Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Labour - what are they for?

Labour, it seems, needs a new leader. The current one, apparently, is "not electable". But what difference will a new one make? What is the problem with the policies of the current leader that has driven rebellions and resignations in the parliamentary party since the day he was elected? Surely nobody can seriously suggest the day-one wave of resignations and subsequent chorus of complaints were about his leadership style.

Even the current rebellion, incubating since the start, is not about any particular leadership failing. It was going to happen after his first by-election, but Labour did well. It would have happened after the council elections, but again, the results were not bad enough. Now, after Corbyn campaigned for remain while Hilary Benn stalked the Shadow Cabinet for people to join the revolt, the excuse is the very division the dissidents fomented.

This is quite clearly not about leadership, or unity. It is about Corbyn, and what he stands for. But what alternative is being offered? What will Angela Eagle offer instead, apart from platitudes about Leadership, Unity and perhaps Apple Pie?

The Labour party's problems between Corbyn, the Parliamentary party, the Unions and the Constituency parties are just a symptom of a wider failure to understand and articulate what is the point of Labour. A failure that has lost them two general elections, and caused the massive alienation that lost the referendum  campaign in their previous "heartlands".


I suspect that before they can agree on a leader who can take them into the next election, however soon that may be, there are some fundamental questions they need to answer.
  1. What caused the current Great Recession? The Tories argued that it was Labour overspending or incompetence or some such. During the election there was no clear counternarrative.
  2. Why did Labour lose the last general election? Were they really too left wing? Was it Ed's face or bacon sandwiches? Or did Labour voters fail to turn out for a programme that was economically and philosophically indistinguishable from Tory neo-liberalism, with slightly less austerity? Were voters afraid Labour would crash the economy again? (See question one)
  3. How will Labour address the very real grievances of the north of England who voted in such numbers for Brexit, against the (however muted) advice of the party elite? Because I'm not sure privatising a few more public bodies and mortgaging infrastructure in additional public private "partnerships" is going to cut it.
  4. What alternative, if any, will Labour offer in Parliament and in their public advocacy to the current Conservative economic philosophy of austerity and what seems like free market fundamentalism?
The instincts of the PLP members who nominated Corbyn in order to have a wide-ranging debate were sound. It is tragic that during the campaign and following his election to the leadership this debate did not happen. If Labour is to survive as a political force in the UK (or at least in Britain) it must move the debate beyond platitudes about electability and leadership, and onto why anyone should elect them!


What is Labour for?

Monday, July 11, 2016

On anger and what to do with it

When the Referendum result gradually became clear, I was very disappointed. Not by the result so much as by what it said about us as a country. But as I thought about how it had come about, I felt anger. This is what I wrote on FriendFace shortly afterwards:

I am not angry with the voters, but with the establishment that deregulated the financial sector that caused the crash.
I am angry with the government that chose austerity and made the poorest among us pay for the greed of the bankers.
I am angry with the cynical exit campaign which blamed migrants for the austerity we are suffering.  
I am angry with the politicians who have failed for years to challenge that narrative.  
I am angry with the media which covered the campaign as if it were just a Tory party squabble, and failed to properly examine the unjustified claims - from both sides.  
I am angry with BBC NI and Nolan for trivialising the debate.  
I am angry with the DUP for putting petty dislike of Europe before the very existence of the United Kingdom.  
I am angry about a political discourse in which evidence is treated as optional, and everyone feels entitled to their own facts.  
I am angry that we are losing the best chance we had to tackle multinational tax avoidance, pollution, and climate change. 
I am angry.
This is not the end of the world, but we will all be the poorer for this foolish and muddled decision.

I am still angry. We allowed grievances to build up. We failed to challenge those who blamed immigration for the problems. And we allowed a false and unprincipled campaign to prevail. When the result was announced, second thoughts were voiced. Facts began to intrude. Minds changed. There is a case to be made that the referendum does NOT express the settled will of the British people as a whole. It may yet be that our constitutional system will allow a chance for further reflection.

But, in the meantime, we must as a country decide what sort of exit we want, if that is what we're going to have. What kind of relationship do we want with the EU, and with the rest of Europe? Where we will continue to cooperate with our European friends and allies, and where we want to step back?

The election - if that's the right word - of the politically astute (if somewhat opportunistic) Theresa May as leader of the Tories means that the party of government has lurched to the Right. It's not clear that the former industrial heartlands of England who voted (to varying degrees) for Exit wanted that.  But that's what we got.

