Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Syria, turkeys and Farron's Stockholm Syndrome

The Liberal Democrats are, in general, an irrelevance in Parliamentary terms.  Their punishment for staying the course while being simultaneous punchbags and human shields was brutal, and the final demonstration of catastrophic misjudgement - a grim-faced acquiescence would have been appropriate rather than identification by parts of the party with the hegemonic brutality of Tory ideas and strategy.

Sadly Nick Clegg did not pay the electoral price for this - and it was symbolic that he wheeled himself out to announce that the rump of the parliamentary Liberal Democrats would line up behind the Tories, irrespective of the outcome and content of the Commons debate on intensifying British involvement in Syria.  With 50 MPs that would have been a game changer, it now looks like both an immoral stance and the posturing of the deluded irrelevant.

Tim Farron's mistake is to continue to play the "statesman".  In writing to Cameron with a bunch of party grandees around five "tests" for Liberal Democrat support, the hubris and pathos is apparent.  It's a manifestation of denial that adopting self-styled "moderate" and "centrist" positions is anything other than a continuation of the intellectual and moral atrophy that overtook the party during its period of coalition.  It's also a further demonstration that being a party defined by triangulation is a failure, and which will stop any grassroots revival in its tracks.

In setting five tests, it would have been reasonable to argue that all of them needed to be satisfied before an active level of support should be given - rather than the balance of the party bunker's assessment.  At most, the response of Cameron and Hammond would have justified not taking an entirely oppositionist line.  In reality, the preconditions for proper engagement (a military and diplomatic strategy that commands wide multi-national support, and coherence around who is actually being supported) are even less likely to be met than when Farron sent his casuistical bleat to Cameron.

There is some misguided strategy in the Liberal Democrat bunker that seeks to differentiate the party from Labour by being weak, vacillating and centrist.  This plays into a Tory narrative that reinforces the "divide and rule" strategy that wiped out the Liberal base in May, and consequently continues their illegitimate rule within a flawed system.  To watch the pygmy politicians at work is revelatory.  While Corbyn has his troubles - watching Hilary Benn on Channel 4 News was creepy and morally disturbing - Labour is at least defining alternatives and regenerating its grassroots.  For every parish council election that wins massive Liberal Democrat crowing, there is no strategy and there is no vision or passion.

Charles Kennedy was right to adopt principled opposition to the Iraq disaster, despite the doubts of the party grandees as to whether principle was a successful strategy - but also created expectations that the Liberal Democrats would stick to some form of clarity and consistency.  Far better to be (disgracefully and revealingly) described by the Bullingdon scum as "terrorist sympathisers" than be perceived as lapdogs and fellow travellers.  Farron's self-justification has been so twisted that it resembles Jesuit casuistry rather than the evangelical Christianity that caused concern during his leadership election.

There is consensus that the illegal insurgency needs to be contained, suppressed and rooted out.  There is consensus that this can only be worked through by international co-operation - but this includes not turning a blind eye to the dictators and funders of the outlaws and murderers, rather than kow-towing to them.  Claiming the moral high ground is not enough - there needs to be a demonstration of why it is not just risible posturing.

Irrespective of the overall strategic issues around the Middle East, if, tonight, Cameron and his colonialist, gunboat diplomacy acolytes secure a majority of more than 8, then the Liberal Democrats will have destroyed much of their remaining credibility for nothing.  If it is less than 8, then I suspect many members and supporters will be considering whether their allegiance to the party is worth sustaining.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Cameron - the heir to Blair

After weeks of terrorist atrocities that peaked, in most people's perceptions with the attacks in Paris, it would be uplifting to report that the British government appeared to be taking decisions on the basis of long-term strategic interests and working to secure support and understanding of its position.  Instead, we have the ugly spectacle of an arrogant Prime Minister calculating about how he can dish the Opposition while at the same time placating his neoconservative mates.

The parallels with the immediate aftermath of September 2001 are chilling.  In that case, it is reasonable to assume that the decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq had been taken and then the strategy back-solved.  Bush and his amoral poodle spent eighteen months building straw men, culminating in the ultimate lies of imminent threat from Iraq and there being an outcome that promoted stability and peace.  Thinking people didn't believe it then, and they shouldn't believe it now.

Where Cameron and his minions score is in their combination of fear and pseudo-patriotism.  Nobody wants there to be an escalation in violence or for innocent people to be attacked - but by ratcheting up the perceived rather than real risks he is playing to a particular narrative.  There is no real rebuttal to the assertion that increased bellicosity abroad will increase the risk from both external and domestic terrorism, but this is portrayed as a price worth paying - almost, subliminally, as a contribution to our "heroes" forced into political game-playing.

A strategy for Syria and Iraq, if it were ever to emerge, would need to address demography, geography and politics.  It is bound up with the wider Middle East, including the continued impasse that Blair has done nothing to address around Israel's security and behaviours, and the shift in balance of the world economy away from carbon-based energy.  Therefore it is complicated, and not best addressed through gesture attacks which can be portrayed as of equivalent intent to the vile murders of civilians elsewhere in the world.

Cameron and Philip Hammond, whose vacuity and arrogance grow with the years, do not appear to care about the consequences.  If they did, they would have worked much more closely with the United Nation to bring in Russia and other neighbouring countries into an effective ground-based force to flush out the outlaws.  They have fallen into the messianic trap that laid waste to Blair's credibility and British prestige - albeit demonstrating that the great white elephant of Trident replacement will erode our ability to support such actions.

Jeremy Corbyn's position has been consistent.  It is perfectly possible, despite the barrage of criticism directed at him, to understand that his analysis is sincere and based around the experience of the damage that Blair's Republican agenda inflicted not just on his party but on the country.  It may not be perfect, but it is as worthy of respect as any others - it is not a matter where party politics provides a reliable or relevant guide.  Putting forward views based on experience and historical evidence is not a crime.

Yet from the dribbling you would have thought that the issue being discussed is not that of how to eliminate a rogue insurgency outwit international law, but how to create civil war within the Labour Party.  Since Corbyn's election, there has been an unsubtle suggestion that the will of members is in some way a "mistake", to be corrected by a Blairite coup within the Parliamentary Party.  As many of those advancing it are contemptuous of any democratic activity this is not surprising, but it is a prime example of distraction tactics.

Cameron, when he was in starry-eyed mode back in 2006, claimed to want to the Blair's successor.  He is achieving that on every level.  It remains to be hoped that both of them are called to account for their gambling with other people's lives and their hubris that assumes that they alone have the knowledge and wisdom that subverts international law and which does absolutely nothing to increase either citizen safety or national prestige.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Home Secretary and inappropriate sex with goats

As a liberal with libertarian instincts, the first question around any legislation is whether it further impedes the rights of the citizen.  If the answer is that it does, then only then can a secondary question be asked, as to whether its introduction will improve the safety, security and rights of others.  If there is a reasonable case that it does, then the final key determinant of the quality of legislation is whether it is sufficiently tightly-defined, incapable of perversion and open to challenge and scrutiny not merely during its enactment but during its period of life.

This is why the current proposals on the British state's increased ability to intrude into its citizens' private activities are so suspect.  There are already wide-ranging and illiberal powers, nodded through on Blair's watch, that allow virtually unlimited access for the self-appointed guardians of morality, in the guise of preventing criminal acts.  There is already an assumption that private data will be harvested for commercial and controlling ends, and that the porosity of security systems, as evidenced by the recent TalkTalk fiasco, will be exploited.

Nobody is denying the possibility of crime or the ability of legal agencies to act to intervene to prevent it.  Indeed, from a libertarian perspective that meets the utilitarian test, and it would be a strange breed of irresponsible anarchist who denied the need for at least some power to protect the life and liberty of others.  However, what Theresa May and her client groups within the police and secret state want to secure is the ability to intrude in a real-time, but also archived, framework, into both the public and private realm - undermining the very liberties that they claim to be protecting.

As the current administration appears to be both stupid and confused in its attitude to human rights (hardly surprising given the warped definition of a democratic mandate currently in use) there is no check and balance mechanism in place that should provide assurance to the citizen that he or she is able to fight back if victimised by the state.  In this climate, opposing the extension of state power becomes axiomatic, not out of any anti-patriotic bias but out of a desire to protect the civil realm from encroachment.

Whenever one hears the representatives of the state claiming that those who obey the law have nothing to fear, then you have to wonder what dark motivations lie beneath.  The law is mutable, liberty is not.  The same approach is used by totalitarians of all hues and depths of evil, enforcing conformity at pain of ejection from the community and the protection of the polity.  Given the cretinism of most tabloid cheerleaders, the savage irony of promoting "British freedom" while systematically undermining the liberty of the citizen is likely to be overlooked more often than not.

I do not hold a brief for zoophilia, nor do I hold the view that every Tory is necessarily interested in non-mainstream sexualities - but it would be my liberty to use internet search facilities to prove or disprove my hypothesis.  In May's brave new world, this would probably excite the attention (at least) of the security agencies.  This is where syllogism and false reasoning make bad laws - and the Tories, far from defending the freedom of the individual from the state are both being disingenuous and paving the way for more encroachment in the years to come.  This is why libertarians should join with liberals in being angry and active in fighting back.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Lords, the Tories and the stink of immorality

Of the myriad problems with Britain's constitution, the House of Lords is an egregious example of the fetishisation of history over practicality.  A modern, revising second chamber was an option at least before Blair discovered the satisfaction of mediocre placemen, and before the Tories' achievement of throttling the reformist agenda of their deceased coalition partners.  In the context of a constitutional settlement that is, to put it mildly, unworkable, unaccountable and untenable, the Lords represents the manifestation of a persistent reluctance to address fundamental issues.

