A trio of crises have compounded Labour’s misery

My grandmother used to say that bad things happen in threes, which at this point might be of some small comfort to Ed Miliband as Labour begins to emerge from a trio of autumnal crises to find themselves level in the polls with the Conservatives, for whom Miliband is playing the role of human shield against the onslaught of UKIP. On paper (which is a well-known sporting euphemism deployed at times when the bookies’ favourite is frittering away a title challenge) this should be a winter of discontent for David Cameron, not Ed Miliband.

Instead, the Prime Minister is free to argue loudly with his party over Britain’s membership of the European Union, where the Conservatives are locked in their own battle-for-the-soul, safe in the knowledge that the collapse of Scottish Labour, a ‘gunpowder plot’ and a millionaire Twitter-user are keeping journalists and commentators adequately engrossed across the country. True, the collapse of Scottish Labour did not happen the day after the independence referendum; it has been collapsing for the best part of a decade under the stewardship of Gordon Brown, the so-called ‘saviour of the Union’. Entering into a Faustian pact with the Tories to keep the UK together merely applied the pressure required to break the camel in two and divorce Labour from a traditional stronghold.

The ‘gunpowder plot’ to remove Ed Miliband as Labour leader, an episode credited to a group of the least revolutionary men and women on the planet, is such a laughable hyper-inflation of reality that Guy Fawkes would turn in each of his four graves. The only similarity between plot 2014 and plot 1605 is that both failed. The ‘plot’ against Miliband never ignited because nobody could think of anybody in the party who was more popular and less anodyne than him, save perhaps for Alan Johnson, who clearly enjoys providing company to misery rather too much to contemplate leading Labour to victory next May. If nothing else the event exposed the true extent to which the Parliamentary Labour Party is building an army of timid, beige, privately educated and privileged career daleks who are utterly bereft of inspiration.

That just leaves Emily Thornberry. The storm that her tweet created is still reverberating through Labour’s weekend like a bilious hangover, and it has shielded the Conservatives, yet again, from having to answer difficult questions about defections and lost by-elections. I am angry at Emily Thornberry, although unlike Ed Miliband, I am not ‘angrier than [I] have ever been’. I am angry because Emily Thornberry is an educated and considered woman (a barrister, no less). Her tweet lacked nuance and an attempt at some sort of social commentary was made but not executed.

I would have preferred if she had said ‘this picture captures the systemic search for identity among white British people who work in the labouring and construction industries which is the result of decad…’ too bad, Emily is out of characters. And that is the point: whatever she meant, it was too big for Twitter and 137 characters – whether she was passing judgment or providing political commentary is irrelevant. Her resignation from the Shadow Cabinet was inevitable because her boss’s response was to wax apoplectic in a series of hand-clasping interviews that her view, whatever it was, is not Labour’s view.

There is a simple reason behind the difference in fortunes experienced by the leaders of Britain’s two wheezing mass parties: David Cameron is in better control of his party and its message, even if only by a whisker. Ed Miliband is fighting for control of a party dominated by two factions moulded by the hands of its two previous leaders which now contains neither the charm of Blair nor the intelligence of Brown. If David Cameron can be pinpointed as the driving force behind the programme of modernisation within the Conservative movement that makes many of its followers so uncomfortable, Ed Miliband is a symptom, not the cause, of Labour’s increasing social and political irrelevance.

In political science there is a school of theory that examines the life cycles of political parties. The theorist, Mogens Pedersen, argued that parties are mortal organisations which are born, may or may not mature, and can decay and disappear. Pedersen’s research responded to the growing instability in party systems across Western Europe in the early 1980s as a result of new ‘challenger parties’. In 2014, the British party system has never looked so unstable, and whilst Labour may profit from the rise of UKIP at the Conservatives’ expense, the rise on the left of the SNP in Scotland and the Greens in England and Wales is as significant as the rise of UKIP on the right. Further to this, the disintegration in support for the Liberal Democrats is not translating en masse into votes for Labour.

