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Labour should be more divided on Europe

To abuse Boris's analogy, the ball hasn't even come loose from the scrum yet, but the referendum means Conservative players are already knocking lumps out of each other. In stark contrast, even as the country weighs its biggest and perhaps most controversial political decision in a generation, the Labour Party is in one peaceful - almost soporific - voice. The Tories are making a spectacle of themselves and Labour is just, well, spectating.

Although I wouldn't wish the Conservatives' internecine battles on anyone, I think Labour's unnatural unity in the referendum is much more worrying.

In days gone by, fierce message discipline and unity of purpose were conscious (and very effective) electoral tactics for Labour. It is a massive, risible, stretch to argue that the party is now applying the same deliberate approach to the EU referendum. If senior Labour figures can chase each other down the street - in front of the cameras! - shouting "Hitler apologist", it's hard to believe the party has gone into the referendum determined to avoid "appearing" split. In almost every other policy area, and to an unprecedented degree, Labour MPs actively and openly criticise their own leaders - and the leadership returns the favour.

And even if Labour's monochrome referendum campaign was designed with electoral advantage in mind, it would be hugely mistaken. In the next General Election, if Labour keeps pushing Remain now, for every one of its north London MPs who adds yet another thousand to their majority, a parliamentary colleague in north Lancashire is going to have to fight ever harder just to fend off UKIP.

Perhaps unity in the referendum campaign is just a natural condition, born of Labour's common values? No. However hard you squint, there is no way 'Europe' fits neatly into a unified left-wing view of the world, either.  

For every argument that the EU encourages trade and reduces prices for the working class, there's another that TTIP welcomes in private firms who'll plunder the NHS.

For every person who says we should rely on the EU for workers' rights, there's another who says the EU forbids state aid to save Redcar or Port Talbot.

Should we welcome all the world's dispossessed, or should we stop immigrants undercutting working class wages?

Should we set international trade policy to protect European agriculture, or promote African farmers?

Do we welcome skilled workers, or do we ease the pressures on public services and housing?

Do we reverse Europe's democratic deficit, or do we hope for international strength in numbers?

Can we solve tensions in the Middle East, or are we letting terrorists in unchecked?

Can we influence climate policies, or are EU trawlers raping marine eco systems?

Of course, the European Union may be the solution to all of these problems, or the cause at the root of them - but surely Labour's 400,000 members don't all agree on which it is in every case? Surely, given careful thought, some senior party figures should decide the path to social justice lies through Brussels while others say it judders to a halt there?!

Instead, the very lack of debate, dissension and disagreement within Labour over whether to Remain or Leave the European Union is a worrying and saddening symptom of a wider malaise. Both the Foot '83 and Miliband '15 vintages were tested and rejected by the public, so by definition Labour needs some new thinking to get back into power. But new ideas don't come from a party that wanders into a huge national debate in a near-comatose state, failing to test its own position before trying to convince others to follow it.

It’s striking that so many Labour figures have meekly adopted the same referendum position. For Labour, watching the Tories maul each other may well be a great spectator sport. But who goes into politics just to be a spectator?

Lobbyists: a non-scandal waiting to happen

In the second of our posts on lessons for MPs from Niall Ferguson’s study of Henry Kissinger, we wanted to highlight the historical – and current – importance of political back channels. Through the ‘60s and ‘70s Kissinger saw these in use during the Vietnam and Cold Wars. In the UK today, the more parochial, less dramatic, version of ‘back channels’ is the role lobbyists play in briefing politicians and Civil Servants. Far from being the scourge of democracy, corporate lobbyists allow candid messages to be delivered and provide essential information and expertise to an over-burdened and uninformed political class. Indeed, the UK’s Lobbying Registrar not only illustrates politicians’ misplaced attempts to “clean up” Westminster (instances of corruption featured bent MPs and journalists – not a lobbyist in sight), but also their self-denying ordinance on information that is critical to forming good laws.

Kissinger vs Corbyn

Historian Niall Ferguson applies lessons from the past to today’s problems. His excellent biography of Henry Kissinger is instructive for modern politicians – and is a must-read for everyone in Westminster. Kissinger saw the dilemma, for example, in whether to take action to prevent a political crisis (and then find it impossible to prove a crisis had been averted), or wait for the crisis to happen so that there is political support for action, but cause people to suffer the consequences of waiting. Labour backbenchers are in exactly this predicament now, as they weigh how to dethrone Corbyn – and whether to do so early enough to save their electoral skins or wait until the far-left drives the party into the ground.

The Peer with the Golden Touch

Lord Adonis has been proposed for the Chair of Crossrail 2 jointly by the Mayor of London, Chancellor George Osborne and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin. Although his appointment is subject to approval by the London Assembly and Transport for London Board, it’s a helpful reminder that Adonis is now the mark for major infrastructure projects that are going to get strong Government backing.

