Thursday, 26 February 2015

Making the opposite mistake to Natalie Bennett

I've just been listening to Natalie Bennett's car crash interview and rather wish I hadn't.  It reminded me uncomfortably of some of the radio interviews I've done myself over the years.  I don't think very well on my feet - one of the reasons I write this blog instead of talking too much.  I write too much instead.

But I've been wondering afterwards what her mistake was, precisely.  As leader of a party with one MP, she doesn't need to use the meaningless language of Westminster discourse.  There was no need to put a figure on the number of homes they would build.

The spurious number of 500,000 new homes was mentioned, and it is worth saying that - even during the Macmillan and Wilson years of jerry-built high rise flats, the UK never managed more than 400,000 a year.

Conventional political wisdom says that you have to express these things in terms of numbers and costs or nobody believes you, but is that really the case?  The figure of 500,000 a year is too round a number to be believable, too imprecise to be serious.  And either the basic policy work had not been done, or Natalie Bennett had forgotten the details.

I was irresistably reminded of the fatal moment when Charles Kennedy revealed a less than complete mastery of the details of the Lib Dem proposals for a local income tax during the 2005 general election.  His wife had just given birth, so perhaps it was understandable - but it was a critical moment too.  I expect this will be a critical one for the Greens.

But before Lib Dems get too holier-than-thou about it, it is worth remembering that they are making precisely the opposite mistake to the Greens.

The Greens have not worked through the practicalities of their proposals in sufficient detail.  They are not focused enough on immediate policy, but they have sharpened their ideology and everyone knows what they are for.

The Lib Dems are hugely exercised with the short-term strategies of getting policy details through Whitehall and the coalition.  Their whole attention is on making things happen, but have forgotten - hopefully temporarily - that they exist for a purpose beyond the moderation of Conservative and Labour excess.

If they forget sometimes what they are actually crusading for - the fundamental purpose of the party and its ideology - the Greens never do.  So don't let's be smug about Natalie Bennett's embarrassment.  She is at least beginning to think about the practicalities of radical policy-making.

I want the Lib Dems to do well this year as much, if not more, than anybody.  Nobody could accuse them of stinting on the policy front.  There will be powerful green policies in the Lib Dem manifesto.  But the more I can persuade the party to provide that crusading edge - to remember what their long-term purpose is - the more I can improve their chances.

Starting perhaps with recommending my own attempt at radical practicalities in my new book (written with Tony Greenham) on the practicalities of ultra-local economic regeneration.

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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Military weakness is not as dangerous as military delusion

I joined the Liberal Party in 1979, as a student journalist, having interviewed all the local parliamentary candidates. Dermot Roaf, then the Liberal candidate for Oxford City, spent well over an hour with me in the middle of the day, when he must have had more urgent people to deal with – and, by the end, I was convinced. I went off then and there and paid my subscription.

But one of the reasons why I embraced the cause so enthusiastically – rather too enthusiastically for my own good – was my growing sense of irritation at the political discourse.

Why was it that the people who had particular ideologies bred into them seemed to cling to these bundles of ideas, some of which seemed contradictory – apparently because they were psychologically pre-disposed to do so?

Why was it, for example, that Conservatives tended to oppose public spending – but not, apparently, when it came to defence? Why was it that Labour supporters seemed to back all kinds of extra spending – but not, again apparently, when it came to defence?

It was all very odd, and I wondered this morning when I heard the news about sending troops to the Ukraine – can Cameron do that without a vote in the Commons? – whether the same contradictions applied.

I am clearly different these days. I recognise a tyrant when I see one, and Putin is one. There are clearly risks to the Baltic states, and it would be a setback for civilisation if they fell back under Russian control. Perhaps as much as Nazi control was of Poland.

What I do find indefensible is the way that successive governments, but the Blair government in particular, approached these issues with their preference for symbolic gestures to real action. It meant that, briefly at least, they could cut defence spending and still invade Afghanistan. And Iraq.

In the long run, it meant the humiliation of UK forces, and the undermining of our reputation for military competence – because our forces were not equipped or trained or prepared or numerous enough for the role they were supposed to be playing.

Is this what Cameron is doing? Sending 75 troops to Ukraine because it is a cheap gesture? Or is it the same kind of gesture as the one that Spanish government used during the first Gulf War: they would send forces to support the coalition, but on condition that they would leave if there was any fighting?

Because this kind of symbolism is far more dangerous that doing nothing. Sabre rattling might have its place, but if you sabre rattle when you have long since sold off your sabre, then you can get into difficulties – which the rest of us will have to pay for.

Am I advocating strong defence? Not necessarily. But the current mismatch between political rhetoric and military swagger, and the actual military resources we have at our disposal, is so stark that it is downright dishonest.

Something has to give. We are heading next month to the centenary of the Dardanelles expedition (March 18: the first attempt to force the narrows by sea), and it is a good moment to remember the psychology of military incompetence.

The commanders in 1915 deluded themselves about the enemy they faced, putting out reassuring orders to the officers explaining that Turkish troops were afraid of the dark. The result was inevitable.

It isn’t necessarily weakness that precedes military disasters. It is delusion, and this generation of politicians may be even more subject to delusions than any before them.

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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Business is no longer Conservative - this is why

I've written a blog on the Lib Dem Voice site today explaining the background to the pamphlet which I wrote with the investor Joe Zammit-Lucia, after the series of events he organised to allow businesspeople to talk more informally to politicians.

The idea is that business is an increasingly radical force, no longer tethered umbillically to the Conservative Party.  Hence the title of the pamphlet, A Radical Politics for Business, which we launched at a business reception in London on Monday night.  

You can read the blog here and the pamphlet here.

But it is true that I ought to spell out why this counts as a new idea, or at least the revival of an old one.  The idea of business as a radical force in politics, however careful they might be not to be political themselves, is unexpected for the following reasons:

First, this is not the way that the official organisations supporting business tend to explain it..

Second, this report happens to coincide with the nadir of the reputation of business in the UK, which may have been unfairly blamed for the failures of the banking and regulatory system in 2008, but which has also been tainted by the continuing scandals from Enron to Robert Maxwell’s pensions theft, insider trading, Guinness, and so on, where business has suffered for the sins of relatively few – and politicians have failed so far to shape a regulatory system that can distinguish the few bad apples from the bad barrels.

The point is that businesses are not widely understood to be radicals in any way.

Third, businesses have been known – for a century or so – as bastions of support for political conservatism.

Often, it is true, they have done this mainly for fear of the alternative. But it has usually been more than this. Businesses have been a bastion for conservatism in other ways too: business people have dressed conservatively. They have encouraged conservative living, thrift and hard work. They supported the status quo.

You might feel, after a century or so of business walking hand in hand with conservatism, that it would continue like that forever. But the signs are that a big change is happening, and there is no reason to think this is confined to the UK.

Something in that old relationship between business and conservatism has broken. Business wants openness to ideas. They want open borders. They want long-term thinking, not the insane short-termism of the political world. They increasingly want education that promotes practical vocations, rather than suppressing them. They want schooling that looks beyond basic skills – important as they are – and trains people to be entrepreneurial and creative, not just train them to mind machinery. In short, business is emerging as a different kind of political force altogether, and advocating something altogether more radical.

What is interesting about this shift is that it isn’t unprecedented. For most of the nineteenth century, business instinctively supported the radical force in UK politics. It was Liberal then, just as it is increasingly Liberal now.

But then, Liberals and Conservatives see business differently. Conservatism regards business as supporting the status quo. For Liberals, business has always been about change. It has always involved allowing new ideas to challenge old ones, for new innovations to challenge the entrenched ways of doing things. It has always meant that the small should be allowed to challenge the big. Conventional wisdom has to be challengeable, by ideas or entrepreneurs, which is why – as Karl Popper put it – open societies tend to be more adaptable than closed ones.

Conservatism wants business to achieve some sort of stability. Liberalism wants them to be resilient, aware that change comes from everywhere and is rarely predictable.

Victorian business, proud of and committed to their cities and towns, steeped in the ideals of self-help, was a radical force – politically Liberal, passionately committed to the idea that people should be able to do business where they saw fit, and determined to tackle the vested interests that prevented them (businesses are aware that there are rival vested interests out there now, just as there were in the nineteenth century). The political force behind ‘free trade’ has always been Liberalism. Free trade, that is, as it was originally understood – the right of the weak to challenge the strong.

If you are as fed up as I am by the assumption, particularly by the BBC, that business will always be Conservative - and the endless repetitive non-debate by the same old voices - then give the pamphlet a read.  And talk about it in public.

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Monday, 23 February 2015

Inventing new kinds of money to save the Greeks

It is sad but true that economic innovation is usually born of desperation.  This is at least partly because the elite clings to the economic consensus with fervent, increasingly theological conviction, and all the more so as the consensus gets ragged around the edges.

So perhaps the best we can say about the impasse between Greece and the European finance ministers, grappling with the implications of the disastrous design of the euro, is that it might perhaps - well, perhaps - lead to important money innovation.  Well, it is about time.

Keynes used to call living in an economy without enough money a "perigrination in the catacombs with a guttering candle".  That is the situation in Greece right now, and they are expected to carry on with this wander through the catacombs so that the euro might survive, and we will sleep more soundly in our immediate economic futures.

The question is whether these things can be achieved without the embalming of the Greeks.

The new Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has been suggesting ideas, notably his proposal for a new currency, denominated in euros, but based on the future taxes paid to the Greek government, and designed to use bitcoin style block-chain technology to bypass the banks.

The details are obscure and perhaps too generous.  The new currency pioneers are debating it all online.  Varoufakis is suggesting that Greeks will be able to buy 1,000 euros worth of what he calls FT-coin in return for 1,500 euros worth of taxes paid in two years time.  Maybe too generous, but it is an exciting idea and a sign that - at long last - those flung into the economic mainstream are beginning to think creatively again.  See Paul Mason's take on it in the Guardian today.

It would mean monetising Greece's debts, taking them out of the hands of the banks and providing a machine that can potentially pay them off.

I'm not arguing that this will work, but I see that Shann Turnbull, the Australian financier, is set to speak in Athens.  He is one of the most creative monetary thinkers on the planet, and it is time people gave him the benefit of the doubt and began to listen.

I know from listening to him myself that he will start by telling the story of the great American monetary innovation designed to help the poorer parts of the USA escape the Great Depression, thanks to the efforts of Alabama senator John Bankhead, Tallulah's uncle (it is Tallulah pictured above).

Bankhead borrowed the idea from the great economist Irving Fisher, and his bill - vetoed by Roosevelt - would have issued $1 billion of stamp scrip in the poorest areas.  This kind of money encouraged spending by losing value by 1 per cent a month, and was eventually 'retired' - or deleted as we might say now - rather as the FT-coin would be when it was finally spent.

This is from Fisher's 1933 book Stamp Scrip (there isn't even a copy in the British Library):

"At my grandmother's country house, fifty and more years ago, you quenched your thirst at the spout of an old-fashioned wooden pump. To compel this huge creature to pour out its crystal treasure was no easy task for a small boy. It always involved a preliminary period of exercising the lofty handle, and sometimes quite without results, until an older person pointed out a bucket which stood near with a small side-supply of water. It was kept on hand for just such emergencies. Then the small boy would run to the side-supply scoop up a dipperful, climb upon any convenient object and empty the clipper into the open top of the pump. When he returned to his exertions they were no longer in vain. One scoop of side-supply had connected the big subterranean supply with the means of jerking it out of hiding. The strategy was called 'priming the pump'.  This done, there was no further use for the side-supply. Such is the office of Stamp Scrip - to prime the pump, which has thus far been unable to connect the great supply of credit currency with the thirsty world."

Of course, you just can't just use the pump with euros.  It would be inflationary.  It would lower the value of the currency.  The European Bank would not allow it.  But you can experiment with new currencies and new denominations, based on a range of local items, and only starting perhaps with the Greek national debt.

But the Greeks must live, and if they can't live as perpetual captives in the catacombs for the good of the rest of us, then it is time to innovate.  Or bring dishonour and disorder down on all our heads.

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Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The significance of Peter Oborne's grandfather

I've always admired Peter Oborne, and his article yesterday about his resignation from the Daily Telegraph is powerful and heartening.

It is important, and not just for the Telegraph, but it is the allegations that they have suppressed criticism of HSBC in an effort to woo them back as advertisers that are most explosive.  It is also an explosive critique of HSBC - and explains, quite rightly, that there would have been more political pressure to deal with this kind of abuse if the Telegraph had not stayed silent.

But I just wanted to comment on one part of the article that may get less attention:

"My grandfather, Lt Col Tom Oborne DSO, had been a Telegraph reader. He was also a churchwarden and played a role in the Petersfield Conservative Association. He had a special rack on the breakfast table and would read the paper carefully over his bacon and eggs, devoting special attention to the leaders. I often thought about my grandfather when I wrote my Telegraph columns."

I very much appreciated that thought.  My grandfather, also a retired lieutenant-colonel, also read the Telegraph at breakfast.  And it was that beleagured and side-lined small C conservatism which the Telegraph represented, and which has been so often blown aside by a force which is not conservative at all, but which purports to be - a transatlantic, turbo-capitalist, corporate apologia for the richest and most powerful.  

The kind of approach which Oborne describes as abolishing the post of editor at the Telegraph and replacing it with a series of 'Heads of Content'.

I'm not a Conservative.  I'm a Liberal.  But that kind of conservatism, so much part of the fabric of the nation that I'm not sure we would be recognisable without it, is being swept away - first from the House of Commons and then from public life.

That conservatism was never the preserve of the Conservative Party, but they are largely responsible for its demise.  It was a shift that was symbolised when a new Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who had very little idea of what to do with the role, was captured by Howe and Lawson and convinced that she had somehow led the revolution herself.  

Mrs Thatcher was not quite what she seemed, but that is by the way and for future historians to revisit.  See more in my book Broke.

The point is that this extreme free market ideology - where everything is for sale, including the content of the Telegraph - is not a conservatism that would have been recognised by either Peter Oborne's grandfather or mine.

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Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The original sin at the heart of the digital age

Back in 2001, I published a book called The Tyranny of Numbers.  It seemed like a new, rather tentative argument at the time, but the Blair government had formulated over 10,000 numerical targets over the previous four years and the growth of counting as an instrument of - well, pretty much everything - had not really been covered much at that stage.

I've been thinking quite deeply about these issues again, and especially after hearing a deeply frustrating discussion on the BBC Today programme involving the education editor of the Economist who had just made a controversial lecture.  The upshot of this was that, by resisting performance related pay, the teaching profession was failing to shape their reward package in a way that would attract the brightest and the best.

Quite the reverse, she claimed it was designed to attract what she called "shirkers".

Now, I have no particular reason for defending teachers, and certainly not bad ones, which blight the lives of children.  UK schools would be considerably better and more effective if it was easier to get rid of them - but there is a huge problem in the 'shirker' idea of performance related pay.

You can't measure success in teaching.  If you try, it becomes narrow and boulderised.  If you turbo-charge this by paying on the basis of those numbers, it becomes obtuse and uncivilised.

Children are then transformed into one-dimensional tickboxes to be manipulated in order to open the box marked pay.  Teachers are transformed into laboratory rats who have to be led to the same box over and over again.

In fact, I wonder if we really have to name the basic problem - which is the original sin at the heart of the digital age.

It is this.  Digital technology depends on transforming the world into two symbols - a 0 and a 1.  Everything has to be black or white.  The target is achieved or it is not achieved.  Yes, the language can be manipulated, but it would be too complex to take account of this.

And the trouble is that life and humanity are not one thing or another.  The ability to make fine judgements and distinctions is being lost, as we swallow the utilitarian dream that we are machines at work made to be programmed.

We are not one thing or another.  For all the cornucopia of riches which digital developments have given us, they have come along with this great delusion - this great divide that is rendering us stupid, unable to communicate or recognise shades of grey.

We worry about robots taking over and becoming too intelligent.  Actually, the opposite is happening.  We are transforming all our human institutions into bone-headed machines that recognise no variation and go a little haywire if they are confronted with such things - which of course they are, every minute or so.

Then we wonder why public services are getting so expensive.

I'm not the only person saying this.  The journalism of Bryan Appleyard, the system thinking of John Seddon, are part of the same picture.  The question is: how can we wake up from the all-pervading digital sleep and see things as they really are?

Well, as far as I'm concerned, the Campaign for Real Judgement starts now. Perhaps then we might persuade some professionals to revolt against their transformation into Pavlov's dog's.

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Monday, 16 February 2015

The disappointments of participation, so far

Participation in the way we are governed, and the way that public services work, has been the great - largely unrealised - dream of the revival of Liberalism since the 1950s.

Most of it wasn't categorised as Liberal, all that explosion of energy from adventure playgrounds to self-build housing, but it was.  It was also a reaction to the corporate state, over-professionalism, and the sense - as Nye Bevan put it, approvingly - that "the man in Whitehall really does know best".

That anarchic participation and self-help provided the energy for the huge growth of the voluntary sector, now largely controlled by government grants and the lottery.  It has also been undermined by three other things.

First, the delusions of statutory consultation, which brings real consultation - if we ever see it - into disrepute.

Second, the failure of the peculiar phenomenon of official consultees - local people put on boards and paid, who tend to go the opposite of native.  I remember these from the early days of the Elephant & Castle development.  There is no more pompous phenomenon, more obstructive, more on their own dignity, as the official community representative.

Third, the idea that participation is bound to be passive.  People sitting quietly, plodding away online, telling their local authority about potholes using clever software from the privacy of their own back room.

There's no doubt that the online world can support real participation, but - here is the point - there can be no genuine participation without action, without doing things.  They may be very simple things, befriending people, talking to people, having ideas.

Without activity, participation is about spin, and marketing, in a virtual world unbounded by the inconveniences of geography.  It has no equality.  It is all about manipulation.  It is us and them.  Only action wrests equality from officials - working alongside professionals, playing a role of some kind.

So two slightly more uplifting things.  First, there is my co-written book Give and Take about the track record and future of time banking in the NHS.  Time banks are one of those rare things: genuine active participation.

In the 15 years now since Sarah and I launched the Rushey Green Time Bank in Catford, the idea has proved itself many times over.

Second, there is the way that blogs can be a form of political participation which might be able to spread ideas and encourage other kinds of activity.  They may indeed go beyond something that is merely passive.

The Spanish academic Juan Sanchez from Valencia University is doing research about the implications of political blogs and you could help him by filling in his short online survey here.

I will feed back the results when they emerge.

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