Platitudes, positions, policies and principles.

Platitudes, positions, policies and principles: what can we learn from Gorton’s selection meeting?

I attended the selection meeting for the Labour Party’s Gorton by-election last week. There were five candidates, a short-list selected by a 5-person national Labour party panel. It would be possible to write another article analysing the factions at play – there were several. What I think might be more helpful is to consider what the meeting told us about the candidates’ understanding of policy. Their responses to questions were not particularly impressive, and it is worth exploring what more adequate responses might be. This is not to get at the candidates who are probably no better or worse than most other aspiring politicians, but rather to draw out lessons for effective policy and politics.

Candidates responded to a series of questions selected at random from the many submitted by participants. They had no prior notice of the questions so had to think on their feet: a daunting task in front of some 600 people. Those questions were rather variable. Some were poorly framed but the responses to all were rather revealing, not so much of the candidates’ position on the left-right spectrum, or their loyalty to the party and its leadership, but of the quality of their thinking on key policy questions and the nature of political and social change. After the candidates gave their pitches and answered their questions, nearly everyone I spoke to remarked on how disappointing their responses were.

Why? Some candidates gave rather good speeches, the better ones avoiding platitudes and sound bites, and some didn’t. When it came to the questions, most struggled most of the time, and all struggled on some questions. In what follows, I’m generalising across the five, so I offer my apologies if I misrepresent, but I want to write this in general, rather than personalised terms, the better to identify the lessons. For some questions I’ve tried my hand at drafting a more adequate politician’s answer, or setting out the elements that would need to be covered.

1) Was Jeremy Corbyn right to impose a 3 line whip on the vote to trigger Brexit.

Nobody answered the question. Two seemed to indicate that they thought he was wrong (or maybe I’m reading too much into what they said – it happens to be my view). All acknowledged that he was in a very difficult position – “defy the people’s will or back the Tories”, and the media would exploit whatever he did. Most made the argument that the referendum must be respected and nobody made the case that the referendum was an advisory one (“Should the UK leave the EU….”) with no clarity at to what leaving the EU meant. It was won by 52% against 48%, with a majority in Gorton voting to remain: so on the 72.2% turnout the “majority” is 37.5% of the electorate (i.e. 52% of 72.2). Most importantly of all, the referendum was won on the basis of a series of myths and lies from the Leave campaigns, channeled enthusiastically by most of the mainstream media. None of this was noted; instead we got a simplistic invocation of “democracy”. Most noted that now the struggle will be to prevent a self-injurious hard Brexit.

A better answer?
Brexit is the wrong decision, the result of a campaign of misrepresentation and outright lies about Europe. Jeremy was possibly wrong, but he was pretty much in a no-win position. But what now? I will fight with his team to obstruct the hard Brexit that will seriously damage people here in Gorton and the rest of the country.

2) Loyalty

This question was about the divisions in the party and the candidate’s stance on them. All handled this one pretty well, committing to work against division, and emphasising the need for a disciplined PLP.

3) How will you deliver progress – and specifically for the NHS.

Not the best drafted question maybe, and there were two parts to it. Most opted to answer the easier, crowd-pleasing NHS part but their answers were generally formulaic – more funding, end privatisation (nothing to disagree with, but not enough). There were some mentions of Greater Manchester devolution and its possibilities and at least one noted the risk of this being a devolution of austerity. There was a little mention of health inequalities.

As for the “deliver progress” part, this could have been interesting, an opportunity to show how innovative a politician the candidate was. There was some mention of consultation but nothing on what to do with it. How would the candidates communicate policy goals and milestones and work with the various stakeholders in the constituency to monitor action, together deciding how to resolve issues that arise, prevent backsliding, and build a coalition of support for change?

A better answer?
Oh that’s two questions really. I’d want to work with my constituents to build a better way of working together for change. It’s not good enough to elect your member every 5 years and then leave it to them. I’ll need your help to keep up the pace of change, and to fight against bad policies. Let’s identify key things to achieve in Gorton. Let’s together identify the steps on the way to achieving them. Let’s plan and plot how to make it happen and decide what to do if it doesn’t work out.

As for the NHS, its principle of health care for everyone regardless of wealth and status is essential and can only be effectively be delivered by a public service free of the waste of the market. And we have the choice as a nation to make it a priority – it’s not a question of money, but of policy choice. But it isn’t enough to just protect the NHS, we need to raise its standards, and those of social care, to those of the best bits while dealing with the challenges of changing patterns of ill health and changing technologies. That won’t be easy, but with adequate funding, the end of market madness and a commitment to much more democratic ways of working, we can do it.

4) What do you think should be the key principles of foreign policy?

The answers here were generally shockingly narrow. Most failed to identify any principles at all. Some talked generally of ethics and several talked about refugees.

