The Conservatives are shrinking the state – to make room for money and privilege

Boris Johnson’s talk of restoring sovereignty is a lie. He is handing democratic power to economic elites, not the people. George Monbiot writes in the Guardian 14th October 2020.

The question that divides left from right should no longer be “how big is the state?”, but “to whom should its powers be devolved?”. In his conference speech last week, Boris Johnson recited the standard Tory mantra: “The state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it.” But what he will never do is stand back and let the people get on with it.

The Conservative promise to shrink the state was always a con. But it has seldom been as big a lie as it is today. Johnson grabs powers back from parliament with both fists, invoking Henry VIII clauses to prevent MPs from voting on crucial legislation, stitching up trade deals without parliamentary scrutiny, shutting down remote participation, so that MPs who are shielding at home can neither speak nor vote, and shutting down parliament altogether, when it suits him.

He seeks to seize powers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: the internal market bill appears to enable Westminster to take back control of devolved policies. He imposes the will of central government on local authorities, refusing to listen to mayors and councils while dropping new coronavirus measures on their cities. He claws back powers from the people, curtailing our ability to shape planning decisions; shutting down legal challenges to government policy; using the Coronavirus Act and the covert human intelligence sources bill to grant the police inordinate power over our lives.

His promises to restore sovereignty are lies. While using the language of liberation, he denies power to both people and parliament. He promised to curtail the state, but under his government, the state is bursting back into our lives, breaking down our doors, expanding its powers while reducing ours.

Instead, he gives power away to a thing he calls “the market”, which is a euphemism for the power of private money. This power is concentrated in a small number of hands. When Johnson talks of standing back and letting the private sector get on with it, he means that democratic power is being surrendered to oligarchs.

Under the Conservatives, the state shrinks only in one direction: to make room for money and privilege. It grants lucrative private contracts to favoured companies without advertisement or competitive tendering. It gifts crucial arms of the NHS to failed consultants and service companies. It replaces competent, professional civil servants with incompetent corporate executives.

We need a state that is strong in some respects. We need a robust economic safety net, excellent public services and powerful public protections. But much of what the state imposes are decisions we could better make ourselves. No Conservative government has shown any interest in devolving genuine power to the people, by enabling, for example, a constitutional convention, participatory budgeting, community development, the democratisation of the planning system or any other meaningful role in decision-making during the five years between elections.

The Labour party’s interest in these questions is scarcely more advanced. The 2019 manifesto talked of “urgent steps to refresh our democracy”. It called for a constitutional convention and the decentralisation of power. But these policies were scarcely more than notional: they lacked sustained support from senior figures and were scarcely heard by voters. During his bid to become Labour leader, Keir Starmer announced that “we need to end the monopoly of power in Westminster”. He called for “a new constitutional settlement: a large-scale devolution of power and resources”. Since then we’ve heard nothing.

When challenged on its policy vacuum, Labour argues that “the next general election is likely to be four years away … There’s plenty of time to do that work.” But you can’t wait until the manifesto is published to announce a meaningful restoration of power to the people, and expect it to be understood and embraced. The argument needs to be built – and Labour local authorities, by developing powerful examples of participatory politics, need to show how Starmer’s promised new settlement could work. Instead there’s a sense that the parliamentary Labour party still sees its best means of enacting change as seizing a highly centralised system, and using this system’s inordinate powers to its own advantage.

For many years, Labour relied on trade unions for its grassroots dynamism and legitimacy. But while the unions should remain an important force, they can no longer be the primary forum for participatory politics. Even at the height of industrialisation, when vast numbers laboured together in factories and mines, movements based in the workplace could only represent part of the population. Today, when solid jobs have been replaced by dispersed and temporary employment, and many people work from home, the focus of our lives has shifted back to our neighbourhoods. It is here that we should build the new centres of resistance and revival.

Starmer has so far shown little interest in reigniting the movements that almost propelled Labour to power in 2017. But even if Labour wins an election, without a strong grassroots mobilisation it will struggle to change our sclerotised political system. Any radical political project requires a political community, and this needs to be built across years, not months.
The popular desire to take back control is genuine. But it has been cynically co-opted by the government, which has instead passed power from elected bodies to economic elites. The principal task of those who challenge oligarchic politics in any nation is to offer genuine control to the people, relinquishing centralised power and rewilding politics. Yes, the state should stand back. It should stand back for the people, not for the money.

• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist

Progressive Internationalism & why a Corbyn government is the only cure for a terrible Brexit – openDemocracy video interview

Progressive Internationalism & why a Corbyn government is the only cure for a terrible Brexit – openDemocracy video interview

Progressive Internationalism & why a Corbyn government is the only cure for a terrible Brexit – openDemocracy video interview

— Read on

For those who want to stop no deal, Jeremy Corbyn is the only hope

Many MPs are in denial, refusing to accept the Labour leader’s legitimacy. Yet he is the only one who can prevent Boris Johnson trashing Britain

Departing Tory leaders have developed an odd and presumptuous habit of demanding that the leader of the opposition resign too. “As a party leader who has accepted when her time was up,” Theresa May told Jeremy Corbyn in her final prime minister’s questions, preparing to leave her party to Boris Johnson and the country without a prayer, “perhaps the time has come for him to do the same.”

