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.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed and Something Blue?

The above is my feeble attempt at a Royal Wedding themed title but perhaps also my formula for where Labour should be going ideologically.

I had previously held back from writing about Maurice Glasman’s “Blue Labour” theories because I was waiting to hear what he had to say in person at Thursday night’s Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP General Committee.

Lord Glasman is one of our local members and we had booked him to speak about community organising before Blue Labour hit the headlines.

Maurice is an extremely engaging and frank character with deep roots in Hackney so he managed to win a lot of friends last night in an audience which started out very sceptical. It was a very unusual GC in that we spent nearly two hours discussing political theory, with about 20 delegates speaking. I think most of us came away thinking there were some good bits to Maurice’s ideas, but also some flawed bits, but on the whole it’s good he is provoking a debate.

I’ve tried to use my tweets and notes from the meeting to capture the main things he said and set out my reaction to them:

I’ll start with the name “Blue Labour”.
He says it was intended to be agitational and start a debate and respond to Philip Blonde’s “Red Tory” idea. As Owen Jones said in the meeting, unfortunately it offends a lot of anti-Tories. My concern is that it and the title of the “Purple Book” have discombobulated those Labour activists who have heard of them. They won’t realise Maurice is active in loads of really very radical social campaigns in the East End through London Citizens, they will assume colour-based rebranding is a new round of high-ups in think tanks in London trying to ditch the Party’s identity and heritage.

“We need to replace abstract concepts like “equality” with ones people understand from their own lives like love and respect”.
I agree with introducing the new terms, though there’s a risk we come across as hippies. I developed my political thinking by learning about dialectical materialism so my instinct is that in the middle of a recession most voters are likely to be more interested in the cash in their wallet than whether there is love in their lives. Also I don’t think equality is an abstract concept if you are in an unequal situation. The anger that motivated me to get politically active stemmed from an acute awareness that my parents worked harder but had less cash than the parents of kids I went to school with. That wasn’t abstract, it was right at the front of my consciousness.

“Ed Miliband will want to restrict the power of finance capital and use the Living Wage to set a floor to inequality, whilst promoting private sector growth.”
If this is true, I think it’s a good formula but the language is a bit clunky – ordinary voters understand what bankers are but “capital” doesn’t mean much to most people.

“Blue Labour is about an idea of the common good versus the exploitation of the market and bossiness of the state, association with others through community organising and stronger unions will make people more powerful”.
This also seemed to make sense to me. We need to develop a profile for the Labour Party itself as one of the ways in which people associate to make themselves more powerful.

“The organisational model is tactics that flow from the experience of the people in the campaign but are outside the experience of their enemies.”
Again, agreed and London Citizens provides a template.

Glasman said he “is not pushing faith but saying secular Lab people should honour believers.”
The faith bit made me very uncomfortable. I want to know where atheists like me fit into his organising model. This seems to me essential in that the level of religious observance in the UK is very low. This is particularly the case amongst the white working class voters we need to win back. The London Citizens model where you work with faith groups to mobilise around social issues like low pay works fine in East London where there are large BME communities who are extremely religious and community focussed, but how does it work in most of the rest of the country where working class people are not religiously observant and are very individualistic and consumerist, and the CofE is still the Tory Party at prayer?

I’m concerned Maurice understands the BME inner city working class but isn’t that aware of what their white counterparts in smaller towns and cities and suburbs are like. I don’t see faith as remotely relevant to a very large majority of voters, who may view an increasing Labour focus on working with faith groups as evidence that we are obsessed with minorities.

I’m also concerned about how you avoid drifting into communalism – the idea of seeing voters as groups based on faith or ethnicity that you communicate with by cutting deals with self-appointed community leaders who act as interlocutors. I believe voters should be treated as individuals and that communalist politics is undemocratic, can lead to Tammany Hall style corruption and is bad for community cohesion – people don’t like elections being determined by block votes.

I think he came across as a bit starry eyed about people of faith and the way they live and rather dismissive of the morals and family life of those of us of no faith.

He also got some tough questioning on whether his emphasis on family was limited to wanting to stop capitalism screwing up people’s family lives or extended to a faith-based concept of what “family" means and whether his sympathy for faith groups means he is turning a blind eye to oppression of women in some faith communities.

