The Labour Party divide isn’t about power vs purity 

It puzzles me how such astute electioneering experts who pride themselves on their ability to reach out beyond their own ‘tribe’ can fail so spectacularly to understand that not everyone in their own party is motivated by the same things they are.
The Labour Party talkers have gone full panic mode this week, with arguments about the split between the “left” and the “right”, the “purists” and the “realists.”

But the split in Labour isn’t as simple as a split between left and right, and it certainly isn’t as simple as purists and realists; rather, it is a split between the motivations of those who think all social progress happens through a strong executive government, and those who see parliamentary democracy as only one tool of many for bringing about social progress.

Those in the “executive government is all” camp aren’t necessarily cynical bastards who think power is an end in itself (undoubtedly there are people like this on all sides of politics but that’s not who I’m writing about here). Many of these people are motivated by a desire to win elections because, in their world view, it is the only way social progress of whatever sort they seek can occur.

It is not, of course, a coincidence that there is a lot of overlap between people who take this world view and people who have a career in the world of politics, be it in parliament, or be it in journalism or election strategy.

Most political activists, on the other hand, believe that social progress happens through a variety of means. Parliamentary democracy might be one means of achieving change but legislation isn’t everything and the role of the executive within the legislative process certainly isn’t everything to this group. Many of these people support electoral reform in some way, wouldn’t mind seeing a proportional system with power-sharing and coalitions that hold each other to account rather than ‘strong government’ from one single party.

As far as the Labour leadership candidates are concerned, it might be wise for them to keep in mind that much of their party’s new intake consists of former Liberal Democrat members or voters, who are quite used to voting on the basis of wanting the makeup of parliament to be such that it represents their values rather than first and foremost expecting to form a strong executive government.

And many Labour members are also activists. Far from an insular, narcissistic ideological purity, activists tend to believe that changing attitudes, empowering communities, and actually making a positive impact in all sorts of practical ways, is as important, if not more important, than getting a Labour government. That’s not because they are too pure for power and prefer the self-indulgence of opposition, but rather, because they see evidence that plenty can be done with marches, strikes, community organising, volunteering in the local church or foodbank, giving talks in schools, validating and listening to marginalised people, consumer power, petitions, lobbying and, of course, by having the MPs you want in parliament to represent and vote against things or table EDMs or basically get things done for their constituents – all without necessarily being in government.

In other words, it is a split based on a disagreement about the best way to achieve practical change, not a split between those who want practical change and people who want an ideological circle jerk, as is repeatedly inferred by increasingly rude senior Labour figures, supposedly experts in this stuff, who, for all their pride in understanding Tory voters, don’t seem to have any understanding of their own.

I must admit I tend to fall into the second group. Most significant societal progress has not happened solely as a result of electing the right people to power and letting them get on with it. It is always, always, always driven by other types of activism. I don’t conclude from that, as some do, that parliamentary democracy is irrelevant. But it means when I vote, I am choosing people who I think will be most likely to be influenced by all the other forces driving that social progress; that they will represent their constituents rather than being bullied by whips even if it’s contrary to their constituents’ interests, raise important issues in parliament on our behalf, to do meaningful work in the constituency, to be thoughtful and evidence-based in their approach to getting things done, and be always focused on the impact a policy has on the public, not just its marketability.

What’s curious to me is that for all their talk of listening to people you disagree with and meeting people where their values already lie, people like Liz Kendall seem to have no clue whatsoever about how to connect with the people they need at this stage of their campaign – and that is Labour Party members.

As Chuka Umunna so wisely put it, “screaming at voters” doesn’t change their minds if what you’re screaming isn’t what they care about.

And asserting that you are popular and electable because, well, because you say so doesn’t make a convincing case. This is the crux of the problem. Jeremy Corbyn may of course be unelectable in a general election. But the problem is that in many people’s eyes, so are the other three.

Yes, it’s simplistic and false to say that the Labour Party lost the last election because it was not left-wing enough – but it is also simplistic and false to say that it lost simply for being too left-wing, and that all the party has to do to win next time is move a bit further to the right.

Everyone knows Ed Miliband wasn’t trusted on the economy. That isn’t the same as being left-wing. It is also about leadership skills and credibility; about a lack of original ideas and the absence of a positive narrative. Not being on the extreme left of the party is not the same as having these things. You have to have other qualities to offer as well as being comfortable moving to the right. For a start, you have to actually be good at campaigning, communicating, and persuading – and the first rule of being good at that, surely, is understanding how to speak to your current audience.

You’d think cold-headed strategists who believe the most important thing is to win would approach a Labour leadership contest by appealing to the Labour membership. In being utterly unable to do so, Kendall, Cooper, and Burnham demonstrate the vacuousness of their position – and the difference between themselves and the ultimate election-winner, Tony Blair. Just as his supporters will remind us that Tony Blair achieved some progressive things (a minimum wage, a fox-hunting ban, tax credits and the Human Rights Act, many of which, incidentally, are now seen as left-wing) but he had to win over middle-England first, I am inclined to remind them that he may have won over middle-England – but he won the Labour leadership first.

And so the party grandees are throwing a sulk and insulting the party members because these three are failing to do that. Because Jeremy Corbyn’s arguments are seen by some in the party as so “ridiculous” that they’ve forgotten to actually counter them.

If you want to make sure Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t get the leadership then you have to understand why people are supporting him. It’s amazing that anyone thinks “screaming” that he’s unelectable will work. It’s amazing that they don’t hear the double standards as they pompously lecture people on how they must never mention the racism and wider bigotry that lies behind Ukip’s appeal in case it alienates racists and bigots, while sneering at and insulting the people they disagree with every time they open their mouths.

Not everyone lives and dies for the cult of the Labour Party. Not even all Labour members, and certainly not your new, younger ones. Alistair Campbell apparently once said of the left-leaning voters who could abandon the party as it drove to the centre: “where can they go?” Well, nowadays, lots of places. Look at Scotland. The Labour Party is one of the parties in parliament; it is one tool in achieving social progress. But it is not the only one. If the Labour Party doesn’t want people like that to be members, then go ahead and chase them out calling them names, insulting their motives and, worst of all perhaps, sneering at young people for daring to take an interest in politics and say what they truly think.

