Wednesday, 13 July 2016

My Progress blog: Labour’s muscular moderates must find their voice

Labour’s muscular moderates must find their voice

The Conservatives have risked our prosperity and place in the world by indulging their internecine war over Europe. In past decades, this would mean Labour challenging for power, yet our own neuroses now risk the creation of one-party Tory rule for a generation. The Tories ruthlessly selected a capable, credible leader while we are paralysed by a leader who does not command the support of most of his members of parliament. The Tories are parking their tanks on the pragmatic, radical middle ground of politics while we display to the public a party increasingly captured by those who value protest above power. Now more than ever, it is in Labour’s interests, but more importantly, the national interest, for moderates to win the argument about the future of centre-left politics.

Adopting ‘muscular moderation’ is essential, given the current trend where politicians on the extremes create a veneer of ‘authenticity’ by offering inauthentic, simplistic solutions to complex problems or gain admiration for ‘speaking the truth’ by distorting the truth, or at worst, appealing to base prejudices. Yet there is hope, for the vacuum being filled by those on the extremes was in large part created by the absence of muscular, moderate voices. Political nature may abhor a vacuum, but prefers one to be filled by a strong centre.

In 2007, 2010 and 2015, Labour turned away from an election-winning constituency of voters in the middle ground. I wrote last July that we would step ‘through the looking glass’ if we elected Jeremy Corbyn. We remain trapped in this Wonderland, as the NEC vote showed yesterday. Yet amid the surreality, people ranging from MPs to ordinary members are regaining the confidence to call out the distortions. Hard facts are beginning to shatter the illusions that bewitched so many. Labour frontbenchers were right to resign and express publicly a conclusion that many reached last summer: Jeremy Corbyn is not a leader capable of winning a general election. This should be asserted without malice. I worked with him in 2003 when I was coordinator of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group of which he was vice-chair. Now as then, I respect him for his personal decency.

Our criticism must not be based on personality but on principle, something which the hard left do not monopolise. First, we must challenge the hypocrisy of Corbyn supporters who condemn his critics as ‘traitors’ despite his record of voting against the Labour whip 500 times and himself backing Tony Benn’s challenge against Neil Kinnock in 1988. We must utterly condemn violence and intimidation in our politics, whether it comes from the left or right, not least following the appalling murder of Jo Cox and the continuing intimidation of moderates within the Labour party. We must dismiss the distortion that ‘moderates’ are an aberration or ‘Tory-lite’. Collectively, moderates worked to ensure that Labour won three elections, putting our principles into action, showing that exercising political power beats protest politics.

We must assert that moderation is not weakness; rather it is a strength because it goes with the grain of life. It accepts that solutions to complex problems do not fit into neat boxes, that progress can only come through compromise, that opponents are not always wrong and that collaboration trumps conflict.

Only muscular moderates are capable of holding the Tories’ feet to the fire for the mess they created on the European Union while working constructively to protect the national interest, as shown by Chuka Umunna’s new Vote Leave Watch grassroots campaign, designed to hold Leave to account for its ‘overblown, misleading claims’. We must acknowledge that the British people might wish to express their democratic opinion about the final deal negotiated with Brussels, particularly if this exposes Brexit Britain as a false-promise land.

An improved policy programme must be developed urgently, not least in light of Theresa May’s leadership campaign speech that mimicked many of Ed Miliband’s best ideas on making our economy work for all and was firmly in the One Nation tradition. She is seeking to fill the vacuum on the centre-ground and we must not let her. We must rebuild relations with the business community, rediscover our reforming zeal based on what works rather than ideologies long abandoned by most voters, and above all we must champion aspiration by building a society with genuine equality of opportunity.

When the Brutus-like attacks subsided, May became prime minister, showing that in times of crisis parties serious about government turn to muscular moderation rather than ideology-infused rhetoric of protest. The post-referendum dawn is shining a light on our politics, exposing unpleasant contradictions in both major parties that we knew could not persist. In the final analysis, the country needs muscular moderation. It is not too late for Labour, but if we fail to pick up this mantle now, others will.


John Slinger is a Labour party member and chair of Pragmatic Radicalism. He is a former member of the national parliamentary panel. He tweets @JohnSlinger and blogs here.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

My Times regarding the EU referendum

My Times letter arguing that campaigning in the EU referendum should cease entirely in light of the appalling murder of Jo Cox. They edited it down substantially.

My original letter: 


Jo Cox was murdered in a brutal and cowardly way while carrying out the most noble of roles - representing the people. Irrespective of the motives of her killer perhaps the appropriate response from our wider society would be to end campaigning in the EU referendum entirely. 

It would help everyone, irrespective of their views on Europe, to reflect on Jo's words in her Maiden Speech: "we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us". This applies to the UK, the EU and the wider world. Jo's life, before and during her political career, epitomised this message. 

