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Archive for August, 2011

On debt, reformism is the most radical way

Go to any event that’s vaguely socialist, and you will hear it being mourned that there is a widespread disenfranchisement of the working class and its institutions. Figures by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) last year revealed that the number of people affiliated to trade unions dropped by 165,000 in 2009.

The number of people in unions in the late 1970s was around 13 million – leagues away from the 7.1 million employed joined to a union.

You can tell there’s a problem when in a time of financial crisis the tabloid press doesn’t blame union greed – which it did during all other times of financial disaster – but public spending; as though the unions have already won their battle, have become irrelevant because the public sector have incorporated their demands.

Clearly, though, those demands have not been met – what the press are purposefully omitting is the sky-high wages for chiefs, the mounting consulting fees and waste. To be sure this money is not going on wage increases and pensions. While 9,000 public sector employees earn more than the Prime Minister, two-thirds earn less than £21,000-a-year and are facing a three-year pay freeze.

So what has cancelled out the union bargaining chip? Some have noted that credit, and thus debt, has saturated the enthusiasm to demand higher wages, and seemingly counterbalances low wages. If this is so, we, the Left, should be behind Stella Creasy and her campaign to curb high cost credit, because when credit dependency is removed, so returns the need for higher wages, and thus union power.

But, of course, Creasy doesn’t stop there (if she just stopped there, it would empower illegal payday lenders – and that’s another problem. Users of payday loans have quadrupled to 1.2 million over the last four years). She wants to increase the roll-out of credit unions which could be linked to the post office network (under pressure in the digital age), could provide links online (which keeps processing costs down) and therefore keeps loan costs down.

The issue that could be raised here is that this still allows for debt. But without doubt the creditworthiness of individuals needs to be matched by initiatives to promote savings. BIS and the coalition government say they want to better link up credit unions with the post office network (point 53 of this report – pdf) but they scrapped the Savings Gateway and the Child Trust Fund – initiatives which were the best of New Labour (it must be said that the best of Third Way-ism is Reformism, like savings initiatives; but the worst of it is neo-liberal economics).

The IPPR, geniuses that they are, may have found the magic bullet which doesn’t require those particular schemes. Tax credits could be rewarded to those accounts of low income earners who keep money in their savings accounts for longer. The problem, however, is that some families do not have enough at the end of the month to. Therefore there is no reason to think that the roll out of credit unions and tax breaks will disincentivise the enthusiasm to campaign for higher wages.

Debt is an anti-capitalist issue. Just as we sell our labour for a wage, now we sell our labour to service our debt. The choice for the Left is either to demand the impossible (cancel all debt), or demand the possible and support rewards for saving, reinvigorate the bargaining chip for higher wages and support our public services by properly modernising the post office (digitising it, for example, and linking it to credit unions).

The reformist way here, it would seem, is the most radical.

Categories: General Politics Tags: , ,

Announcing the TCF Oxford Symposium

August 25, 2011 Leave a comment

In a major step forward for the Though Cowards Flinch think-tank, we are pleased to announce our first Oxford Symposium (1), to be held in the Bookbinders Arms, Jericho (2) on Friday 26th August at 8pm. 

Entrance is free (3).

The Symposium is largely aimed as a response to the 2010/11 London-Oxford seminars which led to the publication of the ‘Blue Labour’ Politics of Paradox, and will cover the following themes:

Recapturing Cole: how the Left can respond to the way in which the ‘Blue Labour’ school has used to its own narrow ends the work of early 20th Century thinkers like GDH Cole and RH Tawney;

Professional pride: how the Labour movement can seize back the initiative over the quality of public services from  New Labour managerialism and New Conservative destruction;

The Race Relations Catastrophe: how the Left can build on the work and insights of sociologist John Rex to develop a coherent new approach to working class race relations in the UK

Local power: how the Left needs to go back to basics on ‘localism’, to strip away New Labour and New Conservative rhetoric and build a new localism based on devolution of power, not blame. 

