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Miliband Wordsearch

In Economy, Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on January 10, 2012 at 2:56 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

Here’s a ‘wordgram’ from Guido Fawkes of Ed Miliband’s set piece on the economy. The bigger the word, the more times Miliband said it. What words are missing that should be there?

1) Squeezed Middle

Yes, Miliband’s definition of ‘middle’, which encompasses 95% of the population, is probably a bit off. But the idea has legs. Most people (unsurprisingly) consider themselves average in terms of income, so talking about ‘the squeezed middle’ enables a large number of people to identify with Labour’s message. Since most people (according to polling) think the cuts are unfair, this idea is one that Labour can make easy headway in pursuing. Miliband has particular reason to pursue it because it was his initial idea.

2) Producer v Predator

Again, a Miliband theme which has some potential. People are clearly in favour of companies that ‘contribute’ to the economy and against those that ‘strip’ it. Again, let’s ignore difficulties in defining which companies are goodies and which baddies; it’s an idea that people makes people say “Ed’s on my side” and “Ed want an economically and morally healthy economy”. No gold in this speech however, as ‘Kremlinology’ (one mention during Q&A) gets a look in ahead of ‘predator’ (no mentions).

3) Vision

The word doesn’t need to be ‘vision’; it could equally be ‘goal’ or ‘future’ or ‘plan’ or even ‘hope’. Miliband does have some good points on the ‘fairness’ theme, but these will ultimately not carry home when the public thinks the cuts are necessary (see link above) and Labour is not really offering a detailed plan, nor offering a vision of where the future of the country lies. The lack of vision is the most important factor, I think, in why the Labour party seems so ethereal. It is concerned more about the future of Labour than the future of the country. This is particularly brought home by a recent BBC headline: Miliband has ‘a clear plan for the Labour Party‘ – he is focussed on the party not on the country. It’s not an inspiring or winning strategy.

Miliband needs to risk something beyond the bland, managerial pitch (the words here are certainly managerially bland) and go for a full-on idealistic vision. At this stage, it doesn’t matter that the rhetoric – whether on Squeezed Middle, Producer v Predator or a vision statement – doesn’t quite correlate with specific policies or even reality. Ed Miliband needs to do more than capture our attention. He needs to capture our imagination.

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Refinding Labour

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on August 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

For those of you that didn’t already know, before the riots cluttered out all other political commentary, an almighty tiff was going on over at Labour List. So almighty, that it makes the Brown-Blair relationship look like a well-functioning friendship. Which is saying something. James Purnell, erstwhile of the cabinet, and a thinking Blairite (surely not, I hear you cry!) made the suggestion that certain benefits, like Winter Fuel Payments, should be means-tested. In the Liberal or Conservative Party, this is not an unheard-of suggestion. People would thoughtfully weigh the political consequences and moral dimensions of such a move against any likely financial saving that would be achieved.

Not so at Labour List. Articles have flown off the iPads, variously chastising Purnell for his rabid not-left-ness or defending Purnell for his pragmatic attempt to cast the welfare state in a more positive light. The strongest called Purnell a ‘heretic’ and demanded he leave the party. Presumably he won’t be burnt at the stake any time soon, though – this, other than a VAT cut and a ban on circus animals, is the only substantial policy suggestion to have made it into the sunlight this summer.

Leaving aside our actual views on what the policy may be, it is revealing about the status of discourse in the Labour Party. Ed Miliband is (apparently) holding a policy review, and he seems to have left absolutely everything on the table. We don’t know if the party intends to join the Euro or not. We don’t know if the party approves of the withdrawal date from Afghanistan. We think we know that the Labour party supports Alistair Darling’s deficit reduction plan, but both the Leader and Shadow Chancellor campaigned against it in their leadership bids. And even if they have come round to reason, we don’t how they would implement it. And just what is post-neo-classical endogenous growth theory?

In fact, the whole policy review seems a bit vague. Labour, apparently, has working groups on policy. Where are they, with what responsibilities, chaired by whom? Go on the Labour website – I’ll be amazed if you can find a coherent articulation of policy. For sure there are the odd snippets of anti-this-or-that, but nothing united. If you go to the Conservative website, you can find all the policy you want (just click on the policy button at the top of the page). There is no such button on the Labour website.

Contrast with the Cameron policy review. Committees were established and publicised; people knew who the chairmen were, and anyone was invited to contribute. Certain policies were established as beyond the scope of review – opposition to the Euro, an increase in the aid budget, and more. The Conservative party retained a platform from which to make objections and contributions. It retained a political stance in the perception of the electorate. It gave the party a nucleus around which to gel; it resulted in a rather odd fusion of One-Nation Conservatism and Thatcherism, that could somehow cast the ultra-Thatcherite Iain Duncan-Smith as doing something so obviously in the interests of the nation that no-one has mounted criticism against the overall plan (remember welfare reform, without cuts, would have happened had the economy not gone tits up).

And despite the huge gulfs there were in the Tory party – over Europe, over tax cuts – it somehow stuck together. And no-one was called a heretic, no-one was encouraged by members to leave the party (although Quentin Davies did leave of his own volition). The same is pretty much true of the coalition; by forming central pillars on which there is substantive agreement with an electoral mandate, other issues can be pushed to the side – married tax cuts, nuclear power, Europe.

Any evidence of this in the Labour Party? Certainly not on Labour List. The division between Blue (Old) and Purple (New) Labour grows daily more pronounced, and more visceral. Wait for Ed Miliband’s first reshuffle where his hands aren’t tied by shadow cabinet elections. I expect a butchering of the Blairites. Much unlike the cohesive cabinet Cameron constructed, which includes Ken Clarke and Liam Fox, people who were previously regarded as holding unworkably distant views on every important topic.

I’m not going to presume to advise Ed Miliband on policy. He can find my articles here if he wants to pilfer any of my ideas. But when James Purnell makes a sensible suggestion, that is well grounded in pragmatic politics – even though it may be ideologically objectionable – he should be invited to contribute, not shut out. He is one of the more respected Labour figures in the country – opposition to Gordon Brown tends to lend at least an ounce of popularity.

Ed Miliband needs to give Labour a platform to stand on, rather than simply picking and choosing where he thinks the government can be made to hurt most. Tory strategists are looking at the Labour lead of 8 points and laughing. The Tories should be scraping the low 20s – not the high 30s. This is the worst moment in the strategy; the cuts are biting and the economy is at its slowest. 8 points is eminently closable. Particularly when no-one knows who Ed Miliband is, nor what his signature policies are.

So, Ed should define a policy or two. Doesn’t particularly matter what so long as it is big, and ideally mostly cost-free, and something people don’t expect the party to commit to. Commit to raising the Minimum Wage. Commit to a permanent bank or oil levy. Commit to capping commercial interest rates or energy prices or EU migration. Whatever you can argue has a mandate, or, has a really good reason rooted in the party ethos. Ideally, this should tie neatly into to something the party articulated – or something it can be convinced it was trying to articulate – by his election.

But this may be the problem. Much like William Hague in 1997, Ed Miliband was elected on an ooh-err mandate: the party didn’t want to back the left option of Ed Balls, or the right option of David Miliband.  Hague was unable to control Portillo and got slammed by Heseltine after a rebranding exercise led to a complete mish-mash and inclarity after the situation necessitated U-turns on the minimum wage and Bank of England. Blair had a nicer economy than Cameron, so Hague did not gain a single seat for the Tories. Due to the ending of the Liberals as we know them, Miliband will not do that badly. But if local election results are anything to go by, the Tories will continue to gain seats despite the cuts.

