An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

Archive for the ‘Cynicism’ Category

Trust Italy to give technocrats a bad name

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Regular readers of this blog might think that the only thing that gets me wound up is minor Cabinet Members making vaguely disparaging remarks about local government. But nothing could be further from the truth. Occasionally I find myself getting steamed up by southern Mediterranean politics. The march of Mario Monti is not only an affront to democracy, but by seeming to suggest that democracy doesn’t have the capacity to solve problems, it may well lead to a reaction against the idea of a pragmatic, problem-solving focused politics.

Why is that a bad thing? Take the Government’s welfare reforms. The ideological, even the moral case, is all about aspiration, about fairness, about the old saw that people should not live in areas they cannot afford or that families on benefits should not have a higher income than families in work. These are all, in their way, understandable, even admirable sentiments – indeed a Labour welfare policy would probably have very similar aims. But with every bit of analysis we are discovering more and more that the pace and scale of the reforms are likely to have consequences that, whether intended or not, are likely to place enormous strain on public services, infrastructure and social cohesion. In that situation, you don’t need a wild-eyed radical planning and implementing the policy, you need, frankly, a technocrat – someone who identifies a problem, and sets out to fix it, balancing their principled aims with pragmatic means.

At the moment, with a fragile global economy and a stagnant domestic economy, the uncertainty in the political sphere demands a practical, pragmatic spirit. It also demands leaders with the tools to do the job – not only the expertise and skills, but the capacity to inspire trust. Not only do the Tories and Lib Dems struggle to meet this bench-mark, but they also frequently distracted by the urge to remake the nation as they, see fit. Yet here is a warning to my own party. The economy is a problem, and only Labour has really shown any sign that they have a plan to solve it. But while we have a plan, a practical sense of what we would do next, I suspect we do not have the credibility to be entrusted with that task – we are felt to either be clapped out revolutionaries , detached policy wonks lacking real world experience, or the fools who got us in this mess in the first place.

A friend with experience of the inner workings of the Labour Party both in power and in opposition asked me last week whether a serious but dull problem solver could get elected in Britain. I’m still not sure about that, but right now for the Labour Party I’m pretty sure that’s the only kind of person who could.


Written by samelliot

November 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Posted in Cynicism, Democracy, Labour

Maybe the chap with the dog on a string has a point

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What the Occupy movement offers the left is the space and imagination it desperately needs to envision a world beyond drab deference to financial oligarchy, and the tools to build it. Anyone can contribute, so if you’re unhappy with the way the demands have been put together, get down to Occupy London and join in the General Assembly. Your voice will be heard and respected, and they’ll even give you free tea and biscuits.

Oh yes, this is Unnecessary Role-bait alright. The glorification of flakes and kooks, a self-congratulatory dismissal of two centuries of represenative democracy, tweeness elevated to social comment. If I was any sort mealy-mouthed centrist I’d be posting a paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown of the occupation, picking holes and splitting hairs, mocking the naivete of it all (albeit in an extremely reasonable way).

I don’t especially recognise the failures of democracy that Occupy claims to be counter-acting. Nor do I have a lot of time for utopian views of the world of any political colour or stripe. And I especially resent the above author’s belief that not only would the Occupy movement not be able to advance their political programme (such as it is) through the ballot box but that that effectively gives them the right to proclaim separation from our political system.

Nonetheless, I find myself not feeling as quite as much antipathy towards the occupiers as that might all suggest. Partly it’s because I am increasingly interested in (to use what are undoubtedly loaded and pretentious terms) power and powerlessness. The analysis of the crisis facing America’s working middle class by Elizabeth Warren struck a chord:

“It’s money and power, the only two things we are talking about here… There are many who are rich and powerful who say the system works fine as it is,” she continued. “America had been a boom-and-bust economy going into the Great Depression—just over and over and over, fortunes were wiped out, ordinary families were crushed under it. Coming out of the Great Depression we said, We can build a structure that makes us all safer. And notice, it’s from the end of the Great Depression to the 1980s that we built America’s middle class. That’s when we got stronger as a country. That’s when that big, solid, boring, hardworking, play-by-the-rules group in the middle emerged and defined what America was. You still had the ability to become a billionaire, but the center stayed strong and, notice, provided opportunity for growth, opportunity for getting ahead, opportunity that your kids were going to do better than you did. That was what defined America. And then we started, inch by inch, pulling the threads out of that regulatory fabric, starting in the 1980s.”

