Safe European Home

In a large European city last night, a small, but remarkable meeting took place. It was the initiative of one man, young, unsectarian, committed to the public good. It is an example of how, perhaps falteringly, politics is being renewed from the ground up. A group of people, from several parties and from none, unsure of how to proceed, coming together for a reason.

The city is Birmingham. The people, without the backing of billionaires of dubious conscience, met to ask what they could do to keep Britain a member of the European Union. A real grassroots initiative.

Those who attended had their own reasons to support our continuing membership of the EU. There was some internationalism and idealism, but also a weary recognition that whilst far from perfect, the EU was a place in which Britain could be far more significant than we could ever be alone in a globalised world in which to be small is to be vulnerable.  In our various ways, Europe was fundamental to our individual and collective identities. The thought of being wrenched out of the EU was something we shuddered to consider.

Ideas were shared about how to take things forward, but that’s not what I’m interested in for the purposes of this post. What gives me the greatest cause for optimism was simply that the meeting took place at all. One person who was concerned set up a Facebook page. He used his contacts to get people he knew to support the idea of a local campaign in the city.

There was a time when such an initiative would have to have come from an organisation, with a structure, a membership, and funds. Indeed, if an effective campaign is to be organised, it will need some of those things very soon. But it didn’t start with a political party or a pressure group – it was a true, spontaneous citizens initiative.

People crave a different type of politics. The recent general election result was a shock to many of us not so much because the vagaries of the system gifted the Tories a victory, but because we did not ‘sense’ a mood that there was widespread support for David Cameron’s party. It felt like an election victory that was ‘bought’ with the cynical deployment of cash and the grooming techniques of the Tory-supporting media. It is almost as if ‘politics’ as practiced by most parties, especially the governing party, is something completely hollowed out, disconnected from the people with the votes.

So when a few people choose to turn up to a meeting, hesitant, unsure, wondering how to engage others in a campaign, it feels like a sign that just maybe we can change the course of our politics by a return to idealism.

Is that a vain hope? It needn’t be. The one thing we know about referendum campaigns is that they are rarely about the question on the ballot paper. It scarcely matters what, if anything, David Cameron presents as his triumphant renegotiation deal. The referendum, for him, is about managing his unruly party, and throwing some red meat to the crazies who own the press.  But there is absolutely no guarantee that he will be able to confine it to that.

Whilst knowing that the primary issue is to enthuse people in sufficient numbers to turnout and vote to stay in the EU, the referendum campaign can also be a way of starting a conversation about what sort of society we want to be.  Unsullied by party political labels, we can perhaps break through the sullen resentment people now display routinely towards politicians.  We can use the campaign as part of a broader strategy of political renewal.

That’s why the meeting last night was important. All movements start somewhere. Perhaps Britain’s 21st Century politics started at the Priory Rooms last night?

Why Reason Doesn’t Matter

Newsnight’s Labour leadership hustings from Nuneaton was a depressing affair. The key moment wasn’t Liz Kendall’s cheap opportunist snipe at Burnham over “the country” coming first (straight out of the American political songbook of snake-oil patriotism). No, it was the woman in the audience who thought that Labour was the ‘welfare party’, with a bleeding heart for people who were milking the benefits system for all they could get. For this woman, incomprehension written across her face, crystallised Labour’s problem; indeed the problem for anyone who thinks that reason and truth might matter in politics.

The anti-benefits woman went on to explain that she found life difficult. She’d been overpaid on statutory maternity leave and was struggling to pay the money back. She understandably felt a sense of grievance over the state’s heartlessly bureaucratic response to a mistake which, presumably, was theirs in the first place.

By this time, the woman was looking daggers at the assembled Labourites. For these people, comfortable metropolitans all, cared only about lard-arsed layabouts idling all day in front of their giant flatscreen TVs. Who wouldn’t hate them?

