It is time for Sadiq Khan to stand up for London

What is the point of Sadiq Khan, London’s Labour Mayor, recently reelected for a second term? He is a powerful symbol of inclusion – a Muslim bus-driver’s son making it to the city’s highest office. After that I struggle. He has acheived little in five years. But now he has an opportunity to make his mark.

Mr Khan’s problems aren’t entirely of his own making. Since his predecessor as mayor, Boris Johnson, took over as Prime Minister in 2019 the national government has been actively hostile. We then discover how little actual power London’s mayoralty has. The situation worsened when the pandemic came along, and Transport for London’s finances collapsed. This one of the few things the mayor is responsible for, but he had to go cap in hand to the government for a bailout. In doing so the government has gone out of its way to humiliate him. Mr Khan has looked like a powerless bleater from the sidelines. But this also reflects Mr Khan’s lack of political skill. He has shown little aptitude in mobilising broad political coalitions to get things done.

But now he has an opportunity: the Daniel Morgan report. This report into the Metropolitan Police was commissioned by Theresa May as Home Secretary in 2013. It looks at the Met’s repeated failings in the case of the murder of Daniel Morgan, a private investigator, in 1987. It was suspected that corrupt policemen were involved. The report is summarised here by the FT’s David Allen Green. It is shocking. It shows the Met as being keener to protect its reputation than to be held accountable. This culture is described as “institutional corruption”. And the report makes it plain that it stretches to the present day, with the inquiry being obstructed by senior police officers, who were as slow as they could be in producing evidence. What is even more significant is that the current Commissioner, Cressida Dick, is deeply implicated in this criticism. Ms Dick is every inch a Met insider, with her fingerprints on numerous police foulups. It is time for her to go and for an outsider to be brought in to replace her. The Met needs a change in management culture and she is n ot the person to do it.

Mr Johnson is not going to support this, and has expressed his confidence in Ms Dick. He is not in favour of public accountability, and likes senior public officials to be beholden to him. He is not directly responsible for appointing or dismissing the Commissioner, though. That is a matter of joint responsibility between the Home Secretary, currently Priti Patel, and the Mayor. Will Ms Patel stand up to her boss? She probably could if she wanted too, as she is one the politically stronger members of the government (whatever one thinks of her record). It is unlikely though. Which leaves Sadiq Khan as mayor.

I doubt that the Mayor has the legal power to sack the Commissioner by himself – but a public statement of loss of confidence would make her position untenable. That would allow him to show that he is standing up to the bullying from government and asserting his new mandate from London voters. There is a risk that Ms Dick could try toughing it out based on Ms Patel’s backing alone – that would be sadly characteristic of the current times. In which case the mayor would need to up the ante and start making the government, and the Force, pay a price. This is what politicians can do. Authority depends on much more than just legal powers.

So it is clear what Sadiq Khan should do. But I expect him to bottle it and serve out the rest of his term as another act of futlity and pointlessness.

How do we live with Covid-19?

As predicted “Freedon Day”, when covid restrictions were due to be lifted, has been postponed from 21 June. And as usual most of the sceptical comment seems to have missed the point. They are suggesting that the government will keep on postponing through dither and indecision. But in fact I thought the government was being quite clear, and there is good reason to think that they will stick with the new proposed date of 19 July, though doubtless some restrictions will be long-term. Meanwhile there is not nearly enough debate on what is an acceptable balance between risk and danger in future while the virus remains prevalent in the world at large – which may well be forever.

The government’s narrative is that the we are in a race between vaccination and the virus. This suggests that there is some kind of equilibrium to be found between the proportion of the population that is vaccinated and the infectivity of the virus, which might bring the reproduction rate to below one, depending on the level of restrictions in place. There is good reason to think that if 75% of the population is vaccinated, then the R rate will stay below one even with most restrictions lifted. The government’s calculation seems to have been that, with the previously dominant Alpha variant, R would be close enough to one on June 23, when 80% vaccination has been reached for one dose. But with infection rates increasing at an alarming rate, this is clearly not true. The now-dominant Delta variant seems to be to blame. They have now calcualted that 75% or more people need both vaccine doses for this equilibrium to be reached.

It isn’t as simple as that of course. There is plenty of evidence that vaccinated people who do become infected do not suffer severe disease, while the mainly younger people who are not vaccinated are less likely to suffer severely too. So we might be able to weather higher infection rates just like we already do for flu. Against this I think two arguments have been accepted. First is that there are still a lot of unknowns about the Delta variant, including whether the earlier assumptions about the vulnerability of younger age groups still hold. India seemed to be less vulnerable than us to covid, mainly it was thought because its population is younger: until it was hit by Delta. Second the NHS is distinctly fragile at the moment. Waiting lists are massive in many places; the Financial Times has reported that many staff are leaving, exhausted by the stress of the last 18 months, and without substantial improvements to pay and conditions on offer. While it is true that the NHS can cope with high levels of flu, that is because it is seasonal – and even then it can be touch and go. So it seems more sensible to wait. Most people agree.

But the most significant thing I picked up from the announcements was that ministers were saying that we must learn to live with the virus, rather than expect that it will be beaten. What does this mean? Hospitalisation rates need to be stable and reasonably low, and likewise deaths. Current levels are surely close enough to this – but the exponental growth of infections is a clear threat. But that comes with significant restrictions on public events, hospitality, social distancing and so on. The big question is whether we can relax all of these. What measures can be kept in place that would reduce risk of infection (and not just from covid), without annoying too many people? Better ventilation standards for public places is an obvious one. I suspect we need to adopt more Asian approaches to mask-wearing (though this is more a metter of social mores than regulation). Certain settings, hospitals and care homes perhaps, will doubtless need higher levels of infection control.

These are the questions we should be asking ourselves. We need to watch and learn from what is happening in the rest of the world. Alas instead we get the usual nonsense about whether lockdowns are evil in principle, or whether the government lost two weeks by not restricting travel from India earlier.