The 1980s, let’s not go there: an analysis of the Labour left’s approach to opposition in the 1980s, with a fresh assessment of the mistakes in ‘New Left’ thinking which led to short term gains but long-term loss within the labour movement.

Findings from the symposium will be considered for publication (4).

In a special innovation, the Symposium will avoid the constraints of the usual conference-style organisation, where people are expected to listen for hours on end to so-called experts droning on about stuff we already know and then taking ‘questions’ from people in the audience which are in fact rambling statements unrelated to the matter at hand while totally ignoring or dismissing the ones which actually matter.

Instead, the Symposium will operate to the following basic rules:

a) A regular TCF author from Lancashire will chair the Symposium.

b) Anyone wanting to say anything on the topics above should come prepared with a statement of not more than two minutes, but preferably about 20 seconds.

c) That statement will be allowed once the Chairman has been bought a pint by the person wishing to make the statement.

d)  The Chairman will drink his pint quite slowly if the contribution is considered good and worthy of further debate, but just knock it back in one if it’s total bollox and/or sounds like it could be from Progress magazine.

e) This mechanism, functioning also as a clever psychology experiment in group incentives, will filter out the rubbish contributions, because if the contributions are rubbish the Chairman will become increasingly drunk, power-crazed and abusive to everyone in sight.  This would not be a pretty sight, and creates a strong incentive for participants to talk sense. 

f) The Chairman reserves the right to stop the Symposium at any stage, either if he gets bored or he doesn’t understand the clever people, and instead just talk about cricket and beer and general shit.  In such an event, he should still be bought pints right through to closing time.  This is in fact extremely likely to happen.

Notes

(1) Oxford has been specifically selected for this first event because of all the clever people there.  It is absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the Chairman happens to be in Oxford that day and fancies wheedling some free beer out of naive young socialists. We’re calling it a Symposium because it’s a new word we just learned and it sounds more academic than ‘conference’ or ‘seminar’. It’s from Greek.

(2) Jericho is Oxford’s premier residential area, where the really clever people live, and where the pub is.

(3) We would charge loads but we’ve made absolutely no arrangements with the pub and we think they’d get pissed off if we just stood outside the pub with a bucket.  It’s free to socialists.  Tories can just sod off and play darts or something.

(4) Caveat: Findings will be published if anyone brings a pen, writes it all down, types it up in some kind of sensible form finds a publisher willing to go with it, and does all the necessary marketing and stuff.

Unpalatable ideas and the study of reading (and listening) habits or, an essay on Larkin, Wagner and Heidegger

August 24, 2011 2 comments

Yesterday, the Financial Times published a truly great article on the poetry and life of Philip Larkin, by the writer Martin Amis, who has selected the poems for a forthcoming Larkin anthology.

As a personal friend of the poet’s whilst he was still alive, Amis is as good as any to recall the type of person Larkin was, as well as detail what may have been the inspiration for his poetry.

In it, however, Amis cuts to the chase, pointing out that:

Larkin died in 1985. And when the Letters [Anthony Thwaite's collection of letters, 1992] and the Life [Andrew Motion's biography, entitled in full A Writer's Life, 1993] appeared, almost a decade later, I wrote a long piece in his defence. I should say that I too was struck by Larkin’s reflexive, stock-response “racism”, and by his peculiarly tightfisted “misogyny”. But I bore in mind the simple truth that writers’ private lives don’t matter; only the work matters. (My emphasis)

This initially made me regret the way in which I studied Larkin as a college student, then made me think about the difference between a writer’s life, and work, in general.

Firstly, while pulling apart my copy of The Whitsun Weddings, I took the care to try and decipher each and every word employed, the part they played, the images they brought up and the sound they made – but took little time in analysing the words as part of a whole. I tore those words up until the stanzas ceased to be part of a wider entity.

Then it was the way in which my class used the myth of Larkin – stories of the unkind, racist, sexist sour puss – to justify our theses and lazy hermeneutics.

