» Labour ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Labour annual conference 2014Four thoughts come to mind:

Can you trust any ‘new leader’ polling?
So, we now have polling that shows that having Johnson, Umunna or Burnham would give Labour a bigger lead in the polls right now. Anthony Wells often counsels against putting too much faith in any ‘how would you vote if..’ polls, and I think that is the case here. Voters may well take a ‘grass is always greener’ approach to any suggestion of change, but no one has any idea just how people will react should the Labour leadership change. When people have no idea how someone will actually perform as leader, it’s not a good idea to rely too much on their judgements of how they will vote in a hypothetical scenario.

That said, I do wonder if changing the party leader could have an interesting effect of poll shares by changing the likelihood of party supporters to vote. That’s a question that I’m not sure is ever asked in the hypotheticals, but for me could be a key factor. I’ve said before that I think a lot of UKIP’s success is down to the fact that they can motivate their base to vote better than the other parties, and I wonder if a new leader would motivate Labour voters more – the lesson of Heywood and Middleton is that Labour do seem to have a motivation problem.

Where can Labour get votes from?
Anthony Wells’ excellent diagrams of vote shifts reveal the problems all the main parties are having in holding on to voters in an extremely volatile political environment. The question they pose, though, is where are Labour going to win the voters they need from? They’ve shed votes to Greens, nationalists and UKIP, and it’s hard to see the strategy that can draw voters back from all three of those. Is drawing a small percentage of voters back from the SNP (with the possible benefit of protecting all those Scottish seats) a viable strategy? Or does the party need to be looking at how they draw more voters back from the non-voters, and hope gains from there can dwarf any losses?

Young cardinals, old popes
Alan Johnson is the perfect king over the water because he hasn’t been assembling a faction around him ready to take the leadership, and so all the Shadow Cabinet members who have can step aside in his favour, ready to go for it the next time. (I suspect their scenario imagines Johnson as a one-term PM, with the real leadership contest in 2019/20) However, is it necessarily in the interest of the more established contenders like Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham to take a pass this time? Putting their ambitions on hold for five years would give the next generation (Umunna, Reeves, Creasy et al) plenty of time to stand out and shine, and give Prime Minister Johnson a real influence through Cabinet appointments and the rest in who gets to follow him.

What if?
We’re in a very strange time for British politics, one that’s certainly unlike anything else I’ve seen in my lifetime, where all of the established parties are under threat. In this position, Labour ditching Miliband would have inevitable knock-on effects in the other parties. If he goes, that’s just the beginning of the story: suppose a new leader does open up a poll lead for Labour, while UKIP win the Rochester by-election. That seems likely to trigger more Tory defections and/or more calls for Cameron to quit. Given the volatility of the polls, and the variability in shares across the pollsters, it’s entirely possible in that scenario for us to see a poll (however rogue) that puts UKIP in second place and the Tories in third. Could Cameron survive then, and what would be the effect of the Tories trying to replace a sitting Prime Minister a few months before an election when one of the leading candidates to replace him doesn’t have a seat in Parliament.

We live in interesting political times. I look forward to when the historians of the 2030s get to tell us just what was going on, because I’m not sure we’ve got much of an idea right now.

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My post earlier reminded me of something I’d read before that was even more illustrative of belief in the One True Party than the article I linked in it.

This piece, in response to the Guardian’s endorsement of the Liberal Democrats in the 2010 election, is a perfect illustration of how some will argue that you must support the One True Party whatever it has done or might do. I really can’t describe the full oddness of it, but if it was about religion instead of politics, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was written by a cult member. It’s that special.

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I don’t normally read LabourList, but this morning someone on Twitter linked to this article about Labour’s fight against the Greens. It starts out almost sensibly, then descends into such a pit of belligerent tribalism that I began wondering if it was a parody. (Then I noticed it was by arch-Blairite ‘moderate’ Luke Akehurst, and was assured it was serious)

There’s a certain category of politico – and I’ve seen them more in Labour, but they exist in every party – who are convinced that theirs is the One True Party and argue that case with a near-religious zeal. In this world view, anyone who disagrees can only do so because they are evil or misguided. There are only two sides to any political debate – the right side and the wrong side – and the One True Party is invariably on the right side. Anyone who disagrees with the One True Party is obviously evil, and anyone who suggests there might be a way to achieve something that’s not the One True Party’s way is misguided.

