Why yesterday’s letter to the Guardian was a mistake

25th March, 2014 9:19 am

Well this is a tricky one. Some of my best friends in politics – including the editor of this blog – are amongst the signatories of the letter in yesterday’s Guardian, and I really don’t think much of it.

The intention is a good one, which is to stiffen Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas’ manifesto-writing resolve and nudge them towards a bolder policy approach.

I agree. We need to be bold in order to inspire people who didn’t turn out in 2010 to vote this time, and to keep radical ex-Lib Dem voters on side. The necessity of this was set out in detail by one of the signatories, Marcus Roberts, in his excellent pamphlet on the 40% strategy Labour needs. And we need bold policies not just to win but so we have a government that carries on inspiring people and delivering real change for them and deserves to be re-elected.

My issues with the letter are as follows:

First, the timing is crass and unhelpful. It would have been better to hold off until after the initial polling reaction to the budget had stabilised. As it is, the publication of such a letter the day after our lead drops to 1%, with accompanying front page coverage, makes it look like Labour is panicking and criticising the Leader. Given the Ed supporters among the writers, I know this was not the intention, but they should have waited until the polls had stopped jumping around.

Second, the letter is appallingly written. It reads like it was written by a committee of 19 people using track changes, from a draft produced in the style and language of Neal Lawson. Oh wait … it was. I really struggled to understand some of the wonk speak and abstract concepts. I have never met a voter who uses or would understand phrases like “the progressive community”, “holistic and long-term approach to governance”, “Co-production”, “capacity and platforms “, “fundamentally disrupt power relations and reframe the debate to make a good society “. Ed himself is sometimes guilty of using language that is too abstract and theoretical. People seeking to advise him could help by using something approximating to English as plainly spoken by ordinary voters.

Guardian_240314 1,056×1,662 pixels 2014-03-25 09-17-25 2014-03-25 09-17-28

Third, I am not happy that the letter attempts to rehabilitate Neal Lawson and his faction Compass as credible voices in Labour’s internal debates by sticking him at the top of the list of signatories (indicating Compass’ role in pulling the whole thing together).

Neal is a lovely guy who was very kind to me when I was a student activist in his previous organisation, the LCC (Labour Co-ordinating Committee).  I would be delighted if he earned his way back to credibility, but he needs to do two things first. First, Neal and Compass need to publicly apologise for their dreadful political error in promoting tactical voting for, and the will-o’-the-wisp of coalition with, the Lib Dems in the run up to the 2010 General Election. The Lib Dems turned out to be the closet Tories that wiser and blunter people in Labour always knew them to be, and Neal helped them get tactical votes that they then betrayed by going into the current coalition. Forgiveness for that requires contrition.

And Compass needs to make its mind up where it stands in relation to Labour. First it was a soft left faction in the Labour Party. Then it expanded its membership and remit to Greens and Lib Dems. Now it is trying to interfere in Labour internal politics again. If it wants to be part of Labour’s debates it can’t also be a Trojan horse into the Labour Party for our political enemies.

Fourth, the policy area that the letter focuses on is divisive and is somewhere on a spectrum between “highly technical so doesn’t resonate” and “profoundly unpopular” with voters.

The letter bangs on at length about getting ordinary people involved in running public services. Now there are some people who do want to help design their own social care package or run a Tenant Management Organisation. But as someone rightly noted on Twitter yesterday, “Folk just want things to work, they don’t want to actually run them”. Most people have to work long hours to make ends meet, they then often have caring responsibilities. The idea they are all chaffing at the bit to sit on committees running their local services is ludicrous. That’s what they elect councillors to do, and they can get rid of us if we don’t do it well.

The co-production agenda is fraught with political risk and could lead Ed into a stand-up fight with both the public sector unions (when public sector workers are a key group we have gained support in from the Lib Dems) and the local councillors who are the backbone of Labour’s election campaigning (it’s an agenda for taking away the little power we have). It is also fraught with the risk of “sectional capture” – wonk speak for pushy and articulate middle class people (the type who write letters to the Guardian) taking over local services and running them in their own narrow interests not those of more socially-excluded service users.

I know it is desperately old-fashioned but I want the Labour Party to capture political control of the machinery of government and use it to improve people’s lives, not tell people they need to build the “good society” (to use the letter’s annoying phrase) themselves.

I can, off the top of my head, think of a number of bold and potentially popular policies I’d like to see in the manifesto, none of which were really addressed in the letter:

  • A major programme of house-building to provide new homes for social rent and affordable sale. This would generate construction jobs, and tackle the biggest component in the cost of living crisis facing both low and middle wage earners, housing costs.
  • A national Living Wage and further changes to the tax system to ensure people who work are not in poverty and the state is not having to use welfare to subsidise poverty pay.
  • A proper strategy for growth in manufacturing industry so that the economic recovery is sustainable and based on exports. This needs to be synched with regional growth policies and to encompass traditional areas of strength like automotive, aerospace and pharmaceuticals, with new hi-tech and green industries as well. Given what’s just happened in Crimea means we need to beef up our armed forces, a bit of defence procurement Keynesianism wouldn’t go amiss either.
  • Bringing the railways back into public ownership as each franchise comes to an end.
  • Some serious investment in childcare so that parents can afford to work, and in higher education so that we have the skills and R&D base to be a competitive global economy. Both these areas of investment would pay for themselves by driving growth.

Let’s be bold but let’s bin the wonk speak and let’s not waste another period in government on a divisive debate about public service reform like we did in 2001.

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