progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

mind the gap

"Achieving ‘equality of opportunity’ is very hard when there are such wide differences between the resources which people and their families have to help them fulfil their diverse potentials."

So says the Report of the National Equality Panel, released today.

Since the break-up of the post-war consensus of a mixed economy - welfare state, nationalised industries and private enterprise - we've seen the growth of a super-rich elite and the slowing of social mobility. The Thatcherite promise of "popular capitalism" and "property-owning democracy" has become the reality of utilities controlled by foreign corporations and a housing market distorted by speculation. The creation of global capital flows through deregulation and the opening up of China, India and Central and Eastern Europe, has meant the continued decline of manufacturing and extractive industries.

In their book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue against the neo-liberal argument that inequality benefits the poor. This latter credo was made most famously expressed by Lord Griffiths of Goldman Sachs who told us that we should learn to live with "inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity for all".

Sadly, the rising tide doesn't float all boats. Wealth doesn't trickle down, it gushes up. As Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, has said today when welcoming the work of  National Equality Panel, "growing inequality destabilises the wider economy, leaves a substantial proportion living in real poverty and undermines the social cohesion that provides a large part of what makes for a good fulfilling life."

So there's no point in examining inequality if production and distribution are not also taken into consideration. From reading the executive summary of the report, it appears that policy solutions are not offered - the purpose of the Panel was to examine how inequalities are linked to "characteristics and circumstances".

It is true, as equalities minister Harriet Harman notes in the foreword, that public policy interventions can help achieve fairness. But if the economy is geared towards profit-maximisation for the few, rather than well-being for the many, public policy will have a limited effect.

Which is why it is important to promote cooperative and mutual enterprises (CMEs) as the best model of ownership for the private sector. Business as usual will only create the same inequalities. As William Davies argues in Reinventing the firm, co-ownership can boost productivity, empower workers, and ensure sustainable development...

well, you can prove anything with facts, can't you?

Crime stats give the latest interesting news. Across England and Wales crime is down 8% on last year. Certainly puts Tory claims of a broken society in a new light.

In the midst of the worst recession since WW2, criminal activity is falling. What gives?
Car crime fell by a fifth and the number of robberies showed a reduction of 9%.
Ministers say the British Crime Survey's separate study reveals that the risk of being a victim of crime has reached its lowest recorded level.

According to the quarterly crime figures covering July to September 2009, there were falls in all categories of recorded crime over the period, with the exception of sexual offences which rose 5%.

Home Office experts say they do not know why sexual offences rose although police chiefs have been encouraging more women to come forward to report complaints.
I'd say this last bit might be particularly true. Stereotypes are being challenged through a bold advertising campaign, though the odd Tory councillor might make sick jokes...

Strategies to improve service delivery include eliminating all targets except those for public satisfaction, and police forces working with other agencies and local communities in setting priorities.

There's been a shift back to community policing from the 'rapid response' approach of the Tory years, with police community support officers helping to improve communication between local communities and police forces. There are fourteen thousand more police officers than in 1997 and sixteen thousand PSCOs working with 3600 Neighbourhood Policing Teams.

Far from being tough on crime, the Tories would not keep funding this level of service delivery. Tory councils show their approach - effective provision is being cut down to "no-frills" basic service. For policing, this would mean going back to the days when to speak to your local police officer about a problem you'd have to wait for a passing police car and try to get the officers' attention...

+ + +

On public debt, though borrowing is at it's highest recorded level in terms of numbers, as a share of GDP it's about to hit 70%. Ann Pettifor gives us this nice graph to illustrate the significance in historical terms:

What the graph shows is that borrowing as a share of GDP has been much higher, and that Tory hysteria about debt levels mask a deep divide in interests. After WW2, the Labour government fought an election campaign on rebuilding from the crisis of war.

Churchill blew it for the Tories, claiming that the Gestapo would be needed for Labour to introduce the NHS. Now, we have Tories like Dan Hannan claiming that the health service is a failed experiment. The faces change, but the interests remain the same.

As Pettifor writes,

In 1946 Britain's debt was roughly 5 times what it is today - a staggering 250% of GDP. At that point an extraordinary thing happened. The heavily indebted Labour government began to spend - as soon as legislation was agreed by Parliament. Labour invested in a bold and visionary project: - a publicly funded health service free at the point of use - the NHS. There was a slum clearance and housing programme. They revived the ancient universities, provided pensions and welfare to the poor [emphasis added]

The debt levels came down as a result.

Today, it was announced that public debt had increased by less than expected and as Larry Elliott reports:

the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies said there was a good chance that the deficit for the full year would come in below Alistair Darling's £178bn forecast in the pre-budget report.

There's a chance for new growth, this time in the transition to a low-carbon economy, which can save us money and create thousands of jobs in this country.

But since the Tories have money flowing into their coffers from financial service companies and other business concerns that make far more money overseas than domestically, there's an obvious lack of interest in developing the UK economy...

the ones that never knock?

A bit of commentary...
The good news is that levels of unemployment are lower in this recession than the last. Partly, yes, this can be explained by the prolonged period of expansion - but there's also the factor that labour market support, in the form of improved job centre performance and targeted assistance, has helped.

Arguably, the position of the labour movement is weaker in the private sector than during the last recession, and that in part explains the willingness to negotiate pay cuts - industries that can threaten to leave, and demonstrably can, exercise greater bargaining power.

The news that there will be a pay freeze for local government workers means that the erosion of wages is now spreading into the public sector. This is a concern for one major reason: our economy is driven in large part by consumer spending on goods and services.

Hard times, for sure. Do good times await us? Given optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect, it's clear there's some hopeful news amongst the bad.

Youth unemployment has been a particular feature of this recession. The slump in private investment turned expansion into contraction, leading to greater competition for those new jobs that are created. In response to this, many young people are focusing on furthering their education - and this partly explains why there's a record high in economic inactivity amongst the working-age population.

... and some critique
 Over at his blog, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate Mike Barker points to what he would have liked to bring up at the Darlington Debate last night:
while we have such grotesque inequalities of wealth, living standards, life expectancy, teenage pregnancies etc etc between the most and the least affluent wards in the town, how can we truly say that we have a dynamic or successful economy in the town.

Judging the economic success of the town should be about more than how many companies open for business here, which university departments are going to locate here or how much those in work earn here, important though those measures are. It should also be about how successful we are at enabling that success to trickle down to the poorest people in society, those trapped in a dependency culture, reliant on state benefits, often for generation after generation.

Until those in relative poverty at the bottom of the economic ladder are able to share in the success enjoyed at the top of the ladder, our economy cannot be judged to be wholly successful.
I've some problems with the language that Mike uses, such as "trickle down" and "dependency culture" which are Tory buzz-words. "Trickle down" implies that there's some rational for wealth to be distributed through processes of capital accumulation. But in other respects - the idea that we need shared success - Mike is correct on how we should judge the economy.

I would suggest that what we need are forms of enterprise which have incentives to internalise negative externalities (meaning: not do bad stuff) and "spread-around" positive externalities (doing good stuff in the course of operating).

What am I talking about? Well, building societies, credit unions, cooperatives, and partnerships, are all private businesses but they produce economic and other benefits that are gained by members and by their communities. The term used these days is social enterprise...

Managed dynamism?

Tonight I attended the inaugaral Darlington Debate, "The economic future of Darlington - Dynamism or Decline?". Held at the Lingfield Point business park in the grand Lingfield House, the event was sponsored by Lingfield Point, the Northern Echo, and the Darlington Partnership.

I went in my capacity as Press Officer for Darlington Friends of the Earth - so that means I wasn't drinking wine and eating nibbles in a personal capacity...

The Question Time style debate was chaired by Peter Barron, editor of The Northern Echo.

On the panel were:

* Alastair Thomson, dean of Teesside University Business School, former MD of FTSE 250 and FTSE 100 businesses, now of the North East Institute of Directors.

* John Orchard, director of Marchday plc the company which has owned the Lingfield Point site for 10 years.

* Pat Ritchie, the regional director of the Homes and Communities Agency, formerly of One North East, the regional development agency.

* Alasdair MacConachie, owner of Sherwoods and Chair of the Darlington Local Strategic Partnership.

Howdy partners
The debate opened with praised being lavished on the local authority for its partnership working, drawing together public services, voluntary organisations, and private businesses through the Local Strategic Partnership.

I imagine this was a relief for the Chief Executive, Ada Burns, and the Leader of the Council, John Williams, who were both in the audience, along with prominent Cabinet members.

Alan Fielder from Yorkshire Bank made a good point from the floor about the town's demographics and the impact of an aging population.

This led nicely into a question about Teesside University, which is establishing the Darlington University in the next few years, and already has courses operating at the Eastbourne School building. John Orchard stressed the potential for new start-up enterprises and for the town to project a youthful identity.

The next question was about the Tees Valley concept and there was a debate about the levels at which economic development strategies operate - local, sub-regional, regional, or all three? Peter Barron noted the perception of competition between the towns within the Tees Valley. John Orchard admitted that before coming to work in Darlington he had not been familiar with the Tees Valley concept and that the North East could be percieved as a fragmented region.

The importance of south-west Durham and North Yorkshire to the Darlington economy was highlighted, suggesting that although it is necessary for co-operation and co-ordination with other local authorities and local strategic partnerships in the Tees Valley, other links cannot be ignored.

Social enterprise?
Karen Grundy from eVOLution, voluntary services support organisation, asked about the level of private sector support for the third sector.

The academic interest in this growing sector was noted by Alastair Thomson, who made the (rather Thatcherite) point about who writes the cheques.

(It was at this point that I regretted not having written a question on my entrance slip to raise the subject of "not for loss" social enterprises - surely everyone understands the co-op concept?)

Karen Grundy spoke about the need to share skills and that it wasn't all about money. Private companies could exchange skills with voluntary organisations - it could be enriching for both sides.

Steve Rose spoke strongly of the need for social justice in developing the economy and argued that the third sector had the potential to deliver in this respect. I think he was getting at what I was thinking about social enterprise, so I'm glad he made those points.

Sadly, Alasdair Thomson again made a very Thatcherite point - it's all very well talking about social justice, but someone's got to write the cheques. Naturally, social enterprise - fair trade - is somewhat alien to the Institute of Directors! Many costs are bourne by society from the competition to maximise profits and in some instances (poverty, homelessness, unemployment) that's why there are voluntary services in the first place.

Corus of disapproval?
The discussion of the Corus plant in Redcar which has been given a stay of execution was rather pessimistic. Many speakers felt that there was inevitably going to be job losses and that the best thing would be to focus on quickly getting those affected into new jobs.

The need to focus on an industrial strategy for the region was expressed by, of all people, a Tory! Alan Coultas, who has a background in engineering having been a director at Whessoe, and is now a strong supporter of voluntary services in the town, highlighted the desirability of a balanced economy structured around advanced manufacturing.

That the UK has been without a coherent and meaningful industrial policy for the past three decades was ignored, and Alan reserved his remarks for the Labour administration rather than the Tory governments of the 80s that brought in the policy of "managed decline" of manufacturing and the free movement of capital out of the country.

The realisation, in the wake of the financial crisis that the UK economy requires an industrial strategy to secure long-term investment, is easy to mock. But here, I'm with Mandelson - there needs to be a politics of production. The local strategic partnership will hopefully be able to implement some "managed dynamism" in advanced manufacturing...

Future debates
At the end of the hour I felt that though some important issues had been touched upon, everyone had been rather restrained.

The presence of cameras obviously stifled the kind of questioning that might otherwise have taken place.

An interesting question raised from the floor about the impact of migration on labour markets was swatted away by panellists. The importing of labour acts in concert with outsourcing of jobs to displace workers and leads to social tensions between different communities. To talk about increasing skills one minute and then defend importing skilled workers the next shows a lack of coherence...

I would like to see a future debate specifically on the potential of green services and manufacturing industries in Darlington. And perhaps next time there will be representation of workers interests on the panel, such as someone from the TUC or a Darlington trade union activist?

Another shock doctrine for Haiti?

The earthquake in Haiti on January 12 is estimated to have caused over 200,000 deaths. Public infrastructure, already fragile, has been dealt a huge blow. Extreme poverty is being made worse by the devastation and supplies of humanitarian aid are being slowed by distribution problems.

What is remarkable about this tragedy is that in recent years Haiti has been largely ignored by UK media. I recall press reports of the coup that ousted popular leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in which the CIA is heavily implicated, stressed that perhaps with a UN peacekeeping force, development could proceed. The concern amongst the US elite has long been that Haiti would succeed in joining Cuba in pursuing a path of development independent of US corporate influence.

Obviously, a natural catastrophe on the scale of the recent earthquake will draw a great deal of media attention. It is a great shame that there wasn't a huge aid effort during the spikes in food prices during 2008 that sparked riots in Haiti.

But now there is a chance to assess what has gone wrong for Haiti. All of the policy recommendations of the free-market think-tanks and institutions were implemented - deregulation of markets, the ending of trade barriers. And to what end?

There should be no "shock doctrine" imposed upon Haiti.

(You will note that as news broke of this tragedy, the Tory shadow chancellor announced that if the Tories win office they will impose immediate spending cuts. A reminder that unnatural disasters await us if we do not try and stop them...)

The UK govt has trebled humanitarian relief to Haiti. You can donate here.

not the few

The name of this blog is from a line in Labour's constitution:

"by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect."

You will note that this is from the revised Clause Four. The old version said, in more technical detail, that the aim of the party was

"To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service."

The motives for changing the wording aside, it's clear that the stated goal is to increase the power that people have in their daily lives, in their places of work and leisure.

The trade union movement was borne of the struggles of ordinary people for democratic participation. The Labour party was created by the unions to advance the interests of working people.

I start this blog in 2010 - over fifteen years since this famous article of Labour's constitution was altered.

Without going into boring details of the whys and wherefores of it, we are faced with a situation where the party could again be out of office, replaced by a Tory government committed to helping the most fortunate, and putting back the progress of working people by depriving them of legal rights and statutory services.

Unlike the 80s, we face a global economic crisis, a global climate crisis, and a national energy crisis.

As Labour's leader writes, "we need a policy for growth and for the future of jobs – and the difference between Labour and Conservative is that the Conservatives reject industrial strategy as a matter of ideology."

Not only as a matter of ideology. Politics is not about concepts or morals - but interests.