30 April 2014

We shouldn’t be fighting Tony Blair’s Middle East ‘battle’

Last week Tony Blair delivered a high profile speech at Bloomberg in London on the Middle East in which he placed Islamist ideologues in a ‘Titanic’ struggle with those who want to embrace ‘the modern world’ of pluralistic societies and open economies.

As with most of Blair’s speeches that I can remember, it was impressive, cogent and well-delivered. But for me it also exposed a kind of utopianism about that modern world he talked about, and a false dichotomy.

As he put it, 

Underneath the turmoil and revolution of the past years is one very clear and unambiguous struggle: between those with a modern view of the Middle East, one of pluralistic societies and open economies, where the attitudes and patterns of globalisation are embraced; and, on the other side, those who want to impose an ideology born out of a belief that there is one proper religion and one proper view of it, and that this view should, exclusively, determine the nature of society and the political economy”.
He added:
There is a Titanic struggle going on within the region between those who want the region to embrace the modern world – politically, socially and economically – and those who instead want to create a politics of religious difference and exclusivity. This is the battle.”

This is a battle, certainly. But it does not have to be the only battle, nor even the most important one. There is a false equation Blair is drawing here between democratic pluralism and free market globalisation. His message is that the countries of the Middle East either take on the full package of ‘the modern world’ as seen in Western societies, or get lost to religious extremism and intolerance.

It does not have to be this way though. The missing ingredient in Blair’s vision is democracy and a feeling for democratic society. Democratic societies as free societies do not have to go a certain way. They are free to choose.

Karl Popper, the apostle of ‘open societies’, thought that the only permanent restriction on democratic government should be the protection of democracy itself. He said: 

A consistent democratic constitution should exclude only one type of change in the legal system, namely a change which would endanger its democratic character.”

Popper did not draw an equation between democracy and free markets. Indeed he thought one of the core roles of democracy was to mitigate the economic exploitation that has been a constant feature of free market economies. Democracy should mean respecting the equality of all citizens. But beyond that, Popper thought, everything should be left on the table.

He said, 

In a democracy, we hold the keys to the control of the demons. We can tame them. We must realize this and use the keys; we must construct institutions for the democratic control of economic power, and for our protection from economic exploitation”.

This sort of vision and these sorts of principles seem to be entirely lacking from Blair’s account, and from the wider ideology of globalisation. For them, free markets come first.

Islamism has partly thrived through a distaste for ‘the modern world’ of which Blair talks in glowing terms.

I am thinking that we should not offer the people of a troubled region a choice that we have pre-prepared and pre-figured for them. The essence of democracy is that they make the choices themselves. Developed societies like ours should only place one condition on them for our support – that in conducting democracy they nurture and protect democratic institutions and democratic ways, and treat all their citizens with respect.

After that, it is up to them.

Tony Blair talks up pluralism, but prescribing a doctrine of globalisation and free markets is not pluralism. It is to offer the countries of the Middle East an entry into our world of relentless economic competition and constant change, of inevitabilities prescribed by apparently economic necessities.

An IPSOS MORI survey of more than 16,000 people from 20 countries has shown that people all over the world are anxious about the pace of change in their societies (Britons come out as one of the least anxious of those survey, but still with 62% thinking the world is changing too fast – compared to 93% in China and Turkey).

Blair’s vision is that this shiny world of change is the only way to go.

The countries of the Middle East and their peoples should at least be allowed the chance to reject this and go a different way. In Britain and other developed nations, we might do well to do the same.

22 April 2014

Food Banks: Of community - and polarised politics

Food banks have become another one of those political footballs that get kicked around between left and right to seemingly little effect but stopping a great many people – or rather, more accurately, me - from giving them much or enough thought.

We saw another example of the polarisation over the weekend with a Mail on Sunday ‘special investigation’ from undercover reporters, headlined: ‘No ID, no checks... and vouchers for sob stories: The truth behind those shock food bank claims.’

The piece targeted the Trussell Trust charity, which runs more than 400 of Britain’s 1,000 or so food banks and has been vociferous in criticising the Government for recent rises in demand for food banks. It fed into a general right-wing irritation about Labour using food banks to beat the government and provided a few good reasons for scepticism about the real circumstances of some people using them (for example those on big salaries made redundant who retain Sky TV and iPhone contracts).

