Sunday, 2 December 2012

Smarter HIV prevention in the UK

Piece for World AIDS Day 2012. Originally appeared here 

Smarter HIV prevention in the UK

World AIDS Day. For many it will conjure image of young men in the 1980s dying helpless, horrible deaths in hospital wards. Many old enough to have been there will still be able to recall the raw panic that enveloped the early years of the epidemic.
In truth, though, while such imagery unquestionably helps us remember, and to raise money, they are not terribly useful for understanding the reality of HIV in 2012 – or for informing HIV prevention policy. Which is not to say HIV is longer an issue – last year saw the highest number of new HIV diagnoses among gay men in the UK on record. But rather that the epidemic here has moved on. And we desperately need to take heed of this if you’re going to bring down rates of HIV infection.
For one thing, thanks to treatment, if diagnosed early someone with HIV can expect to enjoy a near-normal life expectancy. Second, and most importantly, that treatment can reduce infectiousness by up to 96 per cent – making it extremely unlikely they will pass it on to others.
Quite obviously, though, this is only the case if the individual is diagnosed early. And it’s this which is the great challenge of HIV today. Late diagnosis explains the vast majority of people who die or develop AIDS. What’s more, crucially, it’s the undiagnosed who are now driving our epidemic. Fifty per cent of people with HIV in the UK are diagnosed late (CD4 count of under 350), 20 per cent very late (under 200). Twenty-five per cent of the 100,000 people with HIV don’t know they have it.
Earlier diagnosis through more regular testing thus becomes not only beneficial for personal health, but vital for public health and stopping the spread of the epidemic.
Clearly, conventional HIV prevention such as condom promotion and sex education remain crucial. But they must be coupled with a range of interventions aimed at increasing testing. Just throwing more money at community groups alone will not solve the problem. In short, we need a smarter approach to HIV prevention.
So what are the building blocks of this? Well-funded HIV services and a universal public healthcare system are pivotal. Sadly, both are being undermined by this government.
Beyond that, there are a range of steps the government need to take if they are serious about doing more to reduce rates of HIV. These include:
• Political commitment. The UK has no HIV strategy. The last one, introduced by Labour, expired in 2010, and has not been replaced by this government. This leaves us as one of the few countries in the world without a national HIV strategy.
• More proactive testing by health services. At the moment, testing is conducted on an ‘opt-in’ basis – it requires voluntary commitment by the patient. We need to move towards an ‘opt-out’ system – where your consent to be tested is implied unless you explicitly withdraw it. In high-prevalence areas, all GP surgeries should routinely test all new patients for HIV, while hospitals should do the same for every patient who walks through their doors. The last government commissioned a report which found that this was was feasible, cost-effective and highly successful in reducing rates of undiagnosed HIV. This government has made no real effort to back or implement this.
• In general, testing needs to move outside of just the GUM clinic into GP surgeries, hospitals, communities, saunas and clubs.
• Better HIV partner notification. Telling your recent hook-up when you’ve been diagnosed with HIV is a surefire way of getting them to go for a test. It’s really effective as a means of diagnosing people earlier. But it’s difficult. Services within GUM to support it are patchy at best, and need to be improved.
• An ‘annual testing’ message for Africans living in Britain. It exists for gay men – why shouldn’t it for Africans too? After all, they make up nearly half of the UK’s new HIV diagnoses.
Such steps are not as sexy as high-profile national prevention campaigns. But they would be as effective, if not more so, in stopping the spread of HIV in this country today. So let’s use this World AIDS Day to give money and remember those lost, but also to renew and update our public conversation about HIV and the steps we take to stop what is still, after all this time, a profoundly preventable condition.

Friday, 30 November 2012

The myth of the millionaires' exodus over the 50p tax rate

Blog for HuffPost
The myth of the millionaires' exodus 

This week the Treasury spin machine went into overdrive in response to Labour's push to highlight the cut in the 50p top rate of tax.
The centrepiece of their case was that the 50p tax had reduced the number of millionaires paying tax in the UK by 10,000 from 16,000 to just 6,000. The Telegraph faithfully reported their argument, informing us that "two thirds of millionaires left the UK to avoid 50p tax". The Mail did likewise, publishing unquestioningly Harriet Baldwin's extrapolation that this cost the UK "£7 billion in lost tax revenue".
This narrative has been accepted by the right - of proof of the age-old maxim that taxing the rich proves counter-productive - and even by the left, as a cause for despair. It's also reached the other side of the Atlantic, giving succour to the Republican blogosphere in their argument against Obama's case on the 'fiscal cliff'.
The trouble is, it isn't true. Or at least there is no credible proof that it is.
The figures used have been worked up on the same basis as the HMRC's report on the 50p tax back in the Spring - and they're disingenuous for that same reason.
As I argued in a piece for LibCon back in March, this report was fatally - and probably intentionally - flawed, seemingly fixed to reach the conclusion George Osborne wanted it to. Primarily, this was done by isolating the top rate tax yield for tax year 2010/2011 - the year the 50p tax was introduced. The report showed a significant drop in top rate revenue for 2010/2011 from 2009/2010, and this was the main basis of the argument that the 50p tax 'raised no money' which justified it's abolition.
A gaping hole in this argument is that by the HMRC's own admission, a great deal of this drop was accounted for by (the non-PAYE paying) super-rich bringing bringing forward their income ('forestalling') and declaring it in 2009/2010 tax year instead, ahead of the pre-announced 50p tax rise. The key point is, by its nature forestalling can only happen once - those who did so could not have kept doing it in the years after; they would have had to have paid up. The 2010/2011 yield was thus artificially deflated; totally anomalous, and unreliable as a baseline. There may have been other more permanent forms of evasion in the mix, but the only way of knowing this - and the true effectiveness of the 50p tax - for sure would have been to wait for 2011/2012 returns. Which is presumably by Osborne avoided doing just that (given there was good evidence it raised a significant sum of money).
And so to yesterday's numbers. They too take 2010 figures, on the number of people declaring an income above £ 1 million, compare it to 2009 and note a drop - leaving the Telegraph and Mail to argue without evidence that they have all moved abroad. But just as with the tax yield, these figures are highly distorted and unreliable, given we know many top rate payers moved their income for 2010 forward to 2009 (this is especially likely to be the case with millionaires, as few would be on PAYE).
Treasury sources go on to state that the number of millionaires is now 10,000 - and shamelessly attribute this to Osborne's announcement of his intention to cut the 50p tax. In reality, it's much more likely that this increase is simply those who forestalled in 2010 returning, as they inevitably have to (a large part of the remaining gap between this figure and the mid-to-late 2000s numbers is likely explained by the financial crisis).
There remains little to no evidence that high earners have, or are planning to, move abroad in response to high tax regimes. For people on the right and left to take such blatantly skewed figures at face value does a real disservice to the level of debate an area as totemic as tax policy should demand. Sadly, I doubt the sleight of hand will stop here. My guess is the next trick will likely come a year before the election. Given the cut in the 50p tax has been pre-announced, it's possible that some income will be delayed being declared until after the cut - some chartered accountants are already advising the super-rich on just that. This will artificially inflate the 45p rate 2013/2014 revenue, allowing Osborne to compare it to 2010/2011 and announce the top rate cut a great success in getting the rich to pay more. If the debate on this issue so far is anything to go by, it's likely he will go unchallenged.
There are evidently parts of the Government intent on fighting a war on behalf of the richest 1% in our society. The first casualty of that war looks to be the truth about the 50p tax.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Post for ShiftingGrounds--

