Thursday, 30 July 2009

Holiday reading?

Its holiday time for many of us...or thereabouts. Before disappearing, I thought I would pass on a tip for that all-important holiday reading.

The author is Erik Olin Wright, and the book is Envisioning Real Utopias. The book itself isn't out yet, but Erik has posted the final draft of the manuscript on his webpage.

I'm going to stick my neck out on this one (what else are necks for if not to stick out once in a while): ERU is the most important work of socialist political theory in this decade - and may well be so for the decade to come.

The book is the outcome of the Real Utopias project which Erik has run at University of Wisconsin-Madison since the 1990s.

The project aimed (and aims) to elaborate and discuss practical proposals for radical reform and transformation in an egalitarian and democratic direction. The project has been one of the great intellectual successes of the left in recent years. Its a standing refutation of the view that the left no longer has anything to say that is both radical and workable, that the left has to trim its aspirations to a ever-so-slightly moderated version of neo-liberal capitalism (aka the 'Third Way').

It is also a challenge to those sections on the radical left who believe it is enough to critique existing capitalist society while offering only vague accounts of an alternative. There is a long-standing tendency on the radical left to say: 'We don't need to say now how socialism/an alternative will work - indeed, we shouldn't say how it will work because its up to 'the movement' to decide.'

Marx, in refusing to 'write recipes for the cookshops of the future', was typical in this regard. But this is to evade responsibility. There is no contradiction between careful institutional prescriptions and movement democracy. The prescriptions, carefully worked out, provide resources for the movement's reflection. Without the prescriptions, the movement's deliberation is impoverished. This diminishes the chances of actually ever changing anything in a constructive way.

Publications from the project have set out and critically discussed a range of 'real utopian' proposals including unconditional basic income, universal capital grants, new forms of participatory democracy, egalitarian education vouchers, and new kinds of pension funds to increase popular control over investment.

Wright does not merely restate some of these proposals. The book's ambition and achievement is much greater than that. In addition to reintroducing us to some of these proposals, Wright does three other important things as well.

First, whereas the previous Real Utopias volumes have, naturally enough, taken each proposal in isolation for critical scrutiny, this book offers a powerful sketch of how the various proposals might combine. In this way, we get a fuller, rounder picture of the sort of society the proposals imply.

Second, Wright connects the set of proposals back to a clear conception of the left's values.

Third, Wright provides a uniquely insightful discussion of political strategy - a welcome, unpretentious reappraisal of all those old basic questions about reform, revolution, co-operative self-help and their respective limits.

In other words, what makes this book so good is that it addresses, with considerable insight, all three questions that, as G.A. Cohen has argued, a left politics needs to address: What, institutionally, do we want? Why do we want it? How can we get it?

Nobody is likely to agree with everything that Wright says on all of these topics. What is impressive - and unusual, I think - is the way they are integrated in the one book. I am confident that anyone reading the book will come away with a deepened understanding of left politics.

On second thoughts, maybe this is not what most people want to be reading on the beach. But when you get back from the beach? Then, for my money, this is the book to read.

Brown: "Enlightenment politician in age of emotion"

Guest post by Paul Richards

Gertrude Himmelfarb is hardly a household name; unless the household is Number 10 Downing Street.

Gordon Brown's enduring fascination with this 87-year-old American social historian and writer on Darwin, Burke and J S Mill is perplexing. She is a right-wing social authoritarian, admirer of Victorian values, and once described as the “Queen Bee of US conservative intellectuals and cheerleader for the Bush administration.” She wrote: “The beasts of modernism have mutated into the beasts of post-modernism, relativism into nihilism, amorality into immorality, irrationality into insanity, sexual deviancy into polymorphous perversity.” You can't imagine Gordon Brown saying that to the Labour Party conference this autumn.

They make strange intellectual bedfellows, but to understand Brown, you have to understand Himmelfarb. Her writings, especially on the Enlightenment, the pivotal period of the 18th century when reason and rationality triumphed over superstition and religion, provide some useful clues to decoding Brown's motivations, values and weltanschauung.

Brown's admiration of Himmelfarb was fostered in the 1970s, when he was an earnest undergraduate, and remained with him as a politics lecturer at Glasgow College of Technology. In 2008 he wrote: “I have long admired Gertrude Himmelfarb's historical work, in particular her love of the history of ideas, and her work has stayed with me ever since I was a history student at Edinburgh University.”

By the time Brown tackled her works on the course reading list in 1972, Himmelfarb was an established academic. She had published a study of Lord Acton in 1952, Darwin in 1959, and her Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis and Ideologies in Transition appeared in 1968. When students around the world were devouring Marx, Mao, Luxemburg and Gramsci and lobbing cobblestones at riot police, Himmelfarb produced a book about Malthus, Bentham, Mill and Bagehot.

Gordon Brown is Britain's first proper intellectual Prime Minister, since the classically trained Victorian titans such as Gladstone and Palmerston. Others have enjoyed reading, both for pleasure and for elucidation. Blair read political histories and biographies to provide insights into contemporary events. He dipped into the Qur'an, and reads the Bible every night before sleep. Major enjoyed his Trollope, and Thatcher her Frederick Forsyth. But Brown embraces the complexities of Bobbitt's Shield of Achilles or the historical sweep of Linda Colley's Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 like a child with a pile of superhero comics. From his teenage years onwards, Brown has been surrounded by piles of books. They dominate his holiday packing, are stacked by his bedside, and cover the surfaces of his homes. No wonder he needs a cleaner.

It is no surprise that Brown delighted in the publication of Himmelfarb's Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians or The De-Moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, like the rest of us enjoying the new Robert Harris or Sebastian Faulks.

It is Himmelfarb's work on the Enlightenment which provides the strongest clues to what makes Brown tick. When he wrote the foreword to Himmelfarb's The Roads to Modernity: the British, French and American Enlightenments, Brown highlighted her argument that unlike the revolutionary aspects of the Enlightenment in France and America, in Britain it was defined by social virtues which bound people together. The Enlightenment virtues Brown approvingly cites are “respectability, responsibility, decency, industriousness, prudence and temperance.” These could be the chapter headings in Brown's autobiography. They are the values encoded in his philosophical DNA, and provide the yardstick for his assessment of others. They explain his reaction to the banking crisis, the MPs' expenses scandal, and his own determination to stay in the post.

This part of Brown's intellectual make-up explains so much about his pure rationalism, his command of numbers and statistics, and his belief in the power of argument. It is lazy to attribute Brown's moral compass to being a son of the manse. Intellectually, he is a modern-day David Hume or Adam Smith. He is an Enlightenment thinker in the age of emotion.

Paul Richards is a former special advisor to Hazel Blears MP and former Chair of the Fabian Society.

Stop whingeing and start talking about why equality works

How often in an average day do you hear people whinge about how politicians are rubbish or about how Britain is not in the shape they would like it to be in? I'd say about ten.
Get my family or friends together and there will be a lot of moaning about how things should be better, but how many are out there trying to make that change? Hardly any.
If you want to create a fairer British society, then there needs to be more arguments about why a fairer society works better; about health outcomes, and crime patterns; about kids doing better in schools. There needs to be a stronger public discourse on what are the gains and losses and how they equate to daily life.
In his introduction to a debate in Cardiff this week Fabian general secretary Sunder Katwala made the point that "a lot of people believe that inequality is fair", because over time the arguments about who deserves what have established themselves as right and true.
As recent Fabian research shows, people will invent reasons to justify why some people earn a stratospheric salary, even if they don't exist, because they want to believe they live in a fair society.
It is important to challenge stereotypes about British society if you want to change public understanding, argued Katwala at the Fabian Society/JRF event.
When stereotypes fall into common use - chavs, scroungers and contrastingly the deserving rich - then they start to circulate without question.
As Katwala argued you also need to challenge fatalism, "if you believe poverty is inevitable then you will not support policies to address inequality".
Mass protest movements over time have shown that if the public exerts pressure and shows it cares enough it can move the public argument and political change is inevitable. Look at the suffragettes, the poll tax, civil rights, and in recent months we have seen the power of public movements in Iran to focus world attention on government action and inaction.
But mass movements are not only about street demonstrations. Work by NGOs such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, the RSPB or the National Trust have raised specific arguments and influenced policies.
There are various models for policy campaigners to learn from, but perhaps the best lesson is how Thatcherism won public hearts and minds by making very simplistic arguments - and making them over and over again, until they became accepted as truths.
At the debate, Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan revealed an ambition to turn Wales into a "small, smart Nordic country" - not so much for the snowboarding and the glaciers - but because of the health and society benefits that Denmark and Sweden enjoy, compared with Wales.
He yearns for that Scandinavian sense of social solidarity - and willingness to redistribute from rich to poor to create a strong nation.
If Morgan wants persuasive evidence of the strength of the Nordic society he craves, then he can use the research of Pickett and Wilkinson which has strong international comparitive indicators.
He has made the first step towards his vision of a new Nordic-style Wales with the introduction of a new foundation phase of education modelled on Scandinavian kindergartens, which he hopes will improve aspiration and skills in deprived working-class Welsh neighbourhoods, so that smart poor kids are not overtaken in school by not-so-bright middle class kids by the age of eight.
But the reaction of a member of the Welsh audience immediately underlined why you need to make more effort to change the arguments and expectations and add a vision if you want to gather public support. The bloke at the back of the room said he had no idea that the foundation policy was inspired by the Nordic experience. Sell that vision Rhodri.
The Fabian/JRF public attitudes to inequality research not only shows public attitudes to the wages that people deserve to attitudes, but also to benefit payments.
It also found that the public was more supportive towards benefit payment to the unemployed if they felt those that received benefits would be make a contribution to society in the long-term.
A further step would be to ask the public what contributions they would be prepared to make to change policies, pay tax and deliver benefits if they felt they could live in a fairer Britain in future, and if that Britain had better health, lower crime and better education - how they would feel about contributing to that.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Cross-party support for consitutional upheaval

