Monday, 16 January 2017

A US/UK Trade Deal - beware!

Our leading Brexiteers are doubtless preening themselves that, with the advent of President Trump the UK is likely to move from the back of the queue (Obama) to the front in the negotiations for a new, bilateral, trade deal.

Well, it's good that we've moved up the queue, but there can be little doubt that any such deal will be on terms dictated by the US.  The EU has been struggling for years to negotiate a deal which takes account of European susceptibilities in  the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership(TTIP).

Even in these negotiations between giants  the EU is finding it difficult to hold its own. A UK/US negotiation will be more a a David and Goliath confrontation in which, in this case, the little man is unlikely to win.

Issues at stake will include:

  • the ability of US firms to take over/buy-into to our public services, especially the NHS and our prison services;
  • the acceptance of US standards for meat products from animals reared with excessive growth promoting hormones and excessive antibiotics;
  • the acceptance of genetically modified (GM) products and products containing them;
  • the setting up of Investor Sate Dispute Battlement Courts (ISDSs) to overrule the decisions of our (and their!) sovereign governments
So much for the  much vaunted reclamation of our sovereignty and taking back control.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Brexit: just say "No."

An alternative title to this post could be:  "When you're in a hole stop digging."

As far as I know only two politicians, the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas and the newly-elected Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park Sarah Olney, have so far stated bluntly that, given the chance, they will vote against the triggering of Article 50. Others try to face both ways with weasel words on the lines of :" “I am not seeking to reverse the EU referendum result. but . . . "

The case for no Brexit at all is perfectly clear and it is shameful that  our parliamentarians, Lords as well as Commons, who got us into this mess by their negligence, lack the courage to try to get us out of it.

The grounds for opposition to triggering Article 50 are perfectly clear:
  1.  The referendum was not binding but advisory.  This was made perfectly clear to all parliamentarians even if, sadly, not too much was made of it during the campaign.   But the law is the law, and the truth  is that the government and parliament have received advice, not an instruction, and it is up to them whether or not to act on it.
  2.  Parliament failed to include in the Referendum Bill the higher bar normally necessary for such an important decision.  Organisations as inconsequential as golf clubs and music societies require more than a simple majority to change their constitutions.  All parties, presumably as a result of complacency, were remiss in not including special previsions, such as a two-thirds majority over-all and at least a simple majority in each of the four constituent parts of the UK, for a "Leave" vote to be valid.
  3. "Leavers" are fond of mouthing that "the people have spoken" but the actual result of the referendum  (37% of the electorate for Leave, 34% for Remain and 27% did not vote) was far from a clarion call that must be obeyed.  The 16-17 age group who, in terms of years, will be  most affected by the long term effects of the result, were not allowed to vote.  Some argue that the actual percentage of the adult population who voted to leave was a mere 28%, barely more than a quarter. In two  constituent parts of the UK, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the majority voted to Remain.
  4.  The campaign, without the constraint of any means of challenging misleading statements in the courts*,  was seriously misleading; on both sides, yes, but most seriously on the Leave side.  Promises made by Leave have been unravelling from day one: there is no £350m per week for the NHS, we can't "have our cake and eat it.".

Our MPs are elected not as mandated delegates but as allegedly mature and rational representative expected to use their judgement for the general good. In the present climate this will take courage, but a united call from a Rainbow coalition of respected  voices ( Ken Clarke, Paddy Ashdown and Ed Miliband perhaps, and  preferably jointly led by  Caroline Lucas and Nicola Sturgeon, two of the most sensible and respected politicians on the scene at the moment,) should  carry sufficient weight to  stiffen the sinews of our cowardly MPs and avert  an error which will harm Britain, Europe and the rest of the world.

Then, instead of wasting time haggling over the details of an exit that the majority of MPs  believe shouldn’t happen, we can concentrate on remedying the serious problems which face our nation: inequality, housing, low productivity, an alarming deficit on the balance of external payments, race relations etc. But the greatest of which is inequality.

Leavers, who cleverly constructed the most persuasive catch-phrases during the campaign ("Take back control,"  obsession with "unelected bureaucrats") are now adept at painting those of us who oppose Brexit as "unpatriotic" and "undemocratic."  This should be vigorously resisted.  It is not unpatriotic to be realistic about Britain's weakness outside the EU compared with our strength and significance within it.  Nor is it undemocratic to argue that our elected representatives should fulfil their obligation to use their judgement for our long-term good.

