Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Two Nations - a cautionary tale

Of all the barometers for general ignorance the reference points for the North-South divide are an extremely reliable indicator, particularly when attacking the Coalition.  In an otherwise excellent piece in the "Observer", Andrew Rawnsley makes the easy link to Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South" as a 19th century exemplar of the divergence between effete southern bed-wetters and the gritty northerners.

From a political viewpoint, the obvious touchstone is "Sybil: or the Two Nations" by a little-known novelist, published in the middle of the Hungry Forties and the Chartist upsurge.  "Sybil" explores the political divide in a way that Gaskell did not, and makes a much stronger case for an inclusive approach to economic and social problems than either Clegg or Cameron have been thus far able to muster.

After a few days in Yorkshire, the depressed state of the economy and the continuing dominance of London continues to astound.  It's clear that the civic regeneration is falling on hard times - but because the fall back towards the 1980s is less precipitous than the spectacular ineptitude of the financial collapse it has been much less reported by the media (more on London-centricity will continue ad nauseam), but the fragility of the Labour boom and the subsequent "tough love" perpetuated by Osborne and others is evident throughout.

For once, it is even possible to consider Petrolhead Hammond as having the right idea - connecting the Midlands, the North and Scotland through high-speed rail is a necessary but not sufficient condition for regenerating economies and integrating into the wider European culture.  Paradoxically the solidarity of cities such as Glasgow, Manchester and Leeds feels much more in keeping with a European ideal of public space on a human scale.

Back to "Sybil", a book that is certainly more readable than most 20th and 21st century tomes by politicians, it is instructive that the One Nation Tories were around 170 years ago.  Its author went on to become a Prime Minister, but you will seldom find anyone in politics today who knows or cares who Benjamin Disraeli was, or how his ideas were formed.  Hardly surprising as it's too difficult to consider any form of common wealth and obligation within the current political dialogue.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

A new Common Wealth?

First, a little piece of history.  When the "National" Government was set up in 1931, bringing together a motley band of fellow-travellers under Tory tutelage (initially including many Liberals save for the Lloyd George family group) it ushered in a period of hegemony that lasted through the 1935 election, where those who had taken the allegedly-patriotic shilling survived with no (or limited) Tory opposition.  A General Election was supposed to be held in 1940, but was postponed for the little local difficulty of imminent invasion and consensus in the political class that the best way to topple an incompetent leadership was through internal coups d'etat rather than the ballot box.

At this stage, Labour, who had been in Opposition, along with a few vestigial Liberals, were brought into the Cabinet and there was a wartime truce between the parties, meaning that by-elections were not contested by government candidates other than the one that defended the vacancy.

Despite national survival being the sole requirement of the time, voters' memories had not suddenly been excised by the electoral truce.  The 1930s had been a period of declining real wages, mass unemployment and inept government policy (parallels?) and the Tories had been the prime movers - again basking in uncritical adulation from the media, fellow-travelling appeasers and an establishment that did not wish to be reminded of many of its members' propensity for supporting Fascism (step forward Lord Rothermere, sponsor of Mosley and proprietor of the "Daily Mail").  The decade of Keynes's General Theory was a decade of poverty in policy responses and the foundation for Labour's successes after 1945.

During the war, therefore, opposition to the Government was concentrated in fringe movements, whose potential was magnified by the potential for protest.  One such was Common Wealth, a libertarian left movement led by Sir Richard Acland, a former Liberal MP.  Its manifesto was well to the left of the social democratic tradition, looking for a range of reforms including land taxation and curbs on excessive wealth either inherited or "earned".  The electoral truce allowed it to take signficant shares of the vote, building on popular desires to see a reform of welfare provision, state education and decent housing - all of which had been shamefully neglected before the war.

In this period of neo-reactionary hegemony there is an increasing need for something similar - articulating the sheer rage around greed, incompetence and venality.  Labour won't provide this, as they remain in thrall to the myth that electability is solely defined by the appeal of policies to a small section of the middle classes, identified by focus groups and super-served by the spin doctors in an effort to swing marginal seats one way or the other.  All that the main parties are offering are versions of the same old tunes, failed in the 1930s, failed in the 1970s and 1980s and manifestly failing now.

