Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Why Membership Matters

A common criticism of “Corbynism” and recent developments in the Labour Party is that members don’t matter, what matters is the electorate.  On one very basic level of course this is true: winning general elections requires the votes of many more people than will ever join the Labour Party.  But our party’s history shows that on another level this is a false dichotomy of epic proportions. And the Corbyn project – of turning the party back into a mass-membership movement – has some surprising historical supporters.

Labour now has more members than it has had since the 70s and has reversed a trend that has been seen in major political parties of all ideological persuasions across Europe: one of membership decline. It’s hard to get a precise membership figure but it topped half a million in early July.  History tells us that this should be an encouraging development:

While in the mid-1930s membership briefly exceeded 400,000 at a time of slow rebuilding for the party after the splits of 1931, membership really got going in the early 1940s, reaching a peak of over a million in 1950/51.  This period obviously includes Labour’s landslide victory of 1945 and also the 1951 election which saw Labour lose despite getting its highest ever popular vote.  Of course we cannot prove causality, but there was undoubtedly a correlation between mass membership and a high popular vote.  After some decline, membership increased again in the early 1960s (topping 800,000), heralding the 1964 election result and remained reasonably buoyant (over 600,000) until 1979 when the membership took its sharpest and longest ever fall.  It remained at a much lower level through the 1980s (though still higher than we came to accept as normal after 2000) – between 250 and 300 thousand. 

What happens next is fascinating: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown conclude that mass membership is a huge key to election success: it is a massive ingredient of the New Labour project.  Particularly from 1994 there is a membership surge, peaking at over 400,000 in 1997.  From then there is another decline to our lowest membership levels since we have clear records (1928).  It is slow, it is steady but it is a decline nevertheless, dropping below 200,000 by 2005 and staying in those depths (despite a barely-perceptible increase in 2010, presumably from people wanting a vote in the leadership election) until 2015 when we get a rapid surge in labour membership figures, challenged only in our history by 1944/5, and one that is still continuing, has taken us past the early/mid-90s surge and back to numbers we haven’t seen since the 1970s and possibly the early 1960s.

There is no escaping the statistics: Labour gets far more votes in general elections when it has a larger membership.  Falls in party membership pre-empt electoral failure (apart from in 1939 when more significant factors might have been at work).  Don’t just take my word for it; there is plenty of academic work to back this up.  Seyd and Whiteley – in a number of articles in the 1990s – concluded that mass membership was an essential ingredient of winning and that, for Labour to win again, it needed new members.  Against an academic orthodoxy of a few years earlier, they concluded that a mass membership made a party more representative of the public.  Their theory was put to an early test, where New Labour saw a significant influx of new members and Labour won the 1997 General Election (and of course won it by a very large margin).  This mirrored the thinking of Tony Blair (“This mass membership – extending the membership of the party – that’s not a glorified recruitment drive to me, it’s about transforming the way the Labour party works and it operates and it thinks... We are changing the whole culture of the party and the way it works”) and Gordon Brown (“for this army of supporters now waiting in the wings, individual membership should be inexpensive to buy and attractive to hold”.)
Now we need to be clear that Blair and Brown’s thinking was a little different from that of “the Corbynistas” but the difference is interesting in itself.  They believed that a mass membership would be naturally more moderate than activists.  They felt that the officers in CLPs and members of GCs tended to be politically-radical, partisan, old Bennites and the like, whereas a broader membership would reflect the floating voters who populated the new reality of the electorate.  And I remember being the left-wing equivalent of a “bitterite” at the time, annoyed at these new members who’d probably voted Tory or Lib Dem at the last election and weren’t interested in proper meetings and just wanted discos and barbeques…
And part of what Blair, Brown and their academic supporters hoped for didn’t happen: there was not a significant increase in activism and, disappointingly, membership levels slumped.  There’s some evidence to suggest that Blair became less interested in mass membership (after members did annoying things like vote for Ken Livingstone in London) and saw the idea of registered supporters as a way of bringing less political people into politics.  Again, this has not turned out as he might have imagined.
But the truth is that wanting to join a political party (as a member or a supporter) is not necessarily “normal”.  The biggest political parties are still going to be made up of people who are more political than the general public, and that was true in the 1940s and 50s as well as today.  Despite this, mass membership unquestionably goes in tandem with electoral success.  Members, as Blair suggested, are two-way ambassadors for the party who embed the party into communities. For that to work, of course, the party and its members must be on much better terms and there needs to be effective political education to ensure that members’ conversations with other voters are constructive.  There also needs to be great care that we are not seeing a temporary membership surge and that new members are made welcome and encouraged to become activists.

Whatever happens in the leadership election, we need to embrace mass membership party politics.  It is Labour’s best chance of finding a route to success and is the party’s one significant advantage in the current political climate.  If people are inclined to insult or dismiss new members, they are insulting and dismissing Labour’s future electoral success.

Monday, 1 August 2016

A Response to Owen Jones

Owen, I read your recent article, about the questions we Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer, with a great deal of interest.  I think, in some ways, the questions are even bigger than you acknowledge as most are questions that all Labour supporters need to answer, regardless of their position on the current leadership question.  But some are clearly focused on the left.  While I am a little confused by the timing of the article, in the middle of a leadership contest, I take the article as questions from a critical friend and will attempt a response in the same spirit.

