Labour’s problems: some structural aspects

A million people have written a million things about the problems Labour faces, with some quite simplistic responses from several knackered looking leadership contests. The main surface aspects are simple. In polling, we lost certain groups of voters, notably at the older end.

In terms of political geography, we desperately need to win back a lot of Tory voters who used to vote Labour. But we’re also faced with the challenge of winning back a serious number of seats from a party which anyone serious can see has attacked us in the base, and from the left, in order to gain majorities by adding these voters to its previous vote – the SNP. This seems to have warranted far left discussion, in part because our media is right wing and attached to Labour’s own hard right, in in part because the media and what remains of the Labour Party are pretty anglocentric.

But the point is made repeatedly that this malaise is affecting us around Europe and goes deeper than individual elections. Which reminds us immediately of a second coming of Hobsbawm and Hall (as per this and this).

Ludicrously, Liz Kendall warns us against trying to become a Syriza or a Podemos because of the need for electoral success. But in these countries it is social democrats who face eradication for being weak, and too closely aligned to both national and international elites. Hilariously, both of the parties mentioned are great examples of snatching prominence, relevance, and mass support from the jaws of pointless left cultism.

This is not to say that Kendall is wrong in her conclusion – we have very different economies and politics to these countries, which have sharply diverged. But her conclusion is in ignorance of her premise, not based upon it. Continue reading

Tackling a shift

CSR2

This graphic is from the Government’s newly announced CSR paper for this November.

We are now at a 2004 level of spending but with slightly lower income. We should be concentrating on raising that income, but the basic point is that our deficit has gone from being at ‘crash’ levels to ‘New Labour’ levels. We are unarguably now at a stage where the social sphere’s share of economic activity is below that of 2004 – indeed, in real terms we crossed that line some time ago – our population is growing.

Objectively speaking, the argument that we now can’t sustain policies like tax credits is of equal value to what the argument that we should abolish them made in 2004. The rest is public opinion. Depending on who you ask.

If public opinion is not prepared to defend those things now but was in 2004, yes we can adapt to that, or challenge it. But first we should be asking if such a political shift has occurred, why, and what we would want to come out of it.

I am disappointed that there is no Labour leadership candidate from the left flank of the party (or even its centre) who is interest in cutting edge analysis and in particular the science of public discourse and opinion.

In my view a materialist left needs to be real enough to engage in questions like this bravely. If we are witnessing this kind of shift, we are certainly seeing one wing of the Labour Party arguing to adapt to that trend and concede to what is essentially a second wave of rightward shifting after the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s. The argument is that we may be defeated forever, but we should see any small adaptations we can make as validating that defeat to the point where we can tell ourselves it is victory. In short, a Dunkirk strategy. But one in which you keep on making the retreat whilst the enemy keeps chasing.

In Blairism, there is no looking beyond a permanent rightward shift. And in jettisoning all concern for the most basic amelioration (i.e. countering child poverty), they can no longer even argue that the most moderate sweetener is there to help the ‘deal’ go down.

In contrast, the left alternately argues that such a rightward shift does not exist, or that it should be countered. It cannot keep its line straight between these two antagonistic arguments, because it is not interested in doing the groundwork to actually find out in the first place. In this sense, there is little reason it should be taken credibly.

The third approach, and what is not being argued, is that the shift exists, should be acknowledged, and that we need to think of imaginative strategies and indeed tactics explicitly to halt or reverse it.

It is increasingly unclear if the ‘hard’ flanks of the party feel they have anything at all in common with each other. Both seem to take this as a badge of pride, which I feel is immature and makes us phenomenally weak against a party which represents all wings of the establishment and shares a common outlook and basis of consent at a very basic level.

Indeed, many on the left fear that such a shared ultimate objective as halting a rightward shift does not exist across the Labour Party (in the way that commitments to things like low taxes for well off people appeal across the whole spectrum of the Conservative Party).

Which is an obstacle for us all. In any event, I would argue that the challenge for the right of the Labour party is to commit to this objective, and to be trusted to do so. Fundamentally this is why Blairites are currently unable to appeal beyond their core. They need to revise.

The challenge for the party left is to commit to being honest with itself, doing some actual original and non-repetitive things in pursuance of changing public opinion, and working with others to make it happen. It needs a good revising too.

Innovation and radicalism in defence of core values (rather than led by George Osborne) is ground that everyone in Labour can stretch to stand on, and it is ground which can win support from both our left and right flanks – the only way to win any future election. It is probably also the only way to hold Labour together and secure any common currency as a movement, even if winning proves to be totally impossible.

Rather than seeing this happen, I suspect I’ll just sit and get pissed off with the TV instead. La lotta continua, and all that.

Labour’s challenge and the ‘big lie’ tactic

There are two very strategic and very effective political ‘big lies’ routinely levelled against Labour.

