Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Do the Republicans need an exorcist?

An article I've just had published on the Guardian website.

Do the Republicans need an exorcist?

Profoundest sympathies for the Cameron family

There is no greater loss than a child and a sibling. My thoughts and profoundest sympathies are with the Cameron family. May your collective strength and love carry you through an unimaginably difficult time.

"The moment America went British"

Congress was like the House of Commons so America gets some of our very bad habits. The programme outlined was social democratic, liberal in the American parlance. So they get some of our good habits too. Michael Tomasky captures both the theatre and substance of President Obama's first speech to a joint session of Congress.

Oh, and the United States of America DOES NOT torture.

US combat troops to withdraw from Iraq

The announcement is imminent. It's not clear exactly how many troops will remain- a residual force still comprises tens of thousands. The fact that the announcement is to be made means that President Obama has massaged a potentially thorny discussion with senior commanders. Generals Petraeus and Odierno were assumed to be sceptical of the 16 month withdrawal plan. A withdrawal by August 2010 is 19 months. Perhaps that reported difference of perspective will spill out at some point.

Monday, 23 February 2009

How to change your community

Politics beyond political parties tends to be single issue: local planning, human rights, the environment, etc. These alliances are fluid, occasional, vacillating. Not the sort of thing that can congregate to challenge the prevailing politics for any length of time or beyond a limited set of issues in other words. At the Fabian Conference on Saturday, Neil Jameson of London Citizens outlines how another form of organisation: community based activism that is beyond political parties can be effective.

There is a crisis of local politics and community cohesion. Political parties are not seen as community organisations. Rather, they are seen as brokers between the local community and authority. At least, where they are effective that is how they are seen. So what is there to gather the disparate forces of community interest, articulate their needs, and apply pressure for change?

Such organisation does not come spontaneously and that is where the community organiser comes in. Before you dismiss the concept, it is worth remembering that a community organiser now occupies the Oval Office. London Citizens' most effective campaign is the London Living Wage campaign which insists on a minimum £7.45 per hour income for workers. The objective is clear and that is what has enabled faith groups, trade unions, community organisations, and, of course, citizens themselves to unite behind its banner.

This type of campaign is the way forward. Political parties can be part of that process but they should never seek to take it over. They will show their worth by what they achieve in practical terms. I once worked on a campaign to save a community centre in North West London- a highly controversial case that received wall to wall coverage at the time. One of the political parties attended every single community meeting. They spoke against the decimation of a local community in the media. When it came to the vote on the planning committee they voted FOR the development (despite the fact that there were ample legal arguments against the development.) It was shockingly manipulative.

Political parties can respond to well-formed community opinions. That is the role of organisations like London Citizens. The work they are doing in community capacity building is enormously valuable. That is what is needed to rebuild communities as living breathing political entities, rather than simply dormitories.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Why Barack Obama will transform race relations

Last night, a few years after everyone else, I read Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. Somebody shamed me into reading it. I am so glad I did. The book, to re-cap for everyone else in the world who has read it, is about how our adaptive unconscious interacts with our conscious to make decisions: sometimes wisely, sometimes erroneously.

One example he gave was about the Implicit Association Test which measures our unconscious attitudes to race etc. Most people have an unconscious preference for white over black people. I decided to put myself to the test. Bear with me there is a broader political point coming.

I did the race test and it came out with the result that I have a moderate preference for white over black people. I'm not really surprised by this given the world in which we live. Before you hurl abuse at me, let me just say a couple of things for context. Firstly, this test measures unconscious attitudes (which can be changed but only by deliberately managing the sense data that creeps into the on board computer.) Secondly, this is about the level of prejudice that Malcolm Gladwell himself had and he is half Jamaican. Indeed, more that 50 per cent of black people also have an unconscious preference for white over black people. It's the society we live in.

Now, Project Implicit which runs this test also did a test for McCain v Obama and race. I did this test also. Amazingly, the result this time is that I had a slight preference for black people over white people! (It's hardly worth reporting that I had moderate preference for Barack Obama over John McCain other than it was only moderate.)Gladwell explains in his book that by showing people images of Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela prior to them taking the test, the results change. That is exactly what happened!

And taking the test, I could feel my conscious wrestling with my unconscious to place positive terms next to black people on the first test and exactly the OPPOSITE on the second test- I was having to force myself to put positive words in the white box.

