Sunday, 31 January 2010

What Dave should be asked about JT

There is a lot of coverage of the private life of England football captain John Terry in the Sunday newspapers.

The failure of a Terry super-injunction is being seen as an important case in the issue of media freedom, as John Kampfner argues, though it remains the case that we have developed quite extensive privacy case law with very little Parliamentary or public scrutiny.

The more parochial football question is whether Terry should be England captain in a World Cup year. The 'cash for access' allegations in December made over Terry's involvement in tours to the Chelsea training ground seemed potentially more serious than the FA acknowledged publicly. (Terry claimed the money was going to charity). It is harder to see why Terry's private life is relevant, especially as a good deal of the criticism seems to focus less on his having an extra-marital affair but that he did so with a teammate's ex-partner.

You might well expect politicians to steer clear of the JT question.

But there is surely one political leader who ought to be asked about the implications for his own flagship policy.

Conservative leader David Cameron is very keen on sending "signals" about marriage.

Isn't this the perfect opportunity for him to explain to us all why John Terry, the
£170,000 a week England captain who is worth an estimated £17 million, certainly merits the Cameron pro-marriage tax break?

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Back to the future ... or not

I have set out why I am very sceptical about the conventional Westminster wisdom that Gordon Brown made a political mistake in calling the Iraq inquiry, because it is perfectly obvious that he would be getting slaughtered politically and in the media had he not called it, and that the conventional wisdom would then be that he only had himself to blame for such an obvious unforced error.

Now, watch out for a further twist. Let's find out whether any of those who have warned about the dangers of dredging up old ghosts also turn out to be tempted by a "Why Labour must regret that it ever let Tony go?" meme.

My ex-colleague Martin Bright is first out of the blocks with the eye-catching journalistic conceit of Tony Blair? The next Labour prime minister, but I rather doubt he will be the last.

Bright writes:

I was not a great fan of Blair in power. I do not share his politics. But watching yesterday's performance I couldn't help thinking back to when he first left office. I appeared on Newsnight at the time and argued that there would be a massive Blair-shaped hole in British politics when he was gone ...

In its present mood, Labour will never have him back, but that may just be a sign of the depth of the crisis within the party.

Well, that could certainly be one strategy to make a 2015 or even 2020 General Election about the Iraq war of 2003 as well. As we saw yesterday, Blair remains sincerely committed to the decisions for which he was responsible, while his defence further entrenches the views of his opponents and supporters.

The real depth of a Labour crisis would be in believing that only an ex-leader could offer leadership in future.

So, if Martin wants to try to shake off that despair, perhaps he might find useful a bracing polemic It's over: Labour's only hope is the next generation in The Spectator for the last party conference.

the next generation [should] begin seizing control of the party. The fortysomethings who now dominate the Cabinet have left it far too late to move against the Blair-Brown duumvirate that held the party in thrall for too long.

Its a piece from "a lifelong Labour supporter, on why all of those who have led the party to its present sorry state must now stand aside".

By one Martin Bright.

Friday, 29 January 2010

The strange rebirth of liberalism?

What do members of Compass, the Liberal Democrats and philosophical libertarians have in common?

A new initiative in Oxford looks set to find out.

This coming Wednesday, February 3, will see the next meeting of a new political discussion group in Oxford, The Speak Easy.

The Speak Easy is open to anyone and everyone, but it is hosted by three groups: Compass Oxford, the Oxford University Liberal Democrats, and the Oxford Libertarian Society. The aim is to share a discussion 'of topics of interest to liberals of all kinds'.

Wednesday's meeting, which appropriately for a pan-liberal gathering is in the Gladstone Room at the Oxford Union, and which starts at 7.30 pm, is on the legalization of drugs. The event is free. Snacks will be provided. (And you don't have to be a member of the Oxford Union to attend: which is just as well for me, as I have never joined and never will.)

As the flyer puts it:

'The controversial sacking of Professor David Nutt, the government's chief drugs adviser, begs the question of where pharmacology ends and politics begins in the debate on the legal status of drugs. This discussion will consider the state of drugs policy in the UK and elsewhere, and ask how far the legalisation of drugs should be extended. Should 'soft' drugs be decriminalised? If so, what about hard drugs? And if such substances are to be permitted, should that be in the name of public health or individual liberty?'

The Speak Easy strikes me as a fascinating and very welcome development. Next Left has raised a number of concerns about the Labour government's record on civil liberties. The renewal of the left requires a much stronger, principled commitment to civil liberties.

Initiatives like The Speak Easy promise to help build a stronger cross-party culture of liberalism which, in turn, might help to resensitise the left - and hopefully Labour in particular - to the importance of civil liberties.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

On equality of outcome

"Old Labour believed in equality of outcome", wrote Phillip Blond and John Milbank in The Guardian this morning.

That is news to me. Who? When? Where?

Certainly not Tawney or Crosland. Nor the Webbs. Not Attlee nor Morrison, neither Bevan nor Gaitskell. Not Wilson or Callaghan.

As Stuart wrote in his good critique of the article earlier today on Next Left:

Hardly anyone on the left - now or in the past - argues for equality of outcomes.

Perhaps we can pin "hardly anyone" down even further.

Bernard Crick has a (very) little list in his 1991 essay "Shaw as political thinker", available in his collection 'Crossing Borders':

When Shaw put the case for a literal equality of income and outcome, not of opportunity (a view put forward by no other known socialist thinker since Gracchus Babeuf), he forced his audiences into mental movement, challenging them to come back with criteria for differentation or to define what they mean by concepts such as 'a radically more equal society' or 'an egalitarian society' ... He rattles on with a spectacular defence of this impossible position ... But he is plainly fishing for stock responses in discussion.

A rejection of equality of outcome as a goal doesn't mean that outcomes don't matter to a substantive equality of opportunity. The focus on wealth and assets is important because today's unequal outcomes shape tomorrow's unequal opportunities, and the inter-generational transmission of advantage and disadvantage should be of particular concern.

Shaw goes on to argue that the aim should be a classless society, and that the best test of that was "to keep the entire community intermarriageable": that only in a fully egalitarian society would social objections never be put in the way of a couple who wanted to marry.

As Crick writes:

Intermarriageability is in fact a very shrewdly chosen indicator of class prejudice or classlessness, revealing a masterly 'sociological imagination'

Like Stuart, I found the advocacy of the Blond/Milbank piece rather opaque. (Phillip has tweeted that Stuart's a "nice critique", so perhaps he might respond by clarifying what he and Millbank are calling for). But it seems to be against that type of 'classless society.

And Blond mostly continues to discuss the left through a series of straw man caricatures of the left, a tendency I first noted a year ago. Thinkers on the left have made the effort to engage seriously with Blond's Red Toryism but I don't think that has yet been reciprocated through Blond discussing a left which anybody who is part of it would recognise.


UPDATE: A fantastic piece of further detail from Stuart White in the comments.

The key text of what Labour thought, Ben Jackson's 'Equality and the British Left' tells us that Shaw actually put the equality of incomes idea forward first to a Fabian Society meeting in 1910, arguing that it would help to clear Fabians of "that suspicion of bureaucratic oligarchy which attaches to us at present and attaches with good reason".

Ben adds: "Unhappily for Shaw, neither the Fabians nor the Labour Party establishment were interested in his suggestion, and strict egalitarianism did not prove to be widely persuasive."

Shaw himself later 'recanted', Ben points out, in light of what he perceived to be the very effective use of incentive payments in the Soviet Union....

Red Tory equality: time for the National Virtue Panel?

Next Left has been much exercised of late with the question of what kind of equality the left should pursue. So we should perhaps be grateful that, responding to the National Equality Panel (NEP) report, Phillip Blond has entered the discussion with a piece on equality, co-authored with John Milbank, in today's Guardian.

Do Blond-Milbank cast any new and interesting light on this contentious subject?

They are certainly trying to stake out some new terrain. Their argument is that the left offers either 'equality of outcomes' ('Old Labour') or 'equality of opportunity' and meritocracy (New Labour) as its goal; but neither is adequate; a better alternative will combine the 'traditional left's emphasis on addressing economic inequity with the old right's concern with justified inequality.'

However, I find this allegedly new view of equality extremely opaque. And I am not in fact sure that it will turn out to be all that different to the equality of opportunity-meritocratic perspective that Blond-Milbank claim they reject.

