Jun 282017
 

The horror of the Grenfell Tower fire has highlighted for us all the issue of social marginalisation and voice poverty. If you need evidence of how divided communities in this country are, the proof is staring at us in the form of the smouldering shell of a tower block that was once home to hundreds of families who had settled in London in the hope of building a better life.

But if people living in the richest borough in London are not being heard or understood, how many other people and communities up and down the United Kingdom are likewise not getting heard?

The shock of what has just taken place in London should be a worry for us all. Not just for what it says about fire regulation and social policy, but for what it says about communities that have important issues to talk about, and who want to contribute to the ongoing debates about what makes us stronger.

After years of vilification and whipped-up hatred by politicians and newspapers, often to suit narrow political or business interests, it has taken a disaster of this magnitude to see through the deception that being poor isn’t, and never has been, a free-ride.

The stark fact has come to the fore, that people and communities across the United Kingdom are seemingly powerless to act against entrenched local authority bureaucracy, especially when it is entwined with deregulated and unaccountable commercial business interests.

Having been excluded from national debates, vilified for their social differences, or worse, disregarded as legitimate citizens, the anger that is being expressed on the streets of Kensington and Chelsea is understandable. If you push down on people for long enough, eventually they will push back.

This means that the challenge of living together in harmony, in integrated communities, for the mutual benefit of all, is back on the agenda as the defining worry of our age. However, after almost a decade of austerity, the absence of practical support for shared social cooperation, which promotes understanding and mutual engagement, has meant that our communities are more divided and more disenchanted.

None of this is helped by the centralised, concentrated and narrow model of media regulation that we have in the UK, which is clearly not fit for the purpose of community self-representation. The market-based model of local media is letting us down.

Everywhere there has been a hollowing-out of local representation. Local newspapers are put together from press-releases in distant towns. Local radio stations regurgitate nostalgic chat and play-listed music that is a comfort blanket for some, but an irrelevance for many.

Social media is the disrupting influence in this process, as social media platforms are able to demonstrate a proliferation of voices, issues, creativity, obduracy, concern, and anger. Social media has given a platform for many different alternative voices to come forward, though this is a process that can work both ways.

The expression of consternation and indignation that is being voiced, however, is as likely to come from the right – with those who want to exclude marginalised communities and demonise them – as much as it comes from those on the left, who want to embrace and celebrate social differences.

The alternative to a trusted and responsive media, we are so often told, is to share our own news and ideas on social media. But this has also highlighted that many of our traditional media outlets, newspapers and broadcasters, have too much in common, and are chasing the same narrow expectations of shareholder value and profit.

The concentration of ownership of British media, in the hands of fewer and fewer multinational corporations, that are all chasing the same advertising revenues, means that audiences are only ever considered in ways that are constricted, homogenous and static, all to please their sponsors.

It’s frustrating then, that community media is seldom acknowledged as a practical and sustainable alternative to mainstream media. Especially as community media is well placed as a community movement that embraces diversity, self-expression and shared cultural understanding.

Had community media been able to provide a space for voices blocked by the mainstream media and political parties, then the simmering resentment that resulted in the Brexit vote might have found an outlet. Instead, the mainstream media where preoccupied by a wave of jingoistic nationalism that failed to pick-up on the experience of many people living in the left-behind communities who have not shared in the new prosperity offered to only a few by the free market.

Community media in the United Kingdom, however, is desperately underfunded and actively marginalised by speculative commercial interests. If young people and others are turning to extremism as they search for radical answers, because they can feel that they are part of something, then we need to invest in alternatives media spaces that cuts-off extremism and renews our sense of community as an active and enriching set of social practices.

In Germany, the Federal Agency for Civic Education gets federal funding in order to promote understanding of political issues, intensify awareness of democratic cultures, and promotes the political process as something that all citizens can participate in.

Clearly, work needs to be done so that communities are able to share information in responsible ways, be media literate, and learn to question what they are told. But it is only by investing in community-led solutions, that offer people a chance to learn about each other, founded on the ability to participate in the life of their neighbourhood, its civic life, that we are able to renew and strengthen our sense of community.

Community media is a movement of people who want to see change through locally empowered and self-determined voices that are accountable through local participation in media of all kinds. Community media is a movement of people who think globally, but act locally. Community media is a movement that calls for all parties aspiring to government to invest in social and civic spaces that they can cherish.

