GRASSROOTS: We need more Mr Nice Guys

16/09/2020, 10:45:17 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Despite the blandness of the term ‘nice’, the rehabilitation of nice human attributes, particularly among political leaders, is needed more than ever in a world in which those who are far from nice keep winning.

Dictionary definitions of “nice” behaviour that evoke kindness, generosity and graciousness sound wholly positive. Yet society has an awkward relationship with the concept. It is a required attribute in the caring and nurturing professions but often eschewed in the arenas of business, politics and sport, where aggression, competitiveness and ruthlessness are the watchwords. Bill Gates’s hugely impressive philanthropy indicates profound niceness, he himself admits that in his Microsoft days he had been “tough on people he worked with” and that some of this was “over the top”.

This ambivalence can be seen in the way the ‘nice guy’ motif features in popular culture: international drug dealer Howard Marks benefits from niceness chic in his 1990s autobiography ‘Mr Nice’; Alice Cooper rebels against niceness in his song ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’; sports coaches chant “nice guys finish last”; while Richard Dawkins added a new chapter entitled ‘Nice guys finish first’ to The Selfish Gene.

The challenges faced by our communities, at any scale, can be overcome most effectively by people who exhibit niceness. Cultures of kindness and collaboration are more likely to thrive. Leaders with compassion as their core value are inclined to address the great persisting injustices of our time, at national and international level.

Star Trek’s fictitious Jean-Luc Picard shows a leadership style that is valued as much for its kindness and empathy as its decisiveness and bravery. It is no accident that the rare glimpses of this utopian future on earth imply that global problems have been overcome by such leaders.

We are a long way from Star Trek’s 24th century and niceness is in retreat due to much more than the indifference expressed in J.S. Mill’s quote, “bad men need nothing more to accomplish their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing”.

Niceness is foundering because its behavioural attributes are not sufficiently respected and promoted within society. Despite general entreaties of the law for compliance and truthfulness, there is no law about being nice. The best efforts of parents and teachers to inculcate niceness have not been ultimately successful and many people learn that it impairs their personal advancement.

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UNCUT: Labour needs to talk about Brexit

15/09/2020, 11:13:23 PM

by Robert Williams

There is an ongoing debate in the Labour Party about whether Sir Keir Starmer should talk about Brexit. There have been so many other sticks with which to beat the government with, on COCIV test and trace, the highest excess death rate in Europe, the neglect of care homes, the growing scandal of PPE procurement contracts that make Al Capone look like an honest businessman, the A level fiasco. I could go on, and simply list the failures of Boris Johnson and his government for another few thousand words, but readers might lose the will to live.

So why reopen the wound of Brexit, which certainly contributed to Labour’s worst electoral performance since 1935. Why should Labour risk the wrath of its former Red Wall voters? They may not have liked Jeremy Corbyn, and that played no small role in making Labour less popular than a bad case of diarrhoea, but the Brexit saga was also significant. (Sorry for the analogy, but Corbyn was utterly toxic to voters, including former Labour voters, and it feels appropriate for his effect on the body politic).

Voters were exhausted by the political drama and wanted it over. They seized, or at least a large enough proportion of voters in key target seats did, on the promise of an “oven ready deal” and gave the Tories their largest majority since 1987. So one can understand why Labour has been as quiet as a monk in a silent order on Brexit. Even at last week’s PMQs, Keir Starmer did not mention, even in a limited and specific way, the government’s proposals to break international law.

The Labour leadership thinks that talking about Brexit at the moment is a lose-lose situation for them. It will remind voters, particularly those in the “Red Wall” that Labour backed Remain (it didn’t, they promised to renegotiate Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and put it to another public vote – and yes, it was a farcical policy). Labour also fears that raising Brexit again will take the focus off the government’s handling of our exit from the EU. The “don’t interrupt your opponent making mistakes” view. And finally, Labour thinking is that they cannot do anything about Brexit in any case now that the government has a majority of 80.

So silence, as the government damages its own reputation for competence and now reneges on its own election manifesto – the one Johnson made every one of his candidates pledge to support – is, possibly sound politics. Let the government destroy themselves and wait on the sidelines. It is appealing, but I think it is wrong

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GRASSROOTS: Nothing matters (now), so everything matters (later)

23/08/2020, 09:40:22 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

“Never in the field human commentary was so much outrage expressed, by so many, with so few effects.”

