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Hungary and article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty

September 4, 2015 Leave a comment

One strange consequence of ‘the refugee crisis’ [1] now in full flow in Europe has been the spotlight put on the nature of the Hungarian regime, and the views of Prime Minister Orban on what Europe’s about:

Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims. This is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity…..Is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?

This, I suspect, isn’t a vision of Europe shared by many readers.   Nor is it one reflected at Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which Hungary was the first of the 27 states to ratify. Article 2 says:

The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.
Nice rhetoric, but utterly unenforceable, it might be argued.  Except that this is what  Article 7 says about making sure states abide by the values of Article 2.
1. On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the European Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2. Before making such a determination, the Council shall hear the Member State in question and may address recommendations to it, acting in accordance with the same procedure. The Council shall regularly verify that the grounds on which such a determination was made continue to apply.

2. The European Council, acting by unanimity on a proposal by one third of the Member States or by the European Commission and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may determine the existence of a serious and persistent breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2 after inviting the Member State in question to submit its observations.

3. Where a determination under paragraph 2 has been made, the Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide to suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties to the Member State in question, including the voting rights of the representative of the government of that Member State in the Council. In doing so, the Council shall take into account the possible consequences of such a suspension on the rights and obligations of natural and legal persons.

The obligations of the Member State in question under the Treaties shall in any case continue to be binding on that State.

4. The Council, acting by a qualified majority, may decide subsequently to vary or revoke measures taken under paragraph 3 in response to changes in the situation which led to their being imposed.

5. The voting arrangements applying to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council for the purposes of this Article are laid down in Article 354 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

For myself, I cannot think of a more appropriate time for members of the European Parliament to stand up for the founding values of the Union, and seek to invoke the parliamentary and treaty procedures set down for just this kind of development.  It’s what the parliament’s supposed to do.

It might therefore be something readers want to submit to their MEP for consideration, especially with a view to a resolution going first through the S&D grouping [2]. I wouldn’t bother with the UKIP ones, mind.

 

[1] Not actually THE refugee crisis, but one of them.  Rohingya refugess fleeing by boat from the pre-genocidal actions of the Burmese military regime also constitute a refugee crisis, as do the 660,000 Eritrean refugees who have fled over the border into Ethiopia (a small percentage of whom have sought to get to Europe via Sudan and Libya)

[2] That’s not to say the S&D don’t have issues to resolve in their own ranks. Try SMER in Slovakia.

Coasting schools and the new authoritarianism

June 5, 2015 2 comments

There’s something deeply disturbing about section 1 of the new Education & Adoption Bill, according to which the Secretary of State will get to turn a maintained school into an academy if she considers it to be “coasting”.

What’s disturbing is not that this is really just a quick way to turn schools into academies, even though there’s no evidence that this is a good way to improve schools. That just evidence-free policy of the type we’ve come to expect.

It’s not that there is no inkling as to what “coasting” might actually mean and how it might be measured.  That’s now just standard centralisation and of decision-making as developed under Gove (though with the twist that it will be the new Regional Schools Commissioner expected to do the centre’s dirty work).

It’s not even that there is really just no evidence that piling more and more inspectorial pressure on school can squeeze out anything further in the way of improvement.

What’s really disturbing is the subtle shift, from a focus not doing well enough to a focus on schools not giving a sufficient external display of effort.

This, it seems to me, may reflect a move beyond the managerialism of New Labour and its continuation into early New Conservatism, in which outcomes mattered and how you achieved them didn’t, towards a more authoritarian style, in which outcomes matter less than the level of grovelling to those higher up the food chain.

With Ofsted – in the vanguard of this new authoritarianism within education – it’s been there for a while;  I remember, the last time I was subjected to Ofsted, being asked to provide an example of where governors had overturned an executive decision, as though a display of hierarchical power was a good thing in itself, and conversely governance by consensus and dialogue must be weak in some way.

Now that display of compliance is being written into law, though, perhaps we should really start to worry about the state of our democracy.

 

 

 

The coming unintended consequence of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011

April 30, 2015 2 comments

With Labour a) likely to be in a better position than the Tories to form a government after May 7th; and b) ruling out any kind of binding deal with the SNP or the Libdems, and insteaf looking to govern on an informal supply & confidence basis, the very real prospect of extreme constitutional silliness hoves into view.

