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“Boiling a frog” or how our voting rights have been eroded by the Tories

09/01/2018, 10:04:49 PM

by Paul Wheeler

If four years ago political commentators had suggested that millions of eligible voters would be arbitrarily removed from the electoral register or that the government would be introducing a system of voter identification at polling stations outlawed in Texas, they would have accused of paranoia.

Yet as we enter 2018 that’s precisely what’s happening in Britain – one of the world’s oldest democracies. In a classic Tory approach none of this has been announced as a public policy but in a combination of stealth and cock up we are heading to a fundamental erosion of long held voting rights.

Individual voting registration (IVR) was introduced in 2014 and sold as a way of democratising the registration process by allowing anyone to register to vote rather than relying on a self nominated (and usually male) Head of Household. The problem was that it relied on 350 local councils- the majority small district councils- to introduce this radical change at a time when their overall budgets were being dramatically slashed by central government..

The Electoral Commission, who were the cheerleaders for IVR,  could have learnt from Australia where IVR had been a feature of the electoral process for decades and relies on a comprehensive system of data tracking with government and housing agencies to maintain an accurate record (they even cross-reference to ensure that the recently deceased are automatically removed from the electoral register). They chose not to contact any of the relevant agencies in Australia presumably on the basis that Britain knows best.

Needless to say the introduction of Individual voter registration didn’t go well. Millions of forms were dispatched to individuals in a complex paper chase of which the only real beneficiaries were the Post Office and the suppliers of official stationary. Apart from a few London and metropolitan boroughs little attempt was made to cross reference the voter register with other official records to maintain an accurate electoral register. One example indicates the shambles of IVR as introduced in Great Britain. ‘Attainers’ – 16-17 year olds- had traditionally been included on the register by heads of households. Now no-one had responsibility for including them. The result was that the number of 16-17 years on the register collapsed in a large number of areas (over 50% in Liverpool). In Australia their inclusion on the register was the responsibility of schools and colleges –a sensible approach not even considered here.

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New year, new danger

05/01/2018, 10:31:18 PM

by Tom Clements

It’s safe to assume that this time last year no one, not even Jeremy Corbyn’s most ardent supporters, would have expected the Party to be where it is today. Riding high in the polls, daring the Tories to call another election, led by a man confident enough to declare that he’ll “probably” become Prime Minister. From where we were, it’s certainly been a rollercoaster year.

But if we are to make good on our confidence and build a government that will really transform our country for the many, we must be wary of the traps that lay ahead. As we have seen so many times before in the history of our movement, our hubris can bring us down much more quickly than the Tories.

So as part of our approach moving forward, we have to start looking beyond the next year and expect that the next election will not take place until 2020 at the earliest. As a result, there are several threats that could destabilise our Party and prevent us from achieving victory at the next election.

Threat one: Theresa May
Since Gordon Brown transformed from “Stalin to Mr Bean” it is hard to remember a more spectacular disintegration from political grace than the one Mrs May has suffered this year. From being ready to crush the saboteurs in April to being trapped in Downing Street in June, it is hard to imagine her ever being in a position of authority again.

And yet, it would be dangerous to believe that May’s days are numbered. As long as she sits at the negotiating table to leave the EU, we should expect that the Prime Minister will make a comeback.

As a party we have enjoyed much of the last six months doubling down on May’s incompetence. From the paralysed response to Grenfell tower, to the defeat of the EU Withdrawal Bill and then the resignation of Damian Green; it is hard to remember a more hapless performance. And that is what the voters currently see: a hopeless Prime Minister unable to do anything waiting to be put out of her misery.

And therein lies the danger.

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A fortune cookie for 2018

03/01/2018, 08:48:22 PM

by John Wall

After David Cameron secured a small majority in 2015 only to be replaced by Theresa May a year later on losing the referendum promised to get the kipper vote, many expected 2017 to be relatively uneventful. The triggering of Article 50 started the Brexit countdown and Corbyn was a long way behind.

One tumultuous year on, May’s failed gamble of a snap general election left her leading a minority government dependent upon the DUP, whereas a better than expected performance means that Corbyn looks like leading Labour for the foreseeable future.

It looks like UKIP were a one man band and a one trick pony although it’s unlikely there would have been a referendum in 2016 without them. They’ve subsequently haemorrhaged support and change leaders – the latest rose without trace – more frequently than some change their socks. Farage’s outrage” at May’s deal to end Brexit Phase 1 was little more than an attempt to stay relevant.

Their local government presence seems to be in terminal decline and could be extinct by the early 2020s. Unless something happens they’ll soon be like Monty Python’s parrot.

