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2015-8 No2 Labour's rose by an amended name

MONTHLY BLOG 56, MORE POST-ELECTION MEDITATIONS: ON CHANGING THE LABOUR PARTY’S NAME

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Raising questions about the name of a proud political party with over a century of history behind it makes one appreciate all over again the force of continuity (or it can also be called inertia) in history.1  That’s because most people, when invited to consider whether Britain’s Labour Party is rightly named, just stare in surprise. That response comes particularly strongly from the cadres of committed party members, but also from individuals among the wider public as well.

After all, ‘Labour’ is a well established brand name. It can obviously be argued therefore that it’s folly to shed a known moniker in favour of the unknown. There are plenty of examples of commercial rebrandings which have flopped disastrously. Just Google on that topic. Some companies have even rebranded and then had to reverse the rebranding when faced with howls of public rejection.3

It must also be admitted that earlier suggestions of different names for the Labour Party don’t have a great track record. For example, I was interested to learn that in 1959 Douglas Jay, Battersea’s long-serving MP from 1946 to 1983, had proposed the ‘Reform Party’ as a moderate alternative. It seems to have been an isolated suggestion. And, at any rate, it was met with a resounding silence.
2015-8 No1 What's in a name
As a name, ‘Reform’ had a certain period, even Whiggish, charm. It was predicated on the assumption that Labour was the party of change and the Conservatives the party of resistance to change. But that’s too simplistic. According to circumstances, it can be the Conservatives who propose innovations (as now in the Cameron government’s expressed desire to shrink the state) while assorted groups on the Left campaign to prevent specific changes (as in campaigns to Stop this! or to Save that!).

For Labour, a truly serious crisis of identity occurred in 1981. The so-called Gang of Four and their supporters seceded to found the new Social Democratic Party. Their chosen name remains a well-known one across continental Europe for the parliamentary Left. But in Britain, after the initial flurry, their cause and their nomenclature didn’t resonate with the electorate. In 1988 the majority of the SDP merged with the Liberals. The new joint force was initially named as ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’, to be summarised as ‘Democrats’ – in a nod this time to American political nomenclature. But their own members strenuously objected. So in 1989 they adopted instead the compromise ‘Liberal Democrats’, generating a political force which has since then boomed and now (2015) fallen into disarray.

There are several morals from these case-histories. One is that changing a party’s name may bring initial success but can’t automatically be relied upon to last. (That point is obvious but worth stating). Another is that changing nomenclature is an emotional and politically freighted task, which, if ’twere done, ’twere best done by incremental adaptation, emerging from broad discussion. That’s why it’s equally obvious that, whatever individuals may or may not propose, successful innovations will emerge and survive within political movements as a whole, in the wider context of the changing political scene.

Certainly it was his policy of adaptive gradualism which gave Tony Blair an initial success with ‘New Labour’. The mantra began as a conference slogan in 1994. It was then promoted into a positive manifesto in 1996, offering New Labour: New Life for Britain. The revised name cleverly linked continuity with the fresh appeal of novelty and a modified political agenda.7  Had it not been for the unsuccessful aftermath of the Anglo-American-allied invasion of Iraq in March 2003 (without having declared war), the terminology might still be alive and kicking. Yet today it has lost clarity of meaning and thus credibility – and is hardly used, even within the Labour Party.

Why then is it worth reconsidering the question of names? Some activists within the Labour movement have reproved me. They argue that the important thing is to campaign first – and then think about political branding afterwards. But in my view the two are the same. Campaigning without a clear message is nearly as bad as renaming a party in a campaign vacuum.

Today, there’s plenty of scope for a rethink on the Left – that is, not just within the Labour Party. Lots of people are expressing interest, in conversations and in the press. Personally, I’d like to see a political alliance, if not a formal merger, between Labour plus the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and left-wingers in the Scottish and Welsh Nats. It might not be called a Popular Front but that’s what it would be.

