OMOV

Labour Students (LS) are currently engaged in their consultation for a possible transition in the voting system of internal elections – from the current delegate model (as in, members of each club can vote for a delegate, who in turn vote for National Committee at national events) to one member one vote (OMOV, which would allow each member of LS to vote for elections). Both systems involve a trade-off between positives and negatives, but whilst the current system may be justifiable, I do not think the system is justified in the context of our internal democracy. A significant problem of the delegate model is that it entrenches pre-existing networks because delegates (and, indeed, non-delegate members that attend national events) are part of a limited network that is – by its nature – exclusive. The lack of direct involvement by ordinary members up and down the country prevents the direct voices to be reflected at national level. Delegates are not be able to voice the myriad of concerns, issues and priorities of members.

This is ultimately the purpose of OMOV, part of a wider agenda to increase the democracy and representation of Labour Students. OMOV would fundamentally change the nature of elections to National Committee in four key ways:

  1. Inclusivity. Candidates would be forced to reflect the issues and priorities of all members throughout the country, not just the concerns of delegates that attend democratic events. In other words, candidates will have to engage with members directly. Consequently, National Committee would become more sensitive to those concerns. This would ensure that even those that are unable to attend national events (for whatever reason – lack of confidence, affordability, distance, academic pressures, timing) would still have a voice in the organisation. This would do much to tackle one of the biggest problems for Labour Students: the perception of a remote, distant, and ultimately exclusive organisation that is not relevant to the concerns and priorities of the many members it seeks to represent.
  2. Democracy. A perennial problem for the organisation is that elections are often uncontested. Indeed, without alternative choices on the ballot paper, elections have become an undemocratic ritual at Conference. This is often because potential candidates are remote from the wider membership; direct elections would open opportunities for more diverse elections. This would additionally drive up standards because candidates would have to consider more seriously why they want to be on Committee.
  3. Legitimacy. Contested elections would ensure that candidates attempted to actually win over other members. This would increase the democratic legitimacy of her or his position because of the larger pool of voters, all of whom have a right to air their priorities for LS, had a choice in elections.
  4. Visibility. Without direct elections, no members of National Committee have ever had a reason to approach members of Labour Students. This is despite the fact that they have been elected to represent the student members and supporters of the Labour Party. Direct elections will force direct contact.

Three issues immediately arise: the role of clubs, the equalities agenda, and the perceived cost.

The Role of Clubs

A perceived problem is that bigger clubs will have more of an influence with direct elections than indirect elections. In many ways, this is a misperception. Elections will focus on direct and relevant concerns of all members of LS, and not those of bigger clubs. Indeed, indirect elections place significant powers into the hands of clubs – especially bigger ones. [1]

Ultimately, votes for National Committee come from all members – even those from smaller clubs that are unable to send delegates to events. Under OMOV, votes for National Committee will be taken out of the hands of clubs and placed directly into members’.

The Equalities Agenda

A significant concern that I strongly  appreciate is the effect of OMOV on the equalities agenda. Whereas delegation are gender balanced at 50 per cent, the general membership of LS is 70 per cent male. There is therefore a justified concern that direct elections would adversely affect the liberation and equalities agenda. However, I believe that this issue can be overcome.

National Committee is, at the moment, gender balanced. It also has specific representatives from liberation and equalities groups. OMOV would not change this. Therefore, I do not think that the priority that Labour Students places on equality and liberation issues would be limited. Indeed, liberation officers would be in a unique position to enhance their role with OMOV. Direct elections for these positions means that wider concerns of students that identify with one or more liberation group would be raised more openly and democratically. This is especially true of those groups that are particularly under-represented at national events and who, at times, lack the confidence or accessibility to come to national events. Direct elections for liberation officers would therefore be able to increase their representativeness, putting more emphasis on ordinary members.

Cost

A final issue is the cost, which has been articulated in two ways. First, OMOV is perceived to be more expensive. Second, it would make running for election more expensive. Both of these issues are, I believe, misconceptions.

First, OMOV is not more expensive than the delegate system. The LS website has been able to hold a wide-ranging consultation on OMOV, so it can easily also have a simple site that allows people to put ticks next to people that members wish to vote for. Indeed, the LS website has a Members Area, accessed through MembersNet, which means that everything is already a place to allow OMOV to be implemented at little extra cost. However, even if OMOV was more expensive: are we really going to compromise the principle of democracy because of cost?

Second, elections would also not necessarily become more expensive. It is possible to put safeguards in place – most obviously, a financial limit to how much spending is allowed for election campaigns. Moreover, LS could make manifestos available on their website, which would limit expenses and give equal access for all candidates. If anything, it would make candidates spend more effort (not more money) on their proposals for National Committee.

Given our fundamental Labour value of equality for all, the right to vote seems to be a very basic tenement that must be implemented. National Committee would engage with members at a very direct, individual level, which is currently missing. It would heighten the sense of grassroots-level involvement which Labour Students cannot afford to ignore without detrimentally affecting its effectiveness and inclusiveness. If we want the movement to grow, then we need to be as inclusive as possible. OMOV would increase the pressure for candidates to reflect the wider movement through direct contact with members and to become more responsive to the members they seek to represent.

