Labour’s next majority: inside the Fabian Society’s #fabsummer

Openly defying the rare and glorious presence of the sun on a Saturday in London, several hundred well-meaning but indisputably disturbed Labour and Fabian Society types converged on Millbank Tower yesterday for the society’s summer conference: Labour’s Next Majority. Meteorological scheduling conflicts aside, it was an excellent event – with some really thought-provoking insights generated both by the speakers and via the discussions triggered by the audience’s questions. I am not sure that the conference sessions really leant themselves to any firm conclusions about what Labour must do to secure a majority in 2015, but there were clearly a lot of useful ideas thrown about, ripe for the harvesting.

Rather than attempt to provide an overview of the entire conference, I think it might be better to hone in on just a handful of the ideas that particularly hit home for me as being important for Labour:

1) Can you justify your pay?

In his afternoon speech to conference, Ed Miliband called for a full public inquiry into the conduct of the British banking industry, in the wake of the Libor interest-rate fixing scandal that broke this week. With respect to the ballooning of executive pay and benefits that seems to have become the norm in the last couple of decades in the finance sector, he also suggested that an ordinary branch employee should sit on the Board of every bank’s remuneration committee.

In a week which also saw comedians pilloried for tax dodging and indeed, in a way, for earning millions of pounds a year just for being funny, the idea that people should have to justify to someone what they earn seems a salient one. What we are all individually paid in today’s economy is typically a fairly private, fairly sensitive piece of information, not commonly or widely shared. But as Miliband inferred after his speech, if Barclays CEO Bob Diamond can’t look an ordinary teller in the eyes and justify his own salary and remuneration package, he probably shouldn’t be getting it. It’s a question that more people than the likes of Bob Diamond should perhaps be asking themselves. It is a question, if we seriously value fairness in society, that we should all be asking ourselves.

Does anybody seriously think we would have the same unjustified levels of income inequality in society that we have today if we all had to justify what we earned, based purely on merit and worth to society?

2) Left, right, centre… what?

James Morris of market research firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research reminded us all of an important but much overlooked point on language; for ordinary, non-political types (e.g. strictly people outside the room at conference), politico-speak like “right-wing”, “left-wing” and “centrist” when describing policies, parties or people is utterly impenetrable and counter-productive. People want to know how policies affect them when making a decision about who they support – they don’t actually want to hear about meta-political faffing by elites from the media or political spheres, who are often actually despised (a point hit upon by Anthony Painter)

Morris offered the focus group anecdote of a woman from Wolverhampton who argued that “Labour are not for Britain any more”. Sound familiar? Well, yes, in reference to immigration, but what she was also referring to, (this was leading up to 2005), was Blair Labour’s toadying up to the United States administration on Iraq. So was “Wolverhampton woman” right-wing or left-wing? The real insight lies in realising that she is neither and that putting people in boxes like that is a mistake.

3) Door-knocking is dead. Long live…

Politicians and local activists love to bang on about “door-knocking”. It is almost a synonym for “working hard” for a politician: if you are knocking on lots of people’s doors, apparently, you’re doing a lot of work. Clearly however, in the twenty-first century, this does not always represent particularly smart or productive work – even Avon are more usefully selling their door-to-door cosmetics through representative friend networks and online these days.

The afternoon conference session “Change to win?” threw up some conflicting views on the value of door-knocking, all with merit. Polly Billington argued that it is almost impossible to have a serious conversation with an ordinary voter on a doorstep; I am inclined to agree. Similarly, Stella Creasey, the MP for Walthamstow, suggested that the “door step” process has effectively become more important for political parties and activists than the contact itself; data-gathering and box-ticking masquerading as relationship-building.

Birmingham Councillor and Campaign Manager Caroline Badley spoke out compellingly in defence, effectively arguing that the more contact that activists and candidates have with voters the better, no matter the mechanism. She also had an interesting take on the old door-knocking bugbear of interrupting someone’s life by knocking on their door; if you interrupt someone’s dinner and make them angry, Badley argued, they are more likely to tell you what they really think! Manna from heaven for activists, surely? It’s a cute point, though speaking as a conscientious dinner eater myself, I think it might be stretching the argument a wee bit far.

