Saturday, 28 February 2009

Bring Back Public Toilets!

As I was trudging home yesterday I absent-mindedly picked up one of those useless free papers. I was outraged by the outrageous headline – Ryanair: we may charge £1 for loos. To make matters worse £1 was isolated in pillar-box red as if to highlight this affront to labour values, and to remind us this proposal comes from the Brown hating Michael O’Leary (chief executive of Ryan Air). What is the world coming to?

But, if the truth is told, going to the toilet is already a financial transaction in our society and our outrage should have occurred long ago. Ten years ago you would hear people grumbling as they walked the streets uncomfortably that there were no public toilets, but nowadays we simply accept this situation, like the lack of student grants. A generation will soon exist that haven’t seen a public toilet.

However, public toilets do exist in a few places, like public phone boxes and public lidos. In sleepy seaside towns they still seem to be a symbol of civic pride and these white (ish) blocks with two doors are an important part of an English beachscape.

If we are serious about citizenship and installing civic values perhaps the return of the public toilet is an important step. We can measure our success in producing a happy society by the cleanliness of the public toilet. If you go to Switzerland the pristine state of the public toilets reflects a society at ease with itself.

Even if public toilets are covered in graffiti they have their own value. How will future anthropologists’ research unpublished swear-words, social stigma and tensions without the walls of public toilets with their useful diagrams? In Northern Ireland I remember public toilets that revealed the political and religious tensions in different communities: telling the Pope or Mrs. Thatcher what to do depending on where you happened to need the toilet.

Historically, the public toilet was important for Labour’s re-building of the nation after the second world-war and every estate would have a public toilet built into it. Rich and poor, young and old, all used the same public toilets.

In fact, nowadays public amenities have all but gone and one of the only public spaces left in our society is the public library. When I worked in a library I would notice people nipping in to use the toilet because there is nowhere else they can go without buying a cappuccino: you cannot do anything, let alone go to the toilet, without spending money.

When the Fabian Society has another conference debate in which people suggest a policy idea, I will argue for the return of the public toilet. It may seem like a laughing matter, but during the course of this blog I have convinced myself that it really does matter. Ryanair and the headline writers of the London-Lite have only high-lighted this social issue and have given me something to be outraged about.

Party politics and the Liberty Convention

The Convention on Modern Liberty takes place today.

We are among the eclectic range of organisations and voices brought together to take part, as the Fabians and Compass co-host a session on liberty and the left in London this afternoon.

The London event is a sold out all ticket affair, with further events in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff and Glasgow. But if you can't make it, there is set to be what looks like the most extensive online coverage - video streaming, blogging, twittering and much else besides - than has been attempted from any previous civic society event in the UK. That will be on , while many sites like Liberal Conspiracy will be taking part and no doubt rounding up some of the broader blogosphere reaction.

Some of those involved - including convention co-director Henry Porter have cast Labour as the principal villain of the story. Porter is a talented polemicist, who no doubt attracts many with the fierceness of his attacks on the government, and the persistence with which he writes the same column so often. Like many in the Labour party, including on its liberal wing, I sense in Porter's writing an allergy to the state similar to the David Cameron analysis (which risks a rather important baby and bathwater problem), and a tone of certainty in prosecuting the charge which seems to me to close down and make some necessary debates more difficult.

If that might make me an unwitting stooge of the authoritarian tendency, then I am expecting a robust, perhaps difficult, debate. (Some left voices have been sceptical about the convention, and been in turn accused of forming a 'backlash' against it. I don't see how anybody could deny that the Convention has taken pluralism seriously. I am personally rather more of a fan of Porter's co-director Anthony Barnett, former director of Charter'88 among other things. This is an impressive achievement which will do a good deal to make these issues more salient. If I might be sceptical about some of the centre-right or right-wing organisations or voices, then I am sure they too may doubt the Fabians have anything to contribute on civil liberties. Whether and how such an eclectic range of voices can create effective pressure might well be a problem that many civic society advocates would like to have).

Beyond the substantive issues of civil liberties, this reflects an important part of Labour's political problem - that it can struggle to even be part of a conversation with some important progressive constituences: that is something that needs to change. It might well be that civil liberties is now perhaps the most difficult of these issues, taking over from foreign policy. (The environment is difficult too, while Labour has a decent - and largely deserved - reservoir of trust with many campaigners on international development, and on domestic inequality and child poverty: where, even as they push for deeper and faster progress, many believe the government is motivated by their cause). Part of that is being able to disagree with respect.

But part of it would demand some policy changes. This is one of the areas where the Brown administration suggested "change" but has yet to deliver it. The Prime Minister gave a rich and sophisticated speech On Liberty in November 2007. The disappointment is that its spirit has not been reflected in the government's policies - notably on detention powers and on ID cards. And the promise of a new constitutional settlement has risked turning into a tidying-up exercise, and slipping from view as the recession takes centre stage.

Scrapping or postponing ID cards seems to me the substantive and symbolic move which is needed to put Labour back into the broader conversation about liberty, and how it should relate in Britain to other goals of democracy, equality, security and so on. (I have been arguing that for some time, but perhaps the recession offers the government the chance to get off the hook on pragmatic cost grounds. I hope my more cynical colleagues might at least note that, in narrow political terms, this is one of the issues that would prevent Labour being coalitionable with the LibDems in any future hung parliament, but before that this is an issue that could well cost progressive votes that they might need to deny the Tories the chance of a majority).

There are many Conservative voices taking part today too. That is good opposition politics. But how far does it go? I think one can draw a sharp contrast with Labour's experience in opposition in the 1980s and 1990s. That eventually led - and not without much difficulty and debate - during the 1997-2001 term to the most significant constitutional changes in British politics since 1918, because of the commitments Labour took into the 1997 election. Certainly, that record is imperfect and piecemeal. Labour has at times - on freedom of information, political funding and other issues - been caught in the contradictions of its own half measures, got very little credit for the advances made, and been whacked in ways that would not have been possible without its own reforms. Still, a good deal of it will endure.

What are the Conservatives offering? They have a critique of where we are now - though it is often ambiguous, sometimes shallow and combined with populist posturing on the Human Rights Act which suggests very different messages are being sent to different audiences.

The Conservatives came to power in 1979 after Lord Halisham had issued his famous warning against 'elective dictatorship'. And this week's Thatcher retrospectives will remind many that that they seemed somewhat less troubled by this notion after 1979.

What's different now? The Conservatives are a long way short of having the kind of sustained and coherent agenda on civil liberties which the LibDems can credibly claim to have, and need to do a good deal more to refute the charge of opportunism.

So let us see how far Conservatives today offer the Convention warm words - or also concrete constraints they would apply to any future Tory government.

Friday, 27 February 2009

Damian Green rebuts Mail's new Britishness test

ConservativeHome note "some excitement across the blogosphere today" at the Daily Mail's novel attempt to redefine British citizenship, though I don't get a credit as the source of this. (Daniel Finkelstein of The Times is also in the gobsmacked 'is the Mail really saying I'm not British' camp).

And, lo, Shadow Immigration Minister Mr Damian Green has issued a statement to make clear his disagreement with the Daily Mail's report.

"I regard anyone born in Britain as British, unless they choose to take another nationality. Whenever I speak to a large meeting I ask how many in the audience have at least one parent born outside the UK. Generally speaking, the younger the audience, the higher the percentage."

The pressure builds on Mr Dacre!

The effect is, however, slightly spoiled by the ConservativeHome thread which follows this welcome piece of 'ProgCon' rapid response.

Firstly, the point is fairly made that Mr Damian Green does rather skate over the detail of the 1981 British Nationality Act in his effort to be on the liberal side of the debate.

But, secondly, there is a lot of pretty awful xenophobia and some clear racism in the discussion. Some of it is from BNP interlopers, but not all of it. There's rather too much on horses, stables, dogs and cats. I'm not going to quote the worst of it, but a couple of examples.

To be British you have to be White. Enf of story.
my ancestors didn't fight in 2 world wars to give the country away to any Tom, Dick or Harry that happens to be born here."

There are a couple of decent Tory voices protesting the discussion - thank you Sally Roberts in particular for her challenges to a "dreadful thread". Of course, moderating open sites is difficult but I hope this will be something the ConHome site editors will look at and sort out tomorrow.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Looking for a moral low ground

Taking photos up unsuspecting womens' skirts in public places must be a bit of a challenge- it must require a bit of thought, a bit of daring and a bit of luck. In addition, you’d need a warped sense of entitlement, a distinct lack of morality and some much skewed confidence.

The depressing thing is that many people (mostly men) will find ‘upskirting’ a trivial game. For many, women’s outrage will only add to the fun. There are apparently hundreds of photos and sites exhibiting them across the internet. A quick search left me livid.

