Ed Miliband’s centre-left: not drowning, waving

Party conference season here in the United Kingdom has come and gone during the last few weeks; the Liberal Democrats kicked off in Birmingham, followed by Labour in Liverpool and the Conservatives in Manchester. There was much grumbling in the media about the cost of sending vast teams of correspondents north to cover the proceedings of each conference on site, amidst a general fuzz of indifference amongst the general public. The raison d’etre of the “party conference” is after all, under siege in the modern era: today’s mass political party does not tolerate serious debate or disagreement. The energy of conference instead tends to be expended on stage-managed set pieces and the gormless totting-out of phrases crafted by snake oil merchants and wet-eared graduates untouched by the realities of modern working life. The appearance of Hugh Grant at all three conferences – despite his very good anti-tabloid journalism motivations – says something a little too poetic about that.

Amongst the liberal media, there was a clear expectation that Ed Miliband needed to “punch through” with his conference speech (video | transcript) in order for Labour to reassert itself as a credible force in Opposition. The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government has made enemies across the country in the last year and a half, paying lip service to David Cameron’s “Big Society” whilst forcing draconian spending cuts on the public sector and local councils, strangling charities and hoping inanely for the private sector to storm into gear and lift the economy from the doldrums. Labour should be doing splendidly under these conditions, but at best, it is only doing satisfactorily.

There is an endless array of reasonable explanations for Labour’s current woes, from the “honeymoon effect” currently still enjoyed by the Conservative / Lib Dem Coalition, to the sprawling five year terms that bequeath UK governments the luxury of time to plan and deliver, but oppositions only early-term echo chambers that are un-fillable with policy. At some point, of course, it is the leader of the party who must ultimately take responsibility for their party’s performance, and the vultures, if not exactly circling Ed Miliband, have at least spotted him looking a bit bedraggled on the horizon.

Miliband’s conference speech this year was, in a couple of parts, very good. The “quiet crisis” narrative that he wheeled out, quite accurately describes the biggest problem facing modern capitalism in affluent societies:

But you know there’s a quiet crisis which doesn’t get the headlines. It’s about the people who don’t make a fuss, who don’t hack phones, loot shops, fiddle their expenses, or earn telephone number salaries at the banks. It’s the grafters, the hard-working majority who do the right thing. It’s a crisis which is happening in your town, your street and maybe even in your home. It is a crisis of the promises made over the last thirty years. The promise that if you’re in work, you will do better each year.

The promise that if you work hard at school the doors of opportunity will open up to you. The promise that if you teach your kids the difference between right and wrong and bring them up properly, they will get a good job, and a decent home. These crises point to something deep in our country. The failure of a system.A way of doing things. An old set of rules.

Instinctively, most of us living in relative but perhaps not absolute comfort in places like Australia can relate to this. The promise of modern capitalism – the social bargain – is that if you do well in school and work hard, you can make a comfortable life for yourself and your family. It is a bargain that promises much to all, but today, only delivers to some. Today, we all know of people who are brilliant at their jobs –educators, nurses, police officers, people working a trade – who don’t get out of society what they put in. We all know of people who are doing the best they can in life, but for whom buying a home in their hometown necessitates either dumb luck, a large inheritance, 80 hours a week in a “profession”, unscrupulous activity, or a combination thereof. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the recent housing crisis protests in Israel seem to be manifestations of this broader system problem, that most political parties and vested interests are predisposed to ignore.

In other parts, the speech was ill-judged. Very, very little was offered by Miliband on the policy front, with one of the few policy snippets offered tanking particularly badly; a limp pledge to reduce university fees from a maximum of £9000 to £6000 a year. Good luck marshalling emotional fervour amongst the student population for Labour’s cause with that pledge! Former RBS chief Fred Goodwin was personally hoisted up once again as a kind of political piñata, and thrashed about in a way unbecoming a prospective national leader. Miliband’s characterisation of himself as an “outsider” trying to shake the tree of the “insiders” had some promise, but come out sounding a bit grandiose, as his speechwriters tried desperately to connect who their man is with who and what he is fighting against:

What’s my story? My parents fled the Nazis. And came to Britain. They embraced its values. Outsiders. Who built a life for us. So this is who I am. The heritage of the outsider. The vantage point of the insider. The guy who is determined to break the closed circles of Britain.