This is nothing to do with who gets first dibs on trying to form a government, on which we can be pretty clear, or on Scottish Independence.  It is to do with the unintended consequences of the hurriedly pass Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, and specifically Section 2 of the Act, which covers the two ways early elections can come about.

The first way is simple enough.  A two thirds majority votes for an early election, and it happens.

The second way is this (simplifying the order of the paras. slightly for ease of reading):

An early parliamentary general election is also to take place if—

(a) the House of Commons passes a motion in the form: That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.

(b) the period of 14 days after the day on which that motion is passed ends without the House passing a motion in the form: That this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.

It doesn’t take a parliamentary rocket scientist to foresee what will happen.   The SNP, under pressure to get deals done and be shown to be delivering for Scotland, can hold Labour’s feet in the fire by agreeing with the Tories that the motion at a) should be proposed to the House, and then watching the 14 days tick away.  We move quickly into a world of brinkmanship, with Labour and the SNP (or alternatively the LibDems) trying not to be the one to blink first.

Is past-midnight poker the best model for government?  I suspect not.  As and when this starts to happen, remember who brought us the Fixed Term Parliament Act in the first place.

Categories: General Politics, Law

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.

Zero hour contract legislation: let’s be careful what we wish for

Today Ed Miliband has made a key promise:

We have to end the epidemic of zero hours contracts.

So today I can announce that in our first year of government after the election, Labour will pass a law that says:

If you are working regular hours, you will get a regular contract.

A legal right that will apply to all workers after 12 weeks.

This sounds great, except that it does very little to end the exploitation of people on zero hour contracts.

You see, the people most exploited by zero hour contracting are not those on regular hours, but those on irregular hours.

Ensuring that people already working regular hours get a contract that reflects that fact may be nice enough, and clarity on contractual terms is welcome (though it may come at the cost of inflexibility which is bad for employees too).   ACAS, for example, finds that most of its helpline calls related to zero hour contracting are about lack of clarity/understanding, and that many problems e.g. around holiday pay calculations are less to do with overt exploitation than poor communication.

But those most exploited under zero hour contracting are those who are called into work at short notice and must be ready to go into work, meaning that they can’t work elsewhere, and must have care arrangements in place.  As it stands – and of course we haven’t seen any legislation wording – the number of people on irregular hours may actually increase, as less scrupulous employers seek loopholes around does and what doesn’t constitute regular hours.   Even at best, today’s commitment from Miliband don’t seem to do anything to protect people on irregular hours.

As I’ve said previously, zero hour contracts are not of themselves exploitative, and many employers (including me) have used them for years while retaining perfectly good relations with employees; indeed, at my place I’d say they even enhance relationships, because staff can and do shift their hours by informal ‘just get on with it’ agreement.   Rather, it is the way they are used by certain employers that is exploitative, and the best way to tackle that is not by legislation, but by increasing worker bargaining power through unionisation (though tackling the employer incentive to employ people part-time in order to avoid national insurance contributions would also help).

I fear that Labour, by moving down the legislation route in an understandable pre-election bid to look tough on labour market injustice, may not only be creating for a rod for its own back when it comes to implementation.   It may also be doing a long-term disservice to low-paid workers by acting as what the Economist has called (in relation to minimum wage legislation) a “proxy union”.

What I mean by this is that, while the introduction of minimum wage a) did not create unemployment (as claimed by the right); b) may have pushed other non-minimum wages up (pdf), it also removed at one fell swoop a key raison d’etre of trade unions, arguably contributing to decline in membership.*  In turn, this has arguably fed into less active trade union representation in the workplace, and greater worker vulnerability in the face of those employers who are deliberately exploitative around contractual terms (I’m differentiating here from exploitation as an essential feature of capitalism).

Would Sports Direct have introduced its zero hour contracting in the first place if there had been stronger workplace representation?

As we look forward to another round of legislative protection from a new Labour-led government, we should be careful what we wished for.

