Friday, October 29, 2010

Two questions from elsewhere

Anyone who has ever stumbled across public choice theory will be familiar with the Parkinson's Law type arguments - that public services tend to be captured by budget-maximising bureaucrats.

These faceless thieves allegedly cause the services concerned to decline into a mire of inefficiency that defeats the purpose for their existence.

Now here's a question: Are corporations dominated by bureau maximising bureaucrats to a greater extend than public services? Reading this, you could conclude that they are.

Next question: Are banks worth anything? Chris follows up his question with arguments for a 'state bank' - after all, if they socialise their risks.....?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The cuts won't work, they'll just make it worse

From my old mate Mark Perryman at Philosophy Football, this is his latest offering - just £9.99 from here.

I've said this before, but you probably don't read my longer postings so I'll say it again: as a twenty-year old ultra-Thatcherite Bullingdon Club member, Osborne could never in his wildest dreams have believed that he would achieve everything he went into politics for within six months of taking office. And he would have thought you were mad if you told him he wouldn't even need to win an election to do it!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Labour's strategic failure, continued... (Tower Hamlets episode)

I had a long-ish post here the other day that I should probably provide a shorter summary for before I add an addendum to it.

My argument is that Labour has cued itself up for three very severe structural defeats that will be difficult to reverse in recent months, because they've lost sight of what their mission is. Instead of a strategy to attain a sustainable progressive outcome, they've been transfixed with a tactical approach that guaranteed short-term electoral success (i.e. being able to win general elections on an ever-dwindling share of the overall vote until 2005).

My argument was that, if Labour had understood the centrality of a high standard of liberal democracy to achieving it's social democratic ends...
  • the LibDems would never have considered an electoral pact with the Tories on the spurious grounds that capitalist realism = liberalism,
  • the Tories would be unable to assault the notion of public service broadcasting and replace it with hugely valuable (to themselves) propagandists
  • we would have a coherent response to the CSR cuts - one that had a long-term provenance in the way that the Tories anti-state rhetoric has had in recent years
I say this because last night, Labour lost the Tower Hamlets mayoral election to a communalist candidate. That candidate was helped by tacit support from Ken Livingstone - Labour's next Mayoral candidate.

Now, it's not the end of the world if we sometimes lose local elections. If I had may way, we'd not have local Mayoral elections in the first place (it's another aspect of Labour policy that has been incompatible with liberal democracy).

Labour can neither bitch too loudly about losing to a communal candidate as we've not had an explicit and ideological rejection of the practice of communalism ourselves.

Neither can we bitch about the uneven application of party rules - especially where Ken Livingstone is concerned - because Labour disgraced itself in it's handling of the mayoral selection in 2000 and it still has active intervention from regional parties, unions and various central court jesters in local selection processes as Teresa Pearce learned to her cost a few years ago in the selection at Erith & Thamesmead.

Labour's real problems are not of a left-right nature. It's almost a spiritual failing. We're not that much of a good party any more, and we won't succeed until we become one again.

Just saying, like.....

The neo-liberal helecopter arrives

Over at K-Punk:
"....where, previously, neoliberals had used the crises in other political systems (state socialism, social democracy) as an opportunity to helicopter in their 'reforms', on this occasion they are using a crisis brought about by neoliberal policy itself to try to electro-shock the neoliberal programme back into life.

I heard one buffoon on television saying that "we've been in denial for the last ten years". If there's denial, it's happened in the last two years, and on the part of the neoliberals and their friends in the business elite, who - after demanding at gunpoint unprecedented sums of public money - are now brazenly continuing to peddle the story that they are the friend of the taxpayer and that it is welfare claimants, not them, who are the scroungers who have brought the country to the "brink of bankruptcy"."

Friday, October 22, 2010

Labour and the CSR - tactics and strategy

Over at Labour Uncut, Dan Hodges has a fairly pessimistic account of Labour's failure to set their stall out properly over the months since the election in preparation for the CSR. As far as it goes, there's not much to disagree with there - Labour got into a muddle and the response was weak.

But where I'd part company with Dan is on the question of how important this actually is. For me, that Labour MPs articulate this - “We haven’t got a line or a message” - as the problem is a large part of the problem itself.

Dan's post outlines what tactical response Labour should have deployed but quite often, he's referring to it as a missing strategy. There's a difference between tactics and strategy and he may be right that Labour have failed to agree on a tactics over the months since May, but the real problem is one that has existed since the early 1990s: That short-term tactical considerations have eclipsed - not trumped strategic ones.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I'd be happy to admit that Labour figures like Roy Hattersley, Robin Cook and John Smith may have allowed the pendulum to swing too far the other way - where Labour's soul was right but it didn't have the ruthless day-to-day response on headline issues.

New Labour was fantastic at understanding how the media worked and what people understood as their options. They were brilliant at maneuvering the Tories into a corner where they had the choice of either endorsing Labour's populist position or owning up to an option that they'd never be able to sell.

