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The labour movement’s post-election battleground: Part I of II

1  Introduction

Back in January, I was invited by Left Futures to provide a response to a post by Trevor Fisher.  Trevor considers Labour a lost cause when it comes to austerity. This is his conclusion:

The objective of the austerity movement is to destroy everything that Lloyd George and the political consensus that we have known for the last 90 years. A co-ordinated response can defeat the political objective of the neo-liberals to set up a new anti-state consensus.

So why is it not happening? The Labour Party cannot be changed in the near future. It has embarked as New Labour on a Titanic style voyage into the ice field, at high speed. Labour is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is time to look for lifeboats. The solution has to be a people’s movement against austerity. The existing work of the People’s Assembly has to be boosted.

Trevor’s analysis is not, of course, an unusual one.   The idea that a Labour government will simply be ‘austerity-lite’ is now almost a mantra those who consider themselves left of Labour (within or outside the party).   Here are just a few examples expressing, in varying ways, anger or hopelessness or (in Sunny Hundal’s case) simply incomprehension at Labour’s purported plans to mimic the Tories in government.

Trevor’s analysis – like most others in this vein –  incorrect , for three main reasons:

  • Labour is part of the solution to the problems brought by five years of austerity, because it is actively planning for investment in public services;
  • The existing work of the People’s Assembly is, while impressive in many ways, misguided;
  • The idea that the best way to respond to the neoliberals’ anti-state consensus building is to support a return to the pre-2008 public service infrastructure of late capitalism is itself regressive.

In this essay, I present an alternative strategy for labour movement activism, which I contend takes us beyond these common errors of analysis by the Left. In part I, addressing the facts around Labour’s actual planning for government, before moving on to how and why so many people have misunderstood what Labour is about.   In part II, I look in details at what might be done for, by, with people like Trevor – no doubt a solid member of the labour movement, but who’s only recourse at the moment is another round of meetings and rallies calling, loudly but vainly, for the people to rise up against austerity.

2  What’s really being planned

Labour is seeking to portray itself as a party committed to ‘fiscal discipline’, and its central economic policy is now that it will never spend what it cannot save elsewhere.  I think this is a misguided strategy born of a narrow-minded elite in the Labour party, panicked by Tory control over opinion polls in 2001-12 (see section 3), but it is too now late to change that messaging in the 60-odd days to the election.

Behind the scenes it is different.  Labour HQ has calculators in the office, and they know perfectly well that they cannot make the cuts that the current profile suggests without collapsing parts of essential public services, and they know that this will cost them electorally; the new rounds of cuts will have to start to affect those beyond the vulnerable (e.g. social care eligibility) who to date have suffered more than other when their comparatively expensive needs have stopped being met, but who only vote once, and in relatively small numbers, so have been a calculated electoral write-off for the Coalition.

With a number of decent thinkers and planners – notably Jon Cruddas –  having fought a behind-the-scenes rearguard action against the fiscal conservatives, Labour is quietly planning to sustain and develop provision by borrowing/investing “off-balance sheet”, through mechanisms like the British Investment Bank (with an NS&I deposit) [1], which the Tott report commissioned by Labour makes clear is aimed at public services as well as SMEs, and through the development of ‘internal borrowing’ from Pension Funds [2], and through allowing local authorities to bring forward spend from later years in a five year cycle, effectively allowing them to borrow from themselves. [3]  This is in addition to the existing prudential borrowing regime, which is likely to see greater use in an environment where local authorities are not so afraid as they are currently about what comes next from the centre.

The condition for this investment from these sources is that as far as possible what is spent should create ‘downstream savings’, and it is from the “what should have been spent” pot that government, including local government and freed-up health economy organisations, will create the return for investors.   It will be, to a significant extent, a welcome foreshortening of the Social Impact Bond process developed and tested over the last 10 years, but which has proved to be bureaucratically difficult in the absence of political will.

A key unanswered question at the moment is to what extent these non-traditional routes to borrowing for investment will replace normal borrowing.

NS&I is not a bank and cannot simply create money for investment, so will presumably be constrained by the amount invested in NS&I, currently around £105bn [4].  While there is some good practice emerging around the use of Local Government Pension Funds to fund public spending where there is clear social value, to date these investments have been limited to capital schemes where the rate of return back to the Funds has been easy to determine because income streams are produced by the investment.  It is more difficult to persuade Pension Fund trustees, who must abide by their fiduciary duties [5] to protect those funds, to invest in ‘social infrastructure’ which creates savings downstream, as these savings must then be converted into returns [6].

My current view is that these non-traditional routes will not replace traditional deficit spending to the extent needed, though that it’s a good start. Given this, the further, vital question arises of what level of investment need can feasibly be packaged as social investment (and therefore open non-traditional funding) rather than simply additional spending on public services [7].  In any event, and as I go on now to explore, this is a question which the Left should be addressing for its own sake.

