Recent Westminster Articles

The Tories have a bigger problem than just UKIP

by Leo Barasi     September 16, 2013 at 9:00 am

Lord Ashcroft’s mega poll of key marginals, released yesterday, has been interpreted as showing three things:

1) Labour are doing very well against the Tories in the Tory-Labour battlegrounds

2) The Lib Dems are doing less well but still ok against the Tories in the Tory-LD battlegrounds

3) The Tories’ problems are a result of their voters defecting to UKIP

I agree with the first two interpretations, but the third looks to me to be a misreading of the data. Its extensive coverage in papers that would prefer Cameron to be more UKIP-like – the Telegraph, Mail & Express – suggests wishful thinking.

I’m going to focus on the poll of Tory-Labour marginals because that’s got more constituencies (32 vs 8) and a much bigger sample size – and it’s the one the coverage has focused on.

This is a poll of constituencies the Tories hold, so at the last election, Labour were slightly behind in all of them. Yet now the headline voting intent figure has Labour 13pts ahead*:

But UKIP’s vote is 14% and Labour’s lead is only 13pts, so that means UKIP are the reason Labour are leading in the constituencies, right?


Not even two in five of that 14% who would vote UKIP in the next election voted Tory in 2010:

If UKIP were to disappear after the EU elections and the Tories were to be reunited with their lost voters, they would gain just 5.3pts – not nearly enough to overhaul Labour’s lead. And of course if UKIP were to disappear, some of those Labour defectors could return, potentially adding 2pts to Labour’s score. Put those together and the UKIP damage to the Tories is just over 3pts: less than a quarter of Labour’s lead.

This isn’t to say Labour’s lead in these constituencies is secure. Out of the main parties it has kept the highest proportion of its 2010 voters, and of course it’s had a sizeable chunk of people who abandoned the Lib Dems after the coalition was agreed. But it also has the largest number of people who didn’t vote in 2010**:

These people have already said in the poll that they’re going to vote at the next election, but the high proportion of people who didn’t vote in 2010 is a risk if they regularly don’t turn up at elections (though some are probably first-time voters). And of course there are other reasons the Labour vote may fall.

But the idea that UKIP is the reason the Tories are behind in these key marginals is just not true – or at best it’s a quarter of the truth.

* There’s a separate voting intent question that encourages respondents to think about their particular constituency. This might be a better guide of how people will actually vote when push comes to shove, but I’m not using it here because I’d rather stick with something that’s comparable with other polls. Anyway, UKIP’s vote is smaller there and Labour’s lead is larger.

** The tables don’t show exactly what proportion of those “Other/Didn’t vote” were non-voters in 2010 (they need to be weighted by turnout), but the raw numbers suggest they’re overwhelmingly non-voters and that more than half of those who didn’t vote in 2010 but would now, would now vote Labour.

A New Rural Manifesto for Labour: we call for your support

by Guest     September 10, 2013 at 9:01 am

by Jack Eddy

It is uncontroversial to say that Labour lacks rural appeal. Labour’s voice in the British countryside has been inadequate for decades, but has hit a low-ebb in recent years. Even in the suburban and rural areas where Labour was able to gain some traction from 1997 onwards, the last General Election saw a massive swing to the Tories.

And yet, the Labour Party in the past has successfully gone out to the British countryside to court the rural vote and build the foundations of support. Such accomplishments can come again, but we need renewed endeavour and new direction. If this does not change – and we do not instigate that change – some rural communities may not survive these difficult times.

This is why we at South Norfolk CLP call upon all rural CLPs, as well as other interested affiliates, to support us in our call for a new Rural Manifesto – as specified in the proposal officially endorsed by South Norfolk CLP; a Rural Manifesto made in rural Britain, for rural Britain.

Priority should be given to framing policy to reflect the impact on rural communities, on a number of different issues:

Public transport and other infrastructure improvements, as well as rural unemployment and businesses will be an important subject. In the entirety of Norfolk, the 3rd largest county, there is only one late evening bus service. This is not uncommon for rural areas, with negative consequences to regional economies and rural life in general.

