“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

24 September 2014

Of drift and doubt: on Ed Miliband’s conference speech

Over the last few years of Ed Miliband’s leadership I have become used to being rather impressed with his annual conference speech and then finding myself gradually losing faith as the months have drifted by with little or no follow-up: indeed with little of interest emanating from Labour.

His latest speech yesterday – the last at conference before the 2015 General Election – felt like that whole year’s cycle compressed into an hour. Early promise – with a few interesting and engaging ideas – was followed by a whole load of drift interspersed with a kind of paint-by-numbers approach to pleasing the activists, notably by mentioning the NHS every few minutes.

Ed Miliband making his 2014 Conference speech
As the speech drifted, so I drifted and started thinking about other stuff, like: What’s for dinner? Maybe my toenails need cutting? Is anyone on Twitter being more interesting about the speech than the speech itself? (Answer: ‘Yes’). It wasn’t surprising to find out later that Miliband himself had forgotten whole chunks of what he was meant to say in the course of speaking – on the economy and immigration, perhaps the two most important issues of the coming campaign.

Nevertheless, some of the ideas and policies sounded pretty good. I particularly liked this section towards the beginning:

I’m not talking about a different policy or a different programme. I’m talking about something much bigger. I’m talking about a different idea, a different ethic for the way our country succeeds.

“You see, for all the sound and fury in England, Scotland, Wales, across the United Kingdom, what people are actually saying to us is this country doesn’t care about me. Our politics doesn’t listen. Our economy doesn’t work and they’re not wrong, they’re right and this Labour Party is going to put it right.”

This is the first time I’ve heard Miliband use the word ‘ethic’, and I think he’s exactly right to use it – for real transformation in society means a transformation of how we all behave – and that means attention to ethics. He followed it up with some powerful passages about how “a small elite” in our society basks in prosperity while many of us have effectively been told, “you’re on your own”: ordinary working people, young people without privileges, small businesses, the vulnerable and also in politics. “The deck is stacked and the game is rigged in favour of those who have all the power.”

This was good stuff, but questions and doubts were already starting to bubble up from my battered brain, and they came out properly when Miliband kept repeating how this all came together under the word...’together’. He said: “Together says that we can’t have some people playing under different rules, everybody’s got to play under the same rules.”

I couldn’t agree more, but this is not what Labour does.

As I have been writing here ever since I started writing here, Labour as an institution has fixed itself on a path whereby everybody definitely doesn’t play under the same rules. We grant special favours to women, ethnic minorities and to a lesser extent gay people and those who work in manual occupations – the latter an attempt to gather in ‘the working class’ to be part of our systems of favouritism.

This way of managing who goes where features not just in our internal party processes, but in our past and future programmes for government: if you come from a favoured group you get special favours under Labour. This is the opposite of everybody playing under the same rules, and it is also a negation of ethics which can have dreadful consequences, as with local Labour establishments turning a blind eye to industrial-scale child sexual exploitation by Asian men in Rotherham and Rochdale and other places.

Miliband said that the Tories “rig the system for a powerful few”, but we rig the system too – not just structurally but culturally – and to pretend we don’t is hypocritical.

I find it difficult to get angry or resentful at Ed Miliband though. He seems like a decent bloke, and I have no reason to doubt that he meant what he said here. I just wonder if he is totally in control of things. He seems to have no great allies in the party and therefore relies on strictly conditional support from Labour’s most powerful interest groups: notably the unions, women’s lobby, ethnic minority (BME/BAME) lobby and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) lobby.

This means transactional politics: dishing out favours in return for support. One of the moments of his speech that most sticks in my head is when he announced the former Eastenders actor and MEP Michael Cashman as “our envoy on LGBT rights all round the world”. This is a gesture of the base, for the base and by the base; I don’t see how Cashman can achieve anything in such a role, and I imagine most folks watching at home don’t even know what LGBT means.

I liked Miliband’s stating a commitment to the environment and global efforts to combat climate change, though this did raise more questions than answers, like: how do you reconcile economic growth and plans to build millions more new homes and increasing airport capacity with reducing carbon emissions and environmental blight? I’m afraid that is a circle that cannot be squared, but it’s another thing from which we turn away out of political convenience.

There was more that I liked in the speech: some good attention to the NHS and the plan for a mansion tax (though Andrew Neil on the BBC sent Labour spokespeople sprawling one after the other in their attempts to explain how this would work).

But as Miliband went on, his speech regressed. It became more and more a play to the base of activists rather than to the people out in the country, but even in doing that it drifted terribly. Many voices from in and around Labour and outside have been withering about it, which is a little unfair – but not that much.