The rise of resentment in America

Three days on from the re-election of President Obama, the hangovers that followed a night of celebration for Democrats have receded. As a nice bonus, the Republicans, by contrast seem to be facing a four-year long headache. The inquisitions and post-mortems have already began. Demographic shifts have altered the political landscape to leave them with a challenge on par in scale with that faced by the UK left in the late 70s and early 80s.
As it turns out, the GOP didn’t understand (or even want to) the nature of the country they so often profess to love. But if the emphatic defeat of Mitt Romney is provoking head-scratching from the US right about America 2012, it should also cause pause for thought among their bedfellows in Britain who – judging from coverage before and in the run up to the election – don’t seem to have updated their view of the country in twenty-odd years.
As Dan Hodges noted of his Telegraph colleague Tim Stanley back in September, these days “the problem isn’t actually with Lefty idealists transposing their dreams on to Obama. It’s Right-wing idealists who transpose their ideological romanticism on to the United States in general.”
In particular, a cornerstone of this is the notion that Americans have no patience for ‘European-style’ attacks on wealth. The story goes that broadsides on those at the top, calls for them to pay more in tax or curb profit-seeking, are resented by ordinary Joe’s who one day think they could be that millionaire chief executive or investor. Money men are always respected, success never resented, we are told. If we “don’t do God”, the Americans don’t do class politics. For years the British right – aghast at their countrymen’s growing resentment of the top 1% – have gazed longingly over the pond and repeated these mantras.
The plutocrats in the US have long spun the same yarn: bashing a billionaire isn’t only just wrong, it’s un-American. One of the stories of this election campaign, though, has been the total unravelling of this narrative.
For those of you raising a sceptical eye-brow, consider this. Romney ran for President on the basis of being a rich man – a successful businessman – and he lost on that same basis. His entire pitch was that as someone who had made it in the private sector, he knew how to create jobs and get the economy going. In times gone by this would have gone largely unquestioned and unparsed.
However, the Obama campaign (in a move straight out of the Rove playbook) turned this supposed strength into a weakness. Those in the Obama camp arguing for an attack on Romney’s record at Bain Capital won out over those preferring to hit the Governor on the safer ground of being a ‘flip flopper’. From early on the campaign sought relentlessly to define Romney in terms of what he actually did to make his money: outsourcing, asset stripping, firing at will, tax dodging. In doing so, they peeled Romney’s supposed ‘experience’ away from ideas of enterprise or wealth creation. And it worked. His reputation never fully recovered. In the home of free-market fundamentalism, Obama’s team were able to pick and win a fight about predatory verses productive capitalism.
This approach was replicated in the furthest reaches of the campaign. Again and again the Obama campaign counter-posed their candidate’s platform “For All”, as the campaign sticker blared, with that of Romney’s. Over and over, the phrase “millionaires and billionaires” tripped from the tongue of Democrats with scorn any time GOP plans were discussed (so much so it upset those poor dears on Wall Street). Tax rises on the very wealthiest also formed a key policy plank for Obama, as he separated the top 1% out from the broader ‘middle class’ in his tax plans.
All this is no small feat, and took some degree of courage when you consider Fox News has spent the past half-a-decade screaming that the President is some sort of Bolshevik. But the space for it was only made possible by a growing anger among swathes of American society at the country’s wealthiest business and financial elites. This comes not just from the financial crisis, but years of declining wages and living standards, as well as Wall Street excess and the saturation – ratcheted up since Citizens United – of US public life with money, SuperPACs and special interests. Romney’s categorical defeat at a time when all the economic indicators suggested he should have won will be remembered as the time that the groundswell of anger at the super-rich that has built up in Europe over recent years reached American shores, and swept the Republican candidate away.
Quite obviously, the US has not suddenly become a socialist nirvana. American society is still beset by huge disparities in wealth and power, and little basis for its transformation exists in a politics where the most progressive US president in forty years has governed as a pretty conventional liberal by UK standards. If taxes on the wealthy do go up as planned, it will only be to where they were under Clinton – far from levels as recent as the 1970s.
But the way in which Romney was defeated is nevertheless important. Fundamentally, it chips away at a notion that has proven vital to the maintenance of the status quo: that the behaviour of the wealthiest is somehow inexorably linked to the public good, and that anyone who is good at money-making must automatically be good at governing or economics, and afforded special status.
It also means that insufferable sirens of the Thatcherite right have one fewer place to point to in the world where their brand of rapacious economic sadism enjoys broad public support. That once-vaunted bond between free-market capitalism and liberal democracy just got weaker still.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Cameron strikes some nice notes, but plays the wrong tune

Post for Shifting Grounds

Cameron strikes some nice notes, but plays the wrong tune

There’s no doubt that David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference yesterday was one of his better ones since becoming Prime Minister. In some ways it was his most Presidential, not just in the personal touches woven in throughout, but in his attempts to transcend national politics and sketch out a vision of a new frontier – in this case, the new global economy – and place Britain at the heart of it  (sometimes called a ‘moon shot’ in US politics). We are, he said, in a “global race” with new countries on the rise, “sink or swim. Do or decline”.