But to then get on their high horses about how they’re so good at reaching out to new voters after doing that beggars belief. Each campaign for the party leadership is an audition in the candidates’ campaigning skills. It’s not just about left and right but the ability to persuade, negotiate – to lead. If Jeremy Corbyn is so bad at these things, and the other three are so much better, how come they are all so dismally failing to beat him?

What is the point of the Labour Party? 

What is the point of the Labour Party? It’s not the first time I’ve asked this. But maybe it will be the last. Maybe I’ll give up asking. Perhaps once they pick a leader this time they will make the answer clear and I won’t have to keep asking.

Right now they seem to be saying that the point of Labour is to get back into government. That sounds reasonable until you realise that’s where it stops. That’s the end in itself. The point of Labour is to give Labour’s top names a career and to win elections. But ask them why they want to be prime minister, the party strategists, the electoral ‘realists’ who do nothing but consume polling data and spit out clichéd inanities about aspiration while insisting they are in touch with ‘the public’, ask them what it is they want to do with their power, and they look at you blankly.

Liz Kendall wants to be leader because she wants the Labour Party to win elections. And then what? She’s often compared to Tony Blair but she has none of the vision, no overriding sense of how she wants to transform the country, that made people believe in Blair. Or, if she does, she hides it from Labour members during the leadership contest, which makes me a little nervous.

Yvette Cooper, according to one new MP, wants to be prime minister because she wants the economy to be strong and because she knows that the internet exists. A strong economy based on a digital revolution, which could be a joke policy from the Thick of It, except it’s too boring.

Andy Burnham, from what I can establish, thinks he’s the best candidate because he has friends, has a constituency that he goes back to sometimes, used to work at a publishing company and likes football.

And they wonder why Jeremy Corbyn is grabbing people’s imagination. At least he sounds as he has an idea or two in his head about what he actually thinks the country needs. At least he has a bit of passion, at least he trips over his words rather than reading them off a page without caring if they even make sense or directly contradict the logic of something else he’s said only moments ago.

It’s hard to expect people to take seriously the meaning of labels like hard left when the rest of the accepted narrative has moved so far to the right that Nigel Farage is in touch, George Osborne is a moderate man of the working people, putting up taxes for people in work on low pay is balanced, and suggesting that child poverty is bad or that sick people shouldn’t have even more money taken away from them, is all the stuff of the so-called looney left. It doesn’t matter that policies like working tax credits were the stuff of popular, centrist Blairism not so long ago.

And yet the left of the party, not the ones with the ever-changing principles and week-long memories, are the ones to get attacked for moral relativism.

It’s true that the Conservatives won the last election, and it’s true that there’s a lot of public hostility to various aspects of the welfare state. But the Conservatives did not, however much it seems to be the accepted popular narrative, win by some honking, stonking majority. They did better than everybody expected with their surprise victory, but it was still, compared with Blair, or Thatcher, by the skin of their teeth. And that’s without even beginning to consider the mess of the electoral system. The vast majority of people in the country did not vote Tory, and did not vote centre right.

The Tories won the election but that doesn’t mean democracy stops for five years. We don’t have an elected dictatorship, we have a parliamentary democracy. The Labour MPs elected to parliament have a job to do. They are paid to do it – and paid rather good money to do it. That job is holding the government to account, and representing their own constituents – not worrying about what floating voters in a handful of other marginal seats may or may not be concerned with in five years time. 

Let’s not forget that the party will oppose the government at the risk of losing the ‘centre ground’ when it suits them, of course; the link between the unions and the Labour Party is hammed up to be just as toxic as anti-benefit sentiments but the party speaks up against anti-union reforms because that could impact the party’s pockets, rather than just yours or mine.

Arguments about the actual impact of the Welfare Bill won’t matter to the party ‘realists’ of course – if they were going to be listen to those impacted by the cuts they would have done so by now – but there’s a cynical, political argument as well for not letting the centre be dragged any further to the right. How much further can this go? If cutting taxes for people in work has become some sort of extreme left wing socialism, then where will the centre ground be in five years? And Labour think they can win an election, on that ground, on the terms set by George Osborne, in five years time? By repeating patronising platitudes and hoping the SNP implode or that Scottish voters simply decide they rather like Liz Kendall and quite fancy another five years of cuts and privatisation, actually?

The Labour ‘realists’ keep going on about how Labour needs to stay as a party of government, not a party of protest. But Labour MPs are sitting in the House of Commons, paid by those taxpayers that the ‘realists’ keep pretending they care about. They have a choice. They can take a ‘tough decision’ and use their influence to hold the government to account, as they’re paid to do. Or they can sit on their hands and stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to oppose things that will cause actual harm just to make an abstract point. A point they will be hammered on anyway, because Labour will probably always be seen as the party of the welfare stare. Labour is the party of the welfare state. Or, rather, it was, once upon a time. If any of the leadership hopefuls really want Labour to be seen as a party of government, they should take a little bit less interest in the beauty pageant of leadership contests, or the faffing around with percentages in marginals to decide what position to take on any given day, and take a little bit more interest in showing they are actually up to the serious business of governing.

What happens to Labour if ex-Lib Dems vote Green?

The week that Ed Miliband made his speech about being less photogenic than David Cameron, the Green Party announced a new economic policy: a wealth tax, affecting around 300,000 people, of 1-2%. This tax would only fall upon people with over £3m, making it difficult for those who oppose it to obfuscate with philosophical questions about who we can legitimately consider rich and thin ends of wedges and where do we draw lines. There may be a debate to be had about all of that, but whether you define ‘rich’ in terms of capacity to buy things, comparative living standards, whether you measure it by median wealth or by mean, it’s really beyond argument that £3m places you firmly in the ‘rich’ box.

The objective of policies like this is often not so much a matter of putting them into practice (I doubt the Greens are expecting to win a full parliamentary majority any time soon) but to flush out your opponents and lead them into a trap.

