Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Aid for the Third World

A large part of this morning's Radio 4 "Today" programme was devoted to international aid: does it help development or hinder it, and is it just a gravy train for the well intentioned?

For those who wish to "knock" aid there is no shortage of ammunition. Though now rather dated Graham Hancock's "Lords of Poverty" (1989) is a rich source. The frontispiece contains this extract from a delightful poem:

We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution --
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting

For the full text see "The Development Set" by Ross Coggins.

Having been a campaigner for more and better aid for half a century, and actively engaged in it (in Papua New Guinea and Malaŵi) for over ten years in total I'm well aware of the problems of misdirected aid, of waste and the dangers of the culture of dependency, but also the inestimable good that well directed aid can do.

Here is a 12 point "Good Aid Guide."

1. Aid by itself will not bring justice to the World's poor, but can help. Always see aid in the context of trade, debt relief, human rights, the arms trade and other relevant issues.

2. Campaign for better quality aid as well as increased quantity.

3. Good quality aid involves local people : make sure that the poor are consulted about what they need and involved in providing it.

4. The most successful projects seem to be small scale ones directed at the needs of the poorest (often women) rather than large scale prestige projects.

5. Non-government organisations on both sides have a good record.

6. Good aid is in an appropriate style...

7. ...and uses appropriate technology.

8. Provision for long-term follow-up is essential.

9. The motivation should be justice rather than charity.

10. Aid should be in the interests of the recipients, not just the donors.

11. Good aid aims to develop people rather than things.

12. Aid directed at individuals rarely solves the cause of the problem: aim to help communities.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Pro Europe

I believe any referendum is an abdication of responsibility by our elected representatives. The proposal in the European Union Bill that any further shared sovereignty with the European Union should be subject to a referendum is clearly populist nonsense designed to tie the hands of British negotiators and stifle the development of the EU itself. This extract from the Christmas Newsletter of Peter Luff, chair of the European Movement, puts the matter well:.

As the Guardian editorial of 21 December put it extremely well: “It remains, as ever, a tragedy that we are led by government who insist that British interests are served by distance and disengagement in Europe – when in reality the reverse is true.” So, when people ask “what is the purpose of the European Movement these days”, the answer is that – more than ever before – we need to be the voice of sanity in explaining that the EU remains our best hope for security and prosperity in the future and that anything that could bring about its collapse would have a massively damaging implication for everyone, including the citizens of the UK.

Despite its occasional descent into anti-European rhetoric designed, above all, to pacify some of its neanderthal back benchers, the Coalition government has taken a generally moderate position (for the UK!) on most European issues. Nevertheless, the proposed EU Bill, which seeks to trigger referendums in the UK before any changes to existing EU legislation can come into force is a piece of populist foolishness that may well be challenged legally as incompatible with the UK’s existing treaty commitments. Keeping the Coalition government sane and sensible in its broad European strategy will be a key test of Liberal Democrat influence.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Yes to fairer votes

Apparently Ed Milliband, who supports the reform of the electoral system , has suggested that it would be better if Nick Clegg kept out of the referendum campaign. He's probably right, but illustrates how unsuitable referendums are for making political decisions - people are likely to vote on something other than the question asked.

On Thursday I had my first session of training for the "Yes to Fairer Votes" campaign. This was again by telephone (for which I had to pay) and lasted an hour. The session was led by Alice, who asked each of us (there were about a dozen people on the line, plus a deep throated mystery voice which kept saying "X has joined the conference" or "Y has left the conference") to tell our "personal story" of why we wanted fairer votes.

Alice's story was that two years ago she had been incensed because a friend of hers was living in sub-standard housing whilst pregnant and the MP just didn't care. This didn't strike me as being particularly relevant to electoral reform for the Westminster parliament, since such problems should be dealt with by social workers and local councilors. I want MPs to be preoccupied with the great national and international issues, and holding the government to account in an informed manner, not earning brownie points by working as highly paid welfare officers for their constituencies.

The theme of the training was that, by telling our personal stories, we should convince people that AV would make MPs work harder and abolish jobs for life (ie safe seats). It is true that under AV there will be fewer safe seats but they will hardly be abolished. My own personal story, when asked, was that I believed that AV would enable people to vote more honestly, be fairer and produce a more representative parliament which would encourage parties to work together. Not quite so sexy as a pregnant friend in a rat infested house, but more honest, I believe.

The campaign is to be carried out by "phone banks". Knocking on doors and leaflets are old hat. My comment that I find "cold calling" by telephone intrusive and that it created in me a negative reaction was brushed aside. "Was not door knocking also intrusive?" Well, yes, but at least the canvassers had shown they were concerned enough to get off their backsides and pay a visit rather than pester from the comfort of their own homes (or a phone bank centre.) Phone banking has, apparently, been tried an tested, was used by both President Obama and Ed Milliband and is the new sliced bread.

In my view the great advantage of AV over First Past the Post is that it ends the need for negative voting (aka tactical voting - voting for a second choice in order to keep out a third choice.) With AV we shall be able to vote positively for our first choices and use our second choice for the "keeping out" option. This, rather than the dubious advantages of MPs scrabbling even harder as social workers, should be the spearhead of the campaign.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010


In my somewhat eclectic higher education I studied some statistics and came across the Poisson Distribution, which predicts, if I remember rightly, that disasters come in clusters. With one of our MPs harbouring an alleged Russian spy, the student fees debacle and, now, embarrassing revelations of Vince Cable and his partial emasculation, all in the space of a fortnight, we Liberal Democrats must hope that our cluster of damaging events is now complete. Maybe even that the New Year and a victory in Oldham and Saddleworth will herald the turn of the tide.

Actually I think the disclosures of the opinions of Vince Cable et al could do the party some good, or at least hearten we stalwarts if not the public in general. The revelations show that not all Liberal Democrats in government have been seduced by the chemistry of working together with an alien team, but are actually standing up for Liberal values, and the duplicitous way in which the disclosures were obtained shows the Tory press up to its old game of stooping to any level to destabilise a government it doesn't like.

Monday, 20 December 2010

More Martin Wolf

Martin Wolf had an interesting article in the Business Spectator last month in which three points in particular stand out:

1. Although politicians are arguing that it would be wrong to burden our children and grandchildren with debts run up by this generation (itself a dubious concept) we also have a responsibility to hand on to them a fully-functioning public infrastructure (eg health, education, transport, water, energy, judicial, market, financial and political systems).

2. The UK government can currently borrow at a real annual rate of interest of 1%. "Never can there have been a better time to build up public assets." These would, of course, include higher education, and local authority services, both currently being slashed by the government.

3. Britain's net debt is "close to zero: thus debt is not a burden on society as a whole." In other words, very little of the UK's public debt is held overseas: citizens wearing their "taxpayer" hat are borrowing from others, largely pension funds and similar institutions, very often the same citizens wearing a different hat.

Consequently, a Keynesian policy of public expenditure to pull is out of the recession is not only desirable for the current generation but eminently affordable, and an opportunity to ensure that our children and grandchildren inherit a fully functioning civilised society.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


Devolution of power to local communities has been part of the Liberal creed ever since I joined the party, so I suppose we should welcome Eric Pickles's proposals. However, if I were a trained and qualified librarian I think I should take a dim view of the local library service being handed over to a group of self selected Linda Snells. Liberals have aways understood devolution to imply handing responsibilities and powers (including tax-raising powers) to democratically elected bodies, but neither district nor parish councilors seem to feature largely in the Pickles proposals.

Indeed, rather than enhance the fund-raising powers of councilors the proposals allow council tax demands to be subject to referendums if the citizenry don't like them. In my view referendums should have no part in our system, which is one of representative democracy. We elect MPs and councilors to make decisions on our behalf, using their judgment after having weighed up the pros and cons pertaining to any situation. If we don't like their decisions we choose someone else at the next scheduled election.

The proposal to force 12 areas to hold referendums on whether or not to have a directly elected mayor is doubly flawed. First, how can powers be devolved if central government forces an area to have such a referendum? Surely, under true devolution, each area would be able to make its own decision. Secondly, the concept of a directly elected mayor throws the emphasis away from the reasoned policies of the competing parties on to the personalities of individuals. The growth of prime-ministerial power rather than collective leadership has damaged and weakened government at national level and similar results can be expected at local level if we take the emphasis away from policy and on to the personalities of a few, possibly maverick, individuals.

True, local government at the moment is dull, uninspiring and attracts little interest. It should be revived not though imported gimmicks, but by the introduction of an electoral system that makes voting more meaningful, and the granting of genuinely independent and meaningful powers to elected representatives at local level.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Will Hutton on the Press

I have just finished reading Will Hutton's long but worthwhile "Them and Us." Here's what he has to say about the Daily Mail in particular and the rest of the press (Guardian and Observer partly excepted!) in general.

"The info-capitalist proprietors - Murdoch, Rothermere and the Barclay brothers - are happy to peddle the big narrative of a badly governed country with an overblown public sector being carried to the dogs by Eurocrats, liberalism, undue deference to political correctness and moral decay. ... Commonsense views are set against those of lying politicians and untrustworthy technocrats, which are confirmed day by day by the way the news is spun, personalised and angled to support the big narrative. Government statistics cannot be trusted on climate change, swine flu, MMR or anything else. Statistics are twisted to indicate that crime - or teenage pregnancy - is always rising when, in reality, it is falling. Immigrants are allegedly swamping the country, ushered in by anti-British officials and politicians. Anyone who says differently is pitilessly hounded - witness the joint attempted character assassination of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg that was launched by the Telegraph, Times, Mail and Sun on the morning of the second televised debate...The aim was to discredit him and torpedo his dangerous popularity that was threatening the Conservative campaign." (pp327/8)

Hutton recommends "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies (Vintage Books, 2009) for a powerful exposé of the management of the media, including the BBC. Although I've only just started reading it, I recommend that you put it, along with Hutton's book, on your Christmas wish-list.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Less than Hearty Welcome to the Fib-Dems

Three cheers for the 21 Liberal Democrat MPs who kept their word and voted against any rise in student fees, and two cheers for the five who abstained. Unfortunately as a result of those who so publicly broke their highly publicised pledge we now fully deserve the sobriquet, "the Fib Dems" (and that's one of the kindest.) It will take years of hard campaigning, and the avoidance of any similar situations in the future to restore our credibility.

The main loser in this debacle is not, however, the Liberal Democrats, but the democratic political process itself. Labour has cynically and predictably exploited the Liberal Democrats' embarrassment without acknowledging that they themselves first introduced tuition fees, themselves broke their manifesto promise not to top them up, themselves set up the Browne enquiry, and have as yet made no constructive response to it. The Tories pretend that there is no alternative to a rise in fees when there clearly is (an increase in corporation tax, close a few tax havens, get round to collecting all that uncollected tax) The cynicism of the public that no party is playing straight with them is entirely justified.

There are three lessons to be learned. The most obvious is that no party should make pledges unless they intend to stand by them whatever the circumstances. There will be few, if any, pledges, if this is understood.

The second is a revision of our view of the nature of the manifesto and the doctrine of the mandate (the latter always rather an "iffy" concept.) The present theory is that a party will put into practice everything it proposes in its manifesto, and has the moral right to do so because the people have voted for it. If the days of (at least) three party politics and coalitions are here to stay, and in spite of this debacle I sincerely hope they are, than all parties, and not just the Liberal Democrats, should admit, and the media and public understand, that manifesto proposals are aspirations rather than firm commitments, statements of what the party would like to do, the road if would like to travel, unless diverted by the necessities of "events", lack of resources or compromise with another party.

The third is (as already argued in a previous post) that it is ridiculous for exhausted politicians to try to cobble together a coalition agreement in the weekend immediately following an election campaign. A ten day transition period should have highlighted the fact that student fees were a "red line" issue for Liberal Democrats, and the right to abstain was not enough. The Tories saw this in relation to electoral reform. A pity our negotiators, and the conference that endorsed the coalition agreement, were not more alert. More time should give more opportunity for the inconsistencies to show, and to resolve them before they become damaging.

I have my fingers crossed that the damage in this case is not fatal.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

A promise Kept, a Promise Broken, and ???Pledges...

According to today's paper Ed Milliband is to honour the Labour Party manifesto promise to support a referendum on a reform of the voting system by adding his name to the leadership campaign. Good or him, and what a pity the rest of Labour's MPs, who all fought and were elected on this manifesto, haven't the same integrity.

At the same time Ken Clarke has decided to ignore the Tory manifesto promise to make imprisonment the automatic punishment for carrying a knife. Good for him too. Mandatory sentences are a nonsense. We have magistrates and judges to decide on the merits of each individual case. Come to think of it, that's perhaps why judges are called judges: they're there to use their judgment. You'd think even Daily Mail readers would understand that.

As you'll gather from the above, it is possible in my view to be fairly relaxed about the contents of manifestos, cheering when the bits of which you approve are implemented, and being relieved when the bits with which you disagree are abandoned, quietly or, as in this case, very publicly.

Can the same relaxed attitude be taken to pledges? I think not, especially when the pledges have been blown up to photographable size, personally signed and then hawked around the target electorate with maximum publicity. One of my dictionaries (Pocket Oxford) defines a pledge as a "public promise" and the other (Chambers) as a "solemn promise." In other words these pledges are not vague aspirations tucked away in the small print: they are solemn and highly publicised promises.

The greatest danger to our political system at the moment is cynicism. If our MPs do not stick to their pledges tomorrow they forfeit our party's claim to integrity and merely fuel public cynicism and the belief that "we are all the same and none of us is to be trusted." They do not herald the new, more honest, politics of which Nick Clegg spoke so effectively in the Leaders' Debates.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

More Thoughts on Fees

1. Over the weekend a Liberal Democrat spokesman on Radio 4 invoked the "parlous state of the country's finances" as a justification for some of his colleagues' possible U-turn on fees (though he himself, bless him, was going to vote against.) But the fact remains that students will not be required to pay these fees "up front." so who will? The state, presumably. So if fees are increased the state will have to pay more than it does at the moment. So if the country's public finances really are parlous, these increases will make them even more parlous. There's the whiff of hypocrisy here.

2. More hypocrisy from the Labour Party. Clearly they're enjoying the Liberal Democrats' embarrassment, and doing their best to stir up ridicule, conveniently forgetting that thy introduced fees in the first place, firmly stated in their 2001 manifesto "We will not introduce top-up fees..." and then did, in spite of a whopping Commons majority and therefore no need to compromise with another party, and themselves set up the Browne Inquiry but as yet have made no clear response to it. What we need from Labour is their alternative. Knockabout rhetoric in Westminster and the media may be good fun but it does not advance the debate or define the options, not does it increase respect for politicians and the political process.

3. Ed Milliband is in favour of a graduate tax. So am I, but it does present problems , as outlined in an earlier post We need to know how Ed Milliband would deal with these, and what alternative his Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, who doesn't agree with a graduate tax, has to offer.

4. Less debated, but in the long run as important as access to universities, is the reduction if not abandonment of funding to subjects other than those the government thinks necessary for economic advancement. This Philistine attitude is disgraceful. Universities are for the exploration of knowledge, whether or not it is deemed "useful", and education at all levels, from infant to post-doctoral,is for the he development of human personality, potential and talent in whatever (legal!) field.

5. As the UCU has pointed out, the additional income from raising our Corporation Tax to the OECD average would provide all the funds necessary to finance higher higher education for free in all areas. Only the Greens, so far as I know, have the guts to propose this alternative. Perhaps the fourth option introduced recently by some Liberal Democrats, to postpone the fees vote and have another long hard think, which should include this proposal, is the best in the present circumstances.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Hanging in the Balance

I have bought, but not yet read, David Laws's account of the formation of the coalition,"22 Days in May." However, I'm already enraged (that's not too strong a word) by the title of his second chapter, "First moves in a hung parliament." If we Liberal Democrats won't use the positive and more accurate term "balanced" to describe such a parliament, who on earth will?

I have no prejudiced objection to the importation of American terms: many of them are both accurate and evocative. "Credit crunch" is from the US. One of my favourites is the "hot potato theory of money " (you hold it or you pass it on.)

The term "hung" is inaccurate in relation to parliaments, and evokes the wrong reaction. It is a US description applied to a jury unable to come to a decision. Its use in relation to parliaments therefore implies that they too will be hamstrung and unable to decide, and so it has entirely negative connotations.

"Balanced" by contrast, is positive. It implies, first, that the parliament more accurately reflects the opinions and wishes of the electorate than does a majority for one party based on on minority of the votes, and an even smaller minority of those entitled to vote. It also implies that, as a result of negotiations between the parties forming the government, decisions will be more balanced and reasoned than if left to the unchallenged dogmatic beliefs of a minority.

With all its faults, there is evidence of this balance from the coalition. We are to have a referendum on voting reform. It is not to be on STV, which Liberal Democrats would prefer, but AV is certainly an improvement on the first past the post, so the referendum is better than nothing. Wholesale second chamber reform is going to happen, whereas, left to the Tories alone, it probably wouldn't have, and all Labour achieved in 13 years with a thumping commons majority was minor tinkering.

Vince cable's tinkering with the Browne proposals for student fees is certainly an improvement on the original, ( though it does not, in my view justify Liberal Democrat MPs' breaking their pledge to vote against any increase. A pledge is, after all, a pledge - even stronger than a promise in a manifesto.) Without Liberal Democrat intervention the Tories would probably have introduced the Browne proposals without any cap at all, and with the "pay back" threshold left at £15 000

So here's an appeal to Liberal Democrats to ignore the ill informed media crowd and recognise and name a balanced parliament for what it is: a balanced representation of the views of the people.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

More on Equality

Just a few lines from Shirley Williams's highly readable autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves

The historic evidence is clear deeply unequal societies are far less committed to democracy and the rule of law than fairer ones. The most stable and happy societies, according to much international research, have moderate differences in wealth and incomes both within and between the public and private sectors. They enjoy high standards of education; they support and admire public service; they understand that a good society requires as its foundation a sense of the common good. (Page 383, Virago paperback edition)

And to turn for a moment to another aspect of equality, a short paragraph in yesterdays paper informed us that during the election campaign the Tories spent £16.7m, Labour £8m and the Liberal Democrats £4.8m. (Guardian, 02/12/10, page 18). This is campaign expenditure only and does not take into account the cash poured into key marginals by Lord Ashcroft and others between elections

If the coalition is serious about fairness then the nettle of party funding and spending has to be grasped. Contributions from individuals and organisations need to be strictly limited, and public funding based on a system in which the parties have to make some effort to obtain their subsidy introduced. The scheme by which parliament decides the total for public funding for all parties, divides the sum by the number of the electorate, sends a voucher of that value to each elector and it is up to the parties to collect the vouchers and cash them in seems to me to be the fairest, and has the advantage of forcing the parties to keep in touch with the public. See earlier post for a fuller esplanation

Friday, 3 December 2010

Equality: a response to a response

As Chris Wales acknowledges, the "equality" question is so broad and deep that it deserves several posts rather than a few comments. After all, R H Tawney wrote a whole book about it.

So here are a few rejoinders to the detailed and thoughtful comment Chris has made to the previous post

1. Is promoting equality designed to save the rich for themselves of to save society form the rich?

Both really. As Wilkinson and Pickett show, the rich themselves are happier in more equal societies. I think this probably arises from "all being in it together" (and having to spend less time and effort protecting their wealth from the dispossessed.) Perhaps David Cameron's attempt to measure happiness will confirm this.

But equally democratic societies meed to be protected from the rich who, through being disconnected from society, and, believing (mistakenly) they have no need of it, withdraw their support from the means of sustaining it. In addition the very rich can and do wield undue influence in trying to manipulate the political process to preserve their privileges, not only for themselves, but also for their offspring. Why else is no party prepared to introduced effective inheritance taxes?

2. Some rich are philanthropic.

Yes of course they are and thank goodness for them, especially Bill Gates's foundation to combat AIDS in Africa. But neither national nor international society should be dependent on the whims of the rich for "good works." The rich should pay realistic taxes to repay, preserve and improve the societies which have enabled them to prosper.

3. People who strive should be rewarded.

They should and they will be, but that does not mean they should become so disproportionately rich in material and financial matters that they endanger democratic health. Even in societies with a high measure of equality (which, to repeat, does not equate to "sameness") individuals will still strive for job satisfaction, the good opinion of their neighbours, political power, sporting prowess, domestic happiness, and, for those for whom it is a priority, a superior level of material wealth.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010


In a comment on an earlier post Chris Wales confesses that he's not too keen on the state trying to preserve a measure of equality in society. Rather,if I've understood him correctively, he is in favour of unfettered (and not necessarily equal?) opportunity.

This is an interesting question and deserves a full post (and perhaps several) rather than an additional comment.

Most modern states, as Chris acknowledges, accept that there should be some sort of welfare safety net to prevent too severe destitution, and we have had such as system, with varying degrees of generosity, in this country since the Elizabethan Poor Law. It was Jo Grimond, in an article, I think in the Observer the early 1960s, who alerted my to the concept that the democratic state also had a duty to prevent some people becoming too rich, because, as I recall, they endangered democracy. Lord Aschcroft, Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi are prime examples of how right he was (as in so many other things.)

A few rich individuals perhaps add a bit of glamour to society (the Dockers provided it in the 1950s, though, as far as I know, they paid their taxes, and at a pretty high rate) but a substantial section of society who become so rich that they are detached from the rest of us, live in gated communities and cease to be affected by our common concerns endanger the cohesiveness of our society, just as does the detachment of the bottom 20% into their separate Toynbee "caravan." We would be so much happier as a society if we really were "all in this together." This explains so many people's nostalgia for the war years, when the rich as well as the poor had a chance of being bombed out of their homes or called up for service.

It is a sad reflection on the current spirit of the Labour Party that, although Ed Milliband seems keen to retain the 50% higher tax rate as a matter of principle other senior members aren't so sure. When Neil Kinnock was their leader his book choice on Desert Island Discs was R H Tawney's "Equality", which contains this wonderful passage:

"It is possible that intelligent tadpoles reconcile themselves to the inconvenience of their position by reflecting that, though most of them will live and die as tadpoles, and nothing more, the more fortunate of the species will one day shed their tales , distend their mouths and stomachs, hop nimbly on to dry land, and croak addresses to their former friends on the virtues by means of which tadpoles of character and capacity can rise to be frogs"
(Allen and Unwin edition,1931, page 142)

As Tawney clearly saw, equality of opportunity is merely equality of opportunity to become unequal. To become unequal and not pay your dues to the society that enabled you to do so is even less acceptable.

Monday, 29 November 2010

At-Home Days

The British winter no longer comes as an annual surprise, but we are still not sufficiently certain that it will be so regular and prolonged as to make it worthwhile to invest heavily in snow-clearing equipment on the scale of, say, the Alps.

So when there is heavy snow, as today, the the intermediate solution for avoiding chaos is for local authorities to have the powers to declare an "At-Home Day." This would mean that all non-essential workers - most shop and office workers, teachers and students, etc. - would be instructed to stay at home, leaving the roads clear for essential workers - power suppliers, police and security workers, medical workers, firefighters and rescuers, and of course, the snow ploughs, - to go about their business.

This idea was put to me by the deputy head of a school at which I worked in Bradford in the early 80s. He was called Wally, which as far as I know was his full first name and not a diminutive. It was not regarded as either pejorative or funny at the time

Sunday, 28 November 2010

An Airy-Fairy Measure

Having been enthusiastic about David Cameron's proposal to measure Gross National Wellbeing, it is rather disappointing to find that he is proposing to do it in such an airy-fairy manner. Both he and the statistician in charge at the ONS talk vaguely about asking people how happy they feel. While as a social scientist I cannot decry the value of trying to measure subjunctive feelings it is disappointing that solid facts such as hours worked, a measure of equality, suicide rates, the stability of marriages and partnerships, etc (see earlier post) are not to be taken into account. Perhaps Cameron is frightened of what objective data might reveal.

Friday, 26 November 2010

An Assenting Voice

On the 28th October the coalition produced a White Paper “Local growth: realising every place’s potential”

My friend John Cole, like me a retired teacher of economics and also a lifelong Liberal/Liberal Democrat has written a detailed critique for his colleagues which begins with the following paragraphs:

General Comments:
I approached reading this white paper in the hope that it would give me confidence that the coalition had a sound and credible route map towards economic recovery and sustainable growth. Whilst there are many good ideas in the paper, I remain unconvinced that the coalition is going to have the UK economy in a far better place in five years time. In short, it is a curate’s egg of a white paper – good in parts but with, in my view, some woeful deficiencies.
The main shortcoming is the total reliance on “supply side” measures. There is much talk of incentives to invest and to build. Inward investment will be attracted. The planning system will be totally reformed, streamlined and barriers to development reduced. The workforce will be up-skilled and those on benefits will be incentivised to work. In the North East and other non-metropolitan regions public sector jobs will be cut but new jobs, created by the private sector, will more than take up the slack and the economy will be re-balanced. All will be hunky-dory.
What is totally absent is any reference to the “demand side”. Firms will only invest and produce if they confidently expect there to be a demand for the final product, be it a good or service. “Confidence” is the key word. At present business confidence is low, as is consumer confidence. After the binge spending of most of this decade individuals and corporations are now retrenching. If firms are disinclined to expand because of thin order books, the new jobs will not emerge. In a wiser age governments would step in with counter-cyclical policies, in this case to boost demand by increasing government spending – pump-priming expenditure which could be reduced as the economy moved into a private-sector sustained growth. Such counter-intuitive thinking would appear to be beyond not only “The Daily Mail” but George Osborne. It should not be beyond the grasp of Liberal Democrats with our Keyenesian lineage.

And so say all of us.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Our Friend in Need

George Osborne is quite right to offer £7 billion to help bail out the Irish economy, though one is disposed to wonder how a country of only 4 million people can build up such a massive crisis and, indeed, buy more British exports than India, China , Brazil and a fourth country the name of which escapes me, combined.

However, what most people will be wondering is how it is that a month ago it was absolutely essential to slice £7 billion from public expenditure since we couldn't possibly afford to maintain public services at the present level, and now, out of the blue £7 billion is available for another, albeit important, purpose.

The truth is that the £7 billion will be borrowed as, unlike Greece, or Ireland, the British government has no difficultly in borrowing at competitive rates. "The markets" are not breathing down out necks.The rates are, I suspect, not quite as competitive as the BBC1 news suggested last night - that Britain would borrow at 1.5% and the Irish would repay with 5% interest. If today's Guardian (page 13)is to be trusted the interest the governments have to pay on 10 year bonds is 3.5% for the UK and 8.1% for Ireland, so we shall still make a tidy profit.

The message of our contribution to the Irish bailout is that when the government wants, it can find the money at competitive rates. The curtailment of public expenditure is therefore not of necessity, but ideologically driven.

Although "the markets" are not yet at the throats of Britain, the signs are that they will now turn their attacks on to Portugal and Spain. It is high time the international community put a stop to this nonsense by agreeing to a Tobin-type tax on monetary transactions. Policy in democracies should be determined by the people, not financiers' greed.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Students and the Immigration Cap.

There are forecasts that the proposed cap on immigration is likely to reduce vastly the number of foreign student in our universities. This seems to me to be totally dotty. Higher education is one of the few "products" that we offer which is "World Class": why on earth stop people buying it? As anyone studying "A" level economics will tell you, a foreign student coming here to buy one of our courses is the equivalent of an export (that's without taking into account the additional money they will spend in living expenses and entertainment while they are here.) Stopping then buying the product is the equivalent of refusing to sell Rolls Royce engines to the Australian. By pandering to the prejudices of the tabloids and Tory right the government is about to score a devastating own goal.

It is also a devastating comment on the values of our society that whereas top class footballers are to be excluded from the cap, top class scientists are not. If our universities are to maintain their "World Class" status then they need to be able to employ the best of international talent.

We get the impression that Vince Cable is trying to resist this nonsense: all power to his elbow.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Out of the mouths of...Lord Young

Lord Young's forced resignation seems to be to be part of a conspiracy by the political classes - by the Conservatives to justify their ideological attack on the welfare state (to "prove" we can no longer afford it) and by Labour as a convenient stick with which to tag the Tories as unfeeling and unaware of what "real life" is like in the UK.

But there is a great deal of truth in what Lord Young claimed.

First, on a technical point, he spoke of this "alleged" recession, and he has some justification, in that a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth , and we are now in positive growth, albeit not exactly racing ahead.

But his point that "(t)he vast majority of people in the country today...have never had it so good." has real validity. I'm not so sure that "vast" is entirely justified, but very many of us are very comfortable and doing very nicely indeed. Those with mortgages who retain their jobs are having a bonanza, since as a result of low interest rates they can be receiving a tax-free bonus of up to six hundred pounds a month. We don't hear too much about them. For the rest of us, in work, or with secure pensions, life is good: food prices are still low and form a relatively small part of our expenditure, clothing is absurdly cheap and many other commodities are being heavily discounted in order to promote sales. Soon after Christmas we shall be seeing estimates that the "average" child has received some £300-worth or more of presents.

Quite frankly, even for the vast majority, indeed the overwhelming majority, austerity this is not.

The period of the Second World War and the ten years or so afterward can perhaps more accurately be described as "austerity", though I cannot remember ever being seriously hungry or cold (except that in those days convention dictated that little boys should wear short trousers, even in the depths of winter, so our knees and inner thighs became "chapped" and red-raw. Some stuff, "Snofire" I think it was called, which we were given to relieve pain, was not very effective. Today's boys, in long trousers as toddlers, don't realise how lucky they are.) Even this war and post-war austerity was the lap of luxury compared with average life in the Third World. I once asked one of my Malawian colleagues, a senior educationalists, if he gave his children Christmas presents. "Yes", he replied proudly, "I buy each of my children a bottle of Coke." Puts things in perspective.

The problem is, of course, that in spite of government claims, we are not "all in his together. The main pain of the premature and misguided corrective economic measures will be felt by the bottom 20%, that part of Polly Toynbee's caravan which is now in danger of being detached from the main body and becoming a separate entity, and who didn't get their fair share of the 1990s prosperity either. In addition are those who lose their jobs and, no longer able to pay their mortgages, may lose their homes.

As a nation we are some four times richer that we were in the 1940s (when we could afford to establish the NHS, introduce family allowances and other new aspects of the welfare state.) With the political will and a modicum of generosity we can easily afford to make the lot of the bottom 20% more tolerable and re-incorporate them into society, and provide "tidying-over" measures for those temporarily without adequate incomes as a result society's failure to control the banking system. A courageous government would call upon Lord Young's "never had it so good" cohort do our bit.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

A Welcome Tory Initiative

David Cameron's proposal to try to measure what the media are pleased to call our Gross National Happiness would have been received with derision by earlier generations of Conservatives, but his recognition that: "It's not just the economy, stupid." is to be welcomed.

It has long been recognised that crude GDP per capita figures are not a reliable guide to wellbeing in developing countries, and the UN has for a long time produced a Human Development Index (HDI) which, along with per capita GDP includes infant mortality rates, percentage of children in schools, adult literacy and longevity. Although developed countries are included in the index, the differentiation is not particularly meaningful.

Although no-one, as far as I know, has yet produced one, there are many ideas as to what should be included in an index of Gross National Wellbeing (GNW). Here are some:

1. per capita GDP needs to be included, but should be refined to deduct rather than add "bads" such as the use of non-renewable resources, pollution and the cost of clearing it up.

2. A measure of equality. The Gini Coefficient is an established and objective method of measuring this. As the work of Wilkinson and Pickett, among others, demonstrates, more equal societies are happier societies.

3. Medical factors such as infant mortality, longevity, the incidence of mental illness and stress.

4. Social factors such as crime rates and the proportion of people in prison, the incidence of suicide, the stability of marriages and partnerships,the extent of human rights, working hours and the number of holidays, the percentage receiving higher education, the level of unemployment and homelessness and access to cultural experiences.

There would need to be much discussion as to what should and should not be included, and the weighting given to each factor, but an internationally agreed index would be a useful tool of comparison between countries, and a useful measure of the success or otherwise of governments within countries.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Lest We Forget

We seem to be moving towards a Remembrance Season rather than a Remembrance Day. This year it covered a four day period, with Armistice Day itself on Thursday and Remembrance Sunday yesterday. In between my next door town of Morley held its own "Festival of Remembrance" on the Friday evening (at which the Choral Society to which I belong was invited to sing) and the national "Festival" followed on the Saturday evening in the Albert Hall.

In my view spreading out the period reduces its impact and poignancy. The Guardian reported that many parts of the country fell silent at 11am on Thursday the 11th, though nothing much seemed to happen, or rather stop happening, here. Then on Sunday, still the "official" silence, those who had already made their observation could be excused for carrying on as normal. We need to make up our minds on which day the silence is to be and then join forces to encourage its observance.

We also need to think about the name. My dictionary defines a festival as "festal day,celebration, merry-making." There is absolutely nothing to "make merry" about millions of young people sent to be slaughtered and millions of families bombed out of their homes because politicians have failed in their diplomacy. The best alternative I can think of is a an "Observance" though I admit it does not pack much punch. The observance, for want of a better name, should have no martial music, uniforms, medals and marching in step, all designed to sanitise and glorify war, but should involve depictions of refugees feeling their homes, soldiers dying in agony,the mutilated struggling with their futures - to remind us that war is not noble but horrible.

Finally, there seem to be subtle moves to use Remembrance to justify present wars and drum up support for them. Of course it is right that those killed in conflicts since 1945 should be included in our thoughts, that we should mourn their loss and offer sympathy and support to their families, but we need to be careful to separate these feelings from actual support of all the conflicts in which they have been involved.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Another broken promise.

Both parties in the coalition claim to be committed to devolution of power: in fact a lively level of local participation in government is one of the longest standing traditions of the Liberals/Liberal Democrats. So how can we condone Michael Gove's decision to remove what powers remain for local authorities to distribute funding to schools, and impose a rigid formula from on high? This is yet another broken promise and a reversion to the "Whitehall knows best" syndrome for which we have so rightly criticised labour.

The Conservatives' breaking of their explicit promise not to impose yet another reorganisation of the NHS has passed almost without comment compared with the present furore surrounding Liberal Democrat MPs' promise not to vote for a raising of tuition fees. The riposte that it was Tony Blair's New Labour who first introduced tuition fees, having promised not to do so, then tripled them, is yet another reminder of a broken promise. Is it any wonder that the electorate is so cynical about politicians and the political process?

One of the most disheartening responses to enthusiastic and idealistic canvassers is the weary accusation: "You're all alike." The coalition seems to be going out of its way to confirm this.

We were promised a new, more honest, politics: the schools funding edict is yet another example of "more of the same."

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A very American coup?

In the past few months I've read both volunes of Chris Mullin's diaries - both a very good read and highly recommended.

One gem - Tony Benn on Neil Kinnock: "A vacuum surrounded by charisma." Unkind, and not really apt, but funny.

Quoi qu'il en soit (French for "Be that as it may" which contains a subjunctive and can be popped into an essay at almost any point and earn an extra mark at A level)the diaries prompted me to read Mullin's novel, "A very British coup." This, also highly recommended, tells a fictional story of how a combination of Britain's right wing press, senior civil servants, military chiefs, security services and at least one trade union leader conspire to overthrow a democratically elected left wing Labour prime minister whose policy is to remove US military bases from Britain.

We in the "rest of the world" find it incomprehensible that the US can turn against Obama's leadership. (I happened to be in the US when Reagan defeated Carter, and couldn't comprehend that either.) Maybe there's a similar sort of right wing anti-democratic conspiracy there.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010


The government's proposal to introduce workfare for those unemployed for over a year and, in the view of officials, not trying hard enough to get another job, has received a muted response, even from the Labour Party. Only the Archbishop of Canterbury is reported as having spoken out against.

My own view is that if there is work to be done in cleaning and tidying up our environment than we should pay people the going rate to do it. The only exceptions should be willing volunteers, such as the Ramblers' Association, who organise working parties to keep footpaths clear, and people convicted of a crime but not a danger to the public, who should rightly be given non-custodial sentences which may involve such tasks. I see no reason to humiliate this latter group by forcing them to wear distinctive clothing that identifies them as doing compulsory "community pay-back."

What, then, of that one and a half million unemployed who, in tabloid jargon, are too idle or indifferent to get a job, and who need to be "remotivated" by a bit of stick? Frankly, I believe the overwhelming majority would dearly like a job and will have tried very hard, until it seemed hopeless, to get one. We should not allow those who are not in this category, whom I believe to be a tiny minority, to stigmatize the entire group. I think it was the sociologist Peter Townsend, founder of the Child Poverty Action Group, who wrote that: "when the economic history of this age comes to be written, the problem of the skiver will not merit so much as a footnote."

Some years ago I heard a non-religious speaker on Radio 4's "Thought for the Day." He argued that all peop0le have three basic psychological needs: to know that somebody cares what happens to them; to feel that at sometime someone has benefited from their existence; and to be able to pay their way. It is the last point that is relevant here: although some might put a brave face on it, no one actually wants to be a perpetual "hanger-on."

It is high time our society relaxed over this issue and adopted the Green Party's proposal of a Citizens' Income, to which all are entitle by right of citizenship. Then we could forget about the "skivers" and all get on with our lives.

Monday, 8 November 2010

More on Tuition Fees

One of the arguments against a graduate tax as a means of funding higher education (see earlier blog No Graduation without Taxation) is that such a tax would only produce a stream of income in the future, whereas the universities need money now.The National Union of Students, which favours a graduate tax, suggest that this circle could be squared by selling bonds, which would provide funds now against the promise of the future income stream.

As far as I can see there is no similar scheme in place to provide "upfront" cash for the universities now from the £6 000 to £9 000 fees which future students are to pay back when their incomes reach a sufficient level, but not now. So from where is the cash needed by the universities now to come? Presumably from the government.

If that is the case, than the hike in fees, and the extension of loans to part-time students, is going to increase the government's current expenditure, not reduce it. Yet the coalition's excuse for the draconian fees hike is that it is necessary because in the current "difficult economic circumstances" (which, if they exist, are entirely related to current government expenditure) "the current system for funding higher education is unaffordable." (Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat News, 5th November 2010).

If there is something in the above that I've missed, then I'd be grateful for enlightenment.

The coalition gives the impression that there is no alternative. Here is an assortment:

pay for it out of general taxation, as was the case when my generation (and that of most MPs) received their higher education. Yes, I know there are nowadays a lot more students, but then, the country is also a lot richer.

raise corporation tax to the average OECD level, as proposed by the UCU, who argue that the increase would be sufficient to finance HE. According to Caroline Lucas (letter to the Guardian, 5th November 2010), if corporation tax were raised to the G7 average, "the extra revenue would generate...more than enough to abolish all tuition fees, increase investment in higher education , and still leave the UK's main corporation tax rate below France, the US and Japan."

levy a small percentage extra "education" tax on all firms for every graduate they employ, with reductions for any training schemes they actually carry out themselves.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

A False Prospectus

Last Thursday George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, faced questioning by the Treasury Select Committee of the House of Commons. According to the Guardian's report (5th November) he was accused of "misleading the public" by claiming that at the time of the election Britain was facing "unprecedented levels of debt," in a "financial danger zone" and in danger of losing our AAA status from the credit rating agencies. MPs pointed out that, of six leading industrial countries, including the US, Japan, France and Germany, we have the lowest national debt as a proportion of GDP of all.

Even the Tory chairman of the committee, Andrew Tyrie, said that Osborne's claim that Britain was "on the brink of bankruptcy" was "a bit over the top."

Yet Liberal Democrats in government repeatedly use this distortion of the truth to justify support of the Tory policy of cutting back the state, and, more recently, to justify breaking our promises on tuition fees. In his front page article in Liberal Democrat News this week, Vince Cable blames the U-turn on "these difficult economic circumstances" and Michael Moore used a similar excuse (I can't remember the exact words) on Friday's Radio 4 "Any Questions."

The Labour government lost the confidence of the public and did incredible damage to the political process largely as a result of leading the country into the Iraq war on a false prospectus. The coalition, which promised to try to restore faith in the political process, and create a "new politics," is in danger of going down the same route. To quote the Tory Andrew Tyrie yet again, we should "tell it as it is."

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Four Rays of Liberal Sunshine

Four rays of Liberal sunshine have emanated from the coalition government in the past week: the decisions to share some defence capabilities with the French, to grant (some) prisoners the right to vote, to refer Murdoch's BSkyB bid to the media regulator, and the successful passage of the referendum on voting reform through its final stage in the Commons.

Of course, not all of these are cause for unalloyed Liberal Democrat joy. On defence many of us would like to see more determined steps towards disarmament, but the decision to share with the French is is a step in the direction of realism.The coalition can't take all the credit, as I believe the initial negotiations were started by the Brown government, but it is reasonable to suppose that, without Liberal Democrat support Cameron may not have had the strength to stand up to his chauvinist "Little Englanders" and carry the process through. Coupled with the earlier "decision to postpone a decision" on the like for like replacement of Trident until the next parliament, this is genuine Liberal Democrat progress.

Acceptance the ruling of the ECHR on prisoners' right to vote is another area where Cameron will have been grateful for Liberal Democrat backbone. Let us hope it leads to some improvement in the appalling conditions in our prisons and the purposeless incarceration of so many damaged a vulnerable people. Again, coupled with Ken Clarke's conversion to a more liberal policy, this is something for us to shout about, and shout about it we should. I hope that our Focus editors are not so scared of frightening the horses that they ignore it or, worse still, condemn it.

Thank goodness for Vince Cable's unhesitating action in referring the Murdoch bid to the regulator. We are told that the Tories are "much more relaxed" about the possibility of a further extension of the Murdoch empire, so Liberal Democrat steel has certainly been important here.

Finally, the "referendum on the voting system" bill may not be on the system most of us would have preferred, and it is unfortunately coupled with a reduction in the number of constituencies and a revision of their boundaries. This might reasonably be described as an attempt to rig the system against Labour and so give them an excuse for voting against the entire package. But it does give the lie to those who predicted that the coalition was not strong enough to get the bill through. Of course, it still has to pass the Lords.

In spite of all these reservations, these are four rays of kindly light to relieve the gloom encircling those of us who are dismayed and bewildered by Liberal Democrat support for economic policy which is the antithesis of common sense and all our traditions.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A Personal First

Last night I took part in my first telephone conference, or actually telephone briefing, since there was no opportunity to contribute. This was held by the "Yes to Fair Votes" campaign. After all the fuss and palaver of getting "selected" to take part (applying by Email, being given a telephone number to ring and a password) it was a bit of a damp squib. Maybe my mood was not as positive as it should have been as the event coincided with The Archers, so I was forced to miss my daily "fix" of vicarious rural life.

The conference or briefing began with a long period of curious "space odyssey" type music, followed by such a long silence that I presumed the whole thing had "crashed" and was tempted to ring of and switch on The Archers anyway. Then a lady whose name sounded like Katie Gooche or Goose (I have checked with the website but can't find any mention of her to verify this)told us that thousands had applied to take part in the event, we were the lucky 500, and explained that AV would have the advantages that:

Votes would count for more
MPs would have the support of at least 50% of their electorates
MPs would have to work harder

and that we must keep the message simple.

I suppose that an AV vote will "count for more" in that it will give us a second choice as well as a first, but I do not necessarily want MPs to "work harder" on the constituency welfare cases which so preoccupy them, but in fact should be done by properly empowered local councilors while MPs reflect on the great issues of the day and hold the executive to account.

Willie Sullivan then told us that the "other side" would have big money from Tory -supporting businesses, but we had the advantage of enthusiastic activists such as myself so we can "beat them on the ground." "They" will buy advertising but we have regional organisers in place and training sessions are being planned.

Two questions from named contributers on the lines of "What can I do to set up an organisation in my area" received routine answers. My own question, submitted beforehand, " What can we do to get proper PR by STV in multi-member constituencies on the ballot paper?" received no mention, nor did any similar basic issues. Perhaps it's too late for that, but I can't help feeling we've let the opportunity for genuine reform go by default.

The event only lasted around ten minutes, so I was able to catch the end of The Archers. Linda is having difficulty in casting the village pantomime. Sets the blood racing at about the same level as, so far, the campaign for electoral reform.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A Century

This is my 100th post. Since I started blogging on 8th April, 208 days ago, that is almost but not quite a post every other day. As I've had several long and blog-free holidays in that period that's not to bad a record.

Blogging has replaced my previous hobby, which in pre-blog days was studying French. Many older people seem to suffer from insomnia, which seems to take two forms: those who go to bed but can't get to sleep, and those who drop of easily but wake up very early. Thankfully I fall into the second category and, rather than waste time tossing and turning and trying to get back to sleep again, I get up and do something useful but undemanding. For over ten years the undemanding routine was to attempt a few French language exercises, revise a few pages of my French vocabulary book and conjugate a few irregular verbs. Now all that has been put to one side and instead I blog.

Friends ask me how I feel about the fact that possibly no-one is reading it. Obviously some people do since there are occasional comments, and I'm grateful to Chris and Jaime for regular contributions. I have not signed up to one of those systems that tell you how many "hits" you've had. My only guide is the number of "views" of my profile. This has now topped 300, although some of these are me looking to check the total, and obviously many of them may not have looked at the blog more than once. However, although I'd appreciate a wide audience (and being quoted by LibDem Voice)I'm happy to regard the blog as a diary of opinions which happens to be available to the public.

I stand by my first post written during the election campaign, which deplored the fact that all three major parties took the idea of a financial crisis as a given, that this is nonsense (and still is) and that the Tories are using it as a heaven-sent opportunity to roll back the state. I remain bewildered and dismayed that the Liberal Democrats, heirs to the party of Beveridge and Keynes, have fallen for this ploy

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Daftest Cut of All?

The funding of HMRC is to be reduced by 15% (£3.2bn) over the next four years, and 13 000 personnel whose job it is to collect taxes are to lose their jobs.

Yet in the latest tax year, 2009-2010, according to HMRC itself, £42bn of taxes went uncollected. This amounts to 9% of all tax revenue, and is £2bn more than the amount uncollected in the tax year 2008 -2009.

In the latest year £15.2bn of VAT was uncollected, £6.9bn of corporation tax was uncollected, and £6bn of income tax was uncollected. (In response to a comment below, for the source of these figures click here)

The Public and Commercial Services Union believes all these figures are underestimates, and that the total of uncollected taxes is in the region of £130bn.

By contrast, the estimated cost to the Exchequer from benefit fraud is in the region of £5bn.

I will not insult readers' intelligence by drawing a conclusion.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Putting the Clock Back

The debate about altering the clocks surfaces twice a year on the operational dates and then faces away. I am in two minds.

On the one had I am persuaded by the novelist, humorist and parliamentarian A P Herbert. He pointed out that, because of Britain's naval and navigational expertise, it was internationally agreed that the zero meridian should pass through our country, from which all others would derive their time and longitude. He argued that we should be proud of this and so stick to GMT throughout the year.

On the other hand, in Germany shifting the clocks back and forth is, I understand, referred to as "energy saving time." If this is accurate then, since I wear vests in the winter, only boil just sufficient water in the kettle, walk, cycle or travel by public transport as much as possible and do all sorts of other things to save the planet, I suppose I ought to be in favour of shifting the clocks on and back too.

But it is a faff. Perhaps a suitable compromise would be for businesses, factories, shops and schools to shift their working hours back or forward on a given date, so that from today, for example, standard office hours would become eight to four instead of nine to five. That would permit the rest of us to potter along as our biological clocks dictate and preserve the planet a the same time.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Fewer Prisoners

Given Ken Clarke's welcome realisation that prison does not, after all, work, I suppose it makes sense to to cut the funding to the prison service, though it would perhaps be wiser to wait until the cut in numbers has actually materialsed before cutting the staff.

However, if fewer offenders are to be sent to prison there will clearly be more on probation, performing community service or otherwise compensating for their crimes. This surely needs more qualified and experienced workers to supervise and guide them. So a cut in funds to the probation service makes no sense at all.

Although I am no expert I understand that there are rehabilitation programmes outside prison that are very effective, but they do cost money. Failing to provide it not only means that non-custodial sentences are ineffective (and held to ridicule by the tabloids) but unreformed miscreants cost more money in the future.

The coalition is rightly trying to curtail short term thinking in the City. Long term thinking in the prison and probation services would be equally welcome.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Not on the Buses

The Comprehensive Spending Review has, I believe, included a 20% cut in the subsidy to bus services. This is a retrograde step. Surely a government with a progressive and "green" transport policy should be promoting public transport and discouraging private transport.

The free bus pass for the over 60s has however been retained. Although I am a recipient of this bonus I would have been quite happy with the re-introduction of a token payment of say 30p or even 50p a journey. Several of my contemporaries, some far less comfortably off than I, take the same view.

Somehow the coalition seems frightened of upsetting the "grey vote." They should not be: we are tougher than they think.

Monday, 25 October 2010

A Pat on the Back

There have been no posts for the last few days as I have been on a walking holiday in Cornwall. Consequently I have missed the bulk of the news and comment on the Comprehensive Spending Review. However, I did catch one brief clip on television from the end of the speech and have seem the photograph republished several times in newspapers.

I have argued consistently in this blog that these cuts are economically unnecessary and ideologically driven, and that Liberal Democrats in government should distance themselves from them as far as possible. Some Liberal Democrats, even former radicals, have told me gravely that, because of Collective Cabinet Responsibility, that is not possible, though that same Collective Responsibility does not seem to prevent the Tories from not only distancing themselves from electoral reform, but allows them to campaign against it.

Be that as it may, Collective Responsibility does not require that, after having given a speech misguided in its purpose and harmful to the most vulnerable in our society, the Chancellor of the Exchequer should receive a pat on the back from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, heirs to the party of both Keynes and Beveridge.

I suspect that picture will haunt us throughout this parliament, just as Nick Clegg's ill-judged remarks about "savage cuts" damaged our reputation in the general election campaign.

Monday, 18 October 2010

BBC World Service

For years I have cringed when British Politicians have claimed that this that or the other British institution is "The best in the world and the envy of he world" when it patently isn't. Paradoxically, the one institution that actually is the best in the world and the envy of the world is the BBC, and yet it its constantly under attack from the Tories.

Rumour has it that the World Service is to receive a cut of 25%. If this is true it is incredibly stupid. In the over-all scheme of things expenditure on the World Service is a flea-bite, and yet its reputation for comprehensiveness and impartiality does more for British prestige than all our possession of Trident, our seat on the Security Council, our allegedly Rolls Royce of a diplomatic service, our "punching above our weight" or whatever else our politicians like to boast about.

If I were in charge. rather than a cut I would give the World Service a rise of 20%, then leave them to get on with the job they do so well.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Them and Us

From page xi of Will Hutton's introduction to his latest book"Them and Us":

The greatest danger to the new government is its repudiation of Keynesian economics in circumstances that demand more Keynesianism than at any time since the 1930s. There has to be a willingness to spend, borrow, reshape finance and protect investment at all costs.

Yet on the coming Wednesday, with Liberal Democrat support, the coalition government is to announce details of its proposals to do exactly the opposite. It is hard to avoid despair.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Another World

Yesterday I did the first stint of some temporary part-time teaching of economics at a local School of Management. One of the perks of the job is a free copy of the Financial Times, which I accepted in order to pass the time on the bus-ride home, as I'd had to leave in the morning before my Guardian had been delivered.

The FT front page headline concerned a "tax blow" to "pension pots." Apparently the amount on which you can claim tax relief on contritions to your pension is to be reduced from £225 000 (per year!) to £50 000. and once your pension pot has reached £1.5 million you can't have any further tax relief at all. The majority of page three (I wonder why newspapers choose page three for the topic thought to be of major interest to readers) was devoted to illustrations of how this blow would "impact on high earners," along with a section on "how to avoid being caught out."

All the illustrations assumed a pension of 1/60th of salary for each year worked. My own teacher's (public service) pension is based on 1/80th of salary for each year worked.So much for the alleged gold plating.

When I finally got round to reading it I found that the Guardian devoted only one inside column (on page 34) to this devastating news. It included a comment from Brendon Barber, general secretary of the TUC, that even further reform is needed since, because of different rates of tax paid, "it costs a higher rate taxpayer just 60p to put £1 into their pension because they get 40p tax relief. But a standard rate tax payer ... gets only 20p relief, so it cost them 80p to save £1." Oddly, the Financial Times doesn't seem to have mentioned that.

In a "Viewpoint" article the Guardian's financial diarist pointed out that tax relief on pensions "costs" the Treasury £19 billion a year, and that 25% of it goes to the top 1.5% of earners. The FT doesn't seem to have mentioned that either.

This modest reform is to be welcomed and the coalition government is to be congratulated on not being quite so relaxed as Labour about people not only becoming becoming filthy rich,but also staying that way.

The intriguing thing to me is to wonder what exactly people do with these enormous pensions. The real purpose of a pension is to avoid destitution once one's working and earning life is over. Though far from gold plated, my own teacher's pension gives me a very comfortable lifestyle, and I can't really think what I'd do with more. Perhaps the real purpose of these enormous pension pots is to feather the nests of children and grandchildren, hardly conducive to promoting fairness, or even equality of opportunity, and therefore not a proper object for any tax relief at all.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Still the Old Politics

What I believe to be the true condition of the British Economy was aptly summed up by a Professor Kushmer in a letter to the Guardian on 11th October. He wrote:

"There is no formal opposition to the flawed political narrative - that we are in economic crisis and in need of deep fiscal surgery...Forget that economists from Martin Wolf to David Blanchflower, from Will Hutton to Jospeph Stigliz oppose it - and that "the markets" are not calling for it. Forget that our debt- to- GDP level is historically low, that our tax is among the lowest of the OECD and that the calculation of the "fiscal deficit" is crafted, not magically given."

Yet again and again the coalition government justifies the abandonment of election promises with the flawed excuse of the "financial mess left by Labour." I have not read Vince Cable's speech to parliament on the raising of student tuition fees, but the clips I saw on television concluded with a robust jibe against the "party opposite" (and a pat on the back from David Cameron), as though alleged problems relating to tuition fees had not been raised before "the current appalling financial situation...which we inherited" became evident.

Clever lines about the road to Westminster being "littered with the skidmarks of political parties changing direction" may go down well in a debating chamber, but they merely reinforce the cynicism of the electorate and give substance to the view that politicians and parties are are all alike and none is to be trusted. The government should remember that their most urgent task is to restore respect for the democratic political process, and parliamentary knockabout and distortions of the truth are not the way to do it.

Equally Labour express indignation about the substance of Lord Browne's review , conveniently forgetting that it was they t first introduced tuition fees and they who appointed the Browne commission to review the situation. They have as yet expressed no clear alternative to the Browne proposals. Their leader supports a graduate tax but it is far from clear what the party's official policy is.

If we could afford free university tuition until 12 years ago, and France and Germany can each provide it for the equivalent of £160 and £845 per year respectively, I cannot see why we now need to charge around £7 000 a year. I believe there is no need for any tuition fees at all. This is perfectly feasible. As Sally Hunt of the University and Colleges Union points out (Guardian 12th October 2010) "(a) very modest increase in the UK's corporation tax rates to the G7 average would raise enough revenue to abolish tuition fees."

However, although there are problems with a graduate tax, as I acknowledge in an earlier post, I think it would be a perfectly acceptable for middle and high earing graduates to be required to pay a token extra tax, say 1%, in recognition of the benefits they have received.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

On being thankful

I was away from home last week and threw away the papers, but think it was in Wednesday's Guardian that the following three items appeared:

  • Sales of tickets at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi are not going very well, as they are too expensive for local people - the equivalent of about 70p, which is half a day's pay in New Delhi.
  • People on housing benefit in Central London will be forced to move out, away from relatives and friends, when the new cap on benefits is introduced.
  • A lady with an income above £44 000 a year moaning away that she couldn't possibly maintain a decent lifestyle if her child benefit were taken away.
What clearer evidence do we want of a divided world and a divided Britain?

It really is high time that those of us who are comfortably off (ie rich enough to be paying any income tax at all, never mind the 40% rate) learned to appreciate our good fortune. Below is the Prayer Book's "General Thanksgiving." Even if you don't agree with its religious sentiments it may help you develop a sense of perspective.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we thine unworthy servants
do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men;

We bless thee for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for thine inestimable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies,
that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful,
and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips,
but in our lives;
by giving up ourselves to thy service,
and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness
all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost
be all honour and glory, world without end.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Anglo-French Walks

There have been no posts for the past few days as I have been walking in the Forest of Dean. The occasion was the valedictory ramble of Anglo-French Walks, a group formed by John Winter, then an "early retired" teacher of French, nearly 30 years ago, to enable English speakers wishing to improve their French and French speakers who largely seem to have no need to improve their English but are willing to put up with us, to walk together, practise our languages and generally enjoy each other's company. There have in the past been some 15 or so walks a year, each of a week's duration, held in both Britain and France, all organised and mostly led by John. Each walk usually attracted half a dozen or so of each "language."

Now John is within a few days of his 80th birthday and no longer sure he will be fit enough to lead another year's worth of walks. So for the last "official" walk, in the Forest of Dean, friends organised a "secret" augmentation when some 50 of us joined the dozen or so there for the whole week for the final day's ramble. and a farewell and thank-you dinner.

However, AFW II way arise from the ashes as some members are hoping to organise a "do-it yourself" programme on the internet. An example of the Big Society in action?

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Withdrawal Symptoms

There was a great deal of huffing and puffing on the news programmes last night about the coalition government's proposal to withdraw child benefit from those who pay the higher (40%) income tax rate. Apparently (I say "apparently" because to me and the overwhelming majority of the UK population the level of income necessary to pay this level tax is a purely theoretical matter way beyond our everyday experience) this band kicks in at an annual income, allowing for personal and other allowances, of around £44 000 a year, and astonishingly, the median (that's the lot in the middle, there are as many above as below) income of this group is around £77 000.

Most people on the average income of around £25 000 a year or below see either level of income as luxury beyond the dreams of avarice. Big Issue sellers, unemployed people, and those on the minimum wage would be overjoyed to be receiving even the average wage.

I am frankly ashamed to live in a society where people living in the lap of luxury make such a fuss* about the loss of what they regard as an entitlement. This withdrawal will have only a minor impact on the lives of what the Daily Mail likes to call "middle England." Maybe they'll have to cut out just one of their foreign holidays, not replace the gas-guzzling 4 x 4 for another year, clothe the kids from Primark rather than Gap, or postpone refitting the kitchen with tropical hardwoods.

At the other end of the scale those facing the employment or poverty traps may suffer real hardship when obtaining a job or getting a rise in pay takes away benefits. Maybe it will do Middle England good to experience the feeling, even if only at a theoretical level.

*I suspect that the fuss may emanate from the media (Paxman et al ), anxious to generate as much dissatisfaction as possible from any situation, rather than from the people actually affected. If this is the case, my apologies to those in Middle England who are quite happy to play their part and experience some minor deprivations because "we're all in this together."

Monday, 4 October 2010

Gambling with the World's Food

As a dutiful member of the World Development Movement I filled in and sent to my MP their postcard to protest against the speculation which was forcing up world food prices beyond the reach of many in the Third World. The following is in response to Mark Oban's reply. Quotations are from his letter.

3rd October 2010

Mark Oban MP.,

HM Treasury,

House of Commons,



cc Mike Wood MP, cc WDM

Speculation in Food

My MP Mike Wood has very kindly forwarded to me a copy of your response to him (ref JMA720, dated 4th October, 2010) with regard to my concern regarding speculation in food.

In my view your belief that “speculation in (food) markets plays an important part in providing liquidity (the volume of trade in a market ) and that this liquidly helps these markets to function effectively” is both misguided and naïve.

As I understand it “liquidity” is more or less synonymous with “ready money.” In this sense wholesalers and similar intermediaries do help food markets function by having sufficient ready money to buy an entire crop from a producer and then sell the product on to retailers as it is required. The further away the process of buying and selling is from the grower and consumer the less useful is the exchange. The purchase of food “futures” and derivatives, simply in the hope of a financial killing, has little to do with making markets in vital commodities “function effectively.”

The World Development Movement is holding a conference on this topic in Conway Hall on the 26th October. I sincerely hope you will see it is part of your duty as the “minister responsible for this area” to attend and hear the facts from the point of view of those harmed by the process rather than those who profit from it. To further prepare yourself you will probably find it useful to read:


We in the rich world are rightly concerned by the harm that financial speculation by the banks has done to our economy, our level of employment, our GDP and our perceived ability to continue providing effective public services. Although our concern is great and occupying most of the attention of our political classes and our media this crisis has not, so far as I know, yet cost many lives. Since speculation in food will, it should occupy a far higher level of concern and we should put an end to it as a matter of urgency.

A Tobin-type tax on currency speculation has been proposed for many years. I suggest the government give urgent attention to the international imposition of a similar type of tax to curb all speculation.

Yours sincerely,

Peter Wrigley