1. How can the disastrous polling be turned around?

As with all the questions, the answers are not only in the gift of one section of Labour supporters, but we do - of course - need to improve our position in the opinion polls.  It is worth bearing in mind that, while Labour's polling is a long way from where we need it to be, the current very low rating has happened quite specifically following three events: the Brexit vote, the arrival of Theresa May and the "coup" attempt.

May will of course go up and down in the polls as people get to know her more and we can't read too much into her initial popularity.  Callaghan got a huge boost in the polls when he replaced Wilson, the same was true of Major and Brown: none of these went on to be hugely successful leaders (although Major did, of course, win the next election).

The referendum was never going to be good for Labour electorally, whatever the result.  A strong Remain result would have been presented as very much David Cameron's victory; absurdly the narrow Leave result was presented as Labour's loss, despite polling evidence showing that Labour voters predominantly voted Remain and however people voted in the referendum, how Westminster politicians implored them to vote was unlikely to make much difference (except perhaps a negative one).  The "Corbyn lost the referendum" narrative was one created entirely to help lay the foundations of the "coup" and therefore must be added to that pile.

The factor that was in Labour's power to avoid was the "coup".  As I know you agree, it was wholly unnecessary and appallingly timed and has made it much harder for us to answer your questions because, at a time when we need to be speaking to the country, we've been forced into speaking to each other in a pointless leadership election.

But let us just remind ourselves of the impact of the coup.  On the 25 June Labour and Conservatives were tied.  I totally accept that that isn't good enough in the context of the Tories-at-war scenario that had been played out, although not entirely surprising bearing in mind the (yes, anticipated) relentless media storm against Corbyn and Labour.  The nosedive in the polls has all occurred since then, although it's worth bearing in mind that it has primarily been a boost in the polls for the Tories rather than a significant reduction for Labour, and this might partly be down to UKIP voters returning to the Tory fold in the context of Brexit, which should perhaps not be all that surprising.  I think we have to be healthily sceptical of polls in such a volatile political climate, but it's worth bearing in mind that the ICM poll that had everybody deeply miserable in July did ask what people's voting intentions would be like if Eagle or Smith were Labour leader rather than Corbyn and the Tory vote stayed the same and the Labour vote fell further.  Take that with a healthy pinch of salt; Smith in particular was not well-known to voters, but it does suggest that it was May bringing the Tories up rather than Corbyn particularly bringing Labour down.  It's worth adding to that that in early April Corbyn's personal approval ratings were higher than Cameron's.  Again, in the context of the media attacks - and no small amount of friendly fire - that is no mean feat in itself.

There is an oft-repeated slogan on social media that Labour had its worst local government election performance since 1983.  Actually it was the worst since 2015...  In the leadership elections, there was a doom and gloom prediction that Labour would lose 500 council seats if Jeremy were to win the leadership election (based on an assessment of how Labour would perform if we remained where we were in terms of popularity following the 2015 General Election) rather than the 18 we actually lost.  No complacency - we should be winning council seats - but not the predicted crisis either.  The same is true of the by-election and mayoral results too.

But to improve them?
- Divided parties are unpopular parties; we are where we are but we must somehow neutralise the division in the party when this pointless leadership election is over and we must continue to operate an effective opposition as best we can while it continues.  The latter is happening; despite the twin handicaps of an unnecessary leadership election and mass front bench resignations, the government is still being held accountable on issues like education, housing, the economy and the environment.  We need to get those messages out loud and clear so that the only noise people are hearing from Labour isn't leadership nonsense.  The former is much harder because it isn't only in the gift of Corbyn supporters.  After all, there was a massive effort to be collegiate in September.  I supported it then, I'm not so sure now.  If everyone on the left and centre left had been given plum jobs maybe that was a parliamentary coalition we could have held together rather than trying to keep on board people who were never going to be anything but hostile?  Some MPs (and particularly some "supporters" outside) are threatening to simply reload the coup or, worse, split or create some sort of partial split.  Unlike you, I've never thought a split to be an appealing idea.  I think Labour has to be able to work as a broad church.  But I think those that would not welcome a Corbyn government - regardless of whether they think it electable or not - would be best dealt with as a backbench awkward squad rather than an internal enemy.  Those who are broadly supportive of the direction of travel but are concerned about electability or have concerns about leadership styles, etc need to be embraced and brought back on board.

- Play to our strengths.  There are a number of strengths we can focus on.  The UK is just as anti-politics and anti-establishment as it was two months ago and one outlet of that is potentially in a worse state than Labour (although nobody is paying much attention): UKIP.  So if we can retain the sense of popular insurgency - of being the outsiders at the top table - that is something we can certainly tap into (although it's important in the mean time not to lose the votes of people who are more deferential to traditional political structures).  Jeremy himself is a strength.  It's not popular to say it at the moment, but when people see Jeremy himself, unspun and unmediated, they are usually impressed.  He's likeable, honest, thoughtful.  Also, he's actually rather nuanced and unorthodox in some of his political thinking (a million miles from the cartoon that is often presented).  The very fact that Jeremy doesn't look like a polished presenter who has spent his life preparing for power is a strength; an appealing factor.

Most of the responses to how we improve in the polls relate to your other questions and I don't want this article to be a book, so I'll move on!

