Friday, 31 July 2009

America, Britain and the power of ideas

LabourList is having an ideas themed day, ably edited by @Jessica_Asato. My contribution is on the United States- as a set of ideas and ideals- and ponders why the British are so reticent about delving into our own past in order to change our future. It looks at the campaign of Barack Obama as an example of what can happen. And then, just this morning I read a poem that I wished I'd quoted which ponders 'when history and hope rhyme.' Here is an excerpt from The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney:
History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
Dare we dream? The link to the article is below:

Brits need to abandon their reticence about ideas and follow the American Dream

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Brown can win the election. Or can he?

Gordon Brown can still win the next election. However, my confidence has been slightly shattered this morning as it emerges that Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's woeful Chief Strategist and CEO of PR firm Burson-Marstellar, has predicted the same. He famously came up with the dumb 'inevitability' strategy for Hillary Clinton and was completely out-manoeuvred by the Obama campaign.

Here is an analysis from Portfolio magazine of his performance. It comes to the conclusion that he failed to spot the right micro-trends in the election of last year. Ironic, given that his famous book is about micro-trends. I wrote about this over a year ago. Mark Penn's political instincts are not needed here.

Climate change Thursday #2

This week, the World Wildlife Fund has published its climate change scorecards measuring the performance of the G8 against environmental targets. Two things are worthy of note. Amongst this small group the UK does very well. However, and more noteworthy, none of the G8 get anywhere near the 'good' standard when it comes to the WWF/Allianz ranking. Here is the league table:

And here is a video that explains the findings:



Of course, climate change denial has had a new lease of life recently, hence this weekly feature that will simply present evidence and ideas. A recent interview in The Spectator with the author of the new climate change deniers bible, Heaven And Earth: Global Warming — the Missing Science, Ian Plimer is typical. The amazing thing is that all the arguments in Ian Plimer's book have been around for years and have been consistently rebutted. I particularly like these two:

- "CO2 in the atmosphere — to which human activity contributes the tiniest fraction — is only 0.001 per cent of the total CO2 held in the oceans, surface rocks, air, soils and life." Hmmmm, we've seen the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere rise by about a third in a century and guess what, the earth's warmed up and it's coincided with widespread industrialisation. As for the rest of the statement- so what?
- "There is no problem with global warming. It stopped in 1998. The last two years of global cooling have erased nearly 30 years of temperature increase.’"

Over to NASA to rebut that one.

Of course, these sorts of claims are very familiar. We hear them time and time again. You can follow the discussion in this debate on LabourList for further examples of generating heat rather than light (very environmentally unfriendly.) The argument is that Labour must become a greener party. That is right. Back to the WWF data, the government's performance on climate change probably gets a 'not bad' but much more to do. In this regard the impending closure- other than a small reasearch and development facility- of the Vestas wind turbine blade manufacturing company in the Isle of Wight is a very disappointing development.

And finally, if you are ever in need of short sharp rebuttals to climate change denial then visit the Royal Society's rebuttal site which is very useful.

More next week......

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Remembering John Smith

A couple of months ago, I promised Rupa Huq that I would answer some questions about John Smith and his legacy on the fifteenth anniversary of his death. I failed to do so- slap wrist. So I am making amends today:

Where were you when you heard John Smith had died?

I was doing a bar job during a year out between school and Uni and was taking a food order when someone came and told me. I found it deeply upsetting as just a few weeks before I had heard him speak- the first Labour leader I had heard speak- in Symphony Hall in Birmingham. When I was at school- a very Tory school- people would mock the Labour party and I'd be able to retort, yes, but what about John Smith? He had respect beyond the Labour party.

How did you view John Smith when he was leader and how do you view him now?

How did I view him? Moral, sturdy, reassuring, decent, intelligent.
And now? The same.

Do you think he would have made a good Prime Minister?

Well, the first question is would he have become Prime Minister? I believe he would have done. A lot of people blamed his shadow Budget for Labour's defeat in 1992. There is little doubt that NI increases and the new top rate of tax kicked in at far too low an income level. You have to wonder from that whether he did have a strong understanding of middle England in particular. However, he probably learned a hard lesson from that experience. So I believe that Labour would have won in 1997 with him at the helm but probably with a much smaller majority as middle England would still have been a bit jittery with him.

Those qualities I outlined above are good qualities for a Prime Minister. Yes, I believe he would have made an excellent Prime Minister. You can't predict how it would have been different....more social democratic, less reformist perhaps.....but his personal qualities were many of the right ones.

What do you think is his lasting legacy?

Three-fold:

i) Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It was Smith who nurtured them.
ii) Vince Cable. He was his SPAD in the 1970s but then he jumped onto the SDP ship....whereas John Smith:
iii) Stayed with the Labour party through the dark days of the early 1980s and kept a centre of gravity that would enable Labour to compete for office effectively once again.

The economic consequences of David Cameron

My LabourList column this week is on the David Cameron's economic policies. It's got Churchill, Roosevelt, Keynes, J.K.Galbraith and others. Watch the debate unfold as the normal list of Tory Trolls will first mock then get increasingly fraught in the comments. It's kind of a sport.

