Just back from Labour conference and the second of the RSA’s 2009 round of fringe meetings. The Labour speaker was Peter Mandelson who was in and out pretty quickly as his conference speech was this afternoon. Once again it was standing room only – which means of the five fringe events we have done in recent times every one has been full.
It is fascinating having Robert Chote from the IFS and Ben Page from Ipsos MORI on the RSA platform. Robert knows what must be done to get the public finances back on track and Ben knows what the voters are willing to accept. We could hand Government over to the two of them: the only problem being that – according to the RSA poll – there isn’t any overlap between the two answers!
I couldn’t help noticing an uncanny similarity between the mood and message in Brighton and the half time team talk given by the coach of my son’s football team yesterday morning. Balham Blazers under 17s were 3-0 down, mainly due to some goalkeeping howlers. The coach said what he had to say. ‘We’ve made mistakes. But we played the best football and we can still win. If we pick up our heads and our game we can still do this. We just have to put the other team under pressure, then we’ll see what they are really made of ’. Some of his message got through but you could see the players found it hard to believe their luck could change. And however much they tried to comfort him, it was impossible to hide that they had lost confidence in the keeper.
I’ve been asked not to use this blog for political commentary so I won’t explore Labour’s message except to say that it is just as predictable as the coach’s. Everyone on the conference floor is pretty much sticking to it and Labour strategists will hope that it gets through to the voters despite all the other distractions.
With Labour adopting a more traditional left of centre perspective it will be interesting to see how the Conservatives respond next week. Will they occupy the fairly large gap on the centre right now left vacant by the other parties (the position successfully adopted in Germany by Angela Merkel) or continue to try to occupy the centre?
By the way, despite a plucky second half performance Balham Blazers under 17s lost 4-1
PS I was, of course, delighted to see that I appear 55th in the Daily Telegraph list of the most influential people on the British left. An old friend came up to me in Brighton; ‘Matthew’, he said ‘it’s so unfair that you are 55th’. Before I could modestly reassure him that these things really don’t matter to me, he went on ‘no one in the Labour Party has thought of you as being on the left for years’. Too true, comrade, too true.
A couple of weeks ago I described Gordon Brown’s position as that of a unfancied shot putter in an Olympic final. He has had two no throws and has to get the next one right even to compete in the final round – a round few think he will win.
More positively for the PM, I listed several factors that might give him a boost as he tries to survive. These included the quietening down of the MPs’ expenses storm, the major policy announcements he was planning to make before recess and the emergence of better economic news. The bad news for GB is that while events have gone broadly to plan it has made not a jot of difference to his poll rating.
The policy announcements in areas ranging from public service to climate change were treated reasonably seriously by the more thoughtful parts of the media. But no pick up in the polls. MPs’ expenses have largely disappeared from the front pages. But no pick up in the polls. And now the economic news is getting better. But still, so far, no pick up in the polls.
I suggested three other events that might help the PM. One was his ability to craft a radical, agenda-setting, Queen’s Speech. But given the indifference shown so far to his policy agenda, and the very limited time he has to get any measures through in the truncated final session, this looks like a forlorn hope.
This leaves two final straws of hope. Governments generally recover a bit of popularity in the summer just because politics is not so much in the news. Also, GB can look forward to a conference designed by his beleaguered party to be a rally for its equally beleaguered leader.
But once again the optimism looks misplaced. Scarcely has the PM gone on holiday than leadership speculation has started to rage, with Peter Mandelson now being seriously touted as a new leader.
There can be no question that Mandy is the dominant politician in Labour’s ranks. If there is to be a change, on talent and experience alone he should be the lead contender. But, even now, and with him being in cahoots with sworn past enemies like Charlie Wheelan, he is a highly controversial figure. If Labour does change leader before the election it will be controversial enough, but to do so after a contested and possibly acrimonious leadership battle (say, between Mandelson and Harman), would surely snap the already thin patience of the electorate.
If GB is to be replaced there needs to be a candidate with overwhelming support from the rest of the party. So if the Mandy camp is serious about leadership it needs, quite apart from sorting Mandy a Parliamentary seat, to build some strong alliances with all wings of the Party.
To do this while continuing to be seen as the person loyally propping up the present PM will be a challenge even for a man of Peter Mandelson’s substantial abilities.
A bit of a consensus is emerging about the ‘Fred the Shred’ pensions debacle. On the one hand, people find Goodwin’s determination to hold onto his pension inexplicable and obscene, given the misery his bad decision-making is causing. On the other hand, there is a strong suspicion that Government ministers are using Fred-baiting as a useful way of avoiding more difficult discussions about the overall crisis, or as a way of currying favour amongst Labour activists.
No one would call Sir Fred a deserving cause but the row reinforces a growing public concern about just desserts. The laissez faire attitude to massive rewards espoused by, among others, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson, is no longer fashionable. The old orthodoxy (and when I say ‘old’ I mean spring 2008!) was that for the state to interfere in how the private sector rewards people would be counter productive and, anyway, in a free-market what you earn is, by definition, what you are worth.
There would be huge problems about Government trying to decide who deserves what salary across the whole economy. Having said which, at a time like this, it is corrosive to public morale to be confronted by people being paid thirty or forty times more than their fellow hard-working citizens. It may be better to address mega-salaries as a whole rather than ministers being pressured to determine the pay of every senior executive.
We all hope that Gordon Brown, Barack Obama and other world leaders find a way of tacking the immediate economic crisis. Even if they do, though, there can be no return to the excesses of the past. Unless we are to saddle our children and grandchildren with an impossible burden, the baby boomer generation is going to have to work harder, save more, consume more carefully. One of the symbols of life in this new world may be that it is hard to justify ‘super wealth’. This might lead us to explore new ideas which balance personal freedom with social solidarity.
For example, how about saying that those who earn, say, over £250,000 have to give a quarter of the income earned above that amount (over and above the tax they pay) to a charitable cause. This way the rich still have motivation to get richer but now it is a socially benign motivation (to help their favoured good cause) rather than simply looking like greed. And, given the problems of tax evasion, the rich would be less inclined to try to avoid such an obligation. It’s one thing to try to fool the taxman, it’s another entirely to welsh on your duty to society.
Peter Mandelson has made a fool of me once again. There I was in yesterday’s blog, and in a short clip on Newsnight, praising his speech and willingness to address head on the challenges of being in government in recession. It was only after I had gone on the record that I found that Peter had removed some pre-briefed sections of his speech – presumably as a result of a ticking-off from Downing Street!
Generally, I try to avoid being clipped for TV programmes – you are never sure which bit of the interview they are going to use and whether it will give a balanced impression. In fact I did say something controversial to Newsnight which wasn’t used: referring to the argument about bonuses, I suggested that this might be another example of the Government making a decision which would have made sense a year ago, but may not now. The bonus culture was a huge problem in the days of excess, but now, arguably, we need more people willing to take risks to keep valuable businesses afloat and back new ventures.
Far be it for me to use my blog to try to bounce my Trustees but the case I am trying to make to them at the moment is that the RSA continues to be ambitious despite the hard times. Not surprisingly, the recession is putting pressure on our Hospitality business and we are finding it harder to retain Fellows, but overall we are not doing badly. I hope we will have the confidence to continue the process of the reform of the Society.
The dilemmas facing the RSA are typical of the third sector as a whole. In a piece with the irresponsibly depressing headline, ‘The worst is yet to come’, David Brindle, Editor of Society Guardian, today makes some gloomy predictions about the voluntary sector. It is true that only a small number of charities have substantial endowments or reserves, but I hope these organisations will be generous and brave in the coming period. After all, what are those reserves for if not to be used at the time of greatest need? Of course, if the recession deepens into a depression and goes on for several years, then all bets are off, but in the short to medium term we need as many people as possible to do what they can to help keep activities going and stimulate new initiatives. It will be the behaviour of the private and public sectors that determines when we pull out of these dark days, but the third sector needs to show courage and leadership too.
The economic crisis is an opportunity to think afresh about the good society. To learn from this disaster and to avoid the next crisis means not just deciding what we think but understanding how we think.
Phillip Blond has every right to call himself very influential. Writing just a few days ago in Prospect, the self styled ‘red Tory’ advocated turning the Post office into a people’s bank – which Peter Mandelson has now apparently agreed - and the break up of massive private sector corporations, which is in keeping with George Osborne’s suggestion yesterday that wholly or part privatised banks be dismantled when they are fit to return to the private sector.
But the part of Phillip’s engaging article that caught my attention was this line:
‘The current political consensus is left-liberal in culture and right–liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be’
Until recently I was fond of describing the last three political decades in the West through the following aphorism (although I never could find the source):
‘The right won the economic argument, the left won the social argument and the centre won the electoral argument’
Blond turns this on its head. Whatever the substantive view of his argument, there are three broad categories of response: first, he is wrong; second, he is right; third, he is right (or wrong) but only in relation to how things are now.
It is the third of these possibilities I find most interesting, the implication being dialectical: three decades ago we may have needed to liberalise social attitudes and to free up markets but now we need to reassert common values, hierarchal authority and the need for business to serve the interests of society.
At our joint seminar with the neuroscience folks at UCL on Friday we had a presentation from Professor Nick Chater. His research supports the thesis that the human brain has a very limited capacity to organise immediate perceptions in relation to an objective index. Instead, he argues, when we are asked to compare perceptions along an axis (such as brightness or loudness) we have only five categories: basically, much less, a little less, the same, a little more and much more. This may help to explain some of the idiosyncrasies in the ways human beings value things, for example the way comparison (over time and between people) seems more important to us than absolute measures.
Is this true also of human affairs? Instead of human societies reaching higher levels of wisdom as we learn from past mistakes, we simply move from wanting more of one view of the world until it becomes excessive, at which point we want less of it and more of something else. The human race does advance but only through a succession of failures, which can sometimes turn into disasters.
There is nothing new about this kind of gloomy dialecticism, indeed this world view is neatly captured in common parlance (for example, ‘plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose’). But in cultural theory, psychology and neuroscience we may find a richer insight into how we might find less painful and dangerous forms of learning.
Cultural theory is one of a family of theories arguing that human decision making is neither, on the one hand, explicable on the basis of a single logic (as in the model of homo economus) or, on the other, impossibly complex and indeterminate. Instead social problem solving derives from a limited array (in most theories between three and six) of basic responses, each of which is largely defined in terms of its antagonism to the others.
The social dialectic (which may underlie Phillip Blond’s call for a reversal of the conventional wisdoms of the last three decades) could be partly rooted in the collective expression of our cognitive predisposition to a limited array of comparative responses to the social world: ‘What we used to want more of, we then had too much of, and now we want less of.’
The point here is not to succumb to some kind of historical, much less neurological, determinism. Instead it is to argue that our capacity to learn from the past and plan realistically for the future is (in this year of Darwin) enhanced by better understanding of the predispositions and limitations of our species.