Wednesday, 13 November 2013

On energy and elsewhere, ownership matters too

On energy and elsewhere, ownership matters too

Modern German politics is not known for it’s cliff-edge drama and ideological adventure, yet it’s capital city had a bit of both in the last few days. Last Sunday was polling day for a local referendum on whether to take Berlin’s energy grid into local democratic ownership, following a long-standing community campaign (Berliner Energietisch) to force the issue onto the ballot paper. Public anger at Vattenfall, the company that owns the grid and has long monopolised Berlin’s energy, helped it on its way.
In the end, a whopping 83% of votes cast were in favour of local ownership, though the poll came just short – by an excruciating 0.9% – of the strict voter turn-out rules imposed on local referendums, thus failing (somewhat grim vindication of spoiler tactics employed by CDU and SPD opponents to force voting-day into dark rainy November). Nevertheless this moment in German politics is worth a closer look, not least for how it can inform our own debates in the UK.
For a start, it’s not the first such campaign in the country – voters in Hamburg have already recently approved ‘communalisation’ along the same lines, as disaffection at privatisation grows. It also runs parallel with an even more impressive campaign run by local people in Berlin (BürgerEnergie), separate to the vote and therefore still ongoing, to buy and run the grid themselves when the franchise comes up for renewal in 2014.
The scale and ambition of both Berlin citizen campaigns are stark. Both go beyond narrow party political lines, drawing in church groups, tenant organisations, welfare groups and the like. Both want to invest in Berlin profits from what is a natural monopoly, rather than see them siphoned off to shareholders. 
But crucially, both also offer an alternative not just to privatisation but more conventional top-down nationalisation too, which in many countries (including the UK) became overly-bureaucratic and unresponsive. Energietisch, for example, proposed that the board of the body set up by the local authority to run Berlin’s energy grid would be made up of 6 directly elected Berliners and 7 employees, with the other 2 seats reserved for the local energy officials. They also aimed to open the system up to low-power, small and medium sized renewable producers.
All of this is useful in expanding the horizons of our current national debate on energy, however much it has shifted in a progressive direction recently. It’s a reminder to keep thinking big. Ed Miliband deserves huge credit for getting our energy debate moving beyond the status quo, and he has been brave and commendable in his push for a price freeze, moving the centre-ground in a way his critics always said couldn’t be done. But there is still space to explore beyond even that (which the public would already permit, incidentally).
There is always going to be a limit to corralling private organisations into doing or not doing something. Are democratic ‘public options’ or co-operative alternatives, to undercut profiteering, realistic? Surely it’s worth exploring, as the Germans have started to do.
This goes beyond energy, too. In general Labour could be thinking a bit more about democratic alternatives to both privatisation and top-down old-style nationalisation, rather than just relying on the old levers like the tax system to influence private behaviour.
This could work in important areas of policy being strangled by private interests, such as city transport (regional authorities running train or bus services) or housing (local authority-run social lettings agencies, for instance, already exist but are in need of a bigger push – they are also self-financing beyond the initial start-up money). Employee reps on company boards are also a good start, meanwhile, but there is a huge amount more in that area that could be done to bring the voice of employees at the top of companies in the UK up to speed with the likes of Germany or Sweden (the 1977 Bullock report is a good place to start).
Beyond that, as a movement the left should arguably be doing more to encourage, foster and support the kind of genuine community movements that might want to make a bid to run a local service or utility, where the private sector is failing.
Such movements are not pipe-dream stuff, and while not mainstream they’re not as rare as you think. One already exists in Dover for instance, where local residents, businesses and port employees recently banded together to stave off privatisation of the local port, and are currently in talks to bring it under community control. Likewise, in football: a growing number of fans are starting groups aimed at part-owning their football club, the most prominent of which is Manchester United fans’ MUST. The legal and logistical barriers to these kind of groups forming and succeeding need to be interrogated at a national level.
Of course there are a hundred and one other competing priorities as the election draws near. So let’s at least set a realistic mid-term goal: it would be great to see a senior Labour figure give a speech on the kind of themes discussed above in the next six months.
Over the last few years, the party – and the left in general – has finally become comfortable and eloquent in talking about the limits of markets, or where they have broken and failed to deliver; now it’s time to take the German’s lead, and start discussing the role of new public alternatives in fixing things.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Return to growth has helped Labour more than the Conservatives

Blog for ShiftingGrounds on 30th Sept
Return to growth has helped Labour more than the Conservatives

Wandering around Labour conference last week, it was hard not to be struck as much by what wasn’t being discussed as what was. Among everything, there was one particularly notable absentee. It’s something which should give the Conservatives, who kicked off their get-together in Manchester yesterday, more pause for thought than they might initially grant it.

