Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Why we should not attack the Islamic State

The situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq is dire. The tyrannical rule that the Islamic State - or IS - imposes in the areas of Syria and Iraq which it controls are chilling. Their persecution of the Yazidi and other minorities is an affront to our common human decency. Now they are exporting murder to their neighbours, in Beirut and in Ankara, and more recently in Paris. I can understand the calls to do something, to use the West’s massive military power to help those who suffer under IS. A lot of people calling for intervention in Syria have the best intentions of civilians at heart. However, that does not make their desire to intervene is correct and I feel it could do much more harm than good.

What is typically meant by intervention against IS is usually bombing. Britain is currently bombing IS territory in Iraq. France, Russia and the US are heavily bombing IS in Syria and in Iraq. Our involvement in the regional conflict between IS, secular rebels and the governments of Iraq and Syria makes it more difficult to bring about a diplomatic solution. We can hardly argue against violence while using violence ourselves. We can hardly encourage any side to stop spreading the chaos and carnage, while we are spreading the chaos and change. At the same time chaos and destruction created by our bombing is the environment in which IS thrives.

I do not think there is an example of when bombing a Middle Eastern country has improved the situation for civilians. Our military has been heavily involved in Iraq since the 2003 invasion and the situation has deteriorated to the point where a medieval death cult controls vast swathes of land. When it was argued that we should not attack the Saddam regime, the counter argument was: "it can't get any worse". It can and it did. Now the same argument is being used to support attacking IS. It can get worse than IS and it will get worse the more we bomb. The west has been bombing this area of the world off and on for the last 25 years and it is in a worse state now than ever. Eventually we have to try something else.

It is difficult to talk about intervening against IS without looking at the wider issues. Firstly, Bashar al-Assad, the dictator of Syria. No one in favour of attacking IS can clearly say what Assad's role in their downfall should be. To some he is our natural regional ally; to others he is as much a part of the problem as IS. Russia supports Assad, but Britain and America want him to go. Assad's actions are clearly fanning the flames of IS, but fighting a war on two fronts in Syria would be much more difficult. If we must throw our military weight around, the Assad question has to be resolved first.

Secondly, IS needs to be put in the wider regional context. Looking beyond Syria and Iraq, we can see the wider Sunni Muslim world is in revolt against many factors: the secular governments which ignore the religion of their citizens, tyrannical regimes controlling the holy sites of Islam, the growing power of Shia Iran, heavy-handed Western foreign policy, artificial borders between nations which make no sense on the ground - some of which date back to the Sykes-Picot treaty in 1916 - and many other factors. Bombing IS to dust will not pacify an entire region. We are entering a long phase of conflict in the Middle East that cannot end until the above issues and others are resolved. This goes beyond religion, nationality and ideology, but involves all of these. A lasting and just peace for the region - which is what everyone really wants - cannot be brought about by the destruction of one group of fighters.

Another question that has yet to be resolved is what form should intervention take? We are currently bombing IS and have been for a while, but this has had little effect. I am not sure what more bombing by Britain can achieve that bombing by the US, France and Russia cannot. However the main question I would put to those who support bombing IS is how far do we go if bombing does not stop them?

Do those who support bombing believe that the British government should support a Turkish ground invasion? This will most likely result in heavy casualties for the Kurdish minority in the region, who are frequently targeted by the Turkish army. When that comes, it make may bombing supporters choke on their brown flakes when they read their Sunday Times.

Would those who support bombing IS, support a British and American ground invasion of Syria? Simon Jenkins of the Guardian claimed on the Moral Maze that it would take a deployment of 500,000 allied troops and the occupation of most of the region to defeat IS. Do we have the stomach for that? Do we think that re-creating the British Mandates in the Middle East will bring a just and lasting peace? Is that what is in everyone's wider interest? Will the Syrians who object to being ruled by Assad or IS welcome British rule with open arms? I think not. Most likely we would make an enemy of every side in the conflict and unite them all against us. This would destroy any chance of a negotiated peace.

Even if we send in the troops, as I have seen many people argue for, and defeat IS – what happens after that? What is our wider plan for the region? If there is anything we have learned from our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that our post-invasion plan needs to be a lot better. Look at what happened in Libya: it would be generous to say that the post-Gaddafi plans for Libya were drawn up on the back of a cigarette packet. Now the country is in a state of chaos with violent clashes between different factions, including IS who were not present in Libya before. If we are intervening in Syria and Iraq in anyway, we need to have a clear understand of the type of society we are trying to build, who will be our allies in this process and how we cleanly transition to this. None of these criteria have been satisfied.

What we have right now is a rush to find a solution to IS. When you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. When you have a billion pound military based heavily on air superiority, then every problem starts to look like one you can bomb with jet planes. From most of the commentators in favour of bombing, I have heard a lot of "bombing is definitely the solution, we just need to find out why". We are currently sleepwalking into a half-century long conflict in the Middle East and we cannot let a sudden desire enact our revenge on IS dictate regional foreign policy.

None of this answers the question of what we should do about IS? Simon Jenkins says nothing. I would recommend discontinuing military operations to give the maximum weight to diplomacy. If we must do something militarily, then we should support the Kurds who are currently fighting on the frontline against IS. This support for the Kurds should include supporting their desire for a state and standing up to Turkey who oppresses them.