The most cutting thing I have read about Miliband is an article from the Times columnist Jenni Russell (a former friend of his, and a member of the sensible but interesting left), published on 3rd July this year. It offered a pointed vignette of a party in the City of London to which Miliband turned up when most guests had left, got collared by a couple of drunks and had one aide who deserted him and another, “a youngster”, who was left flapping around not knowing what to do because she didn’t know anyone there.

This is the basics of politics, and it’s startling how after four years as leader, Miliband is nowhere near having mastered it.

Russell also pointed to how Miliband and his office operate: 

Nobody outside the leader’s office has a good word to say about it. It is secretive and unresponsive, internally riven, bad at building alliances either inside or outside the party, and obsessed with hoarding its own power rather than building Labour’s influence.” She added: “One senior Labour insider told me how depressed he is by what seems to be an arrogant indifference from both office and leader to other people or to challenging ideas”.

Now, say what you like about New Labour, but this is quite a contrast to the way its inner circle operated. The late Philip Gould for example emphasised how there were plenty of differing, strong voices in the New Labour hierarchy:

 Successful campaigns are built...on the synthesis of contrasting ideas and contrasting policies. One of [Tony] Blair’s great strengths as leader is that he understands this, and is able to make it work. He wants the best and he wants ideas and strategies to be tested and debated. He is only confident in an idea or a person if it has come through the fire. This is as true for himself as for others; he distrusts people who agree with him, he wants to be taken on.”

If the policies that Miliband and other Shadow Cabinet members outlined at Conference have not been put through the fire (and there are plenty of signs this is indeed the case) then things do not augur well for Labour in the coming campaign and in government if we manage to squeeze back there.

All of this feeds back into nagging doubts of people who want to support Labour – that we are not really serious and do not have enough confidence in ourselves: that we do not want to win enough to deserve winning.

With the Tories and Liberal Democrats in a similarly poor state, it looks like being a thoroughly depressing election campaign – and that is from someone who detests them to begin with.

For more on similar topics, see The Labour Party and other party politics page.

21 September 2014

The English problem

Around 45% of people voting in Scotland’s independence referendum voted for a separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom, and therefore a severing of the Scottish from the British.

As media interviews with Scots during the campaign seemed to show, this desire for severing and separation came largely from a resentment of, dislike and contempt for ‘the English’, who have been perceived to be doing all sorts of nasty things to the Scots from their remote base in London or specifically Westminster.

This is quite an interesting phenomenon on a number of levels, not least for how it shows how similar feelings north and south of the border can be funnelled in different directions by the action of opinion – otherwise known as politics. The Scottish nationalists have shown how effective they are at this, though alas not effective enough to win the referendum.

This distaste for ‘Westminster elites’ as spat out by angry Scots is actually largely shared, though not in such organised, directed fashion, in England and Wales and – I presume – Northern Ireland. We have a lot more in common than the nationalists would like to admit, but down here in England we differ in not having found much of an organised voice for it. UKIP is certainly making a play to be that voice, but at present it shows itself mostly as a protest party, with little chance of articulating a positive vision of England or Britain beyond a narrow, right-wing version focused more on what we are not rather than what we are or what we can be.

On a personal level, I have always considered myself British, but this referendum has made me reconsider and think about Englishness a lot more - no bad thing.

Englishness is a problem though, no doubt about it.

For a start, there aren’t many positive associations with England and Englishness out there. While Scots and Welsh have stirring national anthems and attractive national folk traditions (like the male voice choirs of Wales and the pipes and drums of Scotland), England retains the same anthem as the United Kingdom (the plodding ‘God Save the Queen’) and what folk traditions remain are mostly either specific to regions or have been subsumed into wider British traditions. 

The iconic Union Jack
Probably the most common demonstration of definably English identity – as with many other countries - comes with sport, and in particular football. But, while British sports teams, with their diverse associations, and the attractive Union Jack flag, offer plenty of space and scope for pride, this is generally not so with English teams (the cricket, with its charming, open-hearted traditions, is a welcome exception).

Especially, I personally remain wary about the association of England and Englishness with the sort of boorish, drunken and borderline violent fans that still follow the England football team. I would love to go abroad and watch my team play, but I would never do it at present. I know I would feel ashamed of myself and my country that these fans are the ones who are visibly representing England, and that I am going along with them. Seeing them falling over each other on TV is bad enough without having to spend time with them. Things may have improved, but the old racist and far right associations of England football fans are also clearly still there.

Without strong, attractive alternatives, these symbols and signifiers of Englishness extend to the English flag, which in any case is not a great flag – such a contrast to the iconic Union Jack. Those who join in with and associate themselves with the drunken boorishness of the football fans are clearly more attracted to the English flag. 
The charmless Flag of St George

But I am not one of them. I feel more like one of the Scots or Welsh or Spanish and indeed the ethnic minority Britons who look down on these people.

