Time for a new kind of politics?

(This blog first appeared on the Policy Bristol blog site).

At last, the long drawn out Labour leadership election has come to its conclusion and we now know that Jeremy Corbyn has indeed been elected as leader of the Labour Party. After what has been a challenging process, involving intrigue, sub plots and horror stories, we will now see what this new kind of politics is all about. The mandate for change is clear with the scale of the victory born out of a truly democratic process embracing the notion of a real alternative to the status quo.

But what does this mean in practice when you have a leader who will undoubtedly have to fight many internal battles to gain support for his own policies?

At one level, the ideology at the heart of Corbyn’s campaign is exactly what many people believe the Labour Party has always been about and still should be: tackling poverty and inequality, working for peace and social justice, and ending austerity, these are the things Labour was built on. So it seems much of what we can expect is a return to some true socialist values, that challenge the inequalities in our society and seek to protect those that cannot protect themselves, provide hope and opportunity for all rather than the few, and that put aspiration at the heart of its policies.

At another level, the approach may be seen as a retreat to the Labour Party of the 1980s, where ideology ruled over practicality in an era when Labour was seen as too left wing and unelectable. There have been some serious questions over, as well as support for, Corbyn’s economic policy, which involves investing and building our way to prosperity, rather than sticking to the cuts and austerity agenda of the Tories. The proposed ‘People’s Quantitative Easing’ would mean printing money to invest in new large scale housing schemes, transport and energy infrastructure, whilst tax increases would be levelled at the higher earners to raise money to support other policies. This type of proposal is already, inevitably, leading once more to the popular perception that Labour cannot be trusted on the economy.

There has of course been more popular support for some of his policies, with renationalisation of the railways attracting cross party as well as popular support and the introduction of a mandatory living wage, rent controls on private landlords, higher taxes for higher earners and cutting tuition fees all popular policies that appeared during his campaign. There will no doubt continue to be doubts expressed and more challenges to his stance on the European Union, NATO and Trident. But one thing is becoming clear, there is likely to be a renewed debate about the role of the nation state in the provision and delivery of services, with health, education and welfare at the centre of that debate.

The real debate on many of these issues will carry on for some time. There are no simple, quick solutions to mainstreaming an approach that has for so long been marginal to the debate. There’s a lot of work to do in terms of bringing people into the debate, uniting the Party and agree policies. It will certainly be interesting to see just how much compromise is necessary during this process and just how flexible the new leadership is. There’s an idealism about Corbyn’s politics that is both refreshing and attractive, but when pragmatism takes over, and real hard decisions need to be taken it will be interesting to see how Corbyn and his supporters react.

Time to return to core values?

logosOn Thursday (9th July) I went along to a Bristol Festival of Ideas and Guardian Live event at the Arnolfini in Bristol, where the two Liberal Democrat leadership contenders (Norman Lamb and Tim Farron) were in discussion with Andrew Rawnsley. It was a fascinating debate, with real honesty and integrity from both speakers, expertly facilitated by Andrew, which left me thinking about how seldom we seem to engage in real political debate about the issues that matter. Too much of the debate we see and hear is shallow, reactive and glosses over the real problems and instead focuses on ones that are easier to solve or popular to attend to.

What was so refreshing about the approach taken by both Tim and Norman, was the recognition of what had gone wrong during the general election and how they needed to get back to positive campaigning. The focus was very much about core values and rebuilding the party on those values and principles, with a realisation that the Liberal Democrats need to remind people what they really stand for and give people a reason to vote for them. It was a grown up debate about principles and values, about issues that really matter and thought provoking on what Liberalism is and who it appeals to.

Tim Farron spoke eloquently about the housing crisis as one of the biggest issues we are facing at the moment. He spoke about wanting to make a difference to people and doing what’s right for the powerless. Norman Lamb referred to the importance of the liberal principle of community politics and reminded us of the need for ideas, inspiration and vision. They both saw the Lib Dems as a radical, progressive party that needed to operate effectively beyond and outside the Westminster bubble.

