Sunday, November 30, 2014

Well Mr Miliband

(First published 24 September 2014 on my Wordpress blog)
It is with regret that Chairman Nick has not been writing of late, but all the vitality of the Scottish referendum has woken me from my slumber.  We are now some seven months from the next general election, and it seems to me that politics has become interesting; to me it is always interesting, but perhaps it is getting interesting to many others as well, or will become so in coming months.  The high turnout in Scotland’s referendum has shown that if the passion can return to politics, then people will become passionate about it too.
…..So back to today’s thoughts……..
This week has seen the annual Labour Party conference, and in between the impassioned pleas for a return to a mythical NHS (that appears to be the Labour equivalent of the Conservatives/UKIPs village England that never really existed) and attacks on such modern bogeymen as hedge fund managers and Russian oligarchs, it has struck me that there is a tension bubbling just below the surface in a way that I cannot remember since my own political awakenings in the 1980s.  Now I may be wrong (it does happen occasionally), but just maybe the Labour Party is becoming the Labour Party again?
It is not bursting forth like a tiger pouncing on its prey, just as the Labour party of Michael Foot and Tony Benn didn’t turn overnight in to the warm and cuddly New Labour of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, but more like a pack of Jack Russells, taking bites at its target, gradually getting collectively braver as time advances.
There is still appears to be some lack of self-confidence amongst the leadership as to whether the public will go along with more classically socialist (if that is not an oxymoron) policies, but the signs are there.  We have a 50% top income tax rate, a new property tax on houses valued at over £2m and conveniently forgotten paragraphs regarding the need for continued spending austerity to address the budget deficit and a tougher approach to immigration.
Now with the Conservatives taking similar baby steps back towards Thatcherism to neutralise the threat of UKIP, the next election could offer the biggest policy differences between the major parties since 1987.
Nick

The UKIP Conundrum

(First published 29 September 2014 on my Wordpress blog)
Populism has a long and less than noble political history in many countries, but has never taken hold in Britain.  The closest we ever came was Oswald Mosely in the 1930’s with his rather diluted, anglicised version of Mussolini’s Fascists.
But this week Nigel Farage leads UKIP into its annual conference, riding high in the opinion polls and having just announced the defection of a second serving Conservative MP.  UKIP has long been viewed as little more than an offshoot of the Tories; a home for those who feel that the modern Conservative Party has abandoned the legacy of Margaret Thatcher.  My analysis of UKIP’s policies are that they are less a reincarnation of those propagated by the likes of Cecil Parkinson and Norman Tebbit in the 1980s, and more akin to classic political populism.
By populism I mean that curious mix of elements of small “c” conservatism pulled from both left and right, and brought together in a way that plays on the insecurities of the masses, and whose leaders are always in search of some bucolic paradise that exists only in the collective myth.  Populism is often branded with the Fascist tag, a term which itself is rather too liberally (no pun intended) applied to any political views seen as being to the right of mainstream conservative parties.  True Fascism was peculiar to Mussolini’s Italy, but following its deemed success in its early years, many of the policies were adopted, adapted and combined additional elements, most famously by Hitler and his National Socialists in Germany, adding “racial purity” to the mix, Franco in Spain, who absorbed the Fascist inspired Falange into a mix of Catholic conservatism and old style military dictatorship, and Salazar’s Estado Novo in Portugal, which shared many similarities with Franco’s Nationalist regime, but rather less military inspired.  Although Mussolini’s Fascists started with a populist agenda, it soon headed down the authoritarian path; a model followed by the others mentioned.
Much better examples of populism are Juan Peron, the former president of Argentina, democratically elected three times in 1946, 1951 and 1973, and Hugo Chavez, the former president of Venezuela, also elected three times, in 1998, 2000 and 2006.  Both had enjoyed successful military careers, an attribute that is frequently a prerequisite for political success in Latin America.  Both drew on the socialist policies of social welfare and unionised labour, combined with what would be viewed as more right wing policies in terms of nationalism and militarism, and an autarkic approach to economic development.
So is Nigel Farage Britain’s Peron or Chazez?  Well at first glance the answer would be a clear “no”, as all the media coverage portrays UKIP as simply a repository of dissatisfied, grumpy old Tories who just think the current Conservative leadership who have strayed from the path of righteousness.  This is backed up by the disgust with which the leading lights of left wing of British politics treats UKIP; you only have to listen to trade union leader or read to Guardian to see this.  However the modern left wing is greatly different from that of years past; the Labour Party is dominated by well educated professionals and the trade union movement by the public sector.  This has been a natural evolution, and as evidenced by Tony Blair’s three election victories, not an unsuccessful one.
But this success has meant that the Labour Party often finds itself distanced from the views of blue collar, white working class (especially men) who were once the bedrock of its support.  While this group may certainly distrust the Tories and share Labour’s views on public services, there are other policy areas where neither of the major parties (or the Lib Dems) appears in tune with this demographic.  In particular, this group sees itself as having been particularly hard hit by the impact of mass immigration and globalisation, the effects of which were felt just as much (if not more) during 13 years of Labour rule as they have been during the current administration; the European Union provides a simplistic target for both these factors.
Can Nigel Farage encourage this group to vote in large numbers for UKIP?  Well that is the 650 seat question.  Can a manifesto be put together that can appeal to both the blue collar white working class and Tebbit Tories?  So far UKIP has failed to put together a coherent policy portfolio of any kind, and has shown itself to be lacking in the kind of detail required of a government, but equally, are their target groupings those that are interested in such detail?  Policies that have universal support amongst the major parties (overseas aid levels in line with the Millennium Development Goals, gay marriage and other LGBT equality issues, free trade (such as EU and WTO memberships) and environmental policies) appear to carry little interests for these voter groups.
Populism generally appeals to if not the lowest common denominator, certainly to one that is not far up the scale, but as any TV scheduler or tabloid newspaper will tell you, such an approach can be very successful.  British politics (of all mainstream shades) has always worked and succeeded on the basis of “we know best”, and this patrician (in a non-gender sense) approach will be hard to break.  Will the British people fall for populism over patrician politics in 2015?  It may become the defining question of the forthcoming election.
Nick

