Thursday, 19 October 2017

Destitution: Britain's shame

Poverty is easy to describe - not having  enough resources to live a decent lifestyle - but difficult to be precise about.

In Britain today Winstanley's " poorest he*" has access to clean water, adequate sanitation, free schooling for his children and a first-rate health service - services that most of even  the comfortably-off in the Third World would give their eye teeth for. 

Clearly poverty is relative to the "norm"  in the society in which you live.  In Britain we define the acceptable minimum as having a household income of at least two thirds of the median.

The nature of the  "acceptable minimum" changes over time.  Today it probably incudes some sort of mobile phone for each child over 11, whereas in my youth it was perfectly acceptable, actually normal , for the household to have no kind of phone at all  -  nor fridge, nor washing machine nor, for many of us,  bathroom and indoor lavatory.  Maybe some children try to bully their parents into believing that "acceptable" today incudes broadband access, designer clothes and a foreign holiday.

Last week the Guardian's tabloid section gave a run-down on the current status of the "Five Giants" that tthe famous (and Liberal) Beveridge Report of precisely 75 years ago  set out to conquer.  Prominent on Beveridge's list was poverty, which he called "Want" (with a capital "W")

Today's figures are disturbing, to say the least.  Seventy-five years after the conquest was announced, and in what some proudly boast of as "the fifth largest economy in the world" four million of our children, some 15%, are now living in poverty as defined above.  This figure is predicted to rise to more than 18% by 2020/21 as a result of the government's current policies

If we are tempted to shrug our shoulders and say that's all relative, then the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has coined an new category - destitution.  The definition is frightening, and incudes anyone  who has faced two or more of the following in one month:

  • been sleeping rough;
  • had only one or no meals for two days or more;
  • been unable to light  or heat  their home  for five or more days;
  • been without weather-appropriate clothing or basic toiletries.
Across 2015 over one and a quarter million people, or 2% of our population experienced destitution as so define.  The figure included 312 000 children.

In an economy in which the GDP per capita (shared equally between each man, woman and child) is $42,500 (2016 est.) which, even at the present miserable exchange rate amounts to over £32 000 a head, it is difficult to find a word strong enough to express our shame.

* as defined in the 17th Century, but would now include the more numerous "she'"

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Labour and the Single Market: facing both ways.

My MP  Tracy Brabin (Labour) states in her election literature (I kept a copy) that she would "fight for . . .full  access  to the single market."  (I quote her exactly).

Consequently, when she failed to vote vote for  Chuka Umunna's single market amendment to the Queen's Speech to achieve just that, and failed to sign an open letter from 40+ Labour stalwarts also demanding the policy she said she would fight for, I asked why?

 I now have a response, (addressed to "Dear Peter," though I've never met her.)

As our trading relationship with the EU changes it is vital that we retain unrestricted access for our goods and services. However remaining in the single market and the customs union once we have left the European union would not be advantageous for us.

This is "double-think" worthy of Orwell's 1984.

Most traders will have access to the single market, but we shall only  retain "unrestricted " access if we  remain a member of it.

Yesterday on the BBC's "Today" programme a manufacturer argued that the EU's  Common External Tariff (CET) would not be  a significant barrier  because the 15% depreciation of the £ as a result of the Referendum more than compensated for it. (So much for the scorn that the Tories used to heap on Labour as "the party of devaluation.")  

But in international trade today tariffs are relatively minor impediment compared with non-tariff  barriers (NTBs) that is that goods and services must comply with certain standards regarding origin,  contents, labelling (remember the fuss about weighing things  in grammes and kgs  rather than lbs and ozs?) safety , environmental impact etc. 

If Brexit is not stopped the Briexiteers will doubtless hail a trade deal with the US.  This will almost certainly  be on US terms and allow access to the UK market  for  items such as chlorine washed chicken and   beef products raised with excessive use of hormones.  These are the ones there's been publicity  about: there will be many more that Europeans. find unacceptable.

The EU is not going to allow "unrestricted " access to these products.

Labour's current stance is therefore  completely illusory, and no different from the the Government's "have your cake and eat it" delusion .

It is shameful that, with a government living in a "land of let's pretend" the official Opposition occupies identical ground.  Their duty is to propose a viable alternative.  

There are Labour MPs who recognise thisAnd there's a Labour Campaign for the Single Market.  All power to their elbows, and I urge Mrs Brabin to stand by her election promise and join them.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Tories clearing up the mess left by - the Tories.