I was listening to a recording of Alan Ginsberg’s ‘America’ last night, and it struck me that we could replace each iteration of ‘America’ with ‘Labour’ and have a pretty faithful lament to the current state of the party as seen by its base. Online forums such as Red Labour are channelling genuine socialist discussion, but any group within the party that speaks to its roots in an authentic way (none of this meaningless rhetoric about ‘hardworking families’) is dismissed as a fringe group of the slightly mad or the indefinitely silver-haired by the elite coterie of metropolitan careerists who now run the shop floor. There is a crisis at the heart of the Labour movement; the battle for its soul has been swept away by machines.

Cameron’s “no third term” announcement was inspired

 This article was first published on Backbench on 28 March 2015.

David Cameron announcing that he wouldn’t serve a third term before he’s even been given the chance to serve a second was without doubt the most exciting moment of the least engaging general election campaign in twenty years. Further still, it was a smart move, one which may yet turn out to pay dividends for the Prime Minister.

It was an audacious move by the PM. Labour spinners old and new popped up throughout the day on Monday to decry an extraordinary announcement that could surely only blow up in his face. Alistair Campbell was visibly bemused and agitated on Newsnight and Tory Chief Whip, Michael Gove, could barely contain his glee. That Cameron made the announcement in his nice, big country kitchen mattered not a jot as he dropped the ‘revelation’ almost blithely into his conversation with the BBC’s James Langdale while chopping tomatoes.

Michael Gove could barely contain his glee because he knew full well that his boss had, as he often does, played a media blinder. For Cameron, this was an opportunity to appear conversational and open whilst appearing every inch the statesman and a Prime Minister-in-waiting. While there are those in his party that will undoubtedly see this move as a mistake, Cameron is playing his usual game of staying above the fray and positing himself as the father of his party. Election campaigns, and British politics in general, are as leader-centric as ever, and Cameron is exploiting this worrying reality mercilessly as Labour remains totally unable to spin any positives for Ed Miliband, despite him being the only party leader who is talking policy with a clarity and depth that no other seems either willing or able to do. In that regard, he seems unable to catch a break. When Cameron speaks, his words are the story; when Miliband speaks, his (second) kitchen is the story.

Cameron remains a more popular party leader than Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg. Elections are won and lost on the economy and the packaging (it is foolish to suggest otherwise. Had Labour not been presiding over an economy in recession in 2010 they may have actually wheezed over the line for a fourth term). According to the New Statesman’sMay 2015 site, the Conservatives are trusted on the economy by a margin of 36%-20% to Labour (and the number of ‘don’t knows’ are reducing in their favour too). Neither campaign has been packaged in a particularly exciting way, and with so fine a balance it is moments of inspiration or madness that will define them. Cameron’s announcement on Monday falls into the former category.

The success of the PM’s announcement will be short lived, and he must know it. It will continue to carry traction in news cycles for a few days, but its effects should ripple on to polling day barring a cancelling-out moment of madness or a bigger moment of inspiration from Ed Miliband, not impossible if he gets a break during a slow or sympathetic news cycle (he is certainly due one).

If Cameron forms a government with the Conservatives as the leading party, he can rest in the knowledge that he has guided his party to ten years of a Conservative Prime Minister. After May 7th, Cameron will know that he has left the door wide open for George Osborne and co. to undermine him quietly at every turn. That won’t phase him, his backbenchers have tried to do this since May 2010 when he first failed to win a majority against an exhausted Labour administration. It will bother him less as it becomes less his problem and more a headache for his vying successors to manage as they try to outmanoeuvre one another without causing themselves (or their party) too much damage. By 2020 David Cameron will be in his mid-fifties, exactly as Tony Blair was when he left office, and we all know that, for retiring Prime Ministers, life begins at 55.

2015 General Election Preview

2015 General Election Preview

This article was first published on Backbench on January 2, 2015

The 2010 General Election was one of the most uncertain and difficult to call in post-war Britain. The 2015 contest looks set to be even more closely fought, with a number of outcomes possible. Below, I look at the prospects of each major player in next year’s election game, before discussing other significant elements that may affect the outcome.

