Your Britain

UK Labour’s new on line policy forum is up and running. While much of the debate will be about English issues there is enough reserved content to keep us interested. We should also get involved because there is a commitment to run a similar forum when the Scottish Policy Forum starts its consideration of the policy programme for the next Scottish Parliament elections.

On a quick look they appear to have made a decent start. Of course it’s got a long way to go before we see if it achieves the aim of making policy-making more inclusive and less top down. Will party members, constituency parties, and affiliates really have some influence or will the difficult to find tracking system merely trace the path of their views into the abyss? We should also remember that not all party members are able or willing to engage on line. The party meeting also gives an opportunity for debate in a way that is limited on a web site.

So I would encourage Scottish members to  have a look at the “challenge” statements already on the Your Britain website. They are organised in policy areas:

International

Let us have your views(revitalisescotlabour@gmail.com) so we can learn the lessons when the Scottish process starts.

Chasing the middle ground

There is an interesting review by Alex Wood of Alistair Darling’s new book ‘Back from the Brink’ (Atlantic Books) in the Scottish Review. Essentially this is Alastair’s take on the banking crisis and some broader thoughts about political strategy.

I will admit from the outset that I am not a big fan of the former Chancellor. In particular his, our cuts will be “tougher and bigger” than Thatcher’s, almost led me to giving up on the 2010 election campaign. That one stupid phrase illustrated just how managerial Labour had become in government. However, I am willing to give credit to his handling of the crisis itself. Without the decisions he and Gordon Brown made at the time we would be in an even bigger mess. That’s not to say that his light touch regulatory approach didn’t contribute to the crisis, but he wasn’t alone in that, including Alex Salmond.

Wood argues that the book leaves him with several profound impressions including:

“Gordon Brown’s government appears a directionless combination of warring cabals, beset by personal jealousies and without any consensus on the moral purpose of a Labour administration.”

The book presents bank crises as always possible and banks as inevitably fallible and with only a limited capacity to foresee disasters. Despite the many warnings that are not mentioned in the book!

“The job of politicians is simply to manage the system as calmly and rationally as possible. The bankers appear, with a few, individual honourable exceptions, as short-sighted, self-centred and self-serving. Their expectation of government was a one-way deal. ‘When times are good, get off our backs; when they are bad, you have to help us.’ Labour duly did as the bankers expected.”

And on alternative actions,

“given the systemic failure of the privately-owned banking system, a Labour government might have seen maintaining a significant stake in such banks as a mechanism to avoid the much wider economic catastrophe which a banking crash would have brought and which remains possible. Nationalisation, not to create a socialist utopia but to ensure that a key part of the economic system kept running, would have made practical sense. “

Finally we get Wood’s conclusions, “As I read ‘Back from the Brink’ and as I listened at the book festival to my old friend’s calm and urbane explanation of Labour’s position, his assertion that Labour manages the system better than the Tories and that Alistair Darling’s approach to managing the crisis was better than Gordon Brown’s, what remained was a sense of loss.”

“Many, myself included, have moved far from the certainties of the politics of the 1970s and 80s but still seek to discern some moral purpose in the political arena. It appears sadly obvious that if all politicians occupy the middle ground, and his book lauds that tactical priority, it will become an over-crowded place occupied by essentially indistinguishable politicians and electoral cynicism will grow even further.”

“If the political system is never open to fundamental challenge, if ideology disappears, then politics devolves, as ‘Back from the Brink’ implies, to a mere competition in managerial competence. These are essentially conservative politics, offering, at best, a more effective maintenance of the financial and economic status quo than the brash and divisive conservatism of David Cameron.”

Some very good points in this review that reflect many of the concerns about New Labour that led to the Revitalise Network being formed. Chasing the middle can have adverse political as well as economic consequences.

Lessons from Rotherham selection

The selection of a candidate for Rotherham by-election has brought into focus the system that allows the NEC to take over the normal selection process.

Members were given two names to choose between. A very short short-list drawn up by the NEC, not the CLP. At the selection meeting a large number of members, between 100 and 140, walked out in protest. The meeting selected Sarah Champion, chief executive of a children’s hospice. The defeated candidate was Sophy Gardner, a former RAF wing commander. No one is disputing that she will make a good candidate, but that isn’t the point.

By-elections have a shorter time-scale than standard selections and this is used as the justification for the short-listing being the responsibility of the NEC. But this has been exploited by the party on several occasions, usually to exclude a popular local candidate.