Both have much wider support of significant sections of the public than they did before 2010, which is interesting, because Labour before 2008 was largely pretty fiscally conservative.

In England and Scotland respectively, each lie has gained significant currency and is playing a large role in the General election. This has been the case for some time – a situation which a hostile media has done as much to stop Labour from rectifying, in both cases, as far as possible. Continue reading

Why not be a capitalist?

Sensible socialists often have to compromise with or even harness capitalism. Yet unlike Chuka Umunna, I am not happy to call myself a capitalist.

I neither believe in nor benefit from supporting the class system. Which however much we bang on about ‘mobility’, remains what capitalism is. Some people can only aspire to become wealth creators. A smaller number of other people get to be their bosses. And so are born Two Nations.

I’m not even sure that’s what Chuka Umunna was agreeing with when he said we are all capitalists, which is part of what makes his throwaway comments highly questionable if you remove the context. So I think that’s what I’ll do. After all, it is funny how in British politics the slightly left-of-centre are often so happy to use ‘capitalism’ to mean ‘everything I like about capitalism’. But what does it really mean?

Capitalism is now an international system based on centralised control of wealth (capital) and political power by an economic class. Ugly stuff.

To sustain itself, it normally has some element of democratic management or involvement built into it as a pressure valve. If that hadn’t evolved, it would have been history by 1860.

In states where elite tolerance with a well supported and confident left has worn thin (think South America, civil war Spain, the Weimar Republic or South Africa) events have shown that this doesn’t always ring true. Capitalism and democracy are far from the same thing.

At a more fundamental level, the whole thing is built on the idea of people signing away or being forced out of the right to make their own decisions for 8-12 hours a day, and feeling vulnerable enough to do it.

And most people in the world don’t get much back for that. Capitalism is, like all social systems before it, an unjust system. It’s also not very stable or efficient. Again, like all social systems before it, no matter how permanent things seem or how little you see your own life changing, capitalism is also quite possibly a temporary system.

Things in our world change fast, and it often doesn’t take much time for what seems normal to seem weird – “all that is solid melts into air”.

It comes with convulsions, booms, busts, threats, wars and a tide of other horrors. Consider how people must have felt during feudalism, or mass slavery, and how ridiculous it would have been to them to imagine the world we live in now.

I would not argue that profit or competition are always wrong. What they are used for is important. But who is in charge of the economy and how it is influenced both control that.

The idea of a softly steered capitalism that is relatively democratic and delivers for those who work within it belongs in the Crosland era – the late 1950s and the 60s – a period which followed capitalism destroying all the wealth it had built up, along with millions of people, and a social revolution which followed. It was also exclusively western, and doesn’t reflect the experience of those in Africa, Asia and South America, for whom capitalism has actually usually meant war or long standing police states.

Liberal capitalism itself has a list of atrocities at least as long as its far more forthright Stalinist and Fascist cousins. Liberals and conservatives in Europe and the US love to pretend that Pinochet, who they politically and economically supported, is completely distant from them. But even as we speak, those people have plans to cream off money from thousands of Chinese sweatshop workers, and will defend this on the basis that we get the vote and the right to strike in MEDCs.

Workers in the west have also taken a beating to keep the white goods cheap. For a start the jobs they had are now in China. But that’s to do with the political defeat of their own parties and movements.

Yet I am an optimist. Even after globalisation, in my own view there is hope to be found of reforming capitalism back, and re-extending social power over greed and irresponsibility. It won’t be done by Parliaments acting without pressure from outside, and unlike the last time social democracy advanced, this time it won’t be done by single states acting on their own. But most people on the left understand this.

So if we would like capitalism to be more restricted by the public interest, I question how the left can reform back something that is regressive by declaring faith in it.

Whether your system is a ‘workers capitalism’ like Venezuela, welfarism like the 50s (or Sweden), or outright fascism, the same themes of concentrated wealth and power with those who own stakes in companies continues to perpetuate. And that part of any political settlement is never about working for the wider social good.

Yes, in the immediate term we need to make capitalism work better – to tame it, stabilise it, diffuse its proceeds, and diffuse power over it. In this sense, Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband et al are dead on. What is even more rare is that what they want is both better for short-term competition, and for people who have to work for a living. A win-win.

But it’s not so much that everyone is a capitalist now.

It’s more that we need to be honest about how much of a hold it has on our culture and our economy, how poorly organised the left is, and how difficult this can make it to flog people anything that looks marginal, impossible, or completely alien to their existing belief system.

Slamming capitalism is politically irrelevant at best. But pledging allegiance to it is self-defeating and naive about what the class power of the well monied actually means.

What we need to do is concentrate on is resisting the worst of it, on changing wider political culture, and organising the insecure majority of people against all that is wrong with capitalism – whatever they want to call themselves.