The LibDems are the only overwhelmingly pro-EU, anti-Brexit national party but their 48% strategy failed. The 2010-15 coalition did a lot of damage but they started to recover after the referendum. In 2017 they gained MPs, but on a reduced share. They are winning council by-elections but their national poll ratings are static.

They’re a victim of the squeeze between 2015 when the two main parties achieved 67.2% of the vote and 2017 when they got 82.4%. Many see them as primarily a party of protest and some of the ill-conceived things – fox hunting!!! – in the Conservative manifesto may have driven their support to a lifelong protestor in Corbyn. The 2015 Conservative pitch to kippers was that only a vote in the blue corner would deliver a referendum, in 2017 only a vote in the red corner could prevent a Conservative landslide.

As Brexit happens they will need to reinvent themselves.

The Conservatives are shell shocked and May deserves the “Survivor of the Year” award after her – self inflicted – annus horribilus. The Conservative party is remarkably lacking in sentiment and the lack of a serious alternative is a major reason for her continued presence in No. 10.

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Don’t fear technology, it could yet set us free – if we get the politics right

18/10/2017, 10:05:50 PM

by Paul Connell

I joined Labour shortly after Thatcher’s election in ‘79 so my political education was in a period dominated by slogans and chants.

‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out!’ That one worked; took 10 years, mind you.

‘The workers united will never be defeated.’ Well , that was also true; we weren’t united and we were defeated.

One I never quite got was ‘fight for the right to work.’ Work seemed an obligation, a duty, something that ate into all the other things you wanted to be doing but necessary simply to pay for all those other things. But a right? Nah.

Some people love working; they can’t wait to get in there. Good for them, but they are, I would suggest, a statistical abnormality. The best most of us can hope for is to enjoy most  of our job, to find it stimulating and challenging, to have decent colleagues and to be paid enough for a reasonable lifestyle with, perhaps, a liveable pension at the end.  At worst a job is drudgery that robs us of the time and energy that we could be using far better elsewhere. Work is, for most, a means to an end.

As driverless vehicles,  artificial intelligence and advanced robotics begin to move into areas of work long considered ‘safe’ from technology,  we are all going to have to consider our relationship to work and, together with the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), replan our work ethic and how the competing rights and duties  of the labour market are managed. Traditional working class jobs in industry and manufacturing have already been exported or mechanised out of existence in the past few generations. As traditionally white-collar, middle-class jobs begin to disappear down the same gaping maw, the casualties can expect the same level of sympathy, protection from market-economics and solidarity that working class communities were accorded in the 80’s and 90’s, bugger all.

Sympathy, and particularly protectionism, is not what’s needed. Solidarity? maybe. We should, together, be grasping this opportunity. Drudgery can, at least partly, be banished. If a machine can do most of the 3 ‘D’s – that which is dull, dirty or dangerous, then let it. What will be left is what is necessary for people to do and what they enjoy doing. A new work ethic is about sharing out and rewarding essential services and purposeful leisure.

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How can Labour win in rural seats?

08/10/2017, 11:21:35 PM

by Liam Stokes

This was the question that closed the Countryside Alliance fringe at Labour conference, a panel discussion entitled “How can Labour make Brexit work for the countryside?” based on our Brexit policy document. The question was asked by a frustrated party member from South West Norfolk CLP, a constituency currently represented by Liz Truss.

I happen to believe the answer to the question lies partially within the title of the fringe, which is precisely what I argued during my opening remarks as the first panellist to speak. At this point I think most people accept that the main barrier to Labour progress in rural areas is cultural, the perception and indeed the reality that until recently Labour has treated the countryside with a “polite disinterest”, to repeat the oft-quoted line from Maria Eagle’s report Labour’s Rural Problem.

I argued that Labour can help shed this image by showing some real passion for making Brexit work for the countryside. Everyone is talking about Brexit in great sweeping macro terms, yes or no to the Single Market, yes or no to Freedom of Movement, which is entirely understandable at this stage of the debate. But what the countryside needs to hear, and what I was hoping to hear at our own fringe and at the other rural fringes I attended, was an interest in the details that will matter to rural communities.

This doesn’t necessarily mean farming, but it does mostly mean farming. It’s true that most rural voters aren’t directly involved in agriculture, which only employs around half a million people, but again: Labour’s rural disconnect is cultural. Farming, and other land based industries like fishing and shooting, go right to the heart of rural culture. Land based industries shape the landscapes we look at, influence many of the social events going on in our towns and villages, and drive much of the conversation down the local pub. And I speak from painful experience when I say it is a little disheartening to wear the red rosette when the farmland bordering every road and railway line is festooned with “Vote Conservative” signs.

So putting effort into working for the land based industries could be electorally useful in the countryside, and as my fellow panellists Will Straw and Helen Goodman MP pointed out, it is also of immediate importance. Agriculture should be top of Labour’s policy agenda because farming is so uniquely exposed to Brexit.