Flicking through the fringe guide in Brighton, I struggled to spot a single event dedicated to austerity. By comparison, last year’s conference fizzed with debate on double dip recessions, multiplier effects, what a fiscal stimulus might or might not look like. This year: barely anything. The trench warfare of ‘austerity vs growth’ that so dominated the first few years of this Parliament is dead, it seems. Largely it’s been killed off by a nominal return to growth, of sorts, and the Labour leadership’s recent decision to back Conservative 2015/2016 spending plans.
In many ways this is profoundly depressing. The intellectual case against the Government’s economic strategy was and remains overwhelming. While it continued to drag the country back into recession or flat lining growth, it was perfectly understandable that pointing this out consumed the large bulk of Labour’s emotional and political energy.
But the truth is the party have long been fighting an uphill battle with public opinion on this issue. Not least this is because, as widely noted, the Conservatives and their friends were very adroit at framing the problem as one of over-borrowing and over-spending; credit card metaphors and all. Whatever the empirical merits of its case, the left by comparison has failed to come up with a critique of austerity that resonates outside the pages of the London Review of Books.
Consequently, even as economic news worsened, while the deficit and economic crisis were the dominant concern in British politics, Labour were – and probably always will be – at a disadvantage.
Thus, as the agenda has moved on as growth filters back, it’s been to the party’s advantage. While I still think there were less painful ways of neutralising the issue, the pledge to match the Coalition’s 15/16 spending plans has also at least made it harder for the Conservatives to allege that Labour will ‘turn the taps back on’.
The resulting breathing space has allowed Labour to move on to broader, longer-term and more populist themes that go with the grain of public opinion: who benefits from growth, the cost of living and the fundamental structural problems in our economy. Ed Balls gave a much more rounded speech than in recent years, including on childcare among other issues. Chukka Umunna spoke encouragingly on economic democracy and employee representation within companies. And in the best speech of his leadership so far, Ed Miliband outlined the big strategic themes that would define his premiership: a global race to the top, not the bottom, and an economy that works for working people.
Though more will need to be done to flesh all of this out, already Labour are making head way, as the poll bounce off the back of Miliband’s pledge on energy prices has shown. They have set the agenda and started to forge a new centre-ground, tapping into what Miliband advisor Tim Horton has called ‘the angry middle’. It’s hard to imagine they would have the political oxygen to do so if the economy were still in the tank as the party gathered in Brighton.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, are left in a difficult position. Growth may be strong enough for Labour to see the need to broaden its pitch, but it isn’t strong – or felt – enough for the public to give the Conservatives any real credit in the polls, or for the party to credibly be triumphant. Labour’s new living standards agenda also plays to three key Tory blind spots. The first is that the key squeezes on people’s disposable incomes – energy, transport, housing and the like – along with stagnating wages, all represent failures in private markets. All ultimately require critiques of and interventions in those markets.
This is not something Cameron and co. feel instinctively at home with. Like most politicians who cut their teeth in the pre-crash era, they are much happier reforming the state than the market. When they do offer answers they tend towards the tentative or technical. You feel they will probably always struggle to tap into the public’s anger on these issues, or match Labour for zeal.
The second weakness is Osborne’s continued faith – repeated over the weekend – that rising growth will be enough to help increase living standards across the board. The Resolution Foundation have long shown that this is no longer the case, and has not been since 2003.
Finally, and most pressingly, is that Cameron has long struggled to define himself or his Government beyond the ‘national emergency’ of tackling the budget deficit. Both in opposition and in government he has done little to map out what kind of country he would like Britain to be in twenty years time. There is little sense of mission beyond the bottom line. The ‘Big Society’ was his first and doomed attempt at redressing this. The ‘Global Race’ narrative is probably his best effort, but it remains clunky and lacks cut through with the public.
All of which represents a significant opportunity for Labour as the agenda moves beyond the narrow politics of the deficit, though none of which should be a cause for complacency for the party. Unfortunately, welfare in particular is still an issue in which the Conservatives are able to mine vast reservoirs of public enmity – and the Labour leadership still need to do a little more to grapple with the issue.
But the last few weeks have shown anything, it’s that the second half of this Parliament will be fought on much tougher ground for the Government than the first. The facts of British political life are no longer Conservative.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Intervention in Syria comes not too soon, but too late

Blog for 
Intervention in Syria comes not too soon, but too late

It's hard not to feel dizzied and bewildered by almost every aspect of the Syrian crisis – including the debate on intervention which has now engulfed the UK. Following it in recent days, I've seen a great many furrowed brows over the possible strengthening of Al-Qaida, frets over the risk of escalation and exhortations to 'Stop the War' and keep 'Hands off Syria'.