The economic consequences of David Cameron

Social media and English reserve

We English are very strange people in many quirky ways. But on Sunday I was playing around with my iPhone on a train on the way back from giving a talk to the Surrey Fabian Society annual garden party and the gentleman opposite me starting asking me about one or two things about the phone. As a result, we started chatting- he was an iPhone fan too. He was also a blogger (on poetry, politics, art and other things), public speaker, and retired Connaught Hotel executive.

Now I know all this social media is about bringing people together on-line and it just struck me as fascinating that two people should strike up a conversation in this random way. The same happened to me in a coffee shop this morning. I just wonder whether the liberating energy of the internet and new technology is beginning to remove some of that old English reserve? Self-expression is what it is about and, actually, that is a great counter-balance to our natural reserve (though, shouldn't generalise too much....)

Anyway, the guy's name was Colin Hurrell and below is the very generous email that he has just sent me with some links to his blogs which you should visit.

Hi Anthony,

I enjoyed chatting to you on the train to London on Sunday afternoon.

How often such opportunities are not fulfilled because of our English reserve. I am glad we both had iPhones!

I found your comments on Barack Obama very interesting. Obviously you have a great passion for your subject and extensive knowledge too. I am impressed!

I have a Democrat friend in Cleveland, Ohio and in our weekly chat on the internet we have often discussed American politics - and particularly the President, both before and after his election. I am a great admirer.

I have taken a quick look at your website and mean to go back there from time to time. However, as I am sure you will agree, there is so much on the internet and we do not have time to visit everything.

You asked about my blogs and here are the five addresses:
kendrive.blog.co.uk
grumpy.blog.co.uk
colintellsyouwheretogo.blog.co.uk
poemsandprose.blog.co.uk
picturepost.blog.co.uk

The first four usually have daily postings, but I have not added to "colintellsyouwheretogo" for some time.

My main interest is in "poemsandprose" and "picturepost" and the other blogs are often trivial and somewhat puerile.

However, you may care to take a look at "kendrive" today, as it is about "Climate Change", which I know you have mentioned on your website, commenting about 'deniers'.

The minority view I have expressed is probably easily debunked, but I think people should look at alternative theories.

This afternoon I am giving a presentation of poetry to a small group in someone's house in Staines. It is called "Who would fardels bear?", which you probably know is a quotation from Hamlet:

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?


That is when he is contemplating suicide and my talk will feature eight poets who took their own lives. It sounds dreary, but it is not really so.

Well Anthony, good luck in all your endeavours.

Let me know when you are next giving a lecture on Barack Obama in the London area, as I would like to come along.

Regards,

Colin (Hurrell)

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Nick Clegg, John Hemming, and Ayoub Khan

Well, well. Not only has Nick Clegg failed to take action against Ayoub Khan but the very liberal Lib Dem MP for Birmingham Yardley, John Hemming MP, has pitched into the scandal. On Hopi Sen's superlative Blog from the Back Room, he made the following comment:
I think this web post is libellous.

I agree with Ayoub Khan that the landrover was torched by Labour supporters in order to intimidate witnesses.
Amazingly, he then goes on to state on his own 'web log' (get with it John for goodness sake, it's 2009):
I personally believe that the car was torched by Labour supporters in an attempt to intimidate witnesses in the Election Court. To that extent I beleive (sic) that it succeeded. Neither Ayoub, nor myself have any evidence as to who torched the car, but we have a lot of experience of Birmingham Politicns (sic). To that extent we have a "reasonable suspicion", but no more than that.
Again, I quote the Elections Commissioner: Mr Straker QC described this allegation as 'unpleasant and unsubstantiated.' And yet, John Hemming insists on making yet again. Note that he doesn't accuse anyone specifically (can't risk a libel case can we, John?) and note that by his own admission neither he nor Ayoub Khan have any evidence- perhaps the liberal concept of the rule of law as opposed to the rule of John Hemming's beliefs passed him by- grade F GCSE Politics.

There are now two questions. Why hasn't Nick 'do what's right' Clegg intervened? And why is John Hemming defending a man who has been described by an Elections Commissioner of making 'unpleasant', 'unsubstantiated', and 'sordid' accusations?

Post script: If you require a bit of background here is the coverage of this in the Guardian and Birmingham Post yesterday. I also posted on this further down the page.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Top ten blogs- vote!

I am going to say this only once. Here are the ten blogs I voted for in the Total Politics Top Ten blogs poll 2009:

1. LabourList. http://www.labourlist.org/
2. Next Left. http://www.nextleft.org/
3. Liberal Conspiracy. http://www.liberalconspiracy.org/
4. Hopi Sen ‘Blog from the backroom.’ http://hopisen.wordpress.com/
5. Progressonline. http://www.progressonline.org.uk/
6. Rupa Huq. http://rupahuq.wordpress.com/
7. Don Paskini. http://don-paskini.blogspot.com/
8. Mark Reckons. http://markreckons.blogspot.com/
9. Craig Murray. http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/
10. Danny Finkelstein. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/blogs/

I included one Tory, one Lib Dem, and two independent.

Feel free to vote for this site but you must follow the instructions very carefully.

HOW TO VOTE HERE

Obama shows worrying signs of mortality

Well, President Obama did an hour long press conference last Wednesday where he almost exclusively talked about healthcare reform. Right at the end of the conference he was asked a question by a reporter from the Chicago Sun-Times about the arrest of an acquaintance of his, the Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates. President Obama answered that the police had behaved "stupidly" in the arrest.

