One and a half MPs back Lembit Opik for Mayor

Lembit Opik says he’s standing for Mayor of London because “one or two fairly senior Lib Dem MPs in London” have encouraged him to do so.  Really?

First of all, is it one or two?  Surely he knows the difference between being told to stand by one person and being told to stand by two.  (Or maybe one of them was Sarah Teather, who’s so short she only counts as a half.)

However many there were, who fits into this category of ‘fairly senior’?  There are only seven Lib Dem MPs in London, so it shouldn’t be hard to narrow down.

Paul Burstow in Minister of State at Health. That has to give him a high level of seniority, although rumours are he only got the job because Andrew Lansley doesn’t like Norman Lamb.  An early contender.

Tom Brake has hopped around the Lib Dem front bench for the past 13 years (who hasn’t?), without getting anything big.  Described the Home Affairs committee as “prestigious” after being appointed to it.  Should be too junior to meet Opik’s criteria.

Vince Cable walked on water for the Lib Dems, before selling out by agreeing to run a department he thought should be abolished, and changing his mind overnight about cutting the deficit.  But still, as senior as they come – the big surprise would be if he actually knows who Opik is.  Definitely not.

Ed Davey has been a Lib Dem big hitter for the past decade, including posts as shadown foreign and education secretaries and Menzies Campbell’s Chief of Staff.  His ministerial post might seem a bit lowly given his policy guru status over recent years (he was once considered the Lib Dem’s Letwin, until the coalition agreement when Lib Dem policy began to be devised by, well, Letwin).  He is a mere under secretary of state under Cable at Business, Innovation and Skills – but remains a player.  Another possible.

Lynne Featherstone has made a name for herself over and above the portfolios she’s held – the highest of which being shadow international development for a brief period – but not always for the most flattering of reasons.  Did it again when appointed Equalities Minister at the Home Office, a job Theresa May already had.  Well-known enough to fit the bill, especially given Opik’s obvious respect for the size of a person’s media profile.

Simon Hughes has just become Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems.  That may not earn him a place in the history books but I’ll bet he’d be annoyed if he was the one described as just ‘fairly’ senior.  Very unlikely.

Sarah Teather is Minister of State at Education.  Has had a very high profile ever since being elected as the youngest MP in 2003, and is a leading light for the Lib Dems.  Despite her size definitely deserves the decription ‘senior’.  May be a bit too shrewd to get herself associated with Opik, but could meet the criteria.
So who is it?  Only Cable and Hughes can be ruled out.  Tom Brake shouldn’t be called fairly senior, but Lembit Opik is an ex-MP – they’re all senior now compared to him.  Plus, Brake is the only one without a job and therefore has the time to chatting to Opik about his career prospects.  Just think about Opik’s phrasing – what is ‘fairly’ senior?  It means you want to say senior, but you know it’s not true.  So I reckon Brake’s the “one” in the “one or two”.

But who’s the “two”?  If there is a two, it’s clearly not someone who’s called Opik one night to congratulate him on his latest comedy gig and to tell him to stand (“If you want to make people laugh, Lembit…”).  There’s too much vagueness in that “one or two” for it to have been as straightforward and open as that. 

More likely it’s an offhand comment overheard somewhere.  Teather and Davey seem too guarded to do that – and who knows, if the coalition goes pear-shaped either of them could fancy a run at the Mayoralty themselves.  So it’s a toss-up between Burstow or Featherstone – either way, Opik’s “fairly senior” London Lib Dem MPs would actually turn out to be some of the least senior London Lib Dem MPs.

And the point of all this?  I just hate the phoniness of the idea that Opik is being urged to stand by others.  Why not just admit his own ambitions and, dare say it, self-belief that he might be a better Mayor than Boris or Ken?  Instead he maintains a pretence that the decision is down to a tiny group of just seven people  – and even in this world’s smallest opinion poll he has the support of only 14-28%.

Fake plastic ‘up and coming’ band

I pretty much gave up on Radiohead when I heard Thom Yorke utter the words, “we’re all born into a carbon lifestyle”.  When you start repeating things you’ve overheard baby Apple say at a Chris Martin-Gwyneth Paltrow dinner party, you know your time as a cutting edge indie rock star has come to an end.

But that hasn’t stopped Radiohead from continuing to try to recapture lost youth, and at this weekend’s Glastonbury festival we saw another example of self-denial.  First, to go back a few years, Radiohead released their 2007 album In Rainbows for free over the internet, allowing downloaders to pay whatever they wanted for it.  Now, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have turned up unexpectedly at Glastonbury to play a  set on the Park Stage.  The Park Stage is normally reserved for new, undiscovered bands (although clearly having got a gig at Glastonbury means you have been discovered already).