At least the encouraging view from the comparison this implicitly invites is that Ed Balls and Harriet Harman will not become leader.

Just a thought on the leaders’ response to the riots. Cameron has been on top form. Iain Duncan Smith has turned into political gold-dust. The ‘Broken Britain’ theme has been an essential part of the narrative (to use a Blairite term) that Cameron has wanted the nation to buy into. It’s a theme the aforementioned have been careful to include just enough, every now and again, for the  past ten years or so. They have their analysis of the problem, and, importantly, they have policies and policy ideas ready to go to solve the problem they see.

It doesn’t matter whether the ‘Broken Britain’ motif is true or not. The likelihood is that politicians will never be able to encapsulate something as multi-faceted as the recent riots into one or two campaign slogans. But the Tories have a narrative. Labour does not. Miliband can huff that the Prime Minister is coming to knee-jerk judgements. He can huff that the causes are more complex than ‘Broken Britain’. Maybe they are. But as long as Miliband cannot impose a narrative on them, he will lose the political argument. If Cameron has any sense at all (and he does), he will let the Labour Party hold its own inquiry. He will let Miliband gaze very intently at his own navel, while Cameron gets a few months, unopposed, to shape the issue in the public consciousness and suggest and even implement the solutions he proposes. Then Cameron will pick the Miliband review to pieces using the Home Affairs Select Committee review. He will get especial pleasure from this, as Home Affairs Select is chaired by a Labour MP.

This ‘lack of narrative’ has been true of the Labour party even before the riots. The government is cutting ‘too far, too fast’. May be true, but it’s not a narrative. It defines no positives that enable the electorate to understand the world. The Tories have a narrative about spending cuts: it begins with a profligate chancellor (who happened to be advised by most of Labour’s top team), and progresses to economic hubris, followed by a catastrophic collapse, and then the Conservative Party rushes in as the knight in shining armour, to deliver an economically stable and successful Britain. Labour’s attempted narrative is “something went wrong somewhere else. It’s a bit complicated. But basically, it will be fine.”

It doesn’t particularly matter which one is true. What both Conservative narratives have is a problem, an evil, and they are the solution, the hero. Labour’s narratives, on the riots and the economy, don’t really have a problem. Because if it did, people would ask why they didn’t get round to it in thirteen years of government. But no problem means no solution. The Labour party isn’t the solution because there is no problem – or if there is a problem, it was of no-one’s making, and no-one can really fix it. Labour just happen to be slightly more fluffy and loveable than the Tories. 

It’s hardly a compelling narrative. It’s a narrative that will consign Miliband, and his party, to utter irrelevance until beyond the next election. No matter how good Miliband’s policies are. 

This all comes back to this thing about policy. In 2005, Cameron had a narrative about Labour, about Britain. It was sketchy, true, but he built his policy around that narrative. In 2011, Miliband does not have a narrative. Consequently, his policy will be a hotchpotch. Contributors, like James Purnell, are unclear what the vision, what the narrative is for the country. So they take a stab in the dark at what they think it might be. And everyone else, who thinks it’s something else, screams.

James Bartholomeusz has written on this site before about Blue Labour, which I categorised above as ‘Old Labour’. It is not quite ‘Old Labour’, but something that attempts to re-carve a narrative from the very deep memories of the party’s past. Cameron did a very similar thing with his ‘Broken Britain’ narrative – recast deep Tory instincts and fashioned them around the present. It is maybe too early for Blue Labour – it took the Tories to their fourth go to find a fresh yet old narrative. Miliband doesn’t seem keen, either. His instincts have been to centralise the Labour party, abolishing shadow cabinet elections and hiring business men to streamline the party structure, rather than take the more decentralising options offered by Blue Labour. But the ‘Broken Britain’ narrative was at least there in skeleton by the time of Iain Duncan Smith. Maybe this narrative will someday come to the fore.

And if you think that all this stuff about policy and narrative and coherence is just my thoughtless musing, I leave you this exchange from the Queen’s Speech, 2000:

Rt Hon William Hague MP: In more than 20 years in politics, he has betrayed every cause he believed in, contradicted every statement he has made, broken every promise he has given and breached every agreement that he has entered into… There is a lifetime of U-turns, errors and sell-outs. All those hon. Members who sit behind the Prime Minister and wonder whether they stand for anything any longer, or whether they defend any point of principle, know who has led them to that sorry state.

Rt Hon Tony Blair MP:  He started the fuel protest bandwagon, then the floods bandwagon; on defence it became armour-plated, then on air traffic control it became airborne…. Yes, the right honourable Gentleman made a very witty, funny speech, but it summed up his leadership: good jokes, lousy judgment. I am afraid that in the end, if the right honourable Gentleman really aspires to stand at this Despatch Box, he will have to get his policies sorted out and his party sorted out, and offer a vision for the country’s future, not a vision that would take us backwards.

Soapbox Debates: The future of British media

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Soapbox Debates, The Media on August 5, 2011 at 11:20 pm

James Bartholomeusz, polarii, Stephen Wan, Elliot Ashley

In light of the phone hacking scandal, how would you change the UK media; its composition, its accountability, and its relationship with government?

James Bartholomeusz

The phone hacking scandal which has engorged our news output over the last few weeks is best understood as the third in a series of shake-ups over the last five years. The first, the financial crisis beginning in late 2007, dealt a grievous blow to our economy and the market fundamentalist ideology of the last thirty years. The second, the MPs expenses row dating from 2009, decimated the remaining faith of the British public in modern politics and our constitutional settlement. In all three scandals, what had previously seemed like insurmountable pillars of the British establishment were exposed as hollow oligarchies. In all three, men and women who had posed as respectable custodians of the state of the nation were revealed as incompetent and corrupt. And in relation to all three we might still ask the question ‘has anything really changed?’

This is because we have allowed bankers to reform banks and politicians to reform parliament: we cannot allow journalists, least of all Murdoch’s News International, to reform the media. Though the media never had the reputation of the City of London or the House of Commons, the public outrage to the phone hacking allegations shows that no one knew of the depths Andy Coulson and his ilk have descended to.

The prospect of the imminent collapse of Murdoch’s press brigade is to be welcomed (and even celebrated) – and forcing the closure of the newspaper which hacked the phones of 7/7 victims can be seen as a victory in itself. But these events should not fool us into thinking that Murdoch will not strive his utmost to retain his position as arbitrator of British politics. It’s hardly a secret that, since media laws were blasted open by Thatcher, News International has had exploited its influence to ensure the election of a compliant government. It has become a common sight for an aspirational leader to make a pilgrimage to prostrate himself before Murdoch’s throne. This is not the place to explore the fundamentally undemocratic essence of Murdoch’s power; suffice it to say, any opportunity to curb it should be seized.