Maurice cleverly noted that the people who are most relaxed about immigration are most anxious about faith, but I would turn that on its head and see an internal contradiction in his theories in that he wants to re-engage with the working classes around “flag” issues (presumably about patriotism and having a coherent line on immigration) but at the same time wants to engage on “faith” where the position on immigration would be the opposite because it is recent migrants who are the most religiously observant.

Glasman was very upfront about Jon Cruddas being his “closest parliamentary ally”.
Oh dear. I like Jon Cruddas. But I don’t think he has any feel for what working class voters want at all. How can you want to engage with working class gut instincts on patriotism when your “closest parliamentary ally” wants to unilaterally get rid of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent? Any reorientation of Labour around the “flag” needs to start with a robust defence policy.

Jon’s solution to working class voters switching direct from Labour to BNP was to be the leading parliamentary light in Compass, which advocated soft left North London twaddle designed to offend the white working class people who live in Jon’s Dagenham & Rainham seat. This suggests at the very least slightly flawed political judgement.

Glasman said the “Purple Book row was a hate fiesta with James Purnell as the antichrist”.
I think Maurice is going to need to develop a bit of a thicker skin to deal with the robustness of debate inside Labour! A bit ironic given the vitriolic internal debates that go in the faith communities he respects so much.

“The core idea is to restore democratic resistance to the power of capital e.g. German models of employee power in companies and stronger regional policy”
I agreed with this but outside of existing skilled unionised workplaces in aerospace and automotive this is too abstract a concept to win many votes.

He was very dismissive of the achievements of Labour in government.
I found this pretty annoying. We are in danger of doing the Tories’ job for them and talking down one of the best governments in British history. It would be daft politics even if there weren’t loads of Labour achievements. Which there were. I agree with his critique of some of where we went on public sector reforms (though the language he used about a “humiliated workforce” was over the top) but this needs to be balanced with positive stuff about what we did for ordinary working people.

I found his general attack on New Labour odd given that my perspective was that Blair set out to reconnect to the Sun and Mirror readers Maurice wants us to focus on, particularly through our policies on issues like crime and anti-social behaviour, and welfare reform. I would have thought Maurice would have more common ground with John Reid, David Blunkett and Hazel Blears on “faith, flag and family” than with Jon Cruddas.

He said the “unions need to be reorganised to reconnect to their members so new leaders can emerge from the working class”.
This is correct but requires a systematic political re-conquest of the unions by sound people that could take rather a lot of time and energy! In the mean time slagging off the current General Secretaries is unlikely to turn them into allies.

He said he was “on the syndicalist/guild socialist” wing of Lab not the "Leninist/Fabian" vanguard party one!
I really find this all a bit bizarre! In 23 years of Party activism I only heard of this dividing line between statist/non-statist in the last few months. I’d certainly never heard “Fabian” used as an insult before. I think Maurice is far too dismissive of the power of councils and government to transform lives, and far too dismissive of the 1945 government. I owe my life twice over (as a premature baby and a cancer survivor) to a statist achievement of the government, the NHS. The institutions that bind together British community life that Ed Miliband recently spoke about do include voluntary organisations and small businesses like corner shops and pubs (though even these were nationalised in Carlisle!), but they also include a very large number of state-run ones: local Post Offices, schools, public transport, playing fields and parks, libraries, Sure Start centres, hospitals and other NHS services, the local council, the Armed Forces. I’m worried that we are conceding too much ideological ground on the state to the Tories and Lib Dems. I don’t want a bossy state that interferes in people’s lives but I do want a strong state that provides the services people need. There isn’t a contradiction or a choice between statist ways of changing society and the community-based solutions Maurice wants. You need to do both, and the big ticket changes can often only be effected by the state. For instance, you could get a national Living Wage by winning battles with hundreds of thousands of employers through union and community campaigns. Out of power that’s all we have the ability to do. But winning back state power would mean you could legislate for a national Living Wage and free up the unions and community groups to run other campaigns.