The information gap – the big issue of our age

I felt a brief pang of sympathy for former Prime Minister David Cameron last week, as he endured grandstanding “questions” from MPs over his lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital. He probably really did think that what he was suggesting on that company’s behalf would be helpful to the government. But nobody cares about that; they just wanted the masochistic pleasure of giving him a beating. Such is politics. There is a deeper issue, though.

That issue is what I call the “information gap”. Governments do not have the information they need to use their resources efficiently on our behalf. We don’t get the right sort of help when we need it; lots of people get help they do not need. The government’s aid to businesses to help survive the covid lockdown was a case in point. Many needy businesses were unable to comply with the conditions and received no help. But many fraudulent companies were also set up to make claims, costing the state many millions, so it is thought. Greensill’s business was to lend money to businesses against outstanding invoices. Could this have helped close this information gap? Probably not, but it surely merited a closer look. It is not clear that the Treasury ever gave it that look. Mr Cameron does not seem to have been given any clear reason why they considered his suggestion unsuitable. There turned out to be good reasons to turn Greensill down, but Mr Cameron wasn’t wrong to put the question.

The information gap is nothing new. It arises whenever a large, centrally-managed organisation has to interact with the world beyond the direct experience of the core group of 100 or so people that run it. We might call it “Empire Syndrome”. The classic way to deal with it is for the elite to create an arbitrary set of rules for outlying officials to follow, and simply to shrug when this leads to bad outcomes – call this the “Imperial Method”. Conscientious officials try to optimise these rules to minimise bad outcomes and get some sort of positive return. Other officials don’t care – they just derive pleasure from the exercise of arbitrary authority and the status that this confers. The alternative solution is to allow local officials broad discretion to exercise their judgement based on the achievement of broad objectives. This brings problems of its own. Discretion is a opportunity for corruption; also it allows power centres to build up and undermine the authority of the central elite.

The imperial method is deeply ingrained into our psyche. Most people assume this is the way things should be done. You can see this from how annoyed people are getting with the government’s regulations on foreign travel. Nobody is asking whether it is wrong to expect anybody to offer advice that is going to be applicable in all circumstances. As a school governor there was an expectation that you would create files of detailed policies approve them, even to run a primary school of 200 pupils. When Chair of Governors I learned not to spend too much time on these, although developing a policy can be a good way of thinking through problems in advance. As an operations manager for a department of over 100 people I remember being advised by a lawyer that management-by-policy was what you had to do: you create rules and people follow them, and that way you could manage risks of legal liability. I tried to do this but soon gave up. The rules never could keep up with the world as you encountered it, and they soon became so complicated that nobody could master them, especially if you kept updating them. In the face of the real world you had to be more flexible – discretion and honest two-way communication between the levels of management were the key.

Interestingly, one part of our state services complex has actually thought about this problem and developed a solution: the military. The Prussian army and then Germans were the pioneers in the 19th Century. They developed a system of discretion and honest communication to govern their operations. In many ways this operated against their authoritarian culture, but the system improved over time. By the time of the Second World War it had developed into a highly effective system which meant that man for man the German Army was most effective in the world, alas for humanity, until Hitler undermined it toward the end. It has been widely copied since, notably by the British and US armed forces. Which is one of the reasons why these institutions are now held in such high regard by the public. But the system requires immense discipline and a very strong culture of working towards common objectives.

Back in the 1990s it became fashionable for large businesses to develop analogous systems to run their businesses. This included reducing the number of layers of management and empowering junior and middle managers. It never caught on in the public sector, and by the 2000s central authority and management pyramids became the norm again everywhere. I’m not quite sure why this was, but I suspect that senior officials feared that they would be blamed for bad decisions made in junior ranks, as the public and politicians are only too happy to do.

New technology may also have played a role. Developers of information systems offered their own automated way of closing the information gap, by baking the rules into control systems. This started with workflow technology, which can be used to empower workers by making more information available to them, but instead became used for tying them down, including the measurement of toilet breaks. The process of “de-skilling” began. This had a dire effect on the public sector, as de-skilling became the basis of many an outsourcing contract, causing catastrophic loss of effectiveness. But this was but the start of a journey; the technologists started to talk about the Holy Grail – the use of Artificial Intelligence to intermediate between organisations and the public, so that you wouldn’t need people at all. AI is powerful technology, with many important uses, but it cannot possibly as effective as a skilled professional in helping people solve complex personal problems. Many, if not most, AI applications are pre-destined to fail.

Unfortunately too many people believe that technology can solve the information gap by itself. The Chinese Communist Party seems to have embarked on this road. Providing the data that the state needs to make its systems work means a steady erosion of privacy; ensuring its consistency means standardisation; maintaining confidence in the system means the suppression of honest communications. And so on. Ultimately the Imperial Method means that people have to conform to the needs of the state, rather than the other way around. This is truly the road to serfdom.

But the answers are not too difficult to find. Free markets will find appropriate solutions for most of our needs if we are alert to excessive market power by large businesses. State services need to be mediated by empowered professionals held accountable by people who understand the challenges they face. Countries like Britain, with a strong public service culture, can do this. There are examples of excellent public service – the two primary schools where I had the privilege to be governor are undoubtedly among them. Technology can empower other than enslave.

Too few people appreciate this in government, or amongst those holding them to account. But as public service systems fail, perhaps understanding will grow. There is now a growing consensus that the Test and Trace system for coronavirus was approached in completely the wrong way, and should have been localised from the start. If more aid to businesses had been intermediated at local level then perhaps more businesses could have survived and more frauds stopped.

Organisations like Greensill were never going to be the answer. But the more important question is whether the Treasury ever really cared about the problem.

Labour: Tony Blair is on the wrong track

I really wanted to leave Britain’s Labour Party alone for a few weeks. It gets too much media attention as it is. Part of me just wants to party to go away and die quietly. Another part thinks that most of the comment is just ritualistic diatribe from enemies and internal factions, saying the same old things regardless of reality. Then along came Tony Blair. My concern is not so much about the effect of his intervention has on Labour, but that too many people outside the party cheer him on and congratulate him on his insight. Especially ageing liberal professional-types like me.

