We have to embrace our differences when opposing cuts

5:46 pm - January 9th 2011

by Sunder Katwala    

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Saturday’s first netrootsuk conference was an interesting attempt to bring people together to discuss the links between online and offline campaigning.

My central point was about the limits of marching-in-step unity give the scale of the diverse and plural coalition we will need. The event brought together hundreds of people, representing organisations and networks with the ability to mobilise many tens of thousands.
[links to round-up of coverage below]

I argued that we should be confident about our ability to persuade the public – based on our success in winning the fairness argument over the last six months, as I set out at Left Foot Forward yesterday. It is the “there is no alternative” argument which was increasingly preaching only to the already converted.

We are never going to agree about everything – and have to make that a strength for a broad coalition whose job is to persuade 15 or 20 million people that these cuts aren’t inevitable or fair. There is a shared project. False Economy articulate the common ground succinctly:

False Economy is for everyone who thinks the coalition is cutting too much, too fast and wants to do something about it.

How we handle inevitable disagreements within that will be one essential test of whether the movement can be a sustained and successful one. My point was along the lines of: “If you want to oppose the closure of your local library, you don’t have to produce and cost an alternative Comprehensive Spending Review, while its different if you are the Shadow Chancellor: people will expect at least the broad brush strokes of your an alternative budget”.

There are three broad points to make on this:

1. We come to these issues because we are motivated by different things. Some people want to stop their local library closing; a small number of people still hope all of this will somehow lead to the revolution. More of us will want to elect a Labour government; build up the Green party, or perhaps try to shift the LibDems towards the kind of party that many of their voters thought that they were.

2. So we are going to disagree – sometimes over really quite big questions.
Some people will think stopping half of the cuts would represent tens of billions of pounds of real change in people’s lives. Others would think that would leave tens of billions of further cuts which should be stopped too. That’s going to be an important policy argument.

For me, the biggest test of our ability to find common ground and then disagree with respect within a broad campaigning coalition is that we agree that we share responsibility for shifting public opinion against the government on the question of whether its cuts are both necessary and fair.

3. We’re not going to do is create a unified leadership that agree on everything. So I think it would be a mistake to think that it is somehow a failure on the part of Ed Miliband, Caroline Lucas, Polly Toynbee, the unions or anybody else if they haven’t somehow articulated the alternative plan for a fairer, greener economy and society which can bring everybody who opposes the government’s cuts on board.

The argument “we must have complete unity – and we will get there on the basis of everybody agreeing with me” will be futile, whether it is made by Alan Johnson, Brendan Barber, Caroline Lucas, Sunder Katwala, Laurie Penny or indeed SWP-style perspectives, perhaps captured by the passionately anti-Labour speaker from the floor, who lambasted Labour as a complete sell-out over Iraq and everything else, before saying “Of course, we want Left Unity but it will have to be about Labour coming to us”.

There is not going to be a central coordinating committee where UK Uncut, the trade unions, Age UK, Greenpeace, the Green Party or the Labour frontbench get to agree or veto the advocacy of other groups.

Obviously, my argument entails that it is entirely legitimate for everybody else to advocate entirely different strategies to both shifting public arguments and producing radical alternatives.

But I am going to (respectfully) disagree with campaign tactics or policy arguments which seem to me likely to make winning those public arguments more difficult, and I will try to reserve head-on and vocal challenges only those contributions made in a language of “betrayal”, especially where these seem designed to close down the space to build alternatives, and to persuade people to choose them.

However, disagreement with respect is going to work better where we can disagree on the basis of what people are actually arguing, rather than to caricature or misrepresent arguments, even if this facilitates Penny’s further (and entertainingly) polemical claim by Laurie Penny on Twitter that:

We’re listening politely whilst appointed arbiters of the centre-left mow the grassroots into a neat, acceptable bourgeois lawn

Not my project – though I will admit to being enormously sceptical about “bourgeois” as a rhetorical tool of political persuasion. Beyond its hoary, coalition-narrowing desire to brand all non-prole participation as illegitimate, there is some considerable dissonance in that being deployed by somebody who so identifiably represents an emerging strand of the Staggers’ proud – mainly middle-class – radical traditions.

The middle-class left have historically been one significant strand of many effective campaigns – from anti-slavery and votes for women to the creation of the NHS and the welfare state, the abolition of the death penalty, liberal equalities campaigning on feminism, apartheid and gay rights. Can anybody identify any major social change from the French Revolution onwards which did not depend on a cross-class coalition of support?)

Still, whereever the unruly, unmowed grassroots can successfully shift attitudes and appetites for greater equality, let a thousand flowers bloom, and no doubt one or two weeds too.

A longer post is at Next Left

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Speeches from the event
Nigel Stanley challenges for campaigners.
Sunder Katwala on how the government lost the fairness argument at LFF.
Clifford Singer on potential alliance with angry middle of the Daily Mail.
Luke Bozier has posted his netroots presentation on engaging locally online
Jessica Riches on organising the UCL occupation.

Bloggers coverage
The Guardian’s Matthew Taylor blogged across the day
OurKingdom’s preview from Niki Seth-Smith on how far online activism has come.
Shamik Das sums up the opening session – and which arguments we’re winning.
Duncan Robinson says the central theme was hacktivists of the world unite
Useful summary from Nick Anstead on both speakers and audience debate.
Nick Anstead on engaging with politicians online
Jon Worth say we could learn more from netroots Sweden than the US.
Mark Pack talks about how to do that.
Gethyn Williams has a delegate’s report and lots of handy netroots links and resources too.
Caroline Crampton found delegates wanted more practical advice and less commentary.
LFF on how freedom of information can help anti-cuts campaigns.
Raven reports for London Masala and Chips
John’s Labour blog has a quick post, with a promise of more today.
Will Straw on the growth and future challenges of the netroots movement.

