Monday, 29 December 2008

Problems pile up for Obama

It is worth pointing out that Barack Obama won the presidential election by only 5%. As far as US elections are concerned, that is supposed to be a big margin, but lets bear in mind that despite the monumental failure of US foreign policy in the Middle East, and notably Iraq, the Republicans were actually inching ahead until the US economy took a sharp downturn. It is hard to imagine a more incompetent president than GW Bush, yet the Democrats won by just 5%.
In terms of the demographics it was women, and a late swing from Latinos that built up the Democrat vote. And best of all, it was young voters, indicating a shift similar to that which supported New Labour in 1997 and forced the Tories to painfully reinvent itself as a nice "liberal" party.
However there is not a harder time to imagine taking power than now. The economic problems have been long debated. Obama is less likely to be constrained by the free market dogma that got us into this mess. He may not pull it off in terms of resetting the economy - it may not be possible for one thing, but he is more likely to get it right.
Foreign policy is just as troublesome. His gung ho utterances on Pakistan and Palestine during the campaign did not read well, and continue not to do so.
The best we can hope is that that was just a ploy. Maybe the rhetoric in public is meant to impress the right people, but behind the scenes real progress is being made. I suspect this will be wishful thinking.
But why the rhetoric in the first place? Until recently we were living in a unipolar world, with the US far and away the most powerful nation on earth. And now? The case can still be made that this is the case. Militarily it is still the case, the US spends an extraordinary amount and no one can keep up with them. How was this possible? The narrative of the Republican party about the need for US power in the world, conflating the interests of the world with that of the US, and reinforced by the "Shock Jocks" radio talk show hosts who loved attacking "weak" liberals all contrived to win public support for this.
Failure in Iraq has presented the Democrats an opportunity to attack this illusion. Unfortunately many of them bought into this illusion in the first place and it does not look impressive to "flip-flop" in public. And it is not an easy shift to make. To admit that the US is a declining power is not a positive message, and does not fit in well with the need to be patriotic.
Yet it is clear now that it is not enough to be strong militarily and weak politically, which is what the US is now. It remains easier to pretend that the US can still throw its weight; by siding with Isreal whatever it does, by threatening Pakistan and by "surging" in Afghanistan. The problem Obama faces is that the US does not have the power by force to control these countries, and yet the need to find political solutions remains paramount.

Monday, 6 October 2008

The problem with New Labour is that they do not regulate enough

Schardenfraud is a nasty trait, and yet it was hard to avoid enjoying the experience when Sarah Palin got caught out in a high profile interview recently.
The question she was asked was about specific actions that John McCain took to tighten regulations to prevent irresponsibility in the financial markets. The only way she could have answered the question is to not answer and quickly move on to another point and make the interviewer ask questions on that instead. No doubt some politicians can do it, and it is one thing to have the skill to do it, but the fact remains that the question is unanswered.
The reality is that the economic orthodoxy built up since the 1980s is one based on free market ideology, of which deregulation was a fundamental component.
First it was the political right that believed in it, then powerful forces on what was previously the left, and in the UK it is Liberals who have joined the concensus. Indeed many now argue that Liberalism is now defined by this free market ideology.
Now of course this ideology faces a major challenge. It seems so obvious now. Economic growth has been strong because of the bubble in the housing market. Housing in itself does not generate wealth, so it was bound to be unsustainable.
So now we are in a downturn, which we are assured by free market ideologues will not last long.
However if we have learnt the lessons from the housing bubble and we decide to regulate the market to stop this from happening again, then where is growth going to come from in the future?
Vince Cable is absolutely right to point out that he had been warning about debt for years. Some of his colleagues appeared not to take heed however. At a fringe meeting at Lib Dem conference Jeremy Browne argued, incredibly, that as he believes in markets then he was sceptical about nationalising any banks, even in the emergencies that we have today. He also said that although he bought a house with a very expensive mortgage, he was not worried about a slump in the housing market.
However it is not just debt, it is lack of regulation that causes debt. What has Vince said about that prior to 2008? If someone interviewed me and asked me this question, I for one would have a Sarah Palin moment.
What I do recall is a fringe meeting a couple of years ago at a Lib Dem conference where Ed Davey told us how he was going to deregulate further in the financial markets. He seemed very proud of this policy at the time. Personally I was horrified.
Of course I am sure it is possible to look back at the archives and find in the small print suggestions that might imply greater regulation. Given that Vince correctly identified the level of debt as a major flaw of New labour's economic record, I am sure Vince had a good set of policies to deal with it.
However greater regulation was never the headline solution as it has suddenly become, and the free market ideology had been encouraged within the Liberal Democrats, gaining a momentum where there is now a significant fundamentalist fringe within the party.
That fringe simply has no answers to the economic problems we are facing today. No one knows what the solution is to the economic downturn we are now heading into, but even George Bush is being forced to accept that "more of the same" free market ideology is the last thing we need to turn things round.
However Keynes once warned;
The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.
That is the problem the Liberal Democrats now face. Can they adjust their thinking quickly enough to account for the new realities?
These 2 links are the best articles I have read so far on the crises we now face;

