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In defence of Labour’s policy vacuum – Ed Miliband has a plan

by Paul Cotterill     August 13, 2013 at 2:59 pm

In a long piece, John Harris informs us that it’s all going wrong for Labour:

Labour is belatedly trying to make the running on the crisis in people’s living standards. Policy-wise, there has been talk of building new houses, putting young unemployed people back to work, coming down hard on profiteering energy firms, and more. The problem is that all this has not yet cohered into a consistent and primary-coloured message that can cut through such clunky Labour promises as “a recovery made by the many” (whatever that is).

Elsewhere, Mark Ferguson complains that activists are being “sent onto the doorstep” without a clear message. (No-one sends me. I go of my own accord.)

All this and more fits neatly with the rightwing media’s seizure of the Burnham interview to portray Labour, and Miliband’s leadership, in crisis.

And it’s all utter tosh.

It’s perfectly logical to see the Burnham interview, not as an attack on Miliband, but as a carefully placed contribution, in collaboration with the leader’s office, aimed at clearing out some media space for the upcoming conference season, so that Miliband gets more of a hearing for the more concrete policy announcements around childcare, payday lending and the NHS that he will almost certainly make. Burnham makes the point that we need to firm up the policy offer. Miliband says that’s absolutely right, and does just that – the oldest win-win trick in politics.

More importantly though, the criticism of Labour’s failure to adopt many concrete proposals ignores, in its desperation to find fault with Miliband’s leadership, that coming out with concrete policy proposals 20 months before the election is not a very good way to win that election. That’s because the majority of voters, either because of memory decay or interference, simply don’t remember what those proposals were, even over the space of a few weeks,

While Miliband may be right to throw in a few firmed up proposals at conference just to prove that he can, it makes little sense to be offering up a firm programme for government. Much better to focus, albeit against a hostile media so with limited success, on the broad message – that the economic recovery may be underway, but not in a way from that most people will benefit from.

But what Miliband’s detractors also miss – either wilfully or stupidly – is the process he and his team are actually engaged in, which will pay dividends when the time comes to set out the policy ideas.

Here’s what this process boils down to:

1. Acknowledge that overall spending must be affordable in 2015 in order to give off the economic competence vibe;

2. But also stress that proper recovery requires investment;

3. Start with a focus on investment in physical infrastructure, which even the Tories now accept is needed;

4. Over time, subtly change the way the term infrastructure is defined, so that it becomes inclusive of ‘social infrastructure’ such as childcare (here’s Lucy Powell doing just that)

5. Develop careful cost-benefit analyses to work out what social infrastructure investments have an overall positive effect e.g. what £5-7bn per year on childcare will actually do to the economy;

All this is happening steadily, behind the scenes. As the months go by, it will be less and less behind the scenes. At the right time, it will all emerge as a carefully costed plan.

Now, of course I disagree with the overall strategy, which I would describe as In the Black Labour with Brains; I would much rather have seen an earlier, more explicit rejection of this need for overall fiscal balance, because even in the medium term fiscal balance in a properly functioning economy is simply not needed. But that required a political momentum the left as a whole lost in the 2010-11 period, and it’s silly to blame Miliband’s leadership for that.

And I also think the managerialist culture inherent in such IPPR-style cost-benefit approaches to the resolution of ‘social problems’ creates dangerous perversities, but that’s for another blogpost (see Stumbling and Mumbling for sense on this overlooked but important issue in socialist politics).

But within the parameters set both by the Labour leadership and the left as a whole,, Miliband’s getting his strategy, and his timing, spot on. It’s just a shame that John Harris and the others are so focused on Miliband’s leadership messaging and leadership qualities – largely an irrelevance at this stage – that they’ve not actually noticed the work that’s been going on.

The Rohingya Muslims in Burma are on the verge of facing genocide, and we can help stop this

by Paul Cotterill     July 8, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Genocide is not a term to be bandied around willy-nilly. The whole point of the UN’s post-war Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is that it marks out genocide as being on a different scale of evil from, let us say, mass indiscriminate killing undertaken in the pursuance of state expansion.

