Friday, 28 January 2011

Reflections on a brilliant (Shadow) Chancellor

He has always been seen as a heavyweight and a bruiser. He has experience of the Treasury at the highest level and was well-respected there. He is ferociously intelligent, one of the brightest of all his Oxford contemporaries who, famously, does not suffer fools gladly. And, despite failing in his bid to be elected leader, there is no doubt of his importance as de facto Number Two for the Labour Party, coming at a time of great turmoil for both the Party and the economy; a politician seen as a ballast of rigour against the madder and less thought-out ideas of some of his colleagues on the left.

But this is not yet another paean to Ed Balls: although it could be, in the future. Raise your glasses instead to 93 year-old Denis Healey, arguably the most celebrated Labour-leader-who-never-was of my lifetime. This article was written a week ago but, as chance would have it, we also have a couple of new insights thanks to John Rentoul’s coverage of Healey’s recent Mile End Group speech.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Can we please just ignore the Lib Dems?

While recent headlines may have all but obliterated from memory Ed’s recent Fabians speech, it is also worth lingering on his more prescriptive, post-Oldham Guardian article from the day before. If Ed did not go as far as Neal Lawson did and metaphorically throw open the gates of Victoria Street to Lib Dem members to invite them in for tea, he certainly signalled a rapprochement which might live to be seen as unwise. Unwise because it seems doomed to fail, and unwise also because such a failure would be likely to come back and bite us. When you attempt to woo, rejection leaves you looking undesirable.

There are some important barriers to cooperation. First, the Lib Dems themselves: as the FT wryly observed, if you want to cooperate with another party, best not filibuster it in the Lords on its touchstone issue (voting reform), or describe it as “tragic”. Also, be aware that it may be counterproductive: some Lib Dems may just react angrily to what they see as an opportunist attempt to split their party. Or it may simply be ignored, by most.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Time, experience and normality: Labour’s real loss

There are – thankfully – some positives we can glean from all of this. There is the fact that Balls can now bring his undoubted talent and expertise to the economic brief. There is also the fact that Johnson and Miliband were clearly not seeing eye-to-eye and there is now the opportunity for a new start, and possibly even a clearer definition of economic policy, as it seems difficult to imagine Balls waiting for the completion of the policy review process to define his approach. They have worked together before at the Treasury and presumably appreciate each other’s strengths and weaknesses. All these things are good.

The negatives, of course, are substantial: the more obvious ones picked over by the press this morning. Firstly Johnson’s appointment was absolutely not the mistake that Steve Richards argues it was. Ed’s choice was, in fact, extremely shrewd: he put a heavyweight in a heavyweight position and, more importantly, appointed someone who was not Ed Balls. Balls is someone whose talents are to be greatly admired but the harsh truth is, his association with Brown’s Treasury could destroy us on the economic brief, and that is nine-tenths of the political battle for 2011.

Then there is the concern that the two may not agree on economic policy, and may clash the same as or, taking into account the personalities and personal rivalry, worse than with Johnson. And that is the final issue, of course, much discussed in today’s press, the rivalry between the two men, the leader and his closest rival still standing, in a contest which Ed won by a whisker.

But, digging deeper, there are two more strategic weaknesses, less noticed: the first is the time lost, yet again, on our economic positioning. Despite the unforeseen and perfectly excusable nature of the departure, it is not what you want after three months as leader. Of post-war Shadow Chancellors, Johnson has now the dubious record of serving the least time in post (discounting Ken Clarke’s brief caretaker role in 1997). It doesn’t take a genius to conclude, that although sometimes junior Shadow roles may be changed without disruption, you do not do this kind of reshuffle unless you really have to. And we can see why: the real impact of this is now that our positioning on economic policy, put back already five months because of the late leadership election, no Chancellor Conference speech to concentrate the mind and focus the policy, then danced around because of differences between Miliband and Johnson. And now – the reality is, whatever they say – it will only start its real definition today, eight months after the election. By the time Balls has got his feet under the table and agreed a position with his boss, we will be nearly a year down the road from the election, and way behind the Tories on nailing their economic untruths, that is, if it is even possible at this stage. And politically, right now, economics is everything.

And finally there is the loss of Alan’s man-in-the-street, grey-haired life experience at the heart of government. This should not be understated. Originally we had a leadership election which was effectively between four Special Advisers, who had barely done a job outside politics. We now have, at the heart of our team, Miliband, Balls, Cooper and Alexander. All are young for their posts, in their early forties. All are Brownites. All are former researchers or Special Advisers who have worked all their lives in politics. Two are married. It is not necessarily the most streetwise, outward-looking, “normal” team you can find. The danger for us is insularity. The danger is wonkishness. The danger, as Brown ultimately found to his cost, is not connecting.

