Thursday, 31 December 2015

Flood Defences: promises then neglect.

The previous post accused our government of "criminal neglect of the the duties of a government towards its citizens."  The following day the Guardian published an article by Damian Carington  which gives further and better particulars which in my view amply justify this accusation.  In summary:

  • In response to floods in 2007 the Pitt Review recommended that increased funding was needed.  The then Labour government duly hiked up the expenditure;
  • In 2008, in response to floods in his own Oxfordshire constituency, David Cameron, then in opposition, said in parliament  "Most people accept that, with climate change [floods] are likely to become more frequent":
  • So in his first year in power, in 2010/11 the government cut planned expenditure on flood defences by 27%;
  • In January 2012 the government's own research showed that flooding was the greatest threat posed by climate change in England;
  • But by the summer of 2012, when heavy flooding hit again, it was revealed that, following the cuts, 300 flood relief projects, including a £58m scheme for Leeds, had not gone ahead;
  • In May 2013 the government cut the number of officials on the National Adaptation  [to climate change] Programme, whose remit incudes flooding,  from 38 to six;
  • During the floods of 2013/14 advisers told ministers that there was a £500m hole in flood defence plans;
  • And in March 2104 the Meteorological Office warned that extreme rainfall was becoming more  common in the UK;
  • In November 2014 the National Audit Office found that the risk of flooding was rising as a result of the cuts, and that half the nation's flood defences had been left with "minimal " maintenance. (some of the flooding in York happened because machinery that was supposed to prevent the Foss flooding failed because of poor maintenance);
  • In June this year (still 2015) the Committee on Climate Change recommended  the need to "develop a strategy to address the increasing number of homes in areas of high flood risk."  The government's response was that  ". . .a strategy to address future residual risk  would not be appropriate at this time."
How can this be?  We are not (yet) a banana republic.  We have a highly educated electorate, a free press, and all the economic resources necessary to put things right.*

But we have a government obsessed with cutting public expenditure and an ideological reduction in the size of the state, a House of Commons in thrall to the executive and incapable of calling it effectively to account, and a sycophantic press largely concerned only with profits, happy to express outrage as each crisis  happens, then move on to  the next sensation which will sell the latest editions.

This applies, of course, not just to floods and similar national phenomena, but to miscarriages of justice, expenses scandals, election promises blatantly broken, mismanagement of the banking and financial systems, failure of business giants to pay their taxes, protecting the wealthy and demonising the weak.

Comprehensive constitutional reform is needed - but that neither sells papers nor, alas, until now, seems to win votes.  Yet the majority of people must be outraged by this scenario. It is the task of the broad left - Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP - to stop bickering and form the coalition which will wrest our democracy from the hands of slick profiteers and bring it back into the service of all the people.

*  Putting things right is not just a matter of building more and bigger defences, but requires a change in the way we treat the land, as George Monbiot explains yet again.

Monday, 28 December 2015


Flood defences are a classic example of what economics textbooks call a "public" good or service.  These have two characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry.  Non-excludablity  means that, if the good or service were to be provided by the "market" - if for example a group of houses were to get together to subscribe to provide the facility privately, it would not be possible to prevent any non-subscriber from enjoying the benefit. Non-rivalry means that one person's or household's "consuming"  the benefit does not prevent anyone else from doing so.

Hence "the market" cannot provide the facility: it must be provided collectively by national or local government, or a charity, as were, for example, lighthouses in their early days. .

Street lighting  and national defence are further routine examples.

Clearly flood defences come under this category: only the government can provide them.

Yet after 2010 government expenditure on flood defences was slashed by almost 30%, and recovered only as a result of "exceptional expenditure" following the 2013/14 floods.  Oxford Professor Simon Wren-Lewis estimates a shortfall of around £1bn compared with the trend inherited from the previous government.

