Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Enlightenment thinking and political renewal

This is a very good post - well worth a read. Particularly the bit about consumer-politics.

One of the most obnoxious infections that hit New Labour was it's fear of presenting policies that contained components that would be resisted.

It took until very late in the term, for instance, for them to pluck up the courage to propose telephone levies - a policy that they were then not equipped to defend when it was attacked.

More on this later when I get time maybe.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A better type of electoral reform than the one that is being demanded?

Why not give every voter the option to break their vote into ten parts so that they can spread them around a bit?

This would surely allow people to respond to candidates more accurately?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Connectivity - good or bad?

A really interesting exchange about how far connectivity is a social good.

Stroke City: Another big day

If there hadn't already been enough happening around Ireland's North West coast, today, the good people behind the Derry-Londonderry UK City of Culture bid will be delivering their pitch in Liverpool. They're up against Sheffield, Norwich and Birmingham.

Now, with all due respect to them, these rivals will - I suspect - be handing in very managerialist bids. Ducks will be got in a row, business cases will be made and - who knows - this could result in the legacy of a new carrot-cake-and-coffee cinema!

Culture is where big important and exciting things happen. In Derry, they nearly fell out with each other over whether they should be bidding to be part of the UK City of Culture and then the usual squabbles went on quietly about the name and so on.

Derry has petty rivalries but sits, historically, on a gaping historical chasm that separates far more than just nationalists and unionists. It's a great little town and one that got into the souls of anyone who grew up in this country in the 1970s.

Our local Catholic church used to run schemes where kids of my age were brought over from Derry for a few quiet weeks away from carnage that was happening around them. Derry has stories to tell and narratives that need to be played out.

It's current iconography - whether it's Free Derry Corner or the murals showing kids in gas-masks priming up Molotov Cocktails, - is one that needs to be mashed up and worked over. One of the most stunning artifacts I've seen in a long time was the way that one of Anthony Gormley's manikins was necklaced (pdf) for some imagined sectarian transgression. It's one of the most stunning responses that I've ever seen to a work of art.

Any cultural focus that Derry gets over the next few years can make a huge difference to the city - and it could teach us all a few things we don't already know.

I hope the judges can get to understand this potential.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Summer gig planning

Richard Thompson is hosting the 2010 Meltdown. There aren't many of those gigs that I'd turn down a free ticket. That's how you can show your gratitude for the splendid blogging you find here periodically.

As a consolation, I'll be seeing him among the fantastic line up at the Hop Farm festival (apologies for the flash-laden site) at the start of July.

Other attractions there include Van Morrison, Damian Dempsey, Bob Dylan, Dr John, Ray Davies, Pete Molinari, the Magic Numbers and the Afro-Celt Soundsystem. That's pretty impressive I reckon.

Go. For the weekend. Take a tent.

Labour needs to speak human. And four identikit blokes alone would have blocked it doing so.

I can't remember the last time I didn't care for one of Hopi's posts, but I'm not keen on this one. My problems are with the phrase 'hard left', but also with this line:
"...this process will be used to push forward a policy agenda that will be massively out of sync with the vast majority of the Labour party, and although it will be heavily defeated, it will have an imprint on the party that will last."
This is a very risk-averse argument that doesn't acknowledge any upside to challenging the party's orthodoxy. There are plenty of us who regard ourselves as being on the left of the party without being on the hard left. Yet we have been politically marginalised by a process that should have only been designed to exclude elements of the left that really weren't interested in any compromise with the electorate. Instead, it was also designed - deliberately or otherwise - to exclude elements that were at odds with a narrow (and now, outdated and unpopular) compromise with neo-liberalism.

People with interests in particular policy-positions will be able to point to the way that political factions on the right of the party have been able to shoehorn-in particular approaches that were neither an electoral asset, good policy, or in sync with the vast majority of the party. Insert your own rant here about PPP, lax financial services regulation or a general bias towards private sector involvement in the delivery of public services where the public interest would have been better served by agnosticism.

My problem is a more general one. The Labour government was never a good government in many ways. Sure, it prioritised the concerns of the many and not the few in lots of good ways and it's leftish critics often picked the wrong battles.

