Thursday, 19 November 2009


OK, E8Voice is finally dead. I launched my new blog- which contains the entire archive from E8Voice- at

Anyone who links to then I'd be really grateful if you could change your link to the content on this site will not be updated though it will remain live for the time being.

Go on, give the new blog a visit and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Clause IV- did Labour ditch too much?

When Labour ditched its old Clause IV- which was the right thing to do- did it ditch too much? I am increasingly having to pinch myself when I observe some of things that are now happening such as the public ownership of High Street banks. The events of the last two years have brought a new found intellectual freedom. I never thought that I would ever revisit the old Clause IV. But that is exactly what I found myself doing today for my labour movement column on LabourList:
"The left used to be all about ownership. Democratic socialism saw ownership as power. Without common ownership, there couldn’t be socialism. Hence Labour’s old Clause IV: equity was premised on the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

Then the Gaitskellites and the revisionists got their hands on the concept. The journey from the late 1950s to the final repeal of the old Clause IV in 1995 was a forty year march of the Labour party away from paying much heed to ownership as a means of creating a more equitable society. If you forage through the verbiage of the current Clause IV you find such gems as how Labour will work to ‘promote equality of opportunity.’ Nice to know but such words float into the ether before long.

While the left was quickly dragging itself away from discussing any meaningful concept of ownership a very different thing was happening on the right: it was very actively discussing ownership and it proved to be an intellectually and politically reenergising discussion. Meanwhile, the new Clause IV doesn’t even mention ownership."
Just before you think I've taken an abrupt turn left, it is worth bearing a few things in mind:

- Common ownership is a very different thing to public ownership. In fact they are completely distinct.
- This is not a left or right issue: Thatcher was very interested in spreading ownership though her distribution was inequitable. Progressive conservatives are now openly talking about 'recapitalising the poor' and David Cameron himself seems to be engaged with this agenda.
- Ownership reconnects Labour to some forgotten threads of leftist philosophy: GDH Cole (above), RH Tawney, JB Priestley, and Common Wealth. Mutualism could be an idea whose time has come.

It's fine keeping all this at a philosophical level but now there needs to be a move towards investigating how this could work in practice (and there are already some experiments in Scotland.) To that end, I am jointly working on an idea which I'll float in the next week or two.....stay posted.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Why Tripadvisor doesn't work (and Wikipedia does)

I used for the first time this weekend. The main bulk of its contents are generated by its users just as is the case with Wikipedia.

However, popular though it is I won't be using it for a very good reason. Opinion requires a certain stock of trust whereas fact is just fact. In the case of you have no idea who the reviewers are. The law of averages doesn't work when it comes to opinion- the average may be in a very different place to where you are personally as anyone on the far left or right of British politics could testify.

So I put my scepticism to the test with two hotels where I have stayed in the last two years. One was excellent- the Marmara Pera Hotel in Istanbul- to the extent that I'll be staying there again the weekend after next. One was average to below average- the Prime Hotel St John in Rome. I won't be staying there again.

Amazingly, gives them both a pretty similar score. The Marmara Pera, despite its spectacular Bosphorous view, roof top bar and the fact it houses one of the best modern restaurants in Istanbul, scores 85%. Prime Hotel St John scores 81% despite the fact that it's an utterly mediocre, over-priced business hotel. It's basically a Travelodge despite its four-star rating.

And that's the difference between tripadvisor and Wikipedia. The latter is based on facts. It is either wrong or right but you can check it. It's right almost all of the time so you are willing to go with it in the main. Opinions can't be checked. On tripadvisor you don't know who the people are, what they are looking for, what they like, how picky they are, or whether there's more motivation to post if you've had an extremely good or extremely bad experience. So there just isn't the foundation to trust in the site. Trust is very important to go with an opinion.

So I was interested to see the NHS going with a 'tripadvisor' style system for ranking health services. Take this example of my local GP. There's only one review so not much to go on. But surely I should be mistrustful given that this is an anonymous opinion?

Strangely though, it works in the case of Because, despite the hype, it's not actually like tripadvisor at all. Its ratings have a fairly factual basis: whether you can get through on the phone, how flexible the practice is, how you are treated by the GP and the staff, and the information that you receive.

So which is an excellent web-site- works precisely because it's not like tripadvisor. It's reviews are based on factual assessments. So when I come to use the NHS, I will be using When I come to book my holiday I won't bother with tripadvisor. Oh, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't use Wikipedia. Of course I do.

Friday, 13 November 2009

An Afghanistan strategy built on quicksand?

So the US Ambassador to Afghanistan has put a spanner in the works of mission creep in Afghanistan. I don't know why the US military and diplomatic corps don't just publish all their advice on the internet, it seems to end up there in days anyway.

General Eikenberry's memo cautions against a further troop build-up in the face of the continuing dysfunctionality of the Karzai regime. MSNBC reports it as follows:
"That stance comes in the midst of forceful reservations about a possible troop buildup from the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, according to a second top administration official.

In strongly worded classified cables to Washington, Eikenberry said he had misgivings about sending in new troops while there are still so many questions about the leadership of Afghan President Hamid Karzai."
If there is one lesson from the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it is that you can't build a modern state on quicksand. And Karzai and his corrupt government are mushy to their very core. What are the chances of him becoming a paragon of virtue? Minimal I would say. President Obama is right to carefully consider whether to send the 40,000 troops requested by ISAF Commander, General Stanley McChrystal. He needs to use any build-up- at the very least as leverage to get change in the Afghanistani government. I would go as far as to suggest that Karzai, despite his election victory, should step down for the simple reason that his incompetence vastly the increases the risk of the troop surge strategy. His other option should be that we leave him to the Taliban. His choice.

Patrick Cockburn argues the moral hazard point forcibly in The Independent today:
"Mr Eikenberry is rightly sceptical about the dispatch of reinforcements to prop up a regime which is more of a racket than an administration. The troops may kill more Taliban, but they will also be their recruiting sergeants. As for the Afghan government, its ill-paid forces will not be eager to fight harder if they can get the Americans and the British to do their fighting for them."
The superb Christina Lamb analysed the situation with customary thoroughness in the Sunday Times last weekend. Here are some highlights.

On the Afghan police:
"As the terrible events of last week show, creating a reliable police force is another huge obstacle. Nato officials estimate that 90% of Afghan police officers are illiterate and a third are drug addicts. Paid just $100 a month for dangerous work — more than 1,000 officers have been killed in the past year — the threat of corruption is high. The rush to expand the force has meant training is minimal and background checks consist merely of two other policemen vouching for them."
On the dilemma facing the Afghan people:
"Most Afghans are on the fence, with the Taliban intimidating them on one side, and corrupt officials and police demanding bribes on the other. In southern Afghanistan there are many cases where locals have called on the Taliban to come back because the police have been raping their young boys or have failed to deal with highway robbers."
The situation is desperate. The potential for serious further losses severe. The chances of success- when Karzai is the only option- are very uncertain. And yet, we can't just walk away and let the country descend into chaos. Equally, getting further and further embroiled in the situation is highly risky.

As I wrote last week on the anniversary of Barack Obama's election victory:
"And beyond America's shores, the most difficult decision of his presidency awaits. The last great progressive reformer, Lyndon B Johnson had his presidency scuppered by Vietnam. It is not melodramatic to suggest that President Obama faces just as serious a choice.

It is a choice that is about life and liberty not politics. The Afghanistan war is going disastrously. President Obama must choose between retrenchment and deeper engagement. A halfway house - and his inner pragmatist does have a tendency to split the difference - will feel unsatisfactory. The big strategic question suggests that he must go with the recommendations of the ISAF commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal or radically change direction.