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[1] Even though there are delegate restrictions for bigger clubs, they do still have larger delegations than smaller ones. Moreover, there is no restriction on the number of non-delegate attendees at events (and if there is a restriction, this has not been enforced).

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Battleground 2015: Protecting our standards of living

A few weeks ago, we learnt that inflation has increased to 2.7 percent, whilst the Bank of England said that it expects inflation to exceed the three percent mark at some point this year. Meanwhile, the growth of pay has been just 1.3 percent and most social security benefits are either frozen or limited to a one percent rise over the next three years. The squeeze on living standards remains a very real issue, and the growing disparity between social security, the rate of inflation and low wage increases means that living standards are put under severe strain. This is despite growing awareness for things like the Living Wage Campaign that have sought to re-focus efforts on dignity in employment. Coupled with low overall economic growth (coasting at pretty much nil since 2010, and achieving only 0.3 percent in the last quarter) the consequences have been alarming for working people.

George Osborne’s recent Spending Review has reinforced those trends and, given the fiscal commitments he has made, the Coalition has now set the terms of debate for the 2015 election. It will be, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies claimed, an ‘austerity election’ because successive governments will have to impose further spending cuts of £23bn between 2015 and 2017. This is a contentious agenda, which will see public expenditure plunge below 40 percent of GDP – and below that of the US, Germany and Japan. Public spending will fall by over 6 percent between 2012 and 2017; in the US, it will fall by just 1.26 percent. The UK is therefore rebalancing its economy in a very drastic way in a short time period compared with other major economies. Labour must challenge this agenda. But it must also ask a basic question about its raison d’être: what is the purpose of the left in a period of austerity, in a period of low economic growth, and in a period of declining support for the welfare state?

From the mid-1990s, Labour could rely on economic growth to redistribute wealth – in other words, correct the problems caused by capitalism without dealing with the cause itself. Looking towards the horizon of 2015, this is clearly not possible from an economic perspective, nor desirable because popularity for the welfare state has waned. It means that Labour must support social justice and equality – both central to achieve fairness – in a different way. Labour can no longer focus on a large state and solely on the redistribution of wealth to achieve its goals. Things such as working tax credits have perpetuated market inequalities, where the government spends billions to essentially subsidise companies for low pay. This is one of the central reasons that we must turn towards a living wage to support people in jobs. The living wage is as much about economic equality as it is about social justice. Labour was founded on such a principle, aiming to improve social cohesion and fighting for the right for every person to have an opportunity at a good life. This was a founding aim for guild socialism, co-operatives and trade unions. We must remember that greater economic justice is not an end in itself, but the mechanism by which we can achieve a better society – a society in which we, as communities, can determine our collective fate and in which we, as individuals, can pursue our conceptions of happiness. Unfortunately, this seems so have been forgotten sometime after the Second World War, possibly somewhere amidst the creation of a bureaucratic welfare state. The Labour Party focused too much energy on correcting the faults of the capitalist economy: it focused on tidying up inequality, rather than challenging its causes.

Labour would do well to look to the principle of living standards as a central guiding force for policy. The protection of living standards is the belief that all individuals have a right to a minimum standard of living through dignity in work, good mental (as well as physical) well-being and reasonably priced public services available for all. In other words, life should be affordable and not a daily struggle for survival. The Coalition government has entirely abandoned these aims: the cost of essential goods has increased by 25 percent since 2008 without ameliorative efforts. Living standards are now at their lowest level since at least 2004-05, and the IFS has concluded that: ‘Prospects for living standards are […] bleak – further falls are likely to be followed by a weak recovery, leaving average income growth even lower in the 2010s than in the 2000s’. [1]

Labour’s alternative to austerity must be a return to the principles of a decent standard of living. Living standards resonate with people, so long as it is associated with the beliefs of dignity in work, social security based on a contributory principle, and a distribution of wealth based on just deserts. The idea of a ‘squeezed middle’, scoffed at by so many a couple of years ago, was a bold move that has since become an important reference point for debates around austerity. It requires the following commitments from Labour:

  • A minimum living wage. This, beyond anything else, will be a test for Labour. The Party must commit to the introduction of a living wage across the country. There are calls for the national minimum wage to be raised to become the living wage, which I would echo. [2]
  • Protection of basic economic rights. Calls from Conservatives suggest that austerity may cause the repeal of employment rights. Tory europhobes, too, want to repeal rights in order to create a more ‘flexible’ labour market. If anything, these need to be strengthened to ensure basic rights for workers.
  • Regulating prices. Our utility companies are hardly subject to competitive frameworks. Water companies have monopolies over certain areas, and energy companies make it difficult to switch to cheaper rates. [3] This must be challenged through a regulatory framework, coupled with a green investment strategy.
  • Social investments. For example, we need to continue to invest in education at all levels (from pre-school support to post-graduate funding). This will balance equality of opportunity as social mobility will increase, and it will also act as an incentive for further investment from businesses.
  • A strategy for growth. Social security benefits are rising because our economy is not growing. A growing economy – that is rebalanced towards sustainability, with regulative frameworks in place – has the opportunity to not only lower social security, but also to strengthen dignity in work.

