To Labour, with Tough Love

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Amongst the most frustrating things about Labour’s current performance is its failure to display a sense of urgency. The past week saw a Queen’s Speech from a government that has achieved laughably little in the year since its re-election — u-turning on most of its Budget, flailing on Europe, grasping at straws with spaceport legislation, relying on just a single Secretary of State for heavyweight policy ideas, and in dire need of an HR intervention.

On the opposite side of the House, we have a Labour Party whose much-expanded membership is hungry for ideas and eager to move forward. Labour members, particularly in London, are confronted with an overabundance of events designed to harness their ideas and expertise — only this weekend, members were presented with a choice of two all-day conferences dedicated entirely to Labour’s future.

And yet, while Gordon Brown was making an extremely effective, positive case for the EU at Fabian Summer Conference, arguing that Britain should stay in the EU to address international tax evasion, John McDonnell’s star-studded, inaugural State of the Economy Conference, which garnered excellent feedback, yielded the following Press Association tweet: ‘Labour helped to create “unfair tax system” when in power, Shadow Chancellor says’.

As a devoted comms consultant, I duly started repeatedly banging my head against the wall. Realising after some time that this wasn’t solving the problem either, and loath to join the ranks of those who have fallen into the unfortunate habit of bemoaning Labour’s flaws while offering no solutions, I’ve instead come up with some unsolicited advice on what we can start doing right now.

Find out what the country needs us to be doing

We seriously need to start caring about Nuneaton. Nuneaton, Glasgow East, Westminster North, and every one of the other 647 — we need to care about their concerns first, have answers for them second, and give up on them never. This is no revolutionary idea — from Stella Creasy religiously arguing that the first question on the doorstep should be ‘What can Labour do for you?’, to Owen Jones reiterating at pains that voters don’t think in terms of left and right: anyone looking at political party performance through non-ideological glasses will agree that competence in addressing the challenges of the present has to be the foundation for a radical agenda for the future.

Make sure the country knows what we stand for

It’s been months since Conservative Party Conference, but still, some nights, I wake up in a cold sweat with a racing heart, confusedly muttering ‘Security-Stability-Opportunity’, my mind crowded with vague images of white men in suits. Not a vision of society I would willingly sign up for. But one that many up and down the country have signed up for — joylessly, for lack of a better option. Labour has been fuzzy on what it stands for for a long time now. It’s time to craft a new, simple yet compelling, message that will cut through the noise and start sedimenting in voters’ minds ahead of the next general election.

Be aware that certain words come with baggage

Capitalism, socialism, neoliberalism — to be on the safe side, maybe just steer clear of any -ism — rent controls, renationalisation. All words that have a rather unfortunate history of previously either failing, or being used as ammunition by the right to caricature the left, as desperately clinging to allegedly outdated, over-intellectualised concepts that no voter can personally relate to. That doesn’t mean we should give up on the valuable concepts behind some of these words; it only means we need to stay aware that certain words have been mangled by history and could stand being replaced by a more contemporary and intuitive vocabulary.

Stop moralising

We should learn from the plight of religion that we’ve moved past the point in history where a combination of guilt-tripping and moral outrage will result in any sort of behaviour change. A Manichaean vision of the world where public is good and private is bad — where people are helpless puppets and banks are satanic overlords — only goes so far in explaining the complexities of reality. We should take on Conservative policy not by denouncing its intention but by tearing it back into the tiny shreds of misguided ineffectiveness it was originally assembled from. We can start by persuading business that we understand we won’t all be going back to trading a sheep for five chickens anytime soon; that business consists of complex, heterogeneous agents within society; that it offers as many opportunities as it offers challenges; and that it is the role of a capable Government to steer it towards offering more opportunities than challenges.

Take care of the Labour brand

Labour is not a business. A business only has to get enough people to buy its product and make a profit. Labour has to get an entire country to trust Labour to run it. As such, every little thing we, its representatives, do, is liable to be magnified and reflected back onto the organisation as a whole. Intense public scrutiny was always in the job description.

Don’t do the job of the hostile media for them

Why are we still talking about the ghosts of factions past? There is no need to draw a parallel between every challenge Labour is facing at the moment and that one by-election in 1987 which totally exemplified the dichotomy between social democratic compromise and the rise of XYZ. Journalists and academics can cheerfully pontificate on the past without harming their own political capital; but every reference a Labour member makes to the Party’s embattled past only reinforces Conservative myths about our party ‘record’. And finally, constructive engagement with the hostile media, though likely an uphill battle, is also an opportunity. Kill them slowly with kindness.

Get better at publicising what we’re doing right

Given the deluge of laments about the state of Labour, it sometimes seems like we have to start from scratch. Quite the opposite: up and down the country, Labour councils are doing brilliant work on a daily basis — so let there be coverage. Labour’s recent mayoralty wins have shifted attention towards the opportunities offered by the devolution settlement; but why have we waited for a Government Act to pay attention to the rest of the country? There’s no time to be lost in shining a light on the underreported achievements of MPs and councillors. We should neither settle for shouting into the storm of negative coverage nor bow down to it. If we offer hard facts and evidence-based case studies, we can mobilise local achievement to strengthen the Party’s national image.

Stop hoping for the best and start taking action

A politics of hope is one we can all get behind. But even better is turning that politics from an abstract concept into small, easy steps that in time will solidify into a track record of credibility and competence — because people will remember our actions more than our words.

The ‘New Politics’ Is Still under Construction — But Here’s Why We Should All Be Lending a Hand

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The ‘new politics’ has to date failed to shed its quotation marks and attendant cynicism. Associated with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, it is a few months old now and can claim some limited successes: an ever so slight reform of the schoolyard spectacle that is PMQs; an opening up of party decision-making to new members; a tentative challenge to the defeatist neoliberal economic consensus.

