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Uppity chamber

Labour Lords have battled valiantly in this parliament in spite of coalition peers’ numerical advantage, says Lord Bassam

 

 

Although measuring success in opposition has long confounded political observers, a fair judge might be favourably disposed to Labour’s Lordly performance over the past four years. Nearly a hundred division lobby wins, approximately 500 amendments accepted through powerful advocacy and an unerring knack of managing to set the news agenda. But just how has this worked after a long period of Labour government, with expectations fairly low and in a period when David Cameron has busily stuffed the House with new coalition peers?

Losing the 2010 general election left Labour in politically uncharted territory in the Lords. Never in recent history had we been the sole opposition party; never previously had we had such a large opposition group (notionally 235 in May 2010), and never before had we been the largest party when in opposition. Given the Tory and Lib Dem peers’ joint numerical strength, our group recognised those parties were a coalition with a clear political majority – something, incidentally, that we never aspired to have while in government. There was an external expectation, however, that given the Upper House’s reputation for overturning bills, Labour would somehow magically be able to do the same.

This presented something of a dilemma: how best to oppose and slow up a determinedly rightwing agenda while being realistic about what could be achieved. We also had to have due regard for the political conventions within Parliament that enable a government to secure its programme but rely on the Lords to revise legislation. In this we were aided by Cameron’s lack of a mandate for his legislative programme and a coalition agreement loosely drawn from Tory and Lib Dem manifestos.

In retrospect, our approach, led by my inspirational colleague Janet Royall alongside a sharp-minded team of advisers, has proved more effective than we imagined. Rightly, we thought our strategy and tactics had to be flexible, including being a constructive opposition where legislation was in the national interest or proportionate to the problem to be tackled. But equally, we would be firmly against measures that upset the balance between the Commons and Lords, where the government parties were being partisan or harming the public interest.

So we opposed aspects of the academies and free schools programme, highlighting how it could actually lower educational standards. We also predicted that free schools could fall foul of religious fundamentalism, and compromise standards with unqualified teachers. We warned of the pitfalls of a fragmented system and poor governance. Time has proved our fears were well founded.

Some commentators assumed Lib Dem Lords would prove unreliable allies for the Tories. We never saw it that way. Our experience was of a party bloc prepared from the outset to swallow political beliefs and commitments for the prize of power. I don't criticise Lib Dems for this dose of Stalinism. Governments rely on political discipline to secure legislation and a reputation for competence, and this approach has delivered the agreed programme with few measures lost or diluted.

Still, between 2010 and 2012, bill after bill came to the Lords begging to be amended, but even when clearly miles away from Lib Dem policies, they still voted them through. Tuition fees, free schools, the ‘bedroom tax’, the evisceration of legal aid, the marketisation of the NHS, pension cuts, police and crime commissioners, a reduction in employment protection and the sneaky hobbling of campaigning charities were all pushed through with barely a dissenting Lib Dem voice.

Arguably Labour Lords’ most profound impact will become clear next May. At the outset of the current parliament, the Coalition – particularly the Tory part of it – sought to load the political dice in its favour. Cameron secured a ridiculous agreement from Nick Clegg to offer a referendum on the electoral system as a trade-off for bigger constituencies drawn on boundaries favouring only the Conservatives. Labour fought this determinedly in both Houses, pointing out to the Lib Dems the devastating impact it could have for them electorally. Our peers went further, forcing the Government into all-night sittings and ultimately securing some concessions before the bill was forced through to enable the AV referendum.

After the loss of the referendum and the failure to secure meaningful Lords reform, the Lib Dems decided we were right all along. So when a means of reopening the issue arose in legislation on voter registration, an amendment backed formally by both our parties and crossbenchers successfully delayed implementation until after the 2015 election. Political analysts suggest this rebalancing of the seats is worth 2% in the polls, and up to 30 seats. It also helps compensate for the disproportionate impact that under-registration has on Labour’s vote.

Should Labour be using the Lords to obstruct government legislation? Well, while occasionally testing the unelected chamber to its limits, we are more than justified in using the checks and balances that the Upper House offers. Additionally, nobody should forget that during our 13 years in government, Labour lost over 500 divisions – nearly a third of all votes. Some would say that went beyond opposition and close to the obstruction of parts of a programme for which a mandate existed.

Because Labour has just 28% of the Lords’ voting strength, we have had to be both strategic and forensic in our approach, deploying tactical flexibility and using our imagination in turn to get our messages across. The art of good politics is linking issues from campaigning into the decision-making and legislative forum. Traditionally, this has been the task of Commons colleagues. What is different about this period of Lords opposition is that we have been able to do so across a larger canvas, widening both the public and media’s understanding of how the House works, including through our popular @LabourLordsUK Twitter feed.

Whether at daily question time or during debates on legislation or motions, life has been made less comfortable for the Coalition at our end of the Palace. We may, of course, have made a rod for our own backs once Labour is in office again. I like to think, however, that the increased professionalism of our opposition operation in the Lords has merely prepared the ground for us to do the business of government much better.

 

Lord Bassam is Opposition Chief Whip in the House of Lords

 

 

 

Justice, Delayed

With police cuts biting, and Theresa May taking a ‘laissez faire’ approach to crime, the clock is beginning to “tick backwards on just...

 

Words: Paul Waugh

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

 

 

Yvette Cooper is late. But she has a pretty good excuse: the wacky races that are London school runs. Like many parents with children on their second day of the new term, she’s just fought through the usual early morning panic of uniforms, breakfasts and which teacher is which. Unlike many parents, she’s also the Shadow Home Secretary.

“I went to the TUC last night [in Liverpool],” she explains. “So I was having to catch up this morning on all of the discussions about yesterday at school and all of that. You finish the school run, and then you think ‘right, let’s start the day again’.”

With a general election just months away, Cooper certainly has a lot on her plate these days. In the Commons’ own back-to-school September sitting, she’s used an Urgent Question to grill Theresa May on Rotherham’s child abuse scandal and scored a victory on the restoration of relocation powers of terror suspects. After months of gestation, Labour’s policies on immigration, crime and police reform are nearly complete. And as party conference opens, she’s itching to take the fight to the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP.

Having overseen Labour’s mea culpa for the failure to restrict migration from Eastern Europe, Cooper has spent months on the road talking to voters about their worries about workers from overseas.

She says the party will “go further” on the impact on the labour market of migrants, with “stronger” measures to be announced. “In my constituency in particular, we have got a lot of low skilled distribution jobs in factories and so on. When we have discussions about what people are worried about, the jobs issue comes up a lot.”

Most people want the system to be firm but fair, she says. “That does mean dealing with issues around benefits, people who commit crimes being deported, speaking English and so on.

“We also recognise the benefits that centuries of migration bring; you need the talent and ideas from abroad. You need a smarter system so you can have more international students coming to our best universities who are able to contribute to our economy, but lower low-skilled migration.”

A key theme of her message is that UKIP and the SNP have both been focused on “the politics of division”, of looking inwards “to a smaller country, rather than having the confidence to look outwards”.

“We know that people have had not just the financial crisis, but years of falling living standards and they have a real anxiety about the future. There’s a strong rejection of the Tories but they are looking for some answers and for optimism and change.

“UKIP playing on people’s fears, turning their backs on European jobs, is not the answer. I think we’ve got to expose UKIP for being a very right wing party, a party that wants to charge people to use the NHS, a party that wants to cut taxes by more than David Cameron does, and be prepared to take that on as well.”

