No to referenda

By Alex Bryan

First the Conservatives, then Labour, now finally, it seems, the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg’s statement in PMQ’s on Wednesday that it is a matter of ‘when not if’ a referendum is held on Britain’s membership of the European Union signals the beginning of a three-party consensus that a referendum on Europe is necessary. Considering the age-old Europhilic tendencies of the party, this demonstrates how much support and influence UKIP now wield.

As well as the rise of UKIP, it also signals the rise of something else which the Lib Dems have been altogether more keen on; referenda. Since the ascension of New Labour in 1997, Britain has changed from being a country which had only had one referendum in its entire history to being one in which referenda are becoming an almost common phenomena. Though we have only had one national referendum since 1997 (on the Alternative Vote), the calls for a referendum on the EU and Scottish independence show that they are becoming a part of the national political fabric.

The attractions of calling for a referendum are, from the politicians perspective, clear. ‘Giving the people a vote’ will never be seen as an unpopular stance, and will almost certainly be lauded as ‘democratic’, whilst simultaneously casting anyone who dares to disagree as ‘undemocratic’ or elitist. This should be a worry for those concerned with the health of British politics. The fact that referenda are now seen as a plausible possibility on controversial issues means that politicians can manipulate political opinion in order to suit their political agenda hugely.

Take Europe for example; it is no coincidence that it is the Conservatives and UKIP who are most vocal in their support for a referendum, as it is they who have public opinion on their side. As Labour found out with the ill-fated North Yorkshire devolution referendums in 2004, a referendum lost is an embarrassment. Therefore politicians will only pressure for a referendum on an issue they know that they are winning on.

This is not a good thing. For one thing, issues such as EU membership are hugely complex and shadowed by conjecture and falsehoods. They are immensely important for the future of our nation. They are, essentially, exactly the kind of issues which we elect with politicians to deal with. We devolve some of our democratic powers to parliament and the government in the hope that they, as qualified, full-time politicians, will be able to conduct hearings and make policy on important issues better than we would.

Again, take the EU. This is a subject as controversial as it is possible to be. Proponents of referendums say that, come election day, the public education programme and campaigning preceding it will ensure that the public is informed enough to cast a ballot. But when it comes to the EU, very few people know the figures. Nigel Farage might bang on about membership fees but in reality the economic benefits or costs of EU membership are impossible to calculate. By the time election day comes round, the campaigning will simply have affirmed existing prejudices. On an issue as complex as EU membership, most people will not have the time or the information to do any research into the issue, and will cast their vote based on the statistics and opinions they read in the newspapers, the vast majority of which are anti-EU. It is not elitist to say that in the modern world, where democracy is seen as the state getting out of your way rather than direct participation in the political system, it is not elitist to say this: it is simply realistic.

More important than any individual bad decision however are the long-term implications of referendums on the public’s views on politicians. If politicians begin regularly abdicating the biggest decisions, then it will no longer be seen as important whether they can handle the big decisions, as they will be making fewer of them. A public which already views politicians with contempt will begin to see them as dispensable.

There is a case to be made for the claim that the public does not have enough say on governance, that one vote every five years is nowhere near sufficient. But a functioning democratic system must be constitutionally consistent. If the appetite for referendums is the appetite for increased public involvement, then there are other more effective avenues which lead to that. To attempt to invoke ‘the will of the people’ on an ad hoc basis is dangerous, and has little to do with what the public actually wants. It’s not about public involvement. It is a political power play, designed to render the opponent impotent, and it is a device of which we should be increasingly wary.   L


Something old, new, borrowed and blue: Labour’s wedding punch-up

By John Newton

It has become de rigueur for political leaders to brook dissatisfaction and dissent from within their parties by describing their membership as being drawn from a ‘broad church’. However for Labour, ancient tensions and nascent feuds have meant that the party now more closely resembles the motley congregation at the tail-end of a bitter and boozy wedding reception.

Entrenched loyalties, noxious rivalries and ideological shifts mean that any honey-moon period Ed Miliband might have enjoyed will probably be cut short as spurned bridesmaids and thuggish uncles size each other up across an almost entirely vacant dance floor – wondering if their moment in the middle has come and gone.

In the long shadows of the darkest corner, we have something Old. The Old Labour faction – formerly known as Labour. They don’t understand why the DJ hasn’t got the Red Flag in his record bag, or why their leader makes jokes about being unjustifiably called ‘Red Ed’. The ticket that they first stood on has shifted beneath their very feet and the ‘true- Labour’ policies they espouse such as nationalisation of utilities, workers’ right as well as nuclear non-proliferation and solidarity with Palestine, are seen by the leadership as politically toxic.

