Rob Watson

Apr 172014
 

If you have been keeping an eye on British Politics over the last couple of years, since the financial crash of 2008, you might be mistaken for thinking that the political parties, Conservative, Labour, Liberal, Green, and Nationalist, are all adhering to and promoting economic policies that are core to their ideological beliefs.

The coalition government is thought to be promoting a conservative form of austerity in order to move the economy back to laissez-faire liberal doctrine and remove the state as an inhibitor of free-market rationalism.

Labour, on the other hand, is generally perceived to be advocates of Keynesian demand management principles – i.e. the slump is the wrong point for austerity, it’s the boom when we will pay off our debts.

Nationalists want increased local control over the economic conditions of their local populations and see this happening either through independence or through border controls. With the Scottish Nationalists it would be an approximation of autonomy from Westminster, and for UKIP, it is through a combination of border controls and an abandonment of the rules-based transnational market of the EU that fuels their aspirations for economic independence.

The other group offering a distinctive economic ideology is the Greens, who want to shift consumerism from it’s present position as the engine of the driver of growth, to sustainability and environmental protection as the key drivers of economic action.

All this seems straightforward and predictable, but what if I said to you that it is a misplaced presumption and that what you are seeing in UK politics is not what you are getting? Indeed, the level of ideological cross-dressing and the double-speak of politicians has reduced our understanding of the options in front of us to a burnt-out husk that is profoundly anti-democratic and actually bad for the economy.

An excellent article in The Guardian by Simon Jenkins points out the absurdity of our present economic and political choices. Jenkins argues that:

“On coming to office, Osborne did indeed cut the “planned rate of increase” in public spending, as Darling had pledged to do. In 2009 total spending was £634bn. By next year it will be £732bn, higher even in real terms. The only big item truly butchered has been local government, and the coalition cares not a fig for that. Osborne has missed all his budget balancing targets and is way off course on borrowing, which still hovers around £100bn. He would be savaging Balls if the latter had been in office. Compared with Greeks or Spaniards, Britons do not know the meaning of austerity.”

Meanwhile, Ed Balls has agreed with Osborne that the state of the public finances is such that the amount the UK spends on welfare has to be capped, regardless of the evidence or the need of the country during the financial period the government deems this appropriate, which is after all entirely arbitrary. You might think that this policy would cause outrage on the Labour benches, but only thirteen MPs rebelled against the Labour leadership and voted against the cap.

If you follow mainstream political reporting in the UK it will tell you that the Conservative Party is riven with division over Europe, and while this might be true of it’s MPs and it’s members, there is another story emerging from the leadership of the party. This story is one in which Cameron, Osborne and Clegg, rather than being the children of Thatcher, are actually and secretly the children of the arch conservative interventionist Michael Heseltine, and that they want Britain’s economic model to be more closely aligned to the German model. Fraser Nelson, writing in The Spectator calls this Cameron’s ‘Northern Alliance’, in which the UK, or what is left of it after Scottish independence, is part of a reconfiguration of the EU along more integrated and state-structured lines. Osborne’s recent charm offensive for the UK to be more German is no accident. He wants to shift the UK economy from a consumption-based dynamic, to a producer and an expert-based dynamic, and the only way to do that is to form an alliance that is able to ‘guarantees fairness’ – or as Mark Blyth calls it German ‘ordoliberalism’.

I know this might sound bonkers, but if the Conservatives win the next general election they will take Britain into a closer alliance with the EU and will even adopt the Euro, despite the offers and talk of referendums and opt-outs. The conservative-nationalist rump will find a home in UKIP, the Europhile Liberal Democrats will form a permanent alliance with Cameron and Osborne, who will then be joined by the New Labour Tendency who will see the compromise offer of a market-driven welfare state along German lines as too irresistible to miss.

So, where does this leave the USA and Britain’s supposed historic ties with the entrepreneurial and dynamic liberal economy that it represents? Well President Obama is more to the left on the economic argument than the Germany dominated Europeans. Insisting on a Keynesian stimulus package while reforming and restructuring the private debt accrued in the crisis, through interventionist state action doesn’t seem very neoliberal or laissez fair, but then the US economy has been growing at a steady rate since 2009 and has recovered much of it’s reversals that it incurred from the crash of 2008. The fundamental alternative that the USA will offer will be the ability to inflate or deflate it’s economy in comparison to others through it’s exchange rate, and not as Europe is doing at present – through internal deflation.

If you are worried about the democratic implications of this, look at Greece and Italy who have seen their democracies overturned and replaced by technocratic committees in the name of competition and sound finances. How long can Spain, Portugal, Greece and Ireland sustain unemployment rates of twenty-five percent without significant social unrest or a shift to right-wing and fascist parties? This is the massive gamble that is being played out here.

This leaves us with an interesting dilemma, who should we listen to and what should we expect out of an economic growth model for the UK in the next five years and beyond as we try to come to terms with the collapse of the Thatcher/Regan coup? Should we listen to Cameron and Osborne, who are expert at saying one thing but doing another, or should we listen to Miliband and Balls who… well here’s the problem… they don’t seem to be saying very much at all, and this is what is worrying. Do Miliband and Balls want to follow Merkel and turn the UK into a duplicate of the German model, or will they follow the US and maintain a stance that looks to liberal entrepreneurialism and demand led markets that offer a limited social underpinning?

It’s not like these issues are being discussed openly, and I’d like to know more about the choices that are on offer. In a perverse way everything is up for grabs. The Conservatives have formed a permanent alliance with the Orange Book liberals and are rediscovering by stealth that Europe is a potential guarantor of economic growth, as long as it is governed by rules and structure. Will we see Labour rejecting the paternalism of ‘ordoliberalism’ and seeking an alliance with American liberals and social progressives along a liberal-Keynesian model of aggregate demand management in the context of global markets? Or, we could all resort to nationalism and fight with Russia as a way of distracting ourselves from thinking and analysing how these things might work out.

Apr 132014
 

A curious article in Today’s Sunday Telegraph by Johnathan Maitland, argued that the BBC should be butchered and broken up so that only the news division remains, and all other content production and services are put out to the private sector. According to Maitland we should “Transfer all in-house radio and TV production – bar news and current affairs – to the independent sector.” Keeping only a “skeleton staff of essential personnel.” Maitland thinks we should pay no more than £20 for this residual service, and that the private sector would be able to innovate as part of a free market in ways that the stuffy-old Beeb cant because of it’s layers of Bureaucracy.

Here’s a more radical alternative. Why not turn the BBC into a network of members co-operatives, each with a local membership based on their existing local radio station profile, that are then federated regionally and nationally. Everyone who pays their licence fee gets a voice at a local level, and the chance to elect representatives at a regional and national level.

The BBC is funded by a tax and yet there is no direct representation. There has been a whole lot of centralisation over recent years, both in the public sector and in the private sector, that has diminished the independent local identity of our counties, towns, cities and regions. The programmes and services that the BBC offers are subject to the market forces that drives global media in the same way that Amazon and Netflix are hammering home with their on-demand programming.

The sorry state of BBC Local Radio and Television, however, with it’s generic programming, limited involvement of the public and standardised marketing, means that it’s almost impossible to innovate and provide local service that people actually want, and that are distinctive in this new pluralistic and plentiful media age.

If each individual station was an autonomous members co-op, with the right to withhold part of their funding to the regional and nation networks, then they would have a lot of clout. They could involve people in their local area more directly in programmes and programme making.

The BBC could become the first national media organisation to encourage mass participation in making and producing content. The BBC could become a local media training provider for media, working with colleges and universities to give room for alternative and marginalised voices that are presently excluded at the moment.

We’d have to do away with the Ofcom Broadcasting Regulations, mind. I’m sure that would be a relief given that they are a straightjacket on democratic and civic representation. Instead we’d have to put a system in place that would allow ordinary people to challenge the powerful in their own words and without the threat of legal action or hefty fines being imposed by the censor. With all the knowledge and expertise that the BBC attracts, that shouldn’t be hard to work out how to do it responsibly and ethically though.

So, Jonathan, rather than resorting to the tired-old thinking that only the private sector and the market can sort out the BBC, lets have some genuinely radical thinking and put the decision making power in the hands of the people who pay for it – or don’t you trust them?

Apr 052014
 

This morning we held the first Leicester Peoples Photographic Gallery Annual General Meeting. About thirty people attended, so we gathered together in the gallery and worked through our agenda. The two most important issues were opened-up for discussion, the LPPG Constitution, and the election of members to the board who will take forward the interests of the gallery.

The discussion was concise, supportive and generous, and it was great to get the constitution approved, and then a full set of volunteers elected to the board. The gallery will be in safe hands and will be able to move forward into it’s next phase of development.

Ian Davies was expressly thanked for the magnificent job he’d done in setting the gallery going and ensuring that it works as a creative and democratic space. It was a fitting testament that so many people attended the AGM and felt confident that they could stand for positions and help to develop the service the gallery offers to its members.

I’m pleased that this was a high-point for me to bow-out, so I can concentrate on my PhD research over the summer. I think the gallery is going to be constantly surprising and invigorating, and I’m looking forward to helping out when I can.

Mar 042014
 
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StarBase Leicester is a Science Fiction and Fantasy group, who meet once a month, for a variety of events, run for members. Regular events include Superhero Night, creative writing night, Megazone, Roleplaying Games, Muchkin, Cinema trips, Console nights Starbase Leicester aims to encourage its members to contribute and run ideas of their own, make new friends and to enjoy everything scifi, fantasy and gaming related activities, amongst like-minded individuals. This group accepts anyone, as long as they are 16+ and prepared to have a little fun. I spoke with Hannah, Sam and Chris who told me about their roles and what they get out of being members of Starbase Leicester.

Mar 032014
 

Over this spring and summer I’m going to be spending a lot of time writing for my PhD. I’m hoping to have a good chunk of a working draft competed by September. So it’s going to be head-down to the grindstone and a lot of sitting in one place trying desperately not to prevaricate and to avoid distractions.

Writing like this is always something of an isolated process, with a lot of time spent away from friends and colleagues, actively ignoring emails and messages. I’m thinking about suspending my Facebook profile for the duration and leaving Twitter alone for a while – though I doubt I’ll be able to withdraw myself for that long.

The alternative is to set a target to ration my access to social media, developing a strategy to reward myself with micro-bursts of online activity. My main concern is my ability to stay away from online news sites. I can easily waste a couple of hours reading newspaper columnists and stories. And then there is Netflix and Amazon Prime. The world of online movies and TV is too easy to engage with, and before you know it you’ve watched the entire set of The West Wing or Star Trek The Next Generation – again!

The hardest part is going to be ignoring friends. The pleasure of meeting for a coffee and passing the time, scheming, plotting and reflecting is so much more pleasant than sitting in a room struggling to find words that match the data I’m supposed to be analysing. But it has to be done. My plan is to limit social interaction to Monday evenings and the excellent St Martins Coffee quiz, and Saturdays, which is a good day to get out of Leicester and go and look at some exhibitions, or go for a walk.

Any organisations that I’m supporting or volunteering for is going to have to be put on hold until at least September. So no getting involved with committees or management groups, no meeting sponsors or funding bodies, no plotting to set anything up. Not until I’ve completed a good version of my document at least.

Then there is life at De Montfort University. For some time I’m going to be away from the office, trying to balance my marking with my research work. My leave is going to be largely dedicated to working this year – though some family commitments are pencilled in as a balance to the weeks that I will be spending at my desk.

If you don’t hear from me in the coming weeks, and you find I’m more difficult to get hold of, please don’t get vexed. I’ll be putting my out-of-office message on, but I’ll keep an eye on my emails all the same, just in case. Though I’ll probably limit the time I take to read and reply to first thing each morning.

Wish me luck over the coming months. I’m gearing up to ploughing on with this and submitting before the year is out.

Feb 122014
 
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Leicester Hackspace is a new venue for makers of digital, electronic, mechanical and creative projects that is about to open as part of the Makers Yard in Leicester. Set to open to members from 1st March 2014, I spoke with Sean Clarke, who told me how Leicester’s Hackers hope to build a community of practical and creative people and provide them with a place to pursue their projects, share techniques and concepts and learn new skills.

Feb 082014
 
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This week Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, suggested that British state schools should aspire to be more like private schools, and that they might, according to BBC News, consider emulating the private sector by trying out the “OECD’s international Pisa tests,” which prep-schools use to filter out students who are not academically oriented.

Underpinning much of Gove’s constant churning of the waters in schooling and education, is the belief that choice is the driver of standards and improvement in a child’s expected life chances. By extending the ability of parents to choose from a range of supposedly different models of education, Gove is following Tony Blair in suggesting that education can be packaged like a consumer product, and that in making our choices as consumers, we will naturally select the optimum model that suits us.

Choice might be great in a supermarket, but it has worrying effects in wider civic society. What’s the key affordance that we take advantage of as consumers? What’s the most essential thing that we can do that gives us the semblance of power and control over the things that we consume? Our right to withdraw our choice and to shop elsewhere if we are not happy is about the only thing that we can do if we want to disengage from the model of consumer choice that is put before us. If you don’t like a supermarket then you stop shopping there. If you don’t like a department store then use an alternative rival.

The consumer market thrives on the promotion of rivals, and the semblance of competition between different providers of services. In the consumer model we are free to leave and take our business elsewhere, safe from the consequence of withdrawing our support and our funding. It’s of no consequence to the consumer if we reject a business and it’s products and services. We are right and the business is wrong. It’s the law of the market, and the business that wants our trade has to do everything it can to keep us satisfied. (Now The Telegraph is reporting that private schools are discounting prices to appeal to a cash-strapped UK market to avoid private schools being dominated by rich foreigners).

Is education and learning a consumer service in this way? What happens if we withdraw our support and our custom from a school, a college or a university? What happens if we stop taking an interest in the civic status of our learning establishments? Will others pop-up like magic to provide a better service? Will the market provide an alternative solution that will satisfy our desires and aspirations?

The question is, though, can we really wash our hands of our responsibilities in this way? At the moment the market works because it does what it can to enabling choice for a small number of peoples, those people who can easily benefit from it. The market also ignores those people who are not in a position to exercise choice because they are not in an economic position to do so?

Judging the state school sector by the private sector is therefore disingenuous, especially when the cost of access to a private school is prohibitive and out of the reach of the vast majority of the population. This is perverse.

So, Mr Gove, stop comparing state schools and private schools, it is invidious. It’s not a fair comparison. State schools cannot just pack-up or turn people away. They have to provide a service regardless of the circumstances and the conditions in which they find themselves. They can’t pander to the prejudices of an elite who by virtue of being able to afford to can walk away without a care.

It’s time we started comparing like with like, so lets stop talking about choice as if it is a self-contained idea, free from consequences in a marketplace of open-ended consumer choice. It isn’t. Lets shift the question to think about what our responsibilities are to one another in a civic and civilised society, and how we can best meet them by thinking once more about our mutual responsibilities and the extent to which we are accountable to one another.