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Labour is a progressive party or we are nothing

It comes as a disappointment that the Labour Party appears to have done little analysis, at least as far as I know, of the results of the European and local elections held a month ago. While I fully accept that these two polls, often the repository for protest votes, do not necessarily provide pointers to the outcome of a general election, nevertheless, it would only be sensible for the Party to look at the way the votes went and draw conclusions which may be helpful for the future.

The Labour Party really needs to do this for the simple reason that, outside the large urban areas, it is not too good for us. Furthermore, in some places where Labour has traditionally regarded the electors as its “core vote” we lost and UKIP gained at Labour’s expense. There is obvious disillusionment in parts of the country which Labour ought to address urgently and certainly in time to take some remedial action before May 2015.

What is generally regarded as strong Labour territory in some of the Yorkshire and Humber region and southern working-class areas such as Thurrock turned to UKIP rather than us in the European Parliament elections. In Doncaster UKIP gained 24,240 votes against Labour’s 23,743. Across the Yorks and Humber region as a whole, UKIP won 31 per cent of the vote giving them three MEPs and Labour had 29 per cent with two. UKIP also won in Thurrock with more than twice as many votes as Labour, 17,416 to 8,645. The Labour Party should be worried by this strong showing for UKIP, not least because disaffected Liberal-Democrats turned to the UK Independence Party rather than Labour, which would have been the norm in the past.

The exception for Labour was the big cities, especially London, where we won four out of the eight MEPs. This is, I believe, a separate but linked phenomenon, and will be the subject of another blog. The urgent lesson for the Labour Party to address now is what we do about the fact that UKIP came first in the European elections. To imagine that all those errant electors will come home to Labour in a general election reeks of too much complacency. Tory polling guru Lord Ashcroft reckons about half of them will stay with UKIP. While I accept it’s a while to May 2015, Labour needs a strong and credible response in relation to the parts of the country, notably the old industrial and mining areas, which have suffered over the years from loss of jobs and Tory cuts in public services.

The Labour Party firstly needs to understand the lessons it should learn from the decline in its fortunes in these areas which were once solid for us. Although, as a Londoner I’m not particularly qualified to pontificate on the actual places under discussion, I do think that those living in the cities where Labour’s vote is holding up have valid comments to make. Let’s start with the old “being out of touch” chestnut. The Guardian today published their research into the backgrounds of prospective parliamentary candidates in marginal seats. In the 90 seats where Labour is the challenger, the majority of candidates had links to either Westminster or Brussels. In other words, they were political insiders.

While I think the “political insider” criticism is just a bit too trite, it is definitely one of the problems Labour is facing. Any political party which doesn’t represent its voters will find in the end that the voters go somewhere else. Yet the problem goes beyond this since UKIP did very well even in Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover. It is also true that some of these UKIP voters were for the British National Party in the past. It is, of course, also true that society has changed and those in the old mining and non-urban industrial areas are now a minority of Britain’s population.

Maybe it is this very change in the nature of our country – much higher levels of educational attainment, mass communication, the fragmentation of families and communities and, of course, immigration, to name but a few – which is causing UKIP to gain support. UKIP is a backward-looking party, a cancer eating away at the strength of our country which will inevitably attract those who are feeling alienated and disconnected. Labour, by contrast, is a progressive force, outward looking, wanting to improve people’s lives. Sadly, and possibly unhappily for Labour in the short-term, quite a few of those in former Labour areas feel the changes which are taking place so rapidly in our country are nothing to do with them and in any event they don’t like what is going on.

Short of becoming a UKIP clone, possibly in rather more of a sheep’s clothing, there is realistically little Labour can do about the old “core” vote in places which are currently rejecting the party. We need to look forward, to keep to our values, and to represent what is best for the country as a whole and not simply try and get back those whom we have clearly lost. Trying to out-UKIP UKIP would only move the whole political discourse rightwards with disastrous consequences for what the Labour Party should be about – fairness, equality, justice, freedom for the many not the few.

The irony of UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, a public school educated stockbroker, becoming the party of the old white working class is really quite tragic. I very much hope Labour will win back these voters by putting forward a programme in government for all the people of our country. If Labour does not fully embrace progressive policies which recognise the benefits of immigration, are strongly in favour of Britain playing a full part at the centre of the European Union, seek to improve living standards, including health, housing and education, and maintain Britain as a major player in the world economy and in world affairs, we will be hard pushed to get there in 2015. The choice is ours; the 2015 general election is Labour’s to lose.

