Friday, October 31, 2008

Time to pick sides

I thought that we were all agreed that it is generally a mistake to pay a ransom? Appeasing kidnappers, like meeting the terms of blackmailers, is a strictly one-way street. Pay today? New hostages tomorrow! New, greedier demands the next day.

If a bully gives you a poke in the eye on Monday, turn up on Tuesday with a Stanley Knife. It’s the only language that they understand.

Sir Michael Lyons, in a bid to cover up his non-existent legitimacy, has paid the ransom. He’s turned up to a fight that he should have always known he would have to have with a sick-note. A perfectly good broadcaster has been sacked. An entertaining and talented comedian has resigned. The BBC has had one of its most important strategies – the need to compete for talent and provide a universal service that can match its light-entertainment rivals – taken off it.

Lyons has failed his first test. He has failed to stand up to a rival and he has capitulated. He’s paid the ransom. He should be sacked.

Yet I’m not sure that this is absolutely clear to everyone, so let’s just rehearse a few things that we already know, shall we? Firstly, the political right have suffered a crushing ideological defeat in the last few weeks. Something that they won’t properly recover from for some time. They will, naturally, turn all of their resources away from asserting their economic position, and instead, they will play the only card they have left: The cultural one.

In a month when a need for effective regulation has been established more firmly than ever before, we can expect a very short respite from the centre-right’s routine attacks on parliament and parliamentarians. But there is still the old question of dealing with competitors. Newscorp and The Daily Mail represent wider interests that would like to see the destruction of the other pillar of liberal democracy: Public Service Broadcasting.

Not only does PSB represent an immediate competitor to the commercial interests of Newscorp and The Mail, it also represents an enemy in the Culture Wars that the these outlets have been waging for decades. PSB needs to be popular. It also needs to be able to take risks. Both will be harder, and PSB’s rivals will be gloating this weekend. The BBC’s ability to be creative – it’s very lifeblood – has been threatened – and those who should be stopping this from happening have, instead, aided and abetted the whole process.

This is an intolerable defeat. The Poujadists have recruited the management and regulators of their opponents in their cause, and it will damage the one organisational model that we British should still be urging the rest of the world to adopt. I hope you don't think that I usually go for simple narratives or slogans, but nothing else is needed in this case:

Defend the BBC!
Sack Sir Michael Lyons!
Reinstate Lesley Douglas!
Be prepared to fight and win next time!

And know who your enemy is.

Producer capture: Latest

One of the most awful things that can happen in any organisation is that it can be captured by a producer interest. This is why trade unions have to be weak and management has to be hierarchical.

"The London-based bank is seeking to raise 6.5 billion pounds from private sources to meet new requirements for cash reserves in the U.K. without tapping the government's 37 billion-pound bailout fund. Rivals Royal Bank of Scotland Plc, Lloyds TSB Group Plc and HBOS Plc all plan to sell shares underwritten by the state, which may take stakes in the banks and will restrict executive pay and dividend payouts."

(From here. Emphasis mine. Er... do we have to call the managers at Barclays 'comrade' now?)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why we still have McCarthyite episodes

Here's BBDO's take on The End of A Thousand Years Of History:

(Via Banditry)

Now, it's worth remembering that the Mail hates the BBC for a number of good reasons. It may be for the reasons that Anton (again!) set out a while ago, though I think it has more an extension of the reasons that I set out in this post earlier today. That the right-wing press know how to think strategically: The enemies of the centre-right of British politics are an effective parliament and the highly-accountable BBC.

You will find that right-wing commentators of all stripes, from the authoritarian hangers-and-floggers through to the self-styled (i.e. until the Tories are back in) 'libertarians' all understand this instinctively. It is what now binds the right together as a coherent force, even though they are almost undefinable politically.

And what seems to define - and unite - the left as a political force, sadly, is that it really doesn't understand this at all.

Update: 5CC says broadly the same as Anton, but still worth a look.

(This post is for my mate Somto, the Nigerian Duke who is right about this sort of thing).

Accountability and the BBC

Anton gets it - a UK newspaper complaining about the accountability of the BBC

Here's a question:

Can anyone think of any ownership / management structure that is more effectively accountable than that of the BBC?

Take your time....

The reasons behind 'regulatory failure'

If you wanted to boil down the reason that Peter Mandelson has been an important – perhaps defining – political figure over the past twenty years, I’d suggest it is because he possesses these attributes:

  • He has an unerring instinct that tells him where real power lies – who exercises it, how, and on what terms. I suspect that we are all capable of doing this to some degree, but not as well as he does

  • He recognises that you can achieve a good deal more (on a personal level) by slipstreaming the movements of those with power. As such, the people that he promotes are promoted on his terms, and they succeed. This makes him a very good negotiator

  • He is very early to pronounce on major developments. He knows that history tends to be written by the victors, and he is very quick to decide what version of recent events they will prefer.
In the early years of the Blair government, Mandelson had a reputation among his civil servants as being an exemplary minister. He was fairly widely spoken of as ‘the best’ in this respect (though I can’t prove this – it’s largely hearsay). He knew which bits of his job were important, knew how to interpret advice, was prepared to stick to his brief and to stand up for his staff.

None of this endears him to people who either want to achieve something that doesn’t come into the ‘low hanging fruit’ category of policy-formation (and I’d put myself in that box). This view decrees that no policy that will be opposed by a couple of newspaper editors or a noisy pressure group should be pursued as it will sap time and energy that could be spend achieving the achievable - doing stuff that involves swimming with the tide.

It is this that gives him his reputation for being right-wing, anti-radical, and so-on. It also doesn’t endear him to those who simply don’t have his built-in SatNav – the one that tells him how things are going to be. If you are crap at modern history, you will hate him. If you don't have a realistic progamme of your own, you will also hate him.

So, when Mandelson says, of the current economic SNAFU, ... "I don't believe what has happened is market failure in the financial sector. I believe it is a regulatory failure", the point isn’t to question the accuracy of this assessment: It is to recognise that this is the one that will frame the political response to it over the medium term, whether you like it or not.

Now, all of this is throat clearing – it’s a prelude to the point I want to make here.

If the current problems are down to regulatory failure (and just to restate, I'm not convinced that it's the sole cause in reality), let’s look at the causes of regulatory failure. Like every other failure, it can probably be explained in the following way:

It was done by the wrong people, in the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Regulatory failure, I would suggest is the result of under-resourced regulators who have gone native, and are out-gunned by the competition lawyers of the businesses they are supposed to be regulating.

And if this is the case, it begs the following questions:
  • Who should frame regulation?

  • What influences should they be free of?

  • What resources should they have?

  • What kind of power should they exercise?
I’ll spare you a rehash of old arguments and a confetti of links to old posts here and simply say this: It should be done by independent-minded individuals who have been elected by the people with a single mandate – to represent the interests of the nation as a whole as they see fit, as opposed to a representation of regional or sectoral interests.

They should be given sufficient resources – and by that, I’d say – conservatively – about ten times the resources that they currently have – to do this job, and once they make their decisions, there should be fewer avenues of appeal against their decisions.

Not only should they be given the resources to compete with commercial pressure groups that seek to curtail their power, they should also seek to reduce the influence of those pressure groups by demanding more transparency, regulation and spending-caps.
And here’s where they can start. Now that Her Madges Government is the largest single shareholder in the UK’s High Street Banks, why are we finding no echo of the government’s thinking in the pronouncements of the British Bankers Association? Surely, the Chief Executive of the BBA should be replaced with a suitable Labour MP immediately?

You see? I’m at it again. This is something that Peter Mandelson would never propose – for the reasons that I set out earlier. It’s also the reason that representative democracy – while still being the least-worst form of government – will never completely satisfy anyone of a radical frame of mind, and will never be a perfect form of government either. Because people like Peter Mandelson will always dominate representative government.

