Public spending:why are they insulting our intelligence?

12 06 2009

I do not usually subscribe to the Jeremy Paxman thesis on politicians and truth telling, drawn from the ‘why are these effing lying bastards effing lying to me’ school. However, listening to politicians talking about the future of public spending I fear he has a point. The ‘debate’ over whether Labour or the Conservatives will cut public spending in the future has already been reduced to a level of mendacity I struggle to recall in any previous encounter of this sort. (Although David Miliband’s absurd claim that the nationalisation of Lloyds Bank was an ‘act of political radicalism’ shows that lying is now second nature).

Let us first of all rehearse the reality of the position of the public finances. As Martin Wolf has pointed out, by next year 53% of the economy will be accounted for by the public sector, but only 38% of the economy will go to taxes, leaving a gap of 15%, or roughly 180 billion in one year which will have to be raised either by extra taxation or extra borrowing, were public spending to remain on its current trajectory. Now, we have got used to dealing in billions and so the shock of this huge figure may not be what it used to be but this is still a lot of cash.

Maybe the political parties believe that tax revenues will recover to plug the gap, maybe they believe they will find eager lenders who will be happy to lend indefinitely on a vague promise that things will get better. Maybe they really do believe those things and so their protestations that there will not have to be big cuts in public spending are from the bottom of their hearts.

The problem with this is that no economists or financial commentators believe either of those things. There is a vast concensus, backed up by facts and figures, that public spending will have to be cut. Scour the financial press if you do not believe me. It is in fact a mere fantasy that the main parties want us to believe in.

So why are the politicians lying so brazenly? I think the easy answer is to assume this is what all parties do in the run up to elections. But the scale of the lying is such that we have to assume things are much worse than that. The real reason they are lying so brazenly is that they are simply afraid to tell the truth. They are now so weak and isolated they cannot imagine delivering a tough message, let alone a tough programme. This is the outcome of the continual erosion of political authority over the past twenty years.

Whatever we may feel about the rights or wrongs of public spending cuts, or which areas we want to see protected, at least we should be granted an opportunity to debate the whole issue openly and honestly. The lies of the politicians are merely an insult to our intelligence and an abnegation of democracy.

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Why Bob Crow is right and Danny Finkelstein is wrong

10 06 2009

Bob CrowDanny Finkelstein makes a case in today’s Times for the end of political parties as we have known them. His argument is that political parties used to represent what he calls ‘tribal’  or what were otherwise known as ‘class’ interests. Now these ‘tribal’  interests have been abandoned in favour of a more detached, sceptical and managerial view of politics.  As he says in the article:

In his book Tides of Consent, the American political scientist James Stimson argues that voters can be divided into three groups. The first group he calls “the Passionate”. These are people “who care a great deal about public affairs, have strong views, and form lasting commitments to one side or another”….A second group he labels “the Uninvolved”. These are “people who think politics isn’t important in their lives (and they are probably right), don’t pay attention and don’t want to be bothered”….Which leaves Stimson’s third group – “the Scorekeepers”. The Scorekeepers “are non-ideological pragmatists who trust or distrust each side equally. They tend to see politics not as a contest of world views, but merely as alternate teams of possible managers of government, each contending that they can do a better job. The Scorekeepers are not choosing directions in their votes, they are hiring managers.”

Finkelstein’s argument is that the decline in numbers of the ‘passionate’ and the increase in numbers of the ‘scorekeepers’ accounts for the volatility of electoral politics today. As a narrow structuralist description of politics today Finkelstein is obviously right. There are less ‘passionate’ people around. But the reason is that there is precious little to be ‘passionate’ about in terms of the mainstream political parties.

Finkelstein’s description of the ‘scorekeepers’ as looking for ‘alternate teams of possible managers of government’ chimes with the narrowness of politics today. The problem is that a narrow managerial approach to the economy, for example, is precisely what led the British government to allow the credit bubbles to develop which laid the basis for today’s recession. The government saw its role in the economy as merely ‘managing’ the artificially induced boom.

Politics is more than managerialism or it is nothing. Politics has to be where challenges are made to the status quo, because the status quo is not good enough. The political sphere is also the place where different interest groups fight out their differences in public in order to convince others that they are right. Not everybody in society has the same interests and the disappearance of class politics in its old form does not change that.