But the fledgling achievements of the ‘new politics’ often only draw attention to its shortcomings: the internal battles raging within Labour, from the prospects for the May 5th elections, to the recurring questioning of the leadership, to the unsavoury flares of antisemitism among some who claim association with Labour.

To an ungenerous mind, all of this certainly disqualifies the ‘new politics’ — if not the entire Labour Party in its current manifestation. But we shouldn’t count ourselves among such ungenerous minds.

The fundamental concept of a ‘new politics’ is laudable: the intention to make away with the old, lethargy-inducing politics-as-usual, which crowded the ranks of joyless non-voters; the desire for a more meaningful way of interacting with one’s political opponents than hooting and screeching in a chamber; the sentiment that perhaps politicians aren’t always best placed to make policy. And the ‘new politics’ concept transcends the current Labour leadership: it designates the desire for innovation, break, and change that also spurred New Labour — the years of dormant dissatisfaction that suddenly, somewhere, come to the fore and trigger change.

But the lasting problem with every ‘new politics’ is that just slapping a new label on something doesn’t translate to measurable, material change for the better. In a parallel way, increasing the membership of a party — which not only Labour, but also the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and others have recently been claiming — doesn’t, in itself, signify anything much at all. The fiercest critics of Labour’s current leadership have come to these conclusions many a time since last September.

The easy thing, then, is to scoff and reject — I came, I saw, I walked away.

This phenomenon of resignation extends beyond a riven Labour Party to the EU Referendum, and to foreign policy: the EU can’t be reformed; so we should vote to leave. The migration crisis can’t be solved by taking in refugees; so we shouldn’t take any. Integration can’t work; so we should seal our borders and say no to immigration.

When did it become so fashionable to stop making an effort?

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The Leave camp’s absurd argument that a Brexit will restore British ‘sovereignty’ (whatever that may be, in the age of global markets and trade; of climate change and international organised crime) is rightly countered by those in favour of a reformed EU with the notion of ‘pooled sovereignty’. This is a vision that doesn’t see influence, power, effect as a zero-sum game: just because you have a shiny new car doesn’t mean I can’t also have a shiny new car; and if we play it right, we can both feel equally proud of our shiny new cars as we scrub them.

Aspirant demagogues like Nigel Farage and, lately, Boris Johnson are not the problem. The problem is people hearing their words and sullenly cheering them on — half embarrassed, half self-righteous — because one of the chords deep within them has been struck, and someone voicing their uglier thoughts makes them feel these thoughts should be voiced. The Farages of the world subsist because lazy disengagement too often assumes the mantle of ‘honesty’.

But the current adversarial climate of politics — dominated by extremes, and fanned by the fascination with easy provocative soundbites — is optional. It is not an inescapable new turn, born of the insufficiency of all that has come before.

Some within the Labour Party would do well to remember that people who voted Conservative at the last election neither deserve eternal damnation, nor are they, fundamentally and conclusively, Conservative. Others might benefit from realising that the ‘new politics’ won’t shed its quotation marks if half the Party is watching its every stumble with a magnifying glass, forever ready to set fire to the project as a whole.

Positive social change wasn’t precipitated by those who sat back and snarked. It is always easier to dismiss and resign; so much so that it can even become an identity of sorts — the Brexiteer, the non-believer, the person with so little faith in their own ability to effect change that towel-throwing becomes preferable to brick-building. But the narrative of impotence eventually always falters before the sheer existence of choice; of participation. And the harder path usually proves the more rewarding one in the end.

Labour after Beckett: Where to Even Begin?

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The Beckett Report wasn’t commissioned because Labour doesn’t know why it lost. It’s arrived late to the party of agonising pieces of writing about the 2015 General Election — and as we now know, it’s tardier still than the many fingers that were lifted, hesitantly perhaps but lifted nonetheless, to register concern about Labour’s direction well before its defeat. In the words of Jon Cruddas, Labour ‘lost everywhere to everyone’ last May.

The purpose of the Report was tripartite: it was intended as a material sign of atonement; as a testament to Labour having learned its lessons; and ideally, as something that would somehow unequivocally show the way forward. The first of these purposes is easily achieved on the most basic level: the Report exists, so nominally at least, Labour is atoning by explaining the mistakes of the past to itself and maybe even to the nation.

Having achieved that, it’s the ‘something somehow forward’ that remains the problem —  because the second and third purposes should be inseparable: having learned the lessons should naturally result in an onwards and upwards movement. This is precisely the turning point that Labour, after an excruciatingly long leadership contest and a library of post-election analysis, should find itself at now. And yet there is no sign on the immediate horizon that the current headless chicken politics are about to be supplanted by a politics of purpose.

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Undoubtedly, Labour had at least tacit hopes that the Beckett Report would lend itself to signposting the future — to showing a path, overgrown perhaps but minimally discernible, out of this mess. Given that all parts of the Party found something to cherrypick from the Report, quoting selectively and at worst self-righteously, the Report clearly falls short of this.

Failing to indicate the best direction for the future isn’t necessarily a shortcoming of this particular inquiry, however. No one really expects the Chilcot Report to yield any closure on Iraq. Similarly, select committees regularly scrutinise government policy and too often conclude that it is inadequate: just this week, the education select committee found that the role of Regional Schools Commissioners is ‘confused, fragmented and lacking in transparency’. The foreign affairs select committee found airstrikes in Syria to be unjustified ahead of the vote in Parliament. Having found existing policy deficient, however, such reports or inquiries rarely offer workable alternatives and concrete policy proposals.

