On Politics and Language

September 13, 2013

This will be the last post for the foreseeable future on this blog, as I have accepted a politically restricted position and will be ceasing partisan comment. Given this, I’ve decided to actually explain the blog’s title, which – alongside people pointing out its obvious pretension – is something that has apparently caused some confusion.

Logos (pronounced low-goss), from the subheading given above, refers to a rational principle. It is an ancient Greek word, and has taken on many meanings for a range of different authors, differing even from Plato to Aristotle. It is Plato’s meaning which is relevant here: the logos is the means by which we access the eidos, the Forms. For those not familiar with this theory, a coarse form of Plato’s argument is as follows. We can recognise a unity across differing objects – for example, we can see a red car and say that it is red, see a red brick and say that it is red, and see a red bucket and say that it is red. How do we recognise red, when there is not one red in one form, but various in many? There must be an exemplar that we call upon in order to recognise such abstract concepts, such unities. This exemplar is a Form, an eidos.

We can have Forms of any abstract concept: the Form of a horse, say, is a perfect exemplar of Horsiness. All particular examples of any abstraction approach the perfection of a form, but do not fully achieve it, but it is in their proximity to the ideal that we are able to recognise them. We gain knowledge of the Forms through a logos, which is a way of expressing the content of a Form. The classical example is that of shape: Socrates says in the Meno, when asked how one would explain shape to someone with no understanding of it, that shape is the limit of a solid. This latter clause is the logos of the eidos of shape. It looks rather like a definition, and indeed one could claim that Plato holds a theory of meaning that states that a word has a fixed meaning given by a fixed definition, and that definition can be uncovered through philosophy, which allows one to identify the logos of a particular Form, or the rational principle by which one accesses it. This is a very primitive statement of his argument, but it will suffice for the point I wish to make.

This understanding of meaning as fixed is one that is perennially popular in philosophy, even to this day when at least one famous academic has made his career from taking as the starting point of his argument: “We want words to have a fixed meaning. What needs to be the case for this to work?” However, it is almost trivially untrue, as even the most cursory reader of Wittgenstein will be aware. Instead, words take part in games of meaning, in which participants in a particular game may assign a meaning to a word while other games assign a different meaning. Meaning is thus fluid and only given in how the word is used. However, it remains crucially important, even without the fixed points of eidos: only with a shared logos can we successfully communicate.

What does any of this philosophical abstraction have to do with politics in the real world, you might be asking? The answer is a great deal, because our main political parties have all been complicit in activities which subvert the logos for their own ends, and in doing so have created a situation in which we are governed by groups of people who in a very meaningful way no longer speak the same language as the public.

The first example of this – indeed, the example that directly inspired the title of this blog – is a phrase used extensively by the Liberal Democrats: ‘local campaigner’. Typically, this phrase is used in the Party’s public-facing literature to describe candidates at both local and parliamentary levels. It seems innocuous – the overwhelming majority of Lib Dem candidates do campaign on local issues, and do so genuinely. My objection to it is not based on dislike of candidates, but rather on the way in which its use in this context changes its meaning. The habitual use by Liberal Democrats of this phrase to refer exclusively to their candidates in their literature and not people who campaign for their local area without political aspiration adds to their logos for this phrase, while the public spirit inherent in campaigning lends the phrase an air of altruism when interpreted by the public. These logoi are as below:

libdem

While it may seem unusual to think of Lib Dems as seeking power, it is clear that the use of this phrase packs in a great deal of utility: the leftmost logos presents an inducement to vote for the candidate.The Lib Dems are not lying when they use this phrase to describe their candidates – in my experience, politicians rarely lie – but instead they have bastardised the meaning of a phrase for political gain.

Of course, the public is not quite so easily deceived as I paint here, but we have two options for their response: either they accept the Lib Dems’ use of ‘Local Campaigner’ as being equivalent to their use (and thus the Lib Dems are not really communicating with them as they are in two different language games) or they recognise that the Lib Dems are using the phrase differently and that actual communication is not happening. Either way, the use of this phrase with its Lib Dem logos erects a barrier to genuine conversation between politicians and the public. It is the case, however, that they are not necessarily aware that this could be in any way considered untoward, which I shall consider later.

The second example I want to pick up on was used by Ed Milliband in his speech to the TUC conference. In it, he claimed that he was presenting a ‘fundamentally different vision of our economy’. In practice, this means a greater emphasis on apprenticeships and potentially something like Germany’s KfW running alongside the existing Green Investment Bank, with perhaps a greater reluctance to deregulate employment thrown in. ‘Fundamentally different’ is, as a result, an exaggeration at best. However, it is highly likely that Milliband believes that he is presenting something very different, because of a feature of political trench warfare: all differences are magnified by competition. Thus, we have two logoi that are even further apart:

labour

Nonetheless, this use of the phrase retains its utility, as it prompts party supporters to believe that Labour is genuinely pushing for real change. However, the sheer disconnect on show here means that such supporters will necessarily be disaffected as time passes, because they are literally incapable of communicating with their leadership using phrases like this.

