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Archive for September, 2009

Socialist strategy, students and anti-war work

September 30, 2009 18 comments

Having been told that the Socialist Students group at the local university is going to be building for the anti-war demonstration on October 24th, presumably with street stalls and leafleting, my main response was, “Why?” I have been a proud and loyal “stopper” since before the war broke out, but aren’t our energies better devoted to other things now?

The purpose of the anti-war movement, as I always saw it, was three fold. First, to prevent the war. Failing that, to maintain pressure on the government to make the wars as short as possible by bringing the troops home. Third (and centrally to this argument) the point was to create a nexus that would gather both the regular political activists and the irregular activists, those ‘normal people’ outraged by the war.

I think that, with certain qualifications, the Stop the War Coalition has failed on point number three. The main qualification is that engagement with the public has not ceased; petitions are still steadily signed on Stop the War stalls around the country – and in towns with major barracks such as Canterbury, that’s important. The SWP here do a solid job in that regard.

Notwithstanding this engagement, however, the socialist Left only has a limited number of activists with a limited amount of time and resources. I think these can be better directed towards union work and building to fight cuts to Council jobs and services. Moreover, I think that the forum for debate created by such a campaign would be infinitely more productive than anti-war work at this point.

As has been detailed on this blog over the course of several articles, the ways in which Councils are intending to cut jobs and services are manifold. Tory Councils particularly seem to be gearing up, possibly anticipating primary legislation to help them (when the Tories win the General Election) – which Paul has speculated on at length. Labour is thinking in the same vein – and cuts to education will be felt in local services too.

It can be argued that these issues are not of immediate relevance to students, but I think this is too narrow an approach. Students regularly campaign on free education, campaign for the protection of university staff and services. The SP-led Socialist Students organisation is also involved with the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign. These campaigns are at their best when they have the active support of other workers.

The position of these workers, in terms of organisation, political consciousness and ability to render aid to other workers, is directly affected by such cuts, and this impacts the position of students – which is one reason why so many students at SOAS went all-out to save staff in danger of deportation after dirty tricks by management.

So perhaps it is time for a little less concentration on Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Sri Lanka (etc – QUB/UU Socialist Society site gives an additional flavour) and a little more concentration on building the links (and, as an object lesson in socialist theory, updating the organisational concepts of?) solidarity necessary to sustain the campaigns about things which do have direct relevance to students. Which might, additionally, have the effect of changing the rather turgid and sterile character of SU politics.

There is no point in having a bastion of radicalism amongst students if those students remain isolated, and are not used to direct unionisation and the extension of working class organisation. For groups like Socialist Students, which often gets off the ground in towns without branches of the Socialist Party amongst local workers, this is doubly important. Isolated, students will be defeated every time.

Gordon Brown’s speech and the last chance saloon for Tom Harris

September 30, 2009 25 comments

20090622092202_last_chance_saloon I think the promise/threat of a Fiscal Responsiblity Act is by far the most important and far-reaching aspect of Gordon Brown’s speech.

I’ll be coming back to why I think it’s a very stupid idea, and evidence that New Labour really has caved into a resurgent neoliberal narrative,  but for starters let me say I broadly agree with Giles analysis, both of this plan and the Tories proposal for an Office for Budget Responsibility, which ‘far from ‘transforming government’, would in fact neuter Parliament and allow Conservatives to force fiscal hawkishness on future generations.

Tonight let’s focus elsewhere.

Grace Fletcher-Hackwood is correct to identify the proposals in Brown’s speech for ‘all 16 and 17 year olds who get support from the taxpayer’ as the most immediately controversial aspect of the speech, and of course it is at the centre of my comrade-in-blog Dave’s tirade earlier this evening, as well as getting an immediate makeover in troll-land to become the plan for ‘gulags for slags’.

Here, just for much needed clarity is what that part of the speech says:

‘And I do think it’s time to address a problem that for too long has gone unspoken, the number of children having children. For it cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own.

From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.’

The battle lines are easily drawn.

For Dave, this is evidence of  ‘the utter bankruptcy in the face of right-wing aggression on social issues’.

