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Three key lessons from Labour’s campaign – and how the party needs to change

Originally posted by Democratic Audit UK  12/06/2017

Patrick Diamond

Jeremy Corbyn has confounded his critics and increased Labour’s share of the vote in the General Election. But the party is some way from being able to command a parliamentary majority, says Patrick Diamond. Labour has articulated a vision of society which appeals to many young people and ‘left behind’ voters. Now the party needs to get over the intellectual defensiveness which has afflicted it for decades – and reach out to people in English constituencies who have no tribal loyalty to Labour.

Politics in the Labour party will never be the same again in the aftermath of the 2017 general election. Only six weeks ago many commentators, most Labour MPs, party members and even Jeremy Corbyn’s allies feared he would be humiliated at the ballot box.

‘Politics in the Labour party will never be the same again’

It didn’t happen. Labour fought an insurgent campaign in which Corbyn deftly exploited his status as the underdog; the Labour party appears to have excited young people as well as so-called ‘left behind’ voters in ways not seen for decades. Criticisms of Corbyn’s leadership style focused on his inept approach to internal party management and estrangement from his own parliamentary party; where Corbyn exceeded expectations was his ability to fashion a distinctive, eye-catching political agenda that captured the imagination of the electorate, and distanced the Labour party from its potentially ‘toxic’ legacy (one of the historian Stuart Ball’s key criteria for effective opposition party leadership).

Of course, it has not been plain sailing for Corbyn’s Labour. Arguably, the leader’s greatest vulnerability has been his reluctance to acknowledge the place of other traditions in the Labour party beyond his own heterodox brand of socialism. Corbyn’s weakest moments during the campaign were his defensiveness over the nuclear deterrent, as well as controversy over his previous reluctance to condemn IRA terrorism. There are still major questions about the viability of Labour’s manifesto, for all that its ideological clarity inspired the faithful. Still, there can be little doubt that the campaign Corbyn fought marks a decisive shift in the politics of the Labour party to which all sections of the party will now be obliged to respond.

So what strategic lessons can, and should, we glean from the Corbyn leadership project in the wake of the general election result?

The first lesson is that Corbyn’s politics evidently appeal to many younger voters, as well as the social groups that have increasingly abstained from voting in the UK since the late 1980s. The dynamic here was that Corbyn projected ‘hope’ because his programme was not constrained by conventional electoral calculation; Labour’s prospectus offered a different vision of society after nearly a decade of spending cuts, tax rises, and missed deficit reduction targets. Corbyn’s views on policy articulated a rare combination of clarity and conviction. The Labour leader offers an innovative politics of participation which is about doing things ‘with’ people rather than ‘to’ them, sweeping away anachronistic institutions and inherited privilege; if carried forward this might be the platform for a resurgence of British social democracy.

The challenge ahead for Corbyn’s project will be to construct the electoral alliance between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ that is required to win greater numbers of marginal seats, enter government, and deliver policies like progressive redistribution and public investment. Another general election appears likely to be called relatively soon. A Labour victory will mean winning in English constituencies like Reading West or Thurrock that Labour was unable to carry last Thursday.

‘There are still major questions about the viability of Labour’s manifesto’

The second lesson of the Corbyn leadership project is that Labour needs to get over the intellectual defensiveness that has plagued the party since the late 1980s. Corbyn says he now wants an open debate about policy; he ought to be taken at taken at his word. In the past, some modernisers behaved as if the best approach to making Labour a party of government was to give the entire PLP and party membership an intellectual lobotomy. This risked denuding the Labour party of the capacity to think and revitalise itself. The ascendency of Thatcherism convinced many that Britain had become an inherently conservative country, and that the Left could only win by accepting the basic parameters of the Thatcher settlement. In this election under Corbyn, Labour made its most audacious attempt since 1945 to shift the centre ground of politics towards the Left.