But perhaps the clincher, at least for me? Listening to Ed Miliband read a conference speech is like listening to an excited prefect with a headcold hold court at school assembly. It sounds shallow (and is), but this is democracy in 2011, and your ability to capture and hold an audience matters. Even if Labour’s leader manages to orchestrate some good policy formulation with his team over the next 12 to 24 months, it is very difficult to see him punching through and connecting with ordinary voters.

At least for the time being, under “Red Ed”, Labour are pinning their hopes on the Eurozone crisis and fiscal bloody-mindedness of the Tories running the economy into the ground. They’re not going to win on their own merit at this rate.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

The alternative vote (AV) referendum

Here in the United Kingdom the nation is waking up on Thursday May 5th, the day of the alternate vote (AV) referendum and some would say, judgment day for the political career of the Liberal Democrat Deputy PM Nick Clegg. The referendum was arguably the most politically important concession extracted by the Lib Dems from David Cameron’s Conservatives as part of their coalition agreement. Victory for “Yes” case proponents will deliver meaningful and overdue electoral reform, together with a substantive apologia to the British people for the oft craven capitulation of the Lib Dems to the Tory policy agenda. Victory for “No” case proponents will leave many Liberal Democrat supporters baffled as to just how their party has profited from their “deal with the devil”, and progressives more pessimistic than ever about serious democratic reform in the United Kingdom.

Recent polling strongly suggests that the latter scenario will come to pass, with likely serious implications for the health of the coalition agreement and Nick Clegg’s already comatose leadership. The “No” campaign has been heavily backed politically by the Conservative Party and financially by regular Tory donors, and the Labour Party is offering only partial support. The Labour leadership under Ed Miliband supports the “Yes” case, but many influential “Old Labour” figures have sided with the Tories and are urging a “No” vote. In short, the lack of broad, bi-partisan support for change which arguably killed off the majority of referenda put to the Australian people since Federation looks set to do the same for the alternative vote in the United Kingdom today.

For me, the AV campaign was summed up by a single image yesterday. The Conservative Party’s headquarters is located at Millbank Tower at 30 Millbank, a short, languorous stroll south from the House of Parliament in Westminster. Walking past it on my way home from work yesterday, I was a little surprised to observe outside a bright purple open-top double-decker bus, emblazoned with “No 2 AV” slogans. The open top of the bus was filled with a rabble of young Tories (presumably supplied by party HQ), waving signs emblazoned with checked boxes in support of FPTP, and making a cacophonous and indistinct noise. The bus proceeded to drive slowly up Millbank towards the Houses of Parliament, as the Tories onboard desperately tried to attract attention, cheering when the occasional passing motorist sounded their horn, whether in support or opposition.

Passers-by seemed to be scratching their heads. It was a classic case of sound and fury signifying nothing, wholly representative of the sort of meaningless froth and colour that looks set to seal victory for the “No” campaign, which lest we forget, has been orchestrated from go to whoa by the Conservative Party.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

David Cameron hearts archaic voting systems

Over here in the United Kingdom, the creaking FPTP (First-Past-The-Post) system of voting still operates; voters in general elections are forced to nominate only their most-preferred candidate, a solitary smudge in a box. It’s easy to see how such a system can result in fairly undemocratic results in tussles between more than two serious candidates: as the number of serious candidates in a ballot increases, FPTP forces a serious division of the vote, ultimately delivering victory to candidates with potentially only a minority proportion of overall electoral support. It is a system that decisively favours larger, more-established parties at the expense of smaller ones, and it is not surprising in this context that the Liberal Democrats made electoral reform one of the cornerstones of their campaign in the May 2010 UK general election.