Labour can be radical in its approach towards living standards. It speaks to a positive vision for what economics is for. It is an approach that moves Labour away from the falsely constructed ‘strivers versus skivers’ debate. Ultimately, this is also not about austerity. This is about using the resources we have to achieve radical outcomes for greater social justice and equal opportunities for all, without the need to necessarily increase public expenditure.

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[1] Institute for Fiscal Studies (2013) Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2013, London: IFS, p.28. Available here.

[2] A living wage is important because it would ensure dignity in work for the employed, it would boost the spending power of individuals (gross earnings would be up by £6.5bn) and it would ensure a more productive workforce. Crucially, it would also allow the Treasury to achieve gross savings of £3.6bn if universally applied. See this report by the IPPR and Resolution Foundation for more details.

[3] The Power Book, presented by Caroline Flint at the last Labour Annual Conference was a step in the right direction. For more, see: Local Government Information Unit (2012) The Power Book, London: LGiU.

Breaking Britain

On 04 April 2013, Mick Philpott was sentenced to life imprisonment for manslaughter. The man caused the death of six of his (many more) children by starting a fire. The Daily Mail’s headline read: ‘Vile Product of Welfare UK’. But it isn’t just the Daily Mail with that view. George Osborne, with the support of the Prime Minister, attributed a role to the welfare state to the rise of Philpott. He said that: ‘I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state, and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state […] subsidising lifestyles like that’. Readers of the tabloids, and many politicians besides, strongly believe that the majority of those claiming benefits are either foreigners or fraudsters. This is not surprising, given that citizens are consistently fed myths about those who rely on benefits. The TUC/YouGov Survey from December 2012 is hugely revealing. For instance, respondents believed that 41 percent of the entire welfare budget is spent on unemployment benefits. In a second example, respondents believed that 27 percent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently. It therefore comes as no surprise that 59 percent of all respondents of the poll agreed with the following statement:

Britain’s current welfare system has created a culture of dependency, whereby many people, and often whole families, get used to living off state benefits; the system needs to be radically changed to get such people to take more responsibility for their lives and their families.

The persistent myths spread by the media have therefore had a huge impact to entrench divisions within society about the nature of welfare (despite the fact that the same respondents also believed (by 54 percent) that the media does not give an accurate account of welfare expenditure or the people that claim social assistance). Here is a pie chart on how the welfare budget is actually spent [1]:

Expenditure of Welfare

What it shows is that less than three percent of the welfare budget goes on Jobseeker’s Allowance, and fraud is estimated to cover roughly 0.8 percent (although ‘fraud’ by definition may not be estimated accurately). What is hugely important to note is how widespread the welfare state supports British families: from young families to pensioners, from the sick and disabled to those on low income. Roughly 64 percent of all families receive some kind of social assistance.

The very idea of ‘welfare’ is now under siege. For many people, the term has connotations of big state, dependency and laziness. It is now even used as an insult, when it was once a source of pride. To take the headline from the Guardian, a ‘war on welfare’ has begun. This ‘war’ is fought amidst growing divisions in British society, in which welfare is linked to the rise of ‘shirkers’ (demonising the unemployed) and connected to the rise of immigration (with consequent rises in xenophobia). These are just two examples of a pervasive trend in an attempt to turn the public against social security in order to legitimise the Coalition’s austerity agenda.

As with the ‘debt versus growth’ debate, the Coalition are winning the argument. The terms of debate have shifted significantly: ‘welfare’ is no longer about supporting those in need; it is now about a ‘culture of dependency’. Setting the agenda in such stark terms means that the Conservatives have been able to pose a particular problem of the welfare state that implies a particular solution: cut welfare and you cut dependency. This narrative has proved to be very powerful – regardless of its faulty analysis. The policy consequences are as radical as the narrative has been powerful. However, the austerity agenda pushed by the Coalition has done far more than changed attitudes to welfare. It has had significant material consequences. A recent report by Oxfam showed that more than 500,000 people are reliant food aid. This is a failure of the social safety net to ensure that families have access to sufficient income to feed themselves adequately. This is a worrying trend, but most disturbingly of all it is almost entirely unopposed. The centre-left, on the whole, has relinquished ownership over the debate on welfare, and the vacuum has allowed the Conservative-led Coalition to fill it. Even Polly Toynbee has given up.

This is despite the fact that the austerity agenda will, as many have already pointed out, disproportionally affect the poor. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies backs this up, epitomised by the following graph [2]:

photo

The inevitable rise in inequality is hugely damaging. It was only a few years ago when the idea of ‘equality’ had a resurgence through the popular book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level. Inequality will have a negative impact on public health, crime and violence, happiness levels, mental health, work ethic and education. [3] Their persuasive arguments were at the top of the political agenda, having the support of David Cameron, Michael Gove, Ed Miliband and Jack Straw – to name a few figures that have publicly quoted the book. Of course, since then, the very idea of ‘equality’ has come under attack. In The Spectator, for example, the book was called ‘junk food for the brain’.