Cameron also had strong dividing lines on welfare and schools – two issues Labour has no settled position on, but will clearly need to have in the next few years.

But the speech had a fatal weakness. At its core was a diagnosis of a country full of budding businessmen and women and ‘can do’ creatives, being held back by a bloated state and unreformed public services. The solutions that flowed from this were predictable enough – hack back the state, reform welfare, get the deficit down, liberalise school provision. Growth will naturally follow.

But this fundamentally misreads British politics today. Most people won’t become ‘entrepreneurs’, and most don’t want to. They just want to get on, get a good job, earn decent money, provide for their family, and lead happy and fulfilling social lives. The biggest impediment to this in 2012 is not the welfare system or planning laws, but an enormous squeeze in living standards and an economy that only works for those at the top. Wages are stagnating, jobs hollowed out, yet utility bills, rents, train fares, tuition fees and mortgage deposits are all rising (this is the true face of ‘Britain on the rise’ under the Tories). And so are bankers’ bonuses and executive pay, all the while SMEs – a real engine of jobs – can’t get access to finance, and young couples can’t get on the property ladder.

Even those traditionally upwardly mobile parts of the population – at whom the speech was clearly aimed – are suffering from this squeeze. Polling for Southern Discomfort Again showed that between 41%-47% of floating voters in key middle class marginals say they are now not confident they have enough money to make ends meet. As Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows, a key feature of the ‘suspicious strivers’ group he identified is economic insecurity and precariousness.  The squeeze is also having obvious effects on demand and consumer confidence – without which all the “diplomatic showrooms” and ankle flashed to multinationals matters not one jot. Economically and electorally, post-crash Britain is defined more by strugglers than it is by strivers.

To this backdrop, a speech about the ‘global race’ in the new world economy, or unleashing a nation of Steve Jobs style entrepreneurs, is a little arid and far off. It’s not irrelevant, it’s just remote; a bit mid-1990s. On the real day-to-day challenges and anxiety facing people already in work, Cameron had little to say. Bank reform did not feature once in his speech, nor energy companies, or even the words ‘bills’ or ’wages’. The Prime Minister may have struck some nice notes along the way, but he played the wrong tune.

The truth is, most of the obstacles holding back prosperity in the UK and our place in the world come not from an unreformed public sector, but an unreformed private sector. That a Conservative Prime Minister, who came to political maturity in the age of neoliberalism, feels uncomfortable talking to that challenge is not surprising. But it ultimately leaves him unable to connect with the lives of people he needs to reach to win.

It is this divide that Labour needs to put the Tories on the other side of. The party needs to find a consistent line on welfare and schools, but it can’t allow the election be fought on this ground. They need to make 2015 an election about living standards and the squeezed middle; who wants an economy which puts money in the pockets of ordinary people, and who only looks out for the top 1%. Making banks and energy companies work for people, an active industrial strategy, even tax cuts at the bottom or middle paid in part by rises at the top – all, among others, have a role to play. On this divide, the Tories are extremely vulnerable – because they simply don’t grasp Britain’s living standards crisis to begin with. However eloquently delivered, David Cameron’s speech yesterday proved that.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The 'modernisers' of British politics are in retreat

Post for Shifting Grounds. Hopi Sen wrote an interesting response on his blog here.

The 'modernisers' of British politics are in retreat

Since the summer reshuffle, a lot of discussion has been devoted to the right-ward shift of the Conservative party. As Stewart Wood writes, the Tories detoxification strategy seems like a “distant memory”.

But arguably the fading of the Cameron project is just one piece of a broader picture, which is the fall from grace of a sub-sect within the political class which once reigned supreme in all parties: the so-called ‘moderniser’.
It is rarely noted that inside the three three main parties sit a relatively small group of people – advisors, MPs, lobbyists mostly – who have far more in common with one another than their own respective party faithful. Their views are distinguished by a metropolitanism and social liberalism. They are intensely relaxed over gay marriage and women’s rights, but also the filthy rich and the City; supportive of public services but besotted with ‘reform’ defined by marketisation; mildly redistributionist but sharers of a faith that increased tax on higher incomes hits aspiration, that the British middle class starts at sixty-grand a year and the working class has been replaced by an underclass. An unswerving commitment to flexible labour markets is likely to make them uncomfortable with anxiety over immigration, while crime is usually addressed through depoliticized phrases like ‘social exclusion’ or ‘problem families’.
As Julian Astle perceptively notes, in one of the few articles written on them, this group will tend to give different emphasis to these views depending on their respective party’s historical weaknesses. Most importantly of all, though, they position and define themselves by a battle with their own more provincial party base.
And for years they won out. This is what came to capture the essence of ‘Blairism’ and many Blairites within the Labour party by the late 1990s. Success at the polls meant their agenda framed British political debate practically unchallenged. Despite ousting Blair himself, ultimately Brown and the people around him couldn’t carve out an alternative to a zeitgeist still going strong within the party and in media circles.
That Cameron came to pick up the Blairite playbook is well known by now; the huskies, the pledges on public spending and overseas aid, the commitment to gay rights and a more open approach to Europe – all key components of the Cameroon project. What is less appreciated is that in retrospect the ascendency of Clegg and co. at the top of the Liberal Democrats was just another variation on a theme, as he moved his party away from the ‘soft leftism’ of Charles Kennedy towards this more fashionable centre. Out went taxing income to better fund public services and opposition to marketisation, in came greater focus on taxing property and pollution, on free schools and on aridly defined ‘fairness’ within existing budgets. Both Cameron and Clegg kept red meat for their base, but their direction of travel became clear enough.
Now, though, it’s a very different story. The Cameron set are well and truly in retreat, ‘in office but not in power’ as the old saying goes. The resignation of Louise Mensch (a politician quietly liked by trendy triangulating types within the other two parties) and emigration of Steve Hilton comes as the Tories prioritise brutal spending cuts and slash tax for millionaires, all the while stalling on gay marriage and trashing any green credentials they once had. Clegg is more secure – the Lib Dems are less factional than commonly thought – but even he has had to tack back towards proposing higher taxes on the rich, and speculation persists that he’ll be ditched for the more leftish Tim Farron.
Meanwhile, the defeat of David Miliband, the departure of Alan Johnson for Ed Balls and the dominance of the likes of Tom Watson has drastically reduced the influence of Blairites or ‘Third Wayers’ over the direction of Labour. This is the real stupidity of the recent GMB motion to ban Progress. Their formal power within the party has never been weaker. The soft-left totally dominate strategy, policy and often selections. And if we can’t make the most of that ascendency, then we have only ourselves to blame, not nonsense conspiracies about plots or coups.
Indeed, there is an opportunity to forge a new consensus amid the rubble of the old one. The old modernising consensus has fallen from favour in all three parties mostly because its playbook was forged at a time when the basic questions of political economy were settled. In this respect, it was broadly in tune with public opinion. But the financial crash and the decline in living standards has incinerated most of those assumptions, and meant the old agenda satisfies neither party rank and file nor voters. Public opinion is much more volatile and harder to capture than before (increased anger at bankers, the rich and inequality but also – sadly – recipients of welfare). It is this which explains what Rafael Behr laments as “the hollow centre of British politics”.
As both Behr and Wood argue, the Tory right has sensed this gap too. They are pushing on with increasingly bold and frightening agenda to plug it. Unlike Brown, Ed Miliband has proved he can operate effectively outside the old ‘modernising’ formula – he has not pointlessly picked fights with his base nor felt the need to match Tory policy or indulge in huskie style stunts.
But there is still a sense of caution to him at times – he recognises the moment British politics finds itself in, but seems reticent to fully follow through on its implications. For the first time as leader, he and the people around him head into conference this week without any real threat, as a chunk of his critics find themselves in the wilderness or fighting their own internal battles. That space needs to be used to match bold critique with bold policy. There may never be a better chance.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Dover – A chance to put theory into practice…?