The Corbyn leadership project’s third lesson is that when effectively presented, measures that are widely perceived to be traditionally ‘left-wing’ are still popular with mainstream voters. Among the most important issues raised in the Labour manifesto was the question of public ownership in a post-industrial economy geared towards the production of information and knowledge. For the last 30 years, the assumption in the Labour party has been that whether ownership is public or private no longer matters. It was thought that utilities and public services delivered through the private sector could still be regulated effectively in the public interest. Nationalisation in the 1990s was rejected by Labour because it was believed to be too costly to bring major public utilities like water, gas or rail back into public ownership. Yet it is clear that since 1997, public opinion has become more hostile towards private ownership of the utilities, especially rail. Previous assumptions ought to be interrogated: many privatised industries in the UK are natural monopolies; the privatisations of the 1980s and 1990s have been detrimental both to consumer welfare and economic efficiency.

None of this ignores the fact that Labour is still some way from winning a parliamentary majority at a general election. The party has made significant progress since 2015; but to defeat the Conservatives Labour has to be capable of winning seats throughout Britain. It is not enough merely to rouse already committed supporters: the party has to be capable of reaching out to ‘non-Labour Britain’ where there is little tribal affiliation with the Labour party. It is clear from the election campaign and the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London that national security is likely to remain a major issue in British politics. Offering voters social justice without addressing their basic concerns about physical insecurity in a world of borderless crime and terrorist threats is a recipe for future defeat. To help the most vulnerable and marginalised in Britain, Labour has to be a party of power rather than a pressure group of social protest.

‘To defeat the Conservatives, Labour has to be capable of winning seats throughout Britain’

Corbyn has spectacularly demolished Theresa May’s hopes of securing a decisive Tory majority. The ‘moderates’ in the Labour party will have made a grave error if they dismiss Corbyn’s approach to strategy and policy as outdated and destined to end in failure. Yet it remains doubtful as to whether as things stand Corbyn has an electoral or governing project that can end the latest phase of Conservative hegemony in British politics. That is the next crucial task of revitalisation for the British centre-left.

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The importance of the advice sector in the context of legal aid cuts

Originally published by PolicyBristol on the 19th June 2017.

Dr. Sarah Moore

The PolicyBristol blog has the pleasure of welcoming this guest post by Dr Sarah Moore, who was one of the participants in the recent book launch of Advising in Austerity. Reflections on challenging times for advice agencies (Policy Press, 2017). Dr Moore is also the co-author of Legal aid in crisis. Assessing the impact of reform (Policy Press, 2017) and offers here her insightful views on the need to boost the activities and funding of the legal advice sector.

Anyone familiar with legal aid reform will know that the Legal Aid and Sentencing of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) has dramatically altered the meaning and nature of legal aid. It has meant, amongst other things, a significant reduction in funding, largely achieved by taking a large number of areas of civil law out of scope, including private family law cases, and almost all cases involving social welfare, housing, medical negligence, immigration, debt, and employment.

The most strenuous critics of LASPO have pointed out that the recent funding cuts restrict people’s access to justice. In answering to these problems, LASPO incorporated a set of exceptions. Those who could provide evidence that they had been victims of domestic violence, for example, were to be given access to legal aid to pursue family law cases. And an Exceptional Case Funding caveat was incorporated in the Act for those who could successfully make a case that their human rights would be breached without publicly-funded legal assistance. Both have been woefully inadequate.

Research led by Rights of Women indicates that, even after the government relaxed the rules on domestic violence evidence and legal aid eligibility, a significant proportion of female victims (38% in their 2014 survey) did not have the mandatory evidence to receive publically-funded support. And the Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) scheme has been a disaster by anyone’s standards. In the first year post-LASPO, the Legal Aid Agency received only 1,520 applications for ECF. According to the Public Accounts Committee, only 69 were granted funding. That is far, far fewer than the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency had predicted in the post-LASPO period. Applications have picked up in the last year, as has the acceptance rate, but the fact remains that this safety net is sorely under-used.

Assessing the impact of LASPO

In assessing the impact of LASPO, academics and policy-makers have tended to focus on the impact of reform on the courtroom and litigation. There is certainly much to talk about here. Funding for civil representation and litigation now stands at about two-thirds of its pre-LASPO level, and this has led, amongst other things, to a steep rise in people representing themselves in the courtroom, so-called litigants in person.

