If working class apathy with Labour becomes permanent, then the party’s over

24/10/2014, 03:00:29 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Twenty years ago, I took my father to hear John Prescott speak at Bolton Town Hall as part of his Red Rose tour. This was one of those “ra-ra” events on the road to the triumph of 1997. Optimism was high. Promises were easy. The Tories were a shower and New Labour had the answers.

In his inimitable podium-thumping style, Prescott told the packed hall that the capital receipts from council house sales of the 1980s – that local authorities were banned from spending – would be released in order to build new houses.

This was one of the party’s big policy promises at the time. It would address housing shortages, (that were already apparent), as well as putting hundreds of thousands of building workers, like my dad, back to work after the deep recession of the early 1990s, which had hit construction particularly hard.

It was the kind of rooted, common-sense measure that spoke directly to millions of voters like him at the sharp end of a Thatcherite economy that had left the North in the deep freeze. Now, it was our turn. Fast forward a decade though and things didn’t quite work out as planned.

By then, Prescott’s capital receipts pledge had turned into the Decent Homes Programme. A £19 billion pound effort to renovate dilapidated social houses with new bathrooms, kitchens and roofs.

In reality, it saw expensive contractors soaking up oodles of public cash. According to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee, costs of the programme doubled to £38 billion by 2010, without creating extra new homes or the scale of jobs that sort of public investment should have done – (or, indeed, that Prescott had promised would happen that night in Bolton).

What the last Labour government did deliver was the lowest rates of new house-building since the Second World War. Unfathomably, Labour ministers were more concerned about helping Middle England’s property values to appreciate than they were in tackling housing shortages for first-time buyers or putting construction workers back to work.

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Labour needs to be straight about its plans for the NHS

24/10/2014, 01:38:13 PM

by David Talbot

“The NHS is on the ballot paper in May” declared the Labour leader at Prime Minister’s Questions as he sought to solidify his party’s clear advantage on this most important, and emotive, of issues. That the NHS is set to be centre stage at the forthcoming general election is partly due to naked politicking, and partly due to the dire forecasts for our health service. Both main combatants are well aware of the financial and demographic peril the NHS is in, but both continue to besmirch the debate with clichéd attacks on how the Tories can’t be trusted on the NHS or, a new variant of the same line, Labour are ruining the NHS in Wales.

It is essential that politicians are honest with the public about the scale of the challenges facing the NHS. This is particularly true of the Labour party who are prone to nostalgia and playing on sentiment, invoking the spirit of Nye Bevan and having a nonagenarian address party conference, for instance, but specifically because the party is making pledges which, deep down, it must know will be difficult or nigh on impossible to deliver. The NHS matters too much for short term electoral considerations; it is better that the party is frank, and dare say unpopular, with the public now rather than risk alienation, anger and a disintegrating NHS later.

Ed Miliband’s flagship announcement at the party conference last month was an eye-catching commitment to establish a new £2.5 billion ‘Time to Care Fund’. This unravelled not long after some fairly rudimentary scrutiny; it will be not be implemented in full until 2017/18 and Labour would need to first pass a Budget and then enact legislation before the mansion tax, levy on tobacco firms and tax avoidance levies would yield any income. And even then there are serious doubts the revenue raised would come anywhere near the £2.5 billion quoted.

It is not to say that the party is not coming up with a better vision for the NHS. Labour’s plan for a combined health and care service is unquestionably the right direction of travel, but it is not a cost or pain-free option. Andy Burnham may deny that there will be large-scale reorganisation, but unavoidably, and undoubtedly, there would be heavy financial and structural costs. A messy structural reorganisation of the administration of healthcare would clearly get in the way of healthcare delivery. What is important, what the public should not be fed, is the idea that it is not a reorganisation. It is exactly that.

The King’s Fund Barker report estimated that even after introducing a combined health and care service, spending would need to rise to around 11% of GDP to meet demand. This would still leave our health spending trailing the highest European spenders – but it would require double the spending increase that Labour is currently proposing.

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Gough Whitlam: Australia’s Attlee

23/10/2014, 09:51:32 AM

by David Ward

Australia mourns the passing of one of its Prime Ministers this week, with the death of Gough Whitlam. Chiefly remembered in Britain for the 1975 constitutional crisis, he was an iconic figure not just for the Australian Labor Party but for the nation itself. A radical proponent of change, passionate about culture, and with a ready wit in parliament. One old right winger chided him “I am a Country member”, “I remember” Whitlam shot back.

The wartime Labor administration of John Curtice had perhaps proved the ALP capable of governing, but with 23 unbroken years of rule by the centre right Liberal-Country coalition Gough’s election was a defining moment in Australian left wing politics. He was in many ways Australia’s Attlee: elected with a nationwide sense of optimism and of the possible. In three years he changed the face of a nation and his achievements stand on their own merit.