All good stuff, you understand. Except oddly, they all seem to be taking place now - in August 2013 – rather than in 2011 or 2012, when they were most sorely needed, as the original democratic revolution was being brutally put down by the Assad regime. Since then, 100,000 people have died, half of whom are civilians. Al-Qaida-linked elements within the opposition have been significantly strengthened. Things have escalated.

This has occurred at least in part because of Western failure in the face of human catastrophe to provide the necessary solidarity and support for moderate secularist factions in the Syrian opposition (all the while, funding for their more extremist counter-parts flooded in from Qatar and elsewhere). Or to take active steps, as in Libya, to protect the Syrian population from systematic slaughter. This was something neither left nor the right in either Washington or London were willing to countenance, stuck variously under their 'realist' or 'anti-imperialist' shades of isolationism.

The result is what we see before us today: a cramped and partial debate, confined to punitive strikes over a single chemical weapons attack. Should such strikes come, they are better than nothing, whatever their flaws. Hopeful cries for a 'political settlement' or to 'get round the negotiating table' tidily side-step the fact that the Syrian regime currently has little incentive to do so. It's a grim reality that it often takes the credible threat of force to even get tin-pot thugs like Assad to the table, as experience with Slobodan Milosevic twice showed in the 1990s.

But this narrow focus on chemical weapons has made the government's political wrangles yesterday evening rather predictable. When a mandate is sought on the back of one specific event, it is quite logical that more evidence will be first sought on that event. More importantly, though, this limited focus won't help protect the civilian population from murder by other means. The foreign secretary has been advancing a humanitarian case (publicly stating the aim to avoid further "humanitarian distress"). But what is being proposed militarily – precision strikes on chemical weapons facilities - will not achieve that on its own. He is setting himself up to fail.
The truth is the red line should have been set far short of chemical warfare, because intervention in Syria is horribly belated. As ghastly as footage from last week is – so much so I'm not even going to attempt the words to do it justice – from a humanitarian point of view it's not obvious why it's so much worse than any of the number of other civilian massacres Assad's militias have gleefully carried out since late 2011. Take Houla in 2012, for example, where they went door-to-door with guns and knives, executing children one-by-one along the way. These are at least analogues to the atrocities which triggered war in Kosovo.

Needless to say, piecemeal approaches to such butchery will not suffice. Assuming that Western powers are now serious about halting it, intervention must come in the form of wide-ranging efforts to both protect civilians and tip the balance of power in favour of moderate rebels against both Assad and Al-Qaida. The former should constitute humanitarian safe-zones properly patrolled by the Free Syrian Army and a No-Fly Zone. As well as air strikes on weapons facilities and army airports, the latter - possible under such protective cover – should see every effort taken to actively train, arm and build up the moderate FSA, as Michael Weiss forcefully argues.

None of which is to pretend this would be easy. Even if it went well, it would still be hideously imperfect, ugly and complex. To put it mildly, Nato power and influence is a less than ideal instrument through which to achieve progressive ends. But it's simply not true, as those on the far left contend, that its every move is always and only reducible to an act of imperialism. As Ian Dunt argues, few can explain through this prism why the West are acting now. The reality is states' interests are not fixed or neatly explained, but constructed and constantly in flux; a mesh of time, place, systems and personalities.

Very occasionally, that can and should be pressed into engineering the least worst outcome in a humanitarian emergency. That is all we can hope for in Syria. But it is better than what most Syrians have lived through for the last two years, or what awaits them if nothing more is done. Achieving even this, however, won't be possible unless we face up to our own failures and omissions, and recognise that the time for action came a long way back on the road to Jobar.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Croatia and the EU: more questions than answers

