Have I changed my mind?

Last night at a local Labour Party meeting I was challenged about some of the views I expressed last year about the leadership of the Party, and divides within it. We had an interesting debate, and this post is a response. At its simplest, I have not changed my view of what we want, but I have changed my mind about what might be possible.

Firstly, I joined the Labour Party because I believe that we live in a profoundly unequal society. This is not merely immoral, it is bad for both winners and losers. A divided society is an unhappy society, and people lose sight of what matters in life and lose the ability to change things. I believe that the Labour Party is the party most likely to do something serious about this inequality, and as someone privileged by the accident of birth I have a duty to try to help. I have been fortunate to spend my working life doing things which I believed were making the world a better place, but which were also intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding. Many people don’t have that opportunity, and working for the Party is one way in which I hope to repay some of the debt.

Secondly, I believe that most members of the Labour Party share a set of beliefs: above all that resources and opportunities should be more fairly divided, and that the state should provide the core services which people need to provide security and opportunity, and a safety net for those who fall out of the mainstream, for whatever reason. Everyone should have the right to a safe secure place to live, decent rewarding work which makes a positive contribution to society, prompt and appropriate support when they are ill or need caring. In the fifth richest country in the world it is scandalous that we do not secure those things.

I don’t believe that Tony Blair or Jeremy Corbyn differ greatly in this: where they have differed is in how to achieve it, and what is politically possible in a given environment.  This is not a matter of morality or principle, but of political judgement and context. The gap between Blair and Corbyn is far smaller than their distance from our “conservative” opponents, who believe (wrongly, but often in good faith) that removing the state and allowing free play to the market will produce better outcomes for everyone. Blair may have misjudged the potential of markets to produce a fairer society, but I don’t believe that he intended that markets should make things less equal. In retrospect he was clearly wrong, but he made those judgements in a very different time.

We interpret the Labour mission in differing ways and in different contexts. In the 1970s, when I was first involved,  we had lived with a set of (broadly Keynesian) economic and social models which had dominated Western countries since 1945, and which were shared broadly by Labour and Conservative governments (look at the Conservative record of council house building, or creating comprehensive education).  However, after 1970, those models began to weaken, and many people began to feel that the model was broken, though they differed in how they explained that.  This opened the door to ideologues on right and left who proposed radical solutions. The ideology which won, was an extreme right wing one of free markets, which bore little connection to the traditional “one nation” conservatism, let alone traditional Labour values.  Since 1980, that neo-liberal consensus has dominated politics and economics. When the Conservative Party collapsed in 1997, a Labour Party inherited that consensus, and when it tried to implement its historic mission, it did so from that base. New Labour believed that after 17 years of being told that there is only one way of thinking, people would resist radical change, even if they sought it. The result was a regime of “doing good by stealth”.  Whatever one thinks of Tony Blair as a person, he led a government of many major achievements , from the minimum wage to abolishing pensioner poverty, and the creation of Sure Start. Schools and hospitals were renovated and new ones built on a large scale (even if the financial juggling required has pushed problems down the road to a future generation).  Britain’s standing in the world increased, and a very long economic boom did benefit many ordinary people.  When the global economic crash came, Gordon Brown played a major part in avoiding global economic collapse (for which he rarely receives any credit). We boasted too little about the achievements, and sometimes it seems that people on the left have forgotten them.

However, the fruits of the boom years were not evenly distributed, and there were some major misjudgements, of which the Iraq adventure was the most indefensible. Like many people of my generation, I marched against the Iraq war and resigned from the Party when they did not listen.  As a result, the Blair governments are wrongly remembered (especially perhaps by those do not remember where we were in 1997) as a disaster.

In 2008, capitalism, as we had understood it since the 1980s (and perhaps much longer), failed. Predictably, most people, not very interested in politics or economics, looked for personal scapegoats – a conspiracy by bankers, elites, “experts” to serve their own (usually financial) interests – rather than a systemic failure of an ideology. But it was the machine that failed, not the drivers.

The collapse broke the credibility of the neoliberal model, and people across the developed world became more frightened, but also more open to the idea of radical change.  For those of us on the left in the UK, this opens an opportunity. At the point where most people are willing to consider radical solutions, the right is destroying itself over Brexit. UKIP, which never had any serious intellectual roots and was a single cause campaign, seems to have worn itself out, while the Conservative Party is hopelessly divided over Brexit, the biggest issue of the decade, between free market ideologues who would willingly risk the whole economy on a political principle, and “one nation Tories” who are horrified by the risks, but unable to see an escape route.

By contrast, the Labour Party is presenting a coherent alternative. The 2017 Manifesto offered a positive vision of a different kind of society, based on the core values which Labour members share with a majority of the population (including many Tory voters, when they get a chance to hear).  The Party’s relative success in the 2017 General Election reflected the charisma of an authentic leader, but also a platform which had massive appeal to people seeking solutions to deep social problems. This bound us together. There will  continue to be disagreements and divides, but we are united in a way which we have not seen for a decade or more. Despite the press coverage, the Corbyn revolution is not a matter of teenage groupies chanting for their hero, nor is it a defeat for traitorous “Blairite” neoliberal MPs. Here in rural Norfolk, most of the flood of new members are aged 50+, seeing an opportunity at last to achieve some of the things we hoped for in the heady days of the 1960s.  The tide which has been against us for nearly 40 years is turning, and we can unite in imagining, and building, a better world.

I am neither a Blairite nor a Coybynista. Leadership matters enormously, but we need more than the leader: Clement Attlee (one of the least charismatic of leaders) presided over one of the  most revolutionary governments ever.  The leader needs a united team, of Ministers, MPs and members.

I believe that we now have that. We always shared the underlying vision. When we doubted the leadership a year ago, it was not hostility to the ideas, it was a judgement about tactics, and concern about problems in management of the party, which now look like the teething problems of a team with very little experience of leadership or management.

