Labour leadership: Stormin’ Corbyn winning the new battle of Berkhamsted

The slow, gentle burn of a party rediscovering a purpose. But can it possibly work?

David Hencke

BERKHAMSTED CASTLE pPc Credit:geograph-org-uk BERKHAMSTED CASTLE
pPc Credit:geograph-org-uk

Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire is not known as a centre of left wing radicalism. It has had only two revolutionary moments in its 1000 year history . They were the capitulation of the English to William the Conqueror in 1066 at Berkhamsted Castle and the Battle of Berkhamsted Common in 1866.

The latter was a remarkable story, A wealthy MP, Augustus Smith, was furious that a local landowner had enclosed common land above the town. So rather than just protest he took direct action. As a book, The Short History of Berkhamsted reveals he hired ” a miniature army of Cockney” toughs” and Irish labourers and charted a special train to convey them from Euston to Tring at the dead of night.”

These 120 men armed with crowbars tore down the iron railings overnight and the next day a newspaper reported ” “In carriages, gigs, dogcarts and on foot…

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Really Difficult Questions For The Left

Martin Kettle, in yesterday’s Guardian, said that “the left is unusually bad at asking itself really difficult questions about its approach to politics”.  He said this in relation to the Labour leadership contest, and the Smith Institute analysis of why Labour lost the general election.

But is he right?

The view, widespread amongst political commentators, and professional politicians and their retinues, is that a hard-headed, ‘realistic’ appreciation of politics places winning elections above all other political considerations, because without power, politics is nothing.  Kettle accuses the left, in this case, specifically, the Corbyn supporters, of being “religious” in their political beliefs, having absolute faith in a series of propositions or commandments – nationalisation, big state, trades union power – regardless of whether they are relevant or practical.

With respect, because Kettle’s view is coherent and arguable, I disagree.

The Kettle view is that there is human life: social institutions, workplaces, leisure activities, family life, personal relationships, sport, and all that other stuff.  And then there is politics, a minority activity best left to parties and the professionals within them, who must engage the voters at election time by studying the spreadsheets, refining the techniques of advertising and corporate public relations, and coming up an attractive brand and some targeted retail offers.

If that was all politics is, who’d care about it?  What distinguishes it from working for PWC, or Saatchi?

The really difficult question Kettle doesn’t ask is what is power for?

In my experience the left is tortured by really difficult questions, and always has been. Far from being “religious” dreamers or zealots hanging on to divine revelation, we look deeply at the world, facing it head-on.  Only then do we dream.

And why not? Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it (as our prophet once said).

For the left, politics is a total activity, something that is lived. Support is built culturally, upon shared experiences and an understanding of our inter-dependance.  It suits the neoliberal right to imagine that life and electoral politics are two different things, the latter a game to be won by superior weapons bought with hard cash raised from those with a vested interest in privileging their own economic power over social need or popular will.  But that’s their game, played by their rules, and it’s rigged against us.

The left in the past was anchored in deeply rooted social institutions. Industries that dominated towns were also, inadvertently, producers of social solidarity. Trades unions didn’t just defend workers rights, they offered cheap beer, political education, transferable skills, sometimes actual education, and a route to social mobility. Co-ops provided safe food and a divvy, too.  The labour movement then was life itself, not just the politics of the electoral cycle.

That world cannot be recreated. The heavy industries of the past are gone, and those successful manufacturers that remain are hi-tech plants whose workers drive in from far and wide, rather than teeming in on foot or by bicycle from surrounding red brick terraces. The new production lines are services, call centres, retail logistics and distribution, and the like.

So we need new ways of adding value to peoples lives at work, home, and leisure. New ways to build political meaning and electoral support.

But how to we get from here to there?  From electoral defeat to success at the polls underpinned by widespread popularity? How do we change the culture, as well as the numbers? Really hard questions.

The Smith Institute research highlights stuff we already knew – that Labour stacked up votes where it didn’t need then (in cities) and failed to get enough of them in the suburbs, the small towns, the rural areas, the shabby seaside.

