People Get Ready: can Labour ever get to implement its economic vision?

Guinan coverAway from the noise of Brexit, Labour – and the British Left in general – is buzzing with new economic ideas more loudly than it has for decades. Moving the privatised utilities to a new form of mutual nationalisation is now Labour policy. So is a new Financial Transaction Tax. Universal Basic Income is entering the political mainstream.

Neither Labour or the Conservatives are willing to admit it, but without winning a general election Labour has already moved the centre of gravity leftwards: even the current Tory government has grudgingly decided to renationalise the probation service and several rail franchises, and the Private Finance Initiative has effectively been ended.

Many believe that a Corbyn-led Labour government could, at long last, end neo-liberalism and set the weather for the twenty-first century with a genuinely new economic system that will end inequality, combat climate change, improve productivity and raise wellbeing.  Finally, it is “possible to believe that the bankers’ best days might be numbered,” writes Andy Beckett in the Guardian; even the right -of-centre Economist seems to be giving Labour’s economic ideas a fair hearing.

But how can these ideas capture the public imagination as Thatcher’s policies did? The “right to own” policy – giving employees shares in the companies they work for, as is common in Germany – could potentially become as popular as Thatcher’s Right to Buy in the 1980s, but has yet to really cut through. And if and when Labour wins power, will it have the resilience to make the huge changes such a new system entails?

In a painstakingly researched new book, People Get Ready! Preparing for a Corbyn GovernmentChristine Berry and Joe Guinan try to provide some signposts, based both on their own experience of the Left, and a glance back at history.  Both are well-qualified to guide us: Guinan is a vice-president of the American ‘think-do tank’ The Democracy Collaborative, and director of its Next System Project (interest declared: he was also a good university friend of mine 25 years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch since); Berry is a Fellow of the Next System Project and co-chair of Rethinking Economics. Continue reading

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The Rory Stewart I knew: why it was inevitable he’d be knocked out of the Tory leadership contest

Rory StewartI’ve been following the Conservative leadership race with uncommon interest: I knew Rory Stewart quite well about 25 years ago. We were students a year apart at Balliol College, Oxford, in the early 1990s, and though we moved in different circles and were never friends, his idiosyncratic social status as a student may provide clues about why he has been knocked out of the contest rather earlier than his supporters were hoping.

Rory Stewart was not the only Balliol graduate in the running to become Prime Minister of course: the front-runner Boris Johnson also studied at the college, several years before Stewart (or I) arrived there. But whereas Johnson trod the familiar path of the Oxford Union and the University’s Conservative Association on his long march towards elected office, Stewart shunned them both: he was in fact a member of the Labour Party (albeit an inactive one as far as I know).

Both Johnson and Stewart were also, of course, educated at Eton. A lot of nonsense has been written about Balliol in the last few weeks, mentioning it in the same breath as Eton. Although in the 1990s the majority of its students were public school, Balliol is a very different sort of place. Although Balliol has produced many senior Tories – Macmillan and Heath, as well as Boris – it was by the 1990s an almost painfully left-wing place, much prouder of its Labour products – Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins – and the journalist Christopher Hitchens, then at his irreverent peak. Although there was much snobbery at Balliol, almost all of it was of the intellectual kind, and most public schoolboys deliberately played down their social graces (one Wykehamist I knew spent most of his first year wearing a football shirt). Continue reading

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Don’t believe what Donald Trump says about Sweden. Immigration works well there


Downtown Malmö. If Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins are to be believed, this city is an interracial war zone

In the third and final part of a series of posts about modern Sweden (parts one and two can be read here and here), I look at immigration, and the crime problems that many neo-cons claim it has caused. The reality is very different. Angst about rising crime, in what remains one of the safest countries in Europe, is but one of many Swedish paradoxes.

