Oh look, it’s another National Union of Students general election campaign. As someone who was involved in, then worked in student politics and student unions for most of the 90s, it’s somewhat of a surprise that NUS are carrying on with this, given the lack of success they had in the past. Of course, most of them wouldn’t have been born when NUS tried the ‘Target 70′ campaign in the 1992 election, highlighting the constituencies where the student vote could swing the result. It was a great campaign, if you forget the fact that election occurred when students were on vacation, and the backlash from the re-elected Tory government almost destroyed student unions as a whole. There have been others since, but its worth pointing out that spending a lot of time getting politicians to make pledges and not much on making sure students actually voted in 2010 helped create the situation we had today.

My favourite memory of the odd way in which NUS campaigns comes from 1999. The first Scottish Parliament elections had just occurred, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats were in coalition talks to form an administration. The Lib Dems had gone into that election promising to get rid of tuition fees in Scotland, while Labour were perfectly happened to keep them, because their government had just introduced them across the UK. NUS naturally sprang into action and asked student unions across the country to write, fax or email Jim Wallace (then leader of the Scottish Lib Dems) to tell him to ‘hold firm’. The whole campaign made almost no mention of the party he was negotiating with, and definitely didn’t ask anyone to contact them and ask them to give way. That would have involved NUS telling people the Labour Party might be in the wrong on something, and that would be unthinkable.

However, it is important to point out here NUS isn’t a union the way most people (including some in the media who should know better) understand it. Individual students aren’t members of NUS – instead, its membership is the various student unions at FE and HE institutions across the country. The individual unions (and guilds and associations and committees and JCRs and whatever else) all exist independently of NUS and aren’t local branches of it. NUS is basically a membership organisation allowing its individual members to benefit from the economies of scale can bring. I don’t know if it’s still the case, but it used to be that you could only be part of NUS Services Ltd (NUSSL) – the body that negotiated cheap beer deals for student bars, amongst other things – if you were a member of NUS. The same goes for welfare, legal, training, research etc services provided by NUS – by pooling together to provide specialist areas of support, NUS means individual unions can do a much better job at representing and helping their members (who are individual students).

However, access to all of that also involves being part of the political and campaigning part of NUS (and to be fair, there are several areas where NUS single issue campaigning and lobbying has worked) which is one of the oddest political arenas I’ve ever encountered. I know there have been some changes to the way NUS works, but the principal decision-making body is still NUS Conference, at which each individual union is elected by a number of delegates chosen at election by its members. The one thing Labour Students has always been good at as an organisation is getting its members elected as NUS conference delegates (even if in many cases people don’t realise they’re voting for a Labour Students candidate). When Conference comes around, Labour Students usually have a big enough bloc of delegates to pretty much ensure that whoever they want gets elected to the various important positions (though they normally let a couple of ‘independents’ get elected to some of the posts, just to make it look balanced) which means that NUS campaigns do their very best to not make Labour look bad, in return for which the senior members of Labour Students often get nice political careers afterwards.

That’s why the NUS leadership spent most of the 90s trying to push the organisation’s policy away from supporting free education, why Labour are never criticised for introducing and raising fees and why we were all being exhorted to contact Jim Wallace rather than Donald Dewar in 1999. But what it also means is that you shouldn’t tar all student organisations with the same brush. The NUS might be happy to do Labour’s dirty work for it, but that doesn’t apply to individual unions at institutions. They’re normally just doing the best they can for their members and are part of NUS because the benefits outweigh the costs, not because they’re trying to get themselves parachuted into a safe seat in a few years time.

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After discovering that the University library had Biteback’s ‘Why Vote 2015′ books on the shelves, I thought they might be interesting to read to get an idea of the parties’ policies and presentation before the official manifestos come out. This plan was somewhat scuppered by the library not having a copy of the Green book (which seems to have been produced after the others, possibly when they started rising in the polls), and the UKIP book having already been checked out for the Easter vacation by someone else. Still, that left me with three books to look at, and the probability of UKIP’s policy remaining the same between the manifesto launch and election day, let alone between the book and the manifesto, being rather slim.

