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Promises of transparency often come back to haunt politicians. There’s an ever present danger that anyone promising or championing openness will, at some point, be hoisted by their own petard.  David Cameron is currently finding this out over his tax affairs.

In the US candidates and office holders regularly publish their tax returns as a matter of course, as well as their medical check-ups (except, it seems, Donald Trump). You can see Hillary Clinton’s returns here and Bernie Sander’s (possibly not complete) ones here. Details of Obama’s falling income are on the White House website and you can see Reagan’s, Nixon’s, Truman’s and some of FDR’s on the great Tax History project site.

The tax and financial affairs of political leaders in the UK are a little less automatically public. This is fortunate for them, as many Prime Minister’s financial affairs have been rather questionable, less in law than in what it tells us about them, from the tangled finances of Lloyd George to Winston Churchill’s hand to mouth existence and vast spending (not to mention Tony Blair’s post office money making).

However, the tax affairs of politicians became a bigger issue in the 2012 London Mayoral Campaign, when Labour candidate Ken Livingstone was attacked for his arrangements. It cropped up again in this year’s contest when Zac Goldmsith released his returns following allegations of his non-dom status. It’s also become a little more common for senior politicians to publish and be damned-you can see Labour Chancellor John McDonnell’s returns here.

Cameron’s particular difficulties are not legal, as he has done nothing against the law, but rather presentational. First, in 2012 Cameron very clearly promised to publish his returns and was ‘said to be relaxed and happy’ about it-conveniently just when Ken Livingstone was having difficulties (though perhaps too relaxed as by 2015 they still weren’t published with no plans to do so). The media have been handed a very obvious promise to work with-and it seems now Cameron’s returns will be published very soon.

Second, he has made a very high profile bid to tackle tax evasion through Beneficial Ownership, and spoken out repeatedly against tax havens, not once but three times in this speech at the OGP summit in 2013, in his letter to all British Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies in 2014 and his berating of tax havens again in 2015.  He also criticised various people involved in various types of evasion, including comedian Jimmy Carr and Take That (though he let Gary Barlow keep his OBE). More generally, in 2010, he promised ‘a transparency revolution’ and to make ‘our government one of the most open and transparent in the world’. This, of course, opens him up to charges of hypocrisy and double standards.

Finally, Cameron came close to falling into what you could call the Lyndon Johnson trap of being made to publically deny something. He spent 4-5 days appearing to evade full answers to questions about his tax, perilously close to Alastair Campbell’s seven day survivability test. It’s possible a full answer Sunday or Monday would have put it to rest, or at least made it look less worse.

So Cameron’s promises have come back to haunt him. YouGov shows his ratings have slipped to 2013 levels (and Ken has got his revenge by calling on him to resign and be sent to prison). He joins a long list of leaders from Woodrow Wilson to Tony Blair and Barack Obama who got trapped in their own transparency promises. He probably wishes he had been a little less open about being open.

John McDonnell & Joseph Stiglitz Event

Last week Birkbeck Politics hosted Nobel Prize-winning economist Professor Joseph Stiglitz for a lecture jointly organised with Birkbeck’s Department of Politics and chaired by Birkbeck alumus John McDonnell MP, the Shadow Chancellor.
John McDonnell & Joseph Stiglitz Event
Professor Stiglitz tackled a host of issues in his talk, looking at how the enormous growth in inequality over the last thirty years, especially in the USA and UK, has shaped our world. His lecture ranged from charting inequality to Brexit and TTIP as well as the need for targetted programmes to help the needy-you can see press coverage of his speech here and here.
John McDonnell & Joseph Stiglitz Event
To find out more, you can see Professor Stiglitz’s papers, books and articles here and  read more of his ideas in his Guardian columns.

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On Sunday evening, Boris Johnson, with the zeal of a convert or the scheming of a Machiavellian, has decided to join the ‘Outers’. Here’s 3 reasons why it doesn’t matter:

Reason 1: Boris isn’t that popular. Remember, Heineken isn’t that strong. I’m intrigued by the poll in the Evening Standard that claimed ‘he could be a game-changer in the historic vote’ as ‘one in three people regard him as “important” to deciding whether they vote In or Out’. Putting aside exactly what ‘important’ means, the statistics are revealing. 32 % of those asked said Boris could be ‘important’ but a full 28 % said Theresa May’s and George Osborne’s views were important-only 4 % points behind Boris (and 23 %, by the way, identified Stuart Rose as ‘important’ too). So if, as the report claimed, Boris could ‘partly’ cancel out Cameron’s influence, presumably May and Osbourne could do the same to Johnson? Boris’ position as ‘the most popular politician’ is often cited though his reach to UKIP voters is probably rather unnecessary– and it looks like Nicola Sturgeon pipped Boris in the popularity stakes at least once.

