Posts Tagged ‘Dan Cooke’

Forget a referendum re-run. But another Europe referendum with a different question is inevitable

28/06/2016, 10:00:51 PM

by Dan Cooke

At the time of writing there are over 3 million signatories. In coming days it will probably continue to climb. But however many people eventually sign the petition for a referendum re-run it can only be an exercise in frustrated misdirection. The Leave vote creates a new political reality which only a time machine could undo and no democrat can ignore.

Yet, as we search for a path forward, it will become increasingly clear that the public does have to be consulted again before Britain finalises its exit from the EU – and that another referendum to approve or reject the terms of exit is the right way to do so.  For Labour, even if it succeeds in electing a new leader, an explicit commitment to such a referendum in its manifesto for any snap election will probably be the only way it can build a national coalition of support. This means taking the position that Brexit is not inevitable because if exit terms are not approved the logical consequence is that Britain remains in the EU.

The key to understanding the referendum’s chaotic aftermath (and probably the result itself) is the false choice it presented between a known and unloved status quo and amorphous alternative that the Leave campaign skilfully preserved from any concrete definition. Only now is there beginning to be serious scrutiny of the real alternatives available, ranging from membership outside the EU of the European Economic Area or “EEA”, allowing Britain to preserve most Single Market rights, to a range of essentially theoretical alternatives that are only beginning to be sketched out.

Unsurprisingly, a dividing line is already beginning to crystallise around those (in both the Remain and Leave camps, and in all parties) who favour the EEA option and those who see it as inadequate.

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Yes, there’s a housing crisis. Yes, more homes are needed. But what can be done right now?

24/06/2015, 09:31:08 PM

by Dan Cooke

It seems that no political candidate today, from Westminster to the humblest parish council, can venture a comment on the state of the nation without name-checking the “crisis” that is the shortage of housing, both for renters and buyers. The Labour leadership candidates are following this script, with Andy Burnham pledging record house-building to make Labour the “party of property ownership”, and Jeremy Corbyn instead threatening to make it the party of property expropriation with his provocative proposal of a right to buy from private landlords.

However, for many, it remains an unwritten rule of politics that you just don’t mess with the way we, as a country, do real estate.

Yvette Cooper once had a political near-death experience after trying to introduce home-information packs, making the mistake of thinking that the anachronistic conveyancing process  – which tortures legions every year –  might safely be improved.

Similarly, Labour’s modest proposal at the election to introduce longer standard tenancies with stable rents was widely, but absurdly, branded as “rent controls” and treated as something that would defy the laws of economics or even amount to “carpet bombing”. And the less said about the “mansion tax” the better.

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Andy Burnham’s wrong. Not only must Labour take part in the cross-party pro-EU campaign, it has to lead it

12/06/2015, 06:43:36 PM

by Dan Cooke

The first real public test for Labour’s new leader is likely to be fighting a battle they didn’t want to fight at all, at a time and in circumstances dictated by their main opponent, and within the straight-jacket that they must support the basic position of that opponent.

This conundrum is, of course, the EU referendum, to be called by David Cameron to endorse his renegotiation based on principles he has still not fully revealed.

Cameron’s ideal scenario for this campaign is obvious: to achieve a settlement that will redeem the EU for all but its most zealous detractors and credit him as the PM who settled Britain’s relationship with Europe.

And his game plan for referendum victory is equally obvious: to assert that a good deal for Britain has been secured, regardless of what his renegotiation actually does, or does not, achieve.

Apart from campaigning to leave as a result of admitted negotiating failure (inconceivable), or declaring that the relationship was fine all along and serious renegotiation was actually unnecessary (even more inconceivable), there is no other option. The Conservative “Yes” campaign could just as well start printing their posters right now.

For Labour the approach to the campaign is far less straightforward.

For a party that declared until recently that there was no need for a referendum, it would be illogical to link support for a “Yes” vote to the outcome of this renegotiation. Labour cannot go along with the inevitable Cameron spin that he has fixed a fundamentally broken relationship.  Labour is committed to “Yes” regardless and must make a case for the EU that goes above and beyond the expected Tory tinkering.

Indeed, alongside this commitment to staying in the EU, Labour will naturally reserve the right to call Cameron out if his renegotiation does not match up to the hype, and make hay from the divisions within the Tory tribe that are already starting and only likely to become more chronic as the negotiation progresses.

