Wednesday, 23 May 2012

This voter registration drive. Why, exactly?

High turnout is good. It is an unequivocal Good Thing. In fact, it is perhaps the only social good to which all democrats – at least technically – aspire, because it affirms our faith in our chosen system; a metric for the distance we stand from chaos. In other words: reach a turnout of zero, and you’re no longer a democracy.

At the same time, for those of us who have worked at the political coal-face as staffers, the detail of elections is our bread and butter. We are intimately acquainted with wards, polling districts, the intricacies of contiguous and non-contiguous boundaries in a way which is not entirely normal (as I said to a former colleague a couple of weeks back, it is a measure of the total anorak this party has made me that, even years later, I can still recount the names of the parliamentary divisions in cities I have never lived in: Southampton, Sheffield, Liverpool). And it is this same, backroom party perspective that caused me a butterfly-like feeling of apprehension as I watched Ed Miliband announce “the biggest voter registration drive for a generation” at the Progress conference ten days ago.

I want to feel pleased about this and, in one sense, I am. It’s important that we formulate policy for reconnecting voters with politicians and something, looking at recent election results, that Britain urgently needs. But it is one thing to propose a policy, and quite another to roll up your sleeves and implement it yourself from Opposition. Or, put it this way: I’m not happy with the state of the health service, but that doesn’t mean the party should go out and build its own hospitals.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The status quo in London is not an option

As the post-election dust settles, we must hope that the party is, somewhere, currently holding a quiet post-mortem, to take away the lessons for next time. There are many positives we can take away, of course: that the locals went swimmingly and so did the London Assembly. And that we held Glasgow, that vital first step in turning around the Scottish party, a task which is, in turn, a sine qua non for preserving the very Union.

However, in a post-mortem, the biggest lesson to learn – and the easiest to forget if, as in this case, things have gone well – usually comes from what went wrong, not what went right.

In this case, it’s staring us in the face: we lost the mayorals to a mediocre candidate whose party was fairly unpopular, while our London result overall was a resounding win. And what went badly wrong was not the policy offering or the party’s campaign tactics, but the Livingstone candidacy itself.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The left's tale of two cities

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…”
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

There seemed to be eerie echoes of Dickens’ words last weekend in the parallel events in those same cities of London and Paris. It was, in the midst of an economic downturn, a very positive one for the left. Yet it is also as yet unclear how the results will be interpreted: wisely, or otherwise.

 London, Miliband rather secured the best of all possible worlds. For months the media had speculated that a defeat in the mayoral election would be a calamity for Labour. They were wrong. In the end, the defeat was such a personal one for Livingstone, and the wins elsewhere so resounding, that it seems to have caused very little damage at all to Labour’s 2015 electoral chances. And probably much less than might have been caused by Miliband’s jousting with a revitalised, awkward Livingstone as the party’s highest-placed representative in public office. Barring some major personal calamity, his position is secure.

o, the only damage might have derived from Labour having selected such a poor mayoral candidate in the first place, as even the normally-supportive New Statesman described him, thus reminding the electorate that it is not yet looking like a sure-footed party of government.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

A last word on Livingstone

Yesterday morning I watched Livingstone's runner-up speech (you can see the whole five minutes here). Although there were moments when it was difficult not to feel human sympathy with a man confronted with the humiliation of what was an extremely personal defeat, at the same time it seems that his extraordinary lack of self-awareness stayed with him till the last. In the middle of the speech, he pulled out this gem:
"...and I think how different the result might have been, if the BBC hadn't cancelled that Question Time debate, and stopped candidates being interviewed on the Today programme.
But, irrespective of bias in the media..."
No words of apology to the thousands of London activists for the things done or said in a disastrous campaign which was patently thrown by the candidate himself. No, instead - and you really couldn't make this up - the traditional attempt to make himself the victim of antipathic media, a reflexive tactic used throughout the last forty years of his career. And how wonderfully ironic that he should pick the one outlet which is regularly accused of being full of woolly lefties.

