Liberal ‘Fetishes’

August 26, 2010 at 4:24 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 3 Comments

Being such a well-versed connoisseur of hip hop, I do have a love for the way words sound. When spoken, ‘fetish’ has this wonderfully illicit, forbidden quality which works well as a description for this blogger’s love of cider & subsequent habit of listening to ’80s soft rock.

Context, however, is everything, and in writing I’ve often used it far more pejoratively. When writing about education or crime & justice, I’ve often described both excessive testing and incarceration as ‘fetishes’, and used the word to suggest a kind of unthinking indulgence in policies with questionable long-term benefit.

On the Police State blog, Lib Dem activist lizw has a different take. When told that her fellow Lib Dems possess a ‘civil liberties fetish’, she hears the implication that there’s something transgressive or deviant about their policy preferences.

Whilst I’m hardly qualified to pry into the semantic intentions of others, that’s not an interpretation I’d share. Certainly, some civil libertarians (myself included) would advocate certain freedoms which the rest of society isn’t ready to accept; chief among them the legalisation of drugs. However, most demands of the civil liberty mainstream (identity cards, 42 days detention, control orders) are perfectly reasonable and grounded as much in a quite conservative desire for a judicious and restrained state. The last word I would use to describe an establishmentarian like Henry Porter is ‘deviant’.

Instead, I often hear the civil liberties ‘fetish’ used as a synonym for ‘obsession’, and signifying a belief that the priorities of civil libertarians are misplaced. I’m not stating anything revelatory when I note that the driving force for many on the left is improving equality of outcome and bettering the material conditions of the working class; insofar as liberty is desirable, the best way of getting there is by achieving greater equality. For that reason, you wouldn’t expect to see a Labour member willing to trade (for example) a rise in VAT for a reduction in the number of speed cameras, or a regressive budget for a refurendum on the voting system. For Labour supporters, the two don’t balance each other out.

Of course, as a result, there’s was often an inclination among Labour politicians (Straw and Blunkett spring to mind) to dismiss civil liberty concerns as frivolous indulgences. Sure enough, there may not be large percentages of working class voters clamoring for prisoners to have the right to vote, but that denial was still aimed aimed predominantly at members of that class. Moreover, there were many occasions where Labour’s lack of an instinct for liberty led to situations of material injustice, too: denying asylum seekers the right to work, instituting a prohibitive tax rate for the lowest earners and attempting to reform welfare into an increasingly bureaucratic & labyrinthine system of conditionality.

As the party moves forward, Labour needs to be careful not to dismiss liberty as an indulgence of rich people, but a right of all people, and work to maximise its promise of liberty wherever possible. This needn’t mean betraying or disavowing its class conscience; merely refusing to use that conscience to justify its more statist instincts.

Confessions of a Community Organiser

August 22, 2010 at 8:16 am | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 3 Comments
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From The Labour Party

Just weeks after my endorsement, I knew there was more to be done. As someone with a zeal for Progressive Politics – I voted Lib Dem in ‘05 because of The War and in 2010 when they promised A New Politics – the time had come to become more involved. I wasn’t sure about that preppy prefect Nick Clegg, but it was still a huge disappointment when he fell into bed with the Conservatives. It was like watching Lois Lane fall for Lex Luthor all over again.

I did have reservations about joining the Labour Party. After all, it was Labour who had saddled me with this student debt, waged all those terribly terrible wars and made me smoke outside on winter nights instead in of the snug warmth of my sadly-departed local. Was Labour really the place for a Progressive like me?

Alas, the stakes are too high to worry about that. The next election will be important. Definitely more important than 2010 and probably as important as when we got Rage Against The Machine to Christmas Number One. As I told my friends, “it doesn’t matter if you hate the song; what matters is that we win.” That’s kinda how I felt about joining the Labour Party.

All that was left was to find the candidate who would lead us to victory. I researched diligently; I visited their websites, watched hustings online and read their essays for The Fabians. I was still none the wiser. Then one night I discovered a video that changed everything. His supporters posted this inspiring & professional promo, set to a tune by Boy Meets Girl (who doesn’t love Boy Meets Girl?!), packed with images of their man looking Dynamic! Leaderlike! and Sticking It To The Tories!

I soon made my endorsement public:

Image by WEF

I support David Miliband because he is a Progressive. I support him because he knows that we need to make cuts, just by a few billion less than those other guys. I support him because only he knows how to Cut Fairly. Cut Progressively. I support him because after 100 days of a ConDem government, Britain is crying out for change. And that change is a return to everything we wanted to change in the first place.

The endorsement was my Facebook status for three days. Within hours it had been ‘liked’ by three friends. I had to keep the momentum going. I shared links to speeches David made; his statements on the Big Issues. I tried to show his human side, too: his sense of humour, his sense of fun. The responses were hugely encouraging; only one ex-‘friend’ blocked my Facebook account, and he was a no-good Abbottite anyway.

But I knew this wasn’t enough, that there was more to do. After all, did Barack Obama get to the White House through people just squatting in their bedrooms, pasting YouTube clips on their friends’ walls? I knew that I had to step my game up; to become the change I wanted to see. Then I finally took the plunge; I decided to host a house meeting for David Miliband.

My mind danced with opportunities. I read Saul Alinsky and David Plouffe, downloaded PowerPoint slides about community organising and drew mind maps for how I could sell David to my friends and neighbours. Could David ride a wave of grassroots support all the way to the doors of Downing Street? Could we really build an Obamaesque movement for change? Yes, we can!

Or so I thought. Having never organised a community before, I wasn’t sure how to begin. Thankfully, David had already thought of this (he thinks of everything) and he uploaded a handy ‘how-to’ guide on his website. For a whole week before the meeting it became my Bible; the only thing standing between me and a disorganised community. I quickly began acting on its instructions:

Think of the people you want to invite

First start with the local Labour Party members who you know are active in your local area, this may include local councilors, the constituency MP and other activists. Then think about other people in your community that could make change locally. For example, friends, neighbours, the school head-teacher, faith leaders in your area. Try to invite people who already have a following of others. Remember, they don’t have to be members of the Party at the moment.

I was certainly relieved that invitees didn’t need to be members (yet!) – of all my friends, I knew of no one who was already a party member, and I didn’t fancy being alone at my own party! My first targets were those ‘who already have a following of others’. My best friend Andy was first, as he runs one of the most popular World of Warcraft blogs in the UK. If I impressed him, David’s name could soon spread like a contagion through the WoW universe. Maybe even Second Life.

Then there was Diane, a liberal art teacher who dressed like Woodstock was the point at which fashion had reached its apex. Diane might occasionally be prone to some ‘off message’ ideas (like that teenage delinquency is a result of Chernobyl), but her ability to speak with intense sincerity about the most banal subjects suggested she would make a fine canvasser.

There was also Emily. Emily didn’t have any followers, wasn’t a member of the community I was organising and was of no importance whatsoever to mine & David’s Movement for Change. She was also a bit too left to be Progressive; I gathered from her Facebook updates that – when she wasn’t dribbling over the deadbeat ‘vegan’ boyfriend – she considered Ed Miliband to be ‘pretty cool for a Nu Lab’. Still, I’m told that these events thrive on lively discussion, and maybe her kooky, irresponsible leftism would serve to highlight David’s reassuring reasonableness. That’s the only reason she was invited.

I’m hosting a House Meeting as part of David’s leadership campaign to bring people together in the community to discuss how we can be part of the Movement for Change at a local level. It will be a chance to share stories, build relationships and discuss what we would like to change in this area and how we can help make David leader of the Labour Party to take this forward.

