Friday, 25 January 2013

The cuts haven’t worked; it’s time to challenge austerity more strongly

This week, yet another expert lined up to warn that that cutting public spending at the rate Osborne insists on has contributed directly to a triple dip recession, and has not helped growth in any way.

Among many others, Nobel prize laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have repeatedly argued that austerity is counter productive to growth, even if we accept – and many don’t – that perpetual ‘growth’ is either realistic or desirable.

Figures released this week by the Treasury show that both government spending and the deficit are on the rise compared to this time last year. In other words, exactly the opposite of what the government said would happen. The conclusion that the austerity program is ideologically driven is getting harder and harder to dismiss.

The idea of an ideologically-driven government is not a problem in itself, provided that a majority agree with the ideology. That is by no means the case with the austerity doctrine – it was presented as a necessary evil, at a time of general panic over the 2008 crisis, and a deeply exhausted Labour opposition. Even in that climate, Cameron and Co. couldn’t get a proper mandate, and events since have done nothing to build confidence that their ideas have any pragmatic foundation at all.

Between now and the next election the burden of proof should shift from the government’s critics to the government themselves. Labour should pursue this more aggressively than they have been doing so far – it’s not enough to dispute some cuts while generally agreeing that deficit reduction is the priority.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls should spend the next two years wresting the agenda back – they should firstly cast doubts on whether we need to reduce the deficit at all. As Stiglitz and Krugman have argued, growth can be better stimulated by keeping more money in the economy via public spending, which can be offset by progressive taxation measures, such as the Robinhood Tax.

Labour should refuse to engage with the idea of benefit cuts and cuts to public spending, except to ridicule it. Francois Hollande’s socialists recently won a majority in France on just such a platform, and at the time of writing, the markets have not brought fire and brimstone to France.

Labour taking such a sharp step to the left may be against the public mood, and there might be a price to pay in the polls, but with two years until they face election, they can afford to pay that price right now. Also it’s impossible to know how many currently disengaged voters would migrate to Labour if they presented themselves as a properly left-wing alternative.

There will be plenty of time to be centrist when the election comes nearer, and by moving to the left now, they could shift the axis of the whole debate. George Osborne has provided them with the perfect starting point. His austerity measures aren’t working – that’s fact – so it’s on Labour to sketch an alternative.

Originally posted on Liberal Conspiracy on 24 January 2013

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Is Lenin still relevant?

This past week has seen a public debate in Russia over whether Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s embalmed body should be removed from Moscow’s Red Square, where it has been on public display since his death in 1924, and buried. Embalming has no history in Russia, so this was perceived as a weird thing to do at the time - and went against Lenin’s own wishes - but in the 89 years it has been accessible to the public, the body has become a site of pilgrimage / tourist-attracting oddity, depending on your viewpoint.

The fact that the placing of his body is still a hot topic of discussion in Russia shows the attachment that many still feel both to Lenin as a historical figure, and to the memory of the Soviet Union which he imagined, created, and ruled for its first 7 years. The few remaining communist states today still pledge their allegiance to the set of ideas loosely termed Marxism / Leninism, as do various socialist movements in the rest of the world. So does Lenin still have anything to teach us, or are his ideas a historical curio, like his embalmed body?

Lenin wrote a lot in his lifetime, but some of his key ideas concern the nature of the state. Lenin imagined the state as an instrument of control, both directly – through violence – and indirectly, through politics and culture. He thought that the state sets the parameters of what’s possible, and democracy functions within those parameters. It follows that those who control the state machinery control everything that happens in it, standing above democracy, because they dictate the conditions and parameters that shape democracy.

If you think about it, this analysis has a lot of resonance today. In the west, every political party takes it as gospel that international markets reign supreme, and that the role of politicians is to ensure that the markets continue to look favourably on their country. The invariable outcome is that states are run for the benefit of those who are already immensely rich and powerful, As far as mainstream politics goes, there genuinely is ‘no alternative’. Slavoj Zizek eloquently makes the same point on Cif last week.

The popular media in the UK - as Owen Jones pointed out in Chavs – constantly perpetuate the caricature of the feckless, irresponsible working class, creating an atmosphere where it’s socially acceptable to hate the poor. In contrast, we have shows like Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice, where the very rich are shown as demi-Gods, with a stream of supplicants coming to degrade themselves in the desperate hope of winning their approval, and becoming – even slightly - more like them.

This cultural zeitgeist makes grossly unfair politics, like the austerity ideology, seem like a reflection of the ‘real world’. In turn, the cultural sphere reflects the political ‘realities’, creating a feedback loop which reinforces the status quo from all sides, and makes real alternatives difficult to even conceive of, let alone implement. Where efforts are made – such as Occupy and the student protests – the state is not above using violent means to suppress them. Lenin, who took it as a given that global communism would become an imminent reality, would be turning in his glass display case.