I write this from a small seaside town in a constituency that hasn’t seen a Labour MP since 1966. But are such places really immune to a left-wing message?  After all, there are social consciences at work here. I see more, and better, contributions in the food bank bin at the Co-Op here than I do in the one in the local Waitrose in my (Labour-held) city constituency.

Take Thanet South, which happily disappointed Nigel Farage at the election. So it went Tory, and Labour was scarcely in the running.  Except that the Labour candidate was Will Scobie, a young, local man, energetic, suffering the same worries as others in his position, struggling to find decent affordable housing for his young family.  Unlike Farage, Scobie hasn’t walked away.  It’s where he lives.  Labour needs to work at finding, nurturing, supporting the Scobies of this world, rather than parachuting in an ambitious SPAD whenever they think a constituency is winnable.  Grow your own organic, local politicians.  There’s no reason why Scobie, and others like him, if we start now, shouldn’t win elections in places where the numbers don’t look good, but the material conditions do.

Some straight-talking authenticity helps.  Scobie has it.  So do some of those who got into Parliament.  Much has been made of the SNP cohort, but Labour has got itself some very un-SPADish new MPs, too.  Take Dawn Butler, the new Brent MP, who went viral this week when she took on gaffe-prone Sky presenter Kay Birley with some polite sarcasm and a winning smile.  Or how about Naz Shah, slayer of preening George Galloway?

Higher quality local MPs and a grassroots renewal is but part of it.  So is a strategy – starting now – of challenging the superior firepower of the Tories with their press baron and hedge-fund friends by creating a bottom-up process of narrative-building so that by our conversations, our social media usage, our calls to phone-in shows and the like, we embed our own messages in popular consciousness.

And I’d also say that longer-term we need root-and-branch constitutional reform to realign the political system, including the voting system, to meet the changing realities of Britain now.  It’s not one of the really hard questions Martin Kettle draws attention to, but the Labour Party, as research by Bale and Webb shows, is made up of people with more left-wing attitudes than SNP supporters, and liberal instincts on civil liberties and internationalism. They are also 40% public sector workers.  This is a fine group of people (count me in), but their views would more honestly be represented in a system with a multitude of minority parties.  That’s also true for the Tories, by the way.  They can’t be both One Nation and neo-lib globalisers.

The route from here to the golden uplands is clear.  Grassroots renewal and vigorous activism in every locality. An engaged left, talking to others, not just to ourselves, to open up the terrain of debate beyond the narrow tramlines set by the professionals.  An election victory (which mainly means getting rid of the Tories).  And then the real work starts.

How To Be A Leader

Prescott on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme

The technique was apparently invented by John Birt at the long-departed current affairs programme, Weekend World in the 1980s, but has become industry standard practice ever since. I’m talking, of course, about a style of political interviewing – the one that John Prescott threw a punch at this morning.

A researcher on Weekend World once explained their MO to me.  The programme, he said, was effectively story-boarded. They decided the line of argument, and then went out to find talking heads to say the quote-y bits. The big, set-piece political interview was effectively the same, designed to fit a narrative, and, preferably, to trap the interviewee into saying the opposite of whatever it is they wanted to say.  Pretty much all political interviews are planned like this now, which is why most politicians are unable to speak human, because to the journalist, human is weak.

Let’s punch home this point: an interview is not a journalist asking properly probing questions of a politician, listening to the replies, and then asking further questions. An interview is a set-piece stunt.

So to John Prescott this morning.  Prescott has an advantage over most politicians. He is monolingual. He can only speak his own particular dialect of human.  Added to that, he doesn’t take the bait, and remains pugnacious.  And so he gave a masterclass in how to handle an interviewer like John Humphrys.