3  The two orthodoxies

What I have set out above may be the quiet reality of preparation for government, but it’s one known about by very few people in the labour movement, largely because of the strategic decision by Labour’s strategists (on which more below), to avoid challenge to the prevailing ‘deficit fetishism’, and instead to try and gain power by focusing on other policy areas e.g. the NHS.

This strategic decision requires a commitment to cost-neutral spending promises i.e. any spending commitment must be paid for by cuts/savings to other areas of current spending.  In order to know what’s really being planned, it’s necessary to a) talk to people closer to the actual development work (which I’ve done); and b) read the whole of policy documents, not just the summaries (which I’ve done).

In the absence of wider understanding of what is really being planned, most actors and organisations who self-identify as Labour and/or the Left have split into two broad ‘orthodoxies’, with a seemingly unbridgeable divide between them.

On one side of the ‘fault line’ are those who say an incoming Labour-led government must be ‘realistic’ about the public finances, and cannot therefore afford to reverse Coalition cuts, and those who subscribe what I will refer broadly to as the ‘anti-austerity movement’, who think a Labour-led government’s first duty is to reverse the cuts and reset public financing and public service to circa 2009.

Both sides are wrong, as I shall go on to set out, because establishing why and how they came to be so wrong, and what impact this wrongness has had to date,  is essential if the labour movement is to bridge the divide (which I address in part II).

The realist orthodoxy

The ‘realists’ are wrong for fairly obvious macro-economic reasons.  There’s no need here to go over now fairly established consensus that fiscal consolidation didn’t work, and that the way to boost growth (and pay down the deficit sensibly) is through a wage-led recovery, with a major lever for this being public investment.  The ‘realist’ support for fiscal consolidation and continued austerity has never been driven primarily by economics; calls for fiscal prudence have largely (from about 2011-2 onwards) been about a political messaging that Labour ‘can be trusted’ with the public finances, and the view (actually a self-fulfilling narrative) that the British public will never be able to conceptualize standard Keynesian economic management as anything other than spendthrift.

This is evidenced most clearly in Anthony Painter’s [8] at times excellent (2013) Left Without a Future: Social Justice in Anxious Times.  In a book devoted to ideas about how a future Labour government can create a more socially just society in times of continued fiscal restraint, Anthony sets out the need for that fiscal restraint in just a few short paragraphs (pp. 75-77), some of which are in themselves arguments against restraint.  All of the reasoning is contestable, especially the notion that “two or three years of very low growth, barely moving deficits and political impotence” might lead to a real danger of default (p.76), [9] but in any event he lets the cat out of the bag when, after this short justification he reveals its post-hoc nature:

It was in response to this debate that Cooke et al. [Anthony is one of the al.] wrote In the Black Labour: Why Fiscal Conservatism and Social Justice go Hand-in-Hand which was published in 2011 and created something of a stir in Labour circles.  Its core argument was that a reputation for fiscal responsibility was fundamental to any party aspiring to national leadership (p.78)

The realists’ economic rationale, then has never been anything much more than cover for short term electoral strategy, forged at a time when many in the Labour elite were concerned about the intractable opinion polls, which continued to show that the Coalition’s strategy of blaming a worldwide financial crisis on profligate public spending by Labour, was working remarkably well.  At that point, it made sense to this fairly small group of insiders, close to or within the pressure group Progress, that Labour should simply adopt a ‘balancing the books’ approach, because the battle for what economic common sense looks like had been lost. [10]

In their view, this was much more important than the longer term real-world impact of commitment to the In the Black doctrine largely, I suspect, because they simply didn’t consider real word impacts on the more vulnerable in society as being of themselves, important [11], even though it was clear by then that they, along with lower paid public sector workers themselves were facing the greatest direct burden of public sector cuts [12]

This all took place back in 2011-12.  Since then, Labour has, within the constraints it imposed upon itself by its commitment to no extra borrowing, brought to bear two broadly effective electoral responses to the Tories (while also playing Lib Dem Whack-a-Mole for light relief).  First, they have managed to articulate (in the Hall sense) the continued incompetencies [13] of the Tories in government with their elite background and narrowness of outlook (‘out of touch’ being the common phrase).   Second, they have managed to side step the Tories continuing lead on ‘economic competence’ by focusing on how improving figures at a national level of not translating into feelings of security and hope for the future amongst ‘real’ people.  You could even argue that Labour has managed to articulate all of these together, so that people think they are insecure and lacking in hope because Cameron is posh.  This has the added advantage of being true.

This is a good thing in the short term, and it is why a Labour-led government remains the most likely outcome despite a continuing poll lead for the Tories on economic competence.  The downside, though, is that what does or does not constitute fiscal responsibility – whether investment is actually better than  austerity – has become a taboo area within Labour, at least in public.  When Ed Balls committed to budget surplus in January 2014, leading In the Black Labour proponent Hopi Sen was simply able to tweet that the debate had been won.  To a large extent, he was right, although he underestimated the rearguard action that was mounted (see Part II for more details).