At times, it was like shooting fish in a barrel, they were so good at it. And John Major, Hague, Howard and IDS were the perfect for this kind of sucker-punching. But the Tories - both in opposition and now in government - agree with one of the only articles of faith that I ever heard from post-1994 Labour spokesmen: That elections are fought on the centre ground. They also have demonstrated that they know something that seems to have barely occurred to most senior Labour Party figures: That when you're in government, your first priority must be to drag the centre ground to where you want it to be.

Hattersley, Cook and Smith all, in their own way, had a politically literate understanding of what democratic socialism was. They had positions on the kind of arcana that sends even the chattering classes to sleep: Party democracy, electoral reform, what constitutes legitimate democratic deliberation, why Parliament matters, why the press need to be challenged and regulated more effectively.

The Tories have also grasped the importance of these issues - perhaps in a more atavistic and instinctive way than the way Labour's liberal left does it's thinking. The Tories have asked themselves: What are those objective allies that the left relies upon? Parliament has generally been more socially progressive that the public's reflexes have allowed it to be. We don't hang people, we allow immigrants in sometimes and we're in the EU, for starters.

The wider conservative milieu conducted an incredibly successful assault on the legitimacy of representative democracy in the closing years of the last government. One that Labour were unable to resist because it didn't occur to many of them that it was happening. And the results have been stunning.

As a twenty-year old ultra-Thatcherite Bullingdon Club member, Osborne could never in his wildest dreams have believed that he would achieve everything he went into politics for within six months of taking office. And he would have thought you were mad if you told him he wouldn't even need to win an election to do it!

Yet for Labour to focus on what their long-term strategic interests were - it would have been regarded as a distraction by most New Labour 'strategists'. They would undoubtedly have made the day-to-day work of top-down government a bit harder, but then a grasp of how party democracy could have been made to work would have brought many more hands to the pump. Labour's need to avoid 'embarrassment' during the party conference season trumped all other considerations.

The kind of responses that we may have got from some of Labour's older heads - had they still been around - wouldn't have been folksy and populist, and at times they would have jarred. This week, the Guardian newspaper was jeered at (by News Corporation journalists in particular) for leading on the BBC cuts on the day that half-a-million public sector jobs were going to be butchered. Middle class wankers, I hear you say, and I suppose it's a point of sorts. But New Labour (unlike Labour) spent no time understanding who the objective allies were that democratic socialism could count upon.

The Tories' outriders have, for years, pedaled the line that the BBC is some kind of Trotskyist enclave. It's a position that's easy to disprove, but it's not the important one: Public service broadcasting is the objective ally of those who want the spirit of liberal democracy to be strengthened. There are people on the left and right who fit into this camp (ffs, even Henry Porter grasps this one!). And those people, in turn, are the objective allies of democratic socialism.

Labour could - and should have made it impossible for the Tories' well times assault on public service broadcasting - an assault that will perhaps do the centre-left for more long-term political damage than anything else that's happened this week.

Listening to Alison Garnham of the Child Poverty Action Group on the recent Moral Maze Radio 4 programme (11.40mins in on the 20/10/2010), you can hear a fairly good position on what progressive taxation should look like (along with a defence of universal benefits). It's one that - if it had been articulated by New Labour and it's successors, it would have given Labour a methodical basis on which they should oppose the Child Benefit cuts. No-one in the Labour Party seemed capable of making Alison's simple points.

One of the reasons that the Lib-Dems were able to enter into a coalition with the Tories was that Labour's clumsy approach to questions of individual liberty legitimised a good deal of the informal coalition building between liberals and conservatives before the election. At the time I was moaning about how daft the wider left was in participating in it, but it's a flank that older Labour heads would never have left exposed in the first place.

The paucity of The Third Way as a construct was very illustrative here: It sort of implied that co-ops / mutualism or something was the Labour answer to the unpalatable poles of wholesale nationalisation or privatisaton. But in failing to deal - strategically - with the lack of legitimacy or good practice that new forms of collective action offered, they not only squandered the kind of opportunity that the centre-left will only ever have again if it gets 13 years of uninterrupted power - it also ceded it's best idea to the Tories, who have picked it up (after a fashion) with the Big Society idea.

Dan is right about the tactical failings. But the biggest problem is that the left has no organisation, no widely-articulated philosophical underpinning. We have no idea what we should be arguing for. That's why we bicker about how we argue against a very coherent government.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Been looking for this for a while

Twenty years, in fact. Then it turns up on YouTube.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Healey, 'the squeezed middle', and the challenge to Labour

(Disclaimer: Written in a hurry. Intended to capture an idea rather than make the argument perfectly)

I had an odd reply on twitter recently suggesting that I was involved in a bit of co-ordinated boosterism when I said something supportive of John Healey MP who has done exceptionally well in his bid to join the Shadow Cabinet.

