An open letter to Andy Burnham

An open letter to Andy Burnham, candidate for the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party.

There is a Scandi link of sorts here directly mentioned below (the Nordic Council and the Nordic Passport Union). The other obvious parallel is the moribund state of social democracy in Scandinavia at the moment, with Norway, Iceland and Finland all firmly in the grasp of centre-right parties, the Social Democrats in power by default rather than enthusiastic voter support in Sweden, and one of the most important elections (if not the most important) in Denmark’s modern history taking place tomorrow at a time when there is nothing separating the centre-left and centre-right blocs in the polls (yet a time when anti-EU and anti-immigrant rhetoric also shows no signs of abating). 

Andy Burnham

Andy Burnham

Dear Andy Burnham,

Thank you for your recent e-mails and texts asking what my top priority is as a new Labour party member.

Although I feel the most important thing for a political leader and a movement is a vision which transcends one or two priorities, I would stress that the country is in urgent need of reform to the housing and pension sectors that involves following something other than the free-market dogma which has underpinned political thinking and practice since 1979.

I am 41 years old and am still not on the property ladder in spite of having worked almost continuously since I graduated in 1996 (this not counting the work I did whilst I was an undergrad). I refuse to accept that somehow I have worked insufficiently hard to give myself a home of my own and income security in my years to come.

The Conservative policy of now wishing to sell off housing association properties is frankly awful and just about the most dire policy they have come up with since Margaret Thatcher became their leader in 1975. I don’t choose these words lightly as I am aware there is stiff competition on this front. Labour needs to present a radical alternative in order to make decent hard-working middle-income, lower-middle income and working-class communities feel like they are something other than a growing body of disenfranchised individuals precariously close to serfdom (again, I don’t choose this word lightly).

In a nutshell, I think Labour would be able to make progress on this front and bypass the credibility problems thrown up by the mansion tax and rent caps in the election if it still commits itself to (or seeks to increase) relatively high levels of taxation for the prosperous and introduces tax incentives for the social groups I have highlighted above (not least small business owners, whose numbers have mushroomed due to the paucity of well-paid jobs in established large companies).

This would help underpin a genuine long-term process of redistribution and make those lower down the ladder feel that they are being rewarded. It would also go a long way to detoxifying the familiar claim in the years leading up to the 2015 election that Labour is not tough enough on benefit claimants as it would demonstrate an understanding of the value and potential of those who do work hard for a living but who don’t get to see the rewards they would like.

I am sure this can be done in a way that produces healthy amounts of state revenue whilst giving some slack to those lower down the social ladder. The important issue stemming from 2015 is that Labour needs time to formulate these policies but also time to present them coherently so that they gain ground and favour with the public over months and years, not just a matter of weeks.

Labour’s leader at last month’s election defeat, Ed Miliband, was right to address the issues I discussed but wrong to present policies such as rent caps and the end of non-dom tax exemption so close to an election. This enabled the Conservatives to carry out classic diversionary and deflecting tactics such as saying the Labour leader had ‘stabbed his brother in the back’ and was as such unfit to rule, trumping the immediacy of Miliband’s announcements with a new deliberately overplayed and unpleasantly alarmist – yet politically effective – immediacy. I hope Labour has learned its lesson on this occasion.

Otherwise I would mention various issues which I feel are of importance. (I have taken the trouble to present these in a letter format as I hope using an overpriced first-class stamp emphasises that I take them seriously and am not just prepared to respond for free in text or e-mail form!)