A radical manifesto around removing ideological bias and applying sense and instrinct to policy is needed; if only to test how far people are prepared to accept that most of what they have been sold for the last thirty years is fear-inducing hokum.  The sky will not fall in if there's higher taxation, or nationalising productive activities - it didn't before and it won't now.  The idea that the marginal benefits of snoutage outweigh both the moral outrage and the impact on those who are victims of the culture is risible and shows the contempt in which our self-appointed political prelates hold the wider world - and even if you did lose some of Boris the Blunderer's Cityboy chums you could always find equally-skilled gamblers down at Ladbrokes.

We should be seeking a "Good Society" - where people feel that what they are putting in is for their benefit as well as providing social justice.  Hence the removal of universal benefits is a narrow, retrograde step, and the penalty that people who are provident face when seeking support from the state - the rank hypocrisy of forcing the removal of savings before qualifying for any benefit is an incentive to profligacy and social irresponsibility.  Welfare is not solely measured by take-home pay, and if the services provided communally are sufficiently good (as they are in many European countries) then people will feel safe, secure and motivated.  However, the dismal moanings of the low-tax, low-quality brigade (except when their particular kink is threatened) are always ululating at a level to drown out the libertarian left position.

Times don't change as much as we think, and the uncanny parallels between 2011 and 1931 get more obvious.  The response of conventional politics is limited; framing a manifesto for change will require Common Wealth's populism and a rediscovery of Keynes's fundamental economic truth.  If we don't get there, the next decade will be one of poverty, both real and imaginative.

Bleat not for the politics of pension envy

Explaining economics is always fraught with difficulty, because the concept of collective good has disappeared under the dead weight of neo-liberal individualism and the "I'm all right, Jack" ignorance of those whose world-view is fuelled by the "Daily Mail" and its parochial, forelock-tugging attachment to a hierarchical pseudo-feudalism where crumbs from the rich editor's table are eagerly snapped up by the receiving orifices of his blue-rinsed acolytes.

The moral outrage that is being whipped up over public sector workers' militancy in defence of their pension rights is synthetic and cynical.  Pensions have never been static, and I don't see much evidence that the unions are denying changes to life expectancy or the need to reflect wider demographic trends.  However, they are missing a clear point that is difficult to explain to the current generation of semi-literate Cameron-worshippers, to the extent that pension is deferred salary.

Every time that a public sector employee stands up and points out that they a) entered the public service not out of a desire for short-term financial gratification and b) that most public sector salaries are set at levels that take into account lower contribution into pensions (i.e. that their take-home pay is reduced in order to boost retirement income) then this is howled down.  It doesn't fit the narrative that people's altruism is tempered by the need to feed, clothe and shelter themselves and it isn't convenient to realise that without a (dignified) pension payment on the basis of accrued services, most of the public sector's pensioners would be receiving even-less funded benefits in order to survive.

Most of the people who jump on this bandwagon are the same as those who were taken in by the "Mail's" assault on the 50% income tax band before the last election - as clearly this was kicking in at a mere 400% of the average earnings, and that this would act as a break on aspirationalism.  They go all out for private sector disciplines (much as those practised in the banking and financial services sectors) where their bosses continue not merely to draw obscene salaries but to enjoy pension benefits while they take anything meaningful away from the workforce.  These idiots combine the function of doing the government's dirty work and distracting from the real situation.

Pensions are a simple transfer payment within the national economy, but between the generations - and are part of what makes a social structure function.  The public sector has been quite effective at defending itself against the worst excesses of deregulated business, partly because the unions have remained relatively strong and partly because the market's operation would drive out people from public service if the real value of salaries erodes yet further, and will certainly not incentivise people to enter it (at all levels) in the future.  So the working-class Tory dupes are storing up potential anarchy and social breakdown with their idiotic posturings (doubtless more money for gated developments and private security firms), while the continued erosion of claims to civilisation continues.

The only truly market-driven outcome would be for the entire public realm to be privatised (from air, to public spaces through to health and education) with no universal entitlements.  Education, health, policing, sanitisation, and alll other basic needs would need to be procured through individual contracts, with clear barriers against the obvious benefits from collective action in case it replicated the hated state.  Then you could get rid of pensions as people could starve if they had insufficient savings, and therefore reduce their burden on the community.  A nasty place, but close to the "Mail" and "Express" utopia, where selfishness is promoted as a benefit to the community.

So each time you see someone attacking public sector pensions, ask why they are doing it - and why, perhaps, people are angry that their terms of employment, which include deferred income, are being torn up and ridiculed by pettifogging sharks and gangsters. 