What does the media obsess with over the next few days? Surely the biggest social reform in the US certainly since welfare reform under President Clinton and probably since the Johnson administration? You got it in one. It was the president's gaffe. And now Rep. Thaddeus McCotter- who sounds like a character from Harry Potter- from Michigan is keeping that particular plate spinning with a resolution condemning the President Obama. Dull, dull, dull. Whatever next? Will he find his eyes being drawn to pretty girls?

Of far greater interest though was Hillary Clinton's interview yesterday on Meet the Press. This was a refreshingly different Hillary Clinton from the cactus-like candidate we saw in the presidential election last year. She announced with a degree of pride that she had a portrait of William Seward- former New York Senator, Secretary of State, and one of President Lincoln's famous team of rivals- in her office. There was an authenticity and honesty about the following:

"Well, I, I am the chief adviser on foreign policy, but the president makes the decisions. You know, I have a picture of former Secretary of State Seward in my office. He was a New York senator who went on to serve President Lincoln, which is part of what created this concept of team of rivals. He became one of Lincoln's closest and strongest advisers. Why? Because he understood, as I do, that the election is over. The president has to lead our country both internationally and domestically. I saw this when my husband was president. At the end of the day, it is the president who has to set and articulate policy. I'm privileged to be in a position where I am the chief adviser, I'm the chief diplomat, I'm the chief executor of the policy that the president pursues. But I know very well that a team that works together is going to do a better job for America."

Indeed. And now I've been nice about Hillary Clinton for at least the third time.

The full (hour long) interview is below:


Nick Clegg's Lib Dems in action?

Let me introduce you to Councillor Ayoub Khan. He is a Lib Dem Councillor and Cabinet Member on Birmingham City Council and the Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidate for Birmingham Ladywood. It seems that he is someone who creates wholly untrue accusations against his political enemies. He is facing a possible professional investigation by the Bar Standards Board that could result in his suspension as a barrister.

What has he done?

- He falsely accused a fellow Councillor of witness intimidation. Elections Commissioner, Timothy Straker QC, described that as 'sordid.'
- He also accused his political opponents of setting fire to an ally's Land Rover. Mr Straker QC described that one as 'unpleasant and unsubstantiated.'
- When he appealed the decision in the High Court last week according to the Birmingham Post today, "Lord Justice Leverson and Mr Justice Wilkie said there was “no sensible basis” for Coun Khan’s claim that Mr Straker’s findings were perverse or unsubstantiated by evidence. His assertion that Mr Straker’s judgement was flawed was “barely even arguable."

Now, this is a man who will apparently stop at nothing to smear his political opponents and his tactics have been laid bare in the High Court. He is a very senior Liberal Democrat in Birmingham. I have been struck by Nick Clegg's robust response to recent political scandals. Albert Bore, Leader of Birmingham's Labour Group, has written him a letter in which he quoted the intrepid Liberal Democrat leader:

“We don’t need to wait for months for a report to tell us what to do. We just need to do what’s right. If politicians can’t manage that much they can wave public trust goodbye."

Hear, hear. So Nick Clegg, what exactly are you waiting for? Councillor Ayoub Khan has reached the end of the political road: sack him from Birmingham's Cabinet, de-select him as a Councillor, de-select him as your candidate in Birmingham Ladywood and kick him out of your party. This more than anything else you have faced is a test of your credibility.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Obama's 'plunging' popularity

Obama's approval average, having peaked at 65.5% in the middle of February, has 'plunged' to 54.8% today according to Real Clear Politics data. Here, have a play with the graph yourself:



An article on the same website pretty much comes to the conclusion that this is not atypical and his approval rating at the six-month mark is pretty much in line with where George W Bush was at the same stage into his presidency. What can we conclude from this? Things, in normal circumstances, get tougher the longer you are in the White House. Nothing breathtaking in other words.

3,000,000+ Americans have lost their jobs since the inauguration, 14,000 are losing their healthcare every day, they are seeing iconic businesses such as GM go to the wall, times are tough. So an approval rating that has shrunk by 10% or so from its very high peak is not surprising. Obama has fallen from the stratosphere and has joined us here in the troposphere. He's the guy holding the ball in these troubled times.

But none of this is what will be preoccupying the White House. They can worry about the polls in the run-up to mid-terms next year. Their almost singular devotion is to healthcare reform. It is is now very unlikely that a bill that meets the president's goals will be passed by Congress in time for the August deadline he set. He wants a system that widens coverage to everyone who wants it, cuts costs, increases quality, and is self-financing. He's not asking much then. It looks like it will find its way through the House of Representatives but it will still face a rocky journey through the Senate.

What's the problem? Well, as E.J.Dionne says, healthcare reform is hard. Why is it hard? Well, because despite a filibuster proof 60 Senate seats and a whopping majority in the House many centrist Democrats are still nervous about this package. They are nervous about its impact on small businesses, the impression that it will reduce choice (which it won't really), whether it will be properly financed and so may add to a deficit that is understandably unpopular, and if it is properly financed where that cost will fall? 49 Democrat congressmen have to defend districts next year that John McCain 'won' in 2008. They tend to be so-called 'Blue Dog Democrats'- i.e. Democrats with a more conservative hue.