What does this mean in political and social terms? Well, it has to mean that as long as people continue to view Barack Obama positively then he will have some impact on the unconscious associations people make between race and particular characteristics. So will Barack Obama move America's race relations forward? Absolutely he will.

More broadly, it seems to me that these insights create other issues when it come to politics, society and culture. We need to be conscious of the unconscious stereotypes that we attribute to particular groups. We also need to be careful about using group specific terms in relation to particular negative traits. 'Islamic extremism' is a term that simply has to go. This is not political correctness, it is just that the term creates too much negativity and takes down too many innocent by-standers with it.

Finally, particular groups can benefit from these unconscious associations. Gladwell describes the 'Warren Harding error.' Harding was tall, handsome, charming, authoritative, everything anyone would wish to find in a president. He was elected. He was a disaster. It is grossly unjust. I have to confess though that the 'tall and dark' error is not something that I will be working particularly hard to correct......

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Scourge of the BNP: Vera Lynn

The vile BNP have got themselves in a bit of a pickle by using a couple of Vera Lynn songs on a fundraising CD. The war-time singer is taking legal advice on whether this constitutes an infringement of her intellectual property. Labour MEPs are taking up the broader issue of performers' rights in Brussels by seeking to guarantee copyrights for the lifetime of the performer.

Of course, there is a much broader issue to all of this also. The BNP advocate a set of supremacist and divisive values that are the precise opposite of what my Grand-parents and yours fought for in WWII. They fought against people who advocated racial supremacy and alongside tens of thousands of soldiers from the Commonwealth. The diversity of the British army that defeated Hitler is not nearly commented on enough.

Dunkirk and Normandy were about defeating people like the BNP so how dare they appropriate the culture of the time in their spiteful battle to turn British people against one another.

I wish Vera Lynn every success in her battle against them.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Fair, green and local

Emma Rothschild documents, in searingly succinct fashion, the changes that the US economy has seen since the 1970s. For US, read the UK.
The US has become more unequal since 1979, in income and amenities. It is less industrial, with only 9.6 percent of people employed in manufacturing in 2007, compared to 20.4 percent in 1979; more open to imports of goods and services, with imports accounting for 17.2 percent of GDP in 2007, compared to 9.9 percent in 1979; and more capitalist, with 7.5 percent of people employed in the private sector members of unions, compared to 21.2 percent in 1979. It is more feckless, with savings accounting for 0.6 percent of personal income in 2007, compared to 8.9 percent in 1979. In what Lawrence H. Summers has called the "new age of markets," it is also a richer country, of "market-led growth" in information and (until 2007) in financial services. The automobile industry has been one of the losers in the new American economy. US consumers spent less on new automobiles in 2007 than they spent on "brokerage charges and investment counselling"; in 1979, they had spent ten times as much.
This is the new economy. It has just collapsed. Ms Rothschild goes on to suggest a massive investment in local transport infrastructure with a view to making the car a luxury. At the core of her analysis is the need to combat transport inequality as a factor in wider inequality. The greening of the economy will have to match fairness with carbon reduction.

While it may be too much to expect every city to achieve the same as the zero-carbon planned Masdar City, both social justice and the environmental challenges we face demand a massive upgrade of our public transport infrastructure. From a social perspective, this will have huge benefits also and it will start to chisel away at our privatised lives and re-create notions of community that have been so damaged in recent decades.

Simon Jenkins repeats his insistence today that resources and powers over resources should be shifted to local government. Why not link the two things? Free Councils to raise finance through Business Rates and Council Tax, set them a target of reducing car journeys originating in their area by 2% per year and carbon emissions by 2% also and match any investment they make in public transport? You watch as green thinking spreads through every aspect of a Council's actions: its own services, education, health services, public transport provision, and planning spring immediately to mind. Moreover, the Council would be incentivised to generate a discussion about the way we live and that in itself would have an impact.

There we are: localism, fairness, and a cleaner economy at the same time.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The more he says, the more unimpressive David Cameron becomes

Two articles today emphasise just how far away the Conservative party is from being a party of Government. Philip Stephens rips apart the Conservative foreign policy in the FT today. I say rips apart, what I really mean to say is that he wafts a piece of paper in the air and then it all comes crashing down.

When is David Cameron going to realise that to get anything done in Europe, he is going to have to build alliances? Equally, to build a strong relationship with the new president of the US he is going to have to demonstrate strong alliances in Europe. All roads lead to Europe and yet Mr Cameron seems to want to turn his back on the EU. If he thinks that he can be influential in the EU and reject the Lisbon Treaty, good luck to him. The UK will be more marginalised in world affairs that at any time since the Normans invaded.

