Corbyn’s “Build it in Britain”: what’s wrong?

There’s a lot of decent stuff in Jeremy Corbyn’s Build it in Britain speech: reduce the role of the City, provide better training. But overall, his prescription for improving British manufacturing it is not convincing, for two reasons.

Making the public sector buy British would expensive and not very effective – there are better approaches to industrial policy. Worse, the real political importance of this plan is that it is a new excuse (the old ones having shown themselves flimsy) for leaving the Single Market: don’t buy it, it is a poison pill.

The good stuff – the City, training – shows no evidence of understanding the deep institutional obstacles to achieving what he proposes, obstacles which for all its theatrical radicalism the current Labour leadership is not willing to face squarely (IMO, unwilling because doing so would spoil the theatre of revolution).

Here I’ll deal with the first item, and leave the City & training for a future post. Continue reading

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Is Trump really alone in supporting Putin? Sadly, no.

Will Putin’s victory in Helsinki sink his friend Trump back home? Jeremy Shapiro thinks so – interesting article in Foreign Policy (retweeted by Mark Leonard, then by Branko Milanovic who for some reason thinks “hysteria” over the Trump-Putin connection threatens war, like the nationalist hysteria in Yugoslavia in 1987-88 & in the US post 9/11 – go figure).

IMO, however, Shapiro underestimates support for the Russian oligarchy within the US power structure. This because he frames Russian state interests and objectives in a very abstract, general way. Russia today is not a superpower but a fossil fuel power which happens to have a legacy nuclear arsenal: net fuel exports are 17% of Russia’s GDP, extraordinarily high for such a large country. Stabilizing earth’s climate requires leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and that would shatter the Russian oligarchy. Putin’s interests thus align with the know-nothing, no-action position taken by the GOP, and Trump, on climate. That is the material basis for a political relationship between the Russian state and conservative US politicians, which has been developing for some time. The historic antipathy of the Republican Party to Russia is based on anti-communism, not anti-petro-fascism.

Municipal food markets: why Cagliari but not Wood Green?

I’ll begin with my conclusion: municipal markets – daily indoor markets with a core of stalls selling fresh produce, meat and baked goods – should be at the centre of “regeneration” plans for town centres.

In April this year I was in Cagliari, Sardinia, working (life in the academy is tough, I tell you). I was fortunate to be staying near the San Benedetto market. At 8,000 square meters it is the largest of Cagliari’s four municipal markets; the city’s tourist information claims it’s the largest municipal market in Europe. Continue reading

Have-your-cake-and-eat-it, Lexit style: Paul Mason gives a master class in the transitional demand

Paul Mason, writing in the New Statesman last week,  gave a nice rendition of Jeremy Corbyn’s rule-maker-not-rule-taker position on Europe. Mason, like Corbyn, focuses on the EU’s regulations on state aid, which both men claim conflicts with Labour’s plans.

Mason makes a kind of have-your-cake-and-eat-it argument. But unlike the sunny Tory-Brexit vision of the benefits of being in and being out both arriving effortlessly, Mason demands having the cake and eating it. He’s ready for battle, though the battle is all for show – he knows his demands won’t be met; indeed, he makes the demands because he knows they won’t be met.

European law places substantial restrictions on subsidising and aiding individual companies, though there is considerable disagreement as to whether the measures in Labour’s platform would fall foul of this: for a view contrary to Mason’s see Biondi and Tarrant. What is clear to all is that the rules on state aid are evolving through the EU’s internal processes, and that leaving the EU would mean leaving losing influence over the evolution of the rules. It is also clear that the closer the UK remains to the EU – is in particular, the closer its integration with the Single Market – the more closely it will need to align with EU regulations, not least those on state aid. That’s the quandary. Now see what Mason does with it.

Mason says he wants the UK to be in the Single Market but with an agreement which allows the state to “subsidise, aid, restructure and, where necessary, nationalise companies”. He acknowledges that it is not clear whether, as things now stand, EU state aid regulations would actually conflict with Labour’s programme, but he raises two spectres: one is that Brussels even now is planning to exact vengeance on the UK because it’s leaving, and that Brussels’ wrath would be redoubled with the advent of the long-awaited left-wing Labour government; the other is that Brussels will fall under the sway of a “right/far-right coalition” (though the far right of course is also hostile to the EU’s state aid restrictions…).