Above all, I would counsel caution at a time like this. We cannot be selective in our foreign policy and still claim to stand on the moral high ground. We cannot oppose the tyranny and brutality of IS while supporting the tyranny and brutality of Assad. We cannot say we are opposed to the spread of chaos and fear while using our military to spread chaos and fear. We cannot say we oppose religious nihilism while offering nothing more than a power vacuum and more dead bodies as an alternative. It is okay to admit that we do not have the answers and cannot act now. It is far worse to admit we do not have the answers and act anyway.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The decline of the steel industry raises real questions for the left?

“If L S Lowry was painting today he’d be painting [in Notting Hill], not Manchester. Because this area is the dormitory for the biggest factory in this country: the factory of finance.” These are the words of Henry Mayhew, a City employee and Notting Hill residence interviewed in the BBC documentary The Secret History of our Streets. Manchester was once been the driving force behind the industrial revolution, but today most of the economic activity of the country is generated in one square mile.

Whatever you think of the bankers of the City of London, they are the economic engine of the UK and generate most of the wealth in the UK. This wealth does not make it far out of the South East or through many social classes, but the fact remains that we have traded factories for financial models.

This is mainly because our economy has been pivoted toward the City, through decades of privatization and financial deregulation. The 2008 financial crash and the subsequent recession has only increased our relevance on the City to generate economic activity. Neo-liberal economists would argue that this is because we have a competitive advantage - literally an advantage that makes you better than the competition - in banking and financial services. In Lowry's day, our competitive advantage was in steelmaking or coal mining. Things have changed. Time marches on. However, we cannot all be bankers and move to London, so we should probably think about the jobs everyone else is going to do.

A thousand people currently employed in an industry where the UK does not have a competitive advantage are about to lose their jobs as the Teesside Steelworks in Redcar closes down. With the closure of Tata Steel as well, it is clear that the UK steel industry cannot compete in the global steel market - especially against cheap steel being produced in China. Only the coldest neoliberal economist would dismiss the problems of these thousand people, their families and communities. Clearly something has to be done for them but retraining unemployed workers in their 40s and over is not something we have been historically good at in the UK and no one is talking about how we can change this.

Faced with the mass closure of steel plants, the conventional free-market wisdom is to rebalance the economy towards an area where we have a competitive advantage. The idea is that the government invests in science, engineering and computing education, to train young people in work in the high tech industries of the future. This is writing off the steel workers losing their jobs, but offering them the chance that their children can work in new industries.

Put this in the wider context of decreasing social mobility and we see how empty this promise is. People from poor backgrounds with unemployed parents have not historically done well in a liberalised labour market. Even if we created thousands of high tech jobs in former steel towns then these jobs would not go to the children of steel workers, because by taking their parents jobs away we are giving these children a competitive disadvantage in the labour market. Given the current state of social mobility and the labour market, what is left for these people or their children? The only jobs being created in these areas are working in a distribution centre - in other words low paid and insecure. In the current labour market the future does not look good for the people of Redcar.

The closure of Teesside Steelworks and the Tory's recent agreement with China to build a new nuclear power plant are often mentioned in the same breath. Opening up our domestic markets to global completion has destroyed the steel industry. There is no shortage of demand for steel in the UK, however it is much cheaper to import it than to buy it from Tata Steel, the company which owns the Teesside Steelworks. The fact that the Tories need to make a deal with China to build a new nuclear power plant is because the twin snakes of deindustrialisation and globalisation has got rid of all the British firms that could have built the new power stations. Any jobs created by opening our construction industry up to China will be offset by the job losses caused by opening our steel industry up to China.

The aforementioned neo-liberal economist's solution to this issue would be to move the entire county up the supply chain. Rather than competing in making huge amounts of raw materials at a low price, focus on making more complex products that China does not produce. The only problem with this is that China also wants to move up the supply chain and in the future we will be competing against cheaper Chinese software or financial products. Even if China does change, none of this will help the newly unemployed steel workers or their children, for the reasons mentioned above.

Cameron and Osborne clearly have not thought this through. As they open the country up to increasing competition from globalisation more and more businesses will be forced to close. Cameron and Osborne, like the neo-liberal economist, insist that job losses are a temporary and are a necessary pain to pass through as we move to more prosperous future economy, much the same way that they justify their spending cuts. The problem with this approach to globalisation, like austerity, is that it is never Cameron or Osborne or anyone they know or anyone in their constituencies who loses their jobs or tax credits. Their set are always the one to benefit from globalisation but never the ones to pay for it.

Ignoring the problems of globalisation is not a trend which began with Cameron and Osborne. Since the 1980s the UK has moved away from manufacturing and towards financial services and job losses have been dismissed as the cost of structural readjustment. This dismissal of the problems of globalisation has led to under investment in our manufacturing, which has meant closures and job losses. The proof of all this is in the China power plant deal. No firm in Britain can build it, because we have no invested in these skills in the race towards our competitive advantage in finance.

Globalisation, deindustrialisation and the problems it has cerated for communities has been met with a shoulder shrug from society as a whole. In Britain we are more than willing to throw thousands of steelworkers under the bus to have cheaper smartphones and holidays abroad. When we choose to think about the poor people who lose out we shake our heads and say there is nothing to be done.