If discussions are happening in Downing Street about including a vote on constitutional change at the next general election, this would chime with Fabian polling which shows significant support for a once-in-a-lifetime update to our democracy.
An interestingly high 54% wanted a once-in-a-lifetime review of the way our democracy works, while 50% would like a system where the numbers of votes cast were more widely reflected in who our representatives are.
There was significant support for having fixed date elections with 59% signalling approval for this, rather than our current system which lets the government decide on the date of each general election.
Under discussion, according to The Observer, is a move towards AV, which retains constituency links, but allows voters to rank their chosen representatives in order of preference, rather than just marking their favourite.
As Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy
, writes in the latest Fabian Review, it is important that the public is involved in any revisions, and that it doesn't appear that constitutional reform is being carried out as a desperate measure by a government heading for a general election, but as part of a non-partisan process.
Support for a once-in-a-lifetime change resonates across parties, with Conservatives (53%) and LibDems (61%), believing this is the time for a renewal of the political process.

The middle class, the meritocracy and more from Young

Anyone else see the irony in Radio 4's Broadcasting House inviting Toby Young to be part of a debate on social mobility and meritocracy on Sunday because he is Michael Young's son? Oh yes.

Also Young was back at the Radio 4 studios this morning talking about why US-style summer camps have never caught on in the UK, his pithy analysis was because the UK middle classes sent their kids to boarding school, they couldn't send them away in the summer as well.

I have news for you Toby, only 7% of the population send their kids to private schools, and let's say half of those are at boarding schools that is a mere 3.5% of the population - this is not a massive middle class trend. This is "middle class" used in the way that the Daily Mail likes to use it to refer to people who earn over £150,000, and try and pretend this is the national middle income.

Toby, that might be you, but you are not in the middle.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

After the Great Stink

Only by giving away power can the Government restore trust in a damaged political system. This is my editorial commentary in the Summer 2009 'Red Shoots' issue of the Fabian Review.


After the worst stench of disrepute hung over Westminster since the open sewers of the 19th century, Labour's worst electoral performance for decades and the shame of two British fascists in the European Parliament, Labour appeared to be a party on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

The question of leadership now appears settled; very few MPs can have any appetite for a third botched coup, and the May rebels had neither a candidate, nor any clear agenda for change. But the more important question was always about the public argument and political direction of the government.

There have been too many distractions; it should have been easier to identify what they were a distraction from.

Gordon Brown's government has shown more policy purpose in response to the recession, but has yet to tell voters what Labour seeks a further term in office to do.

Not being the Tories will not work a fourth time when 'anybody but Labour' has become a popular sentiment too. That means a dispiriting, anti-politics campaign will see the incumbents lose by default. A fighting chance for Labour is only possible if voters believe there are substantive differences at stake.

Labour can best address what it stands for now with a concrete and radical agenda for how the Government will use the next 290 days of power than through shiny vistas for a hypothetical fourth term.

Labour has the bully pulpit of power. It could still frame public arguments, testing would be 'progressive' Conservatives who no longer oppose what they recently opposed, and seeking to entrench Labour's claim as to where the new centre of British politics lies.

This is not to advocate defeatism, still less a scorched earth policy. It would create a real contest, by offering voters the choice they have the right to expect.

But this can be done only if the government's agenda on the three central issues - public spending in a post-recession economy; political reform; and the climate change deal we need - are clearly about radical change, rather than defaulting back to business as usual with incremental reform.

The Iraq inquiry demonstrated this danger. The Prime Minister's initial commitment to hold an inquiry, over a year ago, was important. As the point was to learn lessons from the most contentious foreign policy episode for half a century, it was vital to go the extra mile for openness. A rapid rethink, after an untenable initial instinct for privacy, means the inquiry will be more open.

This can be diagnosed as a bad case of governmentitis, where the advice of the Cabinet Secretary seemed to trump elementary public politics.

The Iraq inquiry offers an important broader lesson as Gordon Brown revives the idea of a new constitutional settlement.

Many fear it is now too late in the day, even those sympathetic to the cause. Proving this wrong depends on Gordon Brown recalling a lesson from his first decision as Chancellor: making the Bank of England independent. Giving away power to restore trust is the only way reform will have public credibility now.

Offer a referendum on electoral reform. Create a citizens' convention to begin writing our new constitution. Let the politicians listen - and the people decide. It would take a leap of faith. If this may seem unlikely, there is a new politics to be gained. Is there so much to lose?

* More about the new Fabian Review issue. Fabian members will receive their copy of this week. You can Join the Fabians here.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Pack more punch against corporate power

Corporate responsibility is taking a new turn. And it could be a productive swing.
In days gone by corporate responsibility meant waving a wad of money at a charity which projected a cuddly image in the annual shareholders brochure - something with children and animals would often be appropriate.
In today's world of social networking and people power, suited-and-booted corporate social responsibility teams should be ready to embrace a new definition of their work. It needs to include a corporate responsibility to be more responsive to society (including their own customers). And beware those who don't. A lack of responsibility breeds customer contempt, and customers can now pack more punch than ever before.
As Paul Prowse argued here last week, global social media which are now part of the public's armoury - Facebook and YouTube are examples of this - offer a power that corporations should worry about.
These media can also be used to cause large corporations to change their policies or risk public damage to their reputation.
My favourite recent example of this is the story of Dave Carroll and his guitar. The Canadian folk singer has managed to take his compensation case against United Airlines damaging his guitar during a flight to a massive worldwide audience through music.
The power of the music video message to United is that it has already attracted an audience of 3.7 million on YouTube.
Carroll turned to YouTube with his tune "United Breaks Guitars" after his one-year attempt to weave his way through a maze of "customer service" phone lines at the airline failed miserably.
The power of YouTube to take this musical message to the people is such that United have now admitted their mistake, and have given £3000 to a music charity.
Too late, we scream, if you had held your hands up and apologised months ago, then it would have been better for you and your corporate image.
And this suddenly makes a difference, the public now has more space to challenge a company's puffed-up projection of itself. And a good job too. It might finally help to level up that power struggle between a solitary individual against the mighty. Unfortunately we might not all have the musical talent.
PS - Is it my imagination or was there a lot of punch ups in the papers this week? Winehouse, Law and Gerrard - a three-hander.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Rip off research

“The way I see it,” explained Evan Harris MP at the Fabian public attitudes seminar in Birmingham, “it's poor people taking money from society they’re not entitled to or it's rich people taking money from society they’re not entitled to. Personally, I’m far happier with the poor evading system as they’re poor”.

With good reason too. Benefit fraud costs the country £800 million a year, according to the Public Accounts Committee where as the wealthy are ripping us of to the tune of £13billion a year.

Depressingly though, recent JRF research found the public still view the poor with more cynicism than the rich, doubting their ability to make any worthwhile contribution to society. Although the public does agree that some people do well in life because of who they know not because they are especially talented. Whilst the poor are often denigrated, inequalities at the top end can be justified so long as they're are seen as fair, the Fabians’ found. High earners are more talented, work harder and studied longer, people think.

Or rather, thought.

People’s ability to make order of inequality has come crashing down with the credit crunch and they can no longer rationalise excessive wages as before. There’s now broad cross-party support for taxing the rich and, according to Evan Harris, the Lib Dems plan to seize on it.