Having said that, failure can not be contemplated for the Democrats. To have tried and failed- yet again- will be even more politically catastrophic for the Democrats. So ultimately, they have reached the point of no return. This is easy for the Republicans. They can sound absolutely united on this issue. They have been opposing healthcare reform for decades. Ultimately, something has to be done on the Democrats' side.

To saddle a Democratic president -as happened with Bill Clinton- with such a monumental failure will disastrous. It may not be taking a wrecking ball to Barack Obama's presidency but it will certainly, at the very least, remove the sheen of invincibility from him. The price in political capital will be high for the Democrat in the White House and the Democrats in Congress. So this time, healthcare reform must pass. That success will be a driver towards reelection as people realise the world hasn't ended and, for many, if not the vast majority, it has gotten a whole lot better.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

This blog needs help.....

I've been doing this blog for almost eighteen months now. It started off as a travelog of my trip to America to cover the Barack Obama campaign. Then I started writing a bit more about British politics. Like many blogs on the left it is driven more by commentary than gossip. I make no apology for that. It is part of a family of blogs that includes (and I'm sorry for any omissions!) LabourList, Next Left, Liberal Conspiracy, Progress, Hopi Sen's a blog from the backroom, Rupa Huq, and Don Paskini. These blogs are thoughtful, generally speaking of the left, and concentrate on quality rather than volume (I make no apology for that.) You will find other excellent blogs by looking at the signatories of the 'Why we blog' statement. I should also mention the PoliticsHome website that kindly links to my blog posts and that is very valuable indeed (and it's a great site!)

This blog has developed into an important thing for me. It kept me in touch with the Obama campaign on a day to day basis and now his presidency. It gave me an opportunity to market the book. And it has led to a number of appearances in the media (with a mixture of success!)

However, it is still the same old deliberately amateurish design. I want something new and fresh. Over the Summer, I am looking to port the blog from Blogger to Wordpress and I'd like a very new template- that will allow me to showcase individual elements like 'Climate change Thursday.' Can you help? There will be a reward to be determined......If so, please contact me: anthonypainter AT yahoo.co.uk.

Finally, Total Politics have launched a top 100 blogs vote. The results will go in a book (hmmm, why a book?) to be published in September. If you like this blog then please click on this link and vote. I will be voting for all the blogs mentioned above and one or two surprises. But please if you value the left blogging space please vote and get others to vote to.

Climate change Thursday #1

The Copenhagen Climate Change Conference begins on December 7th. In the run up to that every Thursday on this blog will cover an aspect of the climate change issue: the facts, the politics, the debates, the controversy. This feature will be called Climate change Thursday. Why Thursday? Because today I'm in in the mood to kick this off and today is Thursday.

So the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference is a motivation for this column. The bigger motivation is the utter nonsense peddled by climate change deniers. If you want a sample of the arguments, please see the comments in response to my piece which covers climate change on LabourList a couple of weeks ago.

We start off with James Hansen whose research into atmospheric conditions on Venus and the impact of volcanic activity on the climate led him into the refined science of modeling the earth's climate. His testimony before a Senate committee in 1988 first brought the notion that the earth was warming to significant attention. His models have proven to be remarkably accurate.

He even factored in what might happen if there was a major disruptive volcanic event (which cools the earth's atmosphere for a years or so). Randomly, he placed the event at 1995. It actually happened in 1991- Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Its impact was exactly as James Hansen had predicted- the model was looking good. His predictions- the middle scenario he used- have strongly been matched by observed climate change.

So James Hansen's contribution is massive. He is under no doubt that man-made factors now outweigh any natural factors in explaining climate change. He makes the point that climate change is a cumulative process so it's historical activity that is important. And guess what? This makes the UK one of the largest contributors to climate change if not the largest. So we, as the earliest industrial power, have a responsibility to act. We are beginning to but we must keep on striving more and more.

This feature has been made possible by Peter Sinclair's Climate Change Crock of the Week series (which he posts as greenman3610) which is available on YouTube. In turn, he relies very heavily on NASA data. Yes, NASA. You know, the cleverest people in the world. Subscribe and watch the videos but they'll all be featuring on here in coming weeks. Here is his video on the career of James Hansen.



Oh, if there's anything you feel I should link to: blogs, reports, videos, outrageous claims, please let me know. Hopefully, the Climate change Thursday feature can build up a good stock of material on the environment in one place.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Priority number 1: electoral reform

My LabourList column is now up. Alex Smith, LabourList's editor has sourced an amazing picture of a Chartist rally in Kennington- just as worth looking at as the article itself!

The piece concludes by arguing:

Labour must revisit its radical roots. Radical politics depends on political reform. A pluralistic and open politics is a necessary corollary of social justice. The next year may or may not be the last opportunity to do this. Why take the risk?

There is no worse prospect imaginable than sitting in opposition and ruing what might have been. And by demonstrating that Labour is committed to fundamental change, it may just show that, whatever they claim, the Conservatives are the status quo. That would be a timely reminder in an election year.

Why am I on the left?

Demos' Open Left is asking people on the left to explain themselves! Pitch in here and my responses are below:

What is it about your political beliefs that puts you on the Left rather than the Right?

