Tuesday, 25 November 2014

LabourList blog: Labour can change the false narrative with a realitycheck



Online at LabourList here.

A false narrative has developed about Labour that must be rejected comprehensively by a party aiming to govern in six months. It claims that Labour has become alienated from virtually the entire electorate. Our response to date has been ineffective. Here are some suggestions for how we may succeed in future.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. We should take heed and refuse to be cowed by something as illusory as a false narrative, even when we have sometimes fed it. When a narrative gets you down, the only thing to do is change it.

Step one: remind ourselves and the country that our values are not antithetical to those of the majority of voters. This doesn’t require a new New Labour, rather we must recast our core beliefs, and then personify them in our actions, so that they resonate at this particular moment in politics.

Remind voters that the clue is in our name: Labour. We are the work party, not the welfare party. Our founding father, Keir Hardie, who from age eight supported a large family single-handedly, did not fight all his life for the right to claim benefits, but for the right to enjoy the dignity of well-paid, unexploited work. We founded the modern welfare state and will always believe it to be a defining feature of our civilised society, but we must now communicate more effectively that Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and colleagues are focused on founding a new economy defined by labour not benefits.

Step two: set out policies that provide clear examples of how our values work in modern Britain. These should ideally be counter-intuitive to grab the attention of voters, activists and the media. Think how Labour reclaimed the law and order issue from the Tories in the late 1990s. Chuka Umunna’s heartfelt belief in “the British dream” of entrepreneurialism and small business shows how this can be done. Merely denying that we are anti-business is not sufficient. We must show, practically, that we are pro-business and pro-fair and dynamic markets. Rachel Reeves has similarly shown that our compassion need not mean we lack credibility on reforming benefits.

We’ve had new, blue, purple and “in the black” Labour. Perhaps now it’s time for a “tough love Labour” showing that we’ve moved beyond a reflexive opposition to Tory reforms onto an agenda of contribution and responsibility over entitlement and rights. We represent places where there is growing concern about immigration, so we must be at the forefront of the debate about the worry many have about rapid changes to their communities and a fear that parts of the country are becoming little more than vessels of economic activity. By avoiding the debate, we have helped create a vacuum of rich pickings for UKIP. Yvette Cooper’s recent speech is a welcome contribution to the debate.

Step three: place all ego and internal politics to one side and choose spokespeople who are particularly able to reach the parts that we haven’t been able to reach of late. We must field people who can connect with voters from across the political divide. Our ranks are full of them, with a small but not exhaustive list including Gloria de Piero, Rachel Reeves, Stewart Wood, Dan Jarvis, Liz Kendall, Sadiq Khan and Luciana Berger. Jim Murphy shows how it’s done and Scotland’s gain is our loss at Westminster.

Step four: in order to counter the narrative that the Labour leadership is a detached metropolitan elite, all candidates, current MPs, shadow ministers and key advisers should spend a day a week from now until the election shadowing ordinary people in their paid or unpaid jobs (i.e. including childcare, or caring). The panopticon prison of a party’s back office and the entire Westminster and media bubble, cannot be escaped by some timely focus groups or street surgeries. Labour’s politics would benefit from a large dose of the reality that becomes apparent when we look outwards not inwards.

In his 2013 speech about reforming Labour after the Falkirk scandal, Ed Miliband said “we need to reach out to others outside our Party too” and suggested primaries for Parliamentary selections where the incumbent is retiring and membership has dwindled. Many of us encouraged him to push forward with this. Primaries would be another way of showing that we reach out beyond the sometimes dwindling and moribund local party structures.

Step five: do not seek plaudits or medals for the above. Simply do it without fear or favour and let the experiences influence speeches, press releases, policy reviews and then enthuse the broader Labour movement.

It’s not too late. Ed Miliband has shown that he can change the narrative, seize the initiative, challenge vested interests and be a visionary leader. Each member of the Labour Party must have faith in our individual and collective ability to change the narrative. Together, we can and must show the country that we are far better than the fabrication our detractors are portraying. If we do this effectively, the narrative will change.

John Slinger is a strategic communications consultant.

Friday, 17 October 2014

The small things enable the big things...

Both professionally and while running Pragmatic Radicalism, I've concluded that it really is the little things that count. I sum up my views in this aphorism:

"The small things are the hardest to get right, but once you get them right, the big things are easier to achieve."

PS I don't claim to have invented the above, as it's clearly not rocket science. But it did occur to me independently.

My blog for Progress: Their rights, our responsibility

Online here.