 

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Violence against Women

First it was feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez facing appalling abuse on Twitter. Her dreadful experiences were later followed by a 13 per cent drop in police domestic violence referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service. Although these two matters are separate, both sadly reflect the attitudes to women prevalent in this country.

Violence against women is still rife and all too often the perpetrators do not receive what they deserve and their crimes are viewed almost as second class and not worthy of too much attention.

I am extremely concerned that Caroline Criado-Perez claims the police have lost evidence relating to the death and rape threats made against her on Twitter. Having been on the receiving end of some pretty vile and disgusting online abuse (though admittedly not as bad as Caroline’s), I do at least have some idea of what she’s going through.

In one tweet quoted in the Guardian Caroline said, “I can just about cope with threats. What I can’t cope with after this is the victim-blaming, the patronising, and the police record-keeping.”

Neither should Caroline ignore the “tolls” as some have suggested. There seems to be a culture on the internet that since trolls are anonymous it doesn’t matter what they do. It does matter and must be dealt with.

The debate about online abuse reminds me of the comment made by a (male) police officer when I was a young councillor. When I drew attention to the need to ensure women were safe walking around the large council estate in my ward, I received the response that women shouldn’t go out at night and that at other times they should be careful. Caroline’s experience suggests we haven’t made much progress in the intervening years.

It seems that progress is also very limited when it comes to prosecuting domestic violence attacks. It is quite shocking that the number of attacks referred by the police to the Crown Prosecution service went down by 13 per cent over the last three years, as reported in the Guardian. The fact that the number of cases referred by the police to the CPS went up by 23per cent between 2007 and 2010 shows just how significant the 13 per cent drop actually is.

It is, of course, good news that the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, is to meet police chiefs to discuss whether the police are doing enough to bring domestic violence cases to court. However, it will almost certainly be the case that further action will be needed.  

This government and the agencies which should be protecting us are badly failing women. I just hope we are not going back to the bad old days when domestic violence and abuse towards women, including rape, were not taken seriously and not seen as crimes which really mattered. We need to be vigilant and do all that we can to make sure that doesn’t happen.         

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Shocking figures reveal lack of women aged 50+ on TV

Just one in five presenters at major broadcasters over the age of 50 are women

Although a shocking figure in one sense, it really should not be a complete surprise. I’d probably struggle to count on one hand the number of women presenters over the age of 50 who regularly appear on TV or who have their own shows. Yes there are some well-known faces, but they are an exception.

As soon as you hit 50 your days are numbered, as Miriam O’Reilly knows only too well. It was her brave decision to fight her employer, the BBC, over this discrimination which forced  the industry to recognise it has a problem.  O’Reilly was interviewed in the Guardian just last week and reveals how she has spoken to other women who were as badly bullied and/or side-lined in the same way she was. Veteran presenter Anna Ford who is sadly no longer on our screens lamented the lack of older women television presenters again in the Guardian last Saturday.

Harriet Harman’s figures, published recently show ‘just one in five presenters at major broadcasters over the age of 50 are women’, is terrible. It shows that women have to fight harder than men to achieve the same roles and do so throughout their careers.

We are familiar with the difficulties women face when going back to work following a period of maternity leave, and we know how hard it is for women to reach the board and executive level in many companies because we have the stats to prove it from recent research studies.  And now women are faced with their working lives being cut short because they are not considered ‘the right fit’? Whatever the reason executives must stop discriminating against capable and experienced women who are 50+. This is a period which should be one of the highlights of women’s careers. After all women in their 50s are experienced, knowledgeable, and should, therefore, be sought after not (as unfortunately they are) side-lined.

Harriet Harman rightly said: “It really is a black hole … Broadcasters behave as though the viewing public have to be protected from the sight of an older woman and that’s just rude. There is nothing wrong with being an older woman….We’ve got to fight back against this sense that older women are less valuable, whereas men accumulate wisdom, authority and experience as they age.”

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David Cameron should listen to his voters

Yesterday’s blog showed how out of touch those Tories obsessed with withdrawal from the European Union are compared with the majority of British voters.

Today I came across this piece on Guardian Comment is Free. Talking about support for the EU among young people, the article’s author Selina Nwulu could have read my mind.

