Sunday, 30 May 2010

Musical Interlude: Brixton Recipe

Take two parts Brixton clublife to an equal measure of tongue in cheek; fold into some melted swamp production and season with some tumble-weed country guitars. Grind up a detailed knowledge of Primitive Baptist theology and sprinkle liberally on the mixture. Add two spoonfuls of freshly ground Marxism-Leninism with a Third-Worldist orientation and a generous pinch of knowing references to every major rootsy American musical tradition since Robert Johnson. Throw in some more steel guitars, and gently heat under a classic R’N’B flame.

Once the mixture is really cooking, serve instead of the bread and the wine in the First Presleyterian Church of St. Elvis the Divine ( UK). It is the best motherfuckinacidhousecountrymusic you can possibly imagine.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Alabama Three.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Michael Gove: Encouraging Educational Leylandii

Michael Gove is a very, very clever politician - probably the most dangerous person in government at the moment from my point of view, despite the odd spot of entertaining hypocrisy in his past. (yes, there's a reason for the dodgy photo - follow the link).

I think he is dangerous because he is the one who seems to have properly thought through how to dismantle the support for - as oppose to simple cut - a basic state funded service. I suspect him of being one of those right wingers who have read their Gramsci and really understood the concept of 'hegemony'. If his educational policies are successful he will have moved education out of the 'health' box - where there remains strong public support for an universalist service - into the 'housing' box -where private satisfaction of our needs is seen as normal and 'social' housing is seen as residual, welfare provision.

His plans focus on two main points: 'enabling' parents to set up so called free schools, and 'liberating' high performing state schools to become Academies. Note the language of freedom implicit in the presentation: both polices are suppose to give consumers (parents) and staff (well, managers) powers now held by town halls. This was once the language of the left. The danger for the left is that in opposing them they sound as if they're defending bureaucrats and stuffy procedures against the wishes of ordinary people. What's more, New Labour - not a group I consider co-terminus with 'the left' - has the not inconsiderable problem that Academies were their idea in the first place.

Let's get one thing clear however: there is nothing to stop Toby Young and co going off to start a school for their children as it is. But what they're actually asking for is the right to take large chunks of public money and set up a school which they can run as they like, more or less - or rather appoint any private sector provider they might like. &, here's the rub, they'd be taking this public money from the national government, not the town hall, riding rough shod over the local educational ecology. Contrast this with the local partnership approach of Britain's first parent promoted school. It's a different world view.

Similarly, the so-called freedoms of Academies should be carefully picked apart by the left. The freedom to ignore large parts of the National Curriculum? Bring it on - but do it for all schools, and let's have some backstops to prevent nutty creationists taking over the show. Given these caveats there is nothing to oppose here. Nor is there any in principle reason to get too hot under the collar about devolving currently centralised budgets to schools - and even introducing some flexibility into nationally negotiated pay scales is a pill which, after careful union negotiation, the left might be able to swallow. The key issue is admissions. Who controls who gets to go to which school? Again, this is about the local educational ecology.

All schools have what economists call 'externalities': by virtue of their very existence they don't just affect the children who attend the particular school they also affect the choices open to children who don't.

So let's try the Gove trick: let's try and put the case against his reforms in the language of our opponents. To take a favourite Daily Mail theme, schools are like leylandi: they don't just affect your own garden when you plant them. They can bring your neighbours' pleasure and appreciated privacy, sure - but they can also block out the sun. It really ain't a private matter when you put them in the soil - it's a community matter. It's a matter of local social ecology.

Education is a community garden and Toby Young or prospective Academy Heads shouldn't be able to plant just what they like without some say for the rest of us.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Rabbits and Headlights and Old Fashioned Leftie Phraseology.

I see Mandelson's short-lived championing of a rehashed dirigisme seems unlikely to survive the immediate cuts - the new Govt is looking at ways of wriggling out of a promised £750m worth of subsidies to the car and nuclear industries. And, in truth, I personally wouldn't have chosen either of these industries to back if I was the one on whose shoulders the ghost of Harold Wilson's 'white hot heat of the technological revolution' had belatedly descended. I'd have gone with the Green or bio-tech industries of the future.

