Monday, May 31, 2010

Layer 321 . . . Contempt for New Labour, Finding A Purpose, Radical Education, Schools, Teaching & Learning, The Case for Working With Your Hands, The Buddha, and Peace

Madeleine Bunting's latest column is, as ever, well worth reading.

There can be no short-circuiting Labour's essential backroom stocktake

New Labour's contempt for its own party's history now makes the central task of opposition all the more difficult

This is precisely the point when politics becomes really interesting. Away from the glare of intense media coverage, and the carefully packaged soundbites and polished evasive formulations, glimpses of a real political debate are emerging among Labour and its fellow travellers. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it feels it could become the most searching debate on the left for a generation. I can't remember a time in my adult life when discussions on what leftwing politics is really about have been so open-minded. Perhaps it was like this in the 1980s, but then New Labour emerged and vigorously closed down debate and distanced the party from its history; both helped hollow out the party, and contributed to it becoming a highly centralised and relatively effective vote winner. Now, it is not even the latter. So what is it?

This is a subject of passionate interest to a relatively small proportion of the population. People will start listening again when Labour has something interesting to say. In the meantime, it is a time when Labour can't avoid a degree of introspection because it is faced with a series of big questions – and on none of them is there any settled consensus.

All of these debates are difficult for leadership contenders to navigate. How quickly can you disavow the policies that you were passionately defending a few weeks ago? There is a screech of brakes and U-turns. How can you passionately argue for something now and have done so little to advance it when actually in power?

All that the contenders have to offer are their political skills, they are all creatures of New Labour. That makes them likable, good communicators and very clever; but the drawbacks are equally evident. They are all youngish men who have grown up inside the distortions of the adrenaline-fuelled life of government. Rethinking assumptions on which you have built a career is never an easy task, it takes time, mental agility and considerable emotional maturity.

You can see them struggling to find a new language to replace the managerialism and technocratic competence that deadened the nation's soul.


One thing I never want to hear again is that Blair and New Labour had a brilliant electoral strategy to win the 1997 election.

In 1997 the landslide victory wasn't a vote for Blair and Brown and New Labour - we didn't give a damn about Blair and Brown and New Labour - we voted against the policies that had ruined industry and under-funded public services, sold off social housing, neglected schools, politicised education and health, supported casino banking and created so much poverty and inequality. Maybe Labour could now try standing up for the things that so many people voted for back then.



There was an excellent piece in yesterday's Observer by Peter Hyman, who's now a deputy head of a comprehensive school, having previously been 'a political strategist to Tony Blair'. Some of us still remember the very week he decided to quit the thick of it and get a proper job - initially as a pupil mentor, prior to becoming a teacher.

Are the school reforms really going to improve education?

Here, experts discuss whether this shake-up will benefit those who matter most – our children

The point about the Tory reforms is not that they amount to a revolution but, rather, that they are a missed opportunity – a modest extension of one part of New Labour policy. What will be frustrating for many schools is to find a new government once more ignoring the vast amounts of evidence that shows that the best school systems in the world are best for one reason above all else – the quality of teaching. The other big factor is school leadership.

So a radical education policy should start with teaching and learning. It is striking that the schools minister who understood this best in the last 10 years was David Miliband. He realised that what went on in the classroom was more important than anything else and his ideas on personalising learning for each student are, several years later, at the heart of many good schools in the country.

To raise standards, there needs to be a renewed focus on literacy. For [many] students . . . the basics [are] not embedded early enough.

But we need to do more. The area ripe for reform is the curriculum. We have got to have a rethink of what students learn and how they learn it. There needs to be a revolution in science, maths and computer-science teaching so we have a cohort of students who can truly compete with any in the world.

There is not enough thinking in schools and it appears that the Tories are in danger of making things worse by insisting on even more cramming of facts in a return to didactic teaching methods. It's time we started to test skills other than the ability to write a two-hour exam: creativity, analysis, team work, communication skills.

All these things would help students  – catch-up sessions at the age of 16 are not enough, however good. What matters is improving the quality of teaching, the richness of experience, the joy of learning and the grounding in the basics from an early age. There is a real opening in British politics for the politician who understands this.

There's not just an 'opening' in British politics - there a desperate need for the children of England (bearing in mind that these things happen differently elsewhere in Britain) to be given back their rights to a proper childhood, and an unpressurised, meaningful education that's worthy of the name. This is more or less what Oxzen's been saying for the past two years.


History of the World

Today's History of the World in 100 Objects considered a statue of the Buddha. Hopefully, with today being a Bank Holiday, lots of people will have been able to listen to it.

The programme considered how artists have tried to represent "the limitless, the boundless".

We were reminded that the Buddha was a wandering ascetic who devoted his life to apprehending the roots of all suffering, and the nature of enlightenment.

Images of the Buddha are meant to help people reflect on the qualities of Buddha's speech and mind, as well as his physical composure, and not be objects of worship in themselves.

The Buddha insisted on renouncing material states for immaterial states. But he also insisted that dreams, mirages and fantasies should be replaced by a proper grasp on reality.

"The Buddha statue is a thing that leads to no-thing, and the greatest sound of all - silence."

Podcast and 'listen again' here:

Seated Buddha of Gandhara

One of the earliest images of the seated Buddha. Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, looks at how Buddhism set about creating the classic image to represent the real life Buddha, who lived and roamed around North India in the 5th Century BC. It was not until over five hundred years later that the classic seated image was first formulated. The Dalai Lama's official translator, Thupten Jinpa, and the historian Claudine Bautze-Picron help explain how the image came about.


Peace In Our Time?

More bad news from Gaza.

At least 10 peace activists have been killed in boats carrying humanitarian aid towards the coast of Gaza.

Peace. Activists. Killed.

I can't be the only one who thinks that killing humanitarian peace activists is hardly . . . necessary? Appropriate? Proportionate? Moral? Politically astute? Even if they happened to be the most naive and misguided people on the planet.

By all means let the armed forces of Israel set about restraining them, arresting them, thwarting them, imprisoning them. But KILLING them?

I picture myself feeling motivated enough and brave enough to join with a convoy of ships taking aid to children, sick people and destitute families in Gaza.

I picture myself being killed for my non-violent and non-threatening actions and beliefs.

I wonder whether any of these activists were in fact physically agressive and determined to resist arrest. And I still wonder whether actually killing them could ever be justified.

My support is for non-violent Palestinians. My support is for non-violent liberal Israelis who despise the violence and the over-kill of their government, which only delays and makes more difficult a proper peace process, and a 2-state solution.

To support violence and aggression on either side, and even to condone and excuse it, would be no different to supporting any of the violent factions in Northern Ireland back in the days before the peace process started.

It would be no different to supporting the killing of either whites or blacks in South Africa prior to De Clerk's decision to release Nelson Mandela. What a pity there's no obvious Mandela figure in the Middle East.


Start The Week - Attitudes to Work

Matthew Crawford - "The Case for Working With Your Hands".

On Start the Week this Bank Holiday Monday, Andrew Marr gets his hands dirty with the philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford, who argues that satisfaction comes from skilled manual labour. Iranian artist Shirin Neshat discusses her new film, Women Without Men, Sheila Rowbotham muses on the role of women in transforming ideas about work at the turn of the 20th century and the President of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, explores scientific horizons and discovers the limits of our understanding.

Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the observation that “all human beings by nature desire to know.” But the philosopher and mechanic Matthew Crawford contends that real knowledge arises through confrontation with real things. In his book, The Case for Working with Your Hands, he argues that a skilled trade brings a satisfaction that can be missing from office work. He believes that we uncover a sense of agency by shaping the world around us, and explains why he found working as a mechanic more intellectually challenging than a job in a think tank.

The Case for Working with Your Hands or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good is published by Viking.,,9780670918744,00.html

Our society has pursued the separation of thinking from doing. We see ourselves as divided between white collars and blue collars.

Mass production and the pursuit of profit is based on dumbing jobs down, and creating electronic sweatshops.

