An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

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Now to make all this sensible stuff stick

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Did you hear? There’s no money left. Apparently debt and deficit are terrible things that eventually need to be sorted out. And you can be darn sure that when the Labour Party get back into power that’s bally well what we’re going to. Well, here’s a slow hand clap for you, stalwarts of the radical progressive centre. Bravo. I suppose it only took eighteen months or so, but we got there in the end.

Now to make all this sensible stuff stick. First, I would recommend that you don’t answer every question about the economy like you were forced at gunpoint to talk about cutting the deficit by Anthony Painter, and that you don’t say that you’re doing it “to make the party credible” but instead that you are doing it because it is the right thing to do.

Then with that irritating reflex action out of the way, we can get on with the real stuff. The esteemed former blogging home of Luke Bozier, Labourlist, has recently been running a series called “When there’s no money left?”, an Opportunity Knocks for the various policy hobby horses of the kooks, waifs and strays that make up The People’s Movement. The winner is stunning, a real gem. It manages to combine the best qualities of the Labour Party – authoritarianism, intrusion and inverted snobbery – into one single policy:

I propose that all income tax returns of anyone living in the UK should be in the public domain. These should also include a nil return for those not paying any income tax at all.

There is surely nothing more likely to persuade the working class voters of Harlow to stick their cross next to the red rose logo than the prospect of all their neighbours knowing exactly how much they earn. Even so, I fear that if we think of policies like this as the only alternative to spending lots of cash on stuff, we are making an error. The alternative to not spending any money does not have to be isolated gimmicks. It could be far more ambitious than that. When you can’t redistribute money then maybe you could redistribute power.

By and large, people’s attitude to the cuts goes something like this: “I accept the need to spend less money, but I am sad to see local services I value being affected”. People feel they don’t have the power to affect those changes, to influence the choices being made about their local hospitals, schools, libraries, leisure services, even the bins.

So why not make a real commitment to local democracy the alternative? Put more power in the hands of councillors, leader and mayors who are doing this “In the Black” stuff every day of their working lives, give voters genuine democratic influence over their local services (perhaps through directly elected mayors) and lead a debate about making a heavily centralised bureaucratic state more local, more democratic, and yes, cheaper.

Written by samelliot

January 20, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Labour gets a dose of white hot sensibleness

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The ‘In the black Labour’ authors are already the Smiths of the the post-Blairite sensible-hack-Labour centre-centre-left. In bedrooms across the land, weedy youth with posters of Matthew Taylor on their wall think “at last, someone else feels the way I do.” In the same vein, former party staffer Steve van Riel is liberated from saying nothing to saying all the sensible things he’s been saving up after the last few years of holding ‘the line’. Even Ed Balls this morning manages to write an opinion piece for the Times that doesn’t suggest the nation’s problems can be solved by a banker’s bonus tax (a lefty trope skewered by Sadie Smith here).

I’ll be writing a bit more about all this dangerously subversive stuff about balancing budgets and doing things that are popular soon. But it’s worth saying now that ‘In the black Labour’, and the calm and constructive debate it has triggered, could be a very important step for the Labour Party. Interventions like this put the party back on the path to reassuring the ordinary working voter that Labour is, to coin a phrase, ‘on their side’. That we offer practical solutions to the competing crises they see in their lives, and that we respond directly to their concerns.

In some ways, though, getting the debate back on that territory is the easy bit. The real difficulty is in identifying what policies can accompany the ‘In the black…’ fiscal rules to promote the innovation, efficiency and reform required meet them, whilst still pursuing a social democratic mission. In contrast to the salami-slicing policies of the present Government, ITBL* suggests a ‘zero budgeting’ approach, fundamentally questioning each element of spending – an ambitious approach that, although the authors don’t say so directly, would mean taking significant decisions about what it is the business of government to be doing.