So even though I’ve followed, for a number of years now* the mistreatment and murder of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority living principally in the Burmese state of Rakhine, I have been reluctant to see the ongoing atrocities as genocidal.

Until now.

Developments in the scale, manner and motivation for the killing of Rohingya people now seem to meet many if not all of the pre-conditions for a coming genocidal phases. Using Gregory Stanton’s Eight Stages of Genocide as a useful starting point, it is fairly easy to see that the first six of these have fallen or are falling into place:

Classification: the Burmese authorities, in collusion or at least in fear of a now rampant militant Buddhism, have overseen the development a popular conception of Burma as a bipolar society – Buddhist Burmese vs. Muslim minority (cf. the artificial disaggregation of Tutsis from Hutus). This has intensified in recent months as Muslims from outside the Rohingya community and beyond Rekhane state have been targeted, increasing the bipolarisation. This is not to say that the Christian minority in Kachin state have not also suffered terribly, but increasingly it is the Muslim minority which seems to be being portrayed as the sole enemy within.

Symbolization: The stripping of citizenship (and thereby travel) rights and the herding of Rohingya communities into ghettos, where they can be increasingly marked out as ready and waiting for killing. This goes alongside the narrative of the Rohingya as fairly recent illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite the clear evidence of settlement in the pre-colonial period.

Dehumanization: An important phase, in which the normal revulsion against murder seems to be being overcome by significant sections of the population, for example in this episode of the merciless killing of teenagers, in which an exhortation to “Burmese courage” propels a group of people to do the hitherto unthinkable. Here it would seem, the ‘moral’ authority provided by extreme ‘969 Buddhism’, under the guidance of ‘Bin Laden Monk’ Ashin Wirathu, is of importance.

Organisation: The all-too-common process of state denial, whereby the state at the very least turns a blind eye to atrocities carried out by local militias, seems to be developing in Burma. In Burma, this local organization seems to be in the hands of the religious community, though there are some doubts as to whether some of the leaders – including the one able to drive heavy machinery – are actually monks.

Polarization: For example, a law effectively outlawing intermarriage has been drafted by extremist Buddhist groups, with the apparent approval of the state.

Preparation: As noted, the herding of Rohingya communities into barely liveable ghettos, sometimes “for their own safety” has begun in earnest, in a process which makes later killing more ‘manageable’ but at the same time furthers the dehumanization process.

In short, all the warning signs that a truly genocidal phase is coming, and maybe coming soon, are there.

The deepest irony, perhaps, is that all this is happening as Burma moves seemingly inexorably towards democracy, and as Western nations (and China) start to invest/extract heavily.

It is surely with the narrative of a new, open and free Burma that its Prime Minister is due to arrive in London and Paris this month for talks with Cameron and Hollande. Back home, the (ex-) Junta, and arguably even Aung San Suu Kyi, are focused increasingly on how they might best build up their vote for the approaching elections, and it seems increasingly unlikely that they will do so by appealing for tolerance towards the Rohingya community.

But genocide is not inevitable. Outside attention can create the impetus for even a weak state to step, especially if it fears losing the foreign investment and allied political legitimacy it craves, and in this case may help to embolden the opposition, who do appear strangely quiet.

So what can we do as bystanders? Well there’s a useful petition, asking the European leaders that meet the Burmese President to go beyond the usual platitudes about welcoming democracy. Please do sign it.

Perhaps more importantly, we might remember the ‘never again’ commitments of our governments when the scale of the horror in East Pakistan, then East Timor, then Rwanda & Burundi became apparent, and Srebrenica appeared on our screens, and ask our own elected representatives about what they can do about evil on a scale beyond mass murder.

To follow developments, I recommend French journalist @sophieansel (in English and French) and @voicerohingya as good starting points, though the New York Times also keeps a good eye on things.

Why has Labour re-committed to HS2 even before a policy review? [updated]

by Paul Cotterill     July 5, 2013 at 10:30 am

I’ve followed the HS2 debate fairly closely from the start, not least as then represented one of those areas of the North that Peter Mandelson now refers to as a possible “rail desert” if HS2 were to go ahead.

