Monday, April 18, 2011

Changing the Voting System

Changing FPTP to AV

A Briefing on the AV Referendum 5th May 2011.

Professor Bill Jones, University of Liverpool Hope

‘The time for change is when it can be no longer resisted’? Duke Cambridge

Why has the Referendum been called?
The vote originates with the agreement to form the Coalition government in May 2010 in the wake of an election which denied any party an overall majority. Labour had already floated the idea of a referendum on the Alternative Vote as bait for Lib Dem voters’ support but following the inconclusive election result, any Labour-Lib-Dem collaboration would have left a gap which could only be made into a majority by unreliable smaller parties like the nationalists. So Nick Clegg’s party looked to the Conservatives to whose 305 seats, their added number of 57 made a very workable majority- assuming they could agree a deal.

Voting Reform: Like their predecessors the Liberal Party, the Lib Democrats railed against a voting system which gave scant reward to a party with thin national support; in 1983 the Liberal-Social Democrat Alliance won 26% of the vote but barely 4% of the seats. Reform of the voting system was therefore the Holy Grail sought by the third party and Cameron was forced to equal Labour’s offer to tempt Nick Clegg to enter the Conservative embrace. For Liberal Democrats, winning the AV referendum is a very big deal. For over half of Labour MPs however, and probably an equal number of Conservative ones, First Past the Post(FPTP) is still their preferred choice. The debate between the ‘No’ and the ‘Yes’ campaigns will escalate until 5th may when the vote will resolve it- at least for the time being. This briefing outlines the arguments for and against FPTP and the mooted Alternative Vote (AV).

The Two Systems
First past the Post (FPTP): employs a simple plurality: the candidate receiving the most votes- made by an X alongside the candidate’s name on the ballot paper- wins.

Alternative Vote (AV) entails use of numbers to list preferences among candidates. Any candidate polling over 50% first choices is elected. If no candidate gets 50% then lowest scoring one is eliminated and their second preferences are distributed as if they were ‘first’ choices. This continues until someone crosses the 50% line.

FPTP Ballot Paper:

AV Ballot Paper:

The ‘Yes’ Case

First Past the Post System Considered

A System for a Bygone Age?

‘March of Democracy’ Argument: A thousand years ago Britain was ruled by and
absolute monarch who controlled the making, implementation and interpretation of
the law. An embryonic parliament gradually acquired influence and power until it
challenged and overthrew the monarchy in the 17th century Civil War, after which
parliament exercised the upper hand over a fading monarchy. In 1832 came the Great
Reform Act, its preamble stating its objective was to ‘take effectual measures for
correcting the diverse abuses that have long prevailed in the choice of members to
serve in the Commons House of Parliament.’. The Act made voting less corrupt and
the right to vote was extended gradually until all citizens over 21 became owners of
the vote, including women after 1928. Some argue that this historic advance of
democracy still has some way to go, given the shortcomings of our present voting
system, and that further reform is necessary. The Guardian newspaper, champion of
left of centre opinion has argued that the conditions which made FPTP
democratically appropriate, have now passed.

“When every voter was either Labour or Conservative, the first-past
the-post (FPTP) system of election caused few serious injustices. With only two main parties to choose from, and with most loyalties seemingly immutable, a swing in the national mood was easily – and reasonably fairly – replicated on the opposing benches of the House of Commons. For most of the 19th century, and for several decades in the middle of the 20th, British politics was a two-horse race. If the Tories were up, Labour was down. If Labour soared, the Tories sank. Those times are over. Those circumstances no longer exist. The old Britain has fragmented and its politics have fragmented with it. Voting is more shaped by things like education, gender, age, ethnicity and cultural identity, and less by class and locality alone.” (Guardian editorial 4th April 2011)

Focus of both systems: while AV is focuses on fairness within a constituency, FPTP is concerned with overall fairness and effectiveness for the UK as a whole.

Critique of FPTP according to the ‘Yes’ campaign:
i) FPTP enables candidates to be elected on a minority-less than 50%- of the votes. Two thirds of MPs were elected in this way in May 2010, arguably ‘wasting’ the votes of each majority and rubbishing the notion of FPTP’s supposed glory: the ‘constituency-MP link’.
ii) It doesn’t eliminate coalition governments: as numbers of smaller parties grow in number and size big parties cannot gain overall majorities. Coalitions are now much more likely even under FPTP because smaller parties now regularly win around 85 seats and to govern alone a party is much less likely to win the required landslide. .
iii) FPTP means smaller parties gain only a few seats e.g. the SDP-Alliance won 26% votes in 1983 but only 4% of the seats. This means large numbers of voters who support, say, Greens, do not have MPs in the legislature, a highly undemocratic outcome.
iv) Under FPTP barely 1% of the electorate in a handful of marginal contests, decide who forms the government, while millions of voters in safe seats see their votes count for nothing. This means this small number of voters exercise disproportionate power and influence.
v) FPTP has made half seats in UK ‘safe seats for life’ unlikely to change hands.
vi) FPTP doesn’t necessarily ‘kick out’ unpopular governments; only one government with a working majority has been so dealt with in the last 100 years.
vii) It is not necessarily a barrier against extremism as BNP councillors have been elected all over the UK.

AV’s Alleged Advantages
i) Would ensure elected candidate represented the majority view of voters.
ii) Under AV every vote of every voter counts in a contest, even in safe seats.
iii) Because other preferences can be crucial candidates are obliged to reach out to other voters.
iv) However, voters do not have to list preferences for all candidates.
v) Because of the above, candidates are less likely to engage in negative campaigning.
vi) Because voters can actually vote for their second preferences, tactical voting is pre-empted.
vii) AV would not assist extremist parties as they rarely attract 2nd preferences and their small numbers of 1st choices would not win them seats.
viii) As evidence of vi) above, the BNP oppose AV.
ix) Under AV parties ‘will not be able to ignore a large number of people that they ignore at the moment’ (John Denham, Labour MP)
x) AV will encourage a convergence of views; as Denham argues further, parties: ‘will need to appeal beyond their base, politicians will be forced to look for consensus, to be more open-minded, less tribal, not so slavishly loyal to party whips.’
xi) AV does not give some voters two votes, as argued by No2AV and even Douglas Hurd. Lib Dem Jo Swinson put it his way: ‘If I ask you to buy me a mars bar but a mars is not available and I suggest you buy a Twix instead, I will not receive two bars of chocolate. A transferred vote is not a multiple vote.’
xii) AV would not cost an extra £250m as claimed by No2AV. Pencils on ballot paper would be the system not expensive voting machines from Australia.
xiii) Listing preferences is not complex; Irish voters have no difficulty in understanding their much more complex Single Transferable Vote (STV) system.
xiv) It is not an ‘alien’ system: ‘AV offers an incremental, moderate improvement and that is a terribly British way of reforming our constitution.’ ( Andrew Rawnsley, Observer, 3rd April 2011.
xv) This is the system used in clubs and societies all over the country as well as the Speaker and chairs of Select committees..
xvi) Political parties also use it widely, including the Conservative party which elected David Cameron in this way. If his election had been run via FPTP then David Davis, receiving 31% of the first vote, would now be leader and presumably prime minister!

The ‘No’ to AV Case
Alleged strengths of FPTP
i) FPTP creates strong government with coalitions uncommon.
ii) It is clearly based on ‘one person one vote’.
iii) It is simple both to understand and implement.
iv) It makes it very difficult for extremist parties to succeed.
v) It is the most widely used system in world-50 countries, including USA, Canada and India, use it.

Critique of AV according to No2AV
i) By contrast to v) above, only three countries use AV: Australia (and only for its House of Representatives), Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
ii) AV will cost an additional £250m- money which could be better spent on public services.
iii) AV is complex to understand.
iv) AV is not proportional as many people insist in believing.
v) AV is unfair in that the candidate who comes second can go on to win.
vi) AV will lead to more hung parliaments with their attendant backroom deals between politicians and not involving voters.
vii) Most voters in Australia do not list any preferences meaning that many MPs win without 50% of the votes. Rallings and Thrasher say, ‘more than 4 out of ten MPs would still be elected with the endorsement of less than half the voters.’
viii) AV would not reduce the nearly 300 ‘safe seats’ where MPs have more than 50% of the vote.
ix) AV won’t stop elections being won by swing voters in a few constituencies.
x) Silly to say votes ‘wasted’ when one’s candidate is defeated; taking part in an election always carries such a risk.
xi) AV would, if anything, accentuate ‘tactical voting’ in that 2nd and 3rd preferences would be wooed.
xii) AV would not end negative campaigning

Celebrity Backing
As in USA celebrity backing for a cause is influential. So far celebs are as follows:

For AV include: Colin Firth, Joanna Lumley, John Cleese, Helena Bonham Carter,
Stephen Fry, Billy Bragg, Edddie Izzard, Tony Robinson, Richard Wilson, Art Malik,
Kris Akabussi

Against AV and for FPTP include: Peter Stringfellow, Julian Fellowes, Darren Gough, David Gower, Tony Hadley, Michael Howard, Margaret Beckett, John Prescott

‘Winning’ if first- ‘losing’ if anything else? Several more sporting celebrities oppose AV as they think, as Cameron has argued, it denies victory to the ‘winner’, i.e. the person gaining the most 1st choices. A letter to The Times(15/4/11) denied a ‘race’ was the appropriate metaphor for an election; rather, ‘more accurately the electorate should be seen as an outsize selection panel given the task of appointing someone to work for all of us’.

Political Aspects
Oddly, this is the referendum few really want. Liberal Democrats ideally want a form of Proportional Representation, like STV or AV Plus as recommended by the 1998 Jenkins Commission or as installed for the devolved UK assemblies. Nick Clegg called it, before the election, ‘a baby step in the right direction’ and also a ‘miserable little compromise’. Conservatives oppose it as they fear a near permanent alliance between Labour and the closer soul-mates, the Lib Dems, which might lock them out of power indefinitely. Labour too fear the loss of a system whereby their power had always been gained; conservatives traditionalists on the one hand and left-wingers on the other who hope one day to capture the party and lead it in a radical direction. Some, like Austin Mitchell and David Owen, advise a vote against AV on the grounds it will delay achievement of the ‘real’ objective of proper PR.

Professsor Vernon Bogdanor in The Guardian, 12h April, however, pointed out that
even if passed and implemented, AV would ‘make little difference in most general elections’. David Sanders at Essex University ran a simulation suggesting that in May 2010 AV would have resulted only in 32 extra seats for the Liberal Democrats: 22 at the expense of the Conservatives and 10 from Labour. This is not to say that the outcome of the referendum will not have far reaching consequences Lord Rees-Mogg wrote that the Conservatives are under the most pressure on the referendum: they vcan accept council losses but ‘AV would be forever.

Andrew Rawnsley tended to agree in The Observer, 10th April:

“The outcome of the referendum on voting reform is potentially explosive for one of them whichever way it goes. A No vote will cause tremors under Nick Clegg. A Yes vote will see members of his own party accusing Mr Cameron of making a catastrophic mistake when he conceded the referendum in the first place. My guess is that a win for AV will cause more trouble for Mr Cameron than defeat would mean for Mr Clegg.”

Voting in the referendum will definitely be a worthwhile activity for people who care about their governance. At present the polls are not giving clear indications as both camps have had periods in the lead. The Times’ recent Populus poll showed a drop in ‘yes’ voters from 41% in February to 33% first week April. But on 16th April The Guardian declared the ’Nos’ to be in front.

Bill Jones April 2011

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tony Blair's 'Journey'

An Analysis of Tony Blair’s period in office based on his book, A Journey, Hutchinson (price varies but big discounts usually offered)

‘I voted Labour in 1983. I didn’t really think a Labour victory was the best thing for the country and I was a Labour candidate.’ Tony Blair, A Journey.

Tony Blair has been a feature of British life for almost two decades but still manages to be highly controversial; his 3 year in the writing, 700 page memoir- A Journey- has underlined this point emphatically. The fact that it made the bestseller lists before even being published is further evidence of an enduring public fascination with the man. Personally I have met countless people who confess how they at first perceived him as the nation’s saviour after 18 years of Conservative misery, then became disillusioned after Iraq and his ‘poodling’ to Bush, but could never quite extinguish a degree of interest or even regard for this fluent and charming public figure. I am particularly taken by this, I suppose, as I occupy a similar category. How readers react to the book I guess will more than usually with an author, depend on how they view him: friend or foe, villain or hero.

