Out on the right wing

Reading the press in recent days I’m struck by how out-of-touch the old-style Tory commentators are. They influence, and reflect, opinion. It’s a closed circle. They have long been part of the problem.

There are other closed circles of course, more than ever within social media, as we build up our friends and followers, creating and extending groups of the like-minded. Not of itself a bad thing of course. But many on the left don’t have, and don’t wish to have, an understanding of the business world.

Back to the Tories …

Matthew Lynn in the Telegraph talks about giving the young more of a stake in the free-market system: he suggests building more affordable houses, and giving away shares.

What’s missing is any sense of the social divide, social justice, the importance of inclusion and opportunity, the focus on individual human rights. Corbyn voters to Lynn’s mind need to be weaned away from the hard left, but arguing about the benefits of the free-market system is not going to get him there.

Affordable homes aren’t some kind of panacea. They have to be part of a wider social action agenda.

Janet Daley in the Sunday Telegraph, an old blinkered warhorse of the right, thinks the ‘public’ are in the mood for idealism, and looking for a bit of passion in their politics. ‘The spirit of Michael Foot has returned.’  The Tories she thinks have made little effort to combat ’old-fashioned state-socialist’ arguments, ‘perhaps because they think the arguments are self-evident’ – they need to explain how higher corporation tax would kill job growth, hurt the people Labour wants to help – the right must make a moral case.

The realities are rather different.

The young, people in their 30s, the millennials, haven’t suddenly seized on idealism and state socialism.  Idealism is an essential part of growing up, and losing it is, I’d argue, the worse thing about growing old. Patronising arguments about corporation tax aren’t going to butter any left-of-centre parsnips. (Labour proposes an increase to 26% – it was 28% in 2010, lower than many European countries, much higher than Ireland, at 10%. The extent corporation tax is linked to ‘killing’ job growth is not a question I’m competent to address. Nor I suspect is Janet Daley. But see teh current Economist -which suggests the jury is out on whether cutting corporation tax makes any significant difference.)

That said, I’m very wary of where Corbyn might take us should he suddenly find himself with untrammelled power. Many Corbyn supporters have a negative view of business, and that can easily slide into a form of ‘state socialism’, a pejorative term for many, but not for Corbyn or John Mcdonnell.

Again, back to the Tories….

There are wiser voices on the Tory side, and Tim Montgomerie (of Conservative Home), writing in the Evening Standard, I thought would be one. (Not least becasue he’s writing in London’s newspaper – it would have served him better to remember his audience isn’t made up of diehard Tories.)

Montgomerie also belatedly into building more homes in the south – and infrastructure up north. His main concerns are finding a new leader as soon as possible, and an agenda for social renewal as much as for Brexit.  (Note the way he equates the two.) And his reasoning: ‘With both established there is a real chance of stopping the momentum building behind Jeremy Corbyn.’ The argument it seems is how best to stop Jeremy Corbyn. Building houses might just do that. As a device – not out of a passion for social welfare. I’ll leave aside the idiocy of devoting energies to Brexit. If you want to connect to the young, Tim, get Brexit out of your system.

All three, Lynn, Daley, Montgomerie, need to spend more time on the front line. They are talking party politics, maybe understandbly given the current crisis in their party. But they won’t gain any friends in the wider world that way.

Above all, they need to engage, and Montgomerie did at least mention this, with social renewal. The big argument now and for the future is how to balance social justice and enterprise, the one interacting with the other. Yes, it’s the old liberal, the old social democratic argument. Not of the London dinner party kind, but the everyday kind – social action, commitment, linking enterprise and wider social needs.

Take a look at the new apartments sprouting up in Vauxhall, south of the Thames, built to the highest specifications, priced far out of reach of local people. They are a powerful example of where we’ve gone wrong.

UK election 8th June 2017 – where do we go from here?

I’ve resisted for a little while any comment on last week’s election. It was a seismic event, watching at 10pm on election night, and knowing by 10.01 that it looked likely we’d have a hung parliament. Then watching till 4, rejoicing in seats gained, sadness in one or two cases at seats lost, but a sense deep down that at least the terrible tide the referendum prompted, and the vote confirmed, was finally if not turned then stayed. For too long there’s been a sense that the tide had overwhelmed the liberal attitudes of old, and we against all better judgements were set on a catastrophic Brexit course.

