Friday, July 3, 2015

Corbyn for Leader! by Nick Davies

Thanks to the last-minute entry into the Labour leadership race of Jeremy Corbyn, what began as a tedious  political sideshow by the party that lost the election now has the potential to become an overdue debate about the kind of country we want to live in.

If the first big lie of the 21st century was Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, a yarn spun by the US aided and abetted by New Labour and the second was that too much public spending by a Labour government caused the financial crash, a lie which the three establishment candidates refuse to refute, the third is surely that Labour lost the 2015 general election because it was too anti-business and frightened away the middle class.

That first lie is why politicians have lost the trust of the people, and remains a burden borne by even those Labour politicians who did not support the war, the second lie provided the Tories with the pretext to finish off Thatcher’s attack on the public sector and the welfare state. The third lie, easily disproved by the data, available to those who wish to find it, and by the experiences of Labour activists who were trying to get the vote out, was repeated ad nauseam by the initial candidates to replace Ed Miliband. Taking their cue from the New Labour figures that sniped at and undermined Ed Miliband right up to Election Day, they ruthlessly established the narrative that what caused Labour’s defeat was Miliband’s partial, flawed, but real attempt to distance Labour from the Blair-Brown years and to tackle inequality. Attempts to be more like the Tories presented a surreal spectacle to those voters, particularly Labour voters, who had not turned out, or as protest, voted for UKIP, because they thought Labour and the Tories were too much the same.

Liz Kendall represents the distilled essence of Blairism: the abandonment of any social-democratic project and the capturing of the political process by the interests of business.  Her pronouncements of the need to ‘balance the books’ are indistinguishable from the economically illiterate prescriptions of Osborne. There’s precious little of the political tightrope walking, known in polite circles as triangulation; her campaign is not that complicated! Who needs trade union backing when you’ve got the Sun? It’s missing the point, however, to label her as a Tory, as some do. In a way, she’s worse than that. She genuinely believes that what she advocates is what a Labour government should be doing. In that sense her campaign is a product of the political degeneration and the hollowing out of the Labour party since the 1990s, although no doubt she’d prefer to be called the ‘modernising ‘candidate

Cooper and Burnham, on the contrary, are busy triangulating themselves into a frenzy.  Both are incapable of uttering a sentence which does not contain ‘aspirational’, code for ‘rich’  and not, it appears, the millions of peoples’ aspirations to have a home they can afford, a route into a secure employment and good public services. Tacking right and then ‘left’, both admit that all is not well with the world, while frantically back-pedalling from their former leader’s modest attempts to do something about it.  Both have been booed at hustings when they have refused to commit themselves to opposition of the benefit cap, a policy so open to challenge (large benefit payments are made to buy-to let-landlords and to top up the earnings of those on poverty pay) that failure to oppose it is an admission of political cowardice; no wonder Frankie Boyle referred to candidates talking like hostages!  

Corbyn’s entry has changed the dynamics of the contest. Having an opponent who says what he believes is an obvious challenge to the ‘triangulators’. Burnham, in particular, must be tying himself in knots. On the one hand it  relieves him of  the burden of being  ‘Red Andy’, but on the other, it limits his chance to use his  undoubted communication skills to hone his well-used ‘northern man of the people’ routine, to convince socialist in the party, with an nod and a wink, that he’s really one of them.

More fundamentally Corbyn’s entry means that that the discussion ceases to the one about the details of ‘austerity lite’. Corbyn is opposed to austerity, he supports council housing, public services a living wage, rights at work and trade unions; he is for the defence of the environment and he has a longstanding opposition to nuclear weapons and the Iraq war. Add into the mix the fact that non-members can pay £3 to become supporters and we could have less a leadership campaign than a movement.  

The ‘Overton Window’ is a term sometimes used to describe the range of ideas which, in a democracy, are regarded as electorally acceptable. The window may be pushed one way or the other according to circumstance. In the UK, the Overton Window has over the past 35 years been pushed to the right by the Tories, their outriders and sections of the media, notably News International. When in power New Labour did nothing to move it back to the left. By 2015 the three main Westminster parties had converged on political terrain which 40 years ago would have been the property of free market zealots and cranks: the privatisation of water and fuel, the assumption that a roof over your head meant getting onto the ‘housing ladder’ and a lifetime of debt, zero hours contracts, academy schools run by big business, and so on. None of it really works, of course, except for those who get rich as a result. The opprobrium heaped on Ed Miliband was the result of his modest attempt to take on this tyranny of what Tariq Ali has called the “extreme centre”. The same will no doubt be visited on Jeremy Corbyn, if he  has any chance of winning.

