Thursday, 5 December 2013

Time to drop the "One Nation"?

Somebody needs to tell Ed Miliband that his "One Nation" slogan doesn't work.  It's not awful; it doesn't offend.  It just doesn't work.  In that sense it's a bit like "the big society".  It's quite a clever piece of political wordplay, that pleases or annoys those who are very interested in political ideas. It doesn't convey much meaning to most people.

I couldn't stand New Labour.  I hated what it signified.  But it did signify something. People heard "New Labour" or "New Labour, New Britain" and took some sort of meaning from it, whether they liked it or not.  I watched Labour's viral video about Osborne's pre-budget statement and thought that it was pretty good.  The shoe-horning of "One Nation" into it added nothing, though.  The worry is whether it subtracted something.  There's a clear line of attack for Labour here.  A recovery for who?  Just for the rich!  But it's not quite a "one nation" line of attack.

A party doesn't necessarily need a defining idea crystalized into a two-word slogan to win an election.  But there's an argument to suggest that not having one is better than having an ineffective one; one that lacks clarity.

I don't think it needs any fanfare.  Nobody need make a fuss.  I just think between now and the election we should slowly hear "One Nation" less and less until we don't hear it any more.  I'm not sure how many people would notice.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Cameron, Clegg and Osborne have one answer: spend more and borrow more!

The irony can't be lost on many that Cameron - who always says that Labour's answer to everything is "spend more and borrow more" can come up with no other solution to the cost of living crisis in relation to the big 6 energy companies.

He's happy to intervene in markets in many ways - he's had to abandon his neo-liberal instincts in the face of the overwhelming evidence that free market politics have failed - but he just can't bring himself to stand up to wealthy and powerful people.  Whether they're energy bosses or the Chinese or Saudi governments, he's attracted to them and in awe of them.  He'd much rather we pay - through taxation - than for successful companies to have obligations, despite the huge profits they make at the expense of the British people.

Student Loans Sell-Off - the shape of things to come?

The government has sold off £900 million worth of student debt to a private debt collection company for the sum of £160 million. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of higher education being paid for through loans for a moment (but we will return to that very shortly) this exposes the accounting trick at the heart of student loans. Over-simplifying this somewhat (obviously there was interest on these loans, and they are all from before 1998) nearly £900 million pounds of government expenditure was labelled as loans, therefore not impacting on the Public Spending Borrowing Requirement or with the convergence criteria for joining that single currency with which we were once trying to converge. But in the end the government has got merely £160 million pounds of that back - less than 20%. David Willetts justified this sale by insisting that the private sector was best placed to collect the debt. If that is true of these early loans, why (in the ideologically-driven philosophy of this ConDem government) would it not also be true of loans since 1998, including those loans that people are taking out today?

People have repeatedly pointed out that most of the loans being taken out today will never be paid back in their entirety. This news shows the extent to which the current government is not interested in that. Paying for universities via student loans has never been about saving tax-payers' money, or about making students more responsible for the "privilege" of having a degree. It has always been about turning public debt into private debt in order to fiddle the books. If it can help a few private companies make some more profit, that's a bonus.

On a broader level, George Osborne's entire economic policy is one of turning public debt into private debt.  Rather than the taxpayer being liable for the national debt, individuals should be made responsible by being driven into debt.  This makes sense as a policy from a Tory perspective because private debt - unlike tax - costs the rich less and the poor more.  Parents of children at Eton cannot wait for them to get to university, when fees will "only" be £9000 a year, while children from middle-income backgrounds, destined for middle-income graduate jobs, will end up paying far more.

It is time that a major political party came clean about student loans, though.  University education is still being paid for out of general taxation.  Students are being put in debt with all that means, and will one day be chased by private loans companies who have bought the loans for a fraction of their cost.  Labour should take the risk of promising the abolition of tuition fees.  It makes no real difference to the deficit or to the tax payer but every difference to a large number of students and their families.  It would win votes too!

Monday, 18 November 2013

Back to the Future: Does Union Bashing Resonate with the Electorate?

David Cameron has anounced an inquiry into union tactics during industrial disputes and whether Britain needs yet more anti-union legislation. Britain already has a draconian anti-union legislative regime, with the consequential lack of workers' rights.
What are Cameron's motivations? Probably less ideological than Thatcher's, at least in relation to this specific inquiry. This is about little more than electoral advantage. Cameron, and his press adviser Lynton Crosby, think that union stories are bad for Labour's electoral chances. They hope that drip-feeding a hungry Tory press with stories of "Red" Len McCluskey and union "bullies" will resonate with the public and dissuade them from putting a cross next to Labour candidates in May 2015. They think, it would seem, that the British public share their contempt for trade unionism.

But the evidence for this is decidedly unclear. IPSOS-MORI polling shows that, when Thatcher declared war on the unions in 1979 it made electoral sense. 80% of all adults, and nearly 70% of union members thought that the unions had too much power, while two-thirds of adults thought that unions were run by extremists and militants. This marked the success of a media demonization campaign and also shows that the right-wing narrative explaining strikes and industrial conflict in the 1970s was the one that was victorious. This summer, the figures had almost reversed. Only 23% of adults believe unions are led by extremists and militants, and less than a third of adults believe unions hold too much power, in spite of everything that is written about unions and their leadership in the most widely-read newspapers.  The vast majority of British adults (whether union members or not) have in fact always seen unions as essential (both in 1979 and today). 

I do not present these figures to give comfort to those of us who are proud of the Labour Party's links to the trade union movement.  In many ways these figures are symbolic of the powerlessness of unions in post-Thatcherite Britain.  We are no longer perceived as a potent threat to the status quo and as such the public have been fed a far more sparse diet of union bashing and "reds under the bed" misinformation than in the 1970s and 1980s.

But what is interesting in this situation is whether Lynton Crosby has - once again - misjudged the British public and what impacts on their voting behaviour.  I say "once again" because, despite being called "the wizard of Oz", Crosby does not have a good record in British elections.

Crosby ran the Conservative Party's 2005 election campaign, a campaign characterised by nasty, dog-whistle innuendo.  As well as it being a nasty campaign, it was a singularly unsuccessful one.  The Iraq War was at the forefront of most minds; Blair was hugely unpopular and kept off all Labour leaflets.  The Conservative Party was going through an uncharacteristic period of unity, behind leader Michael Howard.  Despite all these advantages, the Conservatives polled poorly and ended up ditching yet another opposition leader.  It was the 2005 election in particular that Theresa May was referring to when she talked about the Conservative's image as "the nasty party".  Crosby has got back to work with the nastiness as before.

In 2009, Crosby ran the campaign for Libertas, a Eurosceptic party who won no seats (in an election that saw UKIP and the BNP having successes). Not only did they not win seats, they got fewer votes than "UK First" and "the Jury team" and less than half those of "No2EU" and the Socialist Labour Party.

Crosby's successes have been with Boris Johnson's campaigns in London in 2008 and 2012.  But the reality is that Boris is an unusual politician.  He won as much because of a failure of traditional campaign management than because of its success.  People do not vote for Boris because of his message or his presentation.

For the 2015 election, Crosby wants to talk about immigration, welfare, the economy, Ed Miliband and the unions.  Increasingly, the sensible Labour response might be: let him. 

What Labour needs to avoid is dancing to Crosby's tune.  Miliband's initial over-reaction to the Falkirk issue is not entirely encouraging in that respect.  Let the Tories rediscover their "nasty party" roots.  Labour should concentrate on its own message and let the Tories hang themselves with permanent austerity, union bashing and "mocking the weak".