Thursday, 31 December 2009

The noughties were Britain's first Tory-free decade

The noughties were the first ever decade in which the governance of Britain was a Tory-free zone.

They were also, following the 1980s, only the second decade in modern British political history to see one party govern straight through. That is partly a trick of chronology, since the Conservatives began long spells in power in both 1931 and 1951.

But, taking the long view, one can stretch all the way back to the Great Reform Act of 1832 without a similar claim being staked by any party which could consider itself to represent the centre or left of the British political spectrum of its day.

That feat eluded not just the Liberal and Labour parties of the late 19th and 20th centuries, but even the dominant mid-century Whigs who, in the 1850s, faced the rump Tory 'stupid' party split asunder by Peel's repeal of the Corn Laws.

The only single-party decade of the 19th century was that achieved by the reactionary, repressive and generally unprogressive Tories of the 1820s.

Its longevity in office was once New Labour's proudest boast. No longer. In 2010 this will be a theme trumpeted rather more by the opposition by the government, as it was (successfully) in 1964 and 1997, and (unsuccessfully) in 1992. The government wishes to fight not for a 4th term, but to contest the terms of the first election after the financial crisis of 2008.

An offer to keep the Tories out does not any longer, by itself, provide sufficient cohesion for a winning electoral coalition, as it largely did in 2001 and 2005. But in historical perspective, the sustained Conservative absence from power remains a very striking feat. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard were the first Tory party leaders since Austen Chamberlain ('who always played the game and always lost') not to make it to 10 Downing Street as premier.

The premiership has been a Tory-free zone in one previous decade - the 1910s. But though David Lloyd George did personally hold Cabinet office throughout - indeed continually from 1906-22 - he had to split and destroy his own party to achieve it, with the Conservatives invited into the fractious wartime coalitions of 1915 and 1916, before Lloyd George headed a de facto Tory administration after the war until the backbench revolt at the Carlton Club in 1922 brought that unlikely alliance to an end.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Christmas books

We shall see whether the Christmas holidays prove a chance to catch up on a book or two. I am pretty sure I will get a good run at Tabby McTat and Stick Man from the marvellous Julia Donaldson, interviewed in the Guardian Review last Saturday, as both are wrapped up somewhere under the tree.

I thought Nick Hornby's "Juliet, Naked", recently out in paperback, would prove an ideal Boxing Day novel, but I ended up reading it last weekend. It is perfectly pitched, with a wry take on the dangers of the internets for the fragile sanity of the male completist. If I were forced to construct my top five all time favourite Nick Hornby books, I think it would make the top three, along with Fever Pitch and High Fidelity.

So I may instead return to AS Byatt's The Children's Book, a Fabian family epic, having read the first couple of chapters in the summer, or perhaps Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall if I can navigate the etiquette of reading it having bought the book as a present for somebody else.

My favourite novel this year was Phillip Hensher's The Northern Clemency, a family saga set against the backdrop of 1970s and 1980s Sheffield. I also enjoyed Arvind Adiga's satire The White Tiger

I am not going to be overambitious on political books over the holidays. I will certainly get to Jerry Cohen's pocket diary sized 'Why not Socialism?', which is very elegantly produced and about the length of a New Yorker feature. I also have Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the right thing to do, which looks an accessible generalist primer to ethics and political theory.

The winner in the politics category of most of the books of the year lists I saw in the papers seemed to be Chris Mullin's A View from the Foothills, which certainly has the more-ish quality of the best political diaries, with Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level and Amartya Sen's The Idea of Justice

One political book out in January which I really enjoyed was Tim Bale's The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron. I will write something about it in the next couple of weeks.

Some light blogging may resume after the weekend.

Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Is Chris Grayling losing his touch?

The theory of a quick populist fix for the headline-hungry politician is not very complicated: say something that you know will outrage the liberal-lefties and bask in the attention as the man who dared to speak out.

So why doesn't it seem to have worked out for the cerebral and shy Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling, treading gingerly into the high profile area of the right to self-defence this week?

Firstly, too many repeats. Grayling's comments were greeted with a certain deja vu all over again weariness.

Secondly, perhaps a tiny amount of over-reach. Indeed Melanie Phillips thought Grayling had gone well over the top in 'endorsing mob rule'. David Blackburn of The Spectator thought it was populism at its worst, and The Times was equally unimpressed.

The Shadow Home Secretary may well have been angling for a Daily Mail headline. But Tories' licence to kill a burglar may have been a little stark even for Grayling.

(Yet that would not seem to be a grossly disproportionate reading of Grayling's comments in defence of somewhat unreasonable and disproportionate force: "If you end up killing them, arguably in many cases that wouldn't be [grossly disproportionate]. It's got to be clear that the householder has gone way beyond what any reasonable person would expect to be the case to defend yourself." And the Mail's headline was intended as a championing of Grayling's proposed policy: Mr Dacre's paper favours "a clear law offering immunity to householders who act against intruders", which would include the licence to kill).

Thirdly, rather predictably, all this meant that the Shadow Home Secretary in effect reversed his position within 24 hours, as The Times reported:

Chris Grayling said that prosecuting people only where their defensive actions were judged to be “grossly disproportionate” was a serious option but said that it may not necessarily be adopted when the Conservatives reviewed the law on burglary.

He appeared to soften his position after questioners suggested that the term “grossly disproportionate” would condone the use of disproportionate force against burglars. Mr Grayling told The Times: “I am not in any way suggesting that a Conservative government would create a licence to kill. But I am saying that, at the moment, the law does assume that householders who are under threat can look at things in the cold light of day. The world does not work like that and who knows how any of us would react when confronted by a knife-wielding burglar.”

Yet the terms of that climbdown would appear to confirm that the Shadow Home Secretary hasn't read the law he is talking about, as those pesky Guardianistas had pointed out the previous day, public spiritedly offering him a handy crib.

"what should give him pause for thought, if he only took the time to read it, is the letter of the current law. Section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 codifies the traditional common law, and it squarely gives the benefit of the doubt to people defending themselves and their homes.

Self-defence pleas are presumed to be valid until prosecutors prove otherwise. Force can be lawfully deployed in response to real fears, even if these are not borne out in the end, and even if they arise unreasonably. The boundaries of "reasonable" are defined commonsensically. The law is explicit: those called on to defend themselves "may not be able to weigh to a nicety the exact measure of necessary action", which is legalise for saying that decent people can lose control in the heat of the moment.

These safeguards are so tough that it is tricky to go beyond them without licensing extra-judicial executions.


Perhaps this was not Chris Graylng's finest hour. (Let us leave to another day the conundrum as to what his finest hour was).

Yet there was something else to worry close Graylng watchers.

This may have been another fact-free piece of headline grabbing, but where was the pop culture reference?

After The Wire, Shameless and Jeremy Kyle, these have become widely celebrated as a Chris Grayling hallmark.

Few of his colleagues have demonstrated even half of his productivity in putting the zeitgeist type to use. This was surely an ideal opportunity to extend his range. And yet nothing.

Next Left is deeply troubled by the idea that criticism of his popular touch may now be putting Grayling off his game. We will be sending him a bumper edition of the Radio Times for Christmas in the hope that we can yet get the old Chris Grayling back in 2010.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The trouble with Scotland

The Scottish national football team will have a new coach on Wednesday morning. Good luck to Craig Levein who, as Kevin McCarra reflects for The Guardian, he has a lot to do to restore Scottish fortunes to the time when they expected to be at major tournaments, qualifying for six of the seven World Cups from 1974 to 1998.

Anybody who cares about such things should read the brilliant and closely argued post from James Hamilton about the impossibility of Scotland's footballing psychology at the tremendously good More than Mind Games blog.

It is usually an unhappy nation where political fortunes turn too much on sporting results.

The sense of hubris and humiliation at Scotland's World Cup exit in 1978 followed by the failure of the 1979 devolution referendum seemed to define a generation of Scottish defeat and impotence, in politics as much as in football. That deepened many of the neuroses - of Scotland's underdog image, the unreciprocated hatred of England and the increasing weight of a largely mythologised football history of heroic failure - which Hamilton discusses.