Reason 2: Boris doesn’t do arguments. As Janan Ganesh argues in the FT ‘voters like Mr Johnson. But they like Judi Dench too. Liking someone and deferring to their judgment on a serious question are different things’. As a number of people have argued, what the Leave campaign needs, above all, is a serious alternative vision, equivalent to the Scottish YES campaign’s positive, mobilising narrative. Boris hangs hilariously from aerial slides but he doesn’t really do ideas or arguments, just quips and ‘mishaps’. Cameron’s speech last night in Parliament was perhaps a taste of the gravitas, clarity and seriousness the Remain campaign will deploy. Judging by his question in Parliament, Boris’ re-joiner will be about ‘soveregnity’ a word not even constitutional lawyers agree on. And there is no nuance or wriggle room in a vote to leave.

Reason 3: Boris doesn’t do teams and messages. Being the Mayor of London is (or was) the perfect job for Boris, where he can be a maverick, a loose cannon and is able to rail against everyone and everything. His record when part of an organised group e.g. in the shadow cabinet, is much less glittering given his tendency to be rather egocentric or, as one unkind review put it, a gold medal egomaniac. How will he fare as part of an organised group with a message and a ‘line to take’?

Boris cites his great hero Winston Churchill. However, for most of the 1930s Churchill, a similarly gold medal level egotist, entangled himself in a series of failed and doomed campaigns, from the cross-party ‘arms and the covenant’ rearmament initiative (which he almost wrecked), to supporting Edward the VIII and a bizarre solo effort to stop Indian independence. Churchill was very much, and very often, on the wrong side of history, and only his later struggle against appeasement saved him.

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Last night, Michael Crick quoted an unhappy MP who spoke of another Churchill, Winston Churchill’s dad, Randolph (above). He was also a famous politician, gifted, witty and talked about as a future Prime Minister in the 1880s and 1890s. Randolph had, as Winston wrote of his father, ‘the showman’s knack of drawing public attention to everything he said or did’. Why did his career end? Boris take note-he gambled and took sides against his own party and leader on a fundamental debate in British politics. And lost, never to return.

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In the past year British politics has got (even more) interesting, uncertain and unpredictable. On Wednesday 17th February staff from the Birkbeck Politics Department Joni Lovenduski, Tony Wright, Rosie Campbell and Jason Edwards joined together to discuss the state and health of British democracy in 2016. Should we congratulate ourselves or be concerned?

The talk ranged from where Britain stood in the world league table of democracy (good but could do better) to the growth of inequality and the rise of populism, both good and bad. The audience questions then ranged across celebrity politics, the EU referendum, local government and the quality of the UK’s political debate and discussion.

If you want to hear more about all these issue, and find out what gardening tells us about politics and how John Redwood can change your life, listen to the podcast below.

david_bowie_by_alexwomersley-d5g9foa                                           Image courtesy of Alex Wormersley

 As with almost everything about David Bowie, no one is sure exactly what his politics were. The Mirror claims he turned down an OBE and a knighthood in the 2000s. In 1977 he is quoted as saying ‘the more I travel and the less sure I am about exactly which political philosophies are commendable’. Nevertheless, many have seen ways in which Bowie’s career could provide lessons for how we do politics.

David Bowie rarely indulged directly in politics or political slogans. His lyrics seemed to deal obliquely with it across his career-from ‘Now the workers have struck for fame’ in ‘Life on Mars’, his 1996 song ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ to the album Diamond Dogs, based on George Orwell’s 1984. However, direct ‘interventions’ seemed rare and a little unclear, as with his plea for the union and Scotland to vote No to independence in 2014, sent via Kate Moss, or this rather entertaining acceptance of a Brit award in 1996 from a young Tony Blair. This didn’t, of course, stop his fans who seem, on the whole, left-wing (and also fans of scrabble, Patrick Moore and Monty Python, according to YouGov).

But Bowie was not apolitical. In the 1970s Bowie challenged entrenched gender and sexuality stereotypes at a time when few would. Jarvis Cocker has said how Bowie sent out the message that it was OK to be different while the Mirror speakers of how the singer’s ‘radical, gender-busting personas turned traditional conservative views upside down and widened what was acceptable in society’. He also wrote about the world around him, describing events from the space race to divided Berlin (the German Foreign Ministry today publically thanked him for helping to bring down the Berlin Wall).

At the same time, his championing of different cultures pushed all sorts of new ideas into society-look over his top 100 books, covering everything from a memoir of Stalin’s Gulags to Viz magazine. He popularised of whole kaleidoscope of new sounds and visions to new audiences, from German electronic music to Soul, while also experimenting with what people insist on calling ‘world music’. And his message reached a huge, diverse number of people.

In this way, David Bowie was a very political animal, in the same way that Elvis Presley or the Beatles were. None of them urged ‘revolution’ or told people how to vote. Elvis was rather conservative, John Lennon asked to be counted ‘out’ of the revolution (or maybe ‘in’-he wasn’t sure) and David Bowie was too wide-ranging or elliptical to join any one party. But like these other musical legends, in challenging convention, the Man Who fell to Earth tore down barriers and opened up new worlds. David Bowie made people think differently about the world around them. And that is very political.

