The Human Touch

Having spent so much time on other matters of late, I suppose I should really get around to writing something about my own party, which as most people know is the Labour Party, and a rather interested debate thats developing around Jon Cruddas’ campaigm for the Deputy Leadership of the Party – regular readers of other political affilliations can feel free to skip this post and read some of my other recent stuff.

I suppose I should start out by stating my current position on the Deputy Leadership, which is that I haven’t reached a final decision on how I’ll vote as yet, and probably won’t until the ballot paper actually arrives. That’s not to say that I don’t have some very clear views on what I’m going to looking for from candidates, merely that I prefer to reserve judgement on a number of the possible contenders until the actual ballot is called and I have the change to see exactly who’s in the frame and what they have to say for themselves.

What I will say, thus far, is that I’ve pretty impressed with much of what Jon Cruddas has had to say, enough to have reached the conclusion that it would be a mistake not to find a key role for him in the development of future campaign strategy – as to whether that also goes hand-in-hand with the Deputy Leadership, I’m a touch less certain at the moment, but at least Jon has thrown some interesting ideas into the ring and has a sense of what he would like to achieve in the role, which is something I certainly will be looking for in the other candidates.

As for the other ‘possibles’, I think you can safely assume that someone who described Hazel Blears’ performance on Question Time, last year, as making her look like a meerkat doing an impression of Stevie Wonder is rather unlikely to casting their vote in her direction. Harsh though my opinions of Blears might appear, I harbour no real personal animosity towards her (never having met her) and it may well be that away from the media spotlight she is ‘good value’ as a politician and an individual. But her media ‘skills’ do leave a considerable amount to be desired, both in terms of her somewhat off-putting mannerisms on camera, many of which seem to stem from her trying just that bit too hard to convey the ‘right impression’, leaving her looking desperately unnatural, and her all too obvious lack of adroitness in fielding awkward questions.

Frustrating as it is, there are times when a politician, especially one in government, can do little but stick to the official party line, even when the message one has been briefed to deliver appears manifestly absurd in the context of a discussion, but there are ways of slipping the question with sufficient subtlety so as not to be left looking like a complete automaton; an art that Hazel seems unable to master.

As for Harriet Harman, please, please drop the ‘look, I’ve got tits y’know’ campaign strategy. If it comes using factors like gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or anything else of that ilk to reach a decision on who to vote for then, frankly, I’d rather quit the Party as a complete fraud in my views on equality.

What I expect from the next Leader is an inclusive leadership that make the most of the talent and ability that the Party has to offer; one that doesn’t require their Deputy to serve as a mediator cum referee in barely suppressed internecine conflicts between highyl place individuals. That leaves the Deputy Leadership as something of a ‘spare wheel’, a role that lacks a clear definition and sense of constructive purpose.

So don’t tell me about your chromosomes, that cuts no ice with me, tell how you see the job and what you would like to do with it – then I’ll be able to see whether I think you have what it takes to secure my vote.

As for the other presumed runners in the ‘race’, there’s rather to little to report as yet. Alan Johnson appears to have some good basic credentials, but the manner of his getting backed into a corner on faith schools doesn’t really sit well with me (as you might expect) even if, as I suspect, his otherwise good intentions were overridden at a more senior level. The moral of the story is both ‘don’t promise what you can’t deliver’ and ‘don’t try to use your public office as a springboard for a private campaign’ as if it does go pear-shaped it invariably raises questions about your tactical acumen.

To a lesser extent, the same applies to Jack Straw if, as is widely assumed, his opening pitch was indeed his comments about the niqab. I don’t consider that Jack was wrong to raise the issue from a personal standpoint and in the context of his approach to his constituency surgeries, but he should have left it at that and not got drawn into widening the debate into a more general one about Islam.

And, indeed, to Peter Hain, if personal motives played any part in his pushing forward the implementation of the Sexual Orientation Regulation in Northern Ireland, for all that their introduction is a welcome step forward.
As for Hilary Benn, well it’s fair to say that I don’t share his views on Iraq but I do respect the consistancy of his position in circumstances where it would be, perhaps, easier to prevaricate and dodge the issue or try to intimate that his position might have altered in order to pick up cheap votes from the anti-war wing of the Party.

The message I have to any/all present Ministers who are considering throwing their hat in the ring is a simple one – your performance as a Minister will probably not be a factor in my own thinking, unless your vision of the role of the Deputy Leader is primarily a ministerial one. Again, I want to know how you see the role and what you want to do with it before judging whether you have the qualities I’m looking for.

