Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Who would you really want to run the country?

Among the tedious and misleading mantras of Brexiters is one which seems particularly seductive: "We want our own parliament to run the country instead of a lot of unelected European bureaucrats".
Well, of course we do..... don't we? In terms of accountability, there would appear to be no contest, when we the people elect our parliamentarians whilst EU civil servants are invisible and, worse, not British. This is, though, a false comparison, for neither do EU civil servants run our internal affairs nor do our MPs. The former administer the decisions and regulations of the Council of Ministers; the latter administer nothing but contribute to decision-making in this country. One group is of law-makers; the other of implementers. One group is insular; the other international in scope.

Leaving aside the falsity of the comparison, let us pretend they are competitors for the role of running our affairs and turn to the nature of those who constitute each group. Although a mere lowly industrial worker in my career, I have met examples of both categories. On this frail sample, I would say that both are generally intelligent and well-meaning types of people. But looking at the other evidence available to me - the media - and a very big difference manifests itself. One group is made up of highly educated, well-trained professionals, doing what they are tasked to do with little or no personal agenda. The other is a mix of self-seeking, egotistical amateurs [at least in governance], whose aims may include a well run economy but may also include climbing the party ladder, pleasing a bolshie electorate, greasing up to the media and furthering their own extra-curricular objectives.

On the basis of such a comparison, I know which set of people I would rather were making the country tick. Happily, we retain the vestiges of a Home Civil Service, despite the ravages of anti-Statist ideologues, which can and do their best for the country, often, in my experience, complemented by their EU counterparts. Accountability? They are all employees reporting to or acting upon the decisions of elected ministers. How accountable those ministers are to us for either their own or their departments' behaviours is a bigger question, for we seem to have very little insight into their competence, motivation or performance; nor the means to make them answerable to us in the pale sham we call democracy.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Religions make poor rulers but so does capitalism


From two different sources in recent days has come an idea I had previously not considered: that religious control of a State may affect its economic performance. How was it, one asks, that the Middle East went from being the intellectual and artistic powerhouse of the World, via the vagaries of history, to being an under-performing group of still tribal countries which perform economically less well than their neighbours to the North in Europe? What happened to that intellectual drive? The second source suggests something similar in respect of Spain in the 18th century: a State watching without emulating the scientific and artistic dynamism of France and Britain in the Enlightenment.

The answer posited by the respective authors lies in religious power in both cases: the Caliphate in the former; the Inquisition in the latter. In each, the defence of dogma is said to have prevented acceptance of new ideas, especially in science and technology, which elsewhere transformed communications, leading to economic growth among adopters. Religions, being based on fictions rather than reality, tend to defend the teachings of their hierarchies. Take the outlawing of Tyndale in the 16th century as an example closer to home. Allow the combination of translation into common language with the printing press, and suddenly the people, or at least those educated enough to read, can see or hear the words as written in the Bible instead of being given selective extracts which suit the aims of those in power. Suppression of innovations can have a dampening effect on uptake and on the impacts on daily lives which should follow from them.

This analysis seems to confront religion as Luddite, which may be fair. It also assumes, it seems to me, that economic growth is all; that a capitalist economy is desirable. Philosophies, including religions, are not there to support economies but to guide people into a better way of life. It may be that the ordinary people of the Arab countries in the Middle Ages or of 18th century Spain appreciated some aspects of the way they were governed or guided; and may not have been as comparatively badly off as their modern-day counterparts. Inequality is certainly plentiful in today’s capitalist model. Happily, modern, democratic Spain is a dynamic and cultural country. But look at the position of the Arab states, whether engorged with unearned riches, destroyed by religion-based wars or ruled by bigotry, they show little sign of restoring their intellectual capital or sharing wealth at all fairly among their peoples. Nor does secular, capitalist Britain.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Free labour? At whose expense?


Volunteering sounds like a thoroughly worthy occupation. It enables people with the time to do so to make a generous contribution to their community or some charitable purpose close to their heart. In doing so it benefits the organisation, its beneficiaries and the volunteer. What is not to like?

David Cameron started out his disastrous premiership propounding the Big Society, in which everyone would contribute to the communities in which they lived through volunteering, with these apparent benefits. This would enable government and councils to outsource public services to charities deemed to be specialists in their field, with savings to the public purse. Unfortunately, he accompanied this policy with swingeing cuts to Local Authority budgets, which had the result that funding for community projects and charities was severely curtailed, such that those which might have had the capacity to carry out contracts for services lost this.

However, the cuts to State delivery continued and public services were either digitised or simply reduced. Thousands of competent civil servants and council staff lost their jobs. Citizens were gradually deprived of more and more services on which they had relied. Many, appalled that parks and libraries were to close, stepped up to volunteer and keep them going. Others, seeing the plight of neighbours impoverished by the reductions in welfare, started and ran food banks, now helping sustain over 1m citizens of this country. More yet, often frail themselves, are driven by lack of alternatives within their compass, to act as full-time carers for their ageing loved ones. What a triumph for the Big Society.

