Wednesday, 29 April 2009

A week of President Obama

I've been busy writing on President Obama's 100 days. There are so many angles on this that it's been easy to approach the question in a number of different ways. How well has he done? Well, my take can be read in the following pieces:

100 Days: Danger ahead for President Obama on Guardian Comment is Free

Obama's 100 days
in the Birmingham Post

99 Nights at the Obama Opera first posted on Progress Online who kindly agreed for it to be cross-posted on LabourList.

Hubris comes early to the Tories

Often after a time in office, a party can become hubristic. In William Hague's case he has entered the hubristic phase even before entering office. Perhaps it's all the time he spends with history books. Maybe the hours spent alone with Pitt the Younger, Disraeli, and Winston Churchill have distorted his perception. Perhaps he has subsumed those figures into his own psyche. Maybe in William Hague world, he's been in power for over two centuries already. That's a hell of record Pitt-Disraeli-Churchill Hague. A little bit of hubris is understandable with that unbroken spell of glorious leadership.

Is this morning's Times, politics' own Dr Who, confidently expounds (or 'declaims' more in keeping with the style?):
“It is likely that we are going to be able to win the next election . . . I put it no more strongly than that."
He goes on ('perorates'? -maybe not):
"“However much opinion polls go up and down there is a mood of ‘this is long enough of a Labour government’ .”
Call me a Jacobin upstart, but I'm of the view that these things are for the British people to decide in general elections. And William, though Pitt would be horrified, we even have universal suffrage now. What will decide the next election is not just what people do or don't feel about the government but also their assessment about whether the Conservatives are ready to lead. I can understand you wanting to skip that bit, awkward as it is. But that discussion has barely even begun yet. It will and it has to and once the Conservatives- isolationist, economically illiterate,utterly lacking in substance- are measured up, we'll see what conclusion the British people come to. That will be in a general election.

Elsewhere in the interview, our hero, William 'Flashman' Hague, returns to the issue of the EU. It appears that returning to the scene of past humiliations (remember 'save the pound?') is not beyond the battlefield leadership of our great general. Apparently, he is still contemplating reversing a UK ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. Well, we can always fall back on the Empire and the East India Trading Company can't we? Why worry about those pesky Europeans. Pitt took them on. Churchill sorted them out. Thatcher handbagged them. Rule Britannia.

Surely after eight years of George W Bush, it is obvious what can be achieved unilaterally. Next to nothing is the answer. The US can't. The UK can't and nor can anyone else. Yet our hero is seriously considering smashing our relationships with close european allies. These relationships help us to create jobs, wealth, reduce our negative impact on the environment, fight crime and terrorism, and underpin our influence with other global powers. Pitt-Disraeli-Churchill Hague clearly has a different view and sees himself as a great man of history standing apart from the rest. Actually, he's the sad schoolboy standing in corner of playground fantasising about battlefield glory while life just passes him by. That's not strong; it's foolhardy.

I don't know who is going to win the next election. It is most definitely not decided yet. What I do know is that a Cameron government with William Hague as Foreign Secretary has the potential to do serious damage to our reputation in the world and our national self-interest. Great men of history.......

Post script: Please read an article I have in the Birmingham Post this morning on President Obama's 100 days.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

MPs' expenses- is it really that difficult?

Quite why sorting out MPs' expenses is proving to be so irksome is difficult to fathom. There are three principles that would seem important: cost effectiveness, transparency, and legitimacy. Most MPs need a second home and would not be seeking accommodation in London were they not an MP. To secure accommodation in London at a reasonable price, you have to rent a flat or a house. The short term flat let market is prohibitively expensive so would not provide value for money. Hotel accommodation is not practical.

What is a reasonable monthly amount to secure practical accommodation in London? I would say £1,500 seems like a reasonable amount including bills (other than business related telephone charges.) That amount is open for discussion and would only be reimbursed with receipts (less would be received if less was being paid.) If an MP wanted something more salubrious then they could fund it out of their own pocket. It should be a rule that an MP's first accommodation for which they would receive no funding other than telephone bills related to Commons business should be in their constituency. The second accommodation allowance should only apply to accommodation in London.

Furthermore, there should be exceptions. Nobody whose constituency is within commutable distance to the House of Commons should receive second home allowance. Instead, they would be reimbursed for late night travel expenses only (as other MPs would be also.) There is an argument for those MPs receiving a London weighting on their salary as other public sector workers often do. Furthermore, those MPs who have the benefit of grace and favour accommodation would not be eligible for second home allowance.

Some have suggested increasing MPs' pay as a way of cost effectively and transparently dealing with this. That is probably the easiest way of doing it. However, it wouldn't meet the legitimacy criteria in this political environment.

So, can we get on with this now please?

Monday, 27 April 2009

Cameron's delusion on Europe

David Cameron models himself on Tony Blair. He doesn't do imitation very well. Any honest reading of the history of New Labour reveals that one of the strengths of the former Prime Minister was his ability to shift his party by challenging its received wisdom. It is difficult to see a single issue where David Cameron has done this. And today he's launched a very familiar campaign which mines the Tories' obsession with Europe once again. It seems to be a very deep mine indeed.

He's called for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Had John Major held a referendum on the Masstricht Treaty or had Margaret Thatcher done so on the Single European Act- both far more substantial shifts in our relationship with Europe- then Mr Cameron's pleas may be worth listening to. They didn't and so we can safely walk on by.

It's an old Tory trick to try to turn discussion about the European Union into a neurotic discussion about institutional rules. But it's the issues that count. If you care about prosperity, the environment, security, and other issues of a trans-national nature then how exactly can we get by without strong cooperation with our European partners? In other words, the EU matters because we can't fight crime, support business and jobs, and address major environmental challenges without it.

We will see if the Czech Republic, Poland and Ireland ratify the Lisbon Treaty this year. We will also know within just over a year if David Cameron is in office. The simple question for him, is if he wins the next election will he seek to re-negotiate the Lisbon Treaty thereby plunging the UK onto the margins and creating an ongoing institutional crisis in the EU rather than getting on with dealing with the serious issues we face? If he fails to answer then this campaign is just political posturing. If he says that he would seek to re-negotiate the Treaty then he is willing to sacrifice Britain's self interest for his party's obsession with the EU.

And don't rule that out. Remember, he is taking his party out of the European People's Party much to the chagrin of Angela Merkel. Just as the lunatic fringe beckons for the Tories in the European Parliament, it would beckon for the nation as a whole if Mr Cameron failed to reverse his knee-jerk anti-europeanism. He claims that he is a 'progressive' yet he is more than happy to link up with the rabidly homophobic Polish Law and Justice Party in the Parliament. It seems there are two ways of interpreting this: he is weak and captive to his party's prejudices or he is not what he says he is. Neither bodes well for Britain should he become Prime Minister.

