In which Tony Blair agrees with Stop the War…

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I’ve an article over at Progress about Tony Blair’s speech this morning on the threat of extremist Islam.

It’s a fairly long piece, so I want to let it stand for itself.

However, it does occur to me that in explicitly stating that regime change in Iran should not be a policy objective, in stating that Assad could retain power, and if the British media is correct, that we should be prepared to treat with Russia in areas of common interest, then Tony is, more or less, advocating the policy position advocated by Stop the War, and the various media adjuncts thereof.

Naturally, this is confusing for them, and so far, Blair’s critics have chosen to ignore his actual policy proposals in the Middle East.1. The Huffington post headline is even ‘Peace Envoy calls for war.. again‘. Except I can’t find any such call for any war in the speech.

I can’t imagine what the anti-war crowd makes of Blair calling for no outside led regime change in either Iran or Syria, and his explicit acceptance of an extended Assad regime, even if  policed by a no-fly zone. If this post by Mehdi Hasan is any guide, some will ignore entirely what Blair said about Syria and Iran. Perhaps it will cause some sort of short-circuit in others. Peter Oborne may explode to discover he agrees with Tony Blair about Assad.

It follows from his that those who have the best right to complain about Blair’s speech are the consistent liberal interventionists. If even Blair is not arguing for the overthrow of destructive, murderous regimes like this, who will make the case?

After all, this is a speech that is willing to treat with Iran’s executioners, with the Syrian tyrant and with the turgid militarist nationalism of Egypt, all in order to erode the position of religious extremists. This pragmatism is put at the service of containing the export of extremist radicalism, and of creating the space for pluralistic governments and movements to prosper. The pluralistic citizens of Iran and Syria are sacrificed to that cause.

This practicality is uncomfortable for idealist liberals like me, but it does at least represent a plan, rather than the wail of discouraged disgust at all the bad options we are currently stuck with.

For example, My fellow liberals are clearly finding it hard to answer what we should do about Egypt, if a plague on both Sisi and the Brothers is clearly a Pontius Pilate of a policy?

My take on it is that Blair is right that engagement with radical Islam is essential, and equally right that ignoring the problem will solve nothing. We’ve seen that in Syria, where non-intervention has encouraged radicalism more surely than direct intervention, and without any ability to limit its outrages. Yet intervention is clearly not an available option. If we are to be more than hand-wringers, we have choices to make.

However, endorsing Blair’s core analysis does not require support for his every expression of what that engagement should be in each case. So I am less tolerant of Egypt’s military than Blair, more willing to act to overthrow Assad and Iran and support hard pressed pluralists in both nations. More positively, I am heartened that at last, Western voices are willing to issue even coded critiques of Saudi  efforts to export extremism. I would like to go further there.

As for the willingness to work with Russia, I am less cynical than most, despite my strong distaste for Putin. Just because we oppose Russia strongly on Ukraine does not mean there can be no engagement elsewhere. Was Churchill no anti-communist because he was willing to join Stalin against Hitler?

Where these accommodations might rub is if we were asked to choose, between Putin’s support for Assad and his pressure on Ukraine. that would be a hard moral and political choice. At the moment, though we are losing both arguments, so even a Hobson’s choice might be an improvement.

In the end though, I suspect Blair’s speech will go some way to prove his case.

If tackling religious extremism is really a priority, there is no pure path forward, no route without cost. We don’t want to address that. The west has chosen to forego direct intervention in the Middle East as too high a cost. That is a choice.

Yet so far, we are also foregoing any other forms of engagement, pretending this is a policy, not an abnegation of responsibility. As a result, we see the disasters around us, and tell ourselves they are at least not our fault. That surely cannot last.

 

  1. Except in that those who oppose intervention in Ukraine, demand Western governments intervene against Egypt’s military, which would in effect throw them into Russia’s open arms []

Labour’s inevitable war of attrition, short version.

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My last post was quite long, so here’s an abbreviated version for the lazy and feckless among you. All polling suggests this is a large majority of the populace.

Most oppositions lose voters in the year before an election. Very, very few gain support, and the only one that has in recent history lost anyway. As Damon Runyon said the race isn’t always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.

That doesn’t mean Labour’s doomed, DOOMED, though. We’re in the ‘Events Zone’ because the unique factors in this election could easily be more significant in deciding the election than the historical trend.

So Labour’s strategy matters.

First, We shouldn’t worry about what we  can’t really influence (whether David Cameron can find a way to lure his Tory defectors back).

Second,  history suggests we’re rather unlikely to persuade new supporters to back us.

Third, this means holding on to the voters we’ve got already will really count.

Of the voters we’ve got now, about a third are unsure about our economic and other non-public services policies. About the same number are unsure about both the Party’s readiness for office and the Leadership.

They’re still voting Labour, but holding on to them will be essential to winning, and they’ll probably want some pretty concrete reasons that Labour will be better for them.

That points to a strategy of fighting for every one of our current voters, in a grinding war of attrition, while our opponents try to scare their rogue supporters into line and our doubters out of the voting booth.

Of course, we could try to be bold and make a major strategic advance into those voters who are sceptical about us. The problem with this is that being bold is likely to be expensive, which would put risk those who are wary of economic instability or taxes. On the other hand, a ‘boldness’ that appealed to the austere-minded would divide the party severely.

This is complicated by the fact that to win Labour needs to keep pretty much everyone who’s voting for us. When you’re on 35-39 per cent a year out, you can’t afford to alienate current supporters. The costs of boldness are much clearer than the potential rewards.

Precisely because Labour can’t afford to alienate existing supporters  it will find it harder to be riskily bold, and this dictates a strategy of defensiveness, even if everyone says it is the opposite (which they will, naturally).

Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair in opposition to a  Butler carrying a ming vase across a room with a slippery floor. So it is for Ed Miliband, except this time the vase been greased in lard, the floor is covered in ice, his shoes are made of marbles and some sod is aiming a catapult through the window.

Ah, but could Labour win new supporters this year with a big radical offer?

