Friday, August 31, 2007

 

Fat Cats are Unhealthy for Society



Giles Thorley, boss of pub firm Punch Taverns, is the kind of guy his employees might expect to stand them a pint should he ever meet them in one of his own pubs. Why? Because he earns 1,148 times the average salary of employees in his company. His total remuneration per annum? A wallet filling little matter of £11, 276,000. However, Bart Brecht, boss of cleaning fluids giant, Reckitt Benckiser, can top that with his island buying salary of £22.1 million.

Adding insult to this injury to the notion of fair pay or fairness of any kind for that matter, comes an article by Peter Newhouse, self styled 'independent consultant' on pay and performance management, who confidently assures us that:


The disclosure of executive directors' pay is good for society. Rather than being a cause for hand-wringing and envy, the Guardian pay survey's revelations of what our best managers can earn from running the UK's biggest listed companies should encourage others to follow in their footsteps. The survey found that directors' pay at the 100 largest such firms has risen by 37%, with the average chief executive receiving £2.9m, including salary, benefits, bonuses and gains from share incentive schemes. These figures send an important message to able and aspirational young people.

He goes on to assure us that if we don't pay them enough, the 'most talented managers' will swan off to other climes where there talents are appreciated. I have a problem with this.

1. Mr Newhouse, s happy to let salaries rip, let the market have its head. But where will the limits extend? 2000 times average salaries? 10,000 times? 1 million?

2. Huge inequalities in society are bad for them, fostering resentment, crime, disharmony. Moreover, for one person to receive so much more than his peers is surely unjust and morally repellent?

3. There is no evidence that our managers are so good that they would in any case be snapped up by firms abroad, just itching tom hand out those keys to chief executives' loos in the EU, USA or indeed anywhere else.

Professor John Van Reenen, director of the Centre for Economic Performance, and the co-author of a recent study into management practices at 4,000 companies, was critical of UK management and questioned whether British executives could cut it overseas if they became disenchanted with pay levels in Britain.

"UK management is not in the premier league. Management aspires to pay as well as the US, but our study finds that average management quality in the US far outstrips that in the UK. Only one in every 50 American firms in our sample can be described as 'very badly managed', compared with roughly 1 in 12 in the UK.


Like so many things the mega rich say about themselves, they give the rest of us a load of bullshit about their abilities and value for money when the rest of the world's companies would not give them the time of day. Shareholders must be given more power to challenge these ridiculous salaries and bring them back into the land of the sensible. JP Morgan, the legendary US financier, reckoned no chief executive should earn more than 20 times the salary of his average employee. How today's fat cats would scoff at that.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

 

Cameron Retreats to his Comfort Zone


I can't help but agree with Seumas Milne today that Cameron is clearly shifting rapidly to the right. It happened with Hague, with IDS and with Howard- all of whom knew they had to move into the centre to win votes-who all moved back towards the sainted tenets of Maggie, once the polls showed voters' credibility was being strained by the notion of 'compassionate Conservatism'.

Cameron has painted himself as a politician of the centre ground but only two years ago he wrote Michael Howard's manifesto emphasising immigration disguised within the cleverly insidious slogan:'Are you thinking what we're thinking?'. So we now see the pattern being repeated: Tories fear their core vote is beginning to crumble and so shift right to shore it up. Cameron must know this is directly opposite in the direction in which he must move to have any chance of winning power. But Gordon's bounce has unnerved them and Cameron is playing the immigration card.

To some extent I sympathize with those red in tooth and claw Conservatives. They must feel rather as I would as a Labour supporter if the government announced it was going to abolish the NHS: what would be the point of belonging to a party which was ripping up the key elements of its central beliefs? Cameron's problem is that he might have seen the need to change, but he is probably in a small minority. Milne quotes a 'veteran Blairite':

"His[Cameron's] instinct is right, but he's on his own, there's only a few of them committed to his project."

The other practical political point in Cameron's defence is that he cannot continue with his re-education of his troops from the disadvantage of a poll deficit. Blair enjoyed- probably thanks to Major's 'sleaze'- a healthy poll lead during his 'conversion' of his party to 'New' Labour and this bolstered the faith of the mainstream party, whilst restraining the ire of his Old Labour opponents.

I have always genuinely welcomed the Tory conversion to the centre ground-while deeply suspecting its validity-and just hope Cameron is 'feinting' to the right to recoup support lost to his right and that with unity restored, he will continue down the only road leading to electoral success for his party.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

 

Stalin's Legacy Still Haunts Russia


Since writing a book on Stalin's Russia(way back in the seventies) I have always had a horrified fascination with how that monster ran his country. The show trials, for example, in the thirties, displayed a procession of dedicated old Bolsheviks standing up in court and admitting to plotting to kill Stalin or being in the pay of foreign security services. It was all rubbish, of course, but credulous fellow travellers in the west believed them: in researching my book I met a few, including the brilliant QC, later independent MP, DN Pritt who thought the trials were perfectly genuine.

The killing of Anna Politskovskaya, a brave and talented journalist who campaigned against Putin's conduct of the war in Chechenya, was one of the most depressing 'Stalinist' things to come out of Russia in recent years. Like Veronica Guerin, who annoyed Dublin gangsters, Anna annoyed some equally ruthless people. They possibly included the present security services or possibly Putin himself but the money now appears to be on the pro-Russian Chechen government.

We hear that 10 people have now been arrested for her murder but the chief prosecutor, Yuri Chaika, has flatly stated that:'The person who ordered the killing is abroad.' This is fairly clear code for Boris Beresovsky, the oligarch who fled to Britain after falling out with Putin and whose closeness to Litvinenko, is thought to have provided a motive for the latter's ingenious execution. So it's all a conspiracy fomented by Boris or MI5 and the CIA.

What further confirmation do we need to conclude that under Putin, Russia has lurched back half a century in political methodology? And those ten arrestees? I'd not be surprised if they turned out to be people whom the government suspects of not being exactly 100% loyal to the man with the well toned torso who now sits in the seat originally occupied by the brooding, paranoid Uncle Joe.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

 

Gordon's Dilemma Over Penal Policy


I have a builder friend whom I remember reacting to the two Bulger killers-themselves children- with the injunction: 'Top 'em both!' I've also faced similar attitudes from my large current affairs class containing mostly mature graduates. So the poll in today's Guardian on attitudes to prison came as something of a revelation. I had assumed that most of the population were gung ho for retribution, for locking em up and throwing away the key, even for bringing back the birch. Such attitudes are understandable, of course: anyone just mugged, robbed or attacked would like to see the perpetrators suffer way more than the hurt they have inflicted. But the gut feeling reaction won't help, of course.

The facts are undeniable as Polly Toynbee reminds us this morning: 80% of offenders re-offend within two years and cost £42,000 a year to keep inside. Prison really does not work. Today's poll suggests that the message has finally got through with 51% now saying alternative ways to prison should be sought to deter crime and 46% in favour of building more of the same. Meanwhile 49% agree that 'it turns people into professional criminals who then commit more crime' and only 42% believe prison 'deters others'.

