Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The nuclear option: no one wants Fukushima in their back yard

Energy policy, like many other political issues, divides the left. Some left-wingers are pro-nuclear energy and point to countries like France which produces three quarters of its energy from nuclear power. It is a convincing argument as France has one of lowest greenhouse gas emissions in Europe and the lowest energy prices. Opponents to nuclear energy point out that uranium is still a finite resource, like coal. They also point towards nuclear power’s history of catastrophes from Chernobyl to Three Mile Island.

Most political parties agree that there are problems with the energy policy of the past. Coal, oil and gas are rising in price about as fast as our collective understanding of the damage they do to the environment. Oil and gas also increase our reliance on countries we would rather not be dependent upon. When choosing supplies, we have the politically unstable and violent Middle East or the stable and violent Russian Federation. Politicians of every banner can see the value in disengaging from both of these oil and gas rich regions.

We all agree there is a problem, but disagree on the solution. The current Tory government is enamoured with fracking, which is hardly a solution at all as it is still non-renewable energy, environmentally damaging and likely to produce earthquakes – although these are physical earthquakes unlike the political ones going on in the Middle East. The main reason for the Tories support of fracking is so that David Cameron can be pictured in a hard hat in front of a giant machine and appearing to be accomplishing something tangible for once. It also a cynical attempt to recapture the idea that the Tories are the party of the entrepreneur, an opinion which a decade of New Labour followed by a Tory government made up of, and run for, the benefit of the landed gentry has eroded. Personally, I do not see how fracking would help with this. Giant energy companies have little to do with aspirational working class people who want to improve their social and economic standing through setting up a business.

What giant energy companies certainly are not is socialist. They are the antithesis of everything Marxists of today and yesterday believe in. The Tory commitment to them is a continuation of the policy of doing nothing and hoping that the free market can sort this problem out. While the Tory government is waiting for Ayn Rand to solve problems of energy policy, the water levels are rising in poor countries. But we cannot seriously expect Tories to worry about that.

Meanwhile the left is failing to provide any seriously leadership on this issue due to the above mentioned divisions. The Green movement, which is against nuclear power and prefers a 100% renewable approach, point to countries like Germany which are migrating away from nuclear in favour of renewable energy. They also point to recent news that wind generated more electricity than nuclear power on the 21st of October (however the circumstances of this were dubious if you read into it in more detail)

As noble as this goal of renewable energy is, most people agree that this is a long term goal and something else would be needed to fill the gap while technology catches up to our ambitions. The same can be said of nuclear fusion power, or deep vent geothermal power, which have been perpetually ten years away since the 1970s.

The Greens are currently experiencing their own internal division between the ‘dark green’, ‘light green’ and ‘bright green’ environmentalists. The first of these has more in common with the socialists the Labour party are doing their best to ignore in that they believe that climate change is a consequence of our capitalist system and materialist culture. The light greens are apolitical or anti-political, and believe that changing our behaviour is the solution. Their plan is that we can save the world one community recycling centre at a time. Finally the bright green environmentalists rely on technological change to stop the rising tides; it this ideology which sits most comfortably with capitalism and was endorsed by a younger, more optimistic David Cameron before he was fully claimed by regressive little England Toryism.

Like the rest of the left I am divided on this issue myself. As much as I might agree with the dark green environmentalists that capitalism is the problem, I have no desire to live in a yurt in the New Forest. My socialism has as much to do with the liberating power of technology as it does with putting oil executives in the stocks. Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” will have a role to play in the saving of humanity, even if it is partly responsible for this mess in the first place. As for light green environmentalism, I am suspicious of anyone who believes that the problems of the world can be solved by a very insistent leafleting campaign and a few more allotments. The bright green environmentalists do offer the attractive prospect of believing the problem is completely out of my hands, but between my emotional mistrust of capitalism and the fact that most of the technology the bright greens rely on is still a few years away means I cannot endorse this ideology.

It is hard to know what you believe when no view occupies the moral high ground or is overwhelmingly popular. This is one of those tricky situations where it is necessary to have an opinion and back it up with evidence.

The current vogue for localism has some baring on this debate. The light greens may believe that the best way to tackle environmental issues is at the local level, this is not the case for power generation. This is one policy area that needs to be dealt with by central government - just like the creation of the national grid itself back in the 1920s. Any energy solution should be planned for long term benefit, which means we need a central government solution to this problem.

