Thursday, 17 September 2015

How do you talk about it?

How do you react to terrifying events without sounding shrill, crazy, over-the-top? How do you express fear without being dismissed? How do you make the people you are scared for, and of, understand?

Refugees are flooding into Europe, and the response has been such that I worry about using the word ‘flooding’. My Prime Minister described them as "swarms of migrants", a newspaper columnist compared them to cockroaches. So maybe ‘flooding’ is too emotive, too likely to be used to paint refugees as a destructive event to be resisted.

Let me try again.

Thousands of people, fearing for their lives in countries racked by bitter civil wars exacerbated by western powers, have fled from persecution, bombed out homes, and the deaths of loved ones. They have made their way, often in desperately unsafe ways, towards the countries that have persisted in telling them that their way of life is better, safer, more moral.

And we are meeting them with razor wire and internment camps.

A central European country, run by a party who wants to end liberal democracy, is blocking people from entering that country, and so the EU, in defiance of international law. But it's too easy to point at Hungary as being the problem - they have closed their border, yes, but so has Austria, and even Germany has reintroduced border checks theoretically abolished within the EU.

Meanwhile, the home affairs ministers of EU countries met in a crisis summit earlier this week, and failed to agree on sharing the pressure of refugees around the EU. Instead, countries opposed to taking refugees proposed major 'processing centres' in Italy and Greece. These would assess asylum claims, and remove anyone whose claim was found to be lacking.

Farcically, they even considered what to do when returning a refugee to their own country wasn't feasible (though no explanation of how it could be both that a refugee wasn't 'genuine' and that returning them home was infeasible was given). In that case, they would be transported to purpose built camps, outside the European Union - and thus away from EU citizen's view.

Watch this video for how Hungary is treating refugees in one of their camps - flinging food at a mob of refugees penned in by fences. There are also reports of refugees being tricked onto trains they are told are going to Germany - only to be stopped near migrant camps Hungary has set up.

Today, Hungarian police fired water cannon and tear gas into a crowd on their border with Serbia - fired into Serbia - to prevent refugees crossing. Men, woman, and children who have fled from bombs and bullets have been met with razor wire and tear gas. Serbia has protested, but appears to have been ignored.

Europe is building razor wire fences and detention camps. We're saying we're full. We're saying we're Christian, and need to defend that.

I read an article today, one of those 'long reads' that has become so fashionable. There was a section in it that went like this:

[H]umans are able to portray a looming crisis in such a way as to justify drastic measures in the present. Under enough stress, or with enough skill, politicians can effect [...] conflations [...]: between nature and politics, between ecosystem and household, between need and desire. A global problem that seems otherwise insoluble can be blamed upon a specific group of human beings.

I encourage you to read it all - it talks about how defence of living standards can come to be seen as defence of life; how the destruction of states, the creation of stateless people, can lead to atrocities against them; and about how easily we can all fall into that trap.

The article is called “Hitler’s world may not be so far away“. I didn't tell you that before, because I was worried I'd sound shrill, or crazy, or over-the-top. That my fear would be dismissed. That you wouldn't understand.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

North and South - What Jeremy Does Next Pt2

So, the great, glorious day has finally come - and gone. An avowed socialist has become the leader of the Labour Party, elected on the largest democratic mandate any leader has ever had.

Now what?

Corbyn faces significant challenges, including political opponents inside and outside Labour, building an electoral coalition, and getting a fair hearing from our media. None of these are going to go away just because he won, or by the use of a good hashtag. They need to be faced and addressed. In this brief series of posts, I'll give my own ideas on how we do this. Here I look at dealing with Labour's political opposition.

Labour faces two major opponents to a Labour Government: the Conservatives and the Scottish National Party. In England, Labour gained seats in 2015, whereas in Wales, we lost ground slightly. Broadly, Labour suffered from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, while the Conservatives capitalised.

In Scotland, however, the SNP gained votes all over. An anti-politics (or rather, anti-Westminster politics) and anti-unionist mood combined with a party espousing left-of-centre policies to give a near clean sweep for the SNP.

Much discussion took place in the leadership election about attracting converts from the ranks of Tory voters, with relatively little discussion on how to do so with SNP voters. I believe this was a mistake, and a symptom of the lack of fresh thinking in what was the Labour mainstream - essentially, they felt they knew how to fight Tories, so were happy to talk about that, but had no idea how to fight anyone else.