So what does Mason want, in return for his precious support for remaining under single market rules?  “I want an advance, legal and binding agreement that European rules will not now, and cannot in the future, sabotage a Labour government’s programme.” (the underlining is Mason’s)

Sure, and I want a unicorn for Christmas.

Consider first that we’re talking about an international treaty. Treaties don’t work like commercial contracts – governments withdraw from them as they choose, and there’s really no way to hold them to account for it. And, as Mason correctly notes, the EU’s own treatment of the state aid problem keeps evolving. He frames the problem as one in which the UK, having renounced its right to help write the rules, should make its participation contingent on rules being frozen in place for the UK, even as they evolve for other Single Market members. That simply won’t happen: “legal and binding” is a unicorn.

Second, even if HM Government could find and capture such a unicorn, Mason is writing as a partisan of a Labour party that does not have the privilege of negotiating the details. Whatever concessions this government does negotiate, they will certainly not be specially geared to facilitate the implementation of the Labour election manifesto. For the same reason, we can’t credit the Times’ report linked by Mason, of an anonymous “senior Brussels source” (how vague is that attribution) claiming that the “real battle” in the negotiations with Britain is over state aid rules due to Brussels’ fear of Labour: does the Times want us to think the reason for lack of progress in Brexit negotiations is that the Tories are not allowing Brussels to construct an agreement that will protect Margaret Thatcher’s legacy from a future Jeremy Corbyn government? (I know that the previous sentence is strange, but that does seem to be what the Times, and Mason, are claiming.) The best explanation for the Times story is that it is an attempt to plant a meme helpful to the Tory soft Brexit camp, in their battle with the hard Brexit camp: the Times is telling fellow Tories that Brussels is just offering them tough love, protecting them from the spectre of corbynism. Only a fool would believe this, but Mason seems to put his readers in that category.

Third: even if there were to be a pre-Brexit general election which resulted in a Labour majority, and that election were to occur soon enough that Labour could negotiate the final deal with the EU, and Brussels were not as determined as Mason claims it is to sabotage Labour… even if all of those things, why on earth would the EU agree to allow any Single Market member to provide whatever state aid it wanted? We need to keep in mind why restrictions on state aid are so important to the functioning of the single market.

The fundamental reason for state aid restrictions in the Single Market is to prevent races to the bottom: mutually destructive subsidy wars. Countries can shield themselves from subsidy wars with trade barriers, but the Single Market abolishes those – that’s why the EU’s internal restrictions on state aid are so much more exacting than those of the WTO.

To accede to Mason’s demand of an unfettered right to “subsidise, aid…” etc. UK companies, public or private, would be to let the UK act like a state or city in the USA. That means giving massive tax subsidies to particular companies in exchange for building (or not closing) a plant or an office. For a taste of what that means read about the long-drawn-out beauty contest of American cities offering free everything to Amazon in return for the privilege of hosting its “second headquarters” (its home city of Seattle having become too small for the company), and bear in mind that this is just one current example of something that happens every day, all over the USA. It starves local public services in the USA of revenue, and undercuts small businesses that don’t have the bargaining power that big corporations do. Of course the EU would, and should, refuse to allow this within the Single Market. It’s not about whether nationalization can happen within the EU (it can): it’s about whether individual corporations can hold up the Exchequer for bespoke tax rebates. The EU has no reason whatsoever to let the UK use this tool for “industrial policy” as it steps (halfway) out the door.

Mason is a clever and well-informed person, who cannot possibly believe that his demand has any chance of being met. I believe that, technically, he is making what in the Trotskyist political tradition is called a transitional demand. That’s a demand that you know cannot be met. Often, of course, people make demands that won’t be met, as a bargaining position, expecting or hoping for compromise. The transitional demand is different: it is made to be rejected, to demonstrate that the end you seek cannot be achieved within the current system.