It may not be inspirational or transformative, but I find myself coming back to the advantages of nuclear power and France’s low carbon footprint and cheap energy. It is one of those unusual solutions which would benefit the poor and private businesses. Investment in nuclear will also create jobs, well-paying secure jobs, something which there is a definite shortage of. Wind and tide certainly have its place in this mix, so will our existing coal, gas and oil infrastructure as it is phased out. This would move us away from fossil fuels and our reliance on the Middle East and Russia.

However it does leave the tricky issues of where do we build these nuclear power stations. No one wants Fukushima going on in their back yard. No one wants a fracking induced earthquake in their backyard either, which will happen if we do not adopt what I am hesitant to call “the nuclear option”. This problem goes beyond keeping the lights on now - demand for electricity will increase if we are to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. If electric cars take off then we will need to rapidly increase our electricity production capacity as well.

The left need to get behind government backed nuclear power. The Tory’s free market solution may not solve the problem in time. If I was trapped in a room with rising water, I would find little comfort in the fact that I had created a powerful economic incentive to be saved. The Green movement has the right intentions but their sweeping changes to human nature or technological revolution may not arrive in time. For now, nuclear is our best choice for a divided left, hopefully this is something we can agree on.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Greens, UKIP and the politics of anti-politics

I have said it before and I will most likely say it again, politicians are at an all-time popularity low. People are cynical about all politicians but this cynicism is mainly directed at the three largest parties. UKIP has managed to gain prominence by riding a wave of anti-politics. Their pitch is that if you do not like the three dominant parties then vote UKIP. Strangely enough, as this anti-political feeling is present on both the left and the right, why isn’t there a left wing party taking advantage of this?

The Greens would be the obvious candidate, they have an MP and have been around longer but why are they not using anti-politics to attract disillusioned voters? Disillusion with Labour, Lib Dems and Tories then vote Green? Why is no one saying this? Why is their approach too polite, “excuse me, have you thought about voting Green? Oh no you haven’t. Well I want bother you anymore then”. It could reinvigorate the left and take some of the momentum out of UKIP. 

The Green Party are reluctant to aim UKIP-style vitriol at the current political establishment. This is partly because it could come across as hypocritical. The Green Party, being a middle class Guardian reading movement, is part of the establishment. UKIP, being mainly made up of rich white men, is also part of the establishment but pointing this out has not lessened their appeal. It is because of this that I feel that the Green Party’s concerns that this could backfire are misplaced.

The larger problem with tactics of the Green Party is that they are not acknowledging that the people who want to vote UKIP have valid complaints. It is easy to dismiss those who plan to vote UKIP as racists, Europhobes or just plain stupid. However, it cannot be overstated how angry the average voter is at the main three parties. People are tired of being angry at politicians and are tired of this anger being ignored and now they are going to send a message that cannot be ignored by voting UKIP.

It is hard to tell where this disillusionment with mainstream politics has come from. Was it Nick Clegg selling out on everything he promised? The expenses scandal? Tony Blair? Both parties moving towards the centre? Constant media scrutiny meaning only the blandest politicians can survive? The rising number of politicians from privileged backgrounds? The rising number of politicians who have never worked outside politics? It is difficult to say, all these factors and more have contributed to voter disillusionment. What is clear is that there is not an easy fix. The Green Party could build a campaign which focuses on giving people hope that a vote can change things for the better but that seems like a lot of hard work so the Green Party is not bothering.

There is a belief on the left that sunlight and scrutiny will destroy UKIP, that exposing their racist behaviour, their expense claiming and their cronyism will cause voters to turn against them. This has not happened because most voters do not care that UKIP are crooks. They see all politicians as crooks and UKIP as the only ones who are honest about it. The truth about UKIP will not encourage angry voters to go back to the establishment parties if the root cause of their voting UKIP has not been tackled.

The Green party’s reluctance to use anti-politics is partly because they want to appeal to voters for different reasons than “tired of all the above, then vote for us”. They do not want to take advantage of voters being angry about the political establishment, they want to take advantage of voters being angry about the environment.

It would be short sighted to take advantage of the current high popularity of anti-politics if your party is based around a specific idea (i.e. environmentalism) which could be popular in the future. Certainly with the global environmental outlook worsening, popular support could naturally swing towards the Green Party. However until there is a ground swell of support for environmental policies the Greens are currently missing out on the anti-politics bandwagon.