But it's hard to deny that Labour had it's reputation for competence deservedly trashed*. The people that became MPs were often puzzled spectators on the whole question of public administration. They often seem to lack the basic grounding in good governance, and are prepared to be bullied by their whips into a spiral of short-termism. They had no idea about how to get government departments to do what they are supposed to.

They didn't get selected for their grasp of public administration, after all. They were chosen for their compliance. And when a headline kept them awake, they arrived at work the next morning ready to add yet another ropey reflexive patch to bad legislation. Instead of fewer, better, bills, before Parliament, we had more and more worthless legislation that is often being replaced on the floor of the House of Commons before it even reached the statute books. Rigged selection processes. Low-grade MPs. A highly-centralised politics of diktat.

Those four male candidates that we're looking at currently all represent this highly reflexive and short-termist approach to politics, and it's an approach that has been nurtured - not challenged - by this form of party management that seeks to always avoid challenges, terrified that the media that will portray us as disunited.

This over-stated fear, and our response to it as a party - has had unintended side-effects. Those four blokes need to face what Don calls 'reality-based soft-left arguments'. Arguments that prioritise the need to build the case for collective action - surely the defining mission of a Labour movement?

It would be very hard to demonstrate that the four male candidates in this election - lifted from a narrow social and cultural clique - are in sync with the vast majority of the party and they are the product of a party that has always and only been obsessed with short-term presentation and tactical - instead of strategic - social democratic politics.

I don't buy the idea that electoral liability and left-ish are always the same thing, indeed there's a strong case now that Labour's inability to speak human is the product of this lack of internal discussion. Diane Abbott's inclusion in the race offers the possibility (not the certainty - I'll concede that) of this happening. Either way, without it, we're in trouble.

*The paras following this point are a bit of a cut-and-paste job from an older post here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The left isn't ready to start answering the big questions yet

Via Nick Cohen, I see that Bryan Appleyard has picked up on the survey of lefty great-and-goods from the daily journal of the Birkenstock Traitors. With it's emphasis on the need to legitimise speed cameras, Bryan concludes that the left doesn't have an economic narrative. He concludes that the if the left doesn't have this, it doesn't have anything.

It seems to me that the real difference between the left and the right is that we prefer collective action while the right are generally against it except when it is done by firms.

For this reason, it's a bit previous to expect us to have a convincing position on macro-economic questions. We have other fish to fry first. I agree with Appleyard that a defence of speed cameras can't be the key issue, but I would say that a democratic socialist would argue for a move towards improving the quality of democracy - the precondition to arguing for collective action - as the single most important question facing us.

If you have a means of decision-making that results in more optimal policy outcomes while at the same time providing the highest level of inclusion – you are likely to legitimise collective action more. This means we have to ask how we can ensure that everybody's interests are served by democratic decision-making and not just those of the already enfranchised and the nearly-enfranchised. It also means that we need to start addressing how co-ops and mutuals can be reformed and promoted (I blogged on this a good while ago and don't have much to add to it), and how collective action can start to impact upon the way that shareholders control companies. (Tom's triffic blog deals with this question daily)

I have the slightly idiosyncratic belief that a return towards the values of representative democracy and a resistance to the slide towards more direct forms is the key here.

If we can get that right, then the economic questions start to take care of themselves. So our current position is actually more perilous than Mr Appleyard thinks it is. We haven't really started asking the questions that we need to answer in order to address the economic question.

This is all quite bad, isn't it?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Caledonian Soul: Greil Marcus on Van Morrision

Make an hour for yourself and tune in to this interview in which Greil Marcus talks about his Van Morrison book.

Hat tip to Pete - I've been discussing it in the comments there.

National populism and democracy

As a Guardian reader, I have to take this rebuke seriously - and I've rarely written here about Israel or Palestine. It's not a subject I'm an expert on, or one that I feel that strongly about as a contained subject. It seems a good deal more complicated than a lot of public debate would have it to be.

It does, however, raise a few questions that are closer to home for us here in the UK. Following the flotilla incident earlier this week, I'm concerned at the question of proportionality.

On the one hand, when a country is attacked over its handling of minority rights by Turkey, you have to wonder why some persecutions dominate the global news agenda more than others. Given the unenviable situation Israel finds itself in / has created for itself* (some readers will have a preferred formulation here) it's possible to conclude that the global reaction to this attack is somewhat disproportionate.

