Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A thing for the New Statesman here
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The British middle class is sinking. Is our politics big enough to meet the challenge?
An interesting statistic crept out of the Department for Work and Pensions last week, while the pubs of Britain no doubt buzzed with discussion about Jean-Claude Junker or how someone in Ed Miliband's office may or may not have recognised someone at a FT summer drinks reception.
According to the DWP, the average household income in 2012-13 was £440, unchanged on the year before. It represents the third consecutive year of stagnation or decline (depending on how you cut the figures). As the IFS have noted, in real terms this leaves median household income in roughly the same place as it was in 2002, and comes off the back of painfully slow wage growth from the start of the 2000s.
In the same week the increase in the price of homes reached an all-time high. Add in that a majority of people on typical incomes now have less than one month's income as savings, plus the slow hollowing-out of middle income jobs, and a pretty clear picture emerges. The foundations of middle class life – a decent income, assets, savings, pensions – are getting harder and harder to attain, especially for those just starting out. In many cases, debt has filled the gap.
This goes beyond just failures of the private sector. The welfare safety net has also become residualised. People on reasonable incomes can work their whole life and receive only paltry amounts when they lose their job. When it comes to both work and the state, people in the middle have been putting more in than they've been getting out for a long time.
It should go without saying that working class communities have had it hardest over the last thirty years. But the idea of middle class decline too is too often met with derision, especially among progressives.
Part of this is down to a distorted view of what "middle class" is, a popular association with what is in effect the upper middle classes; the world of piano recitals and Waitrose where "struggle" means difficulty meeting school fees. Of course, the middle class contains many like this too and they are doing more than fine. In fact, the most interesting development that experts havepointed to in recent years is the fracturing and polarisation of the middle class, between the upper echelons and those at the lower end. And previous generations who started out at the lower end of the middle class, bought a house at the right time, settled into a profession and now face retiring near the top may well be the last to make that journey en masse. In short, the bottom is falling out of the British middle class.
There's been a lot of talk about "narratives" recently. There's also been a lot of talk about how Ed Miliband doesn't have "a narrative". But in his defence, he's one of the few at the top of British politics to grasp this phenemenon, whatever his other difficulties. He's not totally alone – some figures on the right, for instance, including the brilliant Peter Franklin at ConHome, have twigged too. But wider interest is otherwise conspicuous by its absence, in Westminster at least.
Instead we get slightly echoey outdated debates about Europe, whether X or Y is "pro-business" or "anti-business", whether a particular view of public services is sufficiently "reforming" and so on and so forth. But surely the shape of that discussion changes in the face of such huge societal shifts? No doubt this failure to catch up is partly because the senior ranks of the commentariat are largely made up of those at the comfortable end of things (themselves probably among the last who can expect to make a good living out of a profession like journalism) - but it's depressing all the same.
To be fair, the answers are neither easy nor obvious. The likes of Resolution Foundation have been fantastic at laying out the problem of stagnating wages and ways to ameloriate it, but no one has come up with a wholesale plan for reversing the trend. Some of this is because it rubs up against global head winds and the modern divorce between power and politics. It probably requires trans-national solutions, or at least a revisiting of the way Britain approaches globalisation – a debate that hasn't even been opened here.
But those who over-play the inability of national government to fix things are also wrong, and usually have a vested ideological interest in doing so (in this sense the argument between those favouring a "bigger" or "shrunken" Labour offer in opposition is mostly phony, and a proxy for a bigger one about what can be achieved in government). Ideas that would be both effective and achievable include wholesale reform of corporate governance to include a significant role for workers; profit-sharing and other ways of spreading wealth; lower-cost routes into home ownership; breaking up and remaking British banking; decentralisation to cities; the prioritisation of vocational "middle skills"; prioritising British industry in procurement; reform of takeovers etc. When it comes to welfare, there is IPPR's National Salary Insurance scheme or SMF's "flexicurity" proposals.
All of this can only start, though, with a recognition that our current journey back to basically the same political economy as we had before the crash is not what success looks like. It wasn't good enough then and it isn't now.
Marx famously wrote:
The lower strata of the middle class... all these sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with the large capitalists, partly because their specialised skill is rendered worthless by new methods of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.
Things may not be as apocalyptic or revolutionary now, but they are bad, and contradictions within modern British capitalism mean the lower end of the middle class is sinking. The entire middle is being stretched, squeezed and polarised as never before. The result is entire neighbourhoods – which on the face of things look serene – in fact struggling to keep their head above water, facing futures significantly less secure, less stable and less well-off than their parents. This shapes millions of people's everyday lives and influences their political attitudes, and it should influence our political discussion too. At the moment, though, it doesn't seem to be. Future generations will surely look back and wonder what on earth we were talking about instead.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Tory modernisers' best hope is an Ed Miliband victory

