Saturday, September 25, 2010

Labour leadership election - first impressions

You know these property shows where people buy a house with the express purpose of selling it on - and then they start to get all precious about it and do it up the way they would like, without giving proper consideration to the fact that they have to be able to sell it to people who aren't like them?

I've often thought the Labour Party is a bit like this - and today's leadership election result tends to reinforce this impression.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Vince Cable marketing strategy

Vince Cable's conference speech has attracted a fair amount of comment. Dave Osler dismisses his anti-banker rhetoric as populism, while Chris Dillow finds it incoherent. The Daily Telegraph responded pretty much as you might expect - and practically everyone agrees that in the absence of any concrete proposals for banking reform, Cable's speech was fairly meaningless.

I would agree with this but argue that the significance of the speech lies in the politics. Cable's rhetoric about the anti-competitive behaviour of capitalists provides a neat illustration of what he was doing. Firms can try and defeat their competition by under-cutting their rivals, providing a better product and/or lobbying government for some kind of protection, as Chris reminds us. But something else they do is to try and differentiate a product that might in reality be not much different from that of their rivals. This can become anti-competitive when big firms spend so much on advertising that it effectively acts as a barrier to entry for smaller producers.

Whether the media coverage that Vince gets is analogous to this latter feature of product differentiation, I couldn't say - but the first bit is, I think. What Cable was on about is secondary to why he was doing it. It was merely an attempt to pretend that two neo-liberal products with little to distinguish them, are in reality very different. Predictably the Lib Dem party faithful went for it; what is quite impressive is the extent to which the rightwing press have fallen for it too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The obligatory Pope's visit post

The Pope visited Bellahouston Park on the south side of Glasgow today. While not disagreeing with the reasoning behind it, I have found myself unable to lend my voice, or signature, or presence to the objections to this visit for historical reasons. When the last Pope visited Glasgow in the 1980s, the only people to make a significant noise about it were Pastor Jack Glass and his sash-wearing, flute-playing followers. The need to disassociate myself from the bowler hat wearing fraternity is something I feel very deeply, which is why you won't find my signature on any petition objecting to this present tour by the Pontiff of Rome.

But I'm beginning to wonder if this was a good enough reason. Probably not. I'm not going to rehearse the well-known objections to the present occupant of the Holy See but only remark on his latest anti-charisma offensive, which I found, well, deeply offensive. It's enough to make one come over all extremist in an atheistic sort of way, this gratuitously insulting references to Nazis.

We had criticism of the church's handling of priestly abuse of children being compared to anti-Semitism around about the same time that Holocaust-denying clerics were being rehabilitated. Now we have this: the head of an institution that was at best ambivalent towards the Nazi regime making ahistorical remarks about a country that was not.

I don't know if Ratzinger will ever visit Russia - but if he does, he would be well advised to mind his manners, as he should have done here. I think the Stalinist regime would be classed as 'aggressively secularist' by most people's definition but after the Hitler-Stalin Pact collapsed, the tombstones of dead Russians dispel any doubts as to whose side they were on. When it comes to the Vatican, the historical record is less clear, to say no more than that.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Against bibliolatry

Pastor Terry Jones has lost his bottle, or seen sense, depending on your interpretation of this absurd story. I don't see that it matters much. Whatever the motive, Pastor Jones has opted for the more rational path. But then again, it would have taken superhuman powers of obstinacy to do anything other - what with the President of the United States, his Attorney General and the Secretary of State - along with General Petraeus, Interpol, the Vatican in concert with every other expert in the supernatural you can think of, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the ACLU, Sarah Palin, Angelina Jolie and our very own sage on all matters political and spiritual, the former Prime Minister himself Mr Tony Blair, all sticking their oar in, imploring Mr Jones to refrain from his threatened desecration.

The history of religion teaches us that the notion of an invisible God endures, while the sociology of religion shows us that it has proved more often than not to be a burden too great for man to bear. People feel the need to reach out and touch the divinity - through the attendance at buildings, the performance of physical ritual, or through iconography of various kinds. Islam is like protestantism in that is has gone the furthest in eliminating this kind of thing but if this affair shows anything, it is that religion is unable to rid itself of this need to break into the physical world completely. Consider what is being held sacred here. Not just the message, which Muslims believe was dictated by God to Muhammad. It goes further than that to the stage where the divinity of the Logos bleeds into the physical object of the book itself.