If he goes for an additional 20,000 troops instead of the 40,000 requested then he will need all his powers of persuasion. Whatever course he chooses he must follow through on the pledge in his victory speech to ‘always be honest with you about the challenges we face.'"
The all or change strategy choice is one that military strategist David Kilcullen outlines in The Guardian today. His preference is for all. I can completely understand why President Obama is torn. There seems to be some shift in his thinking towards minimal additional troops to concentrate on training with almost no additional combat troops as Democracy Arsenal discusses.

What this strategy implies is a greater use of the predator drone strategy for counter terrorism which has been so controversial in Pakistan. Joe Biden is reported to favour this approach. It's by no means perfect and don't underestimate the popular repulsion at unmanned drones killing civilians with guided missiles. As the New Yorker's Jane Mayer reported, it may have led to the killing of the head of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud but a few hundred civilians were killed in the process.

The military commanders may now have struck upon the right strategy. It has only taken them 8 years. But with the Karzai government as it is, it is a strategy built on quicksand. General Eikenberry's caution is more convincing at this point.

As President Obama makes his final decision, he must remember the ghost of Christmas past, President Lyndon B Johnson. He must trust the spirit and intelligence of the ghost of Christmas present, President Barack Obama. And he must fear the ghost of Christmas future, President Barack B Johnson.

The Sun apologises

Shameful and shameless The Sun has been forced to apologise for getting the spelling of Jacqui Janes' name wrong. Now they just need to apologise for their disgusting treatment of the Prime Minister.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Climate change Thursday #15

Is there a case for carbon capture and storage?

So carbon capture and storage is finally happening. Scientific American reports on the first power station to not only capture carbon dioxide- which in this case you do by liquifying the gas with bakers' ammonia then separating it- but also store it 2,375 metres under West Virginia.

The New Haven 'Mountaineer' project (pictured right) only captures 1.5% of the CO2 currently. When it is expanded to 20% of the Alstom's plant, it will cost an extra 4c per Kilowatt hour on top of the 5c that the plant currently costs. The research and development outlay will be $700million. This isn't cheap but it is becoming a reality and that is what is important- with some Federal funds thrown in.

This is all good news for the UK government. The Department of Energy and Climate Change published its Framework for the Development of Clean Coal earlier this week alongside a series of National Planning Statements on energy policy.

Coal currently provides almost a third of our energy and is extremely polluting and this is not a trivial issue. My instinct is that we should build no more coal-fired power stations at all. Given the uncertainty about whether technology will actually reduce carbon emissions at an affordable cost and if the carbon can stored safely and without leakage I had a degree of initial scepticism. It just sounded too good to be true.

However, that would be the right policy response if the UK was the only country in the world but it's not.

The reality is that others will continue to build coal-fired power plants regardless of whether we do or not. Just take China (sorry China I'm always picking on you which is mean): 80% of its energy comes from coal-fired power stations; it now consumes more coal that Europe, Japan and the US combined; it may build some of the most efficient power stations in the world but its emissions are still forecast to increase by 3% per year according to the IEA; and it is building these power stations at an eye-popping rate of one per week.

So we need to have a crack at developing the technology. It might as well be here in the UK. Ed Miliband's plan is for any new power plant to be completely CCS from 2020 with the four proposed CCS demonstration projects fully retrofitted by 2025.

Of course, there is not just an environmental consideration here but there is naked economic self-interest involved as well. There could be a £40billion market in this creating 30,000 to 60,000 jobs in the process. In the dry inhuman language ofeconomics, I guess you could describe that as a 'positive externality.'

In the context of the credit crunch and as we look to re-balance our economy away from an over-reliance on financial services that is no bad thing. It is important to state though that the economic opportunities offered by clean coal are not sufficient reason to pursue its technological development.

However, when you combine the environmental benefits with the economic and our energy requirements then what might seem like a policy of evasion becomes a compelling proposition instead. If we all going to keep on building coal-fired power stations then we have to do something about the emissions. This may be a solution; it's worth a try.

The surprising Mr Cameron

David Cameron's Hugo Young Memorial Lecture The Big Society was one of the more fascinating developments in the political discussion over recent months. I've discussed it in my LabourList column this week.

Just how do get from his conference speech a few weeks ago to Tuesday's speech? How can you simultaneously believe, without some major philosophical gymnastics, that 'it is more government that got us into this mess' and 'we need to use the state to remake society.'

Others have had a hack at the factual basis of the speech (Next Left, Channel 4 News, and Left Foot Forward) and on this score it was very dodgy indeed.

However, there is a much more interesting point to make. There is clearly a battle for the soul of the Leader of the Opposition in his private office. On Tuesday, Steve Hilton won. Steve Hilton is the good Cameron, progressive to his core. However, the conference Cameron was Thatcherite to his core. The good Cameron is far more intriguing. I have to say that notion that you can use the state to remake civil society is truly radical. Most social democrats, myself included, would be cautious about pursuing that as a notion. And yet, here you have the leader of the Conservative party making exactly that point.

If he really meant all this as a fundamental attack on poverty, he would have to make arguments about redistribution, asset and wealth transfer, large scale investment and he is not willing to make those arguments. However, in terms of building a more mutualistic, solidaristic, and activist society that takes more reciprocal responsibility- and I regard all that to be absolutely the right thing to seek- his arguments do perhaps have some force.

The real question becomes which David Cameron will emerge from this internal struggle (within the Tory party and within himself)? We can't say but Osborne-ite masochistic economics might force the answer. That would be a pity.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Dan Hannan at it again (on NHS!)

Dan, Dan, Dan Hannan, the gift that keeps on giving. So here we are again. This time he's placed himself in front of the cameras again for US libertarian outfit, Campaign for Liberty. Let's all watch together then discuss:

Did you enjoy the frames of Hitler when he was talking about the establishment of the NHS? Very stylish and clever. Remember, healthcare reform in the US is Nazi- lots of people say so like these people and these. Nicely done, Campaign for Liberty.

So what can we say of Dan Hannan? Well, you could say he's extremely naive to allow himself to be used in this way- a useful idiot for the American Right just like Viscount Christopher Monckton, for example (in his case, it was all a communist conspiracy- shift the labels, same concept.) I'd be amazed if Dan Hannan saw the footage that accompanied his words. He can't have done, surely?

But away from the theatrics and symbolism, there is a point of substance. He states (using very selective data that he doesn't even bother to back up):
"You know we're not the worst in the developed world, but the United Kingdom does pretty badly."
Well, let's compare the UK and US using OECD data (UK and USA):

- The UK has 2.5 physicians per 1000 people, 10 nurses per 1000, 2.6 acute care beds per 1000, a life of expectancy of 79.1 years, and an infant mortality rate of 4.8 per 1000.
- The US has 2.4 physicians per 1000, 10.6 nurses per 1000, 2.7 acute beds per 1000,life expectancy was 78.1 years, and an infant mortality rate of 6.7 per 1000.

Most people would say that the UK was marginally better than the US overall with the exception of infant mortality where it was considerably better. Why? Because infant mortality is heavily correlated with poverty and an unequal healthcare system- like the US has.

BUT the big difference? There was one stat that I left out. That is the cost of healthcare. For a healthcare system that is comparable but worse in significant ways, the US has to spend a whopping 16% of its GDP. We pay 8.4% of GDP.

So Dan Hannan can allow himself to used as a pawn in the US healthcare debate all he likes using selective data and unsupported assertion as he goes but he is doing his country down and completely off target.

