Monday, September 26, 2011

How Labour should apologise (vested interests #2)

There's been a fair amount of comment over the weekend on how Labour should apologise for the state it left the country in. Ed Balls has been touring the interview suites this morning saying 'sorry' for regulatory weakness on the banks and on public spending. It all sounds a bit weak, and it's being done in a way that offers Labour no upside.

It sounds like a limp concession to the people in the party who are saying that we won't be taken seriously until we've done this properly.

Is this really the case? Personally, I doubt it. It imagines that our opponents in parliament and the press will say "OK - thanks for getting that out of the way. Now let's move on....."

As a good Catholic boy, I'd also attest that an act of contrition only really counts if it comes with a determination not to sin again.  This is where Labour's opportunity arises.

Labour didn't cover itself in glory by increasing borrowing during an economic upswing in the mid-noughties. The way to apologise to the public on this is the way that you would apologise to a driver if you've just put a dent in their wing a few minutes before a banker steamrollered the same car off a cliff.

If Labour did screw up badly - and demonstrably - it was in two big areas:
  1. Allowing the subjects of reguation to dictate their terms
  2. Procurement

Taking the latter first, IT contractors were allowed to corner government departments into writing blank cheques. Defence manufacturers were able to entirely capture limitless budgets with impunity.

The bill for all of this ran into the tens of £billions and Labour really does owe the voters a massive apology for it.

This was a failure to confront vested interests - one that Labour needs to deal with ruthlessly now to regain credibility in this area. It will also chime with Ed Milliband's 'vested interests' line of attack.

And continuing the departmental capture theme (and moving on to regulatory failure), the socially useless finance sector was allowed to write it's own regulations in a way that no government can ever permit again.

But how can Labour do this? Dan Hodges is sceptical of Ed's 'Ralph Nader' line of attack saying

"It's bold, it's brave, and it's politically suicidal. But you have to hand it to him. Ed Miliband is the new Ed Cojones. No compromise on Labour's economic message. No let up on the attacks on those at the top of society. No pandering to the right-wing press. Ed will be true to himself, and his party. 
There's only one problem. The rules of the game don't change. That's why they're the rules."

Dan's wrong. Labour just never really understood the rules. And the cowing of News International over the summer may have even changed them slightly anyway.

Labour really does need to get it's head around how well the Tories did using deniable outriders to carry it's attacks out for it when Labour was in government. Labour's line of attack shouldn't be coming from Milliband at all. He needs people with no formal link to the party to be saying a lot of it.

None of this happens without some degree of support from the party machine though. In our shoes, the Tories would be getting the right people to open up a loud line of enquiry into why a sloppy and politically biased media has been allowed to conduct it's lazy vendettas at the expense of the public interest for so long.

As long as electoral attack politics have existed in this country, we have a history of accepting that it's part of the Conservative Party's M.O. - the deniable outriders such as the real authors of the Zinoviev Letter, The postwar anti-rationing Housewives League, and latterly, The Taxpayers' Alliance.

The left's targets can be our heroic Fourth Estate, who fiddled while the government was forced to avoid burning the bondholders. Another socially useless little monopoly failed in ways that no modern state can afford.

We (not Labour) need to shift the focus beyond the shallow question of post-hoc regulation whenever newspapers really bugger someone's life up and focus on the bigger questions and start attacking the opponents of public service broadcasting - painting them for what they are: anti-social opportunists. But this can't come directly from Labour.

We can take steps to ensure that the financial sector can never again enjoy the ability to make well-timed policy-interventions defending their own interests.

Labour can heavily emphasise it's determination not to allow any of this to happen again in ways that would push the coalition out of their comfort zone.

We (i.e. Labour's supporters - not it's leadership) can demand a lot more transparency about lobbyists. We can make demands that push the coalition into a war with it's own departments (no government wants this, and the Tories forced us into a continual one - what goes around comes around!).

