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.

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The Tragedy of European Union

For someone with a German heritage and who regards himself as a social democrat, it is with a heavy heart that I have become sceptical about the future of the European Union. Europe is a place very close to my heart – the cafe culture, the sense of shared values and epistemic communities, the diverse range of identities, the beer, the excellent little patisseries and bakeries (just food in general really) are truly wonderful European things. In other words, I love Europe. But I believe that the dream of European Union leaves me, more and more, with a sour taste. This is particularly soul destroying given that, around 14 months ago, I was full of enthusiasm about a closure of the EU’s ongoing crises. That enthusiasm has waned, and no one has taken up European leadership like I had hoped.

Right now, there are two colossal problems facing the EU: first, the eurozone crisis, which has spiralled out of any proportion imaginable. Second, any sense of democratic input to decision-making has withered away. In other words, the input legitimacy of European institutions and the output legitimacy of European policy-making have vanished, which have turned the EU into an illegitimate beast. [1] Here’s some more depth:

  • Output Legitimacy. The output policy-making role of the EU has not worked. People are usually relaxed about the authorities so long as they do their job well. The EU, however, has spectacularly failed, which means that the preferences of European populations have not been enacted. Ergo, there is an output-based legitimacy deficit. It is not just that the Euro has been a disaster: the Common Agricultural Policy is uncompetitive, the Common Fisheries Policy has culled fish stocks, and bureaucrats are wasting huge resources by travelling to and fro from Brussels to Strasbourg (for not doing all that much). These are just three examples of many. Policy-making in the EU is simply not working.
  • Input Legitimacy. Mario Monti in Italy and Lucas Papademos in Greece were both installed as heads of government without being elected. These are very stark examples of how the European Union has undermined the principle of democracy. The European Commission (EC) and European Central Bank (ECB) have also imposed austerity measures on other governments, such as Portugal and Spain, without a sense of accountability. Unelected leaders have begun to govern across the continent. So, the contribution of the demos to policy-making (through elections) has been destroyed, which has caused an input-based legitimacy deficit.

Using the idea of legitimacy shows us how deep the problems of the European Union have become, and tells us something troubling about its future too. Current reform proposals do not intend to increase input legitimacy, but rather hand more power to the ECB. Furthermore, the discourse of ‘austerity’ and ‘marketisation’ (that has until now failed to work) is still a course that the EU is pursuing regardless of its consequences. The crisis is going to get worse. The dream of a European union has turned into a tragedy, which leaves us with two options: either the EU must be dismantled, or the entire system must be rebuilt from scratch.

The big question is this: what should Europe be for? The European Union has achieved a great deal, not least safeguarding peace and ensuring economic growth through the single market. It has added to the global power of all member countries through the EU as a trading bloc at the World Trade Organisation, and made an impact on joint foreign policy initiatives. Finally, the EU encourages the spread of democratic values, at least in principle, through the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). These values should be maintained, but the priorities must change. First, the EU needs to do more than preach democracy, it needs to practise it. Some examples include a directly elected president, a Commission drawn from the European Parliament, and the EP itself to be given more powers. Second, the EU should be guided by two policy-making principles: economic prosperity and subsidiarity. This means that the single market must be protected and the EU budget must be reformed – far less money must go to the CAP and other protective measures. Instead, the EU should provide investment for national economies and support the spread of knowledge (fostering apprenticeships, training, university funding, and so on). These two areas of reform point to one thing: a looser relationship between its members. We must turn away from ‘union’ towards a ‘partnership’. The EU must be governed democratically, through a consort of a president and strong EP, and its focus must be economic growth and educational investment. If the EU cannot reform itself into a democratic, economic centre, then it is doomed to fail and its members should consider a hasty leave.

At this point it is worth mentioning the British angle. British interests are closely linked to that of the European market: it accounts for 54 percent of British export alone. This means that we have a clear interest in shaping European institutions. Additionally, Britain benefits hugely from the bargaining power of the EU trading bloc at the WTO, and even in other areas of foreign policy. To go it alone would risk marginalising British influence on the world stage – politically and economically. As David Clark summarises very well: “Britain will stand little chance of remaining influential at a global level if it cannot be strong and influential in its own neighbourhood”. [2] Ultimately, there is no halfway house with the EU, although this is always something that Britain has craved. [3] Britain needs to take a decisive step and, whilst I’m probably being naive, I have hope that the United Kingdom can take that decisive step to lead Europe – because sitting in the ‘EU waiting room’ has become untenable, and leaving the European project would be an act of national defeatism.

There are three key things that must happen. First, the European project must be democratised, which means that the EU must ‘slim down’ its priorities and reinvigorate the principle of subsidiarity. Second, policy-making must move away from neo-liberalism towards decentralisation and fostering equal opportunities. Third, and most importantly, EU members must be given a referendum on membership once the new constellation of decision-making has been settled, no sooner or later. The combination of these three things are the last chance that the EU has to become a legitimate focal point for democracy and economic prosperity. If the EU fails on this, then I would prefer for Britain to leave the EU (and, indeed, for the entire project to take the final bow). [4]

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Notes

[1] Legitimacy here is based on Fritz Scharpf’s definition of: i) input legitimacy as reflecting the will of the people, derived from their authentic preferences and a sense of proceduralism, and ii) output legitimacy, which means that political choices are legitimate if and because they effectively promote the common welfare of the constituency in question. See F. Scharpf (1999) Governing in Europe: Effective and Democratic?, Oxford: OUP, p.6.

[2] D. Clark (2012) ‘Labour’s Next Foreign Policy’, in J. Denham (ed.) The Shape of Things to Come, London: Fabian Society, p.111.

[3] A. Gamble (2012) ‘Better Off Out? Britain and Europe’, Political Quarterly 83:3, pp.468-77. Also, anyone know current policy on the EU? It’s all very confusing with the government: first Cameron vetoes policy proposals to save the EU, then Osborne demands action to save the euro.

[4] These are some hints as to the future direction that the Labour party must take when they are thinking about their stance on Europe. It does not pay to call for EU budget cuts only to humiliate David Cameron – Labour must spell out an alternative, and this little article hopes to show one way towards a social democratic alternative.

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.

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