But, whether that ever happens or not, it’s still useful for Labour to rethink its name and mission. It’s not clear today who or what it stands for. One commentator, from the cultural Left, had recently dubbed Labour’s name as ‘a great grey millstone’ around the party’s neck, with the clear implication that it is impeding a fundamental rethink.8

Not only is the term socially partial rather than inclusive – but it’s not even clear precisely which part of British society it’s supposed to embrace. And, to make things electorally even worse, whichever sections of voters are intended to be the chief beneficiaries of Labour’s policies, they generally don’t vote for Labour in sufficient numbers to make the positives of the name outweigh the negatives.

Indeed, paradoxically, some senior Conservatives are today toying with claiming themselves to be the ‘workers’ party’,9  trying to ensure that Labour gets stuck with the implication of constituting the ‘shirkers’ party’, just supporting those on benefits. Of course, such a dichotomy is wildly over-simplified. Many people receiving state benefits are actually in work; many others, who receive financial aid from the state (eg. in the form of mortgage relief or tax relief on ISAs) don’t consider their own arrangement as ‘benefits’.

Sometimes, however, some leading Labour politicians appear to talk as though they see their role chiefly as constituting last-resort helpers of all of society’s failures and losers. Such an assumption is not only rather patronising – but it is seriously misleading, as well as electorally unappealing, even to the traditional working class, let alone to the self-employed and to swathes of the middle class.

Labour needs a much better name to express its progressive commitment to creating a fairer, freer, more egalitarian, more socially cohesive, more culturally inclusive, more tolerant, healthier, happier, and more ambitious Britain – for all the people, including the young. It may be a new name or a compound of the old name with a new adjective. I have heard various thoughts – Progressives? Progressive Labour? People’s Party? – but it’s for everyone to decide.

So I predict that a new or amended name/campaign will emerge within the broad Labour movement – or else the electorate will make the decision for Labour by choosing other parties. What’s in a name? As always: Plenty!
2015-8 No2 Labour's rose by an amended name

Could it be Labour’s Rose by an amended Name?

1  See PJC, ‘Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?’ BLOG/2 (Nov. 2010).

2  See PJC, Post-Election Meditations: Should the Labour Party Change its Name?’ BLOG/55 (July 2015).

3 See e.g. Mallory Russell, Business Insider (March 2012): http://www.businessinsider.com/14-brands-that-had-to-reverse-their-horrible-attempts-at-rebranding.

4 Ex inf. Mary Jay, Douglas Jay’s widow, with thanks for this reference.

5 This historic name appears on the Labour Party’s website but is hardly ever used. For the wider history of Europe’s Social Democratic parties, many now facing electoral problems, see C. Pierson, Hard Choices: Social Democracy in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, 2001).

6 I.M. Crewe and A.S. King, SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party (Oxford, 1995).

7 See F. Faucher-King and P. Le Galès, The New Labour Experiment: Change and Reform under Blair and Brown, transl. G. Elliott (Stanford, CA., 2010).

8 John Harris, ‘Who Should Labour Speak for Now?’ The Guardian, 13 July 2015, p. 23.

9 New Conservative deputy chairman MP Rob Halfon interviewed in The Sun, 18 May 2015.

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MONTHLY BLOG 17, EVENTS LIVED THROUGH – PART TWO: 1971

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

Can you take decisions? Including tough ones that don’t please everyone? I discovered that I can, by doing it intensively as an elected councillor. At the same time, I learned that, having made a decision, it’s important to defend it when the going gets tough. Unless it’s proven to have been a serious mistake (should be only rarely or, ideally, never) – in which case a dignified retreat is required. And it’s also vital to follow through, to ensure that policies are implemented. It turns out that lots of decisions are triumphantly made and then quietly shelved. Sometimes such a negative outcome stems from subterranean obstruction by the officers; but sometimes also from a surfeit of political decisions, made without time for consolidation.

These were some of the valuable lessons I learned as an elected Labour Councillor on the London Borough of Wandsworth in the years 1971-4.
february001It was a fascinating time. We had a large majority and a small dispirited Tory opposition. We were also predominantly new brooms, as many former Labour councillors did not stand again after our big local defeat in 1968. Many of my close political friends held leading posts in the Labour Group; and I became the Planning Applications supremo. Incidentally, I was never offered a bribe, despite chairing a committee that made various financially significant decisions. Labour’s new planning leaders early resolved that, when meeting with developers, those present should always include Council officers alongside councillors. It was the right decision. In particular, we were well aware that underhand kickbacks had been paid by building contractors to the previous Labour leader in Wandsworth.1 So we wanted to be not just clean but visibly so.