There are several valid reasons why the Green Party would not want to behave like UKIP and exploit the politics of anti-politics but, the biggest mistake the Green Party (and the left as a whole) is making is not acknowledge that people who vote UKIP have a valid grievance. Anti-politics maybe the flavour of the month but voter is disillusionment is a big problem which threatens our democracy.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The left is dead and capitalism is broken

The Left is dead and the Right has won. It is easy to think this when we see the extent to which private companies have penetrated every aspect of our existence. People self-identify based on which brand of mobile phone they buy and queue for hours in sales. It’s easy to think of capitalism as a thriving ecosystem of consumer choice. Gone are the days when, under Mao, the Chinese government (allegedly) created one billion identical pairs of pajamas for the entire population. What we own has never been so varied, so well made and so cheap to purchase.

The problem is not all is well in the land of the free market, despite the rosy picture painted by rising GDP figures. Capitalism has stopped functioning as it was supposed to. Rather than being a model to deliver as much choice to as many consumers at the lowest price, it has become a means by which wealth is transferred to those who already have a lot of it. What we now have is not an economic system which encourages small business and innovation, but instead the buying up of as many assets as possible by a few oligarchs.  Ordinary people are not seeing the benefits of hard work. The rich are just seeing the benefits of being rich.

A generation or two ago, in the post-war boom, it was eminently possible for working-class people to attain middle-class, home-owning prosperity as a result of working hard. Many thousands did. For young people today, social mobility is a cruel myth.

Now, your ultimate status is more likely to be determined by how wealthy your parents were. Everything from the school you will attend or how healthy a child you will be will is simply a matter of money now as the safety net of the welfare state is gradually dismantled. If you’re from a privileged background, you’ll get an easy pass into top flight universities, and then your parents can bankroll increasingly important unpaid internships before you can start earning for yourself. Even after that, they will have to keep supplementing your rent due to how low wages are and if you live in London they will need to buy you a house if there is to be any chance of you owning your own property. If your parents cannot afford any of this, you are doomed to life of uncertainty and low paid jobs. If they can, then you will become rich and you will be in a position to help your own children get a head start in life. If this process continues after a few generations we will not have a class divide but the economic equivalent of Apartheid.

All of this is a result of our obsession with using the free market to make the allocation of resources more efficient. Sometimes with good intensions - and sometimes with a pernicious hatred of the poor or anything that is free - governments have let the ideology of neoliberal capitalism invade social systems which are supposed to prevent excessive wealth transfer to the few. The belief that we will all be better off with more capitalism has simply moved wealth up the social pyramid into the hands of the rich where it stays.

This should worry those of us on the left. Tony Benn warned about the dangers of unelected power and no one is less accountable than the global uber-wealthy. However this should also worry the Right, as we now have a crisis in capitalism. In the 1980s the Conservatives were the party of the small business owner, the entrepreneur, the working class person who wanted to increase their economic standing. Now they are the party of the billionaire, the vested interest and the wealthy, elderly English country gentleman – or at least that is how it is perceived. People no longer see capitalism as game that rewards hard work and clever thinking but as a competition that is fixed from the beginning.

At the top of the pyramid will be the children of billionaires who will never have to work for a penny. They will enjoy a life beyond anything we can imagine while the rest of us work harder to attain the most basic comforts. It hardly seems fair that some people can have so much through so little work under an economic system which is supposed to reward hard work. This is what capitalism has become.  Meanwhile the environment suffers, equality suffers, social harmony suffers but no one is stirred into action to address the source of this problem.

The crisis in capitalism affects us all (I am assuming no oligarchs are reading this) and addressing this problem should be the centre of our politics. The fix to our broken capitalism is to dial it back. The answer is not a soviet-style centralised economy, but a balanced economy where some goods are allocated by the free market and some are evenly distributed. The basic starting position for the capitalist competition needs to be made fairer. This means an equal distribution of food, clothing and quality school places for children. It means controls on housing, healthcare and University places so that no-one is given an unfair advantage over anyone else. The place for the free market should be for non-essential consumer luxuries which allow us to express our individualism and avoid the grim uniformity of Maoism.

The fix to broken capitalism is to stop holding the free market on high as a perfectly functioning economic model that will always deliver the best outcome; the only other people who believed so strongly in the infallibility of their economics were the Soviets, and it led to their ruin. It begins with simple things like not encouraging unnecessarily competitive behavior in children, and listening to legitimate criticism of where capitalism does not work. It also means not appropriating the starkest warnings against the dangers of unbridled capitalism as arguments in favor of the free market – as Boris Johnson did.