Carl Packman has a report from Netroots
At Third Estate, Owen also has brief thoughts
Richard Murphy From Tax Research also writes about Netroots.
Gary Banham did not appreciate the Labour speakers.
Sam Smith thinks the networking was the best part.
Michael at Red Pepper thinks a new front is opening up in a broader social struggle.

Reuters reports on Brendan Barber’s opening contribution on building new alliances

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Fight the cuts

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Reader comments

“We’re listening politely whilst appointed arbiters of the centre-left mow the grassroots into a neat, acceptable bourgeois lawn ”

I do have to say that it’s a lovely line.

As a little piece of political rhetoric that is, whatever it actually means in practice.

Still, I’m still going with the idea that Laurie is going to be the Germaine Greer of her generation. Only 40 years to go and she can settle down to do the gardening column for one of the Sundays.

2. Prince Hamlet


“I’m still going with the idea that Laurie is going to be the Germaine Greer of her generation.”

I’d say that was praising with faint damnation 😉

3. Prince Hamlet

(what was quite ironic was that the line about the bourgois lawn from tweeted from Laurie’s iPad – I think it was to be taken slightly tongue-in-cheek in that respect??)

4. Robert Anderson

The one major issue we should all agree on is that government of the UK should govern in the interests of the people of this country, not in the name of banking cliques are corporations and their hacks in the media. This is a fundamentla point and should be hammered home at every opportunity.

5. Prince Hamlet


The problem is the other side pretend that they are thinking on those lines too. The thing to do is expose them as the corporate lackeys they are.

Robert Anderson @4

Agreed – this is one major problem that needs to be tackled enthusiastically and unceasingly. The Tory /Lib Dem propaganda-churn works on the basis that if you repeat a simplified misrepresentation of what is the truth – people will believe it. That’s how Thatcher operated – among other despicable methods – on the ‘ we’ve won the argument’ mantra. But it is quite unrealistic to think that any rainbow ‘progressive’ coalition could offer radical and consistent government – this will always break down into maverick cliques and messianic personalities – it always does and always has. and the Tories are always returned afterwards. It is an empirical fact of left politics. Only a strong single party of the left with a popular and unambiguous manifesto and which has a committed internal unity ( best model = Atlee’s post war government) can hope to lift us out of this quagmire of free market / big business unrelenting squeeze and the resultant ever- downward social spiral. It’s time to think the unthinkable – just as in 1945 – a return to public sector economics – if the unemployed of today and future generations are ever to be given any realistic hope of tangible life improvement and security. Private enterprise and fat cattery, as a panacea for our economic ills will always be jam tomorrow. Time to get off this ever-thinning-the-gravy – train and to pass back power to that vast majority who most need, and should have, a legitimate and democratic stake in the concept of fairness for all – especially the vulnerable in our society. What – or who – please tell me – is an economy for?

8. Sunder Katwala


It is a very good line, though bourgeois was an own goal.

@ 8…OK, but bets on whether it take 4 decades or less for her to be doing the gardening column for the Indy (or even The Oldie?)?

And the odds are?

@9 Tim;

if she doesn’t take that column I will


I disagree about Ms Penny!

Kat Banyard is streets ahead of her imho. Laurie writes about stuff: Kat actually does things and writes about stuff as well.

Sunder –

An excellent post that captures the frustrations many within the left umbrella, including myself, feel.

“It is the “there is no alternative” argument which was increasingly preaching only to the already converted. ” – spot on.

Must say I am getting very much sick of Laurie Penny’s cynicism for its own sake. It’s not particularly clear what her so much more radical vision of activism fundamentally consists of, other than a vague cult of youth and newness.

@11 – please don’t start to compare two very good activists. Both Laurie Penny and Kat Banyard do ‘stuff’ well, and write about ‘stuff’ well.

What is it on this thread with damning Penny? Is this a campaign for men only? I don’t give a damn what your minor differences are. Pack it in.

Thanks for the post, it would of been better without the petty Penny knocking.

I think the three points listed above:

1. We come to these issues because we are motivated by different things.
2. So we are going to disagree – sometimes over really quite big questions.
3. We’re not going to do is create a unified leadership that agree on everything.

are central to keeping a broad coalition. People who demand they sign up to same leadership, goals or motivations will simply risk splitting everyone.

16. Sunder Katwala

I agree that this ought not to descend into a discussion about Laurie Penny, and what she might want to do in 40 years time.

I like Laurie. She can write really well, and she gets out and reports what the students and others are thinking and saying. She wouldn’t expect me to agree with all or much of what she writes, but of course I do agree with a fair amount of it, and find out new things about feminist and student campaigning in particular.

But it was perfectly appropriate to respond to her public comments, which were directed at me as a critique of what I said at Satuday’s conference. It exemplifies well the challenge I was talking about on protect coalition faultines. We should certainly guard against women writers getting flak that men wouldn’t face, which can in part be about the tone in which people’s ideas are discussed. I would have written exactly the same thing in response to anybody making this critique, so it would be odd not to do that on grounds of gender.

(i) The “bourgeois lawn” comment was, due to its pithiness, the most retweeted thing on Saturday. Its funny, but the opposite of strategy. Unless it was just a joke, the argument it implies/entails can surely be discussed/defended.

If it was just about “sitting here listening” (ie more participation from below, not pontificating from above) it is right. But it seems to me clearly an example of somebody arguing for a narrower coalition of support for the protests: I did say they were the calls I would criticise (respectfully).

