Saturday, 29 January 2011

The state of the Unions

So trade unions are positioning themselves to be the organising force behind the opposition to spending cuts.

In my view this is a major strategic error as trade unions are still officially and practically affilliated to Labour, so their opposition cannot be considered non-partisan and one therefore has to question the basis for their opposition.

While I'm perfectly happy that unions exists and value much of the work they do in improving the conditions of employment in the country their party affiliation does create an explicit conflict of interest when people such as Mark Sewotka speak up ostensibly on behalf of workers.

It also plays directly into the hands of Conservative hard-liners who are arguing that union resistance to efforts to balance the budget is turning them into "forces of stagnation" - a neat reversal that!

As a case in point the LFA conflict (or Boris vs Ken rematch, as others would have it) proposes a showdown between 'over-mighty' trade unions in the red corner and 'bullying' employers employers in the blue corner - a situation which is exacerbated, not helped, by the association with political (rather than real) interests on either side.

I find it frankly ridiculous that it can be claimed as coherent or sustainable to be trenchantly opposed to every point of analysis offered, whether as a matter of principle or otherwise.

So I find myself strangely in agreement with this Guardian editorial that
"the public does not want an unreformed welfare state, a lame duck industrial sector or trade unions that seem more concerned with overthrowing governments than representing workers' interests democratically."
If that's what trades unions represent today then they don't represent me.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Curfew over Cairo

It might be a revolution taking place in Egypt, but it's caused excitement, fear and trepidation in different quarters.

Egypt matters as it is the most populous Arab state, and it is a close ally of the US (remember Obama's speech in Cairo?), so what happens there will set a trend for the whole region and could determine the direction of events for the next generation.

Protesters across the region (Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen) are encouraged by the success of the Tunisian 'Jasmine Revolution', and many commentators are hinting at a 'domino effect' aided by pan-Arabic news and information sources including social networks like Twitter and news channels like Al Jazeera.

But amidst the enthusiasm for progressive change and an end to corruption there lurks concern about the potential for the protests to result not in a blossoming of democracy and free speech, but in increasing confrontation, violence and radicalisation of the forces involved.

It should be noted that the last period of concerted opposition protests against an Islamic autocrat resulted in a crackdown by the Shah of Persia's military against the protesters, which instilled a reactive surge in support for the Islamist movement under the figurehead of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Egypt has a comparable military and security infrastructure, having been used over several decades in dealing with fundamentalist terrorism (from the assasination of Sadat, to regular bombings of tourists at the historical monuments), but equally as a result of similar neo-liberal economic policies has seen the enrichment of a superclass with more to lose, but also the means to hang on.

Consequently the resistance of President Mubarak will be much greater than was possible or likely by Ben Ali in Tunisia and the test of the protesters to gain sufficient support will be that much sterner, therefore the likelihood that the anti-government movement will turn to more violent measures is increased.

Moreover it's worth remembering that Alexandria is the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist/political organisation, which has strong links to Tehran.

In the worst case a violent revolution could easily see Egypt break with the US, ally with Iran and result in another conflict over Israel, but one where nuclear weapons are held on both sides.

Additionally the effect on international trade (given the oil price instability caused as a knock-on from security issues surrounding the Suez canal) at a precarious moment for the global economy would necessitate major commitment by the developed nations to prevent major price rises and prevent collapse, let alone ensure a recovery.

So as darkness sleeps the future of the world certainly, if for one night, hangs precariously in the balance. Much will depend upon how Obama is able to mediate a peaceful transition.

But the episode also has implications for events closer to home. 2010/11 is turning into the year of protests of a generation, similar to 1989 or 1968 - how the protesters here choose their tactics will also determine their outcome, but not just in success or failure, in direction too.

Considering RCRE Cuts

I want to talk about a particularly local example of the budgetary challenges in politics.

On the face of it the £90,000 cut in council funding to the Reading Council for Racial Equality sends out exactly the sort of signal the borough's new opposition Labour councillors have stoked fears about - a cut to RCRE could lead to heightened tensions on the streets and communities of the town.

RCRE has been a leading force in promoting community cohesion in the past four decades, and provided the platform to make a nationally-supported declaration on race equality in the aftermath of the tragic murder of Steven Lawrence (the tenth anniversary of this event was marked recently).

