Posts Tagged ‘Sunder Katwala’

Will Progress ever have a clause four moment of its own?

18/05/2011, 04:00:19 PM

by Sunder Katwala

“A Fabian clause IV moment may loom for the ole statists’ new chief”, wrote the pressure group Progress, as their think-tank column sought to stir up some speculation about the future of the Fabian Society under its next general secretary. (I leave this summer. Do apply here, before May 26).

A week later, Progress published a “reform or die” injunction to the Fabian Society, though doing more to stoke a little distant nostalgia for the early “big tent” Blairism of the Britpop era than to credibly suggest an existential threat, particularly when Fabian Society membership is today higher that at any point in our 126-year history.

Still, the argument for a fabian clause four moment is a good one. Fabianism is full of clause four moments. It is because it has been the most open, plural and self-critical, hence regenerating and revisionist, of intellectual and political traditions that fabianism has endured and thrived across a century and more. As Progress gathers for its annual conference this weekend, it would be a good moment for that organisation to consider how to emulate that fabian tradition, and to try a clause four moment of its own.

The Fabians can, uniquely, stake a claim to have been a significant contributor to both of Labour’s own clause four moments. Sidney Webb’s 1918 clause four was, in its own time, the moderate, gradualist and democratic socialist riposte to the Bolshevik revolution. Its appeal to workers “by hand or by brain” was designed to expand Labour’s appeal beyond the trade union interest by seeking middle-class support for democratic socialism. That this was a fabian achievement was never a barrier to fabian interrogation and criticism of it.

Arthur Henderson favoured rewriting it by 1929. Fabians were at the heart of the revisionist social democratic push to revise clause four in the 1950s. Fabian general secretary, Bill Rodgers, was central to the modernising campaign for democratic socialism, which sought to mobilise support for Hugh Gaitskell’s ill-fated assault on the old clause four.

Fabians returned to the fray in the 1990s, as the society put Labour’s “southern discomfort” at centre stage after the 1992 general election. Giles Radice called on leader, John Smith, to revise clause four, and returned to the theme as the latest follow-up pamphlet was published on the eve of the 1995 conference. “There would be no better way of showing that Labour is putting forward a credible vision for the future than by rewriting clause four”, wrote Radice. His diaries recount that he had no prior knowledge of Blair’s plan to do exactly that, but was able to tell a fabian fringe meeting on the Tuesday night that “I have been outflanked by my leader”. A decade later, we were making the case for Labour to revisit its foundational values in every generation, not twice a century. Having successfully helped to put the language of equality back into mainstream politics – with the argument for more equal life chances now echoing across the political spectrum. So I argued that Labour ought now to have the confidence to make its commitment to a fairer and more equal society an explicit part of its political mission.

By contrast with the fabians, Progress has never had nor contributed to a clause four moment yet.

Founded in 1996, the organisation had been a mere glint in Derek Draper’s eye when Tony Blair revised clause four the year before. The self-styled modernisers of Progress, arriving afterwards, did not offer an independent, insurgent challenge for Labour to rethink its ideas. Rather, as Tom Watson has set out on Uncut, the organisation was created “from above”, through explicitly seeking out and receiving the patronage of the party leadership for its offer to consolidate and mobilise support for what had already become the new status quo. After fifteen years of flying that New Labour flag, arriving metaphorically in its late adolescence, Progress may increasingly face a “forward, not back” challenge of its own.

If the Fabian Society‘s next leadership should embrace the challenge to define the society’s own next clause four moment, it must also be time for Progress to consider how to have their first.

With Progress fashioning a new trend in fraternal advice and organisational scrutiny between progressive allies, it would seem only fair to reciprocate and to draw on the fabian experience to identify three signposts as to what Progress‘ first ever clause four moment might look like. (more…)

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False choices about Labour’s recovery

10/05/2011, 03:00:41 PM

by Sunder Katwala

If there has been one thing that has been symptomatic of Labour’s struggle to find a viable future strategy for electoral success, it is the penchant of too many in the party for daft debates about which voters the party does not want.

New Labour began by building the biggest tent British politics had ever seen, and ended by worrying endlessly about whether appealing too strongly to traditional Labour voters or Guardian readers would kill the project off. Meanwhile, the party’s left flank fretted about whether the support of marginal swing voters stopped Labour being Labour in government. If those were the problems, 29% of the vote would have been a solution. Neither Labour’s traditional base nor New Labour switchers saw the point of having Labour in government at all.

Well, here we go again.

The latest daft question: if Ed Miliband and the Labour party want to win the next election, should they seek to win votes from the Liberal Democrats, or from the Conservatives?

