Oil prices and the price of Cameron

January 8, 2015 Leave a comment

As the election campaign gets underway, Cameron’s record in office is coming under review, including by David Schneider and at greater length, Eoin Clarke.  What surprises me a little is that neither of these pay any attention to his foreign policy record.  Indeed, I’ve seen nothing for ages has any comment on the Coalition’s foreign policy (other than towards the EU) in the context of the election.

This seems a little odd, given how disastrous it’s been.  I’m thinking especially of Cameron’s PR intervention in Egypt in the heady Arab Spring of 2011, followed by his orchestrating role in the Libyan war, followed again by the PR.  We’ll leave aside here the effect Western intervention had on the Syrian uprising and the opportunities that opened up for the carnage and chaos we see today, as attribution is difficult to evidence however much common sense suggests a causal link, but there is little doubt that Western intervention in Libya, whatever the intentions, have led directly to the situation we see in Libya today, as well as to other instability in Mali and other Sahel states.

Of course international events get pushed to one side in a domestic election, but perhaps things would be different in this case if we looked at the direct effects on the UK economy of Cameron’s 2011 adventures.  Again, precise attribution is not possible, but we can at least take a stab, with a focus on oil.

Oil prices rose steadily in the 2000s with demand growth in China, settling at around $70/barrel before a big spike to $135/barrel (Iraq and continued Chinese demand) was followed by a collapse to below $50/barrel with the financial crisis.  It seems reasonable therefore to take $70/barrel as a baseline price, as it returned and steadied there or just above in the early recovery.   See the chart below (source).

Spot price of Brent crude as of January 5, 2015 (Joss Fong/Vox)

Prices then rose rapidly again to around $120/barrel, with this rise largely driven by the war in Libya and collapse in production/export there.   It seems reasonable to attribute around 50% of that rapid rise to the Libyan war, and therefore to UK government action, on the basis that around 50% of world oil supply ‘outage’ has been because of Libyan non-productio both during the war then later as the state has collapsed (see chart):

(US Energy Information Administration)

UK consumption during this period has been around 1.5 million barrels per day, or around 500 million per year.

If we do attribute  50% of the ($120-$70) $50/barrel additional price paid, we find an additional yearly cost to the UK economy of around ($25 x 500million barrels) $12.5 billion.  Over, say a two period during which this attribution may be valid, then it might be argued that Cameron’s lust for foreign policy glory has cost the UK economy around $25 billion, in addition to the direct costs of waging the war (government calculations suggest about £320 million).   Such a figure puts into perspective the £1.9bn Gordon Brown is argued to have traded away on gold.

Now, of course these calculations are approximate, and of course attribution can be argued up, down, or away, and I’m not arguing that they appear in election posters (I’m not convinced Labour could quite get way with that).  My main point is that overt policy decision-making such as austerity may actually have less impact (as Chris notes, sub-optimal may not be a disaster at aggregate level*) than actions which results from a governing mode and from the entrenched attitudes and beliefs of the governing elite.   As I argued during the Libyan war from a Bulpittian statecraft perspective, in which Cameron is a reluctant Thatcherite but natural High Tory:

Cameron and his upper-class coterie find themselves drawn towards the ‘high politics’ of Libya.  This is the territory in which they feel instinctively more comfortable, and it was noticeable that Osborne in particular suddenly looks all the more at ease in TV interviews.  This is not the stuff of confrontational party politics, but an arena where consensus within the Westminster village can be assumed (largely because of the trajectory of the Parliamentary Labour Party), and where they get to look statesmanlike without also having to pander to the ‘ordinary bloke’ image the electoral history of the Tory party has forced them to espouse.

Suddenly, Cameron doesn’t need to have all the details of ‘low politics’ at his fingertips; that’s beneath his new status as world leader.   If the Libyan crisis had not happened, then a good deal more might have been made of his performance at PMQ’s last week, when he appeared only hazily aware of Health and Social Care Bill.  But that was Wednesday.  By Friday, a compliant media had no such questions, because Cameron was a statesman acting in the international interest.