Piece for LabourList

The Labour party has not agreed on much since 2010. Understandably following such a long stint in power, a lot of time has been spent contesting ‘lessons learned’ and ‘where to from now’. One area where there has been broad agreement, though, is on the virtue of Co-ops, mutuals and other community-based models of ownership. This not only formed the bedrock of Blue Labour thinking, but featured in the Red Book, the Purple Book, Compass and Fabian literature. Warm words from cosy seminar rooms are one thing, however – but do we actually believe in this stuff? If so, there is a fight going on, in a tiny corner of England, which offers the chance to turn theory into practice.
The port of Dover a key strategic hub in the region, hosting a number of small and large businesses (mostly ferry companies) and enabling the movement of goods and people across our border. Since 1604 it has been the source of stable and secure employment for thousands of men and women in the local area – from stevedores to electricians - while other industries have deteriorated or declined around it. The dock is deeply embedded in both the local and national economy, facilitating trade, transport and acting as a ‘gateway’ to Britain. It has come to form as integral a part of the community as the famous white cliffs which it neighbours.
Now, though, it is on the verge of privatisation. The Government is gearing up to sell it to the highest bidder, with a number of multinational private equity companies looming. We already have a prelude for what this will mean, as current administrators ‘fatten the pig for market day’. Jobs have been cut, wages slashed, skilled port workers put on zero-hour contracts; all to push down costs with a view to showcase the profits that potential bidders could line their shareholders pockets with.
As well as an affront to years of history, private ownership would likely be a horribly inefficient way to run the port. There is no evidence that it would improve the way it’s operated. That’s why ferry companies are so opposed to privatisation, and 97% of the town voted against it in a referendum last year. From the bidder’s perspective, it is simply about turning a huge profit on a ‘service’ they will have a natural monopoly over (it’s rather hard to ‘marketise’ this industry unless you want to give Dover citizen the right to set up their own shipping port…). For the Government, it is merely about a short-term boost to Treasury coffers – but even that would be lost in the long-term damage on jobs and demand.
Just as there is nothing ‘modernising’ or progressive about this, neither is there anything inevitable about it. The one group standing between a Tory government set on selling off the family silver, and the grateful arms of an overseas corporation, is ’Dover Forever England’. A coalition of groups that includes supporters of state ownership as well as the community-owned Dover People’s Port Trust, they are looking to stage a fight back on a scale we saw around the proposed sale of Britain’s forests.
But the Trust are not just opposing the privatisation of the port, they have come up with a detailed, coherent alternative. They plan to buy it from the government, and run it in partnership withDovercitizens, employees, port users, local businesses and local authorities. In other words, the port would be put in the hands of the people, locked away forever from bean-counters in Whitehall or transnational business elites. Revenue would be spent on jobs and infrastructure, not shareholders.
As well as an alliance of citizens, workers and businesses people, the Trust has teamed up with both Labour and Conservative MPs and councillors to stand against privatisation: the embodiment of the ‘Big Society’ Cameron professes to believe in. Sadly, though, if there’s cross-party consensus pushing for an alternative to the sell-off, there is also an uncomfortable degree of continuity on the other side of the argument. The idea of selling off the port originated under the Brown government, highlighting an instinct among many of our political leaders that most things are better run privately – an assumption that has disfigured much policy on public services, industry and the economy for over thirty years. An alternative to it – and in my view the idea that everything should be controlled bureaucratically, top down from Whitehall– is desperately needed. Though it may appear to be just a local scrap, the fate of the port of Dover is a crucial battle in a much larger war, with huge implications.
That’s why everyone on the left – and groups within Labour who have identified the crucial role community ownership can play in breaking with the past – should give their support to the campaign, do what they can to get involved or spread the word about it. Only this way can the Government be forced to listen, stop the sale – and hopefully hand the port over to the people of Dover.
The Government is set to decide on the port’s fate and whether to put it out to auction in the next few weeks. Ahead of this there is a big campaign meeting tomorrow (8th September), 11am at Pencester Gardens in Dover. If you can’t make it, then you can share articles about the campaign (Patrick Macfarlane at Progress, Tristram Hunt or Julian Baggini are good places to start), sign up to the Facebook group or donate to the Trust through its website, to play a part in the vital effort keep Dover forever England.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Caro shows us the human side of politics

Blog for Huffington Post
Review: The Lyndon Johnson Years: Volume 4, The Passage of Power by Robert A. Caro