Despite their obvious agreement over many issues and general approach, the two leadership contenders couldn’t be more different. Tim comes across as a charismatic, opinionated, confident and someone who will undoubtedly take bold positions on key issues. Whilst, Norman, is quieter spoken, more deliberate and considered in his approach, providing an air of wisdom and experience as well as a long standing record of delivery on Liberal values. I was impressed with both for different reasons and they would seem in my view to make an excellent double act at the head of the party! As the members vote draws to a close over the next week or so it will be interesting to see who wins this contest and what direction they take the party.

For me the debate and discussion was interesting because it is exactly what I had been hoping to see in the Labour leadership contest, a grown up political debate where the issues that matter are addressed in a thoughtful and considered manner. But perhaps more important than this is the need for the labour party to go back to basic principles and remember why it was set up and where its core values are. Sadly, so far, I have seen little evidence of this kind of self awareness in the party, with little serious reflection on what so obviously wrong for Labour during the election. The constant suggestion that it’s because Miliband was too left wing so the party needs to move to the right, reflecting conservative policy and values, is deeply worrying and depressing.

For me the Labour Party has always been about challenging inequality and poverty, representing and standing up for those that are powerless, and providing and supporting the services we need in a civilised society so everyone benefits from them. Somewhere along the line the party seems to have forgotten some of these values and is playing a reactive role, firefighting whatever the latest Tory policies are with little to offer in exchange. That’s why the Labour Party need to have a proper debate about what the party stands for, what its core values are and what that means for the future leadership of the party. Without that debate, how do we judge leadership contenders? How do we know how the party will move forward? Without that debate, people like me will continue to remain outside the party, looking for a way forward politically and for a party that reflects our core values – it used to be Labour, but isn’t any more!

Labour is not a ‘project’


poster 3A post by Lilia Giugni from November last year, on the New Labour ‘project’ and how it profoundly changed the Labour Party is worth looking at again. Particularly now as the Party begins the process of working out what to do next and how to win the next election.

Whilst many were indeed carried away by the rhetoric and spin of the New Labour Project in the beginning, in more recent years there has been a real backlash in response to the reality of what it actually meant and what it has done to the Party. It has left the Party in turmoil, not quite knowing which direction to take and who their core voters are. It’s left a Party devoid of values or ‘soul’.

“In 2010 and in 2015, Gordon and then Ed allowed themselves to be portrayed as moving backwards from the aspiration and inclusion that are the heart of any successful progressive political project,” (David Miliband, 11-5-15).

According to David Miliband (in that TV interview), and Peter Mandelson, we lost because we ditched New Labour and now is the time to return to their political project! I can’t tell you how much I detest this notion of labour as a political project, please can we move away from this?

This piece by Zoe Williams pretty much hits the nail on the head – Labour’s leader is not the problem. The Party’s missing soul is. Those at the core of the Labour Party need to stop seeing it as one big ‘project’ and start thinking about values, principles and its wider membership. They need to reflect on what went wrong, but determine to change things by engaging and involving the membership. The Party needs to take its time and consider what it stands for and what its core values really are before it can choose the right leader. I agree with Zoe, it’s not about who the leader is, it’s about what the Party believes in and stands for.

At the moment I would be hard pushed to really answer that point. I used to know what Labour meant, I used to be a member. I stood for election to my local council and served for 8 years as a labour party councillor at a time before and during New Labour. I left because of my disillusionment with the New Labour Project, and the notion that something that I felt was about values and belief had suddenly turned into a political project for a group of intellectuals and spin doctors. Labour did of course gain power during this time, and like others I was initially carried along on a tide of optimism and enthusiasm. Until, that is, I realised that actually the political landscape had shifted so far to the right during the previous administrations, that there was a mountain to climb to turn things around and sadly, New Labour never really seemed to have that as their agenda.They appeared content to just get re-elected and move ever further into the right of centre political ground where English politics has been for some time now.