The begrudging promise of a referendum on the alternative vote or “AV” system of preferential voting reportedly sealed the Coalition deal for David Cameron’s Conservatives with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats in the election aftermath. The referendum, which is to be held on Thursday 5th May 2011 as a kind of royal wedding after-party for psephologists, will cast the two Coalition partners decisively against each other in what looks set to be an intriguing political tussle. From an Australian perspective it is particularly intriguing, because as the anointed international standard-bearers for preferential voting, Westminster-style, it looks like we will be stuck in the crossfire for the duration of the debate!

The first serious volleys were fired late last week, when Nick Clegg and David Cameron set out their opening arguments for voting for and against AV, respectively. David Cameron made special mention of the Australian example several times in his speech launching the “No” campaign. His approach? Never let a good argument get in the way of a good slur:

When it comes to our democracy, Britain shouldn’t have to settle for anyone’s second choice.

And this argument that no one really wants it, it’s as true abroad as it is at home.

Only three countries use AV for national elections: Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea.

In Australia, six in ten voters want to return to the system we have – first past the post.

This is both sleight of hand and an egregious slight; playing on the relative size and remoteness of all three countries mentioned, and slimily “hiding” Australia in passing between Fiji and PNG. What really are you saying about Fiji and Papua New Guinea, Prime Minister, by being so careful to mention them first, and last? They are the countries you want people to remember and associate with AV, aren’t they? I’d also be interested in hearing the basis for the “six in ten” figure mentioned. Does anybody seriously believe that there is any realistic popular support whatsoever for a regression back to FPTP in Australia?

The British Prime Minister also takes the time to explain why preferential voting is the reason for the relatively high number of safe seats in Australia (?) and furthermore, why it is to blame for “obliterating minor parties” down under. Evidently nobody told him about the rise and rise of the Greens, or the notable success of independents and minor parties in recent years, in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

He goes on to trash Australia’s electoral system, calling out the fact that it took seventeen days for a government to be formed at the last federal poll, and noting that on voting day ”voters are lectured at polling stations by party apparatchiks with ‘How to Vote’ cards.”. I’m not necessarily a fan of “how-to-vote” shenanigans outside polling booths, but it is a nonsense to describe the process as “lecturing”; in practice, it is little more than froth and colour. It is also disingenuous of Cameron to spin the speed of confirming the last federal election result as indicative of what happens in preferential voting systems generally. September 2010 was hardly exemplary of recent federal election results in Australia – practically all of which were decided with brutal speed and on the night (indeed, called by Antony Green a few hours after the close of polls, quite frequently).

I’d like to think that the Prime Minister isn’t going to take this rubbishing of Australia’s electoral system lying down. She might start by making gentle mention of that most thoroughly democratic of British institutions, the House of Lords.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Nick Clegg, progressivism, and New, New Labour

Nick Clegg, latter-day UK Deputy Prime Minister and the parliamentary leader of the Liberal Democrats, is in the thick of some truly interesting times in British politics. Coalition life has been generally smooth for him and his party since the May 6th election, but it is also proving politically disfiguring, particularly if recent polls are to be believed.. He and the Liberal Democrats are at grave risk of being cast betwixt and between the fashionable, small-l liberalism of their philosophical cloth and the considerably less fashionable fiscal brutality being spearheaded by Chancellor George Osborne. In recent months, whatever it is that the Liberal Democrats believe seems to have been subsumed by this war that their senior Coalition partners are waging on the national debt. Are the billions of dollars of mooted public sector cuts really a function of necessity given the fiscal climate, or are they more just an expression of the Conservative Party’s base political wants after a decade in the political wilderness? It would be naive to suggest that there is not a bit of both in play.

On Tuesday last week, Clegg delivered the Hugo Young lecture at Kings Place in London, at the invitation of The Guardian. In the lecture, Clegg grapples with the question of what it means to be “progressive” in today’s political environment. We can hardly be surprised that he has spent some time considering this topic; this is a question that threatens the very identity of the Liberal Democrats as a party. Can the Liberal Democrats really still be thought of as “progressive”, locked as they are in a kind of Faustian pact with the Tories?

