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Stormy waters lie ahead for Labour in local government, most of all in London where the conflict over ‘Low Traffic Neighbourhoods’ brings overtones of Brexit

20/10/2021, 10:32:16 PM

by Paul Wheeler

For generations Labour locally had a unique and enduring offer for working class communities. Labour councils provided decent and affordable housing for millions of families and in time their adult children, they offered high standards of education for their children and in many instances provided secure employment across a range of skills. In return those communities provided the bedrock of Labour support across a whole range of towns and cities.

But that solidarity has been shattered by decades of privatisation and council house sales and none of those essential services are now provided on any scale by local councils. More recently national politicians have urged supporters to view local elections as a referendum on the respective party in power centrally (‘send them a message’) much to the outrage of local councillors who wanted to be judged independently of their parties national standing.

But that strategy has faltered in recent elections. Local politics has become more transactional. This is most clearly seen in the rise of hyper localist independent groups bidding for council seats and usually aligned with a desire to maintain property values and stop any form of housing development. For the Conservatives the trend is most clearly seen in rural and suburban District Councils where they have lost control to an array of Residents Groups and Liberal Democrats trading on a localist anti-development platform

For Labour the trend is more complex. In many of its metropolitan councils and county councils the hyper-localist parties have been able to exploit long standing grievances in local Townships that the ‘Town Hall’ doesn’t understand or care about their concern. There was evidence of this in the recent Batley and Spen by-election in respect of the policies of the ‘remote’ Kirklees Council. Across conurbations such as Greater Manchester such discontent has translated into support for independent councillors in traditional Labour towns such as Radcliffe, Farnworth and Failsworth.

The Conservatives as the governing party have a range of responses to the rise of transactional politics. They can offer a range of financial incentives such as Town Fund Bids (which have an unerring tendency to be awarded to Tory councils and constituencies) to keep voters on board locally. They can also simply abolish troublesome District Councils as part of a wider move to larger unitary councils.

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Most of us know we won’t be the best. We do normal jobs and try to enjoy what we’ve got. Politicians should spend more time celebrating this

13/10/2021, 10:38:18 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

This is an age when we need to think the unthinkable, because we’re living at a time when the undoable is being done daily. Yet amazingly, the world does not stop spinning, because we adaptable humans, though reeling, continue to stumble onwards.

Just think about last week. Who predicted (answer: not the common man, not politicians and not academics), that there would be a global and British fuel and energy crisis? Or that government ministers would face the legitimate and unprovocative question “can you guarantee that the lights will stay on this winter?”.

Did any of us think there nearly wasn’t enough carbon dioxide for our entire meat processing industry, or enough gas to power manufacturing?

Did anybody predict that the Prime Minister would claim that unprecedented problems with the economy, such as a lack of abattoir workers, or lorry drivers, that are starting to render entire industries in danger of collapse, and national herds of animals at risk of fruitless slaughter, would be dismissed breezily as a necessary rebalancing of the economy after the great Brexit gamble?

My old favourite litmus test for modern political insanity, George Orwell, will surely be smiling or grimacing up there in heaven or its atheist equivalent, at a government whose leaders claimed that their chosen course in Brexit would lead to sunny uplands, dismissed those who warned in advance of economic problems as unpatriotic and fear-mongering, then manage, through a flick of the quill, to claim that the resulting economic calamities are actually a sign of improvement and a great benefit to the worst off.

What does this tell us about the nature of our lives in the year 2021, in the Restless Twenties? On the one level, governments make sure to guarantee the basics, hence we had furlough, and, thankfully, the welfare state protects us from the vicissitudes of the market.

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Time for pledges not pamphlets Keir

25/09/2021, 10:05:21 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Time for pledges not pamphlets Keir

This week Labour leader Keir Starmer published a 14,000 word essay. My immediate thought was that this risks getting us into ‘longest suicide note in history’ territory (after the labour manifesto of 1983 was so described by a Gerald Kaufman). Maybe he should have spent a bit more time inspecting plans for internal party reform than writing this opus.

Do Sir K’s PR advisors not think through the optics of such news? Perhaps the strategy is to set expectations so low that a grateful public will be relieved when instead of having to read 14,000 words they hear a few soundbites on the news?

Or is it an authenticity strategy: it worked for Jeremy Corbyn after all. I recall much hyperbole from MPs I know, as well as normally sensible activists, coming back from Corbyn rallies satiated with the industrial strength Kool-Aid dispensed both by cults and political leaders who tell their supporters what they want to hear, no matter how magical.

