Why does Cameron want permanent austerity?

In the United Kingdom, there could well be austerity without end. In a recent bullish speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, UK Prime Minister David Cameron offered up a glimpse of what the future might hold if the Conservatives are re-elected in 2015: a government of “austerity in perpetuity”.

Martin Kettle suggests in The Guardian that this speech may have been the moment of hubris that loses the Conservatives the next election.

For many people across the English-speaking world, “austerity” does not mean quite what it once meant — simplicity, restraint, beauty. In much the same way, “rationalism” in the Australian context no longer holds the same positive connotations when paired with the word “economic”.

It is not just in the English-speaking world that this has changed: if you happen to be a young Madrileño struggling to find work, one of the almost 26 per cent of the Spanish population still unemployed, austeridad is a curse.

In Greece, the Greek term for “austerity” can hardly now be separated from the growth-strangling measures imposed since 2010 at the behest of the IMF and European Union, measures that have at times seemed to threaten the very existence of the modern Greek state. As of October 2013, Greece’s annual GDP is still in decline (after five prior straight years of decline) and its debt as a percentage of annual GDP remains in the vicinity of a colossal 170 per cent.

The “austerity medicine” has been forced down Greek and Spanish throats since 2007 and plenty more besides. In Cyprus, the Ukraine, Portugal, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland and perhaps soon Slovenia, fiscal austerity programs have been administered under the instruction of the European Union and the IMF, in exchange for bailout funds to service national debt and/or shore up their domestic banks.

That growth in the European Union has subsequently flatlined since 2011 can hardly be viewed as mere coincidence, and the advisory role of the IMF has accordingly fallen under increased scrutiny in the last couple of years.

The response has been a truly spectacular feat of intellectual acrobatics. As reported by Alan Kohler in October last year, the IMF has since admitted to mathematical error in calculating the effect of austerity on growth estimates and in effect, executed “a full intellectual U-turn” on austerity.

IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde has led the political damage limitation exercise. Further mea culpas have emerged this year, seemingly burying “fiscal austerity” permanently, at least in the brutish form it has taken in the aftermath of the GFC as a salve to national debt crises.

The truth is more complicated: as Australian economist John Quiggin observes in his book Zombie Economics, even when proven to be wrong and dangerous, ideas are very hard to kill and “expansionary austerity” now has its own chapter in the latest editions.

In France, President Francois Hollande finds himself and his Socialist Party in the ironic position of being criticised by the IMF for pushing austerity too far. The United Kingdom, once the IMF’s austerity poster child, provides a case in point: under the Chancellorship of George Osborne, fiscal austerity staggers relentlessly on even as it bleeds to death.

Since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was elected in 2010, the government has junked its touchy-feely “Big Society” moniker in favour of a program of cuts so deep they could well be labelled “Cruel Society”. They have resulted in the widespread closure of libraries, reductions to and closures of local government services supporting children, the disabled and the elderly, and a reduction in patient access to NHS specialist services across the country.

The Cameron government has also introduced the “spare room subsidy” or bedroom tax targeting public housing residents with more rooms than they need, and also instigated an intrusive and demeaning program of outsourced work capability assessments designed to force anyone who is plausibly capable of some kind of work (in the imagination of a bureaucrat) off welfare.

The UK economy has stagnated over the last few years, with annual GDP growth not touching 2 per cent since 2007, missing growth and debt reduction targets on consecutive occasions. Unemployment has remained high, over 7.5 per cent since 2009, and ratings agency Moody’s made the historic decision in February this year to downgrade the UK’s credit rating from AAA to Aa1.

Government debt as a proportion of GDP has also continued to increase steadily since 2010. Despite all this, Chancellor George Osborne remains determined as ever to stay the course — surely now for political reasons as much as empirical reasons — though boosted recently by recent economic figures for 2013 Q3 (growth up to 0.8 per cent, unemployment down to 7.6 per cent).

Despite the evidence, the immediate future of austerity as a response to debt is hard to predict. On the one hand, the IMF’s intellectual backflip seems likely to discourage governments from embracing austerity measures in the years ahead. On the other, for governments that are wedded politically to the doctrine, it seems that no amount of expert advice or economic analysis will convince them to alter their course.

Despite Australia having one of the lowest government debt to GDP ratios in the developed world, the effects of Tony Abbott’s appointment of Maurice Newman to his Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council will be watched with interest in the months ahead, particularly given the lilt of some of Newman’s recent comments about the minimum wage.

At least – thanks to Cameron – it seems as though voters in the United Kingdom are going to have a clear decision to make at the 2015 election: you can vote for Keynes, or you can vote for “the Cruel Society”.

