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.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Europe: hot Tory-on-Tory action belies the reality

For Cameron, the honeymoon was short and uncomfortable.  What a shame.  Within a month of winning a corrupt majority, the internecine strife amongst the Conservative Party has reared its ugly head and the rest of us can enjoy the spectre of the partially-evolved sparring with those for whom most brain-stem activity is expended upon swivelling the eyeballs.

Having lived through John Major's inept progress from incoherence to immolation, those of us who were around the 1990s will be familiar with the pattern.  For younger voters, coming to terms with the reality that the Tories will spend much of the next five years engaging in self-destructive theological debate, interspersed with random and damaging assaults on the wider state, may take a little longer.

Each Tory decade has had its Rasputin.  Thatcher's initial mentor was Sir Keith Joseph, whose credibility took a knock when he in effect endorsed both racism and eugenics.  She then switched to Norman Tebbit, whose vitriol and demagoguery continue to entertain us to this day - allowed out, occasionally, when there isn't a full moon.  Major's bastards included John Redwood, whose histrionic egotism was yet further proof of the decline of the Tories.  Now we can revel in the latter two remaining on the scene, added to by a number of egregious fools whose xenophobia and anti-European posturing will add to the jollity.  The Fabricants and Bones of this world have a new champion - watching Philip Hammond in the Commons was akin to watching a Redwood tribute act.

There is both danger and political opportunity from the Tory introspection.  For the lunatics, Cameron could jump over the moon on a stick in terms of renegotiation, and still fall short.  The incoherence of a party which still contains mainstream centre-right politicians alongside people for whom a relay of carers is necessary will become clearer.  For those of us who consider that the only opportunity for European reform comes from enthusiastic participation and coalition-building, this is the basis upon which a "yes" campaign needs to build.

The other clear requirement is for the tactics of fear to be deployed by the "yes" side.  The right are happy enough to sacrifice citizen sovereignty for the dictatorship of plutocrats and corporations, and will use whatever tactics are necessary or expedient to advance their cause.  The risible and ignorant arguments that they will deploy need to be met with clear warnings about the likely risks and impact that their naive jingoism will have on the economy, including jobs, living standards and the protection  of the citizen and worker.  Playing the danger card early, loud and often will reinforce the innate conservatism during the referendum that irrevocable change cannot be tolerated if the effects can't be calibrated.

In the meantime, the European referendum battle will be used as a proxy for the succession to a lame-duck Prime Minister within the Tories.  Given the uninspiring and divisive choices that they have to parade, there will be internal advantage from identifying which groups of the backbench sheep can be mobilised in support of, or against, individual candidates.  This is an internal matter that will spill out into wider politics.

For the short-term, with Labour bogged down in leadership battles and half-hearted recriminations and reappraisals of its position, the arguments against the Tory position will need to be articulated beyond party boundaries.  This is how it should be, going forward, as machine politics don't cut the ice, and a campaign that is both cross-party and non-partisan will be much more powerful.  By the time that the referendum comes round, the impact of wider Tory idiocy will be being felt, and given that the decision on Europe is the most fundamental facing the country, the tactics need to reflect common sense against the private sorrows and stupidity of a party whose denizens are rapidly resembling a third-rate branch of the Sealed Knot.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Osborne moves from gormless to criminally irresponsible

The chutzpah of George Osborne knows no bounds.  There is no room for anyone else to hold a high opinion of him, as his ego and arrogance fill every available space.  From the smug gurning that accompanies every economically-illiterate and politically-charged pronouncement on the legacy of neo-liberalism, buried in anti-Labour platitudes, to the announcement of policy that would have been viewed as demented a century ago, he may be the most inadequate Chancellor of the Exchequer yet recorded.

This week's twin pronouncements of idiocy merit some considerable dissection.  Starting with the decision to sell off the residual stake in Royal Mail and the acceleration, at a loss, of disposal of government involvement at RBS, this is the mark of a man with his eyes on the party leadership and the gratitude of the financial services sector.  About the only charge that sticks for Brown and Darling is that their removal of individual moral hazard from bankers preserved an illusion of special pleading.  This is another robbery of the taxpayer and the citizen, and a further transfer of wealth to a self-styled enterprise class who make their profits through stealing and mishandling other people's assets.