I like Dan Hannan immensely. It's like having Christmas a dozen a times a year- whenever he opens his mouth basically. Keep it coming, please.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Sun- shameful and shameless

When vituperative Tory bloggers can't even bring themselves to throw a right hook at the Prime Minister you know that an attack is below the belt. And that is exactly where The Sun finds itself today. I don't know whether it was their desire to follow through on their election commitment to the Tories or just exceedingly poor editorial judgement that led them to attack the Prime Minister for his letter to Jacqui Janes but it is completely misjudged. When even the paper's recently departed political editor questions their judgement then you know they've got it woefully wrong.

Actually, it was a touching thing to do and demonstrates the Prime Minister's humanity. No one should belittle the deep grief and hurt that Mrs Janes is feeling. She deserves our utmost sympathy. There is no greater loss than losing a child. No parent should have to outlive their children and it is an agony to find yourself in that terrible situation. Gordon Brown knows this as any parent who has been in this situation knows all too well.

Who can honestly say that, when we hand write letters, we write neatly, legibly, with the correct spelling and punctuation to exacting standards? In the computer age it's a skill that is in decline. Nonetheless, sometimes, when we want to make a personal connection with someone we do get out the old Basildon Bond and put pen to paper. Should Number 10 have checked the letter? Probably, but that's really nit-picking.

The reality is, this letter was a heart-felt and genuine conveyance of regret and sympathy. It was a sensitive gesture. Mrs Janes feels differently and we have to respect that. However, to me, this is a remarkable and touching thing for an extremely hard-working Prime Minister to do. It says a lot about the qualities of the man. It says something rather different about The Sun.

Today, the bodies of six extremely brave soldiers are being flown into Wootton Bassett. They were willing to give their lives for the duties that their country asks them to perform. We can't help but feel humble. We can't help but continually question whether their sacrifice is a cost that must be paid for our security and the security of the world. Those are issues for another day and they are by no means simple.

But for the The Sun to suggest that this Prime Minster, Gordon Brown, has anything other than a complete awareness of and sensitivity to the pain, suffering and sacrifice that the families of the bereaved experience is offensive in the extreme. I really hope that this was just a misjudgement by The Sun. I hope they have the decency to offer the Prime Minister an apology. Yesterday's Sun headline screamed: "Bloody shameful." Yes, The Sun, you are and shameless too.

Monday, 9 November 2009

“This is the Captain. Brace for impact.”

Guest post by Stephen Adshead

On 15 January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 was hit by a large flock of birds, shortly after takeoff, disabling both engines. The pilot - Chesley Sullenberger (aka Sully) – weighed up returning to LaGuardia or attempting to land at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, but quickly determined that neither was feasible. In near silence (there was zero thrust coming out of the engines) he smoothly ditched the Airbus A320 into the Hudson River. Having made sure that everyone had evacuated, and retrieved the maintenance logbook, Sully walked off the plane. All his passengers and crew survived.

Sully had spent a career preparing for the vital decisions he made that day and from the first moment that mattered (deciding where to land) to the last (being the last one to walk off the plane) he exuded calm authority – This is the Captain. Brace for impact. When Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles flew together again on 1 October 2009, four of Flight 1549’s passengers, and a significant number of the US media, requested to be aboard. When Sully gave the pre-flight announcement, the applause drowned out his voice. A few even stood up.

Around the same time that Sully reunited with Skiles, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it is seeking a $5.4m civil penalty against US Airways (and a $3.8 million fine against United Airlines). The FAA alleges US Airways operated eight aircraft on a total of 1,647 flights last autumn and winter whilst the planes were in a potentially unsafe condition. According to CNN, two Airbus A320s were allegedly flown without complying with an ordered inspection for possible cracking of a landing gear part.

Any failure to carry out inspections could have been – though fortunately wasn’t - a moment that mattered. A less obvious moment, however, was a cost-cutting measure relating to stationery.

When Skiles picked up the emergency procedures manual he discovered that the tabs marking out, for example, the guidance on safely ditching into water, had been removed. In the time between bird-strike and brace-for-impact, and in a flight that lasted, in total, 6 minutes, Skiles could have been found thumbing through the index. Fortunately for the 150 or so passengers and crew, Sully already knew how to ditch a powerless plane into water. His training, experience and perhaps most importantly judgement allowed him, in the moments that mattered, to overcome all of the obstacles before him (and to transcend the limits of the stationery cupboard).

Sully is a visiting scholar at the University of California’s Centre for Catastrophic Risk Management and co-authored with NASA a paper dealing with error-inducing contexts in aviation. There are many risk management lessons here, including broadening where to look for “error-inducing contexts” and the potential impact of poor judgement exercised by even the lowliest within an organisation. As for the tabs, Sully had complained previously about the decision to remove them and raises the topic once more in his new book ‘Highest Duty’. I would wager that he will now be heard and the tabs will be put back in.

Stephen Adshead is a litigator-turned-risk manager-turned-blogger.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Climate change Thursday #14

There was a landmark case this week when a sustainability manager for a residential landlord, Grainger plc, was awarded permission to appeal against his dismissal on equality grounds: his 'belief' in man-made climate change constituted a philosophical belief and so was covered by the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003. The regulations encompass, "any religion, religious belief, or philosophical belief".
His solicitor, Shah Qureshi, said: "Essentially what the judgment says is that a belief in man-made climate change and the alleged resulting moral imperative is capable of being a philosophical belief and is therefore protected by the 2003 religion or belief regulations."
Wendy M Grossman takes on Tim Nicholson, the man at the heart of the unfair dismissal case, in a column on The Guardian website today. She concludes:
"Religions have beliefs. Science is not a belief system but the best process we have for establishing the truth, piece by independently replicated piece. Nicholson should be appalled by the ruling he has won."
So are we dealing with a philosophy or are we dealing with science and should Tim Nicholson have been given the opportunity to contest his dismissal on equality grounds?

My first instinct was to disagree with Wendy M Grossman. It is often the case that anthropogenic climate change nay-sayers (whenever I call them 'deniers' they get all semantically stroppy so I'll keep away from the word for this week only as a special treat) accuse those who accept the science -i.e. pretty much all the world's scientific, policy-making, and corporate communities- of being religious.

Ms Grossman is absolutely right to refute that accusation as I do. Man-made climate change is real. It is grounded in the highest quality scientific research conducted by some of the world's leading scientific institutes, organisations, and academic establishments. We can certainly accept the causes of climate change with well in excess of 90% certainty. What the precise consequences will be are more debatable but we can look at various scenarios, none of which are good news.

However, environmentalism is a different thing. Given anthropogenic climate change there are a wide variety of responses. We could do nothing and accept the consequences: huge loss of life, extinction, famine, drought, floods, extremely hazardous weather events, war, and mass migration amongst other things. We could try to halfheartedly mitigate it. Or we could choose to adopt the conviction that collective action to avert disaster is possible but it requires sacrifice and imagination- we've managed it before so why not again?

Environmentalists of all different persuasions believe in the latter course. I count myself in that group. It is a political and philosophical outlook. The philosophical bit is based on the Brundtland Report in 1987:
"Sustainable development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
My only qualm with that quote is that it is not about future generations only. It is already about the people who inhabit this globe today.

The political belief is the conviction that, no matter how great the challenge, we have within us, as a global political community, the ability to fundamentally alter course should we so choose.

That is why my instinct was to disagree with Wendy Grossman: anthropogenic climate change is science but environmentalism is a belief (though one that it is debatable whether it falls under the Employment Equality Regulations given that it has a political component in my view.)

In the end though, I ended up agreeing with her as a result of both the statement from Mr Nicholson and the statement of his solicitor which combines science and belief. To recap, his solicitor said his philosophy was: "a belief in man-made climate change and the alleged resulting moral imperative." The first element is science but the second is belief- it is very dangerous to combine the two. The simple fact is that if you do then you allow those who would challenge the belief to, by default and extension, challenge the science also but without any requirement for scientific rigour.