Before addressing the memoir itself it has to be said that since leaving power, Blair
has not won many additional friends by appearing to have an inordinate interest in
matching the fortunes of the super-rich whose company he seems so much to enjoy.
His property portfolio now comprises: five homes including a £3.7m des res in
Connaught Square, subsequently ‘knocked through’ to absorb an adjacent mews
property, itself worth close to a million pounds; two posh London apartments for sons
Euan and Nicky and there is, of course the $5.7m country pad, once the home of that
other great actor, Sir John Gielgud.

In addition to this there is: the hugely remunerative part-time work for the likes of JP
Morgan and Zurich Financial Services and all those after dinner speeches in USA,
China and elsewhere, at £150-200,000 a pop. Tony Blair Associates has been
shown to have a structure of such byzantine complexity that it seems clear he did not
want his financial affairs to be especially transparent. Given that Cherie was brought
up in relative poverty, it could be that his tastes were to some extent influenced by a
wife who sought the security of relative riches; I tend to think, however, it was as
much his tendency as hers. Those Labour supporters, like me, who think their party
leaders should opt for modest lifestyles(one thinks wistfully of Attlee and Bevin or
even the tea-drinking Tony Benn), not a Grand Canyon’s width from those of
ordinary voters, have deplored this tendency whereby Blair became a ‘celebrity’
prime minister, aiding and abetting the ‘filthy rich’ and losing much moral authority
in so doing.

Blair sheds some light on why he entered politics and on the side of Labour. His
Political epiphany, when the bolt of lightning struck him was shortly after he met
Cherie andvisited the Commons to meet Tom Pendry MP. Waiting in the

‘Cavernous Central Lobby…’he writes, ‘I was thunderstruck. It just hit me. This was
where I wanted to be…I had a complete presentiment: here I was going to be.’

So Blair, never seen as a ‘House of Commons man’, owed his lifetime obsession to
the magic of the place. Later on a piece of Tony Benn’s leftwing oratory also inspired
him. Why Labour and not the other side, less guilty about the high life and the party
too for which his own father aspired to be an MP? One story is that two leading Tory
MPs rather thought the same and when Blair arrived in the Commons took him out to
dinner to sound him out. Their conclusion was that the answer, on this occasion was
indeed his wife, Cherie, daughter of the leftwing actor, Tony Booth. Her own
ambitions to enter the House, were reflected in her candidacy for Thanet South in1983
but thereafter, says her husband:

‘As I became more passionate, she saw herself more as a barrister’.

Blair soon made his mark in shadow roles and when John Smith tragically died in
1994, he had to decide whether to stand for the leadership or to defer to the man who
had so effectively stood in for Smith following his earlier heart attack. His reaction to
this dilemma expressed vividly why he became leader and Brown did not.:

‘The truth is I was out in front, taking risks, and this was a time for risk-takers. I
spotted that; he didn’t.’ More on Gordon later.

Blair allows an insight into his psyche when he relates a scene in Schindler’s list, a
film which moved both him and Cherie. In it, the commandant, played by Ralph
Fiennes shoots dead a camp inmate while chatting to his girlfriend. She continues
chatting as if not involved.

‘Except that she wasn’t. There were no bystanders in that situation. You participate
whether you like it or not. You take sides by inaction as much as by action. Why were
the Nazis able to do these things? Because of people like him? No, because of people
like her.’
This story, in effect a variation on Edmund Burke’s "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." helps explain his attitude towards ‘humanitarian intervention’; laid out in his Chicago speech in 1999. This was a plea to ‘bring down a despotic regime on the grounds of the nature of that regime’ and is, I think, a key to understanding this complex politician. He argued that, providing it is doable and all other expedients have been tried, it behoves peace-loving states to remove tyrants and liberate otherwise benighted peoples. His memoirs relate the examples of Kosovo, which brought down Milosevic and Sierra Leone, which helped bring down Charles Taylor, dictatorial leader of adjacent Liberia.
Both forays into military usage involved risk but both proved successful and seemed to fulfil Blair’s views on the duties of principled bystanders to evil. Blair’s account of the Iraq decision and subsequent events serve to add it to his ‘enlightened’ line on the morality of states. He tries hard, and with some success I thought, to convince us that his available intelligence on WMD was wholly convincing at the time and that the chances of it being true were too great to ignore. He also seeks to argue that, given the atrocities inflicted on Iran, the Kurds and his own people, the human costs of the war can be justified by the removal of a vile and monstrous dictator.
The impression I get from his book is that after his earlier successes, he somehow thought he had discovered the means to fulfil his ‘destiny’ to reshape the world for the better; some have described this as his ‘messianic tendency’. But Iraq, tragically, proved a case where massive risk failed to come off, producing extended tragedy instead of heroic success. He doesn’t either satisfactorily explain why he was so content to follow the lead of George Bush. That he liked and admired him is clear to see but to follow the American president’s judgement so blindly many of his supporters see as his greatest crime. I also wondered why he did not deflect some of the blame-either in his book or evidence to Chilcot- for the awfulness of Iraq onto the way in which the war was planned and implemented.
Rumsfeld’s naïve belief the job could be done with half the troops advised by his own military plus his ignoring of advice regarding the need to retain internal security in the wake of victory not to mention the requirement to rebuild the shattered country, are surely more culpable than anything Blair might have done or not done. Blair does not really address the ‘poodle’ accusation. Journalists like Andrew Rawnsley (see The End of the Party (2010, Viking) argue that, apart from urging Bush to involve the United Nations he never threatened to withhold full support of what the US went on to in Iraq.
Rafael Behr, reviewing George Bush’s Points of Decision in the Observer 14th October 2010, makes a shrewd point about these two authors of the Iraq invasion:
.” It is easy to see how he and Tony Blair got along so famously. Their memoirs, published weeks apart, corroborate each other's accounts of characters that clicked easily together. Both men have an evangelical sense of grace within that makes their choices immune from criticism because, whatever the outcome, the intention was honest. It is a brilliantly circular and impregnable defence – the test of a policy is not whether it works, but whether it is morally authentic, and the arbiter of authenticity happens also to be the author of the policy.”
Blair’s account of the domestic agenda is inextricably entangled with his relationship with Gordon Brown. Both men had evolved the idea of New Labour along with Peter Mandelson and Philip Gould but whereas some saw it as political expedience, with Blair, it seemed New Labour achieved the status of strongly held principle. It had begun with an acceptance of Thatcherite economics regarding tight control of inflation plus minimal regulation of market forces, thus advantaging the City and related financial sector. After Labour’s failure in the 1970s this was adopted as the new bedrock of the party’s economic thinking, embraced by both Blair and Brown. However, once funds were being channelled into the public sector Blair was keen to attach it, make it conditional upon thorough-going reform.
This is where the mantle of ‘New Labour’ seemed to pass on to Blair and be almost disowned by Brown. Blair wanted to introduce choice, competition, flexibility and the involvement of the private sector both to access new funding and add discipline to public sector activities. So we saw the introduction of Foundation Hospitals and Academies, both exercising greater autonomy, competition for resources and collaboration with the private sector. Universities, for their part, were to be financed via tuition fees to help them maintain high academic levels and keep up with the superior performance of fees- funded US universities.
For a variety of reasons Brown chose to oppose this direction as a ‘marketisation’ of
public services. Cynics concluded this was merely a political ploy to undermine Blair
and force him to surrender occupancy of number 10 sooner rather than later. The truth
is that his motives were so skewed by personal ambition that clear analysis is
impossible. For this reason Health minister Alan Milburn clashed violently with
Brown in pursuit of Foundation Hospitals and, according to Blair’s account eventually
stood down from government partly through frustration at Brown’s spoiling tactics
at the Treasury.

Historians are bound to identify the Blair-Brown feud as the dominating political
feature of New Labour’s decade in power. The 2005 election witnessed it reach a new
climax in terms of acrimony and bitterness. It had not always been like this. Writing
about their earlier friendship Blair describes how they were almost locked together:

‘Our minds moved fast and at that point in sync. When others were present, we felt
the pace and power diminish until, a bit like lovers desperate to get to love
making but disturbed by old friends dropping around, we would try to bustle them
out, steering them door-wards with a hearty slap on the back.’

It is clear Brown felt he was the senior partner, as indeed he was in terms of status in
the Labour Party as well as experience in the jungle of Scottish and Westminster
politics. But these were two very different men with different qualities. Blair was
naturally more optimistic and prepared to put himself on the line while Brown was
innately more cautious, less extrovert and confident; Blair felt the friendship losing
some momentum even as the 1990s began By late 1992, Blair felt they ‘took another
small yet significant step apart.’ when some rooms became available in Millbank

‘At that time Gordon and I were both in 1 Parliament St, just opposite Westminster by
the bridge. Gordon decided to move to Millbank and wanted me to join him. Cherie
emphatically told me I shouldn’t. Rather to my surprise, Anji(Hunter, close aide and
lifelong friend) said the same. I didn’t go. It was no big deal; but it was another

Elsewhere in the memoir Blair calls his friend ‘maddening’ with ‘zero’ emotional
Intelligence but also praises him as:

‘Someone of immense talent, ability commitment. And in the end his contribution
was enormous.’

The chapter on ‘Domestic Reform’ is shot through with complaints of Brown’s sulky
intransigence over tuition fees- when his choreographed opposition within the party
nearly brought Blair down- Foundation hospitals and the rest.. Blair resolved to break
the impasse over when he would stand down. In November 2003 the two men met in
Prescott’s flat in Admiralty House. Blair told him ‘bluntly’ that he was prepared to go
after two terms ‘but the constant obstruction and wilful blocking of the reform
programme had to stop’. According to Blair, this was now the deal: Gordon
behaves, supports the New Labour reforms and he could step up to the leadership for
the third term with Tony’s support. Blair argues that after this ‘deal’ Gordon began to
feel an ‘entitlement’ to the succession and played down or ignored any compliance
with policy directions. Blair feels this arrangement, in retrospect, was unwise: it was
not their place to ‘apportion power like that’.

In the event when Blair’s aides soon told him Brown was not keeping his side of the
agreement, Blair decided to stand for a third term, thus ratcheting the feud up another
few notches. Blair discusses why he did not decisively sack Brown or move him to
another ministry. His reasons are understandable. First, Gordon had huge support in
the party, many of whom felt the travails of the party could be remedied should he
become leader. Second, sacking him would have riven the party and maybe caused a
civil war. Finally, Blair could not think of anyone better and felt ‘He gave the
government ballast, solidity and strength.’ Blair himself however, seems sometimes to
blame himself as if he is not quite sure it was cowardice on his behalf which allowed
Brown to dominate the agenda and frustrate his objectives.

While keen to talk up his successes and, as with Iraq to minimise some of his failures,
Blair candidly admits to some without reservation. Of these the Millennium Dome
was probably the major one; ‘In this day and age it wasn’t really a suitable project for
government and it never quite struck a note sufficiently attuned to the millennium.’
Also up there with the turkeys was the Hunting Ban: ‘I was ignorant about the sport. I
thought it a bit weird that people wanted to gallivant around hunting a fox, but having
read my Trollope I understood it to be part of our history. What I didn’t understand
but boy, I understood it later- was that it was a rather large part of our rural present.’
He admitted it had been a ‘disaster’.

Finally, there was the Freedom of Information Act. Many of his critics might allow
this was one of his progressive achievements but he would seek to disagree. He thinks
important decisions about the nation have to be made in private without the
fear that publicity will destroy frankness and truth.

‘The truth is that the FOI act is not used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used
by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you
with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead and handing them a mallet.’

Julian Glover’s Guardian review of the book 2nd September 2010, is mixed; he saw it

‘Honest, confused, memorable, boastful, fitfully endearing, important, lazy, shallow,
rambling and intellectually correct.’

But it was also littered with genuinely revealing insights into his own actions and
Political action in general. For example, his own:

‘Tendency to think I could persuade anyone of anything provided I truly believed it
(not even experience ever quite eliminated this trait of mine).’