And it is either a misunderstanding of or a challenge to the integrity of my argument. (Its criticising a group of five speakers, including me). I say “nobody will be able to control everybody else” or attempt unified leadership of such a movement. The response appears to be that I was in fact making a sneaky argument for Labour dominance and control of everyone else.

(ii) I also wanted to clarify something else where Laurie misquoted or misinterpreted what I said on Saturday, and quite a few people picked up on this.

I said about many people are protesting for different reasons and motivations …. you could oppose a local library closure without *having* to produce an alternative CSR, whereas expectations of the Shadow Chancellor were different,

‘Sunder Katwala says it’s shadow chancellor’s job to propose economic alterns, not workers’

That was picked up by enough people that my name was briefly trending on twitter, which presumably means several people might think I said that or think it, when I said the opposite.

leading to exchanges like:

David Wearing

@nextleft @PennyRed Why shouldn’t activists offer different macro-economic ideas to Labour when all latter offers is austerity-lite?

@davidwearing Yes, I specifically argued they should; all calls for everyone else to fall into line will fail

@nextleft Splendid. I agree. “Moderates” telling lefties to shush for sake of “unity” are misguided. A diversity of views empowers the left

While most people there might have heard what I said, it seems to me appropriate to want to be held to my actual views, not a caricature of ‘moderates telling lefties to shush for unity’. I am against that – and against lefties telling moderates to shush and fall into line for unity.

I can’t see why almost everybody couldn’t agree that the common ground is to shift public opinion – and so the possibility of deeper changes in response – against the government.

@Sunny/15: I’ve asked this a couple of times before, but maybe you’ve missed them – does this united left coalition have any definite principles beyond “we’re not the Tories”, and if so what are they?

You seem to be implying that in the interests of unity it shouldn’t, but I don’t want to misinterpret you on this.

Sunder, I believe you when you say you’re not interested in trying to police the anti-cuts movement and won’t be telling radicals to shush for the sake of unity. But I find it interesting how you (mis)represented Maeve McKeown’s intervention in the plenary, which was the most passionate and widely commented on attack on the Labour party. It seems to be designed to neutralise some of the important (and well received) criticisms she was making of Labour’s record.

1. Maeve didn’t accuse Labour of being a “sell out” – her point was that Labour had ignored the grassroots and popular opinion, most notably with Iraq. So not the shrill language of “sell out”
2. You caricature these as “SWP-style perspectives” – which I presume is a way of implicitly dismissing them, given the standing of the SWP on much of the activist left. In fact, Maeve isn’t a member of the SWP and you’ll find her views on Labour are shared across most of the left and centre left.
3.You then quote her as saying, “Of course, we want Left Unity but it will have to be about Labour coming to us”. Now, I haven’t re-listened to what she said, but I’m pretty sure that’s a caricature and not a direct quote.

This sort of reportage can only reinforce the complacency of a Labour party, which thinks it can sail back into power, without actually changing much, on the back of popular anger and discontent. Of course, it’s very subtle – in that Sunder K kind of way – but more powerful for that reason.

Sunder – thanks for explaining the basis of your hurt feelings and the reason for part of the OP.

Sunder, I think all you’ve proved is that twitter is a load of bollocks and not a useful medium for discussion. It’s to internet debate what boy bands were to music.

Sunder, as much as I agree with the need for left unity I think doing it under the suggestion from False Economy of “False Economy is for everyone who thinks the coalition is cutting too much, too fast and wants to do something about it.” is politically problematic.

I can only imagine that this impulse has come from what is possibly the most idiotic of the liberal anti-cuts campaigns: “the cuts won’t work.” – http://www.thecutswontwork.co.uk/ (of whom I know a keen activist is on the committee of false economy.) It has a set of slogans that read “Cut later, cut better, cut different, tax better, invest.” Of course I have no problem with the last two, higher corporate and progressive taxation and greater investment in the welfare state are things that the left has been fighting for for decades if not centuries, but the first three do pose a problem. The point is that those of us with even the slightest economic nous (and that include Keynesians as well as the more radical left) actually have a massive political problem with cutting. We don’t think that it is a solution, in fact we consider it to be a problem whether it’s slow or fast, little or lots. And if you want to get an idea of why arguments like this stick in the throat of the left, see how The Cuts Won’t Work campaign justifies turning an amazing decades-old campaign to not fund war/trident and to instead invest in people into a Campaign that looks like it backs up a cuts agenda. It’s actually pretty shameful.

Let’s have a movement against the cuts, but for god’s sake, let’s make it an anti-cuts movement. That’s all.

22. Sunder Katwala


Thanks for your comment. I suggest LC should take a response from Maeve McKeown, who I don’t know and couldn’t have identified. But I agree with two of your points, and think the point about the tone is correct, but I don’t agree with your point that this is the intention. I’ll suggest this to Sunny Hundal and to her.

“SWP-style” is a mistake, especially given that you say the speaker is not a member or supporter of the SWP. And I think including that does give the impression of a pejorative/dismissive comment (which undermines the broader point of the piece).

However, replace that with “left of Labour perspectives, perhaps captured by the passionately anti-Labour speaker from the floor” and I don’t think its a misrepresentation, though as I say, it would be a good idea to hear from the person quoted.

(1) I’d be surprised if the questioner didn’t think Labour was “a complete sell-out” over Iraq, though she didn’t use those words. That doesn’t strike me as especially inflammatory language either. (It sounded much more about a breach of fundamental values than popular opinion; Labour voters were more supportive of Blair over Iraq than others in 2003, though I don’t think that should particularly influence somebody who thinks it was fundamentally wrong).

(2) SWP – agreed.