It is horrifying that certain men find such ‘Happy-Snapping’ acceptable behaviour. I naively assumed most men would be equally incredulous but was astounded to discover it became such a popular pastime in Japan that companies amended their phones so that photo-taking makes a ompulsory shutter sound. That’s not a change brought about by only a handful of men.

Feminists these days are often incorrectly accused and subsequently mocked for having a sense of humour failure. This infuriating allegation belittles women’s sense of indignation at the same time as dismissing the basic fact that society still allows, and often encourages, men to enjoy power over women.

In addition to the large and obvious ways we see this (-unequal pay, violence against women etc), it is manifest in an infinite number of small and varied behaviours. ‘Upskirting’ is one of them.

Men are busy sneakily snapping the bottoms of women- and, more disturbingly, girls- that mostly remain blissfully unaware and therein lies the ‘kick’. It’s less about sex and more about power.

Either way ‘upskirting’ is an assault, and one that calls for criminalisation.

Who is British now? Who do you think they are?

Under the new definition of Britishness, decided in the Daily Mail yesterday, our nation is likely to have to give back a veritable bagful of medals and honours.

Bizarrely, according to the Mail, children and grandchildren of immigrants to Britain should not in fact be considered British. Given this, no doubt we would have to give back a whole host of prizes awarded to the British. We have already worked this would cost us the heir to the throne, and his kids, and a Formula One champ.

Can anyone think of other nominations? I think we should be told. Comments on a postcard please...

Language matters

Stephen Farrington shares some excellent advice for the Daily Mail newsdesk on the nuances of our national custom and usage.

He notes that this appears in The Economist style guide.

Generation: take care. You can be a second-generation Frenchman, but if you are a second-generation immigrant that means you have left the country your parents came to.

Perhaps Mr Dacre will now adopt this sensible pro-integration stance too.

Video: Roy Hattersley speech at Fabian Fighting Poverty conference

"The World Bank needs reform to create a fairer society"

Guest post by veteran anti-poverty campaigner Peter Townsend, in the run-up to the G20 conference.

Reconstruction of the banking system must extend to the World Bank. Its influence is all-pervasive. Governments and pressure groups hang on its words. But its persisting failure to deal with the huge scale of poverty in the developing world, together with its failure to deal with, or even report, predatory corporate forces, including banking systems, places it at the storm-centre of world recovery and reform.

The bank does not have capability to lead recovery from deep recession. Getting rich quick has meant exploiting many millions on the lowest incomes and failing to satisfy their basic human rights. This subversive motive must be ascribed to the reach and dominance of neo-liberal economic ideology in the last 40 years.

The World Bank monolith has helped to implant neo-liberal ideology among governments, corporations and consumers, weaken the state and reinforce economic inequality and destitution. Intelligent and sophisticated staff have been driven by forces subservient to that neo-liberal philosophy. The Bank advocates disastrous policies, like its meagre and superficial anti-poverty policies, lends with anti-social discriminatory conditions, and has little experience or resources to invest grants directly in jobs, services and people.

After 1944 the Bretton Woods institutions turned out to be a pale shadow of Keynes’ intentions. Their total resources were less than a third of what he advised. Eligible countries were not entitled to automatic help. They had to contribute to a Fund to be eligible for membership to apply for loans – and which imposed stringent conditions. Membership was not universal; debtors had less independence, aid had strings, and the US remained predominantly in charge of those strings.

With public confidence in financial institutions at an all-time low, and expectations of major change in the air, the question of World Bank reform takes centre-stage. One change would be to measure the true extent of world poverty. In 1990 the bank affirmed that its dollar-a-day measure was only half the story. It failed to develop a more reliable and reproducible international measure. Over two decades the bank has also failed to correct its own poverty estimates reliably for inflation. As a result poverty has been seriously under-estimated.

A second change would be for the bank to adopt a different social development strategy. This would include job creation, new tax systems, staged international planning, accountable leadership, social security and other public services.

If a small percentage of the resources of global corporations was committed to social security, a minimum wage and the right to improved employment conditions in low income countries they could share the kind of stability across the world that companies and European governments achieved domestically a century ago.

That would mean the bank, corporations and NGOs keeping track of activities in subsidiaries and sub-contracted employment, and extending the same rights to those workers. New international company law, and more effective international taxation, would be necessary components. ‘Corporate social responsibility’ would acquire new meaning.

The global corporations should add one or two per cent of wage costs in different countries, for example, towards a universal child benefit to help banish malnutrition, poverty and premature child death, and encourage more schooling and access to health care. Employer contributions towards domestic social insurance schemes in the OECD countries could be applied to employer operations in low-income countries.

The strategy could satisfy the principal UN millennium goal of eliminating poverty, slowing or halting runaway social polarisation, mark the necessary reconciliation of market globalisation and public ownership and control; begin measured stages in the fulfilment of human rights; and thereby internationalise development.

Peter Townsend is one of the authors of From Workhouse to Welfare:, What Beatrice Webb’s 1909 Minority Report Can Teach Us Today, published by the Fabian Society on February 21.

Daily Mail in want of citizenship education

Yesterday's Daily Mail complained that the statistics of those who are "foreign born" in Britain are misleading because they fail to count the next two generations, born in Britain, as either foreign born or as "immigrants". This is, presumably, because they are neither.

What the Mail wants to know too is how the Office of National Statistics somehow got the idea that those born in this country as the children and grandchildren of immigrants are "British". Their confusion between place of birth, ethnic origin, nationality and citizenship might seem like jaw-dropping ignorance of our history and constitution from such a proud and patriotic newspaper, but I would much rather take it as a helpful reminder that - while the integration of immigrants and new Britons is important - citizenship education really needs to be for everybody if it is going to work. (The Mail newsdesk might need to do some swotting up).

Anyway, as announced on Liberal Conspiracy, I am writing to Mr Paul Dacre to see if he can help to clarify the issue. (But perhaps I should drop the appeasement reference when sending it in?)

Dear Mr Dacre,

I was disappointed to read reported in today’s Daily Mail that the newspaper regards it as a mistake to consider that the children or grandchildren of immigrants are British, but rather would classify us as “second or third generation immigrants”.

"although the figures from the Government’s Office for National Statistics show an increase in numbers of foreign born people they still fail to record the true impact of immigration because they record their children as British rather than second or third generation immigrants".

I hope that your proposed reclassification of Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince Harry as not British, as second and third generation immigrants descended from the foreign-born Phillip, will not distress them too much.

But it does seem most ungrateful, when Winston Churchill was voted ‘greatest Briton’, to now strip him of that status because he had an American mother. (However strongly your newspaper disagreed with Churchill’s criticisms of appeasement in the 1930s, isn’t it now time to let bygones be bygones?)

Perhaps you could let us know who the Daily Mail thinks is truly British. I can see you probably think it is too late for my children - as “third generation immigrants”, currently aged under 3 - but perhaps there might be a tip or two they could pass on to their descendants.

So, given our shared interests in integration and citizenship, it would be terribly kind if you might let us know whether there is anything that those of us who were born here as British citizens could ever do so as to become British in your eyes.

Yours sincerely,

Sunder Katwala

The comments include a very funny response from Rob Blackie:

I am British under these criteria. But I’m a little worried that since both my parents have emigrated I might retrospectively cease to be British. Can the Mail reassure me?

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

We would like to offer our deepest sympathy...

The Fabian Society extends its deepest sympathy to the Cameron family after hearing the sad news of the death of David Cameron's son Ivan. Hopefully the family's wishes that it should be given privacy at this difficult time will be given the highest priority.

Executive pay and financial regulation – it’s time to learn from the crisis

Progressive governments on both sides of the Atlantic are leading the way in clamping down on executive pay. Last week Barack Obama moved to cap the salaries of managers whose companies are receiving state support and to put restrictions on corporate severance packages. The British government has also firmly committed itself to ensuring that bonuses reflect performance. This deserves our firm support. High CEO bonuses for poor financial results are totally unacceptable. The crisis and the executive greed it has exposed show once again the need for a renewed debate on corporate social responsibility and is yet another example of the failure of self-regulation.

In September the European Parliament adopted a resolution based on my report on new and better regulation of the financial markets - covering all players including hedge funds and private equity. Despite European conservatives and liberals watering down the proposals, the Parliament agreed that reward packages should reflect losses as well as profits. It also calls for full and transparent disclosure of remuneration systems. Since then I have been in correspondence with President Barroso, who assures me that the European Commission will comply with the Parliament’s demands and will come forward with new regulation for all financial players. EU leaders meeting in Berlin last Sunday agreed that new regulation covering hedge funds and private equity should be an EU demand for the G20 meeting in London. We will find out this week whether the EU is prepared to do what it preaches, as Thursday marks the start of European Commission hearings on future regulation of hedge funds and private equity. I fear that Charlie McCreevy, the European Commissioner supposedly responsible, is still pushing self-regulation for private equity: this is just not good enough. Watch this space for European developments on new financial market rules.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Doing Politics Differently

Fabians and Next Left readers may well be interested in the Political Quarterly 2009 Lecture, where Tony Wright MP will speak on "Doing Politics Differently".