Mr Blair’s intervention was a long article in the New Statesman. It is clever and well-written, and worth a read if you are interested in British politics. It has drawn widespread praise, for example this from Trevor Phillips in The Times. He suggests that parties of the centre-left (a dying breed, as he points out) must be both radical and sensible. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership Labour was radical but not sensible, but under Sir Keir Starmer’s… well you can fill in the blanks. He makes two main points. The first is that Labour is stuck in an outdated policy agenda that does not embrace the true challenges of the modern world. It supports on nationalisation and “free” university tuition, and it is without a reform agenda for public services. But the world is being rapidly changed by new technology, and many of the world’s biggest challenges, such as climate change, can only be embraced using that technology. Meanwhile the party’s central theme – a rejection of austerity, has been trumped by the current government’s “what it takes” approach to the covid crisis. Mr Blair’s second point is that Labour has surrendered the debate on social and cultural issues to the extreme left – shouting down people who question it from the likes of J K Rowling on transgender politics, and Mr Phillips on racism.

Mr Blair doesn’t really spell out what he means by the embrace of new technology, beyond more online learning and a few other examples at the fringes. On cultural issues he wants to move to a middle ground that tolerates a wider diversity of views. He seeks a remaking of Labour, and joint efforts by Labour and Lib Dem figures, alongside apolitical ones, to define the new agenda.

There is much here that I can agree with. Much of the old policy agenda promoted by Mr Corbyn’s party was nonsense, especially those favoured by big trade union bosses. The shouty and intolerant way that the left take on cultural issues alarms me too, even though I agree with much of what they say. The problem is that, for all his talk of embracing the way the world has changed, I’m not sure Mr Blair has noticed how much it really has. And in some ways the post-Blair Labour Party has adapted well to these changes, saving it from the disaster it was heading for under his leadership.

The rise of two groups in particular encapsulate this change. One is younger public service professionals. The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 greatly expanded public services, and extended university education. This has expanded a new class of people directly or indirectly employed by the public sector. But their path to middle class security is barred by high property prices. They have a stake in the public sector, hence a vitriolic reaction to austerity, have cultivated modern social attitudes at university, and are angered at the way Conservatives prioritise protecting and enhancing the property and entitlements of older people. The current Labour movement is largely made up of these people. The second group is the new working class: those with precarious jobs and drawn from a diverse range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This group felt badly let down by cuts to benefits and public services, are victims of routine discrimination, and feel that the government is not doing enough to enhance its physical and economic security. In 2010 the new working classes’ support for Labour was soft; Labour has turned that around.

Labour’s predicament is that while it has consolidated its hold on these two groups, it is letting go of many others, and in particular traditional white working class voters with relatively stable jobs or pensions, and ethnic minority middle classes (of which many are now holding jobs in the Conservative cabinet). It is not at all clear that there is a magic “sensible but radical” policy agenda out there which allows Labour to hold not its current core vote, while winning over many of the people who currently support the Conservatives.

I think there is a deeper problem with Mr Blair’s approach as well. It is very top-down. His “radical” ideas about embracing technological change sound a lot like he has fallen for a lot of the hype around new technology prompted by large, progressive companies (as well as the Chinese Communist Party, but I digress). He has form on this: while in government Mr Blair fell for a lot of the radical business transformation talk put about by management consultants and big business executives, and badly misjudged their applicability to the public sector. My worry is that this approach to technology transformation, and especially its enthusiasm for Artificial Intelligence, is dehumanising and creates dependencies that are vulnerable to disruption by criminals and others, which in turn leads to increasingly intrusive security.

What I believe the left has to do is to engage with the public at the local level, and develop new civic institutions to create a human interface between the public and public services and the social safety net. This means working with a diversity of people, many of whom you will have political disagreements with. It also means using new technology in a distributed and empowering fashion, rather yet more “computer says no”. Some Labour people, including people in the far-left Momentum movement, understand this. There are local bright spots (Preston is often quoted), but by and large Labour as an institution, and Mr Blair is a prime exemplar, favours the seizure of power at the most senior level it can, and implementing change from there, and crushing local dissent.

So yes, Labour must be remade if it is to play a useful part in the progress of this country. But not in a way that Tony Blair has any clear conception of.

All the main parties have opportunities and challenges

We now have nearly a complete body, so the post-mortem is more convincing. What the elections show is that politics has been changed decisively by Brexit and the takeover of the Conservatives by Boris Johnson and his supporters. This new world offers challenges and opportunities for each of the five main political parties – the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens.

One comment I am reading a lot of is how much these elections have been favourable to those in power, at least down to regional level. The Conservatives have done well in England, and in the Teesside and West Midlands mayoralties. Labour did well in Wales, Manchester and other big city mayoralties. The SNP did well in Scotland. Perhaps that is the influence of the covid-19 crisis. Perhaps that means that the winners are not as secure as some suggest. One aspect of this incumbency bonus is the naked way the Conservatives are using power in recently won seats in England to bring in local government spending. The voters have got the message, it appears, and don’t object; Labour complaints only draw attention to it.

The biggest winners are the Conservatives, who have consolidated their hold on formerly Labour areas in northern England and the Midlands, but not Wales. I have already written about this. It places the party in a formidable electoral position. The challenge has been well put by Matthew Parris in The Times. The party has been garnering support among people who see themselves as the rejected, society’s losers. Important though these people are, the policies they favour are not those that will be good for the country’s prosperity and wellbeing. They favour continuity and stability, if not pushing the clock back. Sooner or later this is going to create unbearable pressure at government level. They will either be unable to deliver on their promises to improve local conditions, in which case their voters will move on, or they succeed, in which case the politics of victimhood will play less well, and other parties will find the going easier. The two pronged attack that did for the Conservatives at the Euro elections in 2019 can do for them again – as both professionals and populists close in on either flank. For now the Prime Minister looks likely to bluff his way through this challenge, delivering cheery words but little in the way of substantive results. But the vulnerability remains. Meanwhile Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens were all able to chip away at the Tory hold in their southern heartlands where well-led locally.

