Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The unforeseen and catastrophic consequence of global recession

As self-indulgent 'protesters' get ready to gorge themselves on orgiastic violence tomorrow, there is a far more concerning risk of conflict that merits serious attention. As the G20 leaders begin to gather- and discuss a new capital injection into the IMF in order to ensure that the financial maelstrom does not cast emerging economies overboard- failure to respond to the acute situation faced by poorer nations could be catastrophic. To put it simply, conflict and all that goes with it is a far more serious risk in a global recession.

Dan Smith, Secretary General of International Alert, the international peace-keeping organisation, warns of a 'perfect storm.' The number of global conflicts appears to have diminished in recent years from 56 wars in 1990 to 34 in 2007. However, the risk of an increase is significant- conflicts can suddenly appear as if from nowhere, see the Georgia-Russian conflict of last Summer. Moreover, climate change creates a clear and present danger. Smith estimates that there are 46 countries with a population of 2.6billion at risk of armed conflict that is influenced some way by climate change in combination with other factors. Along with poor governance and the risk of conflict spilling over from one country to the next, the volatile world that we suddenly find ourselves in the affluent world precariously inhabiting as a result of financial collapse is nothing in comparison with what is faced in Darfur, say.

Now, the economic situation impacts these lesser developed nations at risk of armed conflict in two main ways. Firstly, the availability of international capital for investment, managing currency flows, and meeting international debt and trading obligations is drying up. Just as an absence of liquidity hits the poorest people in rich societies hardest, it hits the poorest nations hardest. Secondly, the developed world, facing its own economic travails risks turning in on itself and so we may not be alert to the risk of armed conflict.

That is the challenge that the G20 nations face: to deal with their own financial issues while realising the desperate situation that less affluent nations face. The early signs are good, certainly it looks as if the IMF will be bulked up without the sort of draconian international rules that have characterised its bail-outs in the past. However, when that communique is published on Thursday, it must have given serious consideration to removing as many elements of the 'perfect storm' as possible. That will be a key test.

Is Labour coming to terms with Obama?

Here is a link to an article I have on the Progress website which looks at recent developments on the debate on the left. Alive and kicking?

Coming to terms with change

Dan Hannan: the authentic voice of conservatism?

Well, I did say last week that I wanted to hear Dan 'the man' Hannan every day talking about his politics and the world. 'The man' has obliged with a blog in the Telegraph so it only seems right that I should do my bit to amplify what he says. Come on Dan, one speech is not enough, the world is at your feet, now is your time, crank it up! I want more noise from you please and at a greater volume. We'll all do our bit to make sure you get the coverage you need.

Predictably (that's not a criticism- his predictability is part of his appeal), he quotes Lord Salisbury in the Telegraph this morning. I'll assume that Winston Churchill is too woolly and liberal for Dan the man. So only Lord Salisbury will do:

"If anything happens, it will be for the worse. It is therefore in our interest that as little should happen as possible."

And so if anything happens in London this week the same bleak assessment can be drawn. Presumably in a squall the best the thing to do is lower the sails and wait for it to pass? No more financial regulation, no bail-outs, no beefing up of international institutions: it's all for the worse. No, we just have to take our medicine as if it was as natural as a passing storm on the open seas.

What could be simpler? The nautical metaphors are clear: anything we do is hopeless so why waste our time and resources? We can no more avoid these economic storms than we can steer out of them once they hit. Lord Salisbury would be in complete agreement (the only real conservative Prime Minister for the last couple of centuries.)

Dan, your new found friends will desert you. Your party will shun you. Fox News is here today but it will be gone tomorrow. But I'll always be here for you. Whatever you want to say I will spread further and wider. Because I believe that your voice should influence the future direction of British politics. Together we can make it happen.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Not Bretton Woods but not London 1933 either

In 1933 the world failed to come to agreement- split over repayment of war debt, competitive devaluation and the rising the tide of protectionism- and so it continued its meander towards catastrophe. The new administration of Franklin D Roosevelt was largely uninterested in the international dimension of its domestic economic difficulties. From a yacht in New England, Roosevelt effectively torpedoed any deal. So these summits can go very wrong indeed.