As Roy Greenslade of the Guardian reported, the response from lefties on the Twittersphere was swift and excoriating (generally blaming the normal bĂȘte-noire the Daily Mail rather than the MoS); for example one tweeter got a lot of support by saying:

With this sort of political war – which has become increasingly common with the advent of Twitter – I generally let the shouters get on with their shouting while I get on with other things. Of the repeated outbreaks of outrage and apparent anger, I mostly side with the Greek stoic thinker Epictetus: “Whenever you are angry, be assured that it is not only a present evil, but that you have increased a habit.”

But food banks are of course important as a political issue, and thankfully my almost wilful ignorance was breached upon reading a local newspaper last week.

In amongst a surely-unprecedented eight pages of local news (perhaps a record for a free local paper in recent years, and something that makes me happy as a hack by trade) was a piece on the Wimbledon food bank at Elim Pentecostal Church in South Wimbledon.

The story, by a prolific reporter called Louisa Clarence-Smith who seems to write the whole Wimbledon Guardian, said that the Elim food bank has seen growing demand since opening in November 2011 and has now fed 5,200 people from 17 local ward areas.
Volunteers at Wimbledon food bank

Marcus Bennett, a former pastor at Elim who now runs the food bank, told the paper: "The problem is no-one has any savings anymore."

"They did before the recession but they don't now. Everyone is a pay check away from disaster."

He added: "We see a lot of women whose husbands have lost their jobs, turned to the bottle and then turned on them.

"40 per cent of people are here from some problem with the benefits system.

"From our ten minutes with them it is hard to tell if it is a problem with the system or them missing a meeting. A lot of the time it's a bit of both."

This simple story engaged my attention as so many others don’t largely because it was about what is actually going on – illustrated with interesting quotations – rather than about the scoring of political points and the daily knockabout of politics in which you feel you can’t fully trust what you are being told (and that goes for my own Labour Party as much as the Tories).

KennyDownSouth’s tweet above, in which he says the scandal is that food banks exist at all, seems to join in with that knockabout rather than engage with the issues at stake.

For the existence of food banks isn’t necessarily a scandal – or rather not solely or necessarily a scandal. To start off with, as the excellent work of Tristram Stuart, an old friend of mine, has shown, we waste a great deal of our food across the chain of production, distribution and consumption; up to half of food in North America, Britain and the rest of Europe – apparently enough to feed the world’s hungry three times over. Food banks could be an ideal means of intervening to stop this waste – though they will need much greater institutional support to do so.

Also, food banks are a different form of social welfare to the traditional post-war form in which a state gives to the individual on an impersonal basis – a bureaucratic form of redistribution that is becoming less popular and less trusted as our society becomes more diverse and divided by greater gulfs of misunderstanding.

Food banks rather redistribute goods in kind on a person-to-person basis; the volunteers at Wimbledon food bank are on hand to talk to clients over a cup of tea and direct them to other sources of social help. This is what community is all about; the idea that we need less of it and more of the bureaucratic kind is something I find difficult to accept, though that is not to ignore problems in the welfare system.

Thinking about food banks, redistribution and community has also reminded me of the painter George Catlin’s accounts of his travels among the North American Indians in the 1830s and 1840s – especially those among tribes that were still relatively untouched by the (to them) catastrophic onslaught of white civilisation.

Of his time among the Mandans (who were wiped out by smallpox just four years after his visit), Catlin wrote:

"The pot is always boiling over the fire, and any one who is hungry (either of the household or from any other part of the village) has a right to order it taken off, and to fall to eating as he pleases. Such is an unvarying custom amongst the North American Indians, and I very much doubt, whether the civilized world have in their institutions any system which can properly be called more humane and charitable. Every man, woman, or child in Indian communities is allowed to enter any one’s lodge, and even that of the chief of the nation, and eat when they are hungry, provided misfortune or necessity has driven them to it. Even so can the poorest and most worthless drone of the nation; if he is too lazy to hunt or to supply himself, he can walk into any lodge and everyone will share with him as long as there is anything to eat. He, however, who thus begs when he is able to hunt, pays dear for his meat, for he is stigmatized with the disgraceful epithet of a poltroon and a beggar.”
A George Catlin painting of one of the Mandan villages, 1833
This account shows us a sense of community in which conditions are imposed on behaviour through the action of public opinion on individuals rather than through the state and indiscriminately on groups of people through the mass media (like the Mail papers). Catlin idealised such customs and praised the Indians for how well they treated him, other outsiders and each other, without need of written law and bureaucratic government.