One of the rituals of election post-mortems is commentators to have a go at the Labour Party, criticising it for not listening to its core supporters. Take this piece from Janice Turner in The Times again. And yes, I often join this chorus myself. But when most of these people accuse Labour of looking down on traditional supporters, they themselves look down on Labour’s core support, especially amongst “woke” public service professionals. It needs to be taken with salt. More interesting is the variation on the theme by John Harris in the Guardian, who accuses Labour of too often ignoring local community groups, to rebuild the civic infrastructure it lost when old industries went into decline. This is something that the party seemed to understand under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and certainly was important to his effective deputy, John McDonnell, but it is being abandoned by the current leadership.

Labour finds itself in a tricky position. It must extend its base beyond those public-sector professionals and the “new” urban working classes, without abandoning core ideas, like multiculturalism, that are central to its hold on that existing base. I’m sure that Mr Harris is right and that local community politics is part of the answer. But it isn’t easy, and in places they will find that the Lib Dems or Greens will have got there first. Tricky strategic decisions lie ahead, but their position is far from hopeless. The results are not as bad as many are making but, but they do show that the Tory hold on the old “Red Wall” remains tight, in England at least.

The SNP are the other big winners. The challenge for them is clear: navigating the drive towards independence for Scotland. The idea of independence is popular in Scotland, but the hard reality is likely to be less so. Perhaps the UK government’s best strategy is to move the debate onto the nitty gritty and let the SNP get bogged down; but to do that it has to concede a referendum, though not perhaps the referendum that the SNP want. See this interesting article by David Herdson on political betting.com. Losing the last referendum was the best thing to happen to the SNP; that will not be the case for another one. But if the government refuses to concede a referendum, then the SNP will continue to control the agenda.

For the Lib Dems the elections produced mixed results, but hopeful signs outweighed the discouraging ones. The party is making headway against the Conservatives where it has local strength. The Tory drive for the old Labour heartlands increases its vulnerability in its own backyard. But no earthquakes. It is not yet clear how the party breaks through into national scene. The party does not have a sharp brand; this can help in Britain’s electoral system, as a sharp brand deters as well as attracts voters. In Scotland the party held onto all its first-past-the-post seats, and challenged hard for a further one. But it won no seats on the proportional list system. This is ironic for a party that is so keen on proportional representation.

The advantages of a clear brand are shown by the Greens, who generally did well. If Labour starts to dilute its appeal to younger and environmentally conscious voters, the Greens are more likely to benefit now than the Lib Dems. The Greens easily beat the Lib Dems in London, as well as Scotland (where they contested no first-past-the post seats). Still, their claim to be the third party of national politics is overdone. Their predicament is the opposite to that of the Lib Dems – trying to turn a strong national brand into something that wins them councils and parliamentary seats.

Should the non-Tory parties work together to challenge the Conservatives, outside Scotland at least? This can only be on the basis of changes to the electoral system and perhaps other constitutional changes. This has been done in New Zealand. But for that to be viable there needs to be a broad understanding in the public that the system is broken and needs to be changed. For all the whinging I see little evidence of this. Beyond a little sotto voce staying out of each others’ way at the next general election I don’t think this idea will get anywhere.

So the landscaper has changed, but we are only beginning to see where this is leading.

Labour pays the price for internal party democracy

We don’t have a complete body yet, but the post-mortem has started. (Credit to The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush for the post-mortem without a body metaphor, which I find very appealing). The Conservative victory in the traditionally Labour seat of Hartlepool is not especially surprising, but the scale of that victory is greater than expected. Looked at in a broader, longer term perspective, though, and it is quite startling.

The scale of the result was not because the Tories did unexpectedly well (most people thought they would hoover up the Brexit Party’s substantial vote), but because Labour’s vote share sank from 38% to 29%. An independent candidate picked up nearly 10%, and that seems to be were most of the Labour loss went – though a string of other candidates picked up about 1% each. That included the Lib Dems who sank back from 4%; they had been in second place no so very long ago.

The first thing to say about this is that the Brexit referendum of 2016 has proved an astonishing political success for the Conservatives, if an unintended one. It has fractured the Labour Party. At first many of their voters went to Ukip and then the Brexit Party. The Tories then undermined and demolished these insurgent parties and scooped up the bulk of their votes. The party has been brutal to its own Remainer supporters, but has managed to keep many of these in tow – though as Hartlepool as on one of the most Leave-supporting areas of the country, the by-election itself does not provide much evidence of Remain-supporting Tories staying with the party. Now that the country has left the EU, the politics of Brexit are much easier for the Tories to navigate. Remainers can still be painted as bad losers, unpatriotic and metropolitans sneering at the working classes, while Remain supporting politicians have no convincing policies to rally around.

But Labour’s failure has deeper roots than Brexit. It is often attributed to the party’s estrangement from its working class base. It certainly seems to be true that what might be called “traditional” working class voters have been deserting the party for some time. These may be characterised as white, less educated and less physically or socially mobile people, often living in towns rather than big cities. And yet this is a shrinking demographic, and Labour’s hold on the more modern version of the working class voter (living in big cities, insecure job, rented accommodation, often with an ethnic minority background) looks as strong as ever. Labour is also missing out on a substantial non-metropolitan middle class vote, which is well represented in places like Hartlepool. Back in the 1990s these voters used to be called “Middle England”, and were the particular focus of Labour leader Tony Blair. Mr Blair proved very successful at this, but his success was denounced as treachery by many Labour activists. In the end Mr Blair, a consummate Metropolitan if ever there was one, was losing this demographic, especially because of his liberal approach to immigration.