So in fairness, if the publication of the Beckett Report was always going to be an underwhelming affair, this isn’t exclusively Labour’s fault. The reasons for any electoral defeat are by necessity overdetermined. A recent article by the Political Economy Research Centre explained that the term ‘neoliberalism’ elicits antagonism from both the left and the right because it’s seen as a sleight of hand, a lazy umbrella concept attempting to straddle so many phenomena at once that it descends into vacuity. Arguably, however, this can be explained by the very nature of neoliberalism. Fredric Jameson’s theory speaks of a failure of the contemporary mind to ‘cognitively map’ its surroundings: there are so many actors operating globally, at all times, pursuing such a diversity of interests, that accountability structures are increasingly eroded and traditional cognitive processes, reliant on simple causal chains, collapse. In the end, the ordinary person’s mind shuts down before the enormity of the task of understanding the system it operates in. So if ‘neoliberalism’ attempts to describe too many disparate phenomena at once, this is precisely because of the nature of neoliberal life.

Similarly, elections are not usually lost because of any one factor. (Insert joke about the Lib Dems and tuition fees here.) As a result, the Beckett Report addresses the economy, leadership, policy, the voting system, the SNP, and a fair number of other factors. Prioritising any one of those factors, or even a small grouping of them, over others would make for a more cogent causal narrative of defeat — but it would also downplay the others. And since the 2020 election will be contested on a set of as yet unknown issues, the more we know about 2015, the better; what is a molehill now could be a mountain in the political landscape of the near future.

So if reports like this one are doomed to fail because people covet quick solutions when the phenomena at hand are too diverse, maybe Labour should abandon looking for the future in a deconstruction of 2015. Instead, it’s time to craft a clear narrative that will be taken forward.

This is a contestable idea: any clear narrative for the future will also have to be informed by the failed narratives of the past — predistribution; responsible capitalism; One Nation Labour; we’re all in this together; hell yes I’m tough enough — to avoid their mistakes. Secondly, some will argue that a clear narrative requires a clear policy portfolio as its foundation. But given the current internal turbulence within Labour, policy is taking a backseat to media frenzy over who’s still being appointed PPS to whom. And then, good policy requires good research, and good research takes time. Even if the policy-making machine has already been set into motion, by the time it has rumbled to a stop, the players may have changed, and worse, the country may have changed.

Given the uncertainty surrounding policy, the only thing that can provide continuity to bridge the gap between Labour today and at the next election is communications. In other words, a clear, simple, coherent narrative of what Labour stands for and what it rejects — in that order. There are already signs that this is being recognised: a remarkable number of speakers at the recent Fabian New Year Conference broached the issue of language and messaging, and some MPs equally recognise the importance of how we talk about ourselves. Labour’s current press office output is reactive and delayed, when it should be strategically shaping the narrative. Strategic communications don’t require every last policy kink to be ironed out; they only require knowing where best to target your opponents, and what kinds of stories will most resonate with the electorate. The Beckett Report and its many predecessors provide a wealth of evidence for distilling those messages.

There are some that regard the Corbyn project’s rejuvenation of the left as a chance to fundamentally redesign our approach to politics. This is without a doubt a cause worth pursuing, and one that is exclusive to the left — contrasting sharply with the Conservatives’ piecemeal, cosmetic politics of the short term. But too often the left succumbs to a vision of what politics could look like in its ideal form, rather than what it needs to be like right this instant. Producing a strong narrative of how Labour can make the country better for people today — on present terms — does not preclude a more comprehensive, longer-term project of disseminating better political education, producing intellectual renewal, and sculpting a more equal country. But in the meantime, people are still waiting for a vision of a better life. They can’t be kept waiting for another four years.

Diverging Discourses: How Germany and the UK Talk about Politics

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Every single one of my guilt-infused German genes recoils from the idea of explaining current German political discourse with reference to Hitler. Nonetheless, the Economist recently made a strikingly good case for just that, producing the most accurate English-language portrait of German political culture I’ve read so far. It includes the recognitions that all major political parties are pacifist in tendency; the right to privacy is valued to a sometimes absurd extent; laws, rules, and regulation are paramount; hegemonic power is not striven for; and perhaps most interestingly of all — especially in a comparison of German and UK political discourse that this piece sets out to do — there’s a strong, noticeable discomfiture with power in general.

This year has seen Germany consolidate its reputation of a formidable economic power within Europe. This consolidation, though, was very much passive and externally imposed; Germans tend not to get a kick out of economic strength; nor do they consider economic strength a basis or prerequisite for international hegemony, diplomatic pressure power, or interventionism. I’m often asked when Germany will take on a stronger role on the international stage; but I seem to have failed to shed my German-ness enough to see the necessity of such a development. I’ve previously covered my concerns about the UK’s ‘economic diplomacy’, spearheaded by the Conservatives and Osborne’s Treasury in particular. While that particular piece emerged from a view of how UK (and more generally Anglo-American) foreign policy has been moving towards purely economic concerns, my German background equally makes me hesitant to buy into the narrative that a strong economy should necessarily lead to a strong international role.

