Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Donald Trump is the president of the United States of America. This is a difficult fact to comprehend. How did this come about ? What changes have occurred in American society that lead to this ? This book as been touted as having some of the answers to this; how large groups of voters came to feel alienated from regular society and shifted to voting for Donald Trump. In the hope for answers, and some possible clarity, I thought I’d give this book a try.

First things first, this book does not answer this question. The answer to the question on the lips of people across the globe is not to be found in this autobiography. I fear that decades from now we will still be debating and analysing the changes that occurred , across the globe, and trying to formulate answers as to how right-wing, rather than left-leaning, populism captured the public spirit.However, despite this I’d still think that you should read this book as it does give a valuable insight into cultural changes that have occurred in the last few generations in America and which are important in the populist revival. The political analysis is slight, and debatable, but the social commentary is very valuable.

This is an autobiography written by a relatively young man. His story is interesting as he has overcome considerable adversity to improve his lot, to ensure that his troubled upbringing didn’t determine his future. It is a life that has shown the promise of social mobility and how it is possible to break from the grip of poverty. As such, it is a very emotional story with pages of great sadness when we consider his tempestuous and troubled early days, but great warmth when we discover that he does manage to overcome these.

It is a little like ‘Angela’s Ashes’ with prescription drug abuse taking the place of alcoholism and Appalacia taking the stead of Ireland. Perhaps the most striking thing about the story is how universal it is. This is the story of disadvantaged working class people. Although set firmly in Hillbilly territory I could read it as the story of the Scottish working class, the marginalised black working class, or any of the other groups who now form the inhabitants of “fly-over country“. The ex-heavy industry workers in the North East of England, those who have deserted Labour and voted Brexit, will see echos of their actions in the actions of the American ex-steel workers leaving the Democrats and voting for Trump.

J.D. Vance perhaps thinks that these changes are too universal. He doesn’t recognise that he is rather unusual in that he has managed to break free from this system. He tends, at times, to sound as if he is saying “if I did it, so can you” and not to recognise that he is a rather unusual individual who has managed to do what most of us do not.

But his description of life at the bottom is very telling and helpful. Poverty is still with us. Relative material poverty is possibly inescapable but this continues to bedevil our society. However, this is the type of poverty easiest to deal with it is simply a redistribution of wealth that is required. But there is a worse form of poverty, which is harder to treat, and this is cultural and moral poverty. This is the type of poverty which keeps the inequality and worsens it.

This is the poverty of ambition and expectation when people think there is nothing better to be had. It is the poverty of labour when people do not have work to give their lives meaning. The importance of work can not be overestimated, it is not chance that the name of the socialist party in the UK is “the Labour Party” as it is labour which gives us meaningfulness in our lives. Even if welfare states met our every material need, if we do not have work we can’t develop relationships, develop a feeling of status in society, and a sense of pride. In the 70’s we campaigned on the left for “The Right to Work” this is much more important than any handout, however organised.

The poverty of family and community is also factor. The family has always been a bulwark against the excesses of capitalism and our refuge. We now find support for the family as an uncomfortable idea feeling it is antiquated and old fashioned moralizing. However, before we jettison the family it might behove us to think what is going to replace the support it clearly gave.

Working class communities used to be a bedrock of support for those at the bottom of the heap.They organised burial societies, cooperatives, unions, savings societies, education groups and a myriad of other societies to offer mutual support. These will never be adequately replaced by a centralises state offering. This may replace the bread but it won’t replace the love or the dignity.

Bread and circuses‘ were used to keep the lower orders in their place in the past and in an increasingly unequal society this strategy is again coming to the fore. We are offered drugs, alcohol and pornography to keep our senses satiated and our desires low. If we are sedated, doped or post-coital we will be less likely to think our lives could, or should, be better. It is no surprise that the major dystopian novels of the last century warned us of a future when easy sex and easy drugs kept a population docile and cowed with the minimum of force.