And a final point: The political right understand all of this in a way that the left don't. It is right-wing newspaper and commentators that continue a low-level campaign to oppose the resourcing of MPs or measures that will enable them to be more independent. It is the right that understands that MPs should be lobbyable, because if they aren't, they may go all progressive. And it is right-wing newspapers that concentrate all of their fire on politicians instead of the pressure groups that oppose them.

It is the right that frame the debate in this way, and left-ish newspapers just don't understand this. No newspaper takes up parliamentary sleaze stories more enthusiastically (and, annoyingly, as skillfully) as The Guardian does.

Moanin' Squared

and furthermore....

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Never tell people that you know how to get stuff working

Someone has just dropped a mobile phone around to me because I said that I was sure that I'd know how to fix a little bug that it has. They will come back later to collect it.

As soon as they left, I accidentally changed the language settings so that all of the menus are changed into a Chinese-looking language (!).

Now I can't work out how to do anything - not even the basic stuff on the phone. There is no 'OK - I give up, convert my phone back into any Roman-alphabet language please?' item on the menu.

I am going to look a complete tit when my friend comes to collect it in about half-an-hour or so.....

What's the problem? Really?

What is the real problem at Forest? The man behind ‘Through the seasons before us’ is right to sit on the fence about Colin Calderwood’s fate.

For those of you who aren’t Forest fans, here’s the background:We are were (until last night) bottom of the Championship. On paper, it’s been a terrible start to the season, though the consensus is that – apart from a deserved drubbing at Wolves, we’ve not deserved to lose some of the games we have done. The old ‘too good to go down’ curse that has haunted Forest in the past.

Our manager has been with us for two seasons and this is the start of his third. He failed to get us promoted once, the critics say that he fluked it the second time and has had a terrible start this term. So, the predictable chorus is demanding his sacking, and the armchair tacticians are moaning about his choice of formations. I’m generally almost always against sacking football managers for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the tosser (taking an example at random) that hired Juande Ramos (sacking Martin Jol!) is the same one that has now hired Harry Redknapp. Rather unusually, the people who made the last mistake have a monopoly on the next decision.

Secondly, some of the great managers have had bad starts. Brian Clough had an unimpressive start at Forest – half a very poor season followed by a middling one before ... well, you know the rest don’t you?

Continuing the City Ground theme, it was widely understood that Alex Ferguson would have been fired back in 1989 if United had lost at Forest in the FA Cup 3rd Round as everyone expected them to. A 1-0 shock win at ours (those were the days!) kept Alex in the job, and again, the rest is history.

It can take a good few years for a manager to get a handle on a club, and there is a reasonable chance that you are cutting them off on the verge of something worthwhile if you sack them at all in the first three years. Of course, you are also postponing any stability for a further couple of years as well, because it can take managers a couple of years to get the club to a point at which it can provide judgement on their management.

And this will nearly always happen a few months after the stands have echoed to the chorus of demands for their sacking.

There is, I’m sure, much more analytically-framed evidence to support these first two contentions. I'm pretty sure I've read some of it, but you'll have to find it yourself, because I’m really writing this post to make a third point. It’s this:

You know how astrologers know that planets exist even when they haven’t ever seen them? They know they are there because calculations show that they are. The orbits of other planets are altered by ... something .... so we call it a planet or a moon or something.

There are a few of these in politics: Why are successive British governments uniformly Atlanticist? Why is the UK a fairly slavish supporter of US foreign policy? Is it because politicians all become Yankee bastards the moment they get a whiff of the Cabinet Room? Is it because the Illuminati, P2 and the Bilderberg Group have done their evil worst?

Or is it because there is a gap between what politicians feel that they can explain to the public, and what they have to do in order to avoid the kind of disasters that end political careers? Harold Wilson's need to quietly do as he was told by the US in 1964 is the nearest concrete example I've read, but I'm sure that a year or so doing an MA in Anglo-American Studies would yield up a half-decent answer.

Ditto The Big Brother State. (There is a concluding point about football here, I promise.) I know a couple of Senior Labour Politicians – and I knew them before they were SLPs. There wasn’t much by way of authoritarianism beating in any of their breasts at the time, and Labour isn’t really – at bottom – an authoritarian party. Now I doubt if anyone believes that – whatever the Hon. Member for Magnercarter and Howden* would tell you – that the Tories would be planning anything less intrusive than Labour’s current plans to kit us all out with compulsory transponder-suppositories.

So what is this gap between what they think they need to do in government to avoid being blamed for all sorts of shit, and what they feel able to explain to the public on individual policy areas?

Similarly, at Forest, there is something we don’t know about. We’ve sacked Gary Megson and Joe Kinnear because they weren’t up to getting us out of the Third Division. They are both managing Premiership Clubs now. If we sack Colin Calderwood (and I’d expect very long odds now on him lasting until Xmas, whatever reprieve he got tonight at Crystal Palace), I doubt if there is a manager in the country who will look at the job as anything other than a couple of years at a higher rate than you would expect when there is an absolute certainty of failure.

Because there is something wrong at Forest. The simplistic explanations point to the weight of expectation, the oppressive ghost of Brian, the snarky fans, and so on. But it’s something more complicated than that. When it happens in politics, a reasonably astute spectator can usually – at least – work out what the questions are. But I’ve no idea what the questions that need to be asked at The City Ground are - and I’ve not read anyone who has hinted that they know either.

One thing is for certain: If Colin Calderwood is sacked in the next few weeks, his successor will not be .... er.... a success.

*Nicked from Sadie

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Short Strand

From here on flickr.

I don't know about you, but every now and then, you see something that is - in some senses - quite commonplace. But seeing it shocks you to the quick, because it offers a glimpse into a hidden world of brutality of one kind or another. At various times, I've met people that I know to be victims of one sort or other. People who have been enslaved or mutilated in one way or other.
Every now and then, these encounters happen in banal ways. For example, after watching 'Behind the Veil' a few years ago, I saw a woman in the full Niqab on my street the next day. Obviously, not proof positive of any kind of subjection, but something that was a long way from the reality that I know. Something that immediately made me think of my daughter in a protective way.

A few weeks ago, I had another one of these. I've been driving around Belfast quite a bit on a small-p-political project that I'm working on, and I was with a friend who knows the whole Short Strand story very well. He'd told me plenty about it, and I've heard lots of other snippets from old friends who grew up in the area. And then, passing a gaily painted wall, he pointed to it saying 'Short Strand is behind there'.

The reason that it's so striking, is because of it's location in East Belfast. It nestles in a particularly chauvinistic-looking set of streets that are decked out with some of the more odious Loyalist murals such as this and this (and don't imagine that these are rare examples at the bottom of Newtownards Road - they are everywhere!). The wall and the play-park painting was simply camouflage for a small area that can only be described as an enclave.

The realisation of what sectarianism meant suddenly hits you. Or it hit me, a good deal more gently than it has repeatedly thumped the people of Short Strand - and undoubtedly the innocent residents of 'protestant' streets nearby who are not represented by this vile imagery.

Here is Short Strand's recent story (two videos over on Slugger from an Al Jazeera programme on the Robert McCartney murder). Here's Martin Rowson's take in it all as well - similar to me, he was in Belfast as a visitor working on the same event that I was involved in.

(Let's hope it's not Martin's last Tribune column either).

And on a slightly less po-faced note, East Belfast has a number of branches of this particular outlet (again, from Flickr):

Unsigned contracts

Having recently had a particularly nasty experience with a 'verbal contract', Charlie Brooker's latest on the Faustian pact that celebrities have all formally signed in front of witnesses rang a few bells.

