This is a sometimes 'cheesey' blog about British and American politics and anything else which tickles my fancy!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

What does it mean to be on the Left today?

I am fan of the ideas behind the Open Left project at Demos. It argues that there has to be an open debate in the party about values and goals.

I like that its starting point is about rediscovering the Left’s idealism and radicalism.

So, the first question it poses ‘What does it mean to be on the Left today?’ has got me thinking.

For me, the answer can be summed up in one word: Aspiration.

I think that what essentially motivates people in life is aspiration and ambition.

Families aspire to own their own homes. Parents aspire to send their kids to a good school and then on to university. I aspire to have a successful career. We all aspire to go on holiday once a year. We all want our friends and family to be looked after and cared for when they are in need. We all aspire to lead the good life. A better life.

And I think only the Left which is committed to putting power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many and not the few is capable of delivering this.

Only the Left, which delivered universal health care, comprehensive education, the minimum wage, the expansion of higher education and training opportunities for the young has the values and ideas which will allow people to achieve their goals.

Working class, middle class, white or black, male or female – this doesn’t really matter, because we are all motivated by the same thing. Labour is strongest when it recognises this.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Conservative Party. It is committed to defending the status quo. It is incapable of helping people to realise their aspirations and dreams because it is too conservative, too reactionary, not interested.

Left wing politics, for me anyway, also comes from a place of anger.

I look around and see terrible injustice and poverty and inequality. It makes me furious. I know that in the UK, there are millions of households living in fuel poverty. I know that in Africa there are thousands of deaths every day that could be prevented because of malaria or HIV. I know that inequality in Britain has never been greater and we seem a less happy society.

If Conservatives look around and think that the status quo is worth preserving, worth defending, worth conserving then more fool them.

The Labour Party has to be about helping people fulfil their dreams. The Left has to be about change and progress and hope and idealism. Without these values, we are nothing.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Dreams from my father by Barack Obama

I have just finished reading Barack Obama’s memoirs ‘Dreams from My Father’. I read the Audacity of Hope when it first came out, so I don’t know quite why it has taken me so long to get around to his earlier book but I really loved it.

I know Obama wrote the book before he reached national prominence, but I can’t recall a similar occasion when a President or any politician has written with such honesty and eloquence.

Firstly, it is very well written. Obama has a knack for capturing a particular person or moment. His trip back to Kenya is both sad and funny in equal measure. At times, you sense that he feels isolated and alone but you are really gripped by the journey he is on to discover who he is and where he came from.

Secondly, the memoirs also help to personalise him. When you read of his time on Chicago’s South Side, you suddenly understand what it means for Americans, and in particular African Americans, to see Obama elected. The Bushes, Clintons and Reagan’s didn’t sweat and worry with the poor and the underprivileged in the way Obama did. He doesn’t just empathise with people or ‘feel their pain’, he experienced it. For the first time you understand that his own troubled identity as the son of an African man and a white, American mother gives him a vantage point which is unique amongst American leaders. His experience as a grass roots organizer means he knows what being poor and hopeless can lead people to do. In a perverse way, this gives you confidence and hope that the man sitting in the Oval Office will make the right types of decisions.

You also get the sense that Obama is a different man now from the man who wrote ‘Dreams from my Father’. His professorial, cool demeanour contrasts with the emotive, anxious young man who is in a hurry to get somewhere that he writes about in ‘Dreams…’ This is probably about age and experience but it is interesting to know what he was like before and where he has come from.

Even if you are not that interested in politics, I would still recommend reading this book.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

After Norwich Labour must rethink its strategy



It will come as no surprise to anyone if Labour loses the by-election in Norwich North today.

However, I think it will be a closer result than many people expect. The expenses scandal has hurt all the parties and Labour’s decision to ban Ian Gibson from standing as a MP at the next election has not gone down well with many party members and constituents.

So the Tories will sneak in, but it won’t be a ringing endorsement for them like it was in Crewe. A win with a majority of less than 8,000 is not good news for Cameron.

The lesson Labour must draw from defeat is that its message of “Tory cuts” versus “Labour investment” is just not credible or believed by voters. As a strategy for the next election, it will not work.