This is both the theme of the moment, and a perenially topical theme. Tony Wright has long been among the leading advocates of political and constitutional change in Parliament and in the Labour Party, something he has maintained despite - or, more probably, because of - his reputation as among the best informed voices inside Westminster, frequently using the Public Administration Select Committee to shine some light on how government and politics are changing.

The event, chaired by Peter Hennessey, is on Wednesday 4th March at 7pm - with the lecture to commence at 7.30pm - in the Macmillan Room, Portcullis House, London, SW1A 2LW.

We are advised that admission is free and open to all. Please RSVP to if you plan to attend.

It's political incorrectness gone mad!

Perhaps (sorry, Newsnight) the thing that the BBC does best is CBeebies. It is pretty much worth the licence fee on its own. For this parent, there is quite a difference between advertless, educative BBC programming and all the other children's channels out there on the digibox.

I wrote some time back about how one of its unsung achievements is the subtle approach to disability awareness and integration of the brilliant Justin Fisher (aka Mr Tumble).

Mr Tumble is a particular hero: the way he introduces all toddlers to sign language in Something Special, almost certainly without anybody noticing, might be as good a model of integration as we have anywhere in our society.

So let's hope that can help everybody to keep the latest 'controversy' in in its place. Sarah Ismail, blogging on Liberal Conspiracy is rightly disturbed by the "One-armed presenter is scaring children, parents tell BBC" headline in the Daily Mail, and offers a cogent defence of the excellent Cerrie Burnell.

But its good to hear too that the Mail's online commenters are so strongly on the side of the presenter.

Perhaps the Mail can say its just reporting on the story, rather than seeking to fuel the controversy and its report does include the presenter herself and various disability groups space to challenge the (nine) vexatious complaints made about her. being allowed to present

But, come on Daily Mail, here is a great chance to do the right thing. Why not follow up your report with a thundering editorial challenging the daft complaints, which leaves nobody in any doubt that - like your readers - you have come down on the right side of this issue.

Why, you could even say the complaints were 'political incorrectness gone mad'!

Why term limits can't work in Britain

Trevor Phillips gives evidence to the Speaker's Conference today. His proposal, according to yesterday's Guardian, that MPs should not be able to serve more than four terms in Parliament sounds to me entirely unworkable.

Political system: Are there any examples of term limits being applied in Parliamentary democracies? I am not a fan anyway, but they depend on a US-style separation of powers to be used in either the executive or the legislative branch, or both. (One could do this for either the London Mayor, GLA or both). But applying term limits at the Parliamentary level without a separation of powers has bizarre results, often placing unreasonable restrictions on democratic choice.

Introducing term limits in Britain would probably have to involve some limits on Executive terms: for example, either limiting a Prime Minister to serving for two full Parliaments, or even any Cabinet Minister to eight years in total. Workable Parliamentary term limits would demand an entirely different political system. (This would also surely depend on fixed election dates: does the Parliament of 1964-66 count as one term? What about the short Parliament of 1974?)

History: That this modest proposal demands a complete transformation of the British political system can be seen in that it would have prevented Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, Anthony Eden, Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher or Gordon Brown being Prime Minister. (For their parliamentary experience in each case, see this earlier post responding to Phillips' controversial comments in November). Attlee might just escape to 1950 on a technicality (if he can have 1935-45 as one term), while John Major could have governed to 1997 (but the Tories would have had to fight the election without him). Tony Blair would have had single term as premier before leaving Parliament in 2001 without defending his record before the voters.

In practice, no MP already entering their third term would make much sense as a new major party leader. There might be a case for more David Camerons and Nick Cleggs but to dictate that only a Hague (1997 version), Cameron or Clegg can be a party leader, and never a Ken Clarke (out by 1987), Gordon Brown or even a Charles Kennedy (both forced to depart in 2001) would be extremely odd.

Age: Would the proposal, by accelerating the turnover of seats, increase Parliamentary diversity? Page 83 of this House of Commons document outlines the previous experience of MPs elected in 2005. Only 5% of MPs had been in Parliament since before 1979 (over six terms) but Phillips' four term limit would have barred around 144 MPs who were re-elected in 2005, while a five term limit would have seen 98 additional forced retirements.

But this would also considerably lower the average age in Parliament (which was 51 in 2005). Parliament has a reputation for being middle-aged, but this would make it a more homogenous place dominated by thirty- and forty-somethings. Unless older candidates became considerably more likely to win new selections than at present, the proposal would significantly cull the number of MPs aged over 65, despite that being the fastest-growing section of the population. The Equality Commission is also responsible for challenging age discrimination. This proposal would tell MPs that they can not continue in a job purely on the grounds that they have more experience in the role than other potential candidates. (That would almost always apply to those over 50, though Phillips would have kicked Charles Kennedy out at 41 because he was elected at 23)

Ethnic and gender diversity: Paul Boateng, among the breakthrough class of 1987, chose to stand down after four terms in 2005. One feature of Phillips' proposal is that he would have insisted on the departure of Keith Vaz (then aged 48) and Dianne Abbott (then aged 51) at the last election too.

Given that only 2% of MPs elected in 1997 or before, were non-white, this would still on balance do something to accelerate ethnic diversity. (Only two of the 144 MPs forced to stand down in 2005 were black, and perhaps eight new black or Asian MPs might then have come in). But the MPs elected from 2005-10 come much closer to containing proportionate numbers of non-white MPs, and so this diversity effect would weaken in elections from 2025 and quite probably disappear entirely from 2030. At that point, term limits would be having a strong age effect but probably no race effect at all.

If that sounds like an advance worth making for now, it is worth observing that the reason it would make little or no difference is that progress has been made towards fair chances (without term limits). Any acceleration effect of term limits depends on the progress made in selections at the other end of the process.

With so few women in Parliament before 1992 - as this graph shows - Phillips' proposal would have sped up gender diversity if it had been in place for the last election or the next one. But this will have a much less dramatic impact by the election after next (2014-15 or before) as Phillips' proposal would then propose to bar from Parliament any of the 101 women MPs elected in 1997 who are still there. Again, this could still accelerate diversity more mildly - to the extent that the rate of new selections in 2015 was higher than that in 1997. (As would be the case, because only the Labour Party was selecting women in any significant numbers before 2001). But it will have a strong impact only if women are being selected in close to 50% of new selections (rather than 25%-35% as at present).

So, here, the difficult part is still the getting to 50% of new selections for women. If women were achieving 50% of selections, this proposal could achieve across four Parliaments what otherwise might take six.

Aiming at the wrong thing

This helps to capture the more important objection to the Phillips proposal. Both philosophically and practically, I think this term limits proposal is simply aiming at the wrong thing on Parliamentary diversity.

I would give priority to the goal of securing 'equal chances and no unfair barriers' for candidates of whatever background in Parliamentary selections. If we were to routinely achieve the selection of non-white candidates in around one in 12 (over 8%) and women in half (50%) of new selections, then candidates would have fair chances regardless of race or gender.

Where this is achieved, then the current pattern of political careers 'fair chances' would work itself fully through to a Parliament which looks like Britain within 25 years (five or six Parliaments). And, for me, that is in any event better understood as a desirable by-product of having achieved 'fair chances' more than it is 'an end in itself'. There may be a case for transforming entirely the British political system - but trying to achieve this in four rather than six Parliaments isn't it.

But, where 'fair chances' are not achieved, then Phillips' term limits won't achieve their goal, because the new cohorts of MPs will not contain fair numbers of black, Asian and women candidates. These will not, for example, do anything to get more working-class candidates, of any ethnicity or gender, into the Commons.

I have made my own submission to the Speaker's Conference reporting on the data: to me, the evidence suggests much discussion about progress on race as too pessimistic (there is a good case for deepening current approaches; which have made more difference than many people recognise) while we are often too complacent about gender (perhaps believing the job was done in 1997).

My cohort analysis of recent intakes and current selections shows that we have over the last decade seen much accelerated progress and are now close to fair chances for black and Asian candidates. However, we remain a long way off 50% of new selections going to women, with all parties selecting women in a quarter of selections, though doing better in safer seats.

If we can achieve fair chances, I am sceptical about seeking to accelerate their impact since, by definition, that requires an element of rough justice. That is an entirely different case to where further measures may still be justified to achieve fair chances and a level playing field. (With Labour well short of selecting women in 50% of cases, it seems a misnomer to talk of all women shortlists as 'positive discrimination').

