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.

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.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Parti Socialiste: an outsider's observations

Today, members of the French Parti Socialiste (PS) vote in their regional wards for the motion they want to act as the guiding document in their run-up to the presidential election of 2007. This vote will be reflected in the party conference, to be held in Le Mans 18-20 November 2005.

For the benefit of those not utterly familiar with the party, its general secretary (the closest thing they have to a leader) is Francois Hollande, who is an uncharasmatic but trustworthy and intelligent socialist. His former deputy, Laurent Fabius (also a former prime minister of France) was thrown of the PS' leading council for advocating a "no" vote in the campaign for the EU Constitution (the PS backed a "yes"). Both are advocating different motions with very different strategic approaches, but the current political climate and the poisonous division created by the "yes/no" split has hampered meaningful debate.

Seeking to unite the left in the wake of the Jospin debacle of 2002, and thus avoid not having a candidate in the final two, Fabius' motion calls for the selection of the PS candidate by something resembling primaries. This would be of great benefit to him in his desire to be the presidential candidate as this would give the other left and far left groups with whom he campaigned against the constitution some say in the matter. The problem for many socialists is that, in reality, Fabius' track record makes it hard to believe he is really at home with his new friends on the left (he's no rightist, but he has been seen as more right than Hollande in the past) and his conversion looks mightily opportunistic, as did his "no" campaigning.

Hollande's motion is a robust statement of belief and policy, and talks grandly of reuniting the left, but has no strategic innovation to speak of. And here lies the problem...

In effect, the EU division in the left is a smokescreen for various vested interests. In reality, little differs the rhetoric of the two groups: both want a strong Europe that safeguards certain social standards. With the exception of a tiny minority of extremely fruity nutters, all they really disagreed about was what the effect of an extremely vague and rambling document, as the proposed constitution was, would be. Some thought it would destroy the social aspect of Europe, others that it would defend a base level. This is a reason to vote yay or nay, but it is a strategic question, not an ideological one. Both groups would almost certainly agree on a constitution explicitly to their liking in five seconds flat.

But it has been in the interests of certain egos to push this division as a serious fault line, and the more it gets talked about like this, the more people believe it - even if they're not quite sure why!

Why is this relevant? Because the sensible questions about strategic focus that Fabius has raised are seen as an opportunistic ploy and the prinipled policy of Hollande is caricatured as the work of a jobsworth who is still cowering from the "no" vote inflicted on his leadership by the French people. In truth, both positions are not true, but have the essential element of truth that ensure a certain credibilty - and the exasperation of the average PS activist.

This shadow of a debate has swallowed the possiblity of real debate on the substantive policy and strategy issues. It is in this sorry context that we should understand why the French left, so naturally in tune with the people of France, has been so quiet in its denunciation of the dreadful UMP government and so anonymous in the wake of recent violence.

Voting on the terror bill

Another terrifying piece of evidence that a large crop of Labour MPs have a stunning incapability for independent thought. It seems to be widely understood that the holding of terrorist suspects without charge for 90 days now stands a halfway chance of being voted through by Labour MPs (even Austin Mitchell says he will only abstain!) - perhaps with the help of enlightened Tory luminaries such as Bill Cash and Ann Widdecombe.

The cynicism of the government's "consultation" period this week in getting to this position cannot be overestimated. Last Wedenesday (02/11/05), Charles Clarke requested that David Winnick, and others, remove their amendments to the bill so that urgent, cross-party, talks could take place to resolve the fact that the 90 day proposal clearly did not have a majority behind it (indeed, no-one seriously doubts that if there were a free vote this would even be worth discussing). This, in the genuine interest of creating a consensus with the government, they did. Let's not forget that the opposition parties, buoyed by the slim one vote majority the government had received earlier that day, might well have been minded to press home their advantage. Instead, all the substantive amendments were indeed withdrawn.

But genunine conensus was never No. 10's plan - and, despite the protestations of the likes of Roy Hattersley that he is an "instinctive liberal", the Home Secretary was complicit in this (for my money, he is either totally illiberal or utterly weak, and in either case is unsuited to the job). What we have had instead of dialogue is the return of the spin machine, with chief constables wheeled out to speak in favour of political measures in a manner that is well beyond their brief and lends some armoury to those who will whip up accusations of this being the beginnings of a police state. This is a ridiculous charge at the moment, but the level of public police lobbying is certainly a cause for concern. There are very good reasons why police representatives should not be pro-actively involved in politics in the public sphere in the same way we don't expect senior civil servants to make statements about what they do, or do not, support going through the House.

It is breathtaking to consider the lack of consultation the government has held on this measure. If NHS nurses demanded a new management structure to enable them to do their jobs more effectively, you can imagine the economists, health experts, union leaders, managers, etc. who would be - quite rightly - called in to chew the fat. Not so with the police: they've demanded new powers, powers which proscribe the understood freedoms of UK citizens let's not forget, and so they shall get them. The Home Affairs Select Committee took representation from Liberty, questioning them at length along with other human rights bodies and that bastion of left-wing radicalism - the Law Society. We can imagine that Liberty's submissions to No. 10 and the Home Office found their way swiftly to the bin.

If you want an overview of the arguments against 90 days, you would do better to look at my previous post on the matter, which deals with the substantive points. But we should be in no doubt that Blair's strong-arming of weak-minded Labour MPs has the hallmarks of an administration that plays politics with liberty and is incapable of compromise, unable to engage in dialogue and, perhaps fatally for our liberties, is chronically myopic.

Was the UK to blame?

An article I had published in d'Letzebuerger Land (a Luxembourgish political and cultural weekly - 09/09/05) on the failure to set the EU budget in June under the Luxembourgish presidency. All sorts of issues involved, and - for me - a rare, if cautious, thumbs-up for Blair.
This is, perhaps, both out of date and on the ball. Some of the personnel (Merkel did edge it over Schroeder) and the circumstances (i.e. four and a bit months in and we're still waiting...) have changed, but I think the content stands up as still being the centre of the debate:

Britain’s position has been misrepresented and taking a look at their vision could offer a real chance to save the social model.

‘Blair rejected the various different compromises put to him by Jean-Claude Juncker’, wrote Le Monde. Juncker himself described the situation as a ‘profound crisis’. President Chirac, in a thinly veiled reference to the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, blamed the ‘arrogance of several rich countries’. Chancellor Schroeder put it down to the ‘totally unaccepting attitude of the UK and Netherlands.’

The failure to set the European Union budget for 2007-13 in June, under the Luxembourgish presidency, continues to cast a shadow over the future of the union and recriminations have flown back and forth. An orthodoxy has emerged blaming the UK for its obstinacy in retaining its rebate - le chèque britannique – roundly condemning the greed of a rich country never really interested in European integration and determined to create an EU centred around neo-liberal ideology, abandoning the social model.

But to accept this version of events is to ignore the interests of those who have sold it. The British people, with their love for populist Euro-bashing and fearful that the Commission will force them to warm up their beer and straighten their bananas, have a long way to go to understand the benefits of an effective EU. Despite this, the UK Government under Labour has pursued a different, pro-European, course. What leaves Blair’s government open to attack is that this course differs radically from the European vision of the 1950s to which Juncker, Chirac and Schroeder have clung.

The summit held on 16-17 June was never likely to resolve the budget. Alongside the political debate, the degree to which vanity and ego characterised this face-off cannot be underestimated. Determined to regain political kudos following the constitutional referendum defeat that further dented his domestic standing, the French President arrived in Luxembourg with an age old tactic: attack the Brits. In 1984, when the chèque had been demanded by a handbag-wielding Margaret Thatcher, Britain was relatively poor. 21 years later, following sustained economic growth since the late 1990s, the rebate was open to criticism as being an anomaly left over from a different age. To hold on to it would be greed itself, especially as part of the burden would surely fall on the accession countries least able to afford it.

The ease with which a coalition could be formed around this argument made it all the more attractive. Schroeder, in a desperate race for German popularity, was happy to show solidarity with his good friend Chirac and maintain the Franco-German alliance. Juncker, mindful of the difficulties over the constitution and keen not to have his EU presidency go down in history as the moment European integration fell apart, took the easy route in uniting governments around this attack – a strategy that would isolate those countries keen on questioning the relevance of a model developed over 50 years ago.

What these countries seem not to have expected is that Blair arrived at the summit more than willing to negotiate. The British premier also believes that the rebate is an anomaly, but casts the argument in a modern understanding of what the rebate does. Whilst the chèque was negotiated to help Britain out of its economic difficulties in the early 1980s, it continues to be valid as a result of the UK’s high payment into the EU and the folly of the Common Agricultural Policy. Blair, quoting from accurate figures, argued in Luxembourg that over ten years, the UK had paid 2.5 times more into the EU than France and that without the rebate it would have been 15 times more. Even with the rebate, in 2003, the UK paid in 0.16% of its GDP, compared with France’s 0.12%. The reason for this is that the UK does not have a large farming sector, resulting in much less benefit from the CAP. Without the rebate, Britain’s payment into the EU would be unfair in the extreme. But Blair has no ideological attachment to the rebate. Where the Conservative prime ministers Thatcher and Major saw it as non-negotiable, almost an article of faith, Blair offered the opportunity for a deal on the basis that the rebate is a symptom of the greatest anomaly of all: the CAP itself.

Swallowing 46% of the current EU budget, the CAP has been disproportionately allocating money to a sector accounting for roughly 5% of the European economy. Under the supervision of former UK Trade and Industry minister Patricia Hewitt, the Labour Government’s opposition to the CAP became hardened and clear: agricultural subsidy is hampering the opportunity to fulfil the Lisbon agenda of increased funding for higher education, research and development that will keep Europe competitive in a global market geared towards information and technology. Moreover, the course set by finance minister Gordon Brown on cutting debt owed by developing countries would be aided greatly by abolishing the worst aspects of the CAP that flood their markets with subsidised goods and make export trade almost impossible.

It is in this context, then, that the British stance in Luxembourg should be understood. In spite of the political self-interest of Chirac and Schroeder, in spite of the conservatism of Juncker in defending the 1950s model, in spite of the harsh words exchanged behind closed doors between the fiery Brown and the Luxembourgish premier and in spite of press coverage before and since, the rebate was up for negotiation – so long as the CAP was on the table too. Blair wanted an open debate on the budget as a whole and did not regard a deal sewn up in 2002 to safeguard the CAP as helpful when trying to equip the EU to tackle the challenges facing it in the future.

What happened in Luxembourg, then, deserves a closer look. On the face of it, so long as money was being invested in improving Europe’s competitiveness and not subsidising farms disproportionately to the detriment of developing countries, the UK was prepared to renounce the rebate and pay more into the EU.

Whatever opinions may exist on whether that is the right or wrong path for the EU, it is certainly not ‘arrogant’, as Chirac suggested, or ‘totally unaccepting’, as Schroeder saw it. Moreover Juncker, confusing Franco-German goals with a predetermined course for Europe, participated in the distasteful spectacle of accession countries being offered financial packages to come on side as part of a budget deal that saw the rebate either removed or frozen at its current level – a deal he must have known Britain would not accept without the CAP having been negotiated first. One unnamed British diplomat, quoted in the Sunday Times, described Juncker’s backroom dealing as akin to the accession countries being offered a series of ‘brown envelopes’, making Juncker’s subsequent claim to journalists that he had been ‘ashamed’ by the offer of poorer EU countries to give up their financial demands in the ‘interest of reaching an agreement’ seem disingenuous.

In reality, Blair will hardly have taken much notice of an accusation of arrogance from Chirac, who has made no effort to construct an adequate response to the voice of the French people in rejecting the constitutional treaty. As for Schroeder, it is in no-one’s interest to debate the future of the union, with a view to striking a new deal for a budget for 2007-13, with a leader who will in all likelihood be rejected in the polls very soon. In any case, the rebate remains the best bargaining chip to bring the issue of the CAP to the table.

As misleading as the coverage of the conference has been in misrepresenting the nuances of the British position is the notion that the UK stands entirely alone in wanting a debate about the budget with everything on the table. Sweden, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands want an end to the chèque, but they have all made noises about the need to restructure a budget reflecting the political and economic aims of an aged orthodoxy.

Neither is the Labour government interested in tearing apart the notion of Europe as a political entity with a strong social core, as Blair made clear in his speech of 23 June to the European Parliament. Dispelling the notion of the UK as in thrall to a neo-liberal dogma, he pointed to the policies of his government in eliminating long term youth unemployment, increasing investment in public services, introducing the minimum wage, tackling poverty amongst both young and old and increasing parental rights. This is in stark contrast to a social model that has 20 million unemployed in Europe.

An EU better responsive to its citizens, better at consulting them, better at delivering for them would certainly be true to the ideal of European integration as set out in the first Treaty of Rome. An EU that focuses on the economic challenges of the future is vital to ensure that Europe remains a powerful political voice on issues of global importance such as climate change, poverty and human rights. The EU’s work in negotiating with Iran looks a lot less clumsy, and much less bloodthirsty, than Bush and Blair’s war in Iraq.

The UK inherited the rolling EU presidency from Luxembourg on 1 July. It would be mistaken to say that there are not problems with Blair’s vision. It is right for those of us on the left to be cautious of Blair when we look to his allies: the former Spanish premier Aznar, and the rising stars of Merkel and Sarkozy. And, of course, he has singularly failed to sell the EU to his own people. But it would be wrong of us to ignore that there is a cogent argument for a social Europe that delivers and does not, for its own sake, stick to the past.

Relative progress

I had a version of this article published in Tribune (21/10/05), so here it is on the web for posterity! Comments always welcome:

Progressive politics inspire some, but what good is the notion without the substance to give it direction?

Progress. Progress indeed. If a majority down to 66 is ‘progress’, my dictionary is either hopelessly incorrect or out of date. No less an authority than Tony Blair stood up at the Progress conference to praise the ‘progress’ his government has made in pointing the way forward towards a ‘broad-based political movement’. This, presumably, would be the same ‘broad-based political movement’ that won over only 20% of the electorate and has, if NEC rumour is to be believed, membership much below the credibility-benchmark of 200,000. In any case, on this basis he warned critics in his own party to avoid falling ‘for some modern version of the old left delusion that the problem with the progressive government is that it is not left enough.’

The real problem with ‘progress’ (‘forward or onward movement towards a destination’, as the Oxford defines it) is that it inherently contains no moral substance. To declare oneself a socialist, of whatever hue, is to at some level believe in equality and common ownership. Progressives have never been able to tightly define what they are because progress is, to different people, a different thing. The United States progressives of the early twentieth century were deeply suspicious of the federal state: an all-encompassing behemoth that would stamp out freedom. For the same reason, they were equally anti big business, and without the strong Labour movement Britain thankfully had; the diffuse aims of the movement never became coherent or meaningfully challenged the status quo.

For Blair, this is highly attractive. To be progressive, to him, is simply to tap into the zeitgeist – to appear modern. Lefties can cling to the hope that by progressive, he means socialist – this word banished from a bygone age – while the so-called ‘muscular liberals’ and soft right voters can admire the market rhetoric of a government that isn’t bothered about your colour or sexual preferences. In any case, like those with criticisms of ‘New’ Labour, to attack what calls itself ‘progressive’ is to file oneself as ‘anti-progress’, outmoded and obsolete. Clever marketing, Tone.

But those of us on the left concerned about domestic and global inequality, climate change and the geo-political and economic concerns of the future must challenge this orthodoxy head-on – and cannily. We should be bold in asserting that progress is nothing without purpose. A think-tank called ‘Progress’ might as well be called ‘Headway’, or ‘Forward Movement’. What matters is where we are going. And while Blair is right that we must not delude ourselves that the catchall solution to today’s problems is to cherry-pick the highlights of the 1983 manifesto, he is wrong to suggest – as always – that it’s his way or the highway.

What we must do is take our timeless principles and shape policies that deal with modern realities and look to the future. We might begin by looking at the successes this government has had.

The minimum wage has been a fabulous example of how government intervention and regulation can help shape a more effective market. Not only do some of our lowest paid workers have better pay, increasing their purchase power and quality of life, but also their spending is good for the economy. It’s no mistake that we’ve had 2 million extra jobs since the introduction of the minimum wage. To those who say the new jobs are low-paid and that workers are undervalued, we should reply by saying that this is work in progress - that we will do more because our objectives have not been met. To that end, we should sell tax credits for our poorest as what they are: tax cuts, which have to be applied for. But how about not having to fill in a form at all, but receiving the cut on the basis of your tax code – if you’re low paid, you get it. This might include the spouses of the rich doing a bit of work on the side, but it would benefit millions at a stroke and cut the bureaucracy that currently burdens the system.

What about Network Rail? An effectively nationalised body set up as a not-for-profit company – could this model work for the railways as a whole? The South Eastern franchise – taken quite rightly from the dreadful Connex – has seen massive improvements whilst being run in the short term in this way: what’s the incentive to put it to tender? Why not let it run as a pilot scheme to see if this is the best way to ensure accountable and yet well-managed public transport? We can guess what the outcome would be.

But we should not focus on our economy exclusively. We are told, constantly, that Africa must trade its way out of poverty – that we must tear down our trade barriers in order to let developing countries have their share. We on the left must be more sceptical of this ‘free lunch’ offer than we have been. We must ask ourselves what would happen. Would foreign investors ‘buy’ land from locals, rape the biodiversity and entrench government oligarchs? Would rationalisation in industrialised farms – that would be necessary to compete with the big European suppliers, even after subsidy had gone – lead to unemployment in a sector currently employing 80% of Africans? After all, they can’t just get a job at Tesco, or the nearest call centre. Is it desirable or sustainable to fly our green beans in from Kenya and Zimbabwe? Is it desirable, long-term, for Europe not to be self-sufficient in food? If we decide this isn’t ‘progress’, we will need to work hard, and quickly, with the help of experts and the cooperation of the communities in developing countries themselves to work out what is.

On civil liberties, is it ‘progress’ to detain people without even charging them for three months? Would progress towards a responsible and fair justice system involve asking the police for a checklist of what they want and defending legislation on the basis that this was what they wanted? If that’s right, we can frame health policy by asking doctors and nurses what they want (not the internal market Mk II, I’m guessing). In fact policy has to be formed on the basis of principle, with the input of not just one group but all interested parties. ID cards will not stop terrorists – the London bombers would all have had them – and will not stop identity theft (according to one highly regarded LSE report, it will make it easier for geeks thanks to the proposed database and could destroy witness protection as biometrics could be cross-matched by a bribed or blackmailed official) – let’s spend the upwards of £6 billion on policing and intelligence. Let’s allow intercept evidence to be used in court. Let’s never again see anti-terror legislation used to stifle peaceful demonstrators, or silence ‘difficult’ 82 year-olds, whose only threat is to open up debate.

On tax cuts for the poor, public transport, meaningful international development and respect for the law because it respects you, we could construct a consensus that would be in tune with the British people and would, coupled with a determination to end discrimination in all its forms, represent a stout affirmation of our principles in policy. I haven’t even mentioned illegal foreign adventures or constitutional reform. This agenda, as laid out here, cannot be exhaustive, and I’m not in a position to make it so. But the Labour movement – CLPs, trades unions and individual members – can and we should start now. We must show that to democratic socialists, progress is the child of purpose. Our purpose must never become divorced from reality, but should – yes, Mr Blair – sometimes challenge that reality. We mustn’t go with the flow simply because it’s there: we want to make real progress.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Some thoughts on the market

I'm having an online debate with some Labourites and wrote some stuff about markets and the orthodoxy of free markets themselves acting as a guarantor of freedom, which may be of interest (but, on the other hand, may not - hence this disclaimer...):

I think my biggest problem in the debate about markets is the "end of history" analysis. If there really is an argument that has been discredited by argument, evidence or history, it's the idea that there are any economic ideas that can be taken as ultimate totems of truth. After all, the absolute truth of monetarism as an anti-inflationary and healthy method of economic revival 20 years ago has been rejected heartily in favour of an orthodoxy of macro-economic fiscal tweaking as much more effective. That's why the higher tax/lower tax/flat-tax argument is the only one in town. But that won't always be the case.

The argument for free markets being a guarantor of freedom itself is, truthfully, meaningless. The far left demonises the market as a force of evil. The right as a force for good. The market, however, is merely a mechanism created by humanity. It can be benign, or not, as we decide - the market is not an anthropomorphic being "deciding" anything! I humbly point to the work of Cambridge economics professor Geoff Harcourt, or the new book by Mark Braund "The Possibility of Progress", both of whom rubbish the idea that by pointing out the limits of the market that they are in any way communistic, against freedom, or mad!

Equally, the unease felt in South American countries such as Venezuela and Brazil about the creation of an Americas-wide free trade area demonstrates that there is a debate to be had about the relative freedoms that are balanced in the creation of vibrant markets. This debate is not over. Any call to "face reality" or stick to "facts" is really a call to close down debate. Any alliance to the idea of the free market as a guarantor is ideological, and not based on reason. In truth, whilst we all acknowledge certain *truisms* (i.e. no return to command economics), there are no hard and fast economic truths, just various economic models.

In truth, I am quite a fan of Gordon Brown's tenure of No. 11 (give or take a PFI) and his growth economics, but even he recognises the limit of the market in achieving economic goals we hold onto dearly.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Anti terror legislation

Sorry to start on something so serious, but here goes. This is what I submitted to the Compass think-tank emergency consultation on the anti-terror legislation:

This bill is ill-thought out, rushed, illiberal, counter prductive and -
perhaps most baffling of all of all - unnecessary. With the single
exception of creating the offence of "acts preparatory to terrorism",
which is clearly a no-brainer and opposed by precisely no-one, the
offenses and powers laid out in the bill have the effect of unsettling the
fine and honed balance of our legal values, doing the terrorists' job for
them - we ARE destroying our way of life.

The 14 day period has been in force for less than a year. The case the
police have made is clear: they need more time to assess information
before they can charge. But to extend the period to 90 days is an affront.
It makes a mockery of the presumption of innocence. Moreover, the
inability to question after charge, the possibility of holding on lesser
charges and the inadmissible nature of intercept evidence should have been
put before parliament before anyone thinks of tampering with habeas
corpus. It is *not* the job of parliament to rubber stamp requests from
the police. They are just one input into a debate where the advice of
lawyers, civil rights campaigners and ordinary citizens have equal claim.
I am the hypothetical person you are trying to protect - but this bill
will not make me feel safer.

The attempt to prohibit the encouragement or glorification of terrorism is
truly laughable. Quite apart from the practical fact that campaigners will
test case this through the courts till - shock horror - the HRA is found
to be in almost complete contradiction - forcing *another* humiliating
rush to legislate, this is thought-crime pure and simple. As abhorent as
the praise of terrorist acts may be, the banning of it will in no way
endear the society doing the banning to the communities from which the
dissent comes. If the moral argument against thought-crime doesn't stir
you, then there are plentiful other reasons to throw out this measure. For
a start the definitions - both of terrorism and encouragement and
glorification - are so broad as to be utterly permeable in the face of clever defence:
there will never be a successful prosecution. But that won't stop people
worrying of falling fowl of this new law, which will stymie debate and the
pronouncements of those of us who are not pacifists and may - in
exceptional circumstances - even support tactical, citizen-based, violence
in the pursuit of democracy in the face of oppressive regimes. It was
pointed out with admirable precision in the Home Affairs select committee
that this measure - as it stands, and this point in no way takes a view on
the issue used in the example - would not prohibit the support of a state
sponsored invasion of Iraq, but would illegalise the active support of
Iraqis themselves using violence to unseat Saddam Hussein. This is a

This does not begin to get to the core of my complaints with the clauses
in the bill. I am not an interested party, beyond my membership of Labour
and the citizenry of the UK - have no membership of civil rights groups,
etc. This bill, if passed wthout significant ammendment, ensures my fear.
The government - not the terrorists - are terrifying me. Where, if not
under this government - but under another, will this end? When encription
takes longer than 90 days (which it does anyway), will we hold people for
a year? Two years? Those who argue that it's different in Europe fail in
their analysis to point out that, with investigating prosecutors and
different code, the *whole legal system is different*. Propose wholesale
reform of the entire legal system, then - maybe - get back to me. That
won't happen this week, and I guess never, because we like British justice
as it is.

I might add, if my arguments have really not got through, that this stuff
will lose you your seat. There's a lot of you who only need a few
exploited, but genuinely angry, Labour voters to protest vote Lib Dem to
let in the Tories. The voters won't be responsible, you will - and you'll
have lost your job. No terror legislation, however wide-ranging and
repressive, can prevent terrorism, so why demolish the founding principles
of our justice system to look tough? The real tough decision is to stay
firm in upholding our beliefs - please do this now in amending the bill.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

French riots

Just some thoughts on the French urban violence:

Speaking of the rioters here, it is very instructive.
The astonishing thing about them is just how
political they are. The interviews on the TV show the immigrant youth
(whether first, second or third generation) to be eloquent and angry. They
live in total shitholes. One Morrocan young man held up his French ID card
and said "I've had this three years, three years - but it means nothing.
They only see my name and I never get the job." Much of the graffiti
targets Nicholas Sarkozy specifically, who called trouble makers "rabble"
and insisted that the areas had to be industrially cleaned of these
people. It is stated fact that he opens his gob and the rioting massively
gets worse. His stoking the fire with hard-line rhetoric will either
implode his vile run for the presidency by linking him with division and
violence or will boost his standing with average-Joes who think it's high
time to bring back the guillotine.