Saturday, November 16, 2002

My politics

I've had a couple of e-mails asking about my own personal politics. I really appreciate the e-mails as it's reassuring to see that my hit counter is not purely driven by my obsessive checking of the site.

It's a fair question, since knowing bias is important in evaluating what someone has to say. So just to be open, I've voted Labour in every election I've ever voted in and would regard myself as on the mordernising wing of the party, though with more respect for the old Social Democrat right of the party than some New Labour types evince. However, that still leaves a whole lot left unanswered, especially about core values. According to this quiz, I come out as a left libertarian, along with Gandhi (aren't I wonderful?) and Ken Livingstone (umm, no I'm not). Here's the graph to prove it.

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The Firefighters and the Government.

The first firefighters strike has just finished. The second is scheduled soon. Reaction to this has been strong, with bloggers on the right being almost universal in their condemnation of the Firefighters.

Bloggers on the left have it seems avoided the issue, though I’m happy to be proved wrong. I aim to attempt to redress this balance.

Before we get into the current dispute, we need to understand that the Fire fighters have not been on strike for 25 years. So why now? Why against this government?

In return for accepting a good settlement in the 1977 Fire-fighters Strike, the FBU agreed to a binding 25-year pay formula. In effect, they agreed to a no strike agreement for 25 years, in return for certain guarantees on pay and conditions.

The expectation has always been that eventually the employers and the FBU would have to sign a new long-term agreement. So, for the FBU, this year, this round of pay negotiations, was vital. Whatever was decided this year would dictate the terms and pay for the FBU for a generation. The FBU had a lot riding on this.

The employers had their own concerns. The length of the 1977 agreement had trapped their negotiating hand on conditions. Fire-fighters shift patterns, responsibilities, work duties and demarcations were frozen in time. So the employers knew that they had to seize this chance to transform the fire service.

In short, this years pay negotiations are no tedious year on year dispute over pay. They were the conclusion of 25 years of unresolved issues. From the FBU side, the union claims that the standards of professionalism and technical ability expected of their members today are light years away from the manual workers they had been compared to in 1977. For the Employers, the need to improve the efficiency of the Fire service is paramount.

This is why the FBU put in a 40% pay bid, to set the agenda for a generation. The employers, had to resist this at least unless it could be combined with a substantive reform of working practices. So far, so unremarkable. Thus do hundreds of pay negotiations begin.

However, the FBU refused to concede anything on working practices. This was the first and most grievous error of the FBU leadership. Without an acceptance of reform, the pay negotiations would be nothing more or less than a trial of strength and there was no way the government could ever allow itself to lose a trial of strength with the FBU.

It was not that the government wanted a confrontation but that it refused to concede this basic point. If the government had wanted a confrontation, the ground would have been prepared, the Army would have been trained months in advance, Replacement fire engines would have ready. No, the government’s error, if anything, was to put to much faith in the power of negotiation to produce reason in the FBU.

(As an aside, this government is not the first to make this error. Margaret Thatcher did the same in the early eighties, when they were forced to cave to the demands of the miners when they realised that Coal stocks would soon run out. I wish Thatcherite commentators would remember this on occasion)

In a sense, the FBU is a very old style craft trade union. It is based on a single craft. It is incredibly strong in that one craft and it has an overwhelming belief in the power of the strike. If the union withdraws Labour, then in the end the need for a functioning fire service means that the Government must concede.

Maintaining this belief in the power of striking was the second huge error of the leadership of the FBU. In believing that a policy of demanding extra pay without reform could be delivered by strike action, when there was no way the government could accept this, the FBU wrecked it’s chance to settle with a generally sympathetic government. It simply did not understand the impact of the media and of political pressures on a government committed to “fairness, not favours”. By refusing to negotiate in the belief that a strike could deliver by force what negotiations never would, the FBU effectively stopped the government from negotiating at all. In return, the government had to respond in kind, offering the very minimum possible (I shall use employers and government interchangeably, although this is not strictly true).

So the firefighters strike is a stupid tactical and strategic error by a foolish and arrogant union leadership that simply did not recognise the fundamental attitude of the government. Perhaps they calculated that the government would not want to split the Labour movement by taking them on. They miscalculated horribly.

What will be the result of this pointless, self defeating strike?

First, the government and the employers will win. Already, Andy Gilchrist is hinting that he would be willing to accept 16% rather than 40% and would be willing to listen on reform proposals. He’s going to have to go a lot lower than that now he’s entered a trial of strength.