The case either for or against term limits has to be primarily about either the gains or losses from a less established, and less experienced, political class. For me, that case has been primarily driven by anti-political sentiment: what we need to do is change the culture of party politics which is the gateway to Parliament and Government.

For those interested in Parliamentary diversity, the focus should remain on securing and sustaining fair chances for all candidates in Parliamentary selections. The term limits proposal is a red herring, and a quixotic tilting of windmills unless turned into a more open proposal for a constitutional revolution.

10 Years from Lawrence - Race still matters

Today’s Government report looking at issues of race equality in our criminal justice system is sobering. It follows several others that highlight the lack of substantial progress.
Black men are still seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. Ethnic minority groups are arrested over three times as much as white communities and account for around 25% of the prison population. Just 3.5% of police officers and 4% of prison staff are from an ethnic minority background. Just 3% of the judiciary are from an ethnic minority and the vast majority of these are concentrated at the lower end.
People have been so keen to pronounce the concept of ‘institutional racism’ dead, that they miss the glaring evidence of inequality that still exists. This demonstrates a lack of understanding about what we mean by the term. It is not that the Metropolitan Police was or is full of racists, but that organisationally, it simply could not treat ethnic minorities as well as it treated white people. Stemming from the more radical elements of the US civil rights movement, ‘institutional racism’ is about collective failure not individual malfeasance.
Given the statistics outlined above, surely no-one could claim that our public services, let alone the police, are not still guilty of this collective failure.
The problem I feel with the term is that it tended to allow people to think that it wasn’t about them. It amounted to an opportunity to blame the inanimate object of the institution they worked for rather than the individuals whom it collectively comprised. Rather perversely, the terminology of ‘institutional racism’ became a barrier for real change.
When I was at the Commission for Racial Equality, I used to prefer the term ‘institutional complacency’ to describe many of the attitudes I came across in the public sector. Because people, be they senior civil servants, teachers or senior police officers, tended to have liberal sensibilities themselves and be genuinely committed to greater equality, they failed to see how anything they did might work against this. This became the justification for not following race relations legislation or not engaging properly with marginalised communities.
The results of such complacency are seen in the inequality that is rife today. The danger is that in the rush to bury ‘institutional racism’, we ignore the very real challenges we still face. We may be generally more racially tolerant but economic hardship may yet be exploited to fan the flames of racial discontent. And in that discontent, it will once again be issues of race and faith that are the dividing lines.
Pronouncements of success are also in jarring juxtaposition with the recent success of the BNP in Council by-elections and Peter Hain’s warnings about the party winning seats in this year’s European elections. Indeed, he may well have underestimated its chances. As well as potential success in Yorkshire and the North West, low turnout and the collapse of the Labour vote could see the BNP winning seats in the West Midlands (remember Kilroy?) and repeating its success in last year’s London elections.
This is no time for complacency.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Chris Mullin in conversation with Michael White

Extracts from Chris Mullin's diaries 'A View from the foothills' are serialised in today's Mail on Sunday.

This promises to be one of the most enjoyable political books of the year. The lack of a smoking gun is indicated not just by Mullin's self-deprecating title for his wry and witty observational diary, but also by 'Day Prescott came to work in odd shoes' being in the standfirst of their frontpage splash. The MoS draws comparisons with Alan Clark, though the extracts suggest more of a Yes Minister experience. Number 10's engagement, through Anji Hunter, in the Leylandi hedge issue is given a good deal of space, somewhat ironically given that this was doubtless driven primarily by fear of the Dail Mail reaction.

The Fabians will host Chris Mullin in conversation with Michael White in Westminster on Wednesday 18th March, the week of publication. (The book will also be the Radio Four book of the week that week). Places are by registration: contact if you would like to attend.

Today's extract begins with Mullin wondering whether he should give up the chairmanship of the Home Affairs select committee for the bottom rung in John Prescott's mega-department, and ends with his being reshuffled to a role at DFID which seems more likely to be a chance to do something useful.

I have been reshuffled. As I was getting ready to go for the train, my private office called to say the Prime Minister was looking for me. The Man called and asked if I would like to replace George Foulkes at International Development. I replied: 'Nothing would give me more pleasure than helping to redistribute the wealth of the middle classes to the poorest people in the world.'
A brief silence and then a chuckle. 'Ah, Chris, that's not quite how it works.'
'Don't worry, Tony, I'll be discreet.' And that was that. My career as the lowest form of life in JP's empire is over. I am now the lowest form of life in a smaller, but more agreeable department.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

'Community organising is the answer'

Neil Jameson of London Citizens is speaking to the Fabian/Webb centenary conference at LSE in the session on how coalitions for change are built. 'We only speak at living wage campuses - so we can only speak in London here at LSE and at QMW', he said.

Jameson made a passionate and effective pitch for community organising's role in

'We have found nirvana. Community organising is the answer to globalisation. It is the answer to the collapse of politics. The issue for us is the governance of the city. Public-facing is what we do. We are not particularly focused with governments or with policy. But we are obsessed with civil society'.

The election of a community organiser to the White House has increased the interest of the media, but mainly in America, he said. A new move in the UK was the creation of a community organiser's guild.

The pockets of power in society needed to be connected together - and faith communities and institutions would often provide the glue, he said.

The institutions of faith and the institutions of labour are the last surviving remnants of a democratic society, along with the charities and voluntary organisations. But the voluntary organisations are the weakest of the three; the trade unions are the next weakest. Faith is, pragmatically, strong. These are pockets of power, and if you can connect this Church to this Church to this Mosque on the things they agree on, then you can connect those pockets of power'

'What they agree on is never ideology, of course', said Jameson. 'What we have pioneered is the politics of assembly. There is no problem of disengagement from that politics. If you get a full room, then you can make things happen'.

This would, Jameson said, bring back the spirit of progressive politics of the late 19th and early 20th century.

'In the Webbs' time, women had no vote. All they could do was march up and down with banners. It doesn't have to all be about Westminster.

And he argued too that the Webbs had a major impact but depended on the tensions created in society since the 1880s. "The Webbs did the business and seized the moment. We must honour consistently too the labourers, the workers, the priests who created the tension which allowed politics to change", he said.

Townsend: Refocus on inequalities and World Bank

Veteran anti-poverty campaigner Peter Townsend said after looking at domestic banks and their weaknesses, it was time to look at the inextricable links between the domestic and international economies.
There were examples of this every day, he said, just this week there had been the announcement of job cuts in Swindon because of the problems going on with Honda in Japan.
Townsend said the key organisation that he would like to "take a bit of stick to" was the World Bank, and part of his interest has arisen because of work on child poverty around the world.
If you took a look at the GDP of the 53 low income countries in the world it was less than the total of the income of the five biggest international companies, he pointed out in a speech that identified the weaknesses of the World Bank.
The World Bank had not achieved reductions in child poverty across the world, he said at the Fabian conference.
Then he went on to point to an increasingly lack of transparency about the actions of transnational companies, partly because of the dismantling of three UN bodies that used to track this, he argued.
Townsend, a LSE lecturer, also argued for decent labour conditions down the line, among subsidaries of big companies, and public awareness of this.

Change depends on convincing society, not just government

"You achieve enduring change by shifting the public and taking the public with you", says Tim Horton, Fabian Research Director, arguing at the Fabian/Webb Memorial Trust centenary conference at the LSE, that the progressive left has forgotten how it achieved its major successes in the early 20th century.

Tim quoted Beatrice Webb's diary entry of her 1909 encounter with Winston Churchill, a member of the Liberal Cabinet.

He did not altogether like the news of our successful agitation. ‘You should leave the work of converting the country to us, Mrs Webb, you ought to convert the Cabinet’. ‘That would be all right if we wanted merely a change in the law, but we want’, I added, ‘to really change the minds of the people with regard to the facts of destitution, to make the feel the infamy of it and the possibility of avoiding it. That won’t be done by converting the Cabinet, even if we could convert the Cabinet – which I doubt. We will leave that task to a converted country’

"Beatrice Webb’s insight was that successful campaigns need to be public facing. But when we look at political campaigning, despite some excellent examples, far too many progressive campaigning institutions are govermment-facing and argue to government for changes of policy. It now seems that the right understands that better than the left. The way the anti-European movement changed Britain from a more pro-European to a more Eurosceptic country: it wasn’t by targeting the government or the Conservative party, it was by shifting public opinion. That is how the Taxpayers’ Alliance drives anti-taxation sentiment

So we need public facing coalitions. But this is not just a message for campaigners. It is a message for politicians too. Margaret Thatcher knew this: 'The economy is just the means; the aim is to change the soul'.

The counter-example is Bill Clinton. He did good things in too office, but did not make public case to shift the argument. His policies could be easily reversed and were like footprints in the sand”.