The effect of this, understandably, is that many of those who understand what actually fiscal responsibility is have now come to regard Labour as cowards and traitors.  A good case in point is Howard Reed, a decent economist, who penned White Flag Labour for Compass as early as January 2012 [14].

It could of course be argued that people like Howard should have spent a little more time looking at the kind of investments, set out above, which Labour is planning behind the scenes, rather than just the press statements, and that to effectively turn away from engagement with Labour over what it is getting right because it’s not getting everything right is actually very unhelpful to us all; indeed, this is pretty well Simon Wren-Lewis’ recent argument.

For myself, I don’t think such a blame game is helpful in the long run either; while I’ve tended towards it myself in the past, on reflection I think it’s more honest to hold myself to account for not having helped organise the forces of anti-austerity well enough back in 2011-12, not least because learning from what went wrong then is important for the new battle we face after the election.

I’ll come to this in detail on Part II, but the point to stress here is that many on and to the left of Labour attached themselves to the anti-austerity movement – to the extent that some former Labour activists are now standing against Labour in the general election – not because of actual pro-austerity policy from Labour, but because the fiscal conservatives within Labour, themselves driven by narrow political considerations rather than economic ones, created an environment in which plans for investment have remained largely hidden from view (e.g. in the IPPR Condition of Britain report (June 2014), the media and Labour’s own coverage of which failed to notice/deliberately declined to mention the chapters on innovative investment).

The anti-austerity orthodoxy

The ‘anti-austerians’ are wrong because simply returning public sector financing to the levels it enjoyed in the mid- to late 2000’s, without further consideration of how public services should be reformed, will be an utter disgrace, and a betrayal of ordinary people who depend on those services.  Yet this is apparently what is being proposed by an anti-austerity ‘movement’ backed by public sector unions who, understandably enough, are keen to defend their members’ terms and conditions in the narrowest sense of the term as best they can, but who appear to have rejected any responsibility they ever had for the quality of service provided.

The sad truth is that the quality of many public services has declined hugely in the past 20-30 years, and the pace of decline has increased, not simply because of the cuts but because of the way public servants do their work.  Journalist Kate Belgrave, for example, has recorded the transition of what we used to call employment services from a relatively harmless bureaucracy to a vicious institution which actively dehumanizes benefit claimants, and in which specific targets for inflicting misery on the already poor and powerless are implemented without challenge by trade unions.  In the NHS and care sector, the scandals at Winterbourne and at Mid-Staffs did not arise directly from public spending cuts or from privatisation, but from a decline in service standards which set in long before the Coalition came to power.

There are two main reasons for the decline in the quality of public services, and they form a duality.  First, the growth of managerialist ideology, itself a corollary of neoliberal economics, has created which are target- rather than value-driven, and in which every level of management holds the next one down accountable for reaching targets (often now called ‘outcomes’) while often preferring not to know how they are achieved.   Only last week, when earning a living tendering for a public sector contract (for a social enterprise) I was told by a senior manager that with the contract in question there was ‘no room for quality'; this was said with no hint of surprise.

Second, there has been a massive de-professionalization of the public services workforce.  Initially this de-professionalization was a conscious outcome of managerialism [15], as trade union and professional association concerns for the maintenance of quality were pushed to one side as impediments to competition-driven progress, but 30 years on most unions and associations simply no longer see it as their job to concern themselves with the quality of the service they offer to their fellow citizens; their sole role,  as they now see it, is to defend the terms and conditions of their members [16].

In my own profession, nursing, such a view of a trade union role has become institutionalized to the extent that when the Francis report recommended that the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) be formally split into a ‘trade union side’ and a ‘quality of provision’ side, there was barely a murmur of protest from the RCN.  Even more revealingly, Francis did not even feel the need to recognise a possible role for Unison (the other main union/professional association for nurses) in ensuring or campaigning for quality of care.

The now endemic failure of the labour movement to care about the quality of services they provide damages it, of course; while would the non-unionised public support public servants’ industrial action in defence on terms and conditions if those same public servants don’t seem to care about them?

The anti-austerity movement is, frankly, an anachronism.  Its calls for a return to 201o spending, in the absence of proper reform, are in their own way as a regressive as the ‘realists’ call for continued austerity.   Now, I know to my cost [17] that such a bald statement, while perfectly defensible, is likely to be unhelpful to efforts to develop consensus around how a more progessive ‘post-austerity’ Labour might be organised for and won.  So let me be clear, even at the risk of repetition:  the vast majority of people who would now, if asked, hold to the anti-austerity orthodoxy position critiqued here, will be decent Labour (and ex-Labour) activists, members or supporters.

The fact that they support what I call an anachronistic position public services is not something for which they should be blamed, because the primary faults lies with a) a trade union movement which has overly narrowed its functions; b) those within the Labour party who, for the reasons set out above, have stymied a proper debate within the Labour party about what public service reform should and can be about [18].