Capitalism has dented the Left by invading every area of life. However, acknowledging that capitalism is broken and striving to correct this will breathe new life into the Left. It hasn’t won – in many ways it isn’t even working. Just as the crisis of capitalism is the root cause of society’s problems, it should be the basis for our politics too.


Friday, 25 April 2014

The Left’s Elephant in the Room

My last piece for this blog was about the over-use of political clichés. So what better way to start my next one than to use one of my own? When it comes to the identity of the modern Left, there’s certainly an elephant in the room, and it’s a bloody huge one: public ownership.

Start a conversation about nationalisation now, and the conversation will quickly descend towards striking grave diggers in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ via curly-edged British Rail sandwiches and surly ticket collectors. What actually happened in those troubled years of the late 1970s is more nuanced than the accepted version of events would have us believe, and is too complex to go into here. But it did not happen because too much of the economy was in state hands. Neither was it the root cause of union militancy, the decline of Britain’s influence on the world stage, or the dodgy rust-proofing on your dad’s Austin Allegro.

The problem with referring back to the ‘70s is that customer service was awful in both public and privately owned businesses back then. The slick, market-researched customer experience of today was still a long way off in the service sector. One of the decade’s best-loved comedies, Fawlty Towers, lampooned these shortcomings so effectively. Singling out BR or the gas board is simply unfair. And yes, British Leyland cars were dreadful, but the Fords and Vauxhalls of the time were rot-boxes as well. Besides, BL was taken into public ownership only as a last ditch attempt to prevent much of the Midlands from being turfed onto the dole should the company collapse. However understandable the decision, it was hardly carefully thought out – the government effectively had not choice – so it does not make a good example either. At any rate, the shape of Britain’s economy has changed immeasurably since then. Among the big nationalisations of the post war era were huge employers like coal and steel, which have all but disappeared. Leaving the trappings of this era behind, I would argue that not only should public ownership be up for discussion, it needs to central to a modern, and modernising, Left.

Nostalgia for the better points of pre-Thatcher Britain can pre-occupy the Left too much (I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone) but this isn’t the game the Left should be playing. The Left ought to be forward, not backward looking, only retaining a cautious eye in the rear-view mirror. Tony Blair was able to play on this notion of out-datedness when, in a largely symbolic gesture of defiance to Labour’s left wing, he removed the commitment to public ownership from Clause 4 of the party’s constitution. Blair, with none of the ideological grounding of his predecessors, argued that in their fixation on state ownership the left was ‘confusing the means with the end’. This might have been a fair argument at the time, but the intervening 20 years prove the opposite: the Blairites were confusing the ends with the means. Unless the desirable ‘end’, of course, was a society with a perpetually widening wealth gap and our infrastructure in the hands of private profiteers. Ostensibly believing in a fairer society, Labour’s acceptance of the free market ought to be seen as a failed experiment. Putting shareholders instead of the public at the economy’s heart never fosters greater equality. Instead of Thatcher’s dream of popular capitalism, a share-owning democracy, we’ve ended up with most of the former national utilities in (often foreign) millionaires’ hands. Remember when they belonged to us – all of us?

 The Left isn’t just ignoring its own past, it’s also missing its chance to shape the future. Public ownership doesn’t need to mean returning doggedly to the past. There are other models of public ownership – for example worker’s or consumer co-ops for example – that should be explored. Or other methods of encouraging competition whilst maintaining a decent service. Take the German railway’s system of ‘open access’ for example. In contrast to the UK’s daft decision to totally break up BR, the German government retained the ownership and operation of their system. But there’s no state monopoly: if a firm thinks it has spotted a gap in the market, or thinks it can run a better service than the state company does, they have to be given access onto the network. Surely this is the best of both worlds. Unlike here. Competition? Choice? if I want to travel to Newcastle from Carlisle for example, I can choose between Northern Rail or, er, Northern Rail.

