Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Off with their overheads

Guest post by Paul Richards

In the six years since the Fabian Commission of the Future of the Monarchy little has been done to shed light on the murky world of Royal finances. The accounts published this week only tell a partial story. The Royals are very adept at keeping our noses out of their financial affairs. For example, the accounts do not cover the cost of security for the Royals - a big ticket item if ever there was one. Nor do we have full disclosure of the management of aspects of the Royal estates, with the properties rented at below market rates. The House of Commons public accounts committee faced obstruction in getting the figures from the Royal Household, and the committee's frustration is all too apparent in the report they published earlier this year.

The Royal finances are about as transparent as a fog in the English Channel. This creates a polarised debate. Blood-red Republicans can claim the cost of the monarchy is much higher than we are being told. This week Graham Smith from the Republic pressure group called the monarchy "a hugely expensive institution and we should be looking at massive cuts".

Over at theroyalist.com Joanne Leyland pointed out that the monarchy costs a mere 69 pence per person. Every time the accounts are published, we are encouraged by royalists to believe that the cost is equivalent is some item of household expenditure: a loaf of bread, two pints of milk, a cup of coffee. Soon we'll have enough for a nice breakfast.

I've always found the debate about the cost of the royals somewhat sterile. Republics cost cash too. Heads of State still need to live and work somewhere, to travel in armoured cars, jets and helicopters, and to have armed guards (with or without big hats).

The point is that without clear, simple accounts which cover the true total amount, the debate about how much our monarchy costs will be clouded by inaccuracies and wilful misuse of figures. So the first reform must be to amalgamate the different sources of income funded by the taxpayer - the civil list which pays for the royal household, the grants-in-aid for things such as communication and travel, and funding paid for from government departmental spending. These should be streamlined into a single payment, agreed by Parliament on a three-year settlement. This is how we fund local government and other public institutions. This would mean the true cost of the monarchy would come under democratic control and scrutiny, and the Keeper of the Privy Purse would be answerable to our elected representatives.

A second reform is also needed. The Royals need to raise more money themselves. Prince Charles has long demonstrated an entrepreneurial streak, but that has not been shared by the rest of 'the firm'. Take the example of allowing visitors into Buckingham Palace. Last year, this raised £7 million. But the Palace was only open for 63 days. If Buckingham Palace was open for, say, 100 days a year then the Royals wouldn't be facing a £1.5 million shortfall in their funding, which they will be asking the taxpayer to meet. The White House is open most of the year; so is Windsor Castle. So why not Buckingham Palace? And here's a truly radical idea: what about opening some of the rooms of Clarence House, St James's Palace, and Kensington Palace to the public? The last (and only) time I was at Clarence House, my breath was taken away by the quantity and quality of the artworks on display. Art lovers would jump at the chance to have a look around some of the ground-floor rooms, which are already used for private receptions and events.

Anthony Giddens calls modern society 'post-traditional', with every institution and custom under pressure to justify itself. The Monarchy is perhaps the archetype of a traditional institution which must justify itself in the modern age. It is an ever-evolving and changing institution; that is how it has survived for over a thousand years. Now it needs to adapt to the age of transparency by opening the books: not just the ones we saw this week, but also the ones locked in the desk drawer.

Paul Richards is a former chair of the Fabian Society, and author of the Fabian pamphlet on the monarchy Long to Reign Over Us?

What not to spend - on Newsnight tonight

Fabian research director Tim Horton braves the Newsnight politics pen tonight on the Dragons' Den set.

Tim's proposal is to freeze the threshold before any inheritance tax is payable at the current level of £325,000 (for single adults). It is twice that for married couples.

You can see a preview of Tim's pitch here - and find out what the political animals Digby Jones, Deborah Mattinson, Greg Dyke and Matthew Taylor made of it on Newsnight tonight.

That would save money on current government plans, because the allowances would not be uprated further in the spending squeeze. (There have been some considerable increases in the nil rate threshold, which has risen £40,000 since 2006 -7; I will supply Tim's projected cost savings in the comments tomorrow). It would offer a chance for the Conservative opposition to save a couple of billions more given their current more generous policy to raise the threshold to £1 million.

Last week's first instalment was interesting, with Andrew Haldenby of Reform failing to ditch universalism by means-testing the middle classes out of child benefit and much else. While Gillian Tett of the FT couldn't get a blanket 10% cut in quango spending, because the animals felt her populist call was not backed up by analysis of what cuts could be made, feeling the figures conflated quango bureaucracy with the functions being carried out.

ID cards got the chop though from Freddie Forsyth, though Matthew Taylor was sceptical about how much would be saved.

It suggested that making cuts in the detail is much tougher than talking about doing so in the abstract. It seems a very effective method to engage public audiences in the real politics of so-called 'tough choices'.

No to ID (if you really don't want to) says AJ

Hurrah for Home Secretary Alan Johnson for some common sense in abandoning plans for compulsory ID cards (for British nationals at least).

The new voluntary approach could still go further: we could volunteer not to do it, and to rely on the biometric passports. Questions remain about the nature and safeguards on a national database.

AJ is being interviewed on the PM programme: there is an echo of the refreshingly and perhaps excessively candid comments of Tony McNulty about not overstating the benefits of ID cards at a Fabian event back in 2005.

Even before the spending squeeze was so tight, a convincing cost-benefit analysis had never been made.

It has been a slow and lingering death for the compulsory ID card. There may be a little further to go.

But its nearly all over.

Who is Demos' new Tory recruit?

Next Left has it on good authority from a neck-crickingly senior (and indeed tall) source that the think-tank Demos remains fully committed to fleshing out the ideological paradox that is "progressive Conservatism" after the departure of Red Tory thinker Phillip Blond, which we discussed this morning.

Indeed, we are told to look out in the next few days for the unveiling of a big Tory political "name" to head up the project.

Who might it be? Perhaps Messrs Isaby and Montgomerie would be able to open a book, or at least speculate, about who might make this audacious career move. (Next Left's nomination would, naturally, go to Mr Dan Hannan).

With James Purnell playing a similar thought leadership role on a parallel Demos project, it seems clear that Demos believe it is possible to ride lib-lab and lib-con horses simultaneously in the cause of the liberal republicanism.

So expect a liberal retooling of the ProgCon project - perhaps more 21st century and less 14th - as deep political thinker Phillip Blond goes elsewhere to publish on what the communitarian and anti-liberal Red Toryism might entail. (Faber are to publish the book in January).

Anybody who thinks there are not nearly enough ProgCons to have already developed an ideological split needs to watch Life of Brian again.

Meanwhile Demos promise a great outpouring of research and pamphlets to flesh out their agenda. That is good news. As pledged at the Compass conference, then I remain very much ready to hold up one end of the "Recapitalise the Poor" banner to march on HM Treasury and the Shadow Chancellor's office if the Demos idea of a ProgCon agenda is to demand an irreversible shift in wealth, power and opportunity to the asset-poor in our society,

We might yet together persuade Mr Osborne to change his mind - even if it his regressive plans to recapitalise the rich which have so far proved a hit with the Tory grassroots.

Osborne's Dubya masterclass

While on the subject of the Progressive Conservatives, James Forsyth in the Spectator CoffeeHouse reminds us how much George Osborne's campaigning strategy has sought to learn from George W Bush:

He cites this 2004 Osborne Times op-ed in which a hyper-enthused Osborne reports back from the Republican Convention.

Osborne argued that Bush offered the Tories a masterclass in political campaigning, even if it was already clear how disappointing his supposedly compassionate conservatism had proved in office.

Osborne wrote that the trick is to keep the base happy, but to always put a moderate face out to the public.

Another very keen Dubya admirer is ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie. (He promised write a 10-part "legacy" series on The Things He Got Right: though I can only see four of them archived. If he ever completed the task, we'll add further links if we're sent them. Fair and balanced here, you see).

Montgomerie echoes Osborne in writing today that:

moderation of style is probably a lot more important than moderation of policy in reassuring the electorate (if reassurance is the goal).

Nobody could doubt how far the New Tories will go to show that they have taken that lesson to heart.

But what about this one which Osborne thought was pretty pivotal back in 2004?

Parties face a choice about whether to talk up their country’s future or warn it’s going to the dogs. Blue skies or black skies ahead? Mr Bush’s campaigning suggests blue skies every time. And it makes sense. No electorate wants to be told their best days are behind them.

