Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Two football matches

I am not a football fan, nor indeed a fan of any other sport (though I did once win a cup and several spoons at dinghy racing) but two football matches over the past weekend have interested me.

One was the match between Manchester United and Barcelona, where I hoped Barcelona would win, which they did. This may sound disloyal, but I prefer to see the team owned and run for the benefit of its supporters and the sport to succeed over one run for profit by an American or Russian (I'm not sure which) billionaire. In addition I understand that whilst Franco and the Fascists supported Real Madrid, Barcelona was the favoured team of the Republicans in Spain, another point in its favour.

The other match was between Huddersfield and Peterborough, on the result of which depended promotion to a higher division. My home is approximately equidistant between Leeds and Huddersfield, and football fans here tend to support one or the other (although a few support Bradford City. My dear friend, Bradford Councillor John Cole, claims that being both a Liberal Democrat and a City supporter defines the term "optimist.") Leeds has a reputation, I understand deserved, for thuggery both on the field and on the terraces so my sympathies lie with Huddersfield, who I believe are better behaved. There was great excitement in Huddersfield on Sunday morning, reminding me of a time some twenty years or so ago when Batley rugby league team, of which my father was a fervent supporter, played Doncaster for promotion to a higher league. They lost, as, I'm sorry to say, did Huddersfield. As civic compensation I understand that the Huddersfield rugby league team won a convincing victory at Hull.

I suppose most sports fans are aware that the Rugby League was founded in Huddersfield. How many, sports fans or not, realise that Huddersfield is England's largest town?

Monday, 30 May 2011

पर्लिअमेंतारी privilege

Technical point:the system seems to be suffereing from something akin to a nervous breakdown. The first word in the title is meant to be "Parliamentary". I wonder if that is the translation of whatever is that language? This is a new post because the system will not allow me to respond with a comment to Michael Meadowcroft's commnent on the last post but one.

Thanks for your comment, Michael. As is aften the case there are several sides to the question. As I've admittted, I am no lawyer, but I understand that Parliamentary Privilege exists to enable parliamentarians to "speak truth to power," originally the Monarch but nowadays surely large corporations (Murdoch?), government departments, the armed forces, and, yes, the judiciary, without fear of litigation or arrest and imprisonment. You claim that John Hemming's purpose was to protect Ryan Giggs. If Giggs is one of his constituents I suppose that is some justification but, overall, interfering in a controversy the main prupose of which is to allow newspapaers to make money by feeding the public with tit-bits about the amorous adventures of a footballer does not seem to me to match the lofty purposes of parliamentary immunity.

The essential point remains that parlialmentarians are bleating about "unelected judges" interpreting the law when that is their job and an essential ingrediant of that pillar of democracy, the separation of powers.

A hospitable compost bin

I spent last Saturday helping to staff a Water Aid exhibition in York Minster as part of their campaign to highlight the improtance of conserving the environment. Many of those who showed interest were fellow exhiitors already conversant with and converted to our cause, but I like to think we alerted some of the general public to the importance of enabling all the world's people to gain access to fresh water and effective sanitation, and promoting good hygiene practices.

My wanderings among the other exhibitions gave me the answer to a problem which has puzzled me for some time: namely, why are the worms so anxious to get out of my compost bins? Every time I take a lid off I find congregations (or whatever is the appropriate collective noun) of worms grouped about the lip apparently anxious to get out into the fresh air and sunlight, whereas I would have thought they'd be as "happy as pigs in muck" churning up my compost.

The answer, thanks to the aptly named "York Rotters," is that my compost is too wet. This is because I put insufficient "brown" materials into the bins to balance the "green" materials. The best brown material is cardboard, torn into small pieces, but discarded copy paper (scrunched up to contain air) envelopes and other non-recyclable papers can aso be used. The Rotters also claim that rubber gloves , burst balloons, sellotape and corks are also compostable brown materials, but this sounds to me to be rather unlikely. The only one from this list that I've ever tried to compost was corks, and these never seem to have degraded at all, even after several years.

Ideally compost bins should be placed on soil rather than paving so that the excess moisture can drain away. Unfortunatley mine are on slabs of stone and I lack the dedication to change that, but shall intoduce as much scrunched up paper and torn up cardobaoard as I can to create a happier habitat for my worms.

Unfortunately the spellchecker is not working on this search engine and I've forgotten how I reactivated it on the other, so please excuse any excess of typos and spelling errors.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The right to privacy and the newspaper interest

Technical point.

The post below was written several days ago, but for most of this week I have been unable to gain access to my blog because the blue tool bar a the top, with the "sign in" bit, failed to appear. I tried to contact Blogspot about this and was referred to a "self help" site, where lots of people appeared to have signing-in problems, but none was identical to mine and no-one wrote in offering a solution. Whilst I admire the DIY ethos I think it is a shame that Blogspot does not have some method of allowing direct access to an expert.

