On coincidence

Having just reviewed a rather good book by Dame Margaret Hodge MP, I was somewhat surprised by her vitriolic attack on the leader of the Labour Party. Of course, I understood that she was on the right of the movement. And I was not unaware of her Jewishness. But I did not foresee that she would accuse Jeremy Corbyn of anti-Semitism without any equivocation. The Labour Party is a broad church, but I did not quite appreciate just how close it is to a schism.

My slight complacency was based on the bitter feuding within the Government. I felt that prudent members of the Labour Party would appreciate that being in power would be a positive thing to think about. I failed to appreciate the depth of the antagonism within the Opposition.

The problem of anti-Semitism has dogged the Labour Party for several reasons. The sympathy for the Palestinian cause has led some people to make ill-judged comments. Tempers have frayed on all sides of the debate. It has proved difficult to reach consensus about codes of practice. And some individuals have never been reconciled to the leadership.

Regardless of what transpires, I will think highly of the text written by Hodge. But I am dismayed by her intemperate comment. Perhaps there are not many complete accidents in politics, but I like to think there are few conspiracies either. Coincidences can give us insights into the mindsets of political actors.

While serving on the Public Accounts Committee, Hodge worked well with Conservative politicians. Like Frank Field MP, she is a centrist who often causes trouble for their own side. Although nobody would want politicians to be homogeneous, many citizens would like it if there was a degree of discipline within political parties.

Constraining maverick politicians slightly might reduce the colour of the spectacle, but it would permit the effective operation of democracy. Everyone should have the freedom to speak up for their principles, but senior people should watch their language in political debates.

The Labour Party was doing well, but it has hit another obstacle. It is a shame that there is no goodwill to make the processes work smoothly. Essentially, it is the problem of history. The different traditions within the party make it into a coalition which lacks cohesion. Robbing defeat from the jaws of victory is a strong possibility that haunts ordinary party members. Communities could suffer protracted economic hardship because of the vanity of Hodge and her acolytes. Pragmatism is required for progress to be achieved.

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Called to Account by Margaret Hodge

This work should be required reading for people who want to understand the plethora of practical reasons why Whitehall does not deliver the goods. The government does not fail vulnerable citizens for ideological reasons alone. The harsh lessons of Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment demonstrate that there is a culture of complacency that militates against efficient policy implementation.

Part of the problem is that officials and companies can be rewarded for failure. If a project goes badly wrong then the culpable individuals are likely to be given another go or benefit from a career switch. There is no real incentive for a civil servant to be honest with a minister when those with ambition are tempted to look for promotion in different departments. The mechanisms which are intended to secure genuine accountability are blunt.

Another issue is the lack of transparency. When private firms get involved in the delivery of public services then they can hide awkward facts behind the concern for commercial confidentiality. The Public Accounts Committee has often been frustrated by a lack of openness. It is tough to get to the bottom of policy catastrophes when tight-lipped officials are evasive under questioning. The British Establishment tends to cover its own.

A major difficulty is a lack of competence. It was found that the Universal Credit system could not cope with tracking the behaviour of claimants. Moreover, the IT was not capable of protecting personal data from cyberattacks. Furthermore, it was designed so that fraud was always a threat. This incompetence did not flow from a lack of technological expertise. It stemmed from a failure to visualise how complicated the project would have to be to cope with the complexity of the lives of real people.

Sometimes a text should be read without dwelling on the identity of the author. Margaret Hodge is a controversial centrist politician who has made many enemies. But she has produced a book replete with information that underlines the ineffectiveness of the contemporary British state. In addition, she was clear about how many individuals assisted her in bringing this shocking information to light.

Trust in politics

Politics and trust may seem to be strangers. Sophisticated voters are familiar with the breaking of specific manifesto promises, while everyone knows that politicians are duplicitous when necessary. At the same time, media standards in the West have declined, while the social media does not filter out nonsense. Nevertheless, many of us still trust in specific political parties or in particular sources of information.