Harris outlined plans to raise £20billion through taxing the wealthy and polluters in order to raise the tax threshold to £10,000. Those earning less than this would also be exempt from Council Tax.

“This is massively redistributive,” he explained, “but the losers, although there aren’t very many of them, will lose massively.” Can the Lib Dems really gain support for such progressive measures, policies that will address inequality but will also give money to an ‘undeserving’ poor?

One of the problems Harris argued, is that the government talks loosely about ‘ordinary’ families, ‘hard-working families’, those on ‘middle incomes’, which almost everyone identifies with. What is a middle income though?

Lib Dems claim their proposals will benefit 80% of society, leaving only the top 20% worse off. Think bankers, lawyers and hedge fund managers. But also think so called 'ordinary' households where, for example, a teacher lives with a policewoman. They also have a combined income that falls into the top 20%. Suddenly people are not so comfortable. Taking money from greedy fatcats, we like, taking money from our neighbours, we don’t.

There is a need for clarity. The public needs to be made more aware of existing inequalities and the impact of poverty on people's life chances. When research participants were given evidence of the long-term impact of inequalities, they were far more in favour of poverty-tackling policies.

The media could also do more to help. As Harris pointed out, papers happily tell the ‘man from bad background makes good’ story without ever mentioning that it was the welfare state that kept him alive on the way up.

Policy makers must to provide more information and hone in on people’s social conscience. Progressives should seize the opportunity for change.

Next Wednesday, Rhodri Morgan speaks at the Cardiff leg of the Fabian Roadshow. There are still a few places left.

Bringing ownership back in

So far this year we have had no fewer than three major reviews into issues around equality of opportunity and social mobility. There was the government's own White Paper, New Opportunities: Fair Chances for the Future, which more or less coincided with the report of the Lib Dem-initiated Narey Commission on Social Mobility. And just this week we have had the report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, Unleashing Aspiration.

A striking feature of all three reviews is how little attention they give to one issue which would seem to be highly relevant to their subject matter: the distribution of wealth.

The neglect of this topic is all the more striking given the trends in, and extent of, wealth inequality.

As of 2003, the wealthiest 1% owned 21% of marketable wealth, the least wealthy 50% owned 7% of marketable wealth. As of 2005/6, 35% of UK families had no savings, another 21% had less than £1,500 in savings (Social Trends, 2008, Table 5.21, p.76). Over the past couple of decades, wealth inequality has been rising. If we look at the Gini coefficient measure of inequality, averaging for 5 year periods since 1982, we get the following picture:

1982-86: 0.644
1987-91: 0.648
1992-96: 0.664
1997-2001: 0.694
2002-03: 0.690

The three recent reports, whatever their merits, together reflect a worrying contraction of the social democratic imagination.

Social democrats would once unhesitatingly have said that changes in the ownership and control of wealth are fundamental to creating a just society. But over time social democracy has become increasingly a project to defend the welfare state and public services, taking the distribution of wealth and the ownership structures of capitalist society as largely given.

In a thinkpiece in the latest issue of the Fabian Review, I argue that one feature of left renewal (in and beyond the Labour party) must be to bring questions about the distribution and control of wealth more explicitly and systematically onto the table. The ProgCons have, of course, picked up on this problem and have been developing their own proposals to address it. The left can and should do better.

Wealth matters because the ownership of financial assets is important both to freedom and to equality of opportunity.

Assets are important to freedom, firstly, because they give individuals material independence - the power to walk away from from abusive employers or spouses because one has some resources of one’s own. Assets are also important, second, in enabling people to approach life in a creative spirit. Those who hold assets are able to ask themselves ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ in a way that many of those without assets simply are not.

Related to this, assets confer all kinds of opportunity, e.g., to set up a business, to move, undertake new training or simply to take time out from the labour market so that one can maintain one’s vitality. A society is unlikely to achieve equality of opportunity unless it achieves a modicum of equality in asset ownership, particularly in early adult life when so many important life-shaping decisions are made.

So, if wealth inequality matters, what can we do about it?

A credible strategy must work at the problem from 'both ends' as it were, adopting ambitious initiatives to build assets amongst the asset-poor, while also targeting undeserved wealth accumulation for taxation, and possibly linking the two together, earmarking the taxes for the asset-building initiatives as part of a conscious project of genuine asset redistribution.

So far as asset-building initiatives are concerned, Labour has of course taken a first crucial step in this direction by introducing the Child Trust Fund (CTF). The state gives all citizens a small sum at birth (and a further sum at age seven) which is invested and accumulates as they grow up. Families may also contribute into the fund.

Labour has also introduced the Saving Gateway. This provides matching subsidies to poor households who save into special accounts (the proposed match rate is 50%, i.e., the government will put 50p into the account for every £1 saved by the household).

A first priority is to defend these existing policies. The Liberal Democrats remain committed to abolishing the CTF, disparaging it as a ‘gimmick’, apparently oblivious of how the policy coheres with their own philosophy and historic commitments. So far as the Conservatives are concerned, although the ProgCons endorse the CTF and Saving Gateway, one wonders how vulnerable these programs might be to an incoming Conservative government looking for ways to cut public spending.

However, defence of present policies is by no means enough. If, for example, the CTF is to become the basis for an effective citizen’s inheritance, at least two further measures seem necessary. First, it is important to increase the initial state endowments into the CTF from the current rather low sum of £250 (rising to £500 for children in poorer families). Second, it is important to help low-income households save more into their children’s accounts so as to prevent substantial inequalities at age 18. (So far as I can see, the recent ProgCon report from Demos does not endorse this idea of adding a matched savings component to the CTF - a massive but missed opportunity to try and establish some genuine progressive credentials.)

What about the taxation of wealth and wealth transfers?

One obvious anomaly here at present is the lower rate of tax on capital gains relative to income, a standing invitation to the high-paid to take their pay in the form of wealth, e.g., shares, rather than wages.

It is also vital to defend inheritance tax.

However, there is also a strong case for reforming the tax. At present, the tax is based on the size of the taxable estate at death. In principle, it seems much fairer to base the tax on how much a person receives (and on how much they have already received in this way): a capital receipts tax. It is certainly more complex and expensive to administer than the present tax. But experience from the Republic of Ireland, which has operated such a tax since the 1970s, suggests these problems are not insuperable.

Ownership was once central to social democratic politics. Over time it has been radically downgraded. This has left social democrats too reliant on other policies and institutions, such as public services, to deliver their ideal of a society of free and equal citizens. The time has come to bring ownership back in.

Of course, the above are only some ideas. They only scratch the surface of thinking through a new left politics of ownership.

What else should we be thinking about? What role can co-operation and mutualism play in such a politics? Should big institutional investors be brought under more democratic control? If so, by what means?

I'm sure I don't know the answers to these questions, but I am confident they are questions we need to ask.

Bring back Gibbo?

Congratulations to Chloe Smith on being elected to Parliament by winning the Norwich North by-election for the Conservatives.

Despite the majority of over 7000, Norwich North ought to remain a key battleground seat for the next General Election.

Boundary changes (in Labour's favour) will move it down the list to 162nd on the Conservative target list. The Conservatives benefit from the boost in profile of having a sitting MP in place in the final year - but previous by-election gains have often been reversed at the General Election.

That will be much tougher this time. Labour has a great deal to do to reunite the local party to launch a fightback. They will also need a candidate with the profile and reputation to win the seat back. Chris Ostrowoski, who fought a creditable campaign in unusually difficult circumstances, ending in a bout of swine flu, might build on that for the General Election.

But there is, of course, one other man who fits that description.

Apart from Smith who, as the front-runner is widely credited as rarely having put a foot wrong in a professional and safe campaign, the candidate whose reputation rose most during this by-election campaign was a non-runner - outgoing MP Ian Gibson.

His strong reputation with local voters on the doorstep has been a consistent theme cited by both reporters and by candidates from all parties. That can sometimes happen when a long-standing MP has died. But I can't recall any previous example over a departure under a personal cloud of controversy.

This surely adds credence to Gibson's complaint that he was ill treated by the party's "star chamber" in refusing him the ability to be the Labour candidate next time.

His party has now paid a heavy price too for his decision to resign at once

The grievances on all sides must surely run too deep for a Gibbo comeback.

So I can't see the party asking - and perhaps Gibson would walk away if they did.

