Confessions of a Political Animal

May 24, 2010

A Job Description

This is a joint post by Political Animal and Lost Lucan

The brave new world has dawned, and in the hard cold morning following the battle we can survey the wreckage: the promise of retrenchment with a nasty twist. Cuts, and a re-pointing of the welfare state to the benefit of the better off, with a hike in VAT rather than employer’s National Insurance being used to fill the Treasury’s coffers. From amidst the dust and rubble we rise, clutching the few belongings remaining to us, to start again down the road to government.

And so who will lead us down the twisting path ahead? In some respects it matters not: the hats already thrown into the ring, and those promised to follow adorn the heads of a talented bunch, all of whom could make a decent stab at the task. We are fortunate in having an acting leader who is more than capable of setting the tone for the months and years ahead. No, what matters more is what policies we choose to pursue, around what principles we rally.

The government we face will be nasty, brutish and, sadly, not quite so short. In these times, it is imperative that we offer our new members and the electorate a distinct and decent platform, that we provide a strong voice for employees, the less well off and everyone else who does not fit into the Cameron mould and who would otherwise comprise the great ignored.  To that end, we believe that a successful Labour leader must pursue a progressive set of policies which promote not just equality of opportunity but equality of outcome, with an acceptance that the structural causes of poverty outweigh any impacts of so-called agency in preventing social mobility.

The Whigs had four policy areas to all but sacrifice upon the altar of ambition. We also propose four areas which, in our view, a successful candidate for the Labour leadership should  pursue. They are by no means the only important ones, but they strike at our core values, values which should not be offered up for any price.

Education: No Selection Under a Labour Government

David Blunkett famously said Labour had kissed school selection goodbye, using the phrase ‘read my lips’ to push home the point. This sentiment is perfectly justifiable;  one of the more brutal by-products of the quasi-market is the rationality of cream skimming, with schools eager to maximise their league table positions, and consequently secure their consumer base and with it their access to per capita funding. Theoretically, this is fine; the better schools should continue to expand whilst less successful ones close their doors, but in reality this does not happen. Schools hit capacity, cannot take any more, and those pupils unable to enter the better providers are consigned to those which are under-performing.

Labour did not introduce the quasi-market to education (thank you Kenneth Baker) and has done much to curb its biggest excesses, with the introduction of fair funding to provide additional resources to schools taking more disadvantaged intakes and modifications to the law to promote a social dimension to school admissions policies, prioritising the choices made on behalf of children in care for example. However, selection is still firmly on the agenda, in fact it has increased since 1997. Only two grammar schools (both in Bristol) have taken on a comprehensive mantel, leaving 164 still operating in England, whilst specialist schools have been given the right to select up to 10% of their intake based on ‘aptitude’ in a particular subject area. The ability to perform well on a musical instrument, produce a favourable reference from a sporting coach or pass the 11+ exam is predicated on the economic and social capital of the child’s parents. Coaching can be purchased like any other commodity, and selection on the basis of its results secures the places at the highest performing and most oversubscribed schools for the most affluent to the detriment of the community and to social mobility. Similarly, the intakes of faith schools must also be addressed; both in terms of community cohesion and social mobility, having homogenous and privileged intakes is problematic.

The attributes a successful candidate must possess are therefore:

Essential

  • A commitment to preventing selection in schools, with a gradual conversion of all schools which currently use selective criteria based on ability or aptitude such as grammar and specialist schools into comprehensive institutions.
  • Religious schools to have balanced intakes in terms of the religious adherence of its pupils, with a proportion of places reserved for children of different faiths to that of the school, including atheists.
  • The allocation of pupils to schools to be undertaken by local authorities on the basis of oversubscription criteria which promote a socially and academically balanced intake to all schools, such as controlled choice, fair banding or lottery systems.
  • An absolute opposition to any further expansion to the Academies programme, and a commitment to bring all academies for which sponsors have not paid their deposit in full into the comprehensive sector.
  • A commitment that any ‘free schools’ established in accordance with the Conservative Party manifesto not take any funding away from the state maintained sector.
  • A strong commitment to promoting the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs into mainstream schools insofar as is possible, recognising that this will not be appropriate for every child but that it will bring strong benefits to both children with and without SEN where it can be achieved. Additional resources should be made available to further this objective.