So what’s the answer? Lenin imagined an intellectual vanguard, which would violently seize the levers of state – in the name of the proletariat - and use them to create a different status quo, which would ultimately benefit everyone. The obvious problem with this is that it jars with our current understanding of human rights, freedom of speech, and democracy. The historical experience of the Soviet Union under Stalin is a grim testament to where Lenin’s ideas can lead.

But if we accept the premise that the status quo is fundamentally unfair, and that it’s impossible to significantly alter it through conventional democracy, then what else is there?

Friday, 11 January 2013

Cameron is in trouble over Europe: we can win this debate

David Cameron has suffered two heavy blows this week, as both the USA and Germany strongly criticised his comments on the UK’s future role in the EU. This follows weeks of media speculation about Cameron’s upcoming speech on Europe – which even Nick Clegg wants no part of - where he’s widely expected to say that he will use a renegotiation of the Lisbon treaty to repatriate political powers from Brussels, provided he gets a majority in 2015. Some hope he’ll also announce plans for the long awaited in/out referendum.

Obama’s assistant secretary for European affairs, Philip Gordon, reminded Cameron on Wednesday that the ‘special relationship’ would be considerably less important to the USA if the UK decided to break away from Europe. On Thursday, the chair of Germany's European affairs committee, Gunther Krichbaum - who is visiting the UK this week – waded in to the fray, pointing out that ‘you cannot create a political future if you are blackmailing other states’.  These stern-sounding warnings provide a contrast to the soothing words of Herman Van Rompuy, who has spent the past few weeks patiently reassuring the UK that we’re loved and respected in the EU, like a parent speaking to a petulant teenager who has just huffed upstairs and slammed their bedroom door.

Cameron imagines that the UK can emulate Switzerland, and enjoy the benefits of the common market while staying out of the political arena. But there’s no reason to think that the treatment enjoyed by Switzerland or Norway – who, after all, might eventually fully join – will be extended to a state which undermines the whole EU project at a critical point in its history by flouncing off. There’s something very cynical and self-serving in seeking to renegotiate the terms now, when the EU is in turmoil and its future is uncertain.

There’s a case to be made that an in/out EU referendum at some point in the future a good idea – if nothing else, it would put the question to rest for another few decades, until the European project evolves into its next stage. And after the dust settles on the Eurozone crisis, it will be possible to see what – if anything – we’d be voting to join or leave. But between now and then, EU supporters need to make their case clearly, loudly and often. Further political integration with the other members is a clear path towards eventually plugging European tax havens, which would reduce the risk of capital flight, which would enable us to use progressive taxation. And - as both Clegg and the Obama administration pointed out this week - on all the major global questions, the UK without Europe will always be on the margins.

The consistent failure to make these arguments heard – over decades – has created the current toxic landscape, where the right wing media froth daily about ‘unelected bureaucrats from Brussels’, and otherwise sane people mistake UKIP for a legitimate protest vote. As anger mounts over the ineffectiveness and toe-curling unfairness of the austerity program, and Cameron’s Tories lag behind Labour in the polls, Cameron clearly needs all the support he can muster. But by trying to harness the baseless prejudice and deluded Empire-nostalgia that fuels most Euro-skepticism, he has made himself look ridiculous in front of the whole world.

Originally posted on Liberal Conspiracy on 11 January 2013

Friday, 21 October 2011

Mitt Romney and the Latter Day Saints

While shivering at a bus stop on the outskirts of Rochdale last night, I was approached by two smiling teenage boys wearing ties and nameplates declaring them ‘elders’ of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They were so earnest and eager to talk that I felt embarrassed about trying to shoo them on with the plainly absurd claim that I’m busy - an impulse reaction to any stranger not asking for directions or the time - and instead stood talking to them until their bus arrived.

The Latter Day Saints - or Mormons -  have been the subject of some debate in the USA recently since Mitt Romney entered the race for Republican Presidential candidate in the 2012 elections. A 6th generation Mormon, Romney has largely declined to discuss the specifics of his faith. He addressed the issue in 2007, shortly before losing the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination to John McCain, by invoking JFK’s reassurance that he ‘will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office.’ Despite this, a recent poll showed that 20% of the Republicans polled were uneasy about Romney’s Mormonism, with 40% viewing it as not a Christian religion.