In 2016, David Cameron – who had called a referendum lost it, only to then break his promise and abandon the country in a moment of self-inflicted crisis – suggested Corbyn’s resignation would be a patriotic act. “It might be in my party’s interest for him to sit there. It’s not in the national interest. I would say, for heaven’s sake, man, go.”

Stranger still, many Labour parliamentarians agreed with them: Cameron’s speech took place in the middle of a full-blown, if woefully inept, coup.

The political and media establishments are still struggling with the choice the Labour party made in 2015. The fact that the decision was emphatic, had to be made twice following the failed coup, and was effectively endorsed by the electorate in 2017, has not been enough. On some level, that goes beyond the political to the psychological: they refuse to accept his tenure as legitimate.

This sense of denial runs deep – as though insisting he should not be the party leader in effect means he’s not. It is a delusion that recalls the author Doris Lessing’s observation of Blair’s declarative approach to politics: “He believes in magic. That if you say a thing it is true.”

Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party. He has a mandate. He represents something other than just himself. That is not a statement of opinion but of fact. One does not have to like it to accept it. But the failure to accept it will have material and strategic consequences. And, with a general election imminent and the future of the country’s relationship with Europe finely balanced, the moment of reckoning with that fact is long overdue. For there is no route to a second referendum without Labour; there is no means of defeating Johnson without Labour. The party remains the largest, and by far the most effective, electoral obstacle to most of the immediate crises that progressives wish to prevent. Once again that is not a case for Corbyn or for Labour, but for reality.

Jeremy Corbyn is congratulated on winning the Labour leadership in 2015.
‘The political and media establishments are still struggling with the choice that the Labour party made in 2015.’ Jeremy Corbyn is congratulated on winning the Labour leadership in 2015. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Earlier this week, when asked which was worse, a no-deal Brexit or Corbyn as prime minister, the Liberal Democrats’ Scotland spokesman, Jamie Stone, said: “It may be that somebody else may emerge from the Labour party. I think the ball is very much in the Labour party’s court to see what alternatives they could find.”

That is not going to happen. Liberal Democrats don’t get to choose the Labour leader. Labour does. The Lib Dems have long struggled to understand this. In 2010 Nick Clegg said he could work with Labour, just not Gordon Brown. Two years later they said they could work with Labour but the shadow chancellor Ed Balls must go.

There is candour in this. It is effectively the position of his party and many others, including a few disgruntled Labour members, for whom a potential Labour government under Corbyn is somehow worse than the actual no-deal Brexit under Johnson that may soon happen. But there is a clear contradiction too. Some of those who have devoted the past few years to stopping any kind of Brexit now claim that the only thing worse than a no-deal Brexit – the worst kind of Brexit they could possibly imagine – is the leader of the only party that can stop a no-deal Brexit.

None of this is a reason to necessarily support Labour or Corbyn. There are all sorts of reasons, from antisemitism to an insufficiently pro-European stance, as to why progressives might decide not to back Labour at this moment; and the calculations are very different outside England and in those areas where tactical voting offers the best hope of getting rid of Conservatives. And given the redistributive agenda that Labour laid out at last week’s conference, there are all sorts of reasons why progressives might back it, too.

Political parties are not entitled to anyone’s support. They must earn it. The moment they start blaming voters for not supporting them, they are sunk. That’s as true for Labour under Corbyn as it was for the US Democrats under nominee Al Gore. But that does not absolve the voter from the strategic and moral responsibility of accounting for their vote.

In the second round of the French presidential elections in 2002, which pitted the conservative Jacques Chirac against the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, a Communist party local councillor, François Giacalone, voted for the conservative. “When the house is on fire,” he said, “you don’t care too much if the water you put it out with is dirty.”

Right now, the house is on fire. Johnson’s first couple of months in office have illustrated that what’s at stake is not a contest between bad and worse. This is a leader who uses the police as props; breaks the law to undermine democracy; and stokes division with rhetoric that can and has been easily co-opted by the far right, pitting a section of the population against parliament and the judiciary. Johnson’s cabinet and its agenda, both with regards to Brexit and beyond, do not represent a mere shift to the right but a paradigmatic sea-change in British politics that, where Europe is concerned, may have irreversible consequences.

Those who last year were literally on the fringe of the Tory party conference have this week been running the show. The coming election will not just be about opposing Brexit – it’ll be about defending democratic norms. The key consequence of understanding that Corbyn is the legitimate leader of the Labour party is understanding that this fire cannot be extinguished without him.

Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist

Scottish politics has turned upside down since the independence referendum

Events in Scotland illustrate how a political situation can change very quickly. Paradoxically, the real winner of the 2014 independence referendum was the SNP, who have seen a surge in membership, while Labour and the other unionist parties are floundering. Thomas Lundberg looks at the aftermath of the referendum and the puzzling situation of winners turning into losers.

People outside Scotland could be forgiven for being puzzled about recent events ‘north of the border’. After all, didn’t the Unionist cause triumph in September’s Scottish independence referendum? Since then, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scottish Green Party, both supporters of Scottish independence, have more than tripled their membership. The SNP has surged in the opinion polls, endangering Scottish Labour at next May’s Westminster election. Events in Scotland illustrate the importance of multilevel governance and party systems, as well as how a political situation can change very quickly.

While nearly 45 per cent of Scottish voters said ‘Yes’ to independence, the break-up of the United Kingdom was prevented by the 55 per cent who voted ‘No’. Only hours after this result was reached, Prime Minister David Cameron moved the proverbial tanks onto the Labour Party’s lawn, saying that any significant increase in the devolution of power to Scotland would require a change in voting practices so that MPs at Westminster from the 59 Scottish constituencies would no longer be able to vote on bills deemed as affecting only England. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband rejected the linkage of enhanced Scottish devolution to what is sometimes labelled ‘English Votes for English Laws’ (EVEL), proposing instead a convention to examine Britain’s constitution more broadly. Both politicians have been criticised for evading the so-called ‘vow’ to grant Scotland greater autonomy, a promise that might have persuaded some voters not to vote for independence in the expectation of having ‘the best of both worlds’, whatever that means.

It is unlikely that the Smith Commission, an all-party group investigating routes to greater autonomy, will propose significantly enhanced devolution of power to Scotland unless the May 2015 Westminster election yields a hung parliament. The Conservatives, while supporting more radical tax proposals than Labour, are probably concerned about the prospect of too much decentralisation and how that might harm the centre, while Labour worries about the potential for undermining the British welfare state and the prospect of curtailing the voting rights of MPs from outside England. The SNP, however, will seek to gain as much extra power for the Scottish Parliament as possible, trying to satisfy both independence supporters and those who want ‘devo max’, the devolution of all domestic matters (basically home rule). Recent opinion polling reveals that the SNP is so far ahead of its traditional rival, Scottish Labour, that the latter would be nearly wiped out at Westminster. Such an outcome in May would have implications beyond Scotland – it would probably deny Labour a majority, keeping David Cameron in Downing Street if he can do some kind of deal with the smaller parties that might hold the balance of power.

Labour’s problems in Scotland result from both the sudden resignation of its Scottish leader, Johann Lamont, and from the perception, held by many of its traditional supporters, that the party betrayed working-class Scotland in the independence referendum campaign, doing the Tories’ dirty work. Class was one of the biggest demographic dividing lines in the referendum, with poorer people more likely to support independence than the affluent, who would have more to lose if things went wrong. The likely replacement for Lamont, Jim Murphy, may have a higher profile, but he also comes with a lot of Blairite baggage, such as his support for invading Iraq and for maintaining Trident, the nuclear deterrent based in Scotland. Such right-wing positions, as well as the fact that he is currently a Westminster MP, may put him at a disadvantage against the SNP, soon to be led by Alex Salmond’s deputy, Nicola Sturgeon.

Governing since 2007, the SNP has managed to become a highly successful catch-all party, appealing both to independence supporters and to those who prefer greater Scottish autonomy within the Union, to all social class backgrounds and age groups, and to both women and men. While it has business-friendly policies that include cutting corporation tax, the SNP has managed to compete successfully against Scottish Labour, using its left-wing image and grass-roots campaigning to steal supposedly safe constituencies in Labour heartland areas. Despite its significant decline, Scottish Labour remains the SNP’s bitter rival, while the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party now struggles to make an impact in polling and the Scottish Liberal Democrats scarcely register at all, with the latest Holyrood poll putting both Tories and Lib Dems behind the Scottish Greens in the regional vote part (the one usually cast for a party list) of the two-vote system. Despite the use of the mixed-member proportional electoral system for Scottish Parliament elections, the effective number of parliamentary parties in the body has dropped from a high of 4.2 after the 2003 election to 2.6 in 2011, suggesting that we should not give too much credit to the impact of the electoral system on the party system.

Perhaps paradoxically, the real winner of the 2014 independence referendum was the SNP. The party has emerged energised, larger, and better connected to the public. It now stands head and shoulders above its Unionist competitors. While the SNP finds itself in an enviable position, it must avoid complacency. The party began its ascent in 2007 by being seen as potentially more competent than Labour, and its performance running a minority government was rewarded in 2011 with a majority of seats; academic research has shown that public support for independence (typically among only about a third of the electorate in recent years) explains only a portion of the SNP’s support. Sturgeon must be careful to maintain her party’s image for competent management of Scotland’s affairs while appealing to the broad majority of Scots (even those who rejected independence) as their advocate when it comes to dealing with the UK government and the likelihood of further spending cuts after the 2015 election.