My own response was to want to shake the woman, to shout and rant at her foolishness. I expect that Yvette, Andy, Jeremy and Liz felt much the same, but years of training mean that they can hide their feelings about the British public behind a mask of caring concern. You can just imagine what the tabloids would have done had any of them cracked and argued back with passion and maybe a little righteous anger.

Yet I can’t help feeling that treating the voters with saintly restraint is part of the problem. For the woman who’d had a hard time claiming benefits and therefore assumed that claiming benefits was an easy lifestyle choice sanctioned by the Labour Party is all too representative of our capacity to hold a firm belief in something wholly at odds with our own first-hand experience.

A situation in which most people, whether on their own doorsteps, in the pub, or in a Question Time audience, can spout any ill-informed nonsense and be treated as uniquely wise, whilst all politicians with hope of office must expect anything they say to be scrutinised and analysed in forensic detail and without mercy, is evidence of a political culture that is utterly dysfunctional. It demands that politicians NOT be like the people they serve, and it expects nothing at all from we the voters.

Shouting back at the woman in the audience who believed the opposite of her own experience would not have changed her mind. Most likely, it would have confirmed her opinions. But it might have made others who would otherwise complacently have agreed with her think again. Public debate may change minds, whereas ‘hustings’ which are run as a kind of trial-by-ordeal, ducking-stool experience will illuminate nothing.

The problem, of course, is that we are being groomed. Powerful vested interests and their mates in the media do very nicely by grooming us to believe things that serve their narrow cause. We are groomed to vent our spleen on people much like ourselves, and to feel rage at anyone who might want to do something about the social ills that affect us, too. Grooming is how people are made to accept, even love, that which harms them. It brings the groomed to the point at which reason has no purchase on their view of the world.

An Education

The media and politicians, both professions stuffed with people who were educated at fee paying schools, and who attended elite universities, seem permanently to think that the education system generally, and schools in particular, are, in Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s phrase “coasting or failing”. Lazy teachers, inept local authorities, feckless parents, feral kids, it’s a wonder anyone can prod a smartphone screen, let alone hack into NASA or read a Daily Mail columnist.

I just long to be able to vote for a party with a really simple, unambiguous education policy.

Here’s my wish list:

Good, free early years provision devoted mainly to ensuring that children meet basic developmental goals in language, play, spacial awareness, and whatever the experts in child development think appropriate.

All state schools to be run by local education authorities as secular institutions.  The inspectorate to be staffed by qualified educationalists. All teachers to be qualified. End the patchwork of barely regulated free schools, dodgy, unaccountable academy chains, and a few put upon LEAs, and let schooling be sorted at out the appropriate level, that is, locally.  Let teachers teach, and students learn (and play, and do creative stuff, and sports, and have fun).

Further education has never received the funding, care and attention it should have. FE should be the ladder of opportunity for those who need it. It should also be once again the cornerstone of vocational education and training, with all apprenticeships being a proper length and involving day release to FE college leading to a recognised qualification.

Higher education is a mess. We have things called universities which go from wealthy Oxbridge colleges to dodgy looking set-ups in offices over junk shops (that’s not hyperbole – I’m thinking of a particular place not so far from where I sit as I write this.)  It is an embarrassment and a disgrace that a rash of private colleges and ‘universities’ that look more like places in developing countries should have proliferated, preying, usually, on poorer international students.  Only proper universities should be allowed to use the title or to award degree level qualifications. The other places ought not to be permitted to operate. And the proper universities should be free from pressure to do the will of government, open to the wildest of blue sky thinking, and free of charge to anyone educated for at least ten years in the state sector.

Bring back polytechnics. The new polytechnics would not teach degree courses, but would offer graduate level professional and vocational training, much of it to people who already have university degrees. Teaching, social work, medicine and associated health professions, journalism, engineering, architecture, law; these are all areas in which specialised professional training would best be delivered in polytechnics which were perceived not as subordinate to universities, but as a different kind of elite institution. I’d like to see them under local control, to ensure that local economic imperatives were served by the education and training they offered.