There is a strange paradox at the heart of law and order policy it has always seemed to me: government knows from all its research and internal reports that draconian penal policy doesn't work but feels it has to respond to society's gut feelings- often inflamed by tabloid rhetoric in the wake of monstrous crimes like the killing of James Bulger and now Rhys Jones. That visceral desire for revenge is something we all understand and it is inevitable that politicians, seeking power, will exploit it. Tony Blair succumbed to it, to a degree, with his 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' mantra and it did him and Labour quite a bit of good.

Initially David Cameron was in favour of understanding vulnerable youth offenders but suddenly we see a knee-jerk swing to the right with his 'broken society' analysis. Result? Conservatives head Labour on law and order. Gordon Brown's attitudes to penal policy are not clear and it will be interesting to see how he moves to win back the advantage. As a rational person who studies the facts he will know prison doesn't work but as politician he will know that the desire for retribution works all too well politically.

Will he accept that with falling crime figures a doubling of prison numbers over the past decade does not make sense? Or will he push the 'lock 'em up' button to win back votes for his second term? Confucious said that 'if you look for revenge, then dig two graves'; wreaking revenge on wrong doers ultimately hurts society as much as it hurts the offenders. Maybe the heart of the problem is that, while prison does not work, it's the only answer, for the time being, of which we know. If Gordon can come up with a genuine answer to the conumdrum, he deserves not one but several extra terms.

Monday, August 27, 2007

 

Criminal Irresponsibility of Banks Should be Made Accountable

Some topics seem so confusing that it's easy to avoid trying to understand them; this frequently applies to me in relation to economic items. The recent plunge in the stock markets did not affect me as I do not own a single share directly but I was vaguely aware that it was a lot to do with 'sub prime' mortgages(ie loaned to the poor) in the USA. It's a measure of our globalised world that the problems of poor Americans have in repaying debts on their homes can end up wiping hundreds of billions off share values, but this indeed seems to be the case.

The above graph indicates how large the share in mortgages the sub prime sector has become. It seems the British fetish for home ownership has spread to the US big-time, with the major loan company Countrywide,and others, lending to virtually anyone with a vague yearning for bricks and mortar, irrespective of their ability to pay. Should this have sparked any fall in shares worldwide? Yesterday Will Hutton explained and complained in a fashion I (at least thought) could understand:

The nonsense at the heart of the crisis - lending 100 per cent mortgages to borrowers with no income, employment or assets, packaging up the resulting debt and selling it to banks around the globe while taking a handsome fee on every transaction - can be launched with impunity. Financial regulation, we are told, hinders the efficiency of financial markets.

Hutton blasts the companies that lent so recklessly, insisting they should have gone bust, as they deserved, together with the hedge funds which bought the debt and traded it on the global market. He suggests governments:

'should bring suits against the executives involved, the repositories of vast personal wealth, to help repair the hole in private and public balance sheets.'

Instead though, governments throughout the west have pledged huge sums of public money to staunch the outflow of confidence in the system. Hutton concedes that mending a system built on credit might be the first priority but, once done, the need for care regarding future terms of borrowing should be addressed. But this has not happened; rather, the European Central Bank has made hundreds of billions of euros available with no penalty while the US 'Fed' has actually lowered the interest rates allowed for banks in difficulties.

It is as though Europe and America had announced an amnesty to the world's criminal gangs after they had gone on a killing spree because they feared the killing would get worse.

The Bank of England, at least, has not made borrowing any easier but, while France and Germany have called for transparency and maybe regulation to prevent repetition of such irresponsibility, Gordon Brown's Labour government, founded in a movement dedicated to hounding international financiers, has uttered 'not one peep'. Labour, it seems, is terrified of appearing 'anti-business'; the Conservatives are sure they are not; and the Lib Dems scared to do anything lest they provoke a fatal hostility to their fledgling chances of power. Hutton gloomily concludes:

The Americans at least take capitalism so seriously they challenge, monitor and regulate it. No such culture exists in degenerate Britain.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

 

'Special Relationship' less Important to Brown than Winning Another Term


Styker McGuire, London based Newsweek bureau chief, warns Gordon Brown today that his honeymoon is threatened by a looming decision over involvement in Iraq. According to well informed intelligence, which he cites, it seems we are on the rack in Basra and basically 'losing' the fight. Brown will soon face a major dilemma says McGuire, whether to stay in Iraq and accept the long haul or to watch the 'special relationship' wither and possibly die.

Blair's inner circle thinks Brown's special-relationship balancing act is a ramshackle intellectual construct doomed to failure - or 'tripe', as one of them put it to me. You can't pick and choose when to be close or not close to America, the Blairites would argue.

He goes on to suggest Brownites would have the ready answer that Wilson refused LBJ troops for Vietnam and, it might be added Thatcher refused to write a blank cheque to Ronnie on the alliance either. Seems to me the choice is unlikely to be so stark; Brown will continue to wind down British involvement, while emphasising his pro US credentials as a good ally in Afghanistan, and will just loiter in the background for a while, as he did so often during Blair's time in power.

And if he has to choose between the US alliance and a renewed term in office, I reckon-just as the Germans and the French have done in the past- he'll happily stick up two fingers to the White House. A period when the Americans are forced to recognise the true political value of their European cousins, might in any case prove salutary for them.

Friday, August 24, 2007

 

Just in case You'd Stopped Worrying...



The weather up here in the north-west has been fabulous and I enjoyed a wonderful hike yesterday in the Macclesfield Forest. So it was deflating, when buoyed up by views of such a beautiful and bountiful world, to read this morning that :

The world will face a new deadly threat on the scale of Aids, Sars and Ebola within a decade, the world's leading authority on health said yesterday, as it warned that diseases were spreading more quickly than at any time in history.

My baby boomer mates and I have long smugly discussed in the pub how fortunate our generation has been- no real wars or even national service, material plenty and low unemployment, free love in the 60's and 70s and cheap air-travel around the world- but now our complacency, it seems, must give way to yet another anxiety. It addition to terrorism, global warming, super-power war making, a pension crisis and widening global inequality, we have to contend with an exponential increase in new diseases.

Forty diseases, unknown a generation ago, now stalk the planet and the recent WHO report discloses that over the past five years there have been over a thousand epidemics. Looking forward, we can expect more involving cholera, SARs, Ebola, small pox and avian flu which could affect more than 1.5 billion people, one quarter of the world's population; you've probably already spotted those naughty little e coli delinquents pictured above. Just in case you think all this might be a scaremongering exaggeration, the report adds:

"It would be extremely naive and complacent to assume that there will not be another disease like Aids, another Ebola, or another Sars, sooner or later."