I copied the email and, just as David instructed, invited 30 people from all professions and walks of life – everything from doctors to decorators, rabbis to gym instructors. But the coup de grace, the one David and I really wanted, was Michael Knightley, head of the local secondary school. If I could get him to attend, then I would really land in the Big Leagues of Community Organising. What’s more, Basingstoke would be David’s for the taking!

With the invites sent and his campaign informed (David & his high-profile supporters sometimes ring up during the events!), I followed David’s advice and did some research. Soon I was loaded up on stories of his policy-making heroics; the work on social justice, his time as Labour’s Head of Policy, the sensitive, pragmatic way he handled those accusations of torture.

I realised then that the comparisons with the Obama campaign were grossly unfair. When Obama ran, he had nothing but the ‘Audacity of Hope’; compare that to David’s 13 years of turning Hopes into Realities. There really was no contest.

Finally, the big day arrived. This, of all days, was the time to follow David’s instruction manual to the letter:

Get in from work, give the place a quick vacuum and general tidy (or not, if you’re not that type). Put the oven on and get the nibbles in. If there are drinks, get them chilling. Pick some music. Get Labour party membership forms at the ready.

The spread was fit for a Prime Minister. Plates were stacked high with sandwiches, samosas and onion bhajis; there were sausage rolls, fruit bowls and ‘scotched Eds’ (take that, little brother!). I even concocted a cocktail, The Milibomb, out of strawberry schnapps. When the guests entered the  living room (dubbed ‘the Cabinet Office’ for the night), that same Boy Meets Girl song would be at the top of the playlist. Its title: ‘Things Can Only Get Better’.

A good 10 minutes after my meeting was due to start, the first guest arrived. Andy apologised for being late, explaining that he’d just emerged victorious from a heated debate about the new World of Warcraft expansion pack. “Who’s this?” I ask of the stocky figure stood behind him. “Oh, I thought I’d bring a plus one. This is Gary. He works for a trade union.”

As he held out his hand, I looked at him with apprehension and mistrust. Having a trade unionist there didn’t just add pressure for everything going to plan, it also doubled the competition. I knew all about Labour’s problem with entryists and it wasn’t going to happen in my flat. This was my community, I would be organising it, and I would take the credit for making Basingstoke a hotbed of Milimania.. Besides, if David really cared about having Trade Unionists on board, he would have asked them!

I left them to the drinks and nibbles while I stood by the window, fiddling with the blinds and praying the passing cars carried guests in search of somewhere to park. Another 5 minutes passed before Diane turned up with a tray of gluten-free chocolate brownies. “Oh, well this is a nice size for a meeting”, she said sympathetically, “very exclusive, isn’t it?!”

I could just about cope with a low turnout. I bet even David Plouffe had his disappointments when he started out. No, it was what was still to come that brought an abrupt end to my Community Organising. I was helping myself to another Milibomb when the phone rang. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘someone who’s on their way and in need of directions. Soon we’ll have a proper gathering.’

“Hello?”

“Hiya, this is Cassie from the David Miliband campaign. I’m just ringing to ask how your House Meeting is going?”

“Oh, it’s going great,” I lied, before dreaming up an excuse for the poor showing. “There’s a bit of a snarl-up on the way into Basingstoke, so some guests are running a bit late. But we’ve still got a good crowd to start with. I turned to the guests and raised a feeble thumbs-up.

“Oh, that’s great. David was very impressed by the number of notables on your guest list. How many of those do you think are attending this evening? For instance, Will Mr Knightley be there?”

“Definitely,” I replied, voice starting to quiver under the weight of the lie. “Michael’s just stuck in traffic. He’ll be here any minute”.

“Excellent. In that case, you should expect to receive a phone call from David sometime between 8 and 9pm. He’d love to hear your ideas.”

It was then that Emily entered the room, ushered in by the uninvited (and possibly lecherous) Entryist who was clearly having no problem making himself at home. ‘I’ll show him’, I thought.

“That’s great news Cassie”. I turned to Emily: “guys, The Right Honourable David Miliband is calling us later so we can share our ideas. No pressure now!”

I said my goodbyes and hung up the phone. It was at once my greatest achievement and my biggest defeat. The future leader of the Labour Party – the future Prime Minister – was about to ring Me. At home. At an event in his honour. An event which had four attendees, one of whom wasn’t even invited! Should I dance or scream? And what would I say to Him if He calls?

I poured myself another Milibomb and retreated to the kitchen. ‘Four guests’ I repeated in disbelief. ‘Four fucking guests.’ Panic was setting in, and that would do me no good at all. This was a time for Cool Tempers and Clear Minds, so I turned again to the Miliband House Meeting Manual, returned to the Cabinet Office and, as per instruction, played David’s House Meeting intro on YouTube.

Just as David instructed, we went on to talk about the challenges in our areas. Everyone spoke about an issue close to their hearts: Andy got very exercised about broadband speeds; Diane found the new recycling system ‘terribly confusing’ and The Entryist, his plate bulging from all the food he’d helped himself to, found a way to fit ‘Tories’ and ‘Cuts’ into every other sentence. Emily started banging on about her Women’s Issues, mentioning some refuge that’d had its funding cut. As she spoke, I wondered quietly whether she might join my Movement for Change after all. I would have to ask her at the end of the night.

3. What frustrates you about the Labour Party and why? How can we change that during and after David’s leadership campaign?

“Oh, don’t mention the war!” joked The Entryist, his mouth full with Scotched Eds. I tossed him my most studied scowl and moved the discussion along . “Yes, well, we would all make better decisions if we had time machines, wouldn’t we?! Now what about…”

“I was never keen”, Diane interrupted, “on the way they seemed to like micromanaging our lives”.

“In what way?” I asked, fully expecting a well-meaning but endearingly daft response.

“Well, they did seem to spend an awful lot of time telling people how they should live. All those scary adverts about what we drink and what we eat, and all that time telling people where they can and can’t smoke. It all just got a bit silly, really. When Labour was in power, I bet house parties even had instruction manuals!”

“Hear hear!” Andy replied, “too much of this Nanny State!”

I slipped David’s instruction manual under the couch and hoped no one had seen me use it. This was clearly another one of Diane’s ‘off message’ ideas, but since the manual didn’t mention anything about crushing dissent, I let it stand and moved onto the next talking point.

What can you do to get David elected over the coming months?

A silence fell. The guests started fiddling with their food; gazing into the distance; checking their phones. I suppose this was to be expected. I mean, none of them had yet embarked on my own journey of community organising, so how were they meant to know how to elect a leader? They had to be directed, of course! I decided to get the ball rolling myself.

“Well, we’ve already taken the first big step by meeting here! But what I found helpful was…”

The phone rang. I stared at it, panic-stricken for the first three rings. Was that really Him? What would I say? Was it too informal to call him David?

“You gonna get that?” Emily enquired. I lifted the phone and turned on the speaker.

“Hello, David Miliband here, hope you’re all having a great evening.”

My guests’ expressions were a picture! I bet none of them believed I had The Clout to land a phone call from David, and here they were, listening to his polite, cerebral tones through the speakerphone. I had made it!

“Hi David, we’re having a fantastic time here! Some really good discussions about the challenges facing our community and lots of ideas about how our Movement for Change can make you leader of the Labour Party.”

“That’s very good to hear, and obviously I’m delighted to have so many people in …err…”

“Basingstoke.”

“Yes, Basingstoke. It’s obviously nice to have the people of Basingstoke involved in the campaign. Now, I gather you have some significant community figures in attendance tonight. My staff tells me you even have a school headmaster.”

Could I lie to a former Foreign Secretary? A man who stared down some first rate deceivers and outwitted them all? A man who had a close working relationship with Hillary Clinton? Surely he would see through me.

