Sunday, 30 June 2013

Open Mike

Michael Portillo gives us the grandees' line for 2015: renunciation of Thatcher's education policy, dismantlement of the NHS the creation of which was in the Conservative manifesto in 1945, the kind of hostility to the police previously associated only with the sectarian Far Left (he identifies support for the police as Old Labour, and of course he is quite right), no Tory candidates against sitting Lib Dem MPs (at least where Ministers were concerned, we knew that, anyway), and the suggestion that somehow it used to be considered Politically Incorrect to talk about the undeserving poor

The last bit is of course pure dross, with no factual basis whatever. Like "you used to be called a racist if you mentioned immigration", or "there used to be a taboo against criticising the monarchy". When, exactly? In all three cases, among others, nothing could be further from the truth.

Chicken Cottage

On the question of exactly who Housing Benefit claimants are (or were), the man who at Oxford with David Cameron introduced him to the Radiohead that featured among Cameron's Desert Island Discs needs to check his privilege. But apart from that, Stewart Lee writes:

The political class live in a west London playground no longer sullied by the unsightly poor, who have been ousted by housing benefit cuts and rent hikes. But where have they gone? And can the right's sudden and conspicuous consumption of Byron burgers be mere coincidence?

Check Byron's progress on Google maps and you'll see the shaped-meat retailer's eastern push follows the line of London's gentrification, and the enforced economic exodus of its underclass, in a microcosmic reflection of national trends towards the disappearance of the dispossessed.

The crushed-beef chain's surge into once neglected areas like Hoxton and Tower Hamlets, while welcomed by venal estate agents looking for evidence that their patch is up and coming, is bad news for indigenous people.

Chelsea types, in their pink trousers and yellow jumpers, are coming, displacing ordinary people, even as they themselves are ousted from the verdant pasture of their own west London homelands by the property power of Russian mafia and wealthy Arab spring escapees.

New Byron branches in Manchester and Liverpool reflect similar spurts of gentrification. The rich are eating at Byron in places where the poor once ate at Chicken Cottage, a name I will appropriate for my rural retreat when I too am finally displaced from the capital.

The Railway Signs Are Good

Mick Whelan writes:

I’ve followed the rail policy discussions on LabourList recently with interest and welcome the fact there is now a serious conversation taking place within Labour ranks about how the structure of the rail industry can be improved.

A publicly owned and publicly accountable railway has been the policy of my trade union since privatisation and 20 years on it remains the only way to deliver value for money for taxpayers and passengers.

The current position on the East Coast line can be traced back to an emergency motion submitted to 2009 conference by ASLEF and TSSA calling for the party to support retention of the line in the public sector.

The not-for-profit East Coast’s current balance sheet vindicates Labour’s position and shows that it has paid more money back to the Treasury than any rail company since privatisation.

It’s worth noting that train operating companies are asset light businesses. They don’t own the tracks, trains or the majority of the stations. East Coast’s net assets are £7 million. Yes, £7 million on a business with turnover of around £700 million.

Train companies provide a service. Retaining them in the public sector once franchise expire, as Labour are considering, would not be onerous on public liabilities. In fact the profits could be reinvested in the industry to reduce fares, for example.

The operational side of the industry is a good place for Labour to start. Not-for-dividend private company Network Rail has delivered many improvements in the last decade but its £30 billion (and rising) debt timebomb is a bullet that will be have to be bitten by some future government like it or not and is clearly more problematic.

Similarly the three rolling stock companies who own the trains and lease them to train operators are owned by offshore registered financial consortia who avoid tax and make exorbitant profits.

Tackling this sector within a sector is a more substantial challenge but a good place to start would be creating a public rolling stock company. Labour could also consider a windfall tax on their profits.

Ed Miliband has been right to equate rail companies alongside energy firms in his predatory capitalism narrative. Shadow Secretary of State for Transport Maria Eagle MP has been a powerful advocate for reform.

The party’s opposition to the EU’s Fourth Railway Package and its liberalisation agenda is another significant development.

It is vital Labour has an imaginative rail policy at the next election in order to reconnect with those seats in the commuter heartlands of the South East and the Eastern region where the lost so badly in 2010.

Critical Moments

John Mills writes:

On 5 July MPs will vote on whether to give the British people their first say on the European Union for almost 40 years.

The EU referendum private members' bill being proposed by Conservative MP James Wharton could have been a great moment for Britain's parliament, undermined in recent years by expenses and lobbying scandals. 

It could have been one of those critical moments when MPs put aside partisan differences for the common good. But it won't be.

The Conservatives have chosen to make their bill all blue. One by one, Labour MPs who joined us in supporting the Labour for a Referendum campaign have been rebuffed. The first prime minister to promise a referendum on the EU since Harold Wilson is now in danger of becoming a major obstacle to one actually happening.

The bill will, of course, pass easily on Friday. But it will do so with meagre cross-party support. Bringing Labour on board would have given it a fighting chance while it goes through committee and then returns to the Commons for another vote in the autumn.

However, David Cameron's partisan meddling with this backbencher's bill has left many MPs from other parties in a position where they feel they simply cannot support it; and that means it will struggle to become law.

I have spent a good deal of my adult life campaigning for an EU referendum. I have done so because as a businessman – I founded and am the chair of the consumer products and shopping channel company JML – I feel the EU too often hinders and frustrates economic growth in Britain; and because as a British citizen, I think Brussels intrudes into too many aspects of our daily lives.

But mostly I have done so because the organisation Britain joined in 1973 has become a very different animal [he was against it then, too though] , and it's only right that the general public get their say on these huge changes.

Regular polls and the meteoric rise of Ukip have shown that Britain's membership of the EU is a crucial matter not just for Conservative voters.

In the past few months one of the campaigns I chair, Business for Britain, has demonstrated that there is a strong feeling in the business community that Britain's relationship with Brussels must undergo a fundamental change.

I helped set up Labour for a Referendum because I feel the Labour party will soon also recognise the imperative for a new deal from the EU. Indeed, it seems the shadow cabinet is now seriously considering backing a referendum in the coming months.

Yet, despite all this evidence that the EU issue stretches across partisan, generational and personal boundaries, the Conservatives have made only scant effort to embrace this new cross-party reality.

Unfortunately, the referendum bill now looks more like a Tory PR operation than a genuine movement for constitutional change.

Unhappily, it gives greater credence to the suspicion that Cameron's promise of a referendum in January was not because he believes it is the right thing to do, but rather because he wanted to placate his vociferous backbenchers.

I'm pleased that Labour's hesitance to match his pledge is seemingly based on ensuring it would be held at a time that would not be detrimental to the British economy.

There is still time for Cameron. Time to reach out to Labour and allow James Wharton to build up the undeniable cross-party support that exists.

With greater numbers of Labour MPs coming around to the idea of a referendum, and party advisers openly preparing the way for a Labour pledge before 2015, the door is open for the sort of coalition the country can be proud of to vote through a referendum and let the people decide on the EU.

But will they dare?

John Mills for Stockton South?

The Appalling Truth

Owen Jones writes:

George Osborne’s political career should be lying face down, lifeless, bobbing in the Thames. His statement last week should have been rebranded “The Comprehensive Review of the Failure of Austerity”. The Tories’ central pledge at the last election, after all, was that the deficit would be erased, wiped out, vanished over the course of this Parliament: there should have been no alleged need for further cuts after 2015.

But everything those who were smeared as “deficit deniers” predicted would happen back when David Cameron and Nick Clegg began cavorting in the Rose Garden has come to pass. Austerity has acted like a growth-seeking missile, leaving Britain embroiled in a longer economic crisis than the Great Depression itself. The underlying deficit is bigger this year than it was the last; Osbornomics has left the Tories borrowing £245bn more than they projected.

