Archive for September, 2012

Greatness is insignificant but leadership will be the catalyst of change

30/09/2012, 05:48:39 PM

by Jonathan Todd

“Prince Andrew thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain.”

Carne Ross cites these words from War and Peace in the conclusion to his The Leadership Revolution, How Ordinary People will take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century.

Prince Andrew thinks these things as he looks upon Napoleon, the “great man” that he had once so admired. In coming to doubt the capacity of such man, rather than the foot soldiers that they nominally control, to shape events, the experiences and views of Prince Andrew reflect the anarchist views of Tolstoy, according to Ross.

Such views are now propounded by Ross, who, after a 15 year career as a British diplomat, has come to doubt the capacities of our supposed leaders as completely as Prince Andrew. He writes:

“The revolution is as profound as it is simple. Evidence and research are now suggesting that the most important agent of change is us ourselves. At a stroke, the prevailing notion that the individual is impotent in the face of the world’s complex and manifold problems is turned on its head. Instead, the individual is revealed as a powerful motor of change, offering the prospect of immense consequences for politics and the world, and, no less, for themselves.”

The ideas of active equality and pro-social behaviour are not based upon any such prevailing notion. They may even have been inspired by the same evidence and research that Ross appeals to. In other words, some of the ideas that I see as most exciting and vital to Labour’s continued revival see the individual as Ross sees the individual, as a powerful motor of change.

But Labour, of course, is not an anarchist party. We have challenged unjustified privilege throughout our history. Nonetheless, we accept some forms of hierarchy as necessary, at least in mass societies, and the legitimacy of states. As I understand it, neither of these things is accepted by anarchists – with the venal hypocrisy of Julian Assange testament to where this lack of acceptance can lead.

What should matter to Labour is whether the hierarchies, including the offices and structures of the state itself, are organised on principles of equality and justice. While we accept that all cannot be generals, we should want those who are to have fairly and squarely ascended to these stations.


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Conference Notebook

30/09/2012, 10:34:33 AM

by Jon Ashworth

I’ve attended Labour conference continually since 1996. I’ve been a steward, a delegate twice, a bag carrier for an MP, a bag carrier for a Cabinet Minister, a back room boy for two leaders and this year and last as an MP.  And I still love it.

Though in my heart I still wish we went to Blackpool, I’m always excited to back here in Manchester the city where I grew up.

Conference effectively starts early on Saturday with the women’s conference, one of the reforms Harriet Harman pushed through her in brief period as acting leader. The event has got bigger and bigger over the last few years and gives Conference a buzz before it has even formally started. So much for the glums who complain there’s no excitement in the run up to Conference this year.


Whether its cutbacks or the realities of opposition I’m surprised to find no ring of steal round the Conference hotel this year. In fact I can walk right through the Midland hotel front door with my little 16 month old daughter Gracie in her push chair with no need to navigate G4’s security searches.

Unbeknownst to me I rock up minutes before Ed is to make the customary Leader arrival. Harriet waiting on the steps to greet Ed instead bounds up to little Gracie in her pushchair, while i look on embarrassed that her face (Gracie’s that is not Harriet’s) is covered with the residue of ‘Goodies’ tomato cheese puffs. I become even more embarrassed when I realise a camera man has spotted the encounter and is filming our deputy leader and little Gracie. I look on with a fixed grin trying to hide my worries about families watching TV in their front room at homes aghast at this bad father who has allowed his little girl to be on telly with such a mucky face. I hope no one in Leicester recognises me…

I’m then tapped on the shoulder by an officious looking press officer, clipboard in hand, telling me the leader is about to arrive and I need to get out of the ‘arrival shot’. Gracie and I quickly toodle off while I scavenge in my pocket for a face wipe.


Saturday evening always begins with the conference delegates’ reception. There is widespread support for Ed as he declares that tackling the horrendous levels of youth joblessness would be his priority on day one. It’s an important commitment for cities like Leicester where we our levels of youth unemployment remain stubbornly high. The commitment is greeted with much support in the room.

Among delegates there is much talk of things being good on the doorstep but everyone is naturally cautious and not wanting to take anything for granted. Council by-election results have been especially encouraging for us lately. Just the other week we won a seat with a spectacular 18% swing in the highly marginal Sherwood constituency. Congratulations to Sherwood Labour but there has of course been other good results elsewhere in battleground constituencies too.