Even if he followed through on his barmy anti-europeanism, it wouldn't loosen Brussels' influence on our politics. It would simply mean that we have less influence over the decisions that affect us. We would be left sitting by the fax machine waiting for new Brussels Directives to arrive, without any influence on their content. Even worse, without influence in Europe, we lose our world influence. Does Mr Cameron seriously believe that President Obama will have any real strategic interest in a strong relationship with a UK that has no influence in the EU? Of course not.

So what's it to be Mr Cameron? Will you continue this self-indulgent pandering to your party's prejudices or will you lead your party to a position that is actually in this nation's interests? From the evidence of the campaign he has just launched, it is to be supine posturing. Ready to lead?

Americans not with Obama on torture

The debates about torture continue to rumble on in the US media. Fox News Sunday had the likes of Bill Kristol on the case yesterday with rather familiar and wearisome arguments about how releasing the torture memos plays into the hands of the US' enemies. No Bill, torturing people plays into the hands of your enemies. Investigating what happened, who sanctioned it, what purpose it served, and prosecuting those guilty of breaking the law will mark a break with the past and would constitute a definitive statement that the US will not torture. That will improve your national security.

As Alberto Mora, a former Navy general counsel, has said, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo constitute, “the first and second identifiable causes of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq.” Unfortunately, President Obama may half agree with Bill Kristol. Arguments about only looking forward not back are not convincing. The US can not look forward until it decisively breaks with the past. Discontinuing 'enhanced interrogation techniques' and publishing the memos is simply a halfway house.

But it's only the liberal base that agrees with that proposition right? Well, no actually. A poll was published by Gallup over the weekend which showed that 64 per cent of Americans either want an independent or criminal investigation. It would seem that ordinary Americans do not want to let this go and nor should their president. This issue is far from over.

My guess is that when photos of abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq are released on May 28th in response to a freedom of information request from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) new momentum will swing behind the case for an independent investigation- as a minimum. The photos will show that the practice of torture was far more widespread than previously thought. It could only be so with political sanction and toleration. It is not the Lynndie Englands that are the primary concern. It is the Dick Cheneys and Donald Rumsfelds and the former is still out and about causing as much damage to the Obama administration as humanly possible. It is like someone burgling your house and mocking you every time you step out of the door for your lax security. It has to stop. See Elizabeth Cheney defend her father on torture below:



Moving on to torture of a more metaphorical kind, see if you can get all the way through this atrocious interview with President Ahmadinejad which aired on ABC yesterday. Talk about defensive, evasive, and utterly cowardly:

Friday, 24 April 2009

Obama's huge blunder on torture

If you have been reading Mark Danner's look at the CIA's use of torture in the New York Review of Books in the past couple of editions, you will feel sick to the core. By releasing the memos sanctioning 'enhanced interrogation techniques' at the weekend, the administration has taken the story off the rarefied pages of the Review and projected it across the mainstream media. But now, they have reasserted their position that there should not be an independent review into the use of 'harsh administration techniques' on terrorist suspects called for by Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, Senator Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and others. This is a huge and potentially very costly mistake.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney has been on the airwaves over the last few weeks as has Karl Rove followed by the familiar neo-conservative phalanx. As Danner explains the purpose is two-fold. Firstly, it is designed to exonerate. That is they are determined to excuse the actions taken by Bush administration members such as Alberto Gonzales, Donald Rumsfeld, and Cheney, in sanctioning the reprehensible techniques that were deployed. The second purpose is more insidious. They are projecting forward and preparing the ground for a full frontal attack on the Obama administration should there be, God forbid, another attack on US soil. The argument goes something along the lines of: these techniques, though harsh, have protected us in the past and are critical to protecting us in the future; nobody likes it but it is necessary.

This is a political time bomb. Neo-conservatives never die. They do not even lie dormant. They are already aggressively fighting back and they will seize their moment. The president's concern that to consume too much energy in looking back he will be sapping the political energy of his administration is a concern too far. Instead, he needs to confront this in a comprehensive and clear way that asks the questions: what happened, who sanctioned it, what was learned, and what impact- positive (preventing attacks?) or negative (provoking anger towards the US and laying the ground for terrorist recruitment)- did it have? It is this last question that is the politically explosive one and must be addressed if the Obama administration is not going to expose itself to major political risk. A commission is the way to provide answers to these questions.

What of CIA morale? This is a very tricky issue and one that has to be factored in when considering the right route forward. A high functioning CIA able to recruit the best and the brightest is critical to the US national security. Pragmatically, it may be necessary to accept the Nuremberg 'under orders' defence. However, those who gave legal advice and sanctioned that advice in the Bush administration must certainly not be immune.

Torture contravenes the Third Geneva Convention which declares both "torture" and "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" to be illegal. It also contravenes the 1984 Convention Against Torture and the 1996 War Crimes Act. There could be some very high profile legal cases as a result of the findings of a commission. Well, if they are indicted, it will question their credibility further.

Fighting on so many fronts is exhausting and difficult. It is understandable that the administration wants to avoid opening up a new front on the alleged war crimes of the Bush administration. In terms of short-term political pragmatism, the decision is entirely logical. It is, however, a hugely risky decision. It is too risky. Cheney and his gang are busy sowing the seeds for a future political assault . These guys can operate strategies over decades let alone a few years. The only way counteract this strategy is to nip it in the bud and destroy the credibility of those who have sanctioned and continue to excuse torture.

This is not just about the past as the Obama administration asserts. It is also about the future.

Torture is an offense to the universal values of human dignity and freedom which we espouse. Those who violate these values in our name should be held to account. That is just. Moreover, if this administration wants to shield itself politically then is must confront this issue now. Events dear boy, events.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Higher rate tax: the old ones are the best ones

Ever since Arthur Laffer sketched a curve on a napkin demonstrating that increasing taxes beyond a certain point reduces tax take (because of avoidance and impact on enterprise incentives), it has been an article of faith among right wing politicians and commentators that increasing taxes for the wealthy is a mad and counterproductive idea. Here's today's example. Who was at that meeting where the napkin became an unlikely prop? None other than our old friends Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Hmmmm......interesting that my last post was on torture and the lies told by the Bush administration about it.

