Needed: Our own Garibaldi to Trump Trumpism

 

(photocredit – author)

Inauguration Night saw a demonstration of several hundred in St Peter’s Square Manchester, where I happened to be. One of very many, and very understandable:  His election statements were incendiary, explicitly and xenophobic. And yet….

And yet, of course, he won.  “Down with Trump”. Is that what we are saying?  Down with the outcome of an election we lost. Down with the will of the people? Down with democracy?

We are in potentially dangerous territory here. If we are democrats, then we can’t just accept the results we like.

But of course, “we” may not all be democrats.  That shouldn’t be shocking. Didactic politics are not only the preserve of the (extreme) right.  So, fair enough, if you do not believe in democracy, there’s no problem rejecting its unpalatable outcomes.

But that’s not going to account for very many people.  So the rest of us are facing a wrestling match with our principles.

Well, refuge can be sought in a number of places: The election was fixed – most likely by Russian smears and internet interferences.  The electoral system is unfair – Hilary won the popular vote.  Votes were miscounted in key states.

All these positions would lead us to challenge the election – to call for a rerun.  That is a different tack to excoriating the victor.

Even if you accept – as most do – that Trump has torn up just about every precedent and norm in the political playbook and we are in truly exceptional circumstances, do we abandon democracy? States of Emergency and other similar suspensions of the people’s mandate are usually the work of governments under pressure and are either short-lived or a staging post to autocracy. So are we the people really saying democracy no longer applies?

But look again at the poster.  “Oppose Trump and his racism” the emphasis is added but important.  This is not about the man, nor his position as president – it is about the racism that was undeniably evident during his campaign. Other placards and posters proclaim that in the “US, Britain Everywhere, Stand Up to Racism.” That  “Black Lives Matter”. The objection here is to racism. It’s easy at present to see Trump and only Trump on the flip side of the racist coin, and understandable  how the demarcation line  between objecting to his racism and respect for a democratic process, can be blurred.

Roll forward twenty-four hours and across the UK there is a huge response by women motivated by Trump’s unambiguous sexism.

And there, in the space of those 24 hours, we see the ability of race and gender to act as a prism. To provide the common platform on which to hold the powerful to account.  What is missing from that troika is something that unites and motivates people on the basis of our shared economic experience or views about society in general.

You might call it a class-based view of the world, but whatever the label the absence of it is the crucial element in the context of our own politics.

Because with no shared set of experiences or shared view, where is the basis for a wide-ranging inclusive, community based approach?  Where is the basis of a Labour Party revival?

That’s why the NHS is so important – it remains the exemplar of a shared set of views and experiences.  It’s why in London, public transport is such a key concern and touchstone.

And we have a major, almost existential problem here.  Because the UK landscape is so impoverished,   commoditised,  ghettoised, and atomised it is  hard to  identify and sustain  the very shared experiences and  values that are  necessary  for  progressive populism.

Instead, what we have is internet-driven individualism with increasing xenophobia used to explain short-comings and hardships.

Progressives recognise the challenge and necessity of recapturing populist values from the right. But thinking on how this can be achieved is still developing – or is muddled. For example, hostility to “liberal elites”, so visible in Trump’s rhetoric is seeping from the right-wing into the mainstream,  requiring contributions  from  surprising  quarters to  remind us that the left needs to expose reactionary nonsense,  not  ape it.

As talk of a “progressive alliance” gains ground, especially in the run-up to the two Parliamentary by-elections on 23 February, does this provide a hopeful way forward? I am irresistibly drawn to the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland as a loose comparator.  Would it be possible for the centre and left in Britain – or even in England – to set aside deeply established tribalism to the extent necessary to capture power?  Despite the energy and intellectual fire-power of groups like Compass, I am not hopeful.

So step forward Momentum.  Let’s be quite clear – more than half a million people joining or supporting the: Labour party is a big deal.  They didn’t split off to form a UK version of Podemos or Syriza.  There has been a clear reconfiguration of the Labour Party, whether that is to your taste or not. So now comes the crunch time, where the stated aims of this group need to be implemented and hopefully validated.  It will be big ask, even without the current internal “policy debates.”  550,000 party members, sure, but only 20,000 in Momentum (with another 200,000 registered supporters).