The economic crisis from 2008-2012 having become a crisis of both finance and working class living standards, we continue to be in a ‘war of position‘, as has been true in developed economies since the late 1970s.

I have developed a political tolerance for capitalism, because it’s better to build ourselves something constructive rather than getting pasted in newspapers every day without changing anyone’s minds. I feel OK about that.

All of this said, I’d rather just be honest. It’s ridiculous to have a moral belief in capitalism – not least as a self-described socialist.

Capitalism has no moral desires of its own to believe in.

When we support the morality of capitalism, there are only those fleeting ethics of the social group who organise its diary. In other words, those in charge of the businesses, and the political structures beneath them.

To believe in capitalism is to believe that a small number of highly advantaged people should be left alone to make the bulk of the decisions.

The labour movement might have to tolerate or employ this economic system to its own ends, but why should it actively promote it in its own ranks?

In the immediate future it’s good for Labour to concentrate on building a private sector which is more sustainable and enduring, and democratic enough to give away more of its proceeds. Nobody is opposing that.

But what about the principle? The big question?

It will almost certainly never happen in our lifetimes, but wouldn’t it be great to see capitalism superseded by a stage of history which is more democratic, international, and more focused on serving the bulk of people who aren’t already sorted?

We could call that democratic socialism, and we could call the bits on the way social democracy. We could even put it on the back of Labour membership cards.

Council cuts and Labour – some frank but friendly words

I have an interest in this as I’m running for Brent Council in Willesden Green. But that means the public have an interest in it too, so I’m dumping a quick thought here which outlines how I feel about cuts. Might as well clear my chest at this early stage.

Firstly, the bottom line stuff. I am committed to the Labour Party as once necessary vehicle for democratic socialism, and I will follow its rules as decided by conference, including by following collective group responsibility with any colleagues I am elected alongside at a local Government level. I wouldn’t feel the same about being elected to Parliament for a host of reasons, but they are long and irrelevant.

The flip side – though this gives me a duty to support group decisions, it also gives me an obligation to fight for my own values and for my local residents in campaigns, when candidates are selected within the party, and then within the Labour group if I am elected as a Councillor.

So there’s my caveat paragraphs. What are those values and beliefs?

While I am prepared to admit that some cuts are stupider than others, I am also fundamentally opposed to the economics of the cuts, which are the right’s ideological project and economic solution all wrapped up in one neat package. Firstly this package is unjust and misses why we have economics at all – improving quality of life. Secondly, it is also a package which has failed in its own terms repeatedly across Europe.

Ignored by campaigners: cuts are part of a right-wing political project

But despite all this context, many local anti-cuts campaigners are blaming their Councils for cuts which are centrally decided and then deliberately and carefully outsourced to Labour Councils to avoid accountability nationally. Local campaigners, understandably angry about their own local losses, repeatedly take the bait.

While I support anti-cuts and have marched many times with anti-cuts groups, I think there are several areas of strategic weakness, and despite the encouraging start of the (poorly named) People’s Assembly, the movement as a whole frustrates me.

Where the localised anti-cuts movement is going wrong

It is fragmented, has poor language, has abysmal understanding of the law & finance, and is content to abandon realism in its strategy in the hope that setting a deficit budget in tooting will begin a great global uprising against neoliberalism that is necessary to undo the cuts. While I applaud their defensive work and awareness raising, the sense of strategy is mind-numbingly parochial. It is also so distant from the scale and depth of the task ahead that it is content to sit around biting the local veins of one of the key organisations in overturning the consensus at a national level, the Labour Party.

Why? Well, as stated above, taking losses locally touches more than a nerve, and the Government have sorted the swaparoo in finance so that Councils have to be the public face of the cuts they never wanted.

But I also think as well as the good intentions, it can all go a bit conspiracy theory at times, and the underlying current is sometimes disingenuous – note, for example, how few local anti-cuts campaigners are prepared to put their own solutions before the electorate either as Labour candidates, or for other parties.

On the conspiracy point, hatred for Blairism understandably runs deep throughout the left, parliamentary and external. I know this – marching against Iraq and opposing various privatisations were some of my earliest political actions, and I stand by them. But it’s not always relevant or the way to decent strategy.

Some more radical parts of the left seem happy to abandon materialism in favour of emotionalising this hatred, and apply it more widely against Labour. They are waiting all the time for someone to step into the betrayal zone, which rests on the assumption that nobody from the Labour Party is in the same movement or moral universe as them. Actually, that’s completely untrue.

I repeatedly see people who I know have made quite left-wing decisions in private being heckled by people who barely know them at meetings for being right-wing, or involved in some plot that the accuser cant even put their finger on (but of course, if they have been elected to an Executive Committee, there must be dastardly plots – one example of where the paranoia creeps in, and people respond to it by shouting at someone innocent, whilst lacking the guts to stand for their position themselves).