Our fears have been allayed, but our aspirations are massive. Once we are in government we will have to work hard not to disappoint many who have bought the vision. I have seen enough of government to know that once in power, making change is long, slow, frustrating and difficult. There will be uncomfortable compromises along the way, and Brexit promises to be a huge wasteful diversion, and a limitation on our resources. Here in Broadland, our first challenge is to turn 700 members into a serious campaigning force, but the second will be to hold the vision, and to keep everyone on board while we recreate a national consensus on what is normal and right. A decent society deserves that.

Five Provocations

Most politics, at national and international levels, operates on the assumption that the world will continue to be broadly as it is, and that the survival of a relatively prosperous, healthy and happy human population can be achieved by modest political interventions (even if these do not always succeed).

There are a number of reasons why this assumption about the future might not be true. Below are five “provocations”. Each is a debatable statement about a long term change, which might fundamentally disrupt our notions of human societies and how they are managed.  They have been developed in the light of conversations with the Norfolk Fabian Society, and some RSA Fellows in Norwich. However, the views are entirely my own. I am not claiming that any of them is necessarily true, and I am well aware that they are all oversimplifications of very complex issues. What I find most interesting, and perhaps under explored, is how they might interact.

Key points:

  • Each has been proposed in some form by serious people, and reflects a large body of theoretical and academic debate, in some case over many years. Each is in a sense a “caricature” for the purposes of debate.
  • They are happening simultaneously and they interact with each other in complex and unpredictable ways.
  • Responding to each of them will require disruptions which will be politically unwelcome, since they threaten the current distribution of resources
  • Responses require solutions which extend beyond the boundaries of nation states, and the timescales of conventional political careers

 

Five Provocations

My question is – are they true, and if so what should “we” do about them.

1.      Work and meaning: what replaces paid work?

Paid employment will cease to be a major part of most people’s lives. Human beings seek meaning and structure. Since the industrial revolution, paid employment has provided this for most people. But within a few decades AI/digitisation/robotics will destroy most of the kinds of work which provide paid employment now, including both manual tasks and those professional roles which depend on large bodies of knowledge and experience. This means that another mechanism will be needed to provide meaning and structure to people’s lives, and a new economic model will be required to share resources fairly. A universal basic income might be that model, but it is difficult to see how we get to it from where we are now.

2.      Artificial intelligence: is it too late to control?

Within the next 50 years AI will outstrip human intelligence. It may already be beyond our control. “Computers” “talk” to each other, they know about us, and “understand” what we say, they access vast and growing bodies of data about the world, they learn from us/each other/experience, they make things, they move, and they program other computers. It is no longer implausible that AI systems will replace or dominate the human species. Some believe that this will happen within the lifetime of people now alive.

3.      The end of capitalism: what will be a new economic model?

Capitalism is dying, but we are not yet aware of it. The deregulation of capitalism led to the crash of 2008. It is doubtful whether political control can be re-established in a way which enables capitalism to survive in its present form. One issue is the way in which technological change in the last 50 years has led to a concentration of wealth which is politically unsustainable in the long term, whatever political system obtains. Globalisation enables the poor to see how the rich live, and they are increasingly unwilling to tolerate it. The non-white, South will demand a fairer share of resources, and will take it, by migration, economic/political pressure, or war. The traditional role of much politics on the left – to defend the interests of workers and disadvantaged groups more generally in the home country, is in clear conflict with the international perspective.

4.      Replacing/reshaping democracy?

The forms of democracy which we have now will not survive. Democracy as we know it developed alongside capitalism, and is failing with it, accelerated by technology. Many of the challenges we face cannot be addressed at the level of the nation state, but international democracy has proved difficult even at the relatively modest level of Europe (the EU is the largest such experiment ever tried)

5.      Growth: can we live within our resources?

The earth does not, and will not, have the resources to enable all its population to have the material living standards which many aspire to (even at the level of the developed Western economies now). Furthermore, climate change is eroding the resources available, as population continues to grow (albeit at a declining rate). Current economic and social models are not sustainable.

All these statements can be challenged in detail. However, the important question is whether they are, in principle plausible, and if so what should we be doing, bearing in mind that many of the kinds of change implied will be deeply unpopular, and many current political trends (both conservative and radical) are intensifying the problems.  One critical issue is how they interact with each other.

After the Election – the 2017 Fabian Society Annual Conference

On 8th July 2017 the Fabian Society held its annual summer conference, attended by some 200 Fabian members. The event focused on the 2017 election, the manifesto, the campaign and lessons for the future, especially in relation to Brexit and Housing. These notes reflect my personal interests, and are certainly not a coherent account of the whole conference.

Fine keynote by Yvette Cooper, and especially interesting contributions by Lisa Nandy, Seema Malhotra and Emma Burnell.

The Election

We did not win, but we did well, partly because the Tories lost, with a disastrous campaign.

Hostility to the Tories was a strong factor, and the fact that no one expected us to win

Remember 130 seats swung from Labour to Conservative

We had a strong manifesto, we offered hope, and support for public services

We had a leader who presented passion, decency, authenticity (though the Corby effect is ambiguous – some voted for him, some voted despite him)

Because no one expected us to win, we were not subjected to thorough scrutiny, especially on the economics – this will not happen again!

We held the factions together around a shared manifesto, and avoided fragmenting and infighting

The result polarised constituencies substantially with the erosion of the minor parties. Seats where one party has more than 50% of the votes increased dramatically between 2015 and 2017. Tory seats from 52% to 77% and Labour seats from 46% to 85%.

There is no simple explanation of individual results – the largest Labour majorities were in Bristol West and Knowsley!

Leadership was a paradoxical issue – in focus groups, half of people said that they voted because of Corbyn, but half voted despite him

Parliament is more diverse than ever before. 45% of Labour MPs are women, there are 27 BAME MPs, and we have the largest ever proportion of “out” LGBT MPs.

The result has already reversed Tory policies on several issues – grammar schools, foxhunting, winter fuel, Northern Ireland abortion

The Manifesto

The manifesto was put together in a hurry, not all was thought through.