But I don't think that is the Coalition's plan. I think they're just doing a 'rabbit in the headlights' act in the face of the endless drumbeat of pressure from the markets. Someone needs to remind them of the wise - and not at all leftwing - words of Edward Hugh:

"Something strange seems to have happened to the discourse over the last three years, since a problem which originated in the financial sector has now metamorphised into a fiscal crisis for almost all modern democratic states. Indeed, such is the sense of panic being generated out there on this issue that I am already starting to see articles from investor circles asking whether or not democracy is compatible with fiscal rectitude. This is rather putting the cart before the horse, I feel.....we should not fail to notice the fact that another significant part of rising state indebtedness comes from having recently bailed out a significant chunk of the private sector. ...In fact, a rather weird circle has been created. The private sector (possibly as a result of the absence of adequate public vigilance) got itself into a huge mess of its own making. Governments all over the globe (understandably and correctly) rushed in to put the fire out, and in the process transferred the problem over to their own balance sheets. But what is most interesting to note about what happened next is how, given that the crisis itself means there are few positive investment outlets in the first world, the money generated by the bailouts is increasingly being used to encircle those very governments who initially made them. Basically a massive moral hazard conundrum has been created, as markets leverage a discourse which pressures governments for fiscal rectitude (which is contractionary - given the depth of the crisis - as far as aggregate demand is concerned), in the process creating the need for yet more bailouts, and so on (the possibility of ultimate Greek default being perhaps the clearest example here)."

What he's saying here, translated into archaic leftwing language, is that there is a need for a greater 'relative autonomy of the state'. & Coalition strategy is basically about decreasing that relative autonomy.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Spare Us the Restoration Comedy, There’s A ‘Live Rail’ Approaching..

At school, I have a hazy memory of the Restoration being presented as being all about the reopening of theatres, unleashing pent up demand for maypoles and the sweeping to Jordan-like fame of buxom orange girls. Wikipedia tells me different:

"In 1661,Oliver Cromwell's body was exhumed from Westminster Abbey, and was subjected to the ritual of a posthumous execution,..... Symbolically, this took place on 30 January; the same date that Charles I had been executed. His body was hanged in chains at Tyburn. Finally, his disinterred body was thrown into a pit, while his severed head was displayed on a pole outside Westminster Hall until 1685."

What brings this to mind? Duh, the amazing discovery that Labour did some things the Tories Don't Like in their last few days in office. Digging up a corpse and giving it a kicking to establish one's own legitimacy has a long pedigree. Hopi needn't over worry about oiling the wheels of a rapid rebuttal unit, this is a very old trick. It will only convince the already converted.

In other news, Gideon and his sidekick Laws have announced a significant move towards taxation without representation in the form of an Office for Budgetary Responsibility. And the Times are leading on the plan to move forwards towards the sunny uplands of political and democratic renewal by, creating 160+ new unelected peers. My, isn't last year's crisis of political legitimacy over MPs expenses paying dividends now for those who need to insulate their next moves from any kind of democratic accountability? My gut feeling is that these moves will prove ephemeral: I agree with Potlatch when he says a fiscal crisis, as we now face, represents a political choice inviting political answers.

Meanwhile, amongst the grownups, Merkel has acknowledged that the Eurozone bailout isn't a permanent fix. George Magnus (that calm, hyper-intelligent guy from UBS with a Keynes-like 'tache that Mason often interviews on Newsnight) agrees. He seems to be saying he does not think the European Union's Greek rescue will be enough to resolve the situation or stop it from spiralling into a structural crisis for all large debtor nations in the industrialised world - unless somehow the EU becomes a fully political union. Indeed, at points, his carefully technical language gets even scarier: he seems to suggest that more or less the entire Western World is moving into a 'debt trap': no plausible growth rates are going to be sufficiently high to offset the rising cost of borrowing for Govts.

I'm no economist but I think this means he's saying we're going to have to pay more tax for less services and it's still not going to be enough to stabilise the situation. If things get really bad, there seem to be two ways out of this currently being kicked about in technical economic discussion:

1. As George Magnus suggests, the Eurozone might have to move to complete political union – the much discussed 'United States of Europe'. I regard this as utterly unfeasible, but things change quickly under this sort of pressure.

2. For the weaker members of the Eurozone to leave and re-establish their own currencies. But no one has the faintest idea of how to do this and if it happened it would be a crushing blow, not only to the political 'project' of the EU but also to trade within the EU, which represents a high proportion of all world trade.

Either eventuality would certainly mean that quite a bit of British held Greek/Portuguese/Spanish and, especially, Irish debt would be 'restructured': the preferred financial euphemism for 'you can whistle for it matey, I'm not paying'.

Europe is famously the 'live rail' of Tory party politics- just think how much more electricity that rail is carrying now they're in coalition with a pro-European Party....

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Inevitable Blue Creep

We're told there is to be a Lib-Dem in every Government department. On the perhaps outdated Wikipedia entry I count 24 government departments - let's be generous and say this new Ant and Dec led govt is going to slash that back to 21. Every minister has a Parliamentary Private Secretary(PPS): a gloried bag carrier who nonetheless counts as part of the payroll vote.

