Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Beating the Machine and why it's necessary to keep on fighting, courtesy of the late Oliver Postgate

Christmas is a time to ponder what really matters in life. Friends, family, people who are worse off than us. Perhaps it's also time to think about some of the negative forces that are at work in our society and culture and how we can, collectively, fight against them. I for one am overjoyed that I could take part, in a tiny way, in defeating Simon Cowell, AKA the purveyor of manufactured, soulless pop, over the Christmas number one slot. But rather than witter on here about my views, I urge you to read this article, written by the late Oliver Postgate, creator of children's classics such as Bagpuss and The Clangers. At a time when the BBC pays it's Director-General nearly a million pounds a year, and some of its stars receive multi-million pay packets, it's worth reading of the creative genius of the people who strove to broaden the imagination of children through incredibly clever and charming story-telling, all, of course, on a budget that is probably significantly less than one small department of the BBC now spends on expenses. Postgate bemoans the malign forces that stalk our children. We would do well to take on board his warnings and protect our young people from the marketing men and women, who are so keen to monetise their enjoyment or play, to commodify their fun and in so doing, to debase their innocence.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Protect arts, drama, music and culture rather than bankers' bonuses

As Alistair Darling weighs up how to finally get tough with the bankers over their preposterous and obscene bonuses, it is important that we put a £1 million bonus in perspective by considering what such vast sums of money would mean for wider society were they be put to use in socially useful endeavours which benefited the wider community. The issue can be illustrated by considering just how the effects of how recession-inspired spending cuts proposed by both major parties will trickle down to the local level.

All too often, when local authorities either seek to make cuts or are required to do so by central government the axe falls on those services or grants which are known euphemistically as 'Cinderella services.' Councillors and local mandarins know all too well that voters are acutely aware when a care home, or children's centre faces closure. Rightly, there are often vocal local defenders to fight for continued funding. So councils look for softer targets, areas of spending which will not attract such attention and vocal opposition. Areas that most voters would not view to be core, essential services. Sadly, these include youth cafés, music centres, local volunteer radio stations, arts centres, local orchestras, galleries, music festivals, arts festivals and the like. These projects are all too often victims of a tendency towards cultural ignorance and short-sightedness on the part of local councillors and mandarins. They fail to realise that a local volunteer radio station, or an orchestra, or an arts centre often provides a cultural oasis for people in lives which are increasingly stressful, and time-poor and that such investment reaps hugely positive dividends for the wider community which are real, but often unquantifiable by the ranks of officialdom.

We live in an age when there is a perception amongst much of the public that young people are a threat, when young people themselves all too often are right to claim that there is nothing for them to do, and now, thanks to the recession caused by bankers' greed, face an increasingly uphill battle to find employment. And yet, up and down the country, youth cafés such as the Chill-Out-Zone in Newent, Gloucestershire, face closure because their £5,000 grant is a victim of what local councillors claim are unavoidable budget cuts. As this is happening at the local level, we discover that at the height of the financial crisis last year, the Bank of England, and by extension, the Government, found £62 billion in additional lending for RBS and HBOS without batting an eyelid. We also discover that the total cost to the taxpayer of the bailout of the banking system will reach £131 billion by the end of the year.

That's 131 thousand million pounds to shore up the banks which caused the worst recession in living memory, which is itself going to be used as the justification by central and local government to make huge cuts in public spending. When you think of it like that, a £5,000 grant to help keep a youth café open seems like a very reasonable use of public money. It also brings into sharp relief the ridiculously large sums of money that the banks are hoping to pay out in bonuses this year and makes the comments by FSA Chair Adair Turner that some of what the investment banks do is "socially useless" seem all the more fitting.

Perhaps we should think about bankers' bonuses in terms of what these huge sums of money could do for the young people in our communities. One example is a youth café in Aldershot, run by Christian organisation The Source. It is facing closure as the recession has led to its funding grants to dry up. According to reports, it provides a range of services for 800 disadvantaged young people and costs £300,000 to run each year. So for every banker receiving a 1 million pound bonus, 2,400 young people could have a positive place to spend their free time rather than roam the streets. Of course this is a simplistic calculation and perhaps this café is not representative. But the point remains a valid one.

Alistair Darling is absolutely right to ignore the siren voices, or some would say bleating of the City and its defenders as he tries to do at least something to curb bonuses earned on the back of taxpayer largesse. His supertax will hopefully strike a limited blow for all those who are angry that those who engage in often socially useless economic activity, which has so recently imperilled the entire economy, caused massive unemployment, contributed to a huge fiscal deficit and most importantly, caused vast amounts of human misery in the form of lost businesses, lost jobs, depression, anxiety and loss of self-respect, should be rewarded in ways that ordinary people can only dream of. Even the BBC is discovering that the public is increasingly concerned about over-inflated pay in both the private and public sector. Perhaps the public will increasingly feel aggrieved that their local services, including the 'Cinderella' ones they so cherish, are to be sacrificed due to the avarice of the banking sector.

One way of preventing this would be for the Government to put into statute a law preventing either councillors or officials at local authorities from cutting funding for music, arts, drama and youth-related projects as part of any central government-inspired spending cuts. Let them find savings in their back offices, their perks and their inefficiencies, not the cultural life of our communities. Hopefully, we are entering a time when we collectively begin to question the way in which the market places value on various activities. We are all too often told that the future prosperity of our country resides in the Square Mile. This is misguided in the extreme. The City is of course very important to UK Plc, but nothing is more important than the provision of socially useful things for people (particularly young people) to do in our communities. The two are not mutually incompatible, but now is the time to speak up in defence of 'Cinderella' services before the axe falls.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Are the Tories playing class warfare?

A shortened version of this article is published at Left Foot Forward.

Sometimes what people don’t say publicly speaks volumes about their own particular neuroses. Perhaps they hope to distract attention away from something that embarrasses them. Ironically, a deliberate omission can reveal that which it was intended to obscure. In the case of the Tory leadership, their fear of being branded as privileged public schoolboys, provides a good example of this.

At conservatives.com silence is deafening when it comes to public schools. Perhaps an edict was issued by Conservative Central Office excoriating all reference to public schools from online biographies? For if you surf around their ‘Meet the Shadow Cabinet’ section, you’ll be hard pressed to find any. David Cameron’s entry makes no mention of Eton. And the entry for his chief lieutenant, George Osborne, makes only the anodyne statement that he was “born and educated in London”. Indeed he was, at the exclusive St Paul’s School. Cheryl Gillian’s entry merely reads “Born in Llandaff, Cardiff and educated at local schools until the age of ten,” while omitting to mention that she later schooled at the prestigious Cheltenham Ladies College. Her own website mentions the Ladies College.

Of course what the Tories reveal about the educational backgrounds of their MPs is entirely a matter for them. They seem to be reluctant to be open about the huge number of their MPs who received the kind of privileged education that is out of the reach of almost all their constituents. This would be slightly more palatable were it not for the fact that their deafening silence on public schools is contrasted by the prominent place given in other MPs’ biographies to their state school educational background. Greg Clarke and Philip Hammond’s entries at conservatives.com are good examples. But if you spend some time looking around the biographies of the Tory PPCs, you’ll see this trend played out again and again.

This is, of course, all part of David Cameron’s attempt to re-brand the Tories. Even if most of his closest advisors and Shadow Ministers were educated at public schools, he doesn’t want the public, at least those outside the Westminster bubble, to be reminded of this. Why? Perhaps because it does not sit well with their new-found commitment to increasing social mobility, to bringing ‘law and order’ to their hitherto friends in the City, defend the NHS and of course, tackle the problems of poverty that they outrageously claim the Labour Party has compounded.

So according to the pundits, ‘class warfare’ is back. At PMQs yesterday the PM cheered his backbenchers with well-aimed and well-delivered jibes which skilfully referenced Zac Goldsmith, another Old Etonian, saying Cameron’s tax policies were “written on the playing fields of Eton.” Perhaps Brown and the Labour Party are on to something. Yet when so-called class war tactics were last tried, at the Crewe and Nantwich election, they backfired spectacularly. But those were dark days for Labour and for the Prime Minister and we are now entering a phase in the electoral cycle where the polls are narrowing and more scrutiny is being applied to Tory plans and personalities.

Labour’s critics are quick to deploy the phrase ‘class warfare’, because it dreadful phrase and describes something which, if it ever truly existed, has thankfully long gone from our politics and society. But what has not disappeared is a sense amongst the electorate that Britain, in so many ways, is not a country in which fairness take centre stage. People instinctively feel aggrieved that City bankers can cause a crisis that damages the lives and jobs of ordinary people, be bailed out with their taxes and yet continue to pay themselves huge bonuses. Gordon Brown will be hoping that his attempt to portray the Tories as the party which seeks to reduce tax for the well-off will gain traction with voters.

