Dissenting Labour

Some have tried to analyse what happened in the election on 8 June and to make predictions for the future. They have more courage than I. Personally, I won’t hazard any guesses about how voters will behave in future for a while.

But clearly I was wrong about how the public would react to Jeremy Corbyn. I didn’t expect Theresa May to prove to be as woodenly, jaw-droppingly, clunkingly useless as a campaigner as she turned out to be. But I would never have predicted the surge in support for Labour which we saw. I always thought people would look at a manifesto like our 2017 effort and conclude we still couldn’t count. I thought voters would look at Corbyn’s history, ‘friends’ and record and run a mile. I thought people would recoil from linking terror attacks to foreign policy days after an atrocity like Manchester. I will eat my share of humble pie on all counts.

But my objections to Corbyn were never solely, or even mainly, about electability. And even though we won 40% of the vote rather than 25%, I do not believe we gave voters a credible or honest choice this year. We failed to prioritise in public spending, neglected the poor to the benefit of the middle classes, offered a Brexit policy as incoherent as the Tories’, undermined our own foreign and defence policy and left the moral objections to Corbynism undiminished. I will take each in turn.

Nostalgia is not a basis for public spending choices

Our optimistic campaign belied our often backward-looking manifesto. Nationalising the utilities was a case in point. You can already switch energy providers: I’ve done it. Companies can compete: we don’t need a public option energy company per region to make it happen. I accept people aren’t great at actually using this right, but I’m not sure adding a public option will change that much.

We do have a problem with an energy market where too many get a raw deal. I suggest we should deal with that and tighten rules on (for example) offering social tariffs, rather than letting private energy companies cherry-pick while the most vulnerable consumers gravitate to the public companies at public expense. Granted, the National Grid itself is a monopoly. But nationalising it would cost around £25 billion — let’s assume we don’t nationalise its overseas holdings. Is this really the top priority for an investment programme?

Similarly, I see that water is a natural monopoly — but is nationalising it worth £69 billion or so of capital spend? Our manifesto complained about price rises. A hypothetical Labour Government would want to bear down on prices more than the private sector (reducing bills by £220 a year, at what cost we know not). Presumably, it would therefore want the state to bear more of the cost. How long would the argument that nationalising profit-making industries would pay for itself last?

Neither the National Grid nor water companies will stop needing investment if they enter public hands. Bearing that in mind, I question whether pitting capital investment in water and electricity networks against building and repairing schools or hospitals will deliver much investment in the former. It seems much more likely that the political attention and, in the end, the capital spend will go on the latter. The failure to invest was one of the main reasons for privatising utilities in the first place. But add in nationalising the Royal Mail and (presumably) at least some costs from setting up our new public energy companies and we probably planned to spend well over £100 billion on changing who owns things. Surely we’d be much better off actually investing in the UK’s future than changing the nameplates on our utility companies?

We had some rather better ideas as part of our £250 billion fund. (Is this the right amount? I’ll leave that aside. Our economy is faltering but not currently in the doldrums. That said, interest rates are low, borrowing is cheap and I can see a case for investment to soften the damage from Brexit. The figure feels suspiciously neat, but I’m not an economist.) Funding HS3 could give the Northern Powerhouse some teeth and help metro Mayors present northern cities as an alternative to London. Funding HS2 to Manchester and Scotland could significantly increase rail capacity.

But if we think £100-odd billion of extra borrowing is feasible on top of £250 billion, then what about expanding our public transport network further? What about supporting green energy projects? What about upping our offer on social housing, or supporting private housing developments? What about seed funding for businesses seeking to export outside the EEA, since we know there will be trade diversion when Brexit happens? Or an infrastructure fund targeted at areas where recent migration is particularly high?

I’m not saying all these ideas are all right, or even that any of them necessarily are. But the wider point stands: could we not find something future-facing to throw billions at rather than refighting the 1980s?

Redistribution is not a sideshow in tax and benefit policy

I agree far too many low-income consumers struggle with energy and water bills. It would have been much better to target our efforts on boosting low incomes. But on welfare, our manifesto had far more to offer the well-off elderly and middle-class graduates than the working or non-working poor.