We should remember, though, that this wasn’t chance.  As Brian Barder has noted, there was no automatic reason for the UK to lead on the question of the No Fly Zone.   It was a political choice by a Tory leader, fashioned in the upper-class mould of his predecessors……..

As I’ve said before, the New Conservative regime is involved in class war because that is in keeping with its abiding  and most pervasive tradition.  Its new war in Libya, however bad for the Libyans it gets, does create an opportunity to confront them on that, and to set out their ‘humanitarianism’ for the class-ridden Boys’ Own adventure that it really is.

In the end, maybe Cameron & chums’s upbringing on the playing fields of Eton is more damaging to us than the neo-liberalism that ensures those playing fields remain manicured.


* Austerity is, of course, a disaster for the vulnerable individuals and families who bear the brunt of it.


Categories: General Politics

From job security to security of a job: through the Overton window

January 5, 2015 5 comments

You could be forgiven for having skipped over this odd phrasing by a Conservative spokesperson at the start of today’s pre-election banter:

1.75 million more people have the security of a job……

Security of a job, rather than job security?  “What’s going on here?”, I wondered, before indulging in 30 seconds primary research, which revealed that this new phrasing* appears to have been first used by Cameron in October:

If you want to provide for yourself and your family, you’ll have the security of a job but only if we stick to our long-term economic plan.

This does suggest that, rather than today’s use just being clumsy writing, the use of the variation on the phrase might actually be deliberate.  And while small, it is a signifcant variation.  For while “job security” is usually read not just as having a job, but having one that’s likely to last and which also gets you by, “security of a job” feels quite different in tone.

There’s more than a hint in there that the proles should have less expansive expectations about what they’re entitled too. There’s even a hint that the state accords jobs as a very part of its magnanimous welfare provision – as long as you can prove you really, really want to provide for your family by taking any old shite –  rather than because that’s what the state is there for, and the proles should be grateful for that.  Certainly, the sense of longevity and a link to stable household income is gone.

If I’m reading it right, the new phrase does seem to back Alex’s view that, quietly but consciously, the whole reciprocity thing, set out in the second Beveridge report – whereby the government was bound to do what it had to create full employment – has been shoved rightward beyond what we can see through the Overton window.


* I couldn’t find the phrase anywhere else except as part of a longer phrase e.g “security of a job for life”, which is clearly different in meaning.








Categories: General Politics

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

What happens if SYRIZA wins?

January 4, 2015 Leave a comment

Greece is back centre stage, with a general election on January 25th and the now quite real propect of a SYRIZA government coming to power.  Tim Worstall paints an interesting scenario of what may happen next, something along these lines:

a) Greece defaults;

b) Greece is forced out of the euro;

c) Greece, in going back to the Drachma and thereby devalues and become instantly more competitive;

d) After a “pretty hairy” twelve months, Greece’s economy grows at 50-10% per year for some years;

e) Other weaker Eurozone countries – Italy, France, Belgium see this is a shortcut to prosperity, and leave the eurozone voluntarily;

f) The Eurzone effectively breaks up.

It’s an interesting scenario, but one which almost certainly won’t be played out.  It won’t be played out because, while for Tim euro exit may create a “pretty hairy ” twelve months of change but be a transition well worth going through – for ordinary Greeks it will be utterly savage

This, for example, is what the National Bank of Greece (according to Bloomberg) set out back in 2012 when exit was last considered a possibility.

Per-capita income would drop by at least 55 percent in euro terms as a new currency would depreciate by about 65 percent, according to the report, emailed from the bank today. The recession would deepen by about 22 percent at stable prices, adding to the 14 percent recorded in the 2009 to 2011 period, National said, while unemployment would jump to 34 percent and inflation rise to above 30 percent, pushed up by the higher cost of imported goods.