They can also go very right. At Bretton Woods in 1944 a system of pegged exchange rates was created, as was the IMF, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now incorporated into the World Bank), but the new international system had more flexibility and security. It catalysed- along with post war reconstruction- thirty years of prosperity for liberal democratic nations. It allowed a massive expansion of trade, investment, and the creation of the European welfare states that we have grown used to. From London 1933 to Bretton Woods in 1944 there is a wide gulf of success.

London 2009 will lie somewhere in between. There will be a meaningful deal and actually that is exceedingly important: beefing up the IMF, greater emergency support for emerging economies who are civilian casualties in this financial war, the beginnings of a new system of international regulation that will manage risk in global capital markets better, and moves towards better exchange of information so we can have a better picture of what individuals and corporations are doing in tax havens. This will all underpin a better system of international regulation.

The notion that this conference is superfluous or superficial just does not stack up. These elements constitute a substantive deal. The G20 standing united and taking substantive measures on top of what has been agreed already is an immediate confidence boost. It is also the beginnings of a new system of international financial regulation which will be a public good going forward. So the nay-sayers are faintly ridiculous. What are they suggesting? That this Summit shouldn't happen? They are not on this planet I'm afraid- perhaps their minds are stuck in 1933.

There is another group who are intent on undermining the Summit before it has even started and they mainly inhabit the media. That is those who focus on disagreement rather the more significant elements of agreement between the G20 leaders. The main focus for this is whether there is to be a new round of fiscal stimulus determined on Thursday.

Though it's a key point let's put aside the fact that each country has their own budgetary processes and that is not timetabled or dependent on international summitry. More importantly, there has already been significant fiscal stimulus by many. Germany springs to mind and so to say that it is against fiscal stimulus is just not true. In the final communique there will be some recognition of the need to re-visit this and the issue will remain on the table for further discussion down the line.

In advance of the meeting of Ministers and Central Bank Governors on March 13th-14th, the IMF produced a very clear paper outlining all these issues. It shows that Germany is committed to a discretionary fiscal stimulus of 1.5% of GDP this year and 2.0% next. The UK is committed to 1.4% this year and -0.1% next (that will change.) The US is committed to 2.0% this year and 1.8% next. So in 2009 and 2010 we are not talking about a huge difference though the US is committed to a slightly higher degree of fiscal stimulus- it has just passed its stimulus bill. So the disagreement is about whether to announce a further stimulus now or wait to see how the already announced stimulus filters through.

The IMF calls for a 2% discretionary fiscal stimulus on average in 2009 and, especially, 2010. Well, Germany hits this target in 2010. Interestingly, the US doesn't and the UK will have to increase its discretionary spend significantly.

So this supposed row between the US and the EU over this issue amounts to very little indeed. There is broad agreement over the need for fiscal stimulus and the minor points of disagreement are over timing. That won't stop the 'Brown defeated' on fiscal stimulus articles appearing as they are doing already.

Which leads nicely into a very quick discussion about the domestic political fall-out from this. Mervyn King argued before the Treasury Select Committee last week that the UK is not in the fiscal position where we could say ‘Well, Why don’t we just engage in another significant round of fiscal expansion?’ Only Mr King will know what he meant by 'significant.' However, it is not at all clear that the UK's fiscal position, declining rapidly though it may be as a result of the fall-out from financial collapse, is worse than other comparable nations. In fact, it's significantly better.

Germany, France, United States, Italy, and Japan all started off in worse positions than the UK and will end up in worse positions. The downside risks for the UK are greater as a nation that plays host to a large global financial sector. We get the significant benefits from that in the good times but bear the brunt of the cost in the bad times. But this argument that somehow Britain is in a worse position than other comparable nations and we 'didn't fix the roof when the sun was shining' or 'didn't repair the hull before we entered the squall' just doesn't stack up at all.

So this week will be intriguing and critical though not history making for either the right or wrong reasons. It will neither be a catastrophic missed opportunity nor the moment that 30 years of prosperity was ushered in. It will be a constructive moment and, whether it's recognised domestically or not, a moment of personal achievement for the Prime Minister for which he will deserve enormous credit. He might have to wait for history for that. And that would be a pity.

**I will be attending the G20 Summit as a G20 Voice blogger and this blog will be devoted almost exclusively to G20 matters this week. I have briefings from NGOs etc that I will draw attention to. Should you wish, as an NGO, trade union, or other to have your say then please email me: anthonypainter AT yahoo.co.uk and I will try to mention your perspective on this blog. I'm of course on Facebook, Twitter, and all that malarkey as well so link to me for blog update notifications. Should be a good week....

