Saturday, 29 September 2012

The 'modernisers' of British politics are in retreat

Post for Shifting Grounds. Hopi Sen wrote an interesting response on his blog here.

The 'modernisers' of British politics are in retreat

Since the summer reshuffle, a lot of discussion has been devoted to the right-ward shift of the Conservative party. As Stewart Wood writes, the Tories detoxification strategy seems like a “distant memory”.

But arguably the fading of the Cameron project is just one piece of a broader picture, which is the fall from grace of a sub-sect within the political class which once reigned supreme in all parties: the so-called ‘moderniser’.
It is rarely noted that inside the three three main parties sit a relatively small group of people – advisors, MPs, lobbyists mostly – who have far more in common with one another than their own respective party faithful. Their views are distinguished by a metropolitanism and social liberalism. They are intensely relaxed over gay marriage and women’s rights, but also the filthy rich and the City; supportive of public services but besotted with ‘reform’ defined by marketisation; mildly redistributionist but sharers of a faith that increased tax on higher incomes hits aspiration, that the British middle class starts at sixty-grand a year and the working class has been replaced by an underclass. An unswerving commitment to flexible labour markets is likely to make them uncomfortable with anxiety over immigration, while crime is usually addressed through depoliticized phrases like ‘social exclusion’ or ‘problem families’.
As Julian Astle perceptively notes, in one of the few articles written on them, this group will tend to give different emphasis to these views depending on their respective party’s historical weaknesses. Most importantly of all, though, they position and define themselves by a battle with their own more provincial party base.
And for years they won out. This is what came to capture the essence of ‘Blairism’ and many Blairites within the Labour party by the late 1990s. Success at the polls meant their agenda framed British political debate practically unchallenged. Despite ousting Blair himself, ultimately Brown and the people around him couldn’t carve out an alternative to a zeitgeist still going strong within the party and in media circles.
That Cameron came to pick up the Blairite playbook is well known by now; the huskies, the pledges on public spending and overseas aid, the commitment to gay rights and a more open approach to Europe – all key components of the Cameroon project. What is less appreciated is that in retrospect the ascendency of Clegg and co. at the top of the Liberal Democrats was just another variation on a theme, as he moved his party away from the ‘soft leftism’ of Charles Kennedy towards this more fashionable centre. Out went taxing income to better fund public services and opposition to marketisation, in came greater focus on taxing property and pollution, on free schools and on aridly defined ‘fairness’ within existing budgets. Both Cameron and Clegg kept red meat for their base, but their direction of travel became clear enough.
Now, though, it’s a very different story. The Cameron set are well and truly in retreat, ‘in office but not in power’ as the old saying goes. The resignation of Louise Mensch (a politician quietly liked by trendy triangulating types within the other two parties) and emigration of Steve Hilton comes as the Tories prioritise brutal spending cuts and slash tax for millionaires, all the while stalling on gay marriage and trashing any green credentials they once had. Clegg is more secure – the Lib Dems are less factional than commonly thought – but even he has had to tack back towards proposing higher taxes on the rich, and speculation persists that he’ll be ditched for the more leftish Tim Farron.
Meanwhile, the defeat of David Miliband, the departure of Alan Johnson for Ed Balls and the dominance of the likes of Tom Watson has drastically reduced the influence of Blairites or ‘Third Wayers’ over the direction of Labour. This is the real stupidity of the recent GMB motion to ban Progress. Their formal power within the party has never been weaker. The soft-left totally dominate strategy, policy and often selections. And if we can’t make the most of that ascendency, then we have only ourselves to blame, not nonsense conspiracies about plots or coups.
Indeed, there is an opportunity to forge a new consensus amid the rubble of the old one. The old modernising consensus has fallen from favour in all three parties mostly because its playbook was forged at a time when the basic questions of political economy were settled. In this respect, it was broadly in tune with public opinion. But the financial crash and the decline in living standards has incinerated most of those assumptions, and meant the old agenda satisfies neither party rank and file nor voters. Public opinion is much more volatile and harder to capture than before (increased anger at bankers, the rich and inequality but also – sadly – recipients of welfare). It is this which explains what Rafael Behr laments as “the hollow centre of British politics”.
As both Behr and Wood argue, the Tory right has sensed this gap too. They are pushing on with increasingly bold and frightening agenda to plug it. Unlike Brown, Ed Miliband has proved he can operate effectively outside the old ‘modernising’ formula – he has not pointlessly picked fights with his base nor felt the need to match Tory policy or indulge in huskie style stunts.
But there is still a sense of caution to him at times – he recognises the moment British politics finds itself in, but seems reticent to fully follow through on its implications. For the first time as leader, he and the people around him head into conference this week without any real threat, as a chunk of his critics find themselves in the wilderness or fighting their own internal battles. That space needs to be used to match bold critique with bold policy. There may never be a better chance.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Dover – A chance to put theory into practice…?

