Sunday, 29 March 2015

Was there anything Liberal about the Tory/LibDem Coalition?

As the most wretched government in living memory shuffles off into the history books, let's take some time to reflect. For all intents and purposes, at least where this blog is concerned, it was a Conservative government. It was hard to remember that this was actually a coalition between two parties that came together, they claimed, because the national interest demanded it. For their part, the line the Liberal Democrats are peddling is their contribution knocked the sharp corners off the Tories. Were the Conservatives governing alone, their policies would have been extreme and punitive. Instead, what the LibDems did was rein in their excesses, dull their vicious instincts, and corall them to the centre ground of British politics. And that's the offer they're standing on now. If Labour form the bulk of the next government, the LibDems will stop them from raising the Hammer and Sickle atop the Tower of London, and resist the collectivisation of Britain's window cleaners. Or something.

When determining the contribution of the LibDems to the outgoing government, two questions have to be asked. First, what LibDem policies were implemented over the last five years and what positions were rejected? That's the easy part. The second is whether those policies that made it into legislation were distinctively liberal, or comfortably made room within the envelope of British Conservatism as articulated and practiced by Dave, Osborne, and their ideological hangers-ons elsewhere.

What is liberalism and where do the LibDems sit historically with respect to it? This old post from Andy sets out the basics of liberalism. Their starting point is the sovereignty of the individual, and the only condition of liberty for all can guarantee liberty for one. Freedom then is freedom from tyrants and despots, but also the freedom to dissent from the will of the majority. Our sovereign individual cannot live in liberty if society places expectations on and compels someone to act contrary to their inclinations and wishes. The only justifiable infringement of this sovereignty on society's part is to protect others from harm. Vaccination programmes, therefore, are fine. The inculcation of liberal tolerance via institutions and the media is also fine. And, of course, preemptive interventions and the forcible incarceration of those who have or would do others harm, whether intentionally or not have similar merit. Liberty is never the infringement of the liberties of others.

This sense of liberty extends to the economy. In his classic statement on the subject, John Stuart Mill argued that trade is a social relationship. It has consequences for the seller and the buyer, but also everyone else drawn into that particular relationship. For example, the employees that manufactured/produced the product/service bought and sold, the financiers that might be funding the buyer and the seller, and so on. Therefore such actions are formally private but they do impinge upon the general interest. As a rule, as relations that take place independently of state direction the economy - operating on the principle of a sellers and buyers choosing among competing buyers and sellers - has proven to be efficient and self-organising. It regulates quality and therefore price, and provides jobs, all without the heavy-handed direction of the government bureaucrat. It follows from this that:

1. Market actors know best.
2. The state retains the right to licence, regulate, and prohibit the buying an selling of certain goods that have been considered harmful.
3. The expansion of government into economic activity dampens entrepreneurialism as market actors look to them as both customer and guarantor, effectively infantilising them, making them less competitive, dynamic, innovative, etc.

Mill's liberalism only goes so far, however. The socialist critique of liberal economics are well known. While on the one hand recognising the social character of economic transactions, Mill does not pay them any further mind. The structural and insurmountable inequality of the wage relation, for example, hides behind the formal equality of a contract freely entered into by employer and employee. However, extending the logic of individual sovereignty to the sphere of workplace relations the banding together of workers in a trade union undermines the principles underpinning successful market economies. While the actions of the government always threaten to upset the economic equilibrium, so the combination of workers introduce another pressure on market actors - the implied violence of the capacity and willingness to strike - will always condition an employer's capacity to respond to market signals, and possibly throw the whole intricate set up into crisis. Hence liberalism could be considered as an abstract exposition of employers. What mattered to them was the business of buying and selling: the actions of the state viewed with suspicion, the combinations of their workers with increasing anxiety.

The Liberal Democrats have long officially placed themselves in the tradition of social liberalism. Even the Orange Book clique of leading (neoliberal) LibDem politicians were forced to pay lip service to it to the extent that Nick Clegg published a wee pamphlet about it in 2009. The Liberal Moment was quite an interesting document that clearly positioned the party on the left. Left liberalism to be sure, but left all the same. Much of its critique(!) of capitalism draws directly on Mill, but rather than attacking the reach of the state Clegg took aim at the concentrations of capital in huge multinational megacorporations. Their sheer size was distorting economies and threatening liberty, hence the need for redistributive policies to disperse this economic power. He also called for more employee participation and ownership to harness the creativity and talent of workforces. He then goes on to stake the LibDem claim to be Britain's most progressive party on the grounds of fairness, social mobility, sustainability, civil rights and internationalism, while attacking Labour under Blair and Brown as an authoritarian party of centralisation. These, as far as Clegg was concerned, amount to fundamental betrayals of the progressive tradition the two parties straddle. By way of contrast, a LibDem government would roll back concentrations of power and redistribute it downwards.

