29 November 2010


Bill Myers of Leicester has this in the current London Review of Books (scroll down from here):
Whatever Ross McKibbin may say, opponents of AV are not ‘cave dwellers’ (LRB, 18 November). AV maximises the votes of extremist candidates, since anyone voting for them knows their second preference votes will still count, while the second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated have no impact on the result, though as many as 40 per cent of the votes may be affected. In constituencies where the Labour and Lib Dem candidates are the leading contenders, for example, only the second preferences of Conservative, UKIP and BNP supporters will matter. It is possible, however, that if their own candidate is defeated, Labour voters would prefer to be represented by an ‘honest-to-God’ Tory than a ‘pragmatic’ Lib Dem. The second preference votes of the last candidate to be eliminated should take precedence over those of the least successful candidates. Under the standard counting procedure, AV is demonstrably less democratic than first past the post.
I'm not sure that redistributed second preferences of voters whose first preferences are for extremist candidates are any more problematic than the second preferences of any other voters – why should anyone's second preference be worth than anyone else's or indeed the same as anyone else's first preference? – but there is a valid point here. Andrew Rawnsley picked up on it here in his otherwise entertainingly knockabout but vacuous piece in the Observer on Sunday, in which he fails to recognise that quite a few of us reject AV not because we love the present electoral system but because it is not a proportional system or even a step on the way to one.

28 November 2010


If there is one message that defines the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, it is anti-statism. The Tories and Lib Dems agree that the British state is too big, too interventionist, too centralised, too bureaucratic, too authoritarian, too inefficient. The key task of the current government, they concur, is to set the people free by reducing the size and scope of the state and decentralising what remains and subjecting it to the disciplines of the market.

The imperative of deficit reduction, as Nick Clegg argued in his Hugo Young lecture last week, is a blessing in disguise. The pain the cuts will cause, as he didn’t put it, will be a price worth paying for liberation. Much the same point was made by the Tory journalist, author and former Thatcher apparatchik Ferdinand Mount in the annual George Orwell lecture on Friday, in which he argued, unconvincingly, that Orwell, in life a democratic socialist Labour supporter, would today endorse the coalition’s hostility towards “oligarchy”. (For a pointed demolition of Mount’s case, see Anna Chen here.)

“We need to get the state off our backs!” is hardly a novel narrative – it’s very much in line with what the Thatcherites proclaimed in the 1970s and 1980s and what liberals of a certain stripe have argued since time immemorial – but it’s one that Labour is finding hard to counter.

This is partly because Labour itself fought the general election earlier this year on a programme of cuts (albeit less rapid and less draconian), but that’s not the whole story. The reasons it embraced cuts were many and varied. Some of the party’s leading lights had bought into parts of liberal anti-statism (though not the whole package), and many beyond this group were genuinely convinced that the scale of the deficit demanded drastic immediate action. Others, however, saw the promise of cuts opportunistically as a useful gesture to placate the bond markets, the right-wing press or tax-averse “aspirational” middle-class voters, to be reconsidered in the fullness of time; and still others accepted cuts only through gritted teeth because the alternative was a potentially catastrophic revolt by some on the Labour right.

In other words, the root problem is that Labour is seriously divided on some of the most fundamental political questions, those of the proper roles and proper organisational principles of the state. Its upper echelons include bigger-staters and smaller-staters, centralisers and decentralisers, democratisers and quangocrats, privatisers and anti-privatisers, authoritarians and libertarians. And just to confuse matters further, there are bigger-staters on macroeconomic management who are smaller-staters on benefits spending and housing, centralisers on education who are decentralisers on urban planning, authoritarians on anti-social behaviour who are libertarians on detaining suspected terrorists without trial, and so on.

The upshot is that Labour doesn’t have a strong, coherent over-arching message to counter the anti-statism of the Tories and Lib Dems. It can of course argue that the anti-statist message is simplistic, iniquitous, impractical and hypocritical (which it is) and selectively oppose those coalition cuts, deregulatory measures and other reforms that are least popular. But this falls a long way short of articulating a convincing and attractive distillation of the case for social democracy in the early 21st century, which is what Labour desperately needs.