On the other hand, on it's own merits, the actions of the IDF on that boat were pretty inexcusable. Leaving aside the legitimacy of the blockade itself, the balance of opinion seems to be that they could have boarded the boat and taken control of it without the killing. The subsequent statements by Israeli spokespeople were very plainly prepared for a domestic audience rather than the global one, and one suspects that the very expansive definition of what makes up weaponry (baby milk formula?) and other aspects of Israeli policy (settlement of the 'occupied territories' in particular) can be explained by these priorities.

I'm already into this subject deeper than I meant to be, but here's the question:

Is a national populism causing Israel to put short-termism (over-reaction, grandstanding, diplomatic inflexibility) ahead of it's long-term interests? Would it be possible to adopt a more sophisticated and pragmatic approach that than the one chosen by Israel?

Is this a fundamental challenge to all democracies? I'd like to think that the benefits of social justice and a respect for minority rights would be self-evident to modern democracies, but as far as I can see, the main reason Israel is prepared to allow continued building in the occupied territories along with it's inflexible and charmless approach to international diplomacy is largely because their electorate demands it.

It's a country that appears to have politically rejected the politics of Yitzhak Rabin in favour of the bombast of Binyamin Netanyahu. Yet for me, the most interesting question (one that it's impossible to answer with certainty) is this: If any EU country found itself in a similar situation to Israel, would it behave any differently?

And if Israel's behaviour is short-termist (we will only know if it is short-termist in the long run, see Keynes aphorism on this matter) and it's continuance as a democracy with secure borders would be better served by a more nuanced and humane approach, are we seeing another instance in which a debased, creepingly direct democracy is threatening the moral foundations of democracy?

Are we seeing democracies taking a path along which they are less interested in electing clever pragmatic people than in getting popular prejudices reflected in government? In relation to the question of climate change, this was the question explored by this recent Radio 4 programme. Extending the question, are we - as Chris argues here - more interested in electing 'prissy, priggish followers of rules' rather than politicians with any other virtues?

Is this the actual trajectory we are on generally? I think it is, but I'd be interested to hear the flipside of this argument. And will that path ultimately result in the collapse of those democracies in the face of undemocratic rivals?

Is a simple concerted re-statement of the values of representative democracy our only salvation? And if so, why isn't it a growing political movement?

Friday, June 04, 2010

Shadow cabinet quotas

Harriet wants half of the Shadow Cabinet to be women. I like the idea in principle but I'm left wondering if the reason that it may be an achievable demand can partly be put down to the view that political office is no longer coveted in the way that it was?

In 'the new politics', politicians are now sharing their power with others. And, of course, with the increasingly powerful political centre.

Women are outnumbered 2:1 on Labour's Westminster benches (a significantly better ratio than any of the other parties). There are 27 posts with two additional 'allowed to attend' seats around the table. Currently, six are women (and one of those 'allowed to attend posts is a woman as well).

The leap from six to 14 is easily do-able, I would have thought, though it means that eight blokes will have to step aside - that's the obvious political complication. Eight thwarted careers - not a high price to pay, but often a very hazardous one. All of that said, as high office has never been so unattractive as it is today - maybe now is the best time to make this move?

There are 258 Labour MPs and if 31% are women, it means that we've got 80 women MPs (... by my calculations? I can't actually find any accurate figures on online)

A few questions:
  1. How is this to be done? By leadership prerogatives or by a rule change? The former would be the Tory way (not that the Tories would do it) and Ed Miliband appears to be signed up to the idea. A rule change would fix it but could be messy. There are more effective means of doing this than by using crude quotas, and I don't see it as a huge obstacle.
  2. Where does it end? Does Parliament have to be representative of the age-bands, ethnic groupings and the sexual orientations of the electorate? Or of Labour voters?
  3. Representation / representative. How far are the two meanings of the word 'representative' interdependent?

As I've said, I like the idea of Labour being representative of the general population in all of these ways. I think that it may make for a better electoral performance and a better quality of policymaking.

But I keep going back to the notion that MPs should represent the nation as a whole and the idea that particular interests have to be at the table cuts against this preference.

What do you think?