Friday 12 December 2008

The real victims of New Labour snobbery

Tell me, was there any disquiet at all at the BBC when the chief constable covering Dewsbury condemned Karen Matthews’ neighbours, a whole class of families, because “they never go out”?

Were there any complaints, or even qualms, at this outrageous piece of New Labour snobbery? I don’t know. I hope so, but fear there wasn’t.

It’s a bit late to blog about this, but we seem to be in the grip of a moral panic led by Ed Balls, which amounts to an attack on all children and their families, and mothers in particular. In the last few days, since I thought about this rather belated post, it has been intensifying worryingly.

I’m not of course defending Karen Matthews. But pointing out that most children with young families rarely “go anywhere” is not exactly an explanation for why someone should kidnap their own child.

Worse, was there anyone pointing out just how fatuous that leaked social workers report on Karen Matthews was – the one which criticised her for a fatal “inability to successfully place the children's needs above her own”?

In practice, do you know any mothers who systematically put their children’s needs always before their own? They are ill, depressed, stressed and sleep deprived. Good mothers understand how their children depend on them to look after themselves, rather than entirely subsuming their own physical and mental needs. That is good parenting.

But no, we are in New Labour fantasy-land, where mothers have to be virginal paragons of saintliness or must risk interference from the state. But who is speaking up for parents and their children in the midst of this nonsense? Who is pointing out that this kind of moralistic disconnection from the real world is likely to damage children as much as ‘save’ them?

Before policy-makers run too far down this path, it might be worth looking at the practical implications of policies based on this kind of rhetoric:

1. Those who need public services most begin to sense that professionals are not on their side. That’s why our shiny new, well-equipped local children’s centre is almost entirely empty.

2. There will be more children removed from ordinary, loving families simply because medical professionals don’t know what’s wrong with them.

3. Because all families are suspects, child protection agencies will continue to be overwhelmed, and we’ll get another Baby P and another and another...

But I think at the heart of all this pomposity is the vilification of ordinary parents, and mothers in particular.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Another tragedy of Baby P

There is another tragedy about Baby P. Not just the fate of a child at the hands of adults, but another twist in the rise of what I can only call the child abuse industry.

It means public officials will be even more nervous dealing with children. It means that suspicion will fall on ever more innocent families, and even more vulnerable children will be mistakenly and forcibly removed from their homes, and into the un-tender mercies of local authority care.

The other Baby P tragedy is that it will now be more, not less likely, that his tragedy will be repeated.

Over the past week, a whole army of people have emerged from the woodwork who have reported teachers, doctors and other people to Haringey for suspected abuse, and been ignored. This is not evidence of Haringey’s incompetence; it is one reason why have been so ineffective: because the child abuse industry has persuaded officials that any parents are potential abusers, that every illness that they can find no obvious reason for should bring any family under suspicion.

The truth is that, if every family comes under suspicion, there is no chance at all that welfare authorities can effectively police them. That is not the only reason for the the failure to keep Baby P alive, but it is one of them.

I wouldn’t be so glib as to say that abuse is obvious. Of course it isn’t. But it is a hundred times harder to spot if the field of suspicion covers everyone with children.

Monday 20 October 2008

What on earth is the matter with us?

I have to admit to a teeny bit of frustration when I saw the latest poll that puts the Lib Dems down to 14 per cent. The side effects of the crash, no doubt, but even so…

It is true that we have Vince Cable, who has launched an excellent initiative on tax havens, at precisely the right moment. He also seems to have the preternatural ability to be about 48 hours ahead of the mainstream, which was C. P. Snow’s definition of somebody with a reputation for being far-sighted in their own lifetime.

But that isn’t enough to grab the attention of opinion-formers, which is what we need to do, with a distinctively Liberal approach to the crisis.

It may be, of course, that our spokespeople get ignored even more at times of international crisis, especially when Cameron’s Tories are wriggling on the end of a stick. But when we had a captive radio audience in recent weeks on Any Questions, our answers on the financial crisis were absolutely vacuous – international co-operation, told you so, pinch me please to stay awake.

This is actually one of those unique moments when nobody really knows what to do, where radicalism is not just acceptable but is actually demanded. Where thoughtful party leaders could be heard, especially from parties that used to be known and loved for their quality of thought.

I’ve been wondering why we are failing so badly here, and have come up with two reasons:

1. We haven’t had an economic policy since Keynes breathed his last in 1946. Worse, we don’t think economics is very important, and have developed nothing to say on the subject in recent decades apart from bleating on about sound money occasionally.

2. We have no clear idea who our core voters are. If we had, we would realise immediately what needed to be said – because the challenge now for small business, thriving local economies and the voluntary sector are pretty clear. But we don’t say it. Worse, we let the Tories get into the media about small business before we did.

But somehow those two reasons still don’t seem an adequate explanation. So I’m left pleading with fate like a Greek tragedy – what on earth is the matter with us?

Sunday 28 September 2008

The coming new kind of capitalism

Geoff Payne very kindly sent me the attached essay by John Gray, which says that the collapse of the American model of capitalism is as significant an event as the collapse of the Soviet model. We are now heading for a different kind,he said:

I think that’s absolutely right. The question for Liberals is: what kind?

Because it seems to me that we might have a choice before us. We should certainly express a preference before it is too late. The two kinds of capitalism that remain on offer are:

1. The Chinese version: a technocratic and monopolistic clash of barely regulated giants, where monopoly power is allied to the authoritarian power of the state, where dissent from Tescoworld becomes downright dangerous, all underpinned by the power of sovereign wealth funds.

2. The Liberal free trade version: a model with small enterprise at its heart, where monopolies are cut down to size, where people can raise the finance they need to start in business, and where financial services assume their proper place – as the plumbing function of local enterprise, no longer the fearsome, corrosive tail wagging the dog.

It’s miserably ironic that Liberals should have been searching for the past generation or so for something to say about economics – rather than clinging pathetically to ‘sound money’ long after its funeral oration – when, all along, Liberal free trade needed re-articulation.

It’s simple really. It might feel a little rusty to start with, but we Liberals will soon get the hang of it again.

But we’d better do so quickly, because nobody else is going to do it. And we will otherwise sleepwalk into the long night of Chinese-style corporate capitalism.

Friday 26 September 2008

Cameron and the hedge funds

I’ve just listened to Chris Huhne’s slightly intemperate demolition of Chris Grayling on Any Questions. It was good to listen to, and I hope the Lib Dems have grasped that the Conservative vulnerability on the issue of the global financial meltdown is something that needs to be exploited.

But not just exploited. We need to build a philosophy on it which embraces the other issues as well. That’s what you might call a narrative.

David Cameron’s embrace of the hedge funds is a major Achilles Heel. Not just because they have been his funders but because, overwhelmingly, they are his friends. That’s what the Notting Hill Set is all about.

But Liberals are still some way from forging this into the political weapon we need. We have yet to go beyond the ‘bright ideas’ stage of critique of the abuse of the financial markets. Wouldn’t it be good if there was help to prevent home repossessions, or regulations about mortgage lending. Well, yes, it would – but we need a good deal more than that, and we need it quickly. To be absolutely precise, we need three things:

1. A philosophical underpinning which distinguishes between the free market of productive finance and small business, and the greed and abuse of global finance which has ended up threatening and corroding both.

2. A clear set of proposals that goes beyond the dismal, deeply old-fashioned and disabling idea of ‘sound money’ which has deadened Liberal thinking in this country since Keynes. Global finance has become the tail wagging the real economy: it is the precise opposite of sound money.

3. A New Deal that is capable of rescuing us from financial meltdown, but which can make a parallel contribution to tackling the climate and food crunches too, aware that major investment in the green collar economy will also keep its wheels in motion, just as a commitment to tackling monopoly power and rebuilding local economies will keep us all alive.

The key political debate of the 20th century is over. It isn’t public versus private any more, free market versus state control. It is big versus small, and Liberals need to be clear which side they are on – centralisation or life.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Slaves of some defunct economist

It really is amazing how timid the British authorities are in the face of financial meltdown, despite what Gordon Brown said this afternoon.

The Americans really understand finance – they have a culture and history dominated by financial innovation and banking collapse. The British naively swallow all that stuff about sound money: they really think it’s real – as if anything that cascades round the world at the rate of $3 trillion a day can ever be sound. The authorities watch with fingers crossed as the markets plummet, believing they are watching the free market in action – when actually it is a perversion of the free market, a caricature that corrodes it.

Lloyd George intervened in the banking crisis that preceded the First World War by getting the Treasury to print their own notes. Maybe the Brown government would do the equivalent if they had to, but I wonder.

Keynes had it right when he said that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Unfortunately for us, the current batch of practical men now rule the world. They certainly rule the UK.

Monday 22 September 2008

Reclaiming free trade for sanity

For most of my adult life, we have wrestled with a narrow interpretation of the free market which has come to dominate the globe.

That interpretation seems suddenly to have reached the logical limits. There are no investment banks left on Wall Street, many of the great American financial institutions – and some of the British ones – are on the equivalent of welfare hand-outs from the taxpayer (though their chiefs still seem to be drawing their vast salaries). It is time we wrested the idea of open markets and free trade from their clutches so that we don’t lose the baby with the bathwater.

Yet, in this country at least, where are the politicians? The Conservatives are still defending the hedge funds. Labour (as far as one can tell today) is struggling with plans to keep the excesses going. What are these proposed nurseries for two-year-olds but a hidden subsidy for ridiculously high house prices? It is up to the Clegg/Cable show to set out the way forward.

The truth is that this financial services roller coaster must end, and must end because it is corrosive of free markets – it obstructs small business, bypasses enterprise and innovation except of the narrowest kinds, and threatens to undermine a great deal more than ordinary people’s thrifty livelihoods.

This isn't just my peculiar take on it. The Ur-hedge funder George Soros said that he could believe the financial system would crash far easier than he could believe it would struggle on. The Ur-investor Warren Buffett talked years ago about derivatives as “financial weapons of mass destruction”.

No, it’s time for something else: a return to Liberal free trade based on enterprise and sustainable finance for innovation, not a handful of crumbs from a passing ubermensch.

But it takes a long time for politicians to realise the argument is shifting. It isn’t any more – hasn’t been for some years – about free trade versus state control. We all know pretty much where we stand on that, within some margins. It is big versus small. And when our financial system fraudulently assigns to itself the label of free trade – when it actually allows the big to corrode the small – then it needs good deal more changes than Brown and Cameron are planning.

Friday 19 September 2008

Why the FSA hasn't done nearly enough

I suppose the people most to blame for the financial meltdown, apart from those who invented collateralised debt obligations – funny how we don’t know their names – are the credit ratings agencies which were conned into giving them a nod of approval. But what makes me most hot under the collar at the moment is the sheer hypocrisy from the cheerleaders of the financial world.

All those columnists, from the FT to the Evening Standard, now complaining about the rampant greed and risk-taking, were notably silent about while it was going on.

At least the Conservatives are sticking by their convictions, or at least their funders, and defending the hedge funds. Long may they continue to do so – it could be the main differentiator with their opponents.

They also imply that the financial system is fine, were it not for a handful of sharks. In fact it is semi-corrupt, has drawn such power to itself that it can swallow up the resources of all the central banks in the world in about eight hours of normal trading, and bears little relation to useful productive finance. It is corroding the conditions for open markets not enabling them.

Only about five per cent of the $3 trillion a day that roars through the wires has anything to do with real exchange of goods and services; all the rest is speculation. It is speculation that we all collude with, in a sense, in our pensions and investments. But otherwise it lays waste, and where it builds, it serves only to create incredible fortunes for a very few.

This isn’t the way forward for the world, and it is time we worked out what to do about it. We need a new system, and the system will be better if it isn’t created overnight in the eye of the next storm.

Because a four month ban on shorting bank stocks is not nearly enough. The hedge funds will short the next most vulnerable entities out there – the currencies of the nations that are pouring unsustainable billions into propping up the financial markets. They will drive down the pound.

That is why the Asian currency crisis of a decade ago was a dress rehearsal for this moment. An anonymous hedge fund manager called the Australian Treasury minister at the height of the storm and told him he was outnumbered and must submit. The Thai treasury minister phoned the IMF in a panic, and found it was the middle of the night in Washington and he had to talk to the security man. Patients were turfed out of hospital beds at bayonet point when currencies crashed, and their hospitals were made suddenly bankrupt.

Did Gordon Brown act, let alone the Federal Reserve? No, it wasn’t our currencies under attack. But it could be, and one day it will be.

Fast forward a decade. Can you imagine Chinese hedge funds driving down the US dollar? Or the Chinese sovereign fund doing so? I can – and that thought alone guarantees an end to this corrupt system. Let’s make sure it’s sooner rather than later.

Thursday 18 September 2008

That's a quarter of a million fewer votes, then

To my absolute astonishment, I visited the Total Politics stand at the Lib Dem conference, and found this blog was 182nd in the top 500 UK political blogs. This is so peculiar and undeserved, especially since I haven’t posted anything since going on holiday to Sweden, that I’m duty bound to get blogging again.

Especially during this financial crisis, where I actually have something to say, and I will try to post every night.

But before we talk about the end of the financial world, just one word on the current Liberal Revival. Nick Clegg’s speech was delivered with enormous verve and personality. The vote on Make it Happen went the right way (for reasons I’ll explain if anyone complains). One of the energy company speakers in the fringe meeting was handcuffed to the table. All good stuff. But there was one extraordinary blemish, one insane decision by the party, which can’t go by without a rant.

The massively counter-productive decision to use computers to phone a quarter of a million people with the Lib Dem message. A sure way to lose a quarter of a million votes.

There appears to be an inate weakness in the Liberal psyche, which means they get very excited about sophisticated technological solutions just when the vast majority of the population finds them crass, intrusive and more than a little creepy. In fact, the more human the computerised callers sound, the creepier the experience.

Ten years ago, I read an outraged article in the USA by a losing Democrat candidate whose opponent had used computerised push-polling against them. That meant the computerised canvasser phoned under the guise of an unbiased pollster, but actually inserted messages according to the answers they received.

At one point in the interview, the computer asked who the interviewee will be voting for. The candidate was complaining bitterly that his opponent’s computer was programmed, on hearing his name, to reply: “Why are you voting for him, he’s a jerk.”

Being phoned by a computer, in these days where people increasingly long for authenticity – certainly in their own living room – is an experience that gives most of us the heebie-jeebies. Not everyone perhaps, but particularly people with the kind of independent mindset – those with a horror of corporate power – who tend to vote Lib Dem.

Let’s face it, anyone these days who allows themselves to buy anything over the phone from a computer – especially one of them which leaves long pauses while the phone bill clocks up – is a loser. If a computer phones me on behalf of anyone, I shall probably re-think my own vote.

Friday 25 July 2008

Why Clegg is right about tax

I keep seeing concerned Facebook messages and letters to Lib Dem News about the ambition set out by Nick Clegg to lower taxes. I've seen the message from the Beveridge Group about this, and Richard Grayson is right that it is a policy shift.

I think I'm on the other side, though. I don't think, and I don't think the Lib Dem pre-manifesto implies, that we should give any less priority to public services. The trouble with simply accepting Gordon Brown's spending levels as they are, without any demur, is that:

1. We have to accept without question his view of efficiency: the unprecedented increase in public spending since 2001, with very little to show for it - because it is delivered centrally, through a target and control system that renders local services increasingly distant and ineffective. Anyone who works in the public and voluntary sector will be aware of the staggering waste of resources by centralised, unaccountable quangos. The truth is that New Labour centralisation is making our public services less effective and this needs to be at the centre of our message. Simply accepting current budgets as they lets the government off this crucial hook.

2. We have to accept without question his white elephants: the £12bn on the NHS computer, similar amounts on ID cards, £70bn just to decommission nuclear reactors, even more to replace Trident and underwrite a new generation of nuclear reactors. And Iraq. Simply accepting current budgets means we have nothing to say about these, except the principle of the ideas - nothing to say about the vast waste of money.

Thrift is a core Liberal value, albeit rather a forgotten one. If we have ambitions about reducing the overall level of tax - and I think we should at the moment - they have to be part of a much larger ambition, to localise public services and make them effective, and to reveal New Labour spending as bogus, destructive and wasteful.

But if we accept their budgets as they are, we can't say any of that.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

We don't need government approved 'good' doctors

It isn’t that somehow making sure doctors are competent, and stay that way, is a bad idea. The problem is the way these things get measured in our miserably utilitarian Labour government.

Try reading an Ofsted report these days. You wonder why you have read through the whole thing without learning anything. It’s because inspectors use a computer programme which involves assigning numerical grades for various aspects, and the programme then translates these into approved sentences.

Similar programmes are being used to write equally mushy and meaningless school reports.

Try asking a health visitor for advice. They will simply test you, and your question, against approved government advice on the subject, and you will worry a little about the way they look at you.

Try appointing a new company to mark SATS tests, using an approved tick box commissioning system, and you find you have appointed an incompetent corporate that is very good at doing bids.

What will the effects be of subjecting doctors to the same tests? They will give you approved gobbets of government advice, they will run the simplest question through laborious online expert systems, and you will wonder whether you have been told anything at all.

It all comes down to Richard Rogers’ gripe about his cities report. He complained that the government had taken out the word ‘beautiful’ as an objective for our cities and replaced it with the word ‘good design’. The same impoverishment of language is happening in Ofsted inspections (‘good schools’) and now I fear we will get government-approved ‘good doctors’ as well.

Wednesday 2 July 2008

The real indefensible postcode lottery

I had my first experience of a school admissions appeal panel on Friday, a strange experience. Robin had been denied a place at our local primary school because we live in a long cul-de-sac in the middle of a large allotment, and the council refused to count the path we use through the allotments to get anywhere on that side of the house.

Still, we won, so I can’t complain. But sitting in the waiting room with the other parents, each with a thick pile of notes and documents in front of them, I suddenly realised how unfair the current schools admissions process has become. And it’s all because of the weasel phrase ‘catchment area’.

When we use a phrase like that, we assume that catchment areas are like constituencies – that their boundaries rub up against each other and that everybody lives in one. The clear implication is that people can choose between sending their children to the local school or to a school outside their catchment area, and that this is known as ‘choice’.

Actually this is all nonsense. The truth is that many people – probably most people – actually live outside the catchment areas of schools, which breathe in and out according to how many places they have. Most of them live outside the catchment area of any school in the north of my London borough (Croydon), and it is this category of children who really get a raw deal – allocated somewhere they haven’t chosen, maybe a long way away.

When commentators apply the phrase ‘postcode lottery’ to health, it doesn’t really fit. Different areas have different priorities after all. But the catchment areas of schools, shrunken as they are, mean a real postcode lottery. If you live outside them, you have a far lower chance of going to the school you want – any school, never mind the local one. You are a plaything of bureaucrats, a hopeless supplicant against the system. And all in the name of ‘choice’.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

Why parents get the blame

So the McCanns are innocent. Well, there’s a surprise (by which I mean it isn’t)…

Let’s leave aside for a second the kind of pressure they must have been under from tabloid tittle-tattle, over and above the horror of losing their child. Let’s leave aside the blood sport in bars and dinner parties fought out at their expense.

What really scares me about this whole affair is the way that professionals – police, doctors, certainly child protection officers – consistently fill any mystery in these situations with the conviction that the parents must have done it.

Why should this be? I suppose there’s a natural unease about mysteries among professionals these days. They are afraid they will be blamed for not having the answers. But it is worse than that: the child protection industry has become so powerful that it appears to be almost their duty to suspect the parents. Time after time, as a result, parents who are faced with the tragedy of losing their child are immediately faced with a double one, when they find themselves under suspicion, arrest or worse.

This is a terrifying injustice, and parallel to the phenomenon that John Hemming has been revealing about the family courts, where children are removed from parents on spurious grounds – protected by legal secrecy – and find even those lawyers who are supposed to be helping them are actually colluding with the other side.

There is a principle about power we need to understand here. When people exercise power with impunity, it always becomes abusive. When a whole sector of public professionals believe that parents are the true villains, that principle becomes seriously frightening.

Sunday 29 June 2008

We must be a crusade or nothing

Of all the post-Henley posts, I find myself most in agreement with Bernard Salmon - people will not vote Lib Dem (certainly sustainably) unless they know what we are for. That may not have been obvious before, but it is increasingly important now. Neil Stockley and I have been banging on about the importance of 'narrative' for some years now, with some effect but not much. I think it's time to express it in a different way, and like this...

The truth is that, at this precise moment of Lib Dem history, it increasingly matters that we are being squeezed intellectually. We certainly need a narrative that draws our values together in the form of story, but we need something more. We need an ambitious and far-reaching critique - either of the way our economy has been organised or of why our public services are grinding to a halt. Or both.

We need to express this in a way that can attract a wide cross-section of opinion-formers, and in such a way that it amounts to a crusade, and so rooted in Lib Dem values that our rivals can't adopt it for a decade. Nothing else will do. We are some way from this now, though Nick Clegg has touched on themes - just as Bernard did - that can provide the raw materials, about rebuilding human-scale institutions and busting New Labour's business monopolies.

This is hard. It means we have to articulate a critique of the status quo that is so new and far-reaching that it is bound to break out of the narrow news agenda of the BBC. It may make us seem irrelevant to the mainstream debate in the short-term. We will need an opinion-formers strategy to force our way back into the debate.

But we have to do it, because there is an even harder bit. If we can do this, we will hold our own against Cameron and benefit from the coming break-up of the Labour Party. But if we can't, and we fall back on the current combination of inserting minor policy suggestions into the media and then campaigning on empty, we have to grit our teeth in the face of the slow collapse of our support. That will pass slowly to a rival third force which, flawed as it is, is organised around a crusade. In other words, we risk watching cities going the way of Norwich and Brighton where Lib Dems were pushed aside by Greens.

To prove the point, I can predict the next handful of places to go the same way, but won't because it is a hostage to fortune. But I can do so privately, if I meet anyone in the real world...

Wednesday 18 June 2008

Columbus and Cabot: pioneers of intellectual property

Poor old Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci, slipping by the week out of respectable history – Columbus as a brutal maniac, Cabot as a failure and Vespucci as a liar. Why don’t we give them their due?

Because actually, they didn’t get to America first. The place was already populated, and the Vikings, the Chinese and probably the Bristol fishermen had long since made a similar crossing. Nor did they understood where they had arrived, though there is new evidence that Cabot may have done so.

No, what guaranteed them a place in history when those before are all but forgotten is that they worked out a method whereby they could cross the Atlantic and profit by it. Explorers before them had either sailed on behalf of a monarch (and received a knighthood and grateful thanks) or had done so secretly (and had kept their discoveries secret for fear that the whole world would make the profits instead). In other words, Columbus and Cabot weren't so much the Atlantic pioneers, but they were pioneers in the pursuit of intellectual property.

And because they never have their stories told together, as they originally were – and because academics avoid the likely explanations in favor of what they can absolutely prove. The truth is that all the circumstantial evidence suggests that Cabot and Columbus worked together, then plunged into debt, fell out and watched each other carefully and suspiciously for the rest of their lives (they were born at the same time, in the same place, frequented the same docks in Lisbon and Bristol, fell into debt at exactly the same time and pedaled identical plans around the crowned heads of Europe). That’s a very different story – of a race between business rivals, rather than epic scientific discovery.

Or that’s what I’ve tried to say in my new book Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci and the Race for America.

Monday 2 June 2008

Targets: just say no

The four police forces which have rejected Whitehall targets are just the beginning. There is a revolution about to begin in the way our public services are run – and some more questions.

Once they have discovered that targets are like the Emperor’s New Clothes – you just say no and they disappear – then there is a question about exactly who quangos and public services are accountable to, and how.

With that proviso, the most exciting aspect of this change is that the police forces have grasped that the way to deal with distorting targets is not to reform them, loosen them or water them down. It is to recruit the kind of staff who can take initiative and responsibility, build local relationships, and then manage them face to face.

See the full version of this rant on Comment is Free:

Thursday 24 April 2008

Tackling monopoly power

Over the years debating fair trade versus free trade, I have come to the slightly woolly conclusion that they don’t have to be opposed to each other. But that does mean making a clear distinction between Liberal free trade (the right of free people and communities to do business with each other, or not) and Conservative free trade (the right of the rich and powerful to ride roughshod over anyone).

What makes the difference between the two, and guarantees some chance for Liberal free trade to flourish, is being vigilant against the abuse of monopoly power. This used to be a central plank of Liberal economic policy until the 1950s and 60s, then – for some reason – the party forgot about it.

This was immensely damaging because the Labour tradition wasn’t interested, regarding anything about business as anathaema, and the Conservative tradition was primarily concerned with the rights of the powerful and the economic fantasy of trickle-down.

As a result, we wake up this week to hear the miserably pusillanimous report of the Competition Commission on BAA, wondering if it was possible that their monopoly of UK airports was damaging consumers.

Well, of course it is damaging consumers. How could it not be, when the main focus of BAA is currently to keep consumers captive and in their shops and to pay off their hideous debt mountain? Where is the pressure to be nicer to the poor benighted passengers?

Why this extraordinary ignorance about the effects of monopoly? Is it New Labour ideology? Is it a naïve believe in the efficiencies of scale? Actually, having met a few of them at the Competition Commission, I think it’s worse than that – it is a massively naïve belief that if a business situation exists, then consumers must have chosen it to be so.

Either way, it is time Liberal Democrats made the issue of monopoly their own.

I feel this very strongly this week because of an article in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend about how Tesco was dealing with food price inflation by squeezing their suppliers.

This might help consumers in the short-run. But if they abuse the monopoly power shared by the Big Four supermarkets and squeeze these suppliers too far, as the article hinted, then we will lose our local capacity and will face massive inflation as the supermarkets seek out suppliers overseas.

When you think that the Big Four currently abuse their monopoly position by insisting that they can pay suppliers after 90 days, rather than the 30 days accepted by their small competitors – giving themselves a rolling interest free loan equal to two months of their entire stock – the chances of them accidentally rolling over a portion of UK agriculture is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

And now that Tesco is trying to gaol critics in Thailand, and silence the press in this country with their ferocious legal action against the Guardian – we libertarians need to keep our attention as closely on them as we do on the antics of their friends in the government.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

Missing narrative

For goodness sake. Why is it that our London mayoral campaigns are so bad at projecting any kind of big idea or vision?

I’ve just watched Brian Paddick, an excellent candidate in so many ways, on the Newsnight debate. His opening statement raised a couple of problems, notably knife crime, but offered no believable solution. Even his passionate explanation at the end about what he would do about knife crime was too bland and unspecific to seep into people's minds. In fact, the kind of local partnership between police and neighbourhoods is exactly what was done so successfully in New York, and Brian should have said so far more explicitly.

Nor has there been any distinctive analysis about what’s gone wrong with London: the greedy decision by Livingstone to add another million people to the population of London, with predictable results for transport and public services.

Why is it that politicians, and Lib Dems in particular, are so naive about this - that somehow, just by mentioning a few problems, people will suddenly vote for them? Or that anyone will remember what they say when they haven't the faintest idea what they exist for?

Friday 21 March 2008

Why Chinese capitalism is spreading to the West

Watching the events unfolding in Tibet has made me think about the strange combination of socialism and capitalism in China, where free trade has emphatically not created the conditions for freedom. I’ve been wondering – as Hilaire Belloc predicted nearly a century ago – whether there isn’t a new kind of capitalism, East and West, which is so devoted to big systems that individual freedom counts for nothing

The current trends are such that it might be time to revisit Belloc’s The Servile State – and preferably before the Beijing Olympics. Because, as he predicted, we now face a tyrannical combination of capitalism and socialism that uses the rhetoric of free trade, but is turning its back on competition – and all in the name of ‘efficiency’. This contains the seeds of a new kind of oppression: the subjugation of everything to corporate efficiency and government-sponsored profitability.

You can see it in the new phenomenon of Chinese socialist capitalism, with its brutal suppression of communities, tradition, dissent and much else besides.

You can see it in the phenomenon of Bush-Cheney American capitalism, with its $10 billion monopoly contract to Halliburton in Iraq.

You can even see it in Gordon Brown-style UK capitalism, with its consolidations, its dwindling of potential bidders for local waste contracts, where you can have anything you like – as long as it’s Tesco, with a security guard watching you from a chair by the door.

See longer version of this post on my newsletter:

Thursday 13 March 2008

Only connect II: this time, skyscrapers

Brian Paddick was absolutely right in his condemnation of Ken Livingstone’s insane policy to destroy London’s skyline with tall, inhuman, glass monuments to the vanity of architects and the greed of corporations.

I was pleased and relieved that he did, having wondered rather what he thought on the issue. But why do politicians, and Liberal Democrats in particular, leave themselves so open to the charge of empty-headed bandwagon-jumping?

If we just say we agree with the furore about tall buildings, will anyone remember? Of course not. If they do remember, will they believe it derives from a distinctively Lib Dem analysis? Definitely not – any more than they do when we get excited about post office closures.

Brian badly needs to explain the background, explain why we are concerned, and why Ken is making such a mistake. Because the Mayor’s policy is currently the old-fashioned socialist objective of growing London’s population by an extra million, squeezed somehow into these glass towers. That is the explanation for the enthusiasm for skyscrapers, and the constantly repeated instructions to developers to make them higher. Read the LDA’s London Plan, and you’ll see.

What we need to do is to condemn this for what it is: short-sighted, selfish sucking of population and resources into an already over-crowded city, at the expense of our sanity, green spaces and traditionally human-scale city. I queued for 20 minutes just to get out of Leicester Square tube station recently. Goodness knows what it will be like with Ken’s extra million – people don’t stay in their towers, you see.

So, for goodness sake, let’s make these connections. Let’s go for a coherent critique – on this and other issues. Let’s raise the level of debate to a higher moral plane (not just whether London looks pretty or not). Otherwise it’s all so forgettable.

Sunday 9 March 2008

The supplicant state

Simon Titley is at the very forefront of the attempt to renew the intellectual underpinnings of the Lib Dems, and his commentary in this month’s Liberator is an important contribution to this:

The real division in the party is now, he says, about what it means to be human. “Are we primarily partners, parents and relatives; friends, neighbours and colleagues? Or do we define ourselves more in terms of the things we buy?... Do the Liberal Democrats envisage a society of active citizens or supplicant consumers?”

That is exactly the right question (though I might quibble with the use of New Labour-speak like ‘active citizens’), and Simon is quite right that there is a dividing line in the party over this issue which is preventing us from articulating a genuinely Liberal narrative.

Where I take issue with him is exactly where that dividing line lies. Simon identifies the wrong-headed wing with those who subsume this human relationships within economic relationships, with the idea that people are individual consumers faced with a series of passive choices.

That is right, but Simon misses out the other side of the argument. Because that reduction of people into dependent supplicants is not confined to those can see no further than narrow consumer choices in public services; it is alive and well among those who don’t believe in choice at all – who are quite happy that people should be grateful but passive recipients of services defined by the local state.

Because, in practice, the wrong-headed idea that we oppose is not confined either the private or the public sector. It is an insidious combination of them both – the idea that people are defined narrowly by their needs, and should be administered by giant agencies part-public, part-private, by huge databases and remote call centres.

This is the new centralised supplicant state, and Simon is absolutely right that it is the heart of a new Lib Dem critique of public services. Not because the supplicant state is too public sector, or too private sector – it borrows from the worst of both – but because it is deeply alienating, deeply inefficient and deeply ineffective.

Thursday 28 February 2008

How to boost the bottled water industry

The Evening Standard’s campaign for tap water in restaurants is being given good coverage – at least in their own newspaper. It’s a good cause as well. Why should we encourage the bottled water industry to jet the stuff all over the world, when we are also paying through our water rates to clean the stuff in the taps?

But then, won’t those who sell bottled water be delighted by government plans to put fluoride in the water. I’ll be buying a lot more bottled water myself just to avoid the government’s compulsory medication.

Friday 15 February 2008

Post offices: only connect

Why is it that politicians don’t make basic connections that make themselves easier to understand and help people remember what they’re saying?

I’ve puzzled over this for ages. Is it that their brains are shaped like government departments, with clear demarcation lines between issues? Is it that they are stuck with the usual categories of journalists?

Either way, why is it that Lib Dems are not making more connections about the catastrophic closure of post offices?

The post office issue is important on its own, but it looks like just another bandwagon campaign. Connect it to the rest and you can raise the level of debate to something more connected and crusading.

Every sub-post office that closes, according to research by the think-tank I work for, reduces money flows in the local ward by an average of £300,000 a year. That is seriously impoverishing.

Nor is it just post offices either. We are losing banks, pubs, greengrocers, police stations, playing fields and all the rest, by deliberate policy – a kind of sucking of the life out of our communities.

And there’s the Competition Commission today saying that the problem is there isn’t enough competition between identical supermarket formats, while the high streets continue to suffer from this kind of monopolistic thinking.

So for goodness sake, let’s try to stop sounding like politicians campaigning on small local issues, and make the connections to the slow impoverishment of so many communities, and their transformation into dependent supplicants to big corporations and big government agencies….

Monday 28 January 2008

Creeping technocracy in the NHS

Yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph had a story about how ‘doctors’ believed old people shouldn’t necessarily be treated on the NHS. On closer examination, only two thirds of them seemed to have agreed – and to the highly ambiguous proposition “not treated when it would not benefit them for long”.

Everyone could probably agree to aspects of that: we should not “strive officiously to keep alive” – at least if we want people to die peacefully and in some control about when and where they do so. Even so, it's a worrying trend that even doctors are beginning to support the outrageous status quo, and even maybe extend it. It’s hard even now to get proper treatment on the NHS when you’re over 70 for strokes or depression.

Any extension of this would be a creeping, inhuman piece of functionalism. It goes along with the horrific way the medical profession is beginning to talk about 'harvesting' human organs. What is it about the medical profession that it swallows the government's mores and attitudes so completely?

I've been wondering whether it is something to do with the way that New Labour has managed our public services that they have been encouraging this kind of inhumanity among the professionals who work there. Are they so desperate to balance the books that they are prepared to accept this slow withdrawal of care from anyone the state deems unproductive?

Either way, it is an attitude that seems to fit with the giant, technocratic and decreasingly ineffective institutions - schools and hospitals and others too - that New Labour has created over the last decade. Or does it?

Saturday 19 January 2008

Trapped inside a metaphor for New Labour

I’ve just been to the newly refurbished London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, with the family in tow. The elderly buses and trains were rather wonderful (the ones in the museum, I mean), the exhibition was brilliant, but – it made me think, presumably thanks to Heritage Lottery, about the miserable straitjacket that New Labour wants us to live in.

Because this was a museum without a map. Where we were expected to follow the arrows, take the lift to the top – it wouldn’t stop anywhere else – and follow the designated route slavishly downwards.

We were, in fact, issued with a map without any information at all about which exhibits were where. Once inside, there was nobody to tell us where to go.

Now, you might say: haven’t they worked it all out to give us the optimal experience? But that really is New Labour speaking – as if nobody could have any specific knowledge and have just come for that (the design? The tapestries for the innovative seats on the Underground?). As if nobody might prefer to go round a different way (too inconvenient).

The shop was, of course, fully staffed. Rather like our airports have become mere adjuncts to massive retailing operations, I fear our museums are going the same way.

So I learned a great deal about the history of London transport, but rather more about Blair, Brown and Livingstone’s utilitarian Britain.

Sunday 13 January 2008

Lib Dem localism vs. Tory localism

I arrived late at the one-day conference and missed the big speech (and the drinkable tea). Having heard what Nick Clegg said about public services, I’ve been checking out the blogs this evening and – rather to my surprise, actually – they seem to be as enthusiastic as I am.

Of course, there are difficult details that will have to be hammered out about the Free Schools policy – letting local people set up local schools, under local authority oversight – but it is still for me a transformative moment. It is, at last, a genuinely Liberal policy on public services, and (I might add) badly needed in my own area in north Croydon, where children are corralled into too few places in mainly indifferent schools managed by a cash-strapped, unimaginative Tory borough.

There have been blogs in the last few hours pointing to the experience of Summerhill and – more relevant this – the Hartland Small School. We might also learn from the Danish small schools movement. Taken together, this is exactly the stuff we need to put flesh on the otherwise empty phrase ‘people’s politics’.

But we have been late arriving: Michael Gove has already spelled out related ideas for the Tories, which leaves us with a problem – how do we distinguish Lib Dem localism from Tory localism, without falling back so boringly on claiming they don’t mean it? This is what I would suggest:

1. Cameron localism is the apotheosis of the quango state: his new schools are not knitted into other networks of local schools, but run by a Whitehall department, as the academies are now. This is not localism; it’s centralisation.

2. Embed what we are saying about localism in a much more fundamental critique of public services. Why don’t they work? Why are Beveridge’s Five Giants still alive and well? Partly because of centralisation, partly because frontline staff and customers have been so side-lined – but partly also because only human-scale services, based on relationships between professional and client, create sustainable change. Yet Cameron is advocating Gershon style cuts to exactly these aspects.

3. Link public service centralisation to economic centralisation: the narrowing of choice to a few giant corporate supermarkets, waste contractors, etc. And do so in such a way that at least one of Cameron’s factions finds it impossible to follow us into radical anti-trust legislation.

Tuesday 8 January 2008

History, thrift and nuclear energy

Say what you like about New Labour, under either Blair or Brown, and you come back to two extreme truths about them: they are extreme modernists and obsessive utilitarians. Their blind spot, therefore, is history. They don’t believe in it or understand it. Hence Iraq, and goodness knows how many other misjudgements which a simply knowledge of history would have avoided.

This also applies to recent history. They don’t remember what went wrong with nuclear energy last time, don’t even think it’s important to know, don’t see that it’s relevant. My feeling is that, despite their announcement, only one or two new nuclear power stations will actually be built, and for the same reason as before:

· The vast expense: nuclear energy is not economic if you include decommissioning, security and insurance (nuclear power stations are not commercially insurable, for obvious reasons).

· Public concern about the vats of high level nuclear waste, hanging around waiting for some kind of viable storage solution.

· The terrorist threat, to the plutonium, the waste and the power stations themselves.

In the end, just like last time, the Treasury will pull the plug – but we will have wasted tens of billions and maybe another decade to invest in efficient decentralised energy systems.

But it does provide a political opportunity for the Lib Dems to revive the traditional Liberal campaign for thrift. Look at the waste, after all: nuclear energy (£15 billion), ID cards, NHS computer fantasies, Iraq, bailing out Northern Rock. Isn't there some kind of theme emerging here?