Savouring the irony of the Tories denouncing unelected privilege is hubristic but fun.  To witness the poltroonish yobbery of Osborne claiming that the Tories have a resounding democratic mandate to implement policies not in their manifesto is akin to time travel back to the 1980s, when he was still fantasising about the conjunction of porcine greed and the late and partially-lamented Thatcher.  For the Tories to pick on features of government that frustrate their will is rank hypocrisy given their contempt for democracy and accountability, and their amoral bulldozing of the basic standards of probity that a citizen might have the right to expect.

Tax credits, in their current form, are an untenable legacy of well-intentioned Labour paternalism.  Brown's extension of the regime to become an effective top-up in the context of exploitative employers was economic folly on one level.  In encouraging firms to underpay staff in the knowledge that the state will redistribute other people's money, another large corporate subsidy was established; the inevitable squeals that increasing wages would reduce viability has enough short-term traction but not enough economic literacy to suggest that even the unfettered market is able to function.

Therefore to watch the line-up of such paragons of philanthropy as Andrew Lloyd-Webber and the scions of JCB diggers lining up to support Osborne's misguided policy was a salutary reminder of why opposition is needed at all levels.  A government of oligarchs, sucking up to any rich third party, with disdain for the impact of their policies - hardly a recipe for a popular or measured approach to policy-making.  When challenged by the Lords on the basis of humanity, economics and the mendacity of Cameron's snouty trotting-out of sham piety around "hard-working families" the Tories don't like the evidence that their writ, untenable on democratic grounds in the Commons, is not all-encompassing and that there are to held to account.

The major confrontation between the Lords and the Commons during the Liberal government of 1906-15 was around the Lords blocking the popular policies that founded modern social security, an which resulted in a workable compromise whereby the Lords had limited blocking powers - further refined b the Attlee administration of 1945-51.  In the absence of an elected second chamber, this is reasonable.  To watch the hamster-faced maunderings of the Tories you would have thought that the current situation was analogous.

In reality, the tax credits issue is one that tests the boundaries of the Tory perversion of the constitution.  The understanding is that the Lords do not object to a finance bill - and the lies being spread by the Tories are that this was a finance measure.  It wasn't even a primary bill, but secondary legislation which has been used by both totalitarian parties to push dubious policy changes through parliament with the minimum of scrutiny.  Osborne and Cameron resemble bullies caught in the act, a position of immense psychological pleasure for them but dangerous for the rest of the country.

It is clearly hyperbolic to observe that the process that the Tories see to neutering the Lords resembles the progress towards dictatorship in inter-war Europe, but there is a certain resemblance to the German Enabling Act of 1933, where a government installed on a minority of the votes suspended all vestiges of constitutional government.  In the context of the assault on liberties and accountability, vigilance is needed to ensure that petty spite is not allowed to descend into the final removal of any citizen power and challenge.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Flat earth, HS2 and the lunatic fringe

From the venomous and monomaniac tone of their social media campaigns, you would be forgiven for considering that the proposal to build a new mainline railway in Britain was on a par with every natural and unnatural evil of the last two millennia, at least in the eyes of the self-styled people's tribunes who maintain a virtual campaign in the face of reality and reason.

As a sign of old age, it is difficult to get interested in the minutiae of division between the various groups - rather akin to the Trotskyite fringe in the 1980s their theological disputes are irrelevant either to the remainder of the world or to the political programme that they seek to influence.  What is clear is that their manoeuvres are entirely counter-productive, given their purported desire to oppose significant upgrades of infrastructure.

Going back to first principles, transport has a number of key purposes.  At the highest level, it moves people and goods from one point to another - responding to economic and social demand.  It also acts as a means of influencing where houses, workplaces and communal facilities are located - in a sane world the provision of transport is considered in parallel with decisions on land use.  It sticks in the craw to argue that this is now recognised even by some of the more evolved Tories, a belated conversion but nevertheless welcome.

There are a number of fundamental challenges facing governments when making transport decisions - the uncertainty as to the future, the inability of government decision-support tools to be capable of making the kind of strategic choices that satisfy all accountants and the number of half-baked critics whose capacity for inductive reasoning is paralleled by their literacy.  Most, not all, of the opposition to HS2 is coming from the green ink brigade, which makes it far easier to dismiss.

Infrastructure lasts for a long time.  Anybody who commutes into or travels into central London is disgorged into a pattern of streets that evolves very slowly, and where the rail and Underground networks were largely defined over a century ago.  The agonies of developing new capacity will be partly addressed by Crossrail when it comes on stream, but always playing catch-up compared to the pent-up demand from an overcrowded city.  Emulating the living conditions in the Far East is not that far away, which will doubtless cheer up our smug, chauffeured Chancellor.

Lessons are always learned.  There is no real prospect of constricted Tube lines being built - any new construction under London will probably be to main-line size. The construction of Roman roads was innovative, but neither their width nor their material base would be appropriate for the volume of traffic caused by current population numbers. Constraining the future of Britain's infrastructure to palimpsests of historic provision may satisfy heritage nostalgics but is hardly demonstrating a commitment to a modern economy.

This is a neat reminder that reality bites.  Even if the forecasts of population growth are overstated, there will still be 10-15% more people living in Britain in 50 years' time.  Unless draconian rationing is put in place, this will cause a proportionate increase in transport demand.  The motives for travel, and even the frequency, may change with changes to working patterns and social arrangements.  Yet there will always be a demand for mobility - and this is not usually predictable through the prisms of futurologists - commuting demand has continued to increase over the last decades despite the availability of technology for home-working and the rise of freelance contracts.  Social and affiliative needs will remain whatever the workplace holds.

Add to this the unbalanced nature of the UK economy, with the wealth bubbles and the magnetic impact of London and its undistinguished hinterlands, and the argument for a new railway has gained multi-partisan support.  From Edinburgh to Birmingham, with a vocal consensus amongst the Northern cities, there is a recognition that the improvement of connectivity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for rebalancing.  As London becomes less attractive for both companies and labour, it will not lose its dominance, but fast and effective access to and from it can be used, with allied taxation carrots and sticks, to determine whether the rest of the British polity can become part of a prosperous whole.

The main argument put forward by the odd more thoughtful opponent is that the risk with new infrastructure is that all it does is bring more places within London's orbit, with which I can sympathise and agree.  Hence why new transport capacity is a precursor but not a panacea.  This is not a diatribe about regional policy, but for too long it has been at best second-fiddle to the self-interest of the rapacious, amoral leeches of the financial services industry.  The language of London-centricity is that nothing can be done to detract from its success.  If it is so successful then it does not need the nannying and special treatment from the state that appears to be the norm.

For the most part, the opponents dribble on about specific aspects of the HS2 proposals.  They usually have some sort of hobby-horse that should have been boiled down for glue years ago, for example using the old Great Central alignment - conveniently forgetting that the railway is still in daily use into and out of central London, and therefore that all the expensive provision of tunnels and terminals would still be required.  They fall into the idiot trap of assuming that passengers will only go from one station to another - so that the first phase would only affect people travelling from Euston to Birmingham.  A short spell of reflection that people live, work and play in various places, and that they will use a train (or a series of trains) as a means of travelling between them, and that becomes a soundbite canard for those of limited intelligence.

The Birmingham lie is one of the most interesting, because it demonstrates both cretinism and myopia.  As Birmingham is en route to the northern cities and Scotland, trains travelling there will be able to make use of the new railway to reduce the time taken on the overall journey - and nobody other than a delusional sock puppet would argue that the whole railway could or should be built at once - witness the success of new construction in Japan or Europe through phasing.  Scotland wants a fast service to the north of England and London, but again this will be phased.  Improvements in rail's competitiveness over the coming decades will create a stronger base load which can justify further investment - a virtuous circle that most people are capable of grasping.

Governments are elected to make choices - and the opponents, again with limited evidence and competence, make accusations that government's own decision-making tools do not provide a ringing endorsement of the current proposals.  The limitation of economic forecasting over a long period is that the external environment shifts - making the tools outdated - which means that a judgement call is needed.  That is what politicians are there to do - giving leadership and taking decisions where they can weigh up both quantitative and quantitative evidence.

This is not to say that there is everything perfect around HS2 - but it is the option that is on the table. The best is the enemy of the good; procrastinating has led to delays over key transport and energy decisions that undermine the wider public interest.  High speed rail is not an end in itself, but if you are going to be building new capacity you do not replicate the constraints of the past.  Whatever technology emerges on the roads, rail is still space-efficient and has less impact - moving a thousand people in driverless cars will require either huge amounts of space or inventing a concept similar to a train to minimise the amount of road required, neither of which are likely to receive much support or funding.