For me, the bottom line is that building relationships with and making contact in local communities has never been more important – however – I do feel that activists need to start being much more creative in their approach. There have never been more ways to talk to people! It has never been easier to talk to people in different places than their private homes! Surely getting campaign monkeys to trudge unannounced and unwelcome to everyone’s houses, street by street and door by door, is just little on the bonkers side in today’s digital age?

The very idea that door-knocking remains such a central plank of boiler-plate campaign strategy speaks volumes. Today, it seems to me to be rather more about aping the glorious tradition of campaigners past, and being able to boast about the thousands of doors knocked than actually engaging as many people as possible in a serious conversation.

ELSEWHERE: Labourlist’s Mark Ferguson and Ed Wallis summarised many of the nuggets of insight from the event on live blogs.

The female breast as cultural icon

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Have you watched any “critically acclaimed” television lately? Whether we‘re talking Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos, or even Australia’s very own Underbelly, chances are that your serious drama would have been served up with a handsome dollop of bare flesh. Increasingly, in the U.S. liberal dominated entertainment industry, this is apparently what “cutting-edge” has come to mean; shocking conservative audiences, challenging taboos and going to all the young audience-garnering places where “adult” television programs dare go – always, of course, in humble [cough] service [cough] to the plot. A flash of boobs or a sex sequence has seemingly become the television writer or director’s “filler du jour”, should the creative team’s reservoir of intelligent dialogue and plot be running a little dry. If this modern trend develops toward its logical conclusion, it can’t be too long before the likes of Julianna Marguilies and Sandra Oh are forced to formally compete directly with Christina Hendricks’ or Paz de la Huerta’s breasts for the Outstanding Supporting Actress nomination at the Emmys.

As a society, we are indisputably obsessed with breasts. Men are obsessed with them for well, visceral reasons, aided and abetted by their rampant sexualisation by the mass media. Women, in turn, have been driven to obsess about their own; whether they are too big, too small, whether or not this top flatters them, whether or not they can fit comfortably into that swimsuit. Bigger, women are meant to believe, is always better, regardless of any sense of anatomical proportion or optimal biomechanics. As Florence Williams notes in The Guardian, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first silicone implant surgery in Houston, Texas with breast enhancement surgery emerging in the last couple of decades as a multi-billion dollar industry. This is no fetish kicking about the margins of society: this is front-and-centre stuff from which a few people are getting absurdly rich and many women are being made to feel utterly miserable.

Cultural reference points abound. Since November 1970, popular UK tabloid newspaper The Sun has published a photo of a topless model on Page 3, and continues to dismiss its critics as wowsers, puritanical killjoys, or slaves to political correctness. Strangely, it continues to count many women amongst its loyal readers, no doubt for its peerless commitment to cerebral investigative journalism [cough]. The primacy of the music video in modern pop music has proved telling; for women, it is probably more important today to have good hair, a chunky rear and a bounteous and oft-exposed chest than one or two catchy saccharine tunes in your locker. Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004 might well represent the most iconic cultural moment of the 2000’s, in direct contrast to its actual significance. Madonna revealing a nipple during a recent concert in Istanbul passes for front-page news for some publications and websites. Genres whose traditional target market is the teenage male are particularly afflicted; as Charlie Brooker acerbically observes, basically every female video game character in the history of video games has been a scantily-clad 16DD. Damien Walter’s recent Guardian column dwells in part on the fantasy genre and the popularity of the previously mentioned Game of Thrones, but also on the absurd depictions of women that we have come to expect from comic-books – check out these two brilliant links for some examples.

I am not sure how the needs of young and/or hormonal men came to be the primary force shaping the public conceptualisation of “the woman” in the 21st century (though the answer for some will be “the patriarchy!”). I also don’t know how “the woman” can be re-made to reject superficiality and to reflect the legion of distinctive characteristics and qualities that women so often seem to offer and men so often seem to lack. The plump, jutting breast has been so thoroughly sexualised by the mass media and men that it has been transformed from a humble gland into an aspirational ideal for girls and women of all ages. That’s really very sad for everyone – besides, of course, those teenage boys.