And the solution? International cooperation. Our very own UK Department of Health agrees that this is the best way forward. So that would be the same international cooperation that has sorted out climate change, third world poverty, the Middle East and all those wars we didn't have in the last blood-soaked century? But I look outside my chaotic office and note the sun offering an extension of our mini-late summer and decide to take stroll down to my local Italian restaurant to book a little meal for this evening. The world may be about to implode in all kinds of ways, but we do really have to enjoy those vital simple things in life.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

 

Vietnam Comparison Gives Glimpse into Dubya's Thinking

Oh dear, it seems that much of what has been said regarding George Bush's intellect and learning has been reinforced by his comparison of Iraq with Vietnam. The first point is that George does not seem to have worked out that the USA lost that one; would he have advised Churchill to order his Expeditionary Force, waiting on Dunkirk's beaches to keep on fighting rather than return home? Moreover, to argue 'staying the course' because pulling out of Vietnam produced so much chaos in its wake, seems quixotic to say the least. Much of that chaos had only come about because of the Vietnam war, as The New York Times points out:

Vietnam led to catastrophic consequences in the region, especially in Cambodia,” said David C. Hendrickson, a specialist on the history of American foreign policy at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

“But there are a couple of further points that need weighing,” he added. “One is that the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power in the absence of the war in Vietnam — this dark force arose out of the circumstances of the war, was in a deep sense created by the war. The same thing has happened in the Middle East today. Foreign occupation of Iraq has created far more terrorists than it has deterred.”


A better example of not leaving before stability has been achieved would, perhaps be the British and India in 1947 when over a million died in religious conflict following too rapid an exit. But Bush seems to have decided that if the Iraq War is to be written on his gravestone, he might as well go down fighting, or at least the young men in his military forces might.

Most now predict that in a week or so General Petraeus will submit a positive report on the 'surge' campaign whereby thousands of extra troops were sent in to quell the Baghdad militias. I'm sure I'm not the only one who reckons the Surge will only delay the inevitable of a humiliating US exit from Iraq. In that respect Iraq will indeed resemble Vietnam as in the famous picture above of US personnel being helicoptered off a roof in Saigon.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

 

EU Referendum Issue Not Crucial

It's a fine old mess regarding the EU constitution. Negotiated in Brussells by Blair last June as almost his last act, it has been offered up to British voters as something substantially different to the draft constitution rejected so emphatically by France and Holland in spring 2005. However, seeking to assuage doubts of those who supported the rejected treaty, some heads of state assured their citizens that then new deal was, indeed, up to 90% the same as the old one which did not make it. Blair insisted changes were just minor amendments which did not require any time consuming referendum. Gordon, sensing a very palpable banana skin, agrees.

But it's not that easy.
Firstly Labour promised a referendum on the draft constitution in its 2005 election manifesto'

Secondly there's what Blair said in advance of Brussells:

“You can’t have a . . . rejection of the treaty and then you just bring it back with a few amendments and say we will have another go." Seems like he has done just that.

Thirdly a recent ICM poll showed that 24 per cent of Labour voters say they would be less likely to vote for the party if it's against referendum plus 13 per cent saying they would be more likely to vote Tory if they promised to offer a referendum could increase their likelihood of voting Tory if the Conservatives promised a ballot. If reflected in a general election that could swing the result.

Fouthly opinion leaders have the wind in their sails. William Hague has used all his formidable skills to argue the case and several heavyweight columnists appear to agree with him, most notably Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times.

Whenever I'm really confused about an issue I tend to turn to that wisest of old birds, Peter Riddell of The Times. I would recommend Gordon to as well, if he has any doubts as today's piece would reassure him:

A majority of the British public oppose the treaty. But, apart from a vocal minority, voters do not care that much about Europe as opposed to health, crime and jobs. And past evidence shows that the more the Tories talk about Europe, the more they damage their own chances. Arguments about the EU would complicate an autumn election, not least because the treaty talks are due to be concluded at a heads of government summit in Lisbon on October 18. But whatever the sound and fury of the sceptic press, Mr Brown can probably ride out this issue. The EU will not decide the next election.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

 

Will Heathrow Climate Camp Persuade Us?

Writing in The Guardian George Monbiot believes a 'new political movement' has been born in the Heathrow protest camp. I see two aspects to this:

1. Projecting the Green Message
This is not easy- as I have argued before on this blog, modern society has become addicted to its high carbon emission comforts of food, shopping, cars and cheap flights. While the dire facts detailed in the Stern Report say we have a decade at most to change our ways, denial succeeds in excluding the individual. Rationalisations are employed- 'I'm not dong anything until the US and the rest of the world do' is a popular one along with 'what possible difference can my tiny contribution make to ending the crisis?' Something powerful is needed to break through such self delusion and it hopefully- contrary to cynical predictions- it won't have to be that very disaster which green campaigning is striving to pre-empt.

2. Direct action at Heathrow
The Heathrow climate camp is indeed shaping up to become another Greenham Common without the gender aspect. Claiming that the decision over the runway has already been made, Monbiot states:

So what else do the critics of direct action expect us to do? How else do they suggest we drag this issue out of the shadows and thrust it to the front of the public mind?

He has a point. But it's maybe too early to say what public attitudes will pan out to be on the climate camp. Past experience suggests that once direct action on green issues wins middle class support media led public opinion becomes supportive. Remember how Wilmslow's finest turned out to support Swampy and co. over Manchester's second runway and the animal loving blue rinse brigade did the same over the export of live animals at Brightlingsea? Swampy became a minor celebrity for a while and the nice, clean, idealistic middle class kids who supported him were not seen as scruffy Marxist trouble-makers or dreadful muddy lesbians as at Greenham Common.

It's too soon to say which way the media will swing over Heathrow: so far the Daily Mail jury is out but the well ordered nature of the protest bodes well so far. As long as the direct action chosen does not go over the top, the camp might well survive to make a point which is absorbed by a public hitherto unwilling to escape the confines of its climate change denial.

Monday, August 20, 2007

 

Co-ownership a Better Solution than Socialism


I wonder what Robert Tressell would make of John Lewis partners? Students of socialism will know that this is the man who wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in 1914. I still use his illustration of inequality when teaching the origins of socialism: two thirds of all wealth goes to the numerically tiny great owners of property, financiers, capitalists and shareholders, while one third is shared out between the masses of workers who actually create wealth in the first place.

Today we learn that £100 invested in employee owned firms in 1992 would have been worth £349 in 2003, while the same sum invested in the FTSE all share index would have returned a mere £161. John Lewis is a shining example of how giving workers a direct share of the business can improve performance. Anyone visiting the one of the 26 stores(not to mention a clutch of other businesses) owned by its 68,000 employees will know why it turned over £6bn last year.

The stores are beautifully laid out an well stocked with excellent catering services but the key factor is the superb service one receives from polite, helpful and well informed employees; the contrast with other businesses is remarkable-hence the difference in profitability. This year profit was £319m and partners(i.e. staff) received and 18% bonus, the equivalent to nine weeks full pay. OK, from certain left-wing viewpoints, it's maybe not a totally fair return for work invested, but for most wage slaves, it would do.

The Employee Ownership Association carried out a survey in 2005 that revealed that 72% thought staff worked harder under a co-ownership structure, 81% said they took more responsibility, 49% thought competitiveness was enhanced and 44% confirmed profits were higher.

It's a pity that co-owned companies represent only 2% of the economy as it makes for happier workforces and better performance, as Patrick Burns, Executive Director of the EOA asserts:

You get a remarkable level of employee involvement and people are prepared to go the extra mile. People feel their companies are more productive, and the companies are very sustainable,".

And Director of personnel at the John Lewis Partnership, Tracey Killen adds:

The great strength of the partnership's model is that employees have a real stake in the business ... co-ownership allows the partnership to take a long-term view, because we do not have to answer to external shareholders who are usually seeking quick returns."