Labour is a party of the left. Shifting income and wealth to the poor should be core to what we believe. But this year, we pledged to protect the triple lock on pensions and universal winter fuel payments. We prioritised a group largely protected from austerity and made talking about generational fairness even harder. We committed £11 billion to abolishing tuition fees. This is a direct gift to graduates, who will generally do much better than their peers and who in any event repay fees in line with their incomes. We did this even though fees were never actually shown to stop people going on to higher education.

Meanwhile, we failed to commit to ending the freeze on working-age benefits. Inflation has risen to 2.9%, which means these cuts will bite harder now. And yet we forgot the people we were founded to represent. We could afford to scrap student fees. But apparently we couldn’t afford to, for example, restore the Social Fund. The Social Fund used to help fund things like a bed or white goods for, say, someone who left their abusive partner and had nothing. We couldn’t promise to end the benefit cap. Nor could we, say, lower the taper rate for means-tested benefits to ease the path into working more hours (or working at all). Younger, mainly middle-class voters — admittedly the group who swung most strongly to Labour; clearly Jeremy can target voters better than I thought — and better-off pensioners trumped those in greatest need.

This wasn’t even electoral strategy — just carelessness. Note how Labour spokespeople kept chopping and changing on the benefit freeze, just as Theresa May did on the ‘dementia tax’. They simply hadn’t thought about it. We were caught out because our ‘radical’ leadership didn’t think about the distributional impact of our policies. We let the Liberal Democrats offer a more progressive approach to benefits than we did.

I understand Labour manifestos need an offer for all parts of society. But this isn’t a return to socialism. It’s middle-class populism which forgets the whole point of socialism — greater equality. We confused bungs for the fairly well off with narrowing the gap between rich and poor. We did exactly what we’ve spent years attacking the SNP for. We committed the same sin the Liberal Democrats did for years. We should be embarrassed if this is how we define a move to the left.

Coherence is not an irrelevance in Brexit policy

If we weren’t nostalgic or regressive, we were too often incoherent or outright evasive. Our Brexit tactics may well have worked electorally. But we were no more honest than the Conservatives about the trade-offs in different deals with the EU. We promised ‘a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union’. We said our Brexit policy differed radically from the Tories’ and listed a number of institutions we wanted to keep links with.

I agree that tone matters in negotiations. But how did we propose to keep the benefits of the single market without its rules? How do you keep the benefits of the customs union without a common external tariff? What did our manifesto mean? As three spokespeople have each recently given different Labour policies, I assume the Shadow Cabinet is no clearer than I. I accept Brexit poses horrible dilemmas for Labour. I accept we may even have won votes with our approach. But the country deserved better than a non-policy designed to evade rather than elucidate. We should have tried to offer a Labour vision on the UK’s biggest challenge.

Our manifesto was shot through with a failure to think things through, to say anything about how to achieve lofty aims. I cannot find a single word in the manifesto about how to build more houses in the private sector, for example, except for guaranteeing Help to Buy funding — yet we committed to a housebuilding revolution. I know the Tories’ manifesto proved dismally thin, but shouldn’t we do better than them?

Credibility is not an optional extra in foreign and defence policy

Labour’s leadership was incoherent on welfare and evasive on Brexit. It also wilfully fudged one of the most basic issues for any government: foreign policy, defence and collective security. Corbyn’s hostility to NATO and sympathy for just about any enemy of the West, however vile, was one of my biggest problems with him as leader. So of course I welcomed our manifesto support for NATO.

But it isn’t enough for the manifesto to state that Labour supports NATO, or even for a Labour Government to stay in NATO. For collective security to mean something, adversaries need to believe we’ll actually defend our allies, or at least that we genuinely might. No one can, in the end, force a Prime Minister to honour a guarantee to a NATO ally. MPs could ultimately depose a Prime Minister who refused. But by then, Estonia (say) could well find itself overrun already. Anyway, the point of collective security is to avoid getting to that point.

I’m afraid the fact that Corbyn’s reaction to the invasion of Crimea was to describe Russia’s actions as ‘not unprovoked’ actually matters. The fact that he was shouting about closing down NATO as recently as 2014 actually matters. The fact that Corbyn’s reaction to every foreign policy dilemma is to blame the West actually matters. This is not a man who, prima facie, deserves public trust on the basics of security. And even if voters don’t see that in a Leader of the Opposition, our enemies most certainly will see it in a Prime Minister.