Friday, 27 March 2009

Brian Clough, Giulio Andreotti, and James II

An audioblog on laws governing succession to the throne, Il Divo, The Damned United, and the G20 Summit. Don't say I don't treat you.






Listen!

Thursday, 26 March 2009

White House open for questions

Watch the first ever White House Town Hall live here now:

http://www.whitehouse.gov/openforquestions/

The British John Stewart......

....has been found. Step forward Charlie Brooker. Surely it's a small step from his Newswipe to a Daily Show style nightly?

When the BBC gets round to doing it, he could cover stories such as Daniel Hannan's speech in the European Parliament the other day.



Brooker could then cut to Hannan's 2004 article on the economic basket case Iceland in The Spectator (analysis here):

"Icelanders understand that there is a connection between living in an independent state and living independently from the state. They have no more desire to submit to international than to national regulation. That attitude has made them the happiest, freest and wealthiest people on earth."

Regulate the City of London? What a mad idea that is- who would ever suggest such a thing? Hannan is so credible that he's ended up on Fox News' Cavuto show. I say give him more exposure. I don't want to ever turn on the TV and not see Daniel Hannan. Just as the White House is promoting Rush Limbaugh as the authentic voice of Republicanism, Hannan is the authentic voice of Conservatism.

The more youtube hits the better. I'll watch it every day until The Daily Show with Charlie Brooker graces our screens.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Simon Cowell basks in the warm glow

I feared this would happen. As soon as the president name-checked Simon Cowell on the Jay Leno Show last week, it was inevitable that Mr Cowell would be unable to resist the limelight. Here is his own appearance on the show:



His diary didn't quite match the president's. The search is on for the 'British Obama.' Maybe Mr Cowell fancies his chances? Hmmm.

What can we learn from Obama? Debate at Liberal Conspiracy

I posted an article last night on Liberal Conspiracy (rather, I wrote it and Sunny Hundal kindly posted it.) It follows on from the Fabian Society's Change we need book which was launched on Monday evening. The book is an excellent contribution to the debate but falls short of really getting to the bottom of the Obama phenomenon. What can we really learn? Debate it here.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Obama administration on a collision course over Geithner plan?

There are some very awkward politics surrounding Tim Geithner's bank bail-out plan. The administration seems to wish to avoid a show-down with Congress if at all possible. If it started to nationalise banks- as suggested by Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and others- then the White House would be on a collision course with Congress. That is part of the calculation behind the federal government leveraging private investment to unburden those toxic assets from struggling banking institutions.

However, there really has to be some thought about whether the plan places the administration on another political collision course. There was visceral and popular outrage at the bonuses that AIG executives paid themselves which emerged last week. Here there is a clash of cultures. The public insist on humility and restraint and it is their money after all that bailed out AIG. The Wall Street culture is one of maximising individual reward and ignorant of public scrutiny. Wall Street and Main Street couldn't be culturally more apart.

Geithner's plan will either (a) work; (b) not work. If it works then lots of lenders and fund managers will get very rich. There will be popular outrage and that will be aimed at both Wall Street and the administration. Perhaps if the economy and financial system has recovered by that point the outrage will be more muted than the reaction to the AIG bonuses last week. Nonetheless, the Republicans will do all they can to stir up trouble- they will easily be able to round on Geithner and his staff as representative of an out of touch elite. If the plan does not work- as Krugman rightly points out- then the administration will end up going to Congress anyway and it will do so with one failed plan under its belt and a financial system still in crisis. That would be a political and economic disaster.

So in order to avert a short term political confrontation the administration has risked either a greater show-down or the potential for popular backlash. They will just have to hope that they have an 'it worked' argument to deploy in their defence. No-one said this was going to be easy.

Monday, 23 March 2009

The Obama Army's new mission

Here is a piece I had on Guardian America over the weekend on what Obama is doing with his 'army' of 13 million and what he could be doing with them.....

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2009/mar/20/obama-organising-for-america

Public Health Warning: contains references to the Oliver Cromwell, New Model Army and the Levellers.

Obama sustains his heaviest bombardment yet

Toxic assets overlaid with toxic bonuses have turned into toxic politics over the last week. The Obama administration, hitherto floating through on a wave of goodwill, is now facing an onslaught. AIG bonuses blew up in the administration's face. An undercurrent of disgust at the behaviour of city financiers has become a vehement rage. Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times is typical and she asks the cutting question, is the right Obama in the Oval Office?