For the evidence from the Tory on-line biographies suggests that they are acutely sensitive about their leader, his inner circle and indeed the current and future parliamentary Tory party, being viewed by the electorate as out-of-touch and privileged. If they weren’t so vulnerable on this issue, David Cameron and George Osborne would not have looked so uncomfortable during yesterday’s PMQs and nor would Tory’s be so quick to dredge up notions of class war. Andrew Lansley certainly used the “class war” and “politics of envy” defence when the lack of reference to Tory frontbencher’s public school education was put to him by Anita Anand on the Daily Politics yesterday. Leading Tory commentators, such as Benedict Brogan, have also been quick to mention it. The shrillness of the response often indicates the accuracy of the attack! Handled with care, Labour could exact some electoral advantage from these recent developments.

Friday, 27 November 2009

My Citizen MPs article published on Power2010 website

My article suggesting the introduction of a system of Citizen MPs has been published on the website of Power2010.

More about Power2010:

Our democracy is in crisis. MPs fiddle while the planet burns. Our rights and freedoms are under attack. Bankers blow billions and the taxpayer foots the bill. We can't go on like this.

We need a healthy democracy that works for all of us and not just a powerful few. POWER2010 exists to help create it. It gives you the chance to have your say on how our democracy works so that together we can change it for the better.

Do you want cleaner funding? Fairer voting? More accountability? You decide. Tell us your ideas for changing the way we run our country. Those with most support will become the POWER2010 Pledge and the focus for our national campaign at the next election.

What is POWER2010?
POWER2010 is a unique campaign to give everyone the chance to have a say in how our democracy works for us.

What is different about POWER2010 is that you're in the driving seat. We're not asking you to back our goals. We're asking you to help create them.

At the next election we will work to ensure every candidate commits to the reforms you most want to see as part of a nation-wide campaign to reinvigorate our democracy from the bottom up.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Murdoch leads the way to end the conspiracy of 'free internet' content

Good on Rupert Murdoch. Those are four words I never thought I'd type. But nonetheless, he and his son James are to be congratulated for their decision to start charging on-line readers of The Times. It's a risky move for News International, but it's a brave one. In asking on-line readers to pay, just as readers of the newspaper must, they risk the wrath of the internet generation, who have grown obese through gorging themselves on the product of the great myth of the noughties - that everything on the internet is and more to the point, should be, free.

Let's get this straight. The internet is a wonderful thing and has emancipated millions of people through opening up information on an almost unimaginable scale. But the damaging corollary of this emancipation has been the belief amongst users that the only role they have is to consume content, not pay for it. This pernicious trend has had profound implications for other forms of entertainment. First music, and now film. Ordinary people, not merely youngsters, have assumed that it is perfectly acceptable to obtain copyrighted material by illegally copying it on-line. What I hope that the News International decision may do is strike a blow for creative people, wherever they exist. Be they up and coming rock bands who struggle to sell their music due to illegal file sharing, or film-makers whose work is ripped off shortly after it leaves the editing suite.

You wouldn't expect to be able to steal perfect copies of a painter's artwork. You don't have a right to free newspapers in newsagents. All creative art or journalism has to be made by real people, doing real jobs. We do not live an a Star Trek-style utopia where everyone just pursues his or her creative dreams. We live in the real world in which people need to make money from their intellectual property and their creative talent, just as readily as a plumber needs to make money out of his or her plumbing skills, or a doctor their medical training. We need to rebalance the on-line world so that it provides appropriate revenue streams for those who create the content. In this world, you don't get anything for nothing. It is time the internet generation accepted this truism.

More on this later.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Rights and wrongs of the DNA of innocent people - letter to The Times - NOT PUBLISHED

Sir,

Shami Chakrabati and Chris Grayling make strange bedfellows in criticising the Government over saving the DNA samples of people arrested for but not convicted of a crime. It is not solely a matter of the rights of these people as they suggest, but also of the rights of the wider, law-abiding community. These samples are stored not because of some Kafkaesque conspiracy but for the practical reason that, sadly, a minority of these currently 'innocent' people do go on to commit heinous crimes. Grayling and Chakrabati must not be allowed to occupy the moral high ground without being challenged as to whether their defence of the rights of innocent people not to have their DNA recorded on a database trumps the right of society to maximise the chance of solving a rape or murder and therefore of deterring future crimes. Their position can only be respected if they concede that some rapes and murders will almost certainly go unsolved and therefore more committed, as a result of the Government being forced to change its policy.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Article of mine on Citizen MPs published by Progress (online)

Progress Magazine have published an article of mine.

By the people

We should inject the people directly into parliament, in the form of Citizen MPs

10 November 2009

Commentators say British parliamentary democracy is in crisis, that public outrage is taking on the tendency of ‘mob rule’ and may emasculate politics for a generation. What is certain is that the people are, with good reason, furious with their representatives. But if we are to move forward constructively, the anger felt by the public must be harnessed in a way that helps to reconstruct and improve our democratic system or it will be exploited by those who seek to undermine trust in politics, be they extremists or the most cynical elements of the media.

When it comes to democracy, the past can and should inform the present. With its genesis in ancient Greece, democracy, literally, means ‘the power of the people’. Yet it is Abraham Lincoln’s take on democracy - 'rule of the people, by the people, for the people' – which has gained common currency. Holding recent events up against its rigours is revealing. Ironically, far from being a crisis of democracy, perhaps the continuing shaming of parliamentarians in the court of public opinion is a triumph of democracy. After all, the strictures of the Kelly report show that ‘the people’, thanks to their henchmen in the Fourth Estate, have exerted their collective will upon their representatives. A tick for ‘rule of the people.’

Yet democracy is more than this. At the centre of public displeasure has been a sense that MPs have been acting in their own interests rather than those of their constituents. Again, the recent furore should lead to a system and behavioural standards that can better ensure that MPs rule ‘for the people’. Another tick for Abe.

But the second clause in Lincoln’s maxim, ‘rule by the people’, offers us the best chance of diverting public outrage into improving our political system. The best way to do this would be injecting a little direct democracy into our overtly representative system (notwithstanding the anachronistic House of Lords). To put it bluntly, we should inject ‘the people’ directly into parliament, in the form of ‘Citizen MPs.’ Citizen MPs, selected at random as with our jury system, would serve for a year and would inhabit a third of seats in both Houses of Parliament. They would place a block on the power of parties to whip legislation through our supine legislature. They would force both parliament and ‘the people’ to get better acquainted with one another. They would make our system more truly 'democratic' and would do much to bridge the gaping chasm between the populace and their representatives. Perhaps above all, they would restore a sense that as citizens we each have civic duties, up to and including making legislation and representing our fellow citizens.

This suggestion may get short shrift, but before it is dismissed out of hand, consider that the response of our MPs to the crisis to date as been woeful and shows little sign of improving despite Kelly’s alleged lancing of this particular boil. Consider also that the Kelly report itself recommends that ‘the people’ be brought into the hallowed environs of parliament in order to scrutinise MPs’ behaviour, in the form of lay members of both the Speaker’s Committee overseeing the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Standards and Privileges Committee. Even some MPs have made murmurings, such as Patricia Hewitt, a champion of ‘citizen juries’ designed to help policy-formulation. People in think tanks, such as Guy Lodge of the ippr, and Matthew Taylor of the RSA, have looked at the concept. Anthony Barnett has even written the book ‘The Athenian Option: Radical Reform For The House Of Lords’.

Citizen MPs have excellent antecedents, as explained by Daniel Lightman, who was corresponding with me in the letters page of The Times earlier this year:

'In Ancient Athens, the day-to-day business of government was entrusted to the Council of Five Hundred, which was chosen annually out of the whole citizen body by lot. The only qualifications were that one had to be aged over 30 and of good standing.

The Athenians were not alone in recognising the value of using the lot to select a representative group of citizens. The Talmud records that Moses used lots to choose the 70 elders of the Children of Israel and the 22,000 designated first-born. “The ancients knew,” observed the renowned classical scholar Jowett, “that election by lot was the most democratic of all modes of appointment.” Selecting some MPs by lot would be the easiest way to ensure that truly independent voices are heard in Parliament.'

Of course there would be numerous practical and procedural difficulties to bringing in a system of Citizen MPs, but these can be overcome by a country that truly values democracy. To those who argue that citizens would not wish to be MPs, nor have the sufficient experience or understanding, I say that if no less a concept than justice can be served through citizens being selected at random to sit in juries, then there is no logical reason why a similar system ought not bestow on each of us the responsibility to serve the interests of an equally important concept – democracy.

