Author Archive

Did Cameron tell Maria Miller she’s a sinner?

April 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Cameron’s at it again with the biblical references.

Last time it was an attempt to use Jesus’s “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” response to the Pharisees as a justification  for the maintenance of the status quo, when in fact it means quite the opposite.

This time around, he’s laying claim to St Paul’s advice to the Galatians:

The Bible tells us to bear one another’s burdens.  After the day I’ve had, I’m definitely looking for volunteers.

Indeed it does.  Well Paul does, in his letter to Galatians.

But Galatians 6.1, immediately preceding what Cameron quotes t 6.2, makes it quite clear that Paul is referring not to material burdens, but the burden of sin:

My bothers and sisters, if someone is caught in any kind of wrongdoing, those of you who are spiritual should set him right; but you must do it in a gentle way, so that you will not be tempted too.

So either this was a mighty clever but gentle way of telling Maria Miller that she’s a right old sinner, or else it’s evidence he just googles the bits of the bible he needs and doesn’t bother with the context.


Categories: General Politics, Religion

Adam Smith Institute on selling stuff off

Adam Smith Institute, attacking Gordon Brown for selling off gold and losing money (October 2011)

He [Brown] did so many things wrong that the list is too long to tell. Among the highlights are his sale of 395 tons of Britain’s gold reserves between 1999 and 2002 for £2.3bn, an amount that would now be worth $14.3bn.

Adam Smith Institute,  defending the Coalition  for selling off Royal Mail and losing money (April 2014)

No-one knew what the “correct” price was for Royal Mail, any more than they did for BT, British Gas and the dozens of others.  Since they had not traded in the private sector, or had to attract private investment, no-one knew how they would be valued.





Categories: General Politics

The unintended consequences of the annuity revolution

March 20, 2014 3 comments

Labour and Labour’s supporters are busy looking through the detail of yesterday’s budget announcement around pensions, but as far as I can see the most they’ve come up with so far is some stuff about it being a dastardly bridgehead to removal of other pensioner benefits.  This seems to me to miss the bigger picture

There is little doubt that the key idea – the removal of the need for an annuities for defined benefit pensions – is politically attractive, as it can be sold as greater choice/the government not telling you what you have to do with your money. But the long term consequences of such a change are worth considering:

1) The reasons for annuities in the first place – a secure income for as long as you live, and the onus on insurance companies to work out how long that might be on average, how it might change as life expectancy increases, and price their annuities accordingly – is to be replaced by a free-for-all in which people have to guess how long they might live and plan accordingly.  As life expectancy increases (at least amongst the previously somewhat better off), poverty in very old age may beckon for many.

2) While this  may simply mean that many pensioners will stick with annuities as the safe option, it may also lead the the rapid development of a property-selling industry pitched at new pensioners, on the basis that fast property price increases will outdo annuities as an income source (and perhaps enable larger annuity purchase later on), even given the income tax hit if you don’t buy an annuity.   I forsee lots and lots of mis-selling to vulnerable clients, given asymmetric information.

3) This could lead to a) a house price bubble even greater than the one we have now; b) greater retirement condo building c) a combination of both.

4) Most likely, though, it will lead to an even greater generational divide, with defined benefit pensioners buying up housing at ever-inflated prices and renting out to those increasingly unable to get on the property ladder.

Has the Treasury thought through the potentially massive scale of these unintended (or maybe they are intended) consequences?  I suspect not, what with votes and that.

Categories: General Politics

A night on the headland

March 15, 2014 Leave a comment

On the headland,

Leant unsteady to the smarting gale

Eyes crimped to fresh sweeps of misted rain,

Rivulets of pained relief

Twisted chill

From neck nape to flabbed belly below

Whip stripes to my bloated soul.







Categories: General Politics

Bob Crow’s vision of decentralised solidarity and what it can do for Labour

March 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Bob Crow has died, and all the people who have no idea what his politics actually were are saying he was a great fighter and leader.

Maybe he was, but that’s not the Bob Crow we should be celebrating.  The Bob Crow we should be celebrating is the one who planned to give his power away to his own union members, and then did, when he could have had a much cushier number.

Three months ago Bob reflected on the RMT’s expulsion from Labour in 2004:

By freeing ourselves from the shackles of automatic Labour support, RMT’s political influence is thriving with political groups established in the British, Scottish and Welsh parliaments and assemblies that involve a base of supportive Labour representatives, Greens and SNP. The condition for joining is that elected members must sign up to the core political priorities laid down by the union.

