Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Lessons for Labour from Joseph Chamberlain

“Hitherto, the well-to-do have governed this country for their own interest; and I will do them this credit—they have achieved their object. Now I trust the time is approaching for those who work and have not. My aim in life is to make life pleasanter for this great majority”

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Joseph Chamberlain, a towering figure in the history of Birmingham politics.

Chamberlain, who was Mayor between 1873 and 1876 before serving Birmingham as an MP for 38 years, is synonymous with radical programmes of localism which transformed both the city and its public services and amenities.

140 years on from the era which shaped the face and heart of Birmingham, as a Labour Party member it is hard not to feel a synergy of philosophy with Chamberlain, despite him being a Liberal (fortunately of a different breed to those currently in government).

We have not the slightest intention of making profit...We shall get our profit indirectly in the comfort of the town and in the health of the inhabitants

Chamberlain gave the above statement to a House of Commons Committee when justifying the Council’s decision to bring Birmingham’s waterworks under municipal control, an act which began the transformation of a city in which 50% of the population still relied upon sewage-polluted well water.

This followed the council’s similar action to purchase Birmingham’s two leading gas suppliers, after their destructive actions led to constant disruption and inadequate service (energy companies obviously haven’t changed that much). The new scheme went on to achieve a considerable profit in its first year of operation (as opposed to the 100% increase in public funding which has occurred since the railways were privatised in 1993).

In our current economic and political climate, in which the Tories have successfully stretched truths around the necessity of austerity and Labour’s role in the global financial crisis of 2008, I’m not suggesting that repeating this rhetoric word-for word would boost Miliband’s perceived  credibility. But in the week in which he promised that the next Labour government would devolve £30 billion to local authorities, it serves as an important reminder of the ability of councils and other local bodies to offer a credible alternative to wholescale privatisation.

It also represents an ethic which the next Labour government must restore in the way our NHS is governed. Private firms now run 70% of NHS contracts, budget cuts mean that children are now missing out on life-changing services such as speech and language therapy, and whistleblowers at University College Hospital in London are claiming that private patients are being given priority over the elderly and emergency cases. Without intervention, you feel we begin to descend a slippery slope to a destination which is the inverse of Chamberlain’s ethos.

In short, Labour must follow in Chamberlain’s footsteps in ensuring that we use the power of communities and municipalities to defend a way of life that is greater than the bottom line. When Chamberlain spoke about the great inequality in society, he foresaw it as:

 “a problem which some men would put aside by reference to the eternal laws of supply and demand, to the necessity of freedom of contract, and to the sanctity of every private right of property”.

Our mission must be to defend another part of his vision of society, an enduring shared objective which remains timeless in the fabric of our party:

 “Our object is the elevation of the poor, of the masses of the people—a levelling up of them by which we shall do something to remove the excessive inequality in social life”

Monday, 17 March 2014

Labour, not the Tories, are the party of clarity and principle on Europe

With his speech last week, Ed Miliband began to even out what for far too long has been a lop-sided debate on Europe, and in my opinion demonstrated a sight more leadership and insight than David Cameron in taking a credible and principled position on the subject.

I would class myself as a Euro-phile within limits. I think the EU can feel bloated and bureaucratic. I’ve never really understood how the Euro was supposed to have a hope of being successful within the EU’s current format, and I’ve no appetite for moves towards a more formal European federalism.

I do, however, have a Socialist inclination towards co-operation and partnership, and share Ed Miliband’s belief that Britain has a much stronger voice in the world as a key and active player in a strong European community of nations, than as the eccentric detached island closing its curtains on the huge sphere of influence and opportunities developing on its doorstep.

I also think the economic case for the EU is pretty compelling, which raises the question of why an existential crisis to our membership is needed before it is robustly made; 50% of all of our overseas investment comes from within the EU, contributing 3.5 million jobs to our economy. We also benefit from significant reductions in the price of consumer goods due to the lack of border tariffs across member states. There are amazing opportunities for our young people, such as all-expenses-paid apprenticeships in countries such as Germany which on average pay twice as much as apprenticeships in this country.  

As is their custom, the Tory leadership have sought to spin an extremely stretched truth when it comes to Europe. Their customary house cocktail of arrogance, ignorance and manipulation has led to them seeking to portray the divide on Europe as being a straight choice between a clear, principle and considered Conservative offer of a referendum to a public utterly desperate to detach us from the EU, with a muddled, confused and spineless denial by a Labour Party seeking to preserve the status quo in contempt of the general public.

This could not be further from the truth, and represents another misconception which we cannot allow to settle in the minds of the electorate. This is a fight that David Cameron had absolutely no intention of ever picking. At the 2006 Conservative Party Conference, he famously gave a succinct diagnosis of why the Tories spent so long destined for opposition – “while parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life – we were banging on about Europe”. Not bad advice Dave.

His decision to hap-hazardly take on the EU, and from there promise a referendum, was not a bold and principled move by the Conservative leadership, but a panicked political response to the threat posed by Nigel Farage and his own back-benchers. In a hall-mark of Cameron’s premiership, demonstrated on issues ranging from energy tariffs to payday loans, Syria to Cornish Pasties, when faced with pressure the Prime Minister blinked.

On the other hand, in a hallmark of Ed Miliband’s tenure as Leader of the Opposition, he demonstrated the same calmness and strength of principle that has typified his response to the major issues of this Parliament, from phone-hacking to trade union reform. It’s a level-headed, credible and mature approach to reform which will carry much more weight on the negotiating table with EU leaders compared to Cameron’s theatrics and grandstanding.

No matter how the Tories try to spin his position as one which takes the country into a muddled state of the unknown, Miliband has given us a much clearer and certain vision for our country to take to the doorstep than the Conservatives have. We will be the party fully committed to focusing on saving the NHS, getting our young people into work, solving the cost of living crisis, growing the economy, and looking to use and enhance the EU as an asset in these fights. It is the Conservatives who are looking to take us into the unknown by proposing 24 months of uncertainty and navel-gazing following 2015, continuing to talk down the EU and weakening their own negotiating hand for reform, and staking the multi-billion pound benefits it brings on a narrow political interest.

What’s even more dangerous for Cameron, is that this euro-sceptic market which he appeals to is showing signs of fading. I’d still expect UKIP to do well under the showpiece spotlight of European elections, but a Reuters poll last week showed that the potential “in” camp for any referendum had overtaken support in comparison to the “out” group, with the former recording a swing of 25 point swing on the latter since 2012. Therefore the second part of the Tory narrative on the EU, the idea of Labour defying and denying an entire nation baying for European blood, is also exaggerated to say the least.

Miliband has made a big stride in defending our future in the EU. Over the next couple of months, the man who is probably equally as important in making this argument stick is Nick Clegg as he takes on Nigel Farage head-to-head. I’d expect Clegg to do well; despite his faults I think he’s an extremely capable debater and a decent leader, and Farage has it all to lose. It’s ironic that a policy that could be so influential on our general election prospects is now partially dependent on the person who ensured that this dreadful government came to power.