Sunday, 31 May 2009

Time for a constitutional convention

It is now time to put together a package of reforms in a coherent package that has to be put before the electorate in a referendum. Some are calling for a 'Citizens' Convention' which is fine but the core institutional design could not be done in such a process. To have an internal coherence, it has to be done by constitutional experts. The founding fathers of the United States did an incredible job and they were scholars, lawyers, business people, and politicians. For me, the US Constitution- for all its flaws and difficult history- is the most elegant expression of pluralistic republican democracy ever drafted. We need one.

Gordon Brown has proposed a Constitutional Reform Bill but I feel that does not go far enough- the Citizens' Convention idea wouldn't work but there needs to be more citizen's involvement than parliamentary legislation alone would allow. How would we go about it? I would propose a Constitutional Convention comprising scholars, lawyers, national, and local politicians. It would have a very simple objective: "to design a package of constitutional reforms that give the citizens of the United Kingdom a greater say over how they are governed to be put to a referendum within 12 months of the Convention's establishment."

There could be a citizens' committee that sits alongside this but the reforms need internal coherence to clearly move our political system towards greater popular accountability. That requires expertise.

Who would head up the Convention? My vote would be for Vernon Bogdanor. He is the clearest thinking scholar and commentator on these issues and is a reformer. And he is not Helena Kennedy QC.

Post script: I thought Gordon Brown was excellent on The Andrew Marr Show this morning: lively and combative.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Hope not Hate

What a wonderful video from the Hope not Hate campaign. Watch it, sign up, donate, spread the word.

The future's bright

There is an interesting post about turnout from Mike Smithson this morning. He makes the point that if turnout is low on Thursday then it is the older demographic that is more likely to vote. This will make the result skew in favour of the Tories and anti-european parties if his conjecture is correct. What I found equally intriguing about his post was the voting figures for the under 34s (oh, the joy of being in the youngest demographic.....) The chart is below- hope you don't mind me pinching it, Mike:

18-34s split: 32-26-22-7-6-2 Tory-Lab-Lib Dem-Green-UKIP-BNP. What is particularly warming about this data is the small levels of support for UKIP and the BNP. Like the youngest demographics in the US it would seem that the youngest generations are more liberal than their older peers. They are also less inclined to be extremely anti-european. This is hardly surprising- the experience of Europe is greater for younger generations; they are less inclined to see it as some foreign power sent to crush mighty Albion. Strangely, they seem more inclined to vote Conservative as well. Answers on a postcard to that one.

It is encouraging to look at these data. We just have to hope that as they get homes and cars they don't suddenly become dull Thatcherite materialistic little Englanders. All we have to do is get them to actually vote now!

Thursday, 28 May 2009

It's all about Julie

It is tough for Julie Kirkbride. No, I mean that. She has to balance childcare and being an MP while she is unable to rely on the support structure that most MPs enjoy by having a family in the constituency. Balancing her family life, in London, and a constituency in Bromsgrove when her husband is an MP for another part of the country is not easy at all. So, yes, actually she does get some sympathy- even though she is explicitly not courting it as she explains in her article in The Times this morning.

She may even be able to empathise with the millions of working women (and some men even!) across the country who have to balance work and family commitments. She might well also reflect on her position of financial privilege in relation to them. Perhaps that would induce a greater degree of humility?

However, and predictably, she has attempted to change the subject from the one that's actually at hand. The issue is not her work-life arrangements. The issue is the cost to the public purse that flows from that and how fair and legitimate that is. It is simply perplexing to most people that each and every life decision that Ms Kirkbride and husband, Andrew Mackay MP, have made has resulted in them securing the maximum amount of financial benefit for themselves. They maxed out on the parliamentary expenses. It remains to be seen whether all the claims were within the rules but whether they are or not, it is the maxing out that people find so difficult to comprehend.

I'm going to take her at her word because I have no reason not to do so but there is a broader underlying point. The article that she has written this morning is all about Julie. And that is the second thing that people in Bromsgrove are so concerned about. She just simply continually asserts that she is doing a good job for them. Is she? How? Bromsgrove does not seem to have fared particularly well in the last dozen or so years with Ms Kirkbride as MP and a Conservative Council. The town centre has declined precipitously even as the town has expanded. Why? And what has she done to challenge this?

So there's lots of questions for Ms Kirkbride to answer. Firstly, she has to prove that she was actually within the rules. Let's assume she passes that test. She then has to give a better account of why the arrangements that her and husband made all seemed to benefit them financially to a considerable extent: they are not separate cases at all whatever David Cameron asserts. Finally, she has to start talking about the people of Bromsgrove and the town itself to give a stronger impression that she's in it for them and not just for herself.

