Thursday, July 23, 2009

The only progressive statement possible

Another think tank is launched and the usual suspects get excited as they dust off the same old soundbites. Not an ordinary person in sight.

This week former Minister James Purnell got tired of sitting at home staring at his fridge magnets and launched his new project Open Left, sponsored by a think tank called Demos.

Cue a series of contributions in the Guardian and beyond. From Polly Toynbee to Billy Bragg, Tony Benn and John Cruddas, the Usual Suspects Brigade of Labour MPs and commentators have been engaged in an "open conversation aimed at renewing the thinking and ideas of the political left".

A great deal of it, however, is a simple rehash of ivory tower-debates regularly taking place since circa 1994. Just look at the number of those 'think tanks'. They're all thinking and you can hear the cogs whirring: Demos, Compass, Civitas and Politeia, one Latin or Greek name after the other.

In those places, professional politicians and veteran commentators are in their element, blabbering about 'change', 'modernising' and 'way forward', 'choice', 'equality of capability', 'open society', 'bigtent politics', a staggering selection of hollow-sounding bits and pieces whose significance to most British people ranges from very little to 'what-are-they-on-about'.

Like noted here, right from the start, Open Left suffers from the usual syndrome: it's an exclusive collection of MPs, Guardian journalists, think tank members plus a squad from Oxford Uni.

So while these chaps talk, think and tank, no doubt with the best of intentions, more families continue to see their homes repossessed, bankruptcies triple in number, and the dole queues swell up - all under the expert watch of Labour (the party these people are mostly aiming their think-tanking at).

And in the meantime Britain's workforce has become the most casualised in Europe, some get sacked at an hour's notice, and a lot don't know if they get rehired tomorrow or next week. Many low-paid get taxed and wonder if it's actually worth the hassle.

Britain's reinforced its status as one of the most expensive countries to live in the EU, so much that millions of people routinely top up their meagre wages with a binge of credit, digging further down each day.

Consumers see their utility bills, bus fares and train fares going up like a possessed escalator and tabloid-induced fears are the best distraction available. Little wonder apathy and political disillusion have reached levels previously unknown to man.

So before I get bogged down with a roll call of problems that would make Joy Division sound cheery, this is the massive political statement that should come from the British left and lead the way in Europe:

Labour and/or the LibDems should announce a radically different way of selecting MPs for the next elections. They should state loud and clear that their ways have changed as they pick a substantial quota of candidates from ordinary women and men: consumers, call centre workers, minimum wage staff, shopkeepers, nurses, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, bankruptcy victims, factory workers, people on the dole, workers who’ve been on casual “contracts” for years…treated like shit at work, facing the problems that millions of ordinary people face everyday.

It may look like a freak show to an old Westminster-dwelling freeloader but it's a massive progressive statement and the only one that would strike a chord with the electorate. Something in line with the real problems of the real world and not the usual chit chats amongst the usual suspects that go under the guise of a Latin word.

And if this sounds populistic to a think tanker, then they should see what their stuff sounds like to millions of ordinary people.


Chris Baldwin said...

Francis Wheen's verdict on Think Tanks is still unsurpassed:

"The unspeakable in pursuit of the unthinkable"

Jon Hunt said...

How about selecting half of the House of Lords by lottery?

Nick W said...

Excellent post if a bit populistic in places.
Purnell, Cruddas & pals should have the decency to realise that they had their shot in power. Twelve, almost thirteen years.

Maybe they failed, maybe not. Either way they certainly weren't successful. Surely they ended up alienating swathes of Labour voters.

Now they should gracefully move aside and rid Labour of a whole generation of apparatchiks a-la Purnell whose career went from Oxford to the Insitute of Pyblic Policy Research, to BBC Head of Corporate Planning, to Special Advisor to n.10, to the Cabinet.

What knowledge of the real world can this gentleman have?

Anonymous said...

These little collections of luvvies like Bragg and Toynbee breaking the bruschetta with the likes of Purnell just because "they're Labour, innit?" is a major contributing factor to why I left Labour 12 years ago. Where I come from, people don't have dinner parties, and I'd like to see how the smarmy oily Purnell in particular would fare walking through the council estates, the heavily Asian areas, or the city centre at chucking out time without his minders.

Patrick Gray said...

Evidence of Purnell's abyss from reality:

"Britain is a fundamentally better place than it was in 1997 and Labour has lots to be proud of over the last 12 years".

Yeah. Like civil liberties down the drain. Economy in tatters, unemployment at its highest in 15 years and rising and near bankrupt government. Or how about the War in Iraq. Or the one in Afghanistan, where troops are dying because the government won’t give them decent equipment and then billions are wasted on Trident? And what about the political class – arrogant, corrupt and odious? Yes, yes there’s lots to be proud of, Purnell. Do us a favour and join the Tories.

Anita said...


why all this hostility towards Toynbee? What's she done to you?

Jimbo said...

Britain is a fundamentally better place than it was in 1997 and Labour has lots to be proud of over the last 12 years".

This is exactly the kind of statement that infuriates people and leaves them disillusioned with politics. No doubt in ‘think tank ville’ things have got ‘fundamentally better’, but what about the millions of people at the bottom of the economic ladder?

A couple of glaringly obvious disasters come to mind.

The minimum wage. The advent of the minimum wage was much applauded by most of us in the progressive of the political spectrum. Yet, when it was written, there were fairly big loopholes in it. The worst employers used those loopholes to great effect to exploit the weakest members of the workforce. The cynic in my thinks that the loopholes were left deliberately, but lets be charitable, let us assume sheer incompetence.

So, a full ten years after the National minimum wage was introduced, one loophole was being addressed. Restaurants are finally being asked to exempt tips from the calculation of wages. Why was such a loophole allowed? Why would anyone introduce a minimum wage and then let employers away with an outrageous policy of theft? How galling for Labour voters to get a minimum wage and not see a penny difference in your take home pay? What kind of slap in the face would that be?

Why would the Labour Party miss (if they did miss it unintentionally) such a flaw in the legislation? How could the chattering classes miss that? They spend enough times being served by these people but never notice it’s flagship failing so badly? Could it be that the think tankers never actually speak to the people they are trying to help? Could it be the think tanks never have a ‘dinosaur’ from the unions? Could it be that every think tanker is blissfully unaware that the healthy twenty quid tip they have just left is taken by the employer and the waitress never sees a penny of it? How ironic that the exploitation is happening right under the noses of a group of think tankers who have just spent more on a wine bottle than the waitress will get a shift and the think tanker will be talking about what kind of PR or how to reconnect with ordinary voters. Yeah, that ordinary voter has just had twenty quid nicked out her wages and rubbed in her face, what about fixing that?

The 10 pence tax thing. Okay everyone makes mistakes; the important thing is how you deal with it. No one was interested until people started to see money coming out of their pocket. How did this slip past the net? Why was the PM denying this on a plane home whilst people had to struggle by. A party of the low paid yet no-one noticed, Why? Could it be that the low paid do not organise or if they do they are not important enough to listened to?

Whilst the left are having supper clubs discussing the plight of the subsidy junkie farmers (We are all free marketers now) and those beastly unemployed with their begging bowls, Labour poll rating has flattened. Hmm another think tank is what the doctor ordered.

claude said...

I salute your comment. Absolutely spot-on.