In foreign affairs the end of conscription for Vietnam and release of prisoners who had refused to fight was a huge contemporary issue, which formed part of his 1969 campaign. He also opened relations with China, a step towards an independent foreign policy and away from one of Empire and Commonwealth. Made, of course, against the backdrop of UK entry to the EEC in 1973.

But it was in domestic politics he effected most change. Free higher education opened a new future for many. Medicare took the first steps towards comprehensive free healthcare in Australia. Motorways were built between state capitals for the first time and rail links vastly improved.

Whitlam understood the power of culture to forge a nation and its identity. An Australian version of Britain’s Arts Council, the Australia Council, was made a statutory body with great reserves of funding to end the migration of talented creatives to the UK or US. It allowed an artistic renaissance for Australia, complemented by his commissioning of the country’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair. The playing of which he attached as a condition to being the first PM to attend an Australian ‘soccer’ match.

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Labour now has a northern discomfort to add to its southern discomfort

22/10/2014, 12:13:01 PM

by Rob Marchant

For some time, people have spoken about Labour’s “southern discomfort”: its seeming difficulty in making any headway in the critical marginals of the South-East.

As the dust settled after the by-elections two weeks ago, it became clear that the net results were as bad, if not worse, for Labour as they were for the Tories, who had never really expected to hold onto Clacton anyway. But in Heywood and Middleton, Labour only narrowly held on to a seat in its northern, industrial heartlands.

Labour’s conclusion seems to have been a vague realisation that “we need to do something about immigration”. We might be thankful that, so far at least, it has not turned into a sop to the dumb, emotional argument of the populist right, that migration is generally is some kind of social and economic bad, when the reverse is true.

But it is also tempting to apply a nationally-uniform explanation for UKIP’s electoral success, where it does not fit. That is, it is important to look at the North and the South separately.

The caricature of UKIP is that it is gaining votes from Little Englanders, who traditionally have a mistrust of foreigners and Europe dating back, quite probably, to 1066. And there is a lot of truth in that: in the South.

In Clacton, where UKIP won its first by-election, the percentage of the population which is 92.8% “White British”. While one imagines that enough of its voters might have sufficient mistrust of immigrants from outside Europe, as well as inside it, to vote UKIP, the “outside Europe” part signals a mistrust largely born of ignorance. By definition: there is clearly not a great variety of skin colour to be seen on Clacton’s Victorian sea-front.

However, in the old mill, steel and coal towns of the M62 corridor, the story is different, many have large Asian populations. Voters in different communities form opinions of others not through ignorance, but through the knowledge of living side-by-side, in what have sometimes become parallel, rather than integrated, societies.

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Blind defenders of ‘free movement’ sound like US gun nuts

20/10/2014, 02:18:17 PM

by Kevin Meagher

“When the facts change” John Maynard-Keynes famously remarked, “I change my mind”. No such intellectual pragmatism informs the thinking of outgoing EU Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso.

He has been in valedictory mood, telling a gathering at Chatham House today that David Cameron’s wish to reform the EU’s provision for the free movement of people – partly responsible for Britain’s three million extra immigrants over the past decade or so – is “illegal”. Moreover, an arbitrary cap on EU migrant workers coming to Britain “can never be accepted.”

Given all political change involves altering laws, he is technically correct on the legality point; but he’s also being obtuse. For Eurocrats like Barroso, free movement is an inviolable principle and he will brook no dissent. His mind is closed to the possibility of change – and that there is even a problem to address at all. (Although I dare say it helps that he comes from a country like Portugal, not particularly noted as an economic powerhouse sucking in migrant workers).

It certainly used to be a benign enough principle, in the days when it meant handfuls of Belgian architects could go and work on French hydro-electric projects. It was an affordable sop to Euro-integrationists in a union of 12 or 15 countries with economies that, while different, were not wildly so.

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Labour HQ is the place where political narratives go to die

15/10/2014, 10:03:50 AM

by Alexander Shea

Last month’s Conference represented a nadir for Ed Miliband’s Labour party. It was a graveyard of narrative, an abandonment of the political.

Labour relapsed into ‘itemised politics’, presenting a praiseworthy plan for the protection of the NHS yet failing to encompass it within a wider coherent and compelling narrative of what is fundamentally wrong with this country and how Labour proposes to put it right.

As the shock of the Heywood and Middleton by-election has shown, an electoral strategy comprised of a single-issue focus on the NHS is not going to cut the mustard. Narrow, itemised politics is not the way forward. To win in 2015, Labour needs to think big.