Of course, far from economic fact, the Laffer Curve is economic theory- its shape and nature far from determined- and highly disputed at that. If there is 100 per cent tax then of course people are going to avoid tax. It doesn't follow that if tax is 50 per cent above £150,000 that they will too. The reality is we just don't know but we'll find out next year.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has been quoted ad nauseam in support of the neo-liberal case over the last few months. I thought it might actually be worth digging out what they said in reality- just for originality. Here is the key quote (quoted here):
There are also considerable uncertainties in forecasting the underlying pre-tax incomes of the very rich in 2011-12 given that the latest micro-data available on the incomes of the very rich dates from 2005-06, and given that recent analysis showed a close relationship between income growth amongst the very rich and the performance of the stock market, which has been extremely volatile in recent months. These issues, combined with the uncertainty over how very rich adults will respond to higher marginal tax rates, must surely mean that the HM Treasury's estimated revenue yield of £1.6bn a year is subject to an extremely wide margin of error, and the possibility must exist that the measure could lose the government income tax revenue.
Actually, the IFS was pointing to the uncertainty of the tax take from the new higher rate while, admittedly, implicitly accepting that there may be something in the theory of the Laffer Curve. It does not come to a firm conclusion. It's the oldest neo-liberal trick in the book (one that has been parroted by the neo-cons- back to Cheney and Rumsfeld again): take a theory, turn it into a law, and never feel you need to have even the briefest flirtation with reality.

It would in fact be very surprising if this new tax didn't raise revenue. But we'll see.

Torture gets the Stewart treatment

Torture is reprehensible, an offense to the liberal values the US holds dear, in large part ineffective, and shames the United States in the eyes of the world- encouraging its enemies and generating sympathy for those who seek to destroy it in the process . That's my very serious way of saying it's wrong, don't do it. John Stewart has a different way of approaching these things and he communicates it far more effectively don't you think?

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
We Don't Torture
thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

The Budget: calm down dear

It's an old caution: don't judge a Budget for least 24 hours. And we could add to that, don't judge the economic impact of a Budget for at least a year. It seems the Tories have ducked the major political elephant trap by stating that reversing the 50% tax rate 'cannot be our priority.' That makes it a base-pleasing measure rather than a booby trap. Fine. Combined with efforts to clamp down on tax havens it may or may not be a good way to raise revenue. Let's see but if direct taxes have to be raised, this is the fair way to do it.

The Tories and the right-leaning press keep banging on about debt. This comment in the Spectator is typical which describes debt levels as a catastrophe. Don't get me wrong, debt levels are worryingly high but, really, what exactly is the alternative? Samuel Brittan in the FT certainly doesn't see that there's an alternative. He advocates very clearly a belt and braces job- fiscal and monetary stimulus. Is there any more respected economic commentator than Brittan?

And is this a uniquely British conundrum? Absolutely not. Funnily enough, Iain Dale in a post entitled, 'It's public borrowing, stupid', attaches a table of the debt of leading economies. It shows that the UK starts off from a relative low national debt level (excluding financial bail out provision) and ends 2010 less than Germany, France, the US, Japan, Italy, Ireland and others. Those figures may shift to a degree after today's announcement but the point remains. Robert Peston points out the unexpectedly high level of prospective gilt sales and the gilt markets have fallen today. But again, only time will tell whether that level of borrowing is sustainable beyond this initial shock. The UK economy is not a basket case- far from it- so it would be surprising if it were not.

So the overall message is yes, this is scary but we need to keep our heads, do the right thing, return the economy to growth without allowing too much output to be eliminated for good, then retrench expenditure, raise taxes, and allow growth to eat away the deficit. None of it sounds good but the Government is doing the right things in response to the most trying economic times we've seen, certainly since the early 1980s.

Coca-Cola saves lives?

When at the G20 Summit I had the pleasure of meeting Simon Berry of ColaLife, who is a bit like the sort of dad who spends a lot of time in a shed inventing strange gadgets with nothing more than wire and egg cartons. Only, his invention is not a Wallace-esque kettle boiler or mechanical TV remote control.

It is an ingenious idea that uses one of the most comprehensive global distribution networks to deliver life saving medicines. Are we talking UPS or Fed Ex? Could they get to small village in Tanzania? Perhaps not. But Coca Cola could. And that is Simon's concept: to use Coke's distribution network to get essential medicines to the needy using nothing more than a cardboard insert that slips between the bottles (above). In fairness the insert might be made out of used egg cartons and made in a shed.

The idea is a stroke of genius. And here is a video on what it's all about:



Now Coke has expressed serious interest in the idea and it seems that they will trial it this year. All very exciting stuff and I wish Simon the very best of luck. Looking forward to hearing how it works out.

Monday, 20 April 2009

A new politics: statement on Labour blogging

Today, I have added my name to a statement about the purpose and conduct of Labour political blogging. It is the initiative of the Fabian Society and linked to their 'Change we need' programme- a discussion with which I have engaged actively. I actually signed the statement for a simple reason: I agree with every word of the declaration and it embodies clearly and succinctly the ethos of this blog. I'm not saying that this blog has never or will never fall short but we'll do our very best (we do occasionally try to add a light touch just for fun....!). The statement is also supported across the Labour family: figures from the Fabians, Progress, and Compass have all signed up.

Politics is vitally important. We can not resolve the critical economic, social, and environmental issues that we face without it. Some issues are reaching the point of crisis if they have not already arrived at that point- climate change, inequality, exclusion, community breakdown, inter-group rivalry and disrespect- all spring to mind. In all of these cases, complex issues need to be discussed and debated with all of us involved at every step of the way.

Gone are the days of Whitehall knows best; elitist models are not up to the task. Moreover, though ideas and analysis will flow from them, the media, think tanks, academia, and political figures themselves will not be able to act with authority without popular legitimacy. More importantly, the solutions they propose will not be sufficient or subtle enough to the task without public involvement or understanding of the decisions that impact their lives or the communities in which they live. Nor are nihilistic models able to improve lives. Each challenge requires a legitimate collective response. That is why active democracy is important.

This statement is about blogging which is just one outlet for this broad discussion and engagement. I actually would sign up to the statement even if it were not about blogging but about politics in general. To take the section headings is to outline the principles of a new politics that is sorely needed: ethical and value-based, positive about political engagement, pluralist and open, independent, participatory and open. Today's politics does not fall short in all regards. Funnily enough, despite the last week, I strongly believe it to be ethical and value-based- right across the mainstream spectrum. Some fall short but in expressing our outrage we can not allow ourselves to play into the hands of those whose mission is to destroy politics. Such voices are mainly to be heard at the extremes: those who resort to either violence, hatred, destruction, or simple trivialisation.

By signing this statement I do not wish to imply that bloggers who are not Labour do not espouse and demonstrate the ethos that the signatories of this statement hold dear. Such a suggestion would be crass in the extreme. I just believe that a new politics matches the need for the right collective responses to major challenges: they are two sides of the same coin. Conservatism- including in its more tepid Cameron-ite form- is likely to fall short in meeting both challenges.