Obama's Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner- who grew up a Republican (funny how that's now increasingly mentioned in passing)- comes in for particularly relentless lambast. A brutal attack came from Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman last week. He absolutely abhors the soon-to-be announced bank bail-out plan which basically means using buckets of government money to make a sure-fire bet for institutional investors in those toxic assets which hang around like a stench from a flooded sewer. Krugman despairs that healthy financial institutions get to make a non-recourse bet further feathering their relatively healthy balance sheets while it is the public purse that adopts all the risk. Moral hazard is no longer in the vocabulary of US economics it seems.

At the core of this, one can't help observing, is that Krugman comes from a different tradition of economics- a Keynesian liberalism- that is at odds with the more market orthodoxy instincts of Obama's Chairman of the National Economic Council, Larry Summers, say. One has to assume that Tim Geithner as a Summers protege is similarly inclined.

Krugman believes that a better solution to this is the course pursued by the British government- nationalisation or de facto nationalisation of zombie or collapsing institutions. However, the Obama administration doesn't only have to neatly implement sound economics, it also has to get it through Congress. If it started nationalising banks left, right and centre, it could mean that it becomes mired Congressional gridlock. There is a broader agenda that it is pursuing in relation to national investment as epitomised by its budget which the administration is far from certain of passing through Congress. That will be struggle enough without large scale conflict over its financial rescue package.

Where does that leave the administration? It leaves its Treasury Secretary in a very sticky place and his future is now an open discussion. His role in the AIG bonus scandal is drawing strong criticism and on top of his failure to pay taxes that were due, it places him in a tricky position. Even Jay Leno enquired about Geithner's future when the president was on his show last week. However, the contours of the bank rescue are a mixture of economics- getting liquidity into the system fast- and politics. That is a broader administration issue. As Krugman rightly notes, the administration better hope that this plan works. If it does not then it may have nowhere to go. Then we would be in truly terrifying territory.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

A disaster for Indian cricket; an even greater disaster for India

The organisers of the Indian Premier League will have to move the tournament outside of India following the refusal of the chief ministers of Maharashtra- the state capital of which, Mumbai, was attacked in November last year by Kashmiri separatist terrorists- and Andhra Pradesh refused to provide the requisite security alongside the Lok Sabha elections. It has descended into an unseemly blame game between the government and the states.

You have to have sympathy for the millions of Indians who would have participated in this remarkable tournament both inside and outside cricket stadiums. But what does this say about India? The authorities are clearly spooked by both the Mumbai atrocities but also the attacks that occurred on Sri Lankan cricketers on Pakistani soil earlier this month.

This is all a disaster for modern India. IPL is a symbol of new globally powerful, self confident nation, that not only maintains its culture but exports it to the rest of the world. Cricket is fundamental to this as is the sheer financial power of IPL. However, if due to a mixture of security concern, bureaucratic wrangling and lack of leadership it can't secure the full benefits of 20-20 cricket then it will fail to fulfil its potential.

All this leaves the feeling of a nation that is on the verge something very special but is held back nonetheless. Politicians in both New Delhi and in state capitals should have found a way of unblocking this situation. It makes India look like it is not quite ready to fully embrace the its future. That should have been avoided. The terrorists have won- the economic and cultural impact will be felt- but so have the bureaucrats. A sad day.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Washington is a bit like American Idol, except where everyone is Simon Cowell

I fear that this will not deflate an already over-swollen ego:

The children of Adam are limbs of each other

The Children of Adam are limbs of each other
Having been created of one essence.
When the calamity of time afflicts one limb
The other limbs cannot remain at rest.
If thou hast no sympathy for the troubles of others
Thou art unworthy to be called by the name of a man.

That is the full passage from which President Obama quoted in his Nowruz message to the Iranian people last night.



The selection of Saadi was richly symbolic. That ancient poet, peripatetic and richly aware of the cultural span of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia represents an outward looking Iran. President Obama's message is that Iran is a nation of travellers, story-tellers, traders, that has become alienated from its rightful place in the universal brotherhood of man.