One recent manifestation was someone from the left echoing the Tory line exactly by suggesting that Labour Councils were cutting harder to ‘teach people not to vote Tory’. This involves some level of self-deception, and can really only be based on an emotional refusal to give the matter any actual thought.

It’s this that bothers me, because it stops even the best within Labour and the wider left working well together.

Views on policy may or may not be legit, but the style and underlying assumptions are empty and sectarian.

Let’s be sensible?

Labour Councillors that have been elected all depend on Labour voters from last time round, not Tory ones. These people are also disproportionately hit by cuts. It would be bizarre even for a careerist to choose to hurt them in this way.

If you can’t see this and appreciate that it means that Labour Councils are not necessarily in bad faith, I don’t think there’s much point in me or anyone else trying to have a political conversation with you, because logic on the points under debate is clearly not what matters.

My local Council has been told it has to find tens of millions worth of spending to get rid of over the next year.

If it’s about showing anyone anything, it’s about Labour Councils trying to find ways to avoid this costing lives, and using it as an example. Tory Councils are not being cut, and won’t have to even bother trying.

Focus: a ‘pragmatic’ left approach to Labour locally

If I am elected as a Labour Councillor, I won’t be promising a Poplar rates rebellion (a legal relic), or to hand over my budget to DCLG (the legal present), which will hurt the vulnerable, but without remotely stoking up any kind of dissent on a national level.

Instead, I will be pushing for Labour’s economic policy nationally and internationally not to concede to the cuts agenda, and pushing within the Labour Party for the Council to find ways of innovating out of cuts (a similar strategy to that used by that pragmatist Ken Livingstone and the GLC, rather than that pushed at the time by John McDonnell and Ted Knight).

I will undoubtedly take part in political demonstrations and perhaps non-violent direct action.

I will push to build a national anti-cuts movement.

I will fight at a community level so concerns about priorities are born out and people are at least listened to, even if they don’t get what they are after.

And to make all of that a relevant possibility, I will be ignoring the poorly reasoned ‘Blairophobia’ and fighting for a Labour government.

That’s better than letting former coalition Minister Sarah Teather off the hook for voting for cuts to our Council budget, which is something that in my view our scattered anti-cuts campaigners in my Borough and others allow to happen far too easily.

Tony Blair is gone, and those of us to the left of him have new challenges altogether to deal with. Let’s stem the bleed locally, get this lot out nationally, and make sure we replace the whole lot with something more participative, more democratic, more egalitarian, and more sustainable.

If I want my Borough to look more like that, I need a new government as an absolute minimum, and I see the fight against the cuts in that context.

What is ‘one nation’ politics?

“Well, society may be in its infancy,” said Egremont slightly smiling; “but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.”

“Which nation?” asked the younger stranger, “for she reigns over two.”

The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.

“Yes,” resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

“You speak of–” said Egremont, hesitatingly.

“THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

At this moment a sudden flush of rosy light, suffusing the grey ruins, indicated that the sun had just fallen; and through a vacant arch that overlooked them, alone in the resplendent sky, glittered the twilight star.

-Sybil, or the Two Nations (Disraeli, 1845)

History pleases me, especially given the dire content of the present. And one of the lovely things about history is there where we cannot agree much about the future, the past is something in which we can all take any stake we choose.

Ed Miliband’s conference speech marked an ascendency of trust from both party and press, though I have some scepticism as to how much conference speeches influence a sceptical public these days. In any event, it’s certainly sparked some thinking among people whose views I appreciate. I have had some interesting thoughts triggered since by two people whose views I respect, despite the wild divergence of their politics. One is conservative, Ashton Cull, who chaired Conservative Future locally when I was at uni in Manchester. Another is Liam McNulty, who it would be fair to describe in the broadest terms as a Marxist.

I’ve been prompted twice to ask myself what is really meant by ‘One Nation’. On one level, the adaption of Tory rhetoric, expecially class collaborationist Tory rhetoric, marks a reactionary step for the leader of a Labour Party. At the same time, the founding ideas of the philosphy of One Nation Toryism find themselves significantly left of Blairism, which accepted the ceaseless march of a society moving apart from itself – the poorest satisfying themselves with the workfare crumbs of those who got ‘filthy rich’ and (sometimes) paid their taxes, the middle bought into wrestless neutrality with tax credits.

Consider this:

“If a society that has been created by labour suddenly becomes independent of it, that society is bound to maintain the race whose only property is labour, from the proceeds of that property, which has not ceased to be productive.”

