Sunday, 26 August 2012

Bringing back Laws shows the desperation of a failing Coalition

Austerity isn't working. George Osborne's economic policy is in ruins, and he is now a lame-duck Chancellor. Last month the government had to borrow £600 million more, so much for debt reduction. Panic is beginning to grip a failing and fractured government. So it has now been signalled, that David Cameron will re-arrange the deckchairs on the titanic - better known as a cabinet re-shuffle. One of the highlights, we are told, is the expected return to government of the darling of the neoliberal right, David Laws. Laws, who is a millionaire, managed only 17 days in the original Coalition cabinet before having to resign due to a dodgy expenses claim of £40,000, more than many people earn in a two year period.

David Laws
As you might expect, the 'free' market fundamentalists in the Coalition will be delighted by the return of Laws who is a fervent tax-cutter and privatiser. Laws recently called for deeper tax cuts, and the shrinking of the state, in a continuation of the failed neoliberal market 'economic' policies which caused the so-called deficit crisis (the deficit is not really a crisis and is being used as an excuse to destroy welfare) in the first place. All this shows the desperation of a Coalition government which has nowhere to go, the moral bankruptcy of allowing Laws to return, and the growing realisation for Cameron that he will be a one term premier unless he can salvage his sinking ship.

The problem for the market fundamentalists dominating the Coalition is that because they don't believe the state should plan or intervene, by creating jobs for example, they have no levers to pull to revive the economy. Interest rates cannot be reduced, quantitative easing has failed, there is no room for tax cuts, and the economy is still, at best, stagnating. That is why we have suddenly begun to hear calls for big infrastructure projects such as a third runway at Heathrow and a projected £30 billion Severn barrage. Predictably, these are the wrong projects, and even if adopted now, they will come too late to have any effect before the next election. It would have been better for Cameron and Osborne  to begin those projects soon after the 2010 election.

Of course, there are some very real options to get people working and rebuild our economy and you can find them in the Green Party manifesto. But those green solutions are beyond the blinkered ideology of the government. One of the government's key priorities ought to be the building of hundreds of thousands of social homes to boost the economy, create thousands of jobs, and help alleviate our appalling housing crisis, the origins of which lie in the Thatcher government's infamous 'right to buy' policy of 1979. But there is no chance of the government adopting such a common-sense solution. Trapped by their own fundamentalist belief system, government ministers are like the lunatics doomed to repeat the same failed policies over and over again, and each time expecting a different result.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Free market myths no. 4: capitalism is dynamic and innovative

I was talking to a friend the other day who was telling me about someone in his family who is a businessman. "What is his business" I said, "property" came the reply. This exchange set me thinking about how capitalism works. For sure, it wouldn't work without 'property', because the concept of private ownership of property is crucial, and without it capitalism couldn't function. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the 'free' market vultures moved in to feast on the corpse, one of their first priorities was to introduce new laws enshrining property rights so that the 'oligarchs' could get their hands on the loot - otherwise known as the common property and resources of the people of the Soviet Union.

So property is a crucial part of capitalism because from property comes rents and the commodification of land, which leads to capitalists cashing in on the exploitation of natural resources such as oil, which ought to be held in common. All these activities which rely on the holding of property can be used to generate great profits but none of them are in any way dynamic or innovative. Much of capitalism is about getting an easy ride like rent-seeking, asset stripping, corporate welfarism and cannibalising the public sector. Far from being innovative capitalists will seek to squeeze every drop of profit from existing commodities and plant and machinery before they bother to think of trying to do something new or different. There are countless examples of this, one recent example being the iPad 3 which differed from its predecessor largely only in having a higher definition screen. And, you can easily see how conservative capitalism is if you go to your local supermarket where you will see the same old detergents wrapped up in packets labelled "new" and "improved" .

Its much easier to make money from what you know. If you have a good product you flog it to death before thinking about a new one. This makes corporations resist change and become conservative rather than innovative, and that, as I've pointed out before on the blog is the reason why capitalists aren't using new, resource efficient methods which would make them more competitive and be much better for the environment - see here. What capitalism tends to be good at is adaptation to changing circumstances and finding a way around the crises it creates. But its the public sector which often leads the way in innovation. Many of the greatest breakthroughs we have seen in medicine, engineering and computing, like the mouse you are using with your PC, come from publicly funded activities. However, for the 'free' market fundamentalists its essential to maintain the myth that the public sector is slow and bureaucratic, whilst the private sector is dynamic and innovative. The problem is this just isn't true.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The Left must create an alternative political narrative

Its never easy to admit that you've been outsmarted, but that is what has happened to the left in the last 30 years or so. We can always find good excuses because our political enemies on the right have more money and therefore much greater resources than we do, and they do own the media, and so have a collection of very powerful propaganda tools at their disposal, which they use to great effect.

But the right haven't won political arguments in Western democracies just because they have more resources, they've done it by being clever and exploiting a series of simple straightforward 'policy positions' which appear to be credible and are persuasive to voters - they have succeeded in large part by building a convincing narrative. The right may be wrong but alas they're not (all) stupid. They know that they need a 'straightforward' story to sell to voters and that is something they have done very successfully. Contrast that with the left's love of complexity.

