A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

NEC election

Along with the leadership ballot which starts tomorrow, Labour members will have the chance to vote for six constituency reps on the National Executive Committee.

If you have a vote I hope you'll read what I say here and on my website - http://luke4nec.org.uk/ and consider backing me.

I am very proud to be running alongside and also calling for support in the NEC ballot for Peter Wheeler, Ellie Reeves, Deborah Gardiner, Shaukat Ali and Oona King.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Limits of Triangulation

I thought I ought to try to contribute something to the debate about triangulation versus dividing lines as electoral strategies, which in very crude terms is how commentators have characterised the debate between respectively David and Ed Miliband. Certainly David seemed to be advocating a strategy of triangulation with the Coalition’s policies when he spoke about emulating RA Butler’s strategy of the 1950s of the Tories accepting much of the 1945 government’s settlement.

Wikipedia defines triangulation thus:
“Triangulation is the name given to the act of a political candidate presenting his or her ideology as being "above" and "between" the "left" and "right" sides (or "wings") of a traditional (e.g. UK or US) democratic "political spectrum". It involves adopting for oneself some of the ideas of one's political opponent (or apparent opponent). The logic behind it is that it both takes credit for the opponent's ideas, and insulates the triangulator from attacks on that particular issue.”

The key word in that description is “on that particular issue”. Unfortunately there are some colleagues in the Labour Party who seem to think it means taking the entire ideology and policy platform of the party and moving it wholesale to a position far nearer to that of the Tories.

Of course a broadly triangulating strategy worked very well for both Clinton and Blair in the 1990s. I think their strategy was broadly correct given the context then.

But Obama managed to win in 2008 with a strategy that was not just a straight replay of Clinton-era triangulation because the issues, the opponent and the electorate had changed in the 16 years from 1992, and similarly we need to look at the changed political, economic and policy landscape in the UK and come up with an electoral strategy for 2015, not 1997. Even if the circumstances were a complete replay we wouldn’t want to repeat a variation on the same strategy any more than a chess grandmaster would want to replicate their strategy in match after match against the same player– pretty soon your opponent works out a way to beat you if you don’t surprise them with new tricks – and the Tory party has got over it’s dumb phase when it made things easy for us.

The key thing about triangulation is that it doesn’t have to be applied crudely to the entire positioning of a party i.e. throwing the baby of popular policies out with the bathwater of the unpopular ones.

In 1994-1997 we triangulated area by area based on a sophisticated analysis of Labour’s strengths and weaknesses. Our strengths were that people thought we were compassionate and would deliver a properly funded NHS and schools. Our weaknesses were on defence (which we dealt with a lot earlier than under New Labour by ditching unilateralism in the 1988 Policy Review), perceived liberalism on crime (hence Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”), and tax (hence the pledge not to increase the basic rate). So we didn’t triangulate our policies in the areas of strength – and went on to do radical things like the minimum wage that had been aspirations of Labour for 100 years but never implemented even by the Attlee government. But we did triangulate on the weaknesses – though I would argue that on defence what we really did was reverted to Labour’s historic pre-1979 positioning.

Some points about why this can’t just be replicated now:
· Then we were triangulating with a Tory government that had won four elections on over 40% of the vote. Now we would be triangulating with a Tory party that didn’t win the general election even with us exhausted after 13 years in power and following a global recession. What’s the point in moving towards policies that weren’t very electorally popular?
· The Lib Dems have effectively already blazed a trail for triangulating with this Tory party through negotiating a Coalition agreement. The net impact has been to halve their support and increase ours’ by a third, suggesting swing voters wouldn’t thank us for moving right.
· The two main parties are already quite close together on the old 1980s areas of Labour weakness such as defence and crime. The areas where we could triangulate are primarily on policies that are at the fundamental core of what it means to be Labour. Triangulation now would involve moving nearer the Coalition position on the VAT rise, public service cuts and economic strategy. I do not believe that this represents the beliefs of any but a tiny fringe in the Party either in Parliament or the country, whereas the mix Blair came up with was proven through the Road to the Manifesto ballot process to represent the broad consensus of party opinion – you can’t ask Labour candidates and members to campaign on a platform they completely disagree with. It would also be abandoning the very areas of policy where we are nearest to public opinion. Swing voters didn’t vote for the Tories rather than us because they were going to raise VAT, cut public services and switch off the fiscal stimulus, they voted Tory despite those things because we did not present an attractive prospectus for the next five years, and because they thought “things could only get better”.
· Triangulation has to have an ideological line in the sand that won’t be crossed. Would we triangulate with the BNP if they were our main opposition? I hope not.
· Our existing set of Labour voters nowadays have other places to go if we move too far from them – to minor parties or abstention. We need to think about retaining our existing pool of voters as well as growing it.
· We don’t know yet at the start of the Coalition’s term what we will be triangulating with. We need to be careful about positioning ourselves too quickly without seeing the shape of the society, public services and economy we will be fighting over in 2015, or the popularity of the Coalition by then. If it becomes grossly unpopular why would we triangulate with it? We don’t even know the electoral system we will be using and if AV came in then we will need a strategic approach based on getting transfers from smaller parties.