The Indian communities he painted and wrote about in many ways represent a sort of utopia imagined variously by thinkers from Rousseau to Marx and even perhaps some small-state ideologues and anarchists of today. In one memorable passage Catlin writes of returning to 'civilisation' at St Louis, and the first thing that happens is his boat gets stolen – that after travelling two thousand miles up and down the Missouri in, and trusting many thousands of Indians, with it:

some mystery or medicine operation had relieved me from any further anxiety or trouble about it – it had gone and never returned, although it had safely passed the countries of mysteries, and had often laid weeks and months at the villages of red men, with no laws to guard it”.

Bureaucratic systems, private, public and voluntary, are always open to abuse by those of us who wish to ‘game’ them – both from inside and outside.

I can’t help thinking that the more we make ourselves responsible for our actions in such matters as giving and taking – which also means others holding us accountable (for example in a food bank) – the more trusting and happy our societies will be. But ironically it will take rather a lot of government action to make that possible, and to make it work.

21 April 2014

Liberal poster outrage, and the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of UKIP

The way liberal-left opinion and much of the mainstream political class has turned its fire on the UK Independence Party (UKIP) over its latest poster campaign has been quite something to behold – and if I am not much mistaken it could play straight into UKIP’s hands.

For me, this one above is rather good as a political poster, making a simple straightforward political point ('EU Policy at Work. British workers are hit hard by unlimited cheap labour') with a simple straightforward image. But it has been attacked with quite impressive outrage from all sides, bringing comparisons with Nazi propaganda and stimulating all from Tories to Greens to vituperation and anger. Tim Montgomerie, the creator of ConservativeHome website and now comment editor at the Times, even tweeted: 'Strong anti-immigrant poster campaign from UKIP', appended to the above photograph.

Another UKIP poster to have appeared overnight has the simple statement ’26 million people in Europe are looking for work. And whose jobs are they after?’ This juxtaposed to a finger pointing straight outwards at the reader (see LabourList editor Mark Ferguson’s tweet below - click on image if doesn't show fully).

No doubt, this one is particularly crass and takes a sledgehammer to any notion of accuracy or truth. But it is rather rich to see mainstream party figures ganging up with the voices of outrage against UKIP when this sort of mangling of the truth is a stock in trade for all parties in their generally vain attempts to find simple messages that resonate with the voters.

As you can see from the posters themselves, they are not racist or anti-immigrant or Nazi as Montgomerie and others have been claiming: to be so they would need to express racist, anti-immigrant or Nazi views. They are massaging and bending the truth to suit a political narrative. The outrage being expressed is really another example of a classic liberal shutdown narrative, in this case the one which attempts to associate negative views on mass immigration and the EU with racism, to delegitimise these views and to stop anyone saying anything that might possibly offend someone somewhere.

We really should have gone beyond this sort of thing, and encouragingly there have been signs lately that public debate has done precisely that.

That is one of the reasons why these outbursts of outrage could play straight into UKIP’s hands. For the more that voters see that the mainstream parties and their supporters are being unreasonable, shrill and trying to fool them, the more sympathetic they will become to UKIP’s attempts to posit itself as a Voice of Reason against an out-of-touch political Establishment.

That message resonates, be in no doubt about it. Making UKIP look sensible and reasonable is not a good strategy from the main parties and mainstream political figures, but this is what they are doing rather too often for their own good.

As for UKIP itself, it is clearly a mess of a party and surely can’t last as a coalition of refugees from the Conservative Party and working class former Labour voters. But they are doing a lot right. 

UKIP's challenging of political orthodoxy is a good thing for democratic politics, as it shows that the way our political elite does things isn't inevitable and can be changed through our existing political system. They are willing to talk about democracy and accountability, and hold a torch up to the EU for lack of both. This is good too, and is resonating not just with voters in Britain but elsewhere in Europe too.

But as well as the Good, UKIP of course has Bad and downright Ugly aspects to it.