All this has been well-documented, not least of all by Trinder et al’s (2014) excellent review of the difficulties faced by litigants in person in family law courts. What has received less attention is the steep decrease in funding for legal advice, with government funding for this form of support now at around one third of its pre-LASPO level. That is a staggeringly sharp decline in a four year period, one that even took the Legal Aid Agency and Ministry of Justice by surprise. This cut to funding has led to a radical change in the landscape of legal advice by prompting the closure of Law Centres, solicitors’ firms where legal aid was previously bread-and-butter work, and, of course, organisations in the advice sector.

The role of the advice sector post-LASPO

What does all this mean for the advice sector, and how might we start to think about the distinctive value of these organisations in a post-LASPO world? For one thing, the steep decline in state funding for legal advice has had the dual-effect of decreasing advice agencies’ budgets and increasing the unmet need for sources of support. And, as mentioned earlier, legal advice has been particularly hit by the cuts, making need for this support especially acute. It is therefore no surprise that, post-LASPO, the advice sector has played a crucial role in plugging the gap in legal support, even whilst it has undergone its own funding struggles.

The value of the advice sector post-LASPO also lies in its role in signposting people to exceptional case funding and, where capacity allows, supporting people in making applications. If LASPO’s exceptions and special provisions are to work, there needs to be support for people to make an application — people, it bears repeating, who are particularly vulnerable and ill-equipped for legal dispute. This lack of support is the principle reason for the failure of the Exceptional Case Funding caveat, and, as a set of organisations that tend already to have contact with the most vulnerable members of our society, the advice sector is potentially key to improving the take-up of this funding and thereby providing access to justice.

Lastly, the advice sector has a valuable role to play in improving public knowledge about eligibility rules for legal aid. Year on year post-LASPO, there has been a drop in casework for civil legal aid work. That downward spiral is not due to a decline in need. It reflects, amongst other things, the public’s understandable confusion about eligibility, and the presumption that legal aid no longer exists — that, at least, is the explanation offered by the House of Commons Justice Committee. And, again, as the advice sector necessarily plays a key role here in informing the public about what is available.

Advice as access to justice

The advice sector can play a really important role, then, in mitigating the effect of LASPO and making real its promise to offer a safety net. It can only do that with proper funding and support, and that requires a major shift in public debate so that the role of advice in ensuring access to justice is recognised. Herein lies a major challenge for the advice sector. Advising people on legal matters (or matters that have a legal dimension) is crucial work; it is also poorly-understood (in academic and policy terms) and relatively neglected in mainstream media coverage of legal aid cuts. This is despite the fact that public need for advice is growing as we enter a seventh year of ‘austerity’.

As we restrict people’s access to state services and welfare, people’s legal needs become more multifaceted and interwoven with social and psychological problems, as the accounts in Advising in Austerity (Kirwan, 2017) so neatly illustrate. The young woman seeking advice on an illegal eviction may also be managing a cut to her benefits, her employment may have become more erratic, and the public services in her local area may have deteriorated. This is what austerity means ‘in the round’, and it is just such a holistic conception of need that the advice sector is well-able to attend to, with its distinctive ability to provide advice on legal matters and information about broader social services. And, of course, in doing this important work, advice agencies do more than simply fill an information gap; they help explain official rules and decisions, often to people who are especially prone to feeling like they’ve been left behind and let down by social authorities. This, too, is what access to justice looks like. Making this case is all the more important in a post-LASPO era.

This blog post was first published in the Bristol Law School blog.

Legal aid in crisis [FC]Legal aid in crisis by Sarah Moore and Alex Newbury is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for £10.39

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Of and for society: Thinking the prosocial

What would it take to make society better? Rowland Atkinson, Lisa McKenzie and Simon Winlow, co-editors of the new book Building better societies, discuss some of the obstacles we face in trying to improve society. 

Rowland Atkinson

Lisa McKenzie

Simon Winlow

Social researchers spend so much time investigating the problems of inequality, crime, poverty and ill-health that they rarely have time to step outside these painful realities to engage in the kinds of utopian, creative and counter-intuitive thinking that can change entire academic fields.

We are encouraged, more than ever before, to be ‘policy relevant’, and the space and time needed to identify new and imaginative routes forward is diminishing with every passing year.

Many of us act in ways that are self-disciplining, if not self-defeating. We make careful pre-judgements about who will listen to us, and this often prevents us from making proposals or running ideas that might make the world – dare we say it – a better place. Given the sheer scale of the problems we face today – unparalleled inequality, ecological crisis and deep economic and political uncertainty – the role, and perhaps the duty, of social researchers is to draw on their evidence and intervene effectively in helping social conversations about the issues that really matter.

Continue reading ‘Of and for society: Thinking the prosocial’

Celebrating 25 years of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice with a FREE anniversary article collection

In celebration of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice’s 25th anniversary, editors Rod Hick and Gill Main reflect on the achievements of the journal and release a selection of articles free to download for the remainder of 2017. 

Rod Hick

Gill Main

This April marked the 25th anniversary of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice.

Since its inception in the early 1990s, the academic, policy and practice communities have seen drastic changes – but the issues addressed by the journal have remained all too relevant.

Poverty and social justice remain at the forefront of academic and policy debate – both nationally and internationally.

Over the last decade, the global financial crisis has raised major debates about the nature of poverty and social justice. Many governments continue to pursue austerity agendas which have produced rising poverty rates, and to promote interpretations of social justice which are often in conflict with academic approaches.

Continue reading ‘Celebrating 25 years of the Journal of Poverty and Social Justice with a FREE anniversary article collection’

The perversity in planning

Adam Sheppard, co-author of The essential guide to planning law, discusses planning policy and, in particular, the Prior Approval system and how this affects the delivery of homes in our communities. 

Adam Sheppard

“Planning is attempting to achieve things. It is trying to make things better.

Planning policy, from the national to the local to the neighbourhood is geared around enabling and realising improvement and forward progress. The regulatory decision making construct then provides the system to support the realisation and manifestation of these aspiration. Why then, is planning today steeped in perversity which serves to undermine it?

There is a specific example here that illustrates this point. This involves the Prior Approval approach – in brief, if something needs oversight because of a potential impact a full planning application is required and approval (hopefully) comes via a Planning Permission from the Local Planning Authority, whereas more minor matters can proceed with the benefit of ‘Permitted Development Rights’ and no such approval is required.

Continue reading ‘The perversity in planning’

Advising in Austerity

Originally published on the Policy Bristol blog on 26 April 2017.

Ben Crawford

Professor Morag McDermont

Research led by Prof Morag McDermont of University of Bristol Law School has explored the ways in which advice organisations such as Citizens Advice (CA) have become key actors in legal arenas, particularly for citizens who face the most disadvantage in upholding their rights.

Findings from a four year study in partnership with Strathclyde University, highlight the importance of free-to-access advice in enabling people to tackle problems and engage with the legal and regulatory frameworks that govern their lives.

The advice sector, however, is under threat, as a new book Advising in Austerity: Reflections on challenging times for advice agencies (edited by Samuel Kirwan and published by Policy Press ) demonstrates. The book, co-written by the research team and advisers in the field, highlights both the possibilities and the challenges for an advice sector that largely relies on volunteers to provide a vital interface between citizens and the everyday problems of debt, health, employment and much more.

Continue reading ‘Advising in Austerity’

Academic Work, Fast and Slow

Should academics strive to be ‘fast’ or ‘slow’? Helen Kara, author of Research and evaluation for busy students and practitioners, argues that there is not one, clear answer. 

Helen Kara

In recent years there has been an increasingly heated debate, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, about whether academia is – or should be – ‘fast’ or ‘slow’.

This is linked to other discourses about speed such as Slow Food and Slow Cities.

Some commentators aver that the pace of life in academia is speeding up because of managerialism, the REF and its equivalents in other countries, and the ensuing pressure to conduct and publish interesting research with significant results. All of this, in addition to the increasing casualisation of employment in academia, and the increasing speed of digital communication, has led to toxic working conditions that cause academics to have breakdowns and burn out.

This doesn’t only affect academics, but also non-academics doing academic work such as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Also, to some academics’ surprise, this doesn’t only apply in academia, but also in the public sector more widely, and parts of the private sector too. Perhaps this is because, as the saying goes, the speed of change is faster than it’s ever been before, yet it will never be this slow again.

Continue reading ‘Academic Work, Fast and Slow’


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