Not sure the Tories quite kept it positive in 2005.

It does not seem to be where they are heading for 2010 either.

And let's hope the Progressive Conservative George W Bush fan club might also search out one or two "how not to" lessons from the Dubya Presidency too.

Situation Vacant: the ProgCon vacuum

There can have been very few more top-down, elite-led projects in British political history than David Cameron's "progressive Conservatism".

I asked two insiders how many people in the party were fully behind this new Toryism. "Ten," said one, "but it's an important ten", wrote Jenni Russell.

To which the influential Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome responded that he could think of six of them.

But the Progressive Conservatism is thinning out ever further and alarmingly quickly.

As John Bercow takes up the Speakership, and lets go of his political views, to the relief and heartfelt disdain of his Tory colleagues, which of them will challenge the leadership from the backbenches to go further on social liberalism and equalities?


Meanwhile, the Progressive Conservative project at Demos launched with great fanfare by David Cameron and Oliver Letwin just five months ago has come to a shuddering halt, with Phillip Blond leaving Demos startlingly quickly.

Will anybody be picking up the mantle to fill out how the ProgCon project might resolve its various paradoxes? Was the high-profile launch the main point for the Cameroons themselves?

Even if David Cameron's sponsorship of it is an instrumental Tory governing strategy, he might need it to put up a better show than this.

I don't know the full story of the Demos split and have not spoken to the principals, so please do take this as speculative analysis.

Blond plans to launch his own ideas tank. Details are promised within days. (I reckon he would be well advised to steer clear of the label 'progressive' this time). What happens to the Tory-Demos flirtation is unclear.

The general word among the wonks at the ippr party was that Blond was pushed more than he jumped. This may be hearsay, though many in wonk-world have been aware of simmering tensions for some time.

Perhaps what pop bands call "unreconciliable artistic differences" might best cover the range of personality and intellectual clashes involved.

Richard Reeves and Phil Collins promoting a liberal and republican agenda, seeking kindred spirits across the Lib-Lab divide refounding the "Rainbow Circle" of the 1890s while seeking to engage liberal Tories too. This is a liberal progressive project.

Meanwhile, despite the 'progressive' branding, for Blond's Red Toryism it is liberalism - social and economic - which is to blame for the hollowing out of politics and society. The return of virtue and a new medievalism are promoted.

Yet again at Demos, Sonia Sodha and Julia Margo, recruited from ippr, promote a broadly social democratic approach to capabilities, stressing the need for interventions to tackle the most deep-seated inequalities in life chances.

When going head-to-head with Phillip Blond at the Compass conference, I suggested that the prize joust we really needed to hear was between Blond and Reeves on the case for and against the Demos liberal vision. Blond was rather keen on the idea and had proposed it himself; Reeves somewhat less so, he suggested.

Cross-party promiscuity seems to me par for the course for an institution like Demos: thinking across boundaries was pretty central to its ethos and mission from the early 1990s too. So I am rather bemused if government insiders have time to be perplexed by that, as yesterday's Guardian suggested. But some see James Purnell's engagement with Demos as perhaps signalling that Demos chair Phil Collins and director Richard Reeves believe that the space for influence may yet be rather more with the debates opening up across the centre and left, rather than those on the right.

Think-tanks can and should be pluralist, seeking to voice, house and greenhouse rather different political projects. It is part of the point. But there may be limits too. Perhaps the Demos split is another reminder that even the biggest of tents needs to pitch its tent hooks somewhere.

Meanwhile, the ProgCon project is surely going to struggle to recruit the missing troops if it runs out of generals too.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Guido to join the LibDems?

A sizeable contingent of Britain's better known political geeks managed to wash, dress and leave their bedrooms to make it to tonight's rather swanky ippr 21st birthday party.

It will be no surprise that Next Left spotted the chief scribblers for LabourList, Liberal Conspiracy (with Mr Sunny Hundal a predictable exception on the shaving front) and LabourHome among others in the throng.

So too was Mr Paul Staines, better known as Britain's most read political blogger Guido Fawkes.

ippr co-directors Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim had spoken of the danger of disdain not just for politicians but for politics itself. So perhaps inviting Mr Anti-Politics himself to be among their guests was one example of their emphasis on a big tent willingness to forge any alliance which could take forward their cause.

In any event, it enables Next Left to bring you what I believe is a (v.minor) scoopette: Guido (or rather, I presume, Mr Staines) is giving serious consideration to joining the Liberal Democrats.

Since much of the blogosphere proved rather better at checking sources than most of the red faced nationals over MiliTwitGate, let me warn you that it this one is only single-sourced.

But it did come direct from a man who has a very good claim to know the mind of the blogger.

Fawkes/Staines says he is particularly attracted by the party's policies to take people out of tax at the bottom, along with their liberalism on most social issues.

He thinks the Orange Bookers and libertarian tendency in the party are alive and kicking, and might benefit from his advocacy and engagement.

Now I rather doubt that he will do it in the end. It would cut quite far across the 'plague on all your houses' branding. Unless, with anti-politics having become so mainstream, constructive political engagement is the new counter-culture since that may now be as rebellious as it gets. .

I fear that I may have put him off. I told him that Vince Cable will fund those changes with some redistribution at the top, considering changes to end the higher rate of pension tax relief and such like. Staines was rather less keen on that, though could probably live with closing loopholes.

If Staines did apply for a party card, it could be something of a home-coming. You could make an argument that he would be rejoining the party, as he was a prominent member of the Young Social Democrats and SDP some time before the creation of the merged Social and Liberal Democrats. (Staines may be rather more of a civic "joiner" than many think: he was reportedly also a member of the now defunct Irish Progressive Democrat party, whose economic and social liberalism had quite an impact on Irish society but proved harder to sustain politically).

Nor I am sure how many co-conspirators he would be able to persuade to join the yellow peril. But Staines does think that a small and energetic cohort of perhaps fifty or so could have a considerable impact in the party.

"Don't forget that, when I was on the SDP, I was on the national committee", he told me.

LibDems, you have been warned. And Nick Clegg, the ball may just be in your court ....

Time for grown-up debate on housing waiting lists

Guest post by James Gregory

There is much hubbub in the air as we all await Brown’s new vision for social housing. An announcement in Parliament is expected to contain a promise of another £500m for affordable housing, probably extending Homebuy direct, the key vehicle of a strategy for extending ownership to those priced out of the market.

But, as ever, this promise of substance is accompanied by a piece of political cleverness. In an apparent play to the kind of fears and resentments that the BNP has capitalised on, local authorities will be encouraged to take into account the applicant’s ties to the area. No longer will the immediate neediness of applicants trump the history of ‘locals’.

At first sight, this seems, as I have suggested, to be a straight play to the low electoral politics of immigration and race. But this should not blind us to the potential radicalism of the proposal. For in the insistence that ‘need’ should not be the sole criterion of housing allocation, Brown will be bumping the most sacred of policy cows: that social housing is a scarce good that can only be efficiently distributed if highly targeted.

Of course, social housing is a scarce good. But, as I argued in the Fabian Society report In the Mix: Narrowing the Gap between Public and Private Housing, it is targeting that does so much to undermine the value of social housing. Steep targeting based on need is a recipe for stigma and alienation, and this stigma, in turn, undermines public support for more social housing. And so the vicious circle continues: social housing is not for people like us, so why support it?

It is, then, high time for a sophisticated debate on council house waiting lists. Widening our approach to allocations should not only help to erode the stigma of the tenure, but it will also help to break up the concentrations of poverty that can be a cause as well as a symptom of disadvantage. Just as importantly, a greater mix of tenants will make the task of housing management that much easier; freeing up time and resources to help those that would most benefit from holistic management services (such as debt and employment advice) that many housing associations are increasingly offering.

So, the Brown announcement will almost certainly be a piece of politics, and an attempt at electoral positioning. But it is up to us to ensure that the debate is wider than this.

James Gregory is a research fellow at the Fabian Society.

Religion and the vision thing

Madeleine Bunting has an interesting piece in today's Guardian on the lack of moral vision in politics. Where is such vision to come from? What can rescue us from the politically disengaged, anti-social individualism which arises in the absence of any such vision?