The Conservative Party’s agenda has been hugely effective. It has divided the public and portrayed the Labour Party as squandering public resources on ‘wasteful’ benefit claimants. The story has become one characterised by ‘unfairness’ to hardworking families for the benefit of the lazy. However, this strategy also presents an opportunity for Labour. Using Cameron’s own term of ‘Broken Britain’, which he first coined in 2009, Labour has the opportunity to argue that the Conservatives have further intensified social divisions. Ironically, it is the Conservatives that are ‘breaking Britain’, which Labour must articulate in three important ways. First, it must shift the language from ‘welfare’ to ‘fairness’. This must demonstrate the unfairness of the austerity agenda. Second, it must emphasise the squeeze on living standards and that the Labour Party will protect living standards in a period of low economic growth. Third, Labour must articulate a narrative that unites the public. One Nation Labour must be more than a buzzword; it must show substantive commitment to equality and well-being.

Slowly, the Party leadership has begun to take on this challenge. Last week was hugely important for Labour, and Ed Miliband’s speech was one that delivered. Although nuanced, it hit the right chord for many. Labour cannot win by solely presenting ‘the facts’ of welfare. As Miliband’s speech demonstrated, the Party must be committed to welfare reform with a narrative on social justice (epitomised by the return to the contributory principle), living standards (Miliband once again vowed to push forward with the living wage) and a commitment to equality. This is emblematic of what One Nation must stand for, and it is something that Labour has begun to articulate.

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Notes

[1] Taken from A. Coote and S. Lyall (2013) Mythbusters: “Strivers v. skivers: the workless are worthless”, London: New Economics Foundation. Available here.

[2] R. Joyce and D. Phillips (2013) Tax and Welfare Reforms Planned for 2013-14, London: Institute for Fiscal Studies. Available here.

[3] R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why equality is better for everyone, London: Penguin.

Opposing Neo-Liberalism

The problematisation of the neo-liberal settlement has begun to slide us towards a paradigmatic shift in politics. This shift has been slow, and is still ongoing. Indeed, it is resisted by many, not least by European-driven austerity abroad and the Coalition’s squeeze on spending at home. Neo-liberalism, although arguably in decline, remains a beacon of light for British politics as much as it does in some quarters of Europe. [1] This is both surprising and concerning. It is surprising because it is the biggest crisis in confidence of the capitalist system for at least 80 years. It is concerning because it entrenches further economic inequalities and social injustices. Furthermore, the proponents of neo-liberalism have been able to reduce questions of (sustainable) economic prosperity and social justice to a simple cuts agenda. British politics is still guided by a specific ontological foundation of individualism and unfettered materialism. Both principles have pushed moral concerns and ethical dilemmas into the private sphere. It has hollowed-out the principles that underpin politics – debate, discussion and conflict – and replaced it with a logic of depoliticisation.

More urgently than ever before, we need an alternative to this agenda. The neo-liberal settlement emerged out of a number of dilemmas in public policy during the 1970s, ostensibly precipitated by the 1974 oil crisis. It took five years to turn academic theories (that existed as early as the 1940s) into policy ideas, and a further four years (at least) to cement neo-liberalism into a policy agenda under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. [2]  1997 was a watershed moment because it recast the neo-liberal project and challenged many aspects of it. However, it was not able to challenge the fundamentals of the economic model based on individualism and insatiable consumerism. The centre-left was not anywhere near confident enough to challenge this agenda following the collapse of the left throughout the globe during the early 1990s. Furthermore, neo-liberalism was not problematised by a series of exogenous (and inevitable) dilemmas as it is today. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown therefore accommodated aspects of their communitarian governing project with neo-liberal concessions. [3] Having said that, New Labour did challenge the social settlement. It introduced a minimum wage, ensured nursery education for all three and four year olds, implemented a tax credits regime, invested in the NHS at record levels, brought peace to Northern Ireland and recognised civil partnerships. It corrected the excesses of neo-liberalism after-the-fact. It was patently not enough, but members and supporters of the Labour Party should be proud of what it got right in government.

The contemporary challenge for Labour is to offer an alternative that reaches beyond merely amelioration or accommodation with a discredited economic and societal model. Debates that had been buried under neo-liberal rhetoric have resurfaced, which means that the centre-left is able to expose some of its myths. The Policy Review under Labour’s Jon Cruddas has begun – although tentatively – to explore options that go beyond limiting the negative side-effects of neo-liberal capitalism. Ed Miliband himself has repeatedly called for a comprehensive re-think away from ‘irresponsible capitalism’ towards a more ethical capitalist system. Miliband has called himself a ‘responsible capitalist’. In his interview in Shifting Grounds he argues that ‘the way economies succeed is not by a few people at the top, but by supporting the many’ and that ‘unless you have the infrastructure that supports the many, government willing to reform the banking system to support the many, the skills system to support the many, the industrial policy, you’re never going to succeed’. A recent speech by Miliband highlighted that responsible capitalism has an agenda where companies pursue profit in tandem with an equal society, where power is in the hands of the many, and where citizens recognise responsibilities to each other. At a recent One Nation conference in London, Steward Wood, an advisor to Ed Miliband, built on this by calling for: ‘a different kind of economy, a determination to tackle inequality, an emphasis on responsibility (of the people at the top and the bottom), protecting the elements of our common life, and challenging the ethics of neo-liberalism’. [4]