So that's 42 Lib-Dems locked into voting for all government measures, leaving a rather sparsely populated Lib Dem backbench numbering only 15 MPs. Not a huge talent pool from which to replace the inevitable failures in government/ personal crack ups/disaffected individuals/discredited sleaze merchants who will inevitably emerge.

So, in time, it is likely that the government will take on an increasingly straightforwardly 'Tory' character. There's going to be a 'blue creep'. But that's going to take a little while: we've all got to live through this ghastly 'glad, confident morning' first.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Who's The Third Happiest Man in Britain ?

Contra quite a lot of the instant reaction I suspect novelty value alone will give this coalition government something of a honeymoon. Even the instant cuts programme we're promised in the emergency budget will, in all probability, be weathered as it will take a little while for the implications to work through to operational budgets.

Yes, it is entirely possible that there will be rebellions on either the Tory or Lib-Dem side which threaten the coalition. But, actually, I thought I saw the cold logic of political professionalism on show from both sets of negotiating teams over the last 4 days and I reckon those clever folk in both Central Offices will have game played their way through such troubles. Or at least the troubles that are predicable at this point anyway. Finkelstein was interesting on Newsnight - he clearly said both sides were playing for bigger stakes here: they want a permanent re-alignment of British politics to freeze out Labour. More prosaically, it may be in both sides interest to actually respect the agreement to have a fixed term 5 year parliament as it would allow the initial opprobrium coming towards both sets of party leaders to die down before another test at the polls.

In any event, let's face it, Labour is really not going to be in a position to exploit any such difficulties in the coalition for a while is it? At 29% in the polls, broke, defeated and hemorrhaging C1/C2 votes it is in a terrible position. There was even a suggestion yesterday that it might have to delay its Leadership contest whilst it raised the necessary money to conduct it. So rhetorical calls for 'left' Lib-Dems to join Labour may fall on pretty deaf ears.

Most of all, despite what the Labour Left are now going to claim, New Labour isn't dead. It may be running on empty in ideological terms, its' leading lights may be exhausted by 13 years of government but the Labour Party is about to conduct a Leadership election in which all the serious candidates will be, in one form or another, representatives of New Labour. Sure, McDonnell and Cruddas will briefly fly the flags of 'hard' and 'soft' Left respectively. But McDonnell will lose badly and Cruddas will fold back into the traditional posture of (internal) loyal opposition. No: the Labour Party will continue to be led by the New Labour clique.

So if/when industrial unrest or social disorder develops as the cuts bite Labour is unlikely to be able to channel the anger. It will be striving for a position of 'responsibility' : it is, after all, now essential the party of public sector managers - a technocratic entity whose prime function is to tweak the system through endless box ticking regulatory exercises.

But one thing missing from this morning's coverage is any sustained focus on the third happiest man in Britain. Step forward Alex Salmond, the man who promised a referendum on independence. The odds on him winning it must have just shortened considerably.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Instant Reaction to Scottish Political Sucide Bomb

Can I just say I have absolutely no idea whether Brown's resignation will actually pave the way for a realistic 'rainbow coalition'.

But it has already cheered me up immensely for three reasons:

1. The Times Live Blog reports it's not going down well in Murdoch land:

"5.50pm Fight! Fight!

The Cabinet is meeting now but meanwhile Sky's Adam Boulton is on the verge of a fist-fight with Alastair Campbell.

"You, totally unelected, have plotted this!" shrieks Mr Boulton. Another presenter has to intervene."

2.Heseltine hates it:

"This is mind blowing. I don't know how anyone would have such a barefaced nerve as to put such a proposition in the circumstances ...

"The only viable solution is for David Cameron to become the prime minister."

3. Even if it doesn't work, the Lib Dems have to appear to take the offer seriously - and if they visibly do this then even if their negotiations with Labour fail, the Tories will never really trust them again.

Strong and Stable Government?

Let’s go back to basics: nobody won the election. No one has a mandate to carry out their economic policy. So what to do?

The people have spoken but the elite can’t understand what they’ve said. So the elite have to ask another question in a different way.

It’s pretty bloody obvious: form a caretaker government for 6-12 months, don’t start on any serious cutbacks, tell the market they’ll have to wait and then hold another election. If you’re Lib Dem or (possibly) Labour you’ll want to hold this election under new rules (cue argument about voting systems, resolvable only via a referendum). Under this scenario, it wouldn’t matter over much who led the caretaker government.