Their rights, our responsibility

Syria. Bombed out building. Assad. Homs.
It says a lot about humanity, international institutions and individuals that despite our facade of civilisation and modernity, the last three years saw weapons of mass destruction used against civilians and violations of human rights on an industrial scale, both in Syria. It was reported this week that photos smuggled out of Syria in 2011 of industrial-scale torture by the Assad regime are to appear in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. The scenes they depict, as with those from the Ghoutta WMD attack last year, evoke bygone eras of man-made tragedy. It is entirely appropriate therefore that they appear in such a museum, their ghosts reminding us of the human cost of inaction.
In these isolationist times, to have maximum impact, the photos should be displayed next to those showing other recent examples of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, which the international community did little or nothing to prevent: Bosnia, the Anfal campaign against the Kurds in Iraq, Rwanda, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of Congo and, of course, present day Iraq and Syria.
I have visited the Washington DC Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem in Israel, and the Halabja memorial in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. As with all people of good conscience, I say ‘never again’. Yet it keeps happening again and again – a perpetual cycle in which those with evil intent fill the vacuum left where good people choose to do either nothing, or the bare minimum.
Perhaps this is a tragic reflection of illogical, irrational, contradictory urges within us all. We demand lower taxes yet simultaneously expect public spending increases. We refuse to vote, yet criticise politicians for not listening. It is human nature, yet when it comes to human rights, this wishful thinking, this perpetual hoping for the best, this conflicted logic is deadly.
To put it crudely, we say we believe in human rights but we do nothing to uphold them. Almost as if it would be enough to write down the criminal law, but be content with no criminal justice system. When other people’s ‘right to life, liberty and security of person’ (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3), is being snuffed out we offer words of outrage, words of sympathy or words from noble legal texts. Yet when our own lives are threatened we demand action.
Politicians are far from solely to blame, for we the people have a responsibility to take the defence of human rights more seriously. We who are fortunate to live in democracies, enjoy but often do not value the rights won by and defended by our forebears in armed conflict. Yet from our gilded citadels, the delicate balance our politicians walk between leading and following is at present tilting in favour of the public’s abhorrence for military intervention to protect civilians from terrorists or dictators. We must accept our individual and collective responsibility to our fellow humans by urging our politicians to uphold human rights.
Large-scale human rights abuses should not be merely contained, they must be confronted. Politicians the world over have a responsibility to improve the mechanisms by which ‘never again’, ‘the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ and ‘the responsibility to protect’ become more than words. At present, people of good conscience are gifting the field to those for whom human rights are anathema. Unprotected principles perish. Rights will rot away if not respected. One day we may ask others to protect our human rights. We had better hope that they value our rights more than we value theirs today.



Thursday, 9 October 2014

My Times letter: Turkey should not be expected to be the only external country fighting ISIS on the ground

THE TIMES - online here; published in print edition on Saturday 11 October

Sir, Given that the US and UK have ruled out sending in ground troops, it is odd that western commentators demand that Turkey becomes the first and only country to do just that. Given the tragic history of relations between Turks and Kurds, it is all the more important that the world acts collectively to protect them and others. If the West was serious about its objective of “degrading and defeating” Isis, it would devise a suitable military strategy. At present, it appears to wish to outsource to others what it is unwilling to do itself. Meanwhile, civilians pay the price.

John Slinger 


Monday, 6 October 2014

My Guardian letter: air strikes strategy seems incapable of helping Kurdish city of Kobani

Online at The Guardian here (and published in print edition on Tues 7 October 2014)



During the 26 September parliamentary debate, the prime minister said that without British air strikes there was no realistic prospect of “degrading and defeating” Isis and destroying it as a serious terrorist force. While he was clear that “we should not expect this to happen quickly”, your report (6 October) that Syrian Kurds have said that US-led air strikes are “not enough” to defeat Isis forces attacking Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border, points to flaws in the US-led strategy.
First, Britain’s decision to limit our intervention to Iraq means we are powerless to come to the aid of Kobani. Second, the prime minister and President Obama insisted that their objectives could be met by providing air power in support of local forces, and by arming them. In Kobani, local forces have been receiving air support, yet still they may succumb to the terrorists. The strategy must therefore be adapted so that it is capable of achieving its objectives.
John Slinger



Thursday, 2 October 2014

Brian Blessed on the World Tonight about why William Hague is not the Greatest Living Yorkshireman!

A wonderful bit of radio, this - regarding David Cameron's description of William Hague as "the greatest living Yorkshireman" during his speech yesterday to the Conservative Party Conference. BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight  interviewed veteran actor Brian Blessed about this claim.



Caroline Wyatt (presenter): Was Mr Cameron right in his choice [of William Hague as the "greatest living Yorkshireman"]?