Uncut’s own Dan Hodges set up this choice at the New Statesman.

On the one hand, there is the compass analysis. The compass crystal ball has not proved infallible in the aftermath of the last election, but it now seems to mean pessimistically admitting that Labour will probably never ever win again under first past the post, so must negotiate a way to power with the Liberal Democrats.

On the other, we keep the New Labour flag flying by treating the collapsing Liberal Democrat vote as a distraction to be ignored entirely, because the only votes that count are those won from the Conservatives.
Another senior Labour insider put it this way:

“Ed has a clear choice. He can chase after a non-existent progressive majority, or he can try to bring middle and working class Tory voters home to Labour. Or, to put it another way, he can try to win on his own, or lose with Chris Huhne.”

It would be difficult to imagine a sillier debate about “electoral strategy”.

Perhaps the one thing that everybody serious about finding Labour’s path back to power could do is to refuse this framing, and to laugh at anybody who tries to start this debate. Neither Neal Lawson nor Dan Hodges are right about Labour’s route back to power. (more…)

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How to organise a political stag night

04/05/2011, 07:00:42 AM

by Sunder Katwala

Everybody loves a good wedding (except, obviously, for those objecting to the celebrations last Friday on grounds of republicanism, public expense or patriarchy).

So, when tomorrow’s knocking-up of the vote is done, and the AV hurly-burly is gone, Labour thoughts will naturally turn to the happy prospect of the union of Ed and Justine.

There will doubtless be much blue Labour bunting hung out by Maurice Glasman’s traditionalist band to celebrate the Labour leader’s conversion to the cause of matrimony.

Less happily, Ed also chose the holiday period, while shooting a few frames of pool with Mr Murdoch’s man from the Sun, to not only kill off “Red Ed”, but also to deliver a pointed snub to his allies in the Fabian Society. (He also took the up the offer to pose with the paper. Tony Blair did so with the headline “the Sun Backs Blair”. “Rooney hooker bedded married actor” may be less on message.)

As the Sun reported:

“Ed is finally marrying Justine Thornton, his long-term partner and mother of his two young sons in May. All Ed let slip was: ‘I’m not going to tell you about my stag. But it won’t be two Fabian Society lectures and half a pint of beer, as somebody in Westminster suggested'”.


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A snap election is no longer unthinkable – but it won’t happen

26/04/2011, 03:10:58 PM

by Sunder Katwala

An election this year is no longer unthinkable, writes Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley. ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie, influential champion of the Tory netroots, advises Cameron to prepare his troops. Perhaps the prime minister’s most unlikely adviser, Tom Watson, was ahead of the game.

Except that it won’t happen. (Just as economists have successfully predicted six of the last three recessions, commentators and bloggers promoting snap elections should have to declare their previous kite-flying efforts).

The most prominent objection so far is the difficulty of Mr Coalition Cameron engineering the destruction of his own government without the public seeing that he has acted in entirely bad faith. This would be Paxman’s dream “why should anybody believe a word you say” election, so brazenly have both governing parties done things which they promised not to. The prime minister who legislates for fixed term Parliaments and then runs to the country would put the seal on the most cynical interpretations of the new politics.

Perhaps a breakdown of collective responsibility and backbench rumblings will create gridlock, unless the LibDems do not simply pipe down again after May 5th. The LibDem grassroots are mobilising to seek to fillet the NHS Bill that their MPs voted for at second reading. But most Conservatives, while grumbling about the excessive influence of their junior partners, would be secretly relieved if a cosmetic pause comes closer to a full stop on reforms which the public finds incomprehensible. ‘Save Andrew Lansley’  is probably not a battle cry to win an electoral mandate.

But there is a better objection still. David Cameron hasn’t got the votes.

The Liberal Democrats certainly don’t want to face the voters anytime soon. They could lose their role in government and more than half of their MPs, probably including all of their women.

All the prime minister making that threat would have to lose is Downing Street and his political career.

The blindspot of much of the political class lies in consistently over-estimating David Cameron. He certainly looks the part as PM. He performs the public role with grace. But his record as party leader is as much about failure as success. His own side put him into TV debates to ‘seal the deal’ in 2010. He didn’t. But the assumption that he would was shared by his opponents, helping to explain why Labour didn’t prepare properly for the hung Parliament, and the LibDems made the pledge to students which would have served them well had the Tories won a small majority.

Yet everybody is doing the same thing again.

