Archive for the ‘Labour Party News’ Category

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.


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.

From member to supporter?

February 1, 2014 Leave a comment

I’ve not seen the NEC papers with the Collins Review recommendations, so can only go off the reports of people who probably haven’t either but do a good job at pretending they might have done.  The best summaries are, for obvious reasons, on the Labour blogs, Labourlist and Left Futures.  I’ll take those as reflecting reality for now.

Overall, it could be a good deal worse.  The upping of the percentage of PLP endorsements in order to stand in a Labour leadership election is frustrating, as it gives MPs a needless level of control over the shortlist and narrow the freedom of choice for the rest of us, but leadership elections only happen once a decade and the change is fairly unlikely to make a difference to the outcome of the next one at least, and the Labour party will be such a different beast in 15-20 years time that it’s not really worth being concerned about.

I can live with the London primary as an experiment, though it may make some vacuous celebrity more of a shoe-in, which is bad for politics in the long-term.  I’m still kind of Weberian.

But the main problem remains the fact that Labour party finances will plummet if we don’t sign up enough people as supporters, even though there’ll be a soft plummeting over the five year plan.  And we don’t sign up enough £3 supporters because there will no incentive for most to join the party/movement.  As it stands, theyy’ll pay £3 for the privilege of being an official party cheerleader, but have no actual power or sense of power because there will be no  additional resources available to their local party unit to either get stuff done locally, or put into a wider pot for actions over which they’ve had a genuine say.

I’ve been over this ground plenty, so no point repeating the practical proposals I’ve made to Ray Collins’ and his team.  I made these proposals in good faith on the basis that they would actually be read, and if there was disagreement with them I’d at least be told, in the Review report, what the reasons were.  It’s starting to look, from my brief conversations with NEC delegates, that that’s not going to happen.  I am keen for me to find otherwise.

This would be a betrayal of my trust in the party that it will do what it said it will do, and would make me weigh up the morality vs utility of my remaining as a member of the Labour party.  I am sanguine about the extent to which I might be missed as a member.

As an arch-loyalist, I would of course be a union opt-in supporter, so would leave without leaving, in the hope that over time being a supporter is actually the same anyway.

I will make these points on the conference floor on 1st March, if my waving hand is seen.

Categories: Labour Party News

Why the Left should be celebrating Ed Balls’ Fabian speech on ‘fiscal discipline’

January 25, 2014 4 comments

On hearing that Ed Balls was to use the Fabian conference to announce Labour’s commitment to a budget surplus, Hopi Sen tweets with mock insouciance

This is amusing, because his #intheblack labour side hasn’t won.  It’s lost, and my side has won.

As George Eaton has pointed out*

While Osborne’s promise applies to total government spending, Balls’s only applies to current spending (day-to-day spending on public services, for instance teachers’ salaries and hospital drugs). This leaves open the option of Labour borrowing to fund additional capital spending (investment in assets such as housing and roads).

This is not something In the Black Labour ever conceived of in their original short paper.

Where George continues to get it wrong is his assumption that additional borrowing will go towards capital spending only.  True, Balls focused on capital investment today, but the crucial (and largely ignored) Zero-based review makes it clear that there is an openness to non-capital social investment where additional funds are needed in the short terms to generate longer term savings to the public purse e.g. through investments in education and social justice-focused welfare provision.**

Ed Balls’ conversion (or re-conversion) to a reasonable sensible fiscal strategy in government should be a matter of celebration for the Left, much more than the politically attractive but much less meaningful 50% tax-rate (which should have been announced much later, giving top earners less time to shift there income around to avoid it).  It comes about not least because of the pressure by sections of the Left on Labour to do something seriously pro-growth AND pro-social justice, and marks quite a big shift in our direction.  If you look closely.***


* Fair play to George for finally waking up to this.  It’s possible, though I’m sure he’d deny it, that he realised what was going on when I took him to task on his failure to keep up to date.  His colleague Rafael Behr, whom I also found wanting, has conceded that I am right.

**This is easy enough to manage at a Treasury level – simply lower capital expenditure in Departmental budgets by shifting these costs into the new investment funds, thus allowing for increased investment-focused revenue in the Departmental budget.

*** To be fair to Hopi, he’s not alone.  All the press comment I’ve seen other tha George’s has seen Balls’ speech as a simple move towards fiscal disipline, ignoring the bit about this only being on current spending, and the room that this leaves.  This, for example, is quite wrong.

Baumol vs Milibandism: Can Labour’s public service reforms succeed?

January 21, 2014 2 comments

Like Rafael Behr in the New Statesman before him, Janan Ganesh in the FT (£), , thinks Ed Miliband is avoiding the public services reform elephant in the room:

If choice and competition are so desirable in the private sector, why is he [Miliband] averse to their presence in the public sector? Aside from foreign policy, there is no subject on which he has moved further from Mr Blair than public service reform…….

This is not merely an intellectual rumple to intrigue wonks and technocrats. It goes to the gut question of what kind of prime minister Mr Miliband wants to be. He says he will stand up against “vested interests”. How would he describe the teaching unions? He says he will take on producer lobbies. What is the British Medical Association if not that? He wants an annual competition audit with consumers on board. Why not put public services within its remit?

See what Janan’s doing there?  In his world, reform is the breaking of the unions and  privatization.

Meanwhile, away from FT towers, the Labour party is starting to engage in a root and branch review of public services.  As the phase 1 discussion document for the Zero-based Review sets out:

First, building on the ideas in this document each Labour shadow ministerial team will prepare a report on Public Service Reform and Re-Design setting out how we now  deliver better public services with less money, involving employees, charities, and the  voluntary sector in our deliberations, as well as business and public providers, employer groups and trade unions. We will publish a summary of these reports in the  spring (p.7).