For our old friend Tom Harris, at the other end of the party, it’s an opportunity to crow ‘I told you so’ about the newly announced policy, and await the loving embraces of his trolls, blissfully forgetful of the fact that the post in which he told us so is simply an attack on the immorality, and actually states: ‘This post isn’t about policy.’

The reality is a little more complex.

Whatever the trolls may be saying about new institutions in which to lock teenage mothers away, and however much they want to compare this speech to what the BNP have set out in their dross, that is not what the speech says.

The speech talks of a ‘network of supervised homes’.

That is precisely what we have at the moment up and down the country.  We often call them ‘foyers’ and the foyers have their own well-established federation.

In other places, they may be called hostels, but the aims are broadly the same, and many or most of them work with young parents to get them into employment and training and help them move into ‘sustainable tenancies’.  Many are run by the voluntary sector.

In other areas where there is no such provision, the voluntary sector works with young parents to get them their own place, and then support them when they get in there. In the homelessness charity I used to work for, these people are called Floating Support Workers, and the ones I worked with were brilliant at their job.

All of these options fit the description of ‘a network of supervised homes’.  What the speech is about is about firming up this offer to ensure that all 16 and 17 year old parents get the support they need.  It is actually about building on good stuff that’s been happening.

It is a desperate shame, indeed shameful, that plans for this perfectly reasonable and laudable extension of provision towards a universal service, of which the government should be proud, has been masked by what Dave rightly  suggests is a rhetorical pandering to the right on social issues, and that what in practice could be genuinely socially useful is being sold as a response to ‘tough social questions’.

Sensible social housing policy wonks in Whitehall, who will have advised the government on the practicalities of implementation, must be tearing their hair out at what the spin doctors have done to their plans and to the prospects for the universalisation of this decent service being rolled out.

Of course, I’m concerned about the implied threat of compulsion in the new scheme, though in practice I suspect that this would be no more compulsory than the current ‘compulsory’ attachment to a Connexions/careers advisor for young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEETS) (indeed it might be that the job of a careers advisor might have elements of parenting supervision built into job roles to cope with the new requirements at no great extra cost).

There is one problem with implementation, and that’s where Dave and Tom Harris come back into the equation.

Dave has already set out the problems caused by the end to ringfencing of the £1.6bn Supporting People (SP) grant paid by central government to councils.

This means that in some places – Dave quotes Coventry and Canterbury – homelessness and accommodation services of the type envisaged in Brown’s speech and which are currently largely funded through SP monies, are coming under threat, as council use the new flexibilities to move money away from the most vulnerable and towards ‘sexier’, vote winning spending.

Dave’s key concern in with Coventry is the Cyrenians, and their counterparts in Tyneside have put the problem very well in their Select Committee evidence:

‘We believe that removing the ring fence from SP and transferring funding without criteria or restriction to Area-based Grants fails to mainstream services for the socially excluded, does not improve joint commissioning or planning, places short-term supported accommodation at risk (whilst also removing emergency access and withdrawing funding for supervision), and that an alternative model is required.’

Now, I am a charitable man at heart.

I have therefore left a fullish comment on Tom Harris’s blog, despite his own inappropriate self-acclamation, setting out the facts as I see them – that the proposals set out are not actually as his trolls interpret them, but actually have a basis in sound and progressive policy, but that the current problem with funding needs to be sorted out before they can be implemented.  I then invite him to join in lobbying both on this matter of detail around ringfencing, and around the wider issue of the Tories’ plans for General Power of Competence legislation, which would set in train cuts in services to the most vulnerable up and down the country.

If Tom Harris really cares about young people, he’ll get involved.  He will at least get back to me with his views on what I am suggesting.

He has returned with comments to some of his trolls, who commented after I did, but has not responded to me.  He may still do so.  I genuinely hope so.  But it seems to me he’s in the last chance saloon.

