Thursday, 30 September 2010

Labour election results comment

Rightyho. I'm sure you're aware of the results by now, but here they are again:

Labour leader: Ed Miliband
London mayoral candidate: Ken Livingstone
Treasurer: Diana Holland

Let's start with the most important result - the new leader. Firstly, a warm congratulations are due to Ed. He was my first preference, and I am glad that the party is going to be led by someone with genuine vision and morals. The party made the right decision, choosing the candidate who wants to change things. However, there's been some issues brought up by Ed's election as leader which need to be tackled - not least all this 'Red Ed' twaddle.

Ed MilibandYou can comfortably call Tony Benn red, and you can even just about call Ken Livingstone red, but if you think Ed Miliband is an old-fashioned socialist, your view of the political spectrum has slid to the right. A socialist would be calling for the nationalisation of key industries; nuclear disarmament; would oppose flat-out the need for any cuts; and call for swingeing tax rises across the board. None of these fit Ed's views or his plans for the direction of the party. I would agree that he is a little to the left of his brother, but the distance between them is quite small. His election as leader by no means signals a move back to Old Labour, it simply shows that the party wants someone at the helm who seeks to build upon Labour's existing legacy, but who will go further to make the UK fairer and more equal through such measures as the living wage and the possibility of a high pay commission to look at tackling unbalanced salaries in the private sector. The simple fact is that he's not a socialist; he believes in capitalism, but feels that the Government should work to manage its negative effects and better ensure that we all share in the wealth more. He doesn't believe in no cuts to public spending, but says the balance should be different; he proposes reducing the hit public services take in cuts through such measures as increasing the bank levy; keeping the 50p top rate of tax on a permanent basis; and introducing a financial transaction tax. Such measures mean fewer cuts in services and and negate the needs for such measures as the current Government's VAT rise. They are the policies of a centre-left politician, not a Marxist.

Secondly, let's tackle the union argument. Saying he's in the pocket of the unions isn't true. The old method of union votes were removed over a decade ago, meaning that individual members within the affiliated organisations and unions cast their vote for the leader, as opposed to the union leaders simply choosing on behalf of the members. When political opponents and the media try to portray the unions as faceless organisations which spend all day striking, they miss the fact that it was ordinary workers within those unions who chose Ed. The members were not forced to vote, and they were not forced to vote for Ed. It wasn't Bob Crow who decided Ed got elected, or even Charlie Whelan, but individual teachers, scientists, train drivers, students, and so on. It is arguable that it's unfair that the more popular choice amongst MPs and members did not end up as leader, but the affiliated organisations are an important part of the Labour party - the unions were where the party came from. As I wrote in a previous article, Labour mustn't return to the days of being slavish to the unions, but there is no reason that it will with Ed at the helm. He is as focused upon giving Labour widespread appeal and making it electable as his brother is.

New Labour is here to stay. Ed - and all the other candidates - were keen to distance themselves from New Labour because its image became tainted for many, and the party cannot stay with the same branding and marketing forever. It is true that party policy will be changing, but the overarching ideology of New Labour will definitely remain. There is no chance that the modern, centre-left Labour party will make a snap back to the left - to the days of too much Government interference in the economy, outmoded ideology of striving for everyone to be equal, and removing aspiration. The party is likely to be slightly further to the left if Ed follows up on his leadership bid pledges of such things as the living wage; the potential of replacing Trident with a less expensive alternative when the time comes; a graduate tax instead of university tuition fees; a higher bank levy; and a financial transaction tax on the banks. The overall dividing line with the Tories (and the Lib Dems) will be saying that we should be cutting services less, and seeking to raise more through taxation. That will not mean higher taxes for the working and middle class, but on the very wealthy by keeping the 50p income tax band permanently, and bank taxes mentioned above. This marks a break with Blair's Labour, which became too obsessed with big business, becoming too fearful of making the case for slightly higher taxation of the very wealthy to assist the services and welfare ordinary people rely upon. Ed's leadership essentially means a refreshed New Labour - one more concerned with fairness than under Blair's leadership, but there is not a dramatic change about to take place. What I think Ed needs to be wary of is condemning too much of what Labour did in the past. It is the populist stance to say that the invasion of Iraq was wrong - and it seems to be the view of much of the public that it was the wrong decision - but there is a strong case to be put forward that it was with the most noble intentions of removing a genocidal dictator from power that the invasion was launched. He is right to say that not enough alternative avenues were explored, but to wholly condemn the Iraq invasion is wrong. Ed cannot wash his hands of the unpopular things the previous Labour Government did, and it has the potential to make him look weak and self-serving in the media if he's asked about why he didn't resign over or try do something about x, y, and z if he disagreed with it so much.