That brings me, finally, to Jeremy Corbyn, who I can’t fault for the consistancy of his principles. As with the others, it’s not clear as yet as to whether Jeremy will pick up sufficient support within the PLP to make the ballot, but I am happy to listen to what he has to say and will judge his arguments on their merits.

That seems, so far as I can tell, to be all the potential contenders covered – I don’t think I’ve missed anyone but am happy to be corrected if I have.

The last direct comment I have on the contest, itself, is to note that I do think it important that both ballots (Leader and Deputy) are contested but, perhaps more importantly, given that we have a clear (and some might say unassailable) favorite for the Leadership, it is important that Gordon Brown (no point being coy about it) avoids offering any sort of public endorsement of any of the main candidates for the Deputy Leadership (and it goes without saying that the candidate, themselves, should be circumspect and not seek such an endorsement). One ‘coronation’ or near-coronation does not unduly damage our democratic credentials – even in a democracy, life sometimes produces an overwhelming favourite – but two apparent coronations would call our commitment to democracy into question.
An even hand and a light touch, Gordon, if you please – unless, of course, the oft-threatened Blairite ‘slate’ does materialise (much as I doubt it will), in which case all bets and constraints are off.

Getting back to the emerging debate, the core of this is to be found in this article, jointly authored by Liam Byrne and Bill Rammell, which has drawn what amounts to two ripostes from Jon Cruddas, here and here plus an intriguing YouGov poll, commissioned by Jon, the result of which I’ve uploaded – it’s just easier this way than seaching YouGov for the raw results.

YouGov Poll commissioned by Jon Cruddas (pdf) – you’ll also find a link to the Groan’s assessment of the results of the poll in one of Jon’s two articles – and the only reason I’m not linking directly is that I prefer to do my own analysis from the data rather than rely on the assessments of others.

To start with Liam and Bill, their basic contention can be handily summarised as follows:

1. To win the next election, Labour needs to ‘revive’ the broad coalition that swept us to victory in 1997.

2. This requires us to stick with ‘the politics of aspiration’.

3. The next election will be ‘decided’ by the outcome of 48 key ‘super-marginals’ in which either Labour had a lead (at the last election) of 2.5% or less or the opposition had a lead of 3% or less.

4. Within these marginal seats, results will turn on four or five precisely deliniated groups of voters, as identified by ‘sophisticated research tools’, necessitating a ‘precision bombing’ electoral strategy in, at least, those seats.
All of which is topped off by a general dig at Jon:

Jon Cruddas, one of our colleagues vying to become Labour’s next deputy leader, argues that Labour’s best new year’s resolution is to kick the habit of “precision bombing” this vital territory, as if an appeal to these voters represents some kind of mission creep for the party. Set aside the minor point that these voters are critical to winning government: the sober reality is that it is utterly false to suggest that Labour can’t appeal to both the centre and our traditional base as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have proved these past 10 years.

Reading all that, I have to admit that my initial reaction is one of ‘why bother with a full general election at all’? If that’s what our election strategy has come down to then why not just poll these 48 super-marginals, call whichever party takes the most seats the winner, and save the rest of us all that faffing around in polling stations? At the very least it give David Dimbleby an early night.

One of the near constant complaints of politicians, in recent years, has been that the electorate has become too cynical in its view of politics and political culture and yet, for all that it may be true, does it not strike you that Liam and Bill’s analysis of the next election is the direct product of the most desperate cynicism?

More than 600 seats will be contested at the next general election, and yet here are two fairly senior Labour politicians stating that in reality less than fifty actually count, and even within that only four or five narrowly defined segments of the electorate actually matter.

Where does this reductionist view of politics eventually lead? Do we somehow arrive at a point, at some unspecified point in the future, where a general election will not only turn on a single vote, but the main parties find themselves in a position where their ‘sophisticated research tools’ enable them precisely identify the precise voter who’ll make the difference?

Okay, so I’m extrapolating to the point of absurdity here, as much for the amusing mental picture this creates; one in which election day turns into the equivalent of the US Groundhog Day tradition with the massed ranks of the media camped outside 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam, awaiting the emergence of ‘the voter’ upon who’s decision the fate of the government rests, as to make a serious point.

The problem I have with this ‘strategy’ is not that I necessarily suspect their analysis is incorrect – although it does seem to take rather too much for granted – but the manner in which this is presented ‘side by side’ with the concept of the ‘politics of aspiration’.

Who’s aspirations? Mine? Yours? Or just those of our key group of ‘swing voters’?

Is that really the future of politics? No more grand sweeps of history or ideological visions for a brighter future, just the ‘aspirations’ of a narrowly defined ‘constituency’ of electors who happen to live in the few locations where the outcome of the ballot is in some doubt?