Community media is about recognising and supporting the right to speak out, about giving back control of media to local communities. Allowing communities to hold their representatives and administrators to account. Investing in support for high quality, grassroots journalism. Including young people in the democratic process. Valuing all voices, from all backgrounds and abilities. Demystify media and the structures built around it. Changing the broadcasting regulations to support wider debate is now essential.

Access to community media should be seen as a right, and not dismissed as a hobby or plaything. But community media can only contribute to the building of a better society if people have time to volunteer, and the resources to discuss, debate and question issues that are relevant to them.

By offering widespread community media opportunities everywhere, and for all people, it will be possible to reach people who are held at the margins, especially those who other media do not understand or cannot represent. Community media is about promoting access for everyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ability, income or any other factor.

This means maintaining the core principles of community radio, which means that there is an alternative media movement that is not run by the state, that is not for profit, which is locally owned and accountable, and which can lead the way in bringing about deeper social change. As media technologies change, such as community television, or small-scale digital radio, we have to ensure that communities have priority over narrow commercial interests.

Funding for community media has to be increased substantially. Ofcom presently gives £400,00 each year to support community radio in the UK, but the BBC spends ten times that on taxis each year. We need to establish flexible and dedicated funds for all types of community media projects, channels and groups, that support reasonable and fair payments for the services community media provide, through training programmes and the promotion of community development campaigns.

Investing in education and learning opportunities through and with community media means recognising community media’s contribution to our civic and social life. Celebrating and valuing the achievements of the community media movement in a way that cherishes the positive impact we can all have on the wellbeing of individuals and communities, is essential.

By working closely with government and community focussed partners it is possible to embed and secure new opportunities for community media participation. Being included in all important conversations about regulation, legislation and resource planning is essential.

Principally, this is about promoting the development and use of existing and emerging media platforms for sharing the creative work of communities. This is not just about mirroring the way that mainstream media works, but instead, it’s about how we understand and support the artistic and creative value of community media, in which we are able to provide physical and virtual spaces for communities to take creative risk and find their voice.

Those of us in the community media movement know there is a different way, and that ordinary people can collaborate, work together on independent platforms, that are owned and run by local communities. Community media has been quietly growing in the background across the United Kingdom, using alternative business models that are not driven solely by advertising, but that embrace the work and the vitality of social enterprises, that increase access, thereby earning money from training, running inclusive membership schemes, and much more.

Community media has been desperately underfunded. The community media movement has to fight for the meagre resources that it’s got. However, community media tells us something about the way forward. That the ownership of media needs to be with everyone and not just a few. People need to tell their own stories, recognising that our differences and our diversity are our strengths.

Jun 282016
 

The ramifications of the result of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union are going to reverberate for some time. Not only will the decision to leave the EU mean changes to our economy and political life, but they will also have a significant impact on the way that we think about and undertake community media in the United Kingdom as well.

As supporters of community media adjust to this new reality, it is worth sharing some thoughts about the kind of responses that community media advocates might think about. Depending on your point of view, thinking about what got us into this mess, and what might we do to work through it so we can get the best out of it?

The response of community media supporters at this time will shape the future relationships that community media sustains in times to come. We don’t have any idea at this stage how commercial and public service media will continue to be regulated in the United Kingdom, and what changes might come about as a result of the changing legal and regulatory regimes.

One thing that I hope that can be agreed is that the success of the leave campaign was due in large part to a sense of frustration and indignation at the manner in which our economy and civic life had been playing out.

It certainly became progressively harder to keep community media groups running and focussed as government cuts and austerity hit local communities, but there are other factors that are associated with the general sense of frustration. Community media has been run on a shoe-string for years now, a fact that has been pointed out to government by the Community Media Association on many occasions.

One example that typifies this sense of frustration is the rise of the zombie town, for example, in which every high-street is identical, and populated by the same chain stores and brands? These towns give little opportunity for networks of independent and local businesses to take-root and play a strong role in civic life.

I’ve thought for some time now that it is pointless travelling around the United Kingdom because the high-streets are all the same. Is this a factor in the sense of frustration? Did people become frustrated because they have been cut-off from a clear, independent sense of local identity?