So, now that we're in a self inflicted hole dug , not for the benefit of or even by demand of the nation, who did not regard our membership of the EU as a top issued for concern**, but for the domestic purposes of the Tory party, we should stop digging

True some MPs may feel that taking a stance and standing up for their beliefs might endanger their seats.  So what? -  a small sacrifice to make to avert the biggest political misjudgement since Lord North lost the American colonies over an argument about the tax on tea.  And, as this article in yesterday's G2 shows, there may be more support for principles over bullying than they suspect.

* In General elections provisions in the Representation of the People Act of 1983 make untruthful statement actionable.  There was not such constraint in the referendum Act.
* * An examination of Ipsos-Mori Issues Indices for the years 2008 to 2016 (and earlier under another format) shows that our membership of the EU did not appear  among the top ten issue which concerned the electorate until July 2014 (at number 9).

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Customers or citizens: what's in a name?

 As a pre-Christmas treat I've been reading Alan Bennett's latests volume of diaries, "Keeping on Keeping on." I'm happy that I share a lot of his views and prejudices, not least his irritation at being called a "customer" by the railways and local government, and loud mobile phone conversations on public transport and the streets.

For me the issue re-arose recently when, trying to be helpful, I rang my local authority to point out that a replacement lamppost installed on the terrace where I live didn't actually light (it still doesn't).  The following letter to my (Conservative) councillor explains the situation.
  "Dear Cllr *****,
If you've seen the film "I, Daniel Blake" you'll know that it ends with his (posthumous) testimony that he is, among other things, "not a client or a customer. . .but a citizen."
A few weeks ago I had occasion to  ring the Council to point out that the replacement street lamp fitted on our Terrace was not actually lighting up (it still isn't).  I was forced to spend several minutes listening to a looped tape telling me that "all our operatives are busy dealing with other customers."
When I eventually did get to speak to an operative, after giving my message about the lamp, I asked her to pass on my protest that I expected to be treated as a burgess or citizen, but not a customer.  She replied politely that she was not allowed to pass on messages which challenged policy made by the councillors, but pointed out, reasonably, that not all those who contacted the council were necessarily burgesses or citizens: some were businesses and some were from outside the Kirklees area.
We could get round this problem by re-recording the tape to say that the operatives are dealing with "other people" or simply "others." Equally, you could employ more operatives so that we  citizens who are trying to be helpful don't have to waste so much or our time.

 I suggest you put these to the Council.  I'm sure there'll be plenty of support from your colleagues in the Labour Party who, even if they haven't yet seen "I, Daniel Blake" will be in sympathy with its messages."

The councillor's reply was bland and fails to engage with the point

Thank for your email
I appreciate your point of view but I disagree residents deserve to be treated with respect and as customers by Kirkleees."

No wonder people are losing faith in politicians

I'm happy to say that a former student from the 1960s agrees with me and writes:

 "The reduction of a complex repertoire of social roles - passenger, viewer and listener, student, even citizen - to that of customer is one of the more far-reaching and damaging side effects of neo-liberal economics."

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

"British" values - again!

Our Secretary of State for Local Government. and Communities, Sajid Javid, is toying with the idea of making all civil servants and local government employees, and maybe all immigrants as well, take an oath to uphold British values.  This seems to me to be gesture politics at its daftest.

The "British" values Javid is keen to promote are not yet strictly defined but might include:
  • tolerating the views of others;
  • believing in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from abuse;
  • a belief in equality, democracy, and the democratic process;
  •  respect for the law.
The implication that these values are uniquely or even especially British is an absurd conceit, and an insult to most of our neighbours. They are the values of most  modern democracies and an essential qualification for being eligible for joining the European Union.

 It's a bit rich for a former banker who is alleged to have earned £3m a year before he switched to politics to demand we believe in equality, especially as he's member of a government  which rewards the rich and presides over the bullying of the poor.  And as for respect for the law, his party's chief cheerleader  in the press, the Daily Mail, has called our most senior judges "enemies of the people" when they were asked to consider whether or not his government is acting lawfully..

