Where do we go from here?

16th June 2017

 -By Steven Duckworth-

Where do we go from here?

A week after the people spoke, politics appears to be in an unholy mess, or so we are led to believe. While the nature of the general election campaigns and the level of political debate were unremittingly awful, the end result need not be. A hung parliament with a minority Conservative government will not please activists of either main party, but it could be a platform for a period of sensible and pragmatic government. For this to happen, all parties will need to play a part while keeping one eye on how they best prepare for the next election. What will not be in doubt it that two issues: Brexit and ‘austerity’ will loom large.

One indisputable point to be taken from the 2017 general election is that the Conservatives ran a terrible campaign. Once Theresa May had been locked into the ‘strong and stable’ mode of campaigning, she was completely unable to change tack and style as the election developed. Once her plans for adult social care had been dubbed – slightly unfairly – as a ‘dementia tax’, she started losing ground and the decision to signal a future parliamentary vote on fox hunting is still inexplicable.

But beyond style and (some) substance it became clear that some voters wanted to punish the Conservatives over the decision to leave the European Union and for seven years of unrelenting deficit reduction. Previous electorates had taken David Cameron and George Osborne at their word; that the UK needed a short, sharp fiscal corrective, but this time they signalled enough was enough. Also the Conservative-supporting press felt that a few lurid – though essentially accurate – headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s past would damage the Labour leader. They didn’t; either because people had already factored it into their view of Corbyn, or they simply saw the reports as desperate smears.

There is one thing that will buoy the Conservatives and it is that they are now, or should be, fully aware of what faces them and the reasons for failing to win a majority. In response to the dangers facing them the Chancellor Philip Hammond could signal a significant easing-off on deficit reduction and pave the way for both a public sector pay rise and funding for early years and secondary education. Theresa May could also state that she intends to soften her Brexit stance by staying in the European Customs Union. Both would be anathema to the right of her party, but it may pay dividends in the run-up to the next election.

It’s possible that such decisions may add life to the barely breathing frame of UKIP, though the Conservative managers may conclude that could hurt Labour just as much as their own party. As it is, Theresa May will probably survive a fair way into a five year term and then be replaced by a warmer and more engaging leader. Write off the Tories at your peril.

Labour has a different if equally interesting set of issues to deal with. Jeremy Corbyn had a fantastic election campaign that surprised a lot of people, perhaps himself included. His warmth and engagement with people was the perfect counter to his opponent’s cold aloofness. However, the Labour leader has a decision to make: whether to embrace a more conciliatory relationship with his parliamentary party or to stick with the base support that has served him well. Corbyn should probably stick with left wing populism for the first phase of opposition until the fallout from the election is fully understood and the options become apparent. Corbyn is a product of the left, but he is not as doctrinal as, for instance, his shadow chancellor. Over a period of time he will need to decide which wing of the party can better serve Labour’s electoral chances. Two issues could also threaten Labour in the next parliamentary term. While the party managed to ‘look both ways’ over Brexit and get away with it, repeating the trick again may prove more problematic.

Labour’s other major problem is its more general policy platform which is left wing (mainly in the style of Nordic social democracy) but not especially progressive. Offering free degrees to the children of middle income earners while you are not helping the poorest by using the tax and benefits system might have passed voters by this time. But as with Brexit, Labour may not be so fortunate a second time. One certain thing is that Labour has momentum (if you’ll excuse the pun) and should allow themselves a celebration at their loss, but not for an extended period of time.

Both the party and its leader – neither of who have the benefit of being underdogs any more – will come under serious scrutiny. In such circumstances over-confidence could be very damaging.

One leader who didn’t see out the election fallout intact has been the Liberal Democrats’ Tim Farron. Never intended as the leader to fight an election, rather a transitional repair man, he fell on his sword over issues of faith, ostensibly. Practically his position was untenable. Poor leadership sat at the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ campaign; an increasingly two horse race meant that Farron quickly got sidelined. But his inability to even try and punch above his weight became obvious.

