Tuesday, 31 May 2016

We are still paying the price for New Labour's missed opportunity

Still doesn't get it...
Listening back to Tony Blair telling the BBC on Saturday that "it would be a very dangerous experiment for a major western country to get gripped by this type of populist policy-making, left or right" it's hard to make sense of his subsequent claim that he wasn't talking about Jeremy Corbyn.

The context suggests that he was, and in any case he has form on this subject. Back in February he expressed himself "baffled" by the success of both Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, while bemoaning a loss of faith in the centrist progressive position. He still thinks that New Labour was on the right track, and that the party has no prospects until that track is resumed.

So Blair really doesn't get it, and, by extension, nor do most members of the parliamentary Labour party, for whom reverting to some sort of mainstream centrism is the path to electoral success. So what is it that they don't get? Most importantly that the world has moved on: young people in particular (but many older people, too) are no longer invested in a status quo that cannot provide an affordable home and a secure, reasonably-paying job.

When the new normal is debt and economic insecurity, advocating for something different, as Sanders and Corbyn do, seems more like sensible than radical or left-field. So far from being dangerous, systemic change can now be viewed as essential for the future of both people and planet. The danger comes from the forces of reaction - the corporate lobbyists, the climate change deniers, the neoliberal economists and the mainstream politicians over whom they hold sway.

Maybe, therefore, the reason why the anger with Blair won't go away is less to do with Iraq than with a more generalised, generational sense of betrayal. Labour in 1997 had the political power and the economic clout to challenge the neoliberal agenda, but instead of challenging it, it went with it. Inequality increased, the marketisation of public services proceeded apace and the global financial markets went largely unchecked.

Labour's economic policies may not have been responsible for the 2008 crash, but its failure to challenge the neo-liberal framing that brought the crash to a head at least raises the question, "what is Labour for?" It is to Corbyn's credit that he is looking for an answer, and part of the tragedy of Blair that he can't see the point.

Picture credit: By Chatham House [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 26 May 2016

A national policy framework for independent candidates?

Whigs and Tories - political merry-go-round
By Gilray (image via Wikipedia)
Wednesday's meeting in Totnes, organised by South Devon Watch to discuss strategies for political change, was inspiring and challenging in equal part. The inspiration came from so many committed people, all seeking to bring authentic democracy to a system widely seen as unaccountable, if not corrupt. The challenge is to find a way of beating the current system without repeating its manifest failings.

The meeting focused on independent candidates, both at local and national level. Among the speakers was Claire Wright, the independent Devon county councillor who came a good second in East Devon at the general election last year. Also present was Martyn Greene of the Free Parliament campaign, which is putting up serious money to support independent candidates at the next national election.

There can be little doubt that the tribal, adversarial party system typifies much that is wrong with our current politics. If independent candidates are to challenge the party stitch-up, however, they need to work together and show unity of purpose. The distinction between an organised group of independents, working together, and a new party, may not be easily observable to a electorate conditioned to the party system.

What comes first in politics, people or policies? If parliament were filled with independent members all operating under the Bell principles, it is likely that the quality of discourse and deliberation would be far higher than at present, but would effective policy, leadership and decision-making necessarily emerge?

One approach would be to elect government and parliament separately, the former on the basis of its policies, the latter on an independent, non-party basis. The current framework, however, doesn't work like that: when people go to the polls they suppose that they are voting for the government they want. Government means a combination of policy solutions and the people with the leadership qualities to put those policies into effect.

In response to this, independent-minded political reformers could work together to draw up a national policy framework in they key areas of the economy, health, education, etc., which independent candidates could use as part of their campaigning message. Instead of supporting a party, they would be advocating for a coherent set of policies, the essence of which they would undertake to support in parliament.

In the trade-off between independence and coherence, it makes no sense for every stand-alone candidate to have to reinvent the national policy wheel. A shared set of policies could give national traction, provide a clear story for the media and ensure that the electorate have a better idea of what they are getting.

Friday, 20 May 2016

EU referendum: a false dichotomy obscuring a far more vital struggle

Continuing the Referendum theme, a friend wishes they knew what the E.U. really does for us. This is not a Life of Brian moment but a measured desire to understand the pros and cons in order to make an informed decision.

The leaflet circulated to every household by the Electoral Commission offers little help. The page on the Yes side says "More jobs. Lower prices. NHS protected." while the one for No says "Our last chance to take back control". Yes is appealing to economic self-interest, No to a sense of nationhood. Such different value systems are difficult to compare.

