A Radical Political Manifesto for 2017

If you have not read the Labour manifesto I commend it to you. It is about tax and spend, just like all the other manifesto’s. That is what governments do, they collect taxes and pay for vital services such as defence, health and education, oh and filling the holes in the road. In relation to tax and spend the Labour manifesto differs from the Tory one in this respect only, that it is better costed!

The Labour manifesto is radical in that it has made the “hard choice” to raise taxes, what is more, it has made the “hard choice” about who is going to pay those higher taxes. Normally when you hear a government minister talking about “hard choices” you think someone is about to get a kicking. Often it is a group of citizens or workers distinguished by their weakness. But not always. The past decade has seen governments of all persuasions talking about the sacrifices that are needed by the majority in order to “balance the book”, “deal with the deficit”, “live within our means” and a range of other cliches raised to the status of policy. Certainly, the hard choices of the Cameron administration were very much about that.

The Labour manifesto addresses all the issues you might expect but critically in relation to care, education, health and industrial strategy it does not talk about how they will be improved by greater efficiency, more competition, delivering more with less or even moving the deck chairs in some complex restructuring exercise. There are some elements of this but bottom line is they say they need more money. And despite the automatic response of the government to any criticisms of its actions, that “Record amounts are being spent on [insert service of your choice]” the reality of most people’s experience is things are getting worse. Services are deteriorating. The “record amount” going into the National Health service is so effective the government does not want the figures for Health Trust deficit’s to be published before the election.

So the Labour Party manifesto is a radical document, it marks a real shift in thinking. It is not constrained by a mindless mantra that nationalisation is necessarily bad because experience seems to show that privatisation is certainly not necessarily good. What is more the risk of nationalised industries gong wrong and thus costing the tax payer a whole pile of cash is not such a powerful criticism when we discover that if private industries, say finance, go wrong they cost the taxpayer a whole pile of cash and more.

Having said all this I suspect in time the Tory manifesto will come to be seen as the most radical of all the current manifesto’s. For the past thirty to forty years there has been a growing consensus structured around a neoliberal economic model of the world which has been about lower taxes, a smaller state and weaker trade unions. The rationale for this is that such actions will lead to improved productivity and greater economic growth. The rising tide of wealth this will create will lift all boats.

Unfortunately, so many boats seem to be stuck in the mud of increasing debt, insecure employment, deteriorating services and, oh, ever more pot holes in the road. A growing sense of frustration with the mantra of jam tomorrow and ever increasing inequality today has permeated the political mantle. The pressure building in the electoral tectonics is palpable and making itself felt in what has become labelled as a popular revolt.

This popular discontent across the whole of the West cannot be dismissed as the irrational response of the “basket of deplorables”. Firstly, there is a growing academic literature raising concerns about inequality and the negative impact it is having on the economy. Whilst some of this is from academics with radical or left wing leanings, it is not all. There are voices from the right who are concerned that the market is rigged and the “invisible hand” is cuffed to the interests of the very wealthy.

To her credit it seems as if Mrs May senses all this and sees something needs to be done and the solution may not be “the market”. The manifesto talks about governing from the mainstream, and states, “We must reject the ideological templates of the socialist left and libertarian right and instead embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do.” (my emphasis)

The manifesto contains a number of straws which suggest the wind is changing. There is of course a huge difference between rhetoric and reality. The rhetoric could be dismissed as a cynical attempt to attract traditional Labour voters with empty promises. After all this is the government that has promised to get immigration down to tens of thousands, eliminate the deficit and indeed reduce the national debt. It was also Mr May who made very strong comments about workers representation on boards which is being diluted as we speak.

What’s more, excitement at some more progressive comments by the leader of the Tory Party needs to be set against the reality of a  lot of very powerful people whose interests will be directly damaged by a rejection of the neoliberal orthodoxy. They are not going to be persuaded because we have a politician who sees there are genuine issues in relation to inequality and opportunity and they will fight to maintain the common sense view of the world that suits, very well, their personal interests.

The common sense view of the world which has evolved over the past thirty years sees the market as an impersonal and efficient allocator of investment, goods and wealth. A view of the world which sees people as rational utility maximisers who have perfect knowledge of the market, and exchange goods, services and labour freely. The reality of most people’s lives is not like this. The twenty first century market bares no comparison to that of the eighteenth, nineteenth or indeed most of the twentieth century. Putting that aside, the bowdlerised version of this model, which is at the core of the libertarian neoliberal view, is even further from the reality.