The media, which generally inhabits the same Overton Window as the politicians, is already having difficulties in dealing with Corbyn’s campaign, as shown by the inane question on Channel 4 News:  ‘Was he to the left of Karl Marx?’  It’s not that the journalists are thick, or, necessarily, even consciously biased, it’s just that many of   those who entered the profession in the last 20 years lack the  personal or professional hinterland to be able to  understand properly  what Corbyn’s campaign is all about.

Most of the population doesn’t share the elite’s Overton Window. It is consistently to the left of what were until May 7th the major parties on issues such as council house building and the renationalisation of rail, energy and water. It is true that those same people have concerns about immigration and many of them , apparently, support the benefit cap, because no Labour politician has had the guts to take on the right on the those issues. Corbyn is doing that.

Can he win? He’s been regarded by the media and the New Labour establishment as  a quirky addition to the contest, albeit a quaint throwback to our recent past, but  when people actually start listening to him, his life could be made very difficult indeed. Others, New Labour-loving  media grandees such as John Rentoul. Martin Kettle and the increasingly poisonous Dan Hodges are queuing up to make it clear that he cannot, or must not win. Some Labour activists are saying they like him but  he won’t win an election. Should their choice be dictated by ‘head or heart’?

It’s a false dichotomy. A party standing on an anti-austerity ticket did rather well in Scotland on May, 7th and only by opposing austerity and outflanking the SNP from the left can Labour win again in Scotland. As for the rest of the UK, campaigning on the basis of ‘austerity lite’  ‘or ‘cutting too far too fast’ wasn’t exactly a sure-fire election winner, was it?

If he does win, it won’t be ‘business as usual’ in the Labour party – or anywhere else, for that matter – and, even if he doesn’t, we may have another Scotland on our hands: a movement out of the control of the professional politicians and the uncomprehending media. Let’s hope so.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The 2015 General Election in Wales by Peter Rowlands

The election results in Wales were dire! The swing to the Tories was greater in Wales (1.1%) than that to Labour (0.6%), unlike in England where it was 1.4% to 3.6%, but seven out of nine English regions swung to Labour, leaving Wales alongside only two English regions that swung to the Tories, East Midlands and South West.The swing to UKIP in Wales (11.2%) was greater than that in England (10.7%), and there were huge votes for UKIP in most of the old mining valleys seats which must have mainly derived from Labour as there was only a limited Tory vote in most of these seats.

The two Welsh Labour seats lost to the Tories, Gower and Vale of Clwyd, were the worst losses in the UK, excepting Scotland,  in terms of swing required, and compare to seven such losses in England, where Labour gained ten seats from the Tories but none in Wales, including the highly marginal Cardiff North which should have fallen but actually swung back to the Tories, as did the other two Labour targets, Carmarthen South and Vale of Glamorgan.

Plaid only marginally increased their vote,from 11% to 12%,  and failed to take Ceredigion or Ynys Mon, but achieved a large swing in Rhondda and more modest swings in other valleys seats, but failed in Llanelli where there was a swing to  Labour. But this was one of the few positive signs for Labour. Apart from the predictable swings against the Lib-Dems in Swansea West and hugely in Cardiff Central, Labour’s only gain in Wales, there were only five seats which registered a swing from Tory to Labour, only two of these, both in Cardiff, with swings of over about  2%. But elsewhere, shockingly, there were swings from Labour to Tory in 16 seats, six of them above 2%, and from Labour to UKIP in six traditional, mainly valleys seats in South Wales.

The Greens did relatively poorly, gaining only 2.6% of the vote against 4.2% in England, although this is still a huge increase on their previous vote.

The far left got their usual miniscule vote, with TUSC getting an average of 0.4% in 12 seats, worse than the UK average of 0.6%. However, the SLP (the Arthur Scargill Fan Club) scored relatively well, gaining an average of 1.3% in seven seats, the only seats, curiously, that they contested in the whole UK. 