But with Labour needing to rebuild quickly in Norwich, perhaps that should be the final regret of the self-inflicted damage of this unnecessary by-election defeat.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Cruddas "literally not interested" in the leadership

There is no doubt that Jon Cruddas is one of the most interesting and thoughtful politicians around at the moment. That’s why a growing number of people in the Labour Party have pinned their hopes on him to lead them out of current woes – or at the very least add some intellectual/ideological heft to a front bench in the near future.

His wide ranging interview with Mary Riddell in the new issue of the Fabian Review, published today, will both fuel the Cruddas love and disappoint his fan club: he displays all the characteristics that make him so appealing - that unusual mix of the human and the wonk - and then rules himself out of ever moving off the back benches. Hard to see any wriggle room here:

"The leadership doesn’t interest me. There are certain identikit characteristics which a leader has to have, and I don’t have them. I don’t have the certainty needed to do it. I couldn’t deal with it. I have a different conception of how I want to live my life.

“I literally am not interested. A lot of blokes in and around Cabinet could do it. Harriet Harman has shown real steel. There’s the Miliband lads, James Purnell and younger people...I’m not ambitious – that’s my problem. Tony Blair, Nick Clegg and David Cameron are physiologically interchangeable. They are merging into the same person – constructing a politician that fits the rubric.”

This is pretty emphatic stuff. And the honesty and modesty of his critique of himself and those politicians that reach the top might make you wish someone could change his mind.

You can read the whole thing here. The interview is part of a special issue of the Review that looks for the "Red Shoots" of intellectual recovery on the left. There has already been good coverage of our polling on constitutional reform post-expenses and Alan Johnson's renewed call for AV+ - have a look at the Fabian Review page on our website for full details of what's in the magazine.

** Listen to Jon Cruddas' podcast interview with Rachael Jolley on the Fabian website here.

PS - anyone attracted by Teal's great cartoon above can contact him on 01604 234 878 / 07885 021 217 or at

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Is choice power?

Guest post by Graeme Cook.

The debate about choice and power at the launch of Open Left could be another that is significant for the future of the Left.

Over the past few years the issue of choice - particularly in public services - has been a polarising one within the British Left. This is partly because it has been seen as emblematic of a wider set of political goals and methods. Are you for individuals or the collective? Are you for markets or the state? Are you for solidarity or atomisation? We covered all this ground at the launch event this week.

Elements of these distinctions are real and meaningful. But in truth, some is more rhetoric than reality. As I was listening to the discussion, it struck me that in thinking about choice as being fundamentally about power, and in broadening our understanding of how this power is distributed and exercised, there is a different way of approaching this debate.

What’s interesting is that having your voice heard and having agency over your life are notions of power which most people in the Left would endorse in the context of, say, the political process or the workplace. We want radical democratic reform precisely to give voters greater power over political decision making. We value trade unions because we want workers to have power in the workplace. So, is it possible to think of power in public services in a similar way?

First, we'd have to think about the impact of one person exercising their power on other people, because public services are one of the domains where we come together and care about more than just ourselves. Second, we'd need to take seriously the way power is distributed and, specifically, how to design policies which increase the power of the powerless (not amplify power inequalities). Third, we'd have to broaden out from just individual power to think about how people acting together could exercise their collective power. And fourth, we'd need to develop a set of principles to judge where power should reside within particular services and how people should be able to deploy it.

The next question, of course, is what does this mean for policy. I don't claim that these are all new thoughts and there are already some examples of these ideas in our public services. But this is an issue which Open Left wants to explore, test out and work through as part of renewing the thinking and ideas of the Left.

Graeme Cook is the head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Why are you on the left?

The Demos Open Left project has launched with a series of short personal pieces about what it means to be left - and is inviting people to join in and answer these brief questions.

My contribution focuses on equality and fairness, and the idea of a society of equal life chances, which will probably not be an enormous surprise to Next Left readers.

Here is the more personal bit about how I think I came to be on the left.

What do you consider made you Left wing?

Without identifying any specific moment, I knew where I was coming from by the time I was fourteen or fifteen. I grew up in the north-west during the 1980s before the family moved to the south-east, so that had an impact. I was interested in history and in politics. We had the Daily Mail in the house, and I started getting The Guardian too. I discovered George Orwell and read as much as possible.

The other things that dominated my world somehow became more political. I was absurdly obsessive about football – and was interested in the emerging fanzine and supporters’ movement before the Hillsborough tragedy, when that seemed very urgent.

Then, when I was 16, Norman Tebbit proposed his ‘cricket test’. Well, I had supported England since I was seven or eight. My Dad didn’t – which was probably a good enough reason to go for England when they played India. (Viv Richards’ West Indies were magic: was that was the real ‘cricket test’?). I felt the divisiveness of that quite personally – my Dad worked for the NHS yet was being accused of treachery for liking Kapil Dev. So I was confused: could I keep supporting England now that had been made a loyalty test of support for Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit?

The Open Left project should be judged, like any other, on the ideas it produces. I think there are three important positive features of the initial approach which it has taken.

Firstly, we need more space for discussion about core values and first principles, as well as about policy and political questions. The Open Left project is one more contribution to a growing sense that we need to return to questions of fundamental purpose, mission and values, having not attempted that since the early 1990s, in a different political, economic and international context.

Secondly, the early contributions to Open Left show that a 'what are we for' discussion revolves centrally around the values of equality and fairness. We do not have, and can not expect, unananimity about where that will take a next left politics. As Stuart White put it recently here, "'equality' is a demand that covers a range of reasonable ideals". But the foundational point of agreement that inequality matters is important too. Gradually, since around 2006, equality has begun to return to being more central to Labour's political discourse - having been marginalised and said to be a central point of contention between New and Old Labour with a stark choice between ideology or pragmatism (and electoral success).

Thirdly, the project can help to show that voices from different strands of the left can engage in serious discussion about what they agree and disagree about without fearing this will descend into some all-out factional war. That fear has done too much to constrain political debate during the New Labour era. The much greater danger is not having a much more open debate of this kind.

Monday, 20 July 2009

When property is theft: the ProgCon assets agenda

Its all go at Demos at the moment.

Readers of Next Left could be forgiven for forgetting that last week, before all the debate over James Purnell and Open Left, the think-tank's Progressive Conservatism project issued its report, Recapitalising the Poor: Why Property is Not Theft, written by Max Wind-Cowie. (This is not be confused with Phillip Blond's ideas for 'recapitalising the poor' which appeared in The Guardian recently.)

Enthusiasts for what Rajiv Prabhakar calls the 'assets agenda' should certainly read the report and think about its policy proposals, which I think warrant further consideration. It is a serious and intelligent contribution to policy debate.

What also makes it interesting, however, is the way it encapsulates the delicate conceptual dance that is 'progressive conservatism' (a step to the left, ahem, a step to the right...)

The dance takes place around the concept of fairness. The report takes a concern for fairness as definitive of what it is to be progressive:

'In sharing the progressive objectives more commonly associated with the left, [progressive conservatives] are driven by a concern for fairness...'

Moreover, this is fairness understood in terms of the distributive outcomes of the market (and not, as in right-wing theories, simply in terms of the processes of the market). Thus, the report defines its objectives explicitly in terms of overcoming the blatant unfairness that the poorest section of the population own so little wealth - so much less, in relative terms, than they did in the 1970s:

'For progressive is a disappointment that between 1976 and 2003, the poorest half of the population went from owning 12 per cent of wealth to owning just 1 per cent.'

When we come to the question 'What is to be done?', however, the report asserts its conservative credentials. Looking at its various proposals, they all have one basic idea in common: asset-building amongst the poor is to be advanced overwhelmingly by alternative uses of public spending targeted at, or tax revenues taken from, the poor. The poor must have more assets. But they must be enabled to build them up in ways that do not challenge any of the existing entitlements - market or state entitlements - of the more affluent.

Well, you might say, what did I expect? This is, after all, a conservative policy document. It would be naive to expect it to embrace policies for asset-building that would involve some significant interclass redistribution.

True, except that this is also meant, of course, to be progressive conservatism - and, according to Max Wind-Cowie, the content of progressivism is given by the commitment to fairness. Given that defining, central commitment to fairness, doesn't one need to consider whether social classes hold their assets and other resources fairly before one asserts that asset-building for the poor must be financed largely at the poor's own expense?

For instance, one might ask: Is it fair that so many people have enjoyed completely unearned appreciations in housing wealth since 1997 (notwithstanding the recent fall back in house prices)? Is it fair that this capital gain, which has little to do with the personal effort of the asset-holders, remains in the pockets of house-owners rather than being shared out somewhat?

Or: Is it fair that capital gains are taxed at a much lower rate than income, giving the affluent an easy way to lower their tax bills by taking pay in assets rather than wages?