However, even amongst those three, there’s a question as to how much two of them actually represent the policy of the party they’re ostensibly about and how much they’re just about the author pushing his own agenda and settling some scores. This is the problem with entrusting a book like this to a single author: how much are they going to let their own views eclipse those of their party?

whyvotelabThe one that doesn’t fall into this trap is Why Vote Labour, where Dan Jarvis has written the introduction and conclusion, but in between has got various Labour people, including several Shadow Cabinet members, to contribute chapters on their areas of interest. This makes both for a longer book than the other two, and a more interesting one as it can actually go into more detail in some areas, and you’re confident that what’s being discussed actually is Labour policy.

Some sections are more interesting than others, but I suspect each reader would have their own opinion on that. Personally, I found Stella Creasy’s chapter on people power and Steve Houghton on localism an interesting insight into the broader directions Labour might go in the future, while Rachel Reeves’ chapter on work was of her usual tenor in that one could imagine Iain Duncan Smith contributing a near-identical chapter in a Tory version of the book. The chapter titles – ‘An economy for all”, “Supporting modern families” and “Aspirational Britain: Empowering young people” amongst them – show the sort of studied slogan neutrality that mean they could just as easily be plastered on a podium from which David Cameron is speaking or a Lib Dem policy paper without change. There’s little in the book that’s too radical (assuming the claim that ‘Under Labour, our classrooms will be at the centre of a cultural revolution’ (p75) is a sign of someone not being up on their history of China) but it at least gives the reader an idea of Labour policy.

whyvotetoryBy contrast, Nick Herbert’s Why Vote Conservative is much more one person’s vision of what Tory policy should be. Herbert has been a Government minister during this Parliament – he was responsible for steering through Police and Crime Commissioners, amongst other things – but is now a backbencher, apparently because David Cameron didn’t share his view that he should be promoted to the Cabinet. According to Tim Montgomerie’s quote on the cover, it’s ‘a compelling reminder that the facts of economic, social and cultural life remain Conservative’ which only goes to show how easy it is to persuade him of anything. I found it more of a compelling reminder that for all Tories might talk about responsibility, they’re masters of whinging and blaming the problems of life on anything but themselves. Everything is either the fault of the previous Labour Government or occasionally, if the present one hasn’t achieved something, the Liberal Democrats, and it seems the Conservative Party only needs to take responsibility for good things.

The book is so dominated by blaming Labour for everything that you almost feel glad when he gets to a policy, except that policy is often just defined as ‘whatever Labour don’t do’ or appears to have been cut-and-pasted from a report by the Reform think tank Herbert used to run. What policy there is appears to be privatising anything that’s not nailed down then putting out a lucrative nail-removal tender before getting to the rest while stripping rights from everyone. Now, that may well turn out to be the Tory manifesto, but I suspect they’ll at least make a better job of presenting it than Herbert does here.

whyvoteldWhile Herbert is offering a slightly idiosyncratic take on Tory policy, his book at least bears some resemblance to the party’s actual policies. The same can’t be said for Jeremy Browne’s Why Vote Liberal Democrat. As Alex Marsh points out in his more detailed review of the book, Browne appears to be more interested in putting forward Coalition policies than Liberal Democrat ones, and the book feels more like an advocacy of voting National Liberal, but unfortunately published in a world where they no longer exist.

I’ve previously written about Browne’s Race Plan, and this is a better book than that but that’s mainly because it is – in the words of the old quote – both good and original. The parts that are good are pretty much Lib Dem boilerplate and could have been taken from hundreds of manifestos and party documents over the year, while the original parts are little more than Browne making the same points he does in Race Plan, with some added extra sneering at the Labour Party bolted on. As Alex puts it “the argument pretty much amounts to saying: scratch the surface of Ed Miliband and you’ll find Tony Benn underneath.”