Unlike Janan, Labour gets that public service reform is about more than the latest carve up.  As Rafael correctly said in his piece*:

The idea that services can be improved by outsourcing key functions to the likes of Serco, Capita and G4S has been pretty well discredited. Likewise, there is mixed evidence at best when it comes to the belief that public sector efficiency and quality are raised when service users (parents and patients) choose between competing providers (schools and hospitals) in quasi-markets.

Whether or not Janan Ganesh is a competent journalist need not detain us here.  The point is that Labour as a party is doing its best to grapple with how public services will need to develop when it comes into government, and the important question is whether it might succeed.

So will it?

Well, I like the determination to do so set out in the document**, and I like the way it effectively firms up the commitment to investment spending, where the benefits can be quantified, through its very commitment to restraining “day to day” spending, as that allows quite a lot of leeway once in government.  In addition, the timelines are canny, in that there’s a quiet recognition that little major investment will be possible in the first year of government anyway, as it takes time to get such stuff underway, thus allowing the full zero-based review to be completed when in government (and with the resources then to do so).

But will such a review  ultimately overcome the Baumol effect?  Will Britain’s public services be remodelled to such an extent that the lag in productivity growth in public services, as compared to other sectors can be ‘rectified’?

No, I think is the answer to that.  To this extent I agree with Rick, that something will have to give.  In the end, a person to help dress in a hospital is a person to help dress in a hospital, and someone who needs a job remains the same person who needs a job, and in the end ‘efficiencies’ end up as reduced quality.

Even so, I’m hopeful that the review will start to look beyond productivity gains, beyond the Baumolian inevitability, and address the other side of the public services equation: not the services bit, but the public bit. I’m hopeful that long-term investment in the broadening of the whole concept child welfare***, for example, will create less need for (the relatively) massive expenditure on statutory child protection services.

I’m hopeful not because I see many radical solutions emerging just yet but because, unlike blinkered journalists who can’t even be bothered to read Labour policy before pontificating about how crap we are at it, I can see that at least Labour under Miliband is trying to open up to radical reform of public services.

That’s reform – as in re-forming.

[Update 23/01/14 : this has become 1 of 2 pieces on Public Sector Reform Labour-style.  2 of 2 gets down to the nitty-gritty of what it needs to be if it's to overcome Baumol]

*My mini-beef with Rafael is not his analysis that public sector reform is something more than privatisation.  My mini-beef with him is that, because Miliband glazes over a bit when asked about public services, then Labour mustn’t be doing anything about it.  Yet the Zero-based review document I refer to above, in which the plan of attack is laid out (albeit badly), appeared before Rafael’s piece.

Likewise, it’s taken his colleague George Eaton a month to work out the distinction between day-to-day spending and investment spending (though he’s still too hooked on the capital/revenue split), basing his analysis on a speech by Balls, when in fact that distinction is set out clearly enough in the Zero-based review document (and was obvious enough to me five months ago that I spelled it out here).   The document is even signed of by Balls (and Miliband)

** Actually the document itself is startlingly badly written, with lots of repetition, and it’s not even properly proof-read.  It’s almost as though it was released without fanfare and in this uncooked state so that people would ignore it for now, but that it could be referred to later as proof of the long-term planning.  In which case, it’s worked.

*** I choose this example because grassroots-led radical change to child welfare action is what I’m working on at the moment, and I’m very excited about it.  More news soon.

Categories: Labour Party News

If Labour really wanted to get serious about Immigration……

January 6, 2014 2 comments

Mark at Labourlist praises the Labour leadership for speaking about immigration – something the rank and file are too scared to do.  At least Ed’s trying to do something about it, says Mark:

Ed Miliband has decided to do something different. Something smarter. Something more humane. And something incredibly risky. He’s decided to try and change the debate on immigration.

Worried about immigrants “taking British jobs” by taking rock-bottom salaries? Then tackle the root cause – unscrupulous employers who seek to exploit the overseas poor to undermine the British poor.

Now I’m all for closing the loopholes which allow the minimum wage to be avoided.  But it’s quite wrong to suggest that unscrupulous employment practices are the “root cause” of economic migration.

The root cause of economic migration to the UK is that some countries are poorer than us.

If we don’t want people to move here – and I accept that’s the current majority view – the root cause to tackle is the poorness of those countries.

That is, of course, the principle reason for the European Union existing in the first place (well, that and stopping wars).  The Single Market is fundamentally about convergence of economies so that we all have roughly the same standard of living, and so that we move from country to country because we want to, not because we have to.

The problem – the “root cause”, if you like – is that the single market hasn’t worked as envisaged, because capitalism’s not like that, and that’s where Ed’s opportunity for ‘something smarter” lies.

As I’ve set out in some detail, there’s a very clear line to be struck about the functioning of the European Union, which would at one fell swoop undercut Cameron’s “renegotiation” froth and provide a real and timetabled solution to what is seen as the migration problem.  This involves a temporary trade-off, agreeable within the current Lisbon Treaty, between freedom of capital* and freedom of movement restrictions, which would allow the poorer countries in the EU the opportunity for much more rapid growth and convergence with the richer countries, this reducing the need for people in the poorer countries to earn money abroad and send remittances home.

If Labour really wants to get serious about migration, it really needs to look to do more than tinker round the edges.


*The original thinking about this ‘artificial devaluation’ via changes to freedom of capital rules was from  proper economist, Duncan Weldon, but he dismissed it as unrealistic in the context of Single Market law.  As I’ve shown, it’s not, because that law was set up specifically with the ‘get out’ clauses that Duncan wanted to see in mind.  It’s simply that Duncan hadn’t read the law at the time.  Oddly, the 90 Tory MPs who wanted to curb A” migration at the last minute, did pick up on an aspect of these provisions, though they got it wrong by referring to the 2005 A2 Accession Treaty rather than the actual Lisbon Treaty and the 2004 Directive which reinforced that.



the TCF submission to the Collins Review

December 24, 2013 8 comments

The TCF submission to the Collins Review

 1              Introductory remarks

1.1       This is a submission to the Collins Review into how we ‘build a one nation Labour party’.  In keeping with the interim report, the submission seeks to engage with more than theissue of the ‘party-union’ link, and covers how the movement as a whole might re-engage productively with the wider public.  Central to this re-engagement, though, is the development of a new form of part-union relationship.

