Thursday, 5 January 2017

"All Smoke But No Firing Needed Yet": My Response to The Fabian Society Report on Labour

We seem to hear a sentence a lot these days in newspaper articles and in online blogposts from across the political spectrum: "The Labour Party is facing an existential crisis". A rare level of consensus, don't you agree? Opinion polling from such providers as YouGov seem to support such pessimistic sentiments; when the main opposition party to a Government that has been doling out austerity cut after austerity cut to local government services, the NHS and the comprehensive education system is polling at 24%, I reckon the majority of Labour supporters would feel down in the dumps about the party's chances of regaining power by 2020. However, constant passing of the buck between the different "factions" of the party hasn't really helped to find the key solutions that voters are looking for at the moment with Brexit looming over us. Many voters have seen Labour grandees ideologically fighting in public on television and are not that impressed with the lack of positive outpourings of unity and respect that should have occurred as a result of Jeremy Corbyn's re-election as leader way back in September 2016. There's no doubt that Mr Corbyn has a loyal, passionate base...60% of Labour party members backed him second time round, mainly thanks to an effective social media campaign and a genuine desire to see socialist policies as key parts of the party's manifesto for the next General Election. However, there is a few from some politicos that the level of enthusiasm found amongst Momentum members doesn't seem to have permeated beyond party lines and out to those who voters who would be tempted to vote for a local Labour MP and Government. So I thought I'd ask three neighbours on my street, Regent Avenue, in Birchwood, Lincoln (a Labour council ward) today what they thought the Labour party actually stood for under Corbyn. It turns out misinformation, confusion and fear seem to be the order of the day:
  • Gemma, a young single mum existing on the National Living Wage told me that she didn't know what Corbyn thought about zero-hours contracts that only pay the NLW in restaurants (i.e. the hospitality industry). I told her that Labour was committed to ending zero-hours contracts and raising the NLW to at least £9 an hour; she turned round to me and said..."well the boss isn't going to like that. He'd probably fire 3 of us if that happened and he only employs 5 at the moment". Even though the increase in the NLW would be great for young people, Corbyn would need to convince small business owners in the hospitality industry that scrapping zero-hours contracts and increasing the NLW would be the right thing to do. That's a very tall order.
  • Wilf, an elderly gentleman who had been retired from Lincs County Council for 15 years confided in me that he'd voted Labour all his life at local level but had decided to vote for Mr Cameron in 2010 and 2015 because he thought it was essential that the UK tried to pay off its debts and "live within its means". However, Wilf did believe that austerity measures had been unfair: "I don't believe in the bedroom tax...I don't want our local library to close to not being funded properly and I definitely don't want our GP surgery to end up closing its doors due to lack of GPs and nurses coming to Birchwood." To him, Corbyn is a "timewaster" who "wants to stir up unnecessary trouble" by opposing the Trident nuclear system renewal. "I read it in the Times last year and couldn't believe a leader would be so reckless as to say he'd leave the country totally undefended against nuclear attacks" Wilf said. Quite a few Labour voters in Birchwood have told me that Corbyn's approach to the military also seems distant and "unpatriotic" and they couldn't vote for any leader at national level who would be reluctant to sing the National Anthem or to defend the right to the monarchy's existence. I pointed out that Nia Griffith, Shadow Secretary for Defence has reaffirmed Labour's strong commitment to the Armed Forces by making more funding available to build more warships, get modern equipment for service personnel and increase frontline personnel numbers by changing the way the UK Government calculates figures to reach the NATO defence target of 2%. Griffith has also stated that Labour is now