Wednesday 1 November 2017

Theresa May

Published in LibDemVoice 1st Nov 2017

I have been struggling for a while to work out Theresa May’s mentality. I have read, as we all have, something of her origins – the vicar’s daughter who ran through a field of wheat. I am aware of her time at the Home Office where she adopted regressive policies in a pusillanimously oppressive way. I am aware of her stance on the referendum – I find it interesting now that people describe her as a remainer, when it seems to me that the most important thing about her stance at the time was its invisibility.

Then a single word popped into my head which seemed to have a great deal of traction, the word “provincial”. It comes straight from the pages of Trollope, and describes the mindset, which he sometimes satirised to great effect, of the solidly conservative yeoman class which ran the shires of England in the mid nineteenth century. There is much in common between then and now, times of turbulence when the world is changing, power can move with quicksilver speed, the very ground under our feet seems to be shifting, and those determined to hold what they have must work very hard to ensure that things stay the same. There is a concern about standards, loyalty, patriotism (though never stridently stated). There is a feeling that everything will be better if people know their place and stick to it. And there is a feeling that one must never question too closely or demand an account of the people who claim to rule on our behalf. The refusal to publish the Brexit impact papers comes to mind.

Above all these, the key component is a lack of imagination. Or, rather, more than that, there is a refusal to have an imagination. If you have an imagination, then you can imagine things being different, and then you can imagine the status quo being different, and, in the mind of the provincial, who knows what might happen then???

Theresa May is probably the best, though inadequate, answer the Tory party has to its current woes. And she is the worst answer the country could possibly have to its woes. To lead this country requires an imagination, and not just any imagination, but a global imagination, one that is capable of surveying the global horizon, comprehending the feelings and wishes of people in manifold other cultures and places, understanding what mighty and complex storms are coming, and envisaging how the British boat can be navigated through them. (As Brexit proponents try to bend the word “global” to their discourse, I need to point out that a global imagination encompasses the EU rather than discounting it.) But, instead of the global imagination we have a woman whose imagination cannot stretch to anything worse than running through a field of wheat, while she steers the entire country blindly but unerringly towards the rocks.

Wednesday 12 July 2017

Would we be better governed out of the EU?

Musing about the hard left stance on the EU. As I understand it, they want to leave because the EU is a capitalist neoliberal club governed on behalf of the global elite. The more intelligent left wingers realise that the UK is also a capitalist neoliberal club governed on behalf of the global elite. But they reason that they have more chance of turning the UK into a socialist state than the EU.

Are they right?

Well, I think that, like Marx, they are right with a lot of their diagnosis, but wrong – catastrophically so – with the solution. They’re right: the EU is a capitalist neoliberal club governed on behalf of the global elite. So is the UK. The difference between the two is the thick strand of human rights thinking woven into the architecture and practices of the EU, which underpin everything and which protect all its citizens from depredation by state or commerce. It is so effectively woven in that the neoliberals, when they came along in the 1980s, were completely unable to extract it. And that, of course, is one of the chief reasons – and frequently stated in public - why the UK’s elite want to pull us out of the EU, so that they can do away with all that human rights “nonsense”. That is why being inside the EU, even in its current state, is better than being outside it.

But would it be possible to reform the UK’s governance outside the EU in such a way that we, the citizens, will benefit more than if we stayed in the EU? That is the socialist hope, that being freed of EU restrictions about what they can do with industry and so on, they will be able to change the way the UK governs itself. At least, I think that is what it is – it seems to me that they could do a lot of what they want while remaining within the EU, and it is not clear to me just how much they would be restricted.

And if we were out, what then?  In terms of governance, we will have the most uneven contest since David and Goliath, and David is without his slingshot. On one side the massed, rich and powerful ranks of the neoliberal elite, both political and commercial, most of the media, and many of their powerful international friends, whose aim is to reduce the powers of citizens still further so that there is even less opposition to their ability to create profit. The day we leave, even before that, they will be preparing the way to removing citizen protections in employment, health, civil rights, the environment, anything that stands in the way of profit. On the other side, a man who has never governed will very  slowly gear into action, aided by a couple of low circulation newspapers, a few rich friends and several hundred thousand well meaning, energetic, enthusiastic but mostly naive supporters. The contest, if you can call it that, will be ugly but mercifully short.

Perhaps the socialist wing of Labour might consider a more delicate strategy, and conclude that staying in the EU enables them to protect themselves and the citizens of this country far better than leaving. It may not be ideal, but it is sensible not to fight battles you can’t win. Socialism within EU rules is possible, and many in the EU are receptive to the message that principles other than neoliberal ones can be effective. As I argue in my previous post, some strategies, like state ownership, previously did more harm than good in some circumstances, but may now do more good than harm due to the excessive power now wielded by corporations. The trick is to know how much is enough and how much is too much. And, as far as I can see, we can do everything we want and need to do while remaining in the EU.