A very helpful  and knowledgeable friend suggested that if I tried another search engine that might do the trick. So I switched from my default Firefox to Internet Explorer and, hey presoto, here we are. Unfortunately the spellchecker does not seem to work on this search engine so please be tolerant of typos and spelling errors until I work out how to fix that problem

Now to the latest, and I think still relevlent, post.

Which is more important: an individual’s right to privacy or the right of newspapers to make money out of his or her peccadilloes, misdemeanours or misfortunes?

Clearly there are two sides to the question and the balance between the two is a matter for parliament to decide, but I am not proud of the part Liberal Democrats in both the Commons and the Lords have played in the current controversy so far. Petulant cries of “it is we, not the judges, who make the law” do little to enhance either respect for politicians or respect for the constitution.

I’ve never read much law but umpteen years ago did study for what would now be called a module for which the course bible was Wade and Phillips’s “Constitutional Law.” If I remember correctly the relevant theme was that parliament makes the law but it is not always exactly clear what they meant so the judges interpret it in the light of experience. These interpretations become “case law” or “judge-made law” and form precedents for future cases.

So the judges are simply doing their job, in the light of the law as it now stands, by deciding who can or can’t have a super-injunction. If in the world of Twitter the law as it now stands is no longer adequate then it is up to parliament to change it, and David Cameron appears to have set the necessary preparations in progress. All this could and would have happened without parliamentarians misusing parliamentary privilege.

One of the most urgent tasks for the present government is to restore respect for democracy, politicians and the political process. The Rule of Law is an essential pillar of democracy. Ignoring it (as in the case of the assassination of bin Laden), resenting it (as in the case of the ECHR’s condemnation of a blanket ban on prisoners’ rights to vote) or abusing judges when they apply it, as in the current controversy on injunctions, damages both politics and democracy.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Cabinet reshuffle?

I don't buy a Sunday newspaper because reading Saturday's already takes up too much of my weekend. However, I understand that in several of yesterday's papers where was speculation about a cabinet reshuffle.

It has been a staple for years in the analysis of British politics that ministers are shifted too often from one department to another; that they are just getting the hang of one job when they are moved on to the next. Somewhere in his excellent memoires Chris Mullin observes that he was just getting to feel effective as Minister for Africa when he was moved, not on but out, and for no apparent reason.

Given that the Tories have not had any one in office for 13 years, and the Liberals for 70, and that the qualities that make an effective MP are not necessarily the same ones as make an effective minister, there may be a case for a reshuffle after one year to weed out any incompetents, but if there is a reshuffle I doubt if this will be the prime motivation. Bagehot wrote that the public "love a marriage more than a ministry" and last month's wedding shows that still be true, but what is equally true is that our political commentators, and I suspect politicians themselves, love discussing personalities more than policies.

A case in point is that of Chris Huhne. In spite of substantial opposition from the business lobby and some Tories, not to mention Vince Cable, he seems to have made a pretty good fist of his Green proposals. They are not perfect but even Caroline Lucas gives them two cheers. Yet Huhne seems to be in the front line for a move, not because of his competence but because of the as yet unresolved mystery of his driving points some years ago.

Just to break my own rules (of discussing policies rather than personalities)for a moment, I wonder why it is that Liberal democrats in government are turning out to be so accident prone. First there was David Laws and his expenses, then the embarrassment of Vince Cable in a honey trap, and now Huhne. Three out of our five cabinet ministers is a pretty grim score. Is it because leading Liberal Democrats are more feckless than others, or is it that the right wing press has a particular dislike for Liberals and are out to get them?

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Sense from St Vincent

An article in yesterday's Guardian could be the beginning of Vince Cable's rehabilitation. For me the key paragraph is:

"We are actually a poorer country , mainly because of the banking crash, the recession that followed it and partly due to the squeeze we are under due to the changing balance of the world economy. Britain is no longer one of the world's price setters."

Thankfully no more moaning mantra about "the mess left by Labour" (although both Nick Clegg and Liberal Democrat News are still churning this out.)

This change of emphasis, from petty point scoring about the recent past to an awareness of the present realities, is to be welcomed. It is not the case that, even with the application of sensible Keynesian policies, the right "touch of the tiller" will restore prosperity as it was. Through the changing balance of the World's economies we are on the verge of economic changes as fundamental as the agrarian and industrial revolutions were in their own time.