 

* Until 1985, the British trade union movement opposed (pdf, section 2.3) the introduction of a statutory minimum wage.  What remains under-researched is whether they were right to do so.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Labour Party News, Law

The labour movement’s post-election battleground: Part I of II

1  Introduction

Back in January, I was invited by Left Futures to provide a response to a post by Trevor Fisher.  Trevor considers Labour a lost cause when it comes to austerity. This is his conclusion:

The objective of the austerity movement is to destroy everything that Lloyd George and the political consensus that we have known for the last 90 years. A co-ordinated response can defeat the political objective of the neo-liberals to set up a new anti-state consensus.

So why is it not happening? The Labour Party cannot be changed in the near future. It has embarked as New Labour on a Titanic style voyage into the ice field, at high speed. Labour is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is time to look for lifeboats. The solution has to be a people’s movement against austerity. The existing work of the People’s Assembly has to be boosted.

Trevor’s analysis is not, of course, an unusual one.   The idea that a Labour government will simply be ‘austerity-lite’ is now almost a mantra those who consider themselves left of Labour (within or outside the party).   Here are just a few examples expressing, in varying ways, anger or hopelessness or (in Sunny Hundal’s case) simply incomprehension at Labour’s purported plans to mimic the Tories in government.

Trevor’s analysis – like most others in this vein –  incorrect , for three main reasons:

  • Labour is part of the solution to the problems brought by five years of austerity, because it is actively planning for investment in public services;
  • The existing work of the People’s Assembly is, while impressive in many ways, misguided;
  • The idea that the best way to respond to the neoliberals’ anti-state consensus building is to support a return to the pre-2008 public service infrastructure of late capitalism is itself regressive.

In this essay, I present an alternative strategy for labour movement activism, which I contend takes us beyond these common errors of analysis by the Left. In part I, addressing the facts around Labour’s actual planning for government, before moving on to how and why so many people have misunderstood what Labour is about.   In part II, I look in details at what might be done for, by, with people like Trevor – no doubt a solid member of the labour movement, but who’s only recourse at the moment is another round of meetings and rallies calling, loudly but vainly, for the people to rise up against austerity.

2  What’s really being planned

Labour is seeking to portray itself as a party committed to ‘fiscal discipline’, and its central economic policy is now that it will never spend what it cannot save elsewhere.  I think this is a misguided strategy born of a narrow-minded elite in the Labour party, panicked by Tory control over opinion polls in 2001-12 (see section 3), but it is too now late to change that messaging in the 60-odd days to the election.

Behind the scenes it is different.  Labour HQ has calculators in the office, and they know perfectly well that they cannot make the cuts that the current profile suggests without collapsing parts of essential public services, and they know that this will cost them electorally; the new rounds of cuts will have to start to affect those beyond the vulnerable (e.g. social care eligibility) who to date have suffered more than other when their comparatively expensive needs have stopped being met, but who only vote once, and in relatively small numbers, so have been a calculated electoral write-off for the Coalition.

With a number of decent thinkers and planners – notably Jon Cruddas –  having fought a behind-the-scenes rearguard action against the fiscal conservatives, Labour is quietly planning to sustain and develop provision by borrowing/investing “off-balance sheet”, through mechanisms like the British Investment Bank (with an NS&I deposit) [1], which the Tott report commissioned by Labour makes clear is aimed at public services as well as SMEs, and through the development of ‘internal borrowing’ from Pension Funds [2], and through allowing local authorities to bring forward spend from later years in a five year cycle, effectively allowing them to borrow from themselves. [3]  This is in addition to the existing prudential borrowing regime, which is likely to see greater use in an environment where local authorities are not so afraid as they are currently about what comes next from the centre.

The condition for this investment from these sources is that as far as possible what is spent should create ‘downstream savings’, and it is from the “what should have been spent” pot that government, including local government and freed-up health economy organisations, will create the return for investors.   It will be, to a significant extent, a welcome foreshortening of the Social Impact Bond process developed and tested over the last 10 years, but which has proved to be bureaucratically difficult in the absence of political will.

A key unanswered question at the moment is to what extent these non-traditional routes to borrowing for investment will replace normal borrowing.

NS&I is not a bank and cannot simply create money for investment, so will presumably be constrained by the amount invested in NS&I, currently around £105bn [4].  While there is some good practice emerging around the use of Local Government Pension Funds to fund public spending where there is clear social value, to date these investments have been limited to capital schemes where the rate of return back to the Funds has been easy to determine because income streams are produced by the investment.  It is more difficult to persuade Pension Fund trustees, who must abide by their fiduciary duties [5] to protect those funds, to invest in ‘social infrastructure’ which creates savings downstream, as these savings must then be converted into returns [6].

