Please Labour, ditch the name calling and get organised.

What is in a name?

The first election I have a decent memory of is 1997. I remember Tony Blair, beaming and youthful, walking up Downing Street. I remember everyone seeming very happy about this broad grinned new broom. Although I wasn’t really that switched on to the policy agenda of the 1997-2001 Labour government – I was too busy trying to get picked on the school football team despite possessing two left feet – looking back I can recognise a radical, genuinely progressive movement. I can see why, despite the awful mess of the post-2001 New Labour years, there are plenty of people within the party who would quite like to turn back the clocks.

The heart of New Labour (Source: The Guardian)

I remember, in greater detail, the 2007 ascension of Gordon Brown, the financial collapse during my late school and early student days and then the last five years of stop start movement to the left, awkward photo opportunities and two steps forward, one step back. Yet for all the post-election pain, there is also still a strong appeal both in the old school, social conscience Labour of Brown in continuing the leftward tack embarked on by Ed Miliband. Labour is, and always has been, a broad church.

The narrative of an impending Blairite v. Brownite, Right v. Left battle in the Labour Party over the next few months seems, less than two weeks after Ed Miliband was driving down from Doncaster to hand in his notice, to be well established. Depending on where one stands, Labour either shot itself in the foot by abandoning the success of the Blair years, or began a long overdue transformations under Miliband that must be seen through if the Tories are to be defeated in 2020. To anyone outside of Labour it must seem like a dull, semantic slogging match. But the outcome will shape the next five years of British politics.

For a long time, the Tories had a similar problem. It might be assumed that the memory of Margaret Thatcher would only haunt the left. However, after her deposition in 1991, the Conservatives spent years in her shadow. Not only the shadow of her success, the benchmark for all future leaders of her party, but also of her divisive ideology. As the Tories suffered successive defeats in Westminster and in the polling stations of Britain, there was constant talk of revitalising Thatcherism and connecting again with the ideas that had brought the Conservative Party their greatest successes of modern history.

But, crucially, by May 2010 the Tories had finally stopped talking about Maggie. David Cameron’s election campaign that year was fraught, messy and ultimately indecisive, but he had succeeded in turning his party about face. The Conservatives, by the large, had their cheeks turned towards the future and not the past when the nation went to the polls.

So, while Tony Blair has often been compared to Britain’s only female Prime Minister for his neoliberal, often presidential approach to government, there is a more nuanced similarity between the two former PMs. Both left traumatic, but often not obvious, legacies on their respective parties. While the controversies of their time in power may draw the most attention from the public, in purely political terms it is the retrospective pull of their success that is most damaging. In the wilderness years of opposition, any party will find itself looking to the past for answers. But the danger is that serious reflection becomes idolatry and a rose tinted view of past successes is allowed to form, holding back reform and new ideas.

Interviewed last week, one of the senior architects of the Conservatives election victory gave perhaps the most deconstructed sound bite yet on the surprise result. ‘Elections are won by parties that look forwards’ he said and, having just won an election he should know. Any party that’s policies and approach seem stuck in the past will never be trusted with the reins of government by the electorate. Labour, more than any other party, should know that.

This is why it is vital that, in the weeks of necessary debate that are to come, Labour drops the Blair and Brown rhetoric. The party has spent five years stagnating in the name of unity and stability and in doing so allowed itself to be defined by the mistakes and controversies of the past. If it spends the next months, and then the next five years, being defined by the figures of its history then a Tory majority in 2020 is all but certain.

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Labour are right on Libya, but when will we get serious on foreign policy?

The first major foreign policy moment of the General Election is barely a few hours old and already, it has become just as tribally divided as the weeks of campaign that preceded it.

Today, Ed Miliband gave a speech where he connected the humanitarian nightmare in the Mediterranean with the slow, violent disintegration of the Libyan state. Chaos in both Libya and in the Med, he will say, could have been avoided if Britain had ‘…played its part in ensuring the international community stood by the people of Libya in practice rather than standing by the unfounded hopes of potential progress only in principle’.

Like most of his speeches in this campaign, it is a measured and well written text. If elections were won on the quality of prose put out by each campaign, Labour might have a healthier lead in the polls. But any comment on the merits of Miliband’s words has been lost in the reaction to them from the right.