If we are to avoid a right-wing elite setting the agenda for country's future for the next few parliaments, we need to hold the government to account. The press need to do a better job than they did during the referendum campaign. And the opposition need to do a better job than they did under the Coalition.

Over to you, Eagle, Corbyn, Farron (and possibly even Murdoch) - your country needs you!

Or in Murdoch's case, our country needs you (to do your job, not pursue your self-interest).

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Our Disenfranchised Young - Let them be heard

The EU Referendum was an outrage. The young - who have most to lose - were denied a voice. And to be quite blunt, the old - who voted to leave in such numbers - will have to live with the consequences for the shortest time. This is wrong!


There must be another referendum, in which our 16 and 17 year old citizens who were denied a voice - denied a vote - can have their say!


Young lives matter - Let them speak!

Friday, June 24, 2016

DUPed again!

I am saddened by last night's referendum result. The vote to leave will cause economic damage, it is true. But more seriously, it threatens the stability of the UK and Europe. And the working people who seem to have voted overwhelmingly for exit are likely to pay the price - how will they not, under a government which has already made them pay the price for the Bankers’ Recession?

Britain (or possibly just England and Wales) can survive outside the EU. The skies will not fall, as the official remain campaign promised, but we will be the worse for it. If the decision had been taken after careful reflection, and an honest campaign, I would not have minded so much. But to be dragged out of an organisation that was founded to help ensure peace in Europe and to prevent a hyper capitalist race to the bottom in working conditions, by a campaign that was so thoroughly dishonest, racist, and misleading, is hard to stomach.

Remain’s project fear was defeated by Vote Leave’s fear and hatred. The country has taken a selfish and inward looking turn. Facts have become optional in our political discourse. Now we will wake up and begin to realise what we have, collectively, done.

The farmers have voted for an end to agricultural subsidies, like turkeys for Christmas. Vote Leave has given comfort to every racist in the country and to far right fascists throughout Europe. And at the end of it we may well concede "uncontrolled migration" from the EU as the price of access to the EU's single market.

And we may now see the end of the UK. That will be the final irony for the dreamers of Empire who begrudged the pooling of sovereignty that kept the peace, encouraged laggards to protect the environment, and ended predatory corporate practises like roaming charges. Little Englanders indeed.

So, Boris, when will the NHS be getting its extra £350 million?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Vote Leave because... Migration?

Migrants are flooding into the UK, claiming benefits, clogging up hospitals and stretching services to breaking point - all thanks to EU rules - or so the Brexit campaign seems to say.

But are they?

Well, some flood in, and some flood out. Lots of elderly Brits, for example, swarm to Spain and clog up their hospitals. Many British people work in Europe. Or study at European Universities - for rather less than £9000 a year! That is not so bad for this country.

Inward migration is mostly young people who are working, and paying taxes. In fact migrants on average pay more towards the NHS and schools than us natives. And being young and healthy, they use the NHS less. Win win! In fact, being in the EU means that if our under resourced NHS cannot provide treatment quickly enough, it is sometimes possible to be referred for treatment in a European country, free of charge.

So if the NHS is under pressure, and it is, it's not because of the disproportionate share of money the migrants are contributing - it's because it's not being funded properly.

Same with schools and housing. Rents are not high because of net migration - that barely compensates for our falling birth rate. Rents are high because there aren't enough houses. We have failed to build enough for the last few parliaments! The solution is building, not Brexit!

When a society starts to blame other ethnic groups or minorities for its problems, it becomes very ugly very quickly. And when the problems are caused by the politicians we choose, the hypocrisy is staggering.

But if the Brexit campaign wins and we leave the EU, with all the economic pressures that will bring, how much more will have to be blamed on migrants and innocent minorities. How much more divided will our society become?

Is that the sort of country we want?

We can choose a better way. Will we?

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Farage - the new Trump?

The poisoning of politics continues apace, as Nigel Farage plumbs new depths. Following on his "there will be riots" speech, with its echoes of Enoch Powell, now he seems to be channelling Donald Trump, who earlier called Mexicans criminals and rapists. Farage in his turn seems to be characterising migrants - or maybe just Turks en masse - as molesters of women.

At least we have the English Channel, so Farage won't need to repeat Trump's demand for a wall. Would he have had it built by refugees, and funded by Turkey, I wonder?

Friday, June 03, 2016

Spend spend spend!

I wonder how many people the Brexit campaign have promised the £350 million a week of savings on EU membership to?

