As an atheist I feel under a degree of obligation to respect the religious faith of others. I have certainly been witness to a whole series of very admirable behaviour from people whose religion has taught them to be charitable and tolerant. Unfortunately we are also witnessing the exact opposite in many parts of the world.
I draw two conclusions about this. The first is to be wary about anyone who treats religious, political, economic or environmental opinions in the same way as they do their allegiance to sport. Ideas aren't an issue of which team you support. Thinking works best when you don't worry too much about which side the good ideas come from and you are prepared to listen and learn from a wide range of views and take on board the things that are plausible. Bigotry begins with a belief that your own "side" is always right and the opposition is always wrong.
Politically this kind of thinking results in people on the left turning a blind eye to some appalling human rights abuses because they happened to take place in Cuba or the Soviet Union. It enabled many people to turn a blind eye to the bad economics which went with some great intentions in Venezuela and seriously undermined the outcome of those good intentions. It results in the kind of political sectarianism that dominates Trotsyism. At its worst it creates the kind of fanaticism that will push Jews & Gypsies into gas chambers or allow previously decent people to behead infidels.
Again and again we hear the same words from the friends of the torturers. "He was such a nice ordinary person. Wouldn't hurt anyone. I can't believe it was him that did this." But when you start to believe that you belong to a club that has special access to the truth and that those who don't belong to that club are enemies of the cause there can be no limit to what some people will do.
This doesn't mean that we should never belong to a cause or have strong beliefs. It does mean that we should constantly question and challenge the ideas of that cause and refuse to cut ourselves off from interesting thinking coming from others. I may belong to the Green Party because I think they are right about the extent of the environmental crisis. I do not have to accept every daft idea someone claiming to be Green comes up with or reject every good idea coming from a Conservative or even, whisper it, on rare occasions, UKIP!
The second conclusion I have come to about religion is that not all religions are the same. Some foster open mindedness, thinking for yourself and co-operation between equals. For example, Quaker and Sikh teaching promotes astonishingly radical and admirable principles that border on anarchism in the best sense of the word. A belief that ordinary people can sort things out collaboratively without the need for authoritarian leaders.
But the world also contains a range of religious faiths that don't work that way at all. They operate on the assumption that there is one truth and one leader will tell you what that truth is and you should learn it rather than argue about it.
Within this tradition there are milder and more extreme variants. The new Pope for example is using his authority to tell us some remarkably important things bluntly and honestly and to get people to listen who might not otherwise do so. He is right about the urgency of the environmental crisis. He is right about the need to have an inclusive society that supports the poor. He is right to recognise that humanity is all part of one great family and we must look after each other.
Nevertheless I still have a lot of reservations about Catholicism. When there is one prime source of interpretation of the truth it can be used very well. It can also be used very badly. So at the moment a lot of ordinary women who place their faith in this religion are made to feel guilty because they need to control their own contraception and to have appropriate access to abortion when all else fails. And the authority of the last Pope was used very differently before he was forced out of office for reasons that we have yet to see properly explained.
I take much the same attitude to the authority of the Muslim Imams. I have seen that authority used admirably but I remain suspicious of the idea that there should be someone in authority who tells you what it is appropriate to think. The vast majority of Muslims I have met have gained some fantastic attitudes about charitable giving and caring for others from their faith. There is, however, always a risk when you allow someone to dispense the truth to the faithful that the truth they will dispense will be horrible. When you put together a bigoted set of views with a deep religious faith and a lot of money you have a very dangerous mix. The prime example is called Saudi Arabia.
The views about women's rights in that country are horrible. Women are legally under the control of men in a form of sexual apartheid that sometimes exceeds the racial kind. At least black South Africans could drive a car, control their own assets, and show their face in public.
The attitude to freedom of speech in that country is also appalling. For doing what I am doing now a Saudi citizen has been given 10 years in jail and 100 lashes each week. For doing what I am doing now a Saudi citizen is to be executed and then crucified. He was 19 when he wrote his blog.
Huge amounts of money are dispatched by the Saudi regime and even more by private Saudi citizens to back extremist groups who preach the most narrow minded form of Islam. Saudi money financed 9/11 and it was Saudi citizens raised on prejudice who flew the planes into the twin towers. Saudi money was the original source of ISIS weapons and the reason why Syrian opposition moved from being about democracy and freedom to being about murdering those who disagree with oppression, beheading and torture.
Even on the Hajj the appalling prejudices of the clique in power have become evident. When hundreds of the faithful died immediately after cleansing themselves via ritual the regime didn't question whether the cause might have been the parade of a pampered Prince through the crowds. Instead they told us it was God's will. They must think him to be exceptionally vindictive. The reason for their brutal disregard of the faithful? Those who died were not rich and many were from the wrong sect so they didn't really matter and it was no great surprise that God selected them for punishment.
The prime source of the funds for this genuinely evil empire is oil. So if you have friends who don't believe in climate change or don't want to support environmentalists because they are a bunch of woolly minded liberals try this argument on them. If we can radically cut down on our consumption of oil and gas then we can stop sending so much money to the source of terrorism and one of the prime creators of the waves of refugees. The best way to defend our values is not to waste money on irrelevant weapons like Trident. It is to cut off the funds for Saudi Arabia and start properly challenging their malign influence wherever it rears its ugly head.
It was Clinton who famously put a sign above his desk saying "It is the economy stupid." If he was even remotely right then something very strange is happening in the US. When Obama came to power the economy was in a complete mess. It was the height of the financial crisis. Timothy Geithner, US Secretary to the Treasury at the time, described it like this:
"fear was a sign that you were awake and intelligent. Anyone who wasn't scared had no idea how close we were to the abyss. I was scared too. It looked like the system was going to collapse."