Amidst many differences between Britain and Sweden, one area of similarity stands out: both countries are fixated on migration. The nationalistic, Eurosceptic and anti-migration Swedish Democrats show no sign of peaking as UKIP have in Britain, and are expected to make big gains in the September 2018 national and regional elections. The latest opinion polls put the Swedish Democrats’ support at almost 25%, second only to the governing Social Democrats and ahead of the traditional centre-right Moderate Party. A few polls have even put them in first place, ahead of the Social Democrats.

A decade ago this would have been unthinkable. The Swedish Democrats were founded in 1988 but spent more than 20 years in the far-right wilderness, not winning any seats in the Riksdag – the Swedish parliament – until 2010.  Continue reading

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Sweden, a land where consumer has never been king


One of Sweden’s many pleasant surprises is the beauty of its Baltic coast, whose sandy beaches can look Mediterranean – even tropical – on a sunny summer’s day

In the second part of a three-part series of posts about modern Sweden (the first part can be read here), I look at Sweden’s weather, its inhabitants’ supposed shyness, and how Swedish consumers fare when it comes to buying alcohol and food

When I first visited Sweden a year ago the weather was truly awful (the summer of 2017 was the coolest in Sweden since the 1860s, by one definition, and it felt like the wettest as well). Back in the late 1960s the American writer Susan Sontag grumbled that Sweden’s short summers, during which Swedes lift their faces towards every brief outbreak of sunshine, “have their own pathos.” And its hard to disagree: by the end of July, the best weather had passed, and by the time the sun did come out in late September, it was accompanied by an icy wind. The Swedes’ fixation with midsommar – marked by lots of Akavit, herrings, and maypoles – seemed to be a paradox that depended on their summers’ brevity, not their length or warmth. 

But no-one comes here expecting Mediterranean sunshine so a visitor can hardly complain. And I’m assured that on average the climate’s only a degree or two cooler than my home county of Northamptonshire, even though Northants is 300 miles further south (the southernmost part of Sweden is at the same latitude as central Scotland). Thanks to the gulf stream southern Sweden is in the same biome – ‘nemoral’ according to the Walter classification system – as most of England: broadleaf woodlands, unpredictable summers but mild winters with short frosts. Trelleborg, a ferry port just south of Malmö and the southernmost point of mainland Sweden, even has palm trees.

And in late April, after eight months of heavy rain and intermittent snowfall, the best summer weather I’ve ever experienced anywhere in northern Europe arrived, and has stayed for three golden months. It’s at times like this that you appreciate that even the tiniest village has a spotlessly-clean public bathing place on its nearest lake. Continue reading

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Sweden: how a ‘dull country’ is still worth living in


Almost every Swedish village has a public beach like this on its local lake

In the first of a three-part series about modern Sweden, I look at what twentieth and twenty-first century writers have to say, and how the reality of life in Sweden compares to the euphoria or opprobrium that it often provokes.

“I always thought Sweden sounded a dull country, much more so than Norway or Finland,” George Orwell once wrote to his friend Michael Meyer, a lecturer at the university of Uppsala. “I should think there would probably be very good fishing, if you can whack up any interest in that. But I have never been able to like these model countries with everything up-to-date and hygienic and an enormous suicide rate.”

“I came prepared to see through the familiar negative clichés about Sweden – and found many of them disconcertingly confirmed,” wrote Susan Sontag in the late 1960s. “To repress anger as extensively as people do here greatly exceeds the demands of justice and rational self-control; I find it little short of pathological.”

One of the great hatchet jobs of modern American letters, Sontag’s 16-page Letter from Sweden, published in the July 1969 issue of Ramparts magazine, spared few sections of Swedish society. Swedes were obsessively obedient of petty rules: “Old ladies glare at you when you cross an empty street against the light”. But when things go wrong “hardly anyone gets fired”: Sontag saw Swedes as so pathologically frightened of conflict that they turn a blind eye to incompetence and failure. Southern European immigrants told Sontag they found Swedes “unbearably cold, stiff and priggish”, and Sontag agreed.

