Thursday, 26 January 2012

Cameron & øsbørne should head lesson from the past on Plan B

George øsbørne and David Cameron should heed this advice, from an illustrious former chancellor...but which one?...

"The Treasury has never, it seems to me, faced the profound significance of what Mr Keynes calls 'the paradox of unemployment amidst dearth'. The Governor shows himself perfectly happy in the spectacle of Britain possessing the finest credit in the world simultaneously with a million and a quarter unemployed. Obviously if these million and a quarter were usefully and economically employed, they would produce at least £100 a year a head, instead of costing up to at least £50 a head in doles".

....A certain Mr Winston Churchill, who gave this advice when he was Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1925!

Times may change, economic conditions may change, but his basic thesis was right then and it is right now. The similarity between his analysis then and that of Ed Balls and Labour now, is uncanny.

Conservatives often like to bask in the reflected glory of the former leader of their party (and Liberal Cabinet Minister, let's not forget). Let's not let them be overly selective.

The quote comes from Roy Jenkins' biography of Churchill. Jenkins explains its context as being a letter written in retort to those advising him to return Sterling to the gold standard. Something he was vigorously opposed to, but with the Opposition, the trades unions, his Cabinet and virtually all economists apart from Keynes lined up against him, even this great man couldn't resist the weight of establishment received wisdom.

In 2012, Cameron & Co.s Plan A for Austerity is failing. Unemployment is tragically high, growth has flat-lined and now ceased and the Government seem ideologically opposed to taking the necessary steps required to stimulate growth. A good starting point would be Labour's 5-point plan for jobs and growth. Unlike Churchill in 1925, there is nowhere near unanimous agreement that the Conservative-led Government's economic policy is the correct one. When a ratings agency like Standard and Poor's even caution against over-reliance on fiscal austerity, you know that the Government is digging a hole for itself and cannot stop digging.

2012 must be a year of change for Birmingham and Labour

2012 must be a year of change in Birmingham, the regional capital of the Midlands, the region in which I live. To give just two of many grim statistics: Birmingham’s unemployment rate is twice the national average and homelessness in the city has increased by 20 per cent in the past year. But we know the change we need won’t come from this Tory-led government or from an outdated city council structure. Change requires that the city seize the chance of a directly elected Mayor in May’s referendum and that the city votes Labour in the mayoral election, which is expected to be in November if the city votes “yes” in May.

Having addressed the Fabian Society in London in the morning, Ed Balls attended a campaign lunch hosted by Siôn Simon, Tom Watson and Khalid Mahmood on Saturday 14 January. Balls encouraged Birmingham to vote “yes” in May and told the diverse lunch crowd of 130, including myself, that Siôn Simon “has got a great contribution to make for the future”. The event took place in Marco Pierre White’s new restaurant in Birmingham’s city centre; the latest culinary attraction in a city that, as Simon noted in his short speech, was recently named by the New York Times as one of the world’s top 20 holiday destinations due to its dining scene.    

This success demonstrates our Birmingham’s potential, which Simon encouraged attendees on Saturday to celebrate and talk about. And it’s not just food that Birmingham does well. Most of the jewellery made in Britain originates from Birmingham. Birmingham has Europe’s second biggest Islamic finance centre. The majority of the world’s Punjabi music is produced and developed in Birmingham. Birmingham has the largest professional services sector outside of London in the country. Birmingham has Europe’s largest shopping centre – the Bullring.

Too few of these successes are known about outside of Birmingham or are championed by Brummies and Midlanders. They are indicative of an immense potential that the presently ineffectual governance structures in the city and the UK’s top-down, Westminister-centric politics has frustratingly proved unable to unlock. Birmingham urgently needs better than this. We need the democratic renewal of city-wide election of the city’s leader and the legitimacy that this renewal provides for powers and budgets to be devolved from Whitehall to Birmingham.

Simon has shown a keener understanding of this than anyone else. When he announced that he would stand down from parliament before the last general election, eliminating any possibility that his mayoral ambitions would have Labour resources diverted to fighting a by-election, he said: “After nine years in Parliament, it has become clear to me that the answers to Birmingham’s problems do not lie in Westminster and Whitehall. We cannot leave our future to London. They have not looked after our past.”