No one on the left has a solution to this problem. Corbyn is critical of the free market which created the problem but he does not have a solution. He talks about investing in infrastructure but you cannot talk about infrastructure without talking about industrial infrastructure. There is a difference between what we can produce and the economic capacity of the country, i.e. having roads and railways are pointless without factories or services to generate economic activity. Using state spending to give these declining industries a competitive advantage will not work either, the government already spent £1 billion on the Teesside Steelworks and could not make it produce steel at a competitive price.

So, we come back to the same problem. What are these communities supposed to do as their jobs disappear? Move to London? Clearly not an option for everyone. Invest in a Northern Powerhouse to create new employment outside London? Good idea and something I support, but there are four problems:

1. There is a lot of talk about this but nothing is actually happening.

2. It does not help the people who are losing their jobs today.

3. Making Manchester or Liverpool a bit more like London will not help Blackpool or Whitehaven or Workington. The brain drain will just have less far to travel

4. By the time all these new industries are established in the Northern Powerhouse they will have to close because China will have moved into these industries in a big way and the North will have gone from being unable to produce steel a competitive price to being unable to produce software or microcircuits at a competitive price.

Maybe the solution is an L S Lowry type figure taking pictures, or making films about these towns and their people, so that it becomes harder to dismiss them. We need to have more understanding and sympathy for the people who are losing their jobs. That is the best idea I have and calls of compassion have a poor track record at tackling economic problems.

We need to do something about the loss of these jobs, we cannot just leave these people and communities to slide into absolute poverty because it is what our neo-liberal, free market ideology demands. The left does not have an answers to this questions, these industries their workers and unions used to be the backbone of the labour movement, why is there not a left wing clamer to do something about these job losses? Corbyn's retro approach to politics will not work in this situation. We need new thinking.

The middle class should pay attention to what is happening in Redcar, as the twin snakes of globalisation and automation are coming for their jobs too. We can try and move up the supply chain to protect the jobs we still have but China is also doing so and competing against China in a liberalised global market has not gone well so far.

Putting up trade barriers is not the solution, that is the same as pretending the world economy has not become globalised. Retraining workers who lose their jobs under the current system is not a solution, not unless we redesign our education system and spend a lot more money on it. Shrugging your shoulders and saying there is nothing that can be done for these people is not a solution either. We need radical new thinking to tackle this problem. We need thinking that questions the established orthodoxies of the free market but also accept some of the aspects of globalisation that cannot be changed.

The lesson from what is happening at the Teesside Steelworks is that during the time of Lowry the work which sustained our economy was done by many people in unionised and relatively well paid and more secure jobs. Now the work is done by a few people and everyone has less secure jobs. We have gone from factory workers to bankers and cleaners. We need to tackle this issue of deindustrialisation, economic change and globalisation before we become a country with only a few highly specialised City jobs, which still make money in the one specific competitive nieche China has not priced us out of, while the rest of us work in low skilled, insecure and low paid jobs.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Spitting, shouting and bursting Tory bubbles: Conservative party conference

Last week in Manchester the Tories staged their annual festival of self-congratulation, also known as the party conference. This time they have been trying to keep the swagger to a minimum after their surprise election victory in May. Whatever your view on whether or not austerity is the best solution to our economic problems, it is clear that the Tories have not governed for everyone during the five years of the coalition. There have been cuts to unemployment benefit, the introduction of the bedroom tax, rising homelessness and now low paid workers are losing their tax credits. All of these have disproportionately affected the poor, so not everyone was pleased to see the Tories back in government.

Inevitably this displeasure led to a protest outside the party conference, a protest attended by over 60,000 people. It was a large protest, but Manchester Police commented on Twitter (??? link) that it was a well organised, and well behaved, protest with only 4 people arrested. Despite this commitment to public order from the protestors, the right wing media still called them yobs and tried to make it look like Genghis Khan's hordes had tried to invade the Tory conference. Some journalists were spat it, which is completely unacceptable, but we should not judge a largely peaceful protests but its worst members.

There was an attempt from the Tory sympathetic sections of the press to portray this a far left lynch mob, prevented from murdering the Tory party membership by only be a thin line of police officers. We were told that these people were anarchists and socialists who want to destroy the government and capitalism. I do not think this is fair. I think that many of these people were not anarchists, socialists or even trade unionists or Labour party supporters. In fact, many probably did not think of themselves as left wing.

These were the people hurt by five years of the Tory led coalition and the people who will be hurt by five years of a Tory government. The people hit by the bedroom tax, the people who are about to lose their tax credits. This protest was simply about the Tories acknowledging that these people exist. It was about the Tories recognising that last five years have not been "mending the roof" as George Osbon put it, but bringing it down onto a lot of peoples' heads. It was about the fact that yes unemployment down and GDP is up but there has been a human cost to this, primarily born by one section of society. If the Tories are going to have a huge festival of self-congratulation then they have to walk past the people who they have hurt.

The worst thing about the Tories is that they deny the hurt they have done. They talk about sacrifice and tough decisions, as if all that is needed to fix the country’s economic problems is for a few people to go without quite so many take-aways and trips to the pub. The Tories praise themselves for making difficult decisions but they are never the ones who have to make sacrifices because of them. They deny the deaths caused by benefit sanctions and they refuse to acknowledge that what they are doing is destroying communities and lives.