“Oh yes, Michael’s here, just helping himself to a few nibbles.” I gestured over to where I imaged Mr Knightley would be standing and took another good swig of my Milibomb. Andy looked at me like I’d gone mad – a bit rich for a man who spends half his life thrashing around the internet under the alias of ‘sexy_goblin’.

“Great, do you think I could have a quick word?”

“Oh.”

“Is there a problem?”

The problem was that I hadn’t seen where all of this had been leading. I was so swept up in the tension of planning & the euphoria of the moment, that I never stopped to think about what this evening was really about. This wasn’t an evening for Little People like me to become important, but for David to find people who were already important. The doctors, lawyers, councillors & head teachers; people who ‘already have the following of others’. So what was I to do? Would I finally admit that my whole meeting had been a defeat, or would I try to make sure that David wasn’t disappointed in me?

“No, no problem at all. I’ll just pass him on for you.”

All the school nativities in the world wouldn’t have prepared me for the feat of acting I was about to attempt. I finished my drink, straightened my back and turned away from the guests. I lowered my voice by nearly an octave. If I pull this off, I thought, I’m going to sound a little like Patrick Stewart.

“Good evening, David! Michael Knightley here!”

The details of the conversation are a private matter between David and Mr Knightley, but I can tell you that the talks were very productive. David shared his outrage at the scrapping of his school building programme and congratulated him on the excellent exam results. For his part, Mr Knightley praised Mr Miliband’s speeches on education and pledged to become a party member ‘this very evening’. Quite how the real Mr Knightley would feel about this pledge would be another matter.

The conversation ended & I put down the telephone. My guests were all wearing the most indescribable expressions. They looked at me as if I’d done something terrible. Something like advocating the legalisation of drugs, scrapping trident or reinstating Clause 4.

I knew there was now no point carrying on with the event. I unfolded the House Meeting Manual and went straight to the closing remarks. I cleared my throat.

“I hope you have enjoyed this evening – it’s been really interesting hearing your stories tonight and it just shows the need for us to organise in our local community. Whatever our different perspectives on the issues discussed tonight, one thing is clear – that we can achieve more together than we can on our own.”

I glanced over at Emily; she stared down at her shoes. With the speech finished, the guests were dying to leave. Diane reminded me to return the tin that kept the gluten-free brownies;  Andy tapped me on the back with the suggestion that I “might want to go & get help”; The Entryist filled his plate and flashed a smug, bloated smile. Emily was last out of the door. I helped her with her coat and said “Y’know, if you ever wanted to meet up sometime to discuss how you could be a part of David’s Movement for Change, we could…”

“I’m still for Ed,” she interrupted, looking somewhere between apologetic and concerned. “Your guy will probably win, but I just think that if you’re going to give all your time and energy to something like this, it should at least be for something you can get excited about. Even after tonight, I still don’t know what your guy believes in.”

“For what it’s worth”, she said as she left the house, “I think you could’ve thrown a great party without the help of some instruction manual.”

I shut the door, removed the ‘Cabinet Office’ sign in the living room, turned on the stereo and poured another drink before slumping into an armchair. In just a few hours I’d won the respect of the next Leader of the Labour Party and the derision of my friends. I’d been a party host, a political aide and a secondary school head teacher, and all I’d really gained was a phone call with someone who didn’t want to talk to me, a tin full of gluten-free chocolate brownies and an apparent addiction to strawberry schnapps. I bet David Plouffe never had this trouble.

As the stereo cranked out an old tune from a fondly-remembered past, I concluded that it will all have been worth it if I played some small role in getting David elected. Things Can Only Get Better, the singer promised. I hope so, because right now things could hardly be worse.

Note: none of this actually happened.

Caring is Creepy: Tribes in Pop and Politics

July 23, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Posted in British Politics, Music, Art, Etcetera, New Labour | 1 Comment

(Image by missquitecontrary)

Does my right hon. Friend find it bizarre-as I do-that the yoghurt and muesli-eating, Guardian-reading fraternity are only too happy to protect the human rights of people engaged in terrorist acts, but never once do they talk about the human rights of those who are affected by them?
– Labour MP Kevin Hughes

“If you start to break it then people aren’t going to go. I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance… I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.”
- Noel Gallagher

It’s the early noughties and we’re in the middle of a Great Rock Recession. After the Britpop days of plenty, indie fans are stuck on a stodgy gruel of Travis and Starsailor. ‘Quiet is the new Loud’ and that sound you don’t hear is the kids yawning themselves to death.

With such scant exciting, homemade music, the New Musical Express – that dogged tribune of indie culture – gazed across the Atlantic and started to embrace the explosion of R&B and hip hop. They wrote reverently about Timbaland & Missy Elliott, made The Neptunes the epitome of cool and even gave Destiny’s Child their front cover for a week.

Sadly, the NME’s experiment in open-minded eclecticism was short-lived; sales dwindled and the paper couldn’t afford to offend its musically conservative readership for any longer. It wasn’t long before the magazine reverted to type; excitedly announcing a ‘New Rock Revolution’ and chasing skinny trustafarians around the sidewalks of New York.

The mistake the NME made was in believing it could break the stubborn insularity of its audience. Pop tribes often seem sealed off from the rest of the cultural landscape; they talk only amongst themselves, in their own language, and define themselves as much by the inferiority of other genres as by the self-evident superiority of their own. In this environment, expecting that a Smiths fan who mocks rap ‘music’ with inverted commas will accept the value of Missy Elliott is about as fanciful as hoping that a blustering David Blunkett would accept a deal with the Liberal Democrats. Over their dead bodies.

In fact, political tribes operate in very similar ways. Each shares its own folk heroes and hate figures, writes in socially-accepted shorthand (NuLieBore! Tory Scum!) and generally accepts that any decision or utterance made by the other tribe is either misguided, deluded or malicious. The tribe is both a social circle and a comfort blanket of shared assumptions.

However, just as identifying with one pop tribe will give you a fairly shallow, one-dimensional music collection, political tribalism can be similarly self-defeating. Many of the defences of New Labour’s punitive populism were made as appeals to working class authenticity. On matters like crime, immigration, welfare, drugs and civil liberties, liberal criticisms were often dismissed as an indulgence of an out-of-touch middle class.

Whether it was Jack Straw slamming the ‘Hampstead liberals’ or Blunkett deriding ‘airy fairy libertarians’, the insinuation was clear; Labour’s liberal critics were unserious, self-serving, moneyed dilettantes with little connection to the ‘Real World’. As I wrote once before, it often felt like the party didn’t even want our votes; we just didn’t belong in the tribe.

None of this was an issue until Labour discovered that its tribe was no longer big enough to win elections. Throughout its thirteen years in government we heard various appeals from within the party to ‘reconnect’ with the middle or working classes, the unions or big business, but precious little about reconnecting with those social liberals who fled over its excessive anti-terror legislation, its treatment of asylum seekers, its abject prison system, its criminalisation of the young or its lie detectors for the jobless.

The question for whoever wins this turgid, listless leadership election is how far they are prepared to go to win these people back. Can the party’s rhetoric be shunted in a more pluralistic, inclusive and liberal direction? Will they support Ken Clarke as he tries to weed ‘prison works’ out of our political lexicon? Will they applaud Nick Clegg for securing a commitment on the detention of child asylum seekers? Will they revert back to a drugs policy based on evidence rather than fear? Or will the tribal instincts be so strong that they bark at and barrack the Liberal Democrats until any rapprochement is impossible?

But though the main responsibility for this rapprochement is necessarily Labour’s, there’s also a question to be raised of those who want the party to change but don’t want to get their hands dirty. Do we have any integrity to demand change of a party we didn’t exactly feel inspired to vote for, much less campaign for? Do we have any credibility in making those demands outside of – and often ignorant of – the local and national structures within the party? Why should our voices have prominence over tens of thousands of long-suffering, dues-paying members? It’s a centuries-old question of whether structure or agency best describes our social behaviour, and it’s not a question which will be resolved in a blogpost.