I’ve written before about why I’m not convinced that the 50p rate of tax is much of a solution to inequality, but if it was intended as a political trap for the Tories, as I suspect (cynically perhaps) that it was, then it worked beautifully. As soon as Miliband declared he would bring it back, the likes of Philip Blond were denouncing it as an attack on “average” hard-working families. They were either trying to spin the policy’s impact in a dishonest way, or they actually think £150,000 a year is an “average” income.

Similarly, the Green Party’s wealth tax may not make a huge difference to inequality either way (the rate of tax people are supposed to be paying is somewhat irrelevant if they don’t pay it) but it flushes out the worst logic against progressive taxation, and highlights the ridiculous extent to which it can be taken. We hear arguments that a wealth tax will disincentivise hard work. Because having £3m minus 1% is just peanuts, a totally demotivating low wage. Who would ever work for that, right? Never mind the fact that the second part of this argument is usually that these people have such high earnings in the first place because they have such a strong work ethic.

Around the time the Green Party was publishing its wealth tax proposal, former Labour leader Tony Blair was making jokes to the think tank Progress about the exact number of millions he is worth. That he believes the difference between £100m and £20m is significant enough to be worth correcting, that he thinks it’s funny to laugh, self-deprecatingly, at only having £20m, tells us a lot about the former Labour prime minister and the circles he moves in. Perhaps it also tells us something about the Labour Party; or rather, it reminds us of something about them. It reminds us of one reason why the British public grew slowly more and more sickened by the hypocritical smell of money sloshing around the same people who lectured us about morals and values and British citizenship every day of the week.

Labour has been rightly nervous about losing some of their more traditional Labour voters to Ukip, but they must not forget that the core of their strategy has been based on the presumption that the bulk of the disgruntled Lib Dems who turned to them in 2010 will stick with Labour into 2015. To get the majority they need, they are dependent on winning enough votes from those disgruntled Lib Dems to push them over the mark. That is a group of voters often mocked but not to be taken for granted, electorally speaking. These are people with strong values, who would often much rather vote for a small party that reflects those values, than vote tactically for the biggest party able to ‘keep the Tories out’. In other words, these are people who would very seriously consider voting Green in a general election.

The Labour Party needs to do more than just not be the Tories or the Lib Dems to secure those voters. Firstly, it needs to show it takes seriously human rights and civil liberties. These aren’t abstract philosophical concepts to be discussed over brandy on a rainy day to Lib Dems; they are central grounding principles which underpin everything else, from foreign affairs to welfare reforms, from policing to economics. Making Sadiq Khan shadow justice secretary is a good move but it may not be enough to win the trust of yellow voters, particularly given Labour’s pretty sour record on civil liberties.

Secondly, Lib-Dems-in-refuge and other potential Green voters will be looking for meaningful commitments on electoral and constitutional reform. Modernising the House of Lords is a policy area which sounds abstract and irrelevant to many, but is in fact essential to making any sort of real progress in all kinds of areas: education reform, welfare spending, and the right to die are all heavily influenced by the makeup of the upper house.

And thirdly – which is where the Green Party’s wealth tax comes in – former Lib Dem voters want to see fairer taxes, although not necessarily higher taxes. That’s something Nick Clegg likes saying because it sounds universally lovely yet it’s vague enough to mean more or less anything you want it to. But the sentiment underneath is actually an important point of principle for many Lib Dem voters. Many people don’t want taxes put up for the sake of it, but do want a modern tax system that reflects the disparity of wealth in the country, reflects wealth rather than income, and applies the same rationale for taxation to everyone.

Our tax system feels extremely outdated, with an entire scale of different bands up until £150,000 a year, and then from that point on, a flat rate of tax whether you earn £200,000, £1m or £50m. And that’s even if you ‘earn’ it in the way that Tony Blair is ‘worth’ £20m.

Just as the Tories managed to successfully tap into the lack of sympathy among people struggling to pay for a bigger mortgage towards council tenants with allegedly ‘spare’ bedrooms, and just as they managed to tap into the lack of sympathy for striking public sector workers among private sector workers with no pensions, the same populist attitude exists towards many left-wing policies. Politicians may very likely find that the majority of the public – be they unemployed or minimum wage workers, families earning £55,000 between them, and even many of those with twice that – will struggle to muster an enormous amount of sympathy for people whose wealth reaches into multiples of millions claiming they’re no longer motivated to bother working their hardest because they’ve been asked to pay an additional 1% in tax.

The Green Party might not be a huge electoral force, and they might not be all over the news in the way Ukip has been, but they could still win over enough ex-Lib Dems and disillusioned Labour voters to keep Labour from nailing down that nervously held together majority that they so keenly need to get back into power. Ed Miliband should spend less time making speeches about how he’s so much above the trivialities of politics, and get on with behaving like he’s a future progressive Labour prime minister, with a competent grasp on the severities of it.

Dear Labour party

Ed Miliband has had his clause IV moment. Apparently. He’s standing up to the GMB Union (well, kind of) in their recent motion to ban (sort of) the Blairite organisatiion Progress, from the Labour party. Or something.

It’s very important to the Labour party. They’ve all been bickering about it on twitter for days. Well, that, and the call Brown did or didn’t have with Murdoch where he threatened ‘war.’ Guido Fawkes has reported that Peter Mandelson told him the call did happen. (You can see why, after months of telling people how pointless and irrelevant Leveson was, a whole pile of Guido Fawkes types have suddenly decided it’s interesting after all, can’t you?) The Cabinet Office seemed to confirm Brown’s story that it didn’t. And now, Alistair Campbell’s diaries are explaining the details of the ego sandpit-slaps between Blair, Brown and Balls. Stop the presses! Apparently Blair said Brown was “brilliant, ambitious, and bonkers!” Well done you, Labour. You’ve really got your PR pants on straight, haven’t you? I mean, if the personal fighting of Mandelson, Brown, the GMB Union and Progress doesn’t get you rocking in excitement then what will.