Ah, it was all the BBC's fault. The terrible, nasty, right-wing BBC.

My fourth piece at the New Statesman, on a more important way in which Livingstone was affected by the media, is now up here.

Friday, 4 May 2012

A difficult decision

The polls have closed. It may be relatively close, or not, but Ken Livingstone will probably lose (and, at this point, whether he wins or loses, the argument is the same). And I feel like I can finally send this rather personal piece that I wrote some time ago. I know it’s a little long, but I feel the need to explain some things that you may not all know.

This is the first election in my entire life that I remember feeling unable to support the Labour candidate (and that includes 1983, under Michael Foot, although I was too young to vote then). For the record, I was supportive of, and would have voted for given the chance, all the London Assembly candidates who stood yesterday. I have broken no party rules; I have not campaigned for a non-Labour candidate. That said, I cannot find it in my heart either to criticise those members who have done so (although, personally, I’d be embarrassed to vote for Boris Johnson, a candidate with an woolly policy agenda and who clearly sees any kind of political conviction as a terrible hindrance). I criticise neither them, nor the thousands of decent activists who have decided to “hold their noses”, as Tom Watson put it, and “vote for Ken”, not to mention their loyal campaigning for someone who so clearly does not deserve it.

No, if there was ever a special case, this is it. Before I tell you why, a few words to the people who feel it is wrong for me, as an activist of twenty years and former staffer, not to support Labour’s candidate.

First, to those friends who gently suggested that I was not being very helpful to the party by pointing out the defects in Livingstone’s case: I’m sorry. But I am not going to write things I do not believe. If I believe there is a case to answer and where the truth is being distorted, I will not gloss over it just to be nice to the party. Some of Livingstone’s public statements during the campaign had holes all over them. At best they lacked credibility and, often, sailed close to complete untruth.

This sweeping under the carpet, in all honesty, is not good for the party. The reaction to an untruth should not be to tell people off for pointing it out. The reaction should be to point up, and rectify, the untruth. Should we not 
instead just get the liar not to lie, or am I just a bit old-fashioned?

Further, there is absolutely no point writing a blog if it is to write Party propaganda. People can go to the party website for that (or Liberal Conspiracy, some mean-minded people might say). And nothing against Party propaganda, by the way – it’s a completely necessary part of the political process. I used to do that when I wrote for the little newspaper we started at Islington Labour Party, and it was fun. But I don’t do it here at the Centre Left – for a start, no-one would read it. I need to write what I think, period. And I hope that people appreciate a little honesty, otherwise there’s not really much point.

Second, to those who simply suggested I was being “factional”, that is, because my politics is different from his: you don’t get it. This is not about left and right factions. I have supported candidates equally to the left as Ken, and would again. It is about integrity, and it is about the future of the London Labour Party.

Third, to those more extreme people who accused me and others of some terrible disloyalty for not automatically supporting the Labour candidate in any election, no matter how unpalatable they are: that’s just silly and counterproductive. There may come a time when you actually believe that you cannot, in all conscience, do so, for whatever reason. The same people criticise me every time I write an article, and the fact is that the party needs critical friends, not cheerleaders.

[Note: there is a madder, fourth category: those people who have ended up criticising the electorate for not voting Livingstone (I kid you not). For them I refer readers to Hopi Sen’s excellent post here, likening it to Bertolt Brecht’s wonderful, parodic suggestion that the government should “dissolve the people and elect another”.]

I appreciate that loyalty is important in a political party, up to a point – it is the glue which makes us forget our differences and go out and spend our free time fundraising or door-knocking. I too have felt frustration at those flaky members who capriciously decide whether they like the party’s policies this week before they turn up to a meeting or deliver their leaflets. They’re no use to a political party. On the other hand, I have dedicated a fairly significant portion of both my free time and my working life to the party over the last twenty years. So please, don’t accuse me of flakiness. There are limits to the loyalty of anyone, and you do not have to leave your critical faculties at the door when you join. We might also add that Ken Livingstone is hardly someone to lecture on the subject of loyalty (see below).