The contrast with the interview with Yvette Cooper half an hour earlier was instructive.  At the time, I’d thought Cooper had been pretty effective.  She wasn’t pushed around by Humphrys, an unnecessarily aggressive interviewer.  But she’d still done the modern politician thing, which is to enter the studio with the intention of talking for as long as possible to get over her key themes for the day.  The result is sometimes, as with Cooper today, efficient, but it feels passionless. It may sound an odd thing to say, but most politicians in interviews remind me of being at school and preparing for my French oral! I’d memorise a vague but plausible spiel, and then tweak it – adjusting the tense, or qualifying it with a further introduction – to fit any possible questions I might be asked.  It got me through exams, but didn’t do much for my French. Ditto the politicians, emerging unscathed, whilst making no impression whatsoever on the poor bloody voters.

Prescott deals with irritations like John McTernan, much as King Kong swatted airplanes from the New York sky.  However mangled his grammar and syntax, his earthy vocabulary leaves no room for doubt about his meaning.  Above all, he disrupts the journalistic line.

The line the Today Programme intended was to isolate Jeremy Corbyn from ‘respectable’ opinion; to follow the hostile press position that Corbyn is ‘unelectable’ and ‘weird’.  But that ultimate New Labour figure, Lord Prescott, was having none of it.

Why?  That’s actually quite important.  Prescott may have been at the heart of Blair’s Labour Party, but, as he shows in this interview, his loyalty was never to the leader, always to the party.  In Corbyn, in his own preferred candidate, Burnham, in Cooper, Prescott sees a fellow Labour loyalist whose heart is always with the movement. In defending Corbyn, Prescott was looking after one of his own.

I believe in Liz Kendall’s sincerity when she argues with some passion that Labour must embrace the sorts of things voters were telling her during the election campaign.  Voters do say harsh things about migrants, and those on benefits.  Kendall really does believe that the way to win those voters back is to echo their fears more effectively than the Tories or UKIP.

But that is a politics of gaming elections, and Labour’s never been very good at that.  It just doesn’t have the money, or the partisan press. The win in 1997 was a classic example of a government losing an election, rather than an Opposition winning.  Blair’s attractive optimism undoubtedly helped, but I doubt that John Smith would have won less decisively.  After 1997 votes actually bled away, even before Iraq.

What Corbyn’s candidacy has done is give the arguments back to the heart of the Labour movement, reigniting some of the tribal passion and loyalty that used to be the hallmark of the party.  Politics as belief, as argument and persuasion, as leadership, not of polls, of triangulation, of retail offers.  John Prescott’s intervention today demonstrates that those traditional Labour strengths were dormant, not dead.

My guess is that the same is true for much of the electorate. Give us authenticity – “traditional values in a modern setting” – and we’ll respond.

True Stories – And How To Tell Them

The Progressive Narrative event organised by Compass West Midlands in Birmingham on Saturday was an ambitious event, in a low key way. A group of people came together in a theatre rehearsal room to try to do what one wealthy political party employs a shed load of expensive advisors to do – create a convincing narrative for our own, progressive political truths.

I’ve been around politics, big and small ‘p’, for a long time, but I’ve never seen anyone attempt something quite this audacious. When political commentators and politicians use the term “narrative” these days, they are talking about something more than “spin” or “sound bites”. What they want to do is to shape a story, whether of continuity or change, hope or hate, which ‘has legs’ – it will endure and become embedded in public consciousness through repetition.

It helps, of course, if you have lots of money, know people of influence, can shape the news agenda, and have reliable outlets to amplify the message. But all we had was a kettle and some tea bags. And lots of paper, marker pens, and blu-tack.

So did we solve the problem of creating a powerful narrative for radical change?  Of course we did!

After lunch, a stranger arrived. She was tall, charismatic, and looked oddly like Angelina Jolie. We held our breath as she walked around our groups of tables, inspected our fledgling tales. We gasped as she swept them to the floor with a sweep of her perfectly manicured hand. “People!” she said, “these are not the words you need. They are too timid, or too angry, or too complicated, or too intellectual.”

We might have been hurt, or offended, but her compelling self-confidence gave us reason to pause, and listen, spell-bound, as she revealed the secret. And do you know, it was obvious, with hindsight? The clues had all been there, if only we’d spotted them earlier.