One theory about why the NME’s short-lived eclecticism failed to lift its circulation is that not enough people believed its change was real. Sure, they saw a more diverse range of artists on the cover, but maybe they suspected it was all artifice; that deep down it would remain the same stubborn tribune of indie fandom that it has always been. Perhaps the tribe’s reputation preceded it.

That’s not something the Labour Party can allow to happen. There are now millions of us for whom the only experience of democratic socialist government was the administrations of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. They both fell short of adequate. The task of the next Labour leader is to imagine and articulate a political culture which is better than the one we have lived through, and which their predecessors bequeathed. They need to prove that their tribe (their tent, their church) can be larger, broader, more open, responsive and diverse than anything we’ve seen to date.

This isn’t about changing to win; it’s about changing what it means to win. That’s the difference between being the leader of a political movement and merely settling for manager of a political tribe.

(Image via YoungFabians)

Did Labour convince us to “keep faith in the system”?

July 8, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 5 Comments

Most of you will have now seen Sunny’s interview with Ed Miliband, in which he declared himself ‘the candidate of change’ and then somewhat contentiously argued that New Labour wasn’t too harsh in how it handled the benefits system. Responding to heckles from the audience, Sunny suggests Miliband’s critics have missed the point:

Sure, New Labour did use a lot of negative language, but it’s naive to assume people won’t talk about “benefits cheats” just because the Labour government didn’t. The Daily Mail cannot be wished away. And so I’m assuming New Labour simply made the calculation that sounding harsh on benefit cheats in public would convince the public something was being done about them – and keep faith in the system. Because once that faith goes, then the system goes.

In many respects, Sunny is absolutely correct. We shouldn’t have any trouble believing that New Labour’s punitive approach to the long term unemployed – from threatening them with homelessness and forcing them into workfare to giving them breathalisers and lie detectors – was anything less than pure political opportunism, designed to win a few favourable headlines and deflect the charge that they’re soft on ‘scroungers’. Some of us having been saying this for years, and the fact that most of these proposals never made it past the pages of the tabloids is a testament to how ineffably unserious they were.

But if we’re to accept that such tactics were born more out of calculation than conviction (which is hardly the most most stirring defence, is it?), we should then consider whether those tactics worked. So did New Labour’s frequent admonishments of the long-term unemployed succeed in convincing the public to, as Sunny puts it, “keep faith in the system”?

Not so much. Over a period which saw remarkably consistent growth and increased national prosperity, both the British Social Attitudes survey and the Rowntree Foundation found a hardening in the British public’s attitudes to unemployment, poverty & welfare. In 1996, the BSA survey found that 78% of respondants agreed that the government had a responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed. By 2006, that number had fallen to 55%. At best, Labour failed to arrest an inexorable decline in the public’s faith in the benefits system; at worst, its calculations actively fed on this lack of faith to the point where the public has become far more receptive to the idea of Tory cuts.

This doesn’t mean that we need to ignore those good things Labour has done, nor dredge up its misdeeds at every opportunity; there will be a new leadership team before too long, and they don’t bear responsibility for every mistake made in 13 long years. But when the past approach seemed to win very little respite from the crowd that cries ‘Shameless!‘ at the first sight of a Job Centre – and lost them a huge amount of goodwill in the process – perhaps it’s time for people like Miliband to stop reaching for face-saving justifications.

Instead of trying to score points off the long-term unemployed, these ex-ministers must now talk about how they would assist & empower them. And instead of devising tabloid-pleasing scams, they should explain how they would prevent the millions who’re being left behind from being added to the human scrapheap.

Labour must stop attacking the government from the right

July 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm | Posted in New Labour | 11 Comments

Were it just an isolated incident, I suppose we could just dismiss Jack Straw’s attack on prison reform as that of a grumpy ex-minister grasping for success stories from his time in government. We could even forgive him one last grumble as he adjusts to opposition and find his ‘prison works’ mantra consigned to the dustbin of social policy.

But then when you look around at how other ex-ministers have attacked coalition policies you’ll see a rather unsightly pattern emerge.

First, here’s Alan Johnson’s view of the coalition approach to crime:

The Home Secretary’s primary duty is to keep the public safe. She can do that or pursue the half-baked libertarian agenda cooked up with the Lib Dems. She can’t do both.

Then there’s immigration. After hearing that Britain won’t insist on an English test for asylum seekers who’re fleeing for their lives, Phil Woolas reacts with disgust and warns of Afghans on the back of lorries:

Former Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said: ‘This ruling means that a British man who marries, say, a Brazilian girl who can’t speak English will not be able to bring her into this country.

‘But an Afghan who gets here on the back of a lorry and successfully claims asylum can bring his Afghan wife, children and grandparents in – even if they don’t speak English.

Then, if you’re not already angry and afraid, here’s Johnson again to double down on the fear factor:

The coalition Government has been accused of “creeping complacency” in the face of the threat of terrorism, by former Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

The Labour MP said he is concerned a shake up of police powers and counter terrorism laws could leave the public more vulnerable to extremists.

See the pattern yet? Whether it’s on prison reform, crime, immigration or terrorism, the approach of Labour’s ex-ministers is to attack the government from the right. Now, maybe this can all be excused as tactical point-scoring and an attempt to cause mischief among a discontented Tory back bench. Maybe it’ll shave some of the varnish off the coalition’s credibility and win a few easy headlines with the usual suspects. But, as Sunny rightly points out, all it says to the rest of us is that the Labour Party hasn’t changed at all.

For those of us who might once have been inclined to support the party – even join it – Labour still has an awful lot for which it should atone. We haven’t forgotten the threats to make the unemployed homeless if they don’t get a job, using breathalisers to check they’re not too tanked-up to work or lie detectors to check they’re telling the truth. We haven’t forgotten 42 day detention, ID cards, Yarl’s Wood or the ‘hit squads‘ of supernannies who were meant to sort out our ‘feckless ‘unemployed. We haven’t forgotten how cynical, punitive and populist Labour’s social policy could be, and these desperate attempts to attack the coalition from the right and just for the sake of it suggests that Labour is content to act exactly the same way in opposition.

Of course, this might all change with a new leader. Until the election is concluded, the shadow cabinet is acting less like a credible alternate government and more an attack dog without a head; a new leader could bring about a more empowering, less authoritarian approach to government. What it does show, however, is that Labour’s problems will not be solved just by changing the person who wishes to lead it; it will also require a significant change in the attitudes of some of its senior politicians.

In the wake of the deal between the Tories and Lib Dems, Labour activists began proclaiming that they were now the only left-wing alternative in Parliament. If they want us to believe that, it would help to stop attacking the government from the right.

Yarl’s Wood – A question for Labour bloggers

February 28, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Posted in Asylum, New Labour | 18 Comments

Yarl's Wood

Because I possess a lousy news antennae, my choice for top story of the day isn’t the tightening in the opinion polls or David Cameron’s promise to ‘double up on change’. Instead, I was startled by yet more troubling allegations about the conditions at Yarl’s Wood. To add to the reported mistreatment of children and the four week hunger strike, the Observer has now obtained testimonies from people inside the facility that guards have been beating women:

Jacqui McKenzie of Birnberg Peirce said: “I have spoken to a client of mine in Yarl’s Wood and she has seen the bruising herself from the incident on 8 February. There is an atmosphere of real tension there.”

The images of the bruising show the injuries allegedly sustained during the incident by Denise McNeil, a 35-year-old Jamaican, who claims she was hit by staff and, since the disturbance, has been moved to London’s Holloway prison.

