31 July 2011

US political crisis: the case for an "anti-tea party"

As I write this it's still not clear whether there has been agreement between Barack Obama and both houses of Congress to raise the debt ceiling to enable the US Government to go on paying its bills after 2nd August.

But if an agreement is hammered out, it seems quite clear that in the course of reaching it, Obama will have given so much ground to the Republicans - and indeed the hard-right Tea Party faction - on the spending cuts vs tax increases mix, that it is unclear how his presidency in any way still reflects the priorities of the Democratic party.

The US budget deficit is caused by three policies in particular, two of which are the fault of the previous administration led by the election thief and war criminal George W Bush, and one of which is a bi-partisan failure over several decades. The bi-partisan failure is the decision by successive presidents and congresses to cultivate an unstable and unsustainable economy built on "junk" finance, which imploded twice in the 2000s: first in the "dot com" crash of 2000-01 and then (much more seriously) in the financial near-collapse of 2008. As Richard Wolff notes on CiF, no part of the US economy (save corporate profits) has recovered to any meaningful extent since 2009. The best that can be said for Obama's inadequate stimulus package of 2009 is that it stopped things getting any worse; but that is winding down now, and consequently the US economy is sinking deeper into a hole.

The fiscal crisis is exacerbated by two policies which were the mainstay of the Bush presidency: (1) huge tax cuts for the wealthiest few percent of the population, and (2) a vast increase in military spending to pursue the "war on terror".

As a clear election winner in 2008 (unlike Bush in his two election "victories"), Obama had a golden opportunity to reverse policy on all three of these fronts. Sadly, he has failed completely on all three. His only domestic policy success was on healthcare reform - admittedly an area where all his predecessors had failed - but even there, the reform which emerged fell well short of what is needed.

What he has managed to do, instead, is to preside over the birth of a movement, the "Tea Party", extreme even by the standards of the US right which takes some doing, which is systematically trying to destroy American democracy by creating the conditions for a coup by big business interests. This was last attempted during the Roosevelt administration of the 1930s by a number of industrialists sympathetic to fascism who believed the US could be reconstructed along the lines of Nazi Germany. It failed then, but it might succeed now; it is increasingly likely that China will be the model for a 21st century "Tea Party-esque" US, with elections suspended (probably on the grounds of saving money) and the Republican party installed as the de facto equivalent of the Chinese Communist Party. (In passing, I note that it is ironic that Van Patten claims that the 'left' in US politics - Bill Clinton, etc - are the "Chinese agents" when in fact what the Tea Party want to do is far closer to current Chinese political practice than anything you will find among the Democrats).

Barack Obama's reponse to the Tea Party threat - and the Republican challenge generally - has been to compromise so far with it that he has managed to completely alienate his own supporters. I would imagine that not since the dog days of the Carter administration in 1979/80 has the Democratic base been so demoralised and let down. And there is a severe danger for Obama that the result of the 2012 Presidential election will be very similar to the 1980 election. I still maintain, whatever the bullshit the right will try to feed you, that Ronald Reagan was a relatively weak Republican candidate who would have lost to any Democratic incumbent with a basic level of nous and competence; the tragedy for Jimmy Carter - probably the most thoroughly decent man to hold the Presidency since 1945 - was that, in 1980, he appeared to possess neither nous nor competence.

Barack Obama also appears to lack competence and nous, but in a different way from Carter. Obama seems to want to be the bipartisan statesman in an era where bipartisanship is impossible; there is pretty much no common ground between the Tea Party and your average liberal Democrat. By failing to stand up for a deficit reduction package which includes at least (say) a 50/50 mix between tax increases and spending cuts, Obama is making it more likely that the GOP will demand more and more crazy right-wing policy concessions - because he lacks the backbone to turn round and tell them to take a hike. If you're a hard right Republican congressperson, what is the downside to taking an extreme right wing policy stance? None, because the President will meet you half-way (or in fact 90% of the way) whatever you say. As of now, I expect a deal to be done on the debt ceiling at the 11th hour - and it will be disastrous for the Democrats.

Even so, it is quite possible that Barack Obama could still win re-election in 2012 - but only against an out-and-out wacko candidate, most obviously Bachmann. I think if the Republicans nominate Perry or Romney, Obama is toast. I'd love to be proved wrong on that, but - allowing for the temporary bounce from the announcement that bin Laden had been killed - Obama's poll ratings have been in freefall for 2 years now. And there is simply no sign of the economic bounce that might help him recover.

Bizarrely enough though, all is not lost for the Democrats at Congressional level if they can fight fire with fire - essentially by becoming the "anti-Tea Party". There is clear evidence from opinion polling that huge numbers of US citizens think that the Us political system has now broken down, and the country is now being run in the interests of a few wealthy bankers and industrialists. The Tea Party channelled anger at the banking bailout - which was viewed (to a large extent rightly) as a huge transfer of resources away from ordinary working people to a gang of exploitative and reckless overlords) - into a right-wing populism. The antidote to that - and the way to expose the Tea Party as a shameless "astroturf" operation funded by oligarchs like the Koch brothers - must be a left-wing populism.

The best way forward for the Democratic party would be if the 2012 Congressional elections threw up the biggest bunch of hard-left socialist Democratic candidates seen in America in modern times - pro-union, anti-Wall Street and anti big business. They would be extremely well-placed to ride a wave of anti-establishment - and indeed anti-Obama - feeling as the spending cuts bite and the economy continues to flatline.

If Obama does manage to get re-elected, an "anti-Tea Party" Democratic bloc in Congress could be a very useful mechanism for pushing him leftwards - particularly if the Democrats can recapture the House of Representatives. Conversely, if a Republican wins the presidency, it will be vital for the Democrats to provide a counterweight to the Tea Party which will undoubtedly be pushing even harder for extremist policies. Either way, the last thing the US needs is a "centrist" (read: hard-right) Democratic party following their President as he sleepwalks into whatever the next disaster is.

28 July 2011

Jam today, Jam tomorrow.. (Part one)

Time for a summary of events on what is for me, this side of the Atlantic, but for most readers the other side. At the moment the world is watching as the prospect of the United States defaulting on its debt for the first time in its history next Tuesday (2nd August). As I write this, the two sides are currently engaged in negotiations which seem by turns to break down or involve competing plans all of which seem to be rejected by the hardliners on both sides. As Telegraph business columnist Ambrose Evans- Pritchard puts it:

'I adamantly refuse to take sides in this dispute. Both parties have played their part over the past 50 years in bringing America to this pass. A plague on both their houses'

The sides, such as they are basically comprise President Obama (and the US treasury department), hero of the British Left and the Guardian/BBC/Compass contributors whose influence seems to be at its apogee following the 'phone hacking' scandal and the Republicans in Congress, whose Leader, John Boehner (pronounced Bay - ner rather oddly) is arguably less familiar than the 44th president to British readers, although sufficiently well studied for the co-contributor on this blog to style him and the GOP 'evil and incompetent' on Twitter. Basically the 'News' such as it is stateside, and very much dependent on your perspective (if you watch Fox you won't really get much blame attached to the Republicans - on most of the other networks, the blame is all theirs) consists of attempts at compromise from both sides being pretty much furloughed by extremists, more, I have to say, on the Republican side than the Democratic. Even Boehner's latest plan, hardcore though it is, is being stymied by Tea Party supported Representatives arguing it does not go far enough. Thus the politicians continue to bicker as a potential 'financial armageddon' looms, with surely greater impact for the world beyond the USA.

