Friday 30 March 2018

Why do voters hate the centre left?

A version of this blog post first appeared on the Radix website...

What is a progressive these days? I find myself asking this question constantly for a range of reasons which those who know me will understand. It isn’t that I don’t know the conventional answers. It is that I’m not sure why I find them now so annoyingly familiar.

It could be something to do with turning sixty shortly, were it not for the fact that it clearly isn’t just me.

I look at the rise of intolerant forces. Then I look at the progressive political forces ranged against them, using the same old language they have always used, and the political defences for civilisation don’t seem very strong or convincing.

These are urgent questions now that every set of conventions, economic and political, seem to be in a state of flux.

The problem appears to be that, facing voters, there is no political force so battered and defeated across Europe as the centre left. For some reason, voters have turned their back on them without mercy. They are still in power in Sweden but hardly anywhere else.

Why? We badly need an answer. They have hardly been responsible for the shape of the economic doctrines that have dominated politics for the past four decades. It isn’t their fault – or is it? Here are my very tentative answers:

  • They compromised fatally with the vacuous and technocratic economic orthodoxy which has been allowed to undermine communities and lives.
  • They led the charge for the New Public Management of targets and other tacit forms of centralisation, which have hollowed out our services and institutions and set them against us (if you doubt me, try applying for benefits, attending an obesity clinic or phoning HMRC – just not at the same time…).
  • They have led a kind of handwringing style of politics that prefers symbolic gestures to real solutions that will actually change anything – not because they are cynical, but because they no longer believe in the practical possibility of change.
  • They abandoned families to their fate by embracing zero hour contracts just to bring down the unemployment figures – and remain stuck in a Fabian attitude that nothing business does matters very much as long as they burnish the welfare state.
  • Centre left political types are mainly behind the scourge of political correctness, which seems to have developed as a kind of language for the cognoscenti - again it is a substitute for effective action (take down the statues of historic slave-owners because you can't touch the modern ones).
Is that an adequate explanation? No, it isn’t, but it goes some way to explaining my own feelings at least.

The real problem emerges when I start to wonder what we can do about it, given that the centre left is in free fall. Because it implies a huge pressure on the fissure inside the Lib Dems.

My party represents a merger between Liberals and the very forces that are in free fall. It isn’t an answer to say that the differences between the two ideologies of social democracy and liberalism have now disappeared, because that is precisely the problem. Three decades after the merger, the party speaks social democrat very well – it is easier, after all – and has begun to forget how to speak liberal.

I wrote a blog about the continuing distinction between them here (I was told by one correspondent that I was ‘off message’, which I was quite proud of).

Over recent years of blogging, I have tried to set out a little of what being a Liberal now needs to mean, but I’m not sure I have had the slightest influence.

It is now getting late and urgent that they remember their radical roots, and slough off some of the old technocratic Fabianism which is dragging them down – before the waves finally close over the centre left.

I hope they do.

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Tuesday 13 March 2018

Columbus and Amazon: one objective

This blog first appeared on the Radix site:
Ten years ago, my book about the rivalry between Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci was published (Toward the Setting Sun, still available!). And for me, two facts became pretty apparent – first, the circumstantial evidence is pretty strong that Columbus and Cabot worked together and then fell out. Second, their respective contracts with the monarchs of Spain and England were revolutionary and remarkably similar.

I won’t go into the details here but I have done elsewhere: what the contracts do is give them royal protection to take a slice of every shipment from the new lands they discovered. What they wanted to do was become the ultimate rentiers, extracting money from trade from the New World in perpetuity.

They nearly succeeded too. Cabot disappeared, at least from history. The court case that covered Columbus and his family’s claims was not settled for another two centuries – Jarndyce versus Jarndyce was but a pale reflection of reality.

Every generation or so someone attempts this kind of heist and we are in the midst of another one now. The campaigner Stacy Mitchell is no longer a lone voice in the USA on the threat that Amazon poses to the economy. Her new article in the American political journal The Nation now carries the headline ‘Amazon Doesn’t Just Want to Dominate the Market—It Wants to Become the Market’. That is what reminded me of Columbus.

When you allow any institution, public or private, to be the market, you give them unprecedented power, politically and economically. And you inevitably raise transaction costs for everyone.

It also corrodes those businesses which use it. This is how Stacy puts it:

“Setting up shop on Amazon’s platform has helped Gazelle Sports stabilize its sales. But it’s also put the company on a treacherous footing. Amazon, which did not respond to an interview request, touts its platform as a place where entrepreneurs can “pursue their dreams.” Yet studies indicate that the relationship is often predatory. Harvard Business School researchers found that when third-party sellers post new products, Amazon tracks the transactions and then starts selling many of their most popular items itself. And when it’s not using the information that it gleans from sellers to compete against them, Amazon uses it to extract an ever larger cut of their revenue.”

It may not seem so yet on this side of the Atlantic, where we tolerate tyrants in peculiar ways, but in the USA it is increasingly clear that Amazon’s days are numbered.

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