2. Where is the clear vision?

I think, when you see the huge crowds at Corbyn rallies (that you rather surprisingly compare with Foot rallies; an unnecessary echoing of other media criticism) clearly a lot of people see a clear vision.  I think we could all see a clear vision in September, and we can see it today too - there was a bit of fogging in the middle, I would agree.  The trouble is, Jeremy is a democrat and does not believe that by winning the leadership election on a particular set of policies that they automatically become Labour policy.  And he also tried very hard to be collegiate and bring in people from all corners of the party, which inevitably muddied the water a little in terms of policy and vision (and I know policy is a separate question so I'll try and keep the answers separate).

So, the vision?  To transform Britain into a significantly fairer, more equal and kinder society where nobody is left behind and where our role in the world is to lead ethically and to be a force for peace and progress.  A bit general?  (Visions often are).  But okay; to ensure that middle and lower earners, workers and small business owners, get a fairer share of the proceeds of economic growth; to devolve power from Westminster and the centre to give people wherever they are in the UK more say over how they are governed and the services they can access; to re-cast government as an active force for good, that will plan and intervene in the interest of the long-term development of an economy that will deliver this.  A government focused on making lives better, for parents, children, workers, pensioners.  A government that will protect and improve the best of British, what people really value - like the NHS - and will bring us new sources of pride, in the form of a National Education Service (free lifelong education and training), improved, democratised public transport and a new era of municipal entrepreneurialism.

As Jeremy says: "a society where nobody and no community is left behind and where we only achieve things by working together."  Seems like a pretty good vision to me.

3. How are the policies significantly different from the last general election?

First of all, I think Labour had some really good policies at the last election, coupled with some really bad messaging.  I don't think there being some overlap of policy is a bad thing, especially when put in the context of the fact that there has been little opportunity to formally and democratically change policy since the manifesto upon which the current MPs were elected.  That said, there is inevitably some disconnect between what we might describe as Corbyn policy and Party policy.  And of course Jeremy gave portfolios to people who were not necessarily signed up to the policy documents that he put out during the leadership election and, correctly, gave them space and opportunity to develop their own initiatives.  So a glib answer might be: the policies are still very similar to the last general election because Labour hasn't developed its next manifesto yet (and neither have any other parties).  But that is glib: there are clear, distinct policies being developed that are significantly different from those offered at the last election:

- National Investment Bank and network of regional banks
- Public ownership of rail and mail
- Restoration of the NHS
- Abolition of university tuition fees
- Restore collective bargaining and repeal anti-union legislation
- Restore the Migrants Impact Fund

There is more of course, and we have to see this in the context of a sudden and massive change for the UK - Brexit - which is changing policy thinking in all parties, and in the context of some areas of policy where there are clear differences that are still being played out (e.g. nuclear weapons).

4. What's the Media Strategy?

Good question. This is one where I think we would all appreciate your assistance with some answers as well as a question...  It's bloody difficult isn't it?  As we all knew it would be.  The bulk of the mainstream media is absolutely against Labour and even some Labour-supporting media is largely against Corbyn.  Better or more timely press releases isn't really going to reverse that. So yes, social media ends up having to be a huge part of it.  I know you weren't impressed but the "we are his media" stuff is one approach.  And you can dismiss it, of course, but the social media reach is huge and will only become more significant.  Of course there are significant sections of society that it doesn't reach.  But people like Jeremy and John - and also Cat, Clive, etc, too - are making regular media appearances and tend to get a lot of very positive responses to them.  There is a problem that, however positive and constructive those appearances are, a minor controversy is identified therein and that becomes the news.  But that would be true of whoever was Labour leader.  After all we had five years of a leader whose approach to a bacon sandwich and his father's alleged lack of patriotism were considered newsworthy. Whatever the strategy, Labour is not going to get an easy ride in the media, whoever is leader and (almost) whatever the policy trajectory.  One useful change could be if our critical friends focused a little more on the friendship and just a touch less on the criticism (as, to be candid, the criticism is not in short supply).

5. What's the strategy to win over the over-44s?

There's a double-edge to this question as firstly, it is hugely important to appeal to older voters, even if the psephology did not demand it, but secondly the psephological analysis you point to could also be partially dealt with by mobilising more of the younger voters to actually vote.  So you'll forgive me if I try and address both?

This might be a slightly controversial point, but part of this is about class politics.  In the UK today there is some truth in the idea that wealth and assets is generational as well as social: that a significant proportion of the older generation have wealth and assets denied to the generations that followed, particularly through home ownership.  Therefore, to a certain extent, it might be expected that a low tax, low spend, keep-things-more-or-less-as-they-are agenda would appeal more to this relatively prosperous section of society than any call for radical change. Of course the so-called "grey vote" is not homogenous and Labour could, as Jeremy replied to your question, focus on an agenda based around respect, pensioner poverty, protecting pensions and supporting and improving social care (and especially improving its funding).  But only some of that will appeal to the more prosperous older voters, and of course there is a major overlap there with your question about appealing to Conservative voters.

It is also worth bearing in mind that a lot of older voters do care about their children and grand-children and do worry about them.  And policies that are aimed primarily at those voters can be "packaged" for older voters too.  Tuition fees, for example.

But also, I think our massive increase in membership has lots of potential in terms of getting more people to vote.  But I guess that relates to a later question...