But the essay story projects the kind of authenticity that reinforces negative stereotypes of scholarly intellectual debate among and for socialists.

If the rise of Mr B Johnson has taught us anything, it is that the next election will not be won or lost on the intellectual coherence of an exceedingly long Master’s thesis.

Perhaps one or two other lessons might be learnt, and rapidly, if we are to have any hope of winning the next election. The first is that people want to hear what labour will actually do about any given issue. Not why the Tories are wicked, but how Labour would do things better. It’s a simple concept that is often lost by oppositions.

Then they want to hear an optimistic vision, set out in a clearly understandable narrative that tells a credible story about why voting labour is better for them and for the whole country, underpinned with policies that validate this.

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Government U-turns on Triple Lock and National Insurance, but still the young lose out

12/09/2021, 11:13:00 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Double U-turn on Triple Lock and NI, but not on preferencing old over young 

Last week saw two U-turns by the government. First, they temporarily suspended the Triple Lock for pensioners because of an unusual and statistically anomalous rapid rise in earnings caused by the pandemic.

The second U-turn saw Johnson finally putting meat on the bones of his famous pledge, delivered in his first ever speech as PM in Downing Street in July 2019, to “fix the crisis in social care…with a clear plan we have prepared”. Tuesday’s mini-budget announced a National Insurance-funded Health and Social Care Levy. Note the sentence that preceded this: “My job is to protect you or your parents or grandparents from the fear of having to sell your home to pay for the costs of care.”

The government made the levy apply to some share income and on state pensioners’ income if they continued to work, in an attempt to mitigate criticism that using the National Insurance mechanism makes younger people, by definition of working age, subsidise benefits enjoyed by the elderly.

Yet this was only a fig-leaf, covering the sensitive nether regions of our system of taxation: namely that we have for too long preferred to tax income from work over other forms of income derived from other forms of wealth. Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, the excellent Rachel Reeves, eloquently put it thus: “Which types of income will be paying no additional tax after today? They include those who get their income from financial assets, stocks and shares, sales of property, pension income, annuity income, interest income, property rental income and inheritance income… Some 95% of the revenue the government plan to raise from this tax bombshell comes from employment. What a contrast.”

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Sleazy does it

12/08/2021, 10:30:49 AM

by Jack Lesgrin

Sleazy does it

Last week, domestic politics was somewhat dominated by allegations that, as one paper put it, “the chairman of the Conservative Party [Ben Elliott, nephew of Prince Charles] is using his business partner in a secretive company to help manage party donors and arrange access to Boris Jonson.” Journalists had not previously reported the existence of this company. Other companies he is apparently associated with, such as public affairs consultancy Hawthorn Advisers and Quintessentially, a luxury concierge service. A hugely murky picture is painted. It ticks all the mental boxes of conspiratorial journalists and opposition party activists. Lobbying company: tick. Company servicing the high-end whims of UHNWIs: tick. Connections to the Royal Family: tick. Political donations: tick. Access to government ministers and the PM: tick. All sounds awful, no?

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a range of political pantomime villains guaranteed to tweak the anger sensors of devout Tories (instead of devout anti-Tories, as above). Let’s tell the story again. Mr A, a general secretary of a large and influential trade union, has set up a secretive sub-committee (because it would have to be a sub-committee, wouldn’t it!) of fellow trade unionists. The committee’s purpose seems to be to coordinate fundraising for local Constituency Labour Parties. Since the story broke, some right-wing journalists have alleged that this influence enabled the committee to pressurise local CLPs to select union-friendly parliamentary candidates and CLP chairs. Although this has been denied, the close former union colleague of Mr A, Mr B, has been selected for a safe Labour seat. The sub-committee’s existence and terms were not made public and the members have said that there was no requirement to do so and that nothing they did was illegal or immoral. Sunday’s papers revealed that the sub-committee had also arranged private meetings with the PM and Business Secretary in the run up to Labour Party conference and a contentious new bill on employment rights.

Tories would perhaps find this offensive. But things like it occur all the time. None are illegal. Many don’t particularly like them, but until our system of political funding is reformed and, more broadly, our party system is opened up, through genuine proportional representation, the major parties will continue to have their pantomime villains of access and funding. The noises off are off target.

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Is it time for UN climate-keepers for Brazil’s rainforest?

01/08/2021, 12:44:04 AM

by Jack Lesgrin

Is it time for UN climate-keepers for Brazil’s rainforest?

Thursday before last, we learnt that the appalling, man-made destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil has meant that this, the world’s largest carbon sink, may for the first time be emitting more CO2 than it consumes.