In many ways, RMT’s decisions from ten years ago put the union well ahead of the game when it comes to the relationship with the Labour Party. This year, major unions have said that they will be cutting their affiliation fees to Labour to reflect the number of members who genuinely support the organisation.

It seems fitting on the day of Bob’s death, therefore, to assess what the future might hold for the relationship between Labour and these other major unions, and to advocate something that I think Bob might have supported, though I do some from a Labour party loyalist perspective.

Last weekend, at Labour’s special conference, this is what I would have said if I had been called to speak on the motion that the Collins Review recommendations be approved in full:

Good morning, conference

I have a flexible mandate from my CLP to vote for the proposals if, following debate, it appears to me that there is in them sufficient guarantee of the longevity of the party-union link.

The continuation of a productive party-union link is, in the proposals, predicated on one main assumption – that union members will become affiliates, and then many of those will become members when they realise how great the party is on the basis of receiving party literature and attending party meetings.

This just isn’t a valid assumption.

The ability to vote in local party matters such as council candidate selections just isn’t enough of an incentive, and the real risk with these proposals is that the party loses out on a large part of its funding from the current system and not see it replaced by doubled membership.

I can only fully  support this package of recommendations if there is, today, from the top table, a commitment to a “Collins Review mark II”, in which we work out how we actually incentivise levy payers to make the jump to affiliation, and affiliates to make the jump to full membership.

This will mean taking seriously some of the consultation responses for both Collins I and Refounding Labour – to date conveniently ignored – about how real power and resources might be devolved to CLPs, in such a way that affiliates see an immediate and local reason for getting involved in local decision making.

This might mean, for example, reversing some of the financial flows from membership fees so that CLPs, funded pro-rata to their then growing membership can developed properly resourced community organisation and campaign plans – dovetailed with the current Constituency Development Plan process but free of the command and control knee jerk stuff set out in these recommendations – with regional office and other party expertise bought in as required in much the same way that schools buy in services from a local auithorit if the local authority offer is what they need. (And it often is).

If a commitment to Collins 2 can be give today, and actual rather than rhetorical trust be put in local labour movements, I can support the recommendations as a good starting point.  If not, I’ll see how the rest of the debate goes.

I didn’t get called to speak* and of course the proposals were adopted by a massive majority.  As it stands, therefore, Labour has taken an almighty gamble with its financial future, based on little more than a hope that union members will see the light about what a great party Labour is.  It’s as though the collective action problem had never been thought of.

One alternative to bankruptcy much spoken of is, of course, large one-off political donations from the same unions, secured from the main union leaders in deals done behind closed doors.   That may be better than nothing.

But there is also what I’d like to see become called the Bob Crow alternative, in honour of Bob’s much overlooked, but well evidenced (see above) commitment to decentralisation and dispersal of power – quite, different, in that respect, to the centralizing tendencies of McCluskey and Prentis.

This is for right-minded Labour members to work with local union branches to develop local agreements around funding of the party, such that  collective decisions are taken in local branches that all members of that branch should fund NOT the Labour party centrally, but local parties, on the basis of locally agreed constituency development plans.  As this movement rolls out, the central Labour party will have little option but to a) develop a process whereby such funding arrangements carry with them affiliation status for all members in the branch;  b) effectively reverse the financial planning processes within the party, such that the current head office and regional structure have to submit business plans to local CLPs for discussion and approval. **

Then, of course, the hierarchy may start to regret that it didn’t initiate the Bob Crow alternative on its own terms (it might even have called it something else), but ultimately it may be better this way: the labour movement wresting back control of its party, union branch my union branch – in a way not dissimilar to the process initiated by the RMT  a decade ago (especially in Scotland), but in a way which unifies party and movement without recourse to the Scottish Socialist Party, Green party etc, as bargaining chips.

So while the media gets on with eulogizing Bob Crow the fighter, maybe socialists within and around the Labour party should get on with celebrating the very best of Bob Crow – his instinct to trust his own union members, and to let them get on with it.***


* I’m not complaining about not being called. The chair can’t call everyone, though I was pissed of at people like Keith Vaz MP taking up valuable conference time talking utterly irrelevant bollox when other members could have been having their say, and the chair tolerating it.   Christ, what a knob.  Nor did I like the other granstanding from the union leaders and other worthies. Margaret Beckett was a welcome exception.