My own youthful perception of British values were assimilated not by taking oaths but from  low-grade adolescent reading, especially the Biggles novels of W. E. Johns the the Sea Cadet and Scout stories of Percy F. Westerman.  From these I picked up the idea that clean-limbed British boys (there want much reference to girls) were:
  • modest and unassuming;
  • quietly competent;
  • patriotic -  but in an understated way  (no brash flag-waving);
  • reliable -  our "word was our bond;"
  • decent and honest.
Not, alas, a recipe for winning "The Apprentice" or succeeding in politics, or banking, today

An American comic-book hero, I think it might have been Superman, was said to crusade for "truth, justice and the American way."  Substituting "liberalism" for the last one, I think that makes a good set of values:

  • TRUTH: about immigrants, foreign policy, Brexit and its consequences, the distribution of income, conditions in prisons, recipients of social security, the influence of lobbyists, etc. with policy according to facts rather than prejudice.
  • JUSTICE: not just before the law, but economic justice, equality between men and women, the protection of minorities, generous support for  the disadvantaged, removal of artificial advantages (private eduction, perhaps, or even grammar schools), justice for the World's poor.
  • LIBERALISM:  The philosopher Timothy Garton Ash defined this as " a quest for the greatest possible measure of individual human freedom, compatible with the freedom of others."  No more needs to be said.
If these three values permeated our society life would be very pleasant and fulfilling. They will not  be achieved through enforced oaths, but through the example of political and opinion leaders, through art, literature, drama and education.  They will be most quickly achieved if the example comes from the top.

So go to it, Mr Javid: give us a lead.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

"I, Daniel Blake" and me.

Last week I saw this  film about a  man in his 50s in the North East  of England who, although he has a heart condition, is diagnosed fit for work by the the government's social security system, and his attempts to appeal his case.

It is a film that makes one thoroughly ashamed to be British and have a government so monstrously unfeeling - determined, it seems to massage down the figures of those unable to work through illness regardless of the human consequences.  I'd like to think that all Conservative MPs, party members and voters, members of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, and readers of the Daily Mail would see it.

My comments relate to three incidents of which I've had practical experience.  The consequences for me have been very minor - just irritation, rather than literally matters of life and death.- but nevertheless signify a downward spiral in the quality of our lifestyle.

The film opens with Daniel Blake "enduring" (that word is used advisedly) a telephone interview to assess his ability to work.  The motivation of the interviewer is  clearly: "Answer the question so I can tick my box"  No time for explanations, qualifications, just "Yes" or "No" to the way I'm required to think of things.

Many of us are experiencing similar blinkered thinking when trying to make sense of banks, investment companies, hospitals and  local government.  Very often the first "conversation" is with a tape recorder.  Press this, press that, listen to this message  (at your expense, because it's often a premium number)  about how you could do what you want on line,  and finally, do it our way or not at all. I get the impression that much of the harassment from the banks is to put us in the position of supplicant, so that in the end we feel grateful that the bank can do anything for us at all.  The reverse, of course, is true: they are dependent on our custom.

There is much talk of the advent of the robotic society.  These are robots, both tapes and humans, and they detract from the quality of life rather than enhance it.

Blake is ordered to pursue his case by computer.   The Department of Work and Pensions, he is told, is
"default computer," to which he responds, "Well, I'm default pencil."  Time and again I have replicated Blake's experience of spending more time than I care to on inputting information  only to find the system fails at the last hurdle.  Much of the  information required , especially on "mail order" systems, is irrelevant to the  request being made, but clearly there simply to enable them to pester us  with unsolicited offers and opportunities that we'd prefer not to be bothered with.

And finally the film closes with  Blake's "final plea" that he is "not a client, a customer....but a citizen."  Here here!  I'm pleased that Alan Bennett, in his latest very readable diaries, Keeping on Keeping, on makes a similar point.  As far as the banks and the supermarkets are concerned I am happy to be a customer because  I have the sanction to " take my custom elsewhere,"  But on the railway I am a passenger, with the health services I am a patient, and with both local and national government I am a citizen.  The attempt to reduce all our relationships to the cash nexus by calling us customers is a monetarist step too far.

I,Daniel Blake also has a sub-plot in which a single mother is driven to prostitution by the intransigence of the system.  Do see it if you haven't already.. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Reining in corporate greed.

There are clear parallels between the UK's vote  for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the US.  In both countries the "left behind" have taken the opportunity to take a swipe at "the establishment" regardless of the consequences.

In the US here is anger that the perceived effects of globalisation have left swathes of the country, the "rust belt" abandoned and with only a minimalist, if that,  welfare safety net. In the UK there is growing anger that, while those at the bottom of the pile have suffered the consequences of government-imposed austerity, the fat cats at the top have not only escaped unscathed but are become richer and richer.

Here are a few figures to illustrate the obscene and still growing gap between the rich and the poor.