It is difficult to pinpoint why Labour did so badly in Wales. Poor organisation at some levels could undoubtedly have been a factor, but there is no clear proof that Wales was significantly worse than England in this respect, or the Tories better. In two seats that I have some detailed knowledge of and where we did badly, local organisation was good, although so was that of the Tories. There are two factors that do not apply in England, the Welsh Government and a nationalist party, but the vote for the latter was only marginally up, although Tory attacks on the Welsh Government’s record on health and education may have had some effect. Perhaps a general complacency, a feeling that Wales was essentially a Labour country, was to blame. If so, then it is misplaced. While the South Wales valleys remain predominantly Labour, despite the rise of Plaid and UKIP there, there has always been significant support for the Tories and Lib-Dems elsewhere, and while that is no longer so  for the latter, at least for the moment,  the Tory threat in Wales must be taken very seriously.

It is an immediate threat, because of next year’s Welsh Assembly elections, when on the basis of the recent results Labour would lose four seats to the Tories and probably be seeking a coalition again with Plaid, although the precedent was not an altogether happy one as some  would point out. However, it could be dependent on Plaid continuing on its left wing path. If the election  proves unfruitful for them next year there could be a reversion to a more centrist, cultural nationalist orientation where a ’rainbow coalition’ with other parties is no longer seen as a less acceptable option than one with Labour. That would in part depend on how many seats UKIP gain, which will probably be at least four, all regional seats, at the expense of the Lib-Dems who on present showing stand to be completely obliterated.  Plaid would probably balk at any coalition which included UKIP, and it is unlikely that a majority could otherwise be realised,  However, to forestall such a possibility Labour must concentrate on shoring up its defences against a Tory party in Wales that is hungry for more blood.

A comment on Nick Davies’s Suggestions for a Left Alliance with Plaid Cymru by Peter Rowlands

In a recent paper on the election in Wales, Nick suggested that a positive approach to Plaid could be to call for Labour’s regional vote, which is largely wasted, to go to Plaid to boost their chances against  the Tories and UKIP, as part of a ‘left front’ against the right.  

For those on the left the idea is superficially attractive, but in practice it would be difficult to deliver, at least in most constituencies.

The key reason is that Plaid are direct competitors, in three types of seats (figures refer to the 2011 Assembly election):

A) Seats held by Labour where Plaid is second (8)

B) Seats held by Plaid where Labour is second (3)

C) Seats held by the Tories where Labour and Plaid are about equal second.(3)

It would be difficult, to say the least, to call for a vote for a party which is the main competitor, but this is the case in 14 seats, over one third of the total. 

It is also the case that in one region, Wales Mid and West, Labour has two regional seats, so obviously would want to maximise its regional vote here, ruling out all other seats in this region not included in A to C above (5).

There are also Labour held seats where Plaid is third but are marginal and could fall on an increased Plaid vote (7).

There is also a marginal seat where Plaid is fourth and a seat where Plaid has a large vote (2).

This leaves fewer than a third of seats where Plaid poses no real threat to Labour and where it might be feasible to call for a regional vote for Plaid, but even here it would provoke strong opposition (12).

I therefore cannot see that the policy, although worthy in its motivation, is deliverable, except perhaps in such limited quantities as to render it not worth the effort in terms of the divisions it would cause.

PS If the results next year are similar to the recent election, the probable result would be Labour on 26, the Tories 17, Plaid 12 and UKIP 5, with the Lib-Dems wiped out. Let us hope that the Tory lead has declined by then.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The 2015 General Election by Peter Rowlands

Labour must understand why it did so badly in the election, as it is unlikely to be able to mount a successful campaign in the future if it doesn’t. Much has been written already, although we await a full analysis in terms of voting patterns and movement by age, class, gender etc., but from what we know I believe that we can draw some valid conclusions.

The pollsters got it significantly wrong, at least for the two main parties, rendering all the debate about a ‘hung’ parliament redundant, and we await their explanations for that (There is an interesting article in Open Democracy on this, ‘The polls and all but one of the forecasts were wrong, Shaun Lawson’).

There were short run factors that counted. Of these the most significant by far was the unscrupulous use of the ‘Scottish Card’ by the Tories, tapping in to English nationalist fears that a Labour government would be controlled by the SNP. There would appear to be some evidence that this caused a disproportionate swing from ‘Don’t Knows’ to the Tories ( This could help to explain the polls, as ‘Don’t Knows’ are usually divided equally between the parties) and for intending Tory defectors to UKIP to remain where they were.

The oil price fall was a bonus for the Tories as it helped to promote the impression that the recovery was well under way.

The continued treachery of Mandelson ( even in early March he said that he doubted that  Labour would win) was not unimportant, and I do not understand why he has not been suspended pending an investigation into his undermining of the party – or is it that such things only happen to those on the left?