Both of these examples might be considered the actions of a radical, anti-establishment band, sticking up for the music fans against the corporate overlords.  Except it’s a crock.  When Radiohead released In Rainbows for free, for that week after the release they effectively screwed over every other struggling new band out there.  Music fans have a limit to the amount of new music they can listen to – probably one new album per week is the norm.  So if Radiohead – a band we all know and used to love – release an ablum for free one week, it took up the time and space that an album from a new band could have filled (whether paid for or not).  The fact that so many more people “bought” In Rainbows than preceding Radiohead albums proves the point. 

And now by playing the Park Stage they’ve done it again.  A slot on the Gastonbury that might have been filled by a small band desperate to have its music heard has gone to Radiohead.  And of course, Radiohead got plenty of publicity for doing it, just like they got huge coverage of the In Rainbows release.  Whatever counter-cultural ideals Thom Yorke has in his head when he does this stuff, sometime he has to consider than when there is no obvious distinction between “sticking it to the man” and “marketing gimmick”, you’re doing something wrong.

Revolution begins at home: the coalition’s localism agenda

“Localism, Localism, Localism” is the rallying cry, well rallying wisecrack, of the figure implementing the coalition’s new local government strategy and, my oh my, what a figure it is. If the coalition is a love-in threatening to turn sour, like a hastily arranged shotgun marriage, then Eric Pickles is the uncle noisily elbowing his way to the front of the buffet queue.

While Pickles doesn’t fit (or even fit in) the mould of the identikit, slim and Southern, public-school boys that dominate the coalition, that may be a distinct advantage.  A brusque, working class Northerner with solid Labour credentials from way back, with a background in the humdrum world of local politics (no hedge fund manager or PR consultant he) he’s been picked as the perfect Tory candidate to usher in this great local government revolution. And revolutionary fervour is nothing new to Eric who, as a school boy, could be found running round with Das Kapital under his arm and inciting his fellow classmates at Keighley Grammar to throw off their chains. Then one day it all changed: the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and Comrade Eric put away his little red book and joined the Conservative Party.

So what can we expect from this impending local government revolution? Are we to see Eric return to his revolutionary roots to let a thousand flowers of democratic devolution and citizen empowerment bloom? Or is he relishing the opportunity to finally achieve his dream of “destroying municipal socialism forever” and finally laying the ghost of dear old great granddaddy to rest.

What is clear is that the politics below the national level is going to experience a major reorganization with potentially far reaching consequences.

The architecture of Labour’s regional government experiment will be dismantled, with government offices and Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) both increasingly looking like they’ll be taking their place alongside regional assemblies and regional ministers in that great quango bonfire in the sky. Even if the northern RDA’s remain on a voluntary basis under St Nick of Halham’s protection, and ask the steel workers of Sheffield or nurses of Hartlepool how that’s worked out so far, their functions will be stripped with the focus firmly on promoting private sector growth, none of this reducing inequalities malarkey.

To fill the void left by demise of regional government, the Coalition has promised to reinvigorate local politics by: devolving greater power to local authorities, including greater control over local spending priorities; removing much of current central government inspection regime; and setting out hazy plans to give local communities a greater say in how services are delivered, including the right to “take over local state run services.” However, in the context of the most server public spending cuts in a generation how much freedom will councils actually have to shape a local, democratically driven agenda?

Already it is the treasury dominating the shape of local government reform, with £1.2 billion of the £6 billion in announced cuts coming from the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) budget, and the freeze on council tax increases for the next year undermines the talk of greater financial autonomy.

In practice it seems local councils will have the freedom to carry out the coalition program of cuts and the Big Society agenda of public service reform. However these two policies may not be easily sit together, as the Free School reforms; where local authorities will lose their ability to shape education policy in the interests of the community in the name of consumer choice, demonstrate.

The shape of DCLG cuts is also a worrying trend that belies Boy George’s “We’re all in this together” message. By raiding £446m from area-based grants, the funding targeted at areas with the highest levels of deprivation, the DCLG is placing a disproportionate burden on those communities least able to bear it.

These are the communities that were largely excluded from the benefits of the previous decade of economic growth, that have already been hit hardest by the recession, that already have the highest levels of poverty and highest rates of unemployment. They are the people and communities that need the greatest protection from the affects of cuts. But they are not protected. Instead, they are the most vulnerable. These areas, more likely to be Northern and Labour, areas where the Conservatives don’t have to worry about a middle-class backlash because funding for supported living has been cut, or unemployment continues to rise because the Working Neighbourhoods Fund is slashed.

This risks repeating the mistakes of the 1980’s, beginning another cycle of Cameron’s broken Britain, but still, it’s better that than telling Tory shires that they’ve got to reduce bin collections to twice a month, then Eric really would have a revolution on his hands.

