Sunday, May 30, 2010

Breaking a butterfly on a wheel

In the last few years, we've found that our unregulated masters of the universe have been inventing assets, borrowing against them and paying themselves astronomical bonuses from the profits.

And when the whole uninvestigated house of cards fell down around their feet, they simply shifted the risk on to us, walked away and continued behaving in the same manner all over again. Our grandchildren will be paying the bills that these thieves have handed us and they've already started preparing for the next raid in which they socialise their losses and privatise stolen assets.

They've been able to do this because of the largely unchallenged monopoly statuses that their employers have been allowed to gather to themselves, and they've benefited from an approach to shareholder control in which no-one scrutinises, makes judgements or asserts any level of restraint upon these corporations. In the US, a handful have had their collars felt. I don't think any have even had a visit from the Old Bill in this country yet.

They will continue to be able to get away with the assertion that their work somehow involves talent and insight and that they need huge incentives to create wealth. It doesn't.

They are already using their vast wealth to lobby against any regulation that will restructure their thieving industry in the public interest and if anyone doubts that they will largely succeed, I'd like to recommend this antidote.

The huge corporate PR and lobbying sector is testimony to how much this whole shooting match is worth. It's an industry that attracts shockingly low levels of curiosity from journalists. Under the umbrella of the term 'Corporate Hospitality', there is a another massive industry that effectively promotes the bribery of executives at the expense of shareholders - and ultimately pensioners. It sees the kind of sweeteners that MPs could only dream of being doled out daily to undeserving climbers of the greasy pole.

Hush money goes unchallenged and little cartels are cemented at the expense of shareholders, small businesses and - as often as not - the taxpayers who foot the bill either through corporate welfare, or the more straightforward processes of public procurement.

I could go on (believe me!), but all of this has happened with a acquiescence of our useless, lazy, incompetent, self-serving Fourth Estate. Freedom of Information has only served to dish regulators up on a plate for lazy hacks. For all we know, thousands of wealthy execs could be banging a string of underage hookers on beds of Angel Dust in mansions that are paid for out of shareholders funds and our media would ignore it because it's not something that you can bring to light with a tidily worded letter to the correct authorities.

So, beside journalists, who else is there to hold them to account? Well .... er... there's elected politicians. But we need fewer of them, don't we?

Just in case anyone thought that the anti-politics crusade that we've seen conducted over the past few years was about keeping Labour politicians in their place, we've all had a sharp reminder: If you put yourself up for public office and don't maintain standards that are infinitely higher than the unaccountable thieves that you are supposed to monitor (alone!), then don't be surprised.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"...institutional inability to constructively handle criticism..."

More on the question of diversity. It seems that BECTA's passing isn't being universally mourned:
"Much dissatisfaction has been muted over the years because of Becta's major importance as a conduit of resources and funding. Companies, organisations and individuals were reluctant to 'rock the boat' because of Becta's institutional inability to constructively handle criticism. As a result, much negative feedback, extremely valuable for reputation management, didn't appear to make it back to the higher level – and this meant that few, apart from those who felt they were excluded by overly bureaucratic framework agreements, were prepared to speak out."
At the risk of really overdoing this commitment to say what I think regardless of tribal loyalties, there are a very large number - larger than the ones named in the first cull of the quangos - that are long overdue the chop. Many of these organisations were set up to maintain the unsustainable fiction that awkward decisions can be taken without politicians taking responsibility for them.

These little empires soon grew into self-perpetuating managerialist entities. I hope the coalition government doesn't collapse before I gets rid of a few more of them.....

Why Labour should back STV instead of AV

Here's ex-MP Nick Palmer on why this makes sense.

By the standards that I set out in the previous post here, Nick was one of Labour's best MPs and a real loss to the PLP.

Why I hope Labour MPs nominate Diane Abbott

Following on from yesterday’s post, when thinking about the Labour leadership campaign, I think that it’s a useful exercise to work backwards to work out what you want to happen.
Firstly, I think that it’s highly unlikely that we won’t get one of the identikit candidates.

And while leadership may – in itself- be overrated - it’s a very unhealthy symptom of British politics that both the debate and the presentation of politics should be so tightly boundaried.

