Archive for January, 2013

Sunday Review: the EU phantom menace

20/01/2013, 08:00:22 AM

by Anthony Painter

In the space of three years, the prime minister has moved Britain from the EU’s cautious awkward customer to the self-destructively preposterous. Let’s be clear, this has absolutely nothing to do with some irresistible popular clamour for a referendum on our membership of the EU. It is entirely self-inflicted. Realpolitik has been ditched in favour of pusillanimous capitulation. This whole thing is about the neuroses of the Conservative party. This is not leadership; it is fear – of a phantom menace.

In fact, there are three phantoms that appear in this whole sorry saga. The first is a speech – a phantom speech. It’s has been long in the gestation and from the unconfirmed sightings that have been reported, it is an utterly vacuous statement of the bleeding obvious about jobs, growth, competitiveness, and the democratic deficit .

So the EU has to change. We are very lucky to have this pointed out – who knew? Douglas Alexander had it absolutely right in his speech at Chatham House this week when he argued:

So significant are the potential consequences of this speech that it is tempting, indeed reassuring, to presume a degree of strategic thought or high public purpose in its preparation. The truth, I fear, is both more prosaic and more worrying. This speech is about politics much more than it is about policy. And its origins lie in weakness, not in strength.

The second phantom, is the monstrous ghoul that is the federal super-state waiting to sink its teeth into these poor defenceless northern European islanders. This is the one that has Tory eurosceptics waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Their problem though, if you look at the argument in its elements, is more with the “state” element than anything else. Tory eurosceptics believe the alternative to EU regulation is no regulation. On this, like so much else they are entirely wrong.

Regulation would in fact just carry over, as we would still need to access the European markets. To gain access to the EU on a free trade basis, anything we imported or produced for the domestic market would have to be EU regulation compliant. And why would business want two regulatory standards?

Even if we decided not to trade freely with the EU, then we would still need to ensure clean beaches, toys without toxic chemicals, workplace safety, fisheries that weren’t over fished, proper information for consumers, farming subsidies, and fresh water standards. A world without regulation of the eurosceptic’s dreams is an apparition. Even if it could be achieved it wouldn’t last the first scandal over food poisoning, cod shortages, lead poisoning, horsemeat in burgers, or horrific increase in deaths in the workplace.


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If we want to give our children the best start in life, Europe shows us the way

18/01/2013, 07:00:12 AM

by Robin Thorpe

In 2007 a UNICEF study ranked children in the UK as having the lowest levels of well-being in the developed world. When compared with 21 other industrialized nations in the OECD the UK ranked bottom on three out of the six dimensions of well-being and bottom overall.

A UNICEF UK report into this published in 2011 found that good relationships with family and friends are key to children’s long-term well-being. The report also found that relative wealth was a factor in a child’s well-being. Children who don’t have enough to fit in with their peers are less happy, as are children in households which have seen their income drop unexpectedly, or are uncertain about their economic future. Inequality is at the core of this issue;

“Where parents are paid at, or close to, the minimum wage, they often must work long hours or take several jobs in order to make ends meet and this can impact on their ability to spend quality time with their children.”

Paying for childcare is a significant factor in determining the working life of many parents in the UK. Some people are unable to work because they can’t afford child-care, many more choose to work fewer hours to minimize the cost of their childcare and some can’t find work that fits around the available child-care options and therefore don’t work.

Others work extra hours to pay for their child-care and therefore spend less time with their children then they would like. By comparison many French mothers return to work part-time within 3-6 months of giving birth; they can do this because the French municipal authorities provide subsidized crèches for infants from 2 ½ months old. For parents on low-incomes crèche is entirely free. In addition French municipal authorities provide free nursery provision for all children between the ages of 2 to 6. Most children do not attend full-time at 2; however by 3 most children attend at least 4-days a week.


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Labour history uncut: Labour stands divided, but at least it’s still standing

17/01/2013, 05:05:42 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

When war was declared on 4 August 1914, the Labour party found itself divided into three broad groups:  subscribers to Guns & Ammo, reluctant but resigned pragmatic supporters of the war, and outright opponents of the war (or “big pansies” as they were known to members of the first group).