Desirable

  • A commitment to bringing all private schools, which select according to economic resources and/or academic ability, into the state maintained sector.
  • A commitment to working with religious groups to identify ‘objective’ means by which prospective pupils can prove their faith, which do not rely on references from religious leaders or personal statements written by parents.
  • A commitment to a national curriculum which includes both ‘traditional’ and ‘vocational’ subjects, guaranteeing that all pupils will have access to tuition in the same subjects as those at other schools regardless of school resources or teacher assessments (thank you Kenneth Baker).

Employment: Rebuilding Labour’s core purpose

It is unfortunate, yet telling, that the end of Labour’s time in office has coincided with one of the most bitter and seemingly intractable labour disputes of the past twenty years. The dispute at British Airways, which has seen the adoption of management practices that might have seemed excessive even in the 1980s, demonstrates clearly how much work there still is to do to re-level the playing fields between management and the managed. There have been major advances to Labour’s credit in this field: the right to trade union recognition, a minimum wage, the opting in to Social Chapter rights. But too many of these steps forward, radical in their way, have been watered down or cancelled out by an over-zealous attachment to the freedom of markets and an over-attachment to myths about a union-created nightmare that never really happened.

A new Labour government should shed its hang-ups in regards to advocating the importance of organised labour. This does not mean that trade unions as they currently stand are perfect, but their return to relevance can go hand-in-hand with the return to relevance of the party they founded. There is no reason why the UK cannot aspire to a 70% union membership rate (it was 28.4% at the end of December 2006 according to the ONS), such as is achieved in Norway: Labour should champion reformed trade unions as social partners, and should never be shy of saying that its core purpose as a party is to protect and enhance the working conditions and pay of workers in every sector.

Essential

  • A firm and non-negotiable commitment to full employment, to be achieved through investment in state infrastructure. This is particularly important during times of economic decline such as those we currently face.
  • A commitment to a root-and-branch review of the UK’s employment relation laws, with a view to preventing a reoccurrence of the attacks on union rights that have occurred during the British Airways dispute.
  • A commitment to working towards the up rating of the minimum wage to a living wage, with the public sector leading the way.
  • A commitment to ending the existence of a two-tier workforce, in which those on temporary, agency or part time contracts enjoy fewer rights than permanent workers.
  • Legal requirements for transparent pay audits in all but the smallest of companies to tackle gender, ‘race’ and disability pay gaps.
  • A commitment to a policy of industrial activism that will diversify and re-focus the British economy, particularly towards high-skill, low-carbon technology.
  • If a multiplier to determine a maximum wage is introduced, this must take account of the salaries of all workers for the organisation, including temporary contract and agency workers such as cleaning staff. It is not enough to include just the relatively advantaged full-time permanent members of staff when determining the maximum wage.
  • A commitment to investment in labour activation policies such as the New Deals, but an equally strong commitment to the principle of decommodification, with the promise that no time limit will be imposed on benefit receipt as it is in the US.

Desirable

  • A commitment to reclaiming the principle of solidarity, by reviewing legislation on issues such as sympathy strike action.
  • A commitment to fiscal or other incentives for private sector organisations that adopt co-operative, employee-owned or similar forms of operation.
  • Committing to working with political and labour movement partners across Europe to bring about greater EU-level action on workers’ rights and to produce fundamental changes to Community law that move away from the presumption of unregulated markets.
  • Where pay gaps on the basis of ‘race’, gender or ethnicity are identified, it should not be the task of the individual to seek justice; the state should pursue justice on behalf of all employees in the organisation and become the principle prosecuting party in the case.

Social Care – The New Moral Crusade

No-one in the Labour Party needs to be told that it is the party of the NHS. For the incoming post-war Labour government, demographic and economic change, combined with mass political demand made the creation of a radical system of health provision possible and necessary. There is a good chance that the next incoming Labour government will face a similar series of challenges, but in relation to the issue of adult, and most particularly elder social care. Like nearly every other difficult issue, the coalition government has farmed social care out to a commission, and no wonder, given that the Tory rhetoric on ‘death taxes’ during the election effectively closed off the most sensible and effective forms of funding. However, if flagship Tory borough Barnet provides the present government with inspiration, we will see the gulf between those who can and cannot afford to support themselves in old age widen. Labour’s alternative, the worthy manifesto commitment to a National Care Service, lacked detail. The new leader will need to remedy this, and open up social care funding as a flank on which to attack the government. How political parties respond to the growing challenge of social care will be the true test of commitment to social justice over the next decade.

