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August 02, 2008

Labour must sharpen its attack on the Tories

David Miliband’s Guardian article has been hailed by some as exactly the sort of robust critique of the Tories that Labour has so conspicuously lacked recently. In truth, the piece marks an improvement on the lukewarm efforts of much of the cabinet while also confirming some of the persistent flaws of Labour’s lines of attack.

To date, Labour’s offensive against Cameron has focused on two arguments. The first seeks to portray Cameron as an unreconstructed Thatcherite who would slash and burn public services. Yet labelling Cameron a ‘Thatcherite’ doesn’t chime with people’s experience of a politician who has unequivocally embraced civil partnerships, repudiated Thatcher’s appalling description of Nelson Mandela as a ‘terrorist’ and who now tentatively supports the concept of relative poverty. On deregulation and the state Cameron’s views may well best be described as Thatcherite but this remains a more sophisticated form of conservatism, as demonstrated by the recurring maxim ‘there is such a thing as society-it’s just not the same as the state.’, and one that demands a more sophisticated rebuke. To most, ‘Thatcherite’ is an epithet redolent of the old battles of the poll tax and the miners’ strike, and one which doesn’t hold water in these ideologically hazy times.

The second damns Cameron and his party as essentially vacuous; opportunistic chancers who’ll say anything to get their mitts on those red boxes. In his response to Miliband’s piece, Denis MacShane regurgitated this line when he spoke of the “utter vacuity of current Tory policies and people.” That many of those who echo this claim simultaneously present Cameron as a Thatcherite ideologue is a feat of doublethink i had not thought possible. Let it never again be said that the Tories ‘don’t have any policies’, they do have policies, plenty of them, pernicious and reactionary ones at that. The perpetuation of the myth that they have none is a lazy activity in place of a centre-left critique.

The Conservatives now declare that they will promise no upfront tax cuts, the cause of sound money demands as much and in his more sober moments George Obsorne even concedes that taxes may have to go up. Yet it seems an exception could be made for some. Is it not the case that the Tories maintain their promise to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million? A decent Labour party would be hammering away on this point day and night. At a time of economic malaise with those with the least once again likely to suffer the most, why is Tory tax policy focused on lightening the load for a wealthy elite? But instead of mounting a robust defence of inheritance tax based on meritocracy and social justice, Labour’s magpie pre-budget report followed the politically humiliating path of promising to raise the threshold to £600,000. Thus, a potentially profitable line of attack is left on the sidelines by Miliband as by others.

The Tories have also pledged to unilaterally withdraw from the EU social chapter, the document that guarantees workers the right to a paid holiday, to paternity/maternity leave and that ensures part-time workers the same rights as the rest. For what purpose does Cameron propose to return to the days of John Major and pull out? Again, this is a question ministers should be asking day and night but aren’t.

Yet despite these omissions Miliband scores some direct hits where others flail and punch air. In a short burst he takes up the most persuasive criticism of the Tories: “They say they have adopted “progressive ends”- social justice, better public services and fighting climate change — but they insist on traditional Tory means of charity, deregulation and lower spending to deliver them. It doesn’t add up.”

By taking Cameron’s words on poverty and social deprivation sincerely, rather than merely denouncing him as a phoney, Labour can forge a practical critique that argues that while Cameron may will the ends, he must also, but does not, will the means. As the other Miliband, Ed, pointed out in his speech at this year’s Compass conference most of those who actually work in the voluntary sector don’t think they’re suitable for the tasks Cameron would thrust upon them.

Miliband is also right to argue that Cameron can’t pursue both an environmental and a Eurosceptic agenda. Nor with regards to Europe generally will this be any ordinary Tory government. It will stand as one of the ironies of political history that the party now the most viscerally Eurosceptic was also the party that first initiated and later confirmed our membership of the European project. Despite her bluster Thatcher signed the Single European Act and Major prevailed over ‘the bastards’ to sign Maastricht into law. One of the great political myths of our time is that the Tory party is constantly on the edge of collapsing into division and rancour over Europe. In reality, the party is now more united on the issue than at any time in the last fifty years. The Europhile Conservative is an increasingly endangered species and the passionate advocacy of Lord Hesletine and Ken Clarke (who may well soon trade his hush puppies in for slippers) only serves to remind us what a rare breed this is.