What is the answer? Where is our salvation? An under-explored area is the devolution debate. This is seen by some as a last refuge/fertile opportunity to build bespoke, local alliances that engage with voters and can achieve electoral success.  The down side is that devolution, certainly in England, is becoming a case of responsibility being decentralised, without the accompanying power. But I like the idea of the left in Britain almost being reinvented and rejuvenated by this city-statism (but, oh,  who will be our Garibaldi?)

But one thing is undeniable: Those few hundred in Manchester and the several tens, hundreds of thousands in London and elsewhere. These are all expressions of hope.

So let me take you back to St Peter’s Square.  The crowd is bigger now – respectable for a cold-ish Friday night and growing. Someone’s brought a big drum. A smattering of incessant whistles, and a throaty growl of appreciation for each speaker. A harbinger for the even bigger demonstrations to follow.

We the people are entitled to say to elected representatives – especially those who exert influence over our lives – racism, sexism, hatefulness, should be no part of what they say or do.

Bang that drum a bit louder, sister. So everyone can hear and join in.

 

Friend or Foe? Truth or Dare? Social Care Tax Row Takes New Twist.

This Daily Express article poses many more questions than answers (Credit: Author)

Recently, I called for a grown-up discussion on tax as a remedy to the funding crisis in health and social care. Seems, fortunately, I wasn’t the only one, for now Surrey County Council has announced plans for a referendum of its residents on this very issue.

There are no half measures here – agreement is being sought for a 15% increase in Council Tax.

This is neither a surprise nor rocket science. Social care costs. Central government grants have been cost. Demand is rising. It seems to me entirely right and proper that the question is posed. Indeed, for those who see devolution as a way to revitalise our politics and re-connect with voters, it is surely something of an exemplar.

So what’s not to like? Quite a lot it seems.

The Daily Express went large on this. A big story devoted to excoriating the council, the decision and the concept of local democracy.  The ‘paper called in the Tax Payer’s Alliance in support.  The language used was “fruity”, you might say. “Bananas “might be more accurate – the TPA told councillors to “hang their heads in shame” at ripping off poor old Mr and Mrs Resident yet again.  Council Tax is a “huge burden” – well, try personally funding social care for your adult and aged relatives.  That seems quite burdensome to me.

UKIP (who hold 2 seats on the 78 member Surrey County Council) weighed in to say the referendum itself would cost a £1m that could be better spent – and why does government not take more from the International Aid budget.

With apparently no trace of irony, the Express ran a telephone poll on whether readers would pay more in council tax to fund social care.  After all, why back a real vote when a proxy poll would do just well.

We get the picture – this should be for central government, and they too should fund this at nil extra cost to the taxpayer.  The Express offed an editorial comment on this matter too – something along the lines of a half-hearted hand-wringing “something must be done”.

Whilst the ‘paper has sadly and predictably added a millimetre to its reputation and nothing to the debate, there are other concerns and objections to the Council’s plans.

These perhaps can be best summarised as acting in bad faith. No-one will vote for a 15% Council Tax hike and this is therefore grandiose buck-passing. The Councillors can then say “look, you didn’t want to pay for this care and that’s why haven’t prioritised it. There you are Government, you must do something.”

But I think we need to be indebted here to the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee, who researched the  dynamics of this carefully for her detailed piece published today.

It turns out that all 11 MPs in this country are Conservative – as are 57 of the 78 county councillors.  Council leader David Hodge says (a) cuts and demand means he has no option, and (b)he has the support of most of his group. Local Government finance experts CIPFA say he has the numbers  spot on, but according to Toynbee, the DCLG Permanent Secretary offers what might be topically termed “alternative facts.”

David Hodge has grabbed our attention and deservedly so.  We know that social care needs to be better connected to health care. We know that government should take a lead in both encouraging integration and ensuring adequate funds are available.  But residents cannot wait for someone to blink first or be reshuffled/voted out of office.

This is more than “truth or dare.”  It is closer to life or death.

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

Driverless Cars and Delivery Drones – What is the Future of Work?

 

2017 is not yet a week old and already there have been more “machines replace humans” than you can count. Two just today – jobs disappearing and AI rampant. The future of work is clearly going to be one of this year’s Big Things.