Expertise over provocativeness. It is the refugee crisis which has most pointedly highlighted the specificity of German political discourse and decision-making to the European community this year. Informed by the views of the UK press and UK nationals on Germany’s role in the refugee crisis, I was struck by how much the terms of the internal debate on the subject differed within Germany. The last 2015 episode of Anne Will, Germany’s premier political talkshow, was dedicated exclusively to a panel discussion on the refugee crisis. The composition of the panel was interesting in itself: a German historian, Jörg Baberowski, featured alongside the Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Manuela Schwesig; Kübra Gümüşay, a young political commentator with Turkish roots; Boris Palmer of the Green Party, Mayor of Tübingen; and Rita Knobel-Ulrich, an investigative journalist. Not only was the panel dominated by women — one of whom, Schwesig, as a pregnant woman additionally highlighted the usual absence of pregnant women from television; it also seemed assembled based on expertise, or at least a variety of experiences. It’s undoubtedly unfair to compare this programme to the UK’s Question Time, not least because there’s no element of audience participation on Anne Will. But it remains striking how Question Time is more concerned with party-political representation, and with attracting generic figures from the political commentariat, rather than those who might have special insight into topical issues. At some point, the debate on Question Time always descends into bashing the Conservatives’ or Labour’s election manifestos or previous record in government; such admittedly entertaining scenes were noticeably absent from the Anne Will programme on the refugee crisis.

Productive ambivalence. Historian Baberowski started off the debate in terms that were remarkably academic, non-polarised, and productively ambivalent. Strikingly to anyone immersed in UK political discourse, he registered skepticism about certain positions — often in terms as openly hesitant as ‘My worry is …’. He renounced making political predictions, in favour of admitting that he didn’t know the answer: on a particular question of refugee policy, he outright said ‘But maybe it will work out, I don’t know!’. He answered another question with ‘Yes and no, …’. He didn’t try to maximise his airtime; and perhaps most outrageously, he quoted French public intellectual Michel Houellebecq on national television. Given his status as an academic, one might think that his style would be the odd one out; but on the contrary — the style of the other panellists’ responses didn’t differ significantly. Schwesig, a member of the social democrat SPD, showed careful nuance in distinguishing, of her own accord, between refugees and economic migrants. She also posited that the German political debate is always framed in black-and-white terms despite citizens not thinking in those categories. (In the UK, Owen Jones is the only commentator who, to my knowledge, regularly tries despairingly to remind everyone that voters don’t think in terms of left or right.) Gümüşay outright called for a redefinition of German identity — ‘Who do we mean when we say “we”’, in her terms. Palmer, representing the local level of government to Schwesig’s federal level, flagged several problems that local authorities are facing due to the influx of refugees — without using these as a means for personal or party-political attacks. He and other panellists frequently used the phrase ‘I agree with you completely’. Knobel-Ulrich, easily the most populist member of the panel, nonetheless based her criticism of refugee and integration policy on evidence from a documentary which she is currently producing.

Academics are people too. Now, none of these features are completely absent from the UK political discourse, of course; and Question Time in particular offers a completely different format. But a comparison under such caveats nonetheless yields valuable insights into the differences of UK and German political discourse. Firstly, the dimension of academic analysis present in Anne Will would never have made it into mainstream political discussions in the UK. If Ed Miliband was rejected by the British public for being too much of a North London geek, and politicians using ‘isms’ give their comms advisors heart attacks, some of the terms and concepts used on Anne Will might have caused spontaneous riots amongst the UK public, which has been told by the popular press that politicians use abstract concepts only to patronise them, as part of their detached-from-voter-concerns, Westminster-bubble, elitist existences. German political discourse, by contrast and without wanting to sound too glowing, offers academic terms or abstract concepts like ‘Parallelgesellschaft’ (the ‘parallel society’ that threatens to emerge if migrants are not integrated properly into German communities) as an aid to more concise and nuanced thinking about issues that demand precisely such concise and nuanced thinking. There is no discernible class element to the use of academic terms in German public discourse; people using them will not be decried as oppressing ‘normal, working-class people’ with their intellect. Instead, there seems to be a collective desire to strive for language that is as succinct as possible in describing multi-faceted policy issues.

Avoiding polarisation. The debate on all sides was significantly less polarised than one might expect amongst the UK political commentariat. Baberowski’s ambivalent language was not interpreted as a sign of weakness or ‘flip-flopping’ — that favoured UK term for scathingly disparaging anyone who might change their mind in light of new evidence or further reflection on complex issues. Schwesig, member of the minority party in the current coalition government, managed to both acknowledge the need for a ‘long-term political solution tackling the causes of the refugee crisis’ in the Middle East, and convincingly project optimism about Germany’s mass intake of refugees. Given the Tories’ favoured strategy of giving up on solving any problem if they can’t solve it completely, David Cameron would be constitutionally incapable of straddling such a differentiated position. Prodded by Palmer, Schwesig competently outlined a four-point government plan for dealing with the refugee crisis in the medium term, admitting past shortcomings in the process. Palmer, extraordinarily given that the Greens are a party of the official opposition, focused not on shredding government policy by any means available, but on distinguishing, rightly, between the government’s morally positive ‘attitude’ towards accepting refugees and the ‘solutions or actions’ they have been offering, which are not yet sufficient. The avoidance of polarisation characterised the entire debate, as much as the willingness on the part of all assembled speakers to see the value of Germany’s attitude towards refugees and to keep on accepting more refugees for as long as possible. Anne Will herself, who hosted a special episode of her programme in October in which she interviewed Angela Merkel one-on-one about the refugee crisis, was noticeably sympathetic towards the government’s refugee policy — a faux pas on British TV, where Dimbleby, Paxman, Neil et al. are (rightly) expected to give every political a fundamental and thorough grilling. The panel did not regard Germany’s current refugee policy as unequivocally appropriate. But everyone certainly seemed united in considering the intention behind it an unequivocally noble one.

