From sound and fury to signifying something

This is the post excerpt.


If the contest for the leadership can be described as long haul, how should we describe the rather more important and certainly more protracted issue of how the Labour Party might learn the lessons from its defeat and how it might define its policies and priorities to cover the next five years and beyond?

What we are currently witnessing is a fairly unseemly internal squabble as the four contestants seek to distance themselves from each other in terms of policies. There was a similarly unedifying period in the run up to the 2015 election as a combination of ill-thought-out promises and vacuous slogans were ladled out to a sceptical electorate.

The words of Aneurin Bevan following the defeat of the Labour Party at the 1959 general election are worth quoting. He said: “One of the reasons why we have got into trouble in the last few weeks was because one or two people rushed too early into print in order to try and alter in their minds the programme that we put before the country at the last election. This was a mistake. It was a mistake tactically. It was a mistake psychologically, and it was a profound error philosophically. You cannot really go before a country with a programme and tell the country that you thought the programme was good for the country, and immediately the country rejected it, say you would like to alter it. It won’t work; it is not right. It is almost like saying you put before the country a false prospectus. The programme we put before the country we believed in. We are very sorry that the electorate rejected it.”

Bevan argued for a period of reflection, to consider the case to modify and amend policies as circumstances change over time. The current Labour leadership contenders and their teams should note these sound words, and focus rather more on long-term policy issues and rather less on soundbites crafted for tomorrow’s headlines.

A Labour spokesman has said: “All registered supporters will only receive a vote if they support the aims and values of the Labour Party.” But what aims and what values? Here are a few suggestions.

With regard to private sector fat cats, many in the United Kingdom are unhappy with the continuing flow of funds that are intended to lubricate the British economy ending up in the pockets of the financial fraternity. What is the policy of the Labour to put a stop to this practice and even to recover some of the funds misappropriated in the past?

One consequence of the global financial crisis in 2008 was that the variety of sharp practices carried out by some – not all – members of the financial fraternity was subjected to a degree of scrutiny absent since the deregulation of the sector by Margaret Thatcher. This scrutiny triggered a torrent of obloquy directed against those deemed guilty of the more serious transgressions.

The guilty money men endured their new status with stoicism, mainly because the hostility stopped short of actually reducing the generosity of their employment terms and conditions. Practices since 2008 have been very much as the practices before the financial crisis because the few ineffective measures were directed against the financial institutions rather than against those who were responsible. As evidence, we need look only at the continuing mega bonuses being ladled out, as much for failure as for success.

Tony Jenkins, the ousted chief executive of Barclays, leaves the bank a sadder and a wiser man. He also leaves it a richer man – to the tune of £28 million.

The Labour Party needs to review and define what ought to be reasonable pay levels for senior managers in the financial sector. It should then specify what measures it would take to ensure that these levels were not exceeded. It should begin the exercise by acknowledging its own clear responsibility for the looting and dishonesty that were a feature of City life during its 13 years in office.

The review should be mindful that any attempt to curb the looting would be greeted with dismay by those for whom looting is a way of life. Labour should accept this parochial grief and relative impoverishment in the interests of the wider community. It should note that the departure of some of the looters from our shores need not signal the end of civilisation and one welcome outcome might be a general improvement in the standard of performance of senior managers as they focus rather more on company performance than on the steady expansion of their own assets. Work in this area should start now – the vulnerable cannot wait until 2020 for protection.

George Osborne was at his most raucous when justifying his decision to raise the threshold for the payment of inheritance tax. He argued that house prices across the country have soared because of the hard work of their owners. This assertion is fraudulent, in that the rise in prices has been disproportionately large in the south-east of England and in that the increase in value occurred through no doing of the owners.

Many would argue that Labour ought to restore the inheritance tax arrangements in place prior to the changes outlined in the recent Budget. The previous arrangements struck a much fairer balance between the understandable wish of each generation to hand on as much as possible to the next with the equally compelling social case that the odds should not be weighted too heavily against financially challenged members of the next generation.

There have been numerous examples of senior managers being awarded, in some cases by themselves, inordinately large retirement pensions. Why not review the case to bring in measures to tax on a steeply progressive scale the excessive pensions in both the private and the public sectors, partly by way of improving public finances, but also to register the disapproval of the rest of us of the behaviour of those involved?