Additional aid to the young and unemployed for the purpose of making them as geographically mobile as possible will be hugely helpful to finding employment. A possible solution could be found in providing travel cards to rural unemployed (allowing travel for free or at a reduced rate), who live at least 2 miles from the nearest major centre of employment – valid for use 1 month after finding permanent work.

The NHS is important to us all, but many rural communities are seeing their NHS services disappear as cuts and privatisation begin to take hold, and they are fighting to stop it. One solution to help meet increasing demand, and go some way to solving the unique issues around isolation from services in rural areas, could be to focus on increasing the number of smaller, satellite hospitals that are strategically located around existing central hubs in rural locations. ‘Satellite Hospitals’ would focus on anticipatory care, diagnostic services, as well as urgent accident and emergency admissions, leaving the central hospitals to focus on the more complex and specialised treatments. By dividing up local populations into different catchment areas, it would enhance the experience of patients by offering a smaller, community feel, as well as provide more jobs.

Naturally, properly dealing with Europe and immigration in rural policy is a must. We must explain how businesses, services and local economies in rural Britain depend on Europe and immigration. Many rural businesses rely on European immigrants and the EU enables farmers and horticultural businesses to trade easily with the mainland (in either goods, equipment or expertise). Many rural businesses could not survive without immigration or the EU in general. Labour needs to illustrate how jobs held by British workers would cease to exist if Britain exited the EU.

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what needs to be covered in a Rural Manifesto – and it is up to us all to decide what must be covered.

To do this, we need you to get our Motion passed in your CLP and submitted for the upcoming Labour Party Conference by 12 noon on Thursday 12th September. We also invite you to contact all whom you feel will be interested, so that we can reach everybody that can help us succeed in this enterprise.

If you are interested and have the time, please contact me at and I will send you the proposal for the Rural Manifesto and South Norfolk’s Motion to the Conference.

The government has partially retreated on the #gaggingbill

by Nigel Stanley     September 7, 2013 at 9:59 am

In the news cycle, late Friday afternoon is reserved for embarrassing admissions, U-turns and other things you want to say as quietly as possible.

That explains the timing of the government’s announcement that they are making significant amendments to what has become known as the gagging bill. To quote from the Cabinet office press release:

‘After discussions with the NCVO and others, and in order to make the point as clear as possible whilst maintaining the reforms to electoral law, we now propose to revert to the situation as set out under existing legislation, which defines controlled expenditure as expenditure “which can reasonably be regarded as intended to promote or procure electoral success”.’

Of course careful examination of small print will be necessary and this is a quick initial response, but it looks like a significant retreat. No-one has ever said that activities such as the TUC Congress or a TUC demonstration need to be regulated under current law that uses this existing definition. The worry with the Bill’s original wording was that it no longer tested just the intent, but had a vaguer definition which included subjective judgements about an activity’s effect.

But this change does not make the Bill acceptable. Part 3 still wraps unions up in unnecessary red tape, breaches the privacy of trade unionists and may impact industrial action ballots – already about as legally regulated as it is possible to get.

Part 1 that supposedly regulates lobbyists does no such thing. Its only purpose in life seems to be to tick a box in the coalition agreement.

And Part 2 still limits what the majority of people would see as legitimate campaigning by non-party groups, even if they are not things the TUC does as we would need a political fund so to do.

There were always three objections to Part 2. The first – the vague and broad definition of what counts as “for electoral purposes” – appears to have gone. But that leaves sharply reduced limits (up to 70 per cent) on what third parties can spend both nationally and in constituencies. And in toxic combination with that, more activities will have to be costed and put towards that cap. At present obvious election campaigning such as leaflets and adverts count against the cap, the Bill will include many more activities, policy work, rallies, transport and even media work. Staff time involved in these much less easy to define tasks will have to be fully costed too, as this counts against the cap, even though political parties do not have to count the cost of their staff time against their much bigger cap.

