Saturday, 29 May 2010

20 questions for the next Labour leader - part 1

Last week Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society posed the question on the Next Left blog site, "What are the difficult questions the leadership candidates need to answer?". The biggest surprise about this question is that no-one has asked it sooner. Many in the Labour Party who were unhappy with Gordon Brown's leadership may well have acted against him long before the last General Election if there had been a credible alternative candidate waiting in the wings. Unfortunately, one of the reasons that there was no credible alternative (even though there were plenty of potential candidates) was that no-one really knew what any of the possible leadership contenders stood for. The problem now is, we still don't.

There is a common misconception in the media that Labour lost the last election merely because of a failure of presentation, both in its policies and in the personality of its leader. I disagree. I believe Labour lost because it ran out of policy ideas and therefore appeared to many to be a spent political force. After 2001 it had exhausted the stock of policies it had built up in opposition, and any policies it came up with subsequently it had to invent on the hoof while running the country. Unfortunately most of them ended up sounding as though they were made up on the hoof. They lacked coherence and intellectual rigour, and alienated our core support. In fact many of them just didn't work. On top of that there was a total failure to address the issues that affected Labour voters the most (jobs, housing) or angered them the most (bankers bonuses, immigration, the economy). That is why before the Labour Party can choose a new leader, the members need to know where the candidates stand on the issues that matter to them.

Unfortunately, so far in this leadership campaign all we have seen is more of the same. It has been the same bland candidates with the same vacant policy agendas. So far the campaign has been about who has the looks to take on Cameron, and who can amass the biggest army of sycophantic backbench supporters. That is why Sunder is right to ask his question. I have already offered Sunder my initial answer on what those questions should be, but here I will outline my definitive top 20, starting with my top five. The rest will come later.

1) The first question any potential leader should have to answer is the BIG one. It is this: "Why do you want to be leader? "
This is the question that Roger Mudd of CBS put to Ted Kennedy when he ran for US President in 1980. His failure to answer it effectively ended his presidential ambitions. For that reason alone, it is a question that deserves to be put to all leadership candidates. The events of the last ten years demonstrate that if a party is to avoid electoral stagnation, it needs to have a leader with a vision, not someone whose sole aim is to manage things a bit better, or is driven by his own hubris, vanity and lust for power and status. That is the underlying importance of this question.

2) The next question is one that I think follows on naturally from Q1. It is, what is YOUR big idea? What do you see as the fundamental structural problems in British society and what would you do to correct them?

Then we need to get into specifics regarding what a future leader would do if they became PM. If there are three issues that define the failure of the Blair/Brown years, then they are probably the housing crisis, the continuing rise in inequality, and the attack by the last government on civil liberties.

3) Housing
First we need to know if the candidates fully understand the role the housing bubble played in causing this current recession. Do they appreciate the effects that shortages of affordable housing have on distorting the labour market and reducing the mobility of labour? Do they recognise that inequalities in housing inevitably lead to inequalities in health, wealth and education? Do they understand that booming house prices lead to underinvestment in productive industry, and therefore to stagnating GDP and excessive private sector debt? Do they understand that housing booms always end in housing crashes, and that that always leads to recession, or worse? If so, we need to know how they plan to address these problems.
Would they support the building of more Council Houses, or social housing? And if so, how would they ensure that house building occurred in sufficient quantities? More importantly, how would they prevent future housing booms from occurring? I have already argued that control of house price inflation is essential to our future economic growth, and I have already outlined how such price stability could be achieved. If you don’t know the answer then I suggest you look here.

4) Inequality
Despite many noble initiatives, inequality in Britain grew (by some measures at least) under the 13 years of the last Labour government. If the Labour Party stands for anything, then it must be for the promotion of equality and fairness in all sectors of society. I doubt that anything in the last election campaign angered Labour voters as much as seeing David Cameron continually trying to present himself as the new champion of the poor and dispossessed. So any new Labour leader must outline how they would reduce inequality and make Britain a fairer country?

5) Civil Liberties
Despite incorporating the European convention on human rights into UK law, the last government's record on human rights and civil liberties was far from exemplary. Allegations of collusion in torture, extraordinary rendition, unlimited detention without charge and ID cards all made it look repressive and authoritarian. Worse still, it appeared more authoritarian and pro-establishment that the Tory Party. That is hardly a favourable position to be in for a party that claims to be the champion of the working man.
The question then for the leadership candidates (some of whom were associated with many of these illiberal policies) is this. Which should take priority under the law: the civil liberties of the individual, or the right of the state to maintain its own security? To claim (as many politicians do) that one must always try and balance civil liberties against the need for security seems to me akin to arguing that a country should always try to compromise between democracy and totalitarian rule. It can never be about balance or compromise. It is always about principles. It is about which of the two viewpoints should take priority, both in government policy, and under common law. It is also about the balance of power between the establishment and the people: the rulers and the ruled. That is why Labour should always be on the side of civil liberties, because it is about protecting the disadvantaged from abuse of power by the privileged.