We now have even more limited time than before to make our economic choices and push out the message. It is time to get out there, have the wisdom to understand what the country wants and give it to them.

This post also at LabourList

Friday, 14 January 2011

Soft left or soft thinking? a response to Neal Lawson

In these uneasy days for Labour, there has surely been a renaissance of the Kinnockite “soft left”, excited by Ed Miliband’s victory. Fair enough, you say.

But so far the thinking emanating from this renaissance seems not just woolly, but dangerously flawed. A case in point is the article posted in last week’s Guardian by Neal Lawson, Chair of centre-left think tank Compass, entitled “Ed Miliband can help us believe in a better world again”. Hold judgement, for a moment, on the title and the somewhat flowery nature of the prose within it and consider the arguments: the “big tent” strategy; the worry of achieving office without power; and a rather vague concept called the “Good Society”.

Firstly the big tent: he wrongly implies Miliband’s backing for Compass’ controversial idea of opening up its membership to Liberals as well, tartly described by Labour blogger Luke Akehurst as “suicide”. Rightly so: “big tent” has been tried and failed three times in recent history: in 1977, in 1997 and in 2010.

Next Lawson then reveals his deepest fear: that we might be in office, but not in “real” power. The subtext being, confirmed later on in the article, that last time Labour did not achieve anything important. In reality, it seems, he means that Labour did not achieve anything important that he agreed with.

But the key paragraph is where we hear our lives described as “relentlessly anxious, stressful and exhausting”, and that we need to find a cure. There are three problems with this: 1. that it seems to extrapolate the concerns of the nation from a certain kind of middle-class, metropolitan preoccupation; 2. that, as The Economist’s Bagehot observes, it sees the state necessarily as the answer to these ills, and 3. it is a fundamentally weak, “why-oh-why” description which sees us all victims of some terrible plot by the powers-that-be to destroy our happiness. We are not. We are in charge, and the state is not going to be the solution to the stress in our lives anyway.

The rest of the article is devoted to a particularly ill-defined concept, which Lawson has been recycling since 2006: the Good Society. And here we spin off into philosophical flights of fancy, which take in the Aristotelian communes of ancient Greece; some hand-wringing phrases such as “what hope is there for compassion in a world of endless competition?”; or the throwaway, “the last 30 years is what happens when we stop believing that anything better is possible”. No. Thatcher is not the same as a Labour government - you cannot just lump them together and hope no-one notices.

Back in the 21st century the world has moved on, although some portions of the left have not. All this nonsense is well-intentioned: but, if taken seriously, it converts into dangerous fantasy. If we base a serious policy review on, er, more equality and more democracy, do we really believe we are addressing the deep concerns of the British people, who want money and jobs? Who, furthermore, have just voted for a centre-right government and are patently not seeking a radical left alternative, let alone a woolly one? We need an alternative vision: but not this one. And with the backing of hard, costed proposals, on the back of what Britons actually want.

Throughout the article we are given the impression that Miliband shares this world-view; the four mentions of Lawson’s “Good Society” in his Conference speech and so on. Perhaps: although, if so, he has not articulated those ideas much since.

Whatever the truth, I suspect and hope that Ed has already made a judgement: not all those who eulogised him at his election, singing his praises as the saviour of their ideals, are going to be much help when it comes to practical politics. A shame because, as Akehurst says, many members on the soft left are “solid Labour partisans” who “deserve a better vehicle for their politics”. On his journey from newly-elected leader to statesman-in-waiting, he will surely need to make this call.

This post also at Labour Uncut and referenced in John Rentoul's blogpost at The Independent "Commerce and the Common Good".

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The battle for Labour’s past: you are all right

Last week was the week when we - finally – dealt with head-on the subject of Labour’s economic legacy. And we seem to have been debating it ever since, because it’s perhaps the most important subject which will define a lot of the next 4 years. It’s complex, as Steve Richards argues and, paradoxically, there are two seemingly contrary arguments being advanced which are both right (or so it seems to me).

Firstly, Philip Collins is right, or at least partly so. In his (paywall) follow-up article he attacks Ed for “denying all responsibility” for the country’s economic woes. He has not. He has merely stuck to the facts about the economic argument, which is not the same. Where Collins is right is that we overspent. Now, I must admit, I was almost taken in by the argument that we were merely guilty of “underestimating the tax take”. But it’s rubbish. It’s the same, underestimating the tax take, and overspending; if you underestimate the tax take, you must spend less. If I expect that I’m going to have a pay cut next year, I cut out the expensive summer holiday. I don’t keep spending and ramp up the credit card. And if I’m not sure about the pay cut, I leave a bit of rainy-day money in the bank, just in case. Gordon didn’t, and was caught with his pants down. End of story.

