Archive for the ‘General Politics’ Category

Evaluating Cameronism: was it Talebian or Thalerian?

April 26, 2015 2 comments

On Thursday Miliband criticized Cameron for his failure to foresee or do anything about the collapse of the Libyan state. Cameron’s reaction was:

I’ve learnt as prime minister that it is so important in a dangerous and uncertain world that you show clarity, consistency and strength on these foreign policy issues. And I think frankly people will look at these ill-judged remarks and they will reach their own conclusion.

There’s no substantive defence of the UK government’s foreign policy here.  Instead, Cameron simply asserts his own status as statesman, implying a contrast between himself and Miliband.  The  suggestion is that he simply doesn’t need to stoop to the level of explaining himself; he, in uncertain times, is just needs to be trusted.

As such, Cameron’s reaction supports the thesis I set out during the Libya war, that the best way to assess Conservatism under Cameron is less through the lens of overt ideology, more through that of the ‘operational code’ of government.   The operational code of Cameronism, I suggested (invoking Jim Bulpitt), was much more linked to high politics/low instincts which informed governing styles before Thatcher, than it was to the managerialism that emerged in the Thatcher years.  This return to an earlier operational code, I suggested further, was largely rooted in the upper class backgrounds of our new rulers.

Four years on, I’d stand by much of that analysis, and especially of how this operational code has been a cause of basic government incompetence in many areas of domestic policy, but Cameron’s phrasing reminde me that there’s another another way of evaluating Cameronism in its dying days, and one which is perhaps more relevant to Labour’s approach in government  after May 7th.

If we believe Cameron’s own words, his approach government has been informed by two leading thinkers.

The first is behavioural economist Richard Thaler, who acted as adviser to Cameron around 2008.  Thaler promoted what has become known as ‘nudge theory’ – essentially the idea that governments can modify the behaviour of their citizens by persuading them that lots of other people are modifying theirs, and that they should to.   This led, in government, to the well-funded and still extant Behavioural Insights team in the Cabinet Office, with its particular focus on Randomised Control Trials as an effective means of keeping the people in their place.

The second, is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, purveyor of Black Swan theory.   By 2012, Taleb was a regular guest at 10 Downing Street, and his views on risk and uncertainty – interpreted as arguments in favour of conservative public financing – were sweeping the party hierarchy.

Nudge theory and Black Swan theory are, of course, utterly incompatible.   The former assumes that human actions can be moulded into regular patterns which create desiraboue outcomes on a regular basis, and is a form of central planning.   Think Big Society.  The latter is based on the view that central planning is an irrelevance in the face of the inherent uncerainty of complex human interactions taking place in a complex and uncertain natural environment.

But I don’t point this out simply to mock Cameron and his coterie for their faddish intellectual pretensions.  Rather, I’d argue that there is actually a coherence in this incoherence – a coherence if you actually locate the competing approaches within the Cameronian operational code of high-low politics.

For if we look at the record we see at least an attempt at a Talebian approach to international relations – expressed in Cameron’s own words as the need for ‘strength’ in an uncertain world – but more broadly in the introspection we have seen develop since the disastrous Boys’ Own Adventure in Libya (even if measured solely in term of impact on the UK economy) , and in the Little Englander politics within the European Union.

Domestic policy, on the other hand, is dominated not by the Talebian advice to  “collect opportunities” (p.170)*, but by the Thalerian game plan: to manage, even micro-manage the populace, and narrow down different modes of action, on the basis that some are not socially desirable.  Again, think Big Society, think Community Organisers but also think benefit sanctions, think bedroom tax, think traditionalization of the curriculum. Think Troubled Families programme.  All terrible ideas, badly implemented, all rooted in a desire to get people to conform to the rules set for them.

So, after May 7th, where will a Labour-led government stand?   What will be its operational code?   Well, it could do worse than, quite consciously, ‘flip’ Thaler and Taleb: develop an international relations and environmental policies which has at least some elements of a Thalerian grand plan for cohesion, while remaining as prepared as possible for  the Black Swans, but at the same time take a Talebian approach to the needs and aspirations of the people they are there to serve, enabling those people to amass a range of life opportunities and even – and here we go beyond the individualism inherent in Tabelian thought – fostering the kind of social solidarities which help people forge Black Swan preparedness.



*Taleb is here referring to Loiuse Pasteur’s aphorism “Fortune favours the prepared”.


The options for the return of legitimate governance in Tower Hamlets

April 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Luftur Rahman is now, in law, the ex-Mayor of Tower Hamlets, the Electoral Commission (sitting as judge) having found him guilty of electoral fraud.