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Labour urgently needs a new narrative on the economy

20/05/2015, 11:15:22 PM

by Dan Cooke

One thing we learned in the election campaign was that the younger Ed Miliband, while apparently much in demand, was a lousy date who “only wanted to talk about economics”. We also learned something much more serious: the mature Miliband and his advisers were completely wrong to think Labour could win an election without talking about the economy.

The Tory narrative on the economy, before and during the campaign, was so clear and powerful that friend or foe could recite it in their sleep. They had a “long-term economic plan”, that got the economy “back on track” after Labour “crashed the economy” and the “money ran out”. This account of the recent past provided powerful rhetorical support to their forward offer of prosperity for all, including more investment in the NHS than Labour promised.

If this grates with unfairness to many of us, we have to bluntly ask:  did our party ever pose a counter-narrative to challenge this one?  The frank answer is – at least during the campaign – clearly no. The line to take, when it was put to Labour spokespeople that the Tory plan was working, was apparently  to say that the recovery was not felt by all, the proceeds of growth were unevenly distributed or, more abstractly, that the economy was run for the benefit of the rich and not ordinary people.

Unfortunately these were talking points only to avoid talking about what for most people is the central question of economic debate: who can be trusted to deliver growth and jobs. It sounded as though we were saying this did not matter because it was the “wrong growth” and the “wrong jobs”. By building a campaign around issues of how to regulate a successful economy, like banning zero hours contracts, we forfeited the debate on who can be trusted to deliver a successful economy in the first place – in other words the debate that actually decides votes.

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Goodbye Lord Sugar. It’s time for a normal relationship between Labour and business

14/05/2015, 08:30:16 PM

by Dan Cooke

It’s a sure sign you’re in a bad way when someone as pugnacious as Lord Sugar takes care to fire you gently, stressing that they don’t want to “stick in the boot”.

In truth, it is the very blandness of Sugar’s announcement of his resignation from the Labour party that is most damning. Sugar apparently did not even feel the need to explain what were Labour’s “negative business policies and general anti-enterprise concepts” that concerned him, or how these compared with policies of Gordon Brown which he praised.  He probably thought he did not need to because the perception that the Labour party is now “anti-business” has become so wide and deep that, for many, it requires no explanation.

Whether it is actually justified or not, this is a totally untenable impression for a mainstream political party to have created in a modern capitalist society. When too many swing voters decided that a vote for the Conservatives was a vote for a strong economy, the perception that companies on which millions rely for their livelihoods were behind the Tories, reflected in high-profile open letter campaigns, will have been a major contributing factor.  It is quite plausible that this impression was even more important than the debate about the causes and consequences of the deficit, on which the party has agonised incomparably more.

How has this happened? Labour, after all, is not the party that wants to put at risk access for British businesses to the single market in Europe and the network of EU-negotiated free trade agreements outside Europe. Labour is not the party that hinders businesses obtaining crucial work permits for skilled workers because of an arbitrary and undeliverable immigration cap. And Labour is not the party that has put ideology ahead of commercial logic with unworkable schemes like the widely mocked “shares for rights” proposal.

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David Cameron can learn from Donald Trump

12/04/2011, 03:00:31 PM

by Dan Cooke

It’s the start of US presidential primary season and so, for some, the time has come to enjoy a condescending glance at the state of democracy in America.

One poll has placed the professional billionaire and front-man for the original Apprentice, Donald Trump, as joint second favourite for the Republican nomination. It seems that our transatlantic cousins, many of whom, according to the Guardian will “believe anything”, have confused the scripted certainties of the prime time boardroom for real leadership. Thank goodness it could never happen here, right?

Well, passing over the fact that our own “Mr Serious”, Gordon Brown, was inspired to appoint the poor man’s Donald Trump, Alan Sugar, as an adviser, there are deeper reasons why a sense of detached superiority would be misplaced.

The popularity of the Apprentice on both sides of the Atlantic (and beyond) reveals a widespread faith in the “great man” theory of business leadership.  The tycoon, vindicated by success in rising to his exalted perch (particularly if, like Sugar, though not Trump, he pulled himself up from humble origins), is deemed to be the supreme arbiter on all that goes on in his own business and, possibly beyond.  He may not actually owe his success to facility with, say, dressing a store, locating cheap products or working in a team; like anyone else he will have a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. But, as the boss, he has carte blanche to decide what is bad and what is good in any of these and other areas.

And it’s not just because snap judgments on random tasks make good TV. Most people who have worked in a large organisation will know what it’s like when the diktat comes down from on high that something needs to change in a certain way – even when it’s sadly obvious that the higher authority doesn’t understand the impact.