The new right was ready for the 1970s crisis: the left is not ready for this one

Hetan Shah - formerly of NEF and Compass - challenged Nick Bosanquet's rejection of universalism.

We need a narrative which is about us all being in this together. That was in the minority report: universalism. The policies that will take us forward are universal policies. Can we have free social care and bring the middle-class into that extension of the welfare state?

But he also wanted a more self-critical left, which was not ready to seize a political opportunity in the way that the New Right had been in the 1970s:

There is no shortage of policy ideas. What there is a shortage of is political will.
The economic crisis is an opportunity to rethink the economic model: we now that the neo-liberal economy doesn’t work. The danger is that there is little sign that we are going to take those steps.


The trouble is that there is no sign that we are going to take that step. Part of the fault lies in the progressive community: we have not been organised enough intellectually, and especially politically, to take advantage in the way that the right was at the time of the oil shock of the 1970s.

Both Hetan Shah and Sian Berry thought there were important shifts - particularly around the idea of a 'green new deal' - in the US and in Britain and Europe.

'The welfare state is a tragedy of good intentions'

Too often, think-tanks risk inviting speakers who agree too much with each other and confirm their own and their audience's prejudices. The Fabian/Webb Memorial Trust centenary conference at the LSE is hearing from a panel which has been challenged to think heretically, as the Webbs did in 1909, and come up with a new 'politics of the impossible'.

Among those taking up the challenge is Nick Bosanquet - drawing on his family link to Helen Bosanquet, Beatrice Webb's chief antagonist on the Royal Commission as well as his own shift away from Fabianism (he was a chair of the Society in the 1970s; and co-edited studies on the Labour government's equality record with Peter Townsend, who is sitting next to me on the conference floor) to the low tax politics of the think-tank Reform. Bosanquet has contributed to the new Fabian collection 'From workhouse to welfare', writing in favour of the Majority Report.

He defined his task as to make common cause and get Fabians behind a common agenda for the low tax and small state politics.

And this was his message to us.

We see you as well-meaning and well intentioned people who have been taken for a ride. The welfare state is a tragedy of good intentions.

What has happened is that a number of key interests in society have fallen on the welfare state like famished animals. One is big government. Second, monopoly professions. Thirdly, big contractors. Fourthly, the mass media

The tragedy of the welfare state were dependence effects; inequitable funding (once direct and indirect taxation were taken into account) and intergenerational unfairness.

"The welfare state has created more problems than it solved", he asserted.

Bosanquet argued that an agenda focused on raising personal capability; reducing taxes; and refocusing public services around choices and personal budgets.

But he also argued that "the better off should contribute to the cost of their own services ... the welfare state came across the rails when it became a middle-class entititlement programme, and not a poverty programme".

Many of the other speakers have argued that universalism is essential to build coalitions to tackle poverty and inequality. Bosanquet's argument is that universalism is part of the problem.

"Greens need to understand campaigns on poverty and environment go hand in hand"

"There's not a shortage of policy ideas, there's a shortage of political will," according to Hetah Shah, at the Fighting Poverty event.
During an economic crisis there was an opportuntity to refocus on environmental sustainability and well being, he said.
Shah, chief executive of educational charity DEA, said there was a lot of misunderstanding around poverty and inequality and a major education campaign was needed to address that.
He was concerned that the narratives that were emerging were divisive, not universalist.
If you were looking for an activism model then progressives should look towards the green campaigners. Those on the progressive left had to reach out to those campaigning on green agendas and convince them that campaigns about sustainability and poverty went hand in hand, he said.
The Green Party's Sian Berry said the ideas of a green new deal were now gaining more political hold, as investing in green industries and sustainability were now being discussed in the mainstream as a way of creating more jobs.
"It's great to hear this sort of thing being discussed in America. it's great to hear Gordon Brown talking about it."

Roy Hattersley's Speech to the Centenary Conference

The 'Wordle' above is a visual representation of Roy Hattersley's speech to our Centenary Conference, delivered this morning by the former deputy leader of the Labour Party. It gives greater prominence to words that appeared more frequently in the address and provides a quick impression of the themes and emphasis he tried to get across. You can click on the picture to get a closer view of the language Hattersley used.

"Redistribution by stealth is not enough"

Redisribution by stealth is not enough, said lecturer and researcher Fran Bennett at the Fighting Poverty conference.
The public was not aware of the relative successes the Labour Party had made in tackling child poverty, she told the conference at LSE, and that was holding it back.
Bennett said if the public was not aware that any improvements were being made then it was difficult to win their confidence for child poverty policies.
She argued that the government had to attempt to make the welfare state popular again as Tony Blair had suggested in a speech in 1999.
It had to get the language right around the welfare state, and to challenge public opinion as it had done on health and sexuality issues.
It also had to get the administration of benefits right, and not erode national insurance benefits as this was eroding trust.

Heroes, villains and alternative histories

The history panel at the centenary conference on the 1909 Minority Report has contained several chances to interrogate alternative histories which never quite happened.

Roy Hattersley has placed John Burns and Keir Hardie in the dock.

Dianne Hayter, current chair of the Labour NEC and a Webb Memorial Trust trustee, has suggested that the whole history of Liberalism, Socialism and the British welfare state have been rather different had Beatrice Webb married her first great passion, the radical Liberal Imperialist Joseph Chamberlain? Might she then have persuaded the Liberal government in 1909?

Jose Harris, in the new Fabian collection, offers a different alternative history. Had Sidney, not Beatrice, been on the Royal Commission that his skill at committee work would have brokered a compromise between majority and minority report, and perhaps led to reform sooner.

Roy Hattersley did not use this occasion to renew the Croslandite challenge to the Webbs, but rather questioned whether the "second wave revisionists" who had turned Fabianism into a term of abuse knew what they were for at all. Hattersley's historical villians were John Burns and Keir Hardie. Burns for "dishing the Webbs", retailing how that proud, egotistical working-man in the Liberal Cabinet, on being appointed to the Cabinet, congratulated the Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman: "Sir Henry, I congratulate you. This will be the most popular thing you have ever done".

Keir Hardie suffered from a politics of "resounding declarations" and "silly prejudices as an alternative to thought" in seeing social insurance "as a palliative that mitigated the hardship of poverty without removing its causes and left the capitalist system intact". That, said Hattersley, was the opposite of the "practical idealism" which was needed.

Carole Seymour-Jones, brandished the picture of Joseph Chamberlain in her biography of Beatrice Webb, said that one could see why Beatrice had been tempted.

Hayter mentioned that there is an essay on a Chamberlain-Potter marriage in Duncan Brack's alternative history collection of essays President Gore, so I will need to catch up with that). It is, however, difficult to see how the 1909 Minority Report could remain in a parallel universe story. Beatrice's diary relates that she asked Chamberlain whether he could tolerate dissent in his household. His answer: "no".

Seymour-Jones noted too after she accepted Sidney Webb's proposal of marriage, after several refusals, that she had received from him a letter, with full length photograph. Her riposte that "I am marrying the head only". Seymour-Jones was certain not to offer a hagiography of Webb, stressing her grit, abrasiveness and willingness to make enemies in a "life full of conflict and contradictions". Webb had wanted to escape what appeared to be her fate and to lead "an epic life".

Willing the means on poverty

Roy Hattersley's speech this morning to the Fabian and Webb Memorial Trust centenary conference can be read here.

He argued that the government had made progress on poverty, and that the government was reluctant to admit even the degree of redistribution that had been achieved, and so the 'modesty of the reduction is a direct consquence of the modesty of ambition'.

A significant reduction in poverty requires a substantial redistribution of income and wealth. And, if we pretend otherwise we betray the poor. The easy answers are mostly inventions intended to salve the conscience of the middle classes. The “trickle down effect” is a pure fiction. But it is still trotted out as the justification for the rich getting richer and advanced as a warning that, if we take specific action against poverty, we will endanger overall prosperity. There is neither economic nor historical justification for that scare story No sensible social democrat argues for reckless spending - either on social provision or the renewal of the nuclear deterrent. The problem for a succession of Labour Governments has not been recklessness, it has been caution – not so much in terms of the balance of public revenue and expenditure as in the policies on which the money was spent.

Rushanara Ali of the Young Foundation, and Labour ppc for Bethnal Green and Bow, also speaking at the conference, said that the greatest challenge for incumbent governments was getting out of a mindset of incumbency. This was a job for activism as well as for goverment. But she joined Hattersley in advocating a bold approach: that the argument had to be put that extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.

It is easy for Labour debates to slip into what might have been done differently since 1997. But governments govern. This was also a discussion about what could still be done now.

The test is whether there can be a substantial move in April's budget on child poverty. It would take £4 billion to catch up to the 2010 child poverty target.