The trouble is, those two paragraphs above are from a Hollywood pitch, not real life. What we really ended up with was the beginning of insight into how to shape, hone and amplify the stories we want to tell.

There were some suggestions put forward, among many, which offered some specific things we might do.

One concerned the need to keep it short and uncomplicated. So that’s a “no” to Gordon Brown’s famous “neo-classical endogenous growth theory”, then.

Another was the insight that narratives that work are often inclusive – “We’re all in this together!” is a good example. Even when we yell “No, we aren’t!” we’ve already conceded their ground by affirming that word, “we”. (Maybe we should shout, “We’re in this together. But you’re not!”)

That first example is in some ways an example of political “flash fiction”. For those who don’t know the term, it refers to ultra-short stories, ways of expressing much in very few words. A popular example of this is the six word story: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

This piece of flash fiction encapsulates the literary view that whilst in a novel, all the action takes place within its pages, with a short story, most of what the words suggest happen in the unspoken stuff behind the words. We wonder, “who’s selling those baby shoes? Why are they unworn? What tragedy lies behind these few words?”   To be compelling, our political narratives have to make people think, too.

The second example is interesting because in writing fiction, mostly narrators are first person singular, or third person – “I”, or “he, she, they”. But with a political narrative, inclusiveness, the sense of social solidarity, may perhaps best be evoked by the use of “we”.

Interesting, maybe, but where’s the practical stuff?

Well, it set me thinking, anyway. I was watching The Sunday Politics this morning, a Labour leadership ‘debate’ chaired by Andrew Neil. At one point, Neil said to one of the candidates, “so it’s back to spend, spend, spend?”  I was surprised to find myself shouting at the screen, “So you want cut, cut, cut? When did self-harm become a clever thing to do?”

Perhaps those inversions might work? Counter every “maxed out the credit card,” with “sold the family silver”? And “spend, spend, spend” with “cut, cut, cut?” They sound more rapid and confident a response than patiently trying to explain the finer points of the economy, or the difference between the deficit and the debt, which is what we usually do, earnest fools that we are.

At the end of the session on Saturday we got around to discussing practical ways of spreading our stories, and of amplifiying them, so that they might become a new “common sense”.

I’d say we need to create an army of citizen narrators, creating our stories, and taking them to family, friends, workmates and beyond, in all the ways available to us today. We started organising that task this weekend!

What Does It Mean To Be Left Wing?

It’s easy to know how the Conservative Party is right wing – just look at its fundamental philosophy and approach to economics. The old Tory Party of Queen and Country, the CofE as the Tories at prayer, of moral censoriousness, is largely dead, confined to the fringes, or decamped to UKIP. The party has ditched its ‘conservatism’ and is now a party of the globalised, radical right.  Ayn Rand, rather than Edmund Burke, now rules.

But Labour?  What the hell is Labour all about?  Is it a party of the left?

The old Labour Party was created by the trades unions to represent organised Labour in parliament. That’s simply historical fact.  ‘Organised labour’ largely meant men working in heavy industry. It meant mines, and mills, and the working class cultures that grew up around those industries. Its ‘aspirations’, that contemporary buzz word, were for better pay, safer working conditions, shorter hours, paid holidays – tangible results. As time went on, Labour’s interests spread to encompass better homes, access to medical care, better educational opportunities. These things were ‘left wing’ in the sense that the followed from an understanding of the inherently antagonistic relationship between those who owned and controlled things, and those who had no option but to work for cash.

That is not the Labour Party today. Of course, there are people ‘on the left’ who are members of the Labour Party.  Some of them are MPs, some are even leadership candidates.  But the party itself has neither the industrial base, nor the cultural roots of its former self.  As for its philosophy, and approach to economics, anything goes, apparently.

Now I call myself ‘left wing’. Indeed, I’d call myself a ‘social democrat’. I’m not a member of the Labour Party, and I can see little compelling reason to be one.  So what do I believe, and what would I like to see from a party ‘of the left’?