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British politics is like cricket – a big score isn’t enough, you have to actually beat the opposition

11/07/2017, 08:32:43 AM

by John Wall

In cricket you not only have to win but also beat the opposition.

The teams walk out, one is such a hot favourite that when they win the toss and decide to bat many think it’s all over. The ball is hit all around the ground and the score mounts. There is a declaration and the other side bats. Things continue badly, they’re quickly skittled out and the follow-on enforced. Then the pendulum swings the other way, batsmen get dug in and the match is drawn.

Despite a large number of runs and some very good individual performances it’s remembered as an inconclusive stalemate, the captain is blamed and replaced – sound familiar?

This is the vote achieved by the first party in the last ten general elections:

Major (1992): 14,093,007

Thatcher (1987): 13,760,935

Thatcher (1979): 13,697,923

May (2017): 13,636,690

Blair (1997): 13,518,167

Thatcher (1983): 13,012,316

Cameron (2015): 11,299,959

Blair (2001): 10,724,953

Cameron (2010): 10,703,754

Blair (2005): 9,552,436

This is the percentage share:

Thatcher (1979): 43.9%

Blair (1997): 43.2%

Thatcher (1983): 42.4%

May (2017): 42.3%

Thatcher (1987): 42.2%

Major (1992): 41.9%

Blair (2001): 40.7%

Cameron (2015): 36.8%

Cameron (2010): 36.1%

Blair (2005): 35.2%

This isn’t rejection of May and her manifesto, she increased the Conservative vote by 2.3 million and 5.5%, and also got 56 more seats than Corbyn.

May’s problem – back to cricket – is that although she “won”, she didn’t “beat” the opposition sufficiently as can be seen by looking at second party percentage shares:

Corbyn (2017): 40.0%

Callaghan (1979): 36,9%

Kinnock (1992): 34.4%

Howard (2005): 32.4%

Hague (2001): 31.7%

Kinnock (1987): 30.8%

Major (1997): 30.7%

Miliband (2015): 30.4%

Brown (2010): 29.0%

Foot (1983): 27.6%

This was largely because the minor parties were squeezed. In 2015 they secured about a third of the vote, but only a sixth in 2017. About 2/3 transferred to Labour and 1/3 to the Conservatives. There was also an age divide, the young voted Labour and the old Conservative.

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Switchers are required to form a majority government and the Tories need a lot fewer than Labour

23/06/2017, 10:42:54 PM

by John Wall

“May you live in interesting times” is supposedly a Chinese curse and is certainly appropriate – even without the inadvertent pun!

When Theresa May called a general election few expected a hung parliament. She’s not expected to lead the Conservatives into another election and it’s really only a question of how and when she’s replaced.

Ironically she achieved the same vote share as Margaret Thatcher in 1987 but squeezing the minor parties meant that Labour were only about 3% behind, as Paul Goodman notes,

“Such is the outcome when opposition to the Conservatives coalesces around a single party. It didn’t in 1987, and Margaret Thatcher won a majority of 102. It did this year.”

Even without an agreement with the DUP the Conservatives could probably survive. Sinn Fein (7 seats) stay away and the total of Labour (262), SNP (35), LD (12), PC (4) and Green (1) is 314. There is an independent from Northern Ireland which might take this up to 315 – still three less than the Conservatives. The DUP’s hatred of Corbyn means that they would probably think very carefully before bringing down the Conservatives.

It’s not that simple, party discipline becomes paramount, there is continual uncertainty regarding votes and a need to stay within earshot of the division bell – much better to be able to count on another ten votes. By-elections are an occupational hazard and the Conservatives will be hoping that there are no deaths or resignations from their ranks.

So, where do we go from here?

It looks like UKIP is now a dead duck. Since the referendum their vote has collapsed and they’ve lost representation at all levels, they could be wiped out by the early 2020s.

One surprise from the general election was how poorly the LDs did, although they gained seats they lost votes and share. Since the referendum they’ve done well in by-elections but would appear to still have a way to go.

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Labour needs a rural revival to win the seats needed for government

14/06/2017, 10:15:29 PM

by Liam Stokes

The general election has given hope to those of us hoping for a rural Labour revival, but also pause for thought. This is an area in which I have a personal interest. In this year’s Wiltshire Council elections I stood for Labour in the very rural north Wiltshire ward in which Jeremy Corbyn grew up. It was an uplifting experience. People were pleased and surprised to find a candidate roaming the country lanes wearing a red rosette. The most oft-heard quip was “best of luck mate, you’ll need it round here”. Others were more encouraging, which was much appreciated during long and lonely days leafletting. I’ll be eternally grateful to the landscaper who, as my spirits were flagging on a particularly long and rainy walk down an especially remote track, took a break from shovelling gravel to tell me he was glad to see someone “standing for the working man”. But for all that warmth on the doorstep, I got 10% of the vote. Believe it or not even that was 2% better than Labour did last time. The Tory got 69%.

