Why the Green surge is an opportunity for Labour as well as a threat

What a week for the Greens: first they sail past both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats on membership numbers; then they secure a place in the televised leaders’ debates during the election campaign.

I suspect I’m not the only Labour member who feels a bit conflicted by all this. On one hand, it’s pretty clear that the ‘Green surge’ spells nothing good for progressive politics in electoral arithmetic terms.

The Greens have no real chance of winning any seats outside of their existing stronghold in Brighton, after all – but they could do real damage to Labour’s prospects in a host of other places. Ipsos Mori’s Ben Page estimates that the Greens’ current 9% vote share would cost Labour 17 marginal Coalition seats, the majority of them Conservative-held. (For a detailed analysis of whom the Greens appeal to and where, this post by LSE’s Ian Warren is excellent, as is this more recent piece by Manchester’s Robert Ford.)

It’s no wonder Labour created a special unit headed by Sadiq Khan to counter the Green threat a few months back: it’s all starting to feel uncomfortably reminiscent of the US election in 2000, when Ralph Nader drew votes away from the Democrats and allowed George W Bush into office for the first time.

But on the other hand, what a relief to have to have a progressive party pushing genuinely visionary ideas on inequality, environment, and internationalism. As Mary Riddell put it in the Telegraph last week,

The difficulty is that many young voters are immune to conventional blandishments. While the aspirationalists among them may put their own best interests first, idealists of all ages want something more … Many voters are now listing towards the Greens because they feel that Labour is still not sufficiently valiant in the defence of human rights and civil liberties, still too effete a crusader on climate change and still draped in the tattered mantle of failed politics.

I think she’s right on all those counts, and would add a few others too: actually doing something about the fact that the top 1% now own more than the rest of us put together, facing up to the fact that all the war on drugs has achieved is to criminalise huge numbers of young people while adding narco-barons to the threats facing fragile states, or getting serious about regulating the financial sector to prevent a repeat of 2008 to name just three.

To be sure, I don’t think the Greens’ ‘mini-manifesto‘ adds up to a serious programme on all these issues, any more than Russell Brand’s book does; and as they start to get more airtime, some of the lacunae in their policy platform will come more to the fore, just as has happened with UKIP.

But I think the Green surge still points to a real hunger among a section of the electorate for genuinely visionary, transformational politics – just like the post-referendum SNP surge in Scotland. (As the FT’s Janan Ganesh tweeted last week, “[I] genuinely think there is unmet demand for politicians who push back against us a bit. We’re done with them reaching out and feeling our pain.”)

And to meet that hunger, it’s not enough for Labour to make some tweaks to its comms strategy (Sadiq Khan’s new unit is apparently focusing on “a toolkit of local campaign materials for constituencies to use and … a national media strategy to combat the Greens”). Instead, as Peter Hain observed last week, Labour needs to think about actual policy.

So imagine a dream scenario in which Ed Miliband – or, for that matter, Nick Clegg or David Cameron – decided that there were votes in being visionary; in a politics of a larger us, a longer future, and a different good life. What are the policies we might wish for in their manifestos? I’ll set out a few starters for ten in a couple of days’ time.

Posted in UK

In post-2015, as in life – it’s safety first

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai is exceptional. She fearlessly brought the campaign for girls’ education to the centre of the world stage. There is a UN global initiative, former Prime Ministers are taking up the cause and it is an uncontested fact amongst policy makers, academics and practitioners alike that we cannot ‘do development’ unless boys and girls have equal and universal access to a quality education.

But, how do you teach a girl to read and write if she’s too scared to go to school for fear of being raped; or shot in the head for simply trying to claim the education she is due? How do you teach a boy the social and emotional skills he needs if the only lesson he learns is violent discipline and the streets are too dangerous for him to play?

Whilst Malala is unique, the violence committed against her is certainly not. Millions of children have suffered physical abuse in, or on route to, school. But it doesn’t end there. The places children should feel most safe are often the most dangerous. In the home and community children are being subjected to violence which impacts their physical and mental health with often permanent effects.