As I have argued on this blog many times (an example is here), my main issue with Cameron-ite politics is that while his stated objectives- a greener, safer, fairer society with more opportunity for all- may well be 'progressive', he is unable, for political reasons, to pursue 'progressive' means to achieve them. For that reason, there will a huge conflict at the heart of a Cameron government between a neo-Thatcherite, isolationist agenda, and a more whiggish, one nation-esque approach. It is the former that is likely to prevail given the state of the modern Tory party and Tory-supporting media; David Cameron has done little to challenge that in fundamental terms. Those 'progressive' values will be set aside just at a time- with the economy, environment, and society as it is- that they can not be.

So the process, conduct and the outcome of politics matters. They are inseparable. To achieve a better society with better lives for all within it, we need both collectivism or togetherness, a more elegant and voluntaristic way of describing it, and its corollary, a democracy characterised by active citizenship. The internet- and blogging- should promote that not seek to destroy that. That is what Labour blogging must be about.

The Statement

We are a group of Labour party members and supporters who believe that blogging can play an increasingly important contribution to progressive politics. We are seeking, in different ways, to make our own individual contributions to that, and wish to set out the ethic which informs our blogging and the broader politics we are working for within the Labour Party and beyond it.

Many of these are truths which should be self-evident. We are well aware that the broad spirit which we seek to articulate has long informed what most Labour bloggers do, as it also does most of those who blog in other parties and in non-partisan civic activism. So we do not claim any particular originality; still less do we seek to impose our views as a new regulatory code, or to attempt to police others.

Our purpose is simple. We do not believe that new technology leads to inevitable outcomes, but rather that we must all make choices about how we use it and for what purposes.

So we wish to set out why we blog and how we want the party which we support to change so that it can connect to new progressive energy for the causes we support.

1. Ethical and value-based

We believe we must act as ambassadors for the political values we profess. This applies to all politics, online or not. The Obama campaign's power to mobilise was rooted in supporters living its ethic of 'respect, empower and include'. As Labour supporters, we wish to ensure that our values of solidarity, tolerance and respect are reflected in how we do politics as well as the causes we seek to serve.

So we oppose the politics of personal destruction. We believe that the personal can be political, where it reveals the hypocrisy of public statements, the wilful misuse of evidence, or breaches proper ethical standards in public life. Where it doesn't do that, it should be off limits. Politicians should be able to have a family and private life too. A politics of personal destruction violates progressive values and brings all politics into disrepute.

2. Positive about political engagement

We do not believe that the internet is inevitably a force for anti-politics. We reject the mythology of the internet as a lawless and ethics-free zone. Bloggers are subject to law, as well as to the ethical and civic pressures of our online and offline communities. We are clear that the left can never win a politics of loathing and mutual destruction, because the faith in politics that we need will inevitably be a casualty of war. The nihilistic approach practiced by a few online should not overshadow the greater energy and numbers engaged in constructive civic advocacy.

We believe that we can challenge our political opponents without always questioning their integrity. We believe that there are big political arguments to be had between the left and the right of politics, and the left has every reason to be confident about our values and ideas, which have done much to change Britain for the better over the last century and which are in the ascendancy internationally after three decades in which anti-government arguments have often dominated.

We also believe that what is pejoratively called 'negative campaigning' has a legitimate place in politics. Scrutinising the principles, ideas and policies of political opponents is an important part of offering a democratic choice. We should challenge the ideas, claims and sometimes the misrepresentations of our political opponents, just as we would expect them to challenge us. We believe that this is effective when it is done accurately, and that this will become ever more important as the internet makes politics more transparent. So we will point out where there is a mismatch between professed principles and policies, or where the evidence does not back up what is claimed, but we will try not to assume our opponents are in bad faith where we do not have evidence to support that.

3. Pluralist and open

We believe that pluralism must be at the heart of the progressive blogosphere. We believe that debate and argument are what brings life to politics. We want to promote a cultural 'glasnost' of open discussion within our party, to show that we understand that the confidence to debate, and disagree, in an atmosphere of mutual respect helps us to bring people together to make change possible.

We believe we must change the culture of Labour's engagement with those outside the party too, including those who were once our supporters but who are disillusioned, and new generations forming their political opinions. For us, democratic politics is about individuals working together to create collective pressure for change, but also about the need to continue to talk even when we disagree deeply. We believe in engaging with all reasonable critics of the Labour government and Labour Party, wherever we can establish the possibility of taking part in democratic arguments in a spirit of mutual respect.

4. Independent spaces

We believe that attempts to transfer 'command and control' models to online politics will inevitably fail. Labour must show that it gets that - in practice as well as theory - if we are make our contribution to the progressive movements on which our causes depend.

The government and the political parties should use their official spaces to contribute to and enable these conversations. We also want to see Ministers and MPs having the confidence to engage in political debate and argument elsewhere, while being clear that there is no value for anybody in seeking to control independent spaces for discussion.

5. Participatory and cooperative

We believe in a cooperative ethic of blogging, because the internet is most potent when it harnesses the creativity, ideas and expertise of many people. The internet is a powerful tool for individual expression. We believe it also enables citizens to interact and collaborate in ways that were never previously possible, and catalyse new forces for participation and activism. As citizens, and as bloggers, we believe in asking not only what is wrong with the world but how we can work together to improve it.

We hope that others will offer ideas and responses - supportive and critical - about these ideas and how they can help to inform the future of our politics.

We know that the outcomes of politics matter deeply, that politics is about passion and argument, and that we may ourselves sometimes fall short of the values and standards that we aspire to.

But this is why we blog - and what we hope to achieve for our politics by doing so.

Sunder Katwala, Fabian Society www.nextleft.org

Nick Anstead www.nickanstead.com/blog/

Will Straw www.changeweneed.org.uk

David Lammy MP www.davidlammy.co.uk

Rachael Jolley www.nextleft.org

Jessica Asato www.progressonline.org.uk and labourwomen.blogspot.com

Karin Christiansen labourwomen.blogspot.com

Paul Cotterill www.bickerstafferecord.org.uk

Laurence Durnan www.blackburnlabour.org/blog

Alex Finnegan www.abigblockofcheese.blogspot.com

Gavin Hayes www.compassonline.org.uk

Mike Ion mike-ion.blogspot.com

Richard Lane www.politicana.co.uk

Tom Miller newerlabour.blogspot.com

Carl Nuttall www.blackburnlabour.org/blog

Anthony Painter www.anthonypainter.co.uk

Don Paskino don-paskini.blogspot.com

Andreas Paterson citizenandreas.blogspot.com

Asif Sange www.blackburnlabour.org/blog

Stuart White www.nextleft.org

Graham Whitman gtrmancfabians.blogspot.com

Post script: More on this over at Liberal Conspiracy.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Blog wars: they played, they lost

As predicted yesterday, the events of the last 24 hours show how personal, nasty, and petty the political blogosphere can become. The frustrating thing about it is that Labour has found it hard to adjust to the world of political blogging. And now they have started to play, they have played absolutely the wrong game. They have gone for tabloid-esque rumour, slur and gossip. By playing the wrong man and wrong game they have dropped the ball. In so doing, as I discussed yesterday, they have allowed the big egos of the political blogosphere to claim the moral high ground. Hopeless really.