Food industry sees red at traffic lights

In Brussels last week MEPs rejected the mandatory introduction of ‘traffic light’ labels on food and drinks. The red, amber and green colour codes would have indicated the relative amounts of salt, sugar, and fat on unhealthy products like ready meals and soft drinks, in order to help tackle dietary-related disease. The rejection was hard for some to take. Monique Goyens, Director General of the EU consumer group BEUC, said: ‘Despite being presented with a wealth of independent research confirming that the vast majority of consumers wanted the colour coding system, MEPs have mystifyingly voted against it.’  

Part of the mystery is revealed by the monumental lobbying campaign undertaken by the food and drink industry. The campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory reckon that the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU spent €1 billion opposing the traffic light system. One MEP from the UK, Struan Stevenson, even told the BBC how:  ‘The lobbyists have now penetrated the inner sanctum of the MEPs and they’re walking into our offices very often without any appointments at all. People are objecting to that and saying we should have more control about where lobbyists are allowed to go. But on this issue there are armies of them. I’ve never seen anything like it.’

Notwithstanding the army of lobbyists mobilised by the industry, a puzzle still remains over why the MEPs were ultimately convinced by its arguments. To shed light on this, we need to go back to the UK in the mid-2000s, when the traffic light system was first drawn up by a number of supermarkets. Endorsed by industry watchdog The Food Standards Agency, then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, even warned that the government would act strongly if the voluntary adoption of this system did not take off. Fearing the worst, food and drink manufacturers including Kraft, Danone, Kelloggs, Nestle and PepsiCo hurriedly launched their Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) label instead.

It was argued by these manufacturers that the traffic light system was not sophisticated enough and did not provide a good guide to a balanced diet. So for example, all chocolate bars would be branded red, suggesting that there was no place for sensible consumption of this product. This was termed ‘food profiling’ whereby colour alone would determine consumption. Their preference was to give more information to consumers, showing the amount the product contributed to a person’s recommended daily intake across a wider range of nutritional values. Evidence suggests that consumers take between 4 to 10 seconds making a decision about food products in supermarkets, factoring in not just health benefits but also price, quality, provenance and other factors besides. If ever a system rested on a conception of economic man – what Thorstein Veblen described as ‘a lightning calculator or pleasures and pains’ – this was surely it!

The reality was that the food and drink industry understood the power of impulse. For the same reason they promote vending machines and want their products to be the one on the checkout, industry was reluctant to adopt a system which offered an easier – albeit crude – means for consumers to decide what to buy. By contrast, the cacophony of information proffered by the GDA label generally left consumers confused or even dismissive of dietary concerns altogether. Nevertheless, with nutritional guidance addressed, the Blair government backed down on its threat. Fast forward to now and the situation remains much the same.

 A report issued this week by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence waded into the debate on food labelling and called for ‘progressive’ manufacturers and retailers to ignore the signals from Brussels and introduce the colour coded guidance.  The Food and Drink Federation responded by saying that NICE was ‘out of touch with what was happening’ noting that voluntary measures undertaken by the industry had already substantially brought down salt, sugar, and fat levels, as well as improving the quality of nutrition information available on packs. In short, this was no place for heavy-handed regulation.

Yet just as the reason the GDA label came in was to neutralise a more disruptive alternative, the reason that levels of unhealthy ingredients have been brought down was also shaped by the profit motive. The key difference was that in this case it was to open new markets rather than the protect existing ones. In a 2009 report entitled ‘Recipe for Change’, for example, the Food and Drink Federation noted that total sales of reformulated ‘healthy eating options’ were worth £8 billion in the UK alone, and in some areas were growing at twice the rate of the market as a whole.

Moreover, reformulated products were not only profitable in themselves, but, as demonstrated above, allow industry to present itself as addressing the health agenda. Again the reality is somewhat different. Coca-Cola’s introduction of sugar-free Coke Zero, for instance, has not taken consumers away from the core product but enlarged the market for soft drinks as a whole. In effect, companies don’t want consumers to see the healthy alternative to Coca-Cola as a piece of fruit, a drink of water, or maybe nothing at all, but rather a low-calorie (and nutritionally desolate) version of the original. Thus the paradox that the food manufacturers prey on is that more food choice often means less dietary change.

Fire up the Quattro! Women’s rights are going back to the 1980s

Let’s support the survivors before protecting the perpetrators.

Nick Clegg said in the Commons last week that the government was facing ‘difficult dilemmas’ over perhaps the most controversial part of the coalition agreement, granting anonymity to defendants in rape cases. This has been a Lib Dem policy since 2006. Only 1 in 20 rapes are reported. Only 5% of all rapes reported to the police lead to a conviction, more than half of the cases that make it to trial result in the suspect being found guilty. The odds are already in favour of the perpetrator, why must they be further advantaged?