1.2       The Collins Review has the chance to do what, just two years ago, the Refounding Labour process so sadly failed to do.  Bluntly, Refounding Labour did nothing to refound the labour movement at the heart of British society; all it did was to relax some party rules, so that those with the power and influence in the party got to exert that power and influence more fully, free of some of the checks and balances of what had come to be seen as party ‘bureaucracies’, but which had originally been put in place to ensure that ordinary party and union members had a say in both local and national party decision-making.

1.3       Perversely, the Falkirk debacle, which might even be traced back to the elision of dull-but-essential selection rules in the narrow sense, as well as a broader decline in administrative processes that used to make local parties ‘tick’ properly, creates a new opportunity for all of us to get it right this time. This submission is made in that spirit.  It covers similar ground to our ignored submission to the early Refounding Labour process, but it is made in the hope that, this time around, that there is a realisation of the need for a transformation of the labour movement, not a tinkering around its edges.

1.4       If the labour movement is to appear transformed to the wider public, such that it affects their daily lives for the better, then it must be transformed in reality.  This means breaking down power structures as they now exist, and rebuilding them in a way which allows party and union members real power, to the extent that people outside the movement decide they want a piece of that power for themselves, and join the movement.  Anything other than a massive increase in membership and activity will be a failure.

1.5       In turn, breaking down power structures requires a radical approach to labour movement funding, and nothing short of a reversal of the way finances flow through the movement will suffice. This reversal is our key recommendation.  It will require bravery on the part of Ray Collins to recommend this to Spring conference, but this is the big chance to make the big change the labour movement needs.  Fail to take that step, and there is every likelihood that the unions will start to step away.  Take the step, and even those that have turned for the door will turn back again with interest. 

2          Background to this submission

2.1       Though Cowards Flinch (TCF) is a well-regarded Labour-supporting website and think-tank, specializing in analysis of the current British political scene. Many of the articles first presented at TCF are cross-posted, by arrangement and with appropriate editing, to other popular sites.

2.2       The main current contributor to TCF, Paul Cotterill is an active member of the Labour party. Paul was, until his retirement from elected politics in May 2011, the leader of a Labour group on a Borough Council, and has a track record of electoral success. He is also a well-regarded community activist, organizer and social entrepreneur.

2.3       TCF is therefore rooted in grassroots political activity and community organization both within and beyond the Labour party, and is ideally positioned to make a well-informed, productive submission to the Collins Review. Many of the recommendations set out here have their roots in earlier articles written for TCF and other publications, and are further informed by the often extensive comments and responses to those articles from other Labour/Left activists.

2.4       This submission is focused on practical steps that the labour movement can take to improve its functioning. It is about how structures,  roles and flows of power and finance within the movement should be revised, rather than about specific policies that the Labour party should adopt (though examples of possible policy development are used as they relate to changed structures).

2.5       The submission, while practically oriented, is informed by political theory, especially around the concept of power. TCF believes that contestation of power and authority is both inevitable and, when properly structured, desirable. We believe that the current power structures and bureaucracies at play within the Labour party, developed with good intentions by the party’s hierarchy as a means to an end (holding electoral power) have become fundamentally disempowering because they do not sufficiently allow legitimate contestation of and, where necessary, challenge to authority. We make recommendations about how power and authority might be devolved within the party in a way which empowers members and affiliates, and creates the base for electoral success.

2.6       Ultimately, we believe that the political philosopher Hannah Arendt (On Violence, 1970) was right:

“Violence can always destroy power. Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience. What never can grow out of it [violence] is power.”

2.7       The Labour party under New Labour has exerted a form of violence upon its membership, and this has led to a loss of power. Now is the time to remedy that situation, by using the Collins Review process to put in place explicit measures that devolve power back to members.

2.8       The submission is in six sections, though there is some interrelation between them. The sections are as follows:

• Revising the role of the Labour MP;

• Revising the policy-making process (1): the role of the Labour MP;

• Revising the financial flows within the Labour party;

• Revising the policy-making process (2): the role of Labour commissions;

• Revising engagement with the trade union movement; and

• Revising the role of the Labour councillor within the local party

2.9       The focal point of our submission is our recommendation on revisions of financial flows; without this, all other areas of recommended change will be possible, but will have massively less impact.  That is, they will improve the labour movement’s current functioning, but they will not transform it.

3          Revising the role of the Labour MP

3.1       MPs, and to a somewhat lesser extent, MEPs, have an almost godlike status within the Labour party organization and culture.

3.2       This is an understandable development. After all, whether or not we get MPs elected or re-elected makes the difference between whether we have our hands on the levers of power on behalf of the citizens of Britain, or whether our enemies do. So of course a great deal of effort goes into make sure our MPs and our parliamentary candidates are well resourced and well regarded, and of course we pull out all the stops to help them, and of course they come to be seen as the most important people in the party.

3.3       But having MPs who are answerable to no-one in the party other than the Leader of the Party and the Chief Whip has created a stultifying environment for local parties, in which the power to effect local change lies in the hands of one person, and where party members, affiliates and supporters are concomitantly disempowered.

3.4       This is not a criticisms of most MPs, or parliamentary candidates; it is merely an analysis of the structure and  culture within the party, in which – at best – the local MP (or PPC, or occasionally and MEP) will report back to the party on what s/he has done, but do so without any prior set of expectations about what s/he might be expected to do. That is, the local party has all the responsibility for supporting the MP/PPC, but no authority over what s/he does, while the MP has all the authority to at, but none of the responsibilities.

3.5       Of course most MPs do seek to act ‘responsibly’, using their common sense to do the right thing by their local party, but this does not stop the party being disempowered and, ultimately, alienated (with all the consequences for activity and membership levels that go with that).