The Diamond Jubilee culture clash

Last weekend, London was brought to a damp and inebriated standstill in celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne. On Sunday, the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant saw Her Majesty’s Royal Barge Gloriana take pride of place amongst over 1,000 boats, cruising eastwards along the capital’s aorta in a spectacular, if rain-sodden display. On Monday, crowds of revellers assembled outside Buckingham Palace under more generous skies for the Diamond Jubilee Concert, organised by the BBC and Take That second fiddle Gary Barlow, and featuring musical luminaries such as Elton John, Cliff Richard, Kylie, and Paul McCartney. The nation (well, sort of) rejoiced.

In many ways, this was a thumbnail sketch of the cultural problems facing the United Kingdom in the 21st century; writ large over several days and beamed across the world as current affairs fairy floss. There were only very hushed critical murmurings around the traps in London, mostly inaudible amongst all the flag-waving and Pimms swigging, but the divisions were plain to see for those not blinkered enough to overlook them. Polly Toynbee cut a lonely, party-pooping figure in The Guardian, daring to criticise a spectacle which for many or even most, was a celebration of the family residing untouchably on the pedestal of the British national identity:

There at the heart, in the dead centre of all this pomp and circumstance, is the great emptiness, the nothingness, the Wizard of Oz in emperor’s clothes. The louder the bells, the more gaping the grand vacuity. What are we celebrating? A singularly undistinguished family’s hold on the nation, a mirage of nationhood, a majestic delusion.

Let’s be clear: this is not a kingdom united in fervent celebration of their Head of State. Although most people would never speak ill of that grand old dame still perched upon her throne after over half a century, this is a “United Kingdom” cut carefully into three or four distinctive but becalmed camps. There are of course the loyal royalists, those from conservative backgrounds and predominantly from middle England who still adore the magic and the tradition of the monarchy. They occupy influential positions, are large in numbers and are represented strongly in the media by the Daily Mail and The Sun, the wildly popular tabloid newspapers that no sane or thinking person would describe as papers of record. For the royalists, to attack, criticise or even question the legitimacy of the Queen or the Royal Family is akin to an act of treason; an attack on the country at large and all it stands for.

Firmly on the other side of the fence are the republicans, tiny in number, and represented somewhat feebly during the Diamond Jubilee by a protest organised by Republic outside City Hall last Sunday. Intellectually they are of course in the right space, but there is a cavernous emotional disconnect between British republicans and mainstream British public opinion. The British republican movement, in terms of political influence, make the somewhat quiescent Australian republican movement look like the Bolsheviks circa mid-1917. Demographically, with a popular and respected Queen still on the throne and a widely popular Prince William waiting in the wings after his father, republicans in Britain could hardly be more “up against it”. It seems certain that there is not a British republican alive today who will live to see an English republic emerge triumphant from the populist grandeur of the Windsor family.

Thirdly, there is a group we might call the “patriotic cynics”. There are many throughout the United Kingdom who have heartfelt grievances regarding the monarchy, but are just a little too nationalistic, fun-loving, and/or proud to firmly side with the radical republican camp. First generation Britons and many in Northern Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland feel disconnected from the England-centric wealth of the monarchy; they like the Queen as a person, but they feel that she and her upper class ilk cannot possibly understand them and how they live their lives today. In this age of austerity, the cost of supporting the monarchy is starting to stick a little in the craw, particularly as public sector jobs are being abolished, benefits for the disabled and pensioners are cut, and venerable institutions such as the NHS are being sliced and diced under fiscal duress. Some sticklers still hold a grudge against the Queen and the royal family for the way Diana, the people’s princess, was treated in the aftermath of her marriage breakup with Charles. There is quite a tangible bit to grieve about for these folk, to be sure, but ditching the Queen still feels too radical an idea, too heretical a step for such people.

Lastly, there are those who quite frankly don’t really give a shit. Whether the Queen is there or not there really doesn’t make any damn difference to their lives, so why in hell should they care? It is this group, in my entirely unscientific estimation, who together with the “patriotic cynics” represent a majority of the British population. For these people, the Queen is just there. She has always been there, hasn’t she? The Queen is kind of cool. Occasionally she has parties and public holidays in her honour, which is sweet. There are lots of nice photos of her and her family in the colourful magazines every week. Look, Will’s balding more. Look what Kate’s wearing this week! Ah, Charles is such an ass isn’t he?