Will it work? In and of itself it can not work of course. A more important message that President Obama is sending is 'I am different.' This is not just the same aggressive US government. This White House is serious about doing business. We won't punish your cooperation by rejecting you as a member of an 'axis of evil.' We will not ignore any genuine plea for engagement. There are staggering hurdles still to overcome and the US may need to acknowledge past errors clearer to make headway- errors in both recent and more distant history. That will all come out in the wash.

Ultimately though, this message was a reiteration of a basic message. The US approach is now based on diplomacy and negotiation rather than isolation and threat. The ball is now firmly in Iran's court. How will the Ayatollah respond?

Thursday, 19 March 2009

An i-phone audio blog on migration!

OK I'm really messing around now but thought I'd give a new service, Audioboo, a go. I've done a quick audio blog on the government's announcement today that it is to charge non-EU migrants a £50 fee to cover the cost of additional services. It was recorded on my i-phone.

Here it is:




Listen!


And you can see the Hazel Blears interview here:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7952077.stm

I had to use HTML and everything!

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Barack Obama at the Writing on the Wall festival in Liverpool

Well, maybe not but there will be a discussion about him that I'll be contributing to. The details are below:

Monday 18th May

Can he do it? Obama and the movement for change.

The election of Barack Obama brought huge excitement to Liverpool . People on both sides of the Atlantic are desperate for change from the politics of war and profit. WoW invites all our communities to consider and discuss the question of whether Obama can and will bring about real and lasting change.

Guest speakers:

Anthony Painter, political writer, commentator, and activist, has two published works, Barack Obama: The Movement for Change and Viral Politics: Communication in the New Media Era. He was awarded the New Statesman Prize for Political Writing in 2003 and has been published in the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the New Statesman.

Dr Tony Sewell, a regular columnist for The Voice newspaper, is an education adviser, who has published widely on issues related to race, social justice and emotional and behaviourally difficult children. He is currently director of the charity, Generating Genius, which aims to promote the advancement of education in medicine and research science amongst children and young people from underrepresented backgrounds.

Councillor Anna Rothery, Liverpool ’s only BME councillor, sits on the education and Skills Select Committee and is also a member of Liverpool City Council Planning Committee. She has worked in community development for over 20 years, and is also the chair of Liverpool Black Leadership Forum.

Laurence Westgaph, a historian, journalist, presenter and broadcaster, has worked with BBC Television and Radio, Channel 4, The History Channel, Trinity Mirror Group newspapers, English Heritage and the National Trust. Laurence has worked with a diverse group of people including Jimmy McGovern, Melvyn Bragg, Caryl Phillips, Arthur Smith, Trevor Phillips and the late John Peel. He is founder member of the Liverpool Black Leadership Forum.

6.30pm
Kuumba Imani Millennium Centre, 34 Princes Road , L8 1TH
Entry: £4.00/£2.00 on the door

Writing on the Wall
Tel: 0151 703 0020
Address: First Floor
Mission hall
36 Windsor Street
Liverpool
L8 1XE
www.writingonthewall.org.uk

A 'New Socialism'?

Turn over the page of the Guardian or simply click this link and you will find an article of equally high quality from Jon Cruddas MP. I was underwhelmed by Compass' article in the New Statesman last week which kind of had the feeling of finding an old overcoat in a bag at the back of your wardrobe but Jon Cruddas has redeemed the Compass attack today to an extent.

Like Cruddas I have too been struck by Julian Baggini's Welcome to Everytown. It should be required reading for anyone in public life who has spent more than five years in London. The thing that strikes you when you go to Crewe, or Rugby, or Rotherham, or Bury, small town England in other words is just how strong the notion of place and locality are in the English mind. This is why people feel more disconnected from politics than ever before: politics has been removed for their everyday concern. The following paragraph is particularly apt:

"Labour lost the language of generosity, kindness and community as it lost the tempo of the country. England's abiding culture was never socialist, but as we misunderstood its essential ethic of solidarity we lost our ability to build a politics beyond the market- to mould a radical hope for the country."
Powerful stuff and right on target. A new diverse identity has to be grafted onto this broad sense. We have to challenge the notion of England as a static and ethnic concept. Beyond that we should celebrate attachment to home and own as long as this is an inclusive rather exclusive sentiment. And our politics, a politics of community reinforced rather than undermined by government, must be reflective of this communitarian impulse.

