Thursday, 23 March 2017

The Best Lack All Conviction

That is a quote from Yeat's "Second Coming" it contains an oft quote line in politics about the "centre cannot hold". I don't know what made me want to use that as my starting point, except for the fact that it is bloody brilliant poem. But I guess it is the political sentiment. It does feel like the centre - whether that be centre-right, centre-centre (is there such a thing!) or centre-left is not only under siege, its positively collapsing. For some months I've been saying to people that we are living in "extreme" times, not just the extremists who perpetrate atrocities on the streets of Westminster, but also the extremes of right and left, where those who scream loudest from the citadels of Facebook and Twitter, like Mr Trump, are the only ones heard above the background radiation of chatter. 

My reason for writing this post is to try and formulate a response to a narrative that I'm seeing slowly take hold amongst some "progressives" in the US and here in the UK. I suspect this narrative might also grow in mainland Europe depending on how the latest round of elections go. We have had recent success in Austria and Netherlands recently where 'populists' were defeated, and it is my hope that the moderate centre-right, centre and left will coalesce around an alternative to Marie Le Pen in the French presidential elections. If the damage can be limited to Mr Trump (who will not be in office forever) and to Brexit, then that will allow breathing space for us all to get our collective heads together. Incidentally, I can't stand this term "populist". Your not "popular" if you poll less than half of the popular vote (Trump) or win a one-off plebiscite by a couple of percentage points (Brexit) design to hold the Tory Party together at the last General Election. Lets call this out for what it is - yet another right-wing backlash against change that's been happening for decades. It's been tried and failed before, with Major's "Back To Basics" and Hague's "Save the Pound" campaigns. But this backlash against a socially progressive agenda is new and much more dangerous, because this time they appear to have captured the hearts and minds of the easily persuaded. Its my sincere hope that this is the socially conservatives last dying gasp of breath, before we shovel the last part of the sod over their retrograde values.

2016 has caused many on the progressive side of the house to question themselves and ask why did we 'lose' so badly last year. Why did the Democrats fail against Trump, and why did we fail to win the argument over Brexit? I read two articles recently that tried to dissect this issue, and laid the "blame" to some degree on over-emphasis on "identity politics". Here's the two incidents I'm thinking of. Bernie Sanders did an interview with The Guardian a few weeks ago. Here's what he said:

“Over the last 30 or 40 years the Democratic party has transformed itself from a party of the working class – of white workers, black workers, immigrant workers – to a party significantly controlled by a liberal elite which has moved very far away from the needs of … working families in this country.” 
He goes on to lament what he sees as an unnecessary dichotomy between the identity politics favoured by those liberal elites and the traditional labour roots of the movement – steelworkers, say. He is so incensed about this false division that it even dictates his self-perception: “I consider myself a progressive and not a liberal for that reason alone,” he says. 
I ask him to flesh out the thought. He replies that the liberal left’s focus on sectional interests – whether defined by gender, race or immigrant status – has obscured the needs of a shrinking middle class suffering from huge levels of income inequality. It didn’t need to have been that way. “The truth is, we can and should do both. It’s not an either/or, it’s both.”

Speaking at the London School of Economics on Monday evening, Kinnock said Labour should learn from Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump. 
“We have been a party that has been increasingly associated with standing up for certain groups in our society and not standing up for all in our society,” Kinnock said.
“We’ve been obsessing about diversity,” he added. 
“The huge mistake we’ve made, we have played the game of identity politics and identified groups, whether it is by ethnicity or sexuality or whatever you might want to call it, rather than say, ‘we stand up for everyone in this country and that includes you, the white working class’.” 
“What we need to see in the progressive Left in the country is an end to this identity politics. We need to be talking far more about commonality rather than what differentiates from each other - let’s talk about what unites us.

