Monday, 30 March 2015

Vive les coalitions

I normally have a great respect for the opinions our former leader David Steel but was rather surprised to hear him reported last week as suggesting that in the event of another balanced parliament, if the party is in a position to make a choice  we should opt for offering "confidence and supply" to a minority government rather than enter another coalition.

Surely, as the party which believes that the main function of parliament is to represent the varied opinions of the people as broadly as practicable through proportional representation by STV we accept that, when parliament exercises its other function, as  an electoral college to select a government, coalitions are almost inevitable.

As we know to our cost, being inside and government and making a contribution is much harder and much less fun than remaining outside the government and just criticising.  Surely, and as Nick Clegg and Co wisely decided in 2010, the party exists to implement as many as possible of our policies, not just act as a source of useful suggestions. Think tanks can do that.

We have to our  credit a whole string of achievement which would not have happened had we been on the sidelines criticising rather than in government for the last five years.  To my mind by far and away the most important of these is the fixed term parliament, though our election strategists don't seem inclined to shout about this.  They prefer the raising of the income tax threshold, the triple lock pensions, the pupil premium, equality for mental health patients, the green investment bank etc.  (I have a list of another 17 if anyone is interested.)

So I hope that we shall be in a position to form part of the next government, and I believe it is counter-productive to make too many hostages to fortune by  saying too much about who we will and won't join with.  We must, as Simon Hughes aptly put in 2010, "play the cards the electorate deals."

So it is not wise to rule out joining a government along with, say, the SNP.  They, like us, will have to make sacrifices, and if they will, in the short run, settle for Home Rule rather than immediate independence, well, that's been Liberal/Liberal Democrat policy for a century, so why not?  And, as I've argued before, they have by far the best economic policy.

Liberal Democrats joining a government that also relies on the support of UKIP doesn't seem very likely.  (This is one of the two issues on which I agree with David Cameron: they are best regarded as "fruitcakes.") But if their major demand is for a referendum on Europe it wouldn't be the end of the world.  We have, after all (though wrongly in my view) said that we would have one if there were a major treaty change which transferred further powers to Europe, so having one anyway wouldn't be a great betrayal and would help to clear the air.  We should, have course, have to do what the Tories did on Electoral Reform; concede the referendum and then campaign for IN rather than out.

Of course to maximise our potential for being in government we have to win as many seats as possible, and then, this time, "play our cards right.".  So there is all to play for: we should not settle for second best -sniping from the sidelines.  We can leave that to Paxman et al.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

The Prime-minesterial "Debates": three losers.

According to the one opinion poll I've seen, Ed Miliband was the loser by 54% to 46%, though my own impression was that  Miliband's performance, in both content and presentation, was far superior to that of David Cameron.  That is probably because my views are more in sympathy with Miliband's than Cameron's: it is hard to be subjective in these matters.

Nevertheless, I do think Miliband missed two open goals in.  The first was in the interview with Jeremy Paxman, whose hectoring and repetitive:" Did the Labour government borrow too much?" was crying out for a firm: "No, we borrowed what was necessary to rescue the financial system from the chaos caused by the deregulation introduced and supported by the Tories."   But Miliband was frightened to give it

The second open goal was when Paxman repeatedly demanded of Miliband:  "Are you up to being prime-minister?"  Here I was longing  for the response:  "At least I have the guts to put up and try, whereas you, Mr Paxman, a self-declared Tory, turned down the opportunity to run for mayor of London."

Sadly in our system it is easier to win fame and monetary fortune by mocking politicians who are, however mistakenly, actually  trying to improve things,  than to put your own  time and reputation on the line by trying to do something yourself.

The second loser was the truth about the economy.  True Paxman pressed David Cameron hard on the growth of food banks under his watch, and received  the pathetic answer  that they have grown because the Government permits the Social Security services to recommend them to the destitute.  And a response as to whether or not Cameron himself could manage on a zero-hours contract, was long in coming - he couldn't, though, would you believe it, "Some people prefer them! "  I wonder who?

But the monotonous Conservative mantra that the government has turned the economy round from the mess made by Labour,  that as a result of  "tough decisions" it is now recovering and we are once again on the road to prosperity, and that it would be economic suicide to interfere with the "long term economic plan" went unchallenged.

The truth is that the government did indeed turn the economy round, from the modest recovery which was under way when Labour left office to stagnation which endured for two years before the famous "plan A" was surreptitiously abandoned, thus now, late in the day, producing a recovery rather dangerously fuelled by private debt encouraged by a housing bubble.

Sadly, even Labour is not prepared to defend its record, but shuffles uneasily with half-hearted admissions about having got some things wrong.  True, not everything the Labour Governments did in the economic field was perfect, but they should boldly say, repeating it as often as the Tory misrepresentations,  that the economic crisis began in Wall Street, not Downing Street, and that Gordon Brown, if he did not exactly "save the world", did, by prompt action, rescue our dodgy financial structure from collapse, and that  the present government has not yet done much in terms of effective reform.