The big increase in the SNP’s membership following the referendum could pose challenges to the party’s leadership. The recent membership surge from some 25,000 to over 80,000 in the weeks following the referendum could make the party more difficult to govern. Many of the new members (perhaps alienated Scottish Labour members or voters) are likely to hold left-wing views and this could put pressure on what has been a remarkable effort to keep the party unified. Those disappointed or unimpressed with the SNP, however, could instead look to civil society, which has also been jolted by the referendum. The Yes Scotland campaign evolved into a social movement, with a range of organisations working together; aside from political parties, groups like Women for Independence, Business for Scotland, and the Radical Independence Campaign represented a wide spectrum of the public, and the movement included prominent individuals not associated with any party.

The aftermath of Scotland’s independence referendum resembles an upside down political situation: losers turned into winners and members of the public – including many from modest backgrounds – refusing to go ‘back into their boxes’. The supposed winners – the Unionist parties and privileged classes – must be just as puzzled as those living outside Scotland.

About the Author

Thomas LundbergThomas Lundberg is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Glasgow.

Labour needs policies that end low paid and low skilled work

By Tony Burke | Published: October 27, 2014

The UK has too many poorly performing workplaces, according to a new report

On October 23, the Smith Institute launched a report entitled ‘Making work better: an agenda for government‘ – an independent inquiry into the world of work by Ed Sweeney.

Sweeney of course is the former chair of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), former deputy general secretary of Unite and former general secretary of the finance union Unifi, now part of Unite.

The report, which runs to over 100 pages, is the product of a nine month inquiry involving research, interviews, discussion events around the UK as well as opinion polling.

It sets out the argument that the UK has too many poorly performing workplaces, with poor treatment of workers who Sweeney’s report states are “underpaid, over-worked and ignored”.

The report also argues that the UK has a “long tail of broken workplaces” which are holding back the recovery and costing the country billions in lost income and in the payment of welfare benefits to those out of work but also to those workers eking out a living in low paid, precarious and agency work.

The report has been welcomed by Labour, the TUC and EEF (the manufacturing employers’ organisation), who were all represented at the report’s launch: shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna for Labour; general secretary Frances O’Grady for the TUC and Judith Hogarth, head Of employment policy of the EEF

Sweeney’s report highlights the UK’s poor performance on a range of indicators, including:

poor productivity, with the USA, France and Germany being 30 per cent more productive than the UK;
a skills shortage and mismatch, with half of employees interviewed saying that their jobs do not make full use of their skills and abilities;
job insecurity with over half of employees worried about loss of employment or job status – the Office of National Statistics now estimates there are 1.4 million zero-hour contract workers;
stagnating pay levels – since 2004 wages for workers on the median wage or less have stagnated or fallen in real terms and since 2010 median wages have fallen by more that 6 per cent in real terms;
and 50 of workers interviewed said they faced unreasonable treatment, while 40 per cent faced disrespect from employers.

The report also recommends that the government should amend the Information & Consultation Regulations to giver workers a stronger voice and bring the UK into line with other EU countries.

The ICE Regulations are barely used by unions to establish these structures as they are dauntingly complex and unions usually face open hostility from some of the worst employers who do not wish to hear the views of their workers, never mind consult with them.

The report makes a series of important recommendations, including a new mandate for the Low Pay Commission to increase the national minimum wage towards 60 per cent of the median wage; a target for government of lift one million workers to the living wage by 2020 and, interestingly, a requirement on the government to promote the positive role trade unions play in achieving fair pay and giving ACAS the power to promote collective bargaining and good employment relations.

At the launch, the issue of collective bargaining was a major talking point, with a number of speakers and questioners (including academics and trade unions) arguing strongly that the restoration of widespread collective bargaining would do much to restore decent work and pay equality.

Speakers pointed out that this was always ACAS’s role (it was the Major government who scrapped ACAS’s role in promoting collective bargaining) and it would require significant political and financial support.

On the role of trade unions, Chuka Umunna said in his remarks:

“The report is right to highlight that trade unions have an important role to play here in boosting training, pay and conditions for their members and helping Britain win that race to the top.

“At a time of rapid global economic change and a cost of living crisis at home, it is vital that the UK continues to have strong and modern trade unions as a genuine voice fighting against discrimination and abuse.”

Building on Ed Sweeney’s report, Chuka Umunna also announced the setting up a further review of Labour’s policies in regard to the world of work, to be lead by John Monks, former head of the TUC and the ETUC, Douglas McCormick, former MD of Atkins UK Rail and Alison Downie, head of the Employment Department at Goodman Derrick LLP.

Frances O’Grady hit the nail on the head at the launch when she said:

“With so many facing stagnant pay and too many new jobs made insecure through zero-hours contracts, agency working or low value self employment, we won’t fix the economy without fixing the workplace.”

Labour has to recognise that in order to win the election and win back working people, there is crying a need to promote clear policies to end low paid and low skilled work; but also to end exploitation, firmly regulate precarious work and create decent employment in decent workplaces.