Categories: General Politics

Timid and shallow: Brown’s speech to conference

September 29, 2009 1 comment

“So we will raise tax at the very top, cut costs, have realistic public sector pay settlements,  make savings we know we can and in 2011 raise National Insurance by half a percent and that will ensure that each and every year we protect and improve Britain’s frontline services”

From Gordon’s speech, this encapsulates best what was said. Take a moment to parse the words. If cost cutting means anything like Ed Balls suggests, it could be disastrous. Public sector pay restraint? Yeah because that’s where people are earning too much. As for raising national insurance, probably the most regressive tax in Britain, well the less said the better.

Yet these suggestions were about the most concrete from Gordon on how Labour would fund continued public expenditure whilst miraculously slashing the deficit in half in four years’ time. There were a few other ideas kicked around, but many of them ring hollow. House of Lords reform rang particularly so, bearing in mind that Labour have had 12 years and have done little enough.

Talk of free education was sickening because there can’t be a student left who doesn’t know that the cap is coming off tuition fees, by hook or by crook.

Equally bad was the trumpeting of Labour’s achievements. If half of what Gordon said was actually true, and relevant to the experience of the individual worker, Labour wouldn’t be getting hammered quite so badly in the polls. Protecting business, limiting unemployment etc is all very well – except for the several million of us unemployed, those of us with it looming over our heads and those of us earning crap wages anyway.

Worst of all was the utter bankruptcy in the face of right-wing aggression on social issues:

“And I do think it’s time to address a problem that for too long has gone unspoken, the number of children having children. For it cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own.

From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run.

We won’t ever shy away from taking difficult decisions on tough social questions.”

Buying into right-wing stereotypes is bad enough, but ‘a network of supervised homes’  doesn’t begin to address the real issue. Brown’s attack on ‘welfare dependency’ and promise to ‘cut crime’ is moralistic at best. It treats these things as personal foibles, which individuals can be educated or bullied out of.

Except there are two and a half million people out of work, of which 1 in 6 are young people. Areas of high unemployment are often areas of low skill, low education and low motivation to do better. With few opportunities to succeed, crime and anti-social activities are a natural recreation and means of subsistence.

Which is why tragedies like that of Fiona Pilkington are going on in South Leicestershire, victim of deindustrialization, and not in South Kensington.

Whither Gordon’s social democratic sensibilities while he was reading out his promises that police would be ever more vigilant, punishments ever stricter and more carefully enforced? All this against people who can hardly pay fines and who are not served by being in (overcrowded, undermanned, unreconstructive) prisons. And who, when they emerge, return to their former circumstances, if not to worse ones.

About one thing did Gordon’s words ring true: the next election is a big choice – but it’s not between “prosperity” and “hope” on the one hand, and “austerity” and pessimism” on the other. Our choices are simply between “bad” and “worse”. Labour and Tory. What a mess.

Some other takes from the Labour and Left blogospheres: Hopi Sen, Harpy Marx on Sarah Brown’s intro, debate and individual reactions on Socialist Unity, Random Blowe, new ‘evidence-based’ fightback blog Left Foot Forward, NuLab rottweiler Luke Akehurst praising loads of the stuff everyone else condemns and more drab loyalism from Will Pomroy. Also see AVPS, who is Browned Off.

Categories: Labour Party News

Purnell spectacularly misses the point

September 29, 2009 4 comments

Attacks spin? Check. Says a few nice things about ‘old’ Labour? Check. Is a rat bastard snake oil salesman? You better believe it. Yes folks, it’s conference season again and that means turning the Guardian into a mouthpiece for people like James Purnell to hold up to their arse for whatever noises issue forth, from a cavern whose only rival is the space between their ears. Purnell’s argument? That there’s no real difference between New and Old Labour, and that we shouldn’t attack New Labour because really our principles are all the same, we’re just applying them in different eras.

It’s easy to take this view when the only thing you’re willing to admit as evidence are the headline achievements; “The minimum wage and the New Deal. The Human Rights Act and being tough on crime. The windfall tax and the numeracy and literacy hour.” The enmity of the Unions for attempting to undermine firemen, postmen, prison wardens and local government workers. Outsourcing everything in sight. Living in the same anti-immigrants paradigm as the Tories. Attacks on civil liberties, party democracy and young people.

