Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Attlee & Bread

Clement Attlee is indisputably one of the greatest leaders of the modern age. And in these times when politics is dominated by posturing and rigidity, it is worth looking back on the qualities that enabled Attlee to transform his country for the better, despite all the threats and obstacles he faced in the 1930s/40s.

Attlee was not one for setting out inviolable ideological principles, or for uncompromisingly refusing to work with anyone not signing up to those principles. His focus was always on what people actually needed, and how their unfair deprivations could in practice be remedied.

He praised charitable works. He appreciated intellectual critiques of an exploitative economy. But above all, he recognised that unless political power was obtained to bring in changes on a large enough scale, all that were wrong with society would persist with the attendant suffering.

His greatness came from his steadfast determination to use the power of government to implement what would genuinely help people. To defeat the Nazis, he would work with Winston Churchill in a coalition government. To rebuild Britain after the Second World War, he would defeat Churchill in the 1945 elections to establish a new state-citizens partnership that was to provide unprecedented security for all.

Against Conservatives who said the country was in too much debt to do anything for the people, he had the courage to put forward a programme that would pave the way for the prosperity to come in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite those to his right and left within the Labour Party worrying that he was doing too much or too little, he steered the post-war government forward to secure more for the British people than anyone could have imagined.

What we should remember most about Attlee is the fact that he never doubted that his actions as a political leader were to be judged by how much they improved the everyday quality of life for people, especially those who had to endure the greatest hardship.

Let us leave the final words to Attlee himself, with this poem he wrote in 1912, a decade before he became MP for the East London constituency of Limehouse:

“In Limehouse, in Limehouse, before the break of day,
I hear the feet of many men go upon their way,
Who wander through the City,
The grey and cruel City,
Through streets that have no pity,
The streets where men decay.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, by night as well as day,
I hear the feet of children who go to work or play,
Of children born of sorrow,
How shall they work tomorrow
Who get no bread today?

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, today and every day
I see the weary mothers who sweat their souls away:
Poor, tired mothers, trying
To hush the feeble crying
Of little babies dying
For want of bread today.

In Limehouse, in Limehouse, I’m dreaming of the day
When evil time shall perish and be driven clean away,
When father, child and mother
Shall live and love each other,
And brother help his brother
In happy work and play.”

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Cult of Thoughtlessness

Has the spread of social media led to the deepening of prejudices and proliferation of groundless opinions? Or has it merely increased the visibility of irrational outbursts that were previously hidden from public view? What is certain is that a large number of people have no sense of impartiality, reasoned argument, evidence, or empathy in how they interact with other people. And while social media may have given them more opportunities to express their ill-considered views, it is the established media that have poured fuel on the cult of thoughtlessness that is now burning out of control.

It is the mainstream media that have given charlatans unprecedented air time to present themselves as clever mavericks, and turned them into prime-time celebrities. These scoundrels are allowed to say anything to boost their public profile, and make countless false and misleading claims without any debunking during their media appearances. Yet for all their flamboyant rhetoric, their basic agenda is little more than to deflect public attention from the irresponsible behaviour of the corporate elite (especially those in the fossil fuel business), and channel anger and frustration towards immigrants at home and foreigners abroad.

But this formula of duping the most easily deceived into becoming political fodder for illiberal leaders is hardly new. In early 20th century, thoughtlessness drove hatred and hysteria forward in support of people who for the sake of their own glory would callously destroy the lives of millions.

To avoid a similar trajectory for the 21st century, we need politicians who can organise themselves into winning back power and use that power to support job creation that will spread resources to the many and not line the pocket of the wealthiest few. As for those of us with any kind of educational influence, we have a role to play in raising political literacy so that more people develop the understanding that will guide them towards supporting what is truly good for them, their families and their country.

The key to political literacy is civic thoughtfulness – the antidote to mindless wrecking of social cohesion and human decency. There are three aspects to be cultivated through learning at every level.

First, we should enhance empathic thoughtfulness so that people are more responsive to others’ feelings, appreciate how they treat others is inseparable from how others will want to treat them in return, and learn to see beyond superficial differences and recognise the caring dispositions in others that merit reciprocation.

Secondly, we should improve cognitive thoughtfulness so that people can see through the lies and manipulation perpetrated by con merchants, grasp how important claims ought to be checked by a combination of experienced experts and public scrutiny, and understand what is involved in assessing the reliability of any belief.

Last but not least, we should promote volitional thoughtfulness so that people are better disposed to making decisions after they have taken into account the views and concerns of others, are more skilled at acting in partnership, and can contribute to group deliberations on what is to be done.

For more details relating to these suggestions, see my pamphlet, ‘Political Literacy & Civic Thoughtfulness’, published by the Centre for Welfare Reform, and available for free download from: http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/type/pdfs/political-literacy-civic-thoughtful.html

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Livelihood Challenge: 10 actions to consider

What can people do to get what they need to live a decent life? The options of foraging across common terrain, or having your own land to grow food on, have long been closed off for the vast majority of us. Instead, people are told to find a job that pays them enough so they can afford to get by.

But it’s getting harder to get jobs that cover the everyday expenses, let alone the longer term needs for one’s family or one’s own old age. And all the time, entrepreneurs are considered ‘successful’ when they push up profits by relentlessly cutting labour costs. Slash jobs, shrink pay, and the few at the top get more from their efficiency drive, while others are driven ever deeper into despair and insecurity.

So what are we to do? We need a plan that sets out actions that will deal with the main problems, command support from campaigners, and appeal to the public as a package of reforms that will improve their lives. To start the ball rolling, here’s a provisional list that, subject to further critical input and revisions, can be developed into a political manifesto for good work & decent pay for all:

1. To stop contract terms being imposed to the detriment of workers or their employers, mandate that a free, effective and binding arbitration service can be called on by either side in all cases where there is a dispute over contract terms (e.g., unreasonable shift demands, zero-hour contracts, externalising of workers as contractors).

2. To increase opportunities for worker participation as it leads to better and fairer outcomes for all involved, require all employers to put forward worker ownership & participation options for their workers to vote on, and ensure the options are honestly set out and the chosen ones are implemented.

3. To support the setting-up and consolidation of multi-stakeholder commons and cooperative enterprises, as they empower workers to shape their future and take into account wider societal concerns, set up an Open Cooperativist Development Agency, to create more sustainable jobs, with asset locks where appropriate to prevent future de-mutualisation.

4. To end the no-strings-attached handing over of billions to banks so they can continue with irresponsible lending, set priorities for banks to invest in and lend to those organisations that will create sustainable jobs, support local communities, and expand renewable energy.

5. To prevent firms from relying on invisible public subsidies to boost their profits by drastic cuts to their workforce, assess and arrange for the costs of training and securing alternative employment for redundant workers (e.g., by technology or production relocation), to be borne by the firms planning the redundancies.

6. To rectify the undervaluing of public sector work, set up a register of shortage of teachers, nurses, carers, police officers, and commit central and local government to report on a regular basis how it will invest to fund the establishment and filling of these posts to sustain the basic wellbeing of the people; and to set out remedial action to deal with the unemployment impact of any proposed cuts.

7. To reduce destabilising pay differentials which widen the quality-of-life gap, introduce both (a) a national minimum pay set at X% of the average pay of top 10% workers, and (b) a cap on the top pay in any company set at Y multiple of the lowest paid workers in that company.

8. To ensure every citizen has enough to live on regardless of their circumstances, provide a Universal Basic Income to all adults, and adjust the overall level in line with the cost of living. Everyone is free to seek to earn more without their basic income being deducted. Those with disability needs can apply for top-up supplements as they would have more basic costs to cover.

9. To help people obtain work with a longer term future, task the government with a legal duty to plan for job creation for workers whose current employment will come to an end because of factors such as: the closing down of businesses in declining sectors; leaving the military after serving in time-limited campaigns; or the switching from harmful industries to socially responsible businesses.

10. To anticipate the human-displacement effects of advancement in automation and artificial intelligence, convene strategic forums with leading tech proprietors and innovators to ensure there is a growing range of freely accessible benefits for all to compensate for the exclusion of majority of people from being to purchase what is only affordable to those who still have jobs in the high-end sectors.

These are just suggestions to kick-start discussions. Any eventual publication will look different, and the final set of proposal will be backed by more detailed explanations. For now, let’s have your thoughts.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

2017: a precarious jobs odyssey

Why have we been landed with such a pessimistic start to the year? Because enough people voted for chaos last year. And why did they do that? Is it really because Eastern Europeans have taken over the UK, and Mexicans are saturating the US? The reason why so many people thought immigration must be cut down was that they thought with fewer immigrants, they would get the good jobs back.

But those jobs were long gone. The wealthy elite behind the Brexit and Trump campaigns have for decades been moving production plants and jobs abroad; weakening unions so those who still have a job at home feel insecure; squeezing out higher productivity from local workers and paying them less; and forcing them to borrow more while they pocket higher returns themselves.

As for the immigrants, they pay taxes, they buy locally produced goods and services, and help the British and American economies. But they also make for convenient scapegoats, so the wealthy elite, instead of admitting to greedily destroying good jobs and decent pay, stoke anti-immigrant campaigns and carry on exactly as they have done.

Of course destabilising the EU and throwing international relations under a cloak of uncertainty are hardly going to help the UK or US thrive economically. And when those jobs people desperately want fail to materialise, the pied piper will be playing the old ‘just too many immigrants’ song again. For some, racism is a handy diversion. But for many, it will ultimately ring hollow. Most people just want a job that will give them a sense of achievement and pay them a fair income.

But the wealthy elite who can now get the EU regulators off their back or whose friends have got a seat in the US administration, are not about to give up their exploitation of the 99%. So someone has to rally the resistance.

And the starting point of that resistance? Jobs, jobs and jobs. Don’t for a moment fall into the trap the grinning xenophobes have set. Focus on what people are really concerned about. Tell them that the encroachment on pay and working conditions must end. Tell them the resources of the nation will not be set aside to help rich bankers and owners of properties ad shares, but will instead be channelled to invest in sustainable industries that will have a long term future for everyone. Tell them they will have a democratic say about the remuneration in the companies they work in so pay differentials reflect the worth of what people put in, not the talent of those who know how to sneak money out.

There are many jobs that need to be done, and there are many looking for jobs to do. The wealthy elite will want to keep using the smokescreen of immigration to hide their self-serving deals. But they can be exposed. And when a real deal for jobs is put on the table, optimism will at long last return.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Three Wise Memos

In 2016, millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic, to make their lives better, chose to throw in their lot with con merchants who will make them even worse off than before. The disastrous consequences will hurt everyone else too. So what lessons are we to draw from this year of calamity?

Memo 1: Focus on Jobs

People are, above all, worried about not having a proper job. With stagnant pay, zero-hour contracts, redundancy threats becoming more prevalent, they are not sure if they can make ends meet. Public support is being cut back everywhere, and the private sector relentlessly charges higher rent, insurance, and fees.

Con merchants tell people that it is the fault of immigrants; that if immigration is drastically cut, there will be more jobs available. But not only do immigrants pay taxes and make purchases, and thus boost the overall economy to create more jobs, the precarious state facing so many workers is actually caused by the con merchants and their rich friends, who want to profit more from squeezing out labour costs. Decent jobs are hard to come by because production is moved abroad, automation becomes more widespread, and more work is demanded for fewer paid hours.

A new model for jobs and earnings has to be formulated, otherwise there will be few people left with enough money to buy the things machines made, and the economic system will indeed collapse. The alternative has to combine a guarantee of basic income for all (linked to a recognition of valuable work, such as caring for, mentoring, guiding, and supporting others in one’s family and the wider community); the democratisation of remuneration for everyone engaged in an enterprise; and the restoration of licences to operate for corporations (to set limits on corporate anti-social behaviour).

Memo 2: Mobilise Support

The media would have us believe a revolution is sweeping across the world. But the battles to stop political con merchants have been won or lost on the narrowest of margins for decades, and nothing much has changed on that front. The marginal seats (UK) and swing states (US) still tip the delicate balance one way or the other.

With around a third (it fluctuates between 30%-35%) of eligible voters tending not to vote, most contests are fought largely over the remaining two-thirds of voters, who are broadly split between those who are easy prey for the con merchants and those who see through them. This means that until the con can be more widely exposed (which is an important long term project), the immediate challenge is to mobilise those on the anti-con side to turn out to vote. And to do that, you need a charismatic leader who can inspire, a policy vision that can tackle job insecurity, and an outreach programme that will get your potential supporters out to vote.

We should remember that Hillary Clinton got 300,000 fewer votes in Michigan
than Obama did in 2012; if she had managed to get a tenth of those Democrats (they did not switch to Trump) to cast a vote for her, she would have won Michigan. Similarly, in Wisconsin, while Trump did no better or worse than Romney, Clinton failed to secure the votes of 230,000 Democrats who backed Obama previously; she needed just 30,000 of them to turn the loss of that state into victory. The pattern was repeated in other swing states like North Carolina. If there is one lesson to be learnt here, it’s this: take nothing for granted, mobilise every last enemy of the con to defeat it.

Memo 3: Stand Firm Against Con Merchants

When you’re dealing with reasonable people, by all means cooperate with them and work out sensible compromises. But when faced with con merchants whose business is to make empty promises and nasty threats, you have to stand firm. Obama thought he was inclusively bipartisan in appointing a Republican, James Comey, as FBI Director; but at a critical juncture, Comey flouted all protocol to destabilise the Democrats’ Presidential campaign. By contrast, Trump has no hesitation at all in picking the most extreme Republicans for his top positions.

Nothing sums up political con merchants’ tactics better than their spin on ‘democracy’. Not long before the EU referendum, Farage, dreading defeat, declared the referendum results could not be accepted unless the winning majority was substantial; he said publicly, “In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way”. When it turned out the Leave votes edged out Remain by 52% to 48%, he suggested that any further debate about the issue would be tantamount to a betrayal of the people. Trump also reacted to polls showing him trailing by repeatedly claiming that the Presidential elections were rigged in favour of his opponent. He even warned of widespread uprising if he lost. But when he won the elections even though Clinton had secured a million more votes from the people, he had nothing to say about the fairness or otherwise of the electoral system.

The lies told by Brexit campaigners and Trump are legion and well documented. And a key reason why, in spite of that, their supporters buy into their con is that, when they have heard nothing about improving their job prospects from anyone else, they in desperation hang on to the one direct promise made to them about how everything will be made better by getting tough with foreigners at home and abroad. Like so many who are duped by Ponzi schemes or unsavoury cults, they don’t want to be upset by the truth. Researchers have found that among Democrat supporters, around 60% believe their elected representatives should compromise if necessary to get things done for the country; but among Republican supporters, only about a third would want their elected representatives to make any compromise. When dealing with those who want to bulldoze over us, it’s time we realise there can be no concession.

--
NOTES:
[a] For more on how the relatively lower Democratic turnout contributed to Clinton’s defeat, see:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/omribenshahar/2016/11/17/the-non-voters-who-decided-the-election-trump-won-because-of-lower-democratic-turnout/#61289fc540a1

[b] According to a Gallup poll, among Republicans, 41% oppose compromise and 32% are open to it; whereas among Democrats, 18% oppose compromise and 59% are open to it: http://www.gallup.com/poll/144359/democrats-republicans-differ-views-compromise.aspx
According to an AP-GfK poll: among Republicans, 62% prefer a new speaker who will stick with conservative principles even if doing so leads to a government shutdown, while 37% prefer someone who will compromise with President Barack Obama and Democrats to pass a budget. But among Democrats, only 37% oppose their party’s leaders making compromise to pass legislation, while 60% support compromise: http://ap-gfkpoll.com/uncategorized/ap-gfk-poll-republicans-want-principles-not-compromise

[c] Farage’s statement on not accepting a 52%-48% result as conclusive can be found here: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/nigel-farage-wants-second-referendum-7985017

Thursday, 1 December 2016

How Anger Trumps Anxiety

There are people who are prone to anger. They can be furious about all kinds of thing, and once their fuse is lit, they won’t listen to facts or reason. They want to hear that they are right to be outraged about immigrants, refugees, abortion, gun controls, gay marriage, being soft on criminals, not bombing hostile countries, and all that negative talk about fossil fuel. And they want someone to echo their rage and help them shout down anyone who thinks they are not entirely correct.

Then there are people who are full of anxiety. They are worried about everything, and the moment they read another distressing report, it’s added to their ‘to do’ list. They need to know what is going to be done to tackle social injustice, xenophobia, misogyny, gun crime, homophobia, neglect of rehabilitation, bombing civilians, and all that climate change denial. And they need someone who will not only understand those problems, but can prove to them that he or she will deliver all the necessary solutions.

With the angry mob, you can just press a button here and there, lead the ranting, and they adore you as one of them. It does not matter if you have nothing to offer to lift their wages, so long as you despise those immigrants, you’re alright with the gang. It does not matter if you give the biggest tax cuts to the richest few, so long as you condemn abortion vitriolically, you’re their hero. It does not matter if you have behaved abominably to women, so long as you hate gun laws with a vengeance, they’ve got your back.

But with the anxious cohort, the minute you outline one plan to solve one problem, they ask you about the next one on their list. It does not matter if you are better in so many ways than the other one, if you’re weak on one policy issue, they cannot in good conscience support you. It does not matter if you’re the only hope of holding back an avalanche of bigotry nationwide, if you’re not convincing enough in their last analysis, you don’t get their vote. It does not matter if the ideal candidate who ticks all the boxes is not an option here, if you’re not the ‘one’, they can’t help you.

Elections can be won and lost by the smallest of margins. Indeed, with some arcane system, they can be lost even if you win more votes, so long as you don’t win enough of them in the right places. And in too many of those places, alas, the hesitancy of the anxious allows the rampage of the angry to seize the day, the months, and the years to come.

Of course if the angry mob had lost, they had threatened to reject the results and back open rebellion. By contrast, the anxious are now desperately looking for some evidence that things might not be as calamitous as so many had warned if they were to abstain. Sadly, it’s going to be as bad as it gets. But that’s what happens when the obsession with waiting for the perfect candidate gets in the way of stopping power from falling into the hands of the worst.

Friday, 11 November 2016

The Brexit-Trump Regression

2016 is the year of the UK’s European Referendum and the US’ Presidential Election. To lose one contest may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both certainly looks like carelessness.

A new industry has sprung up to explain the victories for Brexit and Trump, so dramatically snatched from the jaws of countless opinion pollsters. On the surface, there is much agreement. Millions of people are frustrated and angry. For decades they have been told that corporate freedom and liberalised trade would help everyone become better off. Year in, year out, they are sold the line that they must be more flexible as workers to help improve productivity and competitiveness, which will in turn bring prosperity for all. Yet while they have worked longer hours, taken on more part-time roles, agreed to unwelcome shifts, things just got worse.

Wages became stagnant; jobs more insecure; public services were repeatedly cut; and the prospects of a home for their children, care for their parents, adequacy of their own pensions, were all fading fast.

But why then did people not give their political backing to someone who would deal with the causes of these problems? Why did they not support those who would ensure there are fairer remuneration policies with worker participation, tackle tax avoidance and evasion that cost billions of pounds and dollars, invest in health and housing to give everyone a greater sense of security, stop banks gambling irresponsibly with savers’ money, promote multi-stakeholder cooperatives that deliver greater economic and environmental benefits?

The short answer: no one has come forward with such a political platform. Corbyn in Britain took control of the Labour Party but then has not managed to engage the wider public with any clear vision or convincing policy proposals, leaving him the most unpopular leader of the Labour Opposition since polling began in the 1950s. Sanders in America came closer to formulating a coherent alternative, but the Democrats picked Hillary Clinton instead to run against Trump.

Into this regrettable vacuum came the likes of Farage and Trump, peddling a simple spell for salvation: blame it on foreigners – who were imposing bad trade deals on us; coming over here to take our jobs; cheating their way through our border control by pretending to be refugees whose lives were at risk; encroaching on our culture with their alien customs; claiming benefits and using our cash-strapped public services.

Never mind the lies and distortions that were concocted to feed these allegations. The underlying strategy is to divert the despairing and the furious from the real causes of the problems, and turn them to vent their feelings at scapegoats who ‘don’t belong here’.

It’s hardly a new tactic. Tribal nationalism has been around since the emergence of democratic politics in the 19th century made it impossible for the power-hungry to take over as rulers by force or through deals with the elite in society. So tribal nationalism was adopted as a populist tool to win votes. And it worked in France in the mid-19th century and Germany in the early 20th century, until it brought those countries to their respective ruin.

The Brexit-Trump phenomenon should be seen for what it is – not some unprecedented anti-establishment movement, but a regression to the old tribal nationalist formula which targets the vulnerable, gratifies the lowest common denominator among the disaffected, and serves the demagogues pulling the strings and anyone in the establishment willing to collaborate with them.

If there is a lesson to be learnt, it is this: tribal nationalism inevitably brings intimidation, the spread of hatred and prejudices, and violent conflicts; but if no one will come forward with an authentic agenda to tackle the problems we face, it will continue as the list of ‘others’ grows and persecution becomes the inescapable norm.