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.

mg

[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).

Advertisements

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.

mg

[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.

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.

mg

[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.

Supporting Olivia Blake

At the moment, the Youth Representative for the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party is being contested by two individuals, Bex Bailey and Olivia Blake. Both of them are leading great campaigns, and both of them have shown so much passion that I believe that both would make excellent Youth Representatives for the NEC. However, I wish to use this opportunity to write down some thoughts regarding the campaign, and specifically cite why I will be supporting Olivia Blake for NEC Youth Rep.

The National Executive Committee, or NEC, is the governing body of the Labour Party, which oversees the overall direction of the party and the policy-making process. The NEC is made up of a range of opinion formers within the party, which includes affiliate organisations, trade unions, MPs, MEPs, the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Party, and so on. Crucially, one position on the Committee is reserved for someone to represent all young members, which is one of the most important ways for younger members to be represented by the Labour Party at the national level. Moreover, the Youth Rep will also sit on the national committee of Young Labour, which is the governing body for the subsidiary of the Labour Party. In many ways, this is an important election, but particularly because 2013-2014 will be crucial in setting the foundations for the general election campaign that Labour faces in 2015.

Unfortunately, Young Labour has become laborious and elitist through a combination of complex governing rules and regulations in addition to limited institutional flexibility. One of the most important and pressing issues is that almost all elections are conducted through delegate systems, which means that only delegates get to vote for certain positions, including the NEC Youth Rep. This is hugely frustrating given that regional representatives are elected directly through one member one vote (OMOV). It kind of suggests that direct elections are not only possible in theory, but feasible in practice. An associated problem for the organisations is that communication in general is kept to the barest minimum – if existent at all. For example, information regarding how to submit motions, the locations of previous conferences, and the information for how to become a delegate was kept unclear, which meant that some Labour Clubs found it difficult to organise meetings in time to form proposals, pass motions and elect delegates.

These issues also faces Labour Students, and so both organisations urgently need to deal with them. Otherwise, they could damage the claim that YL and LS are democratically-run organisations. What we need at this time, especially for Young Labour, is a candidate that will open up the processes of decision-making to all members under 27s, which will ensure that the NEC is properly represented. It means that there should be a renewed emphasis on transparency and democracy. One of the ways to do this is to break the elitism that seems to have grappled Young Labour at the moment. This will ensure not only that the organisation is run more democratically, but also ensure a greater diversity of opinion will be heard, fostering further inclusiveness of Young Labour. This, in turn, will feed back into the NEC.

I believe that Olivia Blake is the strongest candidate for this change to happen. Olivia is unconventional in that she is not based in London and did not study the usual ‘Politics, Philosophy and Economics’ at University. Olivia goes to the University of Sheffield and she is studying towards a PhD in Medical Biology. This alone makes her a candidate that will offer a fresh perspective on policy-making, something that has been marginalised to an extent. However, it is not only her background that is impressive, but her entire manifesto. It is detailed beyond reproach, and many of the policies that she cites are ones with which I can identify. These are less about where we stand on the left-right spectrum, which is where we potentially differ. However, we are united in our insurmountable appetite for reform of the structures that govern Young Labour (and, by extension, Labour Students). Some of her excellent policies include:

  • Guaranteed reports to members to ensure that communication and transparency is upheld. This is such a simple, useful policy that I cannot believe it has not been implemented before. I can’t remember when I last heard anything – if ever – from the current national committee, or the NEC Youth Rep for that matter.
  • Feedback sessions in every region of the country to ensure that all young members feel represented. This is another great policy because it will challenge the idea that YL is just based in and around London. It is true that regional Young Labour organisations do exist, but communication between them and the national organisation is not particularly strong or co-ordinated, at least not from where I’m standing.
  • Reform of youth elections to ensure that, in future, all young members get a direct vote in who represents them at the NEC and YL level. This is the bedrock that should sit at the apex of Young Labour. How is it that, in the twenty-first century, we are still electing positions using a nineteenth century system for a political party that is supposedly all about democracy?

These are just three policies that I’ve cited. Her full manifesto is available here. There are so many other things that Olivia wants to achieve that make her a good candidate for reform – including a women’s network, regional liberation groups, more communication online, opening up Young Labour events, and so on and so forth. I’m very proud to be a supporter of Olivia.

