I’ve been quite busy in recent months so haven’t paid as much attention to arcane detail as I should, but I have one simple question about the current Labour National Policy Forum membership: how long does it go on?
The most recent Labour party rule book (2014*) seems unequivocal:
Elections to all divisions of the NPF shall be conducted to guidelines laid down by the NEC. The term of office shall be for two years. (Clause III, D, iv)
So why, if members were elected in 2012, isn’t there an election in 2014. A member of the NEC – the body responsible for the NPF elections – seemed unconcerned when I asked when the elections will take place, replying:
Next year I think – detailed timetable hasn’t been discussed yet .
An exemption was agreed 4 current term on basis of changed procedures -would have to look out my notes re: when agreement reached.
That’s fair enough in terms of not knowing the detail off-hand – NEC members can’t be expected to remember everything – but it’s a worrying reply even so, because I’m just not sure that the NEC has the power to agree such an exemption to the rule book.
Conference remains the overall authority on party rules, including rules on how the NEC conducts itself, to the extent that even where the NEC has the initial power to alter conference arrangements for practical purposes, it must seek ratification from that conference of the changed arrangements (Clause IV, 2).
This may all seem very petty**, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea of an executive which appears to consider/assumes its own authority to be greater than that of the body that gives it the authority it does possess. There lies badness.
But perhaps, as I’ve said, I’ve simply missed something.
* I link here to the 2013 rule book on Labourlist, as the 2014 post-Collins Review rule book (April 2014) is passworded on the Labour party site, but the wording and clause numbering are the same (though a different page number).
** Except inasmuch as I’d actually bothered to get nominated by my own CLP in January, to go forward for what I thought would be an election this summer, although my role as agent meant I didn’t have time to go around getting other nominations.
Mark at Labourlist is angry with Jon Cruddas:
The National policy Forum meets in three weeks. So why in all merry hell did Cruddas think that attacking the Labour Party – and Labour Party policy – now, of all times, would be a good idea? Labour policy chief slams policy review? How is that ever going to be a good headline? He’s smart enough and has been around the block long enough to know that this isn’t the way people of his standing in the party are supposed to behave. Look again at this line “these interesting ideas and remedies are not going to emerge through Labour’s policy review”. What were you thinking Jon? I like you – I think you’re a force for good in the Labour Party. But what were you thinking? Your job is to make sure that interesting ideas make their way through the process, not argue the opposite before the process has even finished.
I think the criticism is entirely unfair, and I entirely support Jon who, like Mark, I also think is a force for good within the labour movement. It’s very clear that Jon is attacking not the policy review itself, but the “dead hand” campaign managers and assorted “strategists” who have managed the message so badly. What he’s saying – frustratedly to a like-minded audience – is that there’s a risk that some of the really good stuff coming out of the review risks being filtered out by those campaign managers and strategists There’s absolutely nothing wrong with saying that, because it’s correct. I’m glad that Ed Balls is reflecting that.
Now I like Mark too (I think I met him once), and I think he’s a force for good in the labour movement. He knocks on doors. But he needs to take a step back and look at Labourlist’s own part in this.
The coverage by Labourlist of the big – very big, vet important, IPPR report was, like that of the mainstream media – dominated by the 18-21 year old youth allowance/JSA proposal/means-testing proposal, although it quickly became simply the JSA-slashing proposal*. Yet this was a 280 page report stuffed full of much more important stuff, one of which – the devolution to local city and county regions was in there but has had to be re-announced today. The other related biggie – the proposal to empower local authorities and other pubic bodies to draw forward investment into the early years off a five year cycle on the basis of future savings resutling from that investment – was completely ignored.
Mark accepts (I think) that no-one at Labourlist has actually read the IPPR report, and I suspect their coverage of it was influenced by other non-readings of it. Part of the problem, I suspect then, is that Labourlist’s resources have not grown commensurate with its growing profile, and importance (not in terms of its own direct readership so much as it being a go-to place for other more widely read commentators. Labour itself needs to consider what can be done about this – perhaps my moving some of its wasted PR budget towards Labourlist while guaranteeing absolute independence. In addition, the unions funding Labourlist and Left Foot Forward should consider cutting support to the latter in favour of the former, given that Left Foot Forward is now largely tripe. That way, we might expect that someone within Labourlist (or more likely a few people sharing) would actually get to grips with policy substance.