The problem with such textual analysis is not that we were wrong, but that we could never tell if we were right. If we read, for example, “A Study of Reading Habits” do we consider the images they relay to us, or do we simply imagine a pieced together image of the bitter Larkin, as characterised by our feminist lecturers?

Consider:

Later, with inch-thick specs,

Evil was just my lark:

Me and my cloak and fangs

Had ripping times in the dark.

The women I clubbed with sex!

I broke them up like meringues.

I think Amis might be right; we should try and disengage with what the private lives of writers are like, lest it interferes with correctly judging a piece of work – were such a thing possible, anyway.

And then this reminded me of another issue; the canonisation of writers linked to the very worst in unpalatable ideas: Nazism.

When it is a great piece of music or philosophy, scholars and commentators of all stripes would prefer you to appreciate the substance, not the individual behind it. When an Israeli orchestra wanted to play a festival in Bayreuth, Southern Germany, dedicated to the music of Wagner, many were insulted and protested. But enough came out saying we must distinguish the person – a known anti-Semite, enjoyed by, among others, Hitler – from the art; and the art should be enjoyed by all regardless.

Indeed Roberto Paternostro, the conductor of the orchestra, was reported as saying: “Wagner’s ideology and anti-Semitism was terrible, but on the other hand he was a great composer”.

Others have pointed out that there was no explicit anti-Semitism in Wagner’s music, so its being listened to ought to be guilt free. Similarly, many in the world of philosophy, according to the Jewish online magazine Tablet, “recognize the difficulty of considering Martin Heidegger’s oeuvre without acknowledging the genocidal machine of which he was a part, but don’t believe that his Nazi sympathies underlie or undermine all of his works.”

The key word here is “underlie”; because no explicit reference to racism is made in Heidegger’s work, so it is not worth us white washing a great thinker (without Heidegger there would be no Arendt, no Foucault, no Rorty, and no Sartre for sure) and leaving that particular gap in the world of knowledge.

But, drawing this back to Larkin – what of writers where unpalatable sentiment is clearly expressed in the work, and which seem to fit with the writer’s own sentiments (here I purposefully conflate sexism and misogyny with anti-Semitism; a trilogy of rancorous motives)? Is it only above board that we read Heidegger and listen to Wagner today because in it there is no trace of their own personal prejudices? If there were, would we have to forgo them through principle?

Let us take another example, this time from popular culture. Michael Richards is most famous for playing Kramer in the popular American sitcom Seinfeld – indeed this is where he produced his best work. In 2006, while doing a stand-up comedy gig, he racially abused two black men who were near the front row of his audience by saying “”fifty years ago you would be hanging from a tree with a pitch-fork up your ass”. Very little is heard of the actor now, and though he denies being racist, and in spite of his great previous work, he has destroyed his career. In this instance, the separation from his acting and his terrible judgement cannot be made.

There is no simple answer for why we choose to keep (in the world of artistic respectability) some over others; possibly it has to do with the form of art produced, perhaps also it’s the amount of time elapsed since that art first emerged in the world. Whatever, keeping at arms length an artist’s personal life is a good principle to keep hold of, because they themselves are rarely the objects of our desire; but we should question as to why it is we forgive for our viewing/reading/listening pleasure.

The Daily Mail and Amy Winehouse

August 24, 2011 4 comments

The Daily Mail report today:

After her tragic death in July there was considerable speculation regarding the cause of Amy’s death.

But today it has been announced that the toxicology results have been returned to the Winehouse family by authorities and confirm that there were no illegal substances in Amy’s system at the time of her death.

A few weeks ago, various writers for the Mail website had their own conclusions already made.

Melanie Phillips had it:

she herself chose the louche lifestyle that eventually claimed her life. But many others were complicit.

As Amy Winehouse was synonymous with addiction, it was unsurprising that many guesses would be made in this direction – but Phillips felt it appropriate to throw caution to the wind and assert that a “louche lifestyle” got the better of her in the end.