Can it develop one? I think so, but only if it begins by subjecting the coalition’s anti-statism to a rigorous critique and restating some basic social democratic political principles that it was mealy-mouthed about at best in government.

For a start, Labour needs unashamedly to make it clear that, contrary to the coalition’s rhetoric, there is a strong case for a big state – one that manages the overall level of demand in the economy, redistributes income and wealth to ensure freedom from want for all, plays the major role in provision of education, health care and other welfare services, and generally steps in to deal with market failure, particularly in transport, housing and energy policy.

Secondly, it needs to revive the argument that a big state does not have to be and should not be authoritarian, unaccountable, stiflingly bureaucratic, frivolously meddlesome or ultra-centralised. Here, some profound self-criticism of the New Labour era is in order, as well as a raft of big symbolic libertarian, decentralising and democratising policy measures. Right now, off the top of my head, I’d go for radical libel law reform, handing control of the schools curriculum back to councils, ending both central government capping of local taxation and ring-fencing of local spending, proportional representation (not the alternative vote) for the Commons and a democratic second chamber. This is by no means a definitive list or one that will necessarily be apposite come the next general election – nor is this sort of stuff a panacea for all of Labour’s ills – but you get my drift.

I haven’t a clue whether Ed Miliband’s policy review, announced yesterday, will go in anything like this direction. But I can’t see any credible alternative.

25 November 2010


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 26 November 2010

“If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter,” Pascal famously remarked, “the whole face of the world would have been changed.”

His point was that the Egyptian queen was so extraordinarily attractive that she was able easily to seduce first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony, the two most powerful Romans of her era – and that these liaisons had earth-shattering results.

Which seems fair enough … until you do a little thinking. For a start, there’s no evidence that it was Cleopatra’s nose that turned the lads’ heads, rather than, say, her delightful smile, her powerful thighs, her ready repartee or her fabulous wealth. And though their heads were undoubtedly turned, it’s not at all clear how that changed the course of events. Maybe Caesar would have pissed off fewer key people if he hadn’t been carrying on with Cleopatra, and so would have avoided assassination – but it’s just as plausible that he would he have been a less successful general without regular leg-overs. Perhaps Mark Antony would have done rather better against Octavian in the battle of Actium if he’d been able to stop day-dreaming about Cleopatra. Then again, it’s more than possible that he’d have met a sticky end if he’d spurned the come-on when they first met.

In other words, there is no way of telling what would have happened differently had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter. All we know is that it wasn’t, and what happened, er, happened. It might be fun to speculate about the broader impact of apparently trivial historical phenomena, but, as Bertrand Russell pointed out years ago, it is not serious history.

As with Cleopatra’s nose, so with Harriet’s goose. Thanks to the efforts of various assiduous journalists and contemporary historians, we can now be pretty sure that Harriet Harman, Labour’s deputy leader, hosted a dinner party last New Year’s Eve at which, over roast goose, she, Patricia Hewitt and a couple of other senior Labour MPs concocted a plot to force Gordon Brown’s replacement as Labour leader ahead of the spring general election.

That meeting was followed, of course, by the farcical attempted coup against Brown of January 6 this year, when Hewitt and Geoff Hoon circulated a letter demanding a ballot of the Parliamentary Labour Party to “resolve” what they described as “the question of the leadership” – an initiative that fizzled out when not a single member of the Cabinet came out publicly in their support.

It was obvious at the time that Hewitt and Hoon had expected more, and easy enough to guess which Cabinet members most wanted Brown out. Now, 11 months on, the full extent of the plot has emerged. Cue an orgy of speculation by Blairite nostalgics to the effect that if only Jack Straw had brought matters to a head with Gordon on January 4, if only Harriet hadn’t wavered, if only Alan Johnson and Peter Mandelson and David Miliband had been properly brought on board, Gordon would have gone, David would have stepped up, Labour would have soared in the polls and won the election …

A credible scenario? Well, up to a point – but no more so than any number of others with less happy endings for Labour. What if Straw and Harman had told Brown he should go and he had refused, then fired them? What if the goose plot had succeeded and the Brownites had resigned en masse from the government?

I know, it doesn’t matter in one sense, because of what actually transpired. But in another it does. The Blairites’ insistence that the party lost in 2010 only because of Brown’s unfriendly public persona and his hostility to the nostrums of New Labour is symptomatic of their failure to grasp either how uninspiring so much of the New Labour package had become even in the latter stages of Tony Blair’s premiership or the substantial political continuities between Brown and Blair.

Yes, there were good things about New Labour both in opposition between 1994 and 1997 and in government thereafter. Blair appealed to voters previous Labour leaders could not reach, and his government delivered ten years of prosperity, a swathe of constitutional reforms (albeit cut short), the minimum wage, hundreds of new schools and hospitals, Sure Start and a lot more besides. But the party’s electoral touch was on the wane by 2005 – and the list of its failures in office is long: Iraq, the culture of spin, MPs’ expenses, housing, financial regulation, civil liberties, prisons, energy, transport. If Labour is to win in 2015, it has to get to grips with where it went wrong between 1997 and 2010. And although Brown deserves to take his fair share of the blame, it is frivolous to think that everything would have turned out fine if only another hand had been on the tiller for the general election campaign. Ed Miliband is right: Labour needs a fresh start.

24 November 2010


Jonathan Freedland gets it when it comes to the task facing Ed Miliband:
Rather than trying simply to repeat the Blair trick of 1994 – where he declared his intention to scrap the party's commitment to "common ownership of the means of production" – a better focus would be generating a coherent answer to the question of why Labour lost in 2010 and what it would do differently next time around.

To their credit, those close to Miliband acknowledge the party has become disconnected from the British public, that it no longer looks or sounds like them. Remedying that, the leader's camp insists, will be a challenge to the party – "It will not be comfort food," says one adviser, but it will lack the macho simplicity of crushing the unions, as the uber-Blairite scribblers demand.

In the meantime Miliband needs to look outward and do the job of opposition. Lord knows, there is no shortage of things to oppose. Above all, he needs to shift the emphasis of Labour's economic argument. Right now, the party begins with the concession that, yes, there have to be cuts – and then offers quibbles about the timing and degree. That doesn't work. The only way Labour can punch through is by saying that the coalition is taking a reckless gamble with the British economy – with Ireland as a warning from hell – and that any cuts in spending should wait until the return of growth. Otherwise it simply won't get heard.

16 November 2010


I get the horrible feeling that the past fortnight has defined Labour’s response to the coalition government’s cuts programme – and that it is to take the line of least resistance.
I’m not talking about the frosty official Labour response to last week’s demonstration against higher education cuts (and fee increases) that ended with student anarchists and others trashing the Tories’ HQ building and one of them throwing a fire extinguisher at the cops from its rooftop. No one would expect any mainstream political party in Britain even to say – truthfully - that the fracas got the protesters publicity that they would otherwise have missed or to admit that the demonstrators expressed an anger that is widespread.

No, the important evidence is in dry policy speeches, notably this one from Alan Johnson, the shadow chancellor, and interviews by Johnson and other senior Labour figures. (The key Johnson interview was in the Times, so no link.) The line from Johnson and the rest is that the government is lying when it claims it was left a dreadful economic legacy by Labour and that it is cutting too hard and too fast – but that the rationale for the cuts (and for “welfare reform”) is essentially sound.

Fair enough on the first part, but, I’m sorry, the rest is selling the pass. The historian Ross McKibbin has an excellent piece in the current London Review of Books in which he makes several salient points:
To the historian, especially of the 1931 crisis, the whole thing is sadly familiar. There is the same paralysis on the part of the Labour Party (which might now wonder whether a four-month leadership election was really a good thing) and everywhere the same ramped-up rhetoric: the country is on the edge, going bankrupt, capital will flee, and it is all Labour’s fault. And this time, as in 1931, there is much that is spurious. The country is not on the verge of bankruptcy. There is no evidence that the bond market was reacting against British debt, despite the best efforts of the Conservative Party to encourage it to do so. Our fiscal position was never like that of Greece, which had cooked the books and was struggling to cope with short-term government debt, though Osborne et al insisted it was.

Why was it necessary to take such drastic action at all? Our debt ratio was much higher after the Second World War and neither Attlee nor Churchill felt any obligation to do what Cameron, Clegg and Osborne have done. Even Darling’s proposed schedule of deficit reduction seems excessively prudent. A less political chancellor might simply have allowed economic recovery (i.e. increased tax returns to the Treasury), modest reductions in new spending and inflation to deal with the debt…

I doubt that the cuts have very much to do with the economy: if they did they would have been more plausible and less risky. It is very unlikely that Osborne, if asked, could give any economic rationale for them. Nor could the Conservative MPs who cheered and waved their order papers when he had finished telling them that everything was going to be made significantly worse. The importance of the cuts is not economic but political and ideological…

The notion that the state should conduct its own finances in the manner of a prudent household has always been thought plain common sense by many voters (though no one in the Treasury would agree), even if in the last 20 years the electorate has conducted its affairs anything but prudently. Thus from the point of view of a rather rudderless Tory Party the very hugeness of the cuts is an advantage: they magnify the crisis and Labour’s recklessness in causing it. Further, they restore a sense of authority to the Conservative Party and to its interpretation of British politics and society, something it has lacked for a long time. That the cuts are promoted by a coalition government including the soft-hearted Lib Dems is an added advantage. It shrouds the Thatcherism of the exercise in a cloak of fairness.
The coalition is arguing for a cuts-to-tax-increases ratio in its consolidation programme of 80:20, with the axe to come down as soon as possible to eradicate the deficit in the lifetime of a parliament. Before the election, Labour was going for 67:33 cuts-to-tax to halve the deficit over four years; today it is arguing for 50:50. But even 50:50 to halve the deficit over four years is unnecessarily draconian. Why not 40:60, as advocated by Ed Balls during the Labour leadership contest, or even 30:70, with the bulk of tax increases being paid by the top 20 per cent of earners, by the wealthy and by banks? And why over four years and not six or even eight?

A cynic would say that 50:50 over four years is simply to keep Peter Mandelson and other New Labour nostalgics from sabotaging Ed Miliband’s leadership by banging on about the impossibility of selling tax increases to “aspirational” middle England. John Rentoul explained it rather more generously in the Independent on Sunday, where he praised Labour’s “Tardis” strategy, according to which “the way to win the next election is for the party to imagine itself into the future … Imagine it is November 2014; the general election is six months away. How has the opposition party demonstrated its economic credibility?”

I'm not convinced. OK, it makes sense for Labour to think long-term and to avoid hostages to fortune. Economic credibility is undoubtedly a Good Thing. But we don't know what the state of the economy will be in 2014 and what will then count as “credible”; and the most obvious hostage to fortune in current circumstances, with recovery weak and imperilled by the likely impact of spending cuts in reducing demand in the economy, would be a commitment to over-hasty and over-severe austerity.

The real danger for Labour, in short, is not that it appears insufficiently keen on cuts but that its timidity in questioning the fundamental assumptions of the coalition's slash-and-burn assault on the welfare state will render it incapable of benefiting from popular anger at the effects of government policy. I hope I'm wrong, but the party currently looks as if it is sleepwalking into a trap.

12 November 2010


Paul Anderson, review of Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed by Mary Heimann (Yale, 2009), Tribune, 12 November 2010

Mary Heimann’s history of Czechoslovakia is both a supremely competent and detailed narrative account of the short lives of a central European state (1918-39 and 1945-92) and a brilliant piece of iconoclasm.

For most in the west, Czechoslovak history means four things: the Munich crisis and its aftermath, when a plucky little democracy was betrayed to Nazi Germany by the appeasing governments of Britain and France; the communist coup of 1948 that put paid to a nascent democracy; the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, when Soviet tanks snuffed out a brave experiment in “socialism with a human face”; and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when peaceful protest forced the collapse of the communist regime.