The recent problems in Calais also highlight the flaws in Nigel Farage’s policy of pulling out the EU, she says. “We need other European countries to do their bit to deal with illegal migration across Europe, with refugees and asylum seekers being responded to in the country in which they arrive and apply. If we simply turn our backs and ignore that, we have far less ability to be able to persuade and argue and insist that other countries do their bit in a way that helps us.”

The centenary of the First World War provides a reminder of the importance of European partnership, she adds. “That actually should be about showing we’ve come a long way from when European nations fought each other – and hated each other. And being prepared to work together – and argue together – is immensely important.”

As well as trying to frame UKIP as ‘right wing’, Cooper says the party is “disingenuous about supposedly wanting to help working people”. “It’s not racist to be worried about migration the impact it has on people’s jobs and wages. It is racist to say Lenny Henry should have to leave the country, which is what some of the UKIP councillors were saying. And we have to challenge people on that,” she says.

 “The vast majority of people want to talk about how you control and manage migration. And in the end that is a Labour thing to do. We don’t sign up to the free market right which is laissez faire and it’s all about what’s best for business, or the Conservative reactionary right which is just ‘close your backs on the rest of the world’.”

Cooper also accuses Theresa May of a ‘laissez faire’ approach to crime, claiming that cutbacks to police forces have left serious gaps in the system. “The clock is starting to tick backwards on justice, because if you look at what’s happened over the last four years, the consequence of the scale of police cuts and the lack of proper strategic reform, the laissez fair approach to crime and justice, is that you’ve seen a big drop in prosecutions.”

Prosecutions for rape, domestic violence and even sex abuse have all fallen, just as such ‘hidden crime’ has risen. “There’s a growing awareness of some of the really terrible crimes where victims aren’t heard. That might be crimes within the family, domestic abuse, sexual abuse and rape, but also abuse of children. It’s not just that awful crimes have taken place but the criminal justice system is letting them down or not hearing victims.”

Rather than trying to do everything at once in office, Labour is preparing to focus on “three pieces of flagship legislation”: on immigration and exploitation, on policing reform and on abuse of women and children. Rotherham, like Oxfordshire and other places, has laid bare the need for action, she says.

On the overarching inquiry into child sex abuse, Cooper sounds underwhelmed at the Home Office’s appointment of Fiona Woolf. “They’ve been very slow. We still don’t have the full panel and we still don’t have the terms of reference. We are concerned it has not got the momentum and support from the Home Office that it needs.”

During the recent Commons exchanges on Rotherham, Diane Abbott said that class and misogyny, and not just political correctness about race, lay behind the treatment of young victims. Did she have a point? “If you look at the Jay report and the descriptions of the attitudes of police officers and social services, there was this idea that if somehow girls were involved in sexual activity that they must have consented, that it must be their fault.

“We need a massive culture change on this. The reason we want mandatory reporting is also to have the law changed to kick start that culture change. But it’s much wider, that’s why it has to be about attitudes and sex and relationship education going right the way up through school.”

Building compulsory relationship lessons into the curriculum will be crucial to changing attitudes to “prevent violence in the next generation”, she says. “The work in schools around boys’ attitudes is incredibly important.  It’s shocking the Government has refused to do this. It’s got to be about boys and men, not just seeing this as a problem for girls or a problem for women. It’s about respect in relationships.”

As well as funding for women’s refuges, there needs to be more work on intervention projects aimed at changing men’s behaviour. “Far more. And there’s too little known about what really works in terms of the perpetrator programmes. Much more needs to be done.”

Cooper’s office recently had a constituent reporting that she had to pay to get protection from an abusive partner. “One woman described how her ex is getting legal aid and she’s not. She’s trying to get the non-molestation order in place to keep her and her children safe.”

Female genital mutilation is another form of abuse that Cooper wants to tackle. She reveals that at this year’s women’s conference she will announce a Labour government would introduce ‘FGM protection orders’.

A similar kind of protection order has been put in place to prevent forced marriages, but no tools exist to help the 65,000 girls aged 13 and under at immediate risk of being ‘cut’. Some 170,000 young women and girls in the UK already live with the legacy of mutilation. “FGM is a horrific abuse of children. We need to send a clear message that it will not be tolerated in the UK – and that we will act to stop children being taken out of the country to be violently mutilated,” she says.

Another area where the Coalition has fallen behind, she claims, is in prioritising the rise in online crime. The National Crime Agency admitted this year that it had details on more than 10,000 people who had downloaded abusive images, and yet they had only arrested and investigated 650 people. “They are reported as saying that [if they investigated all the crimes] the criminal justice system couldn’t cope. And yet the criminal justice system arrests 120,000 people for theft every year. So why can’t we investigate 10,000 more cases where people have been downloading images?

“The next scandal and web of crimes is brewing now and the combination of the system and the Home Office and the police not taking it seriously enough a new crime that’s growing, the combination means that you are building up future problems.”

As for the police, Cooper is determined to look at both funding and reform. Ever the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, she says that there is scope for savings through joint procurement by police forces, adding that “we will say more about that between now and the election”.

On reform, she’s clear that a new, more “proactive” Police Standards Authority ought to replace the current HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Independent Police Complaints Commission. “Rotherham is a good example. The IPCC says unless people refer this to us, we can’t do anything, which is ridiculous.” Unless action is taken then “the good work of police officers across the country has got a long shadow over it”, thanks to the misconduct of a minority.

Many Tories have admired Theresa May’s shake up of police standards and pay, not least off the back of the Plebgate affair. But although she disagrees with her opposite number on that and other key issues, does Cooper have a sneaking respect for the Home Secretary’s rise to become the most senior woman in Government?

“Yes. To come up through the Tory party with all of the hostility, the kind of dismissive attitude not just of David Cameron but a lot of senior Tories towards women, I think is a big achievement,” she says.

But there’s a caveat: “It is a shame that she has done so little on issues that affect women. In the same way my criticism of Margaret Thatcher was that yes it was astonishing to become leader of the Tory Party at that time, she actually made it harder for other women to do the same.

“It would’ve been nice to see Theresa May do more to deal with things like violence against women or some of the areas where the clock has gone backwards, where you’ve seen refuges closing. You really need leadership from the Home Office and we’ve just not seen it.”

Does she admire Angela Merkel as a rare woman in a man’s world of European leaders? Again, Cooper qualifies her answer. “What’s admirable about her is her determination to do things her way and not simply to fit into traditional male patterns of operating,” she says. “She’s certainly a strong and impressive figure. My political criticism of her is I think she hasn’t been a do-er. If you think about serious structural problems in Europe, and the eurozone and the anxiety about jobs and austerity for southern Europe, I think Angela Merkel has been reluctant to face up to doing the things that need to be done.”

Which brings us to the topic of women in UK politics. Does she think there will be a female leader of the Labour party in her lifetime?  “Of course there will,” she replies swiftly. “We’ve already had Harriet and Margaret Beckett who have been acting leaders.”

Cooper has a stock answer whenever she’s asked about her own chances as future Labour leader, stating she wants to be Home Secretary. But did she see the Survation poll earlier this year suggesting that she and Chuka Umunna were rated as future successors to Ed Miliband, with voters praising her intelligence, connection with ordinary life and toughness? “How kind!” she laughs, without giving anything away about future ambitions.