The young men I spoke to were also a bit uneasy about the label, flinching slightly at my use of the word ‘Mormons’. Their principal concern was that I agree to read the Book of Mormon, which one of them swiftly produced from his pocket, and after some less-than-committal noises on my part, the conversation turned to the provenance of the book. Mormons believe that their religion’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr, was visited by an angel who led him to the book - written on golden plates - which he then translated and published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon. Needless to say, the plates were never seen by anyone else.

I was interested to see how they arrived at their belief in this story over the competing explanation, that Joseph Smith Jr simply wrote the book himself. They countered that I can’t know either way, which is true, but as I explained to them, there is a countless number of documented instances throughout human history where people have written texts, but not a single documented instance where an angel has appeared. So by that logic, one explanation is much more likely than the other - we can’t know for sure, but we can gauge the relative validity of the two competing explanations. At this point the two elders were visibly glazing over, and seemed relieved when their bus pulled around the corner. In parting they gave me a card showing a picture of Joseph Smith bathed in divine light, and giving details of their website.

If Mitt Romney is successful in his bid to be President of the USA, he will have his finger on the trigger of the largest military arsenal in the world. He will make decisions that could shape world history for generations. After the two elders left, I was left wondering what impact these beliefs - which are a bit outlandish even for Romney’s fellow Christian Republicans, who regard Mormonism as being on a par with Islam in terms of distance from their own beliefs - would have on his decision making process. If Romney wholly accepts, as he presumably does, that God appeared in New York in 1830 to tell Joseph Smith to avoid established churches - an odd and confusing message, coming from God - then what else will he accept?

The young men I met were clearly uneasy with my questions, and were glad to get away. They seemed pleasant and harmless on their patrol of suburban Rochdale, but the notion that someone who shares their odd aversion to simple logic could become capable of shaping the global narrative for up to eight years is frankly terrifying. I’m sure that Romney would do his best to separate his religious views from the duties of the office he aspires to, but the fact remains that his decisions would be percolated and shaped in the same mental space that has been cleansed of the capacity to differentiate between absurd propositions and logical ones.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Labour should take a stand on its principles

Earlier this week, Liam Byrne outlined the results of a new policy review to the Labour front bench. While the results are fairly predictable, the recommendations Byrne is making should cause alarm to anyone hoping that Ed Miliband won’t follow the New Labour approach of trying to be all things to all people. As Don Paskini pointed out on LC, the views expressed in the review aren’t really aligned with New Labour policy or ideology. Liam Byrne said: “The first priority for Labour this year is to get back in touch with voters – whose trust we lost at the last election…that’s why this year we’re starting our policy review, with the No1 focus on getting back in touch with voters – and changing our party to make sure we don’t lose that connection again.”

But Byrne’s implication that Labour should adjust their philosophy in response to the zeitgeist is very New Labour. By the time the 2010 election came around, Labour had shifted ground so many times that they were totally unrecognisable as a left-wing alternative.

Respondents to the review have expressed concern around cuts to policing and youth services, but I’m less inclined than Don to read a leftist bias into this – it seems like concern for the safety of the respondents and their property, rather than concern for the vulnerable.

Added to the worries around immigration and the EU-scepticism, I’d say it’s safe to conclude that the review points to a right-wing bias in the respondents. This is not especially surprising, but it does throw up a question about how Labour should react. Should they move to the right in order to connect with voters? Only if their key aim is getting into power, rather than influencing opinion.

What Labour should do is ignore the focus groups, ignore Liam Byrne and take a stand on an unashamedly statist, pro-EU, anti-cuts, redistribution-based platform. They say a week is a long time in politics, so 2015 may as well be a millennium away – why not risk unpopularity in the short term if it’s going to help stimulate debate, and possibly shift the public mood – even slightly – further to the left?

Also, as Don points out, the respondents to the review aren’t necessarily representative of the electorate, so a hard shift to the left may draw in those voters who have already disengaged because their views aren’t being represented at parliament level.

There will be time for Labour to adjust their platform when the election draws nearer, but in the meantime they could try to revitalise – and perhaps even influence – the debate by doing the unpopular thing and wearing their statist heart on their sleeve.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Land of Easy Money

Of all the news you have read this week, perhaps the most surprising might be that we’re living in ‘the land of easy money’. This was the description of the UK attributed to Ms. Ayan Abdulle, who incensed the Daily Mail last weekend after fraudulently extracting over £250,000 in various state benefits between 2004 and 2010. Ms. Abdulle has been jailed for four and a half years by a Harrow court for lying in her asylum claim, in which she described being attacked by militia in Somalia in 1998, when in reality she had been claiming asylum in Sweden around this time.

