Today’s announcement by Nick Clegg of measures to facilitate more employee share ownership has been leapt on by Labour media darling Chuka Umunna as an endorsement of Ed Milliband’s ‘Responsible capitalism’ idea. Leaving aside the somewhat audacious claim that Ed Milliband came up with the John Lewis model of business, Umunna’s response demonstrates that Labour have failed to understand the intellectual direction of this Government – and the implications of that for the Labour Party.

I have previously written about how the parties of the Coalition are expressly aiming to use Government to overhaul the way in which the public perceives the private sector, by putting the burden of demonstrating the ethical worth of private enterprise squarely on its shoulders. A drive for greater employee ownership must be seen in this context – co-operatives and mutuals have always been perceived as more ethically sound than models of ownership which concentrate more shares in fewer hands. It puts the cost of an ethical stance on the company, rather than enforcing ethics through legislation. In doing so, it reduces the scope for dissatisfaction with capitalism, limiting the political space open to the likes of the Occupy protestors. It overcomes a very specific challenge: if wages represent a falling share of GDP compared to returns on capital, then the way to overcome this is not simply through higher wages, but the redistribution of capital itself. The share of GDP accorded to wages becomes an insignificant issue.

British liberalism has always recognised that the condition for a free society is the consent of all its members. By moving towards a model which places the burden of securing that consent upon business, Clegg is diminishing the space available for a Labour Party that would seek to secure that consent via the State. Labour’s complicity in this may yet be their undoing.

Buff Liberalism

March 4, 2011

Nick Clegg’s speech on ‘muscular liberalism‘ has been described as foreshadowing an argument within the Coalition on anti-terrorism policy. Foreshadowed by Cameron’s speech earlier in February, it calls for liberals to argue, challenge, and ultimately defeat the specious arguments espoused by violent extremists – a stark contrast to Cameron’s determination to ‘No Platform’ extremist groups.

It is interesting inasmuch as it reveals a fault line within the coalition that’s largely been overshadowed by saturation coverage of the cuts. The Conservatives, like their counterparts in the US, do believe in utilising the power of the state to promote a particular moral line – in this case, Cameron seeks to exploit that State’s role as the begetter of much debate by removing certain positions from the contest. It is a subtler, and shallower, version of mad Tea Partiers demanding that the State ban gay marriage, but it follows the same principle – that there is a specified moral code that it is the duty of the State to promote. Clegg’s speech, by contrast, focuses on the duty of the individual to argue for the sort of morality that he or she desires – a debate only possible within a liberal and tolerant framework.

This fault-line, I presume, is an instance of Clegg’s new-found determination to say when he disagrees with the Prime Minister. As someone who loves philosophy, it’s fantastic to see the PM and the DPM discussing the deep philosophical issues that divide them in public. However, I can’t help feeling that something has been lost along the way, which is that you’re not in fucking ancient Athens now, Clegg.

You can’t just give long meandering philosophical speeches about buffing up your liberalism. You’ve got to translate those into messages that will resonate with the electorate. Where is this happening? Where’s the killer line from that speech? Even the quoted expression comes from Cameron, not Clegg.

I’ve said this a lot in private conversations, but I think it’s time to start saying it in public. Can the party start firing people now, please?*

*Also, see Barnsley. Nice that the Campaigns Department decided to not waste money not fighting an unwinnable seat, but I’d have hoped they’d at least tried to prevent us from being humiliated.

Very glad to see that Nick Clegg has decided to take my advice. It’s not clear why our strategic aims were not aided by airing differences from the beginning of the coalition, so one is forced to the conclusion that Clegg has finally realised that the pally-pally approach is not going to work. Welcome to where the rest of us were six months ago, Clegg.

Killing Control

January 10, 2011

I’d like to touch on a subtlety in Nick Clegg’s speech last Friday which doesn’t seem to have been picked up elsewhere.

“It is part of our wider project to resettle the relationship between people and government. Our political reforms, decentralisation, changes to public services, rebalancing growth, our focus on social mobility – these are all geared towards shifting power away from its traditional centres.

And it is that fairer dispersal of power that will guarantee British liberties in the long run. We want to empower individuals and communities so comprehensively, so irreversibly, that no future Government will easily be able to behave in ways that are authoritarian or illiberal.

It’s a power shift even a casual Labour party would struggle to reverse.”

Nice pun at the end, Clegg. I’d like to believe it was a typo rather than a dig at seasonal workers.

Moving on to the content of these two paragraphs, what they indicate is interesting. Clegg is saying that he wants to shift the political centre ground to the point where state control of individuals becomes politically impossible, by means of distributing power out from the centre. A fine liberal aim, I’m sure you’ll agree. What’s missing is the subtext: empowering individuals and communities with the purpose of preventing state control removes significant scope for traditional Labour statism. If the levers of the state are reduced, and rebuilding them becomes electorally unpalatable, then much of the political space for the Labour party disappears. A party based on using the power of the State for moral ends can have little place in a country in which that power is so fragmented that no one political grouping can grasp it all.

It would therefore seem that Clegg’s intention is to use the next four years to reshape Britain in a way which makes the Labour Party irrelevant. This will be interesting to watch.

…I find myself disappointed that Clegg hasn’t gone out to face them. He did so during the Coalition negotiations, when Take Back Parliament protested outside the venue. He’s been extremely forthright in defending his position on the subject, which I can respect, even though I disagree with it. If he goes out now with a loudhailer, I might not even regret voting for him.

On the other hand, that exposes him to the risk that the students might rip him limb from limb. I think that’s a risk he should be willing to take.

The Hugo Young Lecture

November 23, 2010

Doubtless the electronic ether-laden air is about to be saturated with missives claiming that Clegg has just announced the end of control orders as a consequence of the strength of his language on civil liberties in tonight’s lecture. I’d like to discuss a slightly different point.

As the lecture ended, I heard a young (20~) man complain to his mother that Clegg’s ‘New Progessivism’ was just a disguise for the minimalist state. This, of course, ignored everything that Clegg had said during the lecture about the importance of a state-funded NHS and education, and was said with a rather plummy tone. It recalled my last post in which I argued that the statist Left’s irrationalities and hyperboles since the election were a psychological consequence of the inability to accept that they were now in the minority. But it spoke to more than that; a distrust of politicians in which one ignores what they have to say in favour of what one presumes they are saying. It was a bold arrogance, in that sense; a senseless arrogance in another.

But in the context of a lecture which was ostensibly a family gathering – not simply of Young’s family but of Guardian journalists and associated lefties who knew him well – it made perfect sense. That presumptuous arrogance is the mark of aristocracy, and the air was thick of the sensation that this Clegg was an impudent upstart in the proper order of the great families of the socialist movement.

I am not temperamentally inclined to agree with Clegg in this Coalition age, but his description of Labour as the new conservative (with a small C) party may yet prove to be chillingly accurate.

Like, say, signing the anti-tuition fees pledge. The loss of seats in the election. Discussing his sex life. Axing the Sheffield Forgemasters loan. And, although I can’t find the link, slapping Osborne on the back after the Spending Review.

Regretting something implies you wish you didn’t do it. I’m sure Clegg wishes all of the above didn’t happen. But regretting cuts he describes as necessary? That just makes him look weak. Either he believes the above were genuine mistakes, or he doesn’t. In some cases he will. But using the same language for the spending review as about his number of sexual partners makes any attempt on his part to dissociate himself from the unpleasant consequences of the party’s decisions look pathetic.

I voted for Clegg, and it’d be great if he could stop ‘struggling with his conscience’ and start acting on it. In my line of work, I encounter a lot of post-hoc rationalisation, and I don’t want to believe that my party leader is guilty of doing the same.

I attended the Climate Change March on Saturday, mostly to seek absolution for my lack of domestic recycling, but also to support the Cleggmeister in his attempts to sway hippies with powerful rhetoric.

Previous readers of this blog will know I love protesting. There’s always a little bit of theatre that makes me believe it’s all going to somehow work out right, whether it be the hippies with the painted faces pushing a cart labelled ‘Climate Change Bandwagon’ or the entrepreneurs selling whistles to the communists, protests are always reassuring.

And so it was again. Despite the fact that a protest consisting mostly of socialists marched on a route that took in the Rolls Royce & Bentley showrooms, the Ritz, innumerable Starbucks, and the US embassy no-one threw any bricks at all. We arrived in Parliament Square in good spirits and settled down to listen to some hippy band’s deep and meaningful song about how capitalism was bullshit, man.

Then the voices of the young Liberals and middle-aged environmental Liberals around me rose in cheering as the Clegg came on stage to give his speech. And it was very good. He’d clearly worked out that his audience weren’t going to be particularly market friendly, and so his speech was full of exhortations to environmental action.

“No to a third runway at Heathrow!”

Hippies cheer!

“No to Kingsnorth!”

Hippies cheer!

“And no to spending twelve and a half billion quid of our money to give us a short-term VAT cut – which we’ll all have to pay for in the future – when every penny of that money should be spent on public transport, on green energy, on sustainable housing for the future.”

Hippies look confused!

That last part was a typically Lib Dem complicating of the issue, I admit. But it did make me observe the reactions of the rest of the protest during the remainder of the speech. It brought something interesting to light.

During the, “…the scandalous situation that the big energy companies are charging a pensioner – scrimping and saving, living on her own, to perhaps heat one room in her home (or his!) – is charging her or him more than a multimillionaire who’s heating their five-storey mansion from top to toe…” section, the only ones cheering such an ostensibly worthwhile statement were us. Even the socialists didn’t want to know about little old ladies. Everyone just looked grumpy.

Why would that be? Theoretically, the majority of the crowd were the self-defined ‘ethical’ sort, who doubtless do their recycling, owned a wormery, biked everywhere and generally are very nice to the planet. But they don’t appear to care about little old ladies.

I’d like to make a distinction here, based not on science but on public perception. It’s about single issues. They fall into one of two camps: the ‘sexy’ single issues, and the ‘unsexy’ single issues. Climate change, human rights and the developing world fall under the former, the plight of the elderly, the mentally ill and arguably trade unionism fall under the latter. The test is whether you’d find someone more attractive depending on which field they worked in. “I work with the elderly” isn’t as attractive (to me at least, putting subjectivity aside here) as “I work for Friends of the Earth”.

And this is the danger. People who think they’re saving the world don’t want to be reminded about the people who are too poor and too old to join in. As evidence, I give you the crowd’s reaction on Saturday. While single issue campaigning has been spoken about as a reflection of society’s new individualism, with people focusing on the issues they care about, I see it more as intellectual cowardice. If you don’t consider that your new bill that’ll cut carbon emissions by whatever percent by levelling a higher duty on fuel will leave the elderly to freeze to death in the winter because they can no longer afford to heat their homes, then you’re a monster. Reducing the sphere of the ethical to an individual’s relationship with the planet ignores the rest of society. Single issue campaigning will ultimately lead to bad policy – if it hasn’t already.

So the next time you’re confronted by an environmental activist who’s demanding that you recycle more, ask them if they’re sharing their wormery with the little old lady living by herself in the flat upstairs. Picking and choosing when you’re going to be ethical is despicable. Luckily, I chose not to be ethical. I work in politics instead.