Tuesday 4 July 2017

States, corporations and people

I have a simple view of the world as divided into three great groups of actors: states, corporations and people. The balance between the three fluctuates in the long term and the short term. Neoliberalism – the doctrine that state power is too pervasive and the state needs to be “shrunk” as far as possible – arose from the experience in the mid twentieth century of the rampaging Nazi and Soviet states and the violence and bloodshed caused within and around them. The aim of the prophets of neoliberalism – Hayek, Friedman and others – was to prevent states from ever being able to do such things again. The key thrust in the process was to reduce the regulatory capacity of the state, thereby increasing the freedom of markets. Their assumption was that increasing the power of markets would enable ordinary people, however they are conceived – citizens, consumers, human beings – to live more free lives. Neoliberalism came to the fore in the developing world in the 1970s and 1980s as the great creations of the Bretton Woods settlement – the IMF and the World Bank – began to insist on its principles as conditions of their loans. It came to the fore in the developed world during the 1980s with Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA.

At the same time as the spread of neoliberal practices in the developed world, globalisation began to bite. The increasing connectedness of everything everywhere created conditions in which corporations and financial elites could become footloose and hence beyond all but the most rudimentary state control. At the same time the financial elites have worked to capture the people in control of many state apparatuses to ensure that their interests are always given priority. This shift in the balance of power means that citizens are as far as ever from taking control of their own destiny. Given these circumstances, perhaps the old definitions do not apply in the same way as they used to. It used to be the case that state control of productive industry was (for some) self evidently less efficient and effective than private control. Given that private control is so far beyond the capacity of governments or consumers to regulate, it becomes more tenable, perhaps, to work back to state control of monopolies, like water supply, and near monopolies, like railways.

We have seen clearly how badly state control can go wrong, and we should not forget the lessons of history. We now see clearly how badly commercial control can go wrong, and how far commercial interests have subverted state regulation, from taxation to the health and safety of the population. Perhaps it is time to work towards a new settlement, involving any combination of state action, citizen power, and other forms of organisation, such as the mutualisation of therailways suggested by David Boyle. The old opposition of markets and Marxists is no longer sufficient for the new world order, so a new way of thinking about the relations between states, markets and people must emerge. (Perhaps that is what some people mean by radical centralism – I have no idea.)

Monday 17 April 2017

“The Alternative”: some notes on the editors’ introduction

Nandy, L, Lucas, C and Bowers C, eds (2016), The Alternative, London: Biteback Publishing

The Alternative is an attempt to sketch the skeleton of a progressive politics. The editors’ introduction juxtaposes despair and optimism. It was born in the aftermath of the 2015 General Election which saw off Labour and LibDem challenges to the Tories and rewarded the Greens with one seat for more than a million votes.

Votes per seat per party in 2015 make interesting reading:
SNP 25972
Conservatives 34347
Labour 40290
LibDem 301983
Green 1157613
UKIP 3881099 (which is of course now no seats for nearly four million votes)

It takes 11 times as many votes to elect a LibDem MP as an SNP one, and 7 times as many votes to elect a LibDem MP as a Labour one.

And it takes 44 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as an SNP one, and 28 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as a Labour one.

Does this imply the need for a change in the voting system? The editors reach for PR, but I think this is inadequate as an overall response. A new system will change the balance of power within Parliament, but will not necessarily change the relationship between politicians and voters.

We now live in a world of uncertainty. The editors refer to this – nation states and globalisation, and the state of information. They refer also to inequality, but instability is a different thing from unfairness, and I suggest instability rather than unfairness is the driving force behind much of the protectionism, isolationism and conservative sentiment we are living with today. Inequality and instability are closely related. Inequality is probably one of the most powerful driving forces behind instability. But in my view inequality is not what people feel; instability is.

Instability has been with us for some time, and it will not go away. I am reminded of 1997. Before the election there was much talk of the “feelgood factor”, implying a feeling of confidence that the Tories hope was returning to the national mood. After the election the phrase was dropped instantly and entirely from national discourse (or maybe it was just the media discourse). It was as if we recognised at last that the old securities of a job for life had gone and we needed to get used to it.

I suggest the same is true now. Globalisation and its bastard offspring neoliberalism make it unlikely that we can make employment more stable and secure. But we can make income more stable and secure, by having fairer distribution to start with, and effective mechanisms for dealing with troughs in employment.

Part of this process is making a more effective state to regulate neoliberalism’s daily excesses and create structures within which people can be more secure. And part of that process is putting into office politicians who actually listen and act. They are part of what a progressive politics looks like. To go further with this, we need some sort of agreed starting point. The editors offer a definition of “progressive” which is worth quoting in full.