In 2009, I was “broadly supportive” but had concerns about the negative unintended impacts.

By early 2010, when I’d read the documents and surrounding research, I was clear that HS2 was a bad idea, and that regional and local rail projects should take precedence. When the Coalition came in, I was duly outraged at the way poor research methods gave way to downright lies about what research had been done.

So it was with some sense of relief that I wrote of Maria Eagle’s breaching of the HS2 consensus in February 2011, when she stated that:

Labour will next month launch a root and branch review of our transport policy with nothing ruled in or out.

It would be irresponsible to make cast-iron spending commitments for beyond 2015 before we have listened to the public and come to conclusions about our future priorities.

Finally, I thought, this was a sensible decision to look at the whole HS2 thing in the round, review that actual research and the actual cost-benefits, and come to a decision based on what would be best for regional economies (and even pro-active regionalization of the economy) rather than on political calculations about how “modern” the party needs to look.

The transport review was duly launched.

It comes as a surprise, therefore, now to read in the FT that Maria Eagle is apparently saying the absolute opposite of what she said in 2011:

Labour’s transport spokeswoman, Maria Eagle, gave a “cast-iron guarantee” that the party would proceed with the project if it won the 2015 election. “It is what we are signed up for,” she said.

Perhaps I’ve missed something along the way, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate that this apparent change of view is the product of the party’s transport review; the review is mentioned in the National Policy Forum’s 2012 Annual report, but there is no reference to HS2, and there is no evidence that I can see of any review of HS2 ever actually being carried out as (apparently) promised.

If it had been, then presumably Maria Eagle would have said so, as a way of putting Mandelson in his place. The website created for the review is dead, as is the twitter account.

So while I’m glad that the consensus now does appear to have been broken, albeit four years too late, this does reflect badly on Labour’s policymaking process in opposition. Perhaps the days when major policy proposals came to conference for a yes or a no vote (even if they were then sometimes ignored by the PLP) weren’t so bad after all – at least we knew where we stood.


Labour’s transport team have now responded. They say Maria Eagle addressed HS2 (as a decision was needed sooner rather than later) in 2011 in this speech.

Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle told Liberal Conspiracy:

Labour is clear that a new north-south rail line is needed to deliver the major increase in capacity needed on Britain’s rail network in the years to come. Labour reviewed this scheme as part of our Policy Review but found that none of the alternative options that have been proposed could meet the capacity challenge on our rail network.

All would involve billions of pounds and major disruption to the existing network during construction, yet wouldn’t deliver anywhere near the extra capacity of a new line, would not cut journey times and would not enable any further transfer of freight from road to rail. Labours is supporting the legislation that is before parliament now to enable preparatory expenditure on the scheme, will support the hybrid bill when it is introduced and will continue to provide the long term cross-party support necessary for the successful delivery of this project.

Under pressure from Labour the Government has set out more details on the cost of the new north-south line, with annual budgets to 2020/21. It is essential that the escalating costs are kept under close scrutiny by Ministers. While long-term investment in Britain’s future is vital it must also be value for money for the taxpayer.

Evidence shows Labour’s decision to means-test WFA will hit poorer pensioners too

by Paul Cotterill     June 4, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Sunny says that a key argument being deployed in favour of keeping universal winter fuel allowance, by the likes of Peter Hain is specious:

There is no evidence that offering universal pensioner benefits preserves support for universal benefits more broadly. Basically, people support benefits they get, but not other types of benefits such as for the unemployed or low paid.

Indeed, hurrah for evidence-based policy.

Here’s more evidence, from HMRC’s 2010-11 review of the take up of Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit ad Working Tax Credit:

The central estimate of the Child Benefit take-up rate in 2010-11 is 96 per cent.
The central estimate of the Child Tax Credit caseload take-up rate in 2010-11 is 83 per cent.
The central estimate of the Working Tax Credit caseload take-up rate in 2010-11 is 64 per cent.

