Deniers, bankers and royal snappers

Climate change deniers should reveal whether they hold lucrative 'catastrophe' bonds

With the global warming deniers at their most vociferous during the Copenhagen summit, here is a way to test the strength of their convictions. Ask if they hold cat bonds. "Cat" is short for "catastrophe" and the bonds, mostly issued by insurance companies, give a far higher rate
of return than any conventional corporate, bank or government investment. The snag is that you lose everything if large numbers of hurricanes and floods occur.

For those who don't think global warming is happening or that it will play havoc with the climate, this investment should be a no-brainer. Melanie Phillips, Christopher Booker, Peter Hitchens, Lord Lawson and other prominent "sceptics" are invited to drop a postcard to me at the New Statesman revealing whether or not they hold such bonds. (No proof required; they are honourable, God-fearing folk on whose word I am prepared to rely.) If they are indeed putting their money where their considerable mouths are, I might start taking them seriously.

Left bankers

Whatever the outcome of the proposals by the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, on bankers' bonuses, they are merely a gesture. They won't make any difference to the underlying state of affairs.

It is often said that, if you owe the bank a few thousand pounds, it's your problem. If you owe it several million, it's the bank's problem. Now the banks owe us, the taxpayers, tens of billions, and it is very much our problem. That is why the outcome of the financial crisis was not, as we lefties hoped, that the banks were humbled, but that their interests moved higher up the government agenda than ever. The dil­emma for ministers is that anything that weakens indebted banks - by, for example, wholly prohibiting bonuses at RBS so that its smarter traders defect to rivals overseas - also weakens their capacity to repay the taxpayer and thus repair the public finances. So enormous are the banks' debts, and so weakened is the capacity of other industries to produce tax revenues, that the interests of the state are now coterminous with those of the financial services sector. We have government of the bankers, by the bankers, for the bankers.

No minister dare admit this, let alone act to resolve the dilemma by fully nationalising the banks, selling off their dodgy investment operations and keeping the bits that look after our savings and hand out mortgages. Even if they did that, they would have to employ bankers, at exorbitant fees, to make the necessary arrangements. Thanks to Tory and Labour governments of the past 30 years, we cannot escape the bankers.

Why has the left - the true left, not New Labour - been so hopelessly wrong-footed by this crisis? Because if we lefties truly believed in the wickedness of capitalism and the desirability of its destruction, we would have wanted just about every financial institution to collapse, wiping out savings, pension funds and insurance policies. Fourteen months ago, we were very close to that. This was the revolutionary moment, with capitalism foundering, as Marx predicted, on its own contradictions. How many of us shouted "Bring it on"? We cannot, at this stage, expect Darling to engineer a more satisfactory solution.

Photo shopped

The whining Windsors are at it again. The royal family "will no longer tolerate" the use of telephoto lenses to snatch pictures of them "at play", the Sunday Telegraph reports. No doubt they hope that anyone who loiters near Sandringham or Balmoral carrying a camera will soon be subject to the anti-terrorist "stop-and-search" procedures that are used, according to the Independent, against innocent tourists snapping St Paul's Cathedral.
I sympathise with Fabio Capello, the England football manager, who successfully complained about press breaches of his privacy. His job is to win football matches. The Windsors' job is to be gawped at, preferably while battering harmless birds to death, thus giving us all a frisson of outrage. There is no point in them, otherwise.

Say what you like . . .

When I was at the Independent on Sunday, we ran a little weekly feature called "Say what you like about". For example: "Say what you like about Saddam Hussein, but (1) he's got a terrific moustache, (2) he really hates the ayatollahs." This seems the only way to cope with the annoying resurgence of Peter Mandelson and Alas­tair Campbell. "Say what you like about Peter Mandelson, but (1) he used to have a terrific moustache, (2) if it weren't for him, David Miliband might be PM." Or: "Say what you like about Alastair Campbell, but (1) he's loyal to lost causes such as Burnley Football Club and New Labour, (2) he's introduced Gordon Brown to the concept of a joke." Playing this game, I find, helps one take a more positive attitude to life.

Capital crimes

New Statesman sub-editors will be aware that in this column, I have written, for the first time, New Labour with the "n" capped. NS style on this changed some time ago, but as a writer I have kept resolutely to the lower-case "n" used throughout my editorship, leaving the long-suffering subs to correct it. So here, for the last time, is the case for lower case.

Nobody, despite what Tony Blair said on election night in 1997, ever voted for a New Labour party. It did not and does not appear on ballot papers, official election returns or party-political broadcast titles. I hold a bright red card declaring my membership of "The Labour Party", not "The New Labour Party". However, New Labour will soon be history and I have decided the poor thing deserves, as a mark of respect for its dying agonies, the upper case.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.