And is that not an entirely depressing vision? A curious form of Henry-Fordism in which you can any aspirations you like so long as they’re the same as those of an upwardly-mobile young IT professional living in an end terrace in Milton Keynes, because its their aspirations, and theirs alone, that the political classes are pandering to in the increasingly desperate search to the winning vote.

There is much in Liam and Bill’s analysis to dislike, not least that much of their prescription smacks of glib complacency; of too much time spent pouring over spreadsheets and pie charts and too little time spent out in the real world talking to real people.

Its one thing to talk of Labour needing the 1997 ‘coalition’ to win the next election, quite another to deliver that coalition. Times have changed. We’re now the Party that has to defend its actual record in government, while its the opposition who can campaign on our failures and make promised of untested competency. We can no longer rely on, and maybe even credibly ask for, the ‘get the government out at all costs’ vote we had in 1997, no surreptitious local quietism amongst those Lib Dems who were prepared to forego their own electoral fortunes in 1997 in order to remove a desperately unpopular government – if anything it will be the opposition parties who are likely to benefit from any tactical voting next time out.

Nor, indeed, can we rely on the Tory Party to remove themselves from both the centre ground (and the contest) as they have in the last three general elections – next time out our main opposition will be trying to slug it out with, toe-to-toe, in the centre ground, rather than removing itself to the fringes.

Conditions have changed. Access to the coalition we were handed by default in 1997 (and to a lesser extent since) while the Tories wrestled with the legacy of the Thatcher years, is far less certain and will be hotly contested. Reviving that coalition is easier said than done and while we and the other mainstream parties cluster together in the centre like Emperor penguins at the height of an Antarctic winter, the risk is that other parties may creep in at the fringes and draws votes away from us – may be not sufficiently to take seats themselves, but perhaps enough to cost us seats in constituencies we thought (assumed) we could rely on.

The inherent weakness in Liam and Bill’s position (and the cause of their tunnel vision) is nowhere better illustrated that here:

Although it’s true that globalisation has to be made to work for poorer communities, voters in the centre and in our traditional base share an ambition and an analysis: an ambition to get on in life, and an analysis that tells them that getting on is easier with the right kind of collective action on your side. The politics of aspiration is quite simply the common denominator of the New Labour coalition.

Yes, people do want to ‘get on in life’, but how exactly does one define this ‘getting on’ and by who’s terms?

Globalisation has to be made to work for poorer communities, say Liam and Bill – how? If one looks at the real impact of the cult (or credo, if you prefer a less loaded term) of globalisation across the world it has brought little or nothing in its wake for poorer communities (and poorer countries) than greater poverty, more inequality and increased social unrest.

How should one properly assess the impact of globalisation and its one-size-fits-all economic prescription of privatisation and deregulation.

In terms of original poster-child, the Chilean economic miracle that wasn’t?

Chile, under Pinochet, was, after all, the first great ‘experiment’ in large-scale privatisation and deregulation; one that even today is held up as ‘proof’ of the benefits of Freidmanite economics and the near-unfettered liberalisation of markets, for all that this proof is a lie and myth – after ten years of free market liberalism, Chile was near bankrupt. Hyperinflation in the mid 1970s, as market reforms were hastily put in place by Pinochet, followed by a severe debt crisis resulting from a massive overdependence on foreign loans, in the early 80s, pushed the country to the brink of collapse and almost entirely destroyed its small business sector. After ten years of the free market and economic liberalisation, unemployment stood at 33% and 1982 Chile’s GDP fell by 14% – now that’s a recession.

And how did Chile pull out of its nosedive into financial and social chaos? Its government reversed course, ejected the private interests that had been allowed to develop in its key industry (Copper mining) over the previous ten years and took the industry completely under government control, reinstated banking regulations, placed controls on currency movements out of the the country and instituted a ‘New Deal’-style programme after the fashion of that of Roosevelt in the 1930’s, to rebuild their economy.

That’s the reality of globalisation, a pattern to be found pretty everywhere that the malign influence of the IMF and World Bank has touched in the last 30-40 years.

Chile is but one example of the consequences of globalisation and the economic credo that goes with it – I could just as easily point to other examples of its real impact, the gangster economy that developed in Russia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, or perhaps the you’d prefer to consider its impact on Argentina, where it successfully managed to bankrupt the countries previously affluent middle classes in a matter of six years.

You say globalisation has to be made to work for poorer communities. I say first show me an example of where it has actually been made to work in just that way (tough question, eh?) and then tell me what exactly makes you think you can succeed in a venture in which everyone else has failed over the last forty years.