Superficially, Sontag considered Sweden to be much like the US or West Germany – “six-lane highways, suburban shopping centres… refined and partly detoxified by the condition of advanced ‘welfare state enlightenment’”. But on closer examination she found Sweden full of meanness and pedantry. Swedes split restaurant and taxi bills to the last cent, were notoriously shifty about planning social engagements, and – worst of all – continually smoked Sontag’s cigarettes without returning the favour.

Continue reading

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A word of advice to the National Trust’s new Director-General: urbanise


The shepherd’s hut at the entrance to Canons Ashby: all at once the National Trust is smug, patronising, and unbearably twee

It’s been an eventful six years for the National Trust’s Director-General Helen Ghosh, who’s announced she’ll be stepping down in April 2018. She’s been constantly bombarded with criticism from right-wing newspapers ever since her appointment  in 2012.  When she suggested that the Trust might soften its opposition to windfarms, the Daily Telegraph said she threatened to turn the Trust into a “Leftie pressure group”. When she said – incontrovertibly – in 2015 that there was a “perception” that the Trust was too middle class, she was accused of patronising supporters.

When she pointed out – correctly – that the NT had started life as a protector of open spaces as well as just buildings, and announced that the Trust would focus more on acquiring land, not stately homes, she was condemned as a politically-correct busybody (even though the Trust’s open spaces attract ten times more visitors than its houses). Other charges include spoiling country views with garish signage, scraping the barrel by buying up Agatha Christies’ former holiday home, ruining the interior of Ickworth House in Suffolk by taking out pieces of historic furniture and replacing them with brown leather beanbags, and intrusively asking volunteers to divulge their sexuality.

The Trust’s critics have even argued that the recent fire that devastated one of the Trust’s foremost eighteenth century mansions, Clandon Park in Surrey, was somehow the result of Ghosh’s lack of interest. “Is the National Trust to blame?” asked a nudge-nudge headline in the Daily Mail. Its reporter had tracked down Teresa Onslow, Auberon Waugh’s widow, who’d grown up in the house and now urged others not to hand over their stately homes to such a negligent custodian.

Then there were the Easter Eggs: last April the Trust was (falsely) accused of airbrushing the word ‘Easter’ from its annual chocolate hunt, prompting Theresa May to condemn the Trust as “absolutely ridiculous” (Kremlinologists pointed out that Ghosh – a former permanent secretary at the Home Office – is said not to have got along well with May when she was Home Secretary). And then this summer saw the rainbow lanyard saga. As part of a ‘Prejudice and Pride’ campaign – “political claptrap”, wrote Harry Mount in the Mail the Trust had ordered staff and volunteers at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk to wear Gay Pride lanyards or else “step back”, only to then perform a sudden U-turn and announce that the lanyards were voluntary. The Trust “has been hijacked by a lethal combination of catastrophic dumbing-down, social engineering, rampant politicisation and intolerance of opposing views,” fumed Mount. Continue reading

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Victoria’s secret: how a carbuncle got away with it

CIMG8888.JPGBuilding Design magazine’s awarding of its Carbuncle Cup for this year’s worst new building to Nova, a new office and retail development around the corner from London’s Victoria Station, sets off predictable reactions. How could it have been built? Who in their right mind would give it planning permission? And why didn’t someone do something to stop it?

I have some experience of the Carbuncle Cup: in 2014 it was given to the Woolwich Central development (a huge Tesco’s with flats on top, considerably dumbed-down by cost-cutting on the way from  drawing board to completion), whose planning permission was granted by a Greenwich planning committee I had chaired ten years ago. But Woolwich was – and arguably still is – an obscure corner of south-east London, while Nova is at the very heart of London. What is this development  – which unless you live or work in Victoria, few would have heard of until now – and how did it come about?

Rather than the Nova development as a whole, the Cup’s only been awarded to Nova North and Nova South, two 16-storey office blocks by PLP Architecture described by judges as “a hideous mess”, a “crass assault on all your senses”, and a “demented preening cockerel”.  A residential building to the west, by Benson & Forsyth (architects of the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh), and to the east Lynch Architects’ L-shaped block containing a new public library, are rather better. But they’re not enough to redeem the rest. The whole of this huge 2.5-hectare development – bordered by Bressenden Place, Buckingham Palace Road and Victoria Street – is a shambles.