As Mark Ferguson on Labour List put it: “But truth be told I’m no longer sure that increased transparency is enough to satisfy the deep and long lasting mistrust that has built up amongst Labour Party members towards the central party machine. It’s time to consider whether or not the NEC should really be conducting the shortlisting meetings, or whether a mixed NEC/CLP panel might be more appropriate. But regardless, what we saw last night can’t be repeated. In the Labour Party it doesn’t matter whether selections are stitch ups or not anymore – perception is everything. And last night’s selection looked awful.”

There are lessons for us in Scotland from this debacle in our own review of candidate selection for the Scottish Parliament. Excluding branches from the process is rarely necessary on time grounds alone and should not be the default position.

Lessons from Obama’s victory

There have already been a string of posts on what Labour should learn from the Obama campaign of 2012. Personally, I think there is more to be learnt from the much more inspirational and human 2008 campaign. The 2012 campaign is more for the election techies with its algorithms and the like. However, this is my summary of the lessons.

  • The polls were very accurate reflecting improvements in polling techniques. If we are well ahead in the last couple of weeks we are likely to win.
  • Money matters. The aggregate election spending for the 2012 American elections will be a record $6 billion, $700 million more than 2008.
  • Some argue that core voter strategies don’t work because Romney’s effort to win on the back of white working class voters failed. On the other hand Obama also focused on his coalition of core voters. Peter Kellner argues that Labour should avoid a core vote strategy in 2015. He points out most voters that switched from Labour to the Lib Dems between 1997 and 2010 are now back in Labour’s camp. That’s not the same as the New Labour ‘Middle England’ strategy, because these are the very voters New Labour managed to lose.
  • While the first debate clearly mattered because it got Romney back into the game, Obama recovered. We shouldn’t focus on them too much.
  • Government doesn’t always lose when the economy is in a mess. The Tories will hope his ‘finish the job’ and ‘don’t let the other lot ruin the recovery’ will work for them in 2015. Unless you have a positive and credible plan you are open to marginal improvements in the economy. A possible scenario in 2014/15 with current forecasts anticipating 1 to 2% growth rates.
  • Some argue that negative advertising works because 86 per cent of Obama’s ads were negative. However, 79 per cent of Romney’s were also negative so it is unclear how much this tells us. Every member I speak to says negative campaigning turns them off. However, I suspect we will see plenty of negative advertising in 2015.
  • Getting the Vote Out matters. Obama got his strongest supporter groups out by investing and outperforming Romney in field offices in key states. In Ohio he had 131 offices to 40, 106 to 47 in Florida, and 61 to 30 in Virginia.The lesson is to invest early in organisers in marginal seats.
  • Don’t assume pundits have their ears to the ground. Take this one from the Red State Blog: “The signs of Obama’s defeat are too clear now to ignore. Given all the available information – Romney’s lead among independents, the outlier nature of the 2008 turnout model, the elections held since 2008, the party ID surveys, the voter registration, early voting and absentee ballot data – I have to conclude that there is no remaining path at this late date for Obama to win the national popular vote. He is toast…”

The problem for Labour in trying to replicate the Obama ground war is that we don’t have the resources or the troops on the ground. The New Labour era killed off much of the active membership and the new organisational structures are simply a pragmatic response. We need a positive, radical vision for Labour to attract the new members and motive the rest. Without that Labour will also be toast.

In praise of delegate structures

A post from Conrad Landin on Left Futures highlights the importance of not dropping delegates from Labour Party structures.

He writes about the Young Labour conference that has dropped delegates representing Constituency Labour parties (CLPs) – only regional Young Labour groups are represented. He makes the very valid point that without delegates representing their constituencies in an official capacity, it is unlikely that they will be able to get the financial support many will need in order to make the trip.

He calculates the cost to him and his comrades to attend and it is significant for anyone on a typical young persons wage, assuming that they are even in work. He concludes:

“So what happened? They simply had no means of getting to Youth Conference. And you could see it in the room. Too many suits – and an underrepresentation of women, of young workers, of working-class people and of ethnic minorities. Fortunately, it is not too late to ensure this does not happen again. The Young Labour national committee must reconsider their plan to drop CLPs from the delegate structure. Only this will ensure that there is a proper mechanism in place to stop our youth wing being only for those who can afford to take part.”

In Scotland we have a number of decisions to take with new national structures like the Women’s conference.  Apart from democratic accountability, here is another good reason for having delegate structures.