Yet Scotland is changing in the age of devolution. The psychological relationship with England seems to be changing, and maturing, in a way which Unionists, devolutionists and pro-independence nationalists all advocate albeit for different reasons and projects.

So the burden for Scottish football to carry could (and should) be quite a lot less.

As Hamilton puts it:

There’s nothing wrong, and quite a lot right, with a country choosing to use football to express itself on the international stage ... But for now, it would be better if Scottish puissance were not seen as quite the function of Scottish footballing performance it is now. It’s too much for men to carry, not without the infrastructure, training and attitude necessary to bring it off. And when so few Scots actually play the game, it’s unfair on those who do. Choose literature; choose wave power; choose Edinburgh’s superb pubs. Choose something else until football can manage it.

That might yet help the Scottish team to get a result or two too.

PS: Another recent recommendation from More Than Mind Games blog is this fascinating post on how Edwardian football papers in 1905 used the new tech of the telephone and transport to spread the post-match word at almost the speed of twitter.

A question to Daniel Hannan

Daniel Hannan can stake a very good claim to be the right-wing blogosphere's voice of 2009. That is why we here at Next Left have been more committed than many to taking Hannanism seriously.

Hannan's great cause is that Britain should leave the EU. I disagree. But his is an honest position, which I think much more coherent than what seems to be the "hokey-cokey, in, out or somewhere in between" position of fiercely Eurosceptic Conservatives who say that they want to stay in the post-Lisbon EU while somehow "fundamentally" renegotiating Britain's membership status within it.

Yet Hannan's new list of ten reasons to leave the EU on his Telegraph blog remind me of one issue which I don't think he has ever cleared up.

One of the ten reasons is the case for "offshore Britain".

9. Outside the EU, Britain could be a deregulated, competitive, offshore haven.

That does sound almost identical to his earlier advocacy of the Icelandic economic miracle as a model for Britain.

Being outside the EU, Iceland has been able to cut taxes and regulation, and to open up its economy. For 70 years the Althing has been dominated by the splendidly named Independence party, which has pursued the kind of Thatcherite agenda that is off limits to EU members ... Icelanders understand that there is a connection between living in an independent state and living independently from the state. They have no more desire to submit to international than to national regulation. That attitude has made them the happiest, freest and wealthiest people on earth.

But that was a few years ago.

"When the facts change, I change my mind" said Keynes, "What do you do?"

But are Hannanites less ideologically flexible than Keynesians?

So here's the question to Daniel:

Did the collapse of Iceland's economy lead you to change your mind in any important way?

Or will his argument turn out to be that even Iceland's collapse was due not to too little regulation, not too much?

Over to you Dan: did the 2008 crisis change anything at all in the Hannanite worldview?

How election debates do (and don't) matter

The televised election debates, which have now been confirmed, are good news for democratic engagement.

It is to the credit of both Gordon Brown and David Cameron that they will take place. Once they happen the first time, I expect they will become routinely part of election campaigns.

Parochial partisan concerns that they could (mildly) boost the Liberal Democrats are a poor reason to refuse to join the large number of Parliamentary democracies who regularly hold such debates, as Jonathan Isaby argues well on ConservativeHome.

What is much less likely is that they will prove game-changers in the campaign. As I noted in a previous post. Even a (rare) clear points victory may not mean that much on election day, as Germany's Frank Walter Steinmeier found out in last Autumn's German campaign.

But nor is the common concern that they dumb down political debate from where we are now convincing. In fact, we will see ten to fifteen million people watching some of the straightest "talking head TV" since the black and white age of AJP Taylor. Simon Cowell's production advice will not be needed.

The broadcasters may be thinking about what they can do with audience participation to liven this up.

Here's an idea: don't!

Monday, 21 December 2009

End of the road for 'mondeo man'?

Perhaps the sin New Labour has been most regularly accused of is being overly in thrall to the politics of the focus group, in which policies were trimmed and triangulated towards a few voters of a Daily Mail persuasion in swing seats. The 'middle Britain' strategy. The jury will remain out for a long time as to the pros and cons of this approach, but for now it seems we can be more certain that to blindly persevere along this path would be a mistake.

The new year special of the Fabian Review previews the make-or-break political year of 2010, and features an article from Will Straw which analyses the successes and failures of the 'middle Britain' strategy and sketches out the start of what might come next. The focus on swing voters came from Giles Radice's analysis in the early 90s; in 2010 and beyond, Labour needs to plough resources into studying how demographics have shifted and how a new governing coalition might be pieced together.

This is good news and would free Labour of a huge millstone. The quest to woo the 'mondeo man' clearly had a pernicious influence on Labour in government, seen in the failure to talk up redistribution or in its macho authoritarianism. By looking at the country afresh, Labour can break this cycle and realise there is not only one route to power, and that a genuinely 'progressive' majority lurks out there if the dots can be joined up.

It would also be healthy to internal debate: rather than arguing about whether to be more or less New Labour, energy could be more contructively spent threading votes around shared Labour values. And early signs show that the country is more 'progressive' than New Labour has traditionally given it credit for; you just need to know where to look.

So you can read Will's fascinating piece over on our website, and read more about what's in the Fabian Review here.

How to seize the mutualism moment

Does mutualism provide an animating idea for a 'next left'? Continuing the debate in this guest post, Anthony Painter argues that radical traditions of democratic decentralisation can help to deepen a modern mutualism. Anthony blogs at and writes the weekly labour movement column for LabourList.

It is easy to caricature Fabianism and many commentators do. But like all enduring schools of thought, Fabianism too has many strands - some dominant, some hidden or forgotten. As the left confronts a future where the market is questioned once more and the efficacy and legitimacy of the modern state is similarly challenged, where will the ideas for a difficult radical path be discovered?

And there is a thread within Fabian thought - the ideas associated with guildism that, in spirit at least, suggest a way out of today's gnarled circumstances. G.D.H. Cole, writing in 1920, a few paragraphs into his first chapter on Guild Socialism - a chapter titled The Demand for Freedom - exhorts:

"The essential social values are human values, and Society is to be regarded as a complex of associations held together by the wills of their members, whose well-being is its purpose".


"Society will be in health only if it is in the full sense democratic and self-governing".

He continues,

"[The] conception of democracy involves an active and not merely a passive citizenship on the part of the members".

In ethos and in philosophy, surely these sentiments are entirely adapted to the modern predicament.

Cole's complex solutions to the short-comings of both Leviathan and Mammon are quaint in a post-communist world. He proposed a series of professional guilds covering each industry which would represent the producer interest balanced by collectives or cooperatives which would pool the interests of consumers.

Yet the exact form is not the issue. The notion that power and ownership can be pooled collectively with the well-being of all paramount, is relevant now as it was then. There are rich seams of what could be termed republican in the left's fairly recent history. They were just swallowed by the course followed by the historical tide. Now is the moment to drill for this republican oil.

These ideas and concepts never quite went away: the Co-operative party and movement, the Common Wealth Party in the middle of the last century, and the new Mutualism of the late 1990s all kept them alive. The growth of the co-operative trust schools model has seen many of these ideas put into action. If there was an moment to consider the role that involved, commonly owned, democratic organisations have then it is now. So it was very encouraging that Tessa Jowell joined the debate with a well-received speech to Progress last week.

Jowell sees the co-operative opportunity very much in terms of public services. Housing, education, childcare, social care, and health services all got a mention. The state is critical to this and the logical place to start is where the state actually delivers services. Jowell's speech was clear about the role of the state in this regard:

"So by tradition, and by its very nature, mutualism is driven by and relies upon the commitment and active participation of the people involved. It is not something government can, or should, impose".

Governments can, however, create the conditions in which new social
movements can thrive."

Unsurprisingly, this position is closer to pragmatic reality than Cole's idealism. However, when the leader of the Conservative opposition is willing to say that he would seek to use the "state to remake society", there is perhaps a greater imaginative distance that could be travelled.

There are two immediate ways in which Tessa Jowell's message could be further developed in this regard.

Firstly, the scope of potential areas where co-operatism can be allied can be widened. Essentially, anything that the state is involved in regulating, intervening in, as well as delivering is susceptible to a co-operative approach. That could include energy generation, utilities, strategic investment, financial services, skills and further education, amenities as well as housing, education etc. The objective is to use the power of the state to spread wealth, ownership and power.