The detail of the verdict need not concern us here.  Nor, indeed. need the ethnicity of the ex-Mayor or his allegiances.  A focus on such matters tends to obscure the more fundamental issue: that investing executive power in a single person, whilst not ensuring robust systems of scrutiny and, where need be, recall, is to expose democracy to the risk of corruption [1].

While Boris Johnson, for example, may not be criminally guilty, it is reasonable to point out that his 7 years in power have not been without a whiff about “semi corruption” and contempt for (toothless) scrutiny and patronage.

The obvious solution to Tower Hamlets’ democratic legitimacy woes, and those of other areas where mayorality hasn’t turned out so well, is to take it all as an interesting but failed experiment, and return promptly to the form of local government which has, by and large, served us pretty well for a century or so.

Unfortunately, this isn’t very easy, at least at at first sight.  Under the Coalition’s 2011 Localism Act, a referendum to reverse the decision of a referendum on governance arrangements can only take place 10 years after the original referendum [2].  In the case of Tower Hamlets, the referendum which brought mayoral politics to the borough only took place in October 2010, further to a petition organised (manipulated?) by Respect and the Islamic Forum for Europe (this under the provisions of the Local Government Act 2000).  By this route, the borough could only return to sensible local government in 2020.

Fortunately, yet another piece of legislation – this time Labour’s [3] Sustainable Community Act (2007), which allows councils to see devolution of central government powers to local government where such powers  “assist councils in promoting the sustainability of local communities” [4].  In my view, a proposal from current councillors, in advance of a new mayoral election, for the devolution of power to allow the council simply to return to the leader-cabinet model, with its now normal scrutiny functionsn – or even to return to the older committee system (as has happened in Fylde) – could be justified on the basis of community sustainability, given the division and hatred brought about through the mayoral model.  Conversely, it might be argued that a further mayoral election (or continuation of that system) is a recipe for further division and animosity, whoever wins, given the accusations likely to keep on flying.

If I were a Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets, that’s what I’d be investigating right now, not least because this route to a settling down period might even find favour with non-Labour councillors.   I can also envisage a new DCLG Secretary of State welcoming such a proposal, on the basis that it swiftly undoes the harm brought by the divisive Respect/IFE cabal, as well as smacking of strong and decisive government.


[1] There is not time for a full exploration of the link between concentrated executive power and corruption here, but it’s worth noting how initial, valid concerns about such corruption were set to one side by New Labour as they grabbed hold of the idea of importing the mayoral system from the US, as part of their evidence-free faith in managerialism.

Indicative of this, one of New Labour’s earlier intellectual supporters, Gerry Stoker, acknowledged in a 1992 paper “The fact that an elected executive mayor implies a great concentration of power in a single individual rather than dispersal among many, raises the potential for perhaps more serious instances of corruption.”   By the time of his 2004 book Transforming Local Governance, however, he was persuaded enough of the merits of the mayoral system to set such concerns to one side, even while acknowledging that ” an effective mix of checks and balances is a considerable institutional design challenge”, and that it is “not clear that the regulations that followed the Local Government Act 2000 met that challenge” (p.140).  In other words, managerialism had won the intellectual day.

[2] A useful 2014 Parliamentary Briefing (pdf) explains the changes (p.5):

The Localism Act 2011 permitted a referendum to be held on abolishing an elected mayor, subject to time limits; and for a referendum to be held on establishing a leader and cabinet, or on using the committee system. Four authorities have held referendums on whether to retain their mayoral system. Electors in Doncaster (3 May 2012) and Middlesbrough (26 September 2013) voted to retain their elected mayor, whilst those in Hartlepool (15 Nov 2012) voted to replace it with the committee system, and those in Stoke-on-Trent (23 Oct 2008) voted to replace it with a leader and cabinet system.

Authorities which have changed their governance arrangements as a result of a referendum can only make a further change following a further referendum. Where a local authority has held a referendum on its governance arrangements, a further referendum may not be held for ten years (five years in Wales).

[3] To the Coalition’s credit, their amendments to the Act took the legislation from one which was based on application rounds to one which allows local authorities (and since 2013 Parish & Town Councils) to submit proposals to DCLG at any time.

[4]  The link here is to guidance on the Act and its amendments, because the level of amendment means it is misleading to link to the original act and confusing to link simply to amending legislation.

Migrant army

April 19, 2015 Leave a comment

700 or so people have drowned in the Mediterranean, as they traveled either in search of a less bad life, or because they had no other option. A lot more have died or will die in this way.  There are millions who want or have to make the same trip.