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Last Monday we found out what it’s really like to work for an MP courtesy of Rob Dale (@robandale),  when he spoke about his new book How to Be A Parliamentary Researcher.

  • Is it exciting?
  • Is it hard work?
  • Do you get to hear all sorts of information you shouldn’t?
  • Can you make a difference?
  • Is it more like the West Wing, House of Cards or In The Thick of It?

As Rob explains here researchers are the unsung heroes of Westminster ‘parliamentary researchers are required to support and guide their boss through these new pressures, whilst also helping them with the more traditional aspects of the role: speaking in the House of Commons, tabling questions, establishing campaigns, appearing in the media and attending many, many meetings. It is their responsibility to do much of the legwork so that their boss can focus on his or her main job; performing.’

In his talk he offered a whole range of advice from how to write the perfect CV (tailor it), how to get ahead (get campaigning) and how to do the best you can (make friends, get contacts, pay attention!).

To hear it all and our later discussion about Parliament with Rob, the Parly app creator Tony Grew and our own Susan McClaren listen in here http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/11/fighting-for-a-place-in-parliament-an-evening-with-robert-dale/

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John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor and former Birkbeck student spoke to staff and students at an event organised by the politics department. He was questioned by Joni Lovenduski over gender representation and came out in support of legislative quotas for women and job shares, though he challenged the ‘19th century’ idea that the top Shadow Cabinet jobs such as Foreign secretary were still the most important. He acknowledged that the Parliamentary Labour party was not wholly in favour of its new leadership but promised that the party would remain a broad church and democratic, with space for dissent and different views. The new activists who had joined since September, he hoped, would radicalise the party.

In answering to Dermot Hodson’s questioning on political economy issues, he discusses the U-turn over George Osborne’s Fiscal Charter in terms of the time pressures of taking office and the urgency of repositioning Labour as the party of anti-austerity in spite of short-term costs to economic credibility. In answer to Hodson’s question about the EU referendum, McDonnell said that Labour would be entering the Brexit debate on its own terms, including through cooperation with other parties on the European left. When asked by Ben Worthy inspirational figures he name checked, unsurprisingly, the great 1940s Labour reformer Clement Attlee but, less expectedly, the artful balancer of the 1960s and 1970s Harold Wilson. He was less convinced when Alex Colas asked him for his most admired Conservative leader. He argued that, amid the political ‘insurgencies’ of Left and Right the rules of political leadership had now changed.

There were then searching crowd-sourced audience questions on a whole range of topics, from whether Labour could build a winning electoral coalition to dealing with rebels, press regulation and sacrificing principles for power. He argued that a winning coalition did exist among the majority of anti-conservative voters if the message was right, but felt the first round of elections in Scotland, London and local government in May 2016 may be tough. Party rebels [which McDonnell and Corbyn used to be] would face a barrage of ‘tea and sympathy’ and the public would be reached not through the main stream press but on the stump and through social media. He suggested more change was coming, supporting a PR elected House of Lords of the regions and initiatives around national savings bank and a series of gender based policy reviews.

John McDonnell was an MSc. student at Birkbeck between 1978 and 1981 under the great Bernard Crick, before entering politics and becoming Deputy Leader of the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone and standing for Parliament in 1997. Studying politics at Birkbeck had given him a rounded, deeper understanding of politics and, he said, a fear of essay deadlines.

To hear more listen to the podcast here http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/11/in-conversation-with-john-mcdonnell/

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In Conversation with John McDonnell 5th November 2015, 6.30pm 

Labour Shadow Chancellor and Birkbeck alumnus John McDonnell will be speaking at Birkbeck on November the 5th. He will draw on his long career and experience of more than 18 years in Parliament to speak about his politics and current plans before opening up to a Q and A session with staff and students. This will be a unique opportunity to hear from one of the most important new figures in the Labour party and British politics.

Admission is free but it is necessary to reserve a place at

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/birkbeck-politics-in-conversation-with-john-mcdonnell-tickets-19273323028

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Birkbeck Politics Department’s Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos contributed to a debate in the Guardian on the EU:

The European parliament’s directly elected members wield significant powers, ranging from shaping the EU’s budget to the appointment of the European commission, as well as the content and scope of EU legislation (such as directives). These powers have increased dramatically since the early 1990s and – as Mr Cameron discovered last year – now ordinary citizens can have a direct impact on who becomes the president of the European commission, ie the head of the EU’s main executive body. In the past, the European parliament has also acted as the EU’s collective conscience and has blocked agreements with countries whose human rights record was poor. Clearly, if one ignores this institution, the picture that emerges from one’s analysis of the EU is, at best, flawed.

Dr Dionyssis Dimitrakopoulos
Department of politics, Birkbeck, University of London

See the debate here