** Regular readers will of course recognize that this is a remodelling of earlier proposals, in the light of changed circumstances, for the reversal of financial flows in the Labour party.  I think the chances of it working are now greater than before the special conference vote.  I do, however, recognize that there are issues I’ve never properly addressed around how unions would engage with the party in parts of the country where the Labour party structure is too weak to carry this forward.  There would need to be partnering arrangements with stronger CLPs in these cases, as well as practical decisions by union branches to affiliate more directly with regional parties.  I am grateful to Roger McCarthy in particular for reminding me of these issues.

*** That’s not to say I totally agree with Bob’s 2003/04 tactics.  I still think there was more room for a deal with the Labour party around local affiliation, not too far from what I set out here, and that his hatred of Blair took the RMT a little too quickly to the Labour party exit door.


Poetry corner: breakfast epiphanies

Next in my occasional series of occasional poems:


Breakfast epiphanies

The stale glint of dawning hope

Rinced acid clean by morning glare

Like remnant cornflakes

Sluiced clean away

From the breakfast bowl


Table, sink, cluttered mess

Of yesterday’s bright promise

Brought dark by seeping creeping fog

Of my acrid, foul-stricken soul.



Categories: General Politics

In praise of racist jokes

Ava Vidal (a comedian I’ve not seen or heard of) says there should be limits to telling racists jokes, and that these limits are associated with the power of the joke teller and how much offence can be taken by the people who are the butt of the joke.

I’m not so sure, for three reasons:

1) Most obviously, even the suggestion of a limit to speech provides tactical advantage to actual racists (i.e. those people who think people of a different ethnicity are less valuable people by dint of their ethnicity), who get to shout from the rooftops that they are being oppressed.

2) The whole boundary setting process can contribute to the postmodern vortex of inauthenticity, in which one commentator strives to be an authentic member of their community by being more shocked than the last shocked commentator, and in which the boundaries of what might shock are drawn commensurately ever tighter for those who don’t want to shock others, while those who do get ever greater freedom to do so (see 1);

3) Racist jokes can be an important element in the development and maintenance of a cohesive, non-racist society.

Reason 3 might look like it’s just been put in to prove reason 2, but there are a couple of justifications I can provide.

First, take the utani system which flourished in Eastern Africa, especially in Tanganyika and Northern Kenya roughly between the 1870s and the 1950s, but which remains a well understood aspect of Tanzanian culture even today.

The concept of utani, a Kiswahili word of Arabic origin meaning something like ‘joking relationship’, encompasses  the complex social system of mutual inter-dependency between ethnic groups, who may pre-colonially have had warring a warring relationship around land and livestock, or who may have come into first contact via newly established trade route to the coast.  Utani was, in effect, a swiftly developed social structure that enabled different ethnic groups to cope with the massive changes brought upon them by the first wave of exploitative, international capitalism.

At the heart of this new relationship between ethnic groups (which it is suggested was an extension of pre-existing utani within clans and family groups) lay the permissibility, even the duty, of taking the piss out of people who were different.  As the colonial chronicler of the practices, RE Moreau, set out on 1944:

The joking itself is usually referred to by the Africans under two heads: tukana (curse, abuse, revile, insult, call bad names) and danganya (elude, delude, deceive, defraud, cheat, beguile, impose upon, belie). In addition there are horseplay, and a remarkable system of forfeits…. So far as I can gather, all the joking may be done in public, with no restriction of place or time.

Gibes offered by my informants as typical of the tukana exchange are the sort of crudities we uttered ourselves when we were very young: ‘ Yours is a rotten tribe ‘; ‘Baboon yourself’; and so on. A richer insult is: ‘ You’re better dead: I want your wife.’ The horseplay takes the form of shoving each other about, or a man can come to the house of his mtani and seize his wife, declaring that he is going off with her (Ngoni). All the informants stress the fact that if anyone who was not an mtani [sing] said and did such things there would be a row. (‘ You might get angry inside at the insults of your mtani, but you must say “it is my mtani “‘: Nyakyusa.) Almost without exception the view is expressed, however, that between watani [plural off mtani] rudeness is not merely permitted but is the right and the expected thing.

