Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens: a tribute

(Also on LeftCentral)

“More Bosnia, less Iraq”. So went a text sent by Christopher Hitchens, who died from cancer last week, to Stephen Fry in late November. Fry was orchestrating a make-shift discussion at the Royal Festival Hall with Hitchens’ more famous friends on his ‘loves and hates’, with Hitch himself following online after falling too ill to participate. As George Eaton noted, at an event which already eerily felt like the dry run of a funeral service, it seemed like Hitchens was trying to edit the first draft of his own obituary.

Alas, to no avail, it would appear from reading much of the reaction since Friday. But if it’s fitting that Hitchens died in the same week as the Iraq war came to a formal end, then it’s no less so that he went in the same week as Vaclav Haval, the great Czech dissident who authored his countries’ overthrow of Communism. For whatever one thinks of his position on Iraq (and I disagree with it), Hitchens leant his vociferous support for the war with the same logic as he did to Haval and intervention in Bosnia, and it must be reckoned with on that basis.

Indeed as is often the case, what made Hitchens such a great writer was the same as that which made him such a great thinker. That is, pure moral clarity. He was an absolutist, to the point of utopianism, about totalitarianism and tyranny. He approached all debates from this perspective alone. No excuses or equivocations, no relativism or self-doubt – and it showed in the beautifully sure flow of his writing and argument. He never wasted a word. He was funny. And above all else, he loved the fight. Watching him marshal his points in a debate, duck and weave, taunt and torment his hapless opponent, was like watching Mohammed Ali at his pomp.

Yet he rarely appeared shrill or just provocative, because his brand of Manichianism came supported by a formidable grasp of human history, culture and politics. He could reach deep into the annuls of literature or history and pull out an obscure reference or anecdote that would light up his argument, often instantly putting his opponent on the wrong side of the debate. He has many impersonators who mimic his style, but who without the substance show themselves up as pointless provocateurs, usually in slave to some private-school boy prejudice or other (see Douglas Murray, James Delinhpole, Oliver Kamm; perhaps even Martin Amis, for anyone who’s read The Second Plane).

Certainly, he was no more infallible than the rest of us. His rhetoric could slip into saloon-bar boorishness, and he often took too much pride in disregarding the full policy implications of the positions he would take (“I rather tended to assume that things of [the] more practical sort were being taken care of”). But we desperately need writers like Christopher Hitchens: rootless, belligerent, informed idealists. Authors who can file a well-researched despatch on some obscure going-on from around the world, but beautifully locate its place within the broader battles of human good against evil. People who see, as Haval put it, “politics as morality in practice.”

Even when you disagree with Hitchens, writers of his ilk make you work like no other, in your own mind, to justify it. They hold our feet to the fire, shaking us from the comfort of our certainties, stopping us from getting so mired in nuance, ‘contextual’ or ‘structural’ explanations – so blinded by our own predilections – that we excuse and euphemise crimes visited upon those we should call friends.

It’s this which defined his split with many leftists, one which opened up long before Iraq. Hitchens consistently skewered those who too often couldn’t get out from under their own ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘anti-racism’ to show solidarity with victims of regimes and ideologies hitherto understood only as virtuous bulwarks against Western hegemony. In order to patch up the resulting tears in their neat worldviews, some on the left consistently proved willing to trash as ‘stooges’ dissidents who fell out with the wrong people. From the anti-Soviet intellectuals in Eastern Europe, Rushdie, the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians, all the way up to Aayan Hirsi Ali – Hitchens was at his best when agitating on their behalf, reminding us that sometimes “The very first step that we must take is the acquisition of enough self-respect and self-confidence to say that we have met an enemy and that he is not us, but someone else.”

Hitchens kept the Trotskyite stridency of his youth but – amid the evaporation of the Soviet Union – stripped out the materialism and replaced it with culture, namely the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis. Writing of his reaction to September 11th, he said: “It was exhilaration…. Here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan…On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.”

If his principled support of abandoned dissidents proved the worth of this framing – of seeing “politics as morality in practice” – then ultimately Iraq seemed to show the pitfalls. Perhaps coagulated in the furnace of debate around the war, his stridency was re-cast into dogma as he ended up equating support for Kurds and Iraqi trade unionists with support for the Bush administration’s misadventure. More than this, he came to see the conflict as a continuation of the interventions of the 1990s, filtering out their substantive differences – not least who was undertaking it, and for what reasons. So in thrall with the romanticism of the fight against Saddam, he neglected the complex, real-world politics of sectarianism and tribalism which were to engulf post-invasion Iraq.

One final consequence worth noting of Hitchens’ journey from materialism was his almost complete absence, in his later years, from the debate over economic and social questions. What did he think of the downfall of Lehman Brothers? Of the sub-prime mortgage boon? Of Greece? Or even the healthcare debate in the U.S? Here we missed his voice, but like many a 68′er who had accepted ‘the end of history’, he had rather left behind the tools with which to make sense of the tumult in modern capitalism.

Nevertheless, for most of his life, Hitchens helped define a generation of political debate. There was, you might say, something of the Arthur Koestler about him. On the surface he could appear a dilettante, bumping from cause to cause, fight to fight, exchanging various visions of utopia along the way. Ultimately he was more substantive than Koestler, and a better writer. Like him, however, Hitchens’ journey and the mosaic of arguments he had with himself and others comes together to tell the story of our time. Over the fall of the Soviet Union, liberal interventionism, 9/11, Iraq, Islamic extremism and religion. His famous head-to-head in New York with George Galloway in 2005 is etched on the mind of an entire flock of young people who came of political consciousness around the time of the ‘war on terror’.

Hitchens didn’t just take part in the battle of ideas; he was defined by it. He was there, he lived it; helped shape it. That is the essence of a true public intellectual, and it’s a struggle to think of a writer alive who can hope to match up to his importance. We will feel the weight of his absence for a long time to come.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

‘The Sports Direct Arena’ is a symptom of a sick game

Also on LabourList

The news isn’t going short on stories to shock or depress us at the moment, so you’d be forgiven for letting the re-naming of a football stadium slip your attention. But the announcement that Newcastle United’s St James Park is to be re-christened ‘The Sports Direct Arena’ should alarm even those who don’t like football. It tells us a lot about what the game has become, and by extension a bit about the country we live in too.

The move, undertaken by owner Mike Ashley to “showcase” sponsorship opportunities, is so offensive because it flies in the face of everything the game is supposed to be. Clubs have always drawn support from afar, but most have their roots in local, often working class, communities. A football club is a focal point of a town or city; match day throws together in common interest people who have never met or have nothing else in common as well as old friends and family. A lot of father-son relationships have some of their formative moments at football games.

At heart football is about collectivism – us against them – and relationships. A football stadium is a public space. Its name is obviously a part of that – it’s a common reference point throughout generations, usually synonymous with local history or geography. Corporate sponsorship of new stadiums is bad enough, but what Ashley has done is the outright commodification of 120 years of history, and of something that by right belongs to Newcastle and Newcastle United supporters.

Unfortunately, it hardly comes as a surprise. Like much of our economy as a whole, the Premier League is increasingly dominated by business and governance models that privilege rampant maximisation of short-term profit at the expense of everything else. Hence the cold, unfeeling language NUFC used to justify the sell off to horrified fans: the old name was “commercially unattractive”, adding with a note of optimism that re-branding “presents would-be sponsors with the opportunity to acquire both the naming rights and shirt sponsorship deals”.