Secondly, rather than sticking to setting the context and providing support, the government could act as promoter. For example, take climate change. There is no reason why residents of local communities could not become members of co-operatives, independent of local authorities designed to reduce the climate impact of their neighbourhood. This approach has been pioneered in Asthon Hayes, a village in Cheshire, as described at Last month, I co-authored an article for LabourList looking at how this might be achieved with government support.

Yet mutualism is designed to unpick the centralised and remote state and so an overly statist determinism is out of step with that. Here Tessa Jowell's slight caution is sensible. Rather the approach must be experimental and incremental but with a conviction that there is much, from the perspective of achieving an active, democratic, and fair society, that these experiments can achieve. Atul Gawande sets out how incrementalism rapidly expanded US food production in the early twentieth century, drawing lessons for US healthcare reform.

So it must be with new forms of ownership in both the public and private
economy. Matthew Taylor analyses how in the next decade public services, catalysed by personal budgets, have the potential to be reassembled around the interests of users. Pooling that resource and organising how services respond will provide one opportunity for the extension of co-operatism.

There are dangers and pitfalls. An active minority - with reservoirs of social capital already at their disposal - may be able to skew resources towards their own interest. For example, Conservative proposal for schools, which allow parents to establish new schools funded effectively by an education voucher with a poor area premium, have much merit. However, there is a risk that through the location of these schools in more prosperous area that the interests of the well-organised few will prevail.

What will need to happen to counteract that is that social enterprises, with an
involvement ethos, will have to do the same in less prosperous areas. Green Dot, empowered by local teachers and rules governing the establishment of charter schools in California, was able to take over some of the poorest schools in Los Angeles. Results have been excellent. We need such organisations to operate in the UK and they could well be founded on co-operative principles.

Mutualism is just one aspect of the broader conversation that has become simultaneously both possible and necessary. The credit crunch widened the intellectual vista. Assumptions came crashing down as quickly as the banks did.

The 1910s were a time of intellectual excitement and energy. A century later, it seems likely that we are entering a similar period. Everything must be challenged and a new political economy of the left must be developed. Our notions of the state, community, ownership, market, power, citizenship, identity, organisation and democracy must be stress testing and re-designed.

To what end? A fair, equal, and free Britain. GDH Cole would have understood both the end and the intellectual process that was needed in order to reach it. His ideas have lessons for our times too.

Guest post from Anthony Painter; more at

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Political parties to advise X Factor after GOTV failure costs Cowell number one slot

The political parties are being urged to help advise Simon Cowell of the X Factor on how to mobilise public support, after the show's winner lost the race for the Christmas number one spot for the first time in five years.

'Simon was very generous in suggesting he could help revive interest in politics. So we feel that we should return the favour in his hour of need', said one eye-wateringly senior source who was pretending to have inside knowledge of the made-up cross-party talks.

Leading think-tank the Fabian Society, which was backing the Christmas number one rebellion suggests that a high-level political panel of Nick Clegg, Harriet Harman, Theresa May and former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern could help the X Factor judges to rethink their public strategy.

Political insiders suggested that there were at least three areas on which political veterans could help the X Factor.

Fabian General Secretary Sunder Katwala pointed to three crucial weaknesses where reality pop could learn a lot from politics.

'Firstly, they urgently need to address the weakness of their Get Out the Vote strategy, which was almost non-existent. They had 10 million people talking part on the telephone, but have only translated that into less than half a million sales of the single itself. Astonishingly, they don't seem to have knocked on a single door over the crucial last seven days of the campaign to try to make that interest count when it mattered.

Secondly, this seemed a very tired campaign this year. Simon Cowell seems to rely on a very traditional campaign, believing that prime-time television shows, immense radio coverage and expensive marketing and merchandising in the record shops will see him through. We can now see that he risked being far too complacent about the increasing importance of social networking. That may be difficult because authenticity and genuine engagement is of ever increasing importance, as we saw with the rebel campaign', he said.

Thirdly, X Factor is struggling to broaden its reach at a time when political parties are very aware of enormous demographic shifts in society.

'They really do need to broaden their reach. Few people will imagine that the X Factor could involve as many people as politics does with our prime-time General Election productions, where as many as 30 million people contribute their views. But they must be disappointed that the enormous prime-time television coverage still seems to engage fewer people than very low profile political contests like the European elections, where 15 million people voted despite there seeming to be a media blackout in place. So the X Factor does need to broaden its appeal beyond the youth demographic to keep pace with social change', said Katwala.

There was questioning of the X Factor media strategy too, after the X Factor winner throwing darts at a picture of his opponents gave the rebel insurgency front-page coverage in The Sun newspaper as the battle entered its final day.

But some people in the pub tonight felt the political strategists had missed the point.

'Simon Cowell tried to give Britain a Miley Cyrus cover as Christmas number one. If that was some sort of post-modern joke, it has gone over most people's heads. Give the winner of the X Factor a song which people might remember on new year's day, and he might be back in it', said somebody cutting rather more directly to the chase.

Still, Britain's political classes say they will stand ready to advise the X Factor on how to recover its appeal after the shock reversal.

'They have a choice of facing the public rebellion down with a 'business as usual' message, or showing some contrition and making it clear that lessons will be learnt. But talking about renewal will not be enough.

Nobody can doubt that there needs to be a real inquest', said another imaginary political strategist.

Is Boris 'highly unlikely' to run again in 2012?

Who will be the Tory candidate for London Mayor in 2012? I still think that it will probably be Boris Johnson.

Yet Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, who I have to admit has much better Tory connections than I do, writes that "I gather that Boris is highly unlikely to stand for a second term: he has his eyes on the No.10 prize and would need to get back into Parliament somehow".

This will fuel speculation about whether it is part of a long softening up exercise, so that a final Boris decision not to run does not come as a political bombshell. Boris started the speculation last April, telling the Standard that he "is going to think about" running again, but did not exclude the idea that he might not seek re-election.

And it may also see manouvering among possible alternative Tory candidates step up. Shaun Bailey took the last opportunity to make clear he would like to be a candidate. But which other candidates might emerge?


I looked at the case for Boris wanting to get out for Liberal Conspiracy at the time of the Standard interview. The fear is not only the damage that a political defeat in 2012 could do to brand Boris; it is also that being in City Hall until 2016, aged 52, would mean missing a return to the Commons at a 2014/15 General Election, and so a good chance of not being an MP during the next Tory leadership contest.

Boris no doubt relishes the image of a man willing to tear up the political rulebook.

But there are three reasons why I don't think he will duck out of the 2012 race - and why not running again does not really seem to be as smart as those promoting the "one term strategy" may think.

1. I can't quite see BoJo walking away from a decent shot at the global spotlight of the London 2012 Olympics, just months after the election.

It is not just a once-in-a-lifetime moment. It might also offer a tempting opportunity to compete on both the global and domestic political stage with whoever might then be PM. If he could get himself re-elected, this would be easily the most effective springboard for a leadership bid. (George Osborne would be rather happier if Boris wasn't Mayor in 2012).

2. If not running is part of his "Boris for PM" strategy, it seems quite likely to backfire and prove counter-productive for Boris' personal ambitions.

2012 could prove a tough contest for Boris himself. But most Tories think he would have a shot. And they are pretty sure they would be toast without him, as Nelson indicates. But if the party thinks Boris has thrown away the Mayoralty, looking rather like he has put personal ambition before party interests, won't that harm him with the voters he would need in a future leadership election?

3. To avoid that, Boris would have to find a convincing public excuse for not running for re-election. But what might that be?

It will lack credibility if it does not seem stronger than the three plausible motivations already being publicly discussed, none of which seem to help his further ambitions.

(i) Bottling out of a contest which he fears he could lose, thus damaging his future trajectory.

(ii) Being worried about being out of Parliament when the Tories next elect a leader;

(iii) Not much enjoying the responsibility of exercising executive power. (That may well seem to be the case but it is probably not going to be central to a future pitch for the party leadership and premiership).

Boris does not seem to have got much keener on the details of the Mayoralty: he was recently overheard complaining that his deputy Simon Milton seemed to be the man 'whose job it is to tell me what I can't do'.

