Organise and divide? Belated musings after the J30 strike

One of the current Government’s core tactics, when it comes to steering through cuts, is defining different groups against each other.  Whether it’s pitting private sector workers against the public sector, justifying cuts to housing benefit on the basis of unfairness to people in work or distinguishing deserving from undeserving social tenants, the Coalition understands the political gain of identifying a particular group, claiming that they’re gaining unfairly and then cutting in the name of fairness.

One nation social democrats?

Left-wingers have tended to argue against this kind of narrative, for obvious reasons.  They reply that, even if ‘divide and rule’ sounds effective, it doesn’t cut much ice in a two-earner household where the only reliable pension is from the public sector employee, the family whose 20-something son or daughter is on ESA but whose parents are in full-time work or the low earner in London who relies on Housing Benefit to pay the rent.  There is, of course, a lot of truth to this: the lives of people in different jobs, different housing tenures and different personal circumstances are often deeply intertwined.

Note, though, how much these examples rely on people’s own specific lives being intertwined.  Not every public sector worker lives with, marries or relies on someone in the private sector; most families don’t have a member on ESA.  In fact, assortive mating means that people are often likely to end up with people like them than not.  (The overwhelming majority of people I know work outside the for-profit world – the state, political parties, universities, charities, NGOs … almost anything, in fact, but a private company.)

Partly as a result, many of these divides are more real than social democrats like to admit.  In my own family, some of our most visceral differences come from the fact that I don’t work for the private sector, but my father does.  Left-wingers’ own attitudes often contribute to those divides: in my heart of hearts, I know that I tend to place the public sector, its values and its ethos higher on my priority list and to treat it as an ethically better option.  I’m not saying I should: I’m saying I recognise my own prejudice – and that it makes it harder, not easier, to win over people who do work in the profit-making economy.

Trade unions suffer badly from this – and it’s very hard for them to get out of the bind.  It’s worth noting that, since May 2010, unions have been keen to ‘speak for society’ and to emphasise their role in defending public services.  Unions 21’s new report highlights some of the problems they face presentationally, both through their own failings and through hostile reporting; but at least part of the problem is intrinsic.  Trying to articulate the national voice is, by its very nature, going to be in tension with action on behalf of members’ specific interests: not necessarily in conflict, but in tension.  When considering responses like the 30 June strikes, this is worth bearing in mind.  The unions’ great opportunity is to be seen as on the side of the public; their great danger is convincing the public, again, that their powers need to be curbed.

Justice versus envy?

Left-wingers can also risk playing to the Coalition gallery in the way they talk about justice.  Much of what we consider to be justice is, of course, decried by the right as the ‘politics of envy’ – when complaining about the super-rich, for instance.  Now, of course, this is spurious: there is a distinction between saying ‘the wealthy in our society have too great a share of the wealth, while millions of people are in poverty’ and saying ‘I haven’t worked my way up the ladder, so I want to pull you down to my level’ – and if we can’t make that distinction, the debate about fair shares is effectively over.  But, rhetorically and in the eyes of people less committed to our own values, the line is a hard one to police.  Arguments about ‘reverse class war’ may make it more difficult, rather than less – though it’s important to remember that defining a privileged minority working against the interests of most people is a long tradition of the left, as well as the right (People’s Budget, anyone?).

This is part of the reason why, when dealing with tax paid by the wealthy, issues like tax avoidance are so useful.  They tap into a very widely held view that the rules should be the same for all of us – providing a way of arguing for the wealthy to pay their share and binding us together, as a society.  (Even Ted Heath talked about ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’, after all.)  In particular, this argument helps to explain why focussing on paying due rates of tax, rather than just raising the rates, tends to have a wider political appeal.

All in all, I have more of a sense that there’s a problem than I have of the answers.  But for what it’s worth, people on the left need to be aware that they too have prejudices in favour of particular social groups (maybe even vested interests … sometimes).  We need to ask ourselves whether we make enough effort to engage with others – private sector workers in particular, who do after all provide much of the revenue for social programmes.  We need to do more to connect campaigns to the wider good – where union campaigning can be linked to the interests of patients, pupils, parents and families, it should be.  And we may even have something to learn from the language of one nation conservatism: it was, after all, Benjamin Disraeli who first talked of ‘two nations’!

Why I’m voting ‘Yes’ to AV

The AV referendum is probably going to be our last chance to express a view on how to choose our MPs for quite some time.  I can’t see the issue coming back for about 20 years.  So if you’re concerned about our democracy (or, indeed, if you’re delighted with it the way it is), the vote on 5 May is a crucial one.