– Disraeli

This is no Marxism. But the mutual obligation implied can have ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ obligations, and is just as rightly the property of social democratic reformists as it is moderate Tories. So for that reason, whatever the merits of reformist social democrats, it is far from charlatanism for them to take up the slogan. And further, it may well be a way of blocking together part of the professional so-called ‘middle class’ workers with the lower paid parts of the working class who are currently being hit with the freight train of austerity – making this part of the ‘middle class’ a progressive one. As a front in totality, if theis is a majority, ‘One Nation’ can be a broad project which is also some distance left of the common sernse, and also potentially hegemonic, if done right. Anyway, this is basically my response to those (such as Liam) who might believe that the notion is wholly useless to the left. It’s not revolutionary, but it can just as much be consciousness raising and majoritarian as it can be damaging. It depends on the substance.

The seeds, by the way, of the left undoing that, are treating supplicant, weaker groups and individuals as part of a different nation – one where food banks or immigration detention centres are acceptible human situations, while a land accross the social waters knocks back a Friday night Sauvingnon or two.

No doubt pressure for this kind of ‘two-nationism’, of making positionally weaker humans into ‘others’, will surely form the substance of the Tory response to this speech – alongside subsequent a Blairite call to triangulate it (or as I prefer, ‘submit’). Labour, after all, isn’t learning – right?

But moving back, I was moved to a deeper thought about what social democracy in the first place means to me by Ashton (whose opinion I value and await).

He asks:

…This has been niggling me for a couple of days. How do you feel about the One Nation rhetoric?

Very much in favour. For me my social democracy can basically be summed up as ‘settled consensus that we have obligations to each other, that bodies must carry them out in a way which is widely democratically accountable, and that fulfilling them helps to make us each more free’ [*].

I don’t think that society and the state are the same thing, but I also think it is artificial to seperate them when the goal of the state is to serve society, when much of society benefits from the state, much of society works for it, and pretty much all of society to some degree or another pays for it.

What I’m saying is that I think the heritage of One Nation stretches beyond individual philanthropy, though Disraeli himself probably would not have approved. I think it stretches from one nation Toryism, deep into social democracy. Economic liberalism is not totally alien to it either, but I think that there is still a mad dash for economic liberalism which is massively socially divisive, and is as contrary to One Nation philosophy as exiling the rich.

Anyway, I think it’s a bold move, and whether Tory or Social Democratic, the driving feature is basically human compassion – something that I think is the main thing our society is forgetting, lamentably. I don’t want someone ruining my mortgage or cutting my wages – nor am I happy to see people spit in the face of bus drivers.

Common manners and respect need a big return, in society and in the economy.

Anyway, here’s my family secret. A political one too.

When I was very young, indeed before I can remember, my father was awarded custody of me. I have lived with him and my Stepmother since when he met her (I was three). My biological mother has been estranged to me for what I make twelve years, for various reasons, though I am considering getting in touch with her now.

Anyway, turns out that one of Ashton’s predecessors as the Tory Chair at Manchester Uni was her father**. Uber One-Nation MP. I never met the bloke, and having politicised into the left at a young age, and with a class background of skilled manual labour via my father and his family, it rather shocked me. His wife was descended from Charles II! Mad.

Oh well. There is plenty of determism aside from the genetic.

The fact is, as happy as I am to accept the rhetoric of One Nation, if I was a Tory, I would be a Thatcherite. I respect ideological leadership, sticking to guns, and having guns to stick to in the first place.

I think if there is to be one nation, that’s all well and good. And if the term helps gain support for it, that’s just as well.

But Disraeli’s mistake was that he thought a society that encouraged freedom and was at ease with itself was the rightful gift of the honourable rich.

But wealth is not gained for honour. Nor is it spent in the pursuit of obligation.

Wealth under neoliberalism is precisely and literally the privilege of being in a different nation. If the poor don’t like tax, they buy less food. If the rich don’t like tax, they move. The same logic applies to pay rises in the two nations.

We need One Nation. ‘Middle class’ workers are essential to engendering this. But it’s not the disadvantaged who split the nation in the first place. If the nation is to be brought towards a tolerant, pluralist and relatively equal place – ‘One Nation’ – then democratic and civic power over divisive market dogma must be massively increased, and on terms which are inclusive of the disadvantaged – our subaltern ‘second nation’. It’s simply not One Nation if they are forced into a cramped island with no way out. And make no mistake, that’s where they are headed, and have been headed for decades.

This inclusion is not something achieved through centrist vaccilation. Particularly in this climate of divisive attacks, and the intended resentment culture that now sits in place of solidarity. In situations where forces are jockeying beneath the surface for position, it’s achieved by creating a social coalition which is broad, yes, but also genuinely progressive, and has reason to be. Good luck getting that from establishment wets! It’s a path we have tried for years.

There are very, very few ‘progressive’ Tories. Show me a Tory as left wing as Disraeli these days, and I’ll show you a Compass member. Leadership towards a more cohesive society isn’t just something the broad left has a claim to.