The brighter future that Birmingham must aspire to can only be built by our city itself,the people and communities that form it and the wider Midlands region. The government should be true to their professed instinct for localism and allow Brummies to do this. I’ve been inspired by Simon’s writing on what it means to be a Brummie and impressed by how he has led the debate on what powers and budgets the government should devolve to the city under a mayoral administration.       

The opening words of Simon’s contribution to last year’s book What Next for Labour were: “As well as demonstrating what central government can achieve towards Labour’s objectives, the last government demonstrated its limits.” What Simon is campaigning for isn’t just vital to Birmingham’s future. It’s about a future for the Labour Party based upon a genuinely reformed, co-operative and bottom-up state. One that moves Britain beyond one of the most centralised political systems in the western world and gives cities like Birmingham the tools to command their own futures. 

2012 must be both the year of change in Birmingham and the year in which Labour’s future is built through a new municipal socialism. Neither the Labour Party nor Birmingham can wait till a change of government in 2015 to create brighter futures. We must start now.  

Thursday, 19 January 2012

My article on Top Of The Policies - skills (17/01/12)

ProgressOnline has published my article today on the Pragmatic Radicalism 'Top Of The Policies' event held at the Barley Mow pub in Westminster on Tuesday 17 January.

Progress | News and debate from the progressive community

Top of the policies

In a week when Labour’s relationship with the unions is the crisis of the cycle, story of the second and trending twitter topic, the first of our ‘Top Of The Policies’ of 2012, sponsored by unionlearn and Unions21, steered my mind from one Unite (my union) towards the invigorating realisation that we can unite.
PragRad started life as a pamphlet, coloured plain red, with a declared stance of not representing a bloc, wing or the twittersphere troopers of the above. Since then, we’ve developed the innovative TOTP format for events, trialled first at Labour Conference, which encourages people to unite not over ideology, or the leadership’s strategy, but in thinking up new policy ideas with the radicalism and, to coin an increasingly popular descriptor, credibility needed to address the dire problems the country faces.
So the joke cracked by event chair, the Guardian’s Michael White, as he surveyed the list of speakers and quoted our pamphlet’s strap-line – “Ideas from Labour’s New Generation…John Edmonds…Parmjit Dhanda” – was funny, and rather apt. An ex-minister and ex-trade union general secretary are indeed part of the ‘new generation’ which Ed Miliband said is defined not by age but attitude. It was a good thing that, as at our conference fringe, people with such a diverse range of political experience joined together to make their two-minute policy pitches in an environment where the only criterion of success was the quality of the idea, not the status of the speaker.
While TOTP’s slightly irreverent format cannot tackle issues in depth, it points to how the party can flourish, if it truly switches on ‘receptive mode’, is open to new ideas and encourages debate among members irrespective of background. For as TOTP events, Fabian Conferences, in the black Labour, the Purple Book tour and many other initiatives show, members are not scared by a ‘blank piece of paper’, they relish filling it and, unlike the past, the ideas bubbling up in this period of opposition show we are the only party able to formulate credible policies offering the radicalism necessary for a fairer society in straitened times.
With horrendous news of record levels of youth unemployment, it was apt that we kicked off 2012 with a TOTP on skills. If you’re interested, you can read the policy idea presented here, but the Top Three ideas were: in joint third place Allan Graveson’s idea of fiscal incentives for training and Amanda Ramsay’s national Skills Mentoring Scheme; in second Anthony Painter’s call for a new high quality technical education for those of 14+; and the Top Policy was Jake Hayman (from futurefirst) who won by a big margin with a mentoring network for all state schools. These show it is possible to be pragmatic and radical.
PragRad is planning a series of TOTPs this year, culminating in a second pamphlet to be launched at Conference. We’re talking to Labour Friends of the Forces about a TOTP on defence, and already, Jack Dromey has indicated he’ll chair one on housing. Much more is in the pipeline including events outside London. TOTP offers a platform for members from across the range of opinions in the party and trade union movement to set aside their differences, air policy ideas and have a debate with a view to helping shadow ministers as they formulate policy. This is more fun and productive than navel-gazing.
John Slinger is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism and tweets at @JohnSlinger. More details at @PragRad