Aside from the monoculture, here are the things that I hate about British politics. The all have – at their root – a view that I’ve bored regulars here with for years now: That the essential pre-condition for any political and democratic renewal that we have in the UK must have – as it’s starting point - a greater degree of independence for elected representatives.

To this end, I’d always oppose...
  1. The lust for certainty and the lack of discursiveness. The savage hunt for apostates and the notion that it is, somehow ‘loyal’ to circumscribe your views in order to present a united front (a virtue from a time when politics had monopolistic gatekeepers – a passing age, I hope)
  2. The focus on personality – and the idea that elected representatives have to act as avatars modelling public cant instead of intelligent conversational human beings who act as guardians of the interests of the nation as a whole
  3. The tribalism. I’m in the Labour Party largely for the same reasons that most members are in it. Because it is full of different small groupings that place themselves in opposition to the other parties more than they place themselves in opposition to each other. Our current electoral system promotes coalitions within parties rather than between them. Change that, and the tribes would reconfigure.
And returning to the ‘diversity’ theme, if Labour does have one historic mission, it is the one that it was set up to serve. The Labour Representation Committee acted to ensure that working men could have the resources at their disposal to enter politics. We live in an age where there are demands for representation from many sectors of society that are excluded in the way that working men were in at the end of the 19th Century. On top of class, gender and ethnic origin, we can layer generational conflicts.

Now, I’m not sure that I think the country is ready yet to elect a Labour government headed by Diane Abbott. And I disagree with her on a range of fronts (though I can say that for every other candidate). But, for me, it would be immensely in Labour’s interests if Diane were to play an active role in the leadership election. As a strong challenger, she will be able to challenge the stranglehold that the NEC has upon candidate selection.

I’ve heard objections to her on the grounds that she spends too much time cosying up to Portillo on Andrew Neill’s couch, and that she sent her son to a private school.

The former is just plain stupid, and the latter is a slightly pernicious swipe at someone whose personal circumstances we can’t – and shouldn’t know.

At times, Diane is a brilliant parliamentarian and she gives better parliamentary debate than a sizeable slice of my party put together. I hope that she gets the required number of nominations because if she does, I suspect Labour members will use the opportunity to give those Milliband boys the rattle that they need before one of them gets the coronation.

You may ask 'Why Diane and not John McDonnell?' Well, I suspect that John will parade around, parroting a bunch of certainties, conducting the election as some kind of NuLab witchhunt and annoy the rest of the party sufficiently to generate a easy-to-manage exclusionary bloc against him and everything he stands for.

If your MP hasn't nominated yet - here's a list of those who haven't - please contact them and urge them to nominate for diversity?

Declaration of interest: Apart from the time I shook her hand at some Labour Party Conference in the 1990s, I've never met Diane Abbott and have never had any dealings with her of any kind.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Diversity and information

My friend Conall McDevitt has a very sharply titled post up here: If you think libraries are expensive, try ignorance. It's a reworking of the line that "if you think education is expensive...."

It's an oddly roundheaded aspect of British culture that we don't fully buy the idea that a diverse thinking polity is essential to the wellbeing of the nation. We don't seem to value thought and we don't seem to value diversity.

We make almost no provision for argument and debate. MPs have to justify their expenses based upon roundheaded concerns related to their poor and inappropriate impersonation of social workers and not upon the fact that they need a team of intelligent researchers and a series of intellectual throwdowns to tighten up the quality of government thinking. Now, it seems - despite the fact that we have 2,600 people for every one elected representative in the UK (in France, it's 160-1), it seems that the Tories are determined to make the populist point that 'we have too many politicians'.

We have a political ecology that is largely sceptical of the state's ability to actually do anything in the first place. This is, I suppose, a reasonable viewpoint, but for the most part that system seems to insist upon ensuring that the state does everything poorly just to prove it's point. The Post Office is a classic example of this. Like the lefty revolutionary defeatists of old, successive governments have sought to ensure that the Post Office fails in the hope that some vanguardist free-market solution will emerge to snatch the opportunity.