But not “most of the centre-left and left” … much and perhaps most of the centre-left is Labour and affiliated unions, and that’s why

There is a very wide range of views inside Labour and outside it … eg new Labour, loyalist Labour, old right social democrats, soft left, Labour left, opposition from inside the tent Labour (eg McDonnell) ….

(3) The speaker might confirm. We have different recollections. I think “Of course, we want Left Unity but it will have to be about Labour coming to us” is very close to a direct quote and captures the gist, in that I am pretty sure (from memory) both “Left Unity” and “coming to us” were the words used.

I don’t think substantive “left unity” is possible, when it comes to election manifestos and platforms, etc, and I think pluralism is part of the fuutre.

But I can see that a comment of this type has different possible meanings. Many people inside Labour and to its left will agree with “Labour must change more than most Labour people realise to reconnect” … I would agree with one version of that, though a weaker (more E-Milibandite) version than some others.

The context was an earlier question: “Is it time to join the Labour Party?”

Tom Watson said “of course”

I thought I gave a more nuanced, though still positive reply, saying
– I hope people thinking of join Labour will do so. I also said, other people will want to join the Greens and other groups, in keeping with earlier comments.
– That 40,000 people – one-quarter of the membership – weren’t in the party a year ago. That the big cultural challenge for the party was to show whether those who joined it could help shape it. The honest answer is “we don’t know” but people might want to see if they can.
– That Labour couldn’t be a party of gender equality at every level without more women joining it, because one-third of the party members are women.

Maeve McKeown objected to what she thought was the premise of the question or discussion – that everybody should join Labour – and gave her reasons why not.

Clearly, she has clear reasons for not wanting to join Labour or seeing Labour as an agent of change. That’s fine, with one caveat.

“We’re not all going to join Labour” has to be a key message for many people campaigning against cuts, whether they are Greens, in left parties, the rebel LibDem left, or people who don’t feel any party represents them. And there just are going to be important tensions about spending and economic strategies.

All I want to object to are positions which go as far as:
– Everyone must get behind Labour and Labour’s plan.
– Anybody who joins Labour is part of the problem, not the solution.

I respect other views from Nationalists, Greens, other left groups, non-party campaigns. There will be lots of different campaigns. None of them has a governing strategy to get this Coalition out or another government in during this Parliament or this decade which doesn’t have a central (and probably not exclusive) role for Labour.

But where anybody does go as far as to take a “the real enemy is Labour” view on Labour’s left (as no doubt some revolutionary left/SWP people do), that is for me outside of the type of broad coalition this needs to be about. It would write off Labour and the Labour-affiliated unions.

Thanks Sunder. Good thinking, pluralistic (though I am interested in Guy’s point, above, and found Gary Banham’s post very impressive).
The crucial thing that is important to keep open – and that you DO keep open here, whereas sometimes, it seems to me, FalseEconomy don’t – again picked up well by Gary B. in his piece, is this: one cannot assume that something that this anti-cuts coalition agrees upon is that the resumption of growth is the answer. Most Greens vigorously support anti-cuts-activism, but do NOT support growthism. By contrast, we see the Green New Deal etc. as a prelude to a steady-state economy.
The anti-cuts coalition will fracture if it is assumed or proclaimed that the alternative to savage cuts has to include economic growth.

Hi Sunder – thanks for such a detailed reply. I agree pluralism, not unity, is the way forward, but am concerned that this isn’t at all reflective of the mainstream Labour view and that there is huge complacency, reinforced by the hatred for Clegg and the Lib Dems, about getting back into power. I agree it would be good to hear Maeve’s thoughts on LC now.

Jacob – the statement “False Economy is for everyone who thinks the coalition is cutting too much, too fast and wants to do something about it” is actually inclusive of people, like me, who don’t want to see any cuts, and indeed would like to see increased levels of public spending. The false opposition you’re trying to create doesn’t hold in this case. Also, bear in mind that FE is a platform for people to share information and resources with each other online and connect with campaigns in their area. It’s not trying to dictate policy or ideology from the top down: it’s trying to support activity from below.

@Guy No, of course, I consider that statement to include me too. My point is that I do think it needs to be politically sharper if we are able to achieve unity.

Sunder, by all means criticise the SWP but please do it on the basis of our actual views rather than whatever lazy caricature of the far left happens to be knocking round in your head. We have never argued that “the real enemy is Labour” and have consistently argued that anti-cuts groups need to work *with* Labour Party members, activists and supporters if they are to be effective. See here for instance: http://socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=21851

“we should be confident about our ability to persuade the public – based on our success in winning the fairness argument over the last six months”

hmm, judge, jury and executioner all in one sentence.

and, please can you explain what is ‘the fairness argument’?

28. Sunder Katwala


Thanks. Yes, it probably is a “lazy caricature of the far left that is knocking around in my head”. I’m pretty sure it was embedded there by about three people I was at university with in the 1990s, of whom the lazy caricature was an accurate reflection of their position. But I’m sure we all have allies who aren’t our best ambassadors.

So fair point. I will read the link.

29. Sunder Katwala


The fairness argument is whether the cuts are fair.

But the public are the judges of who wins public arguments, not me.

Or, more precisely, “thinking about the way in which the government is cutting spending to reduce the government’s deficit, do you think this is … being done fairly or unfairly?”

And the government started off ahead, but we’re winning that one.

This is the YouGov tracker of whether the cuts are fair, and some thoughts on why its shifted so much against the government

“None of them has a governing strategy to get this Coalition out or another government in during this Parliament or this decade which doesn’t have a central (and probably not exclusive) role for Labour.”

I think that is true enough, but I’ve argued before – largely to deaf ears – that the issue isn’t about one political party over another.