Let’s start with that question of philosophy. The Tories see people as inherently selfish, and design policies to appeal to that. Cutting inheritance tax (and low tax in general), letting pushy parents grab the best stuff for their own kids and stuff the rest, little sympathy for the poor, the refugee, and anyone ‘different’.  “I’m all right, Jack”. That’s the Tory way.

But I don’t see people as essentially selfish.  We can be selfish, we can be empathic, we can be altruistic, we can be kind and generous. Politics ought (a very moral word, ‘ought’) to be about encouraging the unselfish tendencies, because there is such a thing as society, and it functions best with cooperation, not merely competition.  That is a left wing view, and all else follows from it.

On the economy, I don’t see it as a natural phenomenon, like the weather. It is a human, cultural construct, which has taken different forms at different times in our history, and could be re-made again, if we don’t like the way it is now.

I’m not saying that that would be easy. We start from where we are, and a strategy to change how the economy rewards, or punishes, how wealth is made, and distributed, is necessarily slow, piecemeal, and forever a work in progress.  But I know the direction of travel I’d like, which is away from extremes of super-wealth and absolute poverty, and, crucially, a fairer deal for people in the middle.

Am I “anti-business”? I’m sure Sajid Javed would think I was, but as the Business Secretary used to be the Culture Secretary who couldn’t stand culture, I’m taking no lessons from him.  No, I’m not “anti-business.  But businesses need to operate according to rules, and those rules ought not to be rigged.  Fair profits, not rip-offs. Charge honest prices. Pay honest wages. Trade with an eye on the finite resources of the earth. Long term thinking, not short term accountancy tricks. The stake-holders in business are not just those who own shares, but they are the workers, the customers, the country, the planet.

Most of this is abstract stuff.  How might a party of the left look right now?

Let’s start with people.  For most people living in reasonable conditions, in good health, with more or less enough money to cover food, and housing, and a bit extra for the things we enjoy, what we want is to feel that those things are secure. Until it became a dirty word, we used to call it ‘social security’, but the concept is key.

We want the food we eat, the food we feed our children, to be safe. Businesses aren’t actually very good or reliable at ensuring this, but the state, local, national, trans-national, can regulate food safety. My party of the left would make a big deal of this.

Housing is too expensive, and the quality of new housing is poor. The market cannot tackle this, and home ownership is not the answer. Varied housing tenure makes most economic sense,  When we are young, we need to be mobile, moving around as we build our lives and careers.  Renting makes sense then, but we should be able to rent good quality homes at affordable prices.  That means wide, cross-class access to social housing, because frankly, the private rental market is an expensive scam.

When people have children, they need more security, and more space. This is where, for some, home ownership works.  For others, as in most other countries, secure tenancies can offer peace of mind and a settled childhood.

In retirement, as we live longer, we need a wider range of housing options for all, from urban downsizing, to sheltered accommodation, to care and nursing homes.  The latter are mainly provided by the private sector, and run on low pay with high staff turnover, and worryingly uneven standards. This must change.  We need a National Care Service run in parallel with, but separate from the NHS, with well-trained staff and excellent facilities providing dignity in old age.

Education is a mess. It is a confusing maze to deal with, from finding a good primary school, to accessing vocational training, to higher education. Cut the gimmicks, stop endless, stressful testing of children, teachers, and schools,  Take religion and commerce out of schools.  Let FE thrive.  Let universities be universities again, not just swaggering PLCs.  Value libraries, museums, galleries, the civic spaces where the wider possibilities for education – and self-education – lie.

I could easily go on until I’d written a full manifesto and started making specific policy recommendations, but that’s not the point.  There are plenty of left-wing ideas that might command wide assent and could be attractive and popular.  I would even say that in his own too timid way, Ed Miliband was ending towards some of them before the last election, and with a better party behind him, and higher turnout, we might be on the right road now.

All I’m saying is that the future doesn’t have to be Tory.  But it sure as hell doesn’t look like Labour right now.

