Monday 27 October 2014

Sunday 26 October 2014

Miliband's Stalinist grip on the Labour Party

The story about the resignation of Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont is still fast developing. Today's Observer notes that 'civil war' has broken out in the Labour Party. It also furnishes a piquant detail of Lamont's resignation. Only days ago, the General Secretary of the Scottish Labour Party was apparently asked to come to London 'for a chat'. This 'chat' must have gone badly, since the office of Miliband then called Lamont to say that 'we have just sacked your general secretary, sorry'.

Apart from the brusque disregard for political hierarchy (the Scottish Labour Party is supposed to be independent from London), the episode is also eerily reminiscent of the relationship between Moscow and its satellite Communist Parties in Easter Europe. The preferred way of dealing with wayward children was usually to ask them to come to Moscow for a meeting. Anybody who did so, was then usually 'disappeared' to Siberia or arrested and subsequently shot for various crimes such as having entertained 'bourgeois ideas' or the like.

The kiss of death... Miliband and Lamont - Foto: Andrew Milligan/PA

Although nothing has been heard of the Scottish General Secretary as of now, I think we can safely assume that he is still alive. The Labour Party leadership's manner of dealing with intra-political dissent however would still make Stalin proud.

Miliband's electoral strategy unravelling fast

You could feel sorry for the Labour leader Ed Miliband these days. As his party should be riding high in the polls, the numbers show that barely a simple majority of people would cast their vote for Labour in May. On top of that, pretty much no one, friends and foes alike, thinks that he is prime ministerial material, which begs the question, why vote for the party in the first place. The shadow cabinet appears to have taken leave of absence for the last couple of months, seemingly hoping not to be associated with the car crash at the next general election.

If that was not enough, the Scottish Labour party leader Johann Lamont has just resigned. As a parting shot, she did not neglect to put the knife into Ed Miliband's flagging authority and twist it, for good measure. In her statement she said that the London Labour Party was treating her Scottish Labour Party like a branch office (anybody heard this before? Alun Michael and Wales perhaps?). This is more significant as it may seem at first. Scotland is important to Miliband's chances to form a government next May for several reasons.

Bacon batties are the least of Miliband's problems now

First, his circle has long put all the money on what's called the 35% strategy. In effect, it is the hope that, due to the electoral maths, Labour would get into office without winning over a broad majority of voters. It's of course a strategy borne out of the realisation, that Miliband's appeal to centre ground voters is so vanishingly small, that there is no hope in hell he gets more than 35% in the first place. All other things being equal, this strategy might still work.

This is where Scotland comes in. The second part of the strategy is that Scottish Labour MPs will provide the Westminster majority to heave Miliband into office. Enter devolution and the SNP, the Scottish Nationalists. As part of the deal to win over Scots to vote NO to outright secession, all party leaders offered devolution max to the Scots. Which in effect means that Scottish MSPs (parliamentarians in the Edinburgh parliament) will decide a whole raft of things without interference from London. This however means that Scottish MPs in Westminster should also not vote on English matters (the MPs of the Scottish Nationalist who sit at Westminster have long had a tradition of voluntarily abstaining from votes on English matter). Yet, without Scottish votes in Westminster, Miliband will have no majority to form a government. So, if he grants more autonomy to the Scottish Labour Party, he effectively makes the argument that has been put forward by the Conservative Party for a long time, that is no English government should have a majority solely by virtue of Scottish MPs.

That's where the 35% strategy reveals its fatal flaw. Without the support of Scottish MPs, Miliband wont have a majority, hence no government. So he has to deny Scottish MPs of Labour any independence. Which does not look good for a party that kicked off devolution in the first place.

As this perfect storm is gathering strength, Miliband is doing what his political master, Gordon Brown, used to do: disappear from view. The Labour leader has not been seen or heard since Friday, which may just give an extraordinary insight into his (in)ability to deal with problems once he gets into Number 10. If Miliband does not address this Scottish issue head-on, his electoral chances are fading fast, bacon batty or not.

Saturday 25 October 2014

The Elysian Quartet in Liverpool

Everyone living outside London is not exactly being regaled with top class culture events. Exciting new productions in theatre, classical music or dance tend to gravitate to the capital. That's where the money and the audiences are. 

However, Cardiff is blessed with an opera house and an adjacent concert hall (the Hoddinott Hall) with fantastic acoustics and daring and enterprising guest conductors. So, if you wanted to hear contemporary classical music, chances are you may get lucky at Cardiff's Hoddinott Hall with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Jac van Steen.

Matters are different in my temporary abode, Liverpool. The city has gone from a buzzing metropolis to a third rank city within the last three decades and its cultural life is not much better. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra has temporarily de-camped to no one knows where, as its venue is being re-vamped. And, admittedly, its repertoire under Vasili Petrenko is more of the conventional fare type. 

However, from time to time, something exciting comes along even in Liverpool and that was the case last night at the Victoria Museum. The Elysian Quartet played in the Leggate Theatre (of which later) and bravely performed only contemporary music as part of the Festival of New Music organised by the Liverpool School of Music. 

The Elysian Quartet

They started with Stravinsky's 'Three pieces for string quartet' which is a difficult one and requires a perfect venue. The Leggate Hall is sadly not of that calibre with traffic noise coming in from the street. I think at times I have even heard the beeping of a pedestrian crossing, which must still be the most annoying feature of British public spaces. 

Yet, after the Stravinsky the Elysian Quartet had a real treat in store for the audience: a piece by Pauline Oliveros. Oliveros is known for her concept of 'deep listening' and the quartet delivered something oscillating between elation and profundity. That was followed by a famous piece by Steve Reich, 'Different Trains', which, given the difficulty of playing alongside a taped recording was delivered beautifully and with verve. 

If I have a reservation then it may be that the amplification was sometimes not well suited for the charming, yet acoustically echo-y hall, something that prevents the instruments to shine individually. Still, the evening was a joy to attend and it makes you wonder how stunning this could have been if performed at the Hoddinott Hall. Well, you cant have everything, I guess. 

Sunday 19 October 2014

Income inequality - the spanner in the works of economic recovery

Inequality has long been a bother to anybody concerned with social justice. The economic crisis and the subsequent drive for austerity across Europe framed this issue as one of blame for the economic crash, contrasting decreasing benefits with steadily rising wages for top earners in the public and private sector.   The Labour Party took up this issue and ran with the 'cost of living' theme. So far, it has struggled to make much headway with this debate. One reason may be that 'cost of living' implies low wages and rising prices, a pincer movement from both sides that is squeezing family incomes. Whilst this was true for previous economic crises, one element was missing this time round: mortgages. In fact, since 2008, because of the specific constellation of this crisis as one of lack of financial liquidity, central banks pumped large amounts of money into the economy which ensured that mortgages remained low or even tumbled for many house owners after 2008. Anybody on a variable mortgage rate, such as a 'tracker' which shadows the interest rate of the Bank of England, all of a sudden had more cash available at the end of the month. The economic crisis from 2008 to 2012 was a good crisis indeed for those with steady jobs and property.

So, does this mean that the debate about income inequality was a red herring? The historian Thomas Picketty argued that the long term trend in developed countries is worrying indeed as the income generated by assets tends to be larger than that generated by employment (wages). The rift opening up between the two, so Picketty, allows income inequalities to be cemented into the social and economic fabric of Western societies, reducing the chances for social mobility.

As some have pointed out, Picketty's argument assumes wages lagging consistently behind income generation through assets (such as shares). Something that cannot last forever. In fact, wages are known to lag the economic cycle in any case only for a time, simply by virtue of the fact that investment into production reduces the need for labour and deteriorates employment chances for the work force in the wake of an economic crisis. That does not mean however that wages always fall behind other types of income. On the contrary.

As the economy starts to grow, subsequent shortage of qualified labour often kickstarts aggressive wage negotiations by trade unions. There are some countervailing factors, to be sure. Immigration of skilled workers can temper the drive for higher wages, something Britain has painfully experienced following the accession of Eastern European countries to the EU.

But the concern of eminent economists and political leaders such as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and the Chief Economist at the Bank of England is that the 'normal' cycle of economic boom, increasing wages and improved confidence and domestic consumption cannot be taken for granted anymore. This is where income inequality becomes a worry beyond the immediate social justice issue. If wages do not rise, consumption will either stay down or will draw on credit, which would set in motion a circle we all wanted to avoid.

The last piece of the jigsaw of impending gloom is the surprise by all economic observers that, contrary to expectations and experiences from previous economic crises, the lack of inflation has prevented a significant reduction of debt, public and private. Which means, as we are starting on the road to a 'normal' economy again, that nothing is normal indeed. If this economic crisis will make it into economic textbooks it will be for its inability to bring about the macro-economic adjustment that was thought to be the main function of economic crises.

Saturday 18 October 2014

The ascent of the fringe parties

How do you win a political argument? Well, establish the terms of reference for any given topic, insist that these are the only legitimate ones and proceed to construct your own position as a genuine reflection of the concerns of the public neatly fitting into the previously established frame.

This is what happened pretty much across the European Union as fringe parties are dominating the public debates. The exact constellations of issues that concern voters may differ between France, Germany or the UK, but the mechanisms of highjacking political discourse are similar everywhere. Identify a concern (no matter how little pressing for voters), frame it in the way that is useful to the progression of your own interest group and then pretend that your own group's interest is identical with that of the country. From Farage to Marie Le Pen or the AfD in Germany, the blueprint for success is strikingly similar.

So, what do they share above and beyond employing the same electoral strategies? And is the rise of the fringe parties an indication of something rotten in Denmark?

One interesting aspect of the ascent of fringe parties is that the concerns differ quite substantially across countries. Whilst Le Pen runs a populist campaign against austerity in France, the German AfD is motivated by an urge to curtail (alleged) profligacy. The point they have in common is that they all have a dislike for anything European, be it European immigration, European bail-outs or alleged European imposition of economic policy (in France). They share a regret about the loss of political sovereignty, the decline of the power of national parliaments and democratic institutions. It can hardly be said that the European elite (if there is such a thing) had not been warned. The issue of the 'democratic deficit' of the European Union has been debated to death in academic circles for decades.

Yet, another element has been stirred more recently into the mix and that is immigration. How dominant the (largely inexact) terms of reference proffered by the fringe parties have become is demonstrated by the use of the word itself. Within the European Union, with the free movement of capital and people, there is technically no 'immigration' but simply migration. Yet, Farage and others have succeeded in shaping the narrative of a 'we' and 'them' which is roughly co-terminous with national borders. It is also fascinating how the prevalence of the immigration issue leaves some of the leftist fringe parties (such as the Greens) out in the cold. They simply have not anything to offer on the topic, which may either be an indication of their genuine lack of policy offers or a recognition on their part of the complexity of the issue.

Once the frames of reference are set by Le Pen, AfD and Farage, the trap snaps shut and imprisons the mainstream politicians. European Union migration cannot be changed or tampered with without unravelling the foundations of the Union itself. Mainstream politicians also become hostage to the deliberately obscure language used by Farage and others which merges issues of extra-European immigration with intra-European migration, quickly adopting racist undertones.

How this bomb can be defused in the public debate is anyone's guess. I have argued before that Farage will have his comeuppance when the electoral system in the UK crashes his hopes for Westminster representation in May next year. The first past the post is a reliable foe of fringe parties. Yet, by then the damage to the public discourse may have been done. And we will all have to live with the undesirable consequences.

Jose Saramago's Portuguese Journey

The Nobel laureate Jose Saramago may not be widely known in the English speaking world, but his prominence on the Iberian peninsula is certainly a given. His works are noted for their almost austere style and his political interventions are celebrated by the left for their insistence on social and political equality.

Saramago was born in Portugal but left his home country to live most of this life in Spain. When I first read his book 'Blindness' I was struck by the sparse language. At times, his writing reminded me of somebody who writes in a language not his own. Some phrasing was awkward or struck you as poor translation and dialogues were artificial and wooden. His prose possesses an element of artifice that goes well beyond the crafted nature of literature in general. His commitment to equality and freedom however shines through every page and so I was curious to see what he had to say about his home country in his travelogue, The Portuguese Journey.

Saramago appears to have undertaken the journey over the course of several years and the book is written from the perspective of a visitor who is simultaneously familiar and alien to Portugal. He uses the third person singular to create an impression of distance, yet the vignettes of Portuguese life are real and clearly resonated with him as a son of this land. The most curious aspect of Saramago's travel writing is however the absence of those things that were clearly close to his heart, and the abundance of those that he (professedly) hated.

The book is in effect a series of visits to churches, cathedrals and castles, with little snapshots of ordinary lives sprinkled into the (at times somewhat tiring) portrayal of elitist cultural artifacts. For somebody with socialist leanings his obsession with churches and religious paintings is confusing at best and renders the narrative stale. Even where real people push into the picture, they are usually only the pastors or cleaners opening the front doors of churches or chapels for Saramago to visit. The absence of anything apart from churches and castles belies a strange understanding of Portuguese history, where Saramago appears to discount anything that has not been made or founded by a small political or social elite. His writing almost appears to reveal an obsession with the works of those parts of society he fought all his life.

More importantly, however, it's his skewed sense of history that is puzzling. Nothing seems to warrant description that is less than several hundred years old. At times, the Renaissance appears to be the last period of worthy cultural production. This is disturbing given that Saramago's political ideals were forged in the great struggles of the 19th century and 20th century. In fact, Portugal's path through the upheavals of (failed) democratisation is probably one of the most fascinating in Europe, as she first established herself as a republic and slid into a authoritarian regime between the wars. Yet, none of this enters Saramago's travel narrative. He concentrates on a, at times painfully tedious, description of altars, paintings of saints in churches and castles. For somebody who professed a singular disrespect for religion, this absence of anything but church life is bordering on negligence and obsession.

Yet, there is something else that confuses the reader. His main narrating impetus appears to be a deeply felt belief in the need for order and preservation. Saramago's main leanings are certainly not iconoclast yet deeply reverent of high brow culture.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

What drives Douglas Carswell?

The Conservative Party is enjoying some good polling results this week and its members left Birmingham with smiles all around. Buoyed by a powerful speech from David Cameron and some tax cutting promises, the faithful departed to their constituencies with a spring in their step.

Things looked quite different only a few weeks ago when the newspapers were full of doom and gloom for the main governing party. The main reason were two high profile defections of Conservative MPs to UKIP, the party that flourishes on the margins of the political spectrum. The case of Mark Reckless, the copy-cat defector, is less controversial, mainly because Reckless's constituency is probably within reach of the Tories to retain. Douglas Carswell's defection however is a painful loss to the Conservatives, not least because Carswell is an articulate politician and a sharp mind, which makes you wonder whether or not he could be the canary in the mine.

However, here are some reasons why Carswell's defection will come to nought. First, UKIP's chances to gain a seat at the next general elections are thought to be approximating zero, if the bookies and election observers are to be believed. Whilst UKIP attracts plenty of disenchanted Tories (and some Labour voters), the electoral system is such that even a 15 percent swing to UKIP wont deliver sufficient votes in any single constituency to sweep them onto the green seats in Westminster. Things would be very different with proportional representation but first past the post will reliably swallow up any widely distributed yet shallow support for the party.

The other reason why Carswell's defection will remain an aberration however lies in his own motives. The BBC recently ran a town hall style debate with all candidates in the Clacton-on-Sea by-election and some voters. The question that hit home most of all came from a young woman. Why, she asked, if Carswell is so fed up with party politics, he would not run as an independent? Carswell's response was surprisingly weak, given that he built the argument for his defection on displeasure with party politics. He replied that Britain needs change and only UKIP can deliver that change. That's a tall order indeed. How a party can deliver change that has next to no chance to get its politicians elected next May  remains unclear.

Carswell's real motive may in fact not have much to do with party politics but with a simple calculation about his own political future as an MP. He could easily have waited until next May and sought a seat to represent UKIP somewhere in the UK at the next general election. However, this way he would very unlikely be selected for Clacton-on-Sea, a seat in which he has a solid 12,000 vote majority. Chances are that he would have to fight in a constituency with minimal chances to be returned to Westminster.

That is not the case of course if he defects and forces a by-election early, as he in fact did. He was automatically selected for the constituency for UKIP, standing as the incumbent MP.

Whilst his chances to be elected as the first UKIP MP are therefore quite good, the long term prospects to be an effective MP for Claton-on-Sea are dire. He is likely to be the only UKIP MP for the foreseeable future, so all bets are on that, sooner or later, he will return into the Tory fold.