In contrast with Labour the party did have a broadly progressive policy agenda that sought to increase public spending and use fiscal levers to improve the position of some of the poorest in society. Unfortunately for them this may well have been viewed as too technocratic in the current climate of populism.

Brexit was also an issue that the Liberal Democrats tried to grapple with and would have got more support had the leader been able to project himself more successfully. Under a new leader (whoever she may be) the party could be able to sell their vision of a leaving the EU with minimal damage to the country’s economy and reputation. Indeed the Liberal Democrats could make a public offer to support the government on limited terms – no more coalitions – in order for securing a softer Brexit and a vote on any final deal. Such a deal would almost certainly be rejected by the government and anger Labour loyalists with memories of the ‘Con Dems’, but could well get the Liberal Democrats some wider recognition and respect from an electorate that has largely ignored the party.

So the upcoming parliament will be both intriguing and fraught. None of the main parties at the election really talked about the challenges that face the country going into the 2020s: such as how technological innovation will impact on the economy and society, how to reform benefits, the changing nature of work, the knowledge and skills agenda, the reform of (not just spending more on) public services and how our public institutions often get in the way of people rather than supporting them.

In fact both main parties appeared to have decided that it was time for one last hurrah for their previous greatest hits. If they try that again, the public may well decide that they are starting to rather like the idea of hung parliaments.

By Steven Duckworth

@FoxHedgehog


Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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Mind The Language Gap

15th March 2017

 -By Steven Duckworth-

Mind the Language Gap

Last week, amid fallout from the budget speech and its political consequences, Jeremy Hunt addressed a Reform conference in central London. At the event, the Secretary of State delivered a speech that was perceptive, engaging and strong on detail, which will be utterly unsurprising to those who know the man and his interest in improving healthcare in Britain generally and the NHS in England specifically. Hunt didn’t – “I bet he didn’t”, I hear you cry – focus on funding or NHS operational issues, apart from a commitment to the A & E performance target. He did, however, drill down specifically and with precision on the importance of all healthcare providers making patient safety their one overriding mission.

The Secretary of State used the examples of failure that had led to the tragedies seen at Mid Staffs, Southern and Morecambe Bay NHS Trusts and the pain this had caused to patients and their families. He made the compelling case, clinically, economically and morally for making the improvement in patient safety the NHS’s driving focus, using the examples of patient safety campaigners and leaders such as Julie Bailey and James Titcombe – among others – to make his point.

In short, Hunt talked about people.

In contrast to the Hunt speech was an interview the shadow education secretary Angela Rayner had given to the Today program a couple of days before. Rayner was on the program to respond to the much trailed leak that the chancellor was going to earmark £500m pounds for education spending in the budget. Apart from the fact that Rayner was at times aggressive and difficult it’s harsh to blame her much for this. John Humphrys’ interview style would drive most to distraction, although she should probably learn to deal with it.

The striking element of the interview was the language she used, describing increased education funding as “a vanity project” and “ideological dogma”. An absolutely awful way to respond to a rise in school spending. There are many sound arguments opposing selection in schools and some against the creation of Free Schools, but the shadow secretary could not get beyond her leftist based rhetoric to make these points.

In short, Rayner talked about politics.

It would be unfair to single out Rayner, partly because the interview format is more challenging than a prepared speech but also because she is only following the course set by her leader and followed by many of her front bench colleagues. In fact she is one of the better members of Labour’s senior team and given time to find her feet could turn into an effective politician. Her interview is an example of how Labour is developing a way of engagement that is becoming ever more closed and inward focused, throwing rhetorical red meat to its more extreme supporters while at the same time turning off most voters.

A cycle is now in motion where every poor opinion poll is met by an increased infusion of hard sloganeering and protest, which in turn leads to more public distrust. None of this is to say that the government are getting public policy right, they are most certainly not, but that Labour’s response to it is becoming staid and predictable and even confirmed Labour supporters are switching off.

So how does Labour break the cycle?