The most intense anger of the protest, the spitting and the shouting, was brought about by the Tories trying to avoid the protesters or walk away without acknowledging them. The crowd grew more angry and aggressive to get attention.

From the Tory's point of view, they refuse to engage with anyone who presents their criticisms in what they see as an unreasonable manner. They will not engage with what they see as a mob baying for blood. From the point of view of someone at the protest (or the millions of people hurt by Tory policy that they represent) there is no reasonable way to bring their suffering to the attention of the Tory Party.

I assume that the Prime Minister did not go into politics to make poor people worse off. He just lives in a posh Tory bubble, where the only people he meets are Tories, even those from less well off backgrounds. Trying to pierce this bubble is almost impossible. The protesters have no means to make their objections known other than to shout loudly. The Tories ignore them for being unreasonable, which makes them get angrier, so they shout louder. The net result is that politics feels increasingly distant and alien to the protesters, while those in power are made to feel that these are people to be governed and not engaged with.

Make no mistake that a political divide is growing between the victims of austerity and those who have not been touched by it, and the Tories winning an election has not changed this. Anyone who wants to reach any kind of political consensus needs to make these two groups talk, which currently they are not.

The main event of the conference was Prime Minister David Cameron's speech, which he primarily used to attack the new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn was also present in Manchester, but he was addressing the same protesters that the Tories refused to acknowledge. In many ways, Corbyn is the opposite of the protestors: quiet, impersonal, and from a mainstream political party.

Corbyn's election as Labour leader was because he engaged with this faction of society that the other mainstream politicians ignore, they flocked into the Labour Party to carry Corbyn into the leadership. Now Corbyn is trying to reasonably convoy the anger and hurt of these people to the establishment. However, the establishment are not listening to Corbyn either and would scare people by calling Corbyn a threat to national security.

When the angry try and engage with the political process in a constructive way, through political changes such as electing Corbyn, they told either that they are stupid, that their opinions are dangerous or that they are traitors. I am still not sure what the Tories believe is a reasonable way to object to their policies. Presumably it is as meekly as possible so that any objections can be ignored.

Questions remain of how well Corbyn will go down with the electorate as a whole, but so far he has done well at representing the views of this angry section of society that have been ignored for so long. Corbyn is trying to avoid a violent confrontation in the future by addressing the social problems of austerity. However the establishment do not want to listen to him.

If the Tories do not want to talk to the protesters about their objections then they can talk to Corbyn. If they do not want to talk to him either, then the divide will grow until something snaps and violence breaks out. The post-war consensus was supposed to the stop extreme politics of the left and right and the violent political uprisings that had dogged the first half the twenty century. If the Tories want to tear up the last remnants of the post-war consensus and silence any objection, then they invite a return to the extremes and violence of the past. This is what will happen if there is no constructive dialogue.

I would prefer engagement with the protesters through the established political channels as the best means to address the social problems of austerity. The choice of doing that directly, or through Corbyn, is left to the Tory party. The one thing which is certain is that pretending that no one is suffering under austerity and Cameron's leadership will not heal the growing social divide. Only constructive engagement can do this.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

What is wrong with gentrification?

Last weekend a protest come street party descended on Brick Lane to protest against the gentrification of the area. Called the Fuck Parade and organised by anarchist group Class War, the crowd-funded protest turned its attention to the most obvious incarnation of the hipsterization of East London, the Cereal Killer. For those reading from outside London this is a cafe which only sells cereal.

Most people will instantly roll their eyes at the words "street party", "crowd-funding" and "anarchist group", then they will go back to eating their scrambled eggs with chorizo with all the superiority of a middle-class centrist. The more thoughtful individual will say that they may find the idea of a cafe that sells cereal for £4.40 a bowl slightly decadent but wider socio-economic problems cannot be blamed one group of people trying to earn a living. Protesting outside a small business a few streets away from the headquarters of RBS is choosing the wrong enemy if your goal really is "class war".

All this misses the point, which is that gentrification has done enormous damage to the communities of East London and the process shows no signs of stopping. You may disagree with the form the protest has taken but you cannot disagree with people wanting to express their anger at the way their communities have been hollowed out to make way for places which sell pulled pork and ever increasing numbers of luxury flats.

The process of gentrification drives people out of their homes by raising the rents in formerly affordable postcodes to astronomical levels. Through the same process, gentrification closes down small businesses. Just look at what has happened with the Brixton railway arches

Gentrification affects the poorest people in society. People who rent and cannot afford to get on the property ladder. These people are most affected by the rise in rents, especially at times when income has remained stagnant. Some of these people live in social housing, which mitigates some of the effect, but the depletion of the social housing stock has forced many of them into the private renting sector. Forced to move from affordable location to affordable location, the rising rents with gentrification means these people are running out of affordable places to live. These poor people have almost no one to speak for them and no means to signal their opposition to being priced out of their own homes.

Most of us see gentrification as positive thing. We say that this area used to be filled with betting shops and takeaways and now it has coffee shops and bars that sell craft lager from local breweries. There is an element of class snobbishness in this, it’s more middle class therefore it must be better. However is it what the people who live in the area there want? No one ever stops to ask them when the character of an area changes.