Well, everything is possible. If we have a policy that is practical enough to persuade Tory, UKIP or non-voters to change their minds, won’t alienate any existing supporters, and won’t motivate opponents, breach our spending plans, divide the party or appear unrealistic, then I suggest we deploy it sooner, rather than later.

However, the cynic in me suggests such transformative policies are rather rarer than articles calling for transformative policies. After all, for all the articles about the Energy price freeze changing the terms of the debate, we’re still roughly where we were last summer.

In summary, Douglas Alexander will be forced to adopt a strategy of defensive anti-attrition to secure existing supporters, while pretending we’re doing no such thing, telling our supporters how brave we’re being. This will be exposed if things go wrong, when people will demand more advance, ignoring the risks inherent in their favoured direction.

Oh, and if the Tories don’t get their act together, we could win anyway. But it’s best not o rely on the failure of your opponents.

 

Labour’s inevitable strategy: A war against attrition

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Douglas Alexander is getting a lot of advice about Labour’s General Election campaign. Some of this advice is of the ‘Chill, Bro, we’ve got this’ variety. Other advice amounts more to a “we’re doomed, doomed! DOOMED!” analysis.

Neither  helps Labour’s election co-ordinator very much, as they don’t give him a hint on how to maximise Labour’s result. Unless you subscribe to a Calvinist approach to elections then this is important (Pun very much intentional, and if you didn’t get it, I am clearly cleverer than you so don’t bother to dispute the rest of my argument).

How Douglas maximises the result is crucial for me, as I both recognise the downward historical trend most oppositions endure, but also believe that we’re firmly ‘The Events Zone‘, the polling range where events unique to this election will decide the actual result.

If you take a historical trend of how polls move in the year before an election, you’d expect a smallish Tory vote share lead come 2015, as Leo Baresi suggests. Some models have it higher, some lower, but the basic trend is clear.

However, there are good reasons to suspect that the general trend might be overstated in this particular election.

These include (but are not limited to) the fact that polling has improved since past elections, that 2010 LibDems will behave differently to past switchers, that UKIP might well soak up a tranche of ‘right’ voters, no party leader has strong ratings, that we’re operating on pretty outdated boundaries, that it’s possible to win an election while behind on leadership or the economy and that this is a coalition, so normal single party recoveries don’t apply.

Any of these could have a major impact on vote and seat totals. So will how good we are at politics.

In other words, who-ever loses the next election, the fault lies in themselves, not in their stars.

So what can Douglas do about this?

Well, I’d rule out a big strategy shift. The party won’t change leader, and it’s not clear what alternative strategy is available to Ed Miliband’s team.

Trying to persuade soft Tory voters that Labour has changed to meet their concerns might have been an option three years ago, but it’s hard to know what Labour could say to them now that would be credible1

The same applies to economic policy. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the recovery, whether it’s real or a bubble, whatever wages do, whether or not “it’ll never work” was not actually what we were saying, or whether the governments ‘success’ has simply been a delaying of the reckoning until after the election, the basic fact is that Labour decided three years ago that we did not electorally fear an economic recovery by 2015. No point in backing off that analysis now, it’d look fake.

In truth, Labour’s economic policy position is entirely sensible. Our weakness is not in our macro and fiscal policy, but our discomfort in spelling out what it would actually mean to deliver this ((The Tories are perfectly happy pretending that their fiscal targets and macro goals can be delivered by slashing welfare on ‘scroungers’. As we find it hard to say we too would be painful, we can’t talk about the greater agony the Tories would have to impose, and the risks this creates for the economy. Already we’re seeing the consequences of their approach - if in need of emergency growth, inflate the housing market)) .

Continental left leaders like Valls and  Renzi are showing a different path for the left, but I can’t see how the current Labour party could make a similar argument work without an election destroying row.

Just imagine the internal reaction if Ed Balls was to spell out further spending cuts in pensions, health and social care to fund a tax break for small business and low paid workers, while pushing for greater labour market flexibility!

If big strategy shifts  are pipe dreams, what can Labour do to win?

First, stop worrying about things we can’t control. Will UKIP voters ‘return’ to the Tories? Well, about a fifth of them rate the Tories as best on most issues, bar immigration and Europe, and it’s clear they don’t like Labour much.

If the Tories are smart, they’ll spend a lot of money on direct mail to those people, probably stressing immigration, Ed Miliband and Law and Order.

Labour can’t control that, so other than making the point about the Tories being elitist and out of touch, which chimes with pessimistic UKIP voters, there’s not much point  stressing about it.

Neither should Douglas worry about converting many new Labour voters.

Absent a major shift, that window has closed. How many oppositions have increased vote share in the last year of an election? Only the 1959 Labour opposition, and even then, only barely.

On the other hand, Douglas should worry a lot about Labour voters who might detach over the coming year. If Labour is going to win a majority we have to hold on to virtually every voter who backs us now.

I see two main groups of voters who might put that at risk.

The first are policy doubters: It’s pretty clear that around half of Labour voters don’t think the party is best on immigration and Europe, while  about a third don’t think it’s best on the economy and crime. Overwhelmingly, Labour voters do think Labour is best on public services.

Now, it’s important not to over-analyse this. These people are still saying they’d vote Labour even if they don’t think the party is best on a particular issue2

This suggests a watching brief: if immigration, law and order, and the economy begin to have more salience for Labour voters unenthusiastic about these Labour policy,  they could easily drift away. So what will keep them on board?

Next, there’s the significant group of Labour voters who appear unsure about the leader. However you ask, around a third of all Labour voters don’t express enthusiasm for Ed Miliband, while a very different picture emerges for David Cameron among Tory voters.

This isn’t just personal: the same likely applies for the party as a whole. 70% of Labour voters say the party is ready for government. (These people may also be policy doubters, of course, in which case I’d be really worried about their likelihood to vote.)

To be fair though, one of the reasons Cameron does well among Tory voters is that those who don’t rate him have already buggered off.

Cameron and Miliband’s ratings among their party’s 2010 supporters are closer than among current supporters.3 It’s just that the unhappy Tories aren’t actually Tories any more.

