Thomas Piketty with Labour strategist and peer Stewart Wood in The Gladstone Room in parliament. Photograph: George Eaton.
Show Hide image

Thomas Piketty comes to parliament: what we learned

A review of the French economist's appearance with Miliband strategist Stewart Wood.
 

After his recent bravura performance at IPPR, Thomas Piketty, the intellectual of the moment, appeared at parliament today in conversation with Ed Miliband's senior strategist Stewart Wood. The Labour peer and shadow cabinet office minister was one of the first in Westminster to recognise the significance of Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, tweeting before its British release: "Thomas Piketty's book predicting ever-growing inequality is making waves. We need to start debating how to respond." Today, in the cavernous surroundings of The Gladstone Room (where the PLP and the 1922 Committee hold their weekly meetings), they did just that.

The most politically notable moment of the event, hosted by Class, came when Piketty warned Labour that its planned top tax rate of 50 per cent was "too low" to significantly reduce inequality (caused, as he meticulously documents, by the tendency of the rate of return on capital to outstrip the average growth rate of the economy). The Frenchman rightly noted the absence of evidence to suggest that higher tax rates than this on "very high incomes" (defined as £1m+) will "damage the economy". Although polls show that most voters support a 60p rate, it is a reminder of Labour's self-imposed political limits that there is no prospect of Miliband supporting it (even the 50p rate has been cautiously defended as a temporary deficit reduction measure).

Piketty was warmer about the party's backing for a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2m, but urged it to go much further in taxing wealth in general. One of the justifications he offered was that this would enable governments to reduce taxes on the poor and allow them to begin accumulating capital.

He emphasised, however, that redistribution was a necessary but insufficient solution to inequality. As well as taxing the wealthy more and the poorest less, the state must also engage in "predistribution": stopping inequality before it starts. On the day that the Lib Dems pledged to ring-fence the education budget in future coalitions, he championed investment in education and skills, and a higher minimum wage as the key to a more equal society.

While Piketty is often assumed to be a revolutionary socialist (partly owing to his book's conscious allusion to Marx), his comments today were a reminder that he is actually a mainstream social democrat. He noted several times that he has "no problem with inequality per se" and argued that "up to a certain point, it can be useful for innovation and for growth".  It was "extreme inequality" that was indefensible, he said.

Challenged by my former NS colleague Mehdi Hasan on whether Labour's programme was truly bold enough to respond to Piketty's diagnosis, Wood emphasised the party's commitment to both redistribution and predistribution and said he was keen to encourage "debate" among all parts of the political spectrum on how to do more.

Among the wonkish discussion, some light relief was supplied by Len McCluskey. In his question to Wood, the Unite general secretary mistakenly referred to him as an Arsenal fan. The lifelong Liverpool supporter, whose official title is Lord Wood of Anfield and whose Twitter avatar is the club's badge, looked appropriately mortified.

P.S. I interviewed Wood earlier today on Piketty's work and will be posting the conversation on The Staggers later this week.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why is it called Storm Doris? The psychological impact of naming a storm

“Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person.”

“Oh, piss off Doris,” cried the nation in unison this morning. No, it wasn't that everyone's local cantankerous old lady had thwacked our ankles with her stick. This is a different, more aggressive Doris. Less Werther’s, more extreme weathers. Less bridge club, more bridge collapse.

This is Storm Doris.

A storm that has brought snow, rain, and furious winds up to 94mph to parts of the UK. There are severe weather warnings of wind, snow and ice across the entire country.

But the real question here is: why is it called that? And what impact does the new Met Office policy of naming storms have on us?

Why do we name storms?

Storm Doris is the latest protagonist in the Met Office’s decision to name storms, a pilot scheme introduced in winter 2015/16 now in its second year.

The scheme was introduced to draw attention to severe weather conditions in Britain, and raise awareness of how to prepare for them.

How do we name storms?

The Name our Storms initiative invites the public to suggest names for storms. You can do this by tweeting the @metoffice using the #nameourstorms hashtag and your suggestion, through its Facebook page, or by emailing them.

These names are collated along with suggestions from Met Éireann and compiled into a list. These are whittled down into 21 names, according to which were most suggested – in alphabetical order and alternating between male and female names. This is done according to the US National Hurricane Naming convention, which excludes the letters Q, U, X, Y and Z because there are thought to be too few common names beginning with these letters.

They have to be human names, which is why suggestions in this list revealed by Wired – including Apocalypse, Gnasher, Megatron, In A Teacup (or Ena Tee Cup) – were rejected. The Met Office received 10,000 submissions for the 2016/17 season. According to a spokesperson, a lot of people submit their own names.

Only storms that could have a “medium” or “high” wind impact in the UK and Ireland are named. If there are more than 21 storms in a year, then the naming system starts from Alpha and goes through the Greek alphabet.

The names for this year are: Angus (19-20 Nov ’16), Barbara (23-24 Dec 2016), Conor (25-26 Dec 2016), Doris (now), Ewan, Fleur, Gabriel, Holly, Ivor, Jacqui, Kamil, Louise, Malcolm, Natalie, Oisín, Penelope, Robert, Susan, Thomas, Valerie and Wilbert.

Why does this violent storm have the name of an elderly lady?

Doris is an incongruous name for this storm, so why was it chosen? A Met Office spokesperson says they were just at that stage in their list of names, and there’s no link between the nature of the storm and its name.

But do people send cosy names for violent weather conditions on purpose? “There’s all sorts in there,” a spokesperson tells me. “People don’t try and use cosy names as such.”

What psychological impact does naming storms have on us?

We know that giving names to objects and animals immediately gives us a human connection with them. That’s why we name things we feel close to: a pet owner names their cat, a sailor names their boat, a bore names their car. We even name our virtual assistants –from Microsoft’s Clippy to Amazon’s Alexa.

This gives us a connection beyond practicality with the thing we’ve named.

Remember the response of Walter Palmer, the guy who killed Cecil the Lion? “If I had known this lion had a name and was important to the country or a study, obviously I wouldn’t have taken it,” he said. “Nobody in our hunting party knew before or after the name of this lion.”

So how does giving a storm a name change our attitude towards it?

Evidence suggests that we take it more seriously – or at least pay closer attention. A YouGov survey following the first seven named storms in the Met Office’s scheme shows that 55 per cent of the people polled took measures to prepare for wild weather after hearing that the oncoming storm had been named.

“There was an immediate acceptance of the storm names through all media,” said Gerald Fleming, Head of Forecasting at Met Éireann, the Irish metereological service. “The severe weather messages were more clearly communicated.”

But personalising a storm can backfire. A controversial US study in 2014 by PNAC (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) claimed that hurricanes with female names lead to higher death tolls – the more “feminine” the name, like Belle or Cindy, the higher the death toll. This is not because female names are attached to more severe storms; it is reportedly because people take fewer steps to prepare for storms with names they perceive to be unintimidating or weak.

“In judging the intensity of a storm, people appear to be applying their beliefs about how men and women behave,” Sharon Shavitt, a co-author of the study, told the FT at the time. “This makes a female-named hurricane . . . seem gentler and less violent.”

Names have social connotations, and affect our subconscious. Naming a storm can raise awareness of it, but it can also affect our behaviour towards it.

What’s it like sharing a name with a deadly storm?

We should also spare a thought for the impact sharing a name with a notorious weather event can have on a person. Katrina Nicholson, a nurse who lives in Glasgow, says it was “horrible” when the 2005 hurricane – one of the fifth deadliest ever in the US – was given her name.

“It was horrible having something so destructive associated with my name. Homes being destroyed and lives being lost shouldn’t be named after any person,” she tells me over email. “I actually remember at the time meeting an American tourist on a boat trip in Skye and when he heard my name he immediately linked it to the storm – although he quickly felt guilty and then said it was a lovely name! I think to this day there will be many Americans who hate my name because of it.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.