Shadow cabinet colleague Rachel Reeves is another touted as a possible leader, despite criticism from Newsnight’s Ian Katz over her appearance on the programme a year ago. Katz recently returned to the issue, writing an article arguing that political interviews on TV were increasingly sterile and pointless stand-offs. Does Cooper think it’s time for change from both media and politicians? She replies that the rise in online media has put a premium on politicians answering questions more honestly. “In a modern media age, it’s not just the telly any more, you have all the vlogs and Youtube and Facebook. People are on screen so much of their lives that if someone is not authentic everybody knows it. If someone is not being honest or dodging a question, everybody knows it.

“On the other hand a lot of questions interviewers ask were of the type ‘have you stopped lying to me?’ Therefore it needs not just politicians to be able to change and adapt, but also wider media to be able to change and adapt. And I don’t know how far we are on that track.”

She says that the rise of social media has allowed the public to see for themselves the bigger picture behind selective quotations. “They can see more of it and see the whole story rather just a bit of it. There’s probably a process of adjustment going on as everybody works out how the social media-led, new world of communication works.”

Ought there to be more politicians prepared to just give straight answers to straight questions? “Yes. And sometimes also to be honest about the fact that there isn’t an answer to the question. That it’s complicated, that we just don’t know the answer to that, but we are listening. Or we got some things wrong. Unless you can admit that, it’s a problem too.”

As for social media, Cooper points out that her own three children are more savvy than their parents about much of life online. “You can have parental controls, but most of us have to ask them how to use the parental controls!”

Does she control what they view on screen? “In the end there’s so much that they are exposed to and will be exposed to that you cannot possibly police. Of course, especially when kids are younger, you try and do everything you can to prevent them from being exposed to awful things. But [with older children] you have to be realistic about the pace of technology, the nature of their lives, they are out with friends the whole time. It’s about building their confidence to make a judgement and recognising that kids grow up and make mistakes.”

Cooper has famously referred to her mother as her ‘fourth emergency service’ when it comes to family childcare. But this morning’s tricky school run notwithstanding (the Balls-Coopers have a boy and a girl at secondary and their youngest daughter at primary), is her work-life balance getting easier the older the children become?

“The morning is less stressful. Trying to get a four year-old, a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old out to school is much more stressful. [Now] the teenagers manage themselves, they get out of the house and you vaguely hope they’ve had breakfast. So some of those things are easier,” she says. “But you become a taxi service, with that having to coordinate where it is they have to be. I’m managing their diaries when I struggle to manage my own, but theirs are far more complex!”

Something that appears to unite the family is Dr Who. And Cooper reveals that she’s more than a bit of a fan of the BBC show. So, what does she make of the new Doctor? “I can’t work it out yet. I really like Peter Capaldi but I’m worried that he’s really unhappy. It’s not just that he’s darker, it’s like there’s no joy at the moment,” she replies. “You always thought that David Tennant had this deep unhappiness underneath but was trying to be joyful to distract from it. With Matt Smith there was the sadness but always a sort of wistful playfulness. With Peter Capaldi you just feel he’s deeply unhappy. I am really worried that Dr Who is too unhappy. I like the cantankerous bit. It’s not the grumpiness. It’s the bleakness.”

And as for the Doctor’s female assistants, the former Shadow Women and Equalities Minister has her doubts about recent characters. “They seem strong, but the danger is they go strong within a stereotype. Donna [played by Catherine Tate] was not within a stereotype. She’s still my favourite.”

Another family favourite within the household in recent years has been the theatre musical Wicked, with Balls admitting he’d seen it more than five times.

But Cooper confesses that The Sound of Music has become the latest musical obsession, revealing that the whole clan visited Salzburg this summer as part of rail trip around Europe. “We went inter-railing: us and a bunch of 18-19 year-olds on trains across Europe. One of the places we went was Salzburg and we went on a Sound of Music tour,” she reveals.

“It was absolutely brilliant. You go along on a bike with this beat box in the front, we were singing the songs as we cycled through Salzburg. We even had headscarves that we’d made out of curtain material. It was utterly ludicrous and very funny,” she says, crumpling into laughter at the memory.

As she now focuses on a hectic run-in to May 2015, light relief may be in short supply in the Home Office brief. But while Labour may not be able to climb every mountain electorally, Yvette Cooper sounds ready to try. 

 

 

COOPER ON…UKIP AND MIGRATION

“Ukip’s approach is to cut market regulation and to cut employment rights, which in fact we should be strengthening. Labour’s the only party arguing for that.”

 

COOPER ON…JUSTICE FOR VICTIMS

“The Labour party has always been a party fighting for justice, fighting for social justice, standing up for those who don’t get heard, those who get left behind.”

 

COOPER ON…THE ‘WOOLF’ CHILD ABUSE INQUIRY

“Theresa May agreed to do this inquiry two months ago, this is just glacial progress on something where we know there are failings still.”

 

COOPER ON…10% TURNOUT FOR WEST MIDS PCC BYELECTION

“Somebody said to me ‘God, it really must have been a low-profile by-election because even Michael Crick didn’t go’.”

 

COOPER ON….MAY’S CONTROL ORDERS U-TURN

“They’ve come full circle, although curiously we don’t know when it’s going to happen…The Government’s anti-terror plans are completely unclear”.

 

COOPER ON… PIANO PLAYING

“It never came naturally to me. He [husband Ed Balls] just really likes it. He’s really enthusiastic. Over the summer, he’s been learning jazz piano.”

 

 

 

 


Keeping welfare in check

Chess loving Rachel Reeves’ election strategy is clear; to toughen up her party’s image on welfare, while taking action on low pay. An...

 

Words: Paul Waugh and Daniel Bond

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

 

 

Rachel Reeves had a bit of a busman’s holiday this summer. While away from Westminster, her Big Read was Nick Timmins’ A Biography of the Welfare State, a huge tome tailor-made for any would-be Work and Pensions Secretary. In August she made a Big Speech contrasting Labour and Tory plans for welfare. And, amid family and constituency duties, she also found time to work on her own Big Write: a biography of Alice Bacon, former Labour minister and the first woman to represent Leeds West.

With the general election just months away, the 35-year-old Reeves is firmly focused on the big prize of a Labour government and unafraid of doing the extra homework to get there.

One of the vanguard of the 2010 intake promoted rapidly by Ed Miliband, it’s clear that learning from the past has been at the heart of her own plans for welfare reform. And reconnecting the system to its 1945 roots is central to her mission. “The welfare state was built as a giant insurance model,” she tells The House. “You pay into the system and you draw down on your contributions when you need to, whether it’s because you have had a family, you lose a job or become ill or disabled or when you retire.

“That was Beveridge’s and Attlee’s welfare state and I want to protect the integrity of that system. That means that you need to contribute to the system. The contributory principle has been eroded over decades.”

Although Labour “will have more to say on those things as we get closer to the general election,” she makes clear that a Reeves-led DWP would restore that principle to the Job Seeker’s Allowance, giving an extra £20 a week to someone who has worked for three or four years.

She’s also keen to stress that a Labour government would take seriously voters’ concerns about migrants claiming welfare. “The vast majority of people who come to this country, they contribute and they pay more in taxes than they withdraw on benefits,” she says. “But I don’t think it’s right that someone should be able to come to this country and be able to start claiming benefits on day one. Or that they should be able to claim child benefit for children who are living overseas. The welfare state wasn’t built for them to able to do that, and it’s not affordable to do that.