The risk is that Labour voters will do the same as these unimpressed Tories. So Labour either convinces them the leadership is strong, or convinces them something else matters more.

Current Labour supporters think Labour is clearly on their side, but a significant number doubt both our policy effectiveness and leadership credentials. If they start to believe we won’t do much good, but do represent a risk, their support could go. I imagine that is precisely the argument the Tories will make, to both wavering Labour and unhappy right-wing voters. “You might not like us much, but you’ve got to stop this lot“.

This drives my belief that Ed Miliband’s Labour party must convince people it can make practical changes to improve their lives, and wouldn’t risk an emerging recovery with macro irresponsibility.

This is why I get exercised about Labour’s love affair with big, transformative ambitious boldness.  I fear sceptical, doubtful Labour supporters will see in such boldness only an exponential chance of big, transformative fu…  screw ups, thus increasing their scepticism and doubt.

Finally, Douglas has one more problem.

A long battle against attrition, a street by street fight to hold onto Labour’s current supporters by telling them what’s in it for them might seem like a pretty dull approach, compared to a bold advance forward. It is. So people will start asking for more vision, more brio.

Yet any bold advance would expose Labour’s weaknesses: try to convince Tory voters that Labour has changed, and you risk a split in Labour’s unity without convincing the sceptical. Alternatively, communicating the radicalism of change might well make our existing supporters nervous, while uniting those against us.

So Bold advance gets ruled out, and grim attrition becomes inevitable.

This isn’t the strategy I’d choose. I’d prefer a Renzi or a Valls, like it or lump it approach. I’m a death or glory kind of guy.

But then I’m not Labour leader. I don’t have to keep both Jon Trickett and Jim Murphy happy, or balance Peter Mandelson and Len McCluskey.

So I don’t think Labour has a choice, really. This is how it’s going to be.

A gritty, hard defensive war against attrition.

  1. the core Milibandite electoral approach has been set out by Marcus Roberts and others: this basically involves taking the 2010 Labour vote, adding a large slice of 2010 LibDems, motivating non-voters and running an outstanding get out the vote operation. It’s argued that get to 40% that way, and the Tories can’t win, whatever they do.

    As a model it seems plausible, but as I’ve said to Marcus, the trouble with using big blocks to build yourself an electoral tide-break is that they’re made of individual grains of voters. A series of waves can dislodge a few voters from the edge of each block, and suddenly your impregnable electoral fortress looks like the mouth of a sugar addicted smoker, all gaps and stumps.

    Whatever I may think though, it seems this, more or less, is going to be the strategy []

  2. This is one reason I tend to be less concerned by immigration than most Labour poll watchers. It’s not that I don’t think we have a problem there, it’s that I believe it’s a problem with low salience. Only 34% of 2010 Labour voters think the party is best on immigration, while 47% of 2010 Tories say the Conservatives are. Yet far more of those who are unhappy have quit the Tories than Labour. I reckon it’s just not as important to Labour voters. []
  3. Miliband is behind by c30 points among current supporters, but he’s only c15-20 points behind among 2010 supporters []

Miller’s lossing: Five defences of No 10s total incompetence

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What on earth was the Downing Street political operation thinking? Maria Miller had been damaging the government for a week before she resigned. Single handedly, she’d ended a run of positive news coverage for the government, reignited the expenses scandal, and created an impression of the government as a bunch of bungling bullies, trying desperately to throw their weight around to save one of their own from justified criticism.

I asked myself, Why on earth not just cut her loose?

Cutting Miller loose fast and viciously seemed the obvious political move.

Maria Miller is hardly a household name. Few people know who she is, even fewer could pick her out of a line-up of MPs. If she’d gone straight away, there would have been barely a susurration. Nor did she have a significant following in the Tory party. There were few Miller partisans who needed placating before the grim dispatch.

I couldn’t understand why the Downing Street operation decided to put so much on the line to defend a minister marginal in popularity, in cabinet significance, and in factional power.

When political operations do apparently suicidal things, there’s usually a semi-comprehensible reason. It seemed not so this time. That mysterious defence of a doomed minister is, for me, as interesting as the scandal itself, because it says something about a group of people who do matter, the Downing street political team, and how they see their priorities.

So here is my attempt to justify a stupid decision, and answer my own question: Why try to save a doomed minister?

1. Leave no (wo)man behind.

This government is often accused of neglecting their dull loyalists, those willing to do the drudge work of keeping the government going. The wealthy, the connected and the flashy, such as a Johnson, a Dorries or a Goldsmith can get headlines by making waves, but what does the loyal PPS get? Patronised and ignored, used and exploited, then dumped on when things get ugly.

It’s not an attractive proposition. Made to feel sufficiently disposable, maybe your middle  ranking plodder will stop waiting patiently for a promotion to higher office and begin to return the calls from that nice chap from the Telegraph.

The very least you can offer a loyalist is a bit of loyalty in return.If you don’t the next minister will know that when it comes down to it, they’ll be on their own. If they think that, you can say goodbye to any chance of them taking any risks on your behalf. At least this way every Minister in the Cabinet will think that the Prime Minister will expend some political capital on their behalf.

2.  This too could have passed.

Jeremy Hunt went through this fire. People like me said he should resign as culture secretary.

But he survived, and prospered.1 Why did the Hunt story run out of steam? Because other things came along, and there wasn’t much more to say, and Hunt could put together a half credible account of his own actions. A special adviser had to be dunked, but the main man was kept.

So could Maria. If events had intervened, everyone might have forgotten about her again. Unfortunately, only Ukraine and Peaches Geldof were huge stories, and both were imperfect substitutes for Broadsheet headlines and pen-sucking leader-writers.

3.  It could have been you.

Forget the briefing to the papers. I’d bet that a lot of Tory MPs are heartily sick of the expenses regime and the various guardians of public morality getting a decent wedge from the taxpayer for popping up on TV to tell the world how awful MPs are.

I bet they’re even more annoyed by the fact former commissioners os parliamentary sin, no matter how bumptious, incompetent or self aggrandising they were in the actual job, are always quoted in newspapers with the sort of awed reverence normally reserved for the pope, or Davina McCall.