The idea that any business will ever invest a fraction of what is needed to make the Post Office work is a fantasy that seems to survive every form of challenge short of actually killing the postal service stone dead (which I understand is now under consideration).

We have a party political system that has an odd - and I suspect unsustainable - obsession with the papering over of cracks. As long as the mainstream media was its gatekeeper, that was possible - I don't beleive that it occupies this role any longer and I think that the public are less and less impressed by shows of 'unity' as every new day passes. We have a political class who seem to have elevated the hunt for those who deviate from groupthink and orthodoxy into a sport.

The Labour Party seems set to be offering a leadership choice of a handful of over-scrubbed white males in their early 40s with barely a shred of political difference between them and almost no life experiences beyond politics. The winner will be go up against Nick Clegg and David Cameron and the rest of use can watch them melt into one hairless pink blob whose shit doesn't smell before we decide which one to vote for next time.

Almost every Prime Minister in living memory went to Oxford, we have a We have an unwritten constitution (trans: a settlement that is whatever a handful of newspapers decide that they would like it to be at any given moment) that we are almost incapable of adapting.

We have a bureaucracy that sustains itself by ensuring that everything is done the way that it always has been done - and that sponteneity and invention have no place in the process.

We've see the investment base of our creative industries narrowed down and resulting an a contraction in the range of film and TV content at our disposal.

Today, a private members defamation bill has been published by Lord Lester of Herne Hill. It remains to be seen if this will be adopted by the government and pushed through, but Simon Singh's views on this are worth a glance if you have time. It's about the only silvery lining to this cloud of homegeneity and monoculture that is coming from officialdom. The one thing that holds out the possibility that someone - anyone - will say something - anything - that falls outside our narrow range of pemissable sentiment.

Thankfully, when I say the only thing, I'm discounting this massive new pro-diversity, pro-debate behemoth that is the read-write web. Things aren't as bleak as they sometimes look, are they?

I hope your MP is going to urge the governement to adopt this defamation bill. I'm writing to mine to urge that he does so. My old Labour MP, oddly, would have done. I'm not as optimistic with the new Tory incumbent....

What lefties may be wearing during the World Cup

Here's another unashamed plug for my mate Mark Perryman's Philosophy Football - an object of desire for lefties everywhere with the looming World Cup. I've linked before to Chris' ambivalence from a few years ago about supporting England (which I share).

I particularly like this quote of his:
"Talking about Arsenal with Spurs fans would be like discussing Rembrandt with David Blunkett."
It's less to do with any crude political rejection of English nationalism than an unconscious resistance to being told what I should be enthusiastic about.

This, however, is a commemorative shirt for the Makana Football Association - formed by Robben Island prisoners. Read all about it here:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

I had another blind date with a projectionist tonight. Don't read the reviews - they'll ruin it for you

Just take my word for it that it's worth it. And don't wait for the DVD - this one works in a cinema in the same way that some Tarrantino films work better on the big screen - the reaction of the audience helps with this one.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Where is our masked man when we need him?

Brian Haw has been arrested.

In other news, Henry Porter may have to dust off his cape after all?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Chancellor for Dummies

From here:
"The market knows Osborne is just reading from chapter one of Chancellor for Dummies."

Who's who on the bloggertarian right

Here's the non-Taxpayers' Alliance guest list.

This is who the Lib-Dems are in bed with now. Rather them than me.....

Incentives explained

Friday, May 14, 2010

Osler wins!

Just a very quick one: Here's John Gray's account of Dave Osler's legal victory yesterday. Jack of Kent (his account is here) called me on Wednesday night and said "come to the Royal Courts of Justice tomorrow at 10am."

I did as I was told, sat in the wrong courtroom watching a fascinating dispute about Leylandii while next door Dave got the judgement he was hoping for. I took some pics here and anyone who wants to is hereby permitted to do so (I'm waiving copyright).

So congratulations to Dave and best wishes to John Gray and Alex Hilton who are still fighting this one.

For anyone who came for drinks afterwards, Jack massively overstated my involvement in this. Dave and Jack are both friends of mine - I'd picked up that Dave was not enjoying the impact that the action was having on his personal life and I suggested they may like to talk to each other a while ago. That's all.