Here are the calamitous results of a lethal combination of a shrinking economy, suppressed demand and stagnant tax revenues. Companies are sitting on monumental cash piles worth hundreds of billions which they are not investing. Meanwhile, the average worker faces a pay packet shrinking at the fastest rate in modern British history. No wonder that Osborne’s approval rating languishes somewhere around minus 40.

And yet, and yet. The Chancellor’s default facial expression may be set to smug, but – given the circumstances – his performance in the Commons last week was assured, confident, even cocky. No wonder. Even as austerity has failed on its own terms, the Official Opposition has not so much missed open goals as fled in the opposite direction. The Tories’ message can be summed up in one easily digestible sentence: “We will cut the deficit by reining in public spending, stopping hard-working taxpayers subsidising the indolent and the workshy by cutting welfare, and we will live within our means.”

Labour’s current muddled message would take several confusing paragraphs, filled with caveats and clarifications, covered in scribbles and crossings-out. Osborne has cut too far and too fast, they say, but we will stick to his plans. The Tory approach to cutting social security is wrong, though many of their underlying principles are right. Many of their cuts are as cruel as they are unnecessary, but we will not reverse them.

Perversely, this farcically disastrous Chancellor has been allowed to make the political weather, constantly leaving Labour in a defensive posture. His declaration that people thrown out of their work must wait for seven days before getting benefits is a classic example. Working people pay into national insurance and deserve to be supported when their boss sacks them, Labour should have said.

The average wait is already more than three weeks as it is. This will only benefit legal loan sharks – who a million families now turn to – and lengthen the queues to food banks, who now cater for half a million people in the seventh-richest country on earth. But Labour did not make these arguments. Ed Balls instead accepted the underlying logic of a longer wait – with caveats, of course.

The Tory strategy is to crucify Labour over social-security spending, aided and abetted by right-wing propagandists posing as journalists who hunt down extreme, unrepresentative examples and pass them off as the tip of a feckless iceberg – say, a woman with 45 kids and a giraffe on benefits, as my colleague Mark Steel puts it.

But as a poll published in this newspaper at the start of 2013 showed, thanks to our media, the public are chronically misinformed about social security: about who gets benefits, how much they are worth, and the real level of fraud (around 0.7 per cent). The more they know the reality, the less likely they are to support life-destroying cuts.

Rather than accepting the Tory terms of debate on social security, then, Labour should be launching the mother of all campaigns to educate and inform. Most social-security spending goes quite rightly on elderly people, who have paid in their whole lives. Most working-age benefits go to people in work, like tax credits, which are a subsidy for low pay. Housing benefit – which has jumped by £2bn under this Government – lines the pockets of landlords who can get away with charging rip-off rents, knowing that you and I, the taxpayer, will step in.

To bring down social-security spending in a sustained way, Labour should say, we will address the root causes: taking on low pay with a living wage; controlling rents as well as allowing councils to build; and an industrial strategy to create hundreds of thousands of jobs, not least in renewable energy as Germany has done. Such a message would undercut the prejudices that the Tory offensive depends on.

But instead, Labour’s leaders – pessimistic as they are about the prospects of shifting public attitudes – fail to challenge myths, and even occasionally feed them. It is utterly self-destructive. The more “skivers” or “shirkers” are inflated in people’s minds, the bigger the potential pool of Tory support. After all, if you really want to give “scroungers” a kicking, you will always trust the Conservatives best to do it.

And here is the fatal flaw in the Labour leadership’s strategy. They think they are buying back credibility, rather than shoring up policies that should be seen as sunk, ruinous, shredded. By failing to offer a coherent message, they risk a sense of “at least you know where you are with the Tories” bedding in. But the cost is not only to Labour’s electoral prospects: it will be to the working, disabled and unemployed people whose pockets will continue to be emptied.

A generation of plummeting living standards beckons – unless the Labour leadership’s failure to challenge a hijacking of the financial crisis to roll back the state is countered. Last week, more than 4,000 people attended the People’s Assembly coalition against austerity, and decided on a rolling programme of action.

Learning from the success of UK Uncut in forcing tax avoidance on to the political agenda, a day of peaceful civil disobedience will be held on 5 November. The gentleman’s agreement of British politics has to be sabotaged: our futures and those of our children are at risk. That’s not hyperbole. It’s the appalling truth.

Of Gove and Gramsci

This article of mine appears in the London Progressive Journal:

It is fashionable to claim that Michael Gove has been influenced by Antonio Gramsci.

The thing about Gramsci is that we have never really needed him in Britain. The insistence on the unity of theory and practice, the rejection of economic determinism and of metaphysical materialism, the celebration of the “national-popular”, an organic working-class culture and self-organisation including worker-intellectuals: we already had them all. At least, we did have them. Until Gove’s political heroine, whom no one ever accused of being either a worker or an intellectual, came along and destroyed their economic base.

But there remained heirs to the organic worker-intellectual tradition, often very left-wing people indeed, who tried as best they could to maintain in their own classrooms, until they themselves retired, whatever they could of the best that had been known and thought, in the midst of her enforcement upon everyone else of her own utter philistinism and of her own total lack of even the slightest intellectual curiosity. Truly, her natural successor was Tony Blair. And truly, his natural successors are David Cameron and George Osborne.

There had been some grounds for hoping that Gove was different. But he is clearly oblivious to these facts. He knows nothing of the trade union, co-operative and mutual, Radical Liberal, Tory populist, Guild Socialist, Christian Socialist, Social Catholic and Distributist, and many other roots of the British, Irish and Commonwealth Labour Movements, predating Marx and long predating Gramsci.

He knows nothing of their roots, which are in the anti-Whig subcultures disaffected by the events of 1688, subcultures predating any counterrevolutionary movement on the continent, predating any revolution there or in North America, and emphasising the indispensable role of the State in protecting against the market everything that conservatives seek to conserve, while offering perennial critiques of individualism, capitalism, imperialism, militarism, bourgeois triumphalism, and the fallacy of inevitable historical progress. As an ardent neoconservative, Gove is fully signed up to all of those.

Does he even know anything of their roots, which are in Early Modernity and in the Middle Ages, in the Classics that he purports to promote and in the Bible that he ostentatiously sends out to schools with a preface by himself, together with a reference to himself on the very cover? Or is the entirety of this Government exactly as it would appear to be: intellectually unequipped to be the Government of the United Kingdom, or, at root, to be the Government of any country on earth?

But Gove may yet revive the worker-intellectual tradition in spite of himself. Under him, universities are to become confined merely to those whose parents happened to have nine thousand pounds per annum lying around with no other call on it, and therefore had no need to send their offspring out to work at the earliest opportunity. Academic ability or accomplishment will have nothing to do with it. Indeed, they will be relatively rare among the entrants, one would expect.

Leaving plenty of room for the successors of the pitmen poets and of the pitmen painters, of the Workers’ Educational Association (which still exists) and of the Miners’ Lodge Libraries, of the brass and silver bands, of the people’s papers rather than the red top rags, to re-emerge in, though and as an organic working-class culture and self-organisation.

That, in turn, requires an economic base such as only the State can guarantee, and such as only the State can very often deliver. Not exclusively, but in no small part, that is what the State is for. Not exclusively, but in no small part, that is why we have it.

Power of Procurement

The, often born-again, Eurosceptical rising generation around Ed Miliband: the Vice-Chairman of the Labour Party, Michael Dugher (born 1975), writes:

The Government recently confirmed that the German conglomerate, Siemens, has won the £1.6bn contract to build rolling stock for the Thameslink line.  This decision is a huge blow to Bombardier, the Derby-based train manufacturer, and a stark example of the Government’s approach to British industry.  Ministers have defended the appalling decision by citing EU procurement rules, but it is inconceivable that any other EU country, bound by the same rules, would have made the same decision.