Tories first. We can't rely on appeals to morality, justice or fairness over welfare cuts, public service cuts, and so on. People are worried over their own finances, and the persistently weak state of the economy. Even if sympathetic to the plight of others less fortunate than them, they also need to have confidence they can keep their own body and soul together.

That's why we need to take the initiative on the economic argument. We have run away from it for two elections now, preferring to capitulate completely to the Conservative framing of both the financial crisis and the appropriate response. The hope seemed to be that if we owned up to something we didn't do, people would forgive us, and we could move on. Well, it turns out they didn't, and actually we do have to have that hard conversation about the real causes and problems. No, it isn't going to be easy - complicated economic arguments will just turn people off. But we have to try - the alternative has failed dreadfully for us.

So, for example, make the case for quantitative easing and investment - make the point that the size of the economy is a measure of money flowing through it. It gets bigger when you spend the tenner in your pocket to buy groceries, because the grocer uses it to buy stock from the wholesaler, and the wholesaler pays his suppliers, and his suppliers pay their staff, and their staff put it into a bank, and the bank lends it to a business for an investment in new machinery, and the machinery manufacturer pays it to you for your wages, and you then go and buy groceries... Getting that money flowing is vital, and at the moment, banks aren't lending, and that flow just stops. So we will invest in infrastructure ourselves - and that money will flow out into the economy, instead of getting stuck in banks. The economy grows, we have a proper recovery, and as profits go up, tax take increases, and we pay down the deficit.

Make it snappier, though.

My point is that we used to have the courage and belief to make these arguments - don't give up just because it doesn't fit into a 5 second sound bite.

It may also be useful to highlight the constantly shifting goalposts of Osborne - his dates for deficit reduction keep moving back, and he ends up borrowing more and more. It would be worth testing to see if this attack actually has legs - that Osborne borrows to keep the lights on, whereas we'd borrow to build a power station, or words to that effect.

Then we have the SNP. I think for this group of voters a softer line is needed - while the push for economic competence will make inroads here, I think we have to accept there is also a big cultural move going on here. The rise in support for independence was, I believe, greatly helped by a feeling of despair among Scottish voters who lean to the left that there was no chance of getting a truly leftwing government in the UK. It is for that reason we need to highlight the strong leftwing policies of Corbyn - against welfare cuts, for example.

But as well as showcasing ourselves, we must go on the attack. The SNP have been in power in the Scottish Parliament for many years now, but have made little progress in areas they say are their priority. Remember, they have tax-raising powers, so if they truly believe a service is worth protecting, why haven't they taken advantage of them? Or is it that they like complaining, but don't really believe in implementing solutions?

Polling in Scotland shows, I believe, that support for the SNP is soft. Yes, the headline figures are horrifying - 62% plan to vote SNP in the constituency ballot, and 54% in the regional. But if you look past that, only 25% think they've done a good job on the economy, 34% on the NHS, 30% on education, and 23% on crime and justice. These are not the figures of a party running rampant - they are the figures of a party with weak opposition. We now have the chance to change that.

In this regard, the hysterical comments by the Labour old guard during the leadership campaign and afterwards will be a help - they help define a clear difference between the Labour Party that many Scots turned their back on, and who we are now. This is turn gives us the opportunity to gain a new hearing - and we must make use of it. Attack the SNP's record in government, and promote, for example, Labour's position on PFI in the NHS, on mental health funding, on social care, and on the National Education Service. Crime and justice looks like an area advances can be made also.

Crucially, Labour UK need to take the Scottish Parliament more seriously. For too long, Scotland was taken for granted, and Scottish Labour weren't given the intellectual freedom or the resources to fight the battle in front of them - the SNP. It's not enough to call them "Tartan Tories" and think the same old attacks against the Tories will work against the SNP - that is not how they are perceived. Nationally, we need to be more comfortable with allowing Scottish Labour to not only use a different emphasis on policies, but also to develop their own, more suited to devolved matters in Scotland.