Hence the distinctive outlook they brought to the negotiation table was respect for the individual, a commitment to empowering citizens and redistributing wealth and power, and using government as an enabler of these objectives. Those are the values, but what about the policies? Readers may recall coalition agreement reached between the two parties. What were the distinctly LibDemmy contributions to this now historic document? The Pupil Premium, restoring the earnings link in the state pension, raising the tax threshold, AV referendum, House of Lords reform, a whole series of civil liberties measures, and a green investment bank. On paper these were consistent with the party's philosophy and values. A good chunk of these policies were implemented - the pupil premium and tax thresholds are well-known and often talked up by LibDem representatives, the AV referendum happened and didn't go anywhere. In the minus column Lords reform failed after stupid Tory shenanigans typical of them, and the civil liberties pledges were barely worth the paper they were written on.

I'm going to give the LibDems a bit of leeway here. The nature of coalition government means you have to make compromises on your programme, and the vicissitudes of keeping an alliance rolling also calls for some policy sacrifices. Not being able to implement some of the above is an experience typical of continental party systems where coalitions are the norm. However, taking these achievements as inputs into the government, were they enough to give it a distinctly liberal flavouring? Was there consistency between the articulation of their values prior to the 2010 general election and their subsequent behaviour in office? No, absolutely not.

I haven't got the time to do a rundown of damage this government has done to the economy and social fabric of this country. Britain in 2015 may finally be seeing some GDP growth, but this comes at the price of more part-time and temporary work than ever before, a huge disparity in income as executive pay races ahead of average earnings, the growth in low revenue self-employment as jobs remain relatively scarce, the stripping out of tribunal rights, a raised tax threshold that primarily benefits middle and higher earners while the low paid find their tax credits cut, and the appalling (read punitive) cuts to and demonisation of people subsisting on social security. On all these measures the LibDems have acted as enablers, loyally trouping through the division lobby time after time to pass regressive policy into law. From the perspective of their professed values, their social liberalism, you would be hard pressed to find a starker example of cognitive dissonance, of between what a party says before it gets into power and what it ends up doing.

It's tempting to go all Trotty and blame the failings of the LibDem leadership - that Clegg was always a Tory anyway, except he quite likes the EU, that Uncle Vince and the rest were happy to trade principle for ministerial briefcases. Of course, the career aspirations of their leading politicians did have a role to play in the unprincipled history that then unfurled. More significant, however, are those long term trends grinding away at the political parties. The LibDems are a victim of it as much as Labour and the Tories are. As the party of anyone-but-the-above, they have very shallow social roots, which helps explain their erratic behaviour at local levels. Their years of pavement politics reaped benefits in terms of councillors returned, but was only ever going to reproduce its success so long as it remained the establishment's anti-establishment party. Take that away and you're left with a skeletal memory capable of polling as low as 1.4% in recent local by-elections. In effect, as is the case in nearly every established representative democracy, Liberal parties are historically obsolete. Where they have "succeeded" is by becoming the de facto conservative party of big business, as per Australia, or the anti-Conservative progressive party, as per the United States. What underlines LibDem obsolescence in Britain is noting where they do have roots - a tiny number of affluent and/or rural constituencies - do share similar demographic profiles to many Conservative-held constituencies.

If liberalism as a political movement is more or less done, we shouldn't be surprised by the LibDems' subsumption within the coalition. Their distinctive policies that did see the light of day presented no challenge to their senior partner at all. The Tories are quite taken with raising the tax threshold, they embraced pension rises to lock down their older vote, and even the pupil premium, of assisting disadvantaged kids in state schools, fits quite nicely into their 'hand up, not a hand out' presuppositions. All told, liberalism was assimilated to conservatism. The LibDems therefore did not impart the coalition a distinctly liberal identity. What they managed to do, however, was achieve a certain toxicity that will take years to shake off.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Quarter One Local By-Election Results 2015

Number of candidates
Total vote
+/- Seats
Plaid Cymru**

* There were four by-elections in Scotland.
** There were three by-elections in Wales.
*** There was one independent clash this quarter.
**** 'Other' this quarter were People First (80 votes) and Llanwit First (1,004 votes)

37,421 votes were cast over 20 individual local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. Fractions are rounded to one decimal place for percentages, and the nearest whole number for averages. You can compare these with Quarter Four 2014's results here.