What the phrase,” strong and stable government” actually means is 'give the Tories a four year term to carry out (the key parts of) their economic policy' despite them lacking a mandate. It’s the nearest thing I’ve ever seen in this country to the saga of the Hanging Chads in Florida. A active politically motivated government that attempts to rule as if it had a popular majority is heading for the rocks.

Now, if you believe there is an economic crisis based on an unsustainable deficit you will violently disagree with what I’ve just written. The key thing is get a set of grim faced apparatchiks in power and start slashing before the bond markets bankrupt us all. On this view, it is Democracy, not the bond markets, that will have to wait.

As it happens, I do think there is an economic crisis – but its mainly a chronic problem, not acute. I think the deficit is a symptom, not the problem itself. The problem is basically that we in Britain – well, in the West generally, but especially in Britain and America – have lived on credit for a generation and half. We’ve built our economies around it – and now it’s not sustainable in the same way any more.

Credit and debt are a contract with the future: it’s about bringing forward - at a price (interest) - the ability to spend income you haven’t yet received. Now, fairly clearly, this depends on having a reasonably reliable sense of what the future is likely to bring - and of your ability to make an efficient enough use of the resources received in advance as to bring you a net benefit overall, despite having to pay interest. You can, if you like, discuss both of these matters in terms of ‘risk’.

& there’s the rub. There are two overwhelming problems here. Firstly, the financial wallahs built themselves neat little models which told them nothing could ever, ever go wrong in the future as long as they used the right set of complicated sums. They thought they had tamed future uncertainty in a Gaussian equation and proceeded to behave as if the vast sea of credit they surfed held no dangers, ever, for any one. They were wrong, and they almost broke the West – and would have done, if states hadn’t stepped in to assume their traditional responsibility of insuring against future uncertainty. There has been no reckoning with these people: the financial wallahs still rule the world.

But even Western states don’t have an unlimited ability to protect against risk- and especially not against the entirely predictable risk that, sometime in my life time, America stops being Top Nation At Everything. This will mean , at some point, we in the West are going to stop being able to use all that cheap credit to buy stuff that other people make or grow or extract from the ground at such absurdly advantageous prices. & this is going to be true even if the credit – the contract with the future – is guaranteed by states rather than Gaussian equations.

Already we see in Greece what happens when weak (financially weak) states try to guarantee debt beyond their means: they’re not believed. The much vaunted move by the Eurozone to shuffle closer to making itself something more like as state in order to face down the fiscal crisis of Mediterranean Europe is a response. It may or may not work - but, as Mason hints, even if it does it may be using the last bits of credibility left in the system in defence of a deflating World Order:
"In looking for a metaphor to describe the anti-crisis measures, I am thinking of tank armour. It consists of layer upon layer of complicated material - ceramics, metals, fabrics - which diffuse impact. When a sabot round goes through one layer it loses energy, then the next, then the next. If you are lucky it never penetrates the final layer and the crew survives. But take a look at the armour: it is destroyed, mangled, defabricated. It can never be used again."
All this is going to be a shock to the population of the West. They’re not going to like it and, for a long time, I don’t expect them to believe it. Why should they? Which politician has actually explained any of this to them? & who has ever asked them for a mandate to confront a problem they haven’t been told exists? Potlatch is good on this point:
"Fiscal policy is at the epicentre of modern democracy (I'm not sure the American revolution would have got off the ground with the slogan "no inflation without representation", for example). A fiscal crisis, as we now face, represents a political choice inviting political answers. It cannot be met simply with strength, and the promise of a 'robust regulatory environment' or strong property rights. But until the options are properly laid out, any democratic choice is arbitrary, and ambivalence the most honest answer."
So I say to the political class come back and ask us for a ‘strong and stable government’ when you’ve told us something of the truth – and of a path to national economic renewal which gets us out of the grasp of the City and makes us believe we genuinely are all in this together.

We’re not taking your painful medicine till then.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Lopsided Inheritance

The big news yesterday was, of course, the surprise announcement that most modern humans descended from ancient stock that left Africa early on are, in fact, 1%- 4% Neanderthal.*

So species inter-breeding is possible within the wider human family.

But I wouldn't expect to see even 4% of the Lib-Dem programme make the statute books if Clegg gets into bed with Cameron.

& we're still left with the mystery of why exactly the Neanderthals and modern humans couldn't co-exist in Europe....oh, hang on there's another analogy just forming in the back of my brain...

*As anyone who has ever watched an interview with Blackburn Rovers' manager already knew.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

On Being Part of the 'Not Culturally Green' Green Vote

Election days are weird. Even if you're an activist, there's nothing to do except taking numbers - which doesn't require many people - or knocking up, and you can't really start that till people are home from work. If you're not a party activist - and I'm not - then it all feels fairly much like a day spent waiting for the exit polls at 10pm. It gives your mind plenty of time to wander and reflect.

Mrs. Charlie voted Labour, having wavered for a long time, pointing out, correctly, that both the Green and even, God help us,Lib-Dem manifestos are actually closer to what she believes in. But tribalism matters to her - and me.

Nonetheless, I voted Green. I'm in a very safe Labour seat, so you could call this self indulgent. Pending PR, I would probably still vote Labour elsewhere. But they have been so terrible, so craven and subservient to the forces of capital, that I'm not prepared to continue to hand them over large majorities where the hated Tories are no real threat. Somehow, somewhere the first faltering steps of a journey to create a better alternative have to be taken.

I'm not even a 'cultural' Green - I eat meat, drive a car and take far too many flights to claim that. I prefer cities to the countryside and don't care in the slightest about Animal Rights. The only reason I was in favour of the fox hunting ban was to annoy the Countryside Alliance. In an ideal world of course, I'd have the option of voting for a party that espoused strong public services, greater equality, co-operative enterprise, green technology, human rights, positive internationalism, an end to unnecessary foreign wars, no nuclear power and anti racism. A new and real social democratic party if you like. But Plaid Cymru steadfastly refuse to stand in Dulwich and West Norwood, and I can't bear the inanities of the ultra-left, so I'm left with the Greens.

I think I'm caught in a strange place - my former Labour tribe has rejected me, has moved on to other ways of looking at the world. I am clearly a stranger in the Green tribe. I feel like an old Chartist from 1848 looking at the rise of the Labour Movement in the 1880s and feeling half supportive and half uncomprehending. But I think my children will find a home in this new tribe.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

A Modest Proposal

James Kwak asks 'Why do Harvard graduates go to Wall St? He says it's because they are easily led ('....very intelligent recruitment programs...'), are blinkered about the world and - if you're very academically bright - it is allegedly easier than getting a job in the public services using similar skills.

Do you know, I'd almost rather they went for the money pure and simple than because of a lack of imagination and an lack of moral fibre. Because that's what he's saying it is. These clever kids become bankers because they're only used to doing stuff which tells them they're clever kids. Trying to relate to the world in any other way is too frightening. Only then, says Kwak, once in the belly of the beast, do they get hooked on the money.

I never thought I'd say this, but it is almost an argument for compulsory (non military) national service. Let's help these poor, emotionally stunted young people grow as human beings. Let's make them do two years in, say, a pig farm or a sewage works before they go off to make their millions. Let's give them the equivalent of that metaphorical wartime foxhole which so many of the officer class had to share with the hoi polloi of the other ranks - and which made them better people for it.

Meanwhile, let's send the under-achieving graduates of Bash St Comprehensive off to Wall St and the City and their 'imaginative recruitment programs'.

I can imagine that our pig farms and sewage works might register a notable efficiency gain. & I'm absolutely bloody certain that the management of our financial markets would.

An Election Defeat Won't Be the Nadir of Labour's Fortunes...That'll Come Afterwards

So the madness reaches its full flowering. The last 3 days of any election campaign bring forth the fiercest, best honed arguments of each party, the most outrageous slurs on opponents, the most shameless acts of self promotion - but also the strongest sense of self delusion.

The psychological mechanism underlying all this is actually quite simple: the campaign teams and candidates all refuse to believe they can have been working so hard and so long simply to lose. Almost everyone centrally involved in any election campaign is driven a tiny bit bonkers by the effort by the end.

I don't know what is going to happen on Thursday - except that, of all the possible outcomes, a Labour majority seems the most unlikely. This has immediate consequences: it means that Labour is going to be engaged in selecting a new Leader for several months to come. It is very hard to imagine it managing to hang together in public sufficiently during this process to meaningfully enter into negotiations with any other party. Already the Telegraph is carrying news of an incipient Mandelson-Harman post election feud. But there are deeper things to resolve than the personal enmities of two politicians of a generation whose time is passing. Any leadership election would have to be a postmortem on the whole New Labour project.

So Cameron might be able to govern on his own, even with a minority, for want of any effective opposition. Clegg is going to have relatively few negotiating options even if he holds the balance of power. Of course, something still depends on the precise balance of seats - broadly speaking the fewer Tories get elected the more of a breathing space Labour has to regroup.

But the cuts are coming after the election and there seems every prospect that the Labour Party will neither be in a position to carry them out as (part of) a government nor in a position to attempt to put itself at the head of opposition to to those cuts because of its internal distractions and ideological exhaustion.

Which does rather raise the question of what the Labour Party is actually going to be for in the next decade.