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Posts tagged with: Ed Miliband

What shock will finally break the cosy Westminster consensus?

ukipA friend on Facebook pointed me towards an article in GQ about the Wythenshawe & Sale East byelection. I’m not a regular GQ reader, but the headline – Running On Anger: on the campaign trail with UKIP – and the content of the piece are worth reading.

The tactics employed by UKIP are their normal ones at a byelection – work out where the discontent is to be found (in this case, with Labour), and then explain why their populist solutions are worth voting for, and if fear and bending of the facts help, then why not do that too? In essence in Wythenshawe and Sale East they hoover up the anti-politics vote, and they are effective at it.

The problem as I see it is that the British political system is uniquely badly placed to deal with a movement like UKIP. The party could get 15% or more at the 2015 General Election and still fail to gain any parliamentary representation, and 2nd-place finishes in byelections in Eastleigh, South Shields and Middlesbrough contribute to that impression – that the system is keeping UKIP out.

Now while I loathe more or less everything UKIP stands for, I am nevertheless, above all, a democrat – a party with that sort of base deserves parliamentary representation.

The reactions to UKIP’s rise are generally inadequate. Some complain that Farage in particular gains disproportionate media coverage for a party with no MPs, but for me this holds little weight as it’s the electoral system, rather than a lack of support, that keeps UKIP out. Other complain that UKIP has no answers to the political problems that the UK faces, and while I agree that this is the case, it is not as if the three main parties of the political mainstream in the UK have many ideas either.

It is this last part that merits further debate and analysis in the UK, and the analysis needs to go beyond the “they all look the same” or “none of them have experience outside the politics”.

Take, for example, Ed Miliband’s party conference announcement to cap energy prices. This was described as a “game changer” if you were on his side, or “the return of Red Ed” if you were not. Both responses are wrong. The policy would make a small change within the well established confines of the UK’s dysfunctional energy market, and that’s it. Putting it another way, Miliband was playing to the narrow audience composed of the Westminster political class – and that includes the vast majority of the journalists of the broadsheet press – but that class, and indeed the people that report on it, are increasingly missing the connection to the grassroots. This is the post-democracy that Colin Crouch has so compellingly and depressingly described. Representative democracy in the UK is becoming more and more hollowed out, a shell, but the system still protects the mainstream parties, for the moment at least.

So back then to UKIP, and Wythenshawe and Sale East. Part of me wonders what would happen if UKIP were to actually win there? How would the UK’s three main parties react? I fear the reaction would be turn up the critique of UKIP still further, rather than actually take a step back and better develop their own visions for the future of the UK.

Yet the Wythenshawe and Sale East case, this problem of pent-up anger in British politics, is not about to go away. Would a UKIP byelection victory be a big enough shock to the cosy Westminster consensus? Or would something larger – like Scottish independence, or leaving the EU – be needed to make a lasting change? Perhaps I am too pessimistic, but I fear something is going to have to break in UK politics before things start to get better.

Sorry, I actually don’t want a “digital firepower onslaught”. I’d prefer better politics.

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 18.04.35I have not been developing websites for politicians for a while now, preferring instead to do consultancy and training work for a variety of different political and governmental actors. The problem was essentially that you can bring a politician to the social web, but you cannot make them drink, and that is why website design for politicians ceased to be intellectually interesting. To put this another way, politicians see the potential of the web in classic political terms – as a means to reach more people – but largely forget the other side, that the social web gives everyone else a voice too.

And now we seem to be systematising this way of doing online politics.

That’s hence what worries me about Jim Pickard’s piece in the FT today entitled “UK voters face digital firepower onslaught in run-up to election“. Mark Pack’s blog drew my attention to the piece. I do not disagree with the way that Jim and Mark explain their views. I instead worry about the outcome.

As a citizen I do not want a digital arms race or a firepower onslaught, a means to extract every last little drop of information and activity out of me as a voter or a political activist. I want a better way of doing politics. I do not want a ‘thunderclap’ when Ed Miliband announces a new energy policy – I instead want a voice in shaping what that new energy policy should be. I do not want to be forever pestered every more cleverly to follow what the party HQ has decreed; I want a greater say in how politics works, and how it impacts my life. That, I fear, in the UK at least, is precisely the opposite of what is happening.