It would be utterly pointless to replace the current government with an un-reformed labour party. Yes we would probably have fewer cuts at a slower pace, but the attacks on welfare recipients would remain, services would continue to be outsourced and realistically tuition fees would still be going up. We’d also probably lose the gains made in terms of criminal justice reform, the approach to civil liberties, and the possibility of constitutional reform.

Getting what we might describe as leftist goals on the agenda is not about returning the labour party to office; it is about changing the terms of debate regarding what is possible. The reason much of the coalition’s nasiest aspects is happening is largely becuase on issues like welfare reform, the terms of debate shifted so much in their favour during labours period in office.

The possibility about the anti-cuts movements isn’t that they make the possibility of Ed Milliband as PM more likely, it is that the energy and enthusiasm they draw means the government feels it has to make concessions, and make the un-announced stuff remain un-announced. They have also restored confidence that the momentum is now swinging back.

The complacancy and arrogance of some people in the labour party is really staggering. The assumption that the unpopularity of cuts will translate into a labour win is political naivety at best. The tactic of the coalition is to do the unpopular stuff now so that the opposition will run out of steam, lose enthusiasm and peak by 2012. The gamble they have taken is that by 2013/14 the finances and economy will have recovered sufficiently well to allow them to start announcing the goodies of tax cuts for middle england, spending on some popular stuff, and above all to be able to claim the shock therapy worked. The strategy for labour cannot be to simply assume their gamble will fail, and people will come back to them with open arms. And the strategy of the wider cuts movements cannot be about electing the labour party (and I’d say most of the people involved understand this), it has to be about changing the terms of political debate and the kind of political culture that got us into this in the first place.

31. Sunder Katwala


Thanks. That’s interesting.

I might precis that as
– Yes,I can work with Labour people in opposing cuts
– But I need to see Labour to change a lot to think the net difference was worth having.
– And that means changing the political culture.

Whereas I can
– work with left of Labour and critical voices against cuts
– Want to see Labour change a fair amount (to make a moderate but proudly social democratic centre-left agenda possible – inequality, sustainability, democracy)
– Which means changing the political culture.

For me, you hit on a deeper common point than the need for an attitudinal shift on “unnecessary and unfair” over the cuts. That has to be part of a broader attempt to shift the environment and political culture.

I think that the everyday difference a Labour government is a bit more than you (though you do acknowledge small differences). And I agree there are specific issues (you identify civil liberties) where Labour needs to rethink to (at least) match the Coalition. I thought the last Labour government had a good record 1997-2001, as for one term, it did quite a lot that endures. More disappointing after that. But there is no attractive politics in “bring back the last government” – saying those were the modest limits of progress. And the 2010 election result also shows why it wouldn’t work anyway (even as pure electoral self-interest for those who like the idea). Ed Miliband knows this, I think, though other Labour people disagree.

Both my social democratic goals and your stronger version of a left-wing programme involve a bolder vision for a different political economy (jobs, green growth, don’t cut out of recession) or bolder vision of fairer society (less inequality, more substainable).

Neither of these are possible if “the cuts are necessary” is winning, but we need that to be part of a broader set of arguments about the possible alternatives. At the moment, there are some specific projects “green new deal” and other hazier ones “good society”, but we will all need versions of “what are we for?”

How far will this get us? This is often as likely to be led outside party politics (especially leaderships) as within them – as environmental, political reform, feminist and other campaigning has shown. The Labour leadership is one of the groups that might respond. (When we win arguments – minimum wage, health and education spending – the other parties have to respond to).

By the end, Labour was unpopular from all directions. Many people here will think it was too illiberal on asylum (and I agree) but many more people thought its biggest problem was it was too liberal on immigration. That was less about the Conservative Party (though they tried and failed in 2005) as Migration Watch, pressure group and media campaigns.

Many people here will have wanted a bolder attack on inequality (I did). But by the end, many people said the problem was Labour had spent and taxed too much. That wasn’t about the Conservative Party (which was now adopting Labour tax plans, to the disappointment of the right) but because of the Taxpayers Alliance, etc.

How far those right-wing advocacy groups then get with the Tory leadership and the Coalition remains open.

This is what the left has been less good at. So I think both that Labour in government did not try to reshape enough public arguments (except health spending, development). But another part of that is that several left voices inside the Labour Party as well as not perhaps saw that as a failure of the leadership, rather than asking and trying to emulate how it was that the right was able to shift those arguments that saw both a government and broader attitudes shift under rightwards pressure.

I think that’s where netroots type space can be useful, but it doesn’t work if Labour coopt it.

Sunder, that is an excellent summary of what needs to happen. I’d agree especially with this “I thought the last Labour government had a good record 1997-2001, as for one term”.

I’d say the reason for this is that most of the achievements here were on matters that were long standing party policy – not blairite attempts to grab daily mail headlines. In particular the lasting stuff on constitutional reform. (I live in wales, and the fact is we are going to be less effected by cuts because we have the assembly cutting in a way that doesn’t hurt the vulnerable as much).

After 2001 Blair pissed it away, and by the time Brown took over the blairites undermined him from the start.

In fact Blair and his legacy is a poison for the party. His memois indicate he regards his biggest failures as the inability to prevent a fox hunting ban, the freedom of information act, and devolution. His putting the boot into brown also ranks as one of the most distateful political acts I can think of, and alone should be grounds for expulsion.

This wouldn’t matter if Blair was a has been seen in the same way Edward Heath was. But unfortuantly he still carries major influence in the labour party and the way it thinks. You can see it with the likes of Tom Harris et al forming alliances with the tories to scupper constitutional change, Kim Howells expressing opinions on welsh devolution that put him to the right of the welsh conservatives and in the UKIP camp, and the undermining of Ed Milliband that has already begun. I cannot remotely see why anyone who is progressive in the slightest would want to work with these people.