Before we get to the Blond-Milbank proposal itself, however, we should first note that the article engages with a caricature of the left position rather than with the real left view (or range of views).

Hardly anyone on the left - now or in the past - argues for equality of outcomes. This does not mean that the left generally endorses meritocracy and its specific understanding of 'equality of opportunity'. For there are lots of other possibilities which are more egalitarian than meritocracy and less indiscriminate than equality of outcomes. Much of the thinking about justice and inequality in the ethical socialist and social liberal traditions occupies this terrain. So too does contemporary liberal/egalitarian political philosophy. Blond-Milbank just ignore all of this.

Moreover, at times their argument relies on obvious misunderstandings of the rival view.

So, for example, they quite rightly point to the huge inequality of wealth revealed in the NEP report, and then add: 'One can only conclude that equality of opportunity is an inadequate and incoherent approach.'

Well, actually, no, one can quite readily conclude something else: namely, that with inequality of wealth like this, our society is obviously nowhere near 'equality of opportunity' and that we need radical new policies to change the distribution of wealth in order to achieve it. The inequality of wealth is not evidence that 'equality of opportunity' has been tried as an 'approach' and has failed. It is evidence that we haven't really tried it.

Part of the problem here is the way Blond-Milbank use the term 'equality of opportunity' simultaneously to refer to an ethical principle or ideal and to refer to a policy approach - indeed, they seem to want to equate it with current government policy. But there is obviously a difference. Even if present government policy is informed by the principle of equality of opportunity, its policies are not necessarily sufficient to realise this principle. Patently, they are not. So one cannot directly infer the inadequacy of the principle or ideal from the inadequacy of existing policy.

Let's turn now to the Blond-Milbank alternative to meritocratic equality of opportunity.

I can certainly understand what they mean when they say: 'We need a new political economy that will distribute resources more evenly and give working people greater assets and independence...' This is the 'traditional left' part of the Blond-Milbank view.

But they want to complement this 'traditional left' viewpoint with an 'old Tory' notion which they formulate as follows: '...privilege is not just reward for success, but also a way of providing the appropriate resources for the wielding of power linked to virtue.'

By 'virtue' they mean: '...a combination of talent, fitness for a specific social role, and a moral exercise of that role for the benefit of the wider society.'

I've read these words over quite a few times and am still unsure what they mean. What is the nature of the 'power' that the virtuous allegedly have a just claim to? Over what - or whom - is this power to be exercised, and with respect to what ends, subject to what conditions? And what level or kinds of 'resources' are 'appropriate' for the wielding of this power? Why are they 'appropriate'?

Can I have an example please?

Insofar as I get what they are saying, I am not at all sure that this proposal actually does differ very much from the notion of meritocratic equality of opportunity that Blond-Milbank reject.

On the one hand, they accept the need for large-scale equalization of assets to spread opportunity - which, of course, any genuine meritocrat will also endorse.

On the other hand, I suspect that the 'virtue' which Blond-Milbank think should be the grounds of higher income or wealth does not differ very much from the 'merit' which the equal opportunity meritocrat thinks worthy of reward.

The meritocratic idea is that high earners deserve their higher earnings because they are making a greater contribution to society through the responsible, productive application of their greater skills. Blond-Milbank would argue that their view is different because it does not take the 'market' as the sole criterion of the value of a productive activity. But the distance between the two views is probably not that great. Meritocrats, for their part, do not say that any and all high rewards are deserved: they have to be earned under suitably competitive conditions (rather than reflecting monopolistic rents) and they have to be earned from the production and sale of goods which it is legitimate to produce and sell (so meritocrats are not necessarily committed to defending the high earnings of a crack cocaine dealer).

At the same time, unless Blond-Milbank are going to convene a National Virtue Panel to determine the supposedly objective worth of each and every productive activity, they will have to rely to some considerable extent on market-based valuations to determine who has 'talent' and who is exercising a 'role for the benefit of wider society' - i.e., to determine who has 'virtue'.

Or perhaps they do wish to convene a National Virtue Panel?

Are they volunteering for the job?

Why holding the Iraq inquiry is not a political mistake

A new piece of conventional Westminster wisdom:

The decision to hold an Iraq inquiry has backfired on Gordon Brown - and he would have done better to resist the calls and let sleeping dogs lie.

So say Andrew Grice, Andrew Rawnsley, quoting the schadenfreude of a senior Blair aide, Polly Toynbee and many others. (The pieces do offer a fair discussion of both sides of the question, but broadly share that conclusion).

We can expect to hear a lot more of this as first Tony Blair tomorrow and, later, Gordon Brown give evidence to the inquiry.


I admit to a possible bias. I wrote to Gordon Brown in February 2008 ahead of the 5th anniversary of the war, to make the case for announcing an inquiry. Gordon Brown's reply was his first public statement that an inquiry should take place "" to learn all possible lessons from the military action in Iraq and its aftermath". (The issue remained open within government at that time, with some public cooling on earlier pro-inquiry hints).

Still, as both Kierkegaard and Jack Straw remind us, "whilst life can only be understood backwards, it has to be lived forward". (And, whisper it, but the left-liberal conventional wisdom is not always right either: how are we doing on 'more transparency will increase trust in politics' these days? Which doesn't mean that the answer now is less transparency, rather than more, now).

So I hope I'd be able to fess up if the whole thing had been a big mistake.

But it isn't.

Firstly, there is simply no credible public argument for refusing an inquiry into one of the most significant and most controversial issues in British foreign policy since Suez.

I think that remains a good principled argument why an inquiry was right and necessary. (The "fifth inquiry" argument rather misses the point: inquiring into the death of David Kelly isn't the same thing at all as studying the build-up, conduct and aftermath of the war. When, for example, has the issue of the failure of post-war reconstruction been systematically examined? It seems clear from the questioning and evidence to date that this will be an important focus of the report).

But that case about the merits also affects the public politics. If there is no comprehensible public defence of refusing an inquiry, it would be a brave or foolish government which let that become a major focus of a General Election campaign.

For the new conventional wisdom to stand up, we need to think through the counter-factual case of the political, media and public reaction if there was no inquiry.

Even those who are very sceptical about whether many people could change their mind about anything on Iraq, now have to argue that the government would be better off, in narrow political terms, to have said, in essence: "We don't see any point in trying to learn the lessons from Iraq. We already know what they are, thank you very much".

We would surely have the media in full flow, with "what have you got to hide?" and "Does Brown have secret deal to protect Blair" coverage.

We would have the Conservatives and the LibDems wanting to make as much of the inquiry issue as possible. The Conservatives were already doing by 2008, however opportunistic that might seem. They would have made it a significant campaign issue - 'whatever people thought of the war, why not hold a proper inquiry?' - perhaps particularly in the televised leaders' debates. And they would have made that the key symbol of a broader indictment of the culture of an incumbent government, as unaccountable and unwilling to hear criticism, so allowing strong supporters of the war (like the Conservative frontbench itself) to justify banging the drum for an inquiry after the event.

That case would have been strengthened as we would already have a great many Labour backbench voices, and so many independent voices, were on record as arguing that an inquiry was possible. So this would also become an issue of Labour splits and indiscipline (as always happens when calls for less robotic and more open debates are heeded).

Even if an argument that "If you want an Iraq inquiry, don't vote Labour" might not necessarily have swung enormous numbers of votes, though I expect campaigns like 38 degrees would have been advocating support for candidate who backed an inquiry.

But this would have had a very demoralising effect on Labour party supporters, as campaigners were asked to defend the indefensible. It would provide a "doh!" moment as to why the leadership was putting its advocates in that position without any apparent good reason.

Yes, the inquiry may remind Labour identifiers who switched to the LibDems in 2005 over Iraq of why they did so. Winning them back will be difficult, even if the government might have a stronger pitch on progressive causes such as climate change, international development and the economy. But it would surely have been impossible if the government could not even bring itself to be held to account.

Andrew Grice's column makes this point tellingly, in discussing the rather more second order point of the timing of Brown's evidence.

For Mr Brown, appearing before the election is now by far the lesser of two evils. Imagine the charges of "running scared" during the campaign – including in the leaders' three televised debates. The best hope for him is to face the music and get his inquiry appearance over with as soon as possible, in the hope that the image has faded a bit by May.

How much more true would this be if the campaign argument was about whether and why the government was "running scared" of an inquiry itself.