This is the right place for Labour to be. In his Purple Book essay, Douglas Alexander said the 2010 election was not about the role of the state, an abstract debate ordinary voters rarely engage with. Instead, it became a ‘referendum on the public sector’. Labour was seen as the party of an often wasteful, frequently bureaucrat state sector. One of the Tories minor ideological strengths is their general suspicion of vested public sector interests. I am not suggesting Labour treats the public sector with the contempt many Tories often reserve for it. But we do need to be far more willing to question the necessity of certain Government functions and not retreat to the easy assumption that because money is being spent on something then it is essentially A Good Thing.

But as I said, saying all that is the easy bit. Picking those things we no longer want to do, or those things that can be reformed to make them dramatically cheaper is where the challenge starts.

*Guys, would it have killed you to think of a snappier title?

Written by samelliot

December 6, 2011 at 9:02 am

Posted in Finance, Labour

Clever people saying clever things part two

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Tony Clements:

Process aside, the most remarkable thing about the interview was his breezy reaction to the figures. Imagine if he was a health minister announcing a 97% fall in cancer survival rates, or an education minister admitting to a 97% drop in GCSE passes, or a Home Secretary announcing that 97% of all passports were not being checked at our borders? He’d at the very least get a harder time from John Humphrys.

The point of a housing minister is to build houses for people. What is the point of one whose ‘reforms’ cause a collapse in house building within a year of taking over?

Dan Hodges:

Nor, despite efforts by ministers to hang next Wednesday’s action around Ed Miliband’s neck, is this essentially a political dispute. It’s a good old fashioned dust up about pay and conditions. Or specifically what the TUC is calling the “Triple Squeeze” on public sector pensions; namely the shift in calculating uprating from RPI to CPI, the increase in individual contributions and the proposed increase in the retirement ceiling.

Some may see these as perfectly sensible changes, which reflect modern economic and social realities. That’s a matter for debate. But what’s not debatable is they mean an erosion of the existing pension entitlements of public sector workers. And however moderate or far sighted, trade union general secretaries get paid to improve their members conditions, not sit idly by as they decline. Again, some may question why trade unionists should expect better pension provision than the rest of the population. But that’s the whole point of collective bargaining; to obtain better terms collectively than you can individually.

Written by samelliot

November 28, 2011 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Employment, Housing, Labour

Trust Italy to give technocrats a bad name

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Regular readers of this blog might think that the only thing that gets me wound up is minor Cabinet Members making vaguely disparaging remarks about local government. But nothing could be further from the truth. Occasionally I find myself getting steamed up by southern Mediterranean politics. The march of Mario Monti is not only an affront to democracy, but by seeming to suggest that democracy doesn’t have the capacity to solve problems, it may well lead to a reaction against the idea of a pragmatic, problem-solving focused politics.

Why is that a bad thing? Take the Government’s welfare reforms. The ideological, even the moral case, is all about aspiration, about fairness, about the old saw that people should not live in areas they cannot afford or that families on benefits should not have a higher income than families in work. These are all, in their way, understandable, even admirable sentiments – indeed a Labour welfare policy would probably have very similar aims. But with every bit of analysis we are discovering more and more that the pace and scale of the reforms are likely to have consequences that, whether intended or not, are likely to place enormous strain on public services, infrastructure and social cohesion. In that situation, you don’t need a wild-eyed radical planning and implementing the policy, you need, frankly, a technocrat – someone who identifies a problem, and sets out to fix it, balancing their principled aims with pragmatic means.

At the moment, with a fragile global economy and a stagnant domestic economy, the uncertainty in the political sphere demands a practical, pragmatic spirit. It also demands leaders with the tools to do the job – not only the expertise and skills, but the capacity to inspire trust. Not only do the Tories and Lib Dems struggle to meet this bench-mark, but they also frequently distracted by the urge to remake the nation as they, see fit. Yet here is a warning to my own party. The economy is a problem, and only Labour has really shown any sign that they have a plan to solve it. But while we have a plan, a practical sense of what we would do next, I suspect we do not have the credibility to be entrusted with that task – we are felt to either be clapped out revolutionaries , detached policy wonks lacking real world experience, or the fools who got us in this mess in the first place.

