Thursday, 30 July 2015

The dizzy heights of public ownership

In the winter of 2007, in a bout of hopeless nostalgia for socialist times I decided to spend my New Years Eve high up in the clouds above Berlin. Well, not that high, 290 metres to be exact, in the Television Tower of East Berlin.

By chance, I ended up sitting next to a former manager of the East German Socialist Planning Agency. The Agency was responsible to project the number of consumer goods needed, everything ranging from car tyres to toilet paper (there was only one kind, of the grey and rough variety). Planning periods ranged from 1 year (the short term plans) to five years. The projections would then be passed on to the Ministry of Economic Affairs which instructed East German factories to produce the relevant number of goods.

I remember distinctly that, despite this being almost 20 years after the collapse of socialism, my neighbour at the dining table was remarkably upbeat about the future prospects of socialist planning. The reason it had all failed the last time, he argued, was because they (at the Planning Agency) had not yet had computers with sufficient calculating capacity. This was likely to be different soon as computer capacity would become so large that you could plan the needs of millions of people at any point in time. At that moment, people would finally see the light and socialism would come back.

I was recently reminded of this slightly unhinged reminiscing with a former party comrade in Berlin's television tower when I heard Jeremy Corbyn suggest that most of the UK's problems would be solved once the railways, utilities and pretty much anything else would be taken into public ownership.

What really astounded me however was not that he advocated what had failed before. Rather, of all people, Corbyn did not seem to have read much Trostky. Having turned his back on Stalinism in Soviet Russia, Trostky produced a stinging critique of public ownership arguing, in essence, that where everybody owns everything, no one owns anything, leaving a small party political clique (or union nomenklatura) in charge.

Sometimes I wonder why socialists keep climbing the same dizzy heights of economic planning time and again. But then perhaps, the view from up high might be very comforting. Everything looks small from there, as if we can move things around according to the plans we have for them.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Labour's race for 2025 (sic)

The calculations of most political observers about Labour's electoral chances in 2020 focus on seats, Scottish Nationalists and political dynamics. Yet, there is also a broad consensus that, at the last election, the party had the wrong leader. Anybody who carefully listened to Diane Abbott on This Week any time before May 2015 knew it. Miliband was never going to be prime minister (Abbott always put it diplomatically: 'he might win'). The fact is that the gut feeling of moderate centrist floating voters (of which Abbott is none, yet I am indeed) is often right. Ed Miliband never looked like a prime minister in waiting and everybody knew it from the moment he looked flustered (and haplessly) around on stage as his victory was announced.

This 'gut feeling test' does not just work for the Labour Party. It goes for Conservative candidates as well. Michael Gove just won't be living in Number 10, no matter how radical he is in the various jobs he will hold in the next 5 years.

Much has to do with fluency of delivery in front of cameras and rhetorical discipline (both things easy to credit Gove with) but there is also stature and self-belief. Take all of these things together, and you have a credible prime minister in waiting.

This brings me to the four leadership contenders of the Labour Party who are currently slugging it out at hustings. Anybody of moderate central political views will see the same: four candidates with the calibre of leading the party in opposition but none to lead them to power in 2020.

First there is Liz Kendall, who still lacks the rhetorical fluency of Tony Blair and his polished media performances. Then there is Yvette Cooper who will probably make a suitably ruthless party leader (though with an unappealing hairstyle). Next there is Andy Burnham who would be clobbered with his dire role in the Staffordshire NHS scandal every time he would appear at the dispatch box (I also find his looks slightly creepy). And finally there is Jeremy Corbyn who probably would induce laughter on all benches if he ever makes it to the dispatch box at all (does he have a duffel coat for the celebrations at Cenotaph?).

The most interesting feature of this leadership campaign is who stayed away. Labour has credible candidates indeed, yet they have decided not to put themselves forward. There is of course Chuka Umunna who probably still needs some time to clean out some skeletons from his cupboards before he can safely stand. I would not be surprised if his girlfriend quietly fades from view over the next years.

And then there is Tristam Hunt, probably the strongest candidate for prime minister in waiting at some time in the future. He is also the most dangerous opponent for the Conservatives, given his background and already polished media performances. What he lacks (and that may have played an important role in his decision not to stand) is a top front bench job in a difficult portfolio like defence, health or foreign affairs.

There is of course no guarantee that either of them will ever have the chance to put their names forward after 2020. As George Osborne is doing a Merkel and moves the Conservatives to the centre, the Labour Party's reflex is to seek solace in the socialist nirvana of unmitigated nostalgia. But once the Coopers, Burnhams and Corbyns had their stab at failure, the Labour Party will be able to look for a credible candidate. At that time, people like Umunna and Hunt should be ready.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Summer games (not quite Olympic)

If anything, the recent spat in the Labour Party demonstrates once again its genuine altruism. As the great British public are getting ready to be bored by endless traffic jams and scorching summer heat on the beaches of Kent, the Labour Party provides us all with an entertaining spectacle worthy of Shakespeare. On one side, behold the modernisers, ready to pounce on anyone who dares to mention past ghosts still haunting the party (who are now jet-setting and sporting deep tans), on the other side, see the undead of the stalinist union sympathisers who smell a chance to hijack the party machinery for the ultimate battle to bring socialist nirvana to the (uninformed) masses. 

To any bystander however this spectacle resembles more shadow boxing than an actual debate about the future of the party. In the very centre of any party husting is the glaring black hole of ideas, right or left wing, or at least the stubborn unwillingness of either side to articulate any policies. That suits the incarnation of the stalinist undead from Islington who is trying to pass himself off as the older version of the Greek PM Tsipras, with some modest success. Corbyn, like any ideologue, revels in bland 'statements of principle' which offer instant appeal but have little to do with politics, the art of the compromise. 

The centre ground does not look much more attractive with a former PPS and Cambridge graduate trotting out the line that he is 'from Liverpool' which, he believes, gives him the 'common touch'. Then there is Yvette Cooper, who is mainly driven by an unfathomable ambition to be leader without ever quite revealing why she would want the top job. My best guess is that she does this as a kind of ego-trip to revenge the defeat of her husband. But that's only a hunch taken from the only comment of hers that made headlines so far, which was that she cried when Ed Balls lost his seat. Lucky those with supreme motives like her. 

And then there is Liz Kendall, which strikes everyone as a pale version of Tony Blair (pun very much intended). Her main characteristic appears to be that she lacks Blair's charisma and his way of connecting with people, or formulating any simple sentence that hits home, for that matter. Something she will undoubtedly learn in the next five years, even if not at the dispatch box opposite David Cameron. 

So, there we are, the sorry spectacle of the Labour Party selection process. I propose that we should talk about the really important things in life again. How about a national debate on whether we should put the clocks back for summer TWO hours instead of one? We always talk about this. Let's not be diverted by the small matter of the Labour Party making itself comfortable in eternal opposition.