Olivia has been a campaigner for Labour for absolute ages, and tirelessly fought the corner for women’s rights, social justice and equality for as long as I can remember. Without doubt, Olivia has been inspirational in many ways. She was the person that gave me the courage to go door-knocking for the first time for the #labourdoorstep and encouraged me, advised me and helped me a great deal since I’ve met her in 2008. Her passion could never be doubted, for Labour in particular, and life in general.

I proudly support Olivia Blake for NEC Youth Rep.

mg

Labour and the EU: From realpolitik to principle?

Since David Cameron called for a referendum on Europe, it would appear that the issue of Europe has subsided somewhat. And yet, there is a distinct danger that the approach taken by the Prime Minister’s opposite number, Ed Miliband, is beginning to create antagonism within Labour. Cameron’s referendum pledge means that the position of the Labour Party towards Europe has been questioned – to such an extent that it is possible that the issue could damage the Party’s electoral chances. This is because Labour’s position is based on realpolitik, not principle. At a time of intense debate about the very nature of the European Union, it is more important than ever that a Labour policy based on principle, as opposed to pragmatism, comes to the fore. First, however, it is worth teasing out why a tension could emerge within the Party.

Let’s rewind time back to the 1960s. The UK was not part of the then European Economic Community, having been snubbed by a veto courtesy of the French. The Labour leadership was not unhappy about this because it saw the EEC as nothing more than a ‘capitalist club’. In 1962, the Leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell, exclaimed that a federal Europe would mean: ‘the end of Britain as an independent European state, the end of a thousand years of history!’. [1] For Labour, what was at stake here was more than just national sovereignty. Rather, the Party argued that the EEC would further the interests of capitalists alone. For those reasons two reasons, Labour fought for a ‘no’ vote on Europe in 1976, and opposed Margaret Thatcher’s support for the EU in the early 1980s. However, as the 1980s drew to a close, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party switched position. The European project turned emphasis away from a common market, which would be fully implemented by the early 1990s, and instead emphasised pan-European welfare, including employment rights and a commitment to a better standard of living. The Labour Party looked across the Channel and saw that in mainland Europe broadly left-of-centre policies flourished. At this point, Labour opted to support the EU because it has economic and social benefits for the UK. [2]

Back to 2013, and the orthodox Labour support for Europe has come under significant pressure. The pledge by David Cameron to hold a referendum on the EU has caused an EU-induced schizophrenia: first, Ed Miliband rules out a referendum on Europe; second, Ed Balls makes the opposite claim. This confusion suggests that Labour needs to rebuild its strategy on Europe. Most importantly, and probably uncomfortable for some, Labour must call for a referendum on Europe. Once it has done this, Labour will be able to shape the agenda on the future of Europe by asking two questions:

1. What should Europe stand for? There are three principles:

  • Democracy. European democracy should rest with the European Parliament, on the one hand, and a European President, on the other hand. This would ensure national representation through two input-based mechanisms. The EU must do more than preach democracy, it must begin to practise it too.
  • Economic and Social Prosperity. One of the overriding positive impacts of the EU is that it will help to stimulate national economies. This is the major output-based mechanism that needs attention. The EU must be able to do less on a European-wide level, and support national economies instead. For this reason, Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander were right to call for a real-terms cut in the EU budget. The EU should become an association of national economies that supports employment rights and better living standards.
  • Subsidiarity. Power must be devolved to the most local institution possible. This goes to the heart of democratic power and also remains a prerequisite for economic prosperity. This is because it will give European peoples a sense of ownership. All of this means that the EU become multi-level and multi-sectoral – a dynamic system that sees clusters of shared policy-making.

2. How can these principles be implemented? Here are some specific policies:

  • Democratic powers must be based on a directly elected president for the whole of the EU; but the European Parliament should become the sole initiator of European legislation (exceptions would be inter-governmental treaties to be scrutinised by national parliaments).
  • The overall size of the EU needs to be slimmed down through a smaller Commission; the removal of the European Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies (CAP and CFP respectively); no more moving back-and-forth from Strasbourg and Brussels; and a salary freeze for MEPs and bureaucrats. This will allow for a real-terms budget cut.
  • Resources should support national economies and protect employment rights – this could include a guarantee of apprenticeships, placement schemes and more. This is hugely important to develop cultural and economic ties throughout Europe.
  • To safeguard subsidiarity, we need a more powerful Conference of European Affairs Committees (COSAC), which would meet more often to hold EU decision-makers to account. The UK Parliament should establish a Parliamentary Committee on Europe that brings together MPs, peers and UK MEPs to debate EU issues of major importance. It would be accountable to the UK Parliament, but also send representation to the EU.