The repeated misery foisted on families in, for example, Cockermouth, are poignant proof that the political choice of ruthlessly cutting government expenditure is not just getting rid of wasteful "fat" or unnecessary luxuries, but criminal neglect of the the duties of a government towards its citizens.  It is also economically wasteful. I think it was in relation to Cockermouth that I read that a flood defence project costing £4m had been delayed or abandoned.  The cost of the damage in the latest flood in that area was estimated to be in the region  of £400m. The total cost of this season's floods in all areas is now estimated to be £1.3bn. 

So rather than cheering on the government for promises of reduced taxes, we need to recognise a government's responsibility to provide these "public" goods and services,  and have the sense to be prepared to pay for them.

We also need to recognise that yet more artificial flood defences are no long term answer to the problem.  We must stop building on  flood  plains (if a river can't flood where it used to it will flood somewhere else), stop concreting over gardens to provide parking lots, and recognise the need for trees on high ground to increase the ability of the ground to absorb water.  That could mean eating less mutton,as George Monbiot explains.

Thursday, 24 December 2015


Dai y Mirror.

That's how the Daily Mirror, the  UK's most respectable tabloid,  spells its name this morning on its masthead.

On the BBC's Radio 4 "Today" programme this morning there was much speculation as to why. Is it a mistake?  Is it maybe Welsh?

I think I've cracked it.  It's a coded message.

They've missed out the "L"

There's "No L"


Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A Reallignment of the Left (again)

The former Liberal Democrat candidate for Brighton, Chris Bowers, is, along with Caroline Lucas, Green Party leader, and Lisa Nandy, Labour's shadow energy secretary, putting together a book to be called "Power to the People."  According to details provided in the Guardian by Rafael Behr there are to be contritions by Mhairi Black of the SNP, Norman Lamb, unsuccessful leadership contender for the Liberal Democrats, and Steve Read, a Labour front-bencher.

Behr comments that "[their] biggest problem is finding a definition for 'progressive' that isn't a fancy euphemism for 'hates Tories,'"  and concludes his article: "A party that agrees only on what it is against , not what it is for, will leave much of the country cold."

Quite right, but Behr is either too pessimistic, or hasn't really thought hard enough about what the "progressive forces" are "for.|"

Way back in September the BBC published a list of "24 things that Jeremy Corbyn believes." These range from popular policies such as taxing the rich and cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion as a contribution to tackling the deficit, restrictions on the arms trade, and the return of rent control, to more obscure areas such as allowing the Chagos Islanders to return to their homes and giving every child an opportunity to learn a musical instrument.  Personally I'm very much in favour of that last policy as at school you learn an awful lot of such as chemistry, physics, and even maths which, if you don't use it, you quickly forget, whereas if you learn to play a musical instrument that is a gift which can give pleasure for life.

My own list of areas where I am sure the progressive left can easily find agreement includes:
  • a reduction in inequality;
  • fairer taxation, particularly of "bads" (eg land hoarding) rather than "goods" (eg employment);
  • encouragement of renewable energy and other green policies;
  • a less grandiose foreign policy;
  • restrictions on the arms trade;
  • housing, housing, and yet more housing;
  • decentralisation, "home rule" for Scotland and Wales, and the restoration of the powers and influence of local government;
  • an end to pointless privatisations and encouragement of co-operative, mutual and not-for-profit enterprises;
  • electoral reform;
  • encouragement of long-termism in banking, commerce and industry; employee participation and profit sharing;.
  •  committed and co-operative participation in the EU and UN;
  • support for the BBC and a more diverse media.
That's just a quick dozen off the top of my head.  I'm sure I've missed out something terribly important.

There is actually, as Behr recognises, a small majority among the electorate for progressive policies.  The main obstacle to making it effective is the Labour party itself and its attitude to electoral reform, preferably by proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, but let's not be picky.  If their response  were an enthusiastic "Yes!" then a successful alliance would surely be  a winner.