The economy was losing as many as 775,000 jobs in a month, no one knew for sure whether any bank in the country was sound, the stock market had dropped like a stone and spending had dried up putting millions of jobs at risk, not least in the US car factories.
The situation now looks radically different. Obama saved the US car industry by state intervention. He and George Bush saved the US and the world banking system by state intervention. Effectively Obama saved the private sector from its own excesses. And he got the economy back into a period of growth by pumping money into the system that they created from thin air - the famous quantitative easing.
The US has been growing pretty consistently now for the best part of five years. Interest rates are low, inflation is low, unemployment is down and sales are up. On almost all the traditional indictors of a successful economy the US is looking pretty rock solid. Yet Obama hasn't reaped the benefit. Personally he isn't popular. Nor is his party. You would have thought that the contrast in the US economic situation would have resulted in a shoe in for an Obama clone at the next election.
Instead we are seeing the emergence of a wide range of unexpected candidates. On the right we have Trump together with people who are supposedly more moderate but are firmly anti-abortion, ultra anti welfare, climate change deniers. On the left, for the first time in my lifetime someone who calls himself a socialist is actually collecting votes in primary campaigns and isn't written off as a no hoper.
Something is making electors very uneasy and to cast around for alternatives. Much the same trend is happening in several countries at the same time. In the UK we have UKIP gaining 4 million votes, the Greens, Scottish Nationalists and Plaid Cymru gaining well over 2 million on a strong anti austerity ticket and the election of Corbyn. In France we have the unsettling phenomena of the Front National regularly recording frightening voting proportions in local elections and looking like it will once again come second in the Presidential elections.
I think the main reason for this is that the middle and working classes in the rich Western nations have lost their sense of security. Their wages in real terms have either not risen or gone down over the last 10 years. Housing is becoming unaffordable for the younger generation. Welfare budgets have been slashed and there seems to be no safety net. Education has become incredibly expensive and still doesn't guarantee a route to a highly paid professional career. Job security has gone.
In the 1960s a Conservative Government went to the British public with the slogan "You have never had it so good." They won. They were able to boast of how many council houses they had built and how effectively they were using public expenditure to invest in the future. They had a top rate of income tax of over 90% and prided themselves on the existence of a welfare state.
How times have changed. No UK or US Government could persuade people to believe that things are better than they have ever been. Growth may have returned but it has not been a healthy sustainable growth that has benefitted all. It has been a growth in property prices and the service sector associated with it. It has been a return to growth in the finance industries. At the same time both countries are running massive balance of payments deficits. Ordinary people are finding that the organisations they work for are, or are claiming to be, under such strong foreign competition that the intensity of work is increasing, jobs are being shed, pension schemes devalued and wages kept low. There is no feel good factor for a simple reason. Life is pretty tough for the majority of ordinary people and they don't have faith that their leaders understand that and are going to do something about it. They hear clever calculated answers to questions and see slick and professional campaigns but they don't believe that the benefits are going to come their way.
On top of this there is a lack of confidence that 2008 won't happen again. There are indeed plenty of indicators that could make anyone believe that Obama has pretty much fixed things. On the other hand there is a nagging fear that nothing fundamental has changed. We have had one major crash. We have yet to see any of our mainstream politicians or economists properly explain why it happened and why it can never happen again. The standard explanation appears to be it was all a bit of bad luck and we needn't worry our pretty little heads over the possibility of it happening again.
Not surprisingly people aren't buying this. They are looking for a more fundamental solution. They might very well find it in the ideas of UKIP, Trump and the Front National. There is a serious possibility that the battle for hearts and minds will be won by those blaming it all on them lousy foreigners and believing that if we just look after ourselves the rest of the world will go away.
There is, however, another possibility. Since it took state intervention to save capitalism from collapse perhaps we can use the same tool to invest in a more sustainable future and a better safety net for our citizens. Done skilfully and with determination there is no reason why we could not transform our economy into a low energy consuming, low waste, productive society provided that we plan properly. We need a coherent plan to target our resources into building an economy that is adapted to the next phase of the industrial revolution. We are perfectly capable of running our society in ways that don't use up the planet and does give ordinary people a civilised life. We need a vibrant private sector to help us do that. But after 2008 it should be clear to everyone that you need to manage markets and a bit of planning is no bad thing. The market will fix not every problem automatically. It won't fix a bad crash. It won't fix an environmental crisis. It won't provide ordinary people with security.
Humanity is supposed to be an intelligent species. We need to think and plan our way out of the mess we have created and our politicians need to start the serious work of creating some security for our citizens and for our planet.
The last car I bought was a Volkswagen. I went for a diesel because I was told that it was the more environmentally responsible option. I had to do a lot of miles for work and at that stage electric was impractical. I thought that with efficient technology, high miles per gallon and low emissions I'd made the best choice.
170,000 miles later things are starting to look very different. It now emerges that VW lied about the emissions tests. Not in the way that we have come to consider normal practice for advertisers. They didn't take the truth and spin it. They consciously and deliberately cheated the tests. Not once or twice in a few obscure branch offices by accident. Systematically across the whole of the United States they decided to build into their cars technology to cheat the tests. As soon as the test was over their cars switched back to operating in ways that pushed out up to 40 times the amount of nitrous oxide that the tests recorded. Since nitrous oxide is a much worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide - I've heard the figure of 100 times worse quoted - the impact on climate change will have been appalling.