Quite simply, Labour must start talking to people about issues that matter to them, which in relation to public services usually revolves around ease of access and quality of service, in language that is accessible and, to be blunt, vaguely normal. Most voters are put off by talk of fight and struggle, just as they find it odd to see politicians on marches and protests – especially when they appear to be surrounded by Socialist Worker placards – and they become frustrated at an opposition that constantly decries government policy but doesn’t appear to want to offer alternatives beyond slogans and platitudes.

The share of the vote at recent by elections suggest that people are not listening to Labour any more and that the party is drifting down a political cul-de-sac. They seem also to have concluded that there is one party pushing “ideological dogma” and it isn’t the Conservatives.

By Steven Duckworth

@FoxHedgehog


Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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Why Tony Blair is right about Brexit and why Labour must ignore him

22nd February 2017

 -By Steven Duckworth-

Why Tony Blair is right about Brexit and why Labour must ignore him

I like to think of myself as fairly non-partisan on politics. Extremists aside, I believe most people get involved in politics because they generally want to improve society for all of its members.

Having said that, I am a supporter and member of the Labour Party, not because I’m a socialist but because I believe Labour is still the party that is best able to deliver and sustain a prosperous and fair society. It shouldn’t need saying that Labour needs to actually get into government before it can deliver anything, but in these febrile times for the party, it’s always a point worth making.

Bearing this in mind, it was with some pride and a great deal of sadness at Labour’s current plight that I watched Tony Blair’s Blooomberg/Open Britain speech last week.

Labour’s most successful leader riffed across many different, but connected, themes intelligently and effectively. His delivery was impeccable and he talked directly to the people his speech was aimed at, the 48% of the population who had voted to remain in the EU. Only a masochist would want to compare him with the Labour Party’s current leadership team, but compare I did and it left me in a state of despair.

In terms of detail, Blair was spot on too. I also believe that people believed that leaving the EU would help finance the NHS, cut down on all immigration and return sovereignty to Westminster. All of these assertions by the Leave campaign were demonstrably false and I do believe that Blair is right when he predicts that leaving the EU and the Single Market would have a highly negative impact on our prosperity and standing in the world. Blair also showed his political instincts and craft when he accused Theresa May of being the purveyor of “the mantle of patriotism abused”. Oh, how that would sound coming across the dispatch box on a Wednesday lunchtime.

So where does Mr Blair’s intervention leave us when we think about the politics of Brexit specifically? I tend to think it offers nothing much at all.

Theresa May has decided – for reasons of clarity and political expediency – that a hard Brexit is what she will pursue. Tim Farron has concluded the opposite, but for much the same reasons. The SNP are similar to Farron, but they think this all may well provide a tilt at another Scottish independence vote.

Which leaves the Labour party; of all the parties it needs to face both ways on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn had no realistic choice but to back the government over triggering Article 50. I think it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

Blair may want a politically realigned movement that energises and engages Remain voters – as a Remainer I’m glad someone is making the case – but Labour has to get on with the task of running a party at Westminster and fighting elections and that means trying to straddle the Brexit divide.

So is there a way forward for Labour on Brexit? Well, there are no easy choices; the party will anger and ostracise many supporters whichever way it decides to go on the issue. But there are opportunities. Labour needs to be positive and start to describe what sort of Brexit the government should be pursuing: red lines on the Customs Union, what a fair immigration policy would look like and pushing for a settlement for those EU nationals already resident in the UK would all start to frame a different take compared to the other parties.

This is the right thing to do in itself, but it also lends Labour authority when – and I think it will – the government begins to flounder on its Brexit negotiations. An opportunity for a second referendum might even arise and Labour should support it, but from a position of a party that has tried to implement the referendum result rather than obstinately opposing it.

Labour faces a real Hobson’s choice on Brexit and will have many a difficult moment in the months ahead. There are no easy lines for a party that elected a Eurosceptic leader ahead of a momentous EU referendum. A different party under a different leader might well have been able to join a broad-based movement to oppose Brexit, but Labour’s tragedy is that it is in no position to take up Tony Blair’s rallying cry.

