Showing posts from February, 2013

Pest Control, Puke and the Monster of Growth

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on 18th January 2013. When I was nineteen I did some work experience in the economics and strategy office of a City investment bank. Though my four months there confirmed that investment banking was not for me, the office was an interesting place to be, with real characters possessing real brains which they enjoyed pitting against each other and the world outside. A nugget of wisdom from one of these characters, a quiet and unassuming man called Leo Doyle, has stuck with me ever since. It was about Rentokil, the pest control company. Leo explained Rentokil’s role in the economy as being to eradicate something, to clear up a mess that needed getting rid of. This activity earned money by meeting a social need, but it did so by removing something bad and not by creating something new and useful. If I recall correctly, Leo held up Rentokil as an exemplar of the British economy, which he saw as devoting a large propo

One Nation: The London Olympics and Opening Ceremony Revisited

This article has been published previously on Shifting Grounds and then LabourList . I had just finished my last (official) shift at the Paralympics. Sitting down alone with my last plate of food from the wonderful staff at the Copper Box canteen, I got talking to another volunteer who was at the same table. As with just about every conversation in those few weeks, we spoke about how it had been for us – and I quickly discovered that this woman was no ordinary pleb volunteer like me. She had been a volunteer from almost the beginning, from years ago. Retired and keen to do all she could, she had ended up in the midst of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, in charge of one of the maypole groups in the Green and Pleasant Land opening sequence. She loved her experience of course. It was special. And she said a huge part of what made it special was a guy called Danny Boyle . In those precious few minutes while we ate and talked, she told me how Boyle had gathered all of the

Labour needs to stop being boring

This article was first published on Labour List on 1st November 2011, but notwithstanding the faltering attempts by Labour to make itself out as a 'One Nation' party, I think it is just as relevant now. “Don’t be boring in your Parliament, Dad.” Five-year old Sarah Mullin’s delightful advice to her father Chris on July 18 th 1994 (related from his diary entry for that day), is something that the whole of our political class would do well to bear in mind once in a while. The little girl’s point is even more pertinent for Labour in opposition – as indeed Mullin Snr and his colleagues were in 1994. Being boring should surely be the cardinal sin of mid-term Opposition, when it is difficult enough to get noticed even at the best of times. Yet the blunt, unvarnished truth is that Labour is actually extremely boring at the moment – even for a political geek like me. Polly Toynbee’s comment about the “ curiously bloodless Labour party ” hits the spot. We seem to be d

Let's Talk About Values

This article was orginally published by LabourList on 8th October 2012. A Murdoch may not be the first person Labour people might turn to in seeking guidance to help revive and rebuild the party, but Rupert’s independent-minded daughter Elizabeth had a few things to say recently that bear thinking about. Reflecting on the travails of News Corp in her MacTaggart Lecture to the Edinburgh Festival in June this year, Elizabeth Murdoch said one the biggest lessons of a tumultuous year was “the need for any organisation to discuss, affirm and institutionalise a rigorous set of values based on an explicit statement of purpose”. A rigorous set of values based on an explicit statement of purpose, for any organisation. Turn that statement towards the main political parties and you are greeted with something of a void. What are Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems actually for? During Conference week, we always hear a lot of airy waffle about Labour values, without m

Institutionalised fixing: the Labour way

This was originally published by LabourList on 13th June 2012. “Let’s overturn these tables Disconnect these cables This place don’t make sense to me no more Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?” Bob Dylan was probably not referring to the Labour Party’s ingrained culture of fixing in these lines. But his words do have a certain resonance at least for me when thinking about it. How cathartic it would be to smash everything up in a fit of rage and run for the hills, screaming, “To Hell with the lot of you”. It would be wonderful and cathartic, yet utterly futile of course. As Nick Cohen said of the Labour Party back in January 2010, in much worse times, “It may be a vehicle whose wheels are invariably falling off, whose passengers are invariably stabbing each other in the back and whose driver is invariably mad and heading at full speed in the wrong direction, but there you are, it’s all there is.” Labour pretty much is the political Left in Britain. We

“The method in the madness of modern civilisation” – Is this what is wrong?

This article was originally published by LabourList on 29th April 2012. In his autobiography, The Time of My Life , Denis Healey described his experience of trying to count the number of people getting on and off trains across six platforms at Swindon station during the Second World War: “I made up the number getting off and on again, made an informed guess of the number getting on, and asked the ticket collector for the number getting off. After a few weeks I discovered he was making up his figures as well. This gave me a life-long scepticism about the reliability of statistics, which served me well when I became Chancellor of the Exchequer.” As Healey illustrates here, what is served to us as truth is often as subject to human limitations and frailties as anything else. Truth is often wrong. In politics, the currency of rights and wrongs tends to be statistical (albeit with an underlying playground culture of mutual blame attached). Most problems are the ot

Politics of Identity: Politics of Division

This article was first published by Labour Uncut on 13th March 2012 as the second of a two-part series on identity politics - under an awful alternative title that I made up to follow on from the principal theme of the first part: All Women Shortlists in the Labour Party. This second part is more general, exploring the nature of identity and challenging dominant narratives on the Left about it. In Life and Fate , his epic novel of family, Stalingrad and totalitarianism, the Soviet-era journalist Vasily Grossman wrote: “Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for l

All women shortlists are an insider’s charter

This article was first published on Labour Uncut on 13th March 2012. Originally written as the first in a two-part series on identity politics, it was edited down heavily and given the specific focus on All Women Shortlists in the Labour Party. (And, just to clarify, I have no problem with that - though I have made a few small changes to the published text). “White people love playing ‘divide & rule’ We should not play their game”. These words, tweeted by Diane Abbott, ignited a storm of accusations and denials of racism, while opening a window into the complexities of identity politics. While it is doubtful that many white people were properly offended by the tweet, it does expose Abbott’s assumption that black and white people should be divided, and that they have different (and opposing) interests. The “divide and rule” agenda that Abbott talked about in fact applies more to her in this instance. She was clearly trying to draw a racial drawbridge between black