Friday, May 28, 2010

Electoral and Political Reform - Labour's Move

Labour is on the back foot over the issue of electoral and political reform. This is because in its period of 13 years in Government it only produced a number of limited and sometimes confusing reforms in these areas.

1. On the reform of the Upper Chamber it did little more than transform a mixed hereditary and appointed Peerage into what is now a mainly appointed one.

In order to cap the Coalition's current proposals, Labour now needs to call for the complete abolition of the Peerage, with strict limits being placed on the legislative powers of the Second Chamber. If significant moves could also be made in advancing the powers which back-bench MPs exercise over the Executive, there would then be a case for the abolition of the Second Chamber altogether.

2. It introduced a variety of different voting systems for different tiers of Government, with no convincing explanation as to why this hotchpotch produced a principled system.

Labour could call for all elections, from the European Union to Parish Councils to be operated under the Alternative Vote.

3. Despite introducing a more flexible electoral registration system, Labour failed to stem the collapse in the numbers of voters who are missing from registers. Some 3 million were missing from registers at the recent General Election, which is around twice the number that were missing in 1997. Yet we are moving to a system of individual voter registration. This system has been introduced into Northern Ireland and the electoral registration rate has fallen there from 95% to 86%.

The main groups of people missing from electoral registers are be found amongst the poor, the young, the rootless, ethnic minorities and those avoiding debt collectors. We need a proactive electoral registration system to overcome the problem of these missing millions. As the categories mentioned above are unevenly distributed throughout the nation, this seriously distorts the drawing of constituency electoral boundaries. Correcting the massive shortcomings in electoral registration, needs to precede any major redrawing of constituency boundaries. The sale of electoral registers to commercial interests should also be banned as it acts as a deterrent on registering to vote amongst many disadvantaged people.

4.Despite a slight recovery at the last General Election, there was a worrying overall fall in electoral turnout during Labour's watch.

Efforts by Labour to make politics relevant to tackling the economic, environmental and social needs of the those who are disenchanted, will add significantly to all forms of electoral turnout.

Additionally, it is important that Labour should campaign against the Coalition's proposals to reduce the number of MPs in the Commons - it is the Peerage and possibly the Second Chamber which should go instead. Cutting the numbers of MPs will itself further tip the balance of power in the Commons away from back-bench MPs towards the Front-Benches. For as long as the numbers of MPs who are on the "pay-roll" remain unchanged, it is back-bench seats which will in practice be culled.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Importance Of Next Week

If a week is a long time in politics, then the five years since I retired from the Commons is an eternity. There have been two General Elections since I left. The make-up of the Parliamentary Labour Party is dramatically different from the one I knew. Even those who remain from my time are unlikely to be the people I remember. They have been through the traumas of the expenses scandal, economic collapse and now electoral defeat. It is not easy for me to work out who has changed and who has plodded on in the their old vain.

But I still have a clear view about what the diminishing band of democratic socialists in the Commons should do next week. They should book a Committee Room for a meeting of those who still see themselves as democratic socialists and labourites to hold a desperately important meeting. A meeting of what used to be called the hard and soft left. They need to discuss the future direction of the left and then opt for a single candidate in the coming leadership election. That will then give them less than a fortnight in which to mobilise to get the 33 necessary nominations for their candidate on the basis of what will need to be feasible left principles.

In my final years it might have been someone like Chris Mullin who would have filled the bill. Who it is now I know not. Until the key task I seek is undertaken, I will opt for John McDonnell. I disagree with him on numbers of fundamentals; but I remember him as having decency, honesty, guts and socialist beliefs. And he was there to support me in my own more reformist efforts. But I would prefer a left unity candidate from the avenue I propose, John or whoever fighting on a platform agreed by those able to deliver the nominations. And it is only such a platform that can then help reshape the very nature of the coming leadership debates.

The Short Window Of Opportunity

As the closing date for Labour MPs to nominate candidates for the Labour Leadership Election has now been extended to 9th June, two further measures need to be taken.

First, those Labour MPs who have come out in support of specific candidates should withdraw their endorsements until they have consulted the views within the Movement, especially those opinions of the Constituency Parties who have just worked to return them to the Commons.