"...from here on in, anything negative that happens to you has been instantly rendered hilarious. Lost your mind? Haaaaaa haaaaaa haaaaaa. Lost your children? Haaaaa haaaaa haaaaa. Here's hoping you get drunk and stumble into a threshing machine so we can print out the pictures and stick them on the office noticeboard and laugh till our noses run."
One point he doesn't make here, so I will: Why is it assumed that - because somebody promotes their career in light entertainment by courting the newspapers - that they automatically become fair game for any amount of intrusion, ridicule, insult, baiting or blackmailing? And what about the people around them? Their families and friends?

I know that in a half-educated media-studies sort of way, they have signed a formal contract in which they get celeb-related revenue in return for all of the above, but .... well... they haven't really, have they? It's a bit like 'constitutional issues' in this country. We haven't got a constitution.

I'd strain this point as far as, but not beyond, the notion of the Social Contract. The Social Contract is a big thing - it's what stands between us and a Hobbesian State of Nature. It's so big, and so central to every aspect of our life, that we can be considered to have signed it. But The British Constitution? Or The Celebrity Treaty With The Tabloids?

Being a good metaphor doesn't make it a good fact, does it?

Too Much Time On Hands Department - Latest:

Drunk pumpkins - here via here.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Because Gordon Brown.

Anton: Why he likes Robert Peston and other people don't.
"Of course there's an alternative view: that sterling is taking a battering because Gordon Brown. I say 'because Gordon Brown' because you don't really need to say anything else, do you? It must be Bottler's fault he's not a member of the Conservative Party!
Anton's blog is worth a regular look by the way. It's more-or-less dedicated to the subject of demagogic simplification (see the tag below).

The illness spreads

I'm beginning to worry that bloggertarianism isn't just a form of stupidity. It seems that it may be an illness - and one that is no longer even restricted to bloggers either.

Perhaps those who are afflicted by it (I use the word advisedly) deserve our pity, and not our scorn. Take Herr Sinn, for instance....

(via Padraig at Index on Censorship)

Update: Roger's picture has gone! That flickr feed on the left once held that picture.... where could it be??!?!??!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Is Thatcherism dead?

Maybe. But Don Paskini says that the corpse is still twitching.
"The evidence is abundantly clear, that where the government has taken action and made use of the powers of the state to redistribute wealth and help people get jobs, it has been extremely successful in reducing poverty and promoting equality, making the poor richer without making the rich poorer. But there is an awful lot more to do, and there are a lot of people who have been missed out and haven't benefited - not by accident but because decision-makers haven't seen them as 'deserving' help.

But it's interesting to see quite how far from the evidence the centre right, whether old style Thatcherites or New Conservatives, actually are. The Conservative Party are committed to policies such as inheritance tax cuts and US style welfare reform. We don't have to guess at the effect of these kinds of policies, their effect has been tried and what happens is that 'rich households in America have been leaving both middle and poorer income groups behind' and 'the effectiveness of taxes and transfers in reducing inequality has fallen still further in the past 10 years'."

Ugly, innit? Oh, by the way, if any of you are on Facebook, would you like to help me organise a big party?

Next steps for Tribune

Tribune appears to be heading for the rocks again. Good friends of mine have, in the past (and some still do) invest a disproportionate amount of energy in keeping it going, and for their sake, I hope that it carries on in some form. The site itself is upbeat about prospective buyers and I hope the right one comes in soon.

I do think that this - along with the almost total absence of thinking about the key issues that the left needs to address - could provide a fantastic opportunity. There is a huge space open for a journal that could tap into the collective wisdom of the blogosphere and its various sisters.

Here's how I'd do it:
  • Commission articles in the way they always have been done (but commission fewer and pay for them at decent NUJ rates)
  • Post them early-ish on a well-marketed weblog
  • Urge registered users to comment – but specifically to add value to the article (not to ‘comment / sneer’ in the traditional weblog form). If you don't know how to do this, ask Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole who does it fantastically well.
  • Find a way to acknowledge genuine improvements - good comments
  • Formally publish the finished articles in a monthly / bi-monthly journal.
Getting weblogs to generate genuinely good content as Mick does – here and here – it is possible to get people to add content as opposed to comment. There are about two-dozen British left-wing bloggers that I wish I could get to pre-moderate my posts here before I hit 'submit' - I think that Tribune could involve these people to make really good collaborative articles in a wiki sort of way.

After all, as Chris says, opinions are like arseholes – everyone has one, and I don’t want to hear any of them. Authors could be encouraged to only permit content to survive undeleted.

So, the paper copy of Tribune should then publish the ‘improved’ articles in a printed from for wider coffee-table circulation and this only needs to happen once a month or every two months

Tribune’s existing subscriber base aren’t paying for the value of a weekly newspaper, so expect that enough of them can be retained at the current rate (or more?) to make it work in this way. I think that they would pay as much for very good quality monthly / bi-monthly – they’d lose very few existing subscribers and should be able to add on loads of new ones by promising quality and not quantity.

At the moment, Tribune is partly a job-creation scheme for printers and paper mills. It’s biggest costs could be quartered (or even divided by eight) if it were to go for quality and influence instead of publishing a weekly that doesn’t pay its authors in many cases.

In my model, you'd get fewer, better-written articles (because the authors would have been paid) that have been very effectively peer-reviewed and enhanced. They would be widely disseminated at the end-point, and would be worth reading. None of this should be read as a criticism of Tribune's current copy standards - but the burden of a regular deadline placed against a tiny editorial budget is a strain that - in these difficult times - few editors would handle as well as Chris McLaughlin has done.

Collective action: conceptually finished

Here's Tom Freeman, going around the houses to arrive at a consideration of the Citizens Basic Income. Worth a look.

And here's Meghnad Desai with the truth about Keynes and profligacy (he wasn't as keen on it as you would be led to believe). This - for me - raises an important question (with a few pre-qualifiers).

  • Labour's historic mission has been to meet everyone's needs by collective provision - where those needs are not met otherwise

  • We have - in the last decade - tried to meet those needs by increasing public spending - and in some areas we've succeeded (and we've failed in others)

  • If there is any justice or sense in the world, we won't need to discuss the structure of collective provision against a white noise of hubristic capitalist privatisation-fetishists anymore
This last point should, of course, provide an opportunity for extended period of gloating and cheap point-scoring. But it also removes the cushion that the left has quietly enjoyed for a very long time now.

We've been able to say - for years - that the privatised semi-state model of collective action is doomed to failure. It's all wrong, it's uncaring and inefficient, it will never work, etc. But we've never felt any pressing need to offer a coherent alternative.

The left knows what it's against, and it shares a very coherent critique that history is clearly beginning to vindicate. But I've not seen any evidence that there is a shared understanding of what we are in favour of now. This isn't just a call for a flurry of pamphlets from various factions, or a collection of stilted meetings at Conway Hall.

The capitalist managerialist caste have a structured way of looking at the world. They send their people on MBA courses in which the virtues of box-ticking and hierarchical management is learned. And while people who work in the public sector may not realise this, their management is - in my experience - a great deal more hierarchical than the structures found in corporations.

They may have been told that the public sector is aping the private sector in this, but I would suggest that this is a very effective piece of propaganda. And when 'Lenin' goes all blasé about 'workers councils', we don't have any answers to the important questions that MBA students address themselves to:

  • How important is ownership? Should it rest with the workers, or with society as a whole? And should workers seek ownership of their workplace, or should they prefer to control it? And is there a tension here?
  • What are the responsibilities of the individual in a collectively managed workplace? After all, when two people agree to feed a horse, the horse usually starves, doesn't it?
  • If workers do seek ownership of their workplace, how is it divided up? At what point? Do you divy it up at the start, or wait a few years? Do you pay dividends if it's successful? And how far does the demand for a dividend compete with a pay structure that isn't flat?
  • If workers seek control, how do they exercise it? Do they pick a management team and leave them for fixed periods at which they are recalled? Or do they all sit on the paperclip procurement committee? At what point between these two poles should we settle?
  • How do you incentivise people to innovate?
  • How do you retain good skills and how do you jettison obsolete or demotivated ones?
  • How do you reward hard work and generally energise a workforce?
  • How do you share good-practice, and how far does a need to compete cut across this imperative?
  • How do you combat the possibility of a dominant producer interest? How does the consumer interest assert itself? And if ownership is held in common, how do we deal with the tragedy of the commons?
  • What about social responsibility? Do individual collectively owned or managed entities have a responsibility to meet ethical / social responsibility / equality aims? And if so, how are these determined, agreed and met?***
These seem to me to be the big questions. You've heard of them all before if you've read Animal Farm, and I'm conscious that lots of my follow lefties will detect some sort of apostasy in the fact that I've even raised some of them. After all, there are bloody obvious answers aren't there?