A range of sharp practices has been and is being carried out by significant numbers of those at the top in local government, the National Health Service, the universities, and even the running of charities. Labour should prepare measures to root out corruption wherever it occurs and to prevent any recurrence. There is need for effective management in all sectors of the economy including public bodies and the aptly named arm’s length quangos. The Labour Party should take a long, hard look at arrangements for the routine assessment of the performance and, where appropriate, the prompt sacking of poorly-performing senior managers.

The case to bring back privatised sectors back into public ownership is a strong one. We have had enough experience of these privatisations to compare results with promises and to suggest that a return to public ownership may be the way forward. The Thatcher experiment has simply replaced old inefficient monoliths with cartels where competition is noticeably absent, where the customer comes last, if at all, and where those at the top prosper in their insulated structures

Competition and monopoly are mutually exclusive. Market forces, where they operate, do promote efficiencies but, in the absence of competition – and there is no competition in the Thatcher creations – then the country pays and the management prospers in the tranquil untroubled business climate.

Labour has got five years to come up with a policy to return the utilities to public ownership, and propose managerial arrangements to ensure that they are operated in the national interest.

On climate change, this area combines the maximum of importance with the maximum of confusion. Policy-making is not helped by the fact that many of the advocates of measures to curb global warming are notable more for zealotry than for calm ratiocination.

Labour has time to study the evidence and come up with a policy that balances the need to curb pollution with the need to ensure that energy, including fracked energy, can be reliably supplied at a reasonable cost.

The issue of devolution of power to the English regions is not going to go away. Labour should determine the most sensible distribution of power between national and local political institutions. Experience in this contentious area is not promising, in that some local politicians have used the limited power that has thus far come their way to maximise their own incomes with council taxpayers footing the bill.

The fact is that there is not a power vacuum in the regions, a vacuum waiting to be filled by those eager to do their bit for region and locality. Rather, there are the usual suspects anxious to combine the most appropriate clichés with the most effective methods of enriching themselves from the public purse whenever and wherever the opportunities present themselves.

A review of the issue should start with the question: who wants devolution to the regions and why? Ardent advocates will include senior managers from town halls who are ostensibly employed to implement the policies and programmes of their political masters. Will they be neutral or will they see their opportunities and take them, as they have done in the past?

On Europe: to stay or not to stay? Between 2010 and 2015, Labour sensibly edged the issue of European Union membership onto the back burner, presumably on the grounds that the party had enough problems without going out in search of them, and also in the hope that the issue would disrupt and divide the Tory Party. In the event, the Tories triumphed and David Cameron is now anxious to persuade us that staying in the EU will be the best outcome – especially so, given the major changes favourable to the United Kingdom that he is about to persuade the EU to make.

So, by the time the next election comes around, the issue will have been settled one way or the other for a generation. If Labour is returned in 2020, it will have live with that outcome. In the meantime, the party needs to spell out the pros and cons ahead of the referendum.

On future investment in the railways, there are strident voices urging us to press on with HS2 and other prestigious projects. A main reservation is that the record of the management of the sector has been and is abysmal. It is risible that managers seemingly incapable of maintaining points and signals should be entreating us to spend billions ton complex new equipment.

On the future of the National Health Service, there is a strong case to examine closely the argument that it needs more funding. Does it really? Why not take a look at a multitude of clear weaknesses, beginning with the mediocrity and greed of some senior NHS managers.

The Tory Budget welfare policies triggered the recent, apparently damaging split in the Parliamentary Labour Party. It is true that the restriction of benefits to the first two children will help the Chancellor to achieve target savings of £12 billion, but there are a number of measures that will achieve far more than Osborne’s modest target while doing far more to promote social harmony and social justice.

There are obviously some feckless parents who might have managed the planning of the size of the families with more care, but it is also the case that the main beneficiaries of child credit for all children are the offspring of poorer families. The rich, and especially the undeserving rich, will disagree – so what better reason could there be to reverse the Osborne measure? (I must declare an interest here. Many years ago, I was born the ninth child of working-class parents and the benefits system then was rather more austere than now.) Is now really the time to seek to curb the population? Who is going to pay for the ever-growing numbers of elderly, most of them anxious to distance themselves from the ranks of the working class?

Labour should give more priority to policy development and less time and decibels to in-house brawling. Those of us on the edge of the fringe of the periphery know that this switch in emphasis would make sense.

This article first appeared in Tribune Magazine on August 11, 2015


Author: holdenforth

50 years in management - mostly as a sharp-end man. Occasional contributor to Tribune.

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