Amongst this group are the family elders, warmly greeted by the leadership before being wheeled to the back of the hall in the hope they won’t cause a scene.  Their grumblings rarely change policy and are increasingly at odds with the leading lights, keen to retake the reins of power.  A good example of this was the recent rebellion over benefits sanctions in the Jobseekers Bill, which included long-standing Old Labour rebels such as Dennis Skinner and Jeremy Corbyn but also influential ministerial staff such as Ian Mearns who resigned as a PPS to Ivan Lewis in the wake of the rebellion. These are members from the bowels of the movement and they’re not short of guts when it comes to defying the whip.

However, these are not just Labour’s venerable patriarchs to be acknowledged but not adhered to like the tenets of some faded religion. Hanging around the exits menacingly are the stout, massed ranks of the unions – the ‘salt-of the-earth uncles’ and’ cousins-once-removed’ that the more aspirational leadership was reluctantly obliged to invite and continually agonise over the potential for a faux-pas that the presence of these poor relations could lead to.

They were right to worry, the head of the PCS union Mark Serwotka, has recently been hinting at calls for coordinated “generalised strike action” and this week Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey has warned Ed Miliband against being “seduced” by the upwardly mobile Blairite grouping.

This is something new. The New Labour group, which had held almost absolute autonomy over the Labour Party for the last 20 years, has been left feeling decidedly jilted after Ed Miliband beat new Labour protégé David to the Labour leadership. They, like the suave ex-boyfriend, are most likely to be holding court in exquisite dejection at the bar, disconsolately discounting the sub-par choices available on the frankly provincial wine list. These are politicians – it must be remembered – who knew Clinton, oversaw exponential growth and strode the world stage.

This grouping, while not completely in the political wilderness fervently believe that it is only through their brand of centre-ground aspirational politics that Labour could ever win a functional parliamentary majority.

The most notable dig at the current Leader’s new found happiness came from Tony Blair in the New Statesmen.

The message was clear, not only is the Leaderships current choice of political partner not right for him, they should have never have broken up in the first place, he said “In 2007/08 the cyclically adjusted current Budget balance was less than 1% of GDP. Public debt was significantly below 1997”.

He seems to imply the reason that Labour and the country fell so sharply out of love with the Blair model was all a misunderstanding  and that it would be a mistake for the Leader to go back to the safe old policies of mutualisation and regulation which would make the State bloated and dowdy. Don’t tie yourself down, don’t settle so easily. The Blair doctrine is fluid and pragmatic rather than ideological and doctrinal.

Miliband, it would appear, is right to be forewarned against such seductive invitations.

These are not just invocations from the desert, the Blairite reach extends well within the walls of Miliband’s administration. The past few weeks have seen a litany of old Blairite bridesmaids appearing in the media to proffer opinions and prognoses on all the Nation’s ills. Former ministerial chameleon John Reid’s vociferousness has been matched only by his ubiquity on news programmes in recent weeks as well as Peter Mandelson’s intervention sneering that Miliband “patently” does not have a robust platform to stand on for the next election.

Within Miliband’s Cabinet too, the surviving remnants of the old New Labour cling on. Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy and Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne are notable examples. Just because they are on the altar it doesn’t mean they haven’t hidden the rings. While there has been no great sedition from within the Shadow Cabinet as yet, it presents an unspoken challenge to Miliband’s nascent policy realignment.

This new policy direction hinges on something borrowed. More specifically something borrowed from nineteenth century Tory politician Benjamin Disraeli – the concept of One Nationism. This it would seem has so far acted as a by-word for an all-encompassing and radical policy that has yet to happen. Wisely Miliband has allied himself to a conceptual attitude of inclusion rather than a concrete set of policies.

Broadly (as there is no other way to take it currently) Miliband’s formulation of the One Nation idea seems to rest most keenly on the idea of Mutualisation. After the centralisation of the Blair-years, things will now be devolved down to a more local level. It is difficult not to see this in context as being a minor shift left, although it should be noted that much of Miliband’s One Nation rhetoric is widely indistinguishable from Steve Hilton’s conception of Big Society.

Despite this the idea retains the potential to harken back to old old Labour, due to this mooted focus on the mutual. This would seem to be Miliband’s wedding gift from the right. It allows him to speak to Labour voters’ aspirations and concerns in terms that Conservatives would be loath to tarnish.

Its genus rests in something blue. Blue Labour, the notion proposed by Maurice (now Lord) Glasman,  that forms the policy machinations – such as they are- that function beneath the One Nation banner. Many of these have been assimilated with the continuing policy work undertaken by Jon Cruddas.

Miliband and Glasman, must be seen then as the couple taking an awkward turn around the darkened dance-floor. Despite all other old enmities and oblique barbs, all eyes rest on them. The Party that has become a reception expects them to produce results.

Surrounded by intervention, interference and sedition, they are the ones currently in the middle of this maelstrom. However, as Glasman is keen to stress being in the middle is not synonymous with being in the Centre. In the Guardian, he has called for leadership over consensus to form a “new political position”. This may be just as well, as the Labour Party seems to be suffering a pronounced dearth of consensus with the factions increasingly willing to engage each other on open ground.

They haven’t quite reached the car park yet, but the chin jutting, barracking and chest beating would seem to suggest that it can’t be long until a rambunctious uncle bundles a nefarious bridesmaid through the fire exit for a party political pasting.

Writing on the LabourList website state-side star transfer and new Labour campaign organiser Arnie Graf misquoted WB Yeats saying: “when the centre will not hold, things fall apart”. He may have unwittingly encapsulated the strife inherent in the scuffle between the most powerful factions to wrench the Labour Party, from its New Labour home on the centre-ground, left to the promised new One Nation pastures.

The government must keep its promise to enshrine the aid budget into law

By Alex Bryan

Throughout the past 3 years, a popular lament from Conservatives has been that the Government is being prevented from enacting truly conservative policies by the presence of the Liberal Democrats alongside them in office. The complainants have been particularly vocal with regards to policy areas such as Europe, law and order and liberalisation of employment laws. These are areas where the parties simply disagree, and have managed to form policy around the small amount of common ground they have, occasionally sniping at each other in the media in order to placate grumbling party bases.

Strangely, there are also issues which both parties have previously committed to which have now become areas of disagreement and backbiting, one of which became clear with the Queen’s Speech this week. Despite it featuring in the 2010 Conservative manifesto and the Coalition agreement, no commitment to enshrine the current 0.7% foreign aid budget into law was mentioned by the Queen. Both parties have said that they want to retain the current levels of spending, and both extol the virtues of Britain’s international role. Yet three years down the line their commitment to codify this into law seems to have been forgotten.

Why? Consensus seems to be that Cameron is bowing to his less moderate backbenchers, for whom foreign aid has always been an expensive luxury not to be afforded in hard times. A nice idea perhaps, but not one to be given priority at a time when British people are hurting, and our 0.7% would be a welcome boost to the budgets of more important departments. It is not only Tory backbenchers and members who think this: 7 out of 10 people believe that the UK spends too much on foreign aid, with only 7% thinking that the aid budget should continue to rise and be protected from Whitehall cuts.

David Cameron, though a confessed believer in the power of foreign aid, has already given approval to channel some of the aid budget into peacekeeping funds for British soldiers in those roles around the world. This is not a huge departure from the function of the aid budget as it existed before; the money would not go on combat operations or equipment, and would help to stabilise and support peace in troubled states around the world. In terms of ensuring that the aid budget promotes the security and development of individuals to the highest degree per pound around the world, this reform (as long as it does not subsume the rest of the aid budget) is not a bad thing.

But the danger remains that with an unwilling public and an increasingly disgruntled and vocal party, David Cameron will succumb to demands to cut the budget. The chances of doing that in the current Parliament are small, but by refusing to encase the current levels of spending in law, Cameron leaves open the option to cut the budget.

It has been well publicised that the UK has given aid to a number of countries, such as India, Russia and China, which are wealthy enough to be able to look after their own citizens. But international aid, operating in the way the UK government does, is centred around the poverty of individuals or groups of individuals around the world, not on nation-states. Aid channelled through the right kind of non-corrupt organisations into wealthy countries can help lift individuals who receive no help from their own government out of extreme poverty. This remains as true in Russia and China as in Rwanda and Chile.

Unfortunately, the recent changes in where we send foreign aid have meant that some countries such as China and Russia – and also Vietnam, Cambodia and Serbia-  will no longer receive funds. The argument that aid is needed by the poorest people in the world, regardless of how rich their government is, has been lost. But we cannot allow this to become a precedent, the start of a drift into isolationist and realist approaches to the world.

Aid makes a difference. At its most fundamental level, it saves, transforms, enriches and preserves lives. As a developed nation, we do not only have an obligation towards our citizens and allies; we have a duty to attempt to lift the general standard of human existence. In addition to stressing the moral imperative involved in international aid, David Cameron has become increasingly keen on stressing that aid and development help to protect us from extremism. Such an argument seems to me unnecessary, but the premise which supports it is hugely important; that the fight against poverty, illiteracy and war is also a fight against hatred, bigotry and brutism. It is a fight for a better world.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg know this. They know the importance of British international aid across the world; after all, it was they who committed to enshrine the current level of spending into law in the first place. Whilst in office, the previous Labour government was a great champion of international aid, tripling the aid budget from 1997 to 2009. In the midst of an unprecedented financial meltdown, the pressures on the budget were bound to increase, especially given the difficulty of quantifying the effects of aid. The government must resist such pressure and legislate to ensure that aid spending remains at least at 0.7%. It may well be the most important thing they ever do.