When it comes to questions of motivation and material ability, they are the only forces in the country capable of taking the claim up, and the labour movement in particular the only one with the withdrawable surplus and power in numbers for the battle ahead.

The die is cast. The struggle of note will therefore be that to achieve leadership within the paradigm itself.

My next post will be about the virtues of populism. It will be shorter.

* Note – perhaps I should have added in ‘that economic class as related to ownership is a major obstacle to this’?
** In the interests of my own credibility, not that proper lefts judge us on lineage, I should point out that I am also descended from a Communist militant immigrant bus driver from the T & G who sacrificed his life to fight Franco. I think that means I genetically average out somewhere near Roy Hattersley.

Solidarity with the Bolivarian revolutions

This piece from Colin Burgon MP on LabourList is worth a read.

I’m not sure models such as Venezuela are applicable to the economies or body politics of Western Europe – but I do think Colin Burgon is basically right to stress the importance of international solidarity with democratic socialist revolutions in Latin America.

I do think solidarity should be critical, and not vulgar or unthinking. But I have lots of caveats about lots of things.

As an example, I’m quite happy to disagree with Chavez and say that Iran, a state with a special line in repression and bigotry, is no friend of working people.

But that does not mean that a Chavista government should not be supported, and even more importantly the movmement which put it there and partly holds it accountable, because what really matters is the enormous and largely positive social change taking place there.

It’s also important to note, as Burgon points out, that this continent-wide process includes ‘pink’ revolutions in countries such as Brazil as well as ‘red’ ones in Venezuela, Bolivia and the like. Red or pink, each of them is characterised by electoralist, openly mandated and openly debated politics – something which should make democratic socialists a lot more comfortable about them than, say, Cuba. Yes, Chavez isn’t nice to some parts of the private press – small ones, it has to be said – but perhaps they shouldn’t take part in military coups. I couldn’t see ITV getting its license renewed in the same circumstances, to be honest.

The stunning stats in terms of social improvements, their repeated continent-wide democratic backing, and comparative lack of repression, make supporting these revolutionary processes worthy of those who believe both in democracy and socialism.

It saddens me that many within the Labour Party are quite happy to drop bombs on people, but not willing to show a bit of solidarity with those who propose feeding them (and put their ballot box where their mouth is as they go about it).

This is no internationalism that I recognise. So Burgon is right, on his core point at least.

This isn’t just the sort of thing Labour should be thinking about. Our direct sister party in Venezuela was involved in a military and media coup against the elected President, and has been pushing for the country to direct itself rightwards. It is a party of an old and corrupt Trade Union establishment, carved into the culture of the country as part of a succession of stitch-up governments held in place by oil barons.

Many of the ‘pink tide’ parties are affiliated to the Socialist International, of which Labour is part, but PSUV and the PT are not.

Instead, we have a proxy relationship with them through the Sao Paulo forum, which has consultative status at the SI.

In many ways, the politics of this organisation are similar to the so called 2½/Vienna International, which included Labour’s ancestor and sibling the ILP.

While there would be obvious difficulties joining with an organisation that is happy to include ‘tankie’ Communist Parties, The Socialist International nevertheless needs to develop better ways of cooperating with some of these parties on a regular basis. It must stop backing despotic coup makers, as it also did in Africa before that got inconvenient. This is not just Labour’s issue, but one for the democratic left worldwide.

Solidarity with these processes can’t just be reduced down to cult of personality style worship of various Presidents. It needs to include closer institutional working, and is an opportunity to reform the as yet tainted politics of the Socialist International, which in places are as close to despots as to the democratic left.

It’s notable that left support for these contemptibles is seldom mentioned – but solidarity with a particular President who is broadly speaking left wing, and who wins loads of elections, and who accepts defeats in his referendums, is so often the target of ‘decent‘ liberal condescension.

Instead, how about solidarity with a generation who would previously have been denied the right to read?

The left should pursue former Tories – but on our terms.

I was reading a well penned blog post by Aiyan Maharasingam on the Next Generation Labour website about our attitude to ex-Tories, swing voters, and the like.

Thought it worth recording a few thoughts there.

My view for a long time has been that Labour has been losing two groups of voters, both of whom I identify with, so perhaps a personal bias. But those two broad groups are the less well-off and the more left-wing, including many Guardian type liberals. It has also lost some chunks of voters to its right – but a word of caution – centrist swing voters in swing constituencies still make up a minority of the Labour vote there, and need a motivated core themselves.

In terms of how this is addressed, I think it is crucial that Labour is a party which is much more clearly identifiable with the left as a whole, firstly, but also that those who constitute the organised parts of the left have a long think about their strategic aims and how it they are met, especially given the continual slow weathering of traditional class organisations like unions.