University graduates expect to go into white collar 'office' jobs.

Whereas being an electrician and a mechanic can be far  more challenging intellectually. And also, in many casses, better paid.

Jobs that don't have 'physical' components are easily outsourced abroad

The core of the argument - the ethical dimension - is that it's superior to do work that involves head, heart AND hands . . .

To become genuinely skillful requires humility, coping with failure, and relying on judgement that comes only with experience. (See previous Layer on Samurai skills and football.)

'Know-how' can't be downloaded from the Internet - it only comes with experience.

We all need and benefit from the experience of seeing the direct effect of our own actions.

Complex material culture is infantilising - we're unable to do our own maintenance on vehicles, eg.

Our culture is more and more one of passivity and dependence . . .

We should put more stress on learning through experience and human contact.

Tacit knowledge is gained from doing physical things, not sitting at screens.

So many things are now too complicated. Eg mobile phones. So we have feelings of dependence instead of self-reliance.

Whilst doing physical work, using our hands, we become absorbed into a state of 'flow' in which we're gripped by the physical elements, and given time for relaxation, reflection and meditation. From the physical flows the metaphysical and the spiritual.

'Scientific' management doesn't grasp the creativity of workers or the intrinsic value of what they do and how they do it.

Layer 320 . . . More on IDS, Work, Pay and Pensions, David Laws, Magazines, Trivia, and Books of Your Own

As I was saying on Friday, Iain Duncan Smith is certainly talking the talk. On today's Andrew Marr programme he showed with his sweating upper lip and his lack of charisma why he's not natural party leadership material. BUT he explained very well why he thinks it's right to make the benefits system much easier to understand for claimants, and why it's right to make sure that nobody who takes a job should immediately lose their housing and other benefits.

It's the responsibility of the State, in other words, to make damned sure that nobody who takes a job should be worse off than they are unemployed - and in fact the system needs to ensure that people get to keep most of what they earn, on top of their existing benefits, for some time before benefits are gradually and incrementally withdrawn. By which time, we can expect that people will be settled into worthwhile jobs in which they also enjoy others' company and a place in the wider world - enjoy being part of a team, perhaps - even if their salary is pretty modest and their position fairly humble. Believe it or not, it IS possible to get job satisfaction in spite of being on low pay, or in a part-time job - providing you believe in the usefulness of what you're doing and you feel a valued member of a team.

Not that IDS said any of this job satisfaction and fulfillment stuff today, although he has done elsewhere. I hope he takes the trouble to emphasise these aspects of his strategy as time goes by.

No - he only had time to state the case for ensuring that work is not only worthwhile from a financial point of view, but also the need for government to ensure that people can clearly see that it will be worth taking on low-paid and/or part time work if it's available, without fearing immediate loss of benefits, without which they can't even keep a roof over their heads and put food on their table.

Obviously all of this ought to be seen as socialist policy - for the state to make sure that everyone is guaranteed the basics of life in return for a willingness to work -  but if IDS wants to claim it for Liberal and Progressive Conservatism, then that's OK with me, since New Labour couldn't see the need to offer it.


Dear, oh dear, David Laws. There was a bit of a hint in Layer 302, just after the general election, to keep an eye on him, but nobody could have predicted that he would be so quickly outed as . . . completely lacking in integrity and honesty. For a multi-millionaire like him to NOT own or rent his own flat in London is . . . incredible. Especially when he could have claimed for it on his MP's  expenses! Maybe he thought he was being kind and generous by handing over so much 'rent money' to the person that people will no doubt be calling his rent boy.


I hate magazines. I hate the paper they're printed on. I hate their advertisements. I hate the  pages of adverts for ludicrously expensive watches, clothes, food, cars, furniture, holidays, sunglasses, cameras, perfume, televisions, airlines, banks, booze, computers, jewellery and a thousand other things I'm not interested in and don't want to buy.

I hate their stupid articles. I hate the restaurant reviews, the lifestyle features, the celebrity fawning and pimping, the diets, the recipes, the trivia . . .

In last week's Guardian Weekend magazine, which I rarely read, I noticed in Oliver Burkeman's "Mind & Relationships" column ( "This column will change your life") his thoughts on why trivia is important . . .

In yesterday's magazine his column was headed

Make a book of your own

Don't know where to store all those random bits of information you scribble on Post-its, and then lose?

I highlight books compulsively, bookmark websites, tear out magazine articles and scribble quotes on Post-its, with the vague idea they'll be inspiring or useful at some future point. Then I reshelve the books, forget about the websites and mislay the Post-its.

I suspect I'm not alone. We tend to lack good systems for storing the kind of information that can't be assigned an immediate, specific purpose, even though it may be the most important information. The gas bill gets paid, then filed, while the life-transforming philosophical insight gets jotted on an envelope and promptly lost.

What to do with this category of information is one challenge of the modern field of "personal knowledge management", but 18th- and 19th-century literate types had a pretty good answer: the commonplace book. John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Coleridge and Jonathan Swift all kept such books, copying down proverbs, poems and other wisdom they encountered while reading. So did many women, often excluded from public discourse at the time. By appropriating others' nuggets, writes cultural historian Robert Darnton, "you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality".

In a recent Columbia University lecture, the writer Steven Johnson drew parallels between commonplace books and the web: blogging, Twitter and social bookmarking sites such as StumbleUpon are often held to have sparked a renaissance of the form. (His focus is the way some iPad apps obstruct this, by forbidding highlighting.) As with commonplace books, this linking and sharing creates not just a hodgepodge, but something coherent and original: "When text is free to combine in new, surprising ways, new forms of value are created… We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson."

Yet the reason I've started keeping a real, pen-and-paper commonplace book is that the social power of the web, awesome though it is, doesn't confer the same benefits. There's something important about exploring ideas privately as well as collectively.

The real challenge of handling stray nuggets of information isn't how to collect and organise them. Commonplacing is about internalising that information: engaging deeply, processing it so that it becomes part of you. Writing by hand seems to help; so does not instantly sharing everything. If the web is a wild, furiously creative ecosystem – a rainforest, say – the commonplace book is a private vegetable patch. Different things grow best in each.


Countdown to the World Cup
Already I'm irritated by people driving around with an England flag or two (Cross of St George) flapping from little posts mounted on their car and van windows. What is point?

We have to face facts. The team that will represent England is crap. By the eighth minute in today's game against Japan they were a goal to nil down, thanks to being unable to defend a simple corner. They were still one nil down by half time, and hadn't even looked like scoring. Lampard missed another penalty kick, thanks to completely scuffing it.

By the end of the game they still hadn't scored, in spite of much huffing and puffing by the likes of Bent, Gerard and Heskey, all of whom were crap. Thank goodness they will now be forced to play Rooney partnered by Crouch in S. Africa.

Unfortunately for Japan, their excellent team scored two more goals - unluckily in their own net.

By coincidence there was a screening of The Last Samurai on TV last night. In it the Tom Cruise character is humiliated when he's first introduced to sword-fighting, but by the end of the film he's slashing, chopping and stabbing with the best of them.

The idea seems to be that with genuine effort, experience and application anyone can become good at performing skills and arts that demand high levels of fitness, balance, coordination, anticipation and flair. The Japanese football team seem to have taken hold of this attitude. Shame about the English.


The UK's contestant (who came last) in yesterday's Eurovision Song Contest apparently says it's been the best experience of his life.

That's the spirit. Next stop Johannesburg.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Layer 319 . . . John McDonnell MP, the Labour Leadership, the Socialist Alternative, and IDS

Let’s start this piece with a little quiz. Which politician said the following:

"The present benefits system is so complex and unfair that no one understands it. It leads at the bottom end to one of the most regressive tax and benefit withdrawal rates that it is possible to imagine. 

"We ask people to go to work for the first time and then tell them to pay back 70%, 80% and 90% back to the state. These are levels none of the wealthiest bankers are asked to pay – they are moaning at 50%.

