Northern Light?

Watching from the side-lines of the Labour leadership contest it seems that, so far, very few big ideas have been declared by our four candidates. Of course, the tabloid caricatures have been cast: from so-called Looney Left to so-called Blairite Revisionist. Meanwhile we wait for something to happen.

But the reality is that so much is up for grabs. Will we move back to the Centre? Will we return to the comfort of Blairism or continue the more radical critique of Miliband and beyond? How will we reconnect with the electorate of Middle England whom it seems we failed to persuade in the General Election? How on earth will we come back from the debacle of the Scottish result soon enough to perform well in next year’s Holyrood election? The political landscape has changed. And we somehow have to chart a course through it over the next five years.

Perhaps the first step in determining our direction of travel is to work out where we’re starting from. One of the most instructive articles prior to the election was by Paul Mason. He argued that the country is now dominated by three groups; ‘Scandi-Scotland’, the asset-rich south east and post-industrial Britain. He argued that the Scots, south-eastern England and the post-industrial North and Wales are now living out conflicting narratives. The danger for the Labour Party is that while Blairism recognised this trend and adapted to it, winning seats in the south, we were wrong to assume that post-industrial Britain and Scotland would come along for the ride.

Mason also points out that the SNP and the Tories have captured the zeitgeist of their heartlands well. Labour has not, ceding votes to Ukip, the SNP and the Tories. The upshot is the loss of Scotland to the SNP, the loss of the South East to the supposedly more aspiration-friendly Tories, and the huge increase in the Ukip vote in the North. If Ukip were as good at politics as the SNP would Labour have lost more seats in the North? Almost certainly. Labour needs to ensure that we don’t miss the writing on the wall: as well as developing a narrative that wins back Blair-era southern voters and reclaiming our place in Scotland, we need to talk about The North.

The long-term status of the North as a Labour heartland cannot be taken for granted. The tribal loyalties and family connections which used to define our presence in the North are waning. It’s arguable that, like the industry which once defined it, Labour’s roots in these communities have loosened. The roots are not gone. But we cannot afford to go any further without tending to them.

True, all is not lost. As accurate as that Maggie Simpson electoral map was, there remains strong support for Labour in the North East, and in urban centres like Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester. Indeed, in areas like Wearside – first to declare on polling day – incumbents Julie Elliot, Sharon Hodgson and Bridgette Phillipson all increased their majorities considerably. Labour is still the party which can best represent the North. But to do that we will need to both up our game and lobby for changes that will allow the North to flourish again.

Sandwiched between the resurgent nationalisms of Scotland and Wales, pressured by protest votes, underwhelmed by deepening apathy and left behind by the relative affluence of the South East, the North has been taken for granted; not just by Labour but by the country as a whole.

That we have a dysfunctional economy, far too dependent upon London and the South East, is obvious. This imbalance is evidenced in the inequality that we find all over: from the East End of Glasgow to the docks of Sunderland, from the valleys of North Wales and, ironically, to the outskirts of London itself. Our politics also remains heavily-weighted to London with Westminster, and to some degree the London Assembly and the Boris Effect, creating a self-fulfilling gravitational pull for investment. This fact was only partially-acknowledged during the election campaign, even although it affects the whole country.

But crucially, whilst Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have Parliaments and Assemblies to represent their voice and some of the powers needed to stimulate their economies, the North has been left with only local, and not regional, government.

The North has a problem. It has been taken for granted and ignored. But even now the Labour Party remains the best hope for a transformed, empowered and dynamic North. So what should we do?

In Glasgow, to be ‘Clyde-built’ was once a badge of communal pride, something that helped shape the identity of an entire city: it’s now a nostalgic reference to the industrial heritage of ship-building. At one time, the relationship in parts of the country between local education, employers and the wider community was so inter-related as to be inseparable. Even football clubs were part of this eco-system, with teams like The Blades, the Potters, the Cobblers or the Brewers named after the local industries. This socio-economic model is no more. All we have left are traces and disconnected parts. And it’s not just the loss of jobs and consequent wealth of previous generations which leaves a hole, but the dilution of the very sense of identity which many communities found at least in part from the ‘Made in’ stamp.

