Archive for January, 2012

Depressingly, it takes the Tories to make localism come alive

31/01/2012, 11:33:54 AM

by Kevin Meagher

Localism is one of those annoyingly wispy catch-alls in British politics that never actually takes corporeal form. Like the big society, deciphering its linguistic mysteries would keep an abbeyful of medieval monks busy.

But things are getting clearer. As of last week, localism now means big city mayors.

Local government minister Greg Clark’s confirmation that we could see powerful elected mayors running Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield, Nottingham, Wakefield, Bristol, Birmingham and Coventry as early as this November is nothing short of landmark.

Look at it this way: the prospect of a dozen big city mayors (Leicester was due to hold a referendum with the rest but opted to switch early) represents the biggest potential transfer of political power since Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1998.

Actually, forget the Welsh, so to speak; the joint population of England’s eleven largest cities and conurbations dwarfs that of the principality. While Birmingham and Leeds combined are more populous than Northern Ireland.

This new version of localism represents a real tilting of power away from Whitehall and towards our other great cities and conurbations. A moment where powerful new political voices with huge mandates emerge in new centres of power and influence.

Unfortunately, many in the Labour tribe remain unconvinced there is such a prize to be had. The party issued no press release heralding last week’s news that mayors are now within sight and no offer to form cross-party yes campaigns to win the referendums was forthcoming.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Cameron’s big talk on fatcat pay is just that, and nothing more

30/01/2012, 12:30:38 PM

by John Woodcock

By sitting on his hands while Ed Miliband spoke for the public over Stephen Hester’s bonus, David Cameron has failed an important test over fairness at the top.

As the welfare reform bill returns to the House of Commons, Labour has an opportunity to show that we are the party best placed to deliver fairness at the bottom too.

To start at the top. The prime minister ought to be worried by the way he has allowed himself to seem out of touch and evasive on an issue that has symbolised people’s resentment of unjustified rewards for the highest paid. As an opposition leader, Cameron was adept at understanding and reflecting the public mood. He often moved swiftly on emerging issues, leaving the then Labour government struggling to catch up. Yet on banker’s bonuses he has shown both a flat foot and tin ear – failing to show leadership over the specific issue of the Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive, and refusing Labour’s call for a repeat of the bank bonus tax to get more young people into work.

Were it not for shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna revealing the element of discretion over bonus payments in the Royal Bank of Scotland chief executive’s contract, the government might still be effectively hoodwinking people by suggesting that its hands were tied. Ed made the point last week that Cameron has left himself vulnerable by talking big on the subject of excessive pay while shirking the necessary action to tackle it. The PM’s failure to speak up over the scale of rewards at the top of a troubled state-owned bank is a prime example of that; it may linger in the public’s mind.

Ed has been clear from the outset, though, that leading the way in calling for action against unfair rewards at the top must be matched by a determination to address unfairness at the bottom too. When we stood on their doorsteps at the last election, voters were unsurprisingly angry about the way irresponsible bankers had inflicted so much damage on the British economy. But while the practices of the City of London were alien to their lives, many expressed a sharper resentment at the sense that people in their own neighbourhood who could be paying their way were able to get something for nothing from the benefit system.

We forget that at our peril. The Conservative-led government is set to lock in a nationwide maximum annual benefit level of £26,000 – a figure that seems incomprehensibly high to many working families struggling on modest incomes in parts of the country with lower housing costs than the capital.

Many MPs are finding that the reaction from their constituents to the proposed benefit cap is not full throated praise that ministers are acting; rather, many working people cannot believe that the cap is being set so far above the wage level that they work their socks off to earn.

That is why shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne is right to suggest independently set local variations on any benefit cap this week. Determination to confront this issue head on is a necessary part of our commitment to fairness at all levels. It is equally necessary if we wish to remain in touch with the working majority who we were elected to represent.

John Woodcock is Labour and Cooperative MP for Barrow and Furness and a shadow transport minister.

Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Still searching for a way to hurt Cameron

30/01/2012, 10:36:39 AM

By David Talbot

After months of agonised internal debate about how to deal with David Cameron, Labour finally decided its strategy and unleashed the much-anticipated attack.

David the chameleon made his first appearance in a Labour broadcast in April 2006. This version of David Cameron was clearly intended to display a creature that was willing to turn any colour in order to win votes.

Labour revealed it would use the theme relentlessly, even after polling day. It was to be followed up with mobile phone ringtones, pod casts and downloads for iPods. Labour had finally found the attack that would destroy this young upstart, who was the first Tory leader in a decade to move the polls in favour of the Conservatives.

Sadly for Labour, the attack failed to chime with the electorate. The party went on to lose over 300 seats, whilst the Conservatives had their best set of local election results since 1992.

Thus began Labour’s convoluted attempts to develop a line of attack that actually inflicts damage upon David Cameron. The chameleon attack failed because Cameron was desperate to emphasise that the Tories had changed, and Labour pushed the message for him.

Contempt no doubt drove much of Labour’s early attempts to tarnish the now-prime minister. Who was this hitherto-largely-unheard-of Tory to take on the might of New Labour?


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

The week Uncut

29/01/2012, 07:20:08 PM

In case you missed them, these were the best read pieces on Uncut in the last seven days:

Atul Hatwal on the need for a coherent message

John Spellar stands up for the link

Peter Watt wants the Ed’s to stick to a script – any script

Jonathan Todd’s lessons from America

Jonathan Ashworth reports on the Government’s falling work rate

Rob Marchant says smart people learn from their enemies

Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

One step forward, two steps back

27/01/2012, 07:30:20 AM

by Atul Hatwal

Back in the mists of late 1996 I remember trotting along to Labour’s HQ, Millbank, for a meeting on first time voters.

I was a minor staffer working on the strategy for attracting the youth vote at the election. In amidst the usual sage pronouncements from assorted authority figures on the critical importance of this group, was an interesting nugget.

Based on Labour’s internal polling since the previous election, it had taken four years from when Tony Blair, as shadow home secretary, had started using the phrase, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” for the public to connect these words with Labour policy. (more…)

Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

United we stand – keep the link

26/01/2012, 01:00:25 PM

by John Spellar

John Healy has produced an excellent article on the unpleasant Tory group launching an attack on trade union rights and their ability to represent their members.  Also this week, Jim Sheridan, chair of the Unite group, rightly expressed his concern at what he sees as “some within the party constantly looking for ways to break the link”.  So the trade union movement and its links with the Labour party are once again under serious attack. It’s déjà vu all over again.

My only difference with Jim’s analysis is that there are also those on the ultra left who are looking at ways of weakening the link, and they always have. Both they and the latter day Jenkinsites have a very weak grasp of the realities of progressive politics, and not only in Britain. The Jenkins heresy always lamented the breach between Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the beginning of the last century.  He harkened back to what he saw as a “progressive century” in the nineteenth century.  Actually looking at the years in government of the two parties that century, and even regarding Palmerston as a progressive, he was wrong, but the most important error in his analysis is that it implied that the creation of the Labour party as a sovereign party, was a critical mistake.

On the other side, the ultra left, excepting their entryist phases, have always regarded the Labour party and the trade union bureaucracies as obstacles to their Leninist fantasies.  The reality for working people today is that under a major onslaught from an economic tsunami and a vindictive and incompetent government, it is now more than ever that they need effective unions at the workplace, strong union campaigning in national issues and a Labour party in, or preparing for, government; and they very much need them working together.

The reality is that  in every country with a successful Labour, Social Democratic or even Democrat Party is that there are strong longstanding links with the unions.  They are founded on our shared history, values and interests.

There may be nuances in the detailed constitutional arrangements, but they are far less relevant than the community of Labour. So it is right for us to make clear the indissoluble relationship between us. After all, the clue is in our name. So let’s have done with the delusions of both these groups and reaffirm our determination to “keep the link”.