"If you are unemployed, and you come from a family that is unemployed, all you can see when you think about work is risk. It is a real risk because for all the efforts you make the rewards are very minimal and in some cases none at all.

"Socially, everyone says: 'You are a bloody moron – why are you doing this? You don't have to do this.' So taking responsibility is a real risk for you."

Got it yet? Yes – it’s the former leader of the Tory Party, Iain Duncan Smith, who’s saying things that are completely bleeding obvious and yet no Labour party politician seems to have said them – ever. Certainly no member of the Labour government has said anything like this.

IDS and his Centre for Social Justice got stuck into this issue sometime last year, and this latest quote is from the front page of the Guardian yesterday, which had a heading, “Duncan Smith starts welfare revolution”. Basically, what he’s now proposing to do, as the new minister for work and pensions, is allow people who are on unemployment benefits to keep those benefits until they are well established in a new job and until they are earning a decent amount, after which there will be a gradual withdrawal of benefits. Sounds sensible? More below.


Another World Is Possible

In the meantime, this is part of an interview with John McDonnell, one of the declared candidates for the Labour leadership, by John Spence of

JS: It’s clear from the interview that McDonnell is one of those old fashioned things – a principled politician. His time in parliament has been characterised by the unwavering articulation of those principles in word and deed, which has seen him branded as one of the ‘awkward squad’ by members of his own party.

It’s also clear that McDonnell is a politician who has not forgotten who he represents and who put him into the position he holds. What struck me most was that in the interview he seldom referred to himself with the terms ‘I’ or ‘me’; it was almost always ‘we’ or ‘us’. I don’t think this is an accident. As the interview shows, McDonnell is a staunch socialist, and thinks of himself in terms of his place amongst a groups of people and workers, not distanced from them.

JM: The reason I didn't vote for Gordon Brown was political. It wasn’t personal.

I can’t support people who have voted for things like the Iraq War, for privatisation, for cuts in welfare and benefits, for the implementation of the renewal of Trident. I can’t support candidates like that because I think it undermines our credibility, and what we’ve got to do is keep a clear distance from those people who have brought about a Tory government (sic) because of their support for these policies.

JS: Turning now to the [general] election; what’s your assessment of the election result, firstly, in terms of the Labour Party?

JM: The Labour result was better than expected, because what we saw was an element of class solidarity where people went to the ballot boxes and decided they wanted to keep the Tories out.

So it was clear that there was a positive Labour vote on the basis of opposing the Tories, but it wasn’t by any means, certainly in my constituency, and based on discussions I’ve had with others across the country, it certainly wasn’t an endorsement of New Labour policies. It was one of solidarity against the Tories and, in places like Dagenham, against the fascists with… regret… about what New Labour has done to the Labour Party.

Now, if you look at what happened in the election itself, it was exactly what we predicted: the coalition of people that we put together, as we always do when Labour is elected, was systematically alienated by New Labour policies – public sector workers alienated by privatisation; trade unionists alienated by a lack of trade union rights and the failure to address the issues of their wages and conditions and the security of their work; students alienated by tuition fees; pensioners alienated by a failure to address pensioner poverty and a refusal to restore the link between pensions and earnings; peace campaigners alienated by the Iraq War and Afghanistan; people who came to us because they saw us as the party of honesty against Tory sleaze alienated by expenses.

So you can see how every element of our coalition was alienated in some form, and that’s what brought about the breakdown in trust, and people no longer recognised the Labour Party as the party they knew and had trusted over the years. New Labour destroyed that bond between working class people and the Party itself, and it was only anti-Toryism that got us those voters out at the end of the day.

The issue for us now is how we re-establish that trust, and I think what people were saying on the doorstep is they want Labour back. We’ve got to re-establish the ‘Labour Party’ because New Labour has destroyed trust in us.

JS: What is your assessment of the Coalition Government in its early days?

JM: I don’t think people should underestimate the ruthlessness of this government. They will seek to solve this crisis on the backs of working class people; they’ll cut services and be ruthless about it, they’ll come from pay cuts, they’ll come from pension cuts and they’ll come from people’s basic services. I think we’ll see a growth in inequality in the same way that we did in the 1980s, and we’ll also see a growth in poverty and deprivation amongst working people whilst others make themselves richer and more prosperous. The discussion we’ve got to have now is about how we organise the resistance against that.

There will be things done by this government, the part of the Lib Dem agenda, that the rest of us [on the Labour left] have been calling for anyway – the scrapping of ID cards, restoring elements of the right to protest, things like that, but that shouldn’t mask or cloud the class nature of this government. The class nature is about the restoration of the casino economy, restoring profitability to the City in particular on the backs of working people through cuts in public services, wages, pensions and the rest.

JS: Given the policy agenda articulated in the Labour manifesto ahead of the election, can the Labour Party in its current guise actually be an effective opposition to the new government?

JM: The problem at the moment is that New Labour is implicated in bringing about the economic crisis that we now face – the deregulation of the City, the continuation of the policies of Thatcherism from the 80s and 90s, into New Labour and through to 2010.

They’re completely implicated in it and, actually, have completely adopted the ideas and ideology of Thatcherism. They believe in ‘the market’, they believe in privatisation as the best option for the delivery of services, and as a result of that it’s very difficult to see how [the candidates closely attached to new Labour] could have some Damascene conversion to socialism or even weaker forms of social democracy, and I think that’s what is going to hobble them, particularly if we get a new leader like one of the Milibands, or Ed Balls or Andy Burnham. If they come from the New Labour stable then ideologically they’ve adapted themselves to neoliberal policies anyway.

The struggle will be, yes, within the Labour Party from the rank and file, but I think also the struggle will be from within the communities themselves, with trade unions and other social groups coming together to resist what this government seeks to do. Eventually, I think the PLP will catch up with what’s happening in wider society.

JS: Turning now to policy related areas, how will your 2010 campaign differ from the 2007 campaign?

JM: It has moved on. 2007 was pre-major credit crunch. I was arguing the case then in the book that we did ‘Another World Is Possible’ that we needed to come to terms with the world as it then was, which was facing the impact of globalisation, how it had created a new world, new forms of exploitation, the opening up of the welfare state in this country to privatisation and profiteering, how it had undermined old securities in terms of state provision of housing , trade union rights, and how it had allowed the plundering of our environment for profit.

So I was trying to explain, at that stage, what globalisation meant, and how we needed to understand the world before we could organise in a way to combat the impact of globalisation in this country and in others across the world.

That was the intellectual debate we were having in 2007. The credit crunch then hit almost as predicted, in terms of a classic crisis of capitalism. What we are now into doing is sharing that understanding of how the capitalist system has gone into crisis again, but more importantly there is a sense of urgency now about what the implications are of that for working people. I think now it’s about motivating people to recognise they’ve got to stand up and fight back, that there will be a movement of resistance and they’ve got to join it.

JS: What are the other key planks of your policy platform?

JM: What I’m trying to say is, let’s understand the world as it now is, let’s understand why this crisis came about, and let’s have a look at those policies, therefore, that we now need to put in place.

 The most important question that people face now is, “Who is going to pay for this economic crisis?” The government has quite clearly made its decision that working people are going to pay for it.

Our argument is, no, it doesn’t have to be like that, there is an alternative, and the alternative is basically that we start planning and controlling our economy. It means basically that instead of tackling the deficit by cutting services, you tackle it by introducing a fair taxation system where the corporate sector is paying its way, we tackle avoidance and evasion of taxes, we introduce a transition tax, it was called a Tobin tax, we now call it the Robin Hood Tax, and in that way we introduce a system whereby we tackle the deficit straight away, but we increasingly use mechanisms for regulation and public ownership that give us control of our economy in the long term.

At the same time, we do recognise that if people are going to have the opportunity to resist they need the tools to do that, so what we’re campaigning for basic civil liberties and the restoration of trade union rights that can arm people with the arguments with which they can control their lives in the long term.