Tony Burke is assistant general secretary of Unite

Why do wages continue to stagnate in the UK as unemployment falls?

Geraint Johnes
The ONS released figures this week showing expanding employment while wages continue to stagnate. What is behind this puzzling picture? Geraint Johnes writes that the slack that has remained in the labour market, in the form of the underemployed and self-employed, offers one explanation for sluggish wage performance.

The latest labour market statistics show numbers in employment rising by 150,000 during the second quarter of this year while wages, rising at an annual rate of just 0.4 per cent, well below the rate of increase in prices, have continued to stagnate. The employment statistics paint a healthy picture while the data on earnings suggest all is not well. That might look like a paradox. It isn’t – it’s the fall in real wages that has allowed employers to hire more workers. But nonetheless there are aspects of the labour market that have puzzled economists for some time.

On the basis of past experience, one might have expected wage pressures to be growing at this stage in a recovery. Unemployment has fallen sharply over the last year – having been stubbornly static for a long time, it fell from 7.8 per cent in the second quarter of last year to 6.4 per cent in the space of just twelve months. In normal times, that would indicate a significant tightening of the labour market, and would lead to employers playing leapfrog with wages in order to attract a limited supply of workers.

But these haven’t been normal times. They may become more normal soon, but they aren’t normal yet. There has remained considerable slack in the economy. Data that we have published at Lancaster University’s Work Foundation suggest that the recession led to many people in work working fewer hours than they wanted to – that is, it led to a marked increase in underemployment. While these people are employed, they form an army of workers who could readily switch from part-time to full-time work as the demand for labour increases. Indeed, in the latest statistics, we are seeing that begin to happen. Over the second quarter of this year, employment rose by 0.5 per cent, but the number of hours worked increased by twice as much. And over the same period, the number of employees in part-time employment actually declined by some 19,000, while the number in full-time employment grew rapidly.

Another form that labour market slack has taken in recent years, rather unusually, is self-employment. Numbers of workers in this category have increased rapidly, and now over 15 per cent of all those in work in the UK are self-employed. Little is known about these new self-employed workers. Many are likely to have chosen self-employment whatever the weather, but it seems as though some, at least, have chosen it in the absence of other, more attractive, alternatives. Around a quarter of the new generation of self-employed workers would prefer not to be self-employed – a far higher proportion than has been observed in the past. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the real earnings of the typical self-employed worker have fallen faster than those of employees. But the latest data suggest that the increase in self-employment is now starting to slow – another sign that the labour market is starting to return to normal.

The slack that has remained in the labour market offers one explanation for sluggish wage performance. Another important factor has been the failure of labour productivity to pick up in the aftermath of recession. There is a plethora of reasons underpinning this so-called productivity puzzle, and we have explored these at length at a recent event at the Work Foundation.There are, however, encouraging signs. Business investment, which had been stagnant since the onset of recession, has made a spectacular recovery in the last two quarters for which data are available; in the first quarter of this year, it stood about 10 per cent higher than a year earlier. That is a quite remarkable recovery. Such investment in capital should help increase labour productivity. Once growth in labour productivity is resumed, real wages will start to rise. Just how quickly that comes about remains to be seen.

About the Author

Geraint JohnesGeraint Johnes is Director of The Work Foundation and Professor of Economics at Lancaster University.

Cameron and Miliband are both right on the constitution – But for the wrong reasons

Posted: 27 Sep 2014 12:00 AM PDT
Stephen Barber

As the constitutional fallout from the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign continues, Stephen Barber looks at how the two main party leaders down south are addressing ‘the English Question’. Cameron and Miliband may be acting from short term partisan motivations, but this doesn’t mean they’re wrong. While any plausible constitutional settlement is complex, it must be based on devolution to ‘cities and counties’, with any proposed ‘English Parliament’ failing to offer real devolution of powers closer to the people.

Westminster leaders need to put aside short-term party advantage in a similar way that Scottish politicans did during the referendum campaign. If they did, not only might they forge a constitutional settlement that will serve England well for a generation, they might also find they can enjoy the sort of ‘apathy free’ politics that was a highlight of the independence referendum. Whether they choose to engage seriously or not, it is clear that there needs to be real devolved power to England and if new institutional layers are to be discounted, the settlement needs to be one of ‘Cities and Counties’.

What a shame it is that the Westminster party leaders have reverted to type by putting narrow electoral advantage ahead of England and the United Kingdom’s constitutional future. The contrast in England to the sort of leadership Alex Salmond and Alistair Darling showed over Scotland is stark. Westminster should take note because it is this sort of politicking which is responsible for the cynicism of voters and poor turnout at elections: something entirely absent from Scotland where 86% turned out to vote in the referendum.