There’s also a problem in terms of the groups of electors some people in the party think triangulation would target.

Because people bandy around the terms Middle England and Middle Class as though they are interchangeable and monolithic, they seem to think our swing voters are people like Hyacinth Bucket, readers of the Daily Telegraph, or people who pay higher rate income tax.

In fact swing voters look a lot more like the average Labour activist’s idea of what a Labour voter should look like. That’s the tragedy – that we didn’t get the votes this time (or in the 1980s) of millions of people who we were actually set up to represent.

Some of these are the voters Ed Miliband has identified in the DE social classes (the least well off) who we lost in large numbers this time. I suspect they would be happy with quite leftwing policies on the economy and public services, but many of them will be ferociously rightwing on crime, Europe, defence, immigration and welfare reform (if you get welfare yourself because you need it you tend to have fairly robust views on "scroungers" who you think are less deserving). Many of them would link their worries about migrants (who they probably think are here because of the EU’s freedom of movement policy) and welfare “scroungers” (who they suspect are often also migrants) to the practical problems they confront about accessing public services and affordable housing, crime levels, lack of jobs/job insecurity and paying excessive levels of tax given their low incomes. We need to get these voters back because it’s criminally negligent if an avowedly democratic socialist party can’t get the votes of the poorest, because even in key marginal seats there are wards full of this type of voter whose low turnout helps lose us the seat, and because the bit of power they do have is that their vote is worth the same as a stockbroker’s. There’s no point winning switchers if we throw away what should be our base vote through taking it for granted. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the UK’s electoral geography means lots of them are in seats we already win, which will just get safer – assuming we keep the same voting system. The LDs’ insistence that first dibs on forming a coalition goes to the party with the largest popular vote does mean that piling up big majorities in safe seats by enthusing these voters could be important if there is another hung parliament.

Then there are C2 voters, the skilled working classes, and C1s, lower middle class people doing routine white collar jobs. These are the segments everyone agrees we need to go after and which Blair focused on because back then everything was simpler because we just weighed the core vote. These are the mythical Middle England but they are actually distributed across the country in unglamorous and functional places like the M4 corridor, North Kent and South Essex, the London suburbs, the Pennine Belt and the manufacturing areas of the East and West Midlands. They are politically important because their propensity to switch straight from Con to Lab or vice versa gives them a double value – they take one vote off the Tory lead in a seat as well as adding one to us. They include the people who work in our remaining manufacturing jobs in factories (Unite members), and self-employed “white van men” and their families. They would be very unlikely to read a broadsheet newspaper. These are not rich people. The earn salaries in the 20ks or maybe if they have a really skilled job in the 30ks. They are what Aussie politicians call Battlers – materialist (which isn’t an insult, it means they are grounded in economic reality), aspirational but often hard pressed, struggling to pay a mortgage, worried about the impact on their job and home of economic policy. Everything I wrote about the concerns of the DE voters applies to them too. But then you have to throw in additional issues to do with the home ownership rather than tenancy end of housing policy, an even greater feeling of unfairness about the tax and benefit system, and the need for a strong industrial policy.

But the votes Labour need to get to win are not limited to these categories. Long term population movement southwards and to the suburbs and previously rural areas, plus changes in the class composition of British society mean even bolting loads of archetypal switchers to our historic core vote doesn’t deliver a majority. So we have to go after some very counter-intuitive groups of voters: well-off commuters in a seat like Wirral South, Guardianista counter-cultural types in the trendy coastal towns like Brighton and Hove, the liberal elite in our most marginal seat, Hampstead & Kilburn... the list could run to 20 different micro-groups, each with their own Mosaic code. Every one of these groups has their own set of issues, including stuff like the environment, tuition fees and Iraq.

What all of these sets of voters have in common is that I cannot see that they will have a great deal of interest in us triangulating on the major issues where we currently confront the Coalition: taxation, the savagery and speed of their deficit reduction strategy, or public services. I suspect they would view the public service reform agenda as an answer to the last decade’s question of utter irrelevance to the country we will be in in 2015. If anything we need to go for a more populist and progressive stance on tax, shifting the burden from these guys, who are hard pressed, onto people further up the income scale.

The first two groups – the DEs and C1C2s might be pleased if we triangulated on immigration, crime and welfare reform. We need to do this if we can do it in a way that is consistent with social democratic values of fairness in the case of welfare reform, and of fairness and the country’s economic needs in the case of migration policy. And we need to be aware we run the risk of not winning back some of the third set of voters – the small “l” liberals if we get the balance wrong on these issues.

But we also need policies that deal with the demand end of the concerns of this vast set of voters: if they have fair access to housing and other public services, and they live in safe well-policed communities and we can offer an economic policy that will create well-paid, skilled jobs, we will reduce their anxiety about migrants squeezing them out of the jobs, homes and services they need. This implies more radical policies than we pursued in the last 13 years.