To maintain parity, the last phrase I want to consider is the current form of the perennial political favourite ‘hard working families’, the slogan of the Conservative Party: ‘For Hard Working People’. This phrase is interesting, as bound up with its positive tone is its negative: it is against people who don’t work hard. It is also deceptive, functioning like ‘local campaigner’ by providing the implication that it will support all hard-working people, even if they fall foul of another more capricious hard-working person who employs them. We therefore have:

tories

Again, communication is hampered by meanings that differ; meanings that have been subverted in the name of political utility. The practice of assessing messages against both polling and focus groups is done with the explicit intention of finding a package of words that delivers support regardless of what those words mean to the person saying them.

The end result is a political class that is incapable of communicating with the general public, and more troublingly, with each other: all three parties have their own language games, and debate between relies upon the protagonists being sufficiently intellectually adept to move between games at will. It is hardly surprising that the public is increasingly disaffected with a political class that does not speak the same language as them – not, in its normal usage, because they use big words and overblown rhetoric, but because they do not share a common logos. UKIP does at present, which partly explains its rise, but the temptation of the sheer utility of abusing meaning in this way will overcome them in the end.

People working in politics will doubtless find this very odd, overly abstract and unimportant compared with the big issues of the day. What does it matter that they distort the meaning of a few words in order to save the NHS, for example? To answer this, I’d like to use an analogy with the foreign exchange market. At every moment, large computers are comparing prices for currency in all the markets around the world, and where they find a momentary opportunity for arbitrage, conducting hundreds of trades a second. The profit on each trade is typically in fractions of a penny, but the sheer volume of these trades makes the practice very lucrative indeed. The same applies to the abuse of the logos: each time a politician says something using a meaning with which they privately disagree, they commit a fractional sin. When they do it hundreds of times a day, they commit a much bigger sin. Even worse, by sheer repetition the sin is normalised, to the point that most political types reading this will respond with ‘Well, that’s just how it is’.

It cannot continue. Without a genuine effort to communicate with the public using meanings that we all share, our political system is left at risk of even greater disaffection and the dangers of a public growing disenchanted with democracy. Without bravery from our politicians, the logos will continue to decline.

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Imagine, if you can bear it, that you’re Ed Milliband. You inherited a party that had reclaimed its sense of moral purpose, however misguided, in opposition to cuts to a managerial state that it had spent thirteen years building, a state that provided many benefits and services to a population grown accustomed to its largesse. The economy was foundering in the wake of international money market pandemonium, and appeared to be being made worse by the muddled policies of a Chancellor of aristocratic descent. Opinion polls put you in the lead by a country mile.

And yet somehow you’ve found yourself in conflict with your most significant source of funding and are on course to voluntarily allow your opponents to outspend you at the next election. You’ve allowed the source of your party’s traditional strength to become a weakness, to allow organisations representing the working public to be vilified by a party made up of self-interested millionaires. You’re frantically trying to manage over-mighty bosses that should be coming to you in supplication for a hint of power, and are on course to somehow lose the next election.

In short, you’ve managed to ruin your own party, your election prospects, and any hope for class identity the British left may once have had. You’re literally your own worst enemy, and the bosom ally of the Conservatives. You’ve made this Liberal Democrat feel that even his party isn’t quite so bad in comparison. How did you come to this?

One Nation Under Ed

April 23, 2013

In the previous posts in this mini-series, we’ve looked at how Alasdair MacIntyre’s approach to ethical questions can provide an interesting way of examining contemporary politics. Today I want to look at the political theory most influenced by MacIntyre: that of Ed Miliband’s One Nation.

MacIntyre advocates political communities bound together by a shared conception of the good and an understanding of the role of each individual within the effort to achieve that good. That understanding is learned through tradition and through story, and with it comes an understanding of what is owed to you for the successful fulfillment of that role. The latter is MacIntyre’s concept of ‘desert’, distinguished from other concepts as what is owed to you for playing a role in the community rather than what is owed to you for the value of your labour under current market conditions. Political narratives, in this sense, tell the story of the nation as the party would like to present it, and in doing so allocate roles for all its members – and what those members deserve as a consequence of playing them.

‘One Nation’ is the direct result of Miliband’s interest in Blue Labour. This is the brainchild of Maurice Glasman, who was inspired by MacIntyre’s work. Blue Labour strongly emphasises the importance of community to Labour’s traditional working-class voters, and portrays Labour as the party of the Common Good and the heir to British democratic traditions. In working-class communities, so the story goes, an understanding of one’s role and one’s place is provided – you are apprenticed into a position, work in it for the rest of your life, and receive a fair (or ‘living’) wage for what you do. It is not your role to be exposed to market forces, simply to work – and to be rewarded for that work.

It is worth noting at this point that the traditional role of women in these communities was child-rearing and domestic service, and that MacIntyre has little to say about the role of women. Indeed, Glasman has been accused of regarding women with something like a bemused contempt, although he has made efforts to avoid that accusation. It remains unclear, however, how any political theory that places such an important emphasis on defined roles within communities could avoid chauvinistic communities arising, as has historically been the case.

The connection between Blue Labour and MacIntyre should be obvious. What interests me today is the way in which Miliband has attempted to cash this political theory out into a political story, a story entitled One Nation. The language used in his speech on the subject is very MacIntyreian:

“Today I want to talk to you about the idea of One Nation. The idea of a country which we rebuild together, where everyone plays their part.”

The One Nation project is a vision of a Britain as a national community with roles for all to play and to receive what they deserve. This stands in contrast to the present:

“While a very few people at the top are doing well, so many people feel their prospects diminishing, their insecurity rising.[…] They believe the system is rigged against them.
They believe that the country isn’t working for them.”