The opponents of HS2 have yet to come up with either plausible or deliverable alternatives.  Instead they talk to each other, which is at least satisfying for the rest of us.  Realism is that there is momentum behind the project, and that the probable alternative if delayed will be more motorways.  In that case, opposition will be latter-day Swampys rather than the current motley crew of attention-seeking maniacs.  Far better to challenge constructively, and make sure that a commitment to better transport is used to benefit as many people and places as possible.  That requires the ability to move beyond slogans and baboon-like simplicity.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Avoiding the 1980s

There are many truisms around in politics at the moment.  Not least of which is that the 2015 General Election has been a definitive moment, and that we are heading back towards a period of Tory hegemony similar to the Thatcher/Major period.  This appears to be wishful thinking, particularly on the part of a media that cannot comprehend anything beyond a binary choice, nor can it relate the geographical and social fissures that afflict the United Kingdom.

Refracted through the usual metropolitan prism, the election of Corbyn as Labour leader seemed inexplicable - after two decades of politics defined through photogenic, upper-middle class men whose inability to open their mouth without checking back to base this did not compute with a narrative around focus groups and careful stage management.  Perhaps, for once,  the Labour electorate were ahead of the curve, in at least recognising that the narrow focusing on particular interest groups and the pseudo-scientific targeting of swing voters has resulted in an erosion of wider support and political engagement.

It should be noted that Cameron secured less support than Thatcher, and, despite the protestations of the right, not every one of the millions who supported the Farage rodomontade are natural supporters of the Tories.  This does not suggest that there is an ingrained Tory hegemony at the highest level, although the perverted electoral system could deliver them.  Instead politics, as with everything else, has become more fragmented and individualised.  The rise of national identity politics in Scotland and Wales has become ingrained, particularly since (despite the protestations of the party tribalists on all sides) the ideological purity of Nicola Sturgeon and others does not appear to be a major negative factor except for the political geek class.

For all those of us who want to see the Tories out and punished for their rank hypocrisy over austerity, including the brazen near-racism and vile oratory that was turned on for their membership this week, the geek class may be the obstacle.  Instead of identifying what issues resonate with the electorate and campaigning on them - irrespective of other parties' positions - the focus of much internal debate in opposition parties is on dishing their rivals rather than the Tories.  For every sensible pronouncement from Labour or the Liberals, there is a tribal joke at the other's expense, forgetting that, even with current Liberal national irrelevance a change of government may require tacit acknowledgement of sensible targeting in individual seats.

The perceived wisdom is that the electorate punishes disunity - and there are plenty of political activists who see everything in terms of blocs rather than policy.  Perhaps there is an alternative construction, to the effect that the Coalition did at least open the idea to parties working together in UK-wide government, and that the problem was that there was no convergence on policy before the election that triggered its formation.  Realistically, Labour is unlikely to be able to form a majority government in 2020, so there will need to be some form of convergence well in advance if there is not to be a reputation of the canards and misrepresentation that the Tories used to scare the electorate in their target seats.

If there is any form of policy convergence, around housing, regional and devolved nations development, or constitutional overhaul, mature politicians should be working with it, rather than seeking to engage in casuistical differentiation from their partners.  Giving the electorate a clear understanding of party priorities and the likely direction of a changed government would provide a base upon which a sophisticated tactical voting approach could mitigate the impacts of a failed pseudo-democracy.

With outsiders now leading all the opposition parties, this is a clear opportunity to create a programme that is not fixated on the M25 and the machinations of the overgrown adolescents who plague the party apparatuses.  There is genuine anger, concern and fear which will be multiplied as the impacts of destroyed and diminished public services feeds through - and which there needs to be a politics of hope around.  The 1980s seemed like endless impotence against the Tories, this time round it could be different.  Five months ago, this would have been a dangerously low probability outcome - now, with a more diverse and representative politics across the left, there is a chance for a positive programme.


Monday, 5 October 2015

Tory hubris does not add up

As the Conservative Party rolls into Manchester, their emphasis is on presentation and on exploiting the perceived weakness of the left.  Osborne's slimy utterances and the mendacious claims of one nation Toryism are the soundbites, while underneath the various forms of primeval throwback are chuntering away with nostalgia for a bygone era of fealty and rigid hierarchy.  For every potential modern policy, there are snivelling and foul throwbacks that should act as a salutary reminder that, much as the Blairites failed to capture the Labour Party, the Tories remain the Nasty Party.

Sometimes it is not the fault of the mainstream party.  When the self-styled and mendacious Taxpayer's Alliance (the single apostrophe is appropriate since it is not a membership organisation but a mouthpiece for gibbering right-wing lunatics) calls for cuts to pensioner benefits to be brought forward because, not merely statistically many of the recipients will be dead or too befuddled to notice before the next General Election, this is not surprising.  When Jeremy "Rhyming Slang" Hunt regards cutting tax credits as some kind of moral crusade to remove British workers' rights and emulate such paragons as China and the USA, it is clear that the asylum has been well and truly breached.

The Tories are currently in a honeymoon period.  Illegitimately elected, a point which needs to be rammed home every time they bang on about rights and self-determination for other elections, their base is built on sand.  Huge swathes of Great Britain are no-go areas for them, and the towering achievement of less than a quarter of the eligible electorate supporting them is not one they are particularly comfortable with.  An unbalanced recovery continues, but prone to disruption from squalls beyond Europe, and the housing bubble looks set to create more division going forward.

Against this background, most government departments are going to be cutting between a quarter and two fifths of their expenditure after Osborne's spending review this autumn.  Compared to the austerity-lite that the Coaltion perpetrated, this is savage and will resonate into areas of Tory heartlands where their own sense of entitlement will be rattled.  A division over Europe will magnify as the referendum campaign heats up, and the Tories will then have their own leadership to worry about.  Not exactly a glowing prospect, even with four years to go until the next election campaign commences its progress.

Appealing to a "one nation" narrative is clever spin now, given that their mavens and echo-chambers have been alleging that Corbyn's mainstream democratic socialism is some form of extreme Maoism - I'm quite surprised that there haven't been parallels drawn between Islington today and Cambodia in 1975 by some of the more hysterically raving lunatics.  This won't work as services collapse and society becomes more polarised.

This is not in itself a gaping opportunity for the left and centre to grasp, merely a necessary and sufficient condition.  When the enemy is sliding back into a morass, the time is right for a clear alignment and statement of an alternative position.  The Tories are doing themselves no favours with their current hypocritical maunderings on minimum wages and tax credit, the distorting mirror will see to that.  They have not shot themselves fatally as yet, but the omens are not good for the remainder of the current Parliament.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Chocolate teapot: the Local Government Ombudsman

"Dr" Jane Martin, the Local Government Ombudsman, takes home, according to her shambolic and disgraceful organisation's annual accounts, between £135,000 and £140,000 per annum.  The organisation costs the taxpayer £20m, of which £12m goes to support its alleged delivery of its duties under the Local Government Act, and £8m to plug a hole in its pension fund.  The £12m would be better spent on paying off its parasites and replacing it with a fit-for-purpose body that is capable of shining a light on the murky and inconsistent world of local government.

As part of the Coalition's "bonfire" of red tape, which was more an inchoate smouldering, bodies such as the LGO should have been held up to scrutiny.  The poor quality of national decision-making and the inability of much of government to understand the consequential impacts of its actions, hardly surprising given it was under Eric Pickles's remit, meant that the obvious corollary to the "localism" agenda Hameron put forward was the need to have a body of external repute and competency to ensure that as controls over local government conduct were loosened there was a credible check to the activities of the venal and incompetent.

Instead the LGO has continued on its unaccountable, self-satisfied smug path - perceived as acting as at best an apologetic gatekeeper to protect the interests of councils, who are after all its main clients and most consistent contacts.  Any organisation which, by its own admission, only upholds around 2% of the complaints it receives - invariably at the end of a protracted process of frustration and financial, psychological and physical damage to the aggrieved party, and which, for up to a quarter of other cases, attempts to negotiate "local settlements"( in which the victim is not even party to the discussion or decision-making) is a parody and an insult.

The interpretation that "Dr" Martin places upon her poltroonery is that the LGO is purely there to remedy "injustice".  In defining the organisation's role through an abstract concept, it avoids both consistency and the ability to define a term to hold her and her third-rate pen-pushers to account.  It is also beyond her competence and that of anything beyond case law to determine, but that does not stop a brigade of self-empowered arrogant ignoramuses (alternatively referred to as Investigators) from assuming the moral high ground.

Any organisation that lacks transparency and accountability is likely to maladminister and assume that it can get away with it indefinitely.  Instead of a definition of "injustice" that appears to flex within even an individual LGO investigation, a properly-consistuted organisation would define clear objectives across the whole of local government with respect to the level of professional conduct citizens should expect and the remedies when any organisation falls short.  Maladministration and failure to follow process is not just about the consequences when the victim suffers the consequences of council decisions and actions, but the interaction between authority and citizen, with the expectation that statutory and defined processes are followed.  This should be enough in itself to send alarm bells ringing.

It might be slightly better if a reasonable person could not entertain suspicion that the LGO itself is less than impartial.  The number of its staff with a local authority background is not clear, as it is not something that it would wish to advertise.  Without proper scrutiny this is a recipe for at best unconscious cronyism, given that the tendency of local government officers is to cling together given the justified obloquy that they meet in those who have passed beyond mere satisfaction at meeting a daily challenge of walking and breathing at the same time.  The manner in which complainants are trivialised and belittled by the LGO, without sight of (potentially misleading and mendacious) interactions between the LGO Investigator and the organisation complained about, is hardly a manifestation of "justice" - ringing further tocsins.