Do you really need us to add the joke here? Good.

Fortunately, even though the party was only 14 years old, Labour knew its onions when it came to handling divisions. Although there had been one rather prominent resignation in the shape of Ramsay Macdonald’s August departure, this did not prove to be the start of a mass walkout.

War dissenters in general were tolerated and allowed to remain in the party, even retaining positions in any committees and NEC membership held.

In fact, even though Arthur Henderson had picked up the reins of leadership, he only took over the chairmanship of the PLP on a supposedly temporary basis. In the following months he regularly asked Macdonald to change his mind and come back, making him a mixtape of the special songs from their time together.

Macdonald and Henderson became the Gold Blend couple of the Labour party. “Will they or won’t they” was the number one topic of PLP tea room conversation. Finally, on 18th November 1914, Macdonald ended the suspense. He declared “It’s not you, it’s me. No, actually it is you,” and then asked for all his CDs back.

One tub of mint choc chip later, the Labour party decided it was time to move on and confirmed Henderson as Labour’s leader.


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The Shergar burgers story tells us its time to look again at supermarket regulation

17/01/2013, 09:40:18 AM

by Peter Watt

This may end up being a bit of a rant so apologies.  Horsemeat, or rather horsemeat pretending to be beef in Tesco beef burgers; it was the rather shocking and grim story that we all awoke to earlier this week.  Much of the reaction surrounded the fact that the story related to the eating of horses – something we are culturally programmed not to do in our horse loving country.  I read several articles and countless tweets that explored the seeming contradiction inherent in our love of eating cows, pigs, chickens and sheep and so on – but not horses.  I also read a lot of jokes – my favourite being, “next time someone offers you a free burger, take it.  Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Now I don’t eat meat so I guess it’s easy to laugh, but then I saw this joke and it made me reflect:

“Those Aldi burgers were nice but I prefer my Lidl Pony”

It made me reflect because it suddenly clicked that the errant (mostly) beef burgers were part of the value range on offer by Tesco.  In other words they were from a range aimed at people on a budget.

I thought back a couple of weeks to a conversation I had had with a friend of mine who had hit a bit of bad luck recently.  As a result he and his family were seriously short of money and living on an incredibly tight budget.  He was telling me that they had bought some mince at a supermarket that was incredibly cheap and had used it to make a spaghetti Bolognese.  The meat was slightly odd looking raw and when cooked turned into a much reduced and gristly grey gloop.  It sounded pretty grim, but my friend had no choice but to buy this very cheap food if he was going to feed himself and his family.

But back to horsegate.  I started noticed that people were tweeting things like “this horse story is why I only ever make burgers from beef that I buy and mince myself.”  Or “it wouldn’t happen at Waitrose.” Now I have no idea whether it would happen at Waitrose but the point was that many people seemed pleased that they could pay to avoid eating that which they didn’t want to.  In this case horse.  Now I am certainly no class warrior (I suspect that this will not come as a shock to many!) but for me this pretty much misses the point of this story!  What are we saying here?  “It’s OK for poor people to eat crap as long as I don’t have to!”


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The return of the confidence fairy could spell trouble for Labour

16/01/2013, 10:12:44 AM

by  Dan McCurry

The stock market has historically been a good barometer of future economic activity. It tends to be 6 months ahead of other indicators, representing the daily confidence of company bosses, either in their own investing, or in the conversations they have with institutional investors. However, the stock market has often been a poor tool for the policy maker, since it is so volatile that it is difficult to see the wood for the trees.

The FTSE100 recently broke through the 6,000 barrier. This may be volatility, but a comparison to the bond market may provide clarity.

UK gilts have been unusually expensive in the last few years. So expensive that a 10-year gilt yields less than inflation. This is partly a distortion caused by QE, but it is also indicative of capital preservation. Fear has governed the markets.

