23 April 2012

Broadband of Brothers

Following my victory at last month's Pragmatic Radicalism Defence Top of The Policies, I've debuted on Labour Uncut, expanding on my idea of a skills-focussed Cyber Reserve: 
A national reputation and capability for cyber resilience – that is, not just securing us against attacks but exploiting the innovation that they inspire – will not just make us safer, but wealthier, too. To update Wilfred Owen, it is sweet and fitting to code for one’s country.
Read and comment on the full version here.

21 April 2012

Modern communication #1

From this week' Glee:

Finn: I saw your tweet, 'anyone who is engaged to me should come to the auditorium'. Could've just texted.

Rachel: Yeah, well, I wasn't sure if we were speaking.

18 April 2012

Siobhan Benita and civil 'service'.

From the website of Siobhan Benita, the independent candidate for Mayor of London:
Siobhan joined the Civil Service in 1996 and worked at the very heart of Government for over 15 years. As a senior official at the Cabinet Office she led major projects across Government and has worked with ministers and officials at the very highest levels. Siobhan knows how political decisions get made and is experienced at working with a range of senior people - from across the public and private sectors - to get things done.
From her interview in the Guardian on Saturday:
But, she says, she was losing faith in the power of the civil service to keep politicians in check: at the Department of Health, where she worked, Andrew Lansley was rolling out a plan of reforms she felt she could never help implement. "I'd always believed in public service as a way of doing good, but I started to realise that the way I'd done it wasn't going to work any more."
So did she spend 15 years exercising "the power of the civil service to keep politicians in check"? Or did she spend it "working with a range of senior people...to get things done"? Or is she saying that when she agreed with something she was the epitome of bureaucratic endeavour - and when she did not like something, she blocked it?

While it is admirable that she has resigned from the civil service in protest at the Lansley health reforms, it is disgraceful that she has done so because she couldn't keep the Secretary of State "in check". It's not the job of the civil service to keep politicians "in check". That's what Parliament, the media, civil society are for. Yes, Minister is a satire, not a training aide.

It would seem that she ate her cake and had it while being employed by us to serve the politicians we elected. I'm Labour to my core but I would rather have the elected Lib-Cons doing bad things accountably than unelected Siobhan Benitas "doing good" unaccountably.

I welcome that more independent candidates are getting heard and elected in politics. Parties are crucial to democracy but our current models of participation are not fit for how we communicate, act and vote in the digital-leisure age. That partly explained the Bradford West by-election result. Independents could give the incumbent political machines the scare we need.

But let's not fool ourselves that every person who comes along with independent (or Respect, for that matter) scrawled across their website is some great anti-establishment challenger. Indeed, of the seven candidates standing for Mayor of London on 3rd May, Benita, in both attitude and personal history, is the most establishment of them all.

16 April 2012

Games and policy-making: my review of Jude Ower at Political Innovation Camp.

Earlier this month, the impressive Jude Ower of PlayMob was the guest speaker at Political Innovation's latest (and sadly last for a while) Translation Layer event, on what policy-makers can learn from gaming

As someone whose main professional interests are creating policy and creating games, I've reviewed Jude's talk, the conversation that followed, and some of the wider issues:

With the exponential growth in mobile technology and platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, games are becoming more popular, more social and more significant.
Games are moving from the entertainment to the experimental sphere.

Read more here.

10 April 2012

Universal tax transparency will mean more inequality and concentrate power in the hands of the already rich.

Straight out of the box of ideas marked "Do Yourself A Favour And Say It Out Loud A Couple Of Times Before You Publish It" comes Polly Toynbee's suggestion that we should go down the Nordic route of opening up the tax and finances of every citizen to public scrutiny:
Something deep and visceral has shifted, ending the notion that income is a confessional secret between taxman and individual. The taboo is broken and must lead to universal transparency. Stripping off the veil of financial modesty would be a shock at first, but we would get used to earnings and taxes belonging in the public realm, not the private one – wills are already public documents. What is there to hide, except dishonesty or moral shame at earning multiples more than others who work as hard or harder?
It's a very confused piece, failing to distinguish satisfactorily between publicly funded rulers and the privately-earning ruled. Tom Chivers, the token lefty (OK, he's had to double up on that designation since Dan Hodges's arrival) over at Telegraph blogs has explained the illiberalism of all this, with biting clarity:
This is a direct mirror image of the Right-wing illiberalism of snooping on emails and pushing "victim's rights" in court. 
There is a further point to be made, over her central assertion that...
...Secrecy encourages inequality.
No. It doesn't. At least, not as much as full transparency will.