Should you be looking for a window into the lopsided nature of the 'special relationship', you need look no further than the reverence with which political classes on either side of the Atlantic observe the others internal affairs. While most inhabitants of the beltway view our politics with a sort of wry curiosity, wonks of all stripes over here obsess at the labours of American Presidents, campaigns and Congresses throughout history. To this the pride and place of Robert Caro's latest offering on the summer reading lists of Westminster watchers everywhere is just the latest testament.
The equivalent, I suppose, would be shipping a six-hundred page tome covering six years in the life of Harold MacMillan over the other side of the ocean and seeing how it flies. But in the fourth instalment of his monumental life's-work on Lyndon B Johnson, Caro shows us not only why we fall in love with American political life - but what it is that grips us about politics in the first place.
The Passage of Power spans just a portion of Johnson's time in Washington (1958 to 1964). But it is gloriously rich in detail, as Caro brings out the many competing facets that make up the texture of a seismic chapter in US history. Indeed in many ways it is a book defined by contrast and contradiction, even a certain dialectic, personified by Johnson himself.
It begins with LBJ at his peak in the Senate, but quickly descends into a study of his time as JFK's sidelined Vice President - "the man of power who suddenly finds himself short of it", as one journalist described. Johnson wound up there having calamitously misjudged Kennedy - "a whipper-snapper, malnourished, yellow, sickly, sickly" who "never said a word of importance in the Senate, and never did a thing". All of which was true - but none of which was germane to the changing nature of Presidential politics. The telegenic Kennedy glided to the 1960 candidacy, as Johnson tortuously dithered and delayed over whether to enter. This from a man at the height of his powers, famed not only for his ability to read men, and the tides of US politics, but for his decisiveness.
Having been offered the Vice Presidency (in the teeth of opposition from Bobby Kennedy - a passage which Caro relates in intimate detail), Johnson proceeds to make a second error of judgement. He believes he can take an ostensibly ceremonial role and forge a separate political base, as he has always done ("power is where power goes"). But an early power grab falls flat spectacularly, and Johnson is shut-out of the Kennedy White House, starved of influence.
Here the portrait of him offered by Caro is painful. Haunted by premonitions of his own thinly-attended funeral, he skulks around Washington debasing himself in an attempt to get back in the President's good books ("like a cut dog"). The once proud Texas lope is reduced to a slump or a slight kneel in Kennedy's presence, in a sycophantic attempt to hide his height advantage. In a particularly excruciating passage, he even tries to work Kennedy's kids onside ("I want you to call me Uncle Lyndon" he pleads). All to no avail. This period captures Johnson at his most inadequate; shrivelled and pathetic, by turns self-pitying, bitter, jealous, hawkish and corrupt. His greatest fear realised, he was humiliated (humiliation being Washington's answer to the ice pick).
All of which is turned on its head by the crack of a gun in Dallas, and Kennedy's assassination. If it seemed impossible to find a fresh angle on one of the most famous events in human history, Caro achieves it. He vividly puts you right in the back seat of the car - carrying Johnson - that trails the Kennedy motorcade. Better still is his depiction of LBJ in these moments, thrust into the Presidency - a man re-born, reanimated by power. He is sworn in by the same district judge who once symbolised his impotence (Sarah Hayward, whom he had previously failed to personally place on the Federal District Court himself).
The years and pages that follow showcase the better angels of Johnson's nature. His intimate understanding of Washington's "tribal rituals", his ability to see the broader war in an individual skirmish (and face up to it as such), and a razor sharp judgement of character. All were matched with the right dose of idealism and oratory to twist the right arms in the right way, press the right Congressional levers, bring Kennedy's people onside and set an agenda that went where their fallen hero never could - on civil rights, tax and later, poverty. As Caro concludes, Johnson's performance in the aftermath of the assassination was a masterclass in art of power and government. At his best, he was close to a model of Presidential perfection - as majestic as he was once pitiable.
Yet Johnson's weaknesses and fallibility do not totally disappear from sight, they continue to co-exist alongside and jostle with his strengths - the latter just win out in these circumstance. We get a prelude as to how they return in Caro's next volume, in his mendacious attempts to deny Bobby Kennedy an Arlington burial in 1968 (and his dark, impudent delight at news of RFK's demise, "Is he dead? Is he dead yet?"). Even here, they bubble not far from the surface; his needless humiliation of press secretary Salinger, for instance, or his horribly misjudged phone call to Bobby almost immediately after his brother his shot - conducted under the auspices of a constitutional technicality, but clearly in part a taunt at the still grief-stricken attorney-general.
This is the ultimate strength of The Passage of Power: it is not a fairytale. LBJ does not 'overcome' in a way the arc of a Hollywood movie might have it. He is so fascinating precisely because his every move is the product of a tussle between avarice and idealism, guts and pettiness and statesmanship. The enmity between he and Bobby Kennedy may light up the book, but in truth the bigger clash was with the whole Kennedy set, for which Bobby was simply the prefect. Johnson was not urbane or intellectual, born into power - "all social graces" - like Washington's ruling class. He was an outsider who never truly belonged to any tribe. His whole life was spent clawing his way inside, learning the rules, climbing over bodies, and he carried the battle scars as a result: rampant insecurity, paranoia and a fear of mimicking his fathers failings. He was and remained throughout deeply flawed, and deeply human.
In this sense, his successes in this volume are more inspiring than Kennedy's ever were, marshalling as he does his own multitudes and the democratic machinery, itself a bundle of contradictions, towards some good. He showed us the best and worst of what human beings are capable of, and in doing so embodied the best and worst of what politics is capable of.
Like its subject, the book is not perfect; in places it is sloppy and baggy. But it is Caro's ability to tease out and corral the true nature of this complexity - so rarely achieved in popular depictions of politics - that makes Passage of Power such a triumph. As the American author Scott F Fitzgerald famously wrote, "the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." By this marker, and every other, Caro's is a work of pure genius.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The ever so slightly weird cult of Tom Daley

It's a slightly unfortunate time to write a blog on Tom Daley being the target of dubious attention, given the genuinely horrible nature of some of the stuff aimed at him yesterday. But though it pales in comparison, nevertheless, I felt the need to get something off my chest about the 'bigger than Jesus' like popularity of Daley in the gay world.

The poor boy only had to show his face at the opening ceremony on Friday and my Twitter feed exploded with gays seemingly experiencing a sort of collective orgasm; my phone all lit up with friends letting me know quite what they’d like to do to him. Maybe this is just representative of the people I’m friends with or follow, but I can’t remember many days passing where I haven’t seen people trading speedo pics of him. Even outside of the Twittersphere; I was out in Soho on Saturday night and I could barely shuffle five yards without unwittingly eavesdropping on a conversation about him.