Well OK. Maybe I've just not seen them written down anywhere.

I used to work with a really annoying (but very clever) software developer. He used to be able to identify all of the big logical problems that needed to be solved in order to build a particular application, and he was very impressive in the way he did this. He used to tell the sales people that it was their job to find customers. They (in this case, me) had to find the customers, sell the idea - sight unseen - and get them to pay for it upfront thereby funding the development (see vaporware).

He used to tell the development team that he'd done his bit and solved all of their big problems for them and the rest was just project management that was a bit beneath him. He'd tell the designers that he wasn't interested in 'usability' or design. Again, they were implementation details.

The product was, he said, conceptually finished. The drones could do the rest.

I wasted three years of my life working with this bloke. We never got a viable product out of the door, he drew a massive salary and the company eventually went bust. Being a lefty is a bit like working with a boss like that. Airy-fairy thinkers get all of the kudos. None of them ever gets their hands dirty. I've never seen any answers to any of those questions backed up be credible field-work in the way that MBA students can answer to questions that they have put to them.

If we are to manage collective provision - and not do it in the inefficient and uncaring way that the managerialist of New Labour have done, we need to start asking these questions and offering alternative models. At the moment, Chris is the only one I've seen asking some of these questions (and raising some more of his own).

(Update: the last bullet point *** was added later -it was a line that somehow got edited out of the draft that was published. Sorry about that now....)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Book recommendation

Tony Cascarino's name came up in conversation recently, and it reminded me that his is the best autobiography-by-a-footballer* that I've ever read. It's funny, well written, and it actually tells you a few things that you didn't know about football (or a few things that I didn't know, anyway).

Better, even, than Eamonn Dunphy's Diary of a Professional Footballer - and that's saying something.

Also, I'd like to be the first blogger, it seems, to acknowledge the now-near-forgotten Les Bense's Managers Notes (originally published as a sort of samizdat / fanzine through 'When Saturday Comes' magazine) and the subsequent 'Life at the Tip' account of Athletico Whaddon.

Every home should have something by Les on the bookshelves.

*Ok, I know, it's 'as told to Paul Kimmage', so it's not exactly an autobiography...

In tune with the times?

George Osborne - will the public accept any leadership from the son of a Baronet with a £4m personal fortune? Just asking, like....

Apologies to regulars - this post is partly written to keep things in one place. On the question that obsesses this blog...
"What kind of people do we want to represent us?"

... here are a few possible answers from the archives here and elsewhere:

1. Nobody likes a smartarse - 'leaders' shouldn't be that bright - via Vino

2. In the same way that I bang on about this subject, Chris Dillow bangs on about the shortcomings of experts. The posts are too numerous to link to, but this is a good start. So we don't want experts then?

3. My accumulated options as outlined here: The question being, do we want 'politicians' to actually represent us (Anthony answered this one very well here:) The other options that I pose are that we may prefer clerical types - living frugally, or jurors / judicial types who hold their meetings in public and go away to deliberate and cast their decisions as votes in a hermetically-sealed way.

And today, we see George Osborne - the member for Tatton!! (estimated personal fortune: £4m), rather enjoyably, having to squirm under fire about being on a boat in Corfu with a mega-rich Russian and another posh fundraiser chum from his old dorm at St Cuthberts.

In the current climate, maybe the picture of a politician in such surroundings is more damaging than the alleged illegality? I was half-watching the TV coverage earlier today, and all of the talking heads were focusing on this issue rather then the legal question

So, do we want people whose personal experience (inheritance?) will shield them from the kind of worries that the rest of us have? Even Tony Blair had an aptitude for fitting in with a prole-ish crowd when he needed to. He could drop the odd aitch, was quite handy with a football, pretended to support The Toon, and had a few laddish snaps in the paper of him raising the odd pint at the local Labour club in his constituency.

In a period when people will be thrown out of their jobs and houses, can the son of a Baronet be 'in tune with the times'? And if we don't want toffs, 'umble priestly types, stuck-up judicial decision makers, slippery politicos, experts or dangerous intellectuals running the shop, who do we want to do it?
(Footnote: I'm conscious that I've not addressed the 'we should be run by businessmen' notion that has often cropped up - particularly in the pub after Rotary Club meetings. Somehow, it seems a less pressing question than it did a few months ago....)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Not In My Name!!!?!!

I'd just like to translate what Andy Burnham said here, because I think that Guido is absolutely spot on - and he has put Iain Dale firmly in his place here.

Here is an account of Andy Burnham discussing his 'plans' for TV and Internet regulation:

"He said that perhaps the wider [TV] industry, and government, had accepted the idea that the Internet was "beyond legal reach" and was a "space where governments can't go".....

....Burnham said that he would like to "tighten up" online content and services and "lighten up" some regulatory burdens around the TV industry"....

.... "It is a new sign of our approach," he said. "It is not just about copyright or intellectual property but [things like] taste and decency in the online world. The time will come to say what are the direct interventions [needed, if any]"...

This is, of course, ZaNuLieBore-speak for the following.

"If anyone says anything that I disapprove of, they will be dragged before a summary tribunal, presided over by myself, and WHEN they are found guilty, they will be subjected to death by scaphism."

Absolutely deplorable!!

It's slightly odd that Iain Dale is still around to have such a conversation - after all, the EUNazis were supposed to have put him out of business by now if my reading of this post a while back was accurate?

Oh, while we're on the subject of Internet regulation, could I strongly suggest that if you ever do have any facts or content to add to Iain Dale's site - ones that contradict the self-serving nature of the post in question - that you make sure that you publish a copy of them on your own blog as well as in Iain's comments?

That post (link - previous para) was based upon a wilful misreading of an EU draft directive. I know a fair bit about the draft directive in question, and I explained in some detail why Iain's post was narcissistic drivel about how The Sword Of Truth was not going to be CENSORED by The Man at the time. I did explain, honest!

In the meantime, that comment has somehow ... disappeared! Perhaps The Man has hacked into Iain's site and deleted comments in the same way that John Redwood has been hacked by .... er .... REDS .... (that's enough witless paranoia - Ed)

Perhaps Andy Burnham could regulate to stop this kind of self-serving censorship of comments threads? In the meantime, I wonder if Tim Ireland's cleverness with Google Cache can rescue the comment in question?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

More on the basic income

Here's Pete again replying to me on the question of Citizens Basic Income:

"...Some on the left have talked about welfare as a form of social control, a ruling class plot to keep the masses in order and/or to buy off revolution"
To be honest, I don't think that it is all that important on how it is all intellectualised. Its a good deal less clear-cut than that in my experience anyway. In the early 1980s, when lots of people were on the dole (and it wasn't too hard to get signed on in the first place), the benefit office wasn't full of smiling happy people singing the praises of the welfare state and reminding each other that this was all a marvellous thing for which we should all be grateful.

Instead, you got a resentment and a sense of social control and alienation caused by the absence of anything other than a mechanistic quasi-benevolent bureau-aristocracy. From memory, it was less the 'big brother' resentment than the question:

"Is this it?"