The Conservatives have  achieved an amazing PR success with  their lie* that they have been engaged for   the past seven years in  "clearing up the mess left by Labour."  Now they are embarked on clearing up several other messes, but without acknowledging that is it they and their policies which caused the mess in the first place.

Take, for example, housing.  Mrs May has just realised that there is a national shortage of affordable housing and so has announced in her conference speech that the government will sanction an additional  £2b of expenditure to alleviate it.  It is not awfully clear from where the £2b is to come (central government subsidy, local authority borrowing?) but the intention is good, though the funding is probably inadequate.

There's no mention in the speech, however, as to why there is a shortage of such housing.  It originates in Margaret Thatcher's policy of "right to buy", introduced in 1980. This  forced (not allowed, but forced) local authorities to sell off their council houses to  tenants, who were tempted to buy by massive discounts.  The local authorities were not permitted to use the receipts to build replacement council houses, so the supply of affordable rented accommodation diminished.

The Tory aim was to create a "property owning democracy" which, Mrs Thatcher hoped, would convert more people into Tory voters.  Maybe some have obliged, but many of the discount- bought houses have been sold on and today some 40% of the former council houses are now owed by private buy-to let landlords, who, of course, charge "economic rents," so have acquired a "nice little earner."

Bizarrely the "right to buy" continues and has now been extended to housing association tenants.  Maybe the right will not apply to any new social housing built, but, so far,  joined up thinking this is not.

The second area now recognised as a "mess" is the energy companies who over-charge for gas and electricity. Again the problem is caused by Conservative doctrine which required the privatisation of the publicly owned and regionally organised suppliers (in my area they were  the Yorkshire Electricity Board, YEB, and the North Eastern Gas Board, NEGB.  They both ran separate and friendly showrooms where you could pay your bills, buy appliances, and, if you wanted, complain. ).

The gas suppliers were privatised in  1986 (those with funds enough to buy the shares in response to the "Tell Sid" campaign made a comfortable profit) and electricity suppliers  in 1990.  The idea was that the "discipline of the market" would lead to more efficient supplies, higher investment and lower prices.  Ed Miliband's policy in the 2015 that the prices were unreasonably high and should be capped was treated with scorn by the Tories, but now Mrs May has adopted the policy, naturally with no explanation or apology.

Although the "strong and stable " Tory campaign theme  of the 2017 election  did not have the effect they desired we are still repeatedly told  that we need a strong and determined government in " these very difficult times."  Well, of course the times are of unprecedented difficulty - because David Cameron recklessly tried to solve an internal party problem by calling a referendum on membership of the EU, failing to legislate for the necessary safeguards and being too complacent to campaign effectively for continued membership.

So there we are: "Another fine mess. . . " as Oliver Hardy used to say to Stan Laurel in the films of my childhood.

Just to illustrate what good government can be like  a friend whose sister takes the Daily Mail has passed to me a cutting that tells me:

  • The government of Norway set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund in the 1990s to invest the country's oil riches;
  • the fund is now worth more than $1tn;
  • that's about £140 000 per Norwegian;
  • the fund is invested all round the world and owns 1.4% of all global equities;
  • it does not invest in companies that produce tobacco, nuclear weapons or land mines.
Our oil bonanza was squandered in tax cuts and the need to fund an increase in unemployed  people  to above 3 million  in order to tame the working classes.

I'm not arguing that without the Tories life in the UK would be all sweetness and light - even a Liberal government would find that a tough call. But I am sure that history will show that the Tories have been responsible for much (or should that be many?) of the dire straights we find ourselves in today.

*  For readers not up to speed on this one, the "mess" was actually caused by the near collapse of the world's banking systems in the financial crisis of 2007/8. Incredibly, Conservative PR managed to place the blame on Labour overspending.  The Conservatives were, of course (and still are!) chief proponents of the deregulation which lead to the irresponsible lending by the banks which caused the crisis.  Sadly and inexplicably the Labour Party were very timid about defending their record. so history was, and to some extent still is, rewritten. 

**Post script (added  7th October). Just to show that this lie is "par for the course" rather than a blip, here is a  letter from a Neville Westerman in yesterday's Guardian.

" It is a matter of historical record that the Conservatives voted against universal health in 1948, as they voted against universal dole and universal pensions in 1909, and universal education in 1870.  I remember the vicious and dishonest hostility  against the NHS by the Troy party in 1948 , which was very similar to the present attitude of the US Republicans..  But Jeremy Hunt declared to conference that the Conservatives have always supported the NHS.   The success of the Tory party to gain power has largely been based on its eagerness to tell blatant lies.  Tory policy for 150 years has been largely inhumane, devoid of compassion  and opposed to the welfare state, but defended by lying, their "not so secret" weapon . . . ."

Sadly, the Tories' other "not so secret " weapon is a biassed press which gives credence, publicity and reinforcement  to their distortions (to put it more politely)

Monday, 2 October 2017

Stop Brexit march - was it worth it?

Yesterday I attended a Pro-EU demonstration in Manchester to coincide with the first day of the Conservative  Party conference.  It was great fun.  There were some 30 000 of us (according to one of the meagre pieces of press reporting); lots of EU flags along with some Union Jacks; plenty of balloon, horns and whistles;  and loads of bonhomie and enthusiasm.

 It was an all-and-none-party affair with some fantastic speakers: a former Conservative who used to serve on the same council as Theresa May; Bonnie Greer, whose father celebrated his 21st birthday in Britain as a member of the US racially-segregated D-Day forces; and our own Vince Cable.

The most effective speech by far was by Alistair Campbell.  Among other things he pointed out that the Brexiteers implied that, the day after the Referendum (23rd June 2016) soar-away Britain would be out there fixing  global trade deals with an eager "rest of the world."  However, if you happened to have had sex on that day and conceived a child it would now be cutting its teeth, but trade dealing has yet to begin.

Your can see why Tony Blair chose him as Director of Communications.

After returning home I listened to several radio news bulletins and watched a couple of TV news programmes, but there were no mentions of our march.  There was a little bit about a trade union march against austerity, presumably more newsworthy because they had a minor clash with the police (who were out in considerable force.)  I doubt very much if many in the Tory conference even noticed us, and there didn't seem to be many Mancunians around.  There's just one paragraph about us in today's Guardian, which also gives more coverage to the austerity march and their clash than to us.

The most detailed account I've found is here

So was it worth it?  As a pro-EU compaigner I certainly feel emboldened and enthused.

I learnt a chant:

Whatever happened to "Strong and stable?"
Exit Brexit with Vince Cable.

Not really logical, but catchy.

But that seems a lot of effort for very little. Maybe there's lots of stuff on social media that I haven't yet learned to access.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Getting "on yer bike" can be dangerous too

I write as an occasional cyclist who has been bounced off my bike by a careless pedestrian as I was coasting modestly downhill.  In this case nothing really serious resulted.  I hit the tarmac and suffered some nasty grazes (I was wearing shorts) but didn't break anything, and luckily there was no traffic immediately behind to run me over.  The pedestrian admitted she had stepped into the road without looking, apologised profusely, and presumably soon recovered from any bruises she'd received (she was well-upholstered.)

It is perhaps presumptuous to comment  on the case of Charlie Alliston without having actually witnessed the accident or heard the evidence at his trial, but I think a few  non-judgemental comments are in order.

In 2016 Alliston, riding in London, hit a pedestrian, Mrs Kim Briggs.who died as a result of the accident. I believe Mrs Briggs was talking on her  mobile phone at the time of the accident and had stepped into the road.   I've no idea whether Alliston was thrown off his bike or  injured in any way or not.

There is no doubt about the seriousness of the outcome but it does seem to me that the legal case on which Alliston was prosecuted is somewhat contrived.  Apparently the bicycle he was riding had no front brake and that is illegal.  I wonder how many people knew that?  I well remember the days when the only way to stop some bikes was to pedal backwards.  Then apparently there is no offence of "dangerous cycling" so someone unearthed the crime of "wanton and dangerous driving" which, as it is contained in an act of 1861 ,five years before even the Penny Farthing was invented, was presumably meant to apply to horses and carriages.

Alliston has been sentenced to 18 months in prison, (of which he will presumably served 9 months if he behaves himself)  This seems to me totally disproportionate.  Apart from the cost to the public (about £40 000 per head per year)  if he were barred from riding a bike Alliston would be no danger to the public, and if he were ordered to do some form of community service, that could do both him and the community some good.

Predictably the tabloids are crying out for new laws to punish reckless cyclists, and it is quite possible the government will oblige, (as the Major government did with their Dangerous Dogs Act, in 1991)  in order to distract us from the Brexit shambles, (or, in Major's case, from "the Bastards" of that ilk).

Cyclist organisations point out that the government has as yet done nothing on a promise made in 2014 to consider "a wider examination of road laws and their application" which would apply to all road users, including pedestrians.  They also point out that of the 400 or so pedestrians killed on Britain's roads each year fewer than half a per cent  are struck by cyclists.

Just to be even handed, on my few visits to London I have noted the appalling behaviour of many cyclists, and acknowledge that this is beginning to creep in here, out in the sticks.  I believe cyclists should obey the rules of the road, not jump traffic lights, show their own lights when it's dark, and have bells to warn of their approach (especially on bridle-ways, canal tow-paths and footpaths where I go walking.)

Friday, 22 September 2017

Liberals have no defining philosophy? Woah!

A few days ago former Troy MP Matthew Parris wrote and article in The Times in which he argued that now there is a good opportunity for a Liberal Democrat revival because, whereas  both Conservatives and Labour are weighed down by ideological baggage, we Liberal Democrats, along with the bulk of the electorate, aren't. 

This provoked indignation from the faithful, best expressed by my friend Michael Meadowcroft, who wrote directly to Parris:

  Dear Matthew
There was much to take note of and to act on in your Times article last Saturday, “This is the moment for a Lib Dem revival”, but there was one sentence in the penultimate paragraph that astonished me, given your broad political experience and awareness:

And the defining defect of the Lib Dems? That they have no bold and simple ideology, no defining philosophy; that they’re stuck in the middle; neither one thing nor the other.

I am conscious that you then go on to suggest that this may well be an electoral advantage but the alternative is a more powerful case: that to develop a political party, and to recruit committed activists who have a determination to  go out and persuade others, one has to have a “defining philosophy”. Moreover, to create and promote policy a party has to have a “defining philosophy” on which to base it. For instance, the Liberal Democrats were the only party to have a 100% attendance of its MPs to vote against the Iraq invasion, not because of any pragmatic opinion on weapons of mass destruction but because the party rightly believed that it was against international law, and that was enough; we have been in favour of an united Europe since 1955 because the party is internationalist and sceptical about the relevance of borders; we are in favour of devolution because we are aware of the dangers of centralism and its predilection towards authoritarian government; we are in favour of land value taxation because we believe that it is immoral to exploit land ownership rather than looking towards the common good; and we favour co-operatives in industry because we believe that to set management against labour is counterproductive and deleterious to productivity and is unnecessarily divisive. One could go on but these will do for examples of issues on which the party has a distinctive position stemming from its philosophy.

As for being “stuck in the middle”, that is an entirely illusory geographical point! Left and Right come down to us from the French Revolution and are predicated on the level of economic determinism or laissez faire, whereas Liberals see the spectrum as being between diffusion and centralisation - on which we are extremists!

I am always delighted to have the philosophy analysed, criticised and even attacked but at note that it exists. In recent decades we have prepared and published:

“Our Aim and Purpose”, 1962

“Liberals look ahead”, 1971

            “Liberal Values for a New Decade”, 1980

“2002 Agenda” published as “Freedom, Liberty and Fairness”, 2002 and 2011

“Agenda 2020" currently in preparation.

These are all philosophical statements rather than detailed policy. I enclose a copy of the most recent publication for your delectation!

Best regards

And so say all of us.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Boris's bid for Brexit (or the Tory Leaadership)

I don't buy the Telegraph so have not actually read Boris Johnson's 4 000 word article on the joys to come if the UK  leaves the EU.

Most commentators seem to regard the article as either encouraging gung-ho optimism to cheer the  troops, or gung-ho nonsense, high on enthusiasm and light on facts.

Two phrases which to me stand out, and I assume they are in the original, are that the post-Brexit UK that Johnson envisages will be "low tax" and "low regulation."

I find it frankly amazing, and deeply distressing, that any serious politician can offer these as a future for Britain so recently after the Grenfell fire, which has so tragically illustrated the dangers of both.

Of course, we must wait until the official enquiry issues its findings to gain a reasoned account of all  the failings that led to the disaster.  But it would be naive indeed to suppose that both penny-pinching to keep taxes low and insufficient, or inadequately enforced, regulation, did not play some part.

Grenfell is, sadly, only one, though most recent and most serious,  of the many  consequences  of  the misguided neo-liberal  agenda and its emphasis on deregulation and low taxation which has done so much to lower the quality of our environment and reduce our protection as workers and citizens

I have no idea whether the former Grenfell residents voted  to Leave or Remain, or whether many of them were even allowed, or even registered, to vote, but it is the poorest and weakest in our community who are most reliant on public expenditure financed by taxes to to provided decent public services, including social housing, and adequate and strictly enforced regulations to protect  their welfare and safety as workers and citizens.