Honourable Friends by Caroline Lucas

Honourable FriendsIt feels like our politics is broken. Whether it be our electoral system which means that most votes that are cast have little or no value, or the power of the lobbyists who leave little room for democracy and call the tune to such an extent that the main parties look almost identical, or the politicians themselves immersed in scandal and seemingly more interested in the potential for next career directorships than representing their constituents, things need to change.

Caroline Lucas has always appeared to be something different, a politician with integrity who has entered parliament to fight for what is right and fuelled by a passion for the common good rather than vested interests. In Honourable Friends she tells us a bit about what she found in the Palace of Westminster, the role she has played there since her election in 2010 and how she would like to see it changed to better meet the needs of the people.

It isn’t a political diary in the tradition of Tony Benn and others but it does give a clear insight into the workings of our parliament and also of Lucas’s – and by extension the Green Party’s – vision for the future. Crucial to both are making parliament more accessible and more accountable and putting people and the planet ahead of corporations, profit and growth. She makes a strong case that we face serious, generation defining challenges and that we cannot meet them with more of the same, but she also does it with a hope that is lacking elsewhere.

Whilst she highlights areas of frustration, such as the out dated mechanisms of the political system and the iron fist enforcement of party whips who seem to want their own MP’s to be uninformed sheep to be herded, she also presents examples of cross party collaboration facilitated by her lone Green status, some of which are very surprising. It is also refreshing to see a Member of Parliament prepared to join a people’s protest and refuse to let go of her values, even in the face of arrest.

Lucas is articulate and presents her arguments well whilst remaining human and in touch with the reality of “normal” life. In many ways it is a shame that she is no longer the leader of her party as she is both compelling and accessible at a time when the Green Party need to connect with a wider audience than normal and build on the recent surge in interest they have attracted. As the media focus on them grows they will need figureheads who walk the line of being media savvy and genuinely sincere.

We stand at a crucial moment. Not only are the effects of Climate Change becoming more apparent and extreme but our political system is also at a tipping point for potential change. Just at the moment that we need a progressive alliance to lead the country into a new age of prosperity built on equality rather than growth we also have the opportunity to deliver it. For all the failings of the current coalition it has opened our eyes to the possibilities of minority government.

Any hope for a progressive alliance requires the Labour Party at its heart, but recent history shows that it is a party that has become removed from its core values and needs others to pull it back on course. It is in this space that the Green Party, the SNP and the Liberal Democrats (perhaps minus the leadership of Nick Clegg) can push for a focus on the common good within the natural limits of the planet we inhabit. Hopefully come 8 May Caroline Lucas will have some Honourable Friends alongside her in Westminster.

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23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

23 thingsThe key aspect to Ha-Joon Chang’s book in my opinion is that Economics is not a science with a correct answer. It is about deciding what sort of a society we want to live in and how we achieve that. Chang himself clearly has a view of what that world should look like and he expresses that as he looks at different aspects of the particular form of capitalism that is prevalent in the West, but the central tenet remains true whether you agree or not with his personal economic philosophy.

As such it is important that we do not fall for the myth that our economy must be set up a certain way and this is what fuels Chang’s critique of the defining myths that he sees put forward by advocates of free market economics, the dominant view of our time. As expressed by Owen Jones in his book The Establishment, those in power and influence try to maintain their positions by pushing the theory that there is no alternative to the status quo, that their ideas have won and are beyond challenge, but this simply is not true and the society they are implementing is out of kilter with the majority preference.

For me one major aspect of that is the idea that we must incentivise entrepreneurs to make more money because that is the way that we all move forward. This implies that there is not enough to go round and so we need to make the pie bigger, but I would argue that the size of the pie is not the problem but rather the way we slice it up. If we take that view then we need to build an economic policy that actively shares wealth more equitably and we can afford to lose some efficiency in growth to achieve it.

Chang goes so far as to say that a strong Welfare State can actually fuel increased growth because it encourages risk taking in employees, providing them with a safety net that allows them to consider re-training and changing jobs more easily. This in turn makes the workforce more able to adapt to the changing needs of the economy by providing second and third career chances. He likens this to the equivalent protections for capital that are provided by limited liability and bankruptcy laws.