So before accepting that volunteering role, consider whose job it used to be or should be; what skills and training it ought to have; and whether by taking it, you are helping the diminution of the State or local services on which we are all entitled to rely. Volunteering can be a good thing but should surely not supplant the livelihoods of fellow citizens, especially by a less professional alternative. Maybe that energy which would be used in volunteering could be devoted to demanding that the State does its job.

Friday, 14 July 2017

“Remain” is the option for failed negotiation, not no-deal Brexit


We were told by the Right that the economic crash was the fault of Labour spending yet for years after Labour failed to dispel this untruth. Now we are told that Brexit is the “will of the people” and nobody has the courage to deny this either.  Labour must, if it is ever to win again, learn the lesson that it must gainsay the mantras fed to the public by Lynton Crosby et al.

We are told that the Brexit negotiations are aimed at minimising the negative impact of leaving the EU.  By implication as well as by all available evidence, any other future model will be worse for the rights of citizens and worse for our economic future. Brexit “hard” or “soft”, Norwegian models or joining EFTA are all worse than where we are now, so why not say so? The negative impacts can be avoided completely if we stay, yet our leaders fail to say so, terrified of gainsaying “the will of the people”, the latest mantra of the xenophobes.

The referendum should not have been allowed to go unchallenged. Cameron should not have been allowed to decide that a simple majority could change our Constitution for ever nor that the vote should be mandatory. These went unchallenged and were accepted into Labour thinking, so much so that they joined forces with the Right to enable the signing of Article 50. This brought Brexit back into Parliament’s aegis and rendered arguments about the referendum’s validity redundant. We know that most MPs are Remainers yet allow them to continue to act as if we must now accept a second-best future or worse.  Anyone who dares to suggest that “the will of the people” makes Remaining impossible is shouted down. Are they all so pathetic that none will stand up for what they actually believe in and for the country’s best future?

Perhaps it would help those with vestiges of backbone if they were to see the triggering of Article 50 not as about accepting whatever outcome this weak government can negotiate but as being about starting the process of negotiation, to see if an acceptable deal is feasible. Thanks to Gina Miller, Parliament will have a say before we actually leave. To make this have any point, surely we have to have the option not of “no deal is better than a bad deal” – ie exit on the worst possible terms – but of staying a member of the EU – of saying, “we have tried to find a future outside but failed”? The EU will welcome us staying and so, one suspects, will a majority of the people by then.
Tom Serpell

Monday, 26 June 2017

When winners are losers and losers win, it is time for a fair voting system


For some reason, at election times my desire to blog and tweet dries up, perhaps in the face of the barrage of material put out by all shades of opinion. For all I know another election may be round the corner to prolong my relative silence but an invitation to have my say is too good to refuse. So much has been written and said about so many aspects of recent politics that it is hard to grasp at any particular strand but reflection has singled one out which is of particular relevance to Labour, it seems to me.

The result of GE2017, surprising in so many ways, seemed to suggest a return to the 2-party model which had been challenged by the ascendency of the SNP, the substantial Green vote, Sinn Fein’s new strength and the happily short-lived threat to all things decent of UKIP. Both major parties will now claim that they provide such a broad church that there is no need for these parties but is this really the case or is the result really pragmatism on the part of the electorate wanting their votes to lead somewhere? I can sympathise with this, having lived in constituencies with MPs for whom I have not voted all my life.

A choice of parties offers every voter a real chance to express their values. Minor parties act as pressure groups on both major parties, not just one at a time. Their followers need to feel that their votes count not only during ballots but also via elected representatives. Parliament needs enriching with diversity of opinion. We only have to look across the Channel to see how complacency and over-familiarity with establish parties can lead to vacuums to be filled. So how come we have reverted to the 2-horse race?

I suggest that this has more to do with the system than with the lure of the manifestos. The only chance a vote has of impact is, in the current system, one for one of the 2 horses. But if the system were to be changed so that the race could have other potential winners, both in constituencies and in parliament, surely many would back the other runners again. In the period before the recent election campaign, when Corbyn’s Labour looked likely to shrink dramatically, there was a renewed enthusiasm in social media for fair voting/PR. Now that Labour looks electable again, this should not be allowed to drop away again because it is about fairness, a key Labour value.

Throughout the country there are voters like me, in millions, I suggest, whose vote does not count in the current system. How good would it be for us to have the chance of electing accountable representatives to councils and parliament, wherever we live; and for Labour AND Tory parties to have MPs in every part of the country, not just in “heartlands” plus the odd marginal? Democracy should give such voters a voice. Should UK not now actively espouse PR as the means to provide it not only via social media but via MPs of different parties for every part of the country?