This piece was first published in this form at New Matilda.

Trolling coal: jobs, climate and the Iron Lady

The pre-recorded televised tributes have ended. The street parties are over. In Britain, the outrage that swelled in some quarters over the Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s faux state funeral has died away, leaving in its wake the dull, tedious thrumming of politics as usual. Still, the polarisation of the British people remains, festering beneath the surface. Thatcher’s staunchest defenders remember her as her country’s most important and impactful post-war Prime Minister; her staunchest detractors, as some kind of demonic caricature: a milk thief, an unemployment generator, a life destroyer. Everyone else – particularly those who tend to tack left – has been cast intellectually adrift in their attempts to fairly place in history a woman who shattered the glass ceiling, but in the process laid the popular foundations of the modern economic orthodoxy that so many of us today reject. Like it or lump it: you can’t deny that it’s a Thatcherite world out there today.

One of the often glossed over sticky points for the left on Thatcher’s legacy is of course coal. The Conservative Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan makes the point for the Telegraph:

What I find bewildering is why the mine closures are cited now as evidence of Tory wickedness. No one, with the exceptions of the SWP and the BNP, wants to recreate a state-owned coal industry today. Indeed, the people who complain most bitterly about the pit closures are generally those who are most against burning coal.

It is on this issue that the Greens and indeed a decent swathe of the Labor Party find themselves in rather closer political proximity to the Iron Lady than they might like: in recent years, the Greens have been vociferous opponents of both coal-fired power and investing in clean coal technology at the expense of cleaner and more renewable energy sources. The Greens would in an ideal world like to see all of Australia’s coal-fired power stations closed down, something that the Baroness indirectly took a step or two towards in the United Kingdom in the early 1980’s through her program of mine closures. Admittedly, climate change was not in the forefront of anyone’s mind in those days, but the fact remains that if Thatcher was alive and in power today in Australia, closing coal mines across the country, it could, in a strange twist of fate, be perceived as something like a progressive policy. Imagine that: Christine Milne and Margaret Thatcher, arm-in-arm.

In truth, Thatcher’s closure of the pit mines and the reaction of both the blinkered right and the blinkered left to them shines a light on the violence that the oversimplification of issues can bring to bear on ordinary working people. Daniel Hannan is apparently “bewildered” by the outrage still felt by people, decades after the Conservative Party’s role in shutting down unprofitable mining operations across the country. I find his bewilderment bewildering – but then I am sure that Hannan and many others like him will never know what it is like for whole families and whole communities to lose their livelihoods in one swift stroke. He is, at heart, a Eurosceptic who is nevertheless more at home in Brussels than Sheffield; make of that what you will.

Similarly, when the Greens talk about the “transition” to a low carbon economy, it seems to me that there is potentially a great deal of trauma concealed within that rather unfairly peaceful word. If Australia were to scale back its export of coal to China and India on principle, for example, and to commence the shutdown of its existing coal-driven energy industry, how many thousands of jobs would be lost? How many communities near coal mines and coal-fired power stations would be rent asunder? Are the people who are dependent on coal industry for their livelihoods just to be collateral damage in the nation’s drive towards a low carbon economy, much in the same way that mining communities reaped the whirlwinds of Margaret Thatcher’s war on unions and unprofitability in the 1980’s?

I appreciate that tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs stand to be created in the green energy industry in the coming decades – but clearly, it is not simply going to be a case of governments picking up people working in coal mining and energy jobs and dropping them neatly into green energy jobs, as if they were so many Lego figurines. Communities and brown energy workers will need support from government and industry, including compensation and retraining to help them adapt to the “new energy world” that is to be shaped by the increasingly interventionist role that the Federal Government may play in the energy market in the future. It is this sort of detail that gets lost in the sorts of black and white “coal is evil” or “coal is Australia’s economic future” messages that have tended to emanate from all of Australia’s political parties in recent times.

Can Australia reduce its emissions effectively without unleashing the unsympathetic economic trauma of the like perpetrated by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government on mining communities across Britain? Only time will tell, but the signs are not that promising, and the playing field in any case looks set to be flipped end over end all over again come September, creating even more uncertainty.

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 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.

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.

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.

“Reassurance Labour” and post-Blair social democracy

Globally, the centre-left is enduring a period of public weariness and dissatisfaction. In Australia, a relatively unpopular government battles on against a red-blooded Opposition Leader, with the spectre of a leadership context lingering unerringly in the background. Between Kevin and Tony, there’s not much free air for Julia to articulate what she is about and why she deserves more time. In the United States, the ramshackle cavalcade of the Republican presidential primaries rolls on. As we collectively chortle at the successive victories of the likes of Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, dividing the centre-right, we also quietly question whether Barack Obama will be able to ride home this November on the same wave of good will and anti-Bush sentiment that served to swell his support in 2008. Across Europe, the political cartography doesn’t lie: in 23 of the 27 EU nations (24 if you include the six party (!) coalition in Belgium), the centre-left does not control the government.

A couple of weeks ago, David Miliband, former foreign minister and the exiled elder brother of Labour Opposition Leader Ed, contributed a rambling “vision” piece on social democracy to the New Statesman. It’s the kind of piece that was self-evidently designed to be high-minded without being too controversial, to try and add something to the debate without undermining his brother, or being so practical as to indulge in any policy specifics. It would have floated by altogether, unremarked and soap bubble-like, if Miliband had not taken the opportunity to take a heavily padded pot-shot at former Deputy Leader Roy Hattersley and his recent piece [PDF] with Kevin Hickson for The Political Quarterly:

He is convinced that there exists an obvious instrument for putting social democracy into practice – the central national state, whose strength has been underestimated, he argues, in a rush of market fundamentalism on both left and right. His fundamental point is this: that Labour in the past 20 years has been scared off the most potent vehicle for the expression of its values, and in the process has come to be seen as ineffective as well as unprincipled.

For some, this will be seductive. It is what I shall call Reassurance Labour. Reassurance about our purpose, our relevance, our position, even our morals. Reassurance Labour feels good. But feeling good is not the same as doing good – and it gets in the way when it stops us rethinking our ideas to meet the challenges of the time. And now is a time for restless rethinking, not reassurance.

“Reassurance Labour”, in short, is just the latest rhetorical salvo in the ongoing war between the hardminded, working-class socialists of the 1970’s and early 1980’s and the so-called “Third Way” Blairism of more recent years. Historically, the centre-left has sought to make its values manifest through the wilful manipulation of the gears and levers of the state, with the national government perceived as being the preeminent mechanism through which this can be achieved. Since then, the world has changed, but how much has it really changed? Miliband clearly feels that any renewed embrace of this top-down approach would be misguided, despite the strong emotional connection that most people on the left have with the proactive welfare states of yesteryear.

The Australian political scene seems to be operating in a slightly different world to the one where this debate is blundering on, in part perhaps because Labor is currently focused less on any grand thematic vision for the future than keeping its head above water in the run up to the next election. Government – particularly when you’re struggling in the polls – will do that to you. Looking back over the last few years, however, one gets the sense that the Rudd and Gillard Labor Governments have dipped quite a bit into “Reassurance Labour” economics, pursuing interventionist tax policies on climate change and mining, and betting the farm on the success of the National Broadband Network project. In the current climate of fiscal uncertainty, after all, nothing says political conviction quite like pumping tens of billions of dollars of public money into a nationwide infrastructure project. It’s a bold policy, and it is quite difficult to imagine a UK government of either political stripe dancing down a similar path in the current climate.

I am unsure about whether this implies the Australian bodypolitik is somewhere ahead or somewhere behind the debate going on in the UK, but one thing is certain: nobody can in practical terms define themselves as being simply “pro-state” or “pro-market” anymore. Governments are increasingly being pushed towards the middle ground by market entities and forces with more unhinged pulling power than themselves, and indeed by pockets of the impotent shouty filling the space vacated by mass political parties and organised participatory democracy.

Despite his departure from the scene, we are all still living in what we might one day call the Blair era – named not for any whizz-bang political dynamic dreamt up by Tony Blair and crew, mind, but the prickly, atomised, tabloid-oriented political environment that created and crowned him.

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

David Cameron’s socialism by some other name

Whither Keynes? For the past six to twelve months, the big philosophical imponderable doing the rounds in British political life has been the extent to which the government should intervene in the market in order to stimulate the national economy. The Conservative/Lib Dem government’s “Plan A” to cut, cut and cut some more is flatlining; growth is stagnant. Unemployment has risen to 8.4% – the highest it has been since 1995 – as the jobs that the government’s austerity programme has ripped from the public sector and wrung from the strangled charity/NGO sector are not being replaced in the for-profit sector as hoped.