Conservatives

David Cameron failed to lead the Conservatives to victory by an outright majority in 2010, despite circumstances highly propitious to an opposition success. Indeed, an increasingly unpopular Labour administration and a deep recession did not quite manage to sway enough voters toward the Conservatives. The party was caught between not quite shedding a perceptibly toxic ‘brand’ and alienating sections of its socially conservative core support in the process of modernising its image. This time around, the party is battling (and splitting) internally over its stance on Europe as it did in the 1990s, and struggling to deliver its message of economic growth and policy competence, despite polls indicating that it is the most trusted party on the economy.

They will be the largest party if:
The economy continues to grow and Ed Miliband is further isolated and discredited during the election campaign.

They will not be the largest party if:

Labour wins the public debate on austerity and standards of living and UKIP take more than a handful of seats from the Conservatives.

Labour

Labour has consistently led in the majority of credible polls since 2010, despite having a leader who has consistently polled lower than David Cameron during the same period. In the age of image and leader-centric television debates, the ‘Miliband problem’ is acute and Labour is aware of it. Along with the difficulties associated with Miliband’s leadership, Labour is also struggling to deliver a message to voters that the party remains true to its roots. In this regard, Ed Miliband and his core team will need outline Labour’s values more clearly than they have managed to in the past 5 years and posit the party as a credible alternative to the Conservatives on the economy.

They will be the largest party if:

They spend less time challenging UKIP and the Conservatives on immigration and more time developing a message that speaks to voters struggling to make ends meet.

They will not be the largest party if:

The party faithful continues with only a lukewarm defence of Ed Miliband in public and if they try to muscle in on issues that are perceptibly ‘owned’ by the Conservatives and UKIP.

Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems may lose more than half its seats in May in a rout similar to the European Parliament elections this year, where the party was left with just one MEP. The party is nevertheless standing by its leader, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, into the 2015 election. Protestations that without them in government, austerity would have been tighter, tax breaks would not have come as swiftly for low earners, and equal marriage would have been sabotaged, have largely fallen on deaf ears as most polls now place the party in 4th place behind UKIP, and some have started to put them in 5th place behind the Greens. There is precedent for the junior partner in a coalition becoming the public ‘whipping boy’; the German Free Democrats and the far-right Austrian Freedom Party have previously seen their vote share collapse after being in government alongside a large centre-right party.

They will get into government if:

Either the Conservatives or Labour fail to secure an overall majority. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems might already be positioning themselves for a renewed agreement in the event of another hung parliament. However, the Lib Dems’ inclusion depends on the party holding onto enough seats to be useful in Parliament.

Green Party

The hashtag #GreenSurge is now used on social media to describe the strong performance of the Green Party in recent months. The Greens are currently making good use of the publicity surrounding its exclusion from the televised debates in the run-up to the General Election. They have expanded their message beyond the traditional focus on ecology and sustainability to include social justice and have positioned themselves as a radical alternative to Labour. The party is currently polling between 7-10%, but is primarily focused on ensuring that Caroline Lucas holds her Brighton Pavilion seat.

They will get into government if:

Labour is the largest party and they win enough seats to be useful to an agreement or formal coalition, or if a Labour-Lib Dem agreement doesn’t have the necessary 326 seats and/or Labour chooses to form a minority government.

UKIP

2014 was a stunning year for the UK Independence Party. Farage’s party won the European Parliament elections, took two MPs from the Conservatives which were also shored up by subsequent by-elections, almost beat Labour in one of their strongholds, and their leader, Nigel Farage, was recently gifted the title of ‘Briton of the Year’ by The Times. Despite being Britain’s ‘most disliked party’, they consistently poll between 10-15% in opinion polls and are beginning to position themselves as Britain’s political alternative.

They will get into government if:

Although some would say the answer is ‘when Hell freezes over’, UKIP may hold the key to a Conservative-led government in 2015. This, of course, depends on the electoral math and a willingness to work together. As such, UKIP playing a formal or even a clear supporting role in the next government is unlikely even if they manage to gain 10-15 seats.