Essential

  • Support for the concept of a National Care Service, including retention of the pledge to a specific number of years of free residential care.
  • Commitment to all forms of basic care, including at a residential level, being free at the point of delivery.
  • Absolute opposition to any form of up-front payment care insurance system, as proposed by the Conservative manifesto.
  • A strong commitment to resisting any introduction of quasi-market principles (choice and competition) to social care.
  • A commitment to safeguard the training bursaries which enable the supply and recruitment of highly-skilled social workers.
  • A commitment to increase recruitment to the sector to prevent individual social workers from being allocated more cases than recommended by professional guidelines.

Desirable

  • Commitment to limiting and if possible avoiding any form of means-testing under a National Care Service.
  • Financing of the National Care Service via a progressive inheritance levy.

Housing – Back to the Future

In the final year or so in office, the Labour government began a trajectory on housing that it should have adopted ten years earlier. As it became evident that the private market and a variety of social housing providers were not between them going to solve the growing housing crisis, Labour started to relax its seeming ideological opposition to rebuilding the nation’s stock of council housing, decimated by the right-to-buy policies of the previous administration. Not only did this mean a decade was effectively wasted in terms of increasing housing output, it also has the political consequence of meaning that the reforms to the financing of local authority housing are not sufficiently bedded in to make them safe from reversal by the new administration.

Many of the contenders for the Labour crown have seemed very keen to talk about immigration as an issue from the doorstep, yet few have made the key link: that the majority of popular concern about immigration do not arise from bigotry, but rather from the search for scapegoats on issues of employment and housing. There can be no denying the scale of the housing crisis: very little of this arises from inward migration, far more from demographic and economic change. Nevertheless, a key route to tackling concerns over immigration would include investment in a sizeable programme of social and affordable housing construction. Beyond this, the links between housing conditions and health levels and educational attainment are clear; there is no need for Labour to ‘build the Tories out of London’ (or anywhere else), but it should commit to building Britain out of housing poverty.

Essential

  • A commitment to the ‘fourth option’ which permits councils to retain council housing stock as part of investment programmes.
  • Reforms to local government financing to permit the majority of housing rental revenue to be retained by councils for the purposes of building or refurbishing council housing stock.
  • A rhetorical shift away from the promotion of home ownership as the only acceptable aspiration in terms of property; practically, this should include a commitment to a direct replacement of any council home sold through the right to buy, and no significant extension of the right to buy to other social housing sectors.
  • Commitment to retaining high targets for affordable and social housing in new developments.
  • Creating an investment fund similar to ‘Building Schools for the Future’ to support councils which wish to build new units to replace their depleted stock.

Desirable

  • Establishing a new and more ambitious decent homes standard for existing council homes, funded through a land value tax.
  • Legislation that would require the Secretary of State to explicitly opt-out of compulsorily purchasing brown-field sites zoned for housing or partial housing use which have been left idle for a given period of time. Also legislation requiring local authorities to take control of vacant units, which have been deemed to be ‘not in use’.
  • A re-examination of the role of housing associations as providers of social housing, with a discussion as to whether the state could be a more effective provider.
  • A re-examination of the possibility which is currently in place for developers to opt-out of building social housing units in new developments by contributing to the enrichment of the community. The prevention of further ghettoisation in the housing market is an important goal which should not be compromised.
  • A commitment to increasing taxes on home ownership, considering the possibility of better targeting stamp duty on high-cost units or introducing a tax on the saved income of those who own their own homes and therefore do not spend money on rent.
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4 Comments »

  1. Could I say that I’m Dave Cole and I endorse most of this message, and certainly its intent?

    I would, though, add four points.

    Firstly, it would be useful to have similar sets of principles and policies for every area of government activity.

    Secondly, I think transport should be up there in terms of importance. As I am increasingly aware, moving around this country is remarkably expensive and difficult. Especially for people who do not have access to motor cars, transport poverty can be a real issue. Integration of transport and a re-consideration of whether the money set aside for high-speed rail might not be better spent on improving regional and city transport infrastructure is appropriate, IMHO. As franchises expire, we should consider taking them into some form of state ownership and control (bearing in mind that de-privatisation is not the same as nationalisation). I think this would be a popular policy, especially given that we are giving prodigious amounts of money to the traincos at the same time as they are making profit.

