Fabian Society Labour party leadership hustings

In the copy of progress magazine that I stole from the Fabians’ leadership hustings tonight, Richard Angell interviews David Miliband about his candidacy for the Labour leadership.

In it, there is a quote that just about sums up his campaign:

In his first weekend as leadership contender, the former aide to Tony Blair appears to be distancing himself from New Labour with his call for the party to become ‘Next Labour’.

Miliband the elder is the least comfortable candidate with really identifying where the New Labour project, to which he is linked – despite what the above says – failed. He is also the least comfortable candidate when explaining where he wants to see the party go to, in order to change its image from, as Andy Burnham pointed out during the debate, “pro-big business without being pro-ordinary people”.

This comes through in the very New Labour quote above; meaningless symbolism and clap in the words “Next Labour” – it is hard to even make sense of what this could mean. Unlike what the interviewer says, it reveals no distancing whatsoever.

David Miliband went further in his soundbite babblery hatchet job with his opening statement. Among other vague notions he told the audience of Fabians:

the question for us is how we turn the poetry of values into the prose of real change in people’s lives

It didn’t get much better for him, stumbling over safe and habitual epithets, nervous smiles and uncomfortable hand gestures towards Dianne Abbott to his left (!).

A well-known blogger I got talking to recently, toying with whether to have Dave Miliband as his first choice candidate when the party comes to vote, told me that all candidates are trying to weave leftist tenets into their gamut, but nobody is reaching to the right. After wiping up the spillages I had made after hearing that, I realised that nobody else in the party but David Miliband was someone able to do both; someone to remind the party of its regretful right wing flirting past, and one who says through gritted teeth things we on the left vaguely want to hear, but see straight through it when uttered from his mouth. He reminded the audience tonight of how right I am (even if I do say so myself).

After answers to phantom questions about concerns to family life for MPs, agreement across the board about the 10p tax, Burnham’s reception of slow hand clapping for his uncommitted and nervous comments on immigration and the war in Iraq, and boring questions on women MPs and voting systems (boring, only because we already know the answer in advance; for more women; AV system) – not to mention Ed Balls’ mistimed jokes, met with flapping hands from Ellie Gellard in the front row – audience members with a little more blood lust were wondering where those questions aimed to stump our candidates were going to come from.

The best we got was a question from the audience on what measure the candidates wish they could delete from Labour’s past, which worryingly turned out to be the question all candidates had some of their finest moments with (with the exception of, again, David Miliband, who was clearly keen on being the voice of the past, New Labour legacy intact).

It was Andy Burnham, and not Dianne Abbott, who played the divider tonight, to the surprise of many people I have spoken to. He was the one laying himself open and making friends and enemies along the way, whether on the clergy in the Lords (which he opposes, but will explain his reasons in confession for, by his own jesty admission), to selection in schools to his own class and upbringing in Manchester.

Abbott was playing it far more pluralistic than many had anticipated, being personable and less antagonistic than many would hope (leaving that space for Burham).

Ed Balls was barely clear all evening, most comfortable when he was talking absolute jibberish and complaining about criticism he has had to endure as Minister. His attempts to re-write his past support for the war in Iraq, which he now admits was a mistake, were badly executed when he told the audience: “we should say sorry and move on” – if only life were so easy. These are not the words of a man in touch.

This leaves me to talk about the candidate who won the debate hands down tonight. Ed Miliband wanted to drive home the message that he was a “values driven” candidate, calling for Lords reform, a 50% female shadow cabinet, a need to govern markets by democracy, a look at top pay in the private sector, a high pay commission, a living wage, and the need to criticise capitalism from a democratic perspective.

Emma Burnell asked the pivtal question at the end of the night: “are you a Socialist – and what does the word mean to you?” David Miliband of course skirted round the issue, saying he was happy to accept what is written on the back of Labour membership cards (democratic socialist), while the others used the word to explain why they opposed social barriers. Ed Miliband used the most colourful language when he noted that:

Being a socialist for me is about being willing to criticise capitalism – and saying capitalism produces many injustices, which politics must tackle. It is not about abolishing capitalism but it is about changing it.