But the corollary to the piss-take is the extraordinary level of generosity to strangers:

The essence of utani is that every person admitted to it has a right to hospitality from an mtani. As enunciated by all my informants, any man can enter the hut of an mtani, and can eat and drink his fill with or without invitation. It seems certainly by virtue of utani that the Bena and the Ngoni  can enter each others’ houses and demand food, and be as rude to each other as they like. If a hut is shut and the owner is away an mtani can break in-even smash a padlock-prepare food, kill and eat a hen, help himself to any beer he finds…… Even making allowance for a difference between theory and practice, it is still at once apparent what an enormous help utani may be to men undertaking those month-long journeys to and from work which have been such a feature of Tanganyika life.

Notably, utani was fostered under Julius Nyerere’s African Socialism, and perhaps just as notably, Tanzania remains the country in East Africa which has never fallen foul of ethnic strife in the post-colonial period.  Could it be that such peaceful co-existence* might actually have its roots in a sense of humour which celebrated lack of diversity, while at the same time smoothing the path towards a  mutually beneficial** moral economy in the face of the countervailing pressures of capitalism?

Tadasa Tsurata of Kinki Universoty seems to think so, and he knows a thing or two.

Second in defence of racist jokes, there is America’s greatest social commentator of 21st century life.

Seth McFarlane’s stock-in-trade is a cartoon utani, in which rampant racist stereotyping is counterbalanced by the fact that the least politically correct characters (Peter and Quagmire) are, when it comes to action, far more welcoming of other ethnicities than the liberally upright and uptight Brian (the talking dog).  Maybe, Seth seems to suggest, if we got a little less hooked on celebrating the diversity of our neighbours, and a little more focused on helping the weirdie bastards out when they need a hand, the world might be a better place: a little less left-liberalism, a little more solidarity.***


*  Ethnic peace in Tanzania might not all be down to utani.  The Nyerere policy of random selection for secondary schooling, in which young people from different ethnic groups ended up in dorms, sometimes thousands of miles from home, with people from a whole range of different groups, produced a lot of inter-marriage.

** It doesn’t always work out as planned.  The only time I felt unsafe in Tanzania is when I ‘joked’ harmlessly, I thought,  to an Asian East African Sikh bar-owner  (born and bred in Tanzania and therefore within the utani frame) about his turban.  Utani brings with it, I was later told, a sensitivity to being joked about by people who are not mtani, and I certainly wasn’t his.  A dagger was mentioned, in no uncertain terms.  As Moreau (see above) suggests when he talks of ‘weak’ ethnic groups with no watani, maybe even utani needs the concept of ‘the other’ to make it work.

*** There is, though, the issue of using jokes to further power imbalances.  This is one of those blogs raising questions about current orthodoxies, not giving complete answers.  But you probably knew that.  Otherwise it’d be 5,000 words long.

Categories: General Politics

Three pillars for a Labour majority

February 23, 2014 3 comments

Progress, the party-within-a-party/pressure group/think-tank ran a competition for a bursary at their policy weekend in March.  Good on them.  It was all about a 550 word essay on how to win a Labour majority.  I entered, because a) I wanted to go b) I’m too skint to pay.

I didn’t get a bursary because a) I’m not a Progress members (that wasn’t made clear at the time, but heh ho); b) my entry was deemed below the standard of other entries anyway.

Here it is, written as I thought a Progress person might write, but with stuff I could actually support.  Seems ok to me, but what do you think? Is it total bollox?

The three pillars of a Labour majority

Architectural outline

A Labour majority needs to be built on three pillars: policy, presentation, party. The pillars must be strong in themselves, but they also need to create a coherent whole. Great policy is no good if it isn’t presented to the electorate in a way that convinces. Presentation doesn’t work unless the party is effectively mustered, and the party cannot be effectively mustered to its presentation role unless it understands and ‘owns’ the local impacts of proposed policies.

But even strong pillars can fall. The outward lateral forces of any massive structure need a counterforce in the form of flying buttresses, and that may be the architectural function of Progress.


Over the last two years, Labour has established a clear policy line in two key areas: fiscal responsibility and the cost of living. Ed and the PLP team are starting to get through on the message that, far from talking about the cost of living crisis as a way to avoid having to talk about the economy, for most people the economy is the cost of living crisis.

We now need to develop a coherent menu of investments designed to improve public services and create long term savings, and to stimulate wage-led growth. The ground for this is being prepared by the Zero-based Review, which emphasises fiscal discipline around day-to-day spending in order to create room for investment.

We need to develop a set of punchy alternatives to Osborne’s cut-and-see- approach. Childcare investment is an obvious such area, and the work on growth via procurement processes is encouraging, but we will need more costed examples for the manifesto, such as a coherent early investment strategy (based both on Frontline and refocused Children’s Centres) which cuts a swathe through quasi-judicial spending on child protection whilst also stimulating local employment.