Overall, the years 1971-4 became key ‘events lived through’ which influenced my outlook on life. Nothing like a bit of experience to leaven one’s theoretical stance. I learned that I can take decisions. And that, while I enjoyed the political hurly-burly in the short term, I was not cut out for a lifetime of the same.

Lots of things went well. I won’t list them all, because they are now history. But I was proud of running a sharp, questing, and efficient Planning Applications committee. We made good decisions briskly. We were not afraid to challenge the officers. But we stuck to good planning practice, engendering a great team morale which was left as a legacy.

Labour’s strategic stance also bore long-term fruits. We collectively opposed the proposed inner London motorway. It was initially supported by transport experts and by the political bigwigs of London Labour. But concerted opposition from grass-roots like us, and from Battersea’s MP Douglas Jay, ‘stopped the box’. It would have divided Battersea by a locally inaccessible motorway leading to a massive motorway ‘spaghetti’ interchange at Clapham Junction. Halting this planning monstrosity was a decisive victory that shifted inner-urban transport policy towards controlling motor traffic rather than giving it priority over homes, jobs and a pleasant local environment.

Moreover, we had many positive plans for the low-rise urban renewal of Battersea’s housing and for environmental improvements. Notably, the Wandsworth Labour councillors were among the first to promote plans for the Thames riverside walk and the Wandle walkway from Croydon to the Thames, now the Wandle Trail, supported by the Wandle Trail group. I can still remember the derision and disbelief (even on our own side) when the Planning Committee asserted that these things could and would be achieved over time. Yet the need for access to London riverfront has now become orthodoxy. The Thames River Path is not always landscaped to the best effect. But it does exist and the remaining gaps in the ‘magical 40 miles (64 km)’ from Hampton Court to the Themes Barrier are now being plugged, wherever possible.2 I still feel pride, when walking this route (see Fig.2), that I contributed to the collective effort that went into its patient creation.
february002Things also went wrong. The worst for the collective morale and cohesion of the Labour Group was the controversy over the Conservative government’s Housing Finance Act (1972). This legislation disempowered municipal councils of all political hues, by imposed a central decision upon local rent levels. And the Act turned out to be but the first in a long succession of moves to take power away from locally elected bodies. So we were right on democratic grounds to oppose it, in the hopes that a majority of councils would refuse to implement the act. But wrong to continue the arguments, once it was apparent that no such majority was forthcoming.1 Our Labour Group became bitterly divided. And even when we eventually agreed to implement the rent rise, we remained at odds, even while steaming ahead as a progressive Labour council. It took the gloss off what was an otherwise inspiriting experience.

After three years of intense politics, I decided – reluctantly – not to stand again. I realised that, in my core being, I was an academic, not a politician. I never regretted the decision. At the same time, my brief but intense political foray gave me respect for politicians and sympathy with the pressures of their lifestyle. Probably that’s one contributory reason for the survival of my nearly 50-year relationship with my partner Tony Belton, who has remained a Wandsworth Labour councillor since 1971.

Living with a politician, however, for me has proved enough. I’m glad that I can take decisions; and glad that one of them was to limit my experience as an elected councillor. Would I recommend this role to others? Yes, for those with time and commitment. But while for me ‘1968’ meant no instant revolution, then ‘1971’ meant no instant political solutions. I decided to remain a grass-root; and to teach/research History – not as the ‘dead past’ but as a living process.

1 In 1971, Cllr Sid Sporle was gaoled for six years on charges of corruption, having been part of a ‘building’ network including Labour’s Newcastle city boss T. Dan Smith, architect John Paulson, and Tory front-bencher Reginald Maudling. See M. Gillard, Nothing to Declare: The Political Corruptions of John Poulson (1980); Stephen Knight, The Brotherhood: The Secret World of the Freemasons (1984), pp. 203-6; and P.J. Corfield with Mike Marchant, DVD – Red Battersea: One Hundred Years of Labour, 1908-2008 (2008).

