Friday 28 August 2015

Identifying the right problem

It was interesting to read today that Wales apparently has a grand total of 12,000 millionaires.  As I understand it, these are the wicked people whose prediliection for taking time out of their busy schedules to visit their doctors to obtain prescriptions for free paracetamol, according to the Tories, is bankrupting the Welsh NHS. 

I found myself wondering just how much paracetamol such a small number of people must each be popping in order to arrive at such a horrendous situation.  A packet of 16 pills costs around 20p, so if each of them gets a packet once a week all year round, the total cost of the tablets would be a massive £120,000.  To be close to bankrupting the whole NHS, I dread to think how many tablets they must each be swallowing.  

Perhaps the real problem which the Tories keep highlighting is a widespread addiction to painkillers amongst the very richest people in Wales.

Thursday 27 August 2015

Swimming in the mainstream

The Tories and their friends in the media, to say nothing of the rest of the Labour Party have delighted in criticising Jeremy Corbyn at every opportunity, painting him as some sort of dangerous left-wing extremist.  And I don’t doubt that it will get worse if he actually wins when the votes are counted.
I’ve never been sure that he’s as different from the rest as he’s been painted, though.  And the most damning evidence against him that I’ve seen is this letter in the Guardian signed by 40 economists, in support of his views.  As they kindly point out, much of what he says on economic policy is actually mainstream economic theory rather than extreme or different; it’s simply that the Tory/Labour/media consensus in the UK has bought in to a different strand of economic theory.  They’re the extremists, rather than Corbyn.
Trying to make capitalism work a little better for more people, which is basically what he seems to mean by opposing austerity economics, is an entirely worthy aim in itself.  It isn’t the same thing, though, as proposing an alternative economic vision.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Losing a sense of direction

To say that I don’t always agree with what Simon Brooks has to say would be unsurprising, but on this occasion, I think he makes a very valid point.  It’s not entirely dissimilar to points made on this blog in the past.  It is easy enough for someone looking out from within Plaid simply to dismiss what he has said, of course.  Not so many years ago, I would almost certainly have done the same.  Being part of that which is being critiqued makes it far too easy to fall into the comfort zone of groupthink and simply reject the criticism.  But the perspective from outside can often look very different, and not always be easy for those inside to comprehend.
His core point, it seems to me, is that in the recent election, Plaid sounded more like the Welsh arm of a British campaign than like a specifically Welsh campaign.  I agree.  He’s a bit dismissive about the ‘group hugs’ at the end of debates, but I thought it a welcome change, demonstrating that a different approach to politics is possible.  And there’s nothing at all wrong, in my view, with parties making alliances where appropriate.  The question, though, is whether a convenient alliance around a few core points should supplement or supplant the member parties’ individual narratives.  In Scotland, I thought it clearly supplemented – and therefore strengthened - the SNP’s message; in Wales it looked more like a case of supplanting – and therefore weakening – Plaid’s narrative.
Now, as always needs to be said, Wales isn’t Scotland; we are at very different stages of development.  So we shouldn’t expect a direct replication in Wales of what is happening at a given point in time; we might instead need to look backwards to the Scotland of a decade or two ago for a comparison with today’s Wales.  But, even if we do that, we see one point with absolute clarity – at no point in the path which has led Scotland to where it is today were the SNP ever afraid of arguing for their core policy of Scottish independence. 
Many factors have led Scotland to where it is today, and not all of those could be replicated in Wales even if the political will were there.  But one of those factors must surely be the consistency with which the case has been put.  And that is a key difference between Scotland and Wales, and is one which, unlike many of the other factors, is entirely in our own hands.
I’m not convinced, though, that Simon has identified the right reason for the lack of a distinctive Welsh dimension.  He seems to think that it’s down to an obsessive desire to win the admiration and approval of the British (i.e. English, in this context) ‘left’.  Whilst I wouldn’t deny that there are some who seem to suffer from that, and others who rationalise their position by appealing to the idea that they are the heirs of Lloyd George or Bevan, I think it’s too simplistic an analysis.  The problem isn’t about the direction from which approval is sought; it’s the underlying psychological need for approval in the first place.
That need stems, it seems to me, from a lack of confidence which is one of the less attractive characteristics of the Welsh in general, and our political leadership in particular.  There is a lack of confidence in the arguments for independence and a lack of confidence in the ability to express and defend those arguments.  And often, even a lack of confidence and certainty about whether it’s what they really want.
But whether Simon or I is right or wrong in the analysis is secondary to the outcome which we saw, which was that Plaid ended up fighting the election on a very ‘British’ platform which failed to present a clear alternative future for Wales, and of which one of the main planks seemed to be “vote for us to keep Labour honest”. 
And looking forward, one of the biggest problems with that line is that even if people could be convinced that a party with 3 – 6 seats could really keep a Labour party with 300 in check (an argument which only made any sense at all because of the rise of the SNP), they may well take a different view if a Corbyn-led Labour* no longer seems to need to be “kept honest” and is saying essentially the same thing as Plaid on all the pan-British issues.  Why not just vote for the real thing, in order to try and ensure a Labour victory rather than risk a failure?  It's a dangerous place to be.
(*No, I’m not really arguing that Corbyn is actually that different to the rest of Labour, but for their own reasons, various interests have effectively conspired together to create a strong perception that he is, and it is perception which drives voting, not fact.)

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Blind loyalty

‘Loyalty’ is a curious thing in politics.  The word is one of those that always sound like a good thing, but in reality it is meaningless unless it is related to something else.  One can only be loyal to someone or something; using the word loyal as a generic adjective is well nigh meaningless.
That doesn’t mean that they don’t try it though.  One of the criticisms of Corbyn during the Labour leadership contest has been that he has been serially disloyal in parliament, voting against the party whip repeatedly.  Such a disloyal person, runs the argument, cannot expect that others will be loyal if he is elected leader.  But the question is – to what has he been disloyal, and to what might he reasonably expect others to be loyal in turn?
That he has frequently voted against the parliamentary party’s whip is an undisputed fact.  And since the party whip seems to be decided solely by the leader, then it is reasonable to conclude that he has been disloyal to the leader.  But, as far as I can see, he has been very consistent in voting in line with what he has told his constituents at election after election.  That, surely, is a form of loyalty in itself, rather then disloyalty – and it would be disloyal to those constituents to say one thing at an election and then do the opposite once elected.  (Although the idea that there’s anything wrong with doing the opposite to what they said before the election would, it seems, be a strange one to most politicians.)
Politicians – and not just Labour ones – are frequently placed in a position of having to decide to what or whom they should be loyal.  Should it be the ‘cause’ (for those who espouse one), the party, the leader, or the electorate?  For those who entered politics purely as a career choice, it’s easy enough to fall in and do whatever you’re told, even if it’s the opposite of what you claimed to believe passionately the previous week.  It takes a lot more bravery for someone to stand by what he or she believes.  I’d value that more highly than misplaced loyalty any day.

Monday 24 August 2015

Education with a purpose

When the annual A-level results were announced recently, we had the usual scattering of famous and successful people drawing attention to the fact that they didn’t get where they are today by passing exams.  It’s true, of course.  But the idea that such a route to fame and fortune might therefore await all those youngsters who are not successful in education owes more to the natural human tendency to assume that ‘we’ are typical than it does to any rational examination of the facts.  For sure, there will always be some people who enjoy ‘success’ regardless of academic qualifications (or lack of) due to some other talents that they possess – or in some cases down to sheer luck at being in the right place at the right time – but that’s far from being the norm.
There has also recently been some attention paid to the increase in the number of young people going to university – a trend which may well increase with the removal of caps on the number of places offered.  It leads to a situation where the number of graduates coming out of universities exceeds the likely number of ‘graduate’ jobs.  Actually, I think that the number of ‘graduate’ jobs has, in any case, been inflated for many years.  Whilst there are some jobs for which a degree is essential (I don’t think I’d want to be treated by a doctor whose highest relevant qualification was a Biology A level, for example), in many other fields the stipulation that a job is only open to graduates is just a lazy approach by employers to filtering the applications they would otherwise receive.
But in any event, why should a degree lead to a ‘graduate job’?  The suggestion that there should be a direct link from one to the other is one which isn’t challenged enough.  Those who argue that there are now ‘too many’ graduates, who have studied the ‘wrong’ subjects, are starting from a very instrumentalist view of the purpose of education.  At the heart of that perspective is the view that the job of the education system is to turn out the right number of people with the right qualifications to meet the needs of employing organisations.  It is, in short, a factory producing a workforce.
Disguised as a pragmatic approach to meeting needs, it is based, in essence, on an ideological viewpoint, which responds to the needs of the predominant ideology of the day, namely capitalism.  And it is an ideology accepted by politicians of all parties, which is why so many are able to talk about ‘post-ideological’ politics.  Ideology has never gone away; it’s simply that they’ve all signed up to one single ideology.
But for some of us, education and learning have their own intrinsic merit as part of a process through which humanity develops and which enables people to seek fulfilment other than through work.  Education solely for the purposes of employment is a way of ensuring continued subjugation to the needs of the economic system; education as a vehicle for personal and collective improvement is potentially a vehicle for regaining the freedom which has been lost. It might even be argued that more widespread education for its own sake is one of the means by which the current system can, ultimately, be changed.  A seed of destruction, perhaps? The lack of politicians who understand and support that view merely underlines the extent to which the prevailing ideology is dominating political thought.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