And so to the “independent sector”. The very existence of fee-paying education is a problem, but we can’t solve social inequality merely by changing the education system. If people want to pay to educate their children, let them do so.  But the “independent sector” should live up to the name by being fully independent. No charitable status, pay a levy towards the state sector in recompense for any teaching staff or others who have benefited from state educational funding, at all levels. The argument that people who pay school fees also pay taxes for state education is irrelevant. People without children pay taxes, too. Tax is the entrance fee to live in a civilised society.

That’s my plan. It’s not very radical. It’s kind of what we once had, apart from the (absence of) religion.

The Vision Thing

Is there anything more dispiriting than the Labour leadership contest? Vapid buzzwords about ‘aspiration’ abound, along with platitudes they don’t mean about ‘listening’ to voters and gaining ‘trust’ on Labour’s ability to handle the economy. Does nobody have what Ronald Reagan called “the Vision thing”?

The simple answer is ‘no’. Labour’s stopped doing vision. They do ‘aspiration’, which means hot housing kids in schools to burn them out fully, ready for a life of mindless acceptance of insecurity and unreasonable demands from employers. Aspiration is a John Lewis sofa and a box set of escapism. It’s a maxed out credit card at home, whilst swallowing nonsense about the dangers of governments doing the same. These are fairy tales spun from the unpromising material of our insecure lives as they are lived today.

Labour seems to think that Ed Miliband tried the vision thing, and failed. ‘One Nation’, equality, all that guff; the voters didn’t buy it.

On that they are right. Liberty belongs to the neolibs, as a freedom for wealth and power to be unconstrained. For the many, liberty is to be restricted by the surveillance state.  Equality is a dirty word these days, the opposite of sacred aspiration. It’s “bog standard” comprehensive schools, and public libraries, and municipal swimming pools. No one wants them, do they? As for fraternity, forget it. Notions of solidarity belong to a sepia world of brass bands and plucky match girls. ‘Get with the programme!’ as the rampant right-wing press might say.

So is there a vision that the left might offer that could have any popular resonance? I think there is.

My watchword would be ‘decency’. It is an old fashioned sort of word, I accept. In its popular sense it is freighted with moral undertones. We shouldn’t be afraid of that. That we can be proud of our ethical beliefs, unlike those who believe in an amoral market, is a strength. So let us unpack ‘decency’.

Decency is about living lives free of undue stress and worry, safe in the knowledge that we can form relationships, bring up families, and enjoy a rounded life without fear of being without a home fit for purpose, a job that pays a living wage, an education that is fun as well as useful, a health service, and respectful social care in old age or infirmity.

Decency is not about ‘striving’, ‘working hard’, or, God forbid, ‘aspiration’. Those things are either meaningless, or can be taken as given. Meaningful work can be hard, and sometimes it can be rewarding, full of camaraderie, an enhancement to life. Most people ‘strive’, but not for status or narrow material rewards. Baking cakes, playing team sports, volunteering, all may involve striving to reach goals, but they are about life, not lucre. Decency is about a life where children have proper childhoods, nutritious meals, and a warm bed in a loving home. Decency alleviates unnecessary stress, and gives everyone space for personal fulfilment. Decency is valuing us all for who we are and what we can do.

If that doesn’t sound very exciting, that’s because the excitement comes once we have reached the basic threshold of decency; when we know we can take risks, and fly or fall, safe in the knowledge that the safety net is there to care for us if we should need it. Decency is what makes all else possible.

All we need now is a plausible prophet of decency.

What’s The Point Of The Referendum?

David Cameron is a short term thinker and a risk-taker; characteristics also shared by investment bankers.  We can only understand his strange and shifting positions on the EU referendum if we understand this.