Here’s a thought experiment. Most people (although not many of the hard left) think that state sovereignty should be overruled when a genocide is happening, to protect victims, prevent broader instability and deter future violators by punishing those who commit crimes against humanity. What if a state, through act or omission, was causing environmental and ecological damage that will affect the long-term health of not only the citizens of their own territory but the whole world? What if this damage caused not merely ill-health, but the long-term viability of life as we know across vast swathes of the world?

We might be reaching a time when the egregious actions in the Amazon, of far-right populist, President Jair Bolsonaro, may require the international community to take action that prevents the destruction of what is a global environmental asset, as well as a national territorial possession. Of course, the first steps would need to be diplomatic and seek to induce better behaviour. Next might come sanctions of some kind. But countless cases in recent geopolitics show that diplomacy, international sanctions and strong words often have no effect. The time might soon come when the international community will have to be far more robust with states that cause irreparable damage to our environment.

Fortunately, the UN Environment Programme is doing interesting work in this area and in June, an international panel of legal experts defined and proposed a new category of international crime – ‘ecocide’ that if taken up by the Parties to the International Criminal Court, would become the fifth category of offences prosecuted by the court alongside war crimes and so-on. Increasingly, legal cases are being taken by campaigners and individuals to hold companies to account for the environmental damage they cause. But as countless victims of oppression or genocide know only too well, international law normally only has effect after massacres have occurred, to prosecute only a tiny minority of offenders, decades later. In other words: ‘too late’. As recent news about how the UK climate has already undergone damaging change shows, we cannot wait before acting. What if the whole of the Amazon was destroyed? Would anti-interventionists cling to the notion that ‘sanctions and diplomacy works’ or that ‘state sovereignty is everything’ or that ‘the UN Security Council didn’t pass a resolution, so your intervention was illegal’? Or might we need a UN climate-keeping force to protect the rainforests?

Premium presenters promoted to plum positions preventing progression

I’ve been on holiday so have been listening to even more Radio 4 than normal, hearing its talented journalists, producers and editors, creating content that by itself is more than worth the licence fee. You can deduce that I’m a fan. So what I’m about to say is in no way a criticism of the individual presenters or journalists, all of whom are brilliant and I’m sure decent people who try to help out their colleagues.

I have a hunch that the BBC management, like management everywhere, decides who are the golden boys/girls and gives them the most challenging and often rewarding roles to the exclusion of others. A couple of years ago, in a single weekend, Andrew Marr presented a TV political documentary on Saturday, the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, followed by Start The Week on Radio 4 on Monday. I thought this must be an aberration, for surely it would be more equitable to share these prize positions around the BBC stock.

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Labour in local government is the launchpad for general election victory. But right now, it’s over-stretched and the party leadership needs to pay attention

19/07/2021, 11:00:15 PM

by Paul Wheeler

As the political world staggers towards the summer recess let’s spare a thought for Labour local government.

Because lost in the spats at PMQs and Parliamentary by-elections the sad reality for the Labour Party is that the local election results in May 2021 were much worse than the General Election in December 2019. May saw the continuation of the collapse in Labour support in many traditional towns and shire county councils such as Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire which were Labour controlled within the last decade now have substantial Conservative majorities. Durham a Labour council for over 100 years is no longer controlled by the party. Labour now has only one Police and Crime Commissioner in the English shires and Cleveland, a Labour fiefdom until recently, elected a Conservative Metro Mayor with over 70% of the popular vote. In many district councils Labour groups are in single figures.

Obviously, politics can change quickly. After the April 1992 general election Labour continued to lose support at the subsequent local elections and there was much speculation that the Conservatives were the natural party of government’. Along came the collapse of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and with it the Tories reputation for economic management and within a year they had lost every shire county bar Buckinghamshire. By 1994 Labour gained over 4000 council seats – its largest ever margin of victory – destroying the Conservatives in local government and paving the way for the 1997 general election.

But those hoping for a similar post Covid reaction need to remember that history or hindsight are never suitable explanations for future events. In the past Labour generally faced challenges from mainly Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The local elections this May have shown new challenges from the Green Party in Sheffield and Bristol and from a range of hyper-localist independents in towns such as Bolton and Bury and traditional shire and new unitaries such as South Yorkshire and Stoke.

You don’t need to study ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu to know that fighting on four different fronts presents considerable challenges to any political party.