3.6       We need to change this culture, and develop a local party process which gives members and affiliates real power. We recommend the following practical measures be adopted, and set out in the rule book:

1) MPs and PPCs should be required, in June of each year to agree a constituency business plan with their CLP, and then report on it regularly (say quarterly) through the year, with adjustments agreed as necessary.

2) The business plan should set out the key objectives for the development of the constituency, and a clear set of tasks that will be undertaken by the constituency office. It should also set out key task areas in respect of national parliamentary business i.e. lobbying for legislative change, where deemed appropriate.

3) The business plan should set out the resources required for its implementation, and therefore effectively form an ‘application’ for the required resources, the authority over which lies ultimately with the CLP (through the officership and the executive). See below for more detail on the financial changes that will be needed in the party to bring this essential level of member/affiliate empowerment. Ultimately, failure of the MP/PPC to agree and implement an agreed business should where necessary, lead to the local party deciding to use the resources now available to it (see below) on alternative constituency action, though such action is likely to be rare.

3.7       Such rule book changes should and will be accompanied by a fundamental change in the relationship between MP and local party.

3.8       Local parties will start t take on the same kind of role as a board of charity trustees, or a school governing body, which strategically guides and supports the work of its MP, the “Chief Executive” of the local party-cum-charitable organisation. This new authority and power of engagement will lead to more active member involvement, as members realise that the business plan is a living document, and will lead to membership recruitment (and development of union affiliation) as people realise that the way to drive constituency matters forward is through involvement within the party, not by lobbying the MP from the outside.

3.9       When it comes to the selection of PPCs, the same broad cultural changes will need to apply. Local parties will need to appoint their PPC in much the same way as a headteacher or a Chief Executive would be appointed.

3.10    At the moment, party members involved in selection look for some key things in those they are ‘grilling’ during the selection process, and these tend to be focused on their beliefs, but more particularly their oratory and ‘charm level’, linked to the level of personal clout that might be expected on behalf of the local area.

3.11    Outside party influences aside, that is often why local candidates can be overlooked in favour of the ‘names’ from the metropolitan, think-tank, professional political elite; looking and sounding good, knowing their lines, knowing which buttons to press, is what they’re trained at.

3.12    To counter this trend, there needs to be a job description and a person specification focused on what they have identified as the key tasks and challenges for the next four/five years, both locally and in terms of the national party. The focus needs to be less on charm, more on organisational skills and experience. Oratory should be in the ‘desirable’ column of the person specification; ‘ability to manage resources to time and budget’ should be in the essential column.

3.13    This will in time favour local candidates, who will understand what resources are available, in the context of the task set for them by their ‘trustees’. It will also favour working class ‘organisers’.

4          Revising the policy-making process (1): the role of the Labour MP

4.1       Good intentions do not lead to effective policy making, or member involvement in policy making, and the party needs simply to accept that what we have now does not work for the vast majority of members, who feel alienated from the whole policy making process. Relatively few people in the labour movement understand it, and probably even fewer trust it to deliver ‘effective policy’ (even this term is contestable).

4.2       Ultimately, the problem is that structure has been developed as a way of disguising power asymmetry in the party.

4.3       To tackle this, we propose the abolition of the current process in favour of one which acknowledges that power is (and should) always be contested and contestable, and which puts accountability of senior party people at the heart of the process, rather than allowing them to use a complex ‘deliberative’ structure as shield.

4.4       The party needs to accept that there are limits to the effectiveness of the kind of deliberative/semi-democratic centralism structures now in place, and Labour – if it really is to engage more members and non-members – needs to embrace the ‘messy’, but creative dynamics of contested power, scrutiny of and challenge to authority.

4.7       Whatever the original good intentions behind the National Policy Forum process, it is simply not possible to develop an effective deliberative system to include so many people and so many constituent organisations. All that is created is a series of asymmetric power structures where those in position of party authority (necessarily) dictate the policy setting agenda to those not in authority (in local CLPs etc.). Those without authority then lose faith in the process because they see no meaningful result of their input.

4.8       The most important point is that the current process lacks accountability. There is no-one within the process to whom ordinary members can go and ask about what happened to their or their branch’s policy submission, whether it was accepted, why it was rejected, and what’s going to happen now.

4.9       The lack of accountability is built into the structure by the way the NPF farms detailed policy development out to commissions, and then commissions report back to the NPF sructure to those who have submitted proposals, for example.

4.10    Similarly, the Your Britain website is attractive to look at but there is absolutely no sense that the willing submissions made there go into any kind of decision-making process, of who might read them and ‘triage’ them, or indeed whether they are ever read at all.

4.11    We need, then to build accountability back into the process.

4.12    The best way to do this is to abolish the cumbersome structures of the NPF/JPC etc., and invest both authority and accountability in the place where most members of the party see it invested anyway, and where they have a real and meaningful point of contact.

4.12    This is the local MP, or the local PPC where there is no Labour MP (see also below re: MEPs).

4.13    We need to establish a process – indeed culture – whereby branches, CLP and in time (see below) the broader labour movement, can make legitimate policy demands of their MP/PPC, asking them to promote their policy proposals and ideas.

4.14    The parameters for this process should not be set out from ‘on high’ as they are at the moment (with pre-defined policy areas), and the power to raise policy ideas/concerns should fit squarely with local parties. It should then be the job of the MP/PPC to feed these policy ideas directly towards the shadow cabinet/NEC (the ‘ex-JPC’), and to report back directly to local parties on what steps, with what level of success, they have taken.

4.15    This whole process should be part of a wider configuration of the MP/prospective MP role (see above), whereby s/he should become answerable to the local party. As set out above, local MPs should start to see themselves as akin to the CEO of a charity, in which the members elect Trustees (in the form of CLP officers) to oversee the MP/CEO, and the MP/CEO presents, say, an annual business plan to the ‘trustees’ for approval of business expenditure) and regular monitoring. As set out below, changed financial arrangements for constituencies and constituency parties which will promote membership growth will also need to be introduced.