Most people see limits on big money in elections as a sensible way of stopping them being bought. But the government has made no case for the new limits and definitions, and they will have a big impact on broad and popular campaigns with a clear electoral focus such as work to reduce support for extremists and possibly local campaigns such as those for or against infrastructure investments. Yet the Cabinet Office are clear that the new caps will stay:

It is important to reiterate that the Bill will still bring down the national spending limit for third parties, introduce constituency spending limits and extend the definition of controlled expenditure to cover more than just election material, to include rallies, transport and press conferences.

My reading of the Bill has always been that it was meant to smuggle in a surgical strike at trade unions and campaigns that the coalition parties fear under cover of pretend lobbying rules. But it was so badly drafted it brought together a huge civil society alliance. Today’s climbdown restores the Bill to its original intention, and it should still be withdrawn.

As TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady says today:

“The poor drafting, muddled justification and expert condemnation that brought together perhaps the biggest ever coalition in public life made this retreat inevitable.

“But the problems with this Bill have not gone away as it still limits campaigns against extremist parties, breaches the privacy of trade union members and fails to open up lobbying. If ministers think that opposition will now melt away, they have another think coming.”

GMB Union’s move today shows that unions feel sidelined by Labour

by Sunny Hundal     September 4, 2013 at 5:19 pm

The GMB Union’s unexpected decision today to lower their affiliation fees from £1.2m a year to £150,000 is a warning shot that doesn’t bode well for the Labour party.

The GMB added this ominous statement to their press release: “It is expected that there will further reductions in spending on Labour party campaigns and initiatives.”

Much more will come out this weekend as the annual TUC conference kicks off in Bournemouth, but it’s telling that no one from any of the major unions was willing to make a statement on BBC World at One today. Only Ronnie Barker from the Bakers Union came on to say that he wouldn’t be surprised if other unions follow suit.

There’s a tendency for many within Labour to see their relations with Trade Unions as a battle of wills rather than an equal relationship. So many will interpret this as a ‘warning shot’ from GMB that requires a ‘robust response to show we’re not weak’ etc. But I think they forget that there are far more Britons who see their union as more relevant to their lives than the Labour party.

As George Eaton points out, the GMB has decided to slash its funding in advance, rather than seek to recruit members to the party. And they’re not even bothered about picking a public fight over this.

This is bad for the Labour not just because it deprives of the money, but because it indicates relations are so bad the unions are largely unwilling to work with Labour to make it a mass-membership party. They’re essentially saying: ‘if you’re going to treat us like this, then don’t expect us to help you‘.

If that attitude among unions hardens and becomes entrenched, especially if the Labour leadership decide to take it as a personal attack, then expect more unions to follow and eventually look at disaffiliation.

Tom Watson can see where this is headed too, hence his blogpost this morning.

I emailed a well-connected union worker today, who had this to say:

From the perspective of many grassroots Labour activists neither the leader’s stance or the GMB’s response look great since it will make the party’s job of defeating the government that bit harder. We need to be united and campaigning hard in the run-up to the electon to defeat the Coalition. But the reality is the leader’s office appear to have failed to consider the full and severe financial implications of their plans before Ed made his speech. The unions have literally kept the Labour Party out of bankruptcy these last few years and are owed respect. While in an ideal world there would be a much more diverse set of donations, we are simply not there yet and the election clock is ticking.

The question now is what will other unions do. I’d be astonished if CWU and Unite weren’t considering something similar. It’s a nightmare that is keeping a lot of people awake at night right now.

Ed Miliband needs to do two things: to reassure the unions and make them feel this is a partnership not an antagonistic marriage headed for divorce. He also needs to push forward with bold changes so the party engages and empowers its members, and more are persuaded to join and take part.

If, on the other hand, they decide that the logical response is to replace union funding with donations from rich people, say goodbye to the Trade union link and say hello to the slow demise of the Labour party.

What we can do to help Syrians now

by Natalie Bennett     September 1, 2013 at 9:30 am

When we are thinking today about Syria there’s only one place to start: the desperate situation of up to 8 million people in urgent need of help.

