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
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.
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’ – 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.
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
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
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
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The 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
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).
That’s where the real constitutional debate needs to be – around a radical constitutional option that puts Scotland back into the hands of its people: devo-local, if you like. Trevor Davies, The Scotsman 10/5/2012
[Politicians] see themselves as propping up something which is tottering rather than letting citizens build anew something that is soundly based. Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph 13/7/2012
Power wielded from the centre is slow to react, inflexible and discriminates poorly. Yet political power at all levels has been steadily eroded as a consequence of the economic demands of global corporations and the economic strain on central government to provide for these corporations and mop up the damage they cause. No redistribution of political power from centre to periphery can be sustainable without addressing the centralisation of economic power. The willingness to address the latter is surely what will separate the left ‘devo-localist’ from the right. Continue reading Equality of Voice and ‘Devo-localism’
There’s a funny little Panglossian piece by Tory peer and former minister Michael Bates on ConservativeHome. If it’s any indication of the thinking going on among ministers at present, however, it’s deeply worrying. The ex-Paymaster General displays an extraordinary lack of understanding of basic economic accounting and logic.
His main idea is that despite the current GDP figures, ‘the economic recovery is underway’. Now, while it’s true that GDP is in many senses a flawed measure of annual additional national wealth since it ignores (and may count as positive) environmental and human costs, it is the best available measure of what’s really going on in the economy. Contrary to the Tory peer’s claim, use of this measure is not ‘a bit like judging the health of a private corporation by its turnover alone’. The calculation of GDP specifically cancels out all the in-between costs in exactly the same way as a business cancels out turnover and costs to arrive at a profit figure. As a result GDP measures only those payments that are made in exchange for ‘final goods and services’ that are actually used, whether by the purchases of ordinary citizens, in the provision of public services or the investment of companies. Continue reading Forget GDP – Tory in Fairyland
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There’s a very interesting take on UK unemployment trends in the July NIESR Review, written by the NIESR director Jonathan Portes. One should perhaps bear in mind that he has previously worked to formulate employment policy for the Blair and Brown governments.
His essential point is that while the overall UK 16-64 employment rate has remained steady for over 30 years, this has been combined with some major changes in the patterns of that employment. This has major implications for the likely outcome of current government policy towards those out of work and their benefits.
In this post I summarise Portes’s findings and analyse more closely two points his paper overlooked: the impact of increased part-time working and the discrepancy between a rising population, a steady employment rate and falling numbers of benefit recipients. The findings suggest that the situation may be rather more serious than Portes fears, with significant implications for social welfare and cohesion. Continue reading Unemployment and Policy