How a Labour victory in 2015 makes the UK leaving the EU more likely

Screen Shot 2013-03-08 at 14.44.20Two separate conversations in Brussels this week, both with Brits, but with people of very different political persuasions, led me to the odd conclusion summed up by the title of this blog entry – Britain leaving the EU is more likely if Labour wins the UK general election in 2015 than if the Tories win it. Here’s why.

What happens if, against the odds, the Tories win a majority in 2015? This will have been achieved with a nominally pro-EU leader (either Cameron or a successor, but even a successor would be bound by the coalition until 2015), and to have managed to succeed in 2015 will return optimism to a more moderate view of Conservatism. The party will have committed to an In-Out EU referendum in 2017, will make some minor renegotiations with Brussels, and the referendum result will keep Britain in. Most of the Labour Party, in any case weak due to an election defeat, will also be arguing to keep Britain in, with a coalition of lefty unions and UKIP arguing the case for out.

What about Labour? The danger here starts perhaps 6 months before the 2015 election. While Ed Miliband has an anti-referendum position now, if the polls remain reasonably close prior to the 2015 election, will Labour really resist calling for such a vote and matching the Conservatives? In the end Labour wants a return to power, and while the party is nominally pro-EU, most of the party just doesn’t care much about the European Union. Win an election, or stick to a position on an EU referendum is no contest – the former wins.

Then what happens? If the Tories lose the 2015 election then they will replace their leader (if it’s still Cameron until 2015), or if it is someone else and that person survives the response will be to move towards UKIP – look at what has happened since the Eastleigh by election. At best the Tories in opposition would be split on the EU issue, at worst they could even end up with the leadership being in favour of the UK leaving the EU.

Labour in government will be lumbered with an EU referendum it did not really want, and will not fight it with gusto. If the party was worried enough about the polls prior to 2015 to call such a referendum, it is not going to be in a strong position in government from 2015 onwards. Furthermore, referendums fought early in a parliamentary term tend to be more likely to go the way the governing party wants. The longer the wait, the more likely a perverse result.

To put it another way: a weak Labour government facing a referendum in 2017 or 2018, with the Tories being more hardline on EU matters than they are now would be the worst possible combination of circumstances to ensure the UK stays in the EU.

Now of course all of this must still be considered unlikely. No party might win an overal majority, and might have to work with the nominally more pro-EU Lib Dems. Labour might hold its nerve and not demand a referendum, or it might campaign with gusto on the issue. A compelling pro-EU campaign might keep the UK in the EU in any case. But a Labour victory in 2015, with a commitment to hold a referendum made before the election, increases the likelihood of the UK leaving the EU through carelessness.

Why Labour’s critique of migration within the EU must stop

Screen Shot 2013-01-27 at 16.40.07While the columns in newspapers criticising Cameron’s referendum commitment continue to be written, I nevertheless have a nagging fear – that while Cameron’s strategy may be ill-advised, the main pro-EU party in the UK, Labour, has nothing really to say about the EU than to defend the status quo. This is not going to be enough for the battles to come.

Thanks to numerous replies on Twitter I was directed to a couple of recent speeches – by Douglas Alexander and Emma Reynolds, and an interview with Jonathan Powell. These are all rather normal UK-EU fare, liberally sprinkled with phrases about reform.

But the alarm bells really started to ring when reading Douglas Alexander’s words on pages 10 and 11 of his speech about migration within the EU. Some of his words (although I advise reading his words in full in the original document):

We all hear about the perceived strain that certain aspects of the EU are putting on some local communities here in the UK. For many, this relates specifically to the operation of the Free Movement Directive. […] Enlargement brings enlarged freedom of movement, which underpins the many benefits of the single market but also creates certain pressures.

Labour has recently recognized these pressures in a way we haven’t in the past. Back in June Ed Miliband set out the new approach we would need in this area. Labour has already set out that it regrets not implementing the full transitional arrangements that were available to it during the last round of EU enlargement and would do differently now. We believe the EU should look to go further than that and look at ways of giving member states more flexibility over the transitional arrangements that they sign up to – both to relax them more when those countries see fit, but also to include the possibility of tightening them further if necessary.