Or: Is it fair that the institution of inheritance is structured in our society so that some get a lot while others get little, and in a way that is correlated with other advantages of social class?

If you sign up to the importance of 'fairness', these are questions which have to be addressed. And when they are addressed, one is likely to come to the conclusion that some wealth-holders hold wealth unfairly, and that in a fair society, they would have this wealth taxed away. Insofar as we do not do this, then their property is theft.

Simply assuming, apparently as an axiom of conservative faith, that we are not to redistribute between social classes is inconsistent with the self-declared commitment to take fairness seriously.

What I take away from this report, then, is a clear sense of the way defining a 'progressive conservatism' really does seem to be squaring a philosophical circle. The concepts which define progressivism, notably that of fairness, have their own logic. Let them in, and they spread out in all directions, questioning this, interrogating that. Throwing up conservative boundaries, beyond which the progressive concepts are not allowed to pass, is arbitrary in intellectual terms.

The contradiction is neatly embodied in the report's use of a quotation from Tom Paine in its opening paragraph. In Agrarian Justice (1797), Paine famously argued that all citizens should receive a capital grant at age 21 'to begin the world':

‘When a young couple begin the world, the difference is exceedingly great whether they begin the world with nothing or with fifteen pounds apiece. With this aid they could buy a cow, and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; and instead of becoming burdens upon society...would be put in the way of becoming useful and profitable citizens.’

Over two hundred years on from the days when Tories were instigating crowds to burn effigies of Tom Paine, and calling for him to be hanged for treason, it is nice to see them finally appreciating the force of what he has to say.

Only they haven't quite got there. For Paine, of course, proposed to finance the universal capital grant by means of an inheritance tax. And that still seems to be the sort of uninhibited progressive thinking that would-be 'progressive Conservatives' feel unable to engage with.

Perhaps in another two hundred years, they might finally catch up?

Capabilities or income?

There's an interesting exchange of views between James Purnell and Jon Cruddas in today's Guardian, marking the start of Demos's new project, Open Left.

One aspect of the exchange I find particularly interesting is Purnell's call to broaden egalitarian thinking from income to 'capabilities', and Cruddas's reaction to this.

Here is what Purnell says:

'The left needs to be clear about the kind of equality it wants to pursue. I think we need to widen out from a narrow focus on income, to aiming for equality of capability - giving everyone the power to pursue their goals.'

And here is what Cruddas says in reply:

'...Purnell's idea of equality of capability is very interesting - if, and only if, it is more than just a reworking of equality of opportunity, another way of ignoring questions of distributional justice. Purnell says "we need to widen out from a narrow focus on income", which is true - but what follows only highlights a glaring omission. Why no mention of wealth?'

Cruddas is spot on.

Purnell takes the idea of 'capabilities' from the work of economist and philosopher, Amartya Sen. Sen developed the idea in the context of a debate within academic political philosophy called the 'Equality of what?' debate. This debate concerned (or concerns - it continues) just what egalitarians should be fundamentally concerned to equalize.

Sen argued against two other prevailing answers to the question 'Equality of what?' On the one hand, he rejected what he termed welfarism, the view that all that matters in a fundamental way is the pleasure or preference satisfaction someone enjoys. On the other, he rejected resourcism: the view that all that matters in a fundamental way is the resources someone has.

According to Sen, resourcism focuses on what people have ignoring what they are able to do and be with what they have. Two people with the same resources (for short, income) may nevertheless have very unequal capacity to do or be things because differences in their personal characteristics mean that they can get different things out of a given amount of income.

Welfarism does focus on what people can do with resources. But it only focuses on one aspect of what they can do: the welfare level they can attain. Rather than focusing on resources or welfare, we should instead focus on 'capabilities': that is, on a plurality of potential 'doings' and 'beings' that people are able to achieve with the resources they have.

It is true to say, then, as Purnell does, that the capabilities approach is meant to correct for a 'narrowness' in conceptualizing what matters simply as income. And, moreover, Sen's point in this respect is a compelling one.

Nevertheless, there is a danger of misunderstanding here. The danger consists in thinking something like this: 'Because it is capabilities that matter in a fundamental way for egalitarians, and not income, the left need not be too concerned with achieving greater equality in the distribution of income.'

Purnell doesn't say this - but what he does say could be construed as implying something like it. However, such a conclusion doesn't follow from Sen's analysis. Although there is more to capability than income, income - and wealth - remain crucially important in determining the capabilities that people have. The range of 'doings' and 'beings' available to an individual in a market society is shaped in a very basic way by the income (and wealth) they hold.

So a focus on capabilities is right. But it gives no good reason to deemphasize the left's traditional objective of achieving greater equality in the space of income - and, as Cruddas rightly adds, wealth.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Connecting People...?

Communications technology is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we’ve seen the so-called Iranian Twitter revolution; on the other, accusations that Nokia provided electronic surveillance tools enabling the Iranian government to crack down on the post-election protest movement.

So the sword can cut both ways: with public opinion holding communication companies to a higher standard than firms that provide other utilities, because the services they provide are essential to freedom of expression in today's world.

While companies such as Google and Twitter have won PR points for having a campaigning aspect in providing public information, they also have to realise that if they then go on to take purely business-model decisions, public opinion can swing back against them.

Nokia has argued that there’s a ‘net-benefit’ in supplying their ‘lawful intercept’ technology to countries with a less than stellar human rights record. They say they have to fulfil the legal obligations of each country they operate in, but ultimately they are empowering ordinary Iranians.

(The Nokia spokesperson also denied that the company provides online surveillance tools to the Iranian regime - although the Wall Street Journal has said that they are sticking by their story.)

Nokia’s ‘net benefit’ argument is similar to the one Google made when it launched a heavily censored version of its search engine in China. Some saw the move as a brazen violation of its famed “Don’t Be Evil” corporate motto. Not that Google didn’t take the criticism seriously - in response, the company created its own, ahem, ‘scale of evil’.

"We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve [China] at all was worse evil," said Google CEO Eric Schmidt, fearlessly breaking new ground both morally and grammatically.

I’m not sure exactly how Google’s evil scale works, but I’m fairly sure it’s linked to Google’s money-making scale. Otherwise its unclear how making a lot of cash through supporting a repressive political regime is morally superior to, well, not supporting it.

China isn’t stupid – its political class knows that their continued grip on power is to a large extent dependent on continued economic development and rising living standards. They also know how crucial Western technological expertise is to its continued economic growth.

The question is, what principles should corporations adhere to in their international dealings?

At the moment, we’ve got: ‘Don’t be evil. Unless it pays.’

We should endorse PR

Peter Kellner has set out the case for the Alternative Vote (AV) as the preferred objective of electoral reform. I don't find his case at all convincing. Here's why.

Peter is of course absolutely right to point out that there is no perfect electoral system. At least, there isn't if you have more than one criterion for what makes a good electoral system. As soon as you admit more than one criterion, there is every chance the two could conflict and so you have to face a trade-off in which one electoral system gives you more of one thing you want and another gives you more of whatever else it is you want.

So at the outset, I want to eschew any argument for PR that treats proportionality as the sole criterion of importance and then tells us that (obviously) PR meets this criterion better than AV or what we have now.

Having firmly eschewed the 'PR absolutist' position, let's set out the non-absolutist case for PR as an alternative to AV.

(1) Giving some (non-trivial) weight to proportionality as an expression of fairness.

First, I am struck that in listing his criteria for a good electoral system, Peter seems to give no weight at all to proportionality as such. His fourth criterion - ensuring some representation for minorities - implies some limits on how disproportionality can express itself, but does not really amount to an acceptance of the desirability of proportionality as such. Now, while there can indeed be reasonable disagreement about how to weigh various criteria, Peter's apparent view that proportionality as such should have no weight strikes me as unreasonable.

Proportionality has a clear claim to being an important, weighty criterion because it is linked to the idea of individuals' votes counting equally in determining the outcome of an election. Take the infamous example of the 1983 general election in which Labour got roughly 10 times the number of seats in the House of Commons compared to the Liberal/SDP Alliance even though they had almost equal shares of the popular vote. Any Alliance voter had a quite reasonable grievance in this situation - their vote had so much less influence on the final composition of the Commons than that of a Labour voter.

Proportionality matters because it embodies the demand for a certain kind of fairness in the way votes get translated into representation in the legislature.

Once we allow proportionality to be a weighty consideration, however, the case for AV is hugely weakened. In some recent general elections (1997, 2005), AV would have delivered even more disproportional results than the current system. Even if we accept all of Peter's other criteria for judging electoral systems, if we include proportionality as a desirable feature too, with some weight, it is hard to see how one can justify AV over, say, 'AV plus', which has a proportional element.