The Right is inclined to see the failure of people to reach their full potential as a result of some personal flaw. The left sees it as mainly as a result of impediments to success or lack of opportunity. Beyond the abstractions of 'freedom' and/ or 'equality' it comes down to this: the left believes that we can improve lives through collective action. Indeed, not only this but morally we should improve things through collective action where we can and that will create a society that is fairer and more creative. All must be able to participate and thrive in this better society. That is my fundamental belief.

What do you consider made you Left wing?

My background. I look back at my family biography and see the improvements that have been made to their lives over a century or so of progressive reform. This family tale is the same as so many others- the emergence of a new professional middle-class out of striving, struggling working-class communities whose ethic of hard-work was galvanising. That was only possible as result of education, housing, healthcare, and welfare. I don't believe that my ancestors in Ireland, England and Wales lacked drive and ambition. They just had no means of moving on up. Had it not been for the left over the last century or so I would not have had the considerable life chances that I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy- nor would my parents' generation. An awareness of this was always communicated to me.

How would you describe the sort of society you want Britain to be?

A humble society that is self aware, open and generous. We realise that we are in this together and if we let millions fall by the wayside the collective and moral consequences will be dire. We will be a country in which people ask not just 'how can I benefit?' but also 'how can I contribute?'

What one or two changes would make the biggest difference to bringing that about?

What is important is that we start to vision how things can be different. We acknowledge that things can different. We start to talk about different ways of doing things- together, inclusive, open. This can't be an elitist or technocratic pursuit. We change Britain by convincing people of their value and the contribution they can make. We look into our past and show how we have rallied and made things better. Then we summon that urge for a different type of society now. Then the policies flow. But first people must feel part of something.

What most makes you angry about the way Britain is now?

The way we have turned on one another. This has actually become quite an angry nation- and that imbues a sense of cynicism. Certain groups are caricatured or demonised then marginalised and resented. Mutual suspicion and anger proliferate. So, in a sense, I'm angry about anger.

Which person, event, era or movement from the past should we look to for inspiration now?

Undoubtedly, Martin Luther King. When researching my book on Barack Obama, I looked back at that whole era of American history and what was achieved by the non-violent civil rights movement was monumental. "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice." For me, that sense is the ultimate expression of hope. Beyond that, his achievements and those of his movement will stand as a beacon of human possibility.

At that time, you also had Robert F Kennedy who was as profound as King in many ways but never quite got to put it into action. And you can’t forget President Johnson either- a titan for all his flaws and foreign policy catastrophes!

But the United States from 1955 to 1968- when it spectacularly ran out of steam- is one of the most radically important places and periods of history ever. It went from the gross injustice of segregation to civil and political equality. Reverend King was a major instigator of that- if not the major instigator.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Taxpayers £22 billion 'out of pocket'- really?

So scream headlines like this one in the Independent this morning (they weren't the only ones but I picked one at random.) Really?

Well, if we take a look at the Budget Report 2009 we see that total tax take from HMRC was forecast to be £437.4 billion for the financial year 2008-09 (see p.231). Now what is the reported outturn? It was £435.7 billion. The gap is £1.7 billion. That is not insignificant but it is not £22 billion. The reporting of the NAO report makes it sound like this was unexpected. It was not. Any large organisation- and we are talking about a government here!- budgets then measures outturn against budget. The worrying thing is when your budgeting is off.

So the sensationalist reporting this morning doesn't match the situation. Nonetheless we are in a very fraught period of time for public finances what with global financial meltdown and all. What is scarier as I have have argued time and time again is that we focus on the deficit and forget about the recovery. If we retrench expenditure and raise taxes too early then watch things get really, really scary- economically AND fiscally. Over to you Messrs Cameron and Osborne.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Climate change- any old deal is not enough

The G8 leadership came to an understanding of sorts on climate change in L'Aquila. The 2°C target is kind of progress. What is needed in this year's UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen is not just any old deal, however. The right deal that is going to have some chance of hitting that target and reducing the risk of catastrophic climate change.

As reported in the New Scientist this week, the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Climate Change (try saying all that while eating a bowl of Rice Krispies) believes that even if the developed world manages to reduce its emissions by 80% on 1990 levels by 2050 there is still only a 4-5% chance of staying within the 2°C limit. We have already churned up the environment to the extent that we will find it desperately difficult to turn back.

Of course, climate change deniers have a full array of excuses and bogus science at their disposal. A good deconstruction of their arguments can be seen on YouTube through Peter Sinclair's Climate Denial Crock of the Week series. A taster is below:



The harsh reality is that we are taking increasing, multiple, and layered risks with our world that could well have catastrophic consequences. Why take the risk? Using science, markets, and political will we can build a world where we are not taking those risks. We are up to the task so let's get to it.

This is why the G8 was so disappointing. The glacial pace with which the governments are moving is simply not good enough. In the case of the UK government- one of the exceptions- the Low Carbon Transition Plan published last week was exceedingly well received and rightly so. As the environmental guru Jonathon Porritt pointed out, it was the first time that a coordinated plan of action that will have a measurable impact on carbon emissions has been produced. Ed Miliband and his department deserve credit for that. It will have legs as it matches environmental improvements with economic opportunity and jobs. That is the golden mix.