It is now emerging that it isn't just in the US where VW has been cheating the tests. Nor is it just VW. Testing of almost all makes of car in actual use regularly shows that emissions are four times higher than recorded in their glossy brochures and accepted by the regulators. There can only be one reason why the companies are doing this. They believe they can make better profits if they dodge the regulations. The short term profit and loss calculations of multinational car manufacturers has over-ridden any concern they may have for the environment and any respect they may have for the laws of the countries in which they operated. But don't worry. It is all OK. The company has put £5bn aside to cover the fines. Some consumers might even get some compensation for being sold a lie. But no one can compensate the environment for the damage.
The Chief Executive of VW has of course apologised. They all do when they are found out. It is also evident that since he set the culture and strategy of the company and was the responsible leader he will have to lose his job - no doubt with a nice exit package. We will be told that it is just a case of one bad apple. It isn't.
On the same day that we learned that virtually every car company on the planet is manipulating environmental testing results there was another interesting piece of reporting from a chemical company. Turing Pharmaceuticals thought it would be a good idea to put up the price of a drug to help those with HIV symptoms from $13.50 to $750 overnight. The Chief Exec of the Hedge Fund which had bought up the drugs rights explained that this was just a piece of normal business practice. He had been lucky enough to find an Aston Martin type product on sale for the price of a moped and had been kind enough to only increase the price to somewhere close to that of an average family saloon. He looked on the deal as a simple business arrangement and couldn't really understand what all the fuss was about. He was just making a profit.
There is, in my view, nothing wrong with running an organisation efficiently and taking a decent profit in reward for your efforts. This goes a go deal too far. This is a culture which believes that when a company can make a lot more profit from ignoring the impact on others on what they do then they should go right ahead. With the drug company that means that the normal concern any of us would have for a fellow member of the community with a health problem is ditched the second the chance to make a quick buck is noticed. Their attitude was "Pay up your $750 a dose because I want to make even more money than I already have". With VW the attitude was that they didn't give a damn about the impact on the environment all they wanted to do was to sell a few more cars and dump the problems onto the future. With the bankers in 2008 the attitude was that they were prepared to risk complete economic chaos and give people years of economic misery provided that they could increase the size of their bonus this year by gambling with other people's money.
Free enterprise isn't always and everywhere the solution to all problems. Sometimes, it is the source of those problems. If you don't want to find that ordinary people suffer at the hands of the short sighted profit seeking of others then you have to properly control private enterprise. If we are to have any hope of rescuing the environment from irrecoverable damage then it is going to be necessary to make sure private enterprise operates responsibly. A global company selling a product like a car, a medicine or a complex financial derivative of a credit default swop needs to be subject to rigorous global controls.
That is the challenge for modern government. We have lived through an era of 30 to 40 years where the ideology of the free market has gone almost unchallenged. Nations and political parties have bought into the illusion that if they make themselves a little bit less regulated than their neighbours then they will attract multinational companies and this will help them grow and get rich. The end result of all this de-regulation is a culture of extreme irresponsibility has dominated politics and economics. Make your profits, take them and your income to the country with the lowest tax rates, dump your pollution on the environment and get out as quick as you can with your money. Bugger the poor. Bugger the environment. Cheat your way past any legislation that you can.
We now need to move the pendulum back towards the centre. Modern government needs to find ways of making sure industry and commerce pays the real cost of what it is doing not just the internal costs. We need to make sure there is strong environmental and social legislation and importantly that there is strong enforcement and we need to make many of those laws international.
This, for all its flaws, is one of the reasons why I back the EU. It may not have learned how to make international regulations quickly and effectively. It may not have learned how to make them stick and how to enforce them properly. But it has at least tried to control and guide free market forces and create a space where people can live reasonable lives without being at the constant mercy of the next organisation who wants only to make money out of them and their countryside. We are going to need to defend the EU very actively over the next few months or we are going to find ourselves bounced into a very dangerous exit which will be bad for England and bad for the EU.
I leave you to judge for yourself how the balance of power will play out between powerful international companies like VW, hedge funds and the financial speculators and one small country stuck on the edge of a weakened EU. To me it looks like the exact opposite of the way forward.
An open letter to the new Shadow Secretary of State for Education.
Of all the policies that have been adopted in education in recent years it is the creation of Academies that has caused the most concern on the left. It is therefore tempting to give a commitment that these will be abolished as soon as the Conservatives are voted out.
But I think we might need a slightly more intelligent response. Well over half the secondary schools in the country are now academies and a large number of parents with children at these schools and teachers who work in them haven't noticed a takeover by religious zealots determined to make a fortune out of their children whilst teaching them about the dangers of Darwinism. Rather the reverse. The majority of these schools have done quite well and are liked by those who use them. This means that any policy approach that looks like a blanket attack on them is doomed to create a lot of unnecessary opposition from ordinary people who care about their kids and about decent state education.
We are in a new situation and we therefore need some new and more intelligent thinking. Instead of straight abolition we need to focus on how we can ensure there is proper local control and accountability over academies. The Conservatives have wasted a lot of time and energy of some very good Head Teachers and governing bodies by forcing them to engage in the hugely bureaucratic exercise of becoming academies. It is not a great idea to repeat the exercise in reverse especially when there is nothing much wrong with the governance of most academies.
The Co-operative movement sponsors several academies, so do a number of Universities and many completely honest and sincere charities. Many sponsors are well intentioned people who aren't interested in taking money out of education and a very high proportion of them are strong opponents of any drift towards privatisation. Equally an enormous majority of the Head Teachers in academies are genuinely interested only in improving their schools and not in the size of their executive reward package. Any attack on these people easily rebounds on those making the attack when parents are happy with the service.
But parents do want to know what they can do when they are not happy with the way things are being run. It is this that needs to be the focus of any change after the next election.
When something goes wrong in a school looked after by a local authority a parent can talk to their local councillor and have the problem checked out. If the local councillor checks it out and finds that others feel the same way then the councillor can quickly get hold of their Director of Children's Services and make sure something happens.
Consider what happens if the same problem arises in an academy. Do you know who you would go to in order to complain about your local academy? Do you know who you would ring if you worked at an academy and discovered the exam results were being laundered? By what means would central government discover it if a Head Teacher was buying large amounts of equipment from a company that was owned by that Head? Who in an academy school would be brave enough to complain if the teaching was actually propaganda?
Very few people know the answer to these questions. Indeed the vast majority of parents with children at a school still think they can complain to their councillor if they discover a systematic problem at their local school. They would be shocked to discover that actually they are expected to complain to the school itself or some obscure sponsor they may never have heard of and then if that process is exhausted they can ask for an equally obscure branch of the Department for Education to check whether their appeal has been heard correctly.
This isn't right and proper and most parents would easily recognise it as such regardless of how much they liked their school and its sponsor. No school where child abuse is suspected should be left to investigate itself without any serious outside challenge. The same is true of schools where there is a suspicion that children are being subjected to brainwashing whether that comes from an Islamic extremist sect or a Christian extremist sect. Nor should schools with excessive exclusions or neglect of those with disabilities be allowed to exonerate themselves. We need some rigour back in the accountability and it could be achieved easily, quickly and popularly.
What is needed is to give the local authority the kind of rights that most people think they have already, namely:
1. The right to fully inspect the accounts of every school in the locality on demand.
2. The right to ask a Head for an explanation of any change in exam results and to see internal information on entries and results of any exam results
3. The right to require a governing body to organise an independent enquiry into the behaviour of a Head teacher and to suspend that teacher until it is conducted.
4. The power to initiate a process that can result in the change of a sponsor of an academy
5. The right to conduct an independent investigation into treatment of those with disabilities, excessive exclusions, bullying or child abuse and to have full access to the information required to conduct that investigation.
6. The right to conduct an independent investigation into allegations that what is being taught is inappropriate
Simple measures along these lines could put local communities back in proper control of the education service they are paying for in their locality. Most of them do not require legislation and they could be introduced within days of a new government being elected. Most importantly they are about empowering local people and local parents.
Few parents feel brave enough to challenge the decisions of a Head Teacher or a Governing Body when they know that their child is exposed to the tender mercies of the people that they are challenging. Similarly, few members of staff want to risk their career by whistle blowing. We need to put the power to obtain effective redress in the hands of a body that can't be bullied and has to listen to the public. The ideal way to do that is to give local authorities back a sensible degree of oversight over academies without wasting time and energy on making yet another set of bureaucratic changes to how schools are governed.
What would you like the next government to be remembered for? Making another bureaucratic top down change to school governance? Or putting proper democratic controls in place whilst letting teachers, heads and governors focus on improving the quality of education and training?
The author has worked at every level in education from inner city teacher, Head of Department, Deputy Principal, Director of a College, Executive Director of the Learning and Skills Council in the Black Country, and Regional Director of Young People's Learning for Yorkshire and the Humber.
How do you solve a housing crisis? With a sound-bite of course. Or at least that is what we must assume Cameron thinks.
If you want to do something about actually solving a problem of expensive housing you have to do something to either increase supply or reduce demand. It is difficult to see how any of Cameron's pet policies can achieve this.
Consider first the policy of providing a subsidy to help first time buyers to get on the housing ladder. If you are saving to buy a home this must sound really helpful. But it can only have one impact. If it helps to get more people to be able to buy then it must increase the demand for buying houses and put the price up. It gives a bit of help with the deposit but increases the amount you have to pay and doesn't do a single thing to help new homes to be built. Forcing those who receive the subsidy to spend it on buying a new home doesn't help build those homes. It simply cuts down their choice of where to live if they want to take advantage of the subsidy. This scheme is therefore a complete waste of tax payers money. A strange approach for a government that keeps telling us it wants to cut the deficit.
Then we have the second headline policy which is to force housing associations to sell off the homes they own to their tenants. Incredibly Cameron told Corbyn that Housing Associations were a part of the public sector that had not been sufficiently reformed. He didn't appear to know that they are not part of the public sector at all but independent organisations. If the government seized land and property from either a private sector company or an individual Cameron would be the first to object. But apparently if you don't know that the organisation isn't part of the public sector then it is OK to seize their land and insult them when they object.
But leave aside the astonishing admission of ignorance and the dual standards for a minute and just consider the economics. Housing associations provide property at cheap and reasonable rents to a whole series of people. The vast majority of them aren't well off and many receive housing benefit. Because housing association rents are cheap they reduce the cost to the taxpayer of housing benefit to an enormous degree. When their best properties are sold off they will have less property to rent out. If they try to borrow money to build new properties they will find it hard to get loans because no building society will lend money long term against a property that will be sold off if it goes up in price and stay on the books if it goes down. So the supply of housing association rented property will go down. More people will be forced to rely on private rentals including some who will be paying more to rent properties that used to be owned by housing associations and are now being rented out at commercial values by the new private owners. The result is as inevitable as anything in economics can ever be. Housing associations will be weaker and the cost of housing benefit payments will go up. Once again he is wasting tax payers money.
The way that the government has chosen to give the tenants of housing association property a reward for buying their property is by forcing councils to sell off their most expensive properties and give the profit to the government. In Kensington and Chelsea this will result in 85% of council properties being sold. Up north in Harrogate it will have a smaller effect. It will only take away 40% of their supply of affordable homes. This can only have the impact of reducing the number of people who can access reasonably priced social housing. It therefore must also put up housing benefit costs.
