Friday, September 29, 2006

The Revenge Of Society

It is always worth recalling that Margaret Thatcher never said “There’s no such thing as society”. After all, what she actually said is much more interesting…

“[People constantly seeking government intervention] are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

When considering the Thatcher legacy, one must always keep in mind the foundation of her belief system, namely a romanticised view of the English middle classes. In Thatcher’s world, a middle class freed from the shackles of over-taxation and imbued with a renewed entrepreneurial spirit would “rediscover” their spiritual (i.e. Christian) calling towards philanthropy and general neighbourliness.

For a generation of radicals, both leftist and centrist, used to thinking of Thatcher as the latest avatar of unalloyed authoritarian evil, it is surprising to discover in Thatcher what is essentially a social liberal ideal. Liberal or otherwise, however, it is an ideal that fails my primary test of political theory; it does not understand why things are as they are.

Thatcher’s Britain does exist, in a way. The trouble is, the places it exists are amongst the poorest in the world. A world based entirely on neighbourliness cannot sustain anything much beyond the smallest village; Thatcher’s Britain lives amongst the herders of the world.

Beyond that, government was and is the only option. In the early stages, monarchy sustained a larger society by giving the strong power over the weak. Later, democracy emerged to protect the weak from the strong and, as a consequence, the strong from themselves. In either case, neighbourliness was not something that could be depended upon; greed was, as ever, the only human driver one could rely on with any certainty.

Ultimately, society is not the natural state of affairs between humans; it is a situation that we have decided to arrange to be so because it is beneficial to us. Of late, we have been constantly reminded that the first role of government is the defence of the people, but history shows that it just as equally refers to defending the people from each other as from any other group. Indeed, my response to Mrs Thatcher’s pronouncement would have been in this form;

“Society does exist, and it does so primarily to prevent the poor from rising up with flaming torches and shoving pitchforks up the arses of the rich.”

My point is, the real debate in any political system is in the trade-off between liberty and society. Socialists believe in overdoing it; sacrificing too many liberties to give society a big margin. Capitalists believe in tactically underdoing it; allowing society to be dangerous iniquitous by gambling all their chips on a draconian justice system. Liberals have always plied the middle way; only we have chosen the difficult path of striking the right balance.

The danger for the Liberal Democrats is that Mrs Thatcher was the first leader of either party to really try the capitalist approach of dangling precariously on the edge of the cliff being held up by the police. Before her, both Labour and Conservatives erred on the side of caution; Labour by curtailing economic liberty, Tories by curtailing social liberty. With Blair, both parties have now swung wildly off the cliff with little to hold them in place.

As I have said before, liberalism is the beginning of wisdom; knowing that the desired solution is right on the line of that balance is the start of the solution. But it is not the end of wisdom; you have to know where you are relative to the line and how you got there to move in the right direction. The path to the liberal ideal is not necessarily liberalism in all its glory. Only when the pure liberals can show that they know which side of the line they are on will I be convinced.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Musings From The Window Of A Virgin Train

Sitting on a train between Macclesfield and Stoke-on-Trent heading home to see the parents inevitably turns my thoughts to transport policy. My relationship with the railways is an unusual one; my father has worked for BR/Railtrack/Network Rail pretty much since I was born, and as a result I have enjoyed free rail travel throughout the United Kingdom. That freedom allows you to do things no sane person would ever seriously attempt (the nine-hour journey I took from Plymouth to Gloucester via Reading and Birmingham in order to ensure that I saw England beat Germany 5-1 being just the pinnacle of a long list of strange trips undertaken).

The one drawback to such a relationship is that it rather removes the moral right to complain. But then, to be honest, I’ve not had much to complain about. Equally, a lot of that has been down to flexibility and forward planning rather than actual performance on behalf of the train companies.

Ultimately, however, the analysis of railway privatisation has to come back to how the system has performed against the promises of 1994. Are the trains cleaner and more modern? Yes. Are the stations cleaner and more modern? Yes. Are the trains better? No. Have we saved the billions of pounds of subsidy we used to give to British Rail? Not on your nelly…

Now, I’m not so left wing as to believe all privatisation was evil; my main objection to most privatisations is that the model used was fundamentally flawed (an argument to which we’ll return to in later episodes). In the case of the railways we get double trouble; not only is the model the worst of the lot, but after the chaos of 2001 it could almost appear that things are all right now. Instead, we are paying an enormous premium for the illusion of stability.

The real issue is that rail privatisation contravened Aubrey’s Law of Responsibility; namely, government should never give up managerial responsibility for any service the absence of which they will get the blame for. I’m sure that one of the ways in which privatisation was sold to ministers in the early days was that people would quickly understand that any problems were now the fault of the private company and not the government. That was true when the system was in good condition when everything was sold, but in the case of the railways, not only was the system in crisis, but the privatisation was specifically designed to make things worse.