Yet if Labour is to continue as a mainstream party across England we need to develop campaigns and policies that can respond to these multiple challenges

And amidst the gloom there is hope. Labour was able to advance in local government in new localities such as Worthing and West Oxfordshire. And even more encouragingly we were able to win the new Mayoralties of the West of England and Peterborough with Dan Norris and Nik Johnson (although spoiler alert: the Government have announced plans to abolish the electoral system that made such victories at regional level possible).

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Hypocritical hype

17/07/2021, 09:33:19 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Hypocritical hype

The last two weeks have been about dashed sporting dreams. We know all about the football and everything surrounding the final. But the week before last, on Monday, the BBC’s Wimbledon team, led by the normally calm and collected Clare Balding, carried out a morning after analysis of Emma Radecanu’s unsettling exit from the quarter finals. Brows were furrowed, foreheads scratched and all wore a stupefied, concerned demeanour. They pondered whether the enormity of the occasion had perhaps got too much. But just what could have caused this? Lots of suggestions were forthcoming, but one they omitted to mention was the previous day’s pre-match BBC Sport trail for the match which the Beeb had clearly worked hard on. It was glitzy, edgy, projected excitement and even had the name “Radecanu” emblazoned across the screen like an advert. One might even describe this as an unnecessary, somewhat exploitative example of hyping up to the nth degree a great British hope, out of all proportion and without thought about the interests of the object if the hype. But naturally, the BBC presenters weren’t ready to admit their own role in all this.

Guilty of being not guilty

Readers will know that this column has an editorial stance on whether there are checks and balances at play regarding this or any government. ‘Told you so’ is an annoying thing to read, so apologies, but a classic of the genre of the establishment pretending that it holds the executive to account occurred last Wednesday when the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone, issued a report that found the Prime Minister to have been in breach of the Code of Conduct regarding his declaration on the Register of Members’ Financial Interests about holiday accommodation provided to him on the island of Mustique in St Vincent and the Grenadines between 26 December 2019 and 5 January 2020. She found ‘Mr Johnson in breach of paragraph 14 of the Code because he did not “make sufficient inquiries to establish the full facts about the funding arrangements for his free accommodation, either before his holiday, as he should have done, or in 2020”.’

Sounds damning, but by some quirk of good fortune and happenstance, the happy outcome of which top legal counsel would normally be needed to generate, apparent inaction in investigating the origin of this holiday assistance, meant that the authorities couldn’t even rule on what the entry in the Register should have included. The report notes that: ‘The Commissioner stated that she was unable to establish the arrangements, if any, for funding the accommodation. The Commissioner did not conclude that Mr Johnson’s Register entry was inaccurate since, as she notes, she was unable to conclude what Mr Johnson’s Register entry should have contained.’

But it gets better for the PM. What good fortune! You see it’s the Committee on Standards itself, comprised of MPs, that has the final say on these matters. Despite Ms Stone finding the PM in breach, the committee itself ‘concluded it did not have sufficient evidence to reach a determination as to whether there had been a breach of the Code…The Committee therefore found that Mr Johnson’s Register entry was accurate and complete, and found no breach by Mr Johnson of paragraph 14 of the Code.’

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Put seven-year-olds, not experts, in charge of Covid response. Seriously.

09/07/2021, 11:45:30 AM

by Jack Lesgrin

Put seven-year-olds, not experts, in charge of Covid response 

Throughout last week, the airwaves were a-buzz with the monotone, trance-like speech patterns of a plethora of the scientific community’s “usual suspects”, called upon by the media to fulfil their role providing endless commentary about an imminent event – the PM’s pre-announcement of a later announcement about so-called “Freedom Day”.

This is much in the same way as with general elections: the commentary does not change a single vote; the votes will be counted; there will be a winner; so why not commentate once the result is in? I digress… The scientists, all of whom are, somewhat implausibly, part of one or other of the government’s advisory committees – SAGE, NERVTAG, SPI-B, SPI-M and so-on, are of course, hugely talented people, doing a superb job. But often, these interviews do not show them in their best light.

First, what they say is almost always conditional, nuanced and non-committal. Not only do they all end up playing the get-out-of-jail-card of “advisers advise, ministers decide, and so I’m not able to answer the question of what should actually be done”, but they seem terrified of saying anything quotable. Instead, they equivocate, they seek a balanced line: “well, if we did this then that, and if we did that then this, and I’m not able to say which is right as that’s the job of ministers”. They’re so wedded to the scientific method that they cannot bring themselves to act on an intelligent hunch. The answer is always, “the data are incomplete, so we must wait for another couple of weeks before we can see that for certain.”