It is an important question for Clegg and indeed the broader party and their supporters, and it will only become more important as the electoral cycle plods inexorably towards 2015. Clegg’s intellectual mechanism for dealing with the question and to defend his left flank is to divide “progressives” into two lumpen camps; “old progressives” and “new progressives”. Labour, of course, are cast off as embodying the “old progressive” cause, and the righteous Liberal Democrats hailed as the future of progressive politics in Britain:

The need to make choices is revealing an important divide between old progressives, who emphasise the power and spending of the central state, and new progressives, who focus on the power and freedom of citizens.

There’s some clear sleight of hand and over-simplification being employed here, particularly as Clegg goes on to define exactly what he perceives the differences between old and new progressives to be:

Old progressives are straightforwardly in favour of more state spending and activity.

Old and new progressives also take a different approach to tackling poverty and promoting fairness. Old progressives see a fair society as one in which households with income currently less than 60% of the median were to be, in Labour’s telling verb, “lifted” out of poverty.

For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to mobility is.

New progressives want to reshape the tax base fundamentally, towards greater taxation of unearned wealth and pollution, rather than of people.

In essence, “old progressivism” just happens to be all the stereotypical centre-left viewpoints that one tends to associate with social democratic parties in the 1980’s. which Clegg projects onto modern Labour. “New progressivism” (in case you didn’t know), just happens to be all the middling, individual-centric rhetoric that Clegg no doubt perceives his party as uniformly believing in and Labour as uniformly opposing. “Political pluralism”? Why that’s conveniently a “new progressive” concept, exemplified, of course, by Clegg’s conservative coalition. Distilling this even further, we might well conclude that the Deputy Prime Minister is trying to cast himself as a Blairite, and position his party as a kind of “New, New Labour”, in league with the old enemy.

This theme is reflected by Clegg’s willingness in his speech to agree with Ed Miliband and Labour on values, but not on policy mechanisms for implementation. On the one hand, he expresses his agreement with Miliband’s recent observations that the United Kingdom is a “fundamentally unequal society” and that “for some people, the gap between the dreams that seem to be on offer and their ability to realize them is wider than it’s ever been before.” He goes on to scoff at Miliband’s attachment to the top 50p income tax rate, conveying all the while that he thinks that Labour’s heart is in the right place but its head is trapped in the past. It is a bold, but ultimately defensive stretch to the left, and a futile one while Clegg still has his stronger leg planted in David Cameron’s hack and slash Conservative camp.

Just where do these Liberal Democrats stand? If the Deputy Prime Minister is to be believed, they are sticking to the middle of the road come what may, and stand to be slowly crushed between the hulking semi-trailers of the major parties during the next five years. It is not good enough for Clegg to stand with the Tories whilst proffering the occasional olive branch to the left. The voters that matter to Clegg and his party are going to want to see something in the Lib Dems that distinguishes them from the Tories as this term rolls on; gentlemanly argreements with Ed Miliband on a few philosophical debating points aren’t going to cut it.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

On brotherhood and the Milibands

The psychology of brotherhood can be challenging at times; as someone with four brothers (and one stepbrother), I feel not so much qualified but overqualified to talk about it! Admittedly in my case the relationships are a bit less stultifying than the norm; the five of us have three different sets of parents in all, so the chain has always been fixed with strings and sealing wax. What I presume to be the usual fierce clash of love, pride, play and the joy of commonality is there, but it can be compartmentalised. It doesn’t just come out in a gush when we are all together – in part because we are never all together – and this has probably never been more the case than it is today. The youngest is about to turn 18 and finish school, ending an era, the eldest is in London typing this and watching Antiques Roadshow, and the middle brother has this year moved to Nova Scotia and married his online girlfriend. One could be forgiven for thinking that the “brothers” have fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole.

As at least some will be aware, over here in the United Kingdom we have just seen a fairly magnificent public feud play out between brothers, with David Miliband and Ed Miliband both contesting the leadership of the parliamentary Labour Party. The psychology of the whole thing has been fascinating. David Miliband is four years the elder (incidentally like myself and my full brother), and is closely associated with the “New Labour” years under Tony Blair and indeed Gordon Brown. He raised his profile whilst serving as Foreign Secretary under Brown, and like Blair was in his prime, he is a consummate politician. Setting aside policy for just a moment, there can be little doubt from anyone that the elder Miliband would be a credible mouthpiece for Labour and one that could effectively challenge the credibility of the Cameron/Clegg alliance of convenience.