In the course of her article, Bunting refers sympathetically to the ideas of the current Reith lecturer, Harvard University's Michael Sandel: 'Most political questions are at their core moral or spiritual, Sandel declares, they are about our vision of the common good; bring religion and other value systems back into the public sphere for a civic renewal.' As Bunting goes on to note: 'His audience will probably wince with horror', his proposals 'will deeply divide.'

Is that reaction of 'horror' the right one? Which side of the 'divide' should we be on?

Sandel is articulating a 'communitarian' philosophy which is also to be seen at present, in a more strident form, in the 'Red Toryism' of Phillip Blond and, more ambiguously, in the 'ethical socialism' of Jonathan Rutherford and Jon Cruddas. The core communitarian thesis is this: 'There is no shared political vision without a shared vision of the good life. Outside of such a vision, there is only a vision of 'atomised' individuals doing their own thing with no morality to define and shape the public square.' Religion can offer one source of vision about the good life.

In assessing this school of thought, a first step is to be clear about the downside to letting political decision-making be determined by visions of the good life, not least those which derive from religions.

So imagine a government proposing to reduce the age of consent for gay sex. During legislative debates on the proposal, a major religious leader gets up in the legislature and tells the nation that the measure is to be opposed because of the alleged incompatibility of gay sex with religious ethics. (My memory is terrible, but I seem to recall the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, doing precisely this in the House of Lords about a decade ago?)

What are we to make of this? Is it appropriate for members of a religion to make laws which limit the freedom of all citizens on the basis of religious beliefs that are specific to followers of their religion?

I'm inclined, as a first approximation, to give a full-throated, hearty 'No' to that question. To allow laws to be made on the basis of religious belief is to endorse theocracy. I oppose theocracy in Iran, and I oppose it here.

The underlying problem - which Madeleine Bunting starts to acknowledge towards the end of her article, but doesn't really confront - is that in a free society there is always going to be a reasonable plurality of views about the good life. A theory of the good life is a theory about what gives meaning and purpose to life. Arriving at such a theory means asking questions like: 'Is there a God? What does he/she/it/they require of me? If there is no God, how am I to live?' So long as there is freedom of inquiry and expression, people will answer these questions in different ways and, as a result, will passionately disagree about the ethics of gay sex, contraception, divorce, women's role in the household, meat eating, and so on and so on. A free society cannot have a vision of the 'common good' if by that one means a settled consensus around a specific theory of the good life.

So the first point is that the 'communitarian' approach to political vision is undesirable because it seeks a degree and kind of moral consensus which we cannot attain in a free society.

But where, then, is a vision of the 'common good' to come from?

The communitarians in effect believe there is nowhere else from which such a vision can possibly come. The philosophical tradition of liberalism disagrees. The fundamental liberal claim is that we do not face a dire choice between theocracy and public nihilism. There is, so to speak, a third way.

The liberal approach is to argue that while citizens might disagree about the nature of the good life, they can and do share certain interests as the kind of beings who struggle to articulate and follow conceptions of the good life. They have interests in life, security, and certain freedoms, such as freedom of conscience, which are strategically vital to pursuing the good life as one sees it. They have interests in access to resources and economic opportunity more widely. They have interests in self-respect and in social conditions that help to sustain their mental health.

For short, we might call this set of interests, instrumental freedom. The task of the state, says the liberal, is to show equal concern and respect for each citizen's interest in instrumental freedom. To be committed to the common good, then, is to be committed to this kind of equal freedom. From this basic principle, liberals then seek to derive more specific principles of justice, to flesh out their account of the common good.

And this conception of the common good can, in turn, underpin an understanding of civic virtue. The citizen of virtue is she or he who acts to promote the principles of justice which secure equal freedom for all. To be sure, this way of thinking about the common good has problems of its own. But it is surely much more promising as basis for a common political ethic in a free society than the communitarian approach.

If all this sounds abstract, one can always take a look at Barack Obama's Inaugural Speech as US President. As I argued in an earlier post, it offers a beautiful restatement of this liberal-republican understanding of a free political community's shared political vision.

Is all this to imply, then, that religion has no place at all in the public forum? Not necessarily. The values that lie at the heart of the liberal conception of the common good are values that can be found in many religious traditions, at least on certain lines of interpretation of these traditions. The stories of religious traditions can provide moving and insightful ways of talking about these values in a way that prompts us to take them more seriously. Religious traditions can, in short, work to consolidate liberal civic virtue. London Citizens, which has roots in many religious (as well as non-religious) organizations, is arguably doing something just like this.

So the answer to the vision thing is, in my view, the old-fashioned liberal one: the common good is the good of social justice, the concrete working out of the liberal promise of equal freedom for citizens of all faiths and none.

Of course, the Labour party has failed to stand up for this social vision in recent years. But that's a reason to reaffirm the vision, not a reason to abandon liberalism for the reactionary politics of communitarianism.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Mystic Mogg and the curtains of complacency

Former Times editor Lord William Rees-Mogg has been an influential High Tory insider for decades. Indeed he is credited with a direct and decisive influence in persuading Alec Douglas-Home to step down as Tory leader with his Sunday Times column 'The Right Time for a Change' in July 1965, something today's Guardian leader writers and columnists have been unable to emulate.

Today, Rees-Mogg promotes the next election as a Tory equivalent of 1945 because of the scale of the bright new intake. I see no reason to doubt the Sir William's sincerity in believing in his party's glittering future.

Even so, it might still be rather good form to acknowledge that these acclaimed Tory prospective candidates include no fewer than two of Sir William's own children, Jacob and Annunziata. (An observation Next Left made after a previous Rees-Mogg column boosting the current Tories as the best for fifty years, but if he persists then so might we).

It would at least help to explain to readers one way in which the octogenerian scribe keeps his finger on the pulse of what the party's yoof are thinking.

The rest of us might not yet be quite sure whether they have the equivalent of the Beveridge plan or the national mood of solidarity and hope, and if David Cameron is surrounded by lieutenants of the quality of Bevin, Morrison, Cripps, Dalton and Bevan then they are clearly remain very well disguised under deep cover.

But perhaps this may also strike some fear into the heart of camp Cameron, given Rees-Mogg's famoulsy unerring record for mistaken predictions which earned him the Private Eye sobriquet 'Mystic Mogg'. (As David McKie noted, he had championed IDS as a new Attlee too while other misfires including his column hailing Margaret Thatcher's first round vote in the Tory leadership contest of 1990 as a decisive victory, the day before she resigned).

As Fraser Nelson and Tim Montgomerie today report David Cameron and George Osborne planning new Downing Street office arrangements, is the curtain-measuring in anticipation of power going a little too far?

Are the Conservatives getting complacent? I imagine they will spend next week insisting that they are not. But many in the do seem to be spending rather more time fantasising about measuring the size of its majority than considering how difficult it could even yet be to acquire one.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

For a few dollars more...or a bucket

Pensions - now there's a depressing word.
Has anyone else been having that really bleak dream where you have aged into a creature far greyer and wrinklier than you are now? You are alone; not a sign of a friend or family member anywhere. You are toothless and a bit dribbly and in a terrible care home, with no one to spoon some food into your mouth.
You haven't? Well, I've got some news for you, it might be on its way to you next.
Britain, like other western developed countries, has a demographic timebomb heading its way. We are zooming towards a world where there are a lot of old people and not many young, working ones to pay the bills, manufacture goods or make things happen.
In a highly depressing article in today's Times, Andrew Ellson puts his big black marker pen through final salary schemes, and says we can forget about those being any help.
Yes, we sort of knew that, but we were, you know, ignoring it. However, there are more gloomy clouds flitting along the horizon, says Ellson. Public sector pensions, well, don't expect those to be around much longer. He is not alone in the world of ageing gloom. Master of wise words Vince Cable gave a warning of ructions in the public sector pensions zone at the Fabians' recent ageing society seminar.
And well, where does that leave us, apart from with our heads firmly in the sand? Ellson, who is the Times personal finance editor, says we could get to grips with SIPPS, that's self-invested personal pensions to you and me.
But once he starts explaining what they are, and what you need to do, they sound well beyond the realms of reality for me, my aunty Marge and Jonathan Ross - who admitted this morning on his Radio 2 show that he can't do numbers any more.
So SIPPS are a tax wrapper which you can fold around a number of investment "vehicles". With me so far? They offer greater flexibility than ordinary private pensions, BUT, they have higher fees and need a fair bit of watching.
And, warns Ellson, do read the small print. OK, this all sounds far too scary and difficult for most of us who just want to put some money in a safe place and see it grow.
Meanwhile, over at The Economist they have devoted a whole 14-page special to the scary business of ageing. And if you want to find the numbers to make you wake up at night with the nasty dribbling dream, then this is the place to find them.
In 1950 only around 5% of the population of the "developed" countries were over 60 years old, by 2050 this will be heading towards 35%. Meanwhile, in western Europe the birth rate is dropping fast, so there will be far fewer young people to help the economy work.
Also there will be far fewer kids around to help their ageing parents cope. And yes, we will be living longer, our current life expectancy in Britain is a pretty decent 79.1 years.
So back to pensions - where do we go from here? State pensions might be there for the next generation - and hopefully will cover the absolute basics, so we in Britain are luckier than some. But as to pensions - one of the few options left is gambling on the stock market - in some form, and that's just not very enticing. Private pensions are set up with the wealthy in mind. If you earn above £60,000 you probably have an accountant who can keep an eye on all these stock market fluctuations, fees that can go up as well as down, and who generally understands what to do with SIPPs.
If you are earning something around the average income level or below, then there probably not much cash left in the piggy bank to push into a private pension scheme in the first place, but certainly not much there to be eaten up by managment fees.
So where does that leave us? Well, I'm afraid for me it just feels like impending doom.
Since Andrew Ellson doesn't have any wise words for anyone in my pay bracket, then putting my head back in that bucket of sand seems like the only choice.