However, I do wish Mr Nicholson, who is clearly a committed and articulate environmentalist, all the very best in securing the change that he and I believe in.

How to change politics for good

I was asked to respond to OpenLeft's Which way's left? conversation on whether the left should disperse power. It seems to me that the answer is a qualified yes as this piece argues. However, I decided to float a new idea for House of Lords reform that could enshrine a better separation of powers between the Government and Parliament.

It has the following elements:

- Members elected on an AV+ basis using the old European constituencies with a regional top up.
- Elections would be every five years and coincide with European elections.
- No member of the new House of Lords can be a member of the government. If they join the Government they would have to resign their seat.
- A minimum age of 40.
- Parties would commit to selecting candidates on the basis of expertise and to reflect the diversity of the UK.

Why make these changes?
"By having a different source of authority - and timing - this new House of Lords would strengthen Parliament and make it more pluralistic. Adding in electoral reform of the House of Commons – the alternative vote - and the opening out of political parties through the introduction of primaries then the centrifugal nature of our political system begins to be reversed. There would be more counterweight in the system.

Wouldn’t this make social and economic reform more difficult? At times, perhaps, but it would also improve the quality of legislation as Governments would have to operate by consensus. It would also embed institutions that had broad consent beyond the lifetime of a Parliament or a Government. Pluralism, long-termism, consensus, and diversity could be locked into our democratic system."
Which brings me nicely on to David Cameron's absolutely barmy intention to introduce a UK Sovereignty Bill (it didn't really bring me nicely on to this but whatever....) There are two possibilities for the Bill:

- It is meaningless. Therefore it achieves nothing but may simply make the UK look silly. Parliament is already sovereign- we can leave the EU at any time.
- It is meaningful. In which case, we are leaving the European Union. European law supercedes UK law. Any UK law passed which suggests otherwise is incompatible with EU treaties and, therefore, we would have to leave. Potty.

Fraser Nelson writes:
"Mr Cameron’s proposed Sovereignty Bill — declaring the primacy of English law over the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg — will also be meaningless unless it includes the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg."
Er, that is not meaningless I'm afraid. That would mean that the UK is leaving the EU. Quite meaningful, I would say. I'd be interested to hear whether Fraser Nelson has got confirmation that is what the legislation would contain. If it does, then Cameron is committing to the UK going it alone.

Don't take my word for it. Here is Kenneth Clarke describing such legislation as: "fundamentally incompatible with EU membership."

All this lets the eurosceptic genie out of the bottle. He is placing himself in a position of fundamental and ongoing conflict with the EU. Where does that end up? It ends up in only one place: a referendum on leaving the EU as he won't get his own way. Playing with fire Mr Cameron.

Post script: The BBC adds a bit more colour to the story. Pierre Lallouche is simply saying what others are thinking.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

President Barack B Johnson?

I just had a piece posted on Progressonline: "To become a great president, Obama must learn to govern - as well as campaign - in poetry." The headline says it all, as does the conclusion:
"Another aphorism in US politics is that ‘Washington always wins.' As shown, there is cause for a healthy disdain of aphorism. If there's one man who can find a way of breaking iron rules, it's President Obama. Understandably, he keeps getting sidetracked, taking on Fox News rather than speaking to the American people. But he needs to discover his transcendent voice once again.

It's been a good year since his iconic victory. To become a great president, he must remember what secured that victory. He was the voice, inspiration and guide for a people who had lost their way. Mid-term elections loom a year from now. This is the moment. There is a fierce urgency to now."
In the piece, I discuss the coming decision he has to make on Afghanistan. It really is a bog strategic moment. It is dangerous to reduce such complex situations to binary options. However, if he goes for surge- as General Stanley McChrystal recommends- then he should really go for it. If he sends an additional 20,000 instead of 40,000 that will look weak and he will end up with the worst of both worlds. If he decides to retrench and go for a strategy more focused on counter-terrorism as opposed to counter-insurgency then he should have the courage of his convictions and explain why he has chosen such a course to the American people. Interestingly, earlier today Kim Howells advocated just such a course for the UK to take.

Whatever he decides, his presidency could be defined by this decision. The ghost of Lyndon B Johnson- a remarkably adept and successful reformist president domestically but with a disastrous foreign policy- hangs over the decision. He is right and wise to take his time.

Osbornomics- the triumph of hope over reality

Don't worry there will be some Obama later. However, the piece I've written is more a reflection on where we are than a celebration of the victory itself. There was plenty of that last year and the early part of this year. Interestingly, looking back at the blog at that time I didn't write anything about his victory at all. I think that I'd just had enough, focusing instead on finishing the book. I still had a conclusion to write....

Anyway, the more prosaic business of the economy: people's jobs, homes and businesses.

Giles Wilkes at CentreReform has run some separate scenarios on the Conservative approach to solving the fiscal deficit and extracting the economy from recession. The Osborne strategy is to lift the burden from fiscal supports and let exports and capital investment take the strain.

It could work. It's just highly unlikely. In Slash and Grow. Spending cuts and economic recovery. Wilkes points out:
"Several organisations, from the CBI to the Bank of England, predict that the UK can only grow sustainably through net exports and business investment. Consumption, both by households and the government, needs to fall. But if these two elements (which tend to comprise 80-85% of the economy) are to remain stagnant, the other two will be left with a huge burden to carry. The highest 5 year contribution that capital investment and net exports have ever made was in the mid 1990s, when they added an average of 1.1 percentage points to annual growth.

An even more extraordinary performance will be needed if a future Conservative administration is to achieve budget sustainability by 2015. This is because, even with spending flat in real terms for five years, the gap will need to be closed by higher revenues, which require economic growth."
And remember, such a strategy would require there to be sufficient growth in world demand to take up the slack of the loss in domestic fiscal support. Other countries would also have to be pursuing strategies that were not similar to ours (everyone can't devalue all at once.) And the business sector would have to gear itself towards export markets very rapidly- this is in an economy that has a largely non-tradeable sector (Ocado can't deliver in Brussels.)

Moreover, capital investment- the second Tory anticipated economic recovery driver- is highly volatile. There is no way of predicting where it will head. It is one reason for a degree of caution in the imposition of tougher capital reserve requirements for banks- that may drain the markets of liquidity just as the recovery is gaining some pace. I must emphasise this is absolutely a short-term consideration. And you really have to wonder just how capital investment can expand at the 9% rate needed in Wilkes' Osborne scenario to get the deficit back to sustainability. The Government is not having to force Lloyds TSB and RBS to lend because they are desperate to anyway.....

This also assumes that there is a huge appetite for corporates to leverage themselves up again. There will be caution both with households and corporates if we look at, say, what happened in Japan in the 1990s and 2000s which bears some similarities to our current situation, i.e. it is a credit recession rather than an inflationary adjustment.

So what is likely to happen when fiscal supports are withdrawn?

Well, time to dust down my trusty old friend, Richard Koo, once again. Japan tried a premature fiscal consolidation in both 1997 and 2001 as I discussed a few weeks back. What was the result? Well, fiscal deficits actually increased and they precipitated a credit crunch and multiple banking failures as well.

What this means in practice is for George Osborne's highly optimistic, high risk scenario to work he needs an enormous amount of luck.

For what it's worth, my prediction? Should the Tories win and begin cutting expenditure immediately, Osborne will be forced to reverse his policy within a year or face a new economic/ fiscal crisis.