The problem is not limited to the Swat Valley or the gang ridden streets of San Salvador. The epidemic of violence against children is global and it thrives off inequality. No matter where you are in the world, if you are poor, marginalised or young, your vulnerability to violence is increased and your power to seek justice is reduced. In Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, Kibera, last week, I heard stories from children about unimaginable abuse and violence – like nine year old ‘Charles’, repeatedly raped by a neighbour who has evaded justice because of his influence in the community and with local officials, who he is able to pay off. Whilst each trauma was different, the common theme of impunity for the richer, older, more powerful perpetrators was common. Children in particular have limited access to and voice within justice systems, and their abuse and exploitation often goes unreported or is not investigated, leaving those who need most protection receiving the least. This cycle must be broken.

That every five minutes a child will die because of violence, as a new report from Unicef UK shows, is intolerable. The fact that this this has the potential to undo the vast progress we have seen in child survival in the last 20 years is inexcusable. Huge gains have been made since 2000 in keeping children alive to their fifth birthday, but these risk being offset by stubbornly high murder rates in adolescence. For example, in Brazil nearly 35,000 under-fives have been saved, but over the same period, more than 12,000 lives of adolescents were lost to homicide. Furthermore, child victims and survivors of violence have been left behind by global social and economic progress, with violence creating barriers to economic development. A survivor of violence in childhood is 60% more likely to be living in poverty than a neighbour who was not victimised.

As member states negotiate the successor to the Millennium Development Goals, we have an opportunity to redress this. Violence was not tackled by the MDGs and the most vulnerable, at highest risk, were left behind. In the post-2015 framework, a target to end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence and torture against children, with accompanying targets of access to justice and the rule of law, will help ensure we can finish the job of the MDGs and eliminate preventable child mortality and extreme poverty for good. In post-2015, as in life, we can follow the mantra of safety first.

But we don’t have to wait for the negotiations to finish before we act to end violence. The experience of Unicef’s work in many countries shows that there are effective strategies to prevent it – including providing support and services for children and their families, changing social norms through education and enforcing laws to keep children safe – that can be scaled up now. We need leaders to commit to doing this and to demonstrate the political will is there to facilitate the practical solutions. A global partnership of governments, international institutions and civil society, to build momentum on this crucial issue will help ensure the opportunity the post-2015 framework presents to turn the tide against violence isn’t lost.

We can’t rely on all children being heroes, to show remarkable courage, to defy the odds, to take the fight to the perpetrators of violence the way Malala did. They shouldn’t have to. They have a right to grow up free from fear and violence. We need to start planning now for that world.

IMF: To solve inequality, tax food, books and funerals

The IMF has attracted plenty of favourable attention from unfamiliar places with two ‘staff papers’ (we’re enjoined to consider them as the personal opinions of the authors, not the IMF itself, an injunction that we all merrily ignore). The first argues that inequality reduces growth, while redistribution is an effective tool for reducing it; the second explains how governments should use taxes and public expenditure to achieve this goal.

Inequality campaigners are over-the-moon to have the IMF on their side. Oxfam International hails the IMF for “mashing myths and debunking dogma in economic policy,” while the Oxfam inequality guru, Nick Galasso, is fulsome in his praise of an “ideological sea change” at the Fund (“if If it sounds like I have a crush on the IMF’s Managing Director, Christian Lagarde…”).

But what tools does the IMF think we should use to shrink inequality? Oxfam’s tweet leads to a Reuters article covering a speech by IMF deputy managing director, David Lipton. The speech is definitely worth reading in full – it’s a digestible summary of emerging IMF thinking, while the table on page 43 of the IMF report provides an overview of its suite of policy prescriptions.

Key recommendations for developed countries include substituting means-tested benefits for universal ones; raising the retirement age and making the rich work longer than the poor; charging more for university education in order to spend more on schools; and making income tax more progressive, while eliminating tax breaks.

Many of these are good policies, but let’s not pretend they’re all politically palatable. Take the last one as an example. In the United States, President Obama and the Republicans are locked into fruitless combat on eliminating a few of the most egregious pro-rich tax breaks. A recent revenue-neutral tax reform plan from a Republican has provoked a blizzard of protest from Wall Street and has been roundly condemned by his colleagues.