Predictably, the RBS management welcomed the disposal, on the basis that it will enable them to increase their bonus payments.  This was picked up upon by the sceptical media, most notably the Financial Times, as an example of why these special interest groups should not continue close proximity to the Chancellor's various orifices.  The fact that the sale will be at below the price paid to bail out the failed bank seven years ago did not attract as much outrage as it should have done - the wider economy has bailed out a loss-making institution and the least we should have expected is restitution not just for the purchase price but by the opportunity costs of maintaining a loss-making business.

Osborne, blithe cretin that he is, glosses over this as vital for the economy.  Apparently bankers and their apparatchiks are of greater value to society than the rest of us, even to the extent of maintaining corporate welfare at levels that the sanctioned benefit claimant could not consider.  The numbers are so huge, and so incomprehensible, that the Tories think that they can get away with the illusion of restitution from the sale price rather than retrieving the direct and indirect costs to the rest of the country from the generosity to a bleating interest group of corporate state welfare junkies.

At the same time, Osborne is mapping out his approach to running the economy as a whole.  It would be risible and insulting to any child to suggest that his level of competency would aspire to a shrieking toddler's, as he is jettisoning common sense, historical awareness and the credibility of his motley crew of Tory cronies going forward.

The first cretinism was the competitive pledge not to increase VAT, income tax and National Insurance for the duration of the current Parliament.  Not through an undertaking, but through legislation.  Gesture politics, designed to discomfit Labour, not to run a major economy.  Whatever the good intentions, this assumes that there is perfect foresight, and that should there be any requirement for further government revenue, it will have to come from other areas uncovered.  Stamp duty, corporation tax, pensions are all in the firing line - and without the opportunity to develop a strategy that is both fair and that delivers the best overall economic outcome.

Then you add the attempt to play politics through legislation to running a budget surplus ad infinitum.  Gordon Brown tried this, with a much more sensible initial approach - based around the economic cycle.  Having studied the impact of the depressions of the 1880s, 1930s and 1980s, any rational historian and economist would consider that such an approach would castrate a government should it wish to perform its correct duty to citizens and promote economic growth and stability.  Osborne clearly considers that this is old hat, dull, and unlikely to divert profits to private sector cronies.

Osborne's spinners portrayed this as returning to the Micawber dictum of balancing the household budget.  Osborne, unlike some of his predecessors, does not look Dickensian - but his real hero is Gradgrind from Hard Times without the softer side.  Economics is an art which requires the use of reasoning rather than formulae - and the responsibility of running a major economy is to ensure that the impact of government is benign.  There is nothing wrong with running a surplus on current account in times of strong growth - it reduces the stock of national debt and the need for borrowing.  There is equally nothing wrong with investing through the issue of bonds and other instruments, either to stimulate growth in a downturn or to protect the future economy.  There is a need for sustainability, which is a judgement call not a golden rule.

The Tories are not just disingenuous but liars when they compare running the national economy to that of household financial management - especially since they consider the in-year balancing to be the sole arbiter of prudence.  Households borrow all the time - indeed part of the Tory snake-oil is to encourage the continued inflation of property prices - and the impact of reduction of household borrowing is always cited as an example why uncontrolled access to credit is an essential component of Osborne's strategy.  Credit cards and mortgages are all aids to sound management - both for the individual and for the economy - with the salient feature that future income must be sufficient to finance both repayment of the capital and interest.

Investing in infrastructure, education and social capital does not have a clear in-year payback, bur depleting the stock of national wealth over time reduces future potential.  Osborne is right that current expenditure and debt repayment should be central to government policy - but when he has tied himself up in foolish commitments around tax and spend, he has in effect resigned from any responsibility for the consequences beyond his little, insulated, plutocratic world.  This is getting close to the economic equivalent of carpet bombing, and only a Chancellor without morals would have been prepared to sacrifice vestigial credibility for political advantage.  Not a surprise that it's this one who has overstepped the mark.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Labour go in for ostrich cloning

I followed the Fabian Society's Labour leadership pitches with a mixture of interest and long-term fatalism.  Despite the humiliation and obloquy heaped upon Ed Miliband, it is not clear whether any of the contenders has grasped the scale of the dilemma and the challenge facing progressive politics, and the diminished role that Labour is going to be able to play in defining the terms of reference.  