This book does reveal what is happening to our culture and is a useful ‘view from the bottom’ about this. While it may not explain Trump, the advice to try and regain some of our working class ideals; the love of family, the sense of community and togetherness, the dignity of labour, and the importance of mutuality, might allow the left to rediscover it roots and help prevent the coming of a second Trump.

Just slip on these lovely handcuffs.

Just slip on these lovely handcuffs.

This is the most unusual election I can remember. It has been brought about by parliament’s inability to come to a decision on Brexit and most people think it will be an instrument to register their opinions of Brexit. The main parties have gone into official and unofficial pacts about Brexit. The Unite to Remain pact of the Liberals, Greens and Plaid Cymru is the most obvious pact, but other remain alliances are being forged in Ireland and Scotland. Although no clear pact has been formally announced, the Conservatives and The Brexit Party are making non-hostility arrangements to try and solidify the leave vote. So, in essence, the Parties are making sure that the only way we can vote is either with a ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ candidate. It is very clearly an election caused by, and about, Brexit.

Unfortunately this poses a problem for the two major parties. The smaller parties are all in the clear as they all have a consistent and unambiguous Brexit policy : to remain in the EU from the Lib-dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens or to leave the EU from the Brexit Party and UKIP (remember them ?). But despite all the prevarication and word-play the two major parties remain split on the Brexit issue. Labour wants to appear a leaver party in its old northern heartlands but to appear to be a remain party in the metropolitan areas. The conservatives, similarly, want to appear to be leave party to appease its right wing members while, at the same time, wishing to try and peddle a partial remain treaty (BRINO – Brexit in name only) to placate its more centrist majority.

The end result of this is that both Labour and the Conservatives want to talk about anything other than Brexit in this very Brexit Election. This has had a predictable effect. Both parties now want to shower us with gifts. They seem to be saying “Forget all that about Brexit, we’ll deal with that, but look at this huge amount of money we have found to fix the real things that worry you“. Both parties are now promising huge spending increases for the NHS, Police Force, Infrastructure projects ; you name it they will put money towards it at the moment. The only difference between the two parties at the moment seems to be whether you measure their largesse in billions or trillions of pounds.

Now it is quite possible that this is the correct time for some spending on infrastructure to give a boost to the economy. After all lending rates are low at present and borrowing is cheap. Further, a long period of uncertainty has dampened activity and an improvement in infrastructure could help boost productivity which has remained stubbornly low in the U.K.. But we have to remain careful if we are to use this type of stimulus that it has the effect that we want and that any loosening of the pursestrings doesn’t lead to waste or increased inefficiency in public spending.

So while I’ll not lose much sleep over more money being spent on hospitals, transport, police or education I do have some concerns about some aspects. I am concerned about the policy to give free broadband to everyone in the U.K.. Why on earth would I want to look this gift horse in the mouth ? Free broadband – what’s not to like ? Surely this is a clear vote winner, nearly as good as a policy of “A free iPad if you vote for us!” which must surely be next.

My main concerns are that internet penetration in the UK is already 92% (Only Japan and the UAE are higher). At present at least 80% of households have personal internet and 90% of these have some form of fast broadband. The problem that exists is largely one of needing to deal with the urban-rural divide. There are still areas, in the countryside, which are badly served by current broadband providers and here is the rub – this provider is Openreach. Openreach has an essential monopoly on providing the infrastructure for broadband internet. It has never been properly separated from BT and has never been exposed to healthy competition. Our ongoing problems in the rural areas might have been dealt with some time ago were we able to call on more than one provider.

Labour’s plan for free broadband will require nationalisation of openreach and also of divisions of Virgin, EE, Sky and Vodaphone. This will reduce competition and slow development in this area. I am old enough to be able to remember the BT monopoly and the wait to get a phone line installed, or indeed to gat any type of service from them. People are obviously happy to pay for their broadband at the moment and this has helped develop services; it would be foolish to stop this. It also makes little sense to single out this communications tool – why not free mobile phones or free instant messaging ?