“But also it just jars with people’s basic principle of fairness. I wouldn’t expect to go to Spain or Poland to work and to be able to claim benefits for my family back in the UK. And I don’t think it’s right that other people should be able to come to this country and claim benefits for overseas. I think a number of months before you have any entitlement to the system, you should have to have paid into the system before you draw down on benefits.”

Reeves points out that Germany recently hinted it wanted to be tougher too. “All countries in the European Union have their own welfare states and welfare is supposed to be an issue of national sovereignty, so we should be able to make decisions about how our welfare state works. As the European Union is expanded, you need to make sure we keep pace with other parts of European legislation as well.”

Toughening up the message on welfare is a key challenge in the next few months, not least because the Conservatives are sure to hammer home their claim that Labour is now ‘the Welfare Party’. Unsurprisingly, it’s a charge Reeves rejects.

“I just don’t think it’s an accurate portrayal of who we are in the Labour party. We are the party of work, the party formed to give a voice for working people. I want to control the costs of the social security, I want to do it in a way that is sustainable, but also in a way that’s progressive and consistent with my values.”

But what does she make of the claim that Ed Miliband’s single biggest tactical mistake this Parliament was the decision to vote against the household benefit cap? “We had very real concerns, we didn’t think that proper due diligence had been taken over it. So we did know that in some parts of the country that has created problems of homelessness, of families having to be moved and disrupted, breaking up family networks. We wouldn’t have done it in the way that they did it. But right from the beginning when there was that vote we said that we supported a cap and we are not going to reverse that if we are elected next year.”

Labour is also looking at a regional cap to reflect different rents in different parts of the country. “I think it is right that you shouldn’t be able to get more in benefits than you get in work so I have always been a supporter of a cap on benefits for individual households. But we’ve got to get it right.”

Polls show that Labour is still trailing badly behind the Tories as a party most prepared to ‘take tough decisions’. Is Ed Miliband’s team running out of time to change those perceptions? “A lot of the polls on welfare show that we have narrowed that gap and on some polls that we’ve closed that gap with the Tories. I think partly because everybody thinks that you need to control the costs of social security, but people are really concerned about who pays the price, you see so many horror stories, particularly with what’s happening to people with disabilities who are being hit with delays.”

As a former Shadow Chief Secretary, Reeves is also unafraid of being seen to keep a tight rein on spending, and warns there “will be further cuts to be made after the next election”.

Her successor in the post, Chris Leslie, admitted last month that his enforcement of the party’s tough ‘zero-based’ spending review could make him the ‘most hated man in the country’ after 2015. Is she prepared for a similar backlash in the DWP? “When I was Shadow Chief Secretary I started the zero-based review and I was very sorry to hand that over to Chris,” she says, laughing. “We are under no illusions of what settlement we are going to face next year.”

But Reeves is very serious about cutting welfare costs by taking action on low pay. “What I want to do as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is to tackle some of those drivers of the rising welfare bill. And that means increasing the minimum wage, trying to ensure more people are paid the Living Wage, building housing to try and control the rises in rent. Those tangible concrete polices first of all give people more dignity that they can afford to live, without having to rely on tax credits and housing benefits to be able to make ends meet, but also they would relieve pressure on the social security system.”

This summer former KPMG deputy chairman Alan Buckle published his independent report on low pay, setting out plans to give the Low Pay Commission and the HMRC new powers. But the most eye-catching proposal was Buckle’s call for central government to lead the way on the Living Wage by ensuring that firms bidding for public contracts pay all their staff the higher rate.

The plan is something Labour is “looking at” for their manifesto, Reeves says, and points to examples of public and private sector firms who’ve benefited from moving to the Living Wage. “If you talk to firms like Barclays, they say that the turnover of staff means there are fewer costs in recruitment, and the boosts in productivity mean that the Living Wage pays for itself. There are loads of really positive examples about how in difficult economic circumstances you can afford to pay a living wage,” she says. “I want to use those examples of best practice in the public and private sectors to determine how a future Labour government would act, and that would mean, over time, having public sector procurement requiring a Living Wage. That’s something we’re looking at for the manifesto, it’s something I think is possible and something I really would want to see a Labour government achieve.”

Reeves is also a big fan of the Living Wage Foundation’s efforts to accredit firms who pay the wage with their ‘kitemark’, borrowing David Cameron’s phrase and pointing out that in business – just as in politics – ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. “When you go to the supermarket and you buy tea or coffee or sugar or chocolate, you can decide whether you want to buy Fair Trade or not. And the Living Wage Foundation accredits employers like you do with Fair Trade. So you can make a decision as a consumer: do I want to spend my money in a supermarket that pays their workers a wage they can afford to live on, or do I want to shop somewhere that’s paying just the minimum wage? I think giving consumers that information on wages would be a really powerful driver of change.”

Concrete policies on low pay will be unveiled in the coming months, but Labour’s flagship employment policy, the Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, is already taking shape. The party is preparing to announce a working group, made up of key figures from across the public and private sectors, to look at how to best implement the scheme, which will offer a taxpayer-funded job to all 18-24 year-olds out of work for more than a year – with those refusing losing benefits.

The implementation of the programme will form the centrepiece of Reeves’s ‘access talks’ with DWP Permanent Secretary Robert Devereux in the autumn, and in the coming months Reeves and her Shadow Employment Minister Stephen Timms will step up meetings with business groups, including the CBI, the BCC and the BRC, to ensure the programme is workable in practice and ready to be rolled out “very early on in the next Parliament”.

Reeves is confident that Labour’s message and policies on tackling low pay and job insecurity will attract back the party’s traditional voters, including those tempted by the UKIP insurgency that threatens its heartlands. And although she insists they are not targeted at one particular group of voters, her policies on migrant and contributory benefits may also help stem the tide.

“People are voting UKIP for all sorts of reasons and we have to take that seriously and we have to listen,” she says. “People have very real concerns about a whole number of issues, about how the economy is working for them and their families, about changes they’ve seen in their communities, about what’s happening to their wages – that they haven’t had a pay rise for, in some cases, seven or eight years, that they don’t feel confident asking for a pay rise because they know there are more people who would step into their job, or that they’re not confident about asking for extra hours and they’re are on zero-hour contracts.

“A lot of people are feeling like the economy isn’t working for them. They feel let down. And they see Nigel Farage saying that he has all the answers, and I do understand why people want to put their trust in someone else who says they’ve got all the answers. But I don’t think they do have the answers. And it’s up to Labour to set out an alternative.”

Reeves has more experience than most in taking the fight to Farage; in 2006, the then 27 year-old Bank of England economist stood against the UKIP leader in the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election.

In the event, the Conservatives retained the Bromley seat comfortably, with Farage pushing Labour into fourth place – the lowest by-election placing for a governing party since Liverpool Walton in 1991. “It was a time when Labour were not doing so well in the polls,” Reeves remembers with wry smile. “But it was a great experience, sort of an apprenticeship. I enjoyed being the candidate and I thought ‘this is something I feel I could really contribute to and make a difference.’”

Farage and Reeves both hail from near Bromley, though with distinctly different backgrounds. “He’s from that neck of the woods, north Kent, and went to Dulwich College, which is not that far from where I grew up – although I went to a very different type of school!” Reeves says. “This man of the people, who’s a stockbroker who went to public school? It defies belief in my view…”

Her own school, Cator Park Comprehensive (now a Harris Academy) was a former secondary modern. “When I was doing my GCSEs,” she remembers, “our headteacher said we should all keep our fingers crossed that day for the first ever girl from our school who was applying to Oxbridge. And that was when I thought. ‘Oh, somebody from our school is going to Oxford, maybe I could go to Oxford?’ I didn’t grow up knowing people who had been to those sorts of universities and it wasn’t something that was expected I guess at my school. The majority of my friends didn’t go on to university.”