Needless to say, the warm pall of froth and flippancy that the monarchy provides to Great Britain’s national life is set to suffocate its bodypolitik for many years to come. Only the languorous pushes towards independence by the UK’s constituent nations seriously threaten its position.

Orwell and the terra incognita

Came across this passage in George Orwell’s little-commented-on novel The Clergyman’s Daughter:

The fact is that people who live in small country towns have only a very dim conception of anything that happens more than ten miles from their own front door. The world outside is a terra incognita, inhabited, no doubt, by dragons and anthropophagi, but not particularly interesting.

The book was written in 1934, but even some eighty years later in the age of the Internet, it still commands a certain resonance. Geographical boundaries have been smashed; in theory, today, there is no reason why the country folk Orwell speaks of should be so disconnected from the grander proceedings of the world around them. For many all over the world, however, global events may as well be taking place in some distant and mostly-irrelevant other world. Philosophically, with the rise of individualism and our tendency to self-conceitedly focus on the minutiae of our own personal lives from day-to-day, one could certainly argue that humans are more atomised creatures than they have ever been.

Perhaps technology has allowed us to be “closer to the action” than in generations past – but somehow, through an unfortunate combination of enlightened self-interest and a “one in six billion” sense of powerlessness, we care less? I am sure the author would have appreciated the irony.

Borgen and the third party fantasy/fallacy

These days the English, believe it or not, are looking east and a bit north for their quality television; to Denmark, præcis. Fresh on the footsteps of the noir crime drama The Killing (Forbrydelsen), come The Bridge, and Borgen, a political drama that might well feel tantalisingly utopian for viewers living in staid Western democracies around the world. The first season of Borgen tells the story of a charismatic, principled female leader of the minority Moderate Party who manages to break the big party stranglehold in Denmark to lead a coalition of parties as Prime Minister. It is, simply put, The West Wing for the post-noughties generation. Who wants to watch the humdrum story of a principled Democrat and his team fighting for and gaining office when a lot of the real action, inspiration and colour in modern politics sprouts from the backblocks of community organising in much smaller parties?

With all the water that has passed under the bridge in recent decades, from the centre-left’s embrace of economic liberalism & New Labour’s “principled” invasion of Iraq, to the seeming predilection of conservative parties for high defence spending, “big government” and politicised social welfare, what normal, rational person doesn’t occasionally dream of a democracy where the major parties get a taste of their just desserts?

The “third party” or outsider fantasy that Borgen depicts is not so much of a stretch for Danish politics, where the government is regularly lead by coalitions of smaller parties; but it does remain a stretch for most of the rest of us. The Westminster breed of government and certainly a fair proportion of the adversarial electoral systems that are prominent internationally are structurally configured to encourage big, powerful parties at the expense of smaller ones. The United States remains the textbook case; an ironclad bastion of major parties, albeit with a Republican Party wracked with internal division courtesy of the evangelical Right and the Tea Party movements. Will we see a President of the United States who is not either a Democrat or a Republican in our lifetimes? Almost certainly not.

In the United Kingdom, of course, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are two years into their warm embrace of the Conservatives in government; they are finding that the embrace is slowly suffocating them. In local elections this week, the Lib Dems lost 329 of their 767 councillors. Since the 2010 election, support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen from 22% to 11% in a recent YouGov poll, behind even the somewhat barmy UK Independence Party (Ukip). Everyone with a bit of conscience who cared about democracy “agreed with Nick” in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many who do so now. It was inordinately fashionable to agree with Nick back then – even The Guardian editorialised in support of the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Now the Lib Dems have the look of a party sleepwalking towards disaster when the next national election swings around, unless some drastic changes can be made to the way they are doing business with their Tory masters.