This way of running football inevitably leads to a shriveled view of supporters as just spectators: atomised, passive consumers whose loyalty to the brand is to be squeezed through price hikes, dodgy cup ticket schemes and the like. And increasingly this just goes towards servicing debts, or ends up in the owners’ pocket.

As a result, many top level football clubs have become detached from their support base and cut off from their community. Working class communities surrounding most grounds still exist, but are frequently priced out. Others are put off by sanitisation: the proliferation of reserved corporate tickets, boxes, the banning of drinking on terraces and the refusal to consider safe standing. All this exists in the name of ‘enhancing spectator experience’, but all limit atmosphere, participation and togetherness. To be fair, lots of football clubs do some good work in the community, but it feels more like corporate social responsibility. It doesn’t run through their ethic.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Just as it’s a false choice to say we can only have Britain’s current model of capitalism or Soviet-style central planning, so too it’s disingenuous to present the only alternative to football today as a return to the violent, rickety old terraces of the 1980s. Fans need to be better integrated within the running of clubs to act as bulwarks against the dominance of business interest. At the very least every club should have a supporter’s representative on the board, as the 2009APPFG recommended. But the long term vision should be to transform football governance entirely, ensuring majority fan ownership.

In Germany, at least 51% of every club is owned by supporters, while strict financial rules limit spending and wages to a proportion of turnover. This helps keep ticket prices down – a Bundesliga season ticket is 25% of what it costs here – discourages financial recklessness and predatory takeovers, and creates a more genuine match day experience (including safe terracing). It’s not a panacea, nor does it not always prevent over-commercialisation. But it does ensure democratic control and accountability. If 51% of Newcastle United had been owned by the fans, would the Sports Direct Arena ever have come into being?

While Labour’s creation of Supporters Direct in 2000 to support fan ownership was a good move, it remains under resourced and unsupported by the necessary wider governance. Supporter run clubs are confined to the lower leagues. Labour has widely swung behind democratic forms of ownership within public services and business. So why not extend it to the top levels of sport, and vocally back a wholesale transformation of the way we do football in this country?

None of this has to lead to deterioration of the game on-the-pitch. The current Barcelona team is one of the greatest of all time, and is supporter controlled. 7 of the last 17 Champions League winners have been fan run. There is nothing inherently wrong with there being big money in the game. That is very difficult to stop. The trouble is our footballing economy reflects our political economy. Huge amounts of capital fly into the game without the structures, organisation or regulations to prevent its domination of everything.

This can’t be solved by laws or regulation alone. Fans also need to be more organised and involved, beyond just demanding billionaire tycoons take over their club every time they get beat (Manchester United’s ‘Green and Gold’/MUST model is a good place to start). But politics can do its bit too.

I love Football, it’s bloody great. Walk from neighborhood to neighborhood in almost any city in the world and everything will change around you, but the one constant will be football – on the streets, in the parks, in the pubs. Those on the left should never underestimate it as a force for good, and its capacity for healing division and alienation. But while fans may spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about football, football doesn’t spend enough time thinking about them. It’s an increasingly unrequited love affair, as the Sports Direct Arena shows, because Football has become so up-rooted from the ethos and communities it was set up to serve. We need to bring it home again.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

A quick post on Ed Miliband's £6k fees proposal

There is a lot of bewildering gubbins going around about Miliband's pledge to cap tuition fees at £6k instead of £9k. I can't say I'm any great fan of the idea. He could have gone a lot further (to say, £3-4k) if he'd simply said he'd limit or reverse cuts to HEFCE's budget, which is what gave rise to £9k fees in the first place - instead, his proposals work within those cuts (I assume because he didn't want to be dragged into an argument on deficit reduction).

In any event, that doesn't stop me from scratching my head at some of the accusations being levelled at the proposals. Chief among them is that they only benefit the very rich. To my knowledge this argument first made by Graeme Strachan Cowie, and was later taken up by Stephen Tall. It has since proved very popular among journalists and Lib Dems in the Twittersphere.

Roughly it seems to go like this, deep breath now:

Student A and student B are graduating from University. Student A earns a starting salary of £25k, rising to £140k after 30 years - the point at which the debt is wiped. Student B has a starting salary of £50k, rising to £200k after 30 years (my guess is the number of people this applies to is negligible, but it's the example of a high earner given by the author, so fine). Under £9k pa fees system, the total sum of money owed at the end is such that, because of the way repayments are structured, student A will never repay it all before the 30 year wipe-out point. However, student B will earn enough to pay all of his total debt back before the 30 year limit kicks in. Therefore, high earning student B will ultimately end up paying more back to the Treasury than lower earning Student A, who will hit the 30 year brick wall (It's in this rather dog-eared, round-about way that people argue the new system is akin to a graduate tax).

Cutting fees to £6k, however, does not reduce the overall amount owed enough to stop Student A from hitting the 30 year limit at the same amount paid as under £9k - £24,940, using the MoneySavingExpert calculator. High earning student B, however, still pays it off before 30 years (as with 9k) but this time he pays less in sum to the Treasury because he owes less. So...in this way, Miliband's proposals are just a cut for the richest. Goddit?

Except I may be missing something, but this argument strikes me as completely missing the point.

Firstly, it is a total red herring anyway to look at the absolute amount paid. Under either £6k or £9k, low earners will be saddled with fees deductions from their payslips for the bulk of their working life, while the highest earners may be free of them in 15 years, for instance. For this reason, the system is not the same as a graduate tax. The fact that most will hit the 30 year limit is not a sign of how progressive the system is, it is a testament to how unaffordable the total amounts are for most people under any kind of reasonable repayment system.

Secondly, and most importantly, the internal logic of the argument is barmy. If followed through it can only lead, somehow, to the strange Orwellian position where members of a party who used to oppose all fees end up arguing that the higher the fee, the more progressive. Afterall, given repayment rates are linked to salary rather than the amount owed, and apparently it's the absolute amount paid back by different earners that matters to Graeme, why stop at £9k per year fees? Why not raise them to £10k, £12k, £18k, for instance? That way, lower earners (student A above) will hit the 30 year limit at the same amount paid, but top earners (student B) will end up paying even more in absolute terms to the Treasury. I'm sure Universities would welcome the investment, too!

The answer is, or should be, because fees that high will likely deter people from applying to University in the first place. And that's my point: Graeme's entire argument is the definition of looking down the wrong end of the telescope. It is based on the faulty pre-supposition that "...the headline figure [of debt] is of zero relevance to the majority of graduates, for whom repayment matters". Most research shows this is rubbish, especially when it comes to kids from working class backgrounds.

Whatever way those defending the Coalition's changes spin it and blame the NUS/Labour (delete as applicable) for confusing prospective students, the headline fee of money owed will always matter under a loan system. People will always be able to tot it up beforehand, and they will always consider it debt - even if the repayment system is structured differently. The scale of the sum will always be weighed up against the perceived benefits - and indeed the Government's whole marketised language around fees being an 'investment' encourages this. The higher the fee, the more working class parents will likely come down on the side of discouraging their kids from going to University - especially those more prone to ambivalence because there is no family history of individuals going to University, which is a lot of them.

To my mind a proper graduate tax (with lots of caveats and strings attached which I won't go on about now) is the only way to avoid or limit this, outside of funding HE entirely through general taxation. But unlike Graeme's post, Miliband's proposals are based on the right assumption - that headline amounts matter in terms of attracting students, and cutting it is therefore a slight improvement on the Coalition's plans if ultimately unambitious, and a retreat from his previous position.