The Prime Minister also deserves credit for forcing the pace of agreement with Mexico's idea for a $100 billion a year green fund. However, developed countries are still not doing anywhere near enough. Far from all have made the type of commitment that the UK and a few others such as Sweden have made. We built our prosperity on pollution and so have a moral responsibility to ensure that the developing world does not have to choose between the environment and growth. Finally, our consumption- and this is where the government still falls short- means that others pollute on our behalf. An 80% cut in emissions by 2050 is in the emissions we produce not the emissions we consume is not enough. We have a broader responsibility.

So amidst all the self-congratulation of the G8 there is still a very long road to travel down. As for those climate change deniers: it is very unlikely you are right so why on earth should we take ever increasing risks with our world? If you have the vast bulk of scientific evidence saying one thing that predicts disaster, why would you choose just to ignore it or cry conspiracy? It's bizarre.

I argued that a more radical approach needed to be taken in my LabourList column a couple of weeks ago (see comments also.) That article concluded with a quote from Thomas Homer-Dixon which is the strongest riposte to those in denial:

“Driving fast in the fog is, of course, not sensible. But it’s exactly what we’re doing today.”

And the world's leaders have to take more responsibility in order to slow us down.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Mountaintop- the real Martin Luther King

I had the pleasure of seeing the astounding Mountaintop by Katori Hall at the Trafalgar Studios last night. The play, directed by James Dacre, and is set in King's room- 306 - in the Lorraine Motel. It features a final night conversation between Reverend King ("Preacher King", "Michael") and a maid who is not what she seems. He was to be assassinated on the balcony outside the room. The play absolutely captured the essence of King.

An FBI file bigger than the bible is enough to make a man understandably neurotic, but he was also vain, afraid, and his personal conduct failed to live up to the morals he preached. J Edgar Hoover was obsessed with King- officially because he suspected communist motives-and bugged his every move. Tapes of King's extra-martial affairs were sent to his wife Coretta Scott King and played relentlessly to journalists. Mountaintop captures these human frailties magnificently. At times, David Harewood became King. Not a mythologised or demonised King but a King, warts and all. Lorraine Burroughs' intelligent, wickedly humorous, but beguilingly sexy foil for Harewood was intoxicating.

The fact is though despite the flesh being weak the will of this man was strong, oh so strong. His flaws only serve to underline his greatness. Without pause or hesitation we can say Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and King and right there we have a list of the finest that the United States has ever produced.

Reverend King changed America. The Civil Rights Acts was essential and with a little help from his not such a friend, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, he got that through Congress. But it was the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that serves as an even greater legacy. Again, that mangled historical figure, President Johnson, gave what was one of the great speeches to Congress ending with the words of the the gospel hymn that had become the anthem of the civil rights movement, "We shall overcome." Martin Luther King cried. America was changed forever. That legacy of greatness is King's for eternity. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act constitute key components of the American canon- along with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Emancipatory Proclamation. Rivers run from the mountaintop to the valley. King stands astride the mountaintop.

So Mountaintop holds the flaws and the greatness of this preacher from Atlanta, Georgia in constant, artful tension. It only loses its way at one point when the maid gives what is basically a Malcolm X speech- black nation and pride. Kings gets sucked into it but that would never have happened. It was Malcolm X who genuflected to King. In the play, he pulls back but non-violence, equality, and integration were King's unshakable philosophies. He engaged with early Malcolm X only to dismiss him. In fact, when he was shot, he was planning his Poor People's Campaign which would almost have undoubtedly failed given the cultural and political stresses that the US was facing. But he was reaching beyond ethnicity into class and poverty.

And finally, were the Barack Obama references really necessary? Another 'one' is to come who will also have King's golden tongue- starting to get a bit Hollywood for a brief moment. Hmmmmm. The play ends on 'yes, we can.' Hmmmmm. Firstly, it is not just 'one.' Secondly, Barack Obama has his place in history- as do many others. But greatness? Only time will tell. It jarred in what was otherwise a marvellous take on one of America's truly great figures.

Don't let this detract. The writing, direction, performances, honesty, and energy of this production are intensely accomplished. King's premonition of his death- more concrete than the simple everyday feeling of threat would have created- is one of the great mysteries. Let's not ponder the explanation. Let's just enjoy the words. Oh, what words.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
Post script: I meant to mention a book I read recently alongside this. Eric J Sundquist's King's Dream dissects the 'I have a dream' speech magnificently. It dissects the influence on the speech- biblical, popular cultural, political, historical, personal- and the influence of this greatest speech given before 250,000 or so in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

David Cameron's summer of retreat

When did David Cameron become an orthodox Conservative leader? I pinpoint it to the Summer of 2007- when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, Andy Coulson became his Director of Communications, and Northern Rock collapsed. My latest column on LabourList is below:

David Cameron's summer retreat and the long drift right

I also picked up the theme of President Obama and torture on Guardian America. It is below:

Do the right thing on torture

The article after mine is by Sarah Palin. Some light relief!

Monday, 13 July 2009

Obama's commitment to transparency

One of the lesser discussed aspects of the Obama administration is its commitment to transparency. Nowhere is this exhibited more impressively than in its usaspending.gov website. The site now has a more sophisticated tool where IT projects can be scanned- you can see how much each department has spent, what it has spent it on, whether its on budget and schedule, and see an evaluation of the expenditure.