Far be it from me to piss on everyone’s chips, but does anyone else find all this a bit, well, weird? Is it just me that feels a bit queasy over it? It’s not just ogling per se, its how merrily explicit a lot of it is; I wouldn’t consider myself particularly prudish, but even I’ve been pretty shocked by how graphic and unabashed a lot of ‘Daleymania’ is!

Don’t get me wrong, he’s pretty ‘n all, and he seems like a lovely guy. But, for one thing, he is painfully young. I mean, he’s barely pubescent. This is a boy who, picking a song that “reminded him of being twelve years old”, chose Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ (Yes! The one released in 2007!). This is obviously less pressing an issue when it comes to the twinky types who lust after him, although even on this I think there's something to be said (more on that later). But, judging from Twitter and my own personal experience, a lot of the people engaging in this seemingly endless Dutch auction of inappropriateness are old enough to know better, to put it mildly. One of the guys I was out with on Saturday - a 40-year old man (in a relationship!) - had a picture of him as his phone wallpaper/screensaver! That's odd.

Part of this is undoubtedly because a lot of gays have convinced themselves that he is “one of us” and therefore somehow tantalising attainable – there are allegedly ‘doubts’ (mostly cast by gay men) over his sexuality, although point out that he reportedly has a girlfriend and the sincere haste with which this is insisted to be a cover story is a bit creepy (“I’ve analysed every word of what he says about her, and I can tell you it means nothing” a friend sniped at me recently). But even if he is a homo (doubtful), does that make people in their 30’s or 40’s publicly leering over him ok? If so, would you think the same of a middle-aged man ogling an 18 year-old girl? And don't cop-out and wibble on at me about 'power differentials' - there is clearly a power differential between an older man and a barely-adult male.

Even outside of the age issue, if polite society, at least, places limits on the leering of straight men, why do none of these seem to extend to us gays? If (or when) a straight man you knew started tweeting or banging on in a bar about how they'd like to fuck this or that female swimmer - what would your instant reaction be? If you move in more civilised circles, i'm guessing someone would probably sound a note of discomfort, at the very minimum. If you object to any boundaries on such issues - gay or straight - then fair enough, but if you don't it seems mildly hypocritical to enforce them for straight but not gay men.

It's also noteworthy that the vast majority of Daleymania is focused on his physique ("those abs" et al!), and is a symptom of a wider trend. To much an extent, the worship of him represents and reinforces a worship of a very particular ideal of beauty: tall, lean, young, short-back-and-sides, muscularised, sculpted abs, no trace of hair or fat anywhere in sight etc. I cannot remember a time when this ideal was more ubiquitous in the gay world than now: in promos for bars, on gay dating websites (I know one guy who won't go near another guy if he doesn't have big arms!), in the gay press, the lot.

In this respect, Daley is positively identikit. To be honest, to my eyes he resembles something more belonging to Madam Tausades than endless pages in Attitude. It's just so dull. But that is my view, obviously, and tastes vary. People don't consciously choose what they find physically attractive. Nonetheless, this view of beauty has not always been as dominant among gays as it is today, as research documents - it is not necessarily given or natural. Much of it is driven by porn, for instance.

I'm also not sure that its overwhelming dominance is particularly healthy, or rather that it goes without consequence. A recent study by the YMCA, Succeed Foundation and academics at UWE Bristol found that gay men are much more predisposed to suffer from anxiety about their body image than straight men. The APPG on Body Image's report this year found similar, citing gay men's greater propensity to chase "unrealistic beauty ideals". Unsurprisingly, eating disorders remain consistently higher among gay men. Interestingly, backing up the earlier point about boundaries, the YMCA study also found gay guys far more likely to engage in "body talk" - speech that reinforces the particular standard of attractiveness I mentioned above - than straight men (91% to 77.4%). You don't have to be a genius to draw the dots together.

I'm not arguing that gays suddenly developing a suspiciously avid public interest in synchronised diving will on its own drive a mass of homosexuals to the toilet bowel with two fingers down their throat. Neither am I leading the charge for a re-introduction of Victorian sexual values (I've no wish to see pictures of Tom Daley's ankles, for one). All i'm saying, I suppose, is would it hurt if we were a bit less predictable once in a while?