Reeves did indeed go to Oxford, followed by postgraduate study at the LSE and then a job at the Bank of England (where she met a young Matthew Hancock on her first day). But she’s determined more can be done to widen access. “We say people should aspire but you can only aspire if you know what is out there in the world. Role models are really, really important. Which is why I passionately believe in comprehensive education. Because if you separate out kids based on parental income or a test at age 10 or 11 then you are going to close down aspiration and opportunities.”

Reeves is also proud that the sea-change from the 11-plus to the comprehensive system was driven in part by a former Leeds MP, Alice Bacon. Her biography of Bacon, one of her own role models, is clearly a labour of love. The daughter of a coal miner, she was elected to the NEC at just 30 and served as an MP from 1945 to 1970. “Before I got elected, she was the only woman ever to have been an MP in Leeds out of the eight constituencies,” Reeves says. “I’m the second woman and there was a 40 year gap between 1970 and 2010.”

Bacon rose to be Minister of State at the Home Office under Roy Jenkins at a time when the death penalty was abolished, homosexuality decriminalised and abortion legalised. She then became Minister of State at the Department for Education, where she began to introduce comprehensive education, “her driving passion”. “She spoke about comprehensive education in Parliament before anybody else, she raised it more times between 1945 and 1970 than any other MP,” Reeves says. “Obviously [Tony] Crosland is associated with that, but it was ministers like Alice who made it possible, who raised it and then did the hard graft of implementing it. To have risen from a working class background in West Yorkshire in the 1930s and 1940s to become an MP was an incredible achievement. I hope it won’t be another 40 years before there’s another woman MP in Leeds.”

As one of the young women in Labour’s frontbench team to have had a child this Parliament, Reeves believes Parliament can do much more to look like the people it represents. “When I came back from maternity leave exactly this time last year, people thought I’d had six months ‘off politics’. But actually the politics of talking to other mums and learning first hand as a parent about the numbers of midwives, using GP surgeries, going to children’s centres, it certainly brings home some of the things I’ve always spoken about. You definitely see things in a different way.”

It was this time last year too that she hit the headlines after Newsnight editor Ian Katz referred to her as ‘boring snoring’. Looking back, what does she think lay behind his remarks? Katz was “just a bit rude”, she says. “It’s up to him to decide what he wants on his programme; I was asked to go on to talk about zero hours, insecurity and low pay. That’s what I talked about. Maybe it’s not particularly exciting, but actually that matters to people more than any other issue. That’s what I went into politics to do, and that’s what I’m going to continue to talk about.” 

 

 

REEVES ON...THE NEED FOR LABOUR 'CUTS'

“There’s nothing progressive about running a deficit. Keynes was all in favour of running deficits when the private sector weren’t spending but as the economy begins to recover you need to start repaying the debt.”

REEVES ON..RISING WELFARE BILLS

"The rise in welfare spending under this Government has been for people in work, not for people out of work because we have a record number of people who are now on a wage they can’t afford to live on."

REEVES ON...BECOMING A MOTHER

“I’m sure it’s changed me as a person. And maybe as a politician as well."

REEVES ON...WOMEN MPS

"We need to do better if we want the best people in politics. That means getting more women in politics."

REEVES ON…UKIP

“I’m confident people who voted for UKIP, but who have traditionally voted Labour, will come back to Labour. Not because they’ve just had a protest vote, but because as we get closer to the election people see what’s at stake, and that you’ve only got two choices about who’s going to be Prime Minister: David Cameron or Ed Miliband”  

 

 

 

 

State of the union

With trade union membership on the rise after decades of decline, Frances O’Grady says there is a ‘new mood in the country’. And the f...


Words: Daniel Bond

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

 

 

"Every single male trade unionist is now a born-again feminist,” Frances O’Grady announces. “I have ordered it should be!” 

The first female general secretary of the TUC is sitting in her Congress House office in Bloomsbury, discussing sexism in the trade union movement past and present. “Clearly, trade unions are made up of ordinary people, in all our glory as human beings,” she continues. “So of course there was and is still sexism in the movement, in the same way there is sexism in public life. But we’re getting there, slowly. There’s more work to do, it’s not fast enough, but we are getting there.”

Her feminist diktat is, of course, tongue in cheek. And in any case, the holders of this office no longer command that level of obedience; gone are the days when the head of the TUC sat at the top table as one of the most powerful figures in the country, striking fear into the hearts of prime ministers and chancellors.

But there’s certainly more than a grain of truth in her joke, too. Gone, also, is the idea of the male-dominated, ‘beer and sandwiches’ labour movement of the last century. A trade unionist in 2014 is just as likely to be a young, degree-educated woman working in a profession as the blue-collar man of stereotype. The proportion of female workers who are members of a union overtook that of men a decade ago, and the gap has grown ever wider since. The latest figures show 55% of union members are female. And while progress towards equality in the top positions has been slow, the TUC’s latest Equality Audit showed 41% of its general council are women, as are three in ten union general secretaries.

“It’s not good enough,” O’Grady adds firmly after listing the figures. “But it’s a lot better than the board room, and especially better than Cabinet. What’s different is we’re taking action to promote equality, not just in our own ranks, but in the world of work. Of course the trade union movement was not and is not perfect. But it is trade unions who campaigned for and won equal pay, and an end to sex discrimination, and things like childcare, like help if you’re looking after elderly parents. You know, this is the real stuff that makes a difference to people’s lives, and in particular gives women more of a fighting chance to get through.” 

And Frances O’Grady knows a thing or two about fighting her way through. Born in Oxford in late 1959 and educated at a comprehensive, as a teenager she worked in a kitchen washing dishes at an Oxford University college; an experience which motivated her to challenge what she saw as a system based on privilege and inequality. She read politics at Manchester, then joined the TGWU in the 1980s, at a time when the battles against sexism in the workplace were, she says, “much more wild west” than they are now. “At that time, as trade unionists, we were still campaigning against, for example, pornographic pinups in the workplace. We started a campaign against sexual harassment at a time when it didn’t even have a name, you know.”

After co-authoring a book entitled Women, Work and Maternity: the inside story, and earning a reputation as a successful campaigning trade unionist, she joined the TUC in the mid-1990s and led their New Unionism initiative. In 2003 she made history as the body’s first deputy general secretary, before being elected unopposed to replace her former boss Brendan Barber in January 2013. Articulate, down to earth and rident, O’Grady is at heart a consensus leader and believer in the soft power of persuasion. She has shunned the more confrontational language of some other union leaders and played down talk of general strikes and winters of discontent throughout this parliament, instead arguing that unions need to come up with more imaginative, bolder strategies to advance their aims.

But, as the Government found out last week, she’s certainly not afraid to back mass strike action if she feels it necessary. Up to a million public sector workers across half a dozen unions are estimated to have taken part in the biggest one-day strike this side of the Second World War, angered over changes to pensions and years of real-terms pay cuts; the average public sector worker, O’Grady says, has lost more than £40 a week since 2010.