In Australia, we’ve had our momentary dalliances with minor parties in the last couple of decades, but only impressionable students, members of the Greens, or the pharmaceutically inspired could argue that Labor and the Liberal Party are significantly waning in terms of support at elections more than they are waxing. Tony Abbott is leading the Liberals with a civilisation-crushing 51% of the primary vote, according to Newspoll; Labor may be in the doldrums at the moment on 27%, but then they have been doing a bit of foot-shooting of late and Julia Gillard is well and truly on the nose in suburbia. The Greens have showed quite an admirable level of staying power over the course of the last decade, consistently sitting at 10% or thereabouts, but arguably, Australia’s close relationship with George Bush’s Republican administration in the first half of the noughties and Bob Brown’s recent resignation may have seen their political high watermark come and go. Bob Brown was always a fairly dignified, relatively likable figure, enjoying a not inconsiderable media profile. Christine Milne, and/or whoever follows her is going to find it desperately difficult to “maintain the rage” whilst maintaining and growing their current fledgling level of support nationally. The fate of the Democrats, another worthy minor party, hangs heavily on the shoulders of would-be innovators in the Australian political scene.

For us, the Brits and the Americans, Borgen is just a twinkling of utopia; it tells the story of a place that our own countries, at least without a drastic and unlikely overhaul of our respective political systems, simply cannot be. There is more than a dash of “grass is always greener” about this, of course. Danish viewers of Borgen would – let’s not kid ourselves – probably snort derisively at any suggestion that their decidedly multilateral incarnation of parliamentary democracy is necessarily something to covet. The often brutal level of compromise and imperfection that modern democracy delivers in spades, regardless of which political party is in office, is not something that anybody yet really has the answer to. Canberra, Westminster and Washington, for many, feel so distant and so alien that they may as well orbit Alpha Centauri, for all the good they do and all the meaning they have in people’s everyday lives.

But yet, through the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and yes, the British National Party, our collective “third party” fantasy lives on. Unless this fantasy transforms itself into an organised movement for electoral reform however, it will remain a fallacious mirage: a distraction from the far more profound structural problems that so bedevil democracy in the 21st century.

Major parties and minor parties at the end of the day are playing the same game by the same rules, and sadly, it’s a damn sight easier and sexier to make a few more little, largely ignorable chips off the old block than to think about fashioning a whole new block.

Larvatus Prodeo and the state of the blogosphere

Larvatus Prodeo, which can reasonably claim to have been just about the most popular and most compelling independent blogging community in the Australian blogosphere, has post its last. LP was a trailblazer in the Australian context in its early life; in its later life, much less so, but it always offered a dependably warm and learned whirlpool of debate and opinion. Founded initially as a personal blog by Mark Bahnisch back in 2005, LP swelled in numbers over the years to include contributions from many interesting and different voices, both “above the line” (including my own recent minor contributions) and indeed “below the line”. Long, often wide-ranging comment threads were peppered with interactions both fierce and friendly, and predictable skirmishes between right and left were – whilst not civil in the strict sense of the word – more civil than could be expected in the blogosphere generally. A certain camaraderie between adversaries was encouraged because the tone of debate was just that crucial bit higher than your average.

LP emerged in an era when newspapers and mainstream media (MSM) organisations were only just starting to engage with the challenges and opportunities offered by the Internet, and will exit stage left in 2012 with those same organisations having progressed and professionalised their online offerings. Anybody who involved themselves in any way with blogs since 2000 will know that that independent blogs stole a march on the MSM in the early noughties; the tide has now turned. Comment threads on articles and opinion columns have emerged as an MSM standard, supported by often ruthless paid moderators and a growing legion of willing participants. Sites like The Drum and initiatives like the Guardian’s popular if light touch Comment is Free have semi-successfully reached out to new, mainstream news-consuming audiences to an extent that independent blogs have failed to match.

So is the independent political blogosphere as we used to conceive of it dead, or dying? Certainly not everywhere; in the United States, political blogs seem to be enjoying a continuing stretch of success and influence. In the Australian context however, it does seem to be heading down that path, at least in the prevailing political, technological and economic climate. The perfect storm of rage and frustration that built up throughout the broader left in response to the continuing political success of the Howard Government has dissipated, as the fortunes of Federal Labor have waxed and waned, and then waned (and waned) some more. State governments across the country have by and large failed to engage people’s interest, and failed to inspire punters of any political stripe. Political parties by and large have failed to effectively engage with the potential that blogs offer for interaction with voters and likeminded activists.