That is, take up be families who are eligible for benefits are much lower when they are mean tested, and even lower when that means testing becomes complex.

Then there’s Free School Meals

More than a quarter of children entitled to free school meals take a packed lunch instead because they fear being stigmatised, according to a study by the Institute for Social and Economic Research.

The idea, then, that a means testing policy for winter fuel targeted at the richest pensioners will end up just affecting the richest pensioners is fanciful; the much greater effect will be on pensioners who, for whatever reason or set of reasons, don’t feel able to submit themselves to the means-testing process.

It is also reasonable to conjecture that there will be a negative correlation between vulnerability/poverty and take up.

Of course, in a more socially just we wouldn’t need winter fuel allowances at all, because fuel would be affordable to the poorest, but given where we are it is highly irresponsible for Labour to be signing up to policy which may result directly in cold, dead pensioners.

But cold, dead pensioners aside, the continuing distance in the Labour party between policymaking and the reality of policy implementation – of the type which brought us the Lord Freud Welfare to Work Narnia in 2008 – continues to be a disappointment.

This was the kind of thing that wasn’t supposed to happen after the Refounding Labour process, because policy was supposed to become grounded in the experience of those implementing that policy and those living with its consequences.

The British anti-war left and the sudden interest in Mali

by Paul Cotterill     January 16, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Since Friday, when white people started fighting there, it seems anyone who’s anyone in the mainstream media is an expert on Mali. Funny that.

I’m no expert, but back in April 2012, I wrote:

Meanwhile in Africa, a nascent democracy has fallen, a large part of the country is in the hands of a different number of armed groups with differing levels of affiliation to Al Qaeida, trouble is spilling over into neighbouring countries and refugees are on the move. All this is happening as a direct result of the UK’s last major military intervention.

I speak, of course, of Mali, and the vast desert area referred to as Azawad by those Tourags who seek its independence. Over the weekend the major town Timbuktu and Gao have fallen to Touareg rebels, taking strategic advantage of the recent coup d’etat. This coup d’etat was itself undertaken by a section of the army supposedly as a reaction to the civilian government’s inability to deal with armed rebellion in the North, and that armed rebellion was fuelled by the massive overspill of weaponry from Libya via Niger into the desert regions of Mali.

In the mix are various groups, with confused and confusing allegiance, and including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the (Islamist) Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) , the (Islamist) Ansar al-Din and of course Al Qaeida Middle East (AQIM), present in one form or another (from bases in Southern Algeria).

More details are here, courtesy of the very excellent Kal at The Moor Next Door. There’s a handy map here. I don’t pretend to out-analyse Kal on the specifics of what are and what will be in the region, but simply ask the questions: do Cameron and Hague now accept that what seemed like a nice Boys’ Own Adventure is turning out to have very nasty consequences not just for the millions now directly affected (Mali’s population is 16 million to Libya’s 6 million) but potentially for the much of the Sahel and into the West African states?

Nine months on, we know a few more details of those “nasty consequences”. There is open war in Mali. Ansaru in Nigeria are explicitly linking their activities to Mali. Senegal is scared of what may be coming. Mauritania, in its fragile state, is unable to restrict the movements of jihadists through its territories and prey to attack on its own towns, and Niger – already beset by major ecnonomic and environmental problems, will only suffer more from the growing regional instability.

Now if I, from a backroom in Lancashire, armed with nothing more than an internet connection and a keen sense of the unintended consequence, was able nine months ago to predict pretty well how things would pan out, then it must all have been pretty damn predictable. You’d have thought, in such circumstances, the anti-war left would have had something to say in the way of prevention.

Yet by and large, none of the people or organisations now so desperate to comment on what are, by any yardstick, serious, bloody events with huge consequences for the people of the Sahel region and beyond, had anything to say as, little by little over the summer months, the groups who had been fighting for territorial independence ceded ground and towns to those with more Jihadi aims, and it became clearer that the assault on human freedoms in Northern Malian desert towns would soon be in assaults in Central Mali.