My current view is that these non-traditional routes will not replace traditional deficit spending to the extent needed, though that it’s a good start. Given this, the further, vital question arises of what level of investment need can feasibly be packaged as social investment (and therefore open non-traditional funding) rather than simply additional spending on public services [7].  In any event, and as I go on now to explore, this is a question which the Left should be addressing for its own sake.

3  The two orthodoxies

What I have set out above may be the quiet reality of preparation for government, but it’s one known about by very few people in the labour movement, largely because of the strategic decision by Labour’s strategists (on which more below), to avoid challenge to the prevailing ‘deficit fetishism’, and instead to try and gain power by focusing on other policy areas e.g. the NHS.

This strategic decision requires a commitment to cost-neutral spending promises i.e. any spending commitment must be paid for by cuts/savings to other areas of current spending.  In order to know what’s really being planned, it’s necessary to a) talk to people closer to the actual development work (which I’ve done); and b) read the whole of policy documents, not just the summaries (which I’ve done).

In the absence of wider understanding of what is really being planned, most actors and organisations who self-identify as Labour and/or the Left have split into two broad ‘orthodoxies’, with a seemingly unbridgeable divide between them.

On one side of the ‘fault line’ are those who say an incoming Labour-led government must be ‘realistic’ about the public finances, and cannot therefore afford to reverse Coalition cuts, and those who subscribe what I will refer broadly to as the ‘anti-austerity movement’, who think a Labour-led government’s first duty is to reverse the cuts and reset public financing and public service to circa 2009.

Both sides are wrong, as I shall go on to set out, because establishing why and how they came to be so wrong, and what impact this wrongness has had to date,  is essential if the labour movement is to bridge the divide (which I address in part II).

The realist orthodoxy

The ‘realists’ are wrong for fairly obvious macro-economic reasons.  There’s no need here to go over now fairly established consensus that fiscal consolidation didn’t work, and that the way to boost growth (and pay down the deficit sensibly) is through a wage-led recovery, with a major lever for this being public investment.  The ‘realist’ support for fiscal consolidation and continued austerity has never been driven primarily by economics; calls for fiscal prudence have largely (from about 2011-2 onwards) been about a political messaging that Labour ‘can be trusted’ with the public finances, and the view (actually a self-fulfilling narrative) that the British public will never be able to conceptualize standard Keynesian economic management as anything other than spendthrift.

This is evidenced most clearly in Anthony Painter’s [8] at times excellent (2013) Left Without a Future: Social Justice in Anxious Times.  In a book devoted to ideas about how a future Labour government can create a more socially just society in times of continued fiscal restraint, Anthony sets out the need for that fiscal restraint in just a few short paragraphs (pp. 75-77), some of which are in themselves arguments against restraint.  All of the reasoning is contestable, especially the notion that “two or three years of very low growth, barely moving deficits and political impotence” might lead to a real danger of default (p.76), [9] but in any event he lets the cat out of the bag when, after this short justification he reveals its post-hoc nature:

It was in response to this debate that Cooke et al. [Anthony is one of the al.] wrote In the Black Labour: Why Fiscal Conservatism and Social Justice go Hand-in-Hand which was published in 2011 and created something of a stir in Labour circles.  Its core argument was that a reputation for fiscal responsibility was fundamental to any party aspiring to national leadership (p.78)

The realists’ economic rationale, then has never been anything much more than cover for short term electoral strategy, forged at a time when many in the Labour elite were concerned about the intractable opinion polls, which continued to show that the Coalition’s strategy of blaming a worldwide financial crisis on profligate public spending by Labour, was working remarkably well.  At that point, it made sense to this fairly small group of insiders, close to or within the pressure group Progress, that Labour should simply adopt a ‘balancing the books’ approach, because the battle for what economic common sense looks like had been lost. [10]

In their view, this was much more important than the longer term real-world impact of commitment to the In the Black doctrine largely, I suspect, because they simply didn’t consider real word impacts on the more vulnerable in society as being of themselves, important [11], even though it was clear by then that they, along with lower paid public sector workers themselves were facing the greatest direct burden of public sector cuts [12]