If the article this morning was an attempt to stop the questions it has had the opposite effect. All she can do now is face her constituents in an open meeting. She is right not to attend the 'Get Julie Out' campaign meeting- that's a kangaroo court run by Respect party activists with an agenda. But nor can the public meeting be stage managed and packed with supporters which I suspect is what will happen. Should she go? It's for the people of Bromsgrove to decide. Speaking to people in Bromsgrove- as someone from the town- I think I can see which way it's heading.

Post script: And she is gone.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Cameron's reforms: a charter for insiders

My latest column is now live at LabourList. I argue, that while there is merit in many of the reforms proposed by David Cameron in yesterday's Guardian, ultimately they amount to a charter in favour of insiders- those with power- over outsiders. A couple of quotes:
Mr Cameron’s piece is headlined: “We need a massive, radical redistribution of power.” How does it measure up to such grandiose claims? Actually, what he’s proposing is a redistribution of power. It’s just that power will more often be re-distributed to those with rather than without. It is, in many ways, a charter for insiders against outsiders.
Redistribution needs to be about opportunity and outcomes, not just voice. If you don’t look at all three things together then it can go terribly wrong. There is a strong suspicion that will be the case with much of what David Cameron is proposing. Stephan Shakespeare reminds us of Mr Cameron’s ‘strong interest in opinion polls.’ That much is clear in his reform programme. It has the feel of a hastily assembled bunch of crowd-pleasing ideas, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s something for everyone - myself included.

Morality and betrayal

There are very few commentators who leave you feeling completely humbled. David Marquand is one of those that do. His most recent work, Britain since 1918, is the definitive history of British politics since WWI for me. He looks at how four typologies- Tory nationalism, whiggism, democratic collectivism, and democratic republicanism- have woven their way across British politics over the last century or so. No prizes for guessing that the democratic republican strand has been the weakest- much to our cost.

If you read just one article today, make it his article headlined The moral economy can't be righted until we accept our own culpability in today's Guardian. We're in this together. We have chosen this course over three decades. It is time we address our own shortcomings as well as that of the elites. Marquand writes:
Now the neoliberal idyll is over. The casino has shut its doors. The neoliberal moral economy is in crisis. But the crisis is not the work of greedy bankers, lax regulators or corrupt MPs alone: they are only grubby flotsam floating on much deeper currents. It will not be ­resolved unless and until we acknowledge that we, the "people", are also part of the problem – that the real culprit is the hyper-individualistic, materialistic hedonism of the entire culture, popular at least as much as elite.
That sums up both elegantly and brutally the situation we are now faced with. He thinks Obama has got it- rooted as he is in the morality of Lincoln and King- and I agree. He wonders whether Brown has it also. Well, the Prime Minister did declare that the 'Washington consensus' was dead at the G20 Summit. The question now is whether he will have the courage to declare Thatcherism dead. If he does and backs it up with meaningful analysis and a vision of the future, British politics could be at one of its historic turning points. Who knows? Perhaps it could usher in the first age of democratic republicanism- belatedly.

Post script: If you wish to understand the republican discussion on the current political crisis- one that emphasises political and economic empowerment then I'd recommend Stuart White's two posts at Next Left yesterday- here and here. As you will see, I let my thoughts on primaries- I favour a closed primary process for selections- be known. Stuart kindly took my arguments on board in his second piece.

I will address David Cameron's political reform argument when my Labour movement column is published later over at LabourList.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Christian Peoples Alliance- shame on you

This morning, a flyer came through my door from the Christian Party/ Christian Peoples Alliance (no apostrophe.) It claims that a vote for them is the 'surest way to stop the BNP.' On what basis?

There's a lot of guff in the leaflet but it basically comes down to the fact that they were sixth in the GLA elections. Put aside the fact that this is a different set of elections so their vote might not translate, how does the claim stack up?

Now, in the last european elections, a party would have needed 155,528 votes for a seat. The CPA or whatever they called themselves then won 45,038. That increased to 65,357 in the London Assembly elections last year. The leaflet states:

"The joint Christian Party/ Christian Peoples Alliance [no apostrophe] came sixth in last year's Greater London Assembly election"

There are eight seats so they are the chosen ones, right? No, because it doesn't matter what rank you are. The determinant is the number of votes that you receive. In the last euros they were about 110,000 short of a seat. We don't know how the votes are going to distribute in these elections in London. What we do know, is that the bar will again be around 150,000. There is no way that these guys are going to get anywhere near that.

So what of their claims? Well, they are either self-servingly ignorant or they are deliberately mendacious and self-serving in the process. Does that sound particularly Christian to you? Of course it's not. What's worse is that if it serves to divert votes away from the four parties who do have a chance of stopping the BNP- Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, or Green- then it could actually help the BNP. The BNP stands in direct opposition to the values of any Christian hence the brave and articulate statement from Rowan Williams and John Sentamu yesterday (and the silly separation of church and religion point from Nick Clegg in criticism of them.)