Progressives want to move beyond the current system and create a better one. We continue in the tradition of those who ended slavery, won votes for women, built our welfare state, and fought for the protection of our environment. Progressives believe in cooperation. We want a supportive and responsive state which brings the best out of people’s instinct to share success and support each other in hard times, and which offers genuine equality to all citizens, together with social justice, civil liberties, human rights and responsibilities, without discrimination on grounds of gender, age, physical ability, race or sexual orientation.

Progressives are, by definition, radicals. We re-imagine the way our society and our economy works from the bottom up. We wish to reform the socially isolating and environmentally degrading mainstream economics that has dominated our political discourse for several decades. While wealth creation is important, we need fairer and more effective ways of distributing the fruits of that wealth so that everyone benefits. We therefore want power and wealth redistributed, in order to empower citizens to work together to build fair and resilient communities for generations to come.

Progressives come from many ideological positions – including socialists, liberals, feminists, ecologists – and none. We share a rejection of the politics of fear and division, and wish to move towards a more inclusive society in which every citizen not only has the opportunity to develop themselves to their full potential but has as much control as possible over their own destiny and the chance to shape the society in which they live. This way we believe we will build a society that both empowers people and allows us to live within environmental limits. (pp xix-xx)

I don’t agree with all of it. As soon as I started looking at it in detail, I started nitpicking. Agreement is not to be expected, but this is a very good starting point for debate and progress towards working together.

To return to the start, perhaps optimism is not what I feel right now. What I do feel is purpose. Politics is a long, hard road, and I have no idea where it will take us. We are entering new territory fr progressives, territory where we co-operate rather than split, so we need new tools to survey it, map it and make it ours. We make the road by walking so walk we must.

Saturday 25 February 2017

The search for justice: Christian involvement in politics

This presentation with notes, is the material I used for a discussion at the Christchurch Think Tank (via the "What's On" link) entitled "The search for justice: Christian involvement in politics". You need to download it to see the notes.

I wasn't happy with the result. That is to say in terms of the quality of the final presentation; I do not know how much of the desired effect it had on the audience. Ideas evolve, but these needed to evolve more than most.

In particular it was long on analysis, but short on action. I think the ideas were there, just not well expressed.

In a nutshell:
- there is a need to put some effort into equipping ourselves to sort reliable information from the swamp of dross in today's media landscape
- then we need to put constant effort into using the equipment we have
- then we need to assert that the public / political is just as much a sphere for Christian action as the private
- then we need to accept that political action is a long term business that itself requires constant and long lasting effort.

It's a tall order, and not everyone is called to it, but those who are can draw legitimate inspiration from the Bible and Christian tradition, and will need to resist gently but firmly the efforts of politicians, media moguls and other Christians (usually the right wing ones) to put us back in our box.

Saturday 7 January 2017

This is how to respect the referendum result

Originally posted 7th January 2017 on Liberal Democrat Voice.
I am frequently told that, as a “Remoaner” I must “respect” the result of the referendum. It seems to me that I am not being asked to respect it so much as to fetishise it.
Actually, I do respect it. I respect it for what it was – an advisory vote won by a wafer thin majority based on a mountain of lies.
Then, because I say that, I am criticised (virulently quite often) for being undemocratic and for not respecting the will of the people. And many people who did not vote Leave, and do not want to leave, seem to have accepted the line that the vote has happened and they must “respect” it.
But democracy is so much more than a single vote.
Generally speaking electoral votes stand, even if the majority is unsatisfactory. But that is premised on two conditions.  The first is that the voters get a chance regularly to change their minds. The second is that the voters were – at least relatively – well informed about the subject of their vote. All sides make their offers clear, and the media do a proper job of examining their claims.
Neither of these conditions applies to the referendum vote. There will not be a chance to change our minds about this one. Once we leave the EU, we will not be in a position to get back in for a considerable time. And if we do decide that rejoining might be nice, the conditions to rejoin will be the same as a new joiner, including having to join the Euro, which I do not see happening. So effectively, leaving the EU sets Britain’s course for at least a couple of generations. This vote is not sufficient basis for such a momentous and long term decision.
And the voters were seriously misinformed about what leaving meant. I blame both campaigns and the media for this. The Remain campaign was feeble, the most disorganised and ineffective campaign I have seen in British politics. Even Labour’s 1983 election campaign did not plumb the depths of this one. The Leave campaign was based on deliberate and sustained mendacity from start to finish.
The media failed completely to do the job they are required to do in a democracy. We do not have a free press in this country. We have a commercial press, which conforms to the requirements of its overseas owners, not the needs of the British public. Half the press amplified the Leave campaign’s lies; the other half failed to hold them up to scrutiny. In addition to that half the press has spent around the last twenty years softening the public up for this vote with an even longer sustained campaign of lies about the EU (in which Boris Johnson was a prime, and utterly dishonest, mover).
That is why I claim to be completely democratic in regarding this vote as inconclusive and this fight as unfinished (just as Nigel Farage was going to). To do anything differently would be undemocratic.