Respectable Vince wants to cut some City throats

Vince Cable has a hard-hitting must read cover essay in the New Statesman this week.

The LibDem Treasury spokesman's agenda for regulatory reform is as informed, detailed and measured as would be expected from Cable, combined with what is surely the most vociferous criticism of City finance to be voiced by any mainstream British politician for a generation.

From mild mannered Vince, this is a very British tirade.

And Cable is sounding the alarm bells partly because he believes that the MPs expenses crisis has seen the debate come full circle so that, once again, fears of over-regulation dominate.

The bankers’ view is that UK politicians need to get off their backs as quickly as possible and get the banks back into the private sector; to reverse “penal” (ie, 50 per cent) marginal tax rates; and to stop the European Commission, or more self-confident UK regulators, from “undermining the City’s competitiveness”. These arguments are winning. Indeed, there is a danger that the counter-revolution could soon become a rout.

Cable advocates a separation between utility and casino banking - an idea he floated in his Fabian Review interview last December.

why should banks be allowed to pursue the maximisation of shareholder value – and management bonuses – when they are underwritten by the taxpayer? This question has never been answered properly. Banks should either surrender their protection and compete like other firms, or be protected and have their profit regulated like utilities.

The arguments about City “competitiveness” are "bogus, self-serving and dangerous" writes Cable. "Stifling innovation" is part of the point of regulating excessive risks

The other argument is that regulation (and 50 per cent tax rates) will undermine the City’s “competitiveness” and “drive away” banking and non-bank financial institutions. This argument has to be met head-on; the idea of a regulatory race to the bottom does not square with political and economic reality. Co-operation rather than regulatory arbitrage between the main jurisdictions will always be best, but if that co-operation does not materialise, the UK should not chase business by offering low standards that create wider risks for the UK economy.

But what is most striking is Cable's choice of metaphor: if his proposal is for multilayered, multilateral regulation, he seems clear that the politics depends on a willingness to leave some blood on the City trading floors. Just as no Labour Chancellor in the last century ever came close to making class a political dividing line as vehemently as Lloyd George did with his People's Budget in 1909, can you imagine any Labour politician employing as colourful a metaphor to make this point as respectable, cut throat Vince does?

There is a more fundamental argument about the scale of Britain’s financial services industry in relation to the UK economy. I wouldn’t expect the City to vote for contraction, or for curbs on its freedom to operate, any more than I would expect turkeys to vote for Christmas. But the poultry farmer – the Labour government – cannot just ask the turkeys what they want. He has to be willing to wield a knife and cut some throats. A combination of national, European and global regulation is necessary to ensure that the vast negative externalities associated with the City do not exceed the (genuine) benefits that the UK economy derives from a successful, internationally traded, financial services sector. In addition, there will have to be a major structural adjustment out of traded financial services into other services and manufacturing.

I recommend taking 10 minutes out with the dead-tree edition of the New Statesman to concentrate on the argument.

But you can read it all here too.

How class matters: taking the long view

Does class matter? The newspapers like to say 'no' - can't we all just move on from this outdated anachronism. (Janet Daley last weekend felt the MPs' expenses scandal was a chance to end the 'poison', which is one response to Moatgate anyway).

Yet the public (89% of us anyway) persistently and disappointingly insist that class does matter. Nor are we, to the perennial surprise of the media classes, all middle class now.

Meanwhile, politicians aren't quite sure whether they can mention it or not, or how to do so. The modest proposals in the Equality Bill created absurd, lurid headlines about 'class war'. There are genuine dilemmas too: it is hardly possible to make progress towards a classless society without acknowledging how much social class can still determine opportunities and outcomes, yet breaking down entrenched disadvantage requires a cross-class public coalition of support in a relatively affluent society.

Cutting through and perhaps illuminating these public dilemmas and debates is a fascinating exhibition 'Rank: picturing the social order 1516-2009', currently at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art in Sunderland until 11th July, before moving to the Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool from 24th July until September 12th.

Going back to the 16th century, it addresses how class, rank and status have always mattered, and in complex ways.

The book is tremendous for those who can't get to the exhibition.

And you can get a sense of it too from some very interesting pieces and reviews, including Linda Colley's essay in The Guardian, Laura Cumming's Observer review, Tom Lubbock in the Independent and a Radio 4 Thinking Allowed with Laurie Taylor.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Spoof Miliband twits Guardian

Though he isn't known as the most poptastic member of the Cabinet, I guess that if the Foreign Secretary were to comment instantanteously on the death of the King of Pop Michael Jackson, then it isn't entirely impossible that he could say something like what is reported in The Guardian's round-up of twitter reaction - from David Miliband to Demi Moore (though perhaps without the exclamation points).

Foreign secretary David Miliband, wrote soon after the news had been confirmed: "Never has one soared so high and yet dived so low. RIP Michael". He later remarked on the wall-to-wall coverage of the event on 24-hour news channels, writing: "CNN has basically become an mj-only version of mtv!"

These come from the twitter feed @David_Miliband and you don't have to dig too far in to develop the teeniest of suspicions.

Another idea from Eyebrows, sack all the drivers and use McDonalds staff instead. He reckons Reagan would have done it. No Al!
9:14 PM Jun 10th from TwitterBerry

Aide only just turned up for work! Will the RMT single-handedly destroy any chance of constitutional reforms?
12:27 PM Jun 10th from TwitterBerry

Bruised and battered but united and ready to fight on!
10:03 PM Jun 8th from TwitterBerry

Slighty nervous! Feel like Jim Hacker waiting for the 'call!'
1:44 PM Jun 2nd from web

It appears to be a production from http://innit24.eu

Perhaps not for much longer?

UPDATE (Friday, 2.45pm)

Kudos to Paul Waugh of the Standard - who twittered by around 7am that he had got a crack of dawn on the record denial from the FCO. A true pro. He later blogged on just how many media outlets were fooled.

And to the FCO who - having helpfully emailed the press to say that the Foreign Secretary doesn't twitter - also say that they are fans of the fake twit:''We have been checking it since it started. We find it amusing.'

Now, surely David Miliband is going to have to comment at some point on the FCO blog on all of this hilarity.

Indeed, on checking, he has!.

However, following Gordon Brown and David Cameron's statements this risks making the gap between truth, fiction, media reality and The Day Today ever narrower.

Though he has not gone on to explain how it exemplifies his thesis about the civilian surge which will reshape global politics.

And I doubt he will clear up my (unsourced and unfounded, so perhaps unfair) speculation that he might be more of a Duran Duran man. Catherine Meyer of Time Magazine thinks this is a "cruel" attempt to torpedo his leadership ambitions. I don't know ... Her name was Rio and she dances on the sand ... I preferred Wham! myself, but I was 10 years old.

DM was an Oxford undergraduate around 1984 to 1987, where he was allegedly nicknamed Donny Osmond and evasively described his musical tastes as 'eclectic'. Perhaps he had a Smiths/Morrissey phase. Who knows?

