If Julia Hartley-Brewer really wanted to save democracy, she’d back electoral reform

Today Julia Hartley-Brewer has an article on Capx urging non-aligned voters who care about their country to join Labour as a supporter in order to back “Anyone But Corbyn” – the so-called ABC campaign.

To be honest I’d always Not a Tory - officialthought Hartley-Brewer was a signed-up Tory. She frequently writes for the Telegraph, used to broadcast on LBC, and Capx is one of the trendiest new right-wing blogger hang-outs going, often populated by other strongly Conservative commentators such as Iain Martin and Daniel Hannan. To be fair to her, she claims in the article never to have been a member of a political party, so let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.

The problem with her article is that it fails on its own terms. Her argument is that a government should be scared of the alternative; that without a functioning opposition, we risk losing democracy itself. She claims to object to “power with no end in sight”.

If that’s the case, why doesn’t she try pointing out that the “majority” government we have was elected on just 36.9% of the vote? If the seats in the Commons reflected anything like the reality of how ballots were cast, we would not be in a position where the choice of opposition leader would determine the result of the next general election (as she seems to believe) – because we wouldn’t have a system where the winner takes all.

The temptation is to think that Hartley-Brewer, far from cherishing democracy and wanting to protect and extend it, is more interested in shutting down legitimate debate by preventing the rise of a genuinely left-wing Labour leader. If that’s the case, very well, but don’t use the figleaf of a commitment to democracy to cover it up – say so.

Labour’s craven, undemocratic ineptitude leaves vacant ground for a principled government-in-waiting

I have never been attracted to the Labour Party because all I have ever known of it has been a consistent attempt to match the Conservatives for authoritarianism. Latterly that has also developed into an attempt to match the Conservatives for “economic competence”, which actually appears to be a euphemism for regressive policies designed to force people off “welfare”, even if it pushes them into penury.

Today Harriet Harman has confirmed the next phase of this process, by agreeing that Labour, at least under her interim leadership, will not seek to oppose one of the most offensive policies in the Budget: the limitation of child tax credits to the first two children. This is effectively social engineering, attempting to force families who rely on social security payments to change their family planning arrangements – a kind of two-child policy, albeit one that is much softer than its equivalent in China. Labour are also supporting the reduction of the household benefit cap to £20,000 a year outside London.

Harman’s reasoning for this is insidious and reveals the muddled thinking at the top of Labour. She’s argued that her party cannot do “blanket opposition” because it lost the election. This is terrifying and undemocratic, implying that whoever wins the election has been given a blanket mandate. As Nelson Jones, who blogs at Heresy Corner, put it:

As bad as this is her other argument, though, which is based on the comments of people who were jealous of the state support given to other people. Look at her views here:

“When I was going around the country on the pink (election) bus, talking specifically to women, so often they would say we’ve got one child, we’d really love to have another but we just can’t afford it, what with our homes not big enough and the childcare is too expensive,” she said.

“They’re working hard and they feel it’s unfair on other people that they can have bigger families that they would love to have if they were in the position to do that. We have to listen to that.”

This is just total capitulation to the Tories’ divide-and-rule tactics. The answer to voters with views like that is certainly to listen, but it is also to argue back; to say that the reason these people have state support is because the way our economy is structured means that they are working, but do not earn enough to live without that top up from the state. What we need to do is change the way people are employed and paid, not set different groups against each other. That is difficult and requires careful thought, but you can’t just give up.

Predictably, Labour leadership candidates are lining up to oppose Harman’s views – so far I think Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn have come out against her remarks. For now, though, Harman is vacating the reasonable centre ground of British politics, leaving space open for a party that is able to offer the right balance between work and a proper safety net.

Andy Burnham and the Myth of Competence

No, that’s not the title of a new Harry Potter knock-off – although Andy Burnham has the makings of a put-upon junior wizard with numerous chips on his narrow shoulders. Rather, it’s a response to Burnham’s latest contribution to the moribund Labour leadership battle, replicated below for your viewing pleasure:

Now, there are a number of problems with this. Burnham is clearly making a pointed comment about the attempts of other candidates – particularly Liz Kendall, who he probably sees as his main rival – to move Labour back to a position which could be loosely described as “Blairite”.

As an aside, I personally think that with Kendall leading Labour and Tim Farron leading the Lib Dems, the latter party would have vast acres of space to be a real, vote-winning opposition. Tony Blair’s success is often considered solely due to his brilliance as a winner of elections. But this is a hopelessly simplistic view of history, and one that ignores the fact that a donkey in a red rosette – not a proverbial donkey, a literal donkey – could have won in 1997 given the mess that the Conservatives were then in. So it shouldn’t be taken as axiomatic that moving Labour to the centre and to the authoritarian makes the party more electable.