This all took place back in 2011-12.  Since then, Labour has, within the constraints it imposed upon itself by its commitment to no extra borrowing, brought to bear two broadly effective electoral responses to the Tories (while also playing Lib Dem Whack-a-Mole for light relief).  First, they have managed to articulate (in the Hall sense) the continued incompetencies [13] of the Tories in government with their elite background and narrowness of outlook (‘out of touch’ being the common phrase).   Second, they have managed to side step the Tories continuing lead on ‘economic competence’ by focusing on how improving figures at a national level of not translating into feelings of security and hope for the future amongst ‘real’ people.  You could even argue that Labour has managed to articulate all of these together, so that people think they are insecure and lacking in hope because Cameron is posh.  This has the added advantage of being true.

This is a good thing in the short term, and it is why a Labour-led government remains the most likely outcome despite a continuing poll lead for the Tories on economic competence.  The downside, though, is that what does or does not constitute fiscal responsibility – whether investment is actually better than  austerity – has become a taboo area within Labour, at least in public.  When Ed Balls committed to budget surplus in January 2014, leading In the Black Labour proponent Hopi Sen was simply able to tweet that the debate had been won.  To a large extent, he was right, although he underestimated the rearguard action that was mounted (see Part II for more details).

The effect of this, understandably, is that many of those who understand what actually fiscal responsibility is have now come to regard Labour as cowards and traitors.  A good case in point is Howard Reed, a decent economist, who penned White Flag Labour for Compass as early as January 2012 [14].

It could of course be argued that people like Howard should have spent a little more time looking at the kind of investments, set out above, which Labour is planning behind the scenes, rather than just the press statements, and that to effectively turn away from engagement with Labour over what it is getting right because it’s not getting everything right is actually very unhelpful to us all; indeed, this is pretty well Simon Wren-Lewis’ recent argument.

For myself, I don’t think such a blame game is helpful in the long run either; while I’ve tended towards it myself in the past, on reflection I think it’s more honest to hold myself to account for not having helped organise the forces of anti-austerity well enough back in 2011-12, not least because learning from what went wrong then is important for the new battle we face after the election.

I’ll come to this in detail on Part II, but the point to stress here is that many on and to the left of Labour attached themselves to the anti-austerity movement – to the extent that some former Labour activists are now standing against Labour in the general election – not because of actual pro-austerity policy from Labour, but because the fiscal conservatives within Labour, themselves driven by narrow political considerations rather than economic ones, created an environment in which plans for investment have remained largely hidden from view (e.g. in the IPPR Condition of Britain report (June 2014), the media and Labour’s own coverage of which failed to notice/deliberately declined to mention the chapters on innovative investment).

The anti-austerity orthodoxy

The ‘anti-austerians’ are wrong because simply returning public sector financing to the levels it enjoyed in the mid- to late 2000’s, without further consideration of how public services should be reformed, will be an utter disgrace, and a betrayal of ordinary people who depend on those services.  Yet this is apparently what is being proposed by an anti-austerity ‘movement’ backed by public sector unions who, understandably enough, are keen to defend their members’ terms and conditions in the narrowest sense of the term as best they can, but who appear to have rejected any responsibility they ever had for the quality of service provided.

The sad truth is that the quality of many public services has declined hugely in the past 20-30 years, and the pace of decline has increased, not simply because of the cuts but because of the way public servants do their work.  Journalist Kate Belgrave, for example, has recorded the transition of what we used to call employment services from a relatively harmless bureaucracy to a vicious institution which actively dehumanizes benefit claimants, and in which specific targets for inflicting misery on the already poor and powerless are implemented without challenge by trade unions.  In the NHS and care sector, the scandals at Winterbourne and at Mid-Staffs did not arise directly from public spending cuts or from privatisation, but from a decline in service standards which set in long before the Coalition came to power.

There are two main reasons for the decline in the quality of public services, and they form a duality.  First, the growth of managerialist ideology, itself a corollary of neoliberal economics, has created which are target- rather than value-driven, and in which every level of management holds the next one down accountable for reaching targets (often now called ‘outcomes’) while often preferring not to know how they are achieved.   Only last week, when earning a living tendering for a public sector contract (for a social enterprise) I was told by a senior manager that with the contract in question there was ‘no room for quality’; this was said with no hint of surprise.