I propose three reforms which should begin to ease Murdoch’s stranglehold on our media. Firstly, the Press Complaints Commission should be replaced by a much more vigilant regulatory body, allowing members of the public to set up citizens’ tribunals (advised by independent experts) to take on the corporate media when necessary. This would help make our media accountable to the British people and reassert the idea that we are not just consumers of news but active participants in current affairs. Secondly, our monopoly laws need to be much stricter: the fact that Murdoch taking a majority stake in BSkyB was even considered shows how lax our regulation has been made by the continuous barrage of corporate influence on government. Thirdly, we should consider ways in which to resurrect and protect local/regional media. A major problem in our current media settlement is the narrow middle class London background from which journalists are drawn, particularly noticeable, for example, in the patronising coverage of council estate tenants. Competition from national media has driven smaller outlets into oblivion – the return of a strong, independent local media would allow for greater representation of diverse voices outside of the elite which still controls our economy, politics and press.

polarii

Contrary to the rhetoric, there are very few serious problems with the UK media. There is a diverse plurality, with newspaper readers being able to choose between newspapers owned sustainably by six different groups (News International, Trinity Mirror, Guardian Group, Lebedev Group, Telegraph Group, Associated Newspapers), with television viewers being able to choose their news from BBC, ITV, C4, Sky, and other channels available on Freeview stations. The internet is a hive of uncensored opinions, and streams foreign news providers, such as CNN. The only medium that presents an effective monopoly on news is radio, where the impartial BBC holds sway. Even if we look at providers across media – the largest the BBC and then News Corporation – we can see that these fall well short of a monopoly across all media taken together. More competition is always welcome; this can be achieved by reducing the number of services on the BBC, and a News Corporation monopoly will be prevented by its outlets suffering reputational damage from phone hacking.

The media is accountable to itself. The Telegraph, Independent and Guardian (not to mention Private Eye) united to expose phone hacking at News International titles. The diversity that exists enables fierce competition, which ensures accountability. It is a risk for government to establish an independent regulator – newspapers should stand or fall on their own stories and sources, as the News of the World has. The Press Complaints Commission needs bulking up; but this should be done by the industry, not the government. Perhaps the industry should agree that it can issue unlimited fines. Wrongdoing by the News of the World was exposed by competition, and other titles, even outside News International, will follow. But a free press, to paraphrase Churchill, means a press that has the option of sometimes being foolish. For areas where the media has broken the law, the courts are blissfully independent.

A change of relationship does need to occur between media and government. When government values style over substance, when it judges its policy by focus group and not by results, it is always going to pander to opinion leaders. Murdoch, the most politically flexible of the news proprietors, sold a cunning lie – that he and his papers controlled the balance of opinion within the country. Yet the Sun never won it: not in 1992, nor 1997, nor 2005, nor 2010. It is the fault of politicians, not the press, that they bought it. It was Murdoch’s contacts in the government and police that prevented full and thorough investigation in the first instance; again, in an area where style dominated substance, detectives and ministers were more concerned with the good words of the Sun than any morality or legality. The police and politicians have to recognise this imbalance of priority, and not fall into the trap again. Other media moguls in the history of this country have taken fixed positions, and still failed. The media-centric method of politics and policing – pioneered by the Blairs Ian and Tony – needs to go.

Newspaper moguls have risen and fallen throughout the entire history of media in this country. Murdoch is the latest in the pattern: Rothermere, Beaverbrook, Maxwell. In the 1990s, there was no legislation about phone-hacking – it was not illegal to listen in. Phone-hacking is a legacy of that culture. Time, scandal, and the law will expunge these practises. The media will retain its self-regulation, and the British public is wise enough to ensure market plurality. The future of British media may well be online as opposed to on paper or on TV, but the framework doesn’t need much change.

Stephen Wan

The UK media cannot continue to operate as it has been doing – with impunity, arrogance and without consideration of the social damage it creates. Whilst recent focus has been on the phone hacking scandal, far more crimes have been committed – trials by media, such as during the Joanna Yeates murder case, risk perverting the course of justice, and routine scaremongering fuels ignorance and paranoia. The phone hacking scandal marks a turning point in public opinion of the UK media, and this is a good thing.

It would be easy to say the problem is with us: “We buy the newspapers – the UK media is reliant on our willingness to buy its coverage of the news. They merely pander to our tastes, supplying our insatiable demand. If we want to change the practises of our newspapers, then let us do so by using the power of the purse, altering the media we consume – in an age of information technology, accessing alternative sources of information has never been easier. Boycott the worst media corporations, and they will either reform or collapse. One could say that the News of the World was closed down due to public outcry and pressure placed on News Corporation. Ultimately, the UK media is accountable to us.”

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The relationship between the public and the media is better characterised as a symbiotic relationship, where media outlets rely on the public to consume their content, and the public relies on the media to distil information and set the news agenda. Because of this, we are as influenced by the media as they are influenced by us. Negative feedback loops occur, and as the news agenda degenerates to trivialities, the media resorts to ever more extreme methods to obtain the latest gossip. Phone hacking was not the result of a few journalists gone rogue – it was institutionalised, widespread, and a direct consequence of how the media market is structured.

It follows then that institutional change to the UK media is required. The current system in place is self-regulation by the Press Complaints Commission. This has not worked – their website reads almost as satire, extolling the ‘commitment of the newspaper industry to tough and effective self regulation‘. A solution, as advocated by our leaders, would be for the government to establish an independent watchdog. A further idea may be to establish an information source database – when a journalist writes a newspaper article, they must cite in a separate report all the means by which that information was obtained, to be entered into the database after approval by the editor. Access to the database is available to the independent watchdog only. This will ensure full disclosure of the means by which stories are obtained, ensure good research practise, and prevent editors claiming to be unaware of dubious practises in their own newsroom.

How would I change the UK media? Enforce good media practices. The rest can follow.

Elliot Ashley

When looking at the deepening crisis facing the print media industry it is hard to see how it can recover. It is unlikely that newspapers can, or indeed will bounce back fully from the phone hacking scandal. Readership has been steadily dropping over the last two decades, as broadcast and online outlets for the news are becoming easier to access around the clock.

One could enter this argument: that the fault lies in a self-regulated industry that clearly needs to be more strongly controlled, with the likes of fines such as those issued by Offcom or Offgen. However it is the public that have initiated the collapse of News International and, as time can only tell at this point, possibly other large news companies also.

If the public had not continued to pressurise journalists, editors and media barons to produce in their publications ever increasing drivel on the latest celebrity affair, or a diet that two days previously was good for you and now carries a high risk cause of cancer (all this being in the public interest); then it is possible that papers such as News Of the World (NOTW) and others may have avoided stooping to the level of hacking into the voice mails of everyone from members of the Royal Family to Z-list celebrities.

This simple, yet under the counter method of collecting stories, or starting blocks for them, is inevitably widespread and probably largely unknown to the wider world. It would have continued had it not emerged, in a rival newspaper, that the NOTW and News International had gone a step too far in their quest to provide the public with its quota of gossip and scandal, by hacking into the voicemail of murdered school girl Millie Dowler.

The outrage and distrust that was caused by this has begun to unravel the rapidly disappearing mystery and power held by the fourth estate. Even if readership does start to increase in a few years, it is likely that the financial pressures placed upon publishers and editors of UK newspapers (and indeed the greater print media), by legal cases and investigations, will probably see the daily papers disappear from shop shelves. Perhaps just a select number will remain to provide news of every interest, from sport to motoring and holidays to gardening, on either a Saturday or Sunday.

Print media within the UK does has a future, but right now it is bleak and far, far different to what experts from the industry were envisaging a year ago.

__________

If you are interested in participating in a future debate, feel free to email David Weber at dingdongalistic (at) gmail (dot) com, or leave a comment underneath this post.

