Category Archives: Politics

Vote Labour

If you’re even passingly familiar with my outpourings of left-wing bias, it should come as little surprise that, come June 8th, I shall be voting for the bearded, bike-riding vegetarian. I really think you should too. Of course, if you live in a Lib Dem-Tory marginal, do what you have to do. If you live in a truly safe seat of any stripe, do what you want to do. Scotland, also, offers its own set of choices. But most people face a decision between Red and Blue. You might not like that fact, but a fact it is. If you want electoral reform, lobby your MP, get involved with or donate to the Electoral Reform Society, but don’t waste your vote.

After a generation of being offered similar choices in different coloured rosettes, Britain is offered starkly contrasting visions for its future. The Conservatives offer, yet again, a shrinking state. Labour offers a vision of genuine social democracy. This is not socialism, far from it. It is a restoration of much-needed compassion to an increasingly heartless state.

A state which, we should remember, was shrunk for essentially no reason. The global financial crisis was not the fault of the New Labour government, or its spending policies, and the response from the Conservatives has probably slowed down the recovery rather than sped it up. The intellectual case for austerity, from Osborne’s favourite economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, has been revealed to lie somewhere between wishful thinking and academic fraud.

As detailed in this article, the pair omitted relevant data, and at every point weighted what they did use in favour of the conclusions they were promoting. One bad year from New Zealand, for example, had more influence than nineteen good years in the UK. The data supported the conclusion “sometimes austerity isn’t a disaster” and was manipulated until it said, “austerity is the only answer”.

The Conservatives offer only more of the same bitter, unneeded pill. After seven years, there is no fat to sensibly trim anymore. That is why ludicrous proposals like the dementia tax are cropping up: because there’s nothing left to cut. Homelessness, child poverty have increased, social services have been gutted. Sure Start centres have closed down, despite the evidence that early-years intervention is one of the most effective ways of breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty. None of this is good for the economy.

On defence, the arguments against him are well-known: he is a peacenik unilateralist. I don’t think it ridiculous, though, to point out that a “robust” defence policy sometimes resembles a drunk guy sticking up for his mates on a night out. Yeah, he’s trying to protect you, but ultimately throwing the first punch puts everyone in danger

A nuclear war could well spell the extinction of the entire human race, and that is not an exaggeration. A little caution with the big red button is to commended, not sneered at. Likewise, over-eagerness to bust out the Tornados has done little good in Libya, and the murderous folly of Iraq is well-known. On all these issues, Corbyn has been on the right side, while the chaos produced by our actions has made us less safe, not more.

With regards to Brexit, Labour’s position is pragmatic. I did not want to leave the EU, but now the vote has come in, there needs to be a sea change in public opinion to do anything but leave, and that simply hasn’t happened. The prospect of negotiating Brexit brings me onto the personal styles of the two leaders. Here, again, we face a stark choice. After years of media-trained smoothness, we have two leaders bucking that trend in their own particular ways.

If you are in doubt between the two, I ask you to consider who is more open to the moderating influences of party and civil service. Jeremy Corbyn seems to genuinely believe in party democracy, and by all accounts listens to those around him, even if he doesn’t always take their advice. Theresa May obviously does not like public dissent, and reports from her camp say aides, too, are afraid of speaking up.

So who would you rather have negotiating Brexit? Corbyn, who for all his flaws, will actually listen to advice or Theresa May, who sees enemies around every corner and in doing so makes more of them. The EU are not our enemies, but we could surely turn them into that if we tried hard enough. Corbyn’s bruising two summers have shown that he’s no pushover, and the same has been proven of his MPs. Say what you like about them, but they are certainly not averse to criticising their leader.

So for the economy, for society, for safety, for the environment, for a decent Brexit vote Labour on June 8th.

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Filed under Politics, UK politics

Two-party systems are killing politics

The two-party system that has been the bedrock of both British and American democracy for centuries is beginning to burst at the seams. Socioeconomic stagnation and technological developments have made the concept of a big tent party virtually unworkable. It is ridiculous that one party is the most natural political home for both Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, but that is the world we live in.

Of the four major parties across the two countries, two are in open civil war and the other two are one electoral setback from it. As Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn energise party bases and horrify their colleagues, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton have only the promise of governance to hold together their quarrelsome parties. Brexit and the influence of corporate America, respectively, are proving nearly insurmountable obstacles to unity.

In the era of smartphones and social media, it is no longer possible for the same beast to show multiple faces. Parties, and politicians, must stay on message. One does not have the luxury of saying one thing at a meeting of party activists, another at a rally in the North, another at a rally in the South and another at a donor’s event. If the appearances are not officially recorded and up on a campaign’s Twitter feed in minutes, they will be unofficially recorded and shared. Not only that, but the internet era has allowed a diversity of views to flourish, one that is poorly reflected on the ground.

As Hillary Clinton noted, in some rather ironically leaked remarks, it is much more difficult now to have one policy in public and another in private. I think this should be read less as outright dishonesty, more a recognition of the above. What was once a delicate balancing game between activists, diverse groups of voters and donors has been blown apart. Instead of speaking with many voices, the party speaks with one or risks “disunity” and “infighting”.