[...]

Meme Jallow, 26, from Gambia, who has been inside Yarl’s Wood for seven months, said: “A girl called Denise was by the windows. One officer took her and hit her by the face.”

Another hunger striker, a 37-year-old from Nigeria who asked to remain anonymous for fear of her asylum case being unfairly reviewed, said: “The security went outside and used shields like they do when there is a war. That is what they used to smash one of the women who was outside.”

Now, I’m not in the mood for hyperventilating this afternoon, and nothing new will be gained by just restating my belief that Yarl’s Wood should close immediately, with an apology offered to all who’ve been mistreated in these publicly-funded, privately-run quasi-prisons.

Instead, I wanted to guage the opinion of Labour members/voters/activists – the grassroots blog-writers and door-knockers who are the best face of an otherwise haggard-looking party.

When I learned the existence of these centres back in my more idealistic youth, it was a discovery which began my gradual estrangement from the Labour Party. I did not want to be a part of any political party which, when in government, incarcerated asylum seekers, particularly when the motivations for doing so seemed deeply craven.

Though I may have moderated in the intervening years, that remains my view. Furthermore, whilst I cannot generalise to the rest of my generation, when your formative political experiences are of a state acting punitively towards society’s most vulnerable, you may be less inclined to regard the state as a potential force for good.

I realise, of course, that there’ll be plenty within the Labour Party who’re equally opposed to Yarl’s Wood and its ilk, and I’m sympathetic to the argument that you can only change a party from the inside. What I’m curious about is whether there is any scope for change. Is this the kind of issue which enrages local activists? Are there enough of them to demand a change of approach by the party leadership? Will we ever hear a Labour leader complaining about the treatment of asylum seekers rather than excusing it?

To find out, I’m going to pull my first ever tagging trick and ask Dr Phil, Don Paskini, Though Cowards Flinch and any of my Labour-voting readers (the ones I haven’t already scared off). Can Labour get any more liberal on this issue, or I expect this squalid status quo to remain, and get over it?

Why Gordon should get nice

February 21, 2010 at 4:41 pm | Posted in British Politics, Gordon Brown, New Labour | 8 Comments

Over the years, I’ve developed a completely arbitrary but generally quite reliable method for measuring a person’s moral worth. Where some people might totter up a person’s good deeds, charitable giving, political beliefs or religion, mine is far more straightforward:

Are you nice to shop assistants?

You see, the shop assistant’s working life is fairy dreary & dispiriting: you’re not paid very much, you’re restricted to repeating the same actions for 8 hours a day, and you frequently come into contact with customers who treat you with as much warmth & kindness as a cash machine. It’s also true that the rare occasions when someone does treat you as a human being are the occasions when your job seems less miserable. So if you can’t be friendly, smile or even say ‘thank you’ during your purchase, I don’t wish to know you.

If the allegations about Gordon Brown’s blustering, bullying & temper tantrums are true, they reflect as badly on the Prime Minister as a person as his Premiership has reflected on him as a politician. It’s one thing to start grabbing and yelling at your Deputy Chief of Staff, but for the victims to also include the more ‘lowly’ duty clerks, typists and telephone operators – the folks who keep Downing Street working – is particularly distasteful.

But quite apart from the instability these stories suggests, or the way it makes Gordon look like he regards his staff merely as incompetent servants, it’s also an lousy approach to governing. First, ponder this from Lerner & Tiedens’ review of the effect of anger on decision-making:

Angry decision makers also typically process information in heuristic ways, not stopping to ponder alternative options before acting. They are eager to make decisions and are unlikely to stop and ponder or carefully analyze. This too derives primarily from the sense of certainty associated with anger, but may also be caused by the optimism they have about the future. Thus, angry decision makers may then, as Aristotle suggested long ago, have a difficult time being angry at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way.

In a political context, this makes it more likely that your decisions will be rash and ill thought-through – not something you really want in leaders who are often required to make decisions of great importance.

But perhaps more importantly in these economically threadbare times, we also know that happiness is a great way of boosting workers’ productivity:

In one experiment, subjects were split into two groups, with one being shown a short comedy film and the other not. Subjects shown the film were 10% more productive than those who weren’t. This productivity boost was confined to those who actually enjoyed the film.

What’s more, subjects did not realize that this effect was happening; only 31% felt that watching the clip had improved their skill on the test.

In another experiment, subjects were asked before the test  whether they had suffered a family bereavement or parental divorce in the last two years. Those who said they had were about 10% less productive than those who said they hadn’t.

So if Gordon could find it within himself to be a bit nicer to the people who work for him – maybe by bringing some fancy biscuits to the office, arranging a ‘dress down Friday’ or the occasional curry night, he might well find that Downing Street becomes a better functioning, more well-oiled governing machine.

Make ‘em smile, Gordon. It might not do much for your poll ratings, but at least you’ll see less of your staff running to Andrew Rawnsley.

The rise of the carpetbaggers

February 5, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 6 Comments

If you trawl Liverpool FC’s unofficial fan forums, it won’t be long before you stumble upon a long thread lamenting the lack of scousers in the squad. For a city so used to producing pedigree footballers (the Premiership years alone brought Fowler & McManaman, Gerrard & Carragher), it’s frustrating watching the parade of sub-par foreigners appear on the subs bench, put in a few derisory performances, and then disappear into obscurity.

The names are scarred into the memory; mentioned only as punchlines: Salif Diao, Djimi Traore, Sean Dundee, Bruno Cheyrou. Each expensive flop is accompanied by a question that remains unanswered: was there really not a single young scouser who could’ve done as good bad a job, or even slightly better? Has the city’s talent pool really drained so badly that it’s producing players who aren’t even fit for the subs bench?

You can see shades of this frustration in the backlash over Luciana Berger’s selection as Labour’s candidate for Liverpool Wavertree. Ms Berger is hardly at fault for being young, for harbouring a desire for public service or for possessing qualities which have made her appealing to London’s Labour hierarchy. She may, indeed, prove to be an excellent MP.

But what I read in the exasperated responses to her selection is a refrain I’ve heard many times in & around the Shankly Gates: was there not a single person, in a city of over 400,000 people, who could’ve done as good a job? The city expects an Emlyn Hughes or a Jamie Carragher – someone who, at some level, can understand & relate to the culture & traditions of the people they serve. Instead, they’re getting a Neil Ruddock.

In fact, I’m perhaps being a little hard on Ruddock, for at least the lumbering oaf who embarassed the reds’ back four would’ve been able to respond well to a question about who Bill Shankly was. Now, not knowing or caring about football hardly disqualifies you from public office, but not being able to possess the slightest reverence, sensitivity or even awareness of part of the city’s history and tradition is problematic at best, and to then blame your ignorance on being female is just embarrassing.

In my experience, scousers are no more insular than the inhabitants of any other large town or city. But they do possess a distinctive history and culture which they are deeply proud of and enjoy sharing with the rest of the world. They deserve – like every constituency in the country deserves – an MP who can recall this rich history, revel in its traditions and understand the hopes and fears of the people they wish to represent. Does Ms Berger possess that understanding, or is her main qualification that she’s passed through a few times on business, or spent a few hours on the Albert Docks?

Really, this post isn’t even about Luciana Berger; a similar piece could’ve been written about David or Ed Miliband, Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper. But her selection will only increase the sense that Labour regards the role of MP as some glorified graduate trainee programme, and sees constituencies as regional call centres, expected to dilligently enact the faxed dictats from central office.

One argument made by opponents of proportional representation is that it would remove the link between an MP and his/her constituents, yet they never stop to recognise that, thanks to the centralising of political parties, this link is already reaching the end of its tether. Perhaps the defeat of Ms Berger would send a symbolic – but important – message from Liverpool to London that the days of carpetbagging must end if Labour is to re-establish itself with what was once its heartlands.