4.16    Where policy matters are expressed in local terms by local parties, it should be up to the MP to extrapolate as need be to develop wider policy recommendations for submission to the Cabinet/NEC, in conjunction with other MPs as s/he feels necessary/useful. This is, of course, what happens when casework of councillors ends up becoming part of a wider policy debate in a Labour group, but on a larger scale.

4.17    To this end, MPs can of course avail themselves of existing structures like the regional MP groups should they feel this will be helpful in putting forward the policy recommendations of their local party (the group may need to be open up to PPCs).

4.18    This will create a much more dynamic structure for the policy making process, with accountability back to members built in as part of an MP’s performance by which s/he is judged when it comes around to selection trigger points etc..

5          Revising the financial flows within the Labour party

5.1       This recommendation is the beating heart of our Collins Review submission.

5.2       All the other recommendations we make will have some beneficial effect on the party in its absence, but overall will be the weaker without it.  Devolution of control over the party’s money will create devolution of power, and where there is real devolution of power we will get new energy, new creativity, and a new vibrant, engaged membership (and new affiliation).

5.3       The proposals we make here are in fact best set out as proposals for ALL political parties in Britain, because they will be beneficial to the whole of the body politic. Traditionally defined politics is at its lowest ebb, and the Labour party should be putting forward concrete proposals for its rejuvenation, and preparing for appropriate legislation when it returns to power.

5.4       Nevertheless, while the recommendations we set out below are framed in terms of legislation for all parties, and should form a key plank in our next manifesto, the Labour party should start to implement the changes within its own party, providing evidence to all that they are effective as a mean to revitalize politics at local, and thereby national, level.

5.5       This will need to be done via the party rule book rather than via legislation so that (as the most obvious example) Labour MPs receiving the IPSA-recommended salary will be expected, as a condition of party membership, to lodge what they receive via this route with their local party, and then draw a salary agreed with their local party (and via collective bargaining by MPs).

5.6       The recommendations are therefore as follows:

Core proposal

5.6       The whole financial flow of state funding for all political parties that have representatives in the House of Commons (as a proxy for overall current national legitimacy, and to exclude the BNP and other extremists) should be reversed, in order to promote local political activity and devolve power within parties to the ’grassroots’.

5.7       The total amount of state funding should be equivalent ONLY to the amount of funding provided indirectly to political parties in the forms of MP allowances, ministerial allowances etc. and, for example, funds spent by the BBC on allowing free party political broadcasts. There would therefore be no overall additional cost to the taxpayer. Indeed, a saving might be made.

5.8       The overall ‘pot’ of money should then be divided up at a local level e.g. CLP level/Tory association level on a pro-rata basis according to membership at the start of the financial year. It would be up to the parties themselves to debate and decide on what amount of this locally allocated resource should be allocated to national party levels.

5.9       The important change would be that, as with the money – if formally lodged with local parties in the first instance – the power balance between centre and local is changed for the better.

5.10    All other types of donations would be permissible, but could only be made to local parties, and would not exceed a certain ratio of private donation to state funding (level to be agreed). Individual donors would only be able to donate to a limited number (let us say 3 for arguments sake) of local parties in this way, of which one would need to be the donor’s area of residence.

5.11    Unions would abide by the same rules, with each union branch counting as an individual donor. There would be an expectation that the ratio of state to donor funding permissible would fall over the first few years, as the money is replaced my membership fees in rejuvenated local parties (see below).

Rationale and consequences

5.12    The reversal of financial flows, as set out briefly would do two main things.

5.13    First, and important enough in the current context of poor public opinion of both MPs and national level political parties, it would make them much more accountable to the local parties that selected them to stand for office (whether parliamentary or intra-party) in the first place (see above also on the need to change the role of the MP).

5.14    For example, the money that used to go straight to their MP expenses bank accounts to fund e.g. local offices, local staff as well as their day-to-day personal expenses will be lodged, alongside any other matching funds, with the local party. The MP will need to justify her/his claim to a section of the overall local party ‘pot’, by setting out a business plan for an appropriate period and justifying costs.

5.15    In most cases, local parties are going to want an MP who does plenty of casework and local representation, as well as ‘performing’ for them in parliament as they want them to, and will provide a reasonable budget for this, including a place to live in London during the week, for example.

5.16    If the MP can justify 1st class travel on the train, for example, because it allows them to get more work done, then that’s fine. If not, that’s fine too. If the local party thinks it might be a better idea if the MP’s office and the local party office functions should be merged to rationalise costs, then they’ll have the final say.

5.17    Equally, national level parties will have to seek money from local parties to carry out their functions (beyond a certain top-slicing which might be agreed to allow a core national function). Thus, for example, if the national party wanted to spend money on TV adverts, they would have to seek the money for it from local parties.

5.18    Cynics might argue that, while it’s all very well to devolve power to local parties, this is hardly the same as devolving to local people; the argument of those keen to retain power centrally will be something along the lines that local parties are currently very weak structures in many areas, peopled, if they are peopled at all, by self-selecting, self-referential nobodies with few brain cells to rub together. This argument will come particularly, from ‘party HQers’ themselves desperate to retain the current status quo of the power and money structure, and who are distrustful of the capacity of the ‘foot soldier’ activists.

5.19    That, after all, is what is writ large in both main parties’ ’motivational’ literature, and in the many central government documents, influenced by the policy wonks at HQ or at Downing Street – the view that local parties are a thing of the past, that local politics can safely be done away with in favour of technocratic management of CLPs/Tory associations, where the only expectations are lip service to policy reviews and, more important, to campaigning with HQ-sanctioned leaflets, HQ-sanctioned IT set-ups which alienate people ‘on the doorstep’ because they’ve been created by people who’ve never been ‘on the doorstep and don’t realise asking questions of people while ticking off their answers on a pre-arranged coded list is not the same as talking to people like they are people.