Over to you, Mr Miliband.

Why Michael Jackson will test the Iranian Twitter revolution

If John Lennon had been shot dead outside the Dakota Building in December 1979 instead of December 1980, would Khomeini still have become the Supreme Leader of Iran later the same month? If Diana had been pursued into that tunnel under the Pont d’Alma in November 1989 instead of eight years later would the Berlin Wall still have fallen?

Of course, yes.

If the paedo prince of peace (and, okay let’s be fair here, the King of Pop and much else besides) hadn’t died from a heart attack in Bel-Air right in the middle of the month when the west had discovered the power of soft diplomacy, Iranian democrats had discovered the effectiveness of international support, and progressive international politics had discovered the power of web 2.0, would the future of the middle east have been significantly different?

Well, of course, who knows.

But the undoubted role that the internet has played in Tehran this June means that we cannot discount the idea that the swamping of this weekend’s news and online agenda with Jackson’s death – and what will surely be at least a week’s worth of news cycles after that – will do nothing but harm the cause of democracy in Iran.

Alistair Campbell recently pointed out that the increasingly autistic British mainstream media can only deal with one crisis at a time. One minute we were all about to be killed by swine flu and newspapers could think of nothing else, the next minute we were up to our ears in the biggest constitutional crisis in the history of Westminster and hamaggedon was long forgotten.

“What will the next one be? Who knows? Nobody, least of all [the journalists].
All we know is that when it does come, they will be instant experts, and they
will assume that it - whatever it is - is the only story that anyone out there
cares about.”

Will new media be any different? It could be; Michael versus Mahmood might be the test.

Twitter – while its own role in Iran has probably been overstated – has nevertheless become symbolic of the way the online world has affected the outcome of events on the ground, mostly through chat rooms and uncensored online news. A fellow of the Harvard Center for Internet and Society, no less, told the New York Times today that “My twitter search script sees roughly 15% of all posts on Twitter mentioning Michael Jackson. Never saw Iran or swine flu reach over 5%.”

As I write, every mainstream news site is devoted to – frankly – deeply dull helicopter shots of hundreds of journalists milling around a hospital in LA. (When will 24 hour news realise that a death – apart from the passing moment itself – is really a pretty uneventful event once it’s happened?) Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and even RealClearPolitics are all splashing on MJ. (I should imagine Mark Sanford is rather relieved, incidentally.)

The death of Neda on the streets of Tehran (I’d link to it but I’m not sure I want to watch it myself) showed the power of the international online community to mobilise. The death of Michael Jackson in LA may show how fickle we are. If this is the real legacy of the man who bizarrely craved to be remembered as a saintly peacemaker we’ll only have ourselves to blame.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

For Iraq inquiry anoraks

Alastair Campbell blogs that he has received an apology and a donation to a leukemia charity established to remember Henry Hodge over the claim in this week's Spectator cover story that he leant on Lord Butler over his inquiry into the war.

John Kampfner's Blair's Wars is an important book on the high politics of Iraq (and a rather more nuanced book on the range of interventions than the title and marketing may imply). John Rentoul teases Kampfner with having changed his mind about whether Blair lied, as opposed to being wrong about the WMD.

But, perhaps rather less consequentially, the Spectator piece also gets the chronology of Brown's inquiry wrong in inventing one more u-turn than is merited (which hardly seems necessary in the circumstances).

In 2007, as he carried out his putsch, Brown was keen that the war formed a backdrop for Labour MPs’ discontent with Blair. He promised a new inquiry, with the implication that, this time, it would get to the truth. Once in power, he insisted that such an investigation should take place only after British forces had quit Basra.

But Brown did not promise an Iraq inquiry before becoming Prime Minister (though I can't vouch for what he may have said privately).

All Brown had said when asked about pressure for an inquiry by September 2007 was "there will be a time to discuss the question".

His first public statement in support of the principle of an inquiry was not until March 2008, at the same time that he wrote that it should not happen until British troops were out.

This was in a letter replying to my call for an inquiry, reported on the front page of The Independent in March 2008.

Curiously, instead of accepting the plaudits for this widely welcomed move, Downing Street then claimed what Kampfner now claims, with the PMOS even briefing that "there is nothing new in the letter to the Fabian Society" though as Andrew Grice wrote at the time, this was not the case.

In his letter to the Fabian Society committing himself to an investigation, Brown went further than he has done before, which is to be welcomed. Strangely, his official spokesman has been playing down Brown's words, saying that nothing had changed since he spelled out his policy last September. In fact, the PM made no such commitment then, saying only: "There will be a time to discuss the question." Brown still seems reluctant to address the Iraq issue head on, acting as if he wishes it would go away - or, perhaps, that everyone would just accept it was "Blair's war" and leave him out of it.

The reason I had written to Brown ahead of the fifth anniversary was that neither he, as Prime Minister, nor David Miliband as Foreign Secretary had publicly supported calls for an inquiry, though Margaret Beckett had done so in the last few days of the Blair government.

Indeed, the Foreign Secretary had ducked the question of an inquiry, and perhaps kicked it into the long grass, in a Fabian interview ahead of our January 2008 conference, saying "“I am obsessed with the next five years in Iraq, not the last five years in Iraq. And I think that the best ‘inquiry’ is putting the best brains to think about how to make sure the next five years in Iraq get that combination of political reconstruction, economic reconstruction and security improvement that are so essential.”

This had been reported just after Christmas 2007 under the headline 'Government rules out Iraq inquiry and while I felt that the question remained open I wrote to the PM partly because we seemed to have moved the agenda back, not forward.

There have been too many twists and turns on the road to an inquiry, though we seem to getting to a sensible place in the end. And there are no end of conspiracy theories to explain it. Might the truth be simpler - that Iraq remains the jinx of British politics.


"Quite a lot of journalists are late . . . Boris was stratospherically late", former Telegraph editor Charles Moore once said of erratic star columnist Boris Johnson.

The London Mayor has clearly been applying the principle by which he files his newspaper columns to the simple act of catching a cab.

Paul Waugh anatomises some of the more lavish claims.

My fellow anoraks will know, the traditional football fans' shout of "Taxi! for Mr ..." to suggest that it is time to sack the manager harks back to the infamous episode back in 1961 when pools millionaire Sir John Moores sacked manager Johnny Carey in the back of a London cab.

Part of the point of the shout was that this offers a rather swift method of execution, given the ready availability of taxi cabs.

Not something that may be apparent to Boris.

Along with credit card shenanigans of disgraced and sacked Deputy Mayor Ian Clement, this may well all form part of a nefarious Tory plot to show that there are easy taxpayer savings to be made of such wasteful expenditure.

In Boris' City Hall, that seems to be true. (Perhaps Clements, keen to export the ethos and efficiencies of the private sector to City Hall, may ruefully reflect that he might have expected to get away with such dodgy ethics outside government).

So it is time for Boris to pay back some of the more egregious examples of disorganised waste, methinks.

Better still, call him a taxi - or get him an advance booking in good time for 2012 anyway.

Is Sarkozy being a burkha?

The front page of yesterday’s Daily Express carried a stark message: ‘Ban the burkha here in Britain’.

Riding on the coattails of Sarkozy, various groups are arguing that Muslim women should be freed from being ‘prisoners behind a screen’.

Many people might agree with the French President.

But there’s nothing wrong with a religion insisting that its followers wear certain things in public - whether it’s a burkha, robe, dogcollar or giant banana suit. The problem only comes when such religious duties leave the realm of voluntary choice, and are forcibly imposed on individuals by the state.

Of course we need to be realistic. Even in a pluralist society, many people’s decision to wear religious garb may not be truly their own in some cases. Huge cultural or familial pressures can often be behind an individual’s decision to wear such clothing.

However, we should bear in mind that we all face pressure to conform to various social ‘norms’. Such norms can vary according to our culture, age and background. And yes, different people can face different norms to conform to, with varying amounts of pressure. Yet no-one who lives in human society is exempt from such social demands. And these demands can present very thorny problems, which often have no easy answers.

Ultimately, the best we can do is to ensure we live in a society with a legal framework that enables us – as far as possible – to live the life we choose. We should be under no legal obligation to live a particular life that is of someone else’s choosing. So whether someone wants to wear a burkha, short skirt or trousers in our society, they should be free to do so.