Clear Blue Water

(Published 7 October 2014 on my Wordpress blog)
Last week saw the Conservatives hold their annual conference.  Like the Labour and UKIP conferences before them, there was a marked move towards their core supporter base, a move I for one applaud in all three cases (and I hope the Lib Dems follow the trend).
Having first become politically aware in the 1980’s, I look forward to an election like those of my youth, where the choices were clear and the policies made on the basis of conviction not focus groups.  The past two year has seen the passing of both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn, two of the giants of politics during the past half century.  Love them or hate them, neither Benn nor Thatcher could ever be accused of being wishy-washy in their politics.
In these terms, David Cameron scores higher than either Ed Miliband or Nigel Farage.  While the latter two made speeches that they were clearly aimed at the faithful, both were rather long on rhetoric and rather short policies, especially those policies that might appeal more to the core than to the middle ground.  In comparison, the Tories policies such as increasing the threshold for the 40% tax band and focusing the burden of deficit reduction on working age benefits are certainly lines in the sand.
Now while I don’t doubt for one minute that this approach by Messrs Cameron, Osborne et al was driven by a desire to win back voters who are flirting with UKIP, this is likely to have a number of consequences on election day.  UKIP’s past record on producing coherent policies is up there with Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s rights.  UKIP, like the Scottish Nationalists in the recent referendum vote, appeal to voters’ emotions, some pretty base emotions, and while these get the blood pumping on the campaign trail, quite frequently cooler heads prevail at the ballot box, something that the Tories are likely to benefit from.
The big question for senior Tories however, is whether the gains on this front will outweigh any negative impact such an approach has on floating voters and those who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010.  Like Labour, the Tories conference speeches suggest that they will have their core vote well motivated, including in the case of the Tories, many who might have voted UKIP at this year’s European Parliamentary election.  But in 2010, the Lib Dems received 23% of the votes cast, a figure that increases to almost 30% if the non-nationalist minor parties are included.  How many of these votes that find their way (or not) to the two major parties will determine who wins, who loses and whether another coalition will be on the agenda.
It is clear that many voters with centre-left inclinations who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 have long since moved their support to Labour, as evidenced by the polling figures over the last couple of years.  What is less clear is how those votes are spread with reference to our first past the post voting system.  Labour gaining former Lib Dem votes in its northern urban heartland means very little in electoral term, just as the Conservatives winning back UKIP waverers in the Home Countries has minimal effect.
With the UK now showing a strong economic rebound, the Conservatives should reap electoral benefits, but the rather uneven distribution of the fruits of recovery may limit this, especially as the beneficiaries are quite likely to already be Tory voters.
So what does all this mean?  I think the only thing that is certain is that it is going to be close, and quite possibly the closest since the titanic struggle between Harold Wilson and Edward Heath in February 1974.
Nick