For Boris to show he had, in fact, put country and party first, he would probably need an urgent summons from the party leader to give up City Hall. (But its not very plausible to imagine Cameron insisting that a future Conservative Cabinet could not successfully address some vital area of the national interest - the public finances, or foreign policy perhaps - without Boris, even if the role of Court Jester might be thought of particular importance to the national morale in an austere age).

And why would Dave want to do that?


So I suspect Boris will find himself running again for Mayor in 2012. Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome thinks so too.

Even if, whisper it, he might not be totally committed 110% to the cause of re-election.

If he does decide to run again, it may well be worth pressing him for a firm pledge that he would serve a full term in City Hall if elected.

But, even if he were to make one, here's my long-range forecast:

Were Boris (God help us) to win again: don't rule out an early departure, Sarah Palin-style, some time after the Olympic festivities, so that he could seek to return to the Commons at a General Election in 2014 or 2015.


Nelson is also tipping Peter Mandelson as a possible Labour candidate for Mayor. We'll see, but as the intriguing field of those tipped as possible contenders grows - Ken Livingstone, Peter Mandelson, David Lammy, Jon Cruddas, Oona King, Alan Sugar and others (though I am not sure I have yet heard anybody throw in a Miliband or two) - the case grows ever stronger for a London Labour open primary to reach out and energise London's progressive voters in what could be a fascinating primary campaign.

Making sense of Copenhagen

What deal has been agreed at Copenhagen, and by whom, remains unclear while beginning this post [late Friday night]. This post will try to round-up a selection of analysis and commentary during the weekend, looking for those which cast light on the outcome, and particularly where we might go from here. Please do share any especially good pieces of analysis of what is going on - in the comments, or by email (, or tweet me @nextleft: we'll add links we especially like to the main post too. I would especially welcome good recommendations of English-language coverage from outside the UK and US.

Friday 11pm

Politico reported the US view that a 'meaningful' deal had been reached between the United States, China, India and South Africa. As President Obama says an imperfect deal marks progress, The New York Times has a full Obama transcript).

"At the end it was no longer about saving the biosphere: it was just a matter of saving face", writes George Monbiot for the Guardian, reflecting the critical reaction of most of the major environmental groups: you can follow Friends of the Earth blog updates here.

Labour blogger Anthony Painter says any deal is a 'stuttering start' which shows how not to build multilateral agreements and institutions.

Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, in separate interviews for Sky News just after 11pm on Friday evening, have spoken about the deal which they believe should emerge from the plenary session. They stressed the gains of every country to play a part, in contrast to Kyoto, and were positive about agreement to international verification. But a key issue is disagreement about not only about setting a deadline and timescale for a legally binding agreement but the need for a legal Treaty: "China and India are not yet persuaded of need for a Treaty", said Brown, though the EU, US and many other countries were in favour. So Brown spoke of the need over the next few months for a "huge campaign in Britain and around the world: 'lets turn this into a Treaty that is legally binding'"


It is in the nature of modern media politics that the verdicts precede confirmation of whether there is a deal and what is in it. There is more immediate mainstream media than blog snap analysis.

Saturday's Guardian editorial points out that a truly meaningful deal would not require politicians to declare it so. "It is a sad tribute to collective failure that the all-important question at the end of Copenhagen is: what happens next?"

The Independent editorial argues that the main Copenhagen achievement was a defensive one: "that complete breakdown was avoided and that it gives the world something to build on in future summits. And in the wording on transparency over Chinese emissions cuts, President Obama has something to sell to a truculent Senate when it comes to passing America's cap-and-trade bill ... the logjam of distrust between the developed and developing nations on show in Copenhagen might yet be broken". The Independent challenges those who argue that no deal would have been better than a poor deal: the flawed UN-led process "is still the best hope for collective global action against this collective global threat".

The Times acknowledged many similar points, yet emphasised several positives too: "for all that, Copenhagen has proved a milestone, with much success. A deal looks in place to prevent deforestation. There has been a recognition of the problem of acidification in the oceans. Pledges from China and the US to reduce emissions are big news, and the presence of President Obama at the heart of these negotiations can only be welcomed. We should also be upbeat about emerging consenus that the developed world should help to compensate for the limiting of emissions of the developing world, provided it comes with effective checks so that the right money goes to the right places".

I don't think there is a Telegraph editorial in Saturday's paper. Veteran environmental reporter Geoffrey Lean was not impressed by the Climate Justice Action protests and "thousands of activists who contributed nothing but obstruction", though he exempts the World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam, Greenpeace and "the even more radical, virally spreading 350 campaign" from his polemic.

The New York Times opinionator blog collates responses from the US blogosphere, as well as international NGOs and commentators. If there is disappointment at the outcome, both supporters and critics suggest that Obama and Hillary Clinton's interventions were significant in making any agreement at all possible.

Marcus Becker of Der Spiegel says the Copenhagen accord is a very poor return on 17 years of multilateral climate politics - but wonders if it might prove the peak of international ambition: "we are faced with the threat of an impasse in global climate politics. And the consequences of this holdup will primarily be felt by the poorest of the poor".

Global Dashboard has an interesting 10-point opening analysis from Alex Evans. "Don't panic" but realise the international system for dealing with the climate has broken. "The EU had a shocking summit" and "appeasing China has failed".

On Think Progress, Andrew Light of the Centre of American Progress sees Copenhagen as marking "significant progress" in making a "first step" towards a binding legal agreement by the Mexico summit at the end of next year. The Obama accord should help to address US fears of a loss of competitive advantage, but there are major US domestic challenges.

Henning Meyer for Social Europe says the weakness of the Copenhagen accord shows that there is no effective global politics, only global problems.

Spencer Swartz of the WSJ environmental capital blog notes how quiet OPEC and the Saudis were; perhaps a sign of how little Copenhagen changed.

Willy de Backer thinks the dominance of national perspectives creates a 'who moves first, loses' mindset. Perhaps this can be challenged most effectively not by appeals to global solidarity, but a new 'sustainability race' for leadership in an inevitable new age of low-resource use prosperity. So far, this is better understood by City and sub-national leaders than natonal governments.

(Thomas Friedman reaches a similar conclusion in Sunday's New York Times).


The Independent on Sunday gives its front-page to Greenpeace activist Joss Garman's polemic against "an historic failure that will live in infamy". The paper's leader writers say that the newspaper's head recognises the limits of the possible, and praises Gordon Brown's contribution to what was agreed. The real opposition came from Wen Jiabao erecting 'the great stonewall of China': "The meagre consolation of Copenhagen is that it has been a crash course in learning how to deal with the world's new carbon superpower".

The Observer agrees that blaming President Obama for "perpetuating the legacy of his predecessor" is "unfair". Despite a chaotic process, "This inelegant compromise is what multilateral progress on climate change looks like. We cannot dismiss it in the vain hope that something more beautiful will appear in its place. But nor should we pause to applaud its authors. Instead, we must send them straight back to work".

The Sunday Times does not carry an editorial. But Dominic Lawson is pleased: "let’s toast the negotiators of Copenhagen. By failing so spectacularly, they have presented us with a wonderful Christmas present". Yet in the Sunday Telegraph, both Janet Daley and Christopher Booker are at pains to stress that the threat of global government has not gone away.


Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Parliamentarian as troll

Philip Davies MP is Parliamentary spokesman for the Campaign Against Political Correctness, which surely deserves an award for Britain's most headache inducing political website.

His letters to the Equality Commission, reported in the Guardian today, demonstrate a rare ability to bring the forensic intellectual skills of the blogosphere troll to the apex of policy and parliamentary debate.

But what is his point?

Some of what is called 'political correctness' is simple civility. And much of the rest is myth and nonsense. There may sometimes be a few hyper-sensitive and over-zealous council officials somewhere, much of what Davies and the CAPC do is propagate regularly debunked myths about the abolition of Christmas and the banning of baa baa black sheep from the nation's nursery schools.

I was on a radio five discussion of "has political correctness gone too far" with Davies earlier this year. I wanted to clear up one simple question. Was there anything he wanted to say on the radio which he felt he couldn't because of PC?.