Hug A Bureaucrat – Syriza’s Lesson For Britain

Poor bloody Syriza. We all read about how Tsipras moved into the Prime Minister’s residence and found it stripped, even down to the soap. But that was the least of it.

One of Syriza’s many problems is the lack of a functioning state in Greece. How do you collect taxes, run a health or education system, distribute the resources to build or maintain infrastructure, without the state to do it?

The old way of doing things under the traditional political parties was closer to the norms of the Middle East than those of Northern Europe. There were connections of kinship, politicians collected clients who expected rewards for their support, and, as Aditya Chakrabortty put it recently, the tax collection system is more akin to a plate being passed around at the end of a church service.

Harold Wilson, the former British PM, used to describe the British state as being like a car. Depending on who was in power, they might drive it in different directions, but the vehicle was essentially the same efficient machine.  His critics in the Labour Party saw this as inaccurate, thinking the top ranks of the Civil Service to be instinctively conservative, likely to defend the Establishment and thwart radical zeal. Recent partial revelations about an Establishment cover-up over child sexual exploitation suggest that there might have been something in this view, but nonetheless, the machinery of state was indeed a Rolls Royce operation.

The British state took some building. 19th Century reforms created a system of competitive examinations for entrance to the highest levels of the Civil Service, and the brightest graduates saw it as the highest career destination. When governments took decisions, the Civil Service could make it happen – or warn of the consequences. Just look at the creation of the NHS, a massive, complex undertaking, but just three years after the Second World War ended, the NHS was up and running. You need an efficient, responsive state to make something that big happen.

Now look at the direction of travel since 1979. Look, particularly, at the ambition of the current government (and at the record of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition). We have been letting them “shrink the state”.

Who cares, you might say. Fewer pen pushers, scrapping some back room people in the town halls, what does it matter?

It matters when the intention of the government is to weaken the state by handing over its functions to the private sector. Massively powerful private interests, like Capita, Serco, and others, their numbers increasing by the day, often created by the hiving off of state assets, looks rather like a pin striped British version of Greek clientalism. Rather than building up the resources of the state to handle modern complexities, we have been de-skilling and weakening our administrative system.

The consequence of this is that Harold Wilson’s ‘car of state’ is now a rust bucket sitting on a pile of bricks. The state that is being created will be no vehicle for change when it is nothing more than a few bods trying to work out whether to give the contract to Atos or Serco.

The Greeks have some pretty plausible explanations for the sorry State they’re in. Invasions, conquest, dictatorship, and some wasted decades of democracy haven’t made it easy to forge a state fit to administer a modern country.   What’s our excuse? We used to have a state, but we sat back and watched them flog it off to their mates.

If Britain ever elects a government of the left, they might find soap in the downstairs loo in No.10, but will they have the impartial apparatus of government available to make the changes we need?

TINA Lives – So Why Can’t We Kill Her?

TINA was once an acronym known by all. There Is No Alternative, otherwise known as Thatcherism. The problem is, no one has ever said, “You known what? There Is an Alternative.”  We still live in a society in thrall to the miserable git that is TINA.

I was thinking about this earlier in the week when there was yet another Watch With Mother-style public service announcement from a so-called “regulator” gently cajoling us to switch our energy suppliers to prevent them from emptying our bank accounts with impunity. Why, wondered the kind gentleman and his friends in the political world, did the public refuse to do the obvious, and use the market to cut their costs?

My reply to this is that “markets” don’t belong in the world of energy supply. And anyone with a functioning synapse left in their skulls is not going to spend their free time on price comparison websites (themselves often in league with the suppliers) to speculate about whether a switch of supplier is going to cut their bills.

The fact is that markets are about choice, and basic utilities are about need. When I want a new coat, or a haircut, or to see a movie, I want a choice, and I’ll happily make it after browsing what’s available. When I want electricity, or water, I just want the stuff to be there in my plug socket or tap. Does it matter to me who supplies it? Would I pay a premium for Harvey Nichols Power, or water by Balenciaga? Of course not, because if people could be suckered into paying extra for posh branded utilities, they’d already have done it.