Monday, 2 November 2009

New York 23 and Republican malaise

Well, well. The rabid ideological rump that is the Republican party has got itself in a complete state in the special election being held in the New York 23 congressional district (hands up if you thought New York 23 was a new HBO cop drama.) Not satisfied with taking down a presidential campaign, Sarah Palin is now doing her best to hand another seat in Congress to Democrats. She is the gift that just keeps on giving.

New York 23 was vacated when John McHugh, the sitting Republican representative, was appointed as Secretary to the Army by President Obama. McHugh won the seat by 65% to 35% last year. The Democrats haven't won there since the civil war.

Sarah Palin and other Republican wannabes like Minnesota's Governor Tim Pawlenty decided in their base-tickling wisdom to back an independent conservative running for the seat, Doug Hoffman, against Democrat challenger, Bill Owens. The official Republican candidate, Dede Scozzafava, was furious and pulled out the race after her poll ratings started to plummet.

And now? Going into the election tomorrow, Bill Owens has a very narrow poll lead. It doesn't end there. Dede Scozzafava has now endorsed, wait for it, Bill Owens. If the Democrats do manage to grab New York 23- even if they slip up in the Virginia (as seems likely) or New Jersey gubernatorial races- this will be a huge blow to Republicans. It won't make a huge difference or even any difference at all in congressional legislative calculations. But it will show that this ideologically pure party is getting close to dysfunctionality. The centre of American politics is shifting to the progressives.

The irony is that this special election was precipitated by President Obama's latest show of bipartisanship. Is that word even in the Republican lexicon?

Post script: And the Democrats win....thanks Sarah, you can come again.

Tories in a tizz over Europe

So the Tories have got themselves in a tizz about Europe once again. They want to re-negotiate Britain's membership of the EU and Cameron will put that in his manifesto. Of course, when he says re-negotiate we instantly assume he means with other European leaders. But no, he actually means with Sun Editor, Dominic Mohan, the former Editor of the paper's bizarre column. Precisely.

Of course, they are going to keep all this bottled up. There's an electorate to be hoodwinked and an election to be won don't you know. Tim Montgomerie, Editor of ConservativeHome, tries to ride both horses- loyalty and euroscpeticism. It will work for a few months but will explode in David Cameron's face should he win next May.

I would love to be a fly on the wall in Paris, Berlin, and Madrid when the first attempt to re-negotiate the Treaties is made. David Cameron may well be prepared for a hostile reaction. I'm sure Margaret Thatcher's 'give us our money back' rhetoric could be resuscitated. He could conveniently forget that two years after Fontainebleau, Mrs Thatcher signed the Single European Act, the biggest single expansion of European power since the Treaty of Rome. Maybe he could be honest and call his rallying cry: 'give me my party back.' But he'll be disappointed. He won't be met with hostility. He'll be met with ridicule.

Maybe once they've wiped the tears of laughter away, they will decide to get all pragmatic. Sure, you can have those social and employment rights opt outs- things like maternity leave, guaranteed holidays, rights for agency workers (which also protects non-agency worker from having their terms competed away)- but there's a price. Um, we'll have that £3billion rebate for a start. You want to reform CAP? Silly boy. I hope you don't mind Mr Cameron, but we've put you with Iceland and Slovenia for the dinner. Don't worry your table gets jelly and ice cream rather than grown-ups' puddings. You just love jelly and ice cream, don't you?

(As an aside, what happens if David Cameron does succeed in a re-negotiation? Would that not be a Treaty change? So would he not be bound to have a referendum in accordance with his own promise? And what if he then lost that referendum? Just a thought....)

Jessica Asato makes the important point that Labour shouldn't just carp from the side-lines and revel in the Tories repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot for no purpose. We should 'make the case.' But what is that case?

Well, it's about national sovereignty actually. The EU, far from being a dilution of national sovereignty, is a reclaiming of national sovereignty. In a world of large regional powers, with open commerce, movement of people, global communications, and large-scale cross-border environmental damage, there is little use in defending formal sovereignty. Instead, you have to find ways of cooperating with like-minded nations to confront these challenges. That is a reclaim of de facto sovereignty- you have a greater say over the future of your people.

What is the consequence of this? We can better manage and grow our economy, fight crime and terrorism, manage our borders, reduce climate change, protect the rights of our workers, influence global affairs and confront the multiplicity of risks that modern nations face.

Is Europe perfect? No, and we have to be clear about that. We have to support the EU but also articulate a strong case for reform. It is woefully undemocratic. What say do we have over the appointment of the new president of the Council? Or the next president of the Commission? Or the Commission itself? We can only influence these appointments through the European Parliament and so there is little public debate. There is a severe deficit of transparency- what actually happens in Council meetings? The continuation of the CAP in its expansive form is a disgrace and completely unjustified.

None of this can change without enjoying a degree of influence. None of these things are costs that outweigh the benefits but nor are they insignificant. But our influence over our own affairs and our global influence (just listen to the noises coming out of Washington) depends on being a strong member of the EU. Any movement towards the periphery away from the core is detrimental to our national interest and our sovereignty.

Ultimately, that is the cost of a Conservative government. David Cameron has already placed himself on the very periphery of the EU- through his rheroric; his clubbing together with a rag-bag of anti-semites, homophobes, and climate change deniers in the European Parliament, sticking two fingers up to President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel in the meantime; and with his determination to suck Europe back into an institutional wrangle. That is not in Britain's self-interest. That is not statesmanship.

*The image is courtesy of the Ministry of Truth.
** It is also worth reading Next Left on this.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Climate change Thursday #13

OK, it's Friday. But who's splitting hairs?

Let me introduce you to Viscount Christopher Monckton. He's convinced that the Copenhagen Treaty is a result of communists spilling out and taking over the world from Greenpeace to the US to everything else. It really is worth watching. I got as much joy out of it as I used to from watching David Icke in action.

Imagine my surprise when I heard that he's been interviewed on Glenn Beck's radio show:

I enjoy Glenn Beck also. Really. Who needs Jon Stewart when you have Glenn Beck for entertainment?

Monday, 26 October 2009

Taking on City excess

Will Hutton pitched into the discussion about whether we should look at fundamental structural change within the banking industry. Last week, I signaled agreement with Mervyn King's suggestion that we should split commercial banking from investment banking. Hutton is clear about the scale of the challenge:
"But reforming big finance ranks alongside climate change and the Middle East conflict as one of the great policy challenges of our time."
However, he doesn't follow King's desire to see banks split down the middle. He accepts Lord Adair Turner's line that such a split would be impractical and undesirable; better instead to manage capital requirements and, perhaps, think about some form of transactions tax if that was insufficient to curb riskier behaviour. Hutton does go much further than Lord Turner in suggesting:
"Britain should now break up its banks that are too big to fail as the US once trust-busted Standard Oil in 1911 when it got far too large – the King solution. The impact on British finance and the powerful financial oligarchs would be irreversible and unforgettable. We could create more than a dozen banks where we now have four – NatWest, Bank of Scotland, and the Halifax should be given their independence again – and new banks created to specialise in infrastructure and innovation financing, where there is a gaping hole. There could be a genuinely competitive banking market, fighting to increase lending in all parts of the country and driving a sustained recovery. No single bank could pose a systemic risk because none would be large enough."
So how does Hutton's trust-busting proposal stack up?

There are three questions for me: does it actually reduce systemic risk, does it eliminate moral hazard, would there be banks that were still be 'too big to fail'?

On the first of these, the proposal fails. The risk inherent in the system (sorry to get all Monty Python on you) is what is risky. Sounds tautological? Well, let me throw another tautology your way. The systemic risk is the system.