As to the question of why the unions voted for him, I suspect it's because Ed is slightly to the left of David. I'm sure Bob Crow and co. would much rather have had Diane Abbott or Ed Balls, both of whom can generally be trusted to take the side of the unions due to their lefty view of the economy. If they suspected Ed M. would be  pushover to their demands, I think they were wrong. Nevertheless, Ed needs to tackle the media's current orgy of: "Red Ed's in pocket of unions"-style line. He needs to make the argument that I did above, saying that he was elected partly by ordinary working people, people who wanted change in the party and therefore the country, and believed that he was the best man to deliver a fairer Britain.  Miliband's already begun to separate himself from the unions by telling them the party cannot and will not support strikes which are not necessary. The opportunity to continue this line will arise if strikes being which are unpopular with the public - particularly transport strikes. If/when these arise, Ed must condemn them, saying it's unfair for public sector workers to be so obstinate in their demands when so many in the private sector have accepted and adapted to the difficult times. By taking such a route, Ed will lose his golden boy status with the unions, but it's not the unions he has to convince of his competence and policies - it's the public. Sensible unions accept that he cannot support strikes and that striking  now would be unfair to the public who rely on important services like the London Underground. Those like Bob Crow, who seem to spend more time telling their union to strike than go to work, simply aren't worth pandering to.

Moving briefly on to Ken Livingstone winning the Labour London mayoral candidate post, I'll say I was a bit disappointed by the outcome. I find Ken has the tendencies to be politically polemic (one of my history class's new favourite words). Due to Ken becoming the candidate, the battle for mayor in London is the closest we will get at the moment to the political battles of Thatcherism and Old Labour in the 1980s. Ken is generally Old Labour and unwilling to compromise his beliefs. It is commendable that he sticks to his principles and views, but with the current political situation, he simply can't take the "Absolutely no cuts" stance. Let's take an important issue at the moment in London: the Tube and the strikes. We can expect more strikes in the future, so the issue is bound to resurface. Boris Johnson, the incumbent Tory Mayor of London, is seeking to ban Tube workers from striking. Whilst I find this view slightly uncomfortable because it would take away a key right from workers, Ken stands in total contrast to Boris on this issue because he's essentially a union man. I believe it's unfair that the transport unions can strike so often, leaving everyone else who relies on the transport to get to work carries on working, some of them taking pay freezes or cuts. At at time when the economy is still fragile, it's indefensible to be bringing key infrastructure to a halt in the economic capital of the UK. Ken's campaigned on a line of opposing any and all cuts in London, but I think he needs to recognise the need for compromise. I know there's the argument about London being important to the UK's economy, but if cuts are going to happen, there can't be certain area which is exempt - that would simply mean everywhere else bears the brunt more. Oona King recognise the need for cuts, but wanted to see them done in a fairer way and with as minimal impact as possible. In negotiations with the Coalition Government, I suspect she would have been easier to work with, willing to do some give-and-take, whereas I suspect Ken will simply flat-out demand no cuts at all. Livingstone is a man of experience and political heavyweight, but I am disappointed that the fresh blood of King was not able to run for Mayor and, if she won, seek to make some real and pleasant change in the Capital. Of course, the party must unite behind and campaign for Ken. He is experienced in the job and has shown he can get things done. Unwillingness to budge could work well in his favour; it's certainly worked in the past when he was able to secure more investment for the Tube. He's incredibly resilient and hardy, having endured many years in politics, facing opposition not only from Thatcher but also from Blair, who was hostile towards his political stance. Throughout thick and thin, he has stood by his morals and beliefs, and that is why Labour Londoners elected him, and why we must all stand behind him during the election.

Finally, there's the issue of the new Labour treasurer. It was a contest between John Prescott and Diana Holland. I respect John as a dedicated and experienced politician with strong beliefs and principles, even if I am not his biggest fan. Frankly, I'd never heard of Diana Holland before, and I don't think I'm the only one. Having read her write-up in the candidate booklet, she did not stand out as showing she would be stronger and more competent Treasurer than John, and I therefore voted for John as treasurer, as did 62% of Labour members. Unfortunately, the union vote was at odds with that of the party members. They former overwhelmingly for Holland as treasurer, most likely because she's a former union woman, having worked for Unite. Prescott seemed barely able to hide his bitterness at having lost due to the union vote, with his tweet "I'd also like to thank the 60% of party members who voted for my campaign for real change." Whilst we can make the arguments outlined for Ed regarding the union members being working people, not rich, aloof union leaders, unlike the leadership election, Prescott had a comfortable majority amongst party members. It is disappointing for some members that is seems their vote for Treasurer counted for nothing because the union members seem to have been mightily encouraged to vote for Diana. This was certainly the view of one Labour party member Tweeter I came across, who said she was considering leaving the party as a result of feeling disenfranchised within the party.

I think a modern Labour party must consider whether it wants power in internal elections to rest with its MPs and Members, or with the Unions. I get a sense of disillusionment in the party at the moment, with members feeling that their votes counted for little. Considering at least some of the new intake of members joined the party to help elect then new leader, it will be understandable if they're annoyed when their first experiences of the party is the unions narrowly deciding upon the leader and selecting the Treasurer by outvoting members. There is a strong case to be made for the unions being able to wield such power within the party, but recent events seem to make a strong case against it too - I think it's something which should be up for discussion in the party. I feel comfortable taking this view as Labour member since Prescott has also come out and said the same thing. It's not just a case of examining whether the existing system is fair, but with much of the media already trying to portray the party as being controlled by the unions, it's not helpful that they were effectively able to chose the Treasurer.

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