Of course the inquiry was always going to be difficult for current and former members of the government. That's part of the point of an independent inquiry, because the government does lose control over the process and outcome.

If there wasn't an Iraq inquiry, it is quite obvious that the conventional wisdom would be that Gordon Brown's decision to block it had backfired badly.

In that parallel universe, you know, I think the conventional wisdom would very probably have been right.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

British social attitudes survey reports the unpopularity of cuts

The British Social Attitudes survey always offers fascinating findings.

It often reveals interesting patterns in how attitudes shift over time. But it is just as important in providing some ballast to remind us of how strongly real attitudes often persist when the 'zeitgeist' narrative in politics and the media tells us all we have moved on so that, for example, class no longer matters in British society.

And sometimes it does both at the same time, as today in its findings on spending and taxation.

Take The Telegraph's report today, which projects a sense of a rightwards shift on tax and spend and more generally.

The public has concluded "enough is enough" for increased taxation and raised spending on key services such as health and education, with support at its lowest for almost three decades.

Up to a point, Lord Copper.

Let's dig a little behind that headline claim.

It is correct to report, as the Telegraph does that ...

Only two in five people support increased taxes to fund higher spending on health and education, down from 62 per cent in 1997, while half say taxes and spending should remain the same as they are now, the highest level since 1984.

But does that report not also leave something quite interesting out?

There were three options, not two - even if most nine in ten people who want either higher spending and taxation, or similar levels that we have now. The NatCen briefing shows that it is possible to report them all with just as much economy as a newspaper requires: with one in twelve people supporting lower spending to fund tax cuts.

Public support for increasing taxation and public spending is now at its lowest level since the early 1980s. 39% support this, down from 62% in 1997. Only 8% support cuts. The most popular view, held by 50%, is that spending and taxation levels should stay as they are.

So I am not sure that George Osborne will see the findings as entirely comforting.

Indeed, the great guilty secret of those rather unpopular populists of the Taxpayers' Alliance, Guido Fawkes and every other right-wing group banging the less spending and tax cuts drum has always been what a small niche of public opinion they represent. If you've ever wondered why neither Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan significantly reduced the size of the state as a proportion of GDP, its because they realised that public spending is not nearly as unpopular as their right-wing always claims, even after decades in which it has actively pursued the ideological project of bashing public spending as illegitimate and taxation as theft.

Though support for "less spending and lower taxes" has doubled since 1996 - from 4 % to 8%.

Still, that looks like a long, hard and rather gradual climb to Libertopia.

It is certainly true that levels of support for spending and for redistribution have slipped. The Guardian data-blog usefully sets out the historic patterns and some European comparisons too, providing a chance to look at the new BSA in context.

What might be rather overlooked is how a strong bedrock of support remains: That 81% want more health spending has not escaped David Cameron's notice; 72% want more education spending too, while 67% think government have a responsibility to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. (There is less support for redistribution to do this: the recent Fabian/Joseph Rowntree Foundation study suggested this apparent paradox reflects a strong public concern to support measures which are pro-equality and pro-fairness, and to reject measures which do not reflect the public's sense of contribution or merit).

One of the long-term trends in the BSA findings has been that shifts in public attitudes have tended to run counter to the dominant political forces of the day. Support for redistribution and higher spending was stubbornly high and increasing under Margaret Thatcher, who (famously for BSA addicts) did not convert the British public to Thatcherism. Yet they fell sharply under New Labour, particularly falling among Labour's own voters.

There is certainly something in the charge that New Labour failed to shift the public environment, in part because it may never have tried. This counter-political phenomenon can, however, also be used to suggest that, while there was support for more redistribution in reaction to the excesses of Thatcherism, that limited public appetite was easily sated by the modest redistribution and taxation of the New Labour years.

The public appetite for "cuts" is certainly more modest still: that historic attitudes pattern suggests that it may be unlikely to deepen over time.

So I wouldn't be surprised to hear the Taxpayers Alliance spinning and celebrating the BSA findings on spending in the next few days. But they might just as well treat them as a rather sobering reality check.

Cutting spending is not nearly so easy and so popular as their megaphone campaigning so often claims.

Cameron's Ulster contradictions

One fascinating thing about the politics of Northern Ireland is how far, across the political spectrum, British politicians have seen the need to suspend central aspects of their usual political worldview.

Most striking of all was Margaret Thatcher's facing down of ferocious criticism from Ulster Unionists to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985: a move seemingly at odds with Thatcherite views of the virtues of the Westminster model, the inviolability of the Union and the indivisibilty of British Sovereignty. Every Unionist MP resigned their seat to fight protest by-elections. A quarter of a century on, this should surely be agreed to have been a far-sighted and necessary "betrayal" of the traditionally tight Tory-Unionist alliance. Indeed Thatcher's role in paving the way for the Major and Blair government's role in the peace processs is underrated, perhaps because that accomodationist move is at odds with her political persona.

I wrote about David Cameron's restoration of that Unionist alliance - with some ambivalence - when he spoke to the UUP back in December 2008, seeing in it an attempt to "float above history". That is not without its potential merits. The idea of "normalising" Ulster politics is an attractive one, if it were to challenge the tribalism of the province's politics. Yet David Cameron's move seems perhaps somewhat more likely to entrench it.

The most worrying aspect of that Ulster launch speech was Cameron's assertion that he had a "selfish and strategic interest" in the political alliance. (His published text had said simply "selfish interest", but his ad lib fully spelled out the intentional echo).

That soundbite was too clever by half. In so explicitly ditching the formula by which Peter Brooke and John Major had established the British government's claim to be an "honest broker" (with support for the Union founded on the principle of democratic consent), Cameron surely offered tacit confirmation that the politics of a Tory-Unionist merger could prove incompatible with the foundation of the bipartisan strategy of successive British governments in Northern Ireland.

The earlier post generated an interesting comment from a Fabian member who was at the UUP conference.

I am a NI Fabian who attended the UUP Conf. First of all, Cameron actually said "selfish and strategic interests" - not just "selfish" as suggested by his written speech. There was quite a stir when he said this as it was a clear statement of change in policy. He was unambiguously aligning the Tory Party with unionism. There was no movement away from the pattern of sectarianism. The Left has a responsibility here to challenge the orthodoxies of the rival nationalisms, but it cannot do so by abandoning the field of politics to those parties who feed on division.

Those tensions have now come to the fore in a broad range of angry reactions to reports of the Conservative Party's secret Unionist-only summit meeting at the Hatfield House estate of Lord Salisbury. (The choice of venue is resonant with history, both ancient and modern. The dominance of the Conservatives under a Salisbury premiership in the 1880s and 1890s was partly founded on their tragic opposition to Gladstone's support of Irish Home Rule, and the current Lord Cranborne was an opponent of Thatcher's Anglo-Irish agreement. Cranborne is also a fan of covert political manouvering, famously going behind William Hague's back to do a deal with Tony Blair on the Lords).

The Conservatives insist the Hatfield House meeting was simply an attempt to help the peace process back on track. That seems at odds with BBC political editor Nick Robinson reporting that some attendees insist they focused on the political strategy for Unionist unity, and electoral pacts between the Conservative/UUP alliance and the DUP.

So Cameron's paradoxical aspiration to use his Unionist alliance to forge a "non-sectarian" force in Northern Irish politics seems to be unravelling fast, with Sunday's Observer reporting the resignation of three Tory candidates in Ulster who had been attracted by that Cameron pitch yet believe the Unionist summit involved a dishonourable "sectarian carve-up".

Sources in the Northern Ireland Conservatives also confirmed that three prospective Westminster candidates, including former Top Gear producer Peter McCann, have resigned in protest over deepening Tory ties with the two main unionist parties. One source told the Observer that McCann and others had "wanted to vomit" when they were given details of talks between Paterson and senior Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists in south-west England last weekend. A subsequent meeting between Paterson and three potential Tory candidates, including McCann, PR expert Sheila Davidson and Deirdre Nelson, failed to quell their anger.

Their disappointment may have been inevitable. The Cameron alliance was, from the start, celebrated for two entirely contradictory reasons. Even as Cameron pitched a new politics transcending the old divisions, his new partner Sir Reg Empey of the UUP spoke of his going beyond 'mere party politics' in a constitutional statement whch had the effect of "restoring Unionism’s historic relationship with the Conservative Party".

The Old Unionism would now appear to have won the battle with the New.