Having scattered tautology all around, let me hit you with an oxymoron (stick with this, serious point coming.) John Cassidy sees the financial meltdown in terms of 'rational irrationality.' What he means is that while the medium term consequences of decisions are irrational, short-term decisions are entirely rational. So, for example, a Wall Street CEO who invests in a risky class of financial products knows that he (almost all are 'he') may be jeopardising his firm's future, and knows that if other CEOs are making the same calls then the entire system may be jeopardised. However, he can't but make the investment or his company's stock will forgo growth, his reputation will suffer and he will lose his job.

Over to Cassidy:
"The same logic [rational irrationality] applies to the decisions made by Wall Street C.E.O.s like Citigroup’s Charles Prince and Merrill Lynch’s Stanley O’Neal. They’ve been roundly denounced for leading their companies into the mortgage business, where they suffered heavy losses. In the midst of a credit bubble, though, somebody running a big financial institution seldom has the option of sitting it out. What boosts a firm’s stock price, and the boss’s standing, is a rapid expansion in revenues and market share. Privately, he may harbor reservations about a particular business line, such as subprime securitization. But, once his peers have entered the field, and are making money, his firm has little choice except to join them. C.E.O.s certainly don’t have much personal incentive to exercise caution. Most of them receive compensation packages loaded with stock options, which reward them for delivering extraordinary growth rather than for maintaining product quality and protecting their firm’s reputation."
Herein lies the problem with the Hutton proposal. The dynamic of 'rational irrationality', far from reducing the risk within the system, could actually increase it. Many banks chasing scarce capital will compete with each other to make ever greater returns. That in itself will increase risk taking. Ah, but aren't these investors wise to risk? No. That's the problem. The whole thing is opaque and riddled asymmetries of information. Goodness, people within firms don't know what is going on let alone investors on the outside.

So the Hutton proposal wouldn't reduce systemic risk and may indeed increase it.

Now, the moral hazard question. While none of these smaller banks would be theoretically too 'big to fail', they would certainly be 'too politically damaging to allow to fail.' Northern Rock was not a big High Street bank but it was inconceivable that it could have been allowed to fail; indeed, it had to be nationalised. This was partly due to the fact that confidence in the system would be shot (remember, the hour by hour monitoring of ATMs.....) but also the political fallout would have been devastating.

So while none of the new 'mini-banks' would be 'too big to fail' as long as their failure didn't undermine trust in the entire system, the reality would be different. What's more, contagion spreads quicker in financial markets than myxomatosis in a rabbit warren. What this would mean in practice is that any executive would still be in a position where they knew they had a taxpayer guarantee. Moral hazard would still apply. Moral hazard and 'too big to fail' are, in reality, two sides of the same coin.

On the basis that I don't see that Hutton proposal- and he has some other ideas for the creation of banks to support infrastructure and innovation which are excellent- reduces systemic risk, eliminates moral hazard, or really solves the 'too big to fail' issue I'm sticking with Mervyn King.

Only by having a commercial banking sector that is very boring, very regulated, and transparent can we shield the UK taxpayer from shouldering the burden of loss while others reap the grotesque rewards. I do not think the system is transparent enough for capital requirements to resolve the issue. The only way is to de-risk commercial banking. I do not think any of Lord Turner's objections are really convincing. There is no reason why the more sophisticated services like hedging could not be offered by regulated commercial banks. They could simply become agents for such services.

Where I absolutely 100% do agree with Will Hutton is that this is one of the big questions of our time. It is one that I fear we are ducking exposing the UK- given the the ratio of the banking sector to our GDP- to perhaps greater risk than any other European economy.

Post script: George Osborne has delivered a speech on these issues today. It contains lots of 'this should happen, that should happen' without much this is how it will happen. Intriguingly, he reiterates his proposal to hand banking regulation to the Bank of England. Yet he doesn't state whether he agrees with Mervyn King's proposal to break up the banks. Well, to support one measure is to support the other so what is it? Vince Cable is explicit in his support.

The rest of the speech is the normal mix of deregulation, rhetoric about red tape (as if the issue facing the British economy was supply side and not demand side!) and his usual stuff about Britain facing a 'debt crisis':
"It is the soaring national debt that sits like a vulture poised to swoop on a sustainable British recovery."
Unfortunately, shoot that bird too early and you shoot down recovery which is what will happen, of course. To his credit, George Osborne is completely honest about his intentions. If we vote for it, then we will only have ourselves to blame.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Climate change Thursday #12

Climate change erupted onto the political stage this week with ferocious sparring between the two main parties on renewable energy.

The Conservatives were severely hindered by comments made by their business spokesperson, Kenneth Clarke, that:
"My view is that those few wild and open spaces that we have left in Britain should not be used for wind turbines."
He was quickly put in his place by Greg Clark, the shadow energy and climate change secretary. The Conservatives are keen to portray themselves as being just as committed to renewable energy as Labour. Indeed, their idea that communities that permit new wind turbines can keep the Business Rates from them for six years is positive. But it will not be enough simply to pursue clever 'nudge-esque' tinkering.

Greg Clark's clarification of the Conservative position came after Ed Miliband, never slow to take a new media campaigning opportunity, had dashed off a letter to David Cameron signed by 3000+ (including myself) to seek clarification of the Tory position and insist that they acknowledge the importance of on-shore wind generation.

The problem with the Tories' position, it would seem, is that they are very deeply divided so, despite good intentions, will not be able to use the full muscle of government to create market conditions that lever in major investment so that the UK meets its renewable energy commitments (15% of electricity generated to be renewable by 2020.) David Cameron's anti-government rhetoric in his conference speech suggests that ideologically they are quite simply in the wrong place to make a big difference. Can the UK afford to lose four to five years of the next ten in pursuing a laggardly approach to climate change?

The reality is that Greg Clark's rhetoric and micro-incentives are fine but Kenneth Clarke's attitude is closer to the Tory mainstream.

A report by SERA (note to self: must remember to join), shows that Tory Councils:

- Only approve 40% of applications for wind turbines.
- Have only approved wind capacity of 44.7MW of electricity from wind power.

It's all very well imploring us to 'Vote Blue, Go Green' but the reality is very different to that it would seem.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Time to split up the banks?

To split or not the split? Mervyn King yesterday waded into the debate about whether deposit banking should be split away from investment banking. The Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee has followed King into the discussion. If capital requirements are so great, it may well happen anyway.

But is there any logic to such a move?

The first question has to be: did the fusion of the two forms of banking contribute to the financial crisis in the first place?

Well, it's far from incontrovertible. Glass-Steagall, the 1933 act legally separating the two functions, was repealed in 1999. As a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about the role of Chairman of the National Economic Council's, Larry Summers, in the crisis, makes clear, there are those who hotly dispute the repeal of the act as a cause.

As Ryan Lizza points out in the piece:
"Others note that the pure investment banks, like Lehman Brothers, have been the greatest source of instability, while the banks with combined commercial and investment arms have fared the best."
However, Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz are both clear that the issue wasn't necessarily about institutional arrangements, it was about the cultural impact of such arrangements. The casino approach won out over the safety first approach. There is little doubt that high-risk investment meant that traditional banks were up to their necks in it, even if it was Lehman Brothers, AIG, Bear Sterns, and Merrill Lynch who were swallowed by the waves. In the UK, that meant that our High Street banks were in severe jeopardy.

It's a difficult case to prove, but there is little doubt that the major banks on which savers and investors depended had become severely incautious. We can simply speculate on whether that was due to structural issues. Stiglitz and Reich argue that it was due to the consequences of such arrangements. Others, such as Robert Shiller, argue that there was a dynamic that led to ever greater risk taking. Both are right. Would having Glass-Steagall in place have prevented the financial crisis? No, I don't think the evidence is there to support that but it was probably a contributing factor. However, that does not mean that we should not consider re-introducing it.

