An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

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

Clever people saying clever things

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Chris Dillow:

So much for “big think” principles. But there might be a different way of coming at this, by using the Dave Brailsford principle of the aggregation of marginal gains. Maybe policies to improve the “art of living” don’t consist merely of top-down grand ideas, but also of many small things. Richard Layard has proposed putting a higher priority upon mental health on the grounds that lifting the minority of people with acute depression out of their misery makes a good difference to aggregate well-being. I’d add that more should be done to encourage the growth of allotments, on the grounds that this would give people the chance of getting the “flow” happiness that comes from self-directed productive work.

Hopefully, more imaginative folk than I can think of other apparently tiny things that, together, add up to something big. And maybe these initiatives don’t require central government at all, but can be undertaken by local authorities, voluntary groups or just groups of individuals. In which case we should wonder what use national politicians are.

Anthony Painter:

Labour is divided between romantics and pragmatists. It’s not about new versus old Labour. It’s not about trade unions versus the party or socialists versus social democrats. There are romantics, who emphasise the ideal, the human, the ethical, the relational and the communitarian. Pragmatists emphasise power, policy, practicality and process.

Written by samelliot

November 21, 2011 at 10:07 am

Posted in Labour, Localism

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

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

Nope, me neither

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Young people chat as the World Trade Centre smokes in the background

Ten years on, this is becoming one of the iconic photographs of 9/11, yet its history is strange and tortuous. Hoepker, a senior figure in the renowned Magnum photographers’ co-operative, chose not to publish it in 2001 and to exclude it from a book of Magnum pictures of that horribly unequalled day. Only in 2006, on the fifth anniversary of the attacks, did it appear in a book, and then it caused instant controversy. The critic and columnist Frank Rich wrote about it in the New York Times. He saw in this undeniably troubling picture an allegory of America’s failure to learn any deep lessons from that tragic day, to change or reform as a nation: “The young people in Mr Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American.”

Whether or not the people in the picture are callous (and what more would Rich have them do? Rent their hipster garments and weep over their floating bicycle?), how much more callous is it to suggest that the primary lesson to be drawn from 9/11 is that America must “change or reform as a nation”?

If that is the interpretation we are supposed to take from this picture then I guess that’s probably the reason the Guardian insists against all reasonable evidence that the iconic image of 9/11 is a photograph hardly anyone knows or remembers.

Anyway, someone remind me never to read the Guardian.

Written by samelliot

September 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Posted in 9/11, Guardian

“Community leaders are elected. Anybody else who says they’re a community leader, fine, go and get elected.”

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Anyone who is interested in the future of Labour in local government, or indeed the future direction of the Labour Party full stop, should watch this video of Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, talking to Anna Turley from Progloc.

Written by samelliot

September 6, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Labour, Localism, London