Nova’s construction cranes above the Palace Theatre, 2016

On paper it’s great of course. Its marketing material says Nova is “a game changing 897,000 square feet mixed use scheme delivering 603,000 square feet of world class Grade A offices, 193,000 square feet of contemporary high quality apartments, 85,000 square feet of inventive and inspirational restaurants, eateries, bars, and retail”.

The developers once crowed that they would create a “covetable workspace for innovative global businesses, a destination for exciting, concept shopping, and a distinctive, ever-changing cultural space”. Nova is “More than a development… [it’s] a campus, a village, a district, a quarter, a landmark, a place to live, work and enjoy. Because it’s completely new. It’s Nova”. Some people, the blurb added, “think all the large scale, redefining, landmark developments in central London have already been done. We think differently… Nova is an architecturally daring development on a grand scale, creating a vibrant new link between Victoria Station and Buckingham Palace and the Royal Parks, and definitively crowning the recent reinvention of Victoria.”

Sadly no one at Westminster Council had their bullshit detectors on when this guff was written. Why not? Victoria is often seen merely as a transport interchange, through which passengers pass as quickly as they can, or at best a transitional area between Belgravia, St James’, Pimlico and Westminster.  Continue reading

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Peterborough: how an ancient city became a New Town

In praise of ordinary places logoThere are few pleasures like exploring an unfamiliar town on foot for the first time. A new series of posts on this website, In Praise of Ordinary Places, looks at Middle England towns that are overlooked by tourists (Oxford, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon need not apply). This is the antidote to Crap Towns. I’ll speak as I find and won’t overlook ugliness, tackiness and misery. But I’ll also celebrate authenticity, unexpected surprises, and the ordinariness of places that rarely feature in Best Places to Live contests. Having started with Bedford and Northampton I now turn to a cathedral city to the east: Peterborough.

CIMG3897Don’t be put off by the industrial estates and roundabouts that girdle the place: Peterborough is, at heart, an ancient cathedral city, albeit much expanded since it was designated as a New Town in the 1960s.

And its cathedral is something very special indeed. Its nave is as impressive as Wells or Durham, its perpendicular fan vaulting is as impressive as Westminster Abbey, and its west front is as impressive as Lincoln or York.

It started life as the abbey of Medeshamstede in 655: it’s an accident that the city’s modern name didn’t end up as Medhampstead. The abbey soon became one of the most important Christian centres amidst the upheavals of Dark Ages England. It was burnt, and all its monks massacred, by the Danes in 870, but it was rebuilt by 972 and dedicated to St Peter. Thus the town began to be known not as Medeshamstede but as St Peter’s Burgh: Peterborough has exactly the same etymological roots as St Petersburg.

In about 1070 the abbey and its outbuildings were burnt again by Hereward the Wake and a force of Danes, who hauled off its treasure. After yet another fire in 1116 the abbey was rebuilt once more and much of this Norman cathedral, with an Early English west front of about 1210, survives today. Next year marks the 900th anniversary of its founding in 1118.

Peterborough is thus one of the greatest medieval cathedrals, and arguably one of the most important 12th-century buildings, in England. Despite Cromwell’s soldiers’ vandalism in the civil war, its still remarkably intact. It has many of the features of a showstopping cathedral: a Norman gatehouse, cloisters, a pretty (if small) close with fine limestone buildings (one of which contains an exemplary new visitor centre). Continue reading

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Northampton, a town that needs to grow up and become a city

In praise of ordinary places logoThere are few pleasures like exploring an unfamiliar town on foot for the first time. A new series of posts on this website, In Praise of Ordinary Places, looks at Middle England towns that are overlooked by tourists (Oxford, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon need not apply). This is the antidote to Crap Towns. I’ll speak as I find and won’t overlook ugliness, tackiness and misery. But I’ll also celebrate authenticity, unexpected surprises, and the ordinariness of places that rarely feature in Best Places to Live contests. I started with Bedford and my second outing is to another county town 20 miles away: Northampton.