This was reinforced in a research paper by Neil Smith that came my way this week. It makes the fascinating point that the UK is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA, which includes EU members and a few non-EU countries such as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland) independently of its membership of the EU, so leaving the EU does not, legally speaking, mean leaving the single market.

If so, the outcome of the vote will change Britain's economic relationship with Europe very little. The referendum question, as Neil points out, is essentially political. Once we understand it as such it becomes much easier to parse. Two visions are on offer, one nationalist, the other internationalist. What confuses the picture is that each vision separately embraces a wide range of political perspectives.

Internationalism is a central tenet of the socialist movement, for whom solidarity among working people transcends borders. But the capacity to operate internationally is also of key importance to corporate capitalism. This is why the traditional socialist Jeremy Corbyn is lined up with free marketeer David Cameron on the Remain side.

Nationalism also has its different facets. It embraces a spectrum from nasty racism to idealistic self-sufficiency. The leave side unites opponents of globalisation with neo-liberals who think that EU regulation is a drag on free market capitalism.

Given these odd associations of bed-fellows, anyone wanting to make a measured decision is entitled to be confused. The referendum has set up a false dichotomy which does not reflect a far more vital struggle  - one that pitches the values of global corporatism against those of human-scale relationships. Looked at like that the question for 23 June is simple: do we want to wage that struggle on our own, or in partnership with our European neighbours?

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Brexit debate: a plague on both their houses

David Cameron wants people to be in no doubt about the disastrous consequences of leaving the E.U. Project Fear plumbed ever deeper depths last week as we were told that Brexit would weaken our security and increase the chance of a European war; that prices would rise, the economy would tank and that house prices would crash.

On that last point, many struggling renters and would-be homebuyers will say "bring it on". It well illustrates how corrupted is our economic system that higher prices for essentials such as food and clothing are deemed a bad thing, whereas higher priced housing (which is no less an essential) is good.

A bigger question, however, is why Cameron ever contemplated a referendum of which the consequences could, in his view, be so catastrophic; why he was was willing to take Britain to the brink for the sake of modest concessions from his European partners. But in those days he sang a different song: The E.U. was in desperate need of reform, he asserted, and Britain would be just fine without it.

So finally we come to the real question: does it matter that politicians say whatever suits them to achieve their ends? Is it OK, as many in the referendum campaign are doing, to make wild and often contradictory statements in order to appeal to people's visceral fears?

Politicians in a democracy have to take people with them, to be sure. But that should make politics a collaborative, social endeavour, not a gross shouting match between grotesque personalities. As it is, the entire realm of politics has lost the confidence of an electorate who increasingly call down a plague on all their houses, and may long resent the obligation to pick between two equally unattractive sides.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Let's not weep for the departing oligarchs - resilience begins at home

Posh London addresses...
Yesterday, billionaire hedge fund managers; today, the nameless super-rich buying into London's property market. All our instincts are screaming that these people do not operate in the best interests of society, and yet the refrain is the same: the rich are "wealth-creators" and we should be grateful to them rather than making them account for their wealth.

The rich are not wealth-creators, but wealth accumulators, and buying premium London property is part of that process. Having to reveal themselves under Cameron's much touted anti-corruption measures, will, it seems, frighten them off. Estate agents and lawyers - and doubtless interior decorators, security companies, limousine drivers and many others - fear for the crumbs that drop their way from these rich people's tables.

The UK is a dependent economy. It imports far more than it exports, and somehow it has to pay for it. Like those estate agents to the oligarchs it cannot operate without a steady flow of foreign money to balance the books.

Whether it's Chinese participation in HS2 and nuclear power stations, or secretive investors snapping up posh London addresses, or public services outsourced to multi-national corporations, or public institutions auctioned off to the highest bidder, almost everything in Britain that can generate an income stream has been sacrificed to keep the cash flowing in and make investors richer.

It's not sustainable and it's not resilient. Instead of Hinkley C we need local energy production; instead of selling off council housing to the highest bidder we need locally affordable homes. so let's not weep for the departing oligarchs - resilience begins in communities providing for themselves.

Picture: Amanda Slater (Flickr: Belgravia. London.) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Extreme wealth is not a "victimless crime"

Warning! Wealth-creators at work!
Twenty-five hedge fund managers took home $13 billion in earnings last year, according to a new report. Easy enough to be appalled, outraged, disgusted - or even impressed - but what does this really mean for the rest of us?