Mervyn King's concerns are that these super-institutions: (i) are very difficult to police and regulate; (ii) when they go wrong, pose systemic risk. I agree with him.

A separation of the casino parts of the banking system from the boring bits would make things far more transparent and would place a division between the two conflicting cultures that define each. There would still be risk and the investments that High Street banks were making on our behalf would have to be monitored carefully for contagious risk as would the risks taken by insurance and pension companies. This would be far easier if there was a separation.

The argument is not just historical, it's about the future as well. As a nation that plays host to a disproportionately large financial sector, we have an interest in de-risking our exposure as depositors or, far more probably, as tax-payers.

As things stand, we have the most appalling moral hazard within our financial system. Bankers thought that they would be bailed out prior to the financial crisis. Now they know that they would be. They only way to reverse that is to ensure that no bank is 'too big to fail' and the legal separation of investment and High Street banking is part of that.

Post script: There was an intriguing debate between Will Hutton and Heather McGregor in The Observer on Sunday. My beef and Yorkshire pudding ended up on the carpet when I read this pearl from Heather McGregor:
"Lord Turner and I may agree on bonuses, but we disagree about the social relevance of investment banks. Would I miss Goldman Sachs if it didn't exist? At every level – not only does it provide a valuable service to companies whose continued financial health my business depends on, but even at the most basic level they help the country – the tax their UK bankers pay on their bonuses will help fund our budget deficit."
And why, pray, do we have a Budget deficit of £175billion or so if it was not for the reckless actions of those who you want to reward handsomely to pay down the very same deficit?!?

Her piece improves as it goes on. I made friends with her again towards the end of the piece when she argues:
"We need to return to an age when investment banking and mainstream banking are separated, as they were in the US under the Glass-Steagall Act"
Unfortunately, the gravy stain is still on the carpet just as the gravy train has already left the station.

Post script 2: Though he doesn't argue that banks should be broken up, Martin Woolf takes on the moral hazard and 'too big to fail' arguments in his column today. Worth reading.

Where we are going wrong on race

Race is the most difficult subject to write about; there is just too much emotion flying around. When writing Barack Obama: the movement for change, the sections on race (and there is a whole chapter on it) were the ones I agonised over the most. Following a sparky meeting I had in Lewisham Library last week, I have revisited the discussion in the context of the UK in my column on LabourList.

The piece looks at particular issues concerning race and alienation. Just to be clear about my overall position:

- As a nation we have made huge strides in eliminating overt racism but in a sense that is the easy bit. If someone describes a black tennis player as a 'froggy golliwog guy' then that is clearly unacceptable and it wasn't four decades ago.
- Like the United States, there is a burgeoning ethnic minority middle class and minorities proliferate our media, culture, and sport. That is progress.
- However, just as in the United States, there is a large proportion of minorities who have been left behind- and that is distinct from immigration. In a sense, this is tied in with wider socio-economic change and the growth of inequality. Thirty years ago the ship of opportunity left the port and those who were left behind were disproportionately minorities.
- That is why when you listen to alienated white, working class communities and the same alienated voices in minority communities you often hear similar voices. Class is a major part of this (see the piece for some observations.)
- However, there are alienating experiences that are significantly down to race. The 'stop and search' resentment, job discrimination, etc. There are other types of discrimination too- social class, sexuality, gender- but this does not invalidate the claim that there is a great deal of hidden racial discrimination in the UK.
- Finally, we do not have an honest public discussion about these issues. What do we teach at our schools? Why would we need a Black History Month if history properly reflected the diversity of the British people? Why does so much discrimination persist? Why do our public institutions- particularly the criminal justice system- operate in a way that alienates and condemns so many minority groups?

I'm afraid all these issues are not answered adequately by the retort 'the white/ working class have it bad too.' We must seek a more equal, more mobile, less discriminatory society. We must talk more openly about these issues (in a way that the BNP does not.) We have an enormous distance to travel. If we start to talk about these issues in a more open way then many people who are suspicious of each other might find themselves with rather more in common than they think.

Anyway, I discuss my reasons for objecting to the BNP appearing on Question Time in the piece. Mainly, it is because they are a party that seeks to deny human rights to millions so beyond what is the legal requisite, their voice should not be amplified or legitimised. That is what the appearance on Question Time and the precedent it sets will achieve, whatever happens on Thursday night.

Friday, 16 October 2009

How good a negotiator are you?

Guest post by Stephen Adshead

One evening a blue monster, who lived on the west side of a mountain, called through a hole, “Can you see how beautiful it is? Day is departing.”

“Day departing? Called back his neighbour to the east, a red monster. “You mean night arriving, you twit”

“Don’t call me a twit, you dumbo, or I’ll get angry“ fumed the blue monster, and he felt so annoyed that he could hardly sleep.

Owners of small children might recognise the hand of David McKee, creator of Mr Benn, and the author of Two Monsters. Arguing as these monsters do can be commonplace in a range of scenarios, not least parties in litigation. The language may be more or less colourful and, if lawyers are involved, phrases like ‘with all due respect’ and ‘your claim is speculative, misconceived and meretricious’ are perhaps more likely than ‘smelly custard tart face’.

But, as in the case of the blue and red monster, arguing in these scenarios is partly the result of a failure to see the other’s point of view, east versus west. Continuing the argument in a monstrously aggressive manner will also impede opportunities for successful resolution.

The blue monster ultimately batters his point home, coupling his ‘point’ with name-calling and, when that is not sufficiently persuasive, rocks. These rocks tend to miss the red monster but hit the mountain. When we, and monsters, engage in difficult conversations there is a tendency to repeat our points, assuming that the other person didn’t understand initially, rather than taking the time to understand the other person’s narrative and the underlying reason for the conflict. How could the monsters here have persuaded the other as to his story, without the need for gravel?

In the seminal (but unfortunately titled) book ‘Getting to Yes’, Ury and Fisher of Harvard Law School advocated interest-based, as opposed to positional, negotiation, a strategy that has become known as the ‘Harvard (or Win-Win) Method’. This method of negotiation focuses on developing mutually beneficial agreements based on the interests of the disputants and has been applied to a variety of situations, including negotiating with a second hand car dealer, the current healthcare debate in America, and negotiations with terrorists.

It has even been applied to the most resistant participants to any form of negotiation – children. The literature on interest-based negotiation continues to grow and the students of the programme on negotiation at the Harvard Law School include not just lawyers, but also psychologists, economists and anthropologists. I won’t attempt to summarise their output, but if it piques your interest I recommend the interview with retired NYPD hostage negotiator, Dr Hugh McGowan, on to gain an insight into how this negotiation strategy can work and ideas from him such as ‘if you listen to them, they will listen to you’.

The competitive amongst you (which I suspect will include all of the lawyers) can test your negotiation skills online. Click the link below to try and sell some nature prints at the best price to moustachioed cartoon character Bill Gimel. Tip – There is another person that you need to persuade.

Had the monsters been blessed with a Harvard law degree, the internet or opposable thumbs, they might not have ultimately destroyed the mountain, thereby realising, as they watched together both the arrival of the night and the departure of the day, that neither monster merited rock-assisted vitriol. As it was, they walked to the middle of the mess and remarked ‘that was rather fun, pity about the mountain’.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

The speech I'd like Gordon Brown to give...

I've rounded up where I see things are after the conference season over on LabourList. Basically, little change in the public mind but a strategic victory for the Labour party- they have the Tories where they want them and where they have ended up in each of the last two elections. However, the context is different this time given the fiscal position. Nonetheless, there is all to play for.