In a thoughtful article yesterday in the New York Times (The US equivalent to the Guardian) economist/columnist Thomas L. Friedman points out the defects in both sides of the argument, and its this article which has relevance for the UK. As I pointed out, somewhat uncomfortably for supporters of 'UK uncut' and others opposed to the Coalition's plans, Public spending continues to rise under this government although Local authorities are, admittedly choosing to cut items like Libraries and services for the elderly rather than look at the renumeration of Senior executives - in that sense I have some sympathy for the 'anti Cuts' protestors. Thus the UK's own moment of truth cannot long be delayed, especially as this government has continued the baleful legacy of the last one, in refusing to place items such as PFI spending on to the balance sheet. It's worth, therefore looking at the Friedman article, as it's perhaps a more thought-provoking assault on the need for cuts than one from a movement featuring Chinese agent Bob Crow (living in a Council House despite a seven figure income) as a poster boy.

His five prescriptions are summarised in the paragraph below:

'Yes, we have developed such a formula over the course of American history, and it is built on five pillars, educating the workforce up to and beyond whatever technology demands; building the world's best infrastructure of ports, roads and telecommunications; attracting the world's most dynamic and High- IQ immigrants to enrich our universities and start new businesses, putting together the best regulations to incentivise risk-taking while curbing recklessness, and then let American innovators and Venture Capitalists pick off the most promising ideas for new businesses.'

which I would take as good advice for any sovereign nation, including the UK, although I might quibble with some of these suggestions at least in the details, let's look at their prospects under the 'pantomime horse' of the Coalition, or the genuine government by Talking horse should the unthinkable happen and opposition Leader Miliband E prevails in the next election.

1/ 'educating the workforce up to and beyond whatever technology demands'

This would seem, on the face of it to be an unarguable point - we need to better equip the young people of today for a future which is likely to be somewhat technologically different than now. However, before we do that, we have to recognise, I believe that the goal of putting 50% of young people through higher education is, at the minute, unaffordable. Nor have the Willetts reforms on Higher Education had the desired effect. Despite the advantage of having 'Two Brains' these appear to have come from an acephalous being - their net upshot being that such centres of scholarly excellence as Central Lancashire and Leeds Metropolitan University have taken to charging £9000 for some courses. In the meantime, we have a situation where approximately 50% of the workforce in an industry such as construction or 33% in Retail Distribution (in the South East) are imported, primarily from the former COMECON countries. These people (and I speak from personal experience here) are, with some exceptions significantly better educated, more motivated and, crucially able to be paid much less than people from the UK with a similar level of qualification. It is hard to overstate how much London's prosperity has been dependent on this since 2004. In the case of the largest country to join the EC from that region, Poland, the emigration boom has also helped solve some potential social problems
back in that country . Based on my own now fairly numerous Polish friends, whether they will all be content to continue doing relatively low paid work is open to question.

However, even assuming the desirability of the goal, whether the British education system is capable of equipping the workforce to meet the challenges of the 21st century is open to serious question. I recalled it will be August in less than a week so shortly we will be subject to the ritual pantomime, played out annually wherein the publication both of GCSE and 'A' Level results will show an inexorable rise in the number of Top Grades handed out. This has become as intrinsic a part of the British summer as 'The Last night of the proms'. On both sides of the divide, Educationalists will point to superior teaching, whilst columinsts such as Melanie Phillips and rentaquote Max Hastings (to use only two examples), neither of whom have been to a classroom in the better part of several decades will point to the 'exams getting easier', and declining standards'. Both are wrong or oversimplifying the issue.

The truth is exams now cover a much narrower frame of reference, with the result that students perform better in tests but their breadth of knowledge is much less. This is attributed to the dominance of the annual League tables, which is again true but only tells half the story. League tables were introduced to try and subvert the Hard Left Teaching Unions who were using education as a 'political football'. These people, sadly , haven't gone away and are normally seen at the annual Teachers conferences prading their idiocy to general applause. I have never understood why a teacher is legally barred from being a member of a far-right group such as the BNP and EDL yet is able to act as effectively an 'unconscious fifth columnist' through membership of such groups as the Revolutionary Communist Party or Socialist Worker's Party, all of which had links with the USSR and are believed to have current links, even if only as 'Useful Idiots' with both the PR China and in some cases the DPR Korea. Surely neither is an especially desirable association?

Thus we have the quandary, a number of elements within the teaching profession (and I speak here again from personal experience) have no interest in improving the educational standards of poorer children. the reason behind this is two fold - firstly, to Educate such people might 'deprive the proletariat of Leaders in the coming class struggle' - this from people whose own offpsring I might add, are usuaally educated in the finest state schools or privately (Diane Abbott, Harriet Harperson, Anthony Blair esq) and secondly the entire raison d'etre of Compass/ Labour is the profusion of ever greater state largesse, which requires a continuing stream of state supplicants, else the entire apparatus of the welfare state has no justification beyond providing continuing employment for its workforce. Hence if you educate poorer people, the odds are they may start their own business or at the very least be able to see the desirability, from a social perspective of paid employment rather than subsistence on welfare. this would pull the rug from under the Labour party's base, and can on no account be allowed to happen.

So, either way, the education system seems likely to be churning out a workforce that is, oddly , significantly inferior to those of even the Korea DPR in terms of literacy and numeracy, let alone the PR China. Again, why these countries should have so much less trouble in their schools is perhaps explained by a more authoritarian tradition, but nevertheless, the argument that cuts need to be avoided for fear of jeopardising our ability to educate the future workforce is somewhat blunted by the evidence that ever increasing expenditure on education in the UK has had a deleterious effect on standards, at least according to surveys conducted amongst business Leaders from the CBI and FSB.

2/ 'building the world's best infrastructure of ports, roads and telecommunications'

Again this would seem an unarguable goal - and indeed is central to the 'Anti Cuts' lobby's message - that to reverse the growing possibility of a 'Double Dip recession' we need to invest in infrastructure, specifically relating to transport, although encompassing wider fields of housing and public services. I would again argue that this might be useful, if we had the necessary workforce. As already mentioned, much of the Labour involved in construction has to be imported from abroad, due to school Leavers being unable to hold down even Labouring jobs due to poor attitude and attendance. Again I speak as someone with experience ( mostly lacking from Labour supporters I find!) of environments in the Construction, Retail and Production industries. Jobs in such spheres, whilst not especially intellectual do require a level of discipline and a willingness to endure sometimes less than ideal conditions which is beyond the remit, in many cases, of products of the English state education, especially those with lower qualifications.

