GRASSROOTS: 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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UNCUT: Letter from Barcelona: Labour’s Spanish lessons

03/10/2017, 10:13:45 PM

by Rob Marchant

In between the petty spats of the Tory conference this week or the surreal cult of Labour’s gathering last week, there was a potentially seismic political event for Europe (and Britain) a thousand miles away: Sunday’s referendum for Catalan independence. It is big news: while a major general election campaign was happening in the EU’s most populous country, this little region’s impending vote was stealing the headlines for much of it.

It seems suddenly shocking but, for those of us familiar with Spanish and Catalan politics, it is essentially an event that has been at least a decade in the making, but which has approached Spain’s now largely stable democracy like a relentless iceberg, and which the national government’s general cack-handedness has made it seemingly powerless to stop.

This time, around 90% of the votes have been cast for “Sí”, although the vote is technically illegal and many anti-independence voters have naturally boycotted it. Reasons are many: there is first raw, emotional nationalism; then more rational, economic unfairness (Catalonia is a net contributor to taxes and “subsidises” poorer regions; some may even have voted yes in the (mistaken) belief that Spain’s foreign policy had somehow helped precipitate recent ISIS attacks in Barcelona and an independent Catalonia would instead be safe.

So the result, illegal or otherwise, is hugely important for Catalonia, Spain and Europe. But how did they get here?

For about a quarter-century following the “Transición” (the transition to democracy after Franco’s death), the Catalans had a nationalist party running their regional government, the CiU (Convergéncia i Unión).

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UNCUT: Economics and leadership, as ever, will determine the next election

01/10/2017, 10:51:35 PM

by Jonathan Todd

After Neil Kinnock gained 43 seats to give Labour 271 MPs at the 1992 general election, he resigned and John Smith promised ‘one more heave’ to Labour government.

When Tony Blair succeeded John Smith, he sought to further smooth the path to government. He promised to not increase income tax or reverse the 1980s redrawing of the boundaries between state and market, and would be ‘tough on crime’. Labour, in short, was nothing, especially for swing voters, to be afraid of. Reassurance was the watchword.

After adding 30 seats at this year’s general election to create a PLP of 262 MPs, Jeremy Corbyn has been lauded beyond Kinnock’s wildest dreams.

The biggest cheer of the shadow chancellor’s conference speech was for promising to renationalise rail, water, energy, and the Royal Mail. The construction industry (every builder?!) was also earlier promised. As well as PFI contracts.

“We’re taking them back,” John McDonnell declared. A phrase with a ring of ‘taking back control’. Delivered with the vengeful glee with which President Trump calls for NFL players to be sacked.

Massive, complicated, open-ended commitments. John McDonnell’s speech indicated that they’d be financed by “closing tax loopholes”. Like no one – including, at least to some extent, the incumbent government – has tried that. There was also unconvincing talk of compensating equity holders with government debt.

The CBI warned of “investors running for the hills”. McDonnell speculated about a government in which he’d serve inducing a run on the pound. Don’t say you weren’t warned!

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UNCUT: Smug self-satisfaction blinds Corbyn’s Labour to the reasons the last election was lost

19/09/2017, 10:44:02 PM

by David Talbot

As the Conservative party trudges towards Manchester and its party conference this year, fresh with Boris Johnson’s timely four thousand word intervention, you would be forgiven for thinking the conventional wisdom of politics has been suspended. The Conservatives, wrought with angst and anger over the general election, are pouring over why its seemingly insurmountable political prestige crumbled over seven tumultuous weeks. The Labour party, meanwhile, is becalmed in glorious general election defeat. Its third, in a row. A better than expected defeat, but a defeat nonetheless. Not that this fact has seemingly been acknowledged by the body politic of Jeremy Corbyn and his fervent supporters.

For the Conservatives the post-election fog is only just lifting, but the gloom remains. The Times reported at the weekend that Sir Eric Pickles and Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, are set to release their report on why the Tories lost their majority on the first day of the party’s conference. The scale of its findings have levelled criticism at the traditional boogeyman and woman of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, but it is also highly critical of the party’s data operation. Jim Messina, no doubt hired at ludicrous expense, devised a target seat operation that saw May visit 43 ‘marginal’ constituencies. The party went on to win just 5.

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UNCUT: The real story of the Commons Brexit vote was the leadership’s disingenuous positioning

18/09/2017, 10:27:22 PM

by Rob Marchant

“Dennis Skinner…votes with Tories” ran the headline. But the truth is that Dennis Skinner actually voted for what he believes in: that Britain is better-off outside the EU. He only did what Jeremy Corbyn had already done hundreds of times (about five hundred, reportedly): vote with the Tories against his own party. As did six of his backbench colleagues (interestingly, Caroline Flint MP, who abstained, seemed to get more grief on social media than Skinner, who voted for the motion. We leave readers to draw their own conclusions as to why that might be).