More than a million and a half are refugees in neighbouring countries, states that have their own problems, serious economic strains, and that need help to provide the homes, the blankets, the care, that these often traumatised refugees need.

Millions more are displaced, or at risk, within Syria. We need to ensure that every effort is made to get humanitarian supplies, medical supplies, to them.

And we need to find a way for the UN to protect them from future attacks of all kinds, to fulfil its responsibility to protect. The UN should be creating safe corridors through which they can escape – and eventually to achieve a ceasefire in the civil war.

I agree with President Obama on one thing: “We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale.” Indeed, we – the international community, acting collectively under UN auspices — must save them from attacks of all kinds.

And yet the US focus, the French focus, is on what are clearly plans for a missile strike against the Syrian regime, a strike that no one is claiming is going to remove the dreadful President Assad, that no one claims is going to take any productive step towards helping to construct an alternative government for Syria, a strike that will, simply, take more lives, including, undoubtedly, lives of people, men, women, and children, who have nothing to do with the conflict, but are simply trying to survive in the middle of an awful civil war.

But there’s no evidence, no sense, in the claim that a US missile strike, covered with a fig leaf of whatever other countries beyond France can be persuaded, bribed or pushed into “participation” in the attack, is going to stop any future gas attack, from whichever side it might come.

And no, we haven’t seen real evidence, independent scrutiny, in what happened in that hell in a Damascus suburb on August 21. John Kerry says: “This is common sense. This is evidence. These are facts.” Well, we’ve heard that before, and we’ve good reason not to believe it.

The vote in Parliament this week was a big step forward – a step forward for British democracy, a step forward for our place in the world. And the impact has been found around the world.

It seems unlikely that this evening’s decision by President Obama to refer his plans for an attack to Congress would have occurred without the Westminster vote. But is for Britain this should be only the start. We could take three more steps – important steps.

1. Call off the world’s biggest arms fair planned for London next month.

2. Stop selling UK arms to abusive regimes. Our £12bn arms industry is a trade in misery, in death, in supporting regimes like that of President Assad, and the dreadful human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

3. Scrap Trident nuclear weapons, making us truly world leaders. So I say to Congress, I say to President Hollande, I say to whichever Arab regime the Americans are hoping to bribe, bully or persuade on board an attack, please, stop, think.

The combined UN-regional talks route to a ceasefire in Syria is a difficult route, strewn with obstacles. But it’s the legal route. It’s the route that can help the people of Syria and the region to together find a way forward – not have it imposed on them, as the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, had the route imposed on them, with continuing awful results.

The route to justice for a horrific gas attack is the International Criminal Court. As Caroline Lucas said this week: “Crimes against humanity and international law have been committed. Once there is evidence of responsibility for these appalling attacks, those responsible must be dealt with by the International Criminal Court.”

The UN and the International Criminal Court are the right routes. But it’s time the world – America, Nato, the UK – took the right route.

This article is an adaption of a speech I made today at the No Attack on Syria demonstration.

Cameron’s tragedy is that he fails in even understanding the point of leadership

by Chris Dillow     August 30, 2013 at 12:59 pm

David Cameron is a terrible advert for Oxford PPE. He's long been ignorant of economics – as his prating about the "nation's credit card" and the "global race" attest – but his defeat last night suggests he knows little about politics and history too.

It's a cliche that this was a failure of leadership. I suspect, though, that it was a failure to even see what leadership is. Leadership is the art of getting people to follow you when they don't have to; if they do so because they must, you're not a leader but a boss.

But leadership in this sense is not just about speechmaking and doing the right thing. It's about getting dirty, and using the darker arts of politics.

One such art is timing. If your position is strong, you should act. If it's not, you should wait. Had Cameron waited until the UN inspectors have reported, his case would have been strengthened by reports of the incendiary bomb attack on a school.