Interestingly, as revealed at Labour’s annual conference on Saturday 25th September, Labour collectively chose Ed to lead, the younger brother. Unlike in Australia, in the United Kingdom the leadership of the Labour Party is decided by not only parliamentary members but also rank and file members of the party and affiliated union members. Somewhat inconveniently, Ed Miliband charged to the leadership only on the back of preferences (his elder brother scored more votes in the first three of the four preferential run-offs), and indeed apparently on the back of votes from affiliated union members. There is a whiff of illegitimacy about his victory, underscored by the fact that he may have dealt a mortal blow to his talented older brother’s political career.

“Red” Ed Miliband (as the News Limited papers have already labelled him) stands ready to give Labour a more progressive voice on a number of issues – a promising development for a party which has been dragged slowly but steadily towards the Tories’ turf over the course of the last decade. On the other hand, there are still some clear question-marks hovering over his leadership credentials. Ed does not have a particularly big public profile, like his brother. Unlike his brother, he occasionally comes across as a rabbit caught in a game hunter’s headlights during media slots. Miliband the elder has already stated his intention to move to the back bench for the time being, instead of rejoining the Shadow Cabinet, leaving Ed in the spotlight.

How Ed will cope in the leadership role is one thing; how the two brothers cope with these somewhat difficult circumstances in their personal lives is another. I am sure David is thrilled for Ed, but gutted for himself, and Ed vice-versa. These two feelings must be so very hard to reconcile for both of them.

Gordon Brown, too little, too late

Quite an interesting “what-if” story in the Guardian today – what if Gordon Brown had decided to fall on his sword at the start of the election campaign in early April, instead of after he lost the election and the removalist vans were queued up outside Number 10?

As Patrick Wintour reports, it mightn’t have been all that far away from becoming reality:

Gordon Brown drafted a speech on the eve of the general election campaign setting out plans to stand down within a year of the poll, but was persuaded by senior ministers not to go ahead.

At a meeting on the eve of the election, his proposal to announce his plan to stand down was supported by David Muir, his director of political strategy and chief polling adviser. But Ed Balls, Lord Mandelson and Douglas Alexander argued against the idea. One adviser, present at the meeting where Brown’s plan was discussed, told the Guardian: “Gordon was under no illusions about his popularity, or the degree to which he was a barrier to Labour’s re-election.”

I think Balls, Mandelson and Alexander were right – but what would have happened if the Prime Minister had done the sensible thing and decided to make way for David Miliband in April 2009? It is difficult to believe that we would now have a Tory/Lib Dem Coalition Government in power, that is for certain. With a Labour pledge to reform Britain’s electoral system and clean up politics on the table and Miliband at the helm, with a year to build his stature, things could have been so much different.

Now he has a long road ahead.

Red and blue

Over at The Times they have a rather excellent interactive map based on the election results in the UK:

UK Election Map at The Times

I just think its so uncanny how much maps like this can tell you about the political landscape. Most of the tightly-packed seats circling London are Labour seats, apart from most of the ones in the more “posh” areas. Labour also predictably does well around in many of the other big working-class towns and regions – Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Durham, and much of Wales and Scotland.

Meanwhile, the Tories tend to dominate in the slightly larger rural seats and support for the Liberal Democrats tends to follow no immediately discernable pattern.

Of course, it would be remiss of me given my field of work not to  congratulate Danish software developers shiftcontrol on a nice job.

The choice is simple: work, or vote

One of the myriad of interesting stories coming out of the UK election has been a failure of the British Electoral Commission to adequately provide polling day services in some constituencies:

There were angry scenes around the country tonight after hundreds of voters were unable to vote when polling stations closed at 10pm despite queueing for hours, casting a shadow over the results of the election.

Up to 200 would-be voters in Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s constituency of Sheffield Hallam were left disenfranchised and a number made their way to Clegg’s house to protest.

