Tuesday, 12 May 2015

David Runciman, foaming at the mouth

Left wingers get so emotional, don't they? It's not enough for them to say that their opponents are people of good faith who are sadly mistaken about the importance of deficit reduction - they have to say that their opponents are evil people, intent on cutting for the sake of it, who would love nothing more than putting the NHS in a workhouse and birching it, or something like that, purely because they have sold their souls to the devil. Even if the differences between the parties are pretty small, the sense of moral outrage somehow seems the same: effective overall tax rate of 40% - outrageous, the poor dying on the streets! Effective overall tax rate of 41% - the new Jerusalem, socialist paradise!

It's definitely asymmetric. There is no equivalent to the phrase "Tory bastard". In fact, there is hardly any real equivalent to "Tory", said with that sneer of disapproval that is bizarrely acceptable in polite company.

All of which is just part of life's rich tapestry, you might say, but I don't think it is good for the psychological health of left wingers. "Were you up for Portillo?" they still ask, taking positive pleasure in having seen a human being lose an honest livelihood, his dreams crushed before their eyes. Right wingers will happily concede that Ed Balls turns out to be gracious, human and impressive in defeat and as for Nick Clegg, well, surely no one delights in his tears. But left wingers seem to have so much anger inside them, just waiting to be unleashed. Isn't it all rather tiring?

Which leads me to the frankly comic spectacle of David Runciman in the LRB. He is certainly angry about the election, but beyond that, who knows what he is saying. I've had a go at understanding it below.

Runciman starts by saying that majority governments of left and right have failed to address the "fundamental long-term problems this country faces". Then he says that coalitions are better than majority governments because there are "more barriers in the way of any single political faction or grouping being able to call the shots" and that "makes it harder to do anything reckless". Right, I understand this argument: it's that old (small-c) conservative argument that ends up talking about checks and balances and the US constitution. But, hang on, you say, doesn't all that also make it harder to deal with those fundamental problems he was talking about? Shush - we'll take questions later.

Runciman then says that a Labour-SNP coalition would have been good: "It would indeed have been extremely messy and there would have been an almost intolerable level of grumbling about the lack of transparency and the inevitable compromises required to keep it going. But those compromises and backroom deals are precisely what might have made it an improvement on what had gone before and on what we’ve got instead." Wait - an improvement on the compromises and backroom deals of the Conservative-LibDem coalition? I said: questions later. The Runciman anger-train moves quickly.

You might have spotted that the Election was a bit like 1992 - small surprising Conservative majority. And that got a bit messy. Runciman's spotted that too. Presumably he's pleased, you're thinking,  as that means that there will be inevitable compromises and backroom deals, just as he likes? No! This is "the wrong sort of mess." Just like the wrong sort of snow - right-wing snow, maybe. "It is blackmail and veto power, with small groups clamouring to get what they want from the people in charge. ... It is what Francis Fukuyama has called a ‘vetocracy’, which means a system that puts barriers in the way of reform more than it does in the way of social decay." And that is different from the SNP clamouring to get what it wants from Labour how? I mean, is it just that stopping what Runciman likes is bad but stopping what he doesn't like is good? Sorry, there's no time for questions now.

Runciman does, however, have a way forward: "for Labour it is finally time to abandon the idea that its primary purpose is to secure majorities in the House of Commons and that it should do nothing to put that prize at risk." Well, if the Conservatives concentrate on the majorities and the good or bad mess that comes with that, while Labour concentrates on not having a majority then I think everyone can be happy. I admit he doesn't sound happy, but I'm sure Runciman can watch some repeats of Portillo losing his seat and that will cheer him up.

Finally, please don't tell Runciman but what he says about inequality and PR is wrong too. As the UN tells us: "In general, income inequality has increased in countries and regions that enjoyed relatively low levels of inequality in 1990, and has declined in some countries that still suffer from high inequality. Namely, some large, emerging economies, and the large majority of developed countries, have experienced sharp rises in Gini coefficients since 1990, including Nordic countries with traditionally low levels of inequality. The rise in income inequality has been particularly fast in Eastern Europe." Also "In the United States of America, for instance, the share of wealth owned by the top 1 per cent was slightly lower in 2001 ... than in 1983" - maybe that's because the vetocracy worked a bit like the SNP for a few years. Or maybe it's because inequality is not that much to do with whether you have PR or not....?

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