This was not long after Christmas last year. I had been delighted to find that it hadn't been banned at all, having watched Carols from Kings broadcast by the state-funded BBC to get everyone in the mood on Christmas Eve. Happily, Davies had managed to have a very good Christmas too.

So what couldn't Davies say that he wanted to? Nothing at all, that he was able to identify anyway, it seemed. He muttered something about some organisations not feeling they could use the word "chairman". But he seemed to agree that whether they preferred "chairman" or "chair" should be up to them. "Is that really all you have got? asked a not particularly impressed Nicky Campbell.

So what had we lost? It seemed to me that words like "poof" and "paki" were understood to be pointlessly offensive, and were not much used in polite society. I thought that was a good thing. And Davies was not, of course, the type to see anything to regret in that.

But the idea that debate about immigration had been "silenced" seemed to be disproved every time one opened a newspaper or switched on the radio. That had demonstrably been the case throughout the last forty years. (Here is chapter and verse on not just the debate, but the frequent restrictive legislation under governments of both parties in this period of 'silence').

The unwitting casual racial stereotyping of shows like "Love Thy Neighbour" had fallen out of fashion, but it was difficult to find that they would find a mass audience today. (Though shows like Goodness Gracious Me had shown that race and identity are often the source of humour: poking fun at certain British Asian traits and images but, as in the going for an English sketch, directing the satire in different directions too). And though The Times headline suggests the Tory MP is 'lobbying for blacking up, I don't think Davies wants the 'black and white minstrels' back on TV, unless he could advise otherwise: that is why I would suggest that he appears to simply be trolling for effect.


So the really odd thing about 'political correctness gone mad' campaigns in Britain is that we have had much more of the backlash than we ever had of the thing itself.

It is an attempt to import US style culture war backlash politics. Yet there have never been significant affirmative action programmes, nor did most of the academy in the UK ever see anything like the battles in parts of the US over the need literary canon to dethrone the Dead White Male. (I once chaired a CRE event with Boris Johnson, when an MP, where speaking alongside Sarah Teather and Sadiq Khan, he launched into a Philip Davies-style 'why can't we celebrate Shakespeare' lament, and he seemed enormously chuffed when both Sadiq Khan and myself couldn't see what was stopping him. "I'd plant my Union Jack on that" he said, excited at the idea that the left had been doing a good deal of thinking about Britishness).

If Jan Moir or Rod Liddle seem to cross the line into unthinking prejudice, then the deal should be the freedom to offend, and the freedom of others to call you a bigoted idiot. So I have never quite understood why those who demand the freedom to offend so often seem to regard criticism of their views as stupid. The gain or loss of public reputation perhaps depending on how cogent or ill-informed you are seen to be. How has the freedom to speak out robustly been lost if you are robustly criticised?


Davies might well think that he is simply arguing his own version of what Sadiq Khan has (rather more substantively) called a 'fairness, not favours' approach to equality and discrimination.

Yet that doesn't seem the case either. Davies may think he is mostly arguing against 'special' rights - yet he is also (confusingly) prepared to troll in the cause of opposing straightforward equal treatment too.

I know this because had a call from his office in March, as reported here at the time, seeking some background on the issue of Royal succession, as he was planning to talk out Evan Harris' bill to end male primogeniture.

His office didn't seem to know much at all about the issue - and Next Left does provide a comprehensive briefing service on the 'equal rights for Royal princesses' campaign.

In sending the information, I asked for confirmation that he was indeed opposed on principle to ending male primogeniture, noting that it had proved very difficult to identify any MP who was, and that we would be amused to have somebody to argue the principle against. I mentioned that those dangerous radicals on the Times leader writing team had backed the Fabian gradualist reform Bill by arguing a strong Monarchist case that "it would be intriguing to see how any parliamentarian could publicly defend the present method of succession" when it was "ostentatiously bonkers". (This seemed to me a strange case of 'political incorrectness gone mad'. Why on earth would a proud Monarchist like Davies want to argue that women were less suited to the role after the 50 year reign of the Queen?).

Perhaps this had an educative effect. Davies did not mount much of an argument in his speech. Indeed, he was still (just about) against the Bill but not against its principles. He noted that he was opposed to gender discrimination, and so ought to oppose it in this case too. "The points made about discrimination are, on a superficial level, perfectly clear and understandable, and nobody believes in such discrimination, so those points are well made".

Yet conservatives had to be very wary of unnecessary changes. After rambling speech (Hansard), in which MPs intervened to try to get him to clarify whether his lengthy contribution was intended to support or oppose the Bill, he arrived at what he had decided was his point.

The relevant point is that this may be a matter of great interest to academics and to people in debating societies, but the vast majority of people in this country are worried about losing their jobs and homes and about rising crime levels, and I wonder whether this issue is at the top of their list of concerns. How important is it to the nation as a whole? I suspect that most people in the country would think that this is unnecessary stuff. They may even mildly support the Bill, if they were to hear all its provisions, but they would not think it one of the most important matters for the Government to legislate on.

Perhaps Parliament should have better things to focus on. And yet Davies himself clearly does not. So whether he is filibustering Bills because the issues don't matter, or peppering the Equality Commission with his incisive questions, Davies' efforts and energy surely merit some recognition.

Since little may be forthcoming from his own frontbench, I do hope he will be proud that Next Left has decided to dub him Philip Davies MP, chief of the Parliamentary trolls.

And though all common sense would say "don't feed the trolls", we do look forward to following him more closely in future.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Why Cameron's "big society" agenda would make Britain more unequal

David Cameron's attempt to nuance the "cartoonish depiction of the state" set out in his Autumn party conference keynote may unwittingly have turned the Conservative leader into a "confused social democrat", according to Phillip Collins and Richard Reeves, respectively Chair and Director of the think-tank Demos. Writing in the new issue of Prospect, they argue that there is clear empirical evidence that David Cameron's "big society" approach as currently conceived, whatever its other merits, will surely make Britain more unequal, not less.

This is the latest of a number of contributions which have sought to take Cameron at his word in seeking to engage him in a substantive debate over which means would best achieve the progressive end of reducing poverty and inequality, yet where the empirical basis for Cameron's assertions appears entirely mysterious.

The Prospect piece approvingly cites Liam Byrne's "smarter state" lecture in November which set out the evidence that countries with strong civil societies and high social trust are almost never those with smaller states. ("The bottom line is this. If you want a strong society, you need a fair society. And fair societies have a strong state").

And while Reeves and Collins are liberal critics of the Fabian tradition, their piece shares much common ground with Fabian research director Tim Horton's recent letter to Cameron setting out the international evidence on poverty reduction in our new 'The Solidarity Society' book.

Reeves and Collins are similarly bemused:

it makes literally no sense to argue that inequality needs to be reduced and then to call for a reduction in state benefits. The issue is not ideology; its not politics; its just arithmetic ... Labour's record shows that cash transfers can work to reduce basic income inequality. It also shows that even a broadly centre-left government did not feel able to transfer money on the scale needed truly to make society more equal. So inequality has been checked, not reversed.

They also note the gaping hole in the Cameron survey of the 20th century evidence in his Hugo Young lecture:

To make a speech about inequality and poverty and then to chart the course of 20th century British history but miss out the Thatcher years was dishonest

This reluctance to confront or challenge his own party marks a clear difference between Cameron and Blair, Reeves and Collins argue.

It would be nice to think that the Cameron camp would pay some attention to challenges from liberal critics, even if they might be more suspicious of the Fabian challenge.

Perhaps they might. One of the main motivations for the Hugo Young lecture was disappointment among Cameron's advisers at the scathing notices his party conference speech received, particularly from those commentators in the liberal centre who are most hostile to Brownism and sceptical about 'big state' social democracy. Yet Martin Kettle, John Rentoul and Phil Collins - who might all take a substantive Cameronism seriously - found the speech facile, simplistic and doctrinaire.

And so, along with briefing that Cameron has a portrait of Harold Macmillan, not of Margaret Thatcher, in his office, another speech was promised to "square the circle".

Intriguingly, a good chunk of the Hugo Young lecture appeared to have been lifted pretty directly from Phil Collins' Times critique of the party conference speech, suggesting that Cameron should learn from a rich progressive Conservative tradition which had consistently expanded the role of government.