At the same time, Western and Middle-Eastern states are engaged, to differing degrees, in a battle against a large group of well-armed thugs who may or may not be motivated by religion, and are killing, raping or generally oppressing millions of people cross the Middle East.  Given their level of savagery, no armies other than a Kurdish one and a Iran-backed militia/Iraqi army coalition is willing to take them on.  This is insufficient given both their military strength and their grasp of propaganda, which enables them to expand their operations into other ‘theatres’.

Let’s put two and two together and, just once, make four.

Rather than let migrants drown or subject crossing survivors either to unfair asylum processes or lives of illegality, let’s invite those younger, able-bodied ones to join a new international migrant army, whose job it is is to defeat IS/Al Quaeida/Taliban military.  Here are the terms:

If you end up as a trans-Sahara migrant in Libya or Morocco, and want to ‘earn your passage’ to Europe, you can join a highly-disciplined UN-controlled army, where you will be fed, clothed, and equipped for battle;

If you serve two one year training and two years of service honourably, you will be entitled to residence in a EU country, and after a further year , in recognition of your military service and settlement, your close family may join you.

That’s it.  There’s  a need for people to fight IS et al.  There are people. They are currently being drowned. They could fight for their freedom, with pretty good odds, and decent reward.  The Bangladesh Army, which has a great record in UN Peacekeeping missions, could be in charge.

Of course it’s not ideologically sound, but I’m pretty sure both sides stand to gain from the bargain.


Categories: General Politics

Some simple questions about the childcare pledges

April 14, 2015 Leave a comment

In some ways the childcare arms race – with the Tories promising 30 hours a week free for 3 7 4 year olds to Labour’s 25 hours.

But the announcements raise more questions than they answer at the moment.  Here are some:

1) Both announcements restrict the 25/30 hours to working parents.  What is a working parent? How many hours?  Do they have to be regular?  Who provides and checks the evidence?  What happens if circumstances change?  Who’s going to fund this new bureaucracy?

2) Is this restricted eligibility meant to take in the existing 15 hours, which is open to all children, meaning that children of workless parents will be cut out of provision entirely?  Or will all parents be entitled to 15 hours, then just the working ones to the 10/15 hours? What about the risk of stigmatisation of the parents who must pick up at 3.30pm on the dot because they don’t qualify for the 25/30 hours? Is pre-school provision a good thing in itself in terms of socialisation/school readiness?  If so, why discriminate in this way against non-working parents?  What about the needs of children who are whipped away from new friends because a parent’s job ends?

3) Is this a year round commitment, or just for the current 38 weeks?  If it’s year round, how will current pre-school providers who only provide the service term-time be helped to gear up?  If it’s just 38 weeks, will fees soar for the other 12 weeks (most providers shit for Christmas) and will there be protection against that?

As I’ve said, I’m glad overall these questions need answering because childcare has made it into both manifestos, but as usual the devil is in the detail, and it’s be much easier to implement universal provision than be getting into yet more means-testing-of-a-sort.




Categories: General Politics

Is this the worst local journalism ever?

April 13, 2015 Leave a comment

There’s a mind-bogglingly bad bit of local journalism round my way today.  It goes thus:

Jack Sen will not be attending hustings in Ormskirk after being threatened by Standing up to UKIP

The West Lancashire UKIP candidate has pulled out of hustings after being threatened by Standing up to UKIP.

Jack Sen was due to attend the hustings at Ormskirk Civic Hall on Tuesday but has decided not to go to the event after receiving a threatening letter.

Stand up to UKIP “Call on all those who reject racism, scapegoating and xenophobic nationalism to join us in campaigning against UKIP.”

The Ormskirk Advertiser and Southport Visiter have also received the same letter, which states that “If Sen appears at the hustings the event will go tragically for all involved.”

Yes, that’s right.

We’re expected, as loyal readers of the local rag, to believe that the organisation backed at its launch by luminaries such as Diane Abbott, Ava Vidal, Owen Jones, Len McCluskey and Ken Livingtone. have been sending poorly spelled, handwritten death threats to local papers and others, in a constituency few people have heard of, and then signing it off as their work, though making a small mistake as to what they’re called (Standing up to UKIP vs. Stand Up to UKIP).

The journalist has even gone to the trouble of checking Stand Up to UKIP’s twitter bio to see what the felons are about*, thus deliberately making the link between these notes and the organisation.

There are three possible explanations my local paper/journalist apparently taking leave of her senses:

1) She’s taken leave of her senses

2) This is actually just a straight, hurried copy and paste from a UKIP press release.   This is supported by the inclusion of the long and incoherent ramblings of the UKIP candidate, but is contradicted by the wording about local papers receiving the same note, which presumably UKIP wouldn’t have known.

3) There’s something even crazier going on.