A wage-led, social investment-focused economy should be our main selling point. Even our legislative programme should be based around that e.g. adaptations to minimum wage legislation to give the OBR more influence over a less corporate-influenced Low Pay Commission.


We need to devolve our presentation, and trust our local parties to deliver the seats we need for victory. We can be confident that the vast majority of parties, after two decades in a ‘campaigning party’, know what they’re doing, and can do it better than a central body producing ‘on-message’ but necessarily inauthentic-looking literature for the doorstep, which by its nature creates inauthentic doorstep conversations.

This is not to downplay the importance of regional and national support, including from Progress’s own resources, but we need to develop systems which respond to local demands, not ones which provide targets, incentives and monitoring.


The Collins Review promises to be a landmark document for the labour movement. It will set out a coherent plan to incentivize many thousands of union members (and others) to go beyond their financial contribution to the party and become involved in a local labour movement which embraces CLP, trade union/trade council and community organising functions.

We will need to act quickly to ensure that this radical new approach (or arguably very old approach) is embedded quickly in local areas, so that come Autumn 2014 a host of new and newly energised supporters rally to the cause, now convinced that the party is serious about devolving power and resources to local level.

Beyond evidence: a road map for Labour’s immigration policy

February 20, 2014 4 comments


Drawing on insights from Hasina, a woman I knew in Bangladesh, Sally Copley (Labour PPC for Oxford West), cognitive linguist  George Lakoff, historian Tim Stanley, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and Peter Griffin from Family Guy, I try to map a route past Labour’s current immigration impasse and towards a ‘reframing’ of how Labour might present a new immigration narrative.

This route will largely depend, I suggest, on the capacity of the labour movement for subversion against the leadership, and the willingness of the leadership to tolerate such subversion.  As such, the development of an authentic left-wing framing of the immigration debate might act as a model for (anti-hegemomic) framing of other political ‘debates’ which are currently being lost to the right.

From a Chittagong slum to the House of Commons


Years ago, I was sitting in the clinic in a Chittagong slum, chatting after work hours with a mix of local residents and staff (there we are, that’s me in blue).

Most were Muslims, but a couple of the staff were Hindus.  We got to talking about Muslim-Hindi relations, and one contribution from a local mother, Hasina (pictured below) – her child was staying with us in the feeding centre and she was well known in the area as an organiser and agitator – has stuck with me:

We need the Hindus.  They are cleverer than us.  Sometimes we don’t like them, but we need them.

I was reminded of this last week when, down in London, I bobbed down to Westminster for Progress’s Q&A on Labour’s immigration stance in the context of winning the next general election.

At the top table were:

1) Jonathan Portes from NIESR, who gave us facts about immigration being good for the UK, before retreating (several times) behind his “I’m an economist, not a politician” banner. Jonathan was always going to do this, so it does make you wonder why he was a speaker at meeting on how to get the politics of immigration right.

2) Diane Abbott MP, who went over, in some places word for word, the Progress article magazine I’d read in the ten minutes I was waiting for it all to start.  Her message is simple: stop apologising for Labour’s immigration policy as it’ll make everyone thing the Tories/UKIP are right, and deal with the economic issues which feed popular anti-immigration sentiment instead.  She also said that people who claim that anti-immigration stances aren’t mostly about race are talking crap.

3) David Hanson, Shadow Immigration Minister, talked crap about how we should recognize that people around the country were “in shock” at the changes in their community, such as a traditional butcher’s now being a Polish foodstuff shop, and that the best way to deal with all this is to deal with the economic issues which feed popular anti-immigration sentiment.  David’s list of issues was a bit different from Diane Abbott’s, notably leaving out trade union freedom.  He also said that people who claim that anti-immigration stances are actually about race are talking crap.

4) Zoe Tyndall  from polling firm Britain Thinks, who – amongst the general platitudes –  told us one interesting thing: that the one thing her focus groups associate with Labour’s immigration policy is Gordon Brown’s calling Irene Duffy a bigot – the implication being that the real issue for voters is not so much whether immigration is a good or a bad thing, more that they dislike the idea of an elite telling them that there is correct line to take on it.

5) Someone else from a polling firm or think-tank who said nothing of interest and whose name I’ve forgotten.

