Ozzy's Corner

A view from the Libertarian Left. With no spin

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A Shuffle to the Right

The Cabinet reshuffle has set the tone for the second half of this Parliament, and gives a guide to the shape of the next General Election.

By leaving George Osborne in place, the Prime Minister has set out his stall to stick to an economic approach based on cuts and Austerity. This plan is now set in stone, and the Coalition is firmly chained to it.

The Green credentials of this Government, already looking very shabby, have been firmly cast away. Justine Greening, firmly opposed to a third Heathrow runway, has been removed as Transport Secretary. The Government is already talking about reviewing Airline capacity in the UK, a real insight into their current thinking. The Coalition agreement does include a no third runway clause, but increasingly that whole document is looking as durable as one of Gerald Ratner’s earrings. In addition, the Conservative back-bench rebellion over wind farms have borne fruit. A wind farm sceptic is now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

David Cameron is shaping his Cabinet to supply the red meat that Tory back-benchers and local activists are demanding. I believe we will see further benefit cuts, more anti-ECHR rhetoric, additional curbs to union rights and range of other policies to keep the Tory faithful cheering. He has realised he cannot win the election on the economy, so a line up of traditional dragons the Tories can slay is being prepared. David know full well he can cut back the public sector, attack benefit claimants and when the left stands up to this, he has created a common enemy. With the media largely behind him providing PR support, it could be an effective strategy.

The Liberal Democrats are in an appalling position. They know they have the power to pull down the Coalition. They also know they are politically dead whenever the General Election happens. David Cameron can push and push, and if they complain too much they will be left with a single-shot revolver on their desk. If they don’t like it, they know what the alternative is. Every time Nick Clegg’s MPs have caved in – the health bill for instance – they become weaker and weaker. They are now pitifully weak.

This shift has serious consequences for Labour. Labour has in effect been shadowing much of the Conservative’s policies. When the Coalition promises Austerity, Labour hasn’t fully rejected it. Labour simply says it would cut a bit less sharply and more fairly. When major cuts to disability benefits are on the cards, Labour says that they do need reform, but they wouldn’t do it quite like that. The timidity in offering a principled alternative is something that Ed Miliband may regret in the future. He has been good tactically, but on the strategic aspects of creating a credible alternative Government in time for the 2015 General Election, he has done much less well. How will Labour handle a media-led campaign against the ECHR, and a new populist attack on benefits? The record to date suggests very passively.

To conclude, this reshuffle is a serious game changer. Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats that haven’t yet turned into invertebrates need to work hard together to challenge what David Cameron wants to offer the country. If they don’t, Britain may be sleep walking into a nightmare.


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The Lessons for Labour

We are approaching half time in this Parliamentary term.

Team Cameron are looking worried. Labour, having appointed a new young Leader, are 2 – 0 up at half time. Ed Miliband had a slow start, but has grown in confidence. David Cameron found hostile economic winds blowing in his face from the Euro crisis, and own goals by his key player, his Chancellor , have left his side up against it.

While 2015 is not in the bag for Labour, they are in a good position, with a 10 % lead solidifying in the polls. The Conservatives need about a 10% swing from Labour to have the chance of winning an outright majority. Given the sluggish economy, real cuts to people’s living standards and the inevitable tension between the Coalition partners as they begin to fight for a distinct pre-election identity, this looks an uphill task.

The first challenge is how to get the economy working again. Any fair-minded person must accept the global economy as a whole, especially the Euro-zone crisis, is an ill wind beyond the control of the UK Government. The Euro-zone crisis looks to be nowhere near a conclusion. The reality is that any Government in power now has a poor hand to play with. While Labour might claim they would not have made the same mistakes as this Government, we will never know. It is likely they would have had great difficulties too. While the global economy struggles, so will the UK economy.

Secondly, the Coalition always looked an unlikely partnership. In many areas of policy – Europe, education, health and taxation to name a few – the heart of the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats beat to a different rhythm. The Coalition Agreement was not a well thought out document. It was a quickly cobbled together set of policies to straddle the major differences between the parties. It has been clear that the poor implementation of the policies, the U-turns and the major revisions to key legislation are all symptomatic to the back-of-the-fag-packet agreement.

This has led to Liberal Democrat MPs voting through policies based on an ideology most of them have spent a lifetime in politics fighting. Conservative MPs also feel fatally compromised on totemic issue like Europe. Both Coalition parties have lost traditional support because of this. They will need to break free and set out their own stalls before the next General Election to try to get that support back. When this occurs the Coalition will become paralysed and totally dysfunctional. David Cameron’s MPs demonstrated over the reform of the House of Lords that they are willing to to break rank. Rebellion is running wild.