Where is the money? There was one glaring absence from the debate: cost. Palmer, as a representative of local government who would feel the tightness of funds most immediately and on a daily basis, came closest to criticising the cost of current refugee policy to the state. Still, he framed the issue at hand not as a ‘refugee’ crisis, and not even as a crisis of financial means, but as a crisis of organisation. Given the immense domination of the austerity and ‘fiscal responsibility’ narrative in any debate on UK political issues, the absence of these concerns from Anne Will was nothing short of baffling. If cost was brought up, it was brought up almost as an embarrassing side thought: ‘I’m sorry, it’s a matter of resources’ is a literal quote from one speaker. Cost was not used as a means for party-political attacks; it was raised pragmatically, and the host actively discouraged the debate from proceeding down the cost avenue. Given the Tories’ immense success in framing every single political issue as an issue of state spending in the UK, the political discourse could not differ more from Germany’s, in which one of Merkel’s repeated slogans is ‘We’re well off’. Given that the UK and Germany are both amongst the richest countries in the world (e.g. GDP based on PPP per capita), the impact that political framing can have on citizens’ perception of their country’s wealth is extraordinary.

Structural differences. There are a variety of explanations for these differences in how the political debate is conducted. Germany’s particular historical legacy, as outlined so astutely in the Economist piece above, is one of them. Federalism, and the electoral system of proportional representation, both discourage polarised debate: the Greens are less likely to attack the government indiscriminately because they were in a coalition government only a few years ago, and are in government in various federal states and cities. The SPD is more comfortable with its social democrat mantle, and therefore more comfortable in a coalition government with the more conservative CDU, because Die Linke exists as a party further to the left — whereas Labour has to painfully attempt to accommodate every line of thinking from revolutionary Trotskyism to almost-Toryism. The German language is naturally stiff and therefore more suited to obscure theorisation and dull rational argumentation. Through years of being exposed to said argumentation, the German public has largely resigned itself to a ‘fair enough’ stance on many issues that would cause stronger reactions elsewhere. And lastly, the economic argument can’t be ignored: much of Germany is indeed well off; and it’s easier to talk lofty political idealism in a country with a strong middle class.

Having delivered this accolade for political discourse in Germany, I might conceivably be asked why I’ve adopted the UK as my home of choice and regularly devote an unspeakable amount of my time to the Labour Party. The answer lies partly in the fact that I had to jar myself back to attention every five minutes while watching Anne Will’s interview with Merkel, which constantly threatened to gently chaperone me into slumber. And in the fact that I’m in front of the TV every Thursday night at 10.35pm stat, unhealthily excited to see who made the panel on Question Time, which Tory MP is going to say something callous, which Labour MP will get blamed for the global financial crisis or attack their own party, and what the colour of Dimbleby’s tie will be this week. As a result, I’m happy to adopt a strategy of applying German-style dull rational analysis to a more thrilling UK political landscape.

Syria: Not on These Terms

I seem to be one of the few people left in the country who wasn’t impressed by Hilary Benn’s speech closing the day-long parliamentary debate on UK airstrikes. Dipping in and out of traditional and social media coverage all day, I picked up and steadily consolidated a sense of total alienation at the terms on which the debate was held – on both sides of the argument. This is not an isolated experience. The last few days in politics – likely since the Paris attacks – have unearthed a fair amount of very unsavoury sentiment across parties and media outlets. Of course, the Paris attacks had tensions running high – as was reflected in the fact that public support for Syrian airstrikes was decreasing with every day that the Paris tragedy receded further into history. But the hijacking of the debate by party-political questions and manoeuvring, its skewed representation as a clincher moment for the Corbyn leadership, and the general phenomenon of everyone’s sudden foreign policy expertise, took away from the momentous nature of the vote on Syria. It was momentous not because the UK is starting another war; I accept the argument that we are only extending airstrikes already in place, as borders are generally arbitrary and the Iraqi-Syrian one in particular is a phantasm when it comes to ISIS’ range. It’s momentous because any occasion that potentially threatens civilian life deserves that description, much like it deserves better justice than that done by Cameron, Corbyn, and even Benn on Wednesday.

On the evening of the vote, I attended a carol service in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, hosted by the charity Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope. The service was beautiful both in its ambience and its purpose. But working in Westminster means being permeated with its politics, willingly or not — on my way home a few days ago, I’d all but decided to avoid social media for the night only to walk straight into a protest outside of parliament. During the carol service, the secular invaded the religious in an unexpected and fairly surreal manner, as Stop the War picketed right outside of the church, chants of ‘Don’t bomb Syria’ drifting in through the high arched windows and competing with the hymns inside. Later, George Osborne read verses from the Bible, while George Galloway was addressing Stop the War outside, amidst calls for solidarity with Corbyn. Though the audience inside the church preserved a general air of impassivity, I can’t have been the only one thinking about the irony of a Chancellor accused of callousness towards the needy reading from the Bible, while the likes of Galloway were speaking out against military action.

Yet the sheer aggressiveness of Stop the War, ostensibly a peace movement, and associated fringe actors, is one of the most puzzling aspects of the entire Syria debate. Members of the extreme left seem to believe at the moment that pacifism in itself is such a powerful moral good that any means will serve towards achieving it as an end. What would otherwise constitute bullying, intimidation, and threat is suddenly acceptable behaviour because it occurs in the name of protecting innocents. There is an element, too, of moral self-righteousness: from social media commentary it’s evident that general anti-establishment thinking, an us-versus-them at all costs mentality, infiltrates watershed divisive moments like the Syria vote, where anyone who is not 100% with the opposition is branded a warmonger.