This is not about anti-capitalism, nor is it really about the search for “good capitalism” or other grand theories about what would constitute a ‘good’ society. In the first instance, it’s about straightforward solidarity with ordinary people and a very particular problem that needs to be solved:

“There’s been such a sense that there’s one set of rules for trillion-dollar financial institutions and a different set for all the rest of us. It’s so pervasive that it’s not even hidden. [my italics]”

What Warren and the occupiers are both suggesting is that this is a crisis of legitimacy which means that a bunch of old Etonians telling you to take your medicine are going to be laughed out of the room. (And let’s not even mention what the guys who helped screw it up first time round are offering). Paul Mason suggests that the iconography of direct action and anarchism is now being adopted in aid of that most ordinary of concerns – avoiding speed tickets. An isolated case maybe, but it’s not too much of a reach to see the powerlessness that Occupy proclaims stretching much further.

And it’s not just powerlessness, but, for want of a less dramatic word, hopelessness. Andrew Sullivan has probably found the person who has expressed this best in banner form:

As Chris Dillow explains, Britain, America and Europe are at the mercy of a economic storm our politics appears ill-equipped to deal with.

What we have here, then, are two narratives between which there is an almighty gulf. There’s the economic narrative of the crisis. And there’s the party political narrative, which blames bankers’ greed, neoliberal economics, regulatory failure or Labour’s profligacy – all of which are only incidental features.

This, I suspect, helps explain or justify why there is so much apathy towards party politics, even amongst the most intelligent.

And even if it were so-equipped, the potential policy prescriptions would certainly not be mistaken for a ray of sunshine:

As for what could be done to change this, I would recommend that politicians stop pretending to have ways of getting us out of the mess, and focus instead upon how to more equitably distribute the hardship. A first step here would be to stop stigmatizing the unemployed.

In a similar vein, Hopi Sen:

Curiously, instead of practical steps to address our crisis, we offer the electorate only a casual indifference to their pain or the hubristic belief that a political cast of the hopeful and the self-confident can, by dint of policies they barely explain and mechanisms they do not seem to know how to work, somehow transform our national prospects.

Ordinary people not only feeling powerless, but seeing their personal circumstances suffering, and their own opportunities and those of their children rapidly diminishing as a material manifestation of that powerlessness. Where does this end? I suspect for a great many ordinary people, it ends not with them camping on the steps of St Paul’s, but with them living lives of quiet desperation and uncertainty with no knowledge of when or if things are going to get better.

And if that’s the case, is protestor-chic and consensus-based direct democracy really any less mad than the hope that some politician is going to offer a way out of this mess?

Written by samelliot

November 3, 2011 at 10:00 am

Posted in Cynicism, Democracy

Wanted: witty-pop-culture-reference guy

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I haven’t watched the whole of Monday’s CNN “Tea Party” Republican presidential debate, but the edited highlights above seem to confirm how deeply odd the Republican presidential primary is likely to be, and how utterly foreign UK observers are likely to find it. The debate appears to illustrate a political culture that is radically different from the mainstream not just as we in the UK perceive it but also in terms of where it was for the Republican itself no more than three years ago.

And yet when I was recently reading an old (but extremely good) profile of one of the long-shot candidates, former Senator Rick Santorum, I was struck by the following vignette:

Santorum arrives at the courthouse rally dressed casually in sneakers, khakis and a blue button-down. Hootie and the Blowfish blast over the loudspeakers. The College Republicans swarm, starry-eyed. One flustered student in a blue blazer asks Santorum to autograph an upside-down campaign placard.

