Three pieces on Future Labour

Crack

I continue to struggle in the aftermath of Brexit.

Not, necessarily, just because of the result – it was a long time coming, and perhaps has woken the individualised and consumerised winners of the last 30 years from their torpor.

But also because of where it leaves Labour – stuck, somewhere, fighting the battles of the 20th century.

I’m not sufficiently informed, connected or clever enough to know where the Labour party should go and to offer a view on where the destination is and how to get there. There’s also little I feel I can personally do to help steer or jump on board with where Labour should go. I do know, though, that (1) I have been a Labour party member since 1998; (2) even now, I’m not sure if there is another “party” I would want to belong to; and (3) the current party cannot be or do what it should.

I therefore continue to look for the best diagnoses of Labour’s current situation in order to understand it as well as I can, and for glimpses of what the future could be and how Labour might plot a course to get there.

Three pieces I’ve found particularly useful of late are from John Harris, Neal Lawson and Anthony Painter. Here they are on where we are:

1. John Harris in the Guardian:

As with the centre-left parties across Europe in the same predicament, Labour is a 20th-century party adrift in a new reality. Its social foundations – the unions, heavy industry, the nonconformist church, a deference to the big state that has long evaporated – are either in deep retreat or have vanished completely.

2. Neal Lawson on Open Democracy

Everything that once made Labour strong and the 1945 settlement possible; a unified working class, a bureaucratic system of governance (Fordism), memories of the war and the depression and the existence of the Soviet Union as a global counter to capitalism had gone. They have been replaced by forces inimical to traditional social democracy, namely financialisation, globalsiation, individualization and consumerisation. Labour, I argued, was a ‘Kodak party in a world of instagram’.

3. Anthony Painter:

The point is that the working class – Labour’s alleged base – is irrevocably split. Moreover, there is no going back now. The schism is permanent.

And here they are on where to go.

John Harris:

The left’s future will involve many Labour people, but also some in the Greens, Liberal Democrats – even one-nation Tories – and thousands of people with no affiliation at all. However it is organised, it will have to start with an understanding of the fact this is a crisis of democracy, and support a change to the electoral system and a move towards multi-party politics.

Neal Lawson:

[We] must recognize that no single party or movement has all the answers. The future will not be imposed but negotiated. Most immediately it needs to be negotiated by all the progressive parties in a Progressive Alliance to try and counter the massive shift to the right we are experiencing.

Anthony Painter:

Instead of expending energy on saving Labour, something entirely new is needed. Labour was a movement before it was a party and so should whatever replaces it from within or without be.

This movement would seek to build from the cities out. It would embrace pluralist progressives – from the remain labour working classes to social liberals. It would be a movement that sought to build the right networks and platforms for social justice.

A movement of citizens that would over time seek elected office, it would espouse democratic, economic and social reform…

This movement would demand a new social contract; the current state fails to support the reality of modern economic life and leaves families and whole communities locked in insecurity and poverty. These would be new platforms for economic security such as Basic Income and social mobility. Security and mobility would be seen as dependent upon one another- holding no one back, leaving no one behind.

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Two pieces on Labour, and the “voter vacuum”

Two substantial pieces on the Labour party and its leader.

The first is from Spencer Livermore in the New Statesman.

One of Ed Miliband’s closest advisers and people behind the 2015 general election campaign, Livermore is honest about the mistakes make in the underlying assumptions of Labour’s campaign. He then outlines four assumptions the current Labour party (and Corbyn) are making which he thinks are wrong, including:

First, [Corbyn supporters] claim Labour lost the last election because we were insufficiently left wing, or “austerity lite”. But where is the logic in a position that says voters, frustrated that Labour was insufficiently left wing, chose instead to back an increasingly right wing Conservative party?

Second, Corbyn’s team believe that by mobilising non-voters behind Labour they will reduce the need to attract support from those who previously voted Conservative. But again, this ignores clear evidence that those who didn’t vote in 2015 were even more concerned that Labour might overspend than those who supported the Conservatives. These non-voters are unlikely to be attracted back to the polling station by a hardline anti-austerity position.

(I’m not including Livermore’s proposed third and fourth assumptions, because I personally feel they’re secondary and less relevant than the first two.)