Accountability of government is a basic precondition of a civilised society with aspirations to democracy.  The LGO is manifestly failing - and, at least in the short term, saving £20m by consigning it to the dustbin would probably not have a material increase in the consequential impact of local government misdeeds.  Indeed, if the remedy of the courts was open, and funded, at the exhaustion of local process, councils might be less inclined to cut corners and screw over their residents - after all open proceedings could result in much more scrutiny and internal control before issues got to the complaint stage.

Martin and her self-satisfied annual report and "Business Plan", which, on the LGO website, does not refer at all to the objectives of remedying the impact of bad local government, merely to the current voguish "stakeholders", should be given the push.  Paying taxes for efficient local services is one thing - £20m would buy a huge bucket of whitewash, after all.  Paying for an organisation which is inspired in equal parts by Orwell, Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka in perverting language, arrogating the concept of "justice" and acting well beyond a reasonable interpretation of its powers and scope, is not acceptable.

At least a chocolate teapot has an alternative function, and is edible.  The LGO should only be gobbled up by the cesspit that, in an ideal world, awaits useless fig-leafs for government arrogance and incompetence.

In contemporary terms, if the LGO were a car, it would be a Volkswagen diesel.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Conservative enemy remains

Less than a tenth of the way through their term, the Tories have reverted to type.  While some of the grander claims being made for the moderating influence of the Liberal element to the previous coalition may have the whiff of casuistic apologetics, the reality is that the unfettered Cameron administration is a throwback to the worst era of Thatcherism.  The moral compass has spun into its grave, and we are blessed with a government which is rushing through its agenda of arrogance and vileness with unseemly haste.

Little wonder that they have been rejoicing in the immediate aftermath of Labour's leadership election, having calculatedly destroyed their erstwhile partners.  The inadequacy of an electoral system that has not delivered a majority endorsement for any governmental combination (save, arguably, in 2010) since 1906 and the ability of the anti-Tory forces to squander their moral and policy advantages in the context of sectarian bickering, are all godsends to a party driven purely by authoritarian cynicism and self-interest.

In the early days of Cameron's pomp, the risible claim of communal suffering was heard, occasionally, amongst the canards that Brown and Darling had, rather than steering a sensible path through the global financial crash, been personally responsible for every incidence of capitalist cupidity since the neolithic period.  Now the mantras are aimed at client groups, many of whom have been suckered into Tory narratives against their own interests.

There are very few prepared to declare the Tory emperor to be naked - or to expose it to the kind of "rigorous" deconstruction that their mouthpieces dole out to those who question the wisdom of deflation and squandering economic capital.  Yet the cant and hypocrisy around the "hard-working families" dog-whistle is breathtaking.  Many others work hard, including single people, economic and political migrants and other less worthy groups - yet the former are cast, subliminally, as at best potential outcasts and at worst predatory perverts, and the latter groups as destabilising the basis of society.

It is perfectly possible to construct an argument that the impact of population movements has been to depress wages, and that the impact of the well-intentioned tax credit system has been to shift responsibility further away from employers.  However, this is an intelligent debate that will never be permitted by a bunch of charlatans determined to reduce the state as an ideological lodestar, which will benefit them directly as the replacement of communal provision results in lucrative outsourcing where they, or their friends, will secure the opportunity to extract profit and maximum gain from the misery of the majority.

Ironically, given the smearing and innuendo flying around demonising Jeremy Corbyn as a Trotskyite, Communist or at best a naive fellow traveller (not to mention the slur that he might have been sexually active), the Tory world-view is closest to Marxism than any of the myriad of drivers of opposition to them.  Whereas Marx predicted that the inherent tensions in capitalism would result in its downfall, the Tories are devoted both to exploiting them and to consolidate their hegemony.

Opposing this tendency requires both focus and generosity.  Labour's reformulation is a potential catalyst for change - articulating the case for reform, civil society and the values of a decent community needs to be carried out with moral authority rather than relativism to a barbaric right.  The aim of politics has to be secure a citizen-driven society where freedom and opportunity are preserved and promoted, and the core values of politicians are better aligned to those they are seeking to serve.  Labour is not, and will not be, the sole conduit for progressive values - but it is not the obstacle to their achievement that the Tories represent.

It is now a quarter-century since David Marquand's The Progressive Dilemma, which continues to resonate as a narrative of the failure to challenge Tory hegemony in the 20th century.  Ignoring this will continue to ensure a diminished, feudalist Conservatism remains in power far longer than the electorate desires, and to continue a politics where the narrative is both crude and reductionist.  Working within the British electoral system will require creativity.

For a start, it is naive to assume that partisan divisions can be overcome, or should be.  Philosophically, liberals, socialists, greens and civic nationalists come from different traditions.  This cannot mean that the practical business of policy-making should be beyond them - nor that co-operation and common campaigning should not take place.  Recognition that there is a need for dialogue and compromise before the next UK General Election could support the hypothesis that a more radical pact would be constructive and just, rather than the fear of the Scots and the "other" that feeds contemporary Tory media manipulation.

What the 2020 endgame looks like is impossible to define - particularly as there will have been the European referendum and its incalculable impact on the right.  However, defining a space for debate and development of the counter-narrative to the inevitability of Tory supremacy is needed now.  This cannot be a tribal arena.  A coherent programme for government, including economic and constitutional change, that can be signed up to by people in all parties and none, is a prize worth swallowing the partisan ego for - and to avoid mud-slinging.

To watch and listen to some of the Liberal Democrats, you would have thought that Corbyn's election creates the opportunity to destabilise Labour, even to the extent of a new SDP formation being seen as desirable.  These voices tend to come from the pro-Tory wing of the party, demonising him in terms that the projectile vomiters of the Murdoch press would applaud, continuing the tradition of lickspittle adherence to their role models, even after the hypothesis of Tory malevolence was proved incontrovertibly back in May.  Labels are less important than a programme for government, clearly mapped out in advance to minimise the chances of the hypocritical challenge that scared people into voting Tory to keep out the SNP.

The opposition needs to provide the conditions where, if the electorate want it, there can be a change of government.  This may need pragmatism - even if only to avoid direct competition where there is the potential to dislodge Tory MPs and to be realistic about the ability of one of the opposition groups to form a single electoral force.  One of the reasons for the failure of coalition was the inability to demonstrate willingness to co-operate and engage before the event, and this should be recognised by all those who oppose this pernicious and undemocratic regime.  Destroying the Tory lie that there would be no agreed set of policies and priorities, based around the overlap between the practical implementation across a range of political philosophies, is a challenge.

Fighting amongst the opposition, especially when no party can claim supremacy across the whole electoral battleground, lets down the people who political activists are seeking to serve.  Building common platforms over the next four years will not be enough, but it does provide a start and the basis on which any post-electoral pragmatism could function.  Labour are not there yet, but other parties need to be sensitive to the requirements of giving confidence that a more diffuse yet unified approach is the only way to end the unquestioned dominance of a minority party.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Delivering effective opposition - not party squabbling

Tristram Hunt's expression of wounded rejection was almost sufficient justification for Corbyn's election on its own.  The sight of sulking apparatchiks taking their balls home, without usually justifying their actions beyond a cursory "unelectable" comment that demonstrates a total lack of self-awareness, added to the glee of the right-wing press is paradoxically an indiction that the political pendulum is swinging once more.

Ironically, as the Tories move off into the right-wing hinterlands, to sound left-wing in relation to them becomes much easier.  Yet the challenge now is to define a future that is rooted in principles rather than oppositionalism, and which embraces party, community and individuals in a much less structured way.  The Blairite period was an aberration, electorally successful on its own terms, but which was in retrospect a Trojan Horse for the assimilation of a right-wing hegemony.

For the last fifty years, the fragmentation of political allegiances and the decline in mass-party support has been a dominant trend in British history - alongside a tendency for disengagement from the process.  Partly this is due to the complexity and unaccountability of government - rule by technocrat, economic regulator and contract manager does not encourage citizen involvement, especially where the design of administration and public service delivery appears to have been deliberately skewed to reduce any incentive or mechanism to hold politicians to account.

Where Corbyn was clever in his leadership campaign was to start articulating this - in the sense that austerity, the privatisation of the public space and the disconnect between generations and geography are all causes of grievance and alienation.  Bringing people into the process requires some expectation that their voices count - the Blairites and the Tories regard the electorate and the citizen as at best a necessary evil and at worst with utter contempt.  Corbyn's agenda is not new - it has been the mantra of the Liberal, Green and non-Labour left for the last fifty years - but in bringing it into the Labour leadership it is probably a first.

Labour's self-appointed pragmatists and rebels should have been silenced by the scale of change - but instead they are queuing up to do the bidding of the Tories and the media in stirring up trouble for their own side.  The irony of their condemnation of the new leader's rebellious tendencies over thirty years in politics, compared to their destructiveness in thirty hours, should not be lost or forgiven.  They have learned the lessons that Clegg and his acolytes did - that if you offer more of the same and a cosy relationship with the Tories you will not convince.  Far better to be starting redefining the terms of debate.

What is clear is that the Tories will find the new paradigm harder to cope with - whereas the Blair response to attack would have been to curl up and surrender to the parental authority figures there is not much for Labour to lose at the moment.  The liberating effect may be to open up debate in ways that create opportunities for genuine questions about the nature and aims of society and community, and which are not cloaked in a toxic fug of economic efficiency and capitalist determinism.