As a protestant atheist, I would not halt to call this idolatry - but what matters is not what I think but what others hold sacred. On this point I would have no hesitation in adding my name to those who were attempting to persuade Pastor Jones to desist. I would no sooner burn a Koran than I would abuse the sacrament in a Catholic Mass - not because they mean anything to me but because I recognise that they do for others.

But that's all I am willing to concede to those who are nominally in my camp. The crass stupidity of this particular Pentecostal outfit is not in question but their affiliation to other gangs of religious morons or their motives for this attention-seeking nonsense are irrelevant to me. One or two commentators have linked this small band of fanatics and their behaviour to the famous saying coined by Heinrich Heine who said, "Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people." The rise of the Third Reich ensured the eternity of this aphorism and also made sure we are lazy about its use. The fact of the matter is that the burning of books, whilst indicative of a certain level of philistinism, does not necessarily, or even usually, lead to murder. Whereas history is replete with examples of those who skip the whole supposedly inevitable book-burning phase and jump straight to the wiping out of their fellow human beings in the sharp slide into murderous tyranny.

It's here a little perspective is called for. What Pastor Jones was intending to do was gratuitously offensive - but what made it potentially insane was the disregard for its consequences. What I find utterly depressing about this whole affair is the extent to which these were taken as a given - a fact of the world to which we have to adjust. In case anyone is unclear about what this is, let me spell it out: the burning of the Koran would have had disastrous consequences because everyone with any sense understands that there are not only people who consider a book to be more more sacred than the lives of their fellow human beings but who are both willing and able to use murderous violence in order to see the incarnation of this belief.

It is the routinization of this - the acceptance of this as a banal fact of life - that I find so absolutely depressing. It shows itself in the comments made by even people who are resolutely opposed to any of the claims made by politicized millienarians. Martin writes, "In their fundamentalism and intolerance, Pastor Jones and the Islamists are mirror images of each other." No, I don't think so. The reason that there was such an intervention over this matter is that everyone understood that if this group of fanatics had burned the Koran, people would have died. But Pastor Jones did not threaten to kill anyone. In contrast, death threats had already been made - not just against Mr Jones, which is in itself insane - but against Americans in general. Because merely being one of the some 330 million citizens of this nation is enough for you to deserve death because of your association with the behaviour of fifty embittered religious eccentrics. You can call for this and it will be unremarkable - as long as you don't mess with the Books.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

On the AV referendum: turkeys vote for Christmas?

The Labour party certainly thinks so:
"Research released by the Labour Party suggests that the redrawing of constituency boundaries to reduce the number of MPs could lead to the Liberal Democrats suffering disproportionately more than any other party, with the heavy swing against them magnifying the losses."
If so, this would be quite amusing. I find the case for voting reform unconvincing. AV is not PR but they are similar in that both systems are more likely to produce coalitions. It is already clear that one of the claims frequently made for coalitions - that it produces more moderate consensual government - ain't necessarily so. You could still argue that it is nevertheless more representative of the electorate but this case illustrates the problem with this suggestion. Coalitions invariably produce compromises that no-one voted for, which is the case here - for Conservative and Lib Dem voters anyway:
"Normally loyal Tories are expected to vote against the legislation, pointing out that neither party in the coalition promised AV in their election manifestos."
Something that people didn't vote for is nevertheless to be proposed to them in a referendum and if the vote is positive, we'll see in the future more government based on compromises chosen by the winning parties, rather than the electorate. I don't mean to sound too dismissive; you could still reasonably argue that it would produce more congenial government in the long-run. It's just difficult to see how this system would be so obviously more democratic than the present arrangement.

Friday, September 03, 2010

The conversation Labour and the left should be having

One shouldn't attempt to predict the future. This coalition government might be dead in the water in 18 months for all I know. But every time there's a story about Simon Hughes issuing warnings about what the rank and file will or won't tolerate or government ministers shouting at each other, I fear it is just wishful thinking to interpret these as harbingers of the government's incipient collapse. Certainly the honeymoon was over quickly but I'd predict that divorce is by no means certain and is certainly not imminent.

There's a few reasons for thinking this but I'm thinking of one in particular: opponents of the government are, for the most part, underestimating the extent to which ideological glue holds this coalition together. The simplicity of this shouldn't be underestimated either. Underneath everything this government says about anything - whether about health, education, family life or deficit reduction - you'll find just one thing; the notion that the 'good society' is one where the state is smaller - period.