Economically speaking – running and administering a timely and responsive blog with quality content is a considerable challenge. Just about all bloggers (shock, horror!) have busy lives: partners, friends, families, jobs, study commitments and plain old recreation time tend to impinge on one’s 24×7 content production and news processing time. The “street cred” that independent blogs initially enjoyed has slowly but steadily been overrun, overpowered by the mainstream media’s wilful use of their comparatively massive financial resources. Operating and maintaining a thriving political blog-driven community really does require not just the part-time contributions of many, but the full-time attention of at least a dedicated few.

As an IT consultant, I also find the technological aspect to the equation quite a fascinating topic. Is it possible to conduct deep and meaningful discussions on blogs? Of course it is, but in general, the presentation layer doesn’t always make it easy. As comment threads get longer and longer, on most commonly used blogging platforms, it becomes more and more difficult (and less attractive as a contributor) to maintain a serious, multi-way conversation. It’s not very nice in user experience terms to have to scroll through pages and pages of comments or down an interminably long page of comments to find the ones that interest you. Responses to comments get lost in the mix, particularly when people’s lives get in the way of the conversation, and the discussion changes course (or ebbs away) in the meantime. I do feel as though there could be some rich rewards to be found in hacking away at a WordPress or Drupal base to produce a community political blogging platform that transcends many of the limitations of the bog-standard blog platforms doing the rounds. Some of the underlying concepts that have make Facebook and Twitter such fun applications to use for millions could be brought to bear to encourage interactions between contributors to the site and produce a richer level of conversation. The barrier between posters and commenters could and should be made considerably looser. The forums in which debate occurs could be extended to offer more than the one-dimensional post-comment-comment-comment model. The community could extend beyond a site and more thoroughly into the “real”, social world.

The future for online political debate remains bright, but innovation, collaboration and luck are all going to be required in order to unlock the potential that is out there.

The coming death of the “high street” – and does it matter?

Embarrassingly, it was only when I initially lived in London in 2007 that the concept of “the high street” really twigged; growing up in Penrith, New South Wales, the fact that our main street happened to be called “High Street” was until that point meaningless. In the UK of course, amongst London’s varied boroughs and municipal areas and certainly further afield across the countryside, “the high street” really does mean something to people. In fact, it means a lot. It means so much to heartland British voters that the Cameron Government commissioned celebrity retail consultant Mary Portas to conduct a review of the state of “the high street” and report back, which she duly did in December 2011. Since then, the government has not exactly leapt to implement the recommendations offered up by the so-called “Queen of Shops”, but to be fair, it has had some other rather pressing fiscal and political matters on its hands so far in 2012.

The picture painted by Portas, needless to say, is not a rosy one. The charm of the traditional high street, with its local, independent shops and offerings is disappearing, and with it, the whole concept’s raison d’être. High streets across Britain are increasingly being peppered with failing or vacant stores, their essential uniqueness incrementally crushed by the omnipresence of large retail companies and supermarkets. If you are going to do your weekly grocery run at the local supermarket, why not go to the local satellite mega-market with its colossal car park, rather than struggle through the car-parking nightmare of a traffic-clogged main street? Better yet, why not do your shopping online and save on petrol and indeed energy? Increasingly in the UK this is proving an attractive option, as major supermarkets Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose and e-businesses like Ocado and Amazon offer lower prices and a bigger range that any local bricks and mortar store can manage; often with free delivery to boot. Thanks to the latter, nobody much is buying music, books or even computer games from their local any more: iconic chains HMV, GAME and Waterstones are all struggling for their corporate lives. A recent Deloitte report suggests that up to an astonishing 40% of shops on the “high street” could close in the next five years.

The local retail experience has in fact been more dramatic and more pronounced than in Britain; in most Australian metropolitan suburbs there is no “high street” to speak of, at least in the British sense of the term. The domination of the grocery sector by Woolworths and Coles and malls in the American style have reduced many of our main streets to depressing wastelands of “$2 shops”, chain stores, take-aways and struggling restaurants. The only “pop-up” shops (a London trend spruiked optimistically by Wayne Hennessy in the Guardian) that tend to appear in Australia can be described as such because they tend to disappear from the scene just as quickly as they arrive.