Massive mistakes over the past few years, particularly the last two, have meant that if it is to survive – and that is already in the balance – Labour will have to slowly and tentatively build its way out of the pit it finds itself in. There is no room for political quick fixes in that particular project.

By Steven Duckworth

@FoxHedgehog


Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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Through The Storm

5th January 2017

 -By Steven Duckworth-

Through The Storm

Over the Christmas period I had the pleasure of reading an interesting blog post by Peter Hurst.

In the post Peter takes his readers through the current political landscape and how the rise of populists politicians and movements is shaping it. He has a particular interest in how a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party might harness populists sentiment. I want to suggest here why I think this isn’t a moment for a left-wing populist movement in the UK and even if there were some ground for the left to build in this regard, Jeremy Corbyn is not the man to lead the project.

Peter begins his piece with a quote from the philosopher Julian Baggini who has suggested that populism is not defined by left and right. Up to a point Baggini is right. If you listened to the sentiments expressed by supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the recent US presidential election, you would have found many overlaps and similarities – challenging elites and the negative effects of globalisation being two obvious points of convergence.

Where I take issue with this analysis is that it fails to recognise that there are different hues of populism and these movements tend to wrap themselves around existing political ideologies, most obviously nationalism and socialism. So while the rhetoric is similar, the politics still fall out into right and left wing variants.

One major obstacle to the development of left wing populism is its narrowness. Yes, the left can legitimately make a case about the effects of globalisation on jobs and wages and it can make a case that it opposes the political and business elites, but so can right wing populists.

What characterises the current mood is a nativism that can spill over into xenophobia and racism, social conservatism and isolationism. These are not sentiments that the left can exploit and neither should it want to.

Even on the populist issues that the left can get some traction on, Jeremy Corbyn is singularly ill-equipped to exploit them. Populist leaders bask in the limelight, while the Labour leader skulks away from news cameras and disappears from the public’s gaze for days on end. Populists come across as spontaneous and authentic; Corbyn’s Virgin train stunt was the antithesis of both. Finally, while populists don’t need to be overwhelmingly popular, they do need to have some support. In the latest You Gov poll, Jeremy Corbyn has a net approval rating of minus 43%.

In his piece Peter highlights the problems that populism poses for the centre left. He is right to suggest that centrists are in a perilous position. Centrists value pragmatism and incremental improvements over big narratives and grand gestures; in the populist zeitgeist this is, with some justification, seen as trying to preserve the status quo. But that is the only place Labour can realistically position itself. It can’t outgun the right through a narrow expression of populist sentiment, so it must stay with its view (until recently held) that freedoms are important, whether trade, movement or societal. But it must also commit itself fully to security, whether it be in terms of defence or the economy. There is absolutely no doubt that some communities feel left behind in the complex and constantly changing world and Labour must have some plan to address their concerns. It isn’t enough to just redistribute money to support these areas, though it would help. It is essential that Labour recognises that the cultural impacts of globalisation have been significant on certain communities and starts to address some of these concerns. Labour has a solid history of communitarian politics. It must rediscover them now. It must also trust some of our liberal institutions, such as the separation of powers and the sovereignty of parliament and rather than trash them must realise that they are an effective bulwark against this current populist spasm. Because despite all the predictions and analysis, spasm it is. More people voted for Clinton than Trump, the Brexit vote was narrow and the centre will almost certainly see off the populist right in France and Germany this year.

This is more than a keep calm and carry on strategy. Left leaning centrists particularly need to start to rethink their offer to voters on issues such as the changing economy, developing technologies, health and education to name but a few. Nothing will happen overnight and Labour centrists need to recognise that Jeremy Corbyn is a symptom of the crisis facing British social democracy, not the cause. Moderate Labour supporters need to hold their nerve because one thing is clear – chasing the right down the rabbit hole of populism will not win votes for Labour but it will leave it severely hamstrung once the current storm has passed.