Balls noted having no truck with barriers, Burnham quoted Billy Bragg and Abbott spoke about the marginalisation of the minority working class.

These events are about Labour members and supporters working out who comes off best. Small-scale differences aside, the candidate scores points by saying the things you want to hear, appearing to mean it, and manoeuvering better on the spot than others. For me, Ed Miliband did this the best, not necessarily because I feel his politics are closer to mine than that of any other candidate, nor because I desire for him to be the next leader of the Labour party, but because he spoke clearly and elegantly about important matters, rallied with passion about more than just things we might want to hear him say, and did this far better than any of his colleagues.

An economical plea for Reallocation

Last Thursday The Telegraph reported comments by David Blanchflower who warned about a ‘lost generation’ of workers, which will be attributed no less to George Osborne and his plans for deep cuts in the public services. He said that such plans ‘could force unemployment up from its current 2.5 million to four million over the coming years.’ Gone, also, are the days where Labour can say with a grin that the Tories are the party hell bent on slashing spending, for Brown, just days before Blanchflower suggested that any changes should be put off until at least 2012, himself accepted the “need” for cuts.

To my surprise Ed Balls was one of the first high profile names to put a figure to the amount of cuts in public spending. Balls, earlier this year, was lambasted for his insistence that we avoid spending cuts, why the U-turn? From my own experience with working in schools I learned something very interesting about allocation of funds, namely that a school is allocated so much to meet the needs of the children it accepts, for example children requiring special educational needs, that require increased funding. A school, in knowing that it will need increased funding for the next school term or year may perhaps keep quiet about the fact that it doesn’t need as much funding in the present term, in order to secure that increased funding for the next, often resulting in unnecessary spending, that is to say the obligation to make it look like the school needed that money (the school I worked in had twice as many televisions as it had classrooms, and with the new term bringing a child with severe special needs, spending seemed like the only guarantee to match that same money again).

This can be seen as a kind of microcosm for local and national spending in general, that the wrong things are being prioritised, and silence is a safeguard for a rainy day. But with swingeing cuts looming, rather than waste that money to ensure it is matched next time, another system should be sought. The system I propose is called reallocation, which in other words is the renegotiation of necessity in spending, rather than huge cuts, that also protects provisions where necessary. So for example if one service in the public sector has enough money leftover after necessities to, say, build a state-of-the-art sports centre or visitor centre, but another is struggling with plans to build adequate social housing, the choice should be there for the former service to reallocate that money to its counterpart, but still be entitled to receive that same money from local government the next year.

What’s good about the idea is that when local government allocates the different sectors its varying amounts, if one sector realises that it has been allocated too much, or to meet its target it must spend unnecessarily, that sector can opt to reallocate that money to another, perhaps less off sector, or at least a sector of more importance. What’s unique about the idea is that the sector itself is responsible for the reallocation, dialogue with local government would most definitely be promoted in order for further decision making at the top, but more options would be delegated to the public sphere, while the state sustains a position of financial overseer, in charge of maintaining the established standard for what is necessary spending, and what can be shelved for the common good.

Reallocation is partly inspired by, this infamous turn of phrase, left communitarianism, in that the local authority, with necessary input from renewed civic institutions, takes a large portion of control over the way it spends its money, with the state acting as the bastion of sensible spending.

Some naysayers will say that those in central and local government haven’t got it within them to dictate what is and what isn’t sensible spending (I wonder where such an opinion could’ve ever been formulated?). However that is not true always. Many influential politicians have signalled to what is for keeps and what is frivolous and can be shelved in a time of economic struggle. Some rather idealistic commentators have pointed to curbing excessive pay, extending inheritance taxes, and even getting rid of the Royal Family, the latter apparently making the saving of £185 million. Though I’d be happy to see some of these put into action, we don’t even have to get that radical (though, obviously, sometimes it helps). The Trident missile programme is priced at £16bn, ID cards luckily are as good as shelved, why before almost the entire political establishment is in favour of cuts isn’t the 50p top rate taxation not set in stone, why are top earners able to get tax relief on pensions.