This is what lies at the root of Akehurst’s assault on the Greens – that they’re getting in the way of Labour, his One True Party. His arguments aren’t based much on ideology (and when they are, it’s all about how hard it is to triangulate Greens) but purely on the principle that Labour are always right, thus Labour need to be in power, and thus anyone who gets in the way of that is harmful and needs to be stopped. The Greens didn’t actually win a seat in Hackney – in Akehurst’s view, they ‘blocked’ someone from Labour getting their rightful place on the council. Greens aren’t people with different views and arguments, they’re ‘a huge drain on campaigning resources’, because all that matters is how the One True Party does. It’s probably the statement that ‘if you want PR for councils at least let your primary motive be improving Labour representation in rural areas, not giving a free pass to the Greens in councils where we have been fighting for years to stop them getting elected’ that shows the One True Party view most clearly. The idea that PR might be a good thing in itself cannot even be processed, and everything must be judged in terms of how it helps or hinders the party.

One True Party types exist in all parties, though, not just Labour and we shouldn’t pretend that they’ve never served a useful purpose for their parties. In a time of tribal and class-based politics, where voters (and even activists) generally had little information to work on, it was important to build loyalty to the party as an institution, not necessarily the ideas behind it. When most elections were just about two parties, descending into tribalism ‘the One True Party is always right’ partisanship does make a certain kind of sense.

We’re not in those times any more. Obviously, for some people politics still is a predominantly tribal affair, or even just a game between opposing sides where winning is the only important thing, no matter how you get there. However, I’d argue that with the breakdown of strong loyalties to parties amongst the voting public, this sort of approach isn’t likely to attract support in the way it used to. Trading insults back and forth with your opponents might feel good to the One True Party activist, but it’s not likely to attract the voter who knows that there are no true parties, just a group of different parties that might do different things. When offered with ‘you must vote for us because we’re right about everything’ in several different forms, is it any wonder when they go for something entirely different?

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***BESTPIX*** Labour Launches Scottish Independence Referendum CampaignAs the Scottish Labour Party breaks from tradition to form the circular firing squad before the election and find itself without a leader, speculation has begun on who could replace Johann Lamont as the holder of one of British politics most coveted poisoned chalices.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on Scottish politics, so I’m not going to comment on the potential of all the candidates but one name that’s been floated has caught my attention: Gordon Brown. At least one MP is pressing the former Prime Minister to stand, and his role in the referendum campaign would make him a strong contender for the role.

However, if he were to do it, Brown would be unique amongst former British Prime Ministers in choosing to get involved at another level of politics after leaving Downing Street. of course, this is mainly due to their not being many other meaningful levels of politics in Britain that former Prime Ministers could get involved in prior to 1997, but even if we look internationally to countries with more federal systems there’s are very few similar examples.

Indeed, the only example that readily comes to mind is that of Jacques Chirac, who served as French Prime Minister from 1974-6, then became Mayor of Paris in 1977. However, the French Prime Minister is very much subordinate to the President, and the mayoralty of Paris was a newly created/restored role in 1977, making it a perfect position for someone like Chirac to stand for to keep his political prominence high.

After that, the best examples I could find were Richard Nixon, running for Governor of California after being Vice-President of the United States, and (thanks to Richard) Eduard Shevardnadze, going from Foreign Minister of the USSR to President of Georgia (though that was after the dissolution of the USSR). Even in countries with strongly federal systems, the direction of travel for politicians appears to be relentlessly upwards and towards the centre. Once one has reached the peak, there’s no stepping back to a lower role. (Another British exception, in a slightly different way is Alec Douglas-Home returning to his previous role as Foreign Secretary in Edward Heath’s government)

Of course, one major explanation for this is the question of age. Leaders tend to leave their roles at a time when most people are retiring, and they’re probably not to blame for, in the most part, deciding that a period of lecturing, memoir-writing and well-paid advising is a much better way of spending their time than getting involved in a completely different politics. However, as leaders become younger and leave office at a younger age while health improves and being 65 isn’t an end to everything, isn’t there a temptation to continue on in politics in some form if possible? In a system that now tends to throw leaders out after they’ve lost one election, rather than let them try to return to power, isn’t seeking another arena a logical choice?

All that said, I’m still not convinced that Brown becoming leader of Scottish Labour is much more than a very late silly season story, but someone has to be the first to do something, so why not let it be him?

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It must be a thing if two Sunday columnists have both noticed it – Andrew Rawnsley and Matthew D’Ancona both notice that there are simultaneous plots against both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition and attempt to work out what it means.

For me, it’s Rawnsley who finds the best explanation:

In Britain, it runs deeper than that. Austerity has sharpened and accelerated a much longer-term trend of disintegrating support for the two major parties. They’ve gone, the solid blocks of red and blue voters that the major party leaders used to be able to mobilise. There has been a decades-long decline in the blue-red duopoly. It is the bad luck of Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband to be leaders of their parties when the music finally stopped.