London and other cities, and above all the young, spoke out. Some extraordinary vote registering had gone on below the radar, press and opinion polls were hardly aware. May was a disaster, and remains so, the Tory campaign and manifesto likewise, and Corbyn came out of a shell many of us thought was the real Corbyn to reveal a performer, yes, a performer, with a sure touch, and a degree of ordinary human sympathy, and humour, which struck a chord with me and many another.

Talk to the under 30s and most, almost to their surprise, were voting Labour. Not just the Corbynistas who took to the barricades two years ago. I could have voted Labour, voting tactically, living as I do in a constituency where the Lib Dems have little chance, but old loyalties held me back.

Let’s assume we can stay and even reverse the Tory tide. What will replace it?  The centre is recent times has not held, and there’s a pull of gravity to the left that could take us too far.

The gulf between the Corbynite left and the traditional liberal centre is a big one – a gap in practice, outlook, traditions, as well as pure politics. But, accepting all the risks, could a new devil (who may yet cast off a horn or two) be better than the old disastrous devil who has been calling the tune too long – and still of course aspires to. I’ll be returning to these words in coming months, and checking if they are wise, or foolish, or somewhere inbetween.

For my part I’ve little time for the old trade union connections, for industrial warfare which is a hangover from another age, for pseudo-socialist alternatives such as Hugh Chavez, which have over the years drawn Corbyn in. I’ve no principled objection to renationalising the railways, where the free market finds it hard to operate successfully, other than cost. Energy generation and distribution would be a lumbering giant in the hands of the state.

Student loans are a vexed question: I’ve supported the principle until recently (and indeed in an earlier version of this post), but it’s more than apparent that the system needs radical reform. Levels of debt are spiralling. The rate of interest, 3% above RPI, is now 6.1%, and average debt on graduation £44,000. To quote the Independent, based on a lower debt on graduation of £33,000, ‘a graduate on a salary of £55,000 at the end of the 30-year period (after which loans are written off) will have paid back just over £40,000 on £33,000 borrowed, with a remaining £58,000 unpaid.’ The debt is extraodinarily high when you’re starting out, and you carry it with for thirty years. Then any balance is cancelled.

The state will lose vast sums because many loans will simply be written off after thirty years. Graduate debt in the UK is higher than in any other country in the English-speaking world. Scrapping the whole damned system is one option. A contributory system, with lower levels of interest and repayment, is another.

What I don’t know is how Corbyn proposes to replace student loans. But I can see very clearly why it’s a major issue for young people.

As to Labour’s tax proposals, they transparently won’t bring in anything like the revenues the Labour manifesto suggests. Higher tax rates for the affluent have natural justice of their side, but aren’t likely to be effective in raising significant revenue, and taxing companies – increasing corporation tax – can easily be counter-productive. But I don’t for a moment share the Tory obsssion with tax reduction at all costs.

So why support Corbyn – albeit a tentative and watchful support ?

1] Relax the austerity obsession. Improved infrastructure (not including HS2) can only improve economic performance. And cuts to social welfare have to be pared back, and the NHS funded maybe on LibDem lines – an extra 1p in the pound on income tax. The national debt (approx 82% of GDP) looms large, fed each year by a budget deficit, the elimination of which keeps being postoned – Brexit being the latest culprit. Far better to prime the economy, and as a consequence increase the tax intake, than pursue the black hole of the May/Davis nexus.

2] Bring compassion back into politics – bring the poor, the unemployed and the disabled back into the heart of things. They have been stigmatised too long, though the fault is not with them. The dependency culture is in great part a right-wing figment, an excuse for putting them both out of both mind, and as far as possible, out of sight. The budget deficit has driven cuts in recent years – but a highly inequitable treatment of the less fortunate cannot be the answer.

3] Enlist and keep on board, as Corbyn has done, the young, to counter-balance all the caution and backward-looking disposition of the over-60s who to their shame have closed minds and ranks in support of a spurious UK – or English – identity.