Jack and his mate Robert Dougans heroically stepped into the breach at this point and did tons of selfless and effective work for Dave. Robert - a roaring Tory and Dave, an ex-trot lefty are not what you'd normally call a marriage made in heaven, but this is one of those issues that I think cuts across traditional political cleavages.

Which brings me to the reason I'm writing this: I think that there is an emerging cross-cutting constituency that disagrees on lots of big social and economic issues, but that is strongly united on these issues. I'd really like to do anything I can to help bring this group of people together and is anyone else is interested, please let me know.

Now is quite a good time for this sort of thing, by the way....

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Interactivity and it's enemies

A good while ago, I read a report on the impact of cars on the quality of life on some streets. Specifically, the impact that a busy road has on social capital. I can't remember where I read it now (I bet the estimable Kevin Harris would have a copy to hand - this work on cul-de-sacs steps on related issues), but it makes perfect sense.

Think about the number of connections that would exist on a quiet street and then sever them by introducing a busy thoroughfare. The mathematical impact is significant - it doesn't just halve the number of regular connections. You decimate them. And everyone is poorer.

A few weeks ago, I posted an outline of what I think could be a useful 'interactive manifesto'.

At 10am, as Jack of Kent reports, Dave Osler will find out if a libel action against him is to continue. JoK says everything that needs to be said there.

I hope Dave's case ends tomorrow. I hope someone reads that 'interactive manifesto' post. And, giving our new government a fair-ish wind, I hope that The Big Society narrative that Cameron spent some of the election campaign on (against the better judgment of a lot of his party) benefits in two ways from the Liberal tie-up:
  1. It's the sort of Tory initiative that's likely to appeal to Liberals and one that they can use to fill the vacuum caused by their mutual vetoes over lots of planned initiatives
  2. My own suspicion that it's a foil for a direct democracy lite invitation to the sharp-elbowed middle-class to wring out a greater share of tax spending for themselves may be ameliorated by the Liberals
One relatively cost-free thing that the Tories/Liberals could do would be to treat interactivity as a key public good. One that can help cut public expenditure, make for better government, better science, better innovation and service design.

A good early step would be to treat libel reform seriously. But it's a state of mind that would mean quite a lot of cultural change in the UK. But if 'interactivity' were to become anything like the watchword that the over-rated 'transparency' has become. It's an issue that doesn't really have that much partisan baggage either.

Unemployment over 2.5 million


I blame the government. Especially Nick Clegg.

House of Comments Commentary

I was on the House of Comments podcast last night as the whole handover of government was in progress. I was on with Stuart Sharpe, Mark Thompson and Tom Harris MP.

In prep for it, I scanned Don and the Liberal Conspracy on what the Con-Dem Nation will mean for us, and nicked Torcuil’s ‘Birkenstock traitors’ line (without crediting it, natch!). The Lib-Dems are certainly not in for an easy electoral ride for the foreseeable, are they?
“The Lib Dems on the other hand, these Birkenstock traitors, will find themselves flossing the teeth of a Tory shark while being in office. It will be quite an uncomfortable place to be.”
I didn’t get the chance to have a pop at the Tories who’ve been banging on about Brown being an unelected PM and a squatter. After all, Cameron has less of a claim to have been elected than Brown had in the last administration. At least the majority of MPs under Brown stood on the platform of giving us a Labour PM - more than you can say now.

The amount of spinning that our courageous Fourth Estate have been prepared to indulge (and indulge in?) over the last few days has been eye-watering.

Here are a few things that need contradicting:
  1. As Paul pointed out, there are no examples of a Prime Minister taking office without having stood for election as the Prime Minister in recent memory, apart from Balfour (1902), Asquith (1908), Lloyd George (1916), Bonar Law (1922), Baldwin (1923 and 1935), Chamberlain (1937), Churchill (1940), Eden (1955), Macmillan (1957), Douglas Home (1963), Callaghan (1976), Major (1990), Brown (2007 and for a few days in 2010). All took office without leading a winning party in a previous general election.