Any judo world champion would surely be envious of the dexerity with which Cameron received this fundamental critique of his own thesis only to turn the tables to claim that this was, in fact, the argument he was himself making, now arguing that "for centuries, the state expanded in order to help achieve a fairer society ... the evidence suggests that up until the late 1960s, the expansion of the state to advance social justice was not only well-intentioned and compassionate, but generally successful".

Having argued in October that big government had not only failed to tackle social breakdown, but was in fact itself the root cause, Cameron now argued that "Our alternative to big government is the big society. But we understand that the big society is not just going to spring to life on its own: we need strong and concerted government action to make it happen. We need to use the state to remake society".

(What, then, of the hyperbolic absurdity of Red Tory Phillip Blond's claim that "the state has abolished society"?)

And the question of "how?" remained equally opaque the second time around.

However incomplete, Cameron's offer to grapple with the question of poverty and inequality is surely welcome. It is important to also note that the left, and non-partisan academic and civic society voices concerned with poverty and inequality, ought to be able to have an entirely different argument with David Cameron than was the case with Margaret Thatcher and the Thatcherites.

The Thatcherite response to the challenge 'you are increasing poverty and inequality' was essentially 'nonsense!' and 'good!" That was a dialogue of the deaf. Since Cameron says he shares these "progressive ends", he needs to respond to the scrutiny for that claim to be seen as sincere.

By contrast, John Moore argued in 1989 that real "poverty" no longer existed in Britain; relative poverty was a quasi-Marxist twisting of the English language.

And the Thatcher government was explicitly in favour of greater inequality. This was not an accidental by-product, as is sometimes implied: it was one of the goals of the economic strategy.

Margaret Thatcher's Let our children grow tall speech, making the case for greater inequality, was perhaps the most important she gave in opposition. (She may have thought so anyway: it also gave the title of her first published collection of speeches before 1979).

So the Cameron conundrum which Reeves and Collins explore is further illuminated by returning to what was essentially her version of the Hugo Young lecture.

For Thatcher's speech was also about the "progressive consensus" ...

Thatcher: The debate centres on what I'll term, for want of a better phrase, the ‘progressive consensus’. I should perhaps say here that things that are called progressive are not always progressive in practice—but of course some of them are. And the progressive consensus, I think, is the doctrine that the state should be active on many fronts: in promoting equality, in the provision of social welfare, and in the redistribution of wealth and incomes.

Of course, Thatcher came to bury the 'progressive consensus', not to praise it.

Dave takes the opposite view:

Cameron: If you care about poverty, if you care about inequality, if you care about the environment – forget about the Labour Party. It has forgotten about you. If you count yourself a progressive, a true progressive, only we can achieve real change.

Yet Thatcher was able to admit that redistribution by government was responsible for narrowing the gap.

Thatcher: If one looks at that, you find that the facts about economic inequality in Britain are these: that the rich are getting poorer and the poor have so far got richer. It's due both to market forces and the actions of government through the tax system.

Cameron also acknowledges this, for the period to the late 1960s at least.

Yet Thatcher argued in 1977 that redistribution had reached the end of the road.

Thatcher: But if you look at the scope for further redistribution now, there's very little left, because it's no longer the case that taking further money from the rich will make a significant difference to the wealth of the bulk of the population. We've come to the end of that road. Nor will taxing them more heavily pay for much more government spending. So those are the facts on equality over the years and the redistribution of wealth and income, and most of us believe that we have now come completely to the end of that road.

Cameron used almost exactly the same language in 2008:

Cameron: We can see that in the 20th century, the methods of the centre-left – principally income redistribution and social programmes run by the state – had considerable success in relieving poverty. It would be churlish to pretend otherwise. But those methods have now run their course. The returns from big state intervention are not just diminishing, they are disappearing.

(Yet the Thatcher government surely itself showed how much difference government can make: the redistribution upwards fuelled by its major changes to the tax system saw a much greater rise in inequality in Britain than in any other large advanced economy).

So how does Cameronism differ from Thatcherism?

Cameron insiders say that it is his argument that "there is such a thing as society; it is just not the same as the state".

And yet the author of this phrase is Margaret Thatcher too. As she argued in her 1996 Keith Joseph memorial lecture.

Thatcher: To set the record straight — once again — I have never minimised the importance of society, only contested the assumption that society means the State rather than other people.

The real difference is about what the overall aim is.

Thatcher's central argument was that "the pursuit of equality is a mirage". Cameron argues the opposite. Hence Reeves and Collins' warning:

At present, he is signing himself up to Labour-style poverty and inequality measures, even as he rejects Labour-style redistribution. In other words, he is setting his own big trap and trotting gamely towards it"

And so Cameron's advocacy of "conservative means to progressive ends" risks turning into "Thatcherite arguments while hoping for the opposite results".

If this is not his position, then he surely needs to give a third speech.

Nobody yet has any idea what he thinks happened to inequality in the 1980s and why.

If he is serious about social justice, and debating approaches to tackling poverty, then David Cameron would surely answer that question. Otherwise, he simply seems to be in denial about the evidence.

The Fabian Society have generously offered to platform such a speech - and we're looking forward to a reply.

I am sure that Demos would too. If even that might be too dangerous, then surely ResPublica or Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice could persuade David Cameron to return to the fray.

If the Tory leader wants his social justice agenda to be about more than brand decontamination, then he must surely in the new year break his silence on the inequality of the 1980s - and explain how and why his "big society" argument would not see history repeating itself once again.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Trafigura victory fuels libel reform calls

A victory for Carter-Ruck and Trafigura in the High Court as the BBC have offered this statement in open court with regard to Newsnight's reporting of the dumping of toxic waste by Trafigura off the Ivory Coast.

That Trafigura illegally dumped 500 tons of hazardous waste in Abidjan in 2006, leading to a public health emergency where many thousands of people sought treatment, is not in dispute.

Trafigura has paid $200 million to the government of the Ivory Coast and settled in London for £30 million a joint action made by 31,000 Ivorians.

Trafigura has insisted on the BBC accepting that the toxic waste dumped by the Probo Koala did not cause deaths, serious or long-term injuries, and withdrawing Newsnight's report alleging that it did so. Trafigura's victory today is that the BBC has agreed to do so.

Carter-Ruck told the court in the agreed statement that the multi-million pound compensation settlement involved a joint statement between Trafigura and those affected which "recorded that the experts instructed in that case had been unable to identify any link between exposure to the slops and the deaths, miscarriages and chronic and long-term injuries alleged". The BBC now also accept this and withdraw their report to the contrary.

United Nations Special Rapporteur Prof. Okechukwu Ibeanu had earlier concluded in a report published on 3 September 2009 that:

"On the basis of the above considerations and taking into account the immediate impact on public health and the proximity of some of the dumping sites to areas where affected populations reside, the Special Rapporteur considers that there seems to be strong prima facie evidence that the reported deaths and adverse health consequences are related to the dumping of the waste from the Probo Koala."

Does this not raise the question as to whether Trafigura or Carter-Ruck might not also want to attempt legal proceedings against the UN Special Rapporteur directly, rather than only taking action against media organisations attempting to report on the controversy caused by the dumping incident?

Critics have described this as creating an atmosphere of "libel chill" against legitimate public scrutiny.

The BBC's concession has already fuelled calls for libel reform, as Left Foot Forward report.

English PEN and Index on Censorship have expressed dismay at the outcome.

Their joint statement says

We believe this is a case of such high public interest that it was incumbent upon a public sector broadcaster like the BBC to have held their ground in order to test in a Court of law the truth of the BBC's report or determine whether a vindication of Trafigura was deserved. The deal is neither open nor transparent.

They believe that costs were a major factor behind the BBC's decision. They cite the leading media lawyer, Mark Stephens of FSI, the cost of such a case would have been in excess of £3 million.

John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said today:

“Sadly, the BBC has once again buckled in the face of authority or wealthy corporate interests. It has cut a secret deal. This is a black day for British journalism and once more strengthens our resolve to reform our unjust libel laws.”

Carter-Ruck will no doubt differ - and may well consider their defence of Trafigura's public reputation to have been another resounding success.