I think you are entirely correct about drawing lessons from the right and the way groups like the TPA and Migration watch succesfully drew the terms of debate to their own territory. It is almost becoming a cliche to ask where our version of the TPA is, but it is still an important question. There are many third sector organisations that could step up here, but my experience of working in them is that the majority are politically naive and their media skills are frankly crap. I’d include trade unions here as well.

In also emphasising the need to build up infrastructure, I think you also miss a point – here the labour party can be a massive obstacle. Organisations need funding and activists, and these are limited resources. If labour wants the terms of debate to shift it needs its activists to donate money and time not to the party but to the left infrastructure (in much the same way as conservative party members supported the TPA). It also needs the Green party being a strong electoral force in the same way UKIP is (UKIP success means the conservative party becomes more right wing on europe, and the terms of debate become favourable to conservatives, even though it costs the party seats).

The question is really does labour realise it isn’t about the party and it isn’t about seats and personal careers. Until it does, I can’t see it being an effective part of any anti-cuts movement.

33. Sunder Katwala


Thank you. very interesting response. If that’s where you are, we’re quite a lot closer than I felt your first post implied. (A lot of people would say New Labour was v.timid pre-97: it was in many ways, but it did a lot).

Let’s try not to make it about Blair (if we can). Red rag to some to say that. So I think it was Blair-Brownism all the way up and Brown-Blairism (Mandelson) on the way out. Gordon Brown might have had a different agenda, pre-2005, but he didn’t have won after 2007 until the crisis. Steve Richards’ book is very good on this.

The 1997 election was 18 years ago in 2015. It will be over a decade since the Iraq war and the make poverty history marches alike. You can’t just draw a line and say that’s history. You have to say something about i and how it informs the future. Ed Miliband has done this (too much for some). Read the conference speech and it is about what was good about early new labour and wrong by the end. Its what he thinks, and its the right strategy too I think.

And the question isn’t about Blair but about whether “New Labour 1997-2005 (and 2010??) is the winning election formula – and the only possible way to win. That’s what the leadership election was about for me, really. A close and split result means we haven’t settled it.

Also Blair is PM for what we both think was the best term. As you say, some party policies were too popular to ditch – a broad coalition was offered something it wanted (windfall tax for jobs and minimum wage, lib-labbery on the constitution, devolution in Scotland, tough on crime and causes; save NHS and spend more on schools). As well as caution on tax and the city and the superrich, and needing the Sun, Mail. etc. Blair in 1995 was more optimistic than by 2005 … and by 2010 he seems to think Mandelson is too interventionist on the economy, the coalition right on deficit …. this isn’t popular in the way he was (almost absurdly) popular.


You sounded if you were in the “lost my trust forever even if this lot are awful” place (in which case I’d say well help to get these campaigns up on tax avoidance and cuts, and equality or join the Greens or somebody if they’re where you are and Labour isn’t and campaign on those issues from there), whereas you now sound closer to somebody I could say to: if you want Ed M to be stronger in the party, why don’t you give us a (probationary) shot for 6 months or a year and see if you have kindred spirits within. Or don’t join the party but get involved in Compass, or the Fabians, or talking to Labour and non-Labour people in non-Labour spaces, like netroots or wherever, and be in bridging Labour and outside people.

The Labour party of 2011 isn’t the Labour party of 2009, because a third of the members are different, and we have to see if they have a voice in shaping it, though of course that is something loyal Labour members since 1945 or 1997 want to.

And Wales, Scotland, London (congestion charge), other big cities are all places where we can show that we can start to do things differently. A challenge is whether we use those chances.

The big reason to be cheerful is that the culture of parts of the Labour Party changed a lot in the last two years. it isn’t because of party HQ. The formal party structures are in quite a state, and people don’t believe in them. But at an activist level, we have discussion spaces the party doesn’t control (the blogs, which are really quite important for internal discussion in a party the media isn’t interested in), we have twitter being used for activist to activist links all over the place, we have a culture where Labour people can work with each other and non-party people without permission. (You can’t control a party on the 2000 technology model. David Cameron gets a lot of flak from Parliament and activists because he is using the Phillip Gould textbook when the rules changed. ConservativeHome and similar spaces are more important than the Telegraph letters page inside the party. He doesn’t control that. It is ConHome that mediates to the media what activists think more than the Sunday paper ring-round of Constituency Chairs. If the new Labour leadership doesn’t get this, they will empty the party of its new members, but it will be for the membership as much as HQ and MPs to keep them, and demand an effective voice).

And part of that is we lots of people are investing time and energy in the non-party space, while saying we don’t want to co-opt and control them. As to who has the resources for campaigns, that’s something to look at too, but non-party campaigns are often the best thing for a party as long as some of us turn up and join in.

But that’s a good challenge.




Hi guys,
I’ve written a reply to Sunder’s comments and post here: http://wp.me/p1fLAM-1s

It’s always amusing when the bourgeois dislike being called bourgeois.


I should take it then from your LFF post that you support restricting the debate to questions of whether the cuts in general are fair or unfair, and that you refuse to recognise the full range of coalition arguments.

Basing your opposition against the cuts on the level of current popular opinion is a reactive approach. It is a valid one even if it contradicts your initial standpoint, but refusing to address points about whether any specific cuts are desirable, workable, can be implemented alongside service reforms and in some cases as a means to drive improvements, offering alternative routes to fiscal sustainability and how to continue reforms once it is achieved demonstrates nothing but massive irresponsibility on your part which refuses to grasp any strategic initiative.