Second, there has been a massive de-professionalization of the public services workforce.  Initially this de-professionalization was a conscious outcome of managerialism [15], as trade union and professional association concerns for the maintenance of quality were pushed to one side as impediments to competition-driven progress, but 30 years on most unions and associations simply no longer see it as their job to concern themselves with the quality of the service they offer to their fellow citizens; their sole role,  as they now see it, is to defend the terms and conditions of their members [16].

In my own profession, nursing, such a view of a trade union role has become institutionalized to the extent that when the Francis report recommended that the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) be formally split into a ‘trade union side’ and a ‘quality of provision’ side, there was barely a murmur of protest from the RCN.  Even more revealingly, Francis did not even feel the need to recognise a possible role for Unison (the other main union/professional association for nurses) in ensuring or campaigning for quality of care.

The now endemic failure of the labour movement to care about the quality of services they provide damages it, of course; while would the non-unionised public support public servants’ industrial action in defence on terms and conditions if those same public servants don’t seem to care about them?

The anti-austerity movement is, frankly, an anachronism.  Its calls for a return to 201o spending, in the absence of proper reform, are in their own way as a regressive as the ‘realists’ call for continued austerity.   Now, I know to my cost [17] that such a bald statement, while perfectly defensible, is likely to be unhelpful to efforts to develop consensus around how a more progessive ‘post-austerity’ Labour might be organised for and won.  So let me be clear, even at the risk of repetition:  the vast majority of people who would now, if asked, hold to the anti-austerity orthodoxy position critiqued here, will be decent Labour (and ex-Labour) activists, members or supporters.

The fact that they support what I call an anachronistic position public services is not something for which they should be blamed, because the primary faults lies with a) a trade union movement which has overly narrowed its functions; b) those within the Labour party who, for the reasons set out above, have stymied a proper debate within the Labour party about what public service reform should and can be about [18].

There’s one more point to make about the anti-austerity movement as it’s developed to date, before I move on to how I think its members/supporters should think about the post-election period, and one which connects to those proposals.  This is that, while the anti-austerity movement has achieved precisely nothing of what it set out expressly to achieve, a good deal has been achieved as an unintended consequence.   While the primary ambition of retaining jobs and services by forcing councillors to spend up reserves then pass illegal budgets remains a pipe dream, the organisational and personal links forged at local, city and regional level, between grassroots trade unionists, service user activists and others such as engaged journalists and those who might self-define as anti-capitalists has been a very positive development.   As I’ll go onto suggest, it is through the emergence of an updated form of the Trades Council, properly allied to the appropriate power structures within the Labour party, that an effective working class post-austerity movement stands the greatest chance of success, and the fact that such organisational links have already been forged, even in a losing cause for now, offers promise.

Conversely, should the current anti-austerity movement move in the opposite direction, away from the Labour party power and resource that will make it effective, both it and those within Labour who believe in good quality public services and wider institutional development towards democratic socialism stand to be marginalised and alienated from each other even further than they are at the moment.

3  Developing a post-austerity movement

This is what I’ll turn to in part II.  I’ll argue that, while these two camps of orthodoxies currently seem poles apart, not least because of personal animosity and mutual name calling on both sides (and I’ve been guilty of that two), there  exists a substantial common ground between the two around which ideological and, more importantly, organisational consensus can be built.   Such a consensus, I will argue, might be built around seven core ideas, to which many can subscribe.  These are

i) that public services should have investment in human beings at their foundation;

ii) that such investment is as worthwhile, or more worthwhile, than capital investment, and that the ‘rate of return’ problem can be overcome;

iii) that public services are best when truly co-designed and co-produced, and that modern trade unions and trades councils have a key role to play here;

iv) that the institutional developments which allow for co-production will be most successful where they develop at a local level;

v) that while public service quality can be improved through intelligent, co-designed investment, such developments can and should act as a bridgehead to similar labour movement developments in the wider economy;

vi) that in order to facilitate all this, the Labour party will need to go beyond its Refounding Labour initiative and either open itself up to genuine labour movement direction, or risk becoming an irrelevance;

vii) that the window of opportunity after the election will be short, because if the two groupings described don’t coalesce organisationally around common interests, existing power interests 0 notably the narrow ones of the existing narrow trade union leadership and the Blairite right, will re-exert their power, and threaten the long-term future of the labour movement itself.

 

 Notes

[1] Of course this borrowing is already happening via NS&I, via the Coalition’s 2.8/4% fixed term bonds for people aged over 65.  As, Chris Dillow points out, the other word for this is corruption, because of the particular choice of investor, but that doesn’t mean that using the NS&I as an investment mechanism is in itself a bad thing.

[2] Tott’s report indicates this form of borrowing can be even cheaper than conventional borrowing through the sale of bonds by the government’s Debt Management Office

[3] This is not likely to be introduced in year 1 of a Labour government, as local Public Accounts Committees may be a condition of such an internal investment mechanism (see Chapter 10 of IPPR’s June 2014 Condition of Britain report, which was effectively a Labour party report (a fact later confirmed by the Charities Commission, who reprimanded IPPR for being too overtly political.

[4] NS&I does not manage its own funds (and sadly, ATOS manage NS&I).  The funds are passed over to the National Loans Fund managed directly by the Treasury, where it is already used to fund roughly 10% of public borrowing.   There would presumably have to be a change in this arrangement if a proportion of NS&I funds were to be allocated direct to a British Investment Bank.

[5] The key obstacle to pension fund investment in social infrastructure has long been the fiduciary duty on trustees to maximise financial return to members, which has been taken as overriding all other factors and led pension funds to invest ‘safely’.  While there has been some movement towards a wider understanding of what members’ interests are, so as to allow invest in social and environmentally sound activities, and while there has been some very good local innovation in local government pension fund use, the recent Law Commission guidance remains very conservative in its approach, and there is still some way to go before we see a real rise in social investment by this route.

[6] Even when it comes to capital infrastructure, Osborne’s grand 2011 proclamation about tapping pension funds has so far turned out to be a damp squib, and Labour will need to re-energise this.

[7] I have been seeking to ‘crowdsource’ more extensive research, including a quantification of how far these new mechanisms will fill a more traditional borrowing gap.

[8] In my view, Anthony Painter is by far the best of the movers and shakers in the realist orthodoxy camp, and his Left without a Future (2013) is certainly worth a close reading.  While it is ultimately let down by the ill-conceived parameters of continued ‘tough choices’ Anthony provides for himself (as set out above), it is insightful both about how ‘investment’ should be seen in its widest sense, and in the need for the development of a range of new institutions aimed at delivering social justice (though I disagree with how his implicit suggestion around who should be responsible for designing these institutions, a matter on which I touch on in part 2 of this essay).  As I shall also set out in part 2 ,   it is to Anthony and some of his like-minded colleagues at RSA and IPPR, as well as to people like Jon Cruddas, that the (ex-austerity) labour movement will need to reach out to if it is to develop a truly effective post-austerity movement in the shortest time possible.

[9] Aside from the invalid short-shrift that Anthony gives to what he call the “ultra-Keynesian” argument – that there is real no barrier to deficit spending as long as it takes place within a functional economy – the other policy idea he dismisses all too easily is that of engineering inflation at around the 4-6 % level through quantitative easing (not the same, I should stress as deficit spending/investment on public services/infrastructure).

[10] That is not to say that countering the Tories credit card imagery was ever easy.  Such a metaphor fits neatly with Lakoff’s concept of the two central metaphors contesting the grounds in US politics:  the strict father vs. the nurturing father.  In these terms, it might be argued that Conservatives currently have the upper hand because the strict father metaphor has a hold, and it may be that Labour has to deliberately develop nurturing metaphors of its own as a way to ‘sell’ investment as a social good rather than a profligacy.

[11] I remember well Hazel Blears castigating me in a CLP meeting for being too focused on the needs of the poor and the vulnerable.

[12] Of course, cuts to public spending also have indirect effects on the same group, by sucking money out of local economies and delaying recovery, and the weighting of cuts towards deprived areas has made this even more significant when it comes to regional inequalities.

[13] To blow my own trumpet for a second, I’ll add that I was amongst the first to advocate an opposition strategy of focusing on the details of incompetence, and it was my research around the maladministration of the Regional Growth Fund which created the ammunition for an early hit of this kind on Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.  Unfortunately, while there have been other successes, the strategy was never deployed consistently.