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Advice for Ed: Unless Ed shows how Labour can be trusted on spending he might as well sing his speech in Swahili

30/09/2012, 07:00:31 AM

by Atul Hatwal

Third speech as leader, maybe it will be third time lucky. The task remains the same as in 2010: tackle voter concerns about Labour on spending. Note the focus here: spending. It’s not the deficit, nor debt, though both ideas are clearly very closely linked. It’s spending.

Too often when issues such as fiscal credibility or deficit reduction are raised, the Labour leadership’s immediate response is to talk about growth.

It’s understandable, our leaders are most comfortable describing ways to grow the cake rather than shrink it. No-one joins the Labour party to slash services. But just talking about how to boost the economy completely ignores the reason Labour lost the last election: voters don’t trust Labour on spending.

We could have the best plans for successfully stimulating the economy, reducing unemployment and supporting businesses and it would all matter not a jot.

That spurious charge, “Labour maxed the credit card” has stuck.  For many, debt and the deficit are the consequences of our reckless spending.  No matter how effective Labour’s plans for growth, voters think we would simply spend our way back into trouble.

Until this perception – and it is just a perception – is effectively rebutted, the party does not have voters’ permission to be heard on the economy.

The latest Ipsos Mori poll, released last Friday, has some stark figures that illustrate the depth of the hole in which the party finds itself.

In terms of the party with the best policies for managing the economy, Labour has fallen back since May. Immediately after Osborne’s bodged budget, the party had pulled level. Now, we are 5 points behind with 30% saying the Tories have the best policies and 25% opting for Labour.

Lest we forget, this slide on economic competence has happened during the worst of the double dip recession. If and when growth does return to the economy, what will happen to Labour’s economic ratings?

In his speech, Ed Miliband needs to directly address our problems on spending. He needs to acknowledge it as a real concern for many and show why voters can trust Labour again.


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The root causes of today’s problems go back further than the crash and require structural economic change

29/09/2012, 06:22:58 PM

by Jonathan Todd

We continue to live through the hangover from what Mervyn King called the NICE decade – non-inflationary continuous expansion. Just like all hangovers what we are living through is consequence of what came before. The supposed NICE decade was always pregnant with the nastiness of now.

This nastiness includes growth that is so feeble that GDP remains 4 per cent below its 2008 peak; a longer contradiction in growth than the notoriously grim 1930s; youth unemployment worse than in the 1980s; and an unprecedented incomes squeeze. It’s hurting but it’s not working: we’re told this is all the price for reducing the deficit but government borrowing is on the rise.

In what senses was the NICE decade pregnant with this nastiness?

Outside of London real median wages began to stagnate in 2003. The level of investment in the real economy was also weak over this period. Public finances became increasingly dependent on one sector of the economy (finance, obviously). The problem of youth unemployment, as David Miliband says, didn’t originate with this government but they made it worse. That can be said for other kinds of nastiness as well.

What was happening in the financial sector – the credit that it extended to households allowing them to live lives their incomes could no longer sustain; the taxes and bond purchases that it provided to government enabling them to spend more than otherwise – disguised the scale and extent of the structural problems with median wages, investment in the real economy, public finances, and youth unemployment.

We’ve transitioned from a “let them eat debt” era into a protracted period of public and private deleveraging and as we’ve done so, the structural problems have become more apparent and more pronounced – but they haven’t been created; they were always there.


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Advice for Ed: Bill Clinton’s lessons for Ed Miliband

29/09/2012, 01:00:43 PM

by David Talbot

There are many legacies of the Bill Clinton presidency, not all of them, admittedly, particularly advisable, but two should influence Ed Miliband most of all as he strides across the platform in Manchester to deliver his third speech as Labour leader.

Turning the clocks back 19 years, a newly-elected Bill Clinton already faced the most daunting task of his fledging presidency. He had ridden a wave of optimism, with a degree of luck, to easily defeat rival Democrats for the nomination and sweep George H. W. Bush from the White House with consummate ease. But his campaign pledge of “fighting for the forgotten middle class” with tax cuts, investment in education and a new health care plan was immediately in danger upon his inauguration with the realisation that the deficit had to be attacked in order to ensure the long-term health of the economy.

The president was faced with the unenviable situation of being forced into delivering economic pain now so that growth could return years later – just in time for his successors. The first few months of the administration was a fight for the mind of the president as to which strategy to honour.

It was the most important legislative issue of the Clinton presidency. Clinton chose a budget of tax rises, spending cuts and a clear commitment of rein in the deficit. It cleared Congress by two votes and the Senate by a single vote. Enactment of the legislation was viewed at the White House as essential to Clinton’s ultimate success as president.