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Should we make a deal with the Taliban and pull out of Afghanistan?

Some parts of the Middle East, notably parts of Iraq and Afghanistan are too dangerous for reporters to venture, so we do not really know what is going on.
So from time to time, we are told that things are going well in Afghanstan. Prince Harry loves it out there. He would far rather be there than at home, he said on a TV interview.
But consider this. Our troops have been there for nearly 7 years, and although by now they should have started leaving, in fact we are putting more in. This is a sign of it NOT working.
And now Brig Mark Carleton-Smith has confirmed what we suspected. We are wasting money, lives and resource out there. We are causing more ham than good. We should settle with the Taliban and leave.
If we could do better, then why have we not already done better?
I went to a fringe meeting at Lib Dem conference last month where Paddy Ashdown presented his solution to the problem. It was good to see that he has taken on the lesson learnt from Iraq, he gave a very realistic analysis of the country I thought.
As for his solutions, I would say that most of the pieces fitted, but some did not.
I asked him how he expected local people to "defeat" the Taliban. He clarified that his view of them was more nuanced, and only some parts of the Taliban should be defeated. He then said that we had been in Northern Ireland for 35 years, implying that is how long it might take in Afghanistan. If that really is a timescale you are considering, I would suggest you do not have a viable plan. Northern Ireland, and within it the IRA was a much smaller scale problem in a culturelly similar country.
If it took 35 years there, I dread to think about Afghanistan. 35 years really means no idea how long it will take.
So I was not persuaded by that. Many of the peices in the plan fitted. But for the plan to work, the most important pieces must fit, and I do not think they do.
There is a price to pay either way. There are 3 main objections to the Taliban;
1/ They raise money by selling drugs
2/ They might habour Al Qaeda again.
3/ From a Liberal point of view, we loathe them because of their human rights abuses.
My solution does not fix these problems. But then neither does anyone elses. Having to make this choice is indicative of how the power of the West has seeped away...

There is no perfect solution. Withdrawing our troops is the least worst solution.

March against child poverty

I congregated with a group of Lib Dems recently to go on a march against child poverty organised by the Child Poverty Action Group.
Nick Clegg is determined that the Liberal Democrats have a high profile on this issue. It was a dominant theme at our last conference with lots of fringe meetings. Martin Narey of CPAG had a high profile at conference and is helping the party develop our policies on this theme.
So I was delighted to see Nick Clegg join the march. I may not be his favourite activist given my opposition to some of his policies, but I was happy to help out holding a banner as background to his photos.
Demonstrations have changed over the years. These days the London School of Samba come along with there drums, and you can put on a special costume and have a dance! I remember the times when it was more serious and if you did anything like that then you were a wierdo and you had to go to the back of the demo. Well it is better the way it is now.
The title was "Keep the Promise". Will Labour stick to it's pledge to eliminate child poverty by 2020? We will probably never know of course. The hardest thing is keeping on track with child poverty when we have serious fuel and food inflation, an economy about to go into recession, and ever worsening public finances.
Despite the gloomy prognosis, we will remain one of the richest countries in the world, so there isn't really any excuse. It is a matter of priorities.
Combatting child poverty should be priority over replacing Trident and ighting an unwinable war in Iraq. But there is a lot more to those arguments of course...

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Tax cuts? You must be joking!