[14] Howard Reed did engage with my reading of Labour’s investment plans, although he suggested I was over-optimistic.   Richard Murphy declined to engage, and continues to hold the view, reflected in Trevor’s Left Futures piece above, that Labour is Tory-lite.

[15] This is a conventional leftwing view. It is arguable that the legitimation of managerialism actually started earlier than this, and is as much a product of the socialist response to technological innovation in mass production as of neoliberalism.  As Peter Hain notes in his new book, Tony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism is marked by a dismissal of GDH Cole’s proposals for a modern ‘guild socialism’, on the grounds that these are incompatible with mew technologies and mass production.   While Hain seems happy to take Crosland at his work, my own view is that the side-lining of the whole guild tradition is at the roots of today’s mega-unions’ compliance with de-professionalization, especially in public services.

[16] There are vestiges of the old commitment to public service quality.  Ironically, in the face of what came next from the PCS, in 2011 the union asked election candidates to sign up to a pledge heavily focused on the quality of public services.  By 2012, that emphasis appeared to have been lost, as the Workfare programme was critiqued not for what it did to people on benefits, but solely for the effect it had on the workforce.

[17] When the Liberal Conspiracy version of the first part of this two part post appeared, I was called a wide selection of unpleasant names for my supposed treachery, but there was little or no actual counter-argument.  While that’s unimportant in itself, I accept that the provocative tone I adopted in the piece was more about my self-righteousness than any attempt to help forge a better strategy for opposition.

[18] That is not to say that there has been no debate within mainstream Labour about what ‘proper’ public service reform should look like.  The Progress pamphlet Reform in an Age of Austerity (February 2014), for example, is actually quite good on some of the crucial aspects of reform – particularly that it will need to be ‘relationa’ and personalised, but like the IPPR report Condition of Britain (see above) it remains hampered by the self-imposed fiscal straitjacket, within which these worthy ideals are mostly undeliverable.

 

 

On the concept of totty

January 5, 2015 10 comments

While creating the links for my previous post, I came upon this quite unpleasant post from right-wing blogger Tim Worstall, in which he introduces the concept of “underage totty”.

Underage totty in Worstall’s world is, as far as I can establish, a female who is a child in law and therefore with a right to legal protection from sexual predators, but who by dint of some pro-active display of her sexuality, can be seen not to be in need of that protection.  Or something.  From what he goes on to say about how 14, 15 and 16 year olds should be treated under law, Worstall seems to be suggesting that a physical capacity to act or appear in a sexual or sexualised manner should be the main indicator of when a young person should be regarded as an adult in law, when it comes to sexual consent.

Now Worstall’s ignorance of or wanton disregard for how wealth, power and gender status* come together to create the concept of “totty” in the first place need not detain us too long – he revels in his non-PC status and a bit of online trolling of a possible victim of serious sexual abuse is presumably all part of the act – but his post does give cause for reflection over what age should be the age to which young people still need protection under the law (we will leave aside here Worstall’s apparent confusion between the age of consent and protection from harm).

In fact, while Worstall seems to suggest that the age of protection should be lowered on the basis that young women can appear physically older, actual research suggests public and legal policy might be better going the other way, and  creating protective mechanisms for young people for longer.   If we look at brain, as opposed to breast, formation, longitudinal tracking of adolescents and young people’s brains indicates that the parts of the brain associated with judgment, especially in “hot” circumstances, continues well into a young person’s third decade:

Most research to date has captured information in conditions of “cold cognition” (e.g., low arousal, no peers, and hypothetical situations). Like impulse control and sensation seeking, hot and cold cognition are subserved by different neuronal circuits and have different developmental courses [30]. Thus, adolescent maturity of judgment and its putative biological determinants are difficult to disentangle from socioemotional context.

I don’t, of course expect pointing to actual research about how young people develop, and how public policy might need to change in the light of newish data, will do much to change the views of Worstall and the similarly-minded on what’s permissible if you’re a rich, white bloke.   But, as someone who remains unapologetically and old-fashionedly PC about the rights of both women and children, I do feel bound to point it out.

 

* I am alerted by Justin to the fact that other rich, white folk, such as chess champion Nigel Short, have similar views.

 

Categories: Gender Politics, Law
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