This is where Englishness is at its most problematic, for rather than being a simple representation of where you come from, it has different connotations that feel stronger. It has disturbed me to hear disparaging remarks made about ‘the English’ by Scots, (other?) foreigners and ethnic minorities who live in England – not least because the definition often has an ethnic edge to it. Also, there is sometimes a nasty or contemptuous aspect to this which is generally tolerated and even shared by middle class white people who might be considered English themselves.

But, in truth, I can understand these sentiments and partly share them. What is more, so does the wider political and cultural left, which is one reason why Labour has been losing support from the old white working class in England.

England and the English are not fashionable. We are also not a confident, united bunch. We are uncomfortable with politics and are miles away from any sense of shared citizenship and a shared destiny.

This may all sound rather gloomy, and to a great extent it is.

But there is opportunity here – in the normally meaningless political jargon, to “build a country”. England has been largely neglected over the years, and now seems like a good time to stop neglecting it. It is surely time to stop drifting apart from each other and start to come together.

A few ideas to start with:

1) A new English flag, replacing the Flag of St George with something more colourful and interesting that somehow acknowledges different regions of England and the different backgrounds of people who should consider themselves English (me included).

2) A new English national anthem. William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ is normally suggested as a good one, but there are plenty of alternatives, not least from the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose compositions have a peculiarly English quality and indeed are partly built out of old English folk songs.  

3) More effort from all of us to talk about England and Englishness in a positive fashion, and associate it with good things, good spirits, inclusivity and generosity.

4) The most difficult part: to develop an English or British politics that means something and is patriotic, but that avoids the worse sides of nationalism. I have written a lot here before about the need to curb immigration from a leftist point of view, one reason for this being that it would help existing immigrants to integrate better without the disintegrating pressure that significant further incomings bring. England and Britain needs to settle down and start to like itself again, and that means starting to know itself better. You can't do that when everything is in flux.

10 September 2014

A few short thoughts on Scotland and the United Kingdom

Scotland is a great nation. It already is and always will be, within the union or out of it. 

But the United Kingdom is a great entity of its own: an accident of history that gives space for different nations and different peoples to express themselves within a bigger whole: a union of nations and peoples. That is something special and almost unique within the world. 

But it will be damaged, perhaps irrevocably, if Scotland departs.

To me, the Scots Independence debate seems to have shown a yearning not so much for separation, but rather for a state and a country that means something - for a better democracy. 

I think we can (and definitely should) all share that aspiration, but the idea that Scotland by cutting loose will be free from the denationalising forces of global wealth and power that bear down on us and our governments is fanciful – if anything it will be more vulnerable to them, as will the rest of us. There will be positive aspects in coming to terms with the reduced status that separation will bring, but they are nothing that could not be achieved within the union. 

I think the rest of us in England, Wales and Northern Ireland should wish the Scots well though, whatever their choice.

5 September 2014

Notes and Fragments, Part II

This is the second set of notes and fragments I have collated in the hope that there may be some value in my random scribblings on scraps of paper, Post-It notes and paper pads. The first set of these notes, principally on the environment and politics, has been notable only for the lack of page views it has attracted – a measly 27 at the time of writing. I think there’s some value both in them and in these, but I guess you can’t argue with the readers...

The left’s rationalism

The left’s rationalism excludes or delegitimizes feeling by re-categorising it along the same lines as knowing, thereby judging feelings on the same terms as knowledge – as right and wrong. By doing this, it enables you, as a person, to be wrong in your whole being – in the way you feel and experience the world. There is no escape. [N.B. Of course this isn't a lefty preserve. It is shared across the liberal spectrum by what we might call 'neo-liberals', who treat human beings rather absurdly as rational animals who are only obstructed from being rational by unnatural forces in government]

Party politics

Politics largely appears as a specialism just like other professions, with a cadre of specialised practitioners with their own language and frames of reference (rather than as a forum for a democratic community to make decisions for itself).


The fantastic interconnectedness of our world is mostly financial, not relational. This shadows GDP, since GDP numbers show people spending money, through the economy, rather than dealing with situations informally – for example neighbours helping one another (which damages the economy by stopping spending).


If patriarchy means there is sexism, and it is quite widespread, that would not be desperately controversial. The trouble is the term is used for rather more than this. It is used as a defining characteristic of our society, more significant even than capitalism – and sometimes as an attribute of capitalism. From some voices patriarchy evokes a conspiracy of men against women; but if there is a conspiracy, then someone clearly forgot to tell me. If we are talking about something unconscious that exists but that us mere mortals are unaware of, then it certainly remains to be proven, using rather more than the logic of ‘here’s an example of sexism, so everything and everyone is sexist, including all women who don’t agree with me’.


Oppression is an action, not a bunch of statistics.


One thing they don't tell you about freedom is its bloody hard work, and its only reward is itself.