committed to renewing the Trident system, which is a U turn on her previous desire to axe the system entirely. See Griffith's first ever interview with The Mirror here: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/labour-planning-more-warplanes-navy-9557114#ICID=sharebar_twitter. Despite mentioning some of the information contained in the article, Wilf didn't believe that Corbyn would allow Labour to spend more on defence. Wilf is an example of a Labour voter who would vote for Labour at a local level, but when all's said and done, will not vote for Corbyn at a national one. That should be very worrying for the Labour Leadership to hear from a constituency that has enjoyed a Labour majority city council and one that needs to flip rose red at the next GE.
  • Eric, a rather matter-of-fact frank chap who works for a local car dealership, told me that Corbyn was "too much of a ditherer" and hadn't acted fast enough during the EU Referendum campaign to back Remain. Eric said Mr Corbyn's attitude towards political opposition campaigning would be the same if he came into office, which reminded him more of a "Greenpeace activist sitting on his arse expecting everyone else to solve the problem" than of an erudite leader in waiting". I was rather taken aback when Eric said this, but he was right when he said that Mr Corbyn hasn't been pro-active enough in getting his views out there. Eric's views on Brexit were rather refreshing to me: "I don't like the Tory policies on Brexit, so why doesn't Jezza just come out and say that there should be cross-party representatives helping with our negotiations. I voted Leave but there's nobody to represent my views at the table". There are Labour voters who voted Leave who do feel the Brexit negotiations will not be beneficial to working class voters. They don't want to see rights eroded just because they voted to leave a "draconian system". So why isn't Labour arguing for a cross-party approach on Brexit? Even Remainers like myself should have some say on the process. Young readers (between 16 and 30) are now being encouraged to submit their Brexit demands/wishes via the Undivided website; they are currently over 76,000 responses but would like to hit their first target of 100,000 ASAP with a view to gathering 1 million demands before putting the top demands up for public voting! The demand you submit can literally be on any topic area close to your heart that could be affected by the Brexit outcome, whether it be making sure young people can still study abroad under the Erasmus programme or protecting EU workers' rights post Brexit, so they don't lose out on the in-work benefits that are entitled to for doing the same job as their British counterparts. Undivided are politically non-partisan and do not advocate a Remain or Leave position. Young people who didn't vote or couldn't vote in the EU Ref (16 and 17 year olds) can also submit their Brexit demands #YAAASS!  I'll be submitting my demand in a blogpost too, don't worry! The website is https://www.weareundivided.co.uk/! Go and do it soon- after all, 64% of  18-24 year olds turned up to vote in the EU Ref!
I've argued a few times in my blogposts (e.g. the one covering the Sleaford and North Hykeham results: http://sassysvensknorsk.blogspot.co.uk/2016/12/are-labour-facing-existential-crisis-in.html) for the need for political parties to disseminate information effectively among the electorate. How do you do that, you might cry? Surely blogging, newspaper articles, the odd appearance on a Sunday political programme, releasing a book and/or the odd Tweet/recorded message should do it?
Not in the age of mass media where everyone wants to be able to be enactors of social change.
Video messaging (or vlogging) Skype conference calls, podcasts with members of the Shadow cabinet, Momentum and Progress members and voters who aren't yet Labour affiliated are communication methods that need to be utilised more; they are not that difficult to organise at party level and I certainly don't see why Millennial party members should not be the ones taking control of organising and scheduling such activities, as long as the organisers aren't just chosen from Momentum or some high powered, airbrushed London-based PR agency. Not just espousing proud socialist or reluctant capitalist ideals. It needs to be a cross-party, cross-political ideology effort.