Essentially we need to redefine prosperity. A look at Tim Jackson's "Prosperity without Growth" (Earthscan 2009) would be a good start, followed by an examination of what makes a happier society, via, of course, Wilkinson and Pickett's "The Spirit Level" (Penguin 2010)

I've read somewhere recently that the UK economy has now shrunk back to the level it was in 2007. Why is that a cause for "shock horror"? I had a very comfortable standard of living in 2007 (and in 1997 and 1987 come to that)and so did the overwhelming majority of others in the UK. The per capita income in the UK is around £22 000. That's per man, woman and child, including the babies, or £88 000 for a family of four if it were evenly shared out. Of course it is not shared out absolutely evenly, and few would want it to be, but more generosity from the haves would mean that the have nots could live a life of dignity, and there's still be plenty left over for us to contribute 0.7% of GNP to Third World development.

Our political debate has not even begun to examine these issues: Vince's realism is a small step in the right direction.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Economic policy based on “unadulterated rubbish.”

In an article in last Sunday’s “Observer” (08/05/11)Will Hutton notes that estimates of the amount the UK needs to spend cumulatively in the next 15 years if we are to meet our climate change targets are in the range of £450bn, but only £70bn is planned.

He comments:

“…the coalition members’ chatter about not leaving huge public debts to our children, or Britain ‘maxing out on its credit card’ is unadulterated rubbish. While this can be expected of parts (but not all) of the Conservative party, better could be expected from the party that is heir to Keynes. I would expect my children to congratulate us on borrowing at today’s interest rates to invest in the infrastructure that will make the country more prosperous and global warming less likely, and accelerate a recovery that is so stuttering, especially as public debt levels in Britain have been higher for 200 of the last 250 years.”
His article concludes: “Orange book liberals have provided cover for a first order economic mistake.”

Unfortunately those of us who take this view, deficit realists, have been drowned out by the Tory spin doctors who have successfully labelled us “deficit deniers.” The truth is that not only are present generations, and especially the young unemployed, suffering from the abandonment of Keynesian policies, but future generations will also suffer as they inherit an economy which is “not fit for purpose.”

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Lies, damned lies and current politics.

In Nick Clegg’s “message to the party” on the first anniversary of the coalition he claims:
“…it is important to be clear that the current government is a coalition of necessity. The driving force behind the formation of the coalition was the need to act together in the national interest to sort out Labour's toxic economic legacy.”

This is a gross distortion of the truth, and unworthy of a party which stands for and has promised more honest politics.

As has been pointed out, in this blog, and elsewhere by economists and commentators including David Blanchflower, Martin Wolf, Joseph Stiglitz, and Paul Krugman and William Keegan, Britain’s debts are not historically high, (in fact the Debt/GDP ratio is quite modest by comparison with many similar economies,) Labour’s expenditure was reasonably prudent up to 2008, the year of the crisis, and the current deficit is a result of falling revenues arising from the recession rather than profligate expenditure. Above all, we are not Greece, Portugal or Ireland and are not and never have been in danger from “the markets,” who are, after all, largely institutions within our own economy, including many pension funds, lending to our own government.

The recent “No” campaign in the referendum has shown that political victories can be won by distorting and misrepresenting the facts, but I do not believe that we should be stooping to the same level. There are perfectly honourable and decent reasons for forming the coalition. No party had won an over-all majority, it was right that the Liberal Democrats should negotiate first with the largest minority, the parliamentary arithmetic meant that a partnership with the second largest minority was not viable, and significant concessions with respect to Liberal Democrat priorities were made (viz: a referendum on AV, a fixed term parliament, reform of the Upper House, a pupil premium, moving the lowest paid out income tax, retention of the Human rights Act and protection of civil liberties) for a coalition with the Tories to advance progress to a fairer and more liberal society.

This is the story we should be telling: firstly because it is honest, secondly b because many, including most Liberal Democrat activists, would like to see us reach out to Labour to form eventually a left of centre coalition, and telling lies about Labour’s record does nothing to further that aim, and most of all because only honesty will increase respect for and confidence in the democratic political process. If this sounds like idealistic “pie in the sky” then so be it.

Rather than distort the reasons for forming the coalition we need to learn from the mistakes we have made. First, any future coalition agreements should be negotiated over a period of at least 10 days rather than a weekend. Had this happened then the inadequacy of the agreement that Liberal Democrats could abstain from rather than vote against any rise in tuition fees would have been spotted. Secondly party managers should allow open debate at the conference to approve or otherwise a coalition agreement rather than railroad one through. Thirdly it should be understood that the coalition partners should not be required to give unreserved open and public support to all the coalition government’s policies: at the very least frigid disapproval via body language should be not only be permitted but encouraged on both sides for decisions that go against the grain.

In the first year the Liberal Democrat “mistakes” curve has been steep, and I suspect the learning curve will be shallow. But a start has been made and I hope that by the end of the second year our Liberal Democrat in government, and our party, will have learned to make a better shot of separating in the public mind the Liberal Democrat wheat from the Tory chaff.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

What's in a name?