8000 people have signed the petition for libel reform bill at

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

How TV could help political engagement

Andrew Sparrow writes in G2 about Simon Cowell's offer to reinvigorate democracy.

He quotes me saying the following:

Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, however, believes that Cowell would be doing us a service if his programme demonstrated that politics is more complicated than people tend to assume. There have been TV programmes that have performed this function, Katwala says, but they involved discussing issues in a "deliberative" rather than a "referendum" format.

"It would be interesting to see hot-button issues like, say, immigration or crime discussed in this type of way. But that's quite Reithian, rather than Cowellite. And there would be no money in the phone lines," Katwala added.

I was thinking of the Channel Four People's Parliament programmes several years ago - a citizen's jury model of democratic engagement on the box.

One of the most obvious downsides of push-button TV referendum model of plebiscitary democracy is the problem of aggregation - as the voters of California increasingly recognise.

But, like the Vote for Me programme, the Jury Party and other attempts to act on the fashionable anti-politics of the zeitgeist into practice, such experiments could have important unintended benefits in political education.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Bringing ownership back in

In her Progress lecture tonightCabinet Office Minister Tessa Jowell argues that Labour was wrong to walk away from the idea of 'ownership' as a political issue, and argues that the potential of mutual and cooperative models means that "The question of ownership is, therefore, no longer a simple binary choice: public or private".

Here is part of her argument as to why ownership matters.

But let’s not forget that demutualisation was just one part of a much wider project, one in which the right successfully challenged existing notions of public ownership.

The council house sales of Margaret Thatcher’s first term, the ‘Tell Sid’ mass privatisations of her second, and the wave of demutualisations of the third and fourth Tory terms, together, these policies created a politically compelling vision of ownership, centred on the notion of a mass property and share-owning democracy.

So just as mutualism captures the mood of these times, so demutualisation reflected and symbolised popular sentiment in the 1980s

And let’s remember, the Tories were aided in selling their vision by Labour’s failure to provide a modern, attractive alternative. We didn’t so much as lose the match, as fail to turn up on pitch – clinging on to a outdated notion of ‘public ownership’ – remote, Whitehall-run nationalised industries and town hall-run municipal housing.

While the solution that the right offered was lacking in so many respects, it was correct in identifying that the public were, as they are now, looking for new ways to feel a greater sense of ownership and control. So we walked away from the notion of ‘ownership’ as a political issue. In retrospect, we were far too hasty. Because ownership does matter. With ownership comes power. And if we are to achieve our goals of advancing social justice, then we have to be concerned about the distribution of power.

Jowell will announce a new commission on ownership, to be chaired by Will Hutton.

The lecture is being given at 6pm: the full text can be read on the Progress website.

Putting ownership back on the table was the theme of Stuart White's Fabian Review essay in our 'red shoots for the next left' issue this summer.

He wrote:

At the turn of the last century, social democrats would unhesitatingly have said that changes in the ownership and control of wealth are fundamental to the project.

On the one hand, they looked to the rise and continued growth of the cooperative sector as a route to the just society. On the other, they focused on ownership of productive assets by the state at both local and central levels. In the course of the twentieth century, however, the social democratic imagination contracted. The commitment to widespread public ownership was jettisoned, for good reasons, by the revisionists of the Labour Party in the 1950/60s. They sought to replace it with a distinctively social democratic conception of a ‘property-owning democracy’ (Jackson, 2005). But this made little headway in the party and, following the rise and fall of Bennism, a strategy for radically reforming the distribution and control of wealth effectively dropped out of Labour’s social vision.

As part of the task of renewal, Labour needs urgently to bring questions of ownership back into its field of vision, and to do so explicitly. One can see some modest first steps in this direction under New Labour. But the steps remain too modest relative to the challenges we face, and they are not informed by a coherent sense of what an alternative egalitarian capitalism – or post-capitalism – might look like.

Read Stuart's essay here

The New Labour case for a bank bonus tax

Don Paskini has challenged the claim made by John Rentoul that "the tax on bankers’ bonuses was the final act of self-destruction for New Labour", noting the scale of public support for the government's tax plans.

John Rentoul replies that a popular policy may do longer-term damage if it implies that Labour does not like success.

I have already noted that the policy is indeed popular, across all party preferences and social groups, which I argue challenges both the class war and core vote labels.

John Rentoul's argument could be that the policy is popular but wrong. But another version of his argument could be that a policy could be popular and right - but still wrong for Labour, because it dredges up ghosts of Old Labour the party had sought to exorcise.

I am sure that those Old Labour ghosts may well form a big part of the "what would Tony do?" issue. They have also rather tempered the extent to which Labour has gone in for any banker-bashing under Gordon Brown. There has been much stronger language from Sarkozy, Merkel - and even sometimes fiercer rhetoric from George Osborne (since the Tory fear is of being associated too closely with their friends in the City).

What is being missed in this debate is that there is also an impeccably New Labour objection to the idea that the government should have no response to public anger about attempts to keep the bonus culture going with taxpayer support.

New Labour may have been relaxed about those who earned their success - but it was certainly very angry about "fat cats" who wanted "rewards for failure" and so violated its 'rights and responsibilities' arguments.

If you were to return to the little red book of New Labour, you will find that Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle wrote in The Blair revolution ahead of the 1997 election "New Labour should use the tax system to attack unjustified privilege, without weakening incentives for risk-taking and hard work”.

Roger Liddle has written since, back in January 2008 that New Labour should express a concern about excess and unearned rewards at the top, and do so in a New Labour way.

In crude and simple terms, we need to move from a society that is afraid to ask “How much have you got?”, to one that is prepared to question “How did you get it?” This was how Winston Churchill as a radical Liberal sought to turn the political argument in defence of Lloyd George’s redistributive 1909 budget.

In the early 20th century it was landowners who were seen to enjoy gross excesses of income and wealth, for which in Neville Chamberlain’s wonderful use of Biblical language “they toil not, neither do they spin”. The gross excesses of 21st century Britain are in different social categories: directors whose compensation packages have little or no justification in terms of their contribution to the profits and success of the companies they lead; investors who take advantage of Britain’s generous capital gains tax provisions but are not genuine risk takers, building a business from scratch through their own hard work; individuals who owe their comfortable circumstances to inheritance rather than their own efforts. What is needed in the UK is a change in political culture and discourse about questions of income and wealth

A good deal of public anger at bonuses is explained by this sense that the principle of 'fair rules' has been broken. The public would appear to be making a clear distinction between the deserving and undeserving rich, as the Fabian Society's research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation suggested.

They haven't changed their mind about James Dyson or Richard Branson - but they do more than wonder which banker could brazenly claim to have earned a mega-bonus in 2009.

So I don't think there is much evidence at all that either the 50p rate or the banker bonus tax have made Labour "unelectable". Indeed, since those constitute the two government policies which are both well known and popular, the source of Labour's political difficulties may well lie elsewhere.

PS: A further heresy would be to question whether its pledges on taxation were ever quite as central to New Labour's appeal as New Labour undoubtedly believed that they were. 71% of voters ahead of the 2001 election expected Labour to put up taxes. But that would be to challenge the New Labour worldview. My point here, in the case of bank bonuses at least, is that one need not even do that.

Social democratic futures

The journal Social Europe are running a series of contributions from around Europe on the future of social democracy, responding to the Jon Cruddas and Andrea Nahles paper on The Good Society. (PDF file).

My piece can be read here.

Social democrats are clear that this ought to be a social-democratic moment. But for this to be the case it remains necessary to convince broad public and electoral coalitions.


So what’s missing?

Firstly, the ability to articulate the core social-democratic mission positively, and in terms accessible to a broad public. The third-way era was about defining modern social democracy in terms of what it was not. There are many things to be said both for and against the compromises of the 1990s. Often, within the constraints which were accepted, a good deal was done. What was missing was a theory of change which sought to shift the longer-term environment within which political choices were made.

Secondly, a viable political economy ...

Thirdly, a viable politics of support for social democracy ...

So there is some work to do.

More contributions here.

The Good Society debate is being organised in association with the Friedrich Ebert Stitung, Compass and the journal Soundings.


FEPS, the Foundation of European Progressive Studies, have picked up the theme of 'Next Left' and published a new book which collects essays addressing the challenge of renewing social democracy from several of the European partner think-tanks involved in FEPS' work.