This is what Labour must stand for. It must ensure that the principles given above remain at the heart of the European project in order to pave the way for a new European settlement that calls for a slim, dynamic association of national economies and not for a corpulent, bureaucratic union.

mg

Notes

[1] M. Charlton (1983) The Price of Victory, London: BBC, p.274.

[2] I’ve drawn this analysis from a BBC podcast by Analysis, called ‘Labour, the left and Europe’ (29 October 2012).

Should Labour call a referendum on the EU?

Please note that this article was written for, and originally appeared in, Left Foot Forward, which describes itself as a ‘political blog for progressives’. The article was published on 07 January 2013, and is available here.

This month marks the fortieth anniversary of our membership to the European Union. Forty years on, and the UK has come to a crossroads with its relationship towards Europe. As the Conservatives are becoming increasingly outspoken about their distaste with the European project, it is time for Labour to confront the challenge of the EU. But, in addition to driving positive, constructive change at the heart of Europe, Labour must acknowledge that a referendum on the EU has become inevitable – even if this is many years away.

There is, of course, considerable contention of this point, and some argue that a referendum should not be called. The most cited argument is that a referendum could lead to a British exit of the European Union. This is not an argument against a referendum; it is an argument against democratic choice. It is true that referendums, in general, should be called sparingly and cautiously because they are not an effective resource in a diverse representative democracy such as the UK. However, to say that a referendum could lead to a result that you do not like is not valid. It’s called democracy.

So, why is a referendum needed? The most obvious point is that it will give the British public a choice in its support of Europe. The British want a referendum, so it is only fair and democratic to give them one. The European Economic Community (EEC) has been fundamentally transformed since the 1970s. It is now a European Union of 27 countries, with a wide range of institutions and decision-making powers. Moreover, over the coming four to five years, we will begin to see a new European settlement of powers. The unprecedented changes since the 1970s imply that the British public need to be given a choice in a reformed relationship with the European Union. The fundamental point is that a referendum on Europe will allow the British public to have a frank and open discussion about Europe; it will settle our membership for a generation. This point is particularly important because it underpins what politics is all about: debate, contestation, argument and persuasion. Europe remains a hotly contested issue, and it needs to be confronted directly. The spectre of Europe will haunt British politics until a referendum is called. [1]

This raises the issue about timing. There is an argument that, if a newly elected Labour government calls for a referendum, and loses, it would destroy a left-of-centre government, and plunge the entire party into a crisis. The government would probably fall. This argument, raised by David Clark, is indeed very powerful. This is a plausible scenario, but it rests on the assumption that a referendum would occur in 2016, which is not likely. It is many years away because a reform of the European Union will take as many years. We cannot vote on Europe before it has settled itself; it would give us more questions than answers. In order to give the British people a genuine choice in Europe, we must wait (i) until the Eurozone crisis is well and truly over and (ii) until a range of reforms of the EU have been implemented (reforms that would make the EU more democratic, economically rigorous and so on). Once both of these have been consolidated, it will be possible to call for a referendum. The new European settlement will not crystallise until some point in the next parliament, i.e., between 2015 and 2020, and more importantly, it will be more likely to occur in 2018 or later.

In the next five years, the Labour Party must make the case, first, for a reformed European Union, and second, for British membership of that Union. As described previously, Labour should use the growing momentum to call for a Convention on Europe’s Future, in partnership with other European political parties and leaders. A set of pan-European reforms is desirable across the continent. Once these have been agreed, it will be time for an in/out referendum.

A reform agenda for Europe, with a referendum attached at the end, is the strongest case that a pro-European government should make, and one where a ‘yes’ campaign can win. YouGov analysis has shown that, whilst the public currently seem to favour withdrawal, this is not very clear if the EU is reformed. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for Europe. A frank and open discussion will re-focus debate away from the often superficial eurosceptic – or perhaps ‘eurocoward’? – arguments in favour of the more considered pro-European arguments. Pro-EU sentiments will not appear by magic: they must make a case for Europe that has been crowded out by a vehemently Eurosceptic media. Is it possible to make such a case? There is precisely such an opportunity, and pro-Europeans should not be afraid to make it.