The Big Society, the market, and society: why deficit reduction might actually be a good thing

In Economy, Events, Ideology on July 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm

David Weber

I must admit that I originally intended this to be a full response to James Bartholomeusz’s recent article on working class politics and welfare reform. However, while reflecting on his various arguments, my response to his comment underneath the article quickly became feature length, and an article in its own right:

The problem is, [the Big Society] dovetails a little too nicely with the market fundamentalism that got us into this mess, and the tough deficit reduction plan which has ostensibly been forced upon the government against its will. [emphasis added] Read the rest of this entry »

Question Time 23-06-11

In BBC Question Time, Ideology on June 24, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Part of a Question Time column

David Weber

Another week, another Question Time (and yes, I am aware that the last time I blogged about this was nearly a year ago).

Normally I only write about this show if a particular question, response or comment sparks a chain of thought, and this week is no exception. The comment, or rather comments in question came during the midst of a rather philosophical debate about the nature of U-turns and, if you accept my extrapolations, could be quite illuminating about the reasons for the proliferation of “big government”, and popular support for it.

The Philosophy started predictably enough. David Mitchell came out in favour of a Burkean view of democracy, with MPs and ministers elected to serve with principle, politely ignoring all populist indulgences and doing the best job they can until the next election. The slight flaw that comes with his argument, that it assumes that all U-turns are made on the basis of populism alone, rather than suddenly realising you’re about to make a rather serious error, wasn’t highlighted in Norman Baker’s opposing view, but it was the basic gist of it. However, more surprisingly, it was a point rather quickly lost on the audience.

Often in Question Time some form of consensus begins to emerge about half way through the time spent debating a certain question. What happened here followed this pattern, with three opinions in quick succession expressing a very similar view: 1 U-turn is careless, 2 unfortunate, and 3 either incompetent or unprincipled.

This is the kind of view that, in the exact spirit of such incompetence, manages to be both excessively cynical and naive. Not everyone realises that cynicism and naivity can go hand in hand, and are not mutually exclusive, but it is often the case. Cynics are often so obsessed with finding negative reasons for mistakes that they make naive assumptions. This is such a case, because in assuming that the only reason for constant U-turns is populism, these cynics assume that the MPs and ministers who rule their affairs are near deities in terms of their inability to make unintentional mistakes.

Whatever your view of democracy and meritocracy, any basic critique of government has to start from the assumption that the people inside it are hardly less incompetent or mistake-prone than ourselves. Or, if you really have a more optimistic view than I do, look at it in a more irrefutable way: 100,000 people collectively are no less likely to make a mistake, than 60 million people individually*, if both have the necessary information at their disposal.

Now, many people assume that the only rationale for government is that situations exist where a specific collection of 100,000 people are less likely to make a mistake than 60 million people individually. This isn’t actually true. The qualifier I added — “if both have the necessary information” — makes all the difference. Most areas of government are there because 60 million people have neither the time nor the patience to make decisions based on the necessary information during their own free time, so they employ others to do it. There are also areas where it has been decided, for better or for worse, that 60 million people should not have all the information to begin with, such as defence and policing.

But in most areas of government policy, people can get the necessary information if they motivate themselves enough, or at least something approaching it. So it is often for this reason that governments make U-turns when a public campaign reaches a certain level of intensity, because the collective wisdom of the public has outweighed the limited wisdom of the government. This does not deny the existence of cynical, populist U-turns — I would myself cite the abandoned Forestry privatisation as an example of one. An intense public campaign does not imply an educated public. But it can do.

Now this is why I fear that this combination of public cynicism and naivety is no certain good thing. For it involves the public not just elevating its politicians’, but also its own abilities. And if, despite their regular contempt for the motives of politicians, the public secretly believe them to be superior and wiser beings, then it is not surprising that big government prolongs itself, despite public dissatisfaction. It is this type of mentality that only opposes government for doing the wrong things, or doing things the wrong way, rather than questioning the need for it to do things to begin with. It can be summed up thus: “the world would be a far better place, if only politicians were less corrupt and did X, Y and Z instead of A, B and C”. This is not just a reason for the proliferation of big government, but it is also a reason for the proliferation of incompetent government, and arrogant government.; as governments which don’t admit mistakes are always the former and quickly become the latter. I don’t doubt that some of the blame lies with politicians — pride is a basic human weakness, after all — but I would suggest that if such a public attitude could be overcome, government might be a lot better for it, not to mention more democratic. (I lean towards the Norman Baker, rather than the David Mitchell, vision of democracy.) Like many problems, many of the reasons for big government start with and must be fixed by the public.

And, almost as if to reinforce my suspicions about big government and the public, the last question was about whether to ban live animals in circuses, and not one person who spoke, from the panel or the audience, questioned the need for a full ban. It’s not that I necessarily oppose a full ban, or support the use of live animals in circuses. I’m not exactly sure where I stand. But it would have been nice to have had the facts debated: I might have learned something, and begun to form an opinion. Instead, a politician proposes something which sounds principled, and no-one felt willing to explain their support for this proposal in any detail. Was this to avoid looking heartless on television? Maybe now I am being too cynical and naive.

*Estimations may not be 100% accurate. I’m no more a model of competence than any politician.

Blue Labour: broadly good, but don’t lose the party’s identity in the process

In Ideology, Party politics on June 24, 2011 at 4:03 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

We live in an era of slippery political language. We have a coalition government which is Conservative but not conservative, very liberal but with too little Liberal input, and politicians of all colours skirmish over the mantle ‘progressive’. The latest thread of opposition thinking is a similar misnomer: Blue Labour, whose philosopher-in-chief is Lord Maurice Glasman, and whose primary figures hail from very different wings of party, from Progress’ James Purnell to Compass’ Jon Cruddas. It also, perhaps unusually for a fledgling movement, has attracted the attentions of the leader Ed Miliband. Both movement and leader have had no qualms about an unsentimental appraisal of the party’s record in office, and both have been keen to give a voice to traditionally Right-wing concerns, such as the cut in police budgets or the prevalence of benefit fraud. I would argue that Blue Labour offers a broadly positive and constructive vision for Britain, but its problem, paradoxically, is its over-willingness to jettison some of Labour’s greatest triumphs in pursuit of Right-wing populism.

Contemporary Left-wing thinkers such as David Marquand have identified two major threads in Labour’s ideological inheritance, which might be termed ‘rational’ socialism and ‘ethical’ socialism. Rational socialism is rooted in science, and linked to the intellectual Leftists and the Fabian Society of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries – socialism, in this model, is scientifically superior to capitalism. This corresponds to what Sidney Webb once called “democratic collectivism” – power is centralised with a managerial state apparatus, which administers socialism from above. This had been the dominant thread since the 1945 landslide victory, manifested primarily in the NHS, the welfare state and the nationalised industries. Furthermore, this rational socialism transcends the apparently cavernous divide between Old and New Labour. Under both, power was (bar some of Blair’s constitutional reforms) centralised and administered from Westminster. Blair and Brown might have been in thrall to the market, but their attitude to power was remarkably similar to that of Wilson and Callaghan – a technocratic liberal elite of ministers, civil servants and business leaders operates the market-state mechanism from on high, and the country is managed in pyramid formation.

The second thread, ethical socialism, has been an undercurrent for the latter part of the 20th Century. It can trace its origins back much further than the last century to iconic English radicals such as John Milton, Thomas Paine and William Morris. Rather than claiming scientific improvement on capitalism, it instead stresses its moral superiority. Whereas rational socialism at its worst treats humans as mechanically as capitalism, ethical socialism stresses the importance of human relationships, reciprocity, mutualism and community. As opposed to the top-down centralised state model of the Webbs, it grew out of grassroots civil society movements – the trade unions and cooperatives, and Christian socialist, feminist and anti-imperialist groups. Equally, its leading figures, Keir Hardie, R. H. Tawney, George Lansbury and their ilk, were not social scientists but humanitarians. This was not an ideology of a liberal elite, but of ordinary citizens taking action for the betterment of themselves and their fellows. It was Lansbury who described socialism as “love, cooperation and brotherhood in every department of human affairs”. It is this ethical socialism which the Blue Labourites are in the process of recalling from the historical abyss.