But better resources are not everything. Labour commentators and campaign managers alike need to get their heads round the idea that the Labour policy review is actually a very good thing, being very well managed within unfortunate constraints established earlier by oh-so-clever but actually much more stupid people.
In the end, it’s the content of the manifesto offer that counts, not some trashy headline from a paper which will attack Labour anyway. Jon and some at IPPR and elsewhere should be congratulated for staying focused on that, not hauled over the coals for being pissed off that the “strategists” still wield far too much influence.
* For what it’s worth, I think the conditional Youth Allowance proposals are a pretty good thing in that they free young people from the stupidity of the JSA job search requirements, but much will depend on the level of autonomy enjoyed by the Job Centre Plus Advisors around the customised plans and the “exceptions”. The proposals are still a too managerial-bureaucratic, as is the way of IPPR (especially Graeme Cooke), but there is time for them to become a useful part of the overall scheme of things. And of course, means-testing parents is only the same as happens with student’s maintenance grants, and only an indiorect form of progressive taxation, to which direct taxation would of course be preferable but not felt currently a vote winner.
It is starting to look like Cameron will fail in his quest for someone other than Jean-Claude Juncker to be President of the European Commission. John Major being wheeled out to argue that the whole anti-Juncker thing is a gambit to ensure greater UK influence by another route certainly suggests the Tories know the game is up.
It’s good that Cameron will have egg all over his face, and it is to be hoped that, as Juncker takes up his position (assuming a yes vote in the European parliament) at least some of the press will start to ask questions like:
Why didn’t Cameron speak up about the Spitzenkandidat process back in 2012 when it was first worked up by the two main European parliament groupings? Why is it only now that he thinks the process is an insult to democracy? Did he simply not understand what was going on across Europe?
Even if these questions are asked though, and Cameron’s absurd EU-illiteracy is exposed for it is, the news cycle is such that it’ll be old news come the Autumn – unless, that is, Labour keep it there. Fortunately, Labour can do just that, and in a way which not only keeps the heat on Cameron through the winter, but which -more importantly – is good for the citizens of the EU as well. It goes like this:
1) Article 234 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union allow for a motion of censure of the Commission President, which if passed by a two thirds majority, forces the resignation of the President and his commissioners (whom he will have appointed).
2) Labour MEPs, operating in collaboration with their SPD colleagues should make a specific set of social-democratic demands on Juncker early in his presidency (e.g. that Juncker should organize the repealing of the anti-Keynesian six-pack pushed through by the right in 2011, in favour an agreement focused on social and economic stability, or that Juncker should bring forward Lisbon-consistent ways of balancing richer nation states’ desire for temporary restrict freedom of movement of people with the interests of poor countries in restricting some freedom of movement of goods and services).
3) If Juncker and his Commission complies, then it’s a win for the left. If not, they should go about campaigning for his censure, across the political groups. Tory MEPs, in their new political grouping, would be embarrassed at the very least if they had to vote for a continuation of a Juncker presidency, and UKIP’s votes, abstentions or strategic absence would also be spotlighted.
4) Overall, this would be cast as Labour taking socialist action through its validly elected representatives, set against the Cameron ego-trip.
At the moment, the Labour strategy is wrong. Glenys Kinnock and Miliband have been foolishly advised, and committed MEPs to a vote against Juncker on the first occasion, when he up for election following the European Council’s nomination (in accordance with 17(7) of the Treaty of the European Union. This may seem an attractive anti-Juncker position, but it is very short-term, destined to failure because the rest of the SPD and the EPP is committed to maintaining the legitimacy of the Spitzenkandidat process, and is therefore an insult to SPD colleagues across Europe, who are disappointed in the first place that UK Labour did not embrace Martin Schulz as the SPD candidate.
There is still time for Labour to change course, and both reintegrate itself with the SPD following its Schulz mistake and be seen as a leading mover for proper reform within the EU. But that time is short.
Giles Wilkes, now out on licence from Whitehall, has compared the fiscal plans of Labour, the LibDems and the Tories. He finds that the LibDems and Labour’s plans are “credible”, while the Tory ones are not. This is not a surprise, but it’s good of him to do the adding up.