What will this world, with its driverless cars and delivery drones look like? What will it be like?  No jobs means no employment means no workers means no wages – means no spending.  Hence the emergence of ideas likes Universal Basic Income (UBI) and its evolution off the page and into peoples’ pockets].  How ironic that arguably a most progressive programme of state aid – free money – has been borne out of the projected ossification of capitalism!   (But Keynes himself would probably smile and say “told you so”. State intervention has often been part of capitalistic survival, but just not quite like this.)

It is unsurprising that redistribution so that more people work less has also become attractive.  The so-called Swedish Six Hour Day (though not so attractive that the Swedish TUC or the Ministry of Labour backed the concept) which has now run into some controversy.  The idea is reduced hours improves productivity and therefore avoids lower wages. This makes sense to me, and you could argue that employment paradigms  in, for example, Denmark,  place value on workers not being knackered at the end of their shift, burnt-out at a relatively  young age, alienated from their employer – and often from their families  because of a long-hours culture.

UK unions such as the CWU have picked this up and, especially in a world where work is in short supply, what’s not to love?

Well quite a bit as it happens. More people in the UK say they are under-employed or have multiple jobs than ever before. These are the in-work poor, where depressed or persistently low levels of disposable income have create relentless destructive pressure.

So what explains the  gaps between those willing to embrace – at least on a trial basis –  a 6 hour day,  or the Danish working arrangements described by Helen Russell,- and the UK situation, where similar ideas seem totally untenable.

The issue surely is about control.  A deregulated labour market suggests that control – or should we say “management” – of employment is impossible.  On an individual basis, with union density depressed, employment protection legislation greatly diluted or inaccessible because of prohibitive pricing, workers are unable to exert meaningful influence over their circumstances.  At a macro level, there is no sympathetic compelling or dominant national narrative about work and its relationship with the rest of life and society. This is not the case in all countries –such as Denmark, Sweden and France.

The issues are not new.  In the early 1800s, the Luddites broke up the looms in defence of their jobs.  The battle for this future was anticipated nearly 50 years ago in books such as “The Collapse of Work” and “The Leisure Shock” by forward–thinkers such as Jenkins and Sherman. Why the intensity of the debate now?

I think it is because of two factors:  First the potential of current automation is almost limitless, and even raises existential issues about the survival of our species!  That’s bound to  lead to some discussion!

Second,   if we look at what jobs will be prevalent in the near-future; we see a steep increase in health and social care.  These are frequently the jobs that are not currently highly regarded in society. This makes us, collectively, very nervy because there is no coherent, comprehensive plan in place for high quality universal care of our ageing population.

Even though you might think it is in their own best interests, the government seems exceptionally unlikely to intervene in the labour market to the extent necessary to ensure that the future of work is one which is effective for everyone.  That’s a chilling thought, but the debate will not go away (as today’s stories demonstrate).  Political power is also shifting somewhat, especially in the context of devolution. So perhaps there is some scope for hoping that ideas like short working days, UBI, and setting higher standards below which workers cannot fall, will have the opportunity to prove themselves before it is too late.

 

Devolution & PR: The Antidote to Brexit Poison?

It’s strange for something to be both toxic and sterile, but that is what the Brexit debate has surely become.

Toxic because the rancour can and does cause real damage – from hate crime to endemic uncertainty. And sterile because it overshadows every other aspect of political debate.

Sometimes, for progressives, this can have an upside, as I described with the Richmond by-election last week. And sometimes it can be dismal, with voters in the more recent Sleaford by-election apparently unable or unwilling to engage with arguments about health, education and social services.

This conundrum was picked up by Scottish labour leader Kezia Dugdale in remarks to the IPPR, made prior to the Sleaford poll.  She called for a reworking of the 1707 Act of Union to create a new, clarified, strengthened relationship between the four nations of the UK and with the UK.  This was pitched as a means to satisfy the appetite for more devolution whilst offering a way out of apparently unwinnable political arguments – over Brexit and Scottish Independence.

Dugdale is absolutely right to see the need to take politics somewhere in the direction of “sunlit uplands” (Churchill, not Leadsom), and I think her plan has much to commend it. But although the direction of travel is right, the destination is not sufficiently ambitious.

If we want to distract attention away from myopic preoccupation with Brexit, the electorate must feel that real power over things they care about is within their grasp. That means even more radical devolution than Dugdale set out. And, by the way, such devolution may also address some of the causes of people feeling “left behind”, often cited as the explanation of the Brexit vote.