Mason’s demand on state aid is a perfect example of this. It is meant to achieve two things: first, for Mason to be able to claim to support Single Market membership while not in fact doing so in any meaningful way; second, to show –  when the Tory-EU negotiators fail t accede to Mason’s demand – that the UK has no place in the European single market. This would be comical if it were not so close to the position of the Labour leadership.

 

Finsbury Park: cycling and safety

Strictly of local interest: this is from my response the Friends of Finsbury Park consultation on park safety. You can give your own response the consultation at this link.

The park safety plan should address the need for selected cycle routes after dark.

After-dark closure of park gates is superficially attractive, but in my twenty years of walking past this park there has never been a time when people weren’t able to get in through gaps made in the fence. Maintaining that fence must be a lot of work! So the question is not whether people who want to be there can get in, but whether people who are in the park (whether through a hole in the fence or because the gates are kept open) are safe.

And, note also needs to be taken of the role of the park as a hub for active transport, both walking and cycling.

When the park gates are open and passage through feels safe, communities on different sides of the park are connected for people travelling by foot or bike. When the park is closed, the connections between those communities are severed, as if on opposite sides of a motorway. Consider here the Oxford Rd/Stroud Green side of the park and the Manor House/Woodbury Downs area, well connected when the park is open, very far apart when it is closed.

The park is also an important hub for cycle longer distance cycle routes, with heavily travelled routes radiating from the park in several directions. Many of the roads bordering the park have heavy motor traffic and insufficient space for safe cycling. This makes the park a useful place to pass through on a bike – and also, for many, it feels like a much safer place than on a road like Endymion, Green Lanes or Seven Sisters in the sections where those roads border the park. When days get short in autumn and winter this leaves many cyclists without safe routes through or past the park.

The present heavy use of the park for cycling through-routes persists despite that fact that the locations and design of entrances, and the paths through the park, are often not well set up as cycle routes: there is no route paralleling Green Lanes, the Oxford Rd bridge is too narrow, there is no good connection from Wightman Rd, and so on. There is good reason to think that cycling provision in the park can, should, and will be improved. For instance:

  • The Mayor and TFL have identified Seven Sisters Rd as a part of a strategic cycling corridor (Tottenham Hale – Camden); unlike many parts of that corridor, the segment of Seven Sisters adjacent to the park is not wide enough to accommodate both cycle lanes and bus lanes. To achieve a continuous bike corridor without compromising bus service, a route through the park seems likely. To shut such a route at night would entirely defeat its purpose.
  • An entrance to the park from Alroy / Wightman roads, to accommodate the substantial cycle traffic coming down Wightman, is proposed in the final report of the Haringey Council’s Green Lanes consultation.

For these reasons, the safety plan for the park should include a small number of well-lit, all-hours routes for both cyclists and pedestrians.

No graveyard: dockless bikes in Chengdu

Last November the Guardian reported on a vast graveyard of dockless bikes in the Chinese city of Xiamen. I’ve just come back from three weeks in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province, and from what I saw in the Wenjiang district of that city, dockless bikes are alive and well. Here are some (plus a few personal bikes, each secured with a lock on one wheel and held up by a kickstand) outside a metro station. There are, I think, four companies active in that market. When I was in the same area four years ago, neither the metro station nor the dockless bikes existed – nor did many of the bike lanes now apparent. Nor, for that matter, the trees. Continue reading

Heading for the land of plenty

Tomorrow I’m going to Chengdu, Sichuan, to teach for three weeks. You can find it on a map of China if you look inland, to the southwest. Heading west from Shanghai – far west – it’s the last big city, after that it’s mountains all the way to India. Simona, Leonardo and I were there four years ago. Before we left on that trip, I prepared by reading Fuschia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper, a memoir of her time as a cooking student in that city. Which is to say I was reading about food, which is one excellent reason to go there. On return to London I bought three of her cookbooks, (Land of Plenty [Sichuan], Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook [Hunan], and Every Grain of Rice), and they’ve been good investments.