Thus we are again facing the issue of how we obtain the workforce for these projects. Also, (and more on this later in Part 2 of the post) even were we to put these projects into place, much current expenditure would be on such frivolities as 'Climate Change co-ordinators' , 'LBGT strategy directors', 'Lesbian outreach Equality workers' and suchlike - I doubt these people are likely to be putting scaffolding up or laying bricks, even had they the skills to do so. Moreover, Labour's policies of encouraging unlimited immigration for political reasons (to 'rub the right's nose in diversity') has meant the south East is now the most densely populated area in Europe. Whilst I, like many other commuters, present or former, bemoan the length of time taken on roadworks or the issues caused by Overground maintenance or works on the Tube, I have some sympathy for the Project Directors of such maintenance. Because of the volume of passengers (check out the Eastern end of the JLE or Southern end of the Northern line for a graphic illustration) any work has to be carred out in a two day weekend window. (thus putting Labour costs up by 50% immediately)Furthermore, the sheer density of the housing means you struggle to work overnight due to potential disturbance to the number of residents nearby! (this even on the M25!) The coalition's failure to repeal the Human Rights Act and put limits on immigration as a matter of some urgency have not helped stem the flow in. Furthermore, 2012 sees the ghastly spectre of the most evil man in British Politics, Ken Livingstone (Hal Berstram's favourite - don't notice you keen on moving back to London, though, Hal) coming back from the political dead like some scene from a Hammer horror movie - last time he called for 2 million more people in the city. Who knows what four years out of office have done to this most devious of minds? Given his relations with Network Rail and London Underground in his previous adminstrations, getting increased spending on infrastructure to actually yield anything other than cost overruns is likely to be tricky.

In short, though I would not question that expenditure on infrastructure is desirable, I would question the current administration's ability to deliver it, let alone Miliband E's. Also, it in no way precludes an examination of significant amount of current expenditure, especially relating to fields of political correctness.

I had originally intended a much shorter post - but this is now becoming so long, I'll need to return to it later......

27 July 2011

Is Osborne deliberately undermining UK growth?

The 2011q2 GDP figures came out yesterday and showed 0.2% growth. That's almost no growth at all, and is on the face of it, a disaster for George Osborne and the Tories (and indeed for their Lib Dem collaborators, whatever Vince Cable's protestations). Certainly the Telegraph - normally a loyal Tory supporting paper - ran a headline today that the Dave Cameron team was starting to get a bit jumpy with Osborne and had basically told him to "boost growth or else." I frankly don't believe that story - I'd be surprised if Cameron and Osborne weren't still best buddies - but there is no doubt that some of the Right, and their supporters, are starting to worry a bit. The conventional wisdom is that if a party screws up on economic policy it's very hard to win a general election, and conversely, if the economy's going well, it's very hard to lose. There are undoubted exceptions to this rule - the Tories won in 1992 in a recession, and lost in 1997 in a boom - but most of the other UK election outcomes since 1959 or so would bear out the hypothesis, in my view.

But is George Osborne that worried? I want to discuss two possible reasons why he might not be. One is my own theory, and the other comes courtesy of a Twitter discussion with my friend Chris Brooke of the Virtual Stoa.

My theory is that Osborne won't be that worried about slow growth for the next 2 years or so and he might actually be secretly pleased - provided that he does get strong growth after 2013 (at least until the election). This is based on my hunch that voters are more worried about the second derivative of output (i.e. whether growth is increasing or decreasing) than the first derivative (whether growth is high or low) or indeed the level itself (whether output is high or low). If Osborne has a choice between a scenario steady but anaemic growth from 2011 through to 2015 - at say 2 percent a year - and poor growth (or no growth at all) for 2 years followed by strengthening recovery for the next 2 years, by which time the economy might be roaring at 3 percent or more, my guess is he will take the second option. Why? Because the second option makes it MUCH easier to sell the story that "the pain is over and things are looking up" to the electorate. This was the trick the Tories pulled off in 1983, for example. The average growth rate in the 1979-83 Thatcher government was abysmal. But by 1983 there was a strong recovery in place and the narrative that the mess had been sorted out (admittedly combined with a severely divided opposition) enabled the Tories to romp home that year.

This is why the spending cuts have been "front-loaded" with the biggest reductions in 2011 and 2012 and it's also why Osborne has aimed to eliminate the structural budget deficit by 2014/15 rather than 2015/16 - to give himself an extra year of headroom to announce tax cuts. So Osborne is trying to "back-load" extra growth for 2014 and 2015 by depressing growth in 2011 and 2012. Cynical and manipulative? Of course. This is the Tories we're talking about here.

My personal view is that this won't work - at least not particularly well - because the hit to the economy from the austerity measures (which have still barely started yet) will be such a drag on growth - indeed, possibly turning it negative for a while - that it will completely derail Osborne's fiscal consolidation plans, probably increasing the size of the structural deficit and making tax cuts quite difficult without offsetting tax increases elsewhere. And if Osborne IS getting worried, it's probably because the (limited) fiscal consolidation so far has had such a negative effect on growth that he's genuinely terrified that more of the same will simply spend Britain spiralling into depression.

But now I want to examine Chris's alternative theory, which is that Osborne welcomes an extended period of low growth because it serves an important political purpose; in his view, it will convince the voters that tax-and-spend social democratic politics is simply unaffordable because the economy can't generate the tax revenues to make it work. And hence the small-state neoliberalism that Osborne wants will be the only game in town - so you'd better get used to it, suckers.

I can certainly see the argument for this - and it would fit with the narrative that the New Labour tax-and-spend approach was essentially a failure because it was fuelled by a horrendous and unsustainable rise in debt - first household debt (up to 2007), and then ballooning government debt (2008 and beyond). If the UK has - for some reason - hit some kind of plateau of permanently low growth, then obviously public spending, in the long run, would only be able to grow much slower than it did during the New Labour years. And Osborne's aim is to convince the voters that the only people who can be trusted to run an economy with low public spending growth are the Tories.

It's an intriguing hypothesis, and I'd go along with it to the extent that if growth does turn out to be paltry over the next five years, then Osborne and the Tories might try to turn a weakness into a strength by criticising Labour as unaffordable. There are echoes of the 1992 Tory election strategy - a surprise victory during a recession, remember - in this approach.

Having said that, I think this is a fall-back option for Osborne, not his first choice, for several reasons First, "this is the best we can do and we're the only people who can manage the economy in this situation of low growth" is harder to sell to the electorate than "things were in a mess and we've sorted it out - don't let the other guys ruin it again". Because of the implosion of Nick Clegg's "Fib Dems" - still flatlining at about 10% on YouGov - the Tories badly need voter converts, not just to maintain the 36% of voters they got last time. if the Lib Dems don't recover - or even if they recover, but only a bit - 36% is not going to cut it for the Tories. Unless they can pull off a true miracle of gerrymandering as part of the boundary changes and seat reductions, if the Tories get 36% next time and Labour gets 40 - or even, say, 38% - Labour's going to win. I don't think the defensive "social democracy is unaffordable" strategy will win many people over. A "V-shaped" recovery and 1983-style triumphalism stands a much better chance.