A one party state

One of the themes coming from those who issue increasingly dire warnings about the danger for the Labour Party if Corbyn should win the leadership contest is that democracy depends on there being an alternative party which can be elected to form a government.  Miliband Senior referred explicitly to the possibility of the UK becoming a “one-governing-party state”, which is at least a more accurate description of the feared outcome than the more simplistic “one-party state” used by others.
The Labour Party’s fears are not restricted to the UK level of government.  With the SNP on anything up to 62% of the vote, according to the latest opinion polls, even the much more representative system used for Holyrood elections looks likely to be dominated by one party with no alternative looking electable at present.
As far as I’m aware, though, the Labour Party’s deep and sincere concern for having a viable alternative party of government doesn’t extend to Wales for some strange reason, despite Wales being the one place in the UK where there has been no change of lead party in government for the last 16 years, and where there is no such change in prospect either.  It’s easier to accept the concept of there being only one party with a realistic chance of forming a government if it happens to be your party, I suppose.
Is it actually true that a functioning democracy depends on there being an immediately viable alternative government-in-waiting?  It’s asserted as unassailable truth often enough, of course.  In Wales, even the Tories claim it as a necessity, acting as a justification for their repeated proposal for an alliance of everybody else against Labour – a proposal which makes considerably more sense in terms of simple arithmetic than it does in terms of politics.
In Scotland, there have even been anguished howls from some commentators that the system is fundamentally flawed if it allows any party to dominate in the way that the SNP seem likely to if the polls are anywhere near correct.  Whilst the first-past-the-post system used at UK level could indeed be said to be flawed, producing as it has a majority government on the basis of a 37% share of the vote, I’m not sure that the more proportional system used in Scotland and Wales is as badly flawed.  And even though I’d prefer a system based on a single class of members using STV, there is no system of voting which can guarantee a viable government-in-waiting if the most popular party starts to attract 50-60% of the votes.
If the electors are happy with continued government by a single party (whichever party) and continue to elect it with a majority in successive elections, any claim that a functioning democracy depends on there being a viable alternative sounds a lot like saying that the electorate have got it wrong, and have no right to exclude other parties from government.  It’s up to those other parties to enthuse the electors enough to make them want to vote differently. 
The problem that dogs politics in the UK is that for too long, the ‘alternative’ parties have believed that the only way to do that is to sound increasingly like the party that they want to dislodge, and to fight elections on the basis of being different people rather than people with different views.  But having two parties saying the same thing and taking turns at governing is really little different from a ‘one-governing-party state’ in practice, because they become more like two factions within a single party than two different parties. 
In that sense, the idea that there needs to be an alternative to keep democracy functioning is a very superficial one.  Unless that alternative government is actually offering something very different, it’s more a way of preventing democratic change than facilitating it, by trying to convince the electorate that they have a choice when they don’t.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Fraternal comrades