John Rentoul in today’s blog echoes the sentiments of Collins – he divides the world into supporters of GB Mk I (Prudence) and Mk II (crazy spender), with him in the first category. But I believe this is unnecessarily self-flagellating, and it ignores the politics.

Now, this all stemmed from Thursday’s Times (paywall) where Ed set out his stall for the economic debate – and stuck to the facts, as reported here on Left Foot Forward. He does not say anywhere “it wasn’t us, guv”. He rightly moves the debate on from whether VAT is fair (rightly, because the public cares less about fairness, more about how it affects them personally). He points out that Labour fully agreed with the need to cut the deficit, before and after the election. He takes apart Osborne’s specious comparison with Canada. And notes that deficits rose across the developed world but we are the only country pursuing such a madly drastic programme of cuts. You know what? Ed’s right too.

In sheer economic terms, our major sin was that we ran a high deficit. So what? We are talking about a Chancellor who followed his “golden rule” of no net deficit over the economic cycle slavishly for almost two full terms, and then broke it. It was an error of judgement to drop it, but hardly the worst one. Let’s put this in context: Conservative governments did this repeatedly and average debt was higher under them. They also repeatedly made terrible economic errors such as the Lawson boom, poor management of interest rates using ineffectual measures like M3, and Black Wednesday, all of which had a far worse impact on the UK economy than Brown. More than that, as many objective commentators point out, they are currently engaged in reprising once more this disastrous age of economic experimentation. We are playing the Tories’ game in beating ourselves, when they have selective amnesia on their own record.

Where does the truth lie? Well on economics, I’m afraid the Blairites are right. We screwed up. On the politics, Ed is right. Given that we only screwed up once on economics over the course of 13 years, let’s not kill ourselves over it. Why? And here is the key: because all the public will hear is the following: “we screwed up last time you put us in charge of the economy. Now, please, let us do it again.” And, in truth, we screwed up a little, not a lot. A fine distinction perhaps, but an important one.

Alistair Campbell who, as one of New Labour’s architects, you might conceivably have expected to agree with Collins, apparently does not. On the contrary, he makes the argument here that it is not too late to stop Tory rewriting of history, and that it’s vital to challenge

“the line that every difficult decision they make is forced upon them because of the so-called mess left by Labour…it can be done over time”.

All this, by the way, assumes the Collins article is not a continuation of Blair-Brown feud by proxy, for the benefit of posterity and the advantage of no-one but the Tory press: Blair was right and Brown screwed everything up. I believe Collins should have the benefit of the doubt here; that he genuinely believes the economic argument outweighs the political imperative. But the people, like Campbell, arguing against this position are those pragmatic people within the Party who see the politics and who have its interests uppermost in their minds, as a conditioned reflex.

To both left and right, the real answer is simply this: we had a generally pretty successful 13 years in government and Gordon was generally a pretty good Chancellor, if not a great PM. End of story. Move on. We don’t need to lose the politics in the economics: we don’t need to criticise New Labour from the right (we have the Tories for that).

Now, it is perhaps of a shame we haven’t been making the economic argument relentlessly over the last 8 months, as it’s essential to establishing a political beachhead against the Coalition, who now have a big head start in winning the economic debate. And certainly Ed hasn’t done everything perfectly since being elected Leader. But, please, let’s acknowledge it when he gets things right.

This article also posted here at LabourList and chosen for the "Ed's Inbox" top 5 for today, also on LabourList.

Monday, 3 January 2011

The strange case of Party democracy

The last few days have seen two major Labour news stories: the clashing between the pro- and anti- camps for the Additional Vote (AV) referendum; and the controversy over supposed changes to Labour’s funding and voting model with respect to trade unions, which may or may not ever happen. What is not, perhaps, immediately obvious is that the two are strangely connected. I’ll try to explain what I mean.

Personally I'm genuinely surprised that people in the Labour Party can get so exercised over AV, when there are so many other policy areas – things that the public deeply cares about – where we should be staking out our position, in order to engage them. But that’s not the debate here. What is most difficult to understand is not that people get worked up about AV – fair play to them – but how inconsistent our thinking is.

That is, when we talk about parliamentary democracy, we are ready to defend it – and rightly – to the death. Furthermore, many of us take it to another, more subjective level with the AV/PR debate: we also agonise over how we can make it adequately representative and fair. Ironic, when you consider that these are two words which, if we apply them to our own internal Party elections, fail palpably to ring true.