As for many of the others citing Graeme's post approvingly, burying their head in such minutiae seems like just the latest attempt to avoid seeing the wider picture, and the horrific Tory cuts that form its backdrop.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Labour's 50p test

Little blog I wrote during the week but forgot to put up! Also on Labour List.
Labour's 50p test

Rarely have two-a-half pages of A4 attracted as much vitriol as Shaun Woodwards recently leaked memo. ‘Naïve’ and ‘suicidal’ were two of the nicer things said of Woodward, who suggested Labour could make headway in arguing that the Conservatives have abandoned the centre ground in favour of “major strides back towards their ideological roots”. But what if, on one issue at least, he has a point?

This week's letter to the FT from economists calling for a cut in the top rate of tax has not come out of nowhere. Pick up almost any edition of the Evening Standard or Times this summer and briefed across nearly every dispatch from Westminster you'll see George Osborne laying the ground for scrapping the 50p rate. 'It raises no money', 'it's anti-growth' and 'it drives away business' have lead the way in terms of Treasury explanations so far.

As ever, though, the Chancellor's main motive is probably political – he thinks that it'll divide the Labour party, and unfortunately he may be right. Ever since its introduction, the 50p tax has been a shibboleth for some of those on the right of the party agitating that Labour are positioning themselves as too left wing or ‘anti-aspiration’. In the last 10 months alone, Alan Johnson has gone renegade and said it should be scrapped, while Blair himself made his opposition clear. Then there’s ‘friends’ of David Miliband who, at the height of uncertainty of his brother’s leadership in Spring, helpfully whispered to the Mail: “David thinks taxes are too high. He would have pledged to repeal the 50 pence top rate of tax. He opposes the top rate tax because it sends out all the wrong signals to the business community.”

But on this issue the Tories, and those who would wish to ape them, are way out of step with the public. Poll after poll show voters of all stripes vehemently against cutting tax for the top 1%. YouGov found that 59% of people oppose the move, with even 50% of Conservative voters against it (23% strongly). 57% told ComRes that abolishing the 50p rate would show we’re not “all in this together”. This is hardly surprising. Those who think the 50p tax is ‘anti-aspiration’ simply haven’t grasped how our politics have changed in the last fifteen years. Not only are people now feeling squeezed by stagnating wages, government cuts and tax rises, but the hugely disproportionate gains made by the most wealthy have left a huge gulf between the middle and the top. Most voters can not even countenance earning over £150,000 a year.

Notwithstanding the moral case against cutting the 50p rate in times like these, the economic arguments for abolishing it are entirely without foundation. There is not a jot of evidence in today’s FT letter to support accusations that the rate is deterring investment. It is all supposition. In fact, as Touchstone have argued, all attempts thus far by the right to argue the 50p tax drives away business have been based on flimsy surveys and outdated assumptions. As for the amount it raises, current Treasury estimates (being reviewed by HMRC at the Chancellor’s behest) suggest the top rate will bring in £12.6bn. That not an irrelevant sum of money. In fact the true figure may even be higher than the estimates, based as they are on old Treasury models. Duncan Weldon has also argued that there are grounds to believe the rate was behind the 18% increase in tax revenue in January from the year before.

One of the main reasons growth is flat is because consumer confidence has gone down the toilet since last year. And it's the government's austerity rhetoric, combined with underlying wage stagnation, that has driven it there, with cuts compounding the misery. The idea that the solution to our ills is to shovel more money in the direction of the rich is zombie economics. It’s a policy without any grounding, far to the right of where the British people are, based on outdated Westminster parlor games and failed neoliberal dogma. And it’s imperative that all those on the centre-left say so with one voice.

There will be some on the Labour side who will worry that the public will only hear a ‘tax cutting’ message from the Tories, regardless of the details. But if Labour sticks united to its message in opposing this move then it will help entrench public feeling that this is a tax cut for the richest at a time when everyone else is hurting. It will call the Tories bluff and leave them standing as the party whose first priority is to cut at the top to the detriment of everybody else, exposing them as something much of the public have always suspected: the party of privilege. From there, Labour could shift the debate towards relieving the tax burden on those on low and middle incomes. But all this requires cohesion and unity, from all ranks of the party – no jittery dogwhistle politics or off the record briefings.

Labour did this effectively before the last election on Tory proposals to raise the inheritance tax threshold. In putting aside misplaced anxiety about being seen to wage ‘class war’ and facing the Tories down on the policy, they successfully turned it from an idea they were initially too afraid to do anything but mimic into a commitment Cameron couldn't spend enough time running away from.

Above all, then, the 50p debate is a test for Ed Miliband. As it stands the Lib Dems will likely waive the cut through in exchange for concessions elsewhere, leaving the Tories with a free run at imposing what would be one of the most unjust economic moves of modern times. If Miliband believes the 50p rate should stay and that it should be permanent, he should have the courage to say so: firmly, loudly and consistently, facing down all those in his party who state otherwise. If he really believes it’s a “matter of fairness”, he should hold it up as one and run with it. No half measures.

Unfortunately, his first PMQs after the summer break was not promising – the Labour leader could easily have raised poor growth and pointed out that the Tories only solution is a tax cut for Britain’s wealthiest 350,000 people. He could have exploited coalition tensions on the issue. Instead, he ducked it. Miliband and the people around him have made a point of telling everyone that the party can help shape the ‘new centre ground’ which New Labour ignored; his aides are constantly briefing journalists that he admires ‘The Spirit Level’ and such like. But words alone are not enough – on the 50p rate, he urgently needs to match them with action.

Friday, 5 August 2011

A review of 'Chavs: the demonization of the working class' by Owen Jones

Also on Left Central
At the bottom of Leeds city centre, opposite the coach station, is St Peter’s Building. For most of the twentieth century it was home to a factory at the heart of the cities' thriving textile industry. Today it's the sort of two-a-penny bar and nightclub with granite surfaces, awkward stools and food served on wooden platters that you see on every British high street. Just the buildings tatty exterior and piping - purposefully left in place as sort of retro-industrial chic – serve to remind you of its past glories. Like most of the British economy over the last thirty years, St Peter's, or 'The Wardrobe' as it's now called, has gone from industry to service sector.

But could you call the people that work in The Wardrobe today – wait the tables, man the back office, mop the floors – working class, just as you could those that toiled in the same building a generation before? The obvious answer under any standard definition is yes: they have nothing to sell but their labour in order to survive. Yet despite Britain being dominated by these kind of jobs – blue-collar manual and routine clerical white collar jobs make up over half the workforce* - a recent poll showed 71% of us consider ourselves middle class, despite previous polls indicating the opposite. “You could be forgiven for thinking”, as Owen Jones puts it in Chavs: the demonization of the working class, “that there is an identity crisis going on”.

It's this crisis, of what it means to be working class in 2011, that is ultimately at the heart of Jones' debut book. He essentially argues that Britain's political and media class have conspired to misrepresent and “obscure the reality of the working class majority” through a prolonged and surreptitious class war, of which the 'Chav' caricature is the ultimate expression.