Their work mainly consists of running an advice shop to deal with and ease concerns of immigrants and providing a one-stop clearing house for Reading's different communities to connect and engage with one another, providing support on various issues from supplying language specialists to coordinating relief efforts for victims of disaster (such as the Pakistan floods). In effect it functions as a sort of non-native and second-generation cultural union.

RCRE has also given weight to the campaign against prospective BNP activists, who've sporadically turned up on some of the more deprived estates in the town - notably while Reading has a similar number of BME residents as Oldham (14%) the isolation rate of BME residents is 1.5 compared to 8, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The comparatively high integration rate in Reading goes a long way to explain the electoral failure of racial politics in Reading, which in turn begs the question why fear of racial politics is used as an electoral tool by Labour in the town.

So it is this political role which is clearly angering Reading's new Conservative/LibDem coalition.

In many ways the RCRE is a body which supports many civic-minded aims, but successive generations have seen it's executive organs more closely followed a Trade Union model as posts became dominated by Labour party activists - in many quarters RCRE has become increasingly seen as an academy for identifying and training potential Labour candidates, also providing a highly visible public platform in a emotive area of identity politics for those groups to rally around at community meetings.

Notwithstanding their obvious mandate the partisanship within RCRE has become increasingly noticable in recent years - for instance taking a less active role in promoting Gurkha claims for residency than it might otherwise have done, despite many living in the area (the Gurkhas are stubbornly above party-politicking, a factor which makes them all the more formidible).

So Labour is obviously aggrieved at the cut, but possibly not so much from altruistic motives as from self-interest - they don't have a counter argument that these sums can be better channelled through other more apolitical organisations such as Reading CAB Reading Voluntary Action and Thames Valley Police.

No, Labour are angry that carefully constructed and nurtured institutional support structures for their party are being eroded. Separately it's worth pointing out how Labour also uses tax-payer's money as a piggybank from which to subsidise their election machinery (see here).

None of this is to say that more balanced representation hasn't been enabled by RCRE. On the contrary, as backed up by the JRF data, different national and religious communities are certainly more represented on Reading Borough Council - however this was designed to entrench the political balance, which it managed for almost three decades.

It is, therefore, worth questioning whether true equality can be found by promoting one form to the exclusion of other forms of equality, such as gender or age.

If it were me, I'd argue instead of cutting the funding for dropping 'Race' from their title and instead using it as an acronym - 'Reading Council for Equality'.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Jared Loughner, Laurie Penny, El Hadji Diouf, Anonymous of Stevenage and Derren Brown

What's the connection?

First it's worth considering who each are and what they represent.

Jared Loughner has been arrested for shooting Arizona Congresswoman Gabriella Giffords. He is described as a "troubled" and "mentally unstable person" who is known to have made 'rambling' and 'incoherent' comments on various social networking media.

Laurie Pennie is a prominent blogger/twitterer and New Statesman columnist. She has made a name for herself as a campaigning luminary with strong views on left-wing and feminist issues, recently tweeting from inside the police 'kettle' during student protests outside Parliament.

El Hadji Diouf is a Senegalese attacking footballer who plays for Blackburn Rovers. He is known as a tempestuous and tempramental talent capable of playing at the highest level. He made headlines this weekend by unloading a diatribe of vitriol against a seriously injured opponent. Although he did not cause the injury Mr Diouf does have a track record of belligerent behaviour.

Anonymous of Stevenage was also involved in events surrounding the FA Cup as he invaded the pitch after the final whistle to punch a player on his own team after completing the biggest upset of the round. Stevenage beat Newcastle 3-1. It's not known what songs this person sang on the terraces.


Amidst all the soul-searching as to why a 'lone-gunman' would wish to assassinate a politician acknowledged as a 'rising star', debate has emerged about the tone of political debate in the age of social media (discussed separately earlier).

As Mark Mardell notes, "While we don't know if the motive behind the shooting was political, it is very clear that it was immediately politicised, at least on the internet."

Except this debate has been mirrored in the op-eds of respectable newspapers almost as quickly.

Popular sports, on the other hand, are a manifestation of the political culture in which they exist. It is a stage where all the underlying tensions of a society are exposed to scrutiny as they are tested in a condensed and immediate physical format.