We have to face up to this. We have to be honest with the British public. We have to be more sophisticated.

Every poll conducted shows that voters know that there will be tough choices ahead about what we spend public money on.

Labour’s message has got to be “Yes, some cuts in spending are coming, but you trust Labour to make the right cuts”.

This is a much more credible and effective message than the simplistic one we have peddled in Norwich. Voters will appreciate the honesty of it and it will allow Labour to establish some clear dividing lines in areas of policy and public spending with the Tories.

It will put them in an uncomfortable position because Cameron will be forced to say whether he would match Labour commitments and/or tell us which areas of policy he would make cuts in.

It is time Labour was honest with the voters. If we can do that, then we can win back the trust and the respect we desperately need.

Monday, 20 July 2009

McBride's 5 Live Interview

I listened to Damian McBride’s radio interview on 5 Live this morning.

I believe that everyone deserves a second chance and McBride was contrite enough for it to sound genuine.

We should all be able to forgive stupid mistakes.

But it is difficult to explain away behaviour which, according to most people, was endemic in Number Ten at the time.

It is probably true that Brown didn’t have a clue what McBride was up to but isn’t Brown responsible for the culture that allows this sort of behaviour to become acceptable. When you employ attack dogs, what do you expect?

Only a few days ago, Jane Kennedy compared the Prime Minister to a mafia boss and she used to be a Government Minister! It is not as if accusations like this, against Brown, are rare either. We have all heard about this sort of stuff before. Unfortunately, it seems that most of the time it was directed at people on the Labour side.

Everyone from Peter Mandelson to Frank Field to Patricia Hewitt to Stephen Byers have talked about the bullying tactics emanating first from the Treasury and then Number Ten. McBride’s attempt to smear senior Conservatives was a rare example of him directing his fire at the opposition.

I know politics can be a rough ol’ business and you have to expose the weaknesses and failings of the oppposition. But my beef is when it's directed at your own side tactics like these are not a very effective form of motivating people.

You don’t get the best out of people by scaring them, attacking them or subjecting them to the hairdryer treatment. You get the best out of people by encouraging them and valuing their work.

Businesses should learn this but so should governments, political parties and indeed prime ministers.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Moving on from New Labour?


I thought James Purnell’s interview in the Guardian this weekend was interesting.

I think he is right to point out that we should all stop “hankering” for the heyday of New Labour in the late 1990s. As he points out (and Tony Blair would be the first to agree) we need to develop a new set of policies that is relevant for today, not for 1994.

Purnell states:

“We took the electoral furniture to be too fixed. We didn't think about creating a new coalition and I think that's what we need to do now. To be honest I think we were too conservative about our means, so it was easier to take on arguments on the left, not the right. So what I want to try and do now is be as radical on the left as on the right.

"I think we need to go back and clarify values which underlie new Labour and be very candid about what worked and didn't work”.

Even Tony Blair’s biggest fans, myself included, have to accept that what worked and what was right in 1997, isn’t necessarily what will work now.

We shouldn’t forget about the electoral coalition that got Labour elected in 1997 but nor should we get ourselves trapped in a permanent time warp. Sometimes even the best ministers still think they need to fight the 1997 election all over again.

That is why it is interesting Purnell will be talking to people like Jon Cruddas over the next few months, as he leads a three year project for Demos. Why shouldn’t Purnell, Cruddas and others start setting out their own ideas and vision for the party and the country? We need to be creative about what we we can offer the British public. We don’t need more timidity and indecision.

Even though Cruddas and Purnell offer different perspectives, I would expect both of them to be powerful voices in opposition. They both ‘get it’ that New Labour needs refreshing. The real issue will be whether, as a party, we are willing to listen to and give their ideas a chance.

Let’s wait and see.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

What can we learn from the West Wing?



Writing in this week's Observer Andrew Rawnsley states that Josiah Bartlet has a lot to answer for.

Rawnsley uses his article to criticise David Cameron and Tony Blair before him of trying to turn Downing Street into a mini West Wing.

Is Rawnsley right?

On one level he probably is. In the West Wing decisions are made by Josh, CJ and Sam as they dash from meeting to meeting at a breakneck speed. "Impromptu, informal, haphazard gatherings", as Rawnsley calls them, are probably not the best way of reaching decisions. He argues it was this sort of approach which led to some of the most disastrous periods of the Blair Government - like the dodgy dossier.