To all three of these groups, the only reason you could possibly have for thinking this is simply all okay is to be terribly badly-informed. In some extreme cases this is wilful, but in most it is because you probably do not have the time or interest to go crawling through blogs and newspaper coverage to find nuggets of truth, or even videos where Ken manages to hang himself with his own words.

I do. In researching my articles, I have done precisely this, and it is this that has changed my mind from gritted-teeth tolerance to make an awful realisation about the man and how he operates. But not based on hearsay, based on easily-available hard evidence.

I am, in my own little way, making a statement, and it’s this: that the London Labour Party’s way of doing politics in London is not sustainable. And now I want to explain why, dear readers. Why this is a very special case. If you really think that everything is acceptable about the Labour candidate, please, read on and understand why it is not.

One. Lack of loyalty to the party. Livingstone has not only stood against his party once, but openly supported the independent Lutfur Rahman in the Tower Hamlets mayoral election against a Labour candidate, in direct contravention of party rules. It is certainly by no means beyond the realms of imagination, either, to conclude that he may end his days outside the Labour Party, on a ticket of Respect or as an independent, or something similar. That is the extent of his loyalty.

Two. Consorting with dictators and demagogues using the public purse. Livingstone, while holder of an office with zero responsibility for foreign relations, organised trips to Venezuela and to Cuba at the taxpayer’s expense. This cannot be allowable for any candidate, much less a Labour one. It is an embarrassment. Not to mention the oil-deal-that-wasn’t he made with Ch├ívez which, as some Assembly members pointed out, had nothing to do with oil.

Three. The employment of a group of thoroughly unpleasant people. In office, Livingstone was surrounded by a clique from Socialist Action, a tiny, entryist, hard-left organisation. These were not Labour people, or anything like them. On leaving office in 2008, these people were paid off, according to the Daily Mail, an average of £200,000 per person, after a change Livingstone made to GLA rules which then allowed people on short-term contracts to claim severance. This is not to mention the case of his “race advisor” Lee Jasper, who funded the project of someone that he wanted to seduce with public money and was then forced to resign. I have corresponded with Jasper on Twitter after his ridiculous, and highly ethically questionable, claim that “black people can never be racist”. Jasper is awful: of the Diane Abbott school of seeing the whole world through race-coloured glasses. Most of us, thankfully, do not.

Four. The trade-off between winning the London elections and winning the next general election. On the one hand, it is stupid to say that, in pure electoral terms, a mayoral defeat will help us win the next election. On the other, a good win in the local elections and the London Assembly, which looks likely, coupled with a Labour defeat in the mayoral election may make Miliband look stronger and make Livingstone his lightning conductor for the mayoral loss. We shall see.

More importantly, this result may be less bad than the damage done by putting off for another four years the rebuilding of London Labour. Since the mid-1990s, Labour in London has been left to its own devices, like the rest of the country. London has always been to the left of the national party, ok. But, on the back of that, it has failed to reject Livingstone as a candidate (although the non-OMOV selection process was flawed to begin with). As a result, it is still living in the 1980s. More than anything it needs to ensure that other parts of London do not descend into the corrupt, vote-rigging chaos that has become the politics of the left wing in Tower Hamlets, inside and outside Labour. Most of London is comprised of decent, hard-working activists like everywhere else. But there is a small, rancid part which is not helping the party reform itself.

In short, losing this mayoral election, assuming a good performance in the locals and the Assembly, may well be a better long-term result for Labour than winning London and perpetuating a method of operation which is stagnating.

Five. Tax hypocrisy and its defence. I don’t give a damn about Livingstone paying the minimum tax, and good luck to him. In fact, it’s pretty stupid to complain about minimising tax. If there are loopholes, that is the government’s fault, not the fault of people who exploit them. What should we all do, say “yes, I’d like to pay twice as much tax, please”? No, I care about someone saying everyone should do something (don’t exploit tax loopholes) and then doing the exact opposite (exploit tax loopholes). It makes him look unscrupulous and hypocritical. This may, indeed, have been the issue that finally made the wheels fall off his campaign.