I would say unforgivable but Christianity believes in forgiveness. So the disgracefully misleading nature of this flyer should be confessed. But what penance should be served? Well, instead of spending their money on expensive and pointless billboards, they should send leaflets round to every household they have misled. Moreover, their party should go door to door to fight the BNP either by working on the Hope not Hate campaign or by encouraging people to vote Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, or Green.

Shame on you.

Does national debt matter?

Well, of course it does. But not in the black and white way that the Conservatives assert if you consult some of the world's leading economists. And that is exactly what President Sarkozy of France has done. He has asked the esteemed Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank economic supremo, and Amartya Sen, author of the brilliant Development as Freedom (and Master of my College when I was there so I'll always have a soft spot), to look at the question of economic growth. GDP growth is merely one quantitative measure of economic output. President Sarkozy is interested in developing more qualitative measures.

Included in this is the issue of national debt. As Felix Rohatyn, former US ambassador to France, says in a Newsweek article last week:
"Americans look at debt more as wasteful expenditure, whereas the Europeans look at debt more as an investment."
It would seem that the Conservatives have adopted exactly the same approach as their ill-informed neo-liberal cousins on the right of US politics. Deficits and debt are bad, period. Now, don't get me wrong: if you are borrowing to spend rather than invest or if your debt can't be serviced then you are clearly borrowing too much. However, what if you are borrowing to invest in future economic performance, environmental improvement, or social progress, all of which add to national well-being? It is less clear cut that debt is undesirable. In fact, in many cases it is very desirable.

If you build schools, colleges and universities, broadband infrastructure, transport infrastructure, invest in health facilities, reduce carbon emissions, invest in science, or even save the banking system can debt not be of economic, social and environmental benefit? This is one of the issues that the Stiglitz-Sen Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress is looking at. Its broad outlook is that GDP growth is not the be all and end all. It may be wise to sacrifice some economic growth in GDP terms for a better quality of life and that actually is national growth of a different kind. President Sarkozy has initiated a fascinating process and many eyes will be on its outcome.

But in terms of the domestic debate, there needs to a different dialogue about debt and growth. Clearly, the levels of borrowing that have been reached will have to come down. However, there comes a point where investment is hit and that has to be considered carefully. The Tories are not even in the hare versus tortoise race described in the Newsweek article above. A simple analogy is mortgage finance. Is a mortgage a bad thing? In most circumstances no it's not a bad thing. So it is with national investment. We just need a means of separating the 'good' debt from the 'bad' debt. And maybe once the Commission has finished we can do the same for GDP growth.

Sotomayor perfect Supreme Court pick for Obama

The White House seems to be about to announce Sonia Sotomayor as its Supreme Court pick. She grew up in the the Bronx and believes that one's life experience should inform judicial decision-making. As a law scholar and constitutionalist, how does this stack up with the president's legal sensibilities?

Jeffrey Toobin's profile of Chief Justice, John Roberts (yes, the Chief Justice who mangled the oath of office at the inauguration) is not simply a fascinating portrayal of the man himself. It is also very revealing about President's Obama's own constitutional outlook. He is absolutely a constitutionalist. However, his view is that the constitution is a living, breathing document that must respond to and improve people's lives. Moreover, it a document designed to shift power from the strong to the weak. Jeffrey Toobin's piece summarises Obama's approach in Chief Justice Robert's confirmation hearings:
In his Senate speech on that vote, Obama praised Roberts’s intellect and integrity and said that he would trust his judgment in about ninety-five per cent of the cases before the Supreme Court. “In those five per cent of hard cases, the constitutional text will not be directly on point. The language of the statute will not be perfectly clear. Legal process alone will not lead you to a rule of decision,” Obama said. “In those circumstances, your decisions about whether affirmative action is an appropriate response to the history of discrimination in this country or whether a general right of privacy encompasses a more specific right of women to control their reproductive decisions . . . the critical ingredient is supplied by what is in the judge’s heart.” Obama did not trust Roberts’s heart. “It is my personal estimation that he has far more often used his formidable skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak,” the Senator said.
A judge who grew up in the Bronx and believes that the impact of law matters as well as the letter of the law? Sounds ideal. That judge is Sonia Sotomayor. And she happens to be Hispanic and a 'she.' Let's see how she fares in the confirmation hearings but this has a good feel to it.