  • Unemployment benefit (now ludicrously called "Job Seekers' Allowance) is  £73.10 per week for an adult, which is the equivalent of £3 801 a year, though I you only get it for six months;
  • the government's version of the Living Wage is £7.20 an hour, which for a 35 hour week is £252  or £13,100 per year assuming full-time work rather than zero hours contract.  Members of the House of Lords, who could be said to be on zero hours contracts, though they choose their own hours, receive £300 a day plus expenses;
  • the current median wage is just above £535 per week, or just over £28 000 a year.
  • the average pay of trading bankers at Goldman Sachs is said to be around £400 000 a year, which works out at around £7 500 a week (that's rounding down);
  • the average "compensation" (pay is to crude a word) for the CEOs of the FT100 companies is £5.5m a year, or over £105 000 a week (again rounding down.)  According to some calculations this is 128 times that of their average workers, whereas in 1998 it was only (!) 47 times.
In her opening speech as our prime minister Theresa May spoke of  her "mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone." This was effectively a tacit admission that David Cameron's government had failed to do that.

However, if her Green Paper on Corporate Governance Reform issued yesterday  is anything to go by, there's not going  to be much change. Early indications that Mrs May favoured elected worker representatives  on company boards have been rowed back to mean that  their "voices" might be heard via non-executive directors (sounds a bit like the Guardians ad Litem appointed by the courts to speak for children too young to represent themselves).  And it looks as though she's caved in to indignation from the corporate  lobby that companies might be required to publish the ratio of their  executives' pay to that of their average worker.

If the serious dysfunctionality of our political system is to be healed it is essential that the present system which allows a tiny minority (the one per cent?) to rape and pillage the economy while those at the bottom of the pile are so squeezed that they are unable to participate even marginally in what our society defines as "normal"  be seriously reformed.

In my half century and more in the Liberal/Liberal Democrat party we have proposed various schemes to produce a fairer system which really does "work for everybody."  The most promising, around in the 1960s, was that  company boards should comprise one third shareholders' representatives, one third employees' representatives and one third representatives of the customers and community served.  With such a composition any  "stakeholder"  would need  support from the others in order to achieve an aim.

It is unrealistic to expect a Conservative governments to implement anything so radical but here are a few suggestions for moves in the right direction:

  • company law should be amended so that, rather than the requirement to act solely or mainly in the interest of the shareholders, they should be required to act in the interests of all the stakeholders, defined as appropriate to the individual industry:
  • shares should held for at least six months with financial penalties for selling within three yeas of the purchase;
  • remuneration at all levels should be open and public, the lowest not falling below the living wage as defined by the Living Wage Foundation (not the fake one decided by the government)  and the highest not more than a given multiple above that (I would have thoght x10 to start with, reducing gradually to x5 but that might be a bit optimistic for the times):
  • there should be genuine representation, by election, on the boards, of the various stakeholders, starting with at least two for each interest, and gradually increasing so that no one interest has a majority;
  • the functions of each individual employee should be clearly defined and a fair wage paid for performing it.  There should be no bribes and bonuses, as these inevitably distort performance..
Further suggestions are welcome.

If our democracy is to survive intact I see it as an urgent matter for the Liberal Democrats, preferably in cooperation with Labour and the Greens, to be working on a model with sufficient flexibility to be adapted to different circumstances.  Such would not be a complete solution to the present disaffection, but it would be an essential part.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Our Christian country

Today is Advent Sunday, the start of the season of three to four weeks (depending on what day Christmas Day falls) when the church asks us to prepare, not for Christmas (though too many parsons don't seem to realise this, and Advent Calendars certainly don''t)) but for the Second Coming, Last Trump (now there's a thought), Day of Judgement, the  End Times, or whatever you like to call it or them.

Oh for the days when parsons had the courage to stand out against populism and commercialism and forbid the singing of carols in church until Christmas Eve at the very earliest (though we choirboys could practise them  of course.).

Our vicar, who is German (just one of the many "immigrants" who combine to make my life more stimulating, comfortable and convenient) introduced us last Sunday to this poem by Malcolm  Guite:

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

I hadn't heard of Mr Guite before but, although yet another immigrant, he seems to have his finger very accurately on the pulse of British life.  The first 12 lines sum up the general population to a "T" and the final two twist the knife very accurately into that dwindling band of us who still turn up Sunday by Sunday and go through the motions. I often wonder if we follow the teachings and example of Jesus any more closely that anyone else.  It worries me that so many church-goers read the Daily Mail.