Second, the process of radicalisation of trade union leaders will continue. The GMB and T&G both have major elections next year. The left in these unions will be asking why the unions did little to help the FBU (contrast with the RMT, led by the Trotskyite Bob Crowe, who have pointlessly tried to close down the London Tube in support of the FBU). If they succeed in these elections, the Unions will become ever more self defeating. The same may occur in the Labour party, though I believe that Labour members are horrified by the FBU’s actions and do not, in general support the strike, knowing the stakes for the government and party.

Third, the Conservatives will be further marginalised. They may enjoy a brief surge during the strike, but look at it this way. The government will face down the firefighters. The government will act on Iraq, The government will be tough on crime. On the three potential big issues of the right, Labour will be more or less occupying their territory.

There are risks for Labour too. If the big Union Leaders do become more radical, the party’s funding base will be endangered, more strike will be possible and there will be progress for the left of the party.

There is a major choice for the Unions here. They can either choose to act as partners of government, accepting the needs for change, understanding that the government cnnot be seen to act in their sectional interest but will be generally supportive where it can in their claims, or they can turn to the oppositional route of the FBU and the RMT. That way lies disaster for the unions, and perhaps for Labour too.

Issues of pay and conditions aside, this is why, for the good of the union movement and the Labour party, the FBU must be seen to be broken, beaten and humiliated. It is the FBU leadership that has led them to this trap. There is no-one else to blame.

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Friday, November 15, 2002

Our American friends

Americans. They can't drink, but they have the most sophisticated political campaigners, operatives and analysts in the world.

Whether Republican or Democrat, it's hard not to listen to a US political operative discuss a race without some admiration. Of course, it's hard to reconcile this with the unpleasant facts about American Democracy (low turnout, ridiculously lopsided house races and bizarre campaign spending rules), but still the plethora of elections, the vitality of the democratic process and the power available to the winner combine to make US politics bigger, sexier and in intellectual terms, better than any other country on earth..

So why are Democratic political commentators being so willfully stupid about who their 2004 Presidential nominee should be?

Lets forget the issues and focus on the numbers.

One candidate polls as the best Dem alternative to President Bush. The same candidate has a massive lead in the preferences of Dem voters. That candidate has a national profile and has been a national political figure, with name recognition to match, for over a decade.

Welcome, Democrats, to the only candidate who you know can beat Bush. Al Gore.

So why the negatives? Sure, Bush's lead over Gore is huge. But it was as big 4 years ago (anti-Gorites forget this) and Gore came back (that was the impact of that disaster of a campaign, clawing back 10 points).

Sure, he lost last time, so he's a loser. But George Bush lost his first race for office. G. H. W. Bush lost for senate and lost for president. Ronnie was a serial primary loser. Nixon lost and lost and lost. Hell, even FDR got trashed when he ran for VP. Everyone in politics loses. That's the wonderful thing about it. We're all losers.

Sure, the media don't like him. Well, I hate to say this, but the media don't call campaigns. Otherwise, what with the massive left wing media bias that Andrew Sullivan et al keep talking about, no republican would ever win election to anything. The media thought Ronnie was barely sentient, a right wing zealot, an economic incompetent and a phoney. I think they were right about this. No matter, he still jumped up and down on Carter's bones.

Which bring us to the last objection one hears abut Gore.. He's a bit weird. People don't like him, He's grating, he tells untruths. OK, let me spell this out very slowly. People like him enough to get more people to vote for him than any Democrat ever. He got virtually the same vote percentage as Clinton in 96 (the greatest campaigner in History TM), with a left wing challenge working against him. So, how exactly, do the people not like him?

In my view, the only sane route for the National Democrats to be taking right now would be to be beg Al Gore to run. But he should say no. Why?

Gore's policy positions in 2000 are beginnng to look good now. They will look fantastic in '08. I've blogged about this before, but if the Tax Cuts are made permanent, the US is back into huge budget deficits, There will begin to be a spending crunch at the state and national level. Spending on social programmes will have to decline the nasty way. If the Stockmarket doesn't rocket social security privatisation will look crazy, lock boxes will look good and the guy who said that if you spend money you haven't yet got on tax cuts you end up in debt might look smart. In addition Gore has staked out a policy poistion on healthcare that might not fly in '04 but could be in vogue after 8 years of republican rule.