So is the “high street” really worth saving through direct local and state government investment, or is it a concept that, in reality, is past its used-by-date? I am certainly sympathetic to the idea of providing some incentive or subsidy to local, independent businesses trying to make a start in the centre of town, but it also feels a bit like government would be a small fry pushing against the tidal wave of the retail market.

It would be particularly interesting to hear of people’s personal experiences with their own local “high street”. Is it alive? Has a local mall taken over? Does it really matter if the malls win?

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

The politics of the top income tax rate

Regardless of what the national fiscal situation looks like at any given point in time, few topics divide the commentariat right from the commentariat left as keenly as whether or not the top rate of income tax should be cut. The right will have you believe that cutting the top rate of income tax encourages the rich to spend more and the entrepreneurial to expand their businesses; that a heavy top tax rate discourages people from striving to earn more and encourages them to find ways to cheat the tax system. The left will have you believe that cutting the top income tax rate, explicitly (as it is) in aid of the affluent, cannot be morally justified when there are so many more worthy targets for government expenditure out there. Why put a few more dollars into the bulging pockets of society’s most fortunate, when you could put a few more dollars into schools, hospitals, or to help the needy or vulnerable? Ethically it just doesn’t add up.

As someone firmly on the “left” side of the argument, I do wonder whether there would be any circumstances under whether I would feel that a cut in the top rate of income tax could be justified. Society, I think, would have to be motoring along swimmingly, with a high median income and a high quality of public service provision for people from all walks of life. There would need to be a clear sense that people on high incomes were really being stifled by the tax system, or that the tax system was configured in such a way that the top tax rate was proving ineffective in delivering revenue.

Two of the giants of Western Europe have seen some of these philosophical issues rise to the forefront of public debate in recent weeks. In France, the Socialist presidential candidate François Hollande has proposed a bold tax rate of 75% on personal income earned over €1,000,000 per year. Contrastingly, in the UK, a furore has arisen in the lead-up to the Budget (to be delivered on Wednesday at 12:30PM UK time) after it emerged that the Conservative/Lib Dem Coalition are planning to cut the top income tax rate from 50% to 45%. Andrew Rawnsley at The Guardian has a ruminative piece summing up the machinations, and asks the question most LP readers are probably wondering:

Reducing the top rate will please a lot of Tories and it won’t have escaped Mr Osborne’s notice that these are the people who will ultimately select Mr Cameron’s successor. It will obviously go down well among the minority who earn enough to pay the top rate. No doubt it will be justified on the grounds that a 50p rate sends a negative signal to entrepreneurs and deters talented people from working in the UK. But the chancellor will struggle to explain why he has made a priority of cutting the top rate to the far greater number of less affluent voters who are suffering the worst squeeze on their living standards in decades.

In short, cutting the top tax rate (as Rawnsley quotes “senior Labour figures” as describing it) really does sound politically mad. It will literally benefit just the top 1% of tax-payers, leaving a sizable proportion of the remaining 99% feeling appalled at the government. It provides the struggling Labour Opposition with a stonking great club with which it can beat the Conservatives and condemn them as being out of touch.

This is an act that reeks of the Tories’ self-perceived need to touch up their own supporters, with scant regard for either the state of the economy or the vast majority of the British population. The next election is still a few years away – so there is a palpable sense of “now or never” for the blue-bloods, with a few years grace yet to patch up their image before the public gets to pass judgement on them again. What is ironic is that Hollande in France is taking a mirror-image approach; 75% is a hefty headline-grabbing number seemingly designed more to mobilise and appeal to his party’s base rather than to solve France’s economic woes or to aid the struggling.

When did the top income tax rate become little more than an intellectual chew-toy for the political classes?

Crossposted at Larvatus Prodeo.

The newspaper is dead, long live the newspaper?

As we all know, newspaper circulation is falling and colossal pressures are being brought to bear on the media industry. Newspapers today need to find ways of doing more with less, to keep advertisers interested enough in their product to turn a dime (and indeed to fund quality journalism), and to make the paradigm shift from static, daily publications to 24×7 constant online content production and curation.