These then are the first five questions I would put to the leadership candidates, but they are not the only ones. It remains to be seen, though, if we manage to get any satisfactory answers to any of them.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Nick Clegg and the Tories - deal or no deal?

So who should Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems do a deal with? And what should they seek to get in return?

Clearly their first priority must be electoral reform. This is clearly their best opportunity yet to secure a set of reforms that could completely change the dynamic of British politics. Unfortunately, there are a number of major obstacles standing in the way that could prevent them from achieving this.

The first problem is this. On issues of policy (tax, electoral reform, Europe, the economy) the Lib Dems are much closer to Labour than the Tories, and so are most Lib Dem activists. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for most Lib Dem voters, particularly those in many of the seats in the South of England where the Lib Dems are the main opposition to the Tories. So while most Lib Dem party members and MPs would be much happier forming a coalition with the outgoing Labour government, they could face a backlash from some of their voters and the Tory press if they did. David Cameron may not have won the election last Thursday, but there is no doubt that Gordon Brown lost it. Therefore Nick Clegg would be committing electoral suicide if he was seen to be supporting a Prime Minister who had been rejected by the voters.

The alternative Lib Dem-Labour scenario is that a coalition between the two parties could be agreed, but with Gordon Brown stepping down as PM. But would Gordon Brown ever agree to that? I suspect not, but even if I'm wrong, who would replace him? No-one from within the Labour Party has the mandate, and a new leadership election would take too long. So how about if Nick Clegg were to be the new PM? That might be more popular with the electorate, but then the problem switches to the question of who would be his Chancellor of the Exchequer. The public would also want Vince Cable, but it is inconceivable that any coalition between the Lib Dems and Labour could be agreed with the Lib Dems holding both of the two top posts in Cabinet when they are by far the smaller party. And the alternative is that Gordon Brown might demand his old job back.

Finally there is the problem of stability. A Lib Dem-Labour coalition would still fail to command a majority in the House of Commons. It would need the additional support of the SDLP, the Greens, and either Plaid Cymru or the SNP or both in order to govern. Yet the greater the number of partners, the greater the risk of collapse. The question the Lib Dems should therefore be asking themselves is this. How long would such a coalition need to exist in order for it to deliver electoral reform in time for the next election? And how likely is it that it would happen? The doomsday scenario is that this coalition would collapse before any real reform could be enacted, and that at the ensuing general election the Tories went on to win decisively, with the Lib Dems routed. Electoral reform could then be off the political agenda for another generation.

So if a Lib Dem Labour coalition is fraught with difficulty and danger, how about a pact with the Tories? At first sight it is hard to see, though, how a pact between the Tories and the Lib Dems (whether in the form of a formal coalition or an informal one) could work given the massive differences in policy between the two parties and the mutual hostility of many of their respective MPs. Moreover, the Tories would never agree to electoral reform of the House of Commons. However there is one thing that the Tories could deliver that would be a total game changer - reform of the House of Lords.

David Cameron and the Tory Party claim to support a fully elected upper chamber, so now Nick Clegg needs to call their bluff. The outgoing Labour government has claimed that it was opposition from the existing Tory life peers and hereditary peers that blocked and delayed reform of the House of Lords in the final years of Gordon Brown's premiership. David Cameron on the other hand can deliver the necessary votes in the House of Lords needed to get reform through quickly. That should therefore be the price that Nick Clegg should demand for limited support of a minority Conservative government in the House of Commons. The critical factor here is speed. If reform of the House of Lords is not in place before the next general election, not just in legislation but in operation as well, it can always be repealed by a new (Tory) government in the House of Commons that may seek to break any promises and cancel any deals agreed previously. There is little honour in politics, particularly if it gets in the way of the exercising of unbridled power. However, once an elected House of Lords is up and running though, no House of Commons will be able to abolish it unilaterally. It would need a broad consent in The new House of Lords as well, and turkeys don't usually vote for Christmas. In short, once it is up and running, a directly elected House of Lords is here to stay. It is irreversible.

Now at first sight this might all seem like a small and insufficient concession for the Lib Dems to extract from the Tories given that most people see the House of Lords purely as a revising chamber. I believe, though, that reform of the House of Lords is the real key to total electoral reform in this country. It represents the small crack in the dam that will eventually bring down the whole structure. As the new House of Lords would be elected by PR, it would be more proportional, more democratic, and therefore more legitimate than the House of Commons. It could act as a block on extreme policies promoted by governments with Commons majorities but minority support from the electorate. In effect it would lead to coalition governments without the need to reform the voting procedure for the House of Commons, though that would surely follow. In short, it would totally change the rules of the game. That is why Clegg must seize the opportunity now. He may never get another chance.