I commend the linked article to anyone interested in this topic. Tressell offers a vision of a socialist society in his book: the nationalisation of land,railways and most forms of production, the ending of unemployment, the abolition of a (because now redundant) police force, equal pay, good homes for all, the reduction of the working day to 4-5 hours and the ending of military conflict worldwide. Co-owned enterprises might sound like a prosaic substitute for such an agenda, but they provide a pragmatic solution to the problem of a fair return for labour which clearly works. I hope it can flourish and eventually maybe match the more dominant model which still offers closer resemblance to the one Tressell hated so passionately a hundred years ago.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

 

Odds on Autumn Election Shorten

So far I've been very sceptical on the chances of an election this autumn. The political case against includes: lack of Labour funds to finance an election-the party is £26m in debt; the steady funding of marginal constituencies by cash from Lord Ashcroft; the strength of the SNP in Scotland which threatens Labour's seats north of the border; the redrawn constituency boundaries which will give the Tories some 20 seats extra; and, it can be argued, Brown has not had enough time for his team to really show their paces. In addition to this powerful case against, Brown will not want to lose an election right now and become the shortest serving PM since Bonar -Law 1922-3.

Nor will he want to be returned with a majority slighter than that gained in 2005- though I guess he'd make do with one of, say, 40 rather than the present 65, but it would appear to be a kind of defeat if he lost any ground at all, even if he gained a mandate lasting until autumn 2012. I've just checked that excellent blog Political Bettingand have to add to the case against the fact that several recent polls have found Conservative voters registering more heavily as certain to vote than Labour.

But the case for going is almost hideously seductive as The Observer explains today.

* Senior advisers feel Brown has been quickly accepted as PM and that the negative fears 'have evaporated'.

* polls- some showing a 10 point lead- indicate Gordon would gain an increased majority if he went now.

* Cameron is suffering a sustained downward blip which Labour would love to exploit.

In addition to this could be added:

* in 1964 when Labour last fought an autumn election, they won- albeit by a sliver- and again in 1974. So history might be seen to be on Gordon's side. Moreover, with a poll lead, if Callaghan had gone in October 1978, he might well have won the contest.

* the economy is still OK, just, but some experts predict stormy weather for it over the next two years or so; better to get the election out of the way now then runs the argument.

* Labour may be broke but if it seems they can win donors, say the cynical experts, will soon come out of the woodwork to back the winner.

* Brown would hate to think he missed his ideal chance to beat Cameron, so soon into his first term.

So which way will he jump? The Observer suggests the decision has virtually been taken:

Gordon Brown has placed the Labour party on general election alert, instructing his campaign high command to draw up detailed plans for a possible snap poll in October, The Observer has learnt. Buoyed by Labour's 10-point lead in the polls, the Prime Minister has ordered a detailed blueprint with 'all options' to give him the opportunity of calling an election within weeks. One source close to the election group told The Observer: 'The brief is to be able to tell Gordon that if you want to call an election in a few weeks' time, this is what we're going to do and this is exactly how we're going to get it sorted.'

Personally I'm still doubtful Gordon's cautious nature will allow him to take such a risk- though I have to say that over the past couple of months, my doubts seem to be becoming less and less by the day.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

 

Why is US Antiwar Movement More Active than British?

The Economist raises the interesting question of why the anti-war movement in Britain is more 'muted' than in the USA. We can all remember the one million strong demonstration against the war in 2003, which Blair so studiously ignored, but since then the movement has not really risen above the media's radar. Meanwhile in America, despite the fact that polls reveal support is no higher than in UK, the issue of the war dominates the headlines and the next race for the White House.

The journal identifies the lower rate of UK involvement: we have only 5000 troops in Iraq compared to the US 160,000 and the body bags are accordingly less numerous. It also follows that Britons are less likely than Americans to know anyone whose family has suffered losses. Moreover, British armed forces, with soldiers from 57 different countries, are drawn from a wider, more dispersed ethnic base than in the US. Finally, Britain seems to be clearly in the process of withdrawal from Iraq, while in the US there is still no end in sight.

However, I wonder if this state of affairs will continue, given our ongoing involvement in Afghanistan? The received military wisdom seems to be that Iraq is a hopeless case but the other one is 'winnable'. Ever since the US/UK led multinational invasion, I've doubted whether a country which has historically repelled every invader from the Persians and Mongols to 19th century Brits and 20th century Soviets, can be cleansed of a Taliban enemy which knows its mountains and valleys so much better than we do, despite our superior air and fire-power.

Until recently deaths from Helmand province were averaging about 5 a week; recently it increased to 8. As the death toll of our young servicemen climbs ever higher, as it will, I suspect Gordon Brown will have a revived antiwar movement to contend with.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

 

A Defence of Wikipedia against Oliver Kamm

For some reason Oliver Kamm seems to have it in for the online world. A few months ago he was berating political bloggers for wrting nonsense, in spite of being one himself. Now he has turned his unwelcome ire on wikipedia.

Critics of the web decry the medium as the cult of the amateur. Wikipedia is worse than that; it is the province of the covert lobby. The most constructive course is to stand on the sidelines and jeer at its pretensions.

'Jeering' seems to be something Mr Kamm does rather too well, in addition to writing his splenetic and pompous articles in The Times. I am a huge fan of the free online encyclopedia which I think one of the most amazing products of the internet. It has 7.5 million articles written in 253 leanguages. At peak times it is visited 15000 times a second and has 1700 new articles added each day.

It is written by the users, yes, but it is for the most part accurate as various respected authorities, writing in The Guardian a few months back could find little wrong with its entries in their areas of expertise. Wikipedia is web democracy astonishly at work.

In my own field I occasionally find something with which I disagree but never, to date, anything which is wrong. I explain to students the limitations of the service but am happy for them to use it when researching essays. Kamm's piece might have carried more weight if he had cited a few examples of how 'appalling' inaccurate this service can be, but he merely throws rotten eggs and displays spoilt petulance.

There is one final thing why I value wikipedia above most things on the web: unlike so many other online services, it is completely free. Its founder, Jimmy Wales, a bit like intrernet founder Tim Berners-Lee, seems to be that rare person, a genuine idealist who has spurned great riches in exchange for defending his principles. Oh, and I note that wiki even carries a (no doubt inaccurate and biased entry) on no less a subject than Mr Kamm himself.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

 

Too Soon for Salmond to be too Thumbs Up


It's odd that two Scots on either sides of the border, should both out-perform expectations by so much. To the south we have concentrated on Gordon but north of it Alex seems to have been even more successful to date and the once hostile Scottish media now can't get enough of him.

When his minority government-recall the MSP for Gordon(that's his Scottish constituency by the way) managed only one more seat than Labour's 46 a few months back- set up few believed he had much chance of achieving much. But as The Guardian comments this this morning:

Some politicians have a natural ability to shape the political agenda. Others shine brightest at getting things done. Only a select few manage to do both. For the past three months Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, has done the first in some style, reshaping the party argument north of the border.