The second article is from James Stafford, writing in Dissent Magazine. The piece – analysing (a) the particular moment of summer 2015 in which Corbyn became leader and (b) Corbyn’s true position relative to the historical Labour party – is worth reading in full. Here, though, are two passages that stand out:

Participation in the British Labour party may have grown in intensity, but it is further than ever from broader developments in society and the economy.

and the summary:

the danger for Labour does not really lie in his being too left wing. Rather, the problem is his inability to offer reassurance to the unaligned, or to respond convincingly to unfolding events… Corbyn’s confused response to the security concerns raised by the Paris attacks, alongside his apparent disinterest in defusing a party row over Syrian military intervention, pushed Labour’s polling numbers to near all-time lows.

It would be nice to think that out of crisis will come a turn to the radical left, but that hasn’t really happened so far. Instead, Britain feels ever more shrunken, mean, cold, and peripheral. The Conservatives are generally far better than Labour at speaking to—and perpetuating—this perception. Overcoming it will be a phenomenal labor of political skill, flexibility, and dedication, which will likely require the party to completely reimagine itself.

There appear to me to be two consistent points in both of these essays.

The first is that Labour currently exists in a “voter vacuum”. It isn’t allaying the concerns of or promoting a vision to the “unaligned” or to those who don’t vote. Nor does current Labour think it matters to spend time thinking about people who voted Conservative in 2015 or 2010 and why they did so.

The second is that – irrespective of who leads the party – Labour needs to reinvent itself for the world as it is now and in the future, and not for the world as it was. This, though, doesn’t seem to square with the idea of supporting a leader who many explicitly state (or wish) harks back (supposedly) to Labour’s authentic social democratic roots.

(For those who wonder where I am on this: I personally feel short-term gains (or at least not-as-bad-as-we-thought performances) in small by-elections and local elections, caused by a general interest and intrigue with Corbyn and exacerbated by continued trivial mainstream media coverage, will mask a philosophical, strategic and tactical decline in the Labour party over the next 3-4 years that will result in a substantial beating at the 2020 general election.)

Prescriptions for Labour’s pain

Let’s be absolutely clear: the platform for change put before Britain over the last few years has been rejected… Labour’s first attempt at a post-new-Labour modernisation has sadly fallen short… A leadership campaign is already upon us. This is not simply a choice of personality; it is a choice of programme.

So writes Anthony Painter in an excellent column on social justice in changing times and in which he outlines an excellent perspective on what Labour’s future programme might be

Anthony’s isn’t the only prescription for what such a programme might be. Below are other perspectives it’s worth being aware of (and which I record here partly for future reference, and will add to when further key contributions are made).

Tony Blair:

The centre ground is as much a state of mind as a set of policies. It means that we appreciate that in today’s world many of the solutions will cross traditional boundaries of left and right… The centre is not where you split the difference between progressive and conservative politics. It is where progressive politics gets the breadth of territory to allow it to own the future. The Labour project must always be one oriented to the future. We win when we understand the way the world is changing and make sense of how those changes can be shaped for the good of the people. We have to be the policy innovators, those seeking new and creative solutions to the problems our values impel us to overcome… This requires real thinking with an open mind, not an attempt to find our way back to hallowed ground which represents a dead end.

Chuka Umunna:

We must stop looking to the past and focus on ensuring everyone has a stake in the future. Our vision as a party must start with the aspirations of voters: to get on and up in the world, to see their children and grandchildren do better than they did, to get that better job, to move from renting to owning, to take the family on holiday, to move from that flat to that house with a garden. That means offering competence, optimism not fatalism, an end to machine politics, an economic credo that is both pro-worker and pro-business and, most of all, a politics that starts with what unites us as a country rather than what divides us. Only then will we be able to build the fairer, more equal, democratic and sustainable society that led us to join our party in the first place.

Stella Creasy:

Our economic credibility is the core thread that allows us to show how progressive politics require not protecting the status quo but provoking change for the benefit of all… Rooted in the communities we serve, our cause must be renewed and reaffirmed for a generation that does not want to be told what to do but to shape its own future – and to support not just an opposition but an alternative to narrow Conservatism.

Tristram Hunt:

We in the Labour party now face a triple bind: the rise of nationalism in Scotland; the loss of confidence in middle England; and a lack of trust in large parts of traditionally Labour communities. Rebuilding an electoral coalition which has fragmented towards the SNP, Ukip and the Tories can never be adequately addressed by a series of tailored policy solutions. It is much more a question of instinct, message, trust and sentiment.