This month also saw the first meeting of Labour’s new cross-departmental procurement group [which Dugher co-chairs with Chuka Umunna, born 1978], made up of a frontbench shadow minister from every shadow team.  The quality of procurement practise across the public sector varies markedly and part of the problem is that there is still a fragmented approach with Whitehall operating in silos.   The aim of the new group is to address this, as well as to develop new thinking to feed into our ongoing policy reviews.  One of the major issues we will be looking at is the need for more flexibility in relation to EU procurement rules.

The problems around EU procurement are complex and far from new.  Initially, EU Directives were designed to ensure transparency and non-discrimination, leading to outcomes which represent good value for money.  But there has been a growing sense amongst British businesses that when it comes to EU procurement rules, the current system simply doesn’t function fairly and that our continental neighbours (and competitors) manage to support their domestic industry in a way that simply doesn’t happen enough in the UK.  This has got to be bad for the British economy.

In 2004, Gordon Brown commissioned Alan Wood to look into this area and he produced a report which showed just how one-sided the procurement rules have been operated.  Many British business leaders quoted in the report spoke of an uneven playing field and how other European countries were able to fit the specifications of a contract to give a good chance to domestic suppliers.  This explains, for example, why all trains in Germany are built by Siemens.

In countries like Germany and (above all) France, contracts are often sliced up into parts so that each slice falls below the minimum required for compulsory international tendering.   There is also often an important specification that states that as well as considering price, the final choice has to represent “best value”, a concept which forces Ministers to take into consideration wider economic, environmental and strategic industrial factors.

The result is that the single market in procurement is often a bit of a chimera, with countries tending to support home industries and domestic taxpayers as much as they can.

The obvious question then is this: why have we not been acting in the same way in the UK?  In Britain, it seems, many of the problems have stemmed from what might be described as Whitehall's rather ambivalent attitude towards British industry.  For years, civil servants in Whitehall have too often used EU procurement rules as a basis - an excuse even - to make recommendations to Ministers that simply do not do the right thing by the UK.

As the procurement expert Professor Dermot Cahill said when giving evidence to the new shadow procurement group this month, purchasers often hide behind EU law as “the problem”.  He added that to start with only 20 per cent of public procurement tenders are large enough to fall under the EU rule requirements, and that even large contracts are more flexible than they are sometimes made out to be.

Unfortunately, Ministers in this Government appear either to share the indifference to British industry or are simply content to sign off advice without properly challenging their officials.  The Government’s handling of the Thameslink contract is an example of this attitude.  And another scandalous recent example was with the London Olympics – where out of the 2,717 cars procured to drive officials and athletes around during the event, only a 360 were manufactured in the UK.

So a complete shift in mind-set is needed in Whitehall.  Public procurement is an important driver for economic growth and employment and its creative use can help maximise the impact of public spending.  As Ed Balls has said recently, Labour could be set to inherit a very difficult financial situation in 2015, which will require us to govern in a different way with much less money around.  So how we use procurement to best effect and best value will become increasingly important.

Ed Miliband and Chuka Umunna have both already spoken about using the power of procurement to support British innovation and jobs, calling for large suppliers to offer apprenticeship opportunities on public contracts as a way of sharing the proceeds of growth. And over the last few years, the Labour Government in Wales has been successfully moving towards this wider approach.  For example, Dermot Cahill said that the introduction of “community benefit” criteria in Wales has meant that there is public value left behind when procurement contracts finish.

This approach is certainly not about being anti-open competition. It is about being smarter. It is about considering what is best for the UK, in a wider economic context, when deciding the criteria for major public procurement contracts and when spending British tax-payers money.

And despite perceived wisdom, none of this is incompatible with EU law. Of course, there are technical revisions to EU procurement rules that will help remove barriers for British businesses trying to access the European market - and this will be part of Labour’s determination to drive reform in the EU so it once again works in our national interest.  But crucially, we need to look at why we are not showing the same ingenuity and flexibility that other EU states currently do.

The irony is that by standing up more for our national interest, and refusing to be a slave to EU procurement nonsense, our approach might actually make us more European in that we would be acting in a way that is more like our European counterparts.  The consequence of this would be Britain left better off.

In Vain Doth Valour Bleed

Every time I come to Syria I am struck by how different the situation is on the ground from the way it is pictured in the outside world.

The foreign media reporting of the Syrian conflict is surely as inaccurate and misleading as anything we have seen since the start of the First World War. I can't think of any other war or crisis I have covered in which propagandistic, biased or second-hand sources have been so readily accepted by journalists as providers of objective facts.

A result of these distortions is that politicians and casual newspaper or television viewers alike have never had a clear idea over the last two years of what is happening inside Syria. Worse, long-term plans are based on these misconceptions.

A report on Syria published last week by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says that "once confident of swift victory, the opposition's foreign allies shifted to a paradigm dangerously divorced from reality".

Slogans replace policies: the rebels are pictured as white hats and the government supporters as black hats; given more weapons, the opposition can supposedly win a decisive victory; put under enough military pressure, President Bashar al-Assad will agree to negotiations for which a pre-condition is capitulation by his side in the conflict.

One of the many drawbacks of the demonising rhetoric indulged in by the incoming US National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and William Hague, is that it rules out serious negotiations and compromise with the powers-that-be in Damascus. And since Assad controls most of Syria, Rice and Hague have devised a recipe for endless war while pretending humanitarian concern for the Syrian people.

It is difficult to prove the truth or falsehood of any generalisation about Syria. But, going by my experience this month travelling in central Syria between Damascus, Homs and the Mediterranean coast, it is possible to show how far media reports differ markedly what is really happening. Only by understanding and dealing with the actual balance of forces on the ground can any progress be made towards a cessation of violence.

On Tuesday I travelled to Tal Kalakh, a town of 55,000 people just north of the border with Lebanon, which was once an opposition bastion. Three days previously, government troops had taken over the town and 39 Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders had laid down their weapons.

Talking to Syrian army commanders, an FSA defector and local people, it was evident there was no straight switch from war to peace. It was rather that there had been a series of truces and ceasefires arranged by leading citizens of Tal Kalakh over the previous year.

But at the very time I was in the town, Al Jazeera Arabic was reporting fighting there between the Syrian army and the opposition. Smoke was supposedly rising from Tal Kalakh as the rebels fought to defend their stronghold. Fortunately, this appears to have been fantasy and, during the several hours I was in the town, there was no shooting, no sign that fighting had taken place and no smoke.

Of course, all sides in a war pretend that no position is lost without a heroic defence against overwhelming numbers of the enemy. But obscured in the media's accounts of what happened in Tal Kalakh was an important point: the opposition in Syria is fluid in its allegiances. The US, Britain and the so-called 11-member "Friends of Syria", who met in Doha last weekend, are to arm non-Islamic fundamentalist rebels, but there is no great chasm between them and those not linked to al-Qa'ida. One fighter with the al-Qa'ida-affiliated al-Nusra Front was reported to have defected to a more moderate group because he could not do without cigarettes. The fundamentalists pay more and, given the total impoverishment of so many Syrian families, the rebels will always be able to win more recruits. "Money counts for more than ideology," a diplomat in Damascus told me.

While I was in Homs I had an example of why the rebel version of events is so frequently accepted by the foreign media in preference to that of the Syrian government. It may be biased towards the rebels, but often there is no government version of events, leaving a vacuum to be filled by the rebels.

For instance, I had asked to go to a military hospital in the al-Waar district of Homs and was granted permission, but when I got there I was refused entrance. Now, soldiers wounded fighting the rebels are likely to be eloquent and convincing advocates for the government side (I had visited a military hospital in Damascus and spoken to injured soldiers there). But the government's obsessive secrecy means that the opposition will always run rings around it when it comes to making a convincing case.