I live in Walthamstow where this process is thoroughly underway. In the three years I have lived here the places has changed almost beyond recognition. I admit that I am part of the problem, I was not born here and I like pulled pork and craft lager as much as the next iPhone owning middle-class lefty, but I can see another way of looking at gentrification. This area used to be filled with business local people could afford to use; now it is not. Pretty soon these people will leave because they cannot afford their rent and the middle-class colonisation of East London will march on.

What will happen when all the cleaners, carers and shop staff cannot afford to live anywhere in London? Do we want to send them all to Luton and then bus them in when needed? Is this the future for the poor people who need the jobs in London but cannot afford to live there? The problem of London's rising property prices is already spreading to the commuter belt. The future looks bleak for the urban poor in the South East.

So if gentrification is such a problem, why is nothing being done about it? For those who hold the majority of political power (the middle and upper classes), gentrification is seen as desirable. The more middle class an area becomes, the better it is. Capitalism will liberate the poor from their vulgar, misguided desires and deliver them to a more sophisticated world. It is just an unfortunate byproduct that this process also drives poor people of their homes.

Gentrification is also seen as desirable by the people who own property in an area. Again, generally these are the people who have more of a say in the political process. To challenge gentrification we need to challenge the idea that homes are financial assets and remind everyone that a home is a place to live. Economic security for the many is preferable than generating more wealth for the few.

We need to challenge the prevailing opinion that creating more wealth at the expense of communities and people's lives is a good thing. This cuts to the heart of how we see economics. Our society is becoming materially richer but emotionally poorer as all that has emotional value is swept away in favour what makes money. This is seen as a natural process, something we cannot control. Standing up to capitalism is like willing the Earth to stop turning.

Economic process are not inevitable and neither are they natural forces. They are the behaviour of people, and peoples’ behaviour has changed in the past and it will change in the future. This view, that forms and flows of capitalism is inevitable and beyond control is an ideological argument in favour of the status quo. It is an argument that benefits the people who already have wealth, who own property and who benefit from the constantly expanding reach of capitalism. Markets can be controlled, the process is not inevitable. To say otherwise is to support those who prosper from the process of gentrification at the expense of others.

Tackling the problems of gentrification cuts to the heart of how we see capitalism and society. What is seen as good in our society, or inevitable, is often what benefits the middle classes who hold all the political power. These assumptions need to be challenged if we are to stop the damage done to communities by gentrification.

Over the last few years economic growth has returned on the back of growing consumer debt and rapidly rising house prices. At the same time, the majority of people have had falling real wages, less stability in employment and rising costs of living. We have failed to build enough houses for sale and enough social housing, this has forced too many people into an overheated private rented sector and led to a housing crisis, which has affected the poorest the most. We could unlock brownfield land, build more houses, build taller to create more housing units, passes laws against land banking, tax under-occupied properties, pass laws to prevent the depletion of the social housing stock, build more social housing or taken any other number of steps to tackle the problems of gentrification, but there is no political will to do this.

There has been many polite requests to tackle the social problems of gentrification, from the poor and the middle class, this has led to nothing. The process marches invetiably on, people are still being driven from their homes by rising rents and local business are forced out in favour of places like Cereal Killer. This trend is not the fault of Cereal Killer’s owners nor is it the fault of those who sell pulled pork or craft lager, however society is sending clear message to the poor. “These things are wanted, you are not wanted here. Leave now. Any attempts to resist the invasion of our community will be severely dealt with.” No wonder people are angry.

Only the most selfish person would think that anarchist led riots are a sign of society functioning properly. Clearly there are problems of gentrification that need to be addressed, however, all forms of polite protest have been met with a shrug of the shoulder. So people have taken to the streets.

The problems of gentrification still damage people's lives and the process continues. Violence will follow unless we face the problem of the housing crisis and people being driven out of their community. It is not enough to dismiss this as inevitable or argue that it is desirable. We cannot allow the problem of gentrification to continue unchecked or else the form of protest that comes in the future will be much more destructive.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The migrant crisis requires leadership not pragmatism

"The voters are wrong, and what is required is a louder exposition of their wrongness." These were the sarcastic words written by Rafael Behr in his Guardian column and were meant to mock the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and their desire for Labour to challenge the prevailing Tory wisdom on the economy, welfare and immigration. The success of Corbyn has uncovered a divide in politics, especially left wing politics, between those who believe that we should give the voters what they want and those who want to change what voters want.

The former has been the dominant approach to politics from the mid-80s onwards. It took over when we abandoned grand narratives of changing society and settled for governments which make minor adjustments. The established economic doctrines have not been challenged since Thatcher and a cynical following of the established narrative has been embraced in order for left wing politicians to be "electable". The fact that other than Blair, all of these electable Labour platforms have failed to win elections is usually overlooked when arguing that Labour should give the voters what they want.

This cynical acceptance of right wing arguments is nothing short of tacit support for the establishment, but it is often packaged as being realistic or pragmatic. The pragmatists' argument usually goes thusly: "It's not that I am cynically pro-establishment or have a complete lack of will to change the status quo I am invested in, I am just being realistic about what we can achieve with politics being the way they are". This is the attitude which has allowed neo-liberalism to go unchallenged for over 30 years.