Across much of the political spectrum, we are living through an age of outrage, especially regarding the reckless ineptitude of this government. Many of us are afflicted by ‘outragitis’ – inflammation of their indignation. I was once a sufferer, but despite being a devout optimist, I came to realise midway through the lockdown that both the outrage and any resulting action, don’t matter an iota.

If directed at effecting immediate positive change or exacting a political price now, they are of no consequence and do the opposite to what was intended. Because they can have no effect, they let the government off the hook by absorbing the well-meaning energy of its critics, leaving them less time to take steps that will matter later.

In any self-respecting democracy, the view that governments must be held to account for incompetence is honourable but sadly misguided. Currently, the sentiment is amplified due to the after-effects of the last parliament, when Theresa May and later Boris Johnson governed with a wafer thin parliamentary majority, which offered a glimmer of hope to their opponents that Brexit could be blocked. But everything changed when Johnson won that 80-seat majority

We needn’t rehearse the details of all the episodes of incompetence since December, for even the debacle over exam results pales into insignificance next to the government’s response to Covid 19.

As well as exposing cruelly all the weaknesses of society and state that were held together by a shoestring pre-Covid, this government’s response to the pandemic is a tragic case study of the most fundamental, yet often overlooked British flaw of them all: that once a government has won substantial majority, there is almost no way that it can be held to account until the next general election. Neither robust criticism nor Royal Commission will result in the government paying any price; they’re untouchable.

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UNCUT: “Incompetence” is the most dangerous word in politics. Boris beware

20/08/2020, 10:45:53 PM

by David Talbot

In the Autumn of 2007, a resurgent Labour Party, galvanised by Gordon Brown’s elevation to Number Ten, met in Bournemouth buoyant at the prospect of an early general election. Under the banner ‘The strength to succeed’ Brown had spent the first few months of his ultimately doomed premiership reassuring the nation. From donning his wellies in flooded, predominantly Conservative-dwelling, shires, to soothing the nation following terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London, Brown’s early brand was based on solidity and, most of all, competence.

The problem of creeping incompetence usually arises towards the end of a government’s life, when Ministers are tired and a smell of decay whiffs through the air. But this government has developed a competence problem after merely a year in office.

COVID-19 was not, of course, the design of Boris Johnson’s government but its response to it has been lamentable and incompetent in the extreme. It squandered two precious months to prepare the nation, its much vaunted “world beating” track and trace system is a disgrace, it failed to protect frontline NHS staff through the heat of the pandemic, and it turned the nation’s care homes into breeding grounds for a disease whose mortality is intertwined with those aged 65 years and above.

From surcharges for migrant NHS workers, school meal vouchers for the nation’s most vulnerable schoolchildren to levelling down students’ futures, this government has exuded wanton incompetence in every nuance of an increasingly desperate defences. Even on its flagship raison d’être, Brexit, its “oven ready” deal has been strangely aloof since it was lauded every day for two months late last year.

Johnson’s limitations have been well-known and widespread for years; his disorganisation, his lack of attention to detail, his bluster and bumbling incompetence. In politics, if you take an ideological stance it will always mean you lose someone. But develop a reputation for incompetence, and you lose everybody.

And it is on this ground that Sir Keir Starmer has staked his early strategy. Through demonstrating competence, severely lacking for years under the previous administration, Labour has at last emerged as a serious party determined on seeking power. It is easy to see why this attribute is so important to Labour, not only as a core prerequisite for any party seeking power, but through polling – such as the Observer last month on the perceptions of the two party’s leaders:

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UNCUT: Labour centrists can be optimistic. The hard left is going to turn Keir Starmer into a Blairite

30/07/2020, 10:38:55 PM

by Atul Hatwal

Keir Starmer is not a Blairite. His closest political ally is Ed Miliband and like the younger Miliband, his politics are those of the soft left.  But if the hard left continue to oppose his leadership in their current manner, they’re going to change him. The result will be the mirror image of what they seek; rather than bind him to the 2019 manifesto or constrain him to a more left-wing position, they’re going to Blairform him.

The response of the Corbynites to Labour’s apology to the whistle-blowers over anti-Semitism has been typical. Look no further than J Corbyn himself, who called the decision “political” not ” legal” and has opened himself up to being sued by John Ware from Panorama.