Back in the Christian quarter of the Old City of Damascus, where I am staying, there was an explosion near my hotel on Thursday. I went to the scene and what occurred next shows that there can be no replacement for unbiased eyewitness reporting. State television was claiming that it was a suicide bomb, possibly directed at the Greek Orthodox Church or a Shia hospital that is even closer. Four people had been killed.

I could see a small indentation in the pavement which looked to me very much like the impact of a mortar bomb. There was little blood in the immediate vicinity, though there was about 10 yards away. While I was looking around, a second mortar bomb came down on top of a house, killing a woman.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, so often used as a source by foreign journalists, later said that its own investigations showed the explosion to have been from a bomb left in the street. In fact, for once, it was possible to know definitively what had happened, because the Shia hospital has CCTV that showed the mortar bomb in the air just before it landed – outlined for a split-second against the white shirt of a passer-by who was killed by the blast. What had probably happened was part of the usual random shelling by mortars from rebels in the nearby district of Jobar.

In the middle of a ferocious civil war it is self-serving credulity on the part of journalists to assume that either side in the conflict, government or rebel, is not going to concoct or manipulate facts to serve its own interests. Yet much foreign media coverage is based on just such an assumption.

The plan of the CIA and the Friends of Syria to somehow seek an end to the war by increasing the flow of weapons is equally absurd. War will only produce more war. John Milton's sonnet, written during the English civil war in 1648 in praise of the Parliamentary General Sir Thomas Fairfax, who had just stormed Colchester, shows a much deeper understanding of what civil wars are really like than anything said by David Cameron or William Hague. He wrote: 

For what can war but endless war still breed?
Till truth and right from violence be freed,
And public faith clear'd from the shameful brand
Of public fraud. In vain doth valour bleed
While avarice and rapine share the land.

A Shared Economy, A Shared Endeavour, A Shared Future

Thank you very much for asking me to speak to you today. I am so pleased to be here, so honoured to have been asked to give this opening keynote address at your Congress. I’m also exceptionally humbled to have been asked to speak today by this man – Ed Mayo.  Ed – thank you.

Ed does a fantastic job leading Co-operatives UK.  And, of course, his record before being appointed as your Secretary General speaks for itself: Director of the World Development Movement; Director of the New Economics Foundation, pioneering ethical market activity, local economies and public service reform; The strategy lead on the Jubilee 2000 campaign that helped alleviate debt for developing countries; A national consumer champion, who we are grateful to for producing an independent report which will shape the consumer rights agenda in the lead up to Election 2015.

So Ed is a man who brings people together. A man who looks at the present, with his mind on the future, and knows it can be better. And then he sets about making it happen. So, inspired by Ed, I want to talk today about a more co-operative future for our economy – and for our country. This is a great country which has achieved great things.  Have no doubt - we have the potential to carry on doing so.  But, the world is changing at speed, and we must adapt. We find ourselves at a crossroads.  We know the status quo won’t do.

Why? Because our economy has been flatlining for months, there are too many people out of work, they are working harder but earning less. Because, if we are to bequeath a more sustainable future to our children, we can’t go on with output coming from a narrow range of sectors and regions. Because if we are to build a better capitalism, we must stamp out the fast buck irresponsible practices that precipitated the crash for which our communities are still paying the price. I think we can do better.  Actually – I know we can and we must do better. I’m pretty sure you do too. That’s why you’re here today.

You are here because you know we stand taller when we stand together.  It is at the core of the co-operative movement – it is the first line of a history you know well. Last month I visited The Rochdale Pioneers Museum - the original store of the Rochdale Pioneers and birthplace of the modern co-operative movement. Those pioneers were flannel weavers, cloggers and joiners who were struggling under the harsh economic reality of 19th Century Britain when they set up shop.  They faced what you might call a “cost of living crisis.” Sounds kind of familiar doesn’t it?

But, in those times, they weren’t even able to look to the government for support.  They looked to themselves and to each other.  And by forming the world’s first sustainable co-op they were able to achieve together what they could not achieve alone. First there was the store, then the housing, then manufacturing, even – perish the thought - a temperance hotel.

It was economic development – by the people, for the people – as participants in social change. “For the improvement of the social and domestic condition of its members” – that is how they described themselves.  And those remarkable people and their families were the catalyst for a movement that would light up communities the world over thereafter.

Look at the huge energy and broadband co-ops in free market America, or big brands like Ocean Spray.  Look at Mondragon in Spain, the largest worker owned co-operative in the world.  Or Fonterra, a dairy co-operative founded in 1874, now owned by more than 10,000 of New Zealand’s farmers.  It is New Zealand’s largest company and the world’s largest dairy exporter. Or look at Dulas, the British renewable energy experts and a co-op.  One half of all the child vaccinations in the world are kept at the right temperature by solar powered fridges made by them.

This is a living legacy of ordinary people who – by coming together – achieved quite extraordinary things. The other political parties can speak for themselves but let me be clear: those pioneers’ values, the values upon which you are founded, are values which we share deeply with you.  They are enshrined in our constitution – a constitution which says: “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we can achieve alone.”

It is a belief that Ed Miliband reaffirmed when he set out our vision of One Nation Britain at our conference last year: a country where everyone has a voice, everyone has stake, everyone has part a play to play in writing the next chapter of our story, our shared destiny. So armed with that history and those principles, when I look towards our future – that shared destiny – I know we can do better.  And we have to do it now.

Now, because families are struggling in an economy that is sluggish and unequal. Now, because unless we change our economy so it makes use of everyone’s talents, providing people with the wherewithal and skills to succeed, this country will not be able to pay its way in the world. Now, because we don’t want to win a race to the bottom - where we compete by making people more insecure at work and grinding down their wages - but by a race to the top with quality jobs paying decent wages people can live off.

And, yes, the global economy is changing – but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless to shape our destiny.  We are not the economic super power we once were – people talk about the BRIC economies, the fact China is forecast to become a bigger economy than the US (never mind us) by as early as 2025.  They talk about the emerging African Lions – with 7 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world sitting on that continent.

But these need not be threats to our economy – in fact, they present massive opportunities.  I was in Ghana and Nigeria last month and I left there buzzing – electrified by the energy of people reaching for success, by their boundless optimism.  You know what they said to me?  Where are the Brits – you are our preferred trading partner, we like doing business with you, we know you deliver quality goods and services and on time.  The British brand is strong and they want our products and services.

So their optimism should also be our future. Yes, times are tough now and we have challenges behind us and ahead of us. But this is a country that has not only adapted to change in the past – we have spearheaded it, changed the world and created new opportunities for ourselves and everyone else.

Take computing.  It was Alan Turing who invented the computer.  It was Jony Ive that made it easy enough for anyone to use.  And it was Tim Berners-Lee who opened up the internet to all through his invention of the World Wide Web.  British people who have changed all our lives.

However, to compete in this world and to take advantage of these opportunities it offers we need a new model of growth where we invest in our rich diversity of talents. A model oriented towards long-term value creation. A model where social and environmental concerns are a source of competitive advantage. A model where we realise this truth: ask any business person what their most precious asset is and they will tell you it is their people.

So we need a model where businesses engage their workforce, listen to them, invest in them.  And here the UK is behind others.  If we matched the engagement levels businesses have with their work force in the Netherlands, it would be worth more than £25bn a year to our economy. This year.  Next year.  Every year. Now, it is not for government to dictate the ownership structures, business models and competitive strategies firms choose.  But neither should government remain indifferent to them.

Our goal in framing the rules is this: to ensure that business which is most socially valuable and sustainable is also the most profitable. And therefore Co-operatives must be central to our future, to a better and more productive capitalism. You already contribute £36.7bn to our economy. The resilience of the co-operative model has been proved in the wake of the global economic downturn, with revenues up by 20%.

