Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Todd’

Labour must overcome the Terrible Simplifiers

16/09/2014, 09:42:16 AM

by Jonathan Todd

Ben Watt recently won best “difficult” second album at the AIM Independent Music awards. In the chorus to the album’s closing song he sings that “the heart is a mirror where it’s easy to just see yourself”. One of the verses tells of a redundant man undertaking childcare and domestic responsibilities, while his wife is the bread winner. All this man can see in his heart is the pain of redundancy, which distorts his relationship with his wife, causing him to see her as a threat to his sense of himself.
We are awash with pain: the economic pain of unemployment, struggling to get by and dead end jobs; the social pain of loneliness, dislocation and addiction; and much else besides. All of which breeds anger and takes potent form in the politics of grievance.

This fits snugly and powerfully within the essential political narrative. The elements of this narrative are a critique of the status quo, a vision of a better alternative and a route map for moving from the status quo to this alternative, often accompanied by identification and condemnation of those who frustrate this transition.

Grievance politics trades on anger with those supposedly forestalling a better world: the EU that denies the ale sodden, sunny uplands of UKIP; the English oppressors of the Scottish. UKIP and the SNP, though, converge on a shared enemy: Westminster and the political class. The faraway elite chain us to the Brussels cabal; conspire against the Scottish.

These claims are ridiculous and are mocked. Daily Mash reports on a UKIP councillor being proud to announce “that Doncaster will be freed from the yoke of EU membership with immediate effect” and on a film called 12 Years a Scot, “the brutal but uplifting story of Brian Northup, a free man who at no point is forced to work on a plantation”.

When trust in Westminster is at an unprecedented low and the pain of everyday lives feels unending, unendurable and beyond the capacity of these mendacious leaders to eradicate, what is absurd – that the EU is an oppression, that the Scots are oppressed by the UK – gains traction. These kind of all encompassing narratives are not alien to Labour’s history.

Clause 4 socialism, for example, explained all our problems in terms of private ownership and saw all our solutions in its elimination. In the belly of the Labour Party, we always knew that this violated what David Mitchell later proposed as a liberal tenet: the instinct to offer, “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”. Tony Blair’s revision of Clause 4 communicated to the wider electorate recognition of this.

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Scotland: The madness has to stop now

12/09/2014, 08:06:04 AM

by Jonathan Todd

Mental health is said to be a ‘Cinderella’ service, lacking resources. Friedrich Nietzsche maintained, though, that madness is rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, nations, and ages it is the rule. He would be unsurprised, therefore, that I’ve received an email from a friend in Scotland who reports the Yes campaign is coming across “like a millennial cult”.

Similarly, Carol Craig has lamented that the approach of Stephen Noon, chief strategist for Yes, “is nationalism laced with a heavy dose of what looks like a whacky personal development philosophy”. Yes vehemently insist that doubts about UK breakup evidence only a lack of belief in the Scottish.

The then European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said it would be “extremely difficult, if not impossible” for Scotland to rejoin the EU after UK breakup. The Royal Bank of Scotland will leave Scotland if the UK breaks up. Given concerns about the currency, Ultimo, the company of the Scottish business woman Michelle Mone, would also follow them south.

Scottish nationalists will insist that the Royal Bank of Scotland doesn’t really believe in Scotland. That Barroso knows nothing of the EU and simply lacks faith in Scots. That Mone is full of it. She probably isn’t actually Scottish. There is no concern that can’t be dismissed if you are a true enough Scot.

Sadly, Mone, born and raised in Glasgow, no longer feels safe in Scotland having been targeted by Siol nan Gaidheal, an ultra-nationalist group that boasts of ‘in-your-face-confrontations’ with Jim Murphy. Friends also tell me of Better Together posters resulting in smashed windows. Sections of the Scottish population have thuggishly moved beyond reason.

The exasperation of Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, speaking earlier in the week was palpable. Currency union in the event of UK breakup would be “incompatible with sovereignty”, he observed, wearily referring to a speech that he’d given earlier in the year. He might as well have said, “I don’t know how many times I have to say this”.

If the treatment of Mone and Murphy is anything to go by, he’ll never be heard by some. Maybe heard but not accepted. Perhaps they think he’s bluffing. Or having a laugh. But this is not a stag party or another occasion for laughs. It’s even less of an occasion for laughs than a general election.

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In a dangerous world, the UK prospers together or declines apart

08/09/2014, 02:06:21 PM

by Jonathan Todd

The British have been protected by NATO and grown richer through the EU throughout my life. Soon the breakup of the UK may drain Britain of meaning and Russian troops could be threatening a NATO member, while Martin Wolf of the FT thinks it likely that the Eurozone will remain in a  “bad marriage “, too costly to breakup but so unhappy that its members would not have chosen it knowing what they now do.