Last week it was the NHS. Then it seemed to be the Environment. Neither of them are causes close to the hearts of the right wing conservatives who make most of the running in the Brexit campaign. But if you talk to Brexit-inclined farmers concerned about loss of EU subsidy, they seem to think the savings will be spent on continuing the subsidies.

So the NHS, the Environment, and farmers could receive up to 350m of extra money (or not lose the money, in the farmers' case). It reminds me of the promised speeds in broadband ads. Up to 350 could mean very little indeed to your favoured cause.

But it's worse than that. Mrs Thatcher negotiated a rebate back in the last millennium, so it's only "up to £276m". Or "up to £161m" if you count the money the EU spends on support for the UK - from farming to projects in disadvantaged areas!

And if you want a hint about where the "savings" are actually likely to be spent, look at the government's current priorities - cuts for the disadvantaged, and tax cuts for the rich, and broken promises on pollution and the Environment. What are the real chances of a Damascus Road conversion to non-private health care, saving the planet, or support for the poorest parts of our country?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

What next - Rivers of Blood?

The EU debate is becoming toxic. Nigel Farage seems to be channelling Enoch Powell, in his very own "rivers of blood" moment. He claims to foresee violence on the streets if immigration is not controlled. He says it is difficult to contemplate, but nothing is impossible.

Of course, by talking up the difficulties and ignoring the benefits of immigration, by stoking fears - not least by raising the spectre of violence - he can only increase the chances of mistrust, resentment, and inter-communal strife!

Christ said, "Blessed are the Peacemakers."

Or as my spellchecker put it, "needed are the Peacemakers!"

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Things I don't understand about executive pay

rather apt image from clipartbest.com
Mark price, ex head of Waitrose, decided last year to look for a better job (or, more accurately, another job to add to the list of jobs he already manages to do at once). A week ago, it came out that this somehow entitles him to £1.9 million compensation. If the rest of us decided to look for a job we liked better, I'm pretty sure our employers would not be rushing to pay us for NOT working for them. And if he was so bad that they needed to get rid of him, why was he not just sacked - like less privileged people would be?

In case you're confused about any of this, Waitrose have explained it: The timing of Mr Price's exit was agreed "in the best interests of the partnership", and this had "private contractual implications, hence the payment announced today". Aren't you glad it's all clear now?

If this absurd payment really is a contractual requirement that can't be avoided (and it seems implausible that anyone would offer such a contract), shouldn't the staff, who own Waitrose, be looking for compensation from the crazily generous individual who negotiated such a ridiculously costly deal with their money?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

1916 and all that


It's been a funny old year. One hundred years on from 1916, the Easter Rising, and Battle of the Somme, some of the old wars are still being fought. Just not quite how I expected.

The commemoration of the Easter Rising in the Republic has seen a nuanced, mature reflection on a rising whose failure is nevertheless seen as a foundational event for the Irish State. The rising was acknowledged as deeply unpopular at the time in Ireland, but the aftermath - the vengeful execution of the leaders by the British military authorities - turned the tide of Irish public opinion. The suffering and deaths, of civilians and combatants on both sides, have been acknowledged.
one of "theirs"

Up North, the picture is grimmer. Sinn Fein (North and South) seemed uneasy at the inclusiveness of the commemorations. The DUP's attitude was churlish in the extreme - it was not for them to empathise with the other tradition in this island. They even refused to attend the civic reception in Belfast's City Hall that commemorates this Nationalist event in the current "decade of centenaries". They will only commemorate "their own" events, it seems.
one of "ours"
When will we be able to deal with the divisions and hurts of the past?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What next for Labour

Labour has a new leader. Jeremy Corbyn won 59.5% of the vote. The party seems quite clear about this choice: Corbyn won a large majority - not just among recently-joining affiliates, but also among the full members of the party. They are clearly in it for the long haul - this was not just a campaign by a few blow-ins who wanted to sabotage the election.

And yet senior figures in the parliamentary party are resigning from their shadow ministry and spokesperson roles in protest. They fear Corbyn is unelectable, and will drag the party towards a position the electorate will not accept. Perhaps he will - or perhaps not.

But what these senior figures are missing,  or choosing to ignore, is that the party has rejected what they themselves are offering. They should think long and hard before plunging their party into a feud that will indeed make Labour unelectable!

Their party seems quite certain it does not want "more of the same." Now might be a good time to sit down and come up with an alternative to Cameron's Conservative austerity and Blair's almost-Conservative austerity lite.

picture: (c) Jim on Flickr, some rights reserved.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Party like it's 1997

It seems like both of Northern Ireland's main Unionist parties are stuck in the last Millennium, partying in the last chance saloon like it's 1997. The trigger was a murder, believed by the Police to be by members of the IRA, although sanctioned neither by the IRA's leadership nor by Sinn Fein (formerly known as the IRA's political wing).

