Friday, June 05, 2009 

Brown's bastards and the death of a once proud party.

To call Friday the 5th of June 2009 a day of contrasts would be something of an understatement. On the positive side for Labour and Gordon Brown, what was almost certainly a Blairite coup appears to have been averted, and with it, the Blairites themselves have almost to an individual been purged, or rather, for the most part purged themselves. The only Blairite true believers who remain in the cabinet are probably Tessa Jowell, who ought to be history, Andy Burnham and Peter Mandelson, but who now seems to have bizarrely became as pro-Brown as he was pro-Blair. Thanks to James Purnell, Brown has also apparently been foiled from carrying out the wholesale changes he wanted: Alistair Darling stays chancellor and Ed Balls, his supposed replacement, remains at education, both of which are non-changes for the better. Likewise, that both John Denham and Alan Johnson have been promoted, two of the most capable and pleasant ministers within the government is also a wise move. Johnson has the potential to be a vast improvement over the last three home secretaries (what happened to Shaun Woodward, being so talked up earlier in the week?), and you can also detect perhaps an ulterior motive from Brown, to be giving probably the most poisoned chalice within government to the man so heavily tipped to be his successor.

Those are however the only positives to be taken, as the local election results have been completely cataclysmic for Labour, something which the media, fascinated and intrigued by the machinations at Westminster has failed to really delve into. Labour lost control of its last four remaining county councils, and some of the wipeouts have been breathtaking, losing 30 of 32 seats in Staffordshire and 17 of 21 seats in Lincolnshire. Earlier in the week the talk was that if Derbyshire was lost then Brown should have been finished; it's gone, and he's for the moment clinging on. The results leave Labour with only around 130 councillors across such councils, and the party itself reduced to a rump, moribund with the activists in despair. We shouldn't write the party off, and the Conservatives have recovered from similar disasters, but it does make you wonder whether this isn't the slow, agonising death, not yet ofLabour itself, but New Labour certainly.

The ostensible Labour share of the vote is 23%, 1% down on its previous poorest showing, but that covers up just how terrible the kicking has been. Almost certainly the European election results will be even worse; it surely isn't unthinkable now that Labour's share of the vote could be well below 20%, and that is especially chilling when you consider how many former Labour supporters will have crossed the box for the BNP. Hopefully most will have plumped instead for UKIP or the Greens, but Nick Griffin gaining the respectability of a Europe seat is an ill wind about politics in general. That the Conservative vote has dipped to 38% from its previous high suggests that all are suffering to some extent, but Labour the most. The one consolation that remains is that on a similar share of the vote at a general election, unlikely as most who voted for the minor parties or stayed at home will return to the big three and turn out, the Tories will only have a majority of around 4 seats. This is still not yet a Conservative walkover, with the voters attacking Labour and politics as a whole rather than coalescing around David Cameron, although that may well be the next step.

Like earlier in the week, we should again be celebrating that another Labour careerist Blairite, as even John Prescott described James Purnell, walked the plank in such a sickeningly self-righteous manner. In his resignation letter, Purnell hilariously wrote that "[I]t calls for a government that measures itself on how it treats the poorest in society." This is the man that has just presided over changes to the benefit system that penalise, punish, harass and prosecute those very people. Even more staggering has been Caroline Flint's mood swing from backing Brown to the hilt only last night to deciding today that he had been using her and the other women in the cabinet as nothing more than "window-dressing". Mercilessly satirised by the Heresiarch, this seems to have far more to do with the fact that Brown didn't consider her for promotion, despite offering that she could attend cabinet, hence the throwing of the toys out of the pram in a political hissy fit that will have doubtless delighted the "women against Gordon" she was alleged to have been associated with. That she recently posed for the Observer in a range of dresses, some of which have predictably found their way onto the front pages of tomorrow's newspapers (not to mention this blog) seems to have done nothing to deter her from using such a potentially hypocritical turn of phrase.

One thing should be made clear. Despite the fact this is almost definitely a coup attempt led by Blairites (and every single resignation with the exception of Margaret Beckett has been by Blairites), there is no real quarrel here about policies. While there were policy differences in the past between the Blairites and Brownites, however slight, there is now nothing whatsoever to separate them. This is purely about Brown, and how they don't think they can win the election with him in charge, not that Alan Johnson or David Miliband will lead the party back into the promised lead of constant reforming revolution; Johnson after all has just been successful as health secretary mainly because he has allowed the NHS to settle after constant restructuring. This is why if Brown is to be overthrown, and that still in my opinion, despite everything, should not happen, it should be by the backbenchers, not the "bastards who have never had a job in their lives". There are still differences in opinion back there, and it is only they who can claim to have the interests of the party at heart. The anger at the grassroots at the manoveuring of Blears and Purnell is palpable, as the Grauniad's letters page shows, making a bad situation for those already stricken by the expenses scandal even worse.

Even then though, there is no indication whatsoever that they would be listened to. Brown certainly doesn't trust them, or rate them, as there will now be 7 unelected ministers in the cabinet. How can Brown or anyone else claim to be interested in genuine reform when he has to turn to the Lords repeatedly to shore himself up? While he may not have appointed peers in the same way that Blair did, this apparent contempt both for backbenchers and for the idea that our reprensentatives should be elected rather than cronies is another sign of his weakness. For now he might have saved himself, or rather the Blairites might have saved him through their own pitiful conspiring, but Labour is set to sink whoever is at the helm. 15 years of New Labour has destroyed it, and who knows how long it will be before even the slightest recovery will begin.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008 

This is Flint, Caroline.