When each party speaks with one voice and there are only two parties that really matter, this means that in terms of electoral politics, there are two voices for the whole country. This is not enough. It leads to people feeling like their voices aren’t being heard. It leads to an obsessive focus on control of the party structure (as with the disenfranchised British left’s Corbynite rebellion and the corresponding centre-left pushback), and this often comes at the expense of communicating clearly with the wider public.

The stark ideological divides produced by two-party politics mean that bipartisan cooperation is usually lauded. Even that has its pitfalls. Politicians are, almost by definition, members of the elite; one person’s “bipartisan cooperation” is another’s “elite collusion”. When you have a bugbear that is fairly common, but nobody within a sniff of power holds it, it’s hard not to feel pushed unfairly to the side. That bugbear can all-too-easily become a make-or-break issue if left to fester too long.

The route out of this is easier in the UK, which has a long tradition of minority parties achieving modest success. A coalition of centre-through-left parties could run together on this issue. They might even receive some backing from UKIP on it, too – their 4 million votes to one seat is a travesty that could turn electoral reform from a niche concern to a vote-winner. In the US, it’s harder to see a way out, but who knows what novelties the post-Trump soul search will throw up.

For the record, I’d prefer a single transferable vote system. 6 constituencies would be fused into one with 6 members, who would be elected through a system of preference voting. The mechanics are a little fiddly, but the demands on the voter are not: list the order of your preferences. It produces a more proportional result, while retaining the local aspect of a constituency MP.

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Filed under Politics, UK politics, US Politics

Brexit

The economic case is firmly with Remain. Not by the ludicrous margin the treasury suggest, but it is with Remain nonetheless. Some of the EU is pretty wasteful – the CAP for example at once wastes money and harms farmers in the developing world. Overall, though, they represent pretty good value for money, when you consider they run an entire continent.

Britain will negotiate trade deals, but if we do so with the EU we’re gonna have to give in on budget and free movement anyway. Other trade deals are also possible, but they do take ages to sort out. Still, we and most other countries are in the WTO, so we have the bare bones of a trade agreement with most places anyway. It’s not gonna be a catastrophe, just a pointless expense.

What has been disappointingly lacking from this debate is a sincere economic analysis of the impact of Brexit on the worst off, the lowest paid. While migration has, in general, been good for the country economically (and, in my view, culturally) it’s not likely to have made things better for the lowest paid.

However, it’s not fully to blame, or even mostly. The last 30 years have seen a steady decline in wages and working conditions, and the principal beneficiaries have not been migrants. Instead of blaming each other, we need real resistance to this deliberate policy of putting profits before people.

We talk about democracy and sovereignty a lot. The UK has a very concentrated political system compared to most countries. We only have one elected House – the US has two elected Houses, a president, a powerful judiciary and states which each have two elected Houses and an elected governor. So the influence of another body, even if it’s not the best, can help democracy overall.

International agreements are hard to come by, and a (basically) working group of countries is something to be cherished. Put bluntly, in the latest round of climate change talks, we struggled to commit to a target that isn’t strong enough and will be broken anyway. The latest round of WTO negotiations started in 2001, and remain unfinished. That’s well over half of my lifetime.

Put 200 countries together like that and one bastard will always think they can ruin it for everyone (looking at you, America). Only by working together over the long term with a political structure that binds us can we workably produce the international response we need to these issues.

The EU isn’t perfect. I hate what it did to Greece. I hate what it’s doing with TTIP, and I hate its continued resistance to democratic reform. Yeah, a freedom from its more restrictive pro-market policies could open up the space for a socially beneficial reindustrialisation of the UK, but that is more a dream than a plan. So, with a heavy heart, I’ll be voting Remain.

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Filed under European politics, Politics, UK politics

Brexit, identity and the post-truth media

For many people, Brexit is not a battle of facts, numbers and figures, and that goes for those on both sides of the debate. For many Brexiteers, this vote is about an expression of British identity. For many Remainers, the vote is, similarly, about an expression of a liberal, cosmopolitan identity. In fact, the people most passionate about the referendum on both sides are probably more enamoured with these ideas of identity than they are with the cold, hard facts of their case.

Those facts, in reality, are a secondary consideration. We are living, in some ways, in a post-truth media environment. The line between journalism and activism is often blurred. I think often those blurring the lines see themselves as doing a good deed – in presenting a single side of the story they see themselves not as spreading mistruth, but as correcting a flawed narrative.

After an incident of Islamist terrorism, many on the left will blame the attack on the West’s history of colonialism and war. This elicits a reaction from the right that people are in denial about “the nature” of Islam (insofar as a billion people can, collectively, have a nature) being violent. It’s not that people on the left don’t understand that passages of the Quran are used to justify these atrocities and that yes, there is some connection between Islam (not mainstream Islam, though) and them.

Rather, they see a regrettable reduction of these complex issues into “Islam = bad”, and worry about the effect that this reductionist view of the problem will have on ordinary, peaceful Muslims who don’t wish harm on anyone. Seeing the risk for each incident to provoke an Islamophobic reaction, they offer a counter-narrative that seeks to provoke reflection on the complexities of what’s going on. The internal truth of any one piece is secondary to the overarching truth of the narrative.