You can even embed aspects of the information on your own website like so (this is the data from the Department for Health and Human Services but as you can see it isn't quite right yet for some reason- it should look like this):



Needs work and presumably this type of evaluation data will be available across all types of spending in time.

This is all a good start and it is easy to use. However, the really useful data is the assessment of outcomes. What is the impact on health by the investments made? It seems to me transparency is one thing but alongside that there needs to be some form of justification. This is not a criticism- this website is an important initiative and it will be interesting to see how it develops. But costs even with evaluation data need to be coupled with benefits. Or the question could become, the Federal government is spending all my tax money, but why?

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Martin Bell interview


@alexsmith1982 and I went up to visit Martin Bell on Monday. His thoughts on Iraq, Tony Blair, Esther Rantzen, David Cameron, Hazel Blears (definitely worth a read of that) and on his successor in the Tatton seat, George Osborne.

The Martin Bell interview on LabourList.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Housing- an issue of supply not allocation

The housing issue we face is one of supply not allocation. But there is a perception that migrants are favoured in the allocation of scarce social and council housing. Not true, says the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. And the Housing Minister, John Healey MP agrees.

If the issue is supply and not allocation then why all this local people first stuff? Surely that just plays into the perception that migrants are favoured in some way and is politically and socially highly dangerous. Just a thought.

The rise of political gobbledygook

There were some good elements in David Miliband's speech last night. Most particularly, he articulated the need for Labour to marry radical liberalism and social democracy, he emphasised the importance of the party articulating a strongly pro-European line in its next manifesto, and there was an interesting discussion of the reforms that the Greek Socialists have undertaken: broadening membership, open primaries, and action to promote a better balance of gender representation.

However, some of it is utter gobbledygook. Let's leave aside the peculiar assertion that the digital switch-over is a radical policy fusing the best of social democracy and radical liberalism (explain please?) No, let's look at one passage which for the life of me I cannot comprehend. Like a fiendishly difficult modernist text, I recognise all the words can't see behind them to the true meaning. Can you help me out?
"Or local government in England, where funding has been raised and some powers devolved, including the creation of a general power of economic and social well being which the Tories now say is their panacea, but the shift in the balance of power from Whitehall to Town Hall has not yet happened, and the convening power of local government over the whole range of local services not been achieved."
What is he talking about? Is there an annotated or York notes version of the speech anywhere?

Monday, 6 July 2009

Tories risk economic calamity

Two pieces caught my eye over the weekend. Both deal with the gnarled topic of government borrowing and debt. I covered this issue a few weeks ago when discussing the project initiated by President Sarkozy to re-think debt chaired by Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz. Some debt is good as it raises the productive potential of the economy.

Of course politicians are engaged in a semi-bogus debate about cutting public expenditure. The issue is not who is tougher. It is when the necessary fiscal stiffening should be initiated.Economically, we are most definitely not out of the woods yet. Both the supply of capital and the demand for capital appear to be declining. If the investment is not undertaken then that harms growth, employment, etc. What can fill the gap? Well, it's public expenditure or nothing. The latter is terrifying and that is why I find the Tories' line on debt and fiscal rectitude so concerning. They may be in government in a year. Watch the double dip recession- or worse- become a real possibility.

By focusing the debate on the level of debt, they have made short-term political capital but they are creating a irresponsible dialogue. The major issues facing the economy currently are the continuing risk of financial collapse and the associated decline in demand. Richard Koo, through his experience of the Japanese economy which has sustained a series of shocks over a decade and a half, cautions us not to become too cautious when it comes to debt. I would be encouraged if all front line politicians read his book as a matter of urgency. Will Hutton picked up his arguments in his Observer column yesterday (I will say it again, Hutton has become a must-read commentator once more.)

The debate that has been going on about debt and cutting spending simply ignores thefundamentals- the British economy is facing serious structural weakness and we still don't know how that is going to pan out. Debate about what the spending and capital expenditure will be in 2013 are, frankly, irrelevant. All we can say is that when the economy shows signs of sustained recovery and growth, the stimulus can be withdrawn and we can return to normal times again. We do not know when that will be. If we try to return to orthodox economics too early then we could face calamity. That is the more powerful argument against the Tories' approach to the economy.

They are facing exactly these challenges in the USA. Krugman, Stiglitz (yes, him again), Nicholas Nassim Taleb appear to have vindicated. Vice President Joe Biden in a characteristic display of honesty admitted that the administration may have underestimated the scale of the economic malaise. In terms of the urgency of the stimulus and the required magnitude it may have undershot. The aforementioned economists and commentators argued this at the time. They won't be coy in coming forward with a brutal 'I told you so.'

Congressional Republicans are quickly assuming an attack formation. But their assertion that the economy will self-correct is taken from the playbook of depressions past. They seem to want to play the Herbert Hoover card with a Panglossian flourish.

Thank goodness for the world economy that they are not in control of either the executive or legislative branches. Nor will they be until at least November 2010. The risk that their political bed-fellows in UK will come into office earlier is greater. What the Tories may do to public services seems to be a relatively blunt political attack. What they may do to the economy is far more scary and potent.