Brian Blessed: Oh, absolutely not.Totally ridiculous. He's a marvelous man, he made a marvelous speech the other day, he's a lovely Yorkshireman, a terrific guy. But he doesn't compare to me! I am, without doubt, the greatest Yorkshireman who's ever lived. We've got hundreds of Yorkshire people, you've got Patrick Stewart, the Captain, Jean-luc Picard, you've got Geoffrey Boycott, Dickie Bird, the whole of the gigantic county is full of marvelous people.

But the fact of the matter is, I am very hurt, because I have a special relationship with the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron, absolutely. I was there in Number 10 Downing Street a few weeks ago, going to see about animals, and I was falling asleep by the window sill, and I suddenly felt his arms around me: "Hello Brian". We'd come into Number 10 Downing Street, we'd stood outside the door, he said: "Wake everybody up and shout "Gordon's alive" "! And I did that and he said thank you so much. So we have this very special relationship and it's an aberration by him to say that Hague is a wonderful man.

But William Hague comes from Woth-on-Durn, I come from half a mile away, Bolton-on-Durn, next to Woth-on-Durn [in a Yorks accent now], and they were always second to us. We beat them at football, we beat them at Sheffield Association League, but I mean William Hague, love, he can't hold a candle to me".

Caroline Wyatt: Follow that - Brian Blessed....

Thursday, 25 September 2014

My LabourUncut piece on Phil Collins' stage interview with Chuka Umunna at Labour Conference

Online here.

Chuka Umunna – A pro on what Labour must be pro if we are to win again


by John Slinger

During Phil Collins’s gentle jousting with Chuka Umunna today, their savvy wit was evident. While light-hearted at times (always a boon at conference) there was much substance.

First dodging the brickbat of why hasn’t Labour apologised more on the economy: “we’ve learnt the lessons of the crash” and the debt and deficit rose due to falling tax receipts not profligacy. This is a line that hasn’t resonated enough yet.

Chuka does the big picture well and was expansive on the three challenges Britain faces: “delivering social democracy in a fiscal cold climate, transformative technology, and global competition”.
Politely disagreeing with a questioner on modern technologies he argued that they shouldn’t be feared and can help “transform public services”.

He’s keen to utilise and promote the dynamic and the new, not build up defensive walls against it. Handing out certificates at school in his patch, he’d told the kids that they’re up against others from “Mumbai and Singapore who perhaps want it more as they’ve had perhaps had to struggle more”. Teachers and parents appreciated the straight-talking about how globalisation cannot be turned back. He’s right: dealing with such challenges starts in the classroom and goes way beyond there.

The wit was there, from Collins of course, but while refuting the “nonsense” charge that Labour isn’t sufficiently pro-business, Chuka reminded all that New Labour weren’t exactly flush with business endorsement in ’97, having been “elated to get Richard Branson on a train with Tony Blair”! It was good to hear what should be both a defence against the anti-business charge, and an attack on the newly the newly rejuvenated europhobes of Cameron’s Tories: that “the biggest concern of British business is our exit from the EU”.

In 2012, he’d chaired an event on entreprensurship and small business for the organisation I chair, Pragmatic Radicalism. What more, I asked, ought all members and CLPs do to reach out to local businesses, not just unions and community groups (vital though this is)? He’d championed Small Business Saturday and flagged up this year’s on 6 December, also CLPs should engage with Business Improvement Districts. I’ve long thought that we can’t just rely on Chuka to defeat the Tory lie that we don’t “get” or like business. We’re the party of work after all.

He touched on last week’s referendum, concluding that we need not just “big ideas” but a “big tent” and reminding us that the1997 tally of 59 southern English Labour MPs now stands at 10.

Of course Chuka wouldn’t be interested in any future leadership election, quipped Collins, to much merriment and wry smiles, but which colleagues “might be contenders”? Cool as a cucumber, Chuka retorted “there’s only one person to look out for: Prime Minister Miliband”! There were smiles too when Collins asked why Len McCluskey got slightly more rapturous applause than greeted him: “Len and I have different roles”. He was respectful but confidently deflected this sidewinder.

We all know Chuka’s a pro. But I’d rather focus on the substance not the style. He set out some things from his portfolio that we as a Labour Party must be “pro” in order to win in May. Pro-business, pro-getting business talking to primary students, pro-entrepreneurship, pro-social enterprise, pro-raising the status of youth workers, pro-straight talking. I forgot one last one…pro-Ed Miliband. Sounds like a winning formula for Chuka and Labour.

**Thank you to the good people at Fujitsu for letting me type this in their zone!**

John Slinger is a strategic communications consultant and Chair of Pragmatic Radicalism. He blogs here http://slingerblog.blogspot.com