There's a couple of things to mention here. Both Sanders and Kinnock manage to rescue themselves in the last breath, by pulling out the "unity" card and that's not either/or. But not by first expending a lot of hot air at the expense of so called "identity" groups. For anyone who comes from an "identity" group it is no small irony that these comments from from those who are largely white, heterosexual, men. They don't have an "identity" because they are not "different", they are "normal". It's perhaps worth mentioning that neither the Democrats and Labour are renowned for diversity in the past - for decades they have more or less parties that represented a "dickfest" of white, male and heterosexual people. Yes, we have had two female PMs, and Blair's so-called "Blairs Babes", and I wouldn't want to decry attempts at positive selection and all-female shortlists. But compared to the long history of both parties - these have been some what tokenistic. The Democrats failed with Clinton because she is just such a hate-figure amongst the conservative right, and couldn't overcome the baggage that comes with being a Clinton. They failed with Clinton because she was offering economically more-of-the-same. At least Trump dangled a fake US resurgence together with hollow promises he could never, will never, and can never deliver. He took "telling them what they wanted to hear" to the Nth degree...

Look, I'm not trying to get all "Generation Snowflake" like on you, and Little Miss Politically Correct. But this kind of wobbly thinking will not do. I'd question the Progressive Left's de-facto assumption that some how the BAME, LGBTQ+, Women's Vote, Jewish Vote - etc, etc is somehow automagically there's to have. I would say that's a bit presumptive. Especially in the US where the BAME vote has largely been taken for granted - in a "who else you gonna vote for?" way. The history of so called "identity politics" especially on the Left, is that we would have to put up and shut-up until the Glorious Workers Revolution. And once the oppressed working classes were liberated from the yoke of Capital, then our itty-bitty identity issue would all be nicely tied up in a neat bow. Of course, it never really worked out like that. Because the revolution never happened, but more importantly we weren't prepared to wait around for Mr White Heterosexual Man to deliver us from Egypt. The story of "identity politics" isn't having our civil and human rights handed to us on a plate - but struggle, sometimes violently at our expense - to achieve those rights. It's a struggle that never ends, because there's always a right-wing backlash threatening to roll back the precious ground that's gained. OR some Leftie saying that an over-emphasis on "identity politics" means loss of focus on their 'core electorate'. Yes, that other bunch of votes who they assume they have an automatic right to. And don't get me started on the Scottish vote...  

Saunders is right is that there's no reason that why the Democratic Left can't do both. So why didn't they? I mean, no-one was stopping them, least of all those from the "identity politics" side of the house. Here's what I think happened. Somewhere in the late '80s, the Democrats and Labour began to realise they couldn't win or rely on the votes of the working class alone, and that they needed a "Rainbow Coalition" of groups in order to get the ball across the line and win elections.  That phrase "Rainbow Coalition" isn't mine, but was coined by Jesse Jackson during his ill-fated 1984 Presidential Bid. But no-one said the plight of the urban poor shouldn't be included in that coalition as well.... 

At the same time the economy was shifting - we have seen a massive decline in our industrial and manufacturing base. It's a commonly held view that we are living in a post-industrial society, and many would argue that our manufacturing capacity has been systematically degraded by successive Tory (and Labour) governments, I feel that it won't be long before we say we are a "post-manufacturing society" as well. Those with the tiller on the economy will only produce stuff here, where it is economically viable, everything else they will continue to ship out to countries with lower labour costs. Despite what Trump says, those lost jobs will not be coming back to the rustbelt anytime soon. Coupled to this there has been sustained and largely successful attack in the UK on the Trade Union movement, such that the kind of homogeneous class-politics of the post-war era has been largely shattered. We now have increasingly fragmented de-unionised, zero-contract, casualised group at the bottom end of the labour force being systematically screwed on a daily basis. These people are getting the shitty end of the Globalisation Lollipop. Is there enough of this marginalised and disaffected people to turn the tide towards progressive cause? Probably not. Both Trump and Brexiteers successful mobilised this group for the agenda, which as we all know - will do nothing materially to improve the lives of those who voted for them.

I think the real reason that disgruntled blue-collar Americans voted Trump and disgruntled blue-collar Brits voted for Brexit, is how the Democrats and Labour Party under Clinton and Blair, more or less capitulated to the ideology of supply-side economics, and so called "End of History" trickle-down economic theory. I've said it often in passing - there's a reason that "trickle down economics" is called that, because precisely a trickle of wealth dribbles down from the 1% from the top of the economic tree. Somehow the progressive left just didn't have an answers to the dominant ideology of the laissez-faire free-market. Indeed, Blair/Brown were busy cosying up to the city, as they saw it a useful way of raising taxes to pay for investment in things like Education and NHS. That was in part a strategy not to scare the horses immediately after a general election. Labour economic credentials took such a hit in the '80s/90s, that had to move to reassure the markets they could be trusted. Neither Clinton or Blair did much to reign in the excesses of the city, and instead road a credit boom all the way to the Armageddon that was the credit crunch. When the music stopped and everyone was left looking for a chair to sit on, neither Brown or Obama seemed to be able to capitalise on the fact that essentially Keynesian economics (as well as printing money) stopped the economic system going to hell in a hand-cart. 

So and this my main point. Sanders and Kinnock should not be engaging finger-pointing and blaming "identity politics", and any attempt to do so will come across as blaming others for their mistakes, as well as potentially alienating those identities who felt the progressive left was their natural home. It is for me, but its worth saying it isn't for others. You do get Tory women who describe themselves as Feminists, and you do you get Tory Ministers who are Gay and Lesbian. Many trans-people I chat to have deeply dodgy right-wing notions as well as thinking Brexit is a great idea. There's nothing endemic to "identity politics" that makes it a progressive or left-wing project. There are many conservatives who profess conservative economic thinking, together with social liberal views. It was part of the project to detoxify the Conservative brand, so it was no longer seen as the "Nasty Party". Of course, we all know that the Conservatives/Republicans are the nasty parties, but they have to some degree airbrushed the worst extremes of their bigotry to make themselves more palatable to the easily (mis)led.

So where next? Over the last few years and coming years, there's going to be a continued squeeze on living standards. The medicine of more austerity isn't working, as all we getting is reduced living standards, increased inflation (because of the devaluation of the pound and Brexit) and still the deficit remains large. It's a deficit of money and deficit of political ideas..,. We stand on the cusp of a revolution in manufacturing (3D Printing etc) and automation (Robots, Machine Learning) which will threaten not just blue collar but white collar work as well. We need a radical new ideas for how to deal with this onslaught against working people, and a continued slide into low-skill service sector jobs, as well as the massive increase in social care costs associated with an ageing population. Rather than going into attack mode - we should be offering alternatives - such as revitalising our economy around environmentally friendly and sustainable technology, as well in new sectors such as bio-tech - one of the few areas were the UK still leads the world. Most of all we need to invest in our children and our future by offering the best education available minus the debt and loans that have typified recent education policy. Now, the most important asset, are the people of this country, and we must invest in ourselves. 

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Mr Spreadsheet

Philip Hammond is Mr Clippy reincarnated for the 21st century.
[Yes, this does sound like reading a painful stream of consciousness - that's is because it is. Just thank your lucky stars this isn't on Facebook] 

At the moment the current Tory administration is basking in the glory of U-Turn more reminiscent of the handbrake turn in "The Sweeney". As you probably know, the Government recently tried to renege on a manifesto pledge to not increase taxes in the term of this Parliament. There's a couple points in this ominishambles that need to be separated out, before the murky brew which is claim, counter-claim,  and pre-buttal takes hold. 

Firstly, what's largely being lost is the policy wasn't actually that bad. I mean no-one likes taxes, but this was progressive. For those for whom self-employment represent the alternative to eking out a bleak existence on benefits, or stringing together a series of zero contract hours jobs - they would paid very little if anything in increased NI contributions. Everyone knows that rise in self-employment has nothing to do with a sudden flush entrepreneurial spirit in the UK, and everything to do with the way our economy nearly went to hell in handcart after the credit crunch. The only reason people become self-employed tiddlywink makers, is this now better than being demonised by the Channel4 as scrounging "Benefits Scum". Remember those, I mean "benefits". Things you paid for by the very same taxes that are meant to offer an insurance in case times are bad. That you are now made to feel ashamed to claim? 

There is pyramid of being screwed in this country - and it starts with the employed who are royally screwed by HRMC.  The HRMC can get to you salary at source using PAYE. They take it well before you get any chance to wire to your off-shore account in the Caymans... 

The ironic thing about this is being self-employed from a taxation point of view actually sucks. The self-employed are taxed at the same income tax rate as employees despite the massive personal risks they take. Worst still self-employed people have to pay upfront money on earnings they have yet to make. Yes, that's right, the HRMC predicts using a special magic crystal ball, what they think you might make in the next 6 months, and ask you to pay upfront "on account" before you've even earned this money!

It's for this reason we have seen a ballooning of Limited Companies that employ just one person. Limited Companies in the UK are given a quite a lot of rope. They get a much reduced % of taxation, and plenty of notification and notice to pay your taxes in your own sweet time (NOTE: Within reason. Were not talking Google like ability to discuss with HMRC what level tax you feel your in the mood for paying this year...). So the more you earn as self-employed person the more you will realise you should really be a Limited Company. Anyway, I realise this sort of negates my own argument about not effecting people, but usually takes the self-employed a while to work out that paying the taxman taxes on money you haven't earned yet, isn't going to do your perilous cashflow any favours. Remember the government has been encouraging people to go self-employed. You should always be a little suspicious when the government encourages you to do something - the nearly always have their interests (or big business) at heart, not yours... Have you note noticed this yet? So the push to go self-employed simultaneously keeps the unemployment figures low, the benefits bill low - whilst supplying big business with a slew of cheap casualised labour in the so called "gig economy". By the way dubbing being low paid with no benefits a 'gig' doesn't make it sexy, and using the term just makes you look like a bit of a Shoreditch Twat. Just sayin'

The truth is the HRMC have always hated self-employed people. Why? Well, years ago in a cash economy being self-employed was a great way of trousering money that Her Maj would never get to see. The young won't remember this but there was once a turn phrase that customers would use that was "How much for cash?"... There was this implicit agreement that we were all on the fiddle - and this displeases the mandarins at HRMC. However, seem quite happy to sip sparkling water at Facebook roof-top offices in the Shard... This period of self-employedness ended when people start carrying 20p in cash in pockets, and instead adopted the practise at waving bits of plastic the till instead. ANYWAY...

The reason Mr Clippy's (I mean Philip Hammond) Great NIC wheeze was good idea is that without the NIC increase a gaping hole would appear in the public finances. Although it is possible to over state this issue. The gaping hole has to be compared to the Grand Canyon Gaping Hole that is next to that makes this shortfall look like a small pothole at the end of you road. You know thing that politician's refer gnomically as "The Deficit". You may think they are talking about national debt, but they are really referring to the deficit of ideas that have around reducing it.... But anyway, the principle was right in terms of NIC contributions. The nature of work is changing whether we like it or not, and therefore HRMC had to find a new method of wringing money out of the Great British Public, whilst allowing larger corporations to continue to flog billions of pounds of goods in the UK, and reporting their tax location as some man-made atoll based in the Indian Ocean. 

The trouble is they made a complete hash of the job. The current administration would like us to believe that May & Co are diligent completer finishers; tedious technocrats with an eye for spreadsheet detail. You know kind - PPE rejects from Oxbridge, who could not get proper jobs in the City hedging pork-belly futures, so instead have to grift their way up politic ladder instead whilst the learning to put one word in front of another at Oxford debating bun-fights. Unlike the current crop of "Masters of the Universe" they have to patiently polish their political careers, until they could eventually leave office, and do lecture tours in the US, and secure a one-day-a-month directors position at Goldman Sachs.

The trouble is this all a lie. Not only are they pigging useless at conditional formatting in Microsoft Excel. They can't even remember their own manifesto commitments, let alone realise that their slender majority of 13 MPs would soon rebel at the first sight of White Van Man being clobbered with more taxes. So not only are the economically inept, they also politically inept. It's like some student failing to do a spelling and grammar check on the essay they bought of the Internet. [cough]

First they have a policy, then they kick it into the long grass for six months, and then finally they take round the back, and blow the policies head off. A policy that wasn't so bad economically, has been scuppered by their own politically uselessness. The have a majority - but couldn't even get their own budget unscathed through Parliament. And these are the people who will make sure that "Brexit mean Brexit' and how they will get a 'good deal for Britain'.  And on top of that in a couple of years time we will have an even bigger debt because they were spending more than they were raising in taxes. The very thing the accuse the Labour government of doing. [Deep Breath]

And to my last point. Someone, somewhere needs to work out how to make political capital from this before the news agenda moves on, and you start watching kitten videos again. Every election since I was born has been run with the agenda that Labour "has a £N billion hole in their spending commitments" and that "Tax Bomb" waits unsuspecting in the wings to fill the gap. This is because Labour has a perception problem of being economic halfwits. But lets turn it around. The Tories have created a real hole the public finances, by the failure to introduce a hidden tax bomb they promised they would not introduce, and they did whilst millions of people were watching them....


Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Goodbye World

This isn't me. Just random photo from
the interweb from the movie "Goodbye World".
My hair would never look this good...
Typically, the very first post on a new blog will be a "Hello World" post. Being the typical arsey contrarian I am I decided to do the exact opposite for no particular effect or purpose.

So why did I decide to setup a blog that is specifically has a political agenda attached to it. Well, like a lot of people one of my habits is posting political stuff on my Facebook. Nothing says "Fluffy Kittens" like a 18 paragraphs of diatribe against the latest buffoonery that passes as leadership in this current climate. Sadly, Facebook is not a very good platform for anything of detail or length. And I personally think that the Facebook approach to politics as significantly chiselled out meaningful commentary. You post something Facebook. Say "HA", screw you Donald Trump, and then look at some more kittens. Feel better? Change Anything? Nope not really. So much better to set up a blog and rant ineffectually there instead. And there aren't even any kittens to relieve the torpor and millennial angst!

But on a more personal level I feel a bit guilty filling up my friends timelines with my outraged invective.  When actually what people want to see on Facebook is happy smiling pictures of friends, enjoying much infinitely more fulfilling and happy lives than your own - leaving you feeling wretched and woebegone. 

So why the "Age of Rage"? Well, you will be relieved to hear that there's no snappy and succinct philosophy or insight intended. Reader, I just thought it sounded good and would snare you in!  But afterwards it got me think about this shrill world of competing anger. And you see it on social media especially as each of Zukerberg's billions of broadcasters (I'm mean Facebook Subscribers) scream ever louder to be heard above the din and chatter of the other 7 billion people, on this lonely ball of earth and water.

That's one of my pet ideas at the moment. That the rise and rise of social media has made everyone their own TV channel. Your Facebook feed is your TV Channel. Literally, you can broadcast yourself live on the interweb. Horrifying isn't? But imagine a television with billion channels. I mean you think your overwhelmed by the 100+ you set box currently offers. Most of it shopping channel dross, right? Well, imagine that a billion times worse. 

One of my favourite videos at the moment is the Duelling Carls. This where this women puts two phones together with an app that repeats the last thing that said. The each get more and more shrill until they are just screaming at each other - a perfect digital reproduction of this Age of Rage.