So even Tory MPs they can’t quite believe how badly Maria Miller handled the complaint against her, they might be privately pleased that Downing Street is willing to take some heat on this issue. She might have messed up, they’ll be thinking, looking at their receipt for petrol, gum and a can of beans, but at least she was a good human shield for the rest of us.

4. Even given the inevitable, your actions can control the consequences thereof.

If Maria Miller was always going to have to go, it’s arguable that the government was only then right to appear to defend her to the last ditch. That way, she leaves believing that the government carried her for as long as they could, and is in no position to brief the  press about the incompetence or duplicity of No10.

You never know the whole story about a scandal. Maybe Miller had enjoyed several detailed conversations with No 10 advisers about how to protect her career and manage her case.

If she’d left angry and embittered, maybe some of these would have found their way into the papers. A week of stonewalling before conceding the inevitable might have bought months of silence, without affecting the outcome either way.

5. If it walks like a Tu Quoque

David Cameron is running for election against Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, not the editor of the Telegraph. Does it really matter if a Cabinet Minister looks bad if your opponents are chary of pushing the dagger in too deep?

If Ed Miliband wants to raise Maria Miller, fine, let’s break out that picture of Denis MacShane’s cake, eh?  This is a war no-one can win, so no-one will want to fight too hard. That makes it easy to defend, because you’re not defending against your real enemy.

 

So, that’s my rationale for the inexplicable.

Does all of this wash? Sort of. But it was still a terrible strategy.

Here’s my alternative defence strategy:

1. Apologise unreservedly, even if you don’t mean it. Do it at length and really explain where you went wrong. Don’t be afraid of criticizing your own actions, once you’ve given them some context. That way at least you’ll get the context in.

2. Sack the SpAd (and find them a nice job in three months). Sorry, but they’ve got to go. ‘I’ll answer for my mistakes in the court of public opinion, but no-one should have tried to shush the free press’

3. Apologise again, and only then mawkishly point to the family stress you were under.

4. Once you’ve grovelled, phone a friend and get them to ask why the focus is on poor average anonymous you, not for example wealthy, more famous politicians who don’t pay inheritance taxes on their expenses paid property, or wealthy people who claimed big mortgages.

5. As soon as the storm seems so have eased, do a big interview with the Spectator, or perhaps ConservativeHome.  ‘The Maria story you don’t know” Once you’ve grovelled, you might just have people in a position to with sympathise you. You’ll need to exploit your family story shamelessly and cynically, but it’s your last line of defence.

 

  1. I still think he’s an ex-future leader though []

A strong attack on a flawed privatisation

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Labour’s front bench deserve a pat on the back for their assault on the privatisation of the royal mail.

After what has been a rough week, attacking the way Royal Mail shares were sold off at what seems a low price shows Labour caring about the public purse, forces the government to defend favourable treatment to profiteering traders, and allows some a clear distinction to be drawn between a government that will talk tough on benefit cheats, but act soft on spivs.

From the Royal Mail to floods, from tax cuts for the few to tuition fees, from the work programme to Universal credit; waste, profligacy and long term expense through short term neglect  are major vulnerabilities for the Tories.

A Labour party standing up for the taxpayer against these failings places itself in favour of fiscal discipline, the taxpayer, and government working effectively for all who work hard, not making life easy for a few with the right friends.

Naturally, a Tory will argue that Labour can’t be taken seriously on this, considering the perceived waste of the last government. Some on the left too will feel uncomfortable with a Labour party that is willing to directly attack state failure, even when the failure is of our opponents.

Two points in return. First, the left will only be able to make the case for an active state if it is blunt about the need for a lean state. There is no progressive case for government inefficiency, or for foregoing vital revenue. Second, for the Tories, the ideal choice to force on the electorate is between a party that presses down on inefficiency unevenly and unfairly but does control costs, and a party that shows little interest in cost control and income maximisation at all (except, perhaps to increase tax take on the rich).

This means the attack on the Royal Mail privatisation, if it is to be something more than a Labour version of ‘who sold all the gold’ comforting, true enough but also somehow irrelevant, has to be part of a wider Labour message of fiscal discipline, long termism, spending restraint and income maximisation. You can see the outlines of this message – the Royal Mail money above the baseline could have gone to the industrial bank, for example, where it would have helped growth for all, not lined the pockets of a few in the city.

However, there is a issue to address. This argument cannot be made if you set yourself against all such reforms. You can’t say that we need more asset sale revenue to build a better economy if you are opposed to raising the money in the first place. Sure, you can fill some of the gap by raising more from existing taxes, but historically that’s been less easy than it’s sometimes portrayed. Tax avoidance goes all the way to the new testament, after all!

A Labour attack on waste, profligacy and inefficiency needs to be grounded in too truths, then. First, that yes, when were in government we did sometimes spend unwisely and we care deeply about not repeating those mistakes in future. There’s no harm in admitting this as it is what people already believe. They will be impressed if they think we’re trying to change.  As Phil Collins says, it’s worth admitting the small mistakes you did make in order to make the case for the big issues people back you on.

The second truth is that we too would be forced to scour government for resources to realise funds for our big priorities. The Labour manifesto was vague about where future investment in a public Royal Mail would have come from, but we’re not seriously arguing it should have some from the state deficit. Our efforts to secure private investment would have kept the Mail firmly in the state Sector, but with significant private involvement.

We wouldn’t have footed the bill ourselves because there are dozens of things that money could be better used for, from housing to school buildings. Frankly the Royal Mail would have rightly been a low fiscal priority for a reelected Labour government. Let’s not allow ourselves to enjoy the pleasant fantasy it would have been otherwise. Recognising this means it really matters to us that the sale worked, and got good value, and rewarded workers and consumers, not a very few.

Indeed, rather than undercutting our critique of the government, stressing the need to get the best deal for the many would actually make our argument more pointed.

The New Hard Left: Renzi and Valls.