Second, Osborne stood up at the Budget earlier this year and gave us a load of guff about the economic recovery being "carried aloft on the march of the makers" or some such swaddle. At which point, according to q2 growth statistics, manufacturing promptly bombed, with all the q2 growth being accounted for by services. If you say you've got the policies to restore growth and then growth doesn't happen, after a while people cease to believe in you. Certainly Osborne has been parcelling out blame to almost anyone or anything he can find: global economic turbulence, trade unions, bankers, snow, hot weather, Kate'n'Wills, Nick Clegg, Internet Explorer 6, the guy with the grille on his head from ST:TNG, etc. But people look abroad and see that Germany is growing about 6 times faster than us and France 4 times faster, and they'll say "why the hell aren't the govt sorting it out?" which may well eventually lead to the possible further thought, "maybe they're just incompetent - and Labour could do better." So I think if George goes on blaming everyone except himself he just winds up looking ridiculous. Certainly on the Guardian front page this morning, Ed Balls is having a field day, and once Labour actually gets some policy together on the economy (come on guys, get on with it), I expect their economic competency rating to overtake Osborne's at some point before the next election.

Thirdly, a lot of the ConDem policy platform is based on "removing barriers to growth" - hence the rationale for tearing up the planning system, destroying employment rights, privatising most of our public services, etc. There's not much evidence that any of these changes will actually boost growth - although they will boost profits for the big private sector firms who fund the Tories. Actually, removing planning restrictions probably will boost growth in retailing due to economies of scale - but at the expense of killing traditional high streets and surrendering more of the countryside to huge "big box" buildings such as the Bedford Amazon depot. That could well produce growth in the Gross Domestic Product at the same time as a decline in overall well-being. But once again it's evidence of an attempt at a pro-growth strategy (admittedly from a very right-wing perspective), NOT a chancellor who doesn't care whether he gets growth or not. Otherwise why bother doing things like planning reform which (like the attempted forests sell-off) have the potential to severely alienate Tory voters in rural areas?

So overall, I think Osborne would very much like growth to happen - at least in the second half of the parliament - even though his macroeconomic policy is making it much less likely that it will happen. The reason for the contradiction between wanting growth and pursuing a macro strategy that undermines growth is simple: Osborne believes right-wing "voodoo economics". And in the end, that will probably sink him.

Now on top of this there is a very interesting long-run debate about whether growth at the post-war average (about 2 - 2.5 percent a year in real terms) is going to be possible in future, particularly given environmental constraints, and what that means for politics in the medium-to-long run. That's a very important issue but will need a blog post all of its own - and hopefully it will get one soon... bye for now.

25 July 2011

Something rotten in paradise.....

Coming back from another entanglement with US bureacracy, I turned on the news Friday only to see it dominated by a country which is very rarely in the news, and then normally only in the travel section, the Republic of Norway. According to the latest rolling news coverage, a gunman had opened fire on a camp being attended by members of the youth organisation of the ruling Labour Party. I must admit to almost thinking I had been watching an episode of Fringe and had missed out some of the details. This kind of thing simply does not happen over there. Indeed Norway is often used by a variety of Guardian and Independent journos as almost a counteraction to the contention that their policies will lead to the excesses of Zimbabwe, Cuba or North Korea. Usually in conjunction with it's fellow Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Finland, and to a lesser degree in recent years, Sweden, Norway is seen as proof that the Ed Miliband/Compass model of high taxes, ever higher public expenditure, and squeezing the private sector to pay for 'better public services' can work. As I often say to such people, this area seems to be almost the only part of the World where such a philosophy works. (very much including the UK!)You could include Canada and possibly New Zealand but I'd argue particularly in the latter, the relative liberalisation of agriculture in the 1980's presided over a much greater liberalisation subsequently in other sectors.

Nevertheless, a challenge even if made by people with records as chequered as many Compass supporters and Guardian writers remains a valid one. What is the secret of Norway's success? My first encounter with the country came in the realms of Sport. In 1982, then manager of the England football team, the late Ron Greenwood emerged from one of the most, if not the most bizarre qualifying group ever, to qualify for the World Cup finals of that summer in Spain. Comprising England, Hungary, Switzerland, Romania and Norway, the group featured most of the sides beating each other. England lost in Basel and Bucharest (Romania have not lost to England as of now for 41 years) but co-favourites Hungary were vanquished convincingly in Budapest. Perhaps the most notorious result was the defeat by the unheralded Norwegians in Oslo 2-1, a match immortalised by the commentary of the late Bjorge Lillelien , to then Prime Minister Thatcher that 'your boys took a hell of a beating' Subsequently, Graham Taylor's misfortune at the hands of the Norwegians some 12 years later, and that team's Manager, Egil Olsen's foray into Premiership management with Wimbledon further intrigued me. Norway was considered something of a backwater, albeit one with a very high quality of life. Visitors of my acquaintance had reported tales of beer being more than 7 pounds a pint (indeed a group of Norwegians with whom I worked insisted on a pub crawl in the less than salubrious environs of Basildon, Essex due to the beer being 'so cheap'!) and despite the economic illiteracy of every Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding smoking for the last 30 years, even our own legislators have not been as virulently anti-smoking as the Norwegians - tales of 8 pounds (now more than 11!!) for a pack of cigarettes again fairly legion.

So, what was the secret? Well, the discovery of North Sea Oil was a boon for the two countries under whose waters it was found, that being Norway and the UK. However, unlike the UK, Norway chose to reinvest its massive windfall into World Stock markets, establishing one of the first (indeed possibly the only) 'Sovereign Wealth fund' in Europe, currently the world's second largest. It is estimated that the country has sufficient founds already established to pay policing costs for the next five centuries, the army for the next 1000 years and other such statistics. It's Gini coefficient marking the disparity between the lowest paid and highest paid is also the lowest in the world. Foreign Policy magazine ranks Norway last of all on its 'Failed states' index, citing it as the most stable country in the World. Norway ranks high on every quality of life indicator one cares to mention. Indeed it was slightly jarring to find the Freedom House listing the country in its 'Human Rights' report at all, let alone making its listings incongruously alphabetic (think which country comes before it in the alphabet?) For those arguing that Norway acts as a model for the UK, however, bear in mind, it's significantly smaller population, much greater degree of racial hegemony and the fact it is not in the EU.( for me the crucial reason for its prosperity)

Hence it was strange to find tales of a gunman going crazy - immediately tabloid and press speculation abounded that the atrocity might have been the work of Al Qaeda, a supposition which turned out to be totally false, satirised quite aptly in yesterday's Guardian. It turns out, the killer, Anders Behring Breivik, was a far right extremist, whose 'manifesto' turns out to have been a bizarre collection of conspiracy theories, with much of its commentary plagiarised from a similarly slightly deranged figure from the Early 1990s in the States, the Unabomber . This has been seized on by supporters of multiculturalism and the end of the nation state as evidence that 'Nationalism' is arguably superior to Radical Islam as a clear and present danger to Western Society. It's worth looking at the tone of the Guardian article from Charlie Brooker. It almost relishes the fact that the wide supposition that the Norway tragedy was the work of Islamic extremists was off the mark. However, misguided the comments might have been, based on similar atrocities in Bali, Madrid and London, there was every reason to suppose it might well have been Islamic extremists who committed the crime. the fact they didn't is no reason to suppose the next time it might not be. As the admittedly controversial American writer Mark Steyn points out continually, according to any number of Jihadist websites, the West are 'all infidels'(and thus legitimate targets for Jihad) and whilst these extremists, I would agree constitute a minority of Muslims, they nevertheless pose a real threat to the West's stability.