4} Support the immigrant population, and allow future immigration to be dictated by the requirements of the economy – from Europe, from India, and elsewhere. Not least students coming to our universities. To be open to refugees, to be open instinctively – which doesn’t mean we open our ports, but it does mean our first response is to help and not to stigmatise.

5] Implicit in so much of the above, to maintain our close ties with Europe, with the EU, with EU institutions, maintain our trading links, and that wider humanity, concern for the individual, for rights, for equality, for the environment, which is so much the European tradition. We and Europe are so much more effective in a world of big power blocs (USA, China, Europe) if we speak with one voice.

6] Related to the above, maintain our influence in the world, which Brexit would, in the name of a spurious sovereignty, surrender: where better to exercise our sovereignty than within a continent where we’re listened to, where we share traditions. What chance when we argue our case on our own, a small island with an inflated idea of regaining glories which belong to vastly different world?

Corbyn is wary, more than wary, of globalisation, more than wary of big business. His old socialist instincts worry me. But it’s chance I’ll take. The Brexit route is guaranteed to bring disaster, and I don’t believe that the Labour right, or the wider country, would, come a future election, allow a luddite Corbynism to prevail.

But there is risk here. Under Corbyn we might find ourselves pursuing a new identity politics, where we close our minds to the impact of automation, try and hold on to old industrial practices, hold back the rise of new companies and new industries, and resist the changes in communication and trade that business, and big business, will inevitably take forward. Getting the balance right between the old and new will be vexed and require all our attention, and debate, and financial support for those who suffer. Likewise keeping our focus on the environment, and climate change, and the population and resource issues which have to be addressed.

The Trump and Le Pen agendas are there to remind us what could happen – and Corbyn will surely be well aware of the dangers of trimming in that direction.

But I have to trust that the young, the under 30s, the under 40s, will haul him back. It is their world, even more than mine, and we have to trust them to make it work. Who will lead when Corbyn is gone, and will she or he will retain their support – they are big questions. But a ball has been set rolling, and while I don’t trust all the routes that it might take, we do finally have a counter-course to stay the Brexit obsession.

Politics will never take the course we anticipate. Never has and never will. But we can work to set a direction, and argue both in political and practical terms to hold that direction as best we can.

No mention here of the Lib Dems, where I remain a member. They will pull strongly to sanity and to the centre, and will now be under a new leader. Their role is this regard will be similar to the Labour right, the new Labour rearguard. Just how the centre of British politics works out in the year, and years, to come is another of the great imponderables.

But to quote Nigel Farage, at least there are signs we might yet ‘get our country back’. Farage of course had never lost his – he’d conjured a country which simply didn’t exist.

And who is working class these days?

Working class – who is working class these days? The numbers of Americans defining themselves as middle class are in decline: 48% now consider themselves lower or working class. There are similar shifting sentiments in the UK.

And where do the old values of social liberalism (for a definition of social liberalism see * below) and social justice fit within this changing spectrum?

In both the USA and UK a new identity (nation, race, interest group) politics is taking hold. At the expense of both a more liberal outlook, and ‘the more conservative Labourism that might still stand the best chance in small-town England’. (David Marquand)

Taking Labour first, what the old Left hasn’t accepted is that the working-class solidarity of old, which has inspired the Labour movement for 150 years, is gone forever. And that could include Marquand’s ‘more conservative Labourism’. Left-intellectual radicalism and working-class aspirations no longer gell as once they did. Grinding poverty is no more, the old Marxist underpinning likewise, and there’s an alienation, a boredom and increasingly an hostility toward the political process.

And intellectuals, never too popular in the UK, are out of fashion as never before.

The popular instinct, as the Brexit result revealed, is to hold on to what we have. Immigration, globalisation, new technologies, the old politics, all are suspect. There’s support for renationalising the railways, but not for wider state intervention.

Maybe the Corbynite left will convince us otherwise, but I think they’re simply out of tune with the popular will.

So too social liberals – they’re also out of tune with broad sections of the population, who only see government indifference to unwanted changes in their lives – housing shortages, pressures on services, regional development, immigration.

It’s addressing these issues, rather than an overtly radical political prospectus, that will win people back to a liberal agenda.