John Slinger is a member of the Labour party’s national parliamentary panel, a former parliamentary researcher to Labour MPs and currently works as a public affairs consultant

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Letter about my pet project of Citizen MPs - NOT published in The Times

Sir,

Now that the Kelly Committee is recommending that lay members sit on the Speaker's Committee that appoints the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and on the Standards and Privileges Committee, surely this admirable principle should be expanded to a system of Citizen MPs. A third of MPs and peers could be appointed by lot, as with Jury Service and serve for 12 months terms. Such a bloc of lay people in Parliament would act as a counterbalance to the Whips, would make our system more truly 'democratic', would do much to bridge the gaping chasm between the populace and their representatives and might restore a sense that each of us has civic duties up to and including making legislation. This suggestion may get short shrift, but as Kelly is showing, the concept of bringing 'ordinary' people into the fabled world of Westminster is now gaining credence at the highest levels.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Early Day Motion on a citizen's charge on banking bonuses

These MPs are to be congratulated for arguing the case that banking bonuses must at the very least, be taxed at a higher rate in order that the banks which caused this recession, do more to pay for the damage they left in their wake. As it is, we're all having to pay the price in jobs, lost businesses, negative equity and so-on for the recklessness of those in high finance.

CITIZEN'S CHARGE ON BANK BONUSES AND DIVIDENDS 27:10:09

Jim Cousins
Jon Cruddas
Mr Michael Meacher
John McDonnell
Mr Frank Field
Frank Dobson
Kelvin Hopkins Mark Durkan Lynne Jones
Mr Lindsay Hoyle

That this House notes that almost every bank based in the United Kingdom required liquidity and other support from the Government in 2008 and, in addition, a number required public ownership or capital support; further notes public concern about the contrast between the welfare dependency of the UK financial sector and the recent return to big bonus payouts; calls on the Government to introduce a citizen's charge or people's dividend on the growth of bonus pools and dividend payouts in those financial institutions which received public support; and believes that this citizen's charge should start in the 2009-10 financial year.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

My letter in The Independent about Nick Giffin's appearance on Question Time

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/letters/letters-bnp-and-nick-griffin-1809959.html

Sir,

The BBC should not have changed the format of Question Time to focus relentlessly on subjects identified with the BNP. However vile Nick Griffin's views are, he won the right to appear by virtue of his democratic election to the European Parliament, and as such should have been accorded equal treatment.

To do otherwise fuels the very sense of ostracism felt by many voters who turned to the BNP in recent years and is a gift to the BNP propaganda machine that wishes to portray the establishment as incapable of understanding or accommodating the views of its supporters and their fellow-travellers.

John Slinger

Rugby

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Why the BBC was wrong to change format for Nick Griffin - letter to The Times (not published)

The Editor
The Times


Sir,


The BBC should not have changed the format of Question Time to focus relentlessly on subjects identified with the BNP. However vile Nick Griffin's views are, he won the right to appear by virtue of his democratic election to the European Parliament, and as such should have been accorded the right to equal treatment. To do otherwise fuels the very sense of ostracism felt by many voters who turned to the BNP in recent years and is a gift to the BNP propaganda machine that wishes to portray the establishment as incapable of understanding or accommodating the views of its supporters and their fellow travellers. Sadly, the mainstream political class and media may have won only a Pyrrhic victory against extremists of all hues, for they have indicated that that they cannot cope with unpalatable views in a measured, and dare I say it, British manner. Extremism is best defeated by calm debate, not fevered witch-hunt and media hype.


Yours faithfully,


John Slinger

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Letter to The Times on a windfall tax on the banks (NOT PUBLISHED)

The Editor
The Times


Sir,

To propose a windfall tax on the banking sector would not, as you suggest (Leading article, 20/10/09), expose other sectors to such a measure for the simple reason that it is highly improbable that other sectors would or could have inflicted such terrible economic damage on wider society. To expect that after such unprecedented taxpayer-funded largess, the culprits in this sorry tale ought to be required to contribute an additional sum to rebuilding the public finances is not punitive, it is just. It might also go some way to restoring a sense of moral hazard in the minds of our bankers as they divvy up their huge bonuses this Christmas.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Manifesto policy ideas up on Left Foot Forward

Will Straw and co.s excellent evidence-based blog Left Foot Forward have a section for new progressive manifesto ideas.

He has posted some excellent ideas by various people so far and I thoroughly recommend anyone takes a look and suggests ideas of their own.

Last but not least, some of my suggestions are posted up there too.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Labour can (and will) win the next election

David Cameron has not 'sealed the deal', as they say, with the British electorate. We in the Labour Party have it all to play for. I am personally more optimistic than I have been in the last 18 months about our chances of winning

If you don't believe me, please read this by David Owen (someone who knows a million times more about these things than I do).

We must deconstruct the Tory Party's clever marketing. They are NOT progressives. They are NOT particularly concerned about the poor. They are NOT the party of the NHS.

Here's a brief guide to why: On being progressive - the Conservative party is, as its name suggests, conservative with a small 'c'. Throughout British political history, the Tories have opposed virtually all socially progressive legislation, up to and including the creation of the NHS, the minimum wage, extended paternity and maternity rights but let's not forget their stance on extending the franchise, or health and safety legislation which prevented women and children working in coal mines for 12 hours per day. Ditto their attitude to poverty. And as for the NHS, this is the party which opposed its creation, ran it into the ground in the 1980s and 1990s and would love nothing more than to introduce more private provision. They only profess their love of the NHS because they have to electorally - for the people truly love this institution, because it saves their lives and it is free at the point of use. These are essentially socialist principles. It is little wonder then that the Tories, by instinct, are not truly the saviours of the NHS.

It is rather sad then that our party has performed so woefully recently that the Tories have managed to convince large swathes of the electorate that they are the leopards who changed their spots. They are not.

Thankfully, the Labour Party seems to be getting its act together. We are focusing in on the Tory subterfuge. We are proudly defending our excellent record of progressive government over the last 12 years. We are also setting out our vision for the future rather then resting on the laurels of having taken the right calls during the credit crunch.

We can and we will win next May.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

A debate at Labourhome about open primaries

Here's a little exchange I've been having on Labourhome.

LesAbbey says:
October 13, 2009 at 2:45 pm
John Slinger says:

Open primaries would go some way to taking selections out of the hands of party apparatchiks, the unions and powerful backers such as No.10 or former ministers and as such, are an idea that should be explored and acted upon.
No, it takes selection out of the hands of the local party so as to give the London based apparatchiks a better chance. It will give us even more twenty-something careerists.

They would also encourage applicants to seek selection who were keen and able, but for whatever reason had not been willing or able to ingratiate themselves with local or national Labour Party politics. That isn’t to say that people who have worked for the party ought not become MPs, but that all too often such individuals have an unfair advantage due to their ‘contacts.’
Local CLP members have an unfair advantage because they are just that – local members, fighting and living with local problems not just some rich kid looking for a career.

Open selections would also minimise the advantages of those candidates with large amounts of money (or with backers willing to give it to them) to fund increasingly professional campaigns. Short, supervised, open primary campaigns might then allow for the focus of attention to be the ideas and abilities of the candidates in actual meetings or events, at which members of the public could attend and participate.
Again the moment you take the selection away from the local activists it will become money politics. It doesn’t matter how short you keep it. With a CLP selection, money has very little ability to help in the selection if the candidates stay within the party rules.

We are seeing a concerted attempt by the careerist to mold Labour into an US style political party to their own benefit. They see primaries as a way of overriding local party activists.

John Slinger says:
October 14, 2009 at 10:22 am
Dear Les Abbey,

I too have been a “local member” in various CLPs. I have witnessed, either as a prospective candidate, or a voting CLP member, various selection processes in various CLPs. It’s true that selections often do allow CLP members to engage fully with the candidates in an open and fair process. On other occasions, sadly, this is not the whole story.

It is also not true that better funded candidates do not have an advantage. For example, if a trade union, or another source, funds a candidate even to the tune of a couple of hundred pounds, or provides them with printing facilities, they are at a huge advantage over someone with a full time job and only their evenings free. Our own version of open primaries could and should, like the Tories attempt in Totnes, strictly limit the amount of money spent by candidates on their campaigns.