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As I was told on twitter, the new Prime Ministers of Italy and France, Renzi and Valls, sound like a Italian cop show airing on BBC Four.

They even look oddly similar, both being clones of Dan Miller from ‘The thick of it’.

Spooky satirical resemblance aside, Renzi and Valls’ ascension represents a big shift on the European centre-left, one that should obsess British observers.

A couple of years ago, the left in Britain was delighted by the election of Francois Hollande, and to a lesser extent Helle Thorning Schmidt in Denmark. In these post crash victories the British left saw progressive leaders who could develop a new paradigm of post-neo-liberal social democracy. (This rather overstated Hollande’s radicalism. After all, while he campaigned for real change versus Sarkozy, his pledge for a higher tax rate was rather less significant than his medium-term fiscal position, which wasn’t particularly socialistic).

Back to today, and both Hollande and Thorning Schmidt are in political trouble, unpopular and behind in the polls to right-wing oppositions.

Renzi and Valls seem to provide an alternative model for the left.

Renzi and Valls are very different politicians, but both  have positioned themselves as outsiders, relative to both the existing political consensus, and to their own party traditions.

Renzi is a former Christian Democrat, while Valls has said he “was accused – the worst of insults – of being a social democrat. Even worse, of being of the ‘American left’. Me, I like the left of Clinton and Obama“. He also turned down a ministerial job offer from Sarkozy in 2007. No doctrinaire man of the left, then.

Intriguingly, both men were trounced in their own party’s selection for the top job, but then found themselves the most popular figures in unpopular and uncertain governing parties.

Renzi and Valls represent something new on the centre-left, post crash. They offer economic centrism, and a certain social conservatism combined with an institutional and structural radicalism. It is as if both men are saying that while the left cannot and should not attempt to overthrow a relatively liberal economic order, and indeed should be pro-business, and supportive of lower taxes where possible, Valls, at least when he ran for President, supported abolishing the 35 hour working week, lowering labour costs,  and removing the word ‘Socialist’ from his party name. Renzi has launched a package of tax cuts, spending cuts and labour reforms that might be approved of by less deficit minded British Conservatives.

So are Renzi and Valls just archetypal neo-liberal sell-outs of Socialist principle once the traditional left is in power?

I don’t think so. Their positions should not be seen as a concession to a more general conservatism.  Renzi pursues an aggressive political reform agenda aimed at the old political order of Italy. Valls wants to break up what he sees as the lethargic and self interested French elite. In some ways their positions are symptomatic of an inherently populist stance- the people against the powerful, while at the same time rejecting the conservatism of a defensive social democracy that only seeks to protect the workers from a risky and dangerous future, rather than preparing them to succeed and helping them through the struggle. So Renzi’s tax cuts are aimed at the low income. Even Valls desire to reform pensions to save money is cast as a national effort of the order of post war-reconstruction, saying “we need to tell the French that the [budgetary] effort…will be as great as that achieved after Liberation“.

Perhaps this is why both men portray themselves as outsiders, but also as tellers of uncomfortable ‘truths’, whether on social integration or the ability to resist economic change by legislative fiat. Both offer a programme of improvement to ‘ordinary’ people, in part because they define themselves against the existing political structures, but also because they present their reforms as tough-minded, credible, even harsh, as Valls is on labour rights.

Both men appear to be telling the electorate that there is no easy path forward, but that the government can help make life easier by supporting those who need help, so long as they work for it and fit in with social norms. This is a new, hard edged left.

What could this mean for Britain?

Well, one lesson might be that defensive social democracy might not be either a outstanding electoral prospect (The Italian left could barely beat Berlusconi) or a great motivator when in office (as Hollande can testify).

The second lesson might be don’t make promises of reform, growth and social change you can’t be certain to keep, or face retribution.

A third might be that a reform agenda that is popular and motivating for voters doesn’t have to be predicated on a radicalism of economics, but can also be based on an agenda of social and cultural change.

The most important lesson though, is perhaps that being in government will be agonisingly tough.

Labour will need an agenda that is can hold together through the pain to come, even if it means not being able to offer comfort to all.

Renzi and Valls in different ways ,are sketching out one path to achieving this. So far, both seem popular, but in office, popularity is fleeting. Their real challenges will be two-fold. First, showing that such an agenda can work, second, holding their restless parties together as they make their rigourous and uncomfortable turns.

In office, any Labour government will face the same challenges. I hope we will be prepared for them.

Why transformational politics is meaningless

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I’ve been reading the debate in leftish policy circles about the extent to which Labour’s manifesto should be transformative or cautious with a puzzled expression on my usually urbane features. I struggle to uncover which side I am supposed to be on, or why.

The eyebrow is cocked,  the mouth pursed, the forehead furrowed. If we were students of physiognomy, dear reader, the conclusion you would reach about my character is that I was easily confused, perhaps simple minded.

The reason for my early onset aphasia? I don’t understand what this argument is about. As I’ve said before, I end up thinking it’s an argument we’re having to avoid an argument we don’t want to have.

I don’t understand the argument because it is a one-dimensional row in a three-dimensional political world. It implies that one can measure the ‘transformativeness’ of a manifesto or a government as a whole, which simply isn’t the case.

Let’s imagine a government that did one thing and one thing only. It replaced the NHS with a social insurance model. Every other element of British public policy remained the same. The Prime Minister instructs all other ministers to just do whatever the last government did, but for a bit longer.

How should we compare such a government with their opposition, which promised to increase the minimum wage by 50p, increase the top rate of tax by two pennies, using the money raised to increase the rate of building of schools, build a high-speed line to Manchester, increase child care support, and extend the NHS to include Social Care costs.

Is one big shift more or less transformative than a dozen smaller shifts? How do you assess this?

So the second dimension of transformation is breadth of reform, as well as depth.

The other neglected dimension is time. Our putative Social Insurance government might not last very long. If it did have other things it wanted to do, a revolt of the populace against the hated abolition of the NHS would actually reduce the transformative capability of the government to nil.

If you want to change a society, a single-term government is probably not the best way to do it1.