Yesterday he launched a document which cunningly included independence as an 'option' among several for the debate he hopes to initiate about the country's future. Uniting all his opposition parties in condemnation, Salmond is unabashed as he knows:

i) continued good governance by the SNP is the best possible case he can make for eventual independence. Currently the SNP stands at 48% in the polls.

ii) his initiative will almost certainly lead to more powers being given to the Scottish Parliament as Brown seeks to outflank the SNP.

However, perhaps he's just done the easy bit to date:

i) so far Salmond has not encountered any really major problems- in politics waters seldom stay calm for very long and he will be tested more sternly soon enough.

ii) Gordon might well reduce enthusiasm for the radical trauma of independence by salami slicing off a bit more power to Holyrood.

iii) support for independence has not risen above a third for some time(see chart above).

Mostly people don't like change, or at least not too much too quickly, so Scottish nervousness at suggestions of divorce from England, is understandable, especially as relations have not been so bad of late. What is interesting politically is that these two hugely talented politicians are fighting over the body politic of Scotland because, for Gordon, his majority after the next election might well depend on how many Labour votes, on that occasion, Salmond is able to poach.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

 

Is Osborne After Dave's Job?

Setting up policy groups to devise new approaches is usually a reasonably safe course of action. Neil Kinnock managed in this way to nudge Labour away from its leftist obsessions in the mid eighties. And it seemed David Cameron had done something equally sensible when he set up his six groups. Ken Clarke's on Democracy, was well received but the latest product, on economic competitiveness, from that unreconstructed Thatcherite, John Redwood, has opened up Cameron to attack from the left and centre, the very flanks on which he has to make progress to become electable. Polly Toynbee today indicates his vulnerability:

His 10 chapters, written with the help of the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, form a mighty Redwood manifesto covering virtually everything: here are policies on health and safety (leave it up to employers' responsibility and common sense); pensions (deregulate their accounts); trains (privatise yet more); relaxing planning laws (let developers bribe local Nimby objectors instead of paying planning gain to councils); abandoning data protection; and saving a promised £14bn by slashing and burning regulation. Forget Cameron green: instead, double the mileage of motorways and build more airport runways.

This document will resonate nicely in the editorial offices of the Mail and Telegraph and will gladden the hearts of those who thought the old agenda had been consigned to history. But exhuming aspects of the 'nasty party' will not chime with the floating voters the Tories need to attract in order to win but will merely force the party's ratings even further down- and it has already become clear that Cameron cannot continue his efforts to haul his party into the centre ground, where elections are won, without an opinion poll lead. And with Gordon licking his lips over a possible autumn dash to the polls, this report is not going to help one little bit.

But, Polly hints at something which I have been thinking for a while now: what exactly is George Osborne up to? He has written this report along with Redwood and will be alongside him at the launch(Dave, wisely is staying away). Maybe there is some subtle positioning going on here: Osborne defining himself as the 'genuine Conservative' option should the party, maybe sometime soon, come around to the view that they liked Cameron's Blairite charisma, but could not swallow his Blairite policies. It would be a simply wonderful irony if Osborne turned out to be Gordon to Cameron's Tony.

Monday, August 13, 2007

 

'Yes Minister' Author Pleads Guilty to Crime he Didn't Commit

Anything written by an author of Yes Minister is likely to be interesting or revealing and Anthony Jay's piece in yesterday's Sunday Times was both. Seizing on a recent BBC admission of its 'liberal bias', Jay, who worked for the corporation 1955-64, fascinatingly elaborates from his own experience.

But we were not just anti-Macmillan; we were anti-industry, anti-capitalism, anti-advertising, anti-selling, anti-profit, anti-patriotism, anti-monarchy, anti-empire, anti-police, anti-armed forces, anti-bomb, anti-authority. Almost anything that made the world a freer, safer and more prosperous place – you name it, we were anti it.

This mindset has a resonance for like yours truly and many of my peer group. Jay's analysis of how it was formed starts with the simple but revealing insight that: 'the two principal ways of misunderstanding society: by looking down on it from above or looking up at it from below.'

To look down on society from above, from the point of view of the ruling groups, the institutions, is to see the dangers of the organism splitting apart – the individual components shooting off in different directions until everything dissolves into anarchy. To look up at society from below, from the point of view of the lowest group, the governed, is to see the dangers of the organism growing ever more rigid and oppressive until it fossilises into a monolithic tyranny.

Both offer true perspectives but neither is wholly correct. The former is the traditional viewpoint of the ruling elite, the bosses, worried about how their positions can be justified and maintained; the latter is the outlook of the lower orders, the worker, man in the street. Bosses, conservatively, like things to remain as they are; workers, more radically, want more rewards, status, freedom.

Jay observes that the media liberal hostility to institutions was not necessarily shared by the public at large: 57% in a recent poll said 'broadcasters often failed to reflect the views of people like me'. There is much in Jay's piece to commend and to interest, but it seems to me he is being either a little too hard on himself, or has swung excessively close to the 'top down' point of view.

The ruling elite's perspective is valid of course, but don't they have rather a lot of cards in their hand compared to the rest of us: money, authority, control of the instruments of the state? Surely the 'bottom up' viewpoint needed to be articulated? Especially, one is impelled to note, on today, the 188th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. Without the consequent synthesis of the two perspectives, the changes in our society to make it freer, fairer and less like the gloomy, oppressive fifties, would never have taken place.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

 

Gordon Should Resist Siren-calls for an Early Election


According to legend, Odysseus was so curious as to the Sirens' song as his ship passed their island, that he ordered his men to tie him to a mast whilst their ears were safely stopped with beeswax. I hope Gordon Brown has ensured the ropes which pinion him are secure as those Sirens are already sending out their seductive sounds.

Brown has not yet faced any election on his road to Number 10 so there is some pressure for him to rectify this condition. He would also love to win a new mandate- which would extend to autumn 2012- to ensure he is not a short-lived Jim Callaghan sort in office; how bad would he feel if in retrospect, autumn 2007 was the optimum time to go to the country? He is already on his marks- with ministers allocated to campaign and manifesto tasks- along with the now not so confident Conservatives who may be en route to yet another leadership crisis. Those siren voices have been issuing forth persuasively for some time now. And then, floating up the Thames this morning, came the hard to resist melody of the Sunday Times poll.

65% see Gordon as 'doing well' as PM- only 17% 'badly'; for Cameron's role the figures are 29% and 55% respectively.73% judged Brown to have been less close to George Bush than Blair; 76% think the foot and mouth crisis has been handled well. Indeed, it seems Macmillan's warning that 'events' are a PM's biggest headache has been confounded: Brown's has met each successive challenge with aplomb and his ratings benefited accordingly. He now sits atop a 10 point lead over the Tories, the biggest lead since November 2002.

That shrewd weekly journal, The Economist warns this week the party's £26m debt plus the poor polls in Scotland, which could threaten the size of his majority together with the threat of higher interest rates later this year make a snap election a risk the ever cautious Brown is unlikely to take. Yet here comes the Sunday Times' leader today:

The bounce in Mr Brown’s poll ratings shows he should have nothing to fear by going to the country. We shall see in the next few weeks whether he has the nerve to do so.