Do the recession, the government's role in keeping the economy moving and the banking bailout now make further redistribution unaffordable. Or, as debt necessarily rises anyway, is this the moment for an enlightened self-interest case - for putting more money in the pockets into those most likely to spend it - can be joined with a moral argument.

Hattersley, stressing he has been careful not to criticise the Brown government since the transition, said the central message was clear: "A Labour government can not succeed without a moral purpose". There remains time to renew it.

In her time and our time: poverty battles

Remarkable, says Dianne Hayter of the Webb Memorial Trust at a Fabian conference at LSE, that Beatrice Webb achieved what she did in her time. Even now there have been only 29 women in the cabinet, and only 8% of university vice chancellors are women, that back in the early 20th century, Webb managed to change "society's approach to welfare" with her writings, campaigning and intelligence.

While biographer Carole Seymour-Jones said Beatrice was of her time but far ahead of her time. She had to make difficult choices, the ideas of the minority report were underpinned by her experiences in the East End in the 1880s.

She had a passionate conviction that something should be done. The idea of the poverty line and that in a civilised society we should not allow anyone to fall below that line was something that Webb prmoted, said Seymour-Jones at the Fighting Poverty and Inequality in an Age of Affluence conference.

Friday, 20 February 2009

The debates which Labour needs to have

I am afraid I have become dizzily confused about whether I should back Ed Balls as a stop Yvette Cooper candidate, or rather Yvette Cooper as a stop Ed Balls candidate, and which Miliband might be better placed to block the chances of the other, in the current pretty pointless frenzy in a Westminster bubble about what might happen when the Labour party next elects a party leader at some future point in political circumstances as yet unknown. And, whatever happens at the next election, nobody knows when this would be either.

Firstly, the current assumption of Labour defeat can (and will) change again (more than once) in the next twelve months, though the obligatory goldfish-style amnesia of the political and media classes (further exaggerated by the new internet politics) means that the political herd never remembers once the conventional wisdom has stood on its head since the day before yesterday, and so is equally certain that whatever it thinks today will hold good.

Secondly, any political party which loses any election in future should recognise the wisdom of what Michael Howard after defeat in 2005 and swear never to elect a new leader within the first six months, even should a leader want to go. That is why David Davis is not Leader of the Opposition. The Conservatives might have saved themselves from the William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith experience had either Major or Hague done likewise. Parties which saw the enlightened self-interest in that approach would have plenty of time to debate and scrutinise ideas, policies and personalities out in the political daylight, once a choice is needed. (Steve Richards is right that there has been no real scrutiny or debate of anything or anyone yet).

However, come back to the more immediate political needs of 2009 and there is a different political danger to that identified by Hazel Blears (in a 'calm down' intervention that may have catapulted the speculation up the news agenda).

That would be if Labour ministers - for fear of being thought to be 'positioning' - were to only stick to their departmental briefs and "get on with the job", while the rest of us wonder what the Labour government's political argument for another term in office is going to be. Getting the political choices across is their job too. It is important we hear more from government ministers, speaking in different ways to party, progressive and general public audiences. This can not all be left to any Prime Minister: some political interventions are better made not from No 10 Downing Street. It is the task of at least half a dozen political voices, not just one or two - including those like Alan Johnson, John Denham, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband as well as the four or five names being suggested as possible leadership frontrunners in the last few weeks.

That is not to deny that Peter Mandelson made some very sensible comments this week about the dangers of clamours and calls for instant solutions to the recession and magic wands. And, sometimes, as when twenty governments meet at the G20, it will be vital to have a great deal of sharp policy focus to get a useful result. But the political argument and narrative needs to be a broader one. Ministers have tried to get the message out about the domestic response to the recession, and it is inevitably difficult to do so. But (and perhaps it has been a little too soon, but this becomes urgent this Spring) Labour has not yet articulated a public argument which addresses some important political areas - including the new relationship with progressive America, how Britain works in Europe, and the politics of other key themes. That story and political argument this Spring needs to be different and broader one than the necessity of the intergovernmental policy action plan which may come out of the summit.

Finally, of course the media can and should speculate ahead about Labour politics after 2010 and beyond, especially now that the staple snap election column has been put on ice. My frustration here (with some notable exceptions) is why can this not dig a bit deeper? If the commentariat, deprived of their staple snap election column, do want to delve into specualtion about future possible Labour leaders, could we not at least learn something new and substantive about the emerging contours of the party's debate.

This will be a debate about ideas as well as personalities. There is too much stock discussion of whether there might be pandering to the "base" or the left (understood to be the same thing) when the bubbling under discussions in the party are more interesting, and more nuanced, than that.

David Miliband notes the "gotcha" culture in Jason Cowley's interesting (super-long) profile-interview in this week's New Statesman. If shares in the Foreign Secretary were perhaps excessively ramped up last August, they have been over-sold since. Yet, in all the frenzy about process and positioning, how many attempts were there to interrogate what the potential content of a future Labour argument could be. (My own perhaps excessively pointy-headed attempt to interrogate the substance of Milibandism was rather swimming against the tide). There are several hints in the New Statesman profile suggests Miliband thinks it wise in the aftermath not to stray outside of foreign policy: that is a key political area too, but that depends on connecting the foreign and domestic arguments.

We learn nothing from the blanket assumption or claim that any speech or action must be motivated by positioning. Politicians are politicians: it is surely always the case in politics that there is a cocktail of values, ideals, strategy, tactics, interests and instincts. The interesting question is how the direction of travel of party debates might shift in future and why. (John Rentoul's long GQ profile of Ed Balls (part one and part two may have caught some of that, perhaps by having the advantage of analysing the prospects of a candidate who may not be the commentator's own preferred choice).

Take, for example, the Heathrow debates within government. This was the most interesting piece of intra-Labour politics for several years. And it was new. But I am not sure it has been properly unpacked, and whisperings about political motivations on any side do not scratch the surface.

After all, a discussion which (according to public reports) seemed to see Brown, Balls, Mandelson (and Hoon) on one side and two Milibands, a Benn, an Alexander, Harman and Denham on the other is interesting. That obviously isn't a Blairite/Brownite argument (with two Eds on opposite sides) and nor is it entirely a generational split. There were some policy issues at issue, and a range of strategic and tactical decisions. It was partly about the priority and trade-offs between the economy and the environment. But it also, I think, signalled a new issue about the nature of progressive politics in future - about how far emerging if inchaote ideas about 'movement politics' would see Labour to revisit or overturn the political strategy of the 1997 New Labour model.

The leadership speculation remains a red herring, especially the more exotic scenarios: the heat of last summer and Autumn will not return. But these short and long-term party debates need more content, and so more discussion, and not less. That means breaking through the fear of media misrepresentation as a bar to having any debate at all. It is rather welcome that it has now become obligatory to say that New Labour is ending the era of the top-down politics of control. That remains work in progress, to say the least. It would be a shame to call off the effort before it has barely begun.

The PM shows his support

The Fabian conference Fighting Poverty and Inequality in an Age of Affluence at LSE tomorrow is attracting attention for its coverage of the history of the welfare state, and the inspiration that the minority report on the Poor Law gave to Beveridge four decades later.

We are expecting an interested audience. The prime minister, a keen student of history and the politics of the welfare state, couldn't be there, but he has sent a message of support...

Sometimes ideas are more than simple passing notions – some are insurrections in the human imagination, ways of looking at the world which once unleashed mean society can never be the same again. So it was with Beatrice Webb's 1909 Minority Report to the Royal Commission on the Poor. The report was a landmark moment in the history of political ideas; the first call for not just the abolition of the workhouse but for its replacement with a modern welfare state and national health service.

These ideas of 1909 and the public argument which they began were to guide the post war Labour government as they set about the most radical transformation of Britain in half a century.

While the politics and policy challenges of the global age are often very different, it is right that we should be inspired in our tasks by the progressive giants who came before. So I salute the efforts of the Fabian Society and Webb Memorial Trust in commemorating this centenary and asking how the ideas and campaigns of a century ago can inspire this generation as we work to build in this place and in our time that which Fabians have always dreamed of: the fair society.

I’m sorry not to be with you today but look forward to hearing the results of your deliberations.