It has become a staple assumption that, had Cameron formed a minority government, he would then have swept to victory at the time of his choosing. If it was a sure thing, why didn’t it happen – and why was there so little Tory pressure to attempt it? It was because the risk was too great.
Historically, when the parties have gone back and asked the voters the same question after a hung Parliament, they have been given the same answer as the first time around. Had Cameron tried it, I have suggested before that David Miliband might now be Prime Minister.

A Tory election campaign this year would be rather less plausible than last Autumn. Ultimately, they would fall back on running against Gordon Brown and the government’s inheritance from Labour. Since that didn’t work well enough for the Tories to win when Gordon Brown was the alternative candidate, there is little reason to think the voters would find it more plausible now.

It is true that Labour is still rebuilding. If Ed Miliband’s party is more popular than Labour was at the last election – as, with 2 million LibDem voters having switched to Labour, it undoubtedly is – it is difficult to see how Cameron’s gamble could pay off.

If it didn’t come off, he’s Ted Heath, and surely on the way out. (more…)

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Purple bookers try to revive past New Labour glories

19/04/2011, 11:00:48 AM

Leading “Blairites” plan to publish a modernisers’ manifesto, to “reshape politics on the centre left” . It will be called The Purple Book.

by Sunder Katwala

Looking back at the successes and shortcomings of the New Labour years, it could be argued that, if there was a missed opportunity which set the limits to the party’s ambitions for progress, it came with the 2001 general election campaign.

It was an election which Labour was never going to lose. William Hague’s unpopular populism was never taken seriously across the country. Yet New Labour high command could never quite believe that the party was going to win, and was concerned to close down issues which it feared were resonating.

So the posters were purple – a lot done, a lot to do – in a bid to seek a largely mandateless re-coronation of the then very popular Tony Blair.

The result was a landslide – a slow motion replay of 1997, with almost no seats at all changing hands, but on a much lower turnout in a way that did little to shift the centre of political gravity. In retrospect, Labour’s 1997-2001 term stands up well, with a ream of manifesto commitments taken into office delivered in a way that endures, from the minimum wage to devolution.

What always remained elusive was “renewal” in office, though politicians and think-tankers talked of little else. The 2001 campaign may have a good claim to be the most cautious run by any winning party in the post-war period. (The major themes of the second term had been kicked into the long grass. It was a big deal for Gordon Brown to put up national insurance for the NHS, but it was safely “under review” during the campaign. Tony Blair’s big second term idea was to win the European argument, but he planned to begin it at the TUC conference on September 11th 2001, in a speech never given, rather than to take Hague’s “foreign land” campaign head on at the hustings).

Given that 9/11 came to dominate all else within a few months, perhaps events meant that it didn’t matter. But 2001 was probably the moment at which Labour needed to give its argument and vision more positive content.

Instead, Labour emulated Bill Clinton a few years earlier. It was re-elected, but did not seek to realign the political debate explicitly. It did shift policy arguments, but was less confident than Margaret Thatcher in believing that politicians could reshape the contours of public and political debate. (more…)

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Nick Cohen is wrong about religion

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

by Sunder Katwala

I think the Observer’s Nick Cohen was trying to polemicise against fundamentalism in his column on Sunday.

That made this rather sweeping claim, as part of his challenge to Sir Martin Rees’ acceptance of the Templeton prize, all the more surprising.

“Like millions who should know better, Rees is not religious himself but ‘respects’ religion and wants it to live in ‘peaceful co-existence’ with it”.

An eye-catching contribution from a very different position came from Maurice Glasman, who recently declared at the Christian socialist movement’s Tawney dialogues that the most important figure in the history of the British Labour party was Jesus of Nazareth – showing how blue Labour plans to put faith firmly back on the political table.

As a matter of historical fact, I suspect that Glasman is probably right, though I am not sure by what method we could accurately test or weigh Glasman’s claim for Jesus against possible counter-bids on behalf of Keir Hardie, Robert Owen, Robert Tressell, Beatrice Webb, RH Tawney, GDH Cole, George Orwell, Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan, Tony Crosland, Barbara Castle, Neil Kinnock, Nelson Mandela or even Tony Blair as sources of inspiration for various generations of Labour political activism.

In most European social democratic parties, the answer would be Karl Marx. But he is not a front-runner in a British Labour party which famously owed more to Methodism than Marxism.

Nick Cohen is perfectly entitled to advocate universal disrespect for religion, even if a couple of billion people may beg to differ. The publication of AC Grayling’s recent secular bible, the Good Book, had been taken as a rather encouraging sign that the “new atheism” was going to shift the emphasis to its positive humanist case. Nick Cohen remains very much in attack mode. In also proselytising against “peaceful co-existence”, he would seem to posit an active moral duty for non-believers to  constantly agitate in a secular culture war against faith, perhaps on a “this planet’s too small for both of us” principle.

