John West - Labour supporter and journalist

Currently living in Paris, I'm a Labour member, activist and freelance journalist. I'll be writing mostly about missed opportunities, as I see them, and the necessity to rebuild Labour as a cohesive movement. We mustn't lose sight of reality, but we should sometimes challenge it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Is blogging always good for debate?

If you can forgive my using a blog to discuss my misgivings about the medium (something of a pre-requisite, I admit), I would be grateful. There is a problem here, I feel - please read my comments below and see what you think:

Whilst positive about the posibilities we now have as individuals to write material and have it discussed publicly, blogging is generally polarising and can fatally lower the standard of public debate.
On the Guardian's Comment is Free website, I notice that Frank Fisher (better known as
MrPikeBishop - scourge of the message boards) has been offerred a column in a competition
called "Big Blogger". I don't know Mr Fisher, but I would conjecture that his sole
qualification for being published is that he spends all day at his
computer and fires off a confused volley of right wing views. I don't deny that the Guardian
has the right to employ the man, but I wonder why they would want to?
What purpose does it serve?

I fear I am not getting to the nub of this. I guess what I realy mean is:
is the Guardian getting on the blogging bandwagon because it feels there
is really something amazing happening out there, in the democratic
dissemination of ideas? Or is it to raise profile in a field that is
coming to define what we might shamefacedly call the "zeitgeist"?

If it's the former, I hate to point out that the blogging scene is not
democratic. I have no figures at my fingertips, but bloggers seem to be
mostly middle class men of a certain age (I'd say 25-45 makes up the bulk)
- usually with certain occupations and interests. What's more, the shrill
voices stifle
true debate because of their free access to all arguments.
You will notice with CiF debates on (to pick a subject at random(!))
Israel/Palestine, the measured voices challenging the issues are drowned
out by techy radicals on both sides with whom it is impossible to debate
because they enter the discussion only to inflict their view - which they
can do with impunity. It is largely for this reason that the Euston
Manifesto (without discussion about its motivation) falls so flat: its
portrayal of the contemporary left is blog-scarred and wholly
misrepresentative of the reality. In short, if I want a random collage of
opinions from people arrogant enough to offer them, I'll head down to the
pub.

If it's the latter, god help the Guardian.

Declaring an interest - my ambition is to become a sinecured journalist and
political comment writer - I naturally care passionately about the need
for a space that unashamedly employs people to spend their days sifting
through reports and attending conferences. As a 22 year old hoping to get
into the media, and the discussion and furthering of policy (which is so
often forgotten in the desire to create a news "narrative"), I am uneasy
about the future of comment and debate.

None of which is to say I'm a luddite - I hope my expressing these concerns
on a
blog testifies to that; but we do need to think carefully about the effect of opening
up the
professional (i.e. the Guardian, BBC) sphere of disseminating ideas to any
Margaret, Adolf or Leon who happens to be passing by. After all, a project like
Wikipedia is interesting and extremely successful - largely because content is
designed to be continually edited and refined by users (i.e. the moderate
voices cannot be shouted down) and is rigorously checked for its veracity
by thousands of users. But comments on blogs are unverified, often wildly
innacurate or even legally actionable! On Comment is Free, mega-watts of intellectual
energy is exhausted trying to convince, or berate, individuals who will not be persuaded
It is this character that can often be poisonous.
There are no answers here, but a debate about blogging that appreciates the problems (and goes beyond the usual "if you can't stand the heat..." stylings of so-called "hardened" bloggers) of blogging as a tool for political discussion seems increasingly necessary.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

How can we get Labour working?

First Blair should take the rap...

Commiserations to all of those Labourites who either lost their seats or their councillors in the local elections. You will, no doubt, take comfort from the fact that there is nothing (short of bribing your constituents with alcohol and money) you could possibly have done. It sounds from the results that middle class voters split three ways and, this time, were not coming out to vote Labour in force. With regard to Labour’s traditional working class constituency, Tim Stanley and Alex Lee’s forthcoming book The End of Politics (Politicos) argues strongly that it has been steadily falling for years, somewhat under the media radar, and dropped dangerously low in heartland areas in 2005.