The dangers for bipartisan British policy are demonstrated in the no less angry reactions of the nationalist SDLP and the centrist Alliance party

As Nick Robinson reports:

Within months he [Cameron] may have responsibility for hosting all party talks in Downing Street or in Northern Ireland. The secret talks at Hatfield House may have made that task a whole lot harder.

Monday, 25 January 2010

The machine v the movement

“The campaign will be between the Conservative party machine and Labour’s grass roots. It’s really a battle between who is going to frame the debate – the official Conservative lines or Labour [activists] knocking on doors and posting their own interpretations on places [such as] Twitter.”

So says Albert Nardelli of the Tweetminister project, quoted in the Financial Times report, one of several today on Tweetminster's fascinating report unpacking what analysing 830,000 tweets from 2009 can tell us about how twitter is being used by the political classes.

The topline finding that Labour dominates all key metrics - but due to 'unofficial' rather than party HQ activity - appears to strongly confirm what had been a widely believed sense, if somewhat anecdotally based, that while the left has been playing catch-up in the political blogosphere, that Labour and broader liberal movements had largely dominated the twittersphere.

(I wonder whether that is one reason why twitter strikes many who use it as a considerably more civil space than the virtual zoo of parts of the blogosphere? (That is much less directly about political ideology, as about the sense of identity and accountability in the twittersphere; nonymous hit and run trolls, whether aspirant editors of national newspapers or not, need not apply. Still, the question about why the right is so much stronger in those fizzingly angry, anonymous spaces than in social spaces which reflect the civic square is an intriguing one, on which more informed theories would be interesting).

Does this matter? A General election won't be won or lost on twitter. But those who make that point may be underestimating how much new forms of communication and engagement could well shift the culture of our politics over time.

At this stage, both the blogosphere and twitter are becoming increasingly important channels of communication in shaping activism and debates within political parties, also linking party activism and those in other highly engaged spheres of civic campaigning and activity in a much more porous way than before. It is less clear that they will have a significant impact in reaching undecided voters, many of whom may well get a sense of information overload from traditional sources already, though it will be an important source for some.

So I suspect that what may be being gradually but most significantly reshaped is the culture of our parties themselves.

What I found most useful and encouraging about this report is less the "mine's bigger than yours" sense of the cross-party competition (albeit that the Tory blogging boys sing about that a great deal when they are winning) but rather what the report captures about the quiet revolution which has been bubbling up from below in the culture of Labour politics and activism.

The enduring (and once rather justified) sense of a 'command and control' party is now rather out-of-date, even if the national press and offline commentariat have been rather slow to cotton on to that.

That matters because one of the key themes of the "party reform" debates within Labour in the last five years has been how much shifting the party culture matters, especially to challenge and break the model of "top down" party politics which was, a generation ago now, the response to the emerging 24/7 (largely one-way) broadcast media of the Clinton and early Blair era. (The Fabian pamphlets Facing Out and The Change We Need have stressed how important this is to a broader movement politics for the left).

There have been some false starts - such as LabourList's initial implosion, before its impressive rebirth under Alex Smith. But today's report offers one good indicator of how Labour - thanks to a handful of hyper-engaged MPs like Kerry McCarthy, and a larger number of campaigning activists such as Bevanite Ellie - have now got on and done it.

It is interesting too to see how the established media brands have most reach - but that the most engaged grassroots voices are as likely to be influential, as measured by messages being retweeted on to other people's networks. We will increasingly see how "voice" mechanisms through social networking can quickly create new channels for focused pressure which decision-makers will struggle to ignore.

Yet the Conservative leadership has, to a large extent, sought to emulate the new Labour model of the Phillip Gould era, with the political message of decentralisation being combined with an ever greater focus on tight party management, and journalists briefed that barely ten Tories really "get" the David Cameron and Steve Hilton project.

For all its self-projected dress down modernity, this risks being timewarp politics when it comes to the politics of party management.

This isn't the 1990s now - which is why this highly top-down element of the Cameron project when it comes to party affairs is increasingly challenged, notably by the influential ConservativeHome blog. That matters because those grassroots voices will often be quicker in reaching and framing debates in the party than the leadership, especially as David Cameron's joke that 'too many tweets making a twat' does reflect an ambivalence about social networking.

The Tweetminister report has led to Tory calls for Cameron to reconsider.

But success on twitter comes most of all from authenticity and engagement.

The one-way billboard blitz may be thought to run rather fewer risks.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Save the hereditaries!

It is only 99 years since the fully hereditary House of Lords finally lost its absolute power to veto anything and everything the Tory party did not think was in the national interest: a power they used with such relish and so little discretion that they shot themselves in the foot and so unwittingly helped to usher in a more democratic polity, albeit against screaming Tory warnings of apocalypse. (Next Left looked at those great political battles of 1910 to mark the new year).

We all know that our progressive Conservative contemporaries have changed a great deal since them. Yet their reactionary forebears would surely be pleased by the modern Tory willingness to contest the final chapter of the constitutional struggles of a century ago, with the Sunday Times reporting that they plan to oppose, in 2010, the proposal to mark time on the last 92 British legislators who sit in our Parliament to vote on our laws by accident of birth. (The proposal is to do this through the rather gentle, ever so gradualist method of not replacing heredetaries when they die, so the removal of the remaining hereditary peers is likely to take a couple of decades or more anyway).

The Tories may well present this as opposing 'piecemeal' reform.

But that is not a claim that stands up particularly well to scrutiny.

Some in the opposition party privately acknowledge that the concern is primarily about a future Tory government not having a Lords majority for the first time in British political history. That must be a most troubling prospect, albeit one which every single non-Tory government ever has always faced.

Another problem with this pose is that the Tories have no intention of pursuing significant non-piecemeal reform of their own if they were in power any time soon.

That won't be their public position at the election, where they will stress their support for a mostly elected House. But they are quietly clear that the issue will have the lowest priority under a Tory government. Their polite, private euphemism for inaction is that David Cameron regards Lords reform as a "third term issue".

Given the history of Lords reform, under both parties, I think we can all have a good sense of what that means ...

this term, next term, sometime, never ...

Friday, 22 January 2010

Liddle defends jokes about Auschwitz

"All of these things are twisted out of context to make me look like a cunt. I may be a cunt but I'm not a racist cunt", potential Independent editor Rod Liddle tells The Guardian, as he argues that his defence of a series of holocaust jokes made by fans on the Millwall talkboard need to be understood "in context".

Rod Liddle writes for the Jewish Chronicle to, as the newspaper reports, "defend comments he made about Auschwitz in an online forum which contains virulently antisemitic jokes". Yet Liddle writes that "Context is everything. I do not know of a single fellow fan who could remotely be described as antisemitic".

Liddle continues to describe his argument as having been about his feeling that the concentration camp "had been stripped of its awfulness and bleakness ... it had become something much less than it should be. It is perhaps not possible for Auschwitz today to deliver the package of awfulness the visitor might expect; I understand that".


Try reading the thread.

A Millwall fan who has visited Auschwitz and says "I haven't stopped thinking about it since to be honest. Very moving and has left me having a long hard look at myself" sees that discussion derailed, first by Liddle complaining that it is "Fcking outrageous that you can't smoke in Auschwitz. I had to sneak round the back of the gas chambers for a crafty snout".

(Is that about it having been stripped of its awfulness then?)

Other supporters then make a series of gas chamber jokes about the holocaust, while Liddle says that "the poor Jews were allowed to smoke".

When several supporters say the jokes are "sick", Liddle attacks them.

OKR: There's plenty of things to have a good piss take out off, this wasn't one of them.

Liddle: "OKR maybe you could write down the things you think it's ok for everybody else to take the piss out of and admin cd make it a sticky at the top of the board".

Gaz: Expected a bit more of a thoughtful response from you though Monkey. You visited Aushwitz personally and apart from a comment about the Poles not being honest about their role in the whole scenario you can only talk about smoking and burger bars?
I did expect the juvenile schoolboy stuff from others but to be honest its moved me so much I'm still glad I posted it.

kinelloz: To make (unfunny) jokes about lighting up fags and whatever Noose said is in my opinion bang out of order. Respect is an over used word these days, but there are some issues that just aren't funny and this is one of them for me. Not entering into a debate on it and won't post again on this thread, just my view.

Liddle (Monkey): Sorry you took it like that and sorry if I offended, mate. **That was to Gaz, not the sanctimonious toss from Kinnel.