It’s also about trying to explain to people that there are very simple solutions to our problems. We’re the fifth richest country in the world yet we have a housing crisis with homelessness doubling under New Labour. The question is “How do we tackle it?” and the way we tackle it is by building council houses again in the way we haven’t done in the last 13 years.

We pour money into public services, but see more and more of it laundered out for private profit. The simple solution is that we end privatisation.

We want our children to have the best education possible, but they’re deterred from that, because instead of having free education we’re now charging them for their education. How do you overcome that? You scrap tuition fees.

If you want to tackle pensioner poverty, with two million pensioners in poverty at the moment, you increase the state pension and you restore the link with earnings. It’s the same with child poverty, you simply increase child benefits to the level which cover the cost of rearing a child.

If you want to ensure that families can lift themselves out of poverty, you increase the Minimum Wage to a ‘Living Wage’.

All of these are simple solutions, and they’re all premised on the redistribution of wealth which in turn is based upon primary control of our economy.

JS: The main audience of ‘The Vibe’ will have grown up under the Thatcher government, like me, or the Major and New Labour governments. How would you go about rationalising your policy agenda to that age group, specifically?

JM: The whole point of every political discussion at the moment should be about breaking through the mystification of the economic crisis. We can control the future of our lives. We can control the future of our economy. We can control what happens within our workplaces and our local communities, and the solution is through democratic control of our lives and our economy.

What the Tories have done, and what New Labour have done also, is that… the Tories have told us there is no alternative, while New Labour have told us there is only one alternative, and that alternative is to allow the markets to run free and allow privatisation to happen with limited government intervention at best.

What we have got to reassert for this generation is that it doesn’t have to be like this! What we should be doing now is saying “We should control our lives, and to control our lives we have to control our economy.” To do that we have to band together and use the democratic mechanisms available to us, and if we do that we can control our future.

For three decades now there has been a defeatism inculcated in people. What we have to do is break through that and say, “We’re not putting up with this anymore! We don’t believe the lies. We don’t believe it’s complicated.” There are simple solutions, but they will only come about if we assert control.

JS: Your support for traditional labour elements such as trade unions and public sector workers has been unstinting in the face of wider political, media and private sector hostility. To put it bluntly, what do you think makes you right and them wrong?

JM: Let’s go back to the economic crisis. You can look at this from any part of the cycle you like, but let’s start at the beginning.

If you suppress trade union rights, that allows employers to suppress wages. If at the same time you stop building council houses and you rely solely upon the private market and you create a shortage of houses then that means house prices are going to go up.

If you’re a worker whose wages have been suppressed by privatisation, outsourcing or a lack of trade union rights the one thing you need is a roof over your head. If there is a shortage of housing because no council houses are being built and house prices are going up you have to borrow to buy a property. If at the same time the government deregulates the City and they can lend to you and charge you whatever they want, you’re forced to borrow at en extortionate rate, leading to the build up of a debt bubble which is unsustainable, and then a credit crunch occurs.

That is reality of what happened. It stems from the undermining of trade union rights and the balance of forces between labour and capital being deliberately skewed in the favour of capital. There is a clear analysis there of why the credit crunch occurred, and now we’re having to pay for it, and what we’re being told to do is replicate the same circumstances, – suppress trade union rights, cut wages and public services so the casino economy can spin again.

I think that when the process of how we’ve arrived at this point is explained to people, and people understand what is happening as it reflected in their real lives than I think people will get angry, and they want to vent that anger. Our job politically is to mobilise that anger and use it to make political change.

JS: Do you think you’ll get the space and airtime in the mainstream media to articulate those points?

JM: No. A few years ago someone described me as being like a cult movie – you’ve sort of heard about it, but you’ve never seen it. It’s because most of the mainstream media aren’t interested in any detailed political discussion; it’s all 24-hour, short, sharp, media hits.

Even newspapers like the Guardian, which are supposed to be more liberal and open-minded, are not interested in a proper discussion of radical policies or fundamental analyses of society, so they’re as glib as most of the others as well.

So what we’ve got to do is create our own media. Part of that is using whatever we can in terms of new technology, of course, but also going back to traditional mechanisms like word of mouth, talking at large meetings, small groups, demonstrations, picket lines, climate camps… using the mechanisms that social movements are using all the way across the world to provide an alternative media to enable people, not just to receive information because it’s not about talking down to people, but to get involved in the dialogue and the debate.

JS: Last question; If you were successful in the final ballot, what would be your first action as leader of the Labour Party?

JM: I’d go out to people and tell them we’re now going to produce our own Bill of Rights which would restore trade union freedom, which would restore local democracy, and which would give people social rights – the right to a decent home, the right to a decent health service, the right to a decent education all of which would be enforceable and also the right to have a say, not only in your local community but also when you go to work as well.

I think the whole basis of having a real Labour government is about establishing freedom and that Bill of Rights would establish people’s freedom to control their own lives.


Re David Cameron, this piece in the MailOnline is actually worth reading.


Iain Duncan Smith, again

These quotes are from his interview with the Guardian:

IDS: I will tackle root causes of poverty
Former Tory leader outlines plan to help the worst off

A dangerous political force has been let loose in Whitehall: a politician with no personal ambition whose only aim is to preside over the wholesale reform of his patch.

He [will] press ahead with his new task as work and pensions secretary. This is to reform what he regards as Britain's bloated and inefficient welfare system, which he believes discourages many of the 5 million people who rely on state support from working.

“I am here because I want this to be the most reforming government on benefits for a generation. I think we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity."

David Cameron brought Duncan Smith back into the frontline after he rehabilitated himself following his unhappy experience as leader by becoming one of the Tories' most influential thinkers in decades on social breakdown. As leader, the former Scots Guards officer was introduced to searing levels of poverty, and the cycle that is often impossible to escape, when he visited the Easterhouse estate on the eastern outskirts of Glasgow. His experience prompted Duncan Smith to establish the Centre for Social Justice, which produced a lengthy report on Breakdown Britain

These ideas will be informing his work as work and pensions secretary and also as chairman of the first cabinet committee dedicated to promoting social justice by tackling the root causes of poverty.

Thatcherite Tories, who believe the welfare budget is ripe for cuts, may be disappointed by Duncan Smith's language.

"The purpose of my life here is to improve the quality of life of the worst off in society." he says. "If somebody tells me I have to do something different then I won't be here any longer. Tattooed across my heart is that I didn't come here in any shape or form simply as a cheeseparer. What I have come to do is look root and branch at how we deliver welfare which is aimed at groups at the bottom end of society who need help and support, either because they can't work or because they can but they are unable to get back to work, or because they are disabled."

The CSJ report proposes the merger of eight benefits into just two, the withdrawal of benefits much more slowly for low earners, and the removal of rules that stop people claiming out-of-work benefits entirely if they do only a few hours' work a week.

Duncan Smith will chair a cabinet committee on social justice, saying it is ironic that it has taken the Conservative party to set up such a committee.

Ironic indeed.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Layer 318 . . . A Realignment of the Mind and Halting the Capitalist Merry-Go-Round

There were some good articles (and CiFs) in the paper yesterday which sum up pretty well the current state of play in politics in a way similar to my own recent ramblings, only more articulate and concise. This is going to be a long one, but I think it’s worth trying to summarise where we’re at in politics.

This one's by Peter Kilfoyle:

Labour leadership trio perpetuate Blair-Brown years

The Milibands and Ed Balls only reinforce the status quo when the Labour party needs a fighter to galvanise members

I am mystified as to the basis upon which Kinnock's enthusiasm for Ed Miliband is built.

I have to assume it is a social experience of Ed Miliband. They had never worked together; and, having spent five years alongside the younger of the two precocious politician brothers, I fail to recognise the panoply of political and personal talents so admired by Kinnock.

Yet perhaps this is one of the difficulties which humble members in the provinces face. We do not have the social interaction so beloved of the London-based chattering classes, and the influence they exert on processes such as the selection of a new Labour party leader.