The Lib Dems have traditionally stressed making the state smaller in relation to personal conduct, the Conservatives with the economic sphere, but with both - especially when you factor in the degree of overlap - the near universal presence of this central idea should be better appreciated. Is there anyone on the government benches that doesn't think the state should be shrunk in some way?

Now, simple ideas have a habit of breaking on the rocks of experience because the human situation always proves to be more complicated but for now the cohesive role it is playing should be tackled more directly. In other words, the opposition to the coalition needs to be clearer about what its attitude towards the state is. This isn't easy because to respond to a simple idea like this with an equally simple one runs the risk of sounding either conservative (keep it the way it is) - or a bit Soviet (make it bigger). Whereas a more complicated idea - while it would do more justice to the mess of actual life - can sound like obfuscation, if you're not careful.

The problem here is that I can't see Labour getting even close to agreeing a broad road on which to travel, never mind coming up with a line. For example, my own wish would be for those Labour members and supporters who were nonchalant about the expansion of the surveillance state under Blair to simply admit they were wrong - but it is never going to happen. The attitudes to the economic sphere are if anything even more problematic, which serves to illustrate the problem when opposing the coalition: people from the cuddly non-Orange Book wing of the Lib Dems might not like the budget and even be vaguely social democratic - but I don't think the coalition carries the sort of divisions between 'modernisers' who are in reality just economic liberals and some who advocate economic control on near Soviet proportions that you find in the Labour party.

I appreciate Paul's frustration at the search for a line that could impose unity on a party, which like all parties can never be united, but I'm concerned that Labour, and the left in general, is more deeply-divided on this issue than is usually acknowledged, which is one of the reasons why it should ask itself some very basic questions about the role of the state, what it can and should do - as well as the limits of its competence. Any conversation that produced a sensible answer would have something to say about changing the shape of the state.

Reflections on Labour's leadership election

I'm not doing much here except steering people towards a couple of other people's posts on the subject that I thought were rather splendid. Paul has an excellent piece here striking a pessimistic note over the whole process:
"We do need a leadership contest. We need the concept of leadership - as it is currently understood - to be contested and defeated. New Labour's approach to leadership was based upon a crude and self-serving notion of what was possible within the confines of a hostile media. It involved everybody conniving in the pretense that a single line that united the party could be pushed out to a credible media."
I also particularly enjoyed his dismissal of the pose that young Ed has been striking:
"And if anyone really imagines that Ed Milliband's pitch as 'the left candidate' is any more than a bit of short-term chessmanship, I hope they will have a stern word with themselves next time they look in the mirror."
Chris Dillow also argues that there is little in the way of real differences between the candidates to choose between, making this a 'low stakes' election. Here even the relatively small differences that one might identify in relation to the whole business of deficit reduction will be ironed out by events outside the candidates' control:
"The next Labour leader will - at best - only determine policy after 2015. And in this context, Balls’ words are less important. Let’s say he’s right, and that Osborne’s deficit fetishism does clobber the economy and - in doing so - leave a big deficit. It will then be clear to everyone that a change in policy is needed. Whoever the leader is will therefore adopt a Balls-style policy - because this will be the only option. Balls’ support now for such a policy will make him look perspicacious - though no more so than any other Keynesian - but it does not greatly affect the course of the next Labour government."
They are in substance both right, in my view. I can't recall there being a Labour election with so little at stake. Just one quibble though: while we could all agree that policy shouldn't be over-personalized and that there's little to distinguish these characters on policy anyway, it still matters. It can be expressed by putting Chris's first point in the negative: "What is the probability of Labour losing under your preferred candidate, relative to the probability under your second preference?" I appreciate this is depressingly negative but it still makes a substantial difference. There are some people you just cannot imagine winning under any circumstances. Brown (admittedly not under good circumstances) was like this. So was Michael Foot. I'd argue Kinnock was as well. For the Tories it was William Hague and even more disastrously with IDS.

What all of the above have in common is that they were very much creatures of their parties - and the worst of them the very incarnation of their deepest divisions, as was the case with IDS. Here I'm afraid Alex Massie is right: people are suspicious of party politics at the moment so you have to have a leader that can be distinguished from their party. Paul is right to find this shuffle at the top of a pyramid not only unsatisfactory but probably unsustainable in the long-run - but this is where were are now and in these circumstances any party that mistakes the selectorate for the electorate and chooses a candidate in their own image is going to lose. It's as simple as that.
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