Without considering either the breadth or length of political transformation, trying to determine its extent is a fool’s errand. So discussing a preference for an overall transformative government, or one with a limited agenda is meaningless to me.

Personally, I’d like a government that had a clearly defined significant changes it wished to implement, and had both costings and timescales for those initial reforms so it could pursue them with confidence. It might also have wider ambitions, but it would recognise that without public consent for their initial changes, it would be very unlikely to be able to pursue those ambitions.  In some areas it might have ideas which it would like to try, but believe would require further testing and research to see if problems would arise.

For the next government, I’d like the initial, clear changes to be in the area of social care, housing, child-care, business infrastructure training and investment policy.  Each of those would involve significant policy changes, and major shift in government approach. Would it be a transformation? I have no clue, and couldn’t care less.

After all, Am I certain what the policy offer should be in these areas? Even here, No, not entirely. So I can’t judge the transformationality just yet.

For example, devolving Housing benefit to local authorities is very much in vogue at the moment, having first been proposed by the IPPR in 2012.

It is attractive – allowing local councils to negotiate down rents from big landlords and social housing providers. Yet I haven’t heard a good answer to the Shirley Porter problem. What would happen if Surrey, say, spent their housing money on a building a banlieu in Guildford, or renting block of flats in Crawley? If they than faced higher demand for housing support, would we find it acceptable for them to tell claimants they couldn’t offer rent allowances, or would we impose central control on their Council tax bills?2

Nothing is simple, and I’d rather a policy had such potential problems fully explored before being introduced. That way, you get to make changes stick precisely because you’ve been cautious and risk-averse. Wonderfully paradoxical, eh?

Should Labour offer therefore be a radical, transformative manifesto, or a cautious, limited one?

I have no idea, because the question is meaningless when judged one dimensionally.

I can see being happy with a manifesto proposing a near-revolution in social care, involving major reforms in housing and childcare, while being  broadly continuance in secondary education, defence and transport policy, while laying the groundwork for later reforms in those areas.

I have no sense of what a transformative policy offer is. Nor do I care.

I’ll be quite satisfied with a policy proposal that will address the main challenges we face in the immediate future, and won’t go so wrong that we can’t make more changes later.

  1. People will ask, ah, but what about the 1945 government? I think it’s impossible to judge the 1945 government effectiveness as a reforming administration without considering how the experience of Labour Ministers in the previous coalition, and how planning for post war policy was developed in that coalition, whether in education, health or housing. Indeed, you can argue that the experience of being in government also shifted Labour policy. For example, sections of the Labour party were more sceptical of the Beveridge report than either the Liberals or the tories, seeing it as a patch, rather than a fundamental solution. Ironically perhaps, they saw it as not being transformative enough []
  2. More prosaically, what if they quietly encouraged their social housing provider to offer awful housing in exchange for keeping the rent bill low, so over time claimants moved to Sussex and Croydon? []

What me, worry?

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The Labour party appears to be going through one of our occasional periods of worried introspection.

A smaller poll lead produces nerves like a frog produces spawn. Naturally, this somewhat irritates loyalists to the Labour leader.

I take a very simple approach. If you’re not prepared to (politically speaking) blow someone’s head off, then stick to the deeply coded critique that only gets noticed by the six or seven people who might actually influence your leader’s choices. Whispering discontent to journalists is worse than useless, and reflects worse on the whisperer than the whispered about.

However, if you are going to worry, it’s important to worry about the right things. One worry of mine is that Labour advisers are worrying about the wrong things.

So here’s a list of things Labour should definitely not be worried about:

1. Ed Miliband’s political operation.

Jenni Russell’s column surprised me yesterday because it had a fair bit of a briefing assault on Ed Miliband’s internal political operation. Various insiders were quoted as being unhappy that they were excluded from debates and discussions.

A cynic might mention that when things are going a bit wrong, there is always an outbreak of people claiming to journalists that one problem is that their brilliant advice has not been listened to. Can’t think why that might be.  I wonder if these same people were eager to point out how excluded they were from decisions when the lead was ten or twelve points?

Actually, Ed MiIiband’s political operation has a pretty impressive record. He did far better in the PLP section of the leadership election than he had any right to expect, has since promoted a pretty broad range of people. Loyalty has been rewarded, but those who were initially sceptical were allowed to convert and prosper. Most people, me included, expected Union reforms to produce much more controversy than it did, and the fact that it didn’t can be put down to pretty intensive party management.

You can agree or disagree with this inclusive, unity-first, approach. The rows the party has carefully avoided might be needed and important. I tend to think they are. But by any standard, Ed’s party managers and political operation have been damn successful when judged by the results demanded of them.

As for the attack on the policy process, well, one might point out that proposing controversial, or hard to cost measures into a party machine which has been told to value unity and careful budgeting is unlikely to produce delighted responses. Sometimes not getting a reply means, ‘We don’t want to have to tell you this is utterly mad, so we’re hoping you’ll forget this utter madness‘.

Heck, I’m a bleeding edge right winger. I’d like us to be waking up in the morning with headlines about Labour fiscal rectitude and the challenges of making cuts fairly. But I’m not quite deluded enough to think that a political strategy predicated on such a position wouldn’t have certain political consequences.

2. Big versus Small, or local versus central

Who controls resources, who is going to make cuts, where decisions are made about service provision. These are important debates. They really matter in policy terms. The policy debate here, service by service, locality by locality is crucial to any successful Government. But it’s not something Labour should be worried about, politically, even when it comes to letters from think-tanks and speeches about radical decentralisation.

The reason for this is simple – these arguments are universal. Every government of every sort has to wrestle with the question of how much to control, and how much to set free. The hunger for localism is in no way new. After all devolution was one of the four principles of New Labour public services reform. Every government has to wrestle with the challenges of postcode lotteries. Target Culture, rather than being intended as centralising control-freakery was initially proposed as a way for the centre to remove itself from the micromanagement of how publics services were managed while still having the power to intervene if things went awry.

Labour shouldn’t worry about Localism versus Centralism, not because it’s insignificant, but because it’s important in the wrong way.