To be clear, I don't think Liddle's own comments can or should fairly be described as anti-semitic, as I explained in commenting on a Left Foot Forward post.

But the Auschwitz comments show very poor judgement (even if Liddle perhaps doesn't think the football website should really 'count' as a public forum).

Defending the "context" is a poor call. Why not admit the comments were a mistake and apologise?

UPDATE: To be absolutely fair to Liddle, his "defence" of the Auschwitz thread is a pretty accurate account of his November 2007 Spectator feature on Auschwitz. That's an absolutely legitimate piece of mainstream journalism. But to claim that the argument that modern Auschwitz ""had been stripped of its awfulness and bleakness" is also the central thrust of his contribution to the Millwall thread is misleading nonsense, presumably in the hope that few people will look at what he actually wrote.

A Tebbit headbutt

Norman Tebbit has got the blogging bug - and is demonstrating a talent for the form. It might even be suggested that his presence inches the Tory blogosphere of Carswell and Hannan, Guido Fawkes and Tory Bear just a tiny bit leftwards!

Next Left had already extended a warm welcome to an old foe.

But Norman offers rather a low blow in his latest blog.

However, I should first say to Gary 4 that I certainly did NOT tell people “to get on their bikes”, I am not, and never have been a “Monday Club politican”, although I see nothing shameful in being one. After all, it is not like being a Fabian. Nor have I ever urged people to vote UKIP.


I think that may be what they call as a Chingford kiss.

I'm not much of a fan of the Monday Club myself.

And not all Tories on the right of the party share Tebbit's view about the benign nature of the Monday Club. It was David Davis as Tory chairman who suspended the club from the Tory party for "promulgating unacceptable views on race", Michael Howard who described it as "extremist", and a spokesman for Iain Duncan Smith who said that IDS' investigation of the club's views had led him to find them "repugnant".

Let's leave political philosophy to the philosophers...

A major debate about political ideas has been bubbling up on the left. But Jon Wilson wonders if we're all missing the point if we expect this 'fantasy politics' of abstract philosophy to inspire a politics that can create a different kind of society in the real world.


The debate on the renewal of the left in Britain has taken a philosophical turn. On blogs such as Next Left, politicians and policy professionals debate the merits of 'big ideas' like liberalism and republicanism. With Gordon Brown's recent celebration of John Lewis, mutualism is the most recent example. Each of these 'isms' offers a different picture of the kind of society we want to live in which we can argue between. They bring a rich cast of historical heroes who we can appeal to. So, left-leaning liberals like Richard Reeves line up John Stuart Mill or John Rawls as their protagonists in the battle of ideas. Republicans call upon Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Mutualists, most recently Anthony Painter, appeal to GDH Cole.

What can possibly be wrong with the recovery of a forgotten history of radical ideas? Surely, if the centre-left in Britain is to get out of its present mess (despite the biggest crisis of capitalism since 1929 the Tories having a two digit opinion poll lead), we need ideas, and where else to get them but from our past? But if, I want to suggest, our only hope lies in a turn to the political philosophies of the eighteenth, nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, we are going seriously wrong.

Most of the great 'isms' of the past few centuries were philosophies constructed to justify political changes that had already occurred. Liberalism already ruled Britain by the time John Stuart Mill became Britain's dominant political philosopher. It's hard to argue that Mill had much influence on the things that hadn't already happened which he proposed, such as women getting the vote. Similarly, the socialist movement already existed by the time serious socialist political philosophy emerged. Famously, for very good reasons, Karl Marx didn't explain how a communist society would be created or how it would work - and serious Marxist political philosophy only came into existence after so-called 'really existing socialism' emerged in the Eastern bloc.

Firstly then, the political philosophies of the past were used to debate and defend aspects of past societies that are very different from our own. Perhaps the greatest change is simply the much greater power of both government and large corporations in our lives today, compared with the much smaller, much more localised world of Mill or GDH Cole. The kinds of debates we have now, about benefits or healthcare for example, are premised on the state having an unimaginable scope compared to the power it had in their own day. In an environment where the range of social and governmental faces the individual encounters have changed so dramatically, abstract nouns like equality, independence or cooperation mean something incomparably different as a consequence. It is misleading to translate what are now archaic concepts into the very different world of today.

But at least nineteenth-century thinkers, John Stuart Mill, GDH Cole and Karl Marx engaged with the real world of their own day. As the Cambridge philosopher Raymond Geuss points out, modern-day political theorists - John Rawls is the best example - start with abstract ethical descriptions of what the world should look like, without thinking about whether and how one can get there, or what the ideal society would look like in practice. Their theories would only make sense in a fantasy-world of spirits and phantoms, where the messy grit of everyday governance or politics doesn't exist.

But abstract political thought is a fantasy that is dangerous, because it allows us to act as if we live in a universe in which the grit of everyday government and politics has vanished - whilst in fact it is that grit which dominates the political world. Abstract political philosophy allows us to dream that it is possible to change society for the better merely by the power of thought; or, once we have constructed our vision of a better society, to imagine we can hand over the messy job of 'delivery' to someone else, usually the state. But of course, ideas on their own have no power - they become real precisely as they are taken up by politicians, bureaucrats, or NGOs, and become part of a messy process of implementation. In the process of being made real, ideas change, and have unintended consequences. It turns out that one form of 'equality' increases inequality in another field for example; or that the devolution of power over one set of functions creates increased regulation in another sphere. Relying too much on abstract concepts in governance allows the left to hand power to managers who rarely share our values; and who transform abstract but well-meaning projects into government initiatives that have consequences directly contrary to those we intend.

At its most succesful, the Labour movement in Britain has been driven by a passionate rather than intellectual commitment to social change. It has been rooted in instincts about the good society felt in the gut by thousands of activists, not discussed in the cold sterility of the academic or think tank's seminar room.

During the first three quarters of the twentieth century, the course the Labour party took was directed by debate about the practical means it needed to implement what has always been its rather vague but passionately-held vision of a different society. But by the early 1980s, this debate had become sterile. With its critique of the centrality of the industrial working class, Trade Unionism and nationalised industry to the practice of British social democracy, new Labour made the left a moral and political force in a changed Britain once again. But it did so by abandoning the idea that the means were as important as the message. Instead, it adopted the technocratic philosophy of 'what works best'. What's missing now for the post new Labour left are not ideas. But a practical vision of how we are going to 'deliver' greater social justice in practice, in particular what kinds of organisation we are committed to. Old labour lived its politics in the Trade Union movement or public sector, both of which provided ways for the public, local activists and politicians to stay connected.

The Fabian Society is perhaps the only institution that still performs this connecting role, as the link between the world of think-tanks where ideas are produced, and the local branch where campaigning happens becomes wider and wider. It isn't political philosophy that will provide the left with a new and steadier course but a narrative that links ideas about the kind of society we want to live in to the practical institutions we can use to create it.

Perhaps - I'm not sure about this - Gordon Brown's recent lauding of John Lewis provides part of the answer. But that's not because mutualism is a good idea in theory, or a good way to 'deliver' abstract goals. It is because John Lewis is an institution that represents our values and works well in the consumerist society we live in today - it's an employee-owned firm that's survived in the recession. But if that's true, the government to be serious about the mutualist institution. Politicians would need to show their commitment to mutualism in everything they do, not use the theories and models of the political philosopher or economist to measure and calculate how effectively it is at 'delivering' a set of abstract principles. The mutualist organisation would be something we think is good in itself. The means of achieving social justice is a central part of the vision of the society we want to create.

Political philosophy is perhaps best seen as offering a language of critique, a way of showing the particular shortcomings of the society we live in by contrasting them with utopian alternatives. But political philosophy doesn't help us to imagine the different type of society we want to create, or how we might get there. As a great thinker who himself abandoned abstract philosophy for the study of the real world once said, 'philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it'.

Guest post from Jon Wilson, who is a lecturer at King's College London.

The Tories and the trust fund

Tory MP Douglas Carswell told the Fabian New Year Conference that the Tories weren’t taking their ideas from Hayek nowadays so much as former Blair adviser Julian Le Grand. In which case, does this suggest an imminent shift in Conservative policy on the child trust fund? Or have they not been reading the latest Fabian Review, in which Le Grand stresses the importance of defending one of Labour’s “greatest achievements”? It's “under threat” from both the Tories and Lib Dems, he says.

You can read the whole article here.

