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)

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.


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.

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