Secondly, Constituency Parties should set up open meetings for their membership to discuss (a) what they see as the way forward for the Labour Party and (b) to take a vote on whom they favour to become leader. Those Constituency Parties who have Labour MPs should arrange these meetings so that their MP can be in attendance. In these cases meetings are likely to need to fall between 28th and 30th May or 4th to 6th June. It should not be the intention of meetings to instruct their MP on how to act, but for each MP to absorb the ideas and perferences of the membership whilst fully participating in the discussions. All Constituency Parties (whether or not they have Labour MPs) should be encouraged to send their views on ideas and preferences to the NEC of the Labour Party. The NEC findings should then be forwarded to the Parliamentary Labour Party who should hold a meeting to consider these by 8th June.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Marx And The Milibands

"I believe we need a market economy but not a market society", said David Miliband when launching his Labour Leadership bid in South Shields. But what if market economies produce market societies? We would then need to tackle both at the same time.

He should turn to pages 49 and 50 of his late father's book "Marxism and Politics". It was a book which Ralph Miliband (photo) dedicated to David and Ed, although they were only aged 10 and 6 at the time.

Ralph Miliband quoted Marx and Engels from "The German Ideology" -

"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it." This analysis can equally be applied to the shaping of what David calls our "market society".

Ralph then comments thus - "As will be argued presently, these formulations now need to be amended in certain respects. But there is at least one respect in which the text remains remarkably fresh, and points to one of the dominant features of life in advanced capitalist societies, namely the fact that the largest part of what is produced in the cultural domain in these societies is produced by capitalism; and is also therefore quite naturally intended to help, one way and another, in the defence of capitalism".

Ralph Miliband wrote his final book in 1994 just before his death. It was published with a Foreword by David, Ed and their mother and is entitled "Socialism For A Sceptical Age" . They conclude "Nothing can make up for the loss we feel, but it is some comfort that the ideas developed by Ralph Miliband in this book and elsewhere will live on". The first two chapters of the book are entitled "The Case Against Capitalism" and "Socialist Aspirations". He deals not in dead dogmas but in living truths.

Hopefully David and Ed's competition for the Labour Leadership will stimulate an interest in the works of their father. His classic "Parliamentary Socialism" published in 1961 still provides us with key insights into the way the Labour Party operates. The experiences of the last half-century fit well into the intellectual framework he provided. David and Ed would do well to turn to the family bookshelves and engage with their father's ideas.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Size Of The Constitutional Fix

A Claud Monet Painting of Parliament, early 20th Century.
There are massive problems about the "Political Reforms" which are listed in the Coalition Agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

(1) The proposals will turn political debate in parliament, the media and hence the nation towards questions of electoral and constitutional change and away from economic and social issues. Yet we are in a serious situation where we all need to take an informed interest in policies which will effect the basic conditions of the people. These electoral tricks need to be nipped in the bud now or otherwise diverted so that we can concentrate on serious matters.

(2) If we have fixed-term parliaments, what is the democratic argument for setting these for as much as five years? Ignoring the vote for the Commons which is now due to meet, there have been 20 general elections since a universal franchise was first operated in 1929. The 1935 parliament had its life extended until 1945 when the war arrived. If we exclude this special period from our calculations, it means there have been 19 parliaments over a 71 year period, with an average life of 3 years 9 months. Only 7 of these parliaments have lasted for 5 years or near to that period. What was so important about them that they should now be the norm? The Chartists argued for annual parliament's annually elected. Although that might lead to media overkill today, there is a strong democratic case for not curtailing general elections and the people's votes for excessively long periods. Fixed parliaments of 3 or 4 years should be enough.

(3) It is proposed that a Referendum Bill on electoral reform will be introduced to give us the option of opting for the Alternative Vote AND for the creation of fewer and more equally sized constituencies. But a reduction of the number of MPs will further place parliamentary power into the hands of the Front Benches, because it will work out overall to be back-bench MPs that will be culled. This is a category from which numbers of "rebels" emerge. Parliament needs more of these, not less.

(4) Before we move to the provision for more equally sized constituencies, we need to overcome the serious shortcomings of the current electoral registration system. This system was first dented under the operation of the Poll Tax - which was a meaningful popular name for this deterrent to electoral registration. Yet things have continued to get worse since those days. There were 3 million people missing from the electoral registers on 6 May. That amounts to 4,500 per constituency. But the missing voters are by no means evenly distributed throughout society. They are concentrated amongst the young, the rootless, the poor and ethnic minorities. It is only when we act to register these missing voters, that we will be a position to re-draw equitable constituency boundaries.