So what’s the lesson here? Firstly, communal identity can be an important factor in socio-economic success. The community that works together, stays together, it seems, even after most of the work has gone. Secondly, if we are to create the modern equivalent to the old communities centred around local industries and stimulate integrated local economies, focussed on creativity, hard work and shared identity, then more power needs to be held more locally. This is the opposite of the individualistic approach of neo-liberal economics in which each ‘producer’ is a singular widget in a vast economic machine. It’s an alternative to the creeping authoritarianism of the SNP in Scotland or the Conservatives in England.

But we need to go above the level of the immediate town and the Local Authority. It’s the impact of that core Labour ideal – solidarity – which will help the North as a whole find its voice, not just in the UK, but throughout the world.

Politically this puts Labour in a complicated situation. We began devolution but we didn’t see it through, side-tracked by wars and declining radicalism after years in power. The result is a half baked devolution which is itself the cause of some of the tension felt in Wales and the North. Why shouldn’t Wales have the same powers as Scotland, ask Plaid Cymru? Why should the North be ignored or need to resort to ‘take us with you Scotland’ pleas after a Tory victory? George Osborne’s ‘northern powerhouse’ whether real or imagined is clearly intended to begin the decontamination of the Tory brand in the North and to centralise power in the hands of a sprinkling of city Mayors. To oppose it looks like meanness, yet if Labour is to reclaim the strong support of the North we will need to be much bolder than Osborne.

It is too soon to be setting policy for 2020. We have a leader and deputy leader to elect first and a defeat to digest. At the same time we must not cede the North to the Tories or to UKIP. For that to happen we must develop a strong narrative that offers hope to communities too often left behind; the non-voters, UKIP voters and those in Pudsey, Colne Valley, and Keighley that don’t like what Labour had to offer this time round. The offer must give hope to communities which have had little since before Thatcherism, communities New Labour too passed by.

And it has to be about more than devolution; it has to involve power and money. Bad decisions made locally are just as bad as bad decisions made far away. Labour needs to be content with the direction set by the North being different from that of London, the South, Wales or Scotland. This will require ambitious policy and a clear settlement for the other parts of the UK. The risks are real, the rewards – not least for the people of Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds and Grimsby – are huge.

We end with some tentative suggestions. If power and money are needed in addition to deliberation, any devolution must involve tax raising powers, a demarcated area that is ‘the North’, and the ability to make choices which are different from those of surrounding regions.

We believe that this would be best realised by the creation of a ‘Mayor of the North’, a First Minister of Northern England. This role would have powers and budget akin to the Mayor of London, would be directly-elected every five years in line with Parliamentary Elections, and would be scrutinised by a Northern Assembly comprised by 100 Councillors from the Local Authorities of the North. This new tier of ‘super-Councillors’ would be paid a full-time wage and would split their time between their Local Authority responsibilities and the Northern Assembly.

Assembly Members would be elected by their peers in the Local Authority which would form an Electoral College, itself reflective of the popular vote in each Local Authority election. The Assembly (which would be at least as powerful as the London Assembly), and the Northern First Minister would operate a significant budget garnered from both Central Government and a proportion of Local Government Council Tax receipts and Business Rates. These funds would be used across the range of powers currently devolved to Local Government. But, significantly, the budget could also be allocated to one-off infrastructure or other flagship projects.

There are of course questions to be answered: How would such an Assembly and First Minister work in partnership with London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh? Where in the North would they be based? What would their exact powers be? How would the relative responsibilities of the Assembly and the councils of the North be integrated? Should this form part of a wider new constitutional settlement that finishes the incomplete devolution of New Labour and that benefits other regions?

These questions cannot be answered definitively without some degree of trial and error. But this is nothing to be scared of. These proposals are less dramatic than the waves of devolution the Celtic nations have experienced since 1999, continuing up to this day. And those waves are only moving in one direction.

Our challenge is to continue to outwork our mandate as the unity party; the party which transcends nationalism, authoritarianism, narrow sectionalism and self-interest, and which instead cultivates flourishing, confident communities that are rooted in social justice. To achieve that we have to do something that political parties don’t like to do with power: we have to give it away.

