, especially at a time of strike stoppages).

The first 6 months will very likely decide whether or not Ed can win, as it did for Hague when the Tories lost office. And even then, his winning will still depend on the coalition making a poor fist of their time in office. If they're seen to do well, it may not even matter.

Despite the relative narrowness of our election defeat, it's not an easy place to start from, Ed. I wish you luck.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Can we just remember?

Look, I understand the need of the leadership candidates to move the debate on. I understand the need to acknowledge that we had an electoral defeat (albeit, in historic terms, a very narrow one) and change course. I also understand that in the Party at large, there is a groundswell of opinion which has never been entirely comfortable with the performance of the Labour government over the last ten years and feels it somehow wasn't "left enough". Oh yes, and there a bunch of people, inside the Party and out, who are sore about Iraq. Fair enough.

But, as we scramble to run in the opposite direction, can we just remember that, for all his faults or wrong decisions, this man won 3 general elections and was unarguably both the longest-lived, and for a long time the most popular Prime Minister we have ever had. And that, in many parts of the world, outside of the UK, he is greatly admired and respected (ask anyone in Kosovo or Sierra Leone what they think about him).

So, do we as a Party really need to scowl when we hear his name, up to the leadership candidates themselves? Do we really hate it so much that for once we managed to wield power for a long enough time to do something useful with it? Or is it just that we secretly love Opposition? Perhaps we could also do with a bit of understanding that, whatever the feelings of those in our rarefied little world of the Party thought, Tony Blair had a broad constituency in the country that we will certainly struggle to recapture. "We don't want to recapture it", I hear some say. Well, welcome to permanent Opposition, I say.

At the moment it seems that we are struggling to redefine ourselves, which is how it should be, as the tectonic plates slowly move. But, worryingly, in the debates and interviews to date, it is never on the basis of a radical new list of policies. The candidates are always defining themselves relative to what's gone before - a backwards-looking, unoriginal exercise which is hardly likely to galvanise the electorate, even with the own goals the ConDems are constantly scoring.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Battle of the Millibands

According to the list of CLP nominations in today on Labourlist from my former colleague Luke Akehurst, there are only two horses in the race. Although from MP nominations it may have seemed this way for some time, these were a fairly poor indicator, IMHO. After all, how much difference is it likely to make which way a few hundred MPs vote? Interestingly some (like my other former colleague John Mann) have switched their allegiance to DM having seen the results in their own CLP. Well, it's good for Party democracy, I guess.

Anyway, as I said in my comments on LabourList: on the regional breakdown, interesting to see that David Milliband is doing particularly well in heartland Labour areas such as North, Scotland, West Mids. Ed Milliband is mostly doing well in less strong Labour areas, London being an exception, but then again London has never warmed to figures perceived to be to the right of the Party. No surprises that Andy Burnham has done well in his native North West, or that DM has too in the South East "Middle England" belt.

Overall it looks good for David Milliband, although his brother may run him close - this is a good cross-section of Party opinion. No-one else has really got a prayer, on this analysis. But hey, I thought the Lib Dems and the Tories could never make a coalition!

For the record, my vote will be with David, should there be no major revelations in the next few weeks. He's not perfect, but he's the only one you can truly imagine opening the door to No. 10.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Harriet backs off

Harriet Harman yesterday backed off on plans to introduce quotas into the Shadow Cabinet elections.

Thank God for that. We would really have started to look foolish in front of the electorate we are hoping will vote us back before long. You see, we forget that the preoccupations of a small number of members of the political class in Westminster, or even around the country, are not the preoccupations of the country as a whole. Unlike a few members of the Party, the country as a whole does not see glaring inequality in their daily life at every turn.

While it's certainly a frustrating and accepted truth that women still do not hold a sensible proportion of top management jobs, it is simply not true that it is necessary to have 50-50 or bust in Shadow Cabinet posts. It is iniquitous enough that positive discrimination has twisted our selection processes for MPs beyond all recognition, without compounding this and affecting our ability to select the best possible team by forcing us into quotas.

Can we not trust ordinary Party members to select the best ministers without feeling we have to "guide" them? Are Party members really so intrinsically sexist, for Heaven's sake? Thank God this debate, at least, seems to be over for now.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Social entrepreneurship - from the horse's mouth


Yesterday at IESE, Barcelona I had the privilege of listening to possibly the most well-known of all social entrepreneurs, Prof. Mohammed Yunus of the Grameen Bank, Bangladesh. More or less single-handedly inventing the concept of microcredits, and helping millions of people in the process set up businesses. A lot of people are tagged “inspirational speaker” but this one really “walks the walk” – a Nobel Peace Prize winner, he’s made important things happen for good and reinvented business models. He's also extremely clever - makes you think "why didn't I think of that?" - and very funny.