While there is generally little mileage in pro-Europeanism in British politics, there is a vague sense amongst the electorate that if we’re going to be ‘in’ the EU then we should be in a strong position to exercise influence. If Labour can argue that a Cameron government would alienate key allies and regress to the ignominy and isolation of the Major era then it just might be able to outfox the Tories on Europe.

For now Labour should swing out confidently against the Tories, ditching pantomime toff-bashing and homing in on the practical flaws of Conservative policy. Attack must be the best form of defence, for while Labour might not now be able to win the election, the Tories could still lose it.

June 12, 2008

42 Day Detention: A Tawdry Victory and a Moral Defeat

Gordon Brown’s government has won the most tawdry of legislative victories at the cost of the most resounding of moral defeats. Credit to the 36 Labour rebels (for it is the government that is the real rebel here, rebelling against liberty and the best traditions of their party) who rejected the policy of detaining suspects for up to 42 days, and withstood the gross of bribes shamelessly hawked around by the Labour whips. A “grubby bazaar”, as the redoubtable Diane Abbott put it, was erected at Westminster yesterday.

Particularly pernicious therefore, is the line spun by ministers that it is opposition parties who have been ‘playing politics’ with national security. I know irony is something of an endangered species in the present cabinet but i thought at least natural shame would provoke some restraint. The narrow victory yesterday reeks of the smoke-filled rooms that Gordon Brown pledged to banish.

The coming weeks, perhaps as early as Gordon Brown’s Northern Ireland visit on Monday, will reveal to what extent the DUP’s turnaround rested on the government meeting their demands on water charges, asset sales and abortion. What we can be sure of is that a whole host of issues usually dismissed by the government as just too expensive, too inconvenient or too divisive, suddenly acquired an urgency out of all proportion to their prior standing. Such is their disparate nature, from ending EU sanctions on Cuba to financial compensation for arthritic miners, that one almost has the image of someone (perhaps Margaret Hodge, the Gambling Minister) flicking through a rolodex at the cabinet table and deciding that having landed on ‘C’ and ‘M’, it was the Cuban and Miners lobbies lucky day. For some of us these issues are as important as ever, and further shame is added by the fact it took a political crisis to stun the government into lending their advocates an ear.

Had such debased pork barrel politics been put at the service of a worthy cause then nagging considerations about ends justifying means would soon have entered one’s mind. To the contrary, it was employed to prop up a wholly unjustified attack on liberty which has little prospect of increasing security, and indeed may do much to imperil it. Thanks to research by Anthony Barnett we now know that of the six terrorist suspects held up to 28 days, three were released without any charge. There can be little doubt that the new possibility of holding innocent suspects for up to six weeks will fuel the very resentment and embitterment we desperately need to dampen.

In sum, the government has further restricted our liberty and endangered our security, whilst employing some of the most populist and demagogic tactics to do so. Another fine day’s work in the decline of the party that i still, though with more anger than ever, call my own.

October 22, 2007

Taxing Times

It is a truism of British politics that New Labour changed the terms of debate on tax-and-spend. Where once John Smith’s tax-raising budget hamstrung Labour in the 1992 election, the last three elections have seen the party convince the electorate to opt for increased spending over Conservative tax cuts.

After last week’s pre-budget report one can no longer assert this with the same confidence. Alistair Darling’s transparent act of political cross-dressing muddies the divide. Labour could have mounted a robust defence of inheritance tax based on equality and meritocracy. Instead they pandered to the same populism that infused George Osborne’s original proposal. Now Labour has entered this sweepstake, there is every chance that floating voters will opt for the opposition and that extra £300,000 on the inheritance tax threshold.