Globalisation has it winners and losers – the rich win and the poor lose – and its precisely that which extremist parties are exploiting to a such a significant extent across Europe and to a lesser extent in this country. In targeting white working class communities, far-right parties like the BNP are doing nothing more complicated that pitching their message to globalisation’s losers, those amongst us whose aspirations are not being met.

What most lacking in Liam and Bill’s analysis is the human factor – even if one allows for the fact that we all share the same basic aspirations; a decent home, a good job with a fair income and prospects of improvement over time, a good local school and a good education for our children, access to good quality services, especially health services; the route we take to achieve those aspirations is not the same for all of us.

We are not all the same. We do not all have the same talents, abilities and capabilities, and the solutions that work for one individual – or one community – may not work for others.

If, for example, we take the view that, as adults, a good job with a decent wage is a minimum precondition for most of other aspirations given that many of other aspirations, not least a home, are contingent on having sufficient income to pay for them, then the central question is ‘what is a good job?’ and more importantly ‘What do I have to do to get one?’

And the answer is… well according to government it’s education, education, education…

Why? Well, lots of reasons, but one of the biggies is globalisation, which tends to lead to the majority of low-skilled, manual jobs and the industries that provide them relocating overseas to countries where labour costs are a fraction of what they are in Britain.

In many industries, not least manufacturing, Britain cannot compete with the likes of, say, China, because labour costs in this country are way too high by comparison.

Okay, in economic terms one can say that’s the inevitable consequnce of globalisation and the free market, given a suitable pool of labour, industry’s naturally gravitate to those countries where labour and other costs are lowest in order to maximise profits. But then where does that leave our own labour pool? The one that serviced that same industry in the days when it did operate from Britain?

Yep, you guessed it – it hasn’t gone away, it’s there on the ‘sink’ estates, soaking up the ASBOs and, increasingly, voting BNP.

What’s the prescription then? Education and a high-skill economy.

We set targets. We push up those targets. We make high-minded statement about not leaving anyone behind and raising education standards. And some make the grade and are feted for their success and some fail and are cast down into the underclass to live on MacJobs and criminality and to be called feckless and undeserving. Because anyone can real their goals and amke good on their aspirations if only they get a ‘good education’.

But do all of these people really fail simply because they’re feckless and irresponsible?

No. And that’s where the human factor comes in.

We’re all the same, We don’t all possess the same potential, the same abilities, the same talents. Some people fail to the reach the educational targets we set for them because they don’t, or won’t put in the work that success demands…

…and some for no more reason than those targets lie beyond the limits of their potential.

Britain is no place to be living. today, if all you have to offer by way of talents, is a good strong back.

In some respects, the Labour Party has come full circle. It’s origins lie, to a considerable extent, in Britain’s first great flirtation with liberal economics and the free market, which occured in the latter half of the 19th Century. Then, as now, there were winners and losers and then, as now, those winners and losers were markedly the same people; the industrialist, merchants, businessmen and the burgeoning middle classes increased in wealth, the poor, made little or no real progress – it was that climate that spawned the modern trade union movement and, ultimately, the Labour Party, to represent the interests of the working class.

And then, as now, there was, right at the very bottom, an underclass made up of those whose talents and abilities were surplus to the requirements of the new economy.

And then, as now, if one looks at the history of the Fabian Society in particular, the intellectual ‘leading lights’ of the Labour movement, most if not all of whom came from the middle and upper-middle classes, were much taxed and vexed by the question of what to do with this underclass and the social problems that stemmed from it.

Some things, it seems, don’t change – although some do and its to Liam and Bill’s credit that, at least so far, they managed to avoid being drawn into some the ‘solutions’ that were quite seriously debated by Fabians and other left-wing intellectuals of the era – eugenics being one of the more outlandish suggestions and yet one that had some initial support (from HG Wells, amongst others, as I recall). Nevertheless, there is something in the overall tone of Liam and Bill’s comments that is faintly reminiscent of the Fabian ‘forebears’, a sense that they see the problem but fail to appreciate its human dimensions and, as a consequence, are completely stuck for a solution.

For Wells and others on the left at the end of Victorian era, what animated their thinking was science and the scientific method. Hence it was assumed that one should look to science for the solution to the ‘problem’ of the underclass of the time, which is where eugenics cames into the picture.