6. Whats the strategy to win over Scotland?

Yes, this - like the last one really - is one of those questions that the whole Labour Party needs to think about, not just Corbyn supporters.  It's really hard, isn't it, because an awful lot of Scottish voters don't want to be won over.  I speak to plenty of Scottish voters who are broadly supportive of Corbyn; would be far more likely to vote for a Labour Party led by him than by any likely alternative, but think of Labour as an English party.  From their perspective, they've moved on.  I don't have the answers.  I know that Labour moving away from the left, putting up some identikit "Better Together" type would be absolutely the worst thing to do.  I think Labour consistently pointing out where the SNP are cutting, privatising and generally going against the rhetoric they use will bring some voters back our way in the long run if we persist.  But I genuinely think it's going to take years, not months, to make any significant inroads in Scotland.  It was not just a protest vote, but something more fundamental.  And let's be candid; that something more fundamental could easily happen in the north of England too.  Is anywhere really a safe seat anymore?  Again, the real risk would be if we could arrive once again at a place where some populist party - left or right - can go to voters in Sunderland and Doncaster and say "they're all the same" and receive a sympathetic hearing.

7. What's the strategy to win over Conservative voters?

Persuade them.  I mean, what other strategy is there?  Neither of us have any time for the triangulation strategies of the past.  That ship has long sailed. Yes, we can look at the language we use and vary our messaging.  But ultimately we have to win the arguments.  Like with any block vote there is a part of it that is ideologically committed, who we could never persuade to vote for any Labour Party, and there is another part that is at various levels of volatility, who could be persuaded.  And yes, sometimes it's possible to do that persuading by being seen to be more competent on the big issues of the day, or because leaders dress nicely or speak well.  But I think politics is changing fast and I'm not sure how much credit to give that any more.  It's not just a question of having a better line, a better message, a better soundbite.  It's about having policies that you and your supporters really believe in and then explaining why they're right and trying to persuade people. Obviously that all comes together with the vision and the media strategy, but it's what we should be doing.  Now.  Instead of having this conversation really.

8. How would we deal with people's concerns about immigration?

Interestingly, during the referendum campaign, Jeremy was the only leading politician I heard taking these concerns remotely seriously.  Every other leading politician lied about immigration.  From UKIP and right-wing Tories pretending they wanted to significantly reduce immigration (when really they want fewer regulations so they could better exploit workers from wherever they might come from) to Labour politicians suggesting that perhaps they could control immigration from within the EU or the single market.

Jeremy, instead, took the question seriously, although he was reported sparingly and badly, so you had to see the actual interviews rather than read anything that was published by anybody in the media.  Of course, post-Brexit, some of his ideas are now not achievable: like leading the charge for a Europe-wide cost-of-living-indexed enforceable minimum wage. But it was a really good idea.  Other ideas are still within our power: collective bargaining, trade union rights, agency staff rights, a higher,  better-enforced living wage.  And the restoration of the Migrant Impacts Fund.  It's important to have this discussion seriously and not lie to people or patronise them or pretend to agree with them if we don't.

Nationally - there is little evidence of immigration leading to wage suppression.  Of course, in individual industries or in some local areas it might have done.  But that is the impact of bad bosses and inadequate regulation, not of immigration itself which, as we know, has innumerable benefits for the UK.  We can make that argument and win it.  Not with everyone, because some people are anti-immigration because they don't like foreigners.  But listening to people and taking them seriously is not the same as pretending to agree with them, making completely unachievable pledges and then blaming somebody else when they're not achieved.  That's the Tory way.  We can pursue a better approach: I hear you; I don't entirely agree with you; here's why; here is my alternative solution to the same problems; what do you think?

9. How can Labour's mass membership be mobilised?

The first thing that must be done.  Now.  Is for Labour MPs to stop insulting new members.  I've never seen anything quite like this.  There has never been a time when new members have been made less welcome and at a time when there have never been so many new members. So that's the first thing: MPs must stop calling new members trots, rabble, dogs, scum, entryists, etc.  Of course where new members have behaved badly - just as with old members (and even the occasional MP!) - that must be dealt with in the appropriate ways.  But most new members are keen, committed, doing something that they perhaps never thought they would and actually pretty excited about what will happen.  And then what happens?  They're insulted by MPs.  They're not allowed to vote in the leadership election unless they pay another £25.  They're told there'll be no more meetings (to protect MPs from the likes of them) and then some meetings are organised for leadership nominations but they're not allowed to come, so aren't invited.

So that's the surest way NOT to mobilise the new members.  Actually to mobilise them?  I think we saw it in Oldham and London and to great effect.  New members want to get involved, they want to do things.  We need local campaigns on issues; more politics in Labour meetings; we need to encourage them, get them on the Execs and GCs; book bigger rooms.  We need to improve our political education - lots of these new members are new to politics and don't know the history of the Labour Party or understand what someone is going on about when they start tweeting them about Militant or George Lansbury.  They need to be met with enthusiasm, support and some assistance; not with mockery, derision and name-calling.

More than anything else, they need Labour to be looking outward so they too can be mobilised outward.  And we can only do that if we can go 9 months without a leadership election and 9 days without displays of self-indulgence on the back benches.  I want a year in Labour's life when criticisms on the back benches are reserved for significant policy differences and, beyond that, we pull together.

There is SO much potential.  We are the biggest left-of-centre party in Europe.  We could do things that we couldn't dream of a year ago.  But only if the Labour Party as a whole acknowledges that that is who we are now.  That these people are new Labour Party members and they're really excited, really proud, really want to get stuck in. And yes, some of them might not have voted Labour at the last election.  Some of them may say something really daft.  We can tear ourselves apart and mock and deride or we can actually fulfil the potential that there is here.