  2. Show me someone who talks about a ‘constitutional precedent’ at the moment and I’ll show you either a Tory or one of their lackeys in the press. Examples? A PM should be directly elected (see above). Or "...b..but surely the public would find it hard to understand if they had a 'government of losers” / "b..but surely the public would find it very hard to understand that they had a PM who wasn't even on the Leaders debate programme?"

  3. There isn’t any kind of threshold under which it is not possible to respectably form a government. A number of Tories were saying that, getting 29% of the vote, it would be ‘impossible’ for Labour to form a government. (I made this point badly – I’d intended to illustrate it with the point that Labour got a higher share of the vote in 1979 than the Tories got this time – it came out as though I was arguing that parties had won elections on <29%>
  4. That we need a referendum before we implement a change to the voting system. We don’t. People ‘may find it hard to understand’ that we’re not having one, but this illustrates just how pernicious the creeping notion that we need referendums to rubber-stamp constitutional change has become. Conservatives – CONSERVATIVES, for god’s sake – have latched onto this argument with enthusiasm since the 1990s. Before that, they correctly identified the referendum as the tool of the demagogue. Just to be clear, referendums hand enormous powers to newspaper proprietors. A voting reform referendum opposed by the tories and the commanding heights of the media would be almost totally certain to fail.

  5. We are not a Presidential system. If anyone were to propose that we become one, we wouldn’t ‘constitutionally’ need a referendum to do so. If we were to hold a referendum to get one, those supporting it would lose. Ergo, we are not a Presidential system - something that makes a nonsense out of almost all of the commentary on Brown's right to try and form a governement.
A few other questions: Are the Lib-Dems going to take the opportunity to give the Tories a bit of discomfort on their weak-points? For instance, there is no reason why they shouldn’t give the Murdoch press a fraction of the malice that they insist their puppets in government visit upon their rivals be required to comply with media regulations that apply to other companies.

Isn’t it funny, by the way, how – when your boss isn’t happy, you aren’t either?

Are the Lib-Dems going to be complicit in Tory (and, until recently, New Labour) sleaze in their dealings with Murdoch or on the general power of lobbyists? I’d like to think not, but I think that we’ve seen that Lib-Dems aren’t going to exact any price at all from the Tories.

And what about Cameron? Is he under threat now? He’s not an elected PM. It’s a hollow victory for the Tories and they have a highly contestable legitimacy to brag with. Is Tory civil war about to break out? It would be churlish to hope so. And are they stupid to war amongst themselves? (I’m with John Stuart Mill on this one).

From Labour’s point of view, a lot of activists I’ve spoken to are saying that every party has to lose elections, and there are worse ones to lose than this one. Some Tories certainly regretted winning in 1992. Being in government can be over-rated and opposition may provide us with a long-overdue opportunity for renewal.

And finally, reasons to be cheerful. I think that the election under-stated Labour’s strength in the country. We suffered because of the expenses scandal and we can recover from that. And we are, whatever the Lib-Dems may think, basically, a centre-left social democratic country.

Update: Here's that 'Michael Gove on the NUJ picket-line' pic.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Fiscal republicanism?

This article by Paul Krugman in the New York Times is worth a look. I'm not sure if I'm qualified enough to agree with Krugman's conclusions about the likelihood of Greece dropping out of the Euro and devaluing, but the notion of contagion is an interesting one.

His comments on California - a gross example of poor governance, thanks to Direct Democracy - in comparision to Greece bear some thinking about.

How long will countries accept an unorthodox or idiosyncratic approach to fiscal management from their neighbours? Tax avoidance is, after all, not just a trait of the rich and the right-wing as it is in the UK. It is also a marker of long-standing distrust of government (Spain, Portugal and Greece all have huge levels of tax-avoidance, and are all countries where democracy is relatively young and government in the public interest is a fairly new concept).

Or, taking this one step further, does this make the case for a more republican approach to taxation in general? By republican (I've got my own definition of this word - it means that you set your policies by a rational process rather than honouring the compounded errors of history).

I mean ideas such as the replacement of Council Tax with Land Value Tax - a Lib-Dem policy, as it happens.

As far as I can see, it makes the case for more purposeful government - one that can't be batted aside by single-issue pressure groups and wealthy media interests. They're the ones that are indulged too much when they hiss.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Did Gordon get a copy of this a few weeks ago?