Post for ShiftingGrounds

As preparations gathered pace in Split for Sunday’s celebrations, marking Croatia’s membership of the EU, the city’s local radio stations provided a fitting soundtrack. ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys seemed to play almost on loop throughout the day, filtering out of nearly every restaurant or coffee shop you walked by.
The country’s newspapers had been counting down the days. Despite public scepticism, there is a sense at least that Croatia has taken up its rightful place. The journalist Jenine di Giovanni wrote in her 2004 book on the Balkans:
“…this colourful image [of the Balkans] was exactly the sort that the Croats did not want to promote. They were not really Balkan people; they often told you they were Southern Austrians. The Croat denial fostered a sense of mixed identity in Zagreb. The people dressed in Armani but lived in apartments without central heating. They carried the latest Nokia phones but had no money in their bank account…
Their biggest grievance was belonging to a Balkan group they did not want to be part of. They saw themselves as a Western democracy.”
Yet identity and pride aside, it’s hard not to wonder what question the country’s EU membership is the answer to – not least when considering the way its political class has prioritised it over the last ten years (hence much grievance from them, too, on the extensive vetting the European Commission subjected Croatia to).
True, it – or rather the prospect of it – has been good for the region’s fragile peace, helping to hold the Dayton settlement in place. The scale and horror of Serb atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina often obscure Croatia’s own crimes in the same country just two decades ago. It was the Zagreb government, after all, who connived with Bosnian-Croat forces to turn brutally on their Bosniak allies, aiming to tear off parts of Bosnia for their own, in pursuit of a lesser but still stark Croatian imitation of Milosovic’s expansionism.
Here Brussels has dangled EU membership effectively. It has used it to ensure Croatia properly complies with the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes during the 90′s. The same incentive has also played a role in dissuading Zagreb from resuming support for still restless Bosnian-Croat secessionists.
But even still, in the long term it’s far from clear that the Bosnian question is totally settled. Leaders in Bosnia’s Republic Srpska – the Serb state within a state created at Daytan – have made obvious their own desire to secede. One of the main barriers to this at present is the lack of support they’re likely to enjoy from Belgrade, who are also on their best behaviour under promise of EU membership.
However, once this promise becomes a reality and the incentive disappears, that could easily change. In the ensuing melee, who knows how the Croats – now a member not a prospective one – would react. They may again see a opportunity to claim what isn’t theirs, especially given Bosnian-Croats have a (not insignificant) vote in Croatian elections. This is unlikely under the current SDP government, who don’t rely on those votes, but could be feasible if the centre-right HDZ returned. Certainly far right Croatian nationalism hasn’t totally gone away, as the uncomfortable amount of fascist graffiti scrawled across Split can attest to.
More immediately, however, there’s the prospects for the Croatian economy. Croatia’s bid for EU membership was kick started 12 years ago, when Western free-market capitalism – which post-Maastricht the EU has become the standard bearer for – was in its pomp. Entry to the EU represents in many ways the completion of long efforts by Croatia’s political elites to ‘harmonise’ the country’s economy with European orthodoxy.
Croatia’s economy today is thus completely deindustrialised (albeit this was aided by war damage); it is in large part a service sector economy, dependent on tourism and retail – which struggles to provide adequately for a lot of the country. Most of its growth in the early 2000′s was driven by consumer credit.
Sadly, between Croatia’s application and accession, the flaws of that model have been horribly exposed across Europe. Its economy is consequently stuck in our recession; at 20%, Croatian unemployment is worse only in Greece and Spain in EU terms (youth unemployment is over 50%). Its banks, largely foreign owned and piled high with European debt, are vulnerable. Household debt has shot up, as has government debt.
The dichotomy that di Giovanni wrote about has seemingly continued – though new shopping complexes have continued popping up across Croatia’s cities, absolute poverty has almost doubled over the last decade.
Despite the vague hopes of Croatia’s President, Ivo Josipović, it is hard to see how formal acceptance into the European club helps all this. Indeed in at least one sense it’s made it worse: one of the ugliest components of Croatia’s EU ‘preparations’ was the sight of Brussels forcing the privatisation of the country’s shipyards, which still make up a sizeable chunk of Croatia’s exports. In Split alone – across town from the palm-treed, tourist friendly promenade that hosted Sunday’s celebrations – this has seen over 1,000 people lose their jobs. The jobs of the remaining 2,000 workers hang in the balance, but if the private company which now owns the yard do take them back on, many will be on a part time or temporary contracts.
All of which leaves you with the feeling that a great country has been rather led astray. Croatia stumbles into the EU mired in recession, with falling living standards, and in desperate need of a new model of economic growth. The Commission needn’t have worried; it will fit in all too well.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Why Is There No Daily Show In The UK?