We can demand ever-more transparency and ethical standards from companies that bid for government work. No donating to political parties. No expenditure on lobbying. Corporate governance standards up the wazoo. Personal responsibility from senior executives with criminal-law penalties. No personal political donations from senior executives or major shareholders either. No meetings with ministers or party hacks. No sponsorship of political activities.

All 'evidence' that is submitted into the public domain by outfits like the British Bankers Association should go through a level of fact-checking first. If they do decide to spend money on research, they should pay a commensurate sum of money into a blind-trust that can then be spent either cross-checking their claims or commissioning relevant research as a counterbalance.

If anyone thinks that Labour is going to fall into the same traps again after that little lot, they'd struggle to make the case for it. And we'd be able to yell 'vested interest' back at them when they do.

And that's "we" - not Labour. When attacks find their target, then Ed can get on board. But not before. As I put it a while ago, Labour and the far-left need each other for the first time ever.

But before any of this can happen, Labour needs to re-examine it's traditional desire to take a leadership role all of the time.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Labour & vested interests

Imagine you walked into a shop with a vague intention of buying a vacuum cleaner. You want one that's mid-price and durable. One that will do the job, last for a few years and not break the bank.

Your initial glance around the shelves tells you that there's one right there that probably fits the bill nicely (and indeed, it does - but you're not to know this yet).

Then imagine the salesperson doesn't pay any attention to what you're looking for, but instead starts banging on about a range of irrelevancies. The colour of the thing. The range of unwanted attachments and features. A range of special offers where you get a discount on a washing machine if you buy a particular model. The fashionable traction that a particular brand will bring to your home.

The salesperson also tries to pigeon-hole you into some irrelevant demographic and, on that basis, tries to hard-sell a model that you're instantly sure isn't right for you.

You went in with a simple need on a subject you don't care about that much. The shop could have taken £150 off you effortlessly if they had taken the trouble to look at it from your viewpoint for a few seconds. Instead, you leave the shop with your money and a plan to postpone your purchase and live with the dust for a while longer.

*****************

This week, I heard Ed Milliband and his team mention the words 'vested interests' in the sort of tone that suggests they're against them. There was a bit of muttering about energy companies and supermarkets. There are a range of consumerist, corporate and monopolitstic targets I was hoping to hear added to the list.

I reached for my wallet, so to speak. That's exactly what I'm looking for in a political party, and I doubt if I'm alone in this. I hate the very concept of 'zeitgeist', but if I didn't, I'd have to concede that Ed had hit a very zeitgeisty note with 'tackling vested interests'.

Then a shower of apparatchiks appeared on my radar, one after another, recommending a variety of tactical gambits that they imagine will get Labour across various lines.

To 'regain trust'. To be 'seen as being on people's side'. To 'offer the kind of leadership people are looking for'.

It all focussed upon imagined constituencies. My kremlinology is a bit rusty on this, but I think that the squeezed middle =Brownites, Middle England = Blairites and traditional working class = Blue Labour and so on?

Whatevah! No-one seems to have realised that if you tell everyone that you're on their side simultaneously today you'll get found out tomorrow.

We should offer all kinds of pledges, apparently. There is a parallel universe in which Ed's promise to cap tuition fees is 'genius', it seems.

We should also go around looking for ever-more convincing acts of contrition over our handling of the economy because we have "lost the argument" on that one.

There's even a 'Dragon's Den' event (Fabian Society, I think?) where there's a prize of the 'Election-winning idea'. It's what the term *facepalm* or the concept *flamethrower* was invented for.

If Ed wants to win the next election, I reckon he could do worse than scrapping the annual conference altogether. It's a magnet for paid-up wonks to drown out the conversation Labour needs to have with the public.

Pitching for votes and selling vacuum cleaners. They're jobs that have got a lot more in common than you'd think.

Ed. Do yourself a favour. Start banging on about vested interests all week. Speak of nothing else. For god's sake, give us an enemy that the public can identify with. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests. Vested interests.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Johann Hari and interviewing

I'm not going to strain any ligaments defending Johann Hari - he just reminds me of what people say about his newspaper, The Independent: "The Daily Mail for people who recycle."