Co-operative models of business encourage the longer-term decision-making we need. They focus on member value, not shareholder value. Money spent in Co-operative stores often stays within the local economy.  This ‘sticky money’ enhances the vitality and sustainability of our local communities. Co-operatives can also be stable members of the community as it is more difficult for a co-operative to be taken over, or to shift its headquarters off-shore.

However, of course, co-operative business models won’t be the right strategy for all.  While I was preparing for this speech, someone put it to me this way: “Not every business should be a co-operative, but every business can benefit by being more co-operative”. And co-operatives are not guarantees of special wisdom or perfect foresight.  We see this clearly with the recent problems at the Co-operative Bank.

It is still too early to make a proper assessment of what went wrong.  As new Chief Executive, Niall Booker has said, “there are lessons to learn and clearly there will be a time to look back and do that”. Right now the issue is the ‘bail-in’, meaning that tax payers won’t be on the hook - it will be bond-holders who will have to take the haircut.  But what really concerns many is the fear that the ethos of the bank will change, now that its shares can be bought and sold - it would be a great shame if that ethos were lost.

The experience of French mutual Credit Agricole who – for different reasons – went through the same experience a dozen years ago suggests that this doesn’t have to be the case.  According to Jean-Marie Sander, the Chairman, the bank has been able to develop considerably, without losing its “mutual DNA”.

But, my central point is this: too much economic policy of the last three decades has relied on the magic of markets.  Don’t get me wrong: competition in markets is good – and we need more of it, especially in our energy markets.  It is the discipline every firm needs, whatever its ownership structure – driving efficiencies which benefit consumers.

But that should not be the be-all and end-all. We must also understand the vital role co-operation can play between firms to solve common problems, to the benefit of all.  Things that improve productivity, but are difficult for one firm to create alone: like a pool of skilled workers to draw on; research breakthroughs that can benefit a whole sector; functioning supply chains; and intelligent, patient finance.

Take the central purchasing function of a co-op like Anglia Farmers, achieving a good deal together.  It’s so good, even the Queen is a member. They’ve set up a bank too – allowing those with extra funds to lend to others, providing the patient finance that too many firms in Britain must survive without. Co-operation and collaboration can take many forms and consist of many different partners.  They could be co-ops, based on the initiative of firms.  Research partnerships between universities and local firms.

Sometimes it will take government to be the catalyst, acting as an honest broker to bring competing firms together – as we have seen with the Automotive Council and now in aerospace and other sectors. We can have a proactive Government working to shape our economy of the future – partnering with business to set direction, to create and transform markets, to develop our national potential, and to invest in the next waves of innovation.

This is the way we will create a more broad based economy, delivering success abroad and fairness at home.  More co-ops, certainly.  But a whole lot more co-operative working too – within firms and between firms, and with government too: the business and spirit of co-operation threaded right through our economy. That is a vision of the future we can have. But we have to begin now.

That is why Ed Balls – the country’s first Co-operative Shadow Chancellor – asked Peter Hunt to lead a review into the role of mutuals in financial services and more widely in the economy. Peter has formed a working group and will be going out to consultation with co-ops and mutuals in due course.  We expect Peter to report back in 2014. As Ed Mayo’s Consumer Investigation showed, inequalities in market power work against consumers.  When consumers act together, they can equalise power relations.  Labour is interested in cooperative models for consumers in the energy market – doing for everyone what Anglia Farmers does for Her Majesty the Queen.

I’m keen to encourage greater employee ownership – not in exchange for employment rights as the Chancellor wants but as an enhancement of economic citizenship.  Not just in public services – although there is plenty of scope to build on what Labour began there – but across the private sector too. We are looking carefully at what President Hollande is doing in France where he has made this a priority to see what lessons can be learned.  I’m interested in the Marcora Law in Italy that allows workers who are made redundant to pool their accumulated unemployment benefits to fund a co-operative buyout.

And I understand the concerns expressed to me about capital gains tax rules for employee share schemes – designed with the Plc in mind, they may act to disadvantage co-ops trying to achieve a similar outcome.  This isn’t the intention but it is why we need more intelligent policy making that can work for a variety of business models, including co-operative models. In fact, it may be that merely levelling the playing field is not enough.  Maybe we need to go further in taking action in favour of co-operative models.

Part of the challenge of setting up or transferring a business into employee ownership – or structuring it for employee benefit – is that there are few off-the-shelf models to draw from, and insufficient expertise in our business services industry to advise.  Just as John Lewis had to invent his own model in 1929 – which has turned out to have been a rather good one – things aren’t much better today.  When Steve Parfitt wanted to turn Parfitt’s Cash and Carry into an employee owned business in 2008, he also had to design a bespoke model.

Here in Wales and in Scotland there are dedicated co-operative development bodies and I am keen to understand whether there is a need for something similar in England.  We can certainly do better in ensuring that the Cooperative model is better understood in Whitehall, starting in BIS but right across government.  Occasionally probably the spirit of co-operation as well. We – here at this Congress today – know that together we are stronger, more vibrant and more optimistic than when we are apart.

To create a better and more productive capitalism that benefits us all. A One Nation economy that generates sustained, sustainable and inclusive growth that allows us to thrive in the modern world. We must do more to return the business and spirit of co-operation to the mainstream of British economic life and society. Just as I can point to Ed and say he is a role model – other companies and organisations must be able to point to you for inspiration.

That demands that you live up to the standards set by your proud heritage. But it also means you shouldn’t be shy about sharing your successes, or - even more importantly – why you do what you do. The values that allow ordinary people to do the extraordinary. Because ours is a shared economy. Because this is a shared endeavour. And above all, because we have a shared future.

Thank you.

Saturday, 29 June 2013

On This Rock

Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam Meam.

Considering the claims that the See of Rome makes, then, while individual Popes might be or have been charlatans or lunatics, the institution itself is either telling the truth in making those claims, or else it is indeed the Antichrist, and any professing Christian who does not submit to Rome on Rome’s own terms must believe it to be so.

Who will call good evil by pointing to the Papacy’s defence and promotion of metaphysical realism, of Biblical historicity, of credal and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, of the sanctity of human life, of Biblical standards of sexual morality, of social justice, and of peace, and by then saying, “Behold, the Antichrist”? That is the question.

Ah, Faith of Our Fathers. Father Faber was the son of the Rector of Stanhope, and, like a striking number of Tractarian or Tractarian-influenced converts, his ancestry was largely Huguenot (as is part of mine, although another side is Highland Catholic). So his fathers chained in prisons dark were not quite as his thoroughly rousing hymn would suggest.

The Rate For The Job

As the underrated John Denham explained on Any Questions, Parliament has determined a formula for the calculation of the Sovereign Grant, and this is what that formula has produced.

No trade unionist could disagree.

The Real Armed Forces Day

It is not today.

It is on 11th November, and the whole point of it is that it is not a public holiday or anything like that.

Rather, at eleven o’clock in the morning, the ordinary routine of daily life is interrupted.

Or, at least, it used to be. It should be again.

Unite And Fight

The grave doubts about three-parent babies expressed in yesterday’s Guardian by Zoe Williams serve to remind us that everyone from Germaine Greer to Beatrix Campbell has long articulated equally profound reservations about IVF in general.

What else that cost as much as IVF but which had such a failure rate – frankly, it doesn’t work – would be available on the NHS?  Add to that the fact that each year, 80 women who have become pregnant through IVF have abortions. Read that one over again.

This traditionalist-feminist alliance has been staring us all in the face for many years. As surely as the Old Right-Old Left anti-war alliance that just failed to happen over Iraq, not without blame on both sides, but which really does look as if it might keep both Britain and, possibly, America out of the war in Syria. If we do not take our eyes off the ball this time. The one against global capitalism is also now so obvious that it can no longer be ignored.