But while I fear nationalisation will slow the spread out of broadband internet to remote and rural areas (which is the main infrastructure problem) this is perhaps my smaller worry. Just imagine if the state did have a monopoly of internet provision. If the state ran all the DNS servers and knew every ISP address you visited, hosted all of your email communications, knew all your social messaging opinions and knew every online search you had made – would this make you feel happy ? Looking at the opinions, as far as they can be heard, in China it seems that this is a very bad move. This could be the first step to serious loss of liberties.

It has been a common theme in the world of high tech. People come and promise lots of nice things for free while at the same time taking away a lot of our data without us noticing. Google helps us know millions of facts but in return we supply Google with gigabytes of personal data about ourselves. Facebook help us keep in contact with friends but they cost is that they now know all our interests and social networks. Amazon makes shopping easier but in return they know our wants and desires as well as our finances. These sweeteners are nice but we need to look in the horse’s mouth and check what we are getting ‘for free’. Free broadband might be the most expensive gift, if we are silly enough to accept it, if it means the loss of our privacy, our rights to free expression and free association. This policy might just look like a bribe but it is much more dangerous than that.

A plague o’ both your houses.

Democracy has many problems as the old story of the lamb and two wolves voting on what to have for supper clearly illustrates. However, as Winston Churchill opined ” democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried“. Democratic systems are probably the only way that mankind can live in reasonable harmony and in stable and fair communities. However, for democracy to work a few basic principles need to be observed.

The democratic process needs to be inclusive, so that no-one and their opinion is excluded. It needs to equitable; each person’s vote must carry the same weight are every other persons. There should be a secret ballot so that there is no possibility that others can coerce the voter’s decision, and the democratic unit should be small enough that every vote does count and the system avoids, as far as is possible, the risks of the tyranny of the majority. Finally, the executive of the state must act in accordance of the democratic decisions, it can not pick and chose amongst the outcomes which it agrees with and which it will effect.

Britain’s system had in the main held to these principles and could lay a reasonable claim to the title of “the mother of all parliaments” but over recent times this seems a much less apt description.

I am not simply talking about the reneging on the results of the EU referendum, which three years after the vote has still not been enacted in any form whatsoever, but also of the recent shambles in the house of commons when the constitutional safeguards that we normally relied upon have been sorely, and perhaps fatally, tested.

Firstly we had Boris Johnson attempting to prorogue parliament in such a way as to reduce the amount of time for discussion and scrutiny in the House of Commons. There is also a strong suspicion that he lied when he described the reasons and processes behind this.

Secondly we had John Bercow, the speaker of the house, shamefacedly ignoring the traditions of neutrality of the speaker and being vocally and proudly partial. While this might be seen as useful to some MPs at the moment, as it suits their long-game, we may strongly regret tolerating this precedent in the future when less benign options are being processed.

Thirdly we have our opposition parties trying to avoid an election. Some, like the liberals, have a sizeable component of MP’s who never stood under the banner of the party they now purport to represent. To these parties it is more important to overturn Brexit than it is to even know public opinion, let alone follow it. They clearly think the public has made a mistake and want to correct it but are fearful that the public might not yet have got onboard with the message. Their priority is their agenda, it is not working in agreement with the outcome of a democratic process.

It reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Die Lösung (The Solution)

Die Lösung

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas.

Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Bertolt Brecht 1953

Even if the opposition parties do get around to thinking they should put a democratic veneer on this charade we will still have problems. A second referendum violates the basic democratic principle of “one person – one vote” – they are saying “those of you who voted last time don’t count we want the vote of a new populace“, as Brecht suggests.

When we do this once we can do it again, and we are damaging faith in democracy itself. If the state starts to ignore democratic decisions then the whole basis of democracy is undermined. There has been precious little regard for our political leaders over recent years, it seems there soon will be even less. Why vote when your vote may not count or the system is so rigged that change is not forthcoming ? I think none of the main parties can expect to see their popular base growing and I would be very surprised if we didn’t continue to see populist parties, on the left and the right, who listen to the public (or at least pretend to) growing in strength. The blame for this can squarely be placed at the doors of the existing parties. To misquote Shakespeare :-

A plague on all your houses.

Can’t see the world for the trees.

Can’t see the world for the trees.

I have hardly engaged with the broader outside world at all this week. I have hardly read a newspaper, watched a political show nor debates politics to any great degree. Indeed, apart from the annoyance of occasional tweets on my phone, I was out of the loop most of this time. Therefore, I have no erudite comments on the state of the world which, I imagine, is much as I left it last week.

The reason for this was very simple; I had too much to do in the real world on my doorstep. The first rush came because we had an unexpected dry spell and some unanticipated hot days. Our neighbours have a meadow, which we graze over the winter, and they thought this would be a good time to take a crop of hay from it.

A mix of old and new technologies

After a quick cut, we then had three days of repeated turning by hand, before we gathered it in. We were working against the clock as there were thunderstorms and heavy rain predicted for the fourth day. For the gathering we used the pick-up, rather than our usual system with tarpaulins, as the field is a bit of a distance from our hay barn. Friends had arranged to visit us some time back, and they arrived in the middle of the work. I felt rather guilty that they were dragooned into the labour, but they reassured me that they enjoyed the experience. The meadow did prove to be productive giving us about 5 small bales of good value hay.

Hollowed Ash from Dieback

No sooner than had we finished this work than opportunity to have the assistance of an experienced forester to fell some of our trees came available. We have Ash-Dieback (a fungal disease) in a number of trees in our woods and need to fell these. One ash, about which we were uncertain if it had dieback disease, we found to be hollowed out for the bottom third of its length. Definite evidence of dieback and it would not have stood for another winter!

While I will happily fell smaller, straight-forward trees, some of these were large and complicated and beyond the level at which I can safely work. We also had a large fir tree which had become overgrown and bifurcated and was dangerously close to the house. This one was rather reluctant to fall and needed quite a bit if nudging by the wedges which you can hear being driven home in the video below.

Every wedge available was used to help this tree over

I fear that this video does not give a good impression of the size of this tree and people might think that I am a wimp because I didn’t fell it unaided. Having heard of so many deaths and injuries locally due overconfidence, and people tackling unwise timber jobs, that I don’t really mind being considered a wimp. Forestry is the most dangerous occupation; you are safer as a soldier carrying a gun than as a forester with a chainsaw.

I may be a wimp, but I am an alive wimp and a wimp with my quota of all 4 limbs. Also, in my defence, it was a fairly large fir tree if you look at it from this angle :-

Look! Full set of limbs.

The Great Betrayal by Rod Liddle

The Great Betrayal by Rod Liddle

If you enjoy Rod Liddle’s pieces in the Spectator and the Times it is likely that you will enjoy this book. It is a short book and reads very much like an extended rant about the failure of our political system to successfully organize Brexit. It has all of the author’s hallmarks; biting acerbic wit and vicious but accurate satire. If you are looking for a balanced review of the difficulties following the referendum then this book is not for you, but if you want to understand the groundswell of anger that underpins the populist revolt we are witnessing in Britain then this book may well help you.

Although I enjoyed this book primarily because of the quality of the writing and the humour (It is laugh-out-loud funny at times) I would not want to give the impression that it is a comic piece. There is a serious thread running though the book which is treated appropriately and his arguments are well researched and supported with evidence. He describes a country riven in two with the metropolitan middle class operating the levers of power and the rest of the population feeling ignored and increasingly angry. This is a concern that many authors have recently witnessed, commenting on a growing gulf between the rulers and those being ruled.

This can be difficult in a democracy, because it can lead to the situation we are in now, where those in power do not wish to enact the clear result of a democratic process. Three years after the referendum we are no further forward and can only look back on a period of obfuscation, vacillation, and deception. Our rulers, the ones with the power (kratos), can not bring themselves to acceed to the voice of the masses (demos), and as a consequence democracy has been stalled.