Heimann tells all these stories with verve – but in doing so makes it clear that there was more to each of them than most in the west realise. Czech and Slovak chauvinism were “among the principal causes of the instability that led to the Munich crisis”, she argues; and the same phenomena played a major role both in the anti-Jew and anti-gypsy persecutions of second world war years and in the hardline Stalinism that characterised the country’s communist regime for most of its existence. Czechoslovakia, in other words, was not simply a put-upon victim but at least to some extent the architect of its own misfortunes.

This is a controversial thesis, but Heimann marshals her evidence convincingly, never overstating her case. She shows that the first Czechoslovak Republic (1918-38) was never a straightforward liberal democratic utopia. It was, as its architects intended, dominated by Czechs (the majority population in the western two-thirds of the country, Bohemia and Moravia), with the Slovaks (the majority in the eastern third, Slovakia) and other nationalities (Germans in the west, Hungarians and Ruthenes in the east) marginalised from the start and increasingly attracted to authoritarian and fascist anti-Czech nationalism.

She then tells the unsettling story of the short-lived second Czechoslovak Republic (1938-39, after Munich), in which anti-semitism took hold of popular opinion as the far right rose in what remained both of Slovakia and of Czech-majority Bohemia and Moravia – paving the way for widespread willing co-operation with the Nazi Final Solution – and goes on to make clear how far nationalism and anti-semitism embued the communist regime that seized power in 1945.

All that changed after 1968, when the regime was rescued from collapse by Soviet arms and its claims to represent the national interests of its peoples lost all credibility: the next 20 years, Heinmann says, were widely felt as a “foreign occupation”. And when the system finally cracked, it took only three years for tensions between Czechs and Slovaks to reach breaking point. The Czech Republic and Slovakia became separate states on January 1 1993.

This book is a fascinating study of the enduring importance of nationalism and an eye-opening expose of the myths behind received historical wisdom. It is essential reading for anyone interested in 20th century central European history.

11 November 2010


D. J. Taylor has a piece on Remembrance Day in the Independent that sums it up perfectly for me.

6 November 2010


Next year's promised referendum on changing the electoral system for Westminster elections from first-past-the-post to the alternative vote looks set to be an even damper squib than it did a couple of months ago now that Labour has announced that it will be not campaigning for a "yes" vote.

The "yes" campaign is likely to comprise only the Liberal Democrats, a smattering of Labour MPs, various small electoral reform lobbying groups and a handful of columnists in the upmarket press. And rather a lot of people in the "yes" camp will be campaigning half-heartedly or reluctantly because AV, in which you vote preferentially in single-member constituencies ("1, 2, 3, 4 ..." rather than "X"), is not a system of proportional representation, which is what they actually want. Indeed, I suspect that most supporters of a "yes" vote will justify their position on the grounds that AV would be a "step towards" PR.

As I've written before, I don't buy this argument. AV is not only not a system of proportional representation, it is in no sense a "step towards" it. In many circumstances it would yield results that were even less proportional than FPTP. And there is no evidence whatsoever to believe that introducing AV would unleash a dynamic successful movement for PR. (My hunch is that the reverse would happen, and that we'd be stuck with AV for the long term.)

Add the fact that AV has flaws that FPTP does not have - most notably that it gives the same weight to some voters' second (and third, and fourth ...) preferences that it gives to others' first preferences - and I really can't fathom why anyone who is serious about PR isn't campaigning for a "no". As a long-time supporter of PR, I feel like a vegetarian in a restaurant being offered the choice of pork and beef.

So although I'm glad that Labour has opted not to campaign for a "yes", I don't want to leave it there. On the other hand, I don't want to throw in my lot with the Tory "No 2 AV" crew or the neanderthal Labour defenders of the status quo. I've been discussing with a few friends the idea of setting up for setting up an "AV is not PR: vote 'No'!" campaign, and we're definitely going to go ahead. If you're interested – and if you've got any ideas for a snappy name for the campaign – email Gauche or use the comments box.
  • I've now launched a blog, AV IS NOT PR, to put the case for a "no" vote in the referendum on the grounds that proportional representation is not on offer.