But Labour’s rot turned toxic after 2010, after they lost power, and with the selection of Ed Miliband as its leader. This was about the time that I started this blog, and there was still some engagement on social media between Labour and Lib Dem supporters, before we fractured and disappeared into our separate bubbles. Those Labour supporters proved right about the Lib Dems, and how long-term the damage the Coalition would be to the party. But we proved right about them, when we suggested that Labour neglected Middle England at its peril. This was denied furiously. Labour supporters were convinced that their route to victory would come by consolidating their support amongst “progressives’, including people who had been too disillusioned to vote previously. They did not need to convince people who had voted Tory to change their minds; the collapse in the Lib Dem vote would be to their benefit. Tory and Lib Dem hating became a signature theme, along with increasingly shrill condemnations of “austerity”.

In fact at the next election in 2015 Labour succeeded in winning the Conservatives a majority in their own right, by scaring many Lib Dem voters into their arms, and by undermining the Lib Dems in Tory facing seats. That, of course, is not how Labour activists saw it, and they doubled down by selecting Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader. The relatively strong Labour performance in 2017 seemed to vindicate this. But Labour success was as much due to mistakes made by Tory leader Theresa May as the ability of Mr Corbyn to mobilise new voters. Mrs May still made headway with her strategy of pressuring Labour in their heartlands. There followed a further two years when the party hollowed itself out, ending in the disaster of the 2019 election. Hartlepool has shown that the Tory victory then was no flash in the pan.

A lot of the responsibility for this disaster rests with the two leaders, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. But both were elected by the party membership and the membership placed them under particular pressure, though party processes on policy. These processes are usually referred to as “democracy”, which the party prides itself on. The Lib Dems, and I assume the Greens, are just the same, and indeed often criticise Labour for not being “democratic” enough. As you will notice, I am extremely reluctant to use the word “democracy” in connection with the processes by which members of a political party exercise their rights. Political parties are self-selecting groups of people, who can leave at any point, and who may be expelled if they annoy other members too much. Democracy is about broader society and the inclusion of people who don’t have a choice about whether they belong. This is one of the paradoxes of our political system: political parties are an important and necessary part of the democratic system, but they themselves are fundamentally not democratic. The Conservatives are so successful because their members have the least influence over leadership and policy out of all the main parties.

The Lib Dems and Greens have little choice but to give their members a strong say over what their party does and who leads it. They are insurgent parties that need to offer reasons for members of the public to join and stay with the party. For Labour it is different. They aspire to be a national political institution: part of a two-party system which shares nearly all the important political power. The party has an institutional assumption that political parties other than themselves or the Conservatives are a damaging distraction that no politically responsible person should support. But a successful institution of that nature can’t be over-fussy about about political values – it constantly needs to be thinking about recruiting support from any group of voters it can. That’s an exaggeration; the two big parties do have core values running through them. But whereas the Tory Party can dump a large part of its core support (in the case of the Remain supporting political elite) in a drive to recruit Middle England voters, Labour has been unable to pull off a similar feat since the days of Mr Blair. The membership naturally wants the party to focus on people like them; they cannot be counted on to take a cold hard look at the facts. It was the Labour membership, not the leadership, that fought tooth and nail against Brexit. That was seen as betrayal in Brexit-supporting parts of the country, though it did help Labour drive back a real Lib Dem threat in places like London. Mr Corbyn then compounded the trouble by appearing incompetent and unpatriotic – and yet the membership enthusiastically backed him as their mascot, preventing MPs from removing him when they could see all too clearly the damage he was doing.

That membership may now be chastened, and more accepting of compromise. Labour’s position is far from hopeless. They can still win the next election. They have a secure base among the metropolitan middle class and the “new” working class. They have strong support among younger voters, and escalating property values are creating a growing class of people excluded from the Tory dream. The Conservatives are not widely trusted. But in order to win Labour must go after groups of people who normally vote Conservative, and pressure Tories in areas where they had previously felt secure. That will mean taking Labour into places that it is not comfortable about. To date I have not seen any sign that anybody in in Labour’s higher echelons understands that. Perhaps the shock of these elections will jolt them into decisive action.

Joe Biden has made a strong start

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” is what I wrote when Joe Biden was elected US President last November. I had a good feeling about the man because Mr Biden looked to be somebody who confronts the world as it really is, rather than on some projection based on conviction, as more partisan politicians do. It is going better than I expected.

In that post I said that the new president needed to do three things: revive the economy, get on top of the virus, and put pressure on the Republicans. On all three counts he is doing well. He has been lucky, but he has helped to make that luck. We can now see that this is the job he has wanted to do all his political life. He was ready for it. It turns out that being a Vice President is good preparation for the Presidency, especially at the start. The last Vice President to make it to the top was George Bush Senior in 1988; he proved very effective at the job, even if he was less effective at the politics. Before that we might remember Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, also very effective operators. Mr Biden knows how the machinery of government works and was well prepared by the time inauguration came, notwithstanding the tardy cooperation of the outgoing administration.

Mr Biden has also proved an adept politician. He made a good start before he took office when the Democrats took both the Senate run-off elections in Georgia. The Republicans had been favourites. How much he can take personal credit for this is hard to say – but he clearly didn’t get in the way. That gave him control of the Senate by the narrowest possible margin. He has used it skilfully. His biggest achievement has been pushing through a massive economic stimulus bill. He now has two more ambitious efforts involving massive outlays: an infrastructure plan and welfare reforms. He has not sought to build bridges with the Republicans, in the way that Barack Obama wasted so much time doing, but the measures are likely to go down well with many Republican voters, especially the ones that switched to Trump in 2016 and 2020. I can’t see that the welfare changes stand much chance, as they look too strong for conservative Democrats in the Senate – but they should help keep up the pressure.

And the next point about Mr Biden is that he takes decisions, even tough ones, quickly. This is part of being ready for the job, but it is a strong contrast with Mr Trump and Mr Obama, and especially the former’s gaggle of squabbling advisers. A striking example of this has been the decision to withdraw the US military completely from Afghanistan by 11 September. We might well think this is wrong (The Economist argued that keeping on a small commitment would be value for money), but it happened quickly.