There may again at this stage be as many questions as answers. Former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer sums up the direction of travel with ten challenges for social democrats in his introduction to the book.

Whose mutualism is it anyway?

Mutualism is an intriguing contender as a significant idea for the next left, not least because a surprisingly wide range of voices recommend the principle at least.

The cooperative party have been campaigning for it as a traditional value arising from the heart of the Labour movement's history, with their feeling's mutual campaign and manifesto.

Tessa Jowell will give a Progress speech tonight, previewed here, which will make a case for mutualism, participation and accountability as the next phase of public service reform, though there is also at least an implicit critique that this takes New Labour away from the command and control model.

On which point democratic republicans like Stuart White may find common ground, and that suggest it offers an opportunity for Fabianism to revive the tradition of GDH Cole in search of a more empowering, participatory and decentralised idea of how society and state interact.

While Will Hutton's involvement as chair of a new independent commission on ownership could bring New Labour back full circle to its initial interest in stakeholding, quickly ditched after a brief flirtation before 1997.

The Compass left sees it as a way to put ownership back on the agenda, advocating mutualist solutions for the post office, the railways and other public services, while environmentalists keen to see local community involvement in low carbon energy provision.

On the right, the Red Tories suggest that it is a tradition which the left lost, and one which the right will now lead on, though suspicions that the conservative cooperative movement was primarily motivated by wanting an eye-catching, counter-intuitive launch with the party leader may well be borne out by the apparent lack of much significant activity since.

Mutualism is certainly an idea worth exploring. And yet this breadth of support may be a strength and weakness. I am not sure that the broad agreement extends beyond the idea that mutualism sounds like a jolly good thing, with a range of different ideas as to what it could or should mean.

Is there a public appettite for a major push on mutualism?

As a general idea, I suspect it may well be rather abstract.

Hence all of the references to the John Lewis model in providing one popular symbol of employee ownership of a successful commercial business.

And mutualism in public services may make more concrete sense in a local context, if it can be seen to mean a different type of involvement in local schools or SureStart centres.

Jowell could well strike a public chord too by lamenting the loss of the old building societies. That will have popular resonance. Yet demutualisation was driven not simply by impersonal market forces - but by the decision of the owners of the assets to cash them in.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Political X Factor: tried and failed

One of the features of the noughties seems to be that we have all developed the memory span of goldfish.

There is a (tiny) ripple of excitement at Simon Cowell thinking about applying the X Factor to politics, though the great Michael White of The Guardian is naturally not impressed.

It has, of course, already been done - in ITV's Vote For Me in 2004.

The nation was not gripped.

Electoral law meant that the prize was, effectively, the right to stand for any constituency in the country, if eligible to do so.

The good news is that you would already have that without winning the show.

Perhaps the publicity would help propel you into Parliament.

So what ever became of Mr Rodney Hylton-Potts , who launched the "Get Britain Back" party on an anti-immigration ticket having won the show?

He took on Tory party leader Mr Michael Howard in Folkestone in 2005, and won 153 votes, finishing seventh, only 22 behind the Monster Raving Loony party.

Mr Hylton-Potts was described as a 'comedy fascist' by the show's presenter in a Times article.

ITV is unlikely to repeat the show after such an outcome. A spokesman said yesterday: “We have been underwhelmed by the response to Rodney’s victory. The fact that he won reflects that he led a good campaign and that there were enough people to vote for him. “From an ITV point of view the show was always hoping to engage people in debate and increase interest in politics. To that end it was a success. We can’t be responsible for what Rodney says.”


Jonathan Maitland, the show’s presenter, said: “The winner is a comedy fascist nutter and a cross between Lord Brocket and Mussolini. “It’s not embarrassing that he won because we’ll now respect our real politicians more.”

Simon Cowell might do better than that - but not too much better.

If he wants some issue-based current affairs debate, that's fine. But the push-button democracy element on knife crime and Afghanistan strategy is slightly harder to envisage.

If he wants to know why it might not quite work out, he might find that a box-set of the BBC's Amazing Mrs Pritchard or a quick chat with people's champion John Smeaton might help.

Tory options on VAT: lessons from history

ConservativeHome are asking how the Conservatives should address Labour's claim that they plan to put up VAT.

As Guido Fawkes summarises:

[Tim Montgomerie] makes five suggestions: admit VAT will rise to 20%, time limit it, ameliorate the regressiveness, promise a focus on cutting the deficit, launch a growth manifesto.

Fawkes suggests another alternative: not putting up regressive taxes.

Still another Conservative option would be to deny it, and to do it anyway.

David Cameron recently described himself as basically a Lawsonian, in preferring flatter taxes and (regressive) indirect taxes to direct (progressive) ones. So I wonder whether he and George Osborne might this time reach for the Geoffrey Howe playbook on this one.

Here is a reminder of how the Conservatives dealt with the VAT issue ahead of the 1979 election, as recounted on Next Left previously in another context.

Nick Timmins offers a detailed account of How the Tories kept secret of 15% tax hike, discussing an increase from 8 per cent to 15 or 17.5 per cent in February 1978, and agreeing a secret policy of a 15 per cent rise immediately after the election.

Despite this the Daily Mail, with official CCHQ encouragement, attacked Labour claims of a secret Tory plan to double VAT as one of “Labour’s dirty dozen lies”.

As the FT's Alex Barker reports in his account of 'legendary Geoffrey Howe dodge, the Chancellor in his memoirs rejected the idea that it was misleading to state that “we have absolutely no intention of doubling VAT” during the campaign:

"We had no difficulty denying it. For there was no prospect, on even the most gloomy of expectations, of our having to go beyond a rate of 15 per cent. Some critics afterwards thought it pedantically misleading to rest our case on the fact that twice 8 per cent (the then basic rate) was 16 and not 15 per cent ..."

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Take back the Christmas pop charts!

The race for the Christmas number one used to, rather like the Grand National, provide a moment of shared national experience. There may have been some pretty poor winners - but there were some all time classics too. But I am not sure even pub quizzes are ever going to ask people to identify the 2005 Christmas number one.

The reasons the pop charts generally just don't matter like they used to are many and complex, though the decline of a once cherished cultural instituton is still to be regretted.

So it is good to see at least an attempt to organise resistance to the X Factor's colonisation of the Christmas number one spot - after just four years of Christmas number ones from the TV reality pop factory.

The campaign to make Rage Against the Machine number one probably isn't going to come off. Over 700,000 people have pledged to take part. But it seems unlikely that as many as half of them will actually buy the song.

Not everybody is convinced that it should work. The NME's Luke Lewis spotting a few ironic features of the campaign. But his colleague Tim Chester offers an effective riposte, as does Tim Jonze of the Guardian

Next Left would really much rather back the Muppet's Bohemian Rhapsody but, having not begun the campaign earlier, is prepared to vote for a tactical second preference since this too is a first-past-the-post contest, albeit with multiple "votes" allowed.

The bookies now have the insurgency at three-to-one: the outside contender but not an impossibility.

Simon Cowell sounds a bit rattled.

Three thoughts:

(1) Whatever you think of the rival song, isn't it worth 79p to invest in this attempt to not just stick two fingers up, but also to demonstrate the possible potency of social networks to mobilise protest activity.

(2) And if it doesn't work this year, I think the campaign should get organised and dig in. And perhaps it is time to democratise it too. Next year, perhaps the chances could be boosted by some form of online "open primary" to mobilise support and to decide what leading "anyone but X factor" choice people might coalesce around.

How about, say, the Guardian and the NME agreeing now to host a vote around which bloggers and others could coalesce and campaign?

(3) If Simon Cowell wants to fight for his reputation of having the power of absolute pop dominance, that depends on winning every year.

The campaign should continue until he loses one. But that also means a strong performance this year could well see him duck a continued scrap. Perhaps Cowell could duck out and release the X Factor song a week later for the post-Christmas charts (as happened the first year with Steve Brookstein's single), which would also mean the nation had a wider choice of possible Christmas number ones again.

One way or another, it is time to take a stand.

Citizens, to the barricades of the ITunes store: its time to take back the Christmas pop charts!