Let’s take the case of the eurocowards: They believe that the British cannot cope with political engagement; that we do not have the strength to carry the European ship. They believe that we have nothing to offer to Europe and that we are better off hiding alone. Here is the vision of the eurocowards: an offshore, de-regulated tax haven which would be a pole for free enterprise in a global race. Could anything sound more preposterous? Pro-Europeans must argue that we can (and, more importantly, should) have a constructive relationship with our neighbours, and that we can lead the European project. Pro-Europeans must make the case that Britain has something to offer Europe just as much as Europe has something to offer the UK. Whereas eurocowards want us to play no part in the world, we believe in stepping out into the world and playing a part in it. Of course, there are choices to be made. The British public must learn that it cannot free-ride on the economic benefits of Europe without any commitment to Europe. That is not to say that pooling our resources cannot play to our benefit, as analyses do show.

So, should Labour call for a referendum on the EU? Yes, it should. But this referendum cannot take place immediately. Ed Miliband should take leadership of the debate by accepting a referendum for the end of the next parliament, which will (i) settle the question of a referendum and (ii) allow the EU to be given a chance to reform itself. Until then, the British political elite must play a constructive part in shaping its European future.

mg

Notes

[1] There is, of course, the added tactical reason that is often touted: it will split the Conservative Party and marginalise the influence of UKIP. I’m not sure these tactical reasons are particularly valuable: former UKIP voters are likely to return to the Conservatives; and the Conservative Party could just as much unite as divide over Europe.

At Conference

Monday, 01 October at Manchester Piccadilly. It was raining. I had a searing headache. Worst of all, I have had less than three hours sleep (again). On the whole, I have been feeling pretty deflated about my life for weeks now (cue the violin). I feel this preamble is necessary, even if personal, only because it set the scene for Labour’s Conference. I wondered around Manchester somewhat aimlessly until I finally managed to find Manchester Central, which was, as it happened, a huge conference centre. At that point, my despondency was matched by nervousness – I had never been to Conference, and had no idea what to expect. Then I realised that I probably ought to give some air of confidence and purpose so that I would earn some kind of respect (and possibly dignity). Equipped with my faux bonheur, I went through security.

Seconds later I bumped into Jon Cruddas and walked past Dennis Skinner. PAs were rushing past me with their iPads. It was strange how quickly I had passed into some kind of red bubble of politicos. I walked as briskly as I could, pretending I knew exactly what I was doing. I entered a large hall full of stalls. Luckily, Peter Hain was just beside me, so all the attention was on him and I was able to pass by rather quietly and avoiding a barrage of leaflets. At this point, my nerves had decided to leave the pit of my stomach and were replaced by butterflies of excitement. I continued through the hall to take a look around, but before I took anything in, I realised I was late for the scheduled speech of Ed Balls.

Once through the double doors to the Main Hall, I was in total darkness and heard a slow, sad and echoing voice. Very concerned, I turned to my left and saw a man dressed in a blue suit (which only added to the surrealism). He directed me towards a staircase that I hadn’t seen from the corner of my eye. I went up and took my seat, listening to the echoing voice of a councillor and waiting for the Shadow Chancellor. And waited. 40 minutes late, Chuka Umuna took to the stage in a short, low key speech, before handing over to Ed Balls. The Shadow Chancellor’s speech was good, I thought. Balls isn’t the most charismatic man in the world, but his speech was sensible. I was more than happy with his assessment of what was needed for the British economy: a growth strategy through real infrastructure investment. The speech was shorter than I expected, but then again, I had no concrete idea of what to expect.