But above all, the Left needs to be more explicit in challenging some accepted wisdom. First of all is the belief that nationalisation is inherently unpopular. It’s not; look how careful the Tories have to be when they air ideas about ‘introducing competition’ to the NHS. There was never a majority of public opinion in favour of breaking up BR, either, and there’s been a well-deserved outcry over the cheapo sell-off of Royal Mail. And then there’s your grandma’s gas bill. Each winter we hear about more vulnerable people forced to choose between heating and eating. And there’s sod all we can do about it, because the energy companies are private, for-profit concerns. When the price of wholesale energy goes up, so do the bills. But when the wholesale price falls, there’s immediately talk of worn-out infrastructure and expensive renewal programmes.

So you know what I think Labour should do? Commit the next Labour government to taking gas and electricity supply back into government hands. It would mean the worn out infrastructure could be replaced in a proper, logical way (infrastructure that last saw major investment when it was state owned) and policies could be put in place to help the most vulnerable afford this basic comfort. For some reason, economic planning has become a no-go area for politicians, but surely all they would need to say is explain that in the same way a sensible household plans its finances, it makes sense for a government to do the same, as far as essential services go. Of course the tabloids would chuck out the usual ‘Red Ed’ platitudes, but so what? Based on the reaction to Miliband briefly laying into the energy companies not long ago, it could actually be very popular. After twenty-odd years of kowtowing to the Tories’ economics, the Labour Party stating that it will re-nationalise an unpopular privatised sector for practical, sensible reasons could have Cameron and co. on the back foot and running scared.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Left: Where are we now?

It is often stated that the left won the social argument of the 20th Century, whilst the right won the economic argument. Liberal democracy is the dominant form of government in the western world. Government is based on the idea of diversity, and the allocation of goods and services by the free market. When I think of most of the people I know, socially liberal and pro-free market is how I would describe their politics.

The socially liberal Tory government and pro-free market Labour opposition is a sign of the degree to which the majority of society believes the debate has been resolved. But the rise of UKIP is the reaction by a minority who challenge the liberal social consensus and say there is still a social argument to be had. They are the mirror image of myself, as someone who believes the economic arguments of the 20th century have not been resolved. 

So where does this leave the left? Since the death of Tony Benn and Bob Crow, there has been a lot a soul searching on the left. What do we stand for, now these giants of socialism and the trade union movement are no longer with us? What do we do when faced with the fact most people believe history has rendered our criticism invalid?

In the past we would look to the Labour party, however they have become increasingly acceptant of neo-liberal ideologies. Recently a major Labour party donor has said that there is little difference between the two main parties on economic issues. This comes on top of several leading figures of the progressive movement writing in the Guardian about the need for the Labour party to adopt new values.

This sounds like welcome noise to people who were concerned that the Labour party is losing its direction. I believe it is a good idea that the Labour party take steps to differentiate themselves from the Tories, however the values mentioned in the letter do not sound like an attempt to revive the debates of the 20th Century. Is this new trend towards localism where the left is now heading? The sentence “National government has a continuing strategic role to play but the days of politicians doing things "to people" are over” sounds to me like resignation that the Right won the economic argument.

This new focus on localism, empowerment and co-production does not fit snugly with a traditionally left wing world view. So where do people interested in reviving the capitalism vs socialism debate turn? 

There are still lots of people making valid arguments about the problems with free-market capitalism. Last month I saw Diane Abbott on Question Time perfectly describing the problems that an unregulated housing market have brought on a generation of young people, however, she stopped short of suggesting any measures to correct the problem. Presenting a solution poses the issue of what form that solution should take. Massive state sponsored house building program? More social housing to reduce rental pressure? These sound too much like reviving the debates of the 20thCentury, not popular with the majority of voters who believe the debate is settled. Do nothing, and hope the problem corrects itself, sounds too much a free-market solution. What solution does the left have to offer?

From a lot of prominent figures on the left there is much description of the problem (usually very eloquently) and not a lot of offering solutions. Or at least a solution that goes beyond an obvious platitude like “we need to come together to stop this exploitation now”.

The other half of the left offers the solution which voters consistently failed to support throughout the 20th Century. As much as I believe in socialist values, if a revolution (be it sudden like in Russia or a gradual process of people coming around to left wing views) where to occur it would have most likely have happened during the Victorian or Edwardian period when gaps between rich and poor were at their widest and poverty was at its most intense.

Where we are now on the left is that we are good at presenting problems with the current economic consensus but bad at presenting solutions people are likely to vote for. Usually this falls back into not presenting any solutions but simply describing the problem.