However, gilt prices have been falling recently, and the fall appears to correspond with the rise in the stock market. Are investors leaving safe-haven assets and returning to stocks? Are we witnessing the return of the confidence fairy?


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Labour history uncut: It’s war!

15/01/2013, 06:54:22 PM

by Pete Goddard and Atul Hatwal

By 1914, Labour’s internal politics were in a well-worn rut. The routine was familiar: socialists complained about the party’s moderation, moderates complained that the socialists were making the party unelectable and strikers up and down the nation didn’t care what either of them had to say, they had a nationwide wave of industrial unrest to organise.

Then, in summer 1914, Germany’s Kaiser did his holiday planning. France looked nice, but he didn’t want to go abroad. So what better solution than to make France part of Germany? He was a problem solver, that Kaiser.

Kaiser’s top tip – recycle those leftover Christmas baubles into a stylish and practical outfit

So he gathered a few hundred thousand of his closest friends and began stockpiling sun cream, beach towels and heavy artillery.

On 29th July, alarmed by the accumulation of passports and spiky hats in Germany, Keir Hardie represented British labour at a meeting of the International Socialist Bureau (contrary to the title, not a dispensary for people looking to hire or purchase a continental socialist). They “resolved unanimously that it shall be the duty of the workers of all nations concerned not only to continue but to further intensify their demonstrations against the war, for peace, and for the settlement of the Austro-Serbian conflict by international arbitration…”

The problem was that, for many working class Brits, workers sticking up for workers was all very well, but these guys were foreigners, so surely they didn’t count. There was much enthusiasm for nipping over to Germany to stick it to the sausage munchers.


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There is going to be a referendum in the UK, but not the one Cameron is thinking about today

15/01/2013, 03:55:07 PM

by Jim Murphy

The politics of a referendum is centre stage in parliament today. No, not as you may think. It’s not David Cameron’s continuing journey beyond Major’s euro-weakness and Mrs Thatcher’s Euroscepticism. Rather, it’s a Section 30 Order which, despite its anodyne-sounding title, will have a profound effect on our politics.

Section 30 relates to Scotland but could affect everyone in the UK. It focuses on the rules of the game for Scotland’s referendum on independence. Today the House of Commons will give a different parliament powers over the UK government regarding the 2014 vote. And because the SNP controls the Scottish parliament in a way that Cameron could only dream of in Westminster, we are transferring the powers to a political party as much as a parliament.

So what’s it all about? In short, Section 30 gives the Scottish parliament powers over how much can be spent by both sides, who gets to vote, what the question is and much more.  This is part of the compromise agreed by the government – the Scottish government accepted the vote would take place by the end of 2014 and there would be a single question in return for which the Section 30 order was granted.

This has come at a terrible time for the SNP. Labour’s new team north of the border and the Scottish public have pursued the Nats’ unanswered questions on an independent Scotland’s economy and role in the world and any other subject you care to mention. But the Nats also share the blame for their current predicament. Opposition to independence increased from 50% in January to 55% in June then 58% in the latest poll. At the moment, the nearer we get to the vote the further away the SNP look like winning it.


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The Toynbee tendency is Labour’s greatest weakness

15/01/2013, 07:35:20 AM

by David Talbot

Thank goodness for the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. From her dalliance with the SDP in the 1980s to her less than ambiguous flirtation with the Liberal Democrats during the last parliament, Toynbee, clearly, has an astute eye for the British political scene. Many approach the Guardian’s flagship commentator in an almost ritual sense, as if her musings are inscribed in tablet, and come away with faith renewed in the teachings of Toynbee. In general, I do something quite close to the opposite – no more so than her remarks to the Fabians conference at the weekend.

Labour, Toynbee told the assembled throng, would have “to try quite hard to lose the next election.” Alarmingly, this is a widely held belief in the Labour party. The argument, closely echoing Toynbee’s, goes that if Cameron couldn’t win a general election against a disintegrating Labour party and a visibly exhausted, not to mention reviled, Labour prime minister – then how can he possibly win come 2015? Just about every Labour strategist warns of complacency when complacent is exactly what they have become.