Blog for Vada magazine 
“Why is there no socialism in the United States?” was the question that occupied lofty European intellectuals in the early 20th century. As they gazed across the Atlantic they wondered where their American brethren had gone wrong. This week that grand tradition has been turned on its head, by the news that Britain’s very own John Oliver has stepped in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. This poses a question that’s long bugged many of us who share a love for US TV, namely, why is there no Daily Show in the UK? Why have we never even come close to producing one?
If it’s worrying that a comedian as sharp as Oliver couldn’t find a home on these shores, it’s more obvious that he would fit right in on The Daily Show. As the recent fall out to Stewart’s brilliant send up of Mohammed Morsi – which sparked a diplomatic incident - highlights, the great thing about the show is that it does not only observe the news astutely, it very often helps shape it; such is its influence. For instance, it played a subtle but important role in discrediting the Romney campaign during its formative stages last summer.
The state of satire in the UK, by comparison, is painfully weak. The lamentable, self-serving narcissism of Mock The Week and the vacuity of the innumerable and interchangeable weekly panel shows of 8 out of 10 Cats’ ilk just do not compare. Then there’s 10 O’Clock Live, which returned for a second run recently. Styled as an answer toThe Daily Show, it has just never felt anywhere near as clever, usually coming off instead like every dickish common room clown you ever hated. Even the more grown up Have I Got News For You doesn’t have the bite of old.
Can anyone imagine any of these making it into the news broadcasts, or being feared by the powerful? Could they threaten to make or break a politician’s career?
In seeking an explanation for all this, it’s hard not to reach a rather obvious conclusion: how many mainstream comedians in the UK actually care about politics? I mean really care?
For them, the political class and politics exist mainly as something to have a dig at, to wring cheap points from. Few of our comedians understand politics, few want to understand it. They are divorced from the process they joke about. For them it is something easy to point at, a sitting target for a few more lithe one liners.
Looking back, this is probably best embodied by Jimmy Carr on 10 O’Clock Live as he cracked lame jokes about tax avoidance while practicing it himself. Or the airy uncertainty of Lauren Laverne, trying to look interested in the slightly stilted studio ‘debate’ she’s introducing off the autocue, before the show dissolves into another bout of pointing out how funny Ed Miliband looks. Or the silly stunts of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. It is political satire made by people who couldn’t care less, made for those who feel roughly the same.
Ironically it’s the 10 O’Clock Show‘s other presenter, Charlie Brooker, who shows us where this style of comedy leads us, in an episode of his mini-series Black Mirror, ‘The Waldo Moment‘.
True, outside of weekly shows of this sort, we have The Thick Of It, which though cynical has generally been well researched and three dimensional, but even this in its final series tended to play to the gallery. It felt a little too easy as it went looking for the next cult one-liner, or sweary portmanteau, and proved less interested in exploring the bigger picture.
The difference with The Daily Show is it does actually care. It is so funny and effective because it has politics – and often the rightness of its broader point is what makes it so potent. Stewart pokes fun at the stuffiness and absurdity of the system, but he evidently believes passionately in the possibility of politics itself. Much of The Daily Show’s comedy comes from a frustration and exasperation for a better world that you just don’t get from its British counterparts.
Much of this could be put down to Anglo-American cultural differences, but that doesn’t seem wholly satisfactory (the French, for instance, have the similarly fearsome Les Guignols). Maybe there is a simple lesson at the heart of The Daily Show’s endurance, while so many of our British pretenders have fallen by the wayside. To effectively laugh at politics, you have to learn to love it first.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

François Hollande has achieved far more than his critics suggest

Piece for Shifting Grounds and New Statesman
The French president has shown that deficit reduction need not depend on cuts.

If you listen carefully, you can hear it coming. With next Monday marking one year since François Hollande was elected French President, a tidal wave of I told-you-so’s and smugness is about to be visited upon us by Westminster’s commentariat.