What interests me more about his piece, though, is not Giles’ attempt to establish common ground for a Lib-Lab coalition, but his casual dismissal of the whole idea of public services reform:
No doubt this debate will continue to be evaded over the next few months. Some will claim tax rises; others will claim unspecified or unrealistic benefits cuts. Others will hope not to have to spell things out, and others will claim magic further efficiency savings (my emphasis).
So is there any hope of getting more for our money from public services?
Yes there is, and Giles is wrong.
All of them, in their own way, seek to take the moral high ground, by arguing that cuts and or tax rises are inevitable, and that Labour is either damaging itself electorally in the short term by not telling the truth and therefore not exuding economic competence (Anthony, Atul, Andrew, Hopi) acting dishonestly by avoiding that inevitability, in a way which will hurt electorally later when the cuts and taxes do come (Rick, Giles, Janan). Meanwhile, over in the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) corner, Richard argues that Labour are preparing to make savage cuts because they’re too cowardly and/or ignorant to get MMT.
But what apparently none of them have noticed – or perhaps preferred to ignore – is that Labour is seriously committed to public services reform, and has for the past few months been carefully working up a programme for government which will deliver both desirable and affordable public service outcomes over the long-term. I’ve already covered the main elements of this programme, which hinges on what Jon Cruddas has (now more than once and quite deliberately) referred to as “investment in preventing social problems“, a commitment to making ‘relational services’ actually happen through that investment and a mix of decentralization and innovation within the treasury which allow us to bring in the initial resources for that upfront investment, on the costed basis of huge downstream savings to the public purse.
What interests me here is not the emerging detail for that programme – and there will be more of that in the IPPR report to be released to great Labour fanfare on Thursday and then over the summer – but why and how such eminent commentators have failed to notice that the zero-based review, which is largely about departmental efficiency and is being managed by Chris Leslie, is dwarfed in importance by the policy review process being chaired by Jon Cruddas and the Decentralization Decade project being run, again, by IPPR, in conjunction with Price Waterhouse Coopers and others.
The answer is, I think, quite straighforward, and welcome. The public service reform planning process has been set up and delivered out of sight of the myopic commentariat, who may claim to understand how Labour does or should work (I don’t include Giles here) but is in fact utterly ignorant of what’s been happening. The Labour policy review, which has mostly been about public services , has been a mostly in-house affair, co-ordinated through the Your Britain website, and the many, many submissions that have been made by CLPs and other informed bodies, then weighted for support, scored, assessed and taken into account by Jon’s team, have been well below the commentariat radar. IPPR too, who as Labour’s closest and most capable think-tank have pulled a lot of the thinking on relational services together, have for the most part operated out of the limelight, though this will start to change this week (as above)
This is policy development as it should happen, and a refreshing change from the diktat days of New Labour. This time around Labour has harnessed the power of the web properly, and within a clear set of parameters gone about taking on board the informed view of party members and others sympathetic enough to the cause to want to have their informed say.
Yes, I would have liked to have seen somewhat different parameters set in the first place, and that might have been the case but for the somewhat toxic legacy of In the Black Labour (to that extent I do agree with Richard Murphy and others), and yes, some of the timetable has been a bit out of kilter, with the need to draw forward some commitments before they are fully costed and agreed . But with those caveats (and when we’re in power and doing public service differently, the parameters can start to shift), it’s been great to see a Labour party policy process which, more than any time in my lifetime, has had proper input from public servants in the labour movement, at the expense of those who think its their right to be told what’s going on, and who are completely flummoxed by a process which doesn’t pander to the think-tank elite, but largely bypasses them.
A return of Labour party policy to the labour movement – who’d have thought it? I am reminded, in fact, of Harold Laski’s 1924 views on how government should be run (before the internet):
But predominantly the corrective [to posh people in Whitehall knowing bugger all about real life] is most largely to be supplied by the system of advisory committees discussed above. For there the official will be compelled to measure his knowledge and experience against a much wider variety than is now the case. He will less and less draw his conclusions from reading of reports, the arguments he can think of in an office; he will more and more tend to build hem out of personal contact wiith business men trade unionists, doctors, school teachers. (p.400)
Perhaps Ralph did read the right bedtime stuff to Ed, after all.