Establishing a clear and firm policy line on the NHS was necessary. As polls have shown it is the most important issue in the upcoming election to 34% of voters, making it the leading issue for 2015.

But it is precisely in these polling figures that the sheer lack of ambition or political message that Labour conveyed by making the NHS its marquee policy, is able to be sensed. It smacked of a 35 percent strategy: a timid desire to play it safe politically- to score on ‘open goal’ policy issues such as the NHS- in the knowledge that due to an electoral quirk, Labour will win a majority in the next Parliament if it breaks the 35 percent threshold. What better way to implement such a 35 percent strategy than by banking on an issue that 35 percent of the electorate prioritise.

Pursuing such a timid approach, however, is the height of folly. John Prescott is right. Rather than scoring an ‘open goal’ on the NHS, by pursuing itemized politics Labour has sacrificed the potential for a broader political message, and consequently scored a massive own goal.

They presented David Cameron with a gilt-edged opportunity at his party conference in Birmingham. At a time when Cameron should have been on the back foot over Brooks Newmark’s sexting and Mark Reckless’ defection to UKIP, Labour effectively presented Cameron with the opportunity to use his party conference speech as a platform from which to project a narrative of British politics, that of ‘economism’ in which the twin gods of economic growth and welfare cuts are reified at the expense of humanistic politics, the latter focusing not on objective economic data but the subjective experience of living in austerity Britain: the cost of living crisis, the bedroom tax, childcare allowance and so on.

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Fifty years on, Harold Wilson’s triumph offers important lessons for Ed

14/10/2014, 10:12:31 AM

by Rob Philpot

The similarities between Ed Miliband and Harold Wilson, who became prime minister for the first time fifty years ago this week, are not immediately obvious. While Wilson’s father had been an active Liberal, his Huddersfield upbringing had little in common with the north London childhood, steeped in politics, of the current Labour leader. Wilson’s studied ‘man of the people’ persona – the Yorkshire accent, Gannex raincoat and pipe, love of HP Sauce, and support for Huddersfield Town – is hardly one shared by Miliband. And few would currently wager a bet on Miliband challenging Wilson’s record of four general election victories.

Nonetheless, Wilson’s premiership offers some important lessons for Miliband. When Labour returned to power in October 1964 it did so with a majority of just four. Miliband could face similarly tricky parliamentary arithmetic in six month’s time. With the arrival of fixed-term parliaments, he will not have the luxury afforded Wilson of governing for 18 months before going back to the country and asking for a majority to ‘finish the job’.

But Wilson’s strategy of reassurance during the short parliament of 1964-1966 – the focus on making Labour the ‘natural party of government’ and the determination to reach out to middle-class voters whose support was crucial if a bigger majority was to be attainted – is instructive. It was one which paid rich dividends: fighting on a slogan of ‘you know Labour government works’, Wilson went back to the country in March 1966 and won a majority of 97, secured seats that have only ever fallen to the party in 1945 and under Tony Blair, and, at 48 per cent, polled the party’s second highest ever share of the vote. As Ben Pimlott suggested, Labour had been rewarded for ‘a sense of movement and freshness, and a reforming zeal limited only by a tight economy and a very tight majority’. Wilson’s government had ‘ceased to alarm the electorate, yet succeeded in remaining the party of promise’.  Crucially, he continues, ‘not only had the Labour government handled the economy better than the Tories, its proven ability in this field was the real point of the election.’

Miliband should, though, balance a reassurance strategy with a willingness to take tough decisions early. Wilson’s determination that Labour should not again be seen as ‘the party of devaluation’ – he had been central to the debates in Attlee’s cabinet when it decided to devalue in 1949 – led him to postpone that painful but necessary decision for three years. Devaluing when Labour had first come into office could – with good justification – have been laid at the door of the policies of the outgoing Tory government. By 1967, Labour was landed with the entire blame. The fallout from that contributed to the party’s defeat in 1970.

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Where will we be in May 2015?

13/10/2014, 07:07:21 AM

by Jonathan Todd

Amid the fierce urgency of now, I look at possibilities beyond next May.

Labour majority

“Politics in Britain today,” according to a statement from Neal Lawson, Compass chair, “is not really about UKIP but about the failure of Labour in particular to present a coherent, desirable and feasible alternative to the Tories.” This was broadly the argument made by Atul Hatwal after the European elections and Ranjit Sidhu after the recent by-elections. As Sidhu was writing, John McTernan was bemoaning our politics’ lack of “lift, hope, ambition and above all life”. After the European election results, he told us that they meant Ed Miliband would be prime minister, while after recent by-elections, he laments that Labour is “in deep, deep trouble”.