On the issue itself, I agree with comments made yesterday by Tom Harris and wholeheartedly endorse the comments made by Alastair Campbell about this approach being incompetent. The Labour party has to set the very highest standards and then meet them. We fell short. That's it.

David Cameron and George Osborne have been so woefully wrong on the economy that I do have grave concern about a future Tory government. It will set the UK back economically and will harm our reputation and influence in the world which makes us less able to defend our strategic interests. That is a powerful argument that should be made continuously until the next general election. Make that argument lucidly then a fourth term becomes a possibility. Events such as this weekend detract from that clear argument. From Labour's perspective, that's the real pity.

Finally, a comment about blogging to expand on my comments yesterday. I was a sceptic at first but decided to give it go when I was in the States covering the Obama campaign just over a year ago. It was a travelog as much as anything but then I saw that it provided other opportunities for self-expression. Hundreds of other people see the same thing: that makes for a diversity of voices and perspective. For me, that is the hallmark of a healthy democracy and blogging most definitely has something to contribute. That is strongly in the public interest.

My fear is now, as it has achieved its first major scalp, blogging has started, in political consciousness, to move into the mainstream. The danger is that it will be seen as an opportunity to wash the sort of dirty laundry that not even the tabloid press would touch. If that is to be the case, it will have a specialised audience based around the Westminster Village rather than a broad audience tapping into the diversity of opinion in UK politics. I hate to say it but this weekend may come to be seen as the UK blogosphere's 'Drudge' moment (though on a much more petty scale). I don't celebrate that- and it's interesting that one of the people at the centre of this describes his blog as being 'anti-politics'- remember that. I just look at the fantastic range and quality of the post-Drudge US blog sites (see my links to sample a few that I read) and stay optimistic.

Post script: Are you following me on Twitter? http://twitter.com/anthonypainter

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Cheerio blogosphere- I'm out of here

Not forever I'm afraid, I hope, just for a short break to San Francisco. I have managed to time my trip to coincide with the political blogosphere trying to demonstrate that it can be every bit as petty as the 'Mainstream Media' but a little more personal. Funnily enough, those who want to partake in this ego-fest have the run of the nation's TV studios today.

So expect some more US focused stuff next week and by the time I get back I hope that this has all blown over. Because whatever the rights and wrongs of who said what to who and about who and sent whatever to whom there is a bigger picture here. Ranting and gossip is not going to attract a wider, serious audience to this medium which, in terms of reach, is very much in its infancy. Or maybe I'm wrong. Or perhaps this format is just gutter tabloid gossip on line. In which case, I'm in the wrong game. But I don't believe that's the case. We'll see.

On Obama: naive liberal or apologist for malign US power- you decide

My piece on President Obama and his foreign policy performance in the last week or so has inspired controversy over at Guardian Comment is Free. The president defined a new approach to foreign relations that sets him apart from President Bush: one that leads through partnership, sets clear objectives and definable outcomes, and then constructs winning coalitions to secure those outcomes. There are measurable tests of his success: the joint declaration with Russia is the best example.

For some, this is liberal Obama idolatry, the man is Jimmy Carter in disguise and we are all just blinded to that (note: was Jimmy Carter really that bad? Really?) This was perhaps the worst presidential performance since Gerald Ford rolled down the steps of Air Force One. For others, President Obama is just a new, charismatic captain of a malign ship. The evil empire still exists and is set not just on world domination but destruction. You might find yourself somewhere in between these two positions. Any which way, feel free to pitch into a lively debate which I'm enjoying immensely.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Dan Hannan and the 'modern' Conservative party

Dan Hannan is the gift that just keeps on giving. Using nothing more explosive than mere facts, Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society demolishes Hannan's argument on Fox News that the NHS has been a "mistake for 60 years." Surely this guy is just a media savvy crank and can be ignored? Well, David Cameron would certainly like it to be that way. The problem is that the Dan Hannan problem just will not go away because it's revealing of something rather more fundamental: the degree to which the Conservative party hasn't changed.

Right wing blogs such as Iain Dale, Guido Fawkes, and ConservativeHome were quick to laud Hannan's speech to the European Parliament where he assailed the Prime Minister and was rewarded with spots on US cable news and 2million YouTube hits. His speech was an articulate expression of extreme free market philosophy as his comments about the NHS were. ConservativeHome polled Conservative party members on the speech. 88% had seen it and 87% thought that Dan Hannan should get a prime spot at the Conservative party conference. Scan the 418 comments on the speech on Guido Fawkes, 50+ comments in each of a series of posts on Iain Dale, and scores in response on ConservativeHome, and you will see that Hannan's extreme free-market views have warm support amongst Conservative members and supporters.

This is David Cameron's Hannan problem. His core support is considerably to the right of where David Cameron positions himself in public. This explains why he has been unable to genuinely re-position himself on the centre-ground of British politics. He has not had a Clause IV moment because he can't have it and not shed significant chunks of support to either UKIP or the apathy party.

What this means in practice is that any Conservative government would most probably default right given any political dilemma. This needs to be understood. The difference between David Cameron and his re-positioning and Tony Blair's could not be greater. David Cameron has been noticeably quiet on Dan Hannan- see Jim Pickard in the FT on this. Tony Blair took his party with him and where it did not follow he took it on. David Cameron has done no such thing. How can you be a reformer without reform?

This is one of the reasons why the Tories have been so out of step on the economy and earlier this week George Osborne suggested that a Tory government may re-open pay deals for nurses, teachers, and police before have to beat a quick retreat. In practice, what it would mean is that a Conservative administration would be quite brutal in cutting public expenditure even as the economy may only be in the early stages of growth. They would repeat the Japan error once again- cutting too much too early leading to a double or treble dip recession and ultimately a greater level of public debt. The negative social impact of the early 80s increases in interest rates and indirect taxation and reductions in public expenditure in the midst of a recession are still felt today. The Bank of England is now independent but a Tory government could do an immense amount of damage with the wrong fiscal policy.

David Cameron will do everything within his powers to prevent Dan Hannan getting his speaking slot at the Tory party conference. That is partly to do with what he says. But more importantly, it will reveal exactly the ideological position of the modern Conservative party which remains Thatcherite to its very core. And that is the direction in which David Cameron will inevitably be pulled because he has done nothing to take it on either politically or intellectually.