 In his piece, Giles is also caustically dismissive of the MMT and similar positions, which surprises me a little:
There have been those on the Right somehow denying that there has been any austerity, and those on the Left somehow acting as if the idea of eventually bringing your budget into some sort of balance is a wicked contrived plot. Yes, why on earth should a government inheriting a £159bn deficit be thinking at all about public spending restraint? Must be a conspiracy.
All we get is a shifting balance between private and public assets and debts, in the absence of a massive international imbalance. Which means we can always afford to resolve either private or public indebtedness with a political solution, if we are brave enough.
But why exactly is 75% of GDP in public debts, owned by the private sector and paying just 4-5% interest, a problem – when the private sector needs such instruments?
That is a question Conservatives bury under the term ‘burdening our children with debts’. It is just as much ‘providing our pensioners with assets’.
For myself, while I think the whole accounting identity argument holds water, I just think the thinking hard bit of the UK left needs to accept that we’ve lost that battle for now, and that we should focus on supporting Labour, either as activists or commentators (preferably both) to work its way towards and then sell to the electorate the kind of social investment programme I outline above, and for which I have stressed the urgent need elsewhere. This includes arguing for social investment, through stable employment, as part of Andrew Adonis’ growth review, another bit of Labour’s careful government programming work.
 I am reminded here of Janan’s pithily correct “all politics are fiscal” in his otherwise excruciatingly poorly informed attack on Ed Miliband’s and Labour’s plans.
 As James Mackenzie has pointed out to me, one of the key drivers for the speeding up of the timetable for announcing Labour’s programme for government may well be the risk of a Yes vote in Scotland. I hope, contra James, that it’s not too late.
While it’s utterly scandalous that the tabloid media has apparently gone and done a cheap photoshop on the picture of Ed Miliband getting ready to get to grips with our submission to the Labour policy review, the important thing is that it has been lodged and that he is clearly taking a keen interest.
The submission is online at the party’s policy review website ‘Your Britain’ (see below if you’re not registered). If you do read it and support the nine recommendations made, please do take a moment to leave a comment, as evidence of online support is important in getting it up the league table of submissions to be taken seriously.
And it is a very serious submission.
I wasn’t at the Progress conference this weekend just gone. Why on earth would I go to listen to Sunny Hundal talk about public service reform, when I could be getting on with mowing a garden untouched for the election period?*
By all accounts (here’s one), there was a bit of doom and gloom, following on from Peter Kellner’s intervention at the start of the day, which told from an (opinion) polling point of view of the uphill struggle Labour now faces to get anywhere near victory.
For myself, I don’t get all the doom and gloom. I think that if we deliver on what we propose to deliver on in the next 9 months before the short election period, we will go into that period with a very confident and enthusiastic ‘groundwar’ team of thousands, we’ll win the election and – most importantly – we’ll be in good position to deliver on our promises within the first half of the parliament.
We are becoming, if I might be permitted to have a go at choosing a new colour for the party – In the Pink Labour (ITPL).
So why would I, hitherto somewhat sceptical about the party direction, so confident?
I’m confident because the party has steered an intelligent course between competing pressures and sources of advice and is now coming to the point where it can announce a deliverable programme for government which will appeal to the voters that must vote Labour if we are to win. The ITPL course might be most conveniently described in relation to other colour schemes that various groupings have tried to impose on Labour, or define Labour as.
In the Black Labour (ITBL)
This grouping, from 2011 onwards, sought to impose the mantra of ‘fiscal responsibility’ on the party, arguing that the only route to electoral victory was to regain trust lost in the wake of the financial crisis. Primarily, this means accepting major cuts to public service/spending, and striving for optimum ‘social justice’ with what spending remained.
This prescription found early favour both within the higher echelons of the party and within Progress because – despite the macroeconomic illiteracy that lies behind it – the rhetoric of responsibility, of looking like ‘grown-up’ serious politicians in contrast to the supposedly juvenile antics of the anti-austerity brigade, was attractive. For a while, ITBL ‘thinking’ was all the rage.
Soon enough, it became clear that the whole ITBL project was undeliverable even in its own terms – that the social outcomes to which its proponents claimed to aspire are impossible to deliver without significant investment of the type not allowed under the self-imposed fiscal responsibility rules. But the consequence of this 2011-2012 dalliance with ITBL have been been far reaching. Instead of Labour positioning itself to make a sustained anti-austerity case, and from there a defence of the underlying virtues of an effective social democratic welfare state, the party and its think-thanks (notably IPPR) have had to developed ways to sell additional spending on social outcomes as ‘investment’, which over time will reduce recurrent expenditure.