5.20    The point is that, with a reversal of the financial flow, what a local party gets financially becomes dependent on their membership, and local parties will suddenly become wholly different entities.

5.21    With money comes the capacity to ‘do stuff’, and combined with a new motivation within existing membership to draw in members, there would almost certainly be a rapid rise in membership, as people actually start to see a point – a decision making point – to being in their party of choice.

5.22    Local parties suddenly get not just the opportunity to decide, as a member, on how the MP should use their money (or, in extreme circumstances, whether to give them any at all), but also to decide, for example, on whether the party, and by newly re-established link, the area as a whole, will be best served by the state funding going into a dozen leaflets, or into services that the Council won’t pay for.

5.23    And suddenly, the way opens up for parties to become mass parties again. At local level, people will engage because engagement matters, and it will not be long before there is a much smaller distinction between ‘the party’ and the people those parties have, rhetorically, at least, been set up to serve.

5.24    As set out above, as membership increases in this way, so will the opportunity to legislate on the permitted ratio of private donations to local funding, as the membership fee total will be counted into this whole. As membership grows, so does democratic entitlement, whereby you don’t have to be called Ashcroft to have your say on what your party does with the cash.

5.25    In terms of the Labour party, the obvious additional opportunities will lie in the possibility of renewing the link with trade unions, via membership fees, and in some cases starting even to develop the local party organically as a newly rejuvenated Trades Council (see below also) in the way aspired to years ago, but in many areas never really attained because of the very constraints on power, from above, that have set out above.

5.26    As noted, in the absence of Labour-led legislative changes to make all this happen (e.g. the redirecting of parliamentary monies to local party units), Labour will need to make ‘voluntary’ arrangements to lead the way, and show what can be achieved. This will require adaptation to the rule book, such that parliamentary payments for the running of constituency offices are in fact invested in local parties in the way set out above. In reality, at least in the short term, the transfer of the monies is likely to be a notional one rather than an actual bank transfer, though the rule book should provide for such a move in the event of fundamental MP disagreement with local parties over spending usage.

5.27    While the focus here has been on MPs, we should add that we recommend similar arrangements for PPCs (clearly it will be an advantage for them to be selected early) with suitable adaptation to the rules in light of the reduced spending available. Of course it will be within the power of CLPs that do have a Labour MP to put within their agreed business plan provision for the support of an adjoining (or even partnered at the other end of the country) CLP.

5.28    Appropriate arrangements will also need to be made, following the same principles, for MEPs (and MEP candidates where these are selected early enough).

6          Revising the role of Regional Labour party Officers

6.1       Labour party staff members in the regions for a vital, well-respected resource, and it is essential to review how this resource will best be used if the power devolution recommendations set out above are implemented.

6.2       At the moment, regional party staff are an arm of the NEC, and of Party HQ in general. As such, their work culture is dictated by the top-down approach of the national party, and by the current ‘worship’ of MPs. It is not uncommon to hear regional officers note that, while they might wish it were different, the golden rule is that ‘the MP’s rule is law’.

6.3       This needs to change. It is recommended therefore that the current regional office budgets are devolved down to party unit level, in keeping with the recommendations above. That is, these budgets should not form part of the small ‘top-slice’ from the overall funds used by the party for its core London function.

6.4       This does not mean that regional staff should be handed their P45s, and indeed through the transition phase to the new power-devolved way of doing things, it will be important that this loyal group of staff’s terms and conditions are protected.

6.5       What it does mean is that, in future, MPs (the new CEO’s of their party units) should configure into their business plan budgets the necessary regional support resources, interacting with other regional MPs to come up with sensible overall proposals where regional officers are funded on a FTE basis through different CLP business plans. This is no different an arrangement from the ones that hold sway in larger multi-branch/multi-region charities, where regional office costs are built into local budgets, and where there is then a local focus on what the Regional office provides.

6.6       In this way, the work of regional staff will, by necessity, ‘turn outwards’ to meet the needs and aspirations of local CLPs, and away from the current focus on the imposition, at local level, of central mandate.

7          Revising the policy-making process (2): the role of Labour commissions

7.1       Above, we have set out recommendations on how the party’s policy making process should be revised to a) acknowledge the concept of ‘contested power’ as a useful dynamic rather than a bureaucratic impediment ; b) to maximum the use of the MPs as local party delegate and negotiator, as opposed to party demi-god.

7.2       This is all fine as far as it goes, and it will enable the party to develop effective policy in many areas.

7.3       But sometimes policy isn’t simple, and it will be beyond the capacity of local parties to initiate and develop it. Let’s take two ‘intractable’ policy areas as examples.

7.4       First, there is the poor state of race relations in Britain, and the rise of the far right. TCF’s contention – and we are happy to see it contested – is that the poor race relations of the 2010s are (at least partly) directly attributable, through a process of path dependency, to the racism within the Labour party in the 1960s and 1970s. For a fuller review and sources, see our recent essay at

7.5       This is an unpalatable truth, and in our view the only way to move past it, and to set in train policies which do actually improve race relations is to host a formal ‘truth and reconciliation’ commission, acknowledge past failure and say sorry to those who have suffered, and start anew. This is a controversial view, but it is one we think worth promoting.

7.6       Second, there is the issue of international development aid. There is a growing sense amongst the British population that something is wrong with Britain’s approach to the poor world, and this is fostered by the right-wing media happy to peddle false stories about how nearly every penny is wasted.

7.7       What is important here is not whether current aid policy is good or bad, but that as a policy problem it seems intractable, not least because most people in the party simply do not know enough about development aid to offer up any view other than the one peddled by the right-wing media.

7.8       In such circumstances, the MP-focused, ‘contested power’ policy development principles simply will not come up with the right answers.