On this I tend to think he is right. Meetings for meetings sake are a pointless waste of time. But there is value in stopping a moment, weighing up the facts, listening to dissenting voices, considering the options and then reaching a decision.

But Rawnsley is wrong on another level because he fails to understand the point of the West Wing. It was about recapturing the idealism of politics. And it would seem to me that British politics could do with more of this.

A tight knit group of young, idealistic, talented and intelligent people helped turn around the Labour Party in the mid 1990s. But we have lost that magic now. We have lost that ambition and hunger and idealism that helps propel parties into power.

Unlike Josiah Barlet, we have also become afraid of our own liberalism and social democracy. Bartlet was a liberal lion who wasn't afraid to champion difficult or unpopular causes. In fact it was what gave him his authenticity. I think we try to triangulate too much and we forget our values.

The West Wing showed that you could be true to your values and still be politically skillful and electorally successful. It would seem to me that we should try to emulate this as much as possible.

In British politics we need more Josiah Barlets and fewer Francis Urquharts.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Have the Tories changed on gay rights?



The rainbow flags were flying in Soho this weekend as London celebrated Gay Pride.

Not wanting to miss an opportunity, Westminster's politicians have been falling over themselves to prove their gay credentials.

Last week, David Cameron said "sorry" for Section 28, the law which banned the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools. Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, described the apology as "historic".

In a reversal of historic trends, it appears that the Conservatives have certainly made it possible once again for gay men and women to vote for them.

A poll conducted by Jake, the professional gay networking organisation, found that out of over 600 gay men and women, 38% said they would vote Conservative if an election was held tomorrow, while only 20% would vote Labour - figures which mirror the national polling preferences too.

In constituencies in London, the key battleground for next year's election, the 'pink vote' could be decisive.

The National Portrait Gallery also played host last week to a debate between senior gay political figures about which party could offer the gay vote more.

Ben Bradshaw MP (the new Secretary of State for Culture), Chris Bryant MP (Foreign Officer Minister), Nick Herbert MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Defra), Stephen Williams MP (Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Universities) and Nick Boles (PPC for Grantham) were all in attendance.

There was even a brief appearance from Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister's wife. She also led the Pride parade as it worked its way through London's streets on Saturday.

However, both Ben Bradshaw and Chris Bryant used the occasion at the Gallery to attack their Tory colleagues, claiming that many Conservative MPs and PPCs were still prejudiced.

I think it is right for Labour to remind people of the great work it has done extending gay rights - one of the really successful achievements of the Blair years. But I am not sure it is fair any more to criticise the Tories on this. In any organisation, there is bound to be some element of prejudice. After all, it is made up of humans. But the Tory leadership, at the very least, has changed on this. And shouldn't social democrats in particular, accept that people can make mistakes and forgive them for it?

At the National Gallery, the most eloquent and articulate speaker, turned out to be Nick Herbert, the Shadow Secretary of State for the Environmment.

In his speech, he gave credit to the Labour Government for establishing the legal framework for gay equality and was honest about previous Conservative failings in this area. But he quoted David Cameron's first conference speech when the new leader stated that marriage between two men was equally valued as marriage between a man and a woman, and reminded the audience that it was important to remain vigilant in the future.

This is not the Tory voice of Norman Tebbit or John Hannam, the MP Ben Bradshaw originally defeated in Exeter. Herbert represents a new generation of Tories who recognise the importance of gay rights legislation. They are not going to roll back the clock now. And I think Labour has to accept this. It also has to accept that there are many people who will now begin to look at the Tories in a different light and, as the poll suggests, are willing to vote for them.

It would be better for Labour to fight the Tories on what we can offer for the future, like what are we going to do about homophobic bullying in schools, rather than hark back to the fights of yesterday.

It is often said that gay men and women are the first to start a new trend and are always just one step ahead of the curve.

Labour strategists may be conceeding that it would be ironic indeed, if, after all the progress Labour has made over the last ten years, it is the Conservatives who turn out to be the biggest beneficiaries of the pink vote at the next election.