Presumably every time Labour activists are on the doorstep voters say: “well, I do hope you’ve decided what your position is on Purple Book?” Or, “Personally, I find that ‘In The Black Labour’ is much more convincing than Blue Labour. Apparently there’s something called Orange Labour but I’ve never liked the colour Orange. I hope your next manifesto comes out with a striped cover. That would make me vote for you. This is all very important to me. And please make sure you denounce that think tank Progress. They are funded by pharmaceutical companies and they are similar to that group Militant from way back when. Would you like a cup of tea?”

Watching the Labour party at the moment is like watching a drunken fish trying to climb a tree. I say this with all the greatest of respect: what the bloody hell is the party doing? I mean, on the day Stephen Hester got his unpopular, controversial bonus, Ed Miliband made a speech about chocolate oranges, thus reminding everybody of why they actually all bloody well love capitalism; instant access to cheap tasty chocolate being a key plus. When the budget proved a (rather foreseeable) public relations disaster for George Osborne, the Labour party managed to make themselves almost sound even worse than the government as they struggled to articulate what they would actually do instead, repeating the line about the 50p rate of tax cut being a tax cut for millionaires (even though the top rate starts at £150,000) and then refusing to commit to reinstating it anyway. When it emerged that unpaid Jubilee stewards were left to pitch tents under a bridge at 3am, John Prescott and Tom Watson spoke up about it, but the Labour leader? Did he denounce it as an example of this ‘irresponsible capitalism’ he made a speech about? Because taxpayers’ money subsiding free workers in terrible conditions is a somewhat better example of irresponsible capitalism than selling a cheap chocolate orange, surely? Did he stand up for those unpaid workers? No. He made a speech about the importance of being English.

Not that his Englishness speech bored everyone. It prompted a lovely squabbling match amongst Labour activists about whether the left should talk about nationalism more. It’s true that the Labour party have lost a lot of voters to the BNP because of their immigration policies which were seen as too lax, and whether that’s fair or not, they were certainly chaotic and poorly defined. But they also lost a lot to the Liberal Democrats over Iraq and civil liberties, something they would, in spite of the Liberal Democrats’ single digit polling, do well to keep in mind.

The Labour party’s problem isn’t that they’re not talking about Englishness enough, any more than their problem is that they aren’t saying enough to denounce unions like GMB, or that voters are associating them with Progress. It’s funny that the same voices aching over whether investigations into possible corruption like Leveson and even issues like equal marriage are relevant to what they patronisingly call ‘ordinary people’ outside the ‘Westminster village’ or the ‘metropolitan elites’ (a painfully self-regarding argument that can go and piss on itself, frankly) are pulling their pants down and getting comfy on the sofa over arguments about a possible ban which won’t happen anyway on a group most people have actually never heard of within Labour.

It’s not that the party doesn’t need to resolve the Tony Blair problem – or, more specifically, the Iraq problem. As long as that war is bloodying the map and gobbling up human lives, they will have to beg hard for forgiveness. They may never get it. There are people who can’t forgive Thatcher for her divisive policies. I don’t think I can really forgive the Tories who voted through Section 28. And it strikes me that although some of those Labour politicians who voted for the war like Andy Burnham, or those like Ed Balls who say they supported it at the time but “would be against it if they knew then what they know now” voted ‘very strongly’ against any kind of an inquiry into it, and ultimately, accepted Tony Blair as leader because, like it or not, they were elected on his coattails. They aren’t going to win back many of those votes by flicking peas at each other over the dinner table. They’ll get back our votes by acting as if they know how to run the country.

A sensible, alternative economic policy would be a good start. Labour have said they can’t promise to reverse Tory cuts, won’t reinstate the 50p tax rate, and  aren’t going to protect public sector pay. They won’t stand up for strikers or make any constructive criticisms about the Welfare Reform Bill. They won’t explain properly whether they actually support the Lib Dem policy initiative of raising the personal tax threshold. Would they put these taxes back up against for the poorest if elected? After all, this is the party that scrapped the 10p tax rate. It’s too much to expect a fully calculated budget years before a general election but it’s not too much to expect them to actually criticise the coalition budget in a coherent, consistent way, especially when it presented such a gaping own goal for them.

People like leaders who have confidence. Most people don’t know how the economy can be fixed. Even experts don’t agree. Most people like to think the treasury is run by someone who knows, vaguely, what they’re doing. George Osborne isn’t getting results, but his dogmatic confidence is overwhelming. When it comes down to it, an awful lot of people will instinctively feel safer with someone who has an arrogant swagger than someone who can’t make up their own mind about what they think.

Sometimes the Labour party give the impression that the fun and games of politics is of more interest than running the country. That’s all well and good for a while but the country actually deserves a decent Labour party with workable economic policies and a strong, credible voice against stark-staring injustices like workfare. With affection in my voice I say to the Labour party that they all need to be hit with a stick and kicked up the backside. Come on. Don’t make me vote Liberal Democrat again.

He’s not the heir to Blair, he’s a very naughty boy

I had a horrible realisation the other day. I miss Tony Blair. I am actually quite surprised to discover it about myself, because one of my pet hates is usually those actors with so-called ‘charm,’ who believe that those little junior salesboy tricks, like calling you by your name when they talk to you, raising their eyebrows to look serious at the appropriate juncture in conversation, and mimicking your body language, are satisfactory substitutes for genuine empathy, or an emotional range. But when I saw Blair speaking at Leveson – owning the conversation, commanding respect, making everybody in the room smile and trust him even though he is clearly about as trustworthy as a hungry rat – I thought about our current Prime Minister, and, against my will, I longed for a leader with that kind of statesmanship.