But is he taking America in the right direction? One criticism is that he is just rehashing failed policies from the 1970s. This is put quite eloquently by Gerard Baker in The Times. Mr Biden wants to throw a lot of public money at problems, promoting federal agencies and trade unions, in a striking reversal of the prevailing wisdom since Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980 – even if the practice never quite lived up to the rhetoric. There does seem to be something quite old and familiar about this approach. Mr Biden has been compared to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – falsely because he doesn’t have enough Senate votes to be anything like as ambitious as this pair. His infrastructure plans recall Dwight Eisenhower. These policies just led to stagflation in the 1970s, it is said. But context is all. Big government worked well enough in the 1950s, with the rise of light manufacturing and the bureaucracy of the consumer society – all those salesman, account clerks and insurance administrators. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the economy and society suffered a number of problems. First came the Vietnam war, which the US government refused to finance through taxation, causing the postwar world financial infrastructure to buckle. Then came the malign effects of union inflexibility, which meant that consumer price rises fed through quickly into wage inflation, creating a wage-price spiral. And then came the shock of escalating oil prices in the 1970s, the first important symptom of environmental constraints on the US model of growth. Combine these with big government and you got stagflation.

That was then. Now is a very different world. The wage-price spiral has been broken by the growth of globalisation and the impact of technology. A new world financial infrastructure has emerged. Environmental constraints are being embraced rather than denied. And anyway since 2008 the developed world seems to have been suffering from deficient demand. Interest rates have been cut to rock bottom; there does not seem to be enough positive pressure in the labour market. Nominal jobless rates may look low (slowing for the pandemic), but pay at the lower end is propped up by minimum wages, job insecurity is rife, and people are dropping out of the workforce. Throwing public money at problems could be quite beneficial at such a time, even if it was harmful in the 1970s. And excess public spending is much more likely to get the money to where it is needed that tax cuts.

Still, you don’t have to be on the political right to worry that president is taking things too far. Predictions of a rise in inflation are widespread, though an awful lot of people seem to think that this will work in a similar way to the late 20th Century. One way or another interest rates are likely to rise – a sign of a better balanced economy after all – and this could have some fairly scary consequences in a financial system that seems to take low interest rates and booming asset prices as one of the fundamental rights of man. But it could take some time for any problems to emerge.

A second criticism is that Mr Biden is taking his radicalism too far. He has spoken of bringing America together and healing the partisan divides. But in many ways he is doing the opposite. Much of the Republican base – the wealthy rather than the populous part of it – was horrified by Donald Trump, whose grip on that party shows no sign of weakening. But they will be even more horrified by fear of tax rises, and will doubtless find themselves returning to the party fold. That does not matter that much in terms of votes (these are the top 1% after all, even if you have to add in larger numbers who fancy their chances of entering that elite) – but it means lots of campaign funding to promote misinformation and damaging memes. The Republicans scared a lot of people into voting for them in Congressional races last year by portraying the Democrats as being taken over by the “radical left”. It won’t be too hard to paint Mr Biden’s policies in that light.

A big challenge will come in 2022, when the mid-term elections come. Most commentators already seem to have written the Democrats’ chances off, following what happened to Mr Obama and Mr Trump at the same points in their presidencies. But that can’t be in the plans of a consummate politician like Joe Biden. He clearly feels that his policies can peel away a lot of voters from the Republicans.

And that will make American politics very interesting over the next year and a half. Mr Biden has started well, and he means to keep up the momentum.

What is the significance of “Tory sleaze”?

A series of incidents have made the news where Conservative party officials, and especially their leader, Boris Johnson, have had a questionable regard for compliance with rules. Labour think they are on to something by raising the spectre of “Tory sleaze”. Are they?

Well yes if the audience is liberal professional types. They equate cronyism and nepotism with corruption and inefficiency, and understand that their own careers can be badly damaged by a disregard for compliance, and assume that politicians should play to the same rules. But do things look quite the same way to everybody else? Are the rules just there as a means to an end, and shouldn’t we look to the results first and foremost?

This was brought home to me when I read a history of the Royal Navy. Back in the 18th Century and into the Napoleonic Wars and the era of Horatio Nelson, it was one of the most effective large organisations on the planet – a considerable feat since command and control was often very dispersed. This was founded on a system of rewarding effective performance. The key to this was the prize system, whereby the money made from captured ships (“prizes”) was divided between the ship’s captain, officers and crew. (As an aside this was not dissimilar to the other highly effective institution of the era: Napoleon’s French army). The captain had control over the recruitment of his ship’s complement. And nepotism and cronyism was rife. How to reconcile this? Captains still recruited highly effective crew – but nepotism and cronyism was the simplest way of hiring people they knew and could trust. But if your cousin or other contact wasn’t up to the job, they would be moved on at the first opportunity. For many that is still true. The key is whether the organisation’s leaders are truly and directly accountable for the success of their organisation. The reason why cronyism is lethal in public service is because there is no equivalent system of direct, financial accountability, such as with the old Navy’s prize system, or with profits in a small or medium-sized business – where nepotism and cronyism is also widely practised.

So what to make of the current Conservative government’s difficulties over cronyism, especially amongst the urgencies of dealing with covid-19? They claim that in the crisis government ministers were making shortcuts to get things done. And if some of the the bureaucrats were uncomfortable, that just shows how ill-equipped thy are for emergencies. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson are not starting with a great of credibility on this however. Before the pandemic, the actions of minister Robert Jenrick on a property development after lobbying from a party donor shocked many, including me, but were simply shrugged off by the Prime Minister. Still, we should try to focus on the facts, not simply what we expect.