Secondly, Gore foriegn policy credibility is good. He's criticized attacking Iraq, but on the touchstone of wanting to focus on Terror. Now whatever anyone says, in the public mind GWB has put Iraq in the spotlight and Bin Laden on the back burner (remember how a few weeks ago the buzz was that OBL was dead?) so if fear of terrorism continues, which it will, Gore looks prescient, while Bush fights on in Iraq. Note, I think Gore really believes this and isn't saying it purely for advantage, He supports taking out Saddam sometime. He just can't believe the President has his prioirities this way round.

But none of this is going to matter in 2004. No-one's going to be sick of the war on terror. Iraq will almost certainly work out (it's the post Iraq that might be sticky). Bush's personal war leader popularity will see him through even if the economy tanks.

Even if it does and he gets HW'd, try this factoid. Since 1892 only once has a party lasted less than eight years in the Whitehouse. Sure, there've been plenty of one term presidents, but only one one term Party. That was Carter in '76. Before that, It was the Harrison/Cleveland mess. So even if Bush isn't the most popular war leader, even if the economy tanks, the bar Bush has got to beat is Carter's. Even if Bush is no genius, he's not that stupid.

So Gore should sit out 04, let one of his rivals get the inevitable whupping, and look better and better by comparison. (Hilary? don't make me laugh, beating Hilary in the primaries would make Gore look great in the south, She wouldn't even stand a chance. Come on, she's Hillary. Can you see her winning anywhere except in the Democratic base?)

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Thursday, November 14, 2002

Reading lists...

Ahh, nothing better than a reading list. Junius adds his preferences to those of various other Bloggers (follow his links to find the ur-list, which has the Plato, Hobbes and Aristotles one expects). As a tireless meddler in these things, I would like to point out that once again everyone's ignored Giambattista Vico's New Science. Most people have only really read about him through Berlin's Vico and Herder, but his book really is a work of genius.

I suspect that any list such as the one the Junius is discussing degenerates as it expands. Obsessives insist on the overarching influence of their favourite author (how long before the failiure to mention Ayn Rand gets criticised somewhere), and the canon disintegrates under the strain. However, despite his relative obscurity, I think that Vico has two claims to join such a list.

First, for any student of Human Society, the claim that because we are human, we have the ability to understand all human societies (and that this type of understanding is different and superior to empirical knowledge) is the key to what Berlin calls imaginative insight and Vico calls Poetic Wisdom. Vico uses this to project the reader into the world of early man, or to the life of the Greeks or into a society on the other side of the world. From this comes new ideas on sociology, on etymology, on history, poetry, on the nature of early religion, the impact of nature and geography on society, on divine intervention and a whole host of others topics.

For anyone who as ever read Hobbes and Rousseau and puzzled over the vision of man without society being able to discuss the concepts of society, Vico proivdes what for me is a more compelling vision, beast like men, terrified of storms and lightening, gathering together for protection in the face of power beyond their control, and turning those powers gods. Yes, Vico makes huge mistakes, book the book fizzes with the excitement of a man who has had a uge new idea, and sees it's application everywhere.

Second, Vico's views on the development of human societies (He names the age of God, of heroes, and of Men) introduces for the first time in political philosophy the idea of constant change and flux, but change and flux with a purpose. Certainly, others had observed that Tyranny begets Democracy, or that Aristocracy turns into Oligarchy but there was no sense that these changes were in any particular direction.Vico creates an engine of change in human motivation, and introduces (in typically complex and shifting ways) the idea of class struggle as a fundamental engine of the development of human society.

PS. Also Descartes, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill each have a pretty decent claim.

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Tory Reshuffle

The Tories have held a minor frontbench reshuffle. Any Conservatives who know what the promotions of John Baron (Health) Mark Prisk (Treasury) and Hugh Robertson (Whips) mean in terms of the internecine Tory wars, ideology or just plain personal charm and charisma, please e-mail me. All I can tell from these profiles is that if you were in the army, yur chances for promotion under IDS look pretty good.

In addition I'm quite intrigued by IDs's appointment of a second PPS in Alistair Burt. He is to "improve commnications between CCO and backbenchers". What does that mean? As I understand it, CCO is suppposed to be a nest of portilloite vipers and the backbenchers are restive, so I'm sure improved communications is the last reason Mr Burt has been employed. So what's he really there to do? I suspect to impose the will on the leader and bang heads together.

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Hitting into an open goal dept.

Today's Daily Mail carried an Op-Ed piece by former Express editor and ex anarchist (or something bohemian, and that's what matters) Rosie Boycott. This should be enough to cause respectable Mail readers to gasp over their cornflakes, but Ms Boycott is re-assuringly attacking the government.

Ms Boycott's piece is headed "Drink almost destroyed me, it is ruining our young. So why is Labour encouraging us to drink round the clock?" To which the only possible repsonse is that if Drink only nearly destroyed Ms Boycott, it surely deserves a better chance next time.

However, Ms Boycott's case (not online- you'll have to buy the Mail) runs roughly as follows.

More people are drinking, especially young people. Drink causes bad things. Look what it did to me. So to allow pubs to open longer sends the wrong message. We need to ban advertising, ban alcopops, better education, tougher penalties for shops and to restrict opening hours. However, we know prohibition doesn't work. We need to promote moderation.

Eh. So prohibition doesn't work, but it does work between the hours of 11pm and 11am each night? Nowhere in her piece does
Ms Boycott explain how allowing people to buy a drink late at night wil lead to greater levels of alcoholism. For example she quotes her own case as an former alcoholic:

"Sometimes, I'd stand there waiting for the store to open and then hang my head in shame as I handed over the money"

Well, not letting her buy a drink until 11am really worked well there then, Really sorted out her problem.

Rosie offers no comparison between say the North of England say and Scotland or Ireland, or France or any other country where you can buy a drink when and where you want.

Of course propensity to alcoholism is a cultural thing. So direct comparisons aren't always helpful. Think about the Russians, or how wussy americans are when it comes to drink, or how Alcohol really has helped devastate several aboriginal style societies. So if we can't really judge from evidence, how about ideology?

Well, what Ms Boycott seems to be saying is that alcohol is bad for you so the government needs to stop people drinking, unfortunately Prohibition doesn't work. What we need is restriction. It's like prohibition, but at night. Does it make sense? Nope. So how about this argument. A substance might be bad for you. It might harm your health, but preventing you getting it just drives it undergound, stigmatises users and infringes your right to make your own decisions. Banning it is an unwarranted interference in your life. It's ideologically consistent, but it's not my view. It's the view of Rosie Boycott, campaigner for the legalisation of marijuana.

Now there may well be a persuasive case for the restriction of the sale of alcohol in England. You could do it from a practical or ideological point of view (after all, the original restrictions were introduced to ensure better discipline in the workforce during the first world war). Sadly though, Rosie Boycott doesn't even try to make the former case, and is a hypocrite if she believes the second.

What we get instead is a litany of the damage caused by the abuse of alcohol. Well, we knew that Rosie, but next time do try and relate it to your case. Perhaps all the dope is damaging your powers of concentration.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Turn, turn, turn

If anything illustrates the insularity and closeness of the British political establishment (or rather, in this case, the political demi-monde of the media) it is this weeks Spectator.

the magazine is edited by journalist and Tory MP Boris Johnson. This week Boris commissioned newsnight commentator Jeremy Paxman to write their diary column. Jeremy obligingly mentions Boris's Henley consituency in said diary piece. Boris also commissioned Former Tory MP turned journalist Matthew Parris to write a piece on fatherhood.

Fair enough. Two of England's most incisive political commentators contributing to the same magazine. No fault there.

But hold on what's this in the Book reviews? A review of Jeremy paxman's new book by.. Matthew Parris? Lying alongside a review of Matthew Parris's own new book? It's only a shame that Boris couldn't get Jeremy to review Matthew's book too.

It's not that I have any animus to any of these three men (and each of the articles stands on it's own merits), but isn't there anyone else to write these pieces? I will be more than happy to fill in on occassion. I'll be reasonable on payment, and probably available when Jeremy, Matthew and Boris are busy with their day jobs!

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Monday, November 11, 2002

Life imitating the Onion...

From the Onion, at the start of 2000.

AOL Acquires Time-Warner In Largest-Ever Expenditure Of Pretend Internet Money
DULLES, VA—In the largest merger of imaginary assets in corporate history, Internet giant America Online last week acquired media megacorp Time-Warner for an unprecedented $161 billion in pretend money Thursday. "This merger will revolutionize the way invisible amounts of non-existent cash are transferred," said Steve Case of AOL, a company whose actual revenues are a tiny fraction of its make-believe valuation. In an effort to keep pace with AOL, web site is expected to acquire General Motors by the end of the week.

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