The difference between “New” and “Old” Labour was not simply one of rhetoric. Each had a programme behind them. The rhetoric was not a self-consciously adopted device separate from the programme; the two were interconnected. The thing that allowed New Labour to play well in the media were the concessions Labour made to media owners, and the promises made to business. New Labour did define itself against Old Labour, and did define itself against the party membership, except where the membership did what it was told, conformed to what was expected.

In simple terms, Purnell is also wrong that the two Labours share the same principles. ‘Old’ Labour, retrospectively defined, is essentially Bennism; this was what Kinnock and subsequent modernisers fought against. Committed to a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of wealth and power in favour of working people. New Labour – no matters its achievements – was never in favour of this. One set out to be on the side of workers, of organising on democratic principles from the ground up – the other was a masterful rejigging of Fabian paternalism for neo-liberal times.

These two organisational principles created and were created by the demands of each platform within the Party. Yet they are fundamentally opposed; which is why this Labour leadership has had less scruples about seeking support from the Tory opposition to pass laws than it has about negotiating with the ranks of its own MPs. So incompetent has the unquestioning support of people like Purnell been that even when doing the right thing, such as nuclear disarmament, the Party leadership has managed to look utterly craven and opportunistic.

For further examples of such opportunism, we need look no further than Purnell’s claim that we should neither cling to nor criticize the ‘New Labour’ tag. Though Paul makes an interesting case to the contrary, Purnell has only recently begun his apparent transition towards the Left – and this attempt to save something from the wreckage of New Labour carries a strong element of self-justification. It also plays to Jon Cruddas’ idea that New Labour only went sour after 2001 and that it can be repeated: which surely rules out the idea that Purnell is left-wing.

We have seen the path New Labour walked. The best that New Labour’s theorists can do is propose that things might have been different had different people been at the top, had the individuals at the top not forgotten their historical mission, had Labour adopted some different organisational form (though interestingly never including such a power as could stymie and overthrow its leadership). Such philosophic idealism is the wave that will carry Cruddas, Purnell and others like them to power in Labour, as the bureaucracy fears for its future.

The question is, how soon will the rest of us forget their behaviour hitherto whenever their charm and promises begin to be played up by the Toynbees, Kettles, Ashleys and the rest of the commentariat and its goldfish-like memory?

Categories: Labour Party News

Paul Richards’ blind spot

September 28, 2009 8 comments

paulrichardsHere’s Paul Richards, New Labour spin doctor, laying into Compass for giving a platform to Caroline Lucas of the Green Party at the Labour conference:

‘The left-wing grouping Compass have caused a row by inviting Green Party MEP Caroline Lucas to the Labour Party conference fringe tonight. It’s not just that the Greens are our enemy, or that the other speakers include party chair Harriet Harman, who wasn’t told. What’s really annoying Labour activists is that Caroline Lucas is the Green’s candidate for the parliamentary seat of Brighton Pavilion. This is the seat that Labour’s Nancy Platts hopes to hold for Labour.’

Actually,  and like Don Paskini, I don’t disagree.

But would this be the same Paul Richards who is ex-chair of the Fabian Society, the group which has just hosted both Iain Dale, Tory PPC for Bracknell, and a certain Caroline Lucas, in Brighton, and who hasn’t mentioned that at all?

Very odd.

Categories: General Politics

TCF: unflinchingly into the future

September 28, 2009 2 comments

 

marketing-rising-graph2We just thought we’d give a quick summary of  where we’re at stats-wise, thoughts-wise, and what blogposts are in the pipeline, so that readers can either keep an eye out for them or avoid them like the plague.  

While topical stuff will inevitably crop up and require a word or 2,000, planned posts for the short term include:

  1. A review of James Purnell spouting crap in the Guardian;
  2. Assessing New Labour  achievements (1): Children’s Centres;
  3. The German and Portuguese elections;
  4. Assessing New Labour achievements (2): the National Minimum Wage;
  5. Hannah Arendt and totalitarianism, in which Dave and Paul may come to blows;
  6. Miller vs Roberts: ringside report of bloggers actually nearly coming to blows over the platform/no platform debate;
  7. Engels’ Anti-Duhring, and how an understanding of same may help you fix your bike;
  8. Patronising atheists;
  9. Almost certainly something taking the piss out of Paul Richards, Polly Toynbee, or Tom Harris, or all of them;
  10. The future for the Labour Left (part 4 of 6), in which Chantal Mouffe gets battered again in the interests of socialism, and a cunning plan for the revival of the labour movement at local level is revealed.

