Saturday, 31 January 2009

Breaking a glacier ceiling for gay rights

Iceland’s new Social Democratic Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir is to lead a coalition government with the left-green party, and to seek a mandate for European Union membership in a General Election in May.

Over at LiberalConspiracy, I note that Eurosceptic MEP Dan Hannan is still giving Iceland advice, and wonder whether they might have stopped listening by now.

Sigurdardottir will be Iceland’s first female prime minister and the first openly gay or lesbian premier anywhere in the world (excepting a very brief caretaker premiership for a couple of hours in Norway apparently). That must be a historic moment worth marking, though Icelanders think of it as a "non-issue" and so would prefer us to do so without too much Obamaesque fuss, according to a profile on PinkNews:

A country of only 300.000 with a gay scene that is largely embedded into mainstream culture, Iceland is considered one of the safest places in the world to be gay. Because of its small size Reykjavik’s gay scene co-exists to a greater extent within mainstream night life than in Britain and the rest of Europe. This is one reason why the Icelandic gay scene is so widely accepted as normal and a non-issue by the public.

Cruddas: why don't we debate a maximum wage?

Jon Cruddas writes in The Guardian that the current strikes reflect a broader sense of working-class disempowerment, leading him to set out an expansive agenda for a new left political economy.

The left must offer a real and viable alternative. We have to reverse the years of wealth redistribution from poor to rich. We need regulation to end low pay, low skill and casualised labour. Strong trade unions are the best defence against exploitation. Work and quality of life can be improved by introducing a living wage. And why don't we discuss having a maximum income? Both can be defined by establishing a maximum ratio of difference between the most and least well-paid. We need to create new forms of economic citizenship, and bring the economy and work under greater democratic control. That should be the agenda, not "British jobs for British workers".

Could the call for 'discussing' a maximum income go anywhere? I am very sceptical -but perhaps opening the public discussion is a large part of the point. That seemed to be the mood of the Fabian New Year Conference 'dragons den' session earlier this month when Kevin Maguire of the Mirror proposed a 10-1 differential in any organisation: this was debated and backed not just by Ken Livingstone but by the audience too, including by many people who understood David Aaronovitch's argument that it was patently unworkable. One of our 'dragons den' judges, Dawn Butler, a junior member of the government, may well have best caught the mood in saying that she thought it was probably a useful public debate to have about attitudes to inequality - without in any way suggesting she would be recommending it should appear in Alastair Darling's next budget!

After all, the great shift in the multiples earned by the top 1% and top 0.1% reflect changing social norms and attitudes perhaps as much as global economic conditions. And if a maximum wage seems unlikely as a policy response, changing attitudes to progressive taxation and tax avoidance, transparency and scrutiny of bonuses and executive pay, and the creation of a Top Pay Commission to help inform public debate have all come into the mainstream of political debate.

There is some emerging evidence that public attitudes are hardening. Fabian Society and YouGov polling on attitudes towards pay, back in the summer of 2007, suggested that the public, on average, believe that pay differentials of 10 to 1 across society would be a much fairer reflection of the value of different jobs. The suggestion was that £135,000 would be a top salary in a fair pay league: the nominal figures applied may strike many people as surprisingly low.

There would be no practicable way to bring anything like that about. But differentials within the range of 20-1 are comprehensible, and that the case for differentials of 150-1 and 200-1 within companies has never been publicly made or understood. The moderate social democratic Croslandite claim 'no justified inequalities' would demand sufficient transparency and scrutiny for there to be confidence that these were rewards for success, and not rewards for failure.

In our post-crunch poll late last year, 70% agreed that "those at the top are failing to pay their fair share towards investment in public services". But it is not unusual for polling to find that the public agree to competing, and apparently contradictory, proposals - highlighting the importance of how public debates are framed. So I would not have been surprised to find a majority also agree that taxes
on high earners should be kept low so that "British companies can attract the talent they need to succeed". In fact, only 19% supported that.

One unlikely advocate of how a maximum wage proposal could meet the New Labour "what works" test is Rotherham MP Denis MacShane, a member of the Fabian Executive and widely understood to be among the most enthusiastic New Labour modernising voices. Denis warmly supported Kevin Maguire's proposal, pointing out that he had proposed this in the House of Commons back in 1994. "But then New Labour came along and the rest is history", he said in a droll contribution. I have just looked up the record from Hansard. Here is how the MacShane proposal would have worked.

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to fix the emoluments of chairpersons, chief executives and senior managers of private limited companies and public bodies so that their combined annual earnings do not exceed twenty times the average take-home pay of their non-managerial employees save if the said employees agree through a ballot of their non-managerial employees or through their union to permit salaries of their chairpersons, chief executives and senior managers to exceed a 20:1 ratio.

This model offers some interesting responses to several of the most obvious objections (partly by the 'maximum wage' being something of a misnomer for a moveable ceiling, or norm).

But one Fabian audience member offered a centre-left (archetypally Brownite) critique: 'what public services would you cut to account for the lost tax revenues?'. A good question - but the value of the maximum wage debate may well be to legitimise much greater scrutiny of whether corporations and individuals are paying their share in taxes. Polly Toynbee today promises that corporate tax avoidance will be the focus of a major Guardian investigation next week.

More interesting evidence on this subject was presented from Stewart Lansley, speaking at a Fabian discussion late last year on whether we were returning to the Victorian era of the super-rich, held as part of our project on the Webb Memorial Trust which is looking at poverty, inequality and affluence. Lansley presented evidence that, having gradually fallen to one-sixth of Victorian levels during the post-war period, the super-rich had returned to Victorian levels of affluence in 30 years since the 1980s. He found that the evidence also suggested that the Victorian super-rich could stake a much greater claim to be the 'deserving rich' than most of those on the Sunday Times Rich List today.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Barack, Your New Sales Rep

In an unprecedented move for a new President, Obama chose to give his first interview to a Saudi channel. The speed which he did this even surprised Arab officials. Obama’s reiteration of open but firm themes from his inaugural speech to a new Muslim audience is hugely positive and decisive. It also sends out a message that he will act right away on his inaugural words and will not just concentrate on his domestic problems.
The Financial Times editorial on 28 January believes the interview was all about tone, with the word ‘respect’ or ‘respectfully’ being repeated over and over again. Obama highlighted the peace plan put forward by King Abdullah of full Arab recognition of Israel if Israel withdraws and allows an independent Palestinian state. Whether this has any realistic chance of getting off the ground in the current climate of anger is another matter, but looking to an Arab solution is perhaps the only way. The editorial concludes by suggesting there is some hope because Obama is not only a statesman but also a salesman with the persuasive skills to achieve the impossible.
The name Obama is just a name. But, any proposal backed by Barack Hussein Obama has much more chance of finding a solution than one backed by Bill or Ted (sorry I meant George). The Middle East may seem like a totally intractable problem, but you have only to see the film Hunger to remember the total hatred and complete lack of dialogue in Northern Ireland thirty years ago. That was a problem that had existed for four hundred years and many of the best politicians had lost their reputation failing to solve it. What is needed to solve a conflict is a set of circumstances and fresh personalities – preferably ones with the energy and mandate of a first term. Sometimes actually a solution can be found when the situation seems to have become so bad there is no escape route. At that moment, the skilled salesman can step in.

The case for a Lab-Lib coalition

I make the argument in a commentary in this week's New Statesman, illustrated by an all-smiling triumvirate of Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable.

Despite a growing sense of Conservative triumphalism, It may well be very difficult for either major party to win a clear majority at the next General Election. The Conservatives will clearly outperform how they did in 2005 under Michael Howard. But they remain very much untested as a government in waiting; and require a very large and possibly double-digt lead on election day to win any majority at all. Labour's electoral coalition was badly fractured in its weak 2005 result, and the economic crisis makes incumbency more difficult, even if the government can make a strong case that it has the better response.

