Thursday, December 29, 2011

Technocrats versus Democracy?

Two recent posts from Chris Dillow - one on the irrelevance of politicians and another on the reluctance of politicians to make the robust moral decisions deserve another look, and not just because they're mostly right.

In both cases, they seem to be based upon the settled view of what politicians should be, rather than the principled description of what they could - and should - be.

In both cases, Chris doesn't start from the most important observation here: Politicians have rivals. Nominally, parliaments are sovereign (with lots of global caveats - here's ours). Nominally, they derive that sovereignty from us - 'nothing about us without us.'

Yet, I doubt if anyone would try to push the fiction that we all have equal influence over our Parliaments. I don't mean the simple aggregate of direct democracy either. As that line from The Putney Debates put it, "the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live" should expect his arguments to weigh as heavily with his MP as "the greatest hee".

Try it yourself. Knock up a few hundred words on Utilitarianism, the oppression of minorities, how parliaments should make policy and the question of who elected politicians should represent.

It's a surprisingly uncomplicated essay to write. Yet no-one would look at most democracies and say that this good balance isn't increasingly disfigured by burgeoning populism or distorted beyond recognition by pressure groups, bureaucratic interests or media owners.

There are clear parallels here with my last post here on the erosion of justice.

We knock politicians for their failure to regulate the finance sector, but I'd like to read the counterfactual history of Western democracies in which parliaments would have got away with calling time on that particular party. For all of my lack of understanding of the climate change debate, I suspect we'd be able to say the same about that one too.

If someone were to come before a court and was demonstrably incapable of making good decisions in their own interests because they had fallen under the influence of a bully, the court would appoint a someone with the independence to make those decisions. New Labour made an early admission of this kind when it make the Bank of England independent and Osborne has created his own ersatz version with the Office for Budget Responsibility.

There is nothing anti-democratic about a Parliament doing the same thing in other spheres - quite the opposite. The only point at which Parliament deserts its duties when it replaces a legitimacy-lite Prime Minster with a technocrat (and in our centralised modern states, that is all that has been happening) and then only gives them one task - to solve the problem that the bully has helped to create.

I'd go further. The most democratic thing a Parliament can do is to appoint someone who can make the decisions that they would make if they weren't under unbearable coercion.

This is not a defence of the current rise of technocrats though. Their mandate appears to be to solve the current crisis and then to restore the power relations that created it in the first place. If technocrats fail to create a long-term challenge to the forces that rival Parliaments, then they're no better than our increasingly centralised and presidential political leaders. But I don't suppose they're any worse than them either.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Justice simplified

Many of the anti-racists who have demanded an uncompromising response to the allegations of racism against John Terry and Luis Suarez will come to regret getting what they've asked for. This controversy also has implications for people with little interest in football.

I'm not sure we'll ever see all of the evidence related to these incidents, but I'm fairly certain that neither were simply one-way racial slurs. In both cases, we've seen clumsy claims in mitigation against a backdrop of an opaque process. The reputation of professional football, it seems, requires the hearings to be conducted in private while the sentences get handed down in public.

With the facts that we have, it's hard to understand why Liverpool FC are going to such lengths to demonstrate solidarity with Suarez. This may partly be because we don't have all the facts and Liverpool players have some that we don't.

I'm not going to make the case that the sentences that have/will be handed out are harsh or disproportionate. I can't know that. But I'm fairly sure that, in another workplace, this would be done differently. The result may have been more lenient or more harsh, but it's fairly clear that it'd be different.

The contrast with the (admittedly botched) justice that the alleged killers of Stephen Lawrence will receive is a useful comparison here, on the day that the judge started summing up with a stout defence of the fair trail.

Here's my problem with this: High-profile people now appear to have been given a semi-constitutional status. Transactions that they're involved in have to combine an institution-saving opaqueness with the requirement to set an example.

It's more important that justice is seen to be done than that it's actually done. There's a parallel here in the way that it seems to be the settled view of almost everyone - even at the Leveson Enquiry - that someone who puts themselves in the public eye then loses certain privacy privileges.

It seems that justice - in the cases of people in the public eye - seems to be based upon what sentence the public will understand as being appropriate once they've seen a simplified version of events. This applies to footballers and general celebrities. It also applies to politicians, civil servants and other political players. It applies to anyone that newspaper proprietors and editors want it to apply to.

It reflects an increased willingness to pander to the demagogic demands of The Hive Mind. It gives a more mundane expression to some of the observations in Charlie Brooker's very good 'Black Mirror' series (especially the 'National Anthem' episode).