There are those who are always going to say that taxing the rich like this is akin to punishment, but if measures like this are not taken, then it is the poor who suffer, and why should they be punished?

The basic premise of reallocation is to take from extravagant spending – usually, as with Trident, mandated at a more optimistic economic period – and not draw anything away from the public sector, who at once have done nothing to deserve it, but will bear most of the burden. Furthermore, it is a way of re-engaging civil society back into decision making over how local authorities should best spend their money, as well as bringing authorities together and sharing – not wasting – money in hard times, without jeopardising the way in which central and local government allocates money in future.

Ed Balls, technology, and empowering people

Today at work, the children took a well deserved mini-trip to the local police station to have photo’s taken, meet the dogs, try on the handcuffs and see the day-to-day activities of their bobbies first hand.

I, unfortunately, couldn’t go as there were two adults already accompanying the trip, and, as a matter of circumstance, the mini-bus couldn’t fit me on due to lack of seats.

Fine, I thought, instead I shall go back into the classroom and have a quick look at Liberal Conspiracy, see what they have to offer today.

Sunny Hundal had written a piece promulgating his disappointment of New Labour’s disavowal of its centre-left roots, noting that despite not having anywhere else to turn, leftwingers should put their weight behind the party rather than leave it up to the Tories to fill the gaps (I admit that I’ve simplified his main arguments).

I largely agreed with the article. Though I would have changed two things about it.

Firstly, the problem is that some other options have cropped up for Labour leftwingers, some may well remember Lord Ashdown’s boasts that there were defections to his party around the time of the last local/European elections. Not to mention the Greens and smaller parties.

What a worrying prospect it is when one of our leading opinionists mentions; “That anger [of the expenses scandal] has now concentrated on the shattered Brown administration, whose manifest failings could destroy Labour’s chances of winning another election – maybe forever, if the Liberal Democrats and Greens take over what remains of the centre-left.”

The second thing I’d change is to do with when Sunny mentions; “So at this stage it makes more sense for Labour sympathisers to gear up for the General Election in 5-6 years time and figure out what are the big arguments the party needs to make and the coalitions it needs to build.” I say why wait until then. I see the realistic purpose of his mentioning this time period, but, the Labour party has the innovation to prove itself worthwhile of a progressive ticket, this is just obfuscated by blind obedience (to the Labour right) and kop-out rebellion (often, I should add, not always!).

Sunny, rather ambigiously, ends his entry with the question (not yet answered in the comment space below) “how can technology play a part in that in [influencing the Labour administration's appeals to its centre-left homebase?]“

Well in thinking about possible ways technology can play a part in a progressive Labour party, I was thinking about what direction Ed Balls had pointed to in his recently published White Paper, with his proposal of;

“Setting up social networking websites for all schools to allow mothers and fathers to share “advice and information”. A series of trials for individual schools will be launched in September under a deal with the parenting websites Netmums and Dad Talk.”

An effective means of cyber-communication could mean more power for teacher-parent learning facilitation, and bring about new interactivity to the classroom, exactly how the Labour party have intended, with their ideas on empowering people in the public services.

Technology is a useful tool for communication, and could be the key to bringing about change in the public sector, and democracy itself.

So, in response to Sunny’s concluding question in his entry today, the Labour party, and Ed Balls especially, are already there.

Labour Party and Public Spending: The case for reallocation

Another look at what engendered a lot of anti-Ed Balls sentiment, even from inside the Labour ranks, as I put it on a Liberal Conspiracy entry;

“On CiF, and during an interview with Radio 4’s World at One, Balls spelt out his reasons for wanting to go ahead with spending, along with why fighting within the Labour ranks is hurting the party, and giving the Tories a free ticket to political high ground.