The problem with this point is that it veers, at least for the Leftist dominated media, including the BBC (funded by a stipend from every household owning a TV in the land) and Guardian, dangerously close to racism. It is this failure to discuss the issue of whether unlimited immigration is desirable or even manageable which leads to the kind of unfocused rage which bred atrocities like Friday's. If a society such as Norway, on every measurable indicator wealthier, more stable and prosperous than the UK struggles to contain the pressures, what chance do we stand?

The picture has become murkier still, with a number of intrepid commentators pointing out that Breivik had links to arguably the sole remaining functional Far right organisation in Britain that comprises more than about 100 people, the English Defence League. This collection of beings, arguably appearing to comprise football hooligans with a vague political ideology is rightly opposed wherever it appears, invariably with the opposition coordinated through an organisation called 'Hope not Hate' which as the moniker says, is committed to 'celebrating Britain's diversity', and opposing extremists. All quite admirable, except that the organisation appears unwilling to countenance any extremism other than from the 'Political right' - look at its links to 'Hate groups' - only two: the EDL and the BNP. (nearly bankrupt and down to a rump of councillors)Any attempt to ask the organisation about its attitude to Muslim extremists merely produces the allegation that the person asking the question is a 'White extremist'. Sadly, until societies across Western Europe begin to examine whether it is desirable to have significant minorities who are wholly opposed to the concepts of Liberal democracies and indeed even a secular society, I fear that the Brevik tragedy will only be the first of many. To quote the late W.B Yeates:

' The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?'

Replace Bethlehem with Bradford, Burnley, Blackburn or Birmingham, and that's my fear for the UK. In the meantime, my sincerest condolences to the people of Norway, steadfast friends for many centuries to the UK. And Glenn Beck is a moron......

18 July 2011

Stop bugging me man - I'll kick your F**%ing teeth in...

Or so said the character Nick Curran (played by Michael Douglas) in the Paul Verhoeven film from 1992, Basic Instinct. Thus bugging or hacking into phones for the purposes of providing journalistic exposes has become one of the most momentous (to paraphrase Hal Berstram) events in the country's recent political history. The rapid collapse and closure of the country's largest selling newspaper, the News of the World in a desperate attempt to forestall further fallout was truly stunning. Indeed it appears that the scandal continues to claim victims, with Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson following News International Senior executive Rebekah Brooks in resigning.

Over at 'Comment is free' they appear, to paraphrase Agent Albert Rosenfield from Twin Peaks:

'to have been snacking for too long on the local mushrooms'

and we see the frenzy in full force. What does it portend for the future of British democracy? A trip through the Guardian's comment pages appears to be reminscent of a trip through one of Star Trek's parallel universes. David Cameron's political obituaries have been written by various ex-Soviet sympathisers and veteran fellow travellers, and opposition Leader 'Miliband E' or 'Mr Ed' (named after a 60's American show involving a talking horse) is suddenly touted as a 'man of courage' for his sudden conversion (after being part of two administrations who shamelessly courted News International for the previous three elections) to greater transparency on media ownership. Prize chameleon Nick Clegg adds to his reputation for principle and veracity by shamelessly exploiting the scandal to try and shore up his collapsing vote. All we need now is something from Chris Huhne and the confusion will be complete.

So, is the Coalition finished and more importantly, is the phone hacking affair the figurative 'end' for Cameron? I think not but would agree that I had reservations about using as tarnished a figure as Andy Coulson in any kind of advisory capacity, especially given that the phone hacking scandal has been running in 'Private Eye' for at least the past eight years. Whilst I wouldn't want to see public policy dictated by Ian Heslop and co (they probably would be less than enthusiastic than I am) even a cursory glance at this journal would have raised (or should have raised) serious question marks about his suitability. Nevertheless, Coulson is no longer in position. The question becomes whether Cameron knew that he was involved in phone hacking when he hired him - at the moment that doesn't seem the case and I do not see how the pro Sino Guardian can have any indication otherwise.

The alleged phone hacking incidents took place during the period between 2004 and 2008, which unless I am very much mistaken, saw a Labour government in power. (and one of the worst ever seen in the country's history, of which 'Mr.Ed' was a key part) Thus the nauseous eruptions from Mr G.Brown esquire, returning to the Commons after a year's sabbatical rank as some of the most hypocritical ever put on the record in Hansard, as in deference to the Guardian's staff some of them have recognised.

Is the scandal damaging to Cameron, and by extension, the coalition? for sure, but a quick read through 'Comment is free' or indeed the BBC website will reveal the real significance of the scandal. Neither the Guardian nor the BBC have ever been enamoured of the greater circulation and currency of the News International publications. This is seen as an ideal opportunity to circumscribe the debate and significantly narrow the range of right wing viewpoints available to people. In a wider context, I'd argue the significance is in fact far greater, potentially in the US, where the New York Times (which I read most days over here)and, by extension the Obama White House, are sharpening the knives for Murdoch's Fox News channel. If, as has been speculated, there was hacking of 9/11 victims, then the consequences could be even more far -reaching than they currently are. However, in a UK context, let us not delude ourselves this is more than an aberration, and not an opportunity to limit political discourse to amicable discussion between acolytes of the Guardian and BBC.

17 July 2011

apologies for continued outages

Hello punters,

very pleased to see a stream of articles by Van Patten on here because I have had Zero Time (to quote Tonto's Expanding Head Band) to do any posts longer than a couple of sentences the last fortnight or so. Which is a shame, because momentous things are going on in British politics, which I would like to comment on... but it will have to wait until Thursday or Friday this coming week, at least.

In the meantime... enjoy the Murdoch bonfire.

15 July 2011

There is no F**king coke......