Whichever side wins, one MP will still continue to represent each local area; whichever side wins, the voting system will be almost equally likely to deliver majority governments.  We’re being asked, instead, which of two options is the fairer way of choosing our (single) local MP.

On that basis, in the full knowledge that the question here is AV versus FPTP and independently of the chances of any further reform, I’m hoping for a ‘Yes’ vote – and for what they’re worth, here are my main reasons:

1. With AV, a local MP will better reflect local people’s views

AV will make sure your MP’s views are nearer the real centre of gravity in your local area – and prevent a cohesive minority, who don’t really reflect most people’s views, from taking over instead.

For instance, imagine a seat where the Conservatives win 35% of the vote, Labour win 30%, the Greens win 25% and the Liberal Democrats and Socialists both win 5%.  Leave aside the fact that the Tories only got 35% of the vote: as a matter of pure common sense, looking at the political consensus in this area, would a Tory victory really be a fair reflection of how most people voted?  It would be the same if Labour won 35%, the Tories won 30%, UKIP won 25% and the Lib Dems and English Democrats both won 5%.  In both cases, FPTP delivers the seat to a party who is strongly opposed by most voters: AV would fix that.

2. With AV, no citizen will have to fear voting for their real first choice and getting their last instead

A general election should be your chance to weigh up what different parties offer, look at local candidates and make an honest statement of preference.  It’s the only chance you get to express your opinion on what kind of Britain you want and who you want in charge and, hopefully, have some bearing on the outcome.

But for too many people, elections have stopped being an expression of belief and become a glorified game of chess.  Keeping the enemy out becomes the only aim: voting ceases to function as an expressive act, a positive endorsement, and starts to be a defensive (often grudging) manoeuvre.  And people who might have voted Green, Liberal Democrat or UKIP (or Labour or Conservative, for that matter) end up hiding their true colours and walking away from the polling booth feeling cheated.  This is no way to run a democracy.

3. AV will make our political system a little more open

For better or worse, British voters have been gradually drifting away from the two largest parties.  Labour and the Conservatives barely won 65% of the total vote in 2010; in 1951, they won nearly 97%.  This has happened under a system which actively discourages voting for new parties.  At the last European election, Tory and Labour support fell as low as 43.4%.  Although I doubt we’d see figures quite that low in a general election, I do believe the current voting system is suppressing the real range of British public opinion.

There is an argument that the voting system should guard against a mass of tiny parties making the Commons unworkable: there’s not much of a democratic argument that it should try and stop any new political force from being given expression by the people.  But FPTP preserves our party system in aspic: and if we ever saw a real surge in popular opinion, the voting system would crush it.

We’ve got the proof from the 1980s.  The Liberal-SDP Alliance failed, but not because it couldn’t command mass support (25.4% of voters endorsed them even under FPTP) or because it had no credibility (the Gang of Four had all been Cabinet ministers).  Ultimately, people didn’t believe they could win and didn’t take the risk.  They might or might not have actually done so under AV: but if they had, an Alliance government’s economic policy would almost certainly have been a much better reflection of public opinion than Thatcher’s.  It is very hard to believe that democracy was well served by the actual outcome, whatever your politics.

4. AV will produce governments with a stronger democratic mandate

Even if you want majority governments, their declining electoral mandate ought to worry you – and AV can help there.  AV would, for instance, still have given Labour a majority in 2005.  But Liberal Democrat voters were pretty repelled by Michael Howard’s campaign: most of them would have ranked Labour above the Conservatives.  SNP and Plaid Cymru voters aren’t known for preferring Tory governments.  65% of people voted against Labour in 2005, but it’s almost certain that a majority of people preferred a Labour government to a Tory one: with AV, we’d have known that they did, and that broader (though, yes, less committed) support would have been expressed at the ballot box.

When we do get hung parliaments, we’ll also have a much better idea of what voters want their preferred party to do.  If Liberal Democrat voters in 2010 preferred a Labour-Lib Dem deal, we’d have known about it from their second (third, etc.) preferences: equally, we’d have a better idea of whether the country preferred a Cameron-led government from preference data.  With FPTP, we have no real way of knowing what voters want when no one wins outright: with AV, we do – and so politicians have fewer places to hide.

Finally …

Unless trends change radically, we can expect a number of things to happen under FPTP in the coming years.  MPs will be elected with ever lower levels of public support.  Governments will win majorities with smaller and smaller mandates from the voters – Labour’s 35.2% of the vote in 2005 could just be the start of things to come.  Whether we get a government in line, even roughly, with the people’s wishes will become more and more a matter of luck, electoral geography and how many parties split the vote on which part of the political spectrum.  And by the way, we’ll probably get a few more hung parliaments, whatever the voting system.

