Labour’s Policy Process Needs a Shake-Up

After the politically stultifying years of Blair/Brown and its aftermath under Miliband, Labour members voted for a left-wing leader in 2015. This was a palace revolution without a changing of the guard. All the old structures and place-holders remained in place. A slow burning civil war in the Party ensued.

The new leadership didn’t come to power on the basis of winning a series of battles for policies and positions after which the process was consolidated by the election of a new leader. Jeremy Corbyn became leader on the basis of a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the political elite in general and with the leadership of the Labour Party in particular. Miliband signalled a break with Blairism but the rejection was purely rhetorical. The majority of members saw in Corbyn the chance for a real change of direction.

But Corbyn’s election was just a first step. All the work still remained to be done. New policies needed to be put in place and people supporting those policies needed to be elected to ensure that they would be pursued with intelligence and enthusiasm. After two years of the new leadership the struggle for both of these things can only be said to be at an embryonic stage. What is needed above all is for a new spirit of policy formation which engages all who want to be involved wherever they are located on the spectrum of Labour opinion. This need for a new approach is the backdrop against which we should consider the Annual Report of the National Policy Forum to Annual Conference this year.

It is Annual Conference that sets the seal on Party Policy, in theory at least. It does so on the basis of its approval or otherwise of the NPF’s Annual Report. The Labour Party Rulebook makes the position clear.

Party conference shall decide from time to time what specific proposals of legislative, financial or administrative reform shall be included in the Party programme. This shall be based on the rolling programme of work of the National Policy Forum. No proposal shall be included in the final Party programme unless it has been adopted by the Party conference by a majority of not less than twothirds of the votes recorded on a card vote. (Chapter 1, Clause V, 2)

Everyone wanting to see policies developed around which the Party can unite should read the Annual Report carefully. In recent years its treatment by Conference has been a non-event. It was difficult to raise objections because the report was considered on an all or nothing basis. Rejecting or referring back any part of it meant doing so for the entire report. Clearly few Conference delegates were ever going to feel in a position to do that. This led to a situation in which many (most?) delegates did not actually read the report. Some delegates didn’t receive the report in time to discuss it with colleagues and some didn’t even receive it at all.

Last year’s Conference took the wise decision that in future the various sections of the report should be voted on separately. This means that individual reports could be rejected or referred back while approving others. It is a chance to raise policy issues on the floor of Conference and to establish that now the party wants an end to the secretive and slapdash ways in which the Policy Commissions work. A signal needs to be given by Conference that the members want a new approach. Many of the details of the changes required have been spelled out in the reviews of of the Annual Report carried in recent weeks by Left Futures (the only Labour supporting website which, as far as I am aware, has attempted systematic reviews)

The series of articles on Left Futures reviewing seven of the eight Policy Commission sections of the Annual Report have pointed to a uniformly lack-lustre and lethargic approach to the development of policy.

  1. Introduction to the Annual Report plus review of the Education report
  2. The International report
  3. The Business & Economy Report
  4. The Energy part of the Energy and Culture report
  5. The Housing part of the Housing and Government Report
  6. The Health Report
  7. The Work and Pensions Report

In my view the Conference provides an opportunity to show that better is going to be demanded from the NPF and the Policy Commissions in future. This can be done because each section of the Annual Report must now be voted on separately. This should encourage delegates to read the reports thoroughly. It should also help if the were to read reviews that have been published (on Left Futures and anywhere else where this has been done). A reference back of one or two of the very worst of this extremely poor collection of reports would send a clear signal that a shake up of the NPF is need to produce the policies that the Party needs and deserves.

David Pavett

September 2017

Andrew Murray’s Implausible Analysis of Class and The 2017 General Election

Andrew Murray’s position as both a senior UNITE official and major figure in Corbyn’s election campaign team makes him one of the most influential figures in Labour politics today. Much of Murray’s philosophy and analysis is based on an analysis of class politics, however, David Pavett finds this to have little, true, substance. 

Shortly after the 2017 election, Andrew Murray wrote a piece for Labour List — Unite: How do we build on Labour’s election results? Not by misunderstanding our position with working class voters. In this article Murray sought to correct what he considers mistaken views on the electoral behaviour of working class voters. He repeatedly uses the terms “working class” and “middle class” vote but never tells us what they mean to him. Is a university-educated computer hardware trouble-shooter less a member of the working class than a car repair man/woman? There is no way of knowing from what Andrew Murray writes. All the same, it is probably safe to assume that when he says “working class” we should read “traditional working class”.