It was better at demonstrating our values and direction of travel than as a detailed plan – not all could be addressed in one Parliament, not all was affordable

Focus group evidence shows that the manifesto worked – people liked hope rather than fear.

They noticed our policies on Tuition Fees and Bank Holidays! They remembered the Tories for the U-turn on the “dementia tax” (the U-turn more than the policy itself) and foxhunting.

Tuition fee policy was popular among parents and grandparents, not just the young.

Our manifesto was weak on welfare and the poor

there was debate about the proposal to abolish Student Loans (though note Andrew Adonis’ Guardian article supporting abandoning loans). Is this the priority at this point? If the rationale for loans is that graduates should contribute because the degree leads to higher earnings, then raising income tax on the top 5% of earnings is a simpler and more rational policy, than forcing debt on people 75% of whom will never repay in full.

The new campaign

We remain on an election footing, though opinion varies on how soon that will be.

We need to keep the spirit of the Manifesto, but develop the arguments better, strengthen on welfare.

Attach hope to a viable programme for government

Focus on equipping people to deal with an uncertain future

Talk a language that people understand (most people think “the market” is where you buy your vegetables!)

Andy Harrop’s five priorities:

  1. We need to attract “left conservatives” – left on economics but socially conservative
  2. We need to build on our good result in Scotland
  3. We need to campaign (again) “in poetry” but be better prepared to govern “in prose” (we did the first well)
  4. We need a story on Brexit
  5. We need to be civil, inclusive and united.

Yvette Cooper’s four priorities:

  1. Hold the new voters and go beyond them. Bear in mind the electorate is volatile (a high proportion of 2017 Labour voters had never voted Labour before)
  2. Chart a progressive story about Brexit
  3. Address the divide between cities (overwhelmingly Labour, remainer, educated) and Towns
  4. Prioritise a kinder, gentler, democratic politics. Avoid negative campaigning

Address older voters – we now have a majority of voters in all age groups under 45

Address C2s – our weakest social class

Talk up our track record

Continue to make the Tories look bad – Parliamentary opposition important

Demonstrate the competence of the whole team

Remain united.

Brexit

Much debate, but general view is that it is likely to happen, and that opposing in principle now wins no votes.

Party/Starmer policy was clever. Labour is the safest home for remainers, and not hostile to leavers. The LibDem policy of direct opposition merely provokes resistance, and has not convinced the remainers that it is feasible.

We accept the referendum result, but are clear about what people need – the six points. People did not vote to become poorer, but that is certainly what they will get.

Starmer’s six red lines command support from remainers and leavers (and much of this was promised by leavers during the campaign!)

Now is not the time to become the “Remain” party, but the time may come (?). Telling people they were wrong or stupid does not change minds. Public opinion may be changing (poll and focus group evidence not clear) and may change further as negotiations proceed.

Closing our borders may well drive up “illegal” immigration, which will drive down wages and conditions faster than current migration does.

The EU

Brexit is not the main concern of the EU – they have other more pressing issues to worry about, including the kinds of reform what we wanted to see, which they are pushing ahead with.

The 27 remain incredulous, but resigned to Brexit. They still think we are deluded about what we can get out of it, and the strength of our negotiating position.

Despite recent results in Austria, Netherlands and France social democracy is in retreat across the EU – the European left sees the UK 2017 result is seen as a beacon of hope.

There is agreement on the need for reform, but the Euro makes this (even more) difficult

Housing

Housing is a major issue – some think the biggest issue for the next election

All three forms of tenure (owner occupation, social housing and private rented), are in crisis.

Government policy to expand demand merely inflates prices

We need to shift from income taxes to land/wealth taxes

Does housing affordability map onto voting behaviour – a research question?

Time for us all to grow up

Brexit is a terrible indictment of our political culture. We have all, on both sides, refused to behave like grownups, to take responsibility for our mistakes and misjudgements, and to be prepared to spend time understanding the issues, and recognising that change takes time. Watching a video of a woman in Lancashire in tears, berating some Remainers with “my father fought a war against the Germans, and they are walking all over us” reminded me sharply that on both sides people are experiencing extreme distress, the issues are as much emotional as practical. We are a deeply divided society, and the Prime Minister’s assurance that “65 million people want us to get on with it” is a straight and deliberate lie.
Human beings naturally tend to take recent achievements for granted, and complain about the things which have got worse. Those who hark back to the time before joined the Common Market forget how cold it was, how limited our diet, how poor most people’s education was, and how (by today’s standards) feeble our health services. We lived with the real risk of a nuclear war which might destroy the human race. Life expectancy was much shorter, and much work was hard, dull and damaging to people’s health. We had polluted rivers and poor air quality, only two TV channels, six month waits for a telephone line, few foreign holidays,
However, although most of these things are immeasurably better for almost everyone now, we Remainers failed to pay attention to what was happening in many communities which lost their sense of purpose in the 1980s. For them, the past has looked rosier than the future for a long time (partly because we were all younger then!). We have had a long time to think about it, but when the economic and cultural tide was swinging in our direction it felt as if all was well with the world, and we failed to see the need to take action. This was not just about a fairer distribution of money (though that might have helped). Money matters, but meaning and respect matter more. What was needed was an idea of how we create meaning in the lives of individuals and communities which had been founded round a clear purpose – mining, fishing, manufacturing, seaside holidays – which was not longer there. We still have no clear answers, but Brexit will certainly not provide one.
On the other hand, the Leavers, and the political representatives of their communities, failed to recognise that change comes slowly, some changes are irreversible, and all change involves compromises with people we disagree about, or with different interests. Nothing our government can do can bring back coal and steel, and there are no simple answers. Demagogues and populists offer simple, easy to understand, recipes, but they never work because the world is not like that. In its Article 50 letter, the Government is already proposing a Brexit which offers much less than the leavers promised. The referendum campaign focused around two major issues: free trade with our biggest trading partner and nearest neighbours, and the control of immigration. It was always clear that we could not have both, and the Government is now proposing to abandon the first in favour of the second. On the first, the loss of free trade will affect everyone. On the second, either we have a significant reduction in immigration, which will cause severe economic and social damage, or we don’t (as the Government is now hinting) in which case the leave campaigners will feel betrayed.
At the end of March a YouGov poll suggested that most people believe that Brexit will reduce immigration, but also that they will be worse off, prices will rise, and the UK will have less influence in the world. The people of the “left behind” communities will not have more influence over a Conservative government in Westminster than they have over a combination of Westminster and Brussels. When Brexit brings recession, these are the communities which will suffer most. Putting it right means working at creating change, and putting effort into real politics – thinking about alternatives, and working to bring them about.
People have always distrusted politicians, and the right wing media actively campaign to undermine trust in political institutions, because when they work well, they constrain the power of the rich and powerful. But politics is how we bring about change, and it is more than turning out to vote for a party every few years. We have failed to treat political education seriously in our education system, partly because of a crowded curriculum, and partly because of fear of indoctrination. But if people don’t learn about how change happens, and how it can be influenced, the sense of powerlessness persists, and feeds resentment and anger. It is not about how many MPs there are, it is about understanding how to find the facts, how to make the arguments, and how to make change.
It’s time we tried to be more grown up and to do the real work which citizenship requires.