  • Europe; the party needs to be unambiguously committed to staying in the EU. As highlighted above, the idea that migrants are sponging off the system has a lot of the teeth taken out of it if Labour has a decent taxation policy in place (thus in turn taking the teeth out of Cameron’s reform negotiations);
  • Human rights; Labour needs to unambiguously explain why a British bill of rights is no more than a poor third-rate substitute for a perfectly valid existing HRA. I am concerned that Liberal Democrat leadership frontrunner Tim Farron is doing an excellent job of ‘ground war campaigning’ on this front but that no Labour politician has seen it fit to at least actively join forces with him (not campaigning actively and jointly with Nick Clegg and indeed Nigel Farage on electoral reform in 2011 cost Ed Miliband dear in this respect);
  • The BBC; Labour needs to make the case for retaining the licence fee but introducing payments for playback coverage. This gives two perfectly feasible viewing choices, underlines the idea that the BBC is committed to viewer choice, and nullifies the right-wing argument that the licence fee is some sort of draconian poll tax (it isn’t as it is optional rather than compulsory but one needs good proactive policies to hammer this point home);
  • Scotland; Labour has gained nothing from unionist policies in recent times and I suspect Scotland itself does not particularly benefit from being in the union (the levels of poverty I saw there whilst on holiday in 2013 brought this point home emphatically). The odds are that the 2014 referendum was no more of a ‘one-off’ than the 1979 devolution referendum was and that Labour needs to accept that a more federalised (and probably eventually independent) Scotland is not some great taboo in the long term. Labour may have only won 231 seats in England and Wales on May 7 but that is the same as to say it did better in England and Wales than it did in the nadir of 1983, indicating that in the long run at least, independence for Scotland is not some electoral suicide. Labour needs to look at how the Nordic Council and Nordic Passport Union work in terms of trade agreements and freedom of movement and present a coherent and sensible framework for the existing UK countries embracing such an ideal. Committing to such a cause may seem bold, but in terms of how countries are actually governed, legendary figures such as Nelson Mandela and John Hume got the rewards for their long-term boldness. The SNP were wrong in the way they went about pursuing independence (especially Alex Salmond’s notion that the pound could be kept) but right in principle to pursue independence. Labour’s task is to take the lead on this issue and demonstrate it is not one predicated on mere nationalism;
  • Local politics at a national election level; the Conservatives won on May 7 because they got ‘local’ better (to coin a concept). I was really disconcerted by how disorganised and fatalistic a constituency Labour party sounded a week before the election when I rang to inform them the local Conservative candidate was retweeting spurious claims about Labour’s record in office. Given that the Labour majority over the Conservatives was less than 5,000, the person answering the phone should have at least known who the Conservative candidate was. Compare this with the astute ‘grassroots’ politics of Tory MP Robert Halfon, the assiduous attention paid by Tories to Lib Dem marginals well before May 7, and the canny selection of born-and-bred local Tory candidates in bellwether seats. Labour needs to embrace local activists and actually ensure that its candidates can ‘talk human’ as the late Charles Kennedy might have said. In this sense, there is not much point in selecting genuinely local candidates if they are not allowed to expound their ideas in civilised fashion to the national media (which was the disconcerting impression given in Nuneaton during a John Harris video report for The Guardian newspaper just prior to the election).
  • Local politics at a local level; Rotherham is a truly shameful moment in Labour’s history and gives the impression that in too many instances too little attention is paid to local issues as long as the seat or council is safely Labour. I suspect that on this front at least, Labour needs to start accepting that the Big Society is a plausible way for describing the untold amount of community and charity work that people in this country do carry out. In order to strengthen communities and marginalise those who would be anti-social to an extreme nature (or convince them of their wrong), be it paedophiles, ASBO teenagers, Muslim extremists, or right-wing nationalist extremists, Labour needs to operate on a social level as much as a political one and find some way of incorporating this community and charity work into its modus operandi (thereby echoing the spirit of the Rochdale Pioneers). People may sniff at charity if it seems too contrary a concept to socialism, but abstract socialism counts for little at the moment if it is failing to prevent people from starving under five more years of Conservative government.

Otherwise I would mention two pet issues of mine which don’t necessarily feature large in the Labour remit (but which I would argue are all the more important for that).

  • The police have had a wretched deal under the Tories (who possibly assume the law enforcers aren’t going to vote for Labour en masse and that the Tories can therefore get away with waging war on them, just as New Labour played roulette with its own core supporters). Time for Labour to work out how to repair fences with them;
  • Rural and semi-rural poverty is a really worrying indictment of what Britain is like in the 2010s, even if it goes under-reported. I fail to see how farmers who just about manage from day to day are any different from public sector workers who just about manage from day to day (especially following the 2014 floods in Somerset). I am rather tired of the tribalised enmity (at worst) or remarkable non-relationship between Labour and countryside communities (especially bizarre given the historical importance of the Tolpuddle Martyrs); as much as I would like the ban on fox hunting to be retained, I think this needs to go hand-in-hand with an understanding of issues such as the plight of dairy farmers in the face of cut-throat supermarket pricing competition. Labour may never convince some people that a hunting ban is correct, but, in the interests of representing everyone (not just a metropolitan elite, lifelong Labour voters in lifelong Labour seats etc), it also needs to ensure that rural life is not defined by this one issue alone and do so in an empathetic and discerning way.

I appreciate this is a long letter but it is one I have been meaning to write for a long time. I intend to publish it on my blog as well in the interests of at least presenting my ideas to a larger audience. There are themes not explored here that I need to address in my own time (and perhaps write about further); however, I expect you to be the next Labour leader and at the moment do not see a feasible alternative for at least starting the process of returning Labour to the sensible communitarian centre-left. Therefore I hope I have at least outlined some of the issues that concerned me.

Finally, I would warn Labour against being mired in a stupid war of words where ‘Taliban New Labour’ is actually genuinely considered a constructive way of moving on from Tony Blair. It serves the doubly defeating purpose of reminding people of Tony Blair’s most destructive legacy (the various conflicts in the Middle East and their consequences) whilst turning a blind eye to the fact he still won three elections for Labour. This double-edged paradox is perhaps the most sensitive and troublesome one in Labour’s entire history. It requires the utmost discernment to deal with it, not playground insults and name-calling from both sides.

Good luck with your leadership campaign.

Yours sincerely

Worldly Scandifriend

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