Category Archives: Politics

Why Power is not Enough for Labour

Westminster Bridge and the Palace at dusk.
Destination Westminster?

There’s a flavour of ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ in the Corbyn-led debate over the Blairite legacy. As someone who campaigned enthusiastically for Labour in 1997 and now feels a somewhat detached member of the party, I think I can articulate why -despite the many achievements of the Blair and Brown governments – there might be a lingering discontent with that legacy. Leaving the Iraq War out of this, for right or wrong a product of Tony Blair’s always just visible messianic tendencies, the problem is really the Blairite legacy’s impermanence. The two main manifestations of that impermanence are in the failure to reduce inequality, surely to begin rising again, and the ability of the Conservatives to roar back and dismantle the very achievements for which we should be celebrating the Blair-given years of power. Continue reading Why Power is not Enough for Labour

Beyond Defeat for Labour in the UK

A New Dawn?

After defeat at the 2015 UK election Labour talks about appealing to the ‘aspirational’ and David Cameron pledges before his cabinet ‘to give everyone in our country the chance to get on’. If we accept the premise that speaking to material self-interest is what politics is now all about, we still need to point out that neither party has any analysis or policies that make their proffered goals more likely. Powerful economic forces are splitting apart the have-more from the have-less, with these forces accelerated by the way in which discrepancies in wealth inevitably lead to discrepancies in political power and voice. In a way it makes sense for the electorate to choose the party that is more comfortable with managing this process, revealingly accepting that ‘the dignity of a job’, and ‘the pride of a paycheck’ may be the limited best it can offer its citizens – since any promises over the quality and security of that job and how far that paycheck might stretch appear beyond modern governments to fulfill. Continue reading Beyond Defeat for Labour in the UK

Politics and Morality

Politics and Morality – Where Conservatism gets it Wrong

Tim Montgomerie wrote an interesting piece a while ago on ‘How the Left went Bad’, which asserted the necessity for Conservatives to ‘take the moral high ground’ from Labour.

Now, I don’t think talking about ‘morality’ gets us very far in politics – different morals are too irreconcilable. But Montgomerie thinks Labour’s advantage is in appearing to ‘have our hearts in the right place’. Of course, since this goes along with ‘messing up economies’ and ‘incompetence’, the true moral superiority and a ‘much superior approach to social justice’ lies with his team, through ‘sound finances, strong families, school choices and unshackled job creators’.

Some of Montgomerie’s arguments are just wrong or odd. The UK’s current debt burden was not acquired by ‘borrowing during the good years’, but by the effects of a global financial crisis. ‘Incompetent’ Labour apparently managed to preside over a decade of prosperity. Delivering ‘fairness’ appears to include public sector pay and conditions falling to match those of the private sector. But despite all this he picks out something important about the difference between the characteristically left of centre and right of centre view. Continue reading Politics and Morality

Independence is Nominal

Independence is Nominal – long-gestated thoughts given birth to in response to Brian Barder’s blog post on the lack of post Scottish referendum preparedness and the need for the UK coalition government to resign if there is a ‘Yes’ vote.

The view from Scotland
The view from Scotland ©DWP

Here I am, up in Scotland and strangely detached from the debate. (For comparison I was very active for the Yes side in the devolution campaign.) This detachment is partly due to personal events over the last 18 months, but also to a difficulty in getting a handle on what it all means. Continue reading Independence is Nominal

Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication

‘Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication’ – Although written four years ago for an essay competition, I still think this piece encapsulates as well as anything my approach to economics, politics and social institutions.

Atomised and helpless
Atomised and helpless
Bertrand Russell, the great British mathematician and philosopher, believed that to be ‘modern-minded’ was to make the error of thinking with the fashion rather than ahead of it. When he wrote about this in 1937 he believed that with God’s role as arbiter of truth and beauty having been usurped, ‘detachment and objectivity, both in thought and feeling’ had also been thrown overboard. Russell, as a rationalist and a non-believer, believed it was ‘possible and important’ to preserve them without recourse to a Creator. To do so, he believed, required ‘solitude’ and ‘a certain degree of isolation both in space and time’. While he may have been right when it comes to studying the physical world and creating great art, his advice is less helpful when it comes to human nature and society. Even if we wanted to, as human beings ourselves, we cannot stand apart from other humans and society as a whole. Unfortunately when this recognition came it was in part responsible for a critical wrong turning in our approach to social phenomena. This wrong turning came about because modern thinking, having dispensed with God guiding from above, had already turned to look for causes and drivers of events at the level below that at which they are observed. The properties of substances had to be derived from the properties of their molecules; the properties of the forces that change the world about us from day to day are derived from the waves and particles into which they can be decomposed. Continue reading Modern Thinking: Atomism and Communication

The Callousness of a Conservative

Charles Moore is the official biographer of Margaret Thatcher, former editor of the Daily Telegraph and an Old Etonian. He has nicely epitomised the indifference, evident intentional ignorance and convenient innumeracy of a particular type of Conservative. Writing in his column in ‘The Spectator’ magazine (May 4th) he devotes a mere 262 words to writing-off the problems of those on low incomes in Britain.

[T]he people who best understand how welfare works are either its recipients or those who work on low wages and are scarcely better off for doing so

he writes. So far so reasonable. He goes on:

These people recognise that being on welfare is — in effect, though not morally — like having a job. There is a wage for it, plus various equivalents of overtime and fringe benefits, and the task is to get as much of these as you can.

There’s a half-truth in there. If work seems like an impossibility, or hardly worth the candle given its poor rewards and insecurity, self-interest would suggest that you look for all the benefits you might be entitled to – although many don’t. But he continues:

 One effect of this has been to destroy the working class. Its more enterprising members have become middle class and the rest have discovered that they can live by not working.

