An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

Archive for the ‘Democracy’ 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

It’s taken for granted that Labour will win local elections – so let’s make the most of it

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Some time in October 2012, Sion Simon or Gisela Stuart or someone else who holds the title of elected Mayor of Birmingham is going to walk into Local Government House to meet their peers as probably the most powerful elected Labour politician in Britain. The Government, through their plans for city mayors, is creating a new cadre of high status local leaders. And the way the Labour Party deals with those new leaders will say a lot about how it sees the possibilities and limits of local democracy.

So here’s a suggestion for Ed and his team – make this against-the-grain boosting of local leadership a central part of your political strategy for the next three years. First, build a cohort of outstanding local leaders. In the first instance this is about identifying and cultivating the hugely talented people who are already committed to local politics, but it also means persuading the best talent the Labour Party has elsewhere to stand as Mayoral candidates, wooing them with the elevated powers and status that being a Mayor brings.

Then you need to show that it is going to take the fight to the Tories and Lib Dems at local level like never before, and that this time it is not simply about piling up the numbers of council seats and basking in the reflected glory. It is about saying that when ten elected Labour Mayors and fifty Labour council leaders are returned to office, they will not only be your campaigning leads across the country, they will not only be your eyes and ears on the ground, but that you will regard them as as legitimate a representative of their community as their MPs, if not more so.

Localists like me want to see all this happen in the Labour Party because we believe in redistributing power, localising decision making and bringing as many public services as possible as close to the community as possible. But don’t worry too much about that right now, that’s a happy by-product that will come later. The thing you’re most interested in is the politics.

So, with another couple of local election rounds down, how about this for a political message? Labour running every major city in this country. Countless communities already being served by the credible and connected leadership a Labour council brings with it. Mr Cameron representing no-one but his fossilised, riven, out of touch, Europe obsessed party and their sandal-wearing helpmeets. And a Labour Party going into an election knowing that they’ve already won most of it, ready to finish the job.

The Conservative Party are seeking to shift the balance of political power in this country and they think it will benefit them electorally. Time to prove them wrong.

Written by samelliot

November 20, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Posted in Democracy, Labour, Localism

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

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

Anti-politics: gladiators, Guido, and the People’s Jury

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On Saturday I went to the Gladiator Games at the Guildhall staged by the Museum of London. I am assured by a Latin teacher also in attendance that the portrayal and embellishments were suitably accurate, even if some of the gladiators themselves had seen better days. The crowd of Romanists, parents and merciless nine year olds were instructed beforehand in the vagaries of Roman crowd behaviour, and in particular how to cast our vote as to the fate of the unfortunate losers in each contest – an open hand to send the warrior away alive, a jabbing fist to see the fake blood spurt. However, the presence of the emperor Domitian in the audience meant that while the people were able to express their view, the ultimate decision as to the fighter’s fate lay with him. The will of the people in this sphere was mediated by the elite, the impulses of the crowd encouraged or rejected as it suited those in charge.

I apply this bit of po-faced nonsense to a kid’s day out in response to the launch of a couple of contrasting attempts to break through a perceived elite stitch-up. The more bloodthirsty of the two is Guido Fawkes’s self-confessed pursuit of retribution against child murderers and cop killers, a petition calling on the government to map a legislative path towards the return of the death penalty. To Guido, the elected representatives of the people do not represent the people’s wishes on this issue.

Alongside this, self-appointed conscience of the soft left Neal Lawson is using his emaciated ‘think-tank’ to punt round the idea of a ‘People’s Jury’, a thousand randomly selected souls (with presumably no job, no family and nothing better to do with their time) ably supported by a secretariat to “report on how the public interest relates to media ownership; the role of the financial sector in the crash; MP selections and accountability; policing; and more generally on British political and corporate life.”  This is a bafflingly vague set of aims, and the real impulse appears to be to coopt “ordinary people” in order to produce a think tank pamphlet much like any other. In fact, it brings to mind nothing so much as a repeat of the self-absorbed chattering class talking shop that was the Power Inquiry.

It is easy to mock both of these initiatives for being out of touch hobby horses of cranks of left and right. But it’s also important to take the impulse that inspires them seriously. Both take as their starting point the illegitimacy of representative democracy, the inability of politics as usual to achieve what people want. Political parties need to respond to this, not only by reforming themselves to be more relevant and accountable, but also by standing up for the importance of democratic representatives.

Written by samelliot

August 1, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Posted in Democracy