I don’t think it’s fair either to say that primaries are a plot by New Labour careerists. No matter what the motivation of proponents of primaries, the actual result of bringing them in would surely be to diminish the chances of a careerist being selected. Let’s be honest – if a Special Adviser at No.10 or to a Cabinet Minister currently seeks a safe seat, the current CLP-based selection process in most cases favours them. We all know that candidates have been and are being parachuted into safe of marginal seats, and that very often, and very sadly, some CLPs are reluctant to resist this. This isn’t corrupt, but it is also not fully democratic or open, in the way that I am sure we would all like.

An open primary would force such a ‘para’ candidate into a far more open contest which would test their abilities to engage with ordinary people of all political hues rather than their ability to play the kind of ‘machine’ politics which can still all too often be at work in CLPs during selections.

I do not personally think that open primaries are a panacea. All I am in favour of is that they are given serious consideration by a party which purports to believe in openness and democracy. We ought to have the guts to trial open primaries as have the Tories. Let’s not forget that the CLP would still be able to select the short list. We ought to be communicating better with the electorate at large rather than entrenching a system through which we stare at our own diminishing number of navels. It may not work, but it’s worth a try.

Best wishes,

John Slinger

Monday, 12 October 2009

We need the best candidates, not the best-connected - comment on open primaries

There is a Progress event on the merits of open primaries tonight. I have blogged the following at Labourhome.


Open primaries would go some way to taking selections out of the hands of party apparatchiks, the unions and powerful backers such as No.10 or former ministers and as such, are an idea that should be explored and acted upon.

They would also encourage applicants to seek selection who were keen and able, but for whatever reason had not been willing or able to ingratiate themselves with local or national Labour Party politics. That isn’t to say that people who have worked for the party ought not become MPs, but that all too often such individuals have an unfair advantage due to their ‘contacts.’

Open selections would also minimise the advantages of those candidates with large amounts of money (or with backers willing to give it to them) to fund increasingly professional campaigns. Short, supervised, open primary campaigns might then allow for the focus of attention to be the ideas and abilities of the candidates in actual meetings or events, at which members of the public could attend and participate.

Anything we can do to level the playing field and simultaneously to engage with a wider audience than the 200 or so members of most CLPs must be a good idea. We need the best candidates for the job, not the best-connected.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Letter to The Times about Cameron and "big government" - NOT PUBLISHED

Sir,

The gravest threat that to our economy, and by extension, our society for several decades did not, as Mr Cameron implies, come from "big government". Rather, it came from big bonuses, big banks which were too big to fail, big rises in the value of houses, big greed, big arrogance and last but not least - the necessarily big taxpayer-funded bailing out of the banking sector. Strange then that he reserved his rage for "big government" and not his big chums in the City.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Osborne's new-found collectivism - Letter to The Times (not published)

The Editor
The Times

Sir,

George Osborne seems to have had a Damascan conversion to collectivism. In his conference speech he promised that he would not ask the public sector to make "any sacrifice or shoulder any burden that the rest of Britain is not being asked to make". This appears at odds with reality, for the section of society not being asked to shoulder the burden is the one that caused the very crisis which has ravaged the economy and blighted the lives of so many people - namely the banking elite. Osborne's "we are all in this together" mantra, repeated seven times during his speech, is little more than a clever rhetorical device enabling him to call on the rest of society, and especially the public sector, to pay for damage caused by the greed, irresponsibility and avarice of many in the banking sector.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Friday, 25 September 2009

Letter published in The Times on Iran and the missile shield

Trident and tested
What use would a defensive missile shield have against suicide bombs?


http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article6848068.ece

Sir,

Why would Iran, even when led by someone as irascible as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ever contemplate an unprovoked missile attack on southern Europe, or even on the US, when such an attack would result in overwhelming retaliation by infinitely more powerful US Forces (“Russia says it will join sanctions against Iran”, report, Sept 24)?

Throughout the Cold War we were told that nuclear deterrence works, and this refrain is repeated now, as Trident replacement is under discussion. Why is deterrence with conventional, let alone nuclear, weapons deemed inadequate in the case of Iran? Furthermore, the most worrying threat to our civilian population is from suicide bombings with homemade explosives. So what use would a defensive missile shield have been in any case?

John Slinger

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Letter to The Guardian (not published)

Dear Sir,

Lord Turner is right, the very large profits made by trading banks are "a legitimate matter of social interest rather than an entirely private matter." It is astonishing that it takes a City establishment figure rather than a Labour government to talk about the elephant in the room. Perhaps Lord Turner might go even further with his next intervention into the debate and say that as the banking sector caused the economic crisis and associated recession and was bailed out at huge cost by the taxpayer, it ought to repay this generosity through higher levels of corporate tax (voluntarily or otherwise) as its profits increase. The alternative is what we are now witnessing - ordinary people and public sector services being expected to pay for the errors of the one remaining sector of the economy that is immune from the harsh realities of market capitalism.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Monday, 21 September 2009

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Labour leader says something visionary about global economy shock...

All four of my readers (assuming you're not just me checking to see if I have any comments throughout the day!) will have noted that I have been banging on about the lack of vision and radicalism from the leadership of the British Labour Party for some time now. Perhaps it's the occupational hazard of incumbency...

Anyway, imagine my surprise when I saw an article by the leader of the Labour Party which argued that the imbalances in the global economy which helped cause the present crisis, must not be allowed to be replicated, and that a new model of growth needs to be created. It really is unusual to hear of a political leader daring to suggest that we might need a new paradigm - one which doesn't assume that 'business-as-usual' with a tiny bit more regulation, will suffice.

The only depressing thing for me was that it was the leader of the Labour Party in Australia saying these things, and not the leader of the British Labour Party. That the biggest economic crisis in 70 years, which has wrought massive financial and yes, physical suffering on millions of people, should cause so little soul-searching amongst our political and financial elite, is both scandalous and remarkable. As I keep on saying, had any other sector of the economy caused such damage for everyone else, and then demanded taxpayer bail outs, there would have probably been rioting in the streets or a coup d'etat. Can you imagine the trade union movement causing even 10% of the damage and getting away with it? Or organised criminals, or terrorists, or communists? We seem, collectively, to have rolled over and accepted this state of affairs as if it is perfectly normal. This is all very "British", but it is also very short-sighted. There is a danger of British stoicism allowing a moment of great opportunity for debate about the nature of British market capitalism to pass us by.

I do not know what the answers are as to how to prevent a recurrence of this kind of bust, nor do I have the answers as to how to create a fairer society, or a way of harnessing the power of markets in the interests of ordinary individuals, families and communities rather than the 'Masters of the Universe' who have spent the last two years proving just how true their moniker is. I do have some ideas, and I am absolutely certain that almost all my fellow citizens do too. I think it is reasonable to expect our political leaders to at least engage in a debate with us about the kind of society we wish to build in the future. 'Change' is just a word. But words, ideas, debates, can change the world.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Sarkozy the right-wing radical leads the way on happiness

It is incredible that it takes a right-wing political leader, President Sarkozy of France, to state the obvious truth that the financial crisis must lead to a radical recalibration of the things that society most values. He asked respected economists Joseph Stiglitz and Armatya Sen to form the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress in order to assess this subject. The Commission recently published its report. The French Government may well now use this as the basis for a new way of measuring France's social progress. Wouldn't it be wonderful to hear a single mainstream British politician utter these words:

"A great revolution is waiting for us. For years, people said that finance was a formidable creator of wealth, only to discover one day that it accumulated so many risks that the world almost plunged into chaos...The crisis doesn't only make us free to imagine other models, another future, another world. It obliges us to do so."

And yet it falls to a French right-winger to point an accusing finger at the elephant in the room. The feeling that most people have of the profound injustice at play in a world where the greedy elite which caused such an economic calamity should be bailed out by governments using the future tax payments of the very people whose jobs, homes and wider economic well-being they so endangered or in many cases, damaged. It is a con trick of the highest order, and if you think these words are too harsh, consider the fact that now, any notion of moral hazard for our bankers is a thing of the past. They know that they are too big to fail with the same certainty that almost every other industry knows it is too powerless to warrant Government bailouts.

The eulogies for Lehman Brothers and the scorn poured on the US authorities for having the temerity to let such a behemoth fail is revealing in the same way that shrill outbursts that greeted Lord Turner when he questioned the social utility of some financial institutions and mentioned a Tobin tax. It reveals that the powerful do not like it when their paradigm is questioned, especially by those they consider 'their own'.