Monday, 25 June 2012

The left must find its voice on Syria

Piece for Shifting Grounds

The left must find its voice on Syria
On 26 March 1999, Russia and China tabled a UN Security Council resolution condemning the US-UK led intervention in Kosovo, which had been launched following the escalating massacre and ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by Serb forces.
The resolution denounced NATO action as a flagrant breach of sovereignty and demanded its cessation. In an important moment, the motion was resoundingly defeated. By 12 votes to 3, Western and non-Western states, many of whom were not natural allies of the US, lined up against it and backed the war. Summing up the mood, the Dutch representative said:
“Today we regard it as a generally accepted rule of international law that no sovereign state has the right to terrorise its own citizens…Times have changed, and they will not change back…”
This consensus did not emerge out of nowhere. It was a norm built up throughout a decade that counted the costs of inaction in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, and particularly in Bosnia at Srebrenica. But this was not some neo-con project. The idea that, in very limited circumstances and by very strict criteria, intervention could be justified to prevent an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe was pioneered by thinkers on the centre left, where it enjoyed broad support.
Thirteen years on, Dutch pronouncements look horribly premature. Bashar Al-Assad’s militias rampage through Syria, shelling and slaughtering his own people en masse – gouging out the eyes of children while they execute them, one by one – to see that his dictatorship retains power. As UN monitors withdraw, Russia and China shield the regime from any meaningful recourse, just as with Kosovo – except this time there’s little or no will to defy them. Times have changed back.
What is striking though is how relatively little we on the mainstream left have to say about all this. I am not for a second accusing people of not caring about events. But there is little of the pressure on William Hague to help find a solution that Robin Cook or Tony Blair felt, and which played its role in the decision to confront Milosevic. There is instead a sense of paralysis, a fatalism that nothing can be done. If this silence is ever broken, it’s usually to warn of the perils of action, rather than inaction.
But it doesn’t necessarily have to be like this. That’s not to argue that the model used in the Balkans or Libya will work in Syria. Ill-judged actions could easily make things even worse; each case is different with its own complexities, and should be treated as such. But there remains a host of at least plausible options far short of occupation or even air-strikes which could help make a horrendous situation in Syria a bit less so, and stem the bloodshed. One is a no-fly zone. Another, the most comprehensive, is a proposal for humanitarian safe havens (‘No Kill Zones’) put forward by Anne-Marie Slaughter in the US (here and here). These, as she outlines, could be defensively patrolled for instance by the Free Syrian Army, with the conditional logistical support of Arab League states, Turkey and the West.
Such plans may not in the end stand the test of scrutiny, though they have so far, and something like them is favoured by the French. But at the moment they are not even being countenanced by those on the centre-left in the UK; they are not even being discussed, let alone pushed for. Instead most seem to have succumbed to the gloomy assumption – until now the preserve of the far left – that all and any action involving Western power is reducible to an act of imperialism that can only end in disaster. If humanitarian intervention ever appears in our discourse, it’s rarely without inverted commas and a sneer.
What lies behind all of this, of course, is Iraq. The disastrous invasion and occupation has made it easy to tar all Western intervention with the same brush (helped further by proponents of war with Saddam cynically appropriating humanitarian language after initial rationales had been exposed). One opened the door to the other, so the argument goes. The histories of the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and lately Libya are constantly being flimsily re-written to fit this neat worldview.
But whatever you think of those wars, it is possible and necessary to separate them out from Iraq and Afghanistan – or to support one but not the other. The former were wildly different interventions, prosecuted in totally different circumstance and for totally different reasons. Iraq met few of the criteria set out under R2P, for instance, or even Blair’s own Chicago speech. Similarly, there was no oil in Pristina, and very little geo-strategic benefit to Benghazi. Life is more complex than that.
More to the point, the interventions of the mid-to-late 90s and in Libya actually worked. They were enormously imperfect, complex and bloody (and in the case of Bosnia, belated), and occasionally horrible mistakes were made in the course of them. But they ultimately helped end conflicts which at one point had promised butchery, ethnic cleansing and human misery on an infinitely worse scale. Western influence and power remains a very blunt object indeed, and people across the left are right to treat it with suspicion. It will always be selective, and of course is sometimes the author of brute realpolitic. But occasionally, it can be pressed into engineering the least worst outcome.
Again, what is possible in Syria is likely very different to before. But progressives urgently need to address this mental block to any outside action at all, which seems to have set in among many of us, because at the moment it’s leaving an eerie silence in the face of immense brutality and suffering. The situation is not simple, and as Rory Stewart has said, “we do not have a moral obligation to do what cannot be done”. But we do have a moral obligation to open our minds, and at least arrive at that conclusion honestly.

Friday, 25 May 2012

On social mobility, we can't ignore the flaws of the tuition fee system

Latest piece for Shifting Grounds

On social mobility, we can't ignore the flaws of the tuition fee system

Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have both used this week to fire the starting gun on a debate over social mobility. Both, for different reasons, want to push past a focus on tuition fees. But as universities prepare nervously for the era of 9k fees to begin in September, the summer will inevitably reignite debate on the impact on the aspirations of kids from low income backgrounds. It remains vital that the left do not turn their backs on this debate – and the intellectual failures of the tuition fee system more broadly.
Higher education leaders have taken refuge lately in the fact that applications from disadvantaged groups are ‘only’ slightly down, rather than in total collapse. But this merely massages a deeper, structural problem – which is that far too few kids from working class and poor backgrounds go to university in the first place. Fifteen-year-olds on free school meals are around twice as less likely to pass on to higher education. As pressingly, woefully few attend our top universities.
For this the buck is often passed to schools and lower levels of attainment. But even BIS confess that “young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who achieve qualifications that would allow them to attend a selective university are [still] less likely to apply than their peers.” Research consistently shows that tuition fees influence this decision, with pupils from low income backgrounds far more debt averse and likely to have their aspirations suppressed as a result. Fees can also have some knock-on effect on attainment – if certain kids feel they have less to aim for, why study that bit harder?
These arguments are generally met with short shrift by Government or leading universities, who eagerly believe more time simply needs to be spent “explaining the system” to young people (the NUS or such like tend to cop the blame for ‘scaremongering’ at this point, too). Millions of pounds are poured into outreach schemes for this exact purpose. Huge efforts are made in an attempt to ensure students won’t ‘see the fee’ when weighing up the decision to apply. The argument goes that the headline tuition fee is irrelevant since the debt accrued isn’t normal debt: it’s only paid in small slices each month after people graduate and earn over a minimum amount; repayment is linked to income; it’s written off after 30 years, and so on. In addition, they point out that a range of generous – if complex – bursaries are available for the least well off.
All this is true enough. And most university management is populated by good people who genuinely care about social mobility. But, with the tuition fees system, they are simply pushing a very large boulder up a very steep hill.
This is ultimately because it relies on a vision of prospective students acting as perfectly informed rational consumers in a marketplace. This is improbable enough when dealing with something as ingrained as debt aversion. But it’s made even more difficult by the very discourse and architecture of reform that the tuition fees system rode in on.
Introduced by New Labour but really stepped up by the Coalition, this has seen a shift in the ideal of higher education away from one based on the common good – with publicly funded universities built largely on the shared pursuit of learning and knowledge – towards one orientated to what Stefan Collini calls a “purely economistic calculation of value, and wholly individualistic conception of ‘consumer satisfaction’”. In short, the relationship between student and institution has basically become transactional.
Leaving aside the resulting flaws and contradictions in terms of learning and teaching (which Collini brilliantly takes apart here andhere), this shift intrinsically creates huge problems for those claiming that fees need not deter low income students. Under this system, universities explain fees to students in terms of an ‘investment’. They market their different prices (which from 2012 generally vary from £7,500 to £9,000 a year) on their prospectus – the individual fee linked directly to the individual institution – and fix their entire message on encouraging students to weigh up the costs and benefits as consumers; ‘getting bang for your buck’ and so on (most of which travels under the rubric of the ‘student experience’).
This is marketised language for a marketised system. Fine. But is it surprising, then, that many students continue to ‘see the fee’, tot it up (which can be over £40,000 in all) and factor it into their decision making? And that as a result the more debt averse – many of whom live in households where the assumption is they won’t go to university – are put off by it? The whole organisation of HE pushes them to do so. You cannot set up a system which treats people like consumers engaging in a conventional transaction, as if popping into your local supermarket, while at the same time asking them not to think of the fee as a conventional transaction at all.
That’s why, when it comes to social mobility, all the good intentions, efforts exerted, money spent and (unambitious) targets set will only amount to running to stand still under the present system. If we totted up what the average person is likely to pay for the NHS or the police, presented it to them when they were 17 and required them to take out a loan to fund it or opt-out all together, what would the results be – no matter our exhortations on the progressive nature of the repayment?
The only socially just solution is to take the headline fee/debt out of the calculation all together, and to claim back higher education as a public service. As Miliband rightly says, if young people want to pursue a different route than university, they should have the option to do so. But money must be taken out of the decision. A limited graduate tax – partnered with proper public investment – is the only realistic way to achieve this.
It’s disappointing that despite flirting with this idea, Miliband’s has since turned away from it. But it was Jon Cruddas, his new policy chief, who argued recently that it was the debate around university fees, not Iraq, that marked the real change in the character of the last Government:
“The language was [now] of a rational economic exchange, of a derived utility, discounting for the future and of calculus. No discussion at all of the virtue of creating wiser more knowledgeable citizens; what intermediary institutions- such as universities- are there to achieve.”
It’s vital that as Cruddas puts his feet under the desk, this issue is not filed away or ignored. The flaws of the tuition fee system are a difficult subject for Labour, for obvious reasons. But, along with the Coalition and the whole HE establishment, they must face up to them.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Success for Hollande could change the terms of the debate