Yunus works always from the bottom up, small operations which scale. And as a lateral thinker, he thinks that sometimes, knowing nothing about a subject is a distinct advantage. “When I had to set up the bank, it was quite easy”, says Yunus. “I just observed how ordinary banks worked…and then did exactly the opposite.” Operations local not central. Ownership by those involved, not third parties wanting a return. Prices based on what people can afford, not what the market dictates (what the market dictates for borrowing for people in poverty creates a "market failure" well-known to microeconomists). As Albert Einstein once observed, “We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”.

In the Grameen Bank he set up, not only a microcredit system which put the loan sharks out of business in Bangladesh and helped millions of women out of poverty, but also transplanted the model, against the advice of many, to Queens, New York City, where it’s also been a great success. And a healthcare insurance system. And a nursing college. And a project to get necessary vitamins to undernourished kids. And a massive vegetable-growing project to prevent night blindness through lack of vitamin A. Oh, and a mobile phone company with 50% of the Bangladeshi market, using a single woman in each rural village as a reseller of mobile phone time. All practical, bottom-up solutions.

He appreciates that modern business is highly effective in making things happen, but believes it flawed in its motivations. He’s not against businesses making money, but wants to propose an alternative kind of business, the “social business”, to run alongside it. Whereas the definition of a social entrepreneur can be sometimes a bit blurry (for example, with-profit or not-for-profit?), he is, typically, very straightforward and precise. What have all these businesses got in common? Firstly they’re owned by the people who run them. In fact, Yunus has never owned a single share in any of these multi-billion dollar enterprises. And secondly, they don’t pay dividends but reinvest the profits. (Hmm, doesn’t this sound pretty similar to that radical thinking that we in the West call a co-operative…?) Social business, co-op, mutual, social entrepreneurship - call it what you will, it works.

Finally, what has he to say on the motive for business in general? In short, he agrees with something that my friend Prof. Miguel Ariño said on his blog last week: the first objective of business should not be profit, although this can be a by-product. It is there to satisfy a need or, as Yunus says, to solve a problem. And businesses are, in my opinion, generally much more effective at doing this, expanding and deploying more rapidly while making good use of their talented people, than other types of organisation.

Well that’s about as good an argument for social entrepreneurship – in whatever flavour you decide to pursue it – as I can think of.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Trouble still looming in the sun




Spain, a country dear to my heart, is in trouble. Not from its unreformed labour laws and resulting two-tier labour market, its borrowing binges on cheap Euro interest rates or even its burst property bubble, the combination of which has resulted in an astonishing 20% unemployment - although none of these have helped the situation.

No, the BBC's Gavin Hewitt pinpointed the real problem in a post yesterday - the prime minister himself. While it pains me to say this of one of the few remaining leaders on the left in Europe, Zapatero is very far indeed from cutting the proverbial mustard. While he has made good progress on social issues, such as the Spanish national disease of domestic violence, or human rights, on economic matters he has continued to be on the back foot throughout his six years in office. This was shown most keenly a couple of weeks ago when, after denying there was a need for economic reform for many months, he was finally kicked into action only by a call from Barack Obama (who had previously ignored most of Zapatero's efforts to be friends).

It's worse than that, however. There is no replacement for Zapatero: within his party he is without serious challengers minded to challenge, he faces a feeble opposition in Rajoy's PP and, in any case, no-one wants a change of prime minister in a situation where a currency or banking collapse could have disastrous consequences across Europe. So until, with painful slowness, Spain can be pulled back from the brink enough to allow a smooth transfer of power to someone more competent, it's stuck with him.

If you ever needed a reason why the old, corporatist Euro-model of the 70s and 80s is dead, you have only to look on the dead hand on this country's tiller. Europe, as a political entity, needs to be there as a means of working together and forging alliances, not as the paean to our taking responsibility for our own countries.


And, by the way, this affects all of us, not just the Spanish. If Spain were to go down, the consequences could be felt across Europe for many years to come. It is, after all, no longer a poor country on the margins of Europe.

It's the world's ninth largest economy.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Thank you and goodnight, David Laws

Ah, the "new politics", where all political misbehaviour was to come to an end. Oh, for the bright halcyon days of early May.

It was good while it lasted - about 18 days - wasn't it?

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The dust settles

Ok, so we were in with a shot of helping form a government. And then it turned out that Nick Clegg was just squeezing for a better deal with the Tories.

Well, perhaps it's for the best. Labour needs some time to reflect, and perhaps John Reid was right, it was too much clutching at straws.

However, if there is some comfort we can get from this situation, it's that Cameron has taken a massive gamble on his party's future, something which in their rush to fawn on the new government the British media seems to have forgotten. Why?