One thing I hope we can agree on, Owen, is that the worst possible answer to most of your 9 questions, would be for Jeremy to lose this unnecessary, distracting and divisive leadership election.  Because then 1) we'd be even more divided; 2) our vision would be back to being muddled and muddied; 3) who knows where we would be on policy as most of Smith's supporters presumably do not support his proposed policy agenda; 6) our strategy would seem to be to abandon Scotland for ever; 7) our strategy would be to triangulate towards Conservative voters in the way that has led to a collapse of social democracy across Europe; 8) we'd be right back to immigration mugs; and 9) our new members would feel utterly betrayed and demoralised.  (PS: I did write something for 4 and 5 but deleted them in the interests of party unity).







Tuesday, 17 November 2015

After Paris

Like everybody else, I watched the news unfold with horror, anger, deep sadness, helplessness: all the emotions that we go through as we empathise with those suffering at the hands of such indiscriminate, apparently mindless, violence.  Like everybody else, I couldn't escape the logic that "something" had to be done against such wanton hatred.  It was, as so many have said, an attack on all of us.

But "do something"; well, what? 

The so-called "War on Terror" has been going on for 14 years, longer than the First World War, Second World War and Boer Wars put together.  In that time the number of terrorist atrocities worldwide has increased at a significant rate, as have the number of annual deaths at the hands of terrorists.  If we add the other deaths from this wide-ranging, many-fronted war, we see that what has really been happening for a decade and a half is a war of terror and, despite regime changes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, terrorism has increased.

We need to "do something", but what most people identify as the "something" in question is what is already being done.  The US, with several coalition partners including from the region, has been launching airstrikes against Daesh in Syria since September 2014.  They have claimed some success, including killing high-profile and leading members.  Although France's largest airstrikes in the war have been since Friday's shocking atrocity, they too have already been doing "something", with airstrikes against Daesh, and the aircraft carrier they have sent to the region is returning there, having been deployed there previously.  The current increase in terrorist atrocities in different parts of the world has not occurred in the context of a world doing nothing, but has happened despite many months of "doing something".

Of course it is essential that Daesh is defeated, not because it would prevent another Paris - I'm afraid the evidence of the War on Terror is that it would not - but because of their barbarism and lack of humanity towards the people living in the territory they have occupied.  So when we talk about "doing something" we are talking about two separate things: one, to defeat Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and the other to defeat the terrible threat of international terrorism more generally.  But perhaps we need to reconsider both the "somethings" that we're doing.  I underline that I do not claim to have the answers or that any of this is easy.  This has been the hardest article I've tried to write in quite a long time.

But Daesh is still managing to sell oil, have money and buy (or receive) weapons. It has received upwards of $40 million in donations from wealthy individuals in the last two years.  These donors are in states who theoretically support the coalition against Daesh, but it is hard to believe that these states could not intervene to choke off this supply, nor that the donors are unidentifiable.  The same goes for when weapons are smuggled out of states, or exactly how the illegal oil trade is being organised.  Daesh is the wealthiest terror organisation in history.  Choking off their finances would not prevent another Paris, as the funds to launch domestic terrorism need not come from Syria or Iraq, but it would massively weaken Daesh in their territory.

We need to speak to our allies, not least our NATO ally, Turkey.  After evidence was found detailing extensive links between Turkey and Daesh, including a porous border for the smuggling of oil, weapons and fighters, Turkey has, ostensibly at least, joined the coalition and indeed has been the victim of terror attacks itself.  But far from concentrating its fire on Daesh, Turkey has primarily been bombing Kurdish rebels: Daesh's most effective enemy.  Surely Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar need to cut all ties with Daesh and other terrorist organisations and fully disclose everything they are able to about their funding and their trading.  Surely this is a more important aspect of their joining an international consensus than airstrikes.  Furthermore, surely the west needs to stop arming regimes whose fundamental ideology is almost identical to that of Daesh.

It is something of a cliche to say that all wars end in a political settlement, and it is hard to imagine what sort of acceptable political settlement could ever be reached with Daesh, a terrifyingly violent crime syndicate, soaked in extremist propaganda.  But at the same time people must ask themselves, before entering into further violence and killing, "what outcome am I seeking, and will this bring it about?  Is there anything else we could do?"

As for the associated crisis of terror attacks in European and American cities, we need to try and properly understand what is happening.  Because these things happened before Daesh, and I fear they will happen after them, and - indeed - they sometimes happen in the name of other quite different politics, or not justified by politics or religion at all.  Young, marginalised, disaffected, seriously messed-up young people very occasionally do absolutely horrific things.  Sometimes they do it alone or with a very small group of like-minded people - like mass shootings in the US, or far-right atrocities like Breivik or McVeigh. Such people may well have been radicalised by others, but not necessarily with the express aim of them reaching the end they reached.  Others might be more directly manipulated by people who have a clearer agenda.  While people like the 7/7 bombers and the Paris attackers may well have received support and training in Afghanistan or Syria respectively, there will always be another war-zone or "failed state" where such things can occur.  There will always be people to make the Youtube videos that fire people up.  Sometimes it won't even be deliberate.  I saw a video doing the rounds of young Asian students this week.  It was actually the footage that many of us will have seen of the child victims of a chemical weapon attack in the Syrian Civil War from 2013.  While some of those sharing and commenting on the video understood what it was and commented appropriately, by the bottom of the comment thread a growing number of people believed this to be the result of Western bombing and that it was terrible double standards that only Paris was reported and not this terrible attack.  People were radicalising themselves.  The images they were seeing were deeply shocking - their anger and bewilderment just as justified as everybody's over the Paris attacks.  Their lack of understanding of what they were seeing is the important point.  We need to be open, thoughtful, critical, understanding; inclusive, interventionist, sensitive.  Simplistic exhortations to "British values" and crudely-applied Home Office strategies are not enough.  This is fundamentally the responsibility of my sector - education - rather than entirely a matter of security and defence.