Here lies the problem: our traditional support base in the working class is abandoning politics, reacting in some areas quite negatively to populist campaigning and free-falling into "they're all the same" territory. Labour has done admirable things for them as individuals, but failed to arrest the community collapse that Thatcherism brought about. The civic space is not regarded as addressing the concerns of these people, as it focuses on the more electorally significant slice of around 150,000 middle class swing voters in marginal constituencies. All this just as committed Labour members from across the socio-economic spectrum are downing tools in disillusionment. We increasingly don't have the bodies to win people over.

Take, as a test case, the City of Cambridge ward of King’s Hedges. Once staunchly Labour, its contested seat went to the Lib Dems on May 4th. Just last year at the general election, the University Labour Club – of which I was a member – was asked to leaflet the area because there were too few CLP members to get out what represented the core vote. It was a little like trying to get blood out of a stone, for all the heroic efforts of those involved both at CLP and student levels. Yet delivering election materials in this modest and friendly ward was an eye-opener – there were several windows which had "Vote Labour" posters displayed. King’s Hedges contained many Labour members and proud trades unionists, but too few came out to campaign. Presumably, this was a result of the pincer movement of old age and disappointment with the leadership. In a volatile constituency, the sitting Labour MP Anne Campbell, despite having resigned from a government post to oppose the Iraq war, lost her 8,000 majority to the Lib Dems, who won with a 15% swing campaigning to remove “Blair’s MP”. The result tells us interesting things about how Labour is losing the educated middle class – but the King’s Hedges experience is more revealing as to how Labour is becoming removed from its vitally important traditional supporters. All over the country, we're not motivating our current members and have lost some 200,000 of them since 1997.

Worse, the leadership often defines itself by alienating the ones it still has.

Can a change of leader bring back Labour’s bite and purpose? With Gordon Brown the only serious runner (Alan Milburn for PM, anyone?), Labour members are unlikely to be offered a real choice about who it will be in the near future, so the subject should be approached with some caution. Brown is tribally Labour to the core, but many increasingly don't see him as the "renewal" candidate. If he does have a package of fabulous Brownite ideas to woo back the left whilst maintaining the necessary electoral coalition Blair forged in 1997, then great. But why has he waited? Where's the leadership? Where are his cojones? Whilst the party is rightly in awe of his captaincy of the Treasury, his policy pronouncements on Britishness and constitutional reform either sound opportunistic or timid.

For the hope of renewal with a purpose, we are best off looking less at personalities and more at the new crop of pressure groups and think tanks that are grappling with the issues. There are great ideas knocking about, and organisations such as Catalyst and Compass are as good a place to start as any. Far from being out to divide Labour, they are seeking to set an agenda to bring together a party that is already divided. John "f**k, I'd have preferred to go back to Health!" Reid's recent denunciation of Compass as Old Labour wreckers was pretty insane stuff, and a wee taster of just how deranged and out of touch the Blair court has become. Renewal under Blair has become an unworkable proposition.

Compass have been crucial in returning the PLP’s spine to its rightful owners, giving them the intellectual framework to get key concessions on the bonkers education bill and oppose 90 day detention without charge. Incredibly, they've managed to do this whilst overseeing a massive policy review with the aim of releasing a manifesto later in the year. The work in progress looks very promising.

Looking to the recent past and considering the future, it’s this simple: if New Labour goes on selling itself as a government of ideology-free managerialism ("what matters is what works") but then cocks up/gets caught with its fingers in the till (or elsewhere…)/inflames the Islamic world – or even just fails to trumpet existing major successes – it will continue to both lose the floating voters and alienate its members (who must win the floaters back) simultaneously. After all, why not vote for nice Mr Cameron, who's going to do all that lovely, friendly reform stuff that he agrees with Mr Blair is so necessary? In any case, he's saying he's more efficient and compassionate than Mr Blair...

This is the problem Blair has created in clinging to the New Labour concept long after the shine has come off. As Compass chair Neal Lawson has concisely put it, “the problem with New Labour is that it is neither new enough nor Labour enough.”

On the basis of Labour’s political direction, and for their sanity, some have wanted Blair to go for years. But realistically, this commentator for one was stoically resigned to seeing him take the punches until mid-2007 and bowing out after 10 glorious years – if only for it to make sense to the electorate that he bothered standing in 2005 at all. Give him a carriage clock, pat him on the back, and pack him off on his lecture tours. Now his continued presence, without any coherent agenda for the government other than a crazed Maoist cultural revolution of our increasingly marketised public services, is clearly poisonous.