And yet there remain reasons to be hopeful. It is dispiriting that it took the Tory party, of all groups, to bounce Labour into action on non-domicile residents, but welcome all the same. With the tax debate in such a febrile state, now is the time to push harder than ever for Gordon Brown to grasp the nettle on inequality and tax. For Blair progressive taxation was an Old Labour shibboleth, firmly lodged in the dustbin of history. By contrast, privately, Brown is yet to rule out eventually raising the top rate of income tax. A slight hope this remains, but hope all the same.

While the government has succeeded in lifting over 500,000 children out of poverty-although Darling’s report showed no sign of hitting the target of halving child poverty by 2010- and in enacting modest redistribution, it has also presided over an ever-rising inequality between the richest and the poorest. The top 10 per cent now hold 54 per cent of national wealth, up from 47 per cent. Yet no sector of society can shield itself from the ramifications of inequality. Inequality corrodes social cohesion, saps social mobility, rouses crime and breeds economic inefficiency.

The tax system only compounds this problem. The popular focus on income tax masks the fact that the wider system is regressive. While the top fifth pay 35.6 per cent of their income in tax, the bottom fifth actually pay 36.4 per cent. A genuinely progressive tax system, with a new top rate of 50 per cent kicking in at earnings over £100,000, is not a sufficient reform but it is a necessary one.

Against this proposal four arguments are commonly raised. Firstly, that it damages the economy by weakening work-incentives. Yet the Nordic countries, where taxes are both higher and progressive, have long been more economically competitive than the UK. There is staggeringly little empirical evidence linking taxation to economic performance.

In the second case, others point to the phenomenon of globalisation and the risk of ‘tax-flight’ at any increase. This apparent ‘risk’ grossly overestimates the actual opportunities abroad for British business, and forgets that the more motivated, productive workforce linked to equality is just as important.

Thirdly, while conceding the desirability of reform, some argue that in practice the backlash would be too great. In fact, the most recent Social Attitudes survey found that when offered a range of tax-and-spend packages, 89 per cent preferred the redistributive options. An apt reflection of individual’s intuitive sense of a fair society, in spite of the failure of Labour to make the political case.

The final argument, that all this is motivated by ‘envy’ of the rich, is matched only in its commonality by its desperation. Never mind that most of those who hurl this charge also claim that the left is dominated by the rich; the real envy is of flourishing, egalitarian societies, the emulation of which would benefit all, including the wealthiest.

This hackneyed ‘envy’ trope is often bookended with the claim that we’re returning to the days of ‘taxing the rich till the pips squeak’. Those who imagine they’ve just quoted Denis Healey are wrong; the words never left his lips. However, he did declare at the 1973 party conference, “I warn you that there are going to be howls of anguish from those rich enough to pay over 75 per cent on their last slice of earnings.” Yet a new top rate of 50 per cent is far from the eventual rate of 83 per cent under Jim Callaghan. Even Margaret Thatcher managed to live with a top rate of 60 per cent for nine years.

In a conversation last year with Ed Miliband, the man charged with drawing up the next Labour manifesto, I put the case for progressive taxation. Miliband replied that firm political foundations had to be laid down before this; the problem was when ultra-Blairites like Stephen Byers dragged the debate to the right. Faced now with similar difficulties, Labour must act before debate is entrenched on the right.

Nye Bevan’s dictum held that “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”. A decent tax system should embody the priority of social justice. Without remembering this, the sea change in the polls will leave Labour marooned.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 18/10/07

October 05, 2007

The Tories' Dance of Death

NB: This piece was originally written last weekend and was due to be published in the Boar last Tuesday. However, due to difficulties with our new printers the issue actually didn’t appear till Thursday. For form’s sake i don’t publish any Boar articles on my blog till they’ve appeared in print. Given the febrile state of British politics it has dated quickly but parts of it still apply.