Once you are in work, one of the best ways of improving on your current salary and benefits is by moving between employers. This is because your current employers already know what you're on and your remuneration is anchored to that figure. One of the great (maybe only) advantages that you have as a job candidate over your new employers is that they don't know if that salary your negotiating is about the same, a bit better or a whole lot better than your current bunce. Information, as always, is power, here. Ms Toynbee wants to give that power to those towards the pointy end of the free market pyramid.

Let's say you take the job anyway. Now you and your colleagues can start looking up each other's salaries and realise the disparities. Disharmony ensues. And righly so, perhaps. But what will the response be? In the drive for equality and harmony, will attempts be made to raise everyone's wages to the highest benchmark? Or will they be driven down to the lowest? I'm going to go with lowest. Let me just spell that out: L-O-W-E-R, P-A-Y. And where will the surplus that would otherwise have been paid to employees go? (Clue: not to charity or on subscriptions to the Guardian).

That's all if you get the job in the first place. For in this utopia of open information, employers will be more reluctant to employ. Who wants a new colleague whom you barely know going over your personal tax and spend records and judging whether you or the business justify it? How can you be sure that they won't use the information negatively and resentfully? You can't. So maybe when the opportunity to employ a new administration assistant or finance a paid internship comes up, you think that it's probably not worth the scrutiny. And when a management post becomes vacant? Well, that'd be best filled by someone you already know and trust and is probably all too familiar with your fiancial situation. That is, friends and family. So employment opportunities become a little more closed.

How does any of this result in greater equality?

09 April 2012

The Iranian nuclear quandary deserves better analysis than the teenage poetry of Günter Grass.

My interest in and knowledge of English literature is very, very low. (I would read more storybooks but it really cuts into my finding-out-about-real-stuff time). So you can bet your bottom deutschmark that my awareness of German plays, poems and novels is non-existent. Until last week that is, and the emergence of Günter Grass, "Germany's most famous living author" (© every broadsheet critic), in his new role as a commentator on Middle East affairs.

Herr Grass, it seems, feels as though his current body of work will be insufficient to secure his legacy as a great writer. So, inspired by his country's sale to Israel of a submarine with the potential to carry nukes, he's penned a breezy little rhyme about comparative nuclear capabilities in the Middle East. It includes the lines:
Appeal to the perpetrator of the recognizable danger - To renounce violence and - Likewise insist - That an unhindered and permanent control - Of the Israeli nuclear potential - And the Iranian nuclear sites - Be authorized through an international agency - By the governments of both countries.
Maybe it loses something in the translation.

(He called it "What Must Be Said", by the way. I picture him brattishly stomping his feet and running away from home after he'd finished it).

Glib and idiotic as his ode is, there is one line that has sparked international controversy:
It is the alleged right to the first strike - That could annihilate the Iranian people
Yep. While Classy Grassy describes the Holocaust-denying Iranian President (who has expressed at least a passing interest in seeing the Israeli "regime" wiped from the pages of history) as a "loud-mouth" (that Ahmadi-Nejad, eh! What is he like?!), he depicts Israel as a genocidal threat to Iran.

What he's doing, of course, is what so much of the Pretend Left do in their approach to the Middle East conflict: a) wilfully misunderstand and exagerrate the awful but resolvable conflict between Israel and Palestine (over three very specific issues; and b) deliberately confuse that with the existential threats to Israel in the Broader Middle East And North Africa.

The Nobel Laureate then goes on to promote two other fallacies, common on the Pretend Left over Israel/Palestine.