    Thirdly, we need to explain Afghanistan and Iraq. My suspicion is that I will disagree with the authors, but there needs to be a recognition – not internecine bloodletting – that there were mistakes made.

    Fourthly, regionalisation. It will come as no surprise to anyone that I would favour giving the Senedd similar powers to Holyrood; I would like to see London gain greater autonomy as well. Without rehearsing all the arguments, I do believe that the UK is overly centralised, politically and economically, leading to poor policy decisions and disengagement from the political system. I would favour English regions – South West (or Wessex +), South East, East Anglia, West Mids, East Mids (or Mercia), Yorks & the Humber, North East and North West. If this were to happen, though, it would have to be on the basis of meaningful devolution of powers.

    Comment by Dave Cole — May 27, 2010 @ 9:29 am | Reply

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Dave. I think, sadly, that time and more importantly a complete lack of expertise (as oppose to an almost complete lack of expertise) probably prevents us from writing a full manifesto. And if we did, it’d be time to start collecting those 33 nominations, wouldn’t it?

      Of course, Political Animal can pontificate for Britain on transport issues, and I thought readers of this blog would be pretty sick of it. Strongly agree with what you’ve written and that transport poverty is in many ways a key driver of broader poverty – and given the record of Boris Johnson, it seems unlikely the new government will understand that. The coalition government’s transport policy is astoundingly thin and this is somewhere Labour can really develop a narrative, not only because it is a key issue, but because of the real contradictions between the two coalition partners in their gut feelings on transport. The fact that Hammond is peddling the ridiculous nonsense about ‘Labour’s war on the motorist’ shows just what a load of back-to-the-1950s petrolheads Norman Baker has got himself shacked up with. For Labour to move on on transport policy, it needs to accept it was wrong on Heathrow and start pushing a sustainable aviation policy, and yes, we need to seriously consider whether high speed rail is the optimum use of limited resources right now. To your list I’d add a continued push towards road pricing or congestion charging, a roll-out of low emission zones to urban areas across the country, and the re-regulation of urban bus networks.

      On Afghanistan and Iraq there needs to be a position, and a coherent one, from the party leadership. I don’t think there is anything wrong with what Balls and Miliband Jnr have said – the debate on what mistakes were made and what the future of liberal interventionism is needs to inform the Labour leadership debate, because until we arrive at a position with which the party can be settled, it will continue to operate with slightly too high a level of mutual suspicion and unease.

      On regionalisation, I’m with you. I think support for further devolution in Scotland and Wales is pretty much a given from all candidates (I could be wrong) and may well have been settled by the time Labour has a chance to return to power. I’d also like to see further devolution to London – mainline rail, greater education powers, more fiscal autonomy for example. I’m a secret regionalist as well (which no doubt makes me an evil EU plant in the eyes of many) but I think the North East referendum fiasco has pretty much programmed the party against this agenda, so I wouldn’t hold out any hopes of any candidates espousing it. However, I would like to see a stronger defence of Labour’s regional legacy against the attacks by the Coalition, in particular the valuable roles that RDAs can, and often do, play – and this must not be limited to the northern regions, RDAs in the south providing significant assistance to pockets of depravation in generally prosperous areas.

      Comment by Political Animal — May 27, 2010 @ 10:46 pm | Reply

  2. do we need to add an extra layer of institutions to devolve power in England? Why not empower county councils?

    Comment by Oliver — May 29, 2010 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

    • The problem surely, is that firstly the old counties are too small to permit genuine regional strategic planning, and whilst fitting with historic patterns of economic activity, have long since been superceded. To take an example from your neck of the woods, any attempt to engage in strategic planning for the towns of north Worcestershire (Bromsgrove, Droitwich, etc.) without reference to Birmingham is simply ludicrous. This isn’t to say that the EU-level regions don’t have some slightly silly boundrary effects (I’m a great believer in extending Greater London to include Watford, Slough, Thurrock and Dartford), but they tend to do a better job of encompasing contemporary hierachies of settlements and economic activity.

      Comment by Political Animal — May 30, 2010 @ 1:04 pm | Reply


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