My final concern about wholesale triangulation is that it represents ideological capitulation. Why should it always be us running to catch up with their position on the political spectrum? Why shouldn’t we come up with a policy mix that forces them to move towards us as Butler had to in the ‘50s?

We ought to be certain enough of the essential verity of our social democratic values that we can take them, hold them up against modern Britain as it will be in 2015 and a carefully researched understanding of our weaknesses in 2010 and where the views are of the segments of the electorate that we need to win, and craft an attractive modern policy agenda rooted in those values. Are there people in the party who really don’t believe there is a potential majority in the country for our values and that we have to accept an ideological settlement created by Cameron and Clegg?

Readers of earlier posts will know that I think Ed Miliband, from a strong field of candidates, is the potential Labour Leader with the confidence in social democratic values and the intellect and imagination to develop modern policies that will bridge the gap between these values and the fears and hopes for the future of the key groups of voters I have described, as well as a personality attractive enough to sell those policies in a modern TV campaigning age.

I won’t agree with every single policy answer he comes up with, but I think he’s asking himself the right questions and applying the right strategy to work out how to get Labour back into power. That’s why he’ll get my vote.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Council By-elections

I'm away so not able to do the usual stats for yesterday's by-elections.

However, the raw results are on ConHome and are good for Labour:


NPF Recommendations

Along with the ballot for the leadership and NEC members, starting on 1st September, members will be asked to vote for 4 regional delegates to the National Policy Forum (and in some cases where the election is contested, a youth rep).

Labour First is recommending support for the following candidates:

Eastern – Katie Curtis, Bryony Rudkin, James Valentine, Daniel Zeichner
East Midlands – Julie Brookfield, Marietta Farnsworth, Andrew Furlong, Mark Glover
London – Nicky Gavron, Lisa Homan, Joanne Milligan, Alon Or-Bach. Youth Rep – Chloe Howard
North – Nick Forbes, Brynnen Ririe, Liz Twist, Nick Wallis
North West – Azhar Ali, Michael Amesbury, Theresa Griffin, Lucy Powell. Youth Rep – Anna McCaul
Scotland – Neil Bibby, Jillian Merchant, Ian Miller
South East – Simon Burgess, Deborah Gardiner, Karen Landles, Martin Phillips. Youth Rep – Daniel Chapman
South West – Keir Singh Dillon, Clare Moody, Doug Naysmith, Brenda Weston Youth Rep - Rob Thompson
Wales – David Hagendyk, Natasha Hirst, Julia Magill, Hamish Sandison
West Midlands – any four of the candidates nominated as all have sensible politics
Yorkshire & Humber – Jamie Hanley, Mahroof Hussain, Jane Thomas, Jane Walton

Where there are any gaps suggestions are welcome in the comments below.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mr Cruddas breaks cover

The leadership election is throwing up some interesting counter-intuitive endorsements.

The most recent being that I have been outflanked to the right by Jon Cruddas...


This was rather predictable - Kevin Maguire hinted at it in his New Statesman diary back in May: http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2010/05/david-cameron-labour-cruddas.

Perhaps this endorsement of David Miliband by someone clearly from the left will mean that his camp stop their silly attempts to present Ed Miliband as a dangerous leftwinger and David as somehow the official/establishment candidate.

It's also a reminder of Cruddas and David Miliband's shared background as Blair advisers in No10 in the first term.

The key thing for people to understand is that this leadership election isn't a neat left right spectrum where you pick the candidate nearest your own ideological point on a line from Benn to Blair. Some candidates are in different places on the spectrum depending on the issue, as are different members (I'm fairly near, some of my critics would say off, the right end of the spectrum of Labour opinion on crime/ASB, civil liberties and defence/foreign policy, but a lot nearer the centre - i.e. further to the left - on the economy, immigration, public services and redistribution - there are other Labour members who hold the reverse of these positions). And there's a whole other axis to measure candidates against based on charisma/personality and voter appeal, and on capability. Think back to 1963 - lots of Labour rightwingers detested Wilson as a person and for his politics but voted for him over George Brown in the final round because of Brown's character flaws.

Presumably Cruddas also got some assurances about the creation of the elected Party Chair role he wants.

I found his arguments for his choice rather convoluted and in some cases confusingly abstract. He is quoted in the New Statesman saying: "he (D Miliband) started talking about belonging and neighbourliness and community, more communitarian politics, which is where I think Labour has to go". I'm not as clever as Jon so I need this translated into shorter words ... I'm not sure it bears much relation to the immediate concerns of his constituents in Dagenham or David's in South Shields.

It would have been more straightforward for Jon to say "I'm voting for this guy because he's my friend and I trust him to a good job, and he's agreed the job I want will be created" rather than dress it up with a lot of theorising.