Left to our social (and, so they would have it, intellectual and political) superiors in the capital, there would probably be a choice of no more than three candidates – Ed and David Miliband, and Ed Balls.

It must be a great disappointment to Lords Mandelson, Falconer and Adonis – among others – to find an ungrateful and impertinent party demurring from their judgements.

Indeed, it is a measure of the decline of the party that we have the three leading contenders we do, and who are being heavily promoted. In background, there is little between them. Each has that narrow set of experiences seemingly mandatory for contemporary party leaders – Oxbridge, research, and political bagcarrying. Life experience outside of that restricted world is nonexistent, and their politics are apparently of the pick-and-mix variety.

What is truly astonishing is that while Miliband major has served all of nine years as a member of parliament, Miliband minor and Ed Balls were both first elected only in 2005. It was widely believed at the time that they were shoehorned into seats to look after the interests of their long-term boss, Gordon Brown. It now seems as if it was for premature promotion.

Indeed, this trio of hopefuls look set to perpetuate the Blair-Brown years; and a London-centric perspective of the Labour party would continue to be the case. Although each has a northern seat, they are not of the north.

Their politics are not even those of London but those of the Westminster and Whitehall villages; theirs are the politics of spin, not of conviction; of advancement, not of service; of an elite, not of a wider political community. Their political apprenticeships were served in the rival courts of Blair and Brown rather than on the mean streets of Britain.

It is, therefore, very depressing for Labour members throughout the country to see the same old charade in the build up to what, for millions of people, will be a vital election.

The country is crying out for a break from what was presented in the past as consensual politics. Our loyal supporters want us to fight for them, recognising that clever talk of triangulation is a betrayal of those most loyal and most dependent on Labour. Away from the spin and the mealy mouthed rhetoric, our intrepid trio offer only more of the same.

That is just not good enough. They have neither the real roots in the wider party, nor the established ideological commitment, to offer either real opposition in the short term or a bankable alternative to the present coalition at a general election.


This comment from SamJohnson

I heard Balls on the radio at lunchtime.


A splendid example of the emptiest, stupidest talking points imaginable. He knew perfectly well what he was saying was drivel and insult to the intelligence of listeners. I've never heard such a pathetic going through the motions exercise in my life. This is a man without principle and without passion. A cynical triangulator. Talk about the spawn of Brown!



The questions for Mandelson, Milibands and the NuLab muppets are:

What purpose do you serve except your own interests?

Have ever knowingly told the truth?

Labour is dead, murdered by the NuLab addiction to self-aggrandisement. A curse on all your houses say I to the incompetent lying corrupt tossers who can very rarely be bothered to get their greasy snouts out of the trough long enough to see the damage they have caused and never long enough to care or regret.


As one of the London-based chattering classes (when I'm not here in Spain), I do have to ask why you northerners keep electing these poncy southern scumbags?

David Miliband - South Shields.
Ed Miliband - Doncaster.
Ed Balls - Morley.
Tony Blair - Sedgefield.
Peter Mandelson - Hartlepool (that really takes the piss).

If you want to get rid of these entryist spivs, stop electing them.....


New Labour turned out to be not very good at this capitalism lark that they embraced with such gusto. I fail to see that drawing your next leader from a pool of candidates who were at the very heart of the New Labour project restores confidence or moves you on from the perception that policy wonks and professional politicos make for disastrous real-world decision-makers.

They had a 13-year shot at making their case as competent capitalists. They flunked it. Now they're a party of no fixed beliefs and about to elect a leader with straight down-the-line New Labour credentials. I hope that makes sense to somebody.


This is by Chuka Umunna and Lisa Nandy  - both newly elected Labour MPs

Labour leadership battle gives time to create future agenda

History cannot be allowed to set the parameters for debate as the Labour party takes the time it needs to select a new leader

The task ahead: to restore the historic strength of a party formed and led from its grass roots, and in so doing, offer a vision that is in step with the concerns of the electorate.

But first, there is the contest. It is vital we not only involve members but the wider public. Next to the more traditional leadership hustings and inevitable TV debates, why not get candidates out, in every part of the country – not just London – to do high-street walkabouts and town centre soap-box sessions? That way members will see the leaders-to-be in action and judge whether they can connect and talk "human".

Then there is the discussion on where we went wrong and how we must change. This cannot be some arid dialogue between Blairites and Brownites, left and right, modernisers and those who supposedly want to turn the clock back to Militant and the 1980s.

Yes, we can learn from history but it cannot be allowed to set the parameters of debate in this new era.

These are different times requiring a different set of policy responses – people want to hear a response from the candidates. Undoubtedly, the City needs greater regulation so it better serves all of us and not a highly remunerated financial elite who are allowed to play fast and loose with our money. But what does "better regulation" look like?

Several candidates are already talking about immigration. Let's drop the cheap mantras and be honest with people: we allowed this issue to become a smokescreen for some of our biggest failures in government – the failure to get to grips with the housing crisis and the failure to address the race to the bottom in respect of the wages and the terms and conditions of a great bulk of the workforce, particularly temporary and agency workers.

Our belief in markets and globalisation blinded us to the fact that many have been left behind by globalisation. How do we address this? Both of us like the idea of a minimum-income guarantee that makes work pay, but how do we put this in place in the context of public expenditure restraint?

And then there are the quality-of-life issues, which seemed absent from so much of the general election debate. We work longer hours than any other country in western Europe, yet we are neither more productive nor, above all, happy. We have so much more material wealth than many third- and developing-world economies, yet in so many studies British people are less satisfied. How do we tackle this social recession? Professor Richard Wilkinson suggests this might have something to do with the outstanding gap between rich and poor . . .

There is so much to talk about. We found it impossible to properly consider where to go next while in government. We now have the time and space to map out an agenda for the future. It will be a gross dereliction in duty if we fail to do so this summer.


A suitably angry and impassioned comment from orwellwasright:

Let's face it, party politics as we know it is on its way out - you lot are so discredited not only as effective and fair-minded "leaders" but as basic human beings - lacking in what resembles normal emotions and a sense of compassion - that it's only a matter of time before everyone's so sick and tired of the mealy-mouthed bullshit and servility to bankster fraudsters and warmongering big business that they'll think "fuck it" and storm the halls of Parliament. Which, judging by the continued looting of the global economy and this foolish drive to push austerity on the entire world so Goldman Sachs/JP Morgan thieves can buy another island, is not far off.

So rebuild the Labour party all you like - you'd be better off running for the hills though. I can hear the sound of pitchforks being sharpened.


Tellingly you seem to have completely failed to mention little things like the perception of Labour as the enemy of civil liberties.

That's the one that turned me from a default "vote Labour because they're the Tories' main opponents" (yep, being a student in the Thatcher years left its mark) into a LibDem activist. Moved a good few other people I know firmly out of the Labour camp, too.

And before anyone else brings it up, no, as a LibDem I don't regard the coalition as betrayal, undemocratic, etc . . . : with the things Labour were doing I regard them as worse than the Thatcher crowd and the coalition as the best available option for the country as a whole, given the hand the election dealt.


John McDonnell is the best hope for Labour supporters, for a fast return to an honourable, decent, democratic, egalitarian and inclusive Labour Party.

If Labour continues to be managed by New Labour spivs it deserves to become the Liberal Party of the 21st century.

Time for Labour to return to values of social justice and to become the party of real community transformation, by embracing the desire for and the will to enable a constitutional, democratic, egalitarian, decent and civil society.

Labour has the chance to unite the democratic left into a truly transformational force, and these opportunities don't come along every day.

John McDonnell for Labour Party leader!


You say we can't look back to history, how you sound like David Miliband's whipping boy. Guess what? People are still REALLY pissed off with Labour for invading Iraq and thus making Britain complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians - and how much of a financial cost for New Labours (I mean the Neo Conservatives) war - hard to tell them apart sometimes.

I wont even begin about civil liberties. No Chuka, this once great party needs to face up to the awful things that it did.