Normally, this would be fine, but a deadly virus does not do nuance, or equivocation; it does not wait for “the evidence”, nor does it defer to ministerial edict. Its defeat or suppression can only be achieved through the application of the scientific approach, carried out by scientists. Yet this is a necessary, though not sufficient condition. What was needed last spring, and is needed now to deal the continuing pandemic, is intelligent hunches that are acted upon. Here is my hunch about hunches and how they would have saved far more lives. Here we go…

First, gather together some seven-year-olds – call them a junior citizens’ jury. Have a primary school teacher explain to them the basics of how respiratory viruses transmit and the pre-Covid evidence from the WHO on how to control pandemics. The teacher explains such matters as how borders work, how graphs show numbers of infections going up or down, the basics of the Spanish Flu, how quickly it spread and what mitigations worked a century ago.

Second, ask them, given what they know, whether they would assume that there was no asymptomatic transmission (in children’s terms, you could say: “do you think we should be careful around people even if they’re not coughing, or just the people who are coughing?). I think they would veer towards caution. Yet our experts last March, chose to assume no asymptomatic transmission because “there was no evidence to suggest this”. As this diary has said previously, a lack of evidence “proving” something now, does not mean there will not be evidence of it later. This is quite possibly one of the biggest flaws of the scientific approach in the context of a pandemic.

Then ask them whether they thought that Covid could be transmitted through the air? Again, unlike our experts, who waited for the evidence to accumulate, I wager that our seven-year-olds would knock this one out of the park. They’d think: “I know that when my pal was coughing and sneezing, I caught their cold”.

How about the question of whether or not it’s a good idea to allow large numbers of travellers in from a country with a clearly dangerous rise in cases and a new variant. Again, the non-expert children would likely say “close the border”. We did not close our border properly until the Delta variant had seeded itself in our country.

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Jack Lesgrin’s week: Defender pokes the Russian bear with no consequence

01/07/2021, 10:41:57 PM

by Jack Lesgrin

Defender pokes Russian bear with no consequence

Last Wednesday caused a bristle of excitement for active and retired armchair admirals and generals (aka most of the adult, male population) when one of our Type 45 destroyers sailed in the Black Sea near enough to Crimea to prompt the Russian military to send boats and planes to angrily usher her away. She held course, and there was much speculation about whether the presence of British journalists onboard meant that this was a deliberate, coordinated display of British and Western naval strength in refutation of Russia’s claims over Crimea. Some commentators believed that the strategy of sailing this warship through an internationally recognised shipping lane using the right of “innocent passage” was an important assertion of international maritime law and a show of strength. Others, such as former British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Tony Brenton, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and wrote in The Times that the British government “knew very well the intensity of the response the Royal Navy’s incursion would provoke and deliberately went ahead with it.” He described this as “dangerous” and also “counterproductive” because it will have “strengthened Russian intransigence and aggressiveness on Ukraine-related issues.”

It seems the kind of military escapade perfectly suited to “Global Britain” at this moment in time: an action that gives the outward impression of strength and confidence, the maximum PR fanfare baked in, almost zero risk of any actual fighting or there being any cost to us, and with dubious or limited strategic coherence. For all the justifiable pride in our sadly small number of new ships, for all the wish to bask in the afterglow of the G7 meeting and brandish the freshly printed Atlantic Charter Mk II, I fear that the Russians, while angered by recent events, know in their hearts that the West, and certainly the UK, does not have the stomach to challenge it in a meaningful way.

They only came to this conclusion relatively recently, back in August 2013, when then Labour leader Ed Miliband’s parliamentary manoeuvres stymied David Cameron’s intention to join international air strikes to punish the Assad regime for breaking international law so egregiously by dropping chemical weapons on civilians. It isn’t sailing shiny new ships along international shipping lanes that counts in geopolitics, it is the big calls. The Kremlin was watching in August 2013, and concluded, correctly that the Western democracies are not as strong as they pretend. They may have economic strength, and their military hardware may be more advanced, but unfortunately, they do not have strength of will to act, nor a strong strategic position that they hold to at all costs.

Had we been truly strong in this sense, we as the UK could and should have intervened unilaterally to declare a no-fly zone long before Assad used chemical weapons. We should have done it when it became clear he was dropping barrel bombs on civilians from helicopters in 2012 or earlier. Do not let people argue that intervention of this kind was impossible. It only became impossible after the Russians intervened in large numbers and by bringing in their sophisticated air defence system, which was done only after they concluded that the West was washing its collective hands of Syria.

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