The remaining trust stems from the fact that many of us grew up in a more coherent world. This allowed us to think that we were right about some of the issues of the day. In the UK, we enjoyed tangible benefits from the state such as free education or decent healthcare. As a result, we trusted those people who wanted to defend those public goods. Hence, we still regard individuals positively if they articulate values that permit human flourishing.

Those with a penchant for philosophy will discuss the intellectual impact of postmodernism in this context. The likes of Jacques Derrida deconstructed texts, while the big stories that shaped our historical understanding of the world came under increasing attack. Meanwhile, neoliberalism shredded the ethos of the public sector and the financial crisis smashed neoliberalism. Trust was vanquished by a crisis of capitalism. Therefore, we clung to the wreckage and were tempted to believe in people who expressed our anxiety, our outrage or our desperation.

Some of the politicians that we trusted let us down, while others remained pure. The case of Syriza is an instructive one in this area. Despite the succession of disappointments, we kept trusting because it suited our psychological needs.

There is something really unattractive about cynicism. Irony can be tedious too. It may well be that we trust others because it makes us feel better. It is not a matter of signalling our virtue as conservatives allege. Trust is like hugging ourselves- it is about reassuring ourselves that we have done the right thing.

A world without trust is an environment governed by algorithms and fractions of capital. It is a desert of postmodern tribes engaged in bitter cultural wars. The point here is that trust is central to the construction of meaning. Without any trust, we are like Victorian thinkers in the absence of God. Trust may be foolish, and it can lead to profound disillusionment. But without it we are empty- vacuums to be filled by hedonism, hatred, or hostility.

Does mass protest open up the sphere of legitimate controversy?

Professor Daniel Hallin is an expert on media systems. His concept of the ‘sphere of legitimate controversy’ is a useful one for those interested in political economy. President Trump will be greeted in the UK by a wave of protest. While much of the outrage is connected to the sexism and racism connected with the discourses of Trump, the economics of ‘America First’ have caused global concern. While the allies of Trump are unlikely to be swayed by the views of British campaigners, discussions about trade wars may lead many individuals to rethink the flawed logic of Brexit.

Protests like the one against the Iraq War had a major impact on the politics of Britain. They even had an influence on the genesis of the Corbyn movement. This is because people understood that the media was untrustworthy about the most important issues facing the country.

The BBC thinks it is fair if it is equally critical to both sides of an argument. However, the issue of climate change shows that allowing arguments equal status regardless of their validity can be a poor strategy. Democracy depends on an informed electorate that is willing to take issues seriously. One problem with President Trump is that the opinions he articulates are not worthy of fair treatment. Campaigners can express values and perspectives which are deserving of a proper hearing.

The current economic policies of the USA and the UK seem ill-advised. Protectionism has the potential to trigger international conflict. Neither government is getting to grips with the massive ecological crisis. Inequality is out of hand. Corruption is rife. It does appear that protest can generate a better politics. Any doubt emanating from the mainstream media should be rejected. Campaigners can learn a lot from one another and these positive lessons can last for generations. Making sure that climate change remains high on the agenda can only be achieved if we manage to keep it at the heart of legitimate controversy. It is essential that activists do their bit to question the hegemony of economic growth- it is not just fracking that threatens the way we live now.

The Whitehall Effect by John Seddon

Universal Credit has received a lot of criticism. This short book illuminates some of the reasons why the controversial policy has failed to deliver the goods. Whilst Esther McVey MP has been attacked for misleading the House of Commons in relation to the implementation of Universal Credit, the problems with the system have been there from its inception.

The experienced John Seddon was quick to identify the IT associated with Universal Credit as being a source of delay and poor outcomes. Despite the optimism of Iain Duncan Smith MP, the Agile approach was no panacea. Firstly, it proved awkward to get the basic process to work in practice. Secondly, the complexity of the lives of the people needing Universal Credit was too much for the simplistic computer-based approach. Individuals had jobs and benefits which did not fit with the simplification that was meant to be central to Universal Credit.

Mr Seddon met with senior civil servants tasked with translating Universal Credit into reality. These individuals felt obliged to stick to the principle of “digital by default.” One of the civil servants in question was dismissed, while the other one retired. However, Universal Credit was not reformed in a meaningful way.

The author has sufficient experience to know that the elite tends to produce “policy-based evidence.” The discourse of “evidence-based policy” should fool nobody. It merely has the function of legitimising decisions. Some policies might work, but it can take a lot to reverse a policy that has enough supporters and which fits with the ideology of the ruling class.

This text might not be beautifully written. But it grapples with the nuts and bolts of politics. Its critical tone is the consequence of trying to deal with a political class that listens too little.

Is England an imagined community?

“In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community – – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

 

Benedict Anderson.

 

England is big news. It has a football team. It has a flag. And the football team is in the semi-finals of the World Cup. There is even the idea that there could be an extra bank holiday if England go all the way in the competition. But before the beer runs out and the sun goes back in, is it any wonder that for many of us there is a mystery beyond the barbecues and tedious television pundits?

 

Patriotism has the capacity to alienate almost anyone who thinks. If merry England is pickled in the heatwave, what is happening in inebriated France? In Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud wrote of the “narcissism of small differences”- what are the worthy citizens of Scotland thinking as England score from set piece after set piece?

 

In his Notes on Nationalism, George Orwell thought that he could distinguish between nationalism and patriotism with precision. He wrote:

 

“Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.”

 

However, this neat formulation is problematic in practice. If I am patriotic, you are nationalistic, while they are fascists. Surely Albert Einstein was correct to condemn nationalism? And if nationalism is discredited as dangerous, what is the value of being patriotic?

 

Brexit is related to the growth of English nationalism. We live in a febrile world, where consensus seeking and democracy are threatened. Austerity has hollowed out diverse communities and watching football through a beery haze will not bring back the loose ties which used to connect us. Social isolation is recognised as a serious problem by the coalition government and it will not be addressed by flag waving.

 

England is divided between town and country, while it has become increasingly London-centric. As for the gulf between the affluent and the poor, it has almost ceased to attract the attention of the commentating classes. If England is an imagined community, it is a nightmarish community- part of a failing state on an uncertain economic trajectory. The natural environment is under massive pressure and the moors are burning. Perhaps a brilliant Belgian side could help to restore our sanity by beating England for a second time?

Random Acts of Kindness Considered

I witnessed an act of kindness yesterday. It was the right thing to do. And it did something which needed doing. It was a practical deed which improved the world in a small way. The issue of privacy means that it would be wrong to disclose specific information about what happened. Despite all the positives connected with the particular act, it made me reflect on the simplistic discourse which celebrates such examples of good behaviour.

There are lists on the internet which aim to encourage random acts of kindness. Some of them contain more than 100 points. This seems impractical in that people can seldom act on the basis of such lengthy lists. It is hard for individuals to remember number 37, while listing examples of best practice undercuts the randomness inherent to the project.

It would appear that we are living in a cynical era where doing the right thing may be attacked as “virtue signalling.” However, we are also increasingly conscious of declining levels of kindness in Western societies. Generosity may be viewed with suspicion as scandals have impacted on prominent charities. At the same time, moves towards a secular understanding of the world can undercut religious perspectives that celebrate kindness.

The problem with a reliance on randomness is that it may involve long periods of waiting. It is not constructive to wait for long periods on the off-chance of having something positive to do. Kindness cannot be salvaged on this basis.

There is also the difficulty associated with individualism. Unless it is possible to promote collective action, isolated individuals will find it problematic to achieve a sustainable impact. Communities must find ways to protect vulnerable people in their midst.

The social world has been disrupted by forces which are far from kind. These forces are sustained by powerful resentments. It is unclear how best to oppose these sinister political movements. Nobody can argue that random acts of kindness are bad. The problem is that they could well be insufficient.