By Steven Duckworth

@FoxHedgehog

RELATED

By Stephen Bush on Labour’s populist turn:“Before the financial crisis, Labour’s ability to appeal to compassion, justice, wealth and security overcame its inability to address anger. Now, Labour is only able to appeal to two of voters’ appetites: for compassion and for justice”.


Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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A Moderate Proposal

24th September 2016

 -By Steven Duckworth-

A Moderate Proposal

Today Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as the Labour Party’s leader.

A challenge to his leadership by Owen Smith has allowed the incumbent leader to spend the summer re-energising his significant support base among the party’s membership in a series of rallies and events. Corbyn’s success in the contest has strengthened his position as head of the party and has temporarily weakened the hand of those moderates within the party who oppose his leadership.

It has become clear that the ‘remove Corbyn’ strategy is no strategy at all, rather just a tactic of aiming some poorly aimed jabs at Labour’s leader and those who support him with the outcome that his position has solidified. What is also clear is that while Jeremy Corbyn and his closest allies see the party as expendable in the pursuit of a more ideologically driven goal, most moderates do not want to see the party disappear.

This leads to a standoff where the stakes are uneven, offering a clear advantage to the leader. It is also apparent that any ongoing war of attrition allows Corbyn to dictate the terms of the debate as it becomes a battle over the man himself and at present this is a standoff he can quite easily win.

STRATEGY for Moderates

Centrists within the Labour Party need to lift their heads up and take a longer term view beyond the current maelstrom and to the future. The one goal of a moderate strategy should be to see the centre left forming a government once again. Of course this couldn’t be delivered by a Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn, but if a credible centre left prospectus was developed that appealed to both members and the public, then an opportunity to successfully challenge the current leader would present itself.

But, I repeat, the strategy should be to return the centre left back to power; deposing Corbyn should not be the sole aim itself, it would cloud thinking and lead to wasted energy. Of course the key to any winning strategy is in the operationalisation of it and in particular being clear about what will be required from the people signed up to delivering it.

So how can moderates get back on the front foot?

Labour’s parliamentary party (PLP) have set themselves out as the strongest block in opposition to the Corbyn leadership witnessed by a unanimous vote of no confidence (80%) following mass shadow cabinet resignation in the fallout from the EU referendum. There is no doubt that the PLP are to the right of the leadership, but it would be a mistake to view them as a homogeneous group in terms of policy etc.

Developing a common approach to doing business will be key in stabilising the parliamentary wing of the party. There is a phenomenal amount of talent on the Labour benches. The battles between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown held back the succession of strong Labour MPs, but the 2010 and 2015 intakes have refreshed the talent pool. It is key that the PLP operate as a tight group despite the lack of leadership from Jeremy Corbyn. It will be down to individuals to weigh up the pros and cons of serving in a shadow cabinet, but all MPs must get on with being active representatives willing to take on the government (Jess Phillips, Caroline Flint and, yes, Angela Rayner have been impressive in this respect in the early days of this parliament) and seek to represent the party through select committees and other parliamentary processes. The impression must be set in the minds of both the general public and party members that these are professional and competent individuals showing real political leadership.

It is highly likely that this will contrast favourably with the party leader’s often shambolic parliamentary performances. MPs should also signal that they will support  Jeremy Corbyn where he is on sound footing such as grammar schools, but oppose his more dangerous policy positions on defence and security, for example. What is clear is that the PLP must hold together. Talk of a split and a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) while exciting in theory crashes painfully against the rocks of both MPs’ loyalty to the party and the unforgiving nature of our first-past-the-post system of parliamentary elections. Splitting the vote and losing talented and committed moderate MPs will not help the strategy of delivering a future centre-left government as the Labour still is by some way the most likely vehicle for delivering such a government.

TO STAY OR TO GO?