But Balls in the interview was clearly more cautious than some have now made out – like Liam Byrne, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, for example, who said

“We are going to decide how the growth in public spending is divided up much closer to the time. Looking into a crystal ball and understanding what the economy looks like in the year of the Olympics, I just don’t think is possible right now.”

Balls boldly stated that the moves on spending, to outdo Tory plans on 10% spending cuts

“will depend upon what happens to the economy and to unemployment and debt interest. But I think that with tough choices we can see real rises in the schools budget and the NHS budget in future years.”

These careful claims are justified, but why has Byrne not understood them? Has he let anything out the bag? And more importantly, why is the Chancellor’s department not backing the plans?”

I stand by my main thesis; that Balls is a cautious pursuer of future public spending, is stridently opposed to the Tories’ staunch commitment to cuts, and in order for the Government to promote the “quality of life” – or the “missing link” as Pete B has put it – spending should begin the minute our finances can allow for it.

What’s more, is that Byrne appeared to want to distance himself from Balls. But Byrne, over the weekend in the Guardian, has said that with a dash of cuts in capital expenditure, power to people, economy boosts, “Public services are the way in which we … open up those new horizons … [for] a more equal Britain”, in order or the Labour Party to be at the centre of the public services debate.

So there was clearly no anger directed at Balls for his optimism – for public services are what Byrne, as well as Brown, consider to be the fighting issue at the next general elections.

But what it could be is that Balls’ talk of “tough choices” – which I have translated as reallocation of money from other departments and/or expenditure – is implying that no new money (scroll down to see Jonathan Freedland for his criticism of this) will be achieved by the party.

Though it doesn’t necessarily imply this at all.

The fact that Balls has been cautious when saying spending “will depend upon what happens to the economy and to unemployment and debt interest,” proves that Balls doesn’t know what is around the corner (and he certainly hasn’t pretended to be looking into any “crystal ball” as Byrne noted). But whether the economy perks up or not, serious considerations should be taken in order to prioritise on sensible spending, aimed at “supporting families and improving services“.

Whether or not we experience spendthrift times in the future, perhaps we the Labour Party could utilise some methods of reallocation – and renegotiate necessity – in places where possible, and without necessarily predicting the worst in the state of the economy.

ID cards today looked to be scrapped by the always ID-sceptic Alan Johnson (and now, since he is Home Secretary, such a move is not as “embarrassing” as this Mail article would have us believe). A Trident U-turn in the pipeline? These examples for a start seem, not only ideologically redundant, but an excess in terms of financial commitment. If reports are to be believed, a hold on these two issues would save £29bn itself.

A re-think on policies and spending that has working families and services – once the heartland of the Labour Party – in mind, is a tactic that can work alongside the creation of real money in the future. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

And furthermore, Balls’ talk of “tough choices” can be a practical presence to all the good talk Labour are doing to counter the Tories’ real commitment to 10% cuts.


George Osbourne; Value For Money

When it comes to public spending, Tory voices will emerge calling Ed Balls a liar, and George Osbourne a hero. I set out in an entry on Liberal Conspiracy today to show that Balls’ comments were far more cautious than the caustic Tory bloggers/journalists make out, and detail why critics should not attempt to paint Balls as trying to fraud the voter.

When it comes to personal finances, even the Tories will have to admit that the shoes are on the other feet today.

In Andrew Sparrow’s commentary on the official release of MP’s expenses, we see that;

“Ed Balls, the children’s secretary, and his wife, Yvette Cooper, the work and pensions secretary, were cleared by the parliamentary commissioner for standards last year after being accused of wrongly nominating their London home as their second home.”

whilst on Sam Jones’ report, we see;

“• George Osborne [claimed for] £47 for two DVDs of his own speech on Value for Taxpayers’ Money”

Value for money indeed, and at only £23.50 each.

An open, twitter-esque, blog entry for Mr. Darling

You don’t have to be mad to be an MP and as such it should be thoroughly frowned upon but if you are, you certainly shouldn’t lose your seat. Here here Mr. Darling.