The problem with this is that it requires a degree of honesty about the risks facing the economy even if we start to see more convincing green shoots. Labour's strategy seems to be to demonstrate that it turned the economy round. And the right moves have been played. However, why de-prioritise the economy when it remains the most important issue facing us for the foreseeable future? Instead, the better way to force the Tories onto the defensive- rightly- is to say that weaknesses persist, risk abounds, and the last thing we need is to drag the economy back into the mire through naivety and ideology. A head-strong ideologue is the last thing Britain needs and David Cameron has that air.

One final thing. To do what needs to be done the tennis loving Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King may well have to be taken on. He is continually parroting the Tory line on debt. Nobody wants high levels of debt and we must display to international markets that there is a grip on public expenditure and that borrowing is a crucial component of returning the economy to growth. However, if the economy rocks and jerks any more then debt may be a lesser of two evils. That was certainly the Japanese experience (as Tim Geithner the US Treasury Secretary knows only too well.) Why are we incapable of even peering back at recent history?

Friday, 3 July 2009

More on our failing criminal justice system

OK, following my piece yesterday on the final report of the Commission on English Prisons Today, I have a piece up on Liberal Conspiracy. Our criminal justice system is in crisis- Cherie Booth QC says so. Join the debate.


And I haven't even begun on the decision not to free Michael Shields yesterday. If you read my post from last week you will see what my thoughts are on that.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

We're prison junkies. We need rehab.

Prison is not working. 84,000 are now in prison. We spent £22.7 billion on criminal justice in England and Wales last year. Those we punish are largely the poor and disadvantaged, those with mental health needs and drug or alcohol addictions. Inequality and social breakdown are conducive to criminal behaviour as international evidence shows in country after country. And we bring to sword of justice down most heavily on those who suffer in this unequal society of ours. Our criminal justice system is unethical and it is ineffective.

It is madness. A crucial report published today by the Commission on English Prisons Today, presided over by Cherie booth QC and chaired by criminologist, Professor David Wilson, is unequivocal. Our system of penal justice is in crisis- it neither serves to create safe communities nor rehabilitate offenders in any meaningful way- and yet we are locked in path dependency. We'll lock more people up, for longer, and we'll be caught in the same cycle of failure.

The report is entitled
Do Better, Do Less. Two things instantly leap out beyond the quite obvious case that we've set ourselves on a course of inevitable failure when it comes to criminal justice. Firstly, the report makes a powerful appeal to our sense of national ethics. We are people who value restraint, moderation, pragmatism, and humanity. Yet, our penal reform policies first under Michael Howard under the last Tory government and then accelerated under this government, have followed a different course- one of excess, vengefulness, and punishment rather than rehabilitation.

So we have fallen short ethically and we have strayed from our national characteristics. Just as torture offends the core values of the United States and fails to make it safer; penal excess is the same thing in the UK context.

Beyond ethics there is the question of effectiveness. Like so many areas of public policy we have been focusing on process- and ever more bureaucratic and centralised systems of management-rather than outcomes. If we come up with a different approach- one that asks what makes our communities safer?- then we come up with different answers. The Commission potently argues that we should localise criminal justice, encourage shifts of resource from prison to 'justice reinvestment', i.e. policies that prevent criminality on a community basis rather than simply punish it, close prisons, and deploy restorative justice more widely.

We will reduce offending, reoffending, make communities safer and increase confidence in the criminal justice system and the perception of community safety as a result. Oh, and rather than spending more and more on the costs of failure we will be investing in success. In the parsimonious fiscal times we are entering that will be critical. This is the meaning of penal restraint.

Is this all pie in the sky? Something that sounds good but doesn't work in practice? Well, it's worked in New York. Yes, you read that correctly, New York. They have reduced their prison population and closed prisons. In Canada they have reduced their prison population by 11% since 1997. In Finland they achieved the same thing after the war. In Scotland, they have just moved in the direction of the report's recommendations by introducing local Criminal Justice Authorities. In British history too we had two major periods of decarceration- 1908-1938 and the 1980s. Yes, the Thatcher government was marked by penal restraint. Amazing. Where there is political will, there is a way.

At the press launch of the report this morning, both the Minister for Prisons, Maria Eagle MP, and her Shadow, Edward Garnier QC MP, were in attendance. Hopefully, they were listening attentively. This can be done. It is a matter of speaking up to people rather than remaining slaves of opinion polls. We must begin to explain why we must reform our penal system- because it is right, because it works- and that will require both political consensus and leadership. Yes, people have to be brought along with the changes. It is up to politicians to lead; it is up to politicians to act. It is time we got over our addiction to penal excess. As Amy Winehouse didn't say: "you need to go to rehab. yes, yes, yes."
 

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Iraq War- honesty is overdue

I found it tough to write this article on LabourList about the Iraq War and historical honesty. Tony Blair is a politician I have an enormous amount of respect for but I just can't bring myself to accept his arguments in favour of the Iraq War as articulated on the @katiecouric show last week. Rather we must heed the warnings of Reinhold Niebuhr and exercise restraint. All great powers veer towards hubris. Acknowledging this is the first step to realising where we have the power to change things for the better and where we do not. An honest reappraisal of the Iraq War- through the open Public Inquiry- is the best means of advancing that process.

The article is below: