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.
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