As I’ve said before, we’re still living through the process of a long and slow breakdown of the old party system in British politics. The number of people not voting has steadily risen – 1997 was the last election when a party got more votes than the number of people not voting – and amongst those who are voting, support for the main two parties has been continually dwindling to the point where polls are now showing them both dropping below 33%, meaning ‘other’ could now be said to be topping the poll.

The various plots – in all parties – are often coming from people who are trying to persuade themselves that this is only a temporary blip and that normal service will be resumed as soon as they confidently state that they’ve rediscovered what normality is. Once they’ve got their particular Johnson as leader, everyone will suddenly realise what fools they’ve been and things will go back to the way the plotters think they should be. That ‘the way things should be’ hasn’t been the way things are for almost fifty years now is entirely inconsequential. Some people have an assumption that Britain should be a two-party state and any diversion away from that is just a temporary blip that will be corrected as soon as the right people are back in charge.

Maybe I’m wrong and getting the right leaders in place is all it would take to magically revert the system back to its default settings, but I suspect not. It feels to me that what people want and expect from politics and politicians has fundamentally changed, and the current system can’t address it. A continuing series of tweaks can stave off a full collapse for a short time, but not for good. The foundations of the system are crumbling away from beneath us, and that must be acknowledged before any real fix can come.

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Labour annual conference 2014During his speech yesterday, Ed Miliband made lots of references to problems with our political system.

she thinks politics is rubbish. And let’s not pretend we don’t hear that a lot on the doorstep…
Our politics doesn’t listen…
And to cap it all, in our politics, it’s a few who have the access while everyone else is locked out…
People think politics is more and more a game and that all we’re in it for is ourselves…
You know people think Westminster politics is out of touch, irrelevant and often disconnected from their lives…
We don’t just need to restore people’s faith in the future with this economic and social plan we need to change the way politics works in this country.
In this day and age, when people are so cynical about politics.

So, Ed thinks there are problems with our politics, that people are cynical about it and it’s all a game. So how did he choose to start his speech?

Friends, it is great to be with you in Manchester. A fantastic city. A city with a great Labour council leading the way. And a city that after this year’s local elections, is not just a Tory-free zone but a Liberal Democrat free zone as well.

He could have used that to praise some of the achievements of Manchester council, to tell us what its done for its residents. In a speech that was going to talk about reform, he could have used it as an example of what councils could achieve now, even when they’re hamstrung by the current system, and imagine what they might do if they were set free. It could have been a great way to illustrate the potential power of devolution and regionalism.

Instead, he chose to appeal to Labour tribalism and make a virtue out of the fact that Manchester is now effectively a one-party state. There are 96 members of Manchester City Council, of which 95 are Labour councillors and the other one is an ex-Labour councillor who now sits as an independent. This is all, of course, thanks to the wonders of our electoral system which means Manchester isn’t a fluke, but a regular occurence. There are councils all over England and Wales where one party has an absurd level of dominance and huge swathes of voters aren’t represented.

Is he against politics as a game, or is he fine with that game as long as Labour are winning? Is he happy for whole swathes of people to be locked out of power and not listened to? Are the Labour Party in this for proper change, or just in it for themselves? In short, does Ed Miliband really want a different kind of politics, or just a slightly tweaked version of our current kind?

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So, David Blunkett thinks we should censor the internet, because Nazis. No, that is his argument:

Drawing a parallel with Germany before the rise of the Nazis, he suggested a loose moral climate had fed the paranoia and fear that had allowed Adolf Hitler to flourish.

“In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Berlin came as near as dammit to Sodom and Gomorrah. There was a disintegration of what you might call any kind of social order.”

Except Berlin didn’t come close to Sodom and Gomorrah, or a breakdown of the social order. The 1920s in Berlin are known as the Golden Twenties, because of the incredible cultural and economic flowering that occurred in the city during that time – major industrialisation was occurring, the city was one of the world’s cultural capitals (Berlin Alexanderplatz and Metropolis are both from this time), and Einstein was also working in the city at that time.

Of course, there were some people who resented this cultural progress within the city and denounced the ‘degenerate art‘ this period produced. They were, of course, the Nazis. Using myths of depravity and exaggerating the supposed threat caused by what they saw as a breakdown of the social order, they were able to come to power – by creating the myths that David Blunkett now happily parrots in his attempt to keep pandering to the Daily Mail tendency. Effectively, Blunkett is trying to use Nazi propaganda uncritically to threaten the rise of Nazis in an attempt to get his way – it’s like watching Godwin’s Law eat itself.

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