Jones opens by taking aim at the snobbery and hypocrisy that has linked public discussion of topics ranging from Shannon Matthews, Vicky Pollard and the recipients of welfare benefits. All have been used to misrepresent, or redefine, working class identity in popular imagination to mean feckless or just poor, he argues. Along the way, Jones myth-busts in a devastatingly simple way – only one in fifty single mothers, for instance, is actually under 18, while just 3.4% of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more.

Jones is convincing here, but were this to constitute the whole of Chavs it would be an earnest but unfulfilling affair, the only fruit of which would probably be to rule the particular word 'out of bounds' without any deeper discussion of why.

Thankfully Jones drills down in to the subject, and it's the second half of Chavs which takes it from being a good book to a brilliant one. Jones shifts focus from the 'broad brushing' of the working class to the airbrushing – the idea that they no longer really exist. This goes to the root of a narrative that has stitched together conventional political wisdom in British politics for nearly thirty years. This, briefly summarised, goes as follows: Thatcher-era reforms liberated the working class to be aspirational; many became upwardly mobile and joined the middle classes, with just a new underclass 'left behind' – a tiny workshy rump too feckless or 'excluded' (depending on your preference for Tory or New Labour vogue) to pull themselves up or aspire. In sum, we're 'all middle class now'.

While the chav caricature feeds the confusion over what it means to be working class in 2011, to my mind the argument that both have their roots in the dominance of this narrative is the most convincing. Who would want to identify as working class when it is synonymous with failure? Why have anything but contempt for those who have not 'bettered' themselves despite all the opportunities and others supposedly doing likewise? Add in the trappings of traditional middle class lifestyles (e.g consumer goods, foreign holidays, easy credit) becoming cheaper and you can see how some convinced themselves they were on the way up as the world changed around them.

Yet the idea that 'we're all middle class now' is, objectively, complete bullshit, and Jones is at his most fluent when he is pointing out why, arguing that Britain is actually “a nation of secretaries, shop assistants and admin workers” whose true lives receive no true political or media representation, falling as it does between both the 'Chav rump' and 'new middle class' myths.

And despite a slither of new entrants into the AB social classes from below since the 80s, and popular rhetoric on aspiration, the UK's inter-generational social mobility has for a long time been weak while the share of annual growth going to the bottom half in wages has declined. Jones' point that by “putting emphasis on escaping [working class] jobs rather than improving their conditions, we end up disqualifying those who remain in them” is therefore all the more powerful.

But what has changed is the nature of those jobs. There may be one million people working in call centres, as many as manned the pits at the peak of mining in the 1940s (one of the books most eye-popping statistics), but as Jones documents in compelling and often moving detail, the working environment they face is a world away from the one it proceeded. Modern day working class workplaces are not the centre of the community in the same way, the work more transient and insecure, often woefully paid, the workforce even less homogeneous - with the generational, gender and nationality make up entirely different. Throw in the rise of identity politics and what Jones calls “rugged individualism”, as well as the neoliberal assault on trade unionism, and the capacity for fostering a new collective, shared identity for Britain's modern day working class is massively diminished.

To be fair to Jones (a proud trade unionist), he is frank about the realities he describes, confessing the impossibility of turning the clock back on the makeup of Britain's working class. But you can't help but feel that while class should never again be allowed to disappear from our lexicon, the term 'working class' is just too loaded - with clothcap imagery from the 70s/80s, the old economy, a largely white, male and non-graduate workforce - to be resuscitated as a call to mobilisation.

But what could fill its place? Some have suggested “hard-working classes” might do the trick, or “working people” - but even when they don't sound overly focused grouped (which they do), there is still a risk definitions will become so vague as to leave us right back where we started: a wideboy banker telling Jones that “Why aren't I working class? I work, don't I?” One opening is to focus on the bottom 50% of earners currently seeing the benefits of growth trickling through to their annual pay packet decline in real terms while the top 10% increases, or even 'the squeezed middle' (as i've gone on about before). That would at least put wages back on the table as something to coalesce around. Yet still it nags that there is more to identity than crude materialism – in some senses 'what is working class today?' is just a rephrasing of 'what is English?'. And that is a whole other 294 pages.

The sheer nature of the way Britain's economy has changed makes answering these questions a tall order, and, accordingly, at times Jones seems a bit conflicted over whether he just wants proper representation of the working class as they exist today, and whether he wants to re-shape the very nature of it through industrial policy, for instance. Nevertheless, on the whole Jones' thoughtful policy prescriptions are a good place to start, if not end, the debate.

New Labour also presents its own problems. While being no great fan myself, at times it feels like Jones is a little over-personal in his critique of 'the project'. New Labourites are mostly portrayed as mendacious, scornful and generally neglectful of the people their party was formed to represent. While there's no doubt that New Labour cemented the 'we're all middle class now' myth at the heart of the chav caricature, in their case this had its first principles in an electoral judgement: a psephological argument later broadened out to a sociological one in search of self-justification. A small group of marginal voters won you elections, it was decided, and you had to focus your message on them - these small handful of marginal voters often tended to be that over-exaggerated portion of the 'upwardly mobile' working class, mostly in marginal southern constituencies like Hove, where I grew up (in fact my Dad was, and still is, one of those swing voters).

While that rested on a fallacy Jones exposes - that your 'core' vote will always turn out, hence Labour's haemorrhaging of DE voters – it remains the case that Labour still needs those southern marginals to win, it cannot do it on DE vote alone and the nature of the C1 vote there is different to much of the rest of the country, even if they are now suffering the squeeze along with most others. In lieu of electoral reform (which Jones opposes), this does seem to necessitate some positioning away from the democratic socialist purity Jones favours. Indeed at times Chavs, like a lot on the left, does wilfully ignore some of the bigger picture, such as globalisation, which long before Thatcher started squeezing wages and bankrupting industry – St Peter's factory in Leeds actually closed in the 60s; it's easy for all of us to be nostalgic for the post-war settlement.

But this would to be overly harsh. Jones is that unique thing, a sensible and talented left-wing radical, and Chavs is an excellent book, essential to understanding contemporary British history. While it could possibly lose some of its more baggy, pop sociology sections (an analysis of the Kaiser Chiefs' I Predict a Riot! seemed a bit far), those serve as an accessible hook for non-political nerds, allowing Jones to kickstart a vital debate outside the usual Guardian or New Left Review Circles.

It also benefits from great timing. The bottom has fallen out of Labour's electoral coalition, and the old models of growth and prosperity have broken. Ultimately, political and media elites are going to have to wake up to what Britain is really like in 2011, and rapidly update their ways of thinking. They should start by reading Chavs.

Chavs is published by Verso (£14.99). You can buy it here.

*This stat is taken frompage 33.Its original source is here.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The News of the World crisis highlights Cameron's flaws

New post, also on LabourList.


Around the time of the financial meltdown three years ago, a snappy little phrase imported from America found its way into common political parlance in Britain: "Never let a good crisis go to waste", it was said. The scandal that has engulfed News International and the Metropolitan Police may not be on par with the financial crisis, but it is a crisis nonetheless: a crisis of the media, but also a crisis of public trust and standards. And David Cameron is not having a good crisis.

At almost every turn since the Guardian's initial revelations a week ago, Cameron has been playing catch up on this debacle. At Prime Minister's Questions, he complacently thought just announcing an inquiry was enough - failure to be stronger on Brooks, on Coulson and on BSkyB put him on the wrong side of the story, and he has remained there ever since. To have the Six O'Clock news, at the height of the revelations, lead with the Prime Minister's face next to Coulson and Brookes was disastrous, and yet all that followed from him were excuses and equivocations.