Calling for a return of the ‘glory days’ under Gordon Brown is destined to impress nobody, so it sounds to me like you’ve set the Fabians up for failure as you drift away from progressivism and into irrelevance.

Fairness can be defined in any number of ways, so what you’re offering is an empty political perspective. People don’t support nothingness, and if this outburst of political feeling has no productive outlet then you are creating the risk of it being siphoned off and channelled into more extreme and dangerous forms of activism.

How long can people wait before a viable alternative emerges from established groups on the left before they start seeking out their own?

I mean, even Neal Lawson and Compass have developed some intellectual concepts to use as their yard-stick… is it pride, ignorance or something else which stops you from addressing these?

The only other thing you’ve got to hang your hat on is an early general election, which looks less likely by the day.

37. Sunder Katwala


That sounds like a lot of bluster to me.

(1) Can I remind you that you began by complaining that I wished to be judge, jury and executioner? Of course there are arguments about “what is fair”. The idea that, because this is politically contested, it is irrelevant to ask who the public think is winning those political arguments, is really odd.

Supporters of the government, who think what it is doing is both neceessary and fair, obviously require a political strategy of public persuasion, just as its opponents do, this being a democracy and all.

(2) You do know that the claim that the budget and deficit plan would be “fair” (as well as “progressive”) was the central headline claim of the government. That, rather than my proposing it is a core test, is the reason this dominated coverage of the budget, the CSR, etc.

Osborne promises tough but fair budget

Cuts were fair, says Clegg … written through budget like a stick of rock

Treasury publishes distributional impact of spending changes

Clegg ‘redefines’ fairness (saying distributional analysis not important; even calling the IFS reports “distorted nonsense”)

(3) Your assumption that i favour restricting all debate to the question of fairness, because I have written a blog on how the government is “losing the fairnss argument” is unwarranted.

Of course, it is not the only test. The government makes three central strategic claims about what is the central aspect of its policy and political agenda, one about necessity/unavoidability, and two about the merits of the choices it makes
– deficit reduction on this speed and scale is unavoidable (usually making a sovereign debt crisis argument for this)
– that cuts on this speed, scale and with this balance of tax and spending are good for the economy, and the best route to future prosperity
– that they are cutting in a way that is fair

Again, public opinion on each of these will matter, as will real world impacts on the economy (both in themselves, and in affecting political responses and public responses). the government was winning r on ‘good for the economy’ and is now neck-and-neck or just behind, as Nigel Stanley shows

(3) I don’t agree at all with the idea that any concept that is complex or contested is therefore empty. Attitudes to fairness combine a range of competing beliefs and intuitions. These include ideas about need, about desert/merit, and entitlement. A major and original piece of research into how people weight and trade-off these values when they clash was carried out by the Fabian Society for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

You can read our 69 page report into public attitudes to inequality and fairness here

This has been influential with lots of different people (including with centre-right think-tanks, who want to shift the emphasis from need and distribution to desert, as Policy Exchange do, as well as with centre-left voices who believe it is necessary to reflect both approaches in a ‘fairness’ agenda to reduce inequality, see me on John Denham here

(4) As to purely reactive approaches, of course that would be daft. Again, I don’t know why an analysis of public opinion on fairness entails that. I am holding a conference for 800 people called “what is the alternative” on Saturday

(5) I have never thought an early general election is likely. If the government, especially the third party, become more unpopular, it makes the break-up of the coalition less likely for reasons of electoral self-interest and hoping to turn it around.

38. Sunder Katwala


just caricaturing people as refusing to engage with alternative policy choices is an inventon. Whoever it might be true of, it isn’t true of the Fabians.

here’s some analysis of Labour choices on the deficit

also Pat McFadden’s Fabian speech right back in July, which shaped a good deal of labour debate

here’s my analysis of options on the child benefit change specifically

So I just don’t think your assumptions about us stand up to scrutiny at all.


1) In your sentence “we should be confident about our ability to persuade the public – based on our success in winning the fairness argument over the last six months” you imply that the ‘fairness argument’ is all that matters, determine that this is being been won by the opposition and conclude that this alone will pursuade the public against the government and therefore the correct course of action for the opposition is to exclude anything which can be construed as ambiguous.

So it’s odd that you now go to such lengths to contradict yourself (I hope you didn’t lose too much sleep), and call my comment ‘bluster’. Although it’s not unexpected.

2)I agree that fairness is complex precisely because of the contestability of different measures, but if the measures used are not effective tools in informing concrete policies then it is empty. So far your argument is failing to fulfill the second-half of the bargain, which justifies my comment.

3)I’m glad you have reversed your initial stance to now agree with my point that positive alternatives must be offered (which was made in support of Pat McFadden’s analysis, and cited by yourself).

So it is doubly odd that you’re attacking me for arguing the opposition needs to do more that say ‘the cuts are bad’ in a post with a title that suggests exactly this.

4)Instigating a policy renewal process for Labour is of course a positive step in my view, but doing so in the light of opinion polls which ahave already appear to have swung behind the party is either belated or superfluous.

It suggests the leadership is attempting to face two ways simultaneously and redefine how Labour can apply a principled argument to the policy challenges without rejecting the arguments which created the mess or explaining how it was caused in the first place.

The fact that this process is only beginning so long after the new leader is already in positino indicates his lack of preparedness and personal engagement (doesn’t he take responsibility for his involvement in the previous government?), and the fact that it’s been devolved primarily to think tanks rather than as a part of official party process is a form of opportunism which excludes ordinary membership.