My own rejection of Syrian airstrikes took some time to work out, and I remain not at all confident that it is the right stance. This lack of certainty stems from the fact that I’m ill-informed about Middle East politics; that decisions to launch airstrikes by their very nature, despite all the talk of ’targeted’ and ‘precision’ striking which apparently the UK has nailed when no one else has, will have unforeseeable consequences; that I distrust the idea that this was a purely rational, logical, military decision rather than political showmanship on a national and international stage; that parliament’s foreign affairs select committee could not grant enough grounds to extend airstrikes. None of these reasons are purely pacifist, as pacifism at any cost is not a tenable position. Pragmatism is a more appealing position, but then, as with any position that does not stick to pure principle, it could virtually mean anything. Considering one’s own basic position on issues like these threatens to meander into the realm of philosophy (especially if one is in a church at the time). Thinking about current foreign policy under the aegis of a larger historic-political framework is simultaneously irreconcilable with a need for speedy decision-making and sorely needed, given the involvement of human lives in said decision-making.

Hilary Benn’s speech played into the need for grander terms in a debate that had been dominated by petty squabbles and used by all involved as a site for party-political moves. But his speech only lent the illusion of grandeur and righteousness in making the decision; it failed to provide a measured and realistic assessment of the unappealing, unphotogenic complexities of the situation. If I had to give a speech in favour of participating in airstrikes — and I’m grateful I don’t — I would be cringing the entire way, certain only of the uncertainty of a decision between a rock and a hard place. That sense of apologetic regret is not something that featured in the debate; instead, commentators chose to home in on the flashy bits, awestruck by anyone who faintly performed something like ‘statesmanship’, frantically pronouncing the only piece of well-delivered rhetoric an historic occasion. So historic, in fact, that it ‘is about to become the House of Commons “where were you when Kennedy was shot” moment’, according to one especially unpalatable accolade by Dan Hodges.

Throughout the debate, I’ve been struck by how many people on both sides have felt the need to reiterate over and over that ISIS are ‘evil’, a ‘death cult’, and finally, ‘fascists’. These descriptions are true. But they are also incontrovertible. After the nth time they are repeated in public settings to roaring applause, one starts to question the motivation of the speaker. Of course, the debate has become so polarised that everyone feels the need at least once to condemn the immorality of ISIS so that they are not branded a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ by our Conservative government. But continually repeating scathing indictments of ISIS starts to look a lot like a smokescreen of moral righteousness, concealing worrying claims like the government’s ability to rely on the support of 70,000 fighters in Syria. Or the fact that many feel less safe as a result of UK participation in airstrikes. Or the fact that public opinion was divided down the middle on whether we should be participating — despite every effort being made by the Conservatives to represent the Paris attacks as a sign of an imminent ‘threat to the nation’, manufacturing yet another climate of fear to rush through decisions. When by its very nature, terrorism is always a threat to anyone, and spreading virally, cannot be defeated through such antiquated means as bombing, using the ‘threat to the nation’ line looks a lot like a means to veil the lack of a political process, a timeline, and a reconstruction plan.

In short, the public debate in the run-up to the Syria vote was singularly inadequate to the occasion, and it’s worth singling out Benn’s remarkably rhapsodic reception as a symptom of this. His assertion that ‘none of us, today, act with the intent to harm civilians’ is, both in the context of Iraq and similar recent conflicts that spiralled out of control and in itself, simply not good enough. Similarly, speaking of the current decision in terms of the entire history of fighting fascism is a red herring; it threatens to obscure the specificities of the Syria vote with virtue-signalling. To his credit, this was clearly not Benn’s motivation, since he responded humbly to praise afterwards. But it was certainly the effect, given the media fanfare and the announcement of some that they would support airstrikes as a direct result of Benn’s performance (not his arguments, which were not particularly new). The Guardian headlines its video of Benn’s speech with his quote ‘We must now confront this evil’ — indirectly accepting the misleading, macho terms on which the Conservative government have been presenting this decision: as a choice between cowardly inaction and gutsy defiance of the ‘forces of evil’. Surely, this is not an appropriate framing of the actual choice. In the end, I accept a fair number of arguments for intervention in Syria, and understand the reasoning of many who voted in favour. But not on the terms Benn used to put his case to the nation.

Labour Communications: Roadmap to Recovery

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This post was written for PLMR, where I’m currently interning, and previously published here.

One of the main problems plaguing the Labour Party recently has been opacity of message. To explain this year’s General Election defeat, many point to Ed Miliband’s incoherent, piecemeal manifesto – and to the infamous Edstone and ‘immigration controls’ mugs, tokens of a failed campaign. Both were, paradoxically, material objects designed to lend solidity to the messaging coming out of the Labour Party, but ended up only highlighting the muddled nature of said messaging.

Fast forward to the present, and Labour is still not providing clarity of message. By contrast, the Conservatives are a case study in consistency. Still profiting from the general sense of economic insecurity in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the Conservatives continue their pre-election practice of painting Labour as unwilling to face up to ‘economic reality’. Labour, they say, are ‘a serious risk to our nation’s security, our economy’s security and your family’s security’. The Conservative Party Conference slogan – ‘Security, Stability, Opportunity’ – supported this claim, while the Labour Party Conference slogan, ‘Straight Talking, Honest Politics’, was immediately open to ridicule and co-option by commentators, who contrasted it with the excesses of ultra-left-wing keyboard warriors on Twitter.

Recent international events have played straight into the Conservatives’ hands, vindicating their consistent focus on security. ISIS have been a threat for some time, and much legislation passing through the Commons – like the proposed British Bill of Rights and the Investigatory Powers Bill – are justified with recourse to the threats posed by extremism and terrorism. Theresa May, in public interviews, consistently speaks not only of ‘safety’, but of ‘safety and security’; ‘to keep UK citizens safe and secure’. The Conservatives would have us think we’ve reached a point where ‘safety’ is no longer sufficient, but needs to be synonymically reinforced with the addition of ‘security’.