Owen Jones has suggested that Labour should hold more meetings in community centres and village halls to clarify the party's immigration policies. I think it's a good idea and such visits should not just be confined to Labour strongholds; if Labour wants to increase the number of seats to be able to win an outright majority, they will need to hold meetings in marginal and Conservative/SNP strongholds. I could imagine one such meeting taking place at The Boiler House in Birchwood, or the Leisure Centre with Rosanne Kirk and Paul Gowen, two of the ward's Labour councillors, with the Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott explaining the party's immigration policy in everyday language and taking questions and critical suggestions from the audience. Voters may attend the meeting who would not normally attend ward surgeries and it could show voters that the party leadership cares about them wherever in the country they happen to be.

Finally, it would be great to see more MPs attend parliamentary sessions that matter to independent/left-leaning voters such as myself. When I saw two pictures of different parliamentary sessions up against one another and discovered the one with the least number of MPs was the debate on the Istanbul Convention (IC) to protect women and girls from violence, including domestic violence and not the one on MPs expenses, I felt very disappointed. I didn't expect my local Conservative MP Mr McCartney to bother to turn up even though I asked him on Twitter but Labour MPs should have turned out in force, especially as Jeremy Corbyn gave his unequivocal backing to the IC on his Twitter account. Let's see this change in 2017, please!

Should Labour be that worried about the Fabian Society Report?

At first glance, the findings from the Fabian Society report make for grim reading. They say that Labour could gain less than 20% of the vote should a GE be called tomorrow, it "doesn't have a roadmap as to how to win back lost voters" put off by the Leadership battle last year or Corbyn's style of leadership. Four times as many Leave voters as Remain voters have apparently left the party since the EU Referendum and too much time has been spent on trying to figure how to deal with UKIP, when the real challenge is stop Remain voters backing the Liberal Democrats and Leave voters giving May a green light to reform a post Brexit UK into a very right-wing bastion. I think it was important that Corbyn called out the "fake elitism" of Farage et al and it probably retained a few Remain voters, including myself but what to do about the "Leavers drain" isn't made quite clear by the report. That got me a bit miffed.

A key assumption from the report  is that Labour is "too big to fail". This reminds me of the assumption that Trump was too offensive to be voted in as POTUS but unfortunately that turned out to be false, at least in terms of Electoral votes. Besides, I don't believe any of our current mainstream political parties are "too big to fail". Should the Tories muck up the Brexit process over the next 2 years, they'll be haemorrhaging hard Brexiteer votes faster than Andrew Neil can neck his dearly beloved Blue Nun to get him through the This Week after parties at Lulu's with Mr Michael "Choo Choo" Portillo and random Labour guest -I do miss Diane Abbott! Paul Nuttall would be doing a Rain Man dance and eyeing up at least a coalition with May, which could result in the repeal of or amendments to the Human Rights Act and Equality Act, two acts which Corbyn has pretty much promised to keep untouched. No party has an automatic right to expect its base to keep voting for them "no matter what". Not in the days of "post political tribalism without question". No longer is it the case that if you are middle class you should vote for the Liberal Democrats or Conservatives and if you're working class then you should only vote for Labour, or god forbid, UKIP. Just because your whole family voted one way for generations doesn't mean you should be forced to do it yourself "to save face".

If mainstream parties want to have even a sniff of gaining a commanding majority at the GE, they have to win voters over "from the other side". Having a charismatic, relatable, authentic leader in place who produces a strong proactive set of policies that can be implementable nationwide or at least some that appeal to a wide demographic of voters is a must. To me as an independent voter, Corbyn seems to be passionate about making a difference to hard working families and to protect the welfare state from further unnecessary austerity cuts. That's what I look for in a potential PM. Is Corbyn charismatic for me? Well he has more palatable humour than Theresa May, and that's a good start but the voters I spoke to are not yet convinced that Corbyn could make a good PM and he needs to change this. At least we're not at "Answers on a Postcard" panic stations quite yet....not when we have Theresa "Maybe" May at the country's helm who lacks ideas that would help the electorate at large so goes for Tory staples such as flogging off more Housing Association homes and expanding an outdated Grammar Schools project without much extra funding for comprehensives. No wonder sections of the electorate may be put off voting in elections for life.

According to Vote Or Vote None, a UK based political organisation trying to reduce voter apathy by getting people to protest vote if they can't find a candidate they can vote for, 34% of the population who were eligible to vote in the 2015 GE didn't go to the polling station. Labour should definitely be trying to reach these voters, and Corbyn may still yet be the man to do it. Corbyn was a Labour Backbencher who decided to fight in 2015 for socialist values after years of Tony Blair inspired "neo-liberalism". He's managed to win again after a challenge was mounted against him following the EU Referendum result which is commendable enough. Can JC inspire even a third of the "Unheard Third" of the UK electorate to put their trust in his socialist policies and go the polls in marginal constituencies?

That's why it was important that John McDonnell, Labour's Shadow Chancellor recently committed the party to protecting the "triple lock" on pensions, guaranteeing that pensions would rise at the same amount as average earnings, the Consumer Price Index or 2.5%, whichever happened to be highest at the time of calculation should Labour win the next GE.