My only gripe is why sign off the piece by declaring the response to these challenges a 'New Socialism'? You've already argued that our abiding culture was never socialist so why hamper yourself unnecessarily by going down the blind alley of what is and isn't socialism? And why import perceptions and associations about 'socialism' into what is otherwise a very fruitful debate? It seems to me that there are intelligent and challenging voices on the left who are walking a fine line between vision and indulgence. Let's steer things towards the former and away from the latter.

The 'pro-Israel lobby': its true nature and influence

There is a quite brilliant article from Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian this morning on the so-called 'pro-Israel lobby.' The headline was extremely confusing but the piece itself was excellent: his argument is that (i) there is a 'pro-Israel lobby'- if you doubt this then read the masthead on Aipac's website; (ii) There are other lobbies who are more powerful in American politics; (iii) The US has its own interests and is more than capable of pursuing them; (iv) Where the 'pro-Israel lobby' is powerful it misdirects US policy towards Israel in a way that is contrary to the interests of Israel itself. It's not a conspiracy. It's all very open. And it's largely detrimental to Israel.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Could there be a British Barack Obama?

An article written by Christina Farr for Seven magazine poses the question: could there be a British Obama? I am quoted at the end on David Cameron.

How would you campaign against Facebook?

Facebook have rather idiotically decided to redesign their homepage again. The new design is about as popular as a Wikipedia editor at a Encyclopedia Britannica convention. So how should you go about protesting against it? Why, join a Facebook group of course:

10,000,000 against the new Facebook


Brilliant. The only problem is that the new design has made it almost impossible to find Facebook groups so it probably won't get very far. Who said bad design can't be functional?

Seriously, Facebook is starting to really rile people and seems to be increasingly treating its users with contempt. The brand loyalty associated with Wikipedia or Google is clearly not something they want to engender. Why they are panicking over the recent success of Twitter is baffling. The two work together rather than in competition. The problem is that change is too easy on-line which means that there is a constant fiddle. Imagine if your local supermarket changed everything completely around every couple of months? It wouldn't be long before you gave up.

The attitude that is leading to the constant re-designs and changing of terms of service (Mark Zuckerberg later backtracked on that initiative) is storing up frustration. Who knows whether the new design will be a 'new coke' moment. But it certainly means that people are losing patience.

Compass turning back?

Don Paskini has absolutely torn into John Harris and Neal Lawson of Compass who outlined their argument for a 'new politics' the New Statesman last week.

In one respect certainly I agree with Paskini, the article left me cold also on the basis that it felt scarily reminiscent of the coalition of interests stuff that led Labour to disaster in the early 1980s. Moreover, if the Labour party is not going to be the change initiator then what is? The notion that this can happen through some aggregation of interests alone- in the political and party system that we have- is way off beam. Imagine if Barack Obama had said that the Democratic party was largely irrelevant? He wouldn't be president now.

It seems to me that we are indulging in fantasy to suggest that the Labour party is somehow external to political change; something that can only come to the party if it proves itself. That's just not the reality. Furthermore, to reduce the Labour party to a coalition of interests where the aggregate may even be less than the sum of its parts is most definitely a case of turning back. It is turning back to a very dark time for the left indeed.

Compass has been intriguing and it has genuinely contributed to the debate over the last two years. Their argument for a new type of politics is well made and could unleash the pent up energy that exists across the left. Now they are reaching the 'what' stage of the process things are getting more shaky. When the discussion becomes about maximum wages, Tobin taxes, 35-hour weeks, and even land taxes (there are multiple 'taxes' on land already and when we need to kick start construction hardly a wise move) the debate starts to stray beyond the mainstream. This is not to argue that politics is simply a Downsian process of finding the peak of the normal curve and then pitch your policies at it. But there are parameters of tolerance and many of the suggestions feel unwise, impractical, and drag the left out of that zone of tolerance as a result.

To invoke the campaign of Barack Obama in this is more than a little cheeky. The US has a different starting point to Britain- no universal healthcare is an obvious point. His policy package though wasn't massively to the left of where Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign was though it was to a degree. It was, however, within the zone of tolerance. Tax increases, as a case point, fell on the very wealthy and were relatively moderate. The vast majority have received a tax credit.

Even after making the changes that he will make to the environment, healthcare, education, and taxation, the post-Obama America will still be significantly less equal than Europe with a less generous system of welfare. So the two can't really be compared. Moreover, his campaign was most definitely NOT a coalition of interests. It was a mass movement for change with a definable centre. Only Barack Obama spoke for Barack Obama regardless of the enormous contribution that the trade unions made (just by way of an example.)