David Cameron likes to frame his endless u-turns in terms of the Coalition being “a listening government” but the truth is, he isn’t listening on any of the things people are actually bothered about, like the Health and Social Care Bill. He’s just weak. He doesn’t trust his own policies, and he’s frightened of his own party. There’s a happy balance: Tony Blair could have probably done with a few more u-turns (on one issue in particular). But there’s something awfully dispiriting and worrying about a government that quite clearly doesn’t speak to the experts, or do their research before launching a policy. The u-turns on the charity tax or the caravan tax or selling the forests may have been welcome, but surely there was some reason they believed these were going to be good ideas in the first place? Surely they consulted experts and did some sort of cost-benefit analysis? Surely they know more than we do? Because, frankly, if the government knows less than I do about things, then we are all well and truly headed for the dustbin lining.

Yet Cameron is apparently the heir to Blair. Everyone keeps saying it, don’t they? Well, no, actually;  if you remember, David Cameron himself says it. No-one else really does – except people who utterly despise Blair so much that all they really mean by such a comparison is “I despise Cameron as much as I despise Blair.” Does anyone else believe Cameron is heir to Blair? The sentence would never even be uttered if it didn’t rhyme. We might as well say he’s going to drown like Brown. Or he’s a disaster like Thatcher. A villain like Macmillan. I rhyme therefore I am.

There are similarities, of course. They both like the public relations bit of the job. Cameron, ever the PR man, hears a soundbite – for example, ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ – and think it works because it rhymes, like a toothpaste advert or a pop song. He, along with many of Blair’s critics from across the political spectrum, miss the fact that the soundbite works because it rhymes and it also means something which genuinely resonates with people. We want crime to be nailed – that’s why Labour introduced ASBOs (which I hate, but that’s irrelevant), promised to protect police spending, locked (far too many) people up, and tightened up firearm laws; they were, basically, tough on crime. But people also need to know that their government understands that there is a socio-economic context to crime, and that recognising this doesn’t mean you’re making excuses, it’s just that it’s stupid to pretend there is no link between poverty or unemployment, and crime. So they also reformed and improved public services, built schools, built hospitals, introduced a minimum wage and an EMA, set up Sure Start centres and flexible working, created a Future Jobs Fund and tried to make welfare payments match up to the ever-increasing costs of basic living, properly implemented the Macphearson report and brought in new equalities legislation. This is not about praising or criticising all, some, or any of these policies; the point is that ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ wasn’t just a rhyming slogan, it was a rhyming slogan which had a substantive policy basis that people understood and liked, and what’s more, crime fell under Labour as as result of those policies. The difference between ‘The Big Society’, which means nothing and has achieved nothing, and the Blair soundbites is like the difference between a simple rhyming Cheryl Cole lyric and a simple rhyming Beatles lyric.

Much is made of Tony Blair’s constant praise for David Cameron. But it’s hardly in the same league as the enthusiastic praise Blair is capable of showering on the likes of Princess Diana or even George Bush, is it? Blair’s statesmanlike pleasantries about Cameron sound more like a grown up boy generously telling his copycat little brother that his new haircut looks cool than a statesman declaring another statesman to be his heir and equal.

The fact is, Blair doesn’t need to point out that rivals aren’t on his level in terms of political intelligence or power, because they are no threat to him; he is secure enough to just damn them with faint praise.

A key test of leadership is management of your enemies, surely. Blair’s most serious political enemy was Gordon Brown. Blair made him Chancellor, tied Brown’s record and achievements to his own, and kept him dangling in the increasingly undignified position of desperately wanting the premiership, until it was politically appropriate for him to step down and let Brown take responsibility for the unraveling economy – and then he took credit for Brown’s achievements in his autobiography. This is not a moral argument, needless to say. But the comparison between Blair and Cameron doesn’t lie in their moral fibres, it revolves around their talents as leaders and politicians. David Cameron has no Gordon Brown in his cabinet. David Davis, his original leadership rival, sits on the back benches, free to insult Cameron for being posh and out of touch.

Where Blair flatters and then dismisses his enemies, Cameron ignores his, then insults them, making relations worse. Clare Short wanted to resign over Iraq; Blair made her look self-serving, untrustworthy and politically cynical – just think of that for a minute; Blair made her look self-serving, untrustworthy, and politically cynical, in comparison to himself – by managing the resignation so that she was going to resign, then she wasn’t, then she did. When Brian Sedgemore criticised the Iraq war and called Blair a liar, Blair didn’t even bother to answer the criticisms properly. He simply said, “Frankly, I don’t know how Brian Sedgemoore would know, because I don’t recall ever discussing it with him. In fact I don’t recall ever having any conversation about anything with Brian Sedgemore.” What a wonderfully horrid way to dismiss someone when they are making a valid moral argument. Ouch.

David Cameron, far from managing the resignations of Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox, Andy Coulson and even Chris Huhne to his own advantage, appears terrified of his own staff and lets them hang on in their jobs until the last possible moment, stinking up his own reputation by association. Imagine if David Cameron really was the heir to Blair. Imagine if he turned around and said, “Well, frankly, I don’t know how Douglas Carswell or Tim Montgomerie or John Redwood or Nadine Dorries or Priti Patel or Simon Heffer would know about my motivation and achievements, because, frankly, I don’t recall ever bothering to talk to them about anything.” It would sound ridiculous. You wouldn’t believe him. He’d sound bitter and silly. He would sound that way because he’s not convincing when he says things. He doesn’t speak with authority. He doesn’t have any particular aura of power that makes you automatically understand that being ignored by him would be some kind of an insult to your credibility. In other words, he’s just not Tony Blair.

There are other parallels people draw between the two men. David Cameron gets credit – well, sort of – for reforming his party and pulling it – sort of – to the centre, and making it – almost – electable. But even that slow, hiccuping ‘achievement’ should rightfully be attributed to Blair. Blair says that one of his greatest achievements is not changing the Labour party, but changing the opposition. And he’s right. So successful was Tony Blair in shifting the entire political centre that by the time David Cameron became party leader in 2005, the Tories knew they could never win a general election by talking about ‘Tory’ issues. They had to promise to protect the NHS and keep Labour’s excellent record on gay rights and carry on funding international development and commit to tackling social justice. And these aren’t issues the Tories can win on. Fighting on Labour territory was always going to be a struggle for the Tories, and in 2010, in spite of everything, struggle they did.