The party increasingly resembles a religious sect, beached on the uncomfortable shoreline where the dog-whistles are faint and where the narrowness of competing with a Tory agenda has caused electoral support to ebb to an irreducible core.

Every time glib soundbites such as "reconnecting" and "aspiration" are squawked, my inclinations to give Labour the benefit of the doubt diminish.  They fought the 2015 General Election on a strategy designed to secure 35% of the vote (similar to the Blair triumph in 2005), rather than to connect with the challenge of an ideological renewal to move beyond watered down neo-conservatism and the definition of politics in anything other than economic terms.  

For five years they had given the impression that they were prepared to be skewered by the slander of causing the financial crash and the global depression, single-handed, and to push back only in terms of a slightly-tempered 1930s policy orthodoxy.  Watching Osborne start the first of his three bites at the British corpse this week, to be followed by a Budget and then a Comprehensive Spending Review that could well precipitate a fourth recession in eight years, it made me wonder precisely what the focus groups were telling the politicians, and, more crucially, why they were not challenging a manifesto that was not exactly studded with hope or recognition that the world had moved on.

Where Labour's leadership cadre go wrong is in assuming that all those who did not vote for them are potential lost sheep to be reclaimed.  My personal preference from the 2015 election would have been  to have had Labour in government, but not as THE government.  A fairer electoral system might have brought about this result, but that is in the realms of the hypothetical.  Labour's electoral calculations were skewed, and if this delusion continues then it may be many years before there is any chance of them returning to power.

To reach out beyond the core vote, Labour needs to be articulating something much more than a simple Tory-lite vision.  Five years of the Tories themselves may help, but it cannot be a rehashed version of the Blairite panacea of corporate whoring and emollience.  No wonder there is no feeling of connection when there is no plausible vision of a society where the sense of belonging and value is defined by something more than crude economics.  Neither social democrats nor social liberals have made the case for communities and individuals to be valued by more than pound notes stick.

There is precious little evidence that this will sink in.  Maybe Labour is irredeemable, stuck in a 20th century nostalgia for clearly-defined classes and a conflict that could be articulated easily.  Yet it will still need to be part of the landscape going forward, especially until there is a comprehensive political reform that includes the introduction of representative democracy - and where realignment would be feasible.  Labour is not geographically ubiquitous, nor does it command the "left" vote in the way that it used to.

None of the contenders appear to have grasped that their language now needs to be inclusive of the wider anti-Tory, anti-austerity groupings, be they Labour, Liberal, Greens, National or disengaged, and the dissatisfaction that UKIP's support demonstrated.  For the party that wants to be the vanguard to be credible, it has to look beyond its diminished followers.  The recognition that pluralism is here to stay, and Labour is part of that, might be a good start in terms of defining a modern opposition that could challenge for power even within the existing distortion.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Mourning Charles Kennedy

Waking up yesterday to the unmediated shock of Charles Kennedy's death was horrible.  Despite the generosity and breadth of tributes from friends and foe alike, it felt like another blow to the tattered cause of Liberalism.  Much as, nearly thirty years ago, David Penhaligon epitomised the radical Celtic tradition, it felt as though fate had struck again.

In retrospect, Kennedy stands alongside Jo Grimond as a principled radical, whose steering of Liberal values earned support beyond the tribal and the protesting bourgeois. Defining a non-statist, anti-authoritarian anti-Tory politics was an achievement, and one which inspired in general even if there were, inevitably, areas of policy differentiation. It is dreadfully sad, and nothing can change the rawness.

His legacy as a Scottish maverick and fallible human will stand the test of time.  Whether the next leader moves the Liberals back to the radical ground will determine whether the rest of the party learn from his example.