Manufactured outrage

May 11, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, New Labour | 4 Comments

You’ve got to feel a bit of sympathy for Labour’s online activists. Although they were already behind the other parties in terms of reach & organisation, many Labourites were doing quiet, conscientious campaigning until some motormouthed celebrity spouse singlehandedly turned the words ‘Labour blogger’ into something pejorative.

Now the skunk’s slunk off to his psychotherapy & left LabourList trying to shake off the stink, much of Labour’s online activism is being driven by John Prescott’s Go Fourth site. The people behind Go Fourth clearly understand online politics far better than Derek Draper did (though, frankly, so does my goldfish), and the strategy of launching single issue campaigns on social networking sites is a smart way of expanding their audience.

But if you’re going to base an online movement around single-issue campaigns, you have to choose your battles wisely, and it’s here where the netizens of Labourland may have a little growing up to do.

minimum wage copy

Back in February, Tory backbencher Christopher Chope introduced a 10 minute rule bill which would – among other things – allow companies to pay employees below the minimum wage if those employees consented. John Prescott seized on this as evidence that the Conservatives would tear up Labour’s record on worker rights and swiftly launched the website Wage Concern, which wants the bill defeated when it comes back for a second reading on Friday. To stress what’s at stake, the website carries a helpful banner reminding you how many days are left to ‘save’ the minimum wage from oblivion.

The trouble is, this banner and most the overheated rhetoric which accompanies it is a fabrication. As others have noted, the bill was doomed to failure long before Prescott summoned his cadre of keyboard-clunking comrades and it’s unlikely that even the Tory leadership will give it their official seal of approval. Rather than being on the verge of elimination, the minimum wage is set to increase, and no amount of dishonest doomsaying will prove otherwise.

So what about the substance of the bill? Well, I’m neither an economist nor an expert on industrial relations, so I’m not going to dive into a field where I’d quickly be exposed as a dilettante. All I will say is that I’ve personally benefited from the minimum wage, that now is the worst time to start having a race to the bottom for workers’ wages and that I’d vote against it if I were unfortunate enough to become an MP. That said, Chope does have a point when he explains that even a 15% decrease in a worker’s wages wouldn’t be a decrease in real terms, because they’d fall out of the tax bracket. He’s also right to point out that there are already around a million people working below the minimum wage in the ‘black economy’, and that those people are deprived of all the other rights & safeguards afforded to them in the ‘real economy’.

But what irritates me the most about this campaign is the way it chooses to savage the author, his supporters and his proposals, but completely ignores the bill’s saving grace. I’ll let the member for Christchurch take things from here:

The first group that would be helped would be refugees who have sought refuge in this country by reason of persecution and are waiting for the Home Office to determine their applications for asylum. Why should those people not have the right to take employment opportunities that have not been taken up by British citizens and thereby enjoy the dignity of having a job? Although it might cause some raised eyebrows among colleagues to hear this, I am pleased to report that the Trades Union Congress is of the same view.

Under the party of Labour, asylum seekers cannot work, leaving many destitute and dependent on hand-outs from churches & charities. For those of us who’ve cast a despairing glance over the state of our asylum system, Labour’s failure to rectify this is nothing short of shameful. Even if Mr Chope gets nothing else right in this bill, his proposal to empower the most powerless deserves to be saluted.

I understand, of course, that this fight is extremely useful for those doing the campaigning; the minimum wage is a consolation prize used to reassure disaffected supporters that Labour really is ‘on your side’ and by raising the specter of its abolition, they might bring a few more stray lambs back to the flock. I’ve no problem with supporters spending their energy campaigning against something which is already a lost cause, but by using such highly-strung language whilst conveniently ignoring a proposal which is actually more progressive than the government, it comes across as emotional manipulation. That might not be on the same level as personally smearing your opponents, but it’s still something we can do without.

David Blunkett’s hope for the city

May 2, 2009 at 8:15 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Working Class Britain | 2 Comments

One of the discoveries I made on holiday was a short book called “Hope From The City“. It was written by a Methodist minister called John Vincent who’s dedicated the better part of his life to working class areas of Sheffield, and is a reflection on the hopes, frustrations, opportunities and challenges involved in trying to harness the potential for communities to improve their surroundings. Whilst there’s a little too much religiosity for my tastes, it’s still an interesting & insightful read and is blessed with an unwavering belief in people who often seem written-off.

The book contains a forward by David Blunkett, whose endorsement of community empowerment borders on the evangelical. He writes: “Back in the 1930’s, R. H. Tawney referred to the very different ways in which adult education and community learning could express itself. Now today, as this book illustrates, the melting pot of cultural diversity and religious and social influences will form fertile ground for radical ideas, for a challenge to the establishment and for improvement built from the very roots of the community”.

Of course, all of this jars heavily againsty our recollection of Blunkett’s time in the Cabinet: the ‘crackdown’ rhetoric, the macho policy-making, the preference for punishment over penance and all that gloating, dismissive statism. After finishing the book, I was left to wonder: how on earth could the author of this foreword also be the author of such awful policy?

There was a similar Jekyll & Hyde theme running through Mr Blunkett’s May Day message to Labour loyalists in South Yorkshire. When judged solely as a piece of political rhetoric, it’s a bit of a mess. He talks of rediscovering Labour’s roots, but also warns members against believing its future can be found in the past. There’s also the requisite BNP scaremongering, a weird snipe at the ‘duplicity & contradictions’ of the Liberal Democrats (seriously, WTF?), and for all the reporting about it being an attack on Brown’s leadership, it’s actually a rather tame & polite call for Labour to offer more ‘hope and optimism’.

But in those parts of the speech where he channels Dr Jekyll and gets down to specifics, the results are pleasantly surprising. Blunkett’s proposals are as follows:

  • Bringing all elected, devolved and representatives agencies at regional and sub-regional level together to carry out a financial audit of all resources going into an area; and agreeing programmes of action to re-shape priorities and consider what help the private sector could provide in areas of immediate need.
  • Civic health audits which look at the overall health and well-being of communities and what steps could be taken to re-engage, revitalise and regenerate participation from local people.
  • A substantial expansion of the allotments programme to make a dramatic difference to food production and its quality, as well as to diet and affordability and wider understanding of the environmental benefits.
  • A devolution of the welfare state and benefits programme to sub-regional or city region level, returning to “the historic pattern on which the welfare state was built”, pulling together JobCentre Plus, the Learning and Skills Council, voluntary and where appropriate private providers and the relevant local authorities. Investment for tackling unemployment, family breakdown and child poverty could all be applied more responsibly and flexibly at local level, building on the Flexible New Deal.
  • An expansion in the use of microcredit, building on a substantial and reformed Social Fund, and the establishment of community forums to localise monitoring, policy development and delivery.
  • The creation of city or regional banks, which existed up to 20 years ago, building on the experience of the Kaka Liberal Populaire in northern Spain, combining the deposits of individuals and businesses with investment in industry and services, lending back into the local community from which the resources were raised.

The aim of these ideas is obvious. With the creation of regional banks, community forums & civic health audits, Blunkett wants to localise politics like never before and provide the means for individuals, churches, charities & small businesses to invest in their environments. He is effectively saying that the power of Whitehall needs to be reduced and the days of managerialism and hyper-bureaucracy must come to an end. Whilst there’s much to debate in how this can be brought about, that debate certainly needs to be had.