As the campaign against Page Three and "lads’ mags" really heats up, consider, if you can stomach doing so, how the male contribution to IVF is invariably produced.

At our expense, of course. We buy the visual aids, to which the supplying of the IVF industry within your NHS and mine must now be a very considerable source of income.

Probably even a commercially salvific one, since it is quite beyond improbable that most teenage boys these days ever set eyes on a top-shelf magazine.

Back in March 2009, even the liberal "Left" media finally realised what the rest of us had been saying for years. But in February of this year, the age limit was put up. Again. It had been put last February as well, when same-sex couples had also been given an entitlement. Only under the Conservatives. Of course.

Meanwhile, NaProTech, Natural Procreative Technology, is an ethical, healthy and far more successful alternative to IVF. Unlike IVF, in NaProTech no embryonic children are killed or exposed to harm in the laboratory, and couples’ relationships are strengthened.

As they are also strengthened by Natural Family Planning, which is more effective than anything else if it is taught properly, as is admitted even by the World Health Organisation, which is hardly a Vatican puppet.

NFP involves no poisoning of women in order to make them permanently available for the sexual gratification of men. It can only be practised by faithful couples, and its practitioners almost, if almost, never divorce.

As for Lily the Pink claims about things such as three-parent babies, we have been here before.

For example, the term "stem cell research" has persistently been used to mean scientifically worthless but morally abhorrent playing about with embryonic stem cells, together with the viciously cruel justification of this by reference to an ever-longer list of medical conditions.

It remains to be established whether stem cell treatment has led to the improvements that have been experienced by stroke victims in Glasgow. But there is no doubt that such cells are obtainable without any recourse to abortion.

For the real stem cell research involves adult and cord blood stem cells, is ethically unproblematic, and has already yielded real, demonstrable, demonstrated results.

But it struggles to secure funding, because it is of no interest to those who cannot forgive the Catholic Church either for having educated them or for having educated the wrong sort.

Any chance that these realities might be taught in secondary schools, Mr Gove? Or made the subject of responsible television documentaries?

Or featured in the press, much of which noisily parades its conservatism, its Catholicism, or both, while the rest noisily parades its feminism?

All of it at present is noisily parading its purported ability and willingness to challenge the supposedly distinct powers that be.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Something More

As the Palestinian Christians whom he never visited say that they had expected from the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Here in the land of Eadfrith, several moves are quietly afoot. He would be a most valuable addition to any or all of them.

Probably A Fracking Good Idea

If something sounds too good to be true...

Still, if it is there at all, then it is in the right places. Like coal. Except that we know with absolute certainty that the coal is there.

Shale gas could help to keep us ticking over for a few decades. As a strict ancillary to coal, which can and must keep us ticking over for centuries, and nuclear power, which can and must keep us ticking over forever.

The exposure of Greenery as anything but left-wing is, I suppose, useful for those who might ever have needed such an elementary education.

But it would take a heart of stone not to laugh, even if a touch hollowly, at the sudden conversion of the likes of Daniel Hannan, James Delingpole and Fraser Nelson to the provision of energy by means of secure, unionised, high-wage, high-skilled, high-status, mostly male employment, in this country and guaranteed by the State.

Now that those are the terms of the debate, though, over to Labour.

Triangulation, Indeed

From the Government that brought you this

It all ties together here, which has not taken long, has it?

Not Freedom At All

It takes a bit of time, but eventually politicians do catch up with reality – one only hopes that they do so in time. Ed Miliband has made a speech in which he says some very sensible things about, among other things, pornography. I quote:

“There is a culture of increasingly sexualised images among young people: a culture that says that girls will only get on in life if they live up to the crudest of stereotypes; a culture where pornographic images, some violent, are available at a click on a smartphone or a laptop.”

This is exactly the sort of thing that the good priest who taught me religious education when I was 13 used to say (apart from the reference to computers, of course), namely that pornography and sexualised images cheapen women.

And now, over three decades on, we hear it not just from Ed Miliband, but also from Diane Abbott  and David Cameron too. It seems that there is a building consensus that pornography is harmful. This consensus must have been boosted recently by the cases of Mark Bridger and Stuart Hazell.  

So, what can be done? Because not only do most, if not all, of our legislators realise that pornography is harmful, they also seem unable to act in face of the danger. They should act, and restrictive legislation should be introduced. What are the counter-arguments?

Firstly, any ban would be “censorship”. Yes, it would be. But we have numerous restrictions on expression as it is. Racist material is illegal in this country. Why shouldn’t porn be?

Secondly, such legislation would not work, as it is possible to circumvent any bans thanks to technological sleight of hand. This may be true. You are never going to stop theft, either; but that does not mean it should be legal.

Thirdly, where do you draw the line? True, this is a difficulty, and lines drawn are often arbitrary, but some such line can be drawn – that’s what lawyers specialise in.

Fourthly – and this is the only real argument against legislation: if people want to look at porn, they have a perfect right to do so, and neither state nor anyone else has the right to interfere.

The counter-argument is that no one has a right to do what is evil, and that the personal will cannot transform something that is intrinsically wrong into something right. Just because I want it does not make it right; the thing has to be good in itself or morally neutral to be right.

Porn is of itself evil. That assertion should of course be verified, and can be verified by examining the nature of porn itself, something that exposes what should remain private (i.e. consenting sexual acts between adults) or deals with what is already illegal (acts involving those who do not or cannot consent.)

On top of this comes the argument about the effects of porn, which our politicians have made. It coarsens society. People need to be protected from it, especially the vulnerable, and the young. The freedom to enjoy porn is not a freedom worth having. In fact it is not freedom at all. Porn leads to slavery.

Those who argue for a free market in porn are morally irresponsible. The state needs to enforce the laws we already have more effectively, and do its best to protect all of us, children especially, from this menace.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

For The Birds

A wind turbine has destroyed a White-throated Needletail.

The last General Election was a contest between a Government not yet quite politically able to commit itself to coal again (although it would have done so by now, if it had still been in office), but fully committed to nuclear power, and an Opposition which instead wanted to pay its relatives and other financial backers shed loads of public money in order to have wind turbines on their land rather than anything that might employ any of the common people.

The next General Election will be a contest between an Opposition fully committed both to coal and to nuclear power, and a Government which is instead paying its relatives and other financial backers shed loads of public money in order to have wind turbines on their land rather than anything that might employ any of the common people.

To those who answer that this incident occurred in Scotland, it applies there, too, and the case for coal and nuclear power is as much a case for the Union now as it was in the 1970s.

The Fate Awaiting The Faithful

Although he could not be wrong about the economics (where, exactly, has this happened so far?), Ed West writes:

The suicide bombing near a church in Damascus’s Christian quarter is another warning to the world about the fate awaiting Syria’s faithful. 

The Greek Orthodox Virgin Mary Church is in Bab Sharqi, on the eastern edge of the old city, where I was four years ago for the feast of St Paul; I even remember a banner by Bab Sharqi gate welcoming “on behalf of the patriarch of Antioch, all visitors to Damascus for the year of St Paul”.

We attended a service at the nearby Maryamie Cathedral on Straight Street and at night visited bars and restaurants, which mostly had a vaguely French, old-world feel to them (except for the Piano Bar on Hananoa Street, which I recall having terrible euro-pop and its Arabic equivalent).

It was for a press trip organised by the Syrian tourist board, which I had obvious qualms about. Syria had one of the worst human rights records on earth, a deeply sinister regime engaged in all sorts of dubious activity abroad, and promoting its tourism was aiding it in some way.