Like the high-street, local media has been under considerable pressure for some time now. Newspapers have been squeezed-out because they haven’t been profitable enough. Local commercial radio stations have been squeezed out as the international conglomerates have built chains of stations around formulas, brands and centralised marketing.

Local commercial radio in the United Kingdom is homogenised, formulaic and repetitive, with little sense of local identity. Playing local travel news in between Justin Bieber tracks isn’t doing anything to foster local expression and understanding.

In hoc only to the needs of advertisers the commercial radio companies have forgotten the listeners needs, and killed-off the chance that radio might be a positive and creative forum for discussion, ideas and local identity.

The BBC doesn’t come away from these events with any glory either. The narrow and condescending programming brief that is given to BBC Local Radio is fascicle and self-serving. Prone to being ‘nostalgia’ radio, BBC local stations have been prevented from fostering a local identity.

Just a change of accents from one station to the next, yet the content is mostly identical.

The BBC Local Radio music playlists are centrally managed, leading to a generic sound that is the same everywhere. No local experimentation, discovery or challenge. Just Daft Punk and Lionel Ritche on endless repeat.

BBC Local Radio should be a place of vibrant, integrated community debate and discussion. Did BBC Local Radio tap into the resentment that was expressed in the referendum, or where BBC Local Radio producers just as surprised as everyone else in the media?

It is often said, and always worth repeating, that the strength of community media is the principle that community media is about people representing themselves. Community media has a proud tradition of supporting community discussion and communication, but community media has been chronically underfunded for a long, long time.

This underfunding, and a lack of active government support, both national and local, has left many community media groups clinging on, not able to develop, grow or expand their services. Everyone I know in community media feels lucky just to have survived.

The Ofcom Broadcast Rules stifle debate and creative reposes to differences of community opinion because they have to be packaged in a ‘balanced’ approach, which for many community media groups is out of their reach given the legalistic framework and ramifications if you get it wrong.

This dereliction of duty by Ofcom to foster and support community media, would be pardonable if Ofcom actually gave some support to community media groups to meet the legal challenges of broadcasting. However, all that Ofcom offers is a PowerPoint presentation based on the complex legal documents they circulate to all broadcasters, regardless of size and status.

Community media emerged from lack of civic support as risk-averse. More often community media groups avoid any controversial topics, news or discussion. This has had a negative effect on civic discussion and compounds the democratic deficit and lack of engagement many people experience.

Four million people voted for UKIP at the last general election, and they have just one MP in parliament. Where do these voices get heard in our local communities? Why are political discussions only left to a few high-profile celebrity politicians on national, centralised stations?

Why aren’t the day-to-day issues of community life shared and expressed in community media forums?

The ideal of community media is for communities to speak to of themselves and to themselves, while also speaking with other communities. The challenge is to do this in a way that fosters understanding and tolerance through shared engagement.

This is a message that needs to be shouted from the rooftops by community media advocates, particularly as people try to make sense of the result of the referendum. We have a fantastic opportunity with community media to foster and support communities through open and challenging dialogue, as long as the framework of support is put in place by government.

The alternative is that community media advocates declare their independence and go off and do their own things, using the new social media technologies that are replacing mass media anyway.

I intend to give this matter some serious thought and I’m keen to hear what other people think about it. Is this a moment for community media to step-up and embrace the opportunity to help heal our divided communities by helping them to listen to and understand one another?

Jun 262016
 

Come the hour, comes the man – or woman, but it’s not as snappy a proverb. The fallout from the Brexit vote to leave the European Union looks like it is only just starting to gather strength. The latest overnight news is that Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, has sacked the shadow foreign secretary, Hillary Benn, because he was plotting to revolt against his leadership.

With Boris Johnson aiming to lead the Conservative Party, and become the next Prime Minister, after David Cameron’s resignation, the other proverb that comes to mind, but perhaps one that is less welcome, is: ‘may you be blessed to live in interesting times.’

There are underlying fault-lines that have become apparent in this maelstrom of claim and counter-claim. And while those on the right would frame this as a debate about personal liberty or national pride, and those on the left might frame this as a debate about capitalism’s time running out, there are other forces at hand that also need to be considered.