He is also perceptive on the place of personal attacks in politics. He explains how he:

‘Defined Major as weak; Hague better at jokes than judgement; Howard as an
opportunist; Cameron a flip-flop not knowing where he wanted to go. Expressed like
that, these attacks seem flat, rather mundane almost, and not exactly inspiring- but
that’s their appeal. Anyone of those charges if it comes to be believed, is actually

And again, this astute manipulator of the media had spotted something most of us had
not quite realised about it, regarding the nature of protest:

‘Let’s say a politician attends a meeting at which there are a thousand people present
and one of them shouts something. The other 999 people can be supportive or at least
reasonable in their opposition, but the lone disruptive voice is offered as
representative when the chances are it isn’t. Most people don’t make a scene, so by
definition the lone protester is atypical not typical.’

On balance I tend to see the book rather as Glover assessment above: a mixture of
contradictory, good and bad qualities. Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer review has a go
at the written style: ‘for a ‘brilliant communicator… he can be a ghastly writer’. He
then lists a sample of the clichés which abound in the book: ‘Derry was like a dog
with a bone’ Diana ‘captured the essence of an era’. ‘Lights appear at the end of
tunnels’, writes Rawnsley, ‘and wounds are rubbed with salt’.

I think this is over harsh. Blair has always striven after the common touch and this
highly personal, slightly blokish style makes the book very accessible and
authentically his book; Rawnsley is closer to the truth when he diagnoses a ‘faux
intimate style of the autobiographies of footballers or models’ The Observer
columnist does however allow that this is also a very honest book-‘this is a more
honest political memoir than most’. I was struck by the sections regarding his own
fears, his pervading, sobering fear in the wake of his landslide 1997 victory and his
palpable terror at taking PMQs:
"PMQs was the most nerve-racking, discombobulating, nail-biting, bowelmoving, terror-inspiring, courage-draining experience in my prime ministerial life, without question."
I would also agree with Rawnsley that the book is not especially well organised, the
aspect any academic first looks for in coursework student essays. I’d give Blair a B+
for aspiration- pursuing themes rather than a chronology- but only C+ for delivery as
his ‘themed’ chapters often slide lazily into chronological narratives.

Finally, I was intrigued by Dominic Lawson’s 5th September analysis in the Sunday
Times who was struck by the comment towards the end of the book: ‘Personally, I
have never felt a greater sense of frustration or indeed a greater urge to leadership’
Combine that with Blair’s comment elsewhere to a journalist that ‘I feel a
great urge to participate in my country’s political life’ and Lawson reckons ‘it adds up
to a charmingly open expression of continued ambition to return to the highest level
of domestic political power.’ The last former prime minister, arguably, to harbour
ambitions of a great return to the fray was Harold Macmillan; he never succeeded and
it would be a shame if Blair is to live out the rest of his life yearning for something
beyond his grasp, or like one of his heroes, David Lloyd George, too devalued by his
flexible relationship with the truth ever to be trusted again.

Bill Jones November 2010.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Coalition Considered

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition So Far

If Gordon Brown's fate has been to resemble not just one but several Shakespearean tragic heroes – cursed in his relationship with Tony Blair by a jealousy worthy of Othello, racked in the first months of his premiership by the indecision of Hamlet – then today he was Macbeth, seemingly playing out his final act. Like the embattled Scottish king holed up in his castle, watching Birnam Wood march on Dunsinane, Brown sat in No 10 knowing that, a few yards away, enemy forces were gathered, preparing to combine and seize his crown. Jonathan Freedland Observer, 9th May, 2010

Party Outcomes:
During Friday 7th May, the exhausted principal players in the election drama must have surveyed their respective positions with an admixture of feelings. All must have been disappointed, though Labour must have felt a combination of emotions. Since mid 2009 most Labour people, apart from the congenitally naive or optimistic, had expected the coming election to end in defeat. Pessimistic supporters feared a wipe-out: Labour perhaps destroyed for a generation. To return 260 seats was a substantial reassurance that the party was still in business.

The Conservatives, conversely, had long expected to cruise grandly into office, with a tidy majority. To end up in a hung parliament therefore appeared a disaster to some, a condemnation of Cameron and Osborne’s campaign strategy to others. The decision to allow televised debates when well ahead in the polls was especially the object of derision by some disaffected Conservatives. Most of them tended to be of the more traditional variety who thought Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ theme had sounded impractical and was impossible to sell on the doorstep.
But maybe it was the Liberal Democrats who were most keenly disappointed. After steady but unspectacular progress after 1992, the party had played very much a peripheral role in British politics, seeking hard to make an impact and leaning mostly towards support for Labour. Their expectations however had been electrified by the televised debates. From being a 20 per cent polling element in a ‘two and half party system’, they suddenly were an equal part of a three-way contest. Of course the voting system would not deliver them power unless they won over 40 per cent of the vote- almost unthinkable- but a 30 plus share would have given them a slew of more seats and a more powerful moral case to demand crucial voting reform. The end result however revealed that ‘Cleggmania’ had delivered virtually nothing: only one percent more of the vote than in 2005 and several seats lost besides. It was ‘so unfair and undemocratic’ many party members must have raged. But the arithmetic of the election had created a number of intriguing possibilities.

Constitutional rules:

In the event of a ‘hung’ parliament, where no party has an overall majority, the rules drawn up, based to some extent on the last time this occurred back in February 1974, lay down that the prime minister remains in office while he seeks to form a government which can command the House of Commons. In practice this means the PM tries to do a deal with another party which will facilitate a majority in the House. In 1974 Edward Heath, while having polled the more votes but was four seats short of Labour’s total of seats, tried to persuade Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberals to add their weight. Thorpe was interested but when his party insisted on voting reform as a condition, Heath backed off and Wilson took over at the head of a minority administration. Gordon Brown, therefore, accused of ‘squatting’ in Number 10 by The Sun was in fact performing his proper role to the letter. But, as he pondered his quandary, the numbers did not look promising for Brown.

The Post Election Arithmetic

The figures ended up as: Conservatives, 307; Labour, 258; Lib Dems 57; and Others, 28 (Plaid Cymru- 3, SNP 6, Greens 1, DUP, 8; Sinn Fein 5 SDLP, 5 Alliance 1). This meant that, with no overall majority available to any party two main options offered themselves: an agreement from a pact not to vote down major bills ranging to full coalition; or a minority administration in which the Conservatives, as the largest party, sought to pass their major measures, while daring the other parties to precipitate a second election in which they might be punished by the voters for bringing down the government. This feat had been achieved by Wilson in 1974 when his minority government had held on until the autumn when a second election delivered him a small majority of six.

Coalition Options

Conservative-Liberal Democrat:

This one was easily envisaged as both sets of MPs added up to a comfortable 364, easily able to survive all but the most massive backbench revolts. On the plus side: Clegg and Cameron, both public school and Oxbridge, seemed to get on well personally; both believed in robust approaches to dealing with the deficit; and both shared antipathy to Labour’s record on human rights. Against it however was a formidable list of disadvantages: Lib Dem and Conservative activists, whilst they cooperated on some councils, were frequently at daggers drawn over bitterly disputed local issues; most of the former were naturally closer ideologically to Labour; and many Lib Dem MPs had only been elected through persuading Labour voters to vote for them in order to keep Conservatives out, not put them in.

Moreover, Lib Dems feared a coalition might absorb their smaller party via a new realignment of centre left and centre-right- as had happened to the ‘National Liberals in 1931. In addition, the Conservatives were mostly opposed to the EU while Lib Dems were essentially committed to it. But the crucial bone of party contention was reform of the voting system. Once again the ‘third party’ had done badly, garnering nearly a quarter of the votes yet less than 10% of the seats. Lib Dems were desperate to achieve a more proportional system of voting while the Conservatives, aware that some 60 per cent of voters were left of centre feared such a system would lock them out of power possibly indefinitely.

Labour-Liberal Democrat:

The above realignment possibility made it very dangerous for Labour to sit back and watch it happen, with the chance it might become permanent; especially as Blair and Ashdown had both wanted such a ‘progressive alliance’ in 1997 but had been vetoed by senior figures in Labour’s Cabinet. At the end of election night, thirteen years on, something similar was to happen: a number of Labour Cabinet ministers, like Mandelson, Hain and Johnson, were openly suggesting a deal could be done on voting reform. The Lib Dems knew Labour was more sympathetic but were wary of a number of factors: Clegg had declared he did not think he could work with Labour as long as Brown was their leader; a number of Labour’s influential figures like Ed Balls, were not happy about voting reform (Brown, in addition, was believed to have been the main opponent back in 1997); and both parties disagreed on things like ID cards. But the biggest disadvantage lay in the arithmetic.

To assemble a majority Labour would need to construct a ‘rainbow’ coalition comprising themselves, the Lib Dems, plus the nationalists and the Green to achieve anything like a very slim and probably unworkable majority. The DUP might have been persuaded but their natural allies lay in the blue not red corner. Hard-headed realists on both sides doubted if such a coalition could be sustained for long. The SNP would be likely to demand a high price and any major reform of the voting system might have led to revolts in the Labour ranks. Finally, a referendum cobbled together by such an assorted collection of forces might have been perceived as opportunistic and voted down.

The End Game

The day after a desperately close fought election campaign must have left Nick Clegg exhausted. And he must have been hugely disappointed when viewing the wreckage of his hopes for a massive increase in seats turned into a net loss of five. But, so baffling and confusing had the whole process been, he suddenly found himself the much courted centre of a bidding war. Gordon Brown, still prime minister in Downing St remember, announced he would offer a referendum on the Alternative Vote system and Cabinet seats to Clegg’s party. He said he was prepared to talk to the leaders of ‘all parties’ and provide civil servant support for any negotiations.

Cameron countered by announcing a ‘big, open, comprehensive offer’ to the Liberal Democrats, recognising the differences but emphasising the common ground plus an ‘all party inquiry into electoral reform’. Clegg had said before the election that if he held the balance of power after it, he would talk to the party with the biggest mandate. Clearly the Conservatives were this party and negotiations ensued with William Hague spokesman on the Conservatives side. The media interest was intense with 24 hour news channels receiving constant attention. Rumours abounded that the EU and voting reform were proving to be sticking points but Hague and other Tory voices spoke of great good will and a substantial meeting of minds.

The next day the rightwing press were aghast to hear that Clegg had been talking secretly to Labour on Sunday. This was followed by Brown’s final attempt to keep Cameron out of his home for the past three years: he announced his resignation as Labour leader, offering to step down after a period of five months once a new Labour leader had been elected by the party. It was rumoured senior figures had urged Brown to stand down with dignity having effectively lost the election. Clegg thereupon announced he would enter into negotiations with Labour, while the country waited on tenterhooks. The day before the Observer had followed the likes of Polly Toynbee in Saturday’s Guardian in urging the negotiation of a ‘rainbow coalition’. ‘To Seize this Historic Moment, the Lib Dems Must Turn to Labour’ cried the Sunday’s editorial, backed up by columnists Will Hutton and Nick Cohen.

Labour’s resolve soon broke down however, with both sides blaming the other of not really wanting to come together and an extraordinary series of attacks on the proposed deal by a number of senior Labour figures including former Home Secretary John Reid, Lord Falconer, Andy Burnham Dianne Abott and several others. Their objections ranged from an opposition to changing the voting system to a strong sense that a ‘coalition of the losers’ would be unstable, undemocratic, short-lived and against the party’s long term interests. Clegg and his colleagues fled to the open arms of his first suitor and a coalition agreement was soon announced.

Perhaps stung by the thought Labour might steal capture the prize, Cameron upped his offer on voting reform to a promise of a referendum on the AV system. Shortly afterwards a new coalition Conservative-Liberal Democrat government was announced. Gordon Brown came out of 10 Downing St to resign with dignity and walked off with his wife and family to return to Scotland before beginning a new life, presumably not so focused on politics. David Cameron followed Brown to the palace to ‘kiss hands’ and become Britain’s 52nd prime minister. On Wednesday 12th May Cameron and Clegg appeared at a joint press conference in the garden of Number 10 Downing St, displaying an almost indecent degree of enthusiasm for each other and the new coalition.

Progress of the Coalition:

By August the coalition’s position was not looking too bad.

One thing one can say about the Coalition: its PR has been good. Anyway, The Economist's verdict, 12th August 2010, of the government's first 100 days could scarcely be improved upon; indeed a reforming incoming administration in 1997 would have been delighted with such an accolade. It's obvious the journal does not regard as the enforced imminent assault upon the city walls of Labour's public expenditure an altogether unalloyed disaster. Under Gordon Brown the UK became the Napoleonic home of dirigisme. A chart shows its spending by central government at 70% of all government spending as second only to New Zealand and above Germany (20%) and France(35%).

Labour ran a deficit even during the boom years, and stuck to its expansive three-year spending plans after recession hit. Fiscal stimulus on top of this took the deficit to a record high of 11% of GDP in 2009-10; the IMF forecast in May that it would be the biggest this year among G20 economies. Whoever won the election would sooner or later have to slash the deficit.

Osborne aims to pay off the deficit by 2014-5, less intense than some EU countries, like Ireland or Greece, but a big ask by any standards. But the journal praised the radical energy of both parties in their desire to shrink the state: 'Decentralisation has now found a home'. Education, the police and healthcare face major restructurings to make them more accountable to their local communities. Whilst aware of the dangers of precipitating the collapse of a fragile recovery, The Economist, offers a warm round of applause:

Yet with all these caveats, the new government’s vision of a looser state, and its determination to reform virtually all the public services at once, is boldly outlined. Add in the even more daring plan to cut the fiscal deficit, and Britain is in for a breathless and convulsive few years. Now and then, British elections are epochal, setting the tone for other countries, too. One such took place in 1945, when the modern welfare state got going. Another, in 1979, loosed Margaret Thatcher on a waiting world. By producing a ruling coalition that is as radical in redefining government as it is in cutting it, the election of 2010 may prove another turning point.

Policy areas:

Banking and Business-Lib Dems wanted to split retail from investment banks but Tories sceptical of this move. Result has been a commission to examine options; banks are still not lending enough. Cable is willing to fully privatise post office.

Deficit Reduction: Conservative plans dominate though Lib Dems increase of tax free allowance accepted. Otherwise latter have abandoned earlier manifesto position of not cutting too deep too fast. Eradication of the ‘structural(as opposed to ‘cyclical’) deficit’ in four years is something LDs still feel nervous about. The CSR 20th October will see LD Danny Alexander’s proposals for wholesale spending reductions. The big risk is that such cuts will slow the economy and expert opinion is still strongly divided on this point. The June Budget was criticised by the IFS for being ‘Regressive’ while the coalition claimed it was ‘fair’.

Political Reform: DPM Clegg is in charge of this, the key measure being the referendum on AV scheduled, according to the bill for next May together with equalisation of constituency boundary sizes (LDs not happy about ‘mere’ AV but Tories to campaign against it-Labour unease about it too). In addition there are: fixed term parliaments bill and an elected House of Lords bill (by end of year); plus one or two other items.

Education: Michael Gove is making the running here with his plans for more academies and to allow groups to set up ‘free’ schools. However, in both cases the number of serious take-ups has been very disappointing. LDs think along similar lines and both agree on ‘pupil premiums’, a scheme to give additional funds to schools taking on disadvantaged pupils so that they can be supported additionally. However, a major conflict is in the offing about university tuition fees which LDs oppose but Tories want to allow to rise much further. The recent Browne report supports this emphatically- average rises in tuition fees should rise to £6K- and Cable, a little shamefacedly, said he agreed w2ith the main recommendations.

Foreign Policy: LDs less keen on Afghanistan war than Tories but are ‘critical supporters’ of it. Both support Obama’s ‘surge’ and promise to withdraw troops by 2012. Cameron also wants to withdraw troops by time of next election. Obama welcomed him warmly when he visited. The Coalition is to inquire whether UK allowed torture to be used on suspects.

Defence: Trident replacement is a big issue with Tories in favour, despite £20bn cost, but LDs have won right for alternatives to be considered. It is likely replacement will be delayed until deficit has been removed. Service chiefs fighting to minimise cuts and Liam Fox not happy about imminent defence review. Simon Jenkins has called for the total abandonment of defence budget and dismissed it as ‘posturing’.

Europe: LDs launched biting attacks on Tories before election on their leaving mainstream EU grouping in parliament for a rightwing one allegedly racist and homophobic. Tory right acutely sensitive on this issue so it is potentially very divisive. Tories abandoned any attempt to rewrite EU treaties, as their rightwing wishes, as part of the coalition agreement. Cameron has made it clear he wishes to cooperate with EU partners and, while it has pleased LDs and EU partners, it has infuriated right-wingers.

Welfare: earnings link restored for pensioners as LDs wanted but public sector pensions being closely scrutinised for savings and affordability. Universal benefits have already been eroded by withdrawal of child benefit for higher rate tax payers- a policy which has won public support but enraged Tory supporters. IDS wants to introduce a new credit system which will not penalise those on benefit who return to work. LDs keen to retain Sure-start. Incapacity benefit to be made accessible only via a more stringent.

Home Affairs and Civil Liberties: LDs claim 14 of the policies in this section of the coalition agreement, many of which have been ‘actioned’. Tories have won annual immigration cap for non EU workers though Cable has objected to this. ID cards scrapped to LDs delight. Ken Clarke seems liberal on sentences and wants more, stiffer community ones and less shorter prison ones.

NHS: this has been surrendered by LDs to Tories who have introduced a big reorganisation, whereby commissioning of health services will be taken from primary health care trusts and devolved to committees of GPs. Many doubt GPs will be able to administer such a big task and that private companies might have to be called in.

Future Prospects of Coalition

LDs: Several commentators have predicted doom for the LDs. Simon Jenkins is by no means a leftwinger, despite his weekly Guardian slot, but had nothing but woe to predict for Nick Clegg(17/9/10). He starts off, amusingly, by describing Clegg as being 'in love' with Cameron:

You scurry early to the office, practising the phrase that will please him, the gesture he will notice. When you first see him in the corridor … you can't help it. The knees go. He is adorable

Unfortunately there is an angry family at home waiting to call you to account for your philandering behaviour. Jenkins praises the coalition as a 'coup' by Cameron 'worthy of Walpole': inventing a majority via a party which would die in consequence. The key question is:

'How can the Lib Dems fight the Tories at the next election when they will be defending a joint record?

The question is rhetorical of course. Clegg will have to forestall this fear at his conference... but how? Merger of the two parties possibly looms as lip-smackingly anticipated by some Tories. Jenkins suggests the coalition was a step too far. He should have agreed to stay indpendent and support what measures his party thought fit; that way he would have kept the party's integrity pure. Instead, he chose the big offfice, the car, the red boxes: the intoxication of power. He'd better enjoy it as it won't last for ever; as Jenkins grimly notes:
As leader of the Liberal Democrats, he has booked a ticket to oblivion.

Jenkins is a little too hard on the LDs maybe. In May 2010 the country faced an economic crisis, made worse by the euro crisis climaxing in Greece. The election was inconclusive but the chance to form a government lay with the LDs. If they had shirked it they would have lost credibility, they feared and argued they had a duty to step up to the plate. Maybe they will pay a heavy price but according to this view they had no choice, even to commit ‘suicide’. LDs seem happy to be in government at their Liverpool conference and they will have to lose much more support than they have so far for oblivion to beckon.

Tories: As for Cameron and the Conservatives, the future is perhaps a little less unsure. It is all dependent on two hugely important factors. First is public reaction to the CSR in a week’s time. Everyone knows it’s coming yet until the cuts bite everyone hopes it’s someone else who’ll take the hit. There has been an odd kind of ‘phoney war’ since the emergency budget 22nd June but that will soon end. The Conservatives stand at 38 in the polls, Labour at 34% and LDs at 18 but this could change rapidly. Given the shrill reaction within Tory ranks to the withdrawal of child benefit for upper rate tax payers, the reaction could be stunningly negative. Athens saw violent street demonstrations and such things might be mirrored on our streets, though Ireland has survived worse without such a dislocation.

Second, it depends on the economy. So far the recovery is fragile and some authorities have reckoned the chance of renewed recession is high. Keynesian economists, like Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, have wondered at UK’s cavalier extraction of demand through impending expenditure cuts. Labour suggested a less drastic route to cut the deficit at about half the rate favoured by Osborne. If public opinion fastens onto the idea that the cuts were not necessary and could have been avoided, the coalition could very soon be ‘toast’. The figure below shows UK debt as substantial but not as large as some other countries.

Cameron as Prime Minister:
Even his mortal enemies would have to admit Cameron has shaped up very well to the job of being PM. Clearly his Eton background- born to rule and all that- has stood him in excellent stead. But his success has not been without rumbles in his own party, unhappy that he muddied campaign waters with his vague Big Society theme and worried he seems too liberal and too pro his coalition partners:

The right’s grievances with David Cameron are not only about policy. They have long regarded the prime minister’s leadership style as aloof and cliquey, and have neither forgotten nor forgiven his failure to win a general election they believed was eminently winnable. He aggravated this anger by retaining almost all the advisers responsible for the election campaign, while asking some Tory frontbenchers to make way for Lib Dems in the cabinet. (Economist 9/10/10).

At the party conference Cameron was keen to invoke a national, almost wartime spirit, reminiscent of the last time there was a coalition. The attempt is to place Cameron above party as a national figure. But over-personalising has dangers if the key person loses popularity- remember Blair- so Tories must be careful.

One final point needs to be made about the Conservative led coalition: its tone is nothing like earlier Tory governments. There is no hectoring shrillness, and, more significantly, no plonking, patronising upper-middle class voices, characterised, memorably by Simon Head (Guardian 2/10/10) as ‘the sneer of cold command’.

Bill Jones 14th October 2010

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Nordic Model of Government

The Nordic Model of Government: Is it Still Relevant?

Note: this briefing draws heavily upon the superb Scandinavian Politics Today by David Arter, the foremost scholar in this area of study.

‘Up to date statistics and common sense observation depict a society that has found a viable mean between equitable distribution and solid economic performance.’ Henry Milner 1989, p16.

‘Majority building is the whole point of Swedish politics.’
Jan Bergquist, Social Democrat parliamentarian

Almost certainly the so-called ‘Nordic Model’ is based to a large extent upon the Swedish social democratic system of government which has been impressing and horrifying, according to taste, since the thirties. In 1936 the American journalist, Marquis Childs, wrote a book called Sweden: The Middle Way and it became a best seller. This was because it was written at a time when 20 million Americans were out of work while countries like Germany and the USSR provided full employment but no political liberty.

For the left the Soviet Union was especially difficult to comprehend as in theory- having abolished private property- it was ‘socialist’ and represented the shape of things to come. US journalist Lincoln Steffens visited and returned to pronounce: ‘I’ve seen the future and it works’. Others on the left like GB Shaw, visited to praise the new system and the Webbs’ Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation, was the high point of leftwing naivety But despite the carefully shepherded trips around the new ‘utopia’, many on the left distrusted a system which curbed so many democratic powers and accorded its leader the same adulation as Hitler.

Sweden, then, was seen as a salvation: a form of socialism which was midway between the two extremes, producing material plenty while preserving democratic liberty. Since the 1930s it became a Mecca for those looking for the secret of the ‘Nordic Model’ of socialism, welfare and democracy.

‘A Harmonious Democracy’: this term was used by Herbert Tingsten in 1966 to describe Sweden’s ability to resolve conflict and maintain a high standard of living. Thomas Anton in 1969 discerned how he thought how Sweden avoided conflict:

i) Policy preparation ‘extraordinarily deliberative’ via the utredning or pre-legislative commission. These were dominated by experts and fed into autonomous central boards rather than individual ministerial decision-making.
ii) Policy-Making is ‘highly rationalistic’ based on extended, thorough investigations and conducted, according to Arter in a ‘pragmatic, intellectual style… Broadly the view was that the government was established to do things, not to talk about doing things or think about doing things.’(Arter 153)
iii) Policy process is ‘very open’: all interested parties are consulted. There is a ‘remiss procedure’ whereby draft proposals are distributed to any party or group likely to be affected by them. Anton argued that while this procedure did not remove conflict, it ‘domesticated’ it and helped remove it from public view.
iv) Policy-making is consensual, with the agreement sought and reached with ‘virtually all the parties to them’ with even the dissenting statements of a commission not challenging the consensus.

Elements of the Swedish Model : David Arter discerns four of them:

a) A dominant Social Democrat (SAP) party which controlled government but not all political power. The SAP ruled Sweden from 1936, apart from a few months right up to 1976, meaning their vision had an excellent chance of being realised, though, it has to be said, they could not have done so without demonstrating a high degree of success as that vision unfolded. It should also be remarked that Swedish history for the century before the SAP came to power was one of grinding poverty; so much so that one third of its population emigrated to the USA during the first decade of the century. Sweden was known as the ‘poor house of Europe’ and it’s possible it was only mass emigration which headed off famine and rebellion. This suggests that any improvement in material conditions must have been deeply appreciated. Arter also points out that, despite being in ‘power’, other parties had a good degree of ‘policy influence’ of a kind denied to oppositions in the UK where they are almost entirely excluded from government. One explanation of the left dominance is that Sweden industrialised rather late by European standards and the traditionally elitist hierarchical society began to be transformed as the weak middle class could not resist the demands of the enfranchised proletariat. Consequently the SAP was able to gain power unencumbered by a strong middle class Liberal party. Finally, SAP prime ministers seemed to rule for a long time. Per Albin Hansson was leader of four governments; Tage Erlander was PM 1946-1969 and if Olof Palme had not been assassinated in 1986, he might have managed more than his seven years in power. Since then prime ministerial reigns have not been so extended.

b) A system which gave precedence ‘to representative over accountable government.’ By this he means, relating to the point above, that instead of holding governments to ‘account’ every four or five years, the inclusivity of the Swedish system, enables people to feel ‘the government is representative of the people as a whole. The notion of accountability, by contrast, is weak’ (p155).

c) A system which also was: founded on a historic compromise between capital and labour: organised by the social democratic party; and had established close relations with the major economic groups in society. The 1938 Saltsjobaden Pact between industry and labour was a crucial underpinning of the ‘compromise’. In effect the government invited in business representatives to advise on the economy and finance, leading to good relations between the SAP and business. This was strengthened by the informal Thursday Club discussions in the 1950s (a search on the web suggested this is now a dating agency!). ‘In short’ comments Arter, ‘neo-corporatism’ was at the heart of policy-making in the Swedish model.’

d) A political culture based upon consensus: traditionally Sweden has had a disposition to agree rather than disagree. Olof Peterson wrote(1994) ‘the aim of political decision-making has been to avoid divisive conflicts; and emphasis on compromise and pragmatic solutions has led to a political culture based on consensus’. Arter quotes Einborn and Logue to the effect that while parliamentary institutions are not dissimilar to other countries, it is the informal aspects, corporatism and political culture which make Sweden ‘more unique’. Arter explains that such a culture facilitates and reinforces a ‘bargaining democracy’ whereby ground is given in exchange for reciprocation, or as Stenelo and Jerneck suggest: ‘negotiations do not as a method of conflict resolution predominate over voting but naturally do not exclude it.’

Arter considers the deviations from this ‘Swedish model’ in other parts of Scandinavia:

Norway: this is the ‘closest fit’ in that: the Labour Party served for long periods after the war apart from a short time in 1963 and, unlike Sweden, never in coalition. Einar Gerhardsen was another long serving PM, leading four governments 1945-1965. Labour was careful to involve a wide range of group interests in the country. Again like its neighbour, using the commission device to prepare policy was traditional dating back into the 19th century, averaging about ten a year. It has been used along with the ‘remiss’ procedure to ensure new laws have been built on consensus. Group representatives are regularly co-opted onto planning committees. The Norwegian political scientist Stein Rokkan distinguished between the electoral channel determining the party in power and the corporate channel, determining what actually happens; as he pronounced: ‘votes count but resources decide’.

Denmark: here the social democratic hegemony was not present as this party had to rule in coalition for some of the 1960s but nevertheless they ‘could… be said to have exercised decisive influence on the policy agenda.’ Here again pre-legislative consultation was a feature of Danish politics long before the growth of the welfare state. ‘Corporatism’ was also a feature of Danish political practices since the 19th century, as the famous September Compromise in 1899 between unions and employers illustrated; in fact this was the first agreement of its kind in the world. On balance most students of Danish politics discern a ‘co-operative parliamentarianism in which pragmatism, tolerance, willingness to negotiate and competence are key behavioural norms’ (Fitzmaurice, 1981); all these recognisable as elements of the Nordic Model.

Finland: this country was not so famous for a consensual political culture but there was agreement for many years on keeping the USSR sweet. Also, in 1977 a meeting had established the Korpilampi Spirit when as gathering of leading pressure groups agreed to work together to stimulate the economy. Arter, however, points to clear deviations from the Nordic Model:
a) the existence of two parties on the left: the communist dominated Finnish Democratic League and the Social Democrats. The Agrarians were the party of government for many years before the rise of the Social Democrats.
b) Pre-legislative consultation was less open and less usual than elsewhere in Nordic countries. Instead interdepartmental working groups filled the gap.
c) Nor were there any significant examples of remiss and commissions of inquiry.
A kind of labour-employer compromise was agreed during the Winter war in 1940, renewed in 1946 but it was far from effective in surviving the 1950s and 60s. However a series of income policy agreements emerged from the 60s and an era of a more consensus political culture.

The Benefits of the Nordic Model
Economy: constantly expanding economic growth together with high-wage standards of living. Keeping business ‘onside’ meant there were few industrial disputes and satisfaction with their way of life, with their shining public services was high-some accused them of being ‘smug’ and ‘holier than thou’. But the economic system was most definitely capitalist, not ‘command’ as under communism or state -owned/nationalised as in UK. However the profitable outcome of the state’s business activities was translated into tax revenue and distributed to fund those excellent public services. An OECD report recently concluded a study on Nordic countries with:

“Income equality and poverty rates were lower in Denmark and Sweden than in any other OECD country, and they were below OECD average in Finland and Norway.”

Welfare Benefits include:

Medical free medical and dental treatment,
Education- free at all levels
High unemployment benefit-up to 80% of former wage plus plentiful retraining progammes for the unemployed.
Wage solidarity- worker differentials were initially reduced deliberately.
Parental leave: Gwladys Fouche in the Observer 16th November 2008 praises the benefits which return to Swedish citizens in return for their 60% tax rate:

“But the most eye-catching benefit is probably parental leave. Parents enjoy a joint parental leave lasting 480 days. For 390 days they receive 80 per cent of their income, capped at 440,000 kronor a year (£35,800), while for the remaining 90 days they receive 180 kronor (£14.60) a day. In theory the leave is split fifty-fifty, but it is up to the couple to decide how they want to organise it. One partner can give as many days as he or she wants to the other so long as each parent takes up to 60 days at the minimum. A single parent is entitled to the full 480-day period.”

The Nordic Model was and still is for many the envy of large parts of the world who felt it represented a viable ‘third way’ of material plenty plus

The Costs of the Nordic Model
These include:
High taxation, in many cases over 50% of take home pay. In the mid seventies the rightwing parties briefly were in government as anger at taxation was expressed in the ballot box.
Low Job Creation: Johan Norberg claims Sweden is good at making things but not good at creating jobs.
Economic Decline: from 1975-2000 per capita income grew by 72% in the US; 64% in Western Europe but only 43% in Sweden. By 2000 Sweden was only 14th in the OECD rankings, down from 4th in 1970.
Exploitation of the System: it was hard to prove but it widely felt to be the case: i)10% of retired people claiming invalidity benefit was more than was justified. ii) Even though Swedes are very healthy, in 2004 sickness benefits absorbed 16% of the government budget.
iii)One member of the Swedish union movement calculated that real unemployment when all the ‘hidden’ pockets were included, amounted to 20%.

Stultifying Conformity? Critics of Nordic countries focus on the conformity of their inhabitants. Madeleine Bunting, for example(Guardian August 2008) expresses it this way:

‘On successive visits to Denmark, Norway and now, just back from two weeks in Finland, I've kept bumping up against the same puzzling phenomenon: a kind of unquestioning assumption of how things should be, a form of social control about the way to behave and one's responsibilities to others. The point when it became starkly apparent in Finland was at Sunday family lunch in a country barn restaurant; every table was full but all you could hear were murmured whispers and the scrape of cutlery on china - until our families arrived, anarchic, squabbling and full of chatter, despite my Finnish friend's attempts to get us to be quiet.’

Andrew Brown, author of a charming book on Sweden called Fishing in Utopia, puts it thus:

“Everyone knows exactly what you have to do in every circumstance, everyone tries to do it, confident that everyone else is doing it and anyone who fails will be subjected to the justified scorn of everybody,"

Jante’s Law: this is a cultural phenomenon which is widespread throughout Scandinavia and it means simply:

Don't think you're anyone special or that you're better than us.

It has ten subdivisions including:
1. Don't think you are anything
2. Don't think you are as good as us.
3. Don't think you are smarter than us.
4. Don't fancy yourself better than us.
5. Don't think you know more than us
Given the ubiquity of this attitude it is hardly surprising there is such a pressure to conform to modest, discreet behaviour, not to seek to stand out or deviate from the norm.
Bunting concludes her critique with the advice that whilst we might admire the Nordic Model we should not ‘try to import it’:
“One Swede in Brown's book talks about the need for 100% "social control" in which "everyone works together": you could call it consensual authoritarianism, and it is profoundly foreign to most Britons. Despite the persistent illusions of the liberal left, it's part of why the Scandinavian welfare state has been one of the region's least successful exports.”
The next day letter writers begged to disagree: ‘what’s wrong with a remarkable degree of mutual trust and expectation’? asked one, Another pointed out at Finland has the highest number of people in higher education and the lowest number in prison. Yet another asked how we could criticise Finns for ‘not imposing their private conversations on everyone else in a restaurant’? Finally someone wondered if we might not benefit from a dose of ‘egalitarian conformity’.
Can We Transfer Nordic Model to UK?
Writer Johan Norberg comments:
‘To say that other countries should emulate the Swedish social model is about as helpful as telling an average –looking person to look like a Swedish super model. There are special circumstances and a certain background that limit the ability to imitate. In the case of the supermodel it is about genetics. In the context of economical and political models it is about the historical and cultural background.’
Sweden’s is political culture so much more consensual than the historically class divided British one.
Sweden is more unified with a small population of 9 million.
Sweden has a tradition of viewing their country as ‘The Peoples’ Home’ and trusts government to spend tax-payers’ money wisely on welfare benefits for all.
These problems however have not deterred Conservatives from urging a version of Sweden’s ‘free schools’ on the UK. When the Tories talked about a ‘voucher’ system, it failed to make much headway as the proposed values were so much less than fees for public schools. However, the success of the not dissimilar Swedish innovation has emboldened them to recommend imitation. Since 1992 Sweden has been funding private schools to educate children on behalf of the taxpayer. 900 schools, teaching 15% of children have opened up, with, it seems considerable success. Michael Gove is convinced, as The Economist (2/10/08) has it, of such

‘innovative entrants “selling themselves to parents” and driving up standards to previously unimagined heights.’
Has the Nordic Model Faded?
The articles quoted above suggest the Nordic Model is still alive and well and arousing all the old reactions of drooling jealousy on the left and sneering ridicule on the right. Arter’s analysis focuses more on the analytic:
1. Social democracy is not as strong now in Sweden where the rightwing Fredrik Reinfeldt rules; the Liberal Anders Rasmussen in Denmark; Mattie Vanhanen of the Centre party is in charge in Finland though Jens Stoltenberg sustains Labour in Norway.
2. The practice of widespread consultation is showing signs of decline. The number of commissions in Sweden is reducing; more single civil servant inquiries are being carried out; but inquiries including interest groups has remained steady at about one third of the whole. In Norway something similar is under way and a process more akin to British-US lobbying has taken its place.
In 1990 Kjell Olof Feldt, the Swedish Finance Minister regretted the failure of the unions to cooperate with its own government and predicted the ‘collapse of the Swedish model’. In November 2006 The Economist declared “ Farewell Nordic Model” judging that high taxes and inefficient public sectors made them in appropriate and old fashioned. Other articles cited in this briefing suggest these gleaming welfare utopias in northern Europe, have not lost their ability to fascinate and encourage imitation however inappropriate.

David Arter, (2008) Scandinavian Politics Today, MUP
Andrew Brown(2008), Fishing in Utopia, Granta.
Roland Huntford (1972) The New Totalitarians.
Johan Norberg, Swedish Models, National Interest Online, 6/1/06
Gwladys Fouche Where tax goes up to 60 per cent and everybody’s happy paying it. Observer, 16/11/08
Madelaine Bunting, ‘We may admire the Nordic way, but don’t try to import it.’ Guardian 15/8/08
Economist, 2/10/08, Swedish Lessons: the Tories assume the mantle of social democracy.
Bill Jones, 24/11/08 htttp//

Monday, November 10, 2008

Obama's Victory Analysed

‘I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever’ George Wallace, when Alabama candidate for governor 1962.
[in 2008 Alabama Democrats chose Obama as their candidate]

‘If there is anyone out there who still doubts America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy- tonight is your answer’ Barack Obama Victory Address, 5th November 2008

A Historic Victory

1. Democratic Renewal: In The Guardian, 5th November 2008, Gary Younge wrote (surprisingly, given his expertise) that blacks did not even get the vote in the US until three years after Obama was born. This was not the case as the 1870 15th Amendment delivered this right. This is not to say that at the time of his birth Obama’s parents would not have been able to marry in certain southern states where segregation was in full swing and blacks could not eat with whites or ride on the same bus. However, many African Americans failed to register for voting for a number of reasons and continued to do so right up to the present day. Obama’s campaign however, focused on mobilising this section of the black population and encouraged hundreds of thousands to vote and to believe it mattered.

2. Primacy of the Spoken Word: when Obama first appeared as a candidate, few gave him much chance (including this writer)- he was too inexperienced, America was not ready to vote in a black man, he was opposed by the mighty Clinton machine and so forth. However, right from the start, in the Iowa Caucuses, he showed that, in his own phrase: ‘something’s going on’. His rallies were attended by thousands and the atmosphere was ecstatic, like revivalist religious meetings but adapted to politics. Obama’s gift for the language was soon revealed to be natural- he did not employ speech writers or autocues- and drawing on a deep well of intrinsic oratory .

3. Healing of Racial Divide: anyone familiar with the USA, knows its racism runs deep; even ordinary liberal apparently families could shock with the ferocity of their views on their black minority and the fears they felt of the threat they posed to the white population. Ever since the ending of slavery blacks have been a poor and often impoverished minority of some ten percent, its members frequently comprising the urban underclass and being disproportionately involved in crime. The Oscar winning film Crash, directed by Paul Haggis, 2004, centred on this theme, suggesting all aspects of US life were affected by its racism.

4. US People Becoming Multiracial: the US has always been a melting pot of different races, all of whom had been attracted by the freedom and opportunity America offered. African Americans had no choice in the matter but successive waves of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America, chose to join this society in the belief they would achieve prosperity and freedom for themselves, families and their future descendants. Much immigration from south of the Mexico border was and remains illegal but once in the country, there is a strong tendency for immigrants to find their niche, become established and eventually become legal. White Americans are being out produced biologically and by 20409 will be in the minority. Obama’s victory is one of the first manifestations of this transformation. Rove urged Bush to woo Hispanics if the Republicans were to have any future and he even supported, against his instincts, a liberal immigration policy to do just that.

5. Recapture of the South: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 split voters in the south away from their traditional Democratic loyalties so that southern states became solidly Republican. This has damaged Democratic chances for several decades but now this seems to be reversing. Danny Finkelstein in The Times attributes this to an emergent ‘chattering’ middle class- richer and more educated than before which has markedly different views than previous recent generations.

6. Republican Agenda Outdated: this agenda of cutting taxes, fighting crime, reform social security, oppose abortion and support marriage, seems to have run its course. 29 million pay no taxes anyway, prosperity has taken the edge off crime worries and women generally tend to be opposed to the party’s stance on abortion. To even have a chance in the election Republicans needed to select a ‘maverick’ not associated with this old agenda.

7. Obama had Near Perfect Conditions for his Run: Obama would probably have lost had it not been for the huge unpopularity of Bush with 70% unhappy with his performance and only 30% giving him a positive rating. 50% believed McCain would continued Bush policies. The Republicans moreover, had eased American into the idea of black authority with Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice. Moreover the 80% in polls who felt the country had lost its way, indicated a huge majority for Obama’s famous but comfortably nebulous notion of ‘change’. 60% felt McCain was more experienced but the positives outweighed the negatives for Obama in this contest. Finally, there was no credible third party candidate this time, unlike 2000 when Nader arguably cost Gore the contest.

8. The Campaigns: Obama’s campaign is being hailed by some as the most masterful of recent times. Based on his extraordinary inspirational appeal, he was able to show ecstatic rallies every night on the television and gather huge amounts of funding via internet campaigns: 3.1 million donations and volunteers contributed to the campaign, a huge mobilisation which will help Democrats for years to come.. The bitter fight with Clinton probably did little harm, giving the lesser known Senator precious airtime and name recognition. He was amazingly courteous, steady and calm in the debates, compared to a jittery, volatile and mostly negative McCain. His trip to Europe to speak to 250,000 in Berlin did little to help him as at that time voters were undergoing ‘Obama fatigue’.

But his strategy of contesting every state enabled him to pull off some surprising wins and forced McCain to divert resources he could have used elsewhere.
McCain’s name recognition was good as he had tried for the presidency before and been around US politics for three decades. However, he seemed to be impulsive and indecisive at times and overly negative in his style. While less experienced than Obama, he was clearly les intelligent, except to the totally committed.

Sarah Palin: his decision to adopt Sarah Palin as his running mate proved initially a huge success then a disaster as voters realised she was so raw, eccentric and ill informed. It seems, according to an article in the ST that she was known to have hugely impressed a group of senior Republican ideologues on a cruise to Alaska in 2007; the obvious thought was that the maverick McCain needed someone to firm up the core vote. McCain had only spoken to her twice before her selection and relied on the views of others. However, Nicole Wallace, given responsibility for looking after Palin by the campaign, could not prevent her charge exposing her ignorance in foreign affairs in interviews and this hurt the Republican effort.

Nor could she stop her spending embarrassing amounts on clothes-‘tens of thousands’ above the $150,000 allowance made- behaving according to one aide like ‘small towjn hill-billies looting Nieman Marcus from coast to coast.’ Yet even after the disaster on poll shows 91% of Republicans have a good view of her and 64% think she would be the best candidate in 2012.

In 2000 and 2004 Republicans won by building a more effective campaigning machine but this time Obama had more money and more volunteers on the ground. In Ohio 53% of voters said they had been approached personally by Obama canvassers. Finally, events came to Obama’s aid: the economy came roaring into the campaign to make it by far the major issue while foreign policy, McCain’s strong-point declined in importance. Satire, via You-tube also played a role in ridiculing Bush and Palin throughout the campaign.

Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live did a brilliant impression of Palin and reinforced the idea that she was not really equipped to step up to the presidency should anything happen to McCain. It might be argued that anyone in a position of governing a state of the USA should, at the very least, know that Africa is a continent rather than a single country. The impression she gave of being exceptionally ill-informed was unfortunately reinforced by just about every interview she gave.

The Results Analysed

Final Polls: Obama 53-McCain 40

Votes cast: Obama 52 (first Democrat since Carter’s 50.1% to get more than half the votes; McCain 46. Obama managed to win Independents by 8 points, supposedly McCain’s power base.

Electoral College Delegates: Obama 364; McCain 174(270 is the winning number)

Gender: Men voted about 50-50 but woman were 56 to 43 in favour of Obama; some think it was the ‘choice’ or ‘no choice’ over abortion which was the chief factor.

Race: Obama, predictably won 95% of the back vote, 41% of the white male vote plus 50% of white women and, importantly, 75% of Hispanics [he won Florida with 15 points compared to Bush’s 12 in 2004]. Race was les of a factor among younger voters two thirds of whom voted Democrat. McCain garnered 55% of the white vote, suggesting a ‘Bradley Effect’ to some degree in that polls had shown Obama only one point behind his opponent among white voters while the result was a 12 point gap. [Bob Worcester, the Mori pollster, however, reckons that over the USA as a whole, the effect was not more than 2%.] However, Obama managed to collect a bigger slice of the white vote than Bill Clinton did. For the future the Republicans have to consider how they adapt to the multiracial nature of their country, otherwise they face a long period in the cold.

Age: 69% of the 18-29 cohort voted Obama; 32% McCain. Among the over 65s the Republicans won 53-45, but for the future, older voters in future elections will have been part of the ‘convert’ election of 2008. First time voters went 68-31 to Obama reflecting the intense effort put into winning new voters and encouraging black voters to register.

Religion: Generally McCain did well among religious people in that: he won Protestants 54-45 and evangelical Christians, 74-24. However, he lost the Catholic vote 45-54 and the Jewish vote 21-78.

Urban-Rural Dwellers: Obama won:
63-35 among urban voters;
50-48 suburban
and lost out:
Small Towns: 53-45
Rural Voters: 53-45 (a 5% increase for Democrats on 2004).

Income: as usual lower income voters went democrat and Republicans picked up more of the wealthy. Obama won 73-25 of those earning under $15000; 55-43 among the $30-50,000 bracket but lost 48-51 among the $100-150,000 earners and 46-52 among those earning over $200,000.

Not high School Graduate: 28-63 Obama
High School Graduate: 47-52 Obama
Some College Education: 47-51 Obama
College graduate or More: 45-53 Obama

Issues Judged ‘Most Important’:
Economy, 63;
Iraq 10;
Healthcare, 9;
Terrorism 9;
Energy 7

Battle ground states which went Democrat [9 Democrat wins]:

Nevada 57-43
Colorado 53-46
New Mexico 57-42
Iowa 50-46
Ohio 51-47
Virginia 52-48[home of the capital of the old Confederacy]
Florida 51-49
North Carolina
[of these Florida and Ohio were probably the biggest prizes]

Is a Corrective in Order? Some Democrats are envisaging the sort of swing to the right which Bush did even on his minuscule win in 2000, but others argue-for example Paul Harris in The Observer, 9th November, that whilst the right has been rejected the left has scarcely been embraced. Even with all his disadvantages McCain still managed to poll 46% of votes and some of the wins were by tiny margins. Only 22% of Americans describe themselves as ‘liberals’ and USA is still basically a right of centre electorate. This was no landslide like FDR’s 48 states in 1936 or Reagan’s 49 in 1984. Obama lost the white vote by 12 points and whites comprise 74% of voters. ‘I don’t think it’s a mandate for a New deal’ said Howard Dean of the Democratic National Committee. Obama indeed offered an essentially moderate programme and whatever he seeks to do wil be limited by the harsh economic climate.

President Palin in 2012? The Economist seriously thinks Palin is seen by many Republicans as a good bet for 2012. Despite her fluffing of lines and mistakes, she has ‘star power’ and is a ‘quick learner’. She is certainly the best known woman politician in the USA, rather than Hillary Clinton. The nearest challenge, thinks the journal, is Mike Huckabee, who now runs his own show on Fox News. What does seem possible is that the Republicans, traumatised by their rejection will withdraw to core values and enter a period in the wilderness. John Halpin, of the Centre for American Progress commented that the Republicans ‘will factionalise severely’, just as the Tories did in UK after 1997 and Labour after 1979.

Congressional Results: Good but not a ‘Landslide’

House of Representatives: Democrats held 235 and won 19 seats while the Republicans held 173.

Senate: The Democrats managed to improve on their previous standing by 6 seats leaving them with 56 seats to the Republicans’ 40, with 2 independents and 3 undecided.

Despite this excellent result for the Democrats, they did not get the landslide many had predicted. 60 seats are required to defeat a filibuster- the procedure which enables a single Senator to speak continuously until a measure loses time. However the democrats have enough seats to pass most things and so Obama faces an auspicious opening period as president.

Challenges facing Obama:

On 6th November, The Guardian’s leader read:

‘The weight of expectation that today rests upon the frame of a 47 year old senator with no real executive experience is too great for one man and, in all probability, too large for one term of office. The nearest parallels are Abraham Lincoln taking over on the brink of civil war or Franklin Roosevelt arriving in the Great Depression. America, it seems, often reaches for a great man in its greatest need.’

Foreign Policy

Russia: One of the most pressing challenges facing the new president must be represented by ‘Putin’s Russia’, if its former president can still be seen to be in charge of it. President Medvedev made a longish speech on 5th November which:

i) blamed the USA for the world’s economic crisis.
ii) Suggested it was the USA to make the first move in repairing relationships with Russia.
iii) Expressed his anger at the expansion of NATO-Russia has always had a fear of encirclement
iv) Challenged American placements of missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic-the claim that these are ‘defensive’ missiles must ring false in the Kremlin.
v) Suggested to one major expert on Russia, Alexander Golts, that Russia is deliberately to create a military threat to the west by placing its own 500 mile range Iskander missiles in Kalingrad on the border with Europe as well as installing a radio-electronic device to scramble US control communications.
vi) Attacked state bureaucracy interfering in the economy- pretty rich, says the Economist, considering the president is the creature of Putin, who did much meddling himself.
vii) The presidential term is to be extended from four to six years- a sure sign Putin is addicted to power and wants to consolidate it further. And the Duma’s terms are to be extended from four to five years. Putin will be allowed to stand for president again in 2012 and then can in theory look forward to another 12 years in power. The Duma’s extension is less significant as it is virtually a rubber stamp via the United Russia Party anyway.

Writing in The Guardian 7th December, Simon Jenkins, reckoned:

‘No service is done to Obama by overstating his revolution as a second coming.’

In respect of the Russian threat he went on to say:

“An early test will be his response to the extraordinary sabre-rattling by the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev's proposal to station missiles in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad between Poland and Lithuania is a crude reaction to George Bush's location of defence installations in a number of former Warsaw pact countries. It is so clearly a challenge to Obama's resolve that it demands an immediate reply. The opportunity is for a classic show of firmness combined with an openness to negotiate. Kaliningrad could yet be Obama's Cuban missile crisis - the geographical parallel is eerily similar - before he has even taken office.”

Middle East
Iraq: Obama plans to pull out of Iraq within 16 months but some argue that in practice this might be finessed differently. The idea then is to ‘surge’ in Afghanistan but some argue e.g. Simon Jenkins, that this too will end in many tragic tears for the west.

Syria: rumoured Obama will seek to separate Damascus from Iran with a deal seeking to give them Golan Heights in exchange for peace with Isreael.

Iran: Obama wants to open up dialogue with Iran once present president has moved on.

Climate Change: Obama in favour of emissions cap and charging system as advocated by Europe though including China and India as some experts argue should be exempted.

Nuclear Proliferation: seeks to prevent Iran from joining club and mutual reductions with Russian weaponry.

Challenges at Home

Economic: he must
i) Act to remedy the imminent economic recession which will probably be the worst for seventy years.
ii) Act to solve the world economic crisis set in train by US banks.
iii) Alleviate problems of unemployment and poverty at home which will accompany recession.
iv) He has promised to reduce taxes on the poor and increase them on the rich but no details have been offered as yet.

Health service: he is committed to extending the range of health insurance in US. This was the rock on which Clinton’s early presidential hopes foundered so it must be handled with real care.

Poverty: nowhere in US society is poverty more of a problem than within the black community. More than 70% of black babies born in America are to single mothers; a black baby girl is more than twice as likely to die in infancy than a white one; she is also more likely contract diseases like asthma and diabetes; more prone to obesity and to end up in an underfunded understaffed state school where grades do not compare with white schools.
His victory has enthused some blacks to think Obama will initiate a big payout for them but he made no special promises and any perception of special treatment will put his winning electoral coalition at risk. It seems clear the astonishingly successful Harlem Children’s Zone programme-where welfare services, combine with education, health and environmental programmes to transform a specific block to be followed by a contiguous one and so on- will be rolled out in a range of other US cities.

It seems Obama has worked hard to assemble a key group of advisers and aides to address these problems during the interregnum before 20th January; he will need all the wisdom his able team can provide.
Obama’s degree of success will depend on how the world responds to him. Right now he enjoys a honeymoon but this will soon end as problems emerge and people feel they have not been treated fairly. It is by no means unlikely that if we discuss US politics in a year’s time, President Obama will not be perceived in such a saintly light and that critics will be condemning his administration as a dangerous failure. That’s no more than politics.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Putin's Russia

‘For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly that should be got rid of. Quite on the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order and the initiator and driving force of any change….I am not calling for totalitarianism…A strong state power in Russia is a democratic, law based, workable federal state.

Vladimir Putin, 1999.

‘To grow further it [the Russian economy] will have to dismantle the lawless system Mr Putin has created’.

Economist, 1st March 2008

Historical Background: Russia has tended to have an authoritarian political culture, most popularly associated with Ivan the Terrible who became Tzar of all Russia in 1547. Ivan was intelligent and impulsive though some said mentally ill at times. He succeeded in expanding Russia into a major empire of a billion acres; Russia is still the biggest country in the world- 6.6.6mn square miles. His reputation has perhaps been unearned in respect of his character for, whilst he was a strong, autocratic ruler, he was not especially cruel. The same cannot be said for the man who eventually helped sweep away the machinery of the imperial court: Joseph Stalin.

Stalin: The son of an alcoholic cobbler in Gori, Georgia, Joseph Dzugashvilli, was an outstandingly bright young scholar and a charismatic leader of his peer group, [as well as, incidentally, a noted singer, often employed to sing at weddings]. Urged on by his resourceful and indefatigable mother, he managed to study for a time in the Tbilisi seminary as a trainee priest where studies resembled a form of highly programmed mind control- a precursor perhaps for his governing style from the Kremlin. He soon became engaged in gangster-terrorist activities-robbing banks and running protection rackets- to help finance those who would overthrow the Tzars in favour of a Marxist Russia.

He helped Lenin achieve this result and when Lenin died, cleverly manipulated his way into a position of power from whence he worked to eliminate his rivals until he had made his role of Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, effectively that of dictator. He insisted his vision of ‘socialism in one country’ should be the template for the world revolution to be pursued in the names of Marx and Lenin.

Lenin had effectively retained the relatively well organised and established Tzarist police, the Okhrana- turning them into the ‘Cheka’ in 1917. The role of the secret police-more like an internal Bolshevik army- was to defend the revolution and police important parts of the new state like the forced labour camps. As Stalin’s rule evolved he used the secret police-now called the NKVD and later the KGB- to enforce his collectivisation of agriculture and suppress resistance to the resultant famine which accounted for hundreds of thousands of peasants. Vast numbers were employed, on flimsy punitive pretexts as virtual slave labour on state driven enterprises designed to establish the foundations of heavy industry in a mainly rural country.

There was no political freedom allowed in terms of democracy-despite an ostensibly highly democratic constitution- and cultural endeavour was kept rigidly to the support of the supposed ideological underpinnings of the state. The whole of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR, as it was christened in 1922, became the instrument for the fulfilment of a tyrant’s dream of ‘socialism’. During the war the Soviet people suffered to an even greater degree but they fought for the survival of their ‘Russian’ homeland rather than any worldwide revolution.

At the end of the war, the Soviet Union was now a great power which Stalin advanced into Eastern Europe and beyond, precipitating the ‘Cold War’ as the west mobilised to defend itself against what it feared might prove to be a military as well as ideological onslaught. Stalin died in 1953 of a stroke; amazingly, given the murderous nature of his rule, thousands visited his coffin in tears. He was succeeded by Khrushchev (1953-64) who, in a sharp departure from Soviet practice, denounced Stalin’s methods of governance, though did not do much to change them. Nor did his successors, Leonid Breznhev (1964-82), Andropov (1982-84) and Chernenko (1984-85). However, the next person in charge of the Soviet Communist Party was a remarkable man intent upon drastic change: Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-90).

Soviet Economy: the economy of the USSR was centrally planned, under its Gosplan agency, and a series of 5 year plans from 1928 laid the foundations of a modern economy. But the market had been excluded; all decisions were taken centrally: amounts to produce, amounts to consume, varieties of product and so forth. This worked well enough to establish the basic requirements of mining, iron smelting, basic manufacturing and so forth as the astonishing performance of the USSR in the 1941-45 war demonstrated. It also enabled high quality science based activities like nuclear weaponry and space exploration to progress to a degree which seriously worried the west in the 1950s. However, the Soviet economy was fundamentally weak as central planning is seriously flawed as a means of organising economics. Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom pointed out that central planners just could not cope with their tasks.

‘Given that there were well over 12 million products in the USSR, some of which came in hundreds if not thousands of varieties, the volume of information within the planning system was- according to economists- exceeding the number of atoms in the universe.’
A Heywood, 1994, Political Ideas and Concepts, p272.

Decline of the Command Economies: Slowly the logic-or rather illogic- of this arrangement began to cause the economies of the ‘Eastern block’ of command economies, to slow down. Shortages were rife and western products highly regarded, so that visitors would be offered prices on the demin jeans and Beatles records. Because of waiting lists for wanted goods, shop assistants, a job with a low status in the west, had extremely high ratings in the east. Moreover, queuing was so ubiquitous a requirement in eastern block countries, that some people could make a living out of charging for queuing on behalf of others.

Inefficient operations were carried by the centralised system, fuel was wasted prodigally; no-one cared about their part of the economy as it was so vast and impersonal. An illicit black economy, of course, thrived in all communist countries. One other consequence was that politically driven targets, like defence, received priority, while consumers suffered. Potential dissent was contained by the dominance of the communist party, whose committees shadowed all the official ones. Nomination of candidates almost never extended beyond the single person favoured by the party. Democracy was a sham. But it was all overseen by the threat of the Red Army; the 1956 invasion of Hungary and the 1969 one of Czeckoslovakia proving the threat was real enough.

Slowly these economies ground to a paralysing halt, unable to compete with the more vibrant economies of the west. What was worse for the communist leaders was that their countries were now ‘more porous’; their citizens were aware of the west and the fact that the workers there did not live in poverty and desperation. Dissatisfaction was not long in asserting itself and throughout Eastern Europe in 1989, a series of revolutions occurred as former elements of the Soviet empire-sensing Soviet weakness, shrugged off Moscow’s control and resolved to become genuinely independent. This was the situation Gorbachev was forced to confront. Without the means to enforce any authority over former territories, or even over his own people, Gorbachev opted to compromise towards a liberal set of responses.

In his excellent book Russian Politics Today, Michael Waller, assesses the impact of communism in these Soviet dominated countries and notes that polls show that modern Russians still claim that life under the old regime was better. This is because over time the system did contribute some genuine benefits: everyone was in work, even if wages were low (differentials, moreover were nowhere near as great as in the west) and there was little in the shops to buy; the health service was good and was free; education was comprehensive and free; people living in towns and cities had access to more resources than when they lived in the countryside; and most people had access to cultural resources like libraries, books, television and even the theatre.

Moreover, prices of basic food were deliberately kept low while accommodation and fuel costs were ‘nominal’ according to Waller. Benefits like pensions, maternity pay, summer camps and the like were also free and administered by the trade unions. When looking back it seems citizens of the new post 1991 Russia forgot the very low levels at which living standards formerly rested nor the fact that several families often had to share the same small apartment.

Glasnost: the word means ‘voice’ in Russian, something for which Gorbachev called in March 1986. Initially Gorbachev intended merely to offer more transparency into government but this soon evolved into a spotlight on the past with Stalin’s victims like Bukharin rehabilitated and criticisms of the saintly Lenin made. Pressure grew to rename streets and towns by their pre-1917 names- e.g. Leningrad became St Petersburg again in 1991. Also circulation of political comment burgeoned and in March 1989 elections for parliament became genuine instead of prearranged. Debates in the Congress of People’s Deputies became unrestrained by fears of arrest and imprisonment.

Perestroika: meaning ‘restructuring’ is usually understood to refer to the economy;
most importantly it embraced the notion of choice. Enterprises were freed of ministerial control making them autonomous and responsible for their own success or failure. Additionally, all those small operations- moonlighting, illegal entrepreneurs, were made legal. A law in 1986 made it possible to be a private tradesman quite legally.

Federalism Unravels: Stalin’s 1936 constitution allowed substantial powers to the 15 republics of the USSR, including the right to secession. In practice this meant nothing; borders were ignored by the party and by state planners who treated the USSR as a unitary whole. Separatist tendencies were harshly suppressed. Gorbachev took steps to end the Cold War with the west, refusing to assist communist regimes as they faced domestic revolt. Within the more encouraging atmosphere initiated by Gorbachev, the constituent republics now experienced overwhelming surges of new found identity, leading to the eventual post- collapse creation out of the USSR of: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakstan, Kirgyzstan, Moldava, Belorussia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Georgia.

Attempted Coup: in August 1991 some senior Soviet officials attempted to win back the Stalinist system by deposing Gorbachev. Ultra reformist Boris Yeltsin-newly elected president of the Russian Republic in June 1991- led the popular defence of the new order symbolised by the seat of the Russian parliament and presidency, the White House. The collapse of the coup ended any residual authority of the communist party and left Yeltsin poised to succeed Gorbachev as the USSR was dissolved 31st December 1991. Given his position as the main leader of Russia, once Gorbachev was cast aside, he was able to direct future reforms as he thought fit.

Economy: Yeltsin abolished Gosplan in January 1992 and freed prices from official control at the same time. The latter was part of a ‘shock therapy’ designed, with advice from western economists, to catalyse the new economy. However, it had novel impacts for former Soviet citizens. Queues were ended almost at once. But prices increased by 350% in the first month and many goods were now too expensive for ordinary citizens; income inequality suddenly became evident. During this transition period many state enterprises were privatised and:

‘There emerged a number of phenomenally wealthy financial operators, who were able to exercise a powerful influence on government, on the media and on Yeltsin personally. These ‘oligarchs’ were making their greatest influence on public life- and on public opinion-when, in the mid-1990s, the basics of life were becoming unobtainable for most of the urban population, who at that stage were too stunned and too busy seeking the means of physical survival to react to this pillaging of the nation’s wealth by a few individuals.’ Waller p14.

Privatisation: Often these people were the managers of the industries concerned. Quite often the route was for a director of a state enterprise to hive off the profitable bits of a state activity into a holding whose title they could later appropriate, leaving just the valueless shell for the state. Essentially these were criminal activities but during the 1990s under Yeltsin it was a relatively lawless time. Waller cites a study suggesting the state’s income from privatisation 1991-99 was no more than $9,7bn for the privatisation of 145,000 enterprises(waller, p195). Bankers like Vladimir Potantin and Mikhail Khodorovsky acquired assets through loaning money to the state in exchange for shares in privatised businesses. The latter acquired a 45% share of the major oil company Yukos for a ‘derisory sum’. Others who did fabulously well, like Boris Berezovsky were actually part of Yeltsin’s advisory team.

Yeltsin encountered severe political problems with his parliament- elected while the USSR existed- where some urged him onwards and others to be cautious. His personal style of living also became an issue with his family seeming to be involved in policy-making not to mention his frequent embarrassingly drunken appearances, which shamed the many Russians hoping their country could regain respect and influence in the world. Under this leader Russia declined in many ways so that taxes were not collected, government servants were not paid, the government became virtually dysfunctional. Many Russians looked back nostalgically to the time of Stalin and the discipline of a communist system.

Vladimir Putin
On 31st December 1999 Vladimir Putin became acting president of Russia and then in March 2000 was elected for a four year term; he was re-elected in 2004. He was born in Leningrad October 1952 to a factory worker mother and a naval officer later NKVD officer father; his grandfather had been personal cook to Lenin and then Stalin. Vladimir studied law at university in his home city. He joined the KGB and the Communist Party, working as an intelligence officer on internal dissent. After a spell in Dresden, East Germany, he returned to Leningrad to become international adviser to Anatoly Sobchak, former law lecturer and now mayor of his city. He was accused of issuing licences for $93m of ferrous metals in exchange for food aid from abroad which never came to the city. A commission investigated and recommended he be fired but this did not happen.

He continued as chair of the Committee for External Relations, from 1992 to March 2000. He was also on the advisory board of the German property holding Saint Petersburg Immobilien und Beteiligungs AG (SPAG), a company which investigated for money laundering by the German authorities.
In June 1997 Putin defended his thesis on Strategic Market Forces; the web entry on this event claims the thesis was substantially plagiarised. In July 1998 he was made head of the FSB by Yeltsin, the successor body to the KGB. In August 1999 Putin was made a deputy Prime Minister and Yeltsin said he wanted Putin to be his successor.

Putin’s emergence into the limelight coincided with the 1999 Chechnya invasion of Dagestan and his tough policy towards this war provided him with a convenient platform for popular election; his \KGB background proved no barrier to popularity. He became acting president in December 1999 and was well placed to fight and win the March 2000 presidential election, pledging support- but significantly not membership- to the newly formed Unity Party. Waller characterises Putin’s style as subtly indirect (p43). He managed to stay detached from political issues, never leading a party- though certainly supporting first the United Party and then its successor United Russia.

‘From his detached vantage point in the presidency he has was able to criticise the government without making himself vulnerable for its failures. Putting himself above party and sectional interests, Putin has been able to present himself as the People’s President, aware of a popular belief in a strong hand at the centre, and aware also of a popular mistrust of political parties and business people determined to appropriate portions of the common patrimony.’ P43

In the conclusion to his book Waller judges that under Putin the political pendulum, which swung to the liberal side of the spectrum under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, returned towards the authoritarian end.

• The media has been effectively controlled so that united Russia has untrammelled access to air its views. The Chechnya affair allowed Putin to force the exile of Vladimir Gusinsky, whose television channel was alone in criticising Putin’s ruthless approach. The media is virtually as controlled now as it was under communism.
• The democratic electoral system has been allowed to ‘atrophy’, as, in the wake of the Beslan tragedy Putin ‘revoked the direct election of regional governors and republican presidents.’ Elections to the Duma had already been sullied to divest them of ‘their free and fair nature’.
• Nominations of key political positions became controlled by the president suggesting a return to the Soviet ‘nomenklatura’ system of a ruling elite. The difference in Putin’s case was that such powers of patronage were written into the constitution, something which Waller suggests ‘clearly undermines the regime’s professed democratic aspirations’.
• United Russia set up ‘party schools’ in June 2004 along the lines of the old communist party.

Russian Political Culture: as has been already mentioned, Russia has been used to an authoritarian style of government. ‘Demokratskaya’ has always been viewed as a Western European concept, more than a little alien to the Russian way of doing things. Similar problems were encountered by the USA when it attempted to impose democracy on Iraq: citizens had not become used to the idea of participation in decision-making and found it hard to adapt to such a system. Maybe this is why there was so much chaos in the 1990s when Yeltsin was in charge and why Putin became so popular once he arrived on the scene with his secret police background and aggressive way of dealing with those who opposed him.

Putin’s Personal Wealth: officially Putin is someone of modest means, only just making it into the richest 100 members of the Duma. Unofficially however, there are reports of him owning a vast personal fortune including a 4.5% stake in Gazprom- the largest extractor of natural gas in the world and Russia’s biggest company-plus a 50% share in the oil trading company Gunvor with a turnover of $40bn. The aggregate value of these and other holdings could make Putin Russia’s richest man. Putin’s response to such an accusation was as follows:

"This is true. I am the richest person not only in Europe, but also in the world. I collect emotions. And I am rich in that respect that the people of Russia have twice entrusted me with leadership of such a great country as Russia. I consider this to be my biggest fortune. As for the rumors concerning my financial wealth, I have seen some pieces of paper regarding this. This is plain chatter, not worthy discussion, plain bosh. They have picked this in their noses and have smeared this across their pieces of paper. This is how I view this."

Russia’s Economy Now: The Economist 1st March 2008 ran a special survey on the Russian economy. It notes how the Russian economy ‘took off’ in 1999-2000, growing from 6% in 1999 to 10% in 2000. Four days before Putin was elected president the first IKEA store opened in Moscow. Listening to advice from liberal economist Andrei Illarionov, he took sensible measures, accumulating foreign reserves simplifying taxation and allowing a free market in land. Illarionov quit in 2005 but now, critical of recent economic policy, reckons the takeover of Yukos in 2003 was a ‘breaking point’; before Yukos had been growing its oil output at 9% a year- by 2007 this had sunk to 1%.

Khodorovsky, owner of Yukos, had been exiled but a new state elite had taken over and legal control over the economy made to look nonexistent: ‘After Yukos, nobody can feel safe’ says one businessman quoted in the survey. The state moved in to take over more and more private concerns. Once again it is the centre of political power which determines what happens; ‘it is easier to get a competitor into jail than to compete with him’ is another quote. Corruption is rife, both regarding bribes officials to ignore rules and also in respect of officials who have shares in business and so are directly involved in making money. The World Bank places corruption in Russia on the same level as Togo.
Corruption: the giving of bribes to reduce tax demands is standard procedure and sufficient profits are made by many companies in building or mining, to make this bearable. Yet investment earlier in this year remained buoyant-up 21% in 2007. The Economist acknowledges high rates of growth but argues it would be much higher if corruption were stamped out. Big companies dominate and smaller ones struggle to keep up; the costs of starting a business in Russia is set prohibitively high say some and competition is so poor productivity is not improving. Countries like Ukraine and Georgia manage tom outperform Russia even though they have no oil.
Indeed, the journal suggests Russia is too ‘addicted’ to oil which is forging ahead but this creates a dependency and domestic manufacturing has been neglected, the value of the rouble is much too high so that new wealth is sucking in imports. Quality standards are also low as evidenced by the return of 15 jets purchased by Algeria from Russia. In addition inflation is running at about 10%. Economists note that the Russian economy, over-reliant on oil, has its fortunes tied to oil prices and when this is unpredictable, stability is lost. Income and wealth differentials are growing; as long as average salaries are increasing at a fair rate this is overlooked but new conditions might change things. The Economist pints out that after a decade of growth, Russia is only back to the level it reached just before the fall of the Soviet Union. ‘To grow further it will have to dismantle the lawless system Mr Putin has created’.

Presidency of Dmitry Medvedev: In March 2008 Putin stood down after the two terms constitutionally allowed but was able to place his close friend Medvedev as his successor and also assume the role of prime minister for himself. This relatively young Russian politician is clearly not finished exercising power in his native land. Extensive publicity of his prowess at martial arts and his well toned torso have reinforced the message that he is still the power in Russia’s Kremlin.

Putin and the Oligarchs: the emergence of a group of mega-rich Russian businessmen, dubbed the ‘oligarchs’ has directed attention to their emergence and possible involvement with organised Russian crime. Oleg Deripaska, for example, somehow managed to deal with the Russian mafia in the 1990s in the so-called ‘Aluminium Wars’ when 100 people were killed. His company Rusal, dominates the industry which provides 12% of the world’s needs. As a result of his experiences he is not allowed to visit the USA. Yet he is close to Putin and his circle. Other oligarchs, like Khodorovsky and Berezovsky are most definitely not liked by Putin and it is widely believed, according to the latter named oligarch, that Putin was behind the death of Alexander Litvinenko in November 2007, poisoned by polonium 210, a substance impossible to acquire without access to government establishments.

Russo-Georgia War in Caucasus: on 7th August Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvilli decided to invade South Ossetia, an area friendly to Russia and reluctant to accept the authority of Tbilisi. Russia quickly sprang to the aid of its potential ‘satellite’ with tanks pouring across the borders by 12th August. Georgia was quickly overwhelmed and had to accept terms. More difficult was the position of the west. For some time Russian weakness has encouraged the west to seek to prize countries like the Ukraine and Georgia away from Russia into bodies like the NATO and the EU. Despite plentiful statements of diplomatic support however, the west was forced to stand impotently by as Putin called their bluff. It is obvious that Putin is seeking to rebuild the way in which Russia is regarded by the west to something closer to the days of the Cold War.

Russia and the World Financial Crisis: Russia suffered more than any other emerging economic markets, destroying Kremlin claims it was immune fro world turbulence. Investment, which had been so buoyant in 2007 has been affected by the war in Georgia and signs that the Russian economy is not as strong as it might be. Since May, the dollar and rouble indeces have shed two thirds of their value. Russia’s construction industry, dependent on cheap money has seized up. Even Oleg Deripaska, Russia’s richest man had to sell big stakes abroad to meet his debt obligations. He was also given a $4.5 bn loan to his Rusal company from the government to help him survive the credit crisis.

The Economist 18th October suggests that Russia’s stability is founded on a growing economy- if that fails it could have dire political consequences. The Kremlin has come up with a $200bn rescue plan for their banks, the disbursement of which is likely to increase still more, Russia’s growing government control over the economy. However, a report on 2nd November from a Moscow news agency showed a ‘stable rise’ in Russian shares during the previous week.

Ecomists 1st March and 18th October, 2008.
Simon Sebag Montifiore(2005), Stalin: the Court of the Red Tzar, Weidenfled
Simon Sebag Montifiore(2007), Young Stalin, Weidenfeld.
Michael Waller (2005) Russian Politics Today, MUP.