Tag Archives: progress

The vacuity of progress

After a week of George Osborne attempting to claim the mantle of “progress” whilst defending the NHS, and an organisation called “Progressive Vision” calling for the NHS to be scrapped, PoliticsHome have published a poll which suggests that a) A third of people think that no political party is ‘progressive’ and that Labour is less progressive than the Tories, Lib Dems and the Greens; and that b) most people think that ‘progress’ means ‘reforming’ and ‘modernising.’

I’m sure that what PoliticsHome would like us to infer from these findings is that Labour is a busted flush, and it is hard to deny that it suggests that. But it also suggests something else: the word ‘progress’ has come to mean nothing at all really.

‘Modernise’ was used so much by Tony Blair that it became a busted flush. ‘Reform’ isn’t quite there yet but is essentially meaningless unless qualified with something else. ‘Progress’ alone remains a phrase in the political lexicon that politicians still seem to think they are in a battle to dominate.

I can’t help but feel that if you asked the public what ‘reform’ or ‘modernise’ meant most of them would say ‘progress.’ What this suggests is that all three words have become fuzzy marketing words rather than anything else. They are a substitute for meaning.

When everyone from the far left to the far right is claiming ownership of a term then it has essentially become meaningless and it is time to move on. It wasn’t always thus. During the Enlightenment, progress was linked to the notion that we are moving towards a perfected, utopian society. For a while the left held onto this notion whilst superimposing its own vision of equality and solidarity.

What’s worrying is the way political discourse has become dominated by these non-words. Pace Obama, “change” including “real change”, “the change we need” and “now for change” has become ubiquitous. Particularly in the UK a lot of people appear to have mistaken the accoutrements of the Obama brand for the core package and assumed that if you copy the former you will magically get the latter. When people on the other side of the world do this, we call them “cargo cultists” and patronise them.

It has always been the case that the two most effective political messages are “it’s time for a change” and “fear change.” In this time of comparatively value-free politics we appear to have confused the strategy for the philosophy.

A Straw poll on primaries

Progress have launched a campaign for Labour to adopt primaries, following on from David Miliband’s Tribune article last week. To mark it, they have quickly whizzed out a short paper by Will Straw (pdf), who I am shocked to discover is now 29 (I have to admit that I still think of him as a horny cannabis-frazzled 17 year old who got stung by a Mirror journo and I’m convinced this happened yesterday). A few brief thoughts on the paper:

  • Will has a positively Jack Straw-esque command for spin. Feeling that he can’t get away with the standard definition of open and closed primaries, he comes up with an option of Labour adopting either semi-open or fully open primaries. In fact, his fully open version is what I recognise as either semi-open or semi-closed system while his semi-open system is closer to a closed primary (Wikipedia has a list of definitions). The arbitrary change in terminology probably has more to do with a concern with not wanting to advocate a system that could be described as “closed” than anything else.
  • Straw appears to approve of what he terms “meaningful electoral reform” but nowhere does he address the objection that both the Labour and Tory hierarchies seem to be shouting about primaries as a distraction from proper electoral reform. The objection that any open list or preferential voting system would do everything that a primary system would do, only more cheaply and inclusively, is not listed as one of the main criticisms of the primary system despite the fact that it is the most compelling.
  • At no point does he address the rather thorny issue of cost, which is surely the biggest single objection to rolling out the system. To be fair, he does refer to ‘cost’ once – when he advocates using online voting. There are very strong reasons to object to online voting (disclaimer: while I agree with ORG when it comes to e-voting, I am somewhat more sanguine than them about e-counting) and we should oppose it for primaries as much as for the elections themselves. Sorry, but there is no way that would be an acceptable way to keep costs down.

Fundamentally, although addressing some internal Labour preoccupations, this paper fails to address the main objections to primaries: why bother when “meaningful” electoral reform does so much more, so much more cheaply; and how will it be paid for. I will give him credit where it’s due however: unlike the Tories, he does at least quite rightly argue that the focus for primaries should not be marginal constituencies where primaries will act as little more than an opportunity to promote the party’s candidate, but in the more moribund seats (Straw defines this as constituencies where the CLP has fewer than 200 members) where primaries most certainly WOULD have a meaningful impact on increasing participation. He’s right: if you are serious about using primaries as a means to democratic renewal that is where you should start.

Who is worse news for Labour? Charles Clarke or Compass?

Gordon Brown has ruled out a handout to help people with winter fuel payments a few days after his office was insisting that he definitely wasn’t. Add those two together and you have the possibility of a windfall tax which will only be used to reduce the PSBR. Since this would almost certainly be total insanity, I think we can safely say that the windfall tax won’t be happening no matter how hard Labour backbenchers stamp their feet.

I agree with Nick Clegg: there shouldn’t be a windfall tax but utility companies need to do much more to help people insulate their homes and tackle fuel poverty. Slooshing the money in and out of government coffers would be pointless even if it wasn’t likely to end up getting held up to pay for something else.

What interests me about this story though is how upfront Compass have been about pressuring Brown and Darling on the specific issue of a windfall tax. Superficially I can see why it ticks all their boxes; Compass has gone a long way from its original founding statement (pdf). This was steeped in liberalism. Since then, they have literally leapt into bed with the Tribunite left (the very thing that Lawson et al were denouncing in the 90s) and shown that when it comes to liberty, they are very fair weather friends.

They are very good on coming up with ‘solutions’ while Progress and whingers like Charles Clarke are notably silent when it boils down to specifics. But that doesn’t mean they are the right answers. Worse, the demand for a windfall tax has left Brown in a no-win situation. Either he refuses their demands and faces a backbench rebellion or he capitulates and looks weaker than ever. Frankly, given the parlous situation he’s in, I’m amazed that Compass think that Brown will ever conclude that the latter is the lesser of two evils. If he were to give in, after giving earlier this year on income tax and raising duty on petrol, his authority would be shot to pieces.

It’s weird, because I didn’t see it coming, but Labour is now tearing itself apart in a remarkably similar way to how the Tories destroyed themselves in the mid-90s. At least with the Tories it was over fundamental points of principle; with Labour at the moment it is more steeped in tactical judgement. There certainly are differences of principle, but that debate isn’t really getting a chance to get going while this agonising dispute about tactics and process rages.

All Charles Clarke provides us with is another frustrated ex-minister. Nothing new there. Compass offer Labour something far worse: an alternative power base. In the longer term that may be in Labour’s interests: a bit of ideological purity might be the only thing that holds the party together in the upcoming wilderness years. But at the same time, let’s not kid ourselves, it is helping to secure a Tory victory.

Neo-Feudalism: back with a vengeance

Polly Toynbee mourned the death of social democracy in the Guardian yesterday which, based on her definition, is not something I will be shedding many tears over. He kneejerk reaction that what Brown should have done instead of raising the IHT threshold was to increase income tax on people with incomes above £100,000 was akin to arguing that instead of shooting himself in the foot he should have simply shot himself in the head. Not only would such a move have been massively unpopular, but it wouldn’t have made much economic sense either.

Fortunately, calmer voices were also to be found in the Grauniad, with Shelter’s Chief Executive Adam Sampson giving a much more lucid account about why wealth taxes are a good thing and the government so wholly wrong this week. In doing so, he breaks a major taboo, suggesting that our home owning economy might not be the unambiguous good that the cross-party consensus asserts.

The problem, which Sampson readily acknowledges, is that when you live in a society where 70% of the electorate are home-owners, making the national interest case for wealth taxes is a thankless task. Quite what a mountain we have to climb is summed up by Andy Beckett’s article on IHT which explores quite how unpopular the tax is and why. Beckett or more precisely Professor Stuart White, for that is who he is quoting, manages to both sum up the conundrum and miss the point with this sentence:

“What seems to have come through in Britain, post-Thatcher, is not so much a meritocracy as a feeling that what you get is what you’re entitled to.”

Michael Young, the man who coined the term meritocracy in 1958, became exasperated towards the end of his life at the way in which politicians came to adopt the term uncritically. His 2001 essay on this is even more relevant now than it was back then. The point is that exhorting meritocracy leads precisely to the view that people get what they deserve. The political establishment’s failure to challenge the idea that it is okay for the rich to get ever richer so long as you piously acknowledge the importance of “equality of opportunity” is precisely why the general public seem so resistant to wealth taxes. The fact that it could lead to, among other things, lower income taxes, increased social mobility and a more entrepreneurial culture falls on deaf ears.

The vested interests which ultimately defeated the 1909 People’s Budget sat in the House of Lords. Sadly, those same vested interests now dominate the electorate (although I suspect that over the longer term these mini-property empires will begin to aggregate as some manage to press home their inbuilt advantage better than others). For a substantial minority of the population that represents the death of hope: a life of no accumulation of assets, high income taxes and high user charges on services.

I see this as a profoundly depressing future; the very antithesis of progress whether you are coming at it from a liberal or a socialist perspective. Yet the Lib Dems can’t really give Gordon Brown too hard a time over it. While the rhetoric of our taxation policies is quite sound, almost everything we are committed to doing in our hypothetical first term of government is to compound the problem. In the long term, we’re committed to land value taxation; in the short term we’re committed to scrapping municipal property tax (making the eventual implementation of LVT much harder). In the long term, we’re committed to reforming IHT into an acquisitions tax, thus closing off a major loophole; in the short term we’re committed to raising the IHT threshold as well. Ming was careful at is conference speech to talk of transferring the burden of taxation from incomes and onto pollution – not resources. At a time when he desperately needs a USP, and the cause of progressive taxation needs a champion, he’s being advised to back away slowly from the sound of gunfire.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh on political parties. They are, after all, prisoners of an electoral system that gives enormous power to a handful of swing voters. All the time the parties are forced to chase the same small part of the electorate around like Pepe le Peu, the scope for making the case for broader policies will always be limited. Somehow we need to capture the public’s imagination outside the party political sphere. Anyone got any ideas?