Le Grand – always more social democratic than his New Labour public service reform-guru tag suggested – was a key architect of the policy and writes how the idea that all young people should begin their adult lives with financial assets “has been translated into a successful, popular programme with the potential to transform the lives of its beneficiaries.”

“The child trust fund is a national treasure – both literally and metaphorically. It must not be allowed to die…”

By mentioning Le Grand, Carswell was attempting to show a Fabian audience that the Tories have moved on from previous new right orthodoxy and are operating on the same mainstream ‘progressive’ territory that Tony Blair was. Perhaps so. There is a danger of appearing a bit faddy, however, and adding to the perception that ‘progressive Conservatism’ doesn’t run all that deep, if one of the totems of Le Grandism is also the first policy a Tory administration will drop. (And indeed is one of the very few explicit Tory pledges)

It is also worth considering Le Grand’s article in the context of another related post-Fabian Conference discussion: meritocracy.

For a more comprehensive investigation of meritocracy, see Stuart White’s post on Next Left earlier in the week. But there are essentially two problems with meritocracy: the morally arbitrary nature of merit creating what Roy Hattersley calls “patterns of shifting inequality”; and the fact that the merit race is rigged to begin with.

The child trust fund addresses the second of these: correcting some of the pre-existing inequalities that make meritocracy so flawed, by giving everyone access to the kind of capital that is commonplace amongst the better off. It is also one of the areas in which the government’s ‘progressive universalism’ has proved most effective. As our recent report The Solidarity Society argued, ensuring the middle classes have a stake in the welfare state is crucial to fighting poverty and inequality and preventing the poor falling even further behind the rest. And, by focusing on “families on middle and modest incomes”, and singling out the child trust fund, the prime minister’s Fabian speech recognised this:

“And this is a decisive difference between the parties, because today it is only Labour which recognises that middle class families – not just the poorest – welcome and benefit from Labour’s children's centres.

And it is Labour and not the Conservatives that recognise that middle class families - not just the poorest - want help building up their children’s savings through Labour’s child trust fund.

It is Labour not the Conservatives that recognise that middle class parents - not just the poorest - need support through Labour’s tax credits.

And it is Labour but not the Conservatives that recognise that middle class families - not just the poorest - need help for the elderly to stay and be looked after in their own homes.”

The speech in the most part advertised a greatest hits package to market during a New Labour comeback tour this spring. But – beyond the questionable political logic of using the same old social mobility refrain for “an election that will be fought on terrain quite unlike the political landscape of preceding decades” – these passages show a more nuanced substance.

New Labour still frustratingly insists on burying laudable policy goals beneath political pitches to mythical swing voters. But at a time when many are trying to get their heads round whether to take ‘progressive Conservatism’ seriously or not, this passage reveals a Labour agenda much closer to Le Grandism than Carswell’s name dropping.

Social mobility fact-check for Isaby

Next Left's new social mobility fact-checking service has already helped out Nick Clegg and Guido Fawkes in our first week.

Today, we have ConservativeHome co-editor Jonathan Isaby looking through rose-tinted spectacles in his article about Tory candidates in The Times.

Many are living Margaret Thatcher’s dream of social mobility, having grown up on council estates and seen their parents buy their houses.

Well, social mobility may have been her "dream" but Thatcher's policies of redistribution upwards contributed to the opposite of what she aspired to. As we noted in quoting the LSE research last time:

We cannot find any evidence that the sharp drop in mobility observed for children growing up in the 1970s and 1980s has continued. But nor can we find evidence that mobility has improved.

I realise that does not fit the ConservativeHome "narrative" - but I challenge Isaby and his colleagues to contest that as a matter of fact.

Isaby also gives a rather positive top-spin in reporting what I understand to be a fairly even numerical split between state and privately educated Tory candidates this time around. Another way of reporting the same data would be to observe that a Tory Commons majority would see a significant rise in the number of MPs who are privately educated. Three-fifths (59%) of the current Tory MPs in the Commons are privately educated, along with almost one-in-five (18%) of Labour MPs.

However, as we have noted before, ConservativeHome has done some very good work consistently highlighting the costs of seeking selection, and the class impact that has on narrowing the field of candidates, which is an issue in all parties.


Another top Tory blogger getting the facts about candidates wrong yesterday: Iain Dale posting that "Tories have more BME candidates from Labour", by including Tory MPs who are standing again while excluding a dozen of their Labour counterparts, as Left Foot Forward noted.

When challenged, Dale did politely apologise to Operation Black Vote, having not realised that they take a meticulously cross-party approach to promoting diversity across all parties. But he didn't correct his central facts or erroneous headline. A more accurate headline might, I suggested, be something like:

Tories not far behind and nearly neck-and-neck with Labour on overall BME candidates under Cameron, having been ahead of Labour on candidates under Michael Howard in 2005.

The number of non-white Tory MPs will certainly increase, from the two in 2005. That is more important: the diversity of Parliament should not be vulnerable to political fluctuations. But Dale's prediction of 13 non-white Tory MPs next time strikes me as very optimistic: to get to above ten would be very striking progress in itself. That prediction sits oddly with his projecting a Tory overall majority of 13. I suspect the Tories would need to be heading well into landslide territory of a 100+ majority to elect 13 non-white MPs from those currently selected.

However, Dale stresses that regional and local factors will affect results in many seats; it would be interesting to know which gains make up his BME class of 2010.

PS: I can see where those who worry about pigeon-holing or tokenism are coming from, and share that concernto some extent. However, the overall pattern of selections is relevant evidence. Without the factual evidence, public discussion about whether candidates from different backgrounds have 'fair chances' and no unfair barriers becomes largely anecdotal, and often mythologised.

Moreover, it is only through completing progress towards a meritocratic system of fair chances that black and Asian MPs finally get the option to escape the particular burdens of 'representation' where grassroots voices, the media and their own parties thrust upon those who make the intial breakthrough. Once there are 25+ non-white MPs in the House a plurality of different choices and approaches are increasingly possible: that was much less open to the first four black MPs in 1987.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

How to get a leadership election right

Politicians are told not to answer hypothetical questions. But perhaps think-tankers and bloggers sometimes can.

So let me introduce you to Katwala's first law of political recovery:

No party which loses a General Election should elect its next leader within the first six months following the defeat.

Hence my answer when asked, among many others, by the New Statesman to identify the Labour party's next leader. It is much to soon to tell, hence my mildly counter-intuitive scenario:

More important than who should lead is how Labour could get its next leadership election right. Let's hope it takes place in government, a few years from now. But if Labour loses this spring, the first decision could be its most important in opposition: whether to have an immediate leadership contest or leave it until after the first autumn conference. If Michael How­ard had not done the latter in 2005, the Tory leader would be David Davis, not David Cameron.

If Labour goes straight for a contest, we would miss the debate we need. So let's see the merits in playing it long. If Labour loses, Gordon must stay! If he prefers to make a quick exit, the National Executive Committee should appoint a caretaker and schedule an autumn contest. It could make a real difference to the chances of being out for one term, or three. Front-runners - such as David Miliband, Ed Balls or Harriet Harman - should not fear a longer debate with more ideas. Those who might not run - perhaps James Purnell and Jon Cruddas - might sharpen debates.

Without hearing their arguments, it is too early to set the field. So why not imagine that Ed Miliband and Yvette Cooper could surprise us by emerging in front, with Cooper edging home as the party's first permanent woman leader?

Let's have a closer look at the general case for parties taking that time to get questions of leadership right.

The history

The Michael Howard precedent of 2005 is well known. The Tories took six weeks to elect William Hague after being crushed in 1997; and began balloting MPs within a month in 2001, with IDS crowned by September.

Dig back a bit further: it is striking just how well the law holds up. I admit there is also a fair dollop of coincidence in the fact that none of the serial election winners of post-war election history - Wilson (1963), Thatcher (1975) and Blair (1994), with ten victories out of eleven between them - first became leader of the opposition in a contest beginning straight after an election defeat.

In fact, relatively few party leaders did so: I think just George Lansbury (1931), Hugh Gaitskell (1955), Neil Kinnock (1983), John Smith (1992), William Hague (1997) and Iain Duncan Smith (2001). Note that none of them ever made the premiership though.

