Wednesday, 30 July 2008

More thoughts about things at the top of our great party...

I'm a Labour member and have been since I was 16. I worked for Ann Clwyd for 3.5 years in the Commons. I am very sorry to say that while I believe we need a new leader, I'm not sure that I see anyone with the necessary vision, although David Miliband's article in today's Guardian ( suggests that at last, Government Ministers are beginning to come out from beneath the shadow of the Prime Minister, and offer some light at the end of a very long tunnel. Thank heavens someone is starting to do that thing which top politicians worth their salt should be able to to - offer vision!

However, perhaps we should be saying something truly radical that will distinguish us from the Tories? Here are a few suggestions, which I admit, are rather radical, but hey, I feel like stimulating a debate with all 10 people who read this blog! Please post a comment! The Government have to worry about getting re-elected, so I understand that they cannot be quite as radical as this, but I'm allowed that luxury...!

Here are some suggestions from a man who is becoming more radical with every day (maybe it's being a father to a little girl which makes you ponder whether the old certainties are so solid?...)

- scrap holding the 2012 Olympics, write off the money that has been spent, and spend whatever can be saved on small scale, local sporting projects in communities throughout the UK.
- re-nationalise the entire railway network and pledge to build a high-speed, subsidised network (as in France, Germany and Spain. This will reduce commuting by car and will encourage people to live outside London and the South East (thus redistributing economic wealth to poorer parts of the country). The knock on effect of this will be to reduce pressures on housing and services in the South East and to allow more people to enjoy lower house prices and more countryside.
- challenge the assumption that the Green Belt is sacred. Why should people be bundled up into grotty towns and cities, or the suburban sprawl?
- scrap the replacement of Trident and spend the vast sums saved on cutting class sizes in the state sector, or matching private spending on education to finally tackle the gross inequalities of opportunity within our education system, perpetuated by the public school system. Or spend the money on employing youth workers in EVERY ward of the country, or by building more facilities for young people.
- offer tax cuts for anyone earning less than £50k in return for their volunteering in their local communities. People earning more can of course volunteer (and often do), but by doing this, we will offset the imbalance in status derived from salary, whereby a teacher or ambulance driver earns a fraction of the salaries of those in the private sector. We need to be seen to be respecting those who earn less but do more for society.
- offer discounts on graduates' loan repayments if they offer to become a mentor to youngsters from deprived areas
- establish a system of mentoring whereby graduates from top universities are given paid holiday jobs tutoring young people from deprived areas on how to get into Oxbridge or other top universities (so that these children receive the same level of expert coaching as is provided by public schools)
- state unequivocally that it is not big money that transforms communities, but the bonds people create and build through actually helping one another in their communities. Not top down, but local. Not macro, but micro. The best thing the Government could do is to be on the side of those who wish to work fewer hours, earn a little less, but have the time and the enthusiasm to contribute more to their communities and to their family life
- stamp on the statist tentacles of the Treasury, which the Prime Minister has seemingly transplanted into No 10. A recent example of which is the Treasury's efforts to oppose feed in tariffs and other measures which would encourage local communities, businesses and individuals to sell energy generated through renewable methods back to the grid at a preferential rate (as happens in Germany)
- Why not be truly radical in allowing all employees the right to go part time in order to look after their children? Why not state that consumerism and materialism are not necessarily good things per se?
- spend some of the money saved by scrapping Trident on reinforcing the infantry so that we can carry out more humanitarian interventions where necessary. Perhaps instead of being a member of the nuclear club, we could become world leaders at expeditionary intervention and peace keeping (perhaps we are already). Surely 500 more helicopters is better than 1/10 of a nuclear-armed submarine which will never be used?
- I'll leave reference to foreign policy until another time. Readers may be surprised to know that I was and remain in favour of the Iraq war...

Of course the charge against many of these suggestions is that they're impractical. So was founding the NHS! I stand for pragmatic idealism. Where that takes me is somewhere a little more radical than where the party is at the moment.

Thousands of activists, like me, are wanting to go out there and campaign for a Labour Party which offers more than good (or bad) technocratic government. We must offer hope for a better future, based on fairness. To spread fairness and equality of opportunity throughout the land, we need more than 'new' new Labour. Now is the time to debate what it is which drives this party. Until we have that debate, and are led by someone who can articulate a convincing vision and actually deliver it, people like me will become more and more disillusioned. Please note, I am a very loyal Labour Party member, so if I am typing this, we are in deep, deep trouble.

All the best, John

PS if any of you are in Coventry next Monday (4 August), my band is playing at the Kasbah Club -

Monday, 28 July 2008

The joys of rail travel in the UK...

