Thursday, 9 December 2010

Hello; Anyone Out There?

Six months into the Coalition and it might be a good moment to examine how Labour has reacted to it. Or it might be, if any reaction could be discerned for even after electing a new leader who promised a new start, Labour has just disappeared. Some from EB’s office suggest that this is part of a grand strategy to let the Coalition hang itself from the hook of public expenditure cuts and that no reaction apart from kneejerk condemnation is needed. Others suggest that EB is proving to be a hopeless leader, has no idea of what to do and will be dumped in a year or so in good time for an election in 2014 under someone new.

But both rest upon a false assumption; that Labour has plenty of time to get its act together. This is a fallacy not because the hope that the Coalition will soon fall apart is justified. Every passing month shows that both LibDems and Conservatives recognise that they have to hang together for the full five years. There will be quite public rows over exactly what course to steer and what concessions each must make. There will be a few defections from the LibDems and, maybe, from the Conservatives but not enough to alter the balance of power. LibDem councillors, in particular, will be decimated next May and the tuition fee debacle will cause huge strain . But both parties see that they must shift the existing electoral advantage to Labour more in their favour by adjusting constituencies and they must weather the impact of public expenditure cuts and hope next to go to the polls on an economic upturn. For both they need the full five years.

No, the reason that Labour has got to find its voice rests upon two likely issues over which it soon has to make radical policy decisions.

The first of these is the banks. It remains one of the two great mysteries of Brown’s government that in 2009, it did nothing about the banking collapse apart from bailing them out with some £200 billion of public money. (Or was it £200 gadzillion? It still remains largely opaque as to just how much was poured into the banks and how much of it will ever come back) In 2009, remember, taxing the banks, even breaking them up would only have partially assuaged public anger. Issuing deportation orders to all non-EU bankers, especially Americans working for Goldman Sachs, and taking them, shackled, on board planes bound for Luanda with three huge private-sector security guards to sit on them; now that would have been more like it. But Darling, no doubt under direct orders from Brown, essentially did nothing. He refused even to order the banks we own not to pay bonuses. Action, almost any action commensurate with the damage the bankers inflicted, would have gone a long way towards Brown winning the election. Yet, effectively, he did nothing.

This is not just a matter of history, of how apparently sane and politically-astute politicians just lose the plot. Nor is it just a matter of giving Cameron an easy ride though it does mean that the minor changes Cable eventually come up with will look like a revolution in comparison. The key point is that it seems very likely that another financial crisis is on the way if one takes the words of Strauss-Kahn, the IMF boss, seriously which is probably wise. Osborne is not committing billions to the Irish banks out of a soft heart nor to save the Euro. He is doing it because of the exposure of British banks to loans to these Irish banks which are likely to go pear-shaped if they go bust. In effect, another few billions are going to prop up British banks and more will be required when the bond-markets turn to another weak link.

Not are weak European bank the only problem. The Chinese banking system is only kept afloat by the huge influx of dollars financing the US trade deficit. Once this flow is cut — and there is every sign that the US will have to act soon — these banks will start to tumble as the Chinese experience the consequences of their very own property bubble. And then HSBC, an offshore bank now effectively owned by the Chinese, will come under extreme pressure because of its exposure to duff Chinese loans. Expect the usual signals of the ‘we are too big to fail’ kind to begin flowing. (Don’t believe the claims that HSBC together with Barclays sailed through the last crisis unscathed. They lapped up the cheap money provided by the Bank of England then effectively sold themselves to the Chinese and Abu Dhabi respectively).

If these crises do come about then Labour will need a policy to distance themselves from the Coalition and it ought to be a fairly radical one, not an ‘us-too but not quite so much’ which has characterised its response to most recent Government policy initiatives. (On this topic, quite the most stomach-churning of these has been Ed Balls sneering that the new immigration controls were not tough enough and would do little to meet Conservative targets. Come back Phil Woolas. At least it was obvious that you were a racist).

A new banking crisis may not, in the event, happen even if probable. That cannot be said of the alternative vote (AV) referendum, a crisis for Labour policy which is fast coming down the tracks now that desperate attempts to delay it have failed in the Lords. An AV system is, remember, a Labour manifesto commitment something dreamed up by Brown’s policy advisers notably one Edward Miliband who was responsible for drafting it. The reasons they went for this option are, again, a political mystery. It was obvious for some time before the election that a commitment to proper constitutional including electoral reform could win Labour the election. It was not just outside analysts who believed this. Apparently all the Labour focus groups reported just this. Yet, as with banking reform, the dim Oxford minds who formulate these things felt that too radical a reform would alienate important interest groups, in one case the bankers, in this one the Neanderthal wing of Labour going under the generic name of Prescott’s Mates. So they plumped instead for the Alternative Vote system which they hoped would sound like electoral reform to the stupid electorate whilst actually boosting Labour results in an even more unfair way than first-past-the post.

The basis for this reasoning was that LibDem voters, seen as soft guardianistas who didn’t agree with the Iraq war, would nearly all put Labour as their second preference. In any election with three main parties, the AV system pivots around the second preferences of whatever party comes third so Labour could be expected to pick up gains from the Tories in all those seats where the LibDems come in third. And on a virtual re-run of the May election, with the LibDems going 80% for Labour, this expectation is fully justified with Labour picking up 285 seats (258 in real life), the Conservatives just 250 (306) and the LibDems jumping up to 85 seats (57). Still a hung Parliament but with Labour now in the driving seat and expecting to be the government either as a minority or in coalition with the LibDems. All this, remember, with the assumption of the May voting in which Labour received barely 29%, which just serves to show how wildly disproportional AV can be.

However with the Coalition set for a full term and the prospect of some form of electoral deal to sustain it afterwards, the horrid thought is that perhaps the LibDems may not be so cuddly and that they might switch their second preference solidly to the Tories. If a split of 60% Conservative and 40% Labour is assumed then the Tories trot home with 328 seats, Labour slumps to 208 seats and the LibDems still go to 85 seats. A tiny majority for Cameron, probably reduced to minority by a different slant in Scotland and Wales. And if the split were to be 80% Tory then they romp home with 369 seats whilst Labour drop to 166.

The result of such calculations is that Labour has gone decidedly wobbly on AV with some of its old brutes, Prescott, Reid and Blunkett just for starters, coming out firmly against it. Already they have tried diversionary tactics which began with Jack Straw’s ridiculous claim that the proposed boundary changes would be ‘gerrymandering’. Certainly they will favour the Tories but only to balance out the existing Labour bias in the electoral system. Then there came the claim that having a referendum on the same day as the English local and the Scottish and Welsh national votes was in some way undemocratic for reasons that remain quite unclear. Finally EB has tip-toed into supporting the Yes to AV campaign but only whilst declaring that Labour’s main emphasis next spring will be on the local elections. Understandable, given the almost certain decimation of the LibDems in these, but also a clear case of bullet in foot if they fail to deliver real support for the AV campaign.

The problem for EB is that many in the Labour Party are opposed to AV just like they are opposed to any kind of constitutional change. This is an old Labour habit. The alliance between Michael Foot and Enoch Powell to defeat any reform of the House of Lords is just the most despicable of the knee-jerk reaction of Labour to any suggestion that the system we have needs any kind of reform. Just why this is so is obscure. In the early years of the Labour Party, it actually supported proportional representation, only for this to disappear once they can close to power. It may be that somewhere in the DNA of yellow-dog Labour is the feeling that any constitutional reform is just a trick by the ruling-class to deprive the workers of their rightful position as the country’s ruler. Or it may just be the kind of supine aversion to any kind of radical change which has so dogged its leaders for decades and which finally delivered the obsessive triangulation of Blair. And which doomed the Brown regime.

Whatever. If Labour weasels out of full commitment to the tiny reform represented by AV then it risks loosing popular support just when it will need it most, in the final two years of the Coalition. As the Labour pressure group, Compass, has finally perceived, coalition politics has arrived in Britain and will retain a lasting popularity. Labour needs to grasp this fact and accept that AV will require a long-term commitment to forming a new, radical coalition. If it retreats into a position that only a Labour majority in everything is acceptable then it will totter into electoral defeat in 2015.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Can Ed really ride two horses?

Funny old thing, Labour Party democracy. They elect a leader that neither the membership nor their M.Ps want because of ballot of eligible union members with a turnout of around 2% apparently based upon the basis of the voter ticking a box marked “Labour supporter”. Many Labour members ended up with two, three or even more votes depending upon their membership of an affiliated union and one or more of the ‘societies’ affiliated to the Labour Party (the Jewish Labour Movement, the Fabians, Christian Socialist Movement and so on, seventeen in all) who more less discretely ask if new members are eligible to join the Labour Party. In practice, if you want to vote in Labour elections just pay the society or union membership subscription and you will get the ballot paper even if you are in the BNP. Understand all this? Thought so.

Still, the ballot did tell us some interesting things about the Party’s membership. One thing is just how small is the number of what might be called old-time socialists. Diane Abbott’s vote of around 8% of the members suggests that members of the Labour Representation Committee with its heroic defence of Labour as a socialist party, at least potentially, might as well fold their tent and look elsewhere, perhaps to form a party which would represent their views. In fact, about 55% of LP members seem to have views which accord with the centrist or even centre-right positions of David Miliband and Andy Burnham whilst less than 40% agree with the roughly centre-left positions taken, at least for the moment, by the two Ed’s. (Both born Edward, incidentally, though Ed does sound, how shall we say, more matey. Perhaps Dave Miliband might have won). So was Ed elected by trade-union votes and by a tiny fraction of eligible voters? Well, yes, of course. And does that matter? Well, perhaps.

So what problems does the winning Ed now face? Two obvious and immediate ones.

The first , clearly, is just what he stands for in terms of policy and what has come to be called ‘vision’. Neal Lawson, leader of the Labour pressure-group, Compass, was ecstatic about Miliband’s first speech to conference when he spoke to a fringe meeting. It “ticked all the policy boxes” of Compass and meant that this centre-left group was now “mainstream”. Well, Compass policy boxes are a bit of a mix but some, mentioned by Neal, are very specific. So it is odd in view of Lawson’s ecstasy to find that ‘high pay commission’, ‘loan sharking’, ‘Royal Mail’, least of all ‘Trident’ are not mentioned in the text of his speech. A motion on Trident put forward by the Hackney CLP (that pesky Abbott) was actually ruled out by the Conference Arrangements Committee as being not ‘contemporaneous’ (sic) the day after Compass published an email to be sent to George Osborne by their supporters saying cut Trident not public services. Perhaps it should have been sent to Ed Miliband. He did use the phrase ‘good society’ four times however, a phrase on which Neal claims copyright and might be construed as a leftward shift (though it would not be surprising if it found its way into David Cameron’s lexicon).

The point of course is that Ed Miliband is trying to pull off a difficult circus trick, that of riding two horses simultaneously. He knows that he has to shift a bit to the left if only because the policies of the old Labour government closely resembles that of the new Coalition. He knows that the Iraq war has left a poisonous legacy inside Labour which has to be expunged. He knows that public service cuts following budget deficit reduction have to be opposed. But at the same time he cannot disclaim too much of his legacy if only because he was in the Cabinet when all the neo-liberal polices of Brown were being pushed through.

So the war in Iraq was a “mistake”. But was it also ‘illegal’ as Nick Clegg rightly claims. If so then are Blair and his colleagues in 2003 war criminals? And what about the post-war behaviour of the British army in Iraq? The upcoming inquiry into torture allegations will ensure that this will not go away. And what about the ongoing war in Afghanistan, not illegal as such but unwinnable and increasingly unpopular? Well, that seems OK, at least for now.

Public service cuts? “Well , I [Ed Miliband] believe strongly that we need to reduce the deficit. There will be cuts and there would have been if we had been in government. Some of them will be painful and would have been if we were in government. I won’t oppose every cut the coalition proposes. There will be some things the coalition does that we won’t like as a party but we will have to support” Public services are not mentioned. Opposition to cuts? Well, Ed Miliband supports trade unions but only responsible ones. “That is why I have no truck, and you should have no truck, with overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes.” So, not just no strikes but no threat of strikes. Just what weapons this leaves the loyal trade-unionists who voted for him is unclear. Perhaps they can wave placards in their lunch-break. On the other hand, he does believe that care-workers should be paid better. In a later television interview he was pressed about deficit reduction. He stuck to the overall policy of Alistair Darling but felt that he would like to see more of the reduction coming from higher taxes. What taxes? Well, tax the banks and crack down on tax dodgers. Expect to hear much more on the lines of ‘Show us your taxes. Ed”.

Trying to ride two horses at once is a skilful and elegant trick but, ultimately, it usually requires a choice between one of them to avoid the nasty consequences of them pulling too far apart. There is no sign so far that Ed Miliband understands this nor what his ultimate choices will be. His problem is really that Nick Clegg and most of the LibDems are settling themselves rather comfortably in the centre and centre-right part of the political spectrum once occupied by New Labour. When in power, this occupation pushed the LibDems into rather uncomfortable postures leaning to the left. Now the position is reversed and Clegg and Cable seem to have a fairly clear strategic perception of where they want to be. Labour hasn’t.

The second problem Ed Miliband faces is possibly more immediate and perhaps more important. The fact is that much of his party and most of his M.P.s distrust and dislike him. It’s not personal, he is possibly a very nice bloke; in Michael Gove’s faint praise, he is “intelligent, decent, humane”. But Labour is now a regional party of the English north and the Celtic nations with an enclave in inner London. And up here, they really do not like him. They dislike his comfortable passage wafting from a cosy Hampstead comprehensive to a place at Oxford, presumably on the basis of a ‘good interview’, after a time as an intern to Tony Benn. (Another man who has shortened his given name to something more matey). They fail to understand just why he then entered the charmed circle of Labour advisers after a brief spell working or possibly interning in television nor are they deeply impressed by a further stint ‘teaching’ at Harvard on the basis of a Master’s degree in economics. They have had clever children in comprehensives who never got near an Oxford interview and who still search for a break into some kind of media job. They simply do not understand nor like the mechanisms whereby London Labour looks after its own. They rather remember his dad not as a towering Marxist scholar but as an old Trot who occasionally wrote dull and not particularly original books trashing the Labour Party whilst mostly writing articles in obscure journals about how the working class should behave whilst not bothering to get involved in any actual political activity. They hate the way in which London fixes safe northern seats for their golden boys (and occasional girls) where they do not understand the local dialect and keep their visits to a minimum. They don’t really get the stuff about being the son of penniless Jewish refugees; it runs much less well if your dad was a Fife miner. They hate the idea of a Hampstead salon where the likes of (gulp) Tony Benn, Tariq Ali and Ken Livingstone smiled at the young Milibands. They dislike snuggling up to the LibDems who are hated up here even more than the Tories. And, deep down, they hate the knowledge that none of their own has, any more, the political stature to stand up to what Jon Cruddas, an erstwhile left M.P. who scored a spectacular own-goal by supporting Brother David but who can smell a wind when it is blowing, called “a metropolitan liberal faction”. Faction is a dangerous word to use in Labour circles as Cruddas must surely know. The last one was Militant.

Does he know about these pressures? Probably not. It is unlikely that he learnt much about the Labour Party as he floated up in his balloon and he probably still sees the ferocious Blair/Brown conflict as just a matter of two combative individuals rather than the personification of two long antagonisms inside not just Labour but of the entire British left, a fault line between its initial constituents which has never fully closed. Labour was set up as an open federation of the trade unions and the progressive intellectual societies which elaborated a full political programme. In a Gramscian paradise, this combination would be seen as the ideal historical bloc, the proletariat with its inherent but inchoate ‘common sense’ and the organic intellectuals turning this into the ‘good sense’ needed to change society. But in the real world, this kind of federation which has never progressed to the unified structure of most social-democratic parties requires a leadership drawn from all parts of the federation. Throughout most of its history, this is exactly what Labour had with strong leaders from the unions buttressing the middle-class Oxbridge intellectuals, something true of both left and right factions.

This has now effectively collapsed with Oxbridge winning by default. The disappearance of strong leaders from the labour movement both inside and outside Parliament is one of the great problems of the British left (Jack Dromey, anyone? Or Bob Crowe, just to balance the sides?). However it is a fact of life and is unlikely to be remedied anytime soon. Both Blair and Brown managed to avoid the problem, the former by his uncanny ability to float above any class or national label, the latter by his long apprenticeship in the snake-pit of Scottish Labour. But with Ed, the issue has finally come home to roost. He will, undoubtedly, try to shift the basis of Labour away from its cumbersome federal roots and more towards the supporter-based movement as against party favoured by his brother. But he is going to be handicapped, possibly fatally, by the label applied so openly by Cruddas. The knives are already being sharpened; the only real question is who will wield them.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Thoughts about coalition

Cards on the table. The author is someone who left the Labour Party in despair fifteen or so years ago and has never for a moment regretted it. Now a member of the Green Party, he will never, ever, vote Labour again so long as it is led by men who refuse to accept that lies and deceit led Britain into an illegal and immoral war. (Being led by a woman is, of course, even less likely). He will also feel a grim satisfaction when such as David Miliband and Jack Straw are hung out to dry for lying to Parliament about British involvement in torture and illegal rendition; grim because it will do little for those who suffered the sanctioned torture. Nor is he on his own. As the Dixie Chicks put it, we’re not ready to make nice.

I start like this to make clear that the British left is not, as some Compass initiatives seem to suggest, an inchoate mass just waiting for the right trigger to crystallise into a progressive alliance ready to unite behind Labour. Rather it is fractured body of people, riven with considerable bitterness and distrust and wary of any kind of effort to drive it into a convenient corral however enticingly labelled as the home of a rainbow, golden, greenleft or somesuch colourful coalition. And that’s just the members of the Labour Party. And yet, as a long-term member of that left, it is painfully obvious that some kind of alliance is just what we have to come to terms with.

The most striking feature of the May election was just how ordinary it was. In months before voting most observers, including myself, predicted that it would be a ‘wild’ election with an even lower turnout than 2005 and with some kind of revenge being wreaked on the major parties, in particular Labour, after the expenses scandal. The electorate, it was commonly felt, had become disillusioned with system. What actually happened was a small, though important, increase in turnout, resounding defeat for independents and various ‘protest’ candidates, flat-lining for the nationalists and electoral catastrophe for small parties of the left. In other words, business as usual with the, historically, not uncommon final result of the arrow of the two-party wheel-of-fortune coming to rest in that sector marked No Overall Majority. This rather normal situation has, however, been over-shadowed and largely ignored by one, rather startling, political innovation. Instead of following the standard practice of several small and no-majority governments in the past ─ to stagger on for a while and then call another election ─ the Conservatives, rather cleverly, and the Liberal Democrats, possibly cleverly, agreed a formal, negotiated coalition, a shift in governance which may turn out to be a critical watershed in British politics. Or may not.

This rather unexpected normality of the May election was what stopped a bad election for Labour turning into a rout. The small increase in turnout seems mainly to have been previously Labour voters responding, perhaps a little wearily, certainly hesitantly, to the old call to Keep the Tories Out which had become the drumbeat of most Labour-inclined commentators in the weeks before the election. This was almost certainly the reason for the dreadful results of all the left alternatives to Labour. In the case of my own Green Party this was disguised by the somewhat fluky victory of Caroline Lucas in Brighton, fluky because this is pretty much the only seat in the country which is effectively a four-way marginal where the winner needs only 31% of the vote. In nearly all other constituencies, the Green Party suffered serious declines in actual votes with the deposit-saving level reached in only two places outside Brighton.

This unexpected result, a ‘normal’ election but one which has turned British politics in a totally new direction has provided the Labour Party and the wider left with the difficult problem of how to respond to coalition politics. The immediate, knee-jerk response has largely been what might be termed the pit-bull strategy; to attack ferociously on all fronts hoping to split the alliance between the two governing parties so that it will collapse and force a new election. There is apparent sense in this strategy for the Labour Party in that if such an election returned a Labour majority, a possibility which gains credibility if it were to be held in the midst of savage public expenditure cuts, then business-as-usual could be resumed with the bonus that the growing challenge from the third-party might be effectively extinguished.

However, there are two obvious risks attached to the pit-bull approach. First, a forced election could just provide the Tories with a parliamentary majority and the mandate to proceed with their public-sector cuts. Second, and in my view much the most likely, the assault on the coalition could fail and it would carry on with increasing confidence for a full five-year span. Clearly, a great deal depends upon the proposed referendum on a new voting system. The Alternative Vote is far from proportional but it will undoubtedly favour the LibDems, probably awarding them another forty or so seats something which, like it or not, would be ‘fairer’. It would also be a system which would effectively cement coalition politics into British governance. Just how far Labour will succeed in weaselling its way out of its manifesto commitment to an AV system remains to be seen. If it succeeds in successfully opposing its implementation in 2015 (not to mention the entirely fair removal of its current 8% or so poll advantage because of slanted electoral boundaries) then the coalition could collapse and Labour might return. On the other hand, opposing what many might see not only as reneging a manifesto promise but also a move towards a fairer voting system could result in electoral suicide.

The risks associated with the pit-bull approach are not just short-term. Outside the left commentariat which shrieks “split” every time some disagreement within the coalition is aired, there is a feeling (and it can only be a feeling) that the electorate is beginning to feel rather comfortable with coalition politics in which differing views are openly expressed and compromises are agreed. Unless some countervailing left-leaning alternative is found there is the distinct possibility, indeed probability given the bias of AV voting, that Britain will be governed by a centre-right coalition for many years. The C word has been much used on the left in recent months but has been given remarkably little concrete clothing, often reducing to the dismal slogan of the Labour Representation Committee – support the coalition against cuts and join the Labour Party. So what are the obstacles to forming at least the embryo of such a coalition? There seems to me to be three rather separate issues here.

The first is the obvious problem that the policy direction of the New Labour governments, to which all four of the male candidates for the Labour leadership are tied, contained much that overlaps, often quite specifically, with current Coalition policies. It would be too much of an intrusion into personal grief for most Compass members to labour the point, but the fact is that the Coalition is proving quite adroit at pointing out just how much of what they are doing is little more than an extension of Labour policy. A VAT rise? Would not Darling have done just this next January? Apparently so according to Mandelson. Academy schools? Was it not a declared ambition of Labour to hasten their formation? Public expenditure cuts? Was it not Brown’s declared policy to slash the scale of deficit financing? Just how Labour can extricate itself from this morass remains to be seen but it clearly a problem for the formation of a centre-left bloc that its major potential component has a recent history of sitting rather to the right of centre.

The second and, in its way, more important problem is the incapacity of Labour, both leadership and many members, to understand the concept of political alliances. There are good historical reasons for this block which are difficult even to summarise here. (Those interested in greater detail might refer to an essay of mine in Left Out: Policies for a Left Opposition Today which can be found at or Essentially they come down to the fact that in its origin and throughout much of its history, Labour was itself a coalition bringing together rather disparate groups into one rambling organisation, perpetually at odds with each other and united only by the need to present a single electoral face. This coalition existed through to the 1970s when, it can be argued, it actually reached its apogee with just about every left group in Britain, including the Communists and most Trotskyist bands as well as Labour factions, in various informal coalitions fighting each other for control, direct or indirect, of the Labour Party. It fell apart in 1981 with the defection of the Social Democrats and afterwards with the reorganisation of Labour as a centralised body suppressing both internal factionalism and external links and drastically limiting the democratic involvement of its members. Yet despite this change, the mindset of Labour, both leadership and members, across left and right, remains one which retains the idea that Labour remains the coalition of the left and cannot contain the concept of political alliance outside itself. Two vignettes to illustrate this, one from the right and one nearer the left.

In his Kier Hardie lecture in July this year, David Miliband asked the rhetorical question “Why did Hardie refuse an alliance with the Liberals?” ( which, of course, the answer is he didn’t as, after being elected in West Ham with the Liberals not standing a candidate, he moved to sharing his dual-member seat in Merthyr Tydfil with a Liberal and helping to negotiate the Lib/Lab pact in 1903 which led both a Liberal landslide and the election of 29 MPs under the name of the Labour Representation Committee. Hardie worked as part of various Liberal/Labour alliances throughout his parliamentary career. It is possible that Miliband’s mistake stems from a poor education. More likely it stems from the ingrained habit of rejecting alliance as part of any Labour strategy and refusing to see that it is actually something present even in its formation.

More towards the left, just after Gordon Brown’s coronation as Labour leader, Jon Trickett M.P. wrote in 2007 for Compass about the task facing Labour:
We need to learn to multi task again; simultaneously reconnecting with all parts of the coalition into a new historic block. This is the task which Gordon Brown must address if he is to win. The first hundred days were devoted to emphasising the change of PM and also to establishing an impression of competence and strength. These are necessary attributes of governance but as the polls now show they do not amount to a strategy for reconnecting with Labour’s missing millions. The stakes are high but the prize is a great one. Brown has the opportunity to create a coalition, win a fourth term and in the process change Britain into the social democratic country which is waiting to be born.

The coalition to which Trickett refers is one which he believes formed in 1997 when “New Labour created a huge coalition, or historic bloc, of social classes, ethnicities, progressives and public sector workers”. Trickett’s problem, leaving aside the curious bundle of social categories he deploys, is that he fails to see any difference between the Gramscian concept of an historic bloc and the political formation which seeks to represent that bloc. He automatically sees only Labour as the legitimate political vehicle for representing the somewhat amorphous social bloc with which he is concerned. In a sense, Trickett is a true child of the 1970s and it is fully in line with the politics of that period that he was part of the group of Compass M.P.s that resisted any introduction of electoral reform in the Compass agenda. Ironically, this was the one policy which could have won a victory for Labour in May had it been deployed in 2007.
There is no sign that the Labour leadership has learnt any lessons from this. We know, after all, the direction which David Miliband wants to take the Labour Party having set it out last year in a Tribune article ( He wants to shift Labour into being a party with supporters rather than members; a vast mailing list of potential donors and election workers with the US Democrats and the Greek Pasok as his model. There is little sign that any of the other leadership contenders would demur from this whatever vague noises they make about party democracy to reel in the membership vote. Under the business-as-usual scenario, such a reorganisation might make sound sense in finally putting the idea of Labour as a coalition to rest and finally converting Labour into a kind of political brand rather than a party. However, it has little relevance to the problem of creating a new political coalition to counter that of the Conservative and Liberal Democrats.

It was, I think, the British Communist Party which first thought up the concept of broad social alliances which would, in effect, replace the working class as the leading national progressive force with, first, the anti-monopoly alliance and then the broad-democratic alliance. My favourite recipe for these is that they would include “workers in factories, offices, professions, working farmers, producers and consumers, owner-occupiers and tenants, housewives, young people, students, pensioners, workers in the peace movement and those active in the defence of democracy”, that is pretty much everybody including some under multiple hats. Trickett’s version (which I suspect owes a lot to this 1970s quasi-Gramscian theory) is much the same kind of thing, a kind of hopeful shopping-list similar to the notes sent up the chimney to Father Christmas every December. This is our third problem. The Gramscian concept of an historic bloc is a grouping of social forces which, together, can form a political alliance, conservative or progressive. It is, in other words, a political calculation which shifts throughout a nation’s history. The task of the British left today is to envisage just what a progressive social bloc looks like today. Clearly this is a much more complex task than either naming any immediate party coalition or simply listing a comprehensive social map of British society. It involves understanding just where nationalism in Scotland and Wales fits into such a progressive bloc; the future role of organised labour in its different forms; how social activists, particularly those concerned about climate change, can be induced to work with political structures rather than, as at present, largely outside them; the role of the large number of NGOs with radical agendas, for example those which participated in the G20 Put People First marches. And these are just the simpler issues.

Simple naming such a wide groups suggests the difficulty of the task. The left has become splintered across such a wide range of groups, some organised into single issue campaigns, some with an agenda which goes beyond any simple classification as ‘left’, that it is impossible for any single agency, let alone one party, to organise them. A rather complex kind of coalition is not just desirable, it is a fundamental necessity. And, make no mistake, it has to be done with the immediate backdrop of a coalition which is in the process of itself organising a centre-right bloc which may prove surprisingly resilient. Cameron’s Big Society and Broken Britain pitches can be easily mocked. However, he is reaching into an insight about a current social malaise in Britain which is has a wide resonance and not just on the right. (See for example, a Compass Thinkpiece on Feel-Bad Britain to which I contributed some three years ago

All in all, the British left is between the rock and the hard place with the rock being the need to respond actively and constructively to the attacks upon the public sector and the hard place being the lack of any effective political agency with which to do this. The role of the Labour Party with its seemingly unstoppable move towards centralised control and its grip, albeit highly regional, on left electoral results is clearly a central problem. But so too is the unremitting ‘workerism’ of parts of the left, which still cannot see past the largely emasculated trade-unions as vehicles for political change, and the quasi-anarchism of parts of the activist left. In other words, to reach the destination of a left coalition it would be best not to start from here. But at least to state the problem and outline the destination is a start, a point from which the British left can move. Compass could play an important role in this given its sometimes uneasy stance promoting both a more pluralist left politics and also a commitment to supporting Labour. In a sense this paradoxical position encapsulates the problems of the left. Perhaps it could start by coming clean about this dilemma. Cards on the table, remember.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Left Out

There were some headline results in the May election which seemed to be good news for the left, Caroline Lucas winning in Brighton and the BNP being wiped out in Barking council being amongst them. Unfortunately the detailed results point in the opposite direction. The election was a disaster not just for Labour but for all the left.

The BNP in fact did rather well. In Barking, Margaret Hodge was returned comfortably but the BNP increased its vote and came a comfortable third. They lost all their seats on the council because of a factor common to all minority parties across the country. Council elections have even lower turnouts than general elections. The coincidence of the two pushed up council participation and in most councils this meant that minority parties were squeezed as the increased vote went mainly to the big three. In Manchester, the Green Party polled its highest ever vote in Hulme ward, where it once had a councillor, but was pushed into third place as the Labour and LibDem vote soared. In Lewisham, where the Green Party had six councillors, they held on to only one as turnouts doubled.

In the general election, Lucas’ win in Brighton, itself a rather aberrant result in that she won with only 31% of the vote in what is effectively a four-way marginal, conceals poor results elsewhere for the Green Party. Having made a huge effort to stand in as many seats as possible, in nearly all places the vote went down compared with 2005, often by 40% or more with the voting in London being particularly dismal. Just to pick out a few constituencies: in Hampstead, the vote dropped by over 62% to only 759; in Calder Valley which contains the almost legendary green town of Hebden Bridge and a ravaged Labour Party, it went down by 37% whilst in Manchester Withington, the vote dropped by 50%. So far as I can see, outside Brighton, the only constituencies to save their deposits were one of the Norwich seats and Cambridge. So bang goes a couple of hundred thousand pounds.

The votes for fringe left parties almost defy description with perhaps the prize going to the Workers Revolutionary Party whose candidates bought their votes at almost £10/ballot just on the basis of lost deposits alone. In Manchester Central, the WRP actually produced a leaflet sent round on the election freepost which proudly announced that their candidate lived in Hackney in London and attended Goldsmiths College. Jonty Leff amassed precisely 50 votes for this effort to be surpassed by four by the Socialist Equality candidate. Neither bothered to attend the count.

A little further away from the mad left, the peculiar socialist alliance known as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Alliance at least scrambled into three figures but often only just. In Manchester Gorton, a local trade union activist got 337 votes trailing the Respect candidate who got 507. Respect’s collapse from the halcyon days of 2005 when George Galloway actually won a seat was particularly and rather sadly notable. In May, its votes were, roughly, halved.

In contrast, BNP votes mostly increased even though it failed to make any sensational breakthrough. The same is true of UKIP, whose interventions probably cost the Tories a few seats. A summary of the BNP results is that in 2001, the BNP fought 33 seats and polled 47,000 votes; in 2005, they fought 117 seats and polled 192,746 votes whilst in 2010, the BNP fought 339 seats and polled 563,743 votes. Simple maths shows that their average vote is slowly increasing even as they spread over the country. This shows a systematic rather than dramatic spread in support. It is unlikely that they will breakthrough into parliamentary seats under first-past-the-post but their council support will inevitably grow.

What happened in May rather defied expectations. Instead of a drop in turnout and a swing away from established parties there was a slight increase with a clear disinclination to vote for independents and left groups. The election was in this sense rather traditional with the arrow on the wheel-of-fortune stopping in the segment of the wheel marked ‘No Overall Majority’, the result predicted for months beforehand. What was rather surprising was instead of the usual pattern of such results in the past – to struggle on a with minority government and call a quick election – there was a swift pact to form a coalition, so swift as to arouse suspicion that it was a deal already in place.

The problem now for Labour and the rest of the left is that this coalition is looking rather stable. Of course there is some whistling in the wind about discontent in leftist LibDem circles and there will undoubtedly be some defections. But this does not indicate structural instability. The point is that the LibDems have always been most comfortable as a centre party. Their recent outflanking of Labour on the left really came about because of the shift in Labour to itself become the national centre-right party rather from any ingrained progressive tendency. Just talk to anyone who lives in a city run by the LibDems. You will find very few red flags being hoisted over town-halls.

This coalition has advantages for both parties. It enables Clegg to restore his party to their natural place in the political spectrum and he will gladly give up a few of his left-leaning members for this. Besides, there is a whole line of authoritarian Labour government measures just waiting to be knocked over to appease this group. Goodbye ID cards is just the start. Lookout for at least one big defence project to be stopped, possibly even a moratorium on Trident. And aren’t we all just waiting for the inquiry into the allegations of a cover-up over torture. This will be held over until Miliband (D) is safely elected then we can all enjoy the sight of his misleading, not to say lying, to Parliament being exposed over leisurely public hearings. And then there is the Chilcot show soon to resume. What’s not to like? And of course there is always the holy grail of PR if not now then maybe, possibly, some time.

For Cameron, apart from the satisfaction of re-decorating No. 10, there is the chance to ditch his recalcitrant, almost mad right-wing. Does the prospect of a few defections to UKIP really worry him?

No, the problem for the British left is a deep one: that this coalition will do what New Labour was always striving to achieve, the formation of a stable centre-right bloc based upon English nationalism. It was always this last that was a major stumbling bloc with Scottish Labour being its solid bastion but also its albatross, something it could not shoot but which still hung around its neck.

So what to do? Phrases like ‘rainbow coalition’, ‘progressive alliance’ and so forth as widespread but the fact is that no one really knows how to form these. All the leadership contenders apart from poor Diane Abbott, dependent upon David Miliband’s charity to even be nominated, would quite clearly sit comfortably in the Tory/LibDem coalition. Their efforts to distance themselves from the policies which they themselves instigated already looks desperate, by September one can look forward to complete mental collapse. The central issue remains that any kind of new left coalition must depend upon a significant fraction of the Labour Party breaking from the centralised right-wing control under which it presently resides even if it subsequently form some kind of alliance with the right-wing. At present this seems unlikely with excited chatter about flocks of new members and a change in party structure. Dream on but remember that all parties get a membership boost in the run-up to elections. The BNP claims to have 8,000 new recruits something which may have more substance than Labour’s boasts.

Perhaps a boost for a new book which I co-authored would help. Left Out: Alternative Policies for a Left Opposition tries to provide some answers. Available from Amazon and good book-shops (ISBN: 978-1-4457-8182-2) or by downloading from or, soon, from Lawrence and Wishart’s website, it tries to tackle the problem of how some kind of left alliance could be formed over the next five years. Inevitably it is only a start but at least it is a beginning.

Friday, 30 April 2010

A Third Way?

There is something both exhilarating and sad about watching a once great party fall apart. Sad because Labour has much of the history of the British left in its bones and its passing, at least in its present form, means that this history will be interred. As someone who spent 15 years as a member it is hard not to regret this. (This is what is known as tribalism). On the other hand, it is exhilarating to see a generational chance to reform British politics in a way which has been delayed for several decades.

The Labour leadership who have run their party in the past few much as Stalin ruled the CPSU are clearly deeply and terminally divided as to how to approach the election. There is a group which resists any talk of coalition and insists that the campaign is still theirs to win. I suspect that this group thinks that this really might be a good election to lose and that to sit out a period in opposition watching Cameron trying to work with Clegg whilst starting the savage public sector cuts that are now inevitable is a good recipe for another long period in power. It is clearly impossible for Labour to keep to its campaign promises about public spending so why, the argument might go, try? Of course this is a line which has to be deeply buried under protestations about still hoping to win and so on but it has the merit of strategic thinking. It also has the merit from their viewpoint of allowing a period of time to complete the transformation of the Labour Party from a membership body to a supporter-based organisation in which registered supporters have no say in policy or leadership but raise money and work as foot-soldiers in elections. The model is the US Democratic Party and David Miliband has already set out the agenda for such a move.

The second group is hoping to use the hung parliament as the springboard for some kind of new progressive alliance with the LibDems in the course of which, thanks of course to their superior political skills, Labour would effectively take over leadership of that part of the LibDems which they feel unreasonably fled from Labour over Iraq. This is most overtly expressed by Neal Lawson ( in a pre-election briefing in which as he puts it “the game has to be building a progressive alliance” which, he seems to claim, would represent up to 60% of the electorate, a number obtained by adding together recent poll figures for the two parties. This group is also the one which clings, against all the evidence of recent history, to the belief that the Labour party can be saved, that is brought back to its halcyon days of membership democracy and free debate.

The problem for this group is that this progressive alliance is supposed to include all the elements in the Labour Party which have fostered the neo-liberal policies they so dislike plus all the similar elements in the LibDems. There may be some kind of ‘progressive’ alliance out the there but, at least at the moment, it is smaller and much more complex than is revealed by simple addition of some polling statistics.
So what is the likely outcome once the voting dust has settled and the bargaining commences in what are now the smoke-free backrooms? Let me speculate on a third scenario.

Both Tories and the present Labour leadership are beset by similar problems. Both have an ideological wing which is a nuisance and which they would like to see banished. Both know that Mervyn King’s warning about the fate of the next government is soundly based. Both know that some re-constitution of British governance is necessary to head off public dissent and both know that the LibDem demands for reform of the electoral system have got to be accommodated. And both know that their policy differences are much smaller than the differences they have with their own irritant wings. So how can these problems be resolved?

The wildest speculation would be this: that Cameron agrees to form a National Unity Government which would contain, let’s say, Mandelson, Miliband (probably D) et al plus Clegg and possibly Cable (whose views on most matters are far from radical). The price to be paid would be dumping Brown (of course) and accepting a moderate form of electoral reform. This government would, quite deliberately, adopt policies designed to drive out their respective unwanted wings, including the radical part of the LibDems, and to reduce the national debt by a significant but not devastating amount. They would call an election under the new rules and fight it under the banner of a centre-right alliance called something like National Unity. UKIP would form the core of a right-wing grouping whilst the left, unable to agree, would form two left groups which would spend most of the time attacking each other. The National Unity alliance would get a comfortable majority and spend five years and beyond cutting public services and taxes.

Sound familiar? Well it would have strong similarities with 1931 but, hey, what’s so bad about a good revival? It would of course require political and presentational skills of the highest order but then where else can we look for these except in the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of New Labour, Lord Peter. Would I put money on this? Well, I would need odds but not big ones. Say five to two. Possibly seven to four. Any takers?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Is a Revolution on the Way?

Someone (I forget who) once said that there are only two kinds of election campaign: Throw the Rascals Out and Steady as She Goes. British elections have for over a hundred years followed this basic principle with, normally, Labour wanting to throw out the rascals and the Conservatives asking to keep a steady course. In this, as in so many ways, it was Thatcher who broke this tradition when she was given her (minority) mandate to throw out the ‘rascals’ who had collectively conspired to build up the post-war consensus of a mixed economy. She was right of course; the three decades of post-war solidity was foundering on its internal contradictions. Her political genius was to recognise that the rascals, as she saw them, were as much embedded in her own party as in the opposition and needed to be as resolutely thrown out. The current election is the long-delayed explosion of the political fuse which she laid. Effectively, what she did was to turn the old order on to its head with the Labour Party cast as the old-fashioned bunch and the Tories as the modernisers with consequences that are only now surfacing after long gestation.

There are three main strands to this story. The first and most obvious is that although the challenge of Thatcherism did not, quite, destroy Labour it came close and set up a long-term rival, the Liberal Democrats. The division of the British centre-left into two parts from 1981 onwards enabled Thatcher and, subsequently, Major to win three successive elections despite never coming close to a majority of the votes. In particular, the staggering confidence trick of the 1983 election (with the centre-left vote split 29%/24%) enabled Thatcher to carry through the key parts of her neo-liberal agenda and to complete the purging of her own party with the ‘mandate’ of a huge majority. The political consequence inside Labour was to ensure that to achieve an election victory it had to both subdue the rival LibDem vote and recover part of the votes lost to the Tories, something which after 1987 came, probably correctly when judged purely in electoral terms, to mean that it could never again offer any kind of radical agenda. It became, instead, the Steady as She Goes party offering Thatcherism with a human face.

The success of this strategy in 1997 marked for life those who pushed through this agenda, not just the old guard of Brown and Mandelson et al but also the younger group whose politics were formed almost entirely as aides and advisers to these men. It has been obvious for some time now that a policy of reforming the British political system would prove a vote-winner. In another vein, it is also quite plain that any proposal to change the banking system and reduce the power of bankers would get widespread support. Yet on both issues there has been agonised periods of wavering followed by small shifts whose very obvious limitations have served only to highlight missed opportunities. The result has been the quite staggering shift in public opinion following last week’s televised debate — the Clegg phenomenon.

It is as though people have suddenly decided that Kick the Rascals Out is best realised not by Cameron (always a doubtful herald for this line) but Clegg. Suddenly, the old nightmare of 1983 has been revived for Labour; the emergence of another centre-left group untouched by previous scandals and able to present a new, modernising face however illusory. And Labour does not have the slightest idea how to respond as the historical response to move to the right has already been worked through. Like hard-rock miners, they have followed a vein of gold deeper and deeper so that when it peters out they have nowhere to go.

The second story is a national one for it was the rule by an English tyrant lacking any kind of national mandate which really sparked nationalist sentiment in Scotland and Wales into serious life after two decades when its flame had flickered into occasional life but then faded. The two-party first-past-the-post system has retained its dominance in the U.K. for so long partly as a result of the absence of any serious regional or confessional parties outside of Northern Ireland. The imposition by Thatcher of what seemed almost like foreign and colonial rule ended that. The actual impact of this change has been slow but, inevitably, it has taken its toll on the viability of the old system.

Finally, Thatcher wrecked the old Conservative Party. The divisions within the Tories have been evident ever since Major fulminated about the “bastards” who were plotting against him after 1992. The divisions have been exemplified over Europe but they cover other, perhaps more fundamental issues which go back to Heath’s sullen refusal to accept Thatcher’s leadership. UKIP remains Cameron’s bad dream; one which has so far been largely contained but which could yet bleed away Tory support if it ever manages to get a leadership which is not quite barking mad. Meanwhile, Cameron has tried to adopt the necessary Kick Out the Rascals strategy without ever sounding remotely convincing. He is patently a Steady as She Goes man which is why debates between Brown and him never sound remotely convincing as both stand, essentially, on the same ground.

So is there any chance that the venerable British political system will fall apart after 6 May under the obvious unfairness of a voting system that fails to reflect the wishes of most of the electorate? The core problem is that any kind of fundamental change requires either a strong reforming leader inside the system or a massive popular upsurge on the streets and preferably both. Both are lacking. Clegg and Cable are not going to lead revolution and the general disillusion with politics is not going to lead to riots. This is not a Poll Tax or an Iraq war issue even though it is more fundamental. The Green Party hovers around as a genuine radical alternative but its relentless ‘focus to win’ electoral strategy has failed to give it any national presence. Plaid Cymru does offer a national alternative in Wales but has little overall presence. Northern Ireland politicians can always be bribed.

There are going to be all kinds of odd results on 6 May. A good local campaign can, for once, produce real local swings so one may see a number of oddball independents and small party representation. And in the overlooked council elections which will also happen on 6 May, a massive LibDem swing may wipe out Labour in many councils and effectively end its already much reduced campaigning ability. But some kind of fundamental shift? The most that can be hoped for is a referendum on a reasonably proportional electoral system and that has to be an outside chance. Whether there will be any impetus after the election to form the kind of left coalition that could offer a genuine challenge remains to be seen. The words ‘coalition’ and ‘alliance’ have been much used on the left in the past few months but with precious little flesh put on these bare bones. As always, we have to live in hope but with subdued expectations.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Sleepwalking to political crisis

Is Britain sleepwalking towards a political crisis at the next General Election? As the heat is turned up on what promises to be a very dirty, personalised campaign, it certainly seems so given that none of the leaders of the three main parties seems interested in just how precarious is our political system.

Britain runs, has run for nearly two hundred years since roughly the Reform Act of 1832, on the simplicity of a two-party system and a first-past-the-post ballot. The idea, roughly, is this: that there are two political blocs, one representing modernisation and progress, the other representing maintenance of the existing system. Most of the time the latter are in power but every so often when the pressure for change becomes too great, the modernisers get their day. Then the conservatives get back in, tidy up the system, remove any changes that were too extreme and accustom the country to the new ways. And so on and so on in an endless round.

The heart of the system is that there are no issues too big to be encompassed by this process of step-change evolution; no religious, national or class divides so big that they cannot be found a place inside the broad churches of the two great parties. It was and is, of course, a fa├žade; something which conceals a system which ingrains conservatism and a lack of response to serious problems. It was also false. Ireland and how to cope with a growing working class and their own form of united organisation were the two main things which ultimately tore the Conservative/Liberal, In and Out system apart. The great trick of the twentieth century was the way in which the Labour Party was so neatly inserted into the role played by the Liberals to become a potentially modernising political bloc content to wait its turn rather than a force which might threaten the fabric of the system.

As Henry Drucker saw in his seminal study of the Labour party, the two-party system was breaking down in the 1970s when he was disquieted by a turnout of only 72% in 1979 and just 39 MPs from minority parties. (Only!! Just!!) It was, of course, Thatcher who put a stop to its disintegration by a revolutionary turn-round in which the party which for 150 years had accepted the changes of the modernising party with only modest amendments, and instead put the changes of the previous thirty years into full reverse despite never having any majority support in the polls for such changes. Labour’s sclerotic leadership of the time (and that, I’m afraid includes the sainted Michael Foot as well as almost sanctified Roy Jenkins and beatified Dennis Healey) were totally out of their depth when confronted with such a shift whilst Blair and Brown never had the vocabulary to even conceptualise it so, ultimately, New Labour’s thirteen years, rather being one of the modernising surges, instead became of period of wandering trying to find some purpose without ever having any clear political objective except to keep in power. Ironically, the big problem facing Cameron at the moment is that the historic role of the Conservatives has been reversed. They are now having to act like the modernising bloc in the two-party system and are, not surprisingly, proving hard to live up to the part.

Now the collapse which Drucker foretold is in full flood. General elections have ceased to be national and instead have become a set of quite different contests in the four nations of the Union. Northern Ireland has now drifted off to become, essentially a different country though one rather like Bangladesh in being dependent upon external aid to survive whilst Scotland and Wales are suspended in an indeterminate and uncomfortable intermediate position. In England, Labour has ceased to exist in much of the south and west apart from metropolitan London whilst in the north, although avoiding total wipe-out, the Conservatives have ceded the role of the second party to the LibDems. Meanwhile, the general public has lost all faith with the system and has come to regard it has a general slough of corruption.

I think I might be able to claim priority (albeit at the back of an obscure journal) in the suggestion two years ago that a proposal to reform the electoral system with a referendum might just be the policy that could win the next general election for Labour. (Renewal, 16(1), 2008 if you must know). Typically, Brown having, presumably, been handed this conclusion on a plate by his focus groups has fudged the entire issue by his pusillanimous proposal to consider an essentially non-proportional system like the Alternative Vote. The problem, essentially, is that, as Drucker observed, Labour is a creature of the two-party system; it has it in its bones with the assumption that, as he wrote “[its] leaders will not have to trade policies with the leaders of other parties in order to form coalition governments” There are some in the Labour leadership who will cope with a hung parliament very well. No surprises in the suggestion that one should keep one’s eye firmly on Lord Peter who didn’t give up a comfortable job with the EC to be becalmed as an opposition peer. But generally Labour MPs are going to react badly to hung parliament; too many have come to believe the party line that Cameron is a devil spawned in hell rather than just another hapless politician with much the same policies as there own. Still, it is going to be interesting.

Friday, 8 January 2010

After Copenhagen

The debacle of the Copenhagen conference is only the beginning of a protracted period of international negotiations which, at least at the moment, look likely to come to grief on the rocks of at least three separate problems. Another conference is promised for 2010 in Mexico but if no solutions are found soon then there will be little progress there.

One key issue is the refusal of many in the developed world to accept the reality of climate change and its link to human activity. This is particularly stark in the USA where, according to results released in October last year by the Pew Research Center, considerably fewer Americans now believe the Earth is warming (the decline has been from 71 percent to 57 percent over the space of a year and a half). As for agreement with scientists about the cause of global warming—human activities, human emissions—that too has sloped downwards, to just 36 percent today. In Britain, almost a third of the population is reported to doubt the truth of global warming. One reason for this situation is a well-funded and well-connected campaign of ‘climate-denial’. In Britain, The Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Express and The Spectator magazine are examples of journals which have given prominence to climate-change denial without bothering to consider either the validity of the claims made or the expert status of those making the claims. Even the BBC commonly ‘balances’ the views of 99% of world scientists with one of the few scientific dissenters. The fact is that it remains difficult to convince people of the need to acknowledge that their comparative prosperity is linked to unsustainable energy use and that some change is needed to their lifestyle. Politicians are aware of this resistance and most take the easy option of either sidelining the issue or, when it is thrust upon them, to try and find an easy way out.

People living in poorer countries have less choice for they are increasingly confronted with the reality of climate change. The human misery in Darfur is, in part, a consequence of increasing aridity throughout central Africa, which is believed to derive from climate change as are the increasing number of unusual and often devastating weather-related disturbances. The scale of the latter was illustrated in the Human Development Report 2007/08 from the U.N. This estimated that, annually, in developing countries between 1980-84, about 80 million people were “impacted” by some kind of meteorological disaster, a figure which had risen by 2000-04 to 262 million, about 1 in 19 people. This has almost certainly increased still more in the last five years as, for example, drought was followed by exceptional floods in southern Africa. That climate change will hurt the poor most of all is demonstrated by the same report’s estimate that only 1 person in 1500 is similarly affected in wealthy countries. ‘Impacted’ is a euphemism for the death and homelessness inflicted on those who suffer these extreme conditions.

The chief negotiator for the G77 group of 130 developing countries represented at Copenhagen and Sudanese ambassador to the UN, Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping was reported to have ruffled a few sensitive feathers amongst ministers of the G8 group in Copenhagen when he said “[This] is asking Africa to sign a suicide pact, an incineration pact in order to maintain the economic dependence of a few countries. It’s a solution based on the values that funneled six million in Europe into furnaces”. Insensitive? Well, that is a matter for individual moral perception but the fact is that the thousands currently dying annually right now from climate change will rise into hundreds of thousands within twenty years if nothing is done. It is possible that the impact of extreme weather in Europe and America, for example the fact that unusual flooding has now occurred for three years in a row in different parts of Britain, will change their people’s attitudes. But the money financing the climate-denial campaigns is unlikely to diminish.

The second big issue is easy to summarise: the problem of the USA. President Obama arrived in Copenhagen with just one offer on the table: to reduce US emissions by 17% by 2020. This was a good headline move but it contained a major defect─that the cuts should be from a baseline of 2005. This should be compared with the cuts proposed by all other Annex 1 countries which are all based upon 1990 emissions. When adjusted to this baseline, the proposed US cuts amounted to just 5%. EU countries have been bound under Kyoto to this scale of cuts by now and were offering targets of up to 30% over 1990 by 2020. This was not just a failure by America to propose any significant cut, it was also a signal to a wider issue, that the USA was not prepared to adhere to the Kyoto Treaty but wanted a new agreement.

This was a crucial sticking point for many countries in particular the G77 group. Kyoto had divided the world into Annex 1 countries for which formal and legally binding emission cuts from a 1990 baseline were agreed and the remainder which agreed to try and limit carbon emissions but for which no legal limits were set. The USA had signed the Kyoto Treaty but, under a sceptical Bush administration, had by a unanimous Senate vote refused to ratify it. Other Annex 1 countries had delayed ratification, sometimes by years, but by 2009, the USA was alone in its stubborn refusal with Australia, its last companion, ratifying in December, 2007. By setting a proposed baseline of 2005, Obama was in effect announcing the USA’s continuing refusal to abide by its Kyoto obligation. Instead it wanted to push the developing world into making similar binding agreements over future emissions cuts. It wanted to dump Kyoto, a treaty which only became legally binding in terms of emissions cuts in 2009 and is set to run until 2012.

The much-heralded statement by Hillary Clinton that the USA would be prepared to contribute to an international fund must be seen in this context. Her actual words were “In the context of a strong accord in which all major economies stand behind meaningful mitigation actions and provide full transparency as to their implementation, the US is prepared to work with other countries towards a goal of jointly mobilising $100 billion a year by 2020 to address the climate change needs of developing countries” In other words, dump Kyoto and the US would pay some money, some time, from unknown sources though she also made clear that it would be a mixture of both public and private sources, the latter coming in part from money found by carbon trading schemes. I will come back to these but it is worth looking at the conditionality of the finance─a context of “full transparency” about “meaningful mitigation actions”. This is interesting as the refusal to accept this context was used after the failure of the conference to lay blame for the debacle on what has usually been called ‘a small group of countries’ of which China has been singled out but which also seems to include India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa. (‘Seems to’ because in the way of this kind of backstairs briefing nothing is ever quite spelled out or attributable).

Interesting in part because transparent and open international inspection is the one thing that the USA has always refused to accept, specifically about carbon emissions but more generally about almost anything. It has also, of course, failed to undertake any “meaningful mitigation actions” with the result that since 1990, its carbon emissions have steadily increased.
Of course neither China nor any other member of the ‘small group of countries’ were particularly forthcoming in the negotiations faced by US intransigence. The Chinese offer to reduce its emissions by 40% over a ‘business as usual’ path did constitute a significant concession but it could have been made a good deal more quantitative. However, William Gumede’s comment in the British Guardian newspaper effectively summarised Copenhagen. “The final "deal", signed by 28 countries, kicked aside a UN-brokered deal that was more inclusive, financially more generous and more sensitive to the needs of African and developing countries – and which was backed by Africans. In Copenhagen, industrial nations have again successfully managed to divide African and developing countries, by co-opting the bigger developing countries, such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa, in private deals.

Such co-opting often starts with the demonising of these countries: those who insist on a fair deal are being mercilessly portrayed as stubborn obstacles in the march for a greener future, or as much to blame for global problems as industrial nations, and therefore should make the same compromises – and pay for it also.” He added, “Of course, the big developing countries – China, India, Brazil and South Africa – are not blameless when it comes to polluting the earth.” ‘Cooption’ is too strong a word for what actually occurred but ‘demonising’ is not.

The final issue raised by the Copenhagen failure is much wider than the specific problems of the final accord or lack of it; the obsession with market mechanisms shown by the major developed countries.

The first is the reliance by almost all the developed world countries on various kinds of carbon trading as a major mechanism in achieving national carbon emission cuts. There is little room here to explain why the generalised use of trading mechanisms is a poor route to global cuts in carbon emissions. (A report from UK Friends of the Earth (FOE) goes into detail ). Historically, it started with the use inside a major oil company of a process of allocating target emission levels (originally of sulphur dioxide) to all operating units within the firm. If any unit exceeded its target cuts then it was able to ‘sell’ the surplus to other units which found it harder to comply at whatever price they could negotiate. This internal quasi-financial exchange would be contained in the accounts of each internal profit centre in the company. This was an efficient and effective procedure inside a large multi-national corporation but was taken up by proponents of the free market as a route to introducing market mechanisms into national environmental control, an area dominated up to the 1980s by simple regulatory control by a government agency. It was adopted after some years by the USA as a procedure for limiting the sulphur emissions responsible for acid rain. It can be contrasted with the simple regulatory caps on sulphur emissions adopted by the EU. Although much lauded by proponents of market mechanisms there is no evidence that the US mechanism was more ‘efficient’ or cost effective than the EU route. What is certain is that reductions in acid rain and the consequent damage were delayed by some years in the USA because of the complex bureaucratic process of setting up the market. As the FOE report notes “the US scheme was much less successful at reducing SO2 pollution than equivalent regulations elsewhere: “SO2 emissions in the US had been reduced by 43.1 per cent by the end of 2007, but over the same period 25 members of the European Union saw a decrease in emissions of 71 per cent. These reductions were achieved through regulation, rather than a cap-and-trade scheme.

The basis for a similar mechanism in the reduction of carbon emissions was laid by the Kyoto Protocols which allowed countries to meet their emission targets not just by trading between controlled installations inside a country but also by trading between countries, those covered by Annex 1 but also between these and all other nations, the so-called Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Under the CDM, projects which would not otherwise have been undertaken commercially in these countries could be financed externally and the carbon emission reductions claimed to be obtained could be traded internationally. Thousands of projects have now passed through the CDM procedure and have resulted in an international trading market, mainly under the European Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) worth billions of euros.

The ETS is regarded as having failed almost totally in its objectives with companies being given lax targets for emissions and actually making large profits out of the sale of carbon credits. It is quite astonishing that “A study of five EU countries commissioned by WWF from Point Carbon in 2008 estimated that investors and other holders of permits under the EU ETS were likely to make between €23 billion and €63 billion over the course of Phase II of the scheme (covering 2008-2012) on the basis that the price of carbon would be between €21 and €32.73 Amongst the businesses likely to reap significant profits is the world’s largest steel company ArcelorMittal, already estimated to have made approximately €2 billion in profits from the EU ETS between 2005 and 2008.”
The CDM process has come under particular criticism with many well-documented cases of outright fraud as well as the almost universal complaint as to just what is required to show that a project would not otherwise have been undertaken. Hundreds of hydro-electric schemes in China, for example, have been awarded credits under the CDM despite the fact that encouragement of such schemes is a fundamental component of Chinese energy policy.
However, despite such criticism, carbon trading and, in particular, the offsetting of increases in national emissions by the purchase of carbon credits remains a corner-stone of policy for all EU countries as well as any putative scheme put in the USA. The EU expects that to achieve its target reductions by 2020 up to fifty per cent of target will be met by offsetting actual increases by purchase of credits from outside the EU. The result of these ambitions is that just as they are attempting to lock the poorest countries of the world into binding carbon emission targets, the developed world will, in effect, be removing sources of achieving these targets (which will include reforestation) by claiming them for themselves.

In a sense, this obsession with use of market mechanisms, particularly odd at a time when confidence in the free-market has plummeted elsewhere, can be traced back to the first problem noted here; that acceptance of the reality of climate change is, at best, precarious in many developed countries. National politicians in these countries are loath to undertake the necessary measures to limit carbon emissions in their own back-yard and, instead, seek an easy way out by ‘borrowing’ them from other countries, usually the poorest.
A blanket pessimism, though appropriate to the failure of Copenhagen, not entirely warranted however. There are some signs that action will be forced upon the developed world. Some cities are taking a lead in ‘de-carbonising’ themselves by introducing tough controls on car-use and radical energy-efficiency measures in dwellings. Even in the recalcitrant USA, to take one example, Chicago has adopted the ambitious target of making 50% of its dwellings carbon-neutral by 2015. It is possible that the city level is better suited to getting democratic backing for such measures than the national. It is also clear that there is a strong environmental movement which is prepared for a long and tough struggle to achieve an appropriate response by western governments, a movement which contains many of the youth of these countries. It seems to be the young who see most clearly that the issue of climate change really is a matter of life-and-death. Perhaps they realise that it will be their old-age that will be blighted unless some radical measures are taken now. Perhaps they just have better eye-sight.