"Which side are you on?" is becoming a pertinent question and one that is increasingly easy to answer.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Generalists, managers and the cult of venality

"Dispatches" a few months back exposed Britain's University Vice-Chancellors as a particularly avaricious canker on the face of society.  Not content with salaries that wouldn't disgrace a successful, profitable private-sector company, grace-and-favour homes for 'corporate entertaining' paid for out of academic budgets, they are now embarking on culls of academic staff to pay for vanity projects and the over-extension of their institutions in the halcyon Blairite days of education as a substitute for social and intellectual progress.  As usual, the cretinous managerial class forgets that the reason for its existence is that there are professional, qualified people further down the food chain who justify their existence.

It's paradoxical that as Britain has become a service-driven, non-productive economy that the term "manager" has acquired a combination of semi-mystical status and an aspiration for virility.  Most jobs don't actually involve management in the classic sense - but it's important to include it in the job description as it seems to attract a few more points in the grading systems that determine what people get paid.  So it gets elevated to a discipline, with its own standards, mantras and half-witted prolect that makes you fear for the intellectual and linguistic health of the poor saps who use it.

Vice-Chancellors are up there with the NHS, education and local government as exemplars of how the public sector has lost touch with its function - preferring instead to parody the real risk-taking economy with "reward packages" that are signed off by cohorts of similarly-placed parasites muttering and dribbling about "competitiveness and comparability", or if pushed, "the need to attract and retain talent".  These are, not to put too fine a point on it, specious rubbish and do not bear up to intelligent scrutiny.

You need competent, financially-literate people running public services.  But their employment and reward is not the end-point against which the success or failure of organisations should be judged - as the simple clue remains that these are services for the public, not a playground for second-rate theories of organisational design.  It's about teaching, curing or providing the basic facets of a civilised, collective society that are the reward, not some form of grotesque empire protected by a rodomontade of quality-assured, detached organisations whose function is designed to ensure that the users of these services (not "customers", dear God) have no clear way of finding out as to who should be held accountable for their services.

The self-deluding myth that "management" in itself is the answer to problems is used as a further justification for moving accountability away from politicians and citizens to these new secular priests.  They're up there with regulators as cautionary tales.  And for every £300k Vice-Chancellor, the store of human knowledge probably regresses rather than advances.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Time for bed? Not with the "night-time economy"

Of all the misguided "liberalisations" that the Labour Party committed (in the support of big business rather than the community) one of the least celebrated is the 2003 Licensing Act.  There's the usual "Daily Mail" hand-wringing about cheap alcohol ruining children and the occasional effusion of technicoloured vomit on television when a cheap documentary about the decline of the country is required, but as usual this is a simplistic and counter-productive response.

As a regular and appreciative user of licensed premises, with a slightly-developed sense of curiosity, the economics of the trade interest me.  There are constant examples of pubs closing down in villages and suburbs, whilse the so-called vertical drinking establishments in town centres continue to flourish - targeted at maximising profit and minimising the space available per punter.  This is a simple way of profit maximisation, and as such should be seen as a typical manifestation of capitalism.

The 2003 Act requires the managers of pubs, clubs and bars to take responsibility for their own premises, which is all right and proper.  However, there is no mandate for them to be responsible for punters once they have left the modern Gomorrah to go about their business, and this all falls on the police and local council to take care of.  Added to that is the current three-stage police classification of drinkers as being sober, "in drink" and "drunk and disorderly" - with only the latter attracting attention, and there is a recipe for anarchy at tipping-out times.

As the legislation assumes that councils have to justify any refusal, and that the wider impacts are not really important when it comes to licensing as it's irrelevant to the act, the presumption is that the trade can do what it wants - often employing expensive lawyers against local residents and councillors whose concerns are thus diminished, as nothing gets a local council officer more worried than the thought of having to fund litigation, even with a good chance of success.

This runs across Delirium Dave's localism and "Does My Society Look Big In This?" agenda, but what the hell?  For the most part, people who live in town centres (promoting sustainability and reducing carbon emissions by not needing to drive anywhere) are not stalwarts of their local Tory association, so being kept awake by profit-generating, inexperienced drinkers revelling in their ability to exploit the acoustic properties of the urban landscape at two in the morning is a small price to pay - until something actually happens when we get back to hand-wringing.  The number of times the "local night-time economy" is cited as an excuse to provide palliative alcopops for the masses is breathtaking.

Who needs joined-up policies, anyway?