With warm best wishes,

Gordon Brown

The shamelessly Mail view

You might imagine that the Daily Mail suggesting that the country is full of benefit “freeloaders” who are living a life of luxury on benefits is something new. But it isn’t.
Back in the first decade of the 20th century when social reformers such as Beatrice Webb and Maud Pember Reeves were out in the poorer boroughs of London doing research about the living conditions of the poor, the Mail was up to the same tricks as it does today; Filling the heads of its readers with ideas that the poor had caused their own poverty and poor health by deliberately taking their wrong path in life.
While another favourite theme is that life on benefits is and has always been easier and more comfortable than working.
In 1905, the Mail ran an article headlined “The Workhouse De Luxe”, suggesting that workhouse was a palace where residents luxuriated with music, drama, hot and cold baths, while wearing tweed suits.
They called it the “Poor Law Elysium” and suggested it was a restful haven from the real world, where others toiled to keep themselves alive.
On another page, it ran a story about how a boy loved his life at the workhouse so much he walked twenty miles to return to it, rather than go back to living with his family.
In a scene which sounds like it might have been plucked straight out a novel, the Mail story records a conversation between the Workhouse Master, the Workhouse Chairman and the 12-year-old boy.
“The Chairman; ‘Have you not sufficient food at home, my boy?’” Answers Jim (the boy); “Yes , but I like the workhouse food better. Please sir, let me come back.”
This relentless theme is pursued in another article of 1909, where a Mail article which argues; “”we are only now beginning to cause of this infant mortality is the lack of proper care and nourishment – the mother is the key of the situation.”
It adds; “over 100,000 babies doomed every year through the ignorance of their mothers; are these mothers whom the State has hitherto neglected to educate, entirely to blame?”
But when Pember Reeves carried out her research on poverty in Lambeth, published in 1912, she found that it was not that mothers didn’t understand their children would be healthier if they were fed milk, rather than water, but they were unable to afford the milk. And families on tiny budgets were doing a sort of Russian roulette when deciding whether to live in a smaller home with better light and cleaner air for a higher rent, or save money by living in a basement flat with poor air and light, leaving them more money for food.
Those children who lived in a home on an upper floor invariably had better health results, Pember Reeves and her Fabian women found during their researches, later published as Family Life on a Pound A Week.
Meanwhile, refer to Beatrice Webb’s Minority Report on the Poor Law to discover the appalling conditions that poor women were living under at the time. Women, of course, were hardly acknowledged as separate beings at the time, acknowledgement of their existence came via their status as married, unmarried or widowed.
Unmarried women with children were not allowed any kind of benefits outside the workhouse, – the sort of harshness of which Mail readers would approve. And once in workhouses women were separated from their children within nine months.
Webb was one of the first to identify the need for women to be treated as individuals, instead of merely as appendages to their husbands, and to argue for a welfare state where every British adult should receive access to the welfare state, whatever their marital state.
One hundred years after the Minority Report, the Mail is still publishing articles suggesting those who live in poverty have no-one but themselves to blame.
So some things change, but others never do. Over the last century, in the 100 years since the Poor Law Minority Report was published, the Mail has continued in a water-dripping-on-rock way to suggest that poverty is often the fault of those that live in it.

Twittered offside

Twitterers among you can follow us at 869 of you are doing so.

Lord Iain Dale of the blogosphere has flagged us offside in his post today on the 'top 20 UK Political Blog Twitterers' because we are not an individual. That saves us from being sandwiched us between Alistair Campbell and John Prescott in 7th place. We'll try to get over it: what is interesting is that Dale's top ten includes four Labour bloggers, three of whom (those two and Derek Draper) were not yet blogging or twittering at new year, just two months ago.

(UPDATE: Iain Dale has kindly changed his mind after checking the video replay, so we are now to be found in that Campbell-Prescott twitter sandwich of what has become a top 25 list. Interestingly, four of his top five Labour twitterers primarily have offline presences and reputations which they have recently tried to take online (Campbell, Prescott, Fabians and Derek Draper), while Tom Watson has had a longer established online presence, while those on the right tend to have reputations which have been primarily developed through the internet. UPDATE ENDS).

Another new development yesterday is that we have a new Facebook page and so are encouraging members and friends to join as 'fans'.

The existing Fabian Society group will remain live, but the features of this new NGO page will enable us to make more use of Facebook, linking up with the blog and twitter feed, invite members and supporters to events, and host discussions. We want to encourage the 1600+ members of the group to become a 'fan' of the new page, which will be the main focus of Facebook activities from the national society HQ.

A search for Fabian Society on Facebook will throw up several different Fabian voluntary groups - Young Fabians, Women's Network, Welsh Fabians, and a sprinkling of local societies from the LSE, Bexley, Norwich all the way to Sydney University - so you can join those relevant to you.

And a quick thank you to Michael Haddon at City University and to Katy Taylor for their efforts in helping Rachael Jolley to develop and sharpen our online and social networking presence, so that we can engage with and try to help spark the new social and political movements of our age. The new reach and engagement is a good thing in itself. It's leading more people to join us as members too, and is helping us to push Fabian membership towards an all-time high.

As ever, ideas about how we could use these spaces are welcome - here, on facebook, by email or, if you prefer, by second class post to Dartmouth Street.

Paxman in the workhouse

It was very helpful - as we build up to Saturday's centenary conference on the 1909 Poor Law Minority Report at the LSE - of Jeremy Paxman to try a bit of stone-breaking and a bowl of gruel to capture the indignities of the workhouse in his The Victorians' television series on Sunday night. Bizarrely, this led AN Wilson to ask why our politicians lack the courage to call for a return to the workhouse. My piece about this on Comment is Free generated some very informed and interesting comments about the history of the Poor Laws.

The Guardian's editorial 'In praise of Beatrice Webb' yesterday declared that the minority report issued an obituary for the workhouse, even if it took another generation to achieve it.

The Webbs dealt an ultimately fatal blow to the idea that paupers were to blame for their own condition and that provision for them should be at just above starvation level, lest other morally weak individuals be tempted to join them. Hence the workhouse, an institution designed to offer no comfort, no prospects and no hope ...

The minority report and the less radical majority report were rejected by the Liberal government of the day. Workhouses lingered on in various forms and the poor law itself lasted until 1948 - but Beatrice had already written its obituary in 1909.

These points ought to be common ground across politics, but the leader has sparked an online discussion about the Webb's controversial and contested reputation, particularly around their later pro-Soviet writings. I have joined in the fray.

There are a couple of letters responding to the editorial today, one of which from Revered Michael Peet highlights the events being held across next week in both East London and Westminster to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of George Lansbury.

The other Guardian letter argues for a more participatory approach to poverty. Fabian research fellow James Gregory argues on the Progress website that the idea of the 'basic minimum' became too narrow after Beveridge.

And Peter Townsend, among those who inherited and did most to extend the Fabian tradition at the LSE, argues in his contribution to the new Fabian collection that the spirit of 1909 would today in 2009 be best applied to the fundamental reform of the World Bank.

False smugness over Stanford

The collapse of ‘Sir’ Allen Stanford’s business empire this week forces us again to look at the relationship between money and sport.
Both the English and West Indian Cricket Boards have been heavily criticised for their involvement with the rather dubious Texas billionaire. However, for both maybe it was just too good an opportunity to turn down. Stanford offered such sizeable amounts of money – as much for investment in grassroots cricket in both countries as for individual players – that both Boards had to take it seriously.
Also, despite the rather sordid efforts of the Twenty 20 for $20m last November, Stanford’s investment in West Indian cricket had been stable for the medium-term. His creation of a regional Twenty20 tournament had helped bring new supporters to the game, professionalise many teams and raised the standards of West Indian cricket. Indeed the demands he made of his so-called ‘superstars’ last year – including a 6 week training camp – may well be a major factor in why the team is now beating England in the current Test Series.
Unpleasant brash Texan (and funder of a range of dubious Republican politicians) he may be, but his money has done some good.
Furthermore, his finance offered both England and West Indies a chance to be independent from the ever-growing financial dominance of India. At a time when Test Match dates and player availability were being dictated by the Indian Premier League, the chance to secure a deal that meant both the Boards and their players were not fully beholden to India was undoubtedly an attractive one.
That is not to exonerate the Boards – both have their fundamental flaws and both have abused their supporters and players alike for a number of years. But those who now rejoice at the egg on their faces and the downfall of Stanford should reflect on the real losers here. It is cricket itself. The English Chance to Shine programme, an incredibly positive attempt to move cricket into state schools and be an agent of social change will lose hundreds of thousands of pounds. And the impoverished cricketing islands of the Caribbean will lose the income that has offered a glimmer that the region could regain some of its former glories.
And that is not even mentioning the ordinary Antiguans, 5% of who are reportedly employed by Stanford’s companies and whose earnings are held in his financial institutions. So lets not be too smug about all this.

The boot is on the left foot

Many of us are not always convinced by the French left. But an exception can be made for Michel Platini, and not simply in tribute to how France won the 1984 European Championship in such enormous style, but out of recognition for the effective way he is using his mandate as UEFA President, both in pursuing gradual and incremental reforms to somewhat rebalance European football, rather than always acceding to the demands of the biggest clubs, and also in being a public advocate for much greater scrutiny of the direction of the game and the need for effective governance.