Or so says the character Dean Keaton in the Bryan Singer film ,'the Usual Suspects' played by Gabriel Byrne. Whenever I see someone from UK uncut on the TV, I feel like saying:

'There are - NO f***ing cuts'

As the excellent Christopher Booker points out:
in fact public expenditure has risen, continues to rise and this despite it having increased by more than 100% since 1997. Nevertheless, as Giroscoper suggests, David Cameron is facing an uphill struggle in convincing the electorate that his government is heading for anything other than being ignominiously turned out of office, despite the almost laughably inept Labour leader, Microblair II's attempts to alienate floating middle class voters by accompanying recent rioting protesters attacking BHS and Santander stores in Central London.

Perhaps the key to understanding why this is to reflect on the profound changes which have taken place in society and in electoral terms since 1997. For starters, since then nearly 1.2 million people have come into the country from across the globe, a policy deliberately encouraged by the previous administration for the express purpose of 'engineering a multicultural society' and 'rubbing the Right's nose in diversity', at least according to Speech Writer Andrew Neather. As a rule, immigrants are more likely to vote for Labour (although there are exceptions - the Ugandan Asians who fled Idi Amin in the 1970's tended to have seen real socialism in action, and didn't much like it)

Secondly, the constituencies were redrawn to give Labour a significant electoral advantage. Both Wales and Scotland, despite diminishing populations retained their representations, and as a rule smaller Northern constituencies were retained and the South East's got much bigger.

Thirdly, the public sector expanded by over a million people, providing Labour with a client state from which to draw support and which would also reward Loyal Labour supporters with salaries and pensions out of the reach of many working in the non-financial part of the private sector.

Postal voting was also made simpler, and with it resultant fraud has increased significantly. Two enormous scams were uncovered in the West Midlands. the judge commenting said that the practises were what might be 'expected in a banana republic'

All in all, it amounted to a significant uphill struggle for Cameron. The BBC (funded by a stipend from every TV watching household in the country) poured out incessant vitriol against the Conservatives and their supporters practically daily from May 2nd 1997. Even the Tories heavy defeats in 1997 and 2001 did little to stop the scorn. Of course hard left controlled state educators also clung to a narrowly left wing view of the world and woe betide anyone who challenged it. (I speak here from personal experience) In short, a number of commentators wondered if the Conservatives could ever win again. That Cameron managed to achieve the results he did last time round deserves some credit. Had David Davis won the race for the Leadership back in 2005 (and I backed him) it remains questionable if they would have been able to achieve even 307 seats.

Yet, as Giroscoper posits, the coalition seems to have hit the buffers, and is under fire both from the Left, and the right of the Tory party. What then, can he do?

1/ I'd abandon the attempts to reform the voting system to AV. Whilst as a UKIP supporter, the AV system would arguably benefit my party the most, what we need to look at is Franchise reform. Arguably not really tackled in over 65 years, what we need to look at is a way of ensuring that the left is never able to again build a coalition of government paid supporters to engineer a permanantly left wing regime again. Thus, we need to go back to potentially plural votes for those in the Private sector. They create the wealth, and thus should not be able to have an admittedly brilliantly created coalition of state supplicants deprive them of it. There would of course be exceptions for front line workers, but for the most part this would go a long way to stifling Labour's base.

2/ Cameron needs to take a harder line with the EU, and in this regard would have enormous support. It is telling that the next Treaty is unlikely to have even a single country put it to a referendum. Ireland having been told in no uncertain terms that for the next Treaty, the EC cannot risk having to rerun yet another referendum. UKIP seems certain to top the poll at the 2014 Euro elections, especially in the wake of UK funding for bailouts in Greece, and, as seems likely Portugal

3/ Cameron needs to address, as a matter of some urgency, the continuing anomalies of the 'West Lothian' question whereby, Scotland (and to a lesser degree Wales) continue to act as de facto independent states whilst continuing to provide nearly 40% of Labour manpower within the Commons. Recent revelations that Per Capita income in The north of Scoltand was below Slovenia and in West Wales, below Tianjin, arguably due to more than 60% of employment/income in both areas being dependent on the state makes this and Point 1/ even more pressing. In short, we have to consider whether the UK, and in particular the South West and South East of the country can continue to keep funding the less productive regions.

4/ Stop attempting to curry favour with the likes of Polly Toynbee, Gary Younge or other attendees of 'Compass' (sadly not the catering company - thos people I might cultivate!) conferences. These people despise the Conservative (nearly always renamed Tory in their writings) Party and everything it stands for. you aren't going to get them reconciled with your viewpoint, so your best bet is to ignore them, and if they go on the rampage, clamp down hard. It worked for Lady Thatcher in the 1980's.

P.S This post was originally written in April of this year, and as part of a 'house clearing exercise concomitant with sorting out my new abode on the other side of the Atlantic, I decided given the amount of original text already in the post it probably merited publication. A slightly more nuanced post on postulating why the apparent disjunction between, on the one hand 'savage cuts in public expenditure' and an ever increasing overall bill for public expenditure will await completion of my 'backlog' of posts

14 July 2011

Requiem for a Heavyweight.....

Final part of the trilogy on the Republican challengers for 2012. This is almost a 'wishful thinking' post, as all of these personalities might, by some reckoning have a strong chance of defeating Obama given the continuing economic woes in the US. Originally about four candidates, the latest from the Huffington Post has forced a fifth name into the reckoning, not least because the other four have declared (in one case categorically) that they are definitely not in the running.

The candidate who has not ruled himself out at some point over the last 18 months is Rick Perry, current Governor of Texas, (successor to George W Bush in the role) although it should be emphasised that he is not even at the stage of an exploratory committee as yet, so would have some major catching up to do were he to run. Perry's politics fit very much into the Southern Republican mould - he is strongly religious, and an advocate of smaller government. He is on record as mentioning he might look to repeal the 16th amendment to the Constitution. This enables the Government to raise Income taxes without distributing the proceeds evenly amongst the states. As is pretty much mandatory within Texan politics, Perry favours Capital punishment, and is on the record as challenging the legitmacy of 'anthropogenic Global Warming'. So far, so relatively predictable, but unlike his predecessor in the role as Texas gubernator, Perry lacked the familial connections, and is thus somewhat more intellectual than W (admittedly hardly the most pre-eminent of minds to hold the US' highest office) I don't think Perry would win in an election against Obama but he would be a more credible candidate than many that have thrown their hat in the ring. Texas alone carries now 38 electoral college votes (an increase of four to reflect population trends since 2008), second only to California and Perry, although not the candidate of choice for the Tea Party and some of the Christian right, is likely to be more popular with that base than say, Romney or Huntsman. He would certainly prompt the Democrats to sharpen their activity up, if nothing else.

A candidate who should be familiar to veterans of cuts protests and anti war marches (amongst other fellow travellers) is 'Jeb' Bushbrother of the former president and former governor of Florida. Could we see a third Bush in the White House. Leftists of all hues will be aghast at the prospect and surely, it would be pointed out that the somewhat chequered record of his brother would count as an insurmountable problem for him. Fortunately for those anti war veterans who considered the 43rd President a less desirable visitor to the UK than Nicolae Ceaucescu and Robert Mugabe the elder Bush has closed the door on the possibility of a 2012 run. Jeb's politics do differ somewhat from the Younger 'W''s and for many in the Us political scene he would pose far more of a challenge than him in terms of an opponent. He was the first Republican ever to win re-election to ther governorship of Florida, and his standing amongst Cuban exiles is likely to play well in other states with quite high Hispanic populations. Undoubtedly, the Left would rail against the coming of another Bush but I think even his detractors would argue he posed a serious threat to a second term.