With recovery thankfully on the horizon, it would seem that the most strident defenders of the pre-2007 paradigm may well have survived a crisis largely of their own making which very nearly brought most of the large economies of the world to their knees. Yet there is a chink of light for people such as me who do not wish to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, but who think that given that the crisis we have just endured was largely caused by the greed not just of bankers but of us all. The recent crisis happened in an age where mass consumerism seemed to be in the ascendency; an age when people could become millionaires merely by buying and letting out properties while so many struggled to gain a foothold in the housing market; an age where increasingly parents feel the need for two incomes in order to merely survive, thereby neglecting their responsibilities as parents, or as members of the wider community for whom they could perhaps carry out voluntary work were they to have more time and energy; in short, a time when much was right, but much was also out of balance. This must surely lead us at least to have a debate about the kind of society we wish to live in and how to achieve it.

President Sarkozy, the right-winger, leads the way. If only those on the left here in Britain would have the guts and the philosophical wisdom to follow his lead and engage in a long-awaited debate with the ordinary people of this country about the kind of society we wish to live in. Only then can we set about creating it, and some new tools of economic analysis, which factor in our happiness and well-being, will surely help us in this crucial endeavour.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Letter to The Times (not published)

Sir,

You dismissal of calls for a High Pay Commission as “monumentally foolish” is unfair. One of the main causes of the financial crisis and recession was the behaviour of rich bankers whose pay and bonus packages incentivised their reckless behaviour. Those responsible in the financial sector have not suffered in any meaningful way, largely thanks to the injection of taxpayers’ money. Rather, ordinary, hard-working individuals, through no fault of their own are losing their jobs, businesses and homes. As such, calls for a High Pay Commission are rather tame in the circumstances.

Imagine if even a fraction of the damage caused recently by bankers had instead been caused by trade unions, organised criminal syndicates or terrorists and that the rich, rather then the poor had been unjustly disadvantaged. I doubt that their political defenders on the right, and the vast bulk of the press would have shown such restraint as to have merely called for the establishment of a commission. I suspect at the very least that punitive emergency laws would have been passed and the very most, a coup d'état enacted, such would have been the outrage.


Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Monday, 25 May 2009

Letter published in The Times on need to reform Parliament

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/letters/article6321837.ece

Sir, The calls for greater public involvement in the reform of Parliament should not end with proposals for citizens’ juries deciding on MPs’ expenses.

We often hear of the public disengagement with and suspicion of our political system. One way to counter this would be to install in Parliament a proportion of citizen MPs, randomly selected as with our jury system, who would serve for a year. They could perhaps comprise a third of all MPs and peers, thus placing a block on the power of parties to whip legislation through our supine legislature and forcing both Parliament and its masters to get better acquainted with one another.

Such a system might help to restore the sense, first developed in the Greek city-states, that citizenship bestows responsibilities over and above merely voting or paying taxes. It might also educate the public that legislating is not as easy as many believe.

Those who would dismiss this as impractical forget that democracy is what we make it, and as recent events have clearly shown, traditions themselves do not guarantee good governance.

John Slinger

Rugby

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Politics of terror for the rich - letter published in The Independent

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/letters/letters-the-education-system-and-children-in-care-1674015.html

25 April 2009

Sir,

Those who declare that the Chancellor's increase in the top rate of tax represents "class war" and the "politics of envy" reveal a more disturbing truth about the present economic crisis: the terror felt by the rich and powerful that the Government might take measures to limit, even by a fraction, their personal wealth. This is amid the backdrop of widespread suffering among ordinary workers and business people largely caused by the irresponsibility and greed of the super-rich casino bankers and their cronies in the media, among regulators and, sadly, in government.

I wonder what these people would be saying had the economy suffered the worst catastrophe since the Second World War as a result of action by the trade unions, terrorists, or organised criminals. I imagine they would be calling for at the very least punitive and wholesale legislative and criminal sanctions against the perpetrators of such economic destruction, and possibly the declaration of a state of emergency.

Marginal increases to the higher rate of taxation seem a very gentle and fair response in comparison to the devastation rained down on the unionised coal and steel industries by the Conservatives in the 1980s, when trade unions were viewed to have endangered the economy.

The bubble of invincibility that has surrounded the rich and powerful for so long has finally been pricked, and as the polls show, a public battered by economic misery not of its own making isn't feeling overly sympathetic to their shrill cries of outrage.

John Slinger

Rugby, Warwickshire

Friday, 1 May 2009

Why carry a moral compass if you won't look at it?

I am a public affairs consultant (PR adviser, lobbyist, communications person in other words). If I'd advised my client to behave in the way the Prime Minister has done over the Gurkhas debacle, I am sure I would have been fired by now. Just who is advising the PM? It's getting so bad that I almost feel like calling for the return of Damian McBride. The level of ineptitude, lack of foresight and lack of basic human empathy on display has been beyond belief. We are seeing the antithesis of Blair and it is not a pretty sight. Blair's Achilles heel was Iraq. He dug his boots in over a cause which was highly contentious and which grew in unpopularity. But he dug his boots in because he believed it was the right thing to do (and I commend him for that).

Gordon Brown has just shown what happens when you dig your boots into the ground in opposition to a cause which any sentient animal, let alone human being, could have told you would unite the entire population of Britain, if not the free world, against you. He dug his boots in, if not stuck his head in the sand, not for moral reasons, not for principles and rather obviously not for reasons of political expediency. No, the excuse he gave was that the Government couldn't afford the billion or so it might cost to offer the right of abode to men (and their families) who had risked their lives for Britain.

But don't let's forget the old maxim "money talks", for it is particularly relevant this day, even if in a slighty different formation: "lack of money talks". At a time when the Government has shown the population just how quickly it can magic up hundreds of billions to bail out banks which themselves have wrought ruin on our economy, the Prime Minister says we can't afford one billion for heroes. Hundreds of billions for greedy, profligate, economy-wrecking, tax-avoiding, Conservative-voting bankers, and yet we can't afford a few quid for some heroes. Repeat the mantra again and again and the sheer absurdity and injustice of it should make you scream with outrage. So he risked, and then lost, large swathes of his authority in Parliament, and large chunk of the remaining vestiges of personal popularity, all because the bean-counters at the Treasury didn't think they could afford to do the right thing by these brave soldiers. The Government has a track record in these matters. Cast your mind back to the disgraceful way they treated the Iraqi interpreters who had risked their lives assisting our troops and diplomats only to find that they would not be allowed to settle in the UK. They were brave, they assisted their country and ours, they then suffered death threats and many were attacked or murdered. Yet the bean-counters, led by their political masters, would not countenance letting them in.

The Gurkhas case is sad and tragic, for it is so totally unnecessary. It is a self-inflicted wound. And while a weakened Prime Minister will no doubt now be smarting, the lasting damage has been done to the Labour Party, and far more importantly to the reputation of this country as a place of honour. Someone once said that you can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable. At a time like now, we should add that we can judge a Government by the way in which it treats those who risk their lives to protect our freedom. Moral compasses only work when you follow them.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Letter on the police, sent to The Times and The Guardian (not published)

Sir,

Each revelation about poor policing, from the G20 summit, to the pre-emptive arrests surrounding the E.ON protest and the Damian Green debacle, points to inadequacies of leadership. Perhaps the police service might benefit from a degree-educated ‘officer’ or leadership corps such as exists in virtually every other important pillar of the state and wider society. We wouldn’t, for instance, expect the army to be led solely by private soldiers who had risen up the ranks, nor would we allow our schools to be staffed by teachers who didn’t possess degrees or our buildings to be designed by people who weren’t professional architects. What makes policing so different? If it is the fact, often cited, that all police officers must first serve as constables in order to gain an appreciation of the concerns of the citizens they serve, then recent events suggests that the system may not be working as it should.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Friday, 24 April 2009

If the unions had done this to the economy, there would have been a coup d'etat....(letter sent to newspapers)

Sir,

Those who declare that the Chancellor’s increases in the top rate of tax represents “class war” and the “politics of envy” reveal a more disturbing truth about the present economic crisis - the terror felt by the rich and powerful that government might take measures to limit, even by a fraction, their personal wealth. This amidst the backdrop of widespread suffering amongst ordinary workers and businesspeople largely caused by the irresponsibility and greed of the super-rich casino bankers and their cronies in the media, regulators and, sadly, in Government.

I wonder what these people would be saying had the economy suffered the worst catastrophe since the Second World War as a result of action by the trade unions, terrorists, or organised criminals. I imagine they would be calling for at the very least punitive and wholesale legislative and criminal sanctions against the perpetrators of such economic destruction, and possibly the declaration of a state of emergency. Marginal increases to the higher rate of taxation seem a very gentle and fair response in comparison to the devastation rained down on the unionised coal and steel industries by the Conservatives in the 1980s when trade unions were viewed to have endangered the economy. The bubble of invincibility which has surrounded the rich and powerful for so long has finally been pricked, and as the polls show, a public battered by economic misery not of their own making, is not feeling overly sympathetic to their shrill cries of outrage.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Monday, 20 April 2009

A walk-out's a walk-out

I'm perplexed (this often happens on a Monday...) I'm reading reports on BBC News Online that western diplomats have walked out of a speech being given by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a UN conference on racism, seemingly because he referred to Israel as a "racist government."