Speaking from a purely personal level, I admit to finding burkhas slightly depressing.

Then again, I have the same reaction to people who wear socks with sandals.

I don’t leap to the conclusion that such clothing should therefore be banned. (Well, not most days.)

Unfortunately, the French policy of laicite (loosely, secularism in government) is currently in danger of embodying exactly the kind of intolerance that it’s supposed to prevent. Whether its origins are religious or secular, intolerance is still intolerance.

Besides, throughout history the French have continually dressed themselves in ridiculous outfits, so they’re hardly in a position to throw stones.

So, Daily Express readers: do you really want a society where the state decides what you can and can’t wear?

The oldest contributor at Copenhagen conference

A statue advertises the Six Months to Copenhagen conference, after some mild Fabian vandalism.

The Fabian Six Months to Copenhagen conference that took place on June 20 raised many interesting points and some heated debate. The day-long event examined the deal Britain needs to pursue at the crucial Copenhagen climate change summit in December, as well as debating the wider changes needed to create a greener society.

Ed Miliband's keynote speech can be read here.

Reports from the event are available from Next Left here.

You can also catch up on Fabian Twitter posts from the event by using hashtag #ccc, and debate the key environmental policies at the Fabian Facebook page.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

What are you doing on Friday?

Many Next Left readers will already be aware that this coming Friday is a Global Solidarity Action Day calling for justice for Iranian workers. But if you don't, this post might of help.

The action was initially planned by a range of labour organizations to protest specifically about the suppression of organized labour in Iran, but is now becoming the focus of a wider protest against the current, brutally oppressive regime.

Details of an event near you are kindly provided by some Iranian comrades here. For their interesting analysis of the situation in Iran, which has a different emphasis to that in much of the mainstream media, and explanation of why we should support the planned protests on Friday, look here.

It is easy to feel powerless to help those fighting for a free society in Iran. But a big turn-out at these events will be noticed by those we support in Iran and will give them heart and, perhaps, more hope.

If the Tory party was progressive, it would hardly be so worked up about Bercow

Steve Richards has a good column in Wednesday's Independent setting out several revealing myths about the election of the Speaker.

I remain impressed that the contest for this not especially powerful and ultra-insider role has generated so much attention. I think Richards is right that a partisan Labour approach would have seen the election of Sir George Young: the issue of how many Etonians to we want at the top of politics does worry the Conservative frontbench, however much they affect insouciance about this.

But the most interesting points are what Tory loathing for Bercow says about the shiny, new, brand decontaminated progressive Conservative Party.

As Richards writes:

Anyone watching the anger on the faces of Tory MPs when the result was announced might assume that Bercow was a raving leftie. In fact he has made a stand on a number of limited issues including his support for gay adoption and for the abolition of the anti-gay Section 28 ....

Bercow's reward for being genuinely progressive on a limited number of issues was the loathing disdain of virtually the entire parliamentary Conservative party.

The second myth leads on to the third. There seems to be a fairly widespread assumption the Conservatives have modernised under the leadership of David Cameron. Evidently they have not modernised enough if they can get so worked up about Bercow's modestly progressive views.

As Speaker, Bercow has to be politically impartial. This enabled David Cameron to offer this wry aside in his well judged congratulatory speech to the new Speaker.

"I also noted, as all colleagues did, what you said about casting away your past political views, and I think that on the Conservative Benches we would say, “Let’s hope that includes all of them".

That will certainly strike a strong chord with his own backbenches. But has Cameron not forgotten that he believes that "it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today".

No doubt, such a party must be stuffed to the rafters with progressive politicians.

So, who takes up Bercow's position as the primary champion of progressive arguments in the Conservative Parliamentary Party?

Who on the backbenches will now act as an 'outrider' - arguing that Cameronism ought to go further and faster in staking a claim to progressive territory.

Just about nobody.

Tim Montgomerie has estimated that only six powerful Tories are fully signed up to project progressive Cameron. If the progressive Conservatism were to become a reality, it is hard to escape the conclusion that it would have to be one of the most elitist and top-down political projects ever seen in British politics.

LabourList interview

Alex Smith, editor of LabourList, who is doing a good job of turning the site into a forum for open and plural debate across the party and beyond, interviewed me in the margins of Saturday's Six Months to Copenhagen Fabian conference.

Read it here.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Political values and constitutional reform

The Next Left has recently seen some spirited and informed discussion about the potential and dangers of open primaries. Since greater use of primaries was one suggestion that Will Straw and I made at the end of our recent co-edited Fabian book The Change We Need, it seemed worth revisiting this discussion, especially since the recent expenses scandal has put all manner of constitutional and participatory questions up for debate, probably to an extent unseen since 1997.

The main focus of The Change We Need was on parties, and building political organisations capable of meeting the expectations of twenty-first century citizens. The problem we diagnosed was that British parties, in contrast to their American counterparts, were in terminal decline as participatory organisations and looking increasingly out of step with other forms of social organisation and interaction now common in the digital era. Although not an answer in isolation, these solutions can perhaps also play a role in addressing the broader crisis in democratic legitimacy currently engulfing our body politic.

However, debate in recent weeks has highlighted a major problem with the discussion of constitutional reform. While politicians have a habit of talking in terms of the institutions they would like to see created, there is not enough attention paid to the goals they hope to achieve. As Aristotle noted, the real value of a constitution is not the rules it lays out, but the values it was designed to realise. The precise rules employed are simply mechanisms to achieve these ends.

Given where we now are in the UK, the historical origins of primaries are interesting. The idea was first advocated (along with the recall election and early campaign finance law) by American progressives at the beginning of the twentieth century. These ideas were the product of a distinct world view which coupled together two ideas.

  • A belief that political power was ultimately corrupting because it allowed for the centralisation of power and resources. As a result, politicians were inherently untrustworthy.
  • An optimistic view that political activism was a force for good and was the path through which the good society could be created [1].

Now, these two ideas seem strangely divergent to us. The first one is recognisable enough. However, today in the UK, it is more frequently coupled with the rhetoric of anti-politics, cynicism and extremism. The great intellectual achievement of progressivism in the US was to create a form of politics that harnessed public cynicism as a way of recreating the political system periodically from the bottom up.

How we actually go about institutionalising such values is a slightly different question. The distinction between open and closed primaries was debated on the Next Left previously, but since that division is really a facet of US law, it is hard to replicate, short of a complete institutional overhaul and the introduction of partisan voter registration. The key point is that the selection process must embrace and engage a far broader section of the community, and not be a closed shop, either in the sense of being controlled by a central party machine in London or by a small group of party members in a constituency. Popular participation of this kind allows for the selection of candidates best suited to representing a particular locality, and forces potential-runners to start campaigning to a larger proportion of the electorate. Most important, it makes parties that are more responsive to public feeling and allows for re-invention at moment of crisis such as this.

[1] I cannot claim this reading of the Progressive movement as my own, as it is largely informed by Milkis and Mileur (1999). Hofstadter (1955) also offers an important account of the period.  

"Life is too materialistic" - research

Life has become more materialistic and everyone is under pressure was a resonant theme from the research, according to Tim Horton, Fabian research director.
This was a frequent theme in the focus groups and something that David Cameron to his credit had picked up, said Horton.
If Joanna Lumley is free - perhaps we need her, Kate Green joked at the seminar. But she added: "We have for too long thought celebrity culture was the answer."

"Daily Mail readers want to squeeze the rich"

There was a strong desire from Daily Mail readers to squeeze the rich and this had been around for years, said Tim Horton, research director of the Fabians at the report's launch.
Asked about how different types of people polled on attitudes to inequality, Horton said: "On young people - they look at first less egalitarian. Nobody knows if that is a socialising process that will change as they grow older because polling is so young itself."
Policymakers tend to follow economic arguments, but the public tend to have a different view, according to Reform's Andrew Haldenby. "I do find myself on the side of the economists, but does there need to be more of a conversation between those two groups, I suppose there does."
Lisa Harker of Ippr says there may something like policy making by numbers , but she has noticed a trend away from numbers to talking about feelings about fairness. "People are talking about fairness in dinner party settings in a way they didn't in the past."