Commentators, of the left and right, within Labour and beyond, have questioned much of the Policy Review to date. The Policy Review has come under hefty criticism for being slow, bulky and far from radical. This is, perhaps, because the review confronts the two most dominant traditions within the Labour Party – New (or Purple) Labour and Old (or Red) Labour. The two perspectives have dominated Party debates. Blue Labour, the new player of the game, does not have quite such prestige. And yet, this tradition opposes both the statism of the Old and the neo-liberalism of the New. Of course, the skirmishes between the three traditions are a sideshow, leaving the Policy Review to get on with its work rather calmly. Clearly, the problem is not that Labour is empty of ideas. Rather, the problem is that Labour has been too cautious to articulate its alternative vision for politics, society and economics – in part, no doubt, given the divisions within the Party about its future. However, it is time that Labour spells out its vision in unambiguous terms.  Taking the three headings of the Policy Review, Labour must go into a new direction and call for:

  • An ethical politics. Labour must reject the simplistic rational-choice individualism that has been a crucial foundation for neo-liberalism. The greed-based model has destroyed faith in politics. Power must be radically decentralised to local councils and regional assemblies. The liberal commitment to depoliticisation must come to an end immediately.
  • A fairer society. Passions over welfare reform run high, but Labour must be bold and challenge the divisive language espoused by many on the right. Labour must reduce inequalities by tackling our inefficient tax system and ensure that living standards lie at the heart of a Labour programme for reform.
  • Sustainable economic growth. The challenge for a sustainable recovery dominates public discourse.  Labour must re-balance the economy in a radical way – something that New Labour never dared to do. The real test, however, is the extent to which this is sustainable. Not simply in material terms, but environmental ones, too.

Some of these are in strong opposition to the Red Labour (statism versus localism) and Purple Labour visions (Keynesian versus Polanyian economics). [5] Crucially, many of the aims chime together. Challenging unfairness and inequality are things that have united all three shades of contemporary Labour traditions, which is why it must be at the heart of Labour’s governing vision in 2015. The Party leadership has failed to be bold in its critique of the status quo. This is somewhat perplexing, given the resounding support Miliband has received in the past for taking on vested interests. 2015 could be a watershed moment, if Labour wants it to be.

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[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Thatcher was guided, for instance, by Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, originally published in 1944. The book itself led to numerous libertarian critiques of the welfare consensus.

[3] M. Bevir (2010) Democratic Governance, Princeton: PUP, p.130.

[4] For a summary of Wood’s speech, click here.

[5] See, for example, A. Finlayson (2013) ‘From Blue to Green and Everything in Between: Ideational change and left political economy after New Labour’, British Journal of Politics and IR 15:1, pp.70-88.

Pinning Colours to the Mast

It is now the middle of 2013, and we have surpassed the half-way point of this Parliament. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have presided over a turbulent three years with mainly negative evaluations (to put it mildly). We constantly hear of a crisis: within the Conservative Party, the leadership of Cameron has been rocked; within the Coalition, the relationship between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats is increasingly strained; and, within the Treasury, economic forecasts remain as bleak as ever. However, it would be misguided to call these ‘crises’. We are not in a crisis or even going from one crisis to another. We are in a period of social, political and economic malaise. We are faced with a breakdown of stability that has guided British politics for the past 30 years or so under a discredited banner of neo-liberalism. [1] Whilst this is going on, the Labour Party is hammering out its long-term response. In 2010, Labour polled just 29 percent of the popular vote, which understandably provoked a debate about what the Party stands for. Three years down the line, are we seeing a close to this debate? Far from it. Despite Labour’s lead in the polls, the electorate failed to endorse the Party in local elections. It seems that Ed Miliband’s leadership, although cemented, has yet to take a decisive turn towards a coherent governing project with which voters can identify.

Clearly, the Party’s debate is an internal one (at times, one could suggest add the adjective ‘parochial’). However, what is not often ignored is that Labour is made up of a broad coalition of forces that is far more nuanced than most people – Party members included – are willing to admit. The debate is not about Old Labour and New Labour. Both traditions are, without doubt, dominant in many discussions. However, it is possible to characterise many more strands, some of which overlap and some of which diverge radically. Some of these include: Blue Labour [2], Fabian statists [3], ‘Red’ Labour [4], Purple Labour (i.e., Blairites) [5] and Compass, all of which are informed by a proliferation of other ideational networks found in think tanks that include Demos, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the New Economics Foundation, the Resolution Foundation, Policy Network, and many more. [6]

These are competing traditions, and only one specific mixture can emerge out of this coalition of forces in 2015. If this does not happen, then the Labour Party will implode (much like the coalition within the Conservative Party at present). Not only are Labour traditions competing, they are also in opposition to one another, with high-flying accusations. Progress is often accused of a soulless neo-liberal approach to politics and economics. Those opposing austerity are accused of being nothing more than a ‘repository for people’s anger’ [7] or a ‘voice of protest’. The Blue Labour tradition has been attacked as ‘toxic’ and out-of-date. And statism is seen as ‘power hoarding’ that prevents empowerment of the people. Rarely have these attacks been constructive (as some of the examples highlight). It is true that some organisations have begun thinking about strategy, and others have come up with policy ideas. [8] But on the whole, numerous factions within Labour have become increasingly vocal in questioning the calmness of the Policy Review, from New Labour grandees to stroppy trade unionists. What is telling, and should reassure many, is that Ed Miliband is not willing to be pushed around by either New Labour or the trade unions. He is sticking to his own convictions to re-found the principles of the Labour Party in a holistic fashion.