The Q&A proceeded as you’d expect, and as many have proceeded previously.  The speakers entrenched themselves in their positions, and the central question of how a mainstream political party might facilitate a shift in public opinion on immigration, in order to get to a more sensible political and economic position of the type set out by Jonathan Portes, while still understanding, respecting and being seen to respect the right of the public to have an opinion which for the moment at least appears diametrically opposed to that sensible political and economic position (and without, therefore further entrenching a public view that a pro-immigration stance is only held by a metropolitan elite who don’t have to suffer the assumed/imagined* cultural and economic downsides of immigration).

The best attempt to address this central question came from Sally Copley, the Labour PPC for Oxford West & Abingdon, who asked – referencing her campaigning job with Oxfam GB – why we are unable to develop a pro-immigration narrative/story which can turn the tide of anti-immigration sentiment. What the right were very good at, she went on, was presenting/comstructing a “villain of the piece” around to which to establish a story of good and evil. why she asked, was the left not as good at it?  This was, as I’ll go on to set out, was more insightful than I initially credited it as being.

Diane Abbott’s half-attempt to answer this was slightly bizarre, and reflected a failure even to grasp what the question was about; she claimed, as far as I could tell, that the only way forward was us to tell a story that we thought was true, thus spectacularly both missing the point and accusing us all of not believing the benefits of immigration in the first place.

But at least she had a go. The other top table ones fell back into their own securities of needing to understand that people felt under threat (Hanson), that we needed to start where people were at (pollsters) or that such stuff really wasn’t anything to do with him (Portes).

Already feeling somewhat dispirited, I attempted to back up Sally’s point – rather inarticulately, because I tried overly to facilitate dialogue by drawing on previous conversation threads (including Diane Abbott’s) – by suggesting one particular narrative in which we both believe – given the evidence – and which “starts where people are”. This is in schools – very much part of the everyday life of millions of parents and grandparents – and the very real evidence (which I’ve covered here and here) that immigration is a direct causal factor in improvements in achievement for both immigrant and native-born children.

Jonathan nodded furiously as I said this, and noted that, strangely, this was a ‘story’ which was being told by the Daily Mail, but not by Labour. Diane Abbott then provided an answer, ostensibly to my question but with no obvious substantive connection to it – essentially she repeated a bit of her Progress article – before the Chair Polly Billington, the PPC for Thurrock, weighed in with her experiences of the huge improvements in academic achievement in her area which she suggested, agreeing with my line, were being driven by immigration (from West Africa in her case) but then proceeded to chide me gently for not realizing that in fact this was very bad news, because white working class children were being excluded in some way from the rapidity of these achievements, and this meant that immigration might in fact be a bad thing.

The meeting tied up, and we all went home – none the wiser about how we actually “win” on immigration in a way which differentiates us from the right. As it stands, the Labour party seems doomed to its cowardly position – as reflected here – of the need to take voters’ concerns seriously and even internalise these concerns so as to feel in tune with popular feeling, even while knowing that these concerns are the result of years of hegemomic practice in which the party itself has been complicity, for fear of being seen to disrespect voters, while the Abbottian left snipes from the sidelines but without a positive alternative, anti-hegemonic strategy.

How not to win on immigration

So what might that alternative strategy look like?

This is where my Hasina from Chittagong comes in. Labour, I suggest, could learn a lot from her.

Hasina didn’t like Hindus much, but really wanted them in her community because they benefited her; they were the ones who knew how to mix the rehydration solution best of all, who were literate, who could make your baby well.   It was therefore in her self-interest that she should sublimate her dislike of some cultural stuff Hindus do in favour of other practical stuff that Hindus do well.

My point at the House of Commons sought to reflect Hasina’s insight.  If only, I was trying to say, immigrants could be marketed in the same way in the same way of my aid agency had, albeit inadvertently, marketed our Hindu staff from across town, then we might get somewhere – if only, for example, we could develop a ‘story’ which persuaded people that it’s in their direct self-interest to have immigrants in their school, to the extent that people start to seek out high-immigration areas for their children’s education, in the believe that this would give them the best start in life.  Then, perhaps, we might start to get somewhere – starting with grudging respect for individuals exemplars of immigration, maybe, but moving on to an acceptance that immigration as a whole is to be welcomed.