Finally, we have the minor parties - Greens, UKIP, Liberal Democrats. Throughout the leadership campaign, there were persistent stories of Green Party members or voters becoming Labour registered supporters to get a vote. I don't think they were nefariously trying to influence the election, I think they were happy to have a candidate they supported in Labour. I suspect the Green surge will fall dramatically, to Labour's benefit. This is not to say we can afford to be complacent, but the policies Corbyn is espousing are likely to attract them naturally.

The Liberal Democrats are discredited in traditional Labour seats, and many others, due to their coalition with the Conservatives. Unfortunately, this means we can't rely on them to take seats away from the Conservatives. On the other hand, it is unlikely there will be a significant exodus from the right of the Labour Party to their banner. (Now there's a hostage to fortune if you ever saw one...)

UKIP is more interesting. I think they have taken advantage of a general mood against politicians and politics, but that this isn't the whole of the story. Insecurity over work, family finances, access to public services, and so on, has been manipulated by UKIP (and, to an extent, the Tories) into blame directed at immigration. By reducing the insecurity many of these voters feel - policies supporting welfare, tax credits, stopping cuts in public services, etc. - Labour can attract back many of these voters. Even just demonstrating Labour is a mass movement party that listens to its members is likely to assist in this.

Of course, the big caveat around UKIP is the EU referendum. A vote for out may mean UKIP falls apart, its purpose achieved, or it may morph into a partnership with the Conservatives, or try to reconstitute itself as a generalised protest party against the modern world. A vote for in may, just as with the SNP in Scotland, reinvigorate it as an expression of cultural connection. I don't know, and I wouldn't like to guess.

The (hopeful, but no doubt ill-informed and naive) advice in this post basically boils down to: have the courage to promote leftwing policies. Focus not on outrage over the suffering of the poorest (though it must be mentioned) but on the better economic performance investment in the country will bring. Wheel out friendly economists to agree - there are lots of economists who do. (Whether they are friendly or not, I don't know...)

And, ultimately, attack the record of incumbents. I was amazed that the Tories are still viewed as competent, given the sheer incompetence of some of their ministers in the last government. I don't mean in their policies - my disagreeing with them is not a sign of incompetence. I mean in terms of how poorly they manage their departments, or deliver their policies. The poster boy for this is, of course, Iain Duncan Smith.

For too long, we allowed ourselves to stay on the defensive. The moments Ed Miliband went on the attack - over Murdoch, over the hatchet job of his father, on Syria - he was successful, and popular. Defence doesn't defeat a government - we need to attack.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Observer Observation

Minor, I know, but I rather suspect esteemed members of the media may need to double-check some of their usual phrases and descriptors. Going through the Observer's comment on Corbyn's election, I noticed the sentence "Labour’s mainstream must learn from the Corbyn campaign". With nearly 60% of the party supporting him, Corbyn's campaign is the mainstream. I assume, however, that the Observer is actually referring to the people who lost. New term needed, clearly. Centre fringe, perhaps?

Securing Corbyn - What Jeremy Does Next Pt 1

So, the great, glorious day has finally come - and gone. An avowed socialist has become the leader of the Labour Party, elected on the largest democratic mandate any leader has ever had.

Now what?

Corbyn faces significant challenges, including political opponents inside and outside Labour, building an electoral coalition, and getting a fair hearing from our media. None of these are going to go away just because he won, or by the use of a good hashtag. They need to be faced and addressed - and for some the need is urgent. The Conservatives are desperate to frame the wider electorate's perception of Corbyn now, and we don't have a lot of time to counter them.

Urgent one first, then: countering the immediate Tory push.

The aim is clear: firstly, to ensure that the Labour Party as a whole is associated with the attacks, rather than just Corbyn, and secondly, to smear quickly and irreversibly. While this tactic has provoked ridicule and revulsion from many, we have to remember the echo chamber effect online - just because we see lots of people mocking this line, it doesn't mean other groups aren't seeing it approvingly. Basically, we can't ignore it.

The most serious charge here is, clearly, that Labour is a threat to national security. (The economic security argument is one I genuinely believe the Tories don't want to have, and they are hoping the national security charge will distract attention from it, so I'll come on to that later.)

I think we need to go after this attack head on. We do this by shifting the attack from theoretical situations to actually existing ones. So, right now, instead of getting bogged down in a discussion on our nuclear deterrent, focus on the situation in Syria. Ask what Cameron actually wants to do about this festering wound in the Middle East, and propose our solution - one of international action against arms sales to all sides in the conflict, and steps to cut off the supply of money to violent groups.