How revealing and damning is this line

    We found it impossible to properly consider where to go next while in government

That'd be because you jettisoned principle and pursued power for power's sake, and this manifested itself in many dismal ways; by both increased authoritarian intervention in the day-to-day lives of citizens and an invocation of positive liberty, in a narrow and twisted fashion that suited New Labour control-freaks and power-hungry cliques at the cost of the citizenry, propagandising and pushing the (unsustainable) consumerism and consumption as freedom shtick: this is the way to a better, shinier, new, improved future, so we'll force you towards it, whether you like it or not, then you will attain some higher, nobler liberty, because hey, we're the smartest guys in the room so obey (or else).


This excellent piece is by David Marquand:

Green, socialist, republican: the new politics needs a realignment of the mind

Tarted-up neoliberalism won't cut it. The great question of our time isn't the deficit, but halting the capitalist merry-go-round

The great French philosopher-statesman Alexis de Tocqueville once called for "a new political science for a new world". It is a good motto for liberal social democrats who hoped for a realignment of the left and centre-left, and now confront a baffling counter-realignment of the centre-right.

Fundamental to any progressive alliance worthy of the name would be a politics of power-sharing, tolerance and republican self-government. Such a politics is light years from Labour's inherited instincts. There are pluralists in Labour's ranks; the pressure group Compass contains many. But most Labour people are power-hoggers by nature, not power-sharers. Labour could not have taken part in a genuine progressive alliance without a cultural revolution. Of that there was (and is) no sign.

For would-be realigners, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are both broken reeds. Compass or no Compass, the Labour party is not going to change in a hurry.

Though realignment as Westminster politicians have understood it is now a dead duck, a richer and deeper realignment is desperately needed. For the last two years we have been living through the third great capitalist crisis of modern times; and it is not over yet. The neoliberal paradigm that has dominated policy-making throughout the developed world, not least in the institutions of global economic governance, has been turned inside out. Markets, we have discovered (or rediscovered), do not always know better than governments. Private greed does not procure public benefits. The lords of creation in the hedge funds and investment banks are not wealth creators. They are wealth destroyers. A rising tide does not invariably float all boats.

The self-regulating market of neoliberal economic theory is a phantom, whose pursuit led to a shameful increase in inequality and eventually to a catastrophic fall in employment and output. The newly untamed capitalism of the last 30 years has not been driven by "rational economic actors": the "rational economic actor" is another phantom. It has been driven by stampeding herds of electronic gamblers. It is not only monstrously unjust, it is also unsustainable – not only economically, but politically, environmentally and, above all, morally.

Yet the implications have not sunk in. In Washington, London and the capitals of the eurozone, the hunt is on for a tarted-up version of business as usual, radical enough to seem new, but conservative enough to keep the essentials of the old show on the road. Hayek and Friedman have been toppled from their perches; Keynes has returned to his. Tougher regulation, banking reforms, quantitative easing and even bank nationalisations have been the order of the day; some still are.

However, this is an elaborate exercise in rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. As Will Hutton once pointed out, the point about the Keynesian revolution is that it wasn't revolutionary. Keynes was a small-c conservative, not a radical. He wanted to save capitalism, not to supersede or even to transcend it. And almost by definition, he couldn't foresee the accelerating environmental crisis of our day. There will be no salvation from his quarter: of the great economists of the past, Marx is a better guide than Keynes to the turbulent, masterless capitalism of today.

But none of the economic gurus of old days is of much help now. The one certainty is that we can't continue indefinitely on our present path – and by "we" I don't just mean British politicians and voters; I mean the human race. Sooner or later the crisis-haunted capitalist merry-go-round will have to stop. The great question for our time is not how and when to cut the fiscal deficit, or calm the markets, or curb the bonus culture, or tax transnational financial transactions – pressing as all these questions are. It is how to halt the merry-go-round before it is too late: how to switch from an unjust and unsustainable economic order to a just and sustainable one. [My emphasis]

No single thinker, party or school of thought offers a complete answer, or anything like it. Answers will have to be hammered out in open-minded dialogue, between all those who accept that tinkering is not enough, across the lines of party and creed. The need, in fact, is for a realignment of the mind, socialist in economics and republican in politics. In such a realignment the Green movement must surely have a central place, along with radicals and dissenters from all parties and none. Caroline Lucas, over to you.


PeterGuillam said:

Spot on. Neo-liberalism has failed, comprehensively, but politics hasn't caught up. Two years ago the banking system fell apart and with it the basic ideology of neo-liberalism - that markets know best. Apologists for that ideology tried to pretend that the collapse was in fact a failure of 'statism', that it was the state's fault for allowing the banks to act as they did. But of course that was nonsense in terms of neo-liberal ideology, which holds that individuals and corporations are the best judge of their own interests. If that was so, then it would not have mattered what corporations were allowed to do, since they would not have used that licence in contradiction to their own interests. But this they manifestly did, hence the collapse of Lehmanns etc.

The wholesale screw up by the banks required national governments to step in because, whatever the theories of neo-liberalism, allowing them to fail would have wreaked such havoc that no democratic government could entertain it. So the private risk of banks became the public deficit. Now, unbelievably one would have thought, that public deficit incurred to rescue the banks is being used by the banks (or 'markets' - as if these were some kind of force of nature) to penalise the states that rescued the banks from oblivion.

So we have the extraordinary situation where the banks have been rescued by the state, creating huge state indebtedness, but now demand that the state cut every last piece of public welfare because it is now indebted - as a result of the banks! It would be a joke, were it not for the massive human misery it will cause.


Caroline Lucas has been quite clear - repeatedly - that the Green Party is firmly of the left, and the (entirely correct) economic policies in the 2010 Green manifesto bear that out.

I personally find Lucas' refusal to apologise for being of the left - whenever its presented to her as though its an accusation - very refreshing indeed. As Marquand points out here, the economic failures of the present day are right-wing failures (which the Labour Party shamefully bought into). New thinking on economics and social justice is urgently required from people, like Lucas, who care about people more than profits.

There's a large constituency in the country beyond the Green Party's current voter base - including disillusioned Labour and Lib Dem voters - who will welcome a voice like hers in British politics.


It seems like the entire world is now losing its head and deciding that having bailed out the financial sector, we now need to kowtow to it like never before - even at the cost of another Depression. Keynes would be rolling over in his grave . . .

PS to those who think the Greens' views are fringe: consider that they came out TOP at, based on nearly 300,000 surveys. Yeah they got 1% of the vote in a close first-past-the-post election - so what? Just wait for electoral reform (especially if it's ACTUALLY proportional, and not just AV).


The Green Party is a bottom up party. Each local party, sometimes ward by ward, is independent from the others. This is green philosophy as with Greenpeace whose national organisations are independent and Greenpeace International provides co-ordination but cannot dictate what each national organisation does.

The same principle goes for the Greens. We don't really need a national leader except for publicity purposes. There is no central office diktat as with all the other political parties. This the foundation stone of green politics. Localism building upwards.



    How many people who voted for the Greens a couple of weeks ago actually really understand how they would have to live and change their lives, IF the Greens were running the Country?

Quite. God forbid that there arent 20 different types of automatic air 'fresheners' on sale at Tescos. That would really reduce my choices and make me less free. The Green also advocate a shorter working week. Utter lunacy! How would people be able to afford ring tones or vote in X factor?

The horror!


So there are only 2 " alternatives"? What an absolute poverty of vision and imagination.

What about (real) Social Democracy, or mutualism, or cooperativism or various combinations of these and direct democracy?

Looked at objectively the policies that the Greens in England and Wales just offered in their election manifesto were basically left wing social democratic policies with a strong Green/Environmentalist theme. As hard leftists never tire of pointing out, this would have been close to mainstream 40 years ago.

The fact that this reformist leftism was seen as the most "left wing" electable programme, and has the "libertarians" and neo cons and wing nut ranters screaming "Commies!" or "Medievalist primitivists who want us to live in caves!" tells us more about the level of political understanding and development of much of the current right (and their excitability or preference for hyperbole and exaggeration and smear) than it does about the Greens.