However, Millennials should be thought of during such a quest for expanding the Labour party's core base of support. That means taking a comprehensive look at the economic viability of promises to abolish tuition fees and re-establishing of the Educational Maintenance Allowance to make absolutely sure they are deliverable under a Labour Government. This sounds like good common sense to a working class voter like me who values the importance of reducing barriers to the highest levels of vocational and academic education (valuing them equally). Millennials also care about protecting progressive legislation gains that have made whilst we have been members of the EU. That means backing Greater Grimsby MP Melanie Onn's proposals to protect all employment rights that originate from EU directives by writing them into UK law unchallenged. That also means making sure that discrimination on the basis of nationality, race or religion remains illegal under the Equality Act. Millennial voters want to have policies directed at helping them that go beyond ones in Education. Environmental protections that originate from EU directives such as the Birds Directive (which focusses on mandatory conservation of European bird species) must be continued.

Brexit can also bring opportunities for Millennials, whether it be diverting the supposed savings we'll make from membership of the EU into improving Sexual Health and Youth Mental Health services, providing the Educational Maintenance Allowance, restoring bursaries for trainee Nurses, increasing the NLW for people aged 18-25, vastly increasing the Apprentice weekly wage and building more council houses specifically aimed at housing single young working class people as well as families, because single young working class folks such as myself are beginning to feel as if we may never get to move out of our parents council houses and will end up homeless when they eventually pass on. Labour would be wrong to divert all possible savings to projects that only benefit Generation X (Baby Boomers) and such progressive policies may give Millennials hope for the future whilst trading relationships are re-established with EU countries and the rest of the world.

Now one issue I haven't talked about is immigration; the reason being that I'll be addressing my thoughts on immigration in a subsequent blogpost. It is suffice to say that Corbyn just needs to keep providing more detail on the party's plans for immigration and respond in real time to comments made by the Conservatives, UKIP, Lib Dems or the Greens. Corbyn is right to avoid any rhetoric which could be construed as xenophobic or deliberately divisive. MPs are currently exploring ways to address potential effects of immigration and aid social integration; for example, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration led by Labour MP Chuka Umunna has suggested that migrants should be expected to learn English before they arrive if they want to work in the UK or take classes soon after their arrival in the UK (possibly with funding from their employer). The Government currently spends 20 million on private English Language tuition but Umunna claims that funding needs to be expanded should the English Language requirement become law. There are also suggestions to devolve immigration controls to regional centres, so that Remain parts of the UK such as London can create their own visas and the SNP, who wants to see migrant numbers in Scotland increase, would be more receptive to a nuanced plan. Food for thought for Labour as it continues to refine its immigration policies post Brexit.

Constitutionally wise....

Labour may need to realise that consideration of a "Progressive Alliance" such as that being suggested in the Fabian Society Report doesn't seem so bad after all, especially if it were to bag Labour an extra 30 seats at the next GE as claimed. Besides, the Green party, the Lib Dems and even the SNP believe in policies which aim to improve the lives of all people living in the UK, not just British born workers. There is a need to make sure employers pay workers a NLW that
allow them to heat and light homes and eat without worrying about going into credit card debt or using loan sharks or pay day loans to get by. They all have committed to making sure the benefit sanction system is fit for purpose, with the SNP arguing for an end to sanctions altogether to coincide with an end to the much hated bedroom tax, so why shouldn't Labour consider working with them in constituencies where they are more likely to gain the most number of votes and then build a strong consensus against Conservative populism? Lincoln could be one such constituency where votes could pile up from a local Progressive Alliance and oust Karl McCartney out after 6 years in office.

Alas, the Labour Leadership doesn't seem to be in favour of any kind of progressive coalition. Shadow Labour Housing Minister doesn't want anything to do with a "rag bag parties" team and Corbyn's team remain adamant he can win an election alone. I can only hope he is right if I choose to invest my precious vote with the Labour candidate for Lincoln at the next GE.