It’s fair to say that most of them have never much liked the French president. And we are sure to be gleefully informed that the first year of his Presidency has been a disaster. It will invariably be held up as a stark warning to Labour against carrying any challenge to the austerity consensus into the next election.
It won’t surprise you to learn that upon closer inspection, things turn out to be a bit more complicated than that.
Hollande has certainly had a difficult time of it, sliding recently to 25 per cent approval in the polls. Much of this can be laid at the door of his one unambiguous failure – his inability to overcome German opposition to redrawing the EU’s fiscal pact towards a greater focus on growth. As a result, unemployment is stuck at around 10%, and consumer confidence is low. The Eurozone remains largely frozen.
Some of it is also his own personal style. Hollande’s more low key, unfashioned image and patient approach – once a selling point – has bored a nation who became used to the glitz and hyperactivity of the Sarkozy years (in much the same way that ‘Not Flash, Just Gordon’ rebounded on Brown).
But if he has failed to offer much hope at a European level, the same cannot be said about his record at home. For starters, he has already made good on most of his key campaign promises, such as the hiring of 60,000 new teachers, raising the minimum wage and setting up a Public Investment Bank to lend where banks won’t (which given time could prove crucial to the country’s recovery).
But it is on budgetary matters – tax and spend – where Hollande has offered something most markedly different. Contrary to received wisdom in parts of the British press, the French President never campaigned against the principle of deficit reduction; simply against the notion that this is best achieved through deep spending cuts and huge tax hikes on ordinary people (this is after all what austerity has come to mean). And it is here that his actions in government bear far greater scrutiny than the widely held, lazy caricature that he has bowed to 'inevitable' cuts.
In 2013, only a third of Hollande’s deficit reduction measures comes from reducing spending. And all of this is coming from departmental spending freezes, not deep cuts.
The rest comes from increased taxes, largely on big businesses, banks and wealthy individuals. This includes increased wealth taxes, alongside hikes on taxes on assets and dividends. A new 45 per cent top rate has been brought in for incomes over €150,000, while companies will have to pay 75 per cent tax on any salaries over €1 million (replacing the 75 per cent income tax rate struck down by France’s constitutional court). Big banks and oil companies have also been hit with special levies. Tax exemptions have been scrapped.
While weak growth across Europe has made things harder than expected, these measures will still see France’s deficit fall to 3.7 per cent in 2013, from 4.8 per cent in 2012. Hollande has also shown admirable flexibility, resisting pressure to bring in any further deficit reduction measures to meet draconian EU targets while the economy is still weak (he has instead delayed them).
The ratio between taxes and spending reductions will level up a little in 2014, and some entitlements may be means tested. But freezes are likely to continue to take precedence to significant cuts on the spending side.
Whatever one’s view of Hollande, to equate this with the medicine meted out by other Governments in Europe is fatuous. Compare it, for instance, to George Osborne’s approach, whose ratio of cuts to taxes is 80:20, with that 20 per cent borne by people on average incomes while millionaires pay less. It’s also a world away from the broad-based slash and burn policies being implemented in Italy or Greece. Low and middle income households in France have been protected, as have public services.
Here Labour can still draw positive lessons, as beyond the need for short-term stimulus now, they face up to longer-term decisions over whether to accept the enormous cuts currently pencilled in by the Tories for 2015 and beyond. The deficit faced by any incoming Labour government is likely to be of a similar order to that faced by the French President.
Drawing inspiration from Hollande, but outside the fiscal straight jack imposed on Eurozone countries, Labour could set a longer more flexible timetable for elimination of the deficit. Assuming they inherit low growth, they could then pledge a freeze on overall departmental spending. This would be tough but would cancel planned Tory cuts and shut down accusations of profligacy or ‘turning the taps back on’ in a relatively painless way, providing them space to talk more about growth and living standards. Beyond that, levies on the well off and big businesses (e.g Financial Transactions Tax, Land Value Tax, restoring the main rate of corporation tax etc) should go towards paying for the rest of deficit reduction.
Within this overall spending envelope, further tax rises on the top (a 50p rate, mansion tax etc) could pay for tax cuts for those on low and middle incomes, aiding demand. Growth measures requiring capital spend would then be funded by taking money from budgets with the least impact on domestic demand (cuts in defence and international development to pay for a large house building programme, for instance).
There are many areas, of course, where Miliband will want and need to do the exact opposite of Hollande. He will have to be careful to not be seen to over-promise, given the public’s already brittle faith in politics. But a closer reading of François Hollande than we will be afforded in our newspapers reveals an important truth; one that can be rescued from the carnage of an otherwise difficult first year for the Socialist President. When it comes to how, when and on whose backs the national books are balanced, there are still choices.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Piece for ShiftingGrounds on Ken Loach's new film
Can we revive the spirit of 45?