Listening to David Cameron at last year’s Conservative conference, I was reminded of what was once said of the speeches of dud US President Warren Harding, “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea”. This week at Blackpool, after a blitz of policy reports, Cameron is left with a mass of ideas in search of a manifesto.

As for the threat of an early election, dangling like the sword of Damocles, for all the ‘bring it on’ posturing we’ll see, privately the Tories are not just rattled, but terrified. Their hopes that Brown would turn to the left or flounder in a crisis have been shown up as empty. He has deftly managed the balancing act of cancelling out the negatives of the Blair era, without discrediting the governments he served in.

For now Cameron must avoid making things worse. The charge of a lurch to the right has gained ground after a summer that saw the unholy trinity of Europe, tax cuts and immigration creeping back. The party may describe this more modestly as a “rebalancing” but they have still taken leave of the insights that first elevated Cameron.

When George Osborne asserts that the conference will focus on the core issues of marriage, tax and crime, he does more than just remind the electorate of Tory past. He panders to the hope amongst the right, and the fear amongst others, that Cameron’s early reforms were born of superficial electoral consideration, rather than principled choice.

In a key passage on tax in last year’s speech, Cameron asserted, “I think that when some people talk about substance, what they mean is they want the old policies back. Well they’re not coming back. We’re not going back.” This pledge was undermined by the pollution of John Redwood’s report, which even the greenery of Zac Goldsmith’s could not offset. Moreover, following Osborne’s opening shots, it is now clear that the contradictions thrown up by the raft of reviews- Goldsmith’s called for a moratorium on airport expansion, Redwood’s hailed their growth- will be resolved in the right’s favour.

The mantra that economic stability comes before tax cuts increasingly appears a fig leaf. Why allow an unreconstructed Thatcherite like Redwood off the leash? The answer seems clear; while Cameron may force his party to eat the meat of economic competence, he has now winked at the pudding of tax cuts further down the menu.Where once he declared that the measure of future policy would be how it aided, “the disadvantaged in society, not the rich”, he now flirts with rolling back inheritance tax- paid by only 6 per cent of estates.

The belief that core issues can be welcomed back as old friends, as long as they are paired up with new ground on public services and the environment, overestimates the degree to which brand Tory has been cleansed. Even when polling opinion ran in Cameron’s favour, those polled still maintained that his party hadn’t changed. They weren’t wrong.

A much-overlooked Populus survey reveals the chasm that continues to separate Tory MPs from others on social affairs. Less than half would create something like the NHS if designing a health service from scratch. While 94 per cent of Labour MPs agree that greater tolerance of different cultures would improve Britain, only 67 per cent of Conservatives concur. Where 83 per cent of Labour MPs and 92 per cent of Lib Dems, believe that that gay couples should have the same rights as heterosexuals, just 46 per cent of Tories do. And so, like a necrophiliac cult Tory MPs continue to lust after dead policies.

Cameron’s contortions are symptomatic of the wider difficulty of defining what it means to be a conservative in the twenty-first century. He is yet to find a coherent narrative. His dystopian “broken society” rhetoric, sits uneasily with his previous cry to “let sunshine win the day”.

It is ironic that Osborne should now position the party as “successors of the Thatcher inheritance.” It was her market forces which unleashed the atomising trends that undercut Burke’s “little platoons”, and dampened the bonds of church, queen and country. Thatcher’s legacy was a wasteland for British conservatism.

Cameron surely still has enough nous to prepare a far more centrist manifesto than the last three leaders. Yet he cannot twin these moves with oxygen masks for the decrepit right. The old tunes only lead the Tory party to its own danse macabre.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 02/10/07

January 31, 2007

Labour Must Challenge Cameron On Progressive Grounds

Gordon Brown has now entered his 13th year as Prime Minister in-waiting; such a sustained advantage is unprecedented in modern British politics. Milburn, Blunkett, Clarke, Johnson, all previously touted as potential challengers have fallen by the wayside, with Reid set to follow them. The big clunking fist has not even been needed; they have all variously suffered self-inflicted or departmental wounds. That Brown has himself avoided any of these is testimony to his political strengths.