The final complete quarter before the general election and what does it tell us. Well, the obvious observation is Labour are leading the Tories, despite as per fielding slightly fewer candidates. It might also be suggestive of further corroboration of a squeeze on UKIP and the LibDems. Interesting to see the Greens buck the trend also identified by various polling organisations. And I'm afraid comrades hoping beyond hope the SNP surge will melt before polling day, well, if anything their reach is increasing. To come third overall in by-election results from across Britain is an astounding but worrying achievement.

Of course, local council by-elections come with huge caveats. Elections can disproportionately take place in 'safe' seats and when they do, Tory majorities tend to pile up larger than Labour ones. Some wards are bigger than others (hello Scotland) too. Nevertheless if we're seeing the tentative confirmation of polling trends in actual votes cast, then these are probably real shifts that may anticipate the results five weeks hence.

Saturday Interview: Sam Fawcett

Sam Fawcett is a blogger from Somerset who, at term time, can be found residing in Exeter studying sociology and politics. He's also the deputy editor of the Young Fabian's magazine, Anticipations and pens his own thoughts at The Condition of the Left in England. Like most lefties he's an inveterate tweeter, and his 140 character pearls of wisdom can be followed here.

Tell us a bit about your work with Anticipations, the Young Fabian magazine.

I’ve been fulfilling the role of deputy editor with Antics since April 2014. I was approached completely out of the blue by the (now ex) editor because he’d liked some articles I’d written for the publication previously, which I was shocked and flattered by. I can’t pretend I’m slaving away at my desk 30 hours a week, nor that the large part of my work is glamorous; most of my role is proofreading and editing submissions. Having said that, I’ve set the theme for the magazine a few times and do a fair bit of blogging for too. Unfortunately, this always seems to end in a rant that's a cross between Owen Jones and Noam Chomsky.

You're relatively new to blogging. Why have you given it a go?

I always bore my parents, sister and girlfriend with rants whenever possible, so I’ve always fancied blogging. It mainly came about since starting uni, however. I found that every day on my way to and from uni I’d be having passionate debates in my head about the merits of different sociological and political theories and it suddenly struck me I should write some of this stuff down, for revision if nothing else. Another factor was my sadness at seeing large sections of the left becoming very censorious and seeking to shut down debate very quickly, which to me is the opposite of what our movement was and should be about.

Apart from the masterly All That Is Solid, are there any blogs or other politics/comments websites you regularly follow?

I quite enjoy Ben Cobley at A Free Left Blog, I’m often to the left of him and don’t agree with him on all his points, but I admire his independence. Aside from that, I’m a big fan of both Paul Mason’s and Paul Krugman’s blogs. Very astute commentators on capitalism as it stands. I also enjoy looking at Left Futures when I get really annoyed with Labour’s direction and fancy letting off steam. Oh, and PoliticalBetting is invaluable.

Do you also find social media useful for activist-y things?

I do. I’ve made so many connections at the Fabians, Compass and even the British Humanist Association through Twitter. It does concern me, however, that Twitter also has a great propensity to become an echo chamber preaching to the converted, and I fear that some people greatly overestimate the reach it has, and use it rather than actual activism on the ground.

Are you reading anything at the moment?

I am. I’m reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as it always appears in everything I read about literature, and I’ve seen the big debate over how prejudiced it is or is not, so I thought I’d better see if it’s worthy of the attention. To be honest I’d say it’s not so far. I’m also reading Camus’ L’exil et le Royaume as I’m studying French and thought it’s about time I read some actual French literature.

Do you have a favourite novel?

It always used to be Catcher in the Rye in my teen years, but now it has to be The Great Gatsby. I studied it at A level and was just stunned by both the writing and themes underlying it.

Can you name a work of non-fiction which has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

I think reading Tony Benn’s diaries made me think of politics in a lot less of a noble light and really illuminated for me the enormous democratic deficit our country faces. However, since starting uni I’ve read Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and found it so profound. The section about history always repeating itself, first as tragedy, second as farce is so pertinent, and there are so many examples. It’s fascinating how humans do have this tendency to revert back to what we’ve always known, but there’s also quite a sad, fatalistic air about it.

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

I know many people would lynch me for this, particularly the section of the left I tend to identify with, ironically, but I spent a lot of my teen years listening to Noam Chomsky. I know he’s not very popular in many circles, but I actually think he gets a lot more flak than he deserves. It’s true that he is sometimes perhaps too keen to lay blame at the West’s door, but it’s foolish to pretend we’re whiter than white, and many of his judgements on the relationships between labour, capital and power are spot on. I don’t think anarcho-syndicalism is the answer at all, but the assessments are sound.