The British upper crust, who continue to dominate British politics, love sporting allusions. Hence party business managers in parliament are called "whips" (though in my view hounding dumb animals hardy qualifies as a sport.)

It struck me yesterday as I watched the counts in several of our local elections that the only time the selection of a people's representative actually has any resemblance to a horse race is the final stage of each count, when they put the bundles of counted ballot papers for each candidate in rows on a long table, and you can see which one is ahead. That's as far as it goes: there is no "post."

So if instead of FPTP we had called the present system the Largest Minority System and AV the Majority System we might have had a more positive image.

For what it's worth the "Yes" vote in Kirklees was 1% above the national average and the "No" vote 1% below, so I regard my neighbours as marginally more enlightened that the rest of the country.

At local level we retained the council seat in which I was working, but in two others our candidates came below the Greens, who are at least honourable. The BNP, who until recently had developed a dangerous momentum in our area, seem to have disappeared as a significant force.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The AV campaigns: a national disgrace.

I am writing this before the result of the referendum is known so that, whatever the nation has decided, I shall not be accused of sour grapes.

Even if by some miracle the "Yes" campaign wins, I believe that from three points of view: the arguments of the protagonists, the conduct of the campaign, and its reporting, the campaign has been a disgrace, more worthy of a banana republic with a semi-literate population rather than one of the world’s most mature democracies .

The arguments put out on both sides have been pathetic. The distortions of the truth from the “No” campaign – particularly the absurd claims about the cost and the need for voting machines, that AV is “obscure” and “unfair” and that some people under it get more than one vote – are well known and easily refuted

The “Yes” campaign has limited itself to claiming that AV will make all MPs work hard, when most of them do anyway, and that it will end “MPs’ jobs for life” which it won’t in many if not most cases.

The real advantages and disadvantages of the two systems have simply not been debated.Instead the argument has degenerated into a exchanges of abuse and cries of “foul”, particularly form the “Yes” campaign, which apparently took the deliberate decision not to attempt to refute the “No” campaign’s assertions, but to stick to its misguided mantra of making MPs work harder and getting rid of jobs for life. The three pieces of literature I had from them, two of which I delivered and one which came by post, all simply repeated this nonsense..

Thirdly, rather than concentrating on the issues the media has lost no opportunity in exaggerating the divisions within the Coalition and, to some extent, within the Labour party. Even the Guardian headlined a fierce attack by Nick Clegg on David Cameron when an examination of the actual speech showed that Cameron had hardly been mentioned. As always for the media, personalities and vacuous speculation about the future have won out over policies.

Although I have believed in and campaigned for electoral reform for almost 60 years, I hope we shall never have another referendum on it. The “No” campaign claimed that AV is “Not British.” What isn’t British is the referendum itself, which in the past we have rightly scorned as a device to bolster the authority of despotic politicians in less enlightened lands. The campaigns of the past few weeks have amply demonstrated the weaknesses of the referendum process, namely that the issues are over-simplified and that both the debate and the vote tend to be about something other than the question asked(in this case Nick Clegg) .

We are a representative democracy and elect our MPs and councillors to use their judgement to make decisions on our behalf. If MPs are not to be trusted to decide how they themselves should be chosen, which is probably the case, then the job should be given to a Citizens’ Convention of, say, 500 electors chosen at random, as are juries, to whom the various alternatives can be explained fairly, in detail and at length, and who can then make an informed decision.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Osama Bin Laden

In 1969 two Americans were landed on the moon and there are still people, the head of science at the last school at which I taught is one of them, who believe it was all faked. How long will it be before the capture and death of Bin Laden attracts similar conspiracy theories? By "burying" the body at sea on the pretext of avoiding the creation of a shrine the Americans have destroyed their best evidence. They may soon find this last error to be worse than the first.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Teachers' pensions

I have little sympathy for the headteachers' union that has decided on a strike ballot strike in protest against changes to their pension arrangements, and nor, I suspect, will the public in general.

Some reflections on pensions have already been given in my post on 14th March
In this case I presume that any changes will affect pensions to be to be earned as from the implementation of new rules rather than entitlements already accrued. If that is the case then I think it is perfectly sensible to switch from a final salary scheme to a pension related to earnings over a working life, and to adjust contributions and retirement age to pay for this. If the figures given in the Guardian (30th April) are accurate, viz:

"The pension reforms would mean the average headteacher would lose £100 000 to £200 000 in retirement and would pay 50% more in contributions , which could cost them £1 000 more each month."

then the reaction of most people, and especially those on the minimum wage, will be "You're so lucky" rather than sympathy.

To repeat the sentiments of my earlier post, the purpose of a pension is to avoid penury when one's earning life is over, not to sustain the life of Riley or to buy advantages for one's children and grandchildren.

The government should stick to its guns and headteachers and other highly paid public servants should get a sense of proportion.