TINA stands over our society like those giant statues of Lenin used to loom over the public squares of Soviet cities, a reminder of a discredited dogma that doesn’t work. Utilities are natural monopolies, best run by the state, and charging people simply what the power or water costs, plus whatever extra is needed to maintain the system and invest in the future. Those who run those utilities should do so at fair salaries to reflect their skills, plus pride in their professionalism, and the quiet satisfaction of public service. They should stop pretending that they’re Virgin Atlantic, or ICI, and remember that Birmingham has a Gas Hall and a Water Hall because both utilities were once provided, very efficiently, by the city council.

As for all the other demands of the imperious TINA, I suggest that we chuck them out as well. For TINA was above all a cultural project to get us to distrust the motives of anything that was not for profit. Much of the Tory squealing over the hospitals in North Staffordshire was really a softening-up exercise to begin the big push to shake our pride in the NHS and to open it up to further privatisation. Virtually everything, from incarcerating prisoners to feeding schoolchildren, gets taken from the perfectly competent and professional state, and given to fast-buck merchants with an eye on nothing but the bottom line, or “shareholder value”, as it is called.

Well, I’m sick of it. From Grocer’s daughter, to Blair’s Babes, to today’s Bullingdon Bullies, I’ve had enough. TINA, it’s not me, it’s you. You’re not up to the job. Go away.

Value And Worth

The budget yesterday is scarcely worth commenting upon, delivering as it does a hefty dose of human misery, combined with some cheeky opportunism, and the usual sops to petrol heads and The Daily Mail. No surprises there.

What has been exercising me is perhaps more philosophical. It is the question of value, or worth.

Both of these terms are moral concepts, yet they infuse the vocabulary of economics, finance, money. “Shareholder value” is held to be sacrosanct, whilst “high net worth” individuals command a raft of services to protect and defend all that dosh.  Whilst I’m always happy to attack the short-termism of “shareholder value” thinking, and mock the “How To Spend It” vacuity of the super-rich, I’d like to begin by attacking someone at the bottom of the pile.

That person is a nail polish operative from Southend. She was one of a group of people interviewed by Channel Four News last night for their responses to the budget. She caught my attention not so much because she was so abrasively in favour of Tory measures to punish the poor, especially the working poor, but because of her unshakeable assumption that she was one of the nation’s finest – a business person, an employer.

The filmed section of the C4 report showed the woman in her nail bar, splodging enamel onto podgy toes to make them fit for flip flops.  My own hand-eye coordination skills are poor, but even I can paint my own toenails, so I will admit that I wasn’t greatly impressed by her technical abilities or artistry. But I accept that if other people want to spend their money on having other people handle their feet, that’s their choice.  But this woman ran her business by employing an “apprentice” nail painter at a pay rate of around £2.60 an hour.  The “business woman’s” equanimity in the face of the prospect of Osborne’s new National Minimum Wage seemed to consist of a complacent knowledge that she’d never employ anyone other than a teenaged “apprentice” at pocket-money prices.

Why am I so exercised by this woman when the world is awash with oligarchs and arms dealers, tax-havens and money launderers, and the politicians and newspapers who serve them?

It’s a fair question. The unfair answer is that the moral universe that permits raptor banks, planet-wrecking oil extraction, blood diamonds, and all manner of economic evils, is built upon the notion that all private enterprise, if not actually illegal, is by its very nature good.  We are supposed to hail the go-getting entrepreneurialism of the nail painter.

The flip side of this is the vilification of labour, especially in the public sector. Heap “austerity” onto local councils, cut back welfare budgets, sack the pen-pushers of Whitehall and the town hall.

I can think of no public sector job with less value than painting nails. In terms of who deserves the esteem of society, let’s forget about the obvious candidates, the medics, the teachers, the firefighters. In the public sector are the people who plan for civil emergencies, who ensure public safety, who keep vulnerable people safe, who ensure that our streets are lit at night, who plan for the collection and disposal of our rubbish.