There’s one more point to make about the anti-austerity movement as it’s developed to date, before I move on to how I think its members/supporters should think about the post-election period, and one which connects to those proposals.  This is that, while the anti-austerity movement has achieved precisely nothing of what it set out expressly to achieve, a good deal has been achieved as an unintended consequence.   While the primary ambition of retaining jobs and services by forcing councillors to spend up reserves then pass illegal budgets remains a pipe dream, the organisational and personal links forged at local, city and regional level, between grassroots trade unionists, service user activists and others such as engaged journalists and those who might self-define as anti-capitalists has been a very positive development.   As I’ll go onto suggest, it is through the emergence of an updated form of the Trades Council, properly allied to the appropriate power structures within the Labour party, that an effective working class post-austerity movement stands the greatest chance of success, and the fact that such organisational links have already been forged, even in a losing cause for now, offers promise.

Conversely, should the current anti-austerity movement move in the opposite direction, away from the Labour party power and resource that will make it effective, both it and those within Labour who believe in good quality public services and wider institutional development towards democratic socialism stand to be marginalised and alienated from each other even further than they are at the moment.

3  Developing a post-austerity movement

This is what I’ll turn to in part II.  I’ll argue that, while these two camps of orthodoxies currently seem poles apart, not least because of personal animosity and mutual name calling on both sides (and I’ve been guilty of that two), there  exists a substantial common ground between the two around which ideological and, more importantly, organisational consensus can be built.   Such a consensus, I will argue, might be built around seven core ideas, to which many can subscribe.  These are

i) that public services should have investment in human beings at their foundation;

ii) that such investment is as worthwhile, or more worthwhile, than capital investment, and that the ‘rate of return’ problem can be overcome;

iii) that public services are best when truly co-designed and co-produced, and that modern trade unions and trades councils have a key role to play here;

iv) that the institutional developments which allow for co-production will be most successful where they develop at a local level;

v) that while public service quality can be improved through intelligent, co-designed investment, such developments can and should act as a bridgehead to similar labour movement developments in the wider economy;

vi) that in order to facilitate all this, the Labour party will need to go beyond its Refounding Labour initiative and either open itself up to genuine labour movement direction, or risk becoming an irrelevance;

vii) that the window of opportunity after the election will be short, because if the two groupings described don’t coalesce organisationally around common interests, existing power interests 0 notably the narrow ones of the existing narrow trade union leadership and the Blairite right, will re-exert their power, and threaten the long-term future of the labour movement itself.

 

 Notes

[1] Of course this borrowing is already happening via NS&I, via the Coalition’s 2.8/4% fixed term bonds for people aged over 65.  As, Chris Dillow points out, the other word for this is corruption, because of the particular choice of investor, but that doesn’t mean that using the NS&I as an investment mechanism is in itself a bad thing.

[2] Tott’s report indicates this form of borrowing can be even cheaper than conventional borrowing through the sale of bonds by the government’s Debt Management Office

[3] This is not likely to be introduced in year 1 of a Labour government, as local Public Accounts Committees may be a condition of such an internal investment mechanism (see Chapter 10 of IPPR’s June 2014 Condition of Britain report, which was effectively a Labour party report (a fact later confirmed by the Charities Commission, who reprimanded IPPR for being too overtly political.

[4] NS&I does not manage its own funds (and sadly, ATOS manage NS&I).  The funds are passed over to the National Loans Fund managed directly by the Treasury, where it is already used to fund roughly 10% of public borrowing.   There would presumably have to be a change in this arrangement if a proportion of NS&I funds were to be allocated direct to a British Investment Bank.

[5] The key obstacle to pension fund investment in social infrastructure has long been the fiduciary duty on trustees to maximise financial return to members, which has been taken as overriding all other factors and led pension funds to invest ‘safely’.  While there has been some movement towards a wider understanding of what members’ interests are, so as to allow invest in social and environmentally sound activities, and while there has been some very good local innovation in local government pension fund use, the recent Law Commission guidance remains very conservative in its approach, and there is still some way to go before we see a real rise in social investment by this route.

[6] Even when it comes to capital infrastructure, Osborne’s grand 2011 proclamation about tapping pension funds has so far turned out to be a damp squib, and Labour will need to re-energise this.

[7] I have been seeking to ‘crowdsource’ more extensive research, including a quantification of how far these new mechanisms will fill a more traditional borrowing gap.

[8] In my view, Anthony Painter is by far the best of the movers and shakers in the realist orthodoxy camp, and his Left without a Future (2013) is certainly worth a close reading.  While it is ultimately let down by the ill-conceived parameters of continued ‘tough choices’ Anthony provides for himself (as set out above), it is insightful both about how ‘investment’ should be seen in its widest sense, and in the need for the development of a range of new institutions aimed at delivering social justice (though I disagree with how his implicit suggestion around who should be responsible for designing these institutions, a matter on which I touch on in part 2 of this essay).  As I shall also set out in part 2 ,   it is to Anthony and some of his like-minded colleagues at RSA and IPPR, as well as to people like Jon Cruddas, that the (ex-austerity) labour movement will need to reach out to if it is to develop a truly effective post-austerity movement in the shortest time possible.