The choice of Browne to write this book, and releasing it a long time in advance of a general election whose date has been known for some time, is one of the curious decisions that make these books a lot less useful than they could have been. As we know now, Browne’s not going to be an MP in the next Parliament, regardless of the result in Taunton Deane, and anyone reading his book isn’t going to find out much about what the party might want to do, or the range of opinions with it. Herbert’s still a backbencher, without much clamour heard for his return to Government, and these two books feel like they’ve failed to answer the question of their titles. It perhaps explains why Dan Jarvis is seen as a rising star of the Labour Party, in that he’s willing to work with others to deliver a vision, not assume that all people need to support his party is hear from him in more and more detail. If the others had followed that approach, then not only would their books have been more interesting, but their Governmental careers might have seen more success.

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After all, they’re a modern, progressive and liberal party, the party of the metropolitan elite, the one with all the forward-thinking ideas. A truly internationalist party you might say, one that looks outward to the world and has a positive attitude towards it…

They’re also the party that will sell you this:
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I wonder how many Ed Miliband’s bought for his family?

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"We'd exchange policies with the Government, but no one would notice."

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Work and Pensions secretary has clearly decided that shadowing Iain Duncan Smith involves becoming as much like him as possible, going by this Guardian interview:

However, Reeves said Labour did not want to be seen to be the party of the welfare state. “We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work,” she said. “Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.”

Then, while plugging the interview on Twitter we got this from her:

Labour believes in strong safety net, work for those who can and support for those who can’t

Reeves is one of Labour’s rising stars, and like most that get placed in that category in any party it means she’s capable of delivering a speech, while having had any possibility of thinking outside of the political consensus thoroughly stamped out of her. Part of that consensus is accepting all the tenets of workism as a given, and assuming there’s nothing more important than work (look at how much MPs of all parties love to boast about the ridiculous amount of hours they work) and so it’s only natural that everyone should work. Consider the unspoken implications of ‘work for those who can': it’s not a question of what you wish, but what someone in Whitehall decides you can or can’t do. Only working people matter and deserve to be represented, so if you don’t work you don’t count.

That’s the consensus, and Reeves and Labour aren’t going to challenge that in any way. They’re going to assume that work is going to stay the same in the future, and that everybody needs some of it to be seen as worthwhile. What it completely fails to recognise is that in a world of rapidly increasing automation, the idea that everyone should have a job in the traditional sense, let alone that there’ll even be a job for everyone, is looking more and more outdated. The mainstream political consensus doesn’t want to acknowledge that, because it would involve asking lots of difficult questions and accepting that the future isn’t going to be just like the past but with faster broadband speeds.

I’m not surprised to see Labour proposing to just double down on what the Tories are promising, but it just reveals the sheer paucity of the political debate in this country as we approach what’s supposedly an important and pivotal election. There’s no vision, no acknowledgement that things are going to be different in the future, no attempt to challenge the consensus and suggest things could be done differently. Instead, we’re just told to work harder and hope we don’t fall through the cracks to end up where no one wants to speak for us.

Don’t look to the future; it’ll only make you cry.

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letbartletOne thought that struck me while reading this Guardian piece on Ed Miliband was that it must be tough to be really into snooker when you’re a politician. The World Championship takes place at the same time every year – the two weeks leading up to the May day Bank Holiday – that the electoral calendar decrees as a politician’s busiest time in the run up to elections on the first Thursday in May. It’s very hard to find the time to sit down and watch a match from the Crucible when there are interviews to be given, photo opportunities to attend, doors to knock on and leaflets to deliver. Maybe the attachment comes from the occasional years when elections precede the bank holiday weekend, when he could relax post-election and take the weekend off.

The main thing I took from it, though, is that Ed Miliband comes across quite well in it, not the freakish wonk-monster incapable of basic human interaction that we’re often presented in the media. Oddly, it turns out that when people take hundreds of photos of you doing regular things, in some of them you’ll look quite odd, and if those are the only ones of you they show, people will think you’re weird.

The problem is that Labour went for him because he looked like a different kind of leader, a change from the Blair/Cameron style, but now thye keep trying to force him into that same mould when it clearly doesn’t fit him well. Making him give ‘big speeches’ and make grand declarations doesn’t work. It’s not his great strength, and it’s not going to magically become his strength in the next two months.