If that is right then it has to be recognised that the working class so defined has been in significant decline for decades as is reflected in the changing structure of the UK work force. It would therefore be demographically surprising if this did not show itself in a declining support for a party traditionally supported by a majority of this group. Trying to wave that away with references to the unanalysed total votes in various constituencies is very unconvincing. What were the demographic changes in those constituencies over the period considered? We are not told.

This all betrays either deep confusion or the selection of data to prove a pre-determined conclusion.

There may be more detailed analyses of the constituencies mentioned – I don’t know – but such analyses would be required before coming to the conclusions that Andrew Murray reaches. What we do have is various analysis of the national vote from organisations like YouGov which do not seem to support his conclusions.

For example Andrew Murray doesn’t consider the stunningly linear relationship between age and support for Labour/Conservative. The graphs are well known by now and show a cross-over from Labour to Conservative at the age of 47. Even more telling is the correlation between educational level and party support. The YouGov analysis showed the following:

Education Level Labour Conservative
Low (GCSE or below) 33 55
Medium 39 45
High (degree or above) 49 32

My feeling is that the inability to take in the changing structure of the working population i.e. the fetishisation of the “traditional working class” tells us more about the fossilised basis of Andrew Murray’s analysis than it does about what is going on with the British electorate and what is the way forward for Labour.

Andrew Murray says of the constituencies he discusses “They all have one thing in common, however: Labour’s candidates secured the highest votes, and the highest share of the vote, since 2005, often since 2001 and in some cases since 1997. That is – more working-class voters turned out for Corbyn’s Labour than for Miliband’s, Brown’s or latter-day Blair’s”. But without analysis of the structure of the working population and its relationship to the vote in those constituencies he has no basis for this claim.

It is almost certainly right, without over-estimating the effect of education, to assume that a greater percentage of the working population (and those closely connected to it) need to be presented with rational and factual arguments and that traditional loyalties count for less then ever before. If that is right then we have to say that winning the next election is not a matter of ‘one more push’ but of (1) filling in the gaping holes in Labour’s policies, (2) moving beyond Labour’s ambiguities over Brexit, and (3) presenting clear arguments to the elderly as to why voting Labour is in their best interests. This process needs to involve the active membership of the Labour Party so that those most likely to do the campaigning work understand the policies advocated and is motivated to present them at every opportunity.

P.S. Andrew Murray refers to “actual irrefutable evidence of votes cast” but gives no indication of what this “irrefutable evidence” actually is. Given that his notion of the “working class” appears to be what is often referred to as the “traditional working class” I think that the evidence that we have so far is strongly against him. Thus the Ipsos-Mori analysis concluded

“The middle classes swung to Labour, while working classes swung to the Conservatives – each party achieving record scores.

Although the Conservatives maintained a six-point lead among ABC1s, Labour increased its vote share among this group by 12 points since 2015.  Similarly, while Labour had a four-point lead among C2DEs, and increased its vote share among this group, this was eclipsed by the 12-point increase for the Conservatives. This is simultaneously Labour’s best score among ABC1s going back to 1979, and the Conservatives’ best score among C2DEs since then.”

Andrew Murray’s analysis may seem at first to be plausible but on a closer look I think that it turns out to have little substance.

David Pavett, July 2017

The above text is a lightly modified version of a response to Andrew Murray which I put on the LabourList website shortly after his article appeared.

 

 

Stoke Central and the Labour Party

I do not come from Stoke and I don’t live there. I have holidayed there and snap up oatcakes whenever I find a good supplier in London. But, just to be clear, I have no specialised knowledge of the politics of the area and wouldn’t deign to advise locals on how, on any matters of detail, their political affairs should be conducted.

I had heard Stoke Central spoken of as “quintessentially Labour”, “solidly Labour” and being suspicious of the value of such generalisations I looked as some raw data about election results in Stoke Central. The first election after the boundary changes that created the constituency was in 1950. So I looked at the general election results from 1950 to 2015. What I found is shown in the table on the below. (The second column shows Labour’s percentage of the vote.)

NewImage

The figures seemed to me to tell a rather stark story. This was a constituency which in 1950 had more than 5 in 10 of the electorate turning out to vote for the Labour Party. Majorities like that can be the basis for measures to bring about deep social change. 

But, as you run your eyes down the columns some rather obvious and rather alarming trends are clearly visible.