The objective measures which drive sporting results stand in direct contrast to the endless contention and subjective standards of all onlookers. Yet the inter-relationship between players and fans is there for all to experience and enjoy. Opinion swirls around and the context is forever changing, but what counts is still what happens on the pitch... for all their similarities politics remains somewhat different.

So when the globe-trotting Premiership multi-millionaires use the passion and compassion of English fans as reasons to move to some of the most deprived areas of the UK the potential reward of emotional and financial fulfillment is obvious, but the flipside of a more tumultuous pressure-cooker environment can also lead to more explosive and unacceptable reactions - as was evident in this FA Cup weekend.

It would be going way too far to suggest Mr Diouf has psychic powers which allowed him to control the mind of the unknown assailant several hundred miles away, but it is nevertheless blindingly apparent that they are both conditioned by the culture which holds them spellbound - either in contractual or tribal allegiance - and demands ever greater commitment.

Similarly it would be completely ridiculous to suggest any direct connection between Ms Penny (or any other political figure for that matter) and the assailant of the US Congresswoman who were separated by several thousand miles at the time.

Ms Penny has gained popularity and prominence from her incisive insights, such as this recent gem from inside Saturday's left-wing Netroots online campaigning conference which quickly topped retweet charts (a handy alibi):
"We’re listening politely whilst appointed arbiters of the centre-left mow the grassroots into a neat, acceptable bourgeois lawn."
In this she clearly and succinctly expresses the same desire to be heard as Jared Loughner, and she gives voice to the same anger at the figures seen as standing in her way.

It's not to my personal taste, and it's striking for a lack of self-depreciation or irony (commenters elsewhere note Ms Panny's relative privilege of an Oxbridge background, as a paid-for social media activist with an iPad... among other things). Yet while the politicisation of the issues take on a partisan flavour with the choice of metaphor and allusion by the author the choice of wording can draw us in with the effect of distracting us from our complicity or allow us to overlook the implications by alienating out sympathies - it's only when viewed with non-plussed dispassion that it begins to look like an attention-seeker seeking a cause and a following.

In a global society where digital communication enables interconnectivity on an unprecedented mass scale the same tendencies are shown to be common among all of human-kind, so political disagreements (such as over the legitimate use of force) become played out beyond our own literal and conceptual horizons with a profuse variety of contribution. But opinion becomes amplified within the echo chambers of interactive media as people listen to what they want to hear until it creates a self-fulfilling directive: the more something is repeated, so the more true it becomes and the more urgent it feels.

When representatives of a cause make decisions which cross the line of acceptability and descend into negativity they should save their indignant outrage at others who follow in the same path because it is they who have helped create the monster they vilify. They have set an example and legitimised all interpretations of it.

And given the pressure-cooker environment of Arizona politics where immigration, gun-control, economics and religion are characterised by diametrically opposed groups with intractable and resolute positions and there is a respected charismatic moderate prospering while being demonised by fundamentalist insurgents it should have been predictable that this was a fertile breeding ground for a loose cannon to eventually go pop.

The incoherent reasoning of Jared Loughner's attacks and his bizarre array of targets (both regarding his focus on bad grammar and gold-backed currency, as well as his shooting of a liberal Democrat politician, a conservative Judge, a 'face of hope' and others) appear to suggest a randomness to his approach which would allow us to discount the significance of his action, but this would be wrong.

It is instead a reflection of the situation he found himself in and the skills he had to comprehend it and deal with it. His overwhelming confusion about these issues carried over into how he channelled his energies - the single grand gesture was the obvious move.

By comparison the fan of Stevenage Borough who attacked his own player on a day of triumph is also something of a headscratcher on the face of things, but for anybody who's ever been there when the red mist comes down and all your concentration and energies are focussed on a single target there is only a single option and it is the most logical one in the world: the fan's reaction was a perfect reflection of a testosterone-fuelled victor in the confused post-match melee with the uncomprehending nature of what unbelieving fans had witnessed, suddenly released from the intensity of the match. Add in lingering anger at various disparities or percieved injustices and inexperience at appropriate responses and in any crowd of several thousand you can find one or two who will lose their minds.