However, the strengths of Brown’s position come with attendant difficulties. The years he has had to prepare are matched by the weight of expectation. He has a tricky balancing act to pull off; he must distinguish himself sufficiently from Blair’s errors without discrediting the governments of which he was an integral part. Finally, in David Cameron he faces a Conservative leader with a significantly better chance of winning the next election than his predecessors.

Labour’s scattergun approach to Cameron has been inadequate and even contradictory. He has been portrayed as an essentially vacuous politician but also as a secret Thatcherite, red in tooth and claw; described as a liberal conservative but also hit with that dusted-down epithet ‘same old Tory’. Of course, in part these reflect Cameron’s own ambiguities, yet to be resolved, but the negativity of these attacks weakens them. Labour needs to project a message which simultaneously challenges Cameron and offers positive reasons to vote for Labour. One of the problems for Labour in recent years has been a shortage of positive, innovative policies, reflected in the haemorrhaging of members. As deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas has noted, between 2000 and 2006 the party lost 160,000 members- one every 20 minutes.

Brown must adopt a more fruitful position. Firstly, he must recognise that Cameron is sincere in his attempts at mapping out a modernised conservatism. Although to call it modernised is to miss the ways in which Cameron’s conservatism harks back to the more liberal and pragmatic conservatism that reigned before Thatcher. From this Brown can argue that while Cameron may will progressive ends he is still insufficiently equipped with the progressive means to make good on them. There are potentially significant political divides for Brown to mark out on Europe, climate change and social justice, but he will need to refashion Labour to do so.

The German presidency is moving Europe slowly up the political agenda and with a new French President elected in May the ‘period of reflection’ may finally end. Cameron has been wary of discussing Europe since his botched plan to pull Conservative MEP’s out of the European People’s Party; he is also distinctly averse to European integration. Brown must exploit this opportunity to argue that only an engaged, stronger Europe can tackle climate change. He has been noticeably warmer in his words on Europe recently, and his closest confidant, Ed Balls, last month spoke of the need for a tighter EU emissions trading scheme and of his hopes of using the EU as a platform for a world emissions scheme. On the diplomatic level Brown must court Spain’s Zapatero and Italy’s Prodi both alienated by Blair’s alliance with their predecessors.

One of the impacts of Cameron’s leadership has been to ratchet climate change up the domestic political agenda. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats- with their green tax proposals- have been making the political running in this area. Brown has been reluctant to push green taxes that risk hitting the poor. But the opportunity for Labour to seize the mantle on this issue is being explored by David Miliband in the form of personal carbon trading. Individuals receive an allowance for their energy use, perhaps stored on a card, with those who wish to exceed their quota buying off those with a surplus. Brown should seriously consider this proposal its appeal being two-fold; it utilises the power of the market to provide incentives for environmental efficiency, and it redistributes wealth from the rich- who use more energy- to the poor who use less.

Which brings us to social justice; following on from the recent embrace of Polly Toynbee, Cameron ended the year by declaring his aspiration to become the “party for working people.” He hopes to reduce poverty by harnessing the energies of the voluntary sector and social enterprise, as reflected in his maxim,”‘there is such a thing as society, its just not the same as the state.” Compare this to Brown’s argument that “fairness can be advanced by but cannot, in the end, be guaranteed by charities, however benevolent, by markets, however dynamic…but guaranteed only by enabling government.” and we have a telling divide on the role of the state. The problem for Cameron is that the evidence is against him. The most equal societies in Europe- and in a recent poll the happiest to boot- are the Nordics with high public spending and redistributive taxation. The under-funded voluntary sector can be a partner for the state but not a substitute. The two Ed’s, Balls and Miliband, have both shown flashes of the potential for Brown, speaking of launching a ‘Make Child Poverty History’ drive.