Post script: And here are some Congressional Quarterly talking points on the appointment.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

PR is a red herring

The Observer's editorial today uses the current political crisis to argue for PR. I found myself agreeing with the first portion of the piece. Especially:
First, identify the worst offenders in the expenses scandal and signal a clear end to their parliamentary careers. Second, find a mechanism to re-engage voters in the political process.
So far so good, it had me in thrall. Then it veered wildly off towards advocating proportional representation. This seems to me to completely miss the point. Do PR systems have a better chance of responding to the interests of the voters? My instinct says not. In fact, they can remove power from the voters and hand it to parties. If you know that in a given multi-member seat you are going to get one out of three seats, say, then you can just parachute in a party insider. They are elected. Job done, you've got your chunk of support and you've got your favoured candidate. Where has there been any real voter engagement? What is forcing that MP to build a deep relationship with those voters? How is that better from the current system?

Moreover, there is no need for representatives to reach beyond their base. Politics could become ossified. Personally, I do favour voting reform but proportionality is just one consideration and not actually the most important one. For me, clarity, directness, and opportunity for change are far more important. For this reason, I have begun to favour the Alternative Vote which meets these criteria and forces representatives to engage with a broader range of viewpoints and voters than is currently the case. It could even create a greater spirit of independence amongst MPs as a result which is welcome.

The opposite could be true with a PR system other than at a national coalition-building level with is about elite bargaining rather than direct engagement of voters in the political process.

No, I think the calls for PR in terms of answering this particular political crisis- a chasm between voters and those who represent them- miss the point. I am happy to be convinced but it has the feel of a red herring. As I argued in my LabourList column earlier this week the direct measures that are now needed are: open primaries with strictly limited expenditure, a greater separation of the executive and parliament, a different culture of engagement with voters, and, yes, some electoral reform but only insofar as it puts MPs under greater not less democratic scrutiny. There is also a discussion to be had about party funding but I'm not in favour of state funding which seems to be off the table now- rightly.

One final point, the most spectacular democratic revival we have seen recently is across the Atlantic Ocean. It was in a first past the post system with primaries. It was spontaneous and happened as a result of the inspiration of a small number of people rather than ponderous, worthy and often self-serving discussion of constitutional reform. Obama '08 was a hostile takeover of the Democratic party and the American political process. Who is ready to do the same in Britain?

Post script: I found David Cameron's performance on The Andrew Marr Show this morning excruciatingly embarrassing. The Tories are clearly spooked by UKIP and they were the real target of his comments. Change? I didn't hear a single thing that suggested that he grasps the current situation. He is at sea.

Post script 2: Sunder Katwala makes the case for electoral reform over at Next Left. I suspect that he would go further than my suggestions above. Electoral reform, yes, but proportional representation- especially multi-member constituencies- a no for me.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Audioboo: Obama and the BNP

Here is an Audioboo for you to enjoy. Or not:


Scamalot: John Stewart's take on the expenses scandal

Quite a number of our MPs have let us down. Our comedians have let us down as well.

Luckily, there's always John Stewart to step in from across the Atlantic with his British side-kick John Oliver:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartM - Th 11p / 10c
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Economic CrisisPolitical Humor

"Oh, you cranky fish and chip b**stard."

"Dragons? We got rid of those years ago."

"We will fight for this corrupt plot. This scam. This filth. This England."

Strap in.....

Thursday, 21 May 2009

S&P downgrades short-term government debt

That would be the same Standard and Poor's that was a major cause of this financial crisis in the first place by over-rating sub-prime securitised debt while being paid commissions by the issuers of that debt? Well, they certainly have nerve and audacity I'll give them that. They've down-rated UK short-term government debt to A-1+. The notion that the UK government will default is nonsense but now short-term interest rates will have to rise slowing the recovery. Come the revolution Standard and Poor's, come the revolution......

Post script: Duncan Weldon adds some perspective. But still....

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

What links the political and financial crises

The way that things just keep getting worse, an elite class who try every stop-gap measure possible to prevent decline but the slide continues, and a root cause of a widening gulf between those with responsibility and those that they should represent, are all similar factors between the financial and political crises. I argue that these factors are not just reminiscent; they are connected in this piece for LabourList. The solutions are fundamental rather than the incremental fare that we have been offered so far. Whether there is a pause or not, political leaders will have to act or face dire consequences. Nothing like a crisis to focus minds. Or not, it seems.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Conversations with a BNP voter

I had a long and enlightening conversation with a BNP voter in Birmingham today. He is a roofer by trade but had recently lost his job and was currently claiming Jobseekers Allowance. However, he has been voting BNP for the last five years. It seems that his job has become ever more pressured as overtime was decreasingly available and he was under pressure, nonetheless, to do evening and weekend work. He asked, why should he have to sacrifice his family life for no extra benefit?

Unfortunately, with conditions as they are in the construction industry, his firm laid him off recently. He said that he had been experiencing increasing competition from easternEuropean and east African workers. They were willing to work more, be flexible, without demanding the type of income that he required. He had applied for mortgage relief to no avail though he does have another four months of mortgage holiday left.