At a stroke of his expensively-educated pen, Moore dismisses the existence of all those struggling to make ends meet in low-paid jobs. Four million Britons over 18 are in jobs that pay £7 per hour or less; seven million in ones paying no more than £8 per hour. (The minimum wage is set at just over £6.) They cannot reasonably be said to have joined the middle class, and if they could ‘live by not working’ they certainly choose not to. Continue reading The Callousness of a Conservative

The (Press) Barons Bite Back

We knew the press barons (and they are literally barons, in some cases – as we shall see) didn’t like the proposed arrangements for organising press regulation agreed last month between the three main political parties. This arrangement was in the form of a Royal Charter (an arcane form of legislation introduced not by the elected representatives of the people, but by the monarch’s Privy Council) which set up a ‘Recognition Body’ which was to certify a new press regulator as conforming to the requirements based on the recommendations in last year’s Leveson Report. These requirements were in particular that the regulator itself should be truly independent of both the press and political influence, that it should have strong powers to enforce sanctions – both financial and in terms of apologies and corrections, that the regulator should set up a low-cost arbitration arrangement to deal with complaints and that complainants need not necessarily be individuals or organisations directly affected. Continue reading The (Press) Barons Bite Back

Thatcher and Labour: The Real Lesson

As Kawan Patel suggested on LabourList a few days ago, New Labour was founded on the idea that while Margaret Thatcher might not have ‘saved the nation’ as her Conservative supporters claim, there were things she ‘got right’. I believe that this focus on the specifics of the Thatcherite legacy, such as privatisation and reductions in union power, is wrong. It is what was entirely responsible for New Labour’s failure to reverse inequality and for allowing a massive financial bubble to replace a sustainable industrial infrastructure in Britain. We must learn this lesson.

For a start, the image of 1970s Labour government in hapless thrall to left-wing union leaders leading their unwilling rank-and-file members to destroy the British economy is almost entirely a creation of the press and Conservative myth-makers. The root cause of the industrial unrest of the 1970s that culminated in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79 was consistent annual inflation in double digits. This was mainly as a consequence of massive hikes in the price of oil. Firms showed no restraint in allowing their prices to rise to maintain their profits; for workers to maintain their standards of living required credible threats to withdraw labour. In doing this they were, on average, successful – but no more than that. In relation to labour productivity, hourly wages were at exactly the same point in 1979 as they had been in 1972. Continue reading Thatcher and Labour: The Real Lesson

Better Press Regulation should be Liberating

This article is on 3 pages, and you can go to the next page you want by clicking on the relevant  number at the bottom of each page.

papersThe report of the Leveson inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press is expected to be delivered next week. I am publishing here a fuller version of my article that was previously published on LabourList. I was interested to note a report on the BBC News this evening on the Danish Press Council, which operates on a statutory basis and in a way not dissimilar to my suggestions here.

Introduction – The Press: Free for Whom and Free from What?

Press regulation as self-regulation is no longer, if it ever was, acceptable. It has utterly failed to prevent harm, to deal with the consequences of harm, and most importantly, failed to give us the high quality information and varied interpretation of current events and processes for which a ‘free press’ is valued. There is strong evidence for this in observing some extraordinary misapprehension of facts about our society.

As reported by a Cabinet Office briefing in 2000, when questioned people estimated on average that 26% of the population belonged to an ethnic minority. The real figure then was 7.1%. They thought on average that 20% of the population were immigrants. The figure at that time was just 4%, although it has now increased following EU expansion. A recent YouGov survey conducted for the Fabian Society found that people systematically overestimate government spending on unemployment benefit and the police by a factor of eight, housing benefit and child benefit by a factor of three, and sickness and disability benefits and defence by a factor of two. Yet when it comes to those parts of public expenditure where direct experience is common, such as the NHS, education and state pensions, the average estimate is reasonably close to the reality. Whatever our preferences, if we aren’t getting accurate information we cannot collectively make good decisions on important matters. As Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, has pointed out

‘[T]he liberty of the press…is the right of the community as a whole. It is…our right, the right of every citizen.’ Continue reading Better Press Regulation should be Liberating

Welfare Myths and Welfare Facts

Job Centre on Christmas Day
Ready to Work!
I am publishing here a paper on ‘Welfare Myths and Welfare Facts’ (pdf 65kb). This is a summary, but please read the complete paper.

The belief, held by nearly one third of the population according to polling figures, that at least half of welfare claimants are either fraudulent or are refusing suitable work when offered, is demonstrably wrong. It is clearly fuelled by misleading and misrepresentative information fed to us not only by most media outlets but by our own leaders, probably as a ‘divide and rule’ strategy.

The total cost of out-of-work benefits is much smaller than is frequently claimed, including by those who are in a position to know better. A significant proportion of out-of-work benefits are ultimately paid for by their recipients through their lifetime NI and tax contributions. The large majority of those actually receiving JSA are intent on finding work and actively seeking it, but a proportion of them are currently doomed to failure – some probably permanently – through no conscious decision of their own.

As a result, the lowering of benefits and the threat of benefit withdrawal is increasing hardship for many, while probably doing little more than increasing ‘churn’ in a sluggish labour market. Given the current low level of benefits in relation to a generally acceptable minimum income and the dubious fairness of an absolute obligation to work for others for a breadline wage, further downward pressure on benefits seems to have little justification morally, socially or even economically.

The only real way to see more of the long-term unemployed improve their own lives and their contribution to society is the provision of more and better-paid employment opportunities. Along with this will have to go resource-intensive engagement with those who are poorly equipped to support themselves, never mind to play a productive role in society.

Download the full paper: ‘Welfare Myths and Welfare Facts’ (pdf 65kb).