(2) PR has better consequences than majoritarian electoral systems.

If the fairness consideration which animates PR proponents carries little weight for Peter, what does matter in his view are the consequences that an electoral system can be expected to have. His implicit strategy is to point to various bad consequences that PR allegedly has compared to AV.

This is fair enough. On my 'non-absolutist' position, I accept that the specific fairness which comes with proportionality can in principle be outweighed if it results in sufficiently bad consequences (unstable government, disproportionate influence to small parties, etc.)

Supporters of PR can and do respond to this line of argument in a number of ways. On the one hand, one can argue that to some extent worse consequences are worth it for the sake of greater fairness - though this won';t get any traction with Peter as he doesn't seem to want to give proportionality as such any weight. Or one can argue that the bad consequences are less likely than is being alleged. Or one might argue that they can be substantially avoided if the principle of strict proportionality is qualified in some way(s), e.g., by setting thresholds of the popular vote which parties have to get over to get any representation.

A fourth line of response, however, is to argue that, relative to majoritarian electoral systems like our present system and AV, PR has good consequences.

As someone on the left, one consequence I care a lot about is social justice, as expressed, for example, in the distribution of income. Back in 2006, the political scientists Torben Iversen and David Soskice published a paper in the American Political Science Review (arguably the leading political science academic journal in the world) which examined, theoretically and statistically, how different types of electoral system impact on redistribution and income inequality. David Soskice also wrote an article exploring the implications of the paper for Prospect.

The main result of Iversen and Soskice's analysis is striking. They find that, controlling for other relevant factors, PR electoral systems generate more redistribution and inequality reduction than majoritarian systems. (Australia, with its AV system, is included in the analysis as a majoritarian system.) The effect is substantial and statistically significant. (The chance that the statistical association they find is pure fluke is less than 5%.)

Why is this? Well, a large part of the answer is that PR systems simply generate more years of centre-left government on average than majoritarian systems. To be sure, left-wing parties rarely govern alone in PR systems; they hold office in coalitions with other parties. But periods of government by coalitions with gravity to the centre-left are far more common in PR systems than are periods of single party rule by the left in majoritarian systems.

Iversen and Soskice explain this finding in terms of a theoretical model which looks at how different electoral systems affect the possibilities of cross-class/cross-party governing coalitions. The basic intuition is that under PR systems, middle-class centre parties are drawn to coalitions with left working-class parties, making for centre-left political domination. By contrast, under majoritarian systems, the same middle class group tends to prefer straight right-wing parties to straight left-wing parties - this tending to be the restricted choice on offer. This produces a politics in which the centre-right is dominant.

So, let's take stock.

There is an important consideration of fairness which ought to be given some weight in evaluating electoral systems. I would say, going a little further than I did above, that this consideration establishes a reasonable presumption in favour of PR. This presumption can be defeated if proportionality generates bad consequences (and many PR supporters accept this when they argue for qualifications to strict proportionality to reduce the risk of certain bad consequences). However, we have good evidence to show that along one dimension of crucial concern to the left - economic inequality - PR systems tend to produce better outcomes than majoritarian systems (of which AV is an example). So rather than defeating the proportionality presumption, a consequentialist analysis seems to reinforce it.

On balance, therefore, I am not convinced by Peter's argument that we should endorse AV. On the contrary, we should endorse PR.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The myth of a 75 year wait for a diverse Parliament

I gave evidence yesterday to the Speakers Conference on increasing diversity in Parliament, having made a written submission, drawing on the research into candidate selection published by the Fabian Society last November.

While people can legitimately disagree about what should be done, we should be able to agree on what the facts are.

I concluded that most public and political debate is rather too complacent about progress being made on gender, and too pessimistic in failing to recognise the scale of progress being made on race.

The prevailing mood of pessimism was reflected in questioning from Parmjit Dhanda MP: he said he had changed his mind to favour all black shortlists because he feared that it would take most of the century to achieve change otherwise.

The most popular soundbite in the debate - that we should not be prepared to wait 75 years for a representative Parliament - was also put to me by David Lammy an ippr podcast published today.

He is far from alone. This was the headline claim of Operation Black Vote's report to Harriet Harman and the government equalities office; Trevor Phillips endorsed it in his evidence to the Speakers Conference; Keith Vaz, who chairs Labour's ethnic minorities taskforce told Parliament this showed why change was needed.

But it isn't true.

I was able to give the Speakers Conference the good news that current progress is much faster - probably three times faster - than is being claimed by the most prominent public advocates in this debate.

Why is the '75 years' claim calculated?

The 75 year claim is simply based on observing that there were four black and Asian MPs in 1987 and fifteen in 2005. An increase of "two and a half MPs per Parliament" is therefore projected forward across the next fifteen Parliaments.

Leaving aside the excessive simplicity of a linear projection of this kind, we can now see how much this underestimates the current rate of progress.

A "75 years" wait depends on the prediction that 'current trends' will give us 17 or 18 BME MPs at the forthcoming election, and that we won't see 25 black and Asian MPs for another four General Elections.

The 75 years trajectory
2005: 15 MPs now
2010: 17-18 at the next election
2014/15: 20 after two more general elections
2019/20: 22-23 after three general elections
2024/25: 25 after four general elections
2028/29: 27-28 after five general elections
And so ploddingly on ...

The good news on BME selections

Fortunately, in the real world, we are doing much better than this gloomy prognosis. At the next election, we should see a rate of progress three times faster that this. I expect to see those making this claim knocking around 50 years off the 75 year projection before this time next year.

I don't think the headline number of MPs is as important as achieving fair chances and no unfair barriers for candidates. I think it is safe to make a (rather cautious) prediction of a net gain of seven BME MPs at the next General Election, to take the total to 22 in 2010, based on the selections which have already taken place. Interestingly - perhaps surprisingly - there are likely to be 22 BME MPs (at least, and perhaps slightly more) whatever happens politically. I will come back to that in another post.

The Speakers Conference has today published an interim paper which stresses that the parties have a good chance to speed up change. The final total could be higher.

For now, I would suggest that those interested in an evidence-based debate should quietly retire the claim about a 75 years wait for a representative Parliament.

While so much of the debate lags behind the evidence, many of those who champion more BME representation are currently telling the candidates of the future that their chances are much much gloomier than is in fact the case.

Kellner: "We should endorse AV"

Guest post by Peter Kellner

Before I court controversy, provoke angry retorts and incite letters in green ink, let me start with a proposition that should (but probably won’t) attract widespread agreement. There is no such thing as a perfect voting system. To seek the best way to elect MPs is to be forced to make compromises.

The reason for this is simple. As long as we keep a parliamentary system, general elections will have a number of purposes: to choose an executive, to appoint a legislature and to secure local representation.

Depending on personal preferences, other considerations may also matter: to ensure stable government, for example, or to keep out extremists. But even if we stick to the three primary purposes of elections, the inescapable truth is that there is no voting system that secures each objective with complete precision. Trade-offs are inevitable. Our choice of system depends crucially on our priorities. The debate we should be having is what those priorities should be.

Here are mine, in order. General elections should:

  • Give voters a clear way to “throw the rascals out” by replacing governments they do not like with the main alternative
  • Lead to stable government
  • Provide local communities with MPs that command the support of a majority of local voters
  • Ensure the representation in Parliament of significant minorities, but not give them disproportionate influence
  • Keep small, extremist parties out of Parliament

These priorities lead me to support the Alternative Vote (AV). Other people will have different priorities, and choose different systems. If you want the number of a party’s MPs to relate closely to its total vote, and don’t mind blurring the choice of government or diluting MPs’ constituency link, then you will prefer one of the more proportional systems. That’s fair enough – as long as you accept, as I do, that trade-offs must be made and that perfection is beyond reach.

I believe that AV keeps the virtues of first-past-the-post (FPTP) while tackling two of its defects. Like FPTP, it is loaded in favour of large parties, and therefore retains a clear choice of government in normal circumstances; and it retains the current constituency link, whereby each MP represents a defined locality. On the other hand, it improves the prospects of moderate, medium-sized parties that FPTP can punish cruelly; and it makes sure that no candidate can be elected who is actively opposed by a majority of local voters.

(Given the recent successes of the British Nazi Party in local and European elections, it is worth noting that AV is the best system for keeping the BNP at bay. The party would seldom, if ever, win any contest under AV, whereas we now know that, if local conditions are right, it can win under both FPTP and proportional representation. Some years ago a BNP-style politician, Pauline Hanson, stood for election in Queensland to Australia’s Parliament. She came top when first preferences were counted, and would have won under FPTP; but Australia elects its MPs by AV; and when second preferences were taken into account, she lost.)