[9] Aside from the invalid short-shrift that Anthony gives to what he call the “ultra-Keynesian” argument – that there is real no barrier to deficit spending as long as it takes place within a functional economy – the other policy idea he dismisses all too easily is that of engineering inflation at around the 4-6 % level through quantitative easing (not the same, I should stress as deficit spending/investment on public services/infrastructure).

[10] That is not to say that countering the Tories credit card imagery was ever easy.  Such a metaphor fits neatly with Lakoff’s concept of the two central metaphors contesting the grounds in US politics:  the strict father vs. the nurturing father.  In these terms, it might be argued that Conservatives currently have the upper hand because the strict father metaphor has a hold, and it may be that Labour has to deliberately develop nurturing metaphors of its own as a way to ‘sell’ investment as a social good rather than a profligacy.

[11] I remember well Hazel Blears castigating me in a CLP meeting for being too focused on the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

[12] Of course, cuts to public spending also have indirect effects on the same group, by sucking money out of local economies and delaying recovery, and the weighting of cuts towards deprived areas has made this even more significant when it comes to regional inequalities.

[13] To blow my own trumpet for a second, I’ll add that I was amongst the first to advocate an opposition strategy of focusing on the details of incompetence, and it was my research around the maladministration of the Regional Growth Fund which created the ammunition for an early hit of this kind on Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.  Unfortunately, while there have been other successes, the strategy was never deployed consistently.

[14] Howard Reed did engage with my reading of Labour’s investment plans, although he suggested I was over-optimistic.   Richard Murphy declined to engage, and continues to hold the view, reflected in Trevor’s Left Futures piece above, that Labour is Tory-lite.

[15] This is a conventional leftwing view. It is arguable that the legitimation of managerialism actually started earlier than this, and is as much a product of the socialist response to technological innovation in mass production as of neoliberalism.  As Peter Hain notes in his new book, Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism is marked by a dismissal of GDH Cole’s proposals for a modern ‘guild socialism’, on the grounds that these are incompatible with mew technologies and mass production.   While Hain seems happy to take Crosland at his work, my own view is that the side-lining of the whole guild tradition is at the roots of today’s mega-unions’ compliance with de-professionalization, especially in public services.

[16] There are vestiges of the old commitment to public service quality.  Ironically, in the face of what came next from the PCS, in 2011 the union asked election candidates to sign up to a pledge heavily focused on the quality of public services.  By 2012, that emphasis appeared to have been lost, as the Workfare programme was critiqued not for what it did to people on benefits, but solely for the effect it had on the workforce.

[17] When the Liberal Conspiracy version of the first part of this two part post appeared, I was called a wide selection of unpleasant names for my supposed treachery, but there was little or no actual counter-argument.  While that’s unimportant in itself, I accept that the provocative tone I adopted in the piece was more about my self-righteousness than any attempt to help forge a better strategy for opposition.

[18] That is not to say that there has been no debate within mainstream Labour about what ‘proper’ public service reform should look like.  The Progress pamphlet Reform in an Age of Austerity (February 2014), for example, is actually quite good on some of the crucial aspects of reform – particularly that it will need to be ‘relationa’ and personalised, but like the IPPR report Condition of Britain (see above) it remains hampered by the self-imposed fiscal straitjacket, within which these worthy ideals are mostly undeliverable.

 

 

Are some Labour votes bad for Labour?

January 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Chris Cook, one of the few centrist media people worth taking seriously – largely because he is open to new ideas and data – tweets surprise at a Neal Lawson column, in which the latter suggests that New Labour’s key failure was its success in getting votes from the rich.

I well remember crunching my way up gravel drives past BMWs in Enfield the day Stephen Twigg ousted Michael Portillo – oh, how we cheered later that morning. But in hindsight the wrong people were voting Labour.  The tent was too big and you spent the next 10 years trying to keep the wrong people in it: the very rich, for example. What meaningful project includes everyone?

And I’m surprised at Chris’s surprise.  Has politics really become a PR exercise to the extent that for even one of the better commentators, the idea of different material interests, served by different political parties, seems ridiculous?

This is not to say that Lawson is entirely correct in his equating Enfield gravel-pathed residence and BMW ownership with a set of interests that only the Conservative party can meet.  Many of those people had very valid reason to vote Labour in 1997, given the manifesto promises made (and quite well fulfilled) around state education, just for example.  For myself, I prefer the Tory/Labour constituency dividing lines drawn up 80-odd years ago by RH Tawney, who argues convincingly for the inclusion of “brain workers” in the development of socialist democracy oriented towards socially useful work, while the capitalist owner of the means of production can only ever be on the other side of the political gain line.