A friend with experience of the inner workings of the Labour Party both in power and in opposition asked me last week whether a serious but dull problem solver could get elected in Britain. I’m still not sure about that, but right now for the Labour Party I’m pretty sure that’s the only kind of person who could.

Written by samelliot

November 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Posted in Cynicism, Democracy, Labour

Clever people saying clever things

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Chris Dillow:

So much for “big think” principles. But there might be a different way of coming at this, by using the Dave Brailsford principle of the aggregation of marginal gains. Maybe policies to improve the “art of living” don’t consist merely of top-down grand ideas, but also of many small things. Richard Layard has proposed putting a higher priority upon mental health on the grounds that lifting the minority of people with acute depression out of their misery makes a good difference to aggregate well-being. I’d add that more should be done to encourage the growth of allotments, on the grounds that this would give people the chance of getting the “flow” happiness that comes from self-directed productive work.

Hopefully, more imaginative folk than I can think of other apparently tiny things that, together, add up to something big. And maybe these initiatives don’t require central government at all, but can be undertaken by local authorities, voluntary groups or just groups of individuals. In which case we should wonder what use national politicians are.

Anthony Painter:

Labour is divided between romantics and pragmatists. It’s not about new versus old Labour. It’s not about trade unions versus the party or socialists versus social democrats. There are romantics, who emphasise the ideal, the human, the ethical, the relational and the communitarian. Pragmatists emphasise power, policy, practicality and process.

Written by samelliot

November 21, 2011 at 10:07 am

Posted in Labour, Localism

It’s taken for granted that Labour will win local elections – so let’s make the most of it

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Some time in October 2012, Sion Simon or Gisela Stuart or someone else who holds the title of elected Mayor of Birmingham is going to walk into Local Government House to meet their peers as probably the most powerful elected Labour politician in Britain. The Government, through their plans for city mayors, is creating a new cadre of high status local leaders. And the way the Labour Party deals with those new leaders will say a lot about how it sees the possibilities and limits of local democracy.

So here’s a suggestion for Ed and his team – make this against-the-grain boosting of local leadership a central part of your political strategy for the next three years. First, build a cohort of outstanding local leaders. In the first instance this is about identifying and cultivating the hugely talented people who are already committed to local politics, but it also means persuading the best talent the Labour Party has elsewhere to stand as Mayoral candidates, wooing them with the elevated powers and status that being a Mayor brings.

Then you need to show that it is going to take the fight to the Tories and Lib Dems at local level like never before, and that this time it is not simply about piling up the numbers of council seats and basking in the reflected glory. It is about saying that when ten elected Labour Mayors and fifty Labour council leaders are returned to office, they will not only be your campaigning leads across the country, they will not only be your eyes and ears on the ground, but that you will regard them as as legitimate a representative of their community as their MPs, if not more so.

Localists like me want to see all this happen in the Labour Party because we believe in redistributing power, localising decision making and bringing as many public services as possible as close to the community as possible. But don’t worry too much about that right now, that’s a happy by-product that will come later. The thing you’re most interested in is the politics.

So, with another couple of local election rounds down, how about this for a political message? Labour running every major city in this country. Countless communities already being served by the credible and connected leadership a Labour council brings with it. Mr Cameron representing no-one but his fossilised, riven, out of touch, Europe obsessed party and their sandal-wearing helpmeets. And a Labour Party going into an election knowing that they’ve already won most of it, ready to finish the job.

The Conservative Party are seeking to shift the balance of political power in this country and they think it will benefit them electorally. Time to prove them wrong.

Written by samelliot

November 20, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Democracy, Labour, Localism

“Community leaders are elected. Anybody else who says they’re a community leader, fine, go and get elected.”

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Anyone who is interested in the future of Labour in local government, or indeed the future direction of the Labour Party full stop, should watch this video of Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, talking to Anna Turley from Progloc.

Written by samelliot

September 6, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Labour, Localism, London