In case anyone thinks the solution to this is to get rid of housing benefit it is worth pointing out one other obvious economic problem. If people don't get any help with rental costs then people who want to work in areas such as London are going to need higher incomes to pay private rents. Either there will be shortages of suitable labour supply in places like London or wages will have to go up. This policy therefore involves an increase in costs for business and an increase in income for landlords. Not necessarily what you would think a Conservative would propose.
If you really want to deal with a problem of supply and demand you have to increase supply or control demand. The best way to do this in housing is to increase supply. The only serious attempt Cameron has made to do this is by getting rid of as many planning controls as possible and saying that it should be easier to build on the green belt. This pretty much guarantees that more properties will be build in inappropriate places on green field sites and that local communities lose all effective controls over housing developments. The belief is that if you free up the private sector from bureaucracy then it will build us out of problems. It won't. The best way for a property developer to make money is to build 3 bedroom houses for those who already have equity and can afford to buy. The need is for one and two bedroom homes for an increasingly ageing population and for young people starting out. There are some very good private sector companies responding to this need. But not enough of them. Too many are taking advantage of weak planning laws and using up the available sites to build the wrong things and chase the easy money.
There is, of course, an readily available alternative that is known to work. One that was accepted by the vast majority of Conservatives for 30 years after the war. In the days when Conservatives believed in conserving things! If you want to increase supply then mobilise the power of local councils and the voluntary sector and let them borrow money in order to build affordable houses in the right places. Interest rates at the moment are low and there is a rock solid business model which sees these organisations borrowing money cheaply, building what their communities actually need and renting them out at reasonable rates to those who can't afford to buy. Obtaining the land on which to build isn't easy but at least these organisations are likely to have an interest in building in places that the local community approves of. Brownfield sites that are difficult to develop are much more likely to be invested in by a local council seeking to improve their town than by a developer wanting to cut build costs to an absolute minimum and sell to those who can most afford.
Everything about this solution ought to be attractive to anyone who is only looking at the economics. Letting councils build and own properties securely increases the supply of houses, cuts rents and housing benefits, helps regenerate difficult inner city sites and ensures the right kind of small affordable homes are built. There is only one possible objection to the policy.
It goes against the grain for a far right government to admit that in a mixed economy some things are actually much better done by local government and the voluntary sector than by the free market alone. That is how far to the right this country has drifted. Wiston Churchill used to boast about how many council houses his government had built. But common sense solutions to problems aren't what is wanted by this government. It is more important to the current style of Conservatives to stick to a blind belief in the perfection of market forces on every occasion than to let the voluntary sector and local government get on with solving one of our most urgent problems.
No wonder thousands of people asked Corbyn to raise the issue of housing with Cameron and were disappointed by his lame answers.
Politics is changing rapidly. It is no longer predictable. There was a time when it was possible to commission an opinion poll, work out what it told you about the thoughts of the public, hire an advertising company to help you tell the electorate that you thought the same thing as they did and then, provided you took enough care never to say anything off message, you stood a good chance of winning an election. Provided of course that you had enough money to pay for it all.
That meant that the only politicians which had any chance of success were ones who fought for the centre ground and said what they were expected them to say. Over recent years, however, there are a number of politicians who have done things very differently and proved rather successful. This seems to be true both on the left and on the right.
The list of those who have not obeyed the old rules but have got a lot of votes is a disparate one. It includes Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Syriza, Podema, Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and the Green Party. There is even an avowed socialist standing for the Democratic Party nomination and winning double digit percentage support.
What all of these have in common is not immediately obvious but it is clear that they are not just trying to occupy the centre ground and then occupy office. Each of them has a vision that was written off as so far beyond the norm that it couldn't be taken seriously. Each proved unexpectedly popular - some of them to a phenomenal degree. It is now possible to say and do extreme things and still win votes.
This could be a very good thing. But it ain't necessarily so. Some of the most dangerous people in history sincerely believed in what they were saying. Adolf Hitler spoke with passion and really did want to clean up the world from the filth of Jews, Gypsies, Communists and gays. Stalin and Moa were conviction politicians.
So why has this change to conviction politics come about and how do we make the best of the change? I think the first reason for the new situation is social. People no longer trust the smooth operator. The techniques of mass marketing have been used to sell politicians for so long that they have become counter-productive. Any whiff of the fake or the polished professional and a politician's career is now at risk.
It is, however, the second cause of the change that I think is more important. In 2008 the times changed. One economic era ended and another began. The collapse of the banks and the failure of the unregulated free market took us into genuinely new territory. Many of our politicians have tried to deal with this by pretending that it was just a blip and everything is now back to normal. It isn't because the core problem of an unstable economic system isn't remotely fixed. Witness how easily panic set in over a relatively small change in China's growth rate. The public feels in its bones that something isn't quite right. Most people want the crisis to be over and for things to be back to normal and in the UK the Conservatives won a small parliamentary majority because they promised that it would be. An awful lot of folks don't agree and sense the need for something radical and new to sort out the problems.
If the economy really is fixed then almost all of these non standard political movements will die rapidly. In the UK if the Tories really have got the economy back on track then they will reap the rewards and walk the next election. If, as I believe, the economy is still weak and vulnerable and the public has no appetite for another round of cuts then the key question will be which form of non standard politics will win out.
Will it be the narrow selfish politics of UKIP? Is there going to be a retreat into fear of the outsider and a horribly dangerous attempt to shut ourself off from our neighbours in the hope we can weather the storm alone. Or will in the UK and enough other nations go for a bigger vision? An attempt to use the power of government effectively in Britain and to put together a cross border international plan to tackle worldwide problems?
For the left to win this battle I think we are going to have to put forward credible solutions to the following problems:
1. How do we ensure that a world economy is guided and managed internationally instead of being exposed to the wild fluctuations of uncontrolled market forces?
