johnsmithWith many parties in flux right now, it’s a prime time for everyone to offer them advice, especially those outside the party with little to now knowledge of it, yet are absolutely sure they know what the party ought to be doing next. So, Labour people should feel free to completely ignore this on the grounds that I likely don’t know what I’m talking about.

The Labour Party leadership election appears to be taking place under a giant Tony Blair-shaped shadow, with much of the debate seeming to float around which of the candidates is the most Blairite, post-Blairite, worthy of the mantle of Blair etc That’s entirely natural, as Blair remains the only Labour leader to have won an election in the past forty years, but I think it misses a crucial part of the rise of Tony Blair.

The narrative of how Blair ‘made Labour electable again’ often ignores that Blair was not the leader the party turned to after its defeat in 1992. It was John Smith who the party turned to, and he was elected almost by acclaim, defeating Brian Gould by 91% to 9%. It was during Smith’s time as Shadow Chancellor that Labour had started to regain ground on the Tories on economic competence, and when he became leader he chose Gordon Brown to carry on that work as his Shadow Chancellor. Because of that work, when the Tory Government saw a complete collapse of its reputation for economic competence on Black Wednesday in 1992, Labour took a lead in the opinion polls under Smith that that they wouldn’t lose for the rest of the Parliament.

846_bigIt was Smith’s death in 1994 that gave Blair the chance to stand for the party leadership – likely several years before he ever expected it – and go on to become Prime Minister, but the important fact here is that Blair inherited a Labour Party that was already well ahead in the polls and widely expected to form the next Government even if the next election was still as much as three years away. To imagine that it was merely the election of Blair that somehow made Labour electable again is to ignore everything that was done before both by Smith (and Neil Kinnock before him) to put the party into a place where it could be seen as a credible choice again.

Regardless of the qualities of the candidates for the leadership this time, just imagining that electing one of them can magically replicate the Blair effect is to ignore the situation Blair inherited when he became leader. What Labour need is a new John Smith to steady the ship and do the work that needs to be done to reorganise the party’s strategy and policy before handing it over to whoever might be the ‘new Blair’ (or the first Jarvis/Creasy/Kendall/Cooper etc). I would suggest that what Labour need to do with this leadership election is consciously decide that now is not the time to decide who’s going to lead them into the 2020 election but instead a choose someone who’ll lead the party until 2018 or 2019, and do the work to rebuild the party that’s needed while encouraging the potential next leaders to develop their skills and public profiles, but not while being the sole focus of media attention as party leader.

As we’ve seen with Ed Miliband, five years is a long time to be Leader of the Opposition, and plenty of time for the media to slowly roast you while you have very little opportunity to actually do anything. Rather than putting someone else through that pressure again, wouldn’t Labour be better off asking someone like Harriet Harman or Alan Johnson to take on the job as an explicitly interim leader? That way, they can conduct the serious process of rebuilding the party ready to hand it on to their 2020 candidate, instead of thinking that five years of the sort of media pressure that’s made Chuka Umunna quit the contest after a week would be a good thing for any new leader.

, ,

Less than 100 hours until the polling stations open, and thoughts are naturally turning more and more to just what the result of this election will be. Like everyone else, I’ve been pondering the various post-election deals that are possible and it feels to me that the key number of MPs either Labour or the Conservatives need to win to have a chance at forming a stable Government is around 290.

My thinking’s based on the current numbers for MPs from the other parties being suggested by the various forecasts: an SNP total of 40-50+, Liberal Democrats winning somewhere between 25-30 seats, Northern Irish seats remaining roughly the same, UKIP winning around 3 or 4 and Greens holding their one seat. What I assume is that neither Labour nor the Tories would make a deal with the SNP, but either would make one with the Liberal Democrats. What we can also do is assume that even in the absence of a deal, the other parties are likely to vote in a certain way, especially on issues of confidence.

The reason 290 is key is that it’s the point at which either main party in agreement with the Lib Dems would have enough support to be able to expect to win votes in Parliament regularly. For example, a Labour-Lib Dem government would expect the regular support of the SDLP and (Northern Ireland independent) Sylvia Hermon, and could probably count on Plaid Cymru and the Green’s Caroline Lucas (as well as Alliance’s Naomi Long if she’s re-elected) giving support as well in exchange for some concessions. So, 290 Labour MPs, plus 25-30 Lib Dem MPs and 10-12 others gives a Parliamentary majority without needing any deals with the SNP. Indeed, such an agreement would create a headache for the SNP (and George Galloway): vote against it and they’re voting with the Tories, abstain and they’re doing nothing in Parliament.