Piece for NewStatesman
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Tory modernisers' best hope is an Ed Miliband victory 

Defeat would open up space for reinvention.

The British Conservative Party needs shock therapy. It may still scrape back into government in next year's general election but if it does, barring a miracle, it will be on a smaller share of the national vote than in 2010. This has been the case every time its been victorious since 1950. As a growing number within the party recognise, it's reaching a point where things have become unsustainable. Forty per cent of voters now say they wouldn’t even consider voting Conservative, while the party has little base among ethnic minority and working class voters, especially in the north. Once-proud Tory heartlands like Sheffield and Manchester now have not even a single Conservative councillor. As the impressive David Skelton of Renewal has argued, voting Conservative in these parts has become counter-cultural.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the left was forced into a reckoning. It had suffered successive electoral defeats but it had also been intellectually defeated, with the end of the Cold War and shifts in the country's social fabric. The Conservatives have never really undergone such a reckoning, largely because Thatcher was never defeated at the ballot box, mostly thanks to a divided opposition. And so a mythology has grown up and still has hold over the party: that her brand of free market triumphalism won over the whole country, benefited the whole country, and can do so again.
This was always dubious – but has sustained itself even as the impact of her legacy on country and party sews division and resentment, especially in the deindustrialised north, and the "party of the rich" image has been baked in. As a creed, Thatcherism has come to rest on public deference to business elites, a faith that whatever their excesses, their inherent superiority will benefit us all in the end, which has been severely undermined by the financial crisis and flatlining wages.
Moreover, Britain may be a conservative country, with many attracted to Thatcher's ethics of self-reliance and discipline. But few outside the south-east ever shared the values of break-neck economic liberalism to which those ethics gave rise. A lot of people don't like to be made to feel powerless to forces shaping their lives, or like losers for not wanting to be self-made billionaires.
And yet Thatcherism remains the default instinct for much of the party – any departure is usually tactical or skin deep (with the notable exception of gay rights). Contrary to what many on the left think, the Conservative tradition is rich and long pre-dates the neoliberal era, encompassing communitarian and even social democratic schools of thought. Yet these days, any thinking in its ranks which entails fundamentally challenging the Thatcherite comfort zone is tossed aside. If the party get back in to power in 2015, this sleepwalking will continue, even if in its obliviousness it further erodes the electoral ground on which they can be returned.
Increasingly it seems that the only thing that can reverse the trend is Ed Miliband, smiling from the steps of 10 Downing Street. If this sounds like preposterous accelerationist tosh, think about it. Being beaten after just one term by a man the party's leading lights have long deemed unelectable would provoke huge internal recriminations. In this post-mortem there will open up space for those who understand the need to reinvent the party, from top to bottom both ideologically and organisationally; a project that Cameron initially grasped and then retreated from.Even if the initial leadership contest doesn't produce such a candidate, Labour may still rescue the Conservatives with their spell in government – though only if Miliband is as successful as he intends to be.
Unlike his predecessors, the Labour leader has made clear his desire to rework the political economy that Thatcher brought into place and New Labour left largely in tact. If (and it's still a huge if) he is successful, it would re-wire the rules of British politics: towards intervention in markets to make them work for consumers; towards active industrial policy and economic populism. Living standards and wages – reform of the economy to make it deliver for ordinary people - would become the central issues of British politics.
Such ground is the only place from which Conservative renewal can be fought, given the kind of votes they need to win. Were they to move onto it, combined with already potent messages on welfare and crime, they would be a formidable threat. Yet they seem incapable of doing so of their own accord. It's almost certainly too late in this Parliament, having already surrendered so much ground Labour in favour of a much narrower agenda. Increasingly, it seems, they will have to be forced there.
This may still be a little sunny, admittedly. Defeat for the Conservatives could well just result in a prolonged turn to the right and doubling-down, as it did last time. But unlike before, there's a range of intelligent and interesting people in Conservative ranks who understand what the party needs to do to broaden its appeal, and have placed reforming capitalism at the heart of their pitch. Jesse Norman, Skelton at Renewal, and Rob Halfon are just a few. Though currently fighting an uphill battle, they have already laid down a marker for any future battle to come. And who knows, their ascent may yet end up being Miliband's biggest threat, and greatest achievement.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

In-work poverty is the greatest moral outrage of our generation - it deserves to be treated like it

Blog from January, originally here.
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Poverty-in-Birmingham

The moral outrage of in-work poverty

All things considered, I thought some of the reaction on the left recently to George Osborne’s intervention on the minimum wage bordered on the churlish. Even if Osborne’s conversion does owe more to psephology than theology, that a Conservative Chancellor sees Government action on it as a vote winner can only be a positive thing in the long term.
That said, as the Westminster road show has quickly moved on to other matters, the issue of low pay certainly shouldn’t be allowed to be ticked off as covered or consigned to footnotes in next year’s election. Not least for the Conservatives because it will take more than one policy announcement to reach the type of voters that have felt long ignored by them
More importantly, the matter demands far more attention than that – and a great deal more anger among Westminster opinion formers than it’s currently granted.
It’s also not just about economics, but the withering of a basic social contract, and something that goes to the heart of what’s gone wrong with work in this country.
No matter what popular mythology tells us, a great many people don’t actually like work; it’s supposed to perform a function. The bargain used to be that if people looked for work, got themselves out of bed and contributed, they would at least be afforded the dignity and self-sufficiency of being able to pay for a roof over their heads and food for them and their kids. Maybe over time there’d come the chance of a higher wage or home ownership.
It’s an understanding that has sustained support for capitalism, through all its flaws, for generations. Ultimately it survived in Britain because it could – when run in the right way – put food on the table for the vast majority.
Now all of that is unravelling. People are putting more in but getting less out. Growth up and wages flatlining. The jobs market hollowed out, making social mobility even harder. Affordable housing disappearing, rents ballooning. Increasingly, people are subjected to having to rely on help of the state or others to prop them up – not momentarily, but permanently.
A miserable litany of facts bears this out, so numerous they could fill the rest of this page. To spare you and give just a few: over 90% of new claims for housing support are from people in work, while the Trussell Trust say half of people who need to use their food banks have a job. For the first time, more living on the breadline are in work than not. Two out of three children growing up in poverty do so in working households.
This applies to people who come here looking for a better life, too. For some reason, the likes of McDonalds and Costa have started to get their employees to bear a tiny flag of their home nation on their name badge. Visit one and the panoply of nations represented is a reminder if needed that these are the sort of jobs migrants do when they arrive: low paid and insecure. Its useful context for when politicians go headline hunting on ‘benefit tourism’. The number of migrants claiming social security is infinitesimally small, of course. But given most work, it’s likely that the bulk of those who do claim are in employment. Figures are hard to come by, but take the Working Tax Credit – 14.5% of its claimants are non-UK national, compared to 6.4% of out-of-work support (just 2.7% of JSA is claimed by EU migrants).
Contrary, then, to those who look to play people of different nationalities off against each other, their plight is a tiny part of a much broader picture affecting millions of their British neighbours and friends.
The sense of contributing more and getting less is echoed higher up the income scale too – higher tuition fees for the same standard of education; house prices up, quality down – but it is most acutely felt by those on lower incomes. It’s hardly any wonder so much of the electorate are so angry. Nor that many, grimly, take it out on those they (wrongly) deem to be getting an easy ride while they struggle.
Somewhere along the line, something has gone badly wrong. And given that low wage, insecure jobs are about the only jobs we’re creating as a country at the moment, it’s a crisis which will only get worse without action.
Even putting aside issues of GDP and central government spending, restoring that basic social compact of work providing a decent life is fundamental to restoring the spiritual and moral health of a country that calls itself first world. Certainly no one in public life can ever again talk credibly about ‘work being the best route out of poverty’, of opportunity or aspiration, without acknowledging it.
Tackling the cost of living is a vital part of this, of course, but it’s only one half of the challenge. Many uncomfortable with asking more from the powerful push lower tax as the answer, but even abolishing all tax on people on the minimum wage, at great expense, would still leave them with less money than a Living Wage paid by their employer.
Even at £7 an hour, a full time worker in London takes home just over £1,000 a month. The average private rent in the city is £520 a month per person for a flatshare. A Zone 1-3 travelcard: £136. Then there’s council tax, utility bills, and so on.
Far stronger across the board action on the Living Wage (and London Living Wage) is simply non-negotiable, not least as it would have a positive upward pressure on the wages just above it too. Employee representation on company boards also desperately needs to be strengthened if the distribution of rewards are ever to be addressed properly, and sectoral collective bargaining strengthened. These last two are partly what has distinguished the ‘Coordinated Market Economies’ of northern Europe which Labour rightly admires.
Needless to say we have not arrived at this sorry state through the failure of any one individual, government or even party. But that someone in Britain can now work a 37 hour week and still not be able to provide the basics for themselves and their family is a national disgrace, and the starkest symptom of how far we’ve fallen as a country. If our politics can’t fix it, we’ve every right to wonder what it’s there for.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