Having got up at 05:30 for my daily commute to London, I decided to return home and work from there after Network Fail's engineering works over-ran to the extent that no trains even got near my station for over an hour and they're still delayed as a type. While checking National Rail Enquiries' website for live updates, I must say I was grateful for their thoughtfulness in explaining some key definitions which rail travellers sadly encounter too frequently:

Delayed = This service is delayed
No report = There is no report on the progress of this service yet
On time = This service is on time
Starts here = The service has not yet started the journey
Cancelled = The service has been cancelled

Is a rational, functioning human brain employed in devising this or was it generated by a badly programmed computer?....

I would suggest the following addition:

Nationalised railway = uses less subsidy than privatised railway and allows the Government to design services which people need, such as cheap, high-speed commuter routes - please see France, Germany and Spain for more details.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Glasgow East and our prospects for the future...

Following the debacle of Labour's defeat in the Glasgow East by-election, there will be a predictable clamour for Gordon Brown's scalp. As a Labour activist since the age of 16, what is happening to my party and to this Government is nothing short of a tragedy. But what is truly galling is that the vacuous and timid nature of our own party, over many years, is the root cause of our current predicament, and is the reason why the proposed solutions for improving our prospects seem so flawed.

That Gordon Brown was the heir apparent, whose dominance of the party was such that he was unopposed in the leadership elections spoke of a crisis of mammoth proportions at the top of our party. While the Tories held an open and exciting leadership election, which engaged the public, we held a moribund coronation followed by the ultimately misguided crowing which preceded the election that wasn't to be. That there were no senior or junior cabinet members prepared to offer a vision of the future of Labour politics in the UK was sad, and will now cost us dearly in the next General Election. The Labour Party seemed happy to accept this as a fait accompli. We hypnotised ourselves into believing that we were virtually destined to remain in power by virtue of the man who brought us prudence with a purpose.

That he may well have done. But the economic miracle of the Blair / Brown decade is unravelling, and what is left in its wake, is a vacuum , where there ought to be vision, and purpose. Those who talk of a leadership challenge later in the year, are tipping David Miliband and James Purnell as favourites. But here lies the danger, brought about by the lack of radical thought and policy discussion in the party during the last decade. If the solution to our current problems is to elect an overtly Blairite member of the Cabinet to lead the party and the Government, what hope is there that they will offer the vision necessary to reinvigorate the party, and more importantly, to reconnect with a completely disillusioned electorate.

We have allowed ourselves to become the party which, under Gordon Brown’s leadership, has acted most swiftly, when trying to ram home huge ‘establishment’ projects like replacing Trident, or nuclear power stations. We have shown an almost complete lack of dynamism on environmental issues, until only very recently, with the renewable energy proposals. We had appeared to be almost entirely in the pocket of both the large energy companies, and their supporters in the office marked ‘macro is best’ at the Treasury. This allowed David Cameron to do the unthinkable – successfully present the Tories as the party most concerned about the environment. We abandoned the little man, who would have liked to be supported by his Government as he sought to take individual action by installing a wind turbine. We allowed the Treasury to convince the Government that big is always better – small ‘c’ conservatism of worst, and most dangerous kind. We enfeebled ourselves in thrall to huge economic interests, and in so doing showed the electorate our true colours.

On communities, we still seem to think that top down is best. In education, we persist with the over-burdening and over-testing of both children and teachers. On housing, we have quite simply failed to provide enough new, affordable homes for the private sector, or social homes for those who cannot get on the housing ladder. Why? Because we were in thrall to the market, and the boom in house prices. Why did a Labour Government allow the housing market to so singularly fail those who should be our core supporters? Why, because we were seeking to appeal most of all to the property-owning hoards of so-called middle England. We allow the perception to take hold that we care more about the wealthy, than those who are struggling to make ends meet, despite the admirable efforts of the Prime Minister to tackle poverty.

On welfare reform, we ignored the one Labour MP who actually possessed vision and the steadfastness required to enact it – Frank Field. In fact, the Prime Minister’s belief in statism led to Field’s sacking and thus our party presiding over the perpetuation of welfare dependency. It all could have been so different. The Prime Minister has a Business Council, but he doesn’t have a council of public sector workers to advise him on how to deal with their concerns and improve services.

And yet we are faced with the prospect of a paralysed Brown premiership, lumbering on until May 2010, or that of a young leader such as David Miliband or James Purnell, both of whom are arch-Blairites and have done very little outside of politics. Do they offer the vision required to provide some radical solutions to the problems which Britain faces. I sincerely hope so, but in my heart of hearts, I must confess that I do not have much hope of this. I do not believe that the party knows what it stands for anymore. I know for sure that those talked of as potential future Labour Prime Ministers, have not done anything to show that they have what it takes to offer leadership and vision, or to do anything to rock the applecart in a way which leads to a fairer Britain. That is why the propects for my party are truly bleak.

These are just some early morning ramblings. I’ll no doubt cheer up later!