Selina tells us that a recent report from the Fabian Society shows that the majority of the 18- to 34-year-olds surveyed claimed they would vote yes to EU membership in a referendum. The report revealed that  most young people, despite economic instability and the burgeoning Eurozone crisis, still feel positive about the UK’s involvement within the EU.

I totally agree with Selina’s conclusion that there is a discrepancy between UKIP’s and the Tories’ anti-Europe rhetoric and the views of the pro-European majority among the younger UK generation. As politicians we should never dismiss young people’s views simply because they are less likely to vote than the older members of our society. Their voice is valuable and deserves to be both heard and acted on.

Selina also make a very good point when she asks that given the fact that many young people in the UK are currently facing limited opportunities, why is shrinking them further by UK withdrawal being discussed?

She goes on to say, “As youth unemployment rises and hideous terms like, “benefit scrounger” and “Neet” bounce around current day vernacular, youth engagement within the EU presents a mass of opportunity. EU schemes such as the Leonardo Da Vinci programme and the European Voluntary Service allow young people to work and live abroad as well as encouraging young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply. It’s crucial that the chances for young people are widened, not limited.”

Selina ends her article by saying it’s time the David Cameron and his Tory MPs listened. While there are those who feel overburdened by EU regulation, there are also many people who have benefitted from the EU in various ways – the educational programmes Selina mentions, the EU structural funds, grants to creative industries, equalities legislation and environmental protection, to name but a few.

 

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DWP ruling slams practice which is little short of slavery

Government work schemes were dealt a big blow yesterday following a ruling that the Department for Work and Pensions had exceeded its powers in its use of unpaid work schemes. The ruling found that this was legally flawed and means there is now the opportunity for thousands of others who had been on the scheme to also seek compensation.

The Guardian gives full coverage of the case, which had initially been brought by a 24-year old, Cait Reilly, a geology graduate, who was made to work in Poundland, while on a scheme.

She argued that working in Poundland had not had not helped her find a full time position, that she was unable to carry out valuable voluntary work and that the only ones to benefit from the scheme was Poundland itself.

The panel of Lord Justice Pill, Lady Justice Black and Sir Stanley Burnton ruled unanimously that Duncan Smith had exceeded his powers as secretary of state. In the ruling, Burnton said: “I emphasise that this case is not about the social, economic, political or other merits.”

Burnton said parliament was “entitled to encourage participation in such schemes by imposing sanctions”. “However,” he said, “any scheme must be such as has been authorised by parliament.”

The TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “This blows a big hole through the government’s workfare policies. Of course voluntary work experience can help the jobless, and it is right to expect the unemployed to seek work. But it is pointless to force people to work for no pay in jobs that do nothing to help them while putting others at risk of unemployment. “This policy is about blaming the jobless, not helping them.”

The PCS union said that its members who staff jobcentres and advice centres would “offer guidance and support to all those affected by the ruling, including those who have been unjustly sanctioned.”

Matthew Oakley, head of economics and social policy at Policy Exchange, said the ruling “should not be seen as some sort of body blow to the government’s welfare plans.

“The main problem in this particular instance was miscommunication of the requirements and penalties for not complying, rather than the policy itself.”

Having worked in the voluntary sector for many years before becoming an MEP, including holding the chief executive position in two national organisations, I have had first-hand experience of the value of work carried out on a voluntary basis. I have, indeed, done this myself on occasion. However, what the DWP attempted to do is not acceptable voluntary work; it is little short of slavery.

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Cameron’s shilly-shallying on Europe is not good for the country

The Tories are well and truly getting themselves in a twist on the EU.Europe, as we all know, was always their Achilles heels, a fault line which is getting deeper by the day.

By wading into these turbulent waters, big beast Eurosceptic Dr Liam Fox has heightened their problems and shown us an even more divided party. But it’s not just the Conservative Party in the frame. Since they are the leading part of the Con-Dem Coalition Government, this is something which affects the British people as a whole.

In a speech given tellingly to the right-wing think tank, the Taxpayers’ Alliance, Dr Fox, according to ConservativeHome defied “the wisdom of the Conservative leadership by arguing that if we are not able to renegotiate significant powers back for Britain, we should leave the European Union”.   

It is, of course, bad enough that a former Cabinet Minister should attack his Party’s leadership in this way. It’s made even worse by David Cameron’s utter ineptness. Does he support a referendum or doesn’t her?  Liam Fox and 100 other Tory MPs think he doesn’t while others believe he might.

If it weren’t so serious, I would say that brewery and a lot to drink come to mind. Britain’s relationship with the European Union matters very much to our country. I can do no better than quote Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander writing in the Guardian on Saturday: “My fear is that the shambles over the last few days reveals more about the prime minister’s weakness in the party than the strength of his convictions about Europe. Whatever your view on Britain’s relationship with the EU, we all want the government’s approach to an issue this significant to start from only one place: consideration of what is best for Britain. I regret that this prime minister seems to be more concerned with managing party interests than governing in the national interest when it comes to Europe.”

Our national interest is at the very minimum to have a clear and well thought out strategy for Europe. It does no harm to repeat that the EU single market is the UK’s largest trading bloc taking 40 per cent of our exports. This involves more than simply getting goods there. As Douglas Alexander said in the same article: “…the single market is not just about “free trade” as the Eurosceptics misleadingly imply. It’s about far more than that: removing barriers behind the borders – and that requires common rules with a commission and court to enforce them. And where we have shared goals – from tackling climate change to cross-border crime and human trafficking – in an era of billion-person countries and trillion-pound economies – we cannot afford to give up on ways that help amplify our voice and protect our interests.”

It beggars belief that the Prime Minister is playing party politics with such an important matter. The real problem is that Cameron has not really “detoxified” the Tory brand. He hasn’t had the courage to do what Neil Kinnock achieved for the Labour Party in the 1980s. The British Conservative Party now has more extremists than before the 2010 general election.

Cameron seems to think appeasing the Eurosceptics will get him off the hook. Such misplaced judgment defies all historical precedents. Cameron has isolated the UK by pulling out of the European People’s Party, the centre-right group which also happens to be the largest political group in the European Parliament. Having annoyed his natural allies, Cameron now thinks he can renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU. Total and utter pie in the sky for reasons explained in some detail in other posts on this blog, and rather pleasingly put forward by Andrew Neill on the BBC Sunday Politics programme.

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The BBC World Service is important and should be properly funded

There appears to be no end to our economic woes. Britain’s economy slipped into its second recession since the start of the financial crisis around the turn of the year, and fears of a longer slump have been rising as companies hold back investment. What is more, there has been a sharp deterioration in the outlook for the global economy over the last six weeks.

All this has apparently caused Bank of England governor Mervyn King to back an extra £50bn of quantative easing,

Explaining his position to the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, King said, “What has particularly concerned me in the last several months – why I have voted for more easing policy – was my concern about the worsening I see in the position in Asia and other emerging markets, adding “…my colleagues in the United States are more concerned than they were at the beginning of the year about what is happening to the American economy”.

According to the Guardian, Mervyn King went on to say, “We are in the middle of a deep crisis, with enormous challenges to put our own banking system right and challenges for the rest of the world that they are struggling with.”

It is now quite clear  that Britain has not recovered from the 2008/2009 slump that has left many Britons worse off, and fears are rising that another prolonged recession would do lasting damage to the economy.

You would have thought that the Tory-led Coalition Government would realise that it needs all the help it can get to make sure Britain’s interests are recognised in other countries and that the damage caused by the economic crisis is minimised across the world. One way of achieving this aim is through the soft power wielded by the BBC World Service.

The global impact of the World Service was, in fact, graphically illustrated last week when Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi toured the organisation’s offices, meeting many of the broadcasters she listened to while under house arrest  in Rangoon.

Unbelievably, at the end of 2010 the Foreign Office under William Hague decided to slash the World Service budget by around 20%, or £46m a year, by 2014. As a result the BBC in January 2011 confirmed plans to close five of its 32 World Service language services, estimating that audiences will fall by more than 30 million, from 180 million to 150 million a week.

As if this wasn’t enough, the BBC executive who runs the World Service, Peter Horrocks, has recently asked his journalists to come up with schemes to raise money.

This is surely no way to treat the World Service which truly justifies the over used soubriquet “national treasure”. The cut to its funding by the current Tory-led Government was a major misjudgement which totally underestimated importance of the World Service in boosting Britain’s standing abroad, a vital requirement in these perilous economic times.

I recently had an inkling of how the BBC is perceived when a Swedish MEP told me just how honoured and overjoyed he was to be invited on to the BBC “The Record Europe” programme. David Cameron, William Hague and the other luminaries in the Coalition Cabinet would do well to take such views on board. The BBC is the face and voice of the UK across the world and it benefits Britain enormously. It would be a real tragedy if political dogma were allowed to prejudice this huge asset.

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