Labour’s contention, that the government should and could have done more in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi, is hardly revolutionary. A military intervention that leaves behind it chronic instability, the murder of a foreign ambassador and a de facto civil war can hardly be classed as successful. The British and French led group of nations who intervenes seemed willing to pour little more than munitions into Libya. David Cameron was happy to take the applause for helping to topple Gaddafi but then didn’t want to perform the encore expected of him.

But the faux outrage that has greeted the advanced copy of Miliband’s speech shows, however, not some deep divide between the two party’s on foreign policy but rather the sad, secondary status foreign affairs now holds in Britain.

It has taken half of the election campaign for the Leader of the Opposition to make a serious comment the world outside of Western Europe. Even then, his comments were sparked by a massive human tragedy (which, like the fighting in Libya, has been ongoing for some time and been largely ignored). And in response the government, rather than giving a measured counter argument or attempt to refute his accusations, has been to scream outrage and to talk of ‘blood on hands’ and underhand tactics. In the press, commentators sneer that the man who voted against intervention in Syria (‘because Diane Abbott told him so’ is a popular refrain here), shouldn’t open his mouth on Libya.

If the last decade and a half of foreign affairs has taught us one thing, it should be that intervention is a terribly complicated business. We should see it debated properly, not treated as an election ‘dead cat’ issue. There has been no comment on how incredibly different the situations in Libya and Syria were, or just how comprehensively the West abandoned the new government in Tripoli. If the government have any defense to offer, they seem loathe to present it. But likewise, the opposition has taken awfully long to start talking about any foreign policy, let alone Libya.

It all begs the question, where have all the statesmen gone? Labour’s own Douglas Alexander has spent more time planning election strategy and fighting to hold his own seat than talking about the world at large. Since William Hague was quietly moved on, Phil Hammond has been a better ambassador for grey suits than he has British interests. David Cameron appears disinterested, although he looks increasingly bored with governing as a whole, not just foreign policy. Even today’s speech comes with the caveat that any Labour policy towards the current Mediterranean crisis will be delivered by a government that has tied one hand behind its back by the ‘Controls on Immigration’ manifesto pledge. I won’t even begin to ask what Nick Clegg’s input has been…

We deserve a better debate on foreign policy. No, scrap that, we need a better debate on foreign policy. But when will we get it?

The loneliness of a late night departure lounge

There is something very strange about an airport departure lounge.

Sitting on a Tuesday night, surrounded by tired people and tired sandwiches in Toulouse airport, everything feels distinctly flat. The bright lights and neon fronted duty free may be designed to keep us all interested, but no one bites.

The age of glamorous travel has been over for a long time, unless of course you have the spare capital to enjoy the luxuries of a first class lounge. I’m told the free food, liquor and massages are excellent, but such decadence is firmly beyond the means of most normal people. Although in a creepy form on capitalist entertainment, if one so desires there is a large bank of first person videos shot my philanthropic first class travelers keen to share their experiences available online. They even rate the free caviar and bubbly.

Tom Hanks in ‘The Terminal’. Moved to tears by the beauty of a 24 hour Weatherspoons perhaps?

But for most, modern air travel is less glamour, more grist to the mill. We line up, are scanned, frisked and probed. Then we line up again. After that we sit, watching time move like molten lead, waiting for the departures board to tick over and our gate to be called. Then we stand in line again. Despite this tedium, the death of air travel as an exclusive mode of transport has had one great advantage. Almost everyone can do it. Budget airlines have made Europe more homogeneous than ever before. If you’ve got a nose for a bargain you can glide from a grey British winter to a warm Mediterranean one in two hours or less, all for the price of a few tanks of petrol (although this comparison will look awfully dated in a few months time if oil prices keep sliding). One can be a snob about the habits of British tourists and their reputation for debauchery, but more people seeing more of the world is not a bad thing.

There is a physical imprint of all this travel as well, in the shape of dozens and dozens of city airports, dotted across Europe. Small in comparison to the great, glass and concrete sprawl of hubs likes Heathrow and Schipol, they’re still messy, soulless places to spend time. Everything costs more (and duty free does not live up to its name) and you’ll spend more time trying to find free WiFi than you ever thought possible. The urban landscape around them is full of cheap hotels, parking lots and car rentals. In the golden age of rail travel, architects build towering arches and wide concourses to carry passengers to their seats. The Victorian’s build railway stations for majestic that most people build temples. Now we get concrete and faux leather, identikit coffee shops and 24 hour bars.