(5) The proposal to allow the dissolution of parliament on the artificial vote of 55% of MPs is being recognised as a constitutional disgrace. If established it would be a recipe for massive political turmoil once we were faced with a dissolution vote which was "lost" when those in favour of it fell in the band between 50% plus one and 55% minus one.

It beggars belief that the Liberal Democrats have agreed to these proposals. It remains to be seen whether they did this out of stupidity or from manipulative malice. It is certainly time for them to drop the term "Democratic" from their title.

The proposals are, of course, within the fix-it tradition of Lady Thatcher and Lady Porter. If there are any Conservatives who are left in the Butler and Supermac tradition, it is to be hoped that they will help to put a stop to these disgraceful proposals.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Don't Put The Cart Before The Horse

Next week the National Executive Committee should delay the election for the Leadership of the Labour Party and in its place instigate wide ranging discussions throughout the Party about how Labour should operate in the future and what its major policy objectives should be. It is only following such discussions by the membership of the Labour Party, its affiliated organisations, the Co-operative Party and the Parliamentary Labour Party that the leadership contest should be set in motion. The discussions do not need to lead to a firm policy programme, but we need to find out what views on Labour's future direction exist within the Labour Movement so we can then have a meaningful leadership contest in which the candidates and those voting understand each other.

Hat Tip - Next Left

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Future For Socialists

The polls have just closed in the General Election. Perhaps Labour has done better than anticipated. But whatever the result, democratic socialism is in crisis.

There are, of course, many bits and pieces Labour can point to with satisfaction; such as the minimum wage, the school building programme and free bus passes for the over 60s. But under the guise of New Labour, it has alienated much of its traditional support. In striking out for what it called a "dynamic" economy it failed to protect the industrial working class whose employment and communal life had been based around the collapsing manufacturing industry. Instead Finance Capital was backed as the source of growth. But the more this seemed to work in the short term, the bigger was to be the financial collapse.

Democratic Socialism and Labourism were jettisoned within the Labour Party. The Parliamentary Party was filled up with place-persons who had turned to politics as a career move. Those Labour MPs who reflected traditional values were either bought off or isolated mainly within the Socialist Campaign Group.

Rank and file activists found that the internal democratic life of the Labour Party (which had never been perfect) was now anaesthetised. In despair many resigned or failed to renew their membership. Some gave up political aspirations, whilst others buried their energies in minority group politics or in interest group activities. Some of the later being areas with their own forms of impact.

It might be the case that once the election results are announced, New Labour will be on the back foot. Those democratic socialists who remain in the Labour Party might for a while find more avenues in which they can press their case.

But the task ahead is a huge one. Short term coups will not provide long term advances. Democratic Socialism needs to reconstruct its base, both within the Labour Party and in society generally. This will require a concerted effort over years and not "just the big set piece battles but the drip, drip, drip of arguments and constant assertions" (Prof Massey).

We need a big protracted turn, but this is in need of many small beginnings. We need to discuss what these entail. Here are my three starting points - (1) discussion, (2) democratisation and (3) direct activity.

(1) Discussion. Democratic Socialists need to meet together to debate ideas within loose organisational formats, which themselves eschew sectarianism. Within the Labour Party we need to press for the importance of such forms of political discourse; which we should extend to embrace ex-members, non-members and members of outside bodies. Political Education (but not political indoctrination) should be a constant activity.

(2) Democratisation. We need to revitalise the democratic life of the bodies we engage in within the wider Labour Movement. The way to tackle their democratic deficits is continually to behave within the internal life of an organisation as if it was already democratic. Bureaucratic Centralism can be placed on the back foot even when it has fixed the rules in its favour. Injustices will be seen to be injustices whatever the rule book has been fixed to say. Let us all put down meaningful resolutions for debate or submit candidates to challenge those who believe that they rule by divine right. The purpose should not be to win or to fix victories, but to encourage the life blood of the dialectics of debate.