While Miliband improved his standing in the first three TV appearances his performance in the last, and for that reason crucial appearance on Question Time was fairly dire, and didn’t help, while the bizarre ‘Edstone’ episode can only have confirmed prejudices that he was some sort of crank.
However, the election was not lost primarily for these reasons. There were, in my view, five major factors.

Firstly, Miliband. While I personally liked him and he came across as honest and principled he should not have been chosen as leader simply because he lacked the gravitas, authority and oratorical power that every leader in the television age needs. Much of this is contrived – Cameron comes across to me as a complete phoney, although large numbers do not see it that way, but Miliband was unable to inspire as a leader. This might not have been fatal, but because of other adverse factors it was telling.

Secondly the party was divided between the Blairite/Progress wing, who broadly believed that with suitable updating the policies pursued under Blair, if not Brown, were correct and were the only basis for a successful appeal to the country, and a broad left which saw the huge loss of support for Labour in 2005 and 2010 as indicative of the failure of Blairism in tackling the problems the ordinary people of the country faced  and looked to a renewed form of social democracy to as a means of tackling those. There were of course all sorts of variants of these positions, but this fundamental divide was reflected in the manifesto, in the shadow cabinet and PLP and at all other levels of the party. The result was the failure to promote an over arching message or pattern, even though many individual policies were good in themselves.  

Thirdly the decision to avoid discussion of Labour’s economic record in government, particularly in its third term, was disastrous as it effectively conceded the Tory lie that  the deficit was due to government overspending and not, as was the case, to bailing out the banks after their collapse. (The lie was allowed to take root during the long leadership campaign in 2010 – are we making the same mistake again?)

Fourthly, Labour’s effective capitulation toTory austerity in 2013 meant that it was not possible to present Labour as committed to measures to stimulate the economy to promote the growth needed to provide the income required to pay off the deficit. It is admittedly difficult to persuade large numbers of people that a Keynesian stimulus was the only way to successfully move forward – as Polly Toynbee remarked ’The paradox of thrift proved too paradoxical’, but tragically no serious attempt was made to do so, and it was left to the heroic efforts of Michael Meacher and others to consistently argue that Labour should campaign on this as well as Labour’s economic record as in three above, but to no avail.

Fifthly, and perhaps most tellingly, the electoral strategy was fundamentally misconceived, in that it was based, as in 2010, to appealing to the centre ground. The 2010 election conclusively demonstrated that in one sense the strategy was successful in that social group A/B voters attracted to Labour in 1997 and later largely stayed, but was disastrous in a more important sense in that large numbers of Labour’s traditional core supporters in the C2 and D/E social groups went elsewhere or didn’t vote. The assumption that those to the ‘left’ of the centre have nowhere else to go was proved wrong. But exactly the same circumstances presented themselves in 2015, and exactly the same mistakes were made. The article by Jon Trickett on this blog (Why any leader who can’t reach working class voters will lose again) reproduces figures for social class movement which prove this, with once again a substantial falling away in the D/E vote but the A/B vote remaining steady.
At the same time it is likely that many of those leftish middle class voters attracted to the Lib-Dems  over Iraq and other things in the noughties but who left them after 2010 and came to Labour decided to go elsewhere, to the Greens, who recorded their highest ever vote in a general election, to other left parties or to non voting, on the grounds that Labour policies were not left wing enough. Likewise the D/E voters, notwithstanding some good policies on housing tenure and rent, the bedroom tax, agency workers and zero hours contracts, were not given the impression that their interests, particularly with regard to housing, jobs, and living standards, were of the greatest concern to Labour, and thus went elsewhere, particularly to UKIP who probably took more votes from Labour than from the Tories, or remained as part of the one third of voters who didn’t vote. Some of the better policies were introduced too late or were not given enough prominence.

What we know about the class basis of the recent vote renders all the talk by the Blairites about the manifesto being anti business, too left wing and not in tune with ‘aspirational’ voters as nonsense. (On this it is surely the task of Labour governments to seek to make possible the aspirations of most people for a job with decent pay and conditions, decent housing at affordable cost and decent education, health and social services. Or is it just the middle class that has aspirations?)

Labour is at a crossroads. It can either continue on the path falteringly begun under Ed Miliband towards a renewed form of social democracy, seeking to provide real solutions to the problems faced by ordinary people, or it can revert to being a party that ultimately accepts the dictates of the market and is thus incapable of providing those solutions. I hope it chooses the right path.