I asked him whether any of his colleagues were black or Asian and didn't they face similar challenges to him. He said they did and that a lot of them felt the same way. He wouldn't turn on them as working men facing the same challenges as him, so why did he begin voting BNP?

One of his colleagues was a BNP activist and had been explaining to him about the reality of the party- not racist as The Mirror and Sun claim at all. It was just concerned about a fair deal for British people. He worked hard, paid his taxes and national insurance, and for what? Immigrants were coming in getting housing, pushing him back in the queue for health services, and now they had a job and he was on the dole. It just wasn't right. What's more, with the rights culture as it is, all the wrong people were protected while honest people like himself suffered.

I explained that the BNP was racist. We talked about his black and Asian colleagues and did he feel it was right that they be denied citizenship and told that they weren't really British? He thought about it and then acknowledged that, no, he didn't think that was right. Though he did think that whenever Nick Griffin says something 'out of order, people come down on him like a tonne of bricks.' I explained that he is always saying things that are 'out of order.' These are tough times and surely the last thing we want is people turning on each other. Besides, isn't picking on people just because of the colour of their skin actually extremely anti-British?

What was the upshot? There was nothing I could say to lessen the feeling of grievance at his situation. Listening and understanding was the only sensible response. We shook hands at the end of the conversation, smiled, and he promised that he would give it some more thought. Will he still vote BNP? I would be surprised if he didn't to be honest. He displayed a toxic mix of genuine grievance and an articulated position as a result of having been got to by the BNP in a one-on-one situation with one of his former colleagues.

A number of common features emerge: this familiar wage competition and stagnation, amplified through difficult economic times, and the community/ workplace activity of the BNP, albeit highly misleading; hiding their true racist nature. It can be turned round. Once the blanket racism of the BNP is understood it makes people who are inclined to vote for them think twice and persuades others to do what it takes to stop them.

Their view of the world does not accord with the vast majority of the nation. However, they use issues and image in a manipulative way. The lesson is actually a big one. One person can make the case against the BNP but it takes some minutes. It needs thousands more in local communities making the case in similar ways if this poison is to be beaten back. But that sort of community/ workplace presence needs organisation (though it should be noted that Searchlight are doing a valiant job.) It will have other major political benefits on top of defeating the BNP. The next politics has to conduct this deep engagement if voters are to be reconnected to the political system that is there to serve them.

What is President Obama's game on torture photos?

Here is an NPR interview with the political commentator Juan Williams discussing the failure of the White House to release photos demonstrating prisoners tortured by US troops and secret services. Williams' argument is that the White House has made the calculation that the courts will force it to publish the photos anyway and so may as well get the military and CIA onside in the process. Personally, I see this issue as too significant to play politics with. The photos should be published and an independent or cross-congressional full inquiry should be announced. That is the morally and legally correct path to take. It will ultimately be the politically correct path to take: Dick Cheney is still out to do damage.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Anti-politics is rife- and the BNP is lurking

In the first of a column called 'Labour movement' for the rejuvenating LabourList site now under the editorship of Alex Smith, I've discussed expenses, anti-politics, and the rise of the BNP. Thought I'd pick something uncontroversial to kick off.

Anti-politics is rife- and the BNP is lurking.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Mr Cameron has "made a serious mistake"

Christopher Beazley MEP on the Conservative Leader:

"The leader of my party, Mr David Cameron, has made a serious mistake. He is in error: he thinks that by becoming anti European in the House of Commons this will secure him the premiership of my country. I, as a British Conservative, reserve the right to object – that is my final word. There are British Tories, Socialists, Liberals. We are Europeans. We will stand with our partners and our allies and, if my party leader seeks to rip up 30 years of work by British Tory pro Europeans, he is wrong!"

(The House accorded the speaker a standing ovation.)

Taking on the BNP: be careful but not too careful

George Packer in the FT this morning reports that parties have begun to discuss a counter BNP strategy at a very senior level. The most useful aspect of this is actually the intelligence sharing. What the BNP are saying on the door-step matters as it is often very different from what they put in their leaflets. On that front, if anyone does hear of anything that they are saying then please feel free to let me know.

In the european elections it is better that each party concentrates on persuading people to vote more generally. In a short campaign the thing to prevent the BNP securing their first seat in the European Parliament is motivation rather than conversion. If enough good people vote then the BNP will be stopped regardless of whether they vote Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Green (depending on the region.)