First of all, there is a grain of truth in here – that there were pressures on the UK, especially between 2004 and 2007 or so. This was because only 3 countries – the UK, Ireland and Sweden – opened their borders to workers from the new Member States. Also it’s worth recalling that the population of the countries that joined in 2004 totalled 75 million people, more that have ever joined in one go before. Further, the way the UK state dealt with the consequences then (and indeed, still) could have been better – new migrants produce babies, and the UK state has not been able to organise its schools to cope. But of course it is easier for Alexander to direct his fire at the migrants themselves.

By 2007 a lesson had already been partially been learned – with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria (total population about 29 million), transition arrangements were put in place in the UK in the same way as across the rest of the EU. The likely impact will hence be limited when these restrictions end next year (see The Guardian, and Commission analysis of this), and Romanians and Bulgarians will be able to move anywhere in the other 25 Member States, not just 3 countries. 2004 it is not.

Looking further into the future, what enlargement is there in the pipeline? Croatia (pop. 4.2 million), Iceland (pop. 320000), Macedonia (pop. 2.0 million) – nothing close to the scale of 2004. Yes, there is the theoretical issue of Turkey, but with Erdogan leading Turkey further away from the EU (calling for the death penalty!) this is so far away as surely to not constitute a worry for the moment.

So instead Douglas Alexander, rather than banging on about this issue, could essentially close the issue down and stop talking about this stuff: the lessons have been learnt. The EU will not enlarge in a big bang enlargement again. Migration restrictions will not be lifted together with only 2 other countries again. The enlargements on the horizon are countries so small that the impact will not be noticeable in the UK.

Why then, does he keep banging on about this issue, and Ed Miliband has also mentioned it. Time for that approach to stop.

No-one’s going to believe Labour is “hard-headed” about the EU, and it’s wrong anyway

So Labour has another stab at getting together some sort of EU policy. Ed Miliband is interviewed in The Sunday Telegraph and the only thing that seems to emerge is that Labour needs a “hard-headed” approach to the European Union, courtesy of further spinning from Douglas Alexander on the Andrew Marr show. This is presumably the latest attempt, after Douglas Alexander’s damp squib last autumn.

This prompts two questions: is the idea that Labour can be hard-headed on this actually realistic? And is it right?

On the first point the editorial in The Sunday Telegraph basically nails it – saying Ed’s rhetoric “fails to convince”. Precisely. If you want a tough line towards the European Union then Labour is not where you should go.

Then secondly, is the line articulated by Ed Miliband actually right? First of all in framing terms it makes me annoyed, and thinking of the Pachycephalosaurus dinosaur (pictured, with its hard head). Hard headed implies tough, harsh, nasty. Would Labour dare say it has a “hard-headed” approach to schools or hospitals? No it would not, because being seen to be harsh on such issues is at odds with the values of the party, the values that we are all better off if we work together to achieve collective goals.

Labour’s rhetoric should be that to achieve what we need to achieve in the UK, we also need the European Union. An unrestrained free market, with Britain outside the EU, would mean less social protection, more of a race to the bottom on tax, harsher conditions for workers. The social systems of countries across the European Union should be an inspiration for the UK. Labour has made noises saying the German social model is to be admired; the means to achieve it is at EU level.

Finally, on two specific, Ed Miliband is wrong.

Taking a pop at the EU’s agriculture budget is an easy one, but Labour’s record trying to do something about it while in government is woeful. Less CAP money means less money to UK farmers too. Are Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander willing to face down the farmers? I suspect not. Plus the EU budget, at 1% of GDP, is not exactly massive anyway, and the 40% to agriculture looks so odd because the stuff that dominates national budgets – education, health, social security, defence – is not done at EU level.

Secondly, Ed Miliband once again revisits the issue of migration from central and eastern Europe. Here too there is a lot of hollow rhetoric. Remember the 10 countries joining the EU in 2004 had a population totalling 75 million, and only the UK, Ireland and Sweden allowed free movement of workers immediately. Cue major migration. 2014 will be different for Romania and Bulgaria. For a start the population of these countries totals about 30 million, and all 25 EU Member States will lift movement restrictions at the same time, and the UK is not exactly awash with jobs in the way it was in 2004. Worries about Croatia and Turkey are even more laughable – Croatia has 4.5 million people, and Turkey is years and years off, especially as Erdogan is ruminating about the death penalty.

So, in short, what did Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander achieve today? Very, very little I would say.

Labour might win, but British politics will not

At one level all looks fine for Labour and Ed Miliband as the party kicks off conference in Manchester this week. The party is 10 points ahead in the polls, is facing an unpopular and weak government. Roll on 2015.