Phillips also said:

The singer had battled drug and alcohol addiction for years, and while the cause of her death has initially been put down to drink, there are reports she bought drugs the night before she died.

These reports, also seen in the Mail, are echoed only by suspect reportage that a drug dealer by the name of Tony Azzopardi helped her score Class A drugs the night previous – though this conflicts with her Father’s pleas that Winehouse had kicked her habits, with reports before her death to say the same – and are seemingly at odds now with the toxicological assessment that Winehouse had no illegal substances in her body at her time of death.

The rest of Melanie’s article is filled with self-praise that she has it right on drugs, and that the liberal-left have it wrong; drugs equals death and that’s that – just look at Winehouse.

It fit her narrative, so why wait for test results to appear.

The day before her death, Ephraim Hardcastle, known for lazy journalism, wrote about a picture of Amy and her Father, Mitch, by saying:

Druggy pop singer Amy Winehouse’s cabbie father, Mitch, 60, pictured with her, is warbling at New York’s Blue Note jazz club.

For both of these writers, clues that Amy may have curbed her drug use were all too clear. Over the days before her death there are a mess of articles in the paper they write for concurring assumptions that she kicked drugs (even if they then went on to criticise her for her drinking habits).

And over the 15 days before her death the Mail had articles (contradicting themselves) on the site called:

  • She’s back and in fine form: Amy Winehouse returns to the stage for comeback gig in Brazil
  • Amy Winehouse can’t help but admire her assets as she soaks up the sun in Brazil
  • Life’s going swimmingly: But a healthy-looking Amy Winehouse doesn’t get her beehive wet round the pool
  • What a difference a year makes! Clean-living lifestyle pays off for healthy-looking Amy Winehouse
  • Bruise that girl: Amy Winehouse displays nasty leg injuries as she hangs out by the pool
  • Feeling a bit bloated, Amy? Winehouse shows signs of overindulgence as she lets it all hang out by the pool
  • Amy Winehouse looks glowing as she arrives back in London after Brazil trip

For some writers, the death of a singer was an excuse to re-hash the anti-drug message, but today results reveal the tenuousness of that excuse. If true, the toxicological results should embarrass writers for whom it’s their unique selling point to taunt troubled individuals.

Freedom to wait

August 24, 2011 Leave a comment

I know that pretty well everyone inhabiting the blogosphere logs on to Though Cowards Flinch as soon as they wake up in the morning, desperate for an update on two vitally important Freedom of Information requests I have in train.  So here’s a quick update.

1.  Lancashire County Council/BT contract (back story here and here)

 17 May 2011: FOI request made

I wish to request, under Freedom of Information legislation, a full copy of the contract between Lancashire County Council and BT as it pertains to the Joint Venture Company, One Connect Ltd.
 
In reviewing my request, you may want to take into account the Information Commissioner’s recent decision to order the publication of the contract between Liverpool City Council and BT in respect of the Liverpool Direct Joint Venture Company.

14 June : Reply from LCC stating that extension on 20 day time limit needed in order to conduct public interest test. Deadline for reply 14 July

15 July:  Follow up from me chasing reply, and reply from LCC saying views of BT being sought and apologising for delay

18 July: Reply from LCC saying reply of 15 July was wrong and that BT views are being examined by LCC legal services

01 August: Follow up from me asking about progress (unanswered)

24 August: Follow up from me requiing subsantive reply by 26th August, failing which formal complaint about Council misconduct will be made, along with direct approach to Information Commissioner on basis that Council have not acted reasonably.

2.  Regional Growth Fund funding application and scoring criteria (BIS) (back story and details here)

20 April 2011: FOI request made

I wish to make a request for information under the Freedom of Information legislation. Please provide:

1) Copies of all funding applications that were successful in attracting Regional Growth Funds, as announced on Tuesday 24th March 2011.

2) A copy of any assessment and scoring criteria used by the Regional Growth Fund panel used to decide which applications should be funded.