Corbyn’s calculation, in contrast, was based on what it usually is: what he could get away with. Does anyone seriously believe that he has changed his opinion on the EU after over three decades opposing it as an MP?

Of course not. The calculation was that he could not get away – either with the public or his own party – with asking the PLP to support the Tories in a hard Brexit, so he allowed Keir Starmer to lead the charge and got out of the way.

And so we ended with the bizarre spectacle of two long-time, hard-left colleagues on opposite sides of the fence: one because he actually believed the same of the Tories, for once; and one because he also believed the same as the Tories, but couldn’t say so.

There was a helpful, complicating factor: that the Tories had come close to overreaching themselves, in insisting on giving themselves a muscular authority over governmental decisions which went so far as to pretty much break the principle of separation of powers between legislature and executive.

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UNCUT: It’s about democracy, stupid: Why Remainers and Leavers should both support amending the Repeal Bill

07/09/2017, 07:30:23 AM

by Sam Fowles

The EU Withdrawal Bill (formerly called the “Great Repeal Bill”) continues its passage through Parliament this week. Theresa May claims she is delivering the “will of the people”, yet she is doing the opposite. The Bill will grant the government such egregious powers that, in relation to a swathe of vital legal rights and protections, it no longer has to take the “will of the people” into account.

The bill is fixable. This should unite both “leavers” and “remainers”. Both claim to support democracy. The “leave” campaign based their referendum pitch on restoring the sovereignty of parliament. If they were serious then they should unite in supporting amendments to the Bill.

The British constitution offers us, as citizens, two avenues for holding the government to account: Elected representatives in Parliament make decisions about which laws should govern us and what powers the government should enjoy. The courts allow individuals to hold the government to account for misuse of its powers. The Bill closes off both avenues of accountability. The Henry VIII powers allow the government to overturn primary legislation, the sort that must usually be approved by both the Commons and the Lords, without winning a vote in Parliament. Often a law containing such extensive powers will include a legal “test”, ensuring that the powers can only be used if certain conditions are met. In other words: when it is really necessary. If ministers use the powers without meeting the test, the courts can step in to protect individual rights. This Bill allows ministers to use Henry VIII powers, effectively, at their own discretion. As a result, there is no way for individuals to seek redress in the courts if the powers are misused.

By choking off these avenues of accountability, the government can remove important individual rights and protections without any democratic scrutiny. This means that key protections for workers, the environment, human rights, and consumer protection could disappear overnight. If the Bill is passed in its current form, there will be little that ordinary people, or even elected representatives, can do about it.

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UNCUT: The moment to work to veto Brexit has come

26/08/2017, 09:53:46 PM

by Trevor Fisher

Jon Todd’s article Ten thoughts for August raised big questions going beyond one month. It did not trigger an in depth debate, which raises the question whether blogging helps or hinders analytical discussion. But assuming for the moment that it does, here are some points about the immediate future – to the end of the year which is as far as is sensible to look in an age of rapid political surges.

Jon is probably right that an early general election is unlikely to happen but it is not impossible. As May is giving the dominant Brexit wing of her party everything it wants a new leader seeking a mandate is unlikely. The Tory website which could not see a successor – 34% voting none of the above and even David Davis failing to get 20% support shows that the Tories have no real alternative. However folly is folly, and the Tory Brexiteers are majoring in stupidity.

The option of a cliff edge No Deal politics is top of their agenda. If thwarted, May or a successor could call an election with a No Surrender on Brexit platform. Those like Stephen Kinnock, Heidi Alexander and Chuka Umunna who hope Tory Remainers would vote for a soft Brexit and defeat May ignore the political consequences. No Prime Minister could survive such a slap in the face. May certainly could not.

Because of this, there might be a snap election on Brexit. As it is possible that the government might fall Labour has to be prepared for an election at any time up to the moment of decision.  Corbyn told Michael Eavis at Glastonbury he expected to enter #10 in six months. This possibility means a choice has to be made, Corbyn Labour or Reactionary Conservative. It’s unavoidable, and the choice has to be Corbyn. There is no way a Tory government is preferable, as the bonfire of hard won rights through the so called Great Reform Bill will make clear.

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UNCUT: Labour’s life-support conference approaches

23/08/2017, 09:55:17 PM

by Rob Marchant

It does not take a Nostradamus to predict that this year’s will have to be the craziest Labour conference since 1985 or, quite possibly, ever.

On the one hand you will have hubris: bright-eyed young Corbynite new recruits, feeling buoyed and excited by the party’s “success” in the general election (i.e. we did not lose too badly). The old-fashioned Trots, to their surprise finding themselves back in the party and with their day in the sun. And some of the long-time, idealistic soft left, not yet jaded by the disingenuousness of their leader’s position on Europe.