For someone with supposedly such a well tuned political antenna to not better - and sooner - link it up to a wider failure of press standards, ownership and regulation was painfully flat footed. It's no surprise that Cameron's attempt at robust talk since rings extremely hollow. Despite the slow drip of new developments over the last year, Cameron has failed to see the bigger picture.

As a result, for the first time, mud is starting to stick to the man once dubbed 'Teflon Dave', as awkward press conferences and the polling since Wednesday has shown. And once PMs start to out of touch, they are in real trouble.

But it's not the first time Cameron has failed to grasp the wider significance of events, or been blown this way and that in the face of a major crisis. In the wake of the credit crunch he and Osborne opposed both the nationalisation of Northern Rock and the UK's fiscal stimulus; out of step with the public every bit of the way and unaware of the gravity of what was unfolding, they were left merely commenting on events as Lehman collapsed.

What that spoke to and what the last week has once again served to highlight, is that at heart Cameron is a fundamentally shallow politician. Never without a copy of Blair's memoirs close to hand, his instincts have been formed from a superficial analysis of the last 15 years of political orthodoxy - stick to a fixed centre ground, don't rattle the cages of the rich and powerful, keep the tabloids onside at all cost. Leaders with a deeper understanding of political history would have sensed last week that the plates had shifted - but Cameron didn't, and the ground opened up beneath him

Ed Miliband may not be as slick, but he is a more substantial intellect. For all his faults, he was aware enough to know that the rules of the game had changed, and that he had an opportunity to shape new ones. He recognised that the sheer extent of public revulsion meant an endorsement from News International would never again carry the weight it once did. All the while Cameron was trying to prop up the old media settlement long after circumstance had permitted, vainly continuing triangulate in a belief he could please both Murdoch and the public.

As David Miliband once wrote (ironically given his own fate eventually owed to something similar): "[Cameron] may be likable and sometimes hard to disagree with, but he is empty. He is a politician of the status quo...not change."

Acknowledging it properly would mean appreciating that Cameron is most effectively understood and depicted not as an opportunist or radical per se (Osborne was always the more unashamedly Thatcherite), but weak and out of touch, visionless, chasing public opinion not leading it - a mere projection of his and his party's vested interests.

More immediately, a large majority of voters - of all parties - think Murdoch's BSkyB bid should be derailed. For Cameron to continue to have a tin ear to this shows potentially lethal distance between him and the British public on a question which is ultimately one of values around fair play and unaccountable power. It's the same story in other areas of government - he seems increasingly wrong footed for instance by the lack of appetite for 'choice' or 'people power' as an end in itself in the NHS, or the scale of revulsion at bankers bonuses.

We live in tumultuous times - it's not 1996 or 2006 anymore, but at times Cameron seems stuck there. Britain is not about to be convulsed in revolution, but the News of the World scandal will not be the last time in this parliament that old institutions and old certainties (political and economic) are thrown into disarray and the Prime Minister is called upon to think about things in fresh ways. In failing to keep up, Cameron runs the risk of being trampled underfoot.

With his confident swagger and New Labour playbook, he may occasionally convince us he is born to rule - and he remains a very able politician. But the last week has given us a flash of Cameron's vulnerabilities and weaknesses as a leader - he is, you could say, a print politician in a digital age.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

The importance of the 'squeezed middle'

Here's a post i've written over at Compass.
The importance of the squeezed middle

Tony Benn once observed that:

“It's the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.”

So it is, in slightly less grandiose terms, with Ed Miliband and the ‘squeezed middle’.

Much mocked by opponents, journalists and even colleagues (whispers from the Labour right of a ‘core vote’ strategy) when he first emerged wielding the term last autumn, the squeezed middle is now a settled part of Westminster lexicon. It is also one of the few Labour dictums of the last year that has managed to successfully make the journey from Portcullis House to the consciousness of ordinary voters.

One reason for that is that the facts bear it out. Yesterday’s IFS report showed that those in the 2nd lowest income decile have experienced the highest average inflation over the last ten years. These findings take their place in a long line of evidence showing that low-to-middle income earners (defined by the brilliant Resolution Foundation as between the 2nd and 5th income deciles or e.g a couple with no kids earning between £12,000-30,000) have borne the brunt of both the recession and the Tories austerity package. But as the IFS data suggest, this is only part of the picture. The fundamental problem pre-dates the recession: as the Resolution Foundation recently showed, median wages were actually stagnating even in the good years (2003-2008), before falling in the wake of a financial crisis that ended the easy credit which had been masking the entire phenomenon. Overall, real median wages flatlined in the last eight years and it’s estimated that even by 2015 they will still be lower than they were in 2001.

Miliband has shown astute awareness of these facts, but it’s only one of a number of themes he has courted. Contrary to what some are allegedly arguing in the Shadow Cabinet, he should relentlessly pursue it, grab hold of it and put it on centre stage. Time and again he should hammer away on this; tailor it to every press release on the economy, shape it to every sound bite, public visit and question to Cameron in the Commons. It’s both good and expedient politics for him and the Labour party, for a number of reasons.

Short term

Firstly, ‘Squeezed middle’ voters cut across working and middle classes, as well as varying parts of the country. Miliband has been criticised for refusing to choose between picking off ex-Lib Dems (particularly in the north) and focusing on southern, ‘soft’ Conservative voters. But honing in on low-to-middle earners, at least, bears that strategy out: they not only make up the bulk of voters in the north, but the recent Southern Discomfort Again polling shows they also “hold the key to Labour’s recovery in Southern England”. 41% and 47% of floating voters polled in Southern and Midlands marginals respectively say they are not confident they have enough money to make ends meet.

This doesn’t eliminate need for a credible fiscal policy or tough choices. The Southern Discomfort polling suggests that concern about personal finances has entangled itself with perceived poor value for money in public services, hollowing out Labour’s economic credibility – the debate around the deficit seems to have fed in to these concerns rather than it standing alone per se in swing voters’ minds. As such any squeezed middle ‘narrative’ would likely have to be accompanied by some instinctively uncomfortable noises on spending/efficiency in public services. But it would get Miliband consistently talking about people’s back pockets in a grounded and recognisable way while the government stretches itself thin over NHS reform or Libya.

Critics could argue that Miliband recently gave a speech on low to middle income living standards (where he launched a Commission), and the press reaction was lukewarm to say the least. Fair enough. But the big problem there seemed to be a lack of policy to hang it on: a few practical nuggets tailored to people’s specific needs would give it far more sense of direction and stop it becoming too broad or abstract. Some suggestions, alongside the living wage, would be a focus on building family accommodation to rent with secure tenancies (as proposed by Gavin Kelly) or even a cut in the basic rate of income tax (if he could stand the figures up).

Secondly, although – if pushed - Miliband shouldn’t be afraid to be drawn on specific income brackets, because of the way the ‘squeezed middle’ has been explained (i.e those not rich enough to be comfortable but not poor enough to receive help from the state) it has the advantage of a dual message: it can also appeal to anyone who’s ever felt that they give more to the system than they get out, which (rightly or wrongly) is quite a lot. That’s why 48% of people polled think “when Miliband talks about the ‘squeezed middle’ he is talking about people like me and my family”. On this issue then, he has the public’s ear. He should take advantage now.