Decisions that affect us all are being made in the same way. Sharon Shoesmith's treatment at the hands of Ed Balls is a notable example. The court of public opinion is expanding its remit and no-one seems to be doing much to counteract this.

With Suarez, Terry and Shoesmith, we got the Dopamine-rush you get from swift justice. Children aren't safer as a result. Allegations of racism are now another disruptive tool that can be gamed wherever a celebrity is involved. 

It's another reason for Chris to conclude that politicians are irrelevant now. Why bother standing for office when unelected people with convening power can decide what decisions you are going to make in advance and then harass you until you make them?

The notion of 'the public interest' seems to have taken on a life of its own. Reversing this won't be easy. But it's possible.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I'm not an economist. The last time I had a hard look at the history and politics of Europe was some time in the mid-1990s. I don't have much by way of valuable analysis of the current European SNAFU.

What bothers me, though, is the shortage of useful commentary from the professionals.

We all have a bunch of lightly-held priors. Here are mine:

  • A European federalist settlement would be a great deal more democratic than the current settlement enjoyed by most - if not all - Europeans
  • Monetary union is an accelerant to political union, and therefore, European federalism (although political union and federalism aren't necessarily the same thing)
  • There's a cart-horse problem with monetary union - that it can only work in the presence of political union, but political union is unlikely unless it's created by the experience of the Euro. This appears to be what we're seeing, albeit in a hasty and risky form.
  • The Euro was implemented very badly. Allowing countries with large black economies to be part of it was potty in the first place (in my defence, I've spent the last decade telling everyone that I know that the Euro is ultimately doomed as long as it includes an unreformed Italy)
  • The presence of unreliable, anti-democratic governments like the Italian one within the Euro meant that it was only ever going to be a fiscally conservative union (and I'd add that, from what I can see, the case with Greece is slightly more complicated, but the conclusion is the same). A lack of cohesion makes this inevitable. 
  • Britain is a politically conservative place that won't vote for the democratic improvements that a federal Europe would bring. This can be partly explained by it's democratic shortcomings - ones that could be removed by a good federalist settlement. Cart and horse again.
  • Britain is, however, one of the most atlanticist forces within the EU and had a strong strategic interest in bringing Eastern European nations into the European sphere of influence. Bringing unequal economies into the EU may be a good move from the viewpoint of national governments seeing strategic alliances, but not good from the Federalist viewpoint. 

So, in the long run, I'm a federalist. But I'm also in favour of a Citizens' Basic Income and Land Value Tax. Both policies that I think would work very well, but ones that don't have an obvious route-map leading to them.

The problem with the way that this seems to be discussed - almost everywhere that I've seen - is that most commentators are letting their priors shape what they say. It's all wishful thinking rather than analysis.

As a federalist, I'm happy to consider the possibility that Cameron did the right thing for non-federalist Britain (though the description of his positioning and negotiating doesn't inspire much confidence). Similarly, I'd be interested to read a British Eurosceptic (sic) saying that the UK may have been out-manoevered quite badly.

The forecasts around the success of the Eurozone seem to be very wide-ranging. Why are Europhiles only capable of predicting success? And why are Eurosceptics only capable of predicting failure?

And why are editors incapable of finding Europhile Eurozone pessimists and their mirror image? We'd learn more if they could - and it'd be more interesting as well.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Round-up of lefty blogs & social media nodes

I don't normally use this site for anything work-related, but I reckon the readers (if there are any left - it's very quiet these days) are the most likely to know the answer to this:

Here's a quick overview of prominent Labour & Trade Union social media initiatives for a talk I'm giving to TU organisers. I know I've not included 'False Economy' here yet, but are there any others that I've missed? (They are in no particular order btw):

Left Foot Forward: 80k unique visitors per month – winner of last two Total Politics 'Left Wing Blog of the Year'  - very effective myth-busting on pensions & has seized the economic agenda a few times recently
Liberal Conspiracy: 100k to 120k unique visitors a month. Liberal-left, pushed to take off advertisers from News of the World. Led anti-Rod Liddle campaign when he was being lined up as Independent Editor.
Compass:  Claims 50,000 members + contact with many ex-Labour members. Used to be very active on Facebook, but restrictions there may have reduced activity
Labour List:  60k – 70k unique visitors. Big-name occasional contributors (Ed Milliband, Ed Balls & Gordon Brown)
Labour Uncut: (still trying to get the figures)
Left Futures: Main Labour left blog. 6,500 unique visitors a month. Helps to create the community around the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy – the parliamentary left
38 Degrees: Email subscription and crowdsourced campaigning. Notable successes on NHS Reform and forestry privatisation.

Any obvious omissions?