“If I sign this does that mean Paul is dead?” asks a smiling Santorum, in a Beatles reference that sails straight over the student’s head.

Now before I go on, it’s worth emphasising that Rick Santorum is a stunningly offensive piece of work, devotedly in hock to the faux-libertarian, militaristic theology of the Tea Party (not to mention Hootie and the Blowfish). But isn’t this a really interesting moment? A man who was no more than twelve years old when the Beatles split up, making an obscure joke about the “Paul is dead” rumour, and in particular the supposedly clue to the fate of Paul McCartney to be found on the Magical Mystery Tour album cover.

You read about something like that and even the nastiest right wing ideologue becomes, what, more human, more normal, more likeable, even? And you wonder what it is about politics that breeds out these moments, that smooths over the essential normality of people and teaches them that really what people want to hear are not snarky comments about bands but the practiced lines of the politician. I’m not so much thinking of Santorum here but more those MPs or councillors you get on Twitter whose weekend is a non-stop whirlwind of surgeries, community events and “WORKING HARD 4 YOU”.

As well as political cynicism, maybe what politicians and the media need more of is a bit of pragmatic irreverence – for the pols to become comfortable with the idea that the odd gag here or there is not going to destroy their political future, and the media to not wave their handbags in outrage every time Ken makes an off-colour remark. Because if Rick Santorum was a bit more like the witty-pop-culture-reference guy and a bit less like the homosexuality-is-the-same-as-incest guy we’d probably all be a little bit better off.

Written by samelliot

September 14, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Posted in America, Cynicism

Start the political term with some low cost flooring solutions

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It’s back – the perpetual, ulcer-inducing treadmill that is the body politic, the swirling, chaoatic miasma leaving even its most bit part of players (i.e. me) with a gnawing sense that something, somewhere is going horribly wrong. Did you have a nice holiday? Nobody cares.

How do I know it’s back? Why, there was a speech by Michael Gove of course. It was a very long speech, about all the kinds of trad cultural conservatism touchstones that I assume now pass for ideology in post-Dave Toryism – school uniforms, extra Greek prep, perhaps the odd ‘never did me any harm’ beating. Ordinarily it’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t read if I was stuck in a lift, but noted local government comedian Cllr Pete Robbins drew my attention to a line where Gove is praising Lord Harris of Peckham, interiors tycoon and part-time educational messiah.

Phil is able to support state education so generously because of his success in business.

His firm Carpetright has brought jobs and opportunities, as well as high quality low cost flooring solutions, to thousands.

Now, as a fully paid up member of the Blair/Adonis axis (excellent article from Adonis on big city mayors here, btw) I am what many comrades would view as dangerously suspect when it comes to academies and even free schools. But my reptilian pinko brain stem is not so denuded that a Secretary of State plugging World of Leather wouldn’t register on my “something dodgy about this” scale. When politics makes you think the world is going mad, then you know that it’s business as usual.

What’s on the agenda then? If you’re in local government, it’s still the Local Government Resource Review, as councillors, officers, wonks and journalists try and work out how a system as complicated as formula grant but with the word GROWTH sprinkled liberally through the press material gives local authorities anything other than a giant headache. It’s council tax benefit localisation, the pigs foot in the localist stocking, with councils being given the new, radical opportunity to take local responsibility for cutting poor people’s benefits. It’s school capital funding (not enough of it), school places (not enough of them either), public transport fares (too high), police numbers (too low), and, oh yes, it’s Annual Conference soon. In Liverpool.

It’s good to be back.

Written by samelliot

September 5, 2011 at 9:41 pm

Posted in Cynicism, Finance, Localism

“We have to bear in mind that people just don’t give a toss”

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A paragraph (or two) I wish I’d written:

Ed Miliband has recently tried to start “a national conversation”. As part of this the general public have been invited to a day of Party Conference. Definitely not because they want to bulk up numbers at a conference no one wants to go to, but because huge conference halls are ideal locations for conversations on a grand scale.