Long term

In the long term though, the nature of flatlining median wages promises to challenge a number of assumptions underpinning our politics. As the Resolution Foundation show, it seems to be happening in the context of a decoupling of ‘growth from gain’ widespread in Anglo-Saxon economies; that is, although our economy grew it didn’t trickle through to increased median wages (as displayed by labour’s falling share of proceeds and productivity v. median male wages). However, it has benefited those at the top in a massively disproportionate way – they have accelerated away relative to the middle while the gap between the middle and bottom has only slightly increased.

This threatens to completely re-configure ‘aspiration’ as a whole generation of politicians has understood it. It is commonly held that lower income voters don’t like overly progressive taxing of the top or talk of (in)equality because they believe they will reach the dizzy heights themselves one day. With the top so far out of reach in 2011, that now seems far more unlikely – and people know it. The Southern Discomfort data again displays this:

“In 1992, ‘floating’ voters were aspirant and upwardly mobile. Today, they are far more cautious about their own prospects, prioritising security and a better future for their children."

The point, then, is no longer to understand why (as in New Labour folklore) floating southern voters ‘want to build a conservatory’, but why they can no longer afford to do so. This is an opening for Miliband to re-shape the centre ground. First things first: stand firm on the 50p top rate of tax, maybe even think about suggesting it starts a few notches lower (to finance that cut to the bottom rate of income tax perhaps!).

On the substance, however, the truth is redistribution will only mitigate the effects of the squeeze on wages – as New Labour’s tax credits did, for instance. If Miliband is to engage with the ‘squeezed middle’ and not over-promise, he has to meet the biggest long-term intellectual challenge of them all: changing the very structure of Britain’s economy and its relationship with globalisation, in order to tackle issues of inequality and wages further upstream. Contrary to mythology, growth driven by financial services has not benefited all. A shift to proper investment in green technologies, industry and infrastructure (as advocated by Dieter Helm) along with mutual ownership and wider union involvement might be a good place to start.

Finally, in the short and long term, a focus on the squeezed middle whacks the Tories right between the shoulder blades. For one, it is an article of neo-liberal faith for them that a rising tide lifts all boats – that is where they will think they can deal with this issue. But at this rate, even if growth does recover, a lot of people may not feel it; if he lays the ground right, Miliband might still be able to turn round in 2015 and effectively ask, a la Reagan: “Are you better off now than you were five years ago?”, or “Do these people really run the economy for you?”

The extent of Miliband’s engagement with the ‘squeezed middle’ thus far tells the story of his leadership: encouraging and perceptive in the abstract, but in urgent need of development. It is an idea whose time has come – to pick it up and drop it, or fade it in or out, at Miliband’s choosing would be to do it a great disservice. The Labour leader is on to a winner – but does he know it?

Saturday, 14 May 2011

One year on from Brown’s Citizens UK speech

Gordon Browns’ eve-of-election speech in May 2010 to Citizens UK was easily the best of his premiership, and must rank among the best in his career. Fiery, crusading and sincere it was a brief glimpse of the brilliance that the faithful always told us disbelievers was there. Had the preceding years not been so different and so the election result quite as catastrophic, it would easily be seen as one of the defining political speeches of recent times. As it was, its one year anniversary passed by completely unnoticed last week. In fact, the speech doesn’t even feature in Steve Richard’s totemic history of Brown, Whatever It Takes. But I think it’s worth taking a look at again, as it suggests a few things: about Brown, his party – yes, but also centre-left government in general.

On a purely technical level the speech is pretty exemplary. It builds momentum and a sense of urgency with rhetorical tricks such as triple repetition (a la Thatcher’s "No, No, No" or Blair’s "weak, weak, weak"): "When people say…when people say…when people say"; "you will always find in me a friend, a partner, a brother" and so on. The quick but consistent pace at which it moves means the past (civil rights, anti-apartheid), the present (living wage, Obama) and the personal (Brown’s family) are effortlessly woven together where it’s so easy to get it wrong and look crass or opportunist – ask Ed Miliband after his TUC address.

These are all age-old devices, but the reason they work for Brown is because the delivery feels so genuine and passionate - confident but not choreographed or staggered in the way so many political speeches are these day, no inbuilt pauses for applause or for focused grouped soundbites to sink in. Brown subsequently achieves what most modern politicians can only dream of: to appear ‘on our side’, to be inspiring, even poetic - to deliver a political sermon in a very secular age. It’s a testament in my view to Brown’s status as the most fascinating, complicated politician of his generation that this all came from the mouth of the same clunky, emotionally constipated bloke-on-the-telly everyone became used to; "an analogue politician in a digital age" as Cameron once chided him.

But it’s the politics of it which are most interesting to me. Look at the actual words he constantly uses – "fight", "march", "movement", "community". These are all phrases that would give ‘Third Wayers’ and triangulaters a heart attack. They’re also the diametric opposite of the a-political, ‘father of the nation’ image he had been determined to maintain through his premiership. Where previously Brown tried to meet the Tories inheritance tax cut half-way, here he clearly denounces it and builds that opposition into his own world view. For proof, compare the different word clouds (I know I should leave the house more) below of this speech and his conference speech just eight months prior, which is instead dominated by the more recognisable and vacuous New Labour touchstones of "change", "new", "choice", a sense of empowerment and place substituted for the more expressionless "country", "Britain", "world" and so on. Both rhetorically and politically, Brown had let go.

Now I know he was very much preaching to the converted with Citizens UK, but I’m not convinced it would put ‘swing voters’ off in the way many may claim – or certainly no more than he already had done so. I think most British people can countenance a bit of aggression and tub-thumping as long as it’s perceived as owing to passion rather than pantomime (think PMQs). Nothing Brown said was too abstract and its underlying moral convictions would be shared by most, I think.

In exact policy terms the speech may have reflected the rather tired nature of Labour’s manifesto, but the section from 6:00-6:49 does have the beginning of a decent narrative on public services: one that goes beyond being transactive/technocratic but also rejects Cameron’s false dichotomy between state and society, by placing government investment and community alongside one another where they belong ("building together, investing…"; "your hospitals, your schools, your children’s centres upon which communities are built").

Finally, there’s a whole generation who came of political consciousness during the fag end of the Blair years who – if, like me, they weren’t born into a Labour family – came to see Labour as the establishment party. Daft I know, but they certainly looked, acted and sounded like it to us at the time. This is just a faint echo of what a new study shows is the biggest problem social democratic parties in Europe face: people simply do not trust them to challenge invested interests anymore. Above all else the success of Brown’s speech, with its insurgent tone on inequality and poverty, shows centre-left parties that just because you’re in government doesn’t mean you have to become synonymous with the establishment, or even make peace with it. You can still be constantly at war with the status quo and constantly campaigning against the forces which make it up – you can still be part of a movement, essentially ("Let’s march, together")*.

Rescuing the standing of social democracy may be the only bigger task than rescuing that of Brown’s – at least we can be pretty sure Brown’s decline has bottomed out. But whatever exact form centre-left renewal ends up taking, it must surely start by trying to resuscitate what briefly sparked into life on that Monday night in South London last May.

Gordon Brown speech to Citizens UK, May 2010

Gordon Brown speech to Labour party conference, September 2009

*Incidentally it’s been noted before that some of Obama’s problems up until recently came from ignoring this: he never defined himself against Wall Street, for instance, even though public opinion permitted him to, he never harnessed his unprecedented campaign resources (and ethos) in government and so on. Anyone more tuned in to US politics than I am these days got any thoughts on this?