Unfortunately, this is seemingly not enough as factionalism amongst student societies, at public meetings and across the Internet remains steeped full of emotive anger and frustration. Given this, in addition to the malaise facing politicians, it is now more important than ever that Ed Miliband and the Labour Party identify a governing project. [9] This is not about creating a credible economic alternative to the Conservative Party. This is about a vision for politics, economics and society. Without this, the electorate will not vote Labour into government.

One Nation Labour is the banner under which the Party will attempt to unite competing traditions at the general election. Yet few people know what this slogan entails despite the bourgeoning articles, speeches and conferences. Opposition to Labour – from all sides of the political spectrum – is united in calling the Party hollow. This is, perhaps, a curious accusation given that there are so many different centre-left traditions and networks identified above. This has been caused by the fact that the differing coalition forces within the Party and beyond have begun to set out their own appeals for the direction of Labour without fully engaging in dialogue with one another. We have seen the publication of The Purple Book by Progress followed more recently by a new website calling for a Campaign for a Labour Majority. [10] We have an alternative book called The Socialist Way (edited by Roy Hattersley and Kevin Hickson) outlining a statist, social democratic vision. [11] And finally, we have a trail of articles and speeches by Maurice GlasmanMarc Stears and Jon Cruddas that are united by an appeal towards Blue Labour that found their way into an ebook.

The factions within the Party have begun to cluster around these three reference points: Purple Labour, Red Labour and Blue Labour. All three are beyond the traditional Old and New divide that gripped Labour’s path to victory in 1997. [12] Yet it remains to be seen if any of these interact to form a winning formula. Peter Kellner has recently argued that the Labour Party faces a tough struggle to be viewed as a strong, passionate force, rather than a bunch of ‘nice but dim’ policy-makers. [13] The problem is that all three contemporary strands have offered little more than opposition, squabbling and futile accusations. We need to move beyond critique, and form a governing project. This was recognised as far back as 1945, in which the then Labour Manifesto warned: ‘It is very easy to set out a list of aims. What matters is whether it is backed up by a genuine workmanlike plan conceived without regard to sectional vested interests and carried through’. [14] Thus far, Ed Miliband’s leadership has been received with lukewarm interest, which has failed to combine the widespread opposition to the Coalition into a unifying vision. Is this the reason that Labour failed to make further inroads on 02 May? We have pinned our colours – blue, purple, and red – to the mast. The question remains whether that mast is a governing project worthy of the gauntlet One Nation.

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[1] C. Crouch (2010) The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] M. Glasman et. al. (eds.) (2011) The Labour Tradition and the Politics of Paradox, ebook available here.

[3] See, for example, Y. Roberts (2012) ‘The Relational Reality’, Fabian Review 124:2, pp.7-8.

[4] R. Hattersley and K. Hickson (ed.) (2013) The Socialist Way: Social democracy in contemporary Britain, London: I.B.Tauris.

[5] G. Cooke et. al. (2012) The Purple Papers, London: Progress. Available here.

[6] Taking the issue at the broadest conceivable level, there is also a trade union movement that is ferociously against cuts, an Occupy movement that sought to emphasise the ‘99 percent’, and members of hard-left parties – the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party, and so on (ad infinitum?).

[7] T. Blair (2013) ‘Labour must search for answers and not merely aspire to be a repository for people’s anger’, New Statesman (12-25 April), p.27.

[8] See, for example, the articles in Fabian Review, 125:1, pp.1-30.

[9] R. Philpot (2013) ‘Remember Wilson’, Progress, pp.10-1.

[10] R. Philpot (ed.) (2011) The Purple Book, London: Progress.

[11] R. Hattersley and K. Hickson (ed.) (2013) The Socialist Way: Social democracy in contemporary Britain, London: I.B.Tauris.

[12] Although Old Labour and Red Labour are obviously linked, as are New Labour and Purple Labour. But importantly, both movements have moved on and re-articulated their visions given the 2008 economic crises.

[13] P. Kellner (2013) ‘Majority rules’, Progress, pp.14-21.

[14] The Labour Party (1945) Let Us Face the Future: A declaration of Labour policy for the consideration of the nation, London: Labour Party. Available here.

You party if you want to; this lad’s not for partying

I’ve had mixed comments for the title alone, so I doubt that the following comments will yield much more consensus. But, in many ways, that’s what politics is for. It has never been for or about consensus, as Margaret Thatcher understood very well.