SNP

The Scottish National Party has had a similarly high impact year, despite the resignation of former leader Alex Salmond in the wake of the ‘defeat’ of the ‘Yes’ campaign in the Scottish Independence Referendum in September. The party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is young, accessible, and has intelligently orchestrated a grand tour of Scotland in the wake of the referendum, speaking at events across the country with standing room only. The SNP is also cutting into Labour’s support base. The party is now polling consistently at above 40%, which could mean they gain 10-15 seats at the next election, to the expense of both Labour and the Lib Dems.

They will get into government if:

Labour need them in a hung parliament and agrees to scrap Trident as part of an accordbetween the parties. The SNP could genuinely have 20+ seats at the next General Election, which could even make them the third largest party after polling day. As with a UKIP-Conservative agreement, both parties would be forced to think very carefully about their own interests before joining forces.

‘Others’

As much as this term is demeaning to parties predicted to receive a lower vote share than the six listed above, it is less likely, but certainly not impossible, that they will significantly influence the formation of a government in 2015. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalist party, also has a dynamic, young leader, but they have nothing like the platform enjoyed by their Scottish counterparts since the referendum. The same applies to the Northern Irish unionist parties, and the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, is extremely unlikely to service an agreement with either Labour or the Conservatives. Plaid and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party may help to facilitate a Labour administration, but Plaid are fighting a losing battle in Wales against Labour; striking a deal with Miliband would likely harm them more than it would help them.

The ventilator effect of First Past the Post

We can confidently predict that Labour and the Conservatives will be the two leading parties at the next election, albeit with an evermore diminished combined votes share. They may achieve as little as 60% of the popular vote between them, but still hold more than 80% of seats in the House of Commons. Although this will damage smaller parties’ parliamentary ambitions, it will undoubtedly fuel the perception that politics no longer serves the interest of Britons, thus invigorating potential ‘alternatives’.

Economic growth versus ‘the cost of living crisis’

These are the respective narratives which the Conservatives and Labour will primarily use to fight their campaigns in 2015. If the economy continues to grow, the Conservatives will hope that the old adage ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ will hold. If it doesn’t, and the UK goes into another recession, expect all of the above speculation to be null and void: Labour will win an outright majority, barring regicide and another ‘bigot-gate’.

Assuming the economy continues to grow, Labour will have to hone its currently rough-edged ‘cost of living crisis’ message to challenge the Conservative narrative of growth, deficit reduction and market confidence to highlight social inequalities and the exploit the ‘squeezed middle’.

Distrust of politicians and political institutions

Voter cynicism is as acute as it was in the wake of the parliamentary expenses scandal in 2008-10, even if it is less raw. The elevation of Russell Brand to the imagined position of Chief Social Justice Warrior, along with the Green, UKIP and SNP surges highlight a broad, chronic problem in the way voters view the political establishment. The Lib Dems are now firmly rooted in that mire of distrust, along with the Conservatives and Labour, but there is also little clear evidence that voters trust any of the challenger parties highly enough for their status to be a significant advantage. In short – it’s all up in the air as we hail in 2015.

By Andy Irwin

If I lived in Scotland, the tempatation to vote yes would be overwhelming – but I wouldn’t do it

This article was first published on The London Economic on 16 September 2014.

This week will be one of the most significant in British history.

Three days out from the vote on Scottish independence, there is much to celebrate and admire from the process. An unprecedented number of Scots are expected to go to the polls on Thursday. Even those who don’t know how they are going to vote (and they are many) will be making their way to their local voting station. Sixteen year olds will vote in the referendum. The level of civic debate in Scotland has been astonishing, and a heartening break from the apathy that courses through the whole of the UK during general election cycles, where citizens increasingly complain that they are voting for the lesser of nobody cares. Even though they will not be voting, English, Welsh and Northern Irish residents are talking about the referendum. These are all, in theory, positive things.

That it has taken a referendum on breaking up a state to inject a body of voters with an overwhelming sense of civic duty is, however, an extraordinarily sad state of affairs. It is an indictment of a system that is bankrupt in the eyes of millions of disenfranchised people across the four nations of the United Kingdom. The no campaign, ‘Better Together’ (which in itself sounds like a local radio advertisement for marriage guidance counselling), has been led by a well-meaning, broadly honourable man who possesses little charisma and is several years past his political sell-by date. That Alistair Darling has been the best thing about Better Together is perhaps to labour the point about how extraordinarily out of touch the campaign is, and how much it represents an old guard living on the ventilator of late capitalism. When Thursday has been and gone, and the campaign holds a post-mortem (win or lose), it must surely ask itself why it did not have a no vote sewn-up by polling week.

