Why the left shouldn’t defend Cuba

 Peter Bolton

Heroes of the Left? Image © a-birdie

Since the 1959 communist revolution in Cuba, several left-wing commentators have spoken favorably about the Castro regime. In the world of entertainment, for instance, Oliver Stone, Sean Penn and Michael Moore have all made gestures of praise toward the island’s political leadership. Moore’s 2007 film Sicko showered praise onto the Cuban healthcare system while both Penn and Stone have commended the Castro regime and visited the island to meet with Communist Party officials, in Stone’s case to research for a documentary film.

Details of Cuba’s authoritarianism have come back into the public consciousness recently following news reports about the decision by Raul Castro to liberalize the island’s property laws. The move might be taken by some to be evidence of the regime’s reform-minded tendencies but though the policy changes are to be welcomed, reading the details about the plight of the Cuban people shows how misguided it is to defend Cuba as a bastion and exemplar of left-wing ideas.

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The electoral reform referendum is long overdue

Though it is still early days regarding what the outcome of the referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons will be, there are already signs that the pro lobby will be disappointed. A YouGov poll early this month reported that 43 per cent of those surveyed would vote to keep the first-past-the-post system and only 32 per cent would vote for change to an Alternative Vote system. Meanwhile, Andy Burham, Labour’s election coordinator, stated in an interview that the sole priority of his party next May will be the Scottish, Welsh and local elections set to take place on the same day.

The Liberal Democrats may or may not get their way with the proposed change in the electoral system. Whatever the outcome, however, a referendum on electoral reform in the UK is long over due and it is perhaps the greatest failing of the previous Labour governments not to have acted.

What is most disappointing about Labour’s failure in this area is that they had amble opportunity to act and a clear mandate to do so. If we travel back to December 1997, the Labour government was fresh in power following a landslide election victory. As one of their first acts they established the Independent Commission on the Voting System, popularly known as the Jenkins Commission after its chairman Roy Jenkins, the great social reformer and Home Secretary under Harold Wilson’s administration in the mid-1960s. Its establishment, supported by the Liberal Democrats, was the fulfillment of a 1997 manifesto pledge. It stated:

We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system.

The commission was instructed to take proportionality, the need for stable government, extension of voter choice and geographical links between MPs and voters into account. When it reported its findings in 1998 it proposed an AV+ system, a form of Additional Member System where there are both constituency contests and a party list. The party list is used to ‘top-up’ the constituency MPs in a way that makes the member allocation proportional to the votes cast for each party.

A similar Additional Member System had already showed promise in the German Bundestag and in the majority of Germany’s State legislatures. Furthermore, later into Labour’s rule the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly were established and were quick to adopt AMS.

The main criticism of the proposed system was that it can to lead to an increased tendency towards hung parliaments rather than stable one-party government and hence the need for coalition governments. Skeptics were quick to point out that at least the FPTP system has created strong single party governments. This reservation, however, has been exploded by the outcome of the last general election and it hardly needs to be said that this advantage can no longer be claimed for the current set-up.

By the time of the 2001 election, no referendum had been held. Most contemptible about the Labour’s stalling on this issue was that it continued to posture that it was going to make a move on reform, yet continued to place the issue at the back of the shelf. Their 2001 manifest stated:

The government has introduced major innovations in the electoral systems used in the UK – for the devolved administrations, the European Parliament and the London Assembly. The (Jenkins) Commission on the Voting System made proposals for electoral reform at Westminster. We will review the experience of the new systems and the Jenkins Report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons. A referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster.

By 2005, nothing had been done. The Labour leadership had by this point realized that its Party was now the chief beneficiary of the status quo due to demographics and the distribution of constituencies. Rather than stand by its promise, reference to the report was cynically dropped from the 2005 manifesto and its statement on the issue was cowardly hyperbole:

Labour is committed to reviewing the experience of the new electoral systems – introduced for the devolved administrations, the European Parliament and the London Assembly. A referendum remains the right way to agree any change for Westminster.

By 2010, Labour’s pledge was to hold a referendum on an Alternate Vote system (the very system being proposed in May’s election which only real change consists of casting multiple ballots to ensure 50% of votes go the winner). The manifesto stated:

To ensure that every MP is supported by the majority of their constituents voting at each election, we will hold a referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons.

Jenkins was one of the great reformers of recent history and there was certainly no better person to head the commission. There can be little doubt that the question was well-researched and the recommendations fair. The reaction of the Labour administrations to its findings was one of the unfortunate tendencies of their behaviour: establishing independent bodies to investigate an issue, then ignoring them if the leadership didn’t like the suggestions. The same situation transpired when Prof. David Nutt, a university academic and psychiatrist, was appointed to head an independent commission on narcotics classifications. When the body presented some findings and recommendations that weren’t to the liking of the government, Prof. Nutt was dismissed. Rather than have the courage to go by evidence, reason and neutrality, the government in the case of Nutt and the Jenkins Commission backed down if the consequences were politically disadvantageous.

The British public will have a choice next May on whether the House of Commons should adopt AV – a minor change that won’t address the underlying lack of proportionality in the current system. The change is so trivial it is hardly worthy of a referendum. What the British people deserve is a referendum on the original proposal from the Jenkins Commission that was a promise Labour made but failed to keep.

Don’t forget New Labour’s achievements

A guest post by Peter Bolton

The news has recently been rife with reports of the new, moderate and even left-leaning proposals of the coalition government.

We are still in the midst of the coalition government’s honeymoon period and as such there is a natural, collective, almost subconscious feeling that the Blair/Brown years were a disappointment. The Tories obviously make their feelings on this clear enough and the new Labour leader has sought to distance himself to some extent from his party’s previous administrations – in part due our political culture’s constant tendency towards the image of renewal and regeneration.

It might be too easy at this point then to forget the gains of Labour under Blair and Brown. Certainly, this is natural enough: 1997 was a long time ago and governments always tend to fall out of favour with the public after long periods in power. After all, the gap between expectation and achievable outcome will never be filled no matter how successful or popular a government might be: it’s a defining feature of human nature that there is an intrinsic clash between what we expect and what is realistically achievable through a difficult and complex arena such as politics.

With this in mind we would be well advised not to take for granted all of their achievements no matter how disappointed we might be.

Let us look back to 1997: it was quite a different country and Britain was behind the rest of the world in number of important areas. For instance in 1995 the majority of European nations had a minimum wage including not just countries such as France, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands but also less developed countries including Romania, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Malta. Britain remained one of the few without one until it was instituted a year after Blair’s election victory. Even the United States, the UK’s partner in neo-liberalism, instituted its minimum wage in the 1930s.

It is also easy to forget the social progress that has been made since 1997. Take, for example, the gains in social legislation. It was the Blair government that in 2000 lifted the ban on gays serving in the military, in 2005 legalized civil partnerships for same-sex couples and in 2004 passed the law allowing transgender people to change their legal gender. Perhaps most symbolic, if not salient, was the decision to revoke Section 28 in 2003 – a highly controversial policy instituted by the Thatcher government in 1988 disallowing the promotion of homosexuality or “the teaching in any maintained school of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

Workplace discrimination law was also strengthened by the Labour governments of these years. For instance, 2003 saw the introduction of the Employment Equality Regulations statute which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of actual or perceived sexual orientation, religious beliefs or lack of belief, or age. Similarly the statue outlawing less preferential treatment of part-time workers, which disallows employers to pay part-time worker less than full-time workers who perform the same job, was not made law until 2000.

Thankfully, the modern Conservative Party is not seeking to undo many of the progressive changes of the Blair/Brown years and perhaps the greatest achievement of these years was to draw the political centre of gravity to the left and end the possibility of Conservative Party attempts to backtrack. In fact, thanks to this shift the Conservatives have been forced to adopt policy ideas from the left in areas such as the environment, animal welfare, taxation and, of course, social policy. David Cameron, for instance, finally apologized for his party’s position on Section 28 in 2009, describing the policy as “offensive to gay people”. Their website includes policy pledges including promises to “promote equal pay and take a range of measures to end discrimination in the workplace”, “use our relationships with other countries to push for unequivocal support for gay rights and for UK civil partnerships to be recognised internationally” and “promote improved community relations and opportunities for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.”

In many ways this reaction of the Cameron government of tacitly accepting the virtues of policy changes of the Blair/Brown years mirrors the approach of previous Tory governments to the Labour Party’s greatest achievement, the establishment of the National Health Service: not one has dared to suggest abolition since its inception.

The Conservative Party may now want to posture itself as a progressive and forward-thinking party, but we must not forget that it had over a decade and half to make legislative change on these issues under Thatcher and Major, yet consistently failed to do so. For all of its rhetoric about “big society” and “cleaning up Britain” we can’t forget what the Conservative Party did do and failed to do when it had the power to.


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