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Monthly Archives: June 2010

The UK government has a problem with its budget and the deficit of the budget is the most pressing issue of this parliament. Anyone that does not acknowledge that is gravely mistaken and not in touch with the problems that face the UK’s government at the moment. This was a key issue at the recent general election and an issue that there was consensus about, in so much as there was cross party agreement that it must be dealt with. The dispute at the election was about when and how to deal with the issues.

The Conservative Party argued that the deficit should deal with by cutting spending, from the moment they assumed office by £6billion. This they argued was a down payment to prevent worse pain further down the road. They gave very little detail about what they would cut, and they even promised a series of tax cuts as well to add some confusion, but the message was clear, they had no issue with cutting budgets now. The counter argument came from the then governing Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, that at the moment the government needs to do more to support the economy and enable more growth, before its own cuts would begin in 2011. The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, had at numerous points of this debate had used his adopted city of Sheffield to strengthen the case for holding the cuts back. These warnings had gone so far as claiming there could be riots if people in his city voted against cuts, by voting either Labour or Lib Dem, were the ones who suffered the most at the hands of Tory cuts.

There was a hope that the Tories being in coalition with a party that is or at least was, against cutting the economy this year would hold back the worst of their excesses. This hope or belief was held up by the rhetoric that Nick Clegg, himself a Sheffield MP, was using throughout this period. However, rhetoric, like talk of attacking the Tories VAT tax bomb, and Clegg talked of riots by his constituents, if they were unfairly targeted for cuts, ended as soon as Cameron waived the carrot of power at Clegg. Why is this? Why have the same party in a matter of weeks changed from investors, supporting government aided growth, favouring the age of austerity. It seems they are either incompetent or dishonest, or perhaps both.

The Lib Dems claim that they were not aware that the government accounts were as bad as they are. This talk would suggest that the outgoing labour government had not accounted for its spending, despite the fact there was a budget laying out all public spending for all to see. They even claim that in the case of Sheffield Forgemasters that, it was just spending in marginal constituencies, as a form of electoral bribery, which is quite some claim that needs to be dealt with the utmost seriousness. It also exploits the wider public’s ignorance at the political geography of Sheffield. Not only is there only one non-Labour MP in the area (Clegg), the actual constituency where Forgemasters resides is Sheffield Brightside, home to former minister David Blunkett, where it is fair to say the Labour vote is weighed, not counted. How does this amount to political bribery?

There is, furthermore the issue of affordability of the loan and whether the loan represents value for money in the age of austerity and whether it could be served elsewhere. The government, and particularly Lib Dems on the back foot, say that not serving the loan will not cost one job at the plant. In this they are right, but it is also to fundamentally miss the intention of the loan. Forgemasters want to me the only steel plant in Europe to produce vital parts for nuclear reactors. They have the knowhow, they have the skill and they have the potential facility. Note that last point, potential. The raison d’être for the loan is to provide the final piece that was missing, which is the capital to allow expansion. This loan, would have created 180 jobs immediately, would have bought Sheffield Forgemasters as a firm to not only the forefront of the industry, but also to one of the most lucrative markets, the post carbon economy.

Thus the whole point of this investment is that it is not a bail out, the point not to protect jobs, but to create them and at the same time support British manufacturing and allowing them to become world leaders. Furthermore, it was not a grant but a loan, to be paid back at 3.5% interest. This loan would have made money for the treasury, and would have actually bought spending in other areas down, like welfare. At the general election, this was the investment and spending that the Labour Party was defending, to allow growth and solidify the recovery. There is no doubt about the seriousness with which Alistair Darling took the cuts that were to come, but they should have started next year, precisely to allow this kind of investment. By withdrawing the support now, we not only risk a return to recession, but we are damaging the recovery after that double dip.

So where do the Lib Dems stand on this? We have not had a clear answer. They supported solidifying the economy, by resisting cuts until 2011 before the election, but now they are in government the same people are proposing that cuts must come now. They have not yet explained properly what has caused switch. Were they honest at the election? Or did they betray principals to get their mitts on power?  This discrepancy must be highlighted by the Labour opposition. But whatever the cause of change of heart, it is clear that for now, they have become classical, anti-state, small government Tories. They are saying to British manufacturing, that regardless of the cause, or the long or short term benefits, it must survive on its own in the market place. If the market will not support it, it will not get support.

The British economy and manufacturing will not benefit from this economic vandalism.

There are not enough women in politics. They are undoubted outnumbered by their male counterparts and this is a problem that is neither new nor party political. It is over 30 years since the male hegemony was broken in number 10 Downing Street with the election of one Mrs Margaret Roberts Thatcher. Yet since then, there have been four different Lib Dem leaders without a woman making a clear claim to their leadership. There have been five Conservative leaders and Ann Widdecombe’s efforts aside, there has not been one major female contender, likewise Labour, who aside from Margaret Beckett, have failed to produce a female politician to stake a serious claim the leadership. It needs stressing that this is not a party political issue and all parties need to do more to nurture their own talent in their respective parties.