It is time to reclaim words like “worth” and “value” from those who have devalued and made worthless the concept of the public good. The nail painter of Southend is nothing more than someone probably scratching a fairly marginal living in a way that doesn’t do much harm, but scarcely merits praise.  That politicians seek to make us think otherwise is an indictment of them, and of us, if we go along with such a distorted moral world view.

Oxi, Oxi, Oxi – As Maggie Once Said

I spent the last few days listening to vox pops from Greek streets as people were asked how they intended to vote in the referendum. I asked myself how I might vote, if I’d been one of them. It was a question I couldn’t quite answer.

Partly it is a general problem with referendums. Superficially they appear to be the very model of how democracy ought to work. A simple question is asked, and the people debate the merits and make their decision. The results are then held to be binding – until the next referendum comes along.

But in reality, a referendum is not necessarily ‘democratic’ at all. After all, modern democracy is not “dictatorship of the majority”, but must also maintain and uphold minority rights and space for differing opinions. Not so in a referendum, which is clearly why historically referendums and plebiscites have been favoured by dictators and authoritarian rulers to add a veneer of legitimacy to their power.

The Greeks voted on a lengthy and technical question where what mattered was not what voters thought of the merits or otherwise of forms of debt restructuring. It was simpler and more visceral than that. The ‘No’ option meant strengthening the negotiating position of the government, and sticking one in the eye to the Germans. The ‘Yes’ option meant a finger up to Syriza. That’s about it. Satisfying, but meaningless.

For there is far too much emotion in this issue, and not enough reason. Too much history, too, of there wrong sort, the simplistic ‘nation’s story’ stuff, as favoured by Tory education secretaries through the ages. Greece styles itself Europa, the begetter of Western civilisation, turned tragic heroine through endless, unearned calamity. Meanwhile the stern Calvinists of the North defend the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism from the Bacchanalians and Epicureans of the warm South. Each wilfully misunderstands the other.

So where might reason lead? That’s not a comfortable place, either. We cannot rewrite the past. The European project was a fine and honourable one, and has done much good for a Europe whose history has been one of shifting boundaries and almost continuous warfare. This ensured that the emergence from the utter devastation of the Second World War was relatively swift, and accompanied by unimagined levels of prosperity for many. But the tangible gains of six, nine, twelve nations have led to a mindset that what was good for the founding nations was infinitely exportable.

Some brave decisions were taken in the 1980s (despite the British PM shouting “No,no,no” at pretty much everything). The European project had secured democracy in Germany and Italy, and so, it was thought, it could do the same for nations emerging from fascist dictatorships, or, indeed, from the heavy hand of the church or the state. It couldn’t have been known that far from there being time to consolidate political and economic reform and standards of good governance in Spain, Portugal, Greece (and Ireland), by the end of the decade the Berlin Wall would be down and the Soviet Union on the edge of collapse.

Europe widened fast. The logic of that expansion may have been clear, but perhaps it happened at the expense of consolidating change in the older member states. Today the spotlight is on Greece, but other countries have their problems, too. Slower expansion, deeper change, and above all, a proper consideration of ensuring the democratic legitimacy of European institutions would probably have been more successful in the longer term. Britain does bear a share of the blame for all this. Our Prime Ministers were cheerleaders for expansion, falsely seeing it as being in opposition to “deepening cooperation” (i.e. federalism, in Eurosceptic eyes).

And so we arrive here, with one nation in the very position the EU was supposed to make impossible, and with no obvious happy ending in sight. I’ll leave the economists to squabble over the numbers and the answers. The politicians must now stand up and address the questions of how democracy is supposed to work in Europe, not just in resolving disputes between rival governments of different persuasions, but in growing cross-national democratic legitimacy and accountability for European institutions.

We, too, face a referendum. Ours will have a longer campaign and a shorter question, but like the Greek snap poll yesterday, it will mean something other than the words on the ballot paper, it will carry an element of judgement on the performance of our government, and it could lead to something awful – or to nothing at all.