Hari just strikes me as a corduroy-jacketed version of John Gaunt. Massively overconfident in expressing poorly thought-out opinions.

Still, he's hardly unusual within his own profession in that respect, and his journalistic colleagues seem to be prepared to cut him a bit of slack for doctoring his interviews. In a lot of cases, I can't see that a pedantic sticking to verbatim quotes is all that important.

I reckon a spot of community service is more appropriate than ten years hard labour for what he's done here - but there are plenty of other people arguing about that elsewhere.

Anyhoo.... I quite like the idea of 'underarm interviews' - where the interviewer and interviewee collaborate - each editing their questions and answers intending to help each other refine the questions and answers: Stripping out the problems caused by inarticulacy or imprecision.

I did one some years ago with Chris Dillow here - I learned a good deal more about what his position was than I'd ever have got from reading his general writing, or any live interview that we could have done. We did it just updating a Google Doc - often revising an earlier point to help clarify the current one.

I think it worked well - both sides of the table have nowhere to hide. I wish there were more of them. Almost 'set piece' interviews.

WDYT?




Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Academic publishing, open data and business models

A few quick bookmarks - things I'm thinking about. I'd be interested in you're thinking about them as well?

Elected officials, joint subscription and historical vitality

I've recently discovered Jason O'Mahony's blog - a good political site focussed on Irish and EU politics.

There's a fair bit to agree with there and a few good provocations. I'd take issue with this post though - or at least two of the 11 things we'll be thankful to the recession for.

I started to take this up in the comments, but I think there's something a bit rude about hijacking someone's comment thread with very long responses so I decided to post it here. The two points I've a problem with are....
  • Point three: "We’ll have less politicians. And they’ll be cheaper." 
  • Point five:  "Borrowing will no longer be easy. Demanding extra spending will no longer pass without some challenge as to who pays?" 
 In the comments, Jason says:
"We have over 1600 elected officials in this country. We don’t have enough? As for joint subscription: It’s not unreasonable for people to know that if someone else wants something, someone else has to pay for it."
Ireland doesn't have 1600 elected officials (if that's the number). It has 1600 elected representatives. They're very different things. The problem is that, in Ireland more than the UK (for example) most of those representatives actually think that they're elected officials who don't have to do the unpleasant side of officialdom (eg 'work' or making decisions that involve trade-offs).

I spend a lot of time there, as it happens, and as far as I can see, it's a politics that is reduced to the functional 'pot-hole' populism where an elected 'representative' spends most of their time getting photographed next to items of public expenditure that they've brought home to the voters. They don't think that it's their job to deliberate in the public interest, to enquire into abuse, corruption or misuse of power.

They leave all of that to lobbyists and a handful of political fixers. And that would be slightly more acceptable if there was any really aggressive journalism going on, but that's on the way out as well. This is a good deal worse, by the way, in Ireland than it is in the UK. At least we have a well-funded 'public service broadcaster.'

Over the past 30 years, we've seen a de-ideologicalisation in politics (the 'end of history'?) in which (for example) no-one understands that there's a problem with 'joint subscription' - no-one sees how that makes collective action near-impossible. How it puts us all on the road to gated communities, 'free' schools and a politics that is only about gaming public expenditure so that it's directed towards particularly active groups of citizens.

How it hamstrings institutions like the EU (where the debate increasingly turns towards some kind of 'subscription' relationship in which value-for-money trumps the need for historic vitality) or the US where 'red states' are full of anti-tax campaigners who manage to also be the largest drawers upon federal budgets.

We're at a point in history when western democracies are starting to lose the automatic claim to being the best agents for prosperity (no-one's as interested in fairness as they used to be), and this is largely the product of enervated politics. As Burke put it...
"When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people." 
That's what you get when elected officials administer a 'joint subscription' model of government. We've never needed politicians more than we do now. And we've never had fewer of them.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Gotta getaway

This bothers me about as much as any other thing I can think about.

See this clip (4min 40secs in):


"I'd like to be invisible, be able to move around with having to explain it to anyone."
Do we underestimate the desire for invisibility?