On the other hand Syria at that time had just re-opened relations with the United States, and there was a hope that it could be detached from Iran, and I believed that more interaction and trade (including tourism) with the west might provide the best future for Syrians.

The more trade crossing borders, the less chance of boots. Also, I believed then, as I do now, that economic reform should come before democracy; without the rule of law, economic freedom and the middle class that follows, democracy turns into dictatorship or ethnic conflict.

And you’d have to be a total naïve idiot in the Webb tradition not to see that this was a country with all the worst politics. Its guiding philosophy was Ba’athism, a sort of mixture of European nationalism, socialism and fascism, blended in with various local prejudices, creating a Syncretism of all the most terrible political ideas in the world.

This was reflected in the Stalinist architecture, the banknotes that idolised non-existent industrial strength, and the idolatry of the ruling family, whose images were ubiquitous (often in a brutally masculine pose that denotes strength in this part of the world but to western eyes screams “massive personal insecurity”).

But I believed then, as I believe much more now, that people did not put up Bashar Assad’s image purely out of fear of him but of fear of what might follow. The country was teeming with Iraqi refugees, and there was a clear sense that in this religiously diverse country the same catastrophe could unfold.

If the moustachioed men one saw all around were rather distasteful, then they were preferable to the bearded men who would follow. For in Middle Eastern politics these days, always back the guys with moustaches against the guys with beards.

Listening to the choir of young Christian girls and boys at the cathedral, in the country in which Christian music has its very origins, I remember feeling profound sadness about what might happen one day.

All around the 5,000-year-old city, with its windy, ancient streets with images of the Virgin Mary, and tiny old houses and rooms dating back to the first millennium, one really feels the story of early Christianity, but can it last forever?

All In This Together

No, not the Queen, getting by on 15 per cent of her own money. This:

David Cameron has taken time out to chillax and sip champagne with the loaded fatcats who will fund his next election campaign. While the country struggles with the recession and unemployment, the Prime Minister welcomed a judo pal of Russian President Vladimir Putin, millionaire hedge fund traders and TV presenter Tania Bryer at the Tory summer ball.

Guests in London had paid at least £1,000 a head to get a seat at the event attended by the leader and his Cabinet. Drinking vintage champagne, the 450 revellers at Old Billingsgate Market in the City mingled with politicians, including Chancellor George Osborne and Mayor Boris Johnson – who cycled there.

Hundreds of thousands of pounds were raised in an auction, with grouse shoots and the obligatory Margaret Thatcher portrait on offer to the true blue faithful. And there was laughter as a bronze bust of Mr Cameron – who was at the event with wife Samantha – went up for sale.

But the PM’s blushes were spared by a foreign businessman who snapped up the artwork for a massive £90,000. One reveller said: “There was obvious laughter when it came up for auction. Everyone thought it wouldn’t go and there were no bids until a businessman stepped in. It could have looked awful for him.

“The event was so lavish, tens of thousands of pounds had been spent on the flowers alone. Security was very tight and everyone was told to keep their phones away and take no pictures. They knew exactly what it would look like if details of the bash got out.”

Guests were treated to an extravagant menu, including smoked rainbow trout, guinea fowl stuffed with herbs and mascarpone, and rhubarb and elderflower tart with gingerbread cream. The event, hosted by City boss Howard Shore, was themed Holding 40, Gaining 40 – the target the Tories have set for seats to win the next election. Each table at the dinner was named after a target constituency.

Ex-Ulster Unionist MP turned City PR David Burnside invited a host of Russian businessmen to his table, including Vasily Shestakov, who penned a judo book with his close pal Mr Putin. Now an MP in Russia’s Duma assembly, he heads a unit which aims to spin Russia’s – and Mr Putin’s – negative image.

Seated next to Boris Johnson was billionaire property developer Poju Zabludowicz who is no stranger to donating money to the Tories. In 2011 he said he was “extremely disappointed” to hear he had been tricked into funding the lavish lifestyle of former Defence Secretary Liam Fox and adviser Adam Werritty, who blew his £3,000 donation jaunting round the globe.

He was angry at suggestions he benefited from the payments. But at Monday’s bash he and art collecting wife Anita seemed to spend an enjoyable night with Mr Johnson. Club mogul Peter Stringfellow was also there with his pregnant wife, Bella.

In a forthright speech, Mr Cameron laid out how he had paid back his rich donors through tax cuts while pursuing policies that have meant pain for millions. He said: “Think of what you have done through your support for the Conservative Party. Who is cutting corporation tax to the lowest level of the G20? That’s what you’re doing. Who has brought in the benefit cap? You have. Who has frozen council tax for three years in a row? That is what your support for the Conservative Party has done. Who has cut the top rate of income tax making Britain competitive again, saying to wealth creators come here, invest here, that is what this Government’s done.”

The PM made clear his backers would have to dig deep for the campaign in May 2015. And he said he wanted to ditch the Coalition. He said: “I want a full Conservative majority. I want to do more. “I am not interested in fiddling about with our constitution, I want a government dedicated to firing up enterprise in Britain. We have to throw everything we have got at the next election. This will be the mother and father of all election battles, the toughest fight in years and we need your support every step of the way.”

Right All Along

Rafael Behr writes:

The Conservative Party’s dedication to the memory of Baroness Thatcher is hardly in doubt. Grief at her death earlier this year brought more unity to the party than any of the policies David Cameron has devised for that purpose. In case the point was missed (it wasn’t), a group of Tory backbenchers propose renaming the August bank holiday in honour of the Iron Lady (it won’t be).

But when it comes to influencing government policy, Mrs T is rivalled by the man who brought her down. Michael Heseltine may not enjoy the veneration of his party but he has the ear of its leaders. Earlier this year, he published a plan for stimulating growth by giving regions more control over spending.

Chunks of the report have been adopted as government policy. Ask Treasury ministers and advisers about their economic strategy and the chances are that Heseltinian intervention will get a reference before Thatcherism.

Westminster has been so busy noticing the victory of the right in an argument about cuts it has barely clocked the left’s victory in an argument about the duty of the state to foster growth. There is cross-party agreement on the need to spend scarce resources on infrastructure.

There is near consensus that the state should be doing more to nurture promising, innovative sectors of the economy. The discredited 1970s practice of “picking winners” has been adjusted and rebranded. It is now a “modern industrial strategy”. Every party will have one in its 2015 manifesto.

Not everyone has received the new wisdom. There are Conservatives who despise all state meddling and think that the only good government intervention is lighting a bonfire of employment rights and workplace protection. Osborne recognises the need to keep that wing of his party fed with meaty policy chunks but his own views are more nuanced.

Cabinet colleagues say the Chancellor privately accepts that Britain already has a liberal labour market and a relatively low-regulation economy. Future growth, in other words, will be spurred by government getting stuck in, not getting out of the way.

Osborne took a gamble on hard and fast cuts in the hope of fighting an election with a tamed deficit and booming economy. That move failed. But cynical risk-taking is not the same as ideological rigidity. Osborne’s allies say his urge to win is greater than his eagerness to parrot Thatcherite shibboleths.

The really zealous expressions of Conservatism are elsewhere, in Michael Gove’s campaign to prise schools away from local authority control, for example, or in a welfare policy that sees help from the state as a cause of poverty rather than its alleviation. In a fiercely ideological field, economic management is one of the more pragmatic bits of the coalition agenda.

Labour detests the idea that Osborne is flexible. The Chancellor’s refusal to change course has been an opposition mantra. Any dabbling in pro-growth intervention is dismissed with scorn. Money for infrastructure, say shadow ministers, is dwarfed by earlier cuts to capital spending budgets.

Funds aimed at supporting new businesses sit idle. If the coalition wanted local growth plans, why scrap regional development agencies? Vince Cable might fancy a new industrial policy but, says Labour, the real agenda is set by old Tory reflexes: tax cuts for the rich; devil take the hindmost.