Getting the balance of powers right can improve services, but the answer won’t be the same in every service, and there’s no political message that will make sense of what the right balance should be: “Much more central control over planning and house building, but much less central control over Care budgets” is not, and will never be, a coherent political argument, even if it’s both right and important.

3. The size of the offer, or boldness.

If there’s one thing the Labour movement loves, it is boldness. You can never be too rich, too thin, or too bold.

Sometimes, this love of boldness gets people into trouble, as when David Clark writes that he signed a recent think-tank letter thinking it was critical of forces in the Labour party restraining his leader’s boldness, only to be horrified to find out that it was interpreted as an attack on the lack of boldness of the leader himself 1. Now, I’m biassed, because I hate boldness. I loathe and despise and wish to exterminate it from the lexicon of reform. I hate it with a passion, not because it is wrong to be radical, but because to call for boldness suggests that you regard it as a good in and of itself, separated entirely from the good either boldness or timidity might do. If we are to worship at the altar of Boldness, then Benn and Powell should be our heroes. That their boldness is utterly contradictory and exclusive should matter not.

Naturally, no-one means that. What they mean is “We should be Bold in the direction I favour”. This is meaninglessness of the second order. We all want to boldly pursue the objectives we ourselves favour. Who would timidly seek the already accepted as good and worthy? ‘I favour this proposal, but weakly, and without conviction.‘ says no-one.  The funny thing is that the current demanders of boldness only need to look back at the Labour leader they are most uneasy with to see how this works. Who said ‘At our best when at our boldest‘?

Boldness was then, and is now a term that anyone can use, for any purpose to make their audience feel radical.

What matters is not whether you are bold, but whether people want whatever it is you are being bold about.

So, there you go. Three things the Labour party should stop worrying about.

Honestly, with a one or two point lead in the polls and more than a year to go, there are real issues to address. I can even provide a list, with datapoints. Clue: none of them are mentioned here.

But unwelcome advice is so pointless, isn’t it?

  1. I sometimes think the Neal Lawson and others on the soft Left of the Labour party struggle to come to terms with the fact that their allies are running things now, so attacks on the party strategy for not being soft left enough will be interpreted as attacks on their own people.

    In other words, if Alan Milburn wrote a letter in 1995 accusing Labour of being insufficiently new, it would have been read as a criticism of Tony Blair, even if the target had been Michael Meacher.

    It’s worth pausing a little to examine David’s column, as it is intriguing in this light. At one point David writes: “As far as I’m concerned the intervention was aimed at those pressing for the kind of minimalist retail offer Miliband is arguing against. Somehow a letter intended to strengthen his hand in the battles that lie ahead over the shape of Labour’s manifesto ended up being reported as an attack on the Labour leader himself“. This is pretty revealing, no?

    The intent of the letter, for David, was aimed at unspecified forces that the Labour leader is battling, and who he needs buttressing against in battles that lie ahead. David then goes on to say that “Miliband is without question the most radical member of his own Shadow Cabinet. Whereas most colleagues would gladly avoid the really difficult issues raised by the economic crisis in the hope of winning the next election by default..” which, if I were Jon Trickett, I’d sue over.

    However there is something marvellous about saying that the leader hasn’t secured his policy agenda and has appointed a shadow cabinet you think are cowardly milksops but saying that this must not in any way be interpreted as a critique of said leader, who is practically perfect in every way.

    In a way, this is a progression of the If onlyism we saw in the Labour party when various people who had been calling for Gordon to be Prime Minister were terribly let down when he got into number 10, and went round saying ‘If only he’d meant what he said when he was Chancellor’. Now, the If onlyist line is “if only unspecified forces weren’t stopping Ed from doing what means…” In both cases, the problem is perhaps not with the perceived roadblock, but with the underlying strategy. But hush []

A pensions victory for Labour…

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The announcement by the Government that it will offer a cap on pensions charges of 0.75% from April 2015 is quite a significant victory for Rachel Reeves and Labour’s work and pensions team, and for Ed Miliband, who announced Labour’s plans for a cap  almost two years ago.

I’d say it is a more significant victory, in policy terms, than the announcement of SSEs price freeze.1.

I’d note three quick things about this victory

First, the value of detail. Labour’s analysis of the pension charge problem arose from work done by shadow pensions Minister Gregg McClymont, who was pushing this issue publicly and internally in the party ahead of Ed’s announcement, based on an analysis of exactly how the market was and wasn’t working. So detail gets you ahead of the game, with a policy proposal that is workable and significant.

Second, it demonstrate the frustration of opposition. Labour have been far ahead of the government on this issue. Now the government has effectively nicked the Labour policy in stages, because it discovered on investigation, that it was both sensible and reasonable. Will Labour get the credit for this shift?

Third, I’d suggest that although this is a clear defeat and concession for the Government, the presence of the Liberal Democrats is nonetheless politically strengthening the Coalition. If this were a straight Tory government, I doubt there’d be such willingness to pilfer Labour’s pensions strategy.  Labour would be less likely to have won this argument.

As a Labourite to the core, I’d far rather the government were doing the stupid thing, not the smart thing. Capping pensions charges puts government a little more on the side of consumers, not companies. Even if they had to be dragged by their nose rings, that is ultimately a tougher proposition for an opposition predicated on the correct belief that the Conservative party is rarely interested in such a stance. I fear this government when they are more social liberal centrists, not when they are more free market ideologues.

These are all second order issues, however.

The really important thing is that because of a tenacious, detail, fact based campaign by Labour front-benchers, pensioners will get a better deal from pensions companies. That’s a real, meaningful change.

Labour people should be uniting to applaud a pretty straightforward victory on a very important policy area.

Still, though. For once I wish our opponents were stupider and less flexible. I only hope they don’t carry on failing to make mistakes.

 

  1. The latter is as much about a single energy company’s marketing and public affairs strategy as it is about shifting policy. If SSE hadn’t put prices up over the winter, (when politicians attacked them) they wouldn’t be freezing them now (when politicians are praising them) []

A ‘real divide’ never is.