John Spellar is Labour MP for Warley and a shadow foreign office minister.

Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Labour needs to get a script and stick to it

26/01/2012, 08:15:35 AM

by Peter Watt

In government it can be difficult to keep telling a coherent story about what the common purpose of the administration is. You start off with “New Labour, new Britain”, and end up, well who knows quite where we ended up? But that is the point; events, complexity and the sheer relentlessness of governing gets in the way of the message.

You try and stick to the script, “tough on crime” say, but then someone lets a load of foreign criminals out of prison and you don’t look so tough. Or you start talking about going “back to basics”, and then members of your top team get caught with their trousers down or lining their pockets. And lots of things that sounded so simple in opposition suddenly look complicated and undeliverable in government. Just think about the promises to reverse immigration trends by the Tories. They look laughable now.

But in opposition you have no such problems. In fact the opposite is true. The monotony of being responsible for nothing means that you are fighting for attention. It’s not sticking to the story that is the problem, it’s anyone listening to the story at all. You have such limited opportunity to tell your story that you can’t afford subtlety or nuance. Such luxuries get in the way. You need to paint in big bright colours so that people notice.  This can also be a strategic advantage. Whilst you can draw clear and unambiguous lines, government ministers are forced to fudge under pressure from advice from civil servants and the reality of unintended consequences. And there aren’t many aspects of being in opposition that can be described as advantageous.

Well maybe it’s just me, but Labour seems a bit all over the place at the moment on the opposition front. In fact they seem all over the place a lot at the moment. So how can they have got things so wrong recently?

Let’s take the deficit. For months they appeared to refuse to acknowledge the full harsh reality of the deficit and the scale of the cuts required to deal with this. Instead there was a complex series of explanations and justifications that involved banks, lack of a growth strategy, world recession and the generally unpleasant nature of Tories. Anyone and anything except Labour in fact. Not surprisingly this was not particularly successful as far as voters were concerned.

And then recently Ed and Ed appeared to clarify and simplify this. It was an important moment; not a change per se, but a change in emphasis certainly. Labour now accepted that they would unable to reverse the Tory cuts after the next election. The deficit was such that it would be impossible to promise this. Good so far. Clear, simple and unambiguous. And we would support a public sector pay freeze over investment in jobs. Even better; we now had a crystal clear story. We are fiscally responsible and will take the tough steps needed to reduce the deficit and promote job creation.

And the icing on the cake was being attacked for this change by “Red” Len McCluskey, a good old fashioned trade union firebrand. It couldn’t get much better. All we had to do was keep telling people our clear and unambiguous story that reiterated our fiscal responsibility. But oh no; we had to start being clever and playing to the left of centre gallery. You see (clarification coming) Labour doesn’t actually support the Tories cuts, even though we would also have had to cut under the Darling plan. No, because the Tory cuts are ideological and bad, while Labour’s would be reluctant and in the national interest. The Tories are cutting too far and too fast, and we would cut less and slower – well at least until after the next election.

It risks convincing no one and we will keep getting stuck every time we are asked which of the Tory cuts Labour will keep. Our clear and unambiguous message is watered down at best.

And then there is the welfare reform bill. It is massively popular with the public that the government is proposing to cap at £26,000 per annum the amount of welfare payments that any one family can receive. It’s not surprising that people feel this way, and in fact for many people the fact that the cap needs to be set at all confirms their view that Labour had been over generous with tax payer’s money in the first place. And Liam Byrne was crystal clear and unambiguous that Labour supported a cap.

Our story was clear; we did not support welfare dependency for those who could work and we were absolutely on the side of working families. Fantastic; and then we fudged it again by trying to be all nuanced. Labour sided with the bishops in the Lords to try and argue that the cap should be effectively raised beyond the £26,000. Brilliant. David Cameron wandered off to talk to some Asda workers and asked if they thought that it should be raised as Labour wanted. What do you think they thought? Well I would suspect that they thought that £26,000 was too high not too low. Labour’s clear and unambiguous message is watered down.