(And I promised not to be as crass as that no good Paul Staines).

But Mr. Darling, when the opposition favour spending cuts, and half of our government, including yourself by proxy, do too, madness is the character of our times.

Unemployment numbers have risen to 2.261 million so reports the Guardian today, and you failed to back Ed Balls, the man who your boss wants your job to go to, when he supported more spending in health and education. The areas where it really hurts the Tories.

It doesn’t add up at all, with regards to, not just your predictions that the economy will heal, but, Paul Krugman’s judgement that our economy is on the mend.

At best, the job void is filled by unskilled labour, at best it fails to capitalise on an area where the opposition is at its knees, and our party will be forced to scrap its current working mantra: Labour investment versus Tory cuts.

Toby Helm, blogging on today’s Guardian, on the topic of today’s PMQ’s said;

“At successive general elections since 1997, Brown has had one overriding message that has worked pretty well: that the Tories will cut spending on key services while Labour will invest more in health and education in real terms.

Your NHS, your kids’ school etc … all better under Labour.”

Cameron, according to Helm, is already attempting to hone in on Labour’s policy on spending, so it is time for Brown to save his legacy (even as Chancellor) and refrain from cuts. I’d even go as far as to say he should facilitate plans to refrain from cuts and engage with Balls’ figures.

In order to save his legacy of avoiding cuts, he needs to cut you, Mr. Darling, out.

Balls is right (I admit now), Labour in-fighting gives Tories political highground

Alistair Darling, one half of the duo who quashed city analysts’ predictions on the longevity of financial recession, has clashed with Ed Balls over spending in the health and education departments.

Fair?

Those independent economists (bless them) referenced in the Telegraph article today have said that whoever wins next election will have to squeeze public spending in order to pay back the 700bn borrowing prgramme.

But on CiF and during an interview with Radio 4’s World at One Balls spelt out his reasons for wanting to go ahead with spending, along with why fighting within the Labour ranks is hurting the party, and giving the Tories a free ticket to political highground.

But Balls in the interview was clearly more cautious than some have now made out – like Liam Byrne for example, who said;

“We are going to decide how the growth in public spending is divided up much closer to the time. Looking into a crystal ball and understanding what the economy looks like in the year of the Olympics, I just don’t think is possible right now.”

Balls boldly stated that the moves on spending, to outdo Tory plans on 10% spending cuts;

“will depend upon what happens to the economy and to unemployment and debt interest. But I think that with tough choices we can see real rises in the schools budget and the NHS budget in future years.”

These careful claims are justified, but why have they not been backed by the Chancellor’s department?

Does Darling not believe his own part in the claim – now with Paul Krugman agreeing that Labour are the right party to fix the economy, and Jose Manuel Barroso limiting his focus on America, which by his predictions has not seen the worst of the recession yet – that the UK has the best chance of a quick economic recovery in europe?

Or is it something a little deeper; does it have anything to do with the fact that, as shadow schools secretary Michael Gove questioned, Balls is the man Gordon Brown wanted to make chancellor, [and] Alistair Darling [is] the man he was too weak to move?”

Certainly with TUC’s predictions recently that job losses will continue, now in the public sector – previously resisting the pressure by economic downturn – public spending should be bracketed as important as debt relief – since that debt has been largely public sector relief, its time to focus on how to avoid public sector collapse and more economic misery for working families.

And on a more strategic level, cuts in the public sector is where the Tories are at their most vulnerable; George Osborne and Kenneth Clarke have both said that cuts are inevitable, and Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, has said that to commit to Balls’ needs would mean cutting other departments’ budgets by 10 per cent (earning his pseudonym Mr. 10% by Liam Byrne).

The party must stay focused, cut out the deadweight and the weak, work out how to marry financial repair and public spending to curb job losses and economic misery for working families, and show the Tories that cuts will not cut it with the country’s economy.

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