Those in the “bad marriage” struggle to find the resources or the will to meet their NATO obligations. They seem ineffectual in the face of both Putin and ISIS. Europeans alternately look to the US to solve these problems and blame them on the US, while offering precious little by way of European solutions. If we remain united, the British can be part of achieving more than this.

David Cameron – pace Owen Jones – is right to compare Putin’s tactics with those of Hitler in the early stages of World War II. He follows Timothy Garton Ash, not noted for hyperbole, in doing so. Robin Lustig, another sober and astute observer, compares events in Iraq and Syria to World War I.

As we stand on the precipice of UK breakup, accurately described by Sir Edward Leigh MP as “a national humiliation of catastrophic proportions” during the last PMQs, we face mounting dangers. This catastrophe would irreversibly weaken us. Instead of possessing a united armed forces which count for something, as David Blair notes, we will have chosen to divide them into two shrunken militaries that would count for very little.

Never again we will we speak with the authority that we possess at international forums, such as the UN, G7/8, G20, and NATO. Significantly, UK breakup is likely to be used as a justification by non-permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to push for this status to be removed from what remains of the UK. This rump is also more likely to vote to leave the EU if this referendum occurs without Scotland, while those EU members with separatist movements, particularly Spain, will ensure that a post-breakup Scotland is locked out of the EU. British capacity to shape the EU as it evolves in the face of the continued challenges of the Euro will be non-existent.

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We need more Jim Murphy and less Douglas Carswell

01/09/2014, 07:05:00 PM

by Jonathan Todd

On two separate occasions this year I have been surprised by intelligent Scots telling me that they are considering voting yes in the independence referendum. Why would they contemplate something that seems to me small-minded and inward-looking?

When I put this to them, they both replied with words to the effect of, “there is a better way to run Scotland.” “Can’t that be achieved within the devo-max that is inevitably coming?” “What makes it inevitable?” “Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives are all committed to it.”

At this point in the conversations, one of them expressed cynicism in the capacity of these three parties to deliver. Another was more accepting that devo-max would come if Scotland remains in the UK and began to lament what would become of the rump of the UK if Scotland voted for independence.

Behind both of these responses is a belief that Scotland is a fundamentally different political universe from the rest of the UK. The first reveals a view that the leading UK parties are unable or unwilling to give Scotland the powers necessary to build the brightest possible future. The second is concerned about what will become of the presumed conservative England without the anchor of supposedly social democratic Scotland.

But at the last general election, only 3 per cent fewer people in Scotland voted Conservative than voted SNP. At the three general elections prior to this, Labour would have formed the government each time had only votes in England counted. Labour can win England. Scotland does have Tories. England and Scotland are not Mars and Venus.

Somewhat similarly, the Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly has claimed to have a lot more in common with Liverpool welders than Scottish Highlanders with agricultural backgrounds. If we accept that Scotland is not an island of social democracy in a sea of conservatism, instead sharing a spectrum of political values with the rest of the UK, and also take the leading UK political parties at their word, meaning that devo-max is a coming reality for Scotland, what remains for the yes campaign to advance their argument?

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Labour must rise to the challenge of Iraq and Syria

26/08/2014, 09:34:01 AM

by Jonathan Todd

A monopoly on violence is a pithy definition of statehood derived from Max Weber. On these terms, thugs in the Middle East have recently achieved this standard. There was a gang in the East End of London, the Krays, who did the same in the 1960s. The People’s Republic wasn’t then declared. This waited for Lutfur Rahman.

The key word that I’ve missed from Weber’s definition is legitimate. The violence visited on James Foley is no more legitimate than that of the Krays. That’s why James Kirkup insists that Foley’s killing was a murder, a criminal act, not an execution, something states do to breakers of their most important rules.

Ken Livingstone, who has topped Labour’s NEC “constituency reps” ballot, helped Rahman to his current status. Livingstone’s victory indicates the strength of Labour’s left, which tends to be more suspicious than the Labour right of military intervention and the motives of the US, as well as quicker to explain Islamic extremism in terms of the perceived failings of the west.

If ISIS doesn’t prompt the Labour left to consider military intervention, will anything? If US bombing of ISIS, in an attempt to avert genocide, doesn’t justify support from the Labour left for US action, will they ever support such action? If the brutal murder of an American, a civilian only seeking to do his job as a journalist, can be explained in terms of supposed US failings, can’t everything?