On energy and elsewhere, ownership matters too

On energy and elsewhere, ownership matters too

Modern German politics is not known for it’s cliff-edge drama and ideological adventure, yet it’s capital city had a bit of both in the last few days. Last Sunday was polling day for a local referendum on whether to take Berlin’s energy grid into local democratic ownership, following a long-standing community campaign (Berliner Energietisch) to force the issue onto the ballot paper. Public anger at Vattenfall, the company that owns the grid and has long monopolised Berlin’s energy, helped it on its way.
In the end, a whopping 83% of votes cast were in favour of local ownership, though the poll came just short – by an excruciating 0.9% – of the strict voter turn-out rules imposed on local referendums, thus failing (somewhat grim vindication of spoiler tactics employed by CDU and SPD opponents to force voting-day into dark rainy November). Nevertheless this moment in German politics is worth a closer look, not least for how it can inform our own debates in the UK.
For a start, it’s not the first such campaign in the country – voters in Hamburg have already recently approved ‘communalisation’ along the same lines, as disaffection at privatisation grows. It also runs parallel with an even more impressive campaign run by local people in Berlin (B├╝rgerEnergie), separate to the vote and therefore still ongoing, to buy and run the grid themselves when the franchise comes up for renewal in 2014.
The scale and ambition of both Berlin citizen campaigns are stark. Both go beyond narrow party political lines, drawing in church groups, tenant organisations, welfare groups and the like. Both want to invest in Berlin profits from what is a natural monopoly, rather than see them siphoned off to shareholders. 
But crucially, both also offer an alternative not just to privatisation but more conventional top-down nationalisation too, which in many countries (including the UK) became overly-bureaucratic and unresponsive. Energietisch, for example, proposed that the board of the body set up by the local authority to run Berlin’s energy grid would be made up of 6 directly elected Berliners and 7 employees, with the other 2 seats reserved for the local energy officials. They also aimed to open the system up to low-power, small and medium sized renewable producers.
All of this is useful in expanding the horizons of our current national debate on energy, however much it has shifted in a progressive direction recently. It’s a reminder to keep thinking big. Ed Miliband deserves huge credit for getting our energy debate moving beyond the status quo, and he has been brave and commendable in his push for a price freeze, moving the centre-ground in a way his critics always said couldn’t be done. But there is still space to explore beyond even that (which the public would already permit, incidentally).
There is always going to be a limit to corralling private organisations into doing or not doing something. Are democratic ‘public options’ or co-operative alternatives, to undercut profiteering, realistic? Surely it’s worth exploring, as the Germans have started to do.
This goes beyond energy, too. In general Labour could be thinking a bit more about democratic alternatives to both privatisation and top-down old-style nationalisation, rather than just relying on the old levers like the tax system to influence private behaviour.
This could work in important areas of policy being strangled by private interests, such as city transport (regional authorities running train or bus services) or housing (local authority-run social lettings agencies, for instance, already exist but are in need of a bigger push – they are also self-financing beyond the initial start-up money). Employee reps on company boards are also a good start, meanwhile, but there is a huge amount more in that area that could be done to bring the voice of employees at the top of companies in the UK up to speed with the likes of Germany or Sweden (the 1977 Bullock report is a good place to start).
Beyond that, as a movement the left should arguably be doing more to encourage, foster and support the kind of genuine community movements that might want to make a bid to run a local service or utility, where the private sector is failing.
Such movements are not pipe-dream stuff, and while not mainstream they’re not as rare as you think. One already exists in Dover for instance, where local residents, businesses and port employees recently banded together to stave off privatisation of the local port, and are currently in talks to bring it under community control. Likewise, in football: a growing number of fans are starting groups aimed at part-owning their football club, the most prominent of which is Manchester United fans’ MUST. The legal and logistical barriers to these kind of groups forming and succeeding need to be interrogated at a national level.
Of course there are a hundred and one other competing priorities as the election draws near. So let’s at least set a realistic mid-term goal: it would be great to see a senior Labour figure give a speech on the kind of themes discussed above in the next six months.
Over the last few years, the party – and the left in general – has finally become comfortable and eloquent in talking about the limits of markets, or where they have broken and failed to deliver; now it’s time to take the German’s lead, and start discussing the role of new public alternatives in fixing things.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Return to growth has helped Labour more than the Conservatives

Blog for ShiftingGrounds on 30th Sept
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Return to growth has helped Labour more than the Conservatives

Wandering around Labour conference last week, it was hard not to be struck as much by what wasn’t being discussed as what was. Among everything, there was one particularly notable absentee. It’s something which should give the Conservatives, who kicked off their get-together in Manchester yesterday, more pause for thought than they might initially grant it.