A dark day for the UK

Yesterday the UK Government served notice that it intends to leave the European Union. We are leaving the second largest economy in the world, severing links which have kept the peace and brought us together with friends and neighbours for over 40 years. We have created uncertainty and instability in the lives of millions of people who have moved here from other parts of the EU, or have moved from here to other parts of the EU. We have given up our influence, our friends, and our economic future.  We have abandoned the idea that we could work better with our neighbours to solve major problems like climate change, product safety and quality, and decent working conditions. We have abandoned the idea that it is better to have a single European Court to rule on the implementation of agreements between European countries

For 40 years we have been one of the “big three” nations in the EU, with a major say in policy decisions. Membership magnified our influence on the world stage, and not much ever happened in Europe without the agreement of Germany, France and the UK. That is one reason why the overwhelming majority of MPs of all parties voted remain. Those who want to “take back control” over laws and regulations can rarely identify any specific regulations which they actually want to remove except things like the working time directive, which protect workers’ rights. On many progressive issues it is our Government which has obstructed progress.

Opinion polls suggest that the most important reason for people to vote leave was to control immigration. However, almost all the people living here who have come from other parts of the EU are either working, or are students. So our economy needs them. Since freedom of movement of people, capital, goods and services is the fundamental principle of the Union, full access to the single market was never going to be compatible with controlling movement of people into and out of the UK. So we are throwing away our free trade with our biggest market (44% of all our exports go to other EU countries), and our vote on how the Europan ecoomy is managed,  in return for controlling immigration. But if we reduce it, labour shortages will severely damage our economy: if we don’t reduce it, we will have given up our political influence and economic strengths in return for nothing.

We are leaving on the basis of a referendum which was explicitly advisory, where a narrow majority voted leave, and the leave campaign claimed that leaving would not prevent us remaining members of the single market. The Government’s claim that “65 million people want us to get on with Brexit” is demonstrably untrue. 11 million are under 15 and have no vote. Of those eligible to vote in the referendum 37% voted to leave, 35% voted to remain, and 28% did not vote. It is reasonable to claim therefore that at the time of the referendum 63% of the electorate did not want to change the status quo and leave the EU. Opinion polls since show that few people have changed their minds in either direction. The Government, and the leave campaigners have consistently tried to maintain the myth that the referendum result was a clear and overwhelming decision.

As of March 2017, we have no idea what kind of settlement will emerge from the next two years.  The process has started, and no political party expects to reverse the decision until the position is much clearer. However, it is entrirely possible that the terms of our leaving will be much worse, economically, socially and politically than remaining members, and it is possible that the majority of the electorate will agree, when the picture becomes clear. This is particularly likely since most young people, and most people with higher education qualifications voted to remain and most old people, and people without qualifications voted to leave. Over two years the balance between these two groups will inevitably shift in favour of the former, as young people enter the electorate and older people die.

The Government has promised that at the end of the negotiation Parliament will have a vote on whether to accept the deal (just as the Parliaments of the EU and the other 27 member states will). However, this plan will be a binary choice, between the deal negotiated or leaving without a deal, in which case a mass of regulations will be left in limbo, and we will be trading with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms, which will introduce tariffs and customs checks on many of our exports and imports.

This does not need to be the only choice. There will, in reality, be four options at the end of negotiations:

  1. Leave the EU on the terms negotiated. At present we have no idea what those terms might be. We know something of what our Government is asking for, but we cannot know what the other parties might be prepared to accept. There are strong political reasons why this may not be generous to the UK.
  2. Leave the EU but remain in the European Economic Area (like Norway). This is possible, since we are members of the EEA under a separate Treaty. EEA membership includes full membership of the single market, but not all the regulations (Norway opts out of the Fisheries policy). EEA members can restrict the free movement of people in specific circumstances.
  3. Leave the EU without agreement, reverting to World Trade Organisation rules. This would mean the immediate imposition of tariffs on British exports to the EU and to all other countries. The economic consequences would almost certainly be worse than the previous two options.
  4. Remain a member of the EU on the current terms. This might be achieved by our formally withdrawing our Article 50 notice. Whether this is possible is unclear, since the EU Treaty does not specify a right to withdraw Article 50 notice but neither does it prevent this. The draft response to our Article 50 letter from the European Parliament explicitly says that we can withdraw our notice, and this is currently under consideration in the Irish Courts. It would ultimately be a matter for the European Court of Justice to decide. Alternatively we could ask the other 27 states to agree to us withdrawing our Article 50 notice. They might wish to do this, and if they all agreed, they could legally allow this (members of the EU make the rules).

I believe that the final decision should rest with Parliament, considering all four options. Since the Brexit decision was made by referendum, it might be wise to undertake a referendum on the four options, to advise Parliament. This would avoid giving disproportionate weight to “the will of the people” as expressed at a particular moment in 2016.  Such a referendum would be less divisive than the 2016 one, since there would be four choices on offer.

Where next for the Left – ideas from the Fabian Conference

These are notes of points I found interesting at the Fabian Society’s January conference. It is not an accurate account of the many discussions, nor necessarily my own views.

Labour vision – respond to anxiety

  • This is an emotional time, people are scared and politics seems irrelevant (even the US security guarantees are no longer reliable)
  • Labour needs a change offer that promises security and doesn’t scare people – do we want a “more equal” or a “fairer” society?
  • We must build hope and positive values based vision – Labour must be more than a set of grievances
  • Help people to cope with change and protect those who will lose
  • Labour needs a new patriotic alliance based on principle and mutual security
  • Recognise that economy is not everything – attend to people’s sense of culture and identity – recognise people’s attachment to place, strengthen devolution
  • Reinvent the mixed economy round fair markets with industrial and regional strategy
  • Refound the welfare state – a new model of social security – consider Universal Basic Income
  • Retain our international commitment – ask what the UK can offer the world
  • On immigration ask “what’s best for the economy?”, and manage local/sectoral tensions creatively. Focus on integration, not immigration

Strategy

  • We have been talking to ourselves for too long. We have not made an argument with anyone we disagree with for years
  • 33 elections since 2010 the centre left won 5 (some with support from less than 25% of electorate) In Stoke on Trent Tristram Hunt was elected on 19% of electorate (turnout was only 50%)
  • The Brexit dilemma – if we try to block Article 50 May calls a General election which we lose, because of a divided opposition and press/public perception of democratic betrayal. She then has a clear mandate for a very hard Brexit –is that better?
  • Make it clear what hard Brexit means for local jobs and businesses – remember that, whatever they privately feel, most businesses won’t ring alarm bells for fear of undermining confidence, and weakening their individual competitive positions.

Brexit

  • Keep reminding people that they didn’t vote to destroy jobs and the UK economy
  • Resist the race to the bottom in economic terms, workers’ rights and social welfare
  • Non-negotiable issues:
    – Access to single market
    – Confirm that EU citizens already in the UK have an absolute right to stay
    – Ensure that employment and welfare rights are not reduced by Brexit
    – Retain commitment to rule of international law and human rights
    – Seek cooperative., collaborative relations with EU states and EU
    – Recommit to internationalism and multilateralism (not Trump’s bilateral deals)
    – Insist on a Parliamentary vote/referendum at the end of Article 50 process

Constitution

  • Our economic crisis was/is a failure of governance, not of economics or politics. Politicians failed to put proper institutions and regulations in place, and to police the laws which existed
  • We need a People’s Convention to renew our constitution, including relations between the four nations
  • We need a more proportional electoral system to restore public confidence
  • Follow the Electoral Reform Society’s 9 recommendations on Referenda, including legislation that Referenda must require 2/3 majorities (like the Commonwealth countries whose constitutions were written by British lawyers)
  • Build networks not institutions
  • Create a job description for MPs so people understand what they do and why
    Introduce compulsory citizen’s juries
  • Make voting compulsory voting – this removes the incentive to minimise turnout, there are then no safe assumptions about likely results
  • Nottinghamshire “Power to the People” project?

A couple of notes on the inclusive society of Theresa May

  • Since 2010 Conservatives have cut £4.6b from social care, precipitating the crisis in the NHS – the current proposal to allow Local Authorities to raise Council Tax rise could restore 3% of this figure
  • In the Housing Bill, Tories voted down a proposal to make it a legal requirement for private rented houses to be fit for human habitation

A Universal Basic Income

 

A Universal Basic Income (UBI)[1] is an income paid to all people by the state, regardless of circumstances or need.  The idea has been discussed intermittently for over two centuries, but has attracted growing interest recently.

For different reasons it appeals to both political left and right, and one reason for growing interest is the decline of traditional working contracts, which blur the boundaries between employment and unemployment, with 2 million people in the UK now on contacts which do not guarantee minimum hours of work, and 5 million working online, paid by the task.

Pilot schemes are currently being proposed or implemented in Finland, Netherlands, Ontario and France. In response to a petition, Switzerland held a national referendum on its introduction last year, but rejected it by a large majority.

In the UK the new flat rate state pension and the pre 2013 Child Allowance have features of UBI.

Recent proposals

In the UK the idea of a UBI has been developed by the Citizens Income Trust, who have undertaken substantial work and a range of publications. Policy papers have also been published recently by the Royal Society of Arts, Compass, Progress, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (references below).

Basic Incoem is one of three models of welfare defined by Atkinson:

  • Contribution based social insurance – the model proposed by Beveridge (the National Insurance Fund) but not implemented in practice. Needs a continuing safety net for those without a contribution record
  • Social assistance funded from general taxation – effectively the current UK system (National Insurance is in reality merely an employment tax). Requires a potentially intrusive means testing regime.
  • Basic income – includes everyone, and in its pure form requires no means testing. Paid for from taxation (usually income tax, and involving abolition or reduction of tax allowances)

Our current system is a version of 2. Beveridge conceived of this as a safety net to protect those suffering poverty, which was almost entirely the result of unemployment or childcare costs.  It is complex, and involves elaborate/punitive conditionality mechanisms to incentivise work.

Claimed advantages of UBI

The RSA claims its model has the following dvantages:

  • Motivates work – “work would pay better” (since UBI is paid regardless of work status)
  • Reduces fraud – fewer opportunities to cheat
  • Responds to changing work patterns – disrupted career paths, career breaks, retraining
  • Distributes opportunities for creativity more widely
  • Supports caring roles as demand for care rises
  • Removes intrusive and dysfunctional means testing,  and reducing interference by the State in individual lives
  • Redistributes from higher earners and childless people to relatively low earners with children (the “JAMs”, or the “left behind”)

Some objections

  • Political/social acceptability – increased taxes, removing conditionality, greater “rough justice”
  • Cost – there is significant disagreement about the costs of a basic income scheme
    Uncertainty of behaviour change – it might reduce willingness to work, thus reducing GDP (and the income to pay for the scheme)
  • Substantial rise in tax levels (estimates vary substantially)
  • Transition problems – difficult to implement rapidly, but partial/transitional systems lose the benefits (like simplicity, removal of means testing, or reductions in income) and thus reduce acceptability
  • Variable costs outside UBI – there are at least three areas where costs vary so widely that most proposals involve retaining some form of separate welfare benefit to meet:
    • Housing costs – because of wide regional variation housing costs are difficult to incorporate.
    • Disability costs – since people with disability necessarily incur additional costs, it would be necessary to retain some form of disability benefit
    • Childcare costs
  • Poor evidence – existing schemes are poor models because they operate in very specific circumstances and pay at levels well below subsistence

[1] Also known as Citizen’s Income, Basic Income Guarantee and other terms. It is similar to, but not the same as, a Negative Income Tax.

Discussion paper prepared for Norfolk and Suffolk Fabian Society – January 2017

Full version at Universal Basic Income: a note

What do we want from Government?

2016 was a year when public confidence in politics and government fell dramatically across a wide range of “democratic” countries.

Good Government exists to protect the rights of all citizens, and provide a framework of opportunities which enables them all to make an active and respected contribution to the community.

To achieve this it must ensure that all citizens have:

  1. Security – protection from threats from other nations and organisations; and protection from other citizens
  2. Protection from unfair treatment and respect from fellow citizens, government and its agencies
  3. Somewhere decent to live
  4. Sufficient food to live
  5. Protection against ill health
  6. Something meaningful to do, paid or unpaid, as long as they are able
  7. The opportunity (and obligation) to contribute to decision-making on issues which affect individuals and the wider community.

Government and political systems should be organised in such a way as to make it possible to deliver these rights.

If Government lacks sufficient money to achieve this, it should tax more, and no individual or corporation should expect to make personal profit until these rights can be guaranteed.

What is going wrong?

At present our political system is failing to deliver these rights to all its citizens, and in most of them rights are deteriorating, in response to the Government’s “austerity” policies, and to the decision to leave the EU.

  1. Budget reductions in Prison and Probation services are making the penal system more risky and less effective. Leaving the EU risks loss of European cooperation on policing which makes intelligence sharing, and the deportation of foreign criminals and terrorists, quick and easy.
  2. Leaving the EU, and the Government’s intention to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, would remove the protection currently provided to British citizens by the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights. Recent changes to legal aid and Court charges already make access to justice in the domestic courts more expensive and difficult.
  3. Housing is currently treated as a commercial market, which makes houses investments rather than homes. In the most economically prosperous areas housing of any kind is too expensive for many people, leading to rising homelessness, even among people in paid work.
  4. Many people are experiencing declining real wages (and inflation is expected to rise in response to the decline in the value of Sterling following the Brexit vote). Combined with rising housing costs, this is resulting in rising levels of food poverty.
  5. Inadequate investment in social care, and a failure to manage the interaction between health and social care, means that growing numbers of people are denied prompt access to medical care, the quality of social care is inadequate, and providers are withdrawing from the market. Late intervention in health problems, and “bed blocking” because of lack of social care facilities is expensive and bad for the health of individuals.
  6. Underinvestment in skills, and failure to regulate the labour market (by failing to enforce existing regulations, by making access to Tribunals prohibitively expensive, and failing to respond to new forms of work) have led to the growth of low paid, low skilled and unrewarding work. In some fields (social care, probation) there is evident work that needs doing, but current market models fail to make that work profitable for employers or individuals (or both).
  7. Although the UK is a democracy, the first past the post electoral system means that elections are decided in a very small number of marginal constituencies, and votes in most areas have no real effect.  Because turnout in General Elections is generally below 70%, no Government since 1974 has been elected with the support of more than 34% of the electorate.  However, despite this lack of political support, political power has become increasingly centralised, with no sources of power and influence to balance that of the national Government. Once in power, the Executive has very substantial powers, with relatively little check from Parliament. The result is a growing detachment of political power from the experience of citizens.

Raising the money

Finally, our tax system is extremely complex and inefficient, and cuts to staff at HMRC make it increasingly unlikely that proper levels of tax are being collected. This throws the entire system of Government financing into disrepute. We urgently need reform, both in the tax system, and in its collection, as Richard Murphy has argued more eloquently than I can http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/

Brexit, Trump and the choices for Labour

Is this a crisis?

It has been widely suggested that the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump reflect some significant common social and economic changes across the developed world, and that these changes have important implications for politics on the left. It is also argued that similar forces are at work in European politics, with worrying implications for European countries facing elections in the next few years, and for the European project itself. I want to argue that the short term implications may have been overstated, but that the changes reflect long term trends, with common elements across the developed world and with serious implications for the politics of the left, but that it is easy to misread them.

Firstly, the changes of 2016 are nothing like as dramatic as they might seem. Both votes were won by extremely narrow margins, suggesting a very evenly divided electorate. In the USA, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a substantial margin, but lost because of the eccentricities of the Electoral College. In the UK, 63% of the electorate did not vote for change, but because they were evenly divided between committed Remainers and non-voters, the 37% of the electorate who voted for Brexit “won”. Despite this very finely balanced result this slight tipping of the electoral balance has been interpreted as a vote for radical change towards nationalism and to the right. Similarly, in both cases, the campaigns have emphasised division, magnified by the media, and the increasing tendency for people to see only news which supports their pre-existing views. A disillusion with politics and with “elites” has encouraged people to treat the political process like football, with passionate supporters cheering on their own teams, rather than recognising complex and finely balanced arguments.

Long term trends

Nevertheless, a real change is clearly taking place, and I suggest that it reflects four underlying secular trends: ageing, diversifying, globalising and a failure of capitalism. The first two are demographic. As life expectancy continues to rise, society is ageing[1]. As people age they become less concerned with the long term future, and tend to move politically to the right. Once retired from paid work, people lose a degree of control over their lives, especially their financial security, and it is natural to seek security and stability. However, diversification pulls in the opposite direction. The young adult population is much more ethnically and culturally diverse than their parents and grandparents[2]. Overall they have much higher levels of education[3], and they are more widely travelled. Understandably, they are more focused on the future than the past.

The third factor, globalisation, is more than a matter of moving production and work around the world. Rather it is a process of redistributing resources and opportunities at a global level. Thus, although many people still endure living conditions which most Europeans would regard as intolerable, global levels of poverty have fallen dramatically (halving between 1990 and 2015, and still falling fast), which internationalists of the left ought to welcome. However, it does mean that living standards in the “developed” world are falling relative to the rest, and those whose skills and motivation are comparable, or lower than, with their peers in less developed countries are particularly vulnerable, to immigration, which brings in better qualified or motivated workers, or to  offshoring, moving work to countries where labour costs are lower.

The fourth trend is the crisis of capitalism, evidenced in the financial crisis of 2008, when it became evident that existing capitalist models had failed. However, in a hugely complex and interlocked global economy, the political and economic consequences of collapse were too alarming to be contemplated, and Governments adopted policies formerly seen as heretical, to re-establish a degree of balance. Nevertheless, the model had failed, and it has proved unable to restore anything like the kind of prosperity and optimism which had preceded the crash.

The consequence of these trends is a world which is more equal, more diverse, more mobile and more productive. Overall living standards are rising and opportunities growing, but most people in the countries which have been winners since the industrial revolution of the West are losing in relative terms, and some people in those countries are losing dramatically. These are the people described in popular discourse in the UK as the “left behind” and the “just about managing”. In many places they are a small proportion of the population, but in others they are whole communities which have lost their sense of purpose and future. This is most evident in places where a single industry or employer has been driven out by international competition or technological change.

Parties in denial

One explanation of the votes of 2016 is that mainstream politics has failed to recognise this issue, or at least has failed to respond adequately to it. In the UK Referendum campaign, the Labour Party instructed its canvassers to concentrate on its core remain supporters, and to avoid discussion of immigration, which was seen as inflammatory, and likely to encourage Leavers to vote. This avoided discussion about the underlying causes of anxiety about immigration – failed housing policy, failed enforcement of labour market law, lack of effort to encourage integration, and underinvestment in public services. In the USA a similar pattern can be seen. The Clinton campaign, underestimating the degree of disaffection with “urban elites”, neglected what it believed were its secure core voters in the rustbelt states, and minority communities, in favour of trying to persuade “soft Republicans”, shocked by the Trump campaign, to defect. In both cases the strategy fed a “persecution narrative”, regularly talked up by the right and the media, which suggested that those worried about immigration were despised by urban elites as stupid racists, thus deepening a sense of grievance, distrust and discouraging dialogue.

Where does this take the politics of the left in the UK? All four significant English political parties are divided coalitions. The Conservative and Liberal parties all include passionate neo-liberal free traders, but all three include people with very different, and incompatible, views, (nationalists, egalitarians, supporters of a strong managerial state etc). The Labour Party is divided in a different way. From its foundation it was an unstable alliance between a movement of organised workers, fighting for their rights, and a largely middle class, intellectual group arguing, from a position of considerable privilege, for a more equal world. A commitment to equality looks very different if it is a matter of fighting for more on behalf of yourself and your peers, rather than redistributing some of your own advantages. The former group is not necessarily going to welcome the addition of new disadvantaged groups to the catalogue of people to be fought for, while the latter may be more cautious about the extent of redistribution. This is not a recipe for mutual trust, nor for a stable alliance.

Industrial change and globalisation have inevitably weakened the large employment and cultural base on which organised labour thrived. As their numbers shrank and their organisation weakened they became increasingly excluded from the economy and political debate, and their legitimate sense of grievance grew. I suggest that this is the underlying reason for the political shift over the last forty years.

The smaller scale of the UK, and the stronger welfare state, means that the reaction is less violent than in the USA, but the underlying trends are the same. When the overall level of resources in the “developed” world is shrinking relative to the rest, people become increasingly defensive, and hostile to extending notions of equality to a wider world. For the liberal egalitarians, this is a matter of redistributing “our” surplus more widely, while for the workers party, it is sharing an already inadequate cake with new, and perhaps undeserving, client groups.

Two Labour Parties

In this context, the YouGov survey of labour supporters, carried out in Autumn 2016, after the Brexit vote, but before the US elections, is illuminating  https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/11/05/labour-workers-party-liberal-left/ . They surveyed 1,468 people who declared themselves as labour supporters or who had voted labour in one of the last three General Elections. They asked about a number of issues, but most critically, they asked what sort of Labour Party supporters wanted. The three options were:

  • Getting rid of capitalism and neo-liberalism and replacing them with a fairer economic system (8% of respondents)
  • Representing and standing up for ordinary working class people and their values (the “Workers’ rights” group: 33% of respondents)
  • Building a society that is fair for everyone, whatever their background, gender, race or sexuality (“Egalitarians: 47% of respondents)

What they found confirms the argument above. On a series of critical policy issues the second and third groups were diametrically opposed, often by large margins. On immigration, 63% of the “workers’ rights” supporters were hostile, while 62% of the “egalitarians” group were positive.  On human rights laws the balance was 48% negative to 66% positive. On welfare benefits 47% of the “workers’ rights” thought benefits were too easy to get, while 42% of the “fairness” group thought they should be made easier. Although both groups were positive about the EU, only 50% of “workers’ rights” supporters felt this, compared to 66% of the “fairness” group.

The two groups are distinct in other ways. The egalitarians were younger, more highly educated, from higher social classes and more likely to read broadsheet newspapers. 61% of them described their views as “left of centre”. By contrast, only 36% of the workers party supporters placed themselves as left of centre, and 30% answered “don’t know”.

This is a very profound divide. On many issues the views of the “workers party” supporters align more closely with UKIP than with the “egalitarians”, and it would be foolish to assume that historic tribal loyalty will overcome this in a general election (one of the major mistakes of the Clinton campaign). On the other hand, the egalitarians share many views with the egalitarian wing of the Liberal Democrats, and even with some “one nation” Conservatives.

It does not seem plausible that the Labour Party can go into another General Election without an explicit position on some, at least, of these issues. However, it is also clear that any position will alienate a significant proportion of its supporters, and a fudge will probably alienate both. The current leadership seems disposed towards the egalitarian, cosmopolitan side, which is going with the tide of demography and globalisation, but means abandoning a large group of traditional supporters, or persuading them to change their views. Its current position on Brexit, however, diverges from the egalitarian agenda, and risks alienating a substantial proportion of its supporters on that side too. Those for whom the constitutional and economic implications of Brexit are a dominant issue may well decide to switch to the Liberals, as the only party with a clear anti Brexit policy.

The end of an era

The events of 2016 (and perhaps similar events in other developed countries in 2017) were not a sudden rejection of a political order, rather they are a reflection of much longer term trends, and are best seen as the death rattle of an unsustainable economic and political order. The underlying trends are unlikely to change. Western societies will continue to age, and their living standards are unlikely to rise at the rates seen in the post war period. The world will become a more equal place, at the expense of the former richest countries. Those countries may attempt to stem the flow by protectionist policies, but while these may be popular in the short term, they are likely to aggravate problems by slowing global growth. Political stability will depend on strategies for sharing the misery more equitably, something for which conventional democratic politics has not proved well equipped.

The Labour Party is ideologically more committed to equitable solutions, but its traditional base is not well placed to achieve this. The egalitarians already form a majority of their supporters, and the tide of demography is on their side (although the rising numbers of older people are a restraining force). As the proportion of better educated, more cosmopolitan people grows, the egalitarian agenda will become more popular. However, this risks driving away a substantial proportion of the party’s traditional base, who do not share this agenda. In the short term, at least, this is a recipe for electoral disaster.  However, the alternative strategy, to become a party “for the working class”, would harness the party to a declining proportion of the electorate, socially conservative and increasingly disorganised and unpredictable. It would also involve competing with UKIP and a Conservative Party happy to rebrand itself as the party of “hard working people”.

The core strategy for the Labour Party must therefore have two strands. The first is to persuade voters, including especially many of the “workers party” tendency among its own supporters, that an agenda focused on equality is, in the long term, best for all, and that a party which fights only for the sectional interests of the native working class is unachievable, as well as wrong. The second, equally difficult, is to ensure that this is true, and that the response to a declining share of global resources should not be to ignore the interests of particular groups and communities. We must resist the pressure from the right to scapegoat “other” minority groups. Fair treatment for migrants and refugees, the protection of human rights and decent welfare support for those who fall on hard times are all parts of a civilised society where we all benefit.

[1] Average life expectancy has been rising steadily for more than a century, while birth rates have been below “replacement rate” since the 1960s.

[2] “Mixed race” is the most rapidly growing ethnic group in the UK population.

[3] When today’s 70 year olds were leaving school 4% went on to higher education, in 2015 the proportion was 48%.

Changing Work – a Fabian Discussion

This set of notes and questions are designed to prompt discussion by the Fabian Society Norfolk and Suffolk Branch in October 2016. Comments and suggestions are welcome from any reader. One starting point for discussion is the Fabian report “Changing Work: progressive ideas for the modern world of work” edited by Yvette Cooper.

Work is changing in a variety of ways, uneasily accommodated by our political and economic systems.  What work is paid for and what is not, on what terms and with what rewards, are all changing, with distinct implications for relations between genders and generations.  While some authoritative sources predict that demand for work will outstrip our numbers in the near future, others believe that the total volume of work required will decline as a result of automation and technological change, and propose a “citizen’s wage” as a way of protecting individuals as this pattern emerges. Certainly there are large areas of activity, and communities based around those activities, where demand has disappeared, creating “left behind” populations.

Meaning of Work

  1. What do we mean by “work”? What work is paid for and what is not, and why?
  2. What is work for – money, security, meaning and status?
  3. What happens to those individuals and communities whose skills and experience are no longer required?
  4. The basic/citizen’s wage would deal with declining demand for labour, but not with meaning and status.

Future of work

  1. Technology is hollowing out the workforce. Automation has already replaced many jobs and transformed others, especially in traditional working class occupations. Increasingly it is invading the professions, who have been protected up to now.
  2. The rise of artificial intelligence may challenge our ideas of work more fundamentally.
  3. What will remain for humans is high status and low status with little in between
  4. The economy is moving from a focus on manufacturing to services (perhaps we are approaching “peak stuff”)
  5. Is the total demand for work growing or shrinking, and what determines that?
  6. How is work distributed around the world – the place of migration?
  7. Is “career” dead?  – no more secure status roles with apprenticeship, skills development and progression?
  8. Changing class structure- the rise of the “precariat”, “self-employment”, and the “gig economy”.

Skills and Productivity

  1. What is the role of work in productivity?
  2. How do we develop and maintain skills across the lifecourse?
  3. What kind of skills do we seek? (hard v soft, digital, manual)
  4. What should be the shape of “working life” – entry and retirement, patterns of work across the lifecourse.

Working conditions

  1. What should be the rights of workers in the emerging economy, and how can they be secured?
  2. How can workers have voice in the merging economy? What will be the role of Trades Unions?
  3. How can/should, workers be connected to the work?
  4. What do we do about gender differences (real and historic)?
  5. How do we secure equality of opportunity and rights?
  6. How should pay be determined?
  7. How do we protect people from exploitation?

Policy

  1. How far can policy influence what happens?
  2. What should be the relative roles of the State and of corporations in influencing change?
  3. What would a new social contract look like?
  4. Do we need industrial policy – picking winners, preserving employment…, concentrating on our USP
  5. Where and how should industrial policy be determined – the role of devolution.
  6. What might “solidarity” mean in the new world
  7. How do we maintain the social infrastructure?