Sunday, January 22, 2012

You Can't Read This Book - Nick Cohen

I've spent a lot of the weekend going through Nick Cohen's 'You Can't Read This Book' - I'd get a copy if I were you.
It's very good, and as a follow-on to his 2007 title, What's Left, it represents a consolidation of many of the themes there about the reluctance of Western liberals to defend what one would expect to be their basic principles.

It's a good read, picking most of the right fights, and I'm not going to highlight too many of the minor quibbles I'd have with some of his approaches here.

There is one aspect, though, that falls into the 'I'd have done more on this if I were writing this book' category, that could provide a useful jumping off point for Nick here.

The book gives a lot of credit to some of the better UK bloggers - notably, David Allen Green on the chilling effect of our libel laws, and Chris Dillow on the cult of managerialism.

He also picks up on the way that scientific method relies upon open collaborative policymaking rather than the closed beltway structures that are found in modern management and government. There's also a nod towards some of the politics of transparency and some of the phony claims made, for example, about Wikileaks.

I think that there's a lot more to write about the dialectics of both managerialism and transparency. The lack of media pluralism, the need for more collectively-managed media structures such as those found, albeit imperfectly, in public service broadcasters such as the BBC.

There's a need for the skeptical (!) readers of Cohen's book to unite not just around what they are against when it comes to censorship, but also what they are in favour of. OK - our libel laws, the flaky responses from liberals to religious zealots and bullying oligarchs within capitalism and failed democracies are part of the problem. But they survive at least in part because they lack a coherent counter-proposal.

Managerialism is hardwired into British politics today. It provided Labour with a disastrous sledgehammer to crack the nut of the charge that a union-backed Labour Party faced in the 1990s. Disastrous in that it fed in to the economic catastrophe of recent years, but also because it robbed Labour of its credibility in promoting collecive provision of public services.

Managerialism was the handmaiden to the privatisation-lite agenda of New Labour. It was the essential pre-condition to state disvestment. Large numbers of professionals were sidelined by the flimsy claims to competence from managers - the same over-confident claims that shareholders have faced as over-paid managers have dwarfed the traditional 'budget-maximising bureaucrats' of statism's mythology in the way that corporations are controlled.

Today, the management of the public sector presents us with a crisis. There is no Plan B - and Cohen hints at one in his advocacy of a more open and collaborative policy making. I'd love to read him expanding on this argument.

What are the essential pre-conditions to a more collaborative approach to public management? I'd say that the answer to this needs a detailed mapping of the different types of transparency and collaboration that we've been offered in the UK over the past decade, along with a deeper understanding of what participation means - what dangers and opportunities it presents. We need to look at what we've been offered in terms of it being misdirection - there's a lot that we've not been offered while the right hand has been offering so much of it's preferred form of largesse on the 'transparency' front.

I try to make it a rule not to plug my own work here. With fewer posts these days, it's increasingly a rule that has more exceptions to it than it used to have, and today's exception is a link to this project that I'm organising over the next few months - helping to promote a wider understanding of the politics and practicalities of a more collaborative and participative form of open government.

I'm hoping to help flush out a few of the answers.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Questions about Scottish Nationalism

I'm even more of a spectator than a participant on the Scottish independence debate than I am on most things. All I have is questons.

Firstly, as a social democrat, I'm very keen on a one-club approach to all political questions. I'd generally not ask "what do I think should happen?", but instead, "what would a good democracy do?"

I'm concious that this is an idiosyncratic way of looking at the world, but I'm more interested in working out what the best way of making decisions is than in what decisions we should make. I'm always looking for this formula;
  • Decision-making in the interests of everyone, not just sectional interests (with protection of minorities provided by a 'constitution' of some kind)
  • Where sectional interests happen at the expense of others, there is compensation
  • Decision-making that is optimised to maximise the quality of those decisions
  • As many people as possible involved in those decisions - as long as we can avoid self-interested outcomes at the expense of those who don't have the capacity to participate
  • Geographic closeness to the seat of decision-making
 In other words, fair and good government. Or motherhood and apple pie.

It seems fairly obvious to me that decentralisation is an essential pre-requisite to achieving this. And that Federalism offers the only means by which a state that makes decisions according to these lights will not suffer at the hands of its neighbours and rivals.

So, does this make me a supporter of Scottish Nationalism? And if so, does it make me a supporter of the Scottish Nationalism that is currently being advocated by the SNP?