A hung Parliament must be a real possibility. But I set out why I don't think that would lead to either a Tory-LibDem or Labour-LibDem coalition, but rather a David Cameron minority Tory administration.

However, my argument is that there may still be one chance to address the 'progressive dilemma' of the 20th century so brilliantly articulated by David Marquand back in the early 1990s. It depends on forming a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition now, to govern for a year ahead of a General Election. It sounds unlikely: but I set out the terms of a deal which I think would be worth doing on both sides.

Labour supporters will believe the party can still bounce back and win. I agree. Labour are the underdogs but nothing is certain in politics.

Were such a coalition possible, I also think it would be a better government. It could reinvigorate the centre-left, test the Tories properly, provide a broader basis for a politics of fairness to respond to the recession, and make possible the deeper reform of British politics through a new constitutional settlement which has always eluded centre-left governments over the last century.

Many may say that Labour would not offer such a deal, or that the LibDems would not accept it if they did.

But what if they could?

The Politics of Limits

Many of the middle classes lucky enough remain secure in their jobs may actually benefit from the recession. A university lecturer told me recently he has £300 a month more disposable income after his mortgage repayments plummeted along with interest rates.

He is one example of a fortunate few whose lives may well improve as the lives of others decline. Given this new spending power, the
"politics of limits" urged by Sir John Harman in the recently published Fabian pamphlet, "The Green Crunch", may not be of interest.

The environmental challenge facing this country, and the world, is an urgent one and how best to approach it is a complex issue, Harman argues. But if much ecological damage is caused by excess consumerism, addressing the problem now would seem to have the advantage of killing two birds with one stone. (Peter Mandelson’s rescue bid for the car industry has certainly taken this approach, in tone at least.).

But the environment is not on most people’s list of personal priorities and it will take a dramatic shift to put it there.

At the top, that increased disposable income may be spent on extra luxuries- a break away from all this gloom perhaps- not 'going green'. At the bottom, those battling poverty may not be able to afford the greener alternative, and with more personal struggles on their mind, may not care.

It was suggested during yesterday’s lunchtime discussion of “The Green Crunch” that the increasing need for financial restraint demanded by the economic crisis may actually come as a relief to some who now have an excuse for not keeping up with the Joneses or who find their families living closer.

Advocacy International's Ann Pettifor claimed: “We have turned people into consumers and they find themselves wandering down supermarket aisles lost and lonely”. A new “politics of limits” that brings us “back to basics” and a sense of fairness not felt since war rationing may help us reconnect with what’s really important once again. And living simpler lives, or at least more efficient ones, will help save the planet.

The problem is how to make this happen. Lucy Siegle, who is charged with trying to get the environmental message across everyday on the BBC’s The One Show, knows how difficult the job can be.

There is still a sense that environmental concerns are a middle class niche, she said. Although she also pointed out that 20% of people produce 80% of the country’s emissions. Presumably this is the same minority who consume the lion's share of resources, i.e. the wealthy, and so it is perhaps right that they should take the greater responsibility.

Scientists and economists must work together, Harman urgued, to "balance the economics of nature with the economics of man" as the present partnership is unmanageable.

Disaster will inevitably strike, but we need a better message than that: political kudos must be separated from materialism if the government is to make any headway.

The environment is not natural Labour territory, he went on, it could belong to any party, but as everyone at the discussion agreed it needs to be seized and made centre ground for everyone.

It is time for the government to start asking what it is they have to. More importantly, it is time they start doing it.

Anger at bankers' bonuses ... at Davos

There have been one or two comments that the entertaining Dragon's Den-style final plenary session 'One Idea to Make Britain Fairer' at the Fabian conference veered too dramatically off to the left. The conference audience favoured the more radical proposals: a large increase in the state pension, and a cap on the number of privately educated pupils at Oxford and Cambridge, while I enjoyed David Lammy's spirited chairing included asking the audience if there were still any New Labour types wanting to knock down Kevin Maguire's maximum wage proposals.

While the proposals are not likely to be heading straight into an election manifesto, we are not the only ones. Indeed, there may be some danger of the left being outflanked by the Masters of the Universe, according to a fascinating Davos blog from Telegraph economics editor Edmund Conway.

As the discussion went on it became clear that for many of the delegates, “sorry” simply wasn’t enough. They wanted actual retribution, in the form of jail sentences for the executives who were responsible for the ultimate losses, and through clawbacks of bonuses awarded to the masters of the universe in the fat years.

Rather remarkably (this is the World Economic Forum - the home of billionaire capitalism, after all), comments such as these generated a large round of applause throughout the auditorium. The tide truly has turned against finance. Thus it was that, at the end of the debate, when asked for a show of hands over who would support clawbacks of bonuses, the verdict was a resounding “yes”.

That bonuses should be paid back when companies fail won majority support in our recent Fabian poll. The Davos discussion is reflecting a public mood where proposals like those made by David Coats, for a Top Pay Commission and for a tax regime which disincentivises short-term bonuses would be both effective and popular.

I was interested too to see that the Principal of Cheltenham Ladies College wrote to The Independent, responding to Ellie Levenson's column about the conference debate, to say that capping places is 'well worth consideration'.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The latest news as it happens from The Guardian

Strangely, a report covering what happened in an episode of University Challenge on Monday evening seems to have turned up as page 5 lead story in today's Guardian. Should we assume it was a very light news day? The thrust of the story seems to be that Exeter University lost to an Oxbridge college in a rather embarassing defeat.
As a University Challenge fan, who actually watched the pre-recorded show when it was broadcast on Monday, I am slightly bemused by the prominence given to this story, two days after the event.
This scoop of comments from the programme pushed back stories on government moves to restart the car industy, the cabinet being ordered to disclose records on Iraq, and a report on a major social attitudes study on the environment.
What's going over there? I think we should be told.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Hope not hate

Hope not hate is the impressive new online campaigning home of Searchlight's bid to stop the BNP winning seats in this June's European elections.

You can sign up to the campaign at

Nick Lowles of Searchlight is running a very active campaign blog on the site.

Stopping the Far Right has also been an important theme for the Young Fabians, who produced a pamphlet on campaigning arguments and strategies last year, working with Searchlight and Amicus.

Obama be continued

Last Tuesday Obama shuffled with a grim face in the tunnel before his inauguration, or should I say coronation. He looked nervous as hell, and I almost expected him to throw a shadow punch or head thin air in order to psyche himself up for the moment. But, once he started his speech he was word perfect as usual, with his outstanding pauses that add weight to every phrase.

Jonathan Raban’s fascinating article in the Guardian gave some insights and reflection on the mechanics of the speech. Raban believes that the speech included an unprecedented repudiation of the previous regime and all it stood for. It was a sober but brilliant speech that probably deliberately avoided the one-liners we’ve come to expect.*

The first week has carried on (unbelievably) where the speech ended. I would like to highlight two issues in particular:

The Guantanomo pledge was brave and ambitious and the fact that it was delivered after a couple of days is symbolic of Obama’s determination. I remember hearing Denis MacShane in a Fabian conference on Obama suggesting that he doubted an American President would dare do this with all its practical pit-falls, but Obama has. However, the luke-warm reaction from some countries is very disappointing. On Sunday I heard a radio interview with a leading Dutch minister in which he stated Guantanomo was America’s mess and America should sort it out. In one way he (the Dutch minister) is right, but surely at this time Europe should support Obama and encourage him in his tough internal battles, rather than under-mine him in any way. The Guantanomo problem may be made in America but it has world-wide implications, so it is in our interests that it should be solved. The response from Portugal and Switzerland is much more encouraging, and I hope Brown follows suit.