Some aspects of Cruddas' endorsement I just plain disagree with "Cruddas warns that it's a grave mistake for Labour to attack and disparage the Liberal Democrats. "David is not just attacking the Liberals, as some of the others have been."". Run that past me again Jon ... a rival party that has been trying to steal votes of us by presenting itself as to our left suddenly goes into coalition with the Tories and backs savage cuts to public services and a regressive budget and you don't think we should attack them for it? We shouldn't just be attacking them we should be trying to destroy them as a viable political entity. If that view reflects David Miliband's view then in itself it is reason enough why his brother should be leader instead. Whoever becomes leader, if I get on the NEC I will be pushing for attacking the Lib Dems to be a major part of our electoral strategy.

Jon's choice may have longer-term implications for the health of the Compass soft-left project, already discombobulated by the discovery that their Lib Dem mates are actually Yellow Tories. His erstwhile fan club in Compass Yoof and his parliamentary best mate Jon Trickett MP have gone bananas. Having had a Messiah, this particular cult now has a betrayal myth. They are a seriously unhappy crew.

Which brings me to yesterday's other endorsement - or rather re-endorsement - that of Ed Balls by Ken Livingstone. Ken is the person other than Cruddas who has real national stature on the left of the party. He is on a long journey rightwards across the party according to his rivals for the left franchise in Briefing and the LRC (with many of his Socialist Action supporters now deeply involved in Compass, seeing it as a more fertile recruiting ground for young activists than the traditional hard left). Ken's repositioning has drawn dividends as his list of supporters for re-nomination as London Mayoral candidate includes many people who are simultaneously backing leadership candidates from the right of the party.

Diane Abbott must be feeling seriously let down. She finally managed to get a leftwing voice into the leadership debate, only for Ken and Jon, the two most heavyweight names on the left of the party, to back other leadership candidates (the failure of Ken to back her given their long term political alliance must be particularly galling). Is this because of her flaws as a candidate, or is there a more significant unravelling of the left going on, mirroring the split into two NEC slates?

The kaleidoscope of alignments around the leadership is also evident at my own level in the NEC contest. For instance three of us on the moderate slate (me, Ellie and Oona) back Ed Miliband, as does Sam Tarry from the Grassroots Labour slate; whilst Shaukat Ali, Ken Livingstone and Johanna Baxter (respectively from the same slate as me, the Grassroots Labour one, and no slate at all) all back Ed Balls.

Finally, David Miliband's speech last night helped reinforce my position of supporting his brother. He called for us to echo RA Butler's approach (“The closest parallel I can think of is the Tories’ rethink under RA Butler after they lost the 1945 General Election”) in accepting much of whatever settlement the Coalition creates over the next five years. I can't sign up to that. It is pernicious to compare Butler accepting the settlement of a great progressive government in 1945, that implemented profoundly good policies like the NHS on the basis of a landslide election win, with us accepting the deeds of a thoroughly nasty coalition of convenience, implementing regressive policies on the basis of a con-trick whereby Lib Dem voters voted for a leftwing manifesto and got rightwing policies. Labour should be the party setting the long-term agenda and forcing the Tories to concede ideologically, not vice versa. I don't want this ideological timidity, this "surrender and apologise" politics and that's why, unlike Cruddas, I am not voting for it.

Leadership election

This is some of the most useful analysis I've seen of the likely outcome:


Monday, August 23, 2010

Council by-election results

There were a couple of by-elections last Thursday which I did not report as I was away:

Christchurch Ward, Allerdale BC. Con hold. Con 466 (66.1%, +0.9), LD 131 (18.6%, +18.6), Green 108 (15.3%, +15.3). Swing of 8.9% from Con to LD since 2007.

Cossall and Kimberley Ward, Broxtowe. Con hold. Con 757 (37.6%, +8.7), Lab 731 (36.3%, +3.5), LD 524 (26.0%, -3.3). Swing of 2.6% from Lab to Con since 2007.

NEC Nominations

The full lists of NEC nominations are now available on the party website.

I'm running 8th in a field of 20 for 6 positions, the number of CLP nominations received by each candidate being as follows:

Ann Black 275
Ken Livingstone 235
Ellie Reeves 182
Christine Shawcroft 160
Peter Willsman 137
Peter Wheeler 132
Sam Tarry 111
Luke Akehurst 83
Johanna Baxter 65
Oona King 62
Deborah Gardiner 55
Sofi Taylor 55
Shaukat Ali 52
Peter Kenyon 28
Susan Press 27
John Wiseman 27
Kevin Bennett 16
Rajwant Singh Sidhu 13
Julian Ware-Lane 11
Narinder Singh Matharoo 4

Take primaries with a pinch of salt

I've seen much excited tweeting today about David Miliband narrowly beating Ed Miliband in a primary straw poll run in Edinburgh East CLP.

Only one problem but quite a major one.

For some reason Edinburgh East ran their vote on First-Past-the-Post.

And the real leadership election is run on the Alternative Vote, with votes cast for the 3rd, 4th and 5th placed candidates transferring to their second or lower preferences.