Take parliamentary selections, for example: representative and fair? Our process is Byzantine to start with (pp76-86 here if you’re interested) but, in addition, there are the distorting special cases which have multiplied over the years, like so many rabbits. If you are from an ethnic minority, you’re a special case and can leapfrog some part of the process. A woman? Special case. Disabled, or from a manual or clerical background? Special case, at least in theory. On a union’s national parliamentary list? Special case. Backed by a local affiliate? Special case. Whoa, there. Now, there are good historical reasons for many of these special cases, some of which are still current – but the reality is that, together, they now have so much weight in the process that almost every winning candidate is – you could have knocked me down with a feather – a special case of some kind. Everyone becomes a special case; the only truly special cases are those which are not special. It is democracy a la Monty Python. We believe our rulebook to be a beacon of progressive values which protects those vulnerable to prejudice, when it is not. It is the opposite. We have tinkered with the system to its near-destruction.

We also tend to decide our candidates in a near-vacuum. As Peter Watt put it a couple of days ago, “we actively exclude the public in a systematic way from being involved in…choosing the candidates that want to become their elected public servants”. But I believe it’s worse than that. Not just the public: we partially exclude even the membership as well, by distorting access for the candidates that get to appear on the shortlist.

In other words, it is not an open-access group of candidates which we present them with, but one which has already excluded, or made it harder for, a variety of activists who might just have made excellent MPs. Non-trade-unionists. Non-women. Non-ethnic-minorities. (Jim Murphy MP recently asked why we have less members of the Armed Forces as candidates than other parties. Well, it’s a demographic which contains proportionally less trade unionists, women, and ethnic minorities – mystery solved.) That’s the reality, and let’s not forget how it alienates many of our own supporters, as we saw when the local party imploded in Blaenau Gwent. And if you have no union list approval, well, good luck. We subcontract out a substantial part of the selection process to a small group of senior union officials without a word. Nothing against the people in question: I merely point out that their interests are not necessarily identical to the Party’s interests. And this is just parliamentary selections, let alone choosing a leader.

So then we have our leadership and other important elections, mostly some kind of messy electoral college. As democrats, it’s the elephant in the room we happily ignore. We work ourselves up about the importance of being fair and representative, while ignoring our own house entirely. Or worse, we jump to defend the status quo in our Party democracy for fear that any change at all is a ruse to “break the union link”, “centralise power”, or some other such paranoia: the thin end of the wedge. But change is necessary. For a start, how do you think this whole process looks to people outside the Party? “We think it’s very important that elections are representative and fair. Just not in our own Party, thank you very much.”

Finally, the current systems have an exquisite, inbuilt locking mechanism for change prevention. Because, if you have just been selected or elected under them, you are poorly-placed to be able to criticise them later (besides, you may have just been elected to high office and have other concerns to occupy your mind). And, if you have failed to be selected, your criticism may very reasonably be interpreted as sour grapes. And if you’ve never been closely involved in the process, it’s probably too impenetrable for you to understand, or even care about. So, although many people realise the system is broken, no-one wants to stick their head above the parapet. This elegant and circular logic neatly locks in all the tinkering, perpetuating the existing system indefinitely.

One thing, though, is for sure. If we seriously want to make our Party democracy fit for purpose for the new century, we have a short window now to do it. Why? Because in office we will never get round to it (even the wildly reforming New Labour leadership did little about the Party rulebook after 1997. Things got busy).

So, the lesson is: do it now. While we are not distracted by government and while the Party rank and file might see the need for change. There are a bunch of ways we could come up with to reform the system, of which primaries are just one. But what’s clear is that the current system of Party democracy, as well as its funding, is crying out for reform.

This post (edited version) also at Labour Uncut and quoted in The Independent (online). New Statesman top 5 post 3 Dec 2010.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Er, hang on a sec...

Ok my next proper article will be tomorrow but, in the meantime, just wanted to mention this. I mean, it's obviously just coincidence, but check out the last two lines of today's Observer editorial on Ed's 100 days as leader, centred on Labour's slowness in positioning itself on the economy:
After 100 days, Ed Miliband has not yet properly explained to the country as a whole who he is and what he believes. He shouldn't waste any more time.
And compare with the following line from this Centre Left article exactly two months previously on 2 November, the article centred on Labour's slowness in positioning itself on the economy:
We, the public, are still unsure what the Big Idea is.
and the last lines:
The first 100 days of a leadership is the time to establish the ground rules - so time is short.
I mean, I'm not delusional enough to think that a national newspaper nicked my article wholesale but still, a bit odd, don't you think?
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