Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What I did, heard, thought and said during the Green Party Conference in Liverpool

I was last in Liverpool some 7 years ago. Lime street has been given the universal glass and steel facelift and a square created which I hope serves some kind of function in terms of public space and location for simply “hanging out”.
If you avoid the square and slip out from the side exit then you are just road width away from the Liverpool of old all be if modernised with free wi-fi available in some rough looking places.
Its strange how no one seems to make the connection with all this “make over” urban development that is a characteristic of just about anywhere of a decent size and the financial crash. After all we know that this was a property led crash and urban development and re-development has been part and parcel of the financial investment merry go round that surplus capital created when it seemed like the “only way is up”.

Venue’s for conference tend be iconic hotels or universities. We are in a Liverpool icon, the Adelphi Hotel. An imposing hunk of stone which in its heyday must have made quite an impression. If you look at the place on the web it still seems to have retained its splendour, but sadly it’s a now a run down place with some nice features but decaying. I imagine that energy efficiency is not one of the criteria used in selecting hotels as the place has a heating system that looks out of the 60’s. I must admit I like its decaying decadence. Its Friday night ,so along side GP members its full of “locals” out for a good Friday night from the middle class voices of our reception I can slip into the Wave bar and find myself in another world of people going hell for leather in order to have a good time.

Of course I didn’t just come just for the sociological anthropology..the programme is a marathon and yet many I feel who are here (including myself) are not able to do a marathon. However, I give it my best shot.

I go to workshop on energy policy. This is in fact an enabling motion in order to get approval to rewrite our energy policy which it turns out has not been revised since 1990.It has nothing about carbon emission trading schemes or carbon capture and storage technology . There is nothing about fuel poverty which now effects 6 million households in the UK. So of course everyone agreed that we need to rewrite our energy policy. For me I was left wondering how it was possible that our energy policy had been untouched since 1990? We are the party that has put “energy” onto the agenda and yet it seems we simply left it. The explanation maybe to do with the relationship between policy and campaigning , or rather lack of relationship. A new meaningful policy will need to have some concrete actions and timelines and that will focus more attention of action and not just words. It’s about praxis.

Straight on to another policy discussion about “fair internships”. There is no work for over 1 million young people. Over 30% of young people who have “entered “the labour market since 2000 have never really worked. We have structural youth unemployment but no one seems to want to say it. In place of work its now internships and this motion was about seeking to ensure that interns are treated properly and paid a minimum wage. Again unanimous approval but we left the room without really confronting the elephant in the room, namely that internships are for those with family financial resources. We are creating a new form of socio-economic segmentation in the routes for advancement out of unemployment. For the majority of young people internships are simply not available. Its workfare for them or dead-end, low paid jobs

Caroline Lucas is of course our star and her speech really was so good; She finds angles that re-positions key issues. So instead of focussing on cuts (which she did forcefully reject as immoral)) she also spun the issue round to look at what do we spend our public money on. The list is depressing, upgrading nuclear weapons, building two aircraft carriers, bailing out the banks, more prisons, more roads. This is the real reality of what is taking place. We are destroying a system of social and family welfare and replacing it with a system of corporate welfare. She was scathing in her contempt for the labour leadership and likened Ed Milliband to a “ hamster in a wheel” in terms of his leadership style.

By now my stomach was rumbling but disappointingly the menu on offer at the venue had as much appeal as school dinners and outside the hotel it was simply awash with junk food outlets. Luckily I had bought a banana with me so I wolfed that and went into a session on the membership system. The new system will create a much more sophisticated and useful tool not just for membership monitoring but also mailing and identifying supporters . However, what is clear is that the party membership officers are a very mixed bunch and somehow all the new tricks will take some time to learn and for some they may actually be past learning new tricks at all. What is clear is that role of local party membership officer and regional party membership officer will get very more demanding . Local parties will have to find tech savvy membership officers if they want to take advantage of the new system.

Crisis in the Eurozone and crisis in the UK was the theme of a plenary session run by CoR. There was nothing new here in this session apart from the fact that we should be supporting a debtor led Greek default. This is currently not party policy or indeed the policy of the European Greens , which is the subject of the fringe I will run tomorrow.
I am more and more of the view that if there is debtor led Greek default then we actually will see the depth of the financial crisis we are in. In the casino capitalism that we have allowed to reign through deregulation of the financial sector, the shadow banking world of hedge funds has been active in relation to the Greek debt. They now in fact own 25% of the Greek debt. They however are seeking a default as they stand to make millions on the Credit Default Swaps (insurance against non repayment) they have taken out. My guess is that if these CDS’s had to be paid then the financial system would unravel in just the same way that it did in 2007/2008 and this time there will not be the money to plug the problem. The only solution will be to make banks in effect public utilities, which is what they should be. Credit like energy is the lifeblood of our economy, we should not allow private capital to leech away our lifeblood as we have done to date.

From crisis, to a reception offered by Liverpool Green Party, where I down a pint of excellent of excellent organic bitter and talk to a party member from Stroud who reminds me that the “Green local revolution” started there, surely it merits some kind of reflection . I suspect the sights of the party are raised higher so Stroud has fallen off the radar, its now Brighton, Oxford, Lancaster and Norwich which are the targets. As I drain my glass, I feel tired.

Day Two

For reasons I simply cannot remember, I went along to a session at 09:00 on the theme “Do you suit Green”. What ever the reason, I found myself in a surreal session where two image consultants (one from inside the GP and the other her friend) , held a session about how to “ dress to impress” or not. “Power is about giving a cohesive message “ was one of the gems of advice given. This does not mean integrity or consistency its about being colour co-ordinated to suit your “seasonal colour”. Not to mix walking shoes with “working” shoes. Where do trainers fit in, I wondered? I wear some of my trainer style shoes with suits and also with jeans. According to the image consultants I should not. This was all about telling us to fit in with situations. What ever happened to wearing what you feel comfortable in?
I left to go and have some breakfast only to find that breakfast stopped at 10:00 in the hotel. This must be the only hotel in the world that has such a ridiculous shut off time for breakfast and especially on a Saturday. Still what I saw on the plates left we feeling that it was blessing as it looked bad.

I buy a couple of bananas from just outside the hotel and head back to listen to Jenny Jones. Jenny has nice speaking style which is sort of self deprecating and at the same time sharply attacking. So you laugh with her and sometimes at her which is great. She however, does sometimes try to be all pleasing and in the process drop some messages which sound off key. So, she says that “greens will make streets safe to cycle, walk and shop in”. Do we want to be the party that promises “safe consumption”?
She then declares that “London is tough to live in if you don’t earn more than £20,000.” It seems that she has not been informed that that the London average wage is less than that. It seems that her benchmark is “middle class” and simply is unaware of the reality facing the majority of Londoners. The pay as you drive policy is announced as a radical policy which will replace congestion charging and make public transport cheaper. Yes it is radical, yes we should explore such an option but it’s simply unreal to present it as viable policy in the immediate future and especially in outer London.

Adrian Ramsey, our deputy leader, is a career politician. It oozes out of him . His speech was a machine like re-iteration of what Caroline and Jenny had already said. “Greens cut bills not jobs” he declared. What does that mean? We make savings without cutting jobs? The answer is that even if we make no job cuts we stop recruiting and thus add to the unemployment problem. His machine like presentation left delegates sometimes wondering when to clap, even though this year there was a teleprompter which indicated “clapping” moments.

Onto a policy session on the Jewish National Fund. The JNF is a organisation masquerading as charity which in effect annexes land belonging to Israeli citizens who happen to be Arabs/Palestinians. The evidence is overwhelming, but getting a charity struck off the charity register is not so easy. The underlying tension is simply the red herring that continues to be trawled out in relation to any matter relating to Israel..namely that of alleged anti-Semitism. For me the issue is simple, anti Zionism is not anti-Semitism. JNF is a vehicle for Zionism.

I then move onto a session called “meet your leader”. This is a kind of Q&A with Caroline. It’s well attended and the questions come thick and fast. The Brighton and Hove Council “debate” is skirted around . This issue has been a running element of the conference. Green Left members consider their decision as “crossing a line” as it will still mean cuts. I think that the Brighton and Hove party has come up with a very effective way to address the budget cuts issue. They have demonstrated that greens are also about a different way of doing politics. The problem now is that have they made a tactical error in agreeing to proceed with a budget after the Labour and Tory parties joined forces to stop the 3.5% council tax increase? Without this increase in revenue, their budget looses its “green elements” and becomes simply an Eric Pickles determined budget. Word is that Caroline has said that an error has been made. She however, in this session makes no reference to this and indeed praises the thinking of B&H.

Candidly she declares that she has sleepless nights about whether we are moving fast enough to address the massive global challenges we face . This is the old problem about are we just going to invest our energies in getting incremental change when we already know that it’s a paradigm shift we need. The answer has to be that we need to invest in both.

I take break from Conference and head to the hotel gym where I run 8k and feel rejuvenated. I then head to run my fringe session which is about the European Greens who last year in a statement called the “Paris declaration” came out with the need to defend the euro and also calling for greater European political and economic integration. I actually feel that to equate the euro with Europe is fundamentally mistaken. Moreover, being in Liverpool, I have to say that I love John Lennon’s song “Imagine” but we are not at this moment in time in apposition to be pushing for greater EU integration when the project itself has lost its way and lacks any connection with people on the ground. For more read my blog on this issue.

After my first healthy meal in an excellent but inaccessible veggie café, I find myself in the Quiz night. Its being held in the main hall its more like a school quiz atmosphere than a pub quiz.

Q1 Car in Turkish, Lumi in Swedish what does it mean in English
Q2 what %age of languages will disappear in the next 100 year.

I am not part of a team and find myself with an “observer” delegate. He tells me that he had been in the green party for some 12 years but then for a variety of reasons “dropped out”. This is his first re-acquaintance with the party after a 8 year break.

Q3. What is the origin of the word tornado
Q4.What is the origin of the word ombudsman?

So I quiz him about what if anything he finds different. Its not so inclusive he tells me. He feels invisible. I am the first person, it turns out who has talked to him. He likes quiz’s and would have liked to be in a team but finds the process closed. He leaves to catch his last bus home and I sense he will not be coming to Bristol.

Q5 what is the metal or plastic at the end of a shoelace called?
Q6 what is the only word in the English language, that when capitalised is changed from a noun to a nationality

I myself am not a big quiz fan but do enjoy the atmosphere that a good pub quiz can generate. Its not just the questions its also about the banter that the quiz master generates and the banter from the punters. Sadly, we have a wooden question master who sound more like a trainee teacher so the atmosphere is far from lively. I stay for the end of the quiz

Q7 Name one of the only two words that begins and ends with “und”
Q8What is the chemical formula for copper?
Q9.How many bones in a human hand
Q10 When was Origin of the species originally published ?
Q11 The formula f= ma is popularly associated with what popular known scientist?

I tally up my score, 7 out of 11 and I head for the wave bar.

Day Three
I go to a session run by our Caroline (Allen) on supporting healthy and sustainable food choices. The rooms overlooks a major junction in the heart of Liverpool and all you can see is just junk and fast food outlets alongside pubs which serve up the same. We are the 3rd in the global obesity stakes so this issue is clearly important but at the same time simply not connecting with the majority of people. A nice story emerges from two Manchester students about how they have set up a student union food coop which now has 200 members and links up to fair-trade and organic local suppliers. We also have an organic farmer who wants to encourage schools to make more farm visits so that people can make the connection between agriculture and the food on their plate.
Infact we know that 40% of personal C02 emissions are generated by what we choose to put onto our plates. Maybe choice or lack of it is the real problem. Our food ,industry is dominated by the interests of quick profit seeking agri -businesses and supermarkets. Food is about lifestyle and we have generated a lifestyle that is about eating on the go, that explains the proliferation of fast food places and processed foods. I leave wondering if on this issue we really are too late. I look out of the window and see a group of young overweight guys shoving burgers and chips down their throats . What’s more, what happening here is just the tip of the iceberg. Global urbanisation is driving similar styles of eating across the globe. 20 million Chinese leave the land each year to end up living in the newly created cities of China and this just feeds the MacDough food culture we have.

The inedible hotel food should have really been something we should have talked about in the workshop and perhaps even tried to come up with some kind of solution..a pop up food stall maybe . Anyway, I eventually find a Nero’s café and eat a veggie wrap with a large coffee to keep me going and head for a session called “Are young people turning left”?
Three young speakers all saying yes BUT also in two cases questioning what this actually meant. Will Case, trainee labour party politician, came out with an analysis that felt more like a party line than something he himself experienced. In contrast the other two speakers spoke from their own experience and as such their analysis was more “messy” as they themselves were reflecting on their direct experience and not speaking from a party line. Despite this their analysis had more depth as it drew out the contradictions .
Yes the conditions for young people becoming radicalised are there. Youth unemployment, tuition fees, abolition of EMA, housing benefit regulations, impact of welfare to work and issues such as climate change are all impacting on young people. BUT, is this translating into a shift to the left? From Occupy London and UK Uncut, the message was clear, its about rejecting political parties owing to their narrow base and links with corporate interests. Is it possible to change mainstream parties like Labour and Tory from within? The consensus was no. More depressing also was the rejection of voting as a useful tool for bringing about change. I disagreed with this, we cannot simply ignore the one tool for change we have . Our system is flawed but because of this it also means that you only need 1in 5 voters to switch in order to make a huge impact.
Paul Mason in his book “Why its kicking off everywhere” argues that the “unemployed graduate “ is a key element in the youth lead movements for change that are taking place. None of the young people I spoke to are as yet unemployed graduates , indeed all those who had graduated were well catered for through internships . We need to connect with unemployed graduates but at the same time we need to connect with the NEET group, both of whom were missing from the debate.

“Is politics fit for our times and for our planet” was the title of the next session I attended. Clearly delegates were flagging as there was only 7 of us and all men I have to sadly say. The overwhelming consensus was yes, our political system is no longer “fit for purpose”. Accepting that , then the issue for us is what sort of political party does GPEW need to be. I feel we maybe at this point simply putting too much emphasise on gaining “power” rather than being a party that seeks to influence the agenda. Yes we do require more MP’s and MEP’s etc, but we should not be getting sucked into a strategy that seems to be based on simply maximising electoral success. It results in too much of our energy and resources being directed to electioneering rather than campaigning. Our role needs to be that seeks to demystify the issues and challenges we face. We also need to promote a different kind of democracy based on co-operation and connectivity. It is fundamentally about changing mindsets and requires more than just electioneering.

I head with some delegates for a meal and we find ourselves talking about the format of conference. It is really an old style way of engaging: presentations, followed by Q&A. There needs to be more space for “open space” style discussions which also create more opportunities for networking and finding out what people are doing. There is a conference twitter group but I do not see much activity on this when I look a couple of times. Why cannot we have a virtual element to our discussions? One of the members of our eating group turns out to be on the conference committee so I hope some of what we shared around the table becomes visible in Bristol.

Day Four

There are no more fish in the sea was the last session I attended. The ocean covers 71% of the planet and it remarkable what we let happen there. The North Atlantic fish stock is already depleted outlines Terry Dawson, from Dundee University. Infact its in a spiral of terminal decline. Short-term production gains are creating eco-system unsustainability in nearly two thirds of our ocean regions.We have lost 90% of large predatory fish. We are ineffect moving down the marine food chain. Technology and science is helping us get to places which before could not be reached. This is having devastating effects. Ian Campbell from Ocean 2012 reels off the evidence:
•80% decline in biomass of predatory fish we now catch
•93% of cod is caught before it reaches sexual maturity
•60% of fish is discarded. Simply thrown back overboard or as he showed dumped in a field in Ireland
•50% of the fish we eat now is imported
•Japan, USA and the EU account for 75% of global fish consumption

Willie Mackenzie from Greenpeace hammered home the news:
•One EU (subsidized) trawler catches more fish in one day than 56 African fishermen catch in one year.We are the real pirates of the ocean, pillaging fish stocks with no regard for the impact on sustainable life styles of the people who are dependent on the same source.
•Tuna fishing is allowing the destruction of other marine species by the huge by-catch it generates. The same through shrimping.
•Fish finger no come from the pacific(the fish that is, its still Captain Birdeye on the packet).
•Technology now is allowing us to start fishing for plankton thus really endangering the whole ecosystem
The problem he said is that it’s all out at sea and out of sight.

Faced with this evidence base it was so difficult for Melissa Moore from Marine Conservation Zones to sound very convincing about the current policy response and its likelihood to bring about any major change. As she said, the policy is simply about maintaining the current state NOT for creating the recovery that is needed. Furthermore, the policy means that only 0.03% of our coastal areas are protected from fishing. Why are we as Greens giving such actions a high profile in our policy?
We need to be arguing for nothing less than recovery as policy. Rebuilding stocks makes economic sense in the mid and long term, that should be our objective. As usual we need an end to short termism, we need transparency in how current policy at national and EU level is allowing a public resource to be incrementally privatised for short term profit.
The message couldn’t be clearer, eat chips without fish. In short we need system change.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Have the European Greens lost the plot?The Paris Declaration

We are living in delusional times. Our politicians and technocrats are on another planet. Angela Merkel in a speech to her Christian Democratic Union Party,stated that "If the euro fails then Europe will fail."The former central banker now in charge of Greece, Papademos in making his inaugural speech to parliament spoke of “Remaining in the euro zone is our only choice.”Similar noises are emanating out of many EU governments, and also in the Brussels bubble. .Olie Rehn the unelected technocrat running Euro matters has spoken in a similar vein.
The stakes are being raised. However ,these are the words of people with their backs to the wall and stripped bare save perhaps for a fig leave.(if that).

Against this backcloth, I read with incredulity the Paris Declaration of the European Greens issued in Paris just a week ago, which ends up essentially supporting the IMF,ECB, EC and Merkozism policy that is fixated with trying to make the Euro crisis a crisis of the European project.

The Paris Declaration
reads like the product of a schizophrenic mindset.On the one hand the analysis is clear and one with which I think most Greens would agree. So for example, it states:
“Unsustainable public finances or lack of competitiveness are not the main causes of the crisis we’re in: at the heart of the problem lies the global increasing inequality of incomes and wealth in the last decades and an over-leveraged and over-extended financial sector, addicted to debt and speculation and benefiting from implicit and explicit public guarantees.This has led to unsustainable credit growth and risk accumulation and a global increase of inequality of incomes and wealth in the last decades.”

In a similar vein it states:
"More equal societies perform better: all empirical evidence points at the fact that a more even income and wealth distribution is a key condition for individual and collective well-being; therefore, crisis solutions must turn-around the accelerating drive towards more income and wealth inequality."

This analysis is in my view spot on. However, the Declaration then flips into a mindset that ignores the above analysis. Incredibly, it states that :
“This entails that any scenario leading to the break-up of the Euro-zone, which would be the first step of the political disintegration of Europe is unacceptable to us.”
Having made the jump to equating the European project with Euro, the declaration then goes onto make a series of staggering recommendations: Whilst paying lip service to the Occupy movement and their support for these manifestations they come up with policy solutions that are in direct contradiction with their own analysis and indeed the demands of the Occupy movements.

The Declaration recommends:
"Recapitalisation of European banks : the amount – € 109 Bn – decided by the latest summits is at the lower end of what is actually need to make the European banking industry resilient; an amount of € 300 Bn is probably closer to the mark. Private sources must contribute first, but if public money is used, ownership rights and control must be transferred to the taxpayer (through temporary public control ‘thus enabling progress towards wider mutualisation within the European banking system)”.
And the need to
“ Rebalance the austerity-only approach: while we still see the need of sustainable public financing, according to the Treaties, some parts of the Troika emergency policies have been socially unjust; the conditionalities they impose must be rebalanced, insisting on effectively chasing revenue from the most affluent in society and breaking taboos and privileges such as immunity the defence establishment in Greece or for the Churches in countries such as Greece or Italy.”

In short , having correctly diagnosed that the problem is the dominant economic model and the policies currently being pursued, the European Greens end up with a watered down version of the same policies. Their policy mindset is driven by the idea that the Euro is the European project. What this forgets is that the Euro crisis has exposed the underlying reality, namely that we have created a bankers Europe that is profoundly undemocratic and unprogressive.

It is the Euro that is killing Europe, saving the Euro will kill off the European project.
The remedies being imposed to save the euro are blighting the lives of millions. Those responsible are still in control but their economic model is bust and no matter how they try to dress it up things will simply not work.The casino capitalism created by deregulation and liberalisation of the financial sector has created a financial Fukishima.

The “pass-the –parcel” (from Greece, to Portugal, to Ireland, to Spain , to Greece and now to Italy) crisis we are seeing is a fall out of the toxic shit we have allowed to be created in the very heart of our financial system.
Maybe bypass surgery might work, but this will; require the bypassing of democracy, which is what is taking shape in Greece and Italy. The way the remedies are being imposed is reinforcing the facelessness and unaccountability of EU institutions. The democratic deficit that has blighted the EU project is growing. That is the real deficit that needs to be reversed.Our politicians and technocratics are creating the fertile ground that will breed opposition to the EU project.

In short we have a recipe for disaster being presented as one that will save the Euro. We have to disentangle the Euro from the European project. Europe has existed for over 50 years, the Euro is but a baby of the European project not the same as the project. We need a movement of New Europeans to emerge and challenge the defunct vision of the current bunch of political pygmies and technocrats.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

We have to reclaim politics if we want a viable future.

The speed with which our political and financial classes have got rid of George Papandreou is really a sign of quick things can move when there is any note of dissent. His mistake was to raise the spectre of democratic decision making with the involvement of the people. His departure was forgone as soon as he retreated in the face of “Merkozism”. Their horror of his suggestion was rapidly translated into even higher spreads between Greek and German Government bonds and that marked the end of the man who up to six months ago was “doing a good job” Which translates as accepting the medicine being administered by mama Merkel and papa Sarkozy and their friends from the IMF. Already the circus has moved on to Berlusconi and the “Italians”. Lets wait and see how long he will be able to hold out especially after calling Merkel “an unfuckable lardarse”. I have no time for the crook and gangster that Berlusconi is but I do believe that the Italian people should decide when he goes and not the markets and “Merkozism”.
This reaction has exposed what up to now has been a latent characteristic of EU democracy, namely, the sidelining of EU citizens from the democratic process. Deals have been done between non-elected bodies such as the EC, IMF and the European Council. This form of corporate democracy has also exposed what demonstrators around the world have called the democracy wherein the interests of the few (1%) outweigh the interests of the rest (99%).
For me the events of the past week are not just about the crisis in Europe. Lets not forget the crisis in the USA. Where despite massive printing of money(that after all is what quantitive easing is) debt is $10.5trn. Nearer to home , even the UK debt is understated in that the debt accruing from PFI is somehow left out of the government balance sheet. Labour alone incurred £56bn of such debt. If this was included, which it should be then the UK government debt would be bigger relatively than that of Italy.
However, we need to see the bigger picture at this juncture. Its too easy and simple to follow the “pass the parcel” of blame which our leaders are doing , egged on by the markets as their weathervane.
Have we arrived at a watershed in the post second world model of party politics and financial liberalism? I believe we have, but the fact that we are in watershed will not translate automatically into a fundamental change of direction in terms of economic policy and how we do politics. It would be foolish to underestimate the power of our financial and political elites. However, it would be equally foolish to not realise that they are bankrupt in terms of vision and bankrupt in terms of how to “fix the problem” they have created.

The scale of their bankruptcy is in fact evidenced by their own actions. The Greek bailout, that they “fixed” just two weeks ago is in fact nothing less than dishonest. Dishonest for suggesting that somehow private investors were going to take some pain alongside the Greek people. The same private investors have been speculating on the Greek government debt and just 12 months ago they couldn’t buy up Greek debt fast enough . Let us also be clear that we are talking about the interests of just 1% of the population who now control 50% of all available credit. In effect we are being asked to minimize their losses.

The deal is also dishonest about what it claims will be the impact on Greek people. Pain for a few years , it is claimed will result in a refreshed and more dynamic Greek economy.This is the lie that in the end , perhaps (here I am being very charitable), that even the Greek prime minister could see was bullshit. The voice of the Greek people is far more honest. The austerity package will not work. The impact of the package will be further depression, which will simply increase the deficit rather than cutting it. Furthermore the costs of borrowing are high and rising . Given the fact that the Greek economy has already contracted by 15%, what is being offered is not a recovery but a slow and painful death.

The deal is also dishonest about the recapitalisation of banks. This will not “release credit for investment and innovation” as is claimed. It is simply another chunk of our money to plug the dishonest balance sheets of banks, which the so-called stress tests were meant to resolve. The price for this additional bailout will be more austerity in the public sector and thus even more pain for the “innocents”. Alongside this additional bailout comes the news that salaries for bosses in the top100 companies listed in the London stock exchange went up by 49% last year.

We are, as I said, at watershed. The crash of 2007/8 has been likened by many with the 1929 stock market crash. The situation in 2011 can be likened with the onset of the great depression. Writing in 1931, the words of Hjalmar Schacht(who had been Governor of Reichsbank) are just as appropriate for 2011. “Never has the incapacity of the economic leaders of the capitalist world so glaringly demonstrated as today…The guilt of the capitalist system lies in its alliances with the violent policies of imperialism and militarism …The ruling classes of the world today have as completely failed in political leadership as in economic”.
Events in Greece and Italy now have the possibility to not just determine the future for Greeks and Italians but for all of us. The debate is not about the euro zone. This is just part of the dishonest discourse created by Merkozism . Europe is awash with money, the euro zone can be fixed . What the future elections in Greece and Italy need to be about is whether we continue to swallow the bullshit or whether from the cradle of democracy comes a manifestation of the need for fundamental change in our economic and political model. My message to the Greek and Italian people is do not be deluded into thinking that their vote(whenever they are allowed to use it) is about the euro, it’s about what kind of Europe we want. It’s about scaling back our casino economy and reclaiming politics. Like the numerous protesters across the world we have to build a movement of dissent from the primacy of our economically driven way of thinking. Nothing less will do.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Signals of deep dysfunction: understanding the riots

In these times that presage collapse or a great cultural leap forward, we have to create a different kind of discourse. The protests taking place throughout the EU and the riots that took place in the UK earlier this year, are signals of deep dysfunction in our political economy.

The problem however, is that we live in a culture of sound bites, clichés and fragmented discourse. Everything gets packaged and “caste” very fast. Media people talk about “the golden hour”-. this is the time span that effectively determines how a story will look like. Take for example the recent unlawful killing of Mark Duggan by a Met police officer and the subsequent political protest, followed by mayhem. Within one hour the killing was being linked to “gangs” and “drugs” and “weapon crime”. Following the protest march to the police station and then the riots and looting that erupted , the story narrative became about “feral youth” benefit-underclass” , “Chavs”(Council Housed and Violent )”dysfunctional family culture”. The unlawful killing of a young black man and the original protest march was almost airbrushed out of the picture within 24 hours. What also got airbrushed out of the picture was the local context in Tottenham and the wider context within which we have to set the riots and the current ongoing protests.
In trying to understand the riots its instructive to glance back to the Scarman report and what it had to say about the 1981 riots. Scarman identified five factors that created the conditions for the riots:
• The population of Brixton was disproportionately made up of deprived and vulnerable sections of the population as a whole;
• Brixton was characterised as an area of social and economic decay with high unemployment, depressing environment, major housing stress and absence of facilities for leisure and recreation.
• Thirdly, there was the racial dimension, which resulted in high levels of discrimination.
• Fourthly, community-police relations were strained.
• Political alienation

The above five conditions still apply to Tottentham and in particular the Broadwater Farm Estate and the other urban areas that descended into a short lived spate of “smash and grab”.
Here is the picture that emerges from the available data from the 1700 or so cases bought before the courts:
• The majority of those involved were from BME groups
• 90% were male
• Majority live in structurally poor neighbourhoods
• More than 95%(if not more) were less than 24 years of age
We do not have data about schooling, work experience, housing situation etc, but I suspect such data would reinforce the conditions identified by Scarman.
As for community police relations (condition four) then it is clear that bad, and abusive policing resulted in over 1700 young people being stopped under the sus law in just 3 months(April –June) in Tottenham. . The fight against terrorism has provided institutionalised cover for institutional racism to resurface visibly in the Met. Of those stopped only 67 have been found to be “guilty” . Its difficult to peel back the curtain here as its impossible to say what grounds and evidence were used in the determination of guilt. Lets not forget that the same police force was found to be “institutionally racist” by Lord McPherson in the Stephen Laurence report. This is not an organisational culture that can be changed quickly. The very fact that the vacuous and dishonourable Jack Straw pronounced the Met rid of its institutional racism, should make us wake up to,the fact that organisations such as the Met do not and cannot change so quickly. The organisational culture is not something that you can irradiate with good sounding leadership and some well intentioned people.Indeed, anyone who has been following events within the Met on this issue will be aware of the fact that the Black Police Officers association within the Met itself has called the Met an institutionally racist organisation. Look also what happened to the collapse of the “partnership arrangements “with the BME community that were put in place following the McPherson report.

Tottenham is also a testament that 30 years of urban regeneration interventions in deprived neighbourhoods have failed to create the “trickle down” that they promised. In fact , such initiatives have shown more propensity to “trickle up or trickle- out” benefits than impact on the supposedly target groups. Indeed, governments have effectively socially engineered such communities to have the problems they have. Through right to buy and no more social housing construction, it is not surprising that over two thirds of those living in social housing belong to the poorest two-fifths of the population. Nearly 50% of social housing is located in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods. 30 years ago, 20% of the richest tenth of the population lived in social housing

However, whilst the similarities between Brixton and Tottenham are clear, there are also important differences that need to taken into account to place the riots in their proper context.

The first difference is that Tottenham is part of a wider set of protests and unrest that has exploded across North Africa, and throughout the EU. The wider protests also involve mainly young people, but from across a broader section of backgrounds/socio-economic groups. This is not to say that they are exclusively “youth movements”. However, they stem from the collapse of opportunities that young people are now faced with. This structural transformation in live chances takes many forms. Consider the situation in the UK:
• Unemployment now stands at 38% for those aged 16-24. However, it is important to remember that in 2005, 25% of 16-17 year olds were out of school and out of work at the height of the so called economic boom. So the crash of 2007/8 needs to be seen as sharp deterioration of already a bad situation facing young adults.
• In 2010,335,000 graduates left university with an average debt of £17,500.Many failed to get jobs-69 chasing every job-twice as many as in the last big recession of 1982.Some are already on benefits.
• Institute of Employment report 2010 found that 4 years after graduation, 23% of graduates in the creative sector were still undertaking unpaid work.Relatedly, over 30% of graduates in work are “under-employed”, they are not in any way using their qualifications.
• Job tenure has fallen by 20%. 33% of all first jobs are short terms job contracts. 65% of all agency workers are under 35 years old.
• Low pay. Since 1980 there has been a significant fall in earnings for the 18-24 age group. 20% of all jobs are low paid in 2010. In 1977 it was just 12%.
• Numbers in part-time work has increased from 630,000 in 1984 to 1.8 million by 2010. Infact this relates to the fact that 50% of jobs created by economic growth have been part time.
• OECD report “Growing Unequal”(2009) found that “children and young adults have a poverty rates that are now some 25% higher than the population average, while they were below or close to that average 20 years ago”.
• The minimum wage is just not enough to live on.The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that you need £ 13,900 a year to live to an acceptable level. This is above what the minimum wage provides. A 21 year old would have to work 56 hours a week to earn this level of income.
• 50% of young people are leaving state school earlier(25% drop out of education between 16-19, third highest among developed countries), without a university place, without A levels.50% are in fact leaving without 5 good GCSE’s.38% in 2011 are unemployed and large portion of these have already been on benefits for more than one year.22% are Not in Education, Employment or Training(NEET)-many of them will stay on benefits for very long time if not for their lives
• Apprenticeship have disappeared. In 1960’s we could afford 250,000apprenticeships .today there are about 60,000.
• Now its internships not apprenticeships. So the message is if you want to work , borrow money or parents pay so we can take your labour free of charge.
• Manufacturing jobs have collapsed over the last 30 years. In 1979 over 7 million worked in manufacturing. Now its just 2.83 million. These were important jobs for working class young people.

• Programmes such as New Deal have been expensive disasters, placing young people in temporary work or forcing them into pointless courses. Since 1997 it has cost Britain £75billion. Such schemes have a high proportion of “retreads”-stuck in the revolving door of temporary jobs, retraining course, unemployment. Moreover two –thirds placed in employment failed to hold down employment for more than 3 months. The end result after £75billion is that more are unemployed in 2011 than in 1997.
• Alongside this are the social costs of the above situation which are simply ignored:
o In 2009, 29% of men aged 20-34 were living with their parents, as were 18% of women. This damages relationships, A report by Shelter “The Human Cost” (2010) found that 58% of 18-34 year-old people living with their parents find it difficult to hold down a relationship. 2.8 million people aged 18 to 44 admit they’re delaying having children
o Research (2009) from University of London found that stay-at-home sons are more violent than those who move out.
o In 1990 51% of home owners were under 34. In 2010 its only 29%. Its not just that homes have got more expensive, its just that they have become disproportionately expensive.If food costs had gone up like houses then a jar of coffee would cost 20.22
o Not only are houses more expensive they are simply not being built. In 1968 425,000 homes were built. In 2008 just 182,700. Moreover builders have been building for speculators not residents.In the past 6 years 6647,000 homes have been for buy to let investors.

As Richard Sennett asks “how can long term purposes be pursued in a short –term society? How can a human being develop a narrative of identity and life history in a society composed of episodes and fragments?(1998-Corrosion of Character: the personnel consequences of work in new capitalism).

The second big difference is that the riots and the current wider protests are calls for social, economic, environmental and political justice .That is to say that the citizen protests we are seeing , stem from a desire/recognition that we need to make major changes in the way we do things as well as how we do them. A desire that sees the political and economic model that has run things for the past 40 years(if not longer) as broken. In a recent publication: “Jilted Generation: how Britain has bankrupted its youth” , Ed Howker and Shiv Malik argue that “recent generations seemed to forget completely that the future exists, selling off the legacies of even earlier generations for profit now, and selling off our futures for a fast buck to feed the demands of yesterday”.The impact of the crash has highlighted how valid their assertion is. Consider the following post crash elements:
• The “gilded generation” has built up an overdraft of £ 890billion (€900billion). In 2011, the cost of servicing just the interest of this debt will be £ 48 billion. It will be paid off in 2046,.just when those born in 1980 will be coming up to retirement.
• Private pension schemes have shortfall of £200bn. Public pensions are in an even worse state. The Government Actuarial Department estimates that the unfunded part of UK pension liabilities now equals £2.2 trillion.
• Demographic ageing will also create new fiancial pressures for health and care services.People are living longer and whilst some live longer in a healthy state , a lot live lost longer in a permanently unhealthy state. Almost half the entire NHS budget is spent on pensioners. What it means is the costs of the NHS will rise from 5% in 1990 to nearly 10% of GDP in 2040.
• PFI is also a system that is not only bad value for money but has heaped costs onto future generations. PFI’s between 19997 and 2010 amounted to £56Bn. However, the cost of these PFI’s will infact be £267Bn-60% of which is just to service the debt. Moreover, 214bn is due after 2011. Not only that, when we have paid for all the hospitals and surgeries built with PFI we will have an infrastructure worth just £11.2bn but we will have paid £63bn.
• The PFI liabilities do not in fact show on the government‘s balance sheet. If they did then the total value of our debt is nearly 510% of GDP, worse than Greece.
• PFI also has what is called a “shadow cost”. When Britain has to pay back money, government takes taxes from your income and as result that money stops going back into the productive part of the economy. So when debt equals 60% of GDP, it depresses the nations stock of income-producing assets by about 30%
The baby boomers (the gilded generation) will leave an average debt for future generations equal to £33,000 per head, and this total was calculated in 2005, two years before the crash.

The protests link this reality to the fact that the debts accumulated by the gilded generation have been due to imprudent policies and unrestrained capitalism(greed, political arrogance and corruption, growing inequality). Consider the latest ‘World Wealth report’ which shows that the wealth of the 10,9 million world’s ‘high net worth individuals’ grew 9,7 % in 2010 and now reaches 42,7 trillion US$. This now surpasses the 2007 pre-crisis peak. The global population of HNWIs grew 8,3 %.Europe’s HNWI wealth totaled 10,2 trillion US$ after growing 7,2 % in 2010. Austerity? North American HNWI wealth hit 11,6 trillion US$ in 2010, up 9,1 %. Crisis? Ultra-HNWIs – the super rich – posted slightly stronger-than-average gains in their numbers and wealth. Ultra-HNWIs accounted for 36,1 % of global HNWI wealth.
Meanwhile, a ‘social investment pact’ is proposed to European member states in which social policies are entirely subordinated to the economy, with a risk that only ‘investments’ in the ‘human capital’ of ‘young talents’ will seem to be relevant.

The third big difference is that they have been co-created with new media. As the ex director of Aljazeera rightly said, all democrats “should thank god for the invention of putting a camera in mobile phones”. So for example activists in Tottenham about the recent unlawful killing of Mark Duggan have posted a video that tells it like it was, rather than the “prefabricated” and predictable analysis that surfaced in mainstream media and also in “left” and “right” political statements and debates. In the age of social media mobilisation, the makers were actually able to put together live footage of the events never seen or never acknowledged and which raise important questions about the conduct of the police and also begin the explain the socio-economic and political roots of the riots that ensued.

New media has also provided a plurality of ways that people can take part in the “protest”…even as passive observers simply seeking to make sense of what is happening. Here I believe there is latent majority which, if mobilised in terms of simply voting could prove crucial in triggering the great leap forward we need.
We need a different way of doing business, and housing, and debt, and most importantly of all , of doing politics. Politics has become a career rather than a service.The long march to democracy wasn’t founded on the individual, or on a desire to destroy government, but increasing the accountability of the decisions made on our behalf.

The spread of a philosophy of individualism and self –expression has completely reshaped Britain’s politics. We have a dogma that citizens should be treated like individual consumers by government. It’s a dogma that applies the mechanisms of the free market for the purchase of consumer goods to public services such as health, education, local government, housing etc.

We have been sold the idea of “small government” as it that is good thing. Infact what we have got a more centralised and more powerful “political class”. This new establishment is made up of politicians, their advisors, lobbyists and journalists, key rich people, including senior bankers, hedge fund owners.Their relationships cut across party lines and political fences and are entrenched and familial as any medieval court.
The fact that the “political class” is stacked with middle and upper middle class people helps to explain why there are double standards at work. Take for example how the issue of welfare fraud is presented as huge problem . Sure it costs the Treasury some £1billion per year BUT around £70 billion is lost through tax evasion per year and we hear nothing about this and nor is any action taken to plug this loophole.

As such , the citzens protests we are seeing could be the pre-cursors of bigger and deeper desire for saying “enough is enough”. Here, the above characteristics become crucial.
It means making connections that are inclusive, creating and sustaining a dialogue that is paced and not rushed , a process that empowers citizens as citizens, that is say to uphold values of accountability, transparency, social and environmental justice.We need to re-establish values that centre on People, Planet ….(and if then possible)..Profit.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Green Party Autumn Conference: Some reflections

This years autumn conference was in Sheffield , UK’s fifth largest city and where there were no riots. Sheffield is one of those places that exemplify the kind of “voodoo “regeneration that has taken place in so many parts of the UK. What I means is that huge improvements have been made to the centre and the place has nice squares, water features, coffee bars , bistro’s etc. However, such regeneration has not really trickled down in the way that the expenditure and plans promised. Instead too much of it has trickled out or simply up..that is benefiting those already with, rather than those without.
Unemployment levels here have been historically high for the past decade and more..indeed its almost as full employment has become a structurally impossible goal. Unemployment in 2010 was just over 8% but youth unemployment was much higher. Infact the local green party fought its recent campaign on this issue.

The venue was Hallam University and when I arrived there was an underwhelming lack of visibility that our conference was taking place..still I eventually got to find registration and then queued for 30 minutes to be registered.

Caroline’s message was as always well delivered. The political thrust was that we were the party of principle. Its clear that the tactical thinking is to focus on principles in order to expose the Lib Dems. Indeed she spent a great part of her intervention attacking the Lib Dems ..there was fantastic line when she described Nick Clegg as the Minister for meeting angry people and being shouted at.
The problem is how to ensure that all the buttons are pressed when you are addressing such a broad church as the green party. I fear that our message may be just too all encompassing. For example she spoke about “unrestrained capitalism” being the cause. This is a really important issue but somehow it just got lost in a whole list of issues from NHS, nuclear power, biodiversity, sustainable development, green new deal etc. I think we are missing an opportunity. We need to be focusing on how we have a dysfunctional form of capitalism that has been determining economic policy for at least the last 40 years.
• We need to be making a connection between how this dysfunctional form of capitalism has created a model of growth that has bypassed the least advantaged and rewarded the wealthy. We have 10 million who earn less than £15,000 per year. 2 million children live in low income families. On the other hand , the power and influence of the 7% of the school population in private schools has grown. 55% of top journalists; 70% of financial directors; 45% of top civil servants. This is a capitalist model that will ensure that the next generation of professional men and women will have been educated in ever richer families.
• How this model has created huge and unfair inequalities. How the pay differential between the pay of company bosses /bankers etc has mushroomed from a ratio of 47:1 to 81:1 in the past 8 years.
• How this model has created bad health and poor well being.
• How this model has trashed and is trashing our planet. The worlds biggest corporations inflict over $2.2 trillion of environmental damage per year. This takes the form of pollution, loss of freshwater, destruction of fisheries and fertile soil.
• How this model has killed off social mobility.
• How it has created a “gambling and extravagant “culture. The growth of the financial sector reflects this graphically. By 2008 over $800 trillion of financial derivatives were being traded globally. That is a staggering 12 times greater than global GDP.
• How it has resulted in the doubling of household debt in the last 12 years. Average household debt in the UK now stands at 160% of personal income.
• How it has created a dysfunctional and rotten party political system which has created an unhealthy “revolving “door of people and money between corporations and government. For example the Tories have received over £3m from property developers and therefore its no surprise that the Tory party is relaxing planning restrictions on green space
• These immoral and corrupt corporate relationships, account for why we are picking up the tab for their greed. We have seen a “communism for the rich” as Will Hutton has said.$14 trillion was spent globally in supporting bankers and financial institutions who made huge profits on the back of the financial alchemy they produced but somehow profits remain private gain while private losses become socialised.

We also need to be highlighting the fact that the dominant model will cause an even bigger crash unless we undertake some fundamental changes. This is not about creating alarm its about waking up people. Andrew Haldane, executive Director, Bank of England, no less has written about a “doom loop”.£530 billion of corporate debt has to be re-financed by 2015. There will be no new money for business investment or innovation.

Its also about challenging the dominant “left” and “right” perspectives. Whether we like it or not, outcomes cannot be solely explained by impersonal economic and social forces. There has to be some acknowledgment of individual responsibility for actions and consequences.

The tensions within the party were graphically exposed during the debate on the immigration cap. There was a motion which to all extents was an “open borders” position. However, this it was argued by Caroline was going to far and what would create a problem for the party.Here was the classic dilemma, principle or message as the key issue. Those proposing the motion were simply establishing or re-establishing the principle of open borders. Those opposing , were at pains to state that they were for the principle BUT not in favour of what it would mean in terms of political fallout.

What the discussion highlighted was the need for the party to have a clear narrative about immigration. Yes it may cost us votes BUT if we are about principles then on this issue we have facts on our side as well. We should be highlighting how demographic ageing means a growing need to attract more migrants. We should be highlighting the huge contribution that migrants make. The issue that has not been debated is what kind and level of entitlements can migrants get. This is the issue that allows the whole debate to be skewed –there is a sense in which people feel that those who have not financially contributed to welfare provision should be able to get the same as those who have not. In the post EU enlargement period this issue becomes even more relevant given the rights that intra EU migrants have. We need to grasp this nettle.

The party remains organisationally challenged. The venue chosen meant that delegates had to move from level 2 to level 10 in order to attend any of the group sessions. Inevitably this meant crowds waiting for lifts and further more, the rooms for the group session were just inadequate in terms of size, number of chairs. Having eventually climbed the eight flights by the staircase, I arrived to find that the session I wanted to attend was in a room suitable for at best 25, and in which there were already 50. It’s impossible to work effectively in such conditions. There needs to be some kind of signing up process so that you can allocate the bigger rooms to the sessions that generate most interest.
One of the key plenary sessions was focused on inequality. Richard Wilkinson(co-author of the excellent book “The spirit level”), Danny Dorling(author of “Injustice: why social inequality exists”) and John McNally(PCS) were the speakers.
It was an interesting sandwich they made. The facts and trends were provided by Richard and Danny. It is incontrovertible that more equal societies are better places, people are healthier, they generate a smaller C02 footprint, they recycle more, they give more etc. Yet despite these clear benefits we are an increasingly unequal society. Consumerism is in part to blame as it has created a what I have is what I am culture. It has created debt.
Growing income differentials highlight the rise in inequality.90% of people have an average income of £17,000 per year currently. In 1970 the same 90% had an average income of just £11,400. These are inflation adjusted figures.
9% of people have an average income of £50,000 per year. In 1970 this was £20,000.
1%(minus the top 1000) have an average income of £155,000. In 1970 it was £55,000.
The top 1000 have an average income of £780,000. In 1970 this was £100,000.
The crash has made things even worse. Whilst 99.99% have suffered a loss as a result of the crash, The top 1000 have benefitted to the tune of £69 million each. We have created a society in which the richest 1% have 50% of all the available money that is available for lending.
The so called “austerity” measures will in fact make this situation even worse.
John McNally’s solution was “socialism”, which I somehow do not think will secure electoral support. Richard Wilkinson, spoke about the need for the greens to develop a picture of the other words some kind of vision.
It seems to me that we should simply be promoting the need to restore differentials of income to their 1970 levels. This is something very concrete and understandable, especially if we also promote active economic citizenship. I do not believe that there is a demand for some kind of flat earth egalitarianism, but there is sense of injustice and unfairness and that is what we need to capture. Greater equality is a pre-condition for a steady state economy. The problem we face is neatly encapsulated by Murray Bookchin in his observation that “Capitalism can no more be persuaded to limit growth than a human being can be persuaded to stop breathing.”
We need a new political system in order to meet this challenge. We need to question the primacy of economic growth as an objective. This primacy impacts on all elements of policy. Environmental policies are fine as long as they do not impede growth. Education policy is just about human capital for the “new economy”. Transportation policy is all about the rapid movement of goods. Immigration policy is about attracting educated and wealthy people. Support for the arts is conditional on the economic contribution generated.
It seems that there is very little chance that people will voluntarily forgo opportunities for higher standards of living. Most of us accept the economic system as we find it. We have to generate a debate about what kind of growth we should aim at. The need for this is even more pressing given the scale and complexity of the environmental problems we face.

One response to all this has been the launch of a think tank called “The Green House”. This is fronted by what seems to be the Green party “establishment”. The presenters were Rupert Read, Molly Scott Cato, Brain Healey and Andrew Dobson. The new think tank seeks to undertake a “deep reframing “of issues facing us. Apparently the GP has the highest level of human capital in its membership and the think tank seeks to capitalise on this issue. Sadly there does not seem to be any mechanism for wider involvement and several delegates expressed concerns about it being an elitist group.It is also heavily male dominated and Molly Scott Cato gave , what to me was a slightly dubious analysis as to why this was the case. Her view is simply that women do not like taking on such roles which require “stage presence”.I fear she is out of touch with reality on this point. The think tank also released its first two “deep reframing” reports which didn’t light any new fires and infact just seem to reflect ongoing work, or even previous work repackaged. I cannot see how these reports will impact in terms of wider media discourse. The last thing on this issue that was also a bit strange was that the presenters were at pains to point out that they were NOT a green party think tank and yet their base is largely in the green party.

Nuclear power in the post Fukushima context was the subject of a panel discussion. I find it strange that we are already taking “post” Fukushima when infact its simply not over. Its ongoing and as we now know it was more serious than Chernobyl and 25 years on we know that that is still an ongoing drama. Fukuhima has already released more than 168 times more radiation than the atomic bomb in Hiroshima.
This is an issue that divides the green party. Caroline is against nuclear power and yet there are many within the party who argue that we have no choice but to continue our dependence on nuclear power. Climate change priorities require us to continue with nuclear power. However, even this argument is suspect. Projections show that even if we double our capacity for nuclear power, then this will only reduce CO2 emissions by 8%.

In a sense Japan and Germany are going to be the real testing beds for post nuclear power scenarios. Germany has now resolved to stop its power station by 2022. We therefore have a live experiment on our door step as to whether investment in renewables will be sufficient and quick enough to make good the shortfall of energy that nuclear power provides. Already there are indications that the Germans , whilst stopping nuclear power production will in fact be investing in the construction of power stations in Czech republic and Poland. On the positive side , since the german government announced its decision, the value of shares in renewables has gone up which means that there could be a step up in investment.

More worrying for me are the ongoing information deficits and mis- information generated by governments, regulators, power companies and sadly also academics who are in the pay of powerful lobbies. I really do not believe that any government has come clean about the effects of low level radiation or the real costs and problems of safe storage of what is about three Albert halls of toxic waste we have created in the UK.

Furthermore, underlying this issue is also the fact that we are in fact entering a unique period in our history. We are for the first time facing a permanent decline in the supply of the dominant fuel(oil). Previous transitions from wood to coal and coal to oil were not brought about by global exhaustion , but by lower prices and better qualities of new fuels.
It may well be that we will see a transition back to coal and again this then begs the question as to whether this is better than nuclear power ?

Care for the Elderly was the subject of another panel I attended. The picture is clear, we are getting older and living longer. There were some really moving stories from delegates who were or had been carers for elderly parents. The reality is that quality of care services for the elderly are at best “patchy”. Its not a simple public provision good , private provision bad scenario.There is need to support third sector care services and above all there is desperate need to re-evaluate the value and wealth(in social good) generated by care workers.Alongside this the care profession(s) are themselves heavily staffed by older people so there is a need to attract young people into these sectors and that will require a higher value being accorded to this work. The thing that also emerged , is that whilst we know that we will become an older population there is a dearth of real, forecasting as to what this mean in specific areas. Planning is thus piecemeal and doesn’t treat older people within amore holistic perspective that sets care needs alongside older people and work, re-training , volunteering etc. The so called silver economy will play an increasingly important part as the baby boomers retire between now and 2019.

I ran a fringe event on a new tool that the EU has created to stimulate participatory democracy. This is called the European Citizens Initiative(ECI). From April 2012, it will be possible for a group of 7 citizens from 7 member states to launch an ECI. The goal here is to enable citizens to propose legislative change to matters that fall under the powers of the EC.1 million signatures will need to be collected in 12 months and the these signatures will have to be validated by each of the member states in which signatures have been collected. These signatures can be collected online but there are specific minimum nulbers required from each member state. So for the UK you have to have a minimum of 54,000 signatures.
It is potentially an empowering tool that could stimulate participatory democracy..which Europe desperately needs given the lack involvement in EU decision making.However, there are some aspects that could end up making the process only accessible to already well established groups and interests. Firstly, in 18 of the 27 member states people will have to be willing to give their identity card numbers. This could prove difficult. Secondly, the cost. Doing an ECI will require resources. One group that has undertaken a dry run has said that it cost more than €750,000. If this is real then it will be only resource rich organisations that could launch an ECI .
Nevertheless, the ECI could be useful to get issues onto the agenda. Already there is interest in doing one on “No more Nuclear power”. This could be something which Greens at an EU level could successfully exploit.

On the last day, I found myself with a group of delegates who were taking about what they had found most significant about the conference. I suddenly realised that they had been at another Conference. What I mean is that they had participated solely in the sessions relating to policy and organisational levels. The key issue for this group had been the debate about moving to a delegate conference . In the end the issue was kicked into touch until we have 25,000 members. If membership continues in the way that is currently taking palace then we should hit that threshold within 18 months…judging by the heated discussion I heard, then will be hot issue for the Spring Conference.

Haroon Saad
Waltham Forest and Redbridge

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The lights were definitely on but there was no one home: Brussels Economic Forum

One of the songs I have been listening to on and off this year is an oldie by Donovan, called “The season of the witch”. It’s a great number but it also echoed with some of my thinking. It is as we are in the season of “witchcraft”, in fact we are in the season of a lot of “bad witchcraft”. There is a kind of bewitched charade being played out on issues that are at the root of why we are living in an “age of crisis”.
I say bewitched, because everywhere there is in fact a healthy assessment of the shit we are in, BUT reaction/response/struggle are somewhat muted.
Take the big crash, that’s what we’ve had, its not just another “crises” as our leaders would have us believe , what we have had is a crash that leaves the model fundamentally broken, even on its own terms. No amount of patch work remedial repair work will put it back together again. A lot of people know this and yet we buy the policy of our respective governments. We are in effect “bewitched” into accepting solutions that will impact badly on our own children as well as ourselves. At EU level we have the EU 2020 strategy as our guiding light when its predecessor the “Lisbon strategy” so spectacularly failed. We are accepting coca cola light when in actual fact its not coca cola we need.

Recently,I went along to the Brussels Economic Forum which according to its publicity "offers a unique opportunity to discuss the new era of EU economic governance. High level decision-makers, economists, social partners and the media will gather at the Forum on 18 May to debate and exchange ideas".
High level decision makers were clearly present so too were some economists and people from trade unions and business (this is what social partners means in eurospeak).The majority of participants (based on the participants list provided to delegates ) were from EU institutions and from within the Brussels “bubble”.

What this meant is that there was no debate or even exchange of ideas. It was largely about information sharing. There were no disagreements between presenters and indeed there was kind of “gentleman’s” agreement (and yes they were overwhelmingly men speaking) that all was well, the EU economy was recovering from the crisis. Steps were being taken (like Basel 3 and the Stabilisation fund) which would ensure that we would not be faced again with such a crash. Indeed what really struck me was the way in which those who had not seen the crash coming were so enthusiastically talking about how they had dealt with the crisis and thus created a “blue print” for future bureaucrats faced with a similar problem. These were your DIY guys talking about how there was no procedure that could have followed when the “shit hit the fan”. They had to create new procedures. The crash was thus a challenge in that there was no road map for dealing with it.

The real irony is that their DIY solutions simply focused on better regulation of the financial sector. While the crises initially appeared in the financial sector, the origins of the problem are much deeper and cannot be addressed simply by repairing the “plumbing” of the financial sector.
NO mention of the underlying problem of income inequalities. It is now widely recognized that in most advanced industrial countries, median wages stagnated during the last 30 years, while income inequalities surged in favour of the top 10% and indeed 1%. In effect money was transferred from those who would have spent to meet basic needs to those who had far more than they could easily spend, thus weakening aggregate effective demand. We know how this played out. The negative impact of stagnant real incomes and rising income inequality on aggregate demand was largely offset by “financial innovation” and cheap credit that allowed households to increase consumption by borrowing.
On the other hand, the search for yield by the higher income classes to invest their increased incomes supported the formation of non sustainable asset bubbles.

NO mention that there have been policy failures at both the micro- and macro- economic levels. Loose monetary policy, inadequate regulation and lax supervison interacted to create financial instability. “Reforms” over the last three decades have infact exposed countries to greater instability and reduced the impact of “automatic” stabilizers.

NO mention about the lack of “accountability”. Its like as if the house got trashed but we are not going to discuss who trashed it. Not only that, we are going pay for the house to be fixed whilst the perpetrators will get our support in helping themselves to trash the house again. Not one voice which asked why have we socialised private losses. Why are young people and those less well off being asked to pick up the price of a rich peoples party that got out of hand.

NO mention of the fact that in the post crash context, the financial sector is even more concentrated, the problems of “too big to fail “ have actually increased.

No discussion about how in the post crash context global imbalances remain unabated.Indeed the current receipe is the same as the old one..growth through increased consumption…though ,now we simply want the Chinese to consume more.This is simply crazy. You cannot cure obesity by consuming more. We will not prevent another crash by simply encouraging countries to consume like us . Our plant cannot simply sustain a global lifestyle based on our patterns of consumption.

NO mention that the crash exposed the underlying problem with the free market model that has driven and is driving economic policy. Take the example of Iceland, the deregulation of the banks and the unleashing of a free market regime tore apart a country that had been performing well . The bank meltdown was directly linked to the free market model that was introduced in the 1990’s. Take Ireland. This too has faced a crisis largely because it followed the standard free market orthodoxy: unfettered markets led to a bloated financial sector which put at risk the entire economy; while politicians boasted of the growth (the benefits of which were not uniformly shared) they took little note of the risks to which they were exposing the economy. The core lesson of Ireland’s experience – and that of the US – is that we cannot rely on unfettered markets or self-regulation. Joseph Stiglitz has called this system” ‘ersatz capitalism’, the essential ingredient of which is the socialisation of losses and the privatisation of gains. This ersatz capitalism is closely related to the corporate capitalism that flourished under Bush and Reagan. In some cases, who pays for these gifts to corporations is not so transparent: in the end, of course, it is ordinary citizens, whether as taxpayers or consumers who pay, but often in ways that are not easy to detect, for example, through tax expenditure or through higher prices on the goods they purchase.
NO mention that the belief that light touch regulation, limited government, low taxes, labour market deregulation and weak labour market institutions are all necessary ingredients of economic success has proved to be a recipe for volatility, excessive risk taking, growing income inequality and, in some countries, the rise of precarious employment. While the richest in many parts of the OECD saw their relative position improve – sometimes dramatically – the poorest saw their relative position deteriorate. The OECD itself documented the rise in inequality in its landmark publication Growing Unequal in 2008 (OECD 2008).

NO Mention also that it is NOT true that the policies that we might usefully label as “market fundamentalist” ,led to better economic performance before the crisis broke.This troublesome fact was recognised by the OECD in their reassessment of the 1994 Jobs Study, published under the title Boosting Jobs and Incomes in 2006 (OECD 2006). It was accepted that two groups of countries had achieved ‘good results’ (defined as a high employment rate, moderate inflation and apparently robust growth): those pursuing ‘market reliant’ policies, such as the US and the UK, and those pursuing policies with higher taxes, stronger employment protection legislation, more generous unemployment benefits and much higher investment in active labour market programmes (including Austria, the Nordic countries and the Netherlands).

As I have written elsewhere, we are in grip of the “Positive Illusion Front”(PIF).

This is the loose and not so loose (interlocking) coalition of willing interests who are all in some way implicated in the “crime of the century” though which we have all been collectively robbed by the very people who we “trust” to ensure that our human rights are preserved.The message of the PIF is simply this “we’ve had a rough time, we have to put our house in order, it means sacrifices for all, it means we must get more competitive (reduce pay and conditions of employment and increase dividends for shareholders), we have to grow through innovation and stimulating consumption , we have to pull together”. The PIF infact seeks to depoliticize reality and just present it a requiring a technical fix. AS such the PIF embodies the idea of “end of history/end of ideology”. Whilst it may be true to say that an ideological distinction based on “left” and “right” party political configurations is in fact redundant, what patently is not true is that the debate about “good” and “bad” capitalism has even really started, except in our public squares not inside gathering such as the BEF.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Smart Specialisation: a new insight or just more policy blah blah.

Regions for Economic Change is a “programme” launched some 4 years ago which has its annual high point each year in the form of a conference and doling out of some trophies to good practice .Since its initiation, the world has changed but the REC event remains the same the only difference being is that when it was launched it was focused on the (now failed) Lisbon strategy, whereas today it is focused on EU2020( which has yet to fail).

So naturally the focus this year was on one of the 3 key pillars of EU2020, namely “smart growth”. Indeed its obligatory these days inside the Brussels bubble to prefix everything with the adjective “smart”. So we have now got smart cities, smart growth and now smart specialisation to go along with the smart and not so smart people inside the Brussels bubble.

Dirk Ahner, who I like very much, hit the nail on the head when he highlighted that the use of “smart” meant that we also needed to define what “stupid” meant. I suspect in the nature of such discussions it will end up being “scales “of smartness. Smart level 1(another way to say dumb) to Smart level 5.

Smart specialisation (SS) is the new “bullet” in regional policy. But what is it? Professor Foray, who is credited as one of the academics who have “fast tracked” this new concept from the lecture hall and academic journals into the core of Cohesion policy, tried to spell out why we need SS and what were its key ingredients .
Here is what he said. We need SS because regions cannot do everything, they have to concentrate their resources by developing distinctive and specific specialisations and in so doing, avoid regional competition.
The key ingredients he said are:
• Entrepreneurial discovery
• Supportive regional policy
• Decentralised market development
• Emulation/multiplication possibilities

So in a nut shell, its about finding a market niche by specialising in something that already goes on and that through a process of transition can become something that creates SS.

Having done the why and the what, the professor naturally had to deal with the how. Here’s where the concept became somewhat problematic. Here is the recipe for creating an SS.

First establish an “entrepreneurial process of discovery”. This means establishing a “learning process to discover the research and innovation domains in which a region can hope to excel. In this learning process, entrepreneurial actors are likely to play leading roles in discovering promising areas of future specialisation, not least because the needed adaptations to local skills, materials, environmental conditions, and market access conditions are unlikely to be able to draw on codified, publicly shared knowledge, and instead will entail
gathering localized information and the formation of social capital assets.”
The problem is that the recipe is silent on how you would undertake this step, apart from the fact that participation by entrepreneurs would need to be incentivised. Infact the professor acknowledges that this poses a “public policy problem.”

Second,( and here I am now drawing on the professors briefing paper quoted above as in his presentation he glossed over this step) use “specific properties of General Purpose Technologies (GPTs) ..(to)..define aframework that helps to clarify the logic of Smart Specialisation (SS).”

You can easily find a GPT because ,”in fact, the characteristics of a GPT are horizontal propagation throughout the economy and complementarity between invention and application development. Expressed in the words of an economist, invention of a GPT extends the frontier of invention possibilities for the whole economy, while application development changes the production function of a particular sector.”

Third, create a grouping of leader regions and follower regions. The “leader region(s)” will have to “invest in the invention of a General Purpose technology (GPT) or the combination of different GPTs , follower regions often are better advised to invest in the « coinvention of applications » - that is – the development of the applications of a GPT in one or several important domains of the regional economy.

Fourth and finally, you need lots of government to do the following:

• “Supplying incentives to encourage entrepreneurs and other organizations (higher education, research laboratories) to become involved in the discovery of the regions’ respective specialisations.
• Evaluating and assessing effectiveness so that the support of a particular line of capability formation will not be discontinued too soon, nor continued so long that subsidies are wasted on otherwise non-viable enterprises.
• Identifying complementary investments associated with the emerging specialisations (educational and training institutions, for example) in the case of a region investing in the co-invention of applications of a General Purpose Technology (GPT). Supporting the provision of adequate supply-responses (in human capital formation) to the new “knowledge needs” of traditional industries that are starting to adapt and apply the GPT, by subsidizing the follower region’s access to problem-solving expertise from researchers in the leader region, and by attending to the development of a local personnel that can sustain the incremental improvement, as well as the maintenance of specialised application technologies in the region.”

In discussion with other delegates at the coffee break, it became clear that I was not the only one to be left about confused by what exactly is SS? What make it different from what “smart” entrepreneurs already do? How can you create this entrepreneurial discovery process? What about would be entrepreneurs? What makes it different from existing “smart” strategies? How transferable is it to the real policy context? How viable is it?

These questions , I thought would emerge in the post coffee session. Indeed, John Bensted-Smith, Director IPTS, asked some key questions to an assembled panel: Given financial retrenchment is SS viable? Can all regions engage in SS? He also added some additional requirements for SS. In particular the need for finance, an integrated approach, recognition of local strengths and weaknesses and using the phrase from Schumpeter, the need for “creative destruction”.

Unfortunately the panel that responded to these questions simply were not able to add anything more substantial. Indeed, some of the contributions were just vacuous. I must quote here the rapporteur for Innovation Europe from the EP who said “competition is good, finding each other is better”. She must be a facebook fan to come out with such banality . More significantly, though, one of the other two politicians on the panel highlighted the problem of “timescale”. How can you realise the SS recipe within a political short term cycle? No one answered that point.
In addition the politician from PACA, like most of us, had failed to understand what the hell SS is as he equated the 29 clusters that have been regionally created as SS’s. The bad news is an SS is not a cluster as the professor was at pains to state. Clusters are in fact “bureaucratically”driven forms of specialisation and co-operation. They do not have the SS “umph” which is all in the iterative process of top down and bottom up.

I left still wholly unclear about SS. Indeed, I left with a view that SS is best left as an academic tool and not one that can be transferred into the policy domain in the way envisaged. The world as envisaged from the SS perspective does not correspond to the reality of the economic and political crisis that we are in the grip of. Moreover, SS has a purely, functionalist approach to growth. SS offers simply a technological fix , when its not the technology we lack its actually an appropriate model for economic growth in a post crash Europe that is facing multiple challenges which requires a different value base to the way we do economics. Smart growth cannot simply be about economic development. We have had not so smart growth for the last 30 years , for SS to work we have to change the way we do politics and pursue economic development that reduces the huge inequalities that EU2020 is creating and Lisbon and its predecessors have created.