The Labour left might now be questioning their presumptions. Or maybe not, maybe the Iraq war’s shadow remains too long. As David Miliband, often dismissed as a Blairite by the left, has recently conceded, the outcome of that war “induces a high degree of humility”. Therefore, if the Labour left are now reassessing, they are doing what the Labour right has done for the past decade.

I wrote recently that Labour needs new thinking on the Middle East. Atul Hatwal has provided some – arguing the case for a pragmatic approach to President Assad in Syria. And Lord Glasman has too – advocating that we be pro-Kurdish, pro-Iranian and pro-Christian.

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Sofa government has ended in Scotland. This needs to happen in the rest of the UK

11/08/2014, 05:41:12 PM

by Jonathan Todd

“When this is over, I am not going back to my sofa,” said a working class grandmother, who’d never previously been politically active, of the Scottish referendum. She made this remark to Robin McAlpine of Common Weal – “a vision of what Scotland can be if it rejects the failed Me-First politics that left us all in second place and instead builds a politics that puts All Of Us First” – and he reported it to BBC Radio 4 last week. The legacy of the referendum campaign, irrespective of its outcome, observed McAlpine, is the widespread popular desire for “a politics that involves us and which we get involved in”.

The latest polling gives Better Together a 13 percent lead. While the pro-independence grandmother got active because the referendum was “too important to the future of her grandchildren”, it seems to be moving toward the outcome that she opposes. Nonetheless, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are now all committed to additional powers for the Scottish Executive and Parliament. Scotland seems likely to say “no thanks” but the consensus between the political parties means that such an outcome will lead to some form of “devo-max“.

As grandmothers refuse to return to their sofas, more power will be brought closer to them within a new devolution settlement. Which is why Neal Ascherson seems justified in concluding in the current edition of Prospect that “whichever way the referendum vote goes on that Thursday in September, Scotland on the Friday morning will already be living in some form of independence”.

I have worried that post-referendum Scotland will be a fractious place, with festering grievances and bridges to be built. This might be part of the picture. But the whole picture may well contain positives: a highly engaged electorate with new powers to shape their future.

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Will we ever see the likes of Blair again?

30/07/2014, 09:56:25 AM

by Jonathan Todd

We are now too cynical to entertain the idea of a leader who defeats all, reconciles all and ultimately encompasses all, Janan Ganesh concluded following Tony Blair’s Progress speech. We won’t see his like again. And in their absence, Ganesh observes, Labour seeks a squeaked victory on a left-wing platform, while the Tories devote all campaign resources to 40 seats that they are trying to retain and 40 more that they aspire to gain.

Given the seeming lack of traction for a Blair-like big tent, the two largest parties battle a war of attrition, both closer to their voting and ideological citadels than Blair preferred.

Is the centre ground, which Blair dominated, so drained of potency that neither of the largest parties is best served by squarely holding it?

We might attach personnel or structural explanations for neither Labour nor Tory rushing to do so.

“Tony Blair,” according to a Labour strategist quoted by George Eaton, “was doing an impression of Bill Clinton, and David Cameron was doing an awful impression of Tony Blair. Ed has no interest in doing an impression of David Cameron.” If we conclude that Cameron and Miliband lack the capacities of Blair and Clinton, we might explain their non-centrist strategies in terms of personnel.

There is, however, a British leader seeking to command the same terrain as held by Blair, Nick Clegg, which has led John Rentoul to diagnose the paradox of centrist politics. This is that elections are supposed to be won in the centre ground, but the one party that occupies precisely that territory is facing damnation – meaning to be cut by about half – in next year’s election.

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There is building anger at home and abroad. We need a new big tent

22/07/2014, 10:06:51 AM

by Jonathan Todd

“Today my work is global,” Tony Blair reminded us in his inaugural Philip Gould Lecture. Even when Blair was a mere domestic politician, the forces that he grappled with, as he often noted, were global. Policy Network, the international think-tank, sees these forces as having contributed toward 5-75-20 societies.

The fruits of globalisation have been sweet for the 5 per cent at ‘the top’, enjoying ‘runaway’ rewards from finance and property. They have been bitter for those at ‘the bottom’, seemingly trapped in cycles of low-wage, irregular work. The 75 per cent are the squeezed middle. These ‘new insecure’ have suffered declining wages, feeling the pressures of continued globalisation and automation.

In the NICE – non-inflationary continuous expansion – years of prime minister Blair, the pitch to the middle class emphasised aspiration. If they worked hard and played by the rules, they could aspire to lives at least approximating to the 5 per cent. Now, however, the 75 per cent are more fearful about falling behind.