Seven years later, 21 million jobs and the longest economic expansion in US history, it is fair to say Clinton got it right. The US enjoyed its first budget surplus in nearly 30 years as incomes rose on successive years. It was, though, painful. The president broke a direct campaign pledge and personally paid a heavy price on his political conscience.

The similarity with Clinton in 1993 and Miliband in 2012 are stark. Just as then, the economy is a mess. Unemployment is rising; the deficit is enormous, personal debt frighteningly high, the property market in freefall. The economy is going to be central to the struggle for Downing Street in 2015, just as it was for Clinton’s White House bid in 1992.

The first legacy Miliband should take from this past president is one of fiscal responsibility – that of appealing to those voters who consider themselves conservative on debt and deficit issues. At this present time, whether the Labour party likes it or not, that means three quarters of the British public. The second is that it may be appropriate to break campaign promises, or to go directly against the ideological grain of a party’s thought, because of changing political circumstances.

The villains in the Clinton struggle for his 1993 budget were militant Republicans and in particular Senator Bob Dole and Speaker of the House Newt Gringrich. The US people never forgot their intransigence, including the shutting down of the federal government  in 1995, and duly gave Dole a kicking in the 1996 presidential election and rewarded Gringrich with a mere 14% of the vote in the Republican primaries some seventeen years later.

The Labour leader needs to at long last detail a clear line on the deficit in his conference speech. The early days that ushered in the New Year where Miliband, with his Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, sketched out a position of fiscal realism seem worryingly long ago.

Miliband has a choice. He can continue the fantasy that a new Labour government would return to the spending levels seen in the boom of the 2000s. Or he can accept, as Clinton did, the political and economic reality in which he now operates in.

Clinton didn’t become president to cut the deficit; but he realised it was a means to an end to achieve the political ambitions he held for himself, his party and his country.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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Advice for Ed: Ed Miliband’s speech to Labour party conference 2012

29/09/2012, 07:00:33 AM

Anthony Painter solves the traditional last minute scramble to finish the leader’s speech by providing a final draft, ready for delivery, four days early

Embargo:1415 02/10/12

Ed Miliband speech to Labour conference, Manchester 2012

*Check against delivery*

It is now half a decade since a financial storm lashed against these shores. A few spots of rain at first then became a torrent and flood. With quick action we limited the devastation but still the damage was still immense. No one was prepared but luckily we are resourceful. And yet, half decade on, we look on at the debris and desolation with a sense of regret: how did we end up here?

It is fine to look back and say what might have been, what should have been. And we all – across the parties – need the humility to admit that more should have been done to spot the weakness in our defences and ensure we were better prepared. Our financial system was not sustainable. Or economy was unbalanced.

Our opponents want to turn this into a party political blame game. I understand that impulse but we all must take responsibility.

And at just the time when trust in our representatives was at a premium, we let the British people down.

They should have been able to expect honesty from those who hold their futures in their hands. And yet, many were on the take. At a time of confusion, we should have been able to turn in trust to those who we expect not to perform miracles but to at least share our basic values. As the expenses scandal took hold that line of trust was broken.

So it is little wonder that people didn’t feel ready to grant any single party a majority in the last election. Trust was broken. The financial storm was vicious. Optimism was lost.

Two years on, and too little has changed. We still are surrounded by the after-effects of the storm. Politicians are held in contempt.  In some ways, it is worse: we now also know that certain elements of the media were failing to meet the standards we have a right to expect. I understand very clearly why people would turn away from politicians. And I understand why they think that none of us really have any answers.

Yet we have to move forward somehow. There’s a nation to rebuild. It’s now clear that the austerity-first approach has failed. I’m going to say something very unusual in politics: I think our opponents genuinely felt that they were pursuing the right course. But they got it wrong. Getting a judgment call wrong might be forgivable if you are honest about it and shift course. This they have failed to do.

So my real criticism is their failure to acknowledge their error and reach for an alternative. It was always a risk to cull youth jobs programmes before the recovery was properly established. The same goes for cuts to housing, infrastructure, new schools and other much need investment. It was a gamble. The coalition lost the bet on our behalf.

Again, the blame game is not enough. We must now move forward from here. My question for the British people is a simple one: faced with this challenge what would an ambitious nation do?

Sure, we can turn on one another, we can despair, we can throw the distrust that our politicians have too easily fostered back at the political system. But there is another way. We can understand that the choices are hard, the sacrifices are many, but we can emerge as stronger, more resilient, more optimistic nation once we have rebuilt after the storm. And that is something we simply have to do together- as a nation not as opposing tribes.