Put simply: what is the point of him staying? What is he hoping to do? As it is actually more than clear that he doesn't really have a clue, he serves only to damage the party’s stability and leave it in an uncertain limbo. He should just gracefully jump – or be pushed.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Labour on communities: cohesion and atomisation

Here is a piece I've written for Tribune, which you may (or may not) find interesting:
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In their desperate drive to re-establish communities, the Labour government has displayed noble intentions and contradictory policy in equal measure. Since the New Year, both Blair and Brown – ever the heir apparent, but only now allowing us glimpses of what he really thinks – have outlined their visions. Brown, speaking in January at the Fabians’ annual conference, has said that the cultivation and promotion of an inclusive sense of Britishness is vital to create solidarity in a new, globalised age. Blair, in his Education White Paper (one of the “legacy” reforms), has championed the empowerment of parents, in partnership with faiths and businesses, to open new schools. Both strategies have laudable aims but are potentially disastrous in practice, and could have the effect of atomising our communities further.

Gordon Brown does have a point on identity. Neal Lawson, chair of the campaigning group Compass, maintains that it is “essential [to] develop an all-encompassing, universal sense of belonging”. After all, why should the far-right be allowed to crudely monopolise Britishness?

Yet he is critical of Brown’s approach, stressing that the creation of a healthy national identity, as opposed to one that could be again hijacked by the likes of the BNP, must be a leftist endeavour. Lawson finds it difficult to see how Brown can draw up an inclusive narrative and achieve a cooperative community climate when the Chancellor “is in favour of flexible markets” in our public services, resulting in the “undermining of our key institutions”, such as the NHS and our schools. On this he is right – how can we on the one hand speak of the need to consolidate our national identity, but on the other create a culture of individualism in our daily relations with the state, where the national and the personal meet?

Moreover, Brown’s rhetoric on the subject is devoid of intellectual bite. Standing in front of a Union Jack, he asked the collected Fabians “what is our equivalent of the national symbolism of a flag in every garden?” It is one thing to bemoan the ebbing of our national identity, but it is quite another to misread what little we have. Britishness, as it stands, is represented by a phlegmatic pride in our trying to save a whale in the Thames, our boys going out and saving Russian navy sailors trapped beneath the waves, the fact that the best earthquake relief workers are Brits – this is really the stuff of our national pride. What counterpoints this is a rejection, if not an outright distaste, of “flag-waving”. To watch the French or the Americans doing it so readily is to witness a foreign spectacle. How Brown can keep a straight face whilst essentially arguing that our patriotic fervour should be imported is beyond me.

The real danger is that because there is no coherency to Brown’s agenda, the rhetoric will be used to defend a myriad of actually quite divisive policies on immigration and civil liberties. The government cannot proclaim the virtues of an inclusive national identity when certain religious and ethnic communities feel their government wants to silence and control them, the net result of attempts to outlaw expressions of religious hatred and introduce ID cards.

Indeed, the recent fault lines revealed over the Religious Hatred Bill and the ongoing furore over the cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad have demonstrated the necessity for governments to tread carefully and neutrally to maintain civic cohesion. New Labour’s take on how this neutrality should manifest itself has been revealed most forcefully in the Education White Paper. Blair has never made a secret of his support for faith schools and the upshot of that, in the interest of equal treatment, is that the number of CofE and Catholic schools should be swelled by interested parties from any faith who wish to establish a school.

But far from creating a benign patchwork of equal access for minority communities, the existing faith sector has a net effect of being enormously divisive in both class and community terms. Most faith schools do better than standard comprehensives – a recent report by the Sutton Trust found that whilst they represented only 18% of all schools, they accounted for 42% of the top 200 comprehensives and 59% of the top schools in charge of their own admissions. Is this because of greater community spirit engendered by religion? It surely plays a part. But we can see from statistics that it probably has more to do with the fact that these schools have entry criteria (we have all heard about the parents who turn up to Father O'Brien's services for a couple of months to get little Cortina into the local Catholic school). Indeed, faith schools have significantly fewer free-lunch pupils than the national average. That, largely, is why O'Mary's is better than Mandela High.

Neal Lawson is championing the reform of the White Paper as Compass chair by publishing Fiona Millar and Melissa Benn’s excellent pamphlet A Comprehensive Future. When I put to him the potential extension of faith schools in Bradford he replied that it would have to be “a recipe for suspicion and potential conflict”. Neither is the public convinced: an ICM poll for the Guardian in August 2005 revealed that 64% of people believed that “the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind”. It would seem that in terms of both educational access and community relations, proposed “Trust” faith schools would be damaging. Yet the government ploughs ahead.

Indeed, “Trust” schools of any description – faith or otherwise – look set, despite forthcoming concessions, to be troublesome and divisive. John Denham MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee (and not a rebel by nature), is sceptical of the value of these new schools, saying that “it is quite possible to extend partnerships to outsiders and between schools and this can be positive, but it is not a reliable mechanism”. Indeed, pointing to evidence from a similar drive for school autonomy in Minnesota USA where education became segregated by wealth (largely because the “Trust” schools that were founded in poorer areas had a tendency to collapse but ones established in well-off areas were successful), he sets out for us all the dangers of divorcing admissions from LEA oversight.

Unlike the so-called “fourth option” on social housing (where it is argued councils should be able to raise debt themselves and keep control of housing stock instead of handing over to a housing association), there is no public borrowing issue here, as Trusts would be majority funded by the taxpayer under the White Paper’s proposals. Yet the government is saying that LEAs should not be commissioners and providers and is promoting the finding of outside sponsors for new schools. Denham points out that this orthodoxy will “come as a surprise to the prison service”, which has both tendered out and brought back in-house the provision of its services under New Labour.

It will also disappoint the Campaign for a Secondary School in Holborn and St Pancras, whose aim is to have a new local, LEA administered, non-faith school. Concessions by the DfES mean that the local LEA will be able to bid to run the school in a competitive tender, but would be up against others – never mind the will of the local community or the fact that there is no real market, with the taxpayer picking up the bill regardless. The campaign’s chair Emma Jones told the BBC that “the parent power the government is offering is on certain terms, with strings attached”.

Community empowerment is important, but it must be done coherently. On both the rejuvenation of national identity and education reform, the Labour leadership’s stated aims are admirable, but the policy detail is either absent or likely to divide and atomise our communities into layers of individuals with competing interests.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Musings on anti-terror legislation and crime

What is happening to Britain? Tens of Islamist protestors outside the Danish embassy in London actively promote future suicide attacks and the beheading of infidels, and no arrests are made. Maya Evans, a vegan chef, stands outside the Cenotaph and calmly reads the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq and is whisked away by police and convicted under Section 132 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, 2005. Quite apart from making a mockery of Labour’s public order law agenda (the Islamist extremists could be charged with a range of crimes from the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act to the 1986 Public Order Act, whereas we have had to invent draconian new anti-terror laws to detain pacifists), the two cases serve as poignant examples of the confusion of our times.

The government’s over-zealous rush to legislate amid this confusion is reprehensible, but hardly surprising in a news climate where even the BBC News website, not the most rabble-rousing of sources, had “Violent crime and robbery on rise” as its top story on 26 January, highlighting new Home Office figures showing a 4% increase in recorded violent crime between July and September 2005. Not that this was the real story. After all, the British Crime Survey found that for the whole year up to September 2005 violent crime was 5% lower. The statistics are not contradictory, in fact supporting a hypothesis that more crime is being reported, but less is being committed. Not such a good headline. Indeed, buried in the BBC’s article was the opinion of West Midlands Deputy Chief Constable Chris Sims, a spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers, who said that the widespread fear of crime, in spite of falling incidence, was “the most worrying piece of data” from the report.
We are a nation living in fear of being gunned-down, blown-up, abducted and happy-slapped – and yet we are all extremely unlikely to have any of these things happen to us and are statistically safer now than we were twelve months ago. So why do we not believe it?
Essentially because our communities are fractured and so we individually rely on the press - with a vested interest to sell more copy, not disseminate information responsibly - as never before. Labour has a good story to tell on crime, but doesn't tell it because no-one would believe it (the words "Catch" and "22" should be floating around your brain around now). The anti-terror reflexes are an extension of that - and proof that New Labour often rushes to legislate on press whim instead of creating coherent law and order policy and strategy based on results and consistent with notions of liberty.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Religious Hatred

After the howls of delight at the Commons voting to keep Lords' amendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, we must pause for thought. Is this new law (as I tap away, being written up on vellum for Her Maj. to sign) the equivalent of 28 days - that is to say, better than the original government proposals but still questionable?

The short answer from a legal point of view is "not really". 28 days as a period of pre-charge detention was questionable because there had been, in my view, insufficient analysis of several vastly more reasonable alternatives (such as the use of intercept evidence and in camera courts) and, as a result, the moral case did not begin to be made.