After 14 years of thinking we can bomb the bombers to end terrorism, while continuing to remain on good terms with the oil-rich dictatorships where the terrorists find their inspiration and their patrons; 14 years that have seen great victories celebrated in the West despite an ever-increasing list of victims of terror; however difficult it is, surely we now have to say: "yes, we must do something, but we can't just do the same thing".

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Irish Question and the British Left


In 1916, James Connolly was executed by British forces, as a ringleader of the Easter Uprising.  Along with the other leaders he was shot at Kilmainham Gaol.  He was so injured from the fighting he had to be propped up against a chair as he faced the firing squad.
 
It should not be surprising that a trade union leader being executed in such a way should lead to strong feelings among the British labour movement as well as the Irish, especially in the context that most on the left supported Irish Home Rule on the same grounds that they supported Indian Home Rule and national self-determination around the Empire more generally.  This should not be mistaken for support for armed insurrection, although of course there were those who supported it in Ireland, Russia and elsewhere.  Even confirmed pacifists like George Lansbury’s sympathies were uncompromisingly on the side of the Irish republicans. This was in no way hypocritical. At a time when British gunboats were in the Liffey firing into central Dublin, and rebels were being lined up and shot, only the truly na├»ve could have considered that choosing sides in such a conflict was about choosing between violence and peace.
And of course those that thought the only route to peace was Irish independence considered themselves vindicated by the dreadful violence of the following decade.  One did not have to be supportive of the IRA’s guerrilla tactics to be horrified by and uncompromisingly opposed to the Black and Tans firing into sports crowds and burning down whole neighbourhoods.  A British left that did not condemn such things would not be worthy of the name. People who wanted a British government to pursue a path of peace and social justice concluded that such a path necessarily meant getting out of Ireland.

Years later, following partition, the focus of the Irish Question switched to the north.  In the sectarian politics of Northern Ireland, the catholic minority found themselves marginalised in a way that was unthinkable in the rest of the UK by the 1960s.  Voting in local government elections was restricted to ratepayers which disenfranchised many Catholics and gave some protestants multiple votes.  Council house allocation was biased against Catholics, and resources were allocated in a sectarian way too.  British governments had attempted to circumvent this inequality, ensuring that the new Welfare State and other reforms could bypass the sectarian Northern Irish government, but there was no denying the grossly sectarian and unequal reality of Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Again many on the British left reacted as one would expect they would to UK citizens being denied basic civil rights and therefore were broadly supportive of the civil rights protests of the 1960s.  As such they supported the rights of the protesters against their suppression by Ulster police.  By the time of the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, violence was back in Northern Irish politics, in the form of paramilitary organisations in both communities as well as the heavy-handed RUC policing.  While Labour governments tried to bring in reforms to protect the Catholic minority, loyalist violence increased with Catholic homes burned down in the rioting and violence.  When the British army were originally deployed it was in no small part to protect the Catholic minority from loyalist gangs. 

So the support for Irish self-determination common on the British left was not out of some odd anti-patriotic, anti-British sentiment, nor perverse support for violence and terrorism.  It was born of a socialist analysis of this difficult and violent context.  It is in this context that people should understand the Labour Committee on Ireland.  Yes, people like Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott were deeply involved.  So was Peter Hain, who was appointed by Tony Blair to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 2005.  I do not recall similar hysteria from the conservative media at the time of that appointment.  Politics in Northern Ireland has moved on and the focus should have shifted from issues of sovereignty and sect to issues of public services, liberty and ending poverty, regardless of religion or community.  We should not sweep this history under the carpet, but we must avoid simplification and cartoon when discussing such a delicate part of our shared recent history. 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Labour's UKIP Problem

 
Of course some potential Labour voters, and others in areas that have traditionally voted Labour are considering voting UKIP.  Some have always voted Tory (and UKIP present themselves - somehow - as a less-toxic Tory Party in defiantly non-Tory areas).  Some have, in previous years, voted for the BNP or the National Front.  We live in very difficult times in which people have found themselves poorer and poorer and the only explanatory narrative that finds public utterance is that this is caused by a combination of immigration, welfare and Labour's record of public spending.

It is of course extraordinary double-think.  The only thing keeping many people even vaguely afloat is access to some benefit payments and access to services paid-for by public spending and both require the taxes of a working-age population, increasingly dependent on immigration in the context of an aging population.
 
But people are not hearing an alternative explanation anywhere.  It was once the job of the labour movement to provide that explanation; to be active on the ground, to mobilise, to inform and to challenge.  But the Labour Party has become increasingly reticent on the issue of causes of low pay, insecurity and marginalisation.  And they are becoming increasingly likely to validate the ludicrous UKIP explanation - by echoing it in awkward, embarrassed liberal terms - than they are to confront it.
 