No ideas?

Bentham Auto Icon

What is the place of ideology in modern politics? There was a time when the colour of a tie marked out the political tribe to which someone belonged. A flash of red, blue or yellow on the doorstep, and you knew not just who’d come calling, but what their broad political programme would be.

But in the post-modern (or post-post-modern) world, we can be tempted to think that the notion of ideology is soooo twentieth century, a shibboleth that politics, and certainly society at large, has long abandoned. I regularly hear media commentary and pub banter which implies that all of the mainstream political parties are essentially the same. So is this true?

There’s certainly been a narrowing of the political spectrum over the last twenty years, in mainstream politics at least. The narrowing has been partly about presentation (i.e. spin), but it has mostly been ideological, reflected in the range of policies that are on the menu. To greater or lesser degree, the hegemony of unfettered, free-market capitalism is accepted as the norm – the paradigm which reflects the real world as it is. Imagining a world – and therefore, policies – not dominated by the hegemony of the free-market is increasingly difficult to do in British politics.

Yet ideology is important – what you believe forms how you see the world, and how you consequently act. Often the ultimate insult in party politics is to decry a particular policy as being driven by ‘ideological reasons’. It’s spoken as if most politicians remove their ideological beliefs like a shabby raincoat as they walk into the Chamber. But we don’t need less ideology in politics, we need more.

In politics what can be more important than our beliefs? Our ideas of what matters, of how the world actually works and how it could and should work? Not much. And of course, the reality is that ideology (although narrower in spectrum than it used to be) is as important as ever to our political process. Indeed, I would argue that it’s the lack of outspoken, straightforward ideological debate that has been turning the electorate off politics for the last couple of decades.

I also detect a growing understanding that our beliefs about how the world should be do matter. In particular, there’s a dawning – perhaps resurgent – belief that society doesn’t exist to serve the market, but the market to serve society.

These are not new arguments. They don’t require the fanfare of a punchy research paper put out by a leading think tank. For every recent book like Michael Sandel’s seminal What Money Can’t Buy: the Moral Limits of Markets, there’s a The State We’re In by Will Hutton – a book now almost twenty years old.

Thus when we see the coalition government portraying a policy decision as being about the good management of the economy, and not a matter of their political ideology being implemented, it has the effect of compounding many of their mistakes.

The Conservative Party has historically claimed to be the party of the free market. The tale they tell is that they’re trying to allow the market economy to work within its utilitarian, causal rules, with only light-touch adjustments that will benefit the country as a whole. Of course, this is an ideology!

And what happens when this ideological approach disproves itself? In the privatisation of the Royal Mail we’ve seen an ideological decision which overruled or ignored the market norms. Even as the Government made the decision to privatise, they knew that they were planning to sell a profitable company; at the end of the 2012/13 fiscal year the Royal Mail posted a pre-tax profit of £324 million.

In the last few weeks we’ve learned that the sale itself was rushed through using an under-valued share price of £3.30 per share. This has proven to be embarrassing to the Government for two reasons. Firstly, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills dramatically under-estimated the level of interest in the market for the sale; for every shopper who successfully bought shares in Royal Mail, there were twenty-four who missed out. This was a calamitous miscalculation. Secondly, the miscalculation was exacerbated by the fact that share values increased by a dramatic 38% to 455p on their first day of trading, meaning taxpayers had lost out on at least £750m in the sale. By 1st April 2014, the Royal Mail share price had risen by 70% against the original price, emphasising further the profits that the country has missed out on.

In the same way, the Government’s urgency to sell its shares in Lloyds Banking Group or Royal Bank of Scotland, with their share prices only slowly recovering, seems to belie a desire on the part of the Conservative and Liberal coalition to get these institutions off UK Plc’s books. But why the urgency? Why not wait until the much-lauded economic recovery has gone further, market confidence has increased and the share-value was higher? The answer is that it’s the ideology which is the deciding factor. The Conservative Party simply can’t abide any kind of a return – no matter how temporary – to state-owned commercial institutions.