Another area that stands out is on international development, perhaps not surprisingly given Chang’s previous publishing history. Pushing developing countries into following the mantra of free markets is detrimental to their development and counter to the very journey that rich countries went on themselves in establishing their economies. Chang argues for policies that act in favour of developing countries to even out the unequal difficulties that they already face.

Then there is the belief that the free market ideology works because of the USA which takes no account of the problems currently mounting in the US balance of payments or that the ability of many Americans to live so well is built on the back of an underclass of low paid service employees. Inequality is a problem that we see bubbling under the surface of the American dream and which explodes onto the surface periodically in social tensions, which we also see developing in the UK as inequality expands.

Indeed so much of the economic ideology that we are sold is built on mythology and Chang has put together an impressive de-bunking of the key myths that are used to lead us into a free market capitalism that actually harms our long term prosperity. With the economic debate dominated by demands to shrink government and de-regulate markets this is an important book that systematically dismantles the credibility of the last thirty years of western economics. It then offers eight guiding principles for re-building a global economy that those thirty years took to the edge of total collapse.

Chang’s writing style is easily accessible so there is no need to have a background in economics to understand his principles and arguments and his discussion goes to the heart of the type of society that we want to create, alongside an economy that can truly prosper. This book is highly relevant to the UK as it prepares for a General Election and has implications both for the type of country we want to live in and the place we want it to take in the wider world.

The Establishment by Owen Jones

establishmentWe are faced with an Election in May in which the result is up for grabs, so it seems right to be spending some time scratching beneath the surface of our politics to consider where we want to go as a country. Thus begins a series of reviews of books that speak to the current state of the nation and possible options for a way forward.

Up first is the latest offering from Owen Jones, well known voice of the British left and columnist for the Guardian newspaper. In The Establishment Jones sets out the controlling powers as he sees them, politicians, the media, corporate interests and lobby groups, the police and interestingly the “outriders”, who he describes as the ideas people moving the perception of what can be done.

In many ways there is nothing here that you do not instinctively know from looking at the world around you. How come when the financial crisis was created by an unregulated banking system that was betting heavy on its own greed do we now seem to blaming public spending for our woes? Why are we all getting angry about benefit fraud but have seemingly forgotten about the MP’s expenses scandal, media phone tapping and the all too cosy relationships between leading politicians, media moguls and senior police officers?

This is where Jones, an Oxford University history graduate, comes into his own piecing together the detail of how they “got away with it”. That is not to say that there is any suggestion of an organised conspiracy but rather that it is a shared ideology. The modern establishment that holds sway over us all is a diverse group all espousing the benefits of the free market whilst diverting the state into a support system for its own self-interest.

The phrase that really strikes home is “privatising profit, nationalising risk”. It is this mentality that allows the financial sector to demand a lack of regulation and to refuse to contribute its share through taxation whilst the profits are rolling, but then take a £1.162 trillion bailout from the state when it brings the economy crashing to its knees. It also provides state subsidies to privatised, profit making industries such as rail and energy. It is not about reducing the influence of the state it is about diverting the state’s resources into the hands of the wealthy and powerful.

Where the book perhaps falls down is how to move forward. It acknowledges that public opinion is largely against the governing ideology, most people actually want to see energy, rail and the NHS nationalised not privatised for example, but there is no clear sight of how to galvanise that opinion into a meaningful opposition. Jones takes hope from the despair that was felt by the free market outriders in the 1970’s, who then went on to utterly dominate the 80’s and 90’s to the point where they now seem unassailable, but it doesn’t seem much to rally around.

There is a sense that in the build up to the 2015 general election there is a desire for some change but a large part of the anti-establishment feeling has moved bewildering to UKIP, which is merely an establishment outrider that seeks to drive the country even further down the road of free markets, low taxes and privatisation than the current government dares go for now.

The challenge is how to forge a coherent consensus that can challenge these ideologies and move the window on what is possible. This is the strength of the establishment, it is clear in its shared vision, it has won the ideas argument to the extent that alternatives to the status quo are seen as impossible and it relentlessly drives forward its agenda. It has also weakened and scattered its natural opponents, the unions. It is an urgent challenge that Jones is all too aware of but as yet it is not clear how it can be met.