This is by every empirical measure imaginable a failing fiscal plan, but Plan B remains firmly off the agenda. And why? Keynesian economics is not policy anathema, but it has become political anathema. Central to the fable being spruiked by Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservatives is that Labour’s clunky and interventionist approach to economic matters is to blame for the mess that Britain now finds itself in. If the Tories were to take a backward step from their “Plan A”, the economic dogma they’ve peddled since May 2010, they would be letting the Opposition off the hook. They would also be pricking the bubble of fallacious confidence that George Osborne et. al have, in effect, hitched a ride with throughout their war on public spending. It’s easy to forget given all the sanguine polling doing the rounds, but this is a government sustaining itself not through success in matters of policy, actual popularity, or anything resembling hard work, but merely ego: a reserve of confident bloody-mindedness that the market will eventually prove them right and that those on welfare should be punished.

The rigid stance adopted by the government on economic stimulus is particularly galling when one considers some of the moral peccadillos that the Tories apparently feel do warrant some intervention. This is a government that has no qualms about pulling levers and interfering with the market like a bunch of cardboard cut-out social-engineering lefties when doing so will slap and tickle their upper middle-class conservative base. A crusade to cap welfare benefits, directly impacting the lives of some of the nation’s most needy children has in recent days seen support for David Cameron soaring to a 22 month high. Jobs may be disappearing into the ether by the thousand across the country, but as Allegra Stratton alluded to in The Guardian recently, Cameron’s willingness to engage in blinkered market intervention has been plainly evident for some time now:

In a WH Smith not far from Westminster, there are no Terry’s Chocolate Oranges on sale at the till but there’s every other calorie and additive on offer. This stroll to the newsagent counts for political research because if you listened to David Cameron six years ago, flogging cheap chocolate to captive targets was an exemplar of immoral capitalism run amok.

“As Britain faces an obesity crisis, why does WH Smith promote half-price Chocolate Oranges at its checkouts instead of real oranges?” Cameron protested. Through the bully’s pulpit of office and opprobrium, he sought to change it.

In America, they would call out such a protest as socialism. In Britain, it would just be an all too typically fluffy intervention into the market on behalf of the morally conservative, rich or powerful, while the brutalisation of the truly needy by the market continues, wholly aided and abetted, in the background.

Occupy London: radical or conservative?

For almost two months now, the Occupy London camp has remained firmly entrenched outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, having been banned from the private grounds of Paternoster Square, where the London Stock Exchange is located. After winning its philosophical “huddled masses” tête à tête with the St Paul’s authorities, the movement is preparing itself to tackle its next challenge: eviction proceedings being brought to bear by the City of London Corporation. The formal hearing is scheduled to take place from 19th December.

It certainly feels that despite its raison d’être being as self-evident as ever, Occupy London is on the cusp of an existential crisis. In the coming weeks and months, the camp will need to fight for the right to maintain its most visible presence in the British capital, one of the world’s international finance hubs. The storm of publicity attracted during the movement’s disagreement with the St. Paul’s hierarchy has died away, and with it, many of its most effective tendrils of engagement with the general public. Amidst all the background noise of day-to-day news and political developments, the debate is slowly and steadily shifting away from the question “are the international Occupy movements right about modern capitalism?” and towards the question “is it time to finally get rid of all those tents outside of St Paul’s?” We all know how hungry the 24×7 news cycle beast can be; it would very much like another dramatic (and hopefully violent!) Dale Farm style confrontation between the authorities and people who purportedly shouldn’t be where they are.

In short, it is difficult to see what the next step for local branches of the global “Occupy” movement should be. Turn radical, and they stand to grab some more publicity and potentially reinvigorate their campaigns for economic justice – but they also stand to turn large swathes of the law-abiding general public off their arguments. The current tack, at least in the London context, seems to be rather more conservative; just last week Occupy London published an “Initial Statement of the Corporations Working Group”, effectively a press release. It sure sounds high-falutin’, but it’s all a tad banal frankly: here are the three key points:

We must abolish tax havens and complex tax avoidance schemes, and ensure corporations pay tax that accurately reflects their real profits.

Legislation to ensure full and public transparency of all corporate lobbying activities must be put in place. This should be overseen by a credible and independent body, directly accountable to the people.

Those directly involved in the decision-making process must be held personally liable for their role in the misdeeds of their corporations and duly charged for all criminal behaviour.

Laudable sentiments, yes, but hardly visionary ones, and my, what a vague and middling way in which to express them! If the purpose of the Occupy movement was to establish an amateurish tent city of students, interested passers-by and disenfranchised Liberal Democrats, firing occasional uncontroversial missives into the offices of news organisations across the country – they have succeeded. But it’s clearly not the right path.

Occupy London needs to find a new, creative way of continuing to express its message, or risk fading inconsequentially into the background static.