I’ve discussed in a previous post how this is a debate about the old and the young. There is a clear rift in the expectations of those over forty and those under forty. Those that remember life before Thatcherism, and those that have only ever lived with the European outlook.

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Geographic Divisions of Brexit

There is also the divide between the so-called ‘heartlands’ and the urban areas. The vote to remain was embedded in Scotland obviously, but also in the cities of England. While the vote to leave was founded in the shires and counties, the smaller towns of England that are furthest away from the urban lifestyles of the emerging urban economies.

The Observer’s editorial today’s asks:

So what about globalisation? How have free markets benefited the steel worker put out of work by the EU-sanctioned dumping of cheap Chinese products? Seen from Wearside or the Welsh valleys, booming London and the south-east, with its Monopoly money property prices and £70 a head restaurants, resembles Goldrush City, a foreign and hostile land.”

The last time I was in central London I hated it – to use a phrase I thought it was full of arrogant and self-entitled chancers. So these anxieties are being felt elsewhere and have been deeply engrained as form of indignation and resentment for some time.

I wonder, perhaps, if there is another divide, one that is less visible, but one that has shaped and formed these outlooks? Is this a divide between those who use traditional media to keep themselves informed of what’s happening in the world, and those who use social and emerging media to find out what is happening in the world?

The tradition of mass media has not disappeared, despite what Facebook, YouTube and Twitter might want us to think. Newspapers, television, and to a much lesser extent radio, still play an essential role in framing the debates and conversations that we have about our national identity and our place in the world. Often framed by the bias of the newspaper proprietors who are themselves pursuing an agenda of their own interest.

Alternatively, the users of social media have a more flexible approach to information, with sources and feeds being exchanged and shared from many different media organisations as well as individuals. The downside is the jam-jar approach, in which the hornets of opinion furiously echo each-others views and don’t interact with those of different mind-sets.

This is counter-balanced, however, by the ability to look wider afield and to interact with people who are not geographically defined in our localities, or set within our networks of social class, gender and sexual identity, views on faith or otherwise. Social media allows people to spread their network wider than the fixed world of mass mediated politics allows.

Perhaps a good example of the hollowing out of local identities is the way that radio in the United Kingdom has become a centralised, national set of brands and formats that reflect a narrow commercial interest, but which don’t give a flavour to local lives and circumstances. It’s no surprise that BBC Local Radio is designed to appeal to the over fifty-fives. Has this played through into people’s perceptions of a hollowed-out sense of community?

Likewise, we’ve seen a massive decline in local newspapers, local reporting about politics, local information and discussion about civic and local government issues in the press, because the press has been decimated by speculation and commercial interests.

So in a way, the Brexit debate is an argument about changing local identities and emerging social identities. Our collective and social identities are now being formed in different ways, and how we cope with that and respond to it is very important.

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 08.14.39On the one-hand people are strongly patriotic and have a clear need for a locally defined image of themselves. While on the other hand there is a great source of energy that comes from rejecting these more traditional forms of identity and instead seeking common cause with people who are of a like-mind globally. Look at the response to the Orlando shootings for a sense of common-cause between LGBT people.

This is patriotism and localism versus freedom of movement and social association. Who you have most in common with is no longer set by where you live, but increasingly by who you link with on social media. This might account in some way for the generational divide that became evident in the outcome of the referendum vote. Do people under forty embrace the globalised social identity afforded through social media more easily than those who are over forty?

This is not clear cut and set in stone. My mum is an avid remain supporter and uses social media to follow the debates and to talk to other people about it. She is seventy-three years old and doesn’t regard herself as nostalgic about the past. Whereas many of her peers feel that they have ‘got their country back’, as if they are reclaiming the glory of Britain in the 1950s, prior to the Windrush.

The challenge, then, is to choose the political side that you think best represents the future? Should we embrace independence because it makes us feel that we are getting something back that was lost? A sense of local identity that was ripped apart by deindustrialisation, the rise of the consumer economy and the Thatcherite experiment in speculative capitalism?

Or should we focus on the requirements of the future economy that is based on knowledge, information, social networks and progressive civic freedoms that enable people to work internationally, absorbing and sharing different cultural traditions and practices?