It is largely this need to row quietly back from the excesses of the ill-thought out ITBL period that has spurred the party on to the three-sided review it has been engaged with for nearly a year now, but one key aspect of which currently properly get going until 15 months out from the general election, this being roughly the point when Treasury and other departmental officials become obliged under convention to look seriously at opposition plan for government and comment on their deliverability.
The review consists of the department-by-department zero-based spending review, the broad policy review co-ordinated by Jon Cruddas (deadline for members and other submissions is 13th June) and,as importantly, a review of what can be done with the mechanisms of Treasury to facilitate the drawing forward of spend on social outcomes (with lower state spending in the future projected as a result), with a significant element of this review being around the potential for a ‘decentralisation decade’.
None of this makes the headlines, of course, but it opens the way, come later summer/Autumn for Miliband to build on his policy-heavy Queen’s Speech response and the other policy nuggets already announced. It promises to create the momentum needed to bring back on side those who have drifted from Labour on the basis that it hasn’t resisted the Tory cuts machine like it should have done (see below), while also allowing those who tied themselves to the ITBL mast to retain the impression that their original concerns with serious fiscal responsibility continue to be addressed because the programme for government remains costed, albeit on a multi-year investment basis rather than the more short-sighted basis of ITBL’s original proponents.
More importantly, once in government, it creates a real opportunity for Labour to move at least some of the way towards the kind of supply-side socialism envisaged by Chris, although there are dangers, which emerge from the budgeting process used to get us this far, of the whole project remaining one of central command and control, and one vital aspect of supply-side socialism (empowerment of workers in the workplace) becoming sidelined.
White Flag Labour (WFL)
Coined in early 2012 by economist Howard Reid, WFL takes the diametrically opposite position to ITBL, and indeed takes ITBL as a key reference point:
In the Black Labour is actually “White Flag Labour”; a tame surrender to the misguided economic policies currently wreaking havoc on the UK‟s economic and social fabric, rather than the well-worked-out and comprehensive fightback we so desperately need.
This broadly reflects the position of a wide range of self-defining left-wing activists, both within and outside the Labour party, including Compass (who published Howard’s essay). Back in 2011/12, I would have put myself in that camp, believing that it was still possible to argue the anti-austerity case straightforwardly, taking on the ‘credit-card’ myth-peddling and forging a distinctive post-Keynesian economic project.
But that was then. Howard and colleagues (including myself) never had the institutional or social clout within the Labour movement to push forward that case, and for a time ITBL won out (as above). Now, the challenge is to persuade those still devoted to the White Flag idea – here’s a recent example – that Labour has got round to their position social and economic investment by a very roundabout route, and that rather than argue about why it didn’t come along the straight path, the best thing to do now is to acknowledge that we can go the last mile to the general election together.
In many ways, this is a tougher task than it is to keep the ITBL devotees with us, because those who thought they saw the white flag raised are more embittered at having been ignored. This isn’t made any easier by Chris Leslie coming out with a seemingly very 2011 speech about the continued need for savage cuts, of course, but this needs to be seen in the context of the perceived need to keep ITBL happy at the Progress conference, and needs to be compared with this article just a day later, in which much more of the talk is about ‘outcomes’.
The economic blueprint for a Labour government is not everything, of course. To win, Labour also needs to be steady-footed in its handling of the UKIP insurgency. Even here, though, Labour is starting to get it right, recognising that this too demands a coherent economic response. The outline of a short-term approach to EU migration which actually has a chance of delivery and is constructively pro-European is emerging, and will I suspect be firmed up in fairly short order, but the big work being started is to link the economic insecurities which are driving the ‘male rage’ to the kind of economic solutions which only Labour can deliver on. Primarily, this requires investment in decent quality jobs which give people (men) back a sense of dignity in their family and their locality, as I’ve set out here.
This is a move on from the slight silliness of the Blue Labour movement of 2010-11, but even here there is an opportunity to unify the party for the pre-election year by acknowledging that some of what was being said back then does resonate, even if the policy proposals emanating from that time were pretty thin.