Today, managerialism has replaced science as the ‘ideology’ of government and, as with Wells and his contemporaries, the solution is presumed to lie within the correct application of this dominant ideology. The underclass is a problem to be managed, and the preferred solutions reflect the prejudices of their root ideology; targets, initiatives, programmes, behavioural modifications (by way of ASBOs). The system, whatever that is, will deliver a solution, eventually, by driving the underclass to ‘get with the programme’ and share the same aspirations that drive everyone else.

What Wells et al could ever fully appreciate is that the real problems of the underclass stem not from their aspirations, of the lack thereof, but from their limitations – they have the same basic aspirations they all share, but if giving the best they have to offer means failure because the benchmarks for success are set beyond their reach, then where is the incentive to give their best? This was a problem that was beyond the capabilities of the science of Wells’ time, in fact it remains beyond those capabilities today and will stay that way until (and unless) it becomes possible to override the natural limitations that humans are subject to by means of genetic manipulation.

Until (and unless) that happens, we have no choice but to accept that within society there are those whose limitations hinder, and sometimes, exceed their aspirations and adjust our thinking accordingly; either we accept the existence of the underclass (and its intractablilty) or we seek alternative solutions, of which the 20th century provided two – war (always good for reducing poverty by reducing the numbers of poor and a solution much favoured throughout history) or politics, as expressed in Roosevelt’s New Deal, Keynesian economics and, of course, by the Labour Party and, in particular, the Attlee government of 1945-50.
Me? I always though politics the more human of the two solutions.

I spent a lot of time on my comments on the article Liam Byrne and Bill Rammell (hopefully productively, but you’ll have to be the judge of that) and find myself rather time-constrained in turning now to Jon Cruddas’ articles, which means deferring my detailed thoughts to another occasion.

What I will say about Jon’s comments, in general, is that by comparison to those of Liam and Bill his seem considerably more human in tone, much more about people than systems, statistics and sophisticated research tools. By instinct and ideology its a position to which I am much more readily drawn than that advanced by Liam and Bill.

Whether this leads us down the path of what is widely referred to as Labour ‘traditional values’ is a little open to question – it depends what you mean when you talk about our ‘traditional values’, a wholly ideologically derived and driven programme of ‘old-school’ policies, some of which clearly do look rather dated and shabby in the cold light of the modern world, or a programme driven by human qualities and values, by a deep-rooted understanding and appreciation of the needs, aspirations and, yes, limitations of real people of a kind one can only get by living firmly in the real world – ‘from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs’ is quotation I’ve always thought to be rather more profound in meaning that is commonly presented/understood, even by many avowed Marxists.

If we can all agree on one thing, its that there is a need to rebuild (and, yes, renew) the Party – but how?

Do we go back to ‘traditional values’ as Jon suggests, or do we trust that carefully conceived tactics, strategies and precision-targeted ‘messages’ will see us through to a fourth term?

Do we need the right policies, or the right presentation?

Ideology or pragmatism?

Intellect or practicality?

Or some combination of all these things, and if so, what combination?

Or do we need to strip things right back and consider something rather more visceral and deep-rooted, the question of just exactly who we really are and what we really believe in?

I think, or perhaps believe, that politics and political culture, in general, has lost its connection with ‘humanity’, it has become remote, abstract and disconnected from the real world, real lives and real people. that’s not just a criticism of Labour, it runs through the whole of mainstream modern political culture.

Politics has lost its human touch, and its that we need to rediscover and reignite in order to rebuild and renew the Labour Party.

How we achieve that? Well, that’s the $64,000 question, and if I had the answer to that then maybe I’d be running for the Deputy Leadership.

But perhaps there is a way of of posing a few questions that might enable us to give this some serious thought.

Given a choice of two books; Anthony Giddens’ ‘The Third Way’, ostensibly the original ‘bible’ of New Labour, or Robert Tressell’s ‘the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, which of the two would you choose when seeking ‘inspiration’?

Which is closest to the ‘heart’ of what it means to a socialist and/or a member of the Labour Party (I know ‘socialism’ has been disavowed in some quarters) and what, if anything, does that say about our ‘traditional values’, what we believe in and how we can respond, in a human way, to the world around us?

3 thoughts on “The Human Touch

  1. Unity writes: Do we somehow arrive at a point, at some unspecified point in the future, where a general election will not only turn on a single vote, but the main parties find themselves in a position where their

  2. I think the answer to the 64k question is to get talking to more people in the wards and constituencies. Most voters and certainly most non-voters hold left of centre views. As I have written here, the average ward only has 1-3 active party members for each party. This doesn’t exactly fill me with hope of the quality of people in office. There is a clique of a 100 or so people in each constituency that run all the party politics. I suggest there are 1000s of local people out there who should be muscling in of this elite and improvng our lot.

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