For those of us acting within the party itself, there also needs to be a hell of a lot more thought on what defeat and victory means to the left, and whether the left of Labour in particular wants to put the larger part of its focus focus on what I shall call ‘specific demand politics’ or ‘directional/orientation politics’. Cards on the table, I’m for the latter.

There also needs to be thought about how we engage with plurality. The ‘pluralism disputes’ within Compass and its subsequent fall from relevance to the debates within the Labour Party answered some of these questions. But they are not yet resolved organisationally. Compass was an organisation with strove for breadth, particularly as the moderate Labour left (and its more liberal wing, at that), a party faction capable of and committed to fostering plurality, tolerance and breadth, took a leadership position within the organisation.

But there is no clear articulation of this kind of left politics within the party, simply organs of the moderate left which are defunct or irrelevant, and hard left dominated factions which are more active but similarly (if not more) irrelevant to the actual structure of political power within party or country.

How do we engage with liberals or greens who share some key aims, without putting them in a leadership position which encourages open hostility to Labour, the largest left-of-centre party, or the unions, the bulk of our movement?

How does the moderate left itself regain political expression within Labour?

Outside the left, should we really be writing off those who currently back the right, who might be moved to backing social democratic policies on social democratic terms?

At a more fundamental level, how do we halt the decay of movements and the subsequent trend towards reliance, even by parts of the Labour leadership, on dehumanised money of the right?

These are all questions that are lying there without answer.

In my view, from a ‘big public politics’ point of view, Ed Miliband is partly pursuing the correct strategy – float ideas which are left of the established consensus (i.e. the hegemonic ideology), but will still appeal to swing voters. Try to encourage an open approach to those who are leftish minded, even when they are spineless (like Vince Cable), or unhinged (like the Green Party).

But from the point of view of being a paid party organiser covering at least one swing seat, what I would like to see a bit more of would be angry working class left-populism.

A good start would be an all-fronts attack on workfare, but specifically from a class standpoint rather than simply that of individual rights, which are very well, but have more narrow political appeal.

Why is it that the Government, in the middle of a huge recession, is replacing paid vacancies for working people with compulsory free labour, undercutting the job opportunities and wages of those who work hardest but rightly expect something back? All very well to target benefit fraud, but what about tax evaders? What about the fact that people who pay into the benefits system their whole life are receiving so little back if they find themselves short of work?

if we were to ask that, why would it mean losing the prospect of votes from the middle? Most people have to work for a living. But everyone’s living standards are declining unless they have ‘independent means’, or in other words directly constitute part of the bourgeoisie. Mums and Dads can’t afford Waitrose anymore, at one end. At the other, people are being expected to choose between work and pay, except without the choice of pay.

Quality of life should be something that we are hammering day in, day out. A perfect cross-class, left consensus type issue. It should be the title of our conference, really.

We have a lot of room to expand our left flank, but still hold our right one, as long as we avoid latter-phase Blairite policies which are deliberately offensive to our own base. The idea that those are the only policies that will appeal to the centre are a mutual fallacy of both the hard left and hard right within the party.

But the background remains. The continued failure of pretty much all of our internal factions to respect internal plurality or to seriously lead with new ideas themselves undermines our ability to get on with any strategy properly, right or wrong. It’s a great thing that we have avoided an internal war. But we can’t be content to resort to stagnation, in its place. So let’s challenge all the orthodoxies, and see what remains?

Len Duvall responds to Oona’s freedom pass wriggling

On of the most important things about Ken Livingstone’s bid to become London Mayor is that he has the overwhelming backing of the city’s Assembly Members.

There has been some concern about what seemed to be Oona’s plan to means test the Freedom Pass, citing Prince Charles as an example of a pensioner who would not need one provided by the state. Now I would welcome it if I did, but I don’t see Mr Wales on the bus much these days.

In the following days Ken’s campaign has highlighted the view she put forward, and perhaps as a result, she is now emphasising that her views were ‘hypothetical’, adding on some extra direness in attacking Ken as a liar.

Which is basically nonsense, firstly because how Ken’s campaign has portrayed this will be how any reasonable person would have interpreted her statements, and secondly because it’s worth wondering why any mayoral candidate would bother setting out ‘hypothetical’ scenarios for the Tories to cut public services with. If she is selected, expect them to use the line “but you said you were OK with this then!”.

Perhaps Ken just assumes that she has more smarts than that?

In my own view, that in itself is a mistake. During hustings she has preferred to talk about vague notions of ‘connecting people to things’ and unrelated parochial stuff like making sure people can afford fridges (we demand freezers!), as opposed to substantial policy.

Global slowdown fridges – connecting people to things in an effort to wipe out knife crime.

Back to my point: Len Duvall has sent out an email pulling her freedom pass behaviour to bits. Not looking good for her campaign:

Dear colleague

Last week I sent out an email setting out the choices that had opened up in the Mayoral selection over the issue of the Freedom Pass.