Whatever happens within the Labour Party, there is space to engage and to make common cause where there is genuine convergence.  For those of us who come from a left libertarian view, with a suspicion of the state, this does not imply full endorsement of any philosophical position, but a practical desire to deliver policies that effect change - ensuring that there is provision for the citizen not merely to benefit but to dissent and challenge.

Most people do not see the point of politics - nor do they see the point of theological debate around points of principle.  The challenge for the opposition is now to articulate that differences may exist, but that there is  common enemy that requires addressing.  Shifting the terms of debate back to the citizen and society will be a start.  Given that the Labour right will be spending most if its time plotting to upend the result, the constructive response has to be to support and engage - even to disagree - with the new direction, as it is the only potential focus (at least in England) for achieving meaningful broader change in the medium-term.  Idealism needs to be pragmatic - the lesson of Blairite pragmatism without idealism has been a cul-de-sac.  Now at least there is a possibility of a new discourse.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Corbyn's challenge to the left

The landslide victory for Jeremy Corbyn is neither a comfort blanket nor necessarily a new dawn.  The steady tacking to the left within Labour since the unlamented departure of Tony Blair has finally been confirmed with a clean sweep of the right - Corbyn has managed to push the terms of political discourse away from a feeble echoing of Tory tropes into something more akin to a democratic movement.

Feeble mutterings from the Blairites aside, it is unlikely that there will be an immediate split with the social authoritarians heading off into a sulky, short-life hinterland.  There is no prospect of party realignment, which is a disappointment and an opportunity.  Even with a centre-right leadership platform there was only a very slim possibility of Labour recovering enough ground by 2020 to challenge the Tories in a loaded election, and Corbyn's election does not change the psephological underpinnings.

However, Corbyn's presence has managed to secure a growth in Labour membership - and a participation in the election that other parties would dream of.  Where his success has been greatest is in redefining the terms of debate towards an insurgency and a popular uprising, and sidestepping the political "reality" that has been spoon-fed over the last thirty years as a means of first ridiculing and then neutralising the left.

New mass memberships are often inert - how many of those who have joined the Liberals since the election will be active?  Yet the messaging for those who believe that the main focus of attack should be the Tories must be around galvanising discussion and debate which the Corbyn effect has catalysed.  The realities of parties of radical national identity, and the surge in the Poujadist support, means that there is no point in attempting to appeal on narrow party identities.  For radicals of all schools, libertarian leftism requires momentum and ideas, only then does the need to recognise the realities of the electoral system become paramount.

The Tories may think that by channelling the ghost of Michael Foot (a good and humane individual) through Corbyn they will continue their rigging of the system.  I suspect that this is hubris, because at present all that is keeping them together is the Kipper threat and the realities of a small majority.  Asking questions about equality, fairness and efficiency, including the question of whether a numerically-small country should be a nuclear power and what benefits it bestows on us, does not make him a raving lunatic, nor a terrorist.

Where Corbyn's weakness is likely to be greatest is in the context of his party tribalism, and that of those who oppose him.  Intelligent engagement is much more likely to secure success for other viewpoints, rather than joining in the demonisation - so it will be of peripheral interest how Tim Farron responds - as it is only adult to consider that the next election will require at least some tactical voting in many directions.  A mature politics should reflect that Labour have rejected twenty years of shifting ever closer to the right as a means of securing power, and that the terms of debate may now be very different.  Individuals and parties that recognise this are much better placed than those who want to fight the battles of the 1980s all over again, not least because it undermines the strategy of the Tories and their paymasters.

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Accountable to no-one? Why citizens should revolt

Much of the current incompetence and arrogance in government can be laid at the feet of the evil twins of Thatcher and Blair.  The subversion of accountability and citizen rights has been ongoing for the last thirty-five years, exacerbated by the elevation of private capital and profit-skimming by government cronies throughout the process of administration.  What was amusing in Yes, Minister has become a Kafkaesque nightmare for even the most articulate and informed citizen.

One of the earliest lessons learned by any of the third-rate incompetents who pervade local and central government is to dispose of the most difficult issues at the time of defining the issue.  The passage of the Freedom of Information Act under the last Labour Government was a positive step, but the opacity and occult nature of most decision-making and public authority behaviours, and the restrictions around which FOI is based, make it difficult if not impossible to define the correct questions to extract information that reasonable people should be entitled to.  As a discriminatory process against those without the time, patience or the scheming mindset to second-guess the ghoulish parasites this is sans pareil.

Central government (both UK-wide and devolved nations) has tended to be slightly more rigorous in its application to accountability, principally because there remains a small number of investigative resources that hold it to account.  The emasculation of local government's powers, the privatisation and outsourcing of essential services and the decline of conventional media means that it is purely fortuitous where citizen accountability shines a light on the pile of foetid dung that usually indicates the presence of local councillors and their fourth-rate officials.

Once the stink emerges, it is often impossible to challenge or even understand the rationale behind the process by which decisions are made.  Be it the bunging of cash to mates to run a Cameron-inspired free school, the sale of land to cronies to push forward development proposals that run counter both to published policies and the platforms on which the charlatans have sought election, to petty incompetence on a routine basis, the concerned citizen has very few opportunities to challenge. 

The statistics for the Local Government Ombudsman, set up by the Local Government Act in 1974 to provide some form of citizen redress, suggest that it is not toothless, nor had its mouth sewn up but has no desire even to do anything beyond provide a fig-leaf for venality, incompetence, maladministration and worse through distraction tactics - probably because many of its scions are brought in from local government, rather than actually capable of investigating and exposing.  This repeats itself throughout the escalation and scrutiny process across the whole field of government activity - it protects and it deflects rather than allowing citizens to challenge.  Paradoxically this makes the entire process even more compromised, as the rational tendency, based around inductive reasoning and observation, is to assume that the whole system has been corrupted.

Insurgency in politics may start redressing this balance.   Leaving aside the need for a constitutional settlement based on the individual citizen rather than the magnanimity of feudal relics, the left needs to start defining an agenda which holds both officials and bodies to direct scrutiny.  If decisions are dubious and made by fourth-rate and fifth-rate underpaid and overworked staff, then there will be more injustice and more mistakes made.  Starting with local government, where there are more poor officials and more bizarre and unnatural relationships hidden from view, this should flow out to all services used by the citizen.  Officials who are incompetent and maladminister, secure in the knowledge that the process of winkling out their malfeasance is so difficult, need to be on their guard - as do their managers and the elected members who rubber-stamp their misbehaviour.

One of the opportunities for the new radicalism has to be to redirect anger from the frustration of the victim to the desire for restitution.  This requires public accountability - and this may require the renegotiation of outsourced contracts to mirror exactly what would be required from a directly-controlled service or their prejudicial termination if the incompetent, skimming leeches refuse to be prised loose.  When councillors were volunteers, rather than paid, they had some excuse for being amateurish in their approach, but now they should be held to account and subject to financial penalty for the misdeeds of those who are contracted by them to deliver services - no different to any other group administering and spending other people's money.

The challenge for this is that it undermines the mindset of the inadequate and the arrogant.  The rest of us are little people, either not in the right clubs, Lodge or union, or too poor to be considered - and the psychological flaws of many local government officials would take many years to dissect.  The snouts and the stupidity (particularly in many of the single-party administrations that a non-democratic electoral system presents) are entrenched, and removing their fingers from the tills and the liferafts may take more than mere exhortation.  Perhaps there is an opportunity for the left to co-operate at a local level before stepping forward to a constitutional revolution at the next General Election - I can but dream.

Eventually incompetence meeting impotence will result in an explosion.  When that happens, the important thing is to be on the side of those challenging the cosy corruption and incompetence that seems to have become entrenched since "business" and buzzwords replaced the centrality of citizen rights and accountability as the basis on which we are ruled.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

The ghost of David Owen yet to come

The apocalyptic language being used by the Blairites at the moment around the prospect of a Corbyn victory is risible.  At the very least it demonstrates the contempt that they hold both for their own party and for the function of an opposition to a government, one hundred days in power, that is exploiting the divided opposition to force through an agenda that, held to scrutiny, should curse its protagonists into the furthest abyss.

Most of Blair's acolytes are pathetic in their assumption that they have a legitimacy not merely to put forward their arguments but to prevail even against what looks like an electoral landslide.  Wheeling out their remaining talismen, as well as the Unregretted Leader himself, to announce that Labour is heading for disaster if the membership don't obey them shows quite how close to Tory paranoiacs they have morphed.  Now there is huffy talk, egged on by some in the Liberal Democrats who should know better, of breakaways and hissy splits should the current trend continue and Corbyn be elected.

It says very little for them that they have so little confidence in their own party, bearing out the theory that they regarded the membership as necessary idiots to secure power for their own technocratic clique.  The idea that there is somehow a great appetite for a second SDP, predicted by Baroness Williams, which could in some way recreate the "glory days" of the 1980s, shows an unwillingness to learn from history as well as crass stupidity in the context of the SDP's own immolation around ideological purity and hatred of the party which many of them regarded much as a parasite contemplates its host.