In the aftermath of last week’s attacks in Paris, the Conservatives’ focus on security is paying off: the public will trust a party which has positioned itself as capable of protection more than one that is perceived as continually sending mixed messages. Part of the appeal of the Labour Party to its (increasing) membership is that it is a ‘broad church’ – that it prioritises consultation, debate, and intellectual flexibility over hard-and-fast stances that make for good sound bites or lend the illusion of infallible competence. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid has sought to play into this notion of broad discussion; particularly around policy issues like Trident, renationalisation, and the vote on Syria, which were announced as open to consultation. Corbyn and his team continually promised a policy-making process in which all members would be invited to voice their views.

The problem with this promise is that so far, we have only seen vague and meandering discussion, spread unevenly across the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and various media outlets, with very little apparent streamlining of communications from Labour HQ. Labour MP Simon Danczuk, true to form, has a weekly column in the Mail on Sunday in which he denounces the leadership in perplexing detail; while Corbyn himself has been unwilling on several occasions to provide interviews and comment to major influential news outlets and opinion shapers. While it is indisputable that the media landscape in the UK suffers from an anti-left-wing bias, Corbyn’s strategy of disengagement will do nothing to counteract this tendency.

Lack of internal communication has been a problem too: when General Houghton criticised Corbyn’s Trident stance on Andrew Marr, for example, shadow Defence Secretary Maria Eagle appeared to be in agreement with the General’s comments when interviewed immediately afterward. One can only assume that she had not been briefed with a more constructive response to the General’s overt breaching of the constitutional principle of neutrality. Similarly, when Ken Livingstone was appointed co-chair of Labour’s defence review this week, it appears that the other chair, Maria Eagle, only found out about this appointment on Twitter. If blunders like these cannot be avoided, perhaps they can at least be prevented from leaking to the media.

The fact that many of these communications blunders occurred on foreign policy, within the Conservative-dictated framework that our security is constantly imperilled, further aggravates the public perception that Labour does not know where it stands. The press have very openly been fanning the flames of disagreement within Labour – even though disagreement within a party does not necessarily equal division. So while the press like to portray the anti-Corbyn insurgency within the PLP as more significant than it actually is, week after week of reported splits between Corbyn’s team and the rest of the PLP have been doing consistent additional damage to a platform that has already not been projecting unity.

So how can Labour improve its communications in the next few weeks? In the wake of Miliband’s leadership, which is now being viewed even less favourably through a post-election lens, Labour is at risk of being perennially confined to the sidelines as a party of uncertainty, flip-flopping, u-turning, and general all-over-the-place-ness – so it’s crucial to better stage-manage Labour’s public perception as swiftly as possible.

To begin with, surely the way to remedy a perceived bias in the media landscape is to proactively send out the sort of messages that project a positive, appealing vision of the Labour Party for the electorate. Many of the frequent Labour Party mailings encourage members to become active locally and contribute to ongoing campaigns – and while this is doubtlessly important and needs to be reinforced occasionally, most people who have already signed up as members understand that politics is about campaigning. Instead, were Labour to send out advice on strategies for making Labour’s case to voters on the doorstep or in debates, for example – a sort of best practice guide –, or concretely advise on how to counter Conservative rhetoric, members would be better served than with just a generic call to arms.

Next, it would be useful to streamline Labour’s own communications in such a way that they at least offer the appearance of a coherent policy programme underlying them. Policy is by necessity constantly in flux, and events like the Paris attacks will emerge as watershed moments for competing policy currents. But it must still be possible to project an appearance of competence and self-assuredness: Conservative economic policy is highly disputed amongst world-leading economists, yet what moved the electorate to vote Conservative in the General Election was by and large their successful projection of economic expertise and security.

Avoiding unnecessary positioning on highly divisive policy issues is also essential. Today saw the announcement that Labour is preparing a backbench case for a vote in favour of military action in Syria – ahead of the government publishing their own plan for Syria. In the worst-case scenario, Labour’s backbench case is presented before the government’s; the government’s case turns out to have much the same content; the vote passes and the Conservatives gain political capital out of not even having to make this case for themselves. Labour would be accused of being irreparably divided again, and the nay-sayers would be accused of mindless blanket opposition. A better alternative on difficult policy issues is the collective holding of horses on Labour’s part – sometimes waiting and seeing, particularly without leaking every instance of disagreement to the press, may be the wiser choice. Corbyn’s pronouncement that he would never activate a nuclear deterrent was similarly premature; its bad timing actually detracted from the positive moral content of his message.

The final improvement lies within the control of the Party, and Corbyn’s team in particular: it won’t do to wait for the next General Election campaign to come up with a persuasive and innovative policy platform, which then provides the grounding for consistent messaging and consolidates a favourable public opinion of Labour. The last few months have seen Labour’s defeat result in one review upon another of how, why, and when specifically Labour failed. These reviews are very important. But at some point, review needs to turn into implementation – and this can only happen if members know what they’re campaigning for. It lies in the hands of Corbyn and his team to take a cue from all the talk about security and stability dominating the debate and define what Labour stands for.

Britain and Global Leadership

I’ve previously talked about my mistrust of the concept of ‘leadership’ in politics (here and here), which is thrown about constantly as a result of the rise of management culture (and the impressive continuous growth of consulting services). My main problem with this concept is that it is often deployed politically in a way that doesn’t mean joint leadership — collective, communal action in which all actors profit but all actors also recognise their interdependency and act accordingly. Instead, ‘leadership’ more often than not is deployed a) in a partisan manner, with the Conservatives prefacing virtually every single new policy announcement with the claim that it will render Britain ‘world-leading’ in some way or other; and b) in a manner that implies superiority, not cooperation on the basis of equality — i.e. we’re a great country because our economy is greater than Greece’s.