My advice(yes, I know he would never ask it) would be to indicate to his men by wagging his eyebrows(according to the legend this is how he communicated with them) to tighten and not loosen his bonds for this indeed is the authentic right-wing song which could lure him onto the Sirens' rocky coastline and possible disaster.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

 

Tribalism, the Journalist and Bozza.


It's odd how very clever people can still be led by their prejudices. I'm a great admirer of Max Hastings' journalism in The Guardian but have always suspected that, despite his voting Labour in 1997, deep down his natural Fleet St home is The Telegraph. His recent piece on Boris Johnson is a case in point(having found that pic of Bozza I just had to do a post on him)

With the appearance of objectivity he considers the merits of the two candidates: Ken did well on congestion charges but has squandered taxpayers money; Boris is a 'shrewd and thoughtful man' but has a 'manic instinct to play to the gallery'. Boris has been accused of racism but Ken said those awful things to the Evening Standard reporter. Boris

'has the brains, commitment and fundamental decency to run London. He would bring gaiety to the mayor's office, and there is plenty of room for it.

Seems there is much to like and dislike in both candidates but, one feels, that in the end it is tribal affinities which matter for Max. He, after all, is a Charterhouse and Oxford man; Red Ken a Tulse Hill comprehensive product. Ultimately Hastings' allegiance is as much in doubt as Boris's 'good eggedness':

I shall be rooting for Boris because I prefer his brand of recklessness to Ken's. I think he is also a much nicer bloke.

Friday, August 10, 2007

 

Do we Really Need E-xaminations?

I read a report recently that one study reckoned A levels had declined in difficulty by at least two grades over the last 30 years. Peter Wilby today revisits the topic which will, inevitably, obsess the media in a week's time. Wilby argues that we worry too much about exams; if everyone went to university we could do away with them completely. Maybe, but some kind of selection and measurement will still be with us when it comes to allocating people to jobs; for example, it's not much use directing someone wholly averse to learning towards medicine, or even teaching. Exams of some kind are always going to be with us I suspect and so we ought to make our peace with them.

Last year I introduced an additional 'fact-test' for my undergraduates to see how much hard fact they had retained from my lecture course. Results were both reassuring and worrying. The top mark was 95% and 60% managed over 40% but that meant that over a third of undergraduates at a good university had been unable to retain the most basic information about our political system, even though they had plenty of time to prepare. Many of the 'failures' had, by contrast done well in their assignments though the best students did well at both.

Some say exams or tests are unfair - held in frightening, candidate crowded halls, patrolled by gimlet eyed invigilators- which do not provide the best gauge of ability. I'm not so sure:

i) Exams are tough but so is adult life: being required to perform to a high level within strict time limits is not so different from many kinds of demanding work in the law for example or business, civil service etc.

ii) Continuous assessment via assignments measures a different kind of ability but don't we want to know how someone is like under pressure too?

iii) Sadly many students are not averse to buying essays from web based companies who can offer either 'off the shelf' products for popular topics or can produce a 'bespoke' one for the required title (at a much higher price).

As someone who has been involved in higher education virtually all his working life, I'm aware that exams are ridiculously inadequate as a true reflection of ability- the success of school and university drop-outs in business and elsewhere is testimony to that. But employers, need some kind of yardstick by which to assess recruits for all the manifold occupations available out there- the real test is how they do once they begin work for real. And in my experience, most high flyers in most professional walks of life, have been successful academically beforehand. Rather like Churchill's verdict on democratic government I think exams are probably the worst form of assessment, except for all the others.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

 

Political Brain Disappoints on Reason, Emotion and Voting

I was quite excited to read in The Guardian that Drew Westen's book, The Political Brain is 'essential summer reading from Washington to Westminster'. Having read the extracts I found them interesting but scarcely 'essential reading'. The extracts focus on campaign ads and presidential debates during the nineties. He basically argues that:

'people vote for the candidate who elicits the right feelings, not the candidate with the best arguments'

He goes on to claim that, apart from Clinton, the Democrats never 'got' this message while the Republicans did, especially GW Bush. He analyses the marketing of 90s US politicians in some detail to support this general thesis but having read the extracts I was left thinking: 'what's new?' For any experienced campaign strategist this must be page one stuff. Of course we know voters absorb emotional messages before they do rational ones.

This is why campaign slogans have been crucial in setting their tone ever since modern democracy began. This is why politicians like Stanley Baldwin used his relaxed radio chats to the nation to give an impression of a cosy, reliable stability; Harold Wilson smoked a pipe and let it be known he favoured HP sauce, for the same reasons.
I was waiting for some possibly scientific evidence to support these non-revolutionary assertions, but such evidence came there none. Not even any breakdown of 'emotional voting' according to, say, social class. So, he's just like any of us non neurologist amateurs trying to make sense of the political world. Well, I'm not sure he takes us very far anyway. Seems to me voters apply their magic cross for a variety of reasons; some emotional and some rational.

Westen is suggesting the emotional is dominant. Maybe, but the rational is not considered at all in these extracts, except to be dismissed. Surely the emotional catches out attention but then the rational comes into play? People vote Conservative basically because they have calculated they will get a better deal from a small government, tax cutting party. Labour voters have calculated, on the other hand, that a party supporting the poor and providing welfare support is better for them. The fact that the former is usually wealthier than the latter underlines the rational basis of the vote-casting.

To take another angle, Cameron was seen as charismatic as he wandered the 2005 conference stage, speaking without notes. He was also good looking and articulate: he blitzed the leadership vote against boring old David Davis. But after a while Conservatives began to ask questions: why no promise of tax cuts? why the rejection of traditional Toryism and the embracing of virtual New Labour values? Suddenly his charisma is not so important. You could say the same thing happened with Blair: infatuation followed by disillusion as the rational brain caught up with the emotions.

But Westen is right to suggest Gore could have come back robustly when Bush accused him of being a liar. Adding his version of what Gore could have replied to Bush in that debate, makes my post a little too long, but read it and you'll agree it's worth it:

"Governor, you see those two young women sitting there in the front row? Those are my daughters. And that woman sitting next to them? That's my wife. And the woman next to her - that's my mother.

"You have attacked my honour and integrity in front of my family, the people of my home state of Tennessee, and millions of my fellow Americans. So I think it's time to teach you a few old-fashioned lessons about character.

"When I enlisted to fight in the Vietnam war, you were talkin' real tough about Vietnam. But when you got the call, you called your daddy and begged him to pull some strings so you wouldn't have to go to war. So instead of defending your country with honour, you put some poor Texas mill worker's kid on the front line in your place to get shot at.

"Where I come from, we call that a coward.

"When I was working hard, raising my family, you were busy drinking yourself and your family into the ground. And not just in your own home, setting a terrible example for your kids. Why don't you tell us how many times you got behind the wheel of a car with a few drinks under your belt, endangering your neighbours' kids?

"Where I come from, we call that a drunk.

"When I was serving in the United States Senate, your own father's government had to investigate you on the charge that you had swindled a bunch of old people out of their life savings by using insider knowledge to sell off stocks you knew were about to drop. And you know who bought those stocks? The people right out there in America who are listening right now, looking you right in the eye.

"Where I come from back home, we call that crooked.