There are two possible reasons for this reticence.  One is that the leading lights of the labour movement are genuinely unclear as to why we see such problems in our society. By abandoning a socialist analysis in the 80s and 90s they can no longer make a diagnosis.  The other is that they see this as a purely psephological problem: "how do we keep these voters?" rather than "how do we end low pay and insecurity?"  If the latter is true then it is because they are so removed from the problem: the low paid are now an "other" to be dealt with rather than the heart of the movement.  If this is true, then that is the real heart of Labour's UKIP problem.  UKIP will never be a workers' party - they are a more-Tory-than-the-Tories Thatcherite party - but they are able to temporarily exploit the absence of any workers' party, as fascist movements have done before them elsewhere in the world.
 
The elephant in the room is capitalism.  Capitalism causes low pay, insecurity and marginalisation and no party is more committed to its unfettered future success than UKIP.  They want fewer regulations on pay, working conditions and job security.  They want more cuts and privatisation.  They are the party that is 100% committed to making life worse for the least well-off in the United Kingdom.  That this party gets a single vote in an inner-city constituency is the worst kind of indictment of Labour's failure to engage with its base.  Tony Blair's "Clause IV" moment was more significant than many (even he) gave it credit at the time.  We fought it hard, but we knew no Labour government had ever sought "the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange" so it wasn't the end or the final defeat.  But by deleting that historic commitment and instead embracing a "dynamic market economy" and "the rigours of competition" the Labour Party lost the intellectual ability to challenge the economic dogma that creates UKIP's disingenuous explanation for social problems; an explanation echoed in the popular press and from the government.
 
The reason that every newspaper blames immigration, benefit claimants and the Labour Party for all social ills is that they are utterly and uncompromisingly committed to their real cause.  We can (and should) blame bad employers paying rock-bottom wages and slum landlords charging sky-high rents but it's more than that.  It is a system whose very logic dictates that employers should pay as little as they can get away with and landlords should charge as much as they can get away with, all of it bailed out by a state which increasingly sees its role as clearing the way for the pursuit of capital rather than to support a decent standard of living for its population.
 
Farage is disingenuous in his rhetoric on immigration.  Farage's problem is not really immigration (indeed he says this himself when trying to sound reasonable) it is a way of focusing opposition to Europe (and his opposition to Europe is really an opposition to regulation).  He does not want to replace European regulation with UK regulation, not in terms of working conditions but not in terms of migration either.  After all, that same system that creates social ills contains within it the logic for employers in the UK to seek their employees wherever they see fit in order to find workers who will work longer and longer for less and less.  Farage's real problem with EU immigration is that it prevents the expansion of non-EU immigration and his supporters' ability to find workers even more easily exploited.  That Farage has not been more easily taken down can only be explained by the conclusion that the establishment wishes to keep him exactly where he is.
 
The only approach that Labour can and should take to this is to face down and expose UKIP and to attack the real causes of low pay, insecurity and marginalisation.  Echoing Farage's rhetoric on immigration only validates UKIP's argument and pushes more voters into their arms, while alienating a host of other voters.  It is also morally, politically and intellectually bankrupt.
 
It must be possible - it is possible - to face down UKIP without seeming to patronise or insult people who have been attracted to their rarely-challenged rhetoric.  But Labour has to be brave to do this, because in facing down UKIP they are effectively facing down the full forces of the UK establishment who have found Farage's simple prescriptions the easiest way to detract attention from their beloved economic polity and the misery it creates.
 
 


Monday, 22 September 2014

The North Must Unite to Prevent an English Parliament


Why was power devolved to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London in the 1990s?  If it was simply about nationalism, then there is some case for an English Parliament or English Votes on English Laws (though it would no doubt be challenged in the future by a growing dissatisfied regionalism).  But that wasn't really what it was about.  It was about representation and accountability.  Scotland kept getting governments it didn't vote for, and the Westminster parliament was - in social and economic terms, rather than national terms - unrepresentative.  Of course, this has always been true of some of the regions of England too.  In this article I refer to the north, but it is not exclusively a north/south issue.
 
But while parts of England are poorly represented by the legislature in Westminster, that parliament is far more representative of the North - in socio-economic terms - than it would be if the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs were absent.  Essentially - in practical, material ways, rather than in matters of national identity - the north of England is more like the UK than it is like England.
 
It is essential that Scotland gets its Devo Max, but the regions of England need to be very wary of what is termed "the English question".
 
The first proposal, as we have heard from David Cameron, is English Votes for English Laws.  It is, superficially, simple.  It provides an answer to the West Lothian Question, though it raises many new questions of its own.  First, it is not absolutely straight-forward which votes Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs would be excluded from.  Each piece of legislation would need to be examined in terms of jurisdiction before certain MPs were barred from participating.  To be logical and consistent there would even be laws that London MPs would be excluded from, if it was on a matter that - for their constituents - was one for the Mayor.  There would be other laws that would be just English MPs, others where the Welsh and the Northern Irish could vote, but not the Scots.  In the context of Devo Max, suddenly it would seem that there would be very little legislation that Scottish MPs would be required for.  This raises questions about their precise role, their levels of pay and their potential role in the executive.  No, English Votes for English Laws is an unworkable proposal designed purely for Conservative political advantage and to embarrass the Labour Party.  It is not a serious constitutional proposal.
 