Cameron has blown hot and cold on the referendum, sometimes dismissive of the need for a referendum, and when faced with the prospect of defections of Tory MPs and voters to UKIP, changing his mind and inventing reasons to support a referendum.  During the recent election campaign many of his calculations were less about UKIP than about damaging the Opposition when it looked like Labour was at more risk from UKIP than the Tories.  Now his position seems to be changing again. With an election win under his belt he’s decided to use the referendum to crack down hard on his Eurosceptic wing, whilst playing a charade of ‘tough negotiations with Merkel and others’ in order to win a campaign as a national saviour who faced down twenty seven other countries and won.  That’s the narrative he’s trying to establish.

We know that as a spinner of narratives, Cameron’s a shoe-in for a Booker nomination, should he ever write a novel. Tall tales with a straight face? That man can tell ’em.

But what if the plot isn’t quite the one he expects?  The press will do much as Cameron wants, and most likely the bulk of his party will go along with him, too. Even the EU leaders against whom much of his party rails will play nice and help him out. After all, they’ve got some real issues to deal with, from Greece to the migrant catastrophe in the Med. The Cameron sideshow’s scarcely more than a distraction, assuming that Britain won’t leave the EU anyway. What Cameron doesn’t control is the messy potential of the referendum campaign to come off the tramlines along which he wants it to run.

This is where things might be fun.  After all, Cameron is using the referendum as a narrow political instrument, but it has the potential to be much more than that.

The Scottish referendum showed that an apparently dry constitutional issue, if presented in an attractive, optimistic way, can engage people who had previously seemed unresponsive to politics.  I was often irritated during the independence referendum because people seemed to be talking about issues which were utterly irrelevant to the question on the ballot paper. But Europe quite genuinely opens up the possibility of talking about issues which do matter to people in a very immediate way.

We’ve heard a lot about the ‘business case’ for the EU. The importance of the single market. A certain amount of coughing when it comes to the free movement of labour, though that’s integral to the business case, too.  But we haven’t heard enough about the ‘people’s case’ for Europe.

Battered by ‘austerity’, British people have felt insecure for years.  Wages have scarcely risen, hanging on to a job has often come with worsening conditions of service, housing is some of the smallest, meanest and most expensive in the world. Catastrophic floods and other extreme weather events.  Food safety scares. Is anything safe?

Well, yes.  The Conservative-led coalition government made access to Employment Tribunals more difficult and expensive; something that has hit women especially hard.  Thank goodness the EU ensures that rights on working hours, or against discrimination in the workplace can’t be removed altogether.

Worried about the food your kids are eating? Cash-strapped councils who’ve already lost 40% of their budgets may find it difficult to enforce safety standards, but whilst we are in the EU there remain rules and obligations around food safety. When something like the ‘donkey lasagne’ scandal comes along, there’s cross-border cooperation to hunt down the culprits and enforce the law, whether they’re on a farm in Romania, or an abattoir in Mid-Wales.

Are your kids safe at the seaside?  Those EU rules let you know the water quality, and whether the sea is fit for swimming.  Are your kids safe online? Child sexual exploitation is a real fear.  Thank goodness there’s European cooperation on this issue, with a specialist unit based in Amsterdam.  After all, we might be able to pull out of the EU, but we can’t pull out of the internet.

If all this seems a bit vague, do a bit of lazy Googling. I just did. With one click I came up with almost £300 million of EU investment into my city alone into everything from the usual business development and educational programmes, to help for carers, artists and transport. Even the city’s annual Frankfurt Market boosts the city’s economy by £85 million (2012 figures).

In any case, we are culturally all Europeans now.  We expect to travel freely, to get waved through passport control with a wave of that precious burgundy travel document.  Our footballers have the accents and names of Europe.  We sit at outdoor cafe tables, drink wine with our meals, devour Danish box sets on nights in.  It’s who we are.