Of course, I’m not going to be voting Labour in May (the conditions for me to even consider doing that are a long list starting with a Tony Blair in handcuffs in The Hague) but I do want to see elections conducted between politicians playing to their different strengths, not all trying to do the same thing in the same way wearing the same suits and using the same words. Why not just let Ed be Ed? As one of the people in that article puts it:

that’s how he strikes me now – as a thoughtful politician who seems to be avoiding a lot of the Punch and Judy of politics. He’s trying to represent the country with well-thought-out views and policies, which don’t always sound as burningly radical as people might like, but he seems to be being true to himself. He’s always made it clear he’s not going to be a dazzling performer.

Don’t send out the Miliband trying to make big speeches full of ready-crafted soundbites and little in the way of detail, send out the one who’s willing and ready to show off his intelligence, who’ll spend time with people talking to them, not at them. Use the few remaining PMQs to actually ask challenging policy questions of the Prime Minister rather than turning them into a slanging and shouting match. Maybe even send him out in something other than a suit and tie from time to time, as he seems much more relaxed that way.

Above all, don’t try and make him be something he’s not. They’re trying to conform to a media template of what a political leader should be, but the media have already decided he won’t fit that, and trying harder won’t change their minds. Give them the reality instead, and let Ed be Ed for a change.

labourreformLabour have launched their plans for political reform (there’s a PDF with more detail here) and at a first look, they’re not that bad. Not perfect, but definitely steps in the right direction and with a bit more coherence to them than the rather random nature of the combined authorities/city regions plans currently being scattered across the country.

The good news is that Labour remain committed to having a Constitutional Convention and are looking at how devolution within England works as a whole, not on a piecemeal basis. There’s no detail on how the convention will be made up, though, and I’d be concerned that it could turn into another top-down attempt at reform where a convention of the great and the good tour the country for some set piece events rather than a proper convention where a wider range of people get to take part.

They also commit to replacing the House of Lords with a Senate, and I’m not going to rehash old arguments about that, but would point out that they only mention removing hereditary peers from the Lords, which makes me wonder if the current appointees will be allowed to remain in place. Like with the constitutional convention, the commitment is good, but the devil is in the detail.

The promise to change the way the Commons work is interesting, especially wanting to “discourage off putting and aggressive behaviour in the Chamber”. However, that is something they’ve got the power to at least partly deliver now. Indeed, if Ed Miliband really wanted to do something dramatic at Prime Minister’s Questions, he would instruct his MPs to sit quietly throughout it, and perhaps do something really transgressive himself like asking David Cameron a question that’s a test of his knowledge, rather than his spinning skills.

Introducing a ‘public evidence stage’ for bills going through the Commons is an interesting idea, but like any public consultation it risks becoming a gimmick and a box-ticking exercise rather than a meaningful input into the process. What measures will be put in place to ensure that the public’s input gets properly considered rather than included in a report that no one pays any real attention to? Also, will the public evidence stage be limited to those who can get to Westminster, or something encouraging wider participation?

We also have a promise that “Labour will reform elections so everyone has their say”, which sounds promising, but is mostly tweaks in administration of elections (votes at 16, changes to registration and trials of online voting) and doesn’t include any commitment to electoral reform. If they truly want a system that gives everyone their say, then they can’t get that with the current electoral system. However, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and the many Labour MPs in safe seats would be up in arms if the party started campaigning for them to have a harder time of it.

It’s good to see Labour putting forward proposals on political reform, but as we’ve seen before from Governments of all stripes, good intentions in this field don’t always lead to good outcomes. There’s more detail needed on all the proposals to make them more than just positive soundbites, and they need to be something that makes a real difference, not just a bit of PR that’ll make no real difference to the way things work. Are Labour serious about changing the way power works in this country? These proposals suggest they might be, but they need to demonstrate that commitment not just mouth a few platitudes.

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We should be glad that having decided to emphasise something other than ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society’, the Liberal Democrat message of ‘opportunity for everyone’ is something clear and distinct that no other leader would ever use…
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(Blair headline here, Major picture from here)

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