It isn't a magic formula. More time to talk and think doesn't guarantee it will be used well. James Callaghan (reluctantly) agreed to delay his departure until 1980. But the party factions were almost entirely fixated on a clash over the rule-book, with Old Labour's arch-fixer proving singularly unsuccessful in managing the outcome, before Michael Foot was elected under the old rules, though very much in anticipation of the new. Similarly, more time to talk wouldn't have seen the Conservatives bounce straight back after 1997. But they could well have begun a necessary conversation in the party that they didn't really begin for another eight years.

And that's much less likely if the very first question after an election isn't about what happened, or what it means for a party's future direction, but rather narrows down to 'who's nominating who'.

The politics

Is even mentioning this now a potential distraction? Well, this shouldn't be shouted from the rooftops. But there may be no time at all to do so if the worse happened.

In general, if parties generally followed this approach there would be pre-election benefits too.

Right now, the political media (still some months from the election) have finally been robbed of two of their hardy perennials for endless speculation: the potential for an anti-Brown coup, and the timing of the election. (Of course, we told you so; on both fronts). The next leader will be the next thing.

Columnists will no doubt be very happy to host a coded, off-the-record and mostly private debate, which might deliver an untested consensus on who should emerge.

Party members want leading figures to concentrate on the General Election now. So overt proxy leadership manouvering should backfire with those whose votes will matter. That pressure would be stronger too if parties always knew that there would be plenty of time to have a proper debate, out in the open, at the right time.

Hypotheticals; hypotheticals. It may well not be a law we need to recall for many years to come. Still, let's make sure we remember it if and when we ever do need to.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Fabian New Year Conference: Audio highlights

For those of you that missed the Fabians' New Year Conference, or perhaps just wanted to experience it all over again, a range of podcast highlights from key New Year Conference breakout sessions are now available:

1. The Case - Does the Left have a winning argument?

Hear Mary Riddell, Ben Bradshaw, John Curtice and Peter Hyman discussing the strongest argument for the Left and how to introduce progressive debate into the election here

2. Will The Real David Cameron Please Stand Up?

Hear Polly Toynbee, Nadine Dorries, Sunder Katwala and Douglas Carswell debating just who the leader of the Tory party really is here

3. What Not To Spend

Hear Vince Cable, Nigel Stanley and Janet Daley discuss what to cut and who is best placed to cut it here

4. Hope or Fear - How does the political brain work?

Hear Hilary Benn, Matthew Taylor, Tim Horton and Catherine Fieschi discuss which message most resonates with voters - hope or fear here

5. Tribes or Causes - Can we campaign across party lines?

Hear Will Straw, David Babbs and Jessica Asato debate whether a progressive coalition will ever occur here

6. Equality of What?

Hear Neal Lawson, John Denham, Stuart White and Jenni Russell debate what equality means in today's society, how best to achieve it and how to broach it to the electorate here

7. Challenging Extremism - What's fuelling the rise of the Far Right?

Hear Rushanara Ali, Sam Tarry, Matthew Goodwin and Mark Rusling debate what's causing the rise in popularity of Far Right parties and what we can to do tackle it here

Event reports and photographs are also available here

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Liberty, equality and Next Left: a quick reply to Tony Curzon Price

There is an interesting post at OpenDemocracy from Tony Curzon Price in which he explores the idea that political ideology can be explored along distinct 'liberty' and 'equality' axes.

Tony claims that the egalitarian-authoritarian space (strong on equality, weak on liberty) is occupied by something like the Fabian Society, and his post has an icon of Next Left in the relevant part of the accompanying diagram.


Has Tony actually been reading Next Left? Has he followed our coverage of issues like the policing of the G20 protests, our discussions of the relationship between liberalism and socialism, the philosophy of democratic republicanism, and so on?

I suspect not. Otherwise, he might have the beginnings of an answer to the question he poses: Where are the libertarian progressives?

Monday, 18 January 2010

Introducing the social mobility fact-check service

We will hear a lot about social mobility in the next few months, as Gordon Brown's speech on Saturday to the Fabians and David Cameron's response on education today suggested. More broadly, it is probably a good thing that worrying about 'low social mobility' offers a polite and socially acceptable way for almost everybody to express a concern about how much class structures British society, even if some seem at times unaware that this is what they are saying.

But more nonsense is talked about the facts of social mobility than perhaps any other public issue. So Next Left today begins a modest "social mobility fact-checking" service, aimed at politicians, campaigners and public commentators, and would welcome other bloggers and commentators joining a push to name and shame the public discourse into a more accurate discussion of mobility in British society.


As this could prove an equal opportunity exercise, let us begin with LibDem leader Nick Clegg and right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes, who both got the social mobility facts wrong yesterday.

(1) "Social mobility has fallen under Labour", said Nick Clegg in his Andrew Marr interview, in passing but hardly for the first time. This is one of the most commonly repeated mythical political claims.

It isn't true.

As the most influential academic study of this question reports:

We cannot find any evidence that the sharp drop in mobility observed for children growing up in the 1970s and 1980s has continued. But nor can we find evidence that mobility has improved.'

(2) Paul Staineswrote on Guido Fawkes yesterday that council house sales were "the single greatest boon to social mobility since free education for all". You might date that to 1944, or to a large extent 1870, so its quite a claim. But I can not see what evidence Staines could possibly have for this rather more extravagant piece of social mobility mythology.

This would seem to both deny that the post-war 'room at the top' wave of social mobility took place, while also imagining a century-best surge in social mobility in the very period when it declined most sharply. (In referring to 'social mobility', Staines may have meant something different: perhaps that council house sales were a boon to a broader dispersal wealth and assets. That is also commonly believed and often asserted. Since this period was one of an increased concentration of wealth, as an increasing number on the right including Ferdinand Mount and Red Tory Phillip Blond now also stress, the positive effect of council house sales was outweighed by stronger drivers towards greater asset and wealth inequalities: that is itself one of the contributors to stratification and immobility over time).

So what are the key facts on social mobility?

(Future fact-checking ripostes can be much shorter if we gather some key sources in one place to start with).

The most cited research on social mobility has been carried out by Jo Blanden, Paul Gregg and Stephen Machin, Centre for Economic Perormance, LSE and Bristol University, with the Sutton Trust doing much to popularise this.

Their finding that social mobility was lower for those born in 1970 than those born in 1958 is the point which informs most public commentary about 'falling social mobility'. Because that research was published with new Labour in power (their main research papers on the 1958/1970 cohorts were published in 2002 and 2005), this helped to create a 'social mobility has declined under Labour meme', despite the researchers consistently pointing out that it is a misreading of their findings, and that the research could not be said to measure the impact of post-1997 policy.

It is very strange to blame the New Labour government's for the occupational outcomes of those who were 27 in 1997.

Since we are measuring intergenerational mobility, it takes some time to have robust results. As Anthony Giddens has explained:

It is absurd to use these findings to argue that social mobility has gone down since Labour came to power, nor did the study claim any such thing. It takes a minimum of 30 years to measure how socially mobile someone is, because we are comparing the jobs people are in today with those of their parents. It is commonly agreed that what happens in childhood is crucial to a person's job chances, hence if social mobility has declined it is the result of influences dating from the 70s and 80s, when, in fact, the Tories were in power.


Any impact of SureStart, improved primary education scores, inner city academies or the modest income redistribution towards the lower 50% of the income range, would reveal itself fully over time.

However, there are proxy measures which can enable a preliminary prediction about social mobility impacts. These rely largely on the observation that early scores in educational tests have been a strong predictor of later educational and employment outcomes.

So the LSE/Bristol team December 2007 research paper went on to report on the children of the 1958 and 1970 cohort, who were (on average) born around 1985 ('58 cohort), now in their 20s, and 1999 ('70 cohort), using "the relationship between children's educational outcomes at different ages and parental income we can predict likely patterns of mobility for cohorts who have not yet reached adulthood", allowing the researchers to begin to examine the impact which more recent policy could have.

Their conclusion was:

Evidence from the earlier 1958 and 1970 cohorts shows that as mobility declined in the past the relationship between intermediate outcomes and parental income strengthened. We therefore conclude that, under realistic assumptions and in the absence of any significant unanticipated changes, the decline in intergenerational mobility that occurred between 1958 and 1970 birth cohorts is unlikely to continue for cohorts born from 1970 to 2000. Mobility is therefore likely to remain at or near the relatively low level observed for the 1970 birth cohort.

In an LSE article will the downward trend continue?, explaining the research conclusions, they wrote

It appears that the decline in social mobility may well have flattened out. This may be either good news or bad news for policy: while it may have stopped the previous decline, it has failed to lead to an overall improvement in mobility.