This acceptance of a timidly pragmatic approach to politics has dramatically reduced our belief in what politics can accomplish. The majority of the fault for this needs to be laid at the feet of spineless politicians who are more concerned by what spin doctors have to say than what people need. We now think that politics cannot change society or achieve great things, however we are still faced with enormous challenges that require radical solutions and not timidity. Climate change, growing inequality and decreasing social mobility are long term trends which need a radical solution. In the short term, a situation which right now needs a radical solution is the European migration crisis.

Tackling the crisis requires politicians to have vision and leadership, and at times it will mean telling the voters when they are wrong. Most people in the last election voted for a party which offered some form of controls on immigration; a pragmatist would say this shows there is no electoral will for helping migrants despite any obligations we may feel to those in need. The migrant crisis is an issue where we need politicians to tell the voters and the public what they may not want to hear want to hear. Right now the photographs from Turkey may have increased sympathy for the migrants, but helping these people in dire need will mean leadership from politicians in the long run, when the issue fades from the headlines and when it is not politically advantageous to appear sympathetic to migrants.

We need our leaders to show courage and fly in the face of public opinion if that opinion is against helping people who are suffering. We need politicians to give an exposition of voters wrongness. Little has been done to challenge the anti-immigration rhetoric and the public perception of immigrants is at an all time low. This has led to a humanitarian crisis across Europe from Greece to Italy, from Hungary to Calais. There is a lot of suffering by people who have lost their homes, their livelihoods and even their families. No one can deny the plight of these poor people the victims of war, failed states and totalitarian regimes. Political will is against helping these people because of this pragmatic acceptance that helping migrants is a vote loser.

We have a duty to help these poor people as we are able to help them. They are not asking for much, food, shelter, a place to work that is free from war and tyranny. This is not a lot and involves us giving up so little of our vast wealth to help some of the world's most unfortunate people. We also have a duty to help them as we caused their suffering. Through attacking Iraq and Libya we created the chaos which groups like ISIS have exploited to seize power, groups which many of these people are fleeing.

We are also responsible through our inability to help in the people who live under totalitarian regimes or in war zones like Eritrea and Syria. Our governments show huge ability to influence poorer nations when we want something from them (usually natural resources) but when it comes to helping the world's least fortunate people we shake our heads and say there is nothing to be done. Our inability to solve these problems has brought the victims of war and tyranny to our doorstep and we are obliged to help them here if we cannot help them in their country of origin.

It may be unpopular with small minded little Englanders, who thinks our duty of care extends as far as providing a fertile ground for business to prosper but goes no further - conveniently these people are often business owners and live in prosperous communities - but we need to stand up to these voters and give an exposition of their wrongness. The pragmatists will dislike this but because it requires challenging people's opinions (including opinions they are sympathetic to) but we need to stand up to the pragmatists as well. The migration crisis is a case when the voters are wrong and giving the voters what they want will lead to more suffering.

The pragmatists' arguments collapses when confronted with any situation where taking the easiest route out is not an opinion. On the issue of welfare these pragmatists get what they want a lot, because it is easier to cut benefits (or to allow the Tories to cut benefits if you support Labour) than to challenge the prevailing opinion on welfare. In regards to the migrant crisis, the pragmatists do not have a solution because there is no solution that involves giving the voters what they already want. The pragmatists' solution is to ignore the problem so that it goes away. This will clearly not work.

The reason why the pragmatists do not have a solution is because the solution is leadership and challenging the prevailing opinion. The time and the case for radical leadership has never been greater as we are faced with great challenges. Not just international problems like the migrant crisis or climate change, but the problems of the UK require radical leadership to tackle them. How do we rebalance our economy away from London? How do we provide a reasonable standard living for people across the entire country when even middle class jobs are threatened by automation? How do we care for the growing percentage of old people? How do we share the benefits of technological advancement? These are not problems with easy or pragmatic solutions. To face these challenges we need radical leadership, the challenges are great but I am confident that together we can rise to them.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Corbyn train wreck

Something which no one anticipated has happened – there has been a major shake up in the Labour leadership contest, and it looks likely that Jeremy Corbyn will win a landslide victory. This has come as a shock to everyone, including Corbyn himself, but on some level it was inevitable. The surge in support for the Greens, the SNP and UKIP over the last parliament shows that voters are fed up with carefully-tailored, spin-doctor-managed politicians who talk a lot and say nothing of value.

Corbyn's success is partly because the other Labour leadership candidates are all so hopeless. However, Corbyn's success is also partly because he has a narrative that members have engaged with, a narrative that Labour can return to its traditional socialist values rather than drift to the right.

Having a successful narrative is essential to politics. Labour lost the election because the electorate did not trust them with the economy. This could be more accurately phrased as the electorate bought the Conservatives’ narrative that Labour over-spending caused the recession and the Tories are sorting the problem out. This is why, despite Labour's spending lock and commitment to austerity, voters still felt they were not economically credible.

Corbyn has given the party hope that politics can change society for the better. His narrative of what is wrong with the country has engaged people with Labour politics on a scale not seen since the halcyon days of Blair. I greatly admire the way in which Corbyn has engaged so many people alienated by politics in general and the Labour Party in particular.