Now take a look at this brilliant ad from The Guardian. It’s a poignant reminder that the opportunities offered by the Internet to journalism far exceed the threats.

Editor Alan Rusbridger talks some more about The Guardian’s “Open Journalism” initiatives here. The newspaper is also holding an “Open Weekend” in late March which I will be attending. I’ll report back to LP readers about the initiative and some of the more interesting topics of discussion.

Will we still have newspapers as we know them in 20 years time? I ask this question as a Kindle convert who likes holding a physical newspaper but am not missing the tactility of the newspaper at all.

Are you experienced? Working for free in an economic apocalypse

Since the global financial crisis shook domestic economies across the planet in 2008, the labour market in Europe has remained a buyer’s market. With austerity measures still biting hard and the Eurozone crisis rolling on without a defining resolution in sight, only blithely optimistic souls would argue that the mood is going to lighten in the short-term. Unemployment in the UK rose yet again for the three months to December 2011 to 8.4%, its highest level in sixteen years. Youth unemployment stands at an astonishing 22.2%. Unemployment across the channel in France remains high at 9.3%, down slightly from the peak of 9.6% reached in the throes of the GFC in late 2009. These figures provide a distinct contrast with the numbers coming from North American and indeed down under; Australia’s unemployment rate of 5.1% seems much more than a twenty hour flight away right now, and Barack Obama has seen unemployment drop on his watch by close to 2% since late 2009.

Under the Conservative / Liberal Democrat Coalition, swingeing public sector cuts, the squeezing of people off welfare and the prevailing economic climate on the continent has engendered a ferocious level of competition for jobs. Quoth the Jimi Hendrix Experience, are you experienced? If you don’t have experience, there is nothing to separate you from the tens or hundreds of other applicants out there, most of whom are willing to put their shoulder to the wheel for less than you. Put to one side for just a moment the perennial Western problem of kids dropping out of school early: even well-qualified British graduates are today truly struggling in the fluid labour environment of the EU. Why would a company hire a green youngling with no experience when they could hire someone who knows what they’re doing because they have done it before – perhaps even at the price of a graduate given the desperation many immigrants and locals have for paid work?

The path increasingly well-travelled for young people and those trying to get a foothold in the world of work is unpaid work: volunteering, or “interning”. A desperate jobseeker wants what they can’t get without a job: experience. A company or charitable organisation gets a warm body to do with what they like, effectively free of cost to the bottom line. Everybody is happy. The Cameron Government was so enamoured with the concept of getting jobseekers experience in this way that in early 2011, it extended a scheme operated by the Department for Work and Pensions, so that some lucky welfare recipients would be forced to work for free at Tesco, Sainsbury’s and other large for-profit businesses. Suddenly what seemed an innocent swap of free labour for some much-needed experience seems rather more sinister. Has modern capitalism created conditions so toxic that there is an expectation that some people should effectively work for nothing for enterprises making multi-million or billion pound yearly profits? When does volunteering become exploitation – is it really when one initially decides to offer up their labour, free of charge?

Thinking back to my own experience after university – I don’t think I would have hesitated to embark on an unpaid short-term stint with an IT company if necessary, as a stepping stone to a “real job”. As a young graduate with basically no working experience and no life skills, how could I compete otherwise? What would I have to offer, besides some witty interview responses? A close relative has had a wonderful experience volunteering – after around 20 years out of the workforce and with his self-esteem at rock bottom, he decided to volunteer with a local thrift store: this led after some time to a paying job, and a 180 degree turnaround in his life’s fortunes. Still, I am sure for every happy ending, there may well be just as many (or more?) unhappy ones. There is a fine line between exploitation and the market offering a helping hand to people who are in dire need of one. I don’t see how it can be fair for people to work practically in the same way that salaried staff do without being renumerated for their efforts, purely because they are so desperate for work. It’s undignified, unjust, and whips people’s wages along on a merry race to the bottom.

What of your own (no pun intended) experiences? Do you feel you have been exploited by your own volunteering or unpaid work, or were you, under the circumstances, quite happy to work for free? Is the holy grail of a bit of experience ever a just reward?

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.