But perhaps the development of a deeper cultural awareness and understand the cultural conditioning we each experience is not simply something to be taken for granted, but that knowledge of our own and the differences with others is something which can and will identify likely problems and likely solutions before they ever even occur.

And perhaps the shock of recent events can be taken as a positive influence to knock us out of the complacency of some of our collective assumptions.


Talking of which, I almost forgot Derren Brown... do you remember the episode 'The Heist'?

What I'd like to ask is how did all of the participants feel so flattered that they completely let their guards down to be manipulated by him so easily?

Didn't the fact that it was Derren Brown start to make them suspicious?

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Progressing the VAT debate

Is VAT progressive or regressive, that is the question?

Well, it largely depends on who you ask.

VAT is defined in the public consciousness as a 'flat-rate' tax, so the rise from 17.5% to 20% is seen as a reduction in spending power, but more contentiously as one which will hit those who can least afford it more.

Mmm, possibly.

There's a big problem with this argument as people in lower income brackets do not experience VAT in the same way as those in higher brackets - precisely because VAT is not designed as an entirely flat-rate tax.

Indeed, because VAT change impacts are measured as a proportion of expenditure, rather than as a proportion of income (and there are basic exemptions such as food and drink which are considered universally necessary) the balance of calculations are tipped slightly in favour of poorer sections of society.

Stephanie Flanders looks at Deloitte's analysis which shows poorer families losing 0.8% of income, middle income groups 0.96% and higher income groups 'just over 1%'.

This does disproportionately impact the discretionary portion of spending among lower income groups, but nevertheless that doesn't change the fundamental 'progressivity' of the change.

However the real distortion of the debate is not in whether higher sales taxes is better or worse for any different section of society, or that it is the easiest way for the state to gain cashflow, but in perception gap between the partially progressive nature of the tax and the public understanding of it.

VAT is actually applied at 0% (zero, or exempted rates), 5% (reduced rate) or 20% (standard rate).

And this depends on various considerations, such as who's providing them or buying them, where they're provided, how they're presented for sale, the precise nature of the goods or services, among other things, as measured against the universal need for them.

But there is insufficient flexibility in this tax system.

The sector I find provides the best illumination of the problem is accommodation.

We all accept that shelter is a basic human requirement in a country like the UK, so we can clearly see affordability and purpose provide a mutual balance in each individual choice we make.

If you are on the breadline and homeless a temporary hostel might be appropriate, if you're going on honeymoon you're obviously seeking something special, but if you're simply going away for a business conference it's unlikely you will justify the expense of a 5-star hotel.

So it's obviously perverse that the tax system doesn't take this into account.

My solution would be to introduce a new higher band rate.

The introduction of a 'luxury' rate of VAT would provide a greater amount of options for politicians to rebalance the economy while dealing with the deficit and this would do much to reduce public anger over the issue.

Placing a premium on top-quality products will give them a new exclusivity which adds value to their market sector - exactly what 'value-added tax' was designed around in the first place.

There may be howls of outrage from some borderline cases, but The Dorchester wouldn't be The Dorchester if it were found on every High Street in the country, now would it?

There's something deeply worrying when Labour Leader Ed Miliband and right-wing think-tank The Institute of Economic Affairs both reach the same conclusions (albeit for different reasons), and this should indicate to any reasoned commentator that it may not be the right policy solution, but also that neither opponents are correct and a new alternative approach should be found.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

The end of blogging as we know it...

Some media attention has been garnered by the likes of Labour MP Paul Flynn and the BBC's Andrew Marr as a 'backlash' against the blogosphere gathers pace, perhaps because there's a general concensus that blogging in the UK has never been so influential as it is now.

Some authors go so far as to describe the medium as "one of the great democratic transformations of our generation," while others view it as an extension of existing forms, albeit with much fewer restrictions on entry.

Indeed, the 2010 general election was the first general election where a significant body of opinion was formed and expressed online, and slow-burning news stories such as the expenses scandal were kept alive by the wealth of writers who contributed their 'two cents' with every successive revelation.

But there's something ironic about Flynn and Marr's criticisms of democracy where every opinion can be equally valid and yet in which disagreement is somehow expected to evaporate. Instead we could ask, was 2010 actually the high-water mark for blogging?