If, however, Labour cling to the possibility that they may yet win a majority by themselves under the present unfair system and thus be able to put their own exclusive prescription for the good society into effect, then we're stuck with the Tory hegemony for years to come.

Monday, 14 December 2015

How open is "Open Labour"?

A non-factional faction called "Open Labour" has been created within the  Labour Party to encourage open discussion between the other factions as to how the left can progress without in-fighting and back-biting.

 Fine as afar as it goes.  It is perfectly obvious to we outside observers that by concentrating their fury on each other rather than the Tories,  Labour's leading lights are merely entrenching the Tories in power. They should stop squabbling and get behind their democratically elected leader who has succeeded in catching a progressive wind amongst the electorate.

But just how open is this new group within the party? Will  they be open to working with the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and other progressive forces in British politics - even the SNP, which is pretty progressive at the moment?

If the answer is "Yes"  then there is a real chance of bringing the Conservative hegemony to and end.  But if they stick to Labour's traditional attitude, that they and they alone have a monopoly of  wisdom on how things ought to be and how to get there, and the rest of us should get off their turf,  then we are doomed to the continued dismemberment of much of what is civilised in our society for decades to come

Monday, 7 December 2015

Terrorism on the tube?

The police were very quick to designate the attack by one man with a knife at Leytonstone underground station in London as a "terrorist incident."  Whether this was on their own initiative or on instructions from on high we are not yet told.  There will be investigations which may  discover a network of fanatics out to cause similar mayhem in other London stations in the name of their religion.  Or maybe it was an isolated incident involving just just one person with a mental illness.

For the man suffering from "deep lacerations to his throat" this is certainly a very serious matter, though his  injuries are said to be "not life-threatening."  And for the bystanders who couldn't think of anything more helpful to do than take photographs, it will be a bit embarrassing.    Otherwise, on the scale of nasty incidents it hardly compares with the 13 (and, it is now thought,  possibly more) women killed by the Yorkshire Ripper, or the bombers who killed 56 in July 2005, or the 30+ innocents killed in October when the Americans "target bombed" the Médecins sans Frontières hostpital  at Kunduz .

Hyping the incidence of terrorism, if that is what is happening, is a ploy that may backfire.  The police may see it as a way of  avoiding cuts and perhaps even gaining more resources.  The government may see it as a justification for their joining the bombing of Syria.  But opponents of bombing may equally argue, as we did before parliament made its decision, that joining the bombing would be more likely to provoke rather than prevent terrorist attacks in this country. That would be very likely to be the case if this young man turns out to be "home grown."

Perhaps the wisest reaction to the incident would be to increase the resources devoted to caring for and curing the mentally ill.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Politics post Oldham

Even our supposedly neutral BBC seems determined to distort the true state of our politics.  Labour had "retained their set at the Oldham by-election, but with a reduced majority," we were told yesterday bulletin after bulletin.  Only as though as an afterthought did they add "but with an increased share of the vote."

What a different impression it would have created if they'd put it the other way round.  "Labour has won the Oldham by-election with an increased share of the vote."  Much more upbeat.

There seems to be a law to downgrade any success of the progressive side of politics, and upgrade any little local difficulties, of which there have been many, some of them not so little.

Even in the supposed centre-left Guardian Marin Kettle, writing before the result was known, spoke of real politics having to deal with " a big commons vote, a shabby reselection campaign in Walthamstow, a lousy byelecion result in Oldham."

Well, it wasn't  lousy at all: it was a resounding triumph for Labour under Corbyn's leadership.  Of course the majority was reduced (from 17 209 to 10 722) but that was because the turnout was only two thirds of that of the previous (general) election.  The all-important share of the vote was up from  54.8% to 62.1%, an increase of 7.1 percentage points, or, if you want to describe it even more favourably (but still accurately) an increased share of 13.3%.

So much for Labour under Corbyn being unelectable.

This confirms my view that Corbyn is a "wind for change."  It is a vote of confidence  in progressive politics not just from the Labour party's supposedly hard left members, or their enthusiastic but naive newcomers, but from the electorate as a whole.