While Cameron may want to posture as a hard man by pushing for bombing, it will be worth reminding the electorate that two years ago he sought parliamentary approval to bomb Assad's forces, and now he appears to want approval to bomb forces attacking Assad's forces. Is there anyone in Syria he doesn't want to bomb? Does he have a plan to find a solution to the chaotic and often barbaric situation on the ground, or is he just interested in pictures of explosions on the evening news?

I firmly believe that the public is still against military adventures overseas, particularly with no clear exit strategy. A strong alternative plan, pushed by Labour, will mean that if the Tories continue pushing the national security line, they will simply end up looking like warmongers who refuse to try a peaceful solution - not a good look.

Economic security, and the security of YOUR FAMILY (insert hysterical scream here) then. Like I said, I don't think the Tories really want to have this argument. The fleeting glimpses of what is behind this appear to be that, shock horror, Corbyn thinks taxes should be increased. Well, so do the electorate - there is broad public support for a 50p tax rate above £150,000. Corporation tax is already lower than the US - hardly the home of tax and spend.

And, frankly, people don't feel economically secure now. The Tories have been walking a tightrope of raising fears of imminent financial disaster if they don't slash public services, while at the same time asking for credit for saving the economy. Talking up financial disaster means hard questions for them about what the hell they have been doing for the past five years, and why it hasn't worked. And that gives an opening for the anti-austerity alternative to be promoted.

Not surprisingly, I think this position can actually win people over. It won't be easy, and we need to develop clear and simple narratives instead of slightly tortuous economic arguments, but we shouldn't be afraid of it - after all, the apparent success of the austerity argument has come about because there was no-one disagreeing, except on matters of degree.

If they go on to talk about People's Quantitative Easing, ask if they think the £375bn given to banks was also a mistake, or is QE just a bad idea when it goes to building infrastructure assets like roads and bridges we can all use, instead of banker's pockets? It may be crude, but it is effective.

So, rebuttal of the initial Tory attack line: Put forward our plan to deal with the Syrian situation, and attack the Tories bombing plans - with ridicule if necessary. I think this on its own is enough to deter this whole Tory 'security' attack line, but if they continue with the economic security argument, argue for higher taxes on the wealthy and businesses to support vital services like the NHS, and make the Tories defend cutting taxes for the rich. Finally, QE that improves the country, instead of the bank's balance sheets.

(And if they start screaming about uncertainty over Trident, just remind them Michael Fallon refused to say Tory MPs would vote for Trident in the event of a Labour minority government - he was willing to play political games with something he now says is so vital even uncertainty is a threat to national security.)

The other challenges... will have to wait for my next few posts.

SNP show true colours

Amongst the predictable hysterical Tory attacks and toys-out-of-pram screaming from New Labour grandees, it was interesting to see the SNP trying to get a few hits in on Corbyn.

Given the SNP's positioning in the independence referendum as the only chance Scotland had to get anti-austerity, anti-Trident, and equality politics, it was interesting to see Nicola Sturgeon using the election of Corbyn as Labour's alternative Prime Minister, someone who espouses all of those policies, as... uh, another reason for independence.

It demonstrates, again, that the SNP is not really interested in any of those policies - they are interested in Scottish Nationalism. The clue is in their name. They will grasp on to any policy which is currently popular to try to advance their anti-British case, but make no mistakes as to their commitment to those policies. After all, one of their key post-independence offers was to massively reduce corporation tax. Hardly progressive.

I would like to think a reinvigorated Labour under Corbyn would be joined by the SNP MPs in Westminster to block the worst excesses of this Conservative government, and would certainly call on the SNP to do so. Reining in this rabidly ideological Tory party is in the best interests of the British people - including the Scots. But make no mistake, the SNP will do what is best for their true cause - the breakup of the UK.

The SNP's first instinct after the general election was to position themselves as the 'real' opposition to this government, as a way of showing Scotland would be better off on her own. But now they will have to face the possibility of working with an anti-austerity Labour to actually win votes - to block bad bills, or even to pass good amendments. And if they did that, it would show the UK Parliament really does work for, and represent, Scotland, as part of the UK. And the SNP may make the calculation that that isn't in their best interests, and the interests of Scottish people can go hang.