The second news story I would like to highlight is from The Guardian apparantly done very quietly by Obama, but is perhaps just as important as his public stance on Guantanomo. Not only is it important for the health of women and human rights, but it crucially shows that Obama has the guts to go against the Christian right. Hopefully, this is just the start of a rational regime which will lead to stem cell research and drop abstinence education and creationism. Doing this on the quiet may be a very clever tactical move.

Here’s hoping for more weeks like the first.

* I was particularly pleased when Obama mentioned 'non-believers' and felt this was significant. My reaction was confirmed by Raban when he stated Obama was the first American president to acknowledge us in his inauguration.

Monday, 26 January 2009

The strange case of George O, the money and the fiduciary challenge

To George Osborne's launch of It's Your Money, a document with a name that sounds like a gameshow. But isn't. Apparently, says George, it's a "new plan for disciplined spending in government".
His soundbite on this subject is "We really do know it's your money". That's helpful then.
George is launching It's Your Money, a blueprint for more financial discipline in the public sector, at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, where chief executive Michael Izza mentions he would have loved to respond to the document but unfortunately he wasn't offered a copy before George arrived.
Anyway Michael says there will be a response soon.
George's general pitch is that the public sector is too flabby and wasteful and not transparent, and things need to change.
He seemed to be suggesting, with very little irony, that the public sector should be moving to follow the private sector in its methods. And he occasionally threw in a number or an example to show why.
Oddly no one in the audience felt moved to raise the point that the private financial sector doesn't appear to be doing very well, with its methods generally or its financial transparency these days.
Financial records for government departments need to be more transparent and accessible to the public, George said. And he wanted a new code of fiscal discipline for civil service accountability, so senior civil servants had to take on a responsibility to manage the budgets in the best interest of us all.
But when asked if they would be sacked if they didn't met financial performance standards, George was less clear, he hinted that their career in the civil service might not be very "successful" in such a scenario.
When George set out the Shadow Cabinet's plans for a new career path for these more powerful, better qualified financial directors for whom there would be new pay scales, it all sounded good news for qualified accountants, some of whom might have been in the room, who might be looking to move out of a shrinking private sector.
There was a hint too that the Conservatives might be looking to set up an "independent organisation with power to dig into wasteful spending": a watchdog in all but name, something like the FSA for the public sector. Ah yes, the FSA.
Many of George's aims seemed reasonable. Of course, we all want to feel our tax pounds are not being wasted. We want them to be spent usefully, and certainly not used for pointless first class travel when a phone call would do.
And certainly government departments should be looking to manage their budgets to make them work as hard as they can.
But the oddness of these proposals was there seemed very little reference to the massive financial inconsistencies going on in the private banking sector right now.
Over-loaded salaries and gambles with people's hard-earned money is not right in either private or public sector, but no one in the public sector has a salary that has skyrocketed like those in the City.
And when times are bad, which feels like it is safer, and working for the public interest, the public sector or the private?
It is too easy for the Conservatives to knock the public sector, without considering all that we depend on the state for, especially when times are tough.
Yes, let's make sure our money is used wisely, but let's not pretend that the private sector has all the answers.

Could Israel's supporters help to get the BBC off the hook?

The BBC management has made a daft, damaging, mistake over the DEC Gaza appeal - already achieving the very thing (bringing its impartiality into question) which they were trying to avoid, and now presenting the problem of whether and how that mistake can be reversed now that there is widespread pressure to reverse it.

Tom Harris is right both that the decision is very difficult to understand - but also that the decision must be the BBC's to make.

Sit-ins by the Stop The War coalition make it more difficult, though bafflement at the BBC decision is very widely shared among non-partisan voices, and both government and opposition have adopted a careful tone in asking the BBC to think again. But perhaps there is still one form of outside 'pressure' which could help and not hinder a reversal of policy. It would be good to hear from more voices in Britain who were among those to support the Israeli military action and who do not believe the humanitarian appeal for Gaza has any impact on impartiality.

Iain Dale and Neil D on the robustly pro-Israel Harry's Place have been among those to argue, as strong supporters of Israel, that the BBC should broadcast the DEC appeal.

As Martin Linton MP asks on LabourHome how many supporters of Labour Friends of Israel, or indeed the Israeli Embassy, would object to the humanitarian appeal being broadcast?

UPDATE: Mark Thompson says he is standing firm, but is now focusing on not showing the DEC's film, while appearing to say the news coverage about the row is reporting and giving prominence to the appeal! Why not agree with the DEC to make a short announcement which gives out the emergency number? (Even Janet Daley, among the few voices to defend the BBC, thinks that giving the number out during news bulletins is is the "obvious compromise", and that there is no barrier to it once the BBC has ditched its concerns about the delivery of aid).

(Not) informing the drugs debate

Today Programme. 7.10am slot. The Deputy Chair of the Magistrates Association is on, a John Fasselfelt is on.

The Association has fully welcomed - indeed, vocally campaigned for - the government's decision to upgrade cannabis to a plan B drug, which comes into effect today. But their complaint today is about the sentencing guidelines which come with this. They aren't as serious for possession as for other class B drugs. Less cases will get into a court setting, he complains, and that's unfair. What if you were caught with cannabis and I had some other class B drug, he asks James Naughtie.

Who reasonably asks what, for information, are those other Class B drugs which he is sure cannabis must be treated identically.

"You've got me there". He hasn't got the foggiest. Not a clue. "I'm not a big user of Class B drugs", he says. (No, just an expert advocate on what drugs should and should not be in that class).

Well done.

Here they are.

The lesson: perhaps the government might listen a little more to its scientific advisors (whose advice was ignored in this case), and a little less to the chuntering magistrates.

Postscript: Must be a bad day for it. The following interview sees somebody from the UN Relief Agency give an astonishingly poor case for emergency relief to Gaza, placing the focus squarely on the funding mandates and shortfall in the agency budget.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

A tale of two Sunday scoops

Part of the point of Sunday newspapers is that they have all week to dig up stories that the daily newspapers and 24/7 news cycle might miss.

Yet the very best that the Mail on Sunday could do this week - judging by what the editor chose for his front-page splash - was a "Treasury Knees Up" which amounts to Treasury staff paid for a £30 a head Burns night dinner, with no free bar, which seems to have gone on as late as 11pm on a Friday night.

The report veers confusingly between various possible targets for outrage. The cavalier offensiveness at uncaring Treasury staff socialising during a recession depends, perhaps paradoxically, on their lack of consideration for public-spirited colleagues burning the midnight oil into the weekend. Attempts to convery the lavish appearance of people dressing up in kilts for an evening dinner collapse into mocking the parsinomy of the raffle prizes. What was Darling thinking of - or was he not thinking anything about it, not being there? In the end, we are left with a taxi driver ranting at the annoyance of a Scottish-themed event in London (as if Scotland were part of the United Kingdom or something).

If The Mail on Sunday wants to feel green-eyed about something, perhaps it should be the ability of the Sunday Times to carry out some actual investigative reporting, in its report and investigation into members of the House of Lords willing to boast about their ability to influence and amend policy and legislation.

With the obvious caveat that I know nothing about the individual cases beyond what is reported in the Sunday Times (and you can read the detail here), Baroness Royall is right to express "deep concern" and to promise to pursue the allegations "with the utmost vigour".

Such investigations into any form of lobbying can often contain more than a hint of the 'mark' exaggerating the influence they would exercise. The rules are rightly very clear that peers "must never accept any financial inducements as an incentive or reward for exercising parliamentary influence" and of course the reputation of Parliament depends on the spirit as well as the letter of this being seen to be observed.

That the distinction between Parlimenatary and non-Parliamentary business is flawed and open to abuse also seems clear. A more thorough overhaul of the regulation of outside interests - in both Houses - remains overdue.

The BBC's Gaza confusion: stop digging

The Disasters Emergency Committee has launched a Gaza crisis appeal focused on providing food, fresh water, emergency healthcare and securing electricity supplies to deal with a "completely overwhelming" humanitarian crisis. You can donate online here.