But it’s not just on anti-Semitism that they react in this way, it’s everything. Here’s Matt Zarb Cousin, following the release of the parliamentary Intelligence committee’s Russia report,

Ahead of the impending Unite leadership election, in the contest to be the candidate for the United Left – Unite’s hard left faction which has dominated the leadership in the past decade – Keir Starmer was used as a wedge issue, an enemy to take on as a demonstration of left wing bona fides. Howard Beckett had this tweet pinned to the top of is Twitter timeline.

A politician’s ideological heading at the start of their career is often quite different by the end.  The process of politics, their experience on the journey, changes them. When looking for portents of the future for a new soft left leader who is picking up the pieces following a shattering defeat, compare and contrast the Neil Kinnock of 1983 with that of 1992.

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UNCUT: After Starmer’s first 100 days came Labour’s tipping-point week

29/07/2020, 10:53:43 PM

by Rob Marchant

At the 100-day point in mid-July, there was much favourable chatter about the new leader. Good poll ratings, clear change of position on anti-Semitism, control of the NEC. The Corbynites have been on the back foot and the party looks vaguely presentable again.

Continuity Corbynite figurehead Rebecca Long-Bailey was, much to the surprise of many, not forced to resign but humiliatingly sacked from the Shadow Cabinet for tweeting an article containing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

It has not been all plain sailing: Starmer is a new leader, after all, and new leaders make mistakes as they learn. One was to have commissioned yet another useless “reforming the party” report, this time with involvement from Ed Miliband, who had already presided over the release of two such useless reports in his own term as leader.

Then there was the clearly unfair suspension of Emilie Oldknow, the former Assistant General Secretary. who had done little more than slag off some of her colleagues on WhatsApp (we would most of us be sacked, were spying on one’s staff a widespread practice among UK employers).

Worse still than that unfairness, was the credence it gave to the highly questionable “report” commissioned by former General Secretary Jennie Formby into the party’s handling of anti-Semitism. A report conceived and executed by that administration in unquestionably bad faith, with the intent of rebutting in advance its inevitable, forthcoming slamming by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

In other words, a last, desperate attempt to save the reputations of those involved in the Corbyn project.

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UNCUT: Labour needs a clear, distinctive, and credible economic message

23/07/2020, 08:00:31 AM

by Jonathan Todd

More people than not think that Keir Starmer looks like a prime minister in waiting (38% versus 34% in a YouGov poll conducted in early July), while more than twice as many think Labour is not ready for government than think Labour is (54% versus 23% in the same poll).

Other polling reveals that voters now think that Starmer would make a better prime minister than Boris Johnson.

Yet Labour trail the Tories by somewhere between 6 and 10 points on voting intention – with Survation putting it at the lower end of that range, Kantar being at the higher end, and Opinium in-between.

These deficits cannot be explained in terms of Starmer. It is the rest of the party that holds us back.

“Labour is under new management,” said Starmer at PMQs. Where Labour previously made commitments that voters struggled to believe, Labour now needs credible answers. Yet big enough to meet the UK’s challenges.

These do not come any bigger than the economy. The number of people aged 18-24 claiming Universal Credit or Jobseeker’s Allowance doubled in the last three months. Unfortunately, with furlough ending, demand not recovered to pre-Covid levels, and the risk of a second wave, our economic struggles are likely to persist.

With respondents being allowed to tick up three options, YouGov asked: Which of the following do you think are the most important issues facing the country at this time?

Health and the economy came joint top on 57%. Far ahead of the next most important issues: Britain leaving the EU (43%); the environment (24%).

It is noteworthy that over four-in-ten of the public do not see Brexit as “oven ready” and unsurprising that health is a concern amid a global pandemic – which will further rise if there is a second wave. But, as we learn more about Covid-19, improve our systems for containing it, and advance towards a vaccine, the economy will likely usurp health as the public’s biggest worry.

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UNCUT: Get ready for the winter of discontent, 2020/21

02/07/2020, 10:30:20 PM

by Jonathan Todd

We have reached the mid-point of the longest year. Football’s back, pubs and shops are open, the sun shines. The government are eager for consumers to spend the economy back to health. But our winter of discontent looms.