I have listened to all the narrative about Ed Miliband being too left wing and how Labour lost this time because of the return to left wing politics. Well, really, I seem to have failed to notice just what was so left wing about much of the Labour manifesto. To me, Labour very much seemed to be trying to fight the Tories on their own ground, spouting the same kind of policies and underlying approach, just being a bit nicer about it. The Party has undoubtedly, in my view, lost its way. But now there is time for a fundamental rethink. There’s time to talk to Party members and time to re-evaluate core principles, values and beliefs and once more become a party that has a soul that is connected with its members and beliefs that matter. I just hope someone picks up that challenge before the leadership contest begins and falls into the same traps as before – it has to be about real people and what matters to them, not some political project run by people with little experience of the real world!

Making the Right Decisions – Stock Transfer in Bristol

Sea Mills There’s a debate that’s happening in Bristol, or at least should be happening, about whether or not the council should keep hold of some or all of its council house stock. I say should be happening because the debate has been neatly set up by the Homes Commission in its recent report published last month – I talked about this report in a recent blog. One of the ten ‘big ideas’ in that report was about making best use of council assets to deliver more affordable housing in the city, an aim supported by just about everyone. However, the difficult bit comes when you mention ‘stock transfer’. The notion of moving council homes out of council ownership has been resisted in Bristol every since the policy came about (mid-late 1980s). Indeed only around 3,000 of the initial 48,000 council stock has been transferred to other registered providers (housing associations) and Bristol remains one of the few big cities to have held onto its council stock, with some 28,000 homes still run and managed by the council (the rest has been lost to Right to Buy).

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Initial impressions of an election night to forget! 

My first impression has nothing to do with the results themselves and more to do with just how long we all had to wait to find out what those results were in Bristol – seriously, how can it take until 3.30am to verify votes when some other councils had declared all results, packed up and gone home by then? What is the sense in doing the count in the evening if it is going to take that long? Why not go back to Friday counts, when candidates, agents, media etc have had a chance to sleep? The whole process seemed to be just ever so slightly shambolic……. again. This needs sorting out before the general election next year and goodness knows how they’ll cope in 2016 when we have all council seats and the Mayor up for election at the same time!

I’d like to say that it was an exciting night of local election results, but actually it wasn’t. Sure there were a few surprises, but overall it was rather dull and mostly predictable and I can’t quite believe that once more I found myself awake and listening to it all for most of the night. Clearly after 8 years of being a local councillor, and many more of campaigning, you can never quite shake off an interest in local politics. I’ll no doubt be awake listening on Sunday night as the Euro results come through as well. It seems most pundits were predicting the Liberal Democrats would lose seats and Labour would gain them, with some quieter mumblings about the Greens maybe picking up one or two and let’s not forget UKIP, they just might pinch a couple. So perhaps the biggest surprise was that the Conservative share of the vote held up reasonably well (only down 4%) and the Labour share didn’t increase as much as people thought (up 2%). Not surprising, however, was the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote (down 17%) or the rise of UKIP (up 11%) and the Greens (up 8%) – entirely predictable. For more statistics on what happened, who got elected where, and what the turnout was see the Council website.

The overall impression from these results is a bit depressing really. Of course it’s difficult to predict patterns for future local or even a general election, as locals combined with Euro elections tend to bring out the ‘anti’ vote, so the trends may be more pronounced than they might be next year. They do on the surface at least seem to show that Labour is just not appealing to traditional Labour voters on the outer estates of Bristol, or they just didn’t get their vote out, whereas UKIP are appealing to people across the city particularly in the more traditional Labour heartlands and they seemed to be able to mobilise their vote – they came second in Whitchurch Park, Kingsweston, Avonmouth, Southmead, Brislington East & West – and of course they won their first Bristol Council seat in Hengrove. A further trend would seem to be that disillusioned Liberal Democrat voters are turning to the Green Party rather than Labour, with an increase in the Green vote and two new seats secured in Bristol West – this may also have been an option taken by some Labour voters across the city.