He could use it to shut the Tories up with their 'Squatter' nonsense.

Idea nicked from @davecameroon

Did the expenses scandal actually sink Labour?

An interesting post here from Philip Cowley over at the Elections 2010 Blog:
"The BBC/ITN/Sky exit poll found that in Labour held seats with new candidates, the Con-Lab swing was 7.5%. But in seats with incumbents, the swing was just 4%. The former would have been enough to win a majority for the Conservatives."
Mat has a counter-point in the comments saying that incumbents that got hammered by the expenses scandal didn't do as well, but it's still worth a look.

Certainly, a lot of fairly blameless Labour MPs got out this time because of the poisonous whiff around the very job of being an MP. Maybe if a few more of them had stayed on, we'd not be so worried about who Nick would be deciding to work with next week?

In other news, in a wider verygood post in which he patiently explains that we are in a representative democracy now, Tom Freeman adds this gem:
"As a Tory friend of mine pointed out, Labour has got a lower vote share than the Tories did in 1997, and obviously then they had no right to govern, so Labour don’t now, either. But on the other hand, the Tories now have a lower vote share than Labour did in 1979, and obviously then… When you start treating vote share as meaning the moral legitimacy rather than merely the popularity of coalition options, you can tie yourself in all sorts of knots."

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Wishful thinking?

For some years now, here and on a slightly less sweary blog, I've been advocating a form of radical decentralisation that has - at it's heart - the aim of maximising the benefits of representative government. My problem has always been that I've not been able to see a set of circumstances in which the various forces of history could come together and give birth to the idea.

Today, is it possible that those stars are perfectly aligned? None of the MSM commentators seemed to have picked up the Cyberlock yet, but as far as I can see, it has the potential of making the Lib-Dems impossible to deal with unless they can get the quality of democratic reform that their membership will ask for.

If Labour wants to woo the Lib-Dems, it needs to offer them something dramatic. But it also needs to bring in the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, Caroline Lucas, Naomi Long and the SDLP.

That something could be PR(STV) and a dramatic programme of decentralisation - regional govermnent, delegation of more powers to assemblies and local government. All of those parties have little objection to decentralisation and all of them are a good deal more pro-EU than the two main parties.

A government of national unity that would take the economic steps needed to address the crisis (the deal to the smaller parties is that they let the Chancellor make the big decisions in the short term and stay out of that as long as the cuts are spread evenly), and that it's main focus otherwise is to deliver a Euro-federalist bunch of reforms to the UK.

The only fly in the ointment is my own party. If the leadership wanted to do a deal like this (and it's possible that they don't and would prefer a spell in opposition until the current economic storm blows over) would they be able to exert enough discipline to force the minority of MPs that really hate the idea of PR and Euro-federalism?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Gordon Brown with his country in his knuckles

This is where Gordon really comes into his own. Anyone who has seen him speaking in smaller, closed leftish gatherings will have seen this side to the man. Will it make a difference? Who knows. But it's some performance, isn't it?

Via Torcuil.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Common People redux

This one from Tim Ireland:

And So I Watch You From Afar

If you like heavy music but can't stand the fatuous lyrics or the posturing of most HM, then maybe And So I Watch You From Afar are the thing for you?

It seems to be the great contribution that Northern Ireland has made to popular music. With Therapy? and Stiff Little Fingers, the place seems to be very adept at extracting the joy of listening to overdriven guitars from all of the downsides.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Brown could strengthen Labour's hand very significantly....

... if he were to mention - now - that - in the event of his not having a good election (he can choose his formula - not getting the highest share of the vote / largest number of seats) that he would regard it as a signal that he can't carry on as PM and that he would step down as Labour's leader.

It would be a bombshell at this stage of the election, and it would very probably increase Labour's vote and give the Lib-Dems a stronger case for hooking up with Labour rather than the Tories in the event of a hung parliament.

I can see no arguments against this and I'm surprised that it's not an option that is being discussed more widely. It's not an endorsement of tactical voting. It shouldn't carry any risks to Labour's current campaign and it isn't a hostage to fortune of any kind.

(I know I've said this before but it needs repeating).