Likewise, this should be Labour’s policy focus. Radical at heart, but pragmatic in practice. Unless you’re happy in the wilderness.

*Wikipedia has a helpful definition of social liberalism: Social liberalism is a political ideology that seeks to find a balance between individual liberty and social justice. Like classical liberalism, social liberalism endorses a market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights and liberties, but differs in that it believes the legitimate role of the government includes addressing economic and social issues such as poverty, health care, and education. Under social liberalism, the good of the community is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual. Social liberal policies have been widely adopted in much of the capitalist world, particularly following World War II. Social liberal ideas and parties tend to be considered centrist or centre-left.

1968 and all that

There’s a perverse pleasure in wading through reviews of books and articles on subjects I know nothing about and may never encounter again. On occasion something hits home. One example: Terry Eagleton in the special Cheltenham Festival Times Literary Supplement edition, on everyone’s favourite subject, post-structuralism:

‘In its curious blend of scepticism and euphoria post-structuralism is a form of libertarian pessimism – one which dreams of a world free from the constraints of norms and institutions, but which is not so incorrigibly naïve as to believe it could ever come about.’  

I could dine out on that one!

‘The revolutionary elan of 1968’ was followed by ‘the disenchanted mood of its political aftermath’. I remember 1968. Too well.

It’s a pattern oft-repeated. More recently we’ve had the frustrations of the Obama years, when ‘yes we can’ didn’t quite happen. (Maybe it never will.) The aftermath of the 1989 and the fall of the Wall. Occupy and the now empty squares of New York and London. Above all the Arab Spring, and its brutal aftermath.

But we won’t and can’t let our optimism die. I’m one of millions now and forever who believe in social justice, opportunity, capability, compassion. We rejoice when we see progress, we’re despondent when we see it pushed back. But we don’t despair.

We don’t of course always agree with each other. Do we work with the system, or oppose it – and by what means? The divide between global and anti-global perspectives is vast. Many (not all) proponents of big government and small government have the same end in view but believe in radically different ways of getting there.

I supported and support Obama, always believed Occupy wasn’t sustainable … Bernie Sanders I admire, Corbyn I don’t. We will bicker and insult and traduce the motives of others, while still aspiring to the same humanity.

And we will undermine each others’ efforts. Refuse to vote for Hillary. Battle it out for the soul and machinery of the Labour Party. And if we’re not careful – and we haven’t been of course – let another party in, a party which doesn’t define compassion and social justice quite as we do… which puts up barriers rather than engage with the world. Abandons institutions rather than seeks to reform them. Follows the populist piper, who advocates easy solutions, and plays to prejudice.

There are many good reasons for retiring to a monastery or a country cottage or sitting room and TV, and disengaging – and yet we hang in there. If we keep open minds, listen to each other, avoid scorn and hubris, remember that we’re ultimately on the same side – then we might just make progress.

‘The normal parameters’

“I am endorsing Hillary. And all her lies and all her empty promises. I am endorsing Hillary. The second worst thing that could happen to this country. But she’s way behind in second place, you know? She’s wrong about absolutely everything – but she’s wrong within normal parameters.”

We enjoyed PJ O’Rourke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Serious, yes, but with a sense of the absurd which gets to the heart of things. There’s no-one else like him. (He’s a great fan on Jon Stewart, on the other side of the political spectrum.)

Who else is out there beyond Trump, beyond the normal parameters? A serious party game – where protagonists just might come to blows.

Thinking of the UK.

Farage, or farrago, as my spellcheck would have it, of course: he like Trump claims to be within boundaries. He’s fooled a good few people. But closet racism, and recent support for Trump, place him firmly outside.

Corbyn, with his past support for elective dictatorships like the Chavez regime, and backing from trade unions who muddle the pursuit of workers’ rights with political agendas from another era – likewise.

Sections of the Tory party, the libertarian Davies and Fox wing, are on the parameter edge, and should never ever be near positions of powers, let alone dictating.

O’Rourke takes inspiration from Hayek, and avows a small government, minimal intervention agenda. That’s firmly within. We’ve been battling in the UK and USA between big and small government for decades – and that’s the way debate should be.