Only the rich and/or complacent are secure in their incomes. Fear of Covid-19 remains – while not always deadly, especially among the young, it can induce long-term health complications. It is hard to be confident that all children, many out of school since March, will be in class in September.

“Open unemployment,” warns Professor Paul Gregg, “is likely to rise from 4 to 14% without further policy intervention.” Over 4 million on the dole, before the possible economic tsunami of no-deal Brexit.

“Currently the government’s drive to open up as quickly as possible bears a risk of another increase in infections,” fears Professor Devi Sridhar, “similar to what is being experienced in several US states such as Florida, Arizona and Texas, and in Iran.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, recently said: “The NEU is of course in favour of all children being back in school, but even with a one-metre rule that will need more teachers and more spaces.” It remains to be seen if the plans announced by Gavin Williamson will deliver upon this.

Ignore these people if you have had enough of experts. The rest of us might conclude:

We need more testing and tracing, with much better data sharing and collaboration with local authorities, to contain the virus. We need more physical and human resources to reopen schools. Without decent public health and education, attempts to build, build, build rest on the shakiest foundations.

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UNCUT: Labour’s congenital fatalism means it’s in danger of learning the wrong lessons from 2019

20/06/2020, 10:57:30 PM

by Atul Hatwal

There’s much that’s salient in the Labour Together report. The problems of Jeremy Corbyn on the doorstep, an economic prospectus that few believed, a chaotic campaign and, of course, Brexit. This is hardly breaking news, but credit is due for calling this out.

But then there’s also a recurrence of a peculiarly Labour fatalism.

The report states “The roots of our 2019 loss stretch back over the last two decades.” It cites a panoply of long term trends including deindustrialisation, demographic change and declining trade union membership, to explain the steady rise in the Conservative vote in Labour seats, since 2001.

The framing in the report paints a picture of an ineluctable growth of Tory support in Labour strongholds as a function of these deep-seated changes.

To anyone who remembers the late 1980s and early 1990s, this is pretty familiar stuff.

Much the same was written then. Structural factors. Population movement. Shifting values. All were used to explain a decade on decade decline in Labour support, a downward slope starting in 1945 that pointed to final obsolescence sometime in the early 2000s.

Labour Together’s report has a particularly striking line that epitomises the pessimism inherent in this ‘historical forces’ type of explanation.

“Many of these trends are global and have had similar and negative impacts on social democratic and centre-left parties around the world”

Unsurprisingly, Corbynites such as Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery have chimed in with support for this perspective. It’s a crime without a culprit – the politicians in charge are at the mercy of larger forces. It was the system, events dear boy, events, not individual leaders like Jeremy Corbyn or, Ed Miliband (coincidentally a commissioner of the Labour Together report).

In the early 1990s it was Labour’s challenges in the South that were insurmountable. Today, it’s the North and Midlands, exemplified in the notion of the recently crumbled Red Wall.

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UNCUT: If Starmer wants to end Labour’s infighting, then ban Momentum and Progress

16/06/2020, 10:37:02 PM

by Kevin Meagher

There is something fratricidal about the Labour party. Its innate. Division comes naturally, with tribes of left and right, eyeing each other suspiciously. If they did not have to work together in a first-past-the-post system, they wouldn’t. A loveless arrangement and, alas, as old as the party itself; explaining Labour’s uneven electoral record, governing for just 34 out of the last 100 years.

Bevanites. Gaitskellites. Bennites. Tribunites. Blairites. Corbynistas. The list goes on. And even when one faction or other is in control, there is still an irresistible urge to do down the other side. Indeed, there is often a gleeful intensity to this one-upmanship. ‘It’s not enough that I succeed,’ as Gore Vidal put it, ‘others must fail.’

Thankfully, one of Keir Starmer’s key promises in the leadership contest was to end the feuding. ‘Too often,’ he argued. ‘we find ourselves focusing on our differences rather than the values and principles that brought us together, and that comes at a cost. Our party is divided, and unity requires reconciliation.’

So, in a bid to transcend what are often petty, internecine squabbles, he has woven together a frontbench that unites various strands of opinion in the party and elevated basic competence above sectional loyalty. It is a good start, but he needs to go further to show that factionalism will no longer be tolerated.

The best way he can do that? Banish Momentum – and Progress, too.

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