Full details here: http://bit.ly/1TJmm5y

Monday musing

Three thoughts from the weekend…

1/ In his article for the Herald on Sunday, Angus Robertson claims the Queen’s Speech had “nothing of substance in it for Scotland” and in the Commons he went so far as to say “much of the Queen’s Speech relates just to England and Wales”. Short term, this lets him complain about Scotland being ignored, but it also makes it harder for the SNP to object to these Bills going through the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ process and will reduce Scottish MPs’ influence. Perhaps he wants the “SNP excluded” narrative…

2/ Switched on Labour staffers are following high profile MPs like Khan, Burnham and Berger by looking for roles outside Westminster, ahead of an expected defeat at GE2020. This means the party is not only losing some of its public talent, but is also being hollowed out from the inside.

3/ Talking to Tory MPs on both sides of the EU debate, it’s clear that Brexiteers are building stronger working relationships with each other than their Bremain colleagues. After the referendum result, this will make for some interesting Conservative caucuses in the rest of this session.

Déjà EU all over again

A sobering prospect for those fed up with the EU campaign: there could be another one within 5yrs, whoever wins. A vote to Leave is likely to provoke the EU institutions into offering an new arrangement so the UK continues to contribute funds, which would need political approval. If we vote to Remain, public demands for another review will rise as The Five Presidents’ Report brings in significant changes to the way the EU works.

National Infrastructure Commission: key points

The Government has set out its stall after consulting on the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), making some important political points in the process…

1/ The Treasury will, ultimately, be the NIC’s master. The Chancellor will appoint the body’s chair, commissioners and CEO. The Chancellor will also determine when the NIC can present reports to Parliament and what topics should be covered (with preferred topics likely to include those where the Treasury can influence recommendations by supplying data and ‘expertise’).

2/ In giving the NIC one ‘fiscal envelope’ to assess what can be afforded, the Government has implied there will be a single “infrastructure budget” that covers everything from bricks to broadband. This is likely to provoke a zero-sum approach by supporters for individual projects and suggests the Government does not anticipate significant private sector finance for potential projects.

3/ The NIC will provide an annual review of Government progress on agreed projects – based on figures provided by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which is run by the Cabinet Office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NIC has been barred from offering a view on Hinkley, HS2, or Heathrow.

Full details of the Government’s response can be found here: http://bit.ly/1Z8e9XA

A bad reshuffle for Boris? Don’t be silly.

A post-referendum reshuffle is so widely expected that some senior Ministers, in anticipation of promotion, have stopped accepting speaking invitations from July. That degree of confidence is rarely healthy – and neither is the hubris in those Cameron loyalists who think Boris Johnson can be “contained” in a clever reshuffle.

When the PM (or Chancellor) is dishing out jobs, most MPs sit nervously by their phone, snapping at anyone who has the audacity to call when Number 10 might be trying to get through. Most MPs eventually take whatever job is offered to them, regardless of any bravado beforehand. Boris is not most MPs and he will do neither of these things. He’s too big to be ignored and has no incentive to take a job he doesn’t want – so he will either be the prince-across-the-water on the backbenches, or will force Cameron to put him into a role that helps, not hinders, his chances of becoming PM.

Government test for Apprenticeship Levy dates

A policy paper this summer will give private sector suppliers to Whitehall an idea of what the Government really wants when it signs a contract. The Public Services (Social Value) Act asks public sector budget holders to get wider social, economic and environmental benefits when they spend public money. The Cabinet Office has promised to give examples this summer of how Whitehall is delivering on the Act and what else the Government will do to promote it. The case studies it chooses will give a useful signal for what Government wants suppliers to do beyond delivering what they are actually being paid to do. The paper will also give a good indication of whether the flagships Apprenticeships Levy policy will be delivered on time – if training programmes don’t feature heavily in the Government’s examples, it may suggest the policy is being held back until it’s ready for the outside world.

Tech determines Government funding

The Paymaster General, Matt Hancock, has just delivered a speech at King’s Cross in London on blockchain technology. Although Hancock admitted “there’s still a very long way to go to bring Government up to date with the internet age”, he did feel able to talk about the Government’s ambitions to use blockchain “to manage the distribution of grants.” He talked about education and international aid explicitly, citing the Student Loans Company and DfID grants to aid bodies.

In all, the speech shows Government is still a very long way behind the technology curve. In typical Whitehall fashion, its first concern is how to count and distribute the beans more accurately, rather than realising that substantive policy change will be needed to keep up with the modern world.

In the short term, though, organisations that can play down to Whitehall’s tech standards will benefit from new pots of public money looking for a home.


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