We hope you’ll stick around.  We’ve always been pleased with the level and quality of the comments threads, and as authors we always try to respond.  We believe this commitment to such engagement is, in part, what marks us out from other blogs. 

That and the fuckin’ swearing.

Evidence of the growing profile of TCF lies in our recent blogstats, which show a fourfold increase in page views since June.  

We’re also on the look out for like-minded collaborators, so give us a shout if you think you’d like to post at TCF.  

Clearly we’re not going to allow rightwing crap to be posted, but if you think your style and substance would fit well with what we’re trying to be and do, then feel free to give us a shout.  Your stuff might get plenty of readers, or we might tell you to fuck right off.

But life’s a gamble, eh?

Categories: Miscellaneous

Childcare row prediction

September 28, 2009 1 comment

_44540205_logo226It’s 10am on Monday morning, and I thought I should just take a couple of minutes away from spreadsheeting to predict the kind of outraged fury that will spread across the rightwing blogosphere and media today, as the story about two police officers being told they can’t share childcare gather momentum.  It’s already on the BBC website news headlines.

My predictions are for headlines/commentary including ‘nanny state gone mad’, ‘Labour invasion of homes’ blah blah blah.  You know the kind of thing.

The key message will be that this is the fault of the Labour government and its ridiculous lawmaking, with the fact that no-one picked up the possible ramification of the wording of the Childcare Act, as it passed through parliament, quietly ignored. 

There will be little or no mention of the fact that the Children’s Minister has got straight on the case and ordered a review of the particular case.

The rightwing press /blogosphere will not let any inconvenient facts get in the way, that’s for sure, but it’s worth setting out briefly what is REALLY going on here.

Essentially, Ofsted officers, in an agency (the childcare part of Ofsted) that was set up primarily to issue strict guidelines and ensure that they are enforced, have pushed their desire to see guidelines adhered to strictly just a bit too far, and are interpreting the Act in the way it was never intended to be interpreted. 

That’s the whole culture of the childcare part of Ofsted, and lack of flexibility/strict interpretation is actually what it’s there for, whether we like it or not. 

I run an after school club as part of a wider childcare business, and we often have less than eight children in because of the small school roll and other activities going on.   The childcare ratio is set at 1 to 8, but I still have to employ two staff because the rules say that’s the minimum, even though there are teaching staff about 10 yards away.

Yes, that grates sometimes because I have to cross subsidise this essential extended schools services from the surplus on the nursery provision (though I’m also happy to employ an extra person).  But I accept it, because I know Ofsted simply can’t just say to me ‘oh well, that’s a bit different so we’ll let you off with one staff member.’

If you’re going to have regulation like this, it’s got to be tight and it’s got to be tightly enforced. 

The alternative – which I’d be more than open to personally - is to more or less do away with such regulation, and you know what the rightwing blogs would say the first time there was a serious incident….’Labour’s let down our children’,’the government’s got to act’ and so forth.

Of course this interpretation by Ofsted in one case is over the top, though by making it they force it to the top of the agenda and make sure the interpretation of the Act is clarified, exactly as is now being done under the review ordered. 

In a nutshell, the system’s necessarily strict, but it’s working in the way everyone said it should, right down to the necessary clarification of the single word ‘reward’.

But such a stance won’t sell the Daily Mail, or keep Dale’s trolls happy.  You look and see.

Categories: Law

‘The harsh reality of economic power’: what Gordon should say

September 27, 2009 19 comments

GordonBrownThe other day Blograde Dave was asking whether what Giles calls ‘institutional bias in favour of clients’ on the part of the international credit rating industry (but which I’d prefer to call rampant corruption) was symptomatic of ‘outmoded ideology’, or whether it is ‘an expression of naked class interest’.