(3) Direct Activity. Debate should, however, lead on to action. We need to press the institutions of the wider Labour Movement into joining with deprived communities to struggle for their immediate needs. But we need to do this for the well being of people who are in need, not for some direct pay off in membership or votes. It is both the right thing to do and part of the long road to rebuilding what should be our natural base.

The above three avenues end up re-enforcing each other. See here also.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Peter Heathfield

Peter in Sheffield July 1984 with Arthur Scargill

Peter Heathfield died yesterday. Above all he was a kind, open and pleasant person who was always a pleasure to meet. He was also a committed socialist who cared deeply for the well-being of NUM members and of the communities they lived in.

He had studied Industrial Relations, Politics and Economics on a three year day release course for Derbyshire Miners which was run by the Sheffield University Extramural Department. I arrived as a tutor on these courses some years later. But I got to know Peter well in his period as Secretary of the Derbyshire NUM from 1973 to 1984. This arose mainly because he had a deep interest in the nature of our classes and the progress of its members. Along with our children, my wife Ann and I regularly attended the Derbyshire Miners' Weekend School which was held annually at Skegness at Easter. The miner's always asked tough questions and made blunt contributions. Peter was very much at home with the dialectics of debate.

Peter was invariably present at Labour Movement events in North Derbyshire at this time, being a regular and carefully listened to speaker at each Chesterfield May Day Rally. He would have enjoyed the Rally which took place only the day before his death. Amongst the events was a film on the impact of the 84-85 Miners' Strike in North Derbyshire. I only wish that he had been well enough to have participate by being in front of the camera.

Both Peter and his first wife Betty are best known for their roles in the strike. Peter as the General Secretary of the NUM and Betty for the leading work she undertook in the Women's Movement who played a crucial role in supporting the miners. But there was much more to them than the matters which hit the headlines.

Prior to the strike one of Betty's commitments had been with the Woodcraft Folk. My wife Ann attended the groups activities in Chesterfield for a year, before moving on to help in setting up a local group where we live.

Peter was invariably present with the NUM delegation at the numerious Labour Party Conferences which Ann and I attended. He was a regular at Irish Evenings which were run under a flag of convenience by the Workers' Party. He was the only person they ever asked to speak, everyone one else sang songs or played tin whistles.

When he divorced and remarried and moved to North Anston in Yorkshire I visited him in the home he had set up with Sue and then addressed his local Labour Party.

I last saw him just over a year ago at a packed meeting at the NUM headquarters at Barnsley. Arthur Scargill was the main speaker and we were there for the 25th Anniversary of the strike. Peter was in the audience and his health was clearly fading. But it was good to see him again. When it was pointed out to a packed crowd that he was sitting in the audience, his reception matched that of Arthur's.

I first met Peter in the former Derbyshire Miners' Offices in Chesterfield. I last came across him at what had previously been the Yorkshire Miners' Offices at Barnsley. These are places that as a tutor on Miners' Course over a period of two decades, helped to shape much of my life. The debt which I and many others owe to Peter is something we should never forget. To pay that debt we should act on the principles he propounded. It is what he would have wanted.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Inspiration From Gordon Brown

Inspiration from Gordon Brown - see this video.

A May Day Manifesto

Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party launches their Manifesto.

I gave links here to the Manifestos of the three main political parties. I felt that as we appear to be nearing a significant changing point in British politics, I should then read them. They all proved to be disappointments.

The Conservatives aim to jettison their Governmental responsibilities and to press charities, self-help groups and private enterprise to accept these. The Lib Dems only come to life when they are propounding electoral reforms which they hope will give them extra parliamentary seats. Whilst Labour wishes to plod on with a variety of mainly directionless New Labour schemes.

So I have finally turned to the Green Party Manifesto. I don't agree with it all, but it does seek to tackle what it correctly sees as the three defining crises of our time - "a debt-fuelled economy teetering on the edge of collapse and haemorrhaging jobs, massive inequalities of income and assets, and catastrophic climate change".

Because of its residual trade union and working class links, Labour will continue to have my support. But when the inquest takes place after the close of the polls at 10pm on Thursday, the Green Party's perspective is something that activists would be well advised to give close thought to when deciding what Labour should do next.

There is another Manifesto which is worthy of our concern, from the Co-operative Party - also see. In shaping its own document, Labour made a few concessions to Co-operative principles. The Co-operative Manifesto provides important openings which Labour should develop.