Tom Serpell, East Sussex

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

What should a socialist do?


We live in a capitalist world. To aspire to or campaign for an isolated socialist model is unrealistic. No successful socialist state has yet to be experienced. But this knowledge does not mean that one has to like this truth. I want citizens to have ownership of crucial infrastructure and services; to enjoy equal opportunities for good housing, healthcare and education; to live free from discrimination in a fair society; and to share in the fruits of work. I am a socialist.

The essence of capitalism as an economic theory is that wealth creation must lead to more to go around. Over centuries as economies have grown, ever fewer people, it is true, are in absolute poverty but the reality is that the “going around” fails.  The economies of the most advanced nations are deeply unfair and unequal. Those who have the capital get more. Those who are employed to grow it do not. The desire for perpetual growth of capital leads to the retention of what should “go around” for those who have it to reinvest or, as dividend, to reward the brilliance of their decisions to enrich themselves. But it is no fault or disgrace not to be wealthy – merely the fall of the dice. For most of history, over 90% of populations everywhere have lacked any assets whatsoever, whilst those who have them pass them on at their own discretion.

There is surely a legitimate case for those of a socialist mindset not to attempt the replacement of capitalism but to mollify it; to demand the sharing around. In the capitalist world, “tax” is a dirty word. It suggests to those who like keeping all they acquire sharing some of their gains with those who either worked to create them or missed out on opportunities in life. Yet even for the Right the State has roles to perform, which they accept as requiring funding via the tax system. Defence and the justice system are commonly accepted uses for tax revenues, for example. Capitalists need educated workers to help grow their wealth, good transport, water supply and sewage systems. Socialists want that wealth more fairly distributed. So the key function of political discourse must be deciding the extent of the roles the State and thus the level of taxation required. Discourse, by its very nature, must allow for other ideas and beliefs. This discourse must begin with acceptance that taxation is an essential, ethical part of a democracy they should be proud to contribute rather than a dirty word.

Even if one’s vote counts for nothing, because of where one lives or because politics fails us, it is still possible and important that the discourse occurs, if only as a check on the anti-tax, anti-State brigade. We must recognise that the less the State is funded, not only the fewer public services will be afforded but also the more the State itself can be rejected or undervalued, opening the way for the Trumps, Le Pens and Goves. For those who care more for the needs of those in society who have not been blessed with capital, the use of tax to fund public assets and services is essential. This is what makes socialists continue to exist and to try to influence politics, but not, generally, to bring capitalism down. Anyway, why should anyone with socialist values deny these simply because they are in a minority? One day we may not be.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Labour may not like the market but it needs marketing


What has marketing to do with the Labour Party? Surely, it is all about selling stuff that nobody needs? Well, irony aside, the answer is that it has everything to do with Labour today, anti-capital or not. The “M”-word actually has two meanings, both of which deserve consideration here. First, it is about aligning an organisation and what it does with the needs of those it seeks to serve. Second, it is about making as sure as possible that those it wants to serve actually  access what it offers; that it promotes itself effectively.

So, first things first: whom does Labour seek to serve? This used to be easy for the party to answer – the workers of industry. Perhaps this is not so obvious today, when “industry” is not what it was and workers are less organised. Maybe one could answer “everybody” – but this would be too trite. Of  course it is true but you have to start with a core vote; a target subset of the whole, who are most likely to need a Labour Party. Is this “hard-working families”? Is it the lower-paid; or the young [the future]; or the old {who vote]? If it is any or all of these, which party would it then like to speak up for the unemployed, the poor, disabled people, who seem to have been excluded of late? [In my view, if Labour is not for these, then it has no purpose at all]. Without being clear whom it believes it represents, Labour can produce pledges and policies galore but fail to align itself to its desired voters.

Then, there is the message. Voters in today’s world buy into not a list of policies but to religions. Not the theological sort but visions or congregations to which they want to belong; whose image or Big Idea they aspire to. This is how cars, clothes, holidays and even food are chosen. Politics is no different, in having to make itself attractive, not in the detail but first in the desire to belong. Just as a consumer may want to be sure the clothes fit, the food is fresh or the holiday as advertised, so s/he will indeed want a set of policies which they like the look and cost of. But this is uninspiring and insufficient; the technicalities to be taken for granted. Decisions are about being on this side, with this group, sharing these values. And quite correctly, surely, for politics should be on a higher plane than mere pecuniary or technical calculation. Jeremy Corbyn is currently repeating Ed Miliband’s mistake of trotting out nice sounding policy ideas whilst failing to give any sort of believable vision for the future, through which to inspire attention or voting:  the religious part. Without a good Big Idea, able to be communicated and promoted in a pithy sound bite or strapline, Labour will continue to fail to inspire. So come on Labour: decide what you are for and tell us, loudly. Do your Marketing.