The advantages of AV are clear. What about its alleged defects?

“Like FPTP, AV produces governments that have only minority support”. There’s a narrow sense in which this is plainly true. These days it is normal for Labour and the Conservatives to share around 70-75% of the total vote; no wonder neither ever passes the 50% mark. But the polling evidence from recent decades is clear: each general election under FPTP has – and under AV would have – produced the outcome than most people preferred, out of the two main contenders. In 1983 most people wanted a government led by Margaret Thatcher, not by Michael Foot; in 1992 they wanted John Major rather than Neil Kinnock; and in each of the past three elections they have wanted Labour rather than Conservative governments.

“That was not true in 1951 or February 1974: the party with the most votes lost those elections.” If anything AV would have exaggerated those effects. And quite right too. The 1951 result, when the Tories returned to power even though Labour won slightly more votes, was distorted by two things: Tory candidates were elected unopposed in four Northern Irish seats; and the Tories stood aside in some English seats in favour of the Liberals. Indeed Churchill publicly supported Violet Bonham Carter, the Liberal candidate in Colne Valley. We Labour folk may be reluctant to admit it, but more people wanted a Churchill-led Tory government than an Attlee-led Labour government.

In February 1974, on the other hand, when Labour won more seats while the Tories won more votes, the majority public mood was anti-Tory: a sharp rise in the Liberal vote can be explained largely by a widespread desire to turf out Edward Heath in places where Labour stood no chance. AV would have given Labour and the Liberals more seats than FPTP, and the Tories fewer – and possibly led to a more enduring Labour-led government rather than a second election later that year.

“AV can produce even more distorted results than FPTP” Yes and no. Yes, the Tories would have won even fewer seats than they did in 1997 and 2001; but the Lib Dems would have won more. There is a reason for this. The Conservatives were extremely unpopular. AV rewards parties that the public likes, and punishes those it dislikes. Such distortions may worry proportional purists, but should not trouble those of us who think general elections should lead to a clear choice of outcome.

I’m not saying that AV is right for all elections: there is a perfectly reasonable case for some kind of proportional voting for local and European elections, and elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies. Or, indeed, to a reformed House of Lords with limited powers. But the House of Commons decides who should form Britain’s Government; a majoritarian system is better for choosing MPs. Australia has got it right: AV for the lower house, single transferable vote for the upper house, and compulsory voting. Whether or not we succeed in reclaiming the Ashes from them this summer, we should adopt much of their constitutional system.

That said, I can see one way in which we can square the circle, with a clear choice of government and proportional voting for MPs. We could have a directly-elected President, like France or the United States, and a separately elected legislature. But countries with Presidents don’t have monarchs. If you feel that today’s top priority is not the economy, or poverty, or civil liberties, or climate change, and want to campaign for a republican Britain with a written constitution and separation of powers, good luck.

Peter Kellner is President of YouGov

Monday, 13 July 2009

Beyond the crisis: the need for Real Change

From one perspective, politics today looks like a running, rolling saga of crises for various people in various high places.

It began in the financial sector, with major institutions investing irresponsibly and delivering the economic depression we have today.

But after a few months of critical scrutiny, the media's attention shifted to Parliament. The MPs' expenses scandal generated - or crystallised - a widespread sense of disconnection between parliamentarians and the people.

In the last week, The Guardian's allegations about phone-tapping at News of the World have shifted the salient finger of accusation to sections of the media. Unsurprisingly, the accused have not been quite so keen to publicise the accusations as they were in the case of MPs milking the expenses system.

And in the midst of all this, let us not forget the police. The power of citizen journalism has made the brutal character of protest policing all too evident. So evident is it, that Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has in the past week concluded that the police do not understand the job of policing protest in a democratic society and may well not have taken account of their own legal obligations in planning their strategy for the G20 protests.

There is a common thread running through these various cases. It is the problem of arbitrary power.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that 'the worst thing that can happen in human affairs is to find oneself living at the mercy of another'. This sums up the republican idea that the first requirement of a good society is to prevent the emergence of arbitrary power - power that is wielded at the discretion of the power-holder, without sufficient rules and constraints to ensure that the exercise of power tracks the interests of the wider public.

So take the financial sector. It operated in an environment which it is now widely agreed was underregulated. Its major players used their discretionary power in ways that enriched themselves in the short-term, but which has created a severe economic shock which impacts the rest of us.

Or take MPs. They operated an expenses system in an environment that was not properly regulated. The former Speaker sought to prevent full disclosure of what Parliament was doing with its discretionary power. When full disclosure came, it turned out that many MPs had abused this power.

Or take the accusations against journalists at The News of the World. If true, they point to an appaling grab for, and exercise of, arbitrary power. Instead of phone calls remaining private, their privacy can depend on the discretion of a journalist without regard to any consideration of the public interest.

And, turning to the police, the lesson coming out of the recent HMIC report seems to be that the police simply didn't appreciate certain key legal constraints that properly limit how they can use their power to police protest. They assumed they had discretion they didn't - and don't - have. Their behaviour marks another grab for, and exercise of, arbitrary power.

The republican prescription is obvious: as citizens, we need to change the rules (or else see that they are enforced) to close down these sites of arbitrary power. Quite simply, that's what freedom is all about.

However, to state the republican prescription is to state a republican problem. Where are 'we, the citizens'? We are 'out there somewhere' for sure. But we are diffused and divided; discontented but largely disorganised.

In a fascinating post at openDemocracy (also at Liberal Conspiracy), Anthony Barnett reviews the various ways in which we might move forward from this situation of widespread but unfocused anger to constructive change. As Timothy Garton Ash has also argued, particularly promising is the strategy being developed by Real Change.

This strategy involves starting local, with hundreds of meetings in which 'we, the citizens' actually get together and talk about the political reform we would like to see. This process of grass-roots engagement and deliberation can then help build up momentum for a wider national conversation about political reform which might then be taken further by means of something like a citizens' convention.

In the original version of the idea, the aim was to work through the whole process so that it could deliver a set of demands that could frame discussion at the next general election. That may have been too ambitious. But just because we can't see quite how the 'end game' might work for this process, this is not a reason not to get the process going.

There is a real appetite for political reform out there, particularly amongst the kind of progressive constituency whose character was nicely captured by one of the most memorable remarks from the floor of the recent Compass conference: 'I am a Liberal Democrat who votes Green and works with Labour MPs on poverty issues...and I feel at home here.' Many people I spoke to at the Compass conference saw that this progressive constituency is there, but wondered how it could become manifest given its cross-party (and non-party) character. Well, maybe Real Change offers one site for common action (though we should not assume that ours will be the only voices in such an open-ended, democratic process).

To address the problems of arbitrary power we need a citizens' movement. Perhaps Real Change can be the beginnings of such a movement. I'm joining. Why not join too?

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Tory soft shoe shuffle on inheritance tax

With the News of the World still very much on close speaking terms with Tory HQ, Jamie Lyon's Tax Brake report on the party's tax plans will be taken as an authoritative whisper of a probable shift in political positioning.

he Tories pledged to slash Inheritance Tax - their flagship policy - and Stamp Duty as soon as they came to power. But they have now mothballed the moves for as much as six years. And other plans to give tax breaks for married couples have also been put on the backburner ...

But now the Tories have shelved the plans. Rather than being introduced straight after the election, they will be put off until the end of the first Parliament - as late as 2015.

A Tory spokesman said: “The cut in Inheritance Tax will not be brought in straight away. It will be in the first term of the Parliament. It is important to be honest with people.

“The same goes for Stamp Duty. We will bring it in in our first Parliament.”

Key plans to help married couples have been put back even further ... A spokesman said: “It will not necessarily be in the first parliament but we are totally committed to it and we are going to do it.”

The case against the policy was inheritance tax policy on public spending grounds was successfully made by Tim Horton, Fabian research director, on Newnight's policy pen, noting how money could be saved on the government's current plans by suspending any uprating of thresholds for five years. We have published the argument for a freeze in inheritance tax thresholds the projected savings against both Labour and Tory plans submitted to the programme.

Tim did a good job of showing how a public case can be made, for example in pointing out to Digby Jones that somebody inheriting a £400,000 estate would keep £370,000 after taxes. There are many popular myths and misperceptions: a common one being that 40% is payable on the entire value of estates over the threshold.

In today's News of the World, Lyon notes that David Cameron was extremely clear in October 2007 that the IHT pledge was the business of day one of a Conservative government.