Not that this should put you off travel. In seventy two hours in Toulouse I had a wealth of fresh experiences. I played at being a sophisticated continental European and drank coffee out of unfeasibly small cups. I tried to remember how to speak French, haunted by the memory of my primary school language teacher. I saw some old friends and got too little sleep. I drank and ate a lot. I stood on the roof of a department store and saw the sun setting over the city. But in the end, like everyone else, I had to go home.

So we sit, waiting and wondering if we have enough change for the vending machine. Then the flight is delayed and everyone rolls their eyes and sighs. The nervous queuing starts shortly afterwards and soon we’re all standing in line again. There is something uniquely hopeless about being stuck in an airport. In a traffic jam there is always the hope of cutting down some alternative route. But, short of a pilot’s license and a light aircraft, there is nothing to be done here. Just wait and keep looking for free WiFi.

Traveling isn’t what it used to be. Although maybe that’s is a good thing. In this case, the destinations seems more important than the journey.

Lord Ashcroft and the problem with pollsters

Everyone in politics loves Lord Ashcroft. Well, Ed Miliband might be wishing he’d disappear for a few weeks, but on the right and on the left the millionaire pollster is much respected. His constant, well presented and insightful polling is a helpful insight into, or as he would say a snapshot of, the electorate’s mood. Whether he is analysis margins in England or swing voters in Scotland, he spends his own money making sure his polls are detailed and well presented. They’re not, he insists, predictions (indeed his own polls can contradict each other impressively), but they give journalists a lot to write about and politicians much to think on. He’s also quite funny on social media and despite being a major Tory donor, fair minded in his approach to parties on both wings of British politics.

What then, could possibly be the problem?

Broadly speaking, pollster are white, male and middle aged or over. That, of course, is a fairly sweeping statement but if you take a quick survey of those in charge of the most influential polls in Britain, you won’t find much diversity. YouGov, Ipsos MORI, ComRes and Populus all have white, male Directors or Chief Executives and for most (Populus excluded) the same theme is present across their management team. This isn’t to say that any of the above organisations are intentionally biased, but such a lack of diversity is far from ideal. Similarly, provate individuals such as Lord Ashcroft (or Matthew Oakenshot, the ex-Lib Dem peer who has commissioned partisan polling in the past, mainly aimed at bringing down his party leader), should not be in a position to command such wide ranging attention and authority. Again, this is not to accuse Ashcroft of being deliberately biased, he is often as critical of the Tories in his commentary as he is other parties, but having a millionaire Conservative donor as a major source of information on what the electorate thinks is not the hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Yet, even if pollsters do produce unbiased surveys, there is another issue here. One must ask, what kind of reflection is it upon British politics that MPs and commentators need to rely of well of individuals and private companies to tell them what the voting public think? A lot has been said, and will continue to be said over the next few months as the election looms, about the disconnect between politics and the public. Look at Labour’s inability to notice their change of fortunes in Scotland or the Tories failure to find a message that will win them support, despite competing against one of the most public unsuccessful Opposition Leaders of modern times. The rise of the ‘alternatives’, the Greens, UKIP and SNP, is often cited as another example of this disconnect. But maybe the truth of the matter has been staring us in the face for much longer.

Opinion polls play an important roll in shaping political campaigns and informing commentary, but they seem to have replaced much of the importance of ‘values’. While we’re still a long way off the massive, data rich polling of elections in the United States, numbers have become more and more important in shaping perceptions and policy over the last decade. Parties seem more comfortable using polling to tell them what voters think, rather than sending their MPs and campaigners out onto the streets. In the Heywood and Middleton by-election last year, Labour strategists decided that the NHS would be a real vote winner and instructed volunteers to make it their key message on the doorsteps. When Labour only narrowly held the seats, ending up a few hundred votes from losing it to UKIP, the same volunteers reported that first most voters they spoke to, immigration, not the health service was the first issue on their mind. Similarly, MPs have sat on massive majorities in Scottish safe seat for years without noticing the changes happening around them. It says a lot then that even after fours years of political confusion and disconnection from the voters, we are still seeing polling used in leu of politicians actually trying to understand voters.