The Dan Hannan problem- like the Rush Limbaugh problem that the Republicans have in the US- is very grave indeed. Dan Hannan will continue to get all the exposure he could ever wish for. That will communicate the reality of the modern Conservative party.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Time to cool the air?

My instant reaction to this piece in the Huffington Post on 'cooling the air' to mitigate climate change- or geoengineering to give it its technical name- was that April 8th must be the US equivalent of April Fools' Day. But no, it seems that it is a genuine concept that describes the technological manipulation of the earth's atmosphere and biosphere to make the earth more habitable: for example, you shoot particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun.

John Holdren, the new Director of White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has been talking about the possibility of resorting to these techniques.

Now, this is scary stuff. I can't believe that the climate change deniers won't use this as their insurance policy: climate change doesn't really exist, but if it does we can sort it anyway. But the insecurity and unpredictability of this is enormous- not to mention other negative environmental impacts. The problem is that people will want to believe that this is a solution and this could undermine the political support for policies aimed at preventing the problem in the first place. It is like someone who is obese always trusting that some new diet drug will come along to massively reduce their weight so they can carry on eating as normal.

Research does have to continue into these technologies in case others do not fulfil their responsibilities to the planet. However, to rely on these technologies would be madness given the risks. They are, and should only be, discussed in the context of an absolute final, final resort.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Brown impresses at G20

A poll on PoliticsHome has gauged the public reaction to the Prime Ministers performance at the G20 Summit. It will make for good reading for him. All classes of voter see his performance as positive: even Conservative voters. And 61% overall saw it as very or fairly good. This doesn't necessary translate into an opinion poll boost- two polls have come out since the G20 which show a mixed picture. One shows a bounce in Labour's support and one doesn't. However, what it does do is put the Prime Minister on a higher platform should he stage a further recovery in the polls. Overall, though he's had by far his best week since becoming PM.

Vote Tory, get fox-hunting?

The basic answer is yes. Should there be a Conservative government- a majority Conservative government- then there would be a free vote on the ban. It would, in all likelihood be overturned. 75% of people support the Hunting Act including 59% of Tory voters according to the League Against Cruel Sports. So does this make sense for David Cameron?

Hunting itself is clearly cruel. I don't think the pro-hunting lobby do themselves any favours when they deny that- as one caller did on BBC Five Live for a good 15 minutes or so this morning. She also accused anyone against her of being 'fanatics', 'living in cloud cuckoo-land', and everything else under the sun. It seems that pro-hunting voices are not intending a charm offensive any time soon.

But they have a better point when they ask whether this cruelty is greater than the alternatives? Farmers have a right to protect their livelihoods and if a fox risks that then they have to take action. Is it better to snare or poison foxes? Equally, the anti-hunting question, which isn't about class warfare at all, 'do we want to live in a society where people inflict cruelty on animals for fun?' is an equally legitimate one. Neither of these questions has an easy or neat answer. It's a classic rights v rights issue: the rights of the hunters v the rights of the fox. That type of discussion ends up becoming very heated and polarised very quickly.

The question is why David Cameron would want to resuscitate this issue. The argument that the legislation is not working does not seem to be particularly relevant. Anti-hunters feel that following the recent High Court case, the legislation is now clarified. So it's not a practical motivation, it's a moral or political motivation. Whichever it is, do the politics make sense?

On the face of it no. But of the 75% who support the Hunting Act (and we have to also assume that a portion of those who do not support it are nonetheless anti hunting) for how many is it a key issue- the type that would sway their vote? I would have thought very few, particularly in a recession. Whereas there is a base motivating element to this.

Those who are engaged or live in areas where fox hunting persists will be strongly motivated by the prospect of a repeal. This means they will vote, donate and organise for the Conservative party at the next election. And don't think this is just a rural v town issue. There are many marginal constituencies that are both rural and urban. So in that sense there is something to be said for the issue. In fact, David Cameron has already benefited from support from huntsman. Members of the Heythrop Hunt have campaigned for him in Witney.

More broadly there is a slightly more intangible political price to be paid for supporting an overturn of the ban (and that is what a free vote is, make no mistake.) It plays into the image of David Cameron as being slightly apart: not a 'normal' Briton. Should there be a picture of him fox hunting like the infamous Bullingdon Club picture then that will play very badly indeed. The days of 'born to rule' deference are long gone and anything that sets him apart in the context of economic hardship will not play well.

How the politics play will ultimately depend on how these forces interact: base mobilisation v image degeneration. As the politics are so messy, my guess is that this is more of a moral issue for him. He believes in fox hunting. But expect this issue to rear its head more and more in the run up to an election even though most people are not overly concerned by it. There is just too much mileage to be had out of it.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Turning down the volume on religion

Madeleine Bunting's article in The Guardian this morning is the article on religion that I've been waiting for. I wish something so even-handed and understanding could have been written a number of years ago. It feels like deep therapy after years of shrill debate between the 'New Atheists' and assertive believers. From the comments on her piece, which are approaching 600 by mid afternoon, there are scores of people out there who feel the same way.

Contrary to the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and AC Grayling, it seems to me that in a country where only 22% of the population know what Easter is celebrating, the greatest threat we face is not religiously inspired irrationality. It's no knowledge at all. I keep my religious beliefs or non beliefs to myself and this is a political not a religious blog but this vicious cultural war will have political and social consequences. It has been launched without any regard to these consequences. It is a road to hatred, violence, exclusion, racism, and bigotry.

Religion in my experience generally promotes compassion, openness, and togetherness. It is a source of comfort as well and in this world that is a good thing. Given that we can't even quantify how much we don't know- we might know 0.0000001% or less of all we can know or we might know 1%- it seems reckless to launch into such a cocksure attack on religious belief. Which begs the question on what calculation was the statement'there's probably no God' based? The ads, currently adoring the side of London's buses, were financially supported by scientist, Richard Dawkins. I'd love to see his probability calculation.

Religions do have many blind spots- the attitudes of some churches and, consequently, many believers to homosexuality are simply no longer tolerable in the modern world. And of course it can be used by those who aspire to tyranny, terrorism or subjugation. Of all the people I know who have faith, I don't know any that are homophobic, terror sympathising, authoritarians. It's just not the norm.

So hopefully Ms Bunting's article begins a process of reconciliation and of open discussion about religion and its role and influence in the world. Hopefully, we can begin to talk respectfully with one another again and come to some mutual understanding: religions can begin to understand that some of their viewpoints are dangerously out of step, and non-believers can begin to understand how faith can be a positive force. Not having an axe to grind, I look forward to that day. My guess is that I will be waiting a long time.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Barack Obama: the movement for change AUDIOBOOK has arrived....