Some of the recent opinion polls in relation to the Labour leadership contest, showing that Jeremy Corbyn may be attracting strong support outside the narrow Labour electorate, have surprised me.  Although I don’t think his views are as far outside the Overton window as they’re being painted, I was nevertheless expecting that he’d have to do a lot more to sell his ideas before seeing that sort of reaction.  I had thought that the Tories, aided and abetted by Labour, had succeeded in securely establishing the window in its current position.
Assuming that he wins – which now looks to be a likelier outcome than I had anticipated – will this last?  Can he build on it until the next UK general election?  I remain dubious.  The Tory-supporting press have barely started on him yet, held back at least in part by a feeling that perhaps a Corbyn leadership might actually help their cause.  But if he is elected, we can be sure that the muzzles will be off in no time at all.
The fact that so many in his own party are so willing to assist the Tories and their allies in rubbishing his views won’t help him either.  With comrades like these, he hardly needs political opponents.  The word of the week for the comrades seems to be ‘credibility’; they all claim that they have it, and that he doesn’t.  Chris Dillow has posted on the possible meanings of ‘credibility’ in this context.  I’m pretty certain that his fourth meaning ("unacceptable to the Westminster-media Bubble") is the one that is driving Corbyn’s ‘fraternal comrades’.
The Sunday Times carried a lengthy hatchet piece on Corbyn this week.  Well, one might say, they would wouldn’t they?  And as this sort of thing ramps up, no doubt there will be those in Labour who condemn the Tory press.  But one of the co-authors of this piece was a Labour man; if they’re willing to say it, they can hardly blame the media for being so willing to use it.
To me, the piece confirmed – as if we didn’t already know – how deeply into bubble-think so many in Labour have fallen.  The whole piece seemed to be predicated on an assumption that all the readers would start from the same place as the authors, and be horrified by the same things.  That simply demonstrates how badly we need a real alternative to be presented.
Amongst Corbyn’s most heinous crimes, apparently, is the fact that his political views haven’t changed at all over the years.  As an example, not only was he elected as an opponent of Trident, he has the nerve to continue opposing Trident.  Everybody in the bubble knows that MPs – especially Labour MPs – are supposed to get sucked into the system and change their views once elected, but this man is so outrageous that he hasn’t done so.  Whereas for many of us, consistency would be seen as a virtue, in senior Labour circles it is seen as something positively dangerous.
That goes to the heart of the problem of Labour, and the problem is very deep-rooted.  A Corbyn leadership will no doubt look attractive to many – he’s certainly closer to my views on many issues than any of the other candidates – but it won’t address the long term problem.  He’ll only be allowed one shot at winning an election before he gets replaced by someone more amenable to the bubble.  Sadly, in the longer term interests of replacing Labour entirely, we would be better off without the short term boost of optimism that he is supplying.

Monday 17 August 2015

Could Blair be right?

…walking eyes shut, arms outstretched…”, as Blair put it last week, is the classic image of a sleepwalker.  I’m not sure that it’s really true, though – eyes shut maybe, but as far as I’m aware, outstretched arms is much less typical.  Whatever, the analogy was clear; Blair was accusing the Labour Party’s members of sleepwalking into making the wrong choice of leader.
The analogy of sleepwalking is one much loved by politicians to describe a group of people making a decision without really being aware of what they’re doing or what the consequences might be.  And in most cases, including this one, it’s deeply insulting to those making the decision – usually the electorate.
Blair is in effect saying that the members of the Labour Party could not possibly arrive at the decision which looks increasingly likely as a result of a conscious thought process after weighing up the options, so they must be arriving at their decision without thinking too deeply about it.  It’s not far short of saying that the members of his party are too stupid to be trusted to take the right decision.
In fairness, though, looking at some of the leadership choices the Labour Party has made in the recent past, perhaps he has, unintentionally, made a valid point.

Friday 14 August 2015

Something not new, something not old...

Earlier this week, in comments on the Labour leadership race which seemed to support precisely none of the candidates, the former Secretary of State said something to the effect that the party couldn’t go back to being Old Labour, but neither could it go back to being New Labour.  That left me wondering how exactly one could describe that which is neither old nor new.  Nondescript probably doesn’t quite do it.
In a car showroom, it would probably be ‘slightly-used’ Labour, even adding that it has only had one previous careful driver.  (Well, surely, there must be one of the previous drivers who could be described as careful?)
But perhaps a better answer might be ‘shop-soiled Labour’.  It’s not old, but not quite new, and comes with only a limited guarantee as to its efficacy.  I wonder if that’s what Hain meant.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

Learning the wrong lessons

Over the past week, there have been a number of events to mark the 70th anniversary of the dropping of nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities at the end of the Second World War.  And media coverage has been accompanied by some of the usual rationalisations for the action taken, and for the continued possession of nuclear weapons.
The customary justification of those who support the use made of the weapons is that it helped to end the war early, and saved more lives than it cost.  I’ll admit that I don’t know if that’s true or not; the nature of history is that we can only ever live it once, we can’t go back and do something different to see what would have happened.  There is some evidence in support of the view that more lives were saved than taken, but there is also plenty of evidence against it.
Bridgend’s Green Leftie has set out some of the evidence to suggest that the argument about saving more lives than it cost wasn’t true – and that the people involved had enough knowledge at the time to know that what they were saying was untrue.  Maybe.  It looks convincing to me, but then I start from a pre-disposition to believe that. 
But let’s give those who justify the bombings the benefit of the doubt for a moment, and assume that they really did believe that what they were doing was the lesser of two evils.  It seems to me that even on the basis of that assumption, there are two serious questions to be asked before one can excuse their actions.
The first is whether there really were only two choices – all out land invasion fighting inch by inch over the Japanese islands or dropping atomic bombs to annihilate two cities.  Reducing the options to two is a technique often used to justify taking a particular course of action; but such a simplistic binary choice rarely reflects the subtleties of life in the real world.  The argument that it saved more lives than it cost stands up only if we accept the premise that there were only two choices; those making that argument are wilfully over-simplifying. 
But the second question is, for me, the crucial one.  Even supposing it were true, on what basis does any civilised human being decide that killing 200,000 plus citizens, selected solely on the basis of where they live, in an act of deliberate mass extermination, is ‘better’ than the possibility that a greater number will die elsewhere, based on what can only be estimates and guesses?  It’s not that I don’t understand the mathematics of it – it’s as simple as believing that X is greater than Y.  But it’s the dehumanisation involved which is the issue; the treating of people with names and families as just numbers whose lives can be weighed and valued against the lives of others as though on a giant set of scales.
It’s too easy to dismiss that attitude as the product of a vicious total war which had already raged for 6 years and taken millions of lives.  It might, almost, be comprehensible (even if not excusable) in that context.  But those who support the continued possession of weapons of mass destruction are effectively applying the same type of judgement today, because there is no purpose at all in possessing such weapons unless those who possess them are willing to use them.
That includes every UK Prime Minister, Tory and Labour alike, since the end of the war in which nuclear weapons were first used.  All of them, even free of the pressures of immediate war, have effectively declared their willingness to eliminate whole cities and all those who live in them, selected for death solely on the basis of location. 
The lesson which we should learn from Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that it should never happen again.  The lesson which our ‘leaders’ actually seem to have learnt is that possessing the biggest stick and being willing to use it on randomly selected victims allows the big boys to get their own way in the world.
Sometimes, ‘human progress’ sounds like an oxymoron.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

What is it about coal?

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the first, and he won’t be the last, to peddle the idea that we should seek to restart the dormant coal industry in order to exploit the massive reserves which still exist underground.  It’s sad - on energy policy, at least, he was doing quite well up to that point, but now he’s blown it.
Like others who’ve put forward similar proposals in the past, he’s intelligent enough to know full well that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a technology which has never been successfully scaled up to that which would be required for large scale deployment.  Perhaps one day it will be, although I doubt it.  It’s not just the technological issues of capturing enough of the carbon; it’s also the issue of what to do with it afterwards.  Pumping it underground is the usual proposal, but the long term security of that is very much an open question.
In the meantime, the ‘promise’ of CCS, in some form, at some future date, is used by apologists for the coal industry as a way of justifying continuing – or in Corbyn’s case, apparently, accelerating – the use of the dirtiest fuel of all.  He, like some others, seems to be seduced by the attraction of the coal industry.
There are of course those who simply don’t accept that any element of climate change is in any way man-made, and I can understand why anyone taking that view might see coal as a cheap option, whilst not really caring whether CCS ever does come to fruition.  But Corbyn and others on the ‘left’ don’t seem to be in that category. 
Instead, the ‘left’ seems at times to have a romantic attachment to the idea of a coal industry, bound up with an appreciation of the sense of community which surrounded pits, and the radicalism which often grew from those communities.  I can see the attraction of those aspects of the mining industry of the past – but I can’t escape the import of those last three words, ‘of the past’.
In community terms – even if not in environmental terms, or health terms – many places in Wales might still be more vibrant and confident if the mining industry had not been decimated.  The main drivers for that decimation were economics and breaking the power of the unions; the environmental advantages of moving away from coal were entirely accidental to the government of the day – but those environmental advantages are not ones which we should just ignore and throw away.
The past can often look better than it was – particularly to those who didn’t live in it – but it’s not a place to which we can return.  Rebuilding our shattered communities is no small task; the destruction wrought upon them during the 1980s in particular has left a terrible legacy.  But the way to do it is by looking to a cleaner future, not trying to go back to the past.
The only environmentally safe coal is coal which is left unburnt in the ground.  Failure to recognise that is to seek to build hope around a false promise.

Monday 3 August 2015

Compare and contrast

Sometimes, it’s not so much the content of news stories which strikes me as the relationship between two or more stories.  There was a good example of this last week, in these two stories.
The first concerned migrants who travelled half way across the world to seek a better life, and the second was a story about, well, migrants travelling half way across the world to seek a better life.  The first group were successful - they planted their language and culture on faraway shores and are to be celebrated; the second intended merely to integrate with the existing culture and language in the country of their destination and find work, but they have mostly failed and are to be reviled.
Unfair comparison?  In some ways, yes, of course it is.  Things were different 150 years ago.  But the core issue is that, in both cases, we are looking at people who felt that their situation in their home country was sufficiently desperate that they were ready to risk everything to try and build a new and better life elsewhere. 
It’s not often that I agree with anything that the Tory MP for Monmouth says but last week was a minor exception, when he said about the way to prevent immigration, “Fundamentally, what we need to do is take away the incentive to come…”.  I don’t really agree with him that migration is something which necessarily needs to be prevented, but in principle I agree that removing the incentive is the best way of managing levels of migration.  We do, though, have very different views about what the ‘incentive to come’ might be.  He seems to see it as being poor border control, French weakness and a too-soft system of benefits, whereas I see it as global economic inequality.  And one of the few certainties in life is that he has no real intention of tackling that one.
As for Labour, well their acting leader has demanded that an invoice be sent to France for the costs incurred by the UK as a result of that country’s failings, whilst Jack Straw has called for the abolition of the Schengen agreement and the reimposition of border controls across the European continent.  Just as well that, according to them, they’re a party of internationalists.  I dread to think what ‘narrow nationalists’ might have suggested.
The position taken by Leanne Wood for Plaid is more enlightened and humane, but even that seems to be starting from the view that migration is a ‘problem’ which needs to be ‘controlled’.  That’s a difference of degree rather than of kind.  No mainstream politicians seem to be willing to start from the position that all people should be free to live and work wherever they choose, and that the ‘problem’ is about adapting to the implications of that freedom rather than denying it to people.  Freedom of movement is something which seems to be restricted to “us” and not allowed to “them”.
In a globally connected world, it’s very easy for people to see that they can make a better life for themselves elsewhere.  And who can blame them for seeking that?  Building barriers, fences, and blockades might look like a solution to some, but it is nothing more than a short term way of protecting the relative wealth of some parts of the world from people in other parts of the world by locking them out. 
The rational long term approach is to redistribute the world’s wealth more fairly.  And given that much of the wealth of the developed world came from exploiting the rest of the world in the first place, it’s an entirely reasonable objective to set.  But I won't hold my breath.  I expect to see the UK’s political parties continuing to argue about who can build the strongest barriers, and keep out the largest number of migrants.  Freedom of movement is an alien concept to them when applied to ‘others’.