The same ideology is at play in the recently-proposed re-privatisation of the East Coast mainline. But when we review the economic case for this decision, it doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. For six years and more I have travelled that line. At the end, it was a shambles under the GNER franchise. It was a shambles under the National Express franchise from the start. But under East Coast (owned by the State, of course), the service has improved. More importantly for the purpose of this discussion, it’s a business which is actually making a profit (£209 million last year). And yet, the Government wants to re-privatise it. Because their ideology protests that it’s never desirable for the State to offer paid-for services to society, such as major transport links, even when that service is better than the private commercial alternatives and the business makes a profit.

The problem with British politics is not really a lack of ideology. What’s missing is honesty. Our politicians have too often suppressed their beliefs about the way the world should be in their view. They’ve masked these beliefs with the pretence that they are simply neutral technocrats, managing the economy according to rules set by conditions in the world ‘out there’.

This is the worst of all possibilities: politicians downplaying their ideology, whilst making decisions that contradict their ideology, all in the name of their ideology. Our political discourse deserves better than this – we need an open and honest argument on the basis of competing ideologies about the way that Britain should be run.

The debate can’t come soon enough.

United We Stand

What’s at the heart of the Scottish Independence debate? What’s it really all about? In my first post on thedangerouscurve, Musings from the Island Line, I wrote;

“…don’t be fooled by the rationale which claims independence can be a tartan ejector seat from Tory government. It’s not a coincidence that the SNP have risen to power in Scotland under first a Blairite British Government and then a Conservative-led coalition in Westminster. Scots as a whole tend to be traditionally orientated towards left-leaning politics. However, trying to solve the problem of the drift to the Right in British politics through the method of Scottish independence is using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.”

As an out and proud supporter of the No campaign, Better Together, I’ve been taking part in the online discussion through Twitter, arguing the case for the Union. What I’ve discovered has been both illuminating and disappointing in equal measure.

Disappointingly, I’ve discovered that my pro-Union compatriots are much less vocal – indeed much less present – in these online debates. Often it seems that the Yes camp is the only show in town when it comes to social media. Now, I’m not concerned that this is reflective of numbers for and against #indy; in my view it has a lot more to do with the zeal of the evangelist which, as the group advocating fundamental change, is more common amongst Yes Scotland supporters. Indeed, in my experience to date I’ve often found this zeal to spill over into vitriol or disdain when you dare disagree about the best path for Scotland’s future. In fairness, I’ve also found measured, thoughtful and passionate contributors amongst the Yes camp.

This imbalance disappoints me for two reasons. Firstly, Better Together is in danger of conceding that Yes Scotland is the truly grassroots movement, representing what the ‘people of Scotland’ want. We’re giving the impression that the Yes vote is much larger than I believe it actually is. It is certainly giving the Yes camp a sense of momentum at the time of writing. Secondly, the apathy of the silent majority (a majority which has been represented in every poll on the subject of #indy to date) allows Yes Scotland and its supporters to articulate the No vote’s argument for us. Instead of Better Together and its supporters making the positive case for the United Kingdom and everything that it offers, Yes supporters can caricature the campaign to maintain the Union as ‘Project Fear’.

It’s nevertheless been interesting to engage with my fellow Scots from the Yes camp and to learn about their motives for seeking Scottish Independence. If I was to broadly summarise the issues and ideals that seem to motivate them to support Independence, I would suggest that they believe the following. They see Independence as:

  1. An opportunity to create a more socially just nation
  2. An opportunity for Scotland finally to be recognised as a nation in its own right
  3. An opportunity to create a wealthier, more prosperous Scotland
  4. An opportunity to undo historic wrongs done to Scotland
  5. An opportunity for Scotland to cut the Tory apron strings, represented in all of the above

I am sure that there are other motives for the Yes camp which I’ve not listed here. I’m also sure that Yes supporters would articulate these reasons in a more elaborate or different way. But I’m confident that these points summarise the main thrust of their rationale.