"When you were in a tight primary battle with John McCain in South Carolina this year, people started getting these phone calls telling them he had sired a black baby. Yes, Governor, that baby did have dark skin - because Senator McCain and his wife had adopted that child from Bangladesh. And funny, something similar happened the last time you were in a tight race, running for governor of Texas against Ann Richards, when suddenly rumours started flying that she was a lesbian.

"Where I come from, we call someone who does those kinds of things a disgrace to his family, his state, and his country.

"So, Governor, don't you ever lecture me about character. And don't you ever talk about me that way again in front of my family or my fellow citizens."


Oh Boy, that would have clinched the vote, hanging chads et.al. notwithstanding.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

 

Pie in Sky Ideas Will be Ignored by Gordon

Reading Neal Lawson today makes me realise why I've never been more than merely left of centre rather than on Labour's leftwing. Lawson's pared down address to his Compass members suggests we are at a turning point:

Britain has become a hideously unequal society. The poor are not treading water but sinking beneath the rising tide of the rich. But the middle classes are struggling, too. Insecurity and anxiety abound. Working harder to keep up on the treadmill of the learn-to-earn consumer society is deepening our social recession. We are at a tipping point.

He goes on to suggest that Cameron has failed to gauge the times correctly and is losing the plot. And whilst 1997 was a 'false dawn', now that Blair has gone, Brown may be the colour of our future. 'It's time to be the midwife of history' he portentously declares.

But is Brown up for it? He will work night and day to address the symptoms of inequality but will he dare address the free market causes? Social democracy in one country is impossible. So will he embrace Europe? Will he recognise the essential conflict between labour and capital and the enduring importance of class? Will he ease up on the work ethic and embrace a politics of care and well-being? Will the planet be put before profits? Can he make the cultural leap into a politics of pluralism? Can he be both new enough and Labour enough? The truth is we don't yet know, but only if the left helps create the conditions that make it possible.

The left has always been prone to believing that the time for the big shift is Now! I remember a Peking Daily headline in the seventies: 'Western economies about to collapse: situation promising'. It happens to be the case that 'tipping points' are rare indeed and often usually only clearly perceived in retrospect: 1945, 1979, 19997. Do we really believe 2007 is another?

It's one thing analysing society in front of one's keyboard but where are the visible signs that people are desperate for the sort of change- much of which I am in sympathy with I should add- Lawson describes? And just how can the left 'create the conditions' for such a transformation? Truth is Neal's clarion call to his Compass members is, like any such statement, long on utopian rhetoric and desperately short on practical politics. If such ideas were presented to Gordon, I suspect he'd instantly frown furiously and ball up that 'clunking great fist'.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

 

Don't Say 'Hej': Left Needs Reality Check on Next Election

'Don't say 'hej'(hi) before you have crossed the river' is an old Swedish saying approximating to ours about chickens hatching. I have been reminded of it recently by the growing feeling of confidence on the left that Cameron has already blown it. Some sections of the Labour Party may well have become so delighted at the reversal in fortunes Gordon has engineered for them that they are already assuming the next election won. However John Kampfner provides a timely reality-check by reminding us how elections are won in practice. Thanks to the FPTP voting and related two party system most votes cast are 'wasted' in safe constituencies- it is only in those seats with small majorities where change is likely to occur and the battle therefore decided.

...as every election observer knows, elections are won and lost by a democratically unrepresentative number of floating voters in a small number of constituencies. It would not take a large swing for many of these seats to change hands.

Add to that fact that: in England more voters voted Conservative than Labour in 2005, despite their poor campaign and pathetic message; the Boundary Commission has redrawn constituencies so that 10-20 will likely shift rightwards next time around; and that Michael Ashcroft, chief Tory money raiser, is hard at work again pushing funds into selected areas. Last time, Kampfner tells us, of the 34 Conservative gains, 24 had been selected by Ashcroft for such special attentions well before the ballot was due. Together with other major Tory donors, he avoided caps on campaign spending by channelling money into these constituencies- targeting possible supporters, setting up online canvassing-well before the campaign had begun. He proved that well directed cash can win elections, whatever the message being peddled.

But Brown is unlikely to be as gung-ho as some of his supporters, even right-wing ones, seem to be. He is very aware that going early before he has every reason to expect success, is a fraught strategy: returning with a reduced majority would condemn him, like Major, as hostage to his own rebels for four years; and that losing in the autumn-when some urge him to go to the country- would mean his term in office would be shorter even than that of Andrew Bonar-Law's seven month stint 1922-3.

In addition to that he knows Labour have debts of £26m; and this time he can't even promise- or even vaguely suggest-to potential donors that their largesse could earn them peerages. Finally Brown knows that modern politics is very volatile- things can change in a day. John Major is often dismissed as a terminal no-hoper but it should be recalled that he too enjoyed a more than decent 'bounce' and looked well set to prosper during the Tories' fourth term until that awful Wednesday on 16th September 1992. Don't say 'hej' indeed.

Monday, August 06, 2007

 

Hattersley Wrong on Mill Being Obsolete


I've always enjoyed Roy Hattersley's pieces in The Guardian and mostly found myself agreeing with him. Not today. In a piece entitled 'Liberty is not what it was' he asserts the basic premise of Mill's views on liberty are 'no longer valid'. He aims his critique right at the heart of Mill's 'harm' principle: 'we are free to damage ourselves but are not at liberty to harm other people', arguing thus:

Just accept the incontrovertible fact that today, almost everything we do for good or ill has an effect on the rest of society. Progress has made us members one of another. Our interdependence has increased with every economic and scientific advance and it now embraces matters both general and specific, from conduct that is likely to destroy the whole planet, to the sickness caused to publicans by tobacco smoke drifting across the bar... The philosophy for our time ought to concern a consensus about civilised conduct, not extol irresponsible individualism.

I'm no Mill scholar but I imagine those Guardian readers who are, might be sharpening their quills at these assertions. Hattersley may be right that we need to build a 'consensus of civilised conduct'- how we should live together in harmony- but will such a consensus exclude the notion of the private? We do not live our lives as collective entities but as individuals. ? Surely as we become more and more interdependent, we need to protect more and more the sphere of the private?

And as our actions inevitably have implications for others, I would have thought that Mill's harm principle-That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.(On Liberty Ch1)-is still as valid as ever. And surely one of the founding arguments in favour of removing discrimination against people of different sexual inclinations is Millian?

Gay people basically want to be gay with their own kind and the contention that they did no harm to others was central to eventual public acceptance, as indeed, it would be to any other case of sexual deviation which did no harm to anyone else. Mill's views on freedom are alive and well are as essential to the future as they have been in the past.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

 

Reading The Guardian editorial this morning I was struck by the coincidence of topic with a lobbying campaign which also contacted me today: Unlock Democracy by the merged Charter 88 and the New Politics Forum. The Guardian recalls Brown's proposals on constitutional reform which came out a month ago. Remember? I thought not. He suggested that: the royal prerogative covering a range of powers be transferred from the executive to parliament; a pre Queen's Speech consultative process; a duty on public bodies to involve local people in major decisions; publish a review of UK voting systems; plus a possible written constitution.