The fact remains that a clear, progressive set of policies need to be developed that takes into account the concerns of Northern Irish, Welsh and Scottish voters so that they feel that the UK Government would act in the interests of all UK citizens and not just the English majority. It's a tough ask, but reiterating the focus on renationalisation of transport systems, increasing infrastructure investment so that more social housing can be built in Wales and NI, building a National Education System (NES) that is pretty much free at the point of use and can be accessed "from cradle to grave" as well as guaranteeing the right for EU born citizens to stay and work in the UK without any changes to their in work benefits would be a positive start. Scottish Labour, under Kezia Dugdale and Welsh Labour under Carwyn Jones also need to continue to have faith in Corbyn and vice versa. As trust builds, confidence from the electorate should follow.

That being said, the proposal of an English Parliament based in the regions rather than at Westminster is one which is gaining ground with voters who would have considered voting Labour in the past.
I'm not sure what an English Parliament would achieve that couldn't be done at Westminster, as we already have the "English votes for English laws" veto which has been used throughout 2016. Adding a level of unnecessary bureaucracy to satisfy nativist populist cravings for an outward symbol of "English Identity" just because Scotland, Wales and NI have their own is a ludicrous suggestion. However, if an English Parliament were to be established, I'd preferably like to see its headquarters in  Lincoln because it does happen to be the oldest Parliamentary constituency (and also my home one) but the likelihood is that they'd probably plonk it in Oxford or Cambridge, or if they're feeling a bit more daring, York.

There is also increasing desire amongst the electorate to see the House of Lords (HoL)change in some radical fashion. In October 2015, The Electoral Society carried out some polling (http://electoral-reform.org.uk/press-release/poll-just-one-ten-think-lords-should-remain-unelected) to see what voters thought about the HoL and the results were rather startling: only 10% of respondents believed that the HoL should remain a totally unelected chamber, with 48% wanting an elected chamber and 22% wanting to see the HoL entirely abolished. Other suggestions could of course include downsizing the HoL and making the HoL impartial, so that peers can have no political affiliation. A recent poll that I have seen being conducted on Twitter by Conservative Councillor Joe Porter with the question "Should the House of Lords be abolished if they block a number one bill on triggering Article 50 by the end of March?" currently has 67% of 923 respondents in favour of abolishing the Lords because of supposed "interference on constitutional issues". My personal view on the House of Lords is that hereditary peer positions should be abolished and the overall number of peers reduced, with them not being allowed to side with a political party. Very idealistic but hey I'll throw that in there.  Besides I've always found the contributions of crossbench peers very thought-provoking. Labour hasn't really discussed such issues at length, despite the Conservatives being keen to expand on their "English votes for English laws" dogma.

Conclusion:
The Fabian Society Report paints Labour as a party that is struggling to "retain Leave and Remain voters", that is danger of becoming irrelevant in Scotland and could end up losing the next GE if they don't become part of a "Progressive Alliance". The problem is that pessimism breeds apathy. If there is no aspirational, passionate rhetoric coming from members from across the party, how could they even appear to be an Opposition "to be reckoned with" in Parliament? It's important to recognise that Labour's message thus far has appeared "muddled" and working class voters, whilst sympathetic to niche issues, need to continue to see some clarity on core policies. The fantastic work done by Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, Sarah Champion and Jess Phillips on getting the Istanbul Convention Bill ratified through Parliament, raising awareness of our Social Care and Mental Health crises and wanting to reduce the Homeless totals in UK cities is admirable. Nia Griffith and John Healey are doing extremely well in clarifying the party's message on defence spending, renewal of the Trident system, council house expansion and ending the bedroom tax. This all needs to be continued throughout the next year. Labour can be more proactive than reactive, catching May off guard by announcing new policy ideas on immigration such as the proposed devolution of immigration powers to regional level, an idea bound to be popular with the electorate at large if Labour is bold enough to announce it as part of their next manifesto. Labour can turn the polling around and I can't wait to see what ideas the party comes up with next. Labour...be bold, be passionate, be aspirational....but most of all, be positive about the future for all people living in the UK, not just the electorate.