Margaret Thatcher died on 08 April 2013. Her death was marked as controversially as her policies in government. It has since sparked all sorts of debates and questions about her legacy, her ‘haunting’ influence today, the way she should be buried, and how she has affected the Labour Party. But her death itself has been marked in no less controversial terms: from tributes and mourning, on the one hand, to opening bottles of champagne and death parties, on the other hand. Death parties occurred in Glasgow and London, and even locally in Sheffield. It has sparked outrage from the Daily Mail. It has also seen a curious defence on a Guardian blog.

These parties are sickening. There are numerous reasons for why we should not celebrate the fact that someone has died, and it is not about ‘death etiquette’. It is far more about human dignity and a separation between a person’s moral worth and that individual’s politics. We are, of course, defined by our politics; but that does not mean that we cannot separate an individual from the politics in which he or she believes. Politics may well be personal, but senseless tribalism does much to harm social cohesion and constrains meaningful debate. With regards to Margaret Thatcher, there is a rightful argument to be made that her politics negatively affected Britain (to put it very mildly). Yet, some people have argued that this gives them a right to celebrate her death. Some say it is only natural – even moral – to have an emotion when someone dies.

This position is inexplicable. The policies of Thatcher (which incidentally predated her reign as prime minister) had already occurred. Her power to affect politics was non-existent on 08 April 2013. Her death, then, changed little (if anything). So to express a desire to see a woman dead (a woman who had dementia and suffered from minor strokes at that) seems illogical. So what does a ‘death party’ achieve? What did a sign saying ‘THE BITCH IS DEAD’ do, other than reinforce misogyny in political culture? How does buying the song ‘Ding Dong: The Witch Is Dead’ affect our political classes into acting any differently against the austerity agenda? Most of those people celebrating her death argue that this is rightful justice; we are showing our anger at Thatcherism and the way she destroyed our country. Do you not think, however, that if you spent your energy on campaigning, protesting, or generally getting involved with politics that this will affect more change than buying a song for 79 pence from iTunes?

There is only one way to justify happiness in the face of death: that, in your opinion, someone deserves to die; and that, without her death, justice is not achieved. It is a justification that makes logical sense, but one that is abhorrent and illegitimate. Because to say that you believe Margaret Thatcher deserved to die, you are saying that some people, in this case someone who made decisions after winning democratic elections, deserves death. [1]

This is repugnant and shows that some people have little moral integrity. I find that repugnant because there is a difference between someone’s politics and someone as a person. Every individual, in my mind, is of equal, intrinsic moral worth; I wish to live in a tolerant society where we can disagree about politics without hating the worth of a person, without a senseless tribalism. This is the foundation upon which democracy rests and to reject this is to reject democratic principles.

People have responded to the above by arguing that the Daily Mail and other papers have celebrated the death of left-wing leaders. That the Daily Mail gloats at death. That the Daily Mail is morally repugnant. But we already knew this, did we not? Since when can we justify our moral acts simply by the virtue of others’ actions. Once again, the argument does not make sense to me. It is, in fact, disheartening to learn that members on the left of politics – who, by and large, believe in dignity, equality and social justice – are making the case against dignity in death and against equal moral self-worth. It is disheartening to learn that people celebrating the death of an elderly woman are basing their justifications on actions from the Daily Mail.

None of this is to say that you cannot debate the legacy of Thatcher and Thatcherism. It is not to say that her actions as prime minister were destructive, wrong and divisive. Because they were. It is right that we discredit the needless privatisation of certain industries, it is right that we denounce her actions that exacerbated a divide between north and south, and, something personal to me, it is right that we resoundingly condemn Section 28. The legacy of Thatcher on British politics from 1979 onwards – to this very day – deserves to be debated and discussed. Some of her acts deserve to be shunned; others deserve to be praised. None of this is to argue against Margaret Thatcher as a person. It is to condemn Thatcherism as a political philosophy.

Thatcher defined her age. But it is questionable that she gets such a high profile funeral. It is questionable, in particular, that the royal family will attend. A bastion of so-called neutrality, the British monarch has only attended the funeral of one other prime minister: Winston Churchill. It is also questionable that parliament was recalled. It surprised the Speaker of the Commons, and arguably caused unnecessary expenses. But to have a party at the death of an elderly woman – that is beyond question abhorrent.

mg

[1] Inadvertently, you are also arguing for the death penalty.

We whip the blame back and forth

We’ve all forgotten about horsemeat. The so-called ‘scandal’ has subsided. It’s off the agenda, replaced with lots of new global disasters (think nuclear annihilation) and domestic issues (think welfare reform). It begs the question: was this really a food crisis? Or was it just a media panic?

In January, the Irish Food Standards Agency found horse DNA in our beef burgers. Since then, there has been an uproar in the media about a ‘scandal’ surrounding our food: the Guardian reports that it has prompted food hygiene fears; the Daily Mail argues that the scandal is a ‘brutal warning’ to British shoppers; and the Daily Telegraph resorts to blaming Europe. Indeed, this idea of ‘the blame’ is intriguing. Blame consists of two elements: (i) the consequence of a perceived harm or loss that could have been avoided and (ii) a perceived responsibility or agency for the harm or loss. [1] Quite obviously, shoppers feel wronged because they have been eating horsemeat when they should not have. This raises the question of who is duly responsible for the deception. The blame has been hurled at many: the FSA, government departments, food labels, supermarkets, cheap food, the poor, ‘the system’, consumer behaviour, farmers, the Europeans, and every individual that’s ever eaten meat. Let’s explore.