But course it’s not as easy as that, and I was wrong to suggest that it might be (not that anyone was listening).  As George Lakoff has reiterated recently in his (very good) interview with Zoe Williams, it’s not all about self-interest:

Liberals try to argue against them [convervatives] using evidence; they are embarrassed by emotionality. They think that if you can just demonstrate to voters how their self-interest is served by a socially egalitarian position, that will work, and everyone will vote for them and the debate will be over. In fact, Lakoff asserts, voters don’t vote for bald self-interest; self-interest fails to ignite, it inspires nothing – progressives, of all people, ought to understand this.

In my own argument, I had forgotten that an argument in favour of immigration based on the self interest of native-born Brits, even though this might be a narrative step on from Jonathan Portes’ dry economic facts, still relies on people being open to evidence – local evidence that immigration causes better attainment for all children in their area, in this case.

In fact, there is little evidence that such a breakthrough might be achieved, at least in the short term. After all, even respected commentator Tim Stanley, in appealing for a “serious calm conversation about immigration” failed, within that very appeal, to notice the false assumption behind his acceptance that high number of pupils with first languages other than English “has to affect [negatively] the learning of other pupils”; as I’ve set out, the opposite is true.  If an intellectual calling from a debate unframed by initial prejudice uses the frame of initial prejudice as a way of providing what he thinks is balance, what chance do the rest of us stand?

From evidence to moral foundations

Lakoff has argued for years now that the left (‘liberals’ in his US terminology) have been losing ground to the right because they have lost the framing battle.  It is a convincing argument, rooted in his in his background as a cognitive linguist researching how our core cognitive functions are driven by an understanding of the world-as-metaphor – but while he is rightly critical of methods which smiply reinforce conservative messages by repeating them, in the belief that people will then see how absurd they are, he largely fails to come up with answers about how we might carry out this reframing more successfully.  This is, in part, because he has become focused on the strict father vs nurturing father metaphor which he suggests lies at the methaphoric heart of all political debate, embedded as it in Judeao-Christian culture.  This may be true as an analysis, but it difficult see how such linguistic embedding might be combatted.

More useful- at least heuristically – is the model of political framing set out by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt sets out five moral foundation ‘spectrums’, which he seeks to show are rooted in our evolution (and evidenced anthropologically), and which act as ‘triggers’ for our judgment on moral, and therefore (reflecting Lakoff) political issues.

These moral foundation spectrums are: 1) care/harm 2) fairness/cheating  3) liberty/oppression  4) authority/subversion  5) loyalty/betrayal 6) sanctity/degradation , and overt moral approval or disapproval of political actions and ideas is triggered by evolutionary impulses, which put us on guard against actions deemed to be at the negative end of the spectrum, and value those at the positive.   Haidt goes on to suggest that the left relies overly on just three  foundations in its political framing, giving the right an in-built advantage as they appeal to a population which pays unconscious heed to all six.

Haidt offers us a convincing story about why the right seem to find it easier to gain the upperhand in political argument, because they are able to rely on the moral triggers themselves developed in (literally) uncivilised times, when cooperation and equality of status were used as bargaining tools in the interests of self and clan, rather than as ends in themselves.   In these terms, Zoe Tyndall’s research finding that what really narks her focus groups about Labour’s immigration policy is not the policy itself, but its association with Gordon Brown disrespecting Irene Duffy.   Indeed, Haidt’s summary of the authority/subversion foundation might have been written to describe this reaction:

The authority/subversion foundation evolved in the adaptive challenge of forging relations that will benefit us within social hierarchies.  It makes us sensitive  to signs of rank or status , and to signs that other people  are (or are not) behaving properly given their position (p.154).

What Labour sought desperately to write off as a storm in a teacup (though Brown, to his credit, realised it was much bigger than that), the Right instinctively seized upon as a key part of its story about Labour as an oppressive force.  This brings me back to Hasina (pictured, below, with her children).


I have already set out her half-joking insight about the value of Hindus, and expressed it in terms of her and her family’s self-interest.  But there was more to it than that.  Hasina, as a woman who stood up for herself in a community rife with domestic violence, that what she was saying was gently subversive, not simply because it was brazen about ackowledging the ‘otherness’ in Hindus, but because it really wasn’t her place to saying such stuff, amidst an informal get together of staff (her social betters), and the strange but kindly foreigner to boot.   In so doing, her political incorrectness counted for a great deal more than the staff platitudes about us all working together as one.

In fact, Hasina reminds me a little – though not physically, of Peter Griffin, the creation of the 21st century’s most talented observer of modern American life, Seth McFarlane.  Here’s Peter (11 second clip), doing what he does best, valuing immigration and otherness by taking the piss out of authority in act an which also nods at self-interest.