“So this has a huge impact, and I’m astonished, frankly – maybe I shouldn’t be – by how out of touch this government is in not listening to those workers. There are parts of the press who like to portray trade unions as ‘horny-handed sons of toil’, and mindless militants and so on. Well, these are home-helps, librarians, refuse collectors, school meals workers who don’t fit that stereotype but who simply cannot manage their budgets anymore, and now, as we’ve heard, they’re being told they’re going to have another four years of it, with real pay cuts continuing to 2018.

“Given the Government has refused to engage in real consultation and negotiation and is just imposing these changes, it’s not surprising that they’ve run out of patience and they’re angry and upset – and the only way of protest left to them is to go on strike.”

With the Conservatives committed to £12bn more in public spending cuts in the next parliament, and Labour pledging to match their plans – at least in the first year – are we likely to see more widespread industrial action continuing after 2015? “If the Government is to push ahead with its plans to cut a further £12bn from public spending, then I think it needs to answer the question: where is that money going to come from?” she replies. “We’ve already lost half a million jobs. People are sweating to cover the jobs that have been left vacant or have gone. Ordinary people in communities are asking how much more is going to be taken away in the form of libraries, nurseries, services to old people and the disabled. People on benefits – and of course the majority of people on benefits are in work – are asking how much more of that is going to disappear?

“So I think the Government has got some hard questions to answer. And if they can’t answer them in a way that satisfies, then without doubt there will be trouble ahead.”

The public sector action last week attracted much of the media attention, but there was another strike that day which could have equally far-reaching implications for industrial relations. Staff at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton went on strike for the seventh time in their four-month long campaign to win the London living wage, currently set at £8.80 an hour. This new generation of young workers, struggling on low pay in casualised industries, are “precisely” the people unions need to start “showing we’re relevant to”, O’Grady says. “And we’re beginning to do that.”

Union membership is considerably lower among younger workers, particularly those employed in the private sector. “But that’s not because young people are more individualist, or less friendly towards unions – they support our values,” O’Grady says, pointing to polling from recent years showing almost four in five 18-24-year-olds backed public sector strikes against changes to pensions, compared with a little under half of over-65s. “It’s because of where they work and how they work. They are much more likely to be ghettoised into industries like hotel and catering, where the turnover is very high, where it’s very hard to build sustainable union organisation, and where, frankly, they’re often very afraid that if they were to stick their head above the parapet they would lose their job, or they wouldn’t get promoted, or they’d find the next short-term temporary contract they’re looking for – because of course young people are much more likely to be in insecure contracts – just doesn’t arrive.” 

 

 

The challenge for unions, then, is to take a much wider approach, building broad alliances and coalitions rooted not just in individual workplaces but across local communities, and backing grassroots campaigns against things like unpaid internships and zero-hours contracts, or encouraging employers to voluntarily sign up to the living wage. There is a “new mood in the country”, she says, with more and more people recognising that “the only way they stand a chance of winning fair pay and decent conditions is by joining together in a union”. “We’re working more with self-organised groups; people are beginning to organise themselves and then seek the support of unions, which I find very exciting. It is a profound challenge, but it’s also an incredibly exciting one, because I’ve seen more inspiration coming up through the grassroots – there’s that sense that trade unions are returning to the communities that gave birth to us, that sense that yes, we are people’s voice at work, but increasingly people in communities are looking for us to be their voice, too." 

Membership figures for unions over the course of this parliament are encouraging for O’Grady: the number of members picked up for the first time in a decade in 2012, driven primarily by an increase of tens of thousands of workers in the private sector. But, of course, this follows decades of steep decline since the 1980s, an era which O’Grady says “saw inequality let rip” and the trade union values of solidarity and collective action demolished. “Effectively, it was ‘you’re on your own, pull your socks up, look after yourself and forget about your neighbour’,” she says.

But the unions, too, have to accept their share of the responsibility for struggling to keep pace with the changing environment. “We’ve got to adapt and change to the new pretty brutal world of work for many people, and also to find ways to make our values – of working people looking after each other, of solidarity, decency, dignity at work, fair pay and conditions – we need to make those as important as they’ve ever been.”

“In 21st-century Britain,” she continues, “it seems that young people who work so hard to get their qualifications are, on average, on very low pay, and often in insecure work. And we have to tackle that. There is a real problem with the labour market; it’s becoming a permanent feature. That’s not how a fair Britain should be in the 21st century. So there’s a lot that’s happening, but ultimately we need to tackle the source of the problem.” And above all, she says, the source of the problem is political. 

The TUC is not officially affiliated to Labour, but O’Grady concedes she is impressed with the direction of the party under Ed Miliband; a man who, from pledging to take action on low pay to taking on the energy companies over rising fuel bills, has proven that he not only “has a big brain” and “cares passionately about ordinary people”, but that he “has a little bit of steel in the soul as well”.

But, she adds, there is a “real sense of grievance” across the country that politicians in all the main parties have not done enough to understand. In October, the TUC will hold a march and rally in Hyde Park entitled ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’, aimed at highlighting the squeeze in living standards and real wage cuts experienced by working people in both the private and public sectors. “It’s a simple message, but quite a powerful one that politicians from across the spectrum need to hear. This is a deeper problem than one party or another. I think it’s a problem of politics; there is a failure to understand just how tough it is for ordinary people, and that there is a limit to how much people can take.”

As for the Conservatives’ recent pledge to introduce a minimum 50% turnout threshold for strike ballots, O’Grady is clear: such an “out-of-touch” policy would be a big mistake, and “go down very badly” with mainstream voters. “I think most people in this country have a sense of fair play; they understand that unions are an essential feature of any democracy, and that if you’re in a trade union you have democratic rights too,” she says. “And I think they find it very hard to understand why there should be one test of a democratic ballot for trade unions, and an entirely different, easier test for politicians. One rule for politicians, and another rule for everybody else? No, those times have gone.”

If the Government was genuinely interested in encouraging democracy in unions and improving turnout in strike ballots, she continues, ministers would be open to working with the TUC to develop modern voting methods, including secure electronic balloting. “The problem is we’re stuck with these 20th-century forms of balloting imposed on us. Frankly, if you could only vote by post for your local council or in a general election, I suspect that participation would drop significantly too. Any democrat, in whatever party, their first priority should be how can we make it easier and more likely that people will exercise their right to vote? And we know what works; we know how we can improve participation. It’s perfectly possible to do. So let’s find what works and what will boost participation. That should be our first and overriding principle.”

But the threshold policy is just one part of a wider, more worrying shift underway at the top of the Conservative party away from cooperation and towards confrontation, she fears, with some ministers also mooting time limits on strike mandates, reform of the ‘check-off’ system and a crackdown on time off for union reps in the civil service.

“I think they need to rethink their strategy, really. I think it would be a profound mistake for the Conservatives to position themselves as anti-trade union. There are many ordinary, decent people – including, of course, some Conservative members – who are members of trade unions, and who find the language and the politics being proposed for the future very hard to take and out of touch with mainstream opinion in the country.

“I know there are decent people across the parties who are worried about this, and I suspect it’s not the Prime Minister’s natural inclination either. There’s a sense that there is, if you like, a group of Conservative politicians who want to replay the Thatcher era. But I don’t think there’s an appetite in the country for that.”

A consensus leader to the core, the last thing Frances O’Grady wants is a replay of the destructive confrontations of the 1970s and 80s. But she didn’t become the first woman to lead the TUC without being up for a fight. 