David Cameron favours ‘English votes for English matters’. Ed Miliband wants to delay changes for years and until a Constitutional Convention can report. It is clear why: Labour would likely suffer from the emasculation of Scottish MPs and whatever the chaos, the Conservatives (who only secured a single Scottish MP at the last election) would more often command Commons majorities on ‘English’ votes; irrespective of who formed the government. If anyone wanted a blueprint of how not to reform a constitution, this could well be it.

Credit: UK Parliament, CC BY NC 2.0But that doesn’t mean that everything the Westminster elite have said is wrong. Cameron is surely right that new powers for Holyrood must be balanced with a fair English Settlement. And Miliband is surely right that the position we find ourselves in demands more thought than enshrining two classes of MPs. They are right, but for the wrong reasons.

A better reason would be to forge a workable and legitimate constitutional settlement in England. And here Scotland has done the service of defining powers which need to be devolved from Whitehall not only to Holyrood in the wake of the independence campaign but also to England. As such, the English need to have a direct say over education, health, transport, welfare and the environment. Not only that, this power has to be balanced by the responsibility to raise taxation used to pay for those services. This ensures the new settlement isn’t simply about Westminster throwing more money at poorer areas of the UK but is about genuinely devolving both power and accountabilities.

An English Parliament has its attractions as a replication of the sort of devolution seen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But as home to 53 million of the 64 million population of the United Kingdom, it doesn’t devolve power much of a step closer to the people. Moreover Miliband has already ruled out new government and new layers of politicians. Of course that could be solved by the John Redwood plan of English MPs doing two jobs; an English Parliament drawn from within the Westminster Parliament and two classes of MP. But that is so very messy with potentially rival governments created from a single chamber that it needs to be dismissed out of hand.

Consequently any new settlement in England needs to be forged from existing structures outside of Westminster. My proposal would be a combination of cities and counties plus a long overdue reform of the House of Lords.

This would mean empowering the great and small metropolitan areas of England perhaps comparable to what has happened in London. It would create figures accountable to the electorate and able to make policy in areas which matter to them. Such a move could both politically invigorate those parts of the country Westminster cannot reach and boost local economies left behind by the growth of the Capital. For those who do not live in or around the cities, the settlement should be accompanied by a new enabling of the existing twenty six County Councils of England and other council areas. The prize would be a new era for local government as real power is devolved from the centre.

One other overdue reform needs to be included in this settlement: the House of Lords about which I have recently written. The upper house is an indefensible, antiquated constitutional muddle. It remains appointed by the Prime Minister, has grown too big and is full of party donors and factotums. With any new constitutional settlement, reform of the Lords should not be ignored, because it presents an opportunity for some democratic legitimacy in the upper chamber as it is slimmed down and given a role in the new constitutional arrangements of the whole of the United Kingdom.

A new positive English settlement embracing the Cities and Counties and a reformed Lords is possible, but it needs leadership from the top of our politics. Putting aside narrow party advantage might be difficult, but if it happens, not only will Britain have the constitutional arrangements it deserves, leaders might also find some of that ‘apathy free’ politics rubs off on them.

In work, but poor: barriers to sustainable growth and the need for a living wage

While the UK has returned to growth, many workers continue to suffer economic hardship as real incomes have yet to recover. This means that, just as in the past, the UK economy is relying on an unsustainable growth model where workers spending more than they earn to support the economy. Setting the UK on a sustainable path and reversing the growth of in-work poverty requires policies to raise real wages, writes David Spencer

Rejoice. The UK economy is back to where it was before the crisis. The depression is over and sunny economic uplands lie in the future. Feel good, damn it, the economy is growing again. But there is a reason why the positive growth statistics are treated sceptically. That reason relates to the fact that real incomes have fallen in the UK. Despite the restoration of growth, workers in the UK have continued to suffer cuts in their real pay. One of the arguments for growth is that it raises real incomes – in the UK at least, the reverse is proving to be true. The economy has achieved growth, while many millions of workers have suffered increasing economic hardship with little prospect of improvement.

From a growth perspective, the grim facts of the recovery provide cause for concern. The UK economy has only been able to grow by workers spending beyond their means. Workers have run down savings and borrowed more to increase their consumption and this has driven growth. But workers can only go on behaving like this for so long. Without a rise in real pay, the spending must come to an end and with it the recovery. 

There is no sign yet of net exports recovering to support consumption and any rises in business investment will need to continually confound expectations to offset the further fiscal tightening to come. Again as in the past the UK economy is relying on workers spending more than they earn to support the economy. This is a growth model that cannot be sustained and will ultimately end in disaster.

Even the most ardent backers of the governments current policy stance must harbour some concerns about the prospects for growth in the economy. Lower real wages may help firms keep a lid on their costs but from the perspective of raising demand on a sustainable basis they place restrictions on the ability of firms to grow output. Demand side barriers will bite in the end and terminate the recovery.

But beyond growth there are deeper issues here relating to work and its relation to poverty. Work has long been heralded as the best form of welfare and the route to economic success. This view – summed up in the mantra ‘work always pays’ – has been exposed as a miserable lie. Now it seems that work for many is no escape from poverty. Working hard for a living often means struggling to keep ones head above water.