But the IMF is not interested in these small-bore controversies, it has the big one in its sights: the 37 million Americans who benefit to the tune of $70bn or so from tax relief on their mortgages. And that’s a political live wire. I’d speculate that any presidential candidate – Republican or Democrat – who ran for 2016 on a “tax the homeowners” platform would have as much chance of winning the nomination as I do.

This is not just an American problem. Look at the IMF’s core policy prescription for the United Kingdom – one good enough that it makes it into Lipton’s speech as well as into the report. The UK should move to a flat rate of VAT on all goods and services, Lipton argues, and use the money to increase benefits.

That would mean imposing a 20% tax on food (raising £16bn or so), and on rent and house construction (another £13bn), while increasing tax on household electricity and gas from 5% to 20% (£5bn). Tax would also go up on books, children’s clothing, tampons, condoms, stamps, charities like Oxfam, and… funerals. Yep – the IMF is proposing a burial tax.

All in all, this would give George Osborne £60bn to play with (table 4), more if he axes universal benefits in favour of greater means-testing (goodbye child benefit, winter fuel allowance etc). This would be enough to double benefits for working-age low earners and the unemployed (table 8.2).

Good news for inequality, maybe, but an act of political insanity. In the UK, we once had a manifesto that was derided as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. Flat rate VAT (for all its merits) would be the shortest. VAT on food? On books? On coffins? Just look at the disaster that befell the British government when it tried to tax Cornish pasties to see how badly this would go wrong.

There are equally obvious political bear traps when you look at the problem from the point of view of low and middle income countries. And the task ahead of them is daunting, given that inequality levels are higher in Asia and the Middle East than in the West, and much higher again in Africa and Latin America. A European minister told me that he was hoping for a post-2015 goal that would inspire the whole world to be as equal as his country by 2030. I shudder to think of the collective apoplexy this prospect would cause in the G77.

IMF Disposable Income Inequality

No-one is pretending that IMF-branded policies represent the final word on inequality. Oxfam issued a media brief this week, which proposes the UK tackles inequality by cracking down on tax dodgers, implementing a Tobin tax and a tax on land, and increasing the minimum wage.

But what the Fund’s excellent report does is underline the importance of going from high-level aspirations to detailed scrutiny of the policies we want governments to implement to bring inequality down. Only then can we understand how today’s high level debate on inequality will play out in the bruising world of retail politics. It would be good to see Oxfam’s proposals costed and their likely impact on inequality audited, so we can see what they’ll deliver and who’d foot the bill. Without that the politics remain hard to read.

A greater focus on policies and implementation, and the politics of both, is especially important for those arguing that we should stop being “belligerent” about the “unrealistic goal” of ending sub-$1.25 a day poverty and instead build a post-2015 agenda on the the more sustainable political foundations that inequality offers.

Sure, we have an ‘emerging consensus’ that something needs to be done to bring inequality down. But will that consensus hold when publics around the world, and assorted lobbyists, get a better sense of what that something looks like?

Why can’t politicians ‘cut through’ on climate?

In the Guardian, Hugh Muir complains that the Daily Mail has “helped erode trust in the probity of the political establishment to the extent that politicians cannot now receive a fair hearing on anything.”

We don’t listen much to any of them these days, and sometimes that doesn’t matter, because we live quite happily day to day without ministerial interference. But when it comes to issues that affect the state and mood of the nation; the inability of even serious politicians to cut through becomes troubling.

This is spot on for climate change, as can be seen by a look at how Hugh’s own paper covered three stories in the run up to the Warsaw summit.

First, fossil fuel subsidies, where the Guardian gobbles up a global report from the Overseas Development Institute and presents it through a primarily national lens.

Fossil fuel subsidies

As I have explained, the Guardian’s framing is largely fallacious, but to pick up Hugh’s point, the government’s position is not reflected at all. No quotes. Nothing.

Only a tiny minority of readers would suspect that ministers deny Britain has any inefficient fossil fuel subsidies at all (or understand why). Nor would they realise that eliminating the ‘subsidy’ identified by ODI equates to quadrupling VAT on all domestic energy, whether it comes from fossil fuels or renewables. Continue reading

The UK’s Anti-Malala Backlash

Sadly, Malala Yousafzai became a controversial figure in Pakistan soon after she was shot and the theory that she is a pawn of the West is now entrenched.