Brendan Gormley, head of the DEC appeal has said:

"DEC agencies have a humanitarian mandate. We are not proposing to attempt to rebuild Gaza – that is not our role. But with the public’s support we can help relieve short-term needs. Agencies are already providing food, drugs and blankets as well as delivering clean water ... We work on the basis of humanitarian need and there is an urgent need in Gaza today. Political solutions are for others to resolve, but what is of major concern to us all is that many innocent people have been affected by the situation – and it is them that we seek to help.”

Very few would doubt that this is a legitimate and necessary way for this coalition of the UK's major aid agencies to fulfil their remit.

Let us hope that the unfortunate row over the BBC's refusal to air a televised appeal from the DEC has had the effect of increasing its profile and donations.

From the point of view of its stated desire to protect its impartiality, it is obvious to almost all outside the BBC (and probably, by now, to many within it) that the BBC's decision has been an avoidable mistake in three ways.

Firstly, it appears to be a clear break in this case with the established practice of the BBC when it comes to Disasters Emergency Committee appeals. The Guardian editorial notes the example of the Vietnam war where there was a much greater level of politicised, public controversy than, for example, recent appeals such as Darfur which have also been cited.

Secondly, it follows that the danger of the BBC "undermining public confidence in the BBC's impartiality" lay in refusing to broadcast the humanitarian appeal. Caroline Thompson further confused the position by placing a good deal of emphasis on the BBC's worries about whether aid would get through; something on which the BBC can bring no expertise beyond that of the Disasters Emergency Committtee. As the Archbishop of York puts it: "This situation is akin to that of British military hospitals who treat prisoners of war as a result of their duty under the Geneva convention. They do so because they identify need rather than cause. This is not an appeal by Hamas asking for arms but by the Disasters Emergency Committee asking for relief. By declining their request, the BBC has already taken sides and forsaken impartiality".

Thirdly, it is inevitable that such a novel decision would generate media, civic society, political and public discussion. If the BBC now backs down (as it should), it is rather more likely to be accused of bending to political pressure than it would have been had it simply broadcast the appeal in a routine way. And, if it does not back down, it will be accused of stubbornly sticking to a decision which has dragged it into politics and so undermines viewers' confidence.

BBC Trust Chairman Michael Lyons is concerned that the level and tone "coming close to constituting undue interference in the editorial independence of the BBC". Yet the tone of comments by Development Secretary Douglas Alexander and his Tory shadow Andrew Mitchell have been clear in requesting a rethink, yet careful to emphasise that it is the BBC's decision to make.

I strongly support the BBC's impartiality, but of course that can not entail immunity to its decisions being discussed and scrutinised within civil society. The DEC decision reflects the consensus of the thirteen major charities. ITV, Channel Four and Five will all show the appeal. Few if any of the newspaper editorials understand the BBC's logic, which The Observer calls "absurd".

There are non-partisan voices in this crisis. I have yet to hear from any who believe the BBC's decision makes sense.

Unfortunately, whatever happens now, the BBC will have quite unnecessarily brought its own impartiality into question in a way that showing the appeal in the first place would never have done. This management decision does show an unfortunate jumpiness and unnecessary lack of confidence in the BBC's news journalism.

The answer must be to stop digging, and find a means for the BBC to revisit the merits of the case. Perhaps then the BBC can find out, for itself, that it ought to broadcast a legitimate humanitarian crisis appeal just as it has done in the past.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Obama's speech: a beautiful statement of the republican ideal

What does Barack Obama's Inauguration speech tell us about his public philosophy as President? Does it, as some have argued, represent a repudiation of 'ideology'?

During his run for the Democratic nomination, my colleague Karma Nabulsi wrote in The Guardian of the way Obama's campaign fitted into a 'rich republican tradition' of thinking about - and practising - citizenship. Obama's Inauguration speech suggests that his philosophy of government will follow on directly from the republican approach that Karma rightly saw at work in his campaign.

This is clear from the very first line where he chooses to address his audience as 'My fellow citizens', rather than, say, 'My fellow Americans'. It is an immediate reminder that the Inauguration is an event in the life of a republic, where individual members of the state are not just individuals with a particular national identity, but participants in a particular kind of political project, with all the rights and responsibilities - the moral import - that this implies.

So what is this political project, this project of 'the republic'?

(1) Democracy is the rule of 'we the people', not of individual leaders. First, Obama reminds his fellow citizens that their state, as a democracy, is fundamentally based on popular sovereignty. The ultimate law-makers, the ultimate bearers of responsibility for the laws and welfare of the society, are not political leaders, but the people themselves. Thus, he says:

'...America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.'

(2) Democracy, rightly understood, is about ideals, not raw majority will. In this same passage, Obama also identifies himself with the view that democracy is not simply a matter of letting majorities do what they want. It is about the people governing themselves in accordance with appropriate moral ideals. There is an echo here of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argued in The Social Contract that legitimate authority not only rests on popular sovereignty but on the people exercising that sovereignty so as to satisfy appropriate moral ideals.

What are these ideals?

(3) The core regulative ideals of democracy are the equality and freedom of individual citizens. Rousseau argues that: 'If we seek to define precisely the greatest good of all, the necessary goal of every system of legislation, we shall find that the main objectives are limited to two only: liberty and equality...' This idea passed into the US political tradition and Obama explicitly restates the idea:

'The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit...that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.'

(4) Liberty means no arbitrary state power. The republican tradition emphasises that individual liberty depends on denying the state arbitrary power. It rests on the rule of law. Obama clearly restates this republican idea when he says (with a nod to Benjamin Franklin):

'...we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to ensure the rule of law and the rights of man....Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.'

(5) Equality means not just legal equality, but a degree of economic equality. Rousseau argues that citizen equality implies some degree of economic equality: 'Under a bad government,' Rousseau says, '[citizen] equality is only apparent and illusory: it serves to keep the poor wretched and preserve the usurpations of the rich.' By contrast, a good government will work on the principle that 'the social state is advantageous to men only if all have a certain amount, and none too much.'

In line with this latter comment of Rousseau's, we find Obama saying:

'...a nation cannot prosper long when it favours only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.'

(6) The achievement of democracy's ideals depends on citizens taking active responsibility for their achievement. The republican tradition is one that emphasises the importance of active and responsible citizenship. To be a citizen is not simply to enjoy a legal status. It is to have a definite moral personality. It is to have an understanding of the society's common good, and a willingness to act to promote this. Without such commitment, then, as Rousseau argued, the republic is corrupted, a prey to elite interests. This idea permeates Obama's whole speech and it is stated very clearly when he says:

'What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.'

And then comes the sentence which sums it all up:

'This is the price and the promise of citizenship.'

Of course, Obama is a 'pragmatist'. But he is a pragmatist with a profound understanding of, and commitment to, the American political tradition and its republican underpinnings.

His Inauguration speech falls into a classic genre of republican rhetoric: the call to turn from bad, fallen ways, and make the republic a reality again. My fellow citizens, Obama says, we have fallen, corrupted, from our animating ideals; let us pick ourselves up, fight the special interests and the forces of self-interest in ourselves, and make the republic a truth again - or rather, given our history of slavery and segregation, let us make the republic a truth for the very first time.

Postscript: For a really interesting discussion of Barack Obama's Inauguration speech, I recommend the segment on bloggingheads tv by Joshua Cohen and Glenn Loury.

Equal rights for Royal Princesses ... the curious case of succession reform

Good luck to Evan Harris, LibDem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, who is to introduce a Private Members' Bill to reform the Royal Succession rules.