But Lawson is right to say that when a political tent is too big, too inclusive, then political direction can be (and was) lost, not least because it is the very visibility (and openness to metaphoric description) of opposing interests which helps maintain that direction (cf. UKIP’s progress in relation to visible immigration).

Indeed, the principle of material interests in political opposition to each other has to be accepted if the votes of, let  us say, the self-employed and small business owners, are to be properly contested by one the one hand, a Tory party claiming them in the spirit of capitalism (without the capital for the greater part), and a Labour party which can and should argue that in the early 21st century self-employment is often imposed, and that many small business owners actually manage* – sometimes heroically – to operate within a cut-throat supply chain environment while still maintaining a viable moral economy in relation to their employees and clients.

Those votes are worth fighting for and actually, yes, they may be better votes than ones from the very rich.

 

* There’ll be more on this in coming posts, especially around how legal structure has become more important in policy than the reality of work norms, not least as I count myself as one of these small business owners, although one without too much need for heroics.

HM Drucker on the decline of Labour in Scotland

December 15, 2014 Leave a comment

On Facebook, Dave Osler poses the question about Labour’s plummeting support in Scotland:

Generations of international relations students have studied the ‘who lost China?’ debate that took place in the US under the Truman administration. I think pol sci majors in future will equally argue about ‘who lost Scotland’ for the Labour Party. Does the blame lie with Labour’s Westminster leadership, largely oblivious to social trends beyond north London? Or is it the fault of the management team at the branch office itself?

I don’t currently (though I will presently) have much to add to conventional wisdom here, but I think HM Drucker’s warning from 1979, in his Doctrine and Ethos in the Labour Party may be instructive:

Since Labour’s ethos emanates from a specific past one may ask what the implications of this task are for the future…….Labour cannot be simpliciter a party of the future.  Such a possibility may be available to a radical social democratic party.  It is not possible for the historic Labour party.  The attempt by Crosland in his The Future of Socialism (happy title) (1956) to condemn Labour’s tendency to cling to the principles of its past is futile.  Any attempt to redefine goals for future action must always be seen to be strictly consonant with the past.

A second implication is that Labour’s support can be eroded by a general change of consciousness.  If the ties of class-consciousness are weakened, then Labour is threatened.  If Labour comes to be seen as an increasingly middle-class organisation, it could lose its support even if its supporters remained class-conscious. ….Class consciousness, as a historical fact, is obviously endangered by changes external to it.    Gaitskell saw prosperity as one such threat. Nationalism is another – one whose power is more real in the 1970s than would have been foreseen in the late 1950s.  As Scottish and Welsh working people have come to identify themselves as Scots or Welshmen first and workers second, Labour loses their support to nationalist parties.  As this happens, one witnesses an exchange of one past for another as the new choice comes to appear more vivid.  If in future elections Labour loses parliamentary seats as a result. it will be paying a high price for the loss of class-identity (p.39, my emphasis).

More to come from me on what this means for Scottish Labour’s response to this now seemingly inevitable loss.

 

The Rise of the SNP: a warning from history

October 25, 2014 Leave a comment

As Labour unravels in Scotland and Glasgow slides SNPwards, a note from fairly recent history:

It seems likely that if, or when, Nationalism becomes powerful in the large cities of Scotland or Wales it will have to face problems similar to those faced by the Labour party at the moment. Thus, while Nationalist parties may bring many of the working classes back into political activity in the short-run, the long term effects may be even greater disillusion (p.135)

Barry Hindess (1971), The Decline of Working Class Politics, Granada Publishing Ltd: London

A left-liberal approach to restricting workers’ freedom (and outflanking UKIP)

October 24, 2014 Leave a comment

Cameron and his team are looking to outflank UKIP by restricting access to National Insurance numbers as a way of capping lower skilled worker entry to the UK labour market.  This, as Barroso says, is illegal under EU law, and it just isn’t going to happen, though Cameron will be hoping to keep up the pretence that it might until the other side of the Rochester byelection.

For Labour (and the liberal-left in general), there’s a positive in this.  There’s a short window in which it might set out its own more coherent proposals for restricting freedom of movement, and a legal mechanism to do so.

Let’s start with the legal mechanism, which requires an initial bit of myth-busting about what can and can’t be done under EU law.

Just about anyone in the commentariat or UK politics who claims to understand the EU will tell you that freedom of movement is ‘sacrosanct’, and a basic principle of the Single Market.  They may also tell you that if a EU state restricts freedom movement for citizens of other EU states, then it’s in breach of the Lisbon Treaty.

This, though, is incorrect.

This is what Article 45 of the Lisbon Treaty actually says (my emphasis)

1. Freedom of movement for workers shall be secured within the Union.

2. Such freedom of movement shall entail the abolition of any discrimination based on nationality between workers of the Member States as regards employment, remuneration and other conditions of work and employment.