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff. The “Devo Manc” model (wide-ranging devolution to metropolitan areas) has energy and momentum behind it.  Serious political figures are eschewing Westminster for more localised positions. And the serious challenges centre left parties are having on the national political stage could make English devolution look a very attractive means of addressing clear right-wing preponderance.

Yet devolution – even of the nature I propose – can only go so far to address the current malaise of disengagement and disillusionment felt about the political process. So why not take further step in the process of reconnecting politics to the people.

That step should be a change to the voting system in two specific ways. First, enfranchise 16 and 17 year olds. And second, make every vote count more effectively than it does at the moment by introducing proportional representation.

Each of these points could sustain a paper in their own right. The argument for extending the franchise seems to be made given the enthusiasm shown by this demographic when the Independence Referendum gave then a vote. Certainly one suspects Remainers rue the refusal by the Government to adopt the same approach in the EU ballot. And suffice to say a more devolved UK and England would give ample opportunities to test the effect of a change to the way we vote.

With the current UK government elected by  less than 25% of the  electorate, with the centre left arguably firmly shut out of politics, and with the scope to establish the most effective voice at Westminster somewhat stymied  by SNP-reduced Parliamentary airspace,  this could be a perfect storm set to break over the next couple of years.

This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

A New Populism? Talk Like You Mean It

There have been growing calls for a new populism – but we have one already. Unfortunately it has delivered first Brexit and now Trump. It is clearly just not the sort of populism we like.

It doesn’t take 20/20 hindsight to see how this has happened. If you simultaneously create a thirst for material things whilst dissolving the mortar in the walls of society, it is not surprising   that there is profound change and instability.  The desire to own and the push to sell Council and social housing is an example.

Then technology makes the thirst become unquenchable – those material goods become ever more alluring, desirable, essential, cheaper.   This is not a new process.  In 1987 the British  labour movement had already  grasped  what was happening – ‘What do you say to a docker who earns £243 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say, let me take you out of your misery, brother.’  said trade union leader Ron Todd.

But although the risk  was  recognised,  the trend  continued and was in many ways accelerated until we end up  with inevitable  dissatisfaction (because  you can never have too much “stuff”) ,  and hyper-individualisation,  with the most important  relationship  being  that  which each individual has with the internet.

The alienation that comes from this dissatisfaction and absence of community, or is borne of straight-forward unfairness in society, pushed many to vote against “the establishment”. A prevailing view is that it was the “left behinds”  that  account for both the shock election results of the year.

What supreme and incontrovertible irony. The Brexit and Trump victories reinforce the factors and structures that widened social inequality and depressed social  mobility.  There will be no “catching up”

So what is to be done? You might say it is too late already. From Black Lives Matter to racist, fascist, murders,  have we passed the  point of no return? Are old notions of community, collectivism and progressive populism  are dead.  If that is not true, it certainly feels that we are teetering on the brink.

Despite some common features, the US and UK are very different political theatres. For us here I think the solution has to be some truly bold political thinking to seize both initiative and imagination.

In policy terms, we are surely going to need to go to where people are rather than where we would want them to be. The people have spoken on Brexit and it would be wrong to ignore that.  So we come up with a progressive Brexit programme that acknowledges the referendum result as paramount,  but  engages the public in  the necessary  discussions about, for example,  public service resourcing  in post-EU UK.

We need to rethink organisation and engagement too. Progressive collectivist and populist ideas are simply not reaching many, especially  young  people.  The excellent TUC report on young core workers shows how things have changed and why this demographic has little option but a “living for the weekend” lifestyle.

We also recognise that people feel policy is made too far away from where they are, so we must  look to an expanded programme of devolution accompanied by electoral reform.

Jonathan Pie says it best in his latest contribution:  We can make these changes and pull ourselves back from the brink.  But it will take sustained self-discipline, stamina and determination. The starting point is to understand just how difficult it will be.

Trade Unions and Constitutional Change – Issues we can’t duck

Discussions initiated by campaign groups such as the Electoral Reform Society [1] and Involve [2] about identifying and then remedying the problem of low engagement by, especially, younger people in the political process have a direct relevance and importance for the trade union movement.

First of all, the abstentionism of a majority of young people absolutely affected the outcome of the 2010 and 2015 General Election. There is a clear advantage and indeed necessity in raising the level of engagement in the political process by young people and, of course, that includes young trade unionists.