Whatever, the explanation, this is a very bizarre article.   I think the paper would do well to take it down as soon as possible, as I’m not certain people like Len McCluskey will want to be associated with the sending of death threats, even in a small circulation local paper.


*I should add I have little time for Stand Up to UKIP itself,which I think is a showy irrelevance.

Categories: General Politics

How Labour should respond to the Tories’ £8bn NHS pledge

April 12, 2015 1 comment

It is quite an achievement for Labour’s rebuttal specialists to have Labour coming out on the wrong side of the argument about the Tories’ pledge to invest £8bn a year in the NHS, but they appear to be managing it.

What the “but it’s all unfunded” Labour plaints sound like from deepest Lancashire is “we’re against this £8bn annual investment, even though we’re the party of the NHS”.  And if it sound like that in my Labour loyalist kitchen, expect the Tories to make a big thing of it at the launch of their manifesto.

There are two issues here.

First, how the hell did Labour’s top team not see this coming?  Even I, who know sod all about election strategy (apart from the bit about winning them), said two and a half years ago the Tory game plan would go as follows if it looked like all was lost:

the importance of the national deficit [will be] set to one side in the pursuit of the wider goal of national salvation – we may even see some form of Modern Monetary Theory brought to bear, though it is unlikely to be termed such.

So it should hardly be a surprise that the Tories are throwing ‘unfunded’ commitments at the electorate.  It seems to me that the fiscal conservatives who’ve had such an influence on Labour’s economic-credibility-at-all-costs strategy have become so convinced of the success of that strategy that they’ve forgotten other economic arguments – like the one being set out by the Tories now – actually exist.   So, while it should have been Labour arguing the case for investment in the NHS on the basis both that short term deficit is easily dealt with in a context of wage-led economic growth and that public investment in health is itself part of that, it’s the Tories who are now able to call the shots, and attack Labour for presumed failure to promise investment.

In other words, Labour’s is being strung by its own fiscal conservative petard; it can’t now celebrate the Tories’ proposals as an admission by the Tories that their previous line was wrong, because rhetorically (though not substantively) it chose to toe that previous line.

Second, there’s the question of how Labour should deal with the Tory proposals, now that its fiscal conservatives have backed the party into the corner.   Clearly, they’ve not thought that through just yet.

The solution for Labour is to argue that the Tories £8bn investment promise is a lie, and that it won’t happen.

The easiest way to evidence this is to point to the fact that, even in 2015-16 if they win, the Tories are proposing to cut £3.8bn from the NHS by quietly allocating it to local authorities, under the provisions of sections 75 and 256 of the National Health Service Act, which effectively allow ministers to ‘fund’ the NHS, but then direct any percentage of that funding its wants to be transferred elsewhere.  In 2014-15, just for reference, the ‘NHS transfer funding’, as it is generally called, was around £1.1bn to local authorities.

The £3.8bn transfer is explained by government as investment in ‘integrated’ social care, but this investment is needed primarily because of the effects of austerity on local authorities.  Projecting forward, it’s not hard to foresee that most or all of any supposed new investment in the NHS will actually taken straight out again to fund social care, especially as the savings which are supposed to accrue magically through integration fail to do so to any extent planned and hope for (pdf).


*The £2bn that Jeremy Hunt says has already been promised  to ‘frontline services’ in Osborne’s final budget,  and which he says is over and above the £8bn, may or may not be the same £2bn budget line which now appears as part of the £3.8bn transfer to local government above.  Either way, it’s £2bn which was to be spent by the NHS frontline, but which now isn’t.   Of course, only £.3bn of that £2bn was actually new money anyway, so it may be that this is the second bit of double counting.





Letter to the papers

Please comment below or reply to me on twitter (@bickerrecord) if you’d like to be a co-signator.  We need 100 people, and I’ll be the sole judge of who makes the final list becaue, well, yeah, what you gonna do about it?

Please say a bit about who you are, where you live, and what makes you a top 100 kind of person, but not so much as I get bored.  The more ridiculous the better, but we will need at a minimum a popstar, a children’s author, someone who works in a fish and chip shop in Halifax, a crofter, someone recently released from jail for forging letter, an itinerant saleperson,  a pigeon fancier and someone with a doctorate in something chemical.

I’ve no idea who we’ll send it to, but I hope we’ll get on the telly.

Dear Sir/Madam

We are a group of people from all walks of life, all similarly horrified that political discourse has descended to a level where mainstream parties believe they might win the forthcoming election if they get a letter in the paper signed by famous people or, by way of contrast, not famous people.   This is the political equivalent of “my dad’ll batter yours” playground taunt.

For the remainder of the campaign, we ask that the parties tell us what they’ll do if they form a government, just like in the olden days.

Yours faithfully


Categories: General Politics

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