Our society and our politics do not stay safe or improve by accident but only through the efforts of us all - MPs, the media and citizens alike - to conduct debate with respect for one another.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Monday, 16 May 2016

My letter in The Observer: Sadiq Khan’s ‘big tent’ is way forward

In his article (“What Labour can learn from my victory”, News, last week), Sadiq Khan said that we “must be able to persuade people who previously voted Conservative that Labour can be trusted with the economy and security as well as improving public services and creating a fairer society”. He spoke of Labour needing to “be a big tent that appeals to everyone – not just its own activists”. It was refreshing that he referenced those who run their own business as well as nurses.

When I and other so-called “moderates” in the party have made such points we have been labelled “disloyal” and told to show “unity”. It is therefore an important step on the road back to credibility as a political force that a politician of such stature, who has just won a historic victory and who has the biggest electoral mandate in Europe, is pointing out what are the obvious truths of British politics. 

In the last parliament, Pragmatic Radicalism held events that brought together people from different parts of the party, and from outside it, to present short policy pitches in an inclusive, outward-looking format. Sadiq chaired one of our events, and Jeremy Corbyn pitched a policy that came second in another event.  We cannot win unless we reach out and listen to each other and to the country.

John Slinger

Chair, Pragmatic Radicalism

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Remembering the brave decision of Prime Minister John Major and President George H W Bush to protect Iraq's Kurds

This ( is a superb article from Gary Kent about the 25th anniversary of the establishment by John Major and George HW Bush of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq (and one over southern Iraq which protected Iraq's Shia). The northern one stopped Saddam Hussein's genocide against the Kurds, which had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and seen the use of chemical weapons on multiple occasions, culminating in the Halabja atrocity. It also helped allow the development of the independent, democratic, tolerant, outward-looking Kurdistan Region in Iraq which I had the great privilege of visiting twice in 2013 thanks to Gary Kent and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's High Representative in Washington DC. I wrote about my visits here and here

Monday, 29 February 2016

My Times letter on social mobility and the need for more support in state schools for creativity

Sir, Your article about the disproportionate number of privately educated people at the top of the acting profession (“Those old school ties still matter for judges, doctors . . . and actors”, Feb 24; letters Feb 25 and 26) shows that more must be done to enable state schools to nurture the talent of all our children.

Beyond the obvious need for additional teaching and other resources, effort is needed to change the attitude in government about what constitutes a good education. At present, there is far too much emphasis on testing, and not enough on encouraging young people to be creative and to learn skills such as acting or playing a musical instrument. It’s these skills that develop well-rounded, confident young people who will be capable of becoming Oscar-winners, or indeed leaders in any field. If more students develop their creative talents, one might say they had received a “comprehensive” education.

John Slinger

Online here.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

BBC radio report on effect of drought on Ethiopian schools is journalism at its best

I just listened to an amazing and moving report by Tim Franks from the northern state of Tigray in Ethiopia (21 mins onwards). He meets teachers, students  and families struggling with the drought. Children in an impoverished, drought-afflicted area turning up for school feeling tired, thirsty and hungry yet desperately wanting to gain an education to better themselves. One boy runs 15k each way to and from school. 

Tim Franks visits a mother who is sad to keep her grade A daughter at school some days to help her find water - but she has no choice. She lives in a tiny, mud-walled hut.

The interviewed children were charming, polite, keen to learn and spoke English fluently. They wanted to help themselves through education and help their country.

Contrast this with the situation in the UK where, sadly, there is all too often not enough respect for teachers and education from students and parents (and wider society). Where the concern we have is whether kids consume too many sugary, expensive drinks, not whether they have enough water in their bodies to stop them falling asleep. Where kids are often obese because they eat too much food, rather than those in Ethiopia who are fed using government-distributed grain and whose family goats struggle to stay alive eating dried out weeds. Where children in the UK often take their education for granted and where teachers are made to feel responsible for solving the 'problems' of society, while in Ethopia the children grasp keenly at any opportunity given them. 

Take a listen to this report and tell me that there really are so many 'problems' in our Western societies. We have so much, yet value so little. We're quick to complain yet slow to act to improve our own communities through volunteering. We blame government, or 'the system' while reneging on our responsibilities - to ourselves, our children, our communities. 

We have a lot to learn from superb journalism like this.

Friday, 8 January 2016

Wonderful article affirming the importance of creativity

The most wonderful, life-affirming article I've read in years which makes the case for creativity over computers and consumerism; music over machines. It's by concert pianist James Rhodes in the Sunday Times 

"I look around and it seems that we (myself included) have looked outside ourselves for a means of happiness for so long that we have, for the most part, quite forgotten what it is to inhabit that part of us that is immune to social media and iPad Pros. We need a way to turn our phones off, metaphorically as well as physically, and I am convinced that creativity is the solution we don't even know we are looking for." 

He recommends buying a cheap piano, or writing, or playing guitar, etc, etc.

My letter in The Times ( on the importance of creativity in schools. In my view music is shamefully ignored in favour of sport, so that now much of the creative music scene is dominated by privately-educated people, when music should be, and can be, for ALL).