3. It shall entail the right, subject to limitations justified on grounds of public policy, public security or public health:

(a) to accept offers of employment actually made;

(b) to move freely within the territory of Member States for this purpose;

(c) to stay in a Member State for the purpose of employment in accordance with the provisions governing the employment of nationals of that State laid down by law, regulation or administrative action;

(d) to remain in the territory of a Member State after having been employed in that State, subject to conditions which shall be embodied in regulations to be drawn up by the Commission.

The limiting clause is there for a reason.  It is there because early formulators of the legislation (and the limitations date from Clause 48, para 3 of the 1957 Treaties of Rome) understood that total freedom of movement might be difficult to implement, and that there might be occasions when it is best to take a step back.

Now, it’s not quite as easy to invoke the limiting clause as it might once have been.  This is because in 2004, EU Directive 2004/38/EC tightened up the process for curtailing freedom of movement by requiring that any person whose movement is curtailed has to be named, and specific  reasons provided for the curtailment.    Thus, if freedom of movement were to be restricted on a large scale, including for whole states, that Directive would need to be repealed.  But the point is that, with political willing from all states, this repeal could take place through the ordinary legislative procedures of the EU, and would not require treaty change.

There are two questions that arise from this.  First, why on earth would Southern and accession states voluntarily accede to the repeal of Directive 2004/38/EC when their citizens stand to lose freedom of movement and therefore earning power?   Second, what good would it do Labour to engage in such a process (or set out promises for same in its manifesto.

The answer lies in another section of the Lisbon treaty. Article 30 states that “customs duties on imports and exports and charges having equivalent effect shall be prohibited between Member States. This prohibition shall also apply to customs duties of a fiscal nature.”  but article 32 clear the way for exceptions to the rule:

In carrying out the tasks entrusted to it under this Chapter the Commission shall be guided by………the need to avoid serious disturbances in the economies of Member States and to ensure rational development of production and an expansion of consumption within the Union.

Invocation of this aspect of the Lisbon treaty as part of the overall deal between richer and poorer  states would create the room for  temporary suspension of the single market, and the creation of export subsidy/import substitution mechanisms, such that convergence can occur at a much quicker pace than might otherwise happen.   It would effectively, give the newer EU states the space they need to catch up, as long as they agree to their side of the bargain – keeping and feeding their own citizens, especially if it were to go hand in hand with a redistribution of EU structural funds** towards the poorer states:

1.  It hoists Farage by his own petard.  He has claimed that slower economic growth in Britain is a price worth paying for reduced immigration, and what is proposed here is a route to just that, not just because in the real world immigration into the UK is an economic good, but because UK companies stand to lose business through temporary tariffs.   Farage can hardly object to concrete proposals to put into practice what he adovcates.

2. It allows Labour to argue, correctly, that the root cause of EU immigration is the failure of the free market within the EU; economic convergence between rich and poor states has simply not taken place through free trade, and policy intervention by the EU is now needed to help convergence along the way.

3.  Labour has no choice. Trying to outdo UKIP or the Tories on toughness is just a non-starter given the very low levels of trust the party suffers on immigration generally, which stem both from a hostile media and from the party’s failure to be clearer about the benefits of EU immigration back in the early 2000s – when it did enjoy considerable trust.   Similarly, a late attempt to win over the electorate to the economic benefits of such immigration are doomed to failure, given the evidence that any form of redistributive policy, seen as demanding some form of self-sacrifice, is almost certain to get a hostile reception when political trust is low.

In these circumstances, the only realistic way forward for Labour is to be seen to accede to the expressed demands of much of the British population, and seek to reduce immigration from the EU in the short to medium term, irrespective of the fact that this may actually damage the economy (though in the longer term real economic convergence will benefit all EU states, of course).

 

 

*I use the term liberal-left purposely in order to distinguish it from the Marxist left. As a fairly gross generality, the Marxism-inspired left would see what I propose here as an accommodation with nationalism and xenohpobia, that the left’s efforts are better directed at collective action against the real enemy, capitalism, and that the desire of a large part of the population to reduce immigration is one rooted in false consciousness. I have some sympathy with this analysis, however crudely I express it, but I am also a democratic socialist who believes that people do have the right to express preferences, and that telling them their preferences are a product of ignirance is not productive for the most part

**Jacek Rostowski, ex-finance minister for Poland, said recently:

No Polish government could agree to Cameron’s renegotiation proposals except in return for a mountain of gold.

He, of course, recognises that there is a deal to be done. even if Cameron doesn’t.

As for why and how Labour would gain from setting out these proposals, there are three points to make.

 

 

 

Why Labour nearly lost in Heywood & Middleton, and why I’m maybe leaving Labour

October 10, 2014 8 comments

Labour is busy internalising and responding to last night’s near miss in Heywood & Middleton. It’s the usual stuff: we did alright because our vote share went up; we didn’t do alright because we didn’t connect; we must talk about immigration; we must DO SOMETHING.