Now if translators are to believed, Ahmadinejad is someone whose views about Israel are wholly offensive, and he is clearly acting true to form today. However, as I switch on "Devil's advocate" mode, I can't help but wonder what the response of the Israeli, American, British and other western governments would be if the diplomats of the entire Arab, or Muslim world (whatever they may be), were to walk-out of a speech given by Benjamin Netanyahu, in which he referred to the dangers posed to his country and the region by one Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

I imagine our diplomats would be outraged at such truculent behaviour. I had thought that if anything, the UN was at least a talking shop, at which the disparate nations of the world could debate issues, talk to each other. I was always taught that if you disagree strongly with someone, it is best to listen to their point of view and then argue vehemently with them about why in your opinion, they were wrong, in the hope that you might at least make them reflect on their comments. We are often told that one of the strengths of western liberal democracies is our respect for free speech. Pundits often misquote Voltaire, in saying "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." I agree with this sentiment. I would apply it to racists such as the BNP, or extremists who claim to be Muslims in the UK. However unpalatable it may be, we have to engage with those whose view of the world differs with ours. Walking away in disgust is not, in my view, an expression of strength, but more of intellectual arrogance coupled with a lack of rhetorical robustness.

It seems that at the international level, we're going to have to get a lot better at "jaw jawing" if we're ever to move towards ending the nascent "war warring" that sadly exists in the world. We can't just turn our backs and hope that a cold shunning of those we find distasteful will make them go away. It won't.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

April Fool's Day sees dawning of new age in fight against nuclear weapons

Here's a copy of a letter I sent to The Times today...

The Editor
The Times

2 April 2009

Sir,

Was it an April Fool’s joke, or did they really do it? Yes they did! President Obama and President Medvedev did agree to move towards slashing their nuclear arsenals and so opened a process which might just lead to a world free of nuclear weapons within our lifetimes. The advent of the Global Zero movement, the comments of several retired senior British military leaders about the pointlessness of the British Government renewing Trident, and of course the transformative effect of a progressive President of the USA, are evidence of the emergence of a new paradigm in which it is no longer seen as left-wing, or pacifistic to call for pragmatic steps to be taken to rid the world of the pernicious evil of nuclear weapons. This truly was a summit at which the world changed for the better.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

G20 protests: media gets in way of rioters

Looking at some online coverage of the recent "disturbances" caused by the G20 protesters in central London, I was struck by an almost comic scene: that of newspaper photographers and TV news cameramen jostling at the front of the bustling and bulging crowd in order to capture the moment on behalf of us all.

Have we reached a stage in the development of our wonderful media that they outnumber even the rioters? As I watched the footage, I couldn't help but think of Chris Morris's glorious and prophetic "It's war" satire on just this factor in one of his Brass Eye mocumentaries. His withering analysis of a media so obsessed with itself and with "getting the story at all costs" that it was prepared to start a war via a satellite-linked Newsnight-style live conversation between two countries, and then to virtually become participants in the ensuing conflict as journalists parachute into the warzone, trampling on and endangering civilians in the process isn't so far off the mark.

I challenge you to look at the current photo on the front page of The Guaridan (online) and not have just a little chuckle at how many nice big newspaper cameras there are pointing at the "action."

Monday, 9 March 2009

Heads in the sand as World Bank reveals the truth

Here's a story about political leadership...

Politicians, business people and pundits the world over can't believe what is happening. Their beloved creation: free market capitalism, international trade and globalisation as guarantors of economic expansion - is collapsing before our eyes.

Today the World Bank at last came clean on the scale of the crisis we face: a collapse in world trade. They are the first credible international body to state that international trade will shrink by 15 per cent by the middle of this year, and that world trade is on track to record its largest decline in 80 years. Yes, that's 80 years. Let me see, that takes us back to 1928, just before the last great world depression. The signs are ominous, and while I'm by nature an optimist, I fear that our leaders have not been as honest with us as they might have been.

I totally understand why politicians feel that they must try to soothe our fears. Firstly, they do not with to "talk down the economy", or talk us into an even worse situation. Secondly, they do not want to admit that they do know how bad the situation will get. Thirdly, they do not want to admit that the steps they have taken so far have not actually worked in containing this economic disaster. Fourthly, they do not know what steps to take in the future. And finally, they do not want to admit that the economic system which they helped create and nurture through the treaties they signed and the institutions they created, both domestically and internationally, is failing so dramatically. Instinctively, no politician wishes to admit this.

So we have seen a variety of responses from our political leaders (helped at all stages by the media and by business). Initially, there was an overt case of what I will call "wishful thinking disguised as forecasting". When in the UK we had our first inkling of impending problems back in the summer of 2007 with the run on the Northern Rock bank, our leaders and the commentariat told us that this was an isolated case, and that the rest of the banking system was well capitilased and invulnerable. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case. Next, we were told that the problems of the US housing market and their subprime crisis would not greatly affect the UK. How wrong this turned out to be... The next case of wishful thinking came when we were reliably informed that the financial crisis enveloping our investment banks and housing market would not, under any circumstances affect what was quaintly titled by the financiers as "the real economy." Of course the real economy then became well and truly infected as the flows of credit ceased and general economic malaise descended. The next prediction, as politicians and commentators alike started to dig head-shaped holes in the sand, was that the UK's economy would not go into recession (remember how Gordon Brown avoided using the term for as long as he possibly could), but would perhaps level out before recovering. This turned out to be way off the mark. Next, we were told that the UK recession would be short, and not too sharp, with growth returning by the middle of 2009. We all know that this will not be the case. Next we were told that the recession would be a deep one, but that it would not become a depression akin to that of the 1930s, and yet within weeks, the Prime Minister used the word "depression" accidentally, during Prime Minister's Questions. We are now surely in danger of there being a depression, lasting several years.

A pattern emerges when you look at my potted and partial history of recent events: at each turn, wishful thinking and wide-eyed optimism was the prevailing theme. As the evidence disproved the optimism, what I'll call "head-in-sanditus" took over, and the optimistic message was modified to take into account some of the bad and worsening news. Anyone who issued any public statement predicting the dire possibilities that were likely was immediately trampled on by the commentators and political leaders. If you don't believe me, please recall the trouble that Alistair Darling got into when he referred to the worst crisis in 60 years. This was then superceded by Children's Secretary Ed Balls who claimed that Britain was facing the worst crisis for 100 years. Both were immediately condemned by their political opponents and many commentators for being too pessimistic and for having let the "cat out of the bag." And yet finally today, the World Bank has corroborated these statements in black and white.

I believe that the reason why this story of wishful thinking on a mass scale is important is that it reveals a dynamic which hinders recovery and allows politicians, the media and the general public the option of entering into a bout of collective procrastination with regard to thinking about what kind of a world we wish to live in once this crisis is over. Firstly, the psychological features of what I have described above, mirror in many aspects, the kind of behaviors which were evident in those who worked either in high finance, or government or in regulatory authorities over the last few years. Collectively, we did not want to admit that we were living on borrowed time, and that much of the economic miracle of recent years was in fact a mirage, an elaborate con trick. We consumers also chose to believe the lie that an economy largely fueled by consumer spending, a housing bubble, personal indebtedness and the so-called wonders of the financial services sector, was going to lead us to long-term prosperity. We chose not to confront the structural, and yes, moral weaknesses which lay under the surface. We chose to stick our heads in the sand. We chose not to heed the warnings of the tiny minority of politicians, commentators and philosophers who preached about the folly of what was going on (Vince Cable deserves a medal for his efforts thus far - and as a Labour man, I only wish it had been a Labour politician who had shown such wisdom).

I believe that we are still choosing this easy option as a nation. We are still choosing to believe that somehow, with the limited fiscal stimulus package and the numerous other measures that the Government has taken (all of them laudable and well-intentioned), we will be able to return to the glory days of circa June 2007. Indeed the Government even called on banks to return to their pre-credit crunch levels of lending. President Obama, and our own Prime Minister are in my opinion to be congratulated for taking activist, Keynesian steps to try to stimulate their economies. They are also to be congratulated in leading the way on the international stage to garner a coalition of political leaders in creating new financial architecture. But I firmly believe that a dose of realism would be very useful at this time. People need to be told the scale of the problems that we face, if there is to be any hope that they will make the necessary sacrifices required for us to rebuild our economies.