All of these uses of ‘leadership’ add up to the following intended message to the public — ‘Everything we’re doing is for the best of the country’. ‘You, the voter, surely wouldn’t want us to renounce global leadership?’ And finally — ‘If we don’t do this, we’ll end up on the junkyard of history’. The language of leadership is therefore difficult to disagree with or counter, because no one could get away with publicly arguing for dialling down our leadership efforts. But actual policy often goes underexamined behind the smokescreen of ‘leadership’.

These last three weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to take part in interviewing senior foreign policy officials and thinkers inside and outside of Westminster and Whitehall — from the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office to think tanks and universities. As a research assistant for the production of the UK’s 2016 ECFR Scorecard, I was fortunate enough to hear from a wide array of specialists on the key foreign policy issues facing the UK at the moment. What follows here are my own, separate, impressions, drawing on my interviews on related themes and on the attention that the Chinese and Egyptian state visits have been receiving. (The ECFR Scorecard research is still underway and you’ll be able to read its findings on the UK and other EU member states here in early 2016.)

Both the UK and possibly the world at large are seeing a rise in so-called ‘economic diplomacy’. This term was already used a few years ago to describe a turn in Canadian foreign policy to a re-functioning of diplomacy — traditionally concerned just as much with promoting long-term strategic aims like geopolitical stability and international development — to a role supportive of, and secondary to, economic aims. This has been most obvious in Osborne’s recent charm offensive towards China to secure foreign investment: a move which was shrewdly picked up by left-wing commentators as nationalisation of key British assets — by other nations. New nuclear plants will be built in Somerset, Suffolk, and Essex by companies that are up to 85% owned by the French and Chinese governments. In the meantime, there is no coherent industrial strategy in place to deal with the loss of jobs from the decline of British steel. Securing foreign investment into public services and infrastructure, of course, allows the Chancellor to keep these new infrastructure projects separate from his budget deficit reduction plans, because they will not be financed by state spending. Osborne’s Chinese offensive neatly aligns with the political ideology of fiscal contraction holding reign over much of Europe: the UK is both ‘world-leading’ and paradoxically dependent on China to retain its world leadership. The cost of these new infrastructure investments, of course, will nonetheless be huge for Britain and even senior government officials profess some unease at the thought of giving China control over British nuclear power. How this fits into the Conservative Conference slogan ‘Security, Stability, Opportunity’ remains to be seen. It certainly fits with the recent underhanded removal of accountability to international law from the Ministerial Code, and with the proposed abandonment of the Human Rights Act in favour of a vague ‘British Bill of Rights’.

There are other incongruences in Osborne’s engagement with China: the Conservatives continually reject any hint of socialism in British party politics, yet are so keen on investment from state socialist China that Jeremy Hunt suggests families should make up for the tax credits cuts by working harder like the Chinese. David Cameron, pressed on Chinese human rights, has said the UK ‘can and indeed must have both’ a strong economic relationship with China and an exchange about the issue of human rights. But while he has demonstrated his commitment to the economic relationship copiously — Britain wants to be the ‘great platform from which China can go global’ by giving China access to the City —, Whitehall policy nowadays is to raise the less palatable issues ‘privately and discreetly’. This low-profile approach has been defended on the credible basis that the Foreign Office still does important work despite a lack of grandstanding in public. And indeed, Britain’s spending on international aid and on the refugee crisis in particular has been world-leading in the good sense. But all of the important diplomacy that really is happening behind closed doors, and which is often not given enough credit by the media because there’s nothing exciting about diplomatic haggling and incremental progress, is nonetheless corrupted by the very obvious Treasury-driven economic imperative; the narrow, presentist, self-interested turn of foreign policy in which, to quote, ‘certain ideas got driven out’ — in favour of selfie diplomacy.

All of this adds up to an unsavoury picture of considering human rights and strategic diplomacy a nuisance, a relic from the dinosaur age of consensus politics and the development of an international community based on the rule of law and shared democratic standards. There was a consensus across the many people I’ve spoken to that recent British foreign policy has been less strategic and more transactional and reactive, producing policy on an issue-by-issue basis rather than having an overarching metanarrative of Britain’s desired diplomatic and strategic role in the world, and then extrapolating individual policy decisions from there. Naturally, international developments have evolved in a way that requires issue-by-issue flexibility. But the terms of the Brexit debate — which is being assessed as the primary issue overshadowing all foreign policy-making —, with its macho, neo-imperial emphasis on national sovereignty, global leadership, and ‘sitting at the table’, confirm a return-on-investment view of foreign policy. It was indicative to hear all non-governmental commentators soundly express their disappointment for Britain’s lack of ‘leadership’ on issues of regional stability, particularly in the Middle East and the Balkans. In the latter region, Britain used to be a leading voice in EU accession talks in order to encourage internal democratic reform in former Soviet countries, which would in future lead to political and trade relationships advantageous to all involved. Now, with the question of Brexit looming, the refugee crisis, and the general ‘enlargement fatigue’ affecting the EU, constructive efforts to aid modernisation in the region have been significantly redressed. It will surprise no one that the return-on-investment character of foreign policy is also itself caused by budgetary austerity affecting the funding of British diplomatic operations.

The rise of transactional foreign policy is traceable to the Conservative government’s recognition that the British public lacks interest in foreign developments — a regrettable Little Englander disposition, according to some. But it is likely unfair to confine the causes of this development only to British national characteristics. Fiscal austerity ideologies, neoliberal presentism, a global abdication of responsibility for international security issues, and the option for shady world leaders to simply invest their money elsewhere if one countries criticises them too openly — all conspire to create a perfect storm of claims of ‘leadership’ detracting from a globalised world that insufficiently addresses its intricate interdependencies.