Yes we were friends with Gaddafi – what else could we do?

A guest post by Connor Logic

It is perhaps inevitable that interspersed with the grainy mobile phone footage of the ongoing revolt against Muammar Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, our news stations are also showing us clips of Tony Blair’s infamous handshake with Gaddafi several years ago.

You’ve got to love the old video archive. Will a politician ever make a fool of himself again and be allowed to have the incident forgotten? (The best part of the rumours that Michael Howard is being brought back into government as a justice minister – is the prospect of seeing his Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman again, and again, and again.)

But is the implied criticism of Blair – and of recent British foreign policy toward Libya in general – justified? I don’t think so.

It’s true, we became friends with Libya, we traded with them, bought their oil and sold them our weapons. Some of this may be indefensible, of course. Goodness only knows how the person who sold Gaddafi the sniper rifles his mercenaries are allegedly now using to pick off civilian protesters sleeps at night. That David Cameron would lead another arms-selling mission in the region in the midst of this is crassness beyond all belief.

But the wider question – that of whether Britain should seek any form of friendly relationship with regimes such as Gaddafi’s, or indeed Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt – needs to be answered in the affirmative.

In the West we have a tendency to see the rest of the world through the prism of our role in it, as if it were sitting waiting for us to mould it, and define ourselves in the moulding. If that were ever the way things were in reality, that’s only because we forced it to be so through centuries of military and economic conquest. Today those notions have little relevance.

Even those heaping most praise on the revolutions we have seen erupting across the Middle East and North Africa in recent weeks are guilty of believing in our own self-importance. This week in the Guardian the indefatigable Tariq Ali wrote about how the “neocon notion that Arabs and Muslims were hostile to democracy” had been proven false. I’m sure the Libyan populace will rejoice in their impact on this narrow philosophical debate our commentators occasionally concern themselves with, as they bury their dead.

On a point of fact, of course, Ali’s statement is also plainly mistaken. Far from dismissing Muslim democracy, George W Bush’s neocons did nothing less than force democracy onto Iraq and Afghanistan, much to Ali’s distaste.

Indeed, the quagmire of Iraq is the best evidence we have of the need for friendly diplomacy with all. In this, the arguments made by the left before the invasion were correct. We shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, not because Muslims can’t do democracy, but because that wasn’t the way to get them to do it.

Our only policy option vis-a-vis Saddam Hussein should have been to humour him – shake his hand, send him gifts, applaud his speeches at the United Nations. We should neither have propped him up or sought to overthrow him military. As the Egyptians, Tunisians and now the Libyans have shown, subjugated people have a way a throwing off their shackles sooner or later.

Also in the Guardian this week, Ian Birrell has written that the United Nations should now be intervening militarily in Libya to stop Gaddafi killing protesters. It’s hard not to sympathise with this view, but it just isn’t feasible. If anything, the UN’s peacekeeping remit means that its soldiers would have to stop short of removing Gaddafi, In fact they’d most likely end up allowing Gaddafi to keep hold of his stronghold in Tripoli, and prevent the protestors from eventually getting to him. Is that we want?

It’s time we learned that these revolutions aren’t about us.

Would the Conservatives have avoided the economic crash?

A guest post by Tom Bailey

David Cameron complained in the Queen’s speech debate of 2010 that Harriet Harman had said

Not one word of apology for the appalling mess that has been left in this country. Nothing to say about leaving Britain with a deficit that is bigger than Greece’s. Not a single idea for getting to grips with it. Until they learn what they got so badly wrong I’m not sure people are going to listen to them again.

But is there any evidence that things would have been different under the Conservatives?

New Labour left the British economy in an appalling mess. This is the conventional wisdom according to the Conservative Party and the right wing press. George Osborne argued as Shadow Chancellor in February 2010 that ‘Britain has been failed by the economic policy framework of the last decade’ and called for a ‘fundamental reassessment of monetary and fiscal policy’. Ed Miliband wrote an article defending Labour’s economic record in The Times which prompted Conservatives to argue that he is in denial. There was also a critical editorial in The Times which attacked Miliband’s account as ‘bad economics’. However, Miliband is right to challenge the narrative of the Conservatives and the right wing press. Firstly, the economic crash was principally a failure of the market. Indeed, Adair Turner, head of the FSA, described it as perhaps the ‘biggest crisis of free market capitalism’ ever. Secondly, the crash was a global economic phenomenon which was not unique to the UK. These two points are vital to the history which Labour should be presenting. A balanced history of New Labour’s economic legacy should recognise that there is little evidence to suggest that the Tory party would have either avoided the crash or left the UK better prepared.

The economic failings of the New Labour period should be mediated through a consideration of contemporary Conservative economic policy. Overall, there were three principal errors made by New Labour in the build up to the crash. Firstly, there was insufficient regulation of financial institutions. Secondly, there was no sustained state action to stop the exponential growth of private debt. Thirdly, UK state spending increased at an unsustainable rate. Better regulation would have lessened the UK’s exposure to subprime mortgages, toxic debt and the dangers of overleveraged banks. Acting on the second and third problems would have helped avoid what Osborne has now termed ‘an economy built on debt’ and placed the UK better to deal with the costs of the financial crash. The question to ask is whether these problems would have been avoided or ameliorated had the Conservatives been in power. Would the banks have been adequately regulated under a Tory government? Would the Tories have acted to stop the astronomical growth of private debt? Was New Labour uniquely profligate in its spending? On all accounts, the answer appears to be no. The Conservative party did not propose an alternative to Labour’s economic strategy.

The Conservative Party did not propose substantially lower levels of state spending to New Labour between 2001 and 2007. It was only from 2008 that Cameron and Osborne were condemning Brown for failing to ‘fix the roof when the sun was shining’. This critique omitted to mention that contemporary Conservative spending plans had not mentioned major financial retrenchment. In 2005, Michael Howard promised in the Conservative general election manifesto that ‘over the period to 2011-12, we will increase government spending by 4 per cent a year, compared to Labour’s plans (on current trends) to increase spending by 5 per cent a year.’ That small difference in the rate of state spending growth would not have left Britain’s finances significantly better placed to get through the crash. If Labour has been economically profligate, the Tory economic plans were scarcely different. The Tories did not reject Labour’s economic strategy but embraced it. Indeed, George Osborne promised to match New Labour’s spending increases, believing it to be both electorally popular and economically successful. They had effectively accepted a Blairite settlement. That the Conservative Party is now hawkish about state spending levels does not alter that.

The pre-crash structural deficit is not the primary cause of the current budget deficit. Adair Turner predicted in 2008 that ‘90%’ of extra UK state debt will come from ‘the knock on consequences of a low rate of economic growth’. This has largely been correct as the fall of growth resulted in significantly lower state income. Robert Peston noted in 2008 that ‘there were twin connected bubbles in assets and credit. Both of those bubbles have burst.’ The factor in the current budget deficit was the greater levels of state spending necessary since 2007. There was no alternative to the course taken by Brown in bailing out the banks and the state financial stimulation of the economy. These measures were essential to restore liquidity to the banking system and to stop the recession turning into a depression. The current budget deficit is of course regrettable but preferable to the alternative of a collapsed banking system or a deep recession. As the Tories would not have improved Britain’s state finances, would they have reduced Britain’s exposure to the risk undertaken by financial institutions worldwide?

The banking industry would not have been better regulated under the Conservatives. The Conservative Party has always been the supporter of business: it was under Thatcher that much of the deregulation of financial industries took place. The period preceding the crash was one of genuine confidence in market efficiency. Low level financial regulation was one tenet of an economic consensus which existed both in the UK and internationally for two decades. Indeed, Adair Turner emphasized that the criticism generally being made before the crash was ‘why are you regulating too heavily’? Greater regulation of financial institutions has never been a Conservative cause and was not a policy in either their 2001 or 2005 manifesto. No significant change would plausibly have been made by the Tories to British financial regulation.

The third problem in the British economy was the exponential growth of personal debt. Private borrowing increased faster than earnings as easy credit fuelled a consumer goods binge and a housing market boom. To avoid this problem, there would have needed to be either greater regulation of the provision of credit or higher interest rates as part of a government strategy to lower debt levels. There were no contemporary calls for such a policy, especially not from a Tory party reeling from several heavy consecutive general election defeats. The failure to act on debt was a shameful legacy for New Labour but not one which the Conservative Party would have avoided.

It is unfair to blame the economic crash solely on New Labour. It was a market failure which was not anticipated by their main political rivals, by most economists, the press or the public. A recent Financial Times article highlighted that the IMF’s watchdog judged that the IMF’s failure to predict and prevent the economic crash was a consequence of ‘a “groupthink” mentality’. In 2009, the Queen asked several LSE economists why the crisis was not foreseen. The academics sent her a letter in which it apparently stated that ‘In summary, your Majesty, the failure to foresee the timing, extent and severity of the crisis and to head it off, while it had many causes, was principally a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people, both in this country and internationally, to understand the risks to the system as a whole.’ The crash was a global economic phenomenon. There was no fundamental difference between contemporary Conservative and Labour economic policy. Overall there is very little evidence to suggest that the Conservatives would have left Britain better prepared for the current financial difficulties.

Stop trying to change the world…the point is to nudge it

The current government’s ‘nudge’ agenda – inspired by developments in economics and psychology which emphasises systems of behaviour as the root of human actions and decisions – has become associated with its public spending cuts. Nudges are seen as a far more cost-effective way to encourage individuals to alter behaviour which leads to sub-optimal outcomes for individuals and society, in contrast to interventions such as education, regulation and punitive measures.  Yet nudge probably has as much to do with the ‘big society’ agenda than fiscal policy, in that nudges are understood as a way for individuals to take more responsibility for their own welfare.

But there may be even more to nudge than this. The most significant public policy nudge to date – the auto-enrolment of low-to-medium earners into an occupational pension scheme – is actually an extremely expensive intervention for the public purse. It almost compels individuals to start saving into an occupational pension… and pensions saving attracts generous rates of tax relief. Employers have also had their knickers in a twist about this one, because the scheme lays down in law the minimum contributions that they must make into their workers’ pensions. All in the name of nudge.

Some nudges might not even look like nudges. The ‘smoking ban’, for instance, seems like the nanny state writ large. Yet smoking is only banned in enclosed, public places. It’s barely a ban at all. It is far more an attempt to engender cultural change, sending a message that smoking is frowned upon without really stopping anyone from doing it. The manipulation of social norms is a key nudge.

The nudge agenda, despite its apparent faddishness, should be seen to embody an interest in behavioural traits which has been growing for decades within public policy circles.  Individual (in)actions and (non)decisions result from systems of behaviour that may be deep-rooted and highly routinised rather than deliberate. This notion is as much a challenge to the right’s assumption of utility-maximising individuals as it is to the left’s overbearing, interventionist state, and indeed new forms of state intervention may be justified on the grounds of changing individual behaviour.

The nudge agenda does have its critics… too often these critics have taken their cue from a quick skim of Thaler and Sunstein’s book ‘Nudge’, which is a rather cynical attempt to cash in on the nudge fad, and which over-emphasises the gimmicky aspects of behavioural change interventions. Gimmicks do work – we are influenced by things like smell, font size, the order we see things in a canteen, etc. But the University of Sheffield’s Michael Kenny may be right to argue that

“The apparent waning of the disposition to commit to civic initiatives is one reason why some politicians have leaped with gusto upon the idea of ‘Nudge’ propounded by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein… and other behavioural economists. Their focus upon the expert manipulation of the environment in which individual choices are made, appeals both because of its apparently realistic tailoring to the culture of instrumentalism, and since it offers politicians technocratic means of evading the complexities and obduracy of public opinion. Interesting and potentially innovative as some of the initiatives it has promoted may be – for instance the new Personal Accounts system for pensions which will make ‘opting in’ the default position – ‘Nudge’ represents a tactical retreat, not a new pathway, from a civic perspective. The contradictory character of public perceptions needs to be engaged and challenged, not bypassed through clever policy design. ‘Nudge’ backs off from the task of re-animating a civic perspective in contemporary culture.”

However, David Halpern’s work is a better place to start. Halpern places the nudge agenda within a wider process of civic renewal – precisely the kind of agenda that Kenny argues is being abandoned via the nudge paradigm. Crucially, Halpern just so happens to be the Cabinet Office official responsible for nudges under both the previous and current governments.

Indeed, a leading thinker within Kenny’s own field of political identity and citizenship – the University of Southampton’s Gerry Stoker is currently investigating just how effective nudges could be nurturing positive civic action. Nudge is not a panacea, but then again, nothing ever is. But in the inevitably less-than-ideal real world, does it have a place in the policy-makers toolkit? Give nudge a chance, I say.

If UK politics were Tottenham Hotspur, then coalition government would be David Beckham

If UK politics were Tottenham Hotspur, then coalition government would be David Beckham: it may have worked well under different conditions in the past, but everybody knows deep down that it’s already past its peak. It turns up, looks pretty, basks in the hype for a while, but never really delivers – then succumbs to its inevitable shortcomings before limping off back to the Never-Never Land of world football.

LeftCentral reported a few weeks ago on the gradual desertion of Lib Dem luminaries from the government camp. Since then, Vince Cable has been humiliated around the Cabinet table after being left armourless in his war on Murdoch, and Simon Hughes has been getting increasingly anxious about the direction of health and welfare reforms. We may well be witnessing the beginning of the end of the new politics.

And if yesterday’s panicked announcement on the bank levy was George Osborne’s way of getting tough on the institutions that brought the UK economy to the brink of collapse, before demanding the kind of hand-outs that are now being stripped from their victims, then surely one or two more Liberal Democrats will be getting twitchy. They won’t be pleased to hear that the Conservatives receive more than half of their donations in the City of London – the Tories and the City are the real coalition governing this country.

Major League Soccer in the US might be the Never-Never Land of world football, but it can also be compared to the prospects of minority government in UK politics. No matter how hard you try, no matter how big your society is, or how fat your cheque book, it just isn’t going to work. So Becks may well be back in a few months, wearing a different strip perhaps.

A new green revolution?

With all the cruel cuts being undertaken by this Tory-led government it has become very difficult to fight, or to blog, on all fronts. The barrage has seen the losing of EMAs, hiking of tuition fees, cuts to the poorest local councils, job losses, the restructuring of education and the NHS and above all the general dismantling of some of the most important parts of our social infrastructure. I don’t believe that the private sector will pick up the extra workforce, as David Cameron seems to. I don’t believe the ‘Big Society’ can plug all the gaping holes in services, in fact, I’m rather suspicious that the ‘Big Society’ is a convenient fabrication that allows government to renege on their responsibilities. I do believe, however, in the power of people and community action, not to fulfil the functions that the state should be providing, but to work in their own way to create a better society.

It is heartening to look to community groups that are making a real difference and to this end, I’d like to blow the trumpet of the Transition movement. These are local groups who work to make their area, and their lives, greener and more sustainable to fight climate change and to improve local life. Their organisation is highly democratic and inclusive and their aims largely altruistic, improving their society and aiding the environment. They share best practise with other groups in a cooperative network. Many towns have signed up to this and it has made a difference. In London, for example, just this month trees are being planted, Haringey has launched its sustainable food strategy and tropical vegetable gardening has become the new vogue. The Sussex town of Lewes has even invented it’s own currency for local trading.

To link this back to the cuts, at the risk of being too obviously allegorical, I’d like to consider the example of the selling (or felling) of England’s forests as an area where resistance could prevail. These could be cuts we can stop. Half a million people have signed a petition to save the threatened 258,000 hectares of English forestry estate. 84% of the public as a whole are opposed to the measure. MPs have rebelled on this issue, and David Cameron has been forced to declare himself ‘open to ideas’ as he recognised the importance this land held for the communities. Although this ‘green and pleasant land’ bit, may be more about preserving particular vistas, a valuable aim in itself, than halting climate change, it does demonstrate that many people do value nature and therefore green policies can be popular and effective.

If the government insists on its commitment to community, it should look to the movements who have engaged and empowered people to improve society. The green movement has a long history of being democratic, inclusive and progressive. Additionally, their values are vital for our time; we should learn to live without excess, without exploitation of people or the natural world, respecting the world around us and looking towards a better, more sustainable future.

Big society’s big mouth

A guest post by Terry Ryall

The recession and deep cuts in public services have prompted a very important debate around the role of young people and their ability to manage and direct their future in this ‘age of austerity’. 

The rise of youth unemployment, tuition fees, higher education cuts, job losses, closure to local services, slashes to social housing and scrapping of youth employment schemes and the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA) will all impact the lives of young people. The last few months of 2010 saw an up-surge of youth activism, as young people rallied against fees and government cuts, dispelling the myth that young people are apathetic and uninterested in politics.

Here at v, we believe that young people want to be vocal about what matters to them, and deserve platforms and opportunities to share their opinions and be heard. It is crucial that they influence the discussions taking place around them and shape what role they want to play in society. Not only that, young people are vital to the realisation of the government’s goals for a more civically and socially engaged ‘Big Society.’

v wants to put opportunity and power into the hands of young people. This week we have launched a national campaign – Big Society’s Big Mouth – which asks young people what role they want to play in society. 

The creation of v’s Big Society’s Big Mouth project will help facilitate debate, promote concerns of young people to those in power and empower young people to take an active role in their communities. It bridges the gap between young people and the government, amplifying young people’s views and solutions for a bigger, better society. .

This campaign is a response to research which found that only 25% of young people have heard of the Big Society and over two thirds (67%) of young people don’t know what the Big Society means for them.

The Big Society is a concept that is moving rapidly from rhetoric to reality. We at v believe it is vital that young people are given the opportunity to help define and refine what the Big Society means to them.  Many young people are already taking real action in their communities.   However policy makers currently run the risk of ignoring the views of a group without which building a more socially active society will be impossible.

The Big Society’s Big Mouth campaign will develop young leaders and inspire real action as well as conversation.  Through social action projects on the ground, young people will engage with community issues and develop their own solutions to local problems. 

Our mission with the Big Society’s Big Mouth campaign is to start a debate that will not only engage with thousands of young people, but that will also identify tangible solutions to the barriers that may be preventing them taking a more active role in their communities. We will then work with young people to take their proposals to government and ensure they influence the development of Big Society and youth policies at both a national and local level. Big Society’s Big Mouth will give young people the chance to finally have their say on the key issues affecting their lives today.

Terry Ryall is CEO of v