This risk has been known for a long time. The reason requests for a referendum on capital punishment have come to naught is that our ruling class has always known that is was likely that the people would vote for its reintroduction. It was known that this would cause a democratic crisis, which could undermine the stability of our state, and thus it has always been held better not to allow a public vote on the issue. I am sure there are many in our ruling classes who now wish the public were never given a vote on the issue (even if they do call for a further Peoples Vote where they hope the mass gets back into its place and votes as they are told).

However, every crisis is also, in a way, an opportunity. The crisis we are in does give us the chance to look at our failing parliamentary system and its parties. The failures of democratic representation should prompt us to consider ditching our unfair “first past the post” system and jettisoning our archaic ‘House of Lords’. Hopefully, we will also see new parties (Perhaps the SDP)created to replace our moribund Labour and Conservative parties which no longer function, having abandoned their traditional support. Ironically, if we do manage to extricate ourselves from the EU we can also look at re-balancing our economy, reconsidering whats is the role of the state or of the private sector, and aim for an economy which benefits our citizens rather than being perpetually governed with the aims of big corporations in mind. We could look at issues such as immigration, not from the viewpoint of capital but from the viewpoint of the immigrant and the communities they live within. There are many, many opportunities.

These are the opportunities of ‘Lexit‘, a left-leaning case for leaving the EU. Those unfamiliar with this argument might find this book useful as it is a major theme in the book and the Lexit case is well expounded. You could discover the arguments, find a lot of information about the EU of which you may have been unaware, and have a good laugh at the same time. As with all good satirists, sometimes the most serious of ideas are conveyed best by the most humorous of lines.

4 out of 5 stars

The SDP : a new home ?

The SDP : a new home ?

British Politics has become increasingly tribal. Both of the main parties now  have been dragged by their extreme wings away from the centre-ground and towards increasingly exaggerated positions. Both seem to have drifted away from their core purpose and now appear to pander to powerful sects as their leaders try and remain in control. The Conservative leader, Theresa May,  is constantly harried by the European Reform Group whilst the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is kept in position by the Momentum group. Neither leader commands the respect of the majority of their party and only survive by compromising vision and honesty for pragmatic coalitions which allow them to remain in power.

We were in a similar position in the 1980’s when Labour had its troubles with the hard left Militant Tendency and the Conservatives were being dragged further rightwards by the strength of the Monday Club. There was considerable unhappiness and it looked as if the large parties might split asunder into different parties.  In 1981, four senior  labour MP’s  (David Owen, Bill Rogers, Shirley Winters, and Roy Jenkins ; the Gang of Four) did break away and set up the Council for Social Democracy by issuing the Limehouse Declaration. This subsequently established the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the UK which had considerable initial success. 28 Labour and 1 Conservative MP joined the party and over the first few years  it had growing electoral success. In 1983 it took 25% of the national vote. However, this was not sustained and by 1987 the party merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats in 1987.

I have some personal experience of these events as I was one of the Labour Party election organisers who helped in the 1987 general election. I worked with the team to make sure that Roy Jenkins lost his Glasgow, Hillhead seat to the Labour Candidate George Galloway. In those days I saw the SDP as turncoats and traitors who were splitting the left vote and was quite convinced that my mission was to get a true socialist goverment into power. How life has changed ! But why am I thinking about the SDP in 2019 ?

It seems the SDP never went away. I was listening to a podcast, by the Anglican priest Giles Fraser, and learnt that the SDP continued and recently issued a renewed declaration. In his podcast he wondered if the SDP would provide a home for many people who, like him, find themselves politically homeless. I read the declaration and had to agree with him; there was nothing objectionable and much with which to agree.

They recognise the failures of our current two major parties :-

The Conservative party has conserved very little and instead, has put everything up for sale. Labour has abandoned the nation’s working men and women.

and recognise that if we are to preserve democracy it is important to keep it local :-

We consider the nation-state to be the upper limit of democracy. Along with the family, we regard it as indispensable to the solidarity of our society and concern for our fellow citizens. We regard supranationalism as a neoliberal ideology aimed at neutering domestic politics and placing the most important issues beyond the reach of ordinary voters.

Socially and personally they  avoid the excesses of libertarianism whilst keeping true to socially liberal beliefs. They are aware that there has been increasing intolerance in our society and a tendency to fragment our communities  by the pernicious use of identity politics. They stress the importance of mutuality, rather than law, to bind communities together and this is an important aspect of politics which is rarely discussed by the main parties :-

We believe ‘fraternity vs division’ to be a key watershed question in all Western societies. Fraternity must prevail.

We regard kindness and mutuality as a political rather than a legal achievement which relies on free consent rather than legal obligation. Excessive individualism – of both the social and economic variety – has regrettably led some citizens to believe they don’t share a common fate with their neighbours. They do.

On the economic front they recognise the dangers of rampant neoliberalism, and the adverse effects of globalisation,  but appear also to recognise that there needs to be boundaries to the state’s intervention in a social market economy. They see the public and private sectors as complimentary and see a natural boundary between them :-

The correct frontier between the public and private sector is determinable. Natural monopolies – the utilities requiring universal delivery to citizens – should be returned to public ownership and operation or be subjected to significantly more effective regulation.

There are interesting and positive bits on the family, the welfare state, culture and mutuality. On reading it I felt that there was really little to which any reasonable person could take objection. So is this the start of a change ? Or will this be like the 1980’s again ? Can a party which tries to push for a middle-road out of our present chaos ever gain enough traction to get moving ? I would like to think so and will watch their progress closely, although I am aware that in these acrimonious times they are going to have an uphill battle to make any headway. If they do, I will find myself, 30 years later, in the unusual position of being on the exact other side of a political divide. Perhaps my team will win again.

 

The Impossible Deal

The Impossible Deal

British politics appears to have reached a new nadir and an insurmountable impasse. Recent votes in Westminster have firstly successfully opposed the government’s plans and secondly failed to oppose the government. We are left with the situation that the government remains in power but its plans have been rejected.

Much of this arises from the problems of two-party tribal politics which rather than address a problem itself but instead  promotes a party’s programme. This is compounded by the present leaders of the two  parties. Both leaders have parties seriously split on the issue of Brexit. The Tories have a leader, who is at heart a remainer, trying to manage a programme of leave to please the staunch ‘leavers’ in her party. Labour has a leader, who at heart is a leaver, trying to offer a programme that will please the remainers who largely control his party. The Liberals, the only party who have a party, programme and leader backing remain, are so inconsequential in British politics at present that the only debate in town is between the two major parties with their discordant leaders.

No-one has a plan to get out of this impasse. There is nothing which can suit all the needs of the two political parties. Neither party is single-minded in its desire to either support the decision of the referendum to leave the European Union or to propose something else.  The only thing uniting them is that both of them are terrified of a ‘no deal’ scenario. This despite Theresa May recognising (one of the few things she grasped correctly) that “no deal is better than a bad deal“. All our parliamentarians, of any hue, are unable to countenance ‘no deal’ scenario, even though it may be unavoidable and may also be preferred.

A deal, or a ‘managed’ withdrawal, may well be the best way to proceed. However, sometimes it is not. Think of a “managed economy”, these never function as efficiently as free market economies. In complex situations allowing individual actors to work out the best way to proceed, and chop and change as necessary, is better than an agreed centrally-‘managed’ plan. Centrally managed agriculture lead to famines. Centrally managed healthcare in Europe provides poorer healthcare than the mixed market healthcare alternatives. Situations can be managed when all the data is known but in complex situations there are many things which can not be known in advance. Rather than a committee of bureaucrats trying to plan fishing, healthcare, automotive industries, IT services, financial services, mining, agriculture, food processing,  forestry, electrical engineering standards, inter-university cooperation, medical devices, medication and aircraft standard, and so on and so on. It would be better to allow all the agents involved to work this out for themselves. It will probably prove quicker and will, almost certainly, find better solutions. Even is there is a managed deal,  we  will still need to see individuals and organisations modifying and adapting  it to make it work, as the likelihood of a centrally decided plan fitting all eventualities is negligible.

But, even if you want a managed separation and a deal, then there is still a need to consider a “no deal” scenario. In every negotiation the two agents have their bottom lines, the point at which they think the available deals are not worth having, and the points at which they need to walk away from the negotiations. Imagine the scenario of going into a car showroom and announcing “Right I want a car. I am going to buy it here and I want it today. I don’t care how difficult it is but I warn you now that I am not leaving here without having bought a car. I will not consider the idea of you not selling at least one car to  me. Right what have you got ?” How likely is it that you will obtain a great deal ? You will be relying on the benevolence of  car salesmen, not a wise move. Every negotiator has a line in the sand, the line at which they decide to go for the no deal option, not to consider this is extremely foolhardy.

No deal will be followed by disruption and change, but so will any deal.  At present the EU, and UK leaders,  wish to minimise the disruption to global capital and large corporations and to cause as little disruption to governing organisations which manage many governmental agencies. Unfortunately they are forgetting that the reason people voted for Brexit, and the reason many European people are also upset, was because of the power of global capital, large corporations and remote undemocratic government. They wanted to weaken the powers of corporations and force them to pay national taxes and listen to local governments. They wanted to stop changes in culture which central governments held valuable for the needs of capital. They opposed the ability of capital to bus in cheap labour to undercut local workers; something bad both for the local workers and the home economies of the migrant workers.

Companies may complain that without a deal they fear their profits will be hurt. Populations may reply  “That is tough but that is precisely why we voted as we did. We are fed up with your greed“. Governmental bodies may worry that without a deal their authority may be diminished, but that was the point. No deal allows a blank slate and the opportunity of all to create the future arrangements they want. I recall every election, when I was a youth, the warnings of dire economic calamity if the nation even considered voting for labour. It is no different now to then, those in power and those with the wealth, will try everything to keep it including trying to scare us into accepting a good deal for them and a bad deal for us.

There are many problems with capitalism at present. Crony capitalism is now gathering the increased wealth, that only a market economy can create, into increasingly few pockets. Institutions like the EU are the mechanisms to promote this and they, and the crony capitalists, need to be weakened. This will not be without pain. But if it is done well then hopefully most of the pain will be felt by the rich and powerful who can best deal with it, and may even be thought to deserve it. An unmanaged Brexit may well be the best way to do this.

In defence of the floating voter.

In defence of the floating voter.

I have become aware that sometime during the last decade I have become a ‘floating voter‘. Prior to this I had always identified myself with one or other of the main parties, either Labour or the S.N.P., and cast my vote loyally for their local candidates. I was aware that floating voters were always looked on with a degree of derision; as poor fellows lacking any political philosophy and being politically un-engaged. The quote below, by Ann Coulter the right-of-centre political commentator pretty much sums up the common impression.

Swing voters are more appropriately known as the ‘idiot voters’ because they have no set of philosophical principles. By the age of fourteen, you’re either a Conservative or a Liberal if you have an IQ above a toaster.

However, despite this statement being witty , is it accurate and reasonable ? Taking first the idea that floating, or swing, voters do not have a political philosophy; is this really likely to be the case ? If one has a well developed sense of political principles then it is quite unlikely that these will line up neatly with those of a single political party. While my desire for people to have the ability to determine their future might tally nicely with the SNP’s plans for and independence referendum but not with the Labour Party’s opposition. My internationalism may find favour with those pursuing worldwide class solidarity in the Labour Party but would jar with the nationalism of the SNP. My recognition of the importance of freedom of speech might be welcomed in the Conservative Party but cause consternation to those in left leaning parties who place greater emphasis on the dangers of “hate speech”. However, if I have well developed opinions I am going to have to drop some of these and compromise if I want to be a loyal party voter (though I suppose I could establish my own party !). If I have political principles I am going to have to weigh these up against the offerings of the political parties at any given time, as priorities and situations change, and decide which party looks the best recipient of my vote at that time. In short, if I am principled I’d be better being a floating voter.

I remember when I was active in political campaigning how little respect the parties had for their loyal voter. Their votes were “in the bag”, all that we needed to do was “get the vote out, in some of our more certain constituencies we’d joke that we could put a red, or yellow, rosette on a dog and it would win handsomely. In essence we knew that these votes were loyalty votes, unthinking votes, knee jerk votes that we didn’t have to work for as they were not forged out of discussion or principle but because “I’ve always been Labour/SNP”  or they were voting “like my father and his father before him”.Even when parties acted against their best interests (Labour has neglected the fate of the white working class, the SNP has ignored the best interests of the youth in Scotland, and the Conservatives are ignoring the economic havoc they are about unleash on the business community) the loyal voters keep coming back. Like store loyalty cards, even though you can get a better deal elsewhere, it coaxes you back to the same old fare.

Secondly there is the idea of intelligence, that floating voters are in someway a bit more dumb than those who have made up their mind. For the reasons above this is unlikely, but there is a further reason. The world constantly changes, the challenges we face differ, and our priorities need to change to match this. Intelligence comprises recognising change and adapting to it, changing our responses and dealing with it. It is stupidity to continue to try the same approach no matter what the problem. The old adage that when you only have a hammer everything looks like a nail  comes to mind. Consider the problem facing loyal Labour voters, their conference has just jubilantly proposed harsh measures which will  undoubtedly worry large businesses (they know this because they have started to plan for a run on the pound should they win). Now this is quiet understandable in the light of their general principles but, with Brexit just around the corner when everyone’s main priority will be to maintain business in the UK and try and avoid its flight to Europe, the smart labour voter might recognise priorities have changed (at least temporarily) and feel that they need to put their vote elsewhere – it would be the intelligent thing to do.

Indeed, being a floating voter requires more intelligence and more involvement. Voting on party lines means you are leaving the decisions to others, you are abrogating your democratic duty to consider the arguments and make a choice. It is more work being a floating voter but you can feel better knowing that your vote was actually a considered one and is more likely to have had an effect on the outcome (Floating votes are disproportionately important in election results). Our system with its reliance on political parties damages our democracy.  The tendency of political parties to try and develop these “loyal voters” has lead to increasing pork-barrel politics with the right trying to expand its power by promising tax relief or advantage to its crony capitalist friends, or the left promising increased benefits in the welfare state to bribe its followers to keep in line. All of this concentrates political power and influence into a small number of hands, it reduces the choices we are given and influence of our opinions, and it weakens the flexibility and efficacy of our subsequent government.

 

The fury and rage.

The fury and rage.

Before all the dead have been found, before anyone has been buried, and the left has started using them as fodder to make political points. Before we know the facts they are trying to create the narrative – this, in their eyes, was a fire caused by austerity and social inequality. The possibilities of criminal negligence, inadequate building regulations or of materials failure are all put out of mind, while they try and stir the flames for their “Day of Rage”.

I will certainly feel enraged if we discover that malevolence or negligence caused this tragedy. If people were sacrificed for short term gain then the fury will be real and justified. But I will also be enraged if this manipulated political fury allows the guilty to hide from responsibility. I fear the shifting the focus from the real task of finding our the causes of the fire, and the causes of the failure of systems to mitigate against the fire’s deadly effects,  to the task of scoring political points will obscure the truth and allow the guilty to escape.

There are likely to be, at the very least, lessons to be learnt on how to offer help and support to communities in the wake of tragedies like this. Knowing how to do this, and doing it, is more important than scoring a point against a Tory council.

The only bright glimmer of hope so far has been in the response of the local community. Local groups and charities have managed to get assistance to the victims very rapidly and with great skill. They have shown that individuals, working voluntarily, can outperform government agencies. Rather than being ashamed of this, as some commentators have suggested, we should celebrate this and consider how we could support this approach more generally.