The Labour Party is in the most difficult position of all parties in this debate, as it tries to figure out if this should be a process of managed decline and localism, or if this reflects ideas that are more relevant to the ongoing process of globalisation and integration?

Labour MP Yvette Cooper is arguing that Labour needs to adopt an approach that listens to the concerns of the heartlands, and takes on board the concerns that people have about immigration and globalisation. This is a widespread, and on the surface a sensible view, but it is also a mistaken view that fails in terms of political leadership.

Political parties can be very effective sounding boards for grievances and complaints. As social change makes people uncomfortable there is an inevitable role for the politics of indignation. However, this doesn’t move people on, and it doesn’t set out the realities that the world has changed and will continue to change.

Political leadership is about challenging the expectations of your supporters and taking them on a journey to a more promising future. In the United Kingdom this promise was high-jacked in what I can only describe as a right-wing coup, organised by about eighty members of the Conservative party and the backers of UKIP.

The economic and social realities haven’t changed, however, so the need to manage people’s expectations about what kind of future is possible needs to be urgent and blunt if it is to be achieved fairly and in a progressive and socially democratic manner.

Everything that we know about social and economic life in the United Kingdom is about to be torn up. If the Brexit supporters think that this will result in form of ‘glorious isolation’ then they are mistaken. The world is still going to change around them and they run the risk of being left behind. Fine, choose that if you wish, but understand the consequences.

This is why we need a broad alliance of the 48% to make the positive case for a progressive and socially responsible future, that incorporates and builds on globalisation, the challenge of technology, and the promise of diverse, mixed and integrated communities.

Britain’s cities hold the key for the future prosperity of the United Kingdom because they are forward looking, multi-ethnic, creative, young. They are finally breaking free from the autocratic control of national government and are being recognised as ‘powerhouses’ of future prosperity.

If the swathes of the country outside of the urban areas can’t grasp that, then they must remain content to work for managed decline and diminished incomes. Economic gains from future technologies are going to slip away from what’s left of the United Kingdom, as technology and digital companies relocate to more welcoming countries.

I don’t think the Brexit voters realise the lasting damage that scratching the itch of indignation is going to cause.

Sep 132014
 

Standardisation

I’m reading Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation about the rise of the junk food industry in America and how the multinational corporations have taken over the global market in food for themselves. Schlosser describes in vivid detail how the McDonalds fast food chain pioneered the use of production line techniques in their restaurants in order to drive down employment costs. Rather than employing chefs and ‘carhops’ the kitchen was divided into units of production, with ‘team members’ working one section only and working to a proscribed set of routines. This factory model has been used in numerous other places and industries since. According to Schlosser, Walt Disney’s innovation was to turn the art studio into a production line for his animations. Subsequently everything from tele-sales to dentists to funeral care has been standardised and homogenised.

In higher education at the moment there is a drive towards the standardisation and industrialisation of learning. The model is similar to the McDonalds principle of management, you have a set of highly trained and motivated managers who are given a set of clear instructions and routines that they must enforce – in this case in the name of academic quality – and then reduce the skill levels of all the subordinate contributors. So there is no individual academic judgement to be made about the performance of learners, rather academics work towards an algorithm that churns out a degree classification at the end of a students studies. Higher education isn’t much different now than the fast food industry. We are in show business. We find out what the dreams, hopes and desires are of our market and we turn it to our advantage, much in the same way that the processed food industry sells us health by making us by products that are making us fat and giving us diabetes.

And yet, the result of all this standardisation has actually been counterproductive – for ordinary people at least. For the corporations it has embedded their power as a corporate oligarchy and driven their profit margins ruthlessly. Even in times of crisis the corporations can’t fail because they have socialised risk to the rest of us. But working peoples income hasn’t risen over the last forty years. We feel richer because more of us work, and we have access to more credit, but the proportion of wealth that goes back to working people continues to decline.

So all of this makes me wonder, why are we so inthrall to the process of standardisation and centralisation that the corporate management model promotes? On the one hand we have the marketing people telling us it’s all about choice, but then the only places that you can get a coffee is Starbucks, or to get something to eat is McDonalds or to buy your groceries is Tesco, who only supply a limited range of foods anyway. Obviously something isn’t working or we’d all be getting fitter and healthier, spending more time dedicating our lives to higher pursuits and enjoying the families and friends that we are bonded to. Instead we are running around trying to pay the bills, to compete and keep up with our neighbours and to keep hold of our jobs by being compliant and following the charismatic corporate leaders we are told have all the answers.