5)You may well say that dividing the coalition is less likely to precipitate a general election now and that you never thought so, but that wasn’t Labour’s analysis pre-Christmas. The tuition fees vote and Cablegate have forced a major shift as momentum dissipates and any electoral advantage may be lost as additional concessions are made.

Labour’s opposition to the VAT rise is a case in point – a tax rise of this size and acale is not consistent with a pure and ideological agenda of cuts, so opposing cuts on claims of ‘fairness’ and then opposing rises on the basis of ‘fairness’ loos to all the world like massive incoherence.

Your earlier posts on Labour’s policy choices which you provide as support for your case prove no such thing – instead they show a good description of the available choices and precisely that your first concern is strategic.

So it’s sad that people like Pat McFadden have been ignored for the 6 intervening months and you are only now rediscovering what you said about him then.

I think it is perfectly fair to point out that the rise in Labour opinion polls began to be noticable around that time and this is unlikely not to have influenced Labour’s internal debate about direction, so it is dishonest for you to pretend otherwise.

That you are willing to be so forthright in overlooking this hesitancy and deny the direct implications of your rhetoric-filled post only exacerbates mistrust of your motivations.

But Labour is obviously split between the party dinosaurs and the more nuanced thinkers and a titanic battle is already breaking out over the issue of electoral reform which will tip the balance.

40. Sunder Katwala

To respond to Guy’s specific question of whether “of course, we want Left Unity but it will have to be about Labour coming to us”, was a fair summar/quote or a misrepresentation/caricature.

The actual short comment made were as below, on the plenary session video at 1.12.40

“Just on the question of joining the Labour Party. Why would we want to join the Labour Party? We all protested against Iraq and they completely ignored us. It’s not just Iraq and Afghanistan. Its the 10p tax. Its child detention.

And where is Ed Miliband? Why hasn’t he got behind this student movement. What is he doing in Parliament. He is not providing any type of Opposition.

So yes we want Left Unity but we also want representation. The Labour Party are not representing us right now. We are representing ourselves. We have got our own campaign and if the Labour Party want to get in on this, they need to come to us”.

Apart from mistakenly mischaracterising it as SWP-style position rather than a “left of Labour” position, I think its very fair to describe that as a passionately anti-Labour argument. And the “unity/coming to us” point seems to me pretty fair.

Maeve’s own post has now set out clearly and in more detail what she meant by that and is put in a way that is clearly about respecting differences, but not wanting a civic movement to be dominated by Labour voices.

So we now seem to be in broad agreement on that broad framework, with different views within it.

I heard it on the day as suggesting that Labour did not have any useful role to play unless it adopted the views of very strong critics of most/all of what is doing, and was mainly picking up the “Left Unity” reference. (I think this isn’t possible, though ‘as much unity as possible’, where we agree, along with different perspectives of course being able to disagree and persuade people for our specific positions/campaigns is part of pluralism).

I agree there was a very good argument for saying that the (obviously valid) perspective that many people would not want to join Labour needed to be aired vocally, and that there had been quite a lot of emphasis on people joining Labour, though not exclusively (Nigel Stanley had made the further good point that participation by people from Labour/Green/other groups was good, as long as they didn’t try to take the energy out of the campaign,as parties from across the political spectrum can sometimes do).

I don’t have any issue with people being as critical as they like of Labour, as long as they aren’t trying to make that the only legitimate position in a campaign broader than any party or campaign groups. But there will still be a tension here with people who will want to argue that Labour is primarily part of the problem, as no doubt some people will.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    We have to embrace our differences when opposing cuts #netrootsuk http://bit.ly/f7AQWa

  2. Stephen Lintott

    RT @libcon: We have to embrace our differences when opposing cuts #netrootsuk http://bit.ly/f7AQWa

  3. sunny hundal

    @lisaansell …then that's up to you, but I won't join in that. My position is articulated by Sunder K here: – http://bit.ly/f7AQWa

  4. blogs of the world

    We have to embrace our differences when opposing cuts #netrootsuk. by Sunder Katwala Janu… http://reduce.li/un5tkl #opposing

  5. Sunder Katwala

    Day of flu has *not* "unified" plural left! Thanks for engaged criticisms @libcon http://bit.ly/hUblEK & @nextleft http://bit.ly/f7AQWa

  6. Reply to Sunder Katwala | Student Theory

    […] to Sunder Katwala I drafted my post on NetrootsUK yesterday before I had read Sunder Katwala’s article for Liberal Conpiracy.   In this post, Sunder refers to my intervention in the opening […]

  7. Pickled Politics » The Labour party and the Netroots – my thoughts

    […] Sunder said, there won’t be one leader, one method or one motivation behind challenging the […]


    […] Sunder said, there won’t be one leader, one method or one motivation behind challenging the government’s […]

  9. The future of Netroots: Online at the heart of all of what we do | Netroots UK

    […] of focusing on those differences, matters that (as Sunder correctly points out) we’re unlikely to be able to reconcile any time soon, we should ask ourselves what we do […]

  10. blogs of the world

    I think that the everyday difference a Labour government is a bit more than you (though yo… http://reduce.li/nqojqe #difference

  11. sunny hundal

    @gwenhwyfaer and if ppl get bogged down by denouncing others for disagreeing, we'll lose. see – http://bit.ly/f7AQWa

  12. Matt Bradley

    RT @sunny_hundal: @gwenhwyfaer and if ppl get bogged down by denouncing others for disagreeing, we'll lose. see – http://bit.ly/f7AQWa

  13. Tim Hardy

    @lisaansell Absolutely. Hate speech is dangerous extreme. @libcon can be troll-bound but I want more debates like this: http://j.mp/e1tfZB

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