Less well known to UK readers will be Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who has led the opposition to the Debt cutting plans of Obama in the House of Representatives, and trailed the 'Republican alternative' to Obama's plans, 'the Path to prosperity'. As with Jeb Bush, Ryan has ruled himself out of the running for 2012, but he has the advantage of relative youth (only 41) and being the 'Public face' of the opposition to Obama within the legislature. His position on social issues is relatively unmapped, although his Catholic faith might not play well with some of the 'Tea Party' fringe. The proposals he co-authored drew heavy flak from Liberal economists, foremost amongst them, Giroscoper's sage, Paul Krugman, as being uncosted and unworkable. Nevertheless, Ryan's Northern roots in what is a relatively Liberal state (Wisconsin) might have given him a more general appeal than the hotch potch of candidates who have declared.

The fourth candidate, and arguably one who would be second most dangerous to Obama is Chris Christie, current governor of New Jersey. Described as looking like Tony Soprano from the HBO series, Christie's success in winning the 'Garden state' has Democratic strategists worrying that his message is arguably the one most likely to resonate with the widest voter pool. Christie is of part Irish, part italian ancestry which should make him formidable in the Eastern states which are traditional locks for the Democrats. His governorship has been marked by cuts to Public spending and a refusal to raise state taxes. Nevertheless, unlike some of the more extreme candidates, Christie is relatively speaking, socially Liberal, and thus would make a dangerous opponent for Obama. Nevertheless, at this time, he has ruled himself out of the running.

The candidate who is described is the Republican 'Luke Skywalker' and arguably on ethnic grounds poses the greatest challenge is Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Winning his seat in 2010 by a margin of 19 points, Rubio is hailed as the 'counter- Obama' although he has stated categorically that he will not run in 2012. Rubio is only 40 years old and his Hispanic roots would go a long way to mobilising support in what is the fastest growing constituency in the United states. One issue with those who perhaps get a little 'over excited' at the prospect of a Rubio presidential run, is that unlike 'African - Americans', Hispanic voters do not tend to vote 'en bloc' (Obama carried 95% of the Black vote in 2008) As a relatively recent entrant to the Senate, his political positions are evolving although he is socially Conservative. Nevertheless, were he able to unite the Hispanic vote along the same lines as Obama managed in 2008 with the Black vote, then he would most likely take 124 electoral College votes (California @ 55, Texas @ 38 and New York @ 31) which would, given the innate conservatism of many of the smaller states, make the winning post for the Democrats an insurmountable obstacle.

As pointed out, initially, this post was something of an exercise in 'wishful thinking' To date, even Rick Perry has not yet declared himself in the running. Currently, Mitt Romney remains the favourite, although he seems likely to lose in the somewhat eccentric state of Iowa, to Michele Bachmann! Either way, it looks like being a long 2012 for supporters of the Republican Party. Now where's the ghost of Ronald Reagan when you need him.....

10 July 2011

You committed the crime, you gotta do your time

One day very soon, I will get round to talking about phone hacking... just to say, for the moment, that the last 7 days of media coverage have been have been the most uplifting I can remember for probably a decade and a half.

But in the meantime, I have to say something about Paul White aka Lord Hanningfield, who has, fortunately, been sentenced to 9 months in prison for fiddling his expenses. The Essex Chronicle reports that Hanningfield is 'suicidal' and says "the only thing I can do is plunge a knife into my dog and then myself".

To which the response has to be: why kill a perfectly good dog?

We also learn from this Daily Mail piece that Hanningfield is still claiming £11,500 expenses allowance despite being in prison. He's entitled to do that until his appeal is heard later this month - but is it any wonder that people think the Tories are a gang of cheap, greedy killers when people like this guy are at the heart of the local Essex party? Funny how White wasn't suicidal when he was claiming for overnight accommodation during late-night House of Lords sittings he never attended....

Hanningfield was originally a pig farmer and presumably that's where he got addicted to walking through shit.

07 July 2011

And death shall have no dominion.....

Have just watched the superb documentary Senna, it's probably time to cogitate on how a premature passing away gives undue weight to the legacy of someone whose death is somewhat unexpected. Not only prompted by two old schoolfriends who had seen the film in the less than salubrious environs of Basildon, I felt it essential to watch this film, and I was intrigued by what I saw.

For those of you unfamiliar with my fascination, I must confess to a degree of annoyance with George Monbiot, , the main North Korean agent/'Global warming' sympathiser in the Guardian who has called for Formula 1 to be banned on what appear to be increasingly spurious environmental grounds, thus denying enjoyment to the tens of thousands who attend the sport over the globe, and the millions of followers on Television. However, the misanthropy/inadequacy or communist bent of the bulk of the environmentalist movement is not really the purpose of the post. The film comprises an amalgam of 'live' footage and contemporary interviews both with Ayrton Senna himself, and his principal rival of the late 1980s/early 1990s, Alain Prost , alongside others. As a mere Schoolboy in those far off days of 1986 to 1994, the film brought back many memories for me, and for that reason alone, I would presume anyone with even a vague interest in Formula 1 is likely to have seen it already. If not, I would recommend it unhesitatingly.

It would be very wrong to suggest that the film is without flaws, however, and these flaws are symptomatic of a wider tendency for society in General to perhaps magnify the virtues, whilst diminshing (or indeed ignoring altogether) the faults of people who have died prematurely or in tragic circumstances. To put the film into context, Formula 1 in the period 1970 to 1986 was an inherently dangerous Sport. 14 drivers lost their lives but prior to the fateful weekend in San Marino in May 1994, the last fatality had been Italian driver Elio de Angelis , killed during a testing session in France in 1986, primarily due to a scandalous absence of any safety marshals, an oversight rectified all too late for the talented veteran. Despite several major incidents in the succeeding seasons (two stick in my mind, Austrian Gerhard Berger in 1989 and Irishman Martin Donnelly at Jerez in the following season, which is mentioned in the film) until 1994 Formula 1 had been fatality free. Part of my interest in the sport during the years 1988 to 1994 was also the profusion of what can only be described as slightly shambolic teams at the back of the grid - such doyens of mediocrity and ineptitude as Rial, Zakspeed, Onyx, AGS, Osella/Fondmetal, Eurobrun, Coloni and both Giroscoper's and my all time favourites, Life (all showcased at the excellent F1 rejects site )which made qualification for the grid a somewhat more arduous process than is the case in the much reduced current Formula 1 field.