Flicking through the fringe guide in Brighton, I struggled to spot a single event dedicated to austerity. By comparison, last year’s conference fizzed with debate on double dip recessions, multiplier effects, what a fiscal stimulus might or might not look like. This year: barely anything. The trench warfare of ‘austerity vs growth’ that so dominated the first few years of this Parliament is dead, it seems. Largely it’s been killed off by a nominal return to growth, of sorts, and the Labour leadership’s recent decision to back Conservative 2015/2016 spending plans.
In many ways this is profoundly depressing. The intellectual case against the Government’s economic strategy was and remains overwhelming. While it continued to drag the country back into recession or flat lining growth, it was perfectly understandable that pointing this out consumed the large bulk of Labour’s emotional and political energy.
But the truth is the party have long been fighting an uphill battle with public opinion on this issue. Not least this is because, as widely noted, the Conservatives and their friends were very adroit at framing the problem as one of over-borrowing and over-spending; credit card metaphors and all. Whatever the empirical merits of its case, the left by comparison has failed to come up with a critique of austerity that resonates outside the pages of the London Review of Books.
Consequently, even as economic news worsened, while the deficit and economic crisis were the dominant concern in British politics, Labour were – and probably always will be – at a disadvantage.
Thus, as the agenda has moved on as growth filters back, it’s been to the party’s advantage. While I still think there were less painful ways of neutralising the issue, the pledge to match the Coalition’s 15/16 spending plans has also at least made it harder for the Conservatives to allege that Labour will ‘turn the taps back on’.
The resulting breathing space has allowed Labour to move on to broader, longer-term and more populist themes that go with the grain of public opinion: who benefits from growth, the cost of living and the fundamental structural problems in our economy. Ed Balls gave a much more rounded speech than in recent years, including on childcare among other issues. Chukka Umunna spoke encouragingly on economic democracy and employee representation within companies. And in the best speech of his leadership so far, Ed Miliband outlined the big strategic themes that would define his premiership: a global race to the top, not the bottom, and an economy that works for working people.
Though more will need to be done to flesh all of this out, already Labour are making head way, as the poll bounce off the back of Miliband’s pledge on energy prices has shown. They have set the agenda and started to forge a new centre-ground, tapping into what Miliband advisor Tim Horton has called ‘the angry middle’. It’s hard to imagine they would have the political oxygen to do so if the economy were still in the tank as the party gathered in Brighton.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, are left in a difficult position. Growth may be strong enough for Labour to see the need to broaden its pitch, but it isn’t strong – or felt – enough for the public to give the Conservatives any real credit in the polls, or for the party to credibly be triumphant. Labour’s new living standards agenda also plays to three key Tory blind spots. The first is that the key squeezes on people’s disposable incomes – energy, transport, housing and the like – along with stagnating wages, all represent failures in private markets. All ultimately require critiques of and interventions in those markets.