By 1970 support among the electorate had fallen from 5 in 10 to just over 3 in 10. There was a minor surge in the Thatcher years leading to the 1997 election which brought the Labour Party led by Tony Blair to power. Labour then peaked at 41.6% of the electorate. The decline from that point was dramatic. During the Blair/Brown years that support fell from just over 41.6% to 20.6% – a fall of more than 50%. That is the true story of Labour’s hollowing out in cities like Stoke and whatever Jeremy Corbyn’s faults this was clearly not of his making.

 

NewImage

 

By 2015 Labour support among the electorate as a whole had fallen to below 20% i.e. less than 2 in 10 of the electorate were sufficiently motivated to turn out to put their cross by the name of the Labour candidate.

When this is set in the broader context of the problems and decline of social democratic parties across Europe and even the crisis in support for liberal values there are clearly good reasons to worry about the position in which Labour finds itself.

I cannot advise to members of the Stoke Central party on anything involving local matters of detail. All I would say is that a situation of such a historically low support base among the electorate demands reflection and that any sort of self-congratulatory optimism is almost certainly highly inappropriate. Deep social change is never going to take place on the basis of 20% support among the electorate, even if candidates supporting such change are elected. The obstacles to bring about such change are so great that nothing less than a solid base of support of more than 50% of the electorate is going to be sufficient. Winning elections is obviously important but if it is regarded as the most important duty of a political party (as opposed to sorting out what it actually stands for) then it is difficult to see how enduring changes are likely to result. Labour activists in Stoke Central, like Labour activists everywhere, need to take a long hard look at their support base in the general population. 

David Pavett, !st February 2017

How Not To Win an Election

The only way for a divided party to win an election is if the other main contender for government is even more divided. Banking on that would clearly be the strategy of an idiot. Given that, the events of Tuesday 10th January are a cause for concern. We all know that the media is ever ready to pounce as soon as the Labour leader says anything which could be construed as indicating confusion and difference within Labour. There is therefore an obvious onus on the leadership to be very careful about the coordination of how Labour’s messages are put over. Tuesday 10th was not, in that respect, a good day.

On Monday 9th January we had publicity notices telling us that Jeremy Corbyn was going to say, on Tuesday afternoon, that it was not “wedded to free movement”. This sounded welcome in that it would bring him into line without what several Shadow Cabinet colleagues (with the notable exception of Diane Abbott) have been saying on the matter. It sounded like a step towards a more unified presentation.

On Tuesday morning Jeremy Corbyn responded to Laura Kuensberg’s persistent questioning as to whether Labour was wedded to free movement or not by saying “Let’s see what comes out of the negotiations”. He explained that in his view the real problem was not immigration but the way immigration was exploited by unscrupulous employers. This suggested Labour has plan for tackling the problem without immigration controls.

Then Corbyn announced his views on a cap on top salaries. This was something for which there had apparently been no preparation and about which it seemed that his Shadow Cabinet colleagues had not been briefed, let alone involved in a discussion of the pros and cons of such a policy. Of course the media exploited and distorted what was said but it is difficult to deny they it had been offered a nugget in the form of half-baked and undiscussed ideas being promoted by the party leader.

It was in this context that an interview with Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams (DA) by Martha Carney (MC) reproduced below took place on the BBC Radio 4’s World at One programme on 10th January. It followed an interview with tax specialist and ex-Corbyn advisor Richard Murphy. In his interview Murphy explained why Jeremy Corbyn’s suggestion of a wages cap limiting higher wages to no more than ten times the lowest wage was “unworkable”.  Richard Murphy ended by saying that Jeremy Corbyn was not listening to his economic advisers and that he needed to change tack. The interview with Debbie Abrahams followed directly after the one with Richard Murphy.

MC: So he needs to change tack.

DA: Well first of all what Jeremy said this morning was in the context of discussion around inequality and his focus was very much on that and if you think the ratio between top executives and the average earner is 129 to 1, I think he has hit on a really important issue.

MC: Which Richard Murphy did acknowledge, didn’t he?

DAAbsolutely.

MC: He just said that the means being suggested, the earnings cap, simply isn’t workable.

DA: Well, again, if you listen to the whole interview, what he also said was that this is in the context of our policy development programme. He did say that this was a personal view but we are focused as a party around delivering a strong economy which is based on evidence. So all the points that your previous speaker was saying is something that we would wish to take into account.

MC: You said it’s a personal view by Jeremy Corbyn. Should we deduce from that that you don’t agree with an earnings cap?

DA: I have in all of my professional life focused on inequality as a public health consultant and now in my role as an MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

MC: Sure, you’ve explained how important you think the issue is but it’s just a question of how you address it. What is your own view on the earnings cap?