Brown suggested a 'national conversation' but. as The Guardian comments:

If he expected to be met with the excited chatter of a nation redefining itself, he will have been disappointed. A conversation that began as a murmur has already tailed off into a whisper.

We are all familiar with this syndrome, from.....where else but the Blair years? You think of an 'eye catching initiative', you announce it with a fanfare, you pick up the transient publicity points and then you quietly forget all about it. And your credibility dies just a little. I do hope Gordon is not embarked on a similar course here because people like me, faithful old foot-sloggers for the party, will not stand for any more false promises and will sling our collective hook.

The Unlock Democracy campaign is designed not to let Gordon off the hook but to hold him to his promises to consult. EDM 1763, already signed by 50MPs, proposes a Citizens Convention Bill which would oblige the government:

'to set up a Citizen's Convention to look at modernising UK governance within twelve months of it becoming law... to involve people from all sections of society and to cooperate with the Convention in implementing its recommendations'

Maybe this initiative will fail but I think it's a promising one and deserves support I'm going to send in a small donation this cause about which, if you feel the same as I do, you can find more here.

Friday, August 03, 2007

 

Why John Ruskin Would Not Approve of New Labour


I liked the article by Geoffrey Wheatrcroft today in which he laments the distance Labour has travelled from the ideals of John Ruskin(see pictures) and his great anti-capitalist polemic Unto This Last. He cites the Gould memo re the need for Brown to be a 'powerful muscular modernisation politician' and regrets the absence of anything relating to 'purpose'. He goes on to criticise Labour's obsession with higher education and the perceived need for 50% to be in HE by 2010 while the real need has been for competent artisans. Wheatcroft continues:

But what's most curious of all is that a party which still has "Labour" in its name should now be almost openly contemptuous of people who actually labour... there [used to be] an equality of dignity and esteem between "hand and brain", a view that New Labour has conspicuously shed.

He concludes:
Labour has quite left behind its puritan, ethical and plebeian roots to become a party of middle-class technocrats and careerists.

To this, admittedly well directed critique I would suggest:

1. Gould's memo addressed to the essentials of political methodology-how to win; for philosophy one should refer to his Unfinished Revolution book.

2. It's true that Labour has moved a worryingly long way from its puritan roots but maybe it could do no other in a democracy? The fact is that, for a plethora of reasons, western society has become obsessed with materialism. It seems a bit much to expect Labour to wind back a movement which has been evolving since at least the allies' victory in the last world war. Denying what they want would be like Canute ordering the waves to cease their onward rush. In a democracy politicians are essentilly elected to deliver what voters want.

But I do agree that it's very sad that the real moral thrust of the party seems to have been swept away. Labour has shown more than a little too much enthusiasm for the kingdom of Mammon rather than the the bedrock of its founding principles. Tony Blair may have had no option but to accept the realities of those waves, but he need not have surfed in on them with so much glee- nor suggested that 40 super casinos be built throughout the UK.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

 

Cameron's Critics Should Read Peter Riddell Today

Readers of this blog will know it is not wholly objective- I've never thought that academic impartiality is either honest or especially effective as a teaching mode- but I have to say that my truly unbiased view is that the Conservative party has been just a little beastly to its leader. I advise its members-especially those head-banging Tebbitt types- to read Peter Riddell in today's Times.

Riddell is possibly not Fleet Street's most eloquent scribe, but in my view, he is by some distance its most shrewd and wise. He points out that Cameron suffered from being over-hyped when he arrived, just as he is being over dumped-on now that the gloss has worn off. All leaders of Opposition have down periods when events, luck and the polls do them damage:

Mr Cameron has the correct basic strategy but winning power was always going to be a long job, just as it was for Labour in the 1980s and 1990s. It depends both on the governing party coming apart, and yourself becoming appealing.

Cameron's recent travails have been the result of Brown's surprising debut:

Whatever doubts exist about his blizzard of initiatives, Mr Brown looks and behaves like a prime minister... The underestimation of Mr Brown, and his capacity to change, has been the Tories’ single most serious failure.

Riddell is clearly correct here: the Tories set up a straw man pre Brown accession- a dour, unsociable, unimaginative, lumbering Old Labour dinosaur- and couldn't wait to dismantle him once he came to power, when they found someone else occupying Gordon's body. I can't really blame them as, to a degree, I shared some aspects of these expectations on the basis of what we then knew. But now Cameron has to regroup and rethink. Riddell advises that:

'the only thing that matters for Mr Cameron is to define himself and his party... Unless, and until, the Tories say how they would alter the size and role of the State, talk of cutting the tax burden (as opposed to cuts in individual taxes) rings hollow.

So the Tories should indeed keep their nerve, lay off their leader, and accept that the natural ebb and flow of politics puts you behind for a while, as well as in front. They need to keep their heads down and work at becoming electable as Labour did for so many years. I don't want to see Cameron as PM- heaven forbid- but I'd settle for him sooner than some crazed idiot who thinks the spirit of the sainted Margaret can be exhumed, preserved, and somehow breathed back into the body of the Conservative Party.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

 

Should Class 'A' Drugs be Legalised?


The recent debate about reclassifying cannabis as a Class B drug from its lowered C category has brought the subject of legalising drugs back into the spotlight. I recall Ben Elton writing a novel which argued the case with some passion and many others, including respected newspaper editorials have suggested this might be the way forward.

The Case For:
1. This begins with the libertarian argument that people should be allowed to do what they like-subject to harming others- even if it inflicts self harm;
2. It goes on to state that the major problem is not the drugs themselves but the criminal underworld which gives millions of pounds to criminals who invest in people trafficking and worse. If drugs were made legal then at one fell swoop these criminals would be put out of business and addicts would not have to rob and mug to raise the money required by their habit. The state should control the supply of harmful drugs and tax them to earn money for the national exchequer.
3. Because most of the damage inflicted by intravenous drugs is through the stuff drug dealers mix in with it to add body to their wraps, legalisation would also solve this problem too.
So, we have a drugs culture: let's legalise and control distribution and problem will be solved? Sounds simple and effective and radical and so why not? Careful thought reveals possibly why not.

Case Against:
1. As alcohol use has burgeoned under its socially legitimised, legal status, surely class A drugs would do the same? Make heroin, cocaine and cannabis legal and demand will increase.
2.We already have a society laden with alcoholics and addicts; do we want to risk accelerating such numbers by a substantial further factor?
3.Dissuading people from smoking is proving difficult enough; should we establish even more hurdles for addicts to jump over?
4.Being addicted to heroin is a very debilitating condition- even if the drug is free from harmful mixers; increasing their numbers hugely would not add to the sum of human happiness, prevents people from looking after their children and can lead to irrational and tragic consequences like violence and suicide.
5.Prescription drugs are legally controlled but many become damaging addicted to those as well.
6.To limit availability prices would have to be set pretty high but this would create another loophole for criminals to undercut the price by illegal sales. I'm not sure, either, that legalising such substances has been proven a success in other countries.

Legalising drugs would provide certain benefits admittedly, but it carries with it many more disadvantages which outweigh the gains legalisation would produce. On balance, despite being advocated by many well meaning liberal people, it is a disastrous idea and one to be avoided.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?