It feels a bit like London’s West End did back in the 80s: there’s a lot of downmarket employment and letting agencies, and a lot of takeaways, sticky pavements and pigeon droppings.

Northampton’s many things – a county town for almost 1,100 years, a boot and shoe capital, a 1970s boomtown – but chic it is not. Historically it’s been ignored rather than ridiculed; it hasn’t been the butt of jokes as Slough, Blackpool or Milton Keynes have. But that may be changing. The 2015 Channel 4 comedy series Not Safe for Work centred on a civil servant, played by Zawe Ashton, who’s forcibly relocated from London to Northampton (“Not Northampton….” sighs Ashton in the show’s trailer). In the latest series of Line of Duty a character cited “A work function in Northampton” as an alibi (“sounds amusingly tedious”, wrote the Telegraph’s TV reviewer).

“Is Northampton rubbish?” asked Ross Noble in an episode of his Freewheeling series last year. The answer from locals was a qualified yes. A Northamptonian’s DIY documentary on YouTube tells a similar story: “Northampton’s not what it was”, ”Too many kebab shops,” “An OK cinema,” “Lots of good bars and clubs,” “Too many charity shops” and “When you see the lift tower you know you’ve come home” are the most complimentary vox pops. If Northampton ain’t rubbish it’s certainly dull, average and ordinary, these answers suggest.

You don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to find the real gripes: “Too many immigrants”, ”You hardly ever hear English spoken on the street any more”, and so on.  Northampton’s always been a cosmopolitan place (it had one of England’s largest communities of Jews until their expulsion in 1290) but the arrival of tens of thousands of non-white immigrants since the 1960s is still resented by some. Because of its central location and proximity to the M1, the town has many warehouses, distribution centres and “logistics hubs” which depend on cheap migrant labour. More eastern Europeans have arrived in Northampton in the last decade than almost any other English town, causing some tensions (in 2012 the Daily Mail reported on a “shanty town” of homeless migrants just off the A45).

Like its near-neighbour Bedford (with which I started this series back in April) Northampton has an image problem. The place constantly talks itself down: when I first visited All Saints, the town’s main church, the churchwarden lamented the town’s “dreadful modern buildings” rather than proselytise about the church and the town’s other ancient glories. This town wears its antiquity lightly, and takes a lot for granted. Continue reading

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To win next time, Labour must overcome its Midland problem


The 2016 Christmas market in Birmingham. The city’s benefitted from huge investment but too little of it has reached the rest of the Midlands

Theresa May is utterly humiliated, forced to rely on the Democratic Unionists for a majority. Jeremy Corbyn has exceeded all expectations. Far from losing ground, Labour made a net gain of 30 seats – not just in the north and Wales but in London, the south-east, south-west and Scotland. Corbyn’s critics have been silenced and his position as leader is now in no doubt. Theresa May, by contrast, is on borrowed time, as is her government. The prospect of another general election, either later this year or early in 2018, looms large.

I was on the doorstep in Bedford – one of the seats that Labour unexpectedly gained – on election day and it was clear that something was afoot. To my surprise, no doors were slammed in our faces: instead Labour voters were turning out in their droves, as were former Tory and UKIP voters and those who’d never voted before.

But it’s easy to forget, amidst all the jubilation on the centre-left, that Labour lost this election. Badly. Labour won 262 seats, nine fewer than Kinnock did in 1992, and only three more than Gordon Brown in 2010. Given that both 1992 and 2010 are remembered as catastrophic defeats for Labour, it’s difficult to see the 2017 result as a triumphant success.

Like most observers my predictions were way out: in a blogpost on the eve of the election I predicted a Tory majority of 55. But the gist of my argument – that Theresa May would do better than she deserved to, and that Labour had no chance of winning – still held true. Exceeding expectations is not the same as winning. Continue reading

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