The Conservative manifesto seems to recognise this. It is a breach in the orthodoxy. It is a chink in the armour that has defended an increasingly indefensible world view. Whatever the outcome of the election the framework of political common sense is starting to change. At the moment it is about opening up areas of debate that have been closed for decades. It will take time for this to crystalise into clearer manifesto’s of change and change itself. However, better there is an increasingly conscious and rational debate about the way in which opportunity and wealth is managed and ditributed in our societies than the alternative.

For the avoidance of doubt, whilst I think the Tory manifesto may prove to be the most radical of the 2017 election I will be voting Labour. The radicalism of the Tory manifesto lies in its implicit recognition that some of what Jeremy Corbyn says about wealth and power is true.

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Politics and Ethics

Politics and ethics make uncomfortable bedfellows. Some think they have nothing to do with one another and that it is only a naive liberal who could think they have any connection with each other in the “real world”. Robin Cook, when he became Foreign Secretary in 1997, was ridiculed by some and patronised by others when he set out his Mission statement and talked about an ethical Foreign Policy. Over his period in that office this was often used as a stick to beat him with when some trade deal was done on weapons or some visit from the head of an unsavoury ally occurred.

Politics, it is argued, is about the art of the possible and should not be constrained by ethical considerations which get in the way of a “good deal”, more often than not a good trade deal, and quite often a good arms trade deal. There is rarely a shortage of highly respected politicians and business leaders willing to point out that in the real world we have to be pragmatic and often sup with the devil. That realists have to put aside their moral scruples on particular issues for a greater good.

That politics is a messy business is unarguable. Yalta was not a meeting of those with a common ethical view of the world looking forward to the defeat of fascism. Politics is always about compromise and deal making. In democracies compromise is at the heart of the process. Those that lose elections compromise their views to allow the winners to implement theirs for a period of time.

That politics requires a pragmatic approach to issues does not mean, however, that it is, or should be, an ethics free zone. There are times when the ethically right thing to do is also the politically correct thing to do.  Usually the ethically right thing to do is more difficult and the benefits less tangible but that does not always, of itself, change its political correctness.

Mrs May had a a difficult hand to play in her visit to the United States. President Trump is the democratically elected leader of the most powerful country in the world and maintaining a sensible relationship with him is in the interests of the UK. Given President Trumps behaviour to date, during the election, as President elect, and latterly as President, many would find it difficult to shake hands with the man, nay be in the same room as him.

Politicians earn their pay when they subordinate their feelings to the needs of their country and do things which may be personally distasteful to them. However, suppressing all ethical judgement is a mistake. When approaching the meeting with President Trump geo-political security, trade, the implications of Brexit were all matters where the UK has a vital interest in US attitudes and one cannot make progress by standing apart from someone in such a key position of power.

To be fair, Mrs May also addressed some of difficult areas of concern such as President Trumps views about NATO. However, her desire to secure a favourable response from President Trump was palpable and it was clear from her speech in Philadelphia she wanted to maintain the “special relationship” with the US. This relationship, first enunciated by Churchill in 1946, has always been one of a junior and senior partner and in the realpolitik of diplomacy has been of material benefit to the States occasionally (when they need support in the UN for a foreign adventure) and helped UK morale in its transition from “top Nation” to somewhere much further down the pecking order.

Going into this meeting Mrs May knew what President Trump is like. What you see is what you get and what you see is awful. She might have thought that some distance from this man might be sensible. Polite and respectful of someone who has been elected to such an important office, business like in areas of common concern but above all reserved.  The image of his holding her hand may well haunt her for years to come, however, what she could have done to prevent that is uncertain. Comments about the “stunning election victory” were a gratuitous hostage to fortune. His stunning victory is that of the “noisy minority”.

If the president represents the American people we do not want a “special relationship” with them. The reality is he does not. He does not represent the half of the electorate that voted against him, and it is my strong belief that in due course those that voted for him will come to the view that he does not represent them either.