This looks to me something of a 'weasal words' policy shift.

Still, the partial retreat is something of a half-victory for common sense - and indeed for Ken Clarke too. The new line is close to that suggested by Clarke last March, when he publicly sought to downgrade the policy to an 'aspiration', noting that "I don't think we're going around any longer saying, this is something we're going to do the moment we take power". He was publicly rebuked for that, but the policy has now moved his way.

However, nervousness at offending the party's right, partly given reaction to Clarke's intervention, explains why the Tories seem to be edging towards delaying the policy rather than dropping it because the economic situation has changed.

So I expect the next few days will see shadow Ministers stressing to their own side that the policy is staying. Will they at the same time brief liberal columnists that the delay shows a sensible willingness to recognise changed circumstances, even if it means challenging the party's instincts?

One can understand the short-term political and party management, there are negatives in this approach too.

The Conservatives will still put the policy in the manifesto - so opponents will naturally challenge what remains almost the only firm commitment they have. Yet the Conservatives will now be asking the public to vote for a policy having introduced a good dose of uncertainty over whether or not they intend to do it.

However, there is also some medium-term thinking behind a 'in our first term' pledge. If the populist policy can't be presented at the hustings this time as 'the first thing we would do if elected' then the strategy is to wait and make it one of the last actions of a Tory first term. It could then become the flagship measure of a pre-election budget in 2014-15.

The problem here is not so much whether that would lose some impact by having been pre-announced nine years earlier. It is that this strategy is the clearest signal we yet have as to the public political strategy of the Tories in power. For all of the talk of Oliver Letwin telling us that the test of progressive Conservatism was what it does for the poorest, that has proved little match for the Thatcherite instincts of the true blue activist base to look after what Maggie called 'our people' first,

So "recapitalising the poor" may be the slogan of the fledgling, endangered species that is progressive Conservatism but that clearly lags well behind "recapitalising the rich" as a priority for George Osborne.

Perhaps the ProgCons need to do more to engage with the case for a principled defence of taxing inherited wealth put forward by Stuart White, Rajiv Prabhakar and Karen Rowlingson in their Fabian pamphlet.

Of course, the 'funded by non-doms tax' defence is a red herring. No independent analyst thinks the highly speculative projections are robust. And, even if £2 billion were available from taxing non-doms, the question of what to do with it is a separate one. Inheritance tax cuts at the top first show a different priority to reducing income taxes at the bottom; extending or protecting a particular spending priority; or reducing fiscal debt.

Hat tip: Paul Staines at the Guido Fawkes website. He notes (disapprovingly) Policy Exchange Director Neil O'Brien's observation last month that the inheritance tax cut pledge was incompatible with arguments about the need for fiscal rigour.

Update: Tim Montgomerie writes he has been told to take the report with a 'ton of salt (which is not a denial) though he thinks the policy shift makes sense. That would be consistent with a plan to say that 'these are just rumours; the policy remains', while both testing and preparing opinion, and then to have any official announcement treated as old news because everyone thinks it is coming.

The Tories are treading on eggshells when it comes to taxes.

Friday, 10 July 2009

It's jam for you in MPs swap fest

Given the bee crisis, and the financial one - I like the style of the business development company the D Group in paying Michael Jack MP for a speech with a jar of honey, as revealed in the latest filing, under the new rules, of MPs' second jobs.
If this is the nature of things to come, I look forward to other payments/swapping arrangements for MPs' services rendered in these straitened economic times, perhaps Michael Gove would be happy with a jar of lemon curd every week for his column in The Times, and the BBC might offer MPs who choose to take part in Any Questions a veggie box to tuck under their arm.
In fact Radio 4 programmes might be able to swap stuff amongst themselves to entice guests on to their programmes, keeping costs low. So perhaps the tillers of the soil from Gardeners' Question Time could provide the food and flowers for Any Questions guests, and maybe the Food Programme has some excellent fodder in their larder which could also be useful to entice guests over to Shepherd's Bush or any other far-flung BBC studios for other shows. Such a pity that excellent show Veg Talk has disappeared, one feels they might well have had some Jerusalem artichokes to donate to the pile.
Shadow Commons leader Alan Duncan has declared he received £222 for his last appearance on Any Questions, but I bet he would be just as happy with a trio of jars of homemade jams.
And since shadow communities secretary Caroline Spelman appeared too - but it took her longer to do the research and preparation - she deserves four jars at least, or maybe a homemade lemon cake.
John Reid MP received a watch for a trip to Bahrain - yes, times are a changing, so the swap fest goes on.
Scrutinising this new register of members' interests is going to be fascinating, readers, as it reveals not only MPs' second jobs, but also how long they estimate it takes them to do each task.
It took Caroline Spelman five and a half hours to do "Any Questions" but Alan Duncan only one hour. One assumes Mrs Spelman felt she had to do some research before she arrived, and that Mr Duncan was confident he knew all the answers already. Oh what joy it must be to know so much. I'd swap a great deal to have a memory like that.
(For the record Michael Jack also received a tie and a book for his D Group appearance. Excellent work Mr Jack.)

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Sunday Times investigates ...

Michael Crick said on Newsnight that how a story like the News of the World bugging story develops will often depend on what the Sunday newspapers will dig up.

But, in this case, he was not sure they would all have the appetite to do so?

I don't know about that, because they do seem to like to get their teeth into a media story.

For example, the main news section of the Sunday Times a fortnight ago contained a front-page news story, a Focus page 'big bags of cash', a Sunday Times editorial 'big, bloated and complacent', a Rod Liddle column (which found them disappointingly unlavish but stuck to the party line) and, just for good measure,a Scarfe cartoon all attacking the BBC over expenditure and expenses.

They were probably a little short of space, as they followed up with a double-page spread on expenses and pensions the following Sunday too.

Naturally, the BBC went to great pains to show it would report and scrutinise itself to demonstrate its journalistic integrity, even as many commentators thought the story rather over-done.

So I am sure we can have every confidence that the Sunday Times will leave few stones unturned in investigating the News International bugging scandal this coming Sunday.

No anorak required to vote for change

Electoral reform but not as you know it was the watchword as the Vote for a Change Rally launched a decidedly 'no anorak required' campaign to demand a referendum on changing the voting system by the time of the next General Election.

Dave Rowntree of Labour (and Blur) did squeeze in a few killer stats on the historic inequities of first-past-the-post before introducing KT Tunstall to sing. She said this had been a year of political re-engagement for her, revealing that her song 'Poison in your cup' had been "inspired by the look on George W Bush's face when Obama was inaugurated".

Making our discredited political class the face of the need for reform explained the focus on citizen and celeb-led approach, with campaigning poet Dave Neita also pitching in as a laureate of the left, as this fundamentally pro-politics cause seeks to surf an anti-politician wave.

Pro-reform politicians did get a turn and John Denham was warmly received. Rowntree mentioning his 2003 resignation over Iraq in introducing his potted biog certainly didn't do him any harm either.

Denham warned that the scale of public reaction to the expenses crisis spoke to a deep sense of disconnection from politics. He found anti-politics profoundly worrying because "a society which loses trust in politics, which loses faith in democracy, loses the ability to shape its future", said Denham.

"Changing the electoral system has long seemed to me to be central to changing the way that people think about politics", said Denham, because the electoral system was driving an ever narrower political contest targetted on small but decisive groups of marginal voters.

"A system that gives those key voters ten, fifteen or twenty times the power of other voters, is a real problem if parties then recognise and respond to that with ever greater sophistication, as we do".

"That is why we sound so much more the same that we know that we are in practice", said Denham.

Denham said the government had "done the narrow thing" to sort out Parliamentary expenses but recognised that "the agenda has to be much broader than that". Denham acknowledged different views in Cabinet on electoral reform - where he, Alan Johnson and Ben Bradshaw were long-standing advocates of change - but the whole government had committed to opening up the issue of electoral reform.

"That is not a guarantee of a change of the electoral system. But there is the chance of a change. That is the challenge your campaign is taking on. And it is why what happens outside Westminster will be crucial", he said.

"Only the main opposition party is totally, without discussion and without debate, resolutely opposed to any change. Across the rest of our politics, the openness to change is there".

Other speakers included LibDem Jo Swinson, Peter Tatchell for the Green party, Gerard Batten MEP from Ukip, Oona King and Billy Bragg, with Martin Bell, Shirley Williams and Clare Rayner among those offering video voxpops on the big screen

The campaign (which I am supporting) is pushing for an electoral reform referendum to be held not later than the day of the General Election. That would require legislation to be in place by the start of November this year.

You can support the campaign here.