It is tempting to assume that impassioned and increasingly aggressive attacks on the Conservatives are all that are needed to secure victory at the next election. After all, moral indignation is what the Labour party does. But outrage is not an electoral strategy. Emotionally and politically it may make sense to oppose each and every cut the Conservatives propose but, to repeat ad nauseam, the public are simply ahead of the Labour party when it comes to the cuts and their provenance.

To win in 2015 we need to persuade the millions of people who did not, who could not, vote for us that we are a credible party of government. The party simply cannot assume the electorate will vote Labour simply because we are not the government. Nor should the scale of the task before Labour be in any way diluted; the 2010 election was an annihilation. Labour suffered its second heaviest defeat since 1918 and was wiped out in the south, south east and east of England. But, predominantly due to the eccentricities of a defunct first past the post system, Labour retained a credible number of seats, enough almost to put us within distant of the Conservatives. Dodging a bullet is not the same as a good result, and it’s about time many within Labour woke up to that fact.


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Sunday review on Monday: Ed Miliband’s speech to the Fabian Society conference

14/01/2013, 07:50:12 AM

by Jonathan Todd

The Fabian Society conference marks the new year in Labour politics as the third round of the FA Cup heralds another calendar year of football. No matter how many bore draws football fans shiver through, irrespective of the persistence of interminable political speeches, we summon reserves of hope and forbearance to return.

Ed Miliband, however, thinks activists can have justified hope. We know this because he told pre-Christmas Westminster receptions of the unprecedented position of strength Labour is in for a new opposition. We know this because the Labour Party has announced 106 seats that we are targeting to win, many of which are now a long way from being Labour. We also know this because Miliband chose the Fabian conference to launch a more intensive differentiation of his Labour Party from both old and new Labour.

Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabians, thinks Miliband is right to be hopeful, as he introduced Miliband by anticipating him leading a government as transformative as Clement Attlee’s. Polly Toynbee further reinforced this hope by later saying that Labour would have to try hard to lose the next election.

It is necessary to revisit the launch of a Policy Network pamphlet by Ben Jackson and Greg McClymont to appreciate the significance that Uncut sees in Miliband’s speech.

Here a consensus hung in the air: parties returned to government after only one term in opposition tend to run against not only the incumbent government but against the government evicted at the previous election. Margaret Thatcher ran against Edward Heath in 1979, as well as James Callaghan.


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Labour’s caution on tackling poverty dishonours the memory of the hunger marchers

11/01/2013, 10:32:39 AM

by Ian Stewart

As reported in the press, Con Shiels, the last participant in the Jarrow Crusade died at the age of 96 on Boxing Day. With him dies perhaps the last living link to the great interwar struggles of the Labour movement against government indifference to suffering and want under the Tory and coalition governments of Baldwin, Macdonald, and Chamberlain.

No doubt Atul and Pete will come up with something more iconoclastic and humorous for this period soon, but I feel like sticking to the story right now.

I suppose that many of us, at least if we are over thirty, “did” the Jarrow march at school. I seem to remember it being of the same set of lessons when we were told that the then Prince of Wales visited depressed areas and murmured “something must be done”. We certainly did NOT learn at school that proud Edward thought that the answer to unemployment lay with Mr Moseley and Mr Hitler.

We did learn about “red” Ellen Wilkinson, and Jarrow, and unemployment, and “buddy can you spare a dime?” What we didn’t learn was that the 1936 Jarrow march was part of a bigger picture of resistance to unemployment and vicious cuts in outdoor relief.

From its creation by the Communist party, the national unemployed workers movement (NUWM) sought to do something that many trades union and Labour leaders thought undesirable, if not impossible – organise the unemployed to fight for a better deal.

And they did it. The NUWM had a life of its own, for despite leadership opposition, ordinary trades unionists and Labour members worked alongside the communists to make it work. There were marches to London in1922,1929,1930,!931,1932,1934, and 1936. From Cardiff and Glasgow they marched, to Bristol from the Rhondda in their tens, hundreds and thousands.


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