Nonetheless, it is worthwhile that Compass are provoking this debate. John Harris and Neal Lawson are absolutely right that we are in a different world now. We can't afford to simply revert to type once the economy has recovered as it inevitably will. There is a huge need to look at the way we live, work, regulate finance, relate in communities, and our impact on the environment. The left will have some interesting answers. It needs to articulate a vision of life in modern, post-credit crunch Britain that speaks to people and enthuses people. It needs to interact with people's needs in their local communities and respond. If it fails to be relevant then it will be the right that defines the post-credit crunch world.

Monday, 16 March 2009

End of the affair?

David Broder, the legendary Washington Post columnist, has declared that Barack Obama's honeymoon is over. That's it then and probably a good thing too. The scale of the challenges he faces are, well, enormous. Absolutely enormous. Bigger than the biggest enormous thing that you can conceive and then a bit bigger too. And, what's more, he going at it full pelt: financial restructuring, economic recovery, climate change, education, healthcare, Afghanistan, you name it. The honeymoon was never likely to last long.

What is emerging is that this is the most ambitious administration since that of Lyndon Johnson- a presidency that has an enduring impact on modern America in the way that Franklin Roosevelt's has. The risk is that the Obama administration could run out of steam just as the Johnson administration did but that was as much about the Vietnam War as domestic affairs. Having said that, race riots and fiscal expansion also began to take their toll by 1968.

So there is inherent risk in the pathway chosen by President Obama. He could be exhausted within a single term. Or he could go down as a history making president as a result of his achievements in office not just the fact that he secured office in the first place. Worth a try. And may the best of luck and judgement be with him.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

The Birmingham upsurge...

Eighty plus Labour party people gave up their Friday evening to come to a talk I was giving on Barack Obama and what lessons Labour can draw in Birmingham last night. It was the most energetic, engaged, inspiring event I have taken part in for quite some time and very kindly chaired by Steve McCabe MP. There is considerable life left in the Labour party yet and the work that is starting to be done- looking at some community organising principles- is phenomenal.

I look forward to the Fabian Society's new pamphlet on 'what we can learn from Obama.' Whatever the Labour party thinks it can learn, people in Birmingham are already getting on with it and it is this local, community based activism that is far more interesting than anything to do with on-line campaigning or the like. That had a part to play but the real lesson from Barack Obama's success- quite apart from that it helps to have a phenomenal communicator and inspiring leader at the helm- is that face to face politics, old-fashioned politics if you like, is just as important. If the party gets that right then it will find itself swimming with the tide of local community activism. More to follow over the coming weeks....

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Can politicians be human?

Rachel Sylvester despairs at politicians twittering while the 'country burns'. On the face of it, twittering is a laughably trivial exercise. Who cares that I dropped a banana in my toaster this morning? I don't even care that much- I got it out in the end. But for some reason that's what I twittered about an hour ago. Maybe I'm in search of an identity? Or a life? That's what Oliver James thinks. Hmmm. Not sure how I'd find that in twitter. Or Facebook. Or by writing this blog.

So should we laugh at politicians who feel the need to articulate their every move in 140 characters or less? I think not actually. The House of Commons is an incredibly isolating place and this constant electronic networking - even if it doesn't necessarily go much beyond the Westminster Village for now- helps to link politicians to the outside world. And it's good for us to have direct contact and to realise that politicians are real people after all. They do watch football, TV, look forward to spending the small amount of time they have weekends with the family, and some even have a sense of humour. If they try to get down with the yoof, well, we can just have a bit of a laugh at them.

We live in an age where politics seems more centralised and alien than ever before. Social networking is not enough in and of itself to change that. But it does provide a tool. The good it can do depends on how the tool is used. It's good that politicians- and former politicians- across the entire political spectrum, at both a national and local, are experimenting. Hopefully they can laugh at themselves when they get it wrong. And hopefully they will be given applause when they get it right. It can only be a good thing.

And now public services are to be more user responsive with public feedback published on the websites of schools, hospitals, police services, etc. I hope that is extended to public services of all kinds. There is quite a radical proposition underneath all this. Central controls and tight auditing may have to be loosened if public services can be truly responsive. Will the government face the ultimate consequences of the road down which it has begun to travel?