This means that Corbyn’s refusal — even during the election campaign — to commit to defending a NATO ally matters all the more. We already have Donald Trump in the White House. Other NATO governments have been desperate to get the man to say — himself — that he’s committed to Article 5, because evidence of commitment matters. On current evidence, Corbyn in Number 10 would mean two of NATO’s three main defence powers’ commitment was questionable. That could be a deadly threat to the whole Western world.

Corbyn needs to do everything he can to show he can be trusted on this issue. He can’t just dodge the question because his anti-Americanism trumps anything Putin does to his neighbours or Assad does to his people. Pieties about a better world aren’t enough. In the actually-existing world, I want to know my Prime Minister will support such protections as we have unless and until I have a real alternative.

Moral qualms are not irrelevant if you win enough votes

I can see why many Corbynites feel their critics always attacked them on electability and suddenly changed tack on 9 June. Personally, Andy Burnham and Owen Smith frustrated me because they didn’t challenge Corbynism enough. And the Corbynite narrative labelled all critics unprincipled, so I understand the irritation of those who believed it. (It also labelled them all right-wing at the same time — rather inconsistently, but there we go.)

But actually, I meant everything I said about Corbyn’s blind spot on anti-Semitism. It wasn’t a proxy attack. We should be ashamed that Ken Livingstone is still a member of the Labour Party. I have not forgotten how, faced with concerns about anti-Semitism, Corbyn once elected to explain this as part of a conspiracy against him. I have not forgotten how, when a Labour MP faced anti-Semitic abuse at the launch of a report on Labour anti-Semitism, Corbyn apologised to her abuser. I still think Corbyn’s understanding of anti-Semitism fails to acknowledge how anti-Jewish hate has mutated and the new forms it took after World War II. I know anti-Semitism was a problem on the left before Corbyn became Labour leader, but I want him to ask himself why it is that so many anti-Semites seem so much keener on Labour since he won. I have no reason to believe he will. I have no reason to believe he is any more committed to tackling this issue than he was before 8 June.

I do not regard Corbyn’s support for violent over constitutional Irish republicanism as a minor historic flaw. I’m not willing to gloss over Corbyn taking money from Press TV — a theocratic regime’s state broadcaster — and keeping quiet in the face of anti-Semitic remarks. I’m not OK with his indifference to Falklanders’ self-determination. I don’t buy his claim that referring to Hamas and Hezbollah as ‘friends’ was some sort of diplomatic norm. I think the long list of extremists, including (sorry, but it’s true) Holocaust deniers, he’s shared platforms and associated with is a genuine problem. I worry more, not less, about these now he has come so much nearer to power than I ever thought he could.

The people around Corbyn worry me at least as much as the man himself. I have not forgotten John McDonnell’s praise for the ‘bombs and bullets and sacrifice’ of the IRA. Nor do I fail to notice his continued support for the Cuba Solidarity Campaign — apologists for a repressive dictatorship. The idea of Seumas Milne (one of whose favourite hobbies is minimising the crimes of the Soviet Union) having real power worries me no less than before. The idea of Andrew Murray (a member of the CPGB till recently) having real power worries me no less than before. Milne and Murray do not just stand for a more left-wing version of my politics. Their record tells me that their attitudes to parliamentary democracy, views on foreign policy and moral compasses differ profoundly from my own.

You cannot just gloss this over. If Corbyn, McDonnell, Milne, Murray and others no longer hold these views, they need to recant them. They need to draw the line between democratic socialism and the far left. And then they need to stand on the democrats’ side of the line.

Here I stand

In the end — unless convinced otherwise by argument, not voteshare — I remain a liberal-minded social democrat. I am neither a left-populist nor an anti-Western hard leftist.

I believe in multilateralism in foreign policy and defence alike. I am unequivocally opposed to political violence deployed in a constitutional democracy. I believe our public spending should be targeted to redistribute wealth, not give more to people like me. I believe in difficult trade-offs. I am a parliamentary democrat, not a democratic centralist. Whether Corbynism wins 25%, 40% or 75% of the vote, it is not what I believe.