So much for MPs, but how should moderate members of the party approach this period following Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader? One major decision will be whether they should remain in the party at all, given the direction of travel under the leader and the general hostility and toxicity that surrounds the party at present. It is critical for people to stay and work for a credible Labour government, but it is difficult to blame anyone for leaving. One only hopes they will fell able to re-join the party in future.

For those who do remain, becoming an engaged and active member of their local party is important as is making common cause with other members on issues that all party members can agree on. While some members of the pro-Corbyn camp are hard left entryists, the vast majority aren’t and working together at a local level is important in keeping a strong community base.

Where Momentum are strong at a local level it will be down to moderate members to oppose them on issues such as deselection, appealing to the wider constituency in support of an MP where necessary. Moderate members must also make clear that they regard Momentum as detrimental to the long term well-being of the party and vocally refusing to canvass and campaign on behalf of Momentum members. Seeking election under a Labour banner will highlight this point.

Most of all moderate members, whether they be MPs, councillors or ordinary members need to network, whether it be on policy or just for mutual support. Politics can be a lonely business and Labour’s centre-left needs to start making connections both within and beyond the party.

I suspect that this call to action will strike some on the moderate wing of the Labour Party as a capitulation and they may argue that there isn’t time for a more gradualist strategy to be allowed time to work, but the centre-left in the country has taken a series of knock-backs and needs time to consolidate and then build. A series of attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership will see him strengthened and will impose a form of democratic centralism by stealth on the party; annual campaigns were Corbyn gets to attend rallies while further strengthening his mandate. Despite talk of the world turning upside down, we still have a right-wing conservative government and an electoral system that doesn’t favour small parties.

The UK political scene has gone through a febrile period over the past eighteen months. Moderates, better than anyone, know that this state of affairs won’t hold and that things will slowly return to a slower, more recognisable pace. Centrists need to stop flapping, get on with business and hold their nerve.

By Steven Duckworth

@FoxHedgehog


Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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Jeremy Corbyn is a Blank Canvas. That is his appeal.

The Blank Canvas

7th September 2016

 -By Steven Duckworth-

The Blank Canvas

What does Jeremy Corbyn stand for; what informs his political and moral beliefs; where does he stand on the political spectrum and what is it about him that enthuses thousands of people to support him?

These are all reasonable questions that I suspect most people who follow politics could answer reasonably easily. He’s a socialist, for sure, and quite left wing and he’s offering a prospectus based on true Labour principles. Pushed a little further people will probably say he believes in human rights, a peaceful foreign policy, nationalised public services and above all he is anti-austerity. But is that enough to fully understand his appeal to many within the labour movement?

While it is demonstrably unquestionable that Corbyn is ‘of the left’ there is nothing that he has written or said that suggests he has a reasonable grasp of anything approaching a sophisticated view of what socialism is and what it might look like in practice in early 21st century Britain.

He has said he wants to see a society where “nobody is left behind” and the wealthy have obligations towards the poor. I think most people would sign up to those beliefs. In fact a ‘one nation Conservative’ would not quibble with any of it. It doesn’t however reflect anything that is overtly socialist or particularly left-wing. In fact Corbyn’s radical credentials seem to stem more from his associations – various hard left protest movements over the years – rather than any coherent intellectual base he has developed for himself.

On foreign policy his views are framed by anti-western rhetoric rather than any commitment to an ethical foreign policy. On public services his reach doesn’t extend beyond an instinct that anything that isn’t the state doesn’t pass the sniff test. And on austerity his shadow chancellor’s plans do not challenge the austerity narrative of ‘a balanced budget’ which has put off former economic advisors such as Simon Wren-Lewis and Danny Blanchflower. In practice Corbyn has not proposed anything – defence and security issues aside – that would sit outside the sentiment or detail of Labour’s failed 2015 manifesto.

So far so good, but it doesn’t get us any nearer to understanding Corbyn’s appeal to people who are not only self-declared left wingers (the Trotskyites we continually hear about) but also the many of the Labour leader’s supporters who would define themselves as nothing more than ordinary people who are dissatisfied with how society is run and would like to see more of an emphasis on social justice; those that are often dismissively referred to as ‘the soft left’.