2. How can we raise the living standards of 9 billion people to a reasonable standard of living without destroying the planet? How quickly can we establish effective subsidies for helpful actions, tax those that cause long term damage and invest in a move to less environmentally damaging technology in the face of fierce opposition from vested interests?
3. Can we demonstrate a commitment to greater liberty that is every bit as strong as to greater equality?
4. How do we keep all the advantages of a free enterprise system whilst dealing with its downside?
5. How do we tax the rich and international corporations reasonably without them taking their money across borders resulting in countries competing to offer ever lower rates of taxation?
6. How skilfully can we increase and use public investment so that we do it without creating pressure on the environment, inflation or debt?
7. How do we create strong collaborative international organisations without them turning into faceless bureaucracies?
8. Can we get agreement on purposeful collective action to tackle international conflicts and the hardships generated by them without creating more problems than we solve?
None of these questions have simple easy answers to them but they all badly need thinking through in very short order. The left needs to do that hard thinking. It will only convince people that it can take us forward and lead the way through the next era of human history if it comes up with good practical solutions that are on a scale to match the size of our problems.
I take the view that any organisation or leader who is at least trying to do that deserves our support and we should be working with them to help create practical solutions regardless of what party or organisation they belong to. Anyone who simply wants to take us back to a previous era and has a nostalgia for the failed arrangements of the old Soviet Union is part of the problem. I would like to think Corbyn is in the first camp and that he should be given every support to succeed. I sincerely hope he isn't from the second.
In a dangerous world it is sometimes necessary and justifiable for the UK to go to war. When we do so it is important that we are clear about the reasons and know exactly what we are trying to do, why we are trying to do it, how we are going to succeed and when the war will be over. Since Cameron has decided without any help from Parliament that the UK is going to be involved in the war in Syria we are entitled to ask him to answer some basic questions. My list includes the following:
1. Who does he want to be in power in Syria? Does he know who he wants to win?
2. Does he think that the local forces he chooses to back are strong enough to win with the assistance of foreign airstrikes alone?
3. Does he think airstrikes will make people on the ground like us and want us or our allies to win? Will the accidental destruction of life and property that air strikes always bring help our enemies win the propaganda war?
4. Will there come a point where it is necessary to send ground troops in order to win? If so from where? From Iraq? If so is he planning to return to Iraq and fight our way from there? Does the UK have enough conventional ground forces and equipment in order to do this? Why is he spending so much on Trident and making soldiers redundant if well equipped ground forces are what is needed?
5. Does the UK have the determination to fight a long and costly foreign war which we know will involve heavy casualties on both sides?
6. What is the point of a partial involvement in a war? Doesn't that guarantee that you lose and the other side gains in strength?
7. What happened after the last time the UK got partially involved in a war? Are things better or worse in Libya after the dropping of so many bombs? Are there more refugees fleeing that country now or fewer?
8. Which local forces are we going to arm and support in Syria and how can we be confident that our local allies will use those weapons appropriately and ask us to bomb the right targets? Is our intelligence in Syria so much better than it was in Iraq when it thought it knew where the weapons of mass destruction were?
9. What is the moral justification for UK involvement in the war in Syria? Is it clear that this is self defence? Does he think it is right and proper to intervene in other countries that have evil regimes regardless of UN mandates?
10. If it is right for the UK to intervene why isn't it right for other countries? Are the Russians justified in increasing their involvement? Will the UK and the Russians be supplying arms to different sides so they can fight a new cold war on our behalf in Syria or are we going to come to an agreement with the Russians about the future of Syria?
11. What was the immediate threat to the UK that made it so urgent that he dropped bombs on Syria without Parliamentary approval?
12. Where exactly have the weapons come from that ISIS is using? Did our Saudi allies supply the cash? Did our Turkish allies allow weapons to cross their border? Are our Turkish allies bombing the Kurds that are fighting ISIS? How many of the weapons that the UK sent to Iraq have ended up in the hands of ISIS?
13. When will the bombing campaign end? What objectives will have been achieved when it ends?
None of these questions has a proper answer. It is bad enough that Cameron is taking Britain to war without a clear moral right to do so. It is even worse that he thinks he can simply ignore the ancient right of Parliament to vote the funds for that war. But what is really frightening is that he doesn't actually know what he wants to achieve, how he will achieve it or when it will be achieved.
If there is one thing we should have learned from Iraq it is that you need to think about the consequences when you go to war. A Prime Minister is meant to act with clarity of thought and purpose. We invaded Iraq without a serious plan about what would happen next. Look now at the result. We bombed Libya without a clear plan. Look now at the mess that is left. Is it really wise to drift into involvement in war in Syria?
The vast majority of us hate the ISIS regime every bit as much as David Cameron does. But going to war is a deadly serious business. I remain to be convinced that he knows what he is doing in Syria and that his actions will help anyone. Are you?
It has been fascinating to watch Cameron struggling with the politics of his own party and the reality of the refugee crisis. We are dealing with a situation that cries out for statecraft, leadership and long term vision. What is needed is a co-ordinated European wide plan showing vision and determination. Something similar to what took place in 1945.
At the end of the Second World War the USA showed true farsightedness when it introduced the Marshal plan and provided huge amounts of support to the exhausted countries of Europe. It was a phenomenal success. The recipients were able to rapidly recover from a terrible war and the defeated nations had particularly strong cause to be grateful and to see the value of tolerance and of providing practical help for those less fortunate than themselves. They were able to build a united and successfully peaceful Europe on the back of it. The US also gained by building markets for their products and by establishing a network of allies grouped around NATO.