Piece for LabourList

The Labour party has not agreed on much since 2010. Understandably following such a long stint in power, a lot of time has been spent contesting ‘lessons learned’ and ‘where to from now’. One area where there has been broad agreement, though, is on the virtue of Co-ops, mutuals and other community-based models of ownership. This not only formed the bedrock of Blue Labour thinking, but featured in the Red Book, the Purple Book, Compass and Fabian literature. Warm words from cosy seminar rooms are one thing, however – but do we actually believe in this stuff? If so, there is a fight going on, in a tiny corner of England, which offers the chance to turn theory into practice.
The port of Dover a key strategic hub in the region, hosting a number of small and large businesses (mostly ferry companies) and enabling the movement of goods and people across our border. Since 1604 it has been the source of stable and secure employment for thousands of men and women in the local area – from stevedores to electricians - while other industries have deteriorated or declined around it. The dock is deeply embedded in both the local and national economy, facilitating trade, transport and acting as a ‘gateway’ to Britain. It has come to form as integral a part of the community as the famous white cliffs which it neighbours.
Now, though, it is on the verge of privatisation. The Government is gearing up to sell it to the highest bidder, with a number of multinational private equity companies looming. We already have a prelude for what this will mean, as current administrators ‘fatten the pig for market day’. Jobs have been cut, wages slashed, skilled port workers put on zero-hour contracts; all to push down costs with a view to showcase the profits that potential bidders could line their shareholders pockets with.
As well as an affront to years of history, private ownership would likely be a horribly inefficient way to run the port. There is no evidence that it would improve the way it’s operated. That’s why ferry companies are so opposed to privatisation, and 97% of the town voted against it in a referendum last year. From the bidder’s perspective, it is simply about turning a huge profit on a ‘service’ they will have a natural monopoly over (it’s rather hard to ‘marketise’ this industry unless you want to give Dover citizen the right to set up their own shipping port…). For the Government, it is merely about a short-term boost to Treasury coffers – but even that would be lost in the long-term damage on jobs and demand.
Just as there is nothing ‘modernising’ or progressive about this, neither is there anything inevitable about it. The one group standing between a Tory government set on selling off the family silver, and the grateful arms of an overseas corporation, is ’Dover Forever England’. A coalition of groups that includes supporters of state ownership as well as the community-owned Dover People’s Port Trust, they are looking to stage a fight back on a scale we saw around the proposed sale of Britain’s forests.
But the Trust are not just opposing the privatisation of the port, they have come up with a detailed, coherent alternative. They plan to buy it from the government, and run it in partnership withDovercitizens, employees, port users, local businesses and local authorities. In other words, the port would be put in the hands of the people, locked away forever from bean-counters in Whitehall or transnational business elites. Revenue would be spent on jobs and infrastructure, not shareholders.
As well as an alliance of citizens, workers and businesses people, the Trust has teamed up with both Labour and Conservative MPs and councillors to stand against privatisation: the embodiment of the ‘Big Society’ Cameron professes to believe in. Sadly, though, if there’s cross-party consensus pushing for an alternative to the sell-off, there is also an uncomfortable degree of continuity on the other side of the argument. The idea of selling off the port originated under the Brown government, highlighting an instinct among many of our political leaders that most things are better run privately – an assumption that has disfigured much policy on public services, industry and the economy for over thirty years. An alternative to it – and in my view the idea that everything should be controlled bureaucratically, top down from Whitehall– is desperately needed. Though it may appear to be just a local scrap, the fate of the port of Dover is a crucial battle in a much larger war, with huge implications.
That’s why everyone on the left – and groups within Labour who have identified the crucial role community ownership can play in breaking with the past – should give their support to the campaign, do what they can to get involved or spread the word about it. Only this way can the Government be forced to listen, stop the sale – and hopefully hand the port over to the people of Dover.
The Government is set to decide on the port’s fate and whether to put it out to auction in the next few weeks. Ahead of this there is a big campaign meeting tomorrow (8th September), 11am at Pencester Gardens in Dover. If you can’t make it, then you can share articles about the campaign (Patrick Macfarlane at Progress, Tristram Hunt or Julian Baggini are good places to start), sign up to the Facebook group or donate to the Trust through its website, to play a part in the vital effort keep Dover forever England.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Caro shows us the human side of politics

Blog for Huffington Post
Review: The Lyndon Johnson Years: Volume 4, The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