Politicians and statesmen often get attributed statements that they never actually made. It's unlikely that Queen Victoria said "We are not amused." Lenin didn't directly use the term "useful idiot". Callaghan never said "Crisis? What crisis?" Norman Tebbit never actually said for the unemployed to get on their bikes and look for work, but along with the Spitting Image puppet of him and cartoon depiction as an undead, skeletal figure (he has never fully recovered from being injured in the IRA Brighton bomb of 1984) attempting to sell the poll tax, it entered the lexicon. Caroline Flint has come up with nothing quite as catchy, but the message is almost certainly the same, and the Guardian's headline will do the job for both her and her party. Labour: if you want a council house, find a job.

As with most headlines, it doesn't really cover the full effect of what she said or the position she's apparently taken. The gist of it is, either you look for work and sign a contract to say that you will, or you won't get a council house. Flint repeated much the same message at a speech to the Fabian society today. (The Fabian society? Have supposedly social democratic organisations in this country really sunk so low?) This approach was apparently sparked by the revelation to Flint that half of those living in social housing are without paid work, which is twice the national average. When it comes to those under 25, it rises to three quarters.

On the face of it, there is an apparent problem that does in some way require fixing. The figures quoted though may not tell the full story. Are we talking about those who are the actual tenants, paying rent to the council, or just those who live in the house as well as the tenants? If so, it might go some way towards explaining why the numbers are larger. I don't have any figures to hand, but one would estimate that more people tend to live in an individual council home than they do in "private" accommodation. Indeed, we're informed that more and more households now consist of just the one person, younger singletons and the older retired generation alike. That may go some way to explaining the disparity.

Otherwise, it seems a typical New Labour solution right down to a t. As with those accused of anti-social behaviour, schoolchildren and parents with schools, and who knows, maybe even all of us once the government gets round to deciding exactly what our "rights and responsibilities" are, those who are on the waiting list for a council house (and it's usually a long wait) will be required to sign a contract stating that if they aren't in work they'll be expected to seek it, as well as undergoing a "skills audit", which probably sounds more threatening that in would be in reality. The government appears to be obsessed with either belittling or infantilising everyone; call it the sweets equation, or the Santa threat. The parent tells the child to behave or they won't get any sweets, or alternatively, that if they aren't a good little boy or girl, that Santa won't come. The difference is that they tend to be empty threats, especially the latter. With New Labour, you can bet that it won't be anything of the sort.

Flint has been accused of stigmatising council estates and those who live in them, and it's difficult to disagree with that conclusion. Certainly, the quotes she's given in the Guardian show both a lack of understanding of council housing works and how the system has been evolving, or rather been privatising as of late:

"It would be a big change of culture from the time when the council handed someone the keys and forgot about them for 30 years."

If there was one thing that councils don't tend to do, it's forget about those living in their housing. If they did, there wouldn't be buses going round where I live with the pre-festive message (I might paraphrase slightly) of "Looking forward to Christmas/buying presents? Pay your rent first. We do evict!" Nor have they forgotten about them when it comes to proposals of whether to selling the housing to a private landlord, or to stay under local government control, as Defend Council Housing have been campaigning for.

Then there's this:

"If you are in a family, an estate or a neighbourhood where nobody works that impacts on your own aspiration. It is a form of peer pressure."

What utter rubbish. I'm sure some are defeatist about it, but for every person that is there's another 3 or 4 that want to get out of the cycle of not working. The key word there is of course "aspiration"; both Labour and the Tories deeply care about the aspirations of the upwardly-mobile lower and middle-classes, who demand less tax and policies tailored directly to them as they make up the all important swing voters, but for those on the council estates who make up the bulk of Labour's vote, they can be played off, stigmatised and chastised for their fecklessness and welfare dependency, which is naturally all their own fault. It certainly also helps that the Mail and Scum lap up such rhetoric.

Less prominent but no less questionable was Flint's proposal for jobcentres to moved onto the estates themselves. Reasonable enough, and I'm sure they'll fit in just fine alongside the Ladbrokes, Coral, BetFred and others that have prospered under New Labour's relaxation of the gambling laws and which now seem to make up the majority of the shops on such estates. More typical was that the private sector will of course be given more of a role, as after all, you can't trust the public sector to be tough enough, especially when you get investment bankers called Freud to do the appropriate reviews.

It has surely come to something though when it's the Conservatives that appear more moderate on such a matter, although Grant Shapps didn't exactly shoot it down, just instead that it was political kite-flying and that it was unworkable. That isn't the point though; for all Flint's pleading that this wouldn't affect the fact that council housing is a safety net, it suggests where government thinking is going, and that's away from further building of social housing, despite how badly it's needed. Quite simply, it costs too much while those who live in it aren't giving enough back. You'd expect that sort of argument to be made by the Tories, but not from Labour, even New Labour. Flint and the prime minister's spokesman have since backtracked slightly, saying that the intention was starting a debate, even a provocative debate in Flint's case, but that seems to only suggest that they weren't expecting such a fierce backlash, or at least the intensity of it. Whether it really has changed minds or not is something entirely different.

Coming after last weekend though, when Progress said that Labour could no longer rely on portraying the Conservatives as the "nasty party", it suggests something else. That Labour seems to be more than happy to try and earn that sobriquet for itself.

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