I digress. Burnham, of course, has also rejected that analysis, although in a number of important ways he has indicated that he does want to move the party to what might be considered more Blair-like positions – if only in their tactical ingenuity rather than in their substance. On immigration and Europe, for example, he is tacking close to the Tories, which I suspect Blair might consider good politics if not good policy.

But the line he is trying to hammer in this tweet is silly. And it’s silly because it actually does exactly the thing he claims to want to avoid. The first statement criticises Kendall for “copying the Tories”. But the second line suggests that the measure of a political party’s success is to be “better” than the Tories.

Without further explication, this is a troubling idea – that the viability or the electoral success of a political party is based purely on competence. I have to say that competence is one of the attributes I look for last in a politician. I tend to think that integrity, compassion and a coherent set of beliefs are far more important. With those attributes in place, I would feel relatively relaxed about entrusting the delivery and implementation of policies based upon them to the apparatus of the state.

The myth of competence, though, has infected the whole of our political culture. The irony of Burnham’s statement is that it is a Tory invention – that politics is primarily about management. The genius of it is that by forcing others to fight on the basis of competence, the Tories ensure that everyone is clustered on their natural territory at all times. I’m not talking about political left and right here; it’s far more about semantics and semiotics than anything else.

I haven’t got time to go further into why this is such a damaging concept this evening – perhaps another time – but Andy Burnham really should give some more thought to the matter. His attempt to paint his rivals as soft Tories would be more successful if he didn’t back himself into the same corner in the process.

A Few Reminders about Labour and NHS Spending

Today the Tories have made my previous blog post on the NHS slightly obsolete, by officially pledging to find the extra £8 billion per year the NHS says is required to safeguard the service by 2020. Obviously there are some problems with the practicalities of that pledge. You can read about those anywhere you like: here, for example.

It’s clear to me that Labour should really have nothing to say on this though. There are several reasons for that:

1. Labour still hasn’t taken responsibility for the party’s contribution to the state of the UK’s economy in 2010. That doesn’t mean I buy into the narrative the Tories (and the Lib Dems to an extent) have painted, that says “forget the enormous global financial crisis- it was all Gordon Brown’s fault”. But it is true to say that the Labour government was running deficits before the crash, and stimulating unsustainable levels of consumer debt (particularly around the property market), and it’s also true to say they were warned – many times – by people who foresaw what was to come. Here’s an example, from 2003:

On the housing market, is not the brutal truth that with investment, exports and manufacturing output stagnating or falling, the growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level?

In case you’re wondering who asked that – it was Vince Cable, in the House of Commons, asking the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

2. Labour planned not to protect NHS funding in 2010. This is a key point, and something that is seemingly entirely forgotten. The Lib Dems took the same view, in fact; it was only the Tories that committed to real-terms increases in NHS funding – something that has been delivered.

It is therefore entirely disingenuous and wrong of Labour to scaremonger about the level of funding the NHS is likely to receive under a Tory-led government. To scaremonger, for example, by putting up posters like the one below. Bear in mind that this is the party that has been so keen to take the moral high ground over “negative campaigning”. The hypocrisy is staggering.

3. Labour still hasn’t committed to giving the NHS the funding it needs to survive. Under Labour’s plans the NHS would get only an extra £2.5 billion a year, well short of what the NHS itself says it needs. Today they are decrying the Tories’ pledge as “fantasy funding”. Yet only a couple of weeks ago, their main political goal was to get the Prime Minister to rule out various tax increases – something that rather blew up in Ed Miliband’s face at the final PMQs of the Parliament, and meant Ed Balls had to rule out NI increases similarly hastily.

If you want to talk about fantasy funding, maybe don’t waste time on tactical manoeuvres that will narrow down the options available to any government to raise revenue – revenue that needs to be put into vital public services such as the NHS.

Labour To Ban Non-Exploitative Zero-Hours Contracts

Yes, that headline is correct. The BBC reports:

Ed Miliband said a future Labour government would guarantee zero-hours workers the right to a formal contract after 12 weeks of regular work, a move which he said would reduce economic insecurity but which was criticised by employers.

<snip>

The proposal, which has been welcomed by the unions, would see an end to more than 90% of existing zero-hours contracts, Labour said.

Let’s walk through this step by step.

  1. Zero-hours contracts are something generally used by businesses that need flexible staffing in order to deal with demand which can peak and trough quite radically. Think, for instance, of restaurants or cinemas.
  2. When people talk about “exploitative zero-hours contracts”, they are generally referring to the fact that workers on such contracts have very little certainty over when they will be working. They’re powerless, at the beck and call of their employer.
  3. The reality about zero-hours contracts is far from conclusive. For one thing, there are no clear statistics on the number of people who are on them, according to the ONS.
  4. However, that’s a little by the by. If what Labour is looking for is increased certainty for workers, then by all means, this is an area to consider making policy in.
  5. You would think, if exploitation is centred on uncertainty, that the policy response would be to limit that. In this case, the best way of doing so would appear to be to require employers to set a minimum number of guaranteed, regular hours on each contract. The downside of this is likely to be less opportunities for prospective employees – but it would improve conditions for existing employees (at least, the ones that are kept on) by giving them guaranteed and regular hours.
  6. As it turns out, Labour has decided to do exactly the opposite by proposing to ban only those zero-hours contracts where employees have been working guaranteed and regular hours. In other words, by the commonly used definition, they intend to ban non-exploitative zero-hours contracts.
  7. The meaning of this is that only exploitative zero-hours contracts will remain legal.

This is another example of a party making policy based on a set of assumptions that are at best hazy and, at worst, lazy. It may well be that there is a problem with some types of zero-hours contracts. It was commonly agreed, for example, that forcing employees to sign such contracts exclusively (i.e. barring themselves from working anywhere else) was wrong. It has subsequently been banned by the coalition government.

However, Labour’s proposal simply generates heat rather than light, and actually runs the risk of employers putting more, rather than fewer, people on such contracts. Why? Because if you’re an employer, and you know you’ll have to give someone a regular contract if they work regular hours, you might just decide to employ more people and give them sporadic work to do. Some jobs can’t be done that way – sure – but a lot can. And we should bear in mind that zero-hours contracts only represent around 2% of the overall workforce anyway.

All in all, for a policy that has dominated Labour’s third day of the election campaign, this is a bit of a dog. I’m tempted to suggest they spent zero hours – or at least very few – thinking it through.

A Further Thought on #LabourMugs

Over the weekend, there was discussion of a certain product being offered on the Labour Party website. Specifically, it was a mug in glorious Fabian red, for the princely sum of £5, bearing the words of Labour’s fourth most important policy (if we are to assume that their pledge card is ranked in order of priority): “Controls on Immigration”.

Labour’s now infamous mug

Various people, including me, commented on the unpleasantness of the mug itself. This then led of course to further discussion of the pledge, and the fact that it is a marker for quite how far the Labour Party is prepared to go in abandoning any pretence of liberalism, or, indeed, “solidarity” that extends beyond the UK’s borders. A final irony is that the other four pledges Labour are making are heavily reliant on continuing high levels of migration, so that the UK can get the workers it needs. After all, as we know, migrants (especially those from the EU) have a far more positive impact on the UK’s fiscal state than UK-born citizens.

Of course, there has been a backlash to the criticism, although it’s been relatively muted. Ed Balls has been out and about defending the policy (and the mug) today, although other senior members of the Labour Shadow Cabinet have indicated their displeasure at the merchandise.

I’ve noticed that some of the backlash has been based on the same lie as the policy itself. The very phrase “controls on immigration”, of course, implies that at the moment we don’t have any. This has been reflected in the response by some people to the Twitterati’s anger: Hugo Rifkind, for example, asking Julian Huppert whether the Lib Dem position was “that there should be no controls on immigration”. I’ve seen other people asking broadly the same question; does opposing “controls on immigration” mean supporting “open borders”?

Quite obviously, this isn’t the case. The Lib Dems are of course the only major party in the UK as a whole to talk positively about immigration on a regular basis. But that doesn’t mean that the party supports open borders. For example, in government, we have been attempting to reintroduce exit checks despite the Home Office’s incompetence and intransigence.

But the wider point is more important still. What Labour are doing is simply capitulation. They have thrown in the towel and gone along with the pervasive lie that claims the UK is open to the elements and all sorts of nefarious types have come in to ruin things. This is the lie perpetrated most effectively by UKIP, and before them, the BNP.

We are now living in a country where the three parties polling highest are willing to blame our problems on immigrants. And it’s so uncontroversial that they can sell cheap tat telling you so. It’s a suggestion beloved of such people that we haven’t had a debate about immigration, but the truth is they don’t want one. Because everything’s simpler when you can blame it on someone else.