In all of this, there’s been little mention of the most important bit of any campaign: the candidate.

So let’s focus on Liz McInnes MP, and on how and why she was selected for this safe Labour seat which, had it not been for a superb organising job from the North west regional office, and a lot of activist who smelt the danger and got stuck in on securing just enough turnout, she would have lost.

Liz, who I am sure is a perfectly decent person and with whom I have no truck whatsoever, was selected as part of a stitch-up operation that went wrong, in which Harriet Harman’s chum Miriam O’Reilly was supposed to land the selection. Miriam, if you don’t know, is a television presenter.  I know nothing of her other than that she tweets about having tea with Ed and Justine.

The plan was that Miriam should stand against three relative no-hopers, of whom one had to be fairly local in order to ensure some credibility (perhaps mindful of being caught out in Erith & Thamesmead) This local-but-not-too-local was Liz.  The other two candidates were a councillor from the South of England and a doctor from the other side of Manchester, neither of whom stood an earthly and were shortlisted for that very reason.  Unfortunately for the pro-Miriam plotters, the local party voted for Liz.

This is the tip of the iceberg.

The NEC broke its own rules, by abandoning the normal process for byelections.  These rules require a longlisting process, with a first interview held (in London) to create a shortlist to go forward to the local party.  This was the process set out on the Labour party website until after the selection was complete – with close of application Friday 19th 9am, longlist interviews Monday 22nd, shortlist hustings and selection Tues 23rd.  In fatc, the NEC met on the afternoon of Friday 19th and decided to cut out the longlisting process.

It did so in order to exclude a good number of very strong candidates, who would have presented a big challenge to Miriam in terms of both their track record and what distinctiveness they would bring to the campaign.  Amongst this number were at least two Labour members who are experts in combatting Child Sexual Exploitation, highly relevant to the campaign given the fact that UKIP were bound to, and did, run hard with an overtly racist campaign about the Labour party allowing the rape of white girls by Asian men.

In summary, the NEC colluded in a clear attempt by the party hierarchy to parachute in ‘one of their own’.  In so doing, they exposed the local party and the regional organisers to a campaign fronted by a solid but unspectacular candidate around whom only a weak and locally irrelevant ”save our NHS’ could be generated, and which then relied in sheer doorstep muscle power to squeak home.   This was at the expense of a campaign which could have been distinctive in addressing key issues.

The result might still have been close, whoever the candidate was, but the main point here is that the Labour hierarchy, with NEC collusion, deliberately hijacked the selection process, utterly complacent about the possible disaster that faced them.

This kind of action has no place in our party, and I am – as an associationalist who believe in the development of parallel legitimacy of state and civil organisation, but understands that this is only valid if the rule of law is applied in non-sate organisations –  for the first time seriously considering whether I can remain  a member, especially as this is not the first time in the last 12 months that the NEC has broken the party rules as set down for it by conference, just because it made it easy for the hierarchy.  I have to balance this (Bernard Williams-based) ethical standpoint with my enduring and countervailing utilitarianist leaning, and decide whether the utility of remaining on the party* still outweighs my ‘agential integrity’.

I will decide in the next month or so whether I remain a member.

 

 

* I will know within a month as there is one specific project I’m working on which has undoubted social utility and could be enhanced by my ongoing membership.  There ar other projects where not being a member would be an advantage, though less clearly so.

 

Categories: Labour Party News

Political garbage

September 20, 2014 1 comment

At 3am on Friday 19th September, hardly a single person in England had given much thought to devolution of power beyond Westminster, or to the West Lothian question.  By the afternoon, the people of England were apparently clamouring for a debate, and politicians were responding urgently.

Utter nonsense, clearly, yet there is a political theory to describe what took place today.   The politicians were rustling around in the garbage.  in Cohen, March and Olsen’s (1972) words, we saw pretty well in real-time

a collection of choices looking for problems, issues and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work.

The fit is perfect not just with Cameron and Miliband, but with a host of journalists and commentators desperately digging around in their trashy old pieces to come up with the solution to the non-problem.

So a quick moment of order, please, before the garbage rustling begins again:

1) Questions of devolution in England are entirely unrelated to what happened in Scotland on Thursday;

2) The West Lothian question is not a question people actually ask, as it doesn’t really affect what happens in people’s lives,

3)  Westminster’s parties, and UKIP, have failed to recognise that constitutional devolution is not the same as devolution of power. By suggesting that it is, and making stupidly rash (Labour) or (cynical) commitments (Tories/UKIP) both parties are embarking on a course remarkably similar to the one followed after 2008.  Then, the financial crisis led to risk and accountability being transferred from the rich to the poor, but no power came with it.  This time around, risk and accountability will be transferred from Westminster to areas beyond Westminster, but without the powers needed.

 

 

 

 

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