And, as a companion piece of all of those above, Ian Leslie’s 10 delusions about the Labour defeat to watch out for is excellent.

Murky complications of commissioning

A can of worms in a hornet’s nest and each of the worms is about to open their very own Pandora’s Box.

This was what I thought when the DfE said it would limit outsourcing opportunities for the delivery of children’s services to not-for-profit providers only.

Since then, it’s become clear that the regulations to effect this may be murkier than some people expected:

[R]egulations will not prevent an otherwise profit-making company from setting up a separate non-profit making subsidiary to enable them to undertake such functions.

On the other side of the coin, Labour are saying they will reserve public service contracts for social enterprises using new EU procurement laws and the principles Social Value Act of 2013.

But both of these scenarios are actually the same: the use (and abuse) of commissioning and procurement to reach a desired outcome. (See Toby Blume’s excellent posts on the Big Society Network and the National Citizen Service to see two recent examples.)

I’m afraid that, as commissioning and procurement currently work, anything that’s done to specify a certain type of provider to provide a service can be used (exploited?) to get exactly the opposite type of provider to provide the same service.

If you want a “not-for-profit” company to deliver a service, it’s perfectly possible for a private company to establish appropriate governance arrangements to appear as a “not-for-profit”. Similarly, it’s perfectly possible for a “not-for-profit” organisation to have governance arrangements such that it has a “for-profit” trading arm. These options don’t even include the extra dimensions social enterprises add, with their “for-profit” / social purpose duality. (And, whilst we’re at it, what, actually, is “profit”?)

Commissioning and procurement is a murky business.

For me, there are two real issues raised by all of this.

The first is that the “public is good, private is bad” dichotomy is truly unhelpful when it comes to debating how best to deliver public services. I mean, Julian Le Grand was exploring knights and knaves (pdf) back in 1995, quite aside from the amount of literature that work was built on and which has been written since

The second is that commissioning and procurement are processes that are driven by humans. As soon as you introduce human agency into a process it doesn’t matter how well the rules are written: the pesky human will find a way of using those rules to suit the ends they desire.

The primary issue, therefore, is understanding what is motivating people to act as they are. Questions of public/private providers and commissioning and procurement rules are secondary.

 

 

 

 

“Neither did I”

Catching up with a friend today after the goings on of the last few days, it became clear they were a strong Labour supporter.

“I never knew you were so keen on Labour”, I said.

“Neither did I, until they lost the election”, they said.

I wonder how many people are feeling the same today?

Debating the debate: responding to my fisking

The 3 leaders’ debates have been and gone. Stef gave me a good fisking after the first debate, based on a post I wrote a few weeks ago. Now taking the long view, I thought I’d respond to each of his points.

Note: my original points in italics; Stef’s argument in italics below.

1. Debating points and issues in the debates won’t really be the aim. Instead, it will be used as an opportunity to trade blows, irrespective of the content of those blows
Stef: Some real issues were aired and some interesting debates did occur, albeit they were somewhat stymied by the short amount of time available for each question.

After the first debate, it did seem that some interesting debates might occur. But they didn’t. I was wrong in the sense that the debates would be used to trade blows. Instead, they were used to just say and then repeat their key messages. This wasn’t really 3 debates; it was one debate repeated 3 times. (And the format of the debate, as Stef rightly says, stymied the debate.)

2. What goes on in the debates is almost neither here nor there; it’s how they get spun afterwards that matters.
Stef: Whether the debates were of Aristotlian profoundness or playground pettiness, how they get spun afterwards was always going to be as important, if not more important than the debate itself. This does not invalidate the debates themselves, what went on in the debate did make a difference to how the debate was spun.

My original point safely holds. There were clearly prepared lines and put-downs which were echoed in the post-match spin. Related to point 1 above, the debates weren’t genuine debates; they were just an opportunity to establish and repeat key messages, not debate the merits or otherwise of each other’s policies.

3. I’m not one of those that complains about the American-isation of politics, and in particular the cult of personality in politics. The leadership debates will do nothing to assuage people who do complain about this.
Stef: Agreed.

We were agreed on this, so I don’t need to re-emphasize I was right in the first place.