There is something pre-modern about this idea of the Solomon-like leader, able to find the right answer in any situation. In an increasingly specialized world, no boss can really understand everything that will impact on the success of their goals. Good management should consist in large part of knowing how to delegate effectively and when to take advice. But it doesn’t always work like that and, in its own small way, the Apprentice fosters a different idea of leadership.

So a certain proportion of the American electorate may see Donald Trump as the guy they can trust to make the right call in the White House even if he never thought about many of the issues before.  By contrast, in the UK, one might think we could pass a rare vote of thanks for the professionalisation of politics. We are governed by individuals who have generally spent years working on their humility, picking up some policy knowledge and, crucially, living through numerous shifts in their party’s policy too. So we might expect an administration that understands there is rarely a simple answer, is cautious of jumping to precipitous conclusions, consults widely before introducing dramatic changes and respects expert advice.

Yet in this of all weeks, after the shambles of the coalition’s climb-down on health and its continued disarray in describing what will happen next, it is painfully obvious that such enlightened political leadership is only a distant hope.

And in David Cameron we have a prime minister who runs his administration just like a know-it-all chairman who has just taken over the family business.  The word has gone out to the underlings that the boss does not plan to put in long hours in the office. But when the mood takes him he will wonder around the shop floor to tell the workers what they’re doing wrong  – or haul them into his office for a lecture.

In the corporate world, the chaos and climb-downs that can result when the boss overestimates his understanding of the detail often remain a guilty secret between him and his underlings. But in the political arena it is cruelly exposed for all to see, as Chairman Dave is now finding out.

Last month he claimed that even his baby daughter could tell civil servants what “ridiculous” regulations had to be repealed. Yet this month, while the mandarins wait for instructions from the Cameron household, the public have had to be roped in to help out instead. The serial policy U-turns of the government are a more serious sign of its tendency to over-confidence and under-preparation.

So if Trump does make it to the White House in two years, an older and hopefully wiser David Cameron might be in a position to give him some advice about what not to do. But if he doesn’t learn from the damage his ego has already inflicted, the prime minister may himself receive a harsh message sooner than he thinks: “you’re fired”.

Dan Cooke is a Labour lawyer and activist.

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Exposed: Osborne’s secret addiction to debt

30/03/2011, 07:00:33 AM

by Dan Cooke

A charlatan chancellor is as predestined to opprobrium as a philandering preacher.

This government has found a vivid and compelling rhetoric to justify its choice to slash services and squeeze the middle. When George Osborne urges the need to pay off the “nation’s credit card” it resonates with the common sense verity that all should live within their means. The polls show every week that this homely paradigm is the bedrock of government support and the stumbling block for Labour breakthrough.

Yet Osborne’s silver tongue is forked. His strictures on the evils of debt are an indictment in his own case. His ultimate comeuppance is as certain as for a televangelist preaching chastity while screwing half his flock.

The final audit of coalition Britain has not yet been written, but the first draft is the revised forecasts of the office of budgetary responsibility. These show the truth about the preacher when the camera is off. They tell a story of more public borrowing and more private borrowing, even as public and private investment is squeezed. And they tell a tale of premeditated deception on debt. (more…)

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Bullingdonia: Osborne’s banana republic

25/03/2011, 01:32:24 PM

By Dan Cooke

In other news this week, concerns were raised about standards of governance in the Republic of Bullingdonia.

The ruling party, with a strong traditional base in the south east of the country,  imposed a shock 12% tax hike on the country’s oil and gas industry. This is overwhelmingly based in the state’s northern province where the governing party recently won only one of all 59 constituencies in the recent general election.

Critics charged that, while the government of Bullingdonia claimed to be promoting growth, the levy would undermine the competitiveness of one of the country’s leading industries and that the lack of consultation on its introduction would undermine the certainty needed for international investment. While the ruling party argued they were fulfilling a manifesto commitment to a “fair fuel stabiliser”, it was pointed out that such plans never previously envisaged a levy on the oil industry. (more…)

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This government couldn’t outsource a booze-up in a brewery

15/03/2011, 10:00:14 AM

by Dan Cooke

If the Tory-Lib Dem administration has one big, transformative vision, it is that government should do less itself – and enable others to do more. Even in accepting that public goods cannot be delivered by the unfettered market, the government contends that they will only ever be delivered shoddily by the unmediated state. So it proposes a more modest role for itself as funder, procurer and regulator of services, with delivery transferred as far as possible to the private or charitable sectors.

Apparently unafraid of taking this vision to its extreme, David Cameron argued last month that there should be a:

“presumption – backed up by new rights for public service users and a new system of independent adjudication – that public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service”.