If the vote for AV (which, don't tell me otherwise, IS a form of PR or, at least, a system which more closely follows share of the vote) is won, the Tories could be out of power permanently. It ultimately boils down to what Tony Blair tried to negotiate with Paddy Ashdown (and then thought better of), but the principle remains: in all elections as long as anyone can remember, the Tories have had a minority of the vote compared to the sum of Labour and Liberal. So, if the vote is won, they could be out of power for a generation, if not forever. The smarter members of his own party are aware of this, which is why they have always been solidly against PR.

And, finally, if the vote is won by the Liberals, does anyone really think the coalition will hold till the end of the Parliament? Of course it can't, because if the people have decided they want PR, and the incumbent government probably wouldn't have been formed if PR was in place, then it pulls the rug from under its legitimacy. The Libs press for an immediate election and, hey presto, the Tories lose.

This scenario isn't certain, of course - it depends on a lot of things - but if it were to happen, Cameron would go down in history as the man who destroyed his party, like Lloyd George and McDonald before him, and in the case of Lloyd George it never recovered - until now.

Not a great result for the "new politics", eh? Watch this space.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

End of an era

Well, Gordon has effectively gone. Although I'm not exactly his number one fan as Prime Minister, I have to admit that he is a political heavyweight, a brilliant political strategist and was an outstanding Chancellor, and therefore a huge loss to Labour. And where are the rest of the political heavyweights - in ANY party, for that matter?

If there is some small comfort to be gained, it's that Labour are now in with a shot of stopping the Tories take office. But is a coalition (or other deal) sustainable? No-one really knows, and there are very strong opinions on both sides. Not surprising since no-one in this country is used to cross-party negotiations (try living on the Continent).

And what rubbish the media are coming up with, David Dimbleby laying into poor old Alistair Darling for wanting to "cling to power". What rubbish, honestly. If you are the second party and the first can't do a deal, it's your duty to do a deal.

We're in uncharted water here. God knows how it'll all end up.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Egg-on-face time for UK press

So, a hung parliament is official, as of half an hour ago. The media, who have largely been braying of a Cameron walkover, were wrong (see front pages here). The Guardian, who foolishly talked of the "Liberal moment" having arrived, was wrong. The pundits were largely wrong. The exit polls, which no-one believed last night, have turned out to be uncannily accurate.

Labour has been hurt, no doubt about it. The Lib Dems have certainly been hurt, after the ridiculous expectations build up over recent weeks. The Tories have also been hurt, as they cannot form a majority government. But there are still more seats for progressive parties in the Commons than for the Tories. Can we (Labour together with the Lib Dems) grasp the moment and do something with it?

Still all to play for.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Polling day 2010 - forget the press

Well, the last week has seen a great example of the UK press showing its true right-wing colours. Across the press - and I say "press" rather than "media", as the BBC, for instance, has been a lot more objective - everyone is trying to confidently predict a Cameron win, when the polls don't actually point to that at all. First of all, what does a win mean? Majority or Prime Minister? For Cameron, both seem at best uncertain, or at worst improbable.

Oh, and our big thanks to the Guardian, for sticking with Labour when the going got tough...vote Lib Dem, indeed. What were they thinking?

Anyway, it's time to ditch the press spin, and look at the evidence.

Let's get this straight: the latest Harris poll predicts more seats for Labour than any other party, which would very likely put them into a minority government with an arrangement with the Liberals. The other two May 6 polls, ICM and Comres, show a hung parliament the other way. It is, however, much less likely that the Liberals will pact with the Tories. Which means it is wide open whether or not Cameron will be Prime Minister by tomorrow.

I don't claim to be able to predict the outcome. It's impossible to call until 10pm tonight, when we'll know the exit polls. And even then (cf. 1992) we can't be sure in a situation as close as this, things may well change as results come in.

What is clear is that this is the Bush-Gore 2000 of recent UK electoral history and that every single vote will count. What is also fairly likely is that there will be a hung parliament, followed by days or weeks of frantic horse-trading. And, if Cameron ends up being Prime Minister, God forbid, it will probably be by the skin of his brightly-polished teeth.

So, please, get out and vote.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Second week of campaign - better than expected

Well we seem to be doing alright, or rather, much better than I had feared. Gordon gave a more confident performance on this week's TV debate. Nick Clegg seems to be being canonised by the press, but...hang on, in the harsh light of the polling booth will people really vote for someone who cannot win (and may not even get influence in government)?

Latest YouGov poll says Con 34 Lab 29 LD 29. Which is only 5 points and not the kind of swing we were seeing 12 months ago, by a long shot. Given that the Libs will not pact with the Tories, it seems quite possible that the Tories will end up without any chance of governing, because for them it's an absolute majority or nothing.