How to win on immigration

So, having explored why the Right is winning on immigration, how does the left start to win?

If you follow the Haidt-Hasina-Griffin logic through, the obvious answer is that we must start to subvert.   If we take as a starting point the idea that Labour’s political hierarchy has, through its collective behaviour, triggered revulsion on the authority/subversion moral spectrum, then the only morally acceptable behaviour, in the eyes of the wider population, is for people within the same  labour movement to rebel against it.   In time, this might create the space for us to exploit other moral foundations such as  loyalty/betrayal, whereby an act in favour of immigration comes to be viewed as an act of loyalty to social class rather than an act of national betrayal, as it is currently framed (and as I’ve heard reflected on the #labourdoorstep).

To some extent, therefore, Diane Abbott is right to say that we must stand up against the current immigration narrative, though as a member of the Labour hierarchy tarred with the same brush as most MPs, she is the wrong person to lead on that.  Ultimately, Diane Abbott is no Hasina.   Or Peter Griffin.

In the current command and control structure of the Labour  party, such acts of welcome subversion are unlikely to happen on a meaningful scale, anf it looks like the Collins Review will fail to do what it might have done in opening up power beyond its current narrow confines.

This is a shame.  If the party’s “thinkers” had real gumption, they would realise that it stands to benefit, not just in terms of the opportunity to turn round the immigration debate, from opening itself up to legitimate contestation of its decision-making, and that what it preaches about the value of community organising might, instead of it being used to further depoliticize local parties, might instead be a key tool in the (re)legitimization of the party (and the leadership itself).

Even if the thinkers can’t grasp Lakoff and Haidt properly, they might at least see that the rise of UKIP is driven not just by anti-politics, but by a UKIP leadership which makes a virtue of the fact that its adherents are subversive even with the party (its attempts to control this will also hasten its decline).  Labour is made of more moral stuff than UKIP to start with, and the leadership should see the advantage in engaging with principled dissent.

In the end then, whether Labour gets it right on immigration, and all other social policy areas which it as ceded to the right because of its failure (inter alia) to read Lakoff properly, is likely to depend on the usual stuff – the capacity of the rank and file to wield influence within the party.

We’ve been here before, of course.

On Mark Harper’s breach of the Race Relations act 1976

February 9, 2014 Leave a comment

Tories and Labour alike are full of praise for the way in which now ex-Immigration Minister  Mark Harper has acted over his discovery that this cleaner does not have permanent leave to remain in the UK.

This seems odd, because if the news reports are accurate, Mark Harper has acted unlawfully.

Specifically, he would appear to be in breach of the Race Relations Act 1976 Part 2, sec 4 (2A) which states that:

It is unlawful for an employer, in relation to employment by him at an establishment in Great Britain, to subject to harassment a person whom he employs or who has applied to him for employment

This is made clear in the TUC’s 2010 guidance on immigration document checks:

Under the Race Relations Act (RRA) 1976 and its subsequent amendments it is unlawful for an employer to discriminate against their employees or prospective employees on the grounds of race, colour, nationality (including citizenship), or ethnic or national origin. This applies to both public and private sector employers.

The TUC guidance goes on to review what documents can lawfully be reviewed by employers, and when they can be reviewed:

List A documents confirm that a person has the permanent right to stay and work in the UK. People holding List A documents need only be checked once, at the point of recruitment.

List B documents confirm that a person has the limited right to stay and work in the UK. People holding List B documents need to be re-checked every 12 months until they end their employment or are able to produce a List A document, in order for their employer to maintain a defence against being fined.

In Harper’s case, it seems clear that he thought his cleaner had permanent right to stay in the UK. In any event, he had no right to make repeated checks for any employee taken on before 29 Feb 2008, the date the new List A and B documentation rules came into force.  His cleaner was, according to press reports, employed before then. Had s/he been employed after that, then he would legally have had to do the checks year;y, which he didn’t do.

So having got it wrong (but not unlawfully so) in 2007, it looks like he has acted unlawfully both now, and possibly also in 2010 and 2012, when he says he also checked his cleaner’s immigration status.  He simply had no right to do so – losing papers does not count as a justification.

Funny that an Immigration Minister should be so ignorant of the law – but not so funny for his cleaner who now – because of this unlawful act by her employer – presumably now faces an uncertain future.


h/t Tim Flatman


Categories: General Politics

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