I shouldn’t have been surprised; in the wake of the 2015 election it was painfully clear that Labour had a “rural problem”. Maria Eagle MP wrote a paper with that very title. There are 199 rural constituencies in England and Wales, of which Labour won 30. Earlier this year things got even worse with the loss of Copeland, taking us to 29.

A Fabian Society report produced in the immediate aftermath pointed to 148 constituencies Labour should target in the next general election in order to secure a majority. Maria Eagle’s report highlighted that 28 of these seats were in rural England and Wales, and fretted over the cultural disconnect that might mean we wouldn’t win them. Her report found that rural voters saw Labour as insular and metropolitan, while the party viewed the countryside with “polite indifference”.

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If Labour is to win the next election, we must answer the big questions that Tony Blair posed over a decade ago

14/06/2017, 06:35:27 PM

by Tom Clement

As good as our result was last week, we cannot lose sight of the fact that we did not win. Earning the trust of 41% of the population is a magnificent achievement but it still leaves us sixty seats short of being even the largest party. Our choice now is to either complain about the unfairness of the voting system; or we can equip ourselves to win an election.

And to do this, we must claim the future.

It is the only way we win. In 1945, Atlee realised the need to win the peace following the Second World War and led our most transformative government so far. Wilson won in 1964 after embracing the ‘white heat’ of the technological revolution and liberalise our country as a result. And through facing the Millennium, Blair was able to win in 1997 and deliver the longest period of Labour government to date.

So how do we do it today?

We must face the future and embrace the difficult questions that we have avoided for so long. In fact, if you go back to Tony Blair’s final conference speech as leader, he poses some clear questions that we have still yet to answer.

The question today is … how we reconcile openness to the rich possibilities of globalisation, with security in the face of its threats.”

We live in uncertain times. The recent election result only serves to highlight that. With Brexit, Trump and the chaos in Downing Street, it is impossible to predict what will happen over the next five years.

But that doesn’t mean that we have no control over it. Quite the opposite. The future is very much in our hands but only if we reach out and embrace it.

Our test, put simply, is Brexit. It is no good to just wait for the Tories to make a bad deal and then complain about it afterwards.

We have to lead. We have to be bold about our decisions now and fill the vacuum that Theresa May’s insipid leadership has left.

Corbyn should announce the formation of a cross-Party convention to decide our negotiating strategy for Brexit and invite all parties to it. We should force the debate to be about priorities, not process. We should make clear how a Labour Brexit would be different to a Tory Brexit and we should shame them into sharing their priorities.

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Has Corbyn’s elastic stretched as far as it can?

10/06/2017, 04:43:03 PM

by John Wall

Although the dust from the general election is yet to settle and there is much ink still to be spilt it’s clear that, despite the claims of the Corbynistas, Project Corbyn has reached its limit.

Go back a couple of years and Corbyn’s path to Downing Street was essentially predicated on two principles. The first was non-voters, in the hope that they’d support Labour, and the second was attracting fellow travellers on the left, effectively a so-called progressive alliance.

The naysayers countered with analyses contending that these wouldn’t provide sufficient extra support and that a majority could only be secured by attracting Conservative voters.

If we look at the headline figures the two main parties together secured approaching 85% of the vote, a significant increase since the about 67% in 2015 and a massive consequential squeeze on the smaller parties.

Then there was the large increase in turnout by the key, for Corbyn, 18-24 age group.

Notwithstanding the above, and despite a poor campaign, the Conservative vote and percentage share increased, and Labour are still more than sixty seats short of a majority.

It’s clear that, overall, few Conservatives were attracted to Labour and, considering Corbyn’s extremely unsavoury baggage and economic incontinence, this isn’t particularly surprising.

It may, of course, be possible to squeeze the minor parties a little more, but the share of the two main parties is at its highest since about 1970, and perhaps some more 18-24 year olds can be enticed by giveaways, but Lord Ashcroft reckons that two thirds voted for Labour, so these avenues must now be subject to the law of diminishing returns.

Whenever the next election is the Conservatives will have learned the lessons of 2017, simple things like a few devil’s advocates involved in writing the manifesto. There might even be a new leader, it’s a party that is only interested in winning and winners, with no place for sentiment.

Everything went Corbyn’s way but he still fell a long way short. His position is secure, and Labour will now probably be refashioned in his likeness, but that will not attract Conservative voters and will keep them as far from power as ever.

John Wall is a former member of the Conservatives

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