Defendant anonymity existed briefly from 1976 until it was abandoned in 1988 following a series of deeply critical reports. It was brought in when rape within marriage was not a crime, when it was standard judicial practice to require a witness to corroborate the story; one woman’s testimony could not be believed. This was an era where the establishment was overwhelmingly male and largely sexist. It deterred complainants, undermined survivors and impeded justice. Resurrecting it will undo all the work of women’s lobbies, charities, and criminal justice agencies who have ardently encouraged more women to bring allegations to the police.

Police and barristers are not, for the most part, advocating anonymity. They know releasing a name has led to the successful prosecution of rapists such as John Worboys. Seventy women felt able to come forward and testify against him, securing a conviction. Even Cameron’s suggestion to limit anonymity to between charging the accused and the case starting would prevent other women contributing to the prosecution. Women often expect to be treated badly by the justice system, to be treated like they’re on trial as the defence trawl through their sexual history, their alcohol intake and the clothes they were wearing. If the concern for innocent until proven guilty is so fundamental, this must also apply to the complainant.

Figures show that the number of false allegations for rape are no higher than for other crime, so why protect these men? It simply perpetrates the myth that women are liars. A vindictive minority is taken to be the norm. Treating rape as exceptional vilifies women. It is surely just as damaging to be accused of child abuse or hate crimes. As Harriet Harman said, ‘To single out rape defendants sends a very powerful message to juries in rape cases that the rape victim is not to be believed. It sends a devastating message to rape victims that uniquely of all victims they are not to be believed.’

Ms Harman is right, though her lexical choice is questionable. To label a woman ‘victim’ is to disempower her. To define her by what happened. She is  not a victim, she is a survivor.

It is a tragic irony that a law which primarily concerns a crime against women may be amended in a manner beneficial to men. This is symptomatic of the political establishment’s failure to understand and support women’s issues. Cuts to rape crisis centres are a damaging indication of a negligent attitude towards survivor support. From 68 there are now only 38 in the country which are gravely underfunded with a budget of just £3.5m between them. Before we improve the situation for men, let’s ensure that the system works for women. It is essential that the coalition honours its commitment to providing long-term, sustainable funding to rape crisis centres. It is vital that conviction rates are improved. It is imperative that survivors are supported.

It starts on the gardens: the Conservatives’ first move towards localism

If every issue that makes up a party’s manifesto is given an icon to symbolise what it represents, land issues and development surely is high on the list that defines localism. Whether it is the uses of gardens, fence and hedge disputes or the contentious issues concerning planning permission, nothing else conflicts, aggravates or separates communities more over the running of an area than its appearance. It is on this idea that the Decentralisation Minister, Greg Clark has stepped forward with his first policy and it is focused on what, perhaps, is the most iconic of localist issues.

Greg Clark has come out stating that local councils will be allowed to refuse developments on gardens in a move to give areas more control over their own growth. Redefining gardens from ‘previously residential land’ (effectively Brownfield sites) restricts green land being swallowed up by developments and while, on paper, this is a solid piece of legislation that surprises no one, it offers an insightful image of The Conservative’s grasp of populist localism.

This is perfectly examined in Steve Coogan’s character in Armando Iannucci’s satirical film, In the Loop.  What develops from a constituency surgery concerning a collapsing wall ends up with the sacking of Tom Hollander’s MP. Even after his clumsy handling of the run up to the war in the Middle East, his handling of this local issue was the death knoll of his political career and the poignancy of this and Clark’s first visible policy is telling. They both show the importance placed on local issues and while The Conservative manifesto was shaped around localism it cannot happen overnight. In the face of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, palpable and small but significant pieces of legislation are needed to soften the ground. It makes sense that the government’s opening gambit is so iconic and so hard to dislike.

Before The Conservatives want to vote on the running of hospitals, before they hand over the keys to the local school to our next door neighbours, and before they open the door to a flurry of referendums, they need something small though significant to lead the way. But there is a danger that in the face of such a sweeping redrawing of our social map, that practicalities may be sacrificed for ideologies. Referendums assume people will take part, they assume our voter turnout numbers are large enough to be truly representative, they hope we are all interested.

How many steps the Tories use to wean us on to their larger society can only be guessed at. A step up from garden and land disputes is perhaps more local control over the banishment of potholes but this policy can only hint at a Tory future. If Cameron cannot fully create and realise his Big Society in his five year term, the Right, and his own party, will feel betrayed by his lack of scope and his inability to do what he promised, leaving the public unsure of his credentials to get things done. The Left will be energised by this failure; if such a divisive segment of legislation falters they can portray Cameron and The Conservatives as ideologues who are unable to construct tangible and workable policy. But Greg Clark knows he needs to conserve his name and office for the larger more influential fights. Before reorganising the running and organisation of schools, NHS and police boards, he needs the public to be on his side. We can only wait to see what follows.

Sanctions against Iran represent a failure of Obama’s foreign policy

Iran fails to comply with the International community.  The West condemns the Islamic Republic’s inability to cooperate with nuclear non-proliferation.  The UN Security Council imposes new sanctions on Iran.  This familiar narrative was reaffirmed as the Security Council voted 12 to 2 (with Lebanon abstaining) in favour of new sanctions.  President Obama said that the vote sends an “unmistakable message” to Iran.  Indeed it does; for all the oratory, US foreign policy has changed little since the dark days of the Bush years.

After Obama’s failure to condemn Israel for its massacre of 9 civilians aboard a flotilla carrying aid to besieged Gaza, yesterday’s action from the US demonstrates that the lofty rhetoric of the president’s Cairo speech is as distant a reality as ever.  The progressive foreign policy needed to match Obama’s domestic reforms remains elusive.

The unilateral mentality is still there. The vote’s notable naysayers (Turkey and Brazil) have attempted to pursue their own negotiations with Tehran.  By forcing through these sanctions the Obama administration has clearly shown it will not support this direction; the EU is to be the only legitimate partner in any uranium enrichment deal.  Yet the unilateral moment is in its twilight and these watered-down sanctions betray America’s need to rely on Sino-Russian approval in dealing with Iran. 

There is still an abject failure to recognise what Iran’s international policy, which clearly includes its nuclear programme, is fundamentally about.  That is, a desire for recognition from the international community that Iran is an independent sovereign polity.  Iran has decided that nuclear weapons help to reaffirm this status yet so does diplomacy.  Witness the way the regime engineered a major diplomatic incident in 2007 by taking 15 British sailors hostage in the Gulf, almost entirely choreographed in order for Ahmadinejad to present himself as an international statesman. 

Treating Iran like one of Bush’s rogue states is a fruitless and unrealistic policy.  Does the alternative involve our complicity in legitimising a regime which so brutally punished genuine democratic stirrings amongst its people in last year’s election?  Far from it.  That movement was a reaction to the style of politics Obama had flaunted throughout his meteoric rise to the presidency.  In contrast this recent display of threatening behaviour from the administration merely enables Ahmadinejad and the theocrats above him to construct America as an enemy of Iran, an enemy of Islam etc.

The current policy is dangerously out of touch with reality; sanctions are normally a bad idea, but especially so when they are as impotent as the ones proposed in resolution 1929.  As James Lindsay of the influential Council on Foreign Relations remarks, ‘The expectation that the new sanctions can be beat make it likely that Tehran will respond to the resolution’s passage with more defiance and bluster’. Taking a superior stance will enflame the situation yet the Obama administration appears to be trapped by the same delusions of imperium that informed Bush’s foreign policy.  Potential adversaries are seen as absolute ideological competitors; potential allies as simply vehicles for conferring legitimacy on US decisions (Britain, as sycophantic as ever, may continue to indulge America in this fantasy but as Brazil and Turkey’s proactive approach and the material growth of China shows, it is a dying breed).  Until the Obama administration appreciates why Bush’s foreign policy was so disastrous and starts to take multilateralism seriously it will fail to find a successful solution to the Iran problem.

On Labour’s silence and Cameron’s illusion

Being in opposition is a curious business, one which takes some getting used to. The last time I personally was in such a situation was many years ago in the grey days of Major and it must be said that for many of those days, the Labour party struggled really to qualify as real “opposition”. Back in those days before the economy swelled and then popped; back when my hair grew long and wavy and in my infancy of intellect i would read the Sun newspaper, before that newspaper became a supporter of Labour, or even before the man many would argue Labour has to thank for being in Government at all, John Smith, who would come to rouse both nation and party (it takes such lifting to produce a landslide).

The current Labour party cuts a bitter and silent shadow in opposition. And well they might as a world of phenomenal and cataclysmic events from the World Cup to BP, from Israel to Whitehaven serves only to further diminish their ever dwindling column inches.  What writing is not given in support of the ruling coalition is unlikely to be spared for the quiet opposition at the moment, there’s just too much else going on for the world to read about.

Receiving plenty of attention is David Cameron.  Many, including this writer, poked at Cameron while in opposition for his lack of plan and policy.  Since his entry into Number 10 he has dutifully and sensibly stood by those few comfortable bits and pieces he had pledged to incept.  However this week started the real business of tackling the broken economy and his strategy has been to say that things were worse than he had thought and that as such he has had to re-evaluate his plans.

Ingenious. A ploy I think we have all used in school when caught not doing our homework: “sorry sir, i thought we had to do something else. I’ll do it for next week.”  Whereupon the sharper teacher would of course ask, “well show me what you thought was going on and what you actually did.”  Labour, however, is not playing the part of the sharper teacher at the moment, rather that of the supply teacher, standing in for Mr Smith or Mr Blair or maybe even Mr Brown.

Granted the party is leaderless, but that shouldn’t mean headless.  While the English football team rustles up a new captain because something untoward has happened to the incumbent, we are subjected to a plethora of inches telling us how so-and-so is still a natural leader anyway and the squad is full of them. Surely a political party only just removed from governing one of the world’s most prominent nations can pull together the wherewithal to ask searching yet obvious questions of its opponents.

Instead under the comfortable blanket of much mass media support, once enjoyed by Labour and now taken away, Cameron is allowed to unfurl his plans for massive cuts in full view and make it appear the paradigm of honesty.  For a party that struggled for months and years to put together coherent strategy, it’s difficult to believe that they have evaluated and come with a new plan for the economy in the space of a month without having had the plan for a massive axe hidden in the unprinted part of their manifesto in the first place.

Without strength of opposition in both voice and purpose, Cameron is actually able to unleash these cuts with the air of a man doing us all a favour and worse still for Labour, a man who is only pushing back the previous government’s veil of deceit.

If it could be any worse than that, Cameron recently blamed government spending, the financial services and immigration, three political provocateurs of the highest order and yet Labour’s voice is largely silent.  The Conservatives have yet to outline a solid policy on any of these areas still.  And yet still we hear very little from the red corner.

Opposition is not a time to lick wounds, that time is not afforded; it’s a time to inflict wounds of your own.  Labour doesn’t have the grace of media favour it once did, indeed the party doesn’t have a leader, but permitting the governing coalition to settle they only make the job of opposition more difficult.  There has to be direction, there has to be probing questions, there must be impact and there must be defence of their former government if they believe it can return or even just if they believed in what it was doing in the first place.

By allowing Cameron to blame Britain’s economic failings on Labour for three areas for which he failed to produce a memorable policy his whole time in shadow, Labour will allow him to successfully conjure the illusion that the nation’s problem are indeed all Labour’s fault and that his massive cuts, details of which he declines to release, are indeed just the only viable solution, instead of being the agenda that he’s had in his back pocket the whole time.

In defence of downshifting and work sharing‏

In the hope of tackling the twin crises affecting the economy and the climate, governments and institutions around the world have echoed environmental groups in calling for a ‘Green New Deal’. Major government investment in renewable energy and other green initiatives would indeed create thousands of new green jobs, but would it address the underlying drive for endless economic growth that many now believe lies at the heart of our headlong gallop toward ecological destruction?

As convincingly argued by Tim Jackson in his groundbreaking book, Prosperity without Growth, the unlikelihood of ‘absolute decoupling’ (reducing resource use while continuing to grow the economy) means that a different way of ensuring economic stability and maintaining employment is necessary. A growing number of academics and activists who recognise the tendency for New Deal economics to rely on a “grow your way out of unemployment” approach are calling for an alternative route to sustainability – reducing the working week and sharing paid employment equitably in a steady-state economy.

A recent report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) makes a particularly compelling argument for work sharing in their proposal for a new ‘normal’ working week for Britain of 21 hours. “While some are overworking, over-earning and over-consuming, others can barely afford life’s necessities,” wrote one of the report’s authors in the Guardian. “A much shorter working week would help us all to live more sustainable, satisfying lives by sharing out paid and unpaid time more evenly across the population.”

In her new book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, Juliet Schor similarly argues for fewer and more evenly spread hours spent in paid employment. A long-time advocate of work sharing, she maps out a vision for a new economics that would not only allow more time for family and community, but would also give people the opportunity to acquire goods and services in more ecologically friendly ways outside of the fossil-fuel intensive market economy.

Making the time to live sustainably

An enduring myth of industrial capitalism is that as technological advances have increased labour productivity, we no longer have to work as hard to meet our material needs. That it takes fewer people to produce the same amount of goods is undoubtedly true, yet prior to the successes of the labour movement in the late nineteenth century, industrialisation drove working hours to their highest level in human history. According to the economic historian James E. Thorold Rogers, the workers participating in the eight-hour movement were simply striving to recover the amount of leisure time enjoyed by their medieval ancestors. With the push for deregulation over the last few decades, work hours in the most affluent parts of the world have actually started increasing once again, reversing the century-long decline sparked by trade union action.

As governments around the world have prioritised the pursuit of GDP growth as the single most important goal of their economic policy, productive effort has become separated from human needs. Economic activity now prioritises the accumulation of private profit over the securing of basic welfare – the pursuit of ‘what can be done’ over ‘what needs to be done’. The imperative for ever-expanding economic output creates a need to stimulate and satisfy higher and higher levels of consumer demand. Instead of producing the anticipated era of leisure – Keynes himself envisioned a 15-hour week with the work shared as widely as possible – the pursuit of growth for growth’s sake has led to an era of hyper-consumerism and overwork.

There is much less evidence to suggest that the constant ramping up of economic efforts and the commodification of more and more of our time and activities is healthy for social or environmental well-being. In 2004, a study by the NEF found that whilst economic output in the UK has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, life satisfaction levels have remained resolutely flat. Steady-state economist Herman Daly suggests that growth in the industrialised world may even have become ‘uneconomic’ in that its social and environmental costs exceed the benefit it brings. Collectively, humanity is already using up the Earth’s natural capital faster than it can be replenished, as evidenced by the work of the Global Footprint Network. All of which begs the question: instead of maintaining a system that maximises economic output and full-time employment, what about creating new arrangements that maximise human well-being and ecological sustainability?

People are already taking the transition to an alternative economic system into their own hands. A movement is growing around the idea of ‘downshifting’ – deliberately choosing to work and earn less in order to live a more fulfilling and simple life. In so doing, people are consciously rejecting the idea that we live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume. Such endeavours to redefine ‘the good life’ are not only reflected in individual decisions to downshift, but also in the growing popularity of transition towns, the collective rebuilding of local economies, and the climate justice movement’s vocal critique of overconsumption.

The problem is that downshifting as well as other efforts to counter consumerism are incoherent in modern economic terms. In Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives, Madeleine Bunting reveals that while the majority of Britons accept it as self-evident that, for all but the poorest people, overwork ‘is your choice’, there is also a widespread acceptance that this purported power to choose is often exceptionally hard to exercise. It is not only the clear structural bias towards full-time employment that makes it difficult to negotiate flexible working hours, but also the ingrained logic of social comparison – the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ – which constantly upgrades our perceived materialistic ‘needs’ as incomes rise. The widespread sense of having to earn enough to live a ‘normal’ consumer lifestyle, one that is sold to us through advertising and reinforced by cultural norms, reflects the immense structural and social barriers to work sharing that exist in industrialised growth-driven economies.

Overcoming structural barriers

As evidenced by some of the more virulent reactions to the NEF’s 21 Hours report, the proposal to slash the working week and share hours more evenly across the population seems counter-intuitive. How would the poor and even middle-classes cope with losses in income? Wouldn’t government revenues drop and demand for public services rise? How would businesses cover the increased cost of employing a greater number of people for the same amount of work? What about shortages in skills that are already stretched to meet labour demand in some industries?

Although many of these concerns are valid, it is important to remember that work sharing is not a short-term policy solution, nor do its supporters suggest that it should be a sudden or enforced change. No one assumes that the redistribution of paid employment is a panacea for the social and ecological malaise described above. It is instead part of a long-term vision for a post-industrial world in which the economy is transformed to meet the needs of communities rather than the desires of consumers; a sustainable future where the benefits of the planet’s limited resources are shared equitably and protected for future generations.

Importantly, reactions such as that of the Institute for Economic Affairs’ Mark Littlewood, who called the proposal for a shorter working week “fantasyland economics”, reveal how deeply engrained the growth imperative is in today’s economic and social logic. The tendency in orthodox economics to assume that GDP growth is the best measure of economic progress is the greatest barrier to any policies that seek to purposefully ‘downshift’ the economy. Yet it is precisely because work sharing goes against the conventions of the growth paradigm that the idea is so important.

Overcoming the current structural bias toward long and unevenly distributed work hours requires a myriad of economic reforms. These could include income and wealth redistribution (including a substantially increased minimum wage); encouraging uncommodified forms of production and consumption (such as ‘self-providing’ or ‘co-production’); creating new measurements of progress and prosperity; and freeing sources of finance from the burden of interest-accruing debt. Perhaps most importantly, it requires an end to the work-to-earn, earn-to-consume mindset that currently dominates day-to-day life in many industrialised societies.

The fact that the proposal for a 21-hour week has been taken seriously in the halls of Westminster is a sure sign of encouragement, but until a popular movement gathers momentum behind the idea, governments are unlikely to act. In the end, it is up to people themselves to willingly step off the consumer treadmill and demand the right to an even and reduced share of paid work. Instead of accepting the trappings of ‘consumer-sovereignty’, we must demand the freedom not to consume – the freedom to become the producers and creators in a new economy that builds lasting prosperity within ecological limits.

Anna White represents Share the World’s Resources.   This post was originally published here under a Creative Commons license

Oxford Union debate: the follies of growth and climate denial

For perhaps the first time ever in England, undergraduates at a formal debate supported the views of popular climate change sceptics and voted in favour of maintaining the status quo. Whilst on the surface this is quite alarming given the traditionally progressive influence that students have, it is perhaps less surprising if we consider the wider context of the recent Oxford Union Society debate.

The schismatic choice offered by the Union was reflected in the motion: ‘This House would put economic growth before combating climate change’. Some would call this a false choice as both are arguably important – although not for the notable global warming sceptics who stood firmly in support of preserving growth and not the climate: Viscount Monkton, Lords Lawson and Leach, and James Delingpole.

In a sense they were right – it’s not a false choice; governments will never solve the climate crisis unless they rethink their obsession with economic growth. But my opponents didn’t agree with this perspective. Their reaction to my address was summarised by Delingpole in his Telegraph blog the following day, where I was branded a communist – a sentiment liberally applied during the debate to any other ‘greens’ who might express a concern for the environment. His views represent a common and defensive overreaction to the simple fact that endless economic growth on a planet with finite resources is unsustainable, and to the suggestion that we need to reconsider the role of growth as a panacea to all the world’s problems, particularly climate change.  

Whilst a charmingly unbalanced Monkton entertained The House with his soliloquies and mathematical formulae, it became clear to me that the debate over anthropogenic climate change is a red herring – the science alone is conclusive enough. Of greater concern was how the sceptics dismissed the view that growth is unsustainable by justifying its pursuit for the sake of ending world poverty. The real challenge for those who take a more holistic view on the converging crises of climate change, global poverty and inequality is how to confront the dogmatic belief that humanity’s prosperity is entirely dependent on the growth of GDP.

As pointed out by an enthusiastic interjection during the debate, even parties on the left of the political spectrum are guided by the assumption that the economy must always grow. But the snares of this belief have long been identified by progressive economists, and even a cursory analysis of economic growth reveals its dangerous shortcomings: growth pursued at all costs is ecologically unsustainable, socially unjust, and often unnecessary.

The ‘limits to growth’ argument is well documented, and surely even the most scientific of climate change deniers couldn’t disagree that nature’s resources are in short supply. Our economic activity is dependent upon the ecological limits of the planet – limits that we have already pushed far beyond. We are currently consuming resources 40 percent faster than nature can either replenish them or reabsorb the pollution and waste that our economic activity generates.

The notion that improvements in efficiency from technological advances can deliver us from this ecological destruction has also been discredited. The Sustainable Development Commission (UK) clearly detailed how, if we want to tackle climate change by decarbonising a growth-based economy, the carbon intensity of every single dollar in 2050 will have to be 130 times less than it is today.  This scenario assumes a moderate growth in total population, and a global economy that would be (at a conservative estimate) 15 times bigger than it is today. Efficiencies of this magnitude are the stuff of science fiction, and only possible if a superhuman being soon reveals an unknown technology that can transform our life beyond all recognition.

But what about ending poverty? Climate change deniers pursue growth, it seems, for altruistic reasons – to secure a prosperous future for the 3 billion people who continue to live on less than $2.50 a day (an aggregate number that has actually increased since the World Bank’s global poverty figures began in 1981). The fact that decades of economic growth has not made a significant dent in global poverty is enough evidence that the proceeds of growth are not sufficiently ‘trickling down’. In fact, any trickle there may have been is rapidly drying up despite any increases in the size of the economic pie; in the 1980’s, 2.2 percent of global growth went to the poor, compared to only 0.6 percent in the 1990’s.

The consequence of this skewed distribution of growth is, unsurprisingly, that the world is increasingly unequal, with the richest ten percent having accumulated 3,000 times more wealth than the poorest ten percent. The benefits of growth have been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of big corporations, as well as 500 well-placed billionaires who have seen their fortunes soar in spite of the global financial crisis.

The ‘rising tide’ has failed to lift all boats, and is now promising to be environmentally disastrous. A more sustainable and just economy could still include economic growth, but – in the face of resource depletion, peak oil and environmental pollution – that growth can no longer afford to neglect the ecological limits of the planet. And in the face of unprecedented levels of global hunger and poverty, is it really an assertion of ‘communism’ or simply common sense to state that growth must be rooted more locally, allowing communities to drive the creation of economic activity and benefit most from its rewards?

The options available to policy-makers to achieve this transformation are plentiful; what is missing, as always, is the necessary political will. Perhaps the biggest barrier to sustainable development is the sheer stubbornness of many within the political establishment to consider an alternative to GDP growth, and the reluctance of those who benefit most from the status quo to open their minds to simple reason.

Rajesh Makwana is director of Share The World’s Resources.  This post was originally published here under a Creative Commons license