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The real divide between political writers is not between left-wing ones and right-wing ones, but between the ones who use the real divide trope and those who do not.

The real divide trope is a very handy way of changing the terms of an inconvenient argument.

Tony Blair used it an awful lot, and it was tiresome even then. He tended to use it when he was annoying traditional left wingers, while trying to persuade traditional right wingers, and wanted to suggest that in fact they should both be happy with the leadership of one T Blair. “Look, y’know” he’d say, leaning forward, “the real divide here isn’t between left and right, but between Open and Closed“. There’d be a pause, then people would respond “Oh, right..“, because no-one wanted to admit they had not the slightest clue what the battle lines between open and closed might be, and people don’t want to look stupid, or worse, enthusiastic endorsers of whichever one is the Bad option.

In later years, I began to wonder if Blair began to have a laugh with this, as when he predicated an entire election campaign on a divide between forward and retrograde motion.

We’re experiencing another outbreak of real-dividism at the moment. The real divide is now between big and small, between centralisers and localists, devolvers and lever-pullers.

The first problem with real dividism is that it never is. I mean, if you really believed that the real divide was between Biggists and Smallerers, you’d never want to associate with a Biggest if you were a Smallerer. Sod this, you’d say, Me and my Biggest mates are going to get together and mash-up those Smallerer scum. Yet the centralisers and the localists have been telling journalists that this is the real divide for five years, but everyone is still on the same sides they were five years ago. They’re the shittest Jets and Sharks ever.

If you meant it, and really believed that the real divide was between open advocates and closed lovers, you’d die in a ditch for one or the other.

When this happens. (Hello Whigs! Hello Liberal Unionists and Imperial Preference!) it’s a big deal and everyone notices.

What you wouldn’t do, to adapt the words of a great American President, is take these two opposing positions, mush them up so that no-one was really sure which is being advocated by who, and weave the whole thing together in your policy platform1.

The second problem with real dividism is that it is always used to putting yourself on the side of an argument you think you’re going to win. This is because by defining the divide, you define its terms. It was always hard to find advocates of Closed systems against Blairite openness, because the grounds for the battle were already carefully chosen. Blair’s openness wasn’t free porn, drugs for all, and no prisons for anyone. He was able to define both what ‘closed’ was and what ‘open’ was not, which is always handy in an argument.

Similarly, today’s advocates of ‘smallness’ against ‘bigness’ are carefully drawing the line between the two where it suits them. Advocates of smallness do not advocate micro-states, or local currencies. Many of them seem to be keen European federalisers, or opponents of independence for various parts of the UK. Nor do they form alliances with other smallists beyond the single area on which they agree. If the ‘real divide’ was between localists and centralisers, we’d see a political alliance between Scottish nationalists, UKIP, various blue Labour sorts and old school Shire Tories to agree a raft of common downward power shifts. The very implausibility of the idea exposes its nonsensicality.

I doubt ‘all power to the Shires’ would get much of a hearing on the left. Except perhaps in Durham.

The third problem with real dividism is that even where it reflects a real ideological debate, it places that single idea above the interplay of common interests that actually makes politics work. Every political party is a collective pooling of ideological sovereignty, a complex sharing of priorities, needs and demands. To argue that these trends and debates are overturned by a single principle chosen by you, rather than each set of ideas interacting with each other to produce an acceptable consensus, is to deny what politics actually is, or at least to claim it is insignificant.

What this means is that real dividism is always used as a dodge. It is, always and everywhere, a way of avoiding an argument you don’t want to have in favour of one you don’t mind having.

Whenever you hear a Real Divide, you are being offered a Birdie to watch, while some delicate prestidigitation goes on elsewhere.

In Third Way era, the ‘Real divide’ between openness and closedness was a way of simultaneously portraying market friendly policies as anti-Conservative ‘reform’, while defining social investment as an opening, a liberation and guarantor of freedom. Openness became a shorthand for the sort of policies a liberally minded social democrat would support, and a way of selling the same to others. The dodge was the claim this did not involve an explicit rejection of views precious to those who were not liberally minded social democrats. Everyone could be happily Open.

Today, the main ‘Real Divide’ is said to be sceptics of the central state and devolvers of power.

However, this soon runs into reality. Note that proposers of this particular divide do not tend to propose that every community should be able to decide their own income and business tax rates, or end all social welfare spending. After all, Surrey would then declare Fiscal UDI, and what then?

So what this comes down to, as always, is a balance of importance. Yes, in general it is preferable for decisions to be taken as close as possible to those affected. Yet there is also an obvious need for some mechanism of national or international equity, which also needs to be combined with policies that increase growth (which is why inter-EU immigration is such a political hot potato).

If the core divide was really only about the first of these issues, politics would be very simple indeed. Instead, they all interplay.

So why is one assuming such significance now?

I think the current prestidigitation is this particular ‘real divide’ represents a relatively painless argument we can have, as opposed to the massive argument nobody wants to be backed into.

The other arguments we could have – about equality, say, or growth, or investment, or long-termism, too rapidly bring us back to issues of resources. That argument is far too painful to have now.

If you start from the assumption that nobody has the faintest clue how to carry out savings of the scale demanded in government budgets over the next few years, and that all measures to do so would involve significant alienation of a large proportion of everyone’s existing allies, then it becomes attractive for all participants to dispute instead whether or not the difficulty can be solved by the measure of handing the problem to people themselves to solve.

In such an argument, both sides can convince themselves of their principled virtue, without being forced to propose any solution that would require the alienation of people in general sympathy on other matters.

The real divide in this case is therefore between people who want you to watch the Birdie and people who don’t. Except there isn’t a divide, because everyone has an interest in the Birdie flying.

So, lets debate localism all we like. There are good arguments for and good arguments against. The ‘right’ answer will shift dependent on policy area, time, other needs, and strength of existing institutions.

In the end though, it will all come back to money. It always does.

  1. The reference is to FDRs instructions to his aides to weave together opposing and mutually exclusive Tariff reform policies. That was a President who knew where the Real Divides really were []