I've had a bash at the speech I'd like to hear Gordon Brown deliver. It's not perfect, but in terms of tone it is radically different: more open, engaged and conversational. It concludes:

"We believe we face adversity down by coming together - as the British always have. We believe that we should all be equal not because it sounds good. We believe it because it means that people will be more free, our communities will be safer, and we will achieve more individually. Acting together, we will unleash our national creativity which has given us pride, time and time again.

“So let’s have a great national debate about who we are and the type of nation we want to be. I invite the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Democrats to travel with me to our major cities to debate our national future. Let’s lift our politics from the mire to the sky. Let’s make this election a proud advert for our democracy.”

Anyway, we'll see where things go from here.....

NB: The image is an initial @alexsmith1982 attempt at a Shepard Fairey.

Climate change Thursday #11

In a sense, of the three areas targeted by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), energy, residential, and transport, it is the latter that is politically most contentious. The Government starting moving in the direction of some road pricing, for example, a few years ago but then had to perform an about turn.

If the conversion to electric powered cars is to happen more rapidly and we are to limit use of petrol powered vehicles in the meantime then some road pricing will have to be considered. It could incentivise the move to electric also. Revenues from any road pricing could be used to build the infrastructure of charging points etc. for electric vehicles and could be used to subsidise the purchase of new electric vehicles.

The CCC refused to take this discussion off the table. To quote:
"There is good economic rationale to introduce road pricing and thereby reduce congestion. Evidence in this report suggests that road pricing would result in a significant emissions reduction (e.g. around 6 MtCO2 in 2020) if there were no offsetting reductions in other aspects of transport pricing (i.e. fuel duty, VED.)"
There is an equity issue. There are many people on lower incomes or whom are performing essential tasks who may find themselves hit hard by any introduction of road pricing. This particularly becomes the case if the journeys are unavoidable. Perhaps there is a simple way of deadening the impact (and there must be an impact if there is to be a disincentive) for people in such a position. The reality may be that it is only longer distance journeys, i.e. those over 30 miles or so, that would attract some sort of price.

What cannot happen is that we just bury equity issues when we consider new ways of incentivising lower carbon emitting behaviour. For example, just as we provide opportunity for shared ownership social housing for healthcare workers, we may wish to provide additional grants for the purchase of new electric cars so they could avoid road charges altogether (electric cars would not attract any charges.)

This is a controversial area but one that can not be ducked if the UK is to hit the most ambitious carbon reduction targets possible. There is an environmental necessity for the UK to be a world leader, a moral necessity (we kicked all this off after all...), but also potentially a huge economic gain as we become a world leader in the science of climate change, research, manufacturing, services etc; if we get this right, the UK would become a net exporter of environmental goods and services. Let's not leave this one to Germany, the US, China, and Japan.

Just returning to the infrastructure point for a moment, it was very pleasing to see that the Mayor of London has included consideration of on-road infrastructure needed to make electric vehicles work in the city in his new London Plan. One in five new parking spaces will need to have an electric power point. Not enough in my view but a good principle to embed in the planning system nonetheless.


Boris, I was nice but then you announce eye-popping public transport fare increases. Why? Because you are refusing to take the tough choices on the environment, bowing instead to the Chelsea tractor and big haulage brigade. As Simon Fletcher explains on LabourList:
"It is claimed - though we will have to see - that the higher fares will raise an extra £125million. Yet Boris Johnson’s own actions have cut millions from TfL’s budgets – £50m-£70million a year will go when the western extension is abolished; £50million a year has been lost through the cancellation of the £25 CO2 charge on gas guzzlers; millions are being wasted through the new Routemaster plan, the removal of bendy buses and the ending of the mutually beneficial agreement with Venezuela."

Finally, I'd encourage you to have a quick read of The great BBC global warming swindle piece I posted a few days ago. One to watch....

Monday, 12 October 2009

UK on a collison course with China?

I will report more fully on Thursday about the Committee on Climate Change's first report which was published today. I attended what as a fascinating launch addressed by Lords Turner and Stern.

The top-lines of the report are: we should not be fooled that we are hitting the underlying targets for carbon emissions by the fact that we are in recession. This reduces emissions but, more worrying, lowers the price of carbon so disincentivising low-carbon investment which will slow the transition to a low-carbon economy. To hit our targets, i.e. to meet the government's carbon budget, there needs to be a step-change in three main areas: energy, buildings, and transport.

Most intriguingly though, the discussion took an interesting turn when Tim Yeo MP, Chairman of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (and who was very supportive of the report), questioned the panel about the UK exporting its emissions. Tantalisingly, Lord Turner indicated that investigating the consumption model of emissions (current policy is geared towards production of carbon rather than consumption) was beyond the legal remit of the Committee. However, it was absolutely clear that he would welcome that remit being widening so as to investigate the question further.

The problem with measuring production of carbon without considering consumption alongside that is that off-shore emissions are not taken into account, i.e. so the emissions embedded in the products and services we import and international transportation are not properly considered.

Lord Stern made it clear that as part of their evidence base feeding into the 12th five-year plan, the Chinese will be publishing the historical data of emissions of each country going back to the 19th century.

China seems to have an interest in provoking this discussion as they are a surplus nation exporting products that they manufacture and we consume. They could make an argument that the West, and the UK is majorly implicated here, is not consuming either its historical and current smoke.

However, as someone pointed out to me, it may not be in China's interests to push the issue too far. It may provoke a discussion about global imbalances and the rate of the Renminbi. Why would the resolution not be to appreciate the Chinese currency so that production was moved elsewhere?

China is likely to have many developing world allies with this argument but it could become explosive. At the very least, the UK will need to have its own assessment of the impact of its consumption patterns (net environmental impact.) So it is right that the Committee's legal remit should be expanded.

The Great BBC global warming swindle

So The Great Global Warming Swindle has come to the BBC. Of course, it is dressed up in the adornment of 'balanced reporting' that is so important to the BBC. But, nonetheless, it uses the type of arguments used in that infamous, wholly manipulated and, at times, fabricated Channel 4 documentary.

The culprit? Well, it is an article from the BBC's Paul Hudson which poses the provocative question, What happened to global warming?. It has all the hallmarks of the climate change denying press: the lone gunman, the conspiratorial scientific establishment, expert quotes relegated to the foot of the article (it must be balanced remember), an air of sensationalism, it's all very confusing (when it isn't in the slightest)and a bit of quasi-science sprinkled in. Only this isn't The Spectator (and for completeness, here is George Monbiot's response to the linked article.) It's the BBC.

And the worst thing? This is a very old debate about solar flares etc. The impact of the solar cycle on the earth's climate has long been appreciated. It's not new. It's not a devastating challenge to anthropogenic climate change.

Here is a screen clip from Peter Sinclair's effortless rebuttal of The Great Global Warming Swindle.

The blue line is temperature rises. The red line is solar activity. You will see how they march in step until the early 1970s. Then they diverge spectacularly. That does not imply that solar activity has no impact on earth's temperatures. It has an enormous impact. Climate change may be appearing to slow and that is because of diminished solar activity and is temporary. Nonetheless, eight of ten warmest years on record have been in the last decade or so. The BBC piece could easily have pointed this out but failed to. Poor.

For a real treat, here is Peter Sinclair's short video rebuttal of The Great Global Warming Swindle.

Oh, the assertion that the world hasn't warmed in the last decade is nonsense as well. Here is paper from Yale explaining what has actually happened. (As well as solar activity, there is El Nino and La Nina to consider also- who said this was simple?)

I will be at the launch of the Committee on Climate Change first report this morning. Tweets and a blog will follow.

Post script: And just in case the BBC thinks that the way it reports has no consequences, then read this blog post from Tory Bear. Careless talk costs lives and not just polar bears.....