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The royal wedding and why Britain needs to grow up

It’s good to know that amid the fawning frenzy that passed for balanced media coverage of Friday’s royal wedding, the 20% of us who identify as republicans did eventually receive some representation in the emerging pictures. The above, now famous image somehow manages to capture our position within the nation perfectly. As the newly-wed couple loom large on the balcony, a wonderfully stroppy looking girl is hunched over at the bottom of the picture, looking like she’s been forced into a dress she didn’t want to wear, covering her ears to block out the hysteria and presumably wanting the whole thing to end as quickly as possible!

To be honest, I think that little girl may have been the most mature person on the mall. It certainly wasn’t a good day to be in that 20%, with near demented levels of celebration accompanied by much dick swinging from the right (e.g here, here and particularly here). Many have asked republicans why we can’t just put the politics to bed for a day and enjoy the spectacle of two people who love each other getting hitched. I can only speak for myself, but for me the frustration goes wider than the celebration of servitude to desiccated, archaic and unelected rule. My bewilderment goes wider still than at just the collective blindspot it seems to represent in the nation’s supposed love of fairness and meritocracy. First and foremost, it’s about an entire conservative establishment given renewed reason for hope.

Our upper chamber in this country is entirely unelected and still contains members there by virtue of bloodline or what god they believe in, our lower chamber is dominated by the executive and elected via a creaking electoral system, and both are governed by impenetrable layers of convention and pomp which determine everything from the daft language members are required to address themselves in to parliamentary procedure itself. Nowhere is there a written constitution codifying limits to executive power or enshrining the political and economic rights citizens can expect to receive.

This has long been past fit for purpose in the 21st century, and is comparable to virtually no other democratic country. It is profoundly undemocratic, elitist and at least contributes to the disaffection with politicians which is such grist to the anti-republican mill (“You don’t want President Blair, do you?” they snort).

But it’s the monarchy which keeps the lid on this whole ludicrous, creaking constitutional arrangement - both formally and discursively. Almost every attempt or suggestion at decent constitutional reforms meets with a status quo patrolled by exactly the same sort of self-satisfied, whimsical bunkem paraded over the last few weeks: what we have is “quirky but peculiarly British”, “it works”, “it’s tradition”, ad nauseum.

The laughable notion that the royals are ‘just like us’, or that Middleton’s ascendency to the aristocracy represents a vindication of social mobility, is also in its own way quietly pernicious. Through personalising the institution it quite obviously masks the unimaginable disparities in wealth and influence between the average member of the royal family and the average Briton, including the Middletons. It also in its own small way serves those who want to bury discussion about similar inequalities in wider society and especially the still resoundingly white, male, upper-middle class nature of our political and legal establishment. We shouldn’t be surprised that wealthy, crusty old twerps like Nicky Haslam have taken to the air since Friday lunchtime to announce, “I hope that the English will now drop this terrible class consciousness about middle class and working class. We’re all commoners except the Royal Family” (26m50s in).

The point here is that the monarchy is a fundamentally political construct. I’m not sure everyone – particularly those in my generation - who celebrated yesterday so fervently entirely understand that; that what they are buying in to when they line the streets for a look at The Dress or flaunt a bit of ‘kitch’ merchandise is not a mere figurehead or a bit of quirky nostalgia, it is an entire political order. Hence the crowing of the right (and that Toby Young piece is worth linking to again as the best example).

It is also an utterly bizarre, outdated view of Britishness. Since when was it British to revel in being a complete anachronism within the democratic world? More to the point, the supposedly ‘positive image’ the monarchy reinforces is only that of us as the curious, crumpet-eating eccentrics popular in American mystique. But since when did this align with most people’s experiences of day-to-day reality in 2011 Britain? And since when was just being seen the same as being taken seriously? There’s an element of tragedy here - of glorifying vessels of our autocratic and imperial past (military uniforms et al) because it mausolates images of a time long gone, a time when we took up a place as the superpower at the front of the world’s stage. It’s like a Brit in America who indulges in stereotype by suddenly developing a far more accentuated, tweed accent than he uses at home, enjoying rather than cringing every time he’s excitedly asked to pronounce “bath” or “city”! It all speaks not to our pride in Britain, but to our lack of confidence.

Isn’t it time we grew up a bit as a nation? Isn’t it time we let go, and brought what it means to be British into the 21st century? There’s so much that we can lay claim to being proud of (the NHS, broadcasting and music, literature) without the need to cling in unashamed deference to a crumpled, archaic and completely insane bunch of aristocrats – or other equally tatty clichés of our heritage - which, in the grand scheme of things, make us look ridiculous and sets back democratic advance.

Maybe I should calm down a bit. Perhaps, as Dan Hodges says, some of us should just relax and learn to pick our battles a little better. But I just can’t help feeling that in a culturally rich, complicated and alert 21st century country, we can do better – that’s all. I’m not angry, Britain, I’m just disappointed.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Humanitarian intervention redux: lessons for Libya from the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq

Humanitarian intervention is fashionable again. Well, not quite. But as events unfold in Libya, the number of commentators suddenly spilling ink over a concept widely presumed buried alongside the dead of Iraq has led many a po-faced columnist and Question Time audience member to ask indignantly: “have we learnt nothing from the last ten years?”

It's something of an unfair line of attack. Throughout the 90s, the idea that states could intervene in situations of “extreme humanitarian emergency” slowly, painstakingly gained legitimacy – though not before thousands had been allowed to die in Rwanda and Bosnia. The culmination of this was NATO's imperfect but timely intervention in Kosovo to stop the slaughter of ethic Albanians at the hands of Slobodan Milosevic's thugs. For many of us the Kosovo war – and later Sierre Leone - shows that intervention genuinely driven by humanitarian objectives is possible in international relations. But by using humanitarian language as a drape for the illegal and illegitimate catastrophe in Iraq - which failed almost every pre-condition for humanitarian intervention ever set out - Blair appeared to have killed dead a doctrine he'd done so much to forge.

Yet strangely much of the debate over no-fly zones in Libya is playing out in an eerily similar way to the coverage and literature surrounding the Kosovo war. Many have asked whether we've entered a strange political time warp. But though it may theoretically be legitimate - as well as altogether more comfortable - for those of us not in principle against humanitarian intervention to dis-entangle Libya from Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be a terrible mistake. It would allow the opposition to claim the last decade for themselves and if replicated by officials lead to significant errors in approach and execution.

Instead we should take from past military successes, learn from past catastrophes and build this in to the really specific set of circumstances before us. While the facts are still being considered in Libya, as Michael Walzer says we should start thinking about what happens if Gaddafi regains control, particularly over Benghazi – as it looks like he will. What if he starts taking revenge on those who have defied him? What if once again we see the systematic extermination of a select portion of the population? If 'humanitarian intervention' in Libya goes ahead, in whatever form, it will be a decisive historical moment for the concept – a chance for resurrection that if squandered or botched would probably prove fatal.

With all this in mind, here's five pieces of advice to be drawn from the recent history of military interventions which should be considered by those advancing the case for a no-fly zone (or more) in Libya.

1. The UN route is vital

Trendy as it is to disparage the UN as useless or dysfunctional, the US brand of unilateralism over Iraq showed that bypassing it nevertheless has massive implications for perceptions of legitimacy. In a region where there is already great (and justified) suspicion of the West, any action in Libya that hasn't received wide international support would be catastrophic. Any half-successful humanitarian intervention in history has been multilateral.

