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What’s the left for? Indeed what does left mean? July 2, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, The Left.

William Keegan in the Observer is usually very readable, and his latest column this last weekend is no exception. In it he ponders the nature of the current dispensation under the Tories and reflects on how the Labour Party is currently going through its own long night of the soul after its recent defeat at the polls. He also has some sharp thoughts on the latest calls to cut the top rate of tax from 45% to 40% in the UK, and notes that Nigel Lawson now claims it will cost next to nothing, while recalling sardonically that back in the day the fact that the cost was £8bn was hidden away in the small print.

But he also has this:

…it was interesting to read in a Times article that when party adviser Stewart Wood was asked by Gordon Brown why he had joined the party, he replied: “To help the bottom 25%.” To which Brown responded: “Yes, but we mustn’t say that or we will never win.”

There lies the explanation for all the “prudence” and clandestine attempts at redistribution – although, given the tendency of globalised capitalism to widen the gap between rich and poor, it was often a case of preventing the gap becoming worse rather than actually narrowing it.

He’s probably right that some in social democracy function(ed) in that sort of fiscal stealth mode. Though one would have to question whether being quiet about it was quite the way to seize the narrative, let alone to effect real change.

But there’s a deeper point too. Is that what it’s all about – to ‘help’ the bottom 25%? It seems a curiously stunted ambition for leftists. I’m not a Leninist, or not much of one, and my Marxism is a bit all over the shop these days. But to me the point of the left is to transform the structures and the system and to move to more democratic and equitable social and political forms.

In fairness contemporary social democracy doesn’t really speak of such ambitions, though it once did, even if even in only hushed tones. But the idea of the social democratic left controlling capitalism has proven in practice to operate more like capitalism controlling the social democratic left and pitching it headlong in a rightward direction.

And it’s interesting isn’t it that Keegan himself in the second part of the paragraph above acknowledges that problem.

An ideology uncontained… June 16, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Austerity, British Politics, Economy, European Politics.

This should be required reading for some, a piece on research that unsurprisingly suggests:

In a wide-ranging analysis of Britain’s performance in the decades before and after 1979, economists at the University of Cambridge say the liberal economic policies pioneered by Thatcher have been accompanied by higher unemployment and inequality.

But, more importantly:

At the same time, contrary to widespread belief, GDP and productivity have grown more slowly since 1979 compared with the previous three decades.

It’s always been remarkable how tenaciously the trope of productivity and growth increasing under Thatcherism has taken hold, and how uncritically it has been received both on right and parts of the left, and former left. I suppose that’s the thing with narratives, they provide massive simplifications that allow for reiteration of certain points, whether accurate or not.

There was one area that there was change… but… a double-edged sword this:

“Financial liberalisation was the sole aspect of the liberal market reforms introduced into the UK, initially in 1971-73 and more consistently from 1979, which materially increased the rate of economic growth,” the paper said.
“The freeing up of finance led to a huge, and eventually unsustainable, expansion of household borrowing. This temporarily accelerated the growth of consumer spending and hence GDP and of house prices, but in 2008 contributed to a banking crisis and the longest recession for over a century.”

Important, perhaps, to note that it was the ideological approach that led to the more recent events rather than ‘Thatcherism’ as such

But note again how the crisis of the last decade has not seriously undermined the broader narratives about economics and enterprise despite – by any rational reading – suggesting that those narratives are fundamentally incorrect.

Taxing times… June 4, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Economy, Irish Politics.

William Keegan in the Observer at the weekend noted that it was in 1970 that Tony Barber, Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced VAT.

As Keegan also notes;

When Geoffrey Howe became chancellor in 1979, his abolition of exchange controls had a lasting effect; and, when he ran into trouble financing his promised income tax cuts, the main rate of VAT was hoisted from 8% to 15% in one fell swoop.

The corresponding cuts in income tax saw the top rate drop from 83% to 60%.