From that perspective, I had a keen interest in the period showcased in the film, and can recall quite vividly many of the races focused on and the titanic battles between Senna, most definitely portrayed as the film's protagonist and the more cerebral Prost, who is made to appear as the moustachioed (or in this case curly-haired) villain. Whilst there is an element of truth to this portrayal, the film take various liberties with the truth. The first error is to deliver the assertion that Prost's nickname 'The Professor' is because he would settle for fifth place if that was all that was required, in contrast to Senna, who would continue to race to win even if he had the Championship in the bag. This is a near travesty of the truth. Prost, an exceptional driver who held the record for race wins for the better part of a decade, was given the name due to his focusing on car set-up, enabling him to overcome people who were arguably a faster car-driver combination through judicious reduction in tyre wear or skilful driving. The film then focuses on the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix a race stopped 32 laps in due to heavy rainfall and dangerous conditions with Senna actually overtaking Prost just after the race had been 'red flagged' to indicate its cessation. This is then spun to imply that Prost 'could not handle the rain'. It conveniently ignores the fact that Prost, in Formula 1 for four seasons prior to Senna's arrival, had seen three good friends,Gilles Villeneuve ,, Patrick Depailler , and Didier Pironi killed or seriously injured, and as a result was understandably keen not to suffer the same fate.

I'll return to the treatment of Prost and could probably have lived with the near-libelling of one driver, but the film really annoyed me when it considered the 1992 and 1993 Formula 1 seasons, as well as the races prior to the fateful Imola Grand Prix in 1994. The 1992 season in which the Williams of Briton Nigel Mansell reigned supreme, is presented as being 'stolen' from Senna by electronic chicanery, and Williams having such a superior car that Senna could not touch it, in spite of being the best driver. This is the kind of false prospectus that in some less Liberal states could land the perpetrator a custodial sentence. Both Mansell, (the '92 champion) and Prost were exceptional drivers, as anyone who watched the sport would testify, and I would argue only hideous bad luck at Canada prevented Mansell from challenging in '91 when an admittedly brilliant Senna won his third title. Then, when considering 1994, the season of Senna's death, the film skates over the fact that Michael Schumacher had won convincingly in the first two rounds, attributing it once more to technical chicanery, and implying that the Benetton team of that season had somehow cheated by retaining some of the electronic aids from the previous season.

This diatribe may dissuade people from watching this film,which is not the intention - but as the book 'Senna versus Prost' by Malcolm Folley points out (and I would also recommend it), Prost is still around to account for his actions at the time, whilst premature death lends a halo to Senna that the Director of the biopic, Asif Kapadia seems unable to examine more critically. In his defence, the untimely death of someone does lend their achievements a gloss that prevents at time their achievements being forensically looked at. I was going to illustrate with three contemporary Labour Party figures - John Smith, Mo Mowlam and Robin Cook, but the point is brought home by arguably the most famous assassination victim of all time , John F Kennedy, and the First president of the Irish Free State, Michael Collins. Kennedy was instrumental in setting up increased American commitment to Vietnam, and his dubious connections with criminal elements would surely have led him to the same unfortunate defea0t in 1968 that his far more worthy Successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson suffered. Collins was a bloody, violent enemy of democracy, arguably only redeemed by the fact that his Republican enemies were if anything even more extreme. Nevertheless, their reputations remain enhanced by their premature passing. Let's hope nothing happens to Ed Miliband in the immediate future!

01 July 2011

Public sector unions: Strikes vs negotiation vs revolution

I was out on the picket line in Chelmsford with the "Big Society Breakfast" yesterday, and I hope that direct action enables the wider anti-cuts movement to build more bridges with the trade unions. The ConDem government is clearly looking to use the economic crisis as an excuse for slashing public sector pay and remuneration while their financial backers - a small group of very rich and powerful people - take a larger and larger share of the national cake. Clearly, in these circumstances it would be criminal not to support the strikers.

However, I do wonder whether the public sector unions are in danger of falling into a trap set by the government, which wants to use the strike action to turn public opinion against the strikers - as happened often in the 1980s (with strikes by teachers, for example).

The problem for the unions in the short run is that it is very hard to see the government backing down on this issue - they have bet the complete reputation of the government on this insane deficit reduction strategy which they can't U-turn on without looking like a complete bunch of fools. So, they will most likely pursue their current economic policy - which includes vicious cuts in public sector pay and conditions - no matter what. That means that, short of a change of government - either through the ballot box or through some kind of revolution - attempts to change the govt's policy through industrial action are unlikely to work.

Therefore my conclusion on the strikes is that they are justified but strategically naive. With strike action unlikely to force a better deal by itself, what other options are open to the trade union movement to secure a better deal for public sector workers (and indeed, in the longer run, also for private sector workers?) There seem to be two options.

One is for union leaders to do a behind-the-scenes deal with Ed Miliband - who, despite not backing today's strikes, is surely still the most instinctively union-friendly leader Labour has had probably since Neil Kinnock, at least. The deal could essentially be an update of Labour's 1970s social contract policy - for a future Labour govt to make alterations to pensions, terms and conditions, and industrial relations legislation after the next election the ConDem settlement after the next election which are more favourable to public sector workers.

At the same time, the next Labour government should legislate for better working conditions for workers in the private sector - who have been hit much harder than the public sector workforce by the neoliberal assault on workplace rights and the virtual eradication of decent pensions from the private sector over the last 25 years. It's the decline in private sector pensions that allows the govt to present an attack on public sector pensions as "restoring fairness" when in fact the fair thing to do would be to ensure that private sector workers had access to decent pensions rather than an ever larger share of profits going to top earners and shareholders.

That's the reformist option. The second option is revolutionary - and would have seemed ludicrous 5 years ago, but now seems increasingly plausible and perhaps inevitable. A revolutionary approach involves the unions organising on the ground while waiting for the ConDem economic policies to fail spectacularly (as they probably will), with the negative impact of the cuts on growth producing a debt spiral which may well drag the UK into the same deflationary vortex which has enveloped Ireland and Greece over the last few years. The sheer volume and frequency of demonstrations in Greece makes it look to me as if they are now very close to a revolutionary situation, and this article by Matina Stevis in the Guardian concurs with my assessment. (as does, reading between the lines, Paul Mason.) If a crisis like this were to develop in the UK - a real possibility in the next few years - trade unions need to seize the opportunity to overthrow the current economic system and replace it with one that puts workers' interests first.

These two options - working for progressive political reform through the ballot box via the Labour party, and working for revolution should the conditions arise - are in theory completely opposed to one another, but pragmatically I'd argue they're two sides of the same coin. A priori it's impossible to know whether conditions in the UK will deteriorate to the point where the current economic system breaks down. And realistically, I don't think public sector unions can force that to happen. However, it's quite possible that it WILL happen, without much further need for intervention on their part. And so they need to be ready. Meanwhile, in case it doesn't happen, they also need to be pushing for reforms through the current system so as to avoid being left high and dry if the revolutionary moment passes.

Some might call this strategy "hedging their bets". I call it insurance against most (though not all) eventualities.