The process of standardisation has to be obdurately resisted, then, and only then, might we create some space for some real innovation to happen.

May 042014
 

This weekend I’ve been at Liverpool Sound City, a music festival based in the heart of the city centre, taking over disused spaces and opening-up events to audiences that might not otherwise use them. The Anglican Cathedral is a standout space, who would have though that hosting two thousand people for a rock concert could be achieved in one of Europe’s most iconoclastic religious buildings?

Liverpool's Anglican Cathederal

Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral

The UK has some fine music festivals, and the appetite for them doesn’t seem to be diminishing. The approach of most festivals is to offer a wide diversity of performances on different stages, with different styles and genres of music. Headliners are given a big push and coincide with the marketing plans of the major labels, while smaller stages are a great place for new acts to learn their craft, refine their ideas and message, and meet-up with new audiences. For many it’s the nooks and crannies that make a festival memorable, tent-poled between seeing iconic performers and events.

It’s generally recognised that pushing new bands is tough everywhere, and that a festival entirely consisting of new, or at least unrecognised music, would be too challenging. This is where the heavyweights are brought in. A strong headlining legacy-artists can make or break a festival, despite the collective value and the worth of the supporting performances. Though too much reliance on the legends or the old guard, depending on how you see it, can have a stultifying effect and we end-up with performances that are too well trodden and predictable.

Eyedress at The Kazimier

Eyedress at The Kazimier

For the punters, some will only want to see the mainstream acts that all of their friends know and recognise, thus joining into a collective experience of shared references and memories. Recognition rather than obscurity is a powerful force. Others, though, are happy to discover alternative performers operating in the parallel margins and regard happenstance and serendipity as a key motivating driver of the experience.

Luckily it seems that music festivals, when done right can accommodate both. Without a good mix from the mainstream and the alternative acts acting in parallel the vibe isn’t right. Festivals depend on the opportunity for chance and the random encounter. That performer that you never would have thought of seeing in a million years turns out to be brilliant and the highlight of the weekend.

Festivals are chaotic, ad-hoc, temporary and founded on a common will to share an experience that confronts and reverses the standard dynamic of bureaucratic control that is exercised in daily life. Mikhail Bakhtin called it the ‘carnivalesque’, the point at which the tables are turned, however temporarily, giving power and authority over to the crowd.

Creativity – either industrially sourced on a large-scale, or thrown at the wall in seemingly random micro-acts -has a premium. Transgression is valued. Individual experience is central. As the festival-goer you get to choose. Either you can put the work in with a confrontational performance artist, or you can let the work come to you by watching a mega-scale performance from a ‘branded’ act. Both are valid.

Solids at the Kazimier

Solids at the Kazimier

What is clear, though, is that none of this is achieved without a clear sense of communalism. Unlike mainstream consumerism, the music festival only works when the experience that is being proffered is collectively engaged. A music festival isn’t a privatised affair. Instead it gives people the chance to share in a set of interests and ideas that they recognise as a self-determined part of their identity.

A rationalist economist might be able to reduce the experience of attending a festival to an equation, a dictum or a set of instrumental principles, but I think they remind us that human nature is pragmatic, contingent and ‘spiritual’. Who wants to go to a festival that is organised by committee and which doesn’t have any meaningful risk? As long as there is an alternative form of expression, we often find that we accommodate ourselves with the commercialism and the sponsorship. Even to the point of Kasabian…. Well, I won’t go that far…

We are very good at rationalising the capabilities we have acquired at different times into something that is supposedly eternal and immutable. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is what the economists call it. Rationalising after the event. At a music festival our successes are achieved by going with our gut instincts and foregoing the rational or planned exchange. Keynes reckoned that the economy is shaped by the animal spirits. I wonder what he would have thought of Glastonbury? A music festival is both an analogy of those spirits and an opportunity to engage in an animalistic way with the world. I would recommend that some of our more reserved and rationalist economists give a music festival a go at some point. They might just come up with a more humanistic and realistic way of thinking about the world.

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 152014
 

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?