The one comment I slightly disagreed with in the piece was that of Lord Rennard. The parties should not make joint statements because we are competitive and that looks too much like a cosy club which will play into the hands of the anti-politics line of the BNP. So I agree on that count. But I don't buy the 'oxygen of publicity' argument anymore. The BNP have all the oxygen they need. Where oxygen is lacking is in communicating to people who don't realise the threat and are not planning to vote. To deny talking about the BNP is to hamper your ability to communicate to those people.

There are far more people who would be horrified at the thought of being represented in Brussels by the BNP than will vote for the party. An overly zealous attempt to deny the BNP oxygen means that the message of their threat may not be communicated. It has to be done carefully and tactically. But it has to be done.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Republicans learning from David Cameron?

Joe Scarborough, presenter of MSNBC's Morning Joe and former Florida GOP Representative has a new book out and it is the first sign of a Republican actually seeking to take hold of the post-Obama agenda. A synopsis of his argument appears in this week's Time Magazine. He argues rightly that there is a philosophical pragmatism to conservatism (though strangely quotes William F Buckley in support) and it has ditched this in favour of a more ideological approach in recent years.

The easy and self-indulgent argument to make- and Scarborough partly falls for this- is that the Bush administration's big government conservatism took the Right away from its core principles. But Scarborough, though seduced by this and failing the acknowledge the degree to which America has changed demographically (more ethnically diverse and western) and, consequently politically, does manage to move beyond this. He calls for a conservatism that combines fiscal rectitude with environmental concern.

As is the case in the UK and Scarborough was explicit in articulating that Cameronism is at the forefront of his thinking on Meet the Press last Sunday, there is a clever political positioning exercise going on. It is interesting that there is starting to be an ideas exchange between the US and the UK on the Right which initially is flowing from the latter to the former. If the Republicans move in this direction Obama will be placed under greater political and electoral pressure. Will they go in that direction? Well, it's interesting that Tom Ridge is looking like throwing his hat into the ring in Pennsylvania folowoing the defection to the Democrats of Arlen Specter as the type of more moderate conservative voice that could help to re-define the party.

Whether it's successful or not, Joe Scarborough, though based on slightly self-serving analysis, has signalled a different political direction for Republicans. Can they follow?

Monday, 4 May 2009

1979: remembering history to change the future

What a strange experience watching some of the election coverage from 1979. Was there a more consequential election in the post-war period apart from the immediate post-war election? Other than strange reminders that the Britain we see in this coverage has some distant connection with Britain today- like the fact that David Dimbleby presents the election night show then as now- it seems a distant place, one that I neither remember nor fully understand. Such a lot of discussion about 'Rhodesia', trade union leaders appearing in interviews alongside Tory politicians, Chairmen of large corporations invited in as election guests, make Britain in 1979 seem like some etiolated post-imperial, corporatist state. Hmmm, maybe that is what it was.

I do obviously remember the 1980s. My first election memory is actually the 1983 election night. I remember there being a very bleak mood in the Painter household and the strange word 'landslide' abounding. Of course, I didn't know what it meant but it didn't sound at all good. All those unemployed, the riots, things seemed to be in a bit of state and yet people were voting for this pantomime baddie in frilly blue dresses. What a peculiar way adults had of conducting their affairs. Well, at least a Liverpool league victory could always be relied on.

Growing up in a small town on the edge of Birmingham and going to school in the shadow of the Austin Rover factory as it then was, the consequences of Thatcherism were obvious. Industrial decline was an everyday fact of like. Driving up the A38 towards what was the Rover factory recently, like suddenly reaching down and discovering a limb missing, that factory is no more. It would be churlish to lay the blame for the closure of the Rover factory squarely at the door of Thatcherism but its decline was symbolic of broader industrial decline. In fact, industrial decline, certainly in the early years of Thatcher, seemed almost willful. Britain's 1979 economy had structural weaknesses with declining terms of trade; the type of industrial policy and industrial relations that were achieved in Japan and Germany never succeeded in Britain. Access to a single market such as the United States had was never there until the UK had joined the EEC just a few years previously or maybe not until the Single European Act in 1986.

To these deep structural issues, Margaret Thatcher took a scalpel. The only problem is that along with the rotten tissue she cut away much that was healthly. Communities, many reliant on these industries, still suffer today. This masochistic approach to economic management wasn't sustainable so eventually the economy was reflated, growth returned, and the first shoots of an economy based on finance, consumerism, and house price inflation was seen. That is the economic paradigm that has just come to a cataclysmic conclusion with the credit crunch.

Thatcherism was as much a cultural concept as a political one. With the economic approach came a state of mind where getting on became the dynamic; the measurement was what you could conspicuously consume. If anything, my generation was the one which epitomised this attidude. Greed was good no matter how it was financed or who you had to tread on. I have often reflected that this may have horrified Mrs Thatcher at various times. Was Loadsamoney really the vision she had for Britain when she entered office on May 4th 1979? What would Alfred Roberts have made of such characters?