Two groups need to learn the lesson.

First is Labour's "New Labour old guard," if that's not too oxymoronic a description, who need to realise that it is their kind of politics: Tory-lite, on message, spouting platitudes, sealed in their own establishment, afraid to think out of the no-liberal box for fear of frightening the horses, that has disillusioned those of us hoping for a better and fairer and more honest future.

Second is our Liberal Democrat Commons rump, of whom two thirds shamefully voted for the Tory policy of  adding to the demonstrably unproductive bombing of Syria. They and other leading members  need to realise that Corbyn has been successful in unleashing the demand  fore more honest politics which Nick Clegg recognised, and briefly excited, in 2010, but on which we sadly failed to deliver.  So rather than joining the campaign to denigrate Corbyn, our party needs to concentrate on those goals on which we agree (from fairer taxation to justice for the Chagos Islanders) rather than joining in the sniping.

That does not mean that Liberal Democrats should leave and join Labour.  Labour's methods are very different from ours.  They are top-down, authoritarian, careless of civil liberties,  and, most dangerously of all,  believe they have a monopoly of wisdom on how things should be and others (ie us and the Greens, plus the SNP for the moment) should get off their territory.  We are bottom up, genuine devolvers, more tolerant of variety and more trusting of people.

But as C P Scott, great editor of the (then Manchester) Guardian pointed out nearly 100 years ago, Labour and Liberals are "two divisions of the party of progress" and warned against the possibility that "while Liberalism and Labour are snapping and snarling away at each other the Conservative dog may run away with the bone."

Sadly the Tories have the bone for the next four and a half  years. Our strategy in that time must be that when 2020 comes we have worked together to create a rainbow alliance ready and willing to undo the damage they have done and continue to do, and build the decent, civilised, dynamic and sharing  society which we crave.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Advent in Syria

Last night one of the choirs I'm in led  an Advent Carol Service.

The first reading included Isaiah 2:4

. . . and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

A later reading was a poem by John Morgan entitled "The Seven days of an Advent Calendar."  I can't find it on Google but the conclusion was on the lines of  "how many Advents do we need to get the message?"

I would have liked to have the whole House of Commons packed into the church to listen.

We have had Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Just how many do we need to learn the lesson that military interference in matters we don't understand and can't control makes matters worse, not least by adding to the concept of "Crusader West" and fuelling antagonism towards us?

Proponents of air strikes claim "we cannot sit back and do nothing."  

But the alternative is not to do nothing.

 Energetic international diplomatic action to stop the supply of money, oil and arms to Isis, to encourage Muslim countries, especially those in the area, to "take ownership" of the problem, and a humane welcome to refugees are all positive steps that will do good. With or without air-strikes, we must redouble the efforts of the police and security services to discover and neutralise potential terrorist cells, though we must hope with rather more sensitivity  than that depicted on last night's BBC 1 version of John Lancaster's "Capital."  And, in the long run, before we really are all dead, I'd like to see this counter-productive notion of a "war on terror" replaced by international police action to catch criminals

Our Foreign Office claims to be full of "Arabists" with a special feeling for and understanding of the Middle East area,  based on long experience.  Well, let's give them a chance to show what they can do..

There is every sign that David Cameron is losing confidence in his own argument.  Why else should he rush the debate and attempt to smear opponents with the disgraceful description : " a bunch of terrorist sympathisers."?

I am deeply distressed that the Liberal Democrat MPs have announced they will be supporting the air-strikes.  This , if carried out, will be the first big mistake of Tim Farron's leadership.  

It hasn't happened yet.  I hope and pray for a change of heart, and that Cameron's intemperate language and inadequate arguments will persuade enough Labour MPs to follow their leader and so avoid this Tory folly.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Syria - No, please No!