It's very easy to mobilise people into resenting the state, and to some extent, the state is always part of the problem. But, ultimately, the ease with which it's done means that it gets done in a demagogic way. Making the state itself the butt of the problem is a very effective form of misdirection.

TV Detectives always look at where people position themselves in a room. If they sit on a trunk when they're talking to you, you can be sure that the murder weapon is in that trunk. When someone has a single explanation for all ills, you just know that they've edged themselves in front of a cupboard, taking it out of plain sight. It's a cupboard that's full of skeletons.

Look who does it more than anyone else? Tories, newspaper proprietors, columnists, indeed, the right-wing libertarians.

And, hanging myself with my own single-explanation-for-everything rope, what bothered the dole-queue 25 years ago is still the problem. This isn't a failure of the state - it's a failure of collective action. I think that a CBI may offer a way of incentivising people to do more by way of collective action and that the resulting capital will compensate and make up the differences against the alternative - continuing with welfare-state capitalism. But it remains a position that owes more to faith than anything else at the moment.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Have you ever been forcibly restrained? You know, those plastic tie-ups applied to your wrist, a few blasts of a taser, someone forcing your teeth apart to check that you haven't swallowed your tongue?

It happens to me quite a lot. Generally when some twat takes issue with me ripping the wires out of the back of the speakers in the pub when The Scissor Sisters (or similar) come on. Whatever else you think about Morrissey, this is one thing that he was dead right about: You can come to hate someone for something that you find in their record collection.

I've lost count of the number of quite bad-tempered arguments I've had with people about music where they say to me, "surely it's just a matter of taste?" To nick a line from elsewhere, if you tolerate this, then your children will be next.

And you know our Will? A bit on the profane side, doesn't suffer fools for very long, etc?

This is why it's plucking up the courage to look at one of his inbound links to your blog. I've been trying to find a way of saying what he's said in that post for years without knowing how to.

If you haven't already, leave here and go there and read it.

Ball of Confusion

Nowt much to say today. Anyway, you don't want to read my stuff, you want to watch this instead, don't you?

A bit appropriate, what?

And you do know this is about as close as recorded music has come to perfection, don't you?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Check your blog! Malicious hackers are at large!

I am now very worried about poor John Redwood. It appears that his blog has been hi-jacked by someone with malicious intent.

I posted this comment (below) a while ago, and I notice that other comments have since appeared under this post on his site while mine is still 'awaiting moderation'.

'Deleted by hackers' more like? While I don't see eye-to-eye with John on lots of things, I think he should be told about this.



Thankfully, it doesn't go as far as taking your arguments to their logical conclusion and calling for higher taxation to fund public projects and a safety net for the poorest that can half-way match the one that ZaNuLieBore have given to your former colleagues in the city over the past couple of weeks.

Your blog is usually a sensible haven from this Keynesian nonsense, and it's probably the only place in the world that we STILL can go to read about how the current crisis is down to excessive banking regulation.

The post here is also calls for everyone to be PUBLICLY POSITIVE ABOUT THE CURRENT SITUATION - a call that is thankfully being ignored by your former leader, Mr Hague who made some very reasonable rational points yesterday about how all of this is Labour's fault and nothing to do with any irrelevant global problems that Broon has dreamed up to deflect attention from how crap he is.

There are two posibilities. You've either been hacked by a RED or you've given your passwords to a trusted friend who has - annoyingly - STARTED READING NEWSPAPERS.

Either way, I'd change your passwords if I were you?

The Trotskyist fanatics that have snaffled John's passwords are undoubtely not letting him see comments either. Is there another way he can be informed about this perhaps?

In other news, I know that I'm probably overplaying the funny side to what is a massive bad-news story, but this is actually quite good news isn't it? The Godfathers of box-ticking, pen-pushing, clipboard waving managerialism have been stung right where it hurts.

I am now officially opposed to public bodies being bailed out because they invested in Icelandic banks. Let the fuckers go to the wall, I say....

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

I'm from the government and I'm here to help

From here. And this is interesting:

" offices around the country, bankers simmered.

Peter Fitzgerald, chairman of Chain Bridge Bank in McLean, said he was "much chagrined that we will be punished for behaving prudently by now having to face reckless competitors who all of a sudden are subsidized by the federal government."

At Evergreen Federal Bank in Grants Pass, Ore., chief executive Brady Adams said he has more than 2,000 loans outstanding and only three borrowers behind on payments. "We don't need a bailout, and if other banks had run their banks like we ran our bank, they wouldn't have needed a bailout, either," Adams said.

The opposition suggested that the government may have to continue to press banks to participate in the plan. The first $125 billion will be divided among nine of the largest U.S. banks, which were forced to accept the investment to help destigmatize the program in the eyes of other institutions.

In rolling out the program, Treasury said it would make the rest of the money available to banks that requested it. Officials said they expected thousands of banks to participate.

But both the
American Bankers Association and the Independent Community Bankers of America said that they knew of few banks that planned to participate.

"I'm not sure we've heard from any that want to participate," said Karen Thomas, vice president for government relations at the community bankers group, which represents about 5,000 banks. "That said, if any community banks do enroll, we anticipate it will be just a small minority."

Federal regulators said they did expect some banks to volunteer, though none stepped forward yesterday. But they added that they would not rely on volunteers. Treasury will set standards for deciding which banks can be helped, and the regulatory agencies will triage the banks they oversee: The institutions faring best and worst will not receive investments. The institutions in the middle, whose fortunes could be improved by putting a little more money in the bank, will be pushed to accept the money from the government."

So. We can conclude one of two things from this. One is that...

....pesky politicians just shouldn't intervene when a badly-regulated part of the economy screws up and poses a systemic risk.

I suspect that someone, somewhere is arguing this, and the time we will spend reading and attempting to reason with such commenters is time that we will never get back.

Or, we could conclude that...

...the whole ideology of the absent state - including the OECD-sponsored abhorrence of state-aid - a maximal interpretation of 'protectionism' - is hollow and impractical, and that elected governments (and, sadly, unelected ones as well) are key players. That we are now (and actually, we have been for some time) in a social-democratic market economy. The time has come to ignore well-heeled pressure groups and apply the same cushion to the poorest sections of society that we are now applying to the richest.

This has huge implications for lots of sectors of the economy. I can't list them all, but for me, there is now surely a cast-iron case for the application of the cultural exception to broadcasting, film and content-production in general. State subsidy for public service broadcasters can no longer be seen as being a tax-funded competitor to commercial broadcasters such as BSkyB. A decline in regulated and accountable local media poses a systemic risk to the quality of democracy and local cultural expression.

OfCOM are currently reviewing the funding of public service broadcasting. They are doing so in the dim light of the Thatcher-Reagan doctrine. That doctrine is now dead.

Would it be a bad idea to organise a series of street-parties up and down the country to celebrate this? Halloween, perhaps? We could burn a witch in effigy?

Update: This gloating really must stop. But not yet, eh?

Called in the retrievers

Any more credit crunch jokes anyone?

Competent critics. Useless for anything else.

Lenin (*snigger*) is talking about the whole problem of collective action, and the primacy of the market in it's claim to incentivise us all only by greed. There's quite a lot of it is very good stuff there - a very fluent explanation of the wastefulness and inconsistencies of market economics and it's illusions about the lack of planning involved.

The fluency of the diagnosis (and, as a summary, I thought it was genuinely impressive) is contrasted dramatically by the fantasy that is offered as a response:

"It is because of the fact that planning has been confined to individual units of capital, and conducted in the interests of a minority ruling class, that socialist planning has been proposed as a corrective. It involves, not the complete suppression of markets, but their active supercession. Markets are to be subordinated to imperatives arrived at democratically and implemented democratically. And because the limitations of representative democracy in the liberal capitalist state are obvious, because it can all too easily assume the regnant functions of capital (often simply by hiring capitalist managers and placing them in charge of recently nationalised institutions), socialist planning requires a different kind of polity. It has been called "workers' democracy" because it takes planning from the boardroom to the shop floor - elected workers' councils, deliberating under the advice of technical advisers who were previously subordinate to capital, take decisions in place of cabals of appointed executives and shareholders. Moreover, democratic organs built in each particular workplace are aggregated into local, regional and national structures, in which delegates are subject to instant recall. In such a scenario, there is a direct and continuous line of authority that exerts itself from the bottom up rather than the top down. For this reason, it has also been called 'direct democracy'."