'Equal rights for Royal Princesses' is not the most radical of slogans. But we have a settled consensus on a constitutional monarchy, and it ought not to enshrine gender discrimination which persists only through inertia. Who will make a principled defence of male primogeniture? And removing the bar on heirs marrying a Catholic is sensible and overdue. The idea that this threatens the position of the Established Church is a red herring. (After all, there is no current requirement that the Monarch's spouse be a Protestant: they can be an agnostic, atheist, Sikh, Muslim or Hindu. It is a purely anti-Catholic offensive anachronism).

Similar reforms were proposed by the Fabian Monarchy Commission in 2003. Lord Dubs - Alf to his friends - made a previous attempt in 2005 to bring forward a Parliamentary Bill for what he called these "breathtakingly modest" reforms,backed by Ann Taylor, former Leader of the Commons (and no fiery radical), who said the Bill was intended as a "gentle nudge" to the government to finally act on this issue.

The Times' leader writers were thunderingly in favour of reform.

The rules that surround the succession to the throne are among the most anachronistic and indefensible. The reform proposals would provide for new and far more relevant arrangements... it would be intriguing to see how any parliamentarian could publicly defend the present method of succession. The British constitution might always be puzzling. It should not take pride in being ostentatiously bonkers."

So how bizarre that this move was stonewalled as too difficult by Lord Falconer, in just about the most timid and conservative response imaginable. (It would all be very complicated; the government would have to write to the Commonwealth; perhaps there would be unintended consequences. His worst argument: there was no pressing need given that no individuals were affected. Of course, the best time to reform is before any specific individuals would be affected).

What few remember - and which the government itself seemed to have forgotten - is that it had announced its support for changing the rules on male primogeniture, and promised to bring forward its own measures (because a private members' bill was not an appropriate way to proceed) to reform the succession laws. That was 11 years ago!

This is what Lord Williams told the House of Lords, on behalf of the government, on 27th February 1998, in response to a Bill from none other than Lord (Jeffrey) Archer of Weston Super Mare.

There can be no real reason for not giving equal treatment to men and women in this respect. We do not think that, whatever its merits, a Private Peer's Bill is an appropriate vehicle for so important a change as the one we have been debating. A major constitutional measure of this sort ought properly to be the subject of a government Bill. We shall be considering how best to carry this forward within government and in consultation with the Royal Family.

Under the Statute of Westminster 1931, before any alteration in the law touching the succession to the Throne can take effect the assent of all those countries of which Her Majesty is Queen is required. The United Kingdom cannot act unilaterally. That is another good reason for introducing a government measure. It would seem very odd to the legislatures of the 15 Realms to be invited to consider assenting to legislation instigated by an individual Member of your Lordships' House.

I cannot tell noble Lords today precisely how we shall be taking this forward. A number of suggestions have been made today for further changes in the law governing succession to the Throne. We shall of course look at these - in consultation of course with the Royal Family - but the only issue on which a decision has been taken is that which is the subject of the noble Lord's Bill: equality of treatment for men and women in relation to the succession to the Throne.

Lord Williams also revealed that the Queen was quite happy with the measure. Indeed Buckingham Palace have again signalled more recently that they think it would be a useful move. (After all, who would get the flak if Prince William had a first born girl who was then discriminated against in the line of succession?). I have been told by Buckingham Palace that they must take the view that it is not for the Palace to publicly intervene in this issue of public politics and policy, as in any other, which are for government and Parliament to decide. At the same time, Parliament fears going anywhere near the Monarchy for fear of 'politicisation'. This risks making the Monarchy not just the apex of our Constitution, but its Bermuda Triangle.

So the government should use Evan Harris' Bill to finally move. Otherwise we will continue to have, as Mary Riddell has written, the curious case where "the Queen is actually a closet moderniser whose feminist instincts are being frustrated by a Labour government".

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

A View From the Mall

The National Mall in Washington is a space of roughly 300 football pitches. By 9 o’clock on Tuesday the only standing space left to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration was in front of the 555 foot 5 inch monument to America’s first president, George Washington. Obama invoked that leader and the 42 others who had taken the oath of office but not one of them has performed their task in front of so many.

From the raised banks on which the Washington Monument sits, I could see Capitol Hill and a haze of miniature flags but any glimpse of the new president or other dignitaries was impossible from a distance of 1.2 miles. I was one of the last lucky ones to get a view of the Capitol; those who arrived later had to watch the big screens even further away towards the Lincoln Memorial where U2, Bon Jovi and Beyonce performed on Sunday. But that did not deter two million people from braving temperatures of -5C.

While we waited, there was plenty of humour to keep spirits high if not toes warm. Darth Vader’s Theme was hummed loudly as Dick Cheney appeared. “One down!” when Joe Biden was sworn in as Vice President minutes before Obama took to the podium. For Bush, that simple Steam song made famous by Bananarama, “Na-na-na-na, Na-na-na-na, Hey Hey, Goodbye.”

When the moment came for the 44th President to take his oath and address the sea of shivering bodies, an air of solemnity fell on the American capital with many moved to tears. Obama’s speech will be pored over for generations to come but, for me, the most profound moments were the short, poignant pauses between his phrases as the huddled masses stood in silence—expectant for his next word and the near realisation of the change for which so many have hoped for so long.

Read my regular columns on American politics here

Let's hope Obama can bear weight of expectation

Politicians sometimes forget that most ordinary people feel politics is boring, and seems to have no relationship to their lives.
In the US, Barack Obama certainly has overcome those attitudes. He has created a connection, getting voters to turnout who haven't voted for years, or sometimes have never voted ever before. His amazing oration has helped create an emotional appeal around his campaign that has chimed with the population, so that he now seems to embody a set of hopes for change.
In the US, for one set of people he stands for changing the US into somewhere fairer where they get a better life than the one they have, while others are interested in him changing their country into one that is more loved by the rest of the world.
There's a whole lot of emotion aimed at the US this afternoon from the rest of the world too, where television sets are expected to be tuned into this essentially US domestic event in record-breaking numbers.
Even small children have been touched by this man's stature. I heard one 11-year-old British kid on the radio talking about Obama with great feeling. This is someone in another country who still felt this man had something to say to him.
The weight of our expectation is enormous, and this is not only about policy, but what he stands for.
We do, unfairly, expect politicians to live up to our dreams. So when politicians say they want further equality in society, we expect their lives to show that they believe in these things personally as well as politically. And when they say they will make society change, we expect instant action.
Another inspirational president - Nelson Mandela - found that the people that elected him expected their lives to change far more quickly and far more dramatically than he could achieve in post-apartheid South Africa. Obama may find that weight of expectation also brings time-sensitive expectation.
So far and particularly from afar, Obama has been able to be that perfect man, when he becomes president, of course, it will be so much harder to do so.
Let's hope that the cynicism doesn't set in too early and he can hold on to that wave of optimistic support from home and abroad as he tries to create a new presidency.

Monday, 19 January 2009

A secular prayer for Barack Obama, a politician

Let Barack Obama accept our prayer that he should be the great President of our dreams.

Let him restore hope in America by sharing its opportunities more fairly and achieving security for all who are ill.

Let him be President of America and a citizen of the world, who helps us to believe again in the better America of the Marshall Plan and the founding of the UN, joining with us to help secure a new economy, our planet for future generations, and a fair Middle East peace.

Let him be the President who helps us all to chart the new progressive course which had seemed so necessary and yet so hard to find for so long.

Or let him be less than a miracle worker.

So let him, in truth, be the President who works tirelessly for change from the inside, who brings gradual progress for brave causes even if he never delivers the new Jerusalem. Yet let his arguments and ideas, his achievements and setbacks, leave more people than before believing that the struggle should go on.

Let him, even, disappoint, and try again, and yet fail to quench the thirst of a generation for change. Let him at least provoke others to argue about his legacy, and to try to write a new script of their own.

Let him be a politician.

Let him be a man as well as an icon of hope.

Let history honour his achievement of being the first black President, but let him be the 44th President too.

Let him accept the burden of the dreams we project on to him, but let him explain to us too that the expectations we have of him conflict and contradict each other.

Let him inspire a wider belief that politics matters - but let him remind us too of what politics demands.

So let him help us to change the way we talk to and about each other. Let him challenge us to pursue our values, ideals and interests – and remind us that other people have differing ideals and interests too. Let him help to teach us again to disagree with each other passionately and with respect.

Let him remind us that to compromise in the pursuit of our ideals need not be to sell out but can be noble and principled – because democratic negotiation is how we share a society in peace, and can make progress within it.

Let him challenge us too to forge agreements from our differences, to recognise our growing interdependence with each other, and to commit to pursuing our common good.

So let him continue to restore hope to politics – and use that hope to ask us whether we are prepared to make the commitments and sacrifices without which he could not hope to meet the great expectations that we have of him.

Let Barack Obama be the leader that our times demand.

But let him remind us too that we will have the politics and politicians we deserve.

Before we 'runway' with the wrong idea...

It seems that much of the sensible debate surrounding the proposed third runway at Heathrow involves questions of technological advance (with non-sensible debate failing to accept that without such advance the case for the third runway is almost impossible to make). Crucial to the argument of all those who support expansion, whilst accepting the dangers of spiralling levels of carbon emissions for the future of our planet, is the claim that new technologies will revolutionise aircraft. Examples of aeroplanes running on biofuels and so on allow that the new runway need not have the devastating environmental impact that critics of the scheme claim it will.

I am not quite as optimistic as those I describe above. But it does seem that they are right, in one area at least.

According to the UK Statistics Authority, in 2007 27% of flights to the UK and 13% of flights from the UK were made for business trips. And it seems to me that here the technological advances have already been made. They are, in fact, staring us right in the face. With the development of high speed internet connections and good quality webcams we have found the technology that negates the need for most business trips.

Now, I must confess that I have little understanding of the workings of business. I would therefore be very pleased if anyone better informed about such matters could let me know why meetings conducted with webcams over the internet are not pretty much as good as face-to-face meetings, given the environmental cost of the latter. And I would be equally pleased if those who do so would then join me in questioning why those business trips which do not meet this additional criteria are allowed to occur.

Chatting about feminism

Is there a new feminist movement or just an illusion of one? Certainly the debate at the feminism session at the Fabian New Year conference was one of the most interesting debates I have been to for a while.
Firstly, because I had not seen the panel anywhere else before, and secondly because it crossed three age groups, people in their 20s, people in their 30s (am guessing this is where Johann Hari and Zoe Williams are) and Patricia Hewitt, who announced she was nearing 60.
Rather than an old-style debate, this was more like a conversation wandering through the audience. There were no definitive answers. Only questions. But there was a sense that young women in their 20s were often not happy to be connected with the word "feminism" because they didn't feel it applied to them.
Others were dismissive of this, because they felt it wasn't acknowledging the contributions of feminists of the past.
But surely that is irrelevant, if young women who broadly believe in equal pay, and broad equality, chose not to consider themselves feminists is there a problem.
Maybe not. Perhaps it doesn't matter at all what people call themselves, if they come together to fight for particular policies or positions.

European Social Democratic thoughts on the Inauguration

30,000 buses, countless cars, special trains – maybe as many as 2.5 million Americans are coming to Washington to witness the inauguraiton of President Obama. It’s very cold but people don’t care because they are warm inside. I am among those who have made the journey to share the feeling of hope. Apparently an extraordinary 70 % of Americans now support President- elect Obama.

The American people’s expectations of this President of Hope are sky high. The risk of disappointment is real. But I believe he can manage those expectations, he underlines it will be hard. He says it will take time. But I believe he and his administration are determined.

We are facing the most severe recession for 80 years, and with it a devastating increase in unemployment. Obama’s proposed economic stimulus package is very ambitious. But it is also necessary for giving a helping hand to Main St as well as Wall St.

I think there is a message for us in Europe.

Europe will have to do more to tackle the recession. The PES has already proposed a more ambitious plan than the current, and rather over-hyped, European Recovery Plan. We need to coordinate investments and policies among all European Governments to create new jobs, as well as do more at the EU level. If the United States of America can have a large and ambitious recovery plan why can’t our 27 EU member states?

At the same time, Barack Obama can’t achieve his ambitions without Europe. We have an obligation to take actions to combat the recession, to fight for social justice, to make a new effort for peace, especially in the Middle East, and to achieve our climate change and energy commitments.

It’s exciting, the opportunity for Obama and his ‘Yes we can’ attitude to bring about better policies on both sides of the Atlantic and common actions to tackle global crises.

It should also inspire European social democrats and socialists to have more confidence in our own message of hope. Talking to people around Europe I get a very positive response to our Manifesto for the European elections “People first - A new direction for Europe”. But there's still a long way to go.

It’s world history happening here in Washington, and I am proud to say even before the event ‘I was there’. And the point is we can make that history happen by contributing to that positive change …

Fairness is more than 'equality of opportunity'

I wasn't able to attend the Fabian Society conference on inequality this past weekend, but it sounds like it was a very stimulating event. Reading reports of the conference on Next Left, I have been struck by how far some members of the government continue to articulate views that identify social justice, or 'fairness', with equality of opportunity. Since 'fairness' is emerging as such a central theme of Labour under Gordon Brown, I think it is important to be clear why this view is mistaken. The reasons why it is mistaken also help explain why it is not the view that many influential social democratic thinkers of the past, ranging from R.H. Tawney to Tony Crosland, have taken.

A good place to start is with Peter Mandelson's views, as reported on Next Left. Mandelson's argument, in essense, is: (1) the proper goal of social democrats is 'equality of opportunity', not 'equality of outcome'; (2) 'equality of outcome' is actually unfair because 'high performance' deserves 'high reward'; (3) higher taxation of those on high incomes is, therefore, not a 'litmus test' of fairness - for some of these high incomes are a fair reward for high performance.

The first thing to say here is that 'equality of opportunity' is itself an ambiguous concept - and, therefore, a slippery one. As I argue in my recent book on equality, the idea is sometimes interpreted to mean 'weak meritocracy': equal opportunity to compete for jobs in a discrimination-free environment. It can also be interpreted to mean 'strong meritocracy': people who start in different social classes should have equal opportunity to develop their talents and (then) compete for jobs in a discrimination-free environment. In the context of government policy and wider government discussion, we can be fairly sure that Peter Mandelson means something closer to 'strong meritocracy'.

One question which then arises is whether Peter Mandelson accepts what we need, in principle, to secure 'strong meritocracy'. As I argued in my blogs last week, it is very odd to state a belief in equality of opportunity, in the strong meritocratic sense, and then say little or nothing about tackling inequalities of wealth that undermine equality of opportunity in this sense.

But there are deeper phiolosophical problems in Peter Mandelson's perspective. It is, to begin with, quite false to present the choice as between 'equality of opportunity' and 'equality of outcome'. Few egalitarian philosophers endorse 'equality of outcome' (equality of income or equality of welfare) because they accept that the distribution of resources should be, in Ronald Dworkin's phrase, 'ambition-sensitive'. That is to say, the distribution should be sensitive to the different life-style chocies people make. If Smith and Jones have the same earnings potential, and Smith earns more because she chooses to work longer hours, or undertake productive investments that entail some risk, while Jones does not, then the resulting inequality is (at least to some extent) fair.

This doesn't imply an acceptance of 'equality of opportunity', however, even on the strong meritocratic view of what equality of opportunity is. This is because even in a strong meritocracy, people can have unequal income and wealth not only due to choice but due to inequalities in ability over which they have no control. Smith and Jones may grow up in a strong meritocracy which gives them equal opportunity to develop and apply their talents, but Jones may end up with less - perhaps a lot less - simply because he is endowed by nature with less of the skills or characteristics which can be developed into a marketable form. This is why Ronald Dworkin argues that a just distribution must not only be 'ambition-sensitive' but what he calls 'endowment-insensitive': it must not allow those who have more marketable talent to enjoy higher rewards than those who, through no fault of their own, are endowed with less marketable talent.

Why? Well, the moral intuition is the same as that which underlies the case for strong meritocracy. The strong meritocrat points out that it is not fair for Jones to have less lifetime earnings opportunity than Smith because of the accident of birth: of being born into one social class rather than another. But our natural endowments are also a matter of accident of birth. So, if the underlying, root idea is that it is unfair for lifetime earnings opportunity to be unequal due to accidents of birth, then a just distribution must go some way to correct inequalities in lifetime earnings opportunity from differences in natural ability as well as from differences in class background.

If we accept this view, however, then we simply can't say that high rewards at the top end of the earnings scale are just because they are a reward for higher performance - even assuming that they are indeed a reward for high performance. For high performance only 'deserves' higher reward to the extent that it is a reflection of choice rather than the good fortune of being gifted with more natural ability. Moreover, to the extent that high reward is a reward to high natural ability, taxes on high performance are a 'litmus test' of fairness.

So even under conditions of equality of opportunity, there is a strong fairness-based case for redistribution to rectify inequalities due to differences in underlying potential and ability - differences that will remain even in a perfectly meritocratic world. Of course, this consideration has to be balanced against the concern not to eliminate inequalities that reflect differences in effort and risk-taking, and finding the right balance will be difficult and always subject to dispute.

But the key point remains: there is more to fairness than equality of opportunity - as well as being much more to equality of opportunity than a lot of contemporary political discussion - with its neglect of wealth inequality - admits.

Could Clarke's return change Europe debate in government?

Peter Mandelson has said he thinks it could do so. Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the Fabian Review a year ago that Europe is seen as a tactical weakness for Labour but should be seen as a strategic strength.

Europe is seen as a tactical problem for us but it's a strategic problem for the Tories. Right? Our position on Europe is a strategic advantage for us even if there are tactical challenges that arise and that's because once you accept that climate change, migration, terrorism, are big sources of insecurity, you have to find international ways of dealing with them. You can't tackle climate change if you're a Eurosceptic."

That analysis is much strengthened by the major issues of 2009: notably the financial crisis, the climate change deal, and the opportunities of a new foreign policy engagement with the Obama administration. This could offer the opportunity for a stronger engagement with Europe on issues people care about. Perhaps Clarke's return to the Tory frontbench will encourage the government, by also changing the tactical issue of which side is keener to keep Europe on the backburner. (It could be argued that both frontbenches have largely wanted to do so).

There is a lively discussion thread at ConservativeHome , whose poll found party members recently favoured a Ken Clarke return by 50% to 41%, against the editorial line of the site).

I posted my initial thoughts on Clarke's return there, as follows:

Certainly, the Conservatives will gain from a very well known and strong public communicator. The plan is clearly less prominence for Osborne, and much more for Hague and also Clarke, which suggests a lot of concern at the top about the similarity of Cameron and Osborne's profiles and backgrounds making the Tory party seem much too narrow.

This will also be welcomed by pro-Europeans in all parties. Clarke will be unsackable by Cameron, and it was recently reported that he is aware of that. I am sure the Tory party's instincts will remain strongly Eurosceptic, but Clarke's portfolio will make him something of a balancing voice in the detail of policy and politics.

How much that matters may depend whether the government makes Europe more prominent this year, having been fairly defensive on it. I think they will, but can not be sure. Partly the issues of the crisis, especially ahead of the G20, and also on climate change this year; partly Mandelson's return means a strong pro-EU axis with Miliband. And the Tory sceptics may struggle to convince their leadership to take as strong a line as you want where the government is being pro-EU on an issue the public care about (eg financial system, environment, energy); and where Obama is taking a similar line.

In those circumstances, Clarke would be one more factor in the balance, but it may also come to be a difference of opinion between the grassroots and the leader about how important a eurosceptical challenge to particular developments in some of these areas. It will certainly be interesting!

Mandelson: tax not a "litmus test" of fairness

Pushing up tax rates for high earners is not a “litmus test of social justice”, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson told Saturday’s Fabian New Year Conference.

Instead, tax policy should be guided by the economic circumstances and national needs in play at different times, he argued – with the new 45p top rate necessary for everyone to pay their “fair share of the burden” during difficult economic times.

Speaking at the session ‘Fairness in a Recession’, Lord Mandelson began by reminding that his renowned quote about New Labour being “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” had come with an oft-neglected caveat: “so long as they pay their taxes”.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber later delivered his own rejoinder to the quote, saying: “But the trouble is, you know, they don’t”.

Addressing the session, Lord Mandelson said: “Equality of opportunity has to be created, because it is the foundation of a fair society and a more equal society.

“It [Labour] does it, in my view, creating equality of opportunity much more effectively than seeking to impose equality of outcome through government policy.”

The Business Secretary argued that globalisation demanded a “social contract” – a version of the “reformed European social model” that ties liberal economics into a social democratic framework.

He went on to say: “There’s a tendency, especially during a downturn, to make the incomes of the wealthy a proxy for fairness – that if we are reducing the incomes or the wealth of the wealthy, that is somehow making us a fair society. And I think it is very important that we don’t get ourselves into thinking that tax therefore, and tax on the highest paid in our society, is a litmus test of social justice…

“I think taxation is dicatated by what economics circumstances require us to do and the needs of the country, what they require at that time.”

Lord Mandelson contrasted “the politics of resentment” – which he branded “corrosive” - with a politics based on “aspiring to lift people up”. He reeled off a list of ways Labour had “pursued social justice” between 1997 and 2008 without raising the top rate of tax.

Yet he acknowledged a “progressive taxation system” is vital to fund public services and public goods such as retraining for unemployed workers, and other “levers of equality”.

“We shouldn’t have a problem with high pay for high performance; I see nothing wrong at all with giving rewards for those where you are acknowledging or rewarding excellent performance,” said Lord Mandelson. But he added that genuine rewards for high performance “in many cases is precisely what we haven’t seen in many reaches of the financial services industry over the last 10 years.”

Barber welcomed the Government’s active response to the financial crisis and economic downturn, but placed a different emphasis to Mandelson on tax.

He noted a 2006 Ernst & Young study that found billionaires resident in the UK at that time were paying an effective rate of only 0.01% to the Exchequer.

Urging action on tax as part of the Government’s fairness strategy, including action on tax havens, Barber added: “I do not think that this is about the politics of envy but I do think it is about the politics of equity.”

Rachel Reeves, a former Bank of England economist and Labour PPC for Leeds West, contrasted the PBR’s injection of funds equivalent to 1.3% of GDP into the UK economy with the approximately 5% of GDP contained in Obama’s stimulus package.

As expectations of the scale of the recession worsen, Reeves highlighted the need for a “New Deal-type package” of investment, jobs and training – with March’s budget providing an opportunity for another “substantial injection of cash into the economy”.

She also called for the Bank of England to be given the authority to examine “a range of unconventional policies” including quantitative easing, a controversial policy involving boosting the supply of money in the economy.

James Forsyth of the Spectator said that the approximate doubling of the number of people earning within the top tax band that had taken place over the last 10 years had to be “dealt with”.

Arguing for regulatory reform that is “pro-market and not pro-business”, Forsyth noted it was “quite incredible” there would almost certainly be no criminal prosecutions in Britain stemming from the financial crisis, especially when set against numerous Securities and Exchange Commission investigations in the USA.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

George Osborne: an apology

The return of at least one grown-up non-Europhobe to the Shadow Cabinet should be very much welcomed by pro-Europeans in all parties.