 

 

 

 

 

A Little More Conversation

As the General Election approaches, Douglas Alexander is looking across the pond for inspiration. Labour’s campaign coordinator speaks...

 

Words: Paul Waugh and Daniel Bond

Photos: Paul Heartfield 

 

“To defeat a populist party, you defeat them conversation by conversation, doorstep by doorstep, street by street, community by community.”

Douglas Alexander is in his Commons office, talking about UKIP. But as he plots Labour’s course for the momentous year ahead, his message applies equally to the coming street battles against the Scottish National Party, the Tories and the Lib Dems.

Perched on his bookshelf is a placard he brought back from the 2012 Democratic National Convention that preceded Barack Obama’s own final push to the electoral finish line. “Fired Up” is its slogan, and that’s just how Labour’s general election strategy chair appears to feel.

A self-confessed aficionado of American politics, Alexander hopes that his party can mix Obama style passion and know-how with British pavement politics to defeat both David Cameron and Alex Salmond.

But with the Scottish independence referendum less than nine weeks away, his priority this summer is the battle for the Union. With Alistair Darling heading the fight, what will Alexander’s role entail? “I’ll be part of the team that’s trying to bring home the vote on September 18th,” he says. “From the inception of Better Together, Alistair has been keen to work with me and use me in the campaign and I’ve been happy to play a part in that. Whether it was in devising our message at launch around ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ or the message that we are now using, ‘No Thanks’, we are working closely as a team.”

“While I’m not complacent I’m confident we are making our case effectively as we enter the final phase of the campaign. And in just a few weeks time all the shouting will be over. In the quiet of September 18th, it’s not just the future of Scotland but the future of the United Kingdom that will be decided. To build up Britain or to break up Britain. And on the morning of the 19th of September, I don’t want, as Scots or as people in other parts of the UK, for us to wake up as foreigners. So the stakes are high. I don’t want the idea of a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic state on these islands to die.”

As polling day gets closer, the importance of the decision grows, he says. “In the closing weeks of the campaign I think we will see a focusing of minds. There will be a new intensity to the campaigning in the weeks following the Commonwealth Games.”

That intensity may make what has been a pretty bitter campaign even worse, some fear. Does the Better Together camp share some responsibility for it? “At times this referendum has been marked by a rancour, a divisiveness, that I would not want as a bitter legacy after Scotland makes its decision,” Alexander replies. “I hope strongly that if Scotland chooses to stay within the United Kingdom, that result will anticipate reconciliation.”

But just why has the referendum debate been so acrimonious, often more so than the usual knock-about between Labour and Conservatives south of the border?  “I think the choice we Scots face is deep and deeply personal. It’s not just about what kind of nation we want to be, it’s also about who we are. And it touches very deep emotions in many of us. And all of the pride and the passion and the patriotism and the sentiment isn’t just one one side of this argument. If Scotland were to vote Yes, there would be many torn souls on both sides of the border. Sadly and regrettably some, particularly on the nationalist side, in the wake of people speaking up, have chosen to criticise.”

He’s referring, of course, to the online abuse J.K. Rowling received after she came out against independentce. “It’s hard to think of a public figure more loved and esteemed in Scotland than J.K. Rowling, an extraordinarily gifted writer and somebody any nation worth its salt would be proud to have welcomed to its heart,” he says. “And yet when she had the courage to enter the public square, she was decried and bulled by far too many voices and I think that brought discredit on a debate that should be worthy of this moment in our nation’s history.”

As for Alex Salmond’s response, Alexander says it was too little, too late. “I think Salmond could have been more statesmanlike at various points in speaking up for Scotland. He has subsequently made some remarks but I wish he’d spoken up at an earlier stage.”

He welcomes the Church of Scotland’s plan for a service of reconciliation on the Sunday following the referendum and urges the SNP not to continue fighting guerrilla warfare if they lose. “There will potentially be a painful reckoning for many nationalists. And I sincerely hope if we see a No vote that even those who passionately argued for the other case will see their task as making devolution work, not proving devolution wrong.”

The former Scottish Secretary says that ‘the ground has shifted’ in recent months as Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats all backed ‘devo max’ powers for Scotland. “It’s striking how unwilling the nationalists have been to contemplate what would be their response to a result that opinion polls continue to suggest is the most likely. There has been a deafening sound of silence from the Scottish Government. I hope that that will change if Scotland speaks clearly and decisively.”

And if Scotland votes ‘Yes’, does he see his future as north or south of the border? “I honestly don’t think it will happen. I would take my lead from Johann Lamont who said Scottish Labour is here to stay."

Alexander also thinks that the battle for Scots’ hearts as much as their heads will become the main focus in coming weeks. “My best judgement as to where this campaign will go in the weeks ahead is the nationalists will effectively give up on trying to offer evidence and just go for it on emotion,” he says. “And on the other side of the argument, I think that we need to match them on emotion and pride. Patriotism and a sense of possibility for Scotland will be the fuel in our tank in the weeks between now and Septmber 18th.”

The Commonwealth Games loom, but he warns the First Minister against an attempt to hijack the event for political gain. “Glasgow is the city of my birth and it was Glasgow that won the games. And I think the people deserve these games to be recognised for what they are, an extraordinary celebration of sport. These games belong to the people of Glasgow and anybody who forgets that will pay a price.”

Salmond may now have to speak at the opening ceremony. Does he agree with those in Labour who claim there’s a risk of a ‘George Osborne moment’ with possible boos ringing round the stadium? “Well, there’s a salutary warning for politicians if they forget that these big sporting moments are about the excellence of the athlete, the pride and passion of the crowd. Judy Murray, Andy Murray’s mother made clear the disappointment that was felt when Alex Salmond pulled out a Saltire behind David Cameron at Wimbledon. I think that made him look quite small.”

One gift that Salmond gladly accepted was when Gordon Brown recently told the Commons Press Gallery that it would be a ‘good idea’ for Cameron to directly debate with the First Minister. Was he irritated by that? “I don’t think he’s the first former Prime Minister to go to the Press Gallery lunch and generate some interesting headlines. I’m clearly of the view that Alex Salmond wants this to be seen as a contest between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom and that’s just not a game I and other Scots are prepared to play. The right person for Alex Salmond to debate is Alistair Darling.”

Did he pass on his thoughts to Brown afterwards? “I don’t think Gordon needs or requires advice on Scotland. He’s making a huge contribution. I was in Glasgow the night he addressed a thousand Labour members and they walked taller after.”

Brown’s failure to stop Cameron from forming a Tory-led Coalition in 2010 has been used by the SNP as proof that Labour can no longer protect Scotland from Conservative rule. But Alexander rejects the premise of the claim. “The nationalists want to posit this choice as between and eternal, inevitable, unending Conservative government at Westminster and Scotland as a progressive beacon as an alternative. Let’s just look at the facts. They’ve give the vote to 16-year-olds. A sixteen year old who casts her vote in this referendum will have lived three quarters of her life under a Labour government. The Conservatives at Westminster haven’t won a majority in a UK general election in more than 20 years. And the opinion polls continue to indicate that the prospects of change at Westminster are real.”

The key moment on the road to a referendum came in 2011 when the SNP routed Labour in the Scottish Parliament elections. How much impact did that defeat have? “One of the truths that’s not recognised often enough outside of Scotland is that the defeat of Scottish Labour in 2011 owed as much to Scottish Labour’s weakness as to the Scottish Nationalists’ strength. Have no doubt, they won a historic victory. In the language of the terraces ‘we were gubbed’. But they won despite the commitment to an independent state not because of it. And that means there has been a necessary period of reflection, sometimes painful reflection, and then rebuilding for Scottish Labour and under Johann Lamont that’s the work that’s now going underway.”