This is not something Cameron and co. feel instinctively at home with. Like most politicians who cut their teeth in the pre-crash era, they are much happier reforming the state than the market. When they do offer answers they tend towards the tentative or technical. You feel they will probably always struggle to tap into the public’s anger on these issues, or match Labour for zeal.
The second weakness is Osborne’s continued faith – repeated over the weekend – that rising growth will be enough to help increase living standards across the board. The Resolution Foundation have long shown that this is no longer the case, and has not been since 2003.
Finally, and most pressingly, is that Cameron has long struggled to define himself or his Government beyond the ‘national emergency’ of tackling the budget deficit. Both in opposition and in government he has done little to map out what kind of country he would like Britain to be in twenty years time. There is little sense of mission beyond the bottom line. The ‘Big Society’ was his first and doomed attempt at redressing this. The ‘Global Race’ narrative is probably his best effort, but it remains clunky and lacks cut through with the public.
All of which represents a significant opportunity for Labour as the agenda moves beyond the narrow politics of the deficit, though none of which should be a cause for complacency for the party. Unfortunately, welfare in particular is still an issue in which the Conservatives are able to mine vast reservoirs of public enmity – and the Labour leadership still need to do a little more to grapple with the issue.
But the last few weeks have shown anything, it’s that the second half of this Parliament will be fought on much tougher ground for the Government than the first. The facts of British political life are no longer Conservative.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Intervention in Syria comes not too soon, but too late

Blog for Politics.co.uk 
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Intervention in Syria comes not too soon, but too late

It's hard not to feel dizzied and bewildered by almost every aspect of the Syrian crisis – including the debate on intervention which has now engulfed the UK. Following it in recent days, I've seen a great many furrowed brows over the possible strengthening of Al-Qaida, frets over the risk of escalation and exhortations to 'Stop the War' and keep 'Hands off Syria'.

All good stuff, you understand. Except oddly, they all seem to be taking place now - in August 2013 – rather than in 2011 or 2012, when they were most sorely needed, as the original democratic revolution was being brutally put down by the Assad regime. Since then, 100,000 people have died, half of whom are civilians. Al-Qaida-linked elements within the opposition have been significantly strengthened. Things have escalated.