In the Pink Labour
So all in all, I’m pretty sanguine about where we are in mid-2014. The problem with Kellner’s projections is that they assume business as usual in the Labour party. What there hasn’t been in the Labour party over the last two years, though, is business as usual. A very distinctive programme of government is being planned, according to a tight but realistic timetable, and very soon it will be difficult for people to say: “but what does Labour/Miliband stand for?”.
We are in this position because we argued our positions long and hard, but without falling out too much. The anti-austerity troops can take credit for where we are now just as much as the ITPL brigade. I’d rather have got where we are now differently, but In the Pink is not such a bad place to be.
Ed Miliband, whom I once called by a bad word because I hadn’t worked out his methods (I’m not convinced he had at that stage either) can also take credit.
*Sunny Hundal is a nice man but he knows a good deal less than I do about public services and how they might and can be reformed. More importantly, holding an election three weeks later in May than normal means that the grass gets ridiculously long and difficult to get through with a small mower.
** An odd role reversal
So John Denham MP wants Labour to lead the debate on curbing immigration into the EU:
[L]et’s lead the debate in the EU about changing the rules. This won’t be a swift argument to win, but we will get more credit for trying than for avoiding the issue. Merkel won’t let Germany pay for Southern Europe. Why should we cope with the migration consequences of Euro zone failure?
Let’s assume for the purposes of this post that he’s right*. How, specifically, would be go about getting the rule change needed to stop intra-EU migration. Wouldn’t that require either a treaty change which would be years in the negotiation, or a leaving of the EU/EEA? No, it wouldn’t. Article 45 of the Treaty says:
1. Freedom of movement for workers shall be secured within the Union. 2. Such freedom of movement shall entail the abolition of any discrimination based on nationality between workers of the Member States as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of work and employment. 3. It shall entail the right, subject to limitations justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health….(my emphasis)
It’s not quite as simple as invoking para 3 to limit intra-EU migration on the grounds of preferred public policy, since a 2004 EU Directive tightened up the meaning of this (in its pre-Lisbon form) to ensure its use would not be arbitrary, and as it stands reasons have to be given for the barring of each and every individual from a country, which would be impractical. But the mechanism for the changing of a directive is a lot less cumbersome than that for changing a treaty, and could be done if there was enough political will, especially as a changed Directive requires interpretation and incorporation into national law and inevitably allows states some leeway about how this done.
Of course then the question arises of why the accession countries would accept such a change. Clearly it wouldn’t be in the interests of its citizens to have their freedom of movement restricted, as that is one route to the the ‘economic convergence’ those citizens seek (they might not call it that – they might call it ‘earning a better wage’). The answer – and this is what Labour should be focusing on now – lies in another, even less read bit of the Lisbon treaty. Article 30 states that “customs duties on imports and exports and charges having equivalent effect shall be prohibited between Member States. This prohibition shall also apply to customs duties of a fiscal nature.” but article 32 clear the way for exceptions to the rule:
In carrying out the tasks entrusted to it under this Chapter the Commission shall be guided by………the need to avoid serious disturbances in the economies of Member States and to ensure rational development of production and an expansion of consumption within the Union
Invocation of this aspect of the Lisbon treaty as part of the overall deal would create the room for temporary suspension of the single market, and the creation of export subsidy/import substitution mechanisms, such that convergence can occur at a much quicker pace than might otherwise happen. It would effectively, give the newer EU states the space they need to catch up, as long as they agree to their side of the bargain – keeping and feeding their own citizens. None of this is easy, especially from opposition, but If Labour really wants to pull the rug from under Cameron and Farage and in a way which looks to the long term of Europe as well as to the assuaging of those “understandable concerns” – we could get on with doing something they apparently can’t be bothered with: the detail.
*Actually Denham is wrong, as the migration he’s concerned about has little to do with problems in the Euro zone, and lots to do with the fact that the accession countries and the southern states have not converged economically with Western European countries as planned. That’s not just because of the incompleteness of these states’ tax regimes etc., but because capitalism doesn’t work like the Maastricht theorists said it would. A better, more holistic approach would be to resist any attack on freedom of movement until action had been taken to resolve some of the issues at the heart of the neoliberal project that is the EU. But that’s a bigger question than we can deal with here. Apply for details.
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.
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
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.
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.