Nevertheless recent events have highlighted the changing face of the blogosphere and the way media stories develop.

Where the main body of the 'democratic' multitude previously acted as independant agents, the voluntary infrastructure has gradually been stripped away by the regular retirements of prominent and influential bloggers on various sides - many of whom performed vital services in creating connections in debate by listing links and using their reputations to shine lights on other recommended writers with a valuable or interesting perspective to put forward.

People such as Devil's Kitchen, Letters from a Tory, Mark Reckons, Tory Bear, Tom Harris and Iain Dale were popular not just for what they had to say, but because they had built up a level of trust with their audiences based on the fact they also read other writers and were prepared to publish sign-posts with links to help readers navigate their ways to more obscure parts based on their recommendations.

The consequence of the loss of these community-minded bloggers (for all their verbal restraint, or lack thereof) is the associated rise of the group blogs and otherwise coordinated new media strategies which have subverted the initial idealism into more directed purposes and more purposeful directions.

In effect we've seen a transition from mutualism to corporatism before our very eyes.

Where once you could gain an significant audience by producing consistent levels of quality, now it's about fitting with an established agenda. Where once it was about what you said, now it's about who you know. Where once it was about your ability to create an angle or an argument, now it's about which side of the debate you're on.

The blogosphere is getting increasingly partisan, and this in turn reflects a wider media trend as people react to the reality of coalition government.

Roy Greenslade pins the turning-point down. He argues that the first election leadership debate gave the traditional media an opportunity to synthesise the public outpourings of the e-sphere as the means to regain their 'clout' (notably the blogosphere reaction was one of the best - and final - posts I managed from my digest of local blogs, read here) - and was one which the old hands didn't fail to seize.

With newspaper sales nudging an 'eye-popping' 15m, in addition to burgeoning online viewership, he says, "The power of the British press is not an illusion, and it is obviously not a thing of the past."

So perhaps it was always a fantasy that the blogosphere could stay as it was.

This trend first began to become apparent during the CSR debate, particularly when the IFS intervened in a politically-charged analysis which drew distinctions between definions of 'progressive' and 'fair'. And the glaringly obvious truth has been undeniable since the final day of the pre-Christmas Westminster session when the Daily Telegraph published a Vince Cable expose (supposedly a gaffe) that there are internal tensions within the two-party cabinet.

These controversies were entertaining to watch unfold, primarily for what they had to say about the way that the corporatist-media complex was flexing its' muscles to reassert its' dominance as the preeminent opinion-former (and the knock-on effect of the ability to direct the shaping of society), rather than how they informed the public about the way our new government was functioning.

Yet they were two storms on the peripheries which assumed greater importance to the media organisations precisely because their value could be measured in the monetized terms of additional sales rather than any effect they had on voting patterns and policy.

So what happened to bloggers?

Steve Richards helpfully notes the 'daunting' nature of the modern multi-media landscape, but reassures us opinion will always have its' place, even though he hints that this is, will, and should remain, at the bottom of the food-chain.

As Will Heaven discusses, twitter didn't kill the blogosphere, but the best commentators got absorbed into the professional ranks.

On the other side Jon Worth makes a similar point, although with more regret and less wistfulness - he suggests your position as a top blogger is nowadays a consequence of your position inside the mainstream, rather than the means by which you can enter it.

Which brings me back to mentioning Tim Montgomerie's insight about how the churn reflects the growing divergence between the industrial blogs capable of regular quality-controlled output and those independents involved in movement politics.

So it's easy to see how this shift in emphasis has had an impact for the way each new communication medium is used and that there are obvious interests involved which must be considered more fully in understanding how they can be best used.

Put alongside this the obvious costs of news-gathering and associated benefits of the peer-review enabled by a committee room full of editorial staff (on conference call, obviously) and it's clear the drive for reliability and consistency has been at the expense of greater vitality and vibrancy, but is not necessarily bad for all that.

It remains a truism that to live is to choose, and that trade-offs are unavoidable, but the pendulum is there to swing and swing again it will.

The year ahead will certainly see a fightback... maybe I should think about taking some of the advice I find in these links and be a bit more focussed myself - there are definitely lots of niches still to be carved out and filled!