Of course, a cynic would just suggest that this lack of diversity and unwillingness to leave Westminster is simply an extension of the conditions in which British politics has existed for years. Why should pollsters represent a cross section of society when both chambers of Parliament are overbearingly white and male? Why should MPs feel the need to spend meaningful amounts of time on doorsteps and in their constituency offices when none of their colleagues can be bothered to? Whatever the reasons, politics is never going to change if the way we gather information about it doesn’t change with it. The future is going to bring more data, not less, but we should strive to use it properly, or else there is little point bothering to use it at all.

One hundred days of misery: a guide to the General Election

There are exactly one hundred days until the general election and they’re not going to be pretty. A lot can happen in three and a half months, and a lot will happen, but the chances of any hopeful changes in British politics between now and May 7th are slim, if not already gone. Don’t believe what you may have heard. It is more than likely that today simply sees the rounding of the final corner in a five-year race to be the people’s least unpopular politician.

Two party politics is, for now, over. But you wouldn’t think that from the way both Labour and the Tories are carrying themselves. Much like the people they govern, politicians in Britain are no more used to the idea of coalitions and minority rule than they were in January 2010. Both major parties are focusing their campaigns on the elusive goal of a Parliamentary majority. Both hope, against the odds, to avoid another forced political marriage. Should they fail then it will be the first time since the early 1900s that Britain has been governed by two coalitions in succession.

Labour hopes their focus on healthcare (‘100 days to save the NHS’) and inequality, coupled with their small but stubborn poll lead will carry them over the line. The Tories are relying on their more charismatic leader and the slow economic improvement that they have engineered. Both parties have major problems in terms of trust from the electorate. Labour’s association with the 2008 crash and the suspicion that a Conservative government would enact cuts far deeper than the party has so far suggested are key issues here. Both parties are also struggling, so the polls suggest, to improve on their share of the vote from the last election. A few years ago members of both parties would have been quietly counting on winning over support from disaffected Liberal voters yet now that seems like a distant, naive dream.

The collapse of the Liberal Democrats, who if recent polling is accurate will be left in sixth place and with only one Welsh MP come May, has been spectacular. It is perhaps the greatest collective fall from grace in British political history. No one likes Nick Clegg and no one trusts him. One can now suggest that the moment Clegg walked out onto the Downing Street lawn in 2010, the final nail was driven into coffin of two party governance. The Lib Dems had prospered, both in 2010 but also for long before, on being the alternative to the often-stale battle of Labour vs. Tory, Left vs. Right. In many ways they’re continued, moderate electoral success had kept the system balanced. Now dissatisfied voters, who exist in greater numbers than ever, have to look elsewhere.

This elsewhere comes in the form of UKIP, the Green Party and for Scottish voters, the SNP. All three parties have gained more than anyone could have predicted even twelve months ago and all three are claiming that they will be the ones to hold the balance of power come May. The increasing support these three parties have gained from voters outside of the traditional Labour or Tory bases has been the defining narrative of the last two years. It will continue to define the last hundred days of this government. The SNP, with their projected triumph in Scotland against a Scottish Labour party lead by Blairite MP Jim Murphy, are most likely to be king makers but it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that, in a very tight Parliament, the Green or UKIP might be called upon to pass or block legislation (as could the DUP, one party constantly forgotten in Westminster commentary). On one hand this diverse break from two party slogging matches over the dispatch box sounds like a welcome change. On the other, the thought of either the Greens or UKIP being able to influence laws is somewhat alarming.

This then, is the landscape of the last hundred days. A messy, disjointed world of swing voters and marginal seats and contradictory polling. We’ve already seen the party election machines warming up for what almost every commentator agrees will be one of the dirtiest elections yet. A race to the bottom as well as a race to the electoral finish line. At some point there will be a televised debate, probably with seven or eight party leaders shouting well honed attack lines at each other. Don’t expect nuance and don’t expect clarity. Don’t expect the big parties to play fair and don’t expect their smaller alternatives to stay ‘nice’ for long. Welcome to one hundred days of televised misery.