This has occurred at least in part because of Western failure in the face of human catastrophe to provide the necessary solidarity and support for moderate secularist factions in the Syrian opposition (all the while, funding for their more extremist counter-parts flooded in from Qatar and elsewhere). Or to take active steps, as in Libya, to protect the Syrian population from systematic slaughter. This was something neither left nor the right in either Washington or London were willing to countenance, stuck variously under their 'realist' or 'anti-imperialist' shades of isolationism.

The result is what we see before us today: a cramped and partial debate, confined to punitive strikes over a single chemical weapons attack. Should such strikes come, they are better than nothing, whatever their flaws. Hopeful cries for a 'political settlement' or to 'get round the negotiating table' tidily side-step the fact that the Syrian regime currently has little incentive to do so. It's a grim reality that it often takes the credible threat of force to even get tin-pot thugs like Assad to the table, as experience with Slobodan Milosevic twice showed in the 1990s.

But this narrow focus on chemical weapons has made the government's political wrangles yesterday evening rather predictable. When a mandate is sought on the back of one specific event, it is quite logical that more evidence will be first sought on that event. More importantly, though, this limited focus won't help protect the civilian population from murder by other means. The foreign secretary has been advancing a humanitarian case (publicly stating the aim to avoid further "humanitarian distress"). But what is being proposed militarily – precision strikes on chemical weapons facilities - will not achieve that on its own. He is setting himself up to fail.
The truth is the red line should have been set far short of chemical warfare, because intervention in Syria is horribly belated. As ghastly as footage from last week is – so much so I'm not even going to attempt the words to do it justice – from a humanitarian point of view it's not obvious why it's so much worse than any of the number of other civilian massacres Assad's militias have gleefully carried out since late 2011. Take Houla in 2012, for example, where they went door-to-door with guns and knives, executing children one-by-one along the way. These are at least analogues to the atrocities which triggered war in Kosovo.

Needless to say, piecemeal approaches to such butchery will not suffice. Assuming that Western powers are now serious about halting it, intervention must come in the form of wide-ranging efforts to both protect civilians and tip the balance of power in favour of moderate rebels against both Assad and Al-Qaida. The former should constitute humanitarian safe-zones properly patrolled by the Free Syrian Army and a No-Fly Zone. As well as air strikes on weapons facilities and army airports, the latter - possible under such protective cover – should see every effort taken to actively train, arm and build up the moderate FSA, as Michael Weiss forcefully argues.

None of which is to pretend this would be easy. Even if it went well, it would still be hideously imperfect, ugly and complex. To put it mildly, Nato power and influence is a less than ideal instrument through which to achieve progressive ends. But it's simply not true, as those on the far left contend, that its every move is always and only reducible to an act of imperialism. As Ian Dunt argues, few can explain through this prism why the West are acting now. The reality is states' interests are not fixed or neatly explained, but constructed and constantly in flux; a mesh of time, place, systems and personalities.

Very occasionally, that can and should be pressed into engineering the least worst outcome in a humanitarian emergency. That is all we can hope for in Syria. But it is better than what most Syrians have lived through for the last two years, or what awaits them if nothing more is done. Achieving even this, however, won't be possible unless we face up to our own failures and omissions, and recognise that the time for action came a long way back on the road to Jobar.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Croatia and the EU: more questions than answers

Post for ShiftingGrounds
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The-EU-and-Croatian-flags