So here it is. The Audiobook has finally arrived and it should be on iTunes soon. If you can't wait until then it's available on the Audiobook publisher's website. I've also put a picture of the Italian version up- it has a different name, 'Obama: Yes, we can.' As I studied Japanese at University and lived in Japan for a while, the one I'm really looking forward to is the Japanese version which should arrive very soon. Oh, and there will also be an e-book as well.

And if you are a traditionalist, the orginal version in text and paper format is still available. The second printing is currently flying off the shelves. Are you happy with this amount of self-promotion or would you like some more?

Friday, 3 April 2009

The political fall-out from the G20

The battle charge is on for the Prime Minister. Across the news media his performance and achievements at the G20 Summit have astoundingly and rightly lauded. There are some outliers- The Sun went for a Dr Evil front page. It looked- unusually- out of step. The argument seems to be about how big his poll bounce and how long it will last rather than whether there will be one. There was a distinctly nervy tone to a piece about the impact on Brown's popularity on ConservativeHome this morning.

His performance at the post-Summit press conference- which occasionally teetered on the edge of over-confident but never quite crossed the line- was the most in command I have seen him since his very earliest days as Prime Minister. He was completely on top of both the substance and the politics of the Summit and communicated it with awesome clarity. It was only in parsing that into the everyday that he seemed to struggle slightly more. But his message- the 'Washington consensus is now dead'- was a wrecking ball crashing into a much loathed high rise tower. With it, the world economy moved from one era into the next.

Following the NATO summit, this is now his challenge: to convert global leadership into domestic reassurance. It is a task that can't wait. There can now be no let up. Make no mistake, the heat is absolutely on the Leader of the Opposition and his Shadow Chancellor. As early as this weekend, the Prime Minister, if he wants to inflect a likely bounce into new political momentum, needs to now focus on the domestic front. This has two connected elements.

He must first unpick the language of the global summitry and international economics and make plain why what happened in London's docklands yesterday is relevant to each and every household in Britain: it secures their standard of living, helps to protect their jobs, and ensure that their businesses have a future. It also begins the process of protecting them more solidly from future economic disasters. It was about people this Summit and that has to be communicated.

In connection with this, it is now time to forcibly take the battle to the Tories. At every stage of this economic crisis they have underestimated its nature, its severity, fallen short on providing meaningful solutions, and looked dangerously out of their depth. It is only because the focus has not been on them that they have been able to get away with it. That now has to end. Had they been in power it would have been like the early 1980s again. Economic storm would have turned into economic catastrophe. It is not good enough to just simply and continually default back to the same old line about national debt: one that doesn't stack up if you look at international comparisons. Had a combination of rescuing failing banks and fiscal stimulus not been pursued then it is terrifying to think where we would now be economically. It is now time for the Tories to own their economic illiteracy.

Would David Cameron have secured the global deal that was achieved yesterday? Absolutely not. He would have been completely isolated in the discussions. He would be a million miles away from the Obama presidency line of regulate and stimulate. No motobike taxi would have got him anywhere near the new president in time. The distance between them was just too great.

Equally, he will have no influence with european leaders. He will antagonise them with his gesture anti-europeanism. Besides, his party are still de-regulators by default. These two things alone would leave him a distance away from the likes of Chancellor Merkel or President Sarkozy. A deal may have happened despite a Cameron government but it could never happen because of it. It would be left with the decision of going along with a deal negotiated by others or remaining on the outside. Either way, a Cameron government would have no influence and Britain would be left in the cold.

So this is now the moment to drive a new political momentum. His achievements at the G20 Summit were only the start for the Prime Minister. He now has to make that deal relevant and show why the Tories' answers are a complete irrelevance and even a danger.

Post script: This is the last in my G20 themed posts. It's been a great week. A special mention should go to Richard Murphy who I interviewed on Wednesday and who, yesterday, became the first blogger to ask a question at global summit press conference.


Richard Murphy becomes the first independent blogger to ask a question at a major summit. from Podnosh on Vimeo.

It was the good work of G20 Voice that got him there. Sam Graham-Felson, who was the Obama '08 campaign blogger, reported on it for the Huffington Post.

VIDEOBLOG: Taking stock of the G20

Here is something new, a video blog on the G20 Leaders Statement. It was done by Vikki Chowney and myself. I don't know, I think it works quite well but you may not agree!


g20voice: Thoughts on the communique with Anthony Painter from vikki chowney on Vimeo.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Instant reaction to G20 deal....more to follow....

I posted an article on LabourList on my instant reaction to the G20 deal. Read below:

G20 reaction article

Climate change elements of the deal look thin

It seems that the thin part of the communique will be the climate change elements which will have to keep for another day- probably the G8. There has been a lot concern that the final agreement here will not be substantive. Well, I suspect that if you read the environment elements of the communique you will see what warm words without much back up looks like. Partly, this is understandable of course. Economic issues are the immediate concern. But the urgent need to address climate change can not keep for much longer.

On a brighter note, Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for International Development gave me some reassurance this morning that any new credit extended to lesser developed nations or emerging economies should pay due regard to financial sustainability. He was clear that any conditions that the IMF attach to loans should look at a nation's ability to pay them back in the future. That should go some way to ensuring that countries in severe debt do not end up in an even worse predicament.

Audioblog from G20 Summit!

Listen!

Tax haven controls on the way

Just been listening in on a briefing with Stephen Timms MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, on tax havens. There is now agreement that action has to be taken and it will go quite far. The first principle is exchange of information with tax havens and there has been some movement here. In fact, HMRC was in Liechtenstein yesterday and had what seems like substantive and constructive discussions.

It appears that the final communique here will contain a commitment to sanction havens that don't agree to open and transparent exchange of information. It will also agree to publish a list of tax havens that don't comply. The only discussion now it seems is over the timing of all this. Movement but not quite to the extent that Richard Murphy had hoped for in our discussion yesterday.

How to collar tax havens: follow the money

One of my fellow bloggers at the G20 Summit is Richard Murphy who, in many peoples' eyes, is the leading UK expert on how to clamp down on tax havens. I had the pleasure of interviewing him last night. Just two years ago he acknowledges that he was regarded as being on the mad fringe of this discussion, he is now beingseriously listened to by HM Treasury and elsewhere. This guy knows how we can prevent individuals and corporations from abusing tax havens to evade regulatory oversight and tax.

How do we do it? Follow the money. It is now the norm for large corporations to even register their logos as a company in a tax haven with its logos leased back. The most expansive use of tax havens by a corporate that Murphy has found is the Dutch bank,ING, which has 17,000 companies registered in tax havens. Well, if the International Accounting Standards Board (ironically located in a tax haven- Delaware) required that all subsidiaries of listed companies have to declare the names of the subsidiaries, where they are located, their sales, purchases, staff costs, profits, tax andintra-group trading, that abuse could be stopped.