Acknowledging a couple of caveats about the judiciary and the security services – an encouraging sign of at least a few seconds brainstorming before opening his mouth – the prime minister promised that a full white paper setting out more detail would follow within a fortnight. However, four weeks later it is yet to materialise.

Leaving aside the fundamental questions about whether profit-making businesses should be running core public services, it is clear that any material shift in the direction proposed by Cameron would require an enormous practical change in the operation and required skills of government. Much of a civil service built on a tradition of management and direction would need to convert into procurement and contracting functions.

The procurement of high value, long-term and complex services is a difficult and risky business. It requires the buyer to engage with contractual counterparties in a way that adequately weighs – among other things – value, incentives, risk transfer, compensation rights and change management. Achieving successful outcomes by these metrics is a task that regularly defeats the teams of specialised and well-paid analysts and lawyers who run big-ticket procurement in our major private companies. And this is hardly surprising. Contracting is a zero sum game where one party’s protection from risk is the other’s assumption of risk – whether in relation to time slippage or cost overruns, change in demand, adjustments in scope or any of the other infinite uncertainties the future may bring.

In the past, under all parties, the record of government in navigating these shark- infested waters has been woeful. PFI was sold as a way of transferring long-term operating risk to contractors in a way that outweighed the additional costs of private sector borrowing compared to public debt. And, yes, it also took liabilities off the government’s balance sheet. However, the reality was public lock-in to exorbitant rental payments and the transfer of exclusive rights to provide lucrative services from car-parking to Christmas trees. The story with government purchasing of IT services has been no more encouraging and the procurement travails of the ministry of defence require no repeating.

If we add to the mix the challenges of maintaining transparency and accountability if the scope of contracting out of core services is increased, then it is clear that the risks of failure are even greater. The government’s first significant effort, with the expansion of private involvement in health planned under the NHS bill, is far from encouraging. Identifying conflicts of interest among bidders would be high on the list of concerns for a private sector procurement manager, but Andrew Lansley and his team simply forgot to think about the issue until others pointed it out.

So are ministers now thinking deep thoughts about how to manage the necessary transformation in contracting capacity? Is the civil service being primed to become expert in sophisticated procurement?

Well, they did fly in Philip Green from Switzerland to review the government buying process. He generated headlines with examples of inconsistent pricing for paper and phones. And some more with the dubious advice that government should save cash by paying its suppliers late: “there is no reason why the thinking in the public sector needs to be any different from the private sector”.

But this is no more commercial wisdom than could be gleaned from watching half a series of Only Fools and Horses. Great if the government wants to organise a car boot sale. But a pitiful start to recalibrating the public sector to achieve acceptable outcomes from the mass outsourcing of services so glibly proposed.

Once again, it is clear that our current leaders – in their own eyes, born to rule but, in reality, not trained to run a whelk-stall – simply do not grasp the complexity of governing. Private companies which contract out a fraction of their own activities have a “chief procurement officer” on the board. But this government, which boasts of an open door to competition in services, just has a “cheap promises officer” in No.10.

So here’s a prediction: when they do publish the delayed white paper it will be followed by at least one more on the same topic for every year of the government’s term. But none of them will describe how the presumption of competition promised by Cameron will actually work. In short, none of them will be worth the paper they are written on. And the government will probably still be paying over the odds for the paper.

Dan Cooke is a Labour activist and lawyer.

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Cameron: a Tsar is born? Or saloon bar prime minister?

07/03/2011, 03:00:30 PM

by Dan Cooke

Downing Street spinners apparently briefed this weekend that in future David Cameron plans to use his office to “act as a critic of the government” and speak “as a tribune of the people against the government when it gets things wrong”.

The prime minister recently “joked” to the Westminster press gallery that he is more a chairman than chief executive of the government. The response was negative commentary suggesting lack of grip, surely giving pause for thought about the wisdom of such remarks if not meant in earnest. Nevertheless, the suggestion must be taken as a significant indication of Cameron’s strategy for the rest of the parliament.

The prospects for success of any strategy of prime ministerial detachment from day-to-day responsibility for government depend significantly on which of two principal alternatives No. 10 has in mind.

First, the briefers hint at a desire to present the prime minister as elevated above the decision-making of his ministers, while intervening selectively to correct errors or chastise lack of progress. Such an approach might appear cunning in the mind’s eye of a strategist, but would be disastrous in practice (like a restaurant manager wandering into the dining room to taste the food after it has already been served, as one commentator has observed). (more…)

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