*

Read on for O’Rourke on Brexit.

He recounted interviews he did for an American public radio programme: he’d set out to understand why Brits voted for Brexit. He quoted a ‘financier’ who argued that the euro and probably the EU was going down the tube sooner rather than later, so best get out now. (To which the obvious reply is – we’ll be hit amidships anyway, and immeasurably better to be in there, influencing proceedings.)

And a more cogent argument – this is no longer the country we grew up in. The older generation’s lament. It isn’t the same country of course, and it’s the same for every generation. The sanity of representative democracy normally allows us trade-offs between young and old, and we move forward, an erratic progress maybe, but progress nonetheless. But not when you chuck a referendum into the mix.

Not a point that O’Rourke made, but a US presidential election has some of the characteristics of a referendum, in the sense of the media blitz and the half-truths, and this time the blatant untruths. But running in parallel are the Congressional elections. There’s balance in the US political system (which sure as hell isn’t perfect!), which brings politics back closer to the centre, where both sides have their say, and policy evolves out of a rough consensus – policies and programmes balancing out over time.

(At least, there was a balance, before Tea Party, and Cruz, and acolytes, and now Trump, came along.)

But referendums on their own – overriding representative, parliamentary democracy… that’s another story.

‘Normal parameters.’ Depart too far, allow prejudice and ideology to take centre stage, and the damage could be irreparable.

 

A bookshop window on Monday night

Delighted to have the resurgence of the book as print confirmed. Up 9.8% on last year. ‘Physical sales’ is the term used by the Bookseller (trade mag) editor, and that I rather like. E-books looked to be on a winning curve, but they’ve been armwrestled back.

On that positive note ….

Walking back from a movie, passing the Richmond Bookshop, there’s a book in the window which catches my eye, the ‘Wisdom of Grace’ I think the title reads. Closer inspection reveals it’s ‘Wisden on Grace’ – the cricketer, WG Grace, he of beard and enormous girth….

Nearby is ‘Find Fenton’, taking off the classic ‘Where’s Wally’. You’re tasked to search for the ‘world’s most disobedient dog’, none other than the Fenton which famously chased deer in Richmond Park, refusing to heed his owner’s anguished shouts of ‘Fenton! Fenton!’ Someone caught it all on camera, and it went viral in Facebook. And now – the book!

And a third title, ‘We Go to the Gallery: A Dung Beetle Learning Guide (Dung Beetle Reading Scheme 1a)’.  The format is ‘Ladybird’, and it looks like it’s in the new ‘for grown-ups’ series, but it’s not (maybe ‘Dung Beetle’ is a bit of a giveaway!) – rather it’s a very clever one-off, sending up contemporary art.

(Penguin who publish Ladybird weren’t too happy and sued the Dung Beetle publisher. Reading that sentence, and not knowing book publishing, you’d think – what the hell….)

So that’s two stocking-fillers. Wisden on Grace wouldn’t fit the stocking.

There’s also I see a ‘Corbyn Colouring Book’. This may not be acceptable in all stockings.

UK air strikes in Syria – the vote

Relief at the vote in parliament. 297 to 223 in favour. Mightily impressed by Hilary Benn, making a powerful moral case for intervention. A reminder of Labour’s tradition of internationalism, opposition to fascism, support for human rights.

But…. I’m aware of how hugely divisive this is, and how family, friends and commentators who normally agree are polarised on this issue.

Cameron’s disgraceful comment that his opponents are ‘terrorist sympathisers’ requires an apology that hasn’t been forthcoming.

Likewise the following statement in the literature of the Stop the War Coalition, also totally untrue: ‘In reality, it is not conscience at all that animates pro-war Labour MPs. It is either inveterate support for all British war-mongering, or a desire to destroy the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, or both…’

Leaving aside comments on Corbyn’s leadership, as someone who has thought long and hard on the issues involved, and come down on the side of engagement, it’s in effect an attack on me as well.

Trading insults is massively counter-productive.  It’s a debate where there’s been too much heat. It’s wound me up, as it has many others. We have to be much cooler in our arguments, and listen better to the other side.