I have sent the following letter to Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats:

Dear Tim Farron,

I am writing to you as a member of the Liberals/Liberal Democrats for over 50 years, and, in a personal capacity, as President of Batley and Spen Liberal Democrats, to urge you, if it comes to a vote,  to lead all eight of our MPs into the lobbies against  the UK's joining in air strikes  on Syria.
I have read our five conditions and, frankly, they don't cut much ice. They smell of the obfuscation which is so typical of the other parties and from which we should be trying to break free

My reasons are:

  1. Our joining in the bombing would make a terrorist attack on the UK more rather than less likely. David Cameron's claim that adding to the bombing is necessary for our security is untrue.  If we bomb we shall be less secure.
  2.  UK involvement will add to the perception of "Crusader West". . . . .
  3.  . . . .and therefore act as a recruiting sergeant for ISIS, thus adding to our danger and endangering the lives of yet more deluded young Muslims.
  4.  In spite of the supposed superior accuracy of our bombs there is bound to be "collateral damage," -  in other words innocent men, women and children killed. 

Instead of adding to the bombing we can use our so-called "soft power," which we are told is considerable in the Middle East because of our long connections there, to:

  1. Promote the creation of a coalition of Muslim countries to take ownership of the problem and, if necessary, take military action.
  2. Cut off supplies of money to ISIS.
  3. Cut off their supplies of oil, if necessary by blowing up the pipeline.
  4. As members of the Security Council, the EU the Commonwealth, use our diplomatic connections to bring about a peaceful solution.

With the parliamentary arithmetic as it is at the moment there is a very real opportunity to avoid the errors made in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. I hope in this crisis you will avoid the macho temptations of David Cameron, whose main motive seems to me to be to want to be "in there with the big boys," and lead our party to act with the rationality and concern for humanity which are at the core of our beliefs.

Your sincerely,

Way back in the 1960s our then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, despite his faults, had the courage and character to keep us out of the war in Vietnam.  So when young American protesters gathered to chant:

Hey hey LBJ,
How many kids have you killed today?

. . .we didn't feel we shared the guilt.

I believe that before the civil war in Syria there were some 500 000 civilians living in Raqqa, the supposed  headquarters of ISIS.  Over half have fled, but there are still  around 200 000 (and probably not all that many ISIS fighters). If  our MPs are  blind to the experience of  the last 15 years, and vote to add to the bombing they will be complicit in adding to the killing of many innocents.

 And to what effect? To make matters worse, not better.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Osborne the Master Illusionist

 No need to spend (from) £17 for a ticket to the Shaftesbury Theatre to try to spot the tricks of Illusionists: just study George Osborne's budgetary performance, in which he contrives to turn what is in reality a humiliating defeat into what, for the time being at any rate, appears to be a career-enhancing success.

Precisely one month ago today, on the 26th October, Osborne's acolytes in the House of Lords were arguing that that cuts to Working Tax Credits must remain, that denying the chancellor's right to make them would be constitutional sabotage, they were essential to his much-vaunted "long term economic plan" and to frustrate them would endanger our economic security and, for good measure, our national security to boot. 

Multi-millionaire Lord (Andrew) Lloyd Webber was flown in from across the Atlantic to shore up the Tory vote, and billionaire Lord (Anthony) Bamford, owner and boss of JCB, was Rolls Royced (presumably) in for the same purpose.  To no avail: the Lords rejected the cuts. 

This was a massive humiliation for both the government and the Chancellor, whose ambitions to eventually become PM were though to have received a severe jolt.

Yet yesterday Osborne declared that the cuts were no longer necessary.  His excuse:  the Office of Budget Responsibility had found an extra £27bn in the public finances.

Is Osborne seriously trying to tell us that, only a month ago, he was not aware of that, or, if not the precise figure, at least the possibility?  If he didn't know than he is quite obviously not on top of his job.  If he did, then persisting with the cuts was clearly a political ploy to further shrink the state and put the blame, and the punishment, on the poorest.

In fact the £27bn is not actual money received, but what might be received if the economy grows at 2.4% for the next five years.  And it's not necessarily the result of improving figures, just a different method of calculating them. Only a few days ago I read that government borrowing last month (October) was  higher than predicted, largely because of a fall-off in tax receipts. So watch out for revisions.

Osborne's technique appears to be, before any of the great economic occasion, to drip feed bad news to the media, who faithfully report it, with accounts of the terrible struggles in various government departments as they seek to avoid the latest version of the Geddes Axe. This time, along with  social security expenditure  it was the police, who were predicted to have to endure further swinging cuts.  Having prepared us for the worst, Osborne then pulls his "surprises": the worst is not going to happen after all.   And he bows out to resounding cheers from his own side and ineffective gasping from the Opposition.

Much of the press has been deceived.  But the reality is that our libraries continue to be closed, our parks neglected, 16 to 18 and adult education strapped for cash, the NHS on its financial knees, social care crumbling, and the departments of Energy (those vital renewables), Business Innovation and Skills (productivity) and Transport (our infrastrucure) subject to yet  further reductions .

Even the Treasury itself is to be further cut.  This is the department responsible for collecting our taxes, which, if collected  effectively, are the means by which the government deficit will be reduced.

Daftest of all, the aim of a permanent government surplus, of £10bn by the end of this parliament. remains intact. As even a modestly competent A-level student would know, this is economic nonsense.  A government surplus is a leakage from the circular flow of income.  Unless it is balanced by a reduction in the other leakages, savings and imports (highly unlikely) or an increase in other injections, investment and exports (not much sign of either) then the national income remains in a downward spiral.

Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP  and Labour need to be shouting, preferably for once in unison, that the cuts continue and they are not an economic necessity but a political choice.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Bombing Syria - Just say "No!"

The British media seem to be softening us up to approve our involvement in the bombing of Syria.  We are told that Mr Cameron is increasingly confident of parliamentary support, and is to present us with convincing arguments on Thursday.

A balanced discussion took place on Radio 4's "The World this Weekend" yesterday and is worth a "listen again" at:   (The discussion of Syria starts about six minutes into the programme.)

A retired major general, Tim Cross, spouts macho phrases  about using  "hard power" to "separate out" these "brutal killers" and urges that we "take on these guys", though even he admits that this won't actually solve the problem.  Others are even more cautious.  Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a retired diplomat, points out that what Isis actually want is a "great battle," that control of a territory is essential to their concept of a caliphate, and that bombing itself will not actually get them out of their territory. The Green MP Caroline Lucas points out that Isis, and part of the Muslim world, regard US military intervention as an attack by "Crusader West," that the Middle Eastern States have progressively withdrawn form the present  "coalition" and that the US bombing has done little to reduce the number of jihadist recruits - probably the reverse.

In a different context Jeremy Corbyn speaks sense when he claims that there are other ways of combating Isis, in particular a concerted international effort to cut off their supplies of money and arms.  A letter to the Guardian has aroused my  memories of "Bomber Thorpe" by suggesting that one way of doing this would be to bomb their oil pipeline.  An innumerable number of commentators point out that military retaliation by the West is exactly what Isis is trying to provoke, and that it helps them to recruit further deluded youngsters who are brainwashed into thinking that they are doing God's will.

There is almost universal opinion that this is a problem for the Middle Eastern states themselves to solve, a problem within Islam,  arising from and exacerbated by the the schism between Sunnis and Shias, and that Western involvement is almost certain to make matters worse, as has been amply demonstrated in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.  The problem will be solved, or at least ameliorated, only when other Muslim powers themselves take ownership of it.

It is difficult to avoid that view that Tory anxiety to add to the air-strikes (but not the ground war) is to be seen among the "big boys," to "walk tall" alongside the US and not be out-flanked by France as "number one chum."  I also wonder if US involvement , and UK anxiety to join in, is not so much motivated by the a quest for  a solution to the Syrian problem as to prevent Russia  and Iran from  becoming  the dominant powers in the area.

If Britain wishes to walk tall, we could use our diplomatic "soft power" to promote the necessary involvement of the neighbouring Muslim states, and give yet more help to those countries hosting the refugees on Syria's borders.

 If we must involve our army, we could sent it to Calais to set up field kitchens, latrines, Nissan huts and other facilities to provide civilised conditions for all refugees there, whilst preparing to welcome those with a right to settle in our own green and pleasant land.

I sincerely hope for a solid "No" from eight Liberal Democrat MPs if and when the matter comes to a parliamentary vote, and that the bulk of the Labour party will put triangulation behind them and follow their leader.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Corbyn's critics shoot to kill

The Labour MPs who didn't support Jeremy Corbyn as their leader seem determined to fulfil their prophecy that the party is unelectable under his leadership.

Corbyn makes the perfectly sensible statement that he he would be unhappy for the police to operate a "shoot to kill" policy.  So would I and so would most of us. A paragraph in yesterday's Guardian reads:

The number of people killed by law enforcement officers  in the US this year  has reached 1 000 after police in Oakland  shot dead a man who allegedly pointed  a replica gun at them.

Well, we're a long way from that in the UK, but in 2005 our police shot and killed the unarmed and totally innocent Jean Charles de Menezes and in 2011 provoked a riot by shooting dead Mark Duggan who, if he had a gun, had probably thrown it away.

The present law is sufficiently  flexible.  Police may use such force as is "reasonable and proportionate" to prevent harm to themselves or anyone else.  If necessary this includes shooting, preferably to "neutralise" rather than to kill.  As a senior police officer has commented: "We are not soldiers. . . .Our job is to arrest people."

Corbyn has also provoked hostility from some of his own members by stating that he cannot see how additional bombing of Syria by UK forces will help to solve solve the problem.  This is a view held by many and is in my view absolutely absolutely right.  As Nicolas Hénin, a Frenchman who was held hostage by IS for ten months, so has a deeper understanding of the terrorists' mentality than most, writes:  "IS longs to provoke retaliation.  We should not fall into the trap."

Corbyn is  in my view a breath of fresh air.  He has the attention of the public and, rather than the pompous macho sound-bites so typical of Westminster, speaks what many of us feel is thoughtful common sense.  Labour's MPs, both front and back bench, should thank their lucky stars for him and get behind him to support him, not knife him in the back

Monday, 16 November 2015

Pour Paris, Psaume 90

Psaume 90

 Seigneur, tu as été pour nous  un réfuge  de generation en generation.
Avant que les montagnes  soient nées, avant que tu aies créé la terre et le monde, d'éternité tu es Dieu.
Tu fais retourner les hommes à la poussière et tu leur dis: "Fils d'Adam, retrournez à la terre!"
car mille  ans sont à tes yeux comme la journée d'hier: elle passe comme le quart de la nuit.
Tu  les emportes, semblables à un rêve  qui, le matine, passe come l'herbe.
elle fleurit le matin et elle passe; on la coupe le soir et elle sèche.
Nous sommes consumés par ta colére, et ta fureur nous épouvante.
Tu mets devant toi nos fautes, et ta lumière éclair nos sécrets.
Tous nos jours disparaissent  à cause de ta colère; nous voyons nos annéess s'éteindre comme un soupir.
La durée de notre vie s'élève  à soixante-dix ans, et pour les plus robustes, à quatre-vingt ans, mais l' orgueil qu'ils en tirent n'est que  peine et misère, car le temps passe vite et nous nous envolons.
Qui à conscience de la force de ta colère et de ton courroux pour te craindre?
Enseigne-nous à bien compter nos jours, afin que notre coeur parvienne à la sagesse!
Reviens, Eternel!  Jusqu'à quand? Aie pitié de tes serviteurs.
Rassasie-nous chaque matin de ta bonté, et nous serons toute notre vie. dans la joie et l'allégresse.
Réjouis-nous autant de jours que tu nous as humiliés, autant d'années que nous avons connu le malheur.
Que ton activité soit visible pour tes serviteurs, et ta splendeur pour leurs enfants.
Que la grâce de l'Eternal, votre Dieu, soit sur nous!  Affirmis l'oeuvre de nos mains! Oui, afirmis l'oeuvre de nos mains!