1988 saw Nigel Lawson reduce the top rate of income tax to 40% and as Keegan notes ‘since he reduced the rate… there has been panic in the ranks at the very thought of raising it. You can see what an outcry there was when Labour, in the wake of the banking crisis, dared to raise it to 50%. it matters not that the British economy grew for many years at a respectable pace when tax rates were much higher; the mantra these days is that low tax rates promote economic growth – although there has not been much evidence of that in recent years’.

I spoke to someone close to the government and the minor party in the government some while back who was adamant that it was impossible to raise income tax rates, that any left project that had that at its heart was destined to failure. I think that that is contestable. And it seems to be expedient too, for in the immediate it allows Labour off the hook on many issues, but in the broader context it masks a reality, as Keegan notes implicitly above, that revenue will be found one way or another, whether through VAT, charges or similar. In a sense there’s a sleight of hand, one which is engaged in, indeed promoted, all too willingly.

The UK General Election and a Tory majority June 3, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.

Got to admit, I think Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer at the weekend really got to the heart of the reason why there’s a Tory majority in the UK, albeit a fairly slender one. He writes:

Some have attributed their shock majority to the dark arts of Lynton Crosby. Others to the lack of appeal of Ed Miliband. Some opine that the Tory win demonstrates that the English are an essentially conservative people. Others think Labour’s failure is a symptom of a worldwide crisis in social democracy. On they go, the theories. I have barely touched on the many interesting explanations for what happened. And they are all wrong. For sure, they may be among the factors that contributed to what happened on 7 May, but they are all insignificant compared with the main explanation for why David Cameron is at Number 10 enthroned atop a Conservative parliamentary majority.

And his conclusion?

There is a big, basic and brute reason why we have just heard a Tory Queen’s speech, will soon be listening to a Tory budget and have five years or so of Tory law-making ahead of us. It is so bloody obvious that no one is talking about it – it is the electoral system.

And he points to first past the post as the mechanism which, with the Tories on 36.9% of the vote which he suggests ‘by no normal definition of the word popular were the Conservatives popular at the election’ they managed to gain a majority of seats. Everything else – Labour (and Lib Dem) effective annihilation in Scotland, something of a rout in the south of England, etc, is a sideshow.

It’s not that those things are unimportant, for clearly they are – particularly to the future composition of the UK and the nature of governments from here on out, but they aren’t the reason. The distorting effect of FPTP means that hugely unrepresentative governments reside at 10 Downing Street. So what’s different about this this time – surely that was the status quo ante, and indeed it was. But in a system with two parties vying for power and all others well behind them the disproportionate aspects were more masked. When there are three or more parties, and when one – UKIP, as it happens – is so massively underrepresented in parliament given its voteshare – then that makes the inequities ever more apparent. And add to the disproportion that sees the Tories in the majority the nature of what happened in Scotland where despite winning reasonable levels of support the Tories (ironically), Labour and Lib Dems are down to an MP apiece whereas the SNP on 50% has an almost clean sweep.

But this isn’t going to change, or at least no in the near future. As Rawnsley notes:

Unfortunately for reformers, that is the one address in the UK least likely to be interested in changing the way we elect governments. David Cameron is the last person who is going to be interested in reforming a voting system that has just converted a minority of the vote into all the spoils of power. When he looks at first past the post, far from seeing a broken system, he sees one that has just worked perfectly for him.

And the same will be true if and when the British Labour Party crawl back to power. Even if, as Rawnsley also notes:

They now have to contemplate another five years in opposition, half a decade in which to reflect on their failure to do anything about first past the post when they were in government or to help the Lib Dems pursue reform in the last parliament. Labour is going to pay for it – literally so. The Tories intend to use the majority gifted to them by the electoral system to further entrench their advantage when it comes to money by making it harder for the trade unions to raise funds for Labour.

Because if they do arrive back in power the negative aspects of FPTP will likely be forgotten, and if they don’t? Well, they won’t be in any position to change the situation.

To tell the one from the other… May 14, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.

A small but telling snippet of information from the UK General Election… this from the Guardian:

…there was a secondary head-to-head between the big-name American campaign consultants charged with greasing their paths to Downing Street.
In this backseat battle, President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina, who was advising Cameron, prevailed over the efforts of his fellow former top Obama aide David Axelrod, who was paid handsomely by the Labour party.

First Past the Post May 14, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.

One thought that struck me watching the UK election coverage was just how important PR is for political activity. I’ve mentioned the hollowed out nature of UK political parties, as noted here. No one would suggest that there isn’t some element of that in Irish political parties, and yet, the situation does not appear to be quite as bad (despite calls for more technocratic approaches, including List systems etc). Indeed it seems to me that multi-seat constituencies where if not all, at least a good number of candidates have a chance at winning a seat actually engenders and sustains a political life above and beyond that imposed by central parties. Moreover it means that the dead hand of a limited number of ‘competitive’ marginal constituencies, though what that means in UK politics today may well be quite different from last week, is ameliorated because simply put almost all constituencies are more rather than less competitive.

Moreover and this is stating the obvious, simply by permitting smaller and non party voices a chance to enter the mix it functions as a conveyer belt of at least some degree of plurality. Consider how in the UK even today there is but a handful of PC and GP MPs as against the remarkable numbers of independents and small party TDs here.

Not that that’s necessarily an unalloyed virtue, of course. Implementing a programme becomes more difficult in a context where government building is almost by definition a process of coalition building. And yet, looking at how in the UK the hopes of left Labour governments have been stymied time and again, and the prospects for alternatives further to their left have been minimal even when commanding reasonable vote shares it is difficult to see our situation as actually worse.

Ironic too to hear the UKIP strand of right wing politics beginning to cop to the necessity for PR if they are to make any impact at all. There is, it has to be said, a sort of injustice in their vote share translating into but a single seat – another sort of injustice in Scotland perhaps with the clean sweep by the SNP even if that was based on a stronger political sentiment proportionately.

But will anything be done about it? Hardly. It is not in the interest of a Tory party perhaps now convinced that it can rule alone and for quite some time to come. Perhaps the LP will look more kindly upon it, but I wonder how the John Reid’s and others of this world who were so adamant against it in the past will now feel to see the gates shutting them out for five years, and possibly more.

Meanwhile the SNP want to retain the HRA! Good on them. May 12, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Irish Politics.

This just gets better. The Scottish government has indicated it wants to retain the 1998 Human Rights Act if the Tories replace it in the rest of Britain.

Said Act is written into the Good Friday Agreement, and scrapping it would it appears breach that agreement. And even better breach what is an international agreement between the UK and the ROI.

So if the Tories pursue this course of action they could potentially wind up in a position where Scotland retained the HRA, NI lost it and they’ve just violated an agreement with the ROI.


UK GE as seen from the ROI May 12, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Irish Politics.

Good piece by Pat Leahy in the Business Post on the British General Election. He marks out three areas which are of interest, and importance in some respects, to this state. First up the danger of Brexit. He notes that there is broad consensus that that would ‘have calamitous consequences for Ireland. At the very least, it would complicate hugely relations with Northern Ireland – given that the border would become an EU frontier’.
Truth, I suspect, is that would perhaps be less of a problem given that Ireland and Britain are islands. The border would indeed become an EU frontier, but… some form of local dispensation would probably operate with a somewhat stronger regime in place at entry ports in this state. We already operate opt-outs from Schengen. It’s not difficult to see those being boosted in some form or fashion to keep everything sweet on the island.

But it’s not just the border. Leahy makes a very very persuasive point that…

In pursuit of the objective to avoid a Brexit, Ireland will likely become Britain’s strongest ally in negotiations to secure new terms for British membership. The Irish government will want to help the British get a deal that Cameron can endorse as a better deal for Britain, and so campaign for staying in.

You bet. Dublin will see it as explicitly in its interest that London remains inside the fold. And even if that falters, well, it will stick close to London one way or another. The economics of the situation will determine that.

Of course it’s not sensible to forget that inside the UK there are enormously powerful interests who will argue vehemently for a retention of the status quo. For all the vainglorious sub-ourselves alone stuff coming from UKIP and parts of the Tories, the city of London is all too well aware how – rather like this state – there is a benefit from being on the edge of the EU, but in. Always in.

So there’s no certainty that a referendum will be lost, one way or another. At least not yet.

Leahy also notes that the result in Scotland has to increase the chances of independence or some much greater degree of autonomy. Very possibly, albeit that is further down the line. That said he also points to the fact that in Northern Ireland unionism had a pretty good election. Republican and nationalist increases stymied. Alliance seen off. The UUP back in the game (no small thing that). It’s all very 1990s, isn’t it? Actually it is, rather like the continuing hold FF has on a body of the Irish electorate, a testament to how change can even after massive events come slower than might be expected, how it can even appear to be reversed.

Leahy then goes on to examine the more – shall we say – local implications, how the dynamics apparent in the UK might be reflected in terms of the Coalition here.

The fact is that a government that shredded many areas of public spending, that demobbed half a million public sector workers, that cut taxes for the wealthy and cut welfare benefits for millions of people on the margins has been resoundingly re-elected in a country not all that dissimilar to ours.
What does this mean for Irish politics?

Well let’s start by noting Irish politics is radically different to UK politics. First past the post, no massive structural change in party support consequent on the crisis, the sheer fact the UK is a composite state, a Tory party which sits outside European Christian Democracy unlike, for the most part, Fine Gael, all these feed into massively different dynamics. So when Leahy points to the above one has to be very very careful in defining hard and fast potential outcomes.

He writes;

It’s possible to encapsulate three reasons why Cameron won: leadership, economic competence and the huge risk aversion of voters.

At least two of these three factors could apply to the next Fine Gael campaign. Enda Kenny – though having done the job of Taoiseach, he has neutralised many previous doubts about him – won’t win the election on his own. But he won’t lose it either. The two big coalition advantages are the economic record and the voters’ risk aversion. These are big things, and it is the big things that matter most. In short, the British election reinforces the centrality of economics in politics.

Yes. But. There’s a difference there too. Cameron didn’t face a running battle over a key element of economic policy − that being water charges. Nor at any point did he or Osborne have to rework their approach in a policy area like that due to popular protest. So while it is indeed the economy, it’s perhaps more than that.

I’d even wonder if it would be possible for Fine Gael to ‘demob’ public sector workers. Politically it would seem unlikely. Again, this is a different state, different dynamics.

Where it does seem possible to draw more direct comparisons, Leahy does so explicitly, is the comparison between the Liberal Democrats and Labour in this state. He’s not optimistic.

Perhaps the best model to follow is one of the few successful post-coalition small party campaigns in modern times – the Progressive Democrats in 2002. While the Fianna Fáil-PD government was running very much for re-election as a government, Michael McDowell unleashed a barrage of attacks on Fianna Fáil during the campaign, culminating in his famous “Single Party Government – No Thanks” posters. Whether Bertie Ahern would win a majority became the defining question of the last week, and the PDs doubled their seats.
Unless Labour can similarly elbow its way into the defining question of the final days, the fate of the Liberal Democrats surely beckons.

That’s a tough one to try to emulate. Not sure how it could be done. And we don’t need to look to the UK to see how this is likely to pan out – at best with a very few TDs returned. The experience of the Green Party, and the PDs just before them, tells us much we need to know about how ‘mudguard’ parties function in elections.

Not and well are two words that come to mind.

Still, for all that Leahy points to the significance of the election in the UK to this state, and perhaps how marginal this state is in regard to what happens afterwards in relation to decisions the UK takes.

Somehow I think this definition of ‘compassion’ isn’t the one I’d use… May 11, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.

From the Guardian this evening:

The prime minister also said the Tories needed to show they were the party of compassion by pressing ahead with reforms to welfare and education.

Here’s another one in a similar vein:

Finally, he said the Tories needed to bring the UK together.

Kudos to UK Polling Report May 8, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.

…for this masterful example of understatement…

a few quick thoughts about the accuracy of the polls.
Clearly, they weren’t very accurate.

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