AV isn’t perfect and it won’t fix every problem.  But it’s a better and a fairer way of choosing our representatives than the one we’ve got.  MPs will have stronger mandates from their constituents – not a perfect mandate, not the whole-hearted support of everyone in their area, but a reasonably broad base of support in a multi-party system where voters can cast an honest preference.  Governments will rely on broader support than they do now – and because they’ll need to maintain (qualified) support from other parties’ voters, they’ll be wise to govern in a way which reflects that broader support.  And our political system will be better able to give big shifts in public opinion some form of expression, rather than just bottling them up.

If you want to be able to vote with your heart and your head at the same time; if you want governments to listen to a broad swathe of the people; if you want a politics which lets new people and new ideas into the debate: vote ‘Yes’ on Thursday.

Deficits … and paying for credibility

In a way, it’s easy to be a leftie just now.  £81bn of spending cuts and only £29bn of tax rises fill most social democrats’ hearts with dread – and as the scale of what’s in store becomes clearer, the public are likely to be pretty horrified too.  So unless you’re a left-wing Lib Dem, the line to take is less complicated than at any time since … well, since the last time the Tories were in power.

I think, though, that this could present a very real trap.  It’s refreshing for the left to be able to rail against the enemy’s Budgets; even more refreshing when the public is quite possibly on its side.  But Labour’s problem now isn’t just (or even mainly) about popularity per se; it’s about credibility.  And that’s exactly where just railing won’t get them very far.

This isn’t just a case of it being unclear what share of the deficit Labour should tackle through tax rises (40%? 50%? 60%?); that’s a cause for concern, but you could argue the party needs some time to redefine itself and that Ed Miliband hasn’t even been leader for four months yet.  More worryingly, though, I don’t see any real evidence of Labour engaging with what any of these options actually mean.  I understand the difficulties: a party which still remembers what tax plans did to their chances in 1992 is obviously going to have its worries about talking about tax rises too much.  But like it or not, Labour’s economic and fiscal record did a great deal to lose them the last election.  It may very well be (mostly) unfair, but it’s also a fact of political life with which Labour needs to come to terms.

That means that, even though Labour thinks the deficit should be reduced at a more measured pace, it needs to show it has an idea how it might go about doing so eventually.  Bankers’ bonuses, tax avoidance and going for growth by postponing cuts won’t cut it as an economic policy for the next two parliaments.  Of course Miliband and Johnson don’t need a detailed Shadow Budget – opposition is not government and the Tories never presented one when they were out of power.  But some sense of where the pain would be felt by the public themselves may be important – because it would help to provide some credibility for the Opposition.  It’s worth bearing in mind that, if the UK wanted to cut the deficit at the current speed but do half of that through taxes, we would need to raise an extra £26 billion per year by 2014-15.*  When the fiscal challenge is that big, ‘no pain (for almost all of you)’ is a deeply implausible message – even if it’s only implied.  ‘Pain fairly shared’ sounds less appealing, but has a better chance of being believed.

The need to have alternatives in mind will get more pressing, because the arguments over the speed of deficit reduction will be overtaken by events. I think the Coalition were very wrong to pin their colours to the mast in the way that they have: but they’ve now made it critical to their political, and quite possibly market, credibility. That means that, unless the economy really does go into reverse as a result (in which case all bets are off) or the Government falls (which would have its own problems in terms of market panic and thus the required speed of the tightening), we’re stuck with this pace. By 2013, if the economy hasn’t gone into a double-dip recession (even if growth is sluggish), ‘don’t do this so fast’ may very well seem like yesterday’s news.

So there needs to be a better sense of what Labour would do, not just when it would(n’t) do it. But that also needs to be informed by a clear sense of why Labour wants to do it in a given way. When Alan Johnson talked about shifting the balance of tightening towards taxes enough to roughly halve the size of cuts to capital expenditure, we had a hint. The consistent focus on ‘who pays’ is another. These need to be more explicit. If Labour’s attack is consistently based on ‘what will a particular cut do to our ability to grow the economy?’ and ‘will this cut mean that the poorest are hit hardest?’, then you have the beginnings of a consistent approach to the deficit.

Of course, there is an obvious next question: what sort of tax rises could you go for to cut the deficit, if you’re going to argue that taxes should take more of the load?  Again, Labour doesn’t have to have a fully worked-out Shadow Budget; but it needs to understand the magnitude of the shift it might end up arguing for.  More on that in another post …

* According to the Emergency Budget, £83 billion of spending cuts and £29 billion of tax rises. The Spending Review set more money aside for capital investment, reducing the scale of cuts to £81 billion. A 50/50 split would amount to £55 billion in net tax rises and £55 billion in cuts – an extra £26 billion of taxes on top of the planned £29 billion.