To put David Cameron’s 2010 election ‘win’ into perspective: Tony Blair embarked upon a war in the Middle East based on what can only be described as a complete mistruth, and even before it all went to hell in a hand grenade on the ground, the war in Iraq was supported by about 30% of the population, at best – yet he still won his third election in a row afterwards. Meanwhile, David Cameron, fresh-faced and energetic, with a public sick to death of Labour, dying to give him and his party a chance, could not secure a parliamentary majority against Gordon Brown who is basically the most unpopular person to run the country since King John. (This is hyperbole. I am sure Richard III was less popular than Gordon Brown. As were several of the Hanoverians. But that’s probably about all.) Can anyone really deny that Tony Blair is a monstrous political talent?

Well, yes. Owen Jones is the latest Labour commentator to argue that Labour’s three stomping election wins were more to do with the Tories being “unelectable” than Tony Blair being an “absolute beast at elections” (as a Labour friend of mine once put it). It’s understandable why Labour activists who are loyally, and admirably, committed to Labour values like Owen Jones want this to be true. There are a lot of people in the party who attribute Labour’s success not to Blair’s masterful political skill, but his (to put it mildly) right-of-centre positions on things like wealth hoarding and foreign policy. This is a mistake. People didn’t vote for Blair because they adored deregulation and thought the war on terror was a great idea and felt proud to be publically allied with a figure like George W Bush. Anyone who thinks a Labour leader without Blair’s political game would have got away with these kinds of policies is deluded in the extreme; Blair was so masterful he repeatedly beasted the Tories in election in spite of his right-wingery, not because of it. So yes, it must be infuriating, even heartbreaking, to be a committed Labour member, supporter or donor watching your party torn into bits by people who don’t care anything for its history, traditions, or purpose, but merely use it as a vehicle for their own selfish political ambitions. It must be tempting to panic and insist that Blair himself is an irrelevance; that it was simply the unpopularity of the Tories which led Labour to victory, and that, essentially, any reasonably decent Labour leader would have fared the same, because it was all down to the Tories being “unelectable.”

It’s true that the Tories were flippering about like seals for most of Blair’s premiership, with campaigns to ‘save the pound’ and be on your toes looking out for bogus asylum seekers, hiding under our sofas and inside our ice cream cartons or wherever they were all supposed to be. But an interesting question is, why were the Tories so unelectable? Why were they so obsessed with these teeny-tiny core-vote-only issues? After all, Iain Duncan-Smith might have been a bit embarrassing, but Michael Howard was a seasoned politician, and William Hague is widely considered nowadays to be one of the frontbench’s most heavyweight politicians. And in 2005, the Tories won 31% of the vote. Even as early as 2001, before the noxious love-in with George W Bush began, polling had the Tories dancing around the 29-32% mark, which is roughly where Cameron’s Tories are polling right now. The Tories were polling 32% in January 2001, only four points behind their actual ‘winning’ result (36.1%) against a hated Labour government in 2010.

Couldn’t it be argued that the Tories were essentially unelectable because even though they were taken seriously on ‘Tory’ issues, the political ground itself had been totally re-defined by Tony Blair? Every election was being fought on Labour’s terms? It wasn’t just that Blair was good at answering questions, or pretending to answer questions; he owned the entire parameters of debate. Public service reform, social mobility, racial hatred, aspiration, crime, the causes of crime, education, access to democracy, access to information, playing a central, not a sulky, peripheral role, in Europe: he made everything, every argument, every discussion, every debate, about these things, and these are the issues Labour can win on. The Tories were left with asylum seekers and the pound because what else was there?

This isn’t a Blairite argument. The so-called Blairites are often not actually people who appreciate Blair’s talents at all, but just right-wingers who find it easier to make a career in the Labour party than elsewhere, writing columns slagging off Labour’s leader under a Labour byline, for example. People like Luke Bozier (who I genuinely respect and admire) and Dan Hodges seem to think that if Ed Miliband embraces cuts or demonises welfare claimants or shouts at the unions just a little bit more, he’ll win over all the middle voters. But that is a gross underestimation of what Blair actually did. You don’t inspire faith in your ability to lead by copying the opposition’s answer to each question. Leaders decide what the question is going to be in the first place. They pick the topics; they frame the debate. It’s not really a matter of left or right but of political skill because Tim Montgomerie makes the same criticism of David Cameron; that he won’t ‘out-left’ the left or ‘out-liberal’ the liberals, and if the argument is the NHS or social injustice, the Tories will lose that argument every time. To win, the Tories need the country to care about crime and immigration and the Queen. Similarly, it’s absolutely a valid criticism of these so-called Blairite cheerleaders that Ed Miliband will never ‘out-Tory’ the Tories, and if he allows the argument to be about who can be toughest on unions, for instance, he will lose that argument every time. This is not about praising Tony Blair for being right-wing, but about praising him for his ownership of political discussion. That is something Ed Miliband would be a fool not to drink in and learn from.

Just look at Blair’s performance at Leveson. He doesn’t bother with any of these apologetic “I can’t quite recall” explanations about why he’s not answering the question properly. He just makes his answers into mini speeches about how many schools and hospitals Labour built, until you can’t remember whether or not he actually did answer the question. You can’t even remember what the question was. And – this is another important point – he makes everyone smile while doing it.

That isn’t something the Labour party should pretend they don’t notice or pretend isn’t a big deal. Most politicians don’t make people smile. Most politicians don’t even make each other smile. Some of them probably don’t even make their own kids smile when they come in the front door. No matter how morally repugnant, how borderline sociopathic, how dishonest you may find Tony Blair on a personal level, no matter how much you want to cringe at his shameless acting, pretending that the ability to make people smile, in the middle of a situation like the Leveson inquiry, has nothing to do with how he hammered out three rock solid election victories is to fail to understand the very same electorate you are trying to win over right now.