2 See David Sharp, Thames Path (National Trail Guide, 2010); and website www.walklondon.org.uk.

3 Others are writing more on this dispute. For the Derbyshire councillors who did hold out for non-implementation, to their personal cost, see J. Langdon and D. Skinner, The Story of Clay Cross (1974).

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MONTHLY BLOG 9, WHAT HAS GONE WRONG WITH THE AUDIT CULTURE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

june001As the sorry tale of FIFA currently implies, oligarchies without external audit and accountability sooner or later get corrupted. So there was a serious principle as well as praxis behind the late Labour Government’s extension of the audit culture to so many aspects of public administration.

The result was a state of close watchfulness. And the government, relying upon good intentions and a mountain of audited data, used the mantra of ‘accountability’ to micro-manage swathes of local government and public administration by setting targets and penalising those who fell behind.

Excluded from the process was the economy, which was left to ‘light touch’ state regulation and to commercial auditors. The result was paradoxical. It was the economy, and particularly the financial sector, which turned out to need more attention. Yet, conversely, the target culture was overdone. There was no happy balance, either in economic or social governance.

Labour’s targets included supervising the professions, which since the early nineteenth century had evolved the ethos of professional self-regulation under parliamentary sanction. Labour also emulated the previous Tory administrations under Thatcher and Major by increasingly subjecting local government to central direction. The traditional partners in the country’s governance, with their own democratic mandate, were undermined. Not surprisingly, turnouts in local elections began to fall, although a stubborn percentage of the electorate do continue to support the historic pluralism of the British system.

Many earnest New Labour supporters have repeated to me their favoured mantra: ‘If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it’. The argument seems yet another extension of the dire posthumous influence of Jeremy Bentham, who thought that the essence of government was calculation. But the measurement mantra needs critical questioning. It seems to make sense but actually doesn’t.

For a start, successful (and indeed failed) managements in earlier times have long preceded the mass supply of measured and audited data. Good information certainly provides a sound basis. But the art of management requires more than that – including qualities such as leadership, enthusiasm, wise policies, sensitivity to context and public opinion, and the capacity to forge a team.

Furthermore, the proposition can also be faulted by noting that today’s massive supply of information has not obviated many cases of weak or poor management. ‘Drowning in data’ can even be a prime cause of failure.
june002Alternatively, the quest for measured information can insensibly become itself a substitute for effective management. The false impression is gained that managers can organise everything if only they have a large enough database. That way, vast sums of money are wasted only to find that giant systems don’t work.

So it is worth repeating every time that: ‘Data is only as good as the people using the data’. And, especially: ‘Information is not knowledge’. Advanced management means being able to cope with things that cannot easily be quantified and with the moving processes of real life.

Too much of the audit-and-target culture becomes excessively directive from on high. Assessors assume ever greater importance, thus generating a new technocratic elite which creates yet one more tier of apparent authority between the citizens and the state. Auditors are greeted with outward servility but secret resentment. Their often subjective judgements, once pronounced, are turned into apparently objective outcomes without any easy check upon their own performance. Auditors become a new vested interest in their own right, hence colluding with power and tending instead to pick upon the weak.

Service providers who are subject to constant and often subjective measurement and invigilation feel resentment and alienation. Rational people are pressurised to work towards the targets, since tangible rewards for their business (and sometimes for individuals personally) depend upon meeting the targets. That applies whether the targets are well chosen or not. All too often, the measurements seem to take priority over the services being measured. The number of exam passes seems more important than the content of what is taught and examined. Through-put of hospital patients seems more significant than the nature of the healthcare provided.

In these circumstances, public service threatens to become a risk-averse culture of diligent and generally joyless conformism. Professional knowledge and initiative seems to be undervalued and undermined. As a result, individual enthusiasm and commitment risks being lost. People’s moods are often unproductive, ranging from anger to bitterness or cynicism and/or (in some cases) to destabilising fear.

There is every incentive for service providers to massage the figures, if they can, in the interest of their services. And in certain circumstances, the stage is set for collusion. When providers are marked by clients who depend on good reports from the providers, implicit deals may be struck: good marks in return for good reports.