The assumption is that these people with the Midas touch are applying their hard work, ingenuity and good fortune to generating vast quantities of wealth, of which they then take a substantial cut. They are merely the most successful of the millions of people across the world who are trying to make money in investment markets.

But that phrase "generating vast quantities of wealth" is misleading. The wealth that comes through managing investments is not "created" or "generated" from new, but is reallocated away from other people. This might mean other professional investors losing out, but more often it means society at large. As employees, customers and tax-payers we all contribute to investor profits.

Politicians on all sides have for decades peddled the idea that encouraging people to get extremely rich is good for the rest of us. Whether it's Boris Johnston "humbly thanking the super-rich" or Peter Mandelson famously "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes", we've been led to believe that rich people have to "make" wealth before the rest of us can have a share in it.

The reality is quite the opposite. Wealth is created by people making and doing things that other people want and need. Things like growing food, making furniture, laying bricks, cooking meals, looking after each other, writing books, cleaning toilets, teaching young people, healing sick people, giving care to the elderly. Investors get rich by buying up this wealth-creating work as cheaply as possible, then creaming off as much of its value as they can.

Extreme wealth is not a "victimless crime". It's everybody else's wealth, concentrated into the hands of a small number of people, encouraged by the economic system. That system has had its day. It is time for change.

Photo: © CQC/Joe D Miles - ImageCapture via Flickr under this licence

Monday, 9 May 2016

Housing crisis: there's only one boat, and we're all in it.

Prices are rising, but who is winning?
Having spent the weekend debating the divisiveness of party politics, let's cut to the chase and talk about one of the big political issues of the day, which is housing. Conventional political thinking assumes that this is a generational matter, pitting the interests of older house owners against those of younger renters. Since older people are more likely to vote, that makes for a political no-brainer.

We could buy into that convention, which would make this an issue of inequality, or rich versus poor. This is what the political establishment would like us to do, because it suits the adversarial framing of party politics (in which the rich generally win). Or we could look at it another way, and try to work out what would be in everyone's best interests.

Research published last week shows that the "Bank of Mum and Dad" will help to finance 25% of all UK mortgage transactions in 2016, to the tune of £5 billion. To add to the picture, it is reported today that Nationwide is to offer mortgages that are funded through to age 85. So it's not only mum and dad, but also granny and granddad, who are using the value of their houses to raise finance for the younger generation.

It's pretty clear, therefore, that so far from having different financial interests, the generations in a family are all in the same boat together, each with a hand to an oar. For the oars to be effective, however, they need to be pulling in the same direction, and this is where the politics of fear come in. The older generations may think (or be persuaded to believe) that high house values are essential for them to be able to afford the help the children need.

The maths, however, says that the reverse is the case. Lower prices help everybody, reducing costs both for the first-time buyers themselves and the people who are helping them. Total borrowing, whether by older or younger, is less overall, so the only losers are the banks and lenders.

Lower house prices should bring hope, not fear, but that's not an easy message to convey to generations of established home-owners. I'll post some sums later, to illustrate the logic, but can anyone think of a more powerful way to make this convention-busting point?

Photo credit: copyright Terry Robinson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Saturday, 7 May 2016

People don't vote, because the system offers no solutions

Limited attraction:
"Did not vote" the biggest winner by far
In our tribal, divisive electoral system it's no surprise that the biggest group of all is completely absent. In London on Thursday, 54% did not vote; in Scotland the figure was 44% and in Wales 56%. In English local elections the figures are similar or worse. And these figures are for registered voters. They do not include the hundreds of thousands of (generally young) people of voting age who do not make it onto the electoral roll.

Meanwhile, two election stories are dominating the news cycle. One is the failed Conservative "dog whistle" campaign against Sadiq Khan; the other is the "state of the parties" - who's up, who's down and can Labour win the next General Election under Jeremy Corbyn (or anyone else). Actually, they're the same story. Politics in the media is all about big-name politicians and the parties they belong to, rather than improving the quality of people's lives.

No wonder that a young person I met felt too uninformed about the issues and the candidates to cast a meaningful vote. They reasoned that they would unfairly dilute the votes of people who did know what they were talking about. Such faith in ones fellow citizens is admirable in one sense but almost certainly misplaced. Most people vote for party, not policy. Non-voters are left powerless and dispossessed, because they don't identify with any of the tribes.