DA: My only view is that we have a position where more working people are living in poverty than in our history. One in eight working people is living in poverty. Three out of four children living in poverty are from working homes and I think this is absolutely unacceptable. I can accept and agree with him about that we have to change. How we do that and whether than means, for example, we already have a high earnings pay cap for the public sector, how we do that should be based and driven on evidence.

MC: And is the evidence there at the moment for an earnings cap?

DA: Again, I’m not an economist but I think with the panel of people that Jeremy and the treasury team have got together we have a wealth of evidence that will drive that.

MC: But one of the people said that the advisers were not being listened to.

DA: Well, we haven’t concluded our policy development programme to be fair Martha. And again, if you look at the dire state of productivity which drives earnings the government has had nothing to say. Nothing to say in terms of making sure that we have a more equal society. All of their tax and spending measures have made it worse and have created an additional divide between top earners and the least wealthy. And this is completely unacceptable.

MC: I understand how passionately you feel about inequality. But it’s quite an important thing isn’t it? The leader of your party has announced that he what he wants to see is an earnings cap, you have an economic-related portfolio in the Shadow Cabinet, but you seem unable to give your support to this policy.

DA: It isn’t a policy Martha. He said it in the context of policy development. He said it should be something that we looked at and of course we should look at it. But everything we do finally say is policy driven should be based on evidence and I know that  Jeremy is committed to that as well.

MC: Let’s move on to his speech this afternoon which is on Brexit because there does seem to be a lack of clarity on that as well.

DA: He hasn’t given it yet so there can’t be a lack of clarity on something that hasn’t been given!

MC: Except that he has been giving a number of interviews himself this morning about it. He said this morning “We’re not saying that anyone could not come in” so in other words he doesn’t believe in migration controls, in his own words.

DA: Again, I think if we want to have a strong economy we need to first of all recognise the important contribution that migration makes to that economy. Two billion a year is the net plus to the economy as a result of our migrant workforce. And he also, and again I feel very strongly about this as well, is fed up with up with the vilification of migrants from some very irresponsible sections of the media and doesn’t want to go down that route. However, we need to recognise ….

MC: A number of people voted for Brexit because they were worried about levels of immigration. Do you think there should be some form of control once we leave the European Union?

DA: Again, and I would say to this, and I have said it in previous interviews as well, the vote on Brexit was about should we stay in or out of the EU people voted to leave and we accept and respect that. However, they did not vote on immigration. If we listen to some of the very excellent interviews and programmes you had on Radio 4 last week, you show that there is a very complex reason and inequality is one of the reasons people are fed up. In my area in the north of England we have not benefited from the very modest growth that we’ve had across the country. And then the threat to their jobs, we need to make sure that the irresponsible employment agencies recruiting solely from abroad are stopped and we intend to do that.

MC: Debbie Abrahams, thank you for talking to us.

Debbie Abrahams is not a fool. Also, it is not a matter of her performance standing out among political interviews as particularly poor. On the contrary her interview is what many have come to expect from politicians: a complete failure to be honest and straightforward. She knew that she was side-stepping the questions while pretending to answer them. Martha Carney was not fooled by these evasions and tried to steer her to a clear answer. More importantly, virtually no one likely to listen to such an interview would have been fooled. Debbie Abrahams’ responses were a standard exercise in political evasion. Whatever else might be said about this no one could reasonably describe it as “honest and straightforward” politics.

It has to be asked what the leader of the party is doing expressing personal opinions about key matters rather than stating party policy or describing the moves to develop such a policy? I hope that Shadow Cabinet members are made aware of how transparent the prevarications are in interviews such as the above. They should collectively decide (1) to keep their personal musings to themselves or contribute their ideas through the party’s policy process, (2) to agree to a common line on matters of high media and public interest and (3) that they should make every effort to present Labour’s views, or the lack of them, in an honest and straightforward manner and that (4) this all applies to the leader as much as any other Shadow Cabinet member. It is disturbing that it should even be necessary to say such things which are so blindingly obvious.

Just after writing the above, my attention was drawn to yet another policy gaff in the latest sequence of gaffs. A member of the Corbyn team made a statement to the press about NATO “ecalation of tensions” with respect to Estonia. This was done without consulting Nia Griffiths the Shadow Defence Secretary who made it clear that she was very angry about being by-passed in that way. It was briefings like this which many complained of when the mass Shadow Cabinet resignations took place last July. It seems that the necessity for a collegiate manner of working has still not been understood.

David Pavett

This article was first published on the Left Futures website.

 

Links:

 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b087pf0q#play