There have been few reasons for optimism as the new year began. Two impressed me, both out of the United States. First Michelle Obama’s last speech which was a model of optimism and dignity, second the women marchers following the inauguration. Maintaining a special relationship with this face of America has to be the right thing to do. But to paraphrase, right now America is the worst of places and the best of places.

Ethically President Trump is repugnant. Despite the circumlocutions of some, the alternative facts of others and the wishful thinking of many he is also politically repugnant. I suspect Mrs May is going to regret bitterly the invitation to meet our head of state.You have to work with lots of people but you need to chose your friends carefully. You are often judged by their actions.

What looked like a competent managing of a difficult challenge on Friday has started to unravel as President Trump issued an odious and in truth incompetent Presidential edict on immigration. Mrs Mays’ initial response at the press conference in Turkey was 100% political and ethics free.  Basically, US immigration policy is the responsibility of the US.

Maintaining a pure ethical stance amongst the crooked timber of mankind is probably impossible. However, a good politician never loses site of what is right and wrong and makes difficult judgements about when a line is crossed. Often those judgments carry a political or a personal cost, or both. When they are not made however they can have awful long term consequences.

Robin Cook was presented as naive when he talked about an ethical Foreign Policy. No doubt there were some who thought his ethical stance, resigning from his position of Leader of the House of Commons in 2003 following the invasion of Iraq, was naive also. Had there only been more such naive politicians with robust moral compasses’ at the time the world might have been a much better place.

 

 

Brexit means…?

Mrs May’s axiomatic definition reassured many after the referendum. For some it was a clear statement of a withdrawal from Europe and all its works, for some it was a democrat’s recognition of the will of the people, and for some there was room for hope about how terms would be agreed. There were doubtless some who thought Mrs May was bound to say something of the sort in the heat of the result but that perhaps over time cooler heads would prevail and a route to remaining in would be sought.

What was a stroke of genius in the immediate aftermath of the referendum is looking increasingly threadbare. In the intervening period the Tory party has managed to rub along without undue stress. There have been the occasional spats but a statement that can comprehend such a wide range of policy options from hard to soft Brexit does not provide enough of a target for anyone to secure purchase on for an argument.

At the moment the Conservatives are like a pack of hungry wolves looking for a carcass to fight over, growling at each other but unable to give vent to their growing frustration because no body of policy has emerged. No wonder Mrs May does not want to reveal her hand, it would likely be bitten off. It will be a feat of legerdemain worthy of Dynamo if she can carry out the negotiations without having to reveal what the deal is until it is done. Sadly, or perhaps fortunately, no one is that good.

Over the weeks and months to come, as statements crafted by the finest minds in the university of the bleedin’ obvious start to give way to substantive proposals these will be seized upon by hungry wolves on all sides of the debate. Depending on the level of compromise attempted the policy for Brexit will either enthuse some and outrage others or, more likely outrage all.

Worse for Mrs May, as all this is going on, the settled view of the majority of the electorate may start to change. If inflation and wage restraint take hold at the same time next year, those that voted for Brexit may have second thoughts. (Warning – votes for Brexit can go down as well as up). Given this an early election might be a good call, but then, who knows.

Mrs May seems to have a good way with words. Her promise to focus on those just about managing, her firm line on executive pay and footloose executives treating tax as optional were all launched with rhetorical flourish. The difficulty is when these things have to be delivered. Her political skills do not seem to match her verbal ones.

I cannot however feel much sympathy for the leader of a party whose leadership are able to transubstantiate infantile ambition into gravitas and lift party interest and power above the interests of the nation. A leadership which has almost destroyed the Union of the United Kingdom, indeed may still yet, and has put at risk the European project which, for all its faults, represents a way to unite in opposition to global forces which threaten the livelihood, and indeed the lives, of its citizens.

There is some way to go in the process of Brexit and better counsel may yet prevail. With all the challenges that exist in the world at the moment having the whole of the British political elite and public administration focused on taking the UK out of Europe is an error of political leadership of the highest order. Tony Blair’s premiership will rightly be forever blighted by the decision to take us into Iraq, David Cameron’s will surely be the same over taking us out of Europe.

The decision on Iraq casts a long shadow, down to the fate of the people of Aleppo and beyond. Brexit does not mean Brexit, it means a whole lot more. If the vote for Brexit was a protest vote against the incompetence of the political elite it cannot be dismissed as completely irrational.