Mr Cameron himself pens a piece in the Guardian about localism. We are promised a 'radical power shift.' Putting the self-serving and completely transparent reference to Tony Benn to one side, what does this 'new localism' constitute? A few more directly elected Mayors and some powers to hold referendums. In other words, it is just some institutional fiddling which is the first resort of the cosmetic devolver of power. There is no underlying analysis of how you actually get people to engage in their local politics, no understanding of how local communities do and don't function. There is no discussion of what we should expect from local government or its capacity to deliver it.

I am strongly of the view that we need to consider how best local services can be geared to local needs with democratic accountability. But if that democratic engagement becomes a tyranny of the willing mixed with weak and bureaucratic administration then what do we achieve exactly? The same dynamic to centralise as we have had previously.

So the localist agenda is cosmetic. The foreign policy is thin and potentially extremely damaging. A more powerful light will be shone on Mr Cameron over the next few months and he will look weaker and weaker as a result.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

It's the new MEGA Financial Stability Plan*

Tim Geithner, US Treasury Secretary, has today announced a staggering package for financial recovery that will run into the trillions. The package is designed to both cut out the cancer of toxic waste while simultaneously applying electric shock treatment to the patient. It is major, sustained, and will continue until it works.

Toxic assets will be bought by both public money and placed in a Financial Stability Trust and by public-private money and held by private investors. A further shot in the arm will be applied with a massive capital injection with a requirement that banks in receipt of the capital will have to demonstrate that it will increase lending. Loans of all manner of description will be supported through measures to rekindle securitisation: car, student, small business, commercial mortgages, and others will be supported.

A housing recovery plan will also be announced in the next few weeks. Re-regulation of markets is also to follow with the US Government ready to propose changes to the global regulatory regime at London's G20 meeting in early April.

This package of measures in enormous. It is unimaginably enormous. It is most definitely 'everything it takes.'

Any bank in receipt of federal support will have the cash bonuses- rightly- of its staff limited. All the action under the Financial Stability Plan will be placed on a new website as part of the Obama administration's transparency commitment.

Geithner is learning the lessons of the Great Depression and the Japanese economic crisis of the 1990s: act early, act decisively, act big, and act long. This is the main event and it's very big indeed. Expect further developments this side of the Atlantic.

The Dow Jones? Plunged by almost 4%.

*Warning: you may need a whiskey before reading this.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Misunderstood, funny or racist?

Iain Dale, following an appearance on Today yesterday, has a debate on his blog about where lines should be drawn in terms of making reference to race. This is actually a very serious and overly emotive matter that we need to be grown-up in addressing- Iain is perfectly right to encourage discussion about this. He draws attention to the following post:
So consider this: it’s the last ten minutes v Hull, everyone’s up for a corner and in goes Cole, Boa Morte, Ilunga and Faubert, a bit of melee and the ball goes out of play. Bloody hell, I said, no idea what happened there it was just a forest of black, shaven heads. I know said my mate, it’s like looking down on a box of matches from here. Now I think that’s funny, and NOT racist. But dissect it on Radio 4 for a couple of hours and see where it ends up. Bored already.
Now, is this comment misunderstood, funny or racist? Well, it's clearly not in any way funny. There is no misunderstanding: he has lost sight of the ball and chooses to make reference to the fact that he lost sight of it in the midst of a group of black players. So is it racist?

Just imagine that you are a black father there on the terraces with your son and you both hear the 'matchbox' comment. How is your son going to react? I would imagine, and different people do react in different ways, that his son would feel hurt. Barack Obama describes the experience of casual remarks of a racial nature- in relation to hair, clothes, walk, manner, etc- as like being 'hit in the stomach.' That son could well feel like they had been hit in the stomach. And how embarrassed and angry would the father feel?

The person who made the remark may not be racist and may not have meant any harm. However, the issue is not if any harm was meant. It is if the comment is likely to cause hurt. 'Is likely' is key because I don't think you can apply an 'if it offends anyone, then it's wrong' test. If it is likely to cause offence then it is really neither here nor there what was 'meant.' There are no exact standards and it's murky but this seems like a sensible rough guide.