Glasman’s vision of the ‘good society’ – a direct response to the Cameron’s and Philip Blond’s ‘big society’ – seeks to re-elevate this tradition of mutualism and grassroots activism above the statist approach which has been overarching from Atlee onwards. He traces Labour’s heritage back to a synthesis of Aristotelian virtue ethics and the “rights of freeborn Englishmen” which finds its expression in, amongst other aspects of British history, the Magna Carta, the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt and the radicalism of the 17th and 19th Century democrats such as the Levellers and the Chartists. He also looks to vindicate the role which religion has played, both historically (the alliance of Catholics and non-conformist Protestants in the 1891 London Dock strike) and contemporaneously (Citizens UK’s Living Wage campaign). In ideological terms, cooperation and the valuing of local culture and legacy comes before abstract egalitarianism. In policy terms, mutualised banks and public utilities come before nationalised or privatised ones.

Labour’s support base can be divided into two broad groups, both economically Left-wing but differing in other aspects. The first are the traditional working class – blue-collar C1s and C2s, typical readers of The Mirror, and socially authoritarian. The second are middle class service workers – the educated white-collar Bs and C1s, typical readers of The Guardian, and socially libertarian. The first group tends to be more homogenously white, whilst the latter is more ethnically diverse and incorporates many socially mobile immigrants. Blue Labour, as opposed to New Labour, might be seen to favour the former over the latter, drawing back electoral support from those supporting the BNP and EDL in protest. But it also has tremendous electoral potential because it reaches out beyond these groups to those in rural communities who have never voted Labour before – who saw, and still see, the party as the haven of unionised urban workers and their liberal elite leaders, with no respect for nation or tradition. This potential is if anything strengthened Cameron’s pathetic inability to form any kind of critical judgement on the free market. New Labour, with its historic majority, was ultra-liberal – Blue Labour, with its fusion of socialism and conservatism, may paradoxically be more successful. In fact, ConservativeHome’s review of Blue Labour thinking identifies it as a potentially fatal threat to an ultra-liberal government which has more in common with Ayn Rand than Enoch Powell.

This, at least to me, sounds pretty good in theory. The problems come, however, when one begins to consider the practical applications of some of this ideology. Firstly, a break from New Labour’s particular kind of liberal elitism is certainly welcome, but how conservative is Labour to become? Since 1945, Labour has been the praetorian guard of social liberals in promoting gender equality, legalising homosexuality, ending discrimination in the workplace and housing, and, more recently, ensuring the environment is a concern of government. One could be forgiven for thinking that the “family, faith and flag” feel of Blue Labour strays dangerously close to the territory of the American Tea Party movement, with its exceptionally reactionary approach to civil rights. If, as Glasman seems to suggest, the new moral watermark should be the general opinion of the white working class, then we may well see regressions unpalatable to many progressives, such as a very hard stance on immigration and a punitive crime policy. New Labour was notorious for triangulating policy decisions based on the stance of the Tories and tabloids: might we, under Blue Labour, see the same done for the BNP and EDL? Even Marxists are under no illusions about the need, in some respects, to educate in the working class rather than pander to bigotry. One of the defining features of socialism is that it views liberalism as necessary but not sufficient to building a good society: what happens, then, when liberalism is thrown out of the mix entirely?

Secondly, if the new vogue is localism and British historical culture, what is to become of the guiding beacon of socialism: equality? Former Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley was quick to criticise Blue Labour for forsaking the party’s historic commitment to evening out the “postcode lottery” brought by arbitrary birth and market. The belief in the redistribution of wealth has been the most persistent aim of party policy, whether through Old Labour universal welfare payments or New Labour targeted tax credits. In searching for a lost British (or, in Cruddas’ case, English) identity, the Blue Labourites may lose Labour’s one.

Thirdly, where does internationalism stand in the Blue Labour vision? From social democracy to communism, a responsibility to the oppressed of other nations has been central to the concerns of the European Left throughout its history. This is a tradition which still holds strong, with, most recently, British trade unions campaigning in solidarity with the Arab Spring revolutionaries. In a globalised world, most social-democratic policy must have some kind of international dimension if it is to succeed, yet Blue Labour has yet to contribute a position on, for example, environmental degradation. In a similar vein, the Blue Labourites want their party to be much tougher on immigration. A contentious issue already, this is likely to enflame a rift within Labour between those who want “British jobs for British people”, and those who feel the UK has a duty to those from less prosperous nations looking for work or asylum. Multiculturalism has been an iron-cast commitment of Labour’s for decades now – the party being by far the most ethnically diverse of all three – and there are those who are understandably wary of a renewed national and local pride returning some of the spectres of white racism. Cameron’s vacuous “muscular liberalism” may yet be surpassed by a far more solid “muscular conservatism”.

Nevertheless, as the latest renaissance in British Left-wing thought, Blue Labour has a lot to offer. Its vindication of grassroots activism and alternatives to a managerial statist approach are its most welcome aspects, and a respect for national and local cultural identities has arguably been too long neglected by the party. But the Blue Labourites have been too quick to reject three traits which have guided Labour through opposition and government in the last century: liberalism, the commitment to equality, and internationalism. Unless it forms a less hostile response to this trinity, Blue Labour risks treading perilously near the territory of the BNP.

This climbdown is liberal, not Conservative

In Events, Home Affairs, Ideology, Judicial Spotlight, Law And Order, Party politics, The Media on June 21, 2011 at 11:53 pm

David Weber

I respect Ken Clarke, as a politician and more importantly as a political thinker, but some of his reforms weren’t liberal, just as much as they weren’t Conservative. At the heart of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill was a scandal, one which should have been obvious even underneath the noise and fury that erupted over Clarke’s ill-informed comments about rape, but has still gone largely uncommented on, which is deeply troubling. I refer to the damage that would have been done, to a fundamental principle of justice, by the proposal to cut sentences by as much as 50% in return for an early guilty plea.

This is precisely the proposal which the Guardian, in a typical bout of sheer missing the point, described as “a sensible move to relieve the pressure on Britain’s creaking courts”. The latter may be true, but the policy can only be described as sensible from a cold, bureaucratic, and morally corrupt perspective, the perspective of those who care nothing for justice and everything for money above all else.

Has the Guardian considered the stigma which is already attached to being falsely accused of a crime — particularly the most serious and horrifying of crimes? Has it occurred to the sadly anonymous writer of its editorial that there are already numerous incentives for the accused to plead guilty, not out of honesty, but as a gamble for the sake of an easier future? It should have, for such nightmares are frequently reported, and even more frequent in real life. Not only does plea bargaining already exist, but it actually goes far too far. In reducing the cost of justice it perverts the cause of justice, bargaining away the right to a fair trial. “Innocent until proven guilty” becomes “do you want to risk being proven guilty?” Far from it being “sensible” to increase plea bargaining, it would actually be “sensible” to abolish or at least reduce it — at least from a perspective of moral sensibility.