This issue has of course come to ahead with the current acting leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman proposing that a quota of 50% men and women should make up the shadow cabinet. Her hope is that such a rule would drive forward gender equality and by making it compulsory for half the cabinet to made up by female members of the PLP. This represents, in my view, a fundamental miss-understanding of the nature of politics, identity and representation. Politics should not be about the identity of the individuals involved. It is about having a vision and a set of ideals for how the world should be shaped. The people that I personally want to be in power are those that I think can delivery on the values that I aspire to and the goals that they achieve. An individual’s gender, race, sexuality, fashion sense or choice of football team should be relevant when considering who a voter wants as a representative. Discrimination, of any kind, is an evil that should only be discouraged and defeated; it should be used when it is convenient because there is always an unfair victim, who loses out through no fault of his or her own. Thus discrimination goes against the core values that the Labour party stands for and is what drives many of us into politics.

The issue of positive discrimination and the arguments that surround it are not new to the Labour party. It was Labour that that controversially embraced all women shortlists as a short term measure and it has to be said had a big impact. When Labour swept to power in 1997, they did so with arguably the most diverse group of MPs in any parliamentary party in the country’s history. The role that all women shortlists played in this success cannot be understated. So is the 50-50 rule the natural next step? The next tough short term measure to strengthen party and country in the long term? Is an all-women shortlist the same as a quota? This is not clear.

The shortlists were introduced to aid the problems that wannabe female candidates had in getting selected, and the problems they had in being taken seriously by Constituency Labour Parties across the country. So the real question needs to be, is whether the leadership of the labour party can be trusted or not to give potential members of a shadow cabinet an equal chance, regardless of gender? It is not clear whether within the PLP; female MPs have had their chances restricted to warrant such a change. In fact the opposite would appear to be the case, with some excellent women ministers many of whom have held the great offices of state, notably the first ever female home and foreign secretaries, amongst many other positions taken up by women that previously had been part of the male monopoly on power. We, as a party, should be proud that we have led the way in diversifying parliament, but it is not only women that has broken through, with first ethnic minority cabinet ministers, first gay and disabled minsters as well. This is tantamount to way in which the party has grown to utilise talent from a wide range of backgrounds. Furthermore, it was notably how this was not case when the first Lib-Con cabinet sat; it was actually a return to the upper middle class, white male hegemony of power.

So which is the right way forward? There appears to be very little evidence to suggest that there is unequal opportunity within the PLP to warrant the constraints of a quota. It appears that the problem is numbers, or lack of them. Amongst the 258 Labour MPs, a mere 89 are women. This is the problem and it needs to be looked at by the new Labour leader. But this should be a wholesale review of not just the candidate selection process, but the whole way in which we engage people in politics. As we rebuild in opposition we need to consider how to engage the disenfranchised and the disinterested into politics, and how we best serve their interests. We need to ensure that we are recruiting members, supporters and candidates that we are looking beyond the end of our proverbial noses. I have personally thought for sometime that there are far too many MPs who have travelled a similar route into politics, from studying politics at university, to working in a think tank to becoming an MP by their late 30s to early 40s and touted as the next bright young things. We need to look further afield. The other major change should be in reforming the selection process, which is in need of being opened up so the same familiar faces do not become candidates.

Since the 1990s there have been too many stifled debates and contests, too many mates parachuted into safe seats and too many of the same old faces are in the PLP as a consequence. Thus, in rebuilding Labour we must heed the lessons of these fixed rules and contests control freakery with the purpose of delivering a pre-ordained narrative and objective. Thus the 50-50 rule is a natural extension of this habit of stifling real debate and real contests in favour of the pre-ordained narrative to show that we are reflective of society and delivering the aim of more women in politics. But this, like the 1990s reforms, fails to get to the heart of the issue and is more about image and headlines, than real hard won progress. I want the party to open up, engage with more than the familiar faces, engage people from different areas and different backgrounds, to take tough decisions and face the consequences of opening up debate, even if we do not get the outcome we wanted. All women short lists were good in many respects, but why are we, 13 years on since the 1997 election still discussing the issue? We are still discussing the issue because of our failure to delve into a real discussion of who were engaging with and how we select candidates. We need real reform here. We need to heed a lot of lessons from President Obama on how to utilise a young, energetic network of supporters and emulate our own open primaries where local residents can choose not only the MP but the candidates as well.

Thus there are two paths for the party to choose here. One based on the same principals that failed in the 1990s and another based on a radical change about to whom we are talking to and how we select individuals as candidates. This should be part of turning Labour party membership into real community organisers and not just a glorified postman of our own propaganda. The quota if introduced will fail to get to the real issue, which is not about who the leader picks in their cabinet, but who that leader has to chose from. By reforming the process around selection, we will, in the long run improve the talent pool that said leader has to choose from. When equality quotas have been introduced elsewhere, there are clear trends that for those who are discriminated against, are put off in the long term, if anybody wants evidence for this look into so many South African cricketers play in England. Quotas are not designed to drive real change but act as a symbolic sign of progress, but it is a fake progress that will hide the real issues, when they should be highlighted.

If the party makes the right choices to open up debate and participation, to engage in the issues that affects their lives, understands the different issues that affects a wide coalition of society then the party will win back power from the Conservative-Liberal coalition. However, if we fail to radically change how we engage, which would be exacerbated with more stifled debate and fixed rules (like 50-50), the public will have no reason to believe we are any different. It was notable yesterday that one Miliband backed 50-50, whilst the other talked about nominating another leadership challenger so that the party has the widest possible debate. It has been those two moments that made my mind up that only through David Miliband will the party look to radically change the way it operates and engage in real debate.