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Conference is over, Labour have a new leader, and it turns out you can’t rely on the weather in Wales. The question, however, is what have we actually learned this week? I say we: I didn’t go to conference. This was in part because I thought on balance finishing my never-ending PhD seemed a greater priority, but also because I knew that whichever Miliband won, the story would be the same. Broadly speaking, those who supported the winner are happy and those who supported the loser aren’t*; an exercise in academic psychology it ain’t. But I also thought that whoever won, there would be the same call to unite behind the leader, to think that the mere process of producing a leader would be a panacea, and that all we have to do now is say the right things and wait for the Coalition to spontaneously self-combust before sweeping into Number 10 with all the smoothness of Roger Moore in a dinner jacket.

The thing is, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think that the Lib Dems can be easily detached from the Coalition or that the spending cuts in and of themselves will lead to a double digit Labour majority in 2015. In short, the Lib Dems are more invested in this than we give them credit; not only is it patronising to assume that Lib Dem voters are actually just deluded Labour voters or that the Lib Dems are some repository for Old Labour values, it ignores the fundamental ideological point that Liberalism can and does exist distinct from either Social Democracy or Conservatism. The idea that the Lib Dems will simply disappear at the next election is fanciful; besides, the Coalition’s strategy is precisely so masochistic now in order to allow time for pre-election tax cuts later. The strategic and tactical problem for Labour in all of this is that whilst the cuts are taking place we’ll probably enjoy pretty healthy poll leads, and in this context there’ll be an understandable urge to go for a safety-first approach rather than question why we had our worst general election result for generations (and no, I don’t think it was Iraq, tuition fees or electoral reform).

For my part, I think we’ve underestimated (or worse, wilfully ignored) the concerns of many of the voters we need to be winning over. Whilst it’s now fashionable to talk about building more social housing, there’s not been a whisper on increasing the rate of private home-ownership; this in spite of the fact that most people want to own where they live (and importantly, want their children to be able to do the same). Whilst we mouth concern about the economic impact of immigration, there’s no appreciation that a large part of people’s concern focuses on identity, specifically a sense of identity-crisis amongst the white working class following the demise of heavy industry. And whilst we talk about patriotic duty, many of our activists still sneer at houses draped in the England flag betraying a real cultural dislocation between the party and those we aim to represent.

To sum up, I’m no more or less enthused than I was at the beginning of the week; I never planned on watching the Ryder Cup and I didn’t vote for Ed M. Nevertheless, I hope the coming weeks and months allow for an open and honest exchange of ideas about what the Labour Party is and who it hopes to represent; at the moment, I’m not sure it knows the answer to either of those questions…
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*As a declaration of interest, I voted 1. AB, 2 DM.

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David Cameron is planning to restrict Trade Unions ability to donate money to the Labour Party by compelling them to ask members annually whether they want their money to go into the political fund, and thereby (where that union is affiliated) potentially be donated to the Labour Party. Conservative Home is predictably salivating with glee that this could well bankrupt the Labour Party. That aside, what possible objections could any principled person have to asking union members whether they want their union to give money to the Labour Party? Well I have several.

Firstly, unions are campaigning organisations that work for the greater benefit of their members. Some unions (but certainly not all) feel that this campaigning role can be enhanced by giving money to the Labour Party- certainly a Labour government has benefited their members at work directly let alone the myriad improvements to the NHS, schools, and policing that makes life outside of work that much more tolerable. Anyway, I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that people become members of a union because they feel that on balance it will make them better off. If the fact that their union donates money to the Labour Party becomes so intolerable for them, they have two options; leave (and join a union that doesn’t give money to the party) or, given that the trades unions are democratic bodies, stand for election on a platform of disaffiliating from the Labour Party. To say then, as the Tories seem to imply, that the political fund is used against the will of many union members is simply disingenuous.

More broadly, politicians of the right have a penchant for direct democracy when it’s on issues they feel that they can get a knee-jerk response on (Lisbon, capital punishment, etc) but we should see this for the reactionary politics it is. We elect MPs in order to delegate certain responsibilities and allow that person to become better informed on topics than we could become. The whole point of representative democracy is that we pay people to read the green papers, the draft bills, the think tank reports so we don’t have to. Likewise, a Labour government might well be unpopular with certain union members at certain times, leading them to question why it is their subs are funding the party, but union members elect representatives at all levels who have more time to be reflective over the Labour affiliation. To restate an earlier point if they still don’t like it they can either stand in elections themselves, vote for someone who will change the status quo, or join a union that is not affiliated.