One would hope that it is for these principled, and most definitely liberal reasons, that David Cameron et al have decided to abandon this “reform”. One has to be sceptical, particularly given Ken Clarke’s reputation for liberalism, and the association of the Liberal Democrats with his agenda for reform in the Ministry of Justice. I suspect that if No. 10 had been motivated solely by liberal principles, it would have held back from interfering with Clarke’s agenda due to a mistaken association of liberalism with the Liberal Democrats. Additional policies announced at the same time, such as a new mandatory prison sentence for certain knife crimes, are distinctly conservative in nature.

More likely is that a tipping point of unpopularity with Conservative backbenchers, and with certain parts of the general public, has been reached; and that the rewriting of Clarke’s bill is a conciliatory gesture in the aftermath of the rewriting of Andrew Langsley’s NHS bill. It is certainly true that the bill had numerous “Conservative” objections to it, not least because the halving of sentences in some cases could have led to very short sentences indeed, for very serious crimes. But this merely demonstrates that conservatism and liberalism are not always mutually exclusive, and that liberals should not be associated with a policy just because conservatives are opposed.

But despite Downing Street’s arguably cynical motivations, the u-turn on this bill is something Liberals should be thankful for, not morose. Liberal Democrats should put their party’s ego (sorry, ‘influence in government’) to one side for a moment, and actually consider if, were they not in government, they would be supportive of or horrified by this particular proposal. Then they should put that response in front of any regrets they might have about their influence in the coalition, and whether the prevailing direction is conservative or liberal, because at the end of the day, it is more important. Real lives, real injustices, are always more important.

Ed, show us the alternative

In BBC Question Time, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on April 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

Audience responses on the BBC’s Question Time usually range from the mildly interesting to the banal, providing little more than an identification of which panel member the viewer most aligns with. However, once in a while, someone says something so original and yet so obvious that it merits serious consideration. Such a thing was said on last Thursday’s episode: a woman, chosen by David Dimbleby to speak, asked why Labour, if it’s so committed to the alternative, doesn’t pen a Shadow Budget to lay out their alternative deficit reduction plan.

The panelists response to this was painfully predictable. Diane Abbott, as the Labour representative, spluttered something about it being nonsensical four years before an election, whilst Mark Serwotka, the head of the PCS union, repeated his tenuous claim that there is no necessity for any spending cuts whatsoever. And yet this idea of a Shadow Budget, levelled by someone so lowly as to not be a professional economist or politician, is one that, I think, should be adopted by the Labour Party without hesitation.

The current debate on the economy, both national and global, has lined up between the two foremost schools of economic thought: neo-classicalism and Keynesianism. The neo-classicalists, inspired primarily by the 19th Century economist David Ricardo, see budget deficits as dangerous and immoral: according the Ricardian equivalency, any national deficit between income and spending (the UK’s being approximately 10% of GDP) is just taxation deferred for future generations. By radically cutting public spending to balance the deficit (‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, or, in Cameron’s terminology, ”rolling back the boundaries of the state”) neo-classicalists believe that the private sector will be freed from taxation and competition with the public sector to drive the economy back to prosperity. Keynesian thought, meanwhile, led the original response to the financial crisis, bailing out the banks and implementing fiscal stimuli to drive the economy quickly out of the recession. Now out of the immediate danger zone, Keynesians, such as Robert Skidelsky and Joseph Stiglitz, do not dispute the need for eventual deficit reduction, but are concerned that a premature fiscal contraction underestimates how much the private sector relies on the public sector, and so will drop the UK economy back into recession. Instead, Keynesians argue for fiscal policy based on growth and investment to stably harbour the economy, whilst slowly but steadily cutting the deficit.

This is the debate which, since the initial crisis response, has been mapped on to British party politics. Last May, both the Labour manifesto was based on the Keynesian response, whilst the Conservative one was neo-classicalist, and the Lib Dems in between but Keynesian-leaning. At least partially on these grounds, the majority of commentators predicted, before the election, a Lib-Lab coalition in the event of a hung parliament. And a hung parliament we had, except that the Lib Dem high command, vested with the choice of how to form the next British government, elevated David Cameron’s Tories over Gordon Brown’s Labour. Now in government, Clegg and his allies have apparently been won over to the neo-classicalist, and by extension George Osborne’s, fiscal plan: to entirely eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament through a 73:27 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises.

All the evidence suggests that Osborne’s economic management so far has ranged from lacklustre to abysmal. The Office of Budget Responsibility, set up by the current government, has downgraded its growth forecasts from 3-3.5% to 2.6%. Unemployment is still rising, now at a 17-year high, with one-fifth of all young people unable to find a job. Inflation is at 4%, the highest in 20 years. The Consumer Confidence Index was last measured at -29, the biggest drop since 1994. Even the mainstream centre-Right newspapers, which had previously praised the Chancellor’s conviction, have now turned their attention more to the human costs of deficit reduction than the stability it will ostensibly bring. Osborne’s attempt to blame poor economic performance on heavy snowfall over December fooled no one: the US, German, French and even Spanish economies grew by over 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010, whilst ours shrunk by more than 0.5%. The problem is, what is the alternative?

Ed Miliband’s Labour, having dithered in the autumn months, has now settled on maintaining Alastair Darling’s plan of halving the deficit in a single parliament. With Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor, this position has now been confirmed. Labour has since busied itself with rebuking the Tory-led government on its choices for deficit reduction: the VAT rise to 20% (predicted to cost families with children £450 extra in 2011), the rise in higher education fees, and front-line cuts to public services have been particular targets of the Shadow Cabinet. But Labour has yet to commit to what it would cut, or which taxes it would rise, were it currently in government. Although exactly how much would have to be cut under Labour’s plan is unclear, Miliband and his colleagues have so far sidestepped the sticky issue of what their ‘alternative’ would actually entail. It is this, more than any other factor, which will cost them electoral support.

I marched, carrying a Labour Party banner, alongside up to half-a-million others in London two weeks ago. And yet, will Labour’s reticence to commit to a specific deficit reduction plan, I am losing faith that there is a credible alternative to the government’s plan, however badly executed. A YouGov poll conducted on the same day found that the majority of the population, 52%, now supports the campaign against public sector spending cuts. But Labour should not fool itself that, just because it happens to be in opposition to an unpopular government, it will automatically gain the support of the electorate. This was the mistake made, in the last two decades, by both Kinnock and Cameron; 1992 resulting in a narrow Tory victory, and 2010 in a hung parliament. Labour should pen a Shadow Budget, laying out exactly which cuts and tax rises it would make. Ed Miliband has rightly sounded the death knell of New Labour and embarked on a holistic policy review, refusing to make manifesto commitments before the cuts have really started to affect the nation. But reconstructing its economic credibility needs to be the party’s top priority, and Miliband cannot afford to be haunted by the ghost of Gordon Brown any longer.

Hardie’s legacy and Labour’s civil society future

In Ideology, Party politics on January 21, 2011 at 6:52 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

At the risk of over-simplifying my first assertion, the history of post-1970s British politics can be seen as a binary conflict between the following spheres: state vs. market, Labour vs. Conservative, working class vs. middle class, wealth redistribution vs. wealth creation, equality vs. liberty. By the 2010 general election, a torrent of factors – national sovereignty being challenged by supranational unions (e.g. the Lisbon Treaty), economic autonomy being undermined by globalisation (the increasing power of the IMF and WTO), the 2008 financial crisis (ending the neo-liberal consensus) – have finally rendered this binary a deadlock. We are now drifting through an immaterial void, the new national order which will dominate the early 21st Century still forming in primordial soup. Cameron, in opposition, had the first opportunity to act, performing a volte face with the Conservative party and laying claim to civil society. The coalition has, so far successfully, painted Labour as the party of the out-of-touch managerial state and top-down reform. However, as I hope to show, the older and alternative thread within the Labour Party is of civil society activism and bottom-up reform, and that Labour’s recognition and revival of this thread is the key to its critique of the Big Society and re-forging progressive politics for a new generation.