The Right who rant on in such terms are of a similar mindset to the Tea Party crowd in America who think Obama (for goodness sake) is a "Commie". In short, not to be taken seriously politically, but to be watched in the knowledge that such concotions of conspiracy theory and scapegoating have a nasty history and potential trajectory.


Simon Jenkins, meanwhile, writes sensibly about the new government:

Radical? Hardly. But Cameron is so much more than Blair reincarnated

The Queen's speech may cleanse only Labour's most fouled stables. Yet Cameron has proved an original political personality

A four-page coalition agreement, a 36-page manifesto, a £6.2bn cuts programme and now a 22-bill Queen's speech. The post-election fortnight began with a weekend of promiscuity and has abruptly morphed into two weeks of fruitful bliss. The bond formed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg on May 11 produced an almost surreal moment in British politics, not so much a coalition as a fusion. Two lookalikes have become feelalikes, and it is hard to see how they can ever part. A cynic can add: fine so far … wait and see. But something remarkable has happened. It is time to take stock.

The Queen's speech and pre-announced cuts will cleanse only the most fouled of Labour's stables. Illiberal registers, databases, inspectorates and regulatory quangos typified the regimes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and obsessed such control-freak ministers as David Miliband and Ed Balls. Disbanding these bodies meets the libertarian spirit of Tories and Liberals, saving money and freeing frontline administration. To deplore this as a savage assault on the welfare state is ludicrous.

The same goes for George Osborne's cuts, a mere tenth of those proposed by Labour before the election. After the profligacy of Brown and Alistair Darling, 1% less public spending is hardly crippling. The quango cull is mild and 3% off bureaucracy modest. Most departments and local councils have already allowed for such cuts.

Where the government demands to be judged is elsewhere, in using the financial crisis to steer the public sector towards greater accountability. Cameron has promised less state intervention and a more co-operative society.

Now Cameron and Clegg want to bring power closer to the consumers, "to devolve greater powers to local councils" and "repeal unnecessary laws". Everyone wants that. But unless the two comprehend what balked Thatcher and Blair, they will get no further.

The coalition can't seriously finance selective white schools in black, urban areas – the chief driver of "parental choice" – in defiance of local catchment areas. There is no way the Liberal Democrats will buy it. While much of Gove's programme, in teacher training and curricular freedom, is admirable, the old antagonism to local government jars. As before, the Treasury will stop it.

If this is the coalition's most radical moment, it is not very radical. The withdrawal of ID cards and the children's database is hardly controversial. Both were toys arising from Labour's infatuation with computers. There is no curbing of such regulatory monsters as the Criminal Records Bureau or the Health and Safety Executive. There is no review of farm payments, the NHS computer or the lunatic digital radio edict. As for Osborne's proposal to freeze council tax, it is the purest centralism. Whatever the Queen says, local councils will stay shackled to Whitehall.

The government's ideological ambitions are almost identical to Blair's in 1997, which is why Cameron was so deftly able to fashion a centre-right coalition out of the ruins of New Labour's centre-left one. But he is a cleverer, deeper politician than Blair, with whom he once compared himself. Blair was hobbled by his obsession with headlines and his failure to understand how government worked. He surrounded himself not with doers but cronies.

Cameron suffers some of the same handicaps. But he seems a more original political personality. He is less blinded by the glamour of office. He walks to work and has dictated an ascetic administration. He seems to care about civil freedom, unlike Blair, and to be thinking afresh in areas of foreign policy.

Coming after John Major, Blair and Brown, Cameron faces the prospect of proving merely a better class of disappointment. The British centralist state is a monstrous, unyielding beast. No one knows how soon the coalition will find itself embattled by its backbenchers or its constituent parties in the country. No one can predict the engulfing tide of events. For all that, his ministry has started well and has held, so far. Britain can at least cheer it on its way, so far.


Exactly. So far.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Layer 317. . . The Mace is in Place


As the TV presenter said - it's been a momentous morning this morning . . at the Chelsea Flower Show.

A wonderful, colourful occasion, full of nice, well-off  people trying their hardest to impress and to keep the old traditions going. To judge only from appearances you'd never guess the amount of shit that's been shovelled and the heavy lifting that's gone on behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, a short distance away, outside the Palace of Westminster, another significant event was taking place:

Protester Brian Haw arrested before Queen's speech

Anti-war campaigner one of two arrested as police clear protest camp on Parliament Square


Inside the palace, having just trotted down from her own palace, the Queen was performing her regular duties. And very well she did them too. A flawless reading of her script, with every word perfectly enunciated, without any hesitation, repetition or deviation. And she's 84 you know! Isn't it just wonderful that she's still the head of state for Australia, Canada and New Zealand? Prince Philip will be 89 next month. Bloody marvellous! I must say he still looks splendid in his uniform with his medals & stars.

It's a bit odd though that the Queen doesn't kick things off with even a "Good morning folks!" A few warm-up exercises might also be good, if the great and the good gathered there didn't already know one another too bloody well already.

So here comes the Sergeant At Arms, with his arms swinging like pendulums, at the head of The Speaker's Procession, making sure the mace is in place - because that has to happen before anything else can happen. Obviously.

We also have the Lord Great Chamberlain, The Earl Marshall, the Lord High Chancellor, and finally, in the centre of the State Procession, the Queen herself, clutching the hand of her consort, surrounded by playing-card people, a mad hatter, a girl called Alice and a hooker-smoking caterpillar. (I made the last bit up. About the caterpillar.)

All of this takes place in complete hushed silence, apart from when some mad person shouts "Hats Off!" to no-one in particular, since no-one seems to be wearing a hat in that particular part of the palace, and apart from when Dennis Skinner shouts something rude or sarcastic about the royals, which is also traditional. This year it's about Fergie's financial dealings.

So here we have it - the wigs, the cloaks, the ermine, the crown! The page boys! What do you have to do to be a page boy?

And now, as we approach the climax ( - the reading of the speech) we have Black Rod, or rather the person who's today deputising for the indisposed Black Rod - someone called The Yeoman Usher - walking towards the House of Commons . . . only for the door to be slammed in his face.

So then there's the pounding on the door with a big stick with a big knob on the end, and finally the cry goes up - "The Queen commands this House to attend her immediately!" And so they do.

There's Harriet walking side by side with the Cameron, and looking very human and real, which is good because none of the New Labour leadership contenders can quite manage it, as they walk along in file like the arseholes they truly are.

The Duke is impressive - looking relaxed, with a slightly sardonic smile on his face. As well he might.

And so to the big speech . . .

This government will abide by its principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility. Good start.

Its priority will be the management of the public finances, and the structural deficit. Mmmmm.

They will make the tax system fairer. They will prioritise work and employment. They will regulate (re-regulate?) financial services. They will invest in high-speed broadband and trains. They'll reconnect pensions with average earnings.

They will limit non-EU "economic migrants". They will make us energy efficient, and sufficient. They will promote flexible working and equal pay. They want a strong and fair society. They want individual and social responsibility. They want more academy schools. They want teachers back in control of the curriculum. They want to improve public health and to reduce health inequalities.

They want to make the police more accountable, to diminish the effects of alcohol on bad social behaviour, and to reduce the costs of bureaucracy.  They will give greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods.

They will instigate parliamentary and political reform. They want to rebalance the relationship between the citizen and the State. They will legislate for 5 year fixed terms between general elections. They want equal sized constituencies, and an elected second house on the basis of PR. They'll hold a referendum on an AV system for electing the Commons. They want a new way of funding political parties.

They want to restore freedoms and civil liberties. They will give additional powers to Scotland, Wales and N Ireland. They want no more powers being given to the EU. They want effective global collaboration - for example on combatting climate change.

They will carry out a strategic defence review. They will work for a 2-state solution and a viable state for Palestinians. They want to reduce the threat from nukes and proliferation. They will maintain a 0.7% of GNP commitment to development and third world aid.