Every time Blair compliments Cameron, or Cameron tells us he’s the heir to Blair, we – the largely undecided, unaffiliated electorate – can’t help but compare the two men. And Tony Blair, by nature of his strengths, even the strengths you hate him for, highlights the absolute worst weaknesses in Cameron’s leadership talents without even trying.

And what’s more, it is quite difficult to see how anyone can believe that the Tory cuts being made now will decimate society and explode inequality, without believing that the Blair-Brown government deserves a reasonable amount of praise, respect and gratitude for accomplishing these things in the first place. Ultimately, whatever you think of him, Blair has an overall objective. The word messianic is used all too often in conjunction with him; what is the opposite of messianic? Opportunistic? Shallow? Aimless? Devoid of aspiration? Whatever the word is, that’s Cameron.

By adopting the gloss without the substance, the words without the policies, the listening face without actually being in touch; by telling us he’s listening instead of just making us believe it, David Cameron has missed the whole essence of Blairism. It’s typical of Cameron and his government, of course, to treat the public with such patronising contempt. Of course he thinks we voted for Tony Blair because we liked his haircut. He thought we’d support his immigration policy because he spoke to a black man in Plymouth about it. He thinks we won’t see him as out of touch because he ate a Cornish pasty and likes Pink Floyd. The man clearly thinks we’re all morons. So it doesn’t surprise me that David Cameron doesn’t get why Blair was popular – because he was, there’s no way around it, he was respected and listened to and people voted for him and over and over and over. But it does surprise me that Owen Jones doesn’t understand it.

And, as someone who would like to vote Labour but usually doesn’t, it’s a worry. It’s probably painful and anger-making for them, but the left of the Labour party need to be able to separate Blair’s right-wingery from his political talent. Pretending and denying that he wasn’t a knockout electoral force makes the whole anti-Blairite wing of the Labour party look out of touch and delusional. And that is dangerous, for the Labour party and consequently for the rest of the country, because if the left of the Labour party fail to understand the electorate, and make themselves look out of touch, it means that the future of the country’s only serious, electable left-of-centre political party will be left in the hands of people who want it to be a right-wing party.

Admitting that Blair had political skill doesn’t mean you have to adopt Blair-style policies. It’s nothing to do with left or right-wing; most of the electorate don’t think of themselves in those terms. They don’t care if public spending is 30% or 60% of GDP as long as the economy is moving. They don’t care if hospitals are funded mainly by the state or by PPI as long as they are clean and safe and available at the point of need. And they don’t care if their leader is blue Labour or red Tory or Orange or Yellow. They want a leader, above all else, who seems as if they know what the bloody hell they are doing. Whether you like every bit of what they are doing? That comes next. But David Cameron’s inability to recognise the public’s attraction to competence and leadership, his belief that he can substitute those with gloss and spin, that’s his glaringly obvious Achilles’ heel. It would be a terribly ironic missed opportunity if the Labour party themselves made the same mistake whilst trying to beat him.

2001 – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/talking_politics/1162569.stm

2001 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_2001

2005 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_2005

2010 – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/election2010/results/

Keep your Whig on: should Lib Dem voters just give up on true liberalism?

One of my favourite political jokes is the one about the MP who gets caught up in a terribly embarrassing sexual scandal. “Apparently he was secretly into humiliation and stuff, too,” says one commentator. “Secretly?” says another. “He was a Lib Dem!” And never has it seemed more appropriate, or more fun, to make Lib Dem jokes like this. But, with Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms coming dangerously close to being taken seriously, with welfare being cut by £7bn and counting, with the AV vote decidedly lost, and with the kind of local election results that would make even Norman Tebbit cry, has the time come for Lib Dem voters to give up on the dream of a genuinely liberal Britain? Should yellow voters follow Ed Miliband’s invitation to save themselves from permanent blushes and, er, just go red instead?

Well, in some ways, the Labour party really do have a lot of nerve to even ask the question quite frankly. Let’s take the two biggest ‘betrayals,’ if it’s not too melodramatic to use that word, of Liberal Democrat voters by the party. Raising tuition fees is probably the most controversial, and most publicised u-turn. Well, after introducing tuition fees themselves, in 1998 (when they had a 179-seat majority), commissioning Lord Browne in 2009 to review the future of higher education funding without any particularly strict guidelines at all about, say, capping costs, and leaving it until after the 2010 General Election to implement the report, an election they knew they were unlikely to win, thereby in effect deliberately leaving the reform of higher education funding in the hands of the Tories, it is ridiculous and insulting for the Labour party to suddenly pretend they have some great moral desire to look out for the interests of students. People aren’t goldfish: we remember that Labour promised us that they “would not introduce top-up fees” and even that they had “legislated against them” before bringing them in. We also know who commissioned the Browne Review in the first place.

Despite the infamous (and rather idiotic, given that there were no electoral mathematics amongst even the most optimistic Lib Dem pollsters that suggested the Liberal Democrats would get a chance to form a government without being in coalition with at least one pro-tuition fees party) ‘pledge’ signed by Nick Clegg on tuition fees, their policy of abolishing them altogether wasn’t actually considered, by a lot of senior Lib Dems – David Laws, for example – to be a particularly central aspect of their manifesto. More important, argues Laws, is the targeting of educational funds at a much earlier age, and making sure that there are good, well-funded schools, with competent teachers, and proper levels of discipline, in the country’s poorest areas. In short, policies like the Pupil Premium, and Free Schools (50% of which, so far, are being planned with the specific aim of providing education for children from low income backgrounds), are more important to a lot of high-ranking Lib Dems than whether graduates earning over £21,000 per annum have to contribute something towards their own higher education. And these views weren’t secret: even though the Orange Book was officially rejected as party policy under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, it has never been a secret that the main contributors are also now some of the most heavyweight political figures in the Lib Dem party.

None of this gets them off the hook: they never should have promised something they almost certainly knew would be impossible to deliver, given the electoral mathematics of the situation, if nothing else. But sometimes, when a u-turn happens, it’s worth actually considering if there was a genuine reason for the change in policy. The tuition fees plan isn’t perfect of course, but, given that no major party is proposing anything much better, is it really, in the cold light of day, much of a reason not to vote Lib Dem?