Today’s tube strike is a reminder of the fact that not everyone’s interests peacefully coexist with other peoples’. Sometimes confict is inevitable. Politics should be the battleground where these differences of interest and opinion are played out. For all his old style ‘class’ rhetoric Bob Crow understands this. That is why he is right and Finkelstein is wrong.

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Does he take Sugar?

8 06 2009

Alan SugarNews that business owners are applying in large numbers to stand for parliament must be one aspect of the growing dissatisfaction with the existing political options. Conservative Central Office said it had received about 3,000 applications since David Cameron appealed for candidates from outside politics and about a third had come from business owners.

It is understandable that the kind of people who typically set up and run their own businesses would be feeling frustrated with politics today. Being an entrepreneur means trying to make things happen quickly. It means taking risks. It often also means working in new and untested areas of the economy. The UK, as I have argued here for some time, is not typified by any of these entrepreneurial traits.

An influx of people into government with experience of running  businesses, or for that matter schools, hospitals or any significant parts of our economy, would not be a bad thing in itself. For too long government has become the preserve of professional politicians. The front benches are full of people who went straight from student politics into mainstream politics with little experience of doing anything else, occasionally stopping off for a brief stint in PR, like Cameron himself, or in the media like James Purnell.

This deficit of real experience in running things has led to an increase in the number of unelected people being brought into government via peerages in an attempt to make up for it, hence Lord Drayson for example at the (now abolished) Department of Industry, Innovation and Skills. The terminally crippled Prime Minister has even turned to Sir Alan Sugar in a desperate attempt to marry a reputation for entrepreneurialism with celebrity and thus kill two birds with one stone.

More real life experience would no doubt be an asset in government. But, and it is a big but, this alone would not be enough to create a new start for British politics. We would still need to know what these people believed in and what policies they would wish to pursue. At the moment the Conservatives are no less empty of a real political vision than the discredited Brown government. New blood by all means, but new politics still seems a long way off.

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It’s the politics,stupid

5 06 2009

The closest I came to Gordon Brown was in a club in Soho (not that sort) about eight years ago. He came in with Ed Balls, sat in silence looking uncomfortable for about fifteen minutes, then left. All I can remember otherwise is that he looked too large for the chair. Looking back I can now see this experience as a symbolic precursor of Brown’s time as Prime Minister.  He did not last long, had nothing distinctive to offer, never looked comfortable and had insufficent support. The only reason the analogy breaks down is because he was obviously too small for the job, not too big.

The leadership ‘challenge’ to Brown, such as it is, comes as yet another distraction from the serious problems raised by the recession. We have now had a string of spurious public debates since the recession started. The first was over greedy bankers, the second MPs expenses and now the infighting within a doomed party. The media and the political establishment have whipped themselves into a lather each time and one wonders what desperate trivia they will come up with once the supposed ‘silly season’ of summer news begins in earnest this month.

Nothing positive can come out of the Brown debacle whether he survives or not. None of the supposed challengers to Brown represent anything different in terms of politics or policy. The best that anybody can say about the frontrunner to replace Brown, Alan Johnson, is that he looks better on television. Labour has lost its way and the best hope it has is to limp towards a general election defeat next year.

The Conservatives stand to win the next election by default, despite having little distinctive to offer. A new Conservative government, elected on a vacuous political programme, would have little mandate to tackle the severe fallout from the recession predicted to hit the UK over the next 18 months. In those circumstances the cycle of decaying authority which has affected Labour over the past five years is likely to happen even faster to the Conservatives.

When Esther Rantzen is seen as the answer to the political vacuum in this country then surely we are asking the wrong question. The time must surely be on us when a serious effort has to be made to create a new political movement, based on a belief in social and economic progress. We have a simultaneous economic and political crisis, to a degree unprecedented  in modern history. If this is not the time then when?

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Vauxhall Motors- my part in its downfall

3 06 2009

Vauxhall cars



                                                                                                                                                       General Motors has gone bankrupt and is nationalised; its UK subsidiary, Vauxhall Motors may very well be in trouble.  This news reminds me of my own part in this historical drama.  

Life on the factory line

In the winter of 1969 I worked for six months on the nightshift at the Vauxhall Motors factory in Dunstable. Having just left school and after a failed attempt at becoming an accountant, I decided to set up a music promotion business. Along with an old school friend we decided to raise the capital by working at Vauxhall’s for six months and saving all the money.