I listened to a lot of the coverage throughout the night on Radio 5 and Radio Bristol and what struck me most was the gradual dawning realisation that we might just have to take UKIP seriously as a party that appeals to the British public – there’s something about Farage and the messages he spins that appeals to people. Yes he might be playing on people’s fears, but it’s also true that to many he comes across as a normal bloke down the pub talking about all the stuff that people are concerned about. Yet somehow this isn’t true of Labour or the Lib Dems – they seem to have lost their way and been out manoeuvred by Farage and UKIP. To my mind Labour are too focused on trying to match the Tories on their policies and have lost sight of what a Labour Party should be about and the Lib Dems, I’m afraid, have just lost their way in a Coalition government dominated by Tory policy. Maybe eventually we’ll get used to the idea of Coalition rather than majority rule, and realise that compromise is essential in coalition politics until then the Liberal Democrats are in trouble, as is any other Party that enters into a Westminster Coalition as a minority. It’s just not something we are used to in this country, but I have a feeling we might well be getting a lot more practice at it. Depressing really! Also depressing is what this means for the Euro elections – I think the predicted upsurge of UKIP is obvious and maybe the only positive will be a few more Green MEPs?

A couple of mentions in relation to individuals in Bristol – I was surprised that the Liberal Democrats lost Brislington West but hung on to Whitchurch Park, keeping their Leader Tim Kent but losing a longstanding councillor in Peter Main, who did such a superb job as Lord Mayor. I was pleased to see the Greens do well, picking up a couple of extra seats and holding onto another, this hopefully bodes well for the European Election results, where the Greens may well just pick up that 6th seat in the SW. And finally, to Sam Mongon who won Windmill Hill from the Lib Dems, turning over a massive majority to win by 7 votes, impressive result.

However, the question I am left with is, does it really matter, other than to the individuals elected or not elected, what difference will this actually make now Bristol has an independent elected mayor, who has responsibility for taking all the decisions anyway? It certainly puts a different perspective on election day for me, as an outsider looking in, the excitement has gone and the meaning attached to results reduced. Perhaps one of the key question now is whether or not the political parties should participate in George’s cabinet and to what end? Maybe for another year it is worth it, to try and at least push party agendas, but in the run up to the 2016 full council and Mayoral elections, how does that work and what would be the benefit of being too closely associated with the decisions being taken by the Mayor? There’s also a big decision about scrutiny of the Mayor and how ineffective this seems to be at the moment – this is perhaps something that Labour and others need to get to grips with and provide more effective and consistent challenge to decision processes? Whilst I’ll watch with interest over the next week or so to see who helps George to form a cabinet and what positions different individuals take up, the gloss and excitement of local elections in Bristol has all but disappeared – until 2016 that is, when the people of the city get a chance to vote for who will be the next Mayor!

Britain – A Land of Opportunity or Despair?

As the Tory Party conference draws to a close and Party conference season ends, what will we remember about any of them in a few weeks time? Did we get memorable announcements or just the same old politics? Could we have predicted much of it? I’m left feeling slightly confused and irritated – the middle ground of politics is well and truly crowded, with all 3 main parties vying for control, trying to appeal to everyone and only minimal differences showing between them.

I was looking for Labour to be more socialist, the Tories to show their true colours and the Liberals to break away from the constraints of coalition politics and show us what they are made of. And to be fair we got some of that, Labour showed they are the only party with an interest in reducing inequalities and providing opportunity for all, but didn’t go far enough on some of the issues that really matter, such as the railways, environmental policy and the Living Wage. The Liberal Democrats were a bit of a let down, with little substance to show us what difference they would make if they were in government for longer (except ban carrier bags!). And as for the Tories, well I guess they did actually show what they are about – penalising people who are out of work and characterising them as lazy scroungers, supporting big business and sticking to Plan A on austerity because it is clearly working!