Some have decided to take this option by suggestion new values that should be the basis of left wing causes. New values like "co-production" mentioned above. They talk about new political divides, instead of left and right they talk about universalist/relativists divides or localism/centralism divides. These debates might be easier to sell to voters than the old debates of the 20th century, but they are dividing the already fragmented left by turning away from the socialism that is at the heart of the movement.

The left has a problem of where it will go when the mainstream believes its debates have been resolved. We are in a sorry state, with little direction, but we must avoid fragmenting further. That said, we need to find a way to relate our traditional struggle to new values. I have done a good job of describing the problem, now I need to offer a solution.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Top 5 Most Annoying Political Clichés

From party leaders to pub philosophers putting the world to rights, when politics is being discussed a well-worn cliché is never far away. Over used buzz words, metaphors and rhetorical stances have probably been around for as long as party politics itself, no doubt annoying the hell out of people interested in nuanced, intelligent debate ever since. Here are five that are guaranteed to raise my admittedly easily lifted hackles.

5: Let me be absolutely clear...

When it comes to politicians, this generally means clear is the last thing they’re going to be. Next time you’re watching a political debate, or interview, keep an eye out for it – it’s a matter of when, not if. Why it is so irritating is harder to pin down. Is it that we’re supposed to assume the speaker is deliberately obtuse the rest of the time? Or is it just because it’s a bit patronising? As in ‘you’re obviously not too bright, so let me spell it out for you...’?

4: You can’t put the genie back in the bottle

Some people seem incapable of discussing anything political without lapsing into metaphors. This one frequently crops up whenever the negative effects of any new concept or – in particular, technology – comes up. It’s a lazy way of saying that we don’t really have to bother addressing the problems. But metaphors as a rhetorical tool are necessarily limited. The thing is, sometimes you actually can cram the mythical creature back into its receptacle, as it were. Take our current disastrous reliance on fossil fuels, for example. It is quite conceivable that, with the appropriate research and development, we could be able to transition to alternative power sources and leave the damn stuff in the ground. The problem with that is that it requires the kind of concerted, organised effort and investment that our current profit-driven economy is so hopeless at providing. Easier just to say sod it, I mean you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, can you?

3: Whatever its faults, capitalism is the only system that works

So prevalent is this standpoint in the age of globalisation that it even spawned its own acronym – TINA (i.e. there is no alternative). In that form, it’s associated with the likes of neo-liberal political scientist Fukuyama, who famously declared that the triumph of capitalism represented ‘the end of history’ (care to comment on that now, Francis?)

As academic theories often do, it has seeped insidiously into mainstream public opinion. You can hardly discuss economics these days without tripping over some version or other of TINA. It usually signals the beginning of the decline of the conversation towards tired, irrelevant indictments of the Soviet Union, as if this is somehow the only alternative that has ever been tried or suggested other than neo-liberal capitalism. To me, TINA’s inherent flaw is that capitalism, as a system, isn’t actually working particularly well, and the ‘purer’ the system (lack of state involvement and regulation of the finance sector, for example) the worse the consequences get.

Implicit in this rather lazy position is that capitalism is working pretty well for me. But most of the world’s people don’t live in the West. In the Majority World, this system is giving people a spectacularly poor deal, and could hardly be said to be ‘working’ for them. Even in newly prosperous, up-and-coming states like Brazil or India, it is failing to solve age-old problems of poverty, environmental degradation or inequality.

2: That’s human nature

Closely related to No.3, this cliché frequently gets trotted out to justify greed, excess and self-interest, for example ‘greed will always be a motivator, that’s just human nature’. But on that basis, ‘human nature’ could equally be used to justify any number of things, such as murder, rape and gang violence. On the other hand, other aspects of the make-up of our human nature could be said to be compassion, empathy  and looking after one another. But when did you last hear anyone argue that ‘of course governments should protect the poor and vulnerable, that’s just human nature’?

To me, the whole point of a political system and civil society is to moderate the less pleasant, selfish instincts that most of us to some extent harbour, and encourage those positive aspects of human nature. As an argument to justify an economic ideology that not only exploits people’s greed but actively seeks to stimulate it as a desirable, almost noble attribute, it seems pretty poor, not to mention lazy.