4. Does anyone remember the one-to-one interviews between Jeremy Paxman and each party leader during the 2005 general election? If you do, you’ll remember they were not known for their jibber and jabber on policy issues but instead adversarial tosh focused disproportionately on specific issues (e.g. the number of illegal immigrants in Britain).
Stef: [T]here was a disproportionate amount of focus on the issue of immigration. Yet because of the uniquely non-adversarial format of the debates, we got into more detail and more clarity on policy positions than any PMQs or Question Time.

We did get into a bit more detail about a very few things; but focusing disproporionately on specific issues – particularly immigration, interestingly enough – did happen. The debates were narrow in their focus.

5. The worry about ‘losing’ the debate, or being the subject of a terrific putdown is precisely what leads to the score-draw results assigned to most presidential debates of the last 12 years. Even though this is the first time debates have been held here, the tendency will be for the candidates to play it safe.
Stef: Yes, it was a play-it-safe debate for all the candidates but especially the ‘incumbents’ but Clegg did better because he played it less safe. Here’s betting that the next two will be a bit livelier. A real good put-down may win it.

The perspective of the 3 debates shows that the debates were primarily safe. For all the media tried to find one, there wasn’t a significant moment in any of the debates.

6. Most people think these debates will be good for Gordon Brown. I don’t agree because (1) the Tories are good at precisely this sort of thing, being the presentation of policy rather than what the policy is; and (2) it depends which Gordon Brown turns up. I suspect it will be the one that has turned up at Prime Minister’s Questions for the last 2 years, which is no good thing.
Stef: Patently wrong on both accounts. Cameron inexplicably failed to present himself and his policies at all well, usually his forte. Brown, clearly dreading the event, actually did much better than he thought he would. Although in my opinion he came ‘last’ it was not by much and he, along with Cameron, can only improve over the next two debates.

I was certainly wrong on (1): Cameron did an awful job in the first debate, did marginally better in the second and was his best in the third. Brown was consistently stodgy. The polls for each of the debates bare this out – only in rogue polls did Brown not come third.

7. The spare wheel: there will have to be air time for Nick Clegg as leader as the Lib Dems. This will just be embarrassing for everyone concerned.
Stef: Erm, I’ll let Rich defend himself on this one. Yes the Lib Dems won’t be the largest single party but hell, the kaleidoscope has been well and truly shaken.

I wouldn’t try to defend it: Clegg clearly did well. I’m going to write a post on my wider thoughts on the Lib Dems over the last two or three weeks.

8. Which television stations will cover this? If not everyone can cover every debate, what will the implication be?
Stef: 9 million viewers for a 90 minute political programme on ITV without adverts is absolutely astonishing. The Sky debate will have next to bugger all viewers, mores the shame. What I’d give for a Channel 4 debate with the mighty Jon Snow.

The ITV debate had 9.4m viewers – around 37% share of the viewing audience that night if I remember correctly. Sky had just over 4m and I still don’t know the figure for the BBC debate (which I expect will be the highest viewing audience). This partly anticipates my riposte to point 9 below, but I don’t think the turnout will be higher than the 1997 election (i.e. 71.4%). Viewing figures aren’t much of a proxy for this, but I think the media is more excited by them than the voting public.

9. Does anyone seriously think the debates will engage a wider audience than those engaged in politics anyway? I doubt it very much.
Stef: Policy by anecdote warning! This weekend I had my first ever party political conversation with my brother whom is not atypical of the disengaged voter but a good proxy. He did not watch the debates but read about them afterwards and looked at some of it on YouTube. His verdict. Cameron “Don’t trust him” (Incidentally my mother thought he looked like a porn actor) Brown “Doesn’t know what he’s doing” Clegg “Seemed straightforward and normal”. Policy by anecdote completed. This is why anecdotes are, in the right context, very powerful. My brother and many like him will possibly vote for the first time ever because of the debate and many may well vote Lib Dem, fundamentally changing the political landscape in this country. This would not have happened without the debate.

I’ll leave the point about whether or not the landscape has been changed by the Lib Dems to a later post (here’s a quick preview: I don’t think it has). But I stand by my original point: the leaders’ debates have not engaged a wider audience than those engaged in politics anyway. Ultimately, this will be borne out by the turnout of the election. But beyond the bubble that the media has created, and which has been supported by social media (especially Twitter), I suspect a significant proportion of the public will remain disengaged by this general election.