The Big Society is a multi-form concept; a regeneration of British communities, a redemption for painful deficit reduction, a way out of the Conservative Party’s Thatcherite cul-de-sac. Whilst Thatcher famously declared at her zenith that “There is, as we now know, no such thing as society”, Cameron’s loudest mantra has so far been “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” Cameron’s aspiration for Britain is one in which the public sector is scaled back as much as possible, and power is devolved to local communities; schools placed in the hands of teachers and parents, hospitals in those of GPs, public services with business and the voluntary sector. This fits neatly with the constantly laboured necessity of dismantling Labour’s juggernaut-sized state in order to reign in the country’s spending deficit. Cameron believes that, with the state scaled back, people will be freer to run their own communities and lives.

As laudable and potentially inspirational as this rhetoric is, there are gaping rends in the ‘progressive conservative’ Big Society philosophy. There is such a thing as society, and it’s not the same as the state, but it’s not the same as the market either. Retracting the state does not miraculously make people free; in a huge number of communities, the state, however distant and bureaucratic, is the only force preventing the market from privatising all. Taking the example of education reform, Michael Gove wants to shift power from local authorities to create independent ‘free’ academies, and is doing so against the will of the vast majority of teaching staff who he claims he wants to empower. Aside from the concerns many have about the creation of a two-tier system, the overbearing workload for staff, the temptation for schools to opt-in in exchange for a short-term cash boost, and the likelihood of affluent ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle-class parents hijacking the process to best help their own children, these academies would be democratically unaccountable to children and parents. If an academy goes bankrupt, where does it turn? Why, to the line of businesses ravenous to rake in profits from running chains of them, of course. Companies such as Tribal, Edison Learning and Serco have already expressed an interest in buying academies, and Gove has publically stated he has “no ideological objection” to this. I know I’m not the only one who finds the commodification of education a repugnant idea.

Nor, though it may shock the coalition leadership to hear it, can the government through sleight of hand exchange the state for voluntary sector in public service provision. Before the election, Cameron expressed hope that charities and faith groups would perform the job of the public sector in alleviating poverty and providing welfare utility. In light of Eric Pickles’ confirmation that voluntary groups would not receive additional funding for this work, the last week of December saw David Robinson of Community Links and the Bishop of Leister joining the growing number of voluntary sector figures concerned about the workability of the Big Society in the face of a massive welfare scale-back. The latter commented that “This can’t be the throwing of a switch and saying the state walks out and the church walks in. It is completely irresponsible to say these people will be cared for by amateurs.” If Labour has sometimes been guilty of undervaluing the role of civil society, then the Conservatives are optimistic to fantastical levels about its ability to do the job of the state unaided whilst at the same time fending off the vultures of the free market.

So how can Labour respond to the Big Society, and ensure that the post-crisis order is one dominated by progressives? The largest hurdle it must overcome is, I believe, not its association with Gordon Brown’s economic mismanagement – that is only part of the bigger picture. The real problem is the legacy of Labour’s top-down managerialism, and the fact that the party compromised its values and vision to be elected under a neo-liberal consensus. The new shadow cabinet proclaims its progressive credentials from the opposition benches – public sector investment, equality legislation, the largest ever redistribution from rich to poor – but none of this, as the rolling coalition reforms show, is set to outlast the government which instigated it. Miliband cannot criticise Cameron’s privatisation, because, far from providing a counterpoint to Thatcher-Major privatisations, New Labour joined the fun by part-privatising schools and the London Underground. He cannot criticise the meagreness of the new banking levy or minimalist regulation, because New Labour was happy to let the financial sector steer Britain into the economic abyss. And he cannot criticise the government’s removal of ring-fencing and centralisation of funding, because Labour, New and Old, saw it as a virtue to keep the reigns of power firmly in Westminster’s grasp. Labour’s job is hard because, in many ways, Cameron is only pursuing policies from the Blair-Brown platform.

In fact, Labour has an often overlooked rich tradition of civil society movements. It was created in 1900 out of the efforts of trade unions, which represented a sizable chunk of the poor population disregarded by the Conservative and Liberal state apparatus. Its founder and first MP, Keir Hardie, is regarded as one of the greatest activists in our history – his sense of democracy extended beyond the market and parliamentary state to local communities, faith groups, feminists, trade unionists and anti-imperialists. Labour’s historic values, as Maurice Glasman has pointed out, are not only abstracts like equality and liberty – they are also solidarity set against liberal individualism, activism set against conservative servility, and mutualism and reciprocity against capitalist self-aggrandisement. In many ways, the post-war Old Labour of Atlee, Wilson and Callaghan is as guilty of equating progressivism and socialism with statism as its New counterpart. After Labour’s experience of wartime governance and the 1945 landslide, the idea that the only route to change was the seizure and steering of the central state became hegemonic within the party. By contrast, early Labour in the tradition of Hardie, Lansbury and Tawney was a true grassroots mass movement, the like of which we have never seen since.

The voices on the Left which have represented this bottom-up rather than top-down tradition since Blair’s rise – Jon Cruddas, Will Hutton and Neal Lawson prominent among them – are finally being listened to. And neither is this renewed commitment to mutualism, localism and active citizenship rather than passive consumerism purely intellectual. The Conservative government’s spending cuts have kindled a new wave of civil society activism rarely seen in the last 30 years of neo-liberal hegemony, but this is not Cameron’s ostensibly citizen-empowering Big Society, which is showing itself to instead empower unaccountable big business and quangos. This is a wave of new grassroots organisations created to battle against the slicing up of the public sector – there are now dozens of regional anti-cuts groups, national anti-privatisation groups such as Keep Our NHS Public, and others for single-issues such as the anti-tax avoidance UK Uncut. The Labour Party itself has gained 32,000 new members since May, 10,000 of them disillusioned Lib Dems. Seven months into this parliament, it seems that the only community Cameron has succeeded in building is one against his own government.

If Miliband is tactful, he will ride the wave of public outrage (only set to grow as the cuts begin to strike the poor and middle) and in the process shear off its violent fringe. In doing so, he will attain a democratic mandate at least as great as a government which was formed from a series of enigmatic backroom deals. This will lay the foundations of the civil society-centred platform Labour must fight the next election on.

I suspect that, given the renaissance ideas of community and civil society are enjoying at the moment, Labour’s policy review will yield such answers. There are already prominent examples of such policies in action; for instance, Lambeth Council is in the process of becoming Britain’s first cooperative local authority. Some service provision has already been mutualised with promising results; Community Freshview to revitalise derelict land, cooperative housing for poorer people to own whilst avoiding loan sharking, and peer mentoring to rehabilitate potential young offenders. Another case can be seen in Citizens UK’s campaign for the living wage, which Ed Miliband has backed, and has enriched low-paid workers by over £40 million since 2000. Unlike the Big Society, this is not to diminish the important role of the welfare state, but to localise it and make it work alongside communities and people, rather than managing them like employees of a gigantic corporation.