First, he portrays himself as courageous for criticising Israel. As Nick Cohen points out:
...on the British and much of the European left, the difficulty is not urging on right-thinking left-leaning people until they find the sheer bloody guts needed to criticise Israel, it is trying to persuade them to say a bad word about any other country.
Second, he predicts that he will be bombarded with accusations of anti-Semitism for criticising Israel. It is now an unquestioned assertion on the Left that Zionists systematically and reflexively cry "anti-Semite" at anyone questioning Israel. And I have grown old and grey asking and waiting for examples of anyone serious describing genuine criticism of Israel as "anti-Semitic". We used to joke in my family about anything negative happening being anti-Semitic. Portion of chips from the local takeaway a little smaller than usual? Must be an anti-semitic server. Someone scored against the team my Dad and I supported? Clearly a case of latent neo-Nazism on the part of the striker. Washing machine breaks down? Obviously, a judaeophobic plumbing system. To be sure, there are some individuals, particularly of the older generation, who see anti-Semitism where there is none, but the idea that this Woody Allen-ish paranoia really plays a role in debates over the Middle East is a canard.

It is a straw man deployed almost immediately by the Pretend Left to undermine anyone who challenges them or expresses concern that criticism of "Zionists" all too regularly resembles traditionally anti-Jewish ideas about undeserved wealth, malignant influence and child-killing (cf. Baroness Tonge).

This is how self-obsessed Western campaigns over Israel/Palestine have become, with the so-called defenders of Palestinian rights, spending more time portraying themselves as victims than promoting those with whom they are claiming solidarity.*

In Grass's case, a German Jewish writer has now described him as the "prototype of the educated anti-Semite". But this is in reference to his World War II record as a volunteer in the Waffen-SS. Oh. Did I not mention that? Yes. Grass was, voluntarily, in the Nazis' military elite. Awk. Ward.

The expected false question (see above) has been raised on the Guardian letters page over this:
Is it no longer possible to criticise Israel as a nation without being accused of being antisemitic?
Of course it is possible (see above, again). But former membership of the Waffen-SS might raise a question mark or two over the whole feelings towards Jews thing, no? Perhaps it shouldn't, true. For who amongst us is not a very different person to the human being we were in young adulthood? But if you're going to lionise someone as "exposing the hypocrisy of Israel" can you honestly not do a little better than a former Waffen-SS volunteer churning out teenage poetry?

Also coming to Grass's and Iran's defence on that Guardian letters page, against the "machinations of the Israeli state" (oooh, scaaaarrreeeee) is Tim Llewellyn (former BBC Middle East correspondent with an aversion to Jews who have anglo-saxon names) and a woman who thinks Mossad targetted her husband for his tedious Levant-themed poetry. (Though to be fair, Warwick University's Robert Fine gets his brilliant deconstruction of the Grass controversy in first).

This is not merely irritating. It distracts from the real debate that needs to be had over Iran's nuclear plans and the excruciating existential dilemma into which it places Israel.

Unfortunately, Israel's decision to ban Grass has just made matters worse. It is the wrong decision, both morally and strategically (as are all such bannings and boycotts). That said, at least ordinary Israelis and Palestinians will be spared his lectures and readings (I mean, aren't these people suffering enough?).

The good news is that, outside of the narcissistic waxings of the Pretend Left, there is some really good analysis going on. I'd recommend starting with Wahied Wahdat-Hagh's game theory take on the Iranian approach to negotiations. Followed by Shalom Lappin's reasoning as to why an Israeli first strike is not the solution.

You may also want to consider how much more useful the considered thoughts of an Iranian and an Israeli are, compared to those in the West, like Günter Grass, whose temper tantrums drown out any sense, progressive ideas and true debate.

*I have a standing offer of a crisp tenner to anyone who gives an example of somebody serious describing genuine criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. No doubt, my ideas of "serious" and "genuine" may differ from yours but let me know if you have any ideas.

07 April 2012

Politics has become less, not more, open in the last week. (But perhaps we can all grow up on one issue, now).

Part of the background music to the London Mayoral campaign has been the usual, slightly whiny harmonies, of anyone who lives outside the M25 questioning how relevant it really is, and whether the national coverage is appropriate.

I'll leave aside Londoners' annual tax export to the rest of the UK (up to £2500 each per year).  And let's ignore the Mayor of London's personal electoral mandate (second largest in the EU after the President of France). For even without those facts, events of the last week around the earnings and tax of the candidates have changed the supposed national 'irrelevancy' of the race to become our Capital's Chief Executive. 

Dan Hodges, over at the Telegraph blogs, has described how the full(ish) disclosure of the candidates' recent financial affairs may have "permanently changed the face of political campaigning". He argues, correctly, that the expectations this creates about candidates' hinterlands, combined with existing prejudices within Parties, will not lead to a brave, new meritocracy. Quite the opposite.