The Electoral Commission has put out a statement in response, admitting a certain amount of culpability for not ensuring that there were enough polling stations in staff in the busiest areas.

But why hold general elections on Thursdays, for goodness sake? Apparently in the UK this is a rather silly tradition that has been upheld since 1931.

Why not hold elections on Saturdays (as in Australia), when the majority of folks aren’t working, and are generally a bit freer to pop into vote at their leisure? I wonder how many people saw the queues lining the street at their local polling booth and decided not to bother, particularly seeing that voting in the UK is not compulsory and there is no penalty for not making any effort to vote?

Will hatred for Labour or hatred for the Tories triumph?

Modern representative democracy really does tend to have a strong “lesser of two evils” theme to it in countries where a small number of major parties dominate. One wonders to what extent the average person casts their vote with the tactical aim of keeping a particular party out of office, as opposed to voting in a strategic sense for a party that they have some belief in. With the UK election now looming, Gary Younge has what might prove to be a telling piece in the Guardian, describing why he’s not that fond of Labour but could never vote for the Tories:

I hate them for a reason. For lots of reasons, actually. For the miners, apartheid, Bobby Sands, Greenham Common, selling council houses, Section 28, lining the pockets of the rich and hammering the poor – to name but a few. I hate them because they hate people I care about. As a young man Cameron looked out on the social carnage of pit closures and mass unemployment, looked at Margaret Thatcher’s government and thought, these are my people. When all the debating is done, that is really all I need to know.

I get the impression that this election may turn out to be rather closer than one would think because of the relative prevalence of this sort of thinking, the unevenness of support for the Liberal Democrats, and the inability of the Conservatives to swing voters their way in all the seats that matter. We’ll know either way in a couple of days.

Of course, with Tony Abbott proving to be a fairly divisive figure locally, there are clear parallels with the Australian situation, and our forthcoming federal election. How many voters, a little disgruntled with Rudd Labor but very unimpressed by some of Abbott’s more extreme and controversial views, will cast their votes for the least objectionable party?

Mating sloths, bovver boys and toffs

It’s a curious fact that the United Kingdom has, only in the last twenty-four hours, fielded its first ever televised election debate. Both locally and in the United States, debates between the key party leaders have been conducted during election campaigns for many years now. Historically, British Prime Ministers seem to have been rather reluctant to cede any of their billing as media “top dog” to their political opponents. The difference this time around is the devastating nature of the challenge facing Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who most people have written off in favour of David Cameron over the last few years. Of course, the other reason (antipodean chortle), is that perhaps the Brits are sometimes just a wee bit degenerate when it comes to political innovation. We have, after all, been directly electing our Senate for over a century now… whereas the House of Lords… anyway, let’s just not mention our shared head of state.

The debate outcome has been both interesting and unexpected – indeed it may serve to re-energise the election campaign for a lot of Britons. The leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, was also invited to participate in the debate, and most commentators seem to believe he stole the show. Clegg’s performance has reignited debate around the possibility of a hung parliament, should the Liberal Democrats perform well enough to capture a decisive number of seats in the May 6 election. Polling results following on from the debate and indeed the subsequent planned debates should be very interesting indeed. One presumes that Conservative and Labour Party boffins (particularly the former) will be just a little bit nervous about what could happen if Clegg manages to ride a wave of debate-driven popularity into the final days of the election campaign.

Even if it achieves nothing else, at least this whole TV debate lark has proven quite the novelty for UK political columnists, with a few notable exceptions. I think Jackie Ashley from the Guardian is being just a tad harsh, but Australian readers might find something a little familiar in this observation:

A tame, silent audience was confronted by three leaders, who rarely made eye contact and never let fly. No real humour, no surprises, nothing spontaneous at all. No doubt some interesting things were said towards the end. Nobody was still awake to hear them.

If this was a natural history programme, it was less carnivores tearing across the plain than hanging around for far too long, waiting for sloths to mate. The television negotiators must have been grinding their teeth with disappointment.

A disturbing use of imagery, yes, but somehow, so very apt.