McTernan’s seeming evolving view might denote the diminishing possibility of a Labour majority, while the repeated references to a lack of hope – straddling all from Compass to Progress – reminds us that many see little prospect of their lives improving. The major parties also suffer deficits of authenticity – widely presumed to be insincere and ineffectual – and public money – the fiscal position constrains resources to build hope where it is most lacking.

To secure a Labour majority, the deficits in hope, authenticity and public money must be overcome to not lose traditional supporters in Scotland to the SNP and in the north of England to UKIP, while gaining Conservative inclined voters in marginal seats in the south. Labour majority depends upon sufficient numbers of these disparate groups seeing the party as the bridge to a better tomorrow.

Reading Luke Akehurst suggests we seem reluctant to even sketch this bridge in Rochester and Strood, and does little to dispel Mark Wallace’s charge that Labour is “soft-pedalling” there. “Our mentality this close to general election ought to be that we are an unstoppable force,” Akehurst correctly notes, “not a party too scared of Nigel Farage to take him on in a seat we held until the last election”. As dispiriting as Labour appear in Rochester and Strood, Wallace is right that this by-election and Heywood and Middleton prompt resource challenges.

Does Labour have the capacity to successfully defend northern seats that UKIP will target and to robustly challenge for marginal seats in the south?

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that Labour fundraising may be improved by learning from ActBlue, an organisation raising funds for Democratic candidates. Whether this advance and others that Labour require comes quickly enough to secure a majority remains to be seen.

Labour as largest party in hung parliament

Martin Kettle reports that Labour has “a hard core of backbenchers [who] would … regard a coalition [with the Liberal Democrats] as a betrayal and would work against it”. Equally, he quotes a senior Labour source, “we haven’t thought [minority government] through”. Even short of coalition, such a government would probably require a supply and confidence arrangement with the Liberal Democrats – an option which Uncut’s sources say the Liberal Democrats are disinclined toward, seeing it as carrying all the costs of coalition without the benefits, posing another headache for Miliband.

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After Heywood and Middleton, Labour needs to make tough choices on immigration, the economy and the leader

10/10/2014, 08:20:35 PM

by Atul Hatwal

On one point, Douglas Carswell is right: the big result last night wasn’t Clacton, but Heywood and Middleton.

Shell-shocked Labour spokespeople have been on the airwaves giving the official line: the vote held up, no complacency, blah, blah, blah.

What they are saying doesn’t matter. They can’t tell the truth because the truth is toxic for the party. There are three reasons Heywood and Middleton happened: immigration, the economy and Ed Miliband’s leadership.

On each of the three, Labour needs to make a hard choice, if it is to avoid an almighty crash next May.

1. Immigration

Every canvasser who went to Heywood and Middleton came back with the same doorstep story: the voters wanted to talk about immigration. But Labour ploughed on with its line on the NHS. Disastrous.

Now, Labour will have to face up to having the difficult conversation on immigration, and it can go one of two ways:  it can either tack right towards Ukip or it can make a case for its actual policy.

The former is the seductive option. It means that on the doorstep, canvassers can agree with voters. There’s no need for any tricky disagreement. All Labour representatives need do is to nod sympathetically, promise to be tough and hey presto, all is solved.

Except of course, it isn’t.

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Leadership challenge? You can’t be serious

08/10/2014, 01:15:34 PM

by Rob Marchant

It is always a little unwise to make predictions, as us bloggers occasionally find some time later, to our shame and embarrassment.

But perhaps we can venture one now. If there is a silly season within conference season, it is surely within Lib Dem conference. And this year, a few MPs and journalists have used its abject pointlessness as an excuse to take a break from serious politics.

And, indeed, from reality altogether: they have convinced themselves that a Labour leadership challenge is in the air, as these pieces from the Telegraph and the Mail show.

Only it’s not. Or, at least, it’s incredibly unlikely.

Oh, that’s not to say that some aren’t thinking about it, some even vaguely seriously. It’s always good to check where one’s political stock is, and a dip in the polls is an attractive time to do so.

But there are a lot of good reasons why it is merely fanciful thinking – more a crying into one’s beer in a Manchester hotel bar than a serious, credible campaign briefing.

First, history. Unlike the Tories, Labour is the anti-nasty party; one which gives a sometimes annoying level of benefit-of-the-doubt. It does not generally dump leaders before they have had a chance to lose an election (in fact, it sometimes doesn’t even dump them afterwards, as the 1987 election taught us, even if it really should).

Second, if a leadership challenge has not happened by a half-year before the election, it is a particularly dumb time to try and have one. No-one has time to put together a hole-free policy program in that time, which reflects their own personal stamp.

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