The Prime Minister talked about Britain as a Land of Opportunity but is that what we really have under the Coalition Government and is it what we would get with Labour in Government? I have my doubts, there are policies across all 3 main parties and those put forward by the Green Party that would get my support but sadly overall no single party goes far enough.

No one made real commitments to adopt a minimum wage that is a Living Wage – why is that? How are people expected to live on a minimum wage that doesn’t cover living costs?How do we achieve a decent standard of living for all if the basic concept of paying people properly for the work they do cannot be implemented and doesn’t have the backing of all the main parties?

I’m no clearer now on how we are going to tackle energy policy to ensure we have both environmentally sustainable and secure energy supply for years to come. There were Tory commitments to fracking and nuclear power, Labour promises on energy price freezes and some talk of renewables, but overall, no convincing energy policy from any of them.

Housing was a key area of policy discussion, which in itself was pleasing, but again not entirely convincing. Promises were made about building more homes and helping people to buy, but I didn’t come away with the view that politicians have actually really understood why we have a housing crisis and what is needed to solve it. The discussions were often single focused, which really doesn’t help. You can’t solve the housing problem by just talking about housing. You have to consider our Industrial Strategy, our business focus, regeneration, regional policy, infrastructure decisions etc. All will contribute to solving the problem that we are not building enough homes in the right place at the right price. The constant focus on either the development industry or the planning system is not the answer – yes these are part of the problem, but so is our regional policy and industrial strategy, so are Government decisions around infrastructure spend. Until all these matters, and more, are brought together in a proper housing strategy the crisis will only get worse.

A land of opportunity or just muddling through? 


Labour in a race to the top?

Much of the criticism of the Labour Party over the last couple of years in opposition has been centred on their lack of policy and lack of clarity on what would they do differently?

What Ed Miliband delivered at Labour Party Conference was policy, policy, policy. We had clear announcements on a a range of issues including a commitment to freeze energy price for the first 18 months of a Labour government, a programme to build 200,000 houses a year by 2020, a business rate reduction for small business, a commitment to increase the minimum wage and the bedroom tax to be repealed. The focus was very much centred around the cost of living and how Labour will make a difference with the often repeated phrase – Britain can do better than this!

Ed was unashamedly populist with his announcements but also hit some of those socialist buttons that many in the Party were calling for. A great quote from George Eaton in the New Statesman – “If Miliband is a socialist, then so are most of the electorate” summing up his view on the immediate reaction to the Labour leader’s conference speech.

However, many will not be convinced by the rhetoric, there will still be questions from within the Party about renationalising the railways, bringing energy companies back into public ownership and the introduction of a Living Wage. Others will question the level of commitment to the environment and whether or not Labour policy goes far enough – what is their view on fracking, why continue to support nuclear power, how will they create green jobs, what would they do differently?

A race to the bottom is how Ed Miliband termed the Coalition Government’s record but did he do enough to convince people that Labour can do better and would be engaged in a race to the top?

Fickle, Floundering or Functional?

As the Liberal Democrat conference comes to an end are we any clearer about what they stand for and what difference they have made, and will make, to the Coalition Government? The Conference literature says “stronger economy, fairer society” but what does that mean in reality?

The first announcements were populist but marginal – we got proposals for a ban on free carrier bags and a commitment to make school uniforms cheaper – hardly the top of most people’s list of priorities. But as the conference got going, the debate warmed up and began to address the big issues. The key debate was about the economy, with left leaning Lib Dems proposing a change to economic policy and the Leadership sticking to the Tory Plan A, fiscal austerity. Whilst there was some significant dissent the motion to continue with the coalition’s deficit reduction plan was carried with a comfortable majority, enabling Nick Clegg to breathe a big sigh of relief. Continue reading

People before Politics?

What can we expect from Party Conference Season?

The next round of Party Conferences are almost upon us and this time the pressure is on as all the main parties are in the process of defining their manifesto policies for the 2015 General Election.  The autumn conferences are a great opportunity to share some of these policies more publicly, as well as get feedback and party buy-in to them.

But what will be the focus of each of the Parties? Continue reading