And I know you've probably seen it, but hey, let's post Eddie Izzard for posterity:



Gary bloomin' Barlow, Cameron - do me a favour.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

First full week of campaign - Cameron falls apart on gay rights

Well, they're off. Brown ok in TV debate, although the real story was clearly Nick Clegg's performance. But this was the best news of the week for me - look at the Tories on gay rights. They're all over the shop.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Catholic church: denial rules on child abuse

A great and nicely balanced article in The Economist yesterday reflects on the recent revelations in Ireland, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. It's clearly not intended as an anti-religious message, and certainly tries to acknowledge the good works that the Church has done and the current guidelines for priests which do much to stamp out ongoing abuse.

However, if the Catholic Church had been a public institution, run by the state in any of these countries, let's face it - it would probably have been shut down by now (it does, of course, get some state funding in some countries, but that's another matter). And the continuing denial in some sections of the Church is further damaging its name in Europe, probably already the most secular of continents, where it really could be the final nail in its coffin as regards maintaining the faith among young people.

Moreover, the torrent of revelations, it seems to me, has only just started. There's another country I know very well, on which surprisingly few revelations have come out as yet, and that's Spain. As the article points out, children's institutions under authoritarian regimes (which, let's not forget, Spain was until 1976) are particularly susceptible to child abuse. And after Italy, Spain probably is the most important country in Europe for the Pope in terms of numbers of practising Catholics. And many Spaniards - especially younger ones, or those who suffered under Franco - have none of the religious reservations that you might find in, say, the US or Italy about respect for the clergy.

I'm inclined to think that in the next year or two, Spain will be the next country to reveal its awful secrets. And this time it could well be not a torrent, but a flood.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Co-ops need a level playing field, not handouts

As previously reported and welcomed on this blog, the government is giving profile co-operative ideals a way never before considered, as argued in this piece in the Guardian.

It’s a big idea, whose time has clearly come, and I endorse it wholeheartedly. However, I was concerned by the tone of the article, which talked about “pumping resources” and “financial support” for Co-operatives.

Whoa, there. That, for me, is not what Co-ops are all about and I’m sure it’s not what they themselves are suggesting. The proud tradition of Co-ops is to reinvest profits: and to prioritise other important outcomes like employment, quality and fairness. But it’s not to take handouts from government. Co-ops need to be competitive, for the obvious reason that they compete directly in the marketplace with companies which are not co-ops. If they don’t, they and the movement die – it’s a basic principle of the co-operative world.

But it’s not about state subsidies, like Tony Benn did briefly with Triumph Meridian in the 70s – that just creates wrong incentives and ultimately harms the fine name of co-operatives. What we need is proper legislation which creates a level playing field for Co-ops, a process started by the snappily-titled Co-operative & Community Benefit Societies & Credit Unions Bill currently going through Parliament.

And that won’t cost the government a penny in ongoing support, will protect Co-ops’ good name with their supporter base (which is far wider than just the Labour Party), and maintain their proud tradition of standing on their own two feet.

Now that's co-operation.

Monday, 15 February 2010

World's most powerful nation votes to further harm its political system?

I was saddened to hear of the recent decision by the US Supreme Court that governments cannot limit corporate donations to political parties.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not - at all - one of those knee-jerk anti-Americans that you often find in Europe (especially, I'm afraid, Continental Europe), saying what can you expect from the dark heart of capitalism etc. etc. No, I like a lot of things about the States, its dynamism and positivity. You get that if you live there, even if only for a few months like I did a few years back. I am less keen on its attitude to public services, or some of its awful reactionary laws. But again, let's not confuse America and Americans, most of whom I believe to be decent people with values very similar to ours.

But let's also be honest about its political system. There is a clear reason why the politics of the pork barrel has always blighted American politics, and that is the lack of regulation on party donations. Specifically, in the modern age the lack of regulation on TV advertising spots means that electioneering becomes a battle of wallets, not policies. You can see the result clearly on US TV during an election campaign.

You need, it is said, at least $1m to run for Congress where in the UK, by contrast, you can spend a maximum of about GBP 12,000 to become an MP. And what happens after a US election? Well, the people who gave that money want favours. In the process, even good men become corrupted.

So, what does this new law do? Firstly, to be completely non-partisan, it exacerbates the problem immensely by accelerating the money arms race. Secondly - to declare my obvious preference that the Democrats win - it slants the race in favour of the Republicans, who will always have deeper pockets in terms of corporate sponsorship.

As Obama says, "it's a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans." Quite.

The corporate lobby, like every other grouping, has a right to their opinion. But it doesn't have the right to run a country.
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