Evidence shows that in-work poverty is on the rise in the UK. Among working age adults in low income households, the number in working families has been growing and is now greater than the number in workless families. It used to be that worklessness was the prime determinant of poverty. Now it is more likely to be low waged work.

How did we get into this situation? The underlying causes are complex and multifaceted. They include the decline of unions, the deregulation of the labour market, an inadequate training system and the rise of the service sector at the expense of manufacturing. The UK has lacked the necessary modernising forces that would have otherwise led it towards a high wage economy. Instead, it has evolved an institutional structure that has favoured and entrenched low wages.

What can be done? In the short term, policies to raise real wages in the UK would help not only to sustain the recovery if that is the concern but also to address the problem of in-work poverty. The national minimum wage, although a welcome development, has not managed to address the problem of low pay and this is where calls for a living wage come in. Raising the minimum wage to the level of the living wage would be a bold but economically sensible step to take. Critics may say that this will lead to unemployment. Yet evidence shows that minimum wage hikes have not had adverse employment effects. Indeed, their effect has been to increase productivity via higher levels of worker morale and to reduce welfare spending.

Longer-term, the UK needs to break its reliance on a low wage growth model. For this, it needs a new industrial strategy that focuses on building things rather than on making money. It needs to invest in new industries via the help of the State. Challenging vested interests particularly in the world of finance and creating a model of sustainable prosperity based not on endless growth but on the promotion of human flourishing remain the ultimate goals. Whether these goals are achievable under current conditions remains a moot point. Yet they are goals that we need to keep in our sights and agitate for.

In the end, the UK cannot afford to pay workers less. Driving real wages down is a recipe for economic stagnation and human misery. For all our sakes, we should seek a rise in real wages. 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit:

About the Author

David Spencer is Professor of Economics and Political Economy at the Leeds University Business School.

Ed Miliband and the bacon sandwich: Exploring the relationship between the serious and the frivolous

With a less than convincing showing for Labour in the local and European elections, criticisms of Ed Miliband’s leadership grew louder. But there is a paradox at play: while his critics emphasise the need for serious policy and direction, the criticisms of Miliband are only ever trivial; about his looks or how he eats a bacon sandwich. John Gaffney explores the complex relationship between the serious and the frivolous, between policy and personality.

In the aftermath of local and European elections, Labour party introspection began immediately: in particular, criticism of the party’s direction, its attitude to UKIP in both sets of elections, the coherence of its message, its policies and their presentation, and, last and most, criticism of Ed Miliband. From the moment he was elected leader in 2010, there has been a lot of this at regular intervals, usually by individuals rather than by organised groups. I shall come back to the significance of this below.

The criticism tends to coalesce around Ed himself, not simply as a leader making the wrong decisions, but a person doing the wrong things. The first, after polling on Thursday 22 May, was from John Mann MP (in The Guardian on 23 May). He was followed by former minister, Graham Stringer. Then the ‘Commentariat’ (e.g. Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian on 24 May). Part of the latter’s role is to let the public know that such individual public criticisms reflect major dissension by a growing range of critics, many of them inside the shadow cabinet. And the criticisms not only coalesce around criticisms of Miliband’s leadership, but around his personality: he is not bold enough, he misjudges, he lacks ‘appeal’, he doesn’t take the fight to the enemy, he’s (personally) afraid of taking on Nigel Farage. The criticism goes round and round. He, or the team around him, fail to grasp, are cut off, and should be bolder, and so on. Others’ exemplary personal comportment is cited in contrast; for example, in Labour Uncut on 19 May: Well done Yvette Cooper. Well done David Lammy. Shame on you Ed Miliband.

There is a paradox here of great interest. His critics place great emphasis on the serious – policy, direction, message – yet the criticism of the leadership when given voice is ever only trivial – what he said, how he looked. That’s the paradox – and a clue to what is actually happening. To put it another way, you can’t have, say, Unite the Union have a debate about how to eat a sandwich. And yet how you do eat one may be important, and how you might react to being criticised for the way you do even more so.

There seem to be two worlds here: the ‘real’ issues and the trivia. Traditionally, and it remains one of the party activists’ strongest convictions, the Labour party is only interested in the former – people’s lives, national policies, taking power – but it keeps being drawn to the latter. What if the two were related in a way as yet untheorised by the left, as yet, perhaps, ‘unimaginable’ for the left?

At the Hay Festival on Sunday 25 May, Alan Johnson – there for an award for his book – found himself defending Miliband. It is interesting that – although urbane and witty in his responses – they were the classic ones: it was not about how to eat a sandwich with cameras trained on you or about the price of your grocery bill, but about the real issues. But Johnson too evokes the paradox, for his riposte and the use of humour were indeed themselves about image, experience and personality – his own – and establishing a relationship with your audience. The ‘classic’ defence was also echoed by Peter Hain in The Observer and Harriet Harman on the BBC TV on Sunday 25 May. The late Tony Benn started this dichotomy with his ‘this isn’t about personalities, it’s about politics’. Well it is about personalities (Benn knew that more than anyone), and about the complex and consequential relationship between the serious and the frivolous.