The second connection is that low levels of engagement do not just appear in connection with political activity – they are also a feature of the democratic process within trade unions themselves. Therefore if we can find strategies that will deal with low levels of engagement in one sphere we should be able to map them across into another.

Even though trade union interest in this area is anything but well-established, there is a very wide range of academic interest in the question of participatory democracy. Plans for two “constitutional convention” pilot exercises (to test the theory and practice of how such conventions could operate) will be run by ERS in Southampton and Sheffield have now been finalised – and there will be some trade union input/participation.

 

IMPORTANT

This work is important not just because of the central relevance of voter/member engagement to trade unions.

It is also important because it seeks to address some dominant political issues that cannot be avoided given the preferences of the current government.

One of these issues is the “English votes for English laws” nationalism enthusiastically advocated by the Prime Minister, especially in the wake of the Scottish Independence Referendum last year [3]. This means that the issue of devolution within the UK is not just limited to Scotland and there will be a wider debate. The government has already published its view about the vehicle that should be used to carry forward that debate which it is feared will be a very select form of constitutional convention, both in terms of its composition and in terms of its remit.

It was this particularly that prompted the Electoral Reform Society to call for a genuine people’s constitutional convention to make sure all views in society were accommodated and which seeks to make sure that the way in which the convention works is open, democratic, responsive and meaningful.[4]

The second way in which this issue is unavoidable is that part of the overall devolution debate is the “Devo-Manc” policy that will see first Manchester and then presumably other major centres given devolved responsibility for a greater range of services than has ever previously been the case in modern Britain. [5] This means that there will need to be new models of democratic accountability to provide oversight for those devolved services. If there are new devolved models of accountability that means that all sorts of issues about how they are selected, how they work, what their remit is, come onto the table.

It is clearly important for progressive organisations to recognise this as an opportunity for engagement in order to participate in debate and influence outcomes.

Indeed, with initiatives looming that will significantly change pan-UK politics, (such as Individual Electoral Registration and the consequent re-drawing of parliamentary boundaries), it is more important than ever to be aware of any and every opportunity that exists to make sure our voice is heard.[6]

COMPARATORS

It is not just within the context of UK politics that the potential importance and value of constitutional conventions can be seen. Two fairly contemporary recent examples also show why this can be an important issue.

First example is the Irish Referendum on Equal Marriage. This was preceded by constitutional convention which many would argue allowed the issue of equal marriage onto the political debate, socialised the issue through debate and then made a major contribution in generating a public momentum for change that the government of the day found irresistible.[7]

The second example is that of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, established in 1981 which brought together a very wide-range of Scottish society – in fact all of Scottish society apart from the Conservative Party and some fellow travelling unionists.

The convention is credited as providing the social and political network that lead to effective devolution in the late 1990s when 20 years previously it had seemed an impossibility.[8]

LATEST DEVELOPMENTS

Most recently, the newly/appointed Labour’s leadership has entered this debate. Last week Shadow Secretary of State for local government, Jon Trickett, announced the Party’s plans for their own People’s Assemblies. These are described at http://labourlist.org/2015/09/labour-to-organises-citizens-assemblies-to-reinvent-politics/. However, it seemed to me that this was open to misinterpretation and therefore criticism and limited success. My response, written in a personal capacity, to Jon’s proposals appears http://labourlist.org/2015/09/the-question-of-peoples-assemblies-isnt-as-straight-forward-as-it-might-seem/

In the same week, the TUC had its first substantive debate on electoral reform in many years, and is now committed to an investigation into possible forms of alternative voting.[9] However, many unions have yet to debate the issue internally.

WHERE NEXT

The notions of electoral reform and constitutional reform, constitutional conventions and participative democracy have fresh momentum behind them and will be with us for the foreseeable future. It is therefore appropriate and necessary that the labour movement keeps this area under active review, seeking to influence both debate and the outcome.

[1]        http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/

[2]        http://www.involve.org.uk/

[3]            https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/441848/English_votes_for_English_laws_explanatory_guide.pdf

[4]        http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/constitutional-convention

[5]        http://www.centreforcities.org/blog/will-devo-manc-mean-devo-max-for-cities/

[6]        http://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN06764/SN06764.pdf

[7]        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-32858501

[8]        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_Constitutional_Convention

[9]        http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2015/09/15/tuc-congress-unions-to-consider-change-of-voting-system-for-uk-elections/