I do actually consider the comment to be racist- my personal opinion and many will disagree. The reason is simple: I'd be very surprised if the fan chose to group together a bunch of white defenders and objectify them in that pejorative way so it's clearly racially motivated and with the intent to belittle (regardless of the fact he supports the team.) If I heard the comment at a football match I would regard it as racist. So there is a simple test here. Apply the 'father and son' test. If it is likely to cause offence, hurt, and/ or embarrassment then it should not be used. And better to err on the side of caution.

Is Clarkson offensive?

Of course he is- that is what he does. But my heart sinks when we have this constant finger-jabbing. It's a bit like watching US cable news that has this constant chatter to fill empty space. And it won't bother Jeremy Clarkson one jot. If he gets sacked it won't bother him one jot. He'll just become more of martyr than he is already. The louder we shout at him, the more it plays into his hands. And the more it amplifies his comments. Move on folks.

Post script: An apology from Jeremy Clarkson. David Blunkett's comments were proportionate to the situation.

A sobering thought on a National Government

Martin Kettle raises the prospect of a 1930s-style National Government comprising Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories. In the same piece he discusses the possibility of the BNP winning a European seat or more on June 4th.

As Kettle points out, the National Government scenario is unlikely but a very remote possibility. Whatever the chain of events that would lead us into such an arrangement, it is highly undesirable. Why? Actually, because of the BNP. Should we be facing the type of economic crisis that would mean that no one party could maintain the popular legitimacy necessary to turn the economy round, we are in a very dire situation indeed.

Imagine the instability that would provoke within the body politic. Who would provide the opposition in a Labour-Lib Dem-Conservative scenario? It would inevitably be parties outside the mainstream. To re-structure British politics along a mainstream-extreme axis in the context of a economic crisis would be extremely risky. Should the crisis be prolonged then the legitimacy of the mainstream parties would erode and potentially quite rapidly. Sounds unlikely? Perhaps, but why take the risk?

A mainstream opposition serves a very important function within British democracy. Actually, the Conservatives have taken the wrong approach with their refusal to contemplate a fiscal stimulus. Nonetheless, at least the government is forced to defend and articulate its position publicly rather than behind closed doors. In the absence of this process, there would simply be the media and expert questioning of policy. You can't vote for the media or experts, so if you were extremely disgruntled and afraid who would you vote for?

Once the BNP becomes a legitimate rather than intolerable alternative, there may be no going back. No matter how tough things get, people need choice. A National Government does not provide for that choice. The scenario is unlikely. It may never happen. It should never happen.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Obama's tough week

Who said it would be easy? And guess what, it's not. Having lost Tom Daschle- and apologised- and facing a tough battle to get his stimulus package passed, this is the week when Washington began to return to business as usual. Despite whopping majorities in the both the House of Representatives and the Senate, life still has its formidable challenges for a president elected on a landslide.

That is actually a strength of the US Constitution. The stimulus package is needed. But like the bank bail-out before it, Congress should not suspend its critical faculties. Joe Klein argues that the stimulus should have been split in to smaller packages: an energy and the environment bill, an education bill, a public works bill, ahealthcare bill, and a tax cutting bill. There is a risk that by merging all these elements the new administration has overplayed its hand.

President Obama for his part has come out fighting. He has an op-ed today in the Washington Post which aims to re-adjust the debate upwards and flush away the trivial level to which a lot of the discussion has sunk.

(As an aside, the Washington Post declares the writer to be 'president of the United States.' I love that sort of attention to detail- perhaps there will be some form of holocaust that wipes out all historical memory and one day our descendants will emerge from a nuclear fog and attempt to piece together human history once again. Low, they stumble upon a solitary copy of the Washington Post that somehow was preserved in amber and so now they know who was president on February 5th 2009.)

Back to the stimulus. Congress is there to work on the trivia as well as the big picture and Klein may be right that better things come in smaller packages. There will be lots of wrangling. If there is one time that something so ambitious could get through Congress it is now. Maybe it's a punt that is almost but not quite too far.

What is clear is that 'stimulus' is only part of the story when it comes to this $800billion or so. Energy independence, the environment, cutting the costs of healthcare (why was the NHS IT project not presented in that way?), improving schools, investing in road and energy infrastructure, and much more is also included. It certainly, in terms of scope and ambition, matches the FDR package of measures.

One or two commentators seem to be insisting on describing President Obama as 'conservative.' Far from conservative, this package is exceptionally radical. It may be pragmatic. The most extreme of times demand radical intervention as the only pragmatic response. Times are getting tougher for President Obama. He still remains up for it.

Post script: Michael Hirsh of Newsweek calls for more leadership from President Obama. He seems to be responding.