Monday, September 26, 2011

How Labour should apologise (vested interests #2)

There's been a fair amount of comment over the weekend on how Labour should apologise for the state it left the country in. Ed Balls has been touring the interview suites this morning saying 'sorry' for regulatory weakness on the banks and on public spending. It all sounds a bit weak, and it's being done in a way that offers Labour no upside.

It sounds like a limp concession to the people in the party who are saying that we won't be taken seriously until we've done this properly.

Is this really the case? Personally, I doubt it. It imagines that our opponents in parliament and the press will say "OK - thanks for getting that out of the way. Now let's move on....."

As a good Catholic boy, I'd also attest that an act of contrition only really counts if it comes with a determination not to sin again.  This is where Labour's opportunity arises.

Labour didn't cover itself in glory by increasing borrowing during an economic upswing in the mid-noughties. The way to apologise to the public on this is the way that you would apologise to a driver if you've just put a dent in their wing a few minutes before a banker steamrollered the same car off a cliff.

If Labour did screw up badly - and demonstrably - it was in two big areas:
  1. Allowing the subjects of reguation to dictate their terms
  2. Procurement

Taking the latter first, IT contractors were allowed to corner government departments into writing blank cheques. Defence manufacturers were able to entirely capture limitless budgets with impunity.

The bill for all of this ran into the tens of £billions and Labour really does owe the voters a massive apology for it.

This was a failure to confront vested interests - one that Labour needs to deal with ruthlessly now to regain credibility in this area. It will also chime with Ed Milliband's 'vested interests' line of attack.

And continuing the departmental capture theme (and moving on to regulatory failure), the socially useless finance sector was allowed to write it's own regulations in a way that no government can ever permit again.

But how can Labour do this? Dan Hodges is sceptical of Ed's 'Ralph Nader' line of attack saying

"It's bold, it's brave, and it's politically suicidal. But you have to hand it to him. Ed Miliband is the new Ed Cojones. No compromise on Labour's economic message. No let up on the attacks on those at the top of society. No pandering to the right-wing press. Ed will be true to himself, and his party. 
There's only one problem. The rules of the game don't change. That's why they're the rules."

Dan's wrong. Labour just never really understood the rules. And the cowing of News International over the summer may have even changed them slightly anyway.

Labour really does need to get it's head around how well the Tories did using deniable outriders to carry it's attacks out for it when Labour was in government. Labour's line of attack shouldn't be coming from Milliband at all. He needs people with no formal link to the party to be saying a lot of it.

None of this happens without some degree of support from the party machine though. In our shoes, the Tories would be getting the right people to open up a loud line of enquiry into why a sloppy and politically biased media has been allowed to conduct it's lazy vendettas at the expense of the public interest for so long.

As long as electoral attack politics have existed in this country, we have a history of accepting that it's part of the Conservative Party's M.O. - the deniable outriders such as the real authors of the Zinoviev Letter, The postwar anti-rationing Housewives League, and latterly, The Taxpayers' Alliance.

The left's targets can be our heroic Fourth Estate, who fiddled while the government was forced to avoid burning the bondholders. Another socially useless little monopoly failed in ways that no modern state can afford.

We (not Labour) need to shift the focus beyond the shallow question of post-hoc regulation whenever newspapers really bugger someone's life up and focus on the bigger questions and start attacking the opponents of public service broadcasting - painting them for what they are: anti-social opportunists. But this can't come directly from Labour.

We can take steps to ensure that the financial sector can never again enjoy the ability to make well-timed policy-interventions defending their own interests.

Labour can heavily emphasise it's determination not to allow any of this to happen again in ways that would push the coalition out of their comfort zone.

We (i.e. Labour's supporters - not it's leadership) can demand a lot more transparency about lobbyists. We can make demands that push the coalition into a war with it's own departments (no government wants this, and the Tories forced us into a continual one - what goes around comes around!).

We can demand ever-more transparency and ethical standards from companies that bid for government work. No donating to political parties. No expenditure on lobbying. Corporate governance standards up the wazoo. Personal responsibility from senior executives with criminal-law penalties. No personal political donations from senior executives or major shareholders either. No meetings with ministers or party hacks. No sponsorship of political activities.

All 'evidence' that is submitted into the public domain by outfits like the British Bankers Association should go through a level of fact-checking first. If they do decide to spend money on research, they should pay a commensurate sum of money into a blind-trust that can then be spent either cross-checking their claims or commissioning relevant research as a counterbalance.

If anyone thinks that Labour is going to fall into the same traps again after that little lot, they'd struggle to make the case for it. And we'd be able to yell 'vested interest' back at them when they do.

And that's "we" - not Labour. When attacks find their target, then Ed can get on board. But not before. As I put it a while ago, Labour and the far-left need each other for the first time ever.

But before any of this can happen, Labour needs to re-examine it's traditional desire to take a leadership role all of the time.

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