There is more information on the 2007 study's conclusions here.

A more recent (2008) paper by Paul Gregg of Bristol University found family background less important for those who sat GCSEs in 2006 than 1970. This was reported as a sign that social mobility could be rising again. Sheffield academic Danny Dorling warned against making too much of this social mobility green shoot.


The Cabinet Office last year produced discussion paper analysing social mobility trends, which offers a fair summary of the academic evidence on occupational changes, opportunities and international comparisons.

The Cabinet Office report also sets out why the government has placed a particular emphasis on political economy strategies to increase the number of skilled and white-collar jobs, seeking to create more 'room at the top' in a globalised economy. This is intended to, at least partially, escape the meritocracy dilemma which Stuart White notes of whether or not those advocating more (upward) social mobility are prepared to advocate 'downward social mobility' too. (However, it is unlikely that any effective 'social mobility' strategy could do so entirely, particularly where educational outcomes, professional careers or other goods are seen as 'positional goods').

Some accounts of social mobility propose a more optimistic reading than the cohort studies. David Goodhart wrote a Prospect piece reporting contested debates within the academy over the meaning of social mobility and how to measure it. Goodhart's own argument was that we should be more optimistic about the levels of mobility within the 'low mobility', and more sceptical about the fact or extent of its decline.

It is true that "low social mobility" does not mean a rigid caste system, though Goodhart recognises the danger of complacency in pushing that analysis too far, and does highlight the particular UK challenge of a relatively closed professional elite at the top. With the UK ranking near the bottom of the occupational social mobility table, with only the USA doing worse, there ought to still be plenty to concern meritocrats, as well as other egalitarians.

Whether or not you agree with Goodhart's conclusion, his article does also highlight some of the nuanced academic debates about what to measure and how. David Willetts, undoubtedly the most social science evidence-based minded member of the opposition frontbench, has been among those to note that the feminisation of the workforce over the last half century makes the social mobility story more complex. Women's mobility has been higher than men's between the 1958 and 1970 cohorts, though this may be more due to changes in occupational structure of the economy more than a diminishing effect of family background.


The evidence that social mobility has been stabilised but not reversed highlights a broader difficulty for the government in defending its record.

John Denham made this point well in the equality discussion at Saturday's Fabian conference:

If you designed a social policy to have no impact, the effect of global forces would be to make opportunity more unequal. To halt or modestly reverse trends is, because of the downward escalator effect, a significant achievement in itself. we need to be careful to argue that, though I think it is clear that we do have to go further in the future

This also applies to the related but distinct issues of poverty and inequality, as Stuart White's Next Left analysis of the record set out.

On social mobility too, the counter-factual case that policy has not made a difference could prove a recipe for a further collapse in social mobility.

I felt the reality of that danger was captured well in Robert Yates' insightful Observer magazine feature from Liverpool Walton. Improving employment opportunities in Britain's poorest constituency remains very difficult; but the most striking change is the step-change in the quality of public services. The most recent educational results show inner city schools improving most.

That this may be a necessary but not sufficient condition to kickstart social mobility is a more convincing than the idea that policy has made no difference and could be reversed without a negative impact.


We will try to continue to highlight intelligent approaches to illuminating the challenges of social mobility - recommendations are welcome; as are academic offers to contribute on how public discussion could reflect research findings - as well as challenging those accounts which seem at odds with the social mobility facts.

Meritocracy rides (yet) again

The session on 'Equality of what?' at the Fabian New Year Conference, 'Causes to Fight For', always promised to be interesting.

It was made all the more so by Gordon Brown's speech to the conference in the morning in which he set out some of the ideas which will shape Labour's manifesto for the upcoming election. My opening comments on the afternoon panel entered some reservations about this latest effort to define Labour's vision for the future. I report them, with a little polishing and elaboration, here....

In his article in The Guardian and speech to the Fabian conference, Gordon Brown has set out a commitment to create a skill-based meritocracy. Making Britain an incrementally more meritocratic society, based on a wider, more equal distribution of skills is, of course, a worthy goal. It is certainly better than making Britain incrementally less meritocratic as the Conservatives are likely to do. However, as a statement of Labour's vision, I have three reservations.

First, we have been hearing this sort of thing for a very long time.

Commitment to a skill-based meritocracy, as the cornerstone of an egalitarian strategy, has been central to Labour thinking and policy-making since the mid-1990s. It is there in Gordon Brown's discussion of a new 'politics of potential' from the early/mid 1990s. Its there in the final report of the Commission on Social Justice. It is there in Tony Giddens's The Third Way.

However, while Labour has been acting on this idea since 1997, income inequality is higher now than when Labour came to power and wealth inequality has also (probably) increased. So what, exactly, is Labour going to do differently, under this not so new meritocratic agenda, that will lead to greater success in these areas?

Second, does Labour really believe in a 'genuine meritocracy'? Meritocracy implies not only greater upward mobility from the bottom, but greater downward mobility from the top. (In a genuine meritocracy, chances of ending up in a specific social class would be more or less equal whatever social class your parents are in. Relative to where we are, this implies that chances for those born to lower class parents to attain higher class status will have to go up, and the chances for those born to higher class parents to attain this same status will have to go down.)

Does Labour accept this? Does it have the policies necessary to achieve it - the polices necessary to tackle the diverse ways in which those at the top manage to pass on their economic status to their children? I am sceptical.

Third, the left does not exist only to win the battle of meritocracy. It also exists to create a society which, in important ways, transcends meritocracy. As a long line of ethical socialist thinkers - R.H. Tawney, Michael Young, John Rawls - have argued, meritocracy is not adequate for the just or good society. What matters is not merely to level the playing-field in the competition for top spots in the economic hierarchy, but also that there be less of a hierarchy.

This does not imply a policy of undiscriminating 'equality of outcome'. It does imply that we recognise how people can be disadvantaged unfairly not only by the accident of the social class into which they are born, but by the accident of the natural abilities they are born with. Even under a perfect meritocracy, real opportunities for income, wealth and fulfilment will be unequal because of differences in earnings capacity over which individuals have no control. And that is unfair.

It is sad, and perhaps telling, that after some twelve or so years in government, Labour still seems unwilling to make the case for greater social justice except in meritocratic terms. When will Labour challenge, rather than simply echo, the dominance of meritocratic norms?

Postscript: Guy Aitchison has an interesting take on the conference at OurKingdom.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Vince Cable: "Cuts should be guided by economic requirements, not a political timetable"

Vince Cable has warned that when it comes to cuts after the next election, no area of the public sector should be ring-fenced, including the NHS. Speaking at the Fabian Society event “What Not To Spend”, at the Fabian New Year Conference 2010, he said that most difficult decisions after the election will be based on spending, not tax, and that cuts can be made to bureaucracy and inefficiencies in the NHS without affecting frontline services.

“The question is, how should public spending be tackled? In terms of ‘when’, we agree with government and disagree with Conservatives. We think we should be guided by economic criteria, not a political timetable,” he said.

Cable called for cuts to fall across “swathes of government administration, which are top heavy.” He proposed raising the tax threshold to relieve the tax burden on the poor, closing the tax loopholes for the rich and cutting public sector pay.

He added: “What should happen? We think it is wrong, economically and politically, to ring-fence spending and say cuts should fall everywhere else. This includes the NHS. The private sector has been far-sighted and reasonable, and the public sector should follow.”

Janet Daley, political columnist for the Daily Telegraph, agreed that central government has grown too big, and advocated government spending by individuals, suggesting a voucher system as a way to achieve “an enlightened and democratically empowered system”.

“Public spending has tended to entrench power of the state and disempower individuals. This is a problem for people on the left and the right, this leviathan state. We need government spending by individuals. We have to confront the possibility of creating mechanisms by which government money is spent by people,” she said.

Nigel Stanley, Head of Campaigns and Communications at the TUC, suggested that a driver for the economic crash was an unequal economy, and that a new kind of political settlement is necessary, in which those who gained in the boom years give back. He agreed that cuts are necessary, and should focus on plans such as ID cards and Trident.

He said: “Dealing with the deficit now is wrong thing to do. We have structural deficit now. When we get out of recession and into growth will still have a structural deficit. Setting an arbitrary timetable is not a good idea. Timetables for reducing the deficit strike me as a bit of target culture gone wrong.”