After his speech, I deftly flicked through my fringe guide and walked as fast as I could to one of the large meeting rooms next to the Exhibition Area. There was nothing faux about my sense of purpose this time: I had every intention of securing a free lunch at a fringe event. As luck would have it, I managed to get into a high profile one featuring Danny Finkelstein, Alastair Campbell and Lord Mandelson. Plus a free buffet lunch and coffee. The talk was really interesting, where Campbell came across very honestly about why Labour lost the general election in 2010. With anti-depressants finally in my veins thanks to the coffee, I was much more intrigued by Conference and scurried all around to get into discussions with people. I ended up in a long conversation from someone from the Howard League and their work to reform penal law. I also saw Alastair Campbell on a rowing machine. That was surreal, if slightly amusing. Sadly I couldn’t speak to him – others were eagerly haggling for his attention while he tried to catch his breath. After an hour and half of swooping around, the effect of the coffee wore off, which meant that my temporary good mood also decided to bow out. Bored, I went back into the Main Hall. Failing to concentrate, my mind played all sorts of gymnastics in my head. Changing tactic, I got out my fringe guide to coax out my earlier excitement at some of the events I wanted to go to: debates, panels, talks, discussions, speeches… All top stuff, although the only one on available on Monday at 4.30pm was an event on social media effectiveness full of older members of the Party to get some tips. Sigh. Finally it turned 6pm and I dashed off to meet my friend. We went for a meal at reliable Whetherspoons and ended the night by going to a left-wing bloggers’ karaoke party. A geeky, strange affair – geeky because of the bloggers, strange because at one point I heard Owen Jones singing to his heart’s content. It was 2.30am when we finally got home.

The following morning at 8am, I sat in the Hilton Hotel listening to the British Humanist Association. My free croissant and coffee were accompanied by a throbbing headache. At one point I wasn’t sure whether or not it had been worth getting up at 6.45am. My friend obviously didn’t think so, who decided to rock up at 11am, by which point I had been to two fringe events and had (another) coffee with a friend (who is, bizarrely, a veryactive Tory – she just loves conferences and arguments, I concluded).

At 2.30pm, it was time for the Leader’s Speech. It was fantastic. It was well-presented, well-thought-out and impeccably well-timed. It really delivered on everything that it needed to. Most importantly, a good speech is what I needed to reinvigorate my waning passion for politics that gripped me recently. My friend, and all the other people around me, were buzzing. We have a Leader of the Opposition who has the very real opportunity to become prime minister. Of course we were all in the Conference bubble, so it could all be twaddle. But I went to a fringe event afterwards where Tim Montgomerie, the ConservativeHome blogger, praised Ed Miliband. He thought the Tories were in real trouble. All other panellists – journalists, academics and shadow ministers – were genuinely impressed. Most of Tuesday evening was spent at fringe meetings going over One Nation Labour. I met my friend later too, and ended up staying out until 3.30am in discussions with various bloggers. At one point Hugh Grant walked past me to go to the toilet. CLAIM TO FAME.

On Wednesday, the fringes carried on. I ended up meeting Will Straw and a couple of other figures. Then I saw a friend to discuss a student policy network. My enthusiasm for all things politics was slowly making a comeback. The faux bonheur was almost entirely replaced by genuine (even if temporary) good spirits. We had lunch together and then I went to a fringe event to hear about the consequences of One Nation Labour for the British economy – with Polly Toynbee (who went on tribalist rants against the Tories, leaving me unimpressed) and Maurice Glasman (excellent speaker, complementing One Nation Labour with ‘One Nation Economics’ very well). After that event finished, I rushed back to the Exhibition Area to get into the next fringe meeting about environmental sustainability and economic growth. Chuka Umuna was there. As was free wine. I got chatting to a student from York University, who seemed very nice (but wouldn’t shut up when the panellists were talking, so our friendship was short-lived). 7.30pm and slightly tipsy, I stumbled out the conference centre and met my friend for dinner.

Last night of Conference meant that there would be a massive night out, organised by Labour Students. The most controversial moment came when Labour Students announced the raffle prize: a signed copy of A Journey, by Tony Blair. Half the room booed ferociously, the other cheered with equal vigour. It was interesting, if only because everyone had cheered in unison earlier in the night when Things Can Only Get Better blasted through the speakers.

All in all, I enjoyed Conference. The first day not so much. The atmosphere in general seemed a little bit anxious, and definitely not enthusiastic (regardless of my personal attitude). The Leader’s Speech smashed it though. Tuesday evening and all of Wednesday was full of vibrant buzz and ideas. Thursday morning I arrived in Sheffield with a renewed sense of optimism that Labour will get things going for the whole country.

mg