Does Corbyn’s Labour have room for dissenters? Ed Miliband let Corbyn and McDonnell pledge to try to wreck a Labour Government’s Budget. The history of the hard left suggests they’re unlikely to return the favour, given a choice.

More than that, I have to accept the election result on 8 June shows I must have misread the popular mood — at least in part. Perhaps my politics are less popular than left-populism. Perhaps a leader with Corbyn’s history, personal beliefs and ‘friends’ can get away with all three.

I don’t know where that leaves me now. I do know I can’t be a quiet loyalist when faced with a leadership with whom I fundamentally disagree. I will not pretend. Here I stand.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 28 June 2017.

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Northern Ireland at Westminster: confidence, supply and the principle of consent

Northern Ireland’s MPs rarely play a big role in Commons arithmetic. With only 18 out of 650 seats, they’re rarely decisive in the United Kingdom’s elections. Furthermore, none of the UK-wide parties win seats there.

So we’re not very used to Northern Ireland’s politicians having much say in the government of the UK. The current maths shocked us all. And as a Labour member, I clearly hold no brief for a Conservative confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. But the way the legitimacy, as opposed to the wisdom and policy content, of such a deal has been attacked has often been problematic at best. And at worst it’s ignored Northern Ireland’s right to a say in the UK altogether.

Who are the DUP anyway?

Much commentary on the DUP has been rooted in an ignorance of their nature. DUP politicians are indeed socially conservative in a way those in Great Britain rarely are these days. Greater scrutiny of that conservatism would be thoroughly justified. They show no sign of trying to export those norms to Great Britain — they will probably mainly want more money for Northern Ireland. But it would be a thoroughly good thing if we heard more about the impact of DUP attitudes on women and LGBT people in Northern Ireland. It is striking that Westminster never tried to equalise its abortion laws with Great Britain’s through all the years of direct rule. (We should also note this isn’t just the DUP’s prerogative in Northern Ireland. Our own sister party, the SDLP, is just as opposed.)

There are valid points to make about the history of several DUP politicians. The rhetoric and behaviour of the late Ian Paisley deserved excoriation — though in the end he formed a joint Executive, which we should remember too. It’s fair to say that it did at times display a worrying level of equivocation over loyalist terrorism. Recently, the RHI scandal and Arlene Foster’s stubbornness speak ill of DUP attitudes to good governance.

But conflating the DUP’s periodic failure to keep its nose clean with the role of the IRA mistakes the case. Conflating deeply conservative religiosity with having been inextricably bound up with terrorism won’t get you very far in understanding Northern Ireland. And DUP flirtations with Ulster Resistance were very different from the IRA’s responsibility for nearly half of deaths during the Troubles and its inherent connection with Sinn Féin. I’m not saying there aren’t a great many charges to lay at the DUP’s door over many years. But I am saying it’s a different set of arguments. The DUP is not the PUP.

Confidence, supply and the peace process

It is wholly fair to worry about the impact on the impartiality of the UK Government, perceived or actual, in the Northern Ireland peace process. The key part of the Good Friday Agreement cited here reads as follows:

The two Governments:

… affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions …

It doesn’t constrain government formation in either the United Kingdom or a united Ireland. (Imagine the reaction were a united Ireland banned from giving Sinn Féin a role in government in Dublin and you’ll see why not.)

But it would be wholly unacceptable for the UK Government to be parti pris on either side in the peace process. A full coalition, with collective responsibility across government policy including the Northern Ireland Office, currently would make the UK Government’s position impossible in practice. But that’s not on the cards. A full coalition would serve neither the DUP’s interest nor the Conservatives’. The DUP wouldn’t want that level of responsibility; the Conservatives will have to reach beyond the DUP to make this House of Commons function anyway.

The main issue, from a Tory point of view, is guaranteed support for its Budgets — supply. And with a confidence and supply deal, there is no need for matters relating to the NIO to be included. It is completely fair to be worried about the quality of those assurances and to scrutinise the substance of a confidence and supply deal. Obviously, there would need to be assurances about impartiality, which the Irish Government states it has been given. And as the SDLP’s leader has very sensibly said, “We have to judge it on its merits and see what the deal looks like.”