All the polls done so far in the leadership campaign show Ed Miliband picking up a 60-40 advantage in transfers. So if Edinburgh East had used the correct system, he would have won.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

By-election result

Only one by-election tonight, unfortunately a lost seat, in a part of the country (north Kent) that is of critical electoral importance:

River Ward, Medway UA. Con gain from Lab. Con 617 (44.6%, +5.6), Lab 544 (39.4%, -0.7), LD 104 (7.5%, -0.7), Green 45 (3.3%, +3.3), BNP 39 (2.8%, +2.8), Eng Dem 33 (2.4%, +2.4). Swing of 3.2% from Lab to Con since 2007.

The debate continues

Respect is due to John Woodcock MP who has taken time out from his holiday to pen a characteristically well-argued response to my post about public service reform - http://www.progressives.org.uk/articles/article.asp?a=6564

My own post is being re-tweeted in a rather alarming fashion. To misquote Mrs Gaitskell's remark to Hugh when he made his anti-Common Market speech ("all the wrong people are cheering") "all the wrong people are tweeting".

As I've rather misguidedly picked a debate on policy with one of Labour's brightest new MPs on an issue he passionately cares about; and I can't resort to a traditional Akehurst rant as he's one of my allies, not least on the issue of the UK's strategic nuclear deterrent, the subs for which get built in his seat; and I'm also about to go on holiday I will be thinking carefully about my response whilst on the beach down in St Ives.

Just to put a marker down though some of the things I'm going to throw in will be:

  • the function of public services particularly schools as community hubs and motors of community cohesion, and how this is undermined by "choice"
  • why school governing bodies aren't "producers" - they include parent governors (consumers) and LEA governors (representatives of consumers)
  • the role of local government in driving improved services and in making services democratically accountable to the whole electorate
  • why the whole language of producer vs consumer is inappropriate to public services (public sector workers all use public services themselves), alienating to some of Labour's strongest supporters, and insulting to their professionalism and sense of public service
  • why geography - lack of land to expand popular urban institutions, distance between schools and hospitals in rural areas - makes choice impractical in many cases
  • why "genuine community ownership" has always existed through democratically elected local authorities
  • what a good LEA does - support schools - and why the concept of freeing schools from LEAs is bizarre, undermines local democracy and increases the risk of failing schools
  • why schools belong to the whole community they serve, not just the immediate generation of parents

Monday, August 09, 2010

Improvement doesn't always need reform

I read John Woodcock's piece on Labour Uncut saying Labour must be the party of “radical public service reform” and gave a little bit of an inner groan.

One of the greatest consumers of political time and energy during our time in government was the brightest and best in the party dreaming up whizzy new ways of reforming public services in pursuit of a chimerical middle class appetite for choice, and then ending up not satisfying the intended, rather narrow, political market, whilst having had a punch-up with some of our own affiliates representing the people who actually deliver the services.

The pursuit of “public service reform” was from my perspective a massive waste of political capital that consumed Tony Blair’s and several key cabinet ministers’ time from 2001 onwards with very little noticeable impact on the frontline or on Labour’s political fortunes when they could have been zeroing in on a host of other more important issues.

I’m not against some of the actual reforms. I just don’t believe that the public sector reform agenda should be the central defining agenda of a Labour government, or consume so much intellectual effort or ministerial time.

My instincts are these:

· By the time of the next election the public services will be 40% smaller thanks to Coalition cuts, so personalisation and reform are going to be irrelevant. You’ll be lucky if there are books in any of the local schools, let alone a choice of which one to go to.
· Choice about important stuff like schools or hospitals is actually incredibly stressful and requires a high level of knowledge on the part of the parent or patient to make an informed choice. I didn’t want to have to choose a primary school for my son this year and learn a load of nonsense about the relative placings of each one in the league table. I wanted them all to be good so it didn’t matter which one he went to. Particularly as he had no chance whatsoever of getting into the one we most liked, where he had already been at nursery, as we weren’t prepared to jump through the hoop of moving house to achieve this. Similarly when I was ill last year the last thing I wanted was the additional stress of making choices about where and how I was treated. I just wanted to lie back and feel ill and let the doctors do the choosing.
· When it comes to education choice is an illusion. Every parent who has the inclination to engage in this ‘choice’ wants the best for their child – what is being offered most of the time is not a choice between different pedagogical methods but a choice between institutions providing the same service with varying levels of success. The result is the best performing institutions are taken over by the strata of the middle class who possess the resources and mobility to get the best, e.g. by moving house to within the 192 metre catchment area of the most popular school in our area, which polarises schools to an even greater extent and consigns working class kids to under performing schools.
· Most of our reforms tended to focus on structure e.g. “liberating” academies from LEA control and “liberating” Foundation Hospitals from various central NHS controls. The Tories have taken this several leaps further. I happen to believe academies have been a great success where I live in Hackney, with stunning exam results and loads of other benefits for their pupils compared to the failing schools we (Hackney Council) took the tough decisions to shut. But I don’t think the status was what made the difference. Mossbourne Academy is not one of the best performing schools in the country because it has a token £1m of private funding, or a differently composed governing body to an LEA school, or more independence from the LEA. It’s a brilliant school because it has a specially recruited and highly paid head teacher, smart uniforms, strict discipline, fantastic new buildings and an ethos that’s all about success. None of these things required the creation of a new genre of schools to achieve. In the case of my equally brilliant local Foundation Hospital, the Homerton, it got the “reformed” status with extra freedoms and a different governance model because it was already one of the best performing hospitals, it didn’t start performing well because of a change of status.
· My personal experience as a Hackney councillor watching the turn round of our borough council from a national laughing-stock and basket case to one of the most improved authorities in the country was that it was all about leadership by our Mayor and successive Chief Executives and a clear political vision. We achieved a massive turnaround by changing key senior staff, investing in the workforce, bringing in expertise from other local authorities and tightening financial and legal procedures. We certainly didn’t too it by structural tinkering with a tried-and-tested model of municipal service delivery – in fact we brought services back in-house that private sector contractors had comprehensively screwed up.
· I’m tempted to look at the one public service which commands respect from across the political spectrum: the Armed Forces. They don’t mess about with their structures all the time. The regimental system in the Army carries forward traditions that are up to 400 years old. When the Chiefs of Staff want different or better effects from the Armed Forces they don’t get it by antagonising all the producers – in their case officers and men. They get it by investing in more modern equipment, by recruiting and promoting the best people, by modernising their doctrine, and by brilliant training and retraining at every level from basic training to Staff College, but particularly at leadership level. When a crisis – a war - happens they have the organisational agility to improvise solutions to unexpected scenarios and threats. Leadership, equipment and esprit de corps are central to the success of the Armed Forces as the ultimate public service. Really successful state schools like Mossbourne Academy have the same characteristics: great leadership, great facilities and esprit de corps. The hospital I was in last year, the National on Queen Square, was successful for similar reasons. None of this requires constant reform of structures – it’s all about recruiting the right senior and middle leadership, creating the right organisational culture, and giving staff the best equipment and the best, constantly updated, training.
· Unfortunately much public service reform was about importing values of individualism and the market into the public sector, and involving the private sector nearer and nearer to the frontline. I think this was ideologically a mistake because it weakened the character of institutions that should be important incubators of social democratic values. We should be as aggressive in promoting collectivist and egalitarian models of delivering services as the Tories are at dismantling them. We ought to have a situation where private sector companies are copying the brilliant management and quality of the public sector, and public sector leaders are seconded to help turn round industry, not vice versa.
· Beware politicians saying they know the micro-answers to the way public services should be run. Unless they have actually been front-line public servants like Lord Darzi they usually don’t and would be better off setting objectives and letting the professionals work out how to get there.

I hope the next Labour government will focus on the standards of public services, and on developing the leaders, doctrine, equipment and highly trained and motivated workforce to make all of them world-beaters, rather than on “reforming” them. If we get back in we will inherit a depleted band of public servants who will be bruised and battered from Tory “reforms” and won’t thank us for another round however well intentioned.

I hope we won’t waste any more terms focused on sterile debates about “reform” that tend to have negligible benefits in terms of the quality of services.

As someone who was proud to be a Blairite I wish Tony had dedicated the second half of his premiership to the more immediate and politically resonant issues of greater equality and social justice, tackling crime and anti-social behaviour, and re-balancing our economy towards manufacturing so that the financial services crash would have had less impact.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Council by-election results

Only one by-election last night:

Sitwell Ward, Rotherham MBC. Con hold. Con 1213 (45.5%, +4), Lab 864 (32.4%, -2.2), Ind 252 (9.4%, -2.2), UKIP 241 (9.0%, -3.2), LD 98 (3.7%, +3.7). Swing of 3.1% from Lab to Con since May this year.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Repositioning Labour

I agree with the broad thrust of this piece by Richard Darlington:


If Labour doesn't realise the extend of our rejection by the electorate in May and accordingly make some big changes to policy and positioning, we face a bleak, indeed short, future.

I was talking last night with a former council colleague whose judgement on electoral strategy I really trust. He was concerned that "business as usual" would mean we (Labour) would face electoral oblivion within a few years and whilst there might still be something called the Labour Party we would no longer have a realistic chance of forming governments. There are just too few people who will now vote for us on a tribal "my party right or wrong" basis, and we are miles adrift of the Tories in seats in places like Kent that we won in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

I'm very proud of what we achieved in 13 years in power but we need to move fast after the leadership election to come up with an agenda for the future which shows we listened to the result this time. I worry that the obvious ghastliness of the Coalition's cuts and the euphoria of getting a wave of new members and winning back council seats will cause people to start thinking we can just get back in on the swing of the electoral pendulum and that we don't have to make fundamental changes.

As you might expect, I don't believe that the change required is a move to the left - i.e. further away from the voters - on a traditional left-right axis.