Cameron’s words on the environment and social justice should neither be lampooned nor dismissed. Instead, positively grasping the political openings that he is providing may offer the centre-left the best chance of fulfillment for a generation.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 30/01/07

August 03, 2006

PR For Labour

No not spin and such works but proportional representation…

For many individuals voting is their primary and perhaps single conscious political act over the four-five year electoral cycle. Thus, the significance of the electoral system extends beyond determining the composition of a new government; it sends out crucial signals on the values represented within the political system.

Elections as the most conspicuous means by which the government is held accountable must be seen to embody elementary principles of fairness and reliability. Essentially, an electoral system must create a solid, trustworthy base for a new government to legitimise itself upon.

Conversely, the long-standing Westminster FPTP system perpetuates the symptoms of cynicism and distrust that currently feed into our wider political malaise.

The simple disproportionate ratio of votes to seats has been well documented, simply to say that as concerns Labour we achieved our highest ever proportion of the vote in the 1951 election (49 per cent)- only to then end up with less seats than the Conservatives.

Yet the perverse and malicious effects of PR run deeper than this. Under FPTP what matters are the swing seats that make and break majorities. This electoral curiosity has consistently distorted the priorities of parties by holding them in thrall to the small, unrepresentative minorities within these. In Labour’s case this has created an unwillingess to set out the honest case for wealth redistribution and poverty eradication for fear of upsetting these very minorities. The result two-fold – we have not been radical enough in winning the argument on inequality, and at the same time where gains have been made they have too often been silent gains.

The disproportionate focus on swing voters can leave some feeling virtually disenfranchised and even alienated- one facet of FPTPs contribution to the turnout problem. The other is the opinion expressed by most first-time voters to me; that of the apparent irrelevance of their vote in the face of entrenched majorities.Imagine the liberating and emancipatory effect of being able with PR to tell all these individuals that abstention or wasted votes are things of the past.

We are often told that voters are turned off by the less clear-cut ideological distinctions between the main parties, however, surely this process has been reciprocal; parties didn’t just become less ideological, so did voters. Yet left and right and core views on the role of the state do still matter; go anywhere in the world and you soon see the basic outlines of the left:right dichotomy. If parties need to reaffirm some core principles from time to time; i’m thinking equality (the defining value of social democracy) in Labour’s case, then perhaps so too do some voters. FPTP works against this though by encouraging cynical, short-term tactical voting rather than long-term commitment on the basis of core principles. Perhaps another factor in declining party membership.

The final qualm with FPTP is the dangerous power it could give to a future Conservative government. This power is particularly potent under Britain’s unwritten constitution, with no long-term public or social interest constitutionally enshrined, unlike in Germany for instance. Only one thing is necessary to marshal the deep powers of the unitary British state: a simple majority in the House of Commons. A future Conservative government with a majority could easily trim and trim and trim away at both the silent and explicit good Labour has done. The Conservatives are surely aware of this hence the reason that even in the bizarre situation of needing to be 10 per cent ahead to win- to Labour’s 1 per cent- they refuse to broker any discussion on PR.

For Labour it is surely far better to risk sharing power with the Liberals than to lose it to a ruthless, power hungry Conservative majority. Perhaps if we had shared power in the Thatcher era we would not have gone from being one of the more equal European countries to having the highest level of child poverty. Perhaps we could have reached a compromise on trade unions, enshrining their rights as social partners and thus avoiding both bastardised corporatism and Thatcherite emasculation. Perhaps we could have sustained reasonable public services and not failed both young and old generations with below-par health and education systems.

At the centre of all this is my conviction that we are at heart not a Conservative country; Labour has made important strides in shifting Britain back to a more decent and fair consensus. One too valuable, particularly for the most vulnerable, to be sacrificed upon the vagaries of the electoral system.

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