A confidence and supply deal may well be a bad idea. It may very well be politically unwise. But it’s not constitutionally or politically illegitimate in and of itself, any more than it was when Labour toyed with similar deals in 2010.

The principle of consent

Above all, too many in Great Britain have seemed hostile to the very notion that Northern Ireland’s MPs might affect the balance of power at Westminster. It feels a bit like the concerns in the 1950s that integrating Malta into the UK might allow its MPs to do the same in close elections. But unlike Malta, Northern Ireland already forms part of the UK. Its MPs have every right to a say in its governance, as do MPs from England, Scotland and Wales.

This is a basic principle of fair treatment of the UK’s constituent countries. It also goes to the heart of the principle of consent in the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement recognises that Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK is based on the will of its people and can only be changed by that same will. Membership of the UK confers certain rights, including a voice in the House of Commons. If you don’t grant the region the right to its say in excepted and reserved matters and its voice in Parliament — and if your view is essentially that it can only have that voice so long as it never decides anything, you’re only granting that right in the narrowest possible way, if at all — you’ve got a pretty shallow understanding of the principle of consent.

It’s natural that, say, Sinn Féin’s leadership would argue Northern Ireland politicians should have no role in helping form a UK Government. They’re an abstentionist party and they seek a united Ireland. And of course they have every right to that position. If Northern Ireland and the Republic ever wish to form a united Ireland, the UK should give effect to it without demur.

But in the meantime, there’s no need for the rest of us to take a very specific view of legitimacy at face value. Northern Ireland’s rights within the UK extend further than simply not expelling it from the body politic. Whatever you think of the DUP, we should all remember that.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 20 June 2017.

On electoral responsibility

Elections are brutal things. Politicians usually do what they need to do to win. Frankly, as a Labour member I often wish we were more ruthless.

Still, a politician fighting for votes should always remember there remains a country waiting to be governed afterwards. There is no dead of night into which your silliest turns of phrase or your most careless commitments disappear. Theresa May’s predecessor was sunk by one of his most careless commitments: I imagine he could advise.

When it comes to silly turns of phrase, politicians should also remember hurt feelings have consequences. The United Kingdom proved that how people feel matters on 23 June 2016. As a result, we now face our most challenging and complex negotiations in many decades. In those negotiations, 27 other countries hold almost all the cards. The Union they form together has clear principles of its own. It has a vital interest in preventing British free-riding leading to other countries trying the same thing. And it currently has higher priorities than pure economics, as the UK of all countries should understand just now.

Since becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May and her ministers have promised the British people they can have their preferred EU benefits (or near as damnit) without the obligations. She spoke the language of antagonistic nationalism to please her party’s zealots at Conference. She threatened where she should have conciliated. She rattled sabres instead of building bridges, and she failed at every turn to manage expectations. And today she chose, after a leak highlighting the hubris and ineptitude of her government’s Brexit ‘strategy’ — probably aimed at warning the German public they might have to pay a fair bit more if the talks collapse — to accuse the very people whose goodwill she needs most after 8 June of ‘interfering in our elections’.

I presume Mrs May called this vote because she felt confident about the outcome. Politicians are not in the habit of ceding three years in office on a whim. So by her own lights, she can presumably afford a modicum of statesmanship. She can afford to start preparing the public for the climbdowns which will be required for a deal. She backed Remain, however quietly, and she knows Vote Leave sold a pack of lies to win. She knows we can’t have what they promised.

At some point, one of two things will happen. British expectations will gradually return to earth, allowing us to move towards some inferior-but-not-devastating deal with the EU over time. Or British expectations will meet EU reality and the result will be a car crash. It seems our Prime Minister deems the latter worth making more likely in the cause of (in her view) winning a majority of 140 rather than 120.

I imagine it will indeed win votes. But seeking to govern is not just about seeking votes. This irresponsibility may well come back to haunt Mrs May, even if she wins her mandate. She will richly deserve it, if so.

It’s just a shame it will come back to haunt the country too.

This post was originally published on Medium.com on 3 May 2017.