But it reminds me that Next Left may owe Shadow Chancellor George Osborne an apology. We cruelly 'itchy chin' ridiculed reported claims by his friends that it was the boy George who was pushing hardest for Ken to come back to the Shadow Cabinet.

However, a couple of days later, the always v.well informed Ben Brogan of the Mail reported that:

Mr Osborne has let it be known that neither he nor his 'friends' have voiced the view that he is happy about Mr Clarke's return, as reported yesterday.

So, sorry George, for thinking you might be so cynical as to pretend that you were.

Unless, however, tomorrow you do turn out to be really, really happy with your friend Dave inflicting what looks to most of Westminster like the double humiliation of the Hague promotion and Clarke return.

In that case, we can re-retract. We will know you were triple bluffing. Or something.

Labourspace looks very interesting. I assume the new site was partly inspired by the Obama 'Ideas for Change' competition

I wasn't aware of it until Ed Miliband suggested in his Fabian speech on Saturday that it will be launched this week.

Of course, there is more we could do, and in all these areas, our economy, our society, our democracy, we need a manifesto that is radical and transformative and we need your ideas and input.

The Fabians have argued we need to open up the process and I agree. Next week we will be launching a dialogue on the internet precisely designed to stimulate ideas.
Between now and the manifesto it will be canvassing the best ideas, and a chance for a two way dialogue, so please go to from next Wednesday. And in many other ways, we need to open out the process and I want to hear your thoughts on this during the course of today.

And LabourSpace looks very much like it could well be the first serious step in the opening up that we have been advocating - both very recently and for some time.

Here is a brief explanation from the site.

Labourspace lets you quickly and easily set up a campaign and share your ideas with the Labourspace community. If you start a campaign which gains the most popular support your ideas will be bought to the attention of senior Labour politicians - your campaign could give you the opportunity to change the world! You'll win if you have the idea with the highest net support (supporters - detractors). All you need is to get the most support for your idea - it's all about people power really!

Like the Downing Street petitions site, it will no doubt attract the trolls and cynics. But it will be up to progressives to use it constructively too.

The fairness wrap

A selection of reports and reaction to the Fabian conference:

The Independent on Sunday has a news feature on the next feminism conference debate.

The BBC reports on Ed Miliband's analysis of the "profound crisis" for the idea of unregulated markets, while his charge that the crisis "was not caused by government but by a lack of government" is reported in the Sunday Telegraph, while The People has a punchy tabloid report on a similar theme. notes how the challenges from the floor put Ed Miliband on the defensive over Heathrow, while the Times website's Green Central blog has more of the Miliband defence of the government's climate strategy.

Iain Martin of The Telegraph finds in Ed Miliband's acceptance of my call to open up the manifesto process manouvering for future leadership advantage. Such cynicism!

There are several reports of the panel on 'fairness in a recession' with Peter Mandelson. The Sunday Express notes his rejection of calls to bail out the car industry. Mandelson also spoke about diversifying away from a dependence on financial services, warned against a politics of resentment on tax, but argued that fairness and equality were fundamental values for Labour. reports on TUC boss Brendan Barber's challenge to Mandelson over regulation, while the TUC has more of Barber's comments on fair taxation. James Forsyth of The Spectator also took part in the panel and, noting Mandelson's argument that government will need to do more called for "more time, more ingenuity and possibly some further trial", rather doubts the electorate will have much patience.

Andrew Sparrow, who blogged all day for the Guardian, was impressed by Ed Miliband. Tom Miller reported for LabourList, including a liveblog capturing some of the highly enjoyable madness of our 'dragons den' final plenary - clips of which are now available on Next Left.

Reve Lavanchy, a Tribune reporter who has his own blog too, has spotted a Treasury Minister with a soft spot for Lenin. Its a creative angle, but slightly less exciting than it sounds. He reports Angela Eagle as noting that even Lenin realised that it wasn't possible to abolish markets entirely. One would hardly have to be a Bolshevik to make that point.

Finally, fairness doesn't happen by chance - and neither did the conference. A very big thank you to all of my colleagues - Fatima Hassan, who ran the event brilliantly; events director Jemima Olchawski and her team, media supremo Rachael Jolley for making this our most webbed up conference, and all of the Fabian staff, interns and stewards for their work in making the event possible.

From maximum wages, to pension overhauls and Oxbridge admissions: a range of ideas to make Britain fairer

All delegates and speakers were asked to contribute their ‘One Idea to Make Britain Fairer’ at this year's Fabian Society New Year Conference. The best were then pitched to our ‘Make Britain Fairer’ judges in the final plenary, to be debated and voted upon by the audience. Forming the panel were Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, David Aaronovitch, columnist for The Times and Dawn Butler MP. David Lammy MP, the Minister for Higher Education, was chair. Here is a selection of videos from some of the brave entrants.

Kevin Maguire, associate editor of the Daily Mirror, called for a national maximum wage set at a rate of 10:1 against the workers on the lowest remuneration in the country. Aaronovitch questioned how Manchester City would be able to afford Kaka if it came into force, but Maguire said, as a Sunderland supporter, this was of little concern to him. More seriously though, Dennis MacShane MP said he had proposed a similar policy over 10 years ago but set the ratio twice as high.


Tim Horton, the Research Director of the Fabian Society, wanted to take half of the advertising budget currently used to promote action to tackle benefit fraud to support a new campaign against tax avoidance, seeking to change cultural norms on free-riding at the top as well as the bottom. Livingstone's reaction to this proposal, already documented by Sunder Katwala, somehow advocated invading Guernsey as the next step. Not offical Fabian policy, I hasten to add.


Kelvin Hopkins MP, argued for a drastic change in pensions with an abolition of means testing and restoring the 25% earnings link. He was questioned about Gordon Brown's take on the subject and the impact his proposals would have on women in particular. Hopkins was heavily criticised for not having fully costed his proposal and, even though he maintained the NI rise would cover it, one delegate even asked for his idea to be ruled out of the competition.


Sarah Vero, researcher for Ian Gibson MP, wanted to impose a cap on the number of privately educated pupils who were allowed into Oxbridge. She proposed having only 14% of places for non-state students, which is twice the percentage of pupils across the country that actually attend private schools. Livingstone lodged an objection that the policy would cause resentment like that in the US over affirmative action. However Lammy had the final word by saying that both Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice benefited from similar schemes in the past.


All the proposals were then put to the floor to discover the Fabian Society's 'One Idea to Make Britain Fairer'. After a close round of voting, a run-off was required to decide between Hopkins' and Vero's proposals. Lammy had pressed hard for the pension scheme, well aware that Oxbridge admissions fall under his portfolio, but eventually conceded a draw. Which one do you think should have won and would do the most to make our country fairer?

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The debate over race has moved on, says Khan

The Labour Party has taken the ‘black vote’ for granted for too long, Sadiq Khan MP told a session at the Fabian Society conference.

He argued that the politics of race had to move on: “The Labour Party has for too long taken the black vote for granted. I think we’ve become lazy.”

He added: “It’s now about considering multiple identities - we’re not just Muslim or Asian or black or a parent or a Londoner or a man, we’re multiple identities.”

Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown felt race as an issue has been forgotten: “We no longer talk about race. We need to find new ways of addressing emerging problems. We’re nowhere near the kind of equal society we need to be in.”

The impact of Barack Obama’s rise to the US presidency was a recurring theme. Khan, the new chair of the Fabian Society, said Obama had “burst the myth that if you’re a person of colour you can’t win votes.”

Simon Wooley, Director of Operation Black Vote, said there was a danger of assuming we now live in a “post-racial society.”

Wooley added: “The black communities need to come together in this window of opportunity when it’s cool to be black and drive the agenda forward with the political parties.”

Guardian columnist Dave Hill said Obama “embodies and personifies the complexities of race.”