In fact enough the most recent row, over WhatsApp exchanges between Mr Johnson and entrepreneur James Dyson, is capable of being interpreted as “getting thing done”. Mr Dyson has a formidable reputation as a practical engineer; there was a genuine panic at the time (actually misplaced in hindsight) about the lack of ventilators, so there would have been nothing wrong if the government had called Mr Dyson for help, or if they had responded positively to an offer for help from him. The situation of Mr Dyson’s enterprise being based overseas is relatively unusual for a British company, so helping out with tax paperwork could be fine. The prior relationship between the two men doubtless helped, but I find it hard to see this as the government doing a favour for a friend. Labour has to do what it does, by trying to make the most of it, as that is how politics is done. The Tories would hardly be different if the roles were reversed. But this is either faux outrage or a failure to understand what was actually going on.

But what about the “VIP list” of businesses bidding for urgent contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) early in the emergency? The urgency was real, and the need to simplify procurement procedures was doubtless justified. But did the VIP list help? This time the circumstantial evidence looks negative. The VIP list seems to be based purely on businesses being well-connected; there is no sense that they were being selected on the basis of any relevant competence. I had my reservations at the time about government procurement, and I still do. The process looks to have been too centralised and too detached from the people who actually needed the PPE. But this really needs to be picked apart by the sort of enquiry the government keeps putting off until the day after tomorrow. The point here is that is not that delegated procurement and streamlined procedures would have reduced cronyism. Indeed cronyism is the dark side of localism, and one that its advocates often neglect, myself included. But local cronyism in the circumstances of crisis, when results are short-term and obvious, is not necessarily all that harmful, as in the Royal Navy in the 18th Century. In some circumstances, if driven by the right sort of leadership, it can even be the best thing to do. The problem with the government’s procurement was that those taking the decisions, and pushing forward their proteges, were too distant from the outcomes to have an incentive to do the job well. Anyway, the VIP list was apparently far too long; it isn’t hard to imagine the feeding frenzy of businesses who could claim even a vague connection, and the lack of an incentive, or criteria, for the gatekeepers to say “not you”. The result is certainly that some inappropriate suppliers were picked; it is also probable that some people who could have helped out more effectively never got the call.

The next thing to consider is the lobbying by former Prime Minister David Cameron on behalf of Greensill Capital. On the face of it there is not much to be excited about: the lobbying failed to get extra financial support for Greensill. It is hardly surprising that Mr Cameron had privileged access. The more important question is how far Greensill had got into government procurement before the pandemic. It’s hard to understand what need the government had for a finance provider. More needs to be dug up about the relationship – but the issue isn’t just cronyism, it’s the degree of grasp of government ministers and civil servants of administrative processes. The former tend to have little commercial or organisation experience; the latter draw a false distinction between high status “policy” and lowly “implementation”. Greensill seems to have been inserting itself into the “implementation” side of things, which senior civil servants don’t feel they need to dirty their hands with.

The other issue doing the rounds on the general subject of “sleaze” is how the Prime Minister financed improvements to the Downing Street apartment, which wasn’t posh enough for his tastes. The careful wording of his spokespeople suggests that there is something to hide. But it does not appear as if public money, or much of it, was wasted here, though. The main issue is whether the Prime Minister broke rules on disclosure. I find it hard to get excited about it.

So far it doesn’t seem to be cutting through to the public. The attitude seems to be that, “They are all at it, so it doesn’t influence my vote.” They aren’t all at it in fact – but it doesn’t cut cleanly across party lines. You couldn’t get more prim and proper than Mr Johnson’s Tory predecessor, Theresa May. And Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was quite comfortable with cosy relationships with business leaders, and the Labour Mayor of Liverpool is in deep do-do. Then again, the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer looks very straight, but that doesn’t seem to be doing him much good. I suspect that most people bend the rules a bit themselves, and don’t mind so much if others do too. Liberal professionals are in a small minority.

What could cause the public to get more angry? Personal enrichment, as happened with the MPs expenses saga in 2009, is more likely to inflame. Alas poor judgement and incompetence seem to get people less excited, as expectations appear to be low. The last time “Tory sleaze” got traction was in the mid-1990s, when the Conservative administration under John Major appeared tired and out of ideas. The expenses scandal, which engulfed all parties, was also at a time of perceived government failure, after the financial crash. The current government has some disasters to its name, but the news for it isn’t all bad. Success on vaccinations, and better judgement in 2021 on lockdown management, may erase memories of the Christmas, and earlier, disasters. Brexit is “done”, as promised, with teething problems not so far in excess of expectations – if you brush over Northern Ireland and the food export industry, which most people can.

What will be toxic for Mr Johnson is if his government starts to take on a general air of incompetence and failure. It clearly has that potential, as we saw in 2020, but it is not a foregone conclusion.

There is something hopeful about the ESL debacle

I don’t write about sport, because I don’t engage in it much. So why am I to writing two posts in a row about football? Well I think the rise and fall of the European Super League (ESL) is very revealing. And I don’t think I can leave things with my last post. Since then the whole thing has collapsed amid unanimous disapproval amongst football fans, institutions and politicians. Only overseas fans could be found to like the idea.

First I need to shine the spotlight on myself. I descried myself as being in a minority because I have a taste for iconoclasm. My attitudes turn out to be much closer to those reviled foreign football bosses than the general public. I couldn’t see that the US way of running sport was fundamentally any worse than the European one. And isn’t the “greed” that these owners are accused of just another way of saying “a desire for success”. They wanted their clubs to bring in more money by persuading the public to part with more of their cash, which they can only do by producing more of what the public wants. And that, of course, is why the whole thing collapsed so quickly. If the ESL wasn’t gaining traction in its core market, it was pointless.

And ranged against the greedy bosses were the lumbering and complacent football hierarchy, who seem incapable of showing real leadership. Racism remains rife in the sport in Europe (which includes Britain in football terms); the authorities couldn’t even protect vulnerable young people from abuse.