Good question, and the answer lies in an analysis of the hegemonic power of discourse exerted by capitalism.  I mean, doesn’t it always (here’s Paul Sagar moving towards a similar conclusion).

I’ll be tackling that in more detail, and suggesting ways forward.  But today, as a little taster, here’s Geoff Dyer in the FT assessing why ‘China’s century’ has not arrived just yet:

‘The crisis has also given China, with its $2,000bn-plus foreign exchange reserves, a lesson in the harsh realities of economic power. Many developing countries have sensibly built up a foreign currency pile to insulate themselves from financial crises. Yet real power lies not with the country with the most reserves, but with governments that can easily borrow in their own currency. After all, who does the US borrow from?  China.’

It’s not about fiscal responsibility, about living within your means, says Geoff.  That’s not done the Chinese much good so far. 

No, it’s about naked power. 

The US has the dollar,  and it’s not going to give up its position as the lead currency,  whatever the longstanding Kaldorian arguments that a world ‘commodity currency’ would bring greater long term economic stability to use.  It’s not going to because it doesn’t have to.

And here, for good measure, is Simon Kuper in the same FT edition, on the reality of football, not as business, but as an expression of class interest:

‘Clubs are immortal chiefly because creditors dare not pull the plug. The clubs’ brands are strong enough to cow banks and taxmen. And so clubs can incur debts without fear………….. Much of football’s debt will never be repaid. So it will be written off.

…..Large chunks will be nationalised. In many countries football lives off state support. The prime example is Argentina, whose government last month bailed out the clubs by “buying” football’s television rights for almost triple their previous price. In Italy and England, governments have quietly accepted that many clubs will never pay their back taxes. Even Dutch city councils bail out profligate clubs. Taxpayers are therefore funding footballers’ Porsches.’

Just like the United States’s strategy for maintaining world domination, football doesn’t need to operate within the limits of  fiscal responsibility.  It has institutional power, and that’s what counts. 

And just like the big football clubs, in their patronising attitude to the smaller clubs (yeah, I do support Blackpool), the international credit rating industry doesn’t need to operate according to the rules it sets out for others.  It has the power not to do so.

The ‘rules’ of fiscal restraint and responsibility are only for those without power.  That’s why, in this new neo-neoliberal universe, where the expression of naked class interest is just a little more visible to the naked eye than it was before the smokescreen of the efficient-market hypothesis  was blown away by the crisis, the dominant narrative is that of slashing public services to curb the national debt. 

Because curbing the national debt by slashing public services and hiking unemployment to previously intolerable levels (see part 2 of my essay)  is done at the expense of those without power, that is what those with the power will do.

That is why Osbourne can crow ‘we have won the argument on spending’.

Osbourne is correct.  The argument IS won, because it is the ‘powerful’ argument.  It simply doesn’t matter that, from any other perspective than that of naked class interest, it’s stupid and wrong, and that prioritising the national debt over investment is incredibly short-sighted

That, comrades, is the harsh reality of economic power, and what we’re up against.

It would be nice to think Gordon Brown will stand up in conference this week and call out the Tories on their economic strategy, that investment IS more important than the debt as a percentage of GDP, and that Britain should be confident enough to know that it can keep on borrowing as much as it takes to make that investment happen, because the markets will not in fact refuse us further credit, and because the gilt market will stay manageable anyway as they remain an attractive investment option (see also this tentative FT ‘long term’ view). (See also Giles at Freethinking Economist on his view that ‘whatever grim future awaits Iceland holds no auguries for Britain or other advanced nations.’)

It would be nice to think that the Labour government was stronger and more confident in its cause than your average indebted football club.  If that were so, I’d happily stay up late and write Gordon’s speech for him, just like last year.

Message to Gordon: my mobile’s on if you want to call.  Try to avoid kids’ bedtime though, if you would.

Categories: Gender Politics

S&P, Moody’s and the first amendment of the American constitution

September 25, 2009 5 comments

10085093ALast night, in my continuing desire to get to grips with the evils of the international credit rating industry, I asked my Council’s Finance Director, during the treasury management bit of the Audit and Governance committee, what credit rating agency advise he tended to follow when deciding where to stick the council’s reserves.