But there's another failure. Leadership also means identifying potential oppenents and cajoling them – maybe nicely, maybe not – into supporting you. And at this, Cameron has long been poor. Fraser Nelson says he's "aloof."

And only a few months into his permiership one Tory sympathizer wrote:

There is little affection for Cameron on the Tory benches. His regime is chilly, even aloof. MPs who cross him know that they are unlikely to be forgiven. Slowly, the numbers of the disaffected and dispossessed are growing.

Contrast this with two great American leaders – Abe Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. Their success rested on not so much on them taking the moral high ground – the best that can be said for LBJ's "moral compass" is that it wasn't quite as defective as Nixon's – but on their ability to twist arms, and appeal to low motives.

Their precedents are, I think, relevant. Both men faced parties which were loose and fissiparous, which is the condition of today's Tories. Not only are they intellectually divided – for example on both social and economic liberalism – but they are also socially so; the Cabinet might be full of public school millionaires, but the backbenches aren't.

His long failure to close this gap means that Cameron lacked both the ability to convert potential rebels and the trust which was necessary to induce people to follow him on what would have been a speculative venture.

In this sense, there's a tragic aspect to Cameron. He has thought of politics as (by his own lights) a noble venture – as when he pushed through gay marriage and in his desire to stop crimes against humanity. But politics isn't just that.

Sometimes, to win a moral crusade you need immoral means. Leadership isn't about being like Martin Luther King, but being like Lyndon Johnson. 

Five thoughts on Cameron’s humiliation over Syria

by Sunny Hundal     August 30, 2013 at 12:37 am

Wow. It is extremely, extremely rare for a sitting Prime Minister to lose a vote on going to war.

Here are my five quick thoughts.

1) There is now almost no prospect that Britain will join the US in action against Assad.

Cameron has been humiliated so badly I doubt he’ll go back to the House of Commons on Syria, especially as he will now have to take his cue from Ed Miliband. And he hates taking Miliband’s lead more than anything else. This has now become more about the politics in Westminster than the people of Syria. Besides, according to some tweets, he has dismissed any more action on Syria anyway. Defeat on a another vote would have likely to have led to a confidence motion.

2) It is too easy to say that Cameron lost because the isolationist wing of the Tory and Labour party are dominant. But people forget we went into Libya to take out Gaddafi not long ago!

No, Cameron lost because he wanted to rush into Syria and dismissed any caution or calls for proper evidence. He misjudged the mood on both sides of the House and assumed that no one would defy him on a vote of war. That’s why he lost.

3) This is clearly very humiliating for Cameron, but I’m also wondering where it leaves Nick Clegg. The Lib Dem leader abandoned the party’s traditionally anti-war or at least cautious position in favour of siding with Cameron. And now they’ve both been handed a defeat. At least if Clegg took a principled stand he would have gotten back some support.

4) To underline how complicated this conflict is, the Muslim Brotherhood chief in Syria has been criticising the United States for not intervening in Syria earlier.

5) I was for British intervention in Syria to warn Assad about the usage of chemical weapons. It’s unclear where President Obama stands now but I hope he will present the full evidence to Congress and militarily warn Assad anyway. If Assad steps up usage of chemical weapons now, part of the blame will lie on Cameron’s obstinate behaviour.

Update: I’m sick of sanctimonious people saying I should stop talking about Westminster and its implications, instead of what this means for the people of Syria. As I pointed out earlier – this was a feeble intervention that would have made very little difference. Even US action is not going to be about stopping the bloodshed or deposing Assad. I wanted the UK to join the USA in this but either way it would done almost nothing to stop the bloodshed in Syria.

Update 2: If anyone still has doubts that chemical weapons are being used in Syria, see this short BBC film from last night.

The Labour vote is actually the strongest of all parties

by Guest     August 23, 2013 at 9:00 am

by Neil Foster

How strong is Labour’s support right now? YouGov have just published the full data tables from a poll they recently conducted for Prospect last month.

What I find interesting is that contrary to the suggestion from some areas of the press that Labour’s support is ‘soft’, it actually is the firmest of all the four leading parties.