The other enormous turnaround in policy from the Lib Dems is their approach to the economic crisis itself. There is simply no denying that they campaigned furiously on a platform of being anti-cuts. Even Orange Book libertarian Lib Dems tend to be against a big state in principle, but not necessarily in favour of cutting corners with social justice, just to save pennies. The only explanation they’ve offered for this complete reversal of belief is that they didn’t fully comprehend quite how bad the UK’s debt was until they got into power.

Do we believe them? I find it hard to. As many Lib Dems pointed out (before they went into coalition of course), even though the Tories are aiming extremely harsh cuts at the public sector, Public Sector Net Borrowing (PSNB) for 2010/11 was only 11.7% of GDP*. And the national debt was at 60.1% of GDP until government intervention in the collapsing financial section pushed it up to 148% GDP*. All of these figures have been in the public domain and none of them are particularly changed since May 2011; certainly not for the worse. In fact, some commentators say that the economic situation is a lot better than was thought during the 2010 election campaign. For example, government projections allowed for a further £500bn of potential financial sector liability costs, for things like mortgage securities, but this money seems more and more unlikely to be needed. Surely a tiny slice of that £500bn could be put into rescuing things like disability benefits?

So the excuse about the economic situation being worse than was once thought doesn’t seem to cut much ice. Even if it were true, it seems illogical to say that if the national debt is £910.10bn then spending will help to compensate for the recessive effect of increased private sector wealth-hoarding, as we often see in a recession, but if the national debt is £2252.90bn, then fast spending cuts, much deeper than the actual size of the debt, suddenly become a good idea (necessary, in fact), and that there is suddenly no need to worry about the impact of fast, deep cuts on, say lowering tax receipts and slowing the actual circulation of cash.

So there’s no hiding from the fact that on the economy, the issue that concerns the most British people according to the vast majority of polls, the Liberal Democrats really do deserve a bit of a kicking for their help in legitimising what many consider to be nasty, ideological cuts – Iain Duncan-Smith’s Welfare Reform Bill, for example – and also for insulting our intelligence by imagining that we can’t look at a graph of public spending for the past twenty years and see that public debt has been more or less the same throughout the Labour government as it was during Thatcher’s government – with a couple of spikes for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, of course.

But is even this enough of a reason to not vote Liberal Democrat again in four years time? Perhaps it would be, if the next question were not: if not the Lib Dems, then who?

Surely it cannot be Labour? Looking at welfare, the most disappointing of the cuts, only ten Labour MPs voted against the Welfare Reform Bill, and that was in defiance of the party whip: the official Labour line was not to oppose the bill. I have heard many Labour campaigners and bloggers saying this was for tactical reasons but I don’t believe them. If it was for tactical reasons, they would be constantly campaigning about welfare reform , trying to win the argument. They are not. Ed Miliband has accepted Disability Living Allowance reform, for example, which is possibly one of the cruellest and most unnecessary cuts happening within welfare, with only 0.5% of claimants ever being considered false, by the DWP’s own figures. The Labour party have done a lot of shouting about their ‘amendments’ to the bill, but in actual fact, their amendments aren’t much better than the content of the original paper. An example of a Labour amendment is that they want to limit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) eligibility to two years, instead of only one. If Iain Duncan-Smith had proposed limiting it at two years, they’d probably be making a fuss out of capping it at three. The concerns of the many charities and experts who object to this policy don’t relate to how many years you give claimants, they relate to the fact that the entire principle of time limiting a benefit like ESA is ridiculous, because overwhelmingly people do not choose to be on it in the first place. You’d think that the Labour party would know that. And don’t even get us libertarians started on the Labour party’s record on civil liberties. This is one of the big issues that won Labour voters over to the Lib Dems, and I’m still waiting to hear them apologise for all the people they locked up or placed under house arrest without ever convicting them of a crime.

So Labour shouldn’t be winning Lib Dem votes over spending cuts and welfare reform any more than they should be winning them over tuition fees. I suppose you can always vote Green, if you’re a left-wing Liberal Democrat; a refuge from the Labour party, perhaps, who was unhappy with the Iraq war and the bank bailout, but still intrinsically socialist rather than liberal. You could vote Socialist Worker Party (SWP) if you’re more interested in abstract ideology and Russian history than you are in actually helping anybody. And you could vote for the Communist Party of Great Britain if you’d like to have an MP who enjoys long philosophical discussions whilst handing out free sandwiches. (Incidentally I have nothing against free sandwiches. More politicians should hand out free food to people. Some days I actually think the Communist Party of Great Britain’s habit of handing out free, healthy sandwiches all the time is the most useful thing I’ve ever seen a politician do.)

But meanwhile, in the real world, where does that leave honest-to-goodness liberals, who actually believe in low taxation and decent standards of living; who believe in personal responsibility, but want to see it encouraged in landlords and employers as well as poor people deciding how many kids to have; who believe community and family are better at taking of people than the state, and therefore don’t want to see people being shovelled out of the areas they’ve lived in their entire lives because private landlords are too greedy to show any personal responsibility to their community, because local authorities house people in silly, inappropriate ways, and – most importantly – because successive governments have been all too happy to pass heaps of taxpayers’ money right into the hands of private landlords without questioning the price for fear of deflating the pumped-up housing market. Who do we all vote for?

Well, I’m afraid that as much as I shall continue to give them a kick whenever I see fit (which is often), I still can’t really see much better an option – for now – than to stick with the Lib Dems. And although it might feel like it sometimes, I know I’m not the only one: despite the appalling local results overall in May, ConservativeHome blogger and Tory strategist Rob Haywood points out that the Liberal Democrat local vote actually held up reasonably well in areas where the party currently has a sitting MP. Where Labour and Tory candidates for parliament often focus their campaigns around national issues, the Liberal Democrats are extremely good at engaging with their own constituents about important local issues, and their genuine local concerns. With more and more minority governments likely in future, perhaps that’s something worthy of a few Lib Dem brownie points as well.

*Figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS)