Saturday, 29 December 2012

Why politicians should talk about morality

Wars are declared righteous, welfare reforms are presented as fair and legal changes are called abhorrent, but many politicians still claim their job has nothing to do with morality. It is bizarre that although politics and its language is value laden, some politicians seem to think ethics is relegated to the world of churchmen and philosophers. This was crystallised in a recent Question Time episode when Charles Kennedy was asked about former minister Sarah Teather’s description of the welfare cap as “immoral”. Kennedy replied that he would “leave that to Anglican Bishops to talk about immorality.”

But, the debate around a welfare cap – either you believe it is unfair families are facing upheaval and worse due to staggering rents no government has bothered to tackle or you believe it is unfair that the state is forking out tens of thousands of pounds to enable some families to live in places most working people cannot – is essentially a moral debate.

So many policies are presented as edging us closer to greater virtue, happiness or autonomy and yet politicians are still reluctant to fully accept that this counts as a debate essentially about right and wrong, justice and injustice. When proponents of the Iraq War emphasised the cruelty of Saddam’s regime and our duty to save Iraqi civilians, when Iain Duncan Smith decries generational unemployment or David Cameron claims the idea of prisoners voting makes him feel sick, particular ethical arguments are being applied. Similarly, opponents of the Iraq War, welfare changes and not giving prisoners the vote, are also making moral claims. Is it right that we wreak havoc on another nation whilst claiming it is for the sake of saving their citizens? Is it right that people are dying whilst being judged fit for work by Atos? Is it right that people cannot have a say in the future direction of their country?

Perhaps it is a sort of modesty that means politicians do not want to make too many claims about morality. Since what is right and wrong is thoroughly contested it can be arrogant and dangerous to start commanding and condemning from on high. There is a long history of men who think they know best telling everyone else how to behave and there are many areas of life in which we certainly do not want governments wading in and moralising.

Obviously there should be liberal rights that protect people from overzealous governments. However, governments have functions that go beyond protecting freedom of thought and liberty. States go to war, run services, set taxes, decide immigration policy, deal with law and order, provide refuge and much else besides. People live and die because of what the state does and does not do.

Politics is irrevocably moral and it is false modesty to claim otherwise. It needs a fresher and fuller exchange of views and honesty that these are usually immersed in moral ideas. Then in public debate these different accounts of the good society should be lined up and assessed. No one vision can be applied in its entirety and there will necessarily be compromise. However, it is just ridiculous to argue that the debates over war or welfare reforms or voting rights do not hinge on moral debate.

This was first written for the politics blog Shifting Grounds and can be found here.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

From the ‘liberal elite’ to Mitt Romney: changing conceptions of ‘the elite’ in the United States of America

In 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry faced a maelstrom of negative campaigning, smears and attack ads. One of the main charges against Kerry was that he was a smug and detached member of the ‘liberal elite’. Indeed the Republican-supporting group Citizens United released an advert denouncing him as “another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he’s a man of the people.” [1] In 2012, another wealthy member of the Massachusetts elite is running for President. Mitt Romney, the Republican Presidential nominee, has suffered repeated political assault over the extent of his wealth and the differences between his own life and the lives of ordinary Americans. As Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said, “not everyone has been as fortunate as Mitt Romney. You cannot base your whole approach on a life experience as rarefied as his.” [2] In both cases Kerry and Romney have been painted as members of ‘the elite’. The different ways these men’s images have been tarnished illustrates changing attitudes in America. Whereas Kerry, and Michael Dukakis before him, were demonised for their ‘liberal’ views on social issues, Romney is unpopular primarily because he is a member of an economic elite. These changing conceptions of ‘the elite’ point to evolving attitudes towards money and culture in American society.

For a long time, Republican strategists have had a textbook formula for attacking Democrats with liberal views on issues like abortion, the death penalty and taxation: in the minds of the electorate, force the candidate into the box marked ‘liberal elite’. This happened prominently during the 1988 Presidential Election between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. The latter’s views on foreign policy were described as “born in Harvard Yard’s boutique” and his views on crime as “standard old-style 60s liberalism” by Bush. [3] Dukakis’ policies on crime were presented as stridently, eerily distant from the views of most Americans. There is a moment in one of the Presidential debates between the two men when Dukakis was asked whether he would support the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife. He answered, “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” [4] Many Americans Dukakis’s response and thought he was inordinately detached in his answer to such an emotive question. It reinforced the perception that he was a member of an elite that didn’t understand the feelings and values of ordinary Americans.

Dukakis’ opponents presented his policies as if they had been dreamed up in the ivory towers of elite universities. The Republicans were so successful in destroying Dukakis and the idea of the ‘liberal elite’ that Dukakis is now universally recognised as the prime example of a politician viewed as strikingly out of touch with ordinary people. [5]

John Kerry, who continued the Democratic tradition of putting forward ‘Massachusetts liberals’ as their party’s Presidential nominee, also faced similar treatment at the hands of his opponents. Kerry had the unfortunate combination of having a net worth of $240 million, being enthusiastic about wind surfing and the propensity to speak French. Kerry’s own characteristics lent themselves to him seeming out of touch and his relatively liberal policy positions – at least compared to George W Bush – contributed to this overall image of him being part of the ‘liberal elite’.

The ‘liberal elite’ concept, with its connotations of higher education and liberal views, suggests the particular group believes it knows better than the majority of Americans. The recurring and politically powerful vision is of a group that opposes the values and common sense of the American people. Damon Linker argues that George W Bush’s persona, brilliantly constructed, was the opposite of that of the liberal elite. As Linker writes of Bush:
“his economically libertarian and socially conservative policies to his swaggering gait, mannered Southern drawl, and studied inarticulateness – was intended to convey the message that he was “one of us,” an average American bringing his hard-won common sense to bear on the most challenging problems of our time, many if not all of which could be traced to the influence of the godless liberal elites who “really” run the country from their decadent enclaves in New York and Hollywood.” [6]
Thus Kerry, and Dukakis, and countless other Democrats, have been placed into a frame which presents them – socially and culturally – as distant and dangerous to the American people.

Interestingly and uniquely in this 2012 Presidential election is that the term ‘elite’ has been used in reference to the Republican candidate. It is Mitt Romney who is battling the toxic description of being a member of the elite. In this election it is his sheer wealth and how he created his wealth that defines this conception of the ‘elite’. Instead of views on the death penalty or abortion or length of time spent studying in academia, it is the size of income, amount of tax paid and way the money was made which defines this elite.

Romney made millions in private equity firm Bain Capital, which was involved in various corporate takeovers and ensuing job losses. Not only are there the dubious corporate tactics, but it escapes tax through the Cayman Islands. Furthermore Romney had a privileged upbringing because his father was a millionaire and a Governor of Michigan. He cannot lay claim to being a self-made man and so cannot join the ranks of the Gates and Buffetts of the world. He has also repeatedly harmed his own image. He has talked about owning two Cadillac’s and challenged one of his Republican primary opponents to a $10 000 bet. As Gary Younge writes, “His opponents have successfully framed him as an out-of-touch magnate with a tin ear for the travails of the common person.” [7] It may be added that he hasn’t helped himself in escaping this frame.

The reason for the changing conception of ‘the elite’ is because this is an election on the economy and not on social issues. American capitalism and attitudes towards the richest have suffered confidence shocks in the wake of the financial collapse. Romney, Bain and trickle down economics are viewed suspiciously and the question on the minds of the electorate is whether Romney is a representative of the elite that helped crash the economy in the first place. Although elections will nearly always be about whether an economy is working and how many jobs it is creating, this election is special because people are asking the further question of whether the economy is fair. In December, Republican pollster Frank Luntz explained how “The public still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of ‘Wall Street’, we’ve got a problem.” [8] Luntz captures the problem that Romney faces. At the moment people are not so interested in gay marriage or the fact that someone studied at Harvard. Instead, like never before, the bogeymen are the bankers and businessman who brought Wall Street, Main Street and the world to its knees.

The vision of a group of East Coast liberal intellectuals running and ruining the country has always been false. Now people are waking up to the threat of the true ‘masters of the universe’. It has suited the richest for a very long time that the ‘liberal elite’ took the brunt of people’s worries about a clique running the USA. Now people are realising that it is not your college education or propensity for wind surfing that makes you a danger to the United States, but it is how you have come to be rich and whether this has been achieved in an ethical way.

Article by Ben Mackay.

References and Further Reading:
[4],28804,1844704_1844706_1844712,00.html #ixzz29sitecsm
[8] Ibid.

This article was first written for the student politics journal Canvas and can be found here

China and Taiwan

During the Olympics you may have noticed athletes from somewhere called ‘Chinese Taipei’. Outside of sport you will never hear of such a country. Instead you will find an island approximately 180 km off Mainland China named Taiwan and its capital, Taipei. Taiwan also goes by the name of the Republic of China. The bizarre situation in which one country goes by different names is one consequence of the Chinese Civil War. The relationship between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China is one of longstanding enmity and a potential flashpoint in world affairs.

The Chinese Civil War was fought intermittently between 1927 and 1950. It matched the Communist Party of China against the Kuomintang – or the Chinese Nationalist Party. In 1949 the Kuomintang government, after suffering a series of military defeats, retreated to the island of Taiwan. [1] Taipei became the capital of the Republic of China. In mainland China, Mao Zedong and the Communists, victorious in the civil war, founded the People’s Republic of China. The Kuomintang’s move to Taiwan was ostensibly temporary and the Kuomintang continued to claim they were the legitimate rulers of the whole of China. Indeed until 1971 the Republic of China held a seat at the UN Security Council and countries such as the United States did not recognise the People’s Republic of China. [2]

Today Taiwan has a rather murky status on the world stage. Most countries do not have embassies in Taiwan and do not officially recognise it as an independent state. Only 22 member states of the UN endorse the ROC as an independent country. However, since it is de facto independent, various countries like the United States hold relationships with Taiwan – which are not formal relationships between two sovereign governments – but are similar to diplomatic relationships with other countries. For example, the American Institute in Taiwan is, for use of a better phrase, the unofficial American embassy in Taiwan. The US Government’s Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 founded the institute and the Act shows Taiwan’s complex legal status:

“any programs, transactions, or other relations conducted or carried out by the President or any Agency of the United States Government with respect to Taiwan shall, in the manner and to the extent directed by the President, be conducted and carried out by or through the American Institute in Taiwan.” [3]

The Act mentions that the US “terminated governmental relations between the United States and the governing authorities on Taiwan”. This means that any interaction between the two has to be done through a “private corporation” such as the American Institute of Taiwan. Thus the AIT issues visas and provides services for US citizens.

The People’s Republic of China still claims dominion over Taiwan. This is why most countries do not officially recognise Taiwan. In a bid to improve its relations with China during the Cold War, the USA dropped its formal bilateral relationship with Taiwan. Although to this day the US provides arms to Taiwan, the odd diplomatic balancing act continues.

Today, Taiwan is a democracy and very economically successful. Its two main parties in parliament are the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party. The latter aim for formal independence whereas the Kuomintang’s goal is a united China. Taiwan’s relations with China have improved in recent years because the Kuomintang President Ma Ying-jeou has pursued a more positive relationship with the mainland. In 2009 the leaders of both countries communicated directly with one another, something which hadn’t happened for more than sixty years. [4] Furthermore, cables were connected between the two countries and data was shared for the first time.

Although the Taiwan-China relationship has made progress, it still remains a potential flashpoint. The US is committed to protecting Taiwan. China, in the long run, aims for Taiwan to return to its control. Indeed the signs of better relations reveal the cross purposes of the two sides. As Jonathan Fenby explains:
“Obviously, Beijing thinks that in the end this kind of co-operation will lead to Taiwan becoming politically closer to mainland China, whereas the Taiwanese calculation is that they can build up their economic strength with co-operation with the mainland, which is a very important economic partner, while retaining their political status.” [5]

The recent improvement in relations is also down to the fact that the Kuomintang are in power. The Democratic Progressive Party, more in favour of independence, will one day win power again. Then relations will worsen.

The most reasonable policy would be for Taiwan to gain independent status and recognition from the international community. However China, with its issues in Tibet and Xinjiang, is loathe to permit independence for any piece of land that has been a part of historical China. Nor would they want to strengthen a US ally so close to their own shores.

The relationship between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan is a complex one. There is a long, deeply felt and troubled history between the two. Recently there have been positive signs in their relationship, but it is important to understand that for the foreseeable future there will be underlying tensions and the ingredients for an international crisis. Long may the bizarre diplomatic balancing act continue to yield peace.

Further Reading
[1] Fenby, Jonathan. Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China He Lost (Carol and Graff 2003)

This article was first written for the student politics journal Canvas and can be found here

Alternative Policy Idea: a more proportional electoral system

After the humiliating defeat of the Alternative Vote last year, you might think that  supporters of electoral reform should keep quiet. After all, only 32% of the 42% of the electorate who bothered to vote actually supported changing the electoral system. Some may argue that this indicates the disinterest of the British people in constitutional change. More accurately however, the defeat was a testament to the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, the shortcomings of AV and the hopelessness of the ‘yes’ campaign.

The ‘Yes to Alternative Vote’ campaign was heavily metropolitan in tone, despite the fact that most British people are not north Londoners. Furthermore, the form of electoral change on offer was such a paltry, mildly confusing minimal change that nobody could garner much enthusiasm for it. There are compelling arguments for a more proportional electoral system to ensure that fewer individuals’ votes are wasted.

For over a century, British politics has been dominated by whichever party wins the most seats in the House of Commons. Governments have been able to drive through hugely unpopular and badly thought out policies. The House of Commons is so ineffective at scrutinising bills that it has been left to the House of Lords to reject governments’ – past and present – more unworkable bills. In order to make our democracy more democratic, and ensure that governments do not have untrammelled power, the system must be changed.
The status quo is as durable as it is because British politics offers an attractive settlement for the two main parties. First Past the Post is marked by wild swings of power in which a group that has been voted for by a minority of the population can radically affect life for the whole of the population. In the 1983 General Election over 56% of the population did not vote for the Conservatives but they won a majority of 144 seats. Similarly in 1997 Tony Blair won 43.2% of the vote but managed a stunning majority of 179. Would the country not have been better if there had been greater accountability? A more proportional electoral system would mean that the number of seats allocated to parties would better reflect the number of votes cast for each party.

Politicians tend to see every election as winnable through force of their charm or strength of their policies. But what they don’t seem to understand is that the wonderful power this skewed electoral system offers is going to be as likely won by their ideological nemeses. As a politician your party may win some elections, but your opponents will win other elections. A more proportional electoral system, such as the Alternative Member System or Single Transferable Vote would have meant that Blair and Thatcher would have won fewer seats and may have had to go into coalition. I think the excesses of both the Blair and Thatcher governments are good examples of why we need electoral change. In a parliament that better reflected the votes of the public, both Thatcher and Blair would have had less ability to enact their most unpopular policies.

Coalitions are not inherently bad, but they can be lopsided. The Liberal Democrat’s relative weakness in the Coalition is partly explained by the tiny number of MPs they won at the last election. Despite winning 23% of the vote the Lib Dems won only 57 MPs, which is less than 9% of the seats in parliament. If the Liberal Democrat seat number had been higher then the result could have been a Labour – Lib Dem coalition. It is also important to recognise that if the Conservatives had gained 4 more points in the popular vote then there would have been a Conservative majority government with no rein whatsoever on their ideological ambitions.
Most of the fire directed at the Coalition is not due to the fact it is a partnership between two ideologically different parties, but because the Coalition has advocated particularly unpopular policies. For example, the privatisation of the NHS and increase in tuition fees have come about not simply because we are in a coalition government, but because the Conservatives, the senior partner, are pro-free market.

Of course with a parliament in which no party has an overall majority compromise is crucial. If a coalition is made up of two parties, neither party can enact their manifesto in its entirety. But if it is a choice between policies which most people in the country opposes and a mixture of policies from two parties whose supporters make a majority, it seems the latter is fairer. The resultant government from a parliament elected by a more proportional system will be one that is more in tune with the political ideas and ambitions of the people.

This article was written for the student politics journal Canvas and can be found here

Saturday, 22 September 2012

The future of the special relationship?

Every four years the world waits and worries as the most powerful nation on earth votes to decide who will be the most powerful person on the planet. It is almost certain Ed Miliband privately wants Obama to win and columnists insist David Cameron is eager to see Obama stay at the Oval Office. But if Mitt Romney wins, Miliband and Cameron will smilingly congratulate him and ideological divisions will be glossed over for the sake of the ‘special relationship’.

British Prime Ministers – Labour and Conservative – have worked well with Presidents of either party. The wincingly close relationship between Tony Blair and George Bush is now remembered as part comedy but mostly tragedy. There are the collection of comical anecdotes about the two’s relationship, such as Bush remarking how they shared the same toothpaste, but it is the tragic joint failure in Iraq that will be the defining memory of the duo. Their actions were testament to how the US-UK relationship can become too close and unquestioning.

Whoever wins in November and whoever wins the General Election in 2015 will have to contend with a staggeringly powerful country that has a habit of making hugely difficult demands of British Prime Ministers.
Since 1945 there have been two hugely significant wars that US Presidents have asked Labour Prime Ministers to support. In 1964 Harold Wilson had to decide whether to accept Lyndon B. Johnson’s wishes and send British soldiers to Vietnam. Although Wilson voiced public support for Johnson’s actions and secretly sold arms to the US, he ultimately never sent British soldiers. Powerful opposition within his own party meant that Wilson had to resolve the complex competing factors of not harming the economically vital relationship with Britain’s most important ally whilst not committing himself to a war that might cost him power.

In 2003 Tony Blair faced off a large-scale backbench rebellion and huge public opposition and committed British troops to the war in Iraq. For Blair it was both a matter of standing with the USA and his own geopolitical beliefs that led him down the road to Iraq.

Both Prime Ministers had the unenviable task of deciding how to respond to these foreign policy issues and the demands of Britain’s greatest ally. How they both responded was very different.

In the future there is the chance that Ed Miliband may be faced with a US President that asks him to engage in a war or in actions that jar with the values of himself and his party. There is a chance that a President Romney may one day ask a British Prime Minister to engage in another war in the Middle East.
Some commentators have argued that it is unlikely Romney would support a war with Iran, but others have noted the extent to which the neo conservatives who drove the USA into Iraq are advising his foreign policy. All the same, considering the power of the neo conservative ideology within the upper echelons of the Republican ranks and America’s recent history, it is a possibility that Romney might order an attack on Iran.

Miliband’s past record shows that ideologically he does not see the ‘special relationship’ as entailing consistent obeisance. He was against the war in Iraq and has said, “I criticise nobody faced with making the toughest of decisions and I honour our troops who fought and died there, but I do believe that we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war.” Also, during his 2010 Conference Speech Miliband said that, “this generation wants to change our foreign policy so that it’s always based on values, not just alliances” which is a clear indication that he believes foreign policy should be constrained and alliances do not necessitate mirroring other country’s foreign policy. Thus there is evidence to be hopeful that if Miliband is faced with a rising crescendo of war cries from across the Atlantic, he will have the courage and political skill to resist their demands.

This article was written for the politics blog Shifting Grounds and can be found here

The Tories' northern blues

A lot has been written about the Liberal Democrat councillors cast out of office in northern cities like Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle, but the Conservatives waning attempts at gaining a footing in the urban north is arguably more significant.  It demonstrates that for hugely important parts of the country the Tories remain a toxic proposition.

In the Sheffield 2012 local elections the electoral mauling of the Lib Dems was well documented, but the embarrassing fact the Conservatives were pushed to fifth place in the vote escaped popular attention. The city known as ‘the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ was never likely to lovingly embrace the party that oversaw the large-scale closure of its industrial heritage, but it is a humiliation to be beaten by both the Greens and increasingly popular right wing vote splitter, UKIP. Only last month the Conservative Party office in the city closed its doors. With that they seemed to close any hope of a Sheffield revival.

The Conservative is a rare animal throughout much of the northern urban landscape. Four of the biggest cities in England – Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield – have no Conservative councillors. Of the 124 urban or city constituencies in the North and the Midlands Conservatives have a paltry 20 seats. Up the road, Scotland too has an allergy to blue rosettes. There is a good and factual joke that Scotland now has more pandas than Conservative MPs. Now more than ever it is the Labour Party that can legitimately lay claim to being a party for the whole of Great Britain.

One reason why the Conservative Party struggles in these areas is because they are formerly industrial heartlands with a long tradition of voting Labour. But it is not only the past that constrains them. It is polices – both proposed and implemented – that offend many northern voters. Regional sector pay is one example. One of George Osborne’s plans includes freezing the pay of public sector workers in areas in which private sector pay is low. This would hit the north far more than the south and reduce the income of doctors, nurses, teachers and other public sector workers.

It is also the case that unemployment and public sector jobs are more significant issues in these areas. If the economy continues to flat line, whilst public sector jobs are being cut, northern economies are going to be caught in a dangerous position. A policy such as reducing regional pay would further suck money out of these economies.

The Conservatives are also not helped by outrageous suggestions by think tanks close to the leadership. In 2008 Policy Exchange released a report basically arguing that cities like Liverpool and Sunderland are now pointless and a better course would be for the population to move south. ‘Many of Britain’s towns and cities have failed – and been failed by policy makers for too long’ it claimed before going on to say that ‘no one is suggesting that residents should be forced to move, but we do argue that they should be told the reality of the position.’

Unmistakeably affluent southerners in charge is an image problem all mainstream parties grapple with, but there is no leadership in recent times that battles with this issue as much as the Conservative leadership. David Cameron and George Osborne had the public relations difficulty of being very posh and very well of, but this has been compounded by actively appearing to benefit the best off. In politics you can be rich, but it is near fatal to appear to use politics to help the wealthiest. The cut in the high rate of income tax is an added problem for a party trying to win over parts of the country with long-term economic problems.

The Conservatives are failing to even gain a foothold in northern cities. For the time being it looks like it will remain that way.

This was written for the politics blog Canvas and can be found here

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Loving the big society... from a distance

On both sides of the Atlantic politicians want to see the state cut back and society take over its responsibilities. In the US Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan dreams of a wizened rump of a federal government. Ryan’s economic plans involve the near evisceration of the state, except  - somewhat inevitably for a Republican – the amount it spends on defence. Ryan’s plans include cutting Medicaid by $800 billion. In the UK the Coalition government is busy shrinking back the state. For example, on average government departments are facing cuts of 19%. In the US and the UK right wing politicians hope that charities and volunteers will fill the gap left by a diminishing government.

As Andrew Sullivan writes:

“A critical element in the GOP's attempt to unravel the 20th century's welfare state is the argument that individual charity will step in to help those in need… This is also behind David Cameron's much more modest attempt to move from Big Government to what he has called Big Society.”

Sullivan assesses how much Paul Ryan has given in charity and the difference between how much he and Barack Obama gives. In 2010 Paul Ryan gave 1.2% of his income to charity whereas Obama gave 14.2%. It is also worth pointing out that those in the lowest fifth of incomes bracket gave an average of 4.3% of their incomes to charities. Andrew Sullivan points out:

“But it's Ryan who is the most prominent advocate of replacing state care with private charity. It's just that others will have to supply the charity. Judging by his past, he sure won't.”

I think Ryan’s economic policies are callous, but it’s even more disgusting when he personally doesn’t do that much to help those he is going to screw with his governmental cutbacks.

In the UK we don’t have neo liberals of the Ayn Rand maximum madness variety teetering on the brink of power. Instead we have David Cameron and the Coalition government who claim that it’s the necessity of destroying debt that’s driving them to slice back the government. You might be tempted to believe that isn’t the sole reason considering so many of them worship at the altar of Thatcher, the deity of shrinking the state.

The Conservatives have put forward their vision of a country in which the state does less work but society does more. The Big Society is the idea that the British public volunteer their time to charitable causes. Volunteering and charities are undeniably important and do brilliant work, but I do not think we can expect them to take over many of the responsibilities the state is giving up. This is especially the case when a large bulk of the finances of charities are made up of grants from the government.

The problem for proponents of the Big Society is that their own actions betray its weaknesses. A study by the website shows that, of those who replied, only 8% of Coalition MPs do voluntary work. As the website tartly remarks, ‘Are we really all in this together? Only time will tell.’

When people on both sides of the Atlantic cut the state and hope to see society pick up the pieces you would expect them to do as much as they can to volunteer and help charities. Instead we see people loving the big society, but from a distance…

Correction: Originally I wrote that Ryan donated 1.3% of his income to charity and Obama donated 14.3% of his income to charity. In fact the figures are 1.2% and 14.2% respectively.

An opportunity for change: part two

It is always easier to criticise and condemn rather than paint a picture of how to do things differently. In my previous post I argued that Britain needs a new long term plan for our economy and at this moment in time the population are more likely to be seeking one. In this post I will explore ways we can change our economic society whilst ensuring it gains enough support from the British public and media.

Since international finance collapsed and had to be rescued by the state, the right has taken numerous blunderbuss shots to their pride. However it still cannot be underestimated. The most popular newspapers in the country are The Sun and the Daily Mail. Based on current polling figures the Conservative Party and UKIP votes combined are at 40%. Undoubtedly, there is still a powerful contingent within our society who believe a mix of free markets, deregulation and a small state is the correct remedy to the world’s ills. Thus, those proposing a different future will have to put forward persuasive alternatives and win support from the public.

Ways of changing our economy and getting support to do so come in different forms. One example of the economy being made fairer is the grass roots approach spearheaded by Citizens UK. One of the many superb things about the recent Olympics was the fact that all workers were paid a living wage. If more and more organisations are pressed into paying their workforces a living wage, then not only are individual lives improved, but a societal norm is created. This societal norm would emphasise that all people deserve to be paid at least enough money for the necessities of life. This will then better enable a government to take legislative action to ensure living wages for all.

Another opportunity for change is to kindle an understanding of the effectiveness of a state that takes an active role in the economy.  As the economist Lord Skidelsky explains, ‘nothing is more upsetting to the conventional wisdom than the thought of government “picking winners”. Yet governments have been picking winners all over the world, notably in east Asia.’ Skidelsky proposes a national investment bank, which can be used to ‘to secure Britain a significant presence in cutting-edge technologies like mechatronics, optics, new materials and nanotechnology, and to invest in such green energy sources as wind power, solar power, hydropower and biomass.’ Skidelsky argues that the investment bank can be funded through the government investing £10 billion of capital and also ensuring the bank itself is able to borrow. In recent decades British industrial policy was left to the gusty winds of the free market, and the economy became overly dependent on the services sector. A new more active role for the state is an important way forward.

Proposing the government spends money, especially on something which will inevitably take risks with taxpayer’s money, during a time when the dogma of austerity is paramount, could be painted as the mad frivolous actions of spendthrift left-wingers. However, there is already a growing realisation that it is unclear how Britain is going to pay its way in the future and that the market itself is geared towards the short term. This creates space for proposing a national investment bank as one answer to our economic predicaments. This will allow politicians to make comparisons with countries which successfully used the state to kick-start particular industries, and also to inspire the public with a vision of Britain in which, instead of relying on the magicians of the city, we develop the power of industry.

Another opportunity for change is in regards to taxation. In a recent article John Kampfner explains the prevalent attitude of New Labour to tax avoidance:

‘I lose track of the number of times I argued with ministers in the Blair and Brown governments about the social dislocation, not to mention the financial damage, caused by there being one rule for the very rich and one for the rest. They would shrug their shoulders, with their “he’ll grow up one day” look about them, arguing that any money that was accrued from these borderless global folk was helping to build schools and hospitals and children’s clubs.’

As Kampfner remarks, ‘the mood has shifted.’ Even our Chancellor of the Exchequer has admitted that he is shocked by the scale of tax avoidance in the UK. The sentiment that the money someone makes is all and entirely down to their own brilliance and tax is nothing but the thieving machinations of wasteful statists has been driven to the fringes of contemporary conservatism (at least publicly). It’s not unpopular to be against tax avoidance at the moment. But, how do we seize this feeling and ensure everyone pays their fair share of taxes?

Well firstly by continuing to name and shame those people who are paying tiny amounts of tax on very large incomes. There need not be red eyed loathing of the rich, but most people are amenable to the argument that the richest should at least do what everyone else has to do. Emphasising how lost tax revenue means poorer schools, hospitals and services demonstrates that tax avoidance isn’t simply a matter of figures. Highly popular and successful individuals, such as JK Rowling, who does pay her fair share of taxes, should be used as models of behaviour in public relations campaigns.   It is important that politicians and the media keep the spotlight on this issue, because this will help make it a more significant electoral issue. Imagine at a future leaders debate if each of the party leaders were vying over who would be the person best placed to raise revenue in this way!

These are just a few of the ways that Britain can change its economic order and find support in doing so. Although there are undoubtedly further changes and shifts in thinking needed, it is the case that there are positive signs that we need not continue to be constrained by the past.

This post was written for the politics blog Shifting Grounds and can be found here

An opportunity for change: part one

Reading Steve Richards’ Whatever it takes: the real story of Gordon Brown and New Labour I was struck by the extent to which New Labour felt constrained by British political culture. Even though New Labour surged into power with a staggering majority, they were nervous of how far they could travel from the policies and values of the previous eighteen years of Conservative hegemony. Would a powerful right wing media demonise them? What would the public think?

Today, Britain is at a point in time when it desperately needs to move beyond the failed assumptions and policies of recent decades. The questions New Labour faced are still with us, but this time we have to find different answers.

New Labour’s worries about British political culture explain why one of their most redistributionist policies – tax credits – was barely sold as a political achievement. New Labour presented a lot of vague guff as feats of towering achievement, but one of their most significant policies was presented with significantly less fanfare.
As Richards writes of the March 1998 budget,

‘The Chancellor managed to redistribute a fair amount of cash to families on lower income without uttering the word ‘redistribution’, which he considered rightly to be a term that alarmed many voters who feared their money was being recklessly spent on those who did not necessarily deserve it.’

However it is important to point out that such ‘stealthy radicalism’ has its drawbacks:

‘Robin Cook highlighted the problem with stealthy radicalism when he argued in a series of speeches during Labour’s first term that many of his poorer constituents thought that the tax credits were a technical change introduced by the Inland Revenue. They had no idea that their additional money had any connection with government.’

These passages indicate the sense that Britain would not tolerate any government that appeared frighteningly socialist. The New Labour project itself was testament to this fear. After four successive election defeats and eighteen years in which a particularly ideologically potent Conservative party was supreme, traditional Labour policies were viewed as irrelevant and unelectable. New Labour decided to largely accept the economic framework they inherited. They were happy with individuals becoming ‘filthy rich’.

New Labour were not simply conservatives in red rosettes, as some have painted them. They did a lot of things that Conservative governments would have done, but they also did a lot of things Conservative governments would never have done. Sure Start centres, tax credits, civil partnerships and Scottish devolution is a short selection of a longer list.

However, it is true New Labour never radically changed the economic world. The super-rich became massively wealthier and those at the bottom of society endured wages that didn’t much improve. The welfare services spent on were reliant on revenues from a banking sector that, unknown at the time, was cruising to disaster. Even when they did pursue policies which advanced the cause of the least well-off, they were nervous about how this would be viewed by the media and public at large.

Britain is at a point in history when it needs a different economic settlement. The country requires a new long-term plan for the economy which ensures people live lives off less insecurity, in which they are safer, healthier, have enjoyed a good education and are financially better off. The economic settlement we have is beset by difficulties. It has not only been hampered by crisis, but relative to more equal countries, we endure more crime, worse health, shorter lives and greater unhappiness.

Britain’s new economic settlement must not concentrate so much power and reliance on a narrow section of the economy. As Ed Miliband argues, ‘we need a more responsible capitalism, a new approach to our economy and our society.’ Britain also needs to envisage new ways of paying for public services. If the Coalition’s cuts have proved anything, it is how many of our public services are deeply valued.

The question is whether British culture is ready for a different economic order. Can a government redistribute wealth and alter our economy without voters, clasping Daily Mails to their chests, flocking to the voting booths and ticking the box next to the words ‘Conservative Party’?

Britain is more ready than it has been for a very long time. There has been a growing cacophony of voices demanding that George Osborne’s hilarious, tragically ironic claim that ‘we are all in this together’ is actually enacted in reality. Skyrocketing bonuses and the continuing revelations of very rich people hiding their incomes from HMRC fuels outrage and a powerful desire to see Britain run differently. Now that wallets have significantly less money within, and prized local services are vanishing from communities, people are more likely to question whether things can be done differently.

Although Britain is at a point in which free market fundamentalism is at the weakest it has been for a long time, we still need a movement to galvanise change. In my next post I will explore ways that the public can unite to improve and change our economy.

This post was written for the politics blog Shifting Grounds and can be found here

Monday, 20 August 2012

Patriotism needs progressives

For some, the outbreak of vocal patriotism that has met the colour, splendour and British success at the 2012 London Olympics has been a nauseating and worrying phenomenon. Those on the left have always struggled with patriotism. George Bernard Shaw declared that patriotism is ‘a pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy’ whilst, in contrast, George Orwell admired the ‘devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life.’

For generations those who desperately want to see a different Britain have been caught in an intellectual and moral bind. Does the fact we want to change our country mean that we do not love it or does the desire to change our country blossom from our love for it?

One problem with patriotism is that it is a largely emotional, almost spiritual, concept. The strong attachment someone feels to his or her country cannot always be decanted into rationalistic terms. There is no logic behind cheering and chanting for your country. Indeed it can be questioned whether patriotism is simply a dangerous and easily manipulated mass emotion offering no hope to progressives.

The fact that humanity feels emotions which cannot be explained in rational terms is not really a problem. The issue at hand is whether patriotism can be beneficial to a country?

George Orwell described Britain as ‘a family with the wrong members in control’. For most people patriotism does not spring from any particular adoration for those who have ruled us. Similarly it isn’t the monarchy or English tea that can sustain patriotism. It is also thankfully the case that we are no longer in the days when a population’s patriotism was in direct proportion to the size of its navy or empire.

Orwell’s understanding of Britain as a ‘family’ is insightful. There are good reasons for a special affinity between citizens.  If you live, travel, work, study and pay your taxes in a country it is good to have a degree of fellow feeling for the people you will be spending your life with. It is also important to recognise that the Brits have admirable characteristics: tolerance, a sense of fair play and strength of character through national crisis to name a few.

The sight of people destroying their local communities during the riots was a sign of the negation of affinity and community. It was the soul destroying opposite of patriotism. The rays of hope during the riots were the men and women who came together to mend their communities. They understood that it was not the establishment or capitalism or any other of the alleged targets of the rioters that were damaged by those days of carnage. It was ordinary men and women whose homes were reduced to rubble and whose livelihoods burned away. The actions of those who came together to rebuild their communities is symbolic of a much needed wider fraternal rebirth.

One example of this fraternal rebirth is the way that we need patriotism for the benefit of the welfare state. I wonder if the wealthy men and women who hide their finances from the tax collector would do the same if they felt a greater allegiance to the country that had helped them get rich. It is inescapably saddening that people who have reaped the benefits of Britain refuse to help the country in the form of paying their fair share of taxes. It is important to say that tax avoiding is not only ‘morally repugnant’ but also unpatriotic.

The British people deserved better from the rioters and they have long deserved better from our politicians and our institutions. Politics is not a sport, but it is a golden opportunity to improve the lives of your fellow citizens. It is only patriotism that can improve our country.

This article was written for the blog Shifting Grounds and can be found here

Monday, 6 August 2012

David Cameron: Two Nation Conservative

If I had to be a Conservative (I’m imagining Tory HQ has my family hostage) I would be a One Nation Conservative. One Nation Conservatism began with Benjamin Disraeli and was in the ascendancy during the post-World War II governments of Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Heath. One Nation Conservatism is marked by a concern with inequality and poverty, and the determination to bridge the divide between ‘two nations’ of rich and poor. The system of thought springs from Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil and can be understood through one striking quote:

‘Two Nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’

Instead of viewing inequality as the natural consequence of idleness or sin, it is the task of government to ameliorate inequality and improve the condition of the poorest. Thus Disraeli instituted social reforms and post war Conservatives would not take a hatchet (at least until Mrs Thatcher) to the most equalising force in our country’s history: the welfare state begat by the Labour government of 1945 – 1951.

One reason why the Conservatives concerned themselves with inequality was because a party who did not raise the conditions of the working class would not win elections. But it was not simply electoral calculations that have driven One Nation Conservatives. In the case of Harold Macmillan, it was memories of being Member of Parliament for Stockton, which suffered terribly from high unemployment during the Great Depression, that caused his determination to accept the Keynesian consensus and to never pursue policies which would result in high unemployment. Even when Treasury ministers were urging him to follow monetarist policies Macmillan refused to break with the Keynesian settlement.

Another Old Etonian, our current Prime Minister, has claimed that he is a One Nation Conservative. He urges us all to believe that he has taken up the mantle of compassionate conservatism and is ready to unite a divided country. It is true that the early proclamations of general happiness throughout the land, delivered by a Conservative leadership smiling atop the wave of continuing Labour spending promises, was torpedoed by the general collapse of our economy. No previous One Nation Conservative has had to wrestle with the economic problems that the country currently faces.

However, even when a situation is grim and choices are difficult, and it is the case that we cannot live in a world of mounting inexorable debt, it is true there are enough options left to a government to demonstrate which political philosophy actually drives them. Is David Cameron a One Nation Conservative, or is this a self-proclaimed identity, one that melts away in reality?

Harold Macmillan’s era was a time of a very different consensus. During his period in office unemployment was tiny, whereas in recent decades, even when our economy isn’t being battered by Euro crises and credit crunches, an unemployment rate of 4.6% is considered the pinnacle of human achievement. Today even our railways stand pointlessly privatised whereas Macmillan presided over an economy that had nationalised rail, gas and electricity. It was also a world in which a Conservative Prime Minister presided over very high rates of upper end income tax.

Today, we live with the legacy of Thatcherism which has left us a fundamentally divided nation. Currently, the chief executives of the 100 biggest companies featured on the London Stock Exchange earn an average of £4.2 million which is 162 times greater than the average British wage. If ever there was a world in which Disraeli’s warnings of ‘two nations’ are relevant, it is today.

We live in a world in which two nations are the norm. Thus for David Cameron to be a true One Nation Conservative then he would have to try and rectify this gaping inequality, whilst ensuring that deficit reduction is not worsening the divide.

On all counts he seems to be failing. The reduction in the high rate of income tax to 45p is one hugely symbolic example in which the interests of the richest are placed ahead of the outrage of the population at large. However there are many other ways that the Prime Minister is not really achieving being a One Nation Conservative. Although the Coalition have attempted to improve the conditions of the poorest wage earners by raising the level at which people begin to pay income tax, the benefit of this policy has been harmed by the rise in VAT, inflation and reductions in benefits.

A truer One Nation response to this crisis would be to do whatever they can to raise taxes on the richest. There Is No Alternative is the creed of the unimaginative and the ideologically blinkered. There are many ways the Conservatives could raise revenue in a more compassionate way without wealth creators flocking to Switzerland or the Cayman Islands.

One example is to increase asset taxes. Britain is a country in which it seems accepted that property prices balloon and people get incredibly rich from this, often with very little merit. If the Exchequer is looking for a way to raise revenue without harming the poorest part of the nation then something like Vince Cable’s mansion tax would be one way forward.

But David Cameron would never countenance such a move. Instead his party is committed to slicing back our already diminished welfare state. The Conservatives obsess over ways to raise money in ways that will inevitably harm the most disadvantaged, such as through welfare reform. The recent revelations of ATOS and the way that the very sick have been called ‘fit for work’ is a clear demonstration of a government that seems determined to split this country apart.

Due to the fact that Britain is already so unequal, anyone who sees themselves as a One Nation Conservative should not look to Cameron’s Conservatives as the party that can pursue their philosophy. And anyone who is concerned about inequality in this country should surely recognise that this government is not the answer.

This was written for the politics blog Shifting Grounds and can be found here

Monday, 30 July 2012

Asylum Seeker needs your help

Please help by emailing Theresa May to stop the deportation of Lofinda Dahlia Kitolo to Congo (home office reference number K1281657, port ref number ASC/2332697, DOB 6/9/84) tomorrow.

 She has been a victim of torture for opposing the Congolese government, and is pregnant and suffering from significant mental health problems, she believes her life would be at risk if she returned to Congo. 
The Congolese ambassador gave evidence to a parliamentary committee, saying some Congolese returned from the UK would be punished on return to Congo. On 5/7/2012 a high court order was made stopping a planned removal to Congo due to the high risk the returnees would face. The judge called on UKBA to investigate the Congolese ambassador's comments, and hopefully this order can be used to stop Lofinda's removal. UK Border Agency officials are currently investigating claims of torture in Congo. 
Please please help if you can by sending a few lines to Theresa May, it will take less than 5 minutes and every letter she receives is documented.
 Here is a letter I wrote earlier which you can copy and paste into an email to Theresa May: 
Dear Theresa May,

I am writing to you about the case of Lofinda Dahlia Kitolo a Congolese asylum seeker who has been detained in Yarl Wood Immigration Removal Detention Centre. She has removal directions on Kenya Airways flight KQ101 to Congo at 8pm on Tuesday, July 31st. Her Home Office ref no is K1281657, her port ref no is ASC/2332697 and her date of birth is 6/9/84.

I am protesting against the removal of Lofinda Dahlia Kitolo. She claimed asylum in the UK in 2008 after experiencing imprisonment and torture in the Congo. She was active in an opposition movement. If she returns to the Congo she is at risk of being targeted by the authorities. She is fearful that her life is in danger.

Lofinda Dahlia Kitolo is vulnerable as she has survived torture, suffers mental health problems and is also pregnant. The Home Secretary must do what is right and stop this planned removal.

I sincerely hope that Ms Lofinda Dahlia Kitolo is not removed.

Yours sincerely,
3 minutes ago ·

An absence of morality

When a crisis rips through an economic system, questioning whether that system is fair becomes more frequent and urgent.  The sight of tents pitched by a Cathedral that had once been the towering symbol of London, but now dwarfed by the temples of the City, seemed to evoke, in one curious image, the changing and uncertain nature of our times.

The Occupy movement’s diagnosis that there is something wrong with stratospheric wealth for a tiny minority seemed to be correct and yet their solutions were a mixture of the incoherent and the economically dangerous. From the usual left wing suspects, to Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph, there have been wide ranging proclamations of the indecency of our economic order. But still we are in the same situation. We know there is something wrong. But where do we go from here?

The problem, I believe, is rooted in the way that, in recent years, economics has had only a rather fragile connection with moral questions and, up until the crisis, bereft of large-scale public debate. Think of the most popular and controversial intellectuals of recent years. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are probably two of the most discussed and debated thinkers of recent times. Are there two writers who have focused on the morality of capitalism who have been as popular and read as Dawkins and Hitchens? It is ironic that the debate over whether religion is an opiate of the masses, in a way became an opiate of the masses.

In recent years, issues over the fairness of gaping inequality and the way our economy is run have not been raised. We have been taught to believe that the hideously rich are good for us or we have been taught to see everything simplistically and unquestioningly. Economics has either been interpreted using mind numbing banalities like ‘tax is theft’ or is presented using a mass of incomprehensible statistics.

This absence of morality has strayed into our evaluation of personal economic choices. When George Osborne lowered the high income tax rate from 50% to 45%, an astonishing argument was put forward. Apparently the current tax rate was leading people to avoid tax and so it had to be lowered. Put aside your other views on the tax for the moment and consider simply this argument. Does it not reek of a worldview that is sorely lacking in moral content? People were not paying what it is their duty to pay and yet the Chancellor’s answer is to benefit those who are doing wrong.

This absence of morality in economics and money has long led to a morality that has gorged itself on other areas. Social issues are enormously important, but it is inaccurate to portray morality as only relevant to debating abortion and homosexuality, divorce and sex.

It was ironic that the Occupy movements were pitched by a Church. That a protest against the way our economy has been run was positioned by the most striking emblem of this obsession with social issues seems to be a metaphor for a society that must recognise that it is also economics and morality that go hand in hand.

This was written for Shifting Grounds and can be found here

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Asylum Seekers

I have written a piece on the Labour party and asylum seekers for the blog Shifting Grounds.

Here's the link.

I hope you find it interesting.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012


I have written some articles since I last posted on here but they are on other websites.

I would also recommend having a look at Canvas' latest issue. There are some fantastic articles from a variety of perspectives on the issue of capitalism

Saturday, 3 March 2012

How do the British public and media view asylum seekers? What is myth and what is reality?

I have been leading a group looking at public and media perceptions of asylum seekers and the reality. Here is the article we have written.

What we can learn from Sweden

Here is an article I wrote for Canvas about what the Swedish economy can teach Britain.