A UN Resolution backing a no-fly zone would obviously be preferable. But it's easy to forget that under a strict interpretation of the UN Charter, the Kosovo war was illegal (the UK and US failed to get a UN Resolution justifying military action owing to the cynical threat of veto from Russia). But crucially, among most scholars of international law the Kosovo war is still judged legitimate, or at least 'not illegal'. This is because of the support the intervention gained from states from a wide variety of regions – a Russian proposed resolution opposing the intervention was roundly defeated by 12-3 – and because a legal norm allowing for intervention in cases of genocide or mass extermination had evolved throughout the 1990s.

The lesson from this experience for Libya is that any attempts to install a no-fly zone must not under any circumstance jettison the UN or international community, even in the event that the threat of veto makes an enabling Resolution impossible. There is a half-way house that is preferable to blind unilateralism. Leading NATO countries should propose a resolution, even if it's rejected, to establish that it is just China and Russia that oppose; they should secure the vocal support of the Arab League, the African Union, explore the possibility of a 'Uniting for Peace' resolution from the General Assembly – draw as many states as possible into the cause, while smoking out the extent of the opposition and their justifying arguments. Ten years ago the idea that sovereignty was sacrosanct had declined significantly, few states felt politically able to use the language of sovereignty regarding states who had turned on their citizens. It'll be interesting to see if and how Iraq and Afghanistan have changed that.

2. The hard left will go berserk, probably best to ignore them.

'Humanitarian' intervention is an anathema to the vast majority of the hard left. Most believe no such thing is possible, given that the structure of international relations/capitalism (take your pick) determines all state behaviour in favour of imperialism, with morality at all times just providing a guise for advancing material interests (i.e, oil). Many of them will pivot their opinion to make sure it maintains the maximum distance from the US in particular, even if this leaves them taking up some quite ludicrous positions. In the Balkans in the 1990s a shameful number (including Chomsky) indulged in the late 20
th century equivalent of Holocaust denial. They claimed among other things that the Srebrenica and Racak massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo respectively were invented or exaggerated by the West to justify intervention, that hey! these things happen in wars anyway and Milosevic was just a big cuddly bear*. Fittingly, Diane Johnstone (whose work on Kosovo was among the worst examples of such filth) has recently penned an article making
many of the same accusations about Libya. Expect more of this. More intellectual acrobatics and more revisionism. If Gaddafi escalates the massacre of his own people as he reasserts control, the question that has to be levelled back at John Pilger and the like is this: do you think the international community should just sit by? If so, fine, but face up to it. The West is anything but perfect, but sitting on the sidelines and opining about the structural iniquities in global power isn't much comfort to those being slaughtered.

3. All or nothing thinking is useless

“Well if we intervene in Libya, why not Zimbabwe or North Korea?” may sound like a clever line but it isn't - and it shouldn't be pandered to by those in favour of intervening. The reputation of humanitarian intervention in the 90s and R2P beyond that suffered from the at times almost messianic tone of its supporters - talk of a “new world order” and so on. 'No-fly zones' and the like are imperfect, practical, piecemeal interventions that should be considered on a case by case basis and weighed against wider repercussions (in the case of North Korea, nuclear war!). They do not herald a new era of world government where all is harmonious, universal and consistent. Intervention will always be a political art. It will always be messy and selective, based around old colonial ties, geographical proximity or public affinity with one group of people in light of specific events filtered through the usual partial media lens' – accept it. It doesn't make humanitarian intervention a worthless concept, but it will always be shaped by the subjectivities of the most powerful states and their publics. The question must therefore always be: what are the motivations of the states involved? Do geopolitics outway genuine humanitarian concern?

It's worth adding that by genuine humanitarian concern, of course, William Hague is not and should not be expected to be a paragon of selflessless and virtue. International relations is a cynical business, afterall. But history (especially of the Balkans) shows domestic pressure and the political anxiety – in the age of wall to wall 24 hour media – of being seen to have innocent people slaughtered on 'your watch' can spur genuine humanitarian action divorced from covert grabs for land or oil, or any of the other old 'realist' explanations of state action. Again, this will have to do. It's evidence of overwhelming ulterior motive we should be looking for, not altruism.

4. Can we do good? What are the limits of our power?

Rory Stewart's book
Occupational Hazards is among the best of all the literature dedicated to post-mortem of the disastrous Iraq war. His day-to-day account of life as
Deputy Governorate Co-Ordinator of Maysan province in the initial years after the invasion carries one important theme: that the US and the UK were intervening in a highly complex political eco-system that they did not understand and were not welcome in. No amount of reading T.E Lawrence, flexible military tactics “or giving lollipops to children” would ever change that fundamental weakness, he says. NATO has the same struggle in Afghanistan. Even in more welcoming circumstance in Kosovo, NATO were left red-faced by the slightly 'off message' (to say the least) actions of the Kosovo Liberation Army they had intervened to support (revenge attacks on Serbs, general crime and corruption).

The point we should take from all this is one of humility. Do the UK, US and France in particular understand the complex web of tribes, allegiances and agendas in which they are embroiling themselves in Libya? Do they have an idea how their intervention will change that dynamic? Do they understand 'the rebels' they are supporting, or even Libyan civil society (in so far as it exists)? Are we 100% sure of the facts on the ground?

Neither should we assume that a no-fly zone will be effective - the initial raids on Serbia were not. What if Gaddfi, as the Serbs did, actually escalate ground violence against civilians and rebel forces? Are the US and UK willing to start an air-campaign 'down town'? If so, innocent civilians will almost certainly get caught in the cross-fire and die. These are all things that should weigh heavily on the minds of advocates of intervention. Humanitarian intervention is war, war isn't glorious. We cannot bomb our way to utopia, we can only aim for the least worst – and bloody – outcome.

All of which, paradoxically, brings us to...

No more 'virtual war'

Interventions in the 1990s were severely restricted by, in the words of Michael Ignatieff, the tendency to “talk the language of ultimate cause while practising the art of minimum risk”. If we are going to intervene, it has got to be done properly and it has got to represent a lasting mulitlateral commitment. The bombs dropped on Belgrade in 1999 during the initial NATO campaign were done so from such a ludicrous height, in order to minimise the risk to the pilots, that they proved completely counter intuitive. By virtue of the task at hand, intervening forces will have to be put at risk for anything they do to be effective. Again, something that should at all times be considered by pro-interventionists.
There is also a lesson for Cameron among all this. Media and public opinion is fickle. The groundswell of US media pressure and public support for intervention in Somalia in the 1990s soon went sour once US lives started to be lost – the 'CNN effect' turned into the 'body bag effect'. He may be enjoying the role of an international leader, but things will get difficult and because he will have tied his reputation to the outcome, pressure will mount to almost unbearable levels (Alastair Campbell says the Kosovo campaign was the most testing moment of New Labour's first term – at one point Blair's entourage were even convinced it would break the government). Any intervention cannot be a half hearted affair, and the moment the first allied plane takes off, Cameron has got to see it through no matter the political damage back home. The coalition of political support behind any intervention in Libya will likely be fragile and Gaddafi will feed off any weakness, as Milosevic did - any vacillations could prove disastrous.

*For anyone interested in a proper debunking of revisionist rubbish over Kosovo and a discussion of its implications, here are two useful links: