Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Whither Labour?

Whatever the outcome of the election for the leadership of the Labour Party, one thing is certain: whoever wins, the press will waste no time in vilifying him or her, just as they did with Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, and Ed Miliband.  So, since it's going to happen anyway, they might just as well elect Jeremy Corbyn: he does at least seem to believe in something.

The current Labour Party's problem is that they are no longer sure what they believe in: perhaps they haven't since the 1950s.  It has been said of the major parties  in the US that they both share the same fundamental principles, but that the Republicans claim to be able to run the country more efficiently and the Democrats more humanely.

Much the same now applies in the UK, though we can no longer be sure that the UK's Labour Party   has even any  claim to be more humane.   Nothing illustrates their loss of confidence  more than  the failure to oppose the Tories' Welfare Reform and Work Bill, with its proposed cap on benefits to an arbitrary figure per family, regardless of numbers and need, and the removal of child benefit for any more than two children per family.

A fundamental principal of social security (not welfare, now a pejorative term) in a civilised society is surely that it should be based on need.  To take the most obvious example, how can it possibly be justified that children should be plunged into poverty simply because their parents are careless, feckless, just unlucky, or maybe for perfectly genuine reasons (better gender mix, actually like kids) want more than two children.

In the parliamentary debate on the Bill I gather that George Osborne patronisingly taunted Labour's acting  leader, Harriet Harman, that she could not rationally oppose his welfare cuts because they were supported by the majority of the public. Rather than responding that the majority of the public also support taking the railways backs into public ownership, so why doesn't he do that,  Harman meekly caved in.

Labour seems to have forgotten that one of the main functions of a political party is to campaign, educate, explain to, even enthuse, the public on its policies.   If elected leader, there seems every possibility that Corbyn will do this, rather than  simply follow the passing whims of  focus groups.

If the term "left" is now seen as a term of abuse it is worth looking at Corbyn's policies and assessing them on their merits. According to his website he:
  • sees government austerity as "a fa├žade for the same Tory plans;"
  • would borrow to invest;
  • wants the fortunate to contribute more;
  • regards the Tories' pitch for a "Northern Powerhouse" as so much hot air;
  • advocates public investment in a publicly-owned infrastructure.
All very much in line with Keynesian Liberalism.

And of course, like the Liberals, he voted against the Iraq war.

I get the impression that that he is an  honest and principled man, untainted by the triangulations of the Blair government, who will make a good fist of confronting the disingenuous Cameron at Question Time.

Indeed, on the face of it he seems just the sort of chap we Liberals could work with.  Under his leadership maybe a re-alignment of the left would be possible. I wonder what his views are on proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies?

Friday, 24 July 2015

It's how you tell 'em.

There have been no posts for the last week or so as I've been away on yet another holiday, but kept in touch with affairs through a daily readying of the Guardian.  (I used to regards not reading the daily paper as part of any holiday, but now that they've hooked me onto their voucher system I feel that, since I've paid for it, I need to get my moneys-worth.)

Last Saturday an article by Jonathan Freedland warned Labour that they needed to speak "in a language people actually use."  The same advice applies, in spades, to we Liberals.

Freedland isolates the "simple metaphors" which the Tories use and repeat ad nausium so that, amplified through the megaphone of their supportive press, they become "received wisdom, even common sense" rather than "statement of political opinion"  (or, in my view, downright lies),  viz:-
  • the Tories were "clearing up the mess left by Labour;"
  • the previous government had " 'maxed out' [on] the nation's credit card;"
  • Labour had failed to  "mend the roof while the sun was shining;"
  • Tories, by contrast, were "balancing the books" so that "we live within our means."
Labour, however, in the words of their adviser, the pollster James Morris, "loves abstract nouns" and preaches about "inequality, fairness, aspiration."

Even though they have so distorted recent history that they have conned their way back into government, the Tory deceptions still continue.  George Osborne has introduced an "emergency" budget.  What emergency?  Why was it necessary barely four months after his previous budget in which Britain, according to him, was   “walking tall again”  and in which he urged us to " go on working through the plan that is delivering for [us]”?