The third loser was Britain's (or is it just England's?) reputation for good manners.  It is not acceptable to ask someone, even in private, let alone or public television, why he is perceived as a "North London geek." Yes, similar, though less personal, jibes were aimed at Cameron, but that does not make the practice acceptable.  Tough questioning is necessary, but personal rudeness should be off limits.

 Paxman has developed a reputation as  an effective interviewer, and some commentators have declared him the true  "winner" in the so-called debates.   But, though undoubtedly clever,  he is, in my view, a bully, sneering at people when he knows that they can't answer back

Saturday, 21 March 2015

The economic conseqences of - the Greeks.

I'm reading with great enjoyment historian Richard  Davenport-Hines's recently published book  "Universal Man: the Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes."  Davenport-Hines's  comments on the aftermath of the Versailles Treaty should, I believe, be noted by Mrs Merkel et al as they negotiate with Greece over the next few days.

. . .less than half of the £6.6 billion demanded by the Allies  under the Versailles Treaty was reckoned by (Foreign Office) experts to be  recoverable.  Consequently , throughout the 1920s the Foreign Office's tactics. . . sought to pacify Europeans tensions  by allowing reparations  and then war debts  to be winnowed, during thirteen years of wrangling, to about £1 billion.  'From the earliest years following the war,' explained a Foreign Office memorandum, 'it was our policy to eliminate  those parts of the Peace Settlement which, as practical people, we knew to be untenable and indefensible.' . . . . . It was not Keynes's polemic* that taught German voters  that the Allies were yielding diplomatists . .  . These reductions were not necessitated by Keynesian sophistry , but by the unenforceable provisions of which he had warned.

Here in Britain Osborne and the rest of the political establishment have refused to learn the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s  and so imposed unnecessary misery on some 20% or so of our population..  There is scope for the for the leaders of the Eurozone to be more enlightened and avoid even more severe misery for most of the Greeks.

*The Economic Consequences of the Peace

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Budget: unto him that thath shall be given. . .

George Osborne's budget continues to give help to those who don't need it (but might vote Tory) and take it away from those who do need it.

Those of us with savings are to be allowed to earn £1 000 of interest per year free of tax.  Well, 2% is a pretty average rate of interest at the moment, so to receive (I won't say "earn") that £1 000  you'd need to have £50 000 stashed away.  Indeed, if you were daft enough to put your savings in a Lloyds Bank's "Easy Saver" account you'd need half a million, as Lloyds pays only 0.2% on that account  Either way, holders of those amounts of spare money are not the most needy in society.

Maybe this particular "give away" is not so generous as it looks, because  the astute and those with financial advisers will already have as much as possible of their savings in ISA accounts, which are already tax free.  But the offer makes a good headline for the target audience of those who have "worked hard,. saved and done the right thing."  Ugh.

Then there's the offer of a "gift" from the government of £50 for every £200 those saving to buy their first  house  put into a new "Help-to-Buy" ISA.  The maximum amount of savings for this bonus  is £12 000, to which the government will  therefore " gift" a further £3 000.  Indeed, if a couple are saving to buy, or have parents who can supply the money to enable them to pretend that they are  doing the saving themselves, that's £6 000 of government handout towards their first house.

As well as the  potential "dead-weight loss" of helping those who are probably saving anyway, the idiocy of this policy is that the problem in our housing market is one of supply, not demand.  The result will probably be to further inflate the housing bubble.

At the other end of the scale the government is not so free with its generosity.  Social security expenditure  (I do not use the term "welfare" which has become condescending and mildly pejorative) is to be cut by a further £12bn,  the police and legal aid will continue to be starved of funds, and guarantees of  no cuts to the health services mean little with a rising and ageing population.

Local government services for parks, libraries, street cleaning and other provisions which make our society civilised will be further pared to the bone in a desperate attempt to preserve care services.

The Israelites in Egypt are said to have revolted when they were forced to make bricks without straw.  Presumably Osborne thinks our ire will be mollified by the penny off a pint of beer - surely the most clich├ęd bribe in the  pre-election budget lexicon.

Sadly , Osborne's risible boasts about the "success" of his policies (our economy "walking tall" when a more apt description would be "struggling uncertainly back to its feet having been unnecessarily clobbered for five years")  is supported by the overwhelming majority of the media, described as mediamacro by Oxford Professor Wren-Lewis,and one in three of those likely to vote are deluded into supporting more of the same..

Monday, 16 March 2015

Unpublished letter 3: unjoined-up thinking

Naturally, as a died-in-the wool Liberal for over half a century I believe firmly in the devolution of decision making  to the lowest possible level.  "Horses for courses," as one of my friends and fellow devotees put it: whatever is appropriate for whatever level, be it the UN, EU, UK, Nation, Region, Local Authority, or Parish.  So I'm predisposed to welcome the UK government's decision, announced a few weeks ago, to devolve all sorts of powers, including the organisation of the NHS in the area, to Greater Manchester.