What was the last film you saw?

This will sound very pretentious, but technically it was Journal de France, a French film chronicling the life of photojournalist Raymond Depardon. It follows him driving around France taking evocative stills while being interspersed with film he’d taken of world conflicts and uprisings. I really enjoyed it, very insightful. However, the last film I saw at the cinema was Pride, which was just fantastic.

How many political organisations have you been a member of?

Hmm. I’m currently a member of The Labour Party, Compass, The Fabian Society, Labour Humanists and Republic. If I had the money I’d definitely join the British Humanist Association, and probably Amnesty.

Is there anything you particularly enjoy about political activity?

I actually find it quite therapeutic. Leafleting is monotonous and whiles the time away while you feel you're doing good.

Can you name an idea or an issue on which you've changed your mind?

I think, generally, one of the biggest realisations for me recently was that people on the left can be as bitter, selfish and vile as people on the right. I sort of grew up thinking that everyone on the left was great and the worst charge to made against them was that they were na├»ve, but recently, particular after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I’ve realised some people on our side are actually pretty unsavoury individuals who fit more into a right-wing, individualist world than a socialist one.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

For me it’s one of the fundamental pillars of socialism, the idea that we are not truly completely autonomous individuals who exist outside society. We are all influenced massively by our environment and those around us. Simply put, no one, no one, can rise to the top alone. It’s a myth the right love to peddle, but it’s fatuous. I don’t mean we should be pushing a Communist, ‘there is no self, only state and motherland’ notion, but the idea that if we work to better society, the collective benefits will accrue to all; whereas, if we only work to better ourselves at the expense of society, it will only end in collective impoverishment.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

For me they are twofold and almost equal in importance. Firstly, we need to combat the myth I outlined above of the neoliberal concept of individualism. Likewise, we need to show that the neoliberal concept of individual freedom only boils down to freedom of enterprise. Alongside that, however, I think it is very important to combat the extreme side of postmodern thinking that has infiltrated the left. By this I mean the dangers of forgoing the idea of objective truth in favour of cultural and moral relativism. Of course it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap of believing we are infallible and hold the only key to universal truth like the Catholic Church. But this relativism has excused some of the most heinous patriarchal, homophobic and misogynistic abuse, and I find it awful that the left has let down feminists, socialists and LGBT+ people worldwide in the name of ‘progress’.

Who are your political heroes?

In terms of the Labour party, Keir Hardie, Clement Attlee and Tony Benn. Aside from that, Millicent Fawcett, and not just people always think I’m related to her, Bertrand Russell and Einstein for their unwavering commitment to sensible pacifism and Voltaire for his huge influence in secularising politics.

How about political villains?

Leaving the obvious aside, I’d say people like Arthur Seldon, Keith Joseph, Friedrich Hayek. These people are not the obvious, populist tinpot racists such as Farage, but are as or more dangerous. Not least because they dress up their ideas as being about ‘freedom’ when they are nothing but. I also reserve a special place for Milton Friedman for the same reason and the atrocities in Chile under Pinochet.

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

It’s a completely forlorn hope, but actually restoring some semblance of political debate to political debate. I mean, when you look at this election campaign it’s been ridiculous. PMQs focuses on whether there will be a TV show, politicians battle over soundbites and Harriet Harman drives around in a pink transit van. When you see David Cameron call Ed Miliband ‘despicable’ for not ruling out a coalition with the SNP as if he’d refused to rule out a coalition with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, you realise why people no longer care about politics.

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Bringing rail and public utilities back under public control. Not only have taxpayers lost out, but these services should never be run with profit rather than people in mind. Full stop.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

Resource depletion. I hate to sound like a sci-fi dystopianist, but we have to face the fact that unless we either cut down our consumption drastically or make huge strides in renewables and recycling we are going to soon hit a point where resource extraction will not become profitable in the current market. The response of the most powerful nations will be very interesting ...

What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

My most important piece of advice about life is to not be afraid of seeking it. I’m not talking about subjecting every choice you make to a panel, and there are of course times when initiative is very important. However I spent a lot of my teen years feeling very frightened and bleak about the future and my self-worth, and I just spent it reading Catcher in the Rye and didn’t consult anyone. Sure I’m a dashing, successful socialite with the future of the left on my shoulders now, but I put myself through a lot of needless anxiety and sadness when so much could have been alleviated by just sharing it.

Oh, and if you’re a guy, don’t try and control your girlfriend. The same is true vice-versa obviously but sadly I see more of it from our gender. I’m a staunch atheist, but one of the most beautiful things I ever heard was from a sociology teacher who was an ex-vicar who said, ‘The reason God gives us free will is you can’t love anyone unless you let them be themselves.’