On the other you will have something approaching despair: the party’s centrists, Blairites, Brownites (as if those labels mean anything any more) and perhaps some old-time trade unionists and working-class members, seeking out each others’ company for warmth, in the party’s long, cold, dark night of the soul.

But the polls, the Corbynites will say, glowingly.

It is not, patently, about how Labour is doing in the polls against a terrible government. It is about the structural carnage it is wreaking on itself and whether that is sustainable in the long run. Or whether it has reached the tipping point of irreparable damage.

One day, it will not be up against a useless government grappling hopelessly with Brexit. Indeed, Theresa May might even – as Michael Heseltine has implied – dump her current Brexit ministers to draw the sting, then renew her premiership with a more workable approach and new people, in the process dodging the numerous bullets currently being aimed at her. It could happen.

No matter: one day there will be a half-decent Tory leader who will mercilessly take apart their bearded opponent. But at the moment this is not happening, because (a) it’s clearly better for the Tories he stays where he is, and (b) on Brexit, the main issue of the day, he pretty much supports their policies. Why fix what ain’t broke?

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UNCUT: Venezuela: a Corbynite touchstone. An unmitigated human and democratic disaster

10/08/2017, 06:03:39 PM

by Rob Marchant

It is not for months but, in fact, years that some of us have tried to draw attention to the pathological infatuation of Labour’s hard left (and even some of the soft left) to the Venezuelan regime of Hugo Chávez.

The attraction was straightforward: a kind of “Cuba-lite”, where in contrast defenders could always point to at least some kind of democracy, slanted towards the ruling party with various “cheats” though it was (such as the inequitable use of state television for propaganda). Not to mention, of course, a dazzling oil wealth which could comfortably mask the self-enriching activities of the ruling kleptocracy and still leave a bit of largesse to spread among its voters around election time, in the name of “true socialism”.

Indeed, so attractive was it that some of our current crop of hard-left doyennes, in perhaps less elevated times than they now sit, headed out for the Caribbean in 2012, the October of Chávez’s last election before his death.

Step forward, Diane Abbott and sidekick Owen Jones, “impartial observers” of the election. Except that they weren’t, of course, they were friends of one side only, as I helpfully pointed out to them while they were in Caracas as the guests of the Venezuelan National Electoral Council (run by a Chávez crony, incidentally).

Abbott, as patron of the Chávez-supporting Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, claimed without irony that she was “at pains to say that I wasn’t going to Venezuela to support any particular candidate”. So that’s all right, then.

It was an election, it should be noted, at which there were no international observers from any reputable organisation: only UNASUR, a regional body dominated by Venezuela itself. Then again, for 2012 Abbott, the likelihood of a formal Shadow Cabinet post probably seemed small, especially after various faux pas like the famous “white people love to divide and rule” comment. So she probably paid a little less attention to what might be the impact of her visit.

Oh, how dull and carping we were, who would criticise the Chávez regime or its slanted electoral system. But even then, all the signs were there. Why the need to invite, for want of a better word, your mates, to observe an election? Because, apart from UNASUR, no-one else came to the party. The EU and the UN had been invited to previous elections, why not this one? Could it be that the regime knew it would be heavily criticised for unfairness?

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UNCUT: Ten political thoughts for August 2017

09/08/2017, 09:38:19 AM

by Jonathan Todd

August is a time to take stock. Particularly so after a wild twelve months in politics. Here with ten thoughts.

1.) There will be no early general election

Tories can’t agree on much. But they are united in not wanting Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister and will do whatever they can to avoid an early general election that might bring this about.

Labour are powerful enough to subject the Tories to gruelling, parliamentary war but too weak for this to end in an early general election.

2.) Theresa May probably isn’t going anywhere fast

The Tories can’t agree on what form of Brexit should take and, as candidates reflect different Brexit flavours, a successor to Theresa May.

More chairperson than chief executive, she is condemned to try to navigate a peace between the tribes. Which may just hold if, before the election, she both delivers some form of Brexit and stands aside to enable a leadership election in which the post-Brexit Tory future will be personified.

3.) Cliff-edge Brexit is still possible

When Nick Timothy reappeared, the beard was gone. But the cant that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ wasn’t. It would be funny if it wasn’t tragic.

Lord Macpherson, until last year the top official at the Treasury , is quoted (£) as saying the “absence of realism in the government’s approach makes ‘no deal’ an evens chance.”

The magnitude of the calamity that ‘no deal’ portends cannot be understated and no responsible British politician would do anything to encourage this.

4.) But de jure Brexit, de facto Remain may now be the most likely outcome

Uncut does not know the government’s position on free movement. But the contours emerging amount to:

Free movement ends in March 2019 when the UK exits the EU but beyond that date, the government will support whatever arrangements British business tells us are necessary.

The de jure situation would change (free movement would be a prerogative of the UK government) but the de facto one wouldn’t much (our economy will still need and allow comparable numbers of immigrants to arrive from the continent).

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