There is just one more optimistic prediction which I often hear, and which I sincerely hope is proved to be true: that this economic crisis will not cause social and political ramifications as severe as did the last crisis of anywhere near this scale in the 1930s.

All I do is humbly offer these thoughts, and wish my political leaders and those around the world the very best in doing what they can to alleviate suffering and to rectify the situation as quickly as possible. It is my belief that we are entering a new paradigm, in which the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, on lower incomes, must be placed at the top of the political agenda. I believe that Prime Minister Brown and the Government, which I support, have not done anywhere near enough to indicate firmly that they are both on the side of ordinary people rather than financiers and big business, or that the economy which emerges from this crisis must be shaped to benefit the interests of ordinary people over and above those in the top echelons. Perhaps the reasons why we hear little about this from our leaders is that they simply do not want to contemplate a future society and economy which is radically different, or even partially different, from the one of 2007.

Yet one thing is for sure, there are always social and political consequences from any economic catastrophe. Our politicians owe it to us to both be honest with us about the scale of the problem, and then to start to take proactive steps to ensure that we will not replicate the mistakes of the past. The scale of this crisis is far bigger than anyone dared imagine or publicly state, therefore the political response needs to mirror the scale and impact of the economic problems. Politicians who start to speak more eloquently about their vision for the future in terms which are honest with their electorates and which show that we can create a better economy, and a better society in the future, deserve our support. Mainstream politicians who merely tinker with a broken system and hope for a return for the glory days of the credit card, equity release and a services-dominated economy probably may find that they are deserted and that they leave a political vacuum which can easily be filled by those with a bleaker vision and in the worst case scenario, by those whose political motives are deeply troubling.

Optimism and hope alone are not enough. They need to be translated into political action. The stakes could not be higher.

------------------

Written from a computer in the Marriott Hotel, Jackson, Mississippi, where I am in the middle of the International Visitor Leadership Programme run by the US State Department. If I get time, I'll write a blog from New York, where we go next.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

View from the States

Hi,

I'm currently in the middle of a three week visit to the US, focussing on US foreign policy challenges. It's run by the State Department, who have brought together 22 of us from European countries to travel around the States and to receive briefings on all manner of US foreign policy issues. I'm hugely privileged to be on this visit, and am learning a great deal.

I rarely get access to the internet, but am hoping to blog more about my thoughts on US foreign policy when I can. The significance of the economic crisis is playing heavily in my thinking. I personally am always asking our illustrious speakers what their interpretation is of the potential social and political consequences of the economic disaster that we're facing.

More to follow on that.

Best wishes,

John

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Credit where credit's due

Can any of my wonderful 6 readers ask their undoubtedly highly intelligent friends if they know why it is that we are all getting so fixated on trying to get the banks to do their job, rather than feather their beds in a recession. Why doesn't the government cut them out of the equation and extend credit directly to citizens and businesses. If banks can't, or won't lend, then I think the time for gentle or not so gentle pursuasion is over. Bankers have brought us to this point, and their obstinance is seemingly perpetuating the woes of ordinary people and small businesses, who through no fault of their own, face ruin. The time for action has surely arrived. Either we must nationalise the banks, or the Government must, through some ingenious ruse (which I cannot describe as I know nothing, along with most economists, about these things), extend credit to those who need it. Money is all notional, after all. If you doubt me, just look at how a boom was generated which apparently made us all so much better off. It was a chimera. A house of cards. The money didn't really exist.

Which leads me to another thought. If the recession gets as bad as even Cabinet Ministers are now predicting, then we are looking at damage being done to the economy on an almost biblical scale. Let's imagine for a minute that a terrorist group, or a mafia organisation were able to have "taken out" several City banks, and caused even a tiny fraction, say one per cent, of the damage already done to the "real" economy in this recession. The Government would have passed emergency legislation, police and army units would have flooded the streets of central London. The nation would be up in arms at the audacity of such an attack and would be reeling due to the jobs (let alone lives) lost.

So now consider what has happened in the last two years. Yes, we're all culpable to some extent, through our collective myopia and greedy wishful thinking that such a boom and credit-based consumerist economic growth could continue ad infinitum. But the "Masters of the Universe" in high finance who wrought this economic destruction on us through their greed and recklessness were more to blame. It seems that the recession will wipe out four per cent of UK economic growth in just one year. How much will the recession take in total? Ten per cent? Fifteen. Twenty? Can you imagine if a terrorist organisation had managed to cause such a calamity? There would be mass outrage.

And I suspect that unless the political masters of the market systems of the West show, very rapidly, that they are able to bend this system back towards the interests of ordinary people, these very same people might start to express similar levels of outrage.

Ed Balls and any student of history knows that there are always political and social repercussions from economic calamities. Given that every prediction since summer 2007 has turned out to be far, far too optimistic, the time to get a grip on this crisis is suerly upon us now.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

The President's coattails

The election of Barack Obama was a transformative event of profound significance for the world. Another revelation has been the actions that the new President has taken since 20 January. Simply put, President Obama has been radical and he has been bold. With the swipe of the Presidential pen, he consigned Guantanamo and torture to the dustcan of history. He has pushed through an unprecedented economic rescue package. He has capped the pay of senior executives at rescued financial institutions. He has "pressed the reset button" on relations with Russia. He has talked openly about reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world. He has extended the hand of friendship to the Muslim world. He has done more good in six weeks than George W Bush managed in eight years.

This is all well and good for the US and for the wider world. It is interesting, however, to consider how the actions of this visionary, radical but pragmatic President will impact on the Labour Party here in the UK. It strikes me that each and every dynamic act shows that our Labour Government can act with greater boldness and radicalism. The President is an inspiration to left of centre politicians and should be a jolt to the system of many Governments, such as our own, which have too long sought out the safety not of the middle ground per se, but of governing in a an overly technocratic way.

What President Obama is showing is that morally courageous political leaders can win popular support. Obama has entered office to shake up the establishment which has so clearly failed ordinary people. There is a danger that our Government, no matter how honourable its intentions, and notwithstanding its many achievements for the disadvantaged, has become part of the establishment. This is perhaps an occupational hazard. The Government too often is at its boldest when pushing through establishment measures like replacing Trident, or a new runway for Heathrow, rather than pushing through some radical policies designed to tackle the important issues facing Britain. In an age when the establishment has obviously failed in its collective responsibility to monitor and control the excesses of the financial markets, this is a tendency we must guard against.

In contrast, and perhaps imbued with the good fortune of not having been in power while the seeds of the present malaise were being sewn during the boom years, the President is showing that it is not only possible, but sometimes necessary to criticise the establishment. He is breaking barriers down if they impede the path towards taking the steps necessary to make the changes we are all crying out for. He is being proactive and strategic.

Despite some notable successes in being one of the first countries to recapitalise banks, our Government still gives the impression of being reactive. There is a danger that only when an issue becomes of such public concern that outrage flares up (as with foreign workers two weeks ago, or immigration more generally) does the Government act. A case in point is that they must have known there would be outrage about the paying of bonuses to near-nationalised banks, and yet only now, in the face of widespread public opposition to they act - or should I say, commission another report.

The President shows that it is possible to talk about nuclear disarmament without sounding weak. He is breaking New Labour taboos with almost every breath. What next?....criticism of the excesses of the financial elite...already done (in the inuagural address). What about the environment? The Americans are actually going to do something to generate jobs in the green sector. Despite recent positive steps, Britain still lags behind countries such as Germany when it comes to generating green jobs or investing in green technology.

President Obama's audacious gambits on the domestic and international fronts must be an inspiration to left of centre political parties the world over - including our own Labour Party. We are still not presenting a coherent vision for the future. Nor are we showing, as does the President, an understanding that ordinary people want a Government resolutely on their side at this time of crisis. There can be no equivocation. All the years spent appeasing the interests of the City have led us to where we are now. Whether or not the fault lies ultimately with the American banking system, or with bankers the world over, the boom has turned to bust. The onus is on Government to build a firmer foundation for the recovery and they will hopefully follow in the President's coattails. Mirroring the pragmatic idealism of this US President is surely the kind of behaviour which most British voters would support.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

The BBC's Peston hits the target

If you want to know why bankers should NOT be paid bonuses, you need look no further than this blog by the BBC's ubiquitous Business Editor - http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/robertpeston/2009/02/should_bankers_repay_bonuses.html.