Corbyn's narrative is a radical departure from what senior Labour Party figures have been saying for a long time, and it conflicts directly with the narrative which both the Blarities and the Conservatives are putting forward as to why Labour lost the general election. This is one reason why so many Labour bigwigs have lined up to warn party members not to support him in the leadership election.

A narrative of a return to socialist values speaks to a lot of people about what they think is wrong with society – namely, that there is too much focus on wealth creation and not enough on inequality, and there is too much privatisation driven by ideology and not enough public ownership. It appeals to people who think there are too many benefit cuts and too much blaming the poor for being poor. We are becoming a less caring, meaner and more selfish society under the Tory government, and a narrative that is counter to this is engaging many people.

Corbyn is the only candidate saying we should not blame all of our social problems on immigrants and benefit claimants. Corbyn is the only candidate saying we need to tackle our environmental problems and invest in infrastructure. Corbyn’s narrative is based on values Labour should remember and that the Blarities have tried their hardest to forget. It is a narrative that has changed the leadership election and could become the narrative of the Labour party as a whole.

This new narrative does not fix all of the Labour Party's problems. The main issue with it is that it is a fundamentally backwards-looking narrative. Corbyn's policies are traditional old Labour socialism: nationalisation, higher taxes, more spending, re-opening the coalmines, and withdrawal from NATO. All of these, apart from the last one, are policies I support but they need to be accompanied by a narrative that looks to the future and not the past.

What the left needs right now is powerful narrative about the sort of society we want to create in the future. Ideas like redistribution, basic income, and solutions to the crises being faced in health, education and housing. The left needs to think about how capitalism will change, how to protect the environment and how to protect a minimum standard of living in a world where machines now threaten to take away middle class jobs. The left needs a narrative that brings old Labour values into a current context.

None of the other Labour leadership candidates have any form of narrative, which is one reason why Corbyn is so far ahead in the polls. The other candidates have no means to explain what is wrong with society and how they could change it for the better. Corbyn's narrative of going back to the past is better than the empty sound bites that the other candidates offer.

However, Corbyn’s narrative could cost Labour the 2020 election. Labour wins big when it has a vision for the future and is forward looking. What Labour needs right now is a "white heat of technology" moment, a narrative which describes current circumstances and how society will progress under a Labour government. Corbyn is not offering this.

There is another issue with the Corbyn campaign, and that is the messenger and not the message. Corbyn has supported a number of unpopular causes over the years, including the IRA, Hamas and Hezbollah. Many of the groups he has supported have become legitimate political forces, such as the ANC, but some are still considered enemies of Britain by many voters. Regardless of how good his narrative is, it could fall on deaf ears because of his history and the hammering that he will get in the right wing press, In the end, Corbyn could alienate as many people from the Labour Party as he attracts.

Corbyn's opponents argue that his leadership could be a train wreck. The combination of a backward-looking narrative and a messenger who will be painted as a sympathizer of terrorists could alienate moderate voters and drive them straight to the Tories. If the Tories win in 2020, they will continue their plan to demolish the welfare state and privatize the NHS with a zeal we cannot imagine right now. The people who need an effective opposition the most will be the ones who lose out.

That is one possible train wreck narrative of the future. The other is the train wreck of signing up to the Tory narrative or of having no narrative – these are functionally the same, and are what the other candidates offer. Labour cannot help the people most hurt by the Conservative government by agreeing with benefit cuts, austerity and the mass transfer of assets from the poor to the rich. The Tories have the demographics locked down who support austerity and controls on immigration, and if Labour agrees with them it only makes the Tories look more credible to these people. The Tories could not win under Blair by matching his narrative of spending and Labour cannot win by agreeing with the Tory narrative – it needs to present an alternative.

I do not know which of these two outcomes is more likely. So far, Corbyn's narrative has worked very effectively for him. In just eight weeks he has gone from a no hope candidate to almost certain victory. Will he be able to repeat this on a larger scale over the next five years?

Personally, I feel that the greater trap is not having a narrative or accepting the Tory narrative, which is what cost Ed Miliband the election. A lot of voters want change from the direction the country has gone in over the last 30 years, and Corbyn's message of a return to traditional socialist values seems to be working.

The other candidates’ complete lack of a challenging narrative is a major problem. It will hand electoral victory to the Tories. Over Blair, Brown and Miliband years I have seen too many people of principal alienated by a Labour Party that is walked over by big business and the rich, while failing to stand up for the most disadvantaged people in society. Corbyn is offering a narrative that can change this. Will it be strong enough to counter the muck the right wing press will throw at him? That remains to be seen.

Maybe Corbyn can use his narrative to shift the support of the electorate in his favour. I hope he can. Make no mistake, the chances of a train wreck are high if he fails - but the chances of a train wreck are also high if we do not let him try.

Welcome to the new Tory Britain

NB: This blog post was written a while ago and not posted due to computer problems. The debate has changed since it was written, mainly because of Jeremy Corbyn, who will be the subject of the next blog post, but I felt it worth posting anyway. It was supposed to go up shortly after the budget was announced.

We were all surprised when the Tories won a majority in the general election earlier this year. Polls had showed Labour and the Tories neck and neck for weeks. No one expected what happened when the polling stations closed and the BBC announced its exit polls. The Tories were going to be the largest party in a hung parliament by quite a long way.