So is a culture war about the role of religion unavoidable?

Nick Cohen’s argument depends on his belief that any notion of “respect” for religion or seeking “peaceful co-existence” with those of faith must entail granting it a “private” status which puts religion beyond public criticism or scrutiny, so rejecting fundamental human rights. Nowhere that I have seen does Rees make or endorse such an argument, though Cohen attributes it to him.

“The notion that Lord Rees so casually endorses – that you must respect the privacy of ideologies that mandate violence, the subjugation of women and the persecution of homosexuals, and treat them as if they were beyond criticism and scientific refutation – is the most cowardly evasion of intellectual duty of our day”.

Yet the notion that Nick Cohen so casually pursues – that any “respect” for religion inevitably means rejecting human rights by putting religion beyond any scrutiny – involves such a leap of logic that an examination of his column reveals that he has failed to explain or argue this at all.

Only if any “respect” for religion entails what Cohen claims would what he appears to argue follow: that the only way to prevent theocratic limitations on human rights is to engage whole-heartedly in a project determined to banish all traces of religion not just from the state and the public sphere, but from human society entirely.

But many of us would define “respect” for religion or “peaceful coexistence” entirely differently from Cohen, and indeed think that fundamental human rights require this.

Fundamental freedoms of conscience, speech and association surely include both the freedom to practice a religious faith and the freedom not to do so. Does that not require at least an important measure of both “respect” and “peaceful co-existence” between non-believers and believers everywhere? Most principled advocates of human rights and fundamental freedoms should be concerned with the freedoms of atheists in Saudi Arabia, Buddhists in Burma, Christians in Pakistan, Jews in eastern Europe, and Muslims in Switzerland. I would be very surprised if Nick Cohen wishes to reject that core principle, even as he maintains foundational disagreements with believers whose freedoms he must surely wish to uphold.

Cohen’s argument that any respect for religious faith (even by non-believers) must involve thrashing human rights must surely imply that no individual of sincere religious faith can ever avoid endorsing “the subjugation of women and the persecution of gays”. This is nonsense.

It is necessary to retreat from or reject this position to avoid arguing (for example) that no gay person could be a sincere or devout Christian, which would accidentally ally Cohen with the very fundamentalism he wishes to oppose. If it is possible for gay people to have religious faith and support gay rights, heterosexual believers must be able to share those views.

There would be another unfortunate consequence of Cohen’s argument for those of us who believe in universal human rights, and creating cultures and institutions which will uphold them everywhere. If he were right, no society in which a majority of people hold religious faith can uphold universal human rights. We would not want to lose the opportunity to promote democratic values and human rights in the United States of America, Poland, Egypt, Turkey, India or Nigeria.

If either holding religious faith or respecting it is incompatible with democratic values, then Cohen suggests we could not do so until there is an atheist majority in each country. This is a false claim, though it would also raise the interesting historical conundrum of how his rightly beloved enlightenment ever managed to get off the ground in eighteenth century Europe in the first place.

No doubt, one can identify many religious institutions and leaders who fall short of what Cohen wants on gender equaity and gay rights. It would not be difficult to score points against the Catholic church here. But such a charge sheet is not enough for Cohen’s argument, which is that religious faith is axiomatically incompatible with human rights. His blanket claim was holed by faith groups campaigning, for example, for religious blessing of civil partnerships, and indeed doing so as a matter of religious freedom.

Avoiding a “secularism versus faith” culture war is important for the political left, though many within it naturally sympathise with humanist and secularist projects.

It is certainly possible to have dangerous “unholy alliances” between secular and religious politics, on both left and right. I am in sympathy with Nick Cohen’s critique of the far left’s susceptibility to Islamist fundamentalism, for example in George Galloway’s Respect party.

But I cannot see how bad examples rule out forging any alliances which bring together those of faith and secular perspectives to pursue common causes and shared values, where no such trade-off with fundamental rights or values takes place.

The millennium campaigns to drop third world debt and promote international development; London Citizens campaigns for a living wage, and Citizens UK campaigns to rehabilitate the idea of “sanctuary” to promote more humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and arguments about the condition of our inner cities whether in the 1980s or about where the cuts will hit hardest now, are all causes with which Nick Cohen may have some sympathy. And they have been all promoted by those with faith and without it, not just co-existing but working together in a spirit of mutual respect. None of these campaigns prevented vigorous arguments about the fundamental truths of the universe, or risked selling out fundamental rights.

