Saturday, May 19, 2007

.... something stirs

Malcolm was going to start this item with the metaphor of rustling in the shrubbery becoming too obvious to ignore. He was distinctly narked to find that bloody Wilby in the Old Staggerer had got there first.

So to John Kampfner in Friday's Daily Telegraph, no less. And this from the paper, more than any other, which has trashed David Willetts on selection, and Cameron's handling thereof:

Brown's launch last Friday was marred by the autocue ... , but apart from that one mistake (which they cleverly spun as the first example of "anti-spin") it has been seamless. His trips around the country have received steady coverage, particularly in local media, while his acceptance speech in the City yesterday was accomplished.

But there is a more subtle, and perhaps more enduring, reason for his camp's confidence. Brown has managed to push the agenda on to the issue of "aspiration". This is a nebulous term, but in short it means: "I will be the true defender of the struggling middle classes of Middle Britain." In so doing, Brown is seeking to distance himself not just from the Left but also from the Blairite obsession with the rich.

He is talking about families earning anything from £25,000 to £50,000, mortgaged to the hilt, worried about their choice of school and annoyed that they can't see their GP when they want to. They are not in any way poor, but nor do they consider themselves in any way pampered.

They are politically aware, but not necessarily engaged; increasingly worried by global warming, but not necessarily prepared to make personal sacrifices. These people are more than the floating voter. They are, according to strategists in all the parties, the voter.

That is why David Cameron's intervention on Wednesday's World at One was so telling. The Conservative leader, speaking from the school where he has been helping out, sounded rattled (politicians should always avoid scratchy telephone lines for interviews) when confronted about his party's U-turn on grammar schools.

Malcolm apologises for the undue length of that quotation. He feels it is necessary to get the full flavour.

The first thought is the curiously-touching meeting-of-minds between the editor of the New Statesman and the journal-of-choice of Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells. This is something more than Kautilya's principle of "My enemy's enemy is my friend".

What puzzled Malcolm was the curious symmetry of views, which amounts to:
  • the beatification of the late Robin Cook;
  • the need for Gordon Brown to realign with the liberal left across the country;
  • Brown courting the Daily Mail and Murdoch;
  • who wears a tie any more (Alan Johnson and John Prescott do, which proves their working-class credentials; but Blair and Cameron don't, which proves they are toffs).
So, what's going on?

Fortunately the Staggerer's Peter Wilby was able to explain all:
Consider this headline from the Daily Telegraph business section: "The backlash has started against income inequality". Or this, from the Daily Mail leader page: "I deplore the millionaires who contribute so little to Britain." Or this, from the Washington Post: "Free trade's great, but offshoring rattles me." That last one doesn't seem so startling until you know that the article beneath it is written by Alan Blinder, a Princeton economics professor and former vice-chairman of the Federal Reserve. A rough equivalent would be: "God's great, but the Resurrection rattles me."
The essence is that the British middle class has woken up to the chilling fact that they (just like the downtrodden workers) are potentially redundant. It's a long while since Clive Jenkins was fruitily banging on about this, but it could be that even his worst fears are about to be exceeded. Thanks to the web, we can all be replaced by tele-dildonics based somewhere in the developing world:
We'll be richer, and so will India and China. But think of all those programmers and accountants who got themselves educated and trained as they were told to do, and don't find their skills make them any more employable than assembly-line operatives.
This, lest we forget, is the obverse of the "Education, education, education" coin. It is all fine-and-dandy for the high minds of the Economist to preach the virtues of liberalising world markets, but in the short term, the rich get richer, and the middle-class (who buy the broadsheets and mid-weight press) get shafted.
That is what lies behind those headlines in the Mail and the Telegraph, which might have been taken from the New Statesman. The Mail writer notes that "under new Labour, the worth of the 1,000 richest people in the country has soared by 263 per cent" and that many of them are foreigners. The Telegraph columnist complains : "The politically influential middle classes are missing out most. They pay proportionately more in taxes and are failing to benefit from the massive increase in salaries enjoyed by the super-rich."
It's just as well some of us saw this coming, otherwise we would be reduced to Wilby's bleat of a conclusion:
Globalisation and the super-rich: for ten years it has been heresy in new Labour's eyes to resist either. But these issues will shape the next decade, and [Gordon] Brown cannot escape them.
Or, as the pre-adolescent essay-writer (or Dallas script-writer) ends: "... and then I woke up."

Alternatively, there is a more cogent analysis, and it is Meghnad Desai's:
I want to argue that in the triumphant resurgence of capitalism -- and, indeed, its global reach -- the one thinker who is vindicated is Karl Marx. Not only that. The demise of the socialist experiment inaugurated by October 1917 would not distress but cheer Karl Marx if, as an atheist, he occupies any part of Hell, Purgatory or Heaven. Indeed, if it came to a choice between whether the market or the state should rule the economy, modern libertarians would be as shocked as modern socialists (social democrats et al.) to find Marx on the side of the market.
Malcolm feels somewhat discomforted in the presence of member of the Tribune board, a paid-up socialist and secularist, who is also a noble lord. However, Lord Desai's is an optimistic treatise. In its most simplistic form it is proposing that the market's positive end is the elimination of scarcity: after all, the crisis of capitalism is overproduction. In global terms, though, we have underproduction, dearth, poverty and famine. This is because the system is distorted by rich economies deploying huge agricultural subsidies. And our small domestic system is further distorted by the plutocrats and "have-yachts":
... a middle-class couple’s combined income of well into six figures seems to disappear into thin air before either of them has bought even a tube of toothpaste.

... our healthy pay cheques vaporise in a puff of smoke, leaving us prowling Waitrose for food past its sell-by dates and popping into Oxfam to refresh our wardrobes

. you now have to be a hedge fund manager, an oligarch or a private equity magnate at the very least to be able to afford the lifestyle that my parents were able to supply me and my ingrate siblings with three decades ago...

You can’t even be just averagely rich or reasonably well off any longer. A Halifax survey found that only nine professions could afford private school fees in London in 2005, compared with 19 in 2000. Oh, no: you have to be a have or a have-yacht.

Oh, the pain and shame of it!

So this, all agree, is Gordon Brown's opportunity to take or lose. The Cameroonie oven-ready recipe, sooner or later, will be to revert to the Hefferite tv-dog's-dinner. At least Heffer has been consistent:
The battleground of the next [2005] election will be taxation, the public services, immigration and law and order. The Tory party must be as distinct as possible from Labour, and determined not to be influenced by its social vision. So the first thing Mr Howard has to do is get radical with spending. Instead of fearing Labour accusations of cuts, he should boast about those he plans to make — in the non-frontline staff who have been the public sector employment boom of the last seven years. Sadly, Mr Howard is still apparently of the opinion that spending more is good. He has to persuade the public to rediscover the concept of value for money and stop thinking of spending as a good in itself. He needs to tell the country that without sacking a single doctor, nurse, teacher, police officer or carer he can cut the public sector wage bill and, with it, taxation.
Until Cameroon heeds that, and returns sheepishly to the fold, Heffer, the Mail and its ilk will deny him their cupboard love.

This issue was (and may still be) smouldering on and long may its lum reek, not just because it is a Tory ailment, but because it addresses the future role and ideology of any Tory Party.

We lefties should not be blind to the seduction of quick-fix tax-cuts. And that is the real challenge for Prime Minister Brown. He has already anticipated the pendulum of opinion, and this is the strategy behind the rhetoric of "aspiration". Public expenditure will not continue to grow at its previous rate. Public services will be more accountable. Once the interest rises of 2007 have worked through the system, the fiscal wind will be tempered to the shorn lambs of suburbia. That should address the domestic agenda. The usual vested interests, denied their recent surfeit, will inevitably have the LibDem soft-shoulder to weep on, and the Staggerer to voice their agony (witness the deprived arts lobby whinge about the cost of social engineering piggybacked onto the 2012 Olympic budget).

Internationally, Brown has the track-record to continue to challenge protectionist policies in the EU and across the world (which should resonate with any US President elected in 2008). And on all this, doubtless, Malcolm will pronounce further at some later date.

Meanwhile, keep an ear tuned to that shrubbery. And hope that Gordon keeps his tie on. Sphere: Related Content
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