We have known for some time that the Liberal Democrats have advocated tax cuts for those on low incomes. The idea was that there would be a shift in the burden of taxation towards those on higher incomes and those who pollute (ie green taxes).
As a progressive I am OK with that, although I am not sure that tax cuts are the most efficient way to help the poor. Many pay little or no tax to begin with.
The holding position of the party on the overall tax take was to keep it at the current level, until we are closer to the next general election and we can then make a judgement on what level we can set.
As the big day gets closer we see that the state of the public finances is dire, and the economy is tipping into a recession.
It is surely clear by now that this is a particularly bad time to advocate a reduction in the overall tax burden? How can this be possibly be acheived without painful cuts?
As I understand it, this is what the Liberal Democrats are now proposing.
Of course there is the familier list of pet projects that can be stopped. National ID cards for a start. Nuclear energy is suggested by some, although I suspect the economic argument might not be so clear cut after the rise in commodity prices. Our troops will leave Iraq (although not Afghanistan). I would like to helpfully suggest not replacing Trident, but the party decided differently.
On the other hand, the flagship "pupil premium" policy that incentivises children from poor backgrounds to go to good schools will cost money, and there is some concern that to be effective we need to pay more than we are currently committed to do so.
On balance we are not looking at huge sums compared to the national budget.
At the last general election, the party came up with an odd looking list of public spending cuts, simply to stand still. Economic conditions were far better then. Some of those suggestons have been implemented. Now we have to find another £20Billion!
If it is obvious that we can cut £20Billion now, why did we not suggest it before? And why have the Conservative party not done so? If anything, they are concerned that they might have to increase taxes according to some reports.
I get a horrible feeling of deja vue. I remember the Tories in the 1980s telling us that public spending cuts would not make public services worse, even though they did. It prompted Roy Jenkins to remark that they wanted European level public services with American level public spending.
The "solution" to this conumdrum is to say it can be done by "restructuring" and getting the private sector more involved in public services. We are told we should look to Holland and Sweden to find out how.
Yet in the case of Sweden, whatever you think of their public sector model in terms of how it is organised, it is also the case that Sweden is a country of very high taxation, and the the higher level of finance that goes into the public sector is an important part of the equation as to how their model works. Do we really believe that their model would work well with less finance? If it could, then they would spend less on their own volition.
Another mistake in my opinion is how the party is going about this. We appear to be looking at the existing figures and then making reductions from that. However a lot of the existing figures are inadequate. Our public services are worse than those of comparable countries such as France, Holland or Germany.
Health service costs are likely to go up because we have an aging population.
What about the effects of global warming? James Lovelock predicted we will have a greater frequency of Extreme Weather Events (EWEs), and that is what has happened. There are still some people homeless today after the floodings of last year. In the 5th richest economy in the world.
Surely we can do better than that? Well not if we are not anticipating these EWEs in the future. I think the party should do a proper audit of the likely costs of global warming, and the tax implications of that. I suspect it will be huge.
We need to consider the political implications. Historically the party has built up a level of support that wanted an anti-establishment political party that actually proposed tax increases as a way of being honest about improving public services (and education in particular).
As the party reaches out to new supporters on the Right, might it not also lose it's existing supporters on the way? Those same people who supoprted tax increase before are surely the least likely to support public spending cuts today. Personally I look around and I do not see anywhere else to go with my politics. However out of our supporters, a massive 30% give the Green party as their second choice party. I would strongly urge Lib Dem supporters not to go down that route, because our first priority is to change the electoral system. A resurgent Green party at Lib Dem expense will scupper that prospect to the detriment of both parties. Under the existing system, like it or not, only the Lib Dems can deliver on this.
Since the 911 bombings one of the remarkable chracteristics of the global economy is the level of growth, and that it is relatively evenly spread around the world. Neoliberalism has continued to be fashionable, probably for that reason, and that applies to all 3 UK political parties. Supporters of Neoliberalism have always been reluctant environmentalists, or even anti-environmentalist. Ideas that we should conserve resources and limit economic growth are routinely derided by such people. The Liberal Democrats generally have good policies on the environment thanks largely to a section within the party that predated this modern trend. The long term costs of what Schumaker called the economics of the "Forward Stampede" are now being seen as food and commodity prices spiral out of control. The social cost of this could be very high.
The propects are that Neoliberalism may not be fashionable for much longer, and the Liberal Democrats will hopefully soon decide to shift away from this deadend. However I suspect not before the next general election, which is a shame.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Is "narrative" the new spin?