The Liberals, following the experience of being ravaged first by the SDP and then by the Conservatives, with a side dish of Blair's hypocrisy and cant in the 1990s, should be very wary of any new Owenites.  For the Blairites are not social liberals and pursuers of the freedom and interests of the individual, and whatever Corbyn's personal weaknesses, most of his supporters in Labour are probably closer to radical Liberal thinking than the washed-up and entitled remnants of the neo-conservative putsch.  Any defector would be a Trojan Horse, trying to push the Liberal party into an amorphous centre ground, which, in the experience of annihilation, demonstrates that the electoral tactics of becoming a squashed hedgehog remain as suicidal now as then.

For every unspoken pact between the three shades of grey managerialism opposing Corbyn, his chances are boosted.  For every citation of "resistance" and a sulky refusal to participate in their own party processes the attraction of clearing away dead wood must be increasing for Labour members, anxious to redefine a left position that is not purely calibrated by whether it will cause the front page of the Daily Mail to implode in a paroxysm of dishonest invective.  However, the planks should not be exported to become a cuckoo in the nest of other parties.

Increasingly Blair's messianic streak resembles that of David Owen, another megalomaniac who considered pragmatic politics and the reality of an electoral system to be beneath his contempt.  Perhaps there is an opportunity for them to align in the kind of aggressive authoritarian party that Owen wanted the SDP to become - and which many of his former acolytes and boot-lickers have discovered within the Tories.  A breakaway New Labour would inevitably end up suffering the kind of humiliation that the continuing SDP enjoyed at the hands of the Monster Raving Loony party in the 1989 Bootle by-election, which would provide both a measure of amusement and justifiable schadenfreude.

The failure of Labour at the General Election was not about left and right, but around competence and emotional disconnect.  For all Corbyn's faults, the latter is not a tenable accusation to lay at his door - and at least it would provide an alternative narrative to the bland, bipartisan consensus around the desirability of minor changes to the status quo.  Much of what he is proposing sounds like a practical, populist agenda, even if the detail will be open to scrutiny, which is where the disconnect from Labour's implosion in the 1980s is at its starkest.

However, monomaniacs have long memories, and the spectres now being exhumed are those of entrism and Trotskyism.  While it is true that Corbyn's policies are more attractive to the far left than those of Kendall and Cooper, the idea that wider participation in politics is a bad thing if it delivers the result you don't like, and that those who engage in it are subverting the process is a curious proposition.  New members and supporters should be welcome in any party, particularly when the atrophy of all mainstream membership numbers has been so precipitous.

For the Labour right, not rooted in principle or sentiment to the party, the future does not look bright (but then nor do they).  If there was an alternative position not based around being a slightly humanised version of the Tories, then they would deserve to be heard.  The function of a leader is to inspire, and at this stage of an electoral cycle to set out values and the principles upon which tactics can be based.  It looks as though Farron has grasped this on one side - if Labour don't elect someone who is not a smug continuation of the Blairite failure then they will be landed both with launching their very own SDP coup in the party and alienating the people who might be persuaded that Labour is part of the solution rather than a blob of historical curiosity heading in the same direction as the Orange Book Liberals.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The outsider paradox and the prize for the left

Most traditional members of political parties have mindsets akin to those of acolytes of particularly virulent religious sects.  The process of identification with one cause or another results in a myopia that does not just result in partisanship but a denial of not merely the logic but the right to exist of any group that challenges them.  The Tories have always been like this, with a nasty strain of virulent but gormless fools whose aim is to bludgeon the remainder of the country into submission.

For anyone who grew up in the binary world of Cold War paranoia, this was one of the phenomena that might have disappeared alongside the collapse of the Soviet Union, as the need for demonisation and the focusing of hate disappeared.  The nuancing and the moral relativism that was the real backdrop for the period, and which inspired many of us who continue to oppose the politics of military blocs, did not really translate into mainstream discourse.

The toxic politics of the Thatcher period in Britain were emphasised by a number of recurrent motifs, including "not one of us" and the slightly-paraphrased "no such thing as society".  In building a binary discourse, and one which enthrals the shallow drivelling inadequates that dominate the Tory front bench today, this has in effect cheapened politics into being a position of relativism to a dominant position.  Thus the chorus of the Blairite zombies excoriating Jeremy Corbyn as he won't tack to a place defined by being one step left of the Tories, rather defining his socialism as based around views, prejudices and principles that are familiar to those of us who remember the Labour party before it became a diluted mouthpiece for the London coterie.

Ironically, it is an MP whose very existence in the centre of the New Labour world must have caused sleepless nights to the image-centred marketeers who is leading the charge.  The response from the semi-dead has been to warn that with Corbyn as leader, Labour will not win the General Election in 2020.  The problem is that even with Tory-lite policies and a set of focus groups determined to play back ignorance and prejudiced views as mainstream, this is a fanciful concept.  Corbyn as leader might be prepared to accept that the fragmentation of anti-Tory forces may need a slightly different tack to the Polly Toynbee "either shut up or join Labour" sectarian screeching.

Tim Farron, in taking over the Liberal cause at a time when the previous leadership clique had demonstrated that positioning yourself in the Tory shadow makes it much easier to then desert to the full-fat version, may be better placed to articulate the realities of opposition where there is no geographical distribution able to provide a springboard for a change of power.  Labour's inability to progress outside English cities and its Welsh and English heartlands should act as a wake-up call - Blair's victories were achieved with Liberals and National parties harrying at Tory flanks, and there is now a wider Green and disaffected Labour/Liberal community looking for leadership.

2020 needs to be fought by the opposition parties as outsiders - with a recognition that there may well be a messy result which will require co-operation if not coalition.  Before then there is the chance to work cross-party on European referenda and resisting the evidently-deranged elements of the Tory programme, breaking down the boundaries.  There is no point in ideological or partisan purity if there is no achievement of political progress and constitutional modernisation - nor is there any worth in engagement if the damage done by the current administration is now identified, shouted down and an alternative put forward.

Corbyn, by his intransigence and throwback to a pre-Blair era, may be better placed than most to take this opportunity.  In putting forward policies and values rather than tactics, he provides something that realistic progressives could use as the basis for dialogue and potential co-operation.  There is a large group of disaffected idealists looking for a vision - and, to return to the religious motif briefly - there may even be evangelism waiting in the wings.  Being outside the disasters of neo-liberal economics and collusion of the last two decades might even turn out to be an advantage and a shrewd electoral move.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Corbyn's legacy could be the death of Blairism

The steady progress of the Labour Party into farce reached its logical conclusion this week with the decision to abstain on the Tory Welfare Bill.  The contortions implicit in the interim leadership's approach, where the analytical framework is that Labour lost by not being Tory enough, and that they need to be seen to be statesmanlike in not opposing the ill-framed, malevolent ordure being served up, made it quite clear that the party machinery has not moved beyond the Blair-inspired myth that there is a populist centre ground that they occupy through divine right.

The final self-realisation of Margaret Beckett, that she is a "moron", albeit only in the context of allowing Jeremy Corbyn's name to appear on the leadership ballot, is mildly amusing, but about the only crumb of comfort to emerge from the ludicrous debacle.  Blair's intervention that anyone voting for Corbyn requires a "heart transplant"demonstrates the extent to which a challenger threatens the establishment appropriation of the social democratic party for its own ends.  Labour is fighting for its existence, but this may no longer be the automatic assumption of its right to govern and the discarding of any principle that offends the new right.

Competing leadership candidates have wisely distanced themselves from the phoney-Tony drivelling, preferring instead to concentrate on Corbyn's unelectability.  It is difficult, without being named, to differentiate between Liz Kendall and a centre-right Tory, so her protestations that electing Corbyn would put Labour in the wilderness for a generation are amusing - given that her main cheerleader appears to be Tristram Hunt whose credentials as either radical or compassionate have been fatally undermined of late.  She has clearly not noticed that the vagaries of our current constitutional settlement have done that, irrespective of whoever leads Labour.  Cooper and Burnham are being mildly more circumspect, but they still represent a continuity of the entitlement culture that Blair engendered and are cheered on by the dinosaurs of Westminster centralism and their commentator friends.

Many of Jeremy Corbyn's policy positions may not stand up to scrutiny, but his principles and his approach are much more oppositional and hopeful than anything that Labour has peddled of late.  The electorate saw through the simulacrum that Ed Miliband was forced to adopt - a prisoner of an outdated narrative whose priestly denizens are popular with the right-wing media so long as they are denouncing their own party.  For those of us old enough to remember the 1980s, Miliband increasingly resembled a hybrid between Kinnock and Foot, being both well-meaning and vilified in equal measure.  A move beyond the centrist compromise may be all that Labour can hope for at the moment.

There is a need for Labour to step up to challenge and oppose, which is, after all, the primary function of opposition.  As with the Tories its vote has been in steady decline for decades, and the diversity of political expression is wrong-footing those who base calculations on, at best, a General Election five years off, rather than on a vision of what a modern state could be capable of delivering for its citizens.  In such a situation, denial of the reality of a spectrum of parties on the progressive side of politics is of such stupidity that only a Blairite true believer could be sufficiently deluded.  The left of Labour are not generally addressing this, but the swell of alternative positions and relatively-untainted new supporters may turn this into a reality.

For a change of government, there needs to be progressive alignment, recognising the electoral realities.  In the three elections Blair won, he was greatly assisted by a strong Liberal presence as a two-pronged challenge to the Tories - distorting the overall result if not representing Charles Kennedy's party fairly - this cannot be assumed to exist going forward, and the nationalists, for all the strange and contorted cross between authoritarianism and libertarianism in their core ideology, are occupying space that Labour used to rely on.  A leader who cannot recognise this and speaks as though Labour are the sole articulator of the grievances of the poor huddled masses is doomed to both political failure and being denounced, correctly, as a particularly idiotic ostrich.