So far from enjoying one of the few benefits of opposition, the ability to be unrealistically strident and paint policy in big bold and unambiguous colours, Labour seems intent on confusion. Ed and Ed need to decide whether their primary audience is a Labour faithful one or a sceptical public. You can’t play to both successfully. The Labour faithful love nuance and detail. A sceptical public need to know clearly and unambiguously what we stand for. Ed Miliband should remember that for all the talk of leadership threats it is the sceptical public that holds his fate in their hands.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.

Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Lessons for Labour from Little Rock, Arkansas

25/01/2012, 08:33:24 AM

by Jonathan Todd

The main gallery of Bill Clinton’s presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas, which I visited last month, contains sections on the various achievements of his presidency. The first three to greet visitors are on deficit reduction, crime and welfare. Too often, these are considered right-wing issues. But Clinton counts them amongst his proudest achievements.

His autobiography recalls that he was “always somewhat amused to hear some members of the press characterise (welfare reform) as a Republican issue, as if valuing work was something only conservatives did”. Peter Watt has recently reasserted on Uncut the value that Labour places on work, not avoiding work, which should be reflected in our approach to welfare. Those who can work should be incentivised to do so; those who can’t should receive the support they need. In other words, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.

Rather than appealing to the slogans of Karl Marx, Clinton’s autobiography justifies his concern with welfare in terms of the real life experiences of Lillie Hardin. She had moved from welfare to work under a scheme introduced by Clinton as governor of Arkansas. He invited her to give evidence on her experience to a governors’ meeting in Washington and asked if she thought able-bodied people on welfare should be forced to take jobs if they were available.

“I sure do,” she replied. “Otherwise we’ll just lay around watching the soaps all day.” Then Clinton asked Hardin what was the best thing about being off welfare. Immediately, she answered, “When my boy goes to school and they ask him, ‘What does your mama do for a living’? he can give an answer”. Which Clinton claims is the best argument he has ever heard for welfare reform.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Whips notebook: where’s the business in the business statement?

24/01/2012, 08:31:42 AM

by Jon Ashworth

Earlier this month we learnt that the prime minister has completed angry birds. On every Thursday we learn what business the government will bring to the Commons over the next week. At first sight these two events should not be connected, but I’m beginning to wonder if they are.

The prime minister revealed his adroitness at the startlingly popular ipad game in a Sunday newspaper interview a few weeks ago. The marvellously patrician Sir George Young – leader of the House of Commons and lord privy seal – reveals the government business through a weekly statement on the floor of the Commons every Thursday at about 11.30.

This weekly business statement is one for real parliamentary connoisseurs. It has often been the backdrop to dazzling displays of wit and repartee such as Robin Cook versus Eric Forth. Parliamentary historians will recall that Michael Foot’s mastery in the chamber came into its own through his time as leader of the House. In more recent times Harriet Harman and Alan Duncan was always an entertaining joust. (more…)

Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon

Smart people learn from their enemies

23/01/2012, 02:00:55 PM

by Rob Marchant

The furore over last week’s defection of former Labour staffer, Luke Bozier, to the Tories provides a convenient excuse for a closer look at the party that he has just joined. Not with a view to doing the same, you understand – it’d be a cold day in hell for most of us – but with a view to a bit of hard-nosed, non-partisan analysis.

Leafing through Alan Clark’s idiosyncratic history of his party, The Tories, there are some interesting lessons for Labour. Not ideologically, of course: but about the nature of politics, and the nature of power. And power is something which the Tories were uncommonly good at securing and retaining during the period of the book, from their successful defenestration of Lloyd George in 1922 through to their rout in 1997. Indeed, during this period, as Clark points out:

“…the Conservative Party was the dominant political force in Britain – even when, for short periods, it was in Opposition”.


Facebook Twitter Digg Delicious StumbleUpon