Sunday, 26 February 2012

Thoughts post- the Fabians' Social Europe Conference.

It can be hard to know how to feel about Europe when you’re on the left. So much of the thinking behind the EU so endears itself to the left wing mentality; collective endeavour, solidarity, shared risks and rewards…what’s not to love? Oh, right; those right wing austerity measures. But what the Fabian Society’s conference on Europe reminded me was; this isn’t Europe’s failing. This is the right failing in Europe.

A big problem the left has faced in the modern world is that while capital has become increasing global, social democracy has largely failed to. But you can’t have social democracy in one country when all external forces are acting against you. Instead of right wing policies in the EU turning us against the EU, we must work with other left wing parties to create a united social democratic movement throughout Europe; this is in the best interests of social democracy in our own country.

Of course there is a balance to strike. Different policies work in different countries; different social democratic models will be needed for different societies. The EU can ensure a minimum level of social provisions within its member states, but it mustn’t be a strait jacket, and exactly where EU regulation should stop is debatable; the ideas of an EU wide minimum wage and an EU wide corporation tax, for example, were suggested during the conference, but it was later argued that this was taking it too far, though we should have EU provisions that all countries must have a minimum wage, and that there should be a minimum corporation tax level.

So there’s room for debate there.

But without a doubt, the EU that gave us four weeks paid holiday and regulations on working hours can continue to play a vital role in improving the lives of many of many European citizens, if the left are able to steer it in that direction.

However, the left’s influence over European policy, and its electoral success…could be better. Hence the right wing policies that make the whole issue of Europe so problematic for the left. But this must not force the Labour Party into retreat over Europe…however hard it may be to stand firm with so much of  the media, especially, portraying such an anti-EU perspective.

But the strong influence of the right in the EU is exactly the reason for the opposite response; the left must fight against this trend, and the Labour Party must join that fight. And in this fight we must be open to increased pluralism; working with a range of left wing parties in Europe, such as the Greens, as well as other Labour Parties.

And we must know, and be able to clearly communicate, what we are fighting for. The eurosceptics have an easy narrative to communicate on Europe; it is stealing our money, distorting our markets and killing our democracy. They’re wrong, but the Labour Party does not have a coherent counter-narrative, and it needs one. Itemising the successes of European social policy is not enough; we must be able to discuss the grander vision of social democracy throughout Europe, of the need for collective market regulation and protection for workers throughout the EU, because otherwise left wing policies in one country can be undermined by right wing policies in others. And therefore, both for short term electoral success and long term policy success, the left in Europe must, must, must work together. But the Labour Party needs to understand this narrative, communicate this narrative and live this narrative.

In terms of the common market, we must not allow it to become a race to the bottom to try and create a stronger economy. To quote Emma Reynolds, the Shadow Secretary for Europe, “becoming the poundland of the EU will not create prosperity”, but it will hurt workers. Some of the EU’s strongest economies have strong worker’s rights, such as Germany and Sweden. They also have these rights in spite of currently having right wing governments; something the Labour Party should take note of. The common market can create prosperity, but strong European social values have a key part to play in this.

And we must not confuse the eurozone crisis with the EU as a whole; and most importantly we must communicate to the electorate that they are not one and the same. The eurozone crisis is, needless to say, complicated. But whatever is to be done about it, it does not provide an argument against the EU, or shared European values. But much of the electorate believes that it does. It is our job to get them to understand otherwise.

And to get them to understand the grander narrative behind Europe and the European social model; the good it’s done, the good it could do and the wider, collectivist thinking behind it. But first we need to truly understand that narrative ourselves.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Cheer up, guys?

Am I the only one confused by the pessimism of some in the Labour party regarding our electoral prospects, and the general condition of our party? I’m not advocating complacency, or less awareness of how Labour could improve.

But I just think some people should be…happier?

I grew up in a world where the Tories were…irrelevant. I remember my confusion, at a young age, learning about Thatcher, that such a powerful figure could emerge from a party that, in my memory, had always been entirely useless.

By contrast, Labour isn’t irrelevant now. People are aware of us. People are dissatisfied with the government and see Labour as the potential alternative. We have, on average (Cameron’s “veto” moment as an exception) been ahead in opinion polls.