This is the twin tragedy of Thatcherism. It changed Britain forever at enormous and unnecessary cost but it also consumed itself. Socially it was obnoxious and damaging. Economically, Britain returned to growth but it was unequally distributed and highly unstable. A sober England- and Thatcherism was an English ideology- of thrifty, hard-working, protestant capitalists with moral standards living in market towns with local pride and expressive patriotism, was not the nation that Margaret Thatcher left as her legacy in 1990.

Margaret Thatcher embarked on the last grand attempt we have seen at social and economic engineering. It failed. We are still searching for something to replace it. Labour in government has confronted- successfully in many ways- the more objectionable social consequences of the ideology. The current economic crisis we find ourselves in will provoke a deeper rethink. Margaret Thatcher killed the Britain that I am watching on BBC Parliament currently. It is a myth of the Right that this was entirely for the better. It was not in many significant ways.

More importantly, the social overhang of the 1980s remains both in terms of destroyed lives and a culture of individualism that is not fit for purpose in confronting the seismic challenges we collectively face. 1979 was an historic day. The reality of that history should help guide a better future.

President Obama in breach of the Third Geneva Convention?

Here is an interview with John Dean. Remember him? He was President Nixon's White House Counsel who blew the whistle on his boss in the Watergate scandal. Well, he makes the highly intriguing point that by failing to investigate and prosecute torture President Obama is in breach of the Third Geneva Convention. International lawyers please confirm.....

I suspect that as President Obama has made clear that at the very least he would have no issue with Congress convening a joint congressional committee on torture then he is not in breach. Should John Dean's analysis be right then presumably some judicial action would then be taken following any inquiry if wrong-doing in breach of international conventions and domestic law was found. Here is the fascinating interview:

And here are the comments by Condoleezza Rice that use the Nixon defence: because the president said it was not in contravention of the Convention Against Torture then it wasn't. That must have left President Mugabe with a warm glow of self-justification. Moreover, by claiming herself to only have conveyed legal advice and not have sanctioned 'enhanced interrogation techniques' she is actually, should a legal inquiry conclude that the practices were in breach, at the heart of a conspiracy to torture. Looks like the former secretary of state and national security advisor evaded one set bullets by ducking into another. Time to get a good lawyer?

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Blears has got it right....and oh so wrong

Hazel Blears has three points in her already infamous article in today's Observer:

(i) The next election will be fought on policy. Tick.

(ii) The Labour party must share the emotional instincts of the electorate. Tick. Quite a number of people raised the Gurkha issue with me yesterday in Shrewsbury and Telford (I am a Labour candidate for the European Parliament in the West Midlands if you didn't know);

(iii) YouTube is 'no substitute' for traditional campaigning. Tick. In fact, I have made similar arguments in articles in the past. But if you read the tone of the piece Ms Blears gives a strong impression that traditional campaigning can exist without new media. That is where we get into a problem.

Well, I could write this blog on a type-writer and put it on a table in my local coffee shop but what would be the point when others do it on a PC and publish their blogs online? New and traditional media co-exist. The problem with the now equally infamous YouTube announcement on expenses wasn't the limitation of new media. It was that it was so ineptly done: basically it was a House of Commons statement delivered to camera. There are still too many people in the Labour party who are so obsessed with 'getting our message' across that they utterly fail to. The point about the modern communications environment is that it is about conducting a dialogue with the electorate not using new media to try to force-feed your message of the day to the electorate.

Hazel Blears is right about street campaigning. I most definitely did engage in a conversation with dozens of people yesterday and very worthwhile and enjoyable it was too. They just happened to be people who were passing. What of the other 4 million voters who are in the West Midlands?

No, that YouTube clip was the equivalent of the first TV news broadcasts that were just the radio news read over the TV. The White House 'open for questions' is how you do new media. It combined a live audience, TV coverage, web streaming, questions sourced and transparently chosen via the web- including one on the legalisation of cannabis. It worked because it combined media and was open, engaging, and inclusive.

This stuff used to be dismissed as geek-speak. However, the internet is a simulation of a new type of politics that will combine traditional and new forms of communication and policy development. It will be two-way, transparent, involving, and it will save us from the anti-political mood that is rising. I hope.

Now I'm off to do some more street Warwickshire.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Johnson @1: big promises, little done

Well, he's been there a year. How has the London Mayor fared? Murad Qureshi is scathing in his piece that appears in today's Tribune. He points out, fairly, that Mayor Johnson has talked a progressive game without delivering a progressive politics. Does this hint at what we can expect from a Cameron administration? It's been a consistent argument of this blog that Cameron's ends- progressive- can not be achieved by his means- conservative.