Is Scottish Nationalism an irrational-but-understandable reaction to the traditional injustice of The Union?

Does one-off independence for one part of the UK set back the wider cause of Federalism for all? After all, I'd like to see almost everywhere liberated from decision-making that benefits London and the South East - and I think there's plenty of evidence that this injustice has been growing during my lifetime.

Listening to the debate this week, most sides seem to have - as a starting point - that the outcome of independence will not involve any kind of negotiation in which the final outcome is fair to all. Nationalists seem to be offering a very rosy outcome where The Union accepts separation on very favourable terms to Scottish residents while Unionists insist that the result will involve the Union helicoptering out of Scotland taking all of the investment and strategic assets with them, forcing the Scots to join the queue for EU accession just behind Somalia.

If anyone has written anything that responds to any of this, I've not seen it anywhere. The thing is, this debate has to be about democratic principles, and I think it's quite odd that no-one seems to start from that point.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

What's wrong with Labour?

I've been trying to come up with a catch-all summary of why non-Labour people don't like that party. 

Firstly, I'd say that Labour's USP is that it's the party of collective action. This is sometimes misrepresented as 'statism' but Labour people would be quick to point out that non-state actors (the voluntary sector, co-ops, mutuals, trades unions, 'social enterprises', commercial companies performing an 'outsourcing' service, the BBC, etc would all be just as acceptable as the state as agencies for collective action. 

Many Labour people even have a distinct preference for putting the state at the bottom of that list.

To Labour's opponents, it translates thus: Labour are comprised of the lumpen-intelligencia who think that the best way of doing things is to get committee of humanities graduates together.

But let's take this one step further. Today, in the absence of much else to talk about, lefties have been venting their anger at Liam Byrne for spearheading Labour's new year offensive on the workshy. Here's the offending lines: 

"[Beveridge] wanted a responsible government taking determined action to create work, but a responsible workforce too. He would have wanted reform that was tough-minded, and asked everyone to work hard to find a job. He would have worried about the ways that his system had skewed social behaviour because he intended benefits to help people who had their earning power interrupted because of illness, industrial injury or the capriciousness of the trade cycle. He never foresaw unearned support as desirable. 
.... But beyond this, "something for something" means reward for those who are desperately trying to do the right thing, saving for the future and trying to build a stable, secure home. Right now, these families are offered too little reward and incentive – in social housing and long-term savings – for the kind of behaviour that is the bedrock of a decent society."

To understand why Byrne is saying this (clearly with the blessing of the leadership) can be understood by reading Anthony Painter, writing for an audience mostly of Labour insiders:
"They [the voters] want to hear a clear voice of condemnation when people terrorise our streets and not hear it suffixed with ‘understanding’ and ‘complexity’. They can’t understand why those on out-of-work benefits – excluding the disabled and the retired – get a pay rise more than the average worker. When they turn to Labour, they want to hear a credible and clear line. Too often they experience a haze."
The thing is, at a point at which it's unclear whether we will ever again enjoy the economic conditions that make full employment possible, the arguments for stigmatising the poor and the unemployed are very weak, as Chris has pointed out here, here, here and here (and elsewhere, I'm sure).

So, here's what we know about Labour: They are transfixed by the need to establish a simple and popular legitimacy for collective action as a necessary pre-condition to practicing it. This may involve the resort to simple arguments that, on their own, don't stand up to serious argument. 

Personally, I think that they could put more effort into attacking the coalition and less into fashioning a pristine narrative of their own, but that's another argument for another day.

It's plain that all of this simplification is being done in the knowledge that the dominant social commentators prefer a simplistic stigmatisation of the poor than any of the sensible steps that would reflate the economy or place the burden of fixing it in the laps of the people who screwed it all up in the first place. 

It's a problem that could be reduced by tackling the lack of pluralism in the media and the monopolistic powers exercised by media owners.

The other day, I argued that technocrats - unsatisfactory though they are - can be acceptable if they can deal with a crisis that has been created by forces that politicians are unable to oppose successfully. But the other condition that we should apply to them is that they should also challenge and degrade the forces that dwarf elected politicians.

The same goes for simplification: If you think that you have to attack the workshy, then that's what you have to do. But when you do it, you also have to take steps to reduce the influence of the demagogic simplifiers of the media. One without the other is the political equivalent of paying a ransom.