As preparations gathered pace in Split for Sunday’s celebrations, marking Croatia’s membership of the EU, the city’s local radio stations provided a fitting soundtrack. ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys seemed to play almost on loop throughout the day, filtering out of nearly every restaurant or coffee shop you walked by.
The country’s newspapers had been counting down the days. Despite public scepticism, there is a sense at least that Croatia has taken up its rightful place. The journalist Jenine di Giovanni wrote in her 2004 book on the Balkans:
“…this colourful image [of the Balkans] was exactly the sort that the Croats did not want to promote. They were not really Balkan people; they often told you they were Southern Austrians. The Croat denial fostered a sense of mixed identity in Zagreb. The people dressed in Armani but lived in apartments without central heating. They carried the latest Nokia phones but had no money in their bank account…
Their biggest grievance was belonging to a Balkan group they did not want to be part of. They saw themselves as a Western democracy.”
Yet identity and pride aside, it’s hard not to wonder what question the country’s EU membership is the answer to – not least when considering the way its political class has prioritised it over the last ten years (hence much grievance from them, too, on the extensive vetting the European Commission subjected Croatia to).
True, it – or rather the prospect of it – has been good for the region’s fragile peace, helping to hold the Dayton settlement in place. The scale and horror of Serb atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina often obscure Croatia’s own crimes in the same country just two decades ago. It was the Zagreb government, after all, who connived with Bosnian-Croat forces to turn brutally on their Bosniak allies, aiming to tear off parts of Bosnia for their own, in pursuit of a lesser but still stark Croatian imitation of Milosovic’s expansionism.
Here Brussels has dangled EU membership effectively. It has used it to ensure Croatia properly complies with the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes during the 90′s. The same incentive has also played a role in dissuading Zagreb from resuming support for still restless Bosnian-Croat secessionists.
But even still, in the long term it’s far from clear that the Bosnian question is totally settled. Leaders in Bosnia’s Republic Srpska – the Serb state within a state created at Daytan – have made obvious their own desire to secede. One of the main barriers to this at present is the lack of support they’re likely to enjoy from Belgrade, who are also on their best behaviour under promise of EU membership.
However, once this promise becomes a reality and the incentive disappears, that could easily change. In the ensuing melee, who knows how the Croats – now a member not a prospective one – would react. They may again see a opportunity to claim what isn’t theirs, especially given Bosnian-Croats have a (not insignificant) vote in Croatian elections. This is unlikely under the current SDP government, who don’t rely on those votes, but could be feasible if the centre-right HDZ returned. Certainly far right Croatian nationalism hasn’t totally gone away, as the uncomfortable amount of fascist graffiti scrawled across Split can attest to.
More immediately, however, there’s the prospects for the Croatian economy. Croatia’s bid for EU membership was kick started 12 years ago, when Western free-market capitalism – which post-Maastricht the EU has become the standard bearer for – was in its pomp. Entry to the EU represents in many ways the completion of long efforts by Croatia’s political elites to ‘harmonise’ the country’s economy with European orthodoxy.
Croatia’s economy today is thus completely deindustrialised (albeit this was aided by war damage); it is in large part a service sector economy, dependent on tourism and retail – which struggles to provide adequately for a lot of the country. Most of its growth in the early 2000′s was driven by consumer credit.
Sadly, between Croatia’s application and accession, the flaws of that model have been horribly exposed across Europe. Its economy is consequently stuck in our recession; at 20%, Croatian unemployment is worse only in Greece and Spain in EU terms (youth unemployment is over 50%). Its banks, largely foreign owned and piled high with European debt, are vulnerable. Household debt has shot up, as has government debt.
The dichotomy that di Giovanni wrote about has seemingly continued – though new shopping complexes have continued popping up across Croatia’s cities, absolute poverty has almost doubled over the last decade.
Despite the vague hopes of Croatia’s President, Ivo Josipovi─ç, it is hard to see how formal acceptance into the European club helps all this. Indeed in at least one sense it’s made it worse: one of the ugliest components of Croatia’s EU ‘preparations’ was the sight of Brussels forcing the privatisation of the country’s shipyards, which still make up a sizeable chunk of Croatia’s exports. In Split alone – across town from the palm-treed, tourist friendly promenade that hosted Sunday’s celebrations – this has seen over 1,000 people lose their jobs. The jobs of the remaining 2,000 workers hang in the balance, but if the private company which now owns the yard do take them back on, many will be on a part time or temporary contracts.
All of which leaves you with the feeling that a great country has been rather led astray. Croatia stumbles into the EU mired in recession, with falling living standards, and in desperate need of a new model of economic growth. The Commission needn’t have worried; it will fit in all too well.