Alexander’s sister Wendy famously called for a snap referendum as long ago as 2008, declaring ‘bring it on’. Gordon Brown was furious and within weeks she was gone as Scottish Labour leader. But wasn’t she right that an earlier poll could have killed off independence for a generation? “I believe we could have won a referendum then and I believe we can and will win a referendum in September. The very fact that Alex Salmond won such a significant victory in 2011 and chose to delay holding the referendum until September 2014 to me indicates that for all of his protestations he was in no rush to put that fundamental choice before the people of Scotland.”

So is there a sense of regret then that, not just for Wendy’s career but the bigger aim, that the party didn’t grasp the nettle back then? “I’m by instinct and inclination someone who looks forward rather than backwards.”

 

 

Alexander is certainly looking forward to the UK general election. Tasked with running the party’s campaign by Ed Miliband last October, he scored his first major victory when he secured the appointment of former Obama election guru David Axelrod earlier in the year. The American is a man who “knows how to win tight elections and tough campaigns,” Alexander says. “Whether it’s his experience of campaigning, whether it’s his strength of messaging, or whether it’s his capacity to translate support into votes, we’re very lucky to have him as part of the team.”

The key to Axelrod and Obama’s success in both 2008 and 2012, he muses, was not just the ability to raise funds online, but their breakthrough in taking online activism and using it “as a tool to generate real-world activity” and motivate people on the streets. “2012 combined both online activism, street activism and fundraising to an unparalleled degree,” he says. “When I talk to David Axelrod and others who were central to that campaign, I’m reminded of the question that LBJ was asked: ‘What do you do to win elections?’ LBJ said: ‘Well, you do everything’.

“So the Obama campaign holds many lessons, both in terms of how you use the tools and techniques of community organising, how do you use the internet as an effective means of fundraising, and how do you take people from a fundraising path or an online path to a street and campaigning path. And of course, we’re talking to colleagues and friends in the US about that on a regular basis.”

Westminster strategists are only now beginning to catch up with their American counterparts in this area after a relatively analogue 2010 campaign. The Tories are thought to have won on the online front last time round, and are confident they’ve got the resources and digital team in place to do so again, particularly with the hiring of Jim Messina, another former Obama staffer, who was widely credited with implementing the Democrats’ successful data gathering and targeting techniques in 2012. But, Alexander says, the Tories’ advances in this area mask a wider problem for David Cameron.

“The Conservative party are using money and technology to compensate for a gap left by active members,” he says. “They don’t have enough members, and they certainly don’t have enough members where it matters. I was in Lincoln recently, one of our key seats. The best estimates of the Tory membership are around 100. And not that many of them that active. So of course they’re going to rely on social media – but the reason they’re having to shout so loudly about it is because they’re so quiet on membership and levels of membership activism.

“On occasions like the Newark by-election they can bring in activists from every part of the country. But this election is not going to be decided in one constituency; it’s going to be decided in battleground seat after battleground seat after battleground seat. And we have more organisers in place than we have ever had at this stage before a general election. And the contact rates, the conversations, the levels of activity that we are now both monitoring and measuring and registering reflect that organisation that’s in place.”

It is this fact that Alexander believes is behind his party’s disproportionate success in London earlier this year. Labour bucked the national trend in the capital’s council elections in May, regaining control of a number of town halls from the Tories and holding off the kind of Ukip surge seen in urban areas in the rest of the country. While the success has been attributed in part to demographic shifts in the capital – new analysis this week revealed that two-thirds of non-white voters in London backed Labour – Alexander says this doesn’t give enough credit to the mammoth activist operation underway in the capital.

“Of course there are political differences in London. Many people would immediately recognise that there is a different demographic mix. But there are organisational lessons as well. If you look at a seat like Hornsey and Wood Green, the Labour party has membership above 1,500. If you’ve got more people that’s more conversations, that’s more leaflets, that’s more organisation. And in that sense, a lot of the success that was secured in London can be attributed to the strength of organisation and the strength of local parties. And that’s something that we can and should be replicating in other parts of the country.” 

In the current era of “imprisoning cynicism” towards politics and politicians, he continues, this ability to engage with voters face to face will grow ever more important in any campaign. “In a low-trust environment, the most priceless asset in politics is a conversation between two individuals who are trusted. And that largely means having a conversation between a neighbour and a neighbour, a workmate and a colleague. That’s where the Conservatives are so weak, because they simply don’t have the reach into the communities that they will be relying on returning Conservative Members of Parliament.”

David Cameron’s Conservatives, Alexander continues, have failed to keep pace with the tectonic shifts underway in British politics, and have been left exposed as a “Downton Abbey party in a Modern Family world”. “There are very particular problems afflicting a party that has simply failed to modernise itself for many of the challenges of the 21st century. One of the great counterfactual questions in British political history is if the financial crisis hadn’t happened, would David Cameron and Michael Gove and George Osborne have managed to modernise the Tory party? We’ll never know, because they didn’t and they haven’t, and very few people would suggest, eight years into David Cameron’s leadership, that he represents anything other than the same old Tories.”

It’s for this reason that Alexander remains confident about Ed Miliband’s chances when it comes to taking on the Prime Minister next May. Where the Labour leader has succeeded in giving his party a sense of direction and “setting the terms of the debate nationally”, on everything from energy prices to spiralling rents, the Prime Minister, he says, “cuts an increasingly hollow figure” four full years into his term in office. 

“Of course people will reach a judgment in terms of all of us as Labour politicians and the offer that we make to the country next May in the General Election. But listen – in terms of leadership, I’d rather have somebody who’s worrying about the choices and challenges facing the country than the choice of camera angle.

“He’s a prime minister whose appeal has narrowed, not broadened in the last four years. And that provides real opportunities for Ed and for Labour as we look to the conferences and we look to the campaign.”

And Alexander is going out of his way to prove his team are heading into that campaign more united than ever. Rumours of a bitter split with Harriet Harman have been swirling since last December, when the party’s deputy leader is reported to have furiously upbraided Alexander over the lack of women involved at the top of the campaign. Do he and Harman now see eye to eye? “I think I last spoke to Harriet yesterday, and we had a cordial, collegial and forward-looking conversation. We’re working together as part of the team, and she’ll have a vital role in the campaign.”

Rising stars Jon Ashworth, Toby Perkins and Gloria De Piero have since joined the campaign team as Alexander’s deputies, as the party seeks to inject new blood from the 2010 intake. De Piero, in particular, has developed a reputation as an effective campaigner, travelling the country on her ‘Why do people hate me?’ tour in a bid to understand public grievance with the political class. “She’s done important work right around the country, and she will have a key role in the campaign,” Alexander says. “I think if the Tories or the Liberals had a politician of Gloria’s talent they would be lucky. But they don’t.”

As he leads a team of Labour activists street by street in those key seats, the Shadow Foreign Secretary clearly believes that it’s good to talk. But he also knows that his party has to deliver too.

A keen student and admirer of Barack Obama, it seems he’s also adapting the sentiment of another famous American. As Elvis Presley didn't quite put it, the Shadow Foreign Secretary wants a little more conversation and a lot more action. Please.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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