Finally, there’s Maurice’s electoral strategy, which is for Labour to reengage with lost working class voters.
I support this in the sense that it’s ridiculous that we’ve allowed bits of our core vote to fall by the wayside. We exist to defend the least well-off in society so if many of them have stopped voting for us we need to re-connect with them as a matter of urgency. But we shouldn’t pretend this is a sure ticket to victory. It’s actually an electoral cul-de-sac – a sure ticket to a strong (but weakening over time) second place. This is because the number of people self identifying as working class has fallen to only 24% according to a poll this March. We need to also target people who are objectively/sociologically working class but are aspirational so see themselves as middle class, and people who actually are middle class but want decent public services and sensible economic policies. Having been a councillor in Hackney and a parliamentary candidate in suburban Essex Castle Point I also think too much is made of the different values of working class and lower middle class voters. Mirror and Sun readers actually want very much the same things as Mail and Express readers: good schools and hospitals, a fair welfare and tax system, a strong economy. They just have differing cultural viewpoints about whether they can trust Labour to deliver those things.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Progress column

I wasn't going to have another rant about AV, but the dismal arguments of the No campaign have provoked me:

Sunday, April 24, 2011

AV in Australia

Former Labour MP Martin Linton has been in Australia and sent the following to supporters of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, which I thought was worth republishing:

"The leader of the Australian answer to the BNP, Pauline Hanson, campaigned this month (April) for election to the New South Wales parliament and won 36% of the vote – and would have been declared elected under our British first-past-the-post system. Fortunately it was held under the Australian preferential voting system – and she lost. The seat went to the Greens instead.

Millions of Australians heaved a sigh of relief and thanked the heavens for the preferential voting system which has done such a good job keeping racists out. Sadly, it occasionally happens in Australia as well as in Britain that racist parties win more than a third of the vote in a local election, but in Australia they rarely progress beyond that because they win so few second preferences. Racist parties tend to come either first or last in voters’ preferences. As the Liberal Democrat President Tim Farron said at a Yes campaign press conference, there are very few lukewarm fascists.

This is one of several reasons why the Australians like their voting system and are watching with interest to see if British voters decide to adopt a similar system in the referendum on 5 May.

Discussing the issues with a random selection of Australian voters, it’s clear that they like the fact that they can express more than one preference on their ballot papers. They think that is fairer. They (or at least most of them) like the fact that it makes it more difficult for racist parties to get in. They like the fact that candidates have to be more open and honest about their attitude to other parties during the election campaign, rather than just attacking them all. They don’t mind the fact that it takes slightly longer to count the votes in some constituencies, because it can add to the drama of election night to see how the fortunes of the leading candidates in close contests can swing one way and the other as minor candidates are eliminated. Above all, they like the system because their vote is more likely to make a difference.

Admittedly, it is difficult for Australians to compare their voting system with any other system, because they have had preferential voting since 1919. If there is any Australian alive who has voted in a first-past-the-post election, she would have to be 115 years old. But ask any Australian whether they want to change their voting system and they are very unlikely to say yes. They are so used to expressing their preferences on a ballot paper that it is actually quite difficult to explain why one would have a rule that the voter can only express one preference. It’s even more difficult to explain why anyone would want to go back to a system that denies them that basic right.

After every election the Australian National University carries out a survey into the attitudes of voters. It does not even ask them whether they like Australia’s preferential voting system, as it is not remotely a live issue. But it does ask Australians whether they are satisfied with their democracy and 72% say yes. It also asks if they think voting can make a big difference. 64% say yes and only 14% say voting won’t make any difference. Compare those figures with any poll taken in the UK in the last 30 years and it will be clear that Australians are far happier with their voting system than we are with ours.If you suggest to them that AV is more likely to lead to hung parliaments, they will point out to you that they have had only one hung parliament since the War and that is the current parliament where the Australian Labor Party holds power with the support of one Green MP and three independents. In the six decades between the War and the last Australian election there have been no hung parliaments in Australia but at least three in the UK.

If you suggest to them that their voting system is too complicated, they will point out that it is extremely simple to fill in a ballot paper in an election to their House of Commons - House of Representatives. On average there are four names on the ballot paper and voters just have to number them one to four in order of preference. Sometimes there are just three names. The highest number of candidates to appear on a ballot paper in the last election was 11.

It’s true that voting in Senate elections can be more complicated, but that’s because they have a different voting system for the Senate. In that election voters have a choice between two ways of filling in the ballot paper. Over 90% of voters opt for the simpler system which just involves ticking one box for the party they support.