These are confusing times for those whose visceral hatred of the Tories is being reinforced by every action of this coterie of poltroonery.  Corbyn's role has been to upset the consensus that the only way to challenge them is to fight on territory that they define.  After two decades of trimming and responding to the Murdoch dog-whistle, his insurgency has at least raised the possibility of an alternative future where the left sets an agenda - it may not be enough to propel Labour back into the vanguard but it does create a space where engagement on the left will not simply be a matter of pragmatism but an opportunity for regenerating the discourse.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Democracy, Freedom of Information and the authoritarians

Perhaps ironically, the day that Murdoch's vilest organ produces a picture of the current monarch being trained in giving a Nazi salute as a child, for no apparent reason other than mischief-making and as a reminder that the real power-mongers are not to be trifled with, is the day on which reaction should commence to the latest assaults on democracy, freedom and accountability.

The Blair years were not noted for their approach to freedom - preferring a moralistic theocratic adulation of all things Bush and neo-conservative, but had inherited opposition pledges of accountability through Freedom of Information - bringing government decisions to account and enabling, with a degree of intellect and persistent, the citizen to find out at least some of the idiocies, corruption and incompetence that characterise much public administration.  An inconvenient truth is that opposition always craves more information, whereas when in power the aim is to restrict and redact.

With so much government outsourced to a bunch of motley cronies, FOI itself is much more important than it was when the first legislation appeared.  To be able to scrutinise contracts and the interactions between authorities and their opposite numbers, including the porosity between the contractor and the delivery agent, is fundamental.  It is not just about the formation of policy but also about the operation of public administration.

When this is added to the recent revelations that, despite a conclusive vote of MPs under the Coalition, British service personnel have been used in combat in Syria - without further consent or discussion, alongside the persistent and honourable battle to unearth the undue influence of the Prince of Wales on political activity, then the need for more rather than less disclosure becomes compelling. Where there is no accountability or transparency, then there is much more possibility of politicians getting away with the kind of sharp practice that undermines any residual trust in the process.

Alongside the potential further erosion of citizen freedoms, it was amusing to note that the idea that the UK's constitutional future should be left to a Joint Committee of the unelected Lords and the undemocratic Commons has traction amongst Tory grandees.  The sheer stupidity of the current situation, caused by Cameron's idiotic panic and grandstanding around the Scottish independence referendum, should make it clear to almost anyone with a brain (clearly this excludes Lord Forsyth and many of the commentators) that a long-term, stable solution needs a non-partisan, expert approach.  There is already a process available through a Royal Commission, but this would not be manipulable in the way that the reactionaries require.

Within two months of Cameron and his paymasters being given more power, we are watching the return of the patrician, contemptuous Tory party.  Add to this many of the statists in Labour, who are coalescing around authoritarianism given their compliance in incompetence, and there is a clear need for the anti-authoritarian, radical tendencies to articulate their contempt and derision for the process.  For every technical change required in FOI, which may well be the case, the Tories will try to sneak through further reduction in the ability of citizens to scrutinise and challenge the corruption of government.  The break-up of the UK is accelerated through the aim of excluding the views of either the little people or the reformers.  Time for a politics of insurgency.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Polly Toynbee, Labour ostriches and the Melanie Phillips factor

There is something inexorably silly about the emissions from Polly Toynbee.  While her strike rate for being right is marginally greater than an infinite number of monkeys tasked with a redraft of Hamlet, she is rapidly becoming the left-wing equivalent of Melanie Phillips - a ubiquitous repetition of self-asserting drivel and intolerance for any view that does not chime with her own.  Her journey from the SDP to Blairite apologist is mirrored by many of the patronising Labour right, who cannot stomach pluralism and alternative priorities to theirs, but her recent toxic oozings in the light of the General Election have moved beyond parody.

A recent piece attacking Tim Farron as someone with the luxury to be outspoken spectacularly missed the point.  Labour's establishment are still in denial about the extent to which their inability to articulate an alternative programme and set of values, at the same time as alienating core voters and floaters alike, is not just a product of leadership ineptitude and more the secular decline of a party whose combination of arrogance and naivety leads it into the trap of "one more heave" and the assumption that people will return to the fold next time.

This may make it easier to be a Liberal at the moment than a Labour supporter.  Paradoxically, the scale of retribution enacted on the Liberals means that they have suffered the equivalent of being ejected in only the clothes they stand up in.  Labour have, in fact, been hoist by their own entitlement and the inability to exploit a collapsing centre-left alternative and an unpopular government.  So the Toynbee formula is a combination of "realism" and tracking to a mythical centre, where the promised land apparently awaits.  Forget that the party is irrelevant and wounded in Scotland for decades, forget that the vagaries of the electoral system and the corruption of the Tories will lock them out in England and Wales as well, and you might just see an increase in support by 2020.

This is the message being peddled in the Labour leadership election.  Naturally Polly seems to want them to be an alternative government with the responsibility round their shoulders of being marginally better than the Tories, which is not really a challenge even for a sociopathic skunk, rather than articulating ideas and setting a programme that might engage with the myriad anti-Tory groups who do not find it either desirable or necessary to shut up and listen to the residue of the Blair cabal squabbling over the pieces.

Every time I encounter the Labour leadership contest, the unreality astounds me.  If you discount Liz Kendall, whose main cheerleader appears to be Tristram Hunt, auditioning to become the next Woodrow Wyatt though right-wing slavering, then both Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham offer more of the same.  Jeremy Corbyn is actually addressing popular concerns and issues - and setting out something that might even on occasion be in advance of public opinion.  Politicians should be leading, rather than being cowed by the commentariat.

The realism needs to sink in that the opposition will need not just to sit and wait but to set itself a task to define both consensus and difference - where there is consensus then adult politics should ensue, rather than an closing-down of the debate that only Labour can drive change.  Adopting a constitutional convention as a challenge is part of that, giving the UK the benefits of the system that drove the Scottish devolution settlement.  We should not be listening to yesterday's Blair-lite agenda, rather spending time defining what it is that would turn the UK into a modern, federal democracy where change is not feared and where politics is not defined by a set of the unrepresentative in fealty to Murdoch.  The BBC is a topic for another day!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Tube strikes, democracy and the idiot commenters

From the vantage point of the pinnacle of electoral support attained by the Tories it is very difficult to look down on anyone else.  Considering the glee with which they are stripping the vestiges of representative government, for example through the contemptuous "Tory votes for English laws" scam, any attempt to denounce trade union members who exercise their ability to withdraw their labour within the law should be seen as the risible hypocrisy that it is.

Inconvenient strikes may be, but they are a legitimate approach to management when culture is inept and bullying, and where trust has broken down through combinations of bungled negotiations and a lack of confidence in the process leading to an equitable result.  In other cases they may be an abuse of power and position, but these are generally few and far between, given both the economic deterrent to the individual through lost earnings and the significant hoops that union members must jump through in order to make actions legitimate.

What always amuses me is that the Tories have acquired a retinue of dog-whistling fools, not all of them employed in Central Office, whose main aim is to patrol the internet with a set of claptrap and a level of abuse that can be summarised as follows:

  • I am prepared to be walked over at work as I have neither the imagination nor the economic power to change the matter, and I am deeply grateful for having being given a vile job in which I can nurture a sense of grievance and envy against those who do better than I do;
  • I don't actually know what other people do at work, but I assume that it must be very simple and therefore they don't deserve the right to withdraw their labour;
  • What these evil strikers are doing is stopping me from going to work, and my rights trump their rights at all times;
  • I am too stupid to understand that the labour market's functioning is based around the transactional implications of "market" - if workers have a grievance, the legal mandate and the willingness to withdraw their labour this is entirely legitimate.  The proposition that there is a symmetry that implies management has no right therefore to remove jobs or propose any change would cause both brain cells to malfunction simultaneously;
  • Despite being totally ignorant of the details of any situation, I am prepared to comment that people "earn too much", their job levels are unskilled compared to mine, and that they are either "scum" or "dinosaurs" for daring to challenge a race to the bottom;
  • They should all be sacked as anyone can do their jobs - and I cannot understand that this couldn't happen overnight as their replacements would need recruitment, training and the removal of those without the aptitude or competence thereafter;
  • I think everyone should tug their forelocks and accept whatever they are given by their betters;
  • In the case of the Tube strikes, I am not able to appreciate the irony that the "crap service" is principally the responsibility of the management whose actions are supported uncritically.

To achieve the level of support for strikes that the London Underground unions have managed seems to be remarkable and totally counter to the narrative that management and the troll-feeders are putting out.  From long experience, union membership is usually seen as an insurance policy, and in unionised workplaces industrial and personal relationships can be entirely productive both in terms of dealing with routine issues and improving communications across the organisation.  To have reached the stage where over 70% of those voting in the least-militant union are prepared to endorse losing pay and facing the cretinous abuse outlined above suggests that there is something wrong with an organisation.