Of particular interest should be the idea of devolving the welfare state to a local level. Having been unimpressed by proposals for reforming the benefits system, the possibility of localisation is one I’ve also considered in the past. It’s clear that the welfare state needs to find new ways of working, develop better relationships with welfare claimants and promote more co-operation with local business, the third sector and other social services. The only conceivable way I can think of doing that is by devolving it to a local level and bringing it much closer to those people it wishes to reach. Indeed, we should take this idea further and think about the possibility for devolving prison & rehabilitation efforts as discussed in the Aitken report.

I wrote a few months ago that David Blunkett had done a great deal to make liberal and left wing politics appear irreconcilable. It appears I was wrong. Whilst his contribution to the debate about the future of the left may be unlikely and – in some quarters – unwelcomed, it’s too valuable to go unnoticed. For that, if nothing else, he deserves a great deal of credit.

The main message in Dr Vincent’s book is simple and beaming with optimism: there is hope in our cities. There are people in disadvantaged communities who possess the energy, ideas and commitment to improve their environment, but lack the means and are often defeated by bureaucracy. Blunkett understands that it doesn’t have to be that way, and whilst he didn’t do much to reverse the trend whilst in government, it’s better to speak out now than never. Just goes to show that hope can still found, even in the unlikeliest places.

(Image taken in Pitsmoor, Sheffield, by by Flickr user polandeze (Creative Commons))

The politics of Pulp

April 28, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Music, Art, Etcetera, New Labour | 3 Comments

Jarvis 10

In the world of popular music, being called a Tory remains as hurtful as having your band compared to Ocean Colour Scene. Just leaving aside the number of songs strummed against Thatcher or pop’s role in movements against war and racism, the word ‘conservative’ isn’t just laden with assumptions about your politics, but about the music you make. For decades now, the word’s been used to infer that the art you produce is corporate, pro-establishment, staid, formulaic and conformist. In short, if you’re a Tory, you definitely don’t rock.

So when Jarvis Cocker gave an interview to GQ magazine where he seemed to say that a Conservative government wasn’t just inevitable but ‘necessary’, it wouldn’t be long before it was followed by a carefully-worded clarification. “In no way am I supporting or suggesting that a Conservative government is a good thing, far from it,” Cocker states. “Rather, what I intended to get across was that, in the absence of any real alternative, a Conservative government at this point unfortunately seems inevitable.” I think it’s safe to assume that he isn’t turning into Bryan Ferry.

This is comforting because, as Sunder notes, Cocker’s work with Pulp did much to keep class in the public consciousness at a time when it was being written-out of the rhetoric of New Labour and barely noticed by a Britpop crowd which was getting high off the hype of ‘Cool Britannia’. But what made the band’s records as interesting as they were cherished was that there was much more complexity to their themes than you’d find in the simplistic tubthumping of most political music.

There’s no denying that the social commentary in Pulp’s songs had its share of revolutionary sentiment. On Different Class’ ‘Mis-Shapes’, he conjures the image of a disadvantaged people rising up to claim what they feel is theirs (“Just put your hands up, it’s a raid! We want your homes. We want your lives. We want the things you won’t allow us”). Likewise, in ‘I Spy’ he voices a wronged working class man who seethes with contempt for his bourgeoisie ‘betters’ and plots his revenge (I can’t help it: / I was dragged up / My favourite parks are car parks / Grass is something you smoke / Birds are something you shag / Take your Year In Provence / and shove it / up your arse).

But there’s also the strong sense in Cocker’s lyrics that his isn’t a politics which relies on a state bestowing better lives on its people, but where the people sieze the means to achieve change for themselves. This comes across most strongly in This is Hardcore’s “The Day After The Revolution”, where he tramples on the old lie that “the meek shall inherit the Earth” by spitting “The meek shall inherit absolutely nothing at all / if you stopped being so feeble you could have so much more” and telling his listeners that “the revolution begins & ends with you”. His belief in the untapped potential of the working class is also striking in the preceding “Glory Days”, where he laments “Oh, we were brought up on the space race / now they expect you to clean toilets / when you’ve seen how big the world is / how can you make do with this?”. If he sometimes comes across as scornful of indolence & sloth (such as on this song and Different Class’ “Monday Morning”) it’s more out of frustration at this potential going to waste.

But if I could pick one song which I think best encapsulates Cocker’s worldview and his weary, remorseful outlook on British politics, it would be found on one of Pulp’s lesser known efforts. The last song the band ever released was a footnote to their Greatest Hits collection called “The Last Day of the Miner’s Strike“. Based on a reminiscence of industrial unrest in the 1980’s, it’s a song which could be read as either an anthem or a lament; a dream of what might’ve been possible “if we just stick together” or the reality of what was lost in the decades since their failure. “The last day of the miner’s strike was the Magna Carta in this part of town”, he sings, hinting that futures are now fixed, that possibilities are narrowed and alternatives reduced. Labour or Tory. Tory or Labour. Switching from one colour to the next without ever really expanding the palette.

No, Jarvis won’t be wearing a blue rosette any time soon, but Labour should still take the time to ponder why he, and many progressives like him, doesn’t feel at home in either party.

Purnell’s plans for alcoholics

April 16, 2009 at 12:58 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 1 Comment

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear a new government proposal for reform of the welfare state, I have to pause for a moment and ask: is this a policy or a headline? For example, when Hazel Blears announced that ‘hit squads’ armed with rubber gloves would be banging on parents’ doors to make sure their kids are ready for school, just about every observer – and probably Blears herself – knew it wasn’t going to happen, but made for a nice headline. Similarly, Caroline Flint’s threat to turf the workless out of their council homes and the government’s plan to make the jobless pick litter both failed to materialise, but at least they ended up in the papers.

So when James Purnell promises/threatens to make unemployed alcoholics seek treatment or lose their benefits, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask whether this story falls into the same category. Because when you think hard about how it would be implemented, you’re left with the irresistible suspicion that it’d either be appallingly intrusive or completely unworkable.

The idea’s apparently been palmed-off to Glasgow University to figure out how it might work, and the first question they’ll face is: how is the state going to define what makes an alcoholic? Are they going to abide by the medical definitions and judge it according to physical & psychological dependency, or will they just pick a number of units drunk per week and define that as the booze barrier? And if they did decide to judge it according to units, how many would you have to drink for the state to label you an alcoholic? Certainly, if they set it as low as the current recommended daily allowance, half the country would end up in A.A. meetings at some point.

Even if they resolve that question, that certainly isn’t the end of their problems. The next difficulty they’ll have is: how is the state going to identify alcoholics? The people who work in job centres are perfectly good at their jobs, but those jobs only involve following pre-approved computer procedures for eight hours a day. None of these people are trained in medicine or psychology, and therefore won’t be qualified to label people as alcoholics, much less terminate their benefits for it.

How does the government get around that? Will they subject every claimant to a full medical? Will they perform breathalyzers on everyone who walks through the door? Or will they be more discreet, and just ask staff walk around council estates with clip boards and ask them to count how many cans of Special Brew are left in recycling bins?

I suppose you could ask them whether they’re alcoholics, but how many people who are ever answer affirmitively? If you deny your addiction to your friends, your family and even yourself, you’re hardly going to open up to someone you only see once a fortnight and who only knows you as a name on a computer. And before we start going down the lie detector test route, we should note that this has already been torn to shreds.

Lastly, if you’re going to do something as serious as terminating someone’s benefits for not attending treatment, you better make sure that you’re offering the best treatment possible. Addiction is an incredibly tough thing to overcome; failures happen regularly, and often to people much better off than the unemployed. We have to realise, too, that alcoholism doesn’t simply happen out of idleness, and that it’s often intertwined with other factors: depression & other mental illnesses, low self-esteem, learning difficulties, social exclusion & sometimes even disability. If these people need help, then it’s in society’s interest to provide that help, but nobody should lose their benefits because the treatment programme they were ordered on was ineffective.