A better answer?
This country has done some good things on the international stage but an awful lot of bad things. We continue to benefit from the exploitation of the majority world and our foreign policy and military defend our unfair advantage. We live with the consequences, including the threat of terror and the plight of refugees, to which we must add the threats of resource depletion and climate change that will mean further shocks to life on the planet, from which we are not immune. These challenges need truly international solutions and not the domination of the “international community” by a few powerful nations.

So what’s the answer? Firstly, we need to be truly internationalist, offering help and support where we can, without conditions. Many people in this room will know about Cuba’s wonderful assistance after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Secondly, we need to stand with the majority world against the rigging of trade by the rich countries; we need to oppose militarism and cease supplying arms to oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Thirdly, we need to fight for international institutions fit for purpose – the kind of international financial institutions envisaged by Keynes after WW2, but blocked by the USA and the bankers, for example, and a reformed United Nations where the General Assembly is sovereign, not a security council dominated by the historical big powers. And that’s just a start. Our Foreign Policy should not just be ethical but one that actually redresses past and present wrongs: there can be a better world!

5) Transport

I think all mentioned the GM Mayor and explicitly or implicitly alluded to the Burnham campaign (in some cases that was all that was said). Most mentioned integration and regulation. Most mentioned improving bus services. There was a little mention of active travel. Nobody really tackled the central problem, the private motor car in this car-dominated city. Nobody mentioned strategies to reduce the need to travel. Terms like “modal shift” (or a non-jargon version of it, didn’t figure. I’m not sure air quality was mentioned either.

Although the question was framed in terms of transport in Gorton and Manchester, here was an opportunity to identify the national level interventions that, as a MP, the candidate needs to begin thinking about.

6) What makes you unique?

This was one for candidates to answer in their own way, but their answers were all rather similar.

7) Left or Centre Left policies?

A potential trap here, and candidates were circumpspect in saying they supported “Labour policies”, the label not being an issue. I’ve some sympathy with this (as a non-orthodox leftist). But here was an opportunity to again offer principles, getting behind and under the labels.

A better answer?
In 1983 the Labour Party’s manifesto promised
‘a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people and their families’1. That’s what I believe in. But there’s a problem, one identified by Sir Gerald Kaufmann himself who called it “The longest suicide note in history”. Now, much as I respected him, he was wrong about the content: read it and you’ll recognise many things we take for granted today and quite a few proposals that we are still greatly in need of, though the world has changed and we can’t just reproduce the same manifesto content today. But the conditions, then as now, were extremely hostile to such policies, and I think that’s the relevance of Sir Gerald’s point. I’m not saying you can create such a shift by stealth: it is important to be uncompromisingly honest, but we have to communicate those ideas effectively. We need to explain that Labour didn’t bankrupt the country, the private banks did. We need to explain that government debt is often a good thing – it’s what paid for the victory in WW2, and the post war reconstruction with its NHS, social housing and secondary education for all: the country can afford it, and becomes more wealthy through it. We need to explain that the wealthy and powerful will fight us tooth and nail, and why. So we need nothing less than an ambitious public political and economic literacy campaign to match our policy aspirations. I see no sign of the party seriously doing that – it will be my personal mission to change that.

So yes, you might call my policies “left” but at the same time they are practical – so long as we’ve the political campaign to bring them about.

8) Inequality and homelessness

Between them, the candidates identified most of the key points: supply of social housing and a variety of stock, debt and the benefits system, the need for early intervention. But hardly anyone seemed able to put all that together. My notes for this question have the words “no specifics” and “vague” in several places. Manchester pretty much dismantled a decent homelessness service when the first round of Osborne cuts came after 2010 – no mention of that. After a period of denial, the council is again beginning to respond, but with a “Charter” – hmmm.

A better answer?
A good answer would combine the following

1) Supply of housing, that is affordable and allocated on the basis of need. Some candidates only mentioned council housing but this alone is not enough. On the housing front, there needs to be an end to the sweetheart deals with developers that allow them to build developments without even “affordable” housing, let alone social housing.

2) A social security system that supports people to stay in housing rather than making it difficult to meet demands – meanwhile more help for people to challenge decisions.

3) People who become homeless often need a lot of help – they aren’t always easy to work with so skilled and sensitive workers are needed. So the third element is a safety net that responds immediately and sensitively to the variety of people who find themselves homeless or at risk of homelessness (the Housing First2 model is the key here).

With the above components it is clear that some things need national policy changes, but there are also things that can be done locally now.

9) Accessibility and Accountability

Again the answers were remarkably sketchy. The ideas that the candidates came up with, between them, in addition to doing the job of responding to constituents’ problems, were: living in the community and being visible, having a full time constituency office and having one job. In response to a different question there was mention of consultation and the use of social media.

The Gorton constituency has an estimated population of 116,889 (mid 2015 estimate) some 73,000 electors. That’s a lot of people to be accessible and accountable to; some creative thinking is required. It is arguable that one reason the EU referendum had a Leave majority, despite the benefits flowing to some of the biggest Brexit-voting regions, was the invisibility of MEPs to the electorate. What were they doing? What was the European Parliament and the EU itself doing? What was good and what needed changing or opposing? With some exceptions, MEPs were invisible. Much the same can be said for many MPs. Popular discontent with the “political class” (a misnomer if ever there was one) calls for a different relationship with citizens.