And yes, things could be better. People still trust the Tories more on the economy. But that’s not a reason for panic; Labour were less trusted than the Tories on the economy before the 1997 election! And yes, Ed could, personally, be polling better, although he’s been great on issues such as phone hacking and the NHS.

And, most importantly, if there was an election today, Labour would have a damn good shot. And that’s if there was an election now. We still have years to campaign, to knock on doors, to keep renovating and pushing our message. Years for the government to keep screwing up the economy and pushing through more unpopular policies.

Not to mention the fact that there’s a strong change that Ken will win the London mayoral election…and even if he loses, how close a race it is, as far as I’m concerned, is amazing; since the candidates are exactly the same as the previous election that Labour lost.

And just the things that I’ve heard on the doorsteps and on the phones in support of the Party…there’s a good amount of it out there.

Labour are still, relatively, a very new party. The Tories history has entrenched them in the British establishment…Labour are, realistically, still babies by comparison. But in that time, they have established themselves as one of the two main British Political parties, they have done so much to change society for the better, have just had their most successful electoral streak and after that ended, even with a bad defeat, are still fighting, still relevant, while the Tories failed to even form a majority, despite all circumstances being in their favour, and are making themselves, day by day, increasingly unpopular.

I do think Labour should be constantly critical of itself, constantly working to be better than its being. But I don’t understand hopelessness. For a party that, in historical terms is still, really, finding its feet, things could be a lot worse.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

"Middle Class or nothing"?

A recent –ish discussion on Question Time about the downgrading of the status of many vocational qualifications reminded me of something a girl in one of my seminar groups said the other day about social mobility; “It’s like, now…you have to be middle class or nothing…”; there’s a feeling that the only route you can acceptably take is via university into middle class jobs. 

But what if that’s not what you want to do?

Nevermind the economic necessity of manual jobs (well, actually; do mind it…it’s really freakin’ important, but in addition…); don’t we want everyone to find the occupation that is best suited to them, rather than narrowing the potential life options of the next generation?

So what can be done about the dichotomy of “middle class or nothing”?

Of course, the downgrading of many vocational qualifications doesn’t help; they require more work than one GCSE, therefore they should be worth more than one GCSE, otherwise schools will be less inclined to offer them. And to those who would turn their nose up at, say, a nail technology qualification; that’s a practical, useable skill, while one of the many useful things I learnt in Classics GCSE was how high the pavements were off the roads in Pompeii.

But however much I love to slag off Classics GCSE (not saying anything against studying ancient history or culture; it’s just a dumb syllabus), there is nothing wrong with academic subjects. More than nothing wrong; I loved studying many academic subjects at school and would not take back my experience of them for the world.

However, that I defiantly have an academic bent doesn’t mean “kids like me” should shy away from vocational qualifications, and “kids like [insert stereotypical person who might take a vocational qualification here]” shouldn’t be encouraged away from vocational subjects; it shouldn’t have to be a choice.

GCSEs…aren’t a time for knowing what you’re good at, not really. You might have a rough idea, but mostly they’re for working out what you’re good at, and what you like. And more teenagers should be encouraged to take a wide range of types of GCSE; encouraging the divide into the “vocational type” and the “academic type” encourages, I would argue, one to be seen as superior, which is always likely to be the academic type. The academic becomes the goal and the vocational the backup. Both should be seen as normal mainstream options; and if offering both to an adequate level is too much for many schools to juggle we should look at partnership schemes where pupils can go and study vocational subjects at one school and academic at another. I would advocate that no pupil be allowed to do either purely vocational subjects, or purely academic subjects; aside from the obvious English, Maths and Science as compulsory all pupils should have at least one of each type of subject in their GCSE line up, to give pupils a broader education.

And we certainly shouldn’t be downgrading vocational qualifications.

Beyond this, however much David Cameron talking about people “learning a proper trade” makes me roll my eyes, this government’s investment in apprenticeships is something to be applauded (ew; I just agreed with a piece of coalition policy…); but making the route into vocational training more mainstream, and working to improve the social acceptance of vocational qualifications would lay the foundations in young people’s lives, opening up vocational training and work as a potential career path.