I believe Corbyn’s popularity is exactly because of his lack of concrete ideological platforms, but more importantly that he is relatively unknown and, bizarrely for a career politician of four decades standing, a fresh skin. Prior to 2015 not many members of the Labour party will have heard of Corbyn. Far less so the general population.

Jeremy Corbyn is a Blank Canvas. That is his appeal.

Jeremy Corbyn is a Blank Canvas. That is his appeal.

So in essence Jeremy Corbyn represents the blank canvas that both the far left (because of his previous left wing associations more than particular ideology) and those interested in social justice can paint their hopes onto, because there is nothing in terms of the man’s political philosophy or his public profile that will resist their daubs onto the canvas.

What those opposed to Corbyn’s leadership from within the Labour Party seem to dismiss are the human factors that drive his appeal. His supporters view him as a kind and principled man who dares to look beyond the machinations of party politics and policy-making towards something more meaningful. He is a standard-bearer for those who are sick of the inequality that they believe is perpetuated by the media in the interests of the elites. They also welcome the fact that he’s not a smartly attired political salesman with a winning smile and a soundbite at the ready.

What is powerful about the blank canvas is that it means that people aren’t buying into the politician’s views and vision so much as projecting their own aspirations onto the person. Therefore any attack on the man feels like it is a personal challenge. This in part explains why the mass rallies we see the Labour leader addressing are adorned with Corbyn paraphernalia, not Labour placards and leaflets. Older members of the party often feel frustrated at the inability of Corbyn supporters to concede even the most minor point made against the leader, but this is wrapped up in the personal connection the supporters feel they have with him.

Criticising a politician is easy; self- reflection is much harder. The difficulties the Owen Smith leadership campaign has run into have often been related to the fact that trying to get to the left of Corbyn is not especially useful, when the attraction to Corbyn is not rooted in any concrete policy platform, but in a vague collection of individual hopes and aspirations painted onto the current Labour leader. At this stage, taking on Corbyn and his supporters in a seemingly rational debate about his policies and his competence will be frustrating for his opponents and ultimately pointless. In fact the more he is attacked, the more his supporters feel it justifies their belief in him. We are left with two groups talking over the heads of each other, seemingly unable to agree on the terms of the debate, let alone resolve it.

Of course the blank canvas also allows people unconvinced by Corbyn to paint their anxieties and fears onto him unopposed too and the current opinion polls suggests that the vast majority of the general public are doing just that. If Corbyn is to have any chance of reaching beyond his base and start to change the perceptions of the electorate, he will have to start filling in the blanks in order to reassure them. That would mean also confronting his supporters with the reality of who he is as a politician and as a person which in return threatens to weaken his support base, something which he is unlikely to want to do.

So Labour is gridlocked between a leader who can’t win a general election and any challenger who can’t win the party leadership. This spells an electoral meltdown for Labour in 2020 or before, but it is difficult to see how that can now be avoided.

By Steven Duckworth

@FoxHedgehog


Please note: articles and posts on ‘Middle Vision’ reflect the views of the individual authors and not of all involved in ‘Middle Vision’

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Can’t Get There From Here

4th April 2016

Can’t Get There From Here

It’s difficult to fully assess the consequences of Ian Duncan Smith’s (IDS) resignation from the government last month and what effect the former Work & Pensions Secretary’s broadside against David Cameron- and particularly George Osborne- will have on the Tory Party, particularly its potential leader-to-be. Bloody events from Lahore and Brussels, along with an industrial dispute reminiscent of the 1970s (steel, not junior medics since you ask) have prevented us from seeing clearly where the wavelets from the IDS resignation will peter out, but it has drawn blood from an administration that even in the gloomy days of January looked imperious.

Tim Carter writing on MiddleVision a few days after the resignation was accurate- if blunt- in terms of the hypocrisy, vengefulness and spite implicit in the Duncan Smith resignation. And while I agree with Tim on the politics of the whole farrago, I think there are policy issues that shouldn’t get lost in fallout from it.