Let us try and make the connection, for it is a dynamic and highly politically consequential connection. We can make four points; they are all related:

The first concerns the nature of the criticism. Within the party it goes along certain lines: the party/leadership is not bold enough, and – usually – should be more radical; or that a wider (i.e. Third Way) coalition across the classes is the only way forward (cf. Atul Hatwal in Labour Uncut 23 May); or, finally, that it is indeed about personality, and the current leadership has the right one. So one goes around the circle again, from say Mann to Johnson to Hain and back again. By the end of the Bank Holiday weekend, criticism of the critics and further advice were offered by more figures such as John Woodcock, Alan Milburn, and even Tony Blair. A first point we can note is that no one actually knows which of these poles is correct. Many projections are made, in particular about Miliband and No 10, yet the same confusion reigns. Will he be/not be prime minister, and will he be/not be because of what he is doing or because of who he is? If the two are linked, we need to know how.

The second point is that no one knows the answer because politics is not predictive. Are quiet advances being made with the electorate? How will we know before the next election? How can we measure public allegiance to a policy and its relationship to leadership? Their actual success cannot be known until it happens. For example, when did we become sure that ‘the right to buy’ was a successful policy and that Margaret Thatcher’s personality was part of it and its success? It is always retrospective. We cannot measure anything very much, and the relationship between ‘real issues’ and ‘leadership image’ is a case in point. Politics is only ever about what might be true. But what we should start with is to see that they are in a relationship. So the question is: how and to what effect?

Third, of course it is about issues and policies etc., and of course it is about leadership performance and image. They are inextricably related. Policy grows out of a narrative as does leadership, and if these three are not aligned, then a party will not succeed. Let us, rather than develop this theoretically here, look at how this applies to the UK Labour party today.

So our fourth point is that Miliband and his team and the party generally have done most of the things that are utterly necessary for the party to win in 2015. First, he has, in great part through a particular leadership style, kept the party together. No delegates have come away from a Labour Party Conference, not since Manchester 2012 at least, saying anything other than what a great conference it was and what a great leadership speech. This view extends to all of Miliband’s meetings around the country, and even to many of his exchanges with the public. In all these scenarios (off camera) he is both popular and confident, with his own style and a pretty much ‘real’ personality to match.

Second, he has overseen the realignment of the party’s narrative from 2010 onwards. It culminated in 2012 in One Nation, where he became its ‘author’ (although there had been earlier authors and voices – Glasman, Rutherford, Cruddas, and others), and this narrative has been developed since. He has a significant One Nation cohort of support around him, and a ‘truce’ with other big hitters who never mention One Nation. Is it enough of a narrative? Almost certainly not. Other views, other ways of seeing the party and its mission have also developed and are being folded (back) in – a social democratic approach drawing on the German model, Arnie Graf’s community approach, an IPPR-related ‘joined-up’ society (and added theoretical depth), even the Third Way has made its way back (it has to, its representatives win elections). He/the party have developed/are developing an increasing number of policies which are now being shot at the public and the policy ‘targets’ with increasing firepower and accuracy, inter alia, energy, banks, rents, railways, zero-hour contracts. Their often ‘emotional’ quality means the narrative of policy elaboration – like One Nation – can be framed in a populist way. And if you are up against Nigel Farage, using populist rhetoric is not a bad idea. One could even argue that the policies are now coming too fast and need gathering together as a pre-manifesto ‘package’/vision for Britain (and endless repetition by the party).

We can see, therefore, a relatively happy party (this is why so many of the criticisms are from unhappy individuals) and a coherent team (particularly the November 2013 additions to the shadow cabinet). The Labour party is one that tries to keep narrative, leadership, the party aligned.

What about the public persona then – the ‘appeal’ of Miliband – and his relationship to the public? Well, when it is mediated (TV or radio, rather than face to face) the relationship becomes more delicate. Team Miliband should be less concerned with the written media and more with the visual. But if Farage is the leadership model of 2014, what does he demonstrate? That there are creative spaces of possibility between the necessarily aligned narrative, party, and leadership, and they can be filled creatively – as Farage does – with leadership performance and one’s ‘personal personality’, which may or may not be real but seems to be. In Farage’s case it would doubtless mean, and in Miliband’s should, that if you are being overwhelmed by a bacon sandwich you reveal your true self by doing what we all do – laugh. And while we are on such trivia, most people don’t know the accuracy of their grocery bills – and Miliband was actually pretty close. What the Labour Party wants is a country where it isn’t that we feel guilty if we don’t know our grocery bill, but a country where everyone can forget how much theirs was.

Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Homepage image credit: net_efekt

About the Author

John Gaffney is Professor of Politics at Aston University, and Co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe.