Category Archives: managerialism

Just another country

1. The obligatory Italian parallel

The true intentions of certain groups of young people, who had arrived at Parco Lambro with their ski-masks in their rucksacks alongside their spanners and bottles of petrol, became clear yesterday afternoon … there was the sense of an organised manoeuvre, in the true sense of the word, and police intervention became inevitable: stones were thrown from one side, tear-gas grenades from the other
- l’Unità, 29th June 1976

Last night was an extreme situation. We haven’t dealt with such co-ordinated looting before. People set out to steal. This is a type of organised crime we’ve never seen before. This was organised: I was out last night and people were asking for directions to our town centre in order to attack it. … Businesses are angry, but people are calm. They understand this wasn’t social unrest, it was something different.
- Stella Creasy MP, 8th August 2011

I understand what has led many young people to break shop windows, but I don’t consider it to be the next step in the Italian revolution.
- Rossana Rossanda, 1977

2. Three tweets about looting

@jamesrbuk James Ball
Hard to see anything overly political in the looting of an electrical store (Curry’s) on other side of town (>10miles) to #Tottenham

@kpunk99 Mark Fisher
The right wing line on #tottenham makes no sense: if it’s all down to ‘criminals’, why the sudden upsurge in ‘criminality’ last night?

@sunny_hundal sunny hundal
Seems to me, what encourages looting isn’t poverty but the expectation you can get away with it. Same applies to the banks


3. Why Cynthia Jarrett is less relevant than the Martians

This is a peculiarly unsatisfactory piece: Jonathan Jones observes that images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird (they are “uncanny and reminiscent of late Victorian science fiction”), then suggests that evoking apocalyptic imagery might be “a corrective to the mis-application of history”, i.e. the temptation to draw parallels with the rioting of the early 80s. But why shouldn’t we draw parallels with the 80s – why would that be a mis-application of history? Jones’s answer, in total, is: the rioters themselves are too young to remember the 80s; Marx warned against misapplying historical parallels in the 18th Brumaire; and…

It is worth looking at images of London’s violent weekend and asking how they make you feel. Far from fitting into any historical model, they seem to me to come from an imagined London, a horror scenario of the city as a blazing wilderness

…in other words, images of the Tottenham riot and its aftermath make him feel weird. What Jones is resisting here becomes a bit clearer in an afterword:

Walking out in my neighbourhood after writing this, I found that Gay’s the Word bookshop on Marchmont Street, one of central London’s best-known gay landmarks, had its window smashed last night. A substance seems to have been thrown at the window before it was broken. This was the only business attacked on the street. So much for any attempt to see radicalism (at least of a cuddly leftwing variety) in these events.

I’ve got to say, I’m gutted to hear that Gay’s the Word has been attacked & hope they get back to normal before too long. (That said, I’m not aware of any trouble in Bloomsbury on Sunday night – this could just be a nasty coincidence.) But there’s a more important point, which is that – as far as I can tell – nobody anywhere is reading a “cuddly leftwing radicalism” into the riots; certainly nobody is saying that looting Curry’s in Brixton was a political gesture. The “Robin Hood” interpretation of the rioting is a strawman, just as much as it was when Rossanda dismissed it in 1977: Jones (and James Ball) can trample it all they like, but it won’t dispose of the real question posed by the riots.

4. Where are we going, and why are we all in this handcart?
What people are saying (self included) is that politics doesn’t stop when crime starts. There are reasons why people steal and smash windows; more importantly, there are reasons why most people don’t steal and smash windows, most of the time. (Sunny was more or less on the right track here – but I don’t think the calculation that you wouldn’t get away with it is the only reason why people tend to obey the law, or the most important one.) One or two people whose behaviour isn’t governed by our usual reasons to obey the law is a problem for the police, the social services and politicians, in that order. The problem becomes political first and foremost when lots of people start acting differently – when all those reasons suddenly stop working in a particular place and time. And then, as Mark says, the question why can’t be avoided. More to the point, the question why is an interesting question – and it’s one that politics is much better equipped to answer than evocations of Wells or fantasies of manoeuvres organised by lurking criminal networks, vast and cool and unsympathetic.

What do I think it’s all about? A couple of quotes, lifted from comments on Guardian posts:

Even if the rioting is just an opportunity to lob stuff at the police and loot local mobile phone and shoe shops (as it appears to be in Enfield) it’s obvious something has been brewing for a while. It may be disorganised and opportunistic but still speaks of a disatisfaction with things as they are.

There’s a widespread myth that law and order is preserved by police, politicians and other forces of authority. Not true. Never has been. If we all decide to go out and chuck a dustbin through Argos’s window and help ourselves, it would take about 15 million coppers to contain it. We actually have about 150,000.

Law and order is kept by a collective acceptance of mutual goals. If, as a society, we look after each other, offer everyone a share and a stake in the common weal, maintain some semblance of a Rousseauian Social Contract, then the vast majority of people will mostly stick to the rules without ever needing to see a police officer. When people lose that sense of being looked after, no longer feel part of society, no longer feel like they have any kind of share in any kind of collective, the ties that bind begin to be broken.

Rioting, especially the type of vandalism and looting we’ve seen in London, is a sure sign that the social contract is unravelling around the edges. In the days and weeks and months to come, we shall see how far it has frayed.

A Socialist Worker friend of mine once explained to me in some detail how every Prime Minister since Attlee had been to the Right of the one before; I’m not sure how he got over Macmillan/Wilson, but he made quite a good case for Heath/Wilson. (This was before Thatcher/Major). I wouldn’t go that far, but it does seem pretty clear that certain trends that were set in motion during Thatcher’s first term have never really been reversed. Over the last 30 years, work at every level has been steadily proletarianised: employment is nothing but a contract providing money in return for a working day, and a contract that is ever easier for the employer to revoke. Business values permeate all areas of society. The overriding goal, at all times, is to turn a profit: anything that contributes to that goal is good, anything that doesn’t is dispensable at best. The service ethic – the idea of taking pride in a job well done, at whatever level; the idea that the job you do is a way of contributing to a society where ‘we look after each other’ – is little more than a nostalgic fantasy. The institutions that used to nurture it, and whose daily workings made it into a lived reality, have been asset-stripped and hollowed out by ideologues with MBAs. Social life has been radically privatised, and deinstitutionalised in the process – party membership, union membership, local authority employment have dwindled away, without anything taking their place. One of the things that gets eroded in the process is deference to authority – because who are these authority figures anyway? Just ordinary people, just interchangeable employees doing an interchangeable job – even if the job involves chasing people with sticks. (And then they start talking about a Big Society!)

What’s it like to grow up in this world – a world where your only consistent role is to ‘consume’, because nobody, at any level, has any interest in you as a worker? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to take whatever job you can get, on whatever pay you’re offered, and not to depend on the job still being there for you next year or next week? What’s it like to be told that you’ve got to prove you’re actively looking for work before you can sign on as unemployed – or that you’ve got to prove that you’re incapable of work before you can claim disability benefit – and you’ve got to prove these things to someone who won’t get paid if they believe you? And what’s it like to have grown up in a world like this, and then to be told by a government of unprepossessing Old Etonians that you’ve had it far too easy up to now? And then, what’s it like to read that those same politicians, and the people who write the papers you buy, and the police who keep everything under control, are all involved in a network of corruption and deceit?

What we’ve got at the moment isn’t a protest movement, or even a wave of riots; if anything, it’s a particularly long and broad wave of looting. And looting isn’t a political act – but it sends a definite political message. It says, I’m not going to wait any longer; I’m not going to wait for next month or next year when I could have what I want now. It says, I’m not going to play by the rules of your system; I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but right now I’m having it. It says, I’m not going to live in your world any longer; I don’t know where I’m going to be next week, but right now I’m just going to do what I want.

5. A concluding unscientific postscript
Paul:

while people may have come together to riot and loot, they are likely to be doing so for different reasons. Some may be angry that they have no job.  Some may be keen to have a free mobile handset. Still more may be there because they fear their friends would call them a “pussy” if they did not attend.  Others may be there because they want to be able to talk about it with their mates in the days and weeks to come. For most indeed the reasons will not be fixed, and may change during the evening. I am sure some will have gone down for a look, and found the temptation of a broken-into off-licence a little too great.

We can, ultimately, establish no single motivation, and it is useless to try.  It just makes you sound like Theresa May. What we can say, though, is something about comparative incentives.

Most people from richer areas, who have jobs or who have a good chance of getting a good job, will not riot in the next day or few because their retaining their job or job chance through not getting a criminal record is greater than any of the other incentives I have listed above. … People from poorer, more deprived areas and backgrounds are rioting for different, shifting motivations, but they are doing so because they do not have enough invested in what the state can offer them to outweigh the benefits of that rioting. That is, the state has temporarily failed, because a significant group of people in London have decided it is just not worth living within its jurisdiction.

And Laurie:

People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.

To end on the ghost of a positive note, that sense of collective power – that if you get a few people together, suddenly the rules don’t have to apply any more – is at the heart of a lot of radical mobilisation, although intellectual honesty compels me to note that it’s also at the heart of counter-revolutionary mobilisations and pogroms. Either way, a lot of the kids who were out last night are going to remember that feeling – is it ridiculously optimistic to hope that some of them will draw the right lesson (“don’t forget, we can also build”)? But that’s some way off. For now, I’m afraid things are going to get worse before they get better – I don’t see why the looting shouldn’t kick off again tonight (or any other night, for that matter), and the crackdown when it comes is going to be no fun at all.

Too pale a hue

June? June?

Oh well – I’m back, probably.

What’s been happening? Looking back at the last two posts, both those papers got rejected; in one case it was more of a “revise and resubmit”, so I’m not particularly distressed. The other was more of a “hit the back wall without bouncing” rejection, which did stop me in my tracks for a bit – but I’ll get a resubmission out of it. And my book is almost out, and almost has its own Web page (a holding page as I write this, but I’m going to fix that RSN).

I was going to kick this blog back into life with a few thoughts on blogging, or a political meme that drifted past in the summer, or some thoughts on the mainstreaming of Fascism, or possibly even my long-planned post on the ethics of armed struggle. (Armed struggle: I’m agin it.) Instead of which, I’m going down that time-honoured route to a blog post, the comment that got too long for the comment box. Sparked off by something on Daniel’s site, which has an odd sort of big-fleas-little-fleas appropriateness about it.

First off, how about a bit of Tronti? (Borrowed from my book, which is out soon.)

Capitalist society has its laws of development: they have been formulated by economists, applied by governments and endured by the workers. But who will discover the laws of development of the working class? … We ourselves have put capitalist development first, workers’ struggles second. This is wrong. We need to reverse the problem, change its sign, begin from first principles: and the first principle is the struggle of the working class. Where capital is developed on the social scale, capitalist development is subordinate to workers’ struggles: it follows on from them and has to shape the political mechanisms of its own production accordingly.
Mario Tronti (1964), “Lenin in England”

More generally – Tronti and the workerists argued – capitalist development is parasitic on workers’ intelligence and creativity, which they use in the refusal of work. You get the job done with half an hour to spare and sneak off for a fag; your employer cuts your working day by half an hour and cuts your pay accordingly. Result: profit. You do eight hours’ work in six hours; your employer increases your workload by 33%. Result: profit.

And so to Thomas Friedman.

we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public [i.e. state] school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.

[the] problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses — when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don’t, there’s no telling how “jobless” this recovery will be.

Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables — to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies — will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college — more education — but we need more of them with the right education.

For a start, the “untouchable” theme is a striking example of Friedman’s legendary tin ear. To use “untouchable”, as a noun, to refer to people at the top of the heap – people who will thrive while the rest of us struggle – is bizarrely insensitive. To do so when what we’re struggling against is competition from low-wage countries, like, say, India – ugh. Brane hertz.

The “work-smarter-not-harder” stuff in the last paragraph quoted above is pretty insulting, too – at least, it is for those of us who have been hearing it from management gurus, year in and year out, ever since the last recession. The sermon changes from year to year – sometimes there’s just no money around; sometimes there’s lots of money but lots of people competing for it; sometimes it’s neither of the above but the world is changing! – but the message is always the same. There’s always some compelling reason why we’ve got to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to achieve this and save money on that. We can’t just get on with our jobs – that would be wrong. (More to the point, it would mean we didn’t generate more profit than we did last year. See Tronti.)

But Friedman has something more specific to say here. Something that goes roughly like this:

“Only a minority of American workers are doing well out of globalisation – everyone else is getting shafted! As nobody could possibly have predicted (except for everybody but me)! So we need to move all American workers into that minority! And the key to that is education, government-provided education in particular! And what we need to do to government-provided education is, oh, damn, time’s up.”

I was particularly struck by the line about the $40-an-hour jobs. He’s literally proposing to fix the problem at the margin – by moving everyone who’s being affected by global competition into the margin of jobs so skill-intensive, and skills so specialised, that they can’t be done for less than $40/hour. Because if they could be done cheaper they would be, and if they’re done cheaper on the other side of the world, hey, them’s the breaks.

In The age of insecurity, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson liken globalisation to a strong wind – a conventional enough image these days. They then say that the anti-protectionist orthodoxy is a bit like saying we should deal with this strong wind by opening all our doors and knocking down walls where possible. (That wind is out there whether we like it or not! It’s a fact of life! It’s the way the world is!) Friedman has been urging on a process which other people said should be resisted or slowed down, because it would lead to disruption and immiseration on a large scale. He’s now claiming that it has led to large-scale disruption and immiseration – and his only solution is for the 80% to clamber on board the 20%’s lifeboat. And if that doesn’t work, well, it’s probably the fault of the government.

Says there’s none

Jamie picks up on a handy new proposal for making use of all those ex-servicemen the Iraq war is eventually going to leave us with:

Ex-servicemen and women should be retrained as teachers to bring military style discipline to tough inner city schools, a think tank has said. The Centre for Policy Studies says ex-soldiers could have a profound effect on discipline and learning.

“This is not merely because ex-servicemen are sure of their own moral authority. They are not intimidated by adrenaline-fuelled adolescents: they have, unlike most teachers, been there before,” it added. It also argued that the perception that these teachers had been in a “macho profession” would be well-received by inner city children. “Whether we like it or not, children from more deprived neighbourhoods often respond to raw physical power,” it added.

Chief of Defence Staff Lord Guthrie said knife crime, drugs and violence were reported daily in the inner cities. … “This will not, of course, solve all the problems of the inner city. But it will help,” he said. “It will provide youths with role models who understand discipline and self-restraint at the time in their lives when they need it most. And it will be a terrific boost for our Armed Services.”

Three different propositions seem to have got jumbled up here: ex-servicemen will help reform the rowdy kids by providing role models who understand discipline and self-restraint; they’ll cow the rowdy kids into submission with their raw physical power; and they’ll lock the place down with their military-style discipline. Presumably number 3 isn’t going to happen – apart from anything else, you don’t need military-style personnel to have military-style discipline, you just need to put someone in authority and give them a free hand. So what we want is role models and raw power – and since they’re not also talking about recruiting monks or doormen, presumably what we want is role models with raw power.

“Look at me, children. Hear the evenness of my voice, watch the precision and economy STOP THAT RIGHT NOW of my movements. Learn from me and you will STOP THAT NOW OR I WILL PERSONALLY RIP YOUR FACE OFF be like me.”

As it happens, when I was eight I had a primary school teacher who used to cane us and shout a lot, often about discipline!. But he wasn’t a former professional soldier, he was just mad. Being eight years old, I just thought this was one of those things – some teachers are nice, some are strict, and some are loud and violent and tell long and complicated stories – but I found out later that the school inspectors had been quite taken aback. They came to the school while I was there, and after they’d gone Mr Thomas didn’t come to teach us any more.

Self-restraint and raw power; discipline and violence. Or, to put it another way, dominance and submission, enforced through the ever-present threat of superior force. It’s a very old form of social organisation (more on that another time) and obviously has a certain atavistic appeal, but it’s hard to see what it’s really good for, anywhere outside the army – which is obviously a special case in terms of what people sign up for. A couple of comments from that BBC story:

Having taught in an exclusion unit in southern England for a number of years, I can attest that many of the exclusions who attended the unit were boys who had suffered violence at the hands of their military fathers who obviously believed that threatening their offspring was the best way to control them. Indeed, whole military families of children were excluded from school. I visited one family of five boys to give home tuition. All were excluded from school for violent and uncontrollable behaviour. Mother was illiterate and sat in on reading lessons. Father tried to maintain discipline with his fists and complained to me that the more he tried to get the boys to behave, the worse they became

Remembering – with fondness – my instructors from Bassingbourn Barracks, they would make mincemeat of the lot of them. But it has to come from within – the army is voluntary, you expect what you will get. School is compulsory…

I remember Mr Price, the headmaster, telling us merrily how Mr Thomas had been taken away by the men in white coats; a bit rich, really, coming from him. And I remember Mr Cook coming to take the class. He was an improvement: he caned us occasionally, but he didn’t shout very much at all and his stories were funnier and made more sense. He always had this slightly harassed air, as if he was trying to live up to something but he wasn’t quite sure what. It must have been quite a tough gig.

And we moved to Paraguay

Will is keen to dispel some myths about think tanks:

Imagine you’re throwing a party, and invitations have to be equally split into three factions. Firstly you must invite your grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. Secondly, you must invite your colleagues. And thirdly you must invite the kids who hang around the local park. When they arrive, they inevitably split into their respective groups, and congregate in separate areas of the room. As the host, it’s up to you to come up with topics of conversation on which all three groups will engage enthusiastically and frame that conversation in language that all three groups can understand. If any group opts out or feels alienated by the conversation that you introduce, you have failed in your hostly duties. Within those limits, you have complete freedom to take the conversation where you like.Now substitute ‘government, business and media’ for ‘grandparents, colleagues and kids’ … and you have a sense of how much independence a think tank has in what it says.

There’s a bunch of assumptions here which could do with unpacking – who is ‘media’? who is ‘business’? come to that, who’s ‘government’? Do the answers change over time, and do think tankers make any contribution to the way they change?

But what struck me was something about the metaphor itself. Firstly you must invite your grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. What this tells me is that British thinktanks are populated by young people. The last time I could have invited a grandparent anywhere, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

I used to work in IT – programming was my first job after college (Thatcher was in power then, too). Over a period of years I learned that young coders tend to be very bright, very keen, very confident and very prone to screw up (myself, in retrospect, very much included). They could really crank out the lines of code, but you needed to watch them. You wouldn’t let them do their own program design without severe misgivings, and you certainly wouldn’t let them go out and talk to the business.

This has nothing to do with intelligence or ability to learn – I had plenty of the former when I was a junior programmer, and probably more of the latter than I have now. (I seem to remember I had something called ‘energy’, too. Wonder what that’s like?) What I didn’t have was experience – including the experience of screwing up horribly. Consequently I didn’t have a lot of the other qualities that go under the heading of ‘maturity’ – caution, circumspection, the sense that things are probably more complicated than you realise and that other people probably know more than you understand.

Greater than all of these is the sense that it’s all been done. Back on comp.software.year-2000 (those were the days eh?) one of the regulars summed up the “old coder” mindset as

10 We tried it
20 It didn’t work
30 GOTO 10

Which makes the encounter with old coders frustrating as hell for new-broom managers and business consultants.

Admittedly, this isn’t a good guide to (in)action all the time – you’d end up with the character in La Peste who’s described as a saint because he sits in bed all day, and hence doesn’t do anyone any harm. But I can’t help thinking that the old coders are likely to be right more often than not.

So, think tanks are meeting-places for government, business and the media, and places where they go to hear new and interesting ideas. And think tanks are staffed by young coders. I guess that explains a lot.

Better in the long run

Pessimistic Clive, 28th December:

When I find myself largely agreeing with UKIP leader Nigel Farage over the two new EU member states, despite disagreeing with the very basis of his party and being largely pro-EU, how much longer can the Union continue to keep its loose supporters on board with all this prevarication, shoddy decision-making and incompetence? There’s only so long you can hold on to hope in the face of so much mounting evidence of ever-worsening illness, after all – and no matter how much you may love your dear dog, at some point the realisation has to dawn that it’s so poorly, so incapable of looking after itself, and so unlikely to recover that the kindest thing is simply to have the poor mite put down and go get yourself a new one.

Optimistic Clive, New Year’s Day:

In the short term, the lack of progress on the constitution, the lack of progress on deregulation, the ever-increasing piles of pointless directives, mountains of wasted produce, and continued disasters caused by the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies – all of these are problems, some more major than others.But all of these problems are transient in the grand scheme of things. Even if they continue throughout my lifetime, if these initial birth-pangs of an organisation that will only reach its half-century this year are the worst that the EU can produce – after all the centuries of warfare that Europe has suffered to date – then I think we can surive them, if this is what it takes for our children and grandchildren to inherit a better world.

It’s not the volte-face that bothers me so much the particular face Clive seems to have volted into. When I was about fourteen I converted to Communism; it came a bit after my flirtations with Buddhism and Christianity, but lasted a lot longer. I’d read a bit about Cuba, and the news from China was all very inspiring at the time, but what really did it was an anecdote our History teacher told in class (yes, it’s a story within a story – David Mitchell look out). Our teacher said that he’d once met the Russian Ambassador, and asked him whether he really believed that the socialist states were progressing towards communism. Apparently the Ambassador said that he realised that he wouldn’t live to see communism, and he doubted that his young children would – but maybe, just maybe, if everyone kept the faith and worked hard, maybe his grandchildren would live in a communist society. And that thought alone was enough to make him a believer.

To his great credit, our teacher told us that he personally couldn’t believe anything like that, but that he did believe that people could make things a bit better in their own lifetimes, and that was why he considered himself a socialist. Me, I was a sucker for the grand plans and the glorious hopes and the torch of faith handed down through the generations, and I fell for it. It sounds rather as if Clive has too. I’ve arrived at roughly the point my History teacher was at in the seventies – I don’t believe social projects have some sort of Hegelian essence which enables them to develop coherently over more than one human lifetime. I certainly don’t believe in birth-pangs that last half a century. I wonder where the Ambassador’s children are now.

To illustrate the kind of mentality I’m thinking about, particularly for anyone who’s puzzled about some of the terminology I used up there (whether the socialist states were progressing towards communism and so forth) here’s a poem, Roque Dalton’s “On headaches”. (Dalton was a Salvadorean guerrillero, tragically shot by his own side in 1975; he was 39.)

It’s a great thing to be a Communist,
although it causes many headaches.

And a Communist headache
is a historical phenomenon, which is to say
that it can’t be treated by painkillers
but only by the realisation of the earthly paradise.
That’s just how it is.

Under capitalism our heads hurt us
and they take our heads off.
In the struggle for the Revolution our heads are bombs with delay fuses.
During the period of socialist construction we plan out our headaches,
which doesn’t make them go away – quite the reverse.

Communism will be, among other things,
an aspirin as big as the sun.

It’s a beautiful dream – but I don’t trust politicians with dreams.

Update 3/1/06: Clive strikes back, and explains how he can be both cynical and idealistic about the European project. Long, but good stuff.

Business, community, discipline

Business, Community, Discipline: the Strange Triumph of New Labour

Written 12th May 1997; not published

I didn’t vote Labour on May 1st. At my first general election in 1979 I voted Liberal, an early tactical voter in Conservative Croydon South. I found out afterwards that the Labour candidate had lost his deposit: every vote did count after all. Ever since then I’d voted Labour at every opportunity.

But not this time, and probably never again. Of course, nobody on the Left has been enthusiastic about the Labour Party for some years. Personally I’d been alarmed by the way the party was going ever since Kinnock’s leadership – one long series of retreats before the supposed power of the Right, as ineffectual as it was inglorious. But New Labour is something else entirely. The party leadership’s refusal to give even token support to strikers; their determination to ingratiate the party with big business; their approval of punitive and divisive social policies; their frankly Stalinist approach to the party’s membership – all these were qualitatively new features of the party under Blair and Mandelson, and all of them would have made it very difficult for me to give the party my vote.

I knew for certain that I wasn’t going to vote Labour a few days into the election campaign. I was listening to the 6.00 news on the radio. The Liberal Democrats had launched their manifesto: a good, worthy, unambitious programme of reform, with spending pledges to be funded by raising the top rate of income tax to 50p and the basic rate to 24p (rates lower than those in force during Thatcher’s first term). Gordon Brown’s response was, perhaps, predictable: using the voice of fiscal rectitude – an undertaker’s drone – he denounced the Liberal Democrats’ ‘irresponsible tax plans’. A couple of minutes later, up popped Tony Blair himself, explaining in gleeful tones that while the Scottish electorate might vote for a parliament with tax-raising powers, if Labour controlled the parliament they wouldn’t use them. Under Labour nobody was going to pay any more income tax, no matter what.

At this point my despair at hearing Gordon Brown take over, verbatim, a classic Tory argument against the Left turned into anger. Swearing at the radio isn’t big or clever, and I’ll spare you the details. At that moment, though, I felt that I’d caught a glimpse of something Tony Blair really believes in, something New Labour really stands for; and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Exhibits B and C followed soon after, while I was trying to make up my mind between the Liberal Democrats and the Socialist Labour Party (no Green candidate, unfortunately). Tony Blair told a newspaper that he believed in redistribution, “but not in the sense of taking a few quid from one group of people and giving it to people on benefit”; he went on to talk vaguely about ‘creating opportunity’. Blair is in favour of redistribution, in other words, but against taking anything away from anybody; a remarkable logical contortion, reminiscent of new Labour MP Chris Pond’s statement that “you can’t solve the problem of poverty by throwing money at it”. A few days later, Blair announced – though ‘pledged’ now seems to be the verb of choice – that the proceeds from the Wednesday Lottery would go into general public spending rather than being earmarked for charities, the arts et al.

At one level the connection between the two is obvious, and it was drawn by the Tories immediately – much good it did them. It’s the deeper connection that concerns me. A flat-rate tax, like the Poll Tax, is inherently regressive. You could make a flat-rate tax still more unjust by contriving for people with higher incomes to avoid paying it altogether, while exhorting the worse-off to make up the shortfall. This miracle of economic inequity is, of course, what the Tories created with the National Lottery – but even they never tried to encourage participation as a national duty, as Blair has now done. And this while setting his face against any rise in income tax – which is, of course, an inherently progressive tax.

“New Labour: making the rich richer and the poor poorer”. Labour don’t talk in precisely these terms, of course. They seem to have three main themes: business, renewal and the community. The first of these almost goes without saying: no one could doubt that Blair’s main priority is a strong economy, a thriving ‘UK plc’ (ugh). This has some important implications. Any commitment to social democracy as Tawney defined it – overriding the requirements of the economy in certain areas for the good of society – had been beaten out of Labour by the time of the 1992 election, fought under the banner of ‘when resources allow’. What is new about Blair is that this loss of what had been a defining principle is now being happily embraced, flaunted as a sign of the very newness of New Labour. Labour will get things done not through government intervention or even public spending – pre-emptively frozen at Tory levels – but through co-operation with the private sector; this translates as sweetheart deals with major companies beginning with B (BT, BP, BA…) BT, as we know, will connect schools to the Internet, in return for a relaxation of the rules regulating its operations. The company gets its business, the schools get their connections and everyone’s happy – except perhaps the employees and customers of a privately-owned and ill-regulated monopoly, free to pursue a higher dividend without fear of government disapproval.

Perhaps the strongest theme in the repertoire of New Labour – certainly the most inspirational – is that one word: New. Curiously, among the true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t really oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. (This combination of ideas also enables the party’s ideologues to claim that Labour’s policies had to change because they were ‘old’: a deeply dishonest presentation of a transformation which was entirely political, and by no means inevitable). Freed from the uphill struggle to build support for left-wing policies, New Labour’s managerial apparat can bring their new brooms to bear on running the country. Labour can then re-emerge as the party of a cool-headed, unillusioned managerialism: it shares all the Tories’ basic presuppositions, but without their feverish ideological baggage. It is in this context that some of Labour’s proposed reforms can best be understood. Any halfway competent right-wing government would have signed the Social Chapter, and several have. Similarly, the notion that the mere existence of a minimum wage is bad for business could only be taken seriously under Thatcherism. Renewal, in short, means a new lease of life for the status quo.

A few policies in Labour’s programme do hold out some hope for a genuine democratic renewal – an overhaul of Britain’s archaic and undemocratic structures of government. The Scottish Parliament, the promised referendum on electoral reform, House of Lords reform, the Freedom of Information Act: all of these could herald major and beneficial changes in the way Britain is governed. However, extreme scepticism is still in order in all these areas. We can hardly ignore Blair’s expressed intentions for the Scottish Parliament or his personal opposition to PR: openings in these areas may be created by Labour, but they will have to be exploited despite Labour. While restrictions on hereditary peers are welcome, Blair seems more than happy to stock the House of Lords with government appointees – a policy which hardly addresses the second chamber’s democratic deficit. Any Freedom of Information Act, finally, will face enormous pressure for exemptions from three main quarters: the police, the security services (‘national security’) and the business community (‘commercial confidentiality’). These are not groups which the incoming government has any experience of facing down – or opposing.

The community – ‘the decent society’, in Blair’s words – is a strong theme but a vague one. In its positive form it has little content which isn’t shared across the political spectrum, post-Thatcher Tories excluded. Yes, there is such a thing as society; yes, a sense of community is important; yes, it is good for people to be active in their communities. There’s nothing there that wouldn’t be endorsed by Women Against Pit Closures or the anti-roads protesters, or for that matter by the BNP. The hard questions – what kind of society, what kind of community, what kind of activity – are never addressed. Only in its negative form do the contours of the decent society start to become clear. Parents should spend twenty minutes a night reading to their children (Blunkett); parents should bring their children up to respect the police (Straw). Single motherhood is not just a difficult lifestyle; it is wrong and should be discouraged (Blair). “YOUNG OFFENDERS WILL BE PUNISHED” (Labour campaign poster). Blunkett proposes to deal with training scheme refuseniks by cutting 40% of their benefit; Straw’s views on ravers and beggars are too well known to go into here. The rhetoric of ‘community’ announces a punitive, moralistic, openly divisive social policy, whose main function is to create and stigmatise outsiders: people who don’t play by the rules, people who don’t pull their weight; people who don’t fit in.

One final distinguishing feature is New Labour’s keen interest in power. Never has a government been led by a group so adept at entrenching its own power within the ruling party. While membership drives are encouraged, members once recruited are treated as plebiscitary cannon-fodder, in the best democratic centralist tradition. Whatever the wording of the questions, in last year’s ‘policy consultation exercise’ there were really only two options: give the leadership a blank cheque, or make the party look divided. It would take a large, widespread and determined opposition to the leadership to raise any sizeable vote for the second option. The ‘Labour into Power’ proposals for reorganising the party seem designed to prevent any such opposition from arising or expressing itself: the proposed reforms to the annual conference and the NEC effectively remove the only points in the existing structure where ordinary members can make themselves heard. Under the proposals, the party’s current policy-making structure is replaced by a pyramid of ‘Policy Forums’ culminating in a Joint Policy Committee – ‘joint’ as between the NEC and the Cabinet – chaired by Blair. Given an adequate supply of motivated party loyalists, a structure like this positively lends itself to the imposition of the leadership’s line, as any veteran of a democratic centralist party will attest. The machinery to ensure a continuing supply of apparatchiks is already in place: from the Blairite ginger group around the magazine Renewal, through the machine for grooming New Labour cadres whose house organ is Progress, to the Blair-friendly network of Scottish local authority fixers known simply as The Network. As for Labour MPs, late last year the Parliamentary Labour Party approved a new code of conduct. Among the new provisions is an undertaking not to do or say anything which would “bring the party into disrepute” – a clause with unbounded disciplinary potential. The Cabinet, we can be sure, will be policed as it was under Thatcher: by the quiet word and the unattributable briefing. The treatment given to Clare Short in the Shadow Cabinet (“Clare’s in a hole and she should stop digging”) is a sign of things to come; the appointment of Peter Mandelson as Minister without Portfolio is a sure sign that those things are, indeed, coming.

Clearly Blair is not simply right-wing, in the sense that Gaitskell and John Smith were right-wingers: indeed, Blair has dismissed the Gaitskellites as the right wing of ‘old socialism’. To find another Labour leader so eager to meet the Conservative agenda halfway you would have to go back as far as the leader of another neologism, National Labour; and Blair, unlike Macdonald, has taken almost the whole of the Labour Party with him. Moreover, New Labour has to be seen as a coherent ideological project: it is not simply a combination of Thatcherite values with rhetoric harking back to pre-Thatcher civilities (like the SDP), still less a stratagem undertaken in order to win an election. (There is more than one way to skin that particular cat). That said, the question of how to describe New Labour may be best left open. Capitalism in a rational, corporatist form; a prescriptive communitarian moralism; organisational authoritarianism; and an insistent rhetoric of the ‘new’, the ‘modern’. What does this add up to?

Another question is how long it can last. New Labour offers no principled opposition to the Thatcherite virtues of ambition, acquisitiveness and self-centredness; its communitarian policies are promoted precisely as complementary to the ‘enterprise culture’. This extraordinary occupation of Tory territory may explain, paradoxically, the sheer magnitude of Labour’s victory over the Tories: once the Tories had discredited themselves completely, there was nothing to stop a Tory voter going over to Labour. The problem is obvious: by abandoning the hard work of building a majority for genuinely reforming policies (even within the party) Labour have left themselves no defence against an equally massive swing at the next election. Once the Tories’ problems with sleaze and Europe subside, and Black Wednesday fades in the national memory, we can expect a revival of the natural party of Thatcherism – perhaps with rediscovered paternalist tendencies to set against New Labour’s enthusiasm for the free market.

The tragedy of New Labour is that the transformation rested on – and exploited – a huge mass of passive, even grudging support, loaned to the Blairites on the grounds that this was the only way to get rid of the Tories; and that it was almost certainly unnecessary even in those terms. The Guardian’s Martin Kettle is a loyal Blairite, currently afloat in post-election euphoria; when Blair introduced first names to Cabinet meetings Kettle commented, “we seem almost to be living in a cultural revolution”. During the election campaign, Kettle speculated on what would have happened if John Smith had lived. He concluded that Smith’s Labour Party would have lost in 1997, beset by Tory attacks on Smith’s tax plans, his links with the unions and Monklands. The morning after the election, Kettle delivered himself of a new analysis: the polls had been right all along, victory was never in doubt, there was nothing the Tories could have done. The electorate, he said, had decided after Black Wednesday that the Tories must go; nothing could have saved them from that point on. I find this considerably more persuasive than the alternative, and can’t help wondering if a small majority under Smith might have proved preferable to a Blair landslide.

If this seems a perverse or premature judgment, consider what we already know about the Blair agenda. Patriotism; alliances with big business; attacks on unconventional lifestyles. Closure of ‘failing’ schools by central diktat; compulsory childcare classes for irresponsible parents. Restrictions on the right to strike; restrictions on welfare payments; no tax rises for the middle classes; more money from the Lottery. Oh, and the party conference will be made ‘more like a rally’. It doesn’t look like a country I’ve ever wanted to live in – let alone a programme I could ever vote for.

As it turned out I voted Socialist Labour: not out of any enthusiasm for the party or its dirigiste daydream of a programme, but simply because they were prepared to speak the language of social justice. The Liberal Democrats might have got my vote, for similar reasons, but that their candidate had come out in support of the second runway at Manchester Airport – a particularly pressing example of unsustainable development. Meanwhile in Croydon South, the Tory got in again; but this time Labour came second, with the almost universal 10% swing. I wish I could be happier about that.

Hide them when you’re able

I’ve got a logical mind, perhaps excessively so; people sometimes call me a pedant, but I always point out that pedantry is characterised by excessive reliance on canonical sources and works of reference rather than by mere consistency in the exercise of rational thinking. That shuts them up, I can tell you.

Anyway, having a clear and intuitive sense of propositions such as “if A is true, not-A must be false” is surprisingly useful in some lines of work, but it can make the fuzzier areas of human interaction a bit problematic. In my last job but one I had the misfortune to be part of a group that was selected for an Outward Bound-style ‘team-building’ exercise, which would take place over a weekend and include lots of the kind of jolly fun activities which I’d managed to avoid for the whole of my adult life and most of my childhood. Correction: a voluntary Outward Bound-style ‘team-building’ exercise. Cue a conversation with my manager:

“I don’t think I’ll go on this thing.”
“Are you sure? You know, I think you should.”
“Well, maybe. But, I mean, it’s not compulsory, is it?”
“No, no, it’s not compulsory. Think about it, OK?”

And another:

“I really don’t think I’ll go on this thing.”
“I don’t know, I really think you ought to. The idea is that the whole group goes.”
“Sorry, you mean it’s compulsory?”
“No, no, of course not. It’s just that it’s better if the whole group goes.”
“I appreciate that, but it’s just not my thing.”
“OK, well. It’s not compulsory, of course. But just think about it, OK?”

And another:

“Look, I’ve thought about it some more, and…”
“OK, I know you don’t want to go, but I really think you should.”
“But… what can I say? I really don’t want to go. And it’s not compulsory…”
“No, no, of course it’s not compulsory. But I really think you should go.”

If it’s not compulsory, it must be voluntary.
But:
If I can’t choose not to go, then it’s not voluntary and it must be compulsory.
But…

Brane hertz.

(I went, of course. Parts of it were OK – the rope walk was very cool – but other parts were truly, enduringly awful. I got my revenge in the whiteboard feedback session on the Sunday afternoon.)

That was a long time ago, and I’ve had a bit more experience of smudgy social reasoning since then. But sometimes even now the fit descends and I turn into LogicMan (None withstand his remorseless inferences!). Most recently in the case of that cuddly Old Labour mascot, John Prescott. Charlie has the story; Alex has the British background; and Dave has the American ditto. Me, I’ve got the logic.

You see, Prescott’s stay on the Anschutz ranch was either personal – an even lower-rent version of Blair’s hols with Berlusconi – or business. It can’t be both; it can’t be neither; it must be one or the other.

If it was personal, why wasn’t it declared in the Register of Members’ Interests at the time?
If it was personal, what were civil servants doing on the trip with Prescott? (Ugh – better rephrase that before the mental images get out of hand.) If it was personal, how does Prescott justify taking civil servants with him?
If it was personal, why was the offsetting payment to charity made out of government funds?
And if it was personal, why on earth would Prescott choose to spend his holidays with an unsavoury character like Anschutz? (See Dave’s post for details.)

On the other hand:

If it was a trip on government business, why has the trip been declared in the Register of Members’ Interests at all?
If it was business, why has a payment been made to charity?
And, if it was business, what business could Prescott possibly have to discuss, legitimately, with Anschutz?

Logically, the whole thing’s a tissue of contradictions. There are only two interpretations that make any kind of sense. Either it was a personal holiday funded by the taxpayer – including personal assistance from Prescott’s civil servants; in this case Prescott is personally corrupt on a truly Italian scale, as well as having lost any sense of political principle. Or else it was a business trip laid on to ease the path of Anschutz’s bid for the Dome Casino (si New Labour monumentum requiris…); in this case Prescott is politically corrupt, as well as having lost any sense of principle. And either way he’s a liar.

Perhaps this is LogicMan speaking, but surely there’s no way out of this one. Prescott has to resign as Deputy PM; if he’s any sense he’ll resign as an MP, too, before the Standards Committee pushes him. And then he should apologise, in person, to the people of Liverpool. (Not because he’s done anything to them, just because it was funny when Boris did it.)

No one is a nobody

So we’ve just helped ourselves to a couple of chocolates from a left-over box of Miniature Heroes when our son walks in. He’s eating an apple, but his attention is caught by the chocolates and he begins at once to plead and beg in a frankly rather undignified manner. Wife points out that he’s got an apple. No, I say, he’s holding out for a Hero. How we laughed. (Well, I did.)

(Left over from Christmas, since you ask. That’s a lot of leaving-over, and I’m personally convinced that the salmonella risk is far from negligible. My wife, on the other hand, is personally convinced that I’ve taken hypochondria to previously unscaled heights of self-absorbed irrationality. It’s a point of view.)

About heroes, anyway. That is, about managerialism, and about dedication and skill at work. (The following was formulated for a workplace IT survey, but I thought I’d give it a wider airing.)

There’s a common misconception that informal technical support (“I just ring Bob and he comes over and sorts me out”) doesn’t work, and that tech support needs to be formally managed and controlled. This can lead on to a greater misconception, that formally-managed tech support can be delivered by people with less outstanding levels of knowledge and dedication than poor old Bob – “if you get the system right you don’t need heroes”.

Actually informal tech support works tremendously well, from the user’s point of view. (Yes, there will be a backlog of unresolved problems and dissatisfied users – but there will be a backlog whatever you do.) That said, the first misconception has an element of truth, inasmuch as informal tech support is a nightmare to manage – but the managers aren’t the ones whose problems need solving.

The second misconception, however, is flat wrong, and dangerous with it. Heroes are precisely what you need: people who know everything, can prioritise six half-finished tasks in their heads and (very important) like talking to users. Tech support is hard – you’ve absolutely got to have the right people doing it. And management doesn’t help. Imposing formal management systems on those people may make their managers’ lives easier, but it won’t get the job done any better – it’s more likely to get in the way.

In technical support, management isn’t a substitute for heroic levels of skill and dedication. Management (from the point of view of the techie being managed) is a necessary evil – and you still need the heroes.

Escape routes exist

Let’s get productive!

At least 100,000 NHS employees will lose their jobs if the government carries through the health reforms Tony Blair wants as a lasting monument to his premiership, according to a report today from the pro-market thinktank Reform. Under the reforms, the benefits of a more efficient service, with greater productivity and a more highly skilled workforce, would be accompanied by severe unemployment, says the report by Nick Bosanquet, professor of health policy at Imperial College London.

Professor Bosanquet, who is an adviser to the Commons health committee, blamed Department of Health planners for pushing up staffing costs. Since 1999 the NHS workforce had increased from 1 million to 1.3 million, and was on course to reach 1.6 million by 2010, he said. But the reforms being pursued by the health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, would make trusts think harder about productivity; foundation hospitals would negotiate local pay deals, and as more trusts gained foundation status, national pay agreements would become less important.”It is likely that productivity gains will mean that staff numbers are reduced by at least 10%,” Prof Bosanquet said. This would cut the workforce to below 1.2 million.

Professor speak with forked tongue. “Productivity” is one of those words that does a lot more work than it lets on. The measure of “productivity” is, essentially, how much work is done by each person employed. If you sack 10% of your staff while the overall workload remains the same or increases – and, in the NHS, we can reasonably expect that the overall workload is not going to go down – then productivity will go up by 11%; to put it another way, everyone who’s left is going to have to do 11% more work. Note also that if the 10% of staff who are sacked are disproportionately un- or semi-skilled, the result will inevitably be both greater productivity and a more highly skilled workforce – albeit a skilled workforce which has achieved greater productivity by doing the dirty jobs as well. In practice calculating productivity is slightly more complicated than this, as the key metric is money: if the payroll costs of the 90% of staff who remain go up – perhaps because they want more money for doing more work – you won’t see the full 11% increase. But that’s where the local pay deals come in.

“NHS trusts will save money by sacking workers and attacking the pay and conditions of those who remain,” says pro-market thinktank. It doesn’t take much decoding – but putting it in those terms might provoke resistance, and would certainly raise the question why. Productivity, though – who could argue with that? Who wouldn’t want to be more productive? (We feel bad when we’re not productive, says top shrink.) And above all, who wouldn’t want the workers to be more productive, lazy blighters?

Mario Tronti, as ever, is the man:

Capitalist society has its laws of development: they have been formulated by economists, applied by governments and endured by the workers. But who will discover the laws of development of the working class? Capital has its history and its historians to write it. But who will write the history of the working class? … We ourselves have put capitalist development first, workers’ struggles second. This is wrong. We need to reverse the problem, change its sign, begin from first principles: and the first principle is the struggle of the working class.

In 1964, when Tronti wrote these lines (from “Lenin in England”), he was an Autonomist – one of the first – and a communist rather than a socialist. (That’s ‘communist’ with a small C, although Tronti was also a Communist. Long story. Never mind.) Socialism, for the Autonomists, offered no more than collective self-exploitation and the rational redistribution of surplus value. Social democracy, for an Autonomist, would barely be worth defending: it would leave the bosses in place, merely fencing off a few areas which should be run for the common good rather than for profit (sanitation, education, health, that kind of thing). When we look at Tronti’s communism now, it seems like a distant echo of a much more radical era – but, ironically, the long retreat of social democracy has left us few alternatives to a Trontian reversal of perspectives. What is the NHS, after all, or where is it – in a constellation of autonomous groups of managers who cost the human resources required to deliver a service, or in the nurses and the doctors to whom many of us owe our lives?

(And who the hell are the former to talk to the latter about being productive?)

To the great dominions

Harry:

Hitler had his faults, of course, as he himself would be the first to admit. Many of his “Nazi theories” have now been debunked. With the benefit of hindsight his invasion of Russia was ill-conceived, and his scheme to exterminate the “lesser races” has been widely discredited.

Hitler was also a lousy manager. During the war years, in particular, he tended to sleep all morning, go for a long walk after lunch, then settle down to watch a film before a dinner which would last all night – not because the dinner itself was particularly lavish but because this was when he would talk about his plans for the world, for two or three hours at a time. If you wanted to get a decision out of Hitler, your best bet was to get him either straight after lunch or after the afternoon walk. Either that or sell your idea to Martin Bormann, who got himself into the position of being Hitler’s gatekeeper in this period; even he couldn’t always get the Fuehrer’s attention, but with any luck he’d send out the memo anyway.

Hitler’s working practices were more efficient earlier in his career, but even then he knew nothing about delegation. He was the kind of boss who keeps everyone hanging around until he’s ready to start a meeting, then talks at great length about whatever comes to mind instead of sticking to the agenda. He inspired – if that was the kind of thing you were inspired by – and, er, that was it. Except that, in the classic style of hands-off managers, he was also a micro-manager when the fancy took him; as the German armies faced defeat on the Eastern and Western fronts, the Fuehrer would make time to read the complaints and denunciations ordinary Germans had written to him and ensure that such-and-such a slacker or hoarder received the appropriate punishment.

Hitler’s style of management was dreadfully inefficient, but it has a certain definite appeal – at least, for the manager in question. What could be better, after all, than to sweep armies across the map and condemn thousands of enemies to death in the afternoon, then in the afternoon reach down to pluck out a single lurking malefactor and consign him to his personal doom – and finish the day by outlining those still greater things that you would achieve, when the downfall of all your enemies had finally given you a free hand? What a combination: vision, strategy and a grasp of specifics, all managed from the lofty vantage-point of the true leader, with a true leader’s wisdom and authority. What a piece of work such a manager would be – how infinite in faculty, in apprehension how like a god!

Henry Porter:

I certainly understand that the capillaries of a society run from bottom to top, bearing all the bad news, intractable problems, mood swings and crises; that it is all ceaselessly pumped upwards in the direction of the Prime Minister; and that the view afforded in Downing Street must sometimes be truly extraordinary, a seething, organic, Hogarthian panorama of delinquency and unreason.A Prime Minister must try to reach beyond the day-to-day business of government, frantic though it is, and make sense of what he sees below, seek the connecting threads, order up the policies and implement them so that improvement becomes possible. … Because he is by his own account well-intentioned, [Blair] believes that nothing should get in the way of this modernising purpose, the exercise of his benevolent reason on the turbulent society below. Like Mrs Thatcher, he has become almost mystically responsible for the state of the nation.

Kenneth Boulding (via Chris):

There is a great deal of evidence that almost all organizational structures tend to produce false images in the decision-maker, and that the larger and more authoritarian the organization, the better the chance that its top decision-makers will be operating in purely imaginary worlds.

Not weak enough

Will Davies is cross with David Cameron:

he seems to have invented his own more radical way of by-passing politics. His mantra is to introduce ‘a new approach’. Where Blair can claim the ghost of Keir Hardie and the strategic acumen of McKinseys, Cameron has adopted a view from nowhere at all. All he wants is a ‘new approach’, which could potentially exclude everything we’ve ever thought was politics, from policies, to media interviews, to empirical consensus on social problems. Asked whether his commitment to the environment might lead him towards policies to cut air travel, Cameron answered that this would not be the right ‘approach’ to the problem. Not only does this keep his policies hidden, it obscures a priori questions as to what the hell he’s doing in public life. Is he even a politician at all?

I think this is perceptive, but also risks misunderstanding and underestimating Cameron’s approach. Firstly and most fundamentally, Cameron’s a Conservative – meaning that he’ll do, say or think whatever it takes to get the Conservative Party into power. The last few Conservative leaders have assumed that they needed to replace ideologically-driven Thatcherism either with more of the same or with a more traditional version of ideological Conservatism (cf. Howard’s flirtation with Powellism). Cameron seems to have realised that there’s a deeper vein of Conservatism that’s not ideologically-driven at all.

Secondly and relatedly, Cameron’s oriented towards politics as culture and philosophy rather than project – which is to say, he’s oriented towards Labour’s weak spot. Even a baggy, miscellaneous, sacred-cow-free Conservatism is likely to have more internal coherence than New Labour. New Labour’s coherence is all in the project – an intransigently future-oriented project which draws much of its power from its continual attacks on the party’s own culture and philosophy. The justification for this approach was that it would take the party on a forced march into the terrain of middle-Englander common sense. But there are two ironies here. One is that this terrain is, if anything, even more alien to New Labour’s managerialists than the party’s own despised culture; witness Mandelson’s ghastly attempts to evoke grassroots patriotism at the 1997 election, flag, bulldog and all. There was always a danger that the party wouldn’t know the promised land when they saw it, in other words. The second irony is that the forced march was never going to stop there in any case: to change metaphors, once you’ve started throwing the floorboards into the furnace it’s hard to stop the train. In other words, the very coherence of New Labour as a project is rapidly taking the party into areas where it loses any possible coherence as a culture – and loses touch with that very ‘middle England’ for whose sake the whole exercise was supposedly undertaken. Cameron’s refusal to champion any kind of unifying project is a timely and appropriate response. If I were a Labour MP in a pre-1997 Tory seat – and plenty of them are – I’d find Cameron’s nebulous ‘approach’ extremely worrying.

Thirdly, we are not in a pre-election period (although sometimes it’s easy to forget). Cameron’s main priority now is to oppose effectively – and, given the problems the New Labour project is already creating for the Labour Party, the most effective way he can oppose Labour is by supporting Blair, just as Baldwin supported MacDonald (or the rope the hanged man).

Cameron’s an idiot – and a Tory idiot, at that – but I think for the Conservatives his ‘approach’ makes a lot of sense. By rallying apolitical Tories and ex-Tories, by exploiting the contradictions of the New Labour project and by driving a wedge between Blair and his party, Cameron’s got the chance to do New Labour a great deal of damage in the next couple of years. As I said earlier, at this stage in the game that’s all they deserve.

If a tree don’t fall on me

Apparently I’m up to blogpost #100, a little short of the blog’s first anniversary. How about some beer?

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations – Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. But they’re variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington’s, there’s been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style – but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well); I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they’re all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There’s a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars’ favourite guests keep coming back – and the way their names keep including words like ‘white’ or ‘golden’. I’m in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The local with the pale, hoppy ales I’ll call Old Local. It’s not particularly old – it’s six or seven years old, in fact – but it looks it; the decor is classic Pub Basic. It’s a small pub, tied to a small local brewery; on an average night they have four or five of the brewery’s ales on, plus a couple of guests and a real cider (from a one-gallon barrel, kept in the fridge). It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away and handy for a good Chinese takeaway.

Then there’s New Local, which was opened a little more than a year ago and looks it. It’s less than ten minutes’ walk away (in the other direction) and handy for a good Indian; it’s a Thwaites’ pub, usually serving Bomber and Thoroughbred plus a couple of guests. New Local doesn’t serve real cider, and they serve the bitter a couple of degrees too cold. But it’s good ale – their Thoroughbred in particular is a very nice pint, without the slightly curdled caramel heaviness of the Bomber. New Local also has a bar snacks menu consisting mainly of things like miniature salamis and Japanese rice crackers. (Old Local, to be fair, serves Kettle Chips and Bombay mix, so it’s not that stark a contrast; I’m not sure where you’d go round here for pork scratchings.) Another difference between the two is that you don’t hear many local accents in New Local; from what I’ve overheard I get the impression that most of the clientele are incomers (like me), working in the social services or education (like me).

Can you guess which of the two has a no-smoking policy?

Last October I wrote (in comments here)

I could approve of a complete smoking ban if we were arguing about the effects on pub staff, whose exposure to smoke in pubs is much more extensive than any(?) of their customers’. If we’re talking about the punters (as people discussing a ban generally are) the case is much less clear. You express puzzlement that market forces have failed to create choice between smoking and non-smoking pubs, but actually this was entirely predictable for as long as smoke actively repelled a lower proportion of pub customers than the absence of smoke. Since smokers have historically been either a majority or a large minority among pub-goers, and since non-smokers aren’t likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of clean air, these conditions haven’t obtained; the balance has also had an added level of ’stickiness’ owing to the lack of anywhere for non-smokers to actually go. What’s happened recently is that smokers have dwindled to a small enough proportion of the population that some pub managers can afford to disregard their preferences; there’s also been a decrease in the tolerance of the non-smoking population, although I don’t think this is anything like so significant a factor. Consequently non-smoking pubs have become a reality (one opened from scratch a year ago, just down the road from me in Manchester, & is now doing a roaring trade) – which in turn makes competitive pressures that much freer to operate.So what worries me most about the proposed smoking ban – and almost equally draconian half-measures such as the creation of airtight(!) smoking rooms – is that this nannyish attack on the pleasures of the working class* will take place precisely when it’s no longer necessary.

*Pardon my Johnreidism, but this does seem like the most class-correlated proposal I’ve seen in a very long time – and not in a good way, either.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the pending smoking ban is that it won’t come into force for another eighteen months. I imagine that the imminent threat of a ban will give market forces another nudge, so that by the time the ban actually takes effect it will look even less necessary than it does now. (But then, ‘market forces’ only ever make sense within a given framework of law, custom and expectation.)

But it’s not just clean air that the ban will promote – or rather, it’ll promote clean air by promoting a broader shift of values. And that’s what worries me. I’m a middle-class incomer, with an incomer’s accent, an incomer’s taste in beer and an incomer’s habit of taking the LRB to the pub and sitting on my own reading it (or sometimes, particularly in Old Local, standing on my own reading it). Or maybe that last one’s just me. But anyway – middle-class incomer I am. But I like Old Local because I can feel at home there without being entirely surrounded by other middle-class incomers; conversely, I like New Local, but I’d like it more if it wasn’t quite so full of people like me. I’m settled here – I’ve been in Manchester for 23 years and in this specific area for 18 – but I still feel like an incomer, and I think that’s appropriate: I like the fact that I share a local with people who are actually from around here, and I don’t object to being reminded that I’m not. At some deep level, the opening of New Local and places like it feels like a different kind of middle-class influx – not so much immigration, more colonisation. And the smoking ban seems like a big vote of confidence to New Local, and a big ‘up yours’ to the Old Local crowd.

I wonder if Chris goes far enough:

To New Labour, health egalitarianism is a strong enough principle to justify restricting freedom, but not strong enough to justify seriously attacking inequality.

I think we can simplify: to New Labour managerialists, just about any principle is good enough to justify restricting working class freedoms, and just about any principle is more important than seriously improving working class life chances. (And no, the smoking ban isn’t about doing just that – or if it is, it’s a peculiarly limited and indirect way of achieving that goal. See Chris’s post for more.)

Update A friend challenged me today to specify less coercive means of effectively protecting bar staff from passive smoking. I don’t think it’s that difficult. Firstly (and symbolically), you’d give legal status to smoking bans imposed by the management of pubs and clubs: you light up and it’s not just the management you’re taking on, there’s a chance you could actually be fined. (Or at least have a fee extorted – but that’s another rant.) This in itself wouldn’t do much more than make it easier to non-smoking establishments to open. Secondly, you’d legislate so that the continued tolerance of smoking, in a smoking establishment, rested on the consent of the people who work there: you’d enable bar staff to hold binding ballots on converting to (or, to keep it fair, from) non-smoking status and encourage pubs and clubs to hold such ballots regularly – starting now. If there is any groundswell of support for a smoking ban, among pub customers or pub workers, this should be enough to turn it into reality. And if not, what are we doing imposing one?

Updated update: Brian‘s post reminds me that, with the exception of the clause about balloting the staff, I’ve just reinvented the 2005 Labour manifesto position on smoking. Since the Blairite takeover there have been numerous cases of people and policies moving from respectable centre to extreme left without actually changing; it usually takes a bit longer than this, though.

Younger than that now

There’s some good stuff from Ross McKibbin in the current LRB:

the two major parties fundamentally share the same ideology. Despite assurances that the political elite is interested only in what works, this is the most intensely ideological period of government we have known in more than a hundred years. The model of market-managerialism has largely destroyed all alternatives, traditional and untraditional. Its most powerful weapon has been its vocabulary. We are familiar with the way this language has carried all before it. We must sit on the cusp, hope to be in a centre of excellence, dislike producer-dominated industries, wish for a multiplicity of providers, grovel to our line managers, even more to the senior management team, deliver outcomes downstream, provide choice. Our students are now clients, our patients and passengers customers. It is a language which was first devised in business schools, then broke into government and now infests all institutions.

But this rings oddly false:

there is still a sense in which the Conservative Party is not of the real world. Its infantile reaction (fully shared by Cameron) to possible reductions in the British EU rebate – like its attitude to Europe generally – is not the behaviour of a party which wants to be taken seriously.

I’m enough of a Marxist to get extremely twitchy when I hear the word ‘infantile’. Even if we could forget Lenin’s infamous use of the term, ‘infantile’ wouldn’t be a term that belongs in serious political discourse. It’s not criticism so much as gatekeeping: you and I, responsible adults, have our legitimate disagreements within the spectrum of legitimate and responsible politics, but as for them… dear oh dear, why don’t they just grow up?

It was (for obvious reasons) several years ago that Roy Jenkins appeared on Desert Island Discs and nominated a ghastly piece of Stalinist choral kitsch as his first choice (“And every propellor is roaring/Defending the USSR!”). It dated back, he explained, to his undergraduate days, when he indulged in “infantile leftism”. Which struck me.

Our Infant
Tell me, Vladimir Ilyich: when you swam
Those bright days, history running fast about you;
When you stood war from the green West, from the frozen sea;
When the paint was flaking, when last month’s posters
Flapped torn in the streets; when time resumed
And progress was stemmed; were you the only adult?
Were they children, who in that dawn saw other days,
Who would unwire your fences, lift the webs
Necessity had placed with your hands:
Were these people children, infants to be corrected? For they died without descendants, these children,
Soon after you died old. The young webs,
The temporary fences lived and flourished
Till a nation’s leader walked in the dark West,
Walked among the nations as an equal.
It was a glorious nation in its new,
Iron adulthood: a land of strength,
A young triumph over the old world;
And that great baby there was singing its song.

How young he was then! How childish to suppose
There was ever a young dawn in this dull world,
How rash to support the new ruler over the old!
Now, old in the old West, he looks back
On a life well-aged, on the drift of time
That has borne him into this maturity:
Now no bright dawn, now no land of glory
Singing in his voice; now in adult tones
He walks in adult passages, swaddled
In the soft belief that nothing could be better,
Drinking the sweet medicine of no change.

In most areas McKibbin has a sharp eye for New Labour’s ‘market-managerialism’, but when it comes to the EU he’s also drunk his medicine. But in a way that’s only to be expected. Hugo Young’s ‘blessed plot’, the entrenchment of unaccountable bureaucratic power at the European level, preceded New Labour – and seems likely to survive it.

We are your friends

I recently attended an “e-Government Question Time” session, organised in connection with this conference. There were some good points made: one speaker stressed the importance of engaging with the narratives which people build rather than assuming that the important facts can be read off from an accumulation of data; one questioner called the whole concept of ‘e-government’ into question, pointing out that the stress seemed to be entirely on using the Web/email/digital TV/texting/etc as a mechanism for delivering services rather than as a medium for democratic exchanges. Much more typical, though, was the spin which the mediator put on this question as he passed it on to the panel:

That’s a very good question – what about democracy? And conversely, if it’s all democracy where does that leave leadership?

The evening was much less about democracy than it was about leadership – or rather, management. This starting-point produced some strikingly fallacious arguments, particularly in the field of privacy. The following statements were all made by one panellist; I won’t single him out, as they were all endorsed by other panellists – and, in some cases, members of the audience. (And no, identifying him as male doesn’t narrow it down a great deal. The people in the hall were 3:1 male to female (approximately), the people on stage 6:1 (precisely).)

I like to protect my own privacy, but I’m in the privileged position of having assets to protect. When you’re looking at people who have got nothing, and in many cases aren’t claiming benefits to which they’re entitled, I don’t think safeguarding their privacy should be our main concern.

At first blush this argument echoes the classic Marxist critique of the bourgeois definition of human rights – if we have the right to privacy, what about the right to a living wage? But instead of going from universalism to a broader (and hence more genuine) universalism, we’ve ended up with the opposite of universalism: you and I can worry about privacy, but it doesn’t apply to them. Superficially radical, or at least populist – you can just hear David Blunkett coming out with something similar – this is actually a deeply reactionary argument: it treats the managed as a different breed from the people who manage them (I like to protect my own privacy, but…). Management Fallacy 1: ‘they’re not like us’.

We’re talking about improving people’s life chances. We need to make personal information more accessible – to put more access to personal information in the hands of the people who can change people’s lives for the better.

Management Fallacy 2: ‘we mean well’. If every intervention by a public servant were motivated by the best interests of the citizens, safeguards against improper intervention would not be required. And if police officers never stepped out of line, there’d be no need for a Police Complaints Commission. In reality, good intentions cannot be assumed: partly because the possibility of a corrupt or malicious individual getting at your data cannot be ruled out; partly because government agencies have other functions as well as safeguarding the citizen’s interests, and those priorities may occasionally come into conflict; and partly because a government agency’s idea of your best interests may not be the same as yours (see Fallacy 3). All of which means that the problem needs to be addressed at the other end, by protecting your data from people who don’t have a specific reason to use it – however well-intentioned those people may be. One questioner spoke wistfully of the Data Protection Act getting in the way of creative, innovative uses of data. It’s true that data mining technology now makes it possible to join the dots in some very creative and innovative ways. But if it’s data about me, I don’t think prior consent is too much to ask – and I don’t think other people are all that different (see Fallacy 1).

I’ve got no objection to surrendering some of my civil liberties, so-called

Have to stop you there. Management Fallacy 3: ‘it looks all right to me’. The speaker was a local government employee: a private individual. His policy for handling his own private data doesn’t concern me. But I would hope that, before he came to apply that policy more generally, he would reflect on how the people who would be affected might feel about surrendering their civil liberties, so-called. (Perhaps he could consult them, even.)

Carry on:

I’ve got no objection to surrendering some of my civil liberties, so-called, if it’s going to prevent another Victoria Climbie case.

Management Fallacy 4: ‘numbers don’t lie’. (Or: ‘Everything is measurable and what can be measured can be managed’.) This specific example is a common error with statistics, which can be illustrated with the example of a hypothetical test for the AIDS virus. Let’s say that you’ve got an HIV test which is 95% accurate – that is, out of every 100 people with HIV it will correctly identify 95 and mis-identify 5, and similarly for people who do not carry the virus. And let’s say that you believe, from other sources, that 1,000 people in a town of 100,000 carry the virus. You administer the test to the entire town. If your initial assumption is correct, how many positive results will you get? And how confident can you be, in percentage terms, that someone who tests positive is actually HIV-positive?

The answers are 5900 and 16.1%. The test would identify 950 of the 1000 people with the virus, but it would also misidentify 4950 people who did not have it: consequently, anyone receiving a positive test result would have a five in six chance of actually being HIV-negative. What this points to is a fundamental problem with any attempt to identify rare phenomena in large volumes of data. If the frequency of the phenomenon you’re looking for is, in effect, lower than the predictable rate of error, any positive result is more likely to be an error than not.

Contra McKinsey, I would argue that not everything can or should be measured, let alone managed on the basis of measurement. (If the data-driven approach to preventing another Climbie case sounds bad, imagine it with the addition of performance targets.) Some phenomena – particularly social phenomena – are not amenable to being captured through the collection of quantitative data, and shouldn’t be treated as if they were.

What all these fallacies have in common is a self-enclosed, almost solipsistic conception of the task of management. With few exceptions, the speakers (and the questioners) talked in terms of meeting people’s needs by delivering a pre-defined service with pre-defined goals, pre-defined techniques, pre-defined identities (me service provider, you service recipient). There were only occasional references to the exploratory, dialogic approach of asking people what their needs were and how they would like them to be met – despite the possibilities for work in this area which new technologies have created. But then, management is not dialogue.

Social software may start with connecting data, but what it’s really about is connecting people – and connecting them in dialogue, on a basis of equality. If this goal gets lost, joining the dots may do more harm than good.

Cleanse us with your healing grin

Briefly (and partially recycledly): in comments on a recent post at Owen’s blog, Owen’s Dad wrote a sizeable denunciation of Margaret Thatcher, adding as an afterthought

(I should perhaps have added to the preceding catalogue her merciless destruction of the Conservative Party as a credible party of government and as an effective opposition capable of holding an equally wayward and arrogant government to account.)

Thatcher’s destruction of the Conservative Party… It would mean we didn’t have to give any of the credit to Blair, which appeals. And it makes a certain horrible kind of sense. As a political leader, Thatcher was heavily reliant on personal relationships and personal qualities – her own ability to grasp an argument and make a connection with political acquaintances (both of which Brian remarks on) were central parts of the Thatcher programme, as was her personal ability to impose herself on the Cabinet and Parliament. Seen from inside that personality, obsequious cronies and yes-men are a good thing to have about you: you already know you’re right, after all, and people offering alternatives and qualifications will only slow you down. Hence Thatcher’s contempt for the Civil Service; hence, also, an attitude to the Conservative Party itself which was equivocal, to say the least. As a machine for exalting Thatcher and delivering power to her, it was very much a good thing. As an organisation with its own history, its own activities and its own ideas – I hardly see that Thatcher would understand a party having that kind of hinterland, let alone respect it. Much of the relationship between Thatcher and her party makes more sense if we assume, simply, that she held the party in contempt, and that she had no more concern for its long-term wellbeing than for the independence of the Civil Service.

This discussion was sparked off in the first place by a post on Stumbling and Mumbling about Thatcher’s economic legacy. In it, Chris Dillow suggests that Thatcher was a class warrior disguised as an economic liberal, and that her governments burned into the public mind an association between free-market liberalism and reactionary politics. I think that association was there already – and that the charge goes further. Consider the classic Thatcherite phrase There Is No Alternative. There are those (Chris probably included) who would argue that there was, sooner or later, no alternative to implementing a good chunk of Thatcherite economic liberalism. However, properly considered, this position leaves room for unlimited debate about timing, mechanisms, allocation of costs and benefits, etc. What’s most truly poisonous about Thatcherism is that this broad policy stance was conflated, quite illegitimately, with the eternal There Is No Alternative of the charismatic leader: there is no alternative to me, and hence there is no alternative to my interpretation of economic necessity. Nor was Thatcher above working the trick in reverse, deriving legitimacy for her own authority from the inevitability of economic change (we couldn’t go on like we were before). Both ways round, it’s a nasty rhetorical trick – and one which Blair has picked up and made his own.

So the point is not just that, under Thatcher, economic liberalism got associated with class war from above. It also got associated with messianic ‘big bang’ visions of social change and charismatic authoritarian-populist leadership – and the whole shebang got painted in the livery of Historical Inevitability. Blair then took over the core assumptions of the Thatcher style wholesale (albeit without the charm and the brains to entirely bring it off). We’re still living in Thatcherland.

Spare a thought, finally, for the Tory Party, which caught the effects first and worst. The awful succession of no-hope Tory leaders – soon, apparently, to reach some kind of nadir with the coronation of Cameron – tells us what kind of state the party’s in these days. It’s a battered, confused and demoralised organisation, barely able to express anything more than a vague yearning for a new leader, a young leader, a strong leader… A leader who’s not one of them; a leader who will smile and smile and treat them bad.

Vote Green! (Can you even name the party leader(s)?)

What the public gets

One possible reason why the aftermath of Katrina has been so dreadful is provided by the piece by Jamie I quoted earlier. There’s something weirdly soviet about all this. We’re seeing this immensely powerful country which has somehow stopped working. Perhaps we should take this image literally: perhaps the reason why it looks as if the US Government is broken is that the US Government, or at least its capacity to act promptly and effectively, is broken.

Or rather, the government’s effectiveness has been broken. This article from 2004 throws some light on the weirdly sclerotic approach which the Federal Emergency Management Agency has displayed during the crisis. Over the last few years, FEMA has been systematically exposed to the logic of the capitalist market. Firstly, the agency has been told that everything it does could be done just as well by external contractors and consultancies; the result has been cost-cutting and corner-cutting, running to stand still and general demoralisation. Secondly, FEMA’s own services have been marketised – thrown open to competitive bidding from potential ‘clients’. The predictable result has been that FEMA’s attention goes disproportionately to richer areas, rather than to those most at risk (such as Louisiana). Thirdly, preventative and ‘mitigating’ action – protecting people from natural disasters in advance rather than clearing up afterwards – has been downgraded, despite having been one of FEMA’s great strengths. There is, after all, no market logic to this type of action: there’s no demand-pull if the disaster has yet to happen. (Come to that, if it hasn’t happened yet it may not happen at all, and then how would you cost-justify your ‘mitigation’?) Read on:

In June [2004], Pleasant Mann, a 16-year FEMA veteran who heads the agency’s government employee union, wrote members of Congress to warn of the agency’s decay. “Over the past three-and-one-half years, FEMA has gone from being a model agency to being one where funds are being misspent, employee morale has fallen, and our nation’s emergency management capability is being eroded,” he wrote. “Our professional staff are being systematically replaced by politically connected novices and contractors.”

From its first months in office, the Bush administration made it clear that emergency programs, like much of the federal government, were in for a major reorientation. … The White House quickly launched a government-wide effort to privatize public services, including key elements of disaster management. Bush’s first budget director, Mitch Daniels, spelled out the philosophy in remarks at an April 2001 conference: “The general idea–that the business of government is not to provide services, but to make sure that they are provided–seems self-evident to me,” he said.

As a result, says a disaster program administrator who insists on anonymity, “We have to compete for our jobs–we have to prove that we can do it cheaper than a contractor.” And when it comes to handling disasters, the FEMA employee stresses, cheaper is not necessarily better, and the new outsourcing requirements sometimes slow the agency’s operations.William Waugh, a disaster expert at Georgia State University who has written training programs for FEMA, warns that the rise of a “consultant culture” has not served emergency programs well. “It’s part of a widespread problem of government contracting out capabilities,” he says. “Pretty soon governments can’t do things because they’ve given up those capabilities to the private sector. And private corporations don’t necessarily maintain those capabilities.”

In recent congressional testimony, a NEMA representative noted that “in a purely competitive grant program, lower income communities, those most often at risk to natural disaster, will not effectively compete with more prosperous cities…. The prevention of repetitive damages caused by disasters would go largely unprepared in less-affluent and smaller communities.”

And indeed, some in-need areas have been inexplicably left out of the program. “In a sense, Louisiana is the flood plain of the nation,” noted a 2002 FEMA report. “Louisiana waterways drain two-thirds of the continental United States. Precipitation in New York, the Dakotas, even Idaho and the Province of Alberta, finds its way to Louisiana’s coastline.” As a result, flooding is a constant threat, and the state has an estimated 18,000 buildings that have been repeatedly damaged by flood waters–the highest number of any state. And yet, this summer FEMA denied Louisiana communities’ pre-disaster mitigation funding requests. In Jefferson Parish, part of the New Orleans metropolitan area, flood zone manager Tom Rodrigue is baffled by the development. “You would think we would get maximum consideration” for the funds, he says. “This is what the grant program called for. We were more than qualified for it.”

Within FEMA, the shift away from mitigation programs is so pronounced that many long-time specialists in the field have quit. “The priority is no longer on prevention,” says the FEMA administrator. “Mitigation, honestly, is the orphaned stepchild. People are leaving it in droves.” In fact, disaster professionals are leaving many parts of FEMA in droves, compromising the agency’s ability to do its job. “Since last year, so many people have left who had developed most of our basic programs,” Mann says. “A lot of the institutional knowledge is gone. Everyone who was able to retire has left, and then a lot of people have moved to other agencies.”

A lot of the institutional knowledge is gone. In the name of not doing anything the free market could do – and not doing anything the free market wouldn’t do, because anything the market wouldn’t do can’t be worth doing – the government has, in effect, broken itself. It’s divested itself of so many responsibilities that, when disaster strikes, the capabilities which it needed to maintain in order to meet those responsibilities just aren’t there any more. Paul Krugman‘s peroration is horribly persuasive:

The reason the military wasn’t rushed in to help along the Gulf Coast is, I believe, the same reason nothing was done to stop looting after the fall of Baghdad. Flood control was neglected for the same reason our troops in Iraq didn’t get adequate armor. At a fundamental level, I’d argue, our current leaders just aren’t serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don’t like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures.

So America, once famous for its can-do attitude, now has a can’t-do government that makes excuses instead of doing its job.

Which brings us back to Jamie’s strange ‘Soviet’ parallel. The last years of the Soviet system saw a command economy undermined from within by a pervasive disillusionment with the system: if you were a factory manager, not only was there no point trying to reach your targets, after a certain point there was no point even bothering to doctor the figures to make it look as if you had. Everyone knew – above you in the chain of command as well as below – that the system wasn’t working, if it ever had. Worse, everyone knew that the system they had in the West – where supply and demand information was exposed through the price mechanism – worked better. In that situation, there was no point keeping the system working, or even feeding the system the lies it needed to pretend it was still working. And so the system ground to a halt and fell apart. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to replace it, initially; the years after the collapse were dark (note the change in the death rate between 1992 and 1993, in particular).

Mutatis mutandis – and yes, that’s a lot of mutandis – something comparable seems to be happening in the USA; there, ironically, the ideology which is corroding the machinery of government is promulgated by the government itself. For the Bushites, it seems, the function of government is firstly to maintain a favourable environment for business, and secondly to step out of the way and let business do its thing. When this worldview is superimposed on the prudential, interventionist, humanitarian public-service ethic of an agency like FEMA, the result is confusion and bureaucratic paralysis at best. At worst… It’s worth remembering that FEMA is now functionally subordinate to the Department of Homeland Security, founded after September 11; this may help explain why FEMA’s interventions in New Orleans placed such an emphasis on securing the perimeter of the city and ensuring that nobody, as a general policy, moved. The triumph of the Homeland Security worldview: natural disasters as a public order problem.

One last point. Louisiana, we now know (thanks to China at Lenin’s Tomb) was one of the areas where the ‘free market’ reforms of FEMA took effect: in 2004, a private consultancy called IEM was paid half a million tax dollars to develop a ‘Catastrophic Hurricane Disaster Plan‘. It’s not clear whether this plan was ever completed, let alone implemented. According to one source (cited by China), hurricane-oriented workshops in July and December 2004 produced “a series of functional plans that may be implemented immediately”; moreover, “resource shortfalls were identified early, saving valuable time in the event an actual response is warranted.” However, a January 2005 report from the National Emergency Management Association (PDF) notes, “Participants from this exercise are waiting for a private contractor to finish the after-action report and plans from this exercise”. Perhaps IEM’s ‘functional plans’ weren’t quite finished after all.

I said I had a theory – well, two theories, but this is long enough already; I’ll keep the other one for the next post. Here’s a theory. That NEMA report was dated 21st January 2005. You’d think that IEM would have got its ‘functional plans’ ready to go some time in the next seven months, but maybe not. Perhaps the reason why the local and national response to Katrina looked so shambolic was, quite simply, that the people in charge didn’t know what to do. Oh, sure, they’d had policies and procedures in place for this kind of thing, but those were the old procedures. Under the new procedures… well, funny thing, they’d had a presentation about the new procedures and it all looked pretty good, and then an email had gone round saying the new procedures were about to be issued, but that was a while ago and they should really have had them by now…

Ridiculous, of course – that couldn’t happen. Not in America.

Update: Shelley of Burningbird has some relevant reflections and pointers here. In particular, Shelley links to some searching questions about the preparation for and the response to Katrina, and to this extraordinary piece by Dave Rogers. Dave tells some sea stories, does some serious thinking about the meanings of faith, honour and leadership, and comes to conclusions similar to some of the things I’ve said in this post, but with less pussyfooting. Finally, Dave in turn links to this bizarre piece by Daniel Henninger; all I’ve got to say about that is that if I’m right, Henninger is precisely, diametrically, dead wrong. (And, I suppose, vice versa, if you insist.)

It’s only water

They order these things better in Cuba; there, evacuation means that everybody leaves, down to dogs and cats:

they have family doctors in cuba (!), who evacuate together with the neighborhood, and already know who, for example, needs insulin.

they also have veterinarians and they evacuate animals. they begin evacuating immediately, and also evacuate TV sets and refrigerators, so that people aren’t relucatant to leave because people might steal their stuff.

(The ‘(!)’ isn’t mine; I don’t know what’s funny about the idea of Cubans having family doctors.) Perhaps this isn’t a great source evidentially – the speaker is talking about how things work in general – but it is borne out by the Red Cross in this story from 2002:

Hurricanes Isidore and Lili battered the whole country, especially the tobacco-growing province of Pinar del Río and the nearby Isla de la Juventud, causing widespread devastation.Cristina Estrada, a regional spokeswoman for the Red Cross, told BBC News Online that only the country’s prompt and well-organised evacuation procedures ensured no-one was killed.

“In any other country in the region it would have been a disaster in terms of loss of life,” she said.

In any other country in the region, indeed.

Going back a bit further, in 1974 they ordered these things better in Australia. As Brian notes, Cyclone Tracy passed through Darwin on Christmas Day(!) 1974. The result was the effective destruction of 70% of the buildings in the town – and a death toll of 65, or slightly more than 0.1% of the pre-cyclone population. (‘Pre-cyclone’, because all but 10,000 of the population were evacuated, and many of them decided not to come back. Understandably, perhaps – apart from anything else, do you know where Darwin is?)

What happened in New Orleans wasn’t much like either the Cuban system or the Darwin experience. On Saturday 27th August the city authorities issued a mandatory [sic] evacuation order, which was followed by many (most?) of those able to do so. For those who remained behind, the city laid on buses – which transported them, by the thousand, to assembly points within the city and left them there. Once inside what were effectively internment camps, the people of New Orleans were treated like internees everywhere – which is to say, like cattle (and not very highly-valued cattle at that). Water, food, sanitation, shelter and medicine were supplied haphazardly or not at all. No one was allowed out of the camps: locals who had survived unscathed offered to take people away in their cars but were told to stay away; survivors who could have walked out of the city were told to stay put. When buses out of the city finally came, survivors were not told where they were going until they’d got on one – nor, almost incredibly, were they allowed to get off a bus before it reached its destination.

The city at large, meanwhile, was effectively written off – far more decisively than seemed to be justified by the outbreaks of gang violence, as alarming as those were. My immediate reaction to those pictures of stranded survivors, waving from balconies and roofs as TV crews passed overhead, was to imagine similar scenes in Britain. And there my imagination failed me: I couldn’t picture that scene without adding a boat of some sort, crewed by concerned neighbours or the RNLI or Red Cross or St John’s Ambulance or the WRVS or the local Rotary Club… If disaster struck a British city, I thought, surely there’d be half a dozen charities and voluntary organisations and ad hoc committees lining up to help, even before the flood waters began to subside. What had happened to civil society over there? I still don’t know if the St John’s Ambulance and the WRVS have any US equivalent, but as it turns out that’s not really the point. What had happened was that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had been approached by several hundred locals who wanted to rescue survivors using their boats, and they had turned them away. FEMA had also refused to permit external agencies to enter the city – the American Red Cross included – on the grounds that their presence in the city would slow down the evacuation. They had also refused… but I won’t go through the list; you can see it here. The long and the short of it was, the city was locked down, and locked down it would stay – whatever the immediate cost to the inhabitants of the city. In the context of a disaster recovery operation, this order of priorities seems odd, to say the least.

If all this is hard to understand, the personal interventions of George W. Bush beggar belief. He visited New Orleans on the 3rd of September – by which time evacuations were, finally, proceeding; his presence promptly halted food distribution for several hours, by imposing a no-fly zone. More culpably, he had relief and rebuilding work started for his media appearances – and halted afterwards. The story of a Potemkin food stall in New Orleans which has been circulating seems to be unfounded (thanks to Chris (in comments) for the nudge). What has been reported on German TV – the video is here (from about 3:20) – is a sudden outbreak of ground-clearing and construction work when Bush and his media crew visited Biloxi. The workers downed tools after Bush left; it was all done for the cameras. But the Biloxi charade was no more than a missed opportunity to do something more constructive – the workers had been clearing an area where nobody had actually lived before the hurricane. More seriously, vital repair work in New Orleans was started for the President’s benefit – and stopped when he no longer needed it. Also via Kos, here’s Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, writing on 3rd September:

perhaps the greatest disappointment stands at the breached 17th Street levee. Touring this critical site yesterday with the President, I saw what I believed to be a real and significant effort to get a handle on a major cause of this catastrophe. Flying over this critical spot again this morning, less than 24 hours later, it became apparent that yesterday we witnessed a hastily prepared stage set for a Presidential photo opportunity; and the desperately needed resources we saw were this morning reduced to a single, lonely piece of equipment.

Paul Krugman, writing on September 1st, sums up:

Katrina hit five days ago – and it was already clear by last Friday [26th August] that Katrina could do immense damage along the Gulf Coast. Yet the response you’d expect from an advanced country never happened. Thousands of Americans are dead or dying, not because they refused to evacuate, but because they were too poor or too sick to get out without help – and help wasn’t provided.

Something’s going on. Or rather, something’s going wrong – really horribly wrong. Jamie nails the mood:

So the hurricane strikes and all of us foreigners watch the footage on the news with concern but without much anxiety. It’s just a matter of time before can-do America rolls up its sleeves and cleans up the mess, right? Time goes by and then the Mayor of New Orleans pops up on the BBC talking about bodies floating down the streets and suddenly the estimate of deaths goes up into the thousands. It’s like watching someone jump out of an aeroplane and slowly realising that that person does not, in fact, have a parachute.

There’s something weirdly soviet about all this. We’re seeing this immensely powerful country which has somehow stopped working. There’s sand in the joints and the parts don’t fit together properly. There’s a general air of sluggishness and fatalism. No-one in authority seems to know what to do about anything, or if they do, they don’t have the resources. The president looks on with vague stupefaction as bits drop off and float away.

As for what‘s going wrong, well, I’ve got a theory. Two theories, actually, and I’m not sure yet whether they fit together. I’ll let you know when I find out. Tune in tomorrow ect ect ect.

[Update: the analytical posts are here and here.]

Could have moved mountains

Over at the excellent Burning Bird, Shelley recently announced that she was abandoning the Democrats and joining the US Green Party. Here’s one of the responses:

To say “the Democratic party does not represent me” is not a meaningful statement, because what a party stands for in America is constantly in flux, depending on what the vote-getters are perceived to be.I think in England, the only party that truly gets it is Labour — they have ditched many of their core principles to grab the center, and focused heavily on branding and spin — and it has worked like a charm. Forget about a three-party system. If the Conservatives or the Lib Dems don’t buck up soon and take their place as a proper opposition party, soon we’d be calling Britain a one-party state.

“The only party that truly gets it is Labour.” I think this is valid, and I think what they ‘get’ is something relatively new to British politics. It’s not opportunism or the willingness to abandon principles in pursuit of votes – Harold Wilson’s first term as Prime Minister began over forty years ago, after all. It’s stronger than that: it’s more like a commitment to abandoning the party’s principles, repeatedly and demonstratively, so as to disorientate and marginalise the opposition, so as to make it impossible for the party not to be in power.

The trouble is, this can’t possibly be a long-term strategy. Political principles aren’t a renewable resource; abandon them once and they’re gone. Here’s something I wrote in 1995, for the wonderful but short-lived magazine Casablanca.

What bothers me is Tony Blair’s obvious intention of redefining Labour as a kind of Socially Responsible Mildly Reactionary Party, somewhere between the Right of the Liberal Democrats and the Left of Melanie Phillips. If he succeeds (which means winning two elections – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will have ceased to exist as a party of the Left. If he fails (which seems highly likely – look at Bill Clinton) Labour will probably just cease to exist. Either way it means that, for the first time since the Labour Party was founded, there’s no party worth voting for with any kind of commitment to the Left.What makes it even worse is the odd references to ‘socialism’ from Blair’s direction – a ‘socialism’ which, for the first time in history, says nothing about either collective rights (except those of ‘society’) or individual freedoms (except the freedom to ‘achieve’). It’s as if they’d realised that the Left could never be completely defeated while we still had a language to call our own. (We’ve still got ‘Comrade’, I suppose, and ‘Point of order, Chair’, but that’s about it).

I remember, at a planning meeting for the newspaper socialist (a distant forebear of Red Pepper), suddenly realising what we were doing: we were trying to make water flow uphill. We were giving our time and labour without payment – many of us were giving money as well, in fact – in order to create something which might, one day, be able to sustain itself. (Or perhaps simply to create something which was worth creating, even if we had to go on subsidising it indefinitely.) It can be done, but it needs a language to do it in. Initiatives like socialist need a culture around them which can sustain the belief that they are worth doing and that they are possible: to make water flow uphill, it takes words of power. (I suppose ‘Comrade’ and ‘Point of order, chair’ do have a certain numinosity – at the first Chesterfield conference in 1987, somebody even tried to table a point of order at the evening social – but it’s not much to work with.)

Other Labour leaders have neglected the Leftist underbrush or cleared it from around the party, but only Blair has set out to poison it at the roots. This is bad news for Labour as well as for the Left. There will be a Labour Party after Blair; there will be a new generation of Labour leaders, there will be ideological renewal. Or rather, there will be a crying need for ideological renewal. At the moment, I’m not sure where it can possibly come from.

My 1995 comparison between Blair and Clinton – although not, obviously, my eerily accurate predictions for both of them – was echoed by something David Runciman wrote in a recent LRB.

In Britain, during the recent election campaign, the battleground for this newly personalised form of politics was not tax, but defence, immigration, terrorism, security and crime, where all the arguments were played out on Tory territory. In due course, when the Tories recover their nerve and the state of the economy starts to place Gordon Brown’s reputation under pressure, the argument will move on to tax.It is worth considering what then will be the price of the triangulations of the Blair years, the abandonment of principle, the remorseless pragmatism, the cynical disregard for constitutional proprieties. Too much attention has been focused in recent months on the legacy Blair is likely to leave for Brown, when what really matters is the legacy the Labour government leaves for the next Tory government (and the next party to govern Britain will be the Conservatives, unless the electoral system is changed). The example of the transition from the Clinton years to the Bush years is a salutary one. Clinton left an open door for his opponents to march through, by draining his supporters of their resolve, and hardening it among his enemies. He also acquiesced in the personalisation of politics, without finding a convincing narrative to counter the stories of injustice on which the Republican Party chose to feed. In the end, he made it too easy for them to undo his good work, and he destroyed the short-to-medium-term electoral prospects of his party in the process. Can anyone in Britain say with any confidence that Blair won’t turn out to have done the same?

“they have ditched many of their core principles to grab the center, and focused heavily on branding and spin — and it has worked like a charm”

“It is worth considering … the price of the triangulations of the Blair years”

And the swordsmen, the damned stupid swordsmen will win after all…

We all want to see the plan

Jurgen Habermas says:

Without the dynamic of economic interests, the political union would have probably never got off the ground. This dynamic only strengthens the worldwide tendency toward market deregulation. But the xenophobic perception of the Right that the socially undesirable consequences of this lifting of boundaries could be avoided by returning to the protectionist forces of the nation state is not only dubious for normative reasons, it is also outright unrealistic. The Left must not let itself be infected by such regressive reflexes.
[...]
What is vaunted today as the “European social model” can only be defended if European political strength grows alongside the markets. It is solely on the European level that a part of the political regulatory power that is bound to be lost on the national level can be won back. Today the EU member states are strengthening their cooperation in the areas of justice, criminal law and immigration. An active Left taking an enlightened stance toward European politics could have also pressed long ago for greater harmonisation in the areas of taxation and economic policy. The European constitution now creates at least the conditions for this.

Daniel Cohn-Bendit says:

A French ‘no’ will be the beginning of a period of confusion, or recrimination, of gradual unwinding of what we have already achieved in Europe. I fear that, for once, the right-wing press in Britain is right. A French “no” would be the prelude to an attempt to impose a purely economic vision of Europe, a market vision. Murdoch would jump for joy.

Denis MacShane says:

Europe’s new constitutional treaty belongs neither to the left nor the right any more than the French or American constitutions, in themselves, define the political or social choices of France and the United States. It is up to the left in Europe to develop a new agenda to achieve full employment and social protection. Let the conservatives, isolationists, souverainistes, and populists say No. The new constitutional treaty contains language for 450 million citizens which workers elsewhere on the planet can only dream of. The left should say Yes to Europe.

Pierre de Lauzun says:

At heart, they know that Europe can only be built on the basis of nation states. It’s for that reason that what they call the Constitution is actually an international treaty. But they do not draw the right conclusion from this: the myth of substituting Europe for nation states is utopian. Europe is above all the pooling of tools, whose true – national – political authorities judged that they were better implemented together than separately. If they want to go further than this, they need to define positively what the people of Europe objectively have in common, and to cease trying to build Europe in the abstract.But they prefer to continue with the political myth. Lacking content, the adopted solution has become procedural: taking abstract principles and judging any decisions based on their variation from them. The procedural and legal approach entirely invades the language of debate. We should not therefore be surprised by the indifference and sometimes hostility of the people, in spite of their previous benevolence. Europe is the paradox of an undemocratic construction built on a democratic foundation. It remains more the fruit of the will of the elites than of the people. Each stage was decided from above and was ratified, as well as it could be, after the fact. Being democratic is not its aim, in spite of the European Parliament: there is no public discussion between two parties or two programmes, sanctioned by the ballot boxes, in a common political space.
[...]
For the first time, the referendum puts the question of the nature of the European project. It’s no surprise that this should happen in France, where a voluntaristic faith in integration is combined with a refusal to recognise the inadequacy of the political basis of Europe. … Without the referendum, which let democratic light in on the Brussels game, nobody at the level of the French voters would have heard the constitution talked about – and it would have passed in the end, in one form or another. But this surreptitious approach can’t be continued indefinitely, certainly not in the field of politics. We need to get back to reality – and the merit of the current debate is that it enables us to do so.

Zoé Magariños-Rey says:

the main argument for a Yes vote consists in saying that the Constitution consecrates a community of values, with particular reference to democracy. It is all the more astonishing that nothing in the Constitution brings the EU closer to its citizens. … The powers of the European Parliament have been augmented quantitatively but not qualitatively. The most anti-democratic features of the EU remain: there is no separation of powers; there is nothing resembling a principle of popular sovereignty; the executive is politically unaccountable, with the exception of errors of management … This Constitution has been put together behind our backs, by delegates who may well be representative but were co-opted – in just the same way that Europe has been built by mechanisms whose inexorability leaves us sidelined.It is very tempting to treat this referendum, not as a matter of domestic politics, but as a historic referendum on the construction of Europe. This would be to overlook the 10% of new provisions, buried within the Constitution, which are the real subject of the referendum, given that the other 90% of the text will remain in force whichever way the vote goes. A fog of political and media propaganda, broken all too rarely by attempts at explaining the issues, has ended up promoting the impression that we’re being taken for idiots: yes, the French people will be consulted, but they must not be allowed any alternative to accepting everything.

Paul Anderson says:

Although I agree with rather a lot in the Green manifesto, including the proposals for a citizen’s income and for a massive rethink of environmental taxation, I can’t swallow the idiotic Euroscepticism. Campaigning against the European constitution as nominal pro-Europeans because you want a better one? Get serious.

and:

What I really can’t get my head around … is the sheer idiocy of left-wingers deciding to become a tiny, swamped minority in a campaign that will be (a) overwhelmingly dominated by the Tories and far-right loons who want to destroy the welfare state, reduce workers’ rights, send immigrants home and tell the frogs to hop off; and (b), if successful, a massive boost for the Tories’ next election campaign. What on earth is going through the left Europhobes’ minds?

Meaders says:

This should not be difficult. It is a free market treaty with a few sops. That’s why the No campaign in France has been led by the Left.
[...]
Nowhere in this is any sense that other agencies or forces may exist that are better placed to deliver social justice than the venal political classes of Europe, committed for decades to a broadly neoliberal vision of the world. Quite why a declaration of faith in the existence of the EU by its citizens would alter their course is unclear.

(Brief excerpt from an excellent post.)

Sarah, in comments at Meaders’ blog, says:

Surely the important thing is not how a vote against the Constitution would be perceived but the fact that the Constitution should not be adopted in the first place. Because if it is adopted, “undistorted competition” will become legally enforceable (as set out in the third part of the Constitution), and this also applies to what are quaintly called “services of general economic interest” (known to normal people as public services). It is specified in the Constitution that it is a duty of member states to introduce further liberalisation (as quickly as their circumstances permit). It is further specified that they have to increase their military spending (nothing optional about that). This is not really a Constitution; it is a straitjacket for every member state’s future domestic policy.

Lastly, Henry Farrell says:

the EU is a political project dressed up in technocratic clothing – it’s succeeded in part because its day-to-day activities sounds so boring to outsiders.The problem with this, of course, is that over time, the European Union has begun to leach legitimacy, as it has become ever more powerful and less accountable. Hence the long-lasting debate over the European Union’s “democratic deficit” and how best to solve it. The primary solution over the last fifteen years or so has been to give more power to the European Parliament, which on its surface is the most ‘democratic’ of the EU’s institutions. The problem has been that European voters don’t pay very much more attention to the Parliament than they did when it was a toothless congeries of windbags, so that the Parliament is accumulating power without much in the way of democratic responsibility … Thus, we have a set of institutions (the European Union) which are increasingly politically powerful, but which don’t have much democratic legitimacy.
[...]
While EU policy is shrouded in technocratic gobbledygook, it has very substantial political consequences. Nor are these consequences what you might expect. The European Union is typically perceived by English-speaking non-experts as a vaguely social-democratic bureaucratic leviathan, in part because of criticisms from the British government and the British tabloid press over the last couple of decades. In fact, its most important impact has been to further neo-liberalism by creating European markets, and by wearing down the particularities of national economic systems that are incompatible with these markets. The European Union has taken over vast swathes of economic decision-making, and effectively taken them out of democratic control. It’s no wonder that people on both the left and right are beginning to get upset by this; what’s more difficult to explain is why it’s taken them so long to begin to mobilize their frustration.

All this means that the traditional means of furthering European integration – agreeing new treaties among heads of government, and then getting them ratified by a supine public (when the public is consulted at all) won’t work any more. Nor will tearful appeals to that public to pass the Treaty on the nod, because of the inherent worth of Europe, gloire nationale or whatever-you’re-having-yourself work very well either. For better or worse, the European Union is becoming increasingly politicized. Nor is this likely to change in the future. But exactly because it’s becoming politicized, it’s starting to become politically present in a way that it hasn’t been in the past. As best as I can tell, the question is beginning to change from one of whether Europe, in some abstract and ineffable sense, is ‘good,’ to one of what kind of Europe is good (as usual, the UK is the glaring exception to this generalization). .. the recent decision by the European Parliament to remove Britain’s opt-out from the Working Time Directive was portrayed by both sides as a blow in the fight over whether Europe should adopt a liberal-reformist or more traditional social-democratic model.

Thus, a new debate is beginning to emerge over what kind of European Union we should have – a Europe that’s more aligned with the social-democratic model, or a Europe that’s closer to the classical liberal approach; protection versus free markets.
[...]
these arguments are less obstacles to European integration than the birth pangs of a European Union in which voters actually begin to pay attention to what’s happening at the European level. The European Union is becoming a political space, in a way that it hasn’t been in the past.

Not much to add to all the above (you’ll be pleased to hear), except: interesting times. Let’s see the plan. I don’t believe that the Left opposition is going to make the running – but let’s not fool ourselves that it will have no influence at all. (Pessimism is not realism.)

Above all, let’s keep the discussion going rather than shutting it down. The last thing we need is another round of nosepegs.

Doing the best things

So, Blair’s responded to the May 5th result by announcing his intention to move yet further Right, and backed it up with new Cabinet appointments. Which is disappointing in itself, as well as representing two fingers to all those of us who chose left-wing alternatives to Labour. Given the scale of the left-alternative diaspora and the insignificance of the swing from Labour to the Conservatives, this response also makes very little sense in terms of political rationality (as I wrote here). That said, it does have a certain ghastly predictability within the Blairoverse. Poach Tory votes and drag the Labour vote along behind: that’s how the New Labour clique work. Unfortunately for us, May 5 didn’t see them leaving quite enough of the Labour vote behind to slow down the march into Tory territory.

What’s interesting – and, I think, revealing – is how New Labour are moving right. What, after all, does the Left/Right split mean? There are a number of different ways of looking at it. Firstly and most obviously, you can map Right onto the interests of capital and Left onto those of labour. Along similar lines, unfettered capitalism and paid-for services (Right) are opposed to state intervention and tax-funded provision (Left).

Secondly, you can associate the Right with tradition: upholding inherited institutions and belief systems, rather than trusting individual judgment and taking the risk of changing things. The belief in progress, on this reckoning, is fundamentally of the Left; so are rationalism and free thinking. The opposition between nationalism (Right) and internationalism (Left) is related to this: for the Right, the fundamental nature of nationality, as an element of individual identity, outweighs its basic meaninglessness.

Thirdly, the Right can be associated with order, discipline and social control; the Left, in this perspective, stands for an all-inclusive and all-forgiving community, which avoids the pain of excluding anyone at the cost of tolerating people who breach its own values. Along similar lines, hierarchy (Right) contrasts with democracy (Left): democracy, on this view, is a solvent of necessary constraints and a gateway drug for anarchy.

New Labour’s position on the Right in the first of these three senses was well established before the election; there wasn’t anything new or surprising about Blair’s promises to cut the dole, marketise the health service and introduce compulsory private pensions (slight paraphrase). What was new was more interesting. There’s a weaselly little nod to the tradition-and-nationhood Right:

the British people are a tolerant and decent people, they did not want immigration made a divisive issue in the course of the election campaign, but they do believe there are real problems in our immigration and asylum system and they expect us to sort them out, and we will do so.

Note the slippage here: the government will sort out the problems which the British people believe to exist. The problems may be fictitious, but the belief is real – and that’s good enough to act on.

More significantly, there’s a positive lurch to the order-and-discipline Right:

though they like the fact we have got over the deference of the past, there is a disrespect that people don’t like. And whether it’s in the classroom, or on the street in town centres on a Friday or Saturday night, I want to focus on this issue. We’ve done a lot so far with anti-social orders and additional numbers of police. But I want to make this a particular priority for this government, how we bring back a proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns and our villages.

It’s true, New Labour have done a fair bit in this area, what with all those police (and Community Support Officers) and those “anti-social orders” (not to mention Penalty Notices for Disorder, juvenile reprimands, conditional cautions and ABCs). But in the first two terms the relevant legislation tended to arrive piecemeal and without much fanfare. For a Labour Prime Minister to announce, as a “particular priority”, a project to “bring back a proper sense of respect” in society seems… well, it seems downright weird, apart from anything else. But it certainly seems like an open and emphatic move to the Right.

Blair’s new Cabinet reflects his new priorities. In particular, the campaign for a proper sense of respect has a voice in Cabinet, in the shape of David Miliband (“Minister for Communities and Local Government”). But thereby hangs a tale:

Gaby Hinsliff, 8 May:

Nor did Blair get everything his own way. The job created for Miliband – Minister for Communities and Local Government, with a remit ranging from council tax reform to anti-social behaviour and crackdowns on yobs – was originally earmarked for Blunkett. That avenue was closed after both Prescott and Clarke put their feet down: the more tactful Miliband was an eventual compromise.

Private Eye 1132:

John Prescott pronounced himself “particularly delighted to welcome David Miliband” as a second cabinet minister in the office of the deputy prime minister (ODPM) – as well he might be, having fought off the prime minister’s initial intention to plonk Alan Milburn or David Blunkett in the middle of his empire, which would have diluted his power still further.

Michael White, May 11:

This week the usual problems were compounded by leaks of what are now said to have been no more than “internal musings”. Thus David Blunkett had let it be known he wanted the kind of local government and communities job which David Miliband got. That was never a runner with Mr Blair.

Perhaps not. It’s worth noting, however, that Miliband’s new brief encroaches on the turf of Prescott’s ODPM as well as Clarke’s Home Office, making its award a clear sign of Prime Ministerial favour. Moreover, it represents a continuation – and, presumably, intensification – of some of the initiatives most closely associated with David Blunkett’s time as Home Secretary. It also brings with it responsibility for local government, a topic on which Blunkett can (and probably does) claim to be the Cabinet’s resident expert.

In short, the simplest explanation of Miliband’s new post is that it was designed as Minister For Being David Blunkett – and redesigned hastily in the face of resistance from Blunkett’s once and future colleagues. This also helps explain the current confusion within the Cabinet as to who is actually the Minister with Responsibility for Yobs and ASBOs. Clarke, who dealt with this stuff after Blunkett left, appears to feel that it is still a Home Office matter, and has given the job to Hazel Blears. Blears hit the ground running: she has already proposed uniforms for teenagers doing community service, as well as delivering the obligatory denunciation of hoodies (“Mrs Blears denied that the Government was straying into ‘dangerous territory’ by saying what people should and should not wear.”). Prescott has also weighed in, presumably on the basis that he is Deputy Prime Minister, and so if there’s anything to be handled by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister who better to speak about it than, and let me just say, setting aside all the cheap jibes, I think we can all agree, quite clearly and simply, and that’s where we are at present.

What all this adds up to is that David Blunkett’s fingerprints are all over three ministries instead of one. It begins to appear as if one of the new government’s main policy initiatives – an initiative which makes emphatically public the government’s break with one of the key traditions of the Left – was designed around a disgraced ex-Minister. We knew, of course, that Blair wanted Blunkett back in government, but we may not have appreciated how much Blunkett’s return mattered to him.

Assuming for the moment that this analysis is accurate, I think it tells us a couple of interesting things about the state of New Labour. One is that Blair’s ministers are becoming the ideological driving force of the government. The point here is not just that Blair is running out of ideas. The Blunkett/Blair relationship reminds me of nothing so much as something a minor Nazi official wrote in 1934:

everyone has best worked in his place in the new Germany if, so to speak, he works towards the Fuehrer. Very often, and in many places, it has been the case that individuals, already in previous years, have waited for commands and orders. [...] Rather, however, it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Fuehrer, to work towards him. Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But the one who works correctly towards the Fuehrer [...] will, in future as previously, have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining the legal confirmation of his work.

The Nazi belief in the ‘leader principle’ at all levels, coupled with Hitler’s notorious idleness, made “working towards the Fuehrer” one of the driving forces of the regime. The “Fuehrer’s Will” was supreme, but it could not be known, only guessed; the golden rule was “What Would Hitler Do?”. Ironically, what Hitler did – other than delivering endless unfocussed rants against his enemies – often amounted to little more than endorsing or condemning the initiatives taken by his subordinates. (Not that this diminishes his responsibility as leader – if anything, the reverse is true.)

As one junior Nazi was favoured over another, as one version of National Socialism was endorsed and another rejected, Hitler’s followers formed new impressions of what the Fuehrer wanted. They “worked towards” the “Fuehrer’s Will” as they understood it – and the process continued. Leading Nazis were bitterly divided among themselves, and often pursued radically different policies within their own fiefdoms. What united them and drove them on – and, arguably, radicalised them still further – was the lure of the Fuehrer’s approval. Hitler himself rejoiced in not having a detailed programme. He didn’t need one; all that mattered was that he knew what he wanted – that is, he knew it when he saw it. And he knew that the Nazi regime would provide it: that was what it was there for.

While Blair and Blunkett are many things, they’re certainly not Nazis. But perhaps part of Blunkett’s boundless assurance derives from the confidence that, as he moves further to the Right, he is working towards the Prime Minister. And perhaps Blair welcomes this approach. He’s never been a deep thinker; he probably wouldn’t have come up with anything as coherent as Blunkett’s order-and-discipline agenda unaided. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is that Blair knows what he wants, and knows what New Labour is. That is, he knows it when he sees it – and he knows that ministers like Blunkett will provide it.

The second interesting element of the story is the suggestion that Blair’s proposals were met, not with a bit of a tug-of-war between his people and Brown’s people, but with an out-and-out turf battle (“internal musings”, indeed). This suggests that Blair’s ministers are becoming the political driving force of the government – and they’re not necessarily driving it Blair’s way. Blair’s authority has been significantly weakened by the election result, in Cabinet as well as in Parliament and the country. We already know that back-bench rebels will have a major part to play in this parliament; the anti-New Labour roll of honour may yet be joined by the likes of Prescott and Clarke.

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