So don’t let Cameron and big business ‘own’ the referendum campaign. Why not use the campaign to import a bit of EU optimism and hope? Inspire people to think ‘Europe’ every time they sip an espresso, bite into a Danish pastry, down a glass of Merlot, toss some chorizo into a sizzling pan, watch a football match, lust after a BMW, buy a frock from Zara…..

What Do The Tories And The SNP Have In Common? And What Does The Left Have To Learn?

Two nationalist parties did especially well out of gaming the first past the post system – the two SNPs, the Scots and the South of England National Party, aka the Tories. But was it their eagerness to play one part of the island off against another that accounts for their stunning success? Perhaps.  But they also had something else – unshakeable self-confidence.

Let us examine that self-confidence. It doesn’t have to be charm, and it certainly doesn’t have to be belief, either in the rightness of your cause, or the accuracy of your facts.  Two of the Tories best exemplars of the art are two of their most charmless, indeed loathsome performers, Priti Patel and Grant Shapps.  Shapps has now been put into therapy to deal with his multiple personalities, but Patel has been promoted, probably because of her willingness to take on any media interview, however uncomfortable, and steamroller her way through, saying exactly what she wants to say regardless of the questions asked.

This is also the SNP way.  Those of us who live south of Carlisle had little experience of SNP politicians, other than Alex Salmond, until the general election campaign. But now we’ve seen more of them, and what they all display is an ability to come on like the human equivalent of a Japanese bullet train, talking over even the most combative of interviewers, and offering outrage and incredulity at any potential questioning of their utter correctness on all matters.

Now this is not something that, morally, I would encourage. My inclination is to prefer a respectful engagement, with both sides, questioner and respondent, listening and replying, so that both – and the viewer, listener, or reader – might learn something from the encounter. This is why I am unfit to be either a journalist or a politician. But as an observer of how politics works, I can see that the ultra-assertive style really does work (at least for the moment).  It gives the impression, which is crucial, of someone who knows what they’re doing. No matter that listening to the words might contradict that impression, because all too often the impression is the only thing that matters.

Contrast it with Labour hesitancy. Apologising for the crash caused by bankers. Saying sorry for forgetting to mention the economy in a speech. We’ll never spend too much money again.  A tepid wash of weak, apologetic negativity just doesn’t sound convincing, yet every time their opponents pushed them for more apologies, they capitulated.

Even the hapless Liberal Democrats were a bit less apologetic, despite the weakness of their position.  Their spirited defence of their part in coalition didn’t help much, but may prove useful next time around if this government continues to be pushed even further to the right than the coalition permitted.

The Labour leadership race is off to a terrible car crash of a start as everyone apologises for their manifesto, renounces all Milibandism (except the Branch Davidians), and generally comes across as a bunch of forty somethings with no real views about anything.

If Labour has any money left, I’d suggest that they put it into training up everyone they can to do the steamroller thing. Assertiveness to the point of aggression, total, unreasonable, unwillingness to concede any point, and use all that to put across a consistent message, both about what Labour believes, and about their take on other parties.  In the old days, shop stewards learned these tactics in shop floor meetings and brinksmanship in negotiations with management, but today’s career path lacks  exposure to such skills.

This message goes for the rest of us, too.  We non-aligned lefties have a referendum to fight, and no doubt numerous other battles. Let us sharpen our weapons of disputation, heap fossil fuels into our steamrollers, fire up the Quattro, and go in fists flying. You know it makes sense.

Bonfire Of The Manifestos

What is the point of party manifestos? Nigel Farage famously called UKIP’s own 2010 manifesto “drivel”; a rare moment of political truth telling.

The theory of the manifesto  is seductive. A party seeks votes by setting out a list of specific policies and promises. If elected, this is the basis of their mandate, and they are expected to legislate or administer in order to fulfil that bargain with the electorate.