A better answer?
I will do my best to be accessible and accountable to all the citizens of Gorton constituency. As well as living and spending as much time as possible here, I will work with you on new ways of keeping two way communications open. I’ve a few ideas, but I will consult with people before deciding which ones to develop. We could,

  • Have six-monthly public meetings where I report back on what I have been doing in your name, where I can both explain and seek views on key policy choices coming up and on other matters that are important to you. We could live-stream these meetings and also complement them with webinars.

  • I will use Labour campaign leaflets to highlight what I have been doing and to seek views.

  • I will maintain Sir Gerald’s courteous and fast response style to constituents’ correspondence.

  • I will look at the possibility of a constituency office, which with relatively paperless new technology, could run on a roving basis, going to different corners of the constituency each day or week.

  • I will use social media, selectively, to publicise key points of information and to advise constituents on how bes to contact me.

  • And I will do my best to maintain an active relationship with you, our membership.

Here was also another opportunity to mention the Burnham campaign which has tried very hard to take an open and inclusive approach to policy formulation via the crowd-sourced manifesto.

10) Environment and Climate Change

All candidates did highlight the central importance of this issue. There was mention of the environment having no national boundaries, and of the need for international action, with the Paris agreement mentioned, I think once. There was mention of climate change affecting all classes and of the impact of Western lifestyles. But no candidate really got beyond platitudes and more than one seemed to think individual actions would solve the problem. (“If we all do a little, we’ll achieve ….. a little”3).

A better answer?
We are living in dangerous times. We know that the lives of all of us depend on maintaining the natural systems of the earth that are the basis for our food, water and the air we breathe. I’m going to talk about just one of the environmental crises facing us4: climate change. We stand on the threshold of runaway global warming – unless we can radically reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, by around 10% per year according to University of Manchester climate scientists5, then we will soon pass into that danger zone where the temperature will rise by 2, 3 4 or more degrees, rendering large parts of the earth uninhabitable through heat, drought and rising sea levels. Let’s look at the north of the Indian subcontinent, from where many of you, or your families come: not only are coastal areas threatened by rising seas – people are already being displaced in Bangladesh, but the glaciers that feed the great rivers are receding, threatening water supply, agriculture and energy supplies for huge populations. Here in the UK, extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and frankly, “you ain’t seen nothing yet”.

We have to act urgently on many levels.

The Paris agreement was a great achievement but the pledges made by nations are insufficient to stop the warming. We have to press the UK for more radical action, with a plan for drastically reducing energy use via improving the insulation of homes and other buildings, through a rapid transition to renewable energy (and this government has been moving in the other direction), so we leave fossil fuels with the other fossils – in the ground. A programme like that can actually create many more, and decent jobs for our people, as the Trade Union Climate Change Campaign has shown6.

And we need to do the same things here in Manchester – pressing the Combined Authority and City Council for more demanding targets and more assertive action to cease carbon emissions. We can also look at the investments of the pension funds that many of you contribute to, or rely on – moving them out of fossil fuels and reinvesting in clean energy, energy saving schemes and schemes to help our local economy become more self sufficient and resilient, reducing the emissions of overseas trade while making us less vulnerable to supply chain shocks.

Yes, this has to be the number one priority, from which all others flow: without an environment we and our children can live in, the rest of our political aims become irrelevant.

Values and Facts – Platitudes and Policies.

All too often the candidates were good at stating values but less good at translating them into concrete policy statements. A cynic might say that there were too many platitudes and not enough thought. I don’t blame the candidates – it’s a reflection of the dire political culture we have in the UK, a country where political theory is little discussed and where the term “intellectual” is used as an insult. Values are vitally important but it isn’t enough to proclaim belief in socialism: some principles we choose but some depend on facts. There has to be an understanding of how society, economy and environment work and how they interact. Without that, there can be no credible policy. Values, facts and theory need to be integrated, not in an elite ivory tower but collectively. In that work, we need leadership, but leadership that responds to those led and that teaches and learns with them. It is not easy, but without such a politics there will be no Labour government worth having.

I should say that I was broadly happy with the choice of Afzal Khan. He was clearly the most experienced of the candidates and is likely to help unite the party locally. His politics appear pragmatically progressive, if not very exciting. I trust that this piece will be seen as comradely and positive criticism and not just of these five individuals who were brave enough to put themselves forward.

Mark H Burton

March, 2017

1 The Labour Party: 1983 The New Hope for Britain. Available at http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/man/lab83.htm This article is a fair discussion: Neil Clark (2008). Not so suicidal after all. Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/jun/10/labour.margaretthatcher

3 David Mackay, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air. http://www.withouthotair.com/

5 Anderson, K., & Bows, A. (2010). Beyond “dangerous” climate change: emission scenarios for a new world. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1934), 20–44. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2010.0290

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