If I was a resident in Scotland, I would be sorely tempted to vote ‘yes’ on Thursday in order to break-off and start anew, away from an emphysemic state built on aristocratic entitlement and the vulgar wealth of the few. The temptation to flip the Vs at Clamerband and their ilk and say ‘no thanks’ to their three saccharine, repulsively out of touch political parties would be almost too great. I could see myself bounding smugly to the polling station to tell the goliath corporations that have threatened the Scottish people in recent months exactly what I think about their threats. This is because it is easy to see the yes campaign led by the left-leaning Scottish National Party as a leftwing political movement. The campaign’s positive themes have rung out loudly: it has framed the referendum as a chance for the people of Scotland to lead themselves toward a brighter future built on fairness, equality and social justice.

Meanwhile, Better Together has not given off the impression that it has a vision for a better Scotland until very recently when it sensed a sweeping change in the tide of public opinion. Alex Salmond, the public face of the yes campaign, is also the leader of the SNP, whereas the leaders of the three main parties at Westminster have been absent in the work of the No camp until last week – when David Cameron cancelled Prime Minister’s Questions in order to join Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg in a show of unity that by that point begged the question: “where have you been all this time”?

Even in spite of all of this: I would not be able to vote yes because I abhor nationalism. Along with organised religion it is the primary cause of all human misery and suffering since someone said ‘let’s build a nation’ or ‘let’s organise a religion’ (I’m not keen on states either, but a stateless world in my lifetime probably stretches our evolutionary capacity a little too far). A friend of mine summed this up to me the other evening when I was trying desperately to articulate to her why I would encourage a yes vote. She said that in the 21st Century we should all be doing everything we can to be global citizens, rejecting any new system founded on nationalism and led by an overarching charismatic figurehead.

At the time, I didn’t accept the premise of her argument, but the more I think about what she said, the more I acknowledge that Scottish independence is not the answer to Scottish social problems. I fear that the vote is lining-up to be a mechanism for disillusioned Scots to stage a misguided protest vote against the system at Westminster, without really having any guarantee of a more positive future in an independent Scotland. The SNP has also trumpeted an unhealthy reliance on oil revenue as the basis for a flourishing Scottish economy after independence: not only would this leave the Scottish economy more at the mercy of global markets than it is already, it is also highly unsustainable and diminishes the Nationalist’s green credentials.

The yes campaign and the SNP – for all the credit they are due for giving Scots a channel through which to vent their frustrations at a broken system – have spoken an infinite deal of nothing over the past few months, and I am not convinced that they are any better for people living in Scotland in the long-term than the United Kingdom is, and for that reason, I’m out.

Ask not what your country can do for you

This article was first published on The London Economic on 10 September 2014.

Andy Irwin argues that social change isn’t going to come from Westminster, we (the people) have to drive it. He talks to an activist in Staffordshire about a new environmentally responsible social enterprise designed to alleviate fuel poverty and reliance of fossil fuels in the area.

The steamroller of unrest ignited by austerity and widening social inequality that some predicted would come chugging through the streets of England in the midst of the London riots in 2011 never came. What we had had instead was a series of low key protest marches that went by largely ignored by media giants who didn’t want to write another story about people marching through London (or to London) on a noble quest to no avail. In an article for TLE earlier this summer, I wrote about the factious nature of Britain’s left-wing and its anodyne protests marches: another loud speech from Owen Jones here, a truism from Diane Abbot there, fourteen different brands of socialism selling its t-shirts and peddling leaflets – little discernable social change ensued.

I argued that protests of this kind achieve very little, and that view is shared by a growing number of green and ecological activists in the UK who are turning to positive community action and innovation to create measurable social change. I recently interviewed a friend of mine who is involved in just such a project near Stoke-On-Trent, one of England’s most economically deprived and neglected areas. Carl Brindley is part of Staffordshire Environmental Energy Networks (SEEN), a new social enterprise manufacturing carbon neutral pellet for biomass heating systems. Over a pint of ale in our favourite local pub, I asked Carl what his thoughts were on the austerity march in June:

“You get 50,000 people turning up to protest, but nobody actually doing anything about anything…expecting the people who clearly don’t understand the issues you are protesting over to listen, because you make a loud noise is simply shifting responsibility. If each one of those people were there for four hours, that’s 200,000 hours of community work. If Russell Brand made himself CEO of the World Change Company and got 50,000 people to sign up to something meaningful, he actually could change the world.”

He made the point that if the march against austerity cost each person £20 to attend (travel, food etc) then the protest itself cost approximately £1 million. Putting it in these terms might seem cynical, however he does make a good point about they way in which power responds to protest:

“This has been done to death, protesting about the system. The people at the top don’t do anything; they can completely ignore it all and carry on with their lives while the people who protest have to go back to managing their lives.”

According to Oxfam, one in five people in the UK live below the poverty line. Over 20 million meals were distributed to people living in food poverty in the UK in 2013/14. The Energy Bill Revolution – which calls on the Government “to use the money it gets from carbon taxes to make homes more efficient” – estimated that at the start of 2014 there were more than 2 million children in England alone living in fuel poverty, a figure backed upelsewhere. These numbers are incomprehensibly, offensively large.

According to Carl, SEEN aims to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for energy consumption in local businesses and homes. The group has taken pieces of old machinery and readied them for production; they will then take waste wood produced by tree surgeons (meaning it is sustainably sourced) and give the surgeons a better price for the waste than they would otherwise get. The tree waste goes through the machine and comes out as pellets which can then be supplied to biomass boilers (which need to be installed) and burned for heating.

The energy is cheaper to produce than gas and SEEN’s aim is to install the boilers in premises, and home owners will be able to sign contracts making monthly payments for wood pellets. Waste wood that doesn’t make it through the machines can be turned into gas to power their production line. I ask Carl what impact he believes an enterprise like this can have:

“I think we’re a few months to a year away from supplying boilers commercially, but eventually we’re hoping to service a few hundred homes – we’ve spoken to landlords about what we’re doing, fuel efficiency is a big concern and people are interested when we talk about the project. SEEN is hoping to service a 20 mile radius around Stoke, with the ambition to have a measurable positive impact on fuel poverty in the Stoke area.”

I challenge my friend that this is just another business, an innovative and more ecologically responsible business for sure, but a profiteering enterprise nonetheless. “We’re in this to change the world” he replies. “One of us has re-mortgaged their property to invest in this, while people have been working for us for nothing we believe in it that much. It’s a social experiment and we’ll control our own means of production, paying any new staff we do take on a living wage’. What about the competition, I ask? “We want to see other people doing this…we want to demonstrate corporate social responsibility, we want energy independence and security – the objective is to reduce reliance on fuels, not profits”.

At the time of writing, SEEN is almost ready to begin production for sale and distribution, the enterprise is almost ready to go. I ask Carl what his motivation is personally, he answers rather as I hoped he would:

“This kind of thing is disruptive; we want to disrupt the conventional corporate way of doing things. We’re a group of individuals frustrated by the lack of change in society, the lack of uptake.”

He argues that we need to drive social change ourselves, and not wait for Westminster to deliver the next round of its anaemic brand of stasis disguised as change. Public perceptions of the political establishment are critically low, the appetite for conventional party government as a cure for social problems has dissipated – particularly amongst the young.

At SEEN, Carl works closely with the founders of the North Staffordshire Green Party, “we’re political people” he says, “but more importantly, we’re activists – why talk about something when you can do something to solve the problem?” The social problems we face in the UK demand greater action and investment (of time as much as money) from its citizens. We can’t wait for the system to change; we have to change the system.

 

A lack of leadership on the left

This article was first published on The London Economic on 27 June 2014

Last weekend’s anti-austerity march in central London organised by The People’s Assembly Against Austerity highlighted the anger of thousands and a lack of leadership on Britain’s disparate left wing.

If you were one of the estimated 50,000 people who marched peacefully through London or simply attended the demonstration at Parliament Square last weekend you may be somewhat surprised to see the ensuing lack of coverage of the anti-austerity event organised by the relatively new pressure group ‘The People’s Assembly Against Austerity’ in the media.

The march brought parts of central London to a standstill and there was a collection of well-chosen, passionate and eloquent speakers including journalist Owen Jones, MPs Caroline Lucas, Diane Abbot and Jeremy Corbyn, Unite Leader Len McCluskey, and comedians Francesca Martinez and Russell Brand. It certainly wasn’t the case that the event lacked stature.

Why, then, do peaceful demonstrations attracting thousands of people command so little attention in Britain? One answer to the question, I suspect, lies in that word ‘peaceful’. If mega-media outlets do not predict a riot, the chances of receiving anything other than passing coverage for a large-scale demonstration are slim. If there isn’t an opportunity to showcase possible cases of police heavy-handedness or a youth lobbing fire extinguishers out of the window of a tall building then it just isn’t a good sell. But that answer on its own won’t do. The main reason that yesterday’s anti-austerity demonstration didn’t make the six o’clock news headlines or the front pages of today’s newspapers was simple: it won’t achieve anything, There, I said it. Its collective sense of fury at Britain’s continuing social justice failures had a distinct air of impotence.

As much as the long line of intelligent, powerful and angry speakers were inspiring and chimed well with the current themes of social injustice – protecting the NHS, low pay and poor conditions in the private sector, and lack of affordable and social housing were all recurrent topics throughout the afternoon – the disparate, fractured and disorganised state of Britain’s left wing was painfully obvious. Three different people handed me three different fliers proclaiming that they were the party (in their varying states of newness) that offered me an alternative to the Established Three. Incidentally, none of them were the Green Party (who were present at the event, but not, as far as I could see, canvassing much beyond seating a man under a gazebo with a handful of wee flags).

Britain’s (dis)organised left wing constitutes an extraordinary number of different groups, factions and denominations with little differences here and tiny differences there: be it their interpretation of Marxism, the importance they place on ecology or their ultimate end goal. Apart from two of their most lefty MPs, the Labour party was absent and denigrated in equal measure at the demonstration (by the crowd, if not by the speakers on the platform).

That the demonstration was a celebration of pluralism is not something to bemoan, however, I am struck by the sense that – despite the excellent work of The People’s Assembly over the past year or so to bring people together under the anti-austerity umbrella – there is still little agreement on the left in Britain about what is to be done and how. The people who attended yesterday’s demonstration know that they are against the privatisation of the NHS, for a living wage and deeply uncomfortable with their government bailing out bankers whilst shitting on poor people. For many in the crowd yesterday, it was very easy to associate with the messages, but much harder to establish who was going to capture the politics and run for home.

I lost count of the number of references I heard to ‘that lot over there’ (gesturing towards the Houses of Parliament), exposing a deeply disturbing disconnect between people and their government. There is a great quote from US political drama The West Wing where strategist Josh Lyman, frustrated with the lack of a coherent message from his Presidential candidate, says: ‘we seem to be for us winning, and against somebody else winning’, and that brings us back to Labour. While the stalwart of the centre-left stands on a hill so far away from the borders of its natural constituency, the left in Britain is truly rudderless.

Why is Labour not talking to me?

This article was first published on The London Economic on 13 June 2014.

Labour needs to stop being terrified of its roots and be the loud voice of social justice – or risk irrelevance

I recently had a rant at the Labour party on its Facebook page.

It was lunchtime at work and I had just witnessed their latest party political broadcast entitled ‘The Uncredible Shrinking Man’ – quite possibly the most depressing three-minutes-and-forty-six seconds that I will never reclaim. A brief précis: Nick Clegg is the uncredible shrinking man – a diminished, ridiculous figure who is fed biscuit crumbs by an over-bearing David Cameron who makes decisions without consulting little Nick and mocks him throughout. The broadcast is filmed in black and white affording a wee hint of noir to this thigh-slapping parody. Drenched with a misguided sense of its own cleverness, and reeking of the input of six-figure salaried American strategists with unfortunate facial hair, this little offering apparently constitutes the best we can expect from the historical party of social justice.