Hostility to this ethos contributed to the fall of New Labour, not least by alienating the professionals who traditionally formed an important constituency for Labour. These people will not, however, be appeased by the Coalition. Its reforms of the audit culture are very hit-and-miss. Indeed the Coalition is even more hostile to public service providers than was New Labour. The current Tory preference is for contracting out services to commercial businesses and charities – all bodies that need more public scrutiny than they currently get. Some private-sector scandals have already emerged. More are bound to follow.

What is to be done? The route of endless centrally-directed audit-plus-targets undermines the public sector and creates a top-heavy state. We need scrutiny. But audit should not be turned into an extra layer of management by another guise. Instead, we need due proportionality, accepting common sense, understanding local variations, allowing for operational discretion, and extending true participation by both providers and clients. Let’s keep the long arms of Jeremy Bentham under control. We have to do more than count!
june003

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MONTHLY BLOG 2, WHY IS THE FORMIDABLE POWER OF CONTINUITY SO OFTEN OVERLOOKED?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2010)

My discussion-points aim to alternate between big themes relating to Education and big themes relating to Interpreting History. So, since the October debate highlighted the current mania for wrongly prizing Skills over Knowledge (instead the two go integrally together), this November discussion-point takes a different tack, in order to ask Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?

One central point of definition needs to be made immediately. ‘Continuity’ is not the same as ‘Conservatism’ as a political philosophy. It is true that the latter ideology does gain much support by appealing to many people’s desire for the former. But it is equally clear that Conservatives in power may also have their own highly interventionist programmes.

To take a current example, the UK’s Conservative-Liberal Coalition has launched radical cuts in welfare spending as well as drastic institutional reorganisations, in order to ‘roll back the state’. But government is not an ‘intruder’ from an alien world. Its mechanisms have been developed (or, to its critics, overdeveloped) over many years by many governments. So the state and society are closely meshed – not only via institutions, laws and tax systems but also via people’s daily expectations, customary routines and a range of differing vested interests.

As a result – interestingly – one of many factors ranged against the current government’s plans will be the force of Continuity, also known as tradition or, unkindly, ‘inertia’. Its power may appear in many guises, from outright resistance to more-or-less concealed foot-dragging.

Furthermore, Continuity also works unexpectedly by twisting apparent innovations back into ‘more of the same’. An awareness of such slipperiness prompted a famous snappy dictum from a French journalist, named Alphonse Karr (see below). He viewed the string of abortive revolutions across Europe in 1848 and concluded pensively that ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’. [Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose].
Alphonse_KarrOf course, Karr was not completely right. Changes undoubtedly do happen, both gradually and dramatically. But they are always tempered by the power of Continuity. In fact, innovations may fail or prove to be counterproductive – either because opponents consciously strive to circumvent change – or because the innovations are imperfectly planned and/or implemented – or because the innovations have anyway little intrinsic chance of success.

An example was the policy of Prohibition in the USA in 1920, when the 18th Amendment to prevent the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol eventually failed. (Prohibition was repealed in 1933). On the other hand, controls or even bans on disputed drugs can work when public opinion is broadly supportive. The gradual demise of cigarette smoking in many Western countries is a counter-example to the case of alcohol.

Where do the forces of Continuity come from? Some are embedded within from time-invariant features of the universe, like the laws of physics, which are constants. These features hold the world together stably from moment to moment. Even within the turbulence of quantum physics, there is one tiny invariant facture, known as Plank’s Constant, which operates as a marker, against which other changes can be measured. But other elements of Continuity come from human societies, in the form of traditions, customs, and habitual expectations. These also can and do change. But much persists, as it would be too exhausting and confusing if everyone altered everything in their lives from moment to moment.

So, lastly, why are the forces of Continuity so strangely overlooked? The answer is that Continuity acts as the universe’s ‘default system’, which is simply taken for granted. It is so constant and so ubiquitous that it becomes invisible. Next time that you do something automatically, without thinking about it, you are enacting Continuity. It’s not the only force in the world – and it’s by no means all-powerful. But it’s more important than is often realised – and it operates not only throughout the wider world but also within you.

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