As in the famous class sketch, featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, the middle classes still look up and down. But angrily in both directions. Upward at the 5 per cent, who are increasingly presumed to hold their status due to underhand methods. Downward at the supposed welfare queens of the 20 per cent.

Of course, this is to paint a very broad brush picture. But reconceptualising contemporary society in 5-75-20 form allows us to understand afresh the popularity of both Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze and the vengeful tone of the government’s welfare policy. The former speaks to the frustration of the 75 per cent with the 5 per cent and the latter to the antipathy of the middle for the 20 per cent.

Viva Hate was one of the albums of the 1980s and we risk regression to that decade’s politics of competing antagonisms, so viscerally evident on Morrissey’s record, rather than building upon the big tent optimism of the Blair years that came in between. 5-75-20 is an attempt to revive a big tent. To pitch progressive politics as the solution to the problems of the broad mass. In this endeavour, grounding social security in contribution, which would curb the resentments of the 75 per cent against the 20 per cent, and making capitalism inclusive, which would allow all to share in the success now appearing the preserve of the 5 per cent, are vital. Liam Byrne is doing his bit by forming and unanimously being elected chair of a new APPG on Inclusive Growth. (more…)

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Labour needs new ways of thinking about the Middle East

10/07/2014, 12:35:37 PM

by Jonathan Todd

It is argued that the Palestinians have two options: to support Hamas, terror and destruction, or support Abbas, negotiations and statehood. Which may mean Israel also has two options: work with the Palestinians if they back Abbas and frustrate them if they don’t.

It might, however, be thought that they both have third options, which are variants on these options. In the Israeli case, this would be the “do nothing” option, perpetuating a status quo that doesn’t deliver peace but, notwithstanding the recent murders of teenagers and continued rockets from Gaza, largely secures security in an unstable region. For the Palestinians, this third option would be violence beyond the control of Hamas, driven by even more extreme ideology.

Some contend that Hamas is as extreme as they come and that suggestions to the contrary only obscure the responsibilities held by the Palestinian Authority for the maintenance of order. Yet closer scrutiny of Gaza, supposedly under the control of Hamas, reveals possibilities further beyond the pale than them.

As much as the extent to which the Palestinians have options beyond Hamas can be debated, the viability of the status quo as an Israeli option is perilous. The democratic and Jewish character of the state depends upon a two-state solution. Recent discontents increase the plausibility of a third intifada, which would shatter the security that Israelis may have grown complacent in presuming attaches to the status quo. This intifada would be more likely if the Palestinians were to back more extreme options than Hamas, underlining the combustible incapability of the Israeli and Palestinian third options.

Abbas is the crucial pivot for both sides around which a brighter future could form. If the Palestinians could back him in making the painful compromises necessary for negotiations to advance, Israelis support reciprocate in backing their government in making the painful compromises that they too will need to make for negotiations to succeed. Yet, appallingly, it’s hard to disagree with Prospect Editor Bronwen Maddox when she concludes that recent tragedies make this less likely than it already was.

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Miliband’s bridge building with business should be applauded

01/07/2014, 08:15:02 AM

by Jonathan Todd

The case for augmenting Labour’s cost of living campaigning is almost as old as this campaigning. The advantages accruing to Labour from this campaigning are challenged by those that accumulate to the Conservatives from the more general economic improvement. This improvement encourages optimism among businesses, which some feel Labour threatens.

Labour needs to reassure these businesses and the voters who work for them that Labour poses no such threat. That, as Pat McFadden and Alan Milburn have both put it, Labour is as concerned with generating wealth as with distributing it. It is, as Chuka Umunna is quoted in a recent FT article headlined ‘Labour seeks to reposition as pro-business party’, a fairly academic decision how you can cut the pie more fairly if you haven’t increased the size of the pie first.

That Umunna is clearly right, while business fears that this is not understood by Labour, makes the repositioning heralded by the FT welcome. We are now in what The Sunday Times described as “a week long campaign to mend fences with business leaders”. No matter what big policy announcements this week may bring, Labour should not expect that they alone will secure business support.

Fifty small press releases matter more than a big policy announcement, as the ex party adviser Steve Van Riel recently observed. If Labour wants better relations with business, and I’m pleased that we do, we shouldn’t think that these can be cemented in a week, no matter how big our policy announcements. Such relations require diligent cultivation over the long-term. Which the activities of this week should be a staging post on.

It is to be hoped that Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet are up for this. Because there will be those in our party who will implore them not to be. Similar protestations, as Uncut has noted, have blunted moves to the centre on welfare. Concerted efforts to win business support would be another move to the centre, which is valuable enough that Miliband should be prepared to endure internal criticisms.

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