The point I was trying to make in my last post was than football fans themselves had contributed to the problem. They flocked to the wealthy clubs by and large after they were taken over by the wealthy owners happy to splash the cash, after the more traditional sort of owner had run the cubs into the ground. How else can you explain the rise of Manchester City, for example? The fans weren’t actually supporting their local clubs through thick and thin, but they were flocking to big international brands.

But I clearly hadn’t got that quite right. If most fans were in fact just after the glitz and branding, their attitudes would have been much more similar to those the BBC interviewed in Kenya and Thailand, who like the idea of more “better quality” games that the ESL would bring. In fact they were horrified. There is actually something rather heart-warming about this. The first point is that the football clubs provide a sense of belonging to people in a way the their US equivalents do not. When you buy into a club you buy into its history and traditions; the ESL looked as if it would be pulling up some of those roots. It was an idea that came from outside, from owners who had not themselves bought in to that rootedness.

But there is something deeper. It is a recognition that you can’t buy into all that belonging without paying a price. That means giving unfashionable clubs a chance. It means putting up with insecurity – about promotion, relegation and qualifying for Europe-wide tournaments. And in Europe it means giving teams from smaller countries, like Slovakia or Scotland, a chance. You can’t enjoy the prestige of being in a popular, successful club without recognising that all the others have the same rights and chances, in theory, that yours does. “We want our cold nights in Stoke,” read one banner carried by a Chelsea supporter. In an age of atomisation, winner-takes-all and hedonism, that is a hopeful sign of human maturity.

But, of course, that still leaves the game with its huge money headache. The fashionable sides grab all the TV audiences and are the only ones able to pack stadiums. But their income is still subject to cliff-edges. While the big teams are mainly secure in their country’s top domestic leagues, that is not the case with participation in the European Champions League, which is a huge draw. The fans may not mind the uncertainty, but it comes with a price.

Something has to give. Replacing the wealthy owners with something broader-based and more democratic is likely to drive away the deep capital that big businesses need in such a risky arena. And it still leaves clubs vulnerable to populism and mismanagement, as elected leaders make unrealistic promises of success (I heard one person suggesting that has been a problem in one or more Spanish clubs that signed up to the ESL).

And that is enough from me on the subject of football for a long time to come.

Football sold its soul to the devil long ago

The legend of Faust and Mephistopheles is one of the most enduring. Faust makes a pact with the Devil (through his agent Mephistopheles) to secure earthly pleasures. But in the end the Devil returns to secure Faust’s soul – a short interval of pleasure at the cost of eternal damnation. I feel something of this in the spectacular row over the attempt by twelve rich European football clubs to form a European Super League (ESL).

There is little doubt that the ESL is the work of the devil. JP Morgan Chase are behind it for God’s sake. It has no grounding in the web of passion and community that is club football, and is designed to maximise the sport’s financial return for a number of wealthy investors first and foremost. There has been an explosion of anger from right across society. I am not football fan, and I support no club. That gives me a bit of an outsider’s perspective.

The first thing that strikes me about the flood of arguments made against the ESL is that they are pretty weak, in the cold light of day. The ESL is based on an American model, where leagues operate as closed clubs, with no relegation and hence greater financial security. Sport in the US has its problems, but American football, basketball and baseball all have big followings delivering lots of thrills to fans. Does our system really work better? Do those desperate and depressing relegation struggles really form an integral part of the enjoyment of the game? The main complaint about European football from those outside Europe (actually a big and important market) is the number of “low quality” games. I suspect what people mean by this is games with clubs that many people haven’t heard of or which don’t have star quality. I’m not sure if the quality of the games is any more dire than that between well-branded clubs, but I’m open to correction on that.

But if I find the argument a bit muddled, the shock and emotion is easy to understand. People tend to be iconoclasts or conservatives. Mostly I’m an iconoclast; I like it when long-established things change; I tend to think that there is always a better way. But I have long learnt that I’m in a minority. Most people love the familiar patterns of life, and get upset and disorientated when they change. And football is a big part of many people’s lives. The ESL would upend it to be replaced by something very unfamiliar. Most people cannot see how it can possibly work.

But somehow the whole plan holds up a mirror to sport-watching public. What seems to upset people most about the ESL is an abandonment of the community game – the lives of the middle-ranking clubs and smaller. But that leads to the question of how people let these six English clubs develop into the massive global brands that they have become. A long time ago, when satellite TV was taking off, one satellite provider thought it had delivered a coup by securing the television rights to second division games (known as The Championship). It was a complete flop. Few wanted to watch lower league games, preferring to affix themselves to the heavily-marketed big brands. This mirrors British attitudes to local communities more generally. They think that local communities are a good idea, but not many people put themselves out; it’s somebody else’s problem. The idea that money trickles down from the big games to the lesser folk is a sort of salve to the conscience to make up for the lack genuine community support.

But life in the big clubs isn’t so easy. They are locked in an arms race for more expensive players, facilities and marketing, and the insecurity of European level competition is placing them under a major strain. They used to rely on people with more money than sense to fund this but this was a pact with the devil. Now the finances are moving out of range of such people. Private equity is moving in, and most billionaires have a strong instinct for financial sense anyway. The owners of the big clubs are in strong bargaining position and it may take more than bluster to stop them. The hostages are trying to negotiate their release by threatening to kill themselves. The clubs’ supporters are angry because they have no say in their clubs’ future – but most of them were drawn to those clubs in the first place by the lavish spending of the club owners. What do you expect?

Of course the ESL still raises many profound questions about the sustainability of the sport, and the scheme is more likely to collapse than not. But something else has to give if that happens.

One of the more interesting aspects of the whole episode is that the ESL only covers three countries: England (Scotland is out in the cold), Italy and Spain. Football in France looks too weak at major club level for that country to take part. But Germany is a football powerhouse, and its top clubs don’t seem to be tempted. But these clubs are much more genuinely grounded in their communities. There is a lesson there surely. Alas strapping German-style rules on local ownership onto the British system is unlikely to go well unless public attitudes change, and more people start supporting less fashionable teams.