In the end, I can’t help feeling that while what is happening now in Mali is actually quite welcome news for some on the left, who are happy to use it to reinforce their anti-imperial narrative or whatever, the energies and resources now devoted to commenting on the war, might have been better used more proactively few months ago.

Of course it’s a big ‘if’, but if leftie commentators, journos and politicos had been demanding answers from the government back in the summer about how it intended to deal with what was unfolding in Mali, then it might just have hit the Cabinet agenda, and it might just have kickstarted an international process of support for regional intervention. As it was, it was December by the time ECOWAS came to a tentative agreement on use of its regional forces to support the Malian government, and by that time it was too late; French military intelligence clearly saw both that the route South was open to the jihadists, and that the jihadists had the capability and desire to take that road, and that if it didn’t strike now Bamako itself would be under threat (of course it may still be, but in a different way).

Of course the anti-war left is not responsible for what’s going on now – Cameron and co must bear some responsibility for that given that we now know how well briefed they were, or at least should have been, on the likely consequences for its southern neighbours of a changed regime in Libya.

But if the anti-war left is going to get serious about anti-imperialism/promoting the long-term advisability of stopping these continued interventions – we can be sure enough there’ll be another one along in the non-too-distant future – it had better start by getting serious about its analysis.

Head of Ofsted lied about GCSE standards

by Paul Cotterill     September 3, 2012 at 10:30 am

Yesterday morning on the Marr show (from 28 mins 30 secs), the Head of Ofsted Sir Michael Wilshaw defended ‘rigourous’ GCSEs in this way:

Let’s just take reading, and English is the world language, the business language. We know that we’ve fallen from 7th in reading, to 25th in the world.

This is pretty well the same as he said on the BBC six months ago, and it remains as much a lie as it was then. It is a lie for several now well-established reasons and Wilshaw must surely be aware of this.

Simply repeating lies does not make them true.

Sir Michael Wilshaw is a fucking disgrace. The first act of an incoming Labour Secretary State for Education should be to fire him.

The GCSE grading scandal: the legal challenge begins

by Paul Cotterill     August 26, 2012 at 9:45 am

It’s encouraging that several bodies, including the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), are considering legal action over the GCSE grading scandal.

The ASCL has already set out what aspect of the scandal such action may target

We’re examining whether this is hitting any particular groups of young people that are covered by the equal opportunities legislation.

continue reading… »

Are English children less able to read than years ago? No

by Paul Cotterill     July 30, 2012 at 9:30 am

In Saturday’s Guardian (Letters, 28th Jan), Schools Minister Nick Gibb defends the government’s view that phonics are the only way to reach children to read.

His central justification is that something must be done because, “International studies rank England 25th for reading – down from seventh nine years ago.”

In the very literal sense Gibb is correct. In 2000, the OECD placed England in 7th position in its table (p.53). In 2009, it was in the 25th row of a similar table (p. 56). In any other sense you care to mention, Gibb is entirely wrong.
continue reading… »

Is Labour finally getting to a coherent position on Europe?

by Paul Cotterill     July 24, 2012 at 9:05 am

Finally, finally, it looks as though the Labour leadership is edging towards a coherent position on the European Union.

Denis MacShane, presmuably with the go-ahead from Miliband, yesterday wrote a piece for Comment is Free, setting out how Miliband might use his visit to Hollande this week to set out a substantive Labour position quite distinct from Cameron’s silly rhetoric.
continue reading… »

Stephen Twigg: you should be ashamed

by Paul Cotterill     July 11, 2012 at 8:50 am

Let’s not mince words here.

For Labour to even consider the introduction of one Service School to each region of the country is a downright scandal, and it would be much better for the party if Stephen Twigg were reshuffled as quickly as possible, a long way away from any position of policy influence.

There’ll be plenty of leftie commentators along this afternoon to talk about how subjecting young people to military rule – to force them into cowed, resentful, but temporary submission before authority, rather than encouraring their creativity and intellectual/moral growth – is just about the stupidest idea Labour’s policy wonks have ever had.
continue reading… »

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