The train operating companies spotted the problem very quickly; under the system as originally designed, Railtrack made a profit from track use fees, the companies made a profit from the tickets. However, with the infrastructure in such a state of decay, Railtrack had to raise the track fees to make the necessary investment in renewal. Doing that reduced the profits of the companies to the point where they had to consider reductions in services. As the blame had not moved from government to operators, reductions in services were not an option politically, hence the government had to step in and subsidise both Railtrack and the operators.

Then Hatfield happened and the whole system crashed down on Railtrack’s head. The post-Hatfield settlement ostensibly removed the critical issue from the system whereby Railtrack became Network Rail and ceased to need to make a profit. The trouble is, Network Rail still needs to get more money out of the operators; the only difference now is that the motive is not that of profit, but that of politics, i.e. the requirement of the government that it cease to have to subsidise the whole thing.

The result, then, is a settlement that is essentially no better than the original one, with the exception that it is now underwritten by HMG. What’s more, the government’s efforts to withdraw are now doomed; by stepping in, they have essentially admitted that they will always have ultimate responsibility under the current system. Responsibility has moved, but the blame is simply never going to. Under those circumstances, it may not even be possibly to simply reform the system as is; we may have to consider the nuclear option as the only temporary fix.

The answer, to my mind, is essentially the South Eastern Trains solution; renationalise for a short period, then re-privatise under a fundamentally different model. Whatever that model may be, it must recognise that the aim of railway privatisation is not that the railways compete against each other; it is that the railways compete against the roads and, particularly, against the enormous and environmentally catastrophic rise in internal air travel. Only when we accept that truth will we finally start working to a truly integrated transport policy.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I Want To Go To A Ranch, Please Can I Go To A Ranch?

So Prezza won't face a criminal investigation over the Philip Anschutz affair. In other news, bears continue to prefer the woods for their toiletary needs...

Nevertheless, there remains one question that needs answering. During the height of the media storm, Prescott's primary defence was that, while he had visited Casa Anschutz, he had had no intention of discussing the casino bid at any time. To which the obvious response is, "Well you may not have intended to discuss it, but it was the only thing he intended to discuss!"

The question is, why did he believe that this was a reasonable defence? Is it possible that, despite 35 years as an MP, he retains the naïvety of one who just came in on a turnip truck? Or is it possible that, despite 10 years of incompetence and sleaze, Labour still believe they can deflect all attacks by professions of piety?

Either way, the electorate should be under no illusions; whether led by Blair, Brown or (God help us all if it should come to pass) Milburn, the disconnect between New Labour and reality remains as strong as ever.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

I Want It All And I Want It When The Convergence Criteria Are Met...

The slogan of this Labour conference is obvious; "Working With People's Aspirations" (Hilary Armstrong just invoked it once again). As a slogan it's fair enough, sounds nice, very democratic. But as ever in the New Labour experiment, it depends upon a semantic leap of faith that is thoroughly unjustified.

What they actually mean, of course, is "Working With What We Think People's Aspirations Should Be". All the evidence suggests that the New Labour answer to that question is, "The poor want to work at all, the rich want to get richer". And fair play to them, the rich have got richer and the poor are working more.

But equally, the poor are getting poorer. People do want to work, but they want to live first, and this government has failed abominably at making jobs liveable. No matter how many flashy ad campaigns you have for all the tax credit systems, it doesn't solve the fundamental issue that tax credits are simply a bad way of doing things, even if they're run well (and what chance is there of that?)

Whatever happens with the leadership, there appears little chance that Labour will actually get to grips with their failure until they are booted out. It is essential that we as Liberal Democrats get out there and win the battle on poverty; unlike Labour, and the Conservatives for that matter, we have the policies that can make a real difference in the fight against poverty.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Whose Regeneration Is It Anyway?

I would imagine that many of the speakers at the Labour conference will match Gordon Brown's valediction for Manchester's Labour council and the regeneration of the city centre after the IRA bombing of 1996 (any resemblance between this valediction and campaigning for the council by-election next month is entirely co-incidental, of course...)

The regeneration is one of the big challenges we face as Liberal Democrats trying to take the Town Hall; how do you convince people that the city is in decline when all around them is glass and steel? But you do have to ask yourself why the regeneration happened; whose fault was it?

Are we to believe that a Labour party that believes that devolving power to local communities should never involve anything so gauche as elected councillors gave Manchester a unique exemption to actively produce a miraculous economic and architectural turnaround through local endeavour?

Or is it more likely that a powerless council took advantage of benevolent economic conditions by metaphorically removing their trousers and asking property developers to take them roughly from behind? (And man, are you going to wish I'd never put that image in your head...)

If any firm evidence were needed of the ludicrousness of claiming Manchester's regeneration as a Labour achievement, one need only look at URBIS, the one building actually built by the council itself.

As well as being one of the ugliest of the whole bunch, it sucks up over a million pounds a year to be a "Museum Of Modern Life". Or at least it would, except that it doesn't qualify legally as a museum at all, so it just sucks up the money.

The point is clear; we are the party of democratic, local government. Whatever our philosophical direction, we must follow through on our advantage and destroy the credibility of the other parties in local government.