Vauxhall assembly lineA brief induction later, I found myself on the engine track with a rubber mallet in one hand and instructions in the other.  My job was to bang a cork seal into a slot every time an engine came by. I hadn’t the slightest clue what the purpose of the seals was and only a vague idea of how the internal combustion engine worked.  And that was about it: the track prodded the engines along and I kept banging the cork seals in. Sometimes the seals did not go in straight, but nobody ever seemed to notice. There were rumours of  a ‘quality control’ unit somewhere in the factory which sorted these things out.  It was too noisy to talk to anybody else and the other workers were too far away up or down the track to make it worth the effort. If you wanted to use the toilet you had to put up your hand and wait for a charge hand to come and relieve you, so to speak.

Eventually I found that the best way of dealing with the tedium was to escape into a kind of dream state. Occasionally it all got too much for somebody along the line and a spanner, often literally, would be put in the works.  The track would come to a halt and we all had a sit down and a chat. Most of the men who worked there were doing it because they had failed at something else. Very few had been there for long or were planning to stay. When demand waned and the track was stopped we were all given a paint brush and a pot of paint and told to paint the factory (I was not shown how to do that properly either). 


Less of a mollusk, more of a man

Working on the factory line was not the worst job I have ever done and the money was good.   The most remarkable thing was that an untrained, unskilled  and uninterested person like me, could play a role in the production of cars. This is the beauty of the system of mass production which ruled the industrialised world throughout the 20th century.  John Kay in today’s Financial Times disparages this type of production thus:

On an assembly line, barely skilled workers would be employed to manufacture cars… Mass production and piece-rate incentives created a workforce with little pride in the quality of the product.

But he is missing the point. It was precisely because of the way that production was organised that enabled workers to slot in with little training, and which gave opportunities for many to find jobs they otherwise would have struggled to do.  It also enabled mass production and mass consumption of goods, like cars, which would have otherwise been beyond the pockets of most people.

Karl Marx made a similar point a long time ago in quoting the feelings of one factory worker he met;

I never could have believed, that I was capable of working at the various occupations I was employed on in California. I was firmly convinced that I was fit for nothing but letter-press printing… Once in the midst of this world of adventurers, who change their occupation as often as they do their shirt, egad, I did as the others. As mining did not turn out remunerative enough, I left it for the town, where in succession I became typographer, slater, plumber, &c. In consequence of thus finding out that I am fit to any sort of work, I feel less of a mollusk and more of a man.

Of course it is far better that these kind of processes are more mechanised now in advanced production.  This frees up labour to work elsewhere. But it would be wrong, as John Kay, does to implicitly sneer at the same kind of mass production which is still taking place in China and other developing countries. Kay says;

Mass production is now an activity for low-income, low-cost locations.

Chinese factory workers have often come from back-breaking peasant subsistence farming. No doubt they too are feeling less like mollusks and more like men.

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Democratic reform and the Titanic

1 06 2009
Asset bubbles + zombie political parties = ?

Asset bubbles + zombie political parties = ?

The news that the last survivor of the Titanic, Lillian Gertrud Asplund, has died reminds us that rearranging the deckchairs on that doomed vessel has since been a metaphor for wasting time on trivial things while disaster looms. The current discussion on democratic reform falls into that category. Whatever may or may not be the merits of proportional representation, the discussion about them at this point is almost entirely irrelevant to the real problems we face. The debacle over MPs’ expenses is partly the product of underlying anger about the recession, partly a response to politicians lecturing us about personal morality for years, and partly their own fault for making greed the official cause of the recession itself. These are all symptoms of a political crisis and not causes.

These contingent factors have precipitated a crisis in public confidence in the parties. But the bankruptcy of our political culture is the culmination of a long process of deterioration in politics, not the cause of it. The political parties have had their political blood drained away over the years: zombie parties propped up by bubbles in the economy

The problem of the emptiness of politics is not going to disappear simply because we vote for MPs in a different way. Neither is it right to see this crisis simply as a distraction from dealing with the economy, as the head of the CBI reminds us today. It is the crisis of politics that has led us into this recession and that has also caused the weak and vacillating response to it. The recession has exposed the problems for all to see and it is this public exposure that is now bringing down the political parties.

The second part of Sean Collins’ excellent essay on the difference between the 1930s Depression and today ends by making the point that the US President FD Roosevelt, whatever his failings, at least tried to attack the cause of the Depression in a bold and experimental way. This kind of openness to experimentation does not mean making Esther Rantzen an MP, it means throwing off many of the conservative ways of thinking and operating that have become part of our way of life.

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