We see from accross the pond that politicans of the centre-left can be dynamic and radical. In limiting the pay of banks which are taking the Federal bail-out dollar, President Obama is showing real political and moral leadership. If only our own Government would show such courage. It might even find that to stand up to the financial elites which have caused this catastrophe is popular with the voters. Heaven forbid we actually start to do things which are popular....Far better to remain entranced by the financiers and businessmen... This on the day when newspapers are reporting that the Government is debating whether or not to allow Royal Bank of Scotland to pay out bonuses to its staff. This is a bank which would have collapsed but for the Government bail-out which has resulted in the taxpayer owning 70 per cent of RBS.

I don't remember "ordinary" workers who do really valuable work like being teachers, or nurses, being paid bonuses. Those in the private sector used to claim that bonuses were reward for success. All too often we discover that people are rewarded for success AND for failure.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Seeing things from your opponents' perspective

On those rare occasions where politicians advance the cause of peace and reconciliation, it is always partly the result of their having swallowed their pride and admitted that it is possible to see the "truth" about the situation from their opponents' or enemies' perspective. This is not about pacifism, it is about being realistic. Examples are abundant: the Great Powers decided not to repeat the punitive reparations of Versailles following the Second World War because they realised that from the German perspective, such measures were humiliating and led indirectly to Nazism; the ANC showed immense maturity and dignity by choosing the route of forgiveness and reconciliation, realising that to punish the white rulers would be counterproductive; the British Government accepted that it must actually negotiate with the IRA in order to bring about peace, and the IRA came to the same conclusion. None of this was easy for the warring parties. In each case leaders exercised moral strength, not weakness. They stood up to the hawks in their respective regimes, they showed vision and magnanimity.

All this is in stark contrast to the knee-jerk reaction of our leaders to Iran's launching yesterday of its first satellite. We hear that Western leaders are deeply concerned, and we read apocalyptic newspaper articles showing how Iran's new satellite capability must mean that we are now more at risk of being attacked by an Iranian long-range missile armed with a nuclear warhead.

And now for the difficult part. Let us imagine for a moment what Iranians reading our newspapers might legitimately feel. Their scientists have performed a feat which is clearly impressive, without outside help. They are now capable of launching communications satellites. Iranians might be rather outraged that we in the West should view this with such alarm. The subtext to Western responses is that Iran ought not be allowed to have this technology, that the world would be safer if Iran remained technologically backward, as it was in the past. If I were an Iranian, I might find this insulting, and it might make me more likely to view the West with suspicion and hostility. It is even more likely that I would respect my own leaders more, for having succeeded in the face of Western disdain.

The Ahmadinejad regime is clearly unattractive, and its abuse of the human rights of its citizens is well known, as is its malevolent interference in its neighbours such as Iraq. However, I merely suggest that our leaders and commentators might for once take a step back before issuing terrible proclamations about the "threat from Iran". If you remember, the knee-jerk reaction of the Western powers to the Russian / Georgian conflict of last year has been shown to have been misguided in that Russian guilt has by no means been established for that murky war.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Letter to The Times (unpublished)

The Editor
The Times

Sir,

If during the last 30 years, socialist economic policies had been enacted by socialist governments across the advanced world, resulting in an economic calamity as devastating for ordinary people as is the present crisis, right wing parties would not merely be advocating a policy revolution, but coup d'etats. Right-wing policies of free market economics, light-touch regulation of high finance and credit-fuelled consumerism have brought us to this point, yet elicit from our 'Labour' Government no stinging rebuke for the elite which caused this catastrophe. Rather, Government is recruiting an ever expanding cabal of bankers to advise on how best to direct the bailouts. When bankers and financiers are virtually indistinguishable from the Government, the result is the notion that saving the people depends on saving the banks. People are searching for a more coherent vision of the future. Unlike in the United States, they are not getting one from our leading politicians.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Friday, 30 January 2009

Politics for Ordinary People - Part I

The current wild-cat strikes in support of a strike by British workers at the Lindsey Oil Refinery in Lincolnshire who are concerned about foreign workers being shipped in for construction work at the site, is evidence of a growing sense of bewilderment amongst ordinary, working people, about the kind of world which our political elites have ushered in over the last few decades.

When economic conditions deteriorate and people start losing their jobs or merely losing their sense of job security, people naturally focus more closely on how and in whose interests our economy is operating. During the boom years, standards of living apparently rose for all in work. Fuelled by the wave of cheap credit, and equity, released from over-inflated properties, people were lulled into what has turned out to have been a false sense of security.

There were various tenets of the package we were sold by the Establishment (by that I mean the Government, big business, the media):

1) Globalisation is a good thing which increases our standard of living through creating greater efficiency in the world economy and providing a market for our goods
2) The decline of our manufacturing base is nothing to be worried about, because what counts in the “globalised” world is high-skilled, knowledge-based jobs and industries
3) Huge increases in house prices are sustainable and the spending that is based on this is a good thing as it keeps our economy buoyant
4) Economic growth must be the over-riding aim of economic activity
5) Large scale immigration is a good thing because British businesses need the skills and energy immigrant workers bring, and at the bottom end of the scale, immigrants are prepared to do jobs that British workers refuse to do.

Each of these is now questionable.

Let’s take the first of these: globalisation. Increasingly, ordinary working people might question whether it is a good thing for people in Indonesia or China to do the jobs which they have hitherto been doing - manufacturing goods, or providing services for British consumers. Consumers too, will perhaps increasingly ask themselves whether it is ultimately in their interests to be demanding ever lower prices for goods, if it means that the jobs created by their purchasing are almost entirely going to be based, and therefore of benefit, to people in foreign countries. The recession is forcing people to reassess their lives and attribute value to different things. Much of which is actually a good thing. Increasingly, people are focussing more on their sense of community, rather than their sense of the individual. People are returning to tending allotments, to volunteering for their children’s clubs after work. Just as people increasingly wish to buy food produced in their own country, they might well start to apply this principle to other goods. For why is it only farming which elicits this sense of patriotism, as if other working people ought not have a right to be able to work to produce the very things which their compatriots need.

I will address point 2) in a later blog. These are very much early thoughts on the subject. I am well aware of the danger that protectionism poses to the global economy. However, I am also aware that it is the responsibility of governments, and businesses and bankers around the world, to show ordinary people just how the system they wish to protect and reinforce is of benefit to ordinary people. The Establishment has after all for so long harangued people from the left about the wonders of globalisation and unfettered, lightly regulated international capitalism and the dangers posed when governments seek to bend markets to the benefit of ordinary people.

I leave you with this thought: what is it that ordinary people actually want? I firmly believe that our political economy must be re-ordered following the recent calamity brought upon us by the world of international high finance and our collective submission to the myth of credit-driven economic growth. I wonder if we are actually that much better off after a decade of so-called economic growth. Our economy certainly grew. But did our strength as communities grow? Did the strength of families grow? Did our sense of security on the streets grow with a comparable speed? The challenge is surely to ensure that economic growth strengthens much more than the bottom line of companies’ balance sheets.

If in pursuing consumerism to its logical extent we ended up with the unenviable record as the country with the highest levels of personal debt – was it worth it? If after a decade of rising house prices we are left with negative equity, repossessions, and very limited house building, was the increase in the value of properties really worth it? Was the Government’s tolerance of the housing bubble, at the expense of lower income people, but in favour of middle class swing voters, really worth it in the long run? Is the fact that in supposedly prosperous 2009, two salaries are necessary for most families with children to just about keep their heads above water a good thing? Are the long hours that British workers endure such a good thing? We were always told that they meant that our economy was more flexible than those of our European and other competitors. But that doesn’t quite have the same ring to it now, when we read that those very same competitors have much larger industrial bases, and are therefore being far less exposed to a downturn caused by failures in the financial sector.

Perhaps our political elites have lost touch with the concerns of ordinary people. Even now, in the midst of the storm, it is apparent that Government and opposition parties look to big business and bankers for answers about a way out of the crisis. Sadly, the Prime Minister has not convened a High Level Working Group on Revitalising Communities. The Government doesn’t seem to be going out of his way to listen to the concerns of those ordinary people whose lives are being blighted, whose viable businesses wrecked and whose sense of optimism dashed by the recklessness of financiers around the world, yet it certainly is employing bankers and City grandees in ever larger numbers to advise on the way forward. The way forward, is very clearly not to return to the path trodden before.

The tragedy is that were the Government to listen to ordinary people more, what they might hear is that they wish them well in trying to overcome recent difficulties, and they have very good ideas about the kind of political economy and society we should be seeking to forge, once this current recession is over. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the future is better then the recent past.