Interestingly, not least because he’s a very clever bloke, he said he didn’t really follow Standard & Poor’s advice, or Moody’s, but went with the other one of the big three, Fitch’s. 

While S&P have been forecasting doom and trying to run the government’s fiscal policy for it, and Moody’s has been telling Phillip Hammond that he’s talking out of his arse, Fitch’s has been, it would seem, quietly getting on with its job.

This morning, quite coincidentally, Duncan Weldon kindly sent me over an FT Alphaville link, which told me all about an American gentleman, a Mr Kolchinsky, who was a Director of Moody’s until recently -  until recently, because he got sacked for whistleblowing on what he claims is Moody’s dodgy ‘revenue before honest ratings’ approach to its work. 

Yesterday, Mr K appeared in Washington  before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform  to talk about these matters.  I don’t know what he said yet, but according to this Reuters article, his written submission includes allegations that ‘Moody’s assigned some ratings that did not reflect all the information it had’ and of  ‘Moody’s …knowingly issuing a rating that was wrong.’

This, at first sight, would seem to contradict the view of Giles at the excellent new blog Freethinking Economist, set out in answer to my own ‘conspiracy theory’ about the credit rating agencies, and what I contended was their systematic corruption and abuse of power under guise of objective assessment. 

Giles said (of one particular S&P rating ‘flip flop’):

‘I still think the idea that such a blatant movement from the highest rating to one of the lowest can only be cockup, not conspiracy……  Paul, IMHO, overestimates the perfidy, and underestimates the potential incompetence, of staff at S&P: rating thousands of tranches of difficult RMBS etc, with all the problems of asymmetric information/lemons etc that goes into it, is never easy.’

Clearly, we need to see what view the Committee takes on Mr K’s evidence, and of course that will relate to Moody’s rather than S&P and it may be no direct comparisons can be made.

But perhaps most interestingly, S&P sent not a Director, but a ‘first amendment lawyer’, to represent it at the Committee hearing yesterday.

Now, I’m no expert on the American constitution, but I do know that the first amendment reads:

‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’

What I can also be pretty sure of is that the people who put together the amendment within the Bill of Rights, back in 1789, probably didn’t have in mind its use by a massively powerful financial corporation to allow it to say exactly what serves its own business interests at the expense of what’s actually true, and in way which our Mr K now seems to suggest may not be in accordance with the interests of the vast majority of the American people, or of the rest of the world that is subject to the clout of the American finance industry.

Fortunately, the First Amendment also guarantees the right to assemble, and I think something along those lines may still exist in Britain.  Anyone for a demo?

Categories: News from Abroad

Politics and the local-national disconnect

September 24, 2009 1 comment

It is an immutable truth that out of its approximately 640 prospective parliamentary candidates, each of the three main parties will select a few wildcards.

There’s the case of former Tory PPC for Watford, Ian Oakley, who went on to plead guilty to five charges of criminal damage and two of harrassment. Or the former Labour PPC for Eastleigh, Dan Clarke, who resigned as PPC and endorsed his Lib-Dem opponent, MP Chris Huhne. Then there’s John Kiely, a Lib-Dem PPC who was previously a city councillor; he lost his seat, took up as PPC, got elected elsewhere in the council and jacked in his parliamentary campaign, or the Lib Dem who resigned after spending money using his dead father’s credit card.

Taking that into account, it seems a little bit unfair of  Michael Crick at the BBC to deride the Lib-Dems for their loss of 23 prospective candidates to resignations. Attending the Lib-Dem conference this week, Crick concluded that, contra the views of Lib-Dems that people resign for personal reasons, the 23 losses are indicative of ‘a stretched party’. This may or may not be true, but Crick clearly has it in for the hubris of Nick Clegg and it seems more likely that these resignations simply fit his preferred narrative.