Optimism doesn’t require us to shy away from reality, however. In fact, it means we have to face it. That means accepting some hard truths. The deficit will dominate our politics for the remainder of this decade. There is much that we would like to do – cut taxes for the average family, expand social care, child care and invest more in public services – but this may all have to wait. If we find savings or we decide to ask the wealthy to pay more as they can afford more then it will be the deficit not new programmes that takes priority.


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The proud history of towns like Manchester and Leeds offers Labour a model for practical socialism

28/09/2012, 09:53:53 PM

by Jonathan Todd

Alan Bennett has written that he felt growing up in Leeds in the 1940s can’t have been unlike growing up in a fifteenth-century Italian city state, such was Leeds’ sense of itself. Now Leeds has more councillors over the age of 80 than under the age of 35. It is not ageist to see this, sadly, as a sign of civic decline.

Similarly, the grandeur of Manchester town hall, which will again play host to events at Labour party conference, seems to recall a time when the city was more certainly in command of its future.

Paul Salveson recently published a book that describes and celebrates a distinctive northern socialism that never waited for a hand out or hand up from London. Long before the classic social democracy of Crosland and Hattersley, which saw mechanical reform from the commanding heights of Whitehall as the road to socialism, Salveson’s heroes – such as Hannah Mitchell, Benjamin Rushton and Ben Turner – got on with morally reforming themselves and their communities with a swagger to put the Stone Roses in the shade.

Salveson’s writings uncover a past where active equality, driven by civic pride, was the norm. A pride which brings to mind in a more localised sense a line that Tim Soutphommasane, an inspiration to Jon Cruddas, is said to be fond of: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

This is not the socialism of ambiguous metropolitanism but an urgency to right the wrongs and champion the distinctiveness of the particular and specific place that forms and is formed by its people.

The building blocks of the national rebuilding that Cruddas seeks are to be found in recovering this urgency. The UK will be rebuilt street by street, community by community, city by city, country by country.

Hope does not reside in nebulous, arm-chair discussions on the nature of Britishness, Englishness or Scottishness, but in the practical steps of active equality. Action precedes hope, not the other way around, pace Barack Obama 2008 vintage.

Unsurprisingly, Richard Florida reports that mayors are more popular than other politicians. They are potent vessels of civic pride, which Mitchell, Rushton and Turner would recognise, targeted only upon pragmatic solutions. While Whitehall mandarins fight their turf wars and most politicians fixate on the urgent, mayors knock heads together, cross dress and build allegiances beyond tribal lines as required to secure the important.

Mayors were largely rejected at referendums in England in May. However, as Henry Ford knew, people would have stated a preference for faster horses before knowing what cars are. As far as possible, the attributes of automobiles must now be grafted on to the equine structures that grasp towards leadership of our cities. In other words, we should devolve power to the existing institutions, rather than seeking to have institutional change precede this. Putting rocket boosters under the city deals programme is an obvious way of advancing this.


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The press is about to turn on Ed Miliband

28/09/2012, 10:41:47 AM

by Atul Hatwal

A couple of weeks ago, the conversation among a small group of lobby journalists perched at a Westminster bar (what is the proper term for such a group: a conspiracy? A Pernod perhaps?) turned to an important question: do you think Ed Miliband can make it into Number 10?

Despite the polls, the government’s rolling omnishambles and even some of their own past articles, the answer was a resounding, “no.” No ifs. No buts.

So what, you might think. Just cynical noises off from Westminster insiders, irrelevant to most peoples’ lives.

True enough, but these are also the people who frame political debate in this country. The hive mind of the lobby, with its shared assumptions and outlook mediates political truth in this country.

It shapes the tenor of the articles across the press which then set the agenda for the broadcast media.

Since the budget, the lobby narrative about the Labour leader has been quite benign. It has run along the lines of, “Ed Miliband is underestimated and actually quite effective.”

It’s helped the Labour leader garner substantially more positive reviews from the media for his House of Commons performances, despite there being little substantive difference from the previous year when he was panned each week, and spawned a series of pieces talking up the prospect of Labour victory.

Fraser Nelson in the Spectator exemplified this tendency earlier in the month with his announcement of the “Age of Ed”. He declared, “Yes Ed is no showman. But maybe voters have had enough of charisma.”

For Labour’s spinners this has been manna from heaven: authoritative writing from the right that endorses the happy story of the headline polls. The twittering echo chamber of Labour activists, wannabe MPs, loyalist MPs, friendly bloggers and journalists has been ringing like Big Ben.