1: Hard working families

Politicians of all stripes seem to be addicted to this one. Innocuous on the surface, the phrase has some fairly nasty implications. On one hand, it’s just a little ego massage for the voter. Everyone likes to think of themselves as hard-working and deserving of policy rewards. But it also encourages people to think of decent, hard-working families like themselves as ‘us’ and those other lazy, feckless scroungers that make such convenient political capital as ‘them’. Politicians like it because it’s a subtle way of nudging voters to continue to support the chipping away of the welfare state because people who don’t deserve it are getting something for nothing - those deliberately workless, weasel-like families of the tabloids’ imagination. In reality a huge portion of the welfare budget actually goes to people who are in work, to supplement pitiful wages. 

Besides, who the hell are these ‘hard-working families’ anyway? Are they sending kids out to work down the mine as soon as they’re weaned off the lazy dependency of breast milk? Maybe even their dog has a paper round? The more I think about it, the more intrinsically annoying this buzz-phrase is, which is why I couldn’t put it anywhere other than First Place.


Well those are mine, what are yours? Answers on a postcard... or just use the Comments box...

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The problem of Etonians

The public’s approval of politicians is at an all-time low. Most people think that the elected representatives of all parties are simply self-serving and money grabbing, mainly interested in looking after their own narrow band of supporters while cramming as much corporate funding and expensive claims into their pockets as possible.

The Tories are especially singled out as being the party of vested interests, of making life easy for the wealthy while cutting benefits. Symbolic of this is the number of Etonians in the cabinet and on Cameron’s personal staff. Recently Michael Gove has labeled the number of Etonians in Cameron’s inner circle as ‘ridiculous’. However the problem is more widespread than this, 45% of all MPs are privately educated compared to 7% of the population. This is true of the opposition as well as the government. Labour has made great strides in women and minority representation but there is still a problem of the over representation of MPs from wealthy backgrounds with private educations. All parties are as bad as each other in this regard.

The country should not be run by a private school educated elite. Our government cannot be made up of MPs out of touch with the problems faced by most people. Problems like trying to buy healthy food for a family on a tight budget. Problems like trying to give your child the best start in life when state school is the only option. Increasingly, people have the problem of having choose between food and heating. As a country, we will struggle to deal with these important problems if none of our leaders have any experience of them.

It is no wonder that the current government wants to stop benefits for the under 25s. When they were young, their parents lived in houses with spare rooms for unemployed children to stay in between jobs. It honestly has not occurred to the members of cabinet that some parents cannot financially support their children up to the age of 25. It probably has not occurred to them that a 24 year old can have a family and a career, be made unemployed, lose their house and then be forced to move their entire family in with their parents. These are not circumstances that occur to the children of the wealthy, so it is no wonder a government of such people has not taken this into consideration.

The political principals of all leading parties are guided by the ideology of the wealthy. Their creed is competition, self-reliance, hard work brings rewards – but these too only benefit the wealthy. Competition seems like a good idea when your children begin with a head start in the race. Self-reliance is fine if your expensive private education allows you walk into any job of your choosing. And whilst hard work may well bring rewards for them, to most politicians the hard work of an office cleaner is not worth a living wage.

Poor people have to play by the same rules as the wealthy and they lose out. When they vote for someone else, the guiding principle behind our economy do not change. Meanwhile the rich get richer, the gap between rich and poor widens, class mobility decreases and safety net which most poor people rely on is being dismantled.

There are currently more working people in the UK claiming benefits than non-working. This is because wages have stayed low while food, heating and rent bills have soared. Still the government is cutting from the welfare bill. Wealthy MPs with private education have little need of the safety net benefits offer so they view it as unnecessary expenditure. If there were more MPs for poorer backgrounds then the benefits poor families rely on might not be under such threat.

Related to this problem is the fact that too many politicians have only ever worked in the Westminster bubble. There is a dire lack of MPs who are former teachers, nurses, police officers, office workers and shopkeepers. Most rising star MPs worked for think tanks or as special advisers before being elected. This has created a disconnection between the problems of the outside world and the problems of Westminster. Case in point is the low importance most voters place on EU membership (either in or out), but this debate still dominates Westminster.

Parliament is becoming increasingly abstract from the real world issues which affect most people lives and the root cause of this is the rising number of MPs from privileged backgrounds, who are privately educated and have only ever worked in Westminster. This is hurting our democracy as more people become disaffected with politics. Faith can only be restored in politics when politicians take steps to change this overrepresentation. All parties need to take action to stop this trend and have candidates which reflect the income and educational background of their constituents. In short, fewer Etonians and more people who have experience of the everyday problems most  people have to deal with.