A nice graph

Nothing like a nice graph to cheer you up:

NEC nominations close

Nominations for the NEC closed on Friday.

I ended up being nominated by 83 CLPs (84 if you count Tower Hamlets Borough Party as its 2 component CLPs).

Many thanks to all the CLPs who nominated me, the number of nominations exceeded my most optimistic expectations.

My incumbent running mates Peter Wheeler and Ellie Reeves have done even better, with 132 and 181 respectively.

Balloting takes place at the same time as the leadership election, starting from 1 September.

The nominations I got were from:

Barnsley East
Barrow & Furness
Bethnal Green & Bow
Birmingham Hall Green
Birmingham Perry Barr
Bradford South
Brentwood & Ongar
Brigg & Goole
Brighton Kemptown
Bromley & Chislehurst
Camborne & Redruth
Castle Point
Central Suffolk & North Ipswich
Chelsea & Fulham
Coventry North West
Croydon South
Derbyshire Dales
Doncaster North
Dulwich & West Norwood
Dumfries & Galloway
Dunfermline & West Fife
Ealing North
East Ham
Glasgow Central
Hackney North & Stoke Newington
Hackney South & Shoreditch
Halesowen & Rowley Regis
Harrow West
Hitchin & Harpenden
Holborn & St Pancras
Hornsey & Wood Green
Hull North
Labour International
Lancaster & Fleetwood
Leeds North East
Leeds West
Leicester South
Lewisham East
Lewisham West & Penge
Liverpool Riverside
Liverpool West Derby
Meon Valley
New Forest West
Newport East
North Ayrshire & Arran
Northampton South
Northern Ireland
Oldham East & Saddleworth
Oldham West & Royton
Poplar & Limehouse
Portsmouth North
Preseli Pembrokeshire
Salford & Eccles
Selby & Ainsty
Somerton & Frome
Taunton Deane
West Bromwich East
West Ham

I think I got Bassetlaw as well but it isn't in the official list.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The end of lifetime tenancies?

I'm not impressed by David Cameron's idea of fixed term tenancies for social housing: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/aug/03/lifetime-council-tenancies-contracts-cameron

His ministerial colleague Grant Shapps has outlined a "right to move" (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/aug/04/grant-shapps-council-house-swap-scheme). There needs to be a "right to stay put" too.

Cameron's remarks echo those of IDS a few weeks ago about people uprooting themselves to find jobs (rather than government helping create jobs where the people are).

The Cameron proposal seems to ignore the fact that for tenants their flat or house isn't just housing, it's a home.

They might over the fixed period Cameron proposes grow to like living there, to put down roots in a community through participating in local organisations and getting to know friends and neighbours locally. Their kids will probably be settled at a local school, again with a circle of friends.

I moved house when I was seven and changed school, ironically because my parents after waiting for years finally got a housing association house. It's quite traumatic changing schools and neighbourhoods. You wouldn't want to make people do it unnecessarily.

I've also moved involuntarily as an adult - in my case because disability meant my home was no longer accessible. Again its very disruptive, even though in my case we only moved across the street! You don't want to make people move involuntarily if you can possibly avoid it.

How would Cameron feel if the situation was reversed and the commissars of Kensington came and told him that he had lived in his nice Notting Hill pad for too long (indeed he had access to two other houses in Downing Street and Chequers) and they would like to terminate his ownership in order to hand it over to people more socially deserving?

The Cameron proposal runs completely counter to two of the key thrusts of his own government's policies. It contradicts their welfare-to-work aspirations because it provides a disincentive to getting a job as that could mean you lose your tenancy. And it contradicts the "Big Society". How will you ever build stable, sustainable communities with high levels of voluntary activity on council estates if the residents with jobs, the ones most likely to have the skills and enthusiasm to become tenants association officers, run the after-school sports club or organise a street party are kicked out of their tenancies after a fixed period?

It's the exact opposite of the right-to-buy policy which sought to make council estates more mixed communities including home owners. It will just make estates holding pens for the very poorest rather than long-term communities made up of family homes.

If I was cynical I would suggest it was an attempt to break up communities that tend to vote Labour.

It's certainly looks like it has been dreamt up by people who have never been social housing residents themselves and see estates not as people's homes and communities that they care about and are rooted in, but as a commodity - a set of boxes with roofs to be dished out to the poorest for urgent shelter then taken away from them once they get jobs.

The only way to deal with the housing waiting lists we have is to build more socially rented homes. Labour was to its shame only just starting to address that after 13 years in power. The Coalition don't even seem to get what needs to be done.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Famous in Tottenham

It seems that some people outside the Labour Party are following my NEC campaign.

I've been forwarded a copy of this email:

"From: Justin Hinchcliffe
Subject: CLP shocker
Date: Monday, 2 August, 2010, 13:48

Tottenham CLP has nominated the ever-so right wing Luke Akehurst for the NEC. A Tottenham Tory spokesman said: "Of the 3 major parties here in Tottenham, it's clear that the Conservative are - by far - the most liberal and progressive. Luke Akehurst has more in common with John Redwood than David or Nick. This is yet another example of the Tottenham CLP lurching to the extreme right."ENDs"

Being described as a right-winger by Justin is slightly alarming, given his own political history.