It's a demand for universal role-playing done in an industrial context that is no longer recognisable. And then the kicker:

"It is impossible to imagine such a transformation, though simple and obviously just, taking place in a normal political situation. It is just as impossible to see it happening unless based on a powerful experience of solidarity and collective action. As a start, then, the experience of grassroots democracy would need to be routinised in workplaces across the country, in order to offset the pressures of competition, careerism and atomisation. Such is one of the many uses of trade unionism and rank-and-file organisation. The collective defense of jobs and living conditions against the inevitable attempts to force us to bear the costs of this crisis can be the basis for establishing such solidarity. Defying the logic of capital and the priorities of those who presently rule may be one crucial step in preparing us unruly natives for authentic self-government."

Note: "Normal political situation"? Then note 'impossible'. Then marvel at the energy that goes into this whole futile position. This explains a lot of the negativity of oppositional politics. The criticism makes sense as far as it goes. Its authors (and this is a collaborative effort, believe me) have often devoted a great deal of time to perfecting it because there was no point in developing the response to the problem beyond the few airy-fairy sweeping bits of idealism about workers councils.

This fluency of criticism precludes an involvement in the kind of experiments in collective action that are required to actually make things work. For all of the criticism about representative democracy, it is a good deal less granular and tricky to make work that the kind of dispersed direct-democracy model that is advocated here - something that it seems will just drop into place, as long as the political situation isn't normal.

With so little attention paid to the details of how co-ops (for example) can work outside a narrow band of well-trodden partnership models, we're left with a series of generalised offerings that all have get-outs - ones that can be explained by some sort of betrayal or other. Essential pre-conditions that can never be met. So we have....

  • competition (what if people *are* competitive?)
  • careerism (ditto)
  • atomisation (has there been no reaction to oppressive 'community' or parochialism in recent years?)
We're offered ...

  • trade unionism (presumably the current bloody-awful bureaucratic blend of brotherhood will be scrapped beforehand?)
  • rank-and-file organisation (a traditional example of socialist cant. It reminds me of that gag about people who use the word 'community' liberally - they don't live in communities)
It's a bizarre post that points to a bizarre ideology. A determination to advocate something that can never happen in the sure knowledge that there will always be a get-out - a betrayer of some sort to blame. It's like the libertarians that argue for a rip-roaring free-market within a representative democracy. They know that their bluff will never be called.

I'd take the far-left seriously if it ever got involved in any kind of attempt to model workplace democracy, rank-and-file organisation or collective action. But I've never seen any evidence of this kind of hand-dirtying.

And it may sound like a cheap shot, but the hissy opportunistic and incompetent politics tells you everything you need to know about this perspective. These people want the world to be run by workers councils, and they couldn't arrange to make a round of sandwiches without tumbling into some nasty spat, inspired by microscopic differences of 'analysis' on global matters that they aren't equipped to deal with in the first place. It's an example of misdirection writ large.

Q: Have you an idea about how any form collective action can be improved somewhere nearby?
A: No. But I've got a fucking long essay about the impact of imperialism in somewhere you've never heard of - will that do instead?

Socialists have rarely achieved anything approximating to socialism by promoting socialist solutions. Promoting democratic solutions - ones based on a representative model of democracy - have, on the other hand, worked wonders, bringing huge material improvements to workers all over Western Europe over the past 60 years. In the UK, its architects were more often than not liberal democrats (Keynes Beveridge, Wilson, Jenkins). So why won't socialists get their hands dirty by experimenting around effective co-op models (for example), understanding deliberative democracy or making representation work?

Because it's not as easy - that's why. Grandstanding may get you laid for a while, but the SWP (and it's variations) never last long, never make a dent, and just waste everyone's time.

As Johnny Caspar put it, "yez fancy pants, all of yez"

(Cross-posted over at The Trots)

Blogging explained


(h-t - Charlie)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The troof about the Magner Charter

Sadie asks: What really went on there? We only have this excerpt.

Can we have democracy without politicians?

A while ago, I tentatively offered an argument that – while people are still in favour of elected governments (where they pick the people who then sit in the legislature and legislate on their behalf) - they may no longer wish them to be peopled with politicians.

By politicians, I mean people with the kind of characteristics that we associate with the word. You know the sort of thing - slimy, scheming, backstabbers who will try and leave everyone with the short-term illusion that they are agreed with, and a longer-term sense of personal betrayal.

I’ve banged on about different models of representation in the past – jurist and clerical, for example. But I’d be interested in what other people think about this?

Do we want to be represented by people who are more prepared to show their working? More prepared to place themselves open to consultation, put stuff on the record, explain themselves, and be prepared to defend their decisions?

Would the public accept someone who says this to them:
  • You’ve elected me (or at least the people who live near you rejected me less forcefully than they rejected any of my rivals at the last election)
  • I’ve asked you your views on a particular policy
  • I’ve asked others what their view are
  • I’ve done a reasonable survey of the evidence
  • I’ve spoken to a few experts
  • I’ve spoken to my party colleagues who have shown me where I need to be consistent with other policy commitments that I’ve made
  • I’ve made my decision and cast my vote in Parliament
  • I didn’t cast the vote the way you would have liked me to, but I think I’ve done the best thing for the nation as a whole
  • Will you vote for me again next time please?
In addition, this person would sometimes need to say...
  • You’ve elected me (etc, etc)
  • You’ve lobbied me on an issue that I’m not really able to be active on (for whatever reason)
  • I’ve delegated my decision-making on this issue to another representative that I trust, and that person has .... (gone through the process outlined above)
  • We haven’t voted in a way that you would like us to, but I think I’ve done the best thing for the nation as a whole
  • Will you vote for me again next time please?
Now, remember, if this model is to work, these people need to be incentivsed to do this - not the other things that they could be doing. The answer to the final question is crucial (allowing, obviously for a bit of churn).

If this were a model that works, then it opens a space for the kind of hyper-interactive individuals that social networking sites are creating – a new sort of non-politician representative.
So, here (at last) is my question:

Is this a model that would work, or is the old model – the politician model – the least-worst one on offer?

Let me know your verdict?

Science lesson

I've already instructed you to subscribe to Ian Dempsey's Breakfast Show Podcast. If you didn't do as you were told, you would have missed Roy Keane explaining what a Large Hadron Collider is.

This is your loss. I love science, me, though. Science doesn't reciprocate. At the age of fourteen, I learned that teachers colluded in staffrooms. Within one hour of each other, my Chemistry teacher and my Geography teacher spoke to me about my behaviour in class. Words to the effect....
"I've decided to turn a blind eye to your behaviour during my lessons on one condition. That you don't come anywhere near my classroom during the lesson."
Did you know that a glass rod - sufficiently heated over a bunsen burner - could permanently disfigure a chemistry teacher's hand? "Sir? Pass me that glass rod will you?"

Anyway, back to the LHC. Here's an explainer:

Via Kittenfluff.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Credit where it's due

One of the most widely touted causes behind the current crisis in banking has been the failure of shareholders to control the companies that they own, in either their own interests or those of society as a whole, insofar as the two can be the same thing.

From what I can see, this has been Tom's central point for a long time now - and it's something that I've not really read anywhere else until recently.

I'm not saying that no-one else is saying this stuff consistantly (and thinking about what the consequences of his views are in some detail). But I am saying that I've not seen it anywhere else...