Of the twentieth century it’s often remarked that “the left won the culture war, the right won the economic war”. If nothing else, Ken Loach’s Spirit of 45, out in cinemas last week, is a useful reminder that this did not always seem like being a foregone conclusion.
A great deal has changed since then, of course, as the film expends little subtlety in telling us. And indeed many have wasted no time in dismissing Loach as nostalgic or simplistic, something he probably leaves himself open to with his use of sepia tone and eventual descent into agitprop (Ms Thatcher emerges from nowhere to shatter the reverie, encouraging the audience in my showing to audibly hiss!).
But past its casual bursts of pantomime, The Spirit of 45 is a beautiful and inspiring movie. It leaves you, as I suppose it intends to, with the question of what we can revive of that time – of, as the late Tony Judt might put it, “what is living and what is dead?” What can be resuscitated and how?
The first – and the most striking thing about that era – was the sheer scale of ambition of the Labour government. They faced circumstance which make today’s problems seem meagre by comparison: a country decimated by war, fiscal deficits of 21.5%, national debt at nearly 250% of GDP. And yet they embarked on a programme of wholesale transformation of the British economy and society – not because it was romantic, but because it was the right way to solve those problems.
In many ways an experiment, this boldness is a salutary reminder to those of us on the left who at times have had our horizons narrowed by the last thirty years of free-market triumphalism, or even the austerity of the past few. Too often we content ourselves to talk big but fiddle at the edges; a tweak and a nudge here, a tax incentive there. Ownership and control matter, as do institutions; public and private interest are not synonymous – the former should always be a buffer to the latter, not a mere facilitator.
Simple truths but ones too often forgotten. And relevant when we look at our country today. What really is the case, for example, for continuing with the absurd public subsidy to train companies to run our railways, instead of just taking what is a natural monopoly back into public ownership? In energy and banking industries, we should at least be looking at national or regional ‘public options’ which could undercut profiteering from the cartels that dominate those industries.
What these institutions might look like brings us to what Loach pinpoints as the failure of the left in the late twentieth century. While the collectivism of the post-war years expressed itself through politics, that spirit largely stopped at the ballot box. Nationalised institutions eventually became sclerotic and bureaucratic; run in the interests of people but with little of their input.
The only way by which the left of today can take up the spirit of 1945, while not repeating its failures, is through a relentless focus on economic democracy.  Where institutions are state backed, they should be run equally by management and employees, ideally with third party input too. The plans for a ‘Peoples Port of Dover’ – controlled equally by employees, local residents and businesses – provides a good model.
This ethic also needs to be extended right across the economy, including to businesses. For example, Peter Tatchell and others have long argued for medium and large companies to be required to be run in this way, with shareholders and employees represented equally on boards, alongside an agreed (smaller) third group. This reflects the recommendations of the 1977 Bullock Report, never enacted in time before the tide of Thatcherism swept all such considerations away.
The dream of abolishing the profit motive has evaporated, and it is very unlikely to come back. Over a century social democracy (and even democratic socialism) has indeed sadly gone, as Dylan Riley puts it,“from a strategy for achieving socialism to a policy package for managing capitalism”. But if that’s to be the case, lets at least do it comprehensively.
Undoubtedly though, there are a some elements of the era Loach venerates which are dead – and to which it is less easy to reconcile. The working class still exists, but it is far more fractured, far less homogeneous than it was; the very nature of our cities have also changed. This all creates significant barriers to the important work of political and trade union organisation, particularly in the private sector.
As does the most pressing change of all: the way globalisation has transformed capital, making it more fluid and global, and far harder to regulate or tax. These problems are not insurmountable. But as Paul Mason has said, they do pose a dilemma for the left. Namely, this is whether we pursue a   programme of ‘deglobalisation’ (capital controls, anti-outsourcing measures etc.) or enter the far more untested and ambitious terrain of global governance. This debate has yet to even really get under way in mainstream left circles, nevermind reach a conclusion.
Nevertheless, we have enough to be getting on with. As Eric Hobsbawm told Juncture shortly before his death:
“Politics is the only aspect of the 21st century world which globalisation [has] weakened but not transformed. It remains the only effective mechanism for social redistribution…It has its problems and abuses, but it remains the last bastion against the free market. And it needs politics – politics by collective action to move it.”
It is this which we can take forward as the true essence of the spirit 1945, linking that which can be rescued from that time to what we can bring to new challenges; the centrality of politics and collective action. This has never been more urgent than now, as we look back at the unquestioned inequity, inequality and unsustainability of the pre-crash years. Just as those post-war generations did, we too should vow never to go back to “that sort of peace”.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Obama must make poverty reduction a priority for his second term

Piece for New Statesman website
Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet the audience.