It’s easy to mock Duncan Smith’s Damascene conversion to the cause of social justice following his much vaunted trip to Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate in 2002 and his subsequent setting up of the Centre for Social Justice two years later. The cynicism is compounded, I suspect, because a lot of his concern appears to be an expression of his Christianity, not helped that the man himself has given the impression of being a latter day William Carey at times. However it is difficult to deny- though some will try- that low levels of educational achievement, joblessness and a lack of opportunities that not only affect life chances, but life expectancy, are real problems facing many communities in Britain.

It’s not surprising that the Labour Party are enjoying the painful spasms Duncan Smith’s resignation has inflicted on the Tories and I’m not so po-faced as to suggest they shouldn’t enjoy it for a while’ But- as the last general election should have taught us- concerns about welfare have a high prevalence among the electorate and simply opposing cuts, while enjoying George Osborne’s discomfort, just won’t do Labour’s long term electoral chances any good whatsoever. If it wants to become a serious contender as a party of government, Labour will need a credible message on welfare reform, or at the very least a position that doesn’t see increasing amounts of welfare support as a triumph.

So where could Labour begin in developing a more progressive approach to welfare reform? Well it must be clear about two issues and become unashamed about a final one.

Firstly, Labour needs to be unambiguous that its stands by being the party of work. The party has, rightly so, a reputation for social justice and sticking up for the hard up and hard done to in our society; but it must also concede there is absolutely nothing desirable about successive generations of families growing up with the sapping effects of unemployment.

Secondly, Labour needs to be clear that welfare reforms may take twenty years before they begin to have major positive effects within communities up and down the country. Labour does need to have a convincing, sans magic money tree, message on the economy- including the budget deficit- but it cannot be done on the back of continually raiding the welfare budget.

Which leads me to my third point. Labour will have to make the case for borrowing now, at current low rates, in order to invest significantly in the social infrastructure- particularly education, housing and civic utilities- that can start to turn problem communities into assets. It should be unashamed about how it will use the state’s deep pockets and its bargaining power to effect the changes that will eventually begin to transform lives. As with most plans, the devil will be in the detail of how to make it operationally viable. We also need to admit there will be failures as well as successes. But Labour- as opposed to its main rival- will be able to credibly claim and demonstrate, that it will actively be concerned with those who lose out, rather than shrug and regard them as collateral damage. The ability to transition from one set of circumstances to another is the real task of policy makers and politicians. Labour needs to develop these talents, away from its leader’s gaze if necessary.

This is not, however, an argument for extending the reach of the state. Properly coordinated public policy developed at the centre of government- with the necessary investment to deliver- can only be transformative if it is left to local communities to decide what best suits their particular needs. Labour should start talking about how we use the assets-private, public and voluntary- that already sit within communities and how they can be freed up, but are too often wasted in the endless contests between different types of organisations, primarily focused- in theory at least- in delivering the same goals. How local plans are drawn up that focus on improving lives rather than organisations will be a clear challenge, but the tough stuff always is. And while ‘thinking big’ might appear like pie-in-the-sky, flip-chart work from a weekend policy seminar, Labour will have to embrace it and- let’s face it- what else are we currently offering? This isn’t about radical ideas; it’s about pragmatic solutions to a key problem that clearly worries voters. Investing today to save tomorrow, as well as prevention is better than cure are messages people understand.

The discussions- no doubt- will get caught up in the ongoing debate about the virtues of state over private or vice versa; arguments that continually seek to infantilise our approach to politics, public policy and the discussions that surrounds them. However if we continue with these stand offs while people are losing years to poverty then people will rightfully be able to conclude that Labour and its representatives are full of sybaritic guff, an already abundant commodity across the political spectrum. Which takes us back again (partially) to Mr Duncan Smith.

                                                                                                                                     By Steven Duckworth

@FoxHedgehog

 


 

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