The spEak You’re bRanes movement.

If the views featured on the spEak You’re bRanes site were ever to coalesce into a political movement, this would be their bulletin board.

Whooda thunkit?

"...while Italy said it would spend as much as was needed, without giving any exact figures."

And everyone else is linking to Tom Freeman's black day for journalism, so I suppose I should do as well.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Stockbrokers in visible pain

There's a group on Facebook called 'Society for the Appreciation of Pictures of Stockbrokers In Visible Pain.' - here.

I hope that you find this as upsetting as I do. I found this via Will Davies who blogs here. He has changed his Facebook picture to this .....

... which is *really* not funny in any way.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Download and circulate

I've re-done that statement in a printable form. You can download it from over there if you want.

Do pass it on?

No clothes

Again, not being an economist, can we have a ruling please? Are the banks being nationalised? Or not? And if so, is it being done properly? Or, (citing Heffer's Law) will this not even have the upside of properly annoying the Tories?

And (with all due respect to some of my favourite bloggers who are commenting on all of this), isn't this one of those moments when everyone who isn't absolutely compelled to write something (professional commentators who don't have a bit of holiday that they can conveniently use up) should keep quiet? I suspect that many people will have a load of stuff in their recent archives that they will wish that they hadn't written within a few weeks.

Me? I-know-a-nothing. But something tells me it's a great deal worse than the worst prediction. Seeing as I've spent years primitively marvelling at the gravity-defying powers of advanced capitalism, always wondering how people can have so much money without doing very much of value themselves, I'm beginning to wonder if a failure to grasp why highly leveraged debt can work is the new version of the bloke who was sure that the Emperor was in the buff?

Friday, October 10, 2008

An opportunity for a Citizen's Basic Income?

This is one of those (very hasty) posts that should be prefaced with .. "I'm not an economist, but..."

You know the concept of a Citizen's Basic Income? Personally, I instinctively like the idea. It is attractive on a lot of levels, but I think that it has a number of implementation problems - common objections, specifically:
  1. You would need a much more secure way of proving that you are a unique indivisible person who is a citizen. It would need a damn good ID scheme
  2. It would make populations less open to the idea of immigration - something that is good for the economy, not to say a decent thing to be relaxed about. Imagine the Daily Express headlines...
  3. That it would be a hard sell to voters - the idea that Our Taxes Are Being Dished Out To The Feckless.
  4. Partly as a function of 1-3 above, but also because of bureaucratic resistance (bean counters have mortgages as well, y'know!) and the logistical problems of getting from here to there, the whole idea will forever be a non-starter, so why bother advocating it in the first place?
I don't know what to do about problem number two, above, but I suspect that - if the will were there - an acceptable answer could be found to number one. But, it seems to me that we have a window of opportunity that allows us to deal with objection number three. right away.

No-one but an utter charlatan or a fundamentalist (and, therefore, anti-democratic) libertarian can now deny that much more generous handouts to much less deserving people are necessary to stabilise society. Surely it would be easier to make the moral case now than ever before?

One of the more attractive bits is that CBIs can be sneaked in by providing everyone a share in profitable national assets. North Sea Oil could have helped here, but that ship has sailed, it seems. But what about the dividends from all of these bits of the banks that we've apparently bought (we have bought banks, haven't we? I've got that right, haven't I?) in order to pay everyone a dividend towards the CBI.

Oh, yes, one other thing: You know those flashing screens on QI when panelists offer common misunderstandings as answers?

I'm trying to work out how to code this blog so that it screams and flashes whenever anyone (apart from Pete who makes jokes about them) puts the word 'voucher' in the comments box.

That, and (for this post only) any jokes playing on the word 'feckless'.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Extended gloat about bank nationalisation

Shorter version: Sit on the bank of a river and wait: Your enemy's corpse will soon float by.

This post includes a good deal of cut-and-paste from stuff I've put in Pete's comments box a while ago (and I've had a few posts of my own that have touched on this) on Labour's need to understand that the public sector need to be treated differently to the private sector.

Just to restate, the last thirty years have been a massive failed experiment (for which I'm waiting for the first admission of folly or apology from ex-Thatcherites). At the bottom of the whole privatisation / next-steps / PPP / blablabla experiment has been an assumption: That the public and private sectors are porous and that people can switch between one and the other and cross-fertilisation can add value.

This assumption has now been proved to be wrong. People pick one or the other by their mid-20s and stick with it, for the most part. Sometimes, public sector people get private sector employers and work in some half-arsed impersonation of the private sector (will this still happen?), getting the worst of both worlds. But broadly, they stay in a 'public sector job' being passed around by NGOs, 'social enterprises' charities, management consultants and their original public sector bosses.

There is an unspoken grievance between people that work in the private sector and the public sector. We (I worked in the private sector until recently) think:
  • they get job security
  • they get good holidays
  • they get bosses that are accountable in some way
  • they get health and safety officers and equality schemes and equal ops
  • they have unions that can sometimes get their way
  • they have a career path - a well-trodden structure
  • they moan about their pay, but actually, they often get more than we do
  • they fuck off early on a Friday and no-one notices
  • they don't give a toss whether they do their job properly or not
  • they just blame politicians when one of their schemes go wrong
  • they don't work weekends and they only work their paid hours
....and so on. I'm exaggerating these grievances for illustrative purposes. And public sector workers - when thinking about private sector workers (I'm told) think that...
  • they can move jobs easily without huge bureaucratic recruitment processes that have nothing to do with merit
  • they get a lot more flexibility about when they work
  • they get mangers who are creative and humane sometimes - they don't have to do loads of ludicrous box-ticking
  • they don't have ridiculous office politics and 'dead-man-shoes' career paths
  • they get paid a fortune, they get bonuses, they go on jollies when they hit targets
  • they go on nice business trips and find lots of ways to dress up not-working as work (golf?)
  • they never do a job properly - they just win contracts and then try to wriggle out of the obligations while still sending the bills
  • they just find someone else to fob the risk of when something goes wrong
... and so on. The thing is, now (*pause for a spot of gloating*) if you work in a bank - and most enjoyably - if you are near the top of the hierarchy in a bank, and have ever expressed views on how much better the public sector is at doing things because of it's ability to be flexible, leveraged, risk-taking, entrepreneurial, thinking-outside-the-box, then you really REALLY should sign this or resign.

Now, I read that Gordon Brown wants senior bank employees to agree to a curb on their bonuses as part of this whole package. He wants the public sector ethos to apply to the public sector.

This is what Labour should be about. In the way that business and the private sector has spent years developing a complex (and, it turns out, criminally fraudulent) ideology of how it should structure and reward itself based upon the healing balm of individual greed rather than the need for collective action, Labour needs to put thought and government resources into helping to generate an ideology about how public service and collective action can be incentivised rather than succumbing to the misdirection of business lobbyists who say that they do it better.

Chris is sort-of doing this by talking about co-ops, but I think that fetishising these at the expense of state-owned and managed structures (like banks, for instance, heh heh) is a bit of a mistake.

We have now established - beyond any doubt - that the kind of unregulated markets that government has tended towards over the past thirty years - is completely incompatible with representative democracy. If you arguing that 'the markets have failed, we need more markets' then you have to argue for the abolition of representative democracy and the kind of crashes that governments are now struggling to prevent.

Either that, or you have to admit that you're a lying stupid tosser. One or the other. Because representative democracies will always bail out organisations that pose a systemic risk. Always.

So here it is. Bottom line. In the same way that centralised state socialism was finally demonstrably discredited in 1989, the notion that there isn't a role for a strong regulatory state has been entirely discredited in 2008. The idea that a satisfactory, socially-just version of collective action can happen without other forms of collective action than those proposed by capitalists (and note, I'm not saying that this is the same as free-market solutions that involve mutuals, co-ops and so on).

