Over the years, I’ve developed a completely arbitrary but generally quite reliable method for measuring a person’s moral worth. Where some people might totter up a person’s good deeds, charitable giving, political beliefs or religion, mine is far more straightforward:
Are you nice to shop assistants?
You see, the shop assistant’s working life is fairy dreary & dispiriting: you’re not paid very much, you’re restricted to repeating the same actions for 8 hours a day, and you frequently come into contact with customers who treat you with as much warmth & kindness as a cash machine. It’s also true that the rare occasions when someone does treat you as a human being are the occasions when your job seems less miserable. So if you can’t be friendly, smile or even say ‘thank you’ during your purchase, I don’t wish to know you.
If the allegations about Gordon Brown’s blustering, bullying & temper tantrums are true, they reflect as badly on the Prime Minister as a person as his Premiership has reflected on him as a politician. It’s one thing to start grabbing and yelling at your Deputy Chief of Staff, but for the victims to also include the more ‘lowly’ duty clerks, typists and telephone operators – the folks who keep Downing Street working – is particularly distasteful.
But quite apart from the instability these stories suggests, or the way it makes Gordon look like he regards his staff merely as incompetent servants, it’s also an lousy approach to governing. First, ponder this from Lerner & Tiedens’ review of the effect of anger on decision-making:
Angry decision makers also typically process information in heuristic ways, not stopping to ponder alternative options before acting. They are eager to make decisions and are unlikely to stop and ponder or carefully analyze. This too derives primarily from the sense of certainty associated with anger, but may also be caused by the optimism they have about the future. Thus, angry decision makers may then, as Aristotle suggested long ago, have a difficult time being angry at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way.
In a political context, this makes it more likely that your decisions will be rash and ill thought-through – not something you really want in leaders who are often required to make decisions of great importance.
But perhaps more importantly in these economically threadbare times, we also know that happiness is a great way of boosting workers’ productivity:
In one experiment, subjects were split into two groups, with one being shown a short comedy film and the other not. Subjects shown the film were 10% more productive than those who weren’t. This productivity boost was confined to those who actually enjoyed the film.
What’s more, subjects did not realize that this effect was happening; only 31% felt that watching the clip had improved their skill on the test.
In another experiment, subjects were asked before the test whether they had suffered a family bereavement or parental divorce in the last two years. Those who said they had were about 10% less productive than those who said they hadn’t.
So if Gordon could find it within himself to be a bit nicer to the people who work for him – maybe by bringing some fancy biscuits to the office, arranging a ‘dress down Friday’ or the occasional curry night, he might well find that Downing Street becomes a better functioning, more well-oiled governing machine.
Make ’em smile, Gordon. It might not do much for your poll ratings, but at least you’ll see less of your staff running to Andrew Rawnsley.
Tags: Conservatives, James Purnell, Labour, Welfare Reform
There has never been a better – or a worse – time to reform the welfare system. Aided by a recession which has made public spending the top political issue, and the deep anger caused by the tragedies of Baby P and Shannon Matthews, the public have become far more receptive to the idea of a tougher, sanction-based system than they were in the halcyon days of summer. Short of a Labour rebellion on the scale of the 10p tax fiasco, our increasing antipathy towards the terminally jobless will probably see Purnell’s pet project sail through the Commons. And yet, as some are painfully aware, in days when the jobless figures keep rising, it’s hard to find jobs for the short-term unemployed, let alone those who have never worked in their lives.
The problem with trying to write about welfare reform is so much of the rhetoric tends to merge economic issues (the amount of money the state spends on the poorest in society) with social problems (the crime, poor education, family breakdown and general dysfunction which can be found in impoverished communities).The two are heavily linked, of course, but the mistake politicians often make is assuming that by producing policies to tackle the former, the latter will somehow fix itself.
The chief perpetrators of this mistake are the Labour government. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation points out, the primary weapon in Labour’s war on poverty has been expanding and incentivising employment, and whilst this worked fine during our Days of Plenty, it was unlikely to stand the test of time; we were always going to endure a recession at some point, and some of those lifted out of poverty by employment will inevitably fall back into poverty when they lose their job.