Should you be looking for a window into the lopsided nature of the 'special relationship', you need look no further than the reverence with which political classes on either side of the Atlantic observe the others internal affairs. While most inhabitants of the beltway view our politics with a sort of wry curiosity, wonks of all stripes over here obsess at the labours of American Presidents, campaigns and Congresses throughout history. To this the pride and place of Robert Caro's latest offering on the summer reading lists of Westminster watchers everywhere is just the latest testament.
The equivalent, I suppose, would be shipping a six-hundred page tome covering six years in the life of Harold MacMillan over the other side of the ocean and seeing how it flies. But in the fourth instalment of his monumental life's-work on Lyndon B Johnson, Caro shows us not only why we fall in love with American political life - but what it is that grips us about politics in the first place.
The Passage of Power spans just a portion of Johnson's time in Washington (1958 to 1964). But it is gloriously rich in detail, as Caro brings out the many competing facets that make up the texture of a seismic chapter in US history. Indeed in many ways it is a book defined by contrast and contradiction, even a certain dialectic, personified by Johnson himself.
It begins with LBJ at his peak in the Senate, but quickly descends into a study of his time as JFK's sidelined Vice President - "the man of power who suddenly finds himself short of it", as one journalist described. Johnson wound up there having calamitously misjudged Kennedy - "a whipper-snapper, malnourished, yellow, sickly, sickly" who "never said a word of importance in the Senate, and never did a thing". All of which was true - but none of which was germane to the changing nature of Presidential politics. The telegenic Kennedy glided to the 1960 candidacy, as Johnson tortuously dithered and delayed over whether to enter. This from a man at the height of his powers, famed not only for his ability to read men, and the tides of US politics, but for his decisiveness.
Having been offered the Vice Presidency (in the teeth of opposition from Bobby Kennedy - a passage which Caro relates in intimate detail), Johnson proceeds to make a second error of judgement. He believes he can take an ostensibly ceremonial role and forge a separate political base, as he has always done ("power is where power goes"). But an early power grab falls flat spectacularly, and Johnson is shut-out of the Kennedy White House, starved of influence.
Here the portrait of him offered by Caro is painful. Haunted by premonitions of his own thinly-attended funeral, he skulks around Washington debasing himself in an attempt to get back in the President's good books ("like a cut dog"). The once proud Texas lope is reduced to a slump or a slight kneel in Kennedy's presence, in a sycophantic attempt to hide his height advantage. In a particularly excruciating passage, he even tries to work Kennedy's kids onside ("I want you to call me Uncle Lyndon" he pleads). All to no avail. This period captures Johnson at his most inadequate; shrivelled and pathetic, by turns self-pitying, bitter, jealous, hawkish and corrupt. His greatest fear realised, he was humiliated (humiliation being Washington's answer to the ice pick).
All of which is turned on its head by the crack of a gun in Dallas, and Kennedy's assassination. If it seemed impossible to find a fresh angle on one of the most famous events in human history, Caro achieves it. He vividly puts you right in the back seat of the car - carrying Johnson - that trails the Kennedy motorcade. Better still is his depiction of LBJ in these moments, thrust into the Presidency - a man re-born, reanimated by power. He is sworn in by the same district judge who once symbolised his impotence (Sarah Hayward, whom he had previously failed to personally place on the Federal District Court himself).
The years and pages that follow showcase the better angels of Johnson's nature. His intimate understanding of Washington's "tribal rituals", his ability to see the broader war in an individual skirmish (and face up to it as such), and a razor sharp judgement of character. All were matched with the right dose of idealism and oratory to twist the right arms in the right way, press the right Congressional levers, bring Kennedy's people onside and set an agenda that went where their fallen hero never could - on civil rights, tax and later, poverty. As Caro concludes, Johnson's performance in the aftermath of the assassination was a masterclass in art of power and government. At his best, he was close to a model of Presidential perfection - as majestic as he was once pitiable.
Yet Johnson's weaknesses and fallibility do not totally disappear from sight, they continue to co-exist alongside and jostle with his strengths - the latter just win out in these circumstance. We get a prelude as to how they return in Caro's next volume, in his mendacious attempts to deny Bobby Kennedy an Arlington burial in 1968 (and his dark, impudent delight at news of RFK's demise, "Is he dead? Is he dead yet?"). Even here, they bubble not far from the surface; his needless humiliation of press secretary Salinger, for instance, or his horribly misjudged phone call to Bobby almost immediately after his brother his shot - conducted under the auspices of a constitutional technicality, but clearly in part a taunt at the still grief-stricken attorney-general.
This is the ultimate strength of The Passage of Power: it is not a fairytale. LBJ does not 'overcome' in a way the arc of a Hollywood movie might have it. He is so fascinating precisely because his every move is the product of a tussle between avarice and idealism, guts and pettiness and statesmanship. The enmity between he and Bobby Kennedy may light up the book, but in truth the bigger clash was with the whole Kennedy set, for which Bobby was simply the prefect. Johnson was not urbane or intellectual, born into power - "all social graces" - like Washington's ruling class. He was an outsider who never truly belonged to any tribe. His whole life was spent clawing his way inside, learning the rules, climbing over bodies, and he carried the battle scars as a result: rampant insecurity, paranoia and a fear of mimicking his fathers failings. He was and remained throughout deeply flawed, and deeply human.
In this sense, his successes in this volume are more inspiring than Kennedy's ever were, marshalling as he does his own multitudes and the democratic machinery, itself a bundle of contradictions, towards some good. He showed us the best and worst of what human beings are capable of, and in doing so embodied the best and worst of what politics is capable of.
Like its subject, the book is not perfect; in places it is sloppy and baggy. But it is Caro's ability to tease out and corral the true nature of this complexity - so rarely achieved in popular depictions of politics - that makes Passage of Power such a triumph. As the American author Scott F Fitzgerald famously wrote, "the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." By this marker, and every other, Caro's is a work of pure genius.