I again breach my self-imposed ban on blogging about local politics to put my political opponents on the couch. How do people who sincerely care about social justice wind up opposing spending to protect the homeless?
“Self-licensing…is a term used in social psychology and marketing to describe the subconscious phenomenon whereby increased confidence and security in one’s self-image…tends to make that individual worry less about the consequences of subsequent immoral behavior …..[For example] research…showed that an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election made his supporters more likely to express views that favored Whites at the expense of African- Americans. Essentially, the endorsement made people feel like they had shown that they were not biased, giving them a license to subsequently express prejudicial and racially problematic views.”
A couple of years back when I was proposing the opposition budget amendment, I accused the ruling Labour group of being “so infatuated with its socialist convictions that it can’t see when it fails on social justice.” In all honesty, I hadn’t given it much thought. It was mainly just a piece of rhetoric that like the rest of that speech I quickly forgot. However, it came back to me during last week’s budget debate and by the end I believed it captured something quite profound about Oxford Labour’s flaws.
Their councillors spent an inordinate proportion of that debate congratulating themselves on how their budget was “socialism in action.” They also disdainfully dismissed a Lib Dem amendment that would have seen city council funds used to fill a small part in the gap for funding for homelessness shelters left by cuts from the County Council.
We issued a press release – which I wrote – pointing out that Labour had been angrily denouncing these cuts and expressing alarm about their impact. So it seemed to us unreasonable of them to reject a practical step to mitigate their damage.
This produced an angry counter-attack from Labour that seemed to show they were genuinely unable to comprehend how anyone might think that good socialists like themselves had slipped up on this issue. As the Oxford Student reported:
Aled Jones, a second-year Law student at Corpus Christi who will run for Labour against Vila in May’s council elections, said: “What the Lib Dems are saying is completely unfounded and purely an attempt to play politics with a serious issue.
“The City Council can’t send a message that it will pick up the slack when the County cuts vital services, as it also faces financial constraints imposed by this Tory/Lib Dem government.
“The Lib Dems should be directing their time and energy into opposing the Tories at the County Council, who are actually making the cuts, instead of attempts to smear Labour with baseless attacks regarding homelessness provision,” he added.
Labour councillor Ed Turner said: “The truth is the City Council grant has been reduced by 47 per cent yet we are going to maintain every penny going towards homeless services instead of cutting in proportion to the government budget. It’s the Conservative County Council that isn’t doing their bitl.”
We were most certainly not ‘playing politics’ with this issue. That phrase implies using an issue in a calculated way, and I can assure you that’s not we did. We did not put the extra grant money in our amendment, so we could pounce on Labour for opposing it. This plan wouldn’t have occurred to me because my assumption was that Labour would include something similar in their budget. My writing the press release was not the culmination of some political ploy. It was a product of the fact that at 2am the night after the budget debate I was still too angry to sleep. As what I’ve already written has probably made clear I found the dissonance between Labour’s boasting and their actions infuriating. And I found the grounds for it feeble.
We had the Cabinet member for Housing claim our amendment was a distraction from protesting against the cuts made by the County: this despite the fact that his Labour colleagues on the County Council had neglected to try and reverse or reduce these cuts in their own budget amendment the previous day.
We also had the strange argument that “City Council can’t send a message that it will pick up the slack when the County cuts vital services.” The implication seems to be that using City money to plug gaps left by the County will encourage further cuts. Now this seems to me to be coming far closer to playing politics with homelessness than anything we did. It is using ‘vital services’ as chips in a poker game with the Conservatives at County Hall. And it doesn’t even work because the Tories are calling Labour’s bluff. For the past two years we’ve seen the City Council budget but refuse to spend money for transport the disabled and elderly. Labour’s idea seemed to be that this refusal would pressurise the County into stumping up more money. Well it hasn’t. So we’ve wound up with a staring contest that is dragging on and which only service users are losing. I am genuinely bemused why this failed principle is being extended.
And finally we had the default Labour position: blame the coalition. I’ll readily admit that the government has made many mistakes – as all governments do. However, Labour party members often speak as if their own party is proposing to reverse or at least significantly ameliorate the cuts. In fact, nationally Labour has generally shied away from proposing much of an alternative at all. The changes they DO propose are generally pretty marginal. For example, reversing the cut in the 50p tax rate would raise only a fraction of the money needed to reverse the bedroom tax. Yet it is mentioned by local Labour figures with a regularity that suggests it would make a profound fiscal difference. They need to face up to the fact that the position we are in now, is much the same position we would be in if we had a Labour government.
Labour’s excuses don’t stack up. And the tragedy is I’m sure that if they saw other people acting the way they are, they would realise the problem. They are clearly sincere about wanting to help the vulnerable and I’m sure would normally be unprepared to compromise that objective to make a point. Yet I fear that their oft-expressed socialism and angry denunciations of the coalitions have given them the ‘licence’ to become complacent about the issue they care about most of all.
This is not to excuse them though. One should be on guard for the flaws in one’s thinking and try to counter them. Whatever the reason, Oxford Labour has found itself in the position of denouncing the Tories for the amount they proposed to spend on the homeless and then proposed spending exactly the same amount themselves. Nonetheless, it does illustrate why all of us need to weary of ‘self-licencing.’