What is even more ironic is that most of the recent ballots reported on would have been legitimate votes even under the latest proposals from the Tories to further restrict the opportunities for striking, and much stronger than the mandate that either Cameron or Johnson received from their respective electorates.  The level of restriction that the more unthinking, anti-liberty Tories would want to impose on collective action is breathtaking - it resembles the level of control and constraint that veers towards the totalitarian.  It will also prove counterproductive, as if it drives action towards the unofficial and the wildcat it will remove the very controls that its half-baked publicity-seeking proponents wish to pretend they want.

In the case of the current Tube dispute, the issues are complex and not, primarily, around pay.  Since the announcement of the closure of ticket offices, and the consequential staff reduction, the industrial relations issues have been toxic and bubbling below the surface - occasionally resulting in strikes when there has been a particularly vicious breakdown in discussions.  Add to this proposals to run the Tube all night on Fridays and Saturdays, which is superficially attractive but fraught with problems given the need to maintain and improve the system, which appear to have been progressed without proper consultation or planning for the number of staff involved, it is hardly surprising that staff in all roles find it impossible to trust management - even before the farce of a last-minute offer with ultimatum on the side that was perpetrated on Monday.

As a Tube user, I want to see good passenger service with professional staff.  The kneejerk reaction of the commenters seems to suggest that any change proposed should not be scrutinised and agreed, and that staff have it good.  Even two journeys each day makes it clear what a horrible place to work the Tube can be - polluted, hot and overcrowded as London's population growth pushes a system well beyond its comfortable limits into the edge of danger every time there is the slightest disruption.  Working in the centre all day, underground is a challenging commitment, especially when dealing with either the knuckle-draggers or their cousins with equal senses of self-defined entitlement.

Add to this shift work, which is unpredictable and disruptive - as well as the need to maintain the ability to deal effectively with emergencies - and it becomes a commitment for which fewer and fewer people have the aptitude.  Whenever the fools rant on about train driver wages, "for just pushing a lever", I curse their ignorance of a role which may be 85% routine and repetitive, but for the other 15% requires stored and constantly-updated knowledge, and for which much of the time is isolated from both passengers and co-workers.  I personally do not want to be thirty metres below the surface with either no or an under-trained, demotivated person in charge - but that is personal preference, remembering the stalwart effort of staff during terrorist incidents and other disruption.

There is bound to be a resolution at some point.  If the Tories had been serious about reducing strikes in public services they might have been more interested in compulsory independent arbitration rather than changing ballot thresholds - but this is knee-jerk politics for the amoral Johnson and his cheerleaders rather than an attempt to reform the situation.  The inadequacies of management are a dominant theme, and by deploying the troll army, this is being obscured - any system which provided more transparency might make it clear to the more evolved end of the right that poor skills in management are often much more provocative than the issues at stake, and creating a culture that would be anathema to Victorian mill-owners is unlikely to be either stable or sustainable.  I shall now be inconvenienced, but the expression of labour's economic and collective rights is an important freedom that does not trump the ravings of the deluded.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The grotesque perversions of economic masochism

On Wednesday this week, the lunatic will get to take over the asylum.  George Osborne will have the opportunity to prevent a Conservative budget that dog-whistles to the core support while playing to the gallery of the hypocritical and self-interested.  For the last two months he has been spinning the mantra of social security cuts and giveaways to the groups who need government largesse the least.  The end of Cameron's bizarre honeymoon will not be long delayed.

For sheer economic illiteracy, it is difficult to beat a contemporary Tory.  The artificial divide between the so-called "hard-working family" and the remainder of the population, hard-working or otherwise, is used to pump up resentment and paranoia.  Forgetting the lessons of two centuries of economic history, there is some mythical golden age where the paupers knew their place and where philanthropy (which in reality only scraped the surface of Victorian misery) takes the place of any form of social cohesion.

The latest cretinous policy, trailed with the cretinous hand-claps of the Mail and Telegraph, is to increase the inheritance tax threshold to £1m for "family homes".  Even in the bubble regime of undersupply and market distortion for housing, this is not exactly within the normal compass of daily experience for the majority of people.  It will do nothing to address the shortage of housing, the parasitic buy-to-let or the odious right-to-buy being propagated by Cameron.  It will do nothing to address inequality, rather continuing the dynastic entitlements that remain the grail of so many of the chinless fools who populate the upper reaches of the Tories and their cronies in business and the financial services sector.

Naturally this is portrayed as encouraging aspiration - by taking a few estates at the top end of the range out of a tax which is hardly punitive in the first place.  That it does nothing for the people it is supposed to inspire is axiomatic.  There is another whole debate about inter-generational justice and the provision of equality of opportunity for all, which is entirely legitimate, but slightly tangential to the hatred and contempt that Osborne will exhibit in his cynical parading.

At the same time as a minor giveaway to client groups, the centrepiece of the budget will be the hacking away at social security and the last vestiges of Beveridge's ambition for civilisation.  Debating the right mix of support and incentive to come off benefits is legitimate, but the extent of savagery will dwarf the bedroom tax fiasco in the last Parliament.  Both Labour and the Coalition relied on welfare, in the form of tax credits, to subsidise employment and massage the statistics, and in many respects a regime that forces firms to stop being subsidy junkies (oh, the irony) and pay a living salary would be welcome - if it were to happen.  Instead, alongside further benefit cuts, it risks increasing poverty, inequality and the benefits trap will be restored.

Not that this worries Osborne, Cameron and their coterie.  For every piece of theatrical hand-wringing, there are ten misanthropic and contemptuous back-stairs assaults on social cohesion.  A system which gives to those who already have and pauperises those who have not is neither just nor stable.  It has become fashionable in political circles to bemoan the loss of Liberal influence on the government - the Budget that the Tatton Twister will present will be final confirmation that we have a bunch of arrogant mini-me Thatcherites in power.  This resembles 1980 more than 1990, and it would not be difficult to see the social breakdown and hopelessness spilling over into an anarchic and nihilist hopelessness.  Time for the rest of us to call it how we see it, and that includes Tories not suckered into the patrician illusion.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Questions of leadership, party and trust

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are currently electing new leaders.  In the light of electoral ignominy, the fracture of what had been a tacit centre-left tactical alliance and the accelerated breakdown of a national political framework, this is surely the time at which questions of both principle and tactics should be at the forefront.

Instead we have contests that are focusing on managerialism and competency, rather than asking the basic questions that the party machines need to consider.  This is the perversion of politics that is the logical consequence of Blair's abandonment of morality and principle, dressed up as modernisation and Christian cant.  In an electoral system that does not deliver even a suspicion of a democratic outcome, and in the context of a cultural framework that defines political interest and the ability to consider nuances as some form of threat and an eccentricity to be punished, this is a wasted opportunity.

Much attention is being focused on the reality of a government pursuing an agenda that the majority did not vote for (although this is somewhat alien emerging from parts of the Labour Party that were content with an even weaker mandate after 2005), rather than what is the function of politics and the role of party in delivering these outcomes.  Tribalism trumps principle and quick fixes dominate over discussion of how to respond to an emphatic rejection of both majoritarian opposition and the vanguard role of Labour across the whole of Great Britain.

Promoting managerial competence in itself is neither sufficient nor, in the context of five years' Parliamentary opposition, necessary.  The rejection of Labour and Liberal parties is only partly explained by the vicious and defamatory campaigns run against them by the press and the push-pollers.  What is missing is the recognition that shifting loyalties requires a message of hope, change and connection with reality.  Large-scale anti-austerity protests demonstrate that there remains a huge gulf between the Westminster charnel house and its perspectives and the experience of the electorate.

From the way in which the leadership elections are being conducted, the impression is that we are living in a political context that is closer to the 1960s and 1970s than today.  Presenting party as trumping policy will not be enough - Labour cannot climb the mountain needed to secure even largest party status in 2020 without a major recalibration of its role, and the destruction of its Scottish redoubt will be allied to a further dilution of loyalty if its ineffectiveness at articulating general antipathy to the neoconservative coup continues.  Offering nothing positive, beyond reheated centrism and clever soundbites, seems to be the order of the day from the mainstream candidates.

Labour needs a leader who will recognise that the centre and left is fragmented, and that securing power by assimilation is no longer an option.  This does not negate the need for it to articulate a revised social democratic message, but to take on board the surge in progressive national sentiment and the growth of the Greens - and not to be afraid of pluralism before it reaches the ballot box.  This is not a plea for a rapid endorsement of electoral reform, as I am increasingly convinced that the argument for it needs to follow from a rebasing of politics around the citizen and his or her interaction with the system, rather than from what can be caricatured as self-interest from the political class.

There is a clear opportunity now for a constitutional and political rebasing, which is the real basis upon which the Bullingdon set can be challenged going forward.  Hoping that their stupidity and complacency will be sufficient to dislodge the Tory hegemony in 2020 is not realistic, which means that a radical rebasing of discourse is a ganble worth taking.  The forces of tribal conservatism are rebuilding themselves in the opposition parties - just when it is the wrong time for this to happen.

The candidates for both contests are competent, decent people for the most part.  In opposition there is a need for outsiders, rather than insiders - people who can talk beyond their parties.  Labour's choices are more diverse, although it will be much more interesting to see where the deputy leadership contest ends up.  For the Liberals, it is probably easier.  Connecting with the electorate through articulating their concerns, rather than propitiating the party faithful is the challenge, and I am as yet unpersuaded that there is a formula that will deliver a new political narrative and take the challenge to the heart of Tory actions rather than a Commons pantomime.