A simple ethic, with consequences

We should be defining and if necessary judging people by their actions, not by group membership. This is also a way to encourage good behaviour. If you know you can get away with not doing the right (or loyal) thing because of your group membership, you are more likely not to do it. Likewise if you think you can’t win whether or not you do the right (or loyal) thing, the incentive is there not to do it as well. This is corrosive for morale both in organisations and for individual people.

‘We’ and ‘Us’

Is there a ‘we’ any more for ‘us’? Are ‘we’ allowed to exist anymore, except as a characterless blob that is to blame for anything that we don’t want to blame anyone specific for?

Three stages of values in politics

Values have to be timeless in order to be values, otherwise they are more of the nature of policies, and are contingent on circumstances. In politics, we might see three stages in which to make sense of values.

1)      Statement of purpose. For example: ‘Labour wants to help make the world a better place for everyone.’
2)      Values. What we mean by ‘good’, and therefore ‘better’.
3)      Policies. Practical, realistic, realisable ways of making things better, demonstrating the values in the world.

3 September 2014

Some thoughts on the environment and politics, and other things

I am vain enough to think that my random thoughts are sometimes worth writing down. As a result, at any one time my world is normally drowning in pieces of paper, post-its and pads of scribbled notes on various topics.

Many of these notes are on the environment, something I think about a lot but haven’t written many articles about because I feel I don’t feel I’ve found the right language to talk about it without merely replicating the moaning and whingeing characteristic of most writings on it. Perhaps that is because this moaning and whingeing is the most appropriate way; nevertheless I’ve been seeking, perhaps naively, to look beyond this – for a better politics of the environment.

Here’s a few of those thoughts anyway - on the environment and other things from rationality to music in the Labour Party.

The environment: an afterthought to politics

Even though our environment – the world around us – is crucial to our health and wellbeing – it is normally an afterthought to our politics. Taking it seriously would impinge on people’s jobs and our prevailing economic narrative of more and more growth which necessarily means intruding more into the environment through more production, more consumption and more ‘development’. What is undeveloped becomes developed. Some academics, journalists and activists make the point for doing something variously about air quality, climate change, habitat loss and species extinction with it, but there is no one there to reply, for it is a whole economic system that is responsible. That system, its interconnections and institutions are so powerful that there seems little prospect of any serious change happening, and our party politics remains stuck in narrow, fearful confines.

The Greens – seeking sanctuary in narrow activism

If you care about nature and the environment, you can join any number of charities and NGOs, and give your few quid a week to support their projects and causes, but in politics – the place where real change can happen – it is much more problematic. The Green Party should offer you a home, but instead you see an incoherent high spending party taking on whatever left-wing cause is passing at the moment and thereby losing its focus. The Greens seek sanctuary in that hard core of highly-motivated but narrow-minded left-wing activists and therefore sacrifice all hope of building something much wider and more powerful.

Faith in God, or climate change

As Kant said, it is as wrong to deny God’s existence as to affirm it. The same goes for the idea of man-made global warming now. Climate change deniers ridicule advocates for inconsistencies and difficulties, but they are just as guilty, and probably much more so, for being just as adamant in the opposite direction – seemingly based on faith and desire rather than evidence.

Globalisation and respecting our elders

For the ideology of globalisation, our elderly people are outdated, regressive in their attitudes, past any usefulness they may have had, a drain on our economic and social advancement, superfluous to the ‘new world of change’.

Maintaining respect and relationships across the generations is surely one marker of any civilised society, but it’s something we generally fail at.

The American Indians and us

As a people, the American Indians have been wrenched from their roots, stripped of their traditions and the meaning of their traditions, and forced to submit to their own existential and material defeat in its entirety. Over here in Britain, economic and social liberalism has largely stripped us of our roots and traditions too, though not nearly to the same extent as over there. Nevertheless, the symptoms of existential defeat – alcoholism, drug abuse, unemployment, welfare dependency, lack of care for the environment – are the same over here just as they are over there.


To be rational basically means to be right. Yet how is it possible to be completely right, about how things are, as a whole; and how they should be, as a whole; and how we can get from one to the other? It seems like a desperately ambitious project and except in a denuded, superficial way, is surely not possible; a fantasy. The whole is much too mysterious and unpredictable, so being safely rational must entail rather being critical and picking apart the big claims of others to big knowledge and great wisdom, exposing their lack of rationality.

Liberal politics

In liberal politics, you can say what you want, as long as it’s the right thing.

Labour music

Is ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ as good as it gets?

Labour Party culture

Far too much Labour activity seems to be devoted towards reinforcing the bonds within interest groups, scratching each others’ backs and telling each other what we like to hear – especially how great and righteous we are. We tell everyone else how great our friends are and they say how great we are, and everyone feels better about themselves. This is how the younger Labour elite that is largely dominant reinforces and reproduces itself. Under their aegis, the party sometimes looks more like a mutual support network than political party.