But that is really a minor point, compared with the inanity of his later defence. He just could not produce a set of accounts stamped by his accountant, unlike the other candidates. They were incomplete, because they did not include the company in which he had left a large amount of capital, to be drawn off later. It would have been a simple thing to just release everything, but he didn’t. You have to ask yourself why, and there is no reasonable explanation apart from the fact that they would have looked pretty bad if released. He promised full disclosure but, during the final days of the campaign, he was reduced to continually saying they were going to be delivered in a few days. They never arrived.

Six. Questionable statements on race. Alienating an entire community, as Livingstone has managed with the Jewish community, is a difficult trick to pull off. The fact that a few members of said community panicked at the last minute and (we assume) thought they might be left out in the cold in the case he got elected, matters nothing.

We can also add to this his friendliness with the awful racist, homophobic preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, his comments about concentration camps to Jewish journalist Oliver Finegold which, lest we forget, got him suspended as Mayor, his comment that the Reuben brothers could “go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs”.

It is not brain surgery to conclude that, the more we tolerate this kind of behaviour within our great party, the shabbier it looks.

Seven. Paid work for the mouthpiece of an undemocratic and murderous regime. His regular slot on Press TVthe English-language propaganda channel of the far-right theocracy that is the Republic of Iran, is well known and is unpardonable. It is not something any Labour politician should do. That also goes for Jeremy Corbyn MP, who did the same when he stood in for George Galloway, with whom he is good friends.

Eight. Call for the incarceration of a former party leader. I understand that there are those in the party who disagreed with Britain’s role in Iraq, although I do not. I respect the disagreement of Chris Smith, and the late Robin Cook. But there is a world of difference between believing, honourably, that Tony Blair made a wrong decision, and calling for his indictment on serious crimes. Apart from the naked stupidity of the claim, and whether or not you like Blair, there is the rather important issue of party discipline. It is almost inconceivable that any MP would dare to make such a foolish call, because they could have the whip withdrawn. However, someone with their own electoral base can more or less do what they like, including embarrassing the party. Imagine if Boris Johnson were to call for, say, the indictment of Lady Thatcher over the Falklands. He would be reprimanded from all quarters of the party, if not forcibly thrown out. We, however, shrug, and say “Ken is Ken”. Well, no, we don’t have to accept that.


Finally, it is not good enough for us to be saying all this in the post-mortem after the election. All the evidence for the prosecution was there to be found on the internet, as I will be pointing out shortly in a piece for the New Statesman. There is no excuse for the Labour party to sit there and say “he was democratically selected” (he wasn’t, it was “managed” via the usual electoral college); or “we didn’t know he was like this” (no, you have no excuse. It's all there).

We should not welcome him in our party, and we should certainly never, ever select him again, not even to be the NEC's tea-boy. That is not being "factional". It is merely wanting politicians with integrity.

We are all, as a party, ultimately to blame for the situation, and our leadership needs to think carefully about how such a situation can be prevented from ever happening again. 

Because, ultimately, you end up with a candidate like that only when your party is a little out of control. And that is the biggest worry of all.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

The double-dip, if it is one, has not changed the rules of the game

Delight, for many on the left, met the economic figures last Wednesday. Britain was not in recovery after all, but was the victim of a double-dip recession. Paul Krugman wrote eloquently of Britain’s “death spiral of self-defeating austerity”, and Ed Balls had a very good day.

All true, or very likely so, although one cannot know for sure, Balls and Darling seem to have been closer to the mark, and Krugman is usually a pretty shrewd observer.

Balls’ argument is looking considerably stronger than it did and, in parliamentary terms, as Dan Hodges puts it, he “put George Osborne on the canvass” . So this is the start of Labour’s long road back, right, now we have fixed our economic credibility problem?

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