We all know that Nick Clegg’s grandstanding about forming the next government is a bit ridiculous; the Lib-Dems are simply not going to the next government, they are not going to be the government after that or the one after that. Such bullish talk, like that provided by Clegg and Tavish Scott about ‘the death of Labour’ or Vince Cable’s rhetoric about giving people tax cuts, is expected. It is clearly playing to the media – but Crick’s article inadvertantly brings to the fore some people and arguments that represent a deeper problem for the Libs than loose tongues and which, I suspect may have a knock-on effect on the confidence of prospective parliamentary candidates.

Lib-Dem activists aren’t convinced when Lib-Dem HQ sends out the same sort of gushy content-lite nonsense that Labour excels at – and, I suspect, many of them probably cringe when they hear Clegg or one of the others wax lyrical – and men like Evan Harris have been quick to oppose nonsensical opportunism on the part of Lib-Dem leadership. It goes deeper still when a PPC can resign, claiming in the Liberator magazine that she didn’t get enough support from head office. There is a disconnect between the local and national party, it would seem.

With regard to Labour, this is something I have written about at length. Now there is evidence to suggest something similar with regard to the Lib-Dems. The preference of many Tories for UKIP’s Nigel Farage over ‘soft’ Tory MP John Bercow or the acquisition of ‘hardline’ ConHome by a moderate indicate the potential for future trouble between the leadership and grassroots of the Tory Party. It seems the parliamentary parties have more in common with each other, sometimes, than they have in common with their party membership.

This really shouldn’t be a shock. If one looks around the blogosphere, there are Labour, Tory and Lib-Dem blogs which want to engage with arguments made by their own side and by the opposition. Yet the best party leaderships can do is knee-jerk and gesture politics. To give two examples, there’s the case of Clegg reacting to Ed Ball’s announcement about cuts in education, or there’s Vince Cable’s announcement about the mansion tax. Labour, with their decision to get rid of one Trident-carrying sub are really no better. Party members deserve more.

I am sure that all of this has a direct effect on the collapsing numbers of the three major parties. Everyone has heard about the Labour and Conservative membership declining, but the Lib-Dems – some members of which take such delight in pointing to the powers of their conference and claiming that they’re the real grassroots party – have also been failing to hold people. My suspicion, to give it an airing, is that Party leaders and dignitaries are spending too little time talking to their parties and too much time talking to the media.

The hope is, of course, that the media will reach many millions of people – whereas talking to one’s party, one the latest estimate, reaches at most about two hundred thousand people. When I say ‘talking’, I do not, of course, mean the sort of stage managed event as has been the norm at Labour Party conference for years. Nor the sort of thing as was witnessed at Lib Dem conference this year, where Clegg and Cable effectively told their national conference and their Federal Policy Committee that a Lib Dem government could simply ignore what they voted for. No wonder then that PPCs might feel a bit unloved.

Indeed, from the point of view of Labour, I know that the Party runs a lot of ridiculous seminars on things like “public speaking”, which cost a great deal of money from candidates. I’m sure people so motivated as to run for parliament have better things to do than be cashcows to some bored policy wonk.

Particularly from the point of view of a party which once aspired to represent the working class, and which now for the first time in decades faces a four-point poll deficit in the north of England, one would think that the fresh energy provided by concepts like accountability, party democracy and so on would be useful ways of encouraging people to join the party – where they feel they can make a difference and will be confident candidates for office who go the distance. Instead the opposite has been the case (can’t be having with these constituency people, dangerous extremists!) and so Labour has squandered whatever goodwill it once had in core working class areas.

Apathy is rarely something I come across when I talk politics, or when knocking on doors or in virtually any other situation where the people I’m talking to have or want a job, are paying a mortgage or rent or tax, or have ever had a run in with their council. This decline in political participation is not apathy – it is the result of a doomed attempt of bureaucratic hackery to shy away from (and the ruling class attempt to hide, in the aftermath of post-Soviet triumphalism) the dialectic reality of modern capitalism: the primary motor of politics is the contradiction between labour and capital. It can’t be talked out of existence with identity politics, it can’t be voted out of existence by always playing to ‘the centre’ and it can’t be cowed out of existence by threats of ‘middle England’.

We need a party that is democratic, that hasn’t been swallowed up by PR spiv-speak. If that means a party other than Labour, so be it.

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