» Labour ¦ What You Can Get Away With

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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A couple of snippets from the Sundays to help you understand how British politics works today:

First, the Telegraph is very eager to tell us that Liz Kendall has suddenly emerged as the favourite for a Labour leadership race that may or may not be taking place at some unspecified point in the future. How has she achieved this impressive, yet somewhat nebulous, feat? Some mass mobilisation of Labour members? A series of impressive performances in the House of Commons? Perhaps she’s set out some important new ideas for the future of the Labour Party? Maybe it’s through a long period of helping and campaigning other MPs?

No, it’s because ‘she gave an interview to House magazine saying that for the NHS “What matters is what works”’. Yes, reusing some old bit of Blairite managerialist pabulum – what matters is ‘what works’, ignoring that ‘what works’ is determined by whoever decides what ‘working’ means – is enough to catapult you into the lead. It’s definitely not that she’s stressed the importance of private healthcare in the NHS while her old boss works for Alliance Boots at the same time its chairman is attacking Ed Miliband. What would the Telegraph have to gain by promoting someone who’d push Labour back towards the managerialist centre?

Meanwhile, over at the Independent, John Rentoul’s remarkable career as a political commentator who doesn’t understand the concept of ideology continues apace. Today, he’s setting out just why the country needs a Labour government, but headed by David Cameron. It’s the sort of centrist managerialist fantasy one would expect from an arch-Blairite, yet again stressing that what is important in a politician isn’t believing in something but being possessed of some nebulous form of ‘competence’. Like ‘what works’, ‘competence’ is purely in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder is normally a well-paid newspaper columnist or editor assessing who they’ve been told good things about.

(Incidentally, although I’ve said I don’t think a grand coalition is likely after the next election, the number of times I’ve seen people in the press suggesting it does make me wonder if the ground is being prepared for one, just in case it turns out to be necessary)

What both these articles represent, though, is the cosy consensuses that dominate British politics. Stick firmly within the lines of what’s acceptable within the elite consensus and you’ll be praised to the skies for your competence and put forward as possible leadership material. Question it, or stray outside the mainstream consensus for just a little bit and you’ll be a maverick on the fringes, and you definitely won’t get the media singing your praises. It’s a lot easier for everyone in the elite consensus if politics is just a matter of deciding between competing managerial visions without letting any of that horrible ideology getting there. It’s why the memory of Blairism lingers so much amongst the commentariat: things were easier then when all you had to worry about was ‘what works’ not what anyone might actually want.

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Back in October, I covered some of the madness of one of Labour’s ‘we are the One True Party and none shall stand in our way’ true believers, and as a blog written by someone outside the Labour Party could never change his mind, he’s doubling down on it.

The proposition this time is that the surefire way for Labour to win the election is to proclaim that they will govern as a single party, or they won’t be in government at all. Apparently the political equivalent of a child’s tantrum and declaring you don’t want to play with anyone at all will be the secret weapon that makes everyone vote Labour. Quite why Luke Akehurst thinks that a party getting just over 30% in the polls wouldn’t get laughed out of the room for suggesting that, he doesn’t explain (and if we had an even vaguely sensible electoral system the idea would be so bizarre as to be inconceivable).

Yet again, though, it’s someone imagining that what’s happening in our politics is just a temporary blip and things will get back to normal as soon as those naughty voters stop messing about and give their votes to the two big parties, just like they’re supposed to. In this view, no one is voting SNP, Green, Lib Dem, UKIP or whoever else because they agree with their policies, it’s just because they need to be showing Labour and the Tories that they need to recommit to Full Socialism Now/Blairism/Proper One Nation Toryism/Red Blooded Hyper-Thatcherism (delete as applicable) and then they’ll return to the fold. In this view, Labour is the One True Party for voters who are vaguely on the left (where ‘left’ equals ‘not Tory’) but by occasionally being stupidly pluralist it has let voters forget that. If it now forcefully reminds people that it is the One True Party (accept no imitations), they will all be instantly struck by the truth of this statement and happily vote Labour again.

(The mirror of this argument is also used on the right with the same expected result – everyone who is not Labour seeing the error of their ways and voting Tory again, like they’re supposed to. This shared image of themselves is why many people can look from Tory to Labour and back again without noticing much difference.)

One day soon, it’s going to sink in to some people that the old politics has likely gone forever and won’t be coming back no matter how hard they might wish for it. Until then, there’ll be lots of laughs to be gained from watching them insist that the One True Party is so powerful, even reality must bend to its will.

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