Nor would the effects of exit simply be short-term pain for long-term gain.  Exit would also massively increase inequalities.  As I said in 2012:

While it’s impossible to say exactly how leaving the Eurozone might pan out, these will be among the consequences*:

  1. Within a day of the creation and flotation of the New Drachma….. its value will crash against ‘hard’ currencies, and the purchasing power of Greeks for anything imported will be slashed.  It’s impossible to know by how much, but a cut of 75% purchasing power is certainly not out of the question [I wrote this two weeks before the National Bank predicted 55%];
  2. In an internationalized economy like Greece, there is no such thing as ‘out of the euro’. Most rich Greeks able to do so will already have stored their wealth elsewhere and the capital flight will continue to happen.  The idea of proper capital controls is frankly fanciful.  As holders of still-valid euros, or other ‘hard’ currencies, they will then be in position to purchase both the assets and labour of the mass majority of increasingly desperate Greeks at rock-bottom rates.
  3. A dual economy will swiftly emerge, as in pretty well all countries without their own hard currencies.  This will further deepen inequalities in daily life, potentially even with usual services and products only available to those with access to hard currency, as will the emergence of black market currency trading, where the New Drachma is even less valuable than at the official exchange rate.

Greeks know this, and so does SYRIZA. That is why, while 74.2% of Greeks surveyed believe that Greece should remain in the euro “at all costs”, they also give a 3.1% poll lead to SYRIZA.   They knowthat, even if Germany were in a position to push Greece out if it defaulted (and that is doubtful), SYRZIA would be committing political suicide by allowing an exit – whether on purpose or through over-bullish endgame negotiation forcing the Troika into a political face save at the expense of economic sense.

Euro exit is simply not an option for SYRIZA (it has never said that it is), and there is no conundrum (whatever Olaf thinks) for Greek voters over whether to vote against austerity and for exit or for austerity and against it; SYRIZA offers a much better chance of getting the best of both worlds than it did in 2012, and that’s why they stand a better chance of winning this time.

Yes, SYRIZA will bargain hard from a position of strong democratic mandate, but they will bargain, as will the Troika, and a compromise will be reached (possibly including direct fiscal transfer via Structural Funds in return for higher debt payments as facesaver for the Troika).

And even if the worst did come to pass, and disastrous negotiation tactics/styles from both sides did lead to an exit, the economic and social carnage on the streets of Greece would soon put Italy off from following the same path.

So while according to Tim’s classical theory the comparative advantages of real devaluation over internal devaluation may make some sense on paper (if you ignore equality issues), don’t expect to see the theory tested any time soon. Macro often doesn’t meet real life.


Strategic Action Fields and the Left

January 3, 2015 Leave a comment

As I’ve only taken up blogging and blog-reading again in the last couple of days, I hope I’ll be forgiven for singling out this article  The Great Moving Left Show: Making it Happen, over at Left Futures as being typical of the online Left’s current hopelessness.

It’s a 500 worder (ish), and makes the following basic argument:

a) People don’t like austerity;

b) Austerity has been imposed because of the the prior imposition of a neoliberal narrative;

c) Labour is useless on austerity;

d) “[T]he political class at Westminster is in disarray and there is potential for a progressive alternative.”

None of this is wrong exactly, though I think Labour is less wrong on austerity than they are actually (deliberately) making it out, but it really doesn’t take us anywhere.  Indeed, if the Trades Description Act 1968 covered blogs, I think there’d be a strong case for the prosecution about a blog sub-titled “making it happen” which devotes just half a sentence about “potential for a progressive alternative” to that matter.

So how do we actually get somewhere?   I’ll be writing a lot about this this year (partly updating and expanding on my very naive attempts from a few years ago now that I’m about 1,000% better read/considered) but here are two suggested starting points for the intellectual work (including that of more serious bloggers) which will be needed to catalyze a genuine shift to the left of the Overton window:

First, we need to get more specific and, dare I say, radical, about what we’re looking for.  Chris, as ever, makes a pretty good start albeit in questioning form:

Any serious revolution would, of course, disempower political and business elites and empower people. Which raises many questions: why is there so little popular demand for worker management or even direct democracy? How do we promote anti-managerialism? Could we achieve worker democracy without weakening incentives to innovate? What institutions do we need to create a healthy deliberative democracy rather than debased populism?

Focusing around this kind of question will be a huge step forward from the now outdated “How do we beat austerity?” question, which pre-supposes that a return to a 2008-style welfare state would be a victory.   Doesn’t anyone remember how managerially corroded that welfare state had become by 2008?

Second, we need to develop a firm grasp of the mechanisms of successful collective social action, and start to consciously apply them, moving beyond the platitudinous certainties of, on the one hand, the part of the Left which continues to argue for one last push/fight/demo, despite the repeat-ad-tedium failure of these same tactics to effect change (on their own), and on the other the “community organisation” tactics of part of the Labour party, which often amount to little more than the political version of Which magazine.

Here, a decent starting point might be the work of Fligstein of McAdam, who call for a drawing together of findings from social movement theory & research and from political science, especially around the central idea of the Strategic Action Field, within which successful actors (and thereby movements) are those that best draw in and share resources with others who have mutually realisable interests, and who develop the skills needed to make the most of opportunities provided by both internal shift and exogenous shocks (they take the success of the civil rights movement in the US as a key case study).

This is not the only necessarily field of study, of course; much could also be learned from Paul Hirst’s and others early (all-too-forgotten) thinker’s and activists’ work around associative democracy, and especially about how new associations might develop into institutions which can claim parallel legitimacy to those of an overbearing state (I think for example, of the Scottish Trade Union Council’s Inquiry as the clinching feature of the 1971-72 Upper Clyde Shipbuilder Work-in).

But I particular favour development work around proper ‘coalition’ building (including Overton window creation, of course) in light of the marked failure of the left on the 2010-2012 period to form any useful form of ‘strategic action field’ comprising, say, the Occupy movement and the mainstream labour movement (indeed the two movements’ expressed interests seemed to move further apart, not closer).

Who should lead on this work?  Well, the trade union think-tank Centre for Labour & Social Studies (CLASS) might be a good place to generate initial resources, if it could get beyond its current narrow and defensive focus and start to look seriously about what can be created through a coherent approach to the seizure of power.

I am also, I hasten to add, available. I’m also quite cheap (though wage-led growth will need to include me too).






Categories: General Politics

Are some Labour votes bad for Labour?

January 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Chris Cook, one of the few centrist media people worth taking seriously – largely because he is open to new ideas and data – tweets surprise at a Neal Lawson column, in which the latter suggests that New Labour’s key failure was its success in getting votes from the rich.

I well remember crunching my way up gravel drives past BMWs in Enfield the day Stephen Twigg ousted Michael Portillo – oh, how we cheered later that morning. But in hindsight the wrong people were voting Labour.  The tent was too big and you spent the next 10 years trying to keep the wrong people in it: the very rich, for example. What meaningful project includes everyone?

And I’m surprised at Chris’s surprise.  Has politics really become a PR exercise to the extent that for even one of the better commentators, the idea of different material interests, served by different political parties, seems ridiculous?

This is not to say that Lawson is entirely correct in his equating Enfield gravel-pathed residence and BMW ownership with a set of interests that only the Conservative party can meet.  Many of those people had very valid reason to vote Labour in 1997, given the manifesto promises made (and quite well fulfilled) around state education, just for example.  For myself, I prefer the Tory/Labour constituency dividing lines drawn up 80-odd years ago by RH Tawney, who argues convincingly for the inclusion of “brain workers” in the development of socialist democracy oriented towards socially useful work, while the capitalist owner of the means of production can only ever be on the other side of the political gain line.

But Lawson is right to say that when a political tent is too big, too inclusive, then political direction can be (and was) lost, not least because it is the very visibility (and openness to metaphoric description) of opposing interests which helps maintain that direction (cf. UKIP’s progress in relation to visible immigration).

Indeed, the principle of material interests in political opposition to each other has to be accepted if the votes of, let  us say, the self-employed and small business owners, are to be properly contested by one the one hand, a Tory party claiming them in the spirit of capitalism (without the capital for the greater part), and a Labour party which can and should argue that in the early 21st century self-employment is often imposed, and that many small business owners actually manage* – sometimes heroically – to operate within a cut-throat supply chain environment while still maintaining a viable moral economy in relation to their employees and clients.