"Now is the time for policymakers to set out what fairness is"

Now is the time for policymakers to set out what fairness is, said Lisa Harker, co-director of Ippr , at the launch of Fabian/JRF research on attitudes to economic inequality.
The public's limit for higher taxes has been reached, argued Andrew Haldenby, director of Reform.
If we raise taxes that will have big impact on poor people as well as rich people, he added.
Traditional benefits are not well linked to work incentives, said Haldenby.
But Kate Green, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: "We have to seize and capitalise on these opportunities", supported by a policy programme that delivers fairness and greater equality to ordinary families.
Demonstrating that through policy is one of the ways we have to combat fatalism. There is an oppportunity to do more at the top, said Green.
There wasn't massive hostility to raising the rate of tax at the top, she added.
Aggressive pro-poor policy could be popular such as minimum wage, she argued. The public spending squeeze nonwithstanding, it is a not spending properly that has left us with a big gap between rich and poor.
Now is a moment to talk up the value we place on the role of caring. But it is a very interesting area now in which the public is concerned, she added.
The stigmatising delivery of services has over the last ten years is an important signal of our attitudes to equality, fairness and desert, said Green.

Katwala is twittering on @NextLeft.

"Deep sense of fairness not driven by self interest"

People don't like to think they live in an unfair world, so people will justify inequalities in order to make them fair, according to new Fabian research.
The credit crunch changed things and gave way to a new willingness to challenge high wages and whether they were fair, said Fabian research director Tim Horton.
New Fabian research showed negative attitudes to those on low incomes and a widespread belief in adequate opportunities exist for everyone. 69% say this.
UK is quite unusual in having this belief. Only 30% believe many people find it hard to overcome the obstacles the face because of their background.
It also found a widespread belief that people on benefits would not contribute to society in the future.
But, said Horton, people do care about inequality when they are given the facts about it.
The credit crunch has opened up space for rethinking what's fair at the top. Many people have a deep sense of fairness which is not necessarily driven by self interest, added Horton.

Cricketing Inequality

The England women’s cricket side has now added the World Twenty 20 to the full World Cup and the Ashes. Not only are they comfortably the best side in women’s cricket, they are also one of Britain’s most successful sporting outfits full stop.
And yet, where is their recognition? Their captain Charlotte Edwards has an MBE, announced in the Queen’s Birthday honours. And yet the men all got MBEs for winning one series against Australia four years ago.
Paul Collingwood got his for appearing in one Test, scoring 7 and 10. Indeed, the supposed injustice of his award has been the subject of frequent sledging from the Australians ever since. Compare that to Clare Taylor, player of the tournament that has just finished averaging an almost incredible 199. Over a 10 year career, she has been shortlisted for the ICC Women’s Player of the Year Award three times, averages over 40 in Tests and One-day internationals and was the first women to be selected as one of Wisden’s 5 cricketers of the year earlier this year.
And she is just one. The whole team has taken the sport to new levels of professionalism and excellence. They have also done huge amounts to promote participation at the grassroots. No falling off pedalos, 5-0 thrashings or glossy photo shoots for them.
So where is their reward? We might think that the men’s MBEs in 2005 was a gross over-reaction to one summer of excellence but in any sporting terms, the achievements of the England women demand recognition. The England rugby team all won honours after winning their own World Cup in 2003. The England women's side are currently comfortably our most successful national sporting team. Can you imagine the reaction if the men manage to retain the Ashes this year - let alone win both the 50 and 20 over World Cups. We might well be talking about Sir Andrew Strauss.
We celebrated the fact that Charlotte Edwards got her MBE and yet we should have been protesting that the rest of the team deserved them as well. Since then, they have triumphed yet again. Next time, they should all get the appropriate reward.

Historic moment or damp squib?

Today is an historical moment. The election of a new Speaker by secret ballot is a huge opportunity for the Houses of Parliament to signal to the public at large that this is a time for a change, and they have taken notice of public concern about the way parliament is operating.
As we speak the table office is accepting nominations for the role. Each candidate must have 12 backers, including three from another party.
We expect to see 10 people on the first ballot. Then at 2.30pm speeches will kick off from the candidates in the chamber. The order of speakers will be decided by drawing lots. The first vote should be at 4.30pm and the result should be announced two hours later.
After each round of ballots are counted - the last person will drop out, as well as anyone else who has less than 5% of those who voted. There will be a ten minute pause before the next vote will be held. Eventually the results will be announced in alphabetically order.
All in all it could be a fascinating day for democracy and a signal of a new vibrant parliamentary era or, depending on the result, a sign that none of the parties have understood that today is not about party politics but a signal to the country and to the public that it has never been more vital to make big symbolic changes.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Sunday papers: Secrecy, cuts and class

Iraq is again on the front-page of The Independent on Sunday. Both the Sindy and The Observer report that Tony Blair pressed Gordon Brown to make the Iraq inquiry private - or, rather, that he signalled that through the Cabinet Secretary. Blair "appears to have taken a deliberate decision not to express his view in person to Brown because he feared it might leak out". Hmm. The Obs also digs away at what might be revealed, and reports a January 2003 memo of a Bush-Blair meeting which confirms some details of planning for the war.

The Observer editorialises that this strengthens the argument for making the Iraq inquiry a test case of the new openness. Phillippe Sands is naturally for transparency too, because the inquiry's "overriding purpose is to restore public confidence in governmental decision-making".

Spending and cuts

As John Rentoul blogs, The Independent on Sunday poll has some very interesting details below the headline party support (C 39%, L 22% LD 18% Oth 21%). Particularly that 67% expect the economy will start showing signs of improvement soon (fully 28 points higher than in March), though this has not lifted Labour in voting intentions.

If elected to form the next government the Conservatives would probably cut public services too much.
Agree 50%
Disagree 37%

Andrew Rawnsley writes that "The shrewder members of the cabinet are trying to persuade the prime minister that he needs to move to a more defensible trench. The better dividing line for the government to draw would be "cruel Tory cuts versus compassionate Labour cuts". There would be something a bit bogus about that too: anyone's cuts are going to be horribly painful. But it is potentially more persuasive for Labour to argue that it will cut in a way that is more careful of the vulnerable than the Tories". The Sunday Times has a fairly sketchy report on the debate within Cabinet, reporting that Yvette Cooper "warned that ministers must beware of making spending pledges they could not deliver".

Matthew d'Ancona addresses spending and cuts dilemmas for the Conservatives: "It is one thing to achieve power by exhibiting greater candour about the choices ahead. It is quite another to make those choices, to pay the political price for spending cuts, and to keep the electorate on your side".

Not walking away

Yesterday's Guardian Weekend interview, signalling something of an rapprochement between Gordon and The Guardian. Brown's aside that he "could walk away" from the trappings of office has led to an entirely speculative piece of Mail on Sunday news report offering a hypothesis that "Brown 'could' resign next year, pre-butted by a GB interview with the News of the World.

The Speaker race and outside jobs

The Sunday Telegraph anatomises the expenses claims of the candidates for Speaker, where the IoS suggests Margaret Beckett is now a short head up on John Bercow as they approach the line. The Mirror has an 'exclusive' that the Tories would back a Labour 'stop Bercow' candidate, while Nadine Dorries makes a rather unparliamentary personal attack on Bercow in the Mail on Sunday.

The Sunday Times reports a rush among Tory frontbenchers to give up their lucrative second jobs, ahead of details being revealed on July 1st.

A Conservative source said: “There is a real fear that this issue could be at least as big as the second home scandal. When we are forced to reveal details like our hourly rates and the amount of time taken by these jobs there is going to be trouble.”

The Independent on Sunday reports the possibility of MPs with other jobs being paid at a lower rate than those who are full-time.

IoS columnist John Rentoul - The Mob Don't Care About the Details - finds a "Lord of the Flies" element to the ongoing fury over MPs' expenses, but is puzzled by inconsistencies in treatment of apparently similar cases.

The higher mystery is this: why have some MPs been destroyed when others have survived, having committed apparently similar offences? ... In the haste shown by both parties to set up procedures to judge the misdemeanours and hold back the tide of mob justice, mistakes have been made. But there seems to be a larger, systemic injustice, which is that those treated harshly tend to be Labour.

Rentoul suggests that David Cameron's projection of the appearance of swift action against those deemed indispensable has enabled him to save George Osborne, while Kitty Ussher and Hazel Blears have fallen on the swords for almost exactly the same offence of avoiding capital gains tax in the designation of their homes. ("There is, of course, one other difference, which is that the sums of money involved on the Tory side are much larger – according to the Daily Mail, Osborne made a £748,000 profit from the sale of his London house three years ago".)