We know that the general public have a low opinion of politics and politicians. Paddy Ashdown used to say it was antipathy not apathy, and he had a point, although I would say it is both.
I would argue that everyone is a politician. Those who argue that they are not interested, or that they hate politics are in fact making a political statement, whether they like it or not. Not only that, in everyday life we have an attitude towards people depending on age, gender or ethnicity, and whether is varies between these groups or not is a political decision we all make. We cannot not be politicians.
However what we have to do is distinguish between politics and Politics. Politics in this case is the formal process of putting ideas into action through government.
So most people are detached from Politics. Many don't vote in elections, and those who do often have a vague impression about what they are voting for.
And so the argument goes we cannot simply present a list of policies and expect people to vote for us. Something else is needed.
I remember in the 1980s that David Marquand used to make the point, and no doubt many others as well, that we have to present what the party "stands for". To many people at the time the Liberal Democrats were a "nothing party", and in contrast Mrs Thatcher was very clever in encapsulating her politics at the time with some simple rhetoric from which people could understand what she intended to do. We had to do likewise.
"New Labour" got hold of this thinking in a very high profile way in a process called "spin". Spin had been around for a long time of course, but with the emergence of New Labour it quickly become the story in itself. This was actually a sign that the spin was counter productive. New Labour's "spin doctors" became household names, and stories about them were routinely negative.
The lessons have been learnt from that and hardly anyone knows who David Cameron's spin doctors are.
Spin is not necessarily a bad thing. Spin can have integrity, it really depends on the values of those who are responsible for it. Spin can be misleading, or it can correct common misconceptions. The definition of spin is "A distinctive point of view, emphasis, or interpretation". There is nothing in the definition that says that the interpretation is unfair. It can be of course, it depends on how it is being used.
However the word spin doesn't spin very well, and the new word on the block is "narrative".
Narrative does not equal spin. Narrative is more about stories. I would say that narrative is a subset of spin. I think that Liberal Democrats should consider spin in it's entirity, and that will include narrative.
I went to an Islington Lib Dem discussion on this recently with their invited speaker Neil Stockley (see He pointed out that Barak Obama has a good narrative, a tough upbringing, made good from humble beginnings. However you need to be careful. Every detail will be checked, and if anything is inaccurate, or at least can be spun as "a pack of lies", it will be.
That is where John Kerry lost out of course.
Ming Campbell potentially had a very good narrative, just as compelling as that of Barak Obama. The Lib Dems did try to project it, but somehow it didn't work. The message did not get out very well, and there was an incongruence between the exciting narrative, and Ming's unfortunate lack of charisma.
To date Nick Clegg's current situation is the opposite. He has charisma, but not much of a narrative. There is some scope for an interesting personal narrative, but I think we also need a narrative for the party as a whole. I liked Chris Huhne's narrative of the Lib Dem's being in opposition to the "conservative parties". Nick Clegg referred to them more apolitcally as "Tweedledum and Tweedledee".
The problem for the Lib Dems is that we need to make a compelling case to vote for a party that is currently third. We failed to do that in the recent London Mayoral elections. We had a good candidate, but not one who was going to beat Ken or Boris. And since beating Ken or Boris was the most important consideration, the Lib Dems got squeezed.
The last election was different because of our opposition to the war in Iraq. We had an opportunity to be distinctive again by opposing replacing Trident, but the party establishment was stuck in the politics of the 1980s and could not countenance such a policy position. It didn't do the SNP any harm however.
The mood of the electorate today is that they want to defeat Labour. The Lib Dems need to urgently find a good reason why they should vote for us instead of voting for the party who is more likely to defeat them.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Time is running out on the LIb Dem narrative

Although it is good to see once again the Lib Dems building on the number of councillors they have after the recent local elections, it is painful to see the Tories being the main beneficeries of Labour's nadir. Particulary on the issue of the 10% tax issue that affects the poor.
Labour is losing the image of the party of equality, but the Lib Dems do not have that association fixed in the voters mind either.
This was not so much the case when the party advocated a 50% tax rate on high income earners. We were reassured when this policy was dropped that the new Green taxes would in fact tax the rich even more. However we knew this would be a hard sell for the next general election.
The problem is that currently the electorate do not associate the Liberal Democrats with very much in the first place. The issue of Iraq has not really gone away, but in the minds of the electorate it has.
I believe the Liberal Democrats can be stronger on issues such as equality. We should have clear policies that tax the rich more in order to improve public services. The new narrative that replaced the old one is not working.