Bathing In The Warm Glow Of Incompetence

In a strange sort of way, I feel rather nostalgic about the Major years. I entered them as a bright-eyed eight-year-old and left a wiseass fourteener, with a political consciousness born in a time of parliamentary strife and political impotence. And yet, looking back, there is one element of those times I yearn to regain; the evil.

Work with me on this one; in the nineties you knew you were getting screwed, but at least you knew the people doing it were working day and night to make sure that you were. There was something perversely honourable about the whole thing; our fates were the result of tireless dedication, and beating the system was both a noble and achievable goal.

In the naughties, however, things are much different. We’re still getting screwed, but only because our ministers of state can’t find their butts with both hands. Occasionally that Hammer-esque sense of all-pervading evil creeps into the frame, but now David Blunkett has gone through his second resignation there appears little hope of his returning to darken our door.

It’s a development that has done much to fuel cynicism and apathy towards democratic politics in this country, but I can’t help but feel that there has been a greater casualty. Through the sixties, seventies and eighties, we saw the rise of a small but significant class of strong political women. You may not have agreed with the politics of Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher, but you knew they were able, intelligent politicians. New Labour were meant to take things even further, with the Blair Babes sweeping all before them in the march for equality…

Beckett. Hewitt. Jowell. Harman. Blears. Kelly.

Now name six connected people who are more incompetent.

Discounting sporting answers, it’s difficult to do. Okay, so Mo Mowlem did well and Clare Short had her moments, but they were in relatively minor posts and were quickly shunned by the Millbank mafia. It is these six who have led the way for women in government, and they have done an abominable job of it.

But I hate to leave on such a dour note, so here’s an alternative list;

Willott. Swinson. Teather. Kramer. Goldsworthy. Featherstone.

See? It is possible to find six competent female politicians. I’d offer you a third list from the ranks of LDYS, but as the girlfriend’s on it I’ll tactfully refrain…

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The CSI Edition (aka Who Are You?)

Oh, another political blog, quoth you, and with good reason; political blogging is now perhaps the ultimate example of the internet’s greatest flaw, namely that it doesn’t distinguish between the ability to publish something and the merit of publishing it.

So why should you care about the blog of someone whose only claim to political significance is as Chair of Manchester Universities Liberal Democrats? It’s all a matter of membership.

Specifically, Liberal Democrat Youth and Students, like any segment of any political party, is made up of four groups of people.

  1. The Socialites – Those who see political parties, much like the Church of England, more as a social organisation than a religion.
  2. The Careerists – Those who believe a political career is their destiny and whose every action is to that goal.
  3. The Nutters – Those who can’t quite bring themselves to actually be communists and/or fascists.
  4. The True Believers – Those who actually buy the hype and believe their particular party has struck on some deep philosophical truth.

From a policy perspective, the first three groups don’t really matter; the socialites will just drift through life occasionally being helpful, the careerists will assiduously avoid dirtying their hands and the nutters will be usefully active without ever achieving real influence (I mean, it’s not like the Parliamentary Labour Party is chock-full of screaming revolutionaries who think that just because they do a day’s work that somehow means they should get paid, or equally that the 1922 Committee is dominated by Oxbridge-educated Old Etonians who believe in shooting poor people and the extension of slavery to anyone who hasn’t got a knighthood… erm…)

The true believers matter though, particularly in the youth organisation; like it or not, they probably constitute half the people who in twenty years will be leading your party. In the Liberal Democrats it matters rather more, because the party still hasn’t identified what its ideology is; Labour and the Tories have been around so long they figure it doesn’t matter that they’ve ceased to have one.

The reason this blog exists, then, is that most of the current batch of true believers (and certainly the vast majority of those who are sufficiently erudite to matter) in LDYS are, for want of a better word, pure liberals; an eclectic mix of influenced europhiles, barrack-room economists and post-Gulf War II rights of man types. The Liberal Democrats have only ever had one clear ideological identity, so the argument goes, hence the only way to get one back is to reclaim that one.

If I were a cynic (oh wait, I am) I would undoubtedly point out that Labour and the Conservatives don’t have identities either, instead relying on a perverse combination of race memory and collective psychosis (for example, Labour are still left-wing really) and that we can’t escape from that process any more than the egos of Messrs Blair and Cameron can make it so.

Beyond the glibness, however, I would simply declare myself unconvinced by the certainty of chance. I certainly do not believe that the only possible Lib Dem identity is a combination of academic economics, nostalgia for the Liberal Party and the seduction of European Liberalism. On the other hand, while I am in that class of people who would have been members of the SDP back in the day, I’m certainly not looking for another burst of social democracy; if I were I would have joined the party that at least thinks it is social democrat.

Either way, as a youth wing (and indeed as a party generally) the debate has to be real. If nothing else, the purists need to win the argument properly, having explained what they want to do and, more importantly, why it makes the world better. Equally, if any of us want a more pragmatic, less narrow-mindedly liberal solution, we have to fight for it on level terms.

So to start off, this blog; no gossip, no minutiae of life, just some perspectives on issues topical and not. To paraphrase Mr. Spock, “Liberalism is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”