Paddy Ashdown's comments that he would "eat his hat" if the polls were right summed up the belief that this could not have happened. Over the next few hours, the results backed up the exit poll. The Tories would be the largest party and hold the balance of power. By the early hours of the next morning it was clear that even the exit poll was an under-estimate and that the Tories would form a majority government.

A taste of what the next five years would bring was immediately served in the form of July's emergency budget, the first purely Tory budget since Ken Clarke's 1996 budget 18 years before. The budget contained tax cuts for the rich in the forms of reductions in inheritance tax and corporation tax, the later to become lowest level in the G7 and joint lowest in the G20. The budget also contained £12bn worth of cuts to welfare, much of it for people in work but earning less than a living wage. The people who have insecure jobs, the people with low incomes, the people who have been suffering from years of stagnant wages, rising rents and high costs of living would bare the brunt of Tory austerity. We were told that it was essential to cut back aid to these hard working families in order to balance the books of the nation.

At the same time as those who work hard for a low wage were having money taken away from them, Chancellor George Osborne has announced the sale of the publicly-owned Royal Bank of Scotland at a cut down price. The net loss to the public purse of this sale is £13bn. The conflicting message is our society cannot afford to be generous to the poor but it is essential that we continue to be generous to the rich, if we do not then the entire mechanism of our society would ground to a hault. If we give the poor money they will not work, but if we stop giving the rich money they will not create wealth.

This cut to the poor and subsidy to the rich represents an enormous transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest. The welfare state is being bled dry out of a sense of necessity, a necessity that does not extend to selling the government's RBS shares at market price. This shows what the Tories really believe in and what we will get for the next five years: help for big business and the rich, punishment the poor for being poor.

Osborne has pushed back his deficit reduction plans. The national debt will now be paid off in 2019, and it will take longer to repay the deficit under Osborne's plan than it would have under the plans laid out by Labour Chancellor Alastair Darling in 2010 and Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls in 2015. Both of these alternatives, dismissed by the electorate, involved fewer cuts to public services. The Tory plan is not to rebalance the nation's finances but to rebalance society in favour of the “wealth creators”. This not a conspiracy organised by a public school elite, it is simply what the Tories believe will encourage economic growth that will eventually trickle down to everyone. The mass transfer of assets from the poor to the rich is supposed to benefit the poor at some later date. However, that day never arrives and we are becoming an increasingly unequal society.

Following their surprise defeat, Labour are searching for a new leader. This has not prevented interim leader Harriet Harman from endorsing the Tory welfare cuts. The electorate sent a clear signal that they did not trust Labour with the economy, that they completely accepted the Conservatives’ line on Labour overspending, and they wanted the deficit cut. Harman wants to regain some electoral credibility for Labour during her brief time in charge and her approach to this is to sign up to the Tories plan to hack away at the safety net the poor rely on.

By signing up to the Tories’ anti-welfare agenda, Labour have moved the middle ground of politics towards scaling back welfare. When Labour fails to offer an opposition to Tory cuts they become more acceptable to the electorate. This gives the Tories licence to cut welfare further than they initially planned.

It is not a coincidence that on the day that Labour agreed not to oppose the Tory welfare cuts, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has suggested that workers save for their own sickness and unemployment by paying into a private fund out of their wages. This is fundamental redrawing of the social contract and an attack on the basic premise that the state provides assistance to those who are unfortunate enough to be sick or unemployed.

This new assault on welfare is partly ideological: there are many Tories who would like to abolish welfare alltogether and move to system entirely based on self-reliance. That would be a system entirely based on how wealthy your family is, which suits the Tories perfectly. Another reason for this assault on welfare is the cut and thrust of politics. The Tories have a simple plan: to paint Labour as a party of the unemployed and themselves as a party of the hard workers, and this was one of the reasons why they won the election.

The Tories will keep hacking away at welfare until Labour stand up to them, at which point the Tories will accuse them of being on the side of the scroungers and against the strivers. If Labour try to avoid being accused of supporting scroungers by voting with the Tories, then the Tories will cut welfare further and further. While the two main parties play games of positioning over the issue of welfare, the people who rely on welfare are losing their livelihoods.

Labour, and other people on left, need to stand up to the mass transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich through welfare cuts and discount privatisation. However, the position faced by Labour after the surprise electoral defeat is a difficult one. They need to find a new way to present themselves, because the way that former leader Ed Miliband presented Labour completely failed to resonate with the electorate.

While Labour are going through this period of introspection, we should appreciate the size of the challenge. The electorate voted for the Tories and gave them a mandate, however slim, to cut further. The arguments of Miliband fell on deaf ears, the electorate is not interested in a Labour Party that offers a milder version of what the Tories are offering. The electorate would clearly just prefer the Tories.

If Labour and the left are going to start winning again, then we need a pursue new narrative about what has gone wrong in the past and what will go wrong in the future unless we change direction. This new narrative needs to be bold, radical, different from what the Tories argue, but it also needs to resonate with ordinary people and their experience of the world.

For my part, I intend to write articles looking into this question of a new left wing narrative and what shape it could take. Whatch this space for new ideas of how we change the political debate. The Tories are rolling out their vision for Britain for the next five years and it is a painful vision of welfare cuts for the poorest and the mass transfer of assets to the richest. The need for the left to express a narrative which could oppose the new Tory Britain has never been greater.