7.9       To get over this ‘intractable policy’ problem – and we give just two examples – we recommend the following process:

1) Party units, Labour and affiliate societies etc. should be entitled to put forward to annual conference recommendations for a specific ‘policy commission’. They should be put forward on the basis that the policy area in question is ‘intractable’ to the more mainstream policy process, either because it is highly controversial (e.g. where we need to admit Labour failure – never an easy thing)) or because specific knowledge beyond the reach of even the most capable of party units is needed.

2) Conference should allow these ‘commission proposals’ to be put forward, and at the end of debate there should be a voting process to identify the most popular commissions (let us say, two per year). This will need to be within a certain financial envelope agreed by conference (and taken from the top sliced funding set out above).

3) The leader of the party (or, culturally now, the CEO of the party) should then be delegated to appoint (or even run a tender process for) a commission chair, who would be asked to report back to the next (or perhaps spring) conference with their findings and recommendations.

4) The commission chair, who might be expected to be an expert in the policy area, would work within the delegated budget and remit set down by conference, calling witnesses and inviting submissions in much the same way as a Commons Select Committee currently operates. The NEC would set up a sub-group to monitor compliance to the terms of reference, but not to determine the findings and recommendations.

5) The commission report would go back to next (or Spring conference specifically adapted to this new role) for approval, adaptation or rejection.

7.10    The advantages of such an approach are several.

7.11    First, it creates a mechanism for proper detailed exploration of difficult policy areas which is beyond the capacity of the current NPF-based process (which ultimately simple tinkers round the edges of centrally-ordained policy and has no real impact on manifesto formation).

7.12    Second, it breathes life into the conference process, with delegates given an important mandate by their local party units to listen to debates on important policy issues and either follow their local party’s prior delegation or make a judgment of their own (it is up to local parties to decide whether to send a ‘delegate’ or ‘representative’ to conference). It revitalizes conference, however, in a way which does not expose it to the difficulties of yesteryear, with conference decisions on policy (as opposed to policy commissions in the new format) being ignored by the leadership. Here, delegates get their say in a way which actually leads to agreed policy a few months down the road.

8          Revising engagement with the trade union movement

8.1       There are two parts to our recommendations in this section.

8.2       The first relates to what we have set out above about the need to reverse the financial flows within the Labour party as a means to the devolution of power.

8.3       We recommend that this important step be accompanied by an invitation to the trade unions which support Labour to adjust their contributions likewise. That is, trade unions should be invited to reduce funding direct to the Labour party, in favour of an equal (or greater) amount of overall funding directed to local parties.

8.4       There are three main reasons why this is advisable.

1) There is the ongoing threat from the Coalition to impose limits on union funding.  Devolving funding to lower levels voluntarily will mitigate any such threat.

2) Second, localised funding will bring with it greater local union member interest, and involvement, in what local parties are doing with the money (through engagement in the business planning process set out above).

3) The union movement is already considering only funding candidates who operate in line with its broad principles anyway.  It is much better to anticipate such a move, by welcoming it and accommodating it within the new devolved structure, than it is to be surprised by it.

8.5       Our second recommendation concerns the re-establishment/re-invigoration of local Trades Councils.

8.6       At one time, in many areas, these were a vital part of the labour movement, allowing workplace-based trade unions the opportunity to engage in geographically focused cross-union activity, in a way remarkably similar to what is now being promoted under the term ‘community organisation’. The trade union unemployment centres, for example often a vital community resource for the areas they serve, are a product of this now faded structure.

8.7       Our recommendation is simple therefore. The (re)-establishment of local (Modern) Trades Councils should be a priority, and the maximum use should be made of the TUC’s existing support structures for this (including the available development grants). MPs/PPCs in areas without good Trades Councils should be identifying their establishment as a priority for their new business plans, or expect questions about it from their CLPs.  This is not to say that Trades Councils, which by constitution are not affiliated to the Labour party (and have in places been taken over by other non-Labour groupings) should form a formal part of the Labour structure, but the Labour party part of the overall labour movement should be the ones seeking to revitalise them.

8.8       The Modern Trades Councils should focus on two things:

1) They should set about the work that the more modern Labour party structures find it harder to set about. For example, there is no reason that a Trades Council should not establish a social enterprise of the type previously envisaged (in the press) by John Healey, but which it is difficult for political parties to do. Of course, one key aim of the Modern Trades Councils should be to increase local area union membership, and MPs/CLPs should be setting out in their business plans how best this can be supported, such that the support relationship between unions and party starts to operate both ways – for too long the party has expected union support for its electoral efforts with nothing substantive in return, and this is what has led to union disaffection and, in many areas, effective (if not formal) disaffiliation from the party.

2) They should seek to become centres of scrutiny and accountability for local services – a place where local workers and citizens (service users) come together and review as equals who well local services are being delivered.  As a labour movement, we should not be hiding our heads in the sand about poor quality of service in the NHS for example.  The way to tackle public service quality in the long term is not through ever enhanced bureaucratic inspection bodies, whether this be Ofsted or the CQC – this simply plays into the hands of the right – but by local democratic engagement, through Trades Councils.   We should be eschewing managerialism, which has failed in the last thirty years to improve services standards because it alienates those who deliver services, and espousing the kind of worker advocacy and professionalism promoted by GHD Cole and RH Tawney, as well as by ‘grounded’ social scientists like Michael Lipsky.

8.9       In time, it should be as natural for a CLP to distribute union-joining material to a McDonald’s branch as it is for them to leaflet their ‘target wards’ about local planning issues, but first of all the structure for renewed local union-Labour party interaction has to be put in place, courtesy of the new devolved power structures set out above.

9          Revising the role of the Labour councillor within the local party

9.1       We are concerned at the over-emphasis on the role of elected politics in the party. Of course we recognize that councillors play an important role, and that the deserve the party’s full support, but the party is now extolling the virtues of becoming a councillor to the effective exclusion of all other vital roles in the labour movement, especially in its prospective candidate programme.