Of course, this form of narrative-focused journalism provokes an equal and opposite reaction from the right. Concerned about a namby-pamby PC-gone-mad narrative that they can read in leftist thinkpieces, they push back the other way, with rightist thinkpieces that are equally as narrative-focused, and assert that in fact Islam is “to blame” and that the left is too for being too afraid to criticise it. All this creates an atmosphere of shouty distrust, a vicious cycle of thinkpieces constantly reasserting the chosen side of the argument so as to try and create what they consider to be an overall balance.

The same is playing out with Brexit. Each side makes ever more ludicrous claims – both have invoked Hitler, for fucks sakes – and the only real loser is the public. George Osborne’s dismal treasury predictions were all worst-case scenarios – it seems to me that he massively overplayed his hand. Why not quote a smaller but more believable figure and say “look, this isn’t a huge amount, but would you rather have it in your pocket or not?”.

Trapped between two sides selling narratives, nobody knows who to trust. Back to the clash of identities. With the increasingly less believable claims emanating from both the Leave and Remain camps, people  can’t realistically assess “the facts” because the obvious question then is “which facts?”. Instead, when facts fail we retreat to identity. Am I a proud, down-to-earth Brit or a cosmopolitan European?

The endless panopoly of experts telling people to vote remain are associated, rightly or wrongly, with the liberal cosmopolitanism of Remain. So, their views are discounted immediately by those who see this vote in terms. Similarly anyone talking about the fact that, actually, free movement of labour might be good for those at the top but not for those in low-paid, insecure jobs can be discounted as a “little Englander”. I’m fucking sick of it all, and I can’t wait for it to be over.

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Filed under European politics, UK politics

My unfounded theory on Martin Shkreli

Everyone’s favourite price-gouging, Wu Tang-baiting pharma bro is back in the news. Martin Shkreli is an odd figure. Brazen, but with a hint of desperation that suggests that his characteristic self-confidence might not be all there is to him. This week, he was called to testify before Congress, and remained uncharacteristically silent.

Why, though, was he called to testify before Congress? Hasn’t he just been plying the game, like all the rest of Wall Street? Well no, not really, he’s only been playing half the game. Shkreli is undoubtedly new money – the child of immigrants who worked as janitors. He is brazen, and doesn’t try to hide what he’s doing. That, really, is what he’s been called to testify for (he’s also under investigation for securities fraud, but that is a separate matter).

He’s been called to testify because if all of the wealthy were as brutally, publicly honest and unapologetic as him, people would fairly soon get pretty angry. He’s simply not doing it right. People as rich as Shkreli are supposed to gush about how much they contribute to society, to wear nice clothes and patronisingly explain that it simply has to be this way. They aren’t meant to openly admit that they are getting filthy rich off the backs of others.

What Shkreli did – buy up a life-saving drug and raise its price – is not exactly uncommon. He works in a multi-billion pound pharmaceutical industry devoted to doing pretty much exactly the same thing as he’s done – acquire some monopoly power and sell it for as much as you can. In reality, this quest for monopoly power underpins much of capitalism.

The intersection of the pharmaceutical and finance industries just happens to be about as blatant, direct and transparent as this process gets. Patents – the granting of a temporary legal monopoly – can be resold and then exploited as by Shkreli. This is pretty offensive, yes, but functionally very similar to practices in many, many industries, from fashion, to food, to carmaking. Every company wants monopoly power, and many spend a great deal trying to get it.

What are the chances that the most motor-mouthed of hedge fund CEOs happened to also be the worst, and most deserving of a congressional investigation? Fairly low, especially when you consider that basically nothing happened over the financial crisis. His brashness threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the system. Shkreli isn’t being investigated for his crimes against the American people, he’s being investigated for crimes against his fellow financiers – many of whom will have donated generously to those investigating him.

 

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Filed under Economics, Finance, US Politics

Silly cartoon on government economic policy

Asset bubble

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January 20, 2016 · 1:23 am

Sanders and Clinton

The other day, I thought I’d check out how Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders compared when Americans were asked to choose between them and a prospective Republican candidate. The results surprised me – in a head-to-head against any one of Trump, Cruz, Rubio or Bush 3.0, Sanders out-performs Clinton.

According to Real Clear Politics, a right-wing news site that, among other things, averages American polls, Hillary would beat Trump or Bush, while losing to Cruz or Rubio. Against Trump and Bush, Sanders scores bigger victories, albeit marginally in the case of Bush. A defeat for Clinton against Cruz is turned into a healthy Sanders victory, while a comfortable victory for Rubio against Clinton is turned into a very narrow one against Sanders.

HCvBS

As I said earlier, this is pretty much the opposite of what I’d expected, though perhaps a few caveats are in order. These polls aren’t being conducted that often, and tend to vary wildly. The Republicans have also been attacking Hillary for going on a decade now, while they haven’t felt the need to go after Sanders. If they did, perhaps those numbers would change.

 

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Filed under Politics, US Politics