However, last week local government minister Eric Pickles stooped to yet more Westminster micro-management by imposing additional rules for local authorities to follow on, (would you believe it?), parking fines.  (They must allow a 10 minute leeway for motorists overstaying their welcome.)  Hence this letter:

Dear Editor,

How can the government justify devolving control of the NHS and umpteen other things to Manchester and yet not be  prepared to trust them on eduction or even parking fines?

Yours sincerely,

 Apart from the massive illogicality of these two decisions the UK government's behaviour in the devolution package to Manchester raises three other important questions:

1.  Why is the devolution of powers conditional on their having a directly elected mayor?  As recently as 2012 our central government forced 11 cities to hold referendums on whether or not to have a directly elected mayor.  Only one, Bristol, voted "Yes. " (and Doncaster, which already had one, voted to retain it.)  The rest, including Manchester, voted "No."

Frankly, I'm not in favour of referendums in our representative system of democracy, but if they are imposed, then a democratic government should accept the decision rather than try to overturn it with a bribe.  This course has an autocratic  flavour of : "We shall keep on bullying you until you do not what you want but what we want.."

2.  Is the city region the most appropriate area to exercise devolved powers?   I think such a system gives too much prominence to the needs of the central city and not enough of the rest of the area, and should prefer such powers to be devolved to the economic regions as presently defined.  Others might prefer  the historic counties, or combinations of them.  This is something to be discussed.

3.  Why is this devolution to Greater Manchester  granted now, when the whole future of devolved government in the UK is in the melting pot (the so-called West Lothian question) and must be sorted out after the election?

  The panic stricken leaders of the three major parties rushed into a promise to grant further powers to the Scottish parliament in an ill-considered and unnecessary attempt to ward off a "Yes" vote for Scottish independence.  It is right that they should stick to this mistaken promise so as not to further besmirch the reputation of our political system, but beyond this there should be no further "of the cuff" meddling until after the election.

Then a properly constituted People's Convention or Royal Commission should be set up to attempt to rationalise the whole system.  An outline of how I think this should be done is set out in this earlier post.
Once agreed the rights of each level of government should be guaranteed in a written constitution.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Unpublished letter 2: hung, hanged and balanced.

Here's the second "unpublished" letter (see below for the first): this one in response to some misuse of the language - you'd think Guardian writers would know better.

Dear Editor,

Please remind John Grace (An exciting conference?  Quite:7 March) that pictures and juries are hung, people are hanged. And furthermore, advise Nicholas Watt (A royal retreat: 7th March) that, in a multi-party world, it is more respectful of the electorate's decision to describe  parliaments with no over-all majority for a single party as "balanced."

Yours sincerely, 

The point here is that in persistently referring to a parliament with no over-all majority  by  the negative- sounding  "hung" the media are giving what amounts to a coded (dog whistle?) hint  to the electorate that we ought to make up our minds and not ditherThis may have relevance in the context in which the metaphor was originally used, (in the US, about juries unable to reach a decision) but is inappropriate in the context of electing a body which is representative of a people with legitimately diverse views.

 "Balanced" is the appropriate description:  positive, friendly and accurate - and would be even more so  if we had proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Unpublished letter 1: intelligent devolution

I had a busy time last week writing letters to the Guardian  which , alas, they didn't find worthy of publication.  Here's the firsst.

In response to a proposal by Simon Jenkins that parliament moves to Manchester it may not wish to move back:

Dear Editor,

I'm sure Simon Jenkins is correct in his observation that “the Palace of Westminster may not be fit for purpose , but it is a holy of democratic holies”  (Westminster may be crumbling but this is our chance to reclaim democracy, 5 March) but I believe that his solution of trundling the whole caboodle to Manchester is inadequate.

My ideal solution would be to have two parliaments.  The one in Westminster, suitably repaired  and basking in its historical prestige, could house representatives of the entire United Kingdom and debate and legislate for the sexy subjects of  foreign policy, defence, relations with the EU and UN,   management  the currency , some taxation to facilitate equalisation grants between the nations, and oversight of the BBC and weather forecast. 

A second parliament, for England only  and based not in Manchester but York, historically England’s second city, should deal with such remaining matters as have not been devolved to the English Regions – the law, legal and justice systems, frameworks for education and the health and care services, national transport systems, etc, and taxation to finance its responsibilities.

This scheme would facilitate a welcome dispersal of powers and functions, whilst allowing Westminster politicians to continue to strut around feeling important.

The precise distribution of powers and functions between the parliaments and regional assemblies should be decided by a constitutional convention, to which it would be good if all parties would commit during the coming election

Yours sincerely,