The poll asked:
‘The next general election is due to be held in May 2015. Have you decided definitely how you will vote then, or will you wait until nearer the time before deciding how to vote?’

55% of respondents said they’ve ‘definitely decided how to vote’, 42% said they’d wait nearer to the time and remainder didn’t know. However it’s the party breakdown of those who’ve already decided vote that will give cheer to Labour.

Two years away from a general election 66% of current Labour supporters say will definitely vote for the party, compared to 58% of Conservatives supporters who say they will vote for their preferred party.

The Liberal Democrats however can only rely on 33% of their current supporters to definitely turn out and vote for them – which must be alarming given the much-reduced poll figure since the general election. 42% of UKIP supporters say they will definitely vote for their party which is a big enough figure to worry the Conservatives and make a mockery of those who hope that UKIP support will return closer to the 3.5% they picked up in 2010 by the time of the next election.

The poll then asked those who were currently intending to vote for the Conservatives, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats whether they would consider backing Labour at the next election. 18% of current Conservative supporters said they would, 30% of UKIP supporters said they’d consider voting for Ed Miliband’s party and a sizeable 46% of current Liberal Democrat supporters said they would consider voting Labour as well.

There is real cause for encouragement from this poll. Not only is Labour resting on the firmest electoral foundations of all four parties, but that it has the potential to win many more supporters, although by and large not from Conservatives.

There is a gulf between poll leads and election victories and turnout and enthusiasm really matters. Labour’s poll lead over the Conservatives may fluctuate but do not make the mistake of thinking this must mean support for Ed Miliband’s party is ‘soft’.

These YouGov findings for Prospect show that in the run up to 2015 Labour’s support is currently the firmest of them all.

Balcombe is a wake up call for local communities over Fracking

by Guest     August 21, 2013 at 9:30 am

by Philip Pearson

As Caroline Lucas MP was arrested at the Balcombe fracking site (19 August) she spoke of the “democratic deficit” being so enormous that “people are left with very little option but to take peaceful, non violent direct action.”

In 2012 the TUC’s annual Congress opposed gas fracking. Motion 43: “The principle of precaution should be applied when developing new energies and the health of people and the environment should be put before profit.”

And this summer, speaking up for gas fracking, the Prime Minister told the Express, “I want all parts of our nation to share in the benefits: North or South, Conservative or Labour … we can expect to see lower energy prices in this country.”

Balcombe jpeg lorry

From Balcombe

But will gas fracking will mean lower energy prices? Not according to Alistair Buchanan , chief executive of Ofgem, the energy regulator: “It is true that the US has transformed its energy market thanks to shale, but in our time-frame, when Britain will rely on gas for its power stations, this is not going to happen on any significant scale, either here or elsewhere in Europe.

Even if the US allows exports (and assuming they come to Europe), it will still cost about the same as we are paying for our winter gas now. No one doubts that there is plenty of gas out there, but what is critical to Britain is how much will be available over the next five years and how much we will have to pay for it to ensure that it comes here.”

Does public support count? The Prime Minister argued over the summer that “If neighbourhoods can see the benefits – and get reassurance about the environment – then I don’t see why fracking shouldn’t get real public support.” But what if it doesn’t? The NoFIBs petition (No Facking In Balcombe Society) was supported by 82% of local residents. It, too, is based on the precautionary principle:

The work of Cuadrilla poses an unacceptable level of risk to our water supply, air purity and overall environment. We, the undersigned, stand opposed to exploratory drilling or fracking for gas or oil because we believe that these activities put human health at risk, both of those living close to wells, but also of those whose water comes from an affected area.

The TUC motion originated from protests supported by trade unions and community organisations in the North West, where Cuadrilla first made the earth tremor. It adds: “The fracking method of gas extraction should be condemned unless proven harmless for people and the environment. This type of energy production is not sustainable as it relies on a limited resource. Until now, there is evidence that it causes earthquakes and water pollution and further investigation should be carried out before any expansion.”