3) Any correspondence from BIS and the Western Morning News in relation to this organisation’s application to the Regional Growth Fund.

24 May: Reply from BIS stating that extension on 20 day time limit needed in order to conduct public interest test. Deadline for reply 22  June

22 June: Reply from BIS turning down sections 1 and 2 of the FOI request (section 3 complied with).

05 July: I request internal review of BIS decision, on these grounds.

24 August: I chase internal review process and receive immediate reply giving second week of September as expected response time.

 

 

The further delusions of Tony Blair

August 23, 2011 2 comments

Tony Blair’s Comment is Free article on the reason for the riots brought the inevitable howls of derision. Of the 1986 comments posted to date, the vast majority are either too vicious for the moderator to allow through, or focus on whether Tony Blair’s character and/or war criminal record really make him an authority on moral issues.  Relatively few people actually seem to have bothered to digest what he actually says.  This is a shame, because the article reveals a lot not just about Tony Blair’s deep revisionism concerning his record in office but, more importantly, gives an important insight into one of the very worst aspects of the New Labour paradox – its overbearing managerialism set alongside its refusal to engage with the murky but very real world of policy implementation.  As such, the article offers an important lesson for the Centre Left/Left on how to do things better the next time it gets the chance.

For our purposes, this is the crucial section in the article:

Most of them [those involved in the riots] are shaping up that way by the time they are in primary school or even in nursery. They then grow up in circumstances where their role models are drug dealers, pimps, people with knives and guns, people who will exploit them and abuse them but with whom they feel a belonging. Hence the gang culture that is so destructive…..

By the end of my time as prime minister, I concluded that the solution was specific and quite different from conventional policy. We had to be prepared to intervene literally family by family and at an early stage, even before any criminality had occurred. And we had to reform the laws around criminal justice, including on antisocial behaviour, organised crime and the treatment of persistent offenders. We had to treat the gangs in a completely different way to have any hope of success. The agenda that came out of this was conceived in my last years of office, but it had to be attempted against a constant backdrop of opposition, left and right, on civil liberty grounds and on the basis we were “stigmatising” young people. After I’d left, the agenda lost momentum. But the papers and the work are all there.

Let us leave aside the petty jibe that, had Blair remained in office, he would have sorted out gangs and gangs culture by now, so it must be Gordon Brown’s fault.  Let us also leave aside for now the evidence, ignored by Blair, that a large section of those who involved themselves in the rioting and looting actions are not actually in gangs, at least under any generally accepted definition of what a gang is (see Shiv Malik on this).  Let us instead focus on the Blair view that what is needed to sort out the problems, as he conceives them, is a radical new policy, specific to those who engage in anti-social behaviour, which he devised in his last years as PM and the like of which we had never seen before.

At one level, we can see this assertion as a simple lie by Blair.  We need only look at the Social Exclusion Policy Action Team No.8 report on anti-social behaviour, which was published in 2000, for very clear evidence that New Labour policy on anti-social behaviour and gang management was developed very early in the Blair period, and includes all the elements that Blair now says were lacking, and which he wanted to introduce.  All the factors that lead people towards anti-social behaviour/gangs, which Blair claims to have just discovered, are clearly set out (see para .1.32 for the ‘Risk Factors’ table), and all the measures that Blair now claims would be a total innovation in policy are present and correct (summarised at para. 6.12) throughout the report – early intervention, a family-focused approach, the use of ASBOs, evicting perpetrators, it’s all there.

But I think there is more to Blair’s article than a simply attempt to cast himself in the best light possible.  I think Blair’s revisionist narrative tells us a lot about the New Labour approach to social policy in general.  Underlying Blair’s revisionist narrative is New Labour’s core managerialist assumption that if a problem has not been resolved, it is because the policy designed to resolve it was wrong, and a new policy is needed.  In most cases under New Labour, this new policy tended to be a shift towards the authoritarian right. 