As Barack Obama prepares for his second inauguration in front of the Capitol building on Monday, most politicos are by now familiar with the demographics which helped put him there. Election night saw 96 per cent of African-Americans vote for the President; 70 per cent of Hispanics and 73 per cent of Asian Americans. Less dependent on traditional independent voters, the Democrats 'expanded the electorate' by boosting turnout in these communities. 
That this causes a problem for the Republicans has quickly become conventional wisdom. It's been little noted, though, how the demographics of 6 November create a challenge for the Democrats too. An important component of the Obama campaign's "get-out-the-vote" (GOTV) effort was the President's personal appeal. There was a pronounced sense of a personal connection between many non-white voters and Obama, and of protectiveness (of which race was one but not the only factor).
The question for 2016 is, how do the Democrats maintain that level of support without Obama on the ticket? They are unlikely to find a candidate with the charisma, backstory and platform to match Obama, whose breakthrough was a truly once-in-a-generation event. 
The answer can only be that, from the White House to the Senate, Democrats need to go further in the next four years to deliver on substance for these communities. Here, immigration reform is often mentioned. But just as pressing is the indelible link between race and poverty in America, particularly in urban areas.
Far too many of the majority black neighbourhoods that helped deliver Obama's re-election in states like Virginia or Ohio continue to be blighted by hardship. A litany of grim statistics bears this out. More than 1 in 4 African-Americans and Hispanics grow up in extreme poverty - with millions struggling just above this threshold. Forty per cent of children in African-American communities grow up below the poverty line (the US is ranked 34 out of 35 of industrialised countries when it comes to child poverty). Poverty is not of course simply an ethnic minority issue – but they are clearly disproportionately affected.
None of this is new. The statistics are familiar, and wash over many American heads by now. But as Michael Harrington once wrote in his seminal book on the subject, The Other America, "you can rationalise statistics...but you cannot rationalise an indignity". Nearly fifty years after Martin Luther-King said that "I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture of their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits", a significant chunk of the US is still held down by hunger, violence, illness, poor education and precariousness. And sadly, that number has increased since 2007.
Anyone going door-to-door in the election in some of the poorer parts of places like Franklin County in Ohio would have found many who benefited in some small way from the President's first term. Particularly so on healthcare. Stimulus spending and his general stewardship of the economy have also stopped a total collapse in living standards. It could have been a lot worse.
But, as the likes of Paul Tough have argued brilliantly, this is not the prospectus on poverty that Obama the candidate first emerged on. Then, he gave speeches – like the one in Anacostia which Tough details – arguing for a wide-ranging approach to poverty in America. Higher minimum wages and better union representation featured, but also specialised parenting, nutrition and early education programmes. 
If the campaign was anything to go by, the prospect of returning to this seems weak. In the parks and multi-purpose arenas in which Obama delivered his campaign stump speech, the mention of poverty was noticeably scant for a candidate largely relying on GOTV among poor neighbourhoods. If it was name checked it was in a more conventionally liberal way, usually about the need for more teachers – rather than at the heart of his moral vision as once before; his words had lost their transformative edge. As some observed, at times it was like listening to a John Kerry speech.
Prior to that, in office, Obama put up none of the fight for an increase in the minimum wage that he had pledged. He gave not one single speech on poverty itself. Many of the programs he once envisioned exist but remain under-funded and minuscule compared to his initial vision. The basis of union organisation remains weak, as legislation aimed at strengthening it fizzled out early on.
Little of this is Obama's fault alone, of course, but it speaks to a nation's priorities. It's part of a wider cultural blind spot in the US. As Harrington wrote all those years ago, a key dimension of poverty in America is its invisibility to many people. There are certain neighbourhoods most folks don't go into, certain parts of town many go their whole lives without seeing, especially in places like Washington. There's little space in the 'American dream' narrative for those who don't pull themselves up to greatness, or the middle class, but who quietly struggle for their whole lives. It's time the President carved one.
As in the UK, the problem is one not just of unemployment but perilously low wages and economic insecurity. The percentage of those working but still in poverty is at its highest in nearly two decades; average wages are in a thirty year slump. And more and more Americans are falling closer to the threshold
For this reason, it's particularly welcome that Obama prioritised, fought for and won protection of the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit in the recent fiscal cliff negotiations, which the Republicans had earmarked for abolition. Beyond that, though, he urgently needs to rediscover the spirit and ideas that animated his early words and interventions on poverty, like the one in Anacostia. African-American community leaders are gathering this week to pressure the President into making urban poverty a priority for his second term. 
There's no doubt that Obama remains a deeply intelligent and thoughtful man, of authentic social compassion. But his record on poverty is a case study in his journey from transformational candidate to good, solid but unspectacular liberal incumbent. He is said to worry about his place in history in this respect, and has asked historians how he can match up to likes of Lincoln. Bringing poverty out from the political fringes offers him this opportunity. For the Democrats, too, it can no longer be dismissed as a 'core vote' concern which turns off swing voters – if they are to replicate 2012's voting coalition in 2016, turnout among minority voters is the swing vote. They will need to act and deliver on a malaise still ubiquitous in far too many of those voters' lives. An electoral imperative has been given to an issue which should long ago have been a moral one.