It’s depressing, however, to realize these views have also gained currency in the UK. Yesterday, Nihal – a radio presenter – hosted a phone-in discussion on BBC Asian Network, in response to news that some private schools in Pakistan have banned Malala’s book.

The first guest was Mizanur Rahman, who was introduced as a UK-based ‘lecturer’. It’s quite an interview – you can listen to for the next few days here (2:10 onwards). According to Rahman, Malala was always “a tool of the BBC and Western governments” and that the idea she is promoting girls’ education is a lie. Instead, her main purpose is to justify Western aggression against Muslims, and the Taliban in particular.

The Taliban, in contrast, has been much maligned. “The Taliban has always education promoted for boys and girls,” he claimed. Anyone, like Malala, who claimed otherwise was dehumanizing Taliban members in order to justify their killing by American forces. “The Taliban never barred girls from attending schools,” an incredulous Nihal asked. “Never! Never!” Rahman replied.

Other guests refuted Rahman with great gusto, including Bina Shah, who writes about her experience here. Nihal, himself, is a skilled and patient interviewer. “My gosh, he’s a rude man,” was as cross as he got and he did a good job puncturing some of the guy’s more blatant fabrications and distortions.

But Rahman was not without his supporters. One young woman phoned in to say that she had friends from the Swat valley and they had had no trouble gaining an education. Malala’s father was to blame for the attack on her, she said, not the Taliban. She believed that Malala’s story was mostly a fabrication.

So who is Rahman? There is a lecturer with that name at a British business school, but I very much doubt it’s the same guy.

There’s also an activist called Mizanur Rahman, who has a conviction for inciting racial hatred and for soliciting murder in the aftermath of the Danish cartoons. Maybe it was him. If it was, surely the BBC had a duty to warn its listeners about his background and criminal record.

I’d also be interested to see some polling on how widespread Malala conspiracy theories have become in the UK. On the one hand, her book is so widely distributed that it’s one of only a handful on sale in my local supermarket. On the other, I suspect an anti-Malala backlash is now well underway.

Labour’s next election attack lines on the Conservatives’ development record

This piece is published this morning on the Guardian development blog (under the rather fabulous headline Will international development be the undoing of David Cameron?”we can but dream…)

International development may not be among the top five most salient issues at the next UK general election. Yet, for two reasons, it remains in its way a key battleground issue.

First, it’s the last remnant of the signature issues pushed by David Cameron in a bid to “detoxify” the Tory brand. All the others have fallen from grace – “hug a hoodie“, the “big society“, the “greenest government ever” – to the extent that Danny Kruger, the author of the hug a hoodie speech, said last month:

I’d like to know where David Cameron’s compassionate Conservatism has gone … my overall feeling is that there is a loss of drive and energy that David Cameron personally had before the last election.

Development matters for Cameron not only because it provides him with one of his last remaining claims to the political centre, but also because of opposition from his own backbenchers – the reason other detox issues fell by the wayside.

With Cameron’s authority over his party already problematic – and likely to become more so between now and 2015 as his restive MPs contemplate the idea of a second coalition – development represents a key test issue that he cannot afford to lose.

For Labour, on the other hand, development matters because of its unique power to energise a bloc of highly committed, activist-minded voters who are natural Labour supporters.

While Iraq was clearly catastrophic for Labour’s capacity to appeal to this group of voters, 10 years have now passed. This time around, the big question is whether Labour’s offer on development is different enough to motivate them not just to vote, but to put their formidable capacities to organise and mobilise others behind the party’s campaign.

Needless to say, the Conservatives will hope their commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on aid will be enough to neutralise that threat – and to give credit where it’s due, they have delivered on their pre-election rhetoric.

Labour will continue to do what it can to attack this claim – by pointing to the Tories’ failure to keep their promise to legislate for the 0.7% target, for example – but it seems clear that they will have to look elsewhere for its key “dividing lines” on development. So what are their options?