What New Labour’s consistently failed to grasp was that policy as implemented is hardly ever the same as policy devised, and that the main reason top-down policies fail to deliver on their objectives is that policy implementation is mediated by frontline workers,through their engagement with (often reluctant) service users, though in many cases gaming of targets and results allowed objectives to be met on paper, though not in reality.  New Labour’s obsession with targets in particular stopped it from realising that the best way to develop effective policy is not to insist a bit harder that frontline workers should be strategic and focused (through the creation of an Implementation Unit reporting directly to Blair), but to trust frontline workers to do their jobs, and resource them appropriately. 

I have covered in some detail the effects of New Labour’s failure to understand the dynamics of policy implementation when it comes to Welfare Reform, showing how policy designed to include people from society was bound to exclude people instead.  I have also covered how New Labour’s policy centralised Children’s Centre policymaking was great in theory, but ended up alienating those who needed the service most in practice.  The failure of New Labour to deal effectively with anti-social behaviour, through the further stigmatization and alienation of a section of people, is just another example.

None of this, of course, provides an answer to how government should deal with anti-social behaviour and gang culture.  The issues are deep, the problems intractable, and there is no silver bullet, though I have suggested here that a part of the solution MUST be to recognise that the problems we face today were caused by deliberate government action is the 1960s and 1970s, and that only be taking responsibility for these mistakes will any future Labour government be in a position to give a whole generation of disaffected young people a fresh stake in mainstream society.  Such a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process will need to be in addition to the creation of a material environment  through decent quality jobs and a public environment which nurture mutual respect. 

But before all of that, Milibandian Labour needs to recognise, and reflect upon, some very straightforward truths about what New Labour got wrong, and which Blair continues to get wrong (and it is not even in the Tory hierarchy’s interests even to understand the concepts covered here).  Effective policymaking and implementation are not just about ideas on what might work and then announcing the grand plan;  they are about handing over the power to make it happen.  That should be a central plank of what makes Labour different from the Tories.

ONS gets a quiet word from the regulator

August 22, 2011 2 comments

Amidst all the dramatic events of the last week or so, this letter of 16th August, from the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority (the regulator) to the Director General of the Office for National Statistics, does not appear to have been picked up on in the blogosphere (though I may have missed coverage as I’ve been away).

The letter concerns the media controversy over the way in which the ONS reported on the Q2 GDP Statistical Bulletin, referring to several ‘special factors’ as reasons why the growth figures was only 0.2%.  The Bulletin went as far as to suggest that, without these special factors, growth “may” have been 0.7%, although an important caveat is added:

These estimates must be regarded as broad brush and illustrative. There can be no certainty as to the impact of the special events and there may be other factors at play.

 

The letter from the Chair of the Statistics Authority is carefully worded but, amidst the niceties, this section stands out:

There may be benefit in further developing the commentary so that it is fully understood by all commentators that a discussion of special factors will routinely be published regardless of whether the effects of those factors is to increase or decrease GDP. It may also be that any quantified estimate of the net effect of the special factors should only be published as part of a full analysis, if at all.

It is hard to read this as anything other than a slap on the wrist from the regulator, who is clearly concerned that ONS is being drawn into a defence of the Coalition, through the use of “quantified estimates” which are totally unbacked by any justifying rationale, but appear to have been plucked out of the air as a way of helping the Coalition explain away the poor growth.

The Director General of ONS has replied to the regulator with an equally carefully worded letter, in which he slips in what is effectively an admision of guilt, under the guise of an update about methodoligical review:

We will in the autumn be reviewing with the GSS Methodology Advisory Committee the approach we are taking on the estimation of the effects of special factors. I will ensure that review takes account of the points you have raised.

It’s good to see the National Statistics regulator on his toes, but I for one will be taking an interest in whether and how this methodological review is carried through. 

If the Coalition starts to think that it can get away not just with undue influence over the media, but also – however discreetly – over quintessential aspects of the country’s civil service machinery, trouble surely lies ahead.  

 

 

 

Categories: Terrible Tories
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