The phrase ‘bogus asylum seeker’ has become a sort of shorthand for the Daily Express and Daily Mail’s stance - it combines anger at the perceived laxity of the UK asylum system with a sort of general, undefined xenophobia. Invariably the stories eschew statistics in favour of individual stories like Ms Abdulle’s, and the language is heavy with allusion - references are made to the fact that Ms Abdulle has six children (read ‘feckless’), and a claim that she left Sweden because she ‘couldn’t be bothered’ to learn Swedish (read ‘lazy and insular’).

Left-leaning publications are equally prone to this sort of myopia when it comes to asylum and immigration. Instead of focusing on ‘bogus’ claims, the Guardian and the Independent are more likely to report a case where a legitimate asylum seeker has been failed by the system and made destitute, or give a platform to an asylum appeal like Peace Musabi’s. It’s likely that the horrors these people have run away from will be described in full, morbid HD. The intention of this type of selective reporting is no less politically loaded than the Daily Mail stories - the aim here is to place human rights above all other concerns, and to appeal to empathy.

Both the Mail’s and the Guardian’s stances are legitimate attempts to set the terms in which asylum and immigration are viewed by the general public, and in a healthy democracy it’s important to have opposing views expressed loudly and often. Failures in the asylum system which lead to human suffering need to be flagged up, as do flagrant abuses of the system. But there is a danger that the ideologically-motivated noise from both sides may drown out the more difficult questions that are best addressed somewhere in the middle, without individual examples, and with the rhetoric turned down to a background hum.

For example, is it possible to believe in the universal right to express one’s sexuality without fear of attack, while at the same time questioning the practical implications of offering asylum to anyone who self-identifies as gay? There will never be a way of verifying such claims, and while the standard of living in the UK remains significantly higher than in, say, Uganda there will always be a powerful motivation for people to abuse the system. But should this mean that we turn a blind eye to every such claimant, even if their lives are endangered on their return?

Or, can we balance the right of immigrants to the UK to retain their own cultural practices and religious beliefs while at the same time promoting their integration into mainstream British culture? Is ‘integration’ as a concept tainted with cultural imperialism, or is it a necessary process in creating a non-ghettoised and ethnically harmonious society?

Unsurprisingly, I don’t have any definitive answers to any of the above. But it seems clear that rigid ideology isn’t very useful in trying to reach any answers. Both online and IRL, talking about immigration or asylum in less-than-absolutely-certain terms can result in being called either a heartless xenophobe or a woolly-minded fantasist (or much worse), depending on who you’re talking to. But ambiguous questions require ambiguous approaches, and the immigration and asylum debate has been polarised along ideological lines for too long.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Is Cameron also signalling a shift in our defence policy?

The recently announced 8% cuts in the defence budget have brought out a raft of ideological commentary across the media. The Mail frets about the danger of a ‘fresh Argentinian invasion’ of the Falklands following the downsizing; the Guardian heralds the end of Tony Blair’s liberal interventionism doctrine with barely disguised glee.

The 8% cuts at first glance seem small compared to the slash-and-burn other government departments have been subjected to, but in context they are not insignificant. The UK will now be spending a lower percentage of GNP on defence (just under 2%) than at any other time since records began, and will have the ability to deploy about two thirds of the troops committed by Blair to Helmand and Iraq. In that context, it’s unsurprising that reactions have been mixed.

Whatever your position, one thing is clear - the defence cuts mean that the UK will have to reappraise its role on the world stage, and the interventions which characterised the Blair years will become much less viable, at least with the UK leading the charge. It’s the liberal philosophy of localisation writ large - overseas problems will no longer be our burden to bear.

Is this a good thing? Many on the left were unanimous in opposition to Blair’s wars, but as Nick Cohen has argued, progressive values are not geographically or culturally limited, but universal. This was always the moral foundation of Blair’s liberal interventionism. It’s all well and good for progressives to argue for improvements in the UK democratic system, but surely that carries a duty to spread democracy in those places in the world that have none?

I think yes, you may disagree. But the self-perception of the UK as a major global power needs to be put to bed, and that’s one good thing that could come out of these cuts. If we are going to influence global events in the future, and I believe we should aspire to do so, then we need to do it as a part of a more integrated Europe. The aim of interventionism is to spread progressive ideas in places where they haven’t taken root organically, so the best way to do that (within the new fiscal constraints) is in concert with other states who share the same ideas.

As ever, these natural allies are to be found not over the Atlantic but across the channel. The Liberal Democrats may seem neutered in this government, but they remain the most intuitively pro-European political force in the UK. That’s why Clegg should use whatever remaining influence he has to leverage the unease around the defence cuts into an argument for greater EU integration - you know it makes sense, Nick.