Piece for Shifting Grounds blog

Francois Holland - IDF FOTOS

It’s fair to say that the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis has not been kind to the left. A favourite talking point of those writing obituaries for social democracy is that right-of-centre governments have come to dominate the continent, holding power in 22 of 27 EU countries. So as the French presidential election reaches its crescendo this week, the prospect of an Hollande presidency could prove a decisive moment in recent history.

For one thing, if Hollande makes it to the Elysee he will have been propelled there by a revival of the far left. The Left Front, led by Jean-Luc Melenchon, has assumed a place and importance in this election that must seem a distant dream to their UK counterparts. Working as a coherent counter-veiling force to Sarkozy and Le Pen, they have dragged the debate leftwards and re-connected with working class voters long since thought lost to apathy or worse, the Front National. Here we should at least allow ourselves optimism at what the broad left can achieve with a few charismatic or competent leaders, and with Pythonesque splits and sectarianism left in the past. (Not losing sight of the shared enemy, Melenchon has long urged his voters to transfer to Hollande in the second round.)

But we kid ourselves if we think what we are seeing in itself represents a ‘uniform swing’ to the left acrossEurope. The French system is distinct, and the left there work on far more fertile territory than in other states: France’s political discourse (if not electoral history) traditionally leans their way. What is of more importance is if Hollande both wins and is able to implement his policy platform in the face of vested interests.

The austerity economics of the past few years has brought into focus a phenomenon that’s defined the past three decades – that is, economic policy (and debate) largely framed by the prevailing wisdom among financial elites. The most potent embodiment of this in recent times has been the almighty position assumed by the international bond markets. Although treated as neutral, these have demanded a highly prescriptive form of right-wing economics in exchange for low interest rates – with particular focus on deep spending cuts and tax rises (on all but the rich) as the best means to reduce debt, deficits and increase growth. Any alternative is deemed ‘unworkable’ or ‘unrealistic’ at best, and haunted by the threat of punishment. This trumping of sovereign governments of whatever stripe, mostly derived from unchecked de-regulation and globalisation, forms part of what Zygmunt Bauman has called a ‘disconnect between power and politics’.

Hollande at least poses a challenge to this order. His manifesto proposes deficit reduction via stimulus and growth, and represents the first coherent alternative to austerity inEuropesince the collapse of Lehmans. It promises to boost state spending by €20 billion over 5 years, create 60,000 new teaching posts, fund new jobs for the young unemployed and invest in social housing. Alongside this is a new 75% tax on incomes over €1 million, taxes on banks and financial transactions, a ban on stock options and the promise of significant banking reform. Significantly, Hollande has also pledged to re-negotiate the EU fiscal treaty to give greater emphasis to growth over cuts, and to push for a more active role for the ECB.

While this is by no means revolutionary, it is far outside what is deemed acceptable in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Sensing the threat, Hollande’s opponents at home and abroad have begun the scaremongering that will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the economic debate in the UK. Openly inviting speculation, Sarkozy has said the Hollande’s plan will turn France into a ‘new Greece’, while transnational financial ‘leaders’ have been summoned to warn of a ‘bloodbath’ in the markets – a ‘new wave of instability’ – should voters vote the wrong way, or Hollande have the cheek to act on his mandate. Echoing this, The Economist – which has long viewed the belligerence of France’s social model as a sort of childish impudence defying ‘inevitable’ liberalisation – has spent much time fretting that candidates ‘may actually mean what they say’! Deep spending cuts are presented as unavoidable, and a country whose underlying economic position is sound has suddenly been talked up to be on the brink of collapse.

Whether Hollande, if victorious, can face down such threats and intimidation and push ahead with his programme will tell us a great deal about politics in 2012. It will give us a clear picture of where the balance of power really lies between markets and democracy, and the real scope for change. If he avoids Mitterrand’s fate, and France emerges unscathed, he may help break the hoodoo that market reprisal has thus far held over Europe’s centre-left parties and their electorate, particularly in the UK. If no ‘bloodbath’ is forthcoming, and austerity’s ‘leading lights’ are exposed to have cried wolf over the French Socialists, then centre-left parties will have the beacon of a bold, workable alternative at the heart of Europe.

Of course, there is no guarantee that Hollande will stay the course – he is, ultimately, a pragmatist – nor that he will successfully pursue his argument at an EU level. So far, though, he has shown no signs of back-tracking. No doubt the resurgence of the far left, whose presence at least partially accounts for the scale of Hollande’s manifesto, helps to explain this – and should they remain united, they may yet have a key role to play in holding his feet to the fire.

Either way, the stakes are huge. Mark Fisher has defined the ‘No Alternative’ fatalism that has underpinned the neo-liberal era as ‘capitalist realism’. In his seminal book on the subject, he writes:

"The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility."

Francois Hollande is no messiah, and his platform is no panacea, but it may yet prove to be that tear in the curtain that social democracy has so long been waiting for.