I said I was concerned that, asked about means testing the Freedom Pass, Oona King had said that there were circumstances in which she would support means testing.

Oona has now written to London Labour councillors describing this assertion as an example of ‘making up stories’ and ‘fibs’.

That’s not true. If we are going to have this debate we should let the facts speak for themselves.

Set out below are the verbatim answers that Oona gave in two hustings that led me to set in writing out the real choice in this selection.

  • 23rd July, Croydon hustings
    Question: The Government is threatening to means test the Freedom Pass. Do you believe it should be means tested?

    Oona King – ‘I don’t want to, but if budgets are tight, money is short, you need to prioritise. I want to help the poorest. That’s why we are in politics, to help the poorest, like my bus policy.. If there is a choice, then I want the money to go to the poorest, not to pay for the richest.. like Prince Charles to go free. My priority is for bus fares to be cut if possible paid for by money from the western extension, congestion charge…’

  • 29th July, Brent hustings
    Question: There has been some talk that the Freedom Pass may be means tested. Are there any circumstances in which you would accept this?

    Oona: ‘There are some circumstances that I would accept saying to someone like Prince Philip or other extremely rich pensioners in London that you can no longer have free travel in London, the average not the poorest pensioner. I think we should extend it onto train companies for example… We have to recognise priorities, for example, the childcare tax credit, I don’t get the same childcare tax credit as someone who earn less than me… I’m a progressive, I’m a socialist, you should be helped, I think you should pay according to your ability to pay and you should be helped according to your needs.

    ‘Ken and I support the freedom pass, he will tell you he never expected to get it… we need to recognise it is an equality issue – if you are rich you get about, if you are poor you don’t. We have to make sure pensioners can get around London and have that dignity in retirement, they need to enjoy life.’

    ‘We have to be more realistic, in this environment when everything is being cut by abolishing, through ideologically driven ways… I will fight tooth and nail against those cuts.’

    ‘But if you are the mayor and you have got less money coming in you need to ensure the average pensioner can have the same experience or better than those richer ones you need to accept means testing.’

    Oona also returned to the issue in the next question: ‘Look at working families tax credit, we couldn’t afford to give it to everyone, it was right we didn’t give it to everyone, we couldn’t give it to Prince Philip or people like me. It was right to do that, no one says it was wrong to do that. Everyone says it was good to have lifted those half a million children out of poverty.’

    ‘Well you can only do that, we don’t have money growing on trees. You can only do that if you target money and people just need to recognise that is the real world. And I would always rather we got money to the people who need it most – and if we don’t we are betraying working people.’

It’s there in answers to ordinary members of the party who asked their questions in the party’s hustings.

We have to be clear in this debate. It simply does not help Labour to have arguments in favour of means testing the Freedom Pass being mobilised in this way.

I welcome the fact that Oona now wishes to change the position she took in these hustings. But London Labour cannot afford to have ambiguity on such important issues when they come up.

Some press reports suggest that the Tory government may be considering a means test for the national pensioners’ travel concession. So we cannot afford to have arguments in London that help that case either.

And if we are not going to do it, why make the case for means testing?

Ken’s position on the Freedom Pass is tried, tested and straightforward. For the right reasons, he will not entertain ideas about means testing it and he won’t concede the territory now that only makes it easier for our opponents in the future. He will work with the boroughs who administer and pay for the scheme to ensure it remains a success. And he will not support a two-tier Freedom Pass where some modes of transport are means-tested and others are not.

The reason I am supporting Ken is because he’s the right person to deal with the politics of the 21st Century, of how we campaign to stop the policies of the Conservatives and LibDems and how we protect Londoners in difficult times.

I’m backing Ken because London needs a tough negotiator, who knows clearly what position to take in London’s interests, who gets the detail and who can be relied on to stand up for Londoners.

Yours sincerely

Len Duvall AM
London Assembly member for Greenwich and Lewisham

Accuse me of spin-doctory, but I think the best thing that Oona could do is admit she has got it wrong, and move on. This just looks absurd.

Recession – truth be told

Interesting to see ConservativeHome using the morning to slap Vince Cable down. Even more interesting to see them outline the ‘specific pattern the crash took’:

  1. The requirement and arm twisting in the US for banks to lend to poor risks.
  2. Weak personal bankruptcy law in the US.
  3. The scandal of the mass government underwriting of mortgages through the securitisation process in the US.
  4. The encouragement through the tax code for banks to finance themselves through equity and not debt and the regulatory encouragement for insurance companies and pension funds to invest in debt instruments – a further spur to securitisation.
  5. The successive bailing out of financial institutions in the US.

So why does ‘it’s all Gordon Brown’s fault’ not get in after the election?