The Times had a good report on his speech to the European Parliament, and The Independent carries an extract:

For the past 15 or 20 years, we have grown tired of hearing that there is no need to regulate, that the market regulates itself, that excesses and imbalances will disappear of their own accord, and that the growth of income in football is an endless upward spiral.

We now know that none of this is true: that in football, as in the economy in general, the market is incapable of correcting its own excesses – and it was not the UEFA president who said so, it was Barack Obama.

The Premier League may well feel challenged by the Platini agenda. The BBC finds some left-right splits among British MEPs, with Labour's Richard Corbett thinking Platini is raising important issues, but the Tories and UKIP sceptical or opposed.

But it is perhaps surprising to see LibDem Graham Watson proposing the Premier League as a good model for football in other European countries. As every football fan knows, the redistribution of income upwards through the Premier League combined with the Champions League restructuring has made English football very much more predictable than it was, with only four clubs able to even think about winning the league. Those concerned about the causes of falling social mobility could find some interesting lessons from football.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

German view of that "special relationship"

Guest post by Rolf Mutzenich, Member of the Bundestag.

Europe could hardly wait for President Obama's inauguration. Yet the expectations placed on the new president are far too high, and are partly due to the longing for a contrast with George W. Bush. Hopes for a radical change in course are also caused to some degree by idealistic, wishful thinking in Europe regarding a multilateral American foreign policy. Nonetheless, the mood of optimism in the US is genuine, despite the crisis. And it is spreading to Europe. The signals in the field of disarmament and arms control, in particular, offer grounds for hope.
Despite this hope, however, Europe should not overlook the fact that Obama's scope for action is limited in political and financial terms, and that the new US President will hardly be in a position to work all the miracles expected of him. In addition, Obama wants to consolidate the United States' position of leadership in the world. If necessary, he will act alone and without regard for others.
If there is to be a new beginning in transatlantic relations, it is important to realise that the US is no longer a "European power", as it surely was in the good old days of the Cold War. Today, the United States' strategic interests lie in the Pacific, the Middle East and South Asia.
Moreover, Europe is far from united and still does not speak with one voice. As long as the Lisbon Treaty remains unratified, this is unlikely to change. We need the reforms it contains and we need a European foreign minister. Only a Europe which speaks with one voice and puts forward a shared position can expect to be taken seriously.
This brings me to my assessment of the special relationship between the UK and the United States. Winston Churchill once delivered the following furious riposte to a stubborn de Gaulle: "Every time we must choose between Europe and the open sea, we will always choose the open sea."
Many Europeans still see the UK as the United States' unsinkable aircraft carrier in Europe. Yet it should not be forgotten that the special relationship between the UK and the US is relatively new, from a historical perspective. It is impossible to say whether the Central Powers would have lost the First World War even if America had not entered the war. The only certainty is that afterwards there was no point at which they could have won. The fact that America refrained from using its newly won power following the war, leaving Europe to itself, spared the British elite from having to recognise that their empire was overstretched in power-political terms.
As a result, relations between the UK and the US were not without tension or even humiliations. It was impossible to continue a relationship on equal terms after the Second World War, because the two sides were no longer equal. In 1956, the Suez Crisis marked the end of Britain's status as a global power. Today, the UK can do comparatively little for America in political, economic or military terms.
What does remain is a certain sentimentality, visible again in the Falklands war, and more enduring on this side of the Atlantic than the other. With Barack Obama's inauguration as US President, this memory of a shared Anglo-Saxon culture is fading, and demographic change means it is weakening in the UK, too.
What remains of the special relationship is the unique peaceful replacement of one world power by another, and the resulting development of a special love-hate relationship between two related and friendly nations.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Nick Clegg: more libertarian than he thinks

I've just listened to a very interesting broadcast of last week's ippr event featuring Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg.

It is clear that this thing called 'liberalism' matters enormously to Clegg. He is, perhaps, the Liberal Democrat leader who has given most emphasis to the 'liberal' dimension of Liberal Democrat thought. It is hugely refreshing to see a politician willing to go out and make a case for 'liberalism' in this way. Clegg is a politician of genuine ideas, and, as one might expect, there is a lot in his speech which liberals in the Labour party (like me) would agree with.

But just what kind of liberal is Nick Clegg?

Right at the end of the Q&A at the ippr event Clegg was asked what differentiates liberalism from 'libertarianism'. His answer was that liberals think personal freedom is limited by a duty not to harm others, while libertarians do not. This will be news to libertarians. I'm not aware of any libertarian philosopher who thinks we should be free to walk around assaulting others.

Consider, second, his response to another question, about bonuses and placing ceilings on high earnings. While Clegg called for an end to bank bonuses in his speech, he replied, with some passion, that it would be 'illiberal' to place a ceiling on earnings in general, to try to limit them through what he referred to as 'punitive taxation'.

In fact, high taxation of high earnings has a long pedigree of support within liberalism. New Liberals like J.A. Hobson and Leonard Hobhouse argued that the state should tax away high earnings because these almost certainly represented 'economic rents' which were undeserved by the person getting them. More recently, liberals like John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin have argued that differences in earnings which reflect unequal talents are 'morally arbitrary', creating a presumption in favour of greater equality in the distribution of earned incomes by the means of taxation.

The phrase 'punitive taxation' - like the phrase 'tax burden' which Clegg used at his party's Autumn conference - is a give-away as to the underlying philosophy here. That philosophy is one which sees market-generated earnings as 'entitlements'. It's because we are, supposedly, already entitled to the income we get in the market that tax deductions can be seen as 'punitive'. On the Rawls-Dworkin view, just, equality-promoting taxes do not invade pre-existing entitlements; they define what we are really, genuinely entitled to: they help ensure that resources end up with whomever is genuinely entitled to them rather than with whomever the market selects. On this view, taxing very high earners to help lower earners is not necessarily any more 'punitive' than requiring a thief to return stolen goods to their rightful owner.

Now, what political philosophy maintains that market rewards are entitlements? The answer: libertarianism, as brilliantly set out in Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Of course, Clegg is no advocate of the minimal state which Nozick defends. But his effort to reposition the Liberal Democrats on tax sees him drawing on what are essentially libertarian assumptions about the market, tax and justice. His use of a rhetoric based on these assumptions helps to reinforce the grip which these assumptions have in day-to-day public discourse. And this adds to the obstacles facing progressive liberals who want to use the tax system, rightly, in an equality-promoting way.

So, Nick Clegg: more of a libertarian than he thinks.

A spot of bother with the Treasury

Continuing our series of posts ahead of Saturday's a centenary conference at the LSE here is Beatrice Webb's diary entry from a hundred years ago today, February 18th 1909, as the newspapers covered the majority and minority reports of the Poor Law Royal Commission. The majority report taken more seriously than the Webbs anticipated, while the Treasury sought to block the Fabian edition of the Minority Report. The diary entry also shows that think-tanks and political activists knew media reaction mattered well before the 1990s.

February 18th - The day after the reception of the reports of the Poor Law Commission. We turned out to be quite wrong as to the reception of the Majority Report. So far as the first day's reviews are concerned, the majority have got a magnificent reception. We have had a fair look in, but only in those papers which had got to know of the existence of a Minority Report before the issue late on Wednesday evening. If we had not taken steps, we should have been submerged completely, by the great length of the Majority Report, coupled with their revolutionary proposals, the largeness of their majority and the relative weight of the names. Roughly speaking, all the Conservative papers went for the majority proposals, and the London Liberal papers were decidedly for ours. We secured, in fact, belligerent rights, but not more than that. The majority hold the platform. Perhaps we felt a trifle foolish at having crabbed the Majority Report to our family and intimate friends, and exalted our own. That has certainly not proved

We have had an amusing little encounter with the majority over the separate publication of our report - by the Fabian Society and Longmans. We thought we had the copyright; or that Sidney had it. I told the Royal Commission staff that we intended to publish immediately after the Royal Commission published. A few days before the publication, the Fabian Society received a peremptory letter from the Treasury solicitor forbidding the publication of the Ministry Report as an infringement of the Crown Copyright. This was I think clearly instigated by Lord George or Duff; and it was apparently unwarranted bluff, as there is a Treasury minute (1887) permitting republication unless the public has been notified otherwise. We did not know of this minute, and got a bit flustered. But an appeal to Haldane settled the matter, and the Treasury letter was withdrawn. Both editions were published on Thursday, the day on which the Reports were reviewed in the press.

Webb goes on to note that the government had printed 10,000 copies of the Minority Report "encumbered with Majority Report! and notes and references in a ponderous blue book" at just 5 shillings and 6 pence ("an amazingly cheap blue book", while the Fabians had printed 3,000 copies of their 3 shilling version, with a commercial Longmans' edition (1500 copies) available at 12 shillings and sixpence.

The Fabian edition of the Minority Report went on to sell 25,000 copies during the year.