9.2       Not everyone should or can aspire to become a councillor, and the party should recognize that councillors, while a vital part of the party structure, are only one part. It should be remembered, for example, that councillors have democratic control over only a small amount of overall public expenditure.  It is ludicrous that such emphasis be laid on elected local government, for example, while the role of Foundation Trust governors is widely ignored and remains wholly without the organising scope of local parties.

9.3       The developing ‘god-like’ status of the councillor (mirroring what we have said about MPs roles above) needs to be challenged, and the prospective candidate programme merged with a wider activist programme, if such a programme is authorized at all under the new devolved funding arrangements. It is much better, we suggest, to encourage proper engagement in the party in whatever role suits individual skill and life circumstances, and to do so by allowing local parties to develop their own support infrastructures (e.g. buying in WEA resource if they wish) rather than impose top-down ones like those currently being implemented with (sometimes unwilling) local parties.

Categories: Labour Party News

How Labour should deal with Cameron’s sham EU renegotiation promise

December 19, 2013 1 comment

Paul Goodman at the Conservative Home website provides a reasonably astute analysis of the fix Cameron finds himself in over his promise to ‘renegotiate’ the UK’s relationship with the European Union:

The explanation [for the lack of an actual plan] isn’t the lack of focus and last-minuteism that Ministers and backbenchers alike unanimously complain about – almost without exception, in my experience……. Rather, it is a terror at the top of the Government of opening up the question of what and how much any renegotiation will aim to achieve.  This isn’t simply because the two parts of the Coalition don’t agree about it.  Cameron and George Osborne worry that setting out a repatriation of power plan will open up not so much a can as a lorry-load of worms.

This is correct, but what Paul doesn’t really nail down is what kid of worms might slither from the lorry.  This is tied to a failure to define what ‘renegotiation’ actually is, and a conflation of that with demands for ‘repatriation of power’.  Negotiation is not the same as making demands.

In fact, Cameron and his team probably do understand the difference between making demands, which can’t be delivered on, and seeking renegotiation, which potentially could.  They understand that negotiation is about give and take.

As I’ve set out before, a negotiated deal on the biggie – freedom of movement for the forrins – is perfectly feasible as, whatever the popular assumption, it doesn’t require treaty change.  If Cameron doesn’t get that, then he’s even worse at the detail than I thought.  But the point about negotiating such a deal is that the UK, and other Northern European countries wanting a piece of this, would have to offer something in return.  Most likely, this would be the (neat) corollary of a suspension to absolute freedom of the movement of capital – again perfectly feasible without treaty change though harder to implement – though it might be other things like a different weighting of cohesion funds towards Eastern and Southern Europe, or a review of the draconian requirements of the six-pack.  Whatever it was, it would be geared towards the long-term convergence of those countries, and thus to the lowering of the ‘threat’ of economic migration.

So why won’t Cameron go there?  Why won’t he get down and dirty with the detail?   Well to be honest I don’t care that much – I don’t care whether it’s the result of incompetence of a leader who’s surrounded himself with the wrong political advisers at the expense of civil servants who know the policy detail, or whether he knows that opening up these issues would start to shed light, just for example, on the government’s refusal to accept food poverty money from the EU; his instinct is, I suspect, to keep things simple.

Labour’s instinct should be different. It has already got as far as saying that the institutions of Europe are far from perfect.  Now, in the absence of any coherent follow-up by Cameron on his rash promises, Labour can set out realistic proposals for negotiation, and start to warm up the governments that it will be doing business with from 2015.

That’s not to say, I hasten to add, that I support any change to the current freedom of movement. It’s simply that I’m confident that the public, when presented with a party actually willing to see where actual negotiations take the country, will soon enough discover that the deal (which could include a presumptions against British citizens’ freedom of movement, as well as more direct economic disadvantages) is just not worth it.


So UNITE and I appear agree on zero hour contracts: which is nice

September 8, 2013 1 comment

A couple of days go I suggested that rather than clamour for legislation to ban zero hour contracts, which I suggested might have unintended negative consequences, the left might better come to the aid of exploited workers by organising:

In the end, Labour might be better off doing the hard yards on the re-unionisation of the labour force – something I’ve argued may be a positive outcome from Miliband’s recent forays, whether or not it’s intended – rather than the easy but narrow legislative victories still redolent of New Labour’s approach to state management**.

Because I brought to bear my own experience as a zero hour contract employer*, I received the fully anticipated colourful abuse, principally from people who had only read as far as Tom Watson’s kind retweet.

So it’s with a certain degree of satisfaction that I see UNITE apparently in full agreement with my position.   In the press release accompanying research conducted on their behalf into the rise in zero hour contracts, UNITE make no call for legislation to outlaw zero hour contracts.  Instead, they call for a sensible package of measures.  Of these, the most important of these (since many of the other protections would follow fro m it is:

A restoration of sector level collective bargaining to stop the ‘race to the bottom’ in ‘vulnerable’ sectors including social care, hospitality, retail, food and logistics.

This is precisely what the unions, and Labour, should be campaigning for/putting in the manifesto.   From effective collective bargaining** follows the potential (though according to Chris only the potential) for wage-led growth as well as direct job security.  And of course wage growth creates its own job security over time, irrespective on contractual niceties.

None of this, I repeat for the hard of thinking, is to defend the abuse of zero hour contracts.  It is simply to suggest that the UNITE leadership has its collective head screwed on, and that the actually understand something about employment.  It’s a shame some in the party are currently keen to suggest otherwise.

* Social enterprise, I’m totally unpaid, sick and holiday pay in contracts, blah blah, I point out for those doubting my ethics/parentage, though that really wasn’t the point of the initial post.

**In the public sector, or private-contracted-by-public sector, this often works best by a two stage process of union to employer pressure, then employers pressuring the government for more resources.   I was involved n the detail as a union steward in the 1980s.

Categories: Labour Party News, Law

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