Some ask for an English Parliament. On the face of it, this is more logical and coherent.  But before we even consider the  Northern Question (a question that will not go away with any "English solution") it is a bizarre notion.  England makes up the bulk of the UK.  A devolved English parliament and executive would be a hugely powerful body, with an English First Minister challenging the authority of a UK Prime Minister.  Imagine the scenario of coalition Prime Minister Ed Miliband, trying to deal with First Minister Boris Johnson...  If the English executive had the same devolved powers as the Scottish one, just what would be the role of the "federal government" in Whitehall?
 
The only answer to the question that actually makes any sense is a regional one, but we cannot escape the reality that there is more appetite for this in the north (and perhaps the far south west) than elsewhere in the country.  While the internet might be full of calls for "Home Rule for Yorkshire" it is not full of calls for "Home Rule for the South East (Excluding London)."
 
For that reason, the "easier" answers based on devolution to England, rather than devolution in England might well be the ones to gather momentum.  This must be resisted.  An English answer to this constitutional puzzle will be one that sees a worse deal for provincial England.  If Westminster is socially unrepresentative of the UK (and it is) an English Parliament can only intensify this.  The easy answers to "the English question" only raise "the Northern question".  There will be a wide range of views on regional devolution, from those seeking regional assemblies and executives akin to the national ones in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to those seeking to empower "city regions" and local councils.  I know which approach I would prefer, but those debates are for the years to come.  What is most important now is to resist this rich man's parliament that the Tories are trying to create.
 
So let's join together and speak with one voice, whether it's to David Cameron or to Miliband's constitutional convention: the north of England wants no part of an English Parliament and, in the absence of regional devolution, would prefer to be represented by all UK MPs than just by English ones.
 
 

Sunday, 15 June 2014

In his haste to rescue his legacy, Blair has deserted the final refuge of the pro-war case


Tony Blair will forever be remembered for Iraq.  Not for peace in Northern Ireland or the minimum wage, nor the Human Rights Act or devolution to Scotland and Wales.  Blair does little to help this: he rarely comments on political developments in the UK, but always does the rounds of the television studios when questions of UK military intervention are raised.

And Tony Blair’s Iraq legacy is a dreadful one.  It is rightly remembered as one of the worst foreign policy disasters in British history.  Millions who marched against the war understood the situation far better than the Prime Minister and those close to him.  It was a disaster that cost at least 100,000 lives, two thirds of whom were civilians.

The arguments that Blair made in 2002 and 2003, along with his colleagues in Washington, collapsed one by one.  There were no weapons of mass destruction and there was no link between the Iraqi regime and 9/11 or Al Qaeda.  The last argument – one that was not central to the case for war at the time – was the need to remove Saddam Hussain, a brutal dictator.  Anti-war voices rightly pointed to the dictators and repressive regimes that Bush and Blair not only tolerated but even actively supported.  But the defence against that was that this was “whataboutery” – it wasn’t an argument against removing Saddam.  So the final refuge of the dinted and damaged pro-war case was that, but for the intervention, Saddam would have remained in power.

Tony Blair’s latest written intervention in the Iraq crisis unwittingly erodes that case.  The current crisis in Iraq sees a jihadist group (ISIS), battle-hardened in the Syrian civil war, approaching Baghdad, taking northern cities and the Iraq army deserting its posts and its US and UK-funded equipment.  There are very disturbing reports of massacres.  Blair thinks it “bizarre” and “wilful” that people should blame the 2003 invasion for this situation.  He correctly identifies other sources of the crisis (the Syrian crisis and al-Maliki’s sectarianism) though he chooses to ignore any western culpability in either.  But he also chooses to point out that Iraq would be no more stable today had they not intervened in 2003 and therefore the current crisis might still have happened.  It is dangerous to indulge in counter-factuals, but I suspect he is probably right.  He correctly points to the extraordinary events of the Arab Spring.  But in doing so, Blair raises the question of whether Saddam could have been removed by the Iraqi people, without intervention.  At the very least it undermines the argument that the only way there could have been change in the Iraqi regime was the path taken in 2003.

More problematic, it is no longer at all clear which side Blair would have chosen in such a situation.  His position on the Arab Spring is, at best, ambiguous.  While last summer, Blair backed air strikes against the Syrian regime, he now appears to back air strikes against elements of the Syrian opposition and, back in April, proposed a Syrian settlement that would leave Assad in power.  Furthermore, in the same speech he gave full support to the military coup in Egypt. While conceding that he “strongly disagreed” with the mass death sentences handed out to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, he urged people to “show sensitivity” to the regime.

In the light of this, it is darkly ironic that Blair (correctly) notes the “inconsistency” of recent UK policy towards the Middle East.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that – in any given situation – Blair would have made his decisions about the future of Saddam’s regime in terms of his impression of British (or, more accurately, western capitalist) geopolitical interest, not on the basis of the rights of the Iraqi people or even a democratic mandate.  If Saddam was president today, it is entirely believable that Blair would be calling for western intervention to protect his regime.  This is the last nail in the coffin of the “regime change” case for war.

Where I am sure we all agree with Blair is that what happens now is more important than “differences of the past”, but unless we can learn from the mistakes of the past we will get it wrong again.  Tony Blair seems incapable of learning from the past, he simply wants to try and rewrite it in order to recast himself as hero rather than villain.  Discussions about what is happening in Iraq are urgently needed but a period of silence from Tony Blair would be welcome.