A similar size of exercise now could be used to help find homes and employment for large numbers of refugees. Importantly it could also do the same for those countries where unemployment has been hovering around 25% for over five years of misery. A co-ordinated attempt to use Quantitative Easing money constructively across the whole of Europe alongside similar efforts in Japan and the US could make unnecessary unemployment disappear along with unnecessary homelessness. It could begin the work of rebuilding the economy on a secure environmentally sound basis not via dishonest speculative short term profit seeking behaviour.
But Cameron seems unable to do vision. Instead of the big society he promised us he is letting himself be captured by those with a vision of the little society. The narrow society that thinks it can close itself off from the world and it will all be OK if we just build a high enough fence at Calais.
When a Prime Minister wins an election it normally means that a bit of space has been achieved and it is possible to step outside narrow party concerns and act for the long term. Cameron can't do that. He has a right wing in his party and in his Cabinet that scares him. They have an ideological hatred of government action and an even stronger hatred of collaboration between governments across Europe. Only weeks after the election they have already started to defeat his government in the Commons in the hope of getting us out of the EU.
So Cameron dare not act in concert with other EU leaders to solve the refugee crisis. He has chosen to try and demonstrate that he isn't working with them but has his own independent policy. The consequence is that he has had no influence over EU policy on refugees. Germany and France have been meeting to establish policy but the UK isn't invited. Cameron is being ignored by Merkel.
The UK is in danger of steadily drifting out of Europe without any serious fight from within the Conservative Party. All summer we have seen a press narrative of dangerous waves of migrants trying to head north. In the face of this an astonishingly high proportion of UK citizens have insisted on seeing the migrants as people even before we saw the dreadful images of a dead child on a Turkish tourist beach. But the coverage of angry migrants climbing fences is having an impact. The majority of the country now wants out of Europe according to the latest polls.
Cameron hasn't risen above this to defend the importance of common European action to tackle common European problems. He has deliberately separated us off in an attempt to hold his own party together a little longer.
If he keeps this up for another year then it may well be too late. A desperate last minute attempt to convince us that we must stay in Europe may not work. I fear the result. The UK could end up isolated on the sidelines as it slowly declines with each new company that moves its operation to the centre of things in Europe. Or even worse a UK exit could prove the start of a breakup of the EU. Whatever the weaknesses of the EU it has provided us with 70 years of peace and security. What has happened in Syria and in Libya ought to be strong enough evidence for anyone about the dangers of putting that at risk lightly.
One of the worst mistakes you can make in politics is believing your own propaganda. But every now and then you realise you have made an even worse mistake. Getting overwhelmed by other people's propaganda and failing to believe the full extent of the problem you are complaining about.
So I was genuinely shocked this week to read reports that 99% of all seabirds are likely to swallow plastic dumped into the oceans. I was even more shocked to discover that the problem isn't getting better - it is getting worse quickly. As much plastic is due to be manufactured in the next 10 years as has been made since 1950. Production doubles every 11 years.
This information doesn't come from a speculative comment piece. It is hard science coming from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. See http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/08/27/1502108112.abstract?sid=5a6e5a34-90bc-4183-b89c-ea4210a44377
It is well known that the trouble with plastic is that it is easy and cheap to produce but difficult and costly to get rid of and not likely to biodegrade. So what we do now is going to be our legacy for the next thousand years or so.
As the world population gets larger it is also getting richer. Unlike some environmentalists I don't have a problem over people getting richer and consuming more. I have travelled through enough dirt poor countries and seen the standard of living that others are expected to survive on to be convinced that a very large number of people really do need the ability to consume an awful lot more if they are going to live happy and healthy lives. But consumption doesn't have to mean damaging consumption.
The downside comes from the fact that both in producing what they need and in consuming it we are being driven by the cheapest individual cost right now not by the cost to the collective or to the future. Since it is cheap and easy to make a lot of things out of plastic it is inevitable that as we lift more people out of poverty they are going to consume a great deal more plastic and throw it away.
Or rather it is inevitable if we continue to produce and consume in the same way. The vast majority of plastic that is produced is not actually necessary for an increase in the standard of our living. It is packaging or it has perfectly good alternatives that can be used instead. There is no problem with people across the third world clawing their way out of poverty. Indeed it is highly positive. The problem is that there is an absence of suitable regulation, control and subsidy to influence how manufacturers produce and how people consume. It is not possible for so many people to get richer and for the free market to operate without the real costs of decisions being applied at the time that those decisions are made. Put simply we need a strong and effective network of global taxes, laws and incentives to turn people away from choices that mess up the planet and to help them choose alternatives which are just as good but not destructive.
This sounds incredibly hard to do because of course it is. But like all problems not being able to tackle the totality doesn't mean that nothing can be done. The crucial point is to get started and to change the direction of development.
To give one simple example. Most face creams are made with tiny abrasive particles which help to clean the skin. Many of these products use tiny plastic particles because they are a touch cheaper to make than gritty natural alternatives. The hundreds of thousands of particles in one jar wash off your face and go straight into the drains and then the sea. They are so small that they are not visible to the naked human eye. They are visible to plankton. These creatures that are vital to the entire planets eco system, and which exist in numbers that go into trillions of trillions, are attracted to eat the plastic particles. No one knows the full impact of this on the food chain but we do know that any negative impact on plankton is really bad news for the entire planet. It would be ludicrously easy for manufacturers to move away from using plastic particles in face cream in comparison to the damage done. It ought to be possible to get international agreement on banning plastic particles from such products.
For many other products an easy and cheap alternative is harder to find. Nevertheless this is going to have to be done sooner or later. It would be better for British manufacturers if they were part of the sooner camp and were being heavily helped and encouraged to research new clean technologies, learn environmentally sound techniques and apply them in the production process effectively and competitively. This requires serious financial assistance from government. Investment doesn't come cheap but the countries and the companies that do well in the world tend to be those who have invested early in adapting to change.