In practice, nothing of the sort happens, nor could it. There is so much that can’t be controlled directly by a government, important policies may not even be implementable, or their virtues demonstrated within the limits of a five year tenure. Moreover, where majority government has not been anticipated as an electoral outcome, no one actually expects all, or even any, specific manifesto promise to be implemented. The present government is stuck in the uncomfortable position of not being able now to disown their more ridiculous pledges, such as the confiscation of charitable property and its sale to individuals at knock-down prices at a cost of over five billion pounds to the taxpayer, aka the compulsory sale of housing association property. This costly promise, condemned across the political spectrum, and  which is likely to result in the housing crisis becoming worse, is just one example of the ‘manifesto problem’.

I can anticipate many objections to this viewpoint. After all, voters need to know what the parties are offering before they cast their votes. And in any case, there have been great manifestos, such as Labour’s in 1945.

I like to eulogise the Attlee government as much as any sentimental lefty. Nonetheless, we sometimes praise them for the wrong things, or fail to understand their context. Many of the pillars of the welfare state had been put in place under the wartime coalition, such as the 1944 Education Act. The economy being on a war footing, with the de facto ‘nationalisation’ of key sectors, especially energy, transport, and some manufacturing meant that public ownership was much less radical than it looks now.  The Economist, no friend of Labour, said of Labour’s 1945 manifesto that it was “almost the least they could get away with”, so cautious was the party, compared to the appetite of the electorate for radical change.

So I’d like to propose a change for the next general election, whenever it may come. Ditch manifestos. Make no specific promises. Instead, give us a “Direction of Travel” document outlining the kind of things the party would like to see happen in the country and in the world, with some indication of how they might be achieved.

If that sounds too vague and woolly, too bad. But I think it would focus minds on what the parties are for.

My 2015 Tory Direction of Travel document would thus have read: “We do not want to let a crisis go to waste. The financial crash caused by the banks has frightened people into accepting the need for radical change. We therefore propose to cut back the state, year on year, and move responsibility for as many matters as possible from the state to the private realm.  That means individual citizens being responsible for themselves and their families as far as possible, and private companies delivering other services on behalf of the state only where absolutely necessary. We would aim over time, though we don’t know how long it will take, to reduce the deficit, eventually bringing taxation and spending into line, but at a much lower level than in the past. We understand that medical care free at the point of delivery matters greatly to people, but we don’t think they care who delivers that care, so we will protect the umbrella brand NHS whilst increasing the involvement of the private sector in delivering that care on a for-profit basis. Ditto education. We want to end the anomaly of the BBC, and will do this by starving it of cash until it can be killed by commercial rivals.  Conservatives want government to do less, to pay for less, and be be held responsible for less.”

My 2015 Labour Direction of Travel document would have read: “We want to move as soon as possible to a position where deficits are rare, and tax and spending broadly in balance, as it was over most of the 1997-2010 Labour years, at least before the crash caused by bankers. We recognise that in many areas free markets do not exist, and the result is companies, such as those in the energy sector, ripping off consumers. We will intervene where markets are rigged. We recognise that in many areas of the economy wages are too low and conditions at work too insecure. We will try to raise living standards where we can, by moving towards a living wage, and also by providing incentives to businesses to invest to improve productivity. We have learned from our mistakes on the NHS and now understand that the complex ecosystem of health care, public health policy, and medical innovation and research requires reducing and limiting private sector involvement in the NHS. We also see that in an ageing society there needs to be an integration of health and social care.  On education we have nothing to say. Labour wants government to continue to have a key role in ensuring basic standards of decency for the citizen from the cradle to the grave.”

The third largest party in Parliament also deserves a Direction of Travel doc: “The SNP wants Scotland to be independent. Otherwise we’ll basically do the same as Labour would do, unless something else becomes popular, at which point we will change.  Because all roads must lead to independence.”

UKIP: “We want to leave the EU and we don’t like immigration. That’s it.”

For Liberal Democrat, see Tory plus voting reform and greater respect for civil liberties.

I think these are fair summaries of what the parties actually offered voters in the last election.