However, the Lords' amendments to this Bill have effectively neutered it in legal terms. Explicitly safeguarding freedom of speech, the modified Bill also only prohibits the uttering of words intended to incite hatred, and then only if the words are "threatening" - and not merely "abusive and insulting", as the government's Bill was drafted. In short, the addition of the concept of intent, and the caveat that a prosecution could only be successful if future violent action is implied, render the Bill merely a sort of glorified amendment to existing legislation against incitement.

In essence, the law coming from this Bill does not prohibit incitement to religious hatred - it really outlaws deliberate incitement to violence on the basis of religion. However, considering incitement to violence on the basis of anything was an existing crime, it is difficult to see how this law serves any useful purpose.

On that basis, leaving the legal wrangling, it is clearly not a good thing in itself. Indeed, as with Section 28 in 1988 banning the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities, it may not be the content of the Bill that does the damage. No council was ever prosecuted for breaking Section 28 but, according to the BBC website (link below), it was "invoked more than 30 times to prevent projects going ahead" until 2000. In short, what people think the Bill does is more important than the detailed drafting of the legislation. Will it go through the minds of artists, local museum and theatre directors and television commissioners? The premature end of the play Behzti in Birmingham last year following protests by some members of the Sikh community offers a chilling snapshot of what could be.

This law was intended by its original authors to put thought crime on the statute book. Thanks to the Lords, I can continue to say "abusive and insulting" things about religions, and even be "reckless" about it - both of which would have been grounds for prosecution in the unmodified Bill. The fact that I have no urgent wish to do so does not stop me feeling relieved that PC Plod has no power to stop repeats of Not the Nine O'Clock News or offer Iran a diplomatic arm in these tense times by finally locking up Salman Rushdie.

Nevertheless, it is the government's original intention - wanting to limit freedom of speech in order to shore up Muslim votes haemorraging after the invasion of Iraq - that sticks in the troat and that may yet do lasting damage.

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On Section 28: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/848699.stm

Saturday, November 19, 2005

French lessons on social cohesion

This article is my definitive pitch on the French violence (having covered it in a rather threadbare manner in a previous post), and was published as the cover story in this week's Tribune (18/11/05):

French lessons in social cohesion: why the violence in France could happen in Britain, and what we can do about it


Violent unrest in the French banlieues represents neither a nail in the coffin of the modèle républicain of immigrant integration, nor an opportunity to sing the praises of a superior British model of multiculturalism. It does, however, reflect a deep-seated inequality of opportunity and outcome and a distinct lack of political will to do anything effective to counter it. To avoid community fracture, the Labour government must learn from French mistakes and not make any of their own.

The failure of the French political elite in recent years to face up to the problem of social exclusion, especially with reference to the ghettoised suburbs populated by minority communities, has been breathtaking in its scale. Take, for example, the fact that the one serious programme to target entrenched youth unemployment, Nouveaux services-emplois jeunes (‘new services-jobs for the young’) – established by the Parti Socialiste (PS) administration under Lionel Jospin – was scrapped by the centre-right government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin in 2003. Then, as now, youth unemployment in the poorest banlieues was at roughly 40% and stood at over 20% nationally. A ‘New Deal’ of sorts, it created jobs in the public sector, rewarded private sector involvement and provided educational opportunities. Since March, the government has been piloting a new, much scaled-down, version of the scheme – but it remains a pilot. The website has not been finished – a helpful note says it is ‘under construction’.

More chilling has been the naked ambition of interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy in using the misery and violence on display in recent weeks to reinforce his image as the hard-man of French politics. With both eyes, and a CCTV camera, on the presidential election in 2007, he made, on 10 November, an appearance on France 2’s television debate programme ‘A vous de juger’ (‘You Decide’). Violence was quietening down, but he saw no reason to moderate his language, serving up a resume of his rhetoric on the subject; promising crackdowns on the ‘racaille’ (‘rabble’), curfews, deportations of foreigners involved and – predictably – a change in immigration law. Confused, the PS deputé Julien Dray, also a guest on the programme, asked what foreigners and immigration had to do with the social unrest caused, in the most part, by second and third generation immigrants who had been born in France. He knew the real answer, though: Sarkozy was appealing to those who had voted for Le Pen in 2002, winning over far-right votes from the centre-right – and doing so by conflating delicate issues that need reasoned debate. Community relations based on dialogue and trust mean nothing to the ambitious interior minister.

Add to this a growing fear that the violence sprung from fanatical Islamic elements, the apparent disappearance of Jacques Chirac and the anonymity of the PS (too busy indulging in an internal referendum campaign at the peak of the rioting to either offer effective opposition or act as an interlocutor between the disaffected and the government) and the outlook for community relations in France looks bleak.

Nevertheless, those commentators trying to suggest that Britain has avoided the danger of such unrest by pursuing multiculturalism are wide of the mark. The French modèle républicain is colour-blind, leaving it partially blind to the ethnic nature of much of French inequality, with dire consequences (for example, it is illegal for the French state to compile unemployment statistics on the basis of ethnic origin). By contrast, Britain has a complete lack of unifying documents and ideals, creating isolated pockets of communities, rather than the patchwork that advocates of multiculturalism want to see.

The effect of both models is the same, as Tariq Ramadan, an Egyptian-Swiss academic and member of the UK government’s task force to explore Islamic extremism, explained in an article for Le Monde on 8 November: ‘what is organised in England by ethnicity is organised in France by wealth’. Britain’s multiculturalism without shared values has the effect of creating isolated communities and France’s ethnic minorities are bunched together because they are poor. Both models create separation and guarantee inequality.

October’s clashes between black and Asian youngsters in Birmingham served to show how inequality and separation in tandem can lead to rumour, suspicion and then, ultimately, unrest. This cocktail is utterly toxic. Time and again, unless something is done, we will see manifestations of disaffection and fear in the shape of violence.

Of course, in the event of disturbance, we look to the authorities to reinstate order. However, police chiefs, politicising themselves as never before in support of a profoundly illiberal and self-defeating anti-terrorism bill, have recently undone much of the good work undertaken to shed the force of an image of institutional racism. Many young Muslims in particular perceive – and perceptions are everything – the state to be legislating against them and have lost faith in the police. This is extremely dangerous and necessitates an urgent reappraisal of law and order legislation, with the scrapping of ID cards and a recommitment to community policing both utterly essential.

In addition, we should tackle head-on the segregation that faith schools inflict on society. New education proposals should be amended to this end, and should make ability banding compulsory to ensure a fair mix of pupils in our comprehensive schools - and a healthier society in the future.

More optimistically, the Labour government can build on a good economic record. The New Deal has brought opportunity back into people’s lives and entrenched youth unemployment has been broadsided. Nevertheless, we will need to redistribute more if we want to create the equality that is essential for a functioning, stable and creative society to flourish.

Complacency is the enemy – when communities become isolated, society fractures. For all the violence and damage in France, there has – so far – been only one death. 57 died in London on 7 July: the reality of fracture is upon us. It is this reality that should force us to learn the right lessons from the French unrest. We must avoid the head-on, divisive approach of Sarkozy and cannot afford the incompetence of their political elite.

Multiculturalism needs reinvigorating. Never blind to difference – celebrating it even – we must be equally sure of what brings us together. Freedom and equality, enshrined in law by established civil liberties, would be the best basis for a shared set of values. Sadly, Blair’s government tells us it is precisely these liberties that must be compromised in the name of security.

Book review

This is a book review I wrote for Tribune, a version of which was printed in this week's edition (18/11/05):

The Possibility of Progress: Mark Braund
Shepheard-Walwyn £14.95

The attractiveness of ‘progress’ to many politicians and movements is its lack of any historical moral ballast, being, as it is, a different thing to different people. A call for progress can, therefore, allow the vague to go unchallenged and the misguided to be set down in stone: to counter the orthodoxy of progress is to stop history in its tracks and to deny the inexorable drive of humanity. Such a deterministic pitch for progress is, of course, highly undesirable when the term itself has no inherent value.

By addressing this problem, Mark Braund does us all a great service. In The Possibility of Progress, he seeks not only to demonstrate that human potential is unlimited, but also to unlock the falsehoods that have so far inhibited the use of this potential for the more equal benefit of the world’s citizens. His study and thought, based on an impressively broad knowledge and reading of philosophy, science and economics, add greatly to the debate about how necessary global reform can take place and what it might look and feel like.

Advocating a new definition of progress as “movement towards a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable global social order”, he ties it to an Enlightenment-based ethic of universalism. In so doing, he powerfully dismisses the misapplication of science from thinking on the future, material and otherwise, of humanity and raises the importance of philosophy: a discipline that has, from certain sectors, advocated the notion of all human beings as born equal and equally deserving of basic needs. For Braund, the scope for such altruism in the human mind is evidence in itself that human consciousness, whilst the result of biological evolution, is a tool that can shape itself to constructing any social order it can imagine.

To this end, the book begins with its most effective, and most hopeful, argument: namely that any scientific model for human progress, on which many orthodox views of the term are based, is a sham. It is all too easy today to miss the link between the suggestion that economic competition, and the collateral damage of those who lose out from it, has always been a necessary and innate element of human progress and the social Darwinism most of us hoped had been consigned to the history books. Braund, with passion and persuasion in equal measure, exposes this link and holds up the pseudo-science behind it to ridicule. Genes do not determine social and economic practice, so nothing is inevitable – we are merely subject to cultural conditions that human consciousness has created. Over the last 10,000 years, while society has developed into a complicated network, our genes have hardly changed.

He goes much further than some frustrating social and political analysts by seeking to find applications for his thought. The results here are more mixed. His analysis of how the economy has been misrepresented to people is founded on the best thinking and is rooted in reality. So, he uses the work of David Ricardo and Adam Smith to point out structural problems with our economy that restrict the possibility for social justice while equally criticising those who argue that fairer trade is a realistic route for the developing world to take to feed itself. For him, given that the structure itself is the problem, exposing the developing world to it – in however fair, or free a form – can only do monstrous harm.

But his pressing desire to solve the social ills of the economy by resolving the “rent problem” (that money accumulated by the rich is often gained without any input on their part, merely the ownership of land for which productive elements pay rent) with a catch-all tax on rent seems simplistic, utopian and nightmarish all in one. One of his biggest problems is that he does not relate this argument to Marx’s analysis on surplus value, which seems to be a grave omission given the subject matter. More concretely, it is clear that in the democratic society he envisages, a single tax on rent could easily become a flat-tax, depending on the political environment. In his model, where entrepreneurial figures are free to roam and create wealth but all land is commonly owned, pressure would be put on the political apparatus by business to reduce the rate. With no other tax structure as a check or balance, the social programmes the author heralds as necessary to comply with his idea of progress would be fatally damaged.

Braund lacks a convincing blueprint for change and does not point the reader to the left, the only place where his thoughts can gain political voice. Yet he is to be congratulated for opening up a debate based on the notion that we must radically rethink our economic system for it to be fair and sustainable. And he gives us the tools to do this with an analysis that frees our minds and holds the problems up for us all to see. His is progress with purpose and we would do well to reflect on it.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Labour MPs strike back

I am always happy to say I'm wrong, so here goes. I was wrong to be so worried - enough Labour MPs had the sense to vote against holding suspected terrorists without charge for 90 days to stop it dead.

However, the press' euphoric triumphalism, excited as they are to be able to pinpoint the "beginning of the end" of the Blair era, hinders an analysis of what's really happened. We've just doubled the length of time you can hold someone on the basis of suspicion of terrorism to just under a month. There are those who welcome this move and those who say it hasn't gone far enough. But those of us who believe that an extension of detention powers without charge should always be a last resort need answers to three key questions before we finally resign ourselves to this state of affairs:

1) Did the Home Secretary look into the possibility of changing the law to allow supects to be questioned after having been charged, an established reason why we needed an extension?

2) Why don't we cut the crap and allow the use of intercept evidence in court? The Home Office continues to claim this would compromise its sources, but there are any number of solutions. We might try the in camera courts, as used in Northern Ireland with a panel of security-cleared judges. We could look at how other countries get round this problem: we know this evidence is admissible in French courts, after all.

3) What proportion of terrorist suspects could not be charged with a "lesser" offense in order to legitimise their detention and conform with due process? After all, if a suspect was in possession of a computer with encrypted data, we already have legislation to bring to task people who don't give up the key to assist police enquiries. There are any number of other possibilities.

The answers to these questions might well have yielded a more effective method of dealing with the threat that did not fly in the face of habeas corpus.

We might also ponder on the disgraceful politicisation of the police. They suggested and publicly advocated a legislative agenda and allowed themselves to be used by ministers in the brinkmanship over the last few days. A dangerous line has been crossed - but we're all too busy salivating over the prospect of Blair's departure to notice just why he should go.