The original 10 year consultation period was nothing more than an attempt to reduce the amount of money given to the Labour Party by cashing in on periodic discontentment; reducing it to a year has exactly the intent. How many of those who opt-out opt back in? In the same way that non-unionised employees benefit from the concessions, rights, and improved conditions won and paid for by those in their workplace who are union members, allowing union members to opt out of the political fund has the same effect. It promotes the free-rider. What if I think that Sandra in head office is spending too much time on the phone and not enough time on union business? Can I have an annual ballot on Sandra’s contract? I’ve just purchased something from one of Lord Ashcroft’s firms- can I stipulate on the receipt that he doesn’t use any of the profits to bank-roll the Tories? Or, despite the availability of free schools and hospitals, I make the choice of going private- can I have some of my tax back (hang on a minute, that one actually used to be Tory policy- remind me, who wrote the 2005 manifesto?)?

With this policy then, as with other Tory initiatives from reducing the number of MPs (populist, and benefits the Tories) to equalising constituency sizes,* the Tories are dressing naked opportunism that will gerrymander the political system in their favour, as principled politics. Trades Unions are democratic bodies that campaign for the rights and conditions of their members. Those same members are free to use and participate in that democracy at any time. Failing that, it doesn’t take very long to cancel a direct debit…

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* as an aside, the Electoral Commission already does this. That Labour constituencies have less voters is less because of some vast left-wing conspiracy, but merely because (a) it takes time to redraw boundaries and (b) the broader demographic shift is away from urban (Labour) areas to rural (Tory) areas. However much compensation there is at any given election (and the Tories will make gains based on the new constituency boundaries in place for this year before any change in voting patterns comes into play), this will always be slightly behind the curve of the reality on the ground.

The Guardian today is reporting of a list of some 130 demands being made by the unions. Some of them seem sensible (such as measures on flexible working) but a large number vary from the ridiculous (calling for staff in city academies to be paid at the same rates as other school staff) to the insane (restoration of secondary action). I hope that the inflated nature (and the inclusion of more controversial demands) of the list is a tactical measure in order to secure the more modest measures: that there are people that can still talk of restoring secondary rights makes my mind boggle.

Really good piece over at Progress on the lessons from Crewe and Nantwich. Essentially, the argument is that by going on class we appear anti-aspirational and this is what is turning both working and middle class voters off from us. I think there’s a lot to this. Having recently re-read Philip Gould’s Unfinished Revolution, I think it’s an important point to remember in that attacking modest wealth and middle class lifestyles we don’t just turn off the middle classes: we also turn off all of those Labour voting working class people who aspire to having a bit more material comfort.

Even in 1997, people had a fear- they were genuinely afraid- of what a Labour government would do to their standard of living. The New Labour coalition worked because it binned the politics of envy. We threw away the stale politics of trying to overthrow a system that people could live with (and worked) and replace it with one that didn’t. We became comfortable with people wanting to better themselves: we forget that at our peril.

For what it’s worth, my suspicion is that at the next General Election the Tories will have a slick campaign but will fundamentally have not changed in terms of policy (rather like Labour in 1987). This will be because the parliamentary party and the wider party are essentially reactionary and not signed up to Cameron’s ‘progressive’ agenda. It’s incumbent on us therefore to get a positive message out there (rather than this ridiculous toff nonsense), focus on getting the economy back on track, and start highlighting the gulf between a Labour Britain and a Tory one.

Amongst all the talk of overthrowing Gordon Brown the Tories have said that if Labour ‘forces another unelected Prime Minister’ on the country they’ll try and force an election. I’m not a constitutional expert, but two points stand out here:

1. Prime Ministers don’t have to be elected- they only need to be able to command a majority in the House of Commons

2. Related to 1, as long as any Labour Leader commands a majority in the Commons, how can the Tories win a vote of no confidence?

Now whilst it can be argued that the person of Prime Minister is integral to the identity of government (therefore favouring a poll every time that a new Prime Minister kisses hands) this argument is often made by the same people who decry the presidential nature of the premiership. In short, the critics can’t have it both ways.

Whether the public would wear another change of leader without a poll entirely depends on the circumstances: indeed, there were (Tory) people who said Gordon Brown shouldn’t hold a poll last autumn precisely because he would have won and this would have been a manipulation of the public sentiment. To sum up, there is no constitutional reason why there should be an election if the leadership changes: indeed, the only people who’ll be calling for one will be those who think they can win…

Hi everyone- welcome to my blog. I’m planning to use this forum as a space to air frustrations, comment on irritations, and generally lend another incoherent rant to the blogosphere. Thanks for reading!