Qureshi lists the following as contradictions between Johnson's stated policy and his action:

- He said that he would "take action to make London the greenest city in the world." Yet he has scrapped the third phase of the Low Emissions Zone, scrapped the £25 charge on gas guzzling vehicles, and intends to half the size of the congestion charge zone. He has also cut funding for bike lanes.
- Mayor Johnson gushes praise for a multi-cultural London yet stripped the Rise festival of its anti-racism message in 2008 and this year has cut it altogether.
- He has dropped support for a number of infrastructure projects- Thames Gateway Bridge, the DLR extension to Barking and Dagenham, the Greenwich Waterfront Transit, and the Brixton to Camden tram. Funnily enough, these projects also happen to serve some of London's poorest communities.
- His plan to abolish 'bendy buses' (or 'free buses' as the kids call them!) will create more congestion as more buses will have to be on the roads to replace the capacity.
- He has scrapped the requirement for 50 per cent of new houses to be affordable and shifted the remainder away from socially rented accommodation.
- Despite expressing support for four rape crisis centres during the campaign, has not even provided enough cash for one to remain open.

Qureshi does applaud the Mayor for his support for the London Living Wage and an amnesty for 'irregular migrants.' But he also points out that Mayor Johnson's GLA precept freeze will save the average Londoner just £6 per year but will massively hit the capital's development, public services, and social equality. At the same time, belt bursting rises in public transport fares further hit the poorest disproportionately.

Not much of a record. Conservatives over at ConservativeHome are happy though. Just 1% of them support the Mayor's support for London's Living Wage which helps the working poor. 11% support the relatively minor measure of banning alcohol on the tube (a solution to a problem that barely existed.) 12% of them think that saving the average Londoner £6 a year on Council Tax is a more important measure than seeing London's poorest worker paid an extra £2.60 per hour over and above the national minimum wage. No wonder David Cameron and Boris Johnson always default right.

A new labour movement

Trade unions and trade unionists have been essential to cause of British social democracy for over a century and a half. The Labour party was founded as the political wing of the labour movement with trade unions as the industrial wing. There is still a structural and important link between trade unionism and Labour politics. However, the relationship has become too institutional, too elitist, more about Westminster political players than the trade unionist grassroots.

The Labour party suffers because of this also. Movement based politics ultimately relies on the interaction and action of large number of individuals working together towards a common cause. I was frankly shocked to see that support for Labour amongst members of my own trade union, Unite, has fallen to 26 per cent (though 34 per cent expect to vote Labour next time.) Equally as surprising is the fact that only 48 per cent of those polled voted Labour at the last general election.

As a new pamphlet from the Fabians points out, Obama's support amongst trade unionists was 60 per cent last year. While over there in October, I was able to meet with the political director of the United Steel Workers. I was blown away by the operation they had in place both to mobilise their members and to turn their members into donors and activists. Like the Obama campaign itself it had a centralised strategy, delivered locally. It was effective as it had been for John Kerry in 2004.

If the Labour party is to become a movement once again then trade unions and trade unionists are critical to that. It is not enough just to have an open door to 10 Downing Street. Millions of trade unionists have to be re-engaged in Labour party politics again. Winning the next election is one thing. Beyond that, Labour needs to build a new type of party: a movement, grounded in local communities, directly addressing local concerns. That is the future. An effective trade union movement is critical to the future. And the work starts now.

Blunkett right on where next

For the second time in a week, the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has captured the politics of the moment to perfection. I am certain that I am not the only person who was amazed to see him praised- up to a point- for his re-think on ID cards by none other than Shami Chakrabarti. Now his analysis of where the Labour party needs to go next is spot on. Putting aside the headline grabbing comment about the need for the Prime Minister to display some 'old-fashioned political nous', Blunkett has understood exactly where the party and government needs to go next.

In the aftermath of the G20 Summit I wrote the following:
"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."
I'm afraid instead of getting out there and making the case, the government has gone into its shell again. So I wholeheartedly agree with David Blunkett when he says:
"What is absolutely critical to them is what will the next government be doing to protect the to protect their interests to engage them as active citizens in a better tomorrow."
Getting out there and explaining what he has been doing at the G20 Summit and why the Budget was important is critical to the future success of the government. The Prime Minister and Chancellor have set an economic course and the government will be judged on its success.

If it works- and I believe that the approach of this government is least worst and consequently the best in the circumstances- then Labour absolutely has a chance at the next election. But people have to feel part of that. That means listening as well as lecturing. There is twelve months or so left. Labour has to justify what it has done on the economy, present a vision of active citizenship- a different and more community-oriented Britain- as David Blunkett says, and get out there and make the case. The longest general election campaign ever begins now.

Post script: While I agree with David Blunkett, I completely disagree with Ken Livingstone that Labour is 'doomed.'