Who do we think we are?

Catherine Bennett returns to the outing of Night Jack, the Orwell prize winning anonymous police blogger - and is with the majority view in being baffled by The Times. (A round-up of blog reaction on Night Jack here).

For the author of NightJack, however, there were excellent reasons for anonymity, against none for exposure, and it seems extraordinary that his persecutors did not respect them, regardless of Eady's legal assessment. They could, instead, have trumpeted their restraint.

The IoS editorialises that "The paradox of openness is that democracy sometimes requires secrecy – but on the part of the ruled, not the rulers.

Perhaps daftest column of the day: Janet Daley: let's use the politics revival to kill class war, suggesting we end ...

the ridiculous obsession with 19th-century class war which poisons public discourse, distorts serious attempts at social reform, and subverts every attempt to talk sense about education, crime and deprivation. It is almost impossible to conduct any rational discussion of political or economic issues without the grotesque ancient hatreds of class enmity making a nonsense of the outcome.

Why can't we all just be taken on merit, she says. That couldn't have anything to do with class disadvantage could it?

Saturday, 20 June 2009

How Cities Can Come Together To Build Effective Collations and Combat Climate Change

Nicky Gavron, the former deputy mayor of London, says there is a need for the global urban community to come together and fight climate change. Talking as part of the panel called 'The Movement - How Can We Build Effective Collations?' she outlined the ways cities can, and should, help stop the situation from worsening.

She sees the burgeoning movement of cities grouping together as very important in forming a global movement of citizens. Many cities have decided they can't wait for nations to take action as their populations are incredibly responsible for climate change - 75% of all energy consumed is used in urbanized areas.

Conceding that urban populations are a massive part of the problem, Gavron also sees them as a massive part of the solution. Cities have the levers required to engage with businesses and form collaborations for economic opportunities. She argues that in many cases cities anchor and drive national economies, so can take a leading role in the fight against climate change.

Gavron is proud of the formation of C40Cities who are working together to cut carbon, and crucially says 22 of them are in developing companies (including China where she has recently returned from educating Mayors and Deputy Mayors).

However such cities need more powers from government as she says there is no city of any size, anywhere in the world, that has the power to do anything about existing buildings.

The Movement - How Can We Build Effective Collations?

It is important to ask how the green agenda can reach beyond the 'usual suspects' of environmental groups and add other voices to campaigns, introducing a new audience to the need to act.

Sian Berry, Green candidate for London Mayor in 2008 and one of the founders of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s, has been brought in to critique the Green movement but says she didn't realise so many of the movement would be sat staring back at her. She presses on anyway.

Berry argues that one of the fundamental problems with the Green movement is that it is based around so many disparate issues and this makes selecting ones to concentrate upon difficult. Plannning camapigns become too complicated by the different inputs.

She also feels there needs to be more direct action that goes beyond the comfort zone of politicans - a real effort to push things further. Calling to mind the suffragette movement, Berry argues that brave action inspires others to do smaller things, and that is how widespread change can be acheived.

She thinks those who are concerned about climate change need to make sure Copenhagen isn't the be-all and end-all. Berry says there needs to be "an army of people who can be called on to act a moment's notice."

"I'm really excited about this - you don't need Blue State Digitial to make it happen. You can get the message out in lots of way - people need to try these things more. They're worth experimenting with, and we should be doing more."

Green MPs would put fear of God into Labour, says Ken

Some of the discussion at the Fabian Society/FEPS Road to Copenhagen conference has been about what the catalyst would be to really shifting the political mainstream.

If anybody has a record of stretching pluralism beyond party boundaries, it is surely Ken Livingstone.

Today, he is taking the red-green thing quite far:

"If the Greens were to pick up a few seats from Labour at the General Election, by god that would put the fear of God up them"

A couple of enthusiastic shouts and some clapping at this. (We do have Sian Berry in the next session - and quite a broad audience).

"Applause - at a Fabian event", says Paul Hilder of Avaaz from the Chair.

"Get their names! Expel them!", shouts Ken.

Lots more about this conference on twitter - hashtag #ccc

Livingstone on Thatcher and leadership

You have to watch out for politicians saying: "do us a campaign, and we will do what you want. They have to lead: they could change the politics by saying that it is unsustainable and it can't go on", says one of the campaigners at the Fabian Society/FEPS Road to Copenhagen conference.

Ken Livingstone is somewhere on the middle on this: we need campaigning from below and leadership which goes out on a limb.

Perhaps Maggie could inspire this.

"Margaret Thatcher took risks. It was because she had an ideology. She was always out on a limb. She never had a majority in Cabinet. But she shifted the whole of post-war politics away from a social democratic politics to a market driven one.

That was because she had guts. She was mad but she had guts. [laughter]

I wish ours were sane, but that they had guts too.

Climate change not wind turbines is biggest threat to countryside - Miliband

"We need to win the argument with people that the the biggest threat to the countryide is not wind turbines it is climate change," said Ed Miliband at the Fabians Road to Copenhagen conference.

In response to a question from the floor, he said he thought a 40% target was not achievable because it was about "the art of the possible". "I think we have to get as close as we can."

"We don't see a route to minus 40 right now, partyly because of the US partly because of Russia."

There need to be a route map for the UK's decarbonisation - we are going to try and do that, said the Climate Change Secretary.

"As far as the PM's commitment (to the climate change debate)t, he is very committed. He and I will being saying more about this soon."

He argued that a vital part of getting a significant deal in Copenhagen was about getting significant numbers of developing countries can commit to making reductions as well as developed countries."

Ken the realist - if not world Emperor

There is a great deal of agreement on the Fabian/FEPS panel about the Copenhagen deal, among those who want a deal which matches the science of climate change. But the question of political barriers and constrains are opening up some differences of strategies for change.

And Ken Livingstone is having to take up the role of political realist.

Andy Atkins of Friends of the Earth and Keith Allott of WWF have stressed the need for the science to be paramount: "You can't change the science. It is non-negotiable. You can change the political constraints. That's the point: that's what politics is for", Allott has said.

To which Livingstone has responded>

"There is no disagreement of principle between us. I agree we could stabilise the climate below two degrees [global average temperature change]. If I was Emperor of the world tomorrow we would do so. [Laughter]"

But he is looking at the politics of the US Senate and the interests involved in the environment committee:

"So I think, in reality, we will end up closer to four degrees than two degrees".

"So I think it is going to be very hairy. It is going to be catastrophic. But there will still be human civilisation recognisable at the end of the century - and if we don't make that deal there won't be".

The yawning gap between climate science and politics

Andy Atkins of Friends of the Earth is setting out to the Fabian/FEPS Road to Copenhagen conference what they think is the deal we need, stressing that this is developed from a coalition which is two-thirds developing world based:

1. what we most need is consistency with the science.

That is non-negotiable: no point in arguing with it, tho many people still do

2. The principles of equity and justice which underpin international agreements.

They are non-negotiable too: both ethically and as a political reality. There will not be a deal which can be delivered

Rio was a conference on environment and development. The twinning of environment and poverty was at the centre of the Convention: it must remain so.

3. "There is a yawning gap between what we are told is politically feasible and what we know is necessary".

On emissions: 40% cuts on 1990 levels by 2020 (excluding offsetting).

The Japanese doesn't think it can do more than 8%. The US thinks it can do no more than get back to 1990 levels. The Europeans think they can get to 20% or 30% - and even then with huge amounts of offsetting.

"The gap between what is needed and what is being talked about is insanity".

"There is much we would applaud the UK government for - they have brought in a strong climate change act and Friends of the Earth is encouraging other governments to do something similar".

But there are disagreements about international strategy, and he stresses offsetting too, with FoE having provided a magician to make the point earlier.

Offsetting transfers emissions from the north to the south, when there is no doubt that the science demands that we do both:

"It is too late to do one or the other. You must do both". It is far from clear that emissions reductions are being made at all.
And offsetting is simply not delivering the technology which developing countries need to not return to 'business as usual'. And developed countries are delaying changes they need to make, which will become much more painful if that is done.

"It is a disastrous short-term measure to be actively pushing offsetting as a major mechanism. If we carry on down that path, there will be the most gaping hole in the Copenhagen agreement", he says.