The Bad is its suite of classic right-wing policy positions, from a flat tax (which you will find in Putin's Russia) and its wish to cut up basic employment protections, to its antagonism to renewable energy and with that an outright hostility to any idea of man-made climate change. In so many ways, UKIP is on the wrong side of reasonable, sensible politics - and the party's attraction to alienated working class former Labour voters surely cannot last on this basis (It may not need to though if UKIP's operations in the north build up a critical mass, enough for them to split from the free market ideologues down south).

As for the Ugly, we have seen plenty of instances of craziness, genuine racism, anti-immigrant hostility and fraudulent behaviour from the people that have been getting selected and elected as UKIP representatives. But to the party's (general) credit, UKIP does seem to have a zero tolerance approach to these crackpots and is more than happy to get rid of them.

It reminds me of a meeting of my local Labour Party a while back, attended by a member of the anti-racist organisation Hope Not Hate, who gave a presentation and answered questions on UKIP. He said that his organisation had been grappling with the question of whether or not to target UKIP, and that the general feeling was that it wasn't actually a racist organisation (though from Hope Not Hate's website, it seems they have not stuck to this position).

There is a lot of hysteria going around about UKIP, especially on the liberal-left - and I think it is causing many otherwise-sensible people to lose their judgement and play into UKIP's hands. This may be no bad thing in the long run though. A few more wake-up calls - starting with the European Parliament elections on 22nd May - will surely follow.

9 April 2014

One Nation Quotas: uniting by division?

It is a question often asked in Labour circles: what does 'One Nation Labour' actually mean?

If you thought it was an attempt to bring people together and re-establish forms of common life and citizenship, it may be time to think again, for Labour’s interest group politics has muscled in – right on cue.

Over the last weekend, plans emerged for what is termed a ‘One Nation Civil Service’, to be outlined in the next Labour election manifesto. These plans will see quotas for the elite Fast Stream programme, of 18 per cent black and ethnic minority, and 24 per cent ‘working-class’, plus further positive action for women.

Justifying these moves in a speech to the IPPR think tank (a speech that pulled back from the quota numbers mentioned in the Independent over the weekend), Ed Miliband’s right-hand man Michael Dugher outlined how ethnic minority numbers in the civil service have declined 10 per cent during the current government (though neglecting to mention that the overall number of civil servants has declined too). He added that women in senior positions have declined from 43 per cent in 2010 when Labour left office to 39 per cent last year.

He concluded: “This shows that the civil service is a ‘closed shop’ to many who already feel that government is distant and remote from their lives.”

Now, maybe I have gone stark raving bonkers, but this seems to me a flagrant, obvious and extreme misrepresentation of the stats – especially on women. Whether 39 or 43 per cent, the proportion of women in senior civil service positions doesn’t suggest that is some sort of male closed shop – far from it.

Nevertheless, this is the furrow that Labour and its dominant tribes relentlessly plough with their somewhat Orwellian ‘equalities agenda’; always picking statistics selectively (in this case absurdly), while ignoring how the numbers come about. And how the numbers come about includes the choices that people make in their lives – something those pressing this agenda either ignore or put down to false consciousness derived from structural oppression.

It is right to focus on discrimination by race or gender or other things, but it is evidence of negative discriminatory practice that we should be focusing on– not picking on a few statistics and claiming they prove the whole world is wrong. That is the sort of thing that one hopes wouldn’t make it through a GCSE exam intact, let alone form the basis for a programme of government reform.

The quota as an end in itself

So how is it that this agenda has managed to squeeze through as one of the few existing policy proposals for a next Labour government?

The answer surely lies in internal Labour politics, and the sectional interests that dominate it. A joint article by Dugher and Labour's shadow minister for women and equalities, Gloria de Piero, perhaps points the way.

Gloria de Piero
Dugher and de Piero say: When Labour left office 43% of Cabinet Office senior civil service staff were women - not enough, but we were making progress.” They add: The under-representation of senior women must be addressed and will be an issue we will work jointly on as we design our agenda for government.”

A figure of 43% women would not be a cause for concern for virtually any outsider, let alone a problem. But to Labour it is a priority, reflecting the utmost importance attached to these numbers by the women’s lobby within Labour.