Given this then, what can Ed Miliband learn? How can he make Labour’s lead more than a protest vote that will drain away?

The key is the economy. Mistakes have been made by the Coalition, but saying in essence that we wouldn’t start from here is inadequate. Recent polling evidence from YouGov demonstrates that when asked, less that 20% of respondents think George Osborne is doing a good job, and over 50% think he is doing a bad job. Yet despite this, there is very little improvement in Labour’s economic credibility. The public basically don’t trust the Coalition or Labour to make it better.

Labour really needs a good idea of how it would make a difference and engage the public directly. Do they want to cut the deficit? If so, how quickly or slowly? Which taxes would they raise? Which areas of spending would they cut? If further investment in infrastructure was to occur, which projects would they be, how much would it cost and where would the money come from? Until these answers are forthcoming, then their economic competency ratings will not improve.

Another area is it’s response to the NHS reforms made by the Coalition and other policy areas. Rather than policies pulled out the hat eight weeks before the next election, it really needs well thought out policies prepared and a strategy to deliver them. These policies need to live, and updated as time elapses, so that whenever the election is called, they are ‘shovel ready’. The public need to really start to understand what a Labour Government in 2015 might do if the lead they enjoy is to really stick.

The next election could easily result in another Coalition. It was reported in June this year that Senior Liberal Democrats were meeting Senior Labour figures. Labour needs to ensure that it keeps it’s options open, despite an obvious severe and understandable dislike of the Coalition at present. The Liberal Democrats post 2015 will be different, and would be likely partners should Ed not secure a majority. Areas of common ground between Labour and the Liberals Democrats would considerable.

Ed can sit his team down at half time and be satisfied. However, the real work in providing an alternative Government in 2015 has barely begun.

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Immigration and Englishness

Since Jon Cruddas was appointed Labour’s Policy Chief, Ed Miliband has taken an unusual tack in recent weeks.

In early June he made a speech about Englishness.  It was interesting in the sense that while the Government have been committing suicidal U-Turns and leaving huge open goals, he took Labour down a difficult and bewildering set of arguments. His speech hinted at the impact Jon Cruddas was having:

Even if Labour has been too quiet about England in recent years, it has not always been so. As my colleagues Jon Cruddas and John Denham have done so much to remind us, there are great Labour traditions that can help us think about England.

Jon was part of Blue Labour. This movement strongly argued that a Labour Government should be more conservative on issues such as immigration and crime, to chime with working class Labour voters.

Ed was recently interviewed by The Guardian, and it was published yesterday. It stated:

Speaking to the Guardian, Miliband admitted the Labour government allowed too many immigrants from eastern Europe into the country by lifting controls on EU accession countries such as Poland too quickly, but denied his party lied about immigration, as claimed by his former adviser Lord Glasman.

John Denham, former Labour Home Office Secretary, was interviewed on Today this morning:

There was a “debate still to be had” about overall numbers, he said, but added that the UK had benefited “economically, culturally and socially” from migration. A Labour administration would focus on three things to help ease pressure on public services and wages including better enforcement of the minimum wage, cracking down on recruitment agencies who only supplied workers from particular countries and looking at areas and types of jobs where there were large numbers of foreign workers. “We need to make sure there is a level playing field … What [Ed Miliband] is saying is that there has to be a fair chance for everybody,” he said

This is dangerous ground for Labour., much like that of English identity. Debates on both subjects create more heat than light. Ed’s comments when read in detail are genuinely nuanced and not easily summed up in a headline. They are easily misrepresented, a gift to opponents too.

However, there is a genuine concern about this strategy. In clearly difficult economic times, appealing to national identity with hints of protectionism are not welcome. As the great depression demonstrated, a global crisis is exacerbation by such things. We need a pan-national approach to issues such as climate change and third world poverty too.

Another hazard is confusing the electorate. It could be argued that the free-movement of labour putting a downward pressure on wages is precisely what global capitalists want to happen, in race to the bottom. Therefore, the risk remains that people could easily misconstrue Ed’s remarks as blaming East European immigrants for the falling of wages for the working classes. This is just a symptom of global capitalism. Similarly, the pressure on housing and public services isn’t caused by immigrants – it’s a symptom of not building enough houses or capacity into our schools and hospitals.

Lastly, and most importantly, these arguments take the cause of the left firmly into the centre-ground of politics. Labour will end up trading immigration numbers with the Conservatives and distract them from making the battle over the unequal education system Michael Gove is creating, the privatisation of the NHS and the redistribution from the poor to the rich driven by George Osborne.

This is the challenge for the left.