Labour must jettison the narrow liberalism not only of the Blair-Brown years, but the top-down, managerialism, centralising thread of its ideology which goes back to the post-war nationalisations. It must also reenergise its concept of socialism past Antony Crosland’s now canonical assertion of economic equality as the party’s sole creed. Perhaps most importantly, it must re-stake its claim to the Big Society which Cameron has hijacked for the Tories – mutualism, localism and solidarity must become core tenets of its vision once more, coupled with an unambiguous commitment to the environmental cause. The direction emerging from our national void-drifting is increasingly away from central state and towards the literal meaning of democracy: the empowerment of the people. For the sake of the majority at the mercy of unrestrained capitalism, Labour cannot allow itself to be left behind.

Coalition: the free marketplace of ideas

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Celebrating 100 posts

David Weber

It is ironic, that a country so associated with the development of a free marketplace as our own, should find itself so paranoid of the notion of freedom of political ideas. I am being slightly cheeky here: I do not refer to political freedom with a capital P: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement or freedom of entry into political parties. All such things are long established, and do credit to our political system. I refer to freedom of ideas within the political discourse.

The terms ‘freedom of ideas’, or ‘marketplace of ideas’ are often misunderstood as only applicable in a binary, “1st Amendment/Police State” sort of way, where the only barriers to freedom to focus on are legal restrictions and the threat of violence. Such concerns are, of course, tremendously important, so important that it is easy to understand why they dominate conversation about freedom. But they are the skeleton, without which the structure would not stand, rather than the flesh. What determines whether freedom flourishes is just as much the complex, multi-layered cultural climate that surrounds it, as it is the legal rules which govern it.

Just as if you pump carbon dioxide into the climate unsustainably, you risk turning the climate into a hostile, unfriendly place; if the climate for freedom of ideas is not right, the marketplace will suffer. It is such concerns which are fuelling debate about such diverse subjects as copyright law and patents; libel; privacy law; media ownership; party funding; cuts to the arts and humanities, subsidies to STEM subjects and Tuition Fees; Parliamentary Privilege; Electoral Reform; Devolution; Question Time; and Nick Clegg.

And I find these discussions just as fascinating, if not more so, than the adrenaline-fuelling outrage stories such as that of Paul Clarke’s Shotgun last year, or the Twitter joke trial. Those were undoubtedly the more exciting, more thrilling stories to ponder and agonise over, but they lack the infinite depth and complexity that some of the others engineer. Indeed, that is why outrage stories are more thrilling, because a bare-faced, unbelievable simplicity has been violated, whether freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, or any other principle of decency. But one’s mind chews over the detail of a thorny problem much longer than the simplicity of an obvious one. Consider it a contrast between the headline of a newspaper and the quality of its crossword. Though the headline might be why you buy the paper, it is often the crossword which dictates how much time you devote to it.

In case you think I am joking by making an example of Nick Clegg (and I certainly was by making one of Question Time), think again. Nick Clegg, along with David Cameron, David Laws and collected others from their parties, have done more to further the interests of the free marketplace of ideas than any other politicians have this year. Although this may be a small order of merit compared to the champions of libel reform, and the heroes who fight bad laws in court, it is still an important one, and one which is quietly having a beneficial effect in freedom’s favour.

In case you think this is a political defence of the Coalition’s agenda, do not worry yourself. Feel free to hate the Coalition with as much passion as you can muster for what it intends to do. My interest is purely in what it is, for many of its members, unintentionally doing. It cannot be intentional for most of the Conservatives in government to fight against the collected traditions of cabinet government down the ages in stifling freedom of information, diversity of ideas and honesty of opinion. Nor can it be pleasing for the Liberal Democrats to have to expose the divisions in their own party, the limits of its honesty, its crimes of opportunism, and its members’ addiction to doing things together, like mythical lemmings.

Nevertheless, the Coalition is quietly but systematically dismantling much of what is wrong with British politics. It is testing the boundaries of what collective responsibility can censor. It is practically writing a textbook about the limitations of our political system for honouring promises, representing public opinion and giving people a democratic voice. And this is good, because it aids the truth. Britain does not have a particularly democratic system of government. It does not represent its people well. And promises are rarely kept in politics, they are merely normally managed better. There is a long and ignoble tradition of parties spinning their way out of promises, and it is refreshing to see some more bald-faced confessions.

The irony is that until the election, many would have spun these traditions as good things. Evasiveness and dishonesty lead to Collective Responsibility (with a capital C and R). Single-party and undeserved winners lead to strong government. Honouring manifesto pledges in letter but not in spirit is an example of a peculiar marriage between delegate and representative traditions, with MPs making fine independent judgements whilst scattering breadcrumbs of honesty to their constituents. Such is the balanced way in which the British constitution works, it would be argued, long has it functioned and long may it continue to.

Such arguments convey an inability to cope with uncomfortable truths. If what we are experiencing now is an example of constitutional imbalance, then I say we could all do with a continued dose of it. It seems to me ridiculous to assume that the average citizen will worry about the niceties of Constitution whilst being unable to cope with the occasional expression of honest ministerial opinion. It is equally ridiculous to think that people cannot prefer honest confession of broken promises to spin and obfuscation. And the very idea of coalitions automatically leading to instability and stagnation is already almost extinct after nearly 8 months of good practice.

But of course, the truth is that my opening premise works both ways. Coalition in the United Kingdom is being shown to work because the climate is already supportive of it. Radicalism is low, common sense in reasonable supply and if anything, our problem of apathy works to its advantage. If  you compared to Italy, you would find that it has historically failed to cope well with Coalition not because of PR, but because of a climate which has dominated its politics for decades. But even then, Coalition can arguably be used as a solution to division and extremism as well as being a freedom which mature nations qualify for, and benefit from. Part of Italy’s problem probably stems from choice of coalition. Whereas the strength of the Northern Irish system, as I argued in my previous article, is the lack of any such choice, and the democratic structure of the legal requirement, which automatically requires the largest two parties take part in government, and entitles smaller ones to cabinet seats. Of course, such a system would not have worked had Northern Ireland not been at a stage where, in general, it wanted it to.

So Coalition cannot always work, but the situations where it can are varied and diverse. It is a political freedom which requires maturity and a beneficial climate, but wherever it can work it has the potential to improve not only the freedom of political ideas, but the use to which such freedom can be put. Honesty has proved empowering. The Coalition is considering a faster pace of reform than single-party government has given us for a decade. You may disagree intently with what that is resulting in, but freedom is not defined by whether you like the use it is put to, apart from perhaps the consideration of its own long-term future.

It may yet prove that such freedom in political ideas without democratic reform to accompany it, and force it into greater accountability, is dangerous. But the indications are favourable, indeed, for democratic reform itself. The Coalition has a short-term rather than a long-term vision of reforming the House of Lords; a long overdue alternative form of representation, which will hopefully complement the purpose of the House of Commons rather than replacing it. It intends to introduce the Alternative Vote if the public vote in favour, which is a small but crucial reform for polite discourse during elections. At present, the system makes parties all too happy to turn their opponents against each other, which is a malicious and cruel incentive. And above all, the one way in which freedom of ideas is destined to flourish is the utter inability of the Prime Minister to habitually shuffle individuals between jobs like a pack of cards. His is truly the primus inter pares, not just technically.

I would also like to raise a glass to the Coalition for setting yet another example in the Daily Soapbox’s favour, of professional collaboration, courteous disagreement, and “an independent community, recognising that we all think better when people of different views express them clearly”. This is our 100th Post. Here’s to the future.

This is the second in a series of posts considering the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare week.