I don’t know, maybe I’ll be proved wrong & the government will develop a system which resolves all these problems and unanswered questions. But if they can’t, the best we can hope for is that this story joins the long line of hyped-up ideas which worked well as tabloid headlines, but were simply too unworkable to become real policies.

David Howarth on the criminal justice system

February 13, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, New Labour, Prison Reform | 3 Comments

Give this man a medal:

There is a crisis in the criminal justice system of staggering proportions. The prison population is at a record high, and is eating up £ billions in public expenditure. 70% of prisoners suffer from two or more recognised mental illnesses. Vast numbers are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Prisoners are shunted around the country at an alarming rate in a desperate attempt to find places. Constructive activities for prisoners are becoming increasingly difficult to complete. Thousands of prisoners are threatened with the Catch 22 that they have been sentenced to an indeterminate sentence so that they can only obtain release if they complete certain courses, but no such courses exist at the prisons where they find themselves. Meanwhile, community sentences are underfunded and non-custodial sentences we know are effective in reducing re-offending, such as restorative justice, are left on the shelf.

We need to stick to what works to reduce reoffending, and, within what works, we need to concentrate effort on offenders who are likely to commit the most new crimes and the most serious new crimes. The government and the Tories are obsessed with placating the Daily Mail with talk of punishment and deterrence, but that approach, because it fails to concentrate on what really works to reduce reoffending, effectively causes more crime. If existing resources were moved from programmes that do not work – such as short-term prison sentences that have vast failure rates – to programmes that do, such as restorative justice and drug and alcohol treatment, the crime rate would be lower. By refusing to follow such an approach, and instead indulging their more atavistic tendencies, both Labour and the Tories are permitting more crime than should be happening. That is why they are the pro-crime parties.

There are a number of things about this piece which make me happy. In 2005, Howarth was the recipient of my first ever vote, and whilst it was nice enough just to see the back of the rather useless Anne Campbell, that’s since been superceded by an admiration for how well he articulates the causes of civil liberties and social justice.

Second, what’s striking about the section above is not just that he understands the myriad wrongs in the criminal justice system, but that he’s able to frame them within a ‘tough on crime’ narrative which contends that Labour is actually contributing to crime, not tackling it. Whilst he only briefly alludes to the solutions, the suggestion that his Ministry of Justice would be more nuanced, pragmatic and results-based is more than enough to earn him a spot in my fantasy cabinet.

Lastly, it’s heartening to see him talking about this issue within the broader context of civil liberties and constitutional reform. One of the frustrations I have with the ‘civil liberties movement’ is that its focus is overwhelmingly on the restrictions Labour has imposed (or would like to impose) on those whom the law presumes to be innocent (42 day detention, DNA databases, ID cards etc etc). Those policies obviously need smart & vigorous opposition, but it often seems like there’s then little room for discussion about safeguarding the rights of people the law knows to be guilty. I’ve always thought that people who argue for reform of our criminal justice system were natural bedfellows for civil libertarians, but that’s not a sense I get when traipsing around the blogosphere. In this piece, Howarth ties the two together, and for that he deserves great credit.

There is a light that never goes out

January 21, 2009 at 10:40 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, New Labour | Leave a comment

I don’t know of many bloggers – myself included – who’ll have much sympathy to spare for Tony McNulty, but it really is an indictment of the smallness of our politics that something like this counts as a gaffe:

The Conservatives accused the employment minister, Tony McNulty, of being “out of touch” after he said there was “light at the end of the tunnel” shortly after new data showed UK unemployment hurtling towards 2 million.

The jobless total increased by 131,000 in the three months to November to 1.92 million, the highest figure for more than a decade, leaving the UK with a higher unemployment rate – 6.1% – than Slovenia, Romania, Malta, Holland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Austria and Cyprus

[...]

Speaking to BBC News, [McNulty] added: “There is light at the end of the tunnel.

“It is some way off, I think that’s clear, but … all that we are doing in terms of the economy, which is being followed by most other western economies, will mean that we will get through this downturn and this recession.”

Recessions have casualties. They claim jobs, homes, marriages, even lives. They cause poverty and hardships which seem both suffocating and ceaseless. But unless this current crisis goes against the grain of human history, it will one day end. As bland as the metaphor might be, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and whilst that’s scant consolation to those who’ve been worst effected, it is a reminder not to concede defeat.

What McNulty said was a cheap, harmless little platitude; no different to what the unemployed among us have heard a thousand times from sympathetic friends and relatives who’ll tell us to keep our chins up or not let the bastards get us down. McNulty neither promised an immediate upturn nor diminished the darkness that follows. That his words could be attacked by any self-respecting politician – let alone the supposed government-in-waiting – is just pathetic.

Yesterday, President Obama told his country that “the time has come to set aside childish things”. I get the feeling that this is the kind of thing he was talking about.

In search of a British foreign policy

January 15, 2009 at 11:35 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, British Politics, International, New Labour | 1 Comment

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Coming just five days before the next President is sworn-in, David Miliband’s sudden recalibration of British foreign policy has been widely – and rightly – interpreted as a make-over to match the more refined tastes of the Obama administration. By abandoning the brutish, unloved ‘war on terror’ and embracing complexity, pragmatism and an acceptance that our enemies can’t be thwarted by force alone, Miliband’s Guardian piece bore a striking resemblance to the language of ‘smart power’ that Hillary Clinton promised in her appearance before the Senate.

However, the question of whether or not this is ‘change you can believe in’ is up for debate. Scribo scribe James Hooper declares himself ‘reassured’ and notes that a foreign policy pinched from Barack Obama is still a huge improvement on eight years of Britain saying “I’m with stupid“. On the other hand, Claude at Hagley Road catches a whiff of opportunism and points out that this is the same man who spent years waving pom-poms behind his Prime Minister’s gallantly stupid war. Meanwhile, Aaron just wants to know: what the hell took you so long?

There are some good points in each of these posts, but what I think’s been missed about Miliband’s rather blatant fawning is that he seems to think that by mirroring the rhetoric of the incoming administration, Britain will be the same kind of sidekick to President Obama as Tony Blair was to President Bush. In my view, that seems unlikely.

Of course it’s in Britain and America’s interests to enjoy strong co-operation, but whilst the Bush administration could achieve its foreign policy objectives either by striking out alone (see: Kyoto treaty; Israel-Palestine) or feigning multilateralism (see: Iraq; ‘you forgot about Poland!’), Obama’s foreign policy brief is so vast that it will be more a case of ‘all hands at the pump’.

To help form a global response to the financial crisis, the climate crisis, the food crisis, the crisis in the Indian subcontinent, Zimbabwe, Sudan or the Middle East, the next President will need far more than a ‘coalition of the willing’. No, he needs a coalition of the unwilling, the reluctant, the haggled & cajoled. These most intractable problems will require the broadest of coalitions, and for that reason any hopes Miliband or Brown might’ve had of playing Alfred to Obama’s Bruce Wayne will surely be dashed.

Sure, Obama will need Britain’s input on various issues, but my guess is that he’ll seek that help in the context of our membership of the EU – a point David Cameron seems to have missed spectacularly when the two of them met in July. He won’t seek to use Britain as a likeminded dogsbody, but nor will he need to lean on our support like a crutch of legitimacy.

All of which should have been a sign that British foreign policy doesn’t need to sound like an exact replica of the US. Whatever you might say about his domestic agenda, the past months have shown that Brown (if not Miliband – yet) can be an influential figure on the world stage and the next President will neither ask nor thank him for giving up the stature of an experienced statesman to become some slavish sycophant.

President Obama will be completely relaxed about Britain persuing a British foreign policy, and if Miliband and Brown can begin to articulate what form that should take – and produce the action to back it up – then both our countries will be much better off.

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