Effectively, it is a call for the realignment of every role in the nation into a place wherein everyone receives what they deserve for participating in the life of the nation – if they do indeed participate. This is clearly radical, because it provides a very different understanding of the role of the ultra-rich than the Conservatives, for whom the role of the rich is to be world-striding leprechauns, liable to take away their pot of gold when startled by sudden tax rises. One Nation requires that the ultra-rich take roles in the nation, rather than supervening on it.

This is of course a radically leftist claim. So what does Miliband propose to do? Put in place capital controls to prevent the rich moving their money around? Prevent foreign ownership of key companies?

No.

“We need a new deal for our small businesses who have been let down by the banks. We have to tackle short-termism in the City to enable companies to play their part to contribute to long-term wealth creation. We have to work with business radically to reform our apprenticeships and vocational education, so we use the talents of all young people, including the 50 per cent who don’t go to University.”

It’s pretty much identical to anything any politician from any party could sign up to. The only interesting thing is the language; talk of companies ‘playing their part’ and so on. The facade may be different, but the policy substance remains so much New Labour. While I commend Ed Miliband for having a coherent ideology (unlike others), the lack of radicalism in his proposals makes me believe that his policies may not fully cohere with his beliefs. A leader of a party who can’t propose policies he believes in a result of his own weakness is useful to no-one, and leads to the Labour Party’s current narrative:

  1. Britain is divided, poor and exploited by the super-rich
  2. The Coalition is making us poorer and increasing division
  3. Labour would love to forge us into a bold new coherent nation in which everyone can play their part, but doesn’t have the balls.

Of course, I’m grateful that liberalism’s opponents are so poor, but there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing someone have interesting ideas and then fail to try to implement them as a result of their own pusillanimity. About the only area in which they making some headway is immigration, which One Nation via MacIntyre perceives as destructive to personal identity. If you have a particular role in a community born of its traditions, and a sudden influx of outsiders with different traditions disrupts that community, what is your role now? Glasman’s call for all immigration to be halted is entirely coherent with his ideology, but his subsequent apology for saying something so upsetting is in line with Miliband’s lack of ability to pursue his own beliefs in the face of adversity.

None of this should be surprising to students of history. For fear of invoking Godwin, societies which attempt to allocate roles for people within them have something of a nasty reputation, and in the intellectual cowardice of Blue Labour’s proponents one can see fascists afraid of fascism.

Following on from my previous post, I want to discuss MacIntyre’s claim that stories and the roles that people play in them contribute something fundamental to personal identity. This is crucially important to modern politics, because storytelling – in the form of political narratives – is at the core of how parties present themselves and their ideas.

I first encountered the slightly arcane world of political messaging when I began working for the Liberal Democrats many years ago, back when they were cool. Over beers in a bar somewhere in deepest darkest Brighton, I was enthusiastically given the stripped-down story that constituted the Lib Dem narrative in all seats in which we fighting Labour:

  1. The Government isn’t delivering.
  2. Labour have let us down.
  3. Only the hard-working local Lib Dem candidate knows what you want.

This, of course, can be recapsulated around any particular issue, and it’s a useful starting point for this discussion because it’s a very clear statement of the narrative form:

  1. Setup (Disappointment in Government empathised with)
  2. Conflict (Traditional sources of hope for change no longer available)
  3. Resolution (Ergo, vote Lib Dem)

It is, however, fundamentally an impoverished story. The previous discussion covered how MacIntyre’s view of narrative as at the heart of personal identity leads to an interesting point: the tellers of stories shape the lives of those who opt for roles described by those stories. The only role accessible to the audience in this story is that of the disappointee; there is no scope for participation beyond that. There is the audience and the protagonists, and the protagonists are clearly distinguished from the audience. Even the emphasis on empathy and understanding and ‘local’ is insufficient to overcome the difference of roles.

This is significant, because other political narratives have expanded on the roles available to the audience in an interestingly prescriptive way. This week saw the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, whose political narrative can be summarised as:

  1. The country is in a shocking state
  2. Reactionary forces, such as unions, want to imprison economic enterprise in their grasp or that of the State
  3. I shall set you free to enjoy the rewards of your own industry and ingenuity

This narrative ascribes at least two roles to the audience: that of a reactionary force, and that of the industrious and entrepreneurial masses. This faces a very different impoverishment to that of the Lib Dems: that of non-exhaustive roles. The call is for the audience to become protagonists in the battle against the state of the nation, for which Government is an enabler. The audience can either be entrepreneurs or dinosaurs. No other course of action is available.

The roles permitted the audience are non-exhaustive in the sense that people could very well fall outside them; they are not simply the audience, they are active participants in the story. If they are unable to participate, then the story has nothing for them. It is clear that Thatcher believed her own story: the closure of the coal mines was supposed to lead to the of flowering a service economy driven by all the entrepreneurship pent up behind the floodgates of state ownership. One can see Thatcher’s legacy as a tremendous experiment into the fungibility of labour in a context in which there is no other source of wealth available. Unsurprisingly, the answer to the question of, “Can a labour force skilled for a particular profession based in a particular geographic area readily transfer those skills to new employment once the major source of local income is eliminated?” is “No”. The demand by other members of her Government that the newly redundant demonstrate their get up and go by getting on their bikes neglected the fact that bikes costs money. No Conservative government has ever argued for a bike allowance for the unemployed, a fact which must remain a mystery.

Without fungibility of labour, Thatcher’s narrative missed out great swathes of the population, who were left without a role. An interesting analogue of this problem affected the narrative of New Labour, which can be summarised like this:

  1. Public services you rely on are in a shocking state
  2. The Conservatives have failed to deliver better services even when times were good
  3. We will let capitalism rip and feast upon its proceeds in order to deliver better services

This is a an exhaustive narrative; the public are either capitalists or service recipients. The passivity of the latter raises an interesting comparison with the Lib Dem narrative above: one can trace political lineages through the stories they tell, and the shared passivity in both approaches indicates that the Lib Dem strategy was to be Labour, but better.

New Labour assigned a role to capitalists that in the end they could not play: that of a never-ending source of wealth. In this, they failed to define roles which matched reality, in much the same way as Thatcher. The assumption that the reality of people will match a politician’s story about them is all too common in politics.

We can see from the above three stories that impoverishment comes in many guises: that of an ill-fitting role that can just about extend to all, but fails to prescribe that role in an interesting fashion, that of an assumption about how far a role can extend, and that of an assumption about those who play a role which already exists. Political stories do not describe reality, but rather touch upon it lightly in ways which appeal to the politicians that tell them. However, it is easy to describe and condemn with the benefit of hindsight, so in my next post I shall examine Ed Miliband’s version of the One Nation narrative. As something directly inspired by MacIntyre’s work, it should be interesting.

A rival to liberalism

May 17, 2012

Flip Chart Fairy Tales has put up an interesting post entitled ‘A post-liberal future‘. In it, they argue that economic and social liberalism has been the dominant force in our politics for the last quarter century, exemplified in both Thatcher and Blair. Both of the large parties have represented an alliance between liberal and illiberal political objectives, with the liberal objectives of both parties winning out over the illiberal. FCFT summarises this thusly:

“As it reached out to the increasingly powerful middle classes, the old Tory Party of army, church and king adopted economic liberalism to appeal to business interests. The Labour Party fused middle-class radical liberalism with working class socialism and trade unionism, attracting prominent radicals, like the Foots and Benns, away from the old Liberal Party.”

FCFT then covers the reasons why this dominance may be coming to an end with the resurgence of anti-individualism in our politics. Certainly, one can see this at opposite ends of the traditional political spectrum – Blue Labour was in essence a call for the privileging of the working-class community over the success of the individual, while Conservative back benchers with a focus on pro-marriage legislation and law and order have a similar bent. It is in essence a debate over what society should prioritise: individual freedom or social capital, John Stuart Mill versus Karl Polanyi.

It is, however, still a debate which is hopelessly confused. UKIP, a party that takes most of its votes from tradition-bound Tories, is lead by a libertarian. The new economics foundation, a thinktank that focuses on bringing in Polanyi-esque solutions to social problems, has a workstream focusing on providing the individual with tools to participate in democratic decision-making. The majority of the UK’s political discourse still focuses on the question of the distribution of economic resources, rather than the moral focus of society.

However, this has not always been the case. The resurgence of social capital in our political discourse is not new, but rather an old thing come again. The political division at the start of the last century between Liberals and Conservatives encapsulated that distinction. For liberalism to no longer become the dominant political ideology would require a realignment along the same lines as the one which originally led to the ‘strange death of liberal England’. To put this in graphic form, it would require a shift of political alliances from this:

To this:

Such a dramatic realignment of our politics seems unlikely. However, there are signs that it is happening. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the No2AV campaign was the willingness of Old Labour and the more regressive Conservatives to sit down together in order to secure the existing voting system. Indeed, we saw Cameron share a platform with John Reid, something almost unprecedented. John Cruddas, one of the architects of Blue Labour, is rumoured to be in favour of an in-out referendum on Europe – something which would put him in bed with the Tory backbenches.

A real political realignment would not be an overnight affair, judging by the experience of the old Liberal Party. Rather, it would involve coalitions, insurgent new parties, and a willingness shown by parliamentarians to hop the benches to a place that suits their political goals more effectively. The first two are taking place. We have yet to see any significant evidence of the third.

The Madness of King Ed

June 30, 2011

I love annoying people, because I’m a bit sociopathic like that. However, I do bow down to the efforts of the Labour Party in this regard, who appear to have engaged in a 15 year experiment on how much you can piss people off before they turn around and say, “Fuck you, we’re voting for someone else.”

The whole point of the Labour Party is to represent the interests of working people, working people without capital. Ostensibly a creation of the unions on the back of disappointing representation by the then Liberal Party, that representation remains central to its existence. Blair’s movement of the party away from outright socialism and into social democracy can be seen in this context; whatever else you may say about Tony Blair, it seems pretty clear that this move was intended to indenture capitalism into the service of the working public.

He did this while ignoring the reduction in the power of the unions that took place under the previous Conservative administration, but did actively praise unions as a force for good, only condemning a stupidly provocative RMT strike timed to take place during a General Election. He was never the unions’ man, and so his relationship with them could be construed as constructive, rather than something he was ashamed of.

Contrast that with Ed Milliband, who has condemned today’s strikes out of hand. He’s done this for the very real political reasons of not wanting to appear too close to the unions and to ensure that Labour is not perceived as the party of the public sector. I’m sure he believes he’s demonstrating ‘leadership’, that abstract quality beloved most by politicians who do not possess it.

But ‘leadership’ implies leading people somewhere. Milliband is ostensibly leading his party and the unions to a future in which strikes over significant changes to pay and conditions are not justified. This is not in the interests of working people. This is a trap by a Government which includes my party, to take advantage of public disquiet over union activity in order to restrict it. I don’t doubt that this is driven in main by the Conservatives, but our potential aquiesence to it is something about which I am deeply concerned.

A Labour leader, rather than simply warning of this trap, should actively work to disarm it. The boss of PCS, Mark Serwotka, pointed out this morning that the amount paid out under public sector pensions is actually predicted to decrease in the future as a percentage of GDP. This is something Milliband should be saying, in an effort to lead the public to the side of the people he’s ostensibly meant to represent. He would still be wrong – regardless of the percentage of GDP spent on pensions, public sector employees should be looking after their own future via defined contribution pensions rather than relying on the Government to do it for them post retirement – but it’s still something he should be saying. To not do so is to betray the very people he’s meant to represent, as has been Labour’s strategy for the last fifteen years. When even Blairite Dan Hodges disagrees with Milliband, you might hope he realises his own mistake.

Rent-seekers

June 13, 2011

Chris Dillow has put up a post attacking Ed Milliband for failing to recognise that Labour’s biggest fault is its inability to recognise that capitalism produces a particular structure of power – one which can be abused in a fashion inimical to justice. If bosses are able to extract rents from the workers and raise their wages relative to those of the lowest paid, then this demands action, rather than the pathetic gestures Milliband favours.

This is true. What’s also true is that the reason this happens has nothing to do with capitalism and everything to do with power. Power, in state or capitalist form, permits rent-seeking – or extortion, if one wishes to get all melodramatic about it. And the State can be just as bad as the capitalists. Let me give you a couple of examples, in the form of a rant.

I’m currently running the UK’s annual celebration of wind energy, Wind Week. This involves putting up wind turbines in cities across the UK for a day or two to highlight the increasing role wind plays in our energy mix. Lovely stuff, and the precursor event I held in London last year came off quite nicely.

This year it’s been different, because councils are feeling the pinch and have become determined to extract revenue where they can. In Belfast, the Council have insisted that only their electrician can provide cabling in line with health & safety requirements – at a cost of £500 per day. In Glasgow, the Council insisted at the last possible minute that we give them £640 for the privilege of using a public space. In Newcastle, my home town, the Council insisted that we pay for a licence for distributing leaflets, and then required that the request for that licence be requested by a Board member, before demanding a final signature to a legal letter from myself. All to hand out fliers.

Broadly, this is rent-seeking behaviour from Councils desperate for funds. I’ve found it deeply frustrating. It’s worth noting that the two mainland Councils are controlled by Labour. And that – the instinct of the Labour Party to rent-seek from a position of power – is something Milliband is culpable for too.

Following their election victory last year, Islington Labour set up the Islington Fairness Commission. Great news, I said. I am entirely in favour of fairness; after all, where would we be without abstract nouns?

The Commission’s job was to investigate how Islington could be made a fairer place, and, familiar as I am with Islington Labour’s incredibly high opinion of itself, I anticipated that they viewed it as something that should eventually be rolled out across the country, and to be something that people should think of in the same way that we now think of the NHS. If you think I’m exaggerating, you should check out their record on free school meals for all, which they genuinely viewed as the triumphant capstone of the welfare state.

Party politics aside, the Commission was designed to be inclusive, incorporating inputs from a variety of stakeholders including Lib Dem councillors and the Chamber of Commerce. This was the right thing to do – my cynicism aside, a better society can only be built by bringing everyone with you. The news of this approach cheered me. I was less cheered when I heard that the chair of the Commission was to be Professor Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level.

For those who haven’t read it, The Spirit Level is an attempt to explain every social ill as a product of inequality by comparing countries with different levels of inequality against different social ills, like crime or ill health. As with most theories of everything, the book starts off in its comfort zone, attempting to explain increased mental illness as a product of increased social anxiety brought on by increased inequality. This sounds at least mildly plausible, but then the book goes on to try to claim that everyone is made more unhealthy by increased health inequalities and it devolves into a series of scatter graphs with questionable ‘best fit’ lines running through them. Gerry Hassan has this to say about it:

Yet, it is almost impossible to compare these countries on equality; they are very different in their cultures, values and histories. Wilkinson and Pickett claim that ‘more equal societies almost always do better’—a universalist, sweeping statement—which cannot be substantiated by most of their data…. Part of the success of The Spirit Level is liberal guilt, part the retreat of the left, part wish-fulfilment and projection.”

There’s a good series of eviscerations over on The Spirit Level Delusion, a blog by Christopher Snowdon. Despite being a libertarian, Snowdon appears to like proper facts rather than the made-up research fond of the climate sceptics so dominant in his creed.

Given that the Commission was to be chaired by Wilkinson, I anticipated that its product would be a combination of wishful thinking and impractical suggestions. Its final report has now been released, and it contains 19 recommendations. Let’s go through these to find out how right I was.

Income
Recommendation 1: Wages
No-one in Islington should do a hard day’s work for less than they can live on.

– Employers in Islington should pay all their directly employed staff as a minimum the London Living Wage (currently £8.30/hr). Employers should also review their procurement, contract and best value policies to ensure that, as far as possible within UK and EU law, the London Living Wage is the minimum paid to all their contracted staff as well.

There is literally no recommendation about how this is to be achieved. None. The only body this could apply to is the Council as a consequence, which while being a step in the right direction was already a Council policy.

Recommendation 2: Pay differentials
Tackling income inequality is crucial to forging a fairer Islington.

– All major employers in the borough should publish their pay differentials to enable them to be scrutinised and challenged where appropriate. In the case of Islington Council, this should mean establishing a formal subcommittee, including officer, member and union representation, to review pay differentials within the organisation with a view to reducing income inequality where possible.

Nothing wrong about transparency in the private sector around pay, but again there’s no recommendation as to how you’re going to get them to do this. The report also recommends that the pay differential in the Council should be 1:12 between the lowest and highest paid, which is an odd ratio and nothing at all to do with new CE’s salary level.

Recommendation 3: Debt
Personal debt compounds poverty and inequality, and may worsen as people in Islington lose their jobs.

– Islington Council should explore the possibility of passing a by-law to prevent payday loan companies from operating in the borough. And it should vigorously use its enforcement powers and those of its partners to take action against illegal activity by loan sharks who prey on vulnerable Islington residents.

Ah, an actual policy! And I bet it’s one the pawn shops lobbied hard over. This will make them a fortune, as people trade in Granny’s silver until payday at similarly usurious rates of interest as the now banned payday loan companies. I’m also disappointed to learn that the Council isn’t already using its powers of enforcement vigorously; the implication being that previously it just couldn’t be arsed to take action.

This one really annoys me, actually; people sometimes need payday loans, and there’ll always be a market for them. Why they didn’t want to encourage existing credit unions to expand is beyond me, but of course it has nothing to do with credit unions being genuine examples of civil society that aren’t Council-driven.

Work
Recommendation 4: Employment
Employment for Islington’s residents is the best way to tackle poverty in the borough.

-Employers in Islington should, by means of legitimate positive action (such as advertising job opportunities in local media before national media) increase the proportion of local people they employ, especially among currently under-represented groups, such as disabled people. In the case of Islington Council this should mean increasing the proportion of Islington residents in its workforce from 23 per cent to 30 per cent by 2014.

Islington jobs for Islington workers! It’s a good thing that Islington isn’t surrounded by similarly deprived boroughs containing people desperately in need of work within travelling distance.

Shit, Hackney exists. Someone should’ve told them that. Luckily I’m sure better-off people in Islington won’t go for lucrative Council jobs just along the road from them, and will certainly defer employment to poorer people from other boroughs.

Recommendation 5: Jobs for young people
No young person in Islington should be altogether out of education, employment and training.

– Employers in Islington should do more to support young people who are at risk of falling into the cycle of poverty. In particular, they should support the new initiatives being developed to this end by Islington Business Board, including their programme of mentoring and work experience which will support young people into employment or training or help them to start a business of their own.

Ah, that Wilkinson, he does love his wishful thinking. On the other hand, the Council offering more mentoring and work experience placements isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Recommendation 6: Corporate social responsibility
We need businesses and charities in Islington to be on the side of fairness.

– Islington Chamber of Commerce and its partners should develop a plan to promote the following important activities among businesses and charities in the borough, for example through a Fair Islington kitemark scheme:
o Pay at least the London Living Wage to all staff
o Have a pay differential of less than 1:20
o Ensure access to both premises and opportunities for disabled people
o Offer apprenticeships and/or paid internships
o Offer work experience placements
o Have employee representation on remuneration panels
o Recognise trade unions
o Offer family-friendly employment practices, including flexible and part-time working and job-sharing opportunities
o Offer support for childcare, including childcare loans
o Support workless people to prepare for the world of employment

Ah, so this is their enforcement mechanism. A badge. Schumpter was taking the piss out of socialists using badges as a reward for good behaviour in their ideal societies back in the 50s, which as a scholar I’m sure Wilkinson is well aware of. But, to give the scheme its due, let me tell you exactly what’s going to happen. Businesses invited to take part in this will add up the cost of all the above against the extra trade attracted by having a badge in their window. The ones that do do this will be businesses catering to middle-class customers who can afford the extra cost, and who already do most of these things already, especially with regard to pay. The least well-off, those family members working for poverty wages in their uncle’s takeaway, will not be affected. But little Johnny who’s working during his summer holidays will be quids in.

Families
Recommendation 7: The first year, and before
What happens during pregnancy and a child’s first year is crucial to a child’s life chances.

– There should be a major review, convened by the new Health and Wellbeing Board, of all public, private and voluntary sector activity in Islington to support parents, and parents-to-be, from the point of a child’s conception to his or her first birthday. In particular, this should look at significantly improving the coordination of services, especially those delivered by GPs, Midwives, Health Visitors and the Council.

Shit, they’re having a review. Well, I bet child poverty will just give up and go home. The reason quoted for better co-ordination between various services is to reduce the complexities encountered by new parents. This is a laudable aim, but it falls under the heading of, “You mean they’re not doing this already?!”

Recommendation 8: Affordable childcare
A lack of affordable childcare is a serious barrier to parents returning to work.

– Islington Council and its partners should establish a local ‘Childcare Coalition’, involving schools, public sector organisations, the voluntary sector, for example Islington Childcare Trust, and employers to increase the amount of affordable childcare available in the borough, especially during school holidays. This should include, for example, protecting the extended schools offer despite cuts to its funding. The ‘Childcare Coalition’ should also work to persuade employers to support parents in working flexibly around childcare provision.

Actually, this is a really good idea. I’m not going to knock it. To be fair to socialists, they’re normally pretty good at looking after kids, whereas child poverty is something the Right really doesn’t understand.

Recommendation 9: ‘Islington Reads’
The ability to read is essential for a fairer Islington.

– A new community collaboration should be set up, organised by a partnership of public sector and voluntary sector organisations, to share reading skills across communities in Islington. This will help both children and adults to improve their literacy.

On the other hand, this is utterly meaningless. I presume they mean some sort of voluntary teaching arrangement – I did this once for kids that had difficulty reading – but given they’re wrapping it up in Council clothes I’d bet that it’ll be nearly impossible to engage with. This is something that’s really better left to the schools and the voluntary sector.

Community
Recommendation 10: Giving time, giving money
Giving time and giving money is a good way of challenging poverty and inequality in our borough.

– Islington Giving should be supported to:
o champion Islington’s needs and encourage residents and businesses to donate time and money to the campaign
o continue its efforts to recruit, train and deploy 500+ new volunteers in the borough by 2014
o establish a new ‘Good Neighbours’ scheme to reduce social isolation, particularly among older and disabled people, and build community spirit in the borough
– Islington Council should, with Voluntary Action Islington, coordinate the valuable volunteering time it affords its employees, so that such efforts are targeted at Islington recipients in greatest need.

The charities mentioned here are doing great work. Pity that the Council wants in on the act.

Recommendation 11: Public space
We need to reclaim, protect and maintain communal spaces in Islington for community use.

– Islington Council and partners should identify all unused communal space in Islington, especially on estates, to free it up, make it accessible and use it, following the example of successful projects such as Edible Islington and the London Orchard Project.

You mean the Council doesn’t already have a register of all the land it owns and maintains and its current status? What on earth are they doing?

Safety
Recommendation 12: Antisocial behaviour
Antisocial behaviour damages communities and contributes to social isolation.

– A single telephone number should be established for reporting antisocial behaviour, requiring collaboration between Housing Associations, Homes for Islington, Islington Police and the Council. This should improve residents’ experience when reporting antisocial behaviour and simplify the route to getting concerns addressed. The resulting coordinated response should enable a more effective and efficient approach to tackling antisocial behaviour, particularly on estates.

Actually, this is a pretty good idea. Full marks for understanding the efficient use of force.

Recommendation 13: Fallout from crime
Tackling crime is about more than just punishing its perpetrators.

– Islington Council, together with its partners in Victim Support and Islington Police’s Safer Neighbourhoods Teams, should enhance the work done with individuals and communities that are victims of crime and antisocial behaviour to resolve local problems. This should include further work to implement restorative justice, acceptable behaviour contracts, community payback and reparation, and the return of the proceeds of crime.

Aren’t all these things happening already? ‘Enhance’ pretty much means, “Keep it up chaps, well done.”

Housing
Recommendation 14: Overcrowding
Tackling overcrowding needs to be a top priority in Islington.

– Planning policies and the Council’s new-build programme should prefer family-sized housing.
– Tenancy audits should continue to establish the potential for down-sizing.
– Islington Council should do even more to enhance its downsizing offer to under-occupiers. This could include three-way swaps; holding local swap meetings; ensuring a move happens within a year; getting people who have downsized to speak to people who are eligible to do so about the benefits; and offering a tailored package of support to help older people downsize from properties they can no longer manage (while making clear to those who may be concerned that evictions and forced transfers on these grounds are out of the question).
– Each year the council should estimate the maximum potential number of under-occupation moves, based on the supply of smaller homes, and provide incentives and support to reach this maximum.
– Reviews of allocation policies and lettings processes should ensure that priority for overcrowding is maintained, and where possible increased.

Let me translate this one: “We know proper tenancy reviews are necessary for the fair allocation of a limited resource, but we haven’t got the balls to recommend anything that might possibly result in someone getting hurt, so instead we’re going to go for a rather pathetic half-way house that’ll cost more and be less effective.”

Recommendation 15: Housing supply
Increasing the supply of decent, genuinely affordable homes is essential.

– Islington Council should strive to bring empty space into residential use by:
o Eliminating empty space above shops through writing to all shop owners to discuss the opportunities and benefits and requiring relevant staff, for example Town Centre Managers, Trading Standards officers and Environmental Health officers to enquire about space above shops as part of their routine
o Identifying empty space in commercial and office buildings for conversion for residential use, especially properties that have remained empty for some time and those that are in residential rather than commercial areas
– The Council and Housing Associations should maximise their efforts to eliminate housing fraud and illegal sub-letting, so that social housing is used fairly, according to need.
– The Council should work with Housing Associations to ensure a supply of genuinely affordable social housing and discourage rent levels that are out of reach of people on average or low incomes.

God forbid that they would recommend that more houses be built.

Health
Recommendation 16: Health inequalities
Islington’s stark health inequalities demand a more active and targeted response.