In tribal politics, innovation is avoided for its risk of alienating core supporters. So the economy remains broken and unfair, the education system is dragged back to the nineteenth century and the NHS is starved of resources in the interests of tax cuts, because no party dares propose radical change. But radical political and economic change is precisely what we all (and especially young people) need.

Transformative policies, such as a viable basic income and truly affordable housing, will allow lives to be shaped by people's creativity rather than by debt and insecurity. The party system won't deliver them, but a new, values-based politics designed to engage those absent voters potentially could.

Picture: secretlondon123 (originally posted to Flickr as Polling station) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Time to challenge the divisive values of party politics

Winners take all?
How the UK is divided by the party system.
Allegations that the Tories stole the last election by cheating on their spending are far more than a storm in an over-heated social media teacup. They point to an overweaning sense of entitlement in a system that disproportionately favours the big parties. The Conservatives, as the richest party, feel the most entitled, and their dismissal of the cheating claim as an "administrative oversight" suggests that they see rules as an irritation to be brushed off rather than an attempt to level an ever more uneven playing field.

Today is polling day. some people, in Scotland, Wales, London and elsewhere, have important decisions to make. Me - I get to vote for a Police and Crime Commissioner and my first instinct is not to bother, but then I'm reminded that alongside candidates from the main parties is an independent who looks like they know what they're doing. Here's a chance to challenge the system, and with turnout expected to be low my vote could make a difference.

Party politics is divisive and sectarian. Conservatives for those of us well served by the status quo. Labour for those of us in paid work, seeking a bigger share of the cake. Lib Dems? Hard to say any more (although hard-right "neo-liberals" have given the l-word a bad name). Greens for those of us worried about the environment. UKIP for those of us who feel dispossessed. However you look at it the entire system is designed to set people in opposition to one another, as if their interests as human beings are not essentially the same.

Trust in politics has rarely been lower, but to change things we have somehow to participate in the system, however rotten it may be. News that the proposed trans-Atlantic corporate takeover called TTIP may finally have been seen off shows that popular political action can be effective, as campaigns on tax credits, animal welfare and child refugees have also shown. But single issue campaigns, however much of a struggle, are always easier that systemic transformation.

The key to that transformation is to rethink our values. For so long as wealth and money are equated, the system will always seek to divide and rule. If we wish to challenge that assumption we need a new economic model - one dedicated to human wellbeing, in which value is measured not in money or numbers, but in the quality of our relationships, our collaboration and sharing, our sense of fulfillment, our health and, above all, our capacity to care for ourselves, each other and our natural environment.

Picture credit: By Brythones, recoloured by Cryptographic.2014 (This file was derived from:  2010UKElectionMap.svg) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Education is a relationship between pupils, parents and teachers. The government should keep out.

So that's what it means...
Photo: BenLaParole (Own work)
 [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons

If you missed the days at school when you would have learned to identify a determiner, a modal verb or a subordinating conjunction (which I fear I must have), you will drop a lot of marks in the new “harder” KS 2 SATs that are causing such controversy. Fortunately, these are useless pieces of knowledge, of significance only if one treats education as a form of mass-production in which the absence or misplacing of any one pre-determined component is a total fail.

This, presumably, is where schools minister Nick Gibb is coming from when he says “it simply isn’t fair on children to deprive them of a day of their education.” Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell also does not “condone children being taken out of school”. In this way they encapsulate the politician's view of education as a rigid framework of inputs selected and provided by the state, for which parents should be silently grateful.

This view reflects the patrician origins of public education. As each generation was better educated, parents were marginalised on the assumption that they had nothing to offer. If that were ever true, which I doubt, it clearly is no longer. Today's highly-educated parents are well able to assess their children's best interests, and to suggest that a day out of school is a “deprivation” is an outrageous slur on the value of the parent-child relationship.

Teachers, also, should be treated with respect. For pupils arbitrarily to miss a carefully crafted lesson is impolite, at best. Education is a partnership between parents and teachers, designed to help children to flourish in their own, unique ways. It's a vital engagement upon which government is systematically trampling, kicking both parties with equal vehemence with its oversized boots.

For this reason today's “Kids Strike” has a much wider significance than the grotesque new SATs that have provoked it. It heralds a battle to wrest control of education out of the hands of government and to embed it where it truly belongs - in a creative relationship between children and their parents and teachers.