When I look at Labour, I see the last hope for a platform of radical social change evaporating into the dusty roads built by the neoconservative agenda. “I want to vote for you”, I shouted at them through my keyboard – “come and get me”. I am so angry with them, I have been for years, I felt betrayed by the party before I was old enough to vote. I have an agenda and a set of values that I don’t think are isolated, a view of how the world should be that I don’t think leaves me sitting alone in an ideological desert looking desperately for someone to bestow my trust upon. In fact, I would confidently suggest that my worldview is held not just by a small group of quibbly twentysomething lefties who studied social sciences at university, but by millions of people living in Britain. The question is then, why is Labour not talking to me? As it is, I have been voting Green without even the vaguest hope that they will come to represent me.

Two months ago, I moved to London to start a new job. I live in a house in Brentford with six other people and I pay £535 a month for the privilege of a single room in a five-bedroom house. That is 35% of my monthly income, which is by no means a bad situation to be in when living in the capital. I have long learned that the reduced section in supermarkets is my friend, and I have become an adept bargain-hunter and I have essentially brought my weekly food shop down to an average £40. That I can afford to spend £40 per week on food shopping once again pits me among the lucky upper quarters of people my age, trying to make their way in this ludicrous opportunity bubble they call a city. I know that I am lucky. Tonight, more than 300 people will go to sleep on the streets of London, if they can find a place to lie down without being impaled.

There are a plethora of things to be angry with, things that I can’t reconcile in my head, things that are unforgivable for me. We don’t have a living wage. We have elderly people who can’t afford to heat their homes in winter. Food banks handed out 20 million meals last year, while the financial variety handed out millions of pounds to their executives citing jobs ‘well done’. Food banks, if nothing else, show that ‘The Big Society’ is alive and well and living in Britain, no thanks to the man who fancies himself as the architect of the concept – which is essentially just a jazzy rebrand for that age-old concept: community. We have millions – and this is the one of the greatest injustices – of private sector workers who are voiceless, living on a pittance and with dodgy contracts, disempowered and frightened for their jobs if they demand better pay and conditions. The retail and hospitality sectors are a cesspit of casual work, no rights, few breaks and long shifts.

We have a generation of un-unionised young people who were sold the dream of a better future if they pay £27,000 for a ride on the higher education carousel. We have some of the poorest councils in the country facing the impossible task of funding essential services for the young, the old, the sick the vulnerable, the aspirational. Their only choice is cut, cut, and cut again. Cut out the roots of communities who need these services the most and leave them to fend for themselves. We have a devastated, under-valued, exhausted and over-worked public sector workforce operating under a top-down culture of fear and an upward surge of impotent resentment. We have a desperate housing situation and a market which will overheat and collapse again. All of these things make me angry, and I am not alone – I know that I will vote on these issues and that others will too.

Labour makes squeaky entreaties to the quiet mass of angry voters on low to low-middle incomes; the group that I genuinely believe constitutes the silent majority in this country. It tells us that it wants to abolish zero-hour contracts, and that it wants to re-examine energy prices and increase affordable housing in the UK. It has told us this before and done nothing. That could be forgiven, but Labour isn’t shouting loud enough, the party is frightened of alienating the people that will never vote for it in the first place. My only option is the Green Party, who have spoken brilliantly in the last couple of years on social injustices and demanded social change. For a number of reasons, they are just not infiltrating the wider consciousness, and still seem to be suffering from a deep-seated image and credibility problem that is unlikely to be overhauled in time for May 2015.

I am told that there are many reasons to be cheerful. This usually comes from people like me, people who can afford to think that way. This is only true if people like them and me take an entirely individualistic and material view of the world and ignore the bigger picture – judging our advancement on having more stuff tomorrow than we did yesterday. Whilst I am in an extremely unstable position financially I am aware that I have it far better than many, and it is for a place where nobody gets left behind that I will be voting to live in next May. Labour needs to work harder to show me it wants me, or I’m staying Green.