– The new Health and Wellbeing Board should draw up a clear plan of action to address well-documented health inequalities in the borough. This plan should include targeted responses to populations in need, including preventive programmes tailored to the needs of deprived or excluded groups, such as people with learning difficulties or serious
mental health problems, homeless people and older people.

While it’s a bit mealy-mouthed to say, “Other people should work out what we have to do here”, the fact that they’ve identified a body to do it is a legitimate move.

Recommendation 17: Children’s health
Good health in childhood is essential to a fairer Islington.

– NHS Islington and Islington Council should:
o support all schools in Islington to achieve ‘enhanced healthy schools’ status and all children’s centres to achieve ‘healthy children’s centre’ status
o ensure every child has free vitamin drops up to the age of 5 years
o undertake an inequalities analysis of immunisation uptake, to ensure that effort to support this programme is adequately targeted
o and seek to reduce the number (or at least check the further proliferation) of fast food outlets near schools

These are actually pretty sensible suggestions. I’d have preferred a stronger commitment on the opening of new fast food outlets, but hey, well done on this one.

Recommendation 18: Mental health
Times of economic hardship are particularly stressful, so we must increase support for mental health.

– NHS Islington needs to increase the number of people accessing support for depression and anxiety, particularly with levels of unemployment rising and increasing financial hardship which will increase mental ill-health in the borough.

Yes. But how?

Recommendation 19: Exercise
Islington’s health would improve significantly if more people exercised.

– Islington Council should:
o negotiate with the Mayor of London and Transport for London to make it easier to cycle in Islington by getting the Barclays Bikes scheme extended further north into the borough, by encouraging people from all backgrounds to use it, and by getting the Freedom Pass and/or other concessions to work on it
o explore with schools, Aqua Terra and other relevant partners how to make it easier for local residents to use the excellent school sporting facilities, including swimming pools, we now have in the borough
– Islington GPs should use to the full their ability to prescribe exercise.

These are all solid suggestions, but I’m surprised to see the most obvious one isn’t there – “Make it safe to use the parks when it’s darker during winter.”

Overall, it’s exactly as I expected – mostly wishful thinking with little real content. But everything in it is entirely well-meaning, and I worry that I’ve come across as snidely kicking a communist puppy. It is for this reason that I expect my fellow Lib Dems will vote that the Council adopts it on June 30th.

In the centre of Newcastle, atop a gritstone pillar, stands a statue of Charles Grey, the architect of the Reform Act of 1832. A native son of Alnwick, Grey was Prime Minister between 1830 and 1834. The Reform Act abolished rotten boroughs and extended the franchise from 400,000 to 650,000 people. The 2nd Earl Grey also gave his name to the tea of the same name, after receiving a gift of tea flavoured with bergamot oil from a foreign official.

Grey is a North Easterner of whom I can be proud, and there are many others – from George Stephenson, the inventor of the first practical steam engine, to Admiral Collingwood, who led the second line of ships at Trafalgar. But in recent years, this proud heritage has taken a back seat to economic decline, as identified in this astonishingly good (for the Guardian) article.

The reasons for this are varied, but can be traced back to the nationalisation of key industries in the aftermath of the Second World War. Control over the coal mines which gave rise to the phrase ‘Taking coal to Newcastle’ passed to a centralised Coal Board, ostensibly in the name of democratic sovereignty. Early on, this won improved conditions and wages for the pit workers and their families, but left the economy of the North East vulnerable to the whims of the rest of the population. The gradual sell-off of the mines under a series of governments, culminating in the Thatcher Government’s closure of many of the remaining pits, left a deep hole at the heart of the North East’s economy, one from which it has never really recovered.

Nationalisation – giving a central Government de facto control over your economy – cost the North East dear in the 1980s. The agenda of the Blair Government with regard to the North East was regeneration by increased public spending, to the point where by 2009 25% of the working population were employed in the public sector, which accounted for 56% of Gross Value Added.

This had a strong impact upon the private sector in the region, not least because national pay rates for public sector work meant that pay in the public sector in the NE was often higher than the equivalent job in the private sector. I know from the experiences of my friends and family that if you’re half-way capable in the North East you’re much more likely to work in the public sector – why not, when you’re likely to be paid more for the same skills?

Increasing the cost of employing the best people has had an impact on the development of private enterprise, as that 56% figure demonstrates. At the same time, having such a big chunk of the economy in the hands of central Government means that when that Government changes, so do the prospects for the economy. The cuts will, once again, cause misery in the North East. However, protesting against them is pointless, because even if they were rolled back it would only serve to begin the cycle of economic deprivation again.

We need control of our own economy, to prevent the electoral vagaries of the rest of the country screwing us over in the same way they’ve done for the last sixty years. We need a regional assembly with powers at least approaching those of the Scottish Parliament. Scotland has a similar percentage of its population employed in the public sector – but only 47% of its GVA comes from it. Since the foundation of the Parliament in 1998, average Scottish incomes have increased by 60%, while increasing in the North East by 50%. This is despite the fact that more public money is spent per head in the North East than in Scotland. More spending by the UK Government is not the answer.

I voted against a regional assembly in 2004, because the proposal was for a toothless talking shop. It’s time to re-examine that choice, to cut our economy free of the damaging influence of central control.

I’ve put up a post on Labour’s internal coalition and why the Lib Dems should look at working with the unions.