On the other side, the same applies but with fewer parties involved. With the support of the DUP, 290 Tories allied with the Lib Dems would have enough seats for a majority in Parliament without the need for any formal deal with UKIP (who’d face the same ‘vote with Labour or do nothing’ dilemma as the SNP in the other scenario) though getting Lib Dems to agree to a deal that formally involved the DUP might be tricky. Indeed, assuming that getting Lib Dems to agree to any deal is a simple matter of getting Clegg on board with it fails to account for the role of the wider party in agreeing it, as Jennie explains here.

They key point here, though, is that for both Labour and the Tories, 290 looks like being the key number of seats to win on Thursday (though that can go up or down depending on how many Lib Dem seats there are – the key figure is having around 315-320 for the two parties combined). If one of them (and the maths suggest it will be only one of them, unless the Scottish polls are way off) can make it there then they will very likely form the core of the next Government, but if neither of them can, then we can expect a long period of coalition negotiation and deal-making before we get a new Government and the shape of it won’t be clear for much longer.

,

nusconferenceIt’s NUS Conference week, which in my time as a student meant it was the time of year when thousands of students (accompanied by the contestants in the Britain’s Most Obscure Trotskyite Sect competition) descended on Blackpool for a week of increasingly bitter political debate, badly organised elections, heavy drinking, the making and breaking of friendships, and the cultivation of a ridiculously over-inflated sense of self-importance. Nowadays it’s all different, as it takes place in Liverpool (even NUS doesn’t rate Blackpool as a conference destination any more).

To mark Conference, NUS tweeted out an infographic with a bunch of factoids about NUS Conference over the years, including a list of MPs who’ve been to one. Unsurprisingly, most of those MPs are Labour (see this post of mine for some explanation why) but there are also a few Conservative MPs listed (one of whom is Rab Butler, which gives you an idea of how far back they had to go to find them) and three Liberal Democrat MPs. The first two on the list are quite well known – Tim Farron, who was President of Newcastle’s Union Society, and Lembit Opik, who was President of Bristol Union and also served on the NUS NEC – but the third is the much more obscure Ian Cunningham MP. Indeed, he’s so obscure that he never actually existed.

There’s never been a Liberal Democrat MP called Ian Cunningham. There wasn’t a Social Democrat one called Ian Cunningham, and from what I can tell there wasn’t a Liberal MP since 1922 (the year NUS was founded) called Ian Cunningham. There doesn’t even seem to be an MP with a name similar to ‘Ian Cunningham’ who NUS could have got confused with.

In normal times, this would be something to be joked about, an embarrassing slip where a bit of filler text didn’t get deleted. But this is a time when NUS are running a ‘Liar, Liar’ campaign targeted at Liberal Democrat MPs – and in their own publicity, they’ve just made up a Liberal Democrat MP! ‘His’ name is right next to a whole bunch of NUS Presidents who became Labour MPs – Charles Clarke, Jack Straw, Jim Murphy, Stephen Twigg, Lorna Fitzsimons – and then voted both to introduce fees and then increase them, in direct opposition to their party’s manifesto, but does NUS publicity mention them at all, let alone criticise them?

NUS can criticise people all they like, but until they start getting their own facts right, they shouldn’t expect people to take them seriously.

, ,

Labour annual conference 2014More of politics in action:

1) Say you want more young people to get more involved and interested in politics.
2) Young people get interested in politician and discuss him.
3) say ‘oh, not like that’.

As ever, people talking to the young have forgotten what it was like to be young. Imagine if Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and the rest had been around 20-30 years ago – what embarrassing sites created by journalists and politicians would now be in the archive for us to discover? How many current Tory MPs would have had Thatcher shrines, how many times would Neil Kinnock’s appearance in a Tracy Ullman video have been shared and how many arguments would there have been over what portmanteau name to give to the David Owen/David Steel fandom?

Sure, some future politicians act like they were born aged 50 and would never have done anything so embarrassing as squeeing over a speech, but why should politics be solely the realm of the serious? And aren’t teenagers in cheap suits just cosplaying as their favourite political characters, anyway?

Most political parties are just organised fandoms for a political ideology or slice of political history, it';s just that they’ve been around so long people treat them as something different and respectable. But just like science fiction fans, they gather in obscure places every year for conventions (sorry, ‘conferences’) where they can dress up like their heroes, hear them talk, discuss their favourite elements of the fandom at panel discussions, and occasionally get to meet and be photographed with their favourites.

You’re already in the politics fandom, you just like to pretend it’s not.

,

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.

, , ,

The 2015 Why Vote books

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.

, , , ,

#whynotjointhelabourparty

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:
Pledge_4_Mug_-_Controls_On_Immigration
I wonder how many Ed Miliband’s bought for his family?