First, inequality. As a Save the Children report published this week underlines, tackling income inequality in developing countries will be essential if the world is to achieve zero poverty by 2030.

This fits easily with the One Nation narrative that Ed Miliband has developed for Labour, but presents much more of a political headache for Cameron (indeed, the relatively weak language on inequality in the recent UN high-level panel on the post-2015 development agenda, which Cameron co-chaired, was largely at British insistence).

Climate will be a second key attack issue for Labour, given that the coalition’s record since 2010 includes the abolition of solar power subsidies, embarrassingly low take-up of the government’s green deal on energy efficiency, and a 3.5% rise in UK emissions in 2012. None of this puts the UK in a strong position to lead internationally in 2014, when political heavy lifting will be needed ahead of the crucial December 2015 summit in Paris.

Third, a financial transactions tax. While some development experts remain unconvinced of the case for a Robin Hood tax, campaigners adore the idea. But while Ed Balls publicly supports the case for such a tax at international level, the Conservatives remain opposed to imposing such a constraint on the City.

This in turn fits in with Labour’s fourth potential dividing line: a broader message of policy coherence. Before the 2010 election, the Department for International Development was an active player in cross-Whitehall debates on areas such as trade, migration, intellectual property, tax havens, climate, and environment.

Since then, though, it has been firmly pushed back into aid administration rather than a broader agenda of development diplomacy. We’re therefore likely to hear a lot from Labour arguing that, unlike the Tories, it believes aid spending is just one piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle.

Finally, Labour will attack Cameron’s own record of international leadership. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both exerted huge amounts of energy and political capital on the UK-hosted meetings of the G8 in 2005 and G20 in 2009 – in both cases, putting development concerns very much front and centre.

Cameron, on the other hand, seems a less enthusiastic global advocate for development. His G8 tax agenda appeared half-hearted and under-prepared, while his co-chairmanship of the UN post-2015 high-evel panel was noted by many for his reluctance to attend meetings and clumsy media diplomacy.

How he is perceived on development going in to the 2015 election will depend largely on how much international leadership he is prepared to show over the next 18 months. Given how crucial this period will be for both climate change and the post-2015 development agenda, the importance of this test goes far beyond party politics.

• Alex Evans was special adviser to Hilary Benn at the UK Department for International Development from 2003 to 2006, and blogs at www.globaldashboard.org

Total energy decarbonisation by 2030 AND flat fuel bills? Seriously?

Blimey – Ed Miliband certainly likes to make it hard for himself.

Amid all the coverage this morning of his Labour conference speech yesterday, one small detail seems to have been overlooked: his commitment to total decarbonisation of the energy sector by 2030.

Labour had already committed to including a decarbonisation target in its 2015 manifesto, back in June this year after a cross-party amendment to the Energy Bill in favour of such a measure was defeated by the government – but hadn’t specified the level of the target. This is what Ed Miliband provided yesterday, when he said that

Labour will have a world leading commitment in government to take all of the carbon out of our energy by 2030.

This is a hugely ambitious commitment, and green campaigners will be purring. But you have to wonder – how exactly will this be squared this with the other new policy commitment on energy that he announced yesterday: “the next Labour government will freeze gas and electricity prices until the start of 2017″? Because if we really want to achieve a 100% decarbonisation target in just a decade and a half, it will cost more.

It may be that Labour’s simply ignoring the economics of this because the politics are so good. Jonathan Freedland observes this morning that focus group approval of price controls on gas and electricity is “off the charts”, according to a senior Labour figure. The FT’s political team, meanwhile, notes that however much the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and energy companies howl about the risk of lights going out,

Mr Miliband will relish the backlash, which he hopes will highlight his claim to be willing to side with ordinary families against big business and to tilt the economic playing field back in their favour.

“The companies won’t like it because it will cost them money,” Mr Miliband said. “But they have been overcharging people for too long because the market doesn’t work. We need to press the reset button.”

I assume that Labour knows what it’s doing here, not only because Ed Miliband knows the DECC brief back to front but also because Bryony Worthington is a shadow DECC minister and knows more about the energy sector than most of the energy companies themselves do. But I’d feel better seeing some detailed unpacking of the underlying assumptions…