What is your favourite song?

A tough one because I like so much. Depending on mood, it’s a toss-up between If You See Her, Say Hello by Bob Dylan, Ambulance Blues by Neil Young, The Stranger Song by Leonard Cohen or Pale Blue Eyes by The Velvet Underground. But it’s quite rare I’m in the mood to listen to songs so serious, so usually I’ll be listening to disco, French house or hip-hop.

Do you have a favourite video game?

Okay, so the best video game released without a doubt is Half-Life 2. However, my favourite is Rome: Total War. I must have racked up easily over 1000 hours. I’m a massive history and geography nerd, so it’s just a no-brainer. Special shout outs to Streets of Rage 2 and Road Rash though, as they got me into gaming.

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?

Humility and the ability to forgive. We have a pretty vicious world these days and everyone’s always baying for blood and getting more and more entrenched in their opinions. I happen to believe most of my opinions are demonstrably correct, but if a person shows me they are wrong I’m not going to be a dick about it. I’m not infallible and no one else is. As for forgiveness, it’s one of the most human things and if we don’t have a concept of rehabilitation I genuinely don’t know what hope for the world we think we have.

What personal fault in others do you most dislike?

Disinterestedness? If that’s a word. By that I mean people who seem to have literally no curiosity about the world around them at all. I actually don’t know how they do it. I could easily have picked about five degrees to study and I’m always looking to learn new things. I sit in seminars sometimes and people just show up, never contribute and obviously have no interest in the topic. If you can’t motivate yourself to be interested when you’re at a top uni paying 9K a year, what can motivate you?

What, if anything, do you worry about?

I wish I could be like my mum and worry about mundane things, but it’s always grandiose things that I can’t really change. My main worry is that British society will continue to become more individualistic and selfish and the people who suffer the results will continue to be ignored and demonised until we end up with a proper, two-nation, bourgeoisie-and-proletariat-style Britain. I actually do love this country, and it’s a heartbreaking thought.

And any pet peeves?

Unfortunately, my pet peeve has no remedy. I love languages, and I can’t stand it when someone says like, ‘Cher-borg’ rather than ‘sher-bor’ or ‘lan-dud-no’ instead of ‘clan-did-no’. I think if you’re going to talk about foreign towns or foods at least accord them the dignity of pronouncing it right. However, anyone who does actually try and pronounce it right rarely fails to sound like a pretentious dick, me included, so it’s just going to be a lifelong pet peeve.

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

In reality play less video games and study more, but sod that. I’d have made myself do more extra-curricular stuff. I wish I’d picked up the piano, learnt music theory, taken up a martial art and learnt to draw. ‘Youth is wasted on the young,’ as they say.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I love going out for drinks with people. Not clubbing, just going to a bar and talking the night away. That’s my ideal night out. I read quite a lot. I blog. I play video games. I have a YouTube channel. I also play a lot of poker. I love poker, but the problem with it is the players are split fairly evenly between effortlessly cool men who shame me and men who wear fedoras, talk about anarcho-capitalism, and masturbate over My Little Pony hentai drawings.

What is your most treasured possession?

I don’t actually have any heirlooms or anything. So it would have to be my car: a little red Micra from ’97.

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

I guess hip-hop is kind of a guilty pleasure, seeing as my upbringing has been far from downtown New York. But then I don’t believe music taste should be dictated by circumstance. So probably podcasts about linguistics and Baileys. Apparently it is not befitting to either my age or gender,

What talent would you most like to have?

A tie between being a fantastic pianist and a great painter.

If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true - apart from getting loads of money - what would you wish for?

To be able to drink a bottle of wine a night without sliding into alcoholism. That’d be good. Or teleportation, but just for me and those close to me.

Speaking of cash, how, if at all, would you change your life were you suddenly to win or inherit an enormously large sum of money?

Hmm. Yes and no. I’d buy a car with a great music system and some expensive guitars and a piano. But I’m too young to want to retire now, so I wouldn’t change anything that drastic.

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be?

Karl Marx, Max Weber and Jesus Christ. The former two because it would be fascinating, and the latter because I’d like to ask him what was actually going on; and the wine trick would come in handy.

And lastly ... Why are you Labour?

I can't pretend the party isn't, sometimes quite significantly, to the right of me on many issues, but it is still the party with the most chance of changing things for working people in Britain. Likewise, it is the only party to have trade union representation. Perhaps it is a bad thing to be a member of a party based on what it was and what it has the potential to be, but that isn't going to stop me.