We all know what that narrative is because we hear it every day. It goes something like this: 

"Capitalism is the only way to build a prosperous society. It is dynamic and much more efficient than any alternatives. It thrives through the mechanism of competition. But we have economic problems because wealth creation is being held back by stifling bureaucracy and red tape. To solve our economic problems we need to free-up entrepreneurs by slashing red tape, increasing incentives by reducing the tax burden, having a smaller state and privatising public services. If we do that we'll all be better off. Some may gain more, but hey it's worth it because we'll all benefit." 

Note that I have underlined the keywords or frames in this narrative.

Now I know, and you know, that this recipe doesn't work, the global crisis shows that, and I could demonstrate it by dissecting any one of those key words. In fact I have done that in many posts on this blog, but that is not the point of this post. The point is that the right has a narrative that works, and that is what the left is lacking. Its high time the left created an alternative coherent narrative to challenge the neoliberal paradigm. We not only have to create that narrative but we have to tell it over and over and over again just as the right have done. And we have a great opportunity to do it at a time that people are disillusioned by the failures of neoliberalism and the economic crash.

So what would that narrative be? Well, we can get some of it simply providing the opposites to the right's 'keywords'. For example, take 'competition' which has long been a totem of the right. The left believes in 'cooperation' and it's hardly difficult to demonstrate that 'cooperation' is far more necessary and productive in our society than 'competition' - the benefits of which are, in reality, marginal anyway. Instead of 'tax burden' we should perhaps be talking about 'tax investment' and 'tax insurance'. Its essential for us to use our own keywords frequently and in opposition to the keywords of the right. The narrative is about establishing our values in opposition to the inferior values of the political right.

Its not for me to decide what the left's narrative should be but it might go something like this: "Capitalism is failing us economically, environmentally and socially. We can make Britain a more prosperous and equal society through co-operation and economic democracy. We need to build a green steady state economy to create worthwhile jobs and deal with damaging climate change, with a vibrant wealth creating public sector built on the values of public service not private profit, and an enabling state with tax insurance for  social security." Just like our political opponents we need to put across our narrative at every opportunity, whilst exposing the hollowness of neoliberal ideas. This narrative has to have a broad appeal without compromising our core principles. If we aren't able to do this we are never going to take the majority of people with us.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

What is the Green Party leader for?

What is the Green Party Leader for? That might seem like an odd question to ask at a time when the Party is just about to elect a new leader, but it has never been clear what the role of the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW) really is, and the leadership election has raised issues about the role and position of leader. In fact the Party has only had a leader for four years. Before that, the closest thing to a leader the Party had was the post of Principal Speaker, and there were two of those, one male, one female. We need to ask the question and find the answer for the new leader.

In 2007 the Party members voted for a leader and deputy leader to replace the old system of Principal Speakers. In the end, after fierce debate, the vote to change to leadership secured 73% in favour. Those who supported the change included Caroline Lucas who said:
"This is a fantastic day for the Green party and will help ensure we have a party that is understandable, recognisable and effective" 
At the time, I was against the change, and I still am. But we have to work with what we've got and make the best of it. The problem is that the party isn't sure what it has got and what the role of the leader should be.

What we haven't got is what the other 'grey' neoliberal parties have; a leader who is essentially an elected dictator, someone who lays down policies and has a veto on anything the party wants to do. The Tory party has never pretended to be democratic, always electing its leader from a ruling class cabal until the 1960s. Not that electing a leader has made much difference to the way it works. In Labour, Tony Blair managed to destroy the last vestiges of democracy in the party in the 1990s turning conferences into stage managed media events. I have no doubt that these are not the leadership models that most GPEW members want the party to follow.

So what does that leave us with? What should our leader be doing? Well, there is no doubt that the leader must be a strong advocate for the Party and seek to promote its policies as widely as possible. I believe the leader should be a campaigning leader, and one who holds a dialogue with other groups, such as the trade unions, on behalf of the party. Whoever wins will have to contend with the media spotlight and all the brings with it, including hacks rummaging through your dustbins.

One of the key issues that has arisen during the campaign is the question of whether the leader should be paid. This was not an issue while Caroline was leader, but now it is. It would have been good if the Party had made this decision at the conference in Liverpool, before the election started, but this will now be decided at the conference in September, after the leader is elected. Is the role a full-time job? And what would we expect a Green Party leader to earn - the median wage? My view is that it probably shouldn't be full-time but that might prevent good candidates from standing in future elections. For a small party with very little money, it is difficult to justify spending on full-time posts.

Those who argued for a leader said that the public, the electorate, and the media wouldn't understand a party that had no leader. But there are obvious dangers to having a leader for a radical party. They - the media and ruling class - want us to have a leader. A leader can be co-opted, they can be 'persuaded', they can be vilified, caricatured, but ultimately - they can be made to conform - and ditch policies voted for by their members. The beauty of the old GPEW system was precisely the fact that the media didn't understand it. Just like with Occupy, the powers that be were frustrated that there wasn't an individual they could single out and blame, or coerce, or prosecute and imprison. That gave the movement strength, and it sent out an important signal, that it is possible to organise without a leader.  We are here to bring about change, not just simply play by their rules, and I hope that whoever is elected will show the same determination that Caroline showed, to set the agenda, and not have the agenda set by our political enemies.