Dec 202013
 

It’s worth watching this debate in parliament to see how nasty the Tories really are.

Nov 282013
 

So Boris Johnson has caused a kerfuffle with his jibe “The harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top.” According to The Guardian “Johnson mocked the 16% ‘of our species’ with an IQ below 85 as he called for more to be done to help the 2% of the population who have an IQ above 130.” Johnson’s intention, according to The Independent was a call to “a new generation of Brits to embrace greed and snobbery as a ‘valuable spur to economic activity’ during a speech where the London Mayor paid tribute to Thatcherism.”

In Johnson’s rambunctious manner, not only did he put his finger on the direction of future political schisms in terms of ideology, but he also set the battle-lines for a geographic tussle that could split the nation along a north-south divide, or more specifically a South East and the rest-of-us-divide. Big stuff, you might say, but then an antagonistic case has to be made as an alternative to Boris’ essentialisation of inequality and the moral and geographic determinism on which it is founded. The Telegraph quotes Johnson as saying “I don’t believe that economic equality is possible; indeed, some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses and so on that it is a valuable spur to economic activity.”

Let me point to a couple of features of this discussion that might lend them to the response that needs to be articulated in opposing this latest salvo of the ideology of muscular liberalism that Johnson represents. The Spirit Level argument is one notable starting point, based as it is on the proposition that the more unequal a society is, the worse it does in terms of economic performance. The recent OECD report into levels of literacy in the developed world, highlights the correlation between degraded levels of equality and the reduced levels of performance in basic skills. Put bluntly, the more unequal the resources of society are shared, the less likely that people will achieve the requisite levels of capability that will enable them to play a role in an economically dynamic economy, thus making us all poorer.

Johnson’s belief is founded on a moral fundamentalism that sits at the heart of muscular liberal thinking. It was expressed bluntly by Boris, and runs along the lines that it is each individual’s strength of aspiration and the extent to which they are willing to strive in the marketplace which justifies the rewards that they receive. This is an a priori worldview in which the moral virtue of the striver goes without challenge. The wealth creators get where they do, not because of luck, privilege, bias and the platform that was put in place from which they can operate, but instead because they are de facto morally superior and therefore deserve the rewards they get. The winners in our society get the wealth they have because they are due the reward for being better people than the rest, is the argument. They are, as Johnson describes, the ‘cornflakes’ who are capable of rising to the top of the box, and they deserve to be there.

What this argument ignores, though, is the fact that the cornflakes box is riddled with bias, hurdles and barriers that keep the lower cornflakes in their place, and enable the cornflakes that start off from a higher vantage point to maintain their differential place. The undeserving cornflakes, by contrast, can only expect to remain in the lower part of the box because they are accordingly held to be morally inferior. In Johnson view those at the bottom of the cornflakes box lack the ambition and the moral drive that the strivers possess, and so they must know their relatively subordinate place and keep within the segregated layers that suit their status in life. All the lower cornflakes can do is watch with envy as the morally superior cornflakes enjoy the rewards and opulence that comes with their inherent moral value.

Except, the conditions in which the cornflakes that rise to the top are not so clear-cut. As a philosophical mind-game I can see the sense in arguing that those who are capable of rising to the top are able to do so, but only if those who are at the top are equally capable of losing their foothold and falling to the bottom. This would be a virtuous cycle of replenishment based on merit, but I don’t think Boris is actually arguing for that to happen, is he? How radically Thatcherite it would be if Johnson argued for a dismantling of the mechanisms of wealth perpetuation? If Johnson was arguing that we should take apart the infrastructure of privilege and pre-selection that is inherent in the British social and economic system, then I might be willing to accept his argument as a worthy challenge to the prevailing social order. One that many other radicals could support.

Rather than calling for the expansion of the selection process in education and the widespread return of the grammar school system, Johnson would instead, if he was genuinely Thatcherite, argue for the removal of all forms of selection based on social bias. He would introduce lotteries and the redistribution of resources so that those with the innate IQ (if such a thing is possible), wherever they are found, could realise their potential based on an equal ability to compete based on merit. This is not a world in which who your parents are would make any difference. Nor would the connections your family have in the professions make any difference. Nor would your ability to pay for additional tutoring, or to go to private schools, or to receive any financial and status benefits that the state offers in terms of tax breaks above those of the average. Without sounding like a communist, Johnson’s moral economic radicalism would call into question the structural protection of property rights and the reinforcement of inheritance regimes.

But Johnson is calling for none of these things. Instead he is pandering to the South East mind-set in which those people who live in one part of the country that have benefited from the post-war, mid-twentieth century, geo-political realignment. Johnson is their champion and wants them to continue to benefit. Before World War Two the wealth of the UK was created in its Northern and Western industrial regions. Coal mining, steel, textiles, wool, manufacturing and shipping, was focussed on Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool. The South East was essentially an agrarian bread-basket. London was a port and a centre of banking. The latter half of the Twentieth Century saw a reversal of these fortunes, with London primed as a service industry hotspot by Thatcher and Blair. The shift in geo-political power was due to the closer integration of Europe and the development of information based technology services. The rest of the United Kingdom was left to fend for itself. Industrial policies were restricted. Regional policies were emasculated. The independence of our once mighty northern cities was curtailed. No wonder the Scots are voting for independence!

If you owned land or property in the South East of England its value increased in the post-war period purely by a coincidence of geography and economic realignment. This increase in value had nothing to do with the individual appetite of people to strive, or the moral virtues held by the people who had ownership of these lucky assets. It was a lottery win. Purely a chance win in the lottery of life. Being in the right place at the right time. But Boris Johnson doesn’t want you to think about this. In Boris’ world the wealth was created by people who wanted it more, and who would do anything to maintain their relative differential with fellow citizens. This political and economic difference could be magically wished away, because they could more readily be reduced to a moral justification that maintained the relative structural differentials whatever the cost.

This greed is good mentality is based on ensuring that other people can’t compete,being cut off from a fair distribution (pre- and post-) of resources. Usually taking the form of admonishment, people are berated for not pulling their socks-up, getting on their bikes or being skivers, despite the fact that relative effort does not receive a proportional outcome. Employment displaced people aside, many people under this system are able to work less and still receive more, regardless of the the relative moral status of their claim.

The legions of Borisbots who invest in the South East of England do so because the tax breaks are generous. The Council Tax remains unreformed, despite the gross unfairness of the ratings system and the fact that there hasn’t been a market re-evaluation since it was introduced in 1992. As a property tax this scandalously takes money and demand away from the diminished north and further pump-primes the south-east. Likewise inheritance tax remains unchallenged and is shot-full with so many loopholes that money cascades from one generation to another with barely a murmur. Our judiciary and senior positions in the civil service remain full of people drawn from private schools. The elite universities continue to be stuffed with people from privileged backgrounds. You can see where I am going.

Yet if you are bright and from a modest background, your chances are squeezed. Paying for tuition fees, the removal of Educational Maintenance Allowances, the Bed Room Tax, hikes in public transport costs, the increase in under-employment, temporary contracts, a hire-and-fire attitude with no protection and little access to law and redress. Credit has fuelled the feel-good factor. Property speculation is being driven up to further boost economic activity in the South East. The Bank of England is slamming on the breaks in the hope of stopping the bubble bursting. Michael White of The Guardian warns Watch out, Boris. You are playing with fire – fire that may be tempted to burn down Eton just to prove it’s on the people’s side.”

So less of the lectures about the moral virtue of greed please Boris. If you really want to be a radical you will have to challenge the sacred-cows of conservative England, and the perpetuation and retention of wealth and opportunity by a diminishing super-elite. The level of inequality that we have in the United Kingdom is unsustainable and will lead to the social bonds being stretched to the point of no return. This is not a way to build a sustainable economy and it is not the way to justify what are otherwise morally reprehensible, deterministic and borderline fascistic comments about the individual capabilities of our fellow citizens. No doubt Boris can relate this to ancient Greece or Rome better than I can, all I would say is that we must be beware polybian demagogues!

[Update] Andrew Rawnsley has followed this story in his column in The Observer, in which he points out that Boris is repeating a well established trope – one played out in Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World. Rawnsley points out that  “the real problem here is with the implied conclusion that the poor are poor because they are born stupid, the rich are rich because they spring from the womb destined to be that way, and there’s nothing much anyone can do about it except to urge the wealthy not to be too “heartless” and let a few of the talented poor into the elite.”