Here's what he was like as a lad: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/justin-time-1576357.html , as described by David Aaronovitch:

"Justin, a 14-year-old delegate to next week's Tory conference, is one of life's rebels. Staring into the camera with the implacable self-confidence of extreme youth, Justin has revolted against his left-wing teachers ("But I don't want to do my own thing!"), told his single-parent mum that he thinks her benefits should be cut (presumably there is still time for him to be forcibly adopted by, say, John Redwood) and though living in Tottenham, is a Chelsea fan. In a tribute to John Gummer's policies on the environment, Justin urges the homeless to stop living off the state and feed themselves with fish from the Thames and fruit from road-side trees. His love for animals, particularly pit bull terriers, marks him out as being a young man of sentiment - one who wears other people's hearts on his sleeve. Justin has never thought the thinkable."

Tony Blair's "political career so far"

I've just been sent the link to Tony Blair talking about his memoirs: http://www.tonyblairjourney.co.uk/

If you play the video I am fairly sure he refers to his "political career so far" and the book having helped him work out what to do next.

Is a comeback planned?

Monday, August 02, 2010

In pity of John Kampfner

When John Kampfner announced he was supporting the Lib Dems five months ago, I was angry with him.

Now I just pity him.

He has managed to write one of the most muddled apologia for a political misjudgement I have ever read: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/01/queasy-but-dont-regret-lib-dems

He dressed up his original defection by claiming he was being true to the political legacy of the late Robin Cook, whose biographer he was.

I can't claim to have known Robin as well as Mr Kampfner did, but I can imagine the disdain he would have felt for the Coalition government and its policies and horror he would have felt about anyone using his name as a justification for continuing to back the Lib Dems.

The nearest that John can come to criticising the Coalition or apologising for his own role in undermining Labour and making it possible is to say "a number of attributes and decisions of this coalition government have left me feeling queasy". "Feeling queasy"? "Feeling queasy"? Surely a slightly more profound reaction is required to the economic lunacy and sheer social barbarism of embarking on the fastest, deepest cuts to public services in post-war British history, bringing in regressive tax changes, and risking shutting down our fragile recovery. Surely the correct reaction of anyone from what Kampfner calls the "left-liberal" tradition in Britain is boiling fury and anger and a pledge never to forgive the Lib Dems for betraying their values, not "feeling queasy"?

I don't feel "queasy" about the schools that won't be built, or the jobs that will be lost, the lives ruined, the life chances rubbed out, the communities that will be destroyed by the Tories and their new Lib Dem sidekicks. I feel utter revulsion, contempt and a great desire for political revenge.

But wait... John has a list of things that he thinks balance out the minor quease-inducing matter of the total kicking being delivered to our economy and public services. Yup that's all worth it - a price partly worth paying - when you get fulfilment of a wish list that includes "the tone" being "more liberal" (when your kid's school doesn't get rebuilt or you lose your job, you will at least have the consolation of the announcement having had a "liberal hue"), "the abandonment of ID cards and the third runway at Heathrow" and the possibility that Trident, "this grandiose folly might over time wither away."

It must be really nice to live a life where your primary concerns about government policy are about airport runways, ID cards or nuclear deterrence, rather than the life most of us lead where not losing our jobs, and having local schools, hospitals, police and bin-collections that actually do the job they are supposed to are slightly higher priorities.

This may come as a surprise to John but there are lots of people in the Labour Party who share his views on the matters he cites. But they think the way to get those policy changes is by changing the Labour Party, not by getting into bed with the Tories. And they don't think that the destruction of jobs and public services is a price worth paying for their beliefs on other matters. And then there are some of us who can actually make a progressive, indeed a "left-liberal" case for knowing the identity of our citizens, deterring aggressors and boosting our economy through extra airport capacity. But that's another argument for another day...

John says Clegg "must have some battles and win them" with Cameron. But the ones he cites are limited to civil liberties and constitutional reform. Why won't Clegg fight inside the Coalition to reduce the cuts package or to protect social justice?

John asks is Labour "a tribe"? Yes. We have a tribal memory of what the Tories did in the 1930s and 1980s and that means that unlike the Lib Dems we would never acquiesce in a reenactment of those dreadful decades.

John concludes "so far, so bearable". He must be living in a different country under a different Coalition to me. So far for me, this is unbearable. I cannot bear the waste and senselessness of this government's policies. There are many millions of people who will have to bear the burden of John's conscience on "Iraq and banks" and its propulsion of him into the arms of the Lib Dems and via them the Tories through worse public services, unemployment, inequality, poverty, deprivation and possibly premature death.

He says he feels "comfortable, though not complacent" with the decision he took. He ought not to be able to sleep at night.

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