Politics has become less, not more, open in the last week. But perhaps we can all grow up on one issue, now.

The release of tax returns and accounts has been referred to as the "americanisation" of our elections, in reference to the existing convention in the US that those standing for office make full disclosures in these matters.

However, there's one big difference in the States. While the public like to ensure that there has been no wrong-doing and illegality (i.e. tax evasion), they expect that their representatives-to-be have probably done quite, if not very, well for themselves, and are unsurprised if they've exploited opportunities for minimising the tax for which they're liable (I'll come back to the rights and wrongs of this later).

Here, though, when Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone and Brian Paddick opened up their books on Thursday, a good part of the analysis and criticism was over the total amounts they had earned (before we had even got to how efficiently or otherwise they had passed it all through the tax system). Even the blogosphere's most well-defended bastion of economic libertarianism, Guido Fawkes, couldn't help but have a sneer that one of the candidates "isn't doing too badly for himself".

We should know a lot about those who seek to rule us. And we should know even more about them once they're wielding that power: salaries, expenses and other financial interests. But who is going to want every activist, tweeter, blogger and journalist opposed to their Party or to them as individuals, combing through income records and passing judgement on every penny? The calls for household - spouse's or partner's - income to be included could make this a goldfish bowl into which it is even less inviting to jump. The experienced will be even less inclined to trade in their current careers for one in politics. Our Parliament, our Assemblies, our Councils and our City Halls will become less diverse.

The trickiest part of becoming an MP is the selection process. Navigating the mazes of constituency issues, local party internal politics and national political imperatives while physically campaigning on what is almost a full-time basis is stressful, to say the least. Include the highly personal nature of counter-campaigns and the requirement to demonstrate ideological purity at every turn, and you begin to understand why the several dozens who initially show interest in a vacant seat are soon whittled down to a handful, even before the short-listing kicks in.

Now there could be an extra layer: financial history. The threat is greater for us in the Labour Party. How soon before the offers to publish payslips and mortgages are raised during selection meetings by those who know that they are not "too" rich for the tastes of CLP members? Such a selections culture will benefit the young, the bland and those doing the "right" sort of jobs in which pay bands are already well-known or public.

That's the long-term threat for Labour, in all that has come out of the last week. There is an opportunity for us, too, though.

Tax avoidance has been a dominant issue for the wider Left over the last two years. For UK Uncut and Occupy, it has been the second half, ideologically and mathematically, of their campaigns against austerity in particular, and capitalism in general.

At no point has anybody addressed the question of what tax avoidance is for and why it is used. The caricature painted by tax campaigners is one of faceless multi-nationals abusing accidentally created loopholes to enrich their boards while impoverishing everyone else. The truth is that governments create or allow opportunities for tax avoidance for a reason: because they want the money that would otherwise have been taken by them in tax to go elsewhere. For example, on Research & Development. Or on investments in under-capitalised sectors, such as the arts. Or on employing people. Or on covering losses from a previous year. Or keeping costs low for consumers. Or rewarding shareholders. Or on incentivising the company as a whole to stay based in the UK. In the current furore over Amazon's corporation tax, the EU rules on which tax rates apply to whom, where and when are designed to support the Single Market and the free trade that results from it.

We all got a slightly better understanding of such tax-avoidance-with-a-purpose this week. At least part of Ken Livingstone's tax efficiency arrangements (whatever you may think about them or him) were in order to employ others and start a new venture. When even Ken Livingstone tinkers with his tax arrangements in this way, it is surely time that we on the Left admitted that this is yet another issue which requires a rethink.

By all means, oppose all or any of the aims of tax avoidance and what results from it, if you wish. Seek to have the laws which facilitate them changed. But do so in the first instance by targetting the lawmakers, not individual businesses. There are two reasons for this. First, regulators already step in when tax avoidance is too aggressive and pursued in a way counter to intentions. Second, if it is done in a coordinated way that will apply consistently and at the same time, then you might get quite a few businesses on your side. Of course, some of those will be quite big and will be looking to close those loopholes to help stop smaller competitors getting a foothold in the market - but that's the trade-off you'll have to live with.

But then that's what politics is all about. For some of my fellow Lefties, the world this week got a little greyer and a little less black and white. For the sake of our future success, that is no bad thing.