By another sleight of hand he has renamed the minimum wage the "living wage" giving the illusion that he has adopted one of Labour's policies. His measure is actually only a minor improvement on the existing minimum wage, and has no connection with true living wage as calculated by the Living Wage foundation.

If we are to put an end to this nonsense in five years' time the left as a whole needs to develop a suitable vocabulary.

We Liberal Democrats are probably even more addicted than Labour to abstract nouns: liberty, justice, internationalism, participation, engagement, devolution, partnership, democracy, community, constitutional reform, etc etc.

Once we have defined what it is we still stand for, and that is the first task for our new leader Tim Farron, our communications experts, if we still have any, need to put their minds to explaining  our vision of society in a language which resonates with the ordinary household.  In this sphere, to adapt a phrase from history, we must "catch the Tories bathing and steal their clothes

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

"They" are the masters now.

It was in 1946, when Labour, with its first ever overall majority  House of Commons (but still less than half the popular vote) repealed previous anti-union legislation, that Sir Hartley Shawcross used the phrase "We are the masters now."  Nevertheless, in spite of the convincing size of its majority, the government trod carefully and tried to govern by consensus, however deviously this was achieved.  Senior doctors were persuaded to accept the National Health Service because Nye Bevan famously "stuffed their mouths with gold." The utilities and industries that were taken into public ownership were not simply confiscated, but their previous owners compensated with a fair price.

Thus was "government by consent," one of the best definitions of democracy, put into practice.

The present Tory government is ignoring both this principle and the example of history.  Despite its narrow majority, based on the support of only 37% of those who voted (and therefore, on a 66% turnout, less than a quarter of those entitled to vote) it is acting with a shameful  arrogance.  Today's proposals to further emasculate the trade union movement  are both illogical and unfair.  "They" may be, technically, " the masters now" but these bullying tactics do not have  the consent of the governed.

Sadly, the inevitable huffing and puffing by the Labour party in its present emaciated state will have little resonance, and we Liberals are, for the time being,  regarded as an irrelevance.

I sincerely hope that the political left can revive sufficiently to provide a viable and effective alternative before less scrupulous elements in society take opposition  into their own hands through riots and violence.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Greece should vote "NO."

At some time back in the nineteenth century most of Europe realised that putting debtors into prison was not an effective  method of enabling them to pay off creditors.  Unfortunately today's  European politicians have not, with respect to Greece, yet learned the lesson.

In a post in January this year I argued that the Greeks Greece should be allowed to adopt a Keynesian solution to their economic problems:
  • granted a moratorium on debt repayments for, say, five years;
  • allowed to borrow further at market rates; 
  • revive their economy and tax take, initially by growth stimulated by public infrastructure projects;
  • sort out their tax-evasion and other endemic problems;
and then be in a position to pay off their debts.

Instead, the cart is put before the horse.  Rather than prioritising growth, this will be stifled by further government austerity, along with demands that large tranches of debt should be paid off now.

The reverse, Keynesian, policy is not "pie in the sky" theory, but can be illustrated from history.

The Greek government's Debt/GDP ratio is currently 180%.

In 1945 the UK's Debt/GDP ratio was 215% and it rose to 238% by 1947. But thereafter it fell steadily until the 1990s ( figures from ukpublicspending.co.uk/uk_national_debt_chart.html  )

The reason was  economic growth, at least in part facilitated by loans from the US which have now all been repaid.

Other post war European economies, including  Germany, recovered from similar levels of debt, facilitated by some debt forgiveness and by massive Marshall Aid from the US

Greece is such a small  proportion, about 2%,  of the  EU economy that an experiment in similar Keynesian expansion is perfectly feasible.  In the unlikely event of its failing the consequences will be far less than the misery certain to be engendered by the  present policy,  which is doomed to fail.

So on Sunday the common sense thing for the Greeks to do is vote "NO."

Monday, 29 June 2015

Liberal Democrat Leadership:

Although Liberal Democrat Headquarters had no difficulty in contacting me when sending out numerous requests for money during the General Election campaign, unfortunately I seem to have slipped from thier list when they sent out information on the leadership hustings.  Hence I missed the Farron-Lamb dual in Leeds a couple of weeks ago.  However, those who witnessed that, and others, tell me that in policy matters there is not much to choose between them.

That being the case I have cast my vote for Tim Farron on the grounds that:

1.  Farron  is by far the better communicator.  Lamb, when I've heard him on the radio,  always strikes me as a little dull.

2. Farron kept his pledge and voted against the rise in tuition fees.  Since our major problem is to regain trust, then clearly he  has the advantage in trustworthiness.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Northeren Powerhouse Paused

Before the election the Tories were promising to spread economic prosperity throughout the nation by  the creation of a Northern Powerhouse.  An essential feature of this was the upgrading of our Northern Rail Network.

Now, just seven weeks after the election, we are told that the electrification of the Trans-Pennine route from Leeds to Manchester is to be "paused."

It is difficult to express our indignation.  The shameless manipulation of the news (that the programme  was in difficulty was apparently known well before the election), the shameless abandonment of yet another promise, the shameless prioritising of London and the South East of over the rest of the country.

No hint that the costly and wasteful prestige project HS2, starting from the London end,  should be "paused."

In earlier posts here and here I've argued the case for abandoning HS2 and substituting more useful, and much cheaper, alternatives.  Interestingly these are among the most read  posts on this blog.

If this latest piece of political chicanery  helps  stimulate the campaign against HS2 then at least some good may arise out of our "pause."

 Post Script, added 29th June:A report by something called the Major Projects Authority, has concluded that the costs of HS2 have now risen to such and extent that the project is financially untenable.  See the Guardian report, published on the same day as the revelations of the pausing of the upgrading of the northern rail network.

I've also picked up on a TV news bulletin that for every £10 spent on public transport in London, only £1 is spent in Yorkshire.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Policies to reduce inequality

In his Guardian article on Monday Larry Elliot refers to a book by Tony Atkinson, published in May, which lists 15 separate policy proposals for the UK.  Elliot lists only eight  of them, namely:

  1. guaranteed public employment;
  2. a minimum wage set at the level of a living wage;
  3. a minimum inheritance when a child reaches adulthood;
  4. a sovereign wealth fund;
  5. a universal basic income;
  6. replacement of council tax by a regularly updated and progressive property tax;
  7. a wealth tax;
  8. a 65% top rate of income tax.
Eliot claims that these proposals "[give] the lie to the to the argument that in a global economy nothing can be done."
Tony Atkinson is no loony left-winger but no less than Sir Anthony Atkinson of the London School of Economics, on whose work the recently popular French economist Thomas Piketty bases many of his findings.  To find out what the other seven proposals are I should buy Atkinson's book, Inequality.
Sadly there are already several fairly weighty unread tomes on my shelf and I don't wish to add to my guilt complex by buying yet another, so if anyone can complete the list in a comment below that would be appreciated.

It is possible to quibble about  the list above, or at least ask for further and better particulars.  For example, what exactly is meant by "guaranteed public employment,"   and wouldn't a land tax be better than, or in addition t, a property tax?  But what is acutely disappointing is that Atkinson's proposals, or at least the first eight of them, are light years away from what any major British political party has the guts to propose at the moment.  Or, with he exception of Jeremy Corbyn, who is not expected to win, (but who, according to the New Statesman, may spring a surprise), the timid contenders for the Labour leadership.

And yet growing inequality is one of the major economic and social problems facing our society today. Inequality inhibits economic growth (wealth at the top doesn't "trickle down," it is syphoned up) and reduces the cohesiveness and well being of our society, as Wilkinson and Pickett  have demonstrated.

But instead of proposals to tackle this issue all three major UK parties have just fought the election advocating greater or lesser degrees of government austerity, which will make our society more unequal.   And, alas, the winner was for the greater austerity, so we must endure five years of policies which will make matters worse.
It is surely the duty of our political parties to attempt to educate us to the realities of our circumstances, and the policies which could improve the quality of our lives.  Instead, with  the honourable exception of the Scottish Nationalists and the Greens, they cravenly follow the whims of their focus groups.