And I reckon a more enlightened Labour party could have gone for most of that lot. So why the fuck didn't they? Because they were New Labour!


And owing to New Labour's failure to regulate the fat cats and the City, and to forsee a perfectly forseeable financial crash as a consequence of the financial bubble, we now face an era of drastic cuts, increased unemployment and reduced standards of living.

The good news is that the Tories really are sounding pretty liberal, and far more concerned with civil liberties than New Labour. Of course they'll want to keep Trident, but I'll be the first to congratulate them in the unlikely event of the defence review coming out against its replacement.

Unfortunately they'll fiddle the new constituency boundaries, and they'll never support PR, or even AV.

But I keep finding myself feeling strangely optimistic that Cameron really will force his party to be liberal and "progressive" in order to carry on occupying the electoral middle ground. I keep on fantasising that politics in this country might become more enlightened and based on a consensus around well-understood and agreed liberal principles, with the Labour party eventually returning to its socialist roots and making the case for greater equality and the elimination of poverty and social injustice as the way to a better and happier society.

 . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Some Guardian comments here:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Layer 316 . . . Cameron, the New Politics, Servant Leaders, The System and The Wire

There was an interesting news item on the radio just now about Cameron and Osborne who are continuing to live in their own homes - but with the security forces urging them to move into Downing Street immediately so that they can be better protected from potential 'threats'.

If I heard right, Cameron is still insisting on going on foot around Westminster and Whitehall, instead of going everywhere in his armoured car. Respect to Cammo! says I.

This seems to me incredibly refreshing. Firstly, a guy who's determined to be his own man, and not be ordered around by advisers and civil servants. Secondly, someone who is keen to somehow stay in touch with the real world, instead of being constantly screened off from it. Thirdly, someone who's got a certain amount of personal courage, and is prepared to take a risk in order to preserve his humanity and his sense of personal freedom. After all, if the bad guys can force even our political leaders to cringe in fear the whole time then the bad guys have won, haven't they?

There could even be something deeper going on here. Just suppose Cameron were a big enough person to see this behaviour as part of the 'new politics'. Surely a new type of politics ought to be about policies and not personalities? The new politics ought to emphasise the primacy of the electorate and the policies already voted on and agreed on. In this scenario, it doesn't really matter who leads a party or a country - if they fall ill or die then someone else will step in and take forward the wishes of the electorate. A new politics requires political leaders to be servant/leaders, and not the raving egomaniacs we're used to, from Thatcher through Major to Blair to Brown. A servant/leader has the attitude that s/he's there to help enact the wishes of the country, and not bend or steer the country according to his/her individual will or preference. As such s/he is replaceable, so there's no benefit to any bad guy in getting rid of him/her.

As it happens, for the first time ever, the coalition government has drawn up a fairly detailed programme of what it intends to do over the next 5 years. The plan has been published for all to see, and for consultation. This is surely a grown-up way of doing politics. There's a clear coalition agreement firmly in place, subject to responses from public feedback and reaction. So no matter what happens to individual figures within the government from here on in, the programme for the parliament will be taken forward. We may not like the proposals, but at least it's clear what the government is committed to. This can only be a good thing.

What's happened since the election has been perfectly logical and reasonable, but the commentariat seems to be struggling to keep up with it and is puzzled by what to say about it. The very idea of Cameron dragging his party in a more liberal and progressive direction seems to have shocked and angered the true die-hard Tories who presumed he was going to be Thatcher lite, at the very worst, and be Thatcher Mark II at best.

As for the old addage, power corrupts - and absolute power corrupts absolutely, we shall have to wait and see. No doubt Cameron won't feel able to keep up his current behaviour forever. Maybe it is all an exercise in image creation. Perhaps he will be corrupted by power and slide into the expected behaviour of a prime minister. But there's no point in speculating - we need to wait and see. And in the meantime maybe give him the benefit of the doubt and hope he continues to talk the talk and walk the walk - in Whitehall and elsewhere.

Fears for safety of walkabout Cameron

David Cameron is rejecting the advice of top security officials by insisting on walking around Whitehall, refusing police motorcycle escorts and demanding to be allowed to keep his BlackBerry smartphone.

There is increasing nervousness about the protection of the Prime Minister, who officials believe is making himself vulnerable to terrorists, lone obsessives and cyber-criminals.

Ministers, however, are being encouraged to cut back on security by ditching their official cars in favour of public transport, under a new code of conduct aimed at cutting government perks.


Could there be a narrative in Cameron's choice of music for his desert island?

Tangled Up In Blue (Bob Dylan)

Ernie   (Benny Hill)

Wish You Were Here   (Pink Floyd)

On Wings Of Song   (Kiri Te Kanawa)

Fake Plastic Trees   (Radiohead)

This Charming Man   (Smiths)

Perfect Circle   (REM)

All These Things I've Done  (The Killers)

All credit to him for his choice of a crate of Scottish whisky as his luxury for the desert island..


This Is America, Man. (And it's also Britain)

In this week's London Review of Books Michael Wood has written a very interesting article that's both a review of The Wire and also a comment on David Simon's latest series, Treme.

As he points out, the uniqueness of The Wire is that it's not a conventional cop show - it's a thorough investigation and exposee of the world of the drug dealers, which operates alongside of and interacts with the world of the police department, and the whole city hall bureaucracy. And it tells the truth about the inability of anyone to change either the psychotic world of the violent criminals, OR the psychotic and sociopathic world of the bureaucrats who run cities, including the police department. There are many good cops who really care about catching the crims, but they're prevented from doing what they need to do by all sorts of factors, including lack of resourcing, petty regulations, indifferent and self-centred colleagues, wrong priorities and bad leadership.

"This is America, man" means that power is at the heart of every story, and understanding power is the way to stay alive. The drug lord keeps his men out of jail by threatening witnesses or by having them murdered, and there is nothing the police can do about it.

Indeed for most of the time and for various reasons (hopelessness, habit, the need to massage crime statistics, the internal politics of the police department, the image requirements of elected officials) they supposed to do nothing about it.

David Simon says The Wire is about the City. It is how we in the West live at the millennium, an urbanised species compacted together, sharing a common love, and a common awe and fear, of what we have rendered not only in Baltimore or St Louis or Chicago, but in Manchester or Amsterdam or Mexico City as well.

London too, of course.

All kind of cops . . . tussle with an obstructive superior who sits behind a desk; but the cops in The Wire are faced with desks behind desks, superiors above superiors, each one closer to the local politicans and especially the mayor, who most of the time wants to be governor.

(Regular readers might already see where we're going with this.)

There are many political zones in The Wire, and the mayor's office is an important one. What are cops to do if they want to solve crimes rather than wait comfortably for their retirement?

The killing of Snoop (in Treme) has many resemblances to the killing of Proposition Joe (in (The Wire) . . . the calm, the fatalism, the futility of discussion, the sense of merely reasonable behaviour, an undertone of impersonal courtesy or kindness, even. But there is a difference. Joe was a thinking man who thought he could beat the system. He was wrong - because he was a thinking man, a believer in alternatives. Snoop is a psychopath who knows the system can't be beaten, only lived with for a while before it kills you.

Of course you don't have to be a psychopath in order to know that the system can't be beaten, and that it will kill you off in the end, and yet still go on working against the system anyway . . . but it helps.

Of course I'm thinking here about the many good teachers and headteachers, and others working in various public services, who have suffered from and finally been beaten by The System, even though they were intelligent, and idealistic, and believers in alternatives, and carried on working for justice and fairness and for the rights of children and other clients, in the face of a faceless and dictatorial bureaucracy driven by half-crazed and over-ambitious politicans and grim-faced Westminster civil service mandarins working to reactionary and regressive, and self-serving, agendas. The suits behind the suits, sitting at the desks behind the desks, the superiors above the superiors, monitoring targets and performance indicators and other statistics, and plotting the downfall of those who stand in their way or who dare to criticise or oppose them.

These are the realities of power.

Welcome to the 21st Century.