He cited the Stop Tax Haven Abuse Act which is crawling through Congress in our interview. As similar legislation is seeking to do in Germany, this act will simply assume that you are trying to avoid tax if you use a tax haven. It seems that there is a likelihood of global accounting standards being included in the communique today. If the IASB doesn't play ball then it could be taken over by a state and/or become an inter-state agency.

The same could apply to regulation. Banks, hedge funds, private equity firms, will have to meet the same regulatory standards in tax havens as they do in London, New York or Frankfurt.

A key issue here is cash. Firstly, with fiscal deficits sky-rocketing the G20 has an incentive to act now. It has an incentive to act today in fact. And we are not talking about small pots of cash. Murphy has estimated that there is $400billion washing around every year of evaded taxation. We are talking £18billion in the UK alone. Even increased transfers to tax havens that are British dependent territories will be dwarfed by the increase in tax revenue by clamping down on these havens. So cash will force the hands of the G20 and major increases in revenues are the benefit.

I will be reading the communique closely to see what measures on tax havens will be agreed. China and the US- which under the Bush presidency blocked changes to tax havens for eight years- will have to move for a satisfactory outcome to be achieved. But we are beyond the point where this is tolerable. Action is needed- for financial stability, for fairness, for tax revenues, and public services- and it is needed now.

***LIVE FROM G20 SUMMIT AT EXCEL***

Well, security is thorough. The world's media is creeping into place and world leaders are arriving. I did my first interview this morning while simultaneously negotiating my way through security. Hopefully, it made sense.

But the real question at the back of my mind this morning is what is the consequence of failure today? This is simply the question, 'what is this conference for?' in reverse? And when you consider it, actually the consequences of the leaders failing to show unity, instill confidence, and mapping out a different way of managing global finance today are enormous. What would it say about the capacity of the world's leaders to find a way out of the morass if they come up with either no agreement or a weak agreement today? Not a lot.

Despite the histrionics, President Sarkozy knows this as do all the other world's leaders. It would be amazing if he did walk away- it would be a short walk into the wilderness. So there has to be a degree of optimism that the G20 will do the right thing today.

In fact, if the draft G20 communique leaked to the FT is any indication of what will emerge at 3.30 pm today then today will be a success. It's not perfect but seems pretty meaty on further development on international regulation, clamping down on hedge funds, irresponsible banking, and tax havens (see draft clause 17!) but will need to be rather more expressive on the need to move towards a global deal on climate change with teeth and should be a lot more expressive on help to developing countries: provision of both capital and aid. The draft communique will have been completely re-written from the one that was leaked to the FT: the language clearer and the message sharper. But if that is the basis then today's meeting is starting from a good place.

So good prospects for today. I'll blog as much as seems worthwhile and see who we get to talk to. If there's anything you want covered just get in touch- try twitter @anthonypainter.

*Picture courtesy of @tom_watson.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

20+ who speak for billions or 4,000 who speak for no-one?

As predictably and sadly, some of the 'protests' in the City of London descend into mundane violence, the focus has to remain on the leaders who represent billions. The 4000 in the City, and no doubt there will be accusation and counter-accusation between police and protesters, represent nobody but themselves. Leaders representing India, China, European nations, Africans, other Asians, America, South America are rather more significant.

The contrast between the Put People First campaign which marched on Saturday and had a positive agenda of economic, social, and environmental change and what we are seeing today couldn't be more stark. Saturday's march presented a practical way forward for leaders tomorrow. Their agenda expressed ideas that could find their way into the final G20 communique.

Of course, like a heat-seeking missile the media home in on the 4,000 and gave scant attention to the 35,000 who marched in good humour, determination, and in a positive and constructive state of mind. The 35,000 from trade unions, NGOs, environmental groups, and pressure groups did represent millions. There has to be a question about why the fringe is more newsworthy than mainstream.

Marching and protesting with a positive agenda has to be worthwhile. That relies in part on the media. They have a vested interest in a better, more prosperous, more sustainable world too. Let's give voice to billions, and millions, and put the 4,000 in their place: on the fringe.

Debt warning to G20

In order to prevent emerging economies facing a potential liquidity crisis, it seems probable that the IMF will have its funds built up tomorrow- probably by China in the main. That is postive action right?

Well, it is important not to forget that many of the world's poorest nations still have an enormous debt overhang so what is necessary in the short term may create problems down the road. According to the Jubilee Debt Campaign, of the 43 nations who are most at risk from this crisis, 38 had prior unsustainable debts.

Sarah Edwards of JDC is absolutely clear when it comes to the IMF, World Bank, and the export credit agencies:
"These organisations have a poor track record when it comes to lending to poor countries, where they have financed projects that have caused social and environmental damage; gone into the hands of corrupt officials, or supported oppressive regimes."

"Emergency finance given via these bodies must go hand in hand with radical reforms in the governance, policies, and practices of these institutions. In particular, the IMF, World Bank, and export credit agencies such as the UK's ECGD, must be made fully transparent and accountable, and respect international standards on human rights, the environment and labour."

So while we may rejoice a beefed up IMF tomorrow that can not be the end of the discussion. While more advanced emerging economies such as Mexico will face a lighter tough approach from the IMF as was agreed yesterday, it's not clear how less developed nations will fare. So tomorrow's announcement is only the start of the story. Crippling debts remain and when added to new debts will become more burdensome and that can't be forgotten either tomorrow or further down the road.

The farce of EU representation at the G20 summit

Here is an argument in favour of the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and fast. The President of the European Council is one Marek Topolanek. That is about all he is. On March 24th his coalition government, led by the Civic Democratic Party he Chairs, fell. Nominally, he is still Prime Minister. What it means in effect, however, is that the European Council is now farcically represented by a lame duck leader with neither domestic or international authority. He can also act without real responsibility.

Of course, the international farce is nothing compared with the domestic farce of Czech politics. Topolanek's government fell in part because one of his MPs black-mailed himself by staging pictures of himself with an attractive blonde and then having it sold to colleagues. Why? Because he wanted to show how corrupt Czech politics was. He was ostracised by his party and voted against the government in a sulk. Does President Obama know what he's letting himself in for in his visit to the Czech Republic later on in the week?

It sounds like I'm about to go into an anti-european rant. Quite the opposite in fact. This ridiculous situation underlines exactly why the EU must reform. And guess what? There is a reform document ready and waiting. It is called Lisbon Treaty. It contains a provision for a President of the European Council to be elected for two and a half years which gives continuity, credibility, and insulation from the vicissitudes of domestic politics.

That is far more satisfactory than the situation that Marek Topolanek and the EU find themselves in over the next couple of days. Time and time again the counter-intuitive pro-european position offers a way out of absurdity. That the Czech Republic is one of the member states where ratification is uncertain underlines the absurdity with irony.