To make this work, we all need to remember that people don’t care. We have to bear in mind that people just don’t give a toss; it’s the key to success.

Conor’s a funny man, but not even he could have invented the sheer absurdity of the latest Shapps ‘policy’ ‘proposal’, nicely explained by the clever-clogs at Red Brick:

There has been a ground breaking housing policy development that Red Brick readers may just have missed. It’s the government’s Houseboat Strategy.

In genuinely out of the box, beyond the blue-sky thinking, the government plans to help more people live on boats.

In a new bout of press release-based policy making Grant Shapps has said that:

“new moorings could be eligible for the New Homes Bonus, which sees the government match council tax from new-build homes.”

The politician responsible for the nation’s strategic housing needs has just announced that he thinks narrowboats are “basically a pretty good idea” (NB: may not be an actual quote) and what is the Labour Party doing? We’re having a national conversation about nexi of power and flirting with the idea of attacking David Cameron for being simply beastly.

Which I think is what Conor is getting at. Labour (or certainly many of those currently wielding influence in the party) is extremely comfortable with ‘politics’, the business of process, inquiries and strategy, but far less comfortable with the stuff of people’s every day experience. When the Tories are drawing upon Rosie and Jim as housing policy inspiration, that’s something of a missed opportunity.

Written by samelliot

August 29, 2011 at 5:58 pm

Posted in Cynicism, Housing, Labour

In which David Cameron is clear and gets it

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Few better ways to start a week off than by listening to one of the worst speeches of David Cameron’s premiership. Plunged into a reverie by the way he used the phrase “let’s be clear” or variants thereof six times, I present my favourite line of the speech:

“So I want to make something very clear: I get it.”

A thing of beauty is a joy forever. I’m going to print that out and pin to my wall.

Written by samelliot

August 16, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Posted in "The Riots", Cynicism

While you were looting

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This sort of thing is not supposed to happen in August. It has been difficult to blog this week as when not seeing the heart ripped out of the two cities I call home I have either been working or despairing at the body politic’s frantic rushes to judgement (when they weren’t being shamed into coming back home like the saps they are). As Hopi says:

That about sums it up. Political parties, think tanks, charities, local authorities, government and others will spend weeks and months and years analysing and understanding the event of the last week. For London local government it is that dreadfully phrased thing, a “game-changer”. The game is changed. Everything local government does in London will take place against the backdrop of this August’s violence, ever mindful of the criminality (let me use the word just once, I haven’t had chance yet), social dysfunction and resentment that appears to lie below the surface of society, seemingly unchanged by the years of youth work, housing improvement and community engagement. And what that means for London’s communities we can, for now, only speculate.

Almost as interesting for a geek like me (although probably without the longer term repercussions) is the #riotcleanup initiative, spontaneous community action organised by social media to put right what the feral riff-raff made wrong. Now, I didn’t think these clean-ups were “the closest thing to popular fascism that we have seen on the streets of certain ‘leafy’ bits of London for years”, but I will admit that the darker parts of my soul did feel like informing these evangelical do-gooders that most councils maintain a large street cleaning fleet who would be able to do the job to a high level of competence well in advance of their leisurely 11.00am start time.

This, of course, would have been nothing but churlish spite, targeted at people who in my eyes had committed a crime even greater that violent disorder and theft – the crime of not understanding local government infrastructure. It was with some relief then that I was turned back to the light by reading this post by We Love Local Government, which saw the community stepping up and working with local councils as the undoubted good thing it is for both local government and local communities.

And here is the rub; the cleanup operation proved the success of both local government (and government in general) and society in general. The elected local governments were able to adjust the services they provide, on behalf of the people, to ensure that the worst of the damage was put right. Without this base level of competence, personal commitment from the staff involved and the logistical skills of the councils involved the clean up probably wouldn’t have been completed as soon as it was. Likewise, the support of society was able to send the sort of powerful message that local government alone couldn’t manage.

Read that, and then read nothing else. Take a deep breath. We all need it.

Written by samelliot

August 13, 2011 at 10:00 am