The first step to moving away from mass plastic consumption is therefore to accept two unavoidable necessities. One is that we have to control and guide the free market. The other is that we have to become better at developing and implementing internationally enforceable environmental laws. It will be very difficult to do this without destroying the creativity of the free market or establishing a stultifying international bureaucracy. But that is what needs to be done. I do not want to live in the old Soviet Union and, much as I support the EU in principle, I do not want to reproduce its slow clumsy decision making processes across an entire planet.
But there is no escaping the necessity of a major intellectual change. We have to move beyond a blind faith that an unfettered free market will always and on every occasion sort out our problems. I leave you to your own judgement call as to how well the UK's government is shaping up in response to that crucial challenge!
I trust the leaders of the Conservative Party have had a happy and a relaxed summer holiday basking in the warm glow of their election victory. Indeed as they sat on their beach I am sure they will have read their electronic newspapers with increasing pleasure. A squabbling Labour Party, an immigration scare, and Greece forced to its knees for daring to oppose austerity. What more could any of them have wished for?
But they could very well find that they come back to some very nasty surprises. Especially in the economy. The Conservatives got elected because enough people believed that they just might have fixed the economy so it was worth a vote to see if they could finish the job. If the UK roars ahead and ordinary people see their lives improve then they will be in power for a very long time.
But what if they haven't fixed the economy? What if it is about to turn sour on them? If that happens they will quickly turn into the most unpopular government ever.
I happen to think that it is highly unlikely that the economy will continue to grow at anything like the rate the government needs in order to remain popular and that it is even more unlikely that ordinary voters will get the benefits of the growth that does take place. There are a number of reasons for this.
1. There are £30 billion more of cuts to come that will directly impact on demand for goods and services and because the people who received that money won't spend it there will be a multiplied impact of these cuts.
2. The £375 billion of quantitative easing which has counteracted the cuts is highly unlikely to continue. In the past, whilst talking about austerity the government have actually run the printing presses like never before. But instead of investing this money on long term needs such as reduction in energy demand it has been pumped into the banking system where it has been lent out to finance a boom in house prices and a short lived boom in share prices. In other words it helped fuel a financial mini boom instead of repairing the imbalances in the economy. The end of QE means austerity will hit with full force instead of being massively cushioned.
3. Our economy is still badly imbalanced. We depend very heavily on areas of the service industry which could easily come under much stronger competition from abroad now that we have established a reputation for fixing Forex & Libor rates. There has been little investment in developing industries of the future such as low energy production and consumption.
4. The slowdown in global demand is bound to impact on the UK. The Great Fall of China may prove a market correction or a start of another bust but either way it looks very much like the world economy is entering a phase of slower growth. UK exports are likely to fall.
5. It looks likely that we are entering a period of deflation. That tends to act as a major break on growth. Just look at Japan over the last 20 years. It is very hard to get out of deflation and a government that preaches the need for austerity and wants to pass a law forcing balanced budgets onto the government in every single year is unlikely to know how to get out of it.
6. Our major trading partner, the EU, is being led by a German Chancellor who believes in austerity politics. We therefore have slow growth in demand and several major European countries struggling with horrendous rates of unemployment of 25%. They are being asked to cut back expenditure even further. That has to impact on the UK
7. We have not created strong enough international mechanisms to prevent another financial panic like the one that triggered all our problems in 2008. If it does no one can predict how well the world economy will survive but we do know that we are still struggling to clean up the last free market collapse.
There are, of course, a number of positive indicators which could rescue the government. The USA is still growing rapidly on the back of its major $3 trillion QE programme and is unlikely to try and row back on this growth in the run up to an election. Many developing countries are still recording very strong growth rates and are able to buy more from abroad. Low prices for oil and commodities and low interest rates could mean standards of living can hold up despite the cuts. We could have a change in technology that requires major investment and triggers a strong upturn such as when computers first came in. There is also the momentum of the bounce back that any economy normally experiences after a period of contraction. In normal times we would have had a relatively long downturn and be due a strong upturn as part of the natural cycle of the economy.
But I don't think we are living in normal times. And the biggest single thing that could happen to derail the economy is a repeat of the panic of 2008. Unguided free markets are not wonderfully wise things that are always right in every circumstance. They are the product of the actions of flawed individual human beings. When those human beings all panic at the same time and the mechanisms to counteract those panics are too weak then the market is vulnerable to collapse. No one knows when the next collapse will come or what form it will take. Events in the Chinese stock market may very well prove to be a temporary market correction that is forgotten in weeks or they could spread elsewhere and trigger another major crisis. But they act as a stark reminder that there is no real confidence out there. At some stage during the next five years the government could easily find itself dealing with a repeat of problems on the scale of 2008. Having blamed the last crash on Gordon Brown they are going to have some difficulty explaining any crash that happens on their watch.
And then there is the issue of the referendum over Europe. If you think the Labour Party is divided wait until you see the falling out in the Conservatives about whether to stay in or not. One section thinks that it is vital for our business interests that we remain in the EU at all costs. I happen to agree with them. The other section thinks that it is vital that we get out of this super state that is imposing controls on the always super efficient and magical free market. These are not compatible views. They are not views that there can be a compromise over. No amount of pressure from the whips office is going to convince significant numbers of Conservative MPs that they must shut up and support Cameron's desperate last minute campaign to stay in.
So I hope Cameron had a nice relaxed time with his family. I think his troubles and ours are just beginning. If I am right then he is going to become the most unpopular leader this country has ever had so he might as well enjoy himself whilst he can!
Andy is an FE lecturer, a bee-keeper and lives in Cononley.