At the same time, whilst Labour had succeeded in extending prosperity to some, it’s been unable to tackle the underlying social problems which prevented the poor from finding work even during the boom years. We still have crime and violence, drug addiction, teen pregnancy and kids being raised by parents with barely a GCSE to their name, and there’s nothing in Purnell’s proposals which suggests that will change.
The Conservatives’ proposals are slightly more complicated to assess. Predictably enough, in the Mail on Sunday, David Cameron daubs a bleak, Lowryesque picture of working class Britain and indulges in the kind of crude moralising of someone who’s just read about poverty in the Daily Telegraph. But when you look beyond the ‘Purnell on steroids’ part of the Tories’ plans, there’s an attention to social problems which sets them apart from Labour.
Yes, Cameron insists, we need to badger, cajole and ‘condition’ the poor into taking whatever work our newly-minted job centres will give them, but we also need tax breaks for married couples and greater freedom for schools. Furthermore, The Observer reports that they’d create a ‘new breed of welfare-to-work’ advisers, who, in addition to finding people jobs, would also assess their home lives and the conditions their children live in:
They could examine children’s school performance or problem behaviour, check whether the parents encouraged homework and school attendance, and intervene if necessary to stop children risking future unemployment.
I don’t want anyone to mistake me for a fan of these ideas. Even if marriage tax incentives really are designed to help the poor and aren’t just the Middle England-pleasing giveaway I assume them to be, it’s still a waste of money which could be put to good use elsewhere. And as for the proposed ‘home visits’ from welfare-to-work advisors, what that essentially amounts to is a quasi-criminalisation of unemployment and one of the most astonishing examples of right-wing authoritarianism I’ve seen in a long time.
Nonetheless, there is at least an acceptance on the Tories’ part that adequately reforming the welfare system will also require a commitment to tackling some of the causes and consequences of lifelong unemployment, that those problems have formed over generations and will take just as long to resolve. Their diagnosis of the problem is reasonably good, but their idea of the cure is emphatically not.
The war on welfare is still in its infancy, and I don’t think we can make any definitive conclusions from these opening skirmishes. However, now that the shortcomings of Labour’s attempts at tackling poverty are slowly being revealed, it’s time to look again at the causes of long-term unemployment and look to strategies which go beyond simply outsourcing job seekers to private contractors, crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. In their own, maddening, meddling way, the Tories have at least grasped that fact. Now it’s time for Labour to start catching up.
Image by Flickr user Neil101 (no relation!) (Creative Commons)
Whatever your thoughts on European integration, we should still feel a mixture of embarrassment and relief that the European Court of Human Rights remains a rational, independent failsafe against the worst excesses of the British state. A number of blogs have picked up the story of two men from Sheffield whose DNA had been extracted by police and stored on a national database. One of the men had been arrested on suspicion of harassment, the other with attempted robbery. Both were innocent. In Gordon Brown’s Britain, the state can take your DNA for crimes as heinous as dropping litter or committing a traffic violation, and they can hold onto it even if you’re found innocent of the charges brought against you. Whilst the court’s decision will hardly spell the death of the database state, we can at least hope that its power will now be tamed, with at least 850,000 separate records expected to be removed.
But lest anyone assumes that justice has finally run its course, it’s worth remembering that the speed with which the government reacts to these decisions is nothing short of sclerotic. In February 2007, the ECHR ruled that trade unions were legally entitled to exclude members of fascist organisations, yet 22 months later, the changes which are needed to make that more explicit under British law are still being haggled over on a slow-moving employment bill.
But by far the most grievous of these deferrals of justice has been the government’s senseless, obsessive delays in giving prisoners the right to vote. As I’ve noted twice before, the ruling that Britain must extend the franchise to at least some prisoners was made in 2004, and since then, all that’s materialised has been a thoroughly meaningless ‘consultation exercise’. As John Hirst – who took the case to Strasbourg in the first place – points out, this week’s Queen’s Speech contained no mention of the issue, making it almost certain that the ECHR’s decision won’t be written into British law before the next general election.
There’s only so long you can use ‘consultations’ as an excuse for avoiding that which you are legally obliged to do, and for New Labour to have allowed so much time to pass without even a hint at progress shows a blatant disregard for a document they once considered important enough to embed into law. What’s more, the implications of allowing an election to go ahead without extending the franchise are simply embarrassing for Britain. As parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has already pointed out, holding a general election without fixing the law will create “a significant risk that the next general election will take place in a way that fails to comply with the convention and at least part of the prison population will be unlawfully disenfranchised.” Procrastinating your way into a constitutional crisis might be so typically New Labour, but it still makes the country look pathetic.
By comparison, I find the whole Damian Green affair to be superfluous & tiresome, but there was one comment on the saga which struck me as absolutely correct:
“MPs have to be allowed to get on with their job but no MP is above the law.
The man who said that was Gordon Brown. If only he and his government could produce actions to match the rhetoric.
Image: European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, taken by Flickr user keepthebyte (Creative Commons)
Good news! According to Gordon Brown, what doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger!
Aside from sounding like cross between a Kanye West song and a Coronation Street platitude, this phrase could easily be applied to Brown’s own political fortunes at the moment. I won’t reheat the same observations others have made about the PM’s temporary resuscitation, but it’s comforting that his response to the banking armageddon has been hailed by people like the recent Nobel winner Paul Krugman. Given his habit of repeating failure for the past 12 months, it’s nice (and a little strange) to see Downing Street not screwing something up.
It’s also worth remembering how self-indulgent all that intra-party squabbling was just a few short weeks ago. As I warned at the time, if the knife-wielding anti-Brown plotters had had their way, the nation’s governing party would’ve been effectively leaderless at the exact time the country needed strong leadership. Whatever your thoughts on the Prime Minister (the record will show that I’m not a fan), I think most of us would agree that the past month wouldn’t have made the best time to remove him.
But looking into the future, it’s difficult to see how this could be anything more than a stay of execution. The blame game has barely begun, and for all the superficiality Cameron has displayed on economic matters, even he will could land a few punches on the Prime Minister for not seeing the crisis coming. On top of this, the public finances are in even more of a state than they were before, the prospect of choosing between tax hikes and public spending cuts (or even having to do both) seems inevitable, and almost any decision the government makes in this regard is likely to enrage the public. Anyone who’s paid attention to the ‘have your say’ segments on news programmes will have noticed the anger, particularly felt among public sector workers, when the government says there’s no money for things like pay rises, but can suddenly find £50 billion to bail out the city. Populism will become du jour, and it’s not a look that suits Brown at all.
Still, right now we’re mostly just being thankful for small mercies. Our stockbrokers seem to have restrained themselves from indulging in yet more panic selling, the FTSE has enjoyed a minor recovery and the Dow Jones has opened strongly. The end of the world’s been averted for another day, and as for whether it kills Gordon Brown or makes him stronger, well for that we’ll just have to wait & see.
Tags: British Politics, Gordon Brown, Labour Party Conference
It’d be churlish to deny that when judged solely as a political performance, Brown’s speech was reasonably effective. With all the competing demands and expectations placed upon him, the PM needed to strike the kind of balance that would’ve challenged the average tightrope walker, let alone a modestly gifted orator. He had to appear humbled by the leadership speculation & the opinion poll hammering, yet still emit the gravitas of a world statesman. He needed to admit to & apologise for the diabolical errors he’s made in both policy and presentation, yet still persuade people that he remains the right man for the job. Lastly, he needed to deflect responsibility for the country’s economic woe but insist that only he can help lead the country through it.
He achieved all these aims to some degree, and whilst the speech was at least 2,000 words too long, it demonstrated that there’s still some life in the old clunking fist yet. If Labour doesn’t end the week with at least a two point gain in their approval, then it’ll prove conclusively that the rest of the country has just stopped listening.
But it was just a speech. As others have noted, anyone on the left who’d naively hoped Brown might add some red meat to the rhetoric was once again left looking like a kid on a council estate who prays she gets a pony for Christmas. Whatever may or may not change in the political landscape in the weeks ahead, Brown’s vision remains fundamentally the same. In this new state of ‘fairness’, his welfare reforms are still drafted by a former investment banker, the working class still endure a tax hike so the middle class can enjoy a tax cut, law & order policy is still dictated by Paul Dacre and the gap between the richest & poorest remains eye-wateringly high. On top of this, prisoners still can’t vote, asylum seekers still can’t work, the people he praised for providing public services still can’t get a pay rise that matches inflation and hospital porters still give a greater proportion of their income to the taxman than hedge fund managers. At best, Brown’s is a conveniently incomplete view of fairness. At worst, it’s a complete disfigurement.
All of which is stating the stark-nakedly obvious, of course. What we don’t know, what we can’t yet know, is whether any of this is enough to cling to those seats like Crewe & Nantwich which never should’ve been lost in the first place. Is Brown’s piecemeal, haphazardly-packaged vision enough to stop the bleeding everywhere from the middle-class marginals to former strongholds like Sunderland? And if not, would the imagined advantages of removing Brown outweigh the very real risks?
I haven’t a clue, but I’m at least comforted by the fact that no one in the illustrious commentariat is any the wiser, either. For the moment, all we can do is wait until the moment the Queen bequeaths us another election and the parties once again beg us into the voting booth to choose between the lesser of ‘who cares?’
I can hardly wait.
Image by Flickr user Judepics (Creative Commons)
Tags: Daily Telegraph, Gordon Brown, Really Bad Journalism
Via Jess McCabe at The F-Word, those intrepid terriers at The Telegraph delve into the real reasons for rebellion against Gordon Brown and discover that it’s just a cabal led by a bunch of women who are emotional, irrational, and probably having their periods. Here’s their expert analysis of Siobhain McDonagh:
She sounded like a woman facing an emotional crisis, not a government minister in the midst of knifing the Prime Minister.
Classy. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, conservatives are the new progressives….
Tags: British Politics, Gordon Brown, Impending Doom, Labour Party, New Labour
I guess the main point in Nigel Wilmott’s CiF piece – that only by adopting a more progressive platform can Labour slowly claw back some for the activists & voters who’ve jumped ship – is a good one. Unfortunately, the chances of this happening before the next general election are pretty remote.
For one, who is around to kick-start this new progressive future? It’s highly unlikely that Jack Straw would reverse the government’s policy on 42 days detention or ID cards, that Alan Johnson would put an end to the encroachment of private companies in health provision, that David Miliband would perform a mea culpa on Iraq or advocate dismantling Trident, that Ed would have the Balls to slash the taxes of the low-paid by asking the super-rich to start paying more, or that James Purnell would abandon his own ghastly-sounding welfare reforms. At present, these men are the only plausible candidates for Labour leader and each one of them is tasked with executing policies which are only ‘progressive’ if you accept the Conservatives’ definition of the word.
Secondly, as I wrote earlier, none of these policies are particularly important to ordinary voters, and whilst I accept the logic that Labour’s first task should be to rally its own electoral base, you’re unlikely to stave off electoral armageddon without having been seen to take measures to put more money in people’s pockets. Then the next problem is that some of the ideas of doing this would upset the progressive elements you’re trying to win back. For example, many progressives care about green issues, and yet maintaining or even increasing fuel duty to encourage us to choose greener forms of transport would be nothing short of suicidal.
Labour’s ability to change is hamstrung by the fact they’re in government. The party can rebuild itself, it can become more progressive and it can win back many of those who’ve deserted since ’97. But I think the only way this’ll happen is from the opposition benches.
Tags: British Politics, Gordon Brown, Labour Party, leadership challenge, New Labour
Regular readers will be shocked by this, but I’m going to break my longstanding policy of forgetting to comment on Major! Breaking! News! and offer a few semi-lucid thoughts on whether Brown should be replaced as Labour leader.
What’s striking about the policy reactions to Glasgow East, such as the statement yesterday from Compass, is that many of them are just recitations of the writers’ pet hates, not attempts to address voters’ actual concerns. Voters are angry about the credit crunch, knife crime, unaffordable housing, fuel prices and fuel tax, and food prices. The Labour left are talking about hostility to ID cards, Trident, 42 day detention and public services reform and PFI, issues where the public support the Government or just don’t care.
I think this is probably true. From my own super-scientific research (sample size: my parents, plus assorted passers-by), I know that financial matters are the only thing that people who don’t have much money care about right now. Their mortgage is up for renewal and they face paying up to £200 a month more than they were. Their electricity & gas bills keep rising. It costs more and more to make the same car journeys. They’ve taken to shopping at Aldi or buying the brandless ‘economy’ goods at supermarkets. The pay increases they were offered by the council were so derisory their union took strike action.
These are not conditions that foster a contented electorate, and whilst they know their financial burden isn’t entirely the fault of the government, they also suspect that there’s nothing the government can do to make their lives better. Having realised this, it’s not surprising that people are wondering whether a change of government might improve things.
But the futility of removing Gordon Brown as Labour’s leader is that there’s not one thing his successors could do to put more money in people’s pockets without abandoning their spending commitments. Does anyone really think that if there was some magic sponge for the economy, this former Chancellor with a decade of experience wouldn’t have applied it by now? Of course not. So at this point we’re simply talking about a change of presentation, which is a little self-defeating when one of Labour’s main attacks against David Cameron is that he’s little more than a shallow & showy salesman.
I realise that Labour backbenchers are now more worried about losing their jobs than losing power, but considering there’s little his successor could change policy-wise, I can’t see how many net positives there are by replacing Brown with an Alan Johnson, a Jack Straw or a David Miliband.
To explain, let’s play a little game of ‘what if?’ Since no action seems possible over the summer recess, let’s imagine that Labour MPs force a leadership challenge soon after Parliament returns. Whilst the respective campaigns might get a fair amount of coverage, the Tories would incessantly repeat the accusation that at a time of economic turmoil which is hurting ordinary voters, the Labour party is ‘in disarray’, ‘turning on itself’, ‘fiddling whilst the country burns’ etc etc. Having finally chosen a new leader, that accusation wouldn’t go away, but it would be joined by a demand for a general election. Since we would have had two unelected Prime Ministers, his successor would be forced to agree, and probably before he had the chance to impose his or her ‘new vision’. Would this potential future help Labour hold any seats that weren’t already lost?
Suffice to say, I think the party’s going to lose with or without a change in leadership, but there’s a more damaging long-term consequence of having someone other than Brown lead the party to that defeat. If Brown’s kicked out of Downing Street in May 2010, it’ll give Labour a chance to rebuild and reconsider its direction without too much of a negative perception from the electorate. On the other hand, if they change leaders yet again, it’ll imply that Labour MPs were happy to forsake stability for turmoil at a time when they were supposed to be leading the country. If that’s the impression Labour leaves after three terms in office, it won’t be the Conservatives any more who talk at length about ‘decontaminating the brand’.
Anton Vowl on Gordon Brown’s losing streak:
You could forgive Brown for being a little confused. He’s done everything the Daily Mail wanted: reduced taxes for the rich, increased taxes for the poor, decreased civil liberties, targeted Muslims, put more and more people in jail, increased sentences for violent crime and taken discretion away from those handing out sentences, put more people in jail for lesser offences, criminalised everyone under the age of 21 – and now he wants to humiliate the poorest and most vulnerable people in society by making the unemployed do community service; essentially, giving the same punishment to a poor person that you’d give to someone who’d beaten up an old granny.
That’s a right-wing shopping list with everything ticked off. Yet Brown still isn’t popular, on the right or the left. He must be wondering what’s gone wrong.
Tags: 42 Day Detention, Conservative Party, Gordon Brown, Labour Party, New Labour, Politics
So you know this plan to threaten a school with closure if it fails to meet its targets? I was wondering; any chance we can apply it to governments, too?
For those who still care about that nebulous concept called social justice, it’s been a pretty wretched week: health inequalities are becoming sharper, the number of children in poverty has increased by 100,000 and the number of poor pensioners by three times that amount.
Since the poverty rate also increased last year, we can no longer view it as an aberration, but as the beginnings of worrying trend. Given the increases in food and fuel prices and the unlikelihood that Darling’s 10p tax ‘compensation package’ will reimburse everyone who lost out, it’s likely to rise next year as well. Thanks to the financial straightjacket Brown has imposed on his government, we face the very real prospect that by 2010 – the target Blair set to halve child poverty – the figure will continue to creep back towards pre-Labour levels.
At this point, it’s difficult to know to respond without reaching for clichés: sure, we can say Labour’s been subservient to big business & the super-rich, too obsessed with their middle class marginals to bother with sane social policy and so petrified of tongue-lashings from the Tory press that they’re happy to adopt any authoritarian measure that’ll keep them quiet. We can say all of this, but it won’t really get us anywhere.
Instead, we need to look at Brown’s actions since becoming PM and try to deduce whether his government has either the ability or the resolve to correct its mistakes and pursue the new ideas needed to close the gap between rich and poor. The evidence is… well, what do you expect?!
Where to start? We’ve seen him brutishly declare British Jobs For British Workers, shamelessly announce troop withdrawals during the Tory conference, sign the Lisbon treaty when he thought no one would be watching, give inheritance tax away, abolish the 10p tax band to pay for a middle class tax cut and reclassify cannabis despite there being no evidence it’s required.
But perhaps most reflective of Brown’s approach to politics can be seen in the awful, unnecessary, and ghastly authoritarianism displayed in passing 42 days detention. As has been noted elsewhere, there have been no coherent arguments about why the bill is required now, nor why 28 days was so dangerously insufficient; there have been a paltry number of cases that’ve even gone close to original limit and a Home Office Minister suggested the new power might never even be used – arguing, laughably, that it will just be a benign safeguard in case counter-terrorism officers encounter a villain who could evade even Jack Bauer.
No, the prime motivation behind this bill, just like so many other actions he’s taken as Prime Minister, is a craven brand of politics. Faced with worse polls ratings than Michael Foot, Brown’s spent weeks scrabbling around for an issue with which to begin his ‘comeback’, and since the opinion polls are in favour and both the Tories and Liberals are opposed, he gets to ‘fight courageously’ for Britain’s security against the ‘hug-a-terrorist’ brigade who bleat about human rights.
Yeats once wrote “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” This isn’t always true. In fact, when looking at Brown I’d argue the worst all lack conviction. Since becoming Prime Minister, Brown’s modus operandi has been calculation and triangulation, surrendering key policies for short-term gain & scoring cheap points on trivial issues. Above all, his Premiership has been defined not by a desire to govern well but by a desire to win. He has been successful in neither.
You don’t go into government to beat the Conservatives; you go into government to help those who most need it. And when your desire to beat the Tories and save your own skin prevents you from helping those your party represents, then you really must question whether you’re fit to lead Labour into next week, let alone the next election.
Change quickly, Gordon, or resign – there are millions still living in poverty and they just can’t afford you.
Photo by Flickr user davepattern (Creative Commons)
Tags: 42 Day Detention, New Labour
Loathe as I am to praise the words of a Tory politician, this one does have the benefit of being right. Passed on without further comment, a powerful, scathing attack on Brown’s fetish for 42 days and a damning indictment of his priorities as Prime Minister:
First of all, ask yourself this: why is this bill before parliament now at all? Fuel and food prices are rocketing upwards, inflation and interest rates are on the rise, growth has slowed and the economy is faltering in the face of huge budget and trade deficits. Public infrastructure in rural areas such as my own Herefordshire is in desperate need of renewal.
The country is crying out for effective leadership. And what do we get? The unheralded resuscitation of a politically dormant issue by the government on its own initiative, and at the request of neither the police nor MI5. The home secretary marshalling the whips to round up the usual suspects, rather than dealing with prison overcrowding and illegal immigration. The prime minister ignoring the issues of the day to work the phones in order to get this bill through the house. What an embarrassment – to themselves, to the offices they hold, and to us all.