It seems I'm not alone in hoping that he becomes a more prominent and influential member of the Opposition team (Left Foot Forward's Will Straw and Labour List's Anthony Painter have also been noting his finer points. They may all have been co-ordinating each other for all I know, but I wasn't!

I've known John for a long time, and only slightly (he used to say 'no' repeatedly to me when I tried to sell him things in his various Trade Union capacities before he was an MP, - if anything, I should be bearing grudges!). But his view that Labour needs to address a good deal of it's policy focus to the squeezed middle is a useful one for the party to get it's head around for all kinds of reasons.

His particular willingness to pick this up probably does stem from his time at MSF and later at the TUC, as this demographic - one that is over-represented among public sector workers in general and paid-up trades unionists in particular - is electoral low hanging fruit for the party. The messages that Labour will make from within their comfort-zone over the next couple of years are going to have an obvious appeal to these voters, many of whom didn't vote for us last time. A while ago, I outlined one of my hasty ten-point plans for Labour renewal (the things insomnia prompts me to do!) Points 2, 3 and 4 are ones that could be pursued within our comfort-zone - especially with our new fangled anti-NuLab leader!)

But this raises an important question for Labour and its diaspora. I'm in a hurry so I'm going to post two links in lieu of throat clearing:
  1. Chris Dillow on the degree to which political movements skew their definition of social justice to match the demands of powerful minorities
  2. Hopi Sen on the decline of Trades Unions - less in terms of the numbers of members that they claim and more in terms of their claims to represent a broad swathe of working people
And if that isn't enough laziness on my part, I'd like to link to a post written by someone called 'Why Labour's electoral college is the most mature and democratic means of electing a leader.' I think its a very good system and when I get a moment I'll say why. It's very much to the party's credit that it throws this decision open to millions of people who may not be nailed on Labour voters, but who are members of organisations that share the party's commitment to collective action and a degree of economic democracy.

It's only flaw is in Hopi's point about the narrowness of TU members, and this is something that a Labour big-noise with the ear of the Unions needs to be pressing home.

Unions charge about £10 a month for membership. This is a huge generalisation, but bear with me willya? They bundle a series of offerings together with what John Monks used to call 'the magic ingredient of trade unionism.' The thing is, unless you work in a unionised workplace or one where a spot of solidarity can make an obvious difference, it's hard to make the case for an outlay like this. There is a real opportunity to offer a telephone / web only contact service with cut-down access to TU services and commercial offerings priced at (say) £3. TU Lite anyone?

I've worked with some of the biggest Unions and, in my experience, in many cases, their attitude to aggressive recruitment has often ranged from piss-poor to shameful. In recent years, most of their expansionary energy has gone into mergers with a handful of super-unions growing to dominate the TUC.

I've seen plenty of evidence of TU officials resisting potentially effective means of online expansion because (in my opinion) they felt it would threaten the base of professional organisers. And while this is understandable from the organisers I suppose - we're all guilty of budget maximising in our jobs at some time or other - but I've often been surprised at the indifference from senior Trades Unionists about this. In my last workplace a few years ago (12 staff at the time) I had to repeatedly chase the T&GWU to get hold of membership forms.

We eventually got an 'organiser' (!) out to make the case for joining in about the sloppiest way imaginable, and it was almost impossible to get the completed form processed once I'd returned them. (Getting them to respond to any attempt to access 'member services' was no more impressive).

I'd also add that there are very honourable exceptions to this observation, but still....

Until Unions are prepared to re-package their offering in order to expand - perhaps offering lite online flavours of membership with options to join the political fund, they will continue to be confined to a declining base and will be failing in their professed mission to be evangelists for Labour politics.

And until this happens, Labour will be tethered to a section of the electoral college that isn't as legitimate as it could be. It will be losing an opportunity to improve our policy and selection processes. As it happens, it will also potentially be a political hostage to fortune if the Tories manage to make their Red Ed charge stick in any way.

So maybe one or two new members of the Shadow Cabinet will be able to pluck up the courage to go to the Unions and ask them to offer a bit more than the odd cheque as part of their commitment to growing the Labour movement?

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Comedy gold

Big money getting involved in football clubs. There are some upsides:

I support two teams. Forest, and whoever Liverpool are playing.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Time for an open and honest debate about Migration Watch?

I nicked that title from this post here which offers an argument that I'd fully subscribe to.

Following in the very successful steps of the British Chiropractic Association in using the libel laws to challenge their critics, the right-wing think-tank Migration Watch has turned it's learned friends on Sally Bercow, a Labour activist.

David Allen Green, formerly Jack of Kent and his colleagues at Preiskel & Co are acting for Ms Bercow. For me, the rights and wrongs of this run behind the simple rule that you shouldn't use the libel laws to suppress open debate.

End of.