First the Ulster Unionists walk out of the Executive. Then the Democratic Unionists join in the brinkmanship, with a secret ultimatum to the UK Government.

I'm not sure what to think.

Either the Unionist parties are still stuck in the 1990s, and have not noticed that Sinn Fein is firmly wedded to the political process, with no appetite for a return to "war" - or the two Unionist parties want to avoid the blame for the impending welfare cuts (and they hope that business as usual can resume after their teacup has calmed down, and their toys have been returned to the pram).

Is it too much to ask for some grown-up politics?

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Crisis in Calais?

How is a strike in Calais suddenly all about immigrants?

If you've been watching the news on the BBC, you'll know there is a huge crisis of illegal immigrants swarming through Calais, and causing traffic chaos throughout southern England. At least that's how the BBC and other outlets have been telling it. But is this really what is going on?

Sort of. A bit. Apparently a ferry company is stopping a route, and the ferry workers in Calais are on strike. Hence the traffic delays, as lorries pile up in Kent, waiting for the routes to reopen. There are huge queues for the tunnel, and the migrants and refugees camped near Calais are taking the opportunity to sneak on board vehicles bound for the UK.

So a strike is causing traffic delays, which have allowed a few hundred illegal immigrants (or, quite likely, refugees fleeing from war and oppression) to try to enter the UK. But somehow in the media the story is an immigrant crisis.

Something is wrong, somewhere.


Sunday, August 02, 2015

How history is made

Picture: Greg Gjerdingen
Henry Ford (of motor car fame) famously said that History is Bunk - or so we think. What he actually said, in the Chicago Tribune in 1916, was: "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today."

He wasn't really talking about History though - he wanted people to work for the future, not to live in the past, But when he talked about "the history we make today," he said something very true about how history comes to be. History is not just remembered, or even discovered. History is made.

Back in May, we all knew that the Coalition's days were numbered. We knew there would be a new coalition. We knew the Tories were on their way out. But on 7th May the people spoke - and they didn't say what we had been told to expect.  Suddenly what we all knew wasn't true any more. The press and pundits had been caught out.

But just as Nature abhors a vaccuum, pundits need a Truth to tell. A Truth had to be found - and quickly! Labour needed to know why they had lost. Pollsters needed to know why they had been wrong. And we who had been following the news wanted to make sense of it all.

Some pundits and pollsters got in fast with Shy Tories: the voters on the right who didn't like to admit their right-wing tendencies in public (and especially to pollsters).  Although the UKIP campaign suggested that people weren't all that hesitant to speak out against what they saw as a "progressive" project of "uncontrolled immigration".

It turned out when the polls had been digested a bit that it was more "lazy lefties" that "shy tories" - voters on the Left had, for some reason, failed to turn out. The next question, in the solidifying narrative of how the election was lost, was "why". Why hadn't more people voted Labour? We already "know" why voters deserted the Lib Dems, but that's a whole different story.

There were a few theories to explain Labour's defeat. Ed Milliband had moved too far to the Left. Ed was unelectable. The campaign was ineffective. Their economic programme was not credible. The media were against them. Aspirational voters were turned off.

There was merit in many of these ideas, but the debate has been shaped by the Labour leadership contest - and in that contest, there are three broadly Blairite candidates from the right of the Party, and Jeremy Corbyn, the old-school candidate who is proving unexpectedly popular. The other candidates need to show that Corbyn is not the answer to whatever question we should be asking. And (post-Levenson) much of the UK's press is worried by any challenge to the narrative of deregulation and freedom for "wealth creators" (and mainly multinational wealth creators). So we have seen a sustained drumbeat of "too far to the left." A consensus is forming. The fluid Present, with its many competing stories, is solidifying into History before our eyes.

Soon history will be written in stone. We will all know that the UK electorate has no appetite for redistributive taxation or a non-punitive welfare system... that people don't believe we can fund adequate care or pensions for the elderly... that we won't vote for enough taxation to pay for public services... that people think regulation of rapacious multinationals and the finance "industry" will hurt the economy and cost jobs.

Perhaps before this becomes solid, unquestionable history - the stuff that "everybody knows" - we should look again at some of the unspoken assumptions that underlie this worldview, and consider some alternative possibilities?