Labour’s secular humanist wing will have important and legitimate points to make about the scope and limits of the public claims which can be made for religious faith, to ensure that these remain compatible with fundamental human rights. But we should remember that there has always been a religious left as well as, and perhaps before, there was a religious right.

Nobody could plausibly deny the role of Christian socialism as one important influence on Labour’s vision of a “new Jerusalem”, crucially from motives of social justice shared equally and as strongly by atheists and agnostics in the Labour movement too.

We could do with rather less “culture war” and perhaps more of the accomodative spirit of Clement Attlee.

Nick Cohen would no doubt be disappointed that Attlee did not share his own certainty over the origin of the universe. Peter Hennessy recounts in his Never Again history of the 1945-51 Labour governments that Attlee’s exchange with his biographer Kenneth Harris on matters spiritual ended like this:

Harris: Would you say you are an agnostic?
Attlee: I don’t know.
Harris: Is there an after-life, do you think?
Attlee: Possibly.

Atllee described his approach to religious faith thus.

Believe in the ethics of Christianity. Can’t believe in the mumbo-jumbo

It is difficult today to think of any campaign for social justice or human rights that would benefit from the insistence that the largest political movements of the centre-left should actively seek to develop an allergic reaction to all expressions of religious faith.

If we are offered a culture war of mutual disrespect, just say no. Perhaps some of us may yet want to march behind Attlee’s agnostic banner alongside all of our allies who wish to champion our values of social justice and human rights.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the fabian society. He blogs his personal views – read more at

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A Labour-SNP coalition after May? Stranger things have happened (just).

29/03/2011, 01:00:25 PM

by Sunder Katwala

Could Labour and the Liberal Democrats govern together, despite their current animosities? It would be unwise to rule anything out about what is a very unpredictable electoral environment in 2015. But we might have a Lab-Lib government in five weeks rather than four years, once the Scottish elections take place on May 5.

Who governs Scotland may be the biggest unknown about May’s elections.

Labour, having performed extraordinarily well in Scotland in the British general election last May, remains favourite to top the poll, though SNP first minister, Alex Salmond, remains the dominant public figure in Scottish politics, and the latest polls are neck and neck.

If Labour can emerge ahead of the SNP in the PR election, it will have to decide whether to seek to govern alone or with coalition partners.

The favoured option of many Scottish MSPs and MPs is for a minority government, on the model of that run by Alex Salmond since 2007. A fixed term parliament makes this possible. And there are many MPs and MSPs who wish that Labour had governed alone when it was last in office. Introducing PR for local government has been particularly unpopular with several in the Labour tribe. (more…)

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“And Labour’s top baron is…Keith Vaz”, by Sunder Katwala

01/10/2010, 12:00:14 PM

The votes in the affiliates section of Labour’s electoral college are cast by the individual members of the unions and socialist societies, not as “block votes” by their leaders.

But who is Labour’s top baron? Which organisation proved most successful in persuading its members of the wisdom of its leadership, getting closest to a bloc vote pattern of voting for the chosen candidate?

No. It wasn’t Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley of Unite, nor Paul Kenny of the GMB, and not Dave Prentis of Unison either.

Both Unite and GMB voters split 2:1 for Ed over David Miliband, and Unison by 3:2. That is not nearly enough to prevent them falling a long way behind a rival party baron, as the full breakdown of affiliate voting shows. (more…)

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Claire Spencer wants us to admit defeat

18/05/2010, 09:53:28 AM

At Saturday’s Fabian Society ‘Next Left’ conference, General Secretary Sunder Katwala remarked that Labour’s defeat felt akin to bereavement for many of us. We all had a chuckle, but he was far from wrong – our candidates and activists have been in campaign mode for months, giving up most of their spare time in the name of a Labour government and a brighter future. Things had looked bad for a couple of years – but as the polls narrowed and the campaign machines roared into life, many of us hoped as we had never dared to hope before that this was salvageable, that we could win, that we could still deliver. And maybe we could have – but we didn’t – and losing that hope, that future really hit Labour people hard.

I haven’t changed my view that a Labour win would have been the best thing for the country – the timing and precision of public spending cuts, the environment and our position in Europe, to name but three areas of concern – even though it would not have been the best thing for Labour. But it doesn’t really matter what I think – as so many of the speakers at Saturday’s conference reminded us, we lost, and we lost badly, and we can’t hold the electorate in contempt for that. We failed. It felt bad, it still does – but now I feel as though I have sped through the stages of bereavement, right through to hope. At this point, we have the opportunity to take one eye off governance, and to really turn ourselves into the movement for positive change that we believe we can be, and to turn that into something eminently electable by the time we reach the next general election – hopefully in time for the people who need us as much as we need them. (more…)

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