Let me take an example from a public service with which I am involved- the local Community College. Just say that a particular course is popular, helping people into work, and more students want to study it. In parallel, the government decides it is no longer a priority area and the Learning and Skills Council stops funding it. The course is discontinued despite the fact that users of the service value it and want to continue using it.

So a lot of this will come down to how the system works in practice- what happens when targets, slimmed down though they may be, collide with customer preference. Add resource allocation to the mix and a very complex picture emerges.

On an initial reading of Working Together it could go either way. Local delivery could be caught in the middle- squeezed between 'strategic delivery' and unleashed local expectations. None of this is in any way simple but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Back to my local College, we are extremely constrained by the central policy environment and that is far more critical to running a financially viable service than responsiveness to local signals. Will Working Together change that? Probably not, but that doesn't mean that it is not a step in the right direction. And perhaps, if user engagement takes off then it will force changes up the line. One can hope anyway.

So please keep this train of thought going and let's see where it leads. Oh, and please keep twittering- it's fun and it makes you appear more human. That's a good thing.

Friday, 6 March 2009

The special relationship gone sour?

Well, after a tremendous trip to incredible Mumbai- on holiday- I've returned to the mundane realities of the political coverage of the right-wing press. Of particular obsession is the imagined snub to the Prime Minister by President Obama. From staying in a hotel recently attacked by terrorists to the paranoid little England whining of the Mail and Telegraph it is quite a culture shock.

Apparently, President Obama gave the Prime Minister a collection of twenty-five American movie greats. If this is the form that snubs come in nowadays then goodness knows the conflicts that we are going to see in the coming decades. Perhaps he got the idea from David Cameron's gift of the best of British music when he visited last July. Actually, I thought that Cameron's was a rather inspired gift.

Admittedly, I wouldn't feel particularly excited by a 25 volume box of DVD classics unless it was alternative classics- Scarface, Mean Streets, Magnolia, The Usual Suspects, that sort of thing. But I wouldn't see it as a snub for goodness sake. Perhaps President Obama is not a fan of The Smiths but I'm sure he accepted the gift in good grace.

What's worse, President Obama has replaced a bust of Winston Churchill with Abraham Lincoln. How could he? I am deeply shocked by this. Shocked that it should draw any comment at all. If he had replaced it with Michael Jordan you maybe could have provoked a quivering muscle above my left eyebrow to react. But we are talking Abraham Lincoln here people. Get a grip.

The Telegraph and Mail plough on regardless. James Delingpole throws a completely inexplicable punch at Michelle Obama, 'Lady Macbeth.' You can feel a creative genius at work- it must have been a real struggle to come up with the Lady Macbeth reference. Can't wait for his forthcoming book, Welcome to Obamaland. I'm sure he'll have lots of opportunities to say 'I told you so' each time the Obama administration makes political mistakes over the next few years which it will do.

Janet Daley in mitigating but broadly continuing the attack dismisses the constantly repeated fantasy that President Obama has a resentment towards Britain as a result of British rule of Kenya. I have no seen no concrete evidence of his grand-father's often cited involvement with the Mau-Mau uprising. In fact, he worked for the British army as a kitchen hand. He is Luo whereas the Mau-Maus were largely Kikuyu. In such an ethnically divided country the notion that Obama's family were involved with the Mau-Mau seems highly unlikely. In fact, I remember Barack Obama specifically saying that his grand-father was not.

It would be surprising if Barack Obama does not take issue with the notion of colonial rule. I take issue with the notion of colonial rule- who doesn't? But to expand that into a broader contempt for modern Britain is ridiculous.

No, what we were seeing in Washington this week was rather a return of the US-UK relationship to a pragmatic footing. That may not be a bad thing for either nation after a number of years where it was judged to be too close. We can't have it both ways: attack the UK for being a US poodle and for only having a business-like relationship with Washington. We have a philosophical, cultural, and historical affinity with the US. We have mostly congruent interests, not least in the direction of economic policy. Let's be honest about where we agree and don't. Let's stop this constant vacillation between hissy affront and sickly sycophancy. Both are false and ultimately in neither nation's interest.

If we get beyond this mythology then we can see that there are major opportunities for building a productive relationship with the new US administration and Congress. On that score, it should be said, the Prime Minister had a highly successful week. Let's hope that continues at the G20 summit in April- it needs to.