There are obvious reasons for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to depict Cameron and Osborne as captives of an outmoded and callous creed. At a glance, the cap fits. But by belittling the Tory conversion to active government, Labour misses the opportunity to claim a moral victory.

Under the last government, Peter Mandelson led the interventionist revival with his call for a more “strategic state” to navigate chaotic forces of globalisation. In candid moments, Heseltinian Tories concede that Mandelson was right.

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives dare admit that their economic views are converging. The fortification of opposing trenches, separated by boggy no-man’s-land (aka the Lib Dems), has become a strategic necessity and a source of intellectual comfort.

Yet the proximity is clear to anyone outside the two tribes. Labour has accepted that budgets must be cut, as the Tories said all along. The Tories are borrowing to keep the economy afloat, as Labour predicted they would.

Both want to spend on infrastructure and skills. Both are working their way towards a more vigorous industrial policy.

Both are planning manifesto chapters on beefing-up consumer regulation to address the rage of people who feel permanently ripped off by banks, utilities, rail companies and pretty much every other essential service, many of which are in the private sector.

The political pendulum is swinging towards more, not less, intervention in the economy. That should favour Labour – but before the opposition can take any credit for the new consensus, it has to prove that the consensus is there. That means recognising there is more to Tory economic policy than cuts.

Buried in the coalition’s austerity programme is the kernel of acceptance that, ultimately, government is the solution to economic malaise, not the cause. Miliband and Balls may not want to give the Chancellor credit for getting anything right but they also need to look as if they are winning some big arguments.

Full-frontal attack is Labour’s default stance towards Osborne. Sometimes faint praise can be more damning.

New Challenges Altogether

Tom Miller writes:

I have an interest in this as I’m running for Brent Council in Willesden Green. But that means the public have an interest in it too, so I’m dumping a quick thought here which outlines how I feel about cuts. Might as well clear my chest at this early stage.

Firstly, the bottom line stuff. I am committed to the Labour Party as once necessary vehicle for democratic socialism, and I will follow its rules as decided by conference, including by following collective group responsibility with any colleagues I am elected alongside at a local Government level. I wouldn’t feel the same about being elected to Parliament for a host of reasons, but they are long and irrelevant.

The flip side – though this gives me a duty to support group decisions, it also gives me an obligation to fight for my own values and for my local residents in campaigns, when candidates are selected within the party, and then within the Labour group if I am elected as a Councillor.

So there’s my caveat paragraphs. What are those values and beliefs?

While I am prepared to admit that some cuts are stupider than others, I am also fundamentally opposed to the economics of the cuts, which are the right’s ideological project and economic solution all wrapped up in one neat package. Firstly this package is unjust and misses why we have economics at all – improving quality of life. Secondly, it is also a package which has failed in its own terms repeatedly across Europe. 

Ignored by campaigners: cuts are part of a right-wing political project 

But despite all this context, many local anti-cuts campaigners are blaming their Councils for cuts which are centrally decided and then deliberately and carefully outsourced to Labour Councils to avoid accountability nationally. Local campaigners, understandably angry about their own local losses, repeatedly take the bait.

While I support anti-cuts and have marched many times with anti-cuts groups, I think there are several areas of strategic weakness, and despite the encouraging start of the (poorly named) People’s Assembly, the movement as a whole frustrates me. 

Where the localised anti-cuts movement is going wrong 

It is fragmented, has poor language, has abysmal understanding of the law & finance, and is content to abandon realism in its strategy in the hope that setting a deficit budget in tooting will begin a great global uprising against neoliberalism that is necessary to undo the cuts. While I applaud their defensive work and awareness raising, the sense of strategy is mind-numbingly parochial. It is also so distant from the scale and depth of the task ahead that it is content to sit around biting the local veins of one of the key organisations in overturning the consensus at a national level, the Labour Party.

Why? Well, as stated above, taking losses locally touches more than a nerve, and the Government have sorted the swaparoo in finance so that Councils have to be the public face of the cuts they never wanted.

But I also think as well as the good intentions, it can all go a bit conspiracy theory at times, and the underlying current is sometimes disingenuous – note, for example, how few local anti-cuts campaigners are prepared to put their own solutions before the electorate either as Labour candidates, or for other parties.

On the conspiracy point, hatred for Blairism understandably runs deep throughout the left, parliamentary and external. I know this – marching against Iraq and opposing various privatisations were some of my earliest political actions, and I stand by them. But it’s not always relevant or the way to decent strategy.

Some more radical parts of the left seem happy to abandon materialism in favour of emotionalising this hatred, and apply it more widely against Labour. They are waiting all the time for someone to step into the betrayal zone, which rests on the assumption that nobody from the Labour Party is in the same movement or moral universe as them. Actually, that’s completely untrue.

I repeatedly see people who I know have made quite left-wing decisions in private being heckled by people who barely know them at meetings for being right-wing, or involved in some plot that the accuser cant even put their finger on (but of course, if they have been elected to an Executive Committee, there must be dastardly plots – one example of where the paranoia creeps in, and people respond to it by shouting at someone innocent, whilst lacking the guts to stand for their position themselves).

One recent manifestation was someone from the left echoing the Tory line exactly by suggesting that Labour Councils were cutting harder to ‘teach people not to vote Tory’. This involves some level of self-deception, and can really only be based on an emotional refusal to give the matter any actual thought. 

It’s this that bothers me, because it stops even the best within Labour and the wider left working well together. 

Views on policy may or may not be legit, but the style and underlying assumptions are empty and sectarian.

Let’s be sensible?

Labour Councillors that have been elected all depend on Labour voters from last time round, not Tory ones. These people are also disproportionately hit by cuts. It would be bizarre even for a careerist to choose to hurt them in this way.

If you can’t see this and appreciate that it means that Labour Councils are not necessarily in bad faith, I don’t think there’s much point in me or anyone else trying to have a political conversation with you, because logic on the points under debate is clearly not what matters.

My local Council has been told it has to find tens of millions worth of spending to get rid of over the next year.

If it’s about showing anyone anything, it’s about Labour Councils trying to find ways to avoid this costing lives, and using it as an example. Tory Councils are not being cut, and won’t have to even bother trying. 

Focus: a ‘pragmatic’ left approach to Labour locally 

If I am elected as a Labour Councillor, I won’t be promising a Poplar rates rebellion (a legal relic), or to hand over my budget to DCLG (the legal present), which will hurt the vulnerable, but without remotely stoking up any kind of dissent on a national level.

Instead, I will be pushing for Labour’s economic policy nationally and internationally not to concede to the cuts agenda, and pushing within the Labour Party for the Council to find ways of innovating out of cuts (a similar strategy to that used by that pragmatist Ken Livingstone and the GLC, rather than that pushed at the time by John McDonnell and Ted Knight).

I will undoubtedly take part in political demonstrations and perhaps non-violent direct action.

I will push to build a national anti-cuts movement.

I will fight at a community level so concerns about priorities are born out and people are at least listened to, even if they don’t get what they are after.

And to make all of that a relevant possibility, I will be ignoring the poorly reasoned ‘Blairophobia’ and fighting for a Labour government.

That’s better than letting former coalition Minister Sarah Teather off the hook for voting for cuts to our Council budget, which is something that in my view our scattered anti-cuts campaigners in my Borough and others allow to happen far too easily.

Tony Blair is gone, and those of us to the left of him have new challenges altogether to deal with. Let’s stem the bleed locally, get this lot out nationally, and make sure we replace the whole lot with something more participative, more democratic, more egalitarian, and more sustainable.

If I want my Borough to look more like that, I need a new government as an absolute minimum, and I see the fight against the cuts in that context.