Balcombe drill

In a field outside Balcombe village…

What of the environment? At Balcombe on a day visit, I had a long conversation with a local resident about the diverse environmental impacts of Cuadrilla’s drilling operation – see photo. The continuous noise, vibration and 24-hour lighting had driven birdlife, bats and badgers away. She feared the long term effects of injecting millions of gallons of chemical laden water to frack the gas on water pollution – the water table lies at 700 feet below ground level, the shale gas at 3000 feet down, so the drill pierces the water table. A few days later we also spoke about methane gas escapes and flaring.

She said, “We’ve been ignored. The petition, our planning objections, letters to MPs, our demonstrations haven’t stopped them. 10,000 people might.”

Who fills the gap politics has vacated? Speaking at the a recent Friends of the Earth meeting, John Ashton, for ten years the government’s roving climate change ambassador, argued that the struggle on climate change “is now entering a decisive phase.” The words Must, Now, Can should guide our thinking: “We must do whatever it takes. Otherwise the consequences of climate change will undermine security and prosperity. We must build a carbon neutral energy system, within a generation.”

But, he said, “The fact is, we can’t fix the climate problem, or any of the other problems on the agenda you have set, unless we can now fix politics itself. ” His prescription is to “Fill the gap that politics has vacated. Connect with the base of society. Mobilise coalitions to offer people solutions to problems that politics in its current form ignores. And do that on the basis of a more strategic assessment than I suspect you have of what is to be done and where you can change the game.”

And, as I was speaking with a local resident last week, a child ran by: “I love waking up in the morning here!” she said.

On social security, Labour should focus on ‘shared responsibility’ not ‘fairness’

by Guest     August 19, 2013 at 9:36 am

by Sam Fowles

We’re 21 months out from the General Election and thus far a potential Labour manifesto looks like Muller Lite to the Tories’ Deluxe Corner – a bit better for me but unlikely to rock my world.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the Welfare debate – a catalogue of Labour surrenders based on one fundamental misconception: That public policy can or should be based on “fairness”. In lackluster unison, the opponents of Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms mumble that it is unfair that families with severely disabled kids should have their welfare income limited to £500 per week. Meanwhile the Tories thunder that it’s not fair hardworking families should pay taxes so the unemployed can live on a higher income.

The trouble is; they’re both right. But only because our public debate has reduced individuals in society to the level of rats escaping a fire; each trying to make sure that someone else’s life is more unfair than ours. And Labour’s just accepted it.

But public policy isn’t about “fairness” or “unfairness”, it’s about responsibility.

The rightwing paradigm, where contributing to society is seen as an imposition which must be forced upon us, reduces people to Hobbesian savages and society to a series of punitive burdens imposed by government. In fact, the innate ability to live as a society is what makes us unique as a species. Society is not an imposition on humans, it is the essence of humanity.

It is also a responsibility to make the world better for the next generation, not because we will personally profit from it but because, if we don’t, what’s the point of us being here at all? We don’t ask why we should try to give our children a better life, we just accept that we should.

But limiting our responsibility to our blood relatives is a logical fallacy. The fact that someone shares my DNA will do nothing to protect them from winds of fortune of which I can neither conceive nor control. Thus our natural responsibility to our own children and innate responsibility to society become one and the same.

Government should be the expression of our collective responsibility. As the expression of our democratic will, government can facilitate us fulfilling our innate individual responsibility and leave us, as individuals, lots of time to indulge our irrational impulses as well.

Not for nothing did JFK urge Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. In the Labour party, social responsibility should be the bedrock of our creed. Ideas like patriotism, community and national purpose should be the spiritual home of the left, yet Labour seems afraid to claim them.

We support welfare, human rights, universal healthcare and free education because – fundamentally – we believe that society advances when it co operates. We believe that, as citizens and as humans, we have a responsibility to advance society.

While appeals to Aristotelian ethics may not play so well on the doorstep, perhaps a good start might be to suggest voters (and politicians) remember their humanity.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He tweets at @SamFowles