If that’s the case, then how do we respond? Well, as I suggest above, we need to do a lot more than just respond. We need to pro-actively advocate for the Union and all the benefits that it brings to us all. The core of our argument needs to be found in the counterpoint to reasons 1 and 5 above. So let me quickly deal with reasons 2 to 4.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it really isn’t necessary in the 21st century for one’s nationhood to be dependent on or equivalent to political autonomy. Is my Scottishness innately diminished because I cast a vote to send a politician to Westminster rather than Holyrood to create Foreign Affairs, Welfare and Fiscal Policy? I don’t think so. Scottish nationhood is so much more than a political jurisdiction. The zero-sum, nation-state equation presented by the SNP and others is an unnecessary and inaccurate shibboleth.

Likewise, the economic argument is to me a distraction. Should the bottom line really be the bottom line in making our decision on Union or Independence? Some commentators have suggested that Scotland could be more prosperous as an independent country. Many more have suggested the opposite. But even if it could be unequivocally proven that the likes of oil, whisky and engineering could buoy the Scottish Exchequer in the seas of economic uncertainty and excessive Bank loans to GDP ratios that independence would bring, is that really the point? Does a few quid (or Euros, or Scottish Pounds) on our wage packet buy us out of our unity and solidarity with our friends from Wales, England and Northern Ireland? The truth is, over time, wealth comes and goes. What’s more important is how we as a society use the wealth that we do have. When it comes to the independence referendum, it really is not the economy stupid.

On the issue of historic wrongs, there is no question that they exist. Edward, Hammer of the Scots, The Highland Clearances, Maggie Thatcher’s Poll Tax; all of these loom large in the Scottish psyche. Indeed, some argue, the origin of the Union itself is tarred by the aristocrats who – on both sides – negotiated it without exactly focussing on the interests of the wider population of Scotland. But – leaving aside the historic wrongs which the Scots visited on England – are we to be bound by this narrative when we imagine our future? What concerns me is where we’re going, not where we’ve come from. What should concern us is creating a more egalitarian, more just, more harmonious, more compassionate society. True, this will include recognising that historic events and decisions have created the unequal society that we live in today. But only so that we know where to focus our efforts in building a more just society. And so, to my main point.

It’s social justice that seems to motivate many of the Yes campaigners whom I come into contact with. The paradox is that it’s also social justice which motivates many of us on the No side. We agree that, under Blairism and the prefix ‘New’, the rump of the Left lost its way towards the end of the Labour Government through mistakes like PFI, the abolition of the 10p tax rate and an unethical foreign policy.

What we particularly agree on is that British politics has taken a lunge to the right since the 2010 General Election: The Bedroom Tax, Atos assessments for DLA, anti-immigrant rhetoric, aggressive benefits sanctions, tax cuts for millionaires and the government’s failure to deal with the culture of the Financial Sector, so brutally exemplified in the Banker’s Bonus and Robin Hood Tax rows. All of these factors unite those of us on the Left who are tired of a culture of blaming the most vulnerable in society for the failings of the elite.

The enemies of social justice are a combination of apathy towards the political process, fear and individualism; the sense that I can’t change the system, and that the state of the economy means I’d be better off just looking after myself. It’s this apathy and fear that ushered the Conservative Party into government in 2010. It’s the (irrational) fear of economic meltdown that is raising the rhetoric against Eastern European immigrants. It’s the legacy of historic grievances and narrow identity politics that catalyses a retrenchment into Scottish Nationalism. It’s the failure to imagine just what could be achieved in our wee multi-national country if those of us on the left put aside our narrow selfishness and strove for solidarity, activism and unity.

Those in the Yes camp have concluded that the game is up. To them, the British experiment has failed to deliver the fruits of social justice. Leaving aside the exponential improvement in living standards across the British Isles in the last 307 years as we became the 7th largest economy on earth (with a smaller population than all above us on the list), we must acknowledge that there is a long way to go in achieving true social justice in the UK. Indeed, it will be a mission that is never truly complete. The search for social justice must be a permanent and indefinite state of mind. And I believe, to paraphrase a fellow-traveller, Dr Dave Landrum, that the fight for the Common Good within the United Kingdom is both missional and possible.

This week the Tory MP, Rory Stewart talked about the need for us to show the love that exists between the four nations of the Union by forming a human chain along Hadrian’s Wall. Well, in the words of Pink and Nate Ruess:

“Just a little bit’s enough. Just a second, we’re not broken, just bent, and we can learn to love again.”