This is the quota as an end in itself. It is a replication of Labour’s internal practices, in which women now have to fill 50 per cent of all internal positions down to a micro-local level. Under a Labour government, the organs of state will be used to micro-manage people in the same sorts of ways in order to create and maintain the desired image.

But the highlighting of ethnic minority and working class preferences in the news stories goes somewhat against this more common focus on women. It seems to come straight out of the dynamics and power struggles of Labour Party interest groups, in which the domination of the women’s lobby has pushed the Keith Vaz-led Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME Labour) group into the shade, and also raised concerns and resentment about the lack of ‘working class’ MPs coming through.

But, as the BAME grouping should perhaps have realised – not least from Labour’s current round of parliamentary selections – there is never enough patronage to go around, unless you want to eliminate ideas of democracy and merit altogether. The women’s lobby is much stronger and has many more internal rules working in its favour. When you introduce discrimination, people lose out – some of whom might consider themselves, or might previously have considered themselves, part of your gang. That is a trade-off you make.


This leads us on to the divisiveness of this agenda. Pitching different groups against each other and turning things like skin colour, gender and social class into meal tickets seems to represent the opposite of One Nation politics. Favouritism divides people against each other, far from uniting them.

It shows a determination not to unite the country but to divide it into different interest groups – indeed to institutionalise different groupings, to establish them as separate classes within the state apparatus. If you have some colour in your skin or fit whatever criteria of working class Labour comes up with, you will be encouraged to use this as a weapon to get ahead – and the same if you are a woman.

These sorts of policies are an example of how liberal/left-wing politics has become hollowed out through the politics of identity, largely forsaking any sense of values and moral mission. The language used for example by Dugher and de Piero suggests a sense of purpose and a vision of social transformation, but the ambitions amount to little more than the artificial fixing of statistical outcomes accompanied by self-congratulation for achieving those outcomes.

This is perhaps the final staging point of what in The Wire terminology is known as “juking the stats”: when politicians start setting statistical targets for institutions, the purpose of activity within those institutions becomes the achievement of the targets, after which all involved can congratulate themselves on their success. Meanwhile the reason for being of an institution – educating children, keeping the public safe or healthy for example – often gets lost. As the former policeman turned inner city schoolteacher Roland Pryzbylewski (below) says to a fellow teacher in The Wire: “Making robberies into larcenies. Making rapes disappear. You juke the stats, and majors become colonels. I’ve been here before.”  [click on the YouTube icon to view the clip]

Here we see Labour reverting to its bad old love of centrally-controlled and –administered targets that pay little attention to what is really going on. It is a world away from the admirable and interesting proposals from Labour to devolve power and money away from central control down to regions and local areas.

In my view (though I would like to see some evidence either way), British society has become more tolerant, accepting and integrated in racial terms largely because of the passage of time; because of people getting on with life and getting to know each other through that shared life, on their own terms; not because of positive discrimination which creates resentments and fosters low achievement. That is one reason why the recent wave of mass immigration has been problematic –it has disrupted and undermined the settling in and integration of previous migrant communities. But while our society shows concrete signs of moving on from the politics of race – not least in the million or so of us who are mixed race – Labour insists on maintaining it and maintaining separateness.

This idea of treating individual people primarily as members of abstract groupings comes out of narratives of ‘structural oppression’ and ‘privilege’ that are prominent in feminist, anti-racist and anti-colonialist political traditions. The practical policies that emerge from these narratives often border on the nonsensical, lumping the successful British Indian businessman into the same oppressed category with the poor Somali migrant, third generation black Britons, confident well-educated young women, everyone of mixed race – and from now on, those deemed to be of ‘working class’ (a problematic category to define to say the least).

As a template for modern, multiracial Britain, this makes no sense to me.

But the policy also indicates of a lack of seriousness and dearth of vision from some of the most powerful forces in the party. Too easily they revert back to fixing and controlling. This largely comes from the sectional interests which are understandably pressing for the maximum advantage for their own groups.

In this respect, Labour has a cultural problem which is only going to get worse as long as Britain integrates further, for these sectional interests are institutionalised into the party’s structural fabric and rulebook at all levels. However much modern Britons may want to break free from the determinations imposed on them by skin colour, gender and other increasingly irrelevant external identifiers, it seems that Labour will remain resolute in its determination to impose them.