However, although this has been a relatively stable equilibrium for several months, there are signs that the situation might be about to change.

A few days after the Pernod of journalists wrote off Miliband’s chances, a poll came out which showed an absolutely enormous Labour lead – the Ipsos Mori survey which had the party 15 points ahead.

The poll was widely reported, but with a twist.

The articles all cited the large Labour advantage but then zeroed in on David Cameron’s commanding lead over Ed Miliband as peoples’ preference for prime minister. The story was the same from the New Statesman to the Daily Mail.

It was as notable as it was peculiar.

Ed Miliband has consistently trailed David Cameron in the leadership stakes in almost every poll, but this has rarely been such a prominent feature in reports of the polling. Almost every piece this time highlighted the gap between the leaders in the headline.


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How does Labour build social solidarity?

27/09/2012, 09:51:42 PM

by Jonathan Todd

“High-quality government institutions will increase the level of social trust, which will make reciprocity translate into solidarity, which in turn will increase the possibilities for establishing policy for increased equality.”

This is an important conclusion from the political scientist Bo Rothstein. His research suggests that a society that strives for active equality and cultivates pro-social behaviour begins with such institutions. The creation of these institutions is an act of mechanical reform. But their purpose is to catalyse moral reform.

Unlike William Guest, the main character in William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890), we cannot hope, sadly, to fall asleep and find such mechanical reform complete. Labour must seek to deliver this reform in the somewhere that we find ourselves: Britain in the here and now.

This is a place of brittle social trust, as support for tough welfare and immigration policies attests. The wide popularity of Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony spoke of a country increasingly at ease with its past and eager to imbibe occasions of shared meaning. Yet we can be quick to assume that our fellow citizens are free riding on our hard work.

To some extent these sentiments can be assuaged by applying conditionality to welfare and immigration. We need to feel confident that those who can work are doing so or taking steps to do so and those who come to the UK are contributing to our economic and social wellbeing. But the anxieties around welfare and immigration perhaps speak to a wider sense of malaise and mistrust than that which can be wholly explained exclusively in terms of these issues themselves.

It might reward a society so lacking in confidence that its members will contribute fairly to ask: What are the duties that should be required of all?

We all have a duty to obey the law and pay our taxes. Trust has been corroded by senses that a privileged few don’t play by the same rules or tax codes as the rest of us. These senses urgently need to be tackled and are one reason in favour of simpler, more transparent taxes: the less opaque the system the less scope for evasion or avoidance. But obeying the law and paying tax seem a relatively undemanding set of common duties.

Recovering a stronger sense of shared citizenship might also require compulsory voting and some form of mandatory national service. Spoiling the ballot paper should be legitimate, as we cannot demand that anyone necessarily support the options put before them, but we cannot hope to be any more than a society of them-and-us if politics, the method for addressing issues of mutual concern, is only ever for them.


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The Rotherham grooming case shows the dangers of confusing criminality with culture

27/09/2012, 07:00:12 AM

by Peter Watt

If you are a parent then there are some things that scare you more than others.  Someone else hurting your children is pretty high up that list.

The details emerging from Rotherham over the last few months about the systematic abuse of young girls are truly the stuff of parental nightmare.  But it’s all made worse because it now seems that for over ten years those charged with protecting children and young people failed.  In fact worst of all, they decided to look the other way!

They made a choice; protect children in the face of overwhelming evidence of sexual abuse and cruelty or worry more about some misconceived notion of “cultural sensitivities”, as if there is any culture where rape is acceptable.

They chose the latter.

It is important to say that the Times (£) has led the way in exposing both the abuse and the cover up.  And some of the details that they have uncovered from confidential reports are some of the most shocking that you can imagine.  The documents revealed by the Times give details of events over the years for which no one was prosecuted such as:

  • fifty-four Rotherham children were linked to sexual exploitation by three brothers from one British Pakistani family, 18 identifying one brother as their “boyfriend” and several allegedly made pregnant by him;
  • a 14-year-old girl from a loving, supportive family was allegedly held in a flat and forced to perform sex acts on five men, four of them Pakistani, plus a 32-year-old Iraqi Kurd. She gave a filmed police interview and identified her abusers;
  • one girl, 15, spent days in hospital after a broken bottle was allegedly forced inside her by two young British Pakistani men in a park, causing her to bleed extensively;
  • a 13-year-old girl was found at 3am with disrupted clothing in a house with a large group of Asian men who had fed her vodka. A neighbour reported the girl’s screams. Police arrested the child for being drunk and disorderly but did not question the men.

But the police and local authorities knew – and did nothing!


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