It’s also true that there are more spoilt papers in Australian elections – over five per cent at the last election – but that’s because of two features of the Australian voting system that it has never been suggested we should copy. One is compulsory preferences – where you have to put all the candidates in order of preference. In the system proposed in the UK it will be entirely optional to mark preferences. You can still vote with an X. The other is compulsory voting, which the Australians have had since 1924 and is still supported by 69 % of Australians.Ian McAllister, the Belfast-born professor of politics at the Australian National University, believes there are good arguments for the UK to adopt the alternative vote, but fears the innate conservatism of the British will see its defeat. The Australians, he says, have always been more willing to act as a democratic laboratory, adopting the secret ballot, manhood suffrage and women’s suffrage long before the UK and then adopting preferential voting for their lower house, proportional representation in their upper house and compulsory balloting.

What would happen to British politics if AV is adopted? Not a lot, he says. Preferential voting was introduced by a National (ie Conservative) government in Australia but it has not noticeably helped the right. After a long period of post-war dominance (as in Britain), power has been split evenly between the National/Liberals and the Australian Labor Party in the last 40 years.

At the last two elections it has been the Australian Labor Party that has benefited more from the second preferences of minor party candidates. In 2010 Labor took 47% of these second preferences and the National/Liberals took only 35%. Labor would never have held on to power without preferential voting. In 2007 the minor party vote split in a similar way – 47% to Labour and 34% to the National/Liberals, helping Labor to take back power after 11 years. But in 2004 it was the National/Liberals that benefited marginally (by 41-38%) from second preferences.

Labor benefits particularly from the second preferences of the Greens, who are seen as to the left of Labor. Some 80% of Green voters make Labor their second preference which means that some Labor MPs owe their election to Green support. At the moment the Labor government relies on the support on one Green MP in the House of Representatives and nine Green senators in the upper house.

Despite this, there is broad consensus in Australian politics in favour of preferential voting. Indeed Australians find it difficult to understand why British people would vote against such an obviously useful reform that helps the voter without giving an unfair advantage to any party. The only Australian who is vocally opposed to the system is ‘One Nation’ leader Pauline Hanson and she has just been rejected, thanks to the second preferences of Australian voters, for the seventh consecutive time

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Purple Book

My response (with fellow NEC member Johanna Baxter) here:


Friday, April 08, 2011

Council by-election

The final council by-election before 5th May was last night: Wick Ward, Highland Council. SNP gain from Ind. First preference votes: SNP 1049 (45.5%, +28.6), Lab 463 (20.1%, +6.1), Ind 245 (10.6%, -19.7), LD 236 (10.2%, -5.3), Ind 202 (8.8%, +8.8), Ind 75 (3.3%, +3.3), Con 33 (1.4%, -0.4). Swing of 11.3% from Lab to SNP since 2007.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Progress Column

My Progress column this week reports on the big jump upwards in the number of council candidates Labour is fielding: http://www.progressonline.org.uk/columns/column.asp?c=649

Spellar 1, Clegg 0

Ministerial Meetings Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): What meetings he has scheduled in his official capacity for Friday 6 May 2011. The Deputy Prime Minister: On 6 May, I will be in government and the right hon. Gentleman will be in opposition. Mr Spellar: I fully understand the Deputy Prime Minister's reluctance to outline any official duties, as he will have to cope with the Lib Dem wipe-out throughout the country, especially in Sheffield. We should sympathise with him for having to do the rounds of the studios, the meetings with panic-stricken colleagues and the visit to the relationship counsellor about the future of the coalition. Will he be going back to transcendental meditation, or will he just be back on the fags? The Deputy Prime Minister: I cannot be bothered to answer that question.

London election stats

For those of you who like election stats and maps, the the 2010 London Borough Council Elections report, authored by Gareth Piggott in the GLA Intelligence Unit, is now available. The full report is here: http://data.london.gov.uk/documents/London-Borough-Council-Elections-2010.pdf You can also find:
I was pleased to find out I live in the ward with the lowest Tory vote share in the whole of London - Stoke Newington Central (5.3%).

Monday, April 04, 2011

Labourlist Column

My Labourlist column this week is encouraging Labour people who haven't got elections in their patch on 5 May to go and help in places that have: http://www.labourlist.org/luke-akehurst-twin-to-win

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