The leaders in our play are the Food Standards Agency (FSA), experts and political leaders. They have blamed the ‘complexity’ of the food processing system, which involved abattoirs in Romania, factories in Luxembourg, meat processors in France, and traders in the Netherlands (before arriving in the UK). For a neat summary, see the BBC’s summary here. The FSA has, so far, mainly used a presentational strategy to minimise damage – drawing a line under the scandal and opening up a UK-wide investigation. However, experts have also used an agency strategy to shift blame onto ‘the system’: the complexity of the food processing system, the nature of regulatory governance, and the failure of the FSA to properly regulate meat. [2] One former food auditor has even blamed supermarkets for their ‘massive failure’ to regulate their own products.

Enter our middle-managers: the distributors of our food, popularly known as supermarkets. Food retailers have swiftly called for tighter regulation to rebuke the comments made by the aforementioned food expert. Tesco, for instance, promises to buy more from British farmers and ensure that as many products as possible are sourced from British soil. Meanwhile, Asda warns that this scandal could mean higher prices to ensure that the regulatory system works better. Supermarkets have opted for a policy strategy to prevent themselves from being blamed for the scandal. This is, perhaps tellingly, a strange twist in our blame game: why do supermarkets feel the need to undergo a damage-limitation exercise if they have done nothing wrong and put the blame squarely on ‘the system’?

This ‘system’ is also known as the meat industry. Some newspapers (here and here) have attempted to blame the farmers and abattoirs of Eastern Europe for the crisis. The Romanians, where the horsemeat apparently came from, have denied any wrongdoing. Of course, they do sell horsemeat – it’s just that they have been sensible enough to label it as such. The Romanians are of course very happy to eat correctly labelled horsemeat. This has caused a bit of a stir – are we just being snobbish about eating horsemeat? Is it a poor man’s food? The German development minister has proclaimed that we should give our beef products ‘tainted’ with horsemeat to the poor because ‘We can’t just throw away good food’. Outrageous, of course, but some have argued that the reason we have horsemeat in our food at all is because cash-strapped local councils and poor people can’t afford ‘real’ meat, and so supermarkets are just supplying our demand for cheap food. And so the horsemeat scandal has landed squarely back in traditional British political discourse: this is all about British identity and our obsession with class.

So where are we now? Apparently, we’re turning vegetarian. But aside from that, the outcry of a couple of months ago has not caused a sustained, existential dilemma for the public. At the end of the day, this was not a health crisis, nor is horsemeat necessarily a bad choice for cooking. Perhaps this has just been regulatory failure on a transnational scale. Was this so-called ‘scandal’ just a labelling issue all along? Or is it possible to extrapolate anything more from the headlines?

The tempting prospect is to reply with: ‘neigh’. But that would be horsing around, and doesn’t really delve into the mane issue. The unbridled plethora of news articles and television reports implies that our food industry has been problematised. The horsemeat scandal has raised two questions: ‘who gets what?’ and ‘what should we expect from our food?’. It has raised these two questions precisely because it is not illegal to slaughter, serve or eat horsemeat. This is a cultural and moral issue about our meat consumption. Both questions return us to the critical issue of consumption and the way in which we are willing to shut our eyes and ears to animal welfare and the pleasures of the palate. Our willingness to consume masses of meat – regardless of what kind – has taken its toll on the environment: pesticides and fertilisers have affected local ecosystems, growth hormones have affected food chains, and ranches are destroying forests and depleting water supplies. The price we pay for our food does not reflect its costs – especially not on natural resources, climate and ecosystems. This means that cheap meat continues to stimulate demand and inculcates the belief that to eat meat three times a day is without consequences. In agricultural societies, per capita consumption of meat was rarely above 10 kilograms. By 1950, this has risen to 17 kilograms. And today, it is over 40 kilograms. [3] The public demand meat in most of its dishes, and treats ‘cheap meat’ as a right. Does this imply that the blame ultimately lies with public expectations of food? Was the horsemeat scandal ultimately caused by the public? Perhaps. As Nikolai Gogol once remarked: ‘It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry’. [4]

So, to recap: we’ve seen producers blaming supermarkets, the FSA blaming the ‘system’, economists blaming supply and demand, newspapers blaming Europe, supermarkets blaming the FSA, vegetarians blaming the meat-eaters, and – from today – me blaming you. Have we solved some great crisis here? Or just whipped some blame back and forth?

mg

[1] C. Hood, The Blame Game, Princeton: PUP, pp.6-7.

[2] HC 946 (2013) Contamination of Beef Products, Eighth Report of Session 2012-13 (additional written evidence), Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, London: HMSO. Available here.

[3] P. Dauvergne (2008) The Shadows of Consumption, Massachusetts: MIT Press, pp.135-67.

[4] Nikai Gogol, The Inspector General.