I do wonder, though, if Labour still understands the importance of collective action and representative democracy? It used to be in favour of the former, and it has never really formally endorsed the latter.....

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Put out less flags

I’ve never been to America, but friends and family who have return marvelling at the contrasts of the big middle of the place. On the one hand, you are immediately aware that the people around you have outspoken views on guns / capital punishment / their own racial superiority, but on the other, the routine friendliness and civility knocks you sideways – in a good way.

For the last month or so, I’ve been in Northern Ireland, driving around to the four corners of our occupied six counties / our wee country (delete according to tradition). It is a weird place in a lot of ways, and it has something in common – for the outsider – with the USA. This post is about my own impressions. And, as far as I can see, generally, guns are not the issue that they are in the American interior – a few of the people who actually do have them insist that they don’t. Capital punishment doesn’t come up as much, but the day-to-day needle – the chauvinistic little subtexts – around identity are absolutely everywhere.

As an outsider to the place, it’s hard to know whether there are factors that you aren’t aware of, or if you have the benefit of the kind of insight that detachment brings – are you able to cut through the centuries of unresolved grievances, yesbuttery and the demagoguery that plagues a divided society. A few days in the place, and you can be very quickly – and falsely - convinced that you are a prince of reasonableness and perspective in a cage of bigots.

Yet – again – like the USA, you can arrive in a town that is bedecked with quite horrible sectarian imagery, only to be treated with warmth and civility that I’ve not found anywhere else on these islands. And the illusion that this is a highly bigoted society gives way to something much more complicated. In my time there, I’ve met anti-agreement unionists and rejectionist republicans whose reasonableness and logic I found hard to fault.

Of course, the flags – mostly loyalist ones nowadays (there seems to have been a concerted attempt to decommission Nationalist murals and flags) - are hoisted and maintained by a small group of people. They are by no means representative of the estates that they fly over.

As the troubles recede, the variety of voices on the radio becomes more pronounced. Radio phone-ins often feature Catholics from West Belfast (for example) calling in to explain and identify with unionist concerns, and to call for more flexibility from other Catholics / nationalists. And vice versa.

Unionist politicians – privately – are sometimes embarrassed by the ubiquitous Union Flags, though in my time there, I’ve never heard any DUP or UUP politician put much energy into demanding their removal. And when the murals are painted over, they are often replaced by a surrogate for Loyalist chauvinism. In other cases, the naked viciousness is still pronounced – I saw one that was very similar to this in a small town on the north coast a few days ago.

In Belfast, UFF gables are painted over with commemorations that are still not neutral. There can be no corner of Europe that venerates its dead from the Great War in the way that the people of Newtownards Road and Sandy Row do. I was there last November, flying out from Stansted passing hundreds of people who were – like myself – wearing a poppy.

In Belfast, however, you either don’t wear a poppy, or you WEAR A POPPY. And not just one, but a dozen of the things – all shapes and sizes. Along with enamel poppy badges. And regimental badges, if you have one. Or even three or four.

There seems to me to be very little by way of a Nationalist equivalent. In the last month driving to almost every town in the North, I’ve seen a few fading signs commemorating the hunger-strikers or some ancient Republican luminaries. I’ve seen two Tricolours and one Starry Plough. A couple of trips into West Belfast, driving along the Falls Road increases the count a little, but even then, not massively. And that’s it.

There is, however, the usual noisy colourful flag-and-bunting display showing GAA (Gaelic games) colours. In the Republic, if you go to County Mayo on a year that they are destined for at least a semi-final, everywhere is bedecked in the Red and Green of the county. Absolutely everywhere – to a degree that really surprises visitors.

This is clearly and obviously done in innocence. It annoys no-one apart from the rare Mayo aesthete and it is almost impossible to see it as a provocation there – mainly because there is almost no-one (apart from a small army of Polish builders) that don’t come from a tradition that played Gaelic games at school.

Similarly Tyrone - or more accurately, parts of Tyrone, have been absolutely covered in the county’s red and white flags and bunting. And one suspects that those parts that are covered in flags are even more comprehensively covered than Mayo is. It’s impossible to actually pin down, but I sensed that the sheer density of flags and bunting in some Tyrone towns and villages was – at least in part – a ‘fuck-you’ to neighbours who are a bit free with their Union Jacks.

Yet, then again, Tyrone has had an utterly fantastic year – winning the Major and Minor football finals. Perhaps it is entirely innocent?

Whatever. The needle is never far from the surface. And while the excitement in Tyrone was at fever pitch a few weeks ago, someone demanded that a smallish Tyrone flag was removed from a car in Strabane to comply with the ‘neutral workplaces’ rule. Nationalist politicians hopped up and down complaining (quite reasonably in my view) that this was an abuse of rules that were designed to deal with provocative and chauvinistic paraphernalia in workplaces. Unionists replied that Catholics had only got what was coming to them, and that some stupid objections had been raised to ‘British’ objects in workplaces in the past had set a precedent.

Northern Ireland appears to have a society that will always find ways to sneak in surrogates for national flags, and will always find ways to confound attempts to stifle this low-level sectarian needle. The nationalist objection to the flag-in-the-car-park-removal was somewhat undermined by the row that was caused by the flying of a Union flag-themed London 2012 flag in Craigavon earlier in the summer.

Again, one wonders where anyone would find the energy to object to it. On the other hand, one wonders where Craigavon’s councillors went to find a version of the Olympic flag that is so calculated to annoy Nationalists.

So what to conclude from all of this? Well, I’m a blow-in. Sometimes things look more simple to outsiders than they do to those who confront the problems day-to-day. Even Derby looks quite nice from the air, so anything I say here is observation rather than confident assertion. But it seems to me that this perpetual needle is poisonous and it could be easily resisted.

It’s all pervading. It is a massive piece of misdirection by politicians who aren’t able to get their act together to finish the normalisation of politics – particularly at the moment. It’s like the ‘oh look! A polar bear!’ manoeuvre. Whenever an awkward question is asked, someone pops up with some imagined grievance or some other bit of insensitive banter. You can almost touch the desperation of politicians who haven’t a clue about how to deal with any other question than ‘was it themmuns that did if first?’.

The media in Northern Ireland don’t help either. Don't even get me started on The Newsletter. But public service broadcasters offer a different kind of problem. BBC Radio Ulster have the most insufferably demagogic chat-show host in the morning in Stephen Nolan, and at lunchtime, there is a phone-in that is hosted by someone who is so smug and insufferable that I can’t bear to remember his name. When the flag-in-the-car-park crisis a few weeks ago was in full flow, they managed to dedicate a huge amount of time, getting different spokesmen on and inviting callers to chip in. Almost every caller that offered a particularly polarising view suffixed it with ‘...and one other thing .... er .... don’t you think you’re going a bit overboard on this story?

The host excuses himself by saying that this is what people want to talk about, and does so in a way that convinces you that he has no clue about how the news media can lead or follow an agenda.

And finally, you can spot just how inadequate a politican is by the frequency with which they use the word ‘community’. Now, I’ve posted on the notion of ‘community leaders’ before, and if you’ve been here before, you’ll know my line on this.

But it needs restating. If ever there is a place that needs a thorough-going democratic renewal, it’s Northern Ireland. It needs a different sort of people to go into politics. There is no simpler way of saying this, because – unlike the rest of the UK – the political class are badly failing the people that they are supposed to represent.

The people of Northern Ireland, as far as I can see, need to recognise that as long as politicians are twittering on about flags, they are failing as representatives. It is that black-and-white. Sure, there is a political dynamic that results in politicians competing for the approval of an assertive noisy outgroup, but I don't think that - even from a cynical point of view - this is even good politics when you get down to it.

Demanding an end to the needle and a moratorium on discussion about symbols seems to me to be something that a noisy cross-section of Northern Ireland could campaign for.

As an outsider, I don’t know why such a campaign doesn’t really exist.