Those votes are worth fighting for and actually, yes, they may be better votes than ones from the very rich.


* There’ll be more on this in coming posts, especially around how legal structure has become more important in policy than the reality of work norms, not least as I count myself as one of these small business owners, although one without too much need for heroics.

The two main challenges for the British Labour movement in 2015

January 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Here begins, after enforced hiatus, the renewed Though Cowards Flinch (TCF) blog.  It’ll be the usual mix of social policy analysis in the fields I know quite a lot about – education, child protection, public health, local government  – and wider political economy, particularly with a focus on government spending in the context of self-imposed narratives of financial constraint.

As previously, the principal rationale for blogging what I blog here is to shine a light from the lefty, however tiny, on what the mainstream media – which has now pretty well suffocated the independent blogosphere in the way many of hoped it wouldn’t, but weren’t pro-active or influential enough to prevent – does not have the capacity or desire to shine a light on.  I like to think of TCF, vaingloriously enough, as a rearguard action in defence of strategically vital political narrative territory, pending the arrival of more organised journalistic forces of the left.

As we go into 2015 and the general election draws near, there are two main areas of intellectual and organisational challenge facing the British labour movement which are widely ignored or misinterpreted by mainstream commentators.  If they continue to be ignored or misinterpreted, the risk is that that territory will be lost for good to the right.

First, there is the question of what follows Coalition austerity*.  It is accepted wisdom on the part of the commentariat that the Labour party is planning a ‘Tory-lite’ approach to public expenditure.  If this assumption is not challenged, there is a risk that it will become self-fulfilling, not least because those most affected will continue, at least in the vital first two years of a new Labour-led government, will continue to be those towards the margins of society who are the most friendless victims.

At this stage, though, the assumption is wrong.  ‘Tory-lite’ implies the same kind of cuts as planned by the Coalition, though a little slower. What in fact is being planned is a programme of social investment, which reduces need for state spend over the longer term, but which does not show up as additional expenditure on the government’s books.  This programme will take 12 months in government to start to enact, and this will be the vital period in which the sensible left needs to get behind it, not uncritically, but in a way which balances those voices in Labour calling for actual continued austerity, either on the basis that they actually think it is warranted, or that it is in their personal or organisational self-interest to look as though what they publicly supported in opposition is being enacted as supposedly promised.

Second, there is the need to re-orientate community organisation in the labour movement.  At the moment, the model promoted most visibly by American guru Arnie Graf is laughably ineffective as a means of building the labour movement for the longer term or – and arguably it amounts to the same thing – counterbalancing the effects of the anti-politics wave being ridden by UKIP.  It is ineffective because it relies almost entirely on encouraging people to self-identity as passionate/engaged/angry consumers who can get a better deal if the come together in some form of temporary solidarity, although in most cases the actual outcome of any such solidarity is less important to Graf’s advocates than is the opportunities created to do a bit of refined voter ID and canvassing.  This is, of course, counter-productive in the longer term.

One of the ironies of Labour’s likely collapse in Scotland in the general election – but also of the possible relative failure of election campaigns in areas where Grafism has held sway but cannot compete against the anti-politics tide – is that it may by necessity open a to door to the development of a more coherent community organising, in which members of ‘communities’ are at last/again recognised by labour movement activists as whole beings, producers or potential producers as well as consumers.

Again, though, such a move towards what I would describe as a 21st Century Trades Unions Council movement, will not take place if the space for it is lost to the right, who will seek to fill that organisational space with a stripped-down version of the Big Society, now become the Mean Society, in which benevolent communitarianism is bestowed on the deserving poor only.

Win or lose, these are the two main intellectual and organisational ‘battles for space’ facing the left in 2015.   Whether the left recognises that is a different matter.  That is, as noted, the reason for renewing this blog.  We will know by the summer whether these spaces have been won or lost.


* For brevity here I assume a Labour-led government from May.  If the Tories form a further government in coalition, the challenges I set out will be of the same type, but will need to be faced in much more difficult circumstances.


Categories: General Politics

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