Ferguson

The last week has seen much comment on the events in Ferguson, and I don’t propose to comment on the case itself; there has been enough comment already and passions on both sides are already inflamed enough.
Instead, I would like to comment on the broader issues; I think the issue of Police brutality is a symptom not the cause of the problem, and just treating the symptom never cures the disease.
The American culture has always been based on a zero sum game of winners and losers; it is the ugly dark side of all the things that in many ways make America such a great country: entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, self sufficiency and sense of adventure.  Those ugly aspects have included: taking land by force from the natives; enslaving Africans, then oppressing their descendants; exploiting cheap labour from China/Latin America (both in country and immigrants); and fighting wars (some overtly and some covertly) to control resources and strategic locations.  
Just look at the history of labour disputes and trade unions in the US; they have been far more violent than in the UK, France or Germany, despite American workers being paid more. It was common for the National Guard to be called in and strikers to be shot right up until World War 2.
To stop young black men being shot will require a change of culture: the people need to stop obsessing about money and material possession, guns have to removed from everyday society and education rather than celebrity should be the aspiration of the society.
People need to start thinking beyond themselves and their immediate family.  One would hope those who have been blessed with success would be the most generous in helping.  This is not a matter a race or social class, applying equally to the Silicon Valley CEO buying another yacht as it does to a rapper buying yet another Ferrari.  Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have shown a how this can be done, so lets hope others will follow.
The legal and political system needs to become more consensual, and quite frankly, more grown up.  Much of the debate this week has been about whether the grand jury made the right decision regarding the Michael Brown case.  I would ask a different question; could they have come up with any different decision based on the law as it stands.  The American legal system appears to accept the right to resort to deadly violence (whether it is the police, other government agencies or individuals) in so many situations , and guns are so prevalent, that is it surprising that so many deaths occur?  America has roughly 5 times the homicide rate of France, Germany or the UK; is a constitutional right to bear arms really worth that?
And my final point is one of a culture of violence; again not an issue of race or class.  It equally applies to the white “good ole’ boys” with their love of guns and intolerance, to the “gangstas” with their profanities and glorification of drug dealing and objectification of women, or the large corporation putting the bottom line before the health of its workers or the local community.
Nick

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Lines in the sand

A debate took place on the on the Facebook page of one of my friends last night regarding Amina Tyler, the young Tunisian woman who is pictured topless online with script across her chest in protest against the treatment of women (http://bit.ly/10wF4PA).  This is something I wrote about a couple of weeks ago already (http://on.fb.me/10wFwgM), but the debate raised the broader issue of what limits society and culture should place on the freedom of the individual.

Several comments were made about how I was viewing this through western eyes and that I needed to be more understanding of Tunisian culture. As a 40 something white British male working in the City, I guess I am the epitome of the classic image of Western imperialism, but equally, I am a creature of the modern world of globalisation; I live in London, probably the world's most cosmopolitan city, my friends, my clients and my interests are spread around the world, I am married to someone from another continent and I try to absorb as much information and understanding of the wider world as I can.

Britain has faced its own issues with dealing with the different cultures of people moving to this country; forced marriage, female genital mutilation and honour crimes are just three such recent issues, and the same issues are raised. I don't believe that these are issues that can be pussyfooted around; they are just wrong, and it has nothing to do with where anybody comes from.

I don't know Amina, but I do know that it is wrong for anybody to be treated as a second class citizen because of their gender. It doesn't matter what was written in a book, whether that book is 2,000 years old, 1,300 years old or published last week on Kindle; this is something that is wrong and as the human race has developed we have realised is wrong, just like slavery and human sacrifice. I don't want to care who you pray to, what you read, what you eat or how you live your life; that is up to you. As long as you do not impose your views on others or expect others to involuntarily support you in your life, then go ahead live your life as you chose.