But I am not so sure, and I am not the only one. See Neal Lawson’s polemic for The New Statesman for example. The problem is that while Labour’s current position may make everyday tactical sense, I am far from sure if it is actually good politics – in the wider sense of the word.

If the party is defined by anything it is by what it is not, not by what it is. It would protect workers (but cannot articulate how). It would protect the NHS (but it has no plan of how to do so, except repeal what the Tories are doing). It would end austerity (but it cannot say how it would, or where the cash to do so would come from).

At the same time the GMB’s Paul Kenny berates Labour’s front bench for being members of a political class that is not representative of the population. Kenny essentially means there are not enough ‘working people’ in there. But while he is partly correct, his claim also misses the mark because membership of the unions has mirrored the decline in party political membership in the UK. Neither the unions nor the parties have a wide base any more, something that it is best for the protagonists on both sides to ignore, always talking about renewal and rebuilding but never being able to actually achieve it.

All of that means that conference this week will feature a series of proto-skirmishes within the ranks of the left. Things like being closer to the unions or not. Speaking to the Lib Dems or not. Rejecting any private enterprise in the NHS or not. Having more working class representation in parliament or not.

But all of this misses the point. For me the only question worth asking is what – on its own terms – is Labour about?

For me that boils down to where you place your trust – in the state and collective action, or in the laissez faire of the market. And do you believe the state should do what it can to ensure equal life chances and more equal economic outcomes for everyone, or leave every individual to fight for themselves?

However I currently see no hope that there is going to be any sort of meaningful return to the ethical basis of modern social democracy in the UK any time soon. I mean the sort of thing encompassed in Michael Sandel “What money can’t buy” or Richard Layard “Happiness”, because who is possibly going to advocate that? Those that have worked for years to get into the narrow cadre of the political class no longer have the wide perspective or the incentive to do so – getting or holding power is naturally enough the main obsession. Labour as a whole need take no risks as its banking on winning anyway. And the journalists reporting on the whole tired charade this week in Manchester will berate the party for anything that is not simple, narrow and on message (where the boundaries of the possible are defined by the individuals who own the private firms behind the newspapers). You need look no further that Simon Hoggart’s acid piece about Sandel to see what I mean. No, Sandel would not fill stadiums in the UK because we are all too jaundiced by politics to possibly believe anything he would say could ever even be put into practice.

There are two responses to this predicament. Those present in Manchester this week will almost all fall into the ‘Labour is better than all the alternatives’ camp. Labour must do whatever it needs to do in order to win, because – whatever its faults – Labour is less bad than the others. These will be the people writing the euphoric tweets from the conference hall this week.

The alternative response is rejection, apathy or disgust, the feeling that noble social democratic aims are better pursued through NGO campaigns and pressure groups, or that the very processes intrinsic to party politics are sufficiently off putting to want to opt out. Yet of course the more people behaving this way (and I count myself among them) the more the predicament in the parties worsens.

Labour of course thinks it has a recipe for people even more disengaged than me (I am a Labour member still) – it wants to reach out to supporters of the party as well as members when it comes to its internal processes. But the process of reaching out is not the issue, it is about the organisation that is doing the outreach. Why would anyone who is not already within the party want a relationship with it just now? The party cannot answer that, because it does not want to have to answer the wider problem, namely the progressive disengagement from political parties in the UK that has been going on since the 1960s. To put it another way, party politics is the problem, not the way in which people engage with party politics.

Who were the last people to break this cycle? In part it was a generation of leaders in the late 1990s across Europe that realised that a new vision for the left was needed. Those leaders were Blair and Schröder, and the Third Way / die Neue Mitte was their answer. While we know what happened to the practical prescriptions of that idea, it nevertheless defined the parties on the left in their own terms, and gave an optimistic, unifying theme around which to rally. Until we have an equivalent idea that can hold the left together, a broader vision for society, then Labour politics is destined to disappoint. That may of course not stop Labour winning an election though, but until a positive vision can be forged Labour is destined to disappoint.

A small footnote about Miliband, the EU and immigration

So Ed Miliband today weighs into the UK debate on immigration. Others are better placed to express the overall problems with this. I am instead going to focus on one small aspect of Miliband’s comments, namely this point at the end of The Guardian piece:

Impose maximum transitional controls for 7 years on the future EU accession countries such as Croatia. No change to free movement of labour within EU

There is no doubt about it: far more people came to the UK from the 8 central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 than anyone expected. But the population of those countries, that all joined the EU in one go, is 75 million. Romania + Bulgaria (now in already) and all the rest of the Balkans total less than 50 million, and these countries are not all joining at the same time. Croatia, the subject of Miliband’s call for transition periods and due to join the EU next year, has a population of 4.2 million – the UK is absolutely not going to get waves of migrants from there. Nor from Serbia (7.1 million) or Macedonia (2.1 million) the next two likely entrants. Turkey, the big one, is not going to be joining the EU for at least a decade, and if Miliband thinks he can predict how that enlargement is going to work he has more foresight than I do.

The second issue, generally ignored in the UK ‘debate’ on this (i.e. not just ignored by Miliband) is that the number of EU migrants coming to the UK in 2004 was so large because only 3 EU Member States opened their labour markets – Ireland and Sweden were the only two others. In that context it’s inevitable that many more came to the UK than elsewhere. But the UK’s decision then actually, for once, showed the UK as a more responsible member of the EU than other notionally core countries like France and Germany. The real solution, if Miliband or anyone else in the UK were to be responsible enough to push for it, would be to make sure all the countries in the EU agreed the same transition periods for migration from new EU Member States, meaning disproportionate numbers would not end up in just one Member State.

[UPDATE] @malisoko has rightly pointed out on Twitter that Montenegro will likely join the EU before Serbia and Macedonia. True, but as there are just 650k people there I think my main point stands!

Labour, Ed Miliband, Progress and promises

I was at the Progress Conference yesterday and heard the Ed Miliband speech that’s the centre piece of Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer column today. It was the best speech I’ve heard Ed give  and he responded in the Q&A session with determination and some humour. It’s clear that Ed believes deeply in what he is saying – that the decline of trust in British politics is a crushing problem and it requires urgent solutions.

The problem is that, like Andrew Rawnsley, I am far from convinced that Ed (or indeed any major British politician) is even close to having any of the answers. His recipe seems to be an effort to go back to the basics of party political campaigning – more local activity, community organising as inspired by Arnie Graf. Fair enough, but it’s not as if any British political party of any political colour has ever gone far away from this model. It is more than as parties have declined as mass membership organisations, and voting allegiances and populations have become more transitory, meaning the old models do not work as well as they once did. Plus local organising is time consuming and expensive, and in the absence of state funding of political parties, where is the cash going to come from?

The heart of the problem is summed up with Ed’s line “I won’t make promises that I can’t keep”. I think he expresses this line honestly enough, but who actually believes it? I don’t believe it from him any more than I believe it from any other politician, and hell, I am on Ed’s side. It’s as if Ed Miliband is trying to just be a better version of a traditional politician, that one last push with the old means will be enough. I’m absolutely sure that it is not, even if it might just be enough to get Labour back into power in 2015.

So what can Ed and Labour do? The 2015 programme could be so vague that no-one would be able to tell if Ed’s promises had been broken – hardly a resounding success. Alternatively if promises had to be broken later, this could be done with honesty rather than trying to find ways of showing promises had been kept when everyone else was thinking the opposite. Neither of these approaches is remotely inspiring.

The only alternative is to bring more people into the policy making and governing process, and to do this through online networking. If Labour cannot deliver on its budgetary promises because the economy prevents it, the party could learn from participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre and, by making the facts available to the public, collaboratively reach better decisions – even if those decisions were not perfectly in line with the party’s manifesto. The party would also need to experiment with participative democratic tools such as Adhocracy or Liquid Feedback to engage more people in its policy processes from an early stage. This would mean that Ed’s line would better be “If I can’t keep my promises then you will know why, and you will have the power to help me find solutions”. The internet is the best tool ever invented for mass consultation, yet no British political party has even attempted to make it central to its policy making. It is also not even necessary to have absolutely mass participation in this process – it empowers the citizens who want to participate, and by doing so helps legitimise the decisions taken. If you doubt it then this might allay some of the fears.

Will all of this work? I am not altogether sure. But I for sure know that more of the same, even a better version of the same, is not going to be enough. Ed posed the right questions yesterday, and here is my partial answer. What’s your answer?