So to all people everywhere I say that if you that if you wanted to be treated with respect, that if you want the benefits that the modern world can bring, then start treating everybody as equal, whatever their gender, race or sexuality. If you try and crush the potential of half your population, you will forever stay poor and stupid. respecting the individual does not kill a culture, it enhances it.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reds Under the Unmade Bed

Those of you with long enough memories will remember the Cold War fear that there were Soviet sympathisers everywhere, just waiting for their opportunity to overthrow capitalism; "reds under the bed" was the common turn of phrase.  But then came Gorbachev, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the discrediting of the Soviet economic model.  At the same time, Western leaders such as Thatcher and Reagan provided new impetus for market based economic reforms.  This trend continued into the 1990s, converging around centrist policies promoted by Blair, Clinton and the EU.

The next turn came in 2008 with the crash of the financial system, and holes began to rapidly appear in the consensus as the debt fuelled expansion in the private, public and banking sectors all came to a grinding halt and the full difficulties in paying back those debts became apparent.

In Britain, one of the main focuses of the coalition government has been to reduce the ever growing welfare bill, and this has created one of the biggest fault lines in British society, and one that is likely to grow wider.  On the right, the argument is that a system of welfare dependency has been created, leading to large numbers of people for whom living off benefits is preferable to low paid and/or unfulfilling jobs.  The evidence for this is that Britain has more people in employment than ever before, but with increasing numbers of those  low paid and/or unfulfilling jobs taken by immigrants, as benefit drawing Brits either refuse to take them, or are so unemployable that no sensible employer would hire them.  On the left, the argument is that the the poorest members of society are being blamed for the chaos caused by the reckless behaviour of financial institutions (they never blame over borrowing individuals or governments, who must also surely share the blame?) in the pre-crash period, and that a return to economic growth will solve the ballooning welfare costs.

I want to reflect on a slight tangent - is this British underclass starting to to resemble aspects of Soviet era society?  I know it sounds crazy, but here is my thinking.  In the Soviet bloc unemployment was practically non-existent, but productivity was almost practically non-existent; if they had not, their economies would not have collapsed in the way that they did. The Soviet bloc economies could not meet the requirements of their population due to the ever increasing productivity gap with the west; just compare east and west German industry - Trabant -v- Volkswagen.  Capitalism works because it makes people hungry, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically in terms of what they wish to achieve or acquire. The benefit system creates a kind of mini-Soviet bloc society within a broader capitalist society, with people paid low amounts but with no expectation of productivity or profit. Like Soviet society, its members live with petty, often vindictive rules, and a standard of living that does not compare to the mainstream capitalist economy, but it is also undemanding on its citizens. They receive free healthcare, sufficient income for a basic standard of living and none of the issues associated with life in the tooth and claw of capitalism. Somebody recounted the experience of a job centre advisor (albeit in Canada) about people returning to work not being psychologically prepared; I would argue that it is not work but capitalism that they are unprepared for, and when they then try to enter or re-enter the mainstream workforce, they find similar cultural difficulties to those experienced by Soviet bloc citizens post the collapse of communism and their attempts to join the capitalist economic system.

The question is, will this sub-economy collapse in the same way that the Soviet economy did?

Nick

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I can see clearly now

It struck me today that the latest Budget is tangible evidence of the path down which the Coalition Government wants to take the country, and the radical nature of this path.  I think Cameron is portrayed as a smoother but more limited version of Thatcher, but the policies are possibly more radical, albeit in a different direction.

20% Corporation Tax was never even remotely achieved in the 1980s.  The reform of the benefit system creates a much greater incentive for people to move to work than anything attempted under Thatcher.  But most significantly, inflation, the totemic enemy (along with the Soviet Union and the left in general) of the 1980's now appears to be the unspoken ally instead.  Inflation will erode the horrific debt levels (both in the state and private sectors) and the accompanying depreciation of the Pound will increase the competitiveness of exports (at least in the short term), but it will result in a continuing erosion of living standards.  The big gamble is will this lowering of real living standards, reduced corporate taxes and tougher benefit rules turn Britain into a lean, cost competitive but also high value added economy, or will it just lead to constant decline?  It is one hell of a bet.

Nick