Or, as Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748) so ably put it:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast, 
And our eternal home . . . . .

This is one of those occasions when only the words of the liturgy can safely express our feelings.

Words are equally important in discussing the appropriate reaction.

I feel it is a mistake to refer to a "war" on terror.  Wars are traditionally between nations and are seen to legitimise the use of violence.  So declaring "war" on the terrorists can, in their eyes, legitimise their use of violence in return.  Rather we should be organising  police action against criminals.  This would have been a more appropriate response to to the attack on the twin towers in New York than President Bush's "War on Terror,"  with its tragic and on-going consequences in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Some years ago Game Theory was very popular in economics, and possibly still is.  It is also used in war "Games,"  but no one seems to be "gaming" the likely reaction to even more violent and indiscriminate attacks on areas dominated by ISIS, however understandable this reaction might be.  Surely the result will be to recruit yet more impressionable Muslim youngsters to take up the "cause," egged on by the deluded fundamentalists who preach hate.

Then we must be very wary of  creating a division between the allegedly Christian West and Islam.  I felt it a mistake, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, for a largely white, largely western, largely nominally Christian, line up of leaders (including Merkel, Cameron and, I think, Obama, along with President Hollande) to proclaim Je suis Charlie.  Surely this was akin to a red rag to a bull for Island fundamentalists and may have facilitated the recruitment of some of Friday's murderers.

President Obama called Friday's atrocity "an attack on our civilisation."  Indeed it was, but how does this sound in the ears of extremist Muslims, who may  adduce an implication that Islamic countries are not civilised, or not as civilised, as ours?  They may also take the view that much that passes for Western civilisation, with its emphasis on consumerism (greed), sex, alcohol-fuelled hedonism, lack of respect for the family and the elderly, is far inferior to their ideal. I know nothing of the music of Eagles of Death Metal but I suspect that their lyrics hardly count as elevated thought.

It is also possible that France's determined laïcité (forbidding the wearing of the headscarf or veil by public servants, for example) exacerbates divisions and is another provocation which assists the recruiters.  Our own more relaxed attitude (so far anyway) may be more appropriate in a world where the mixing of cultures is becoming the norm.

Today's papers a full of pictures of the murdered, with, in may cases, details of their lives.  An article on the front page of the Guardian states: 

The trauma is far from over.  There have been 132 people killed, and scores were severely wounded.  Behind those statistics  there are lives , dreams, hopes crushed.. . .

True, and also true of anyone killed in last night's retaliatory bombing of  Raqqa, those killed in various places by American drones, the thousands of dead in Afghanistan and Iraq which we didn't even bother to count, many of whom were completely innocent but whose deaths or injuries were dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders as "collateral damage" or merely "stuff happens."  And refugees seeking a better life who drowned in the Mediterranean and whom we didn't rescue because it might tempt others to try.

I realise the above is largely a catalogue of what we shouldn't do.  I have no magic solution but would suggest the following priorities:

  • refer to   "an international police operation to catch criminals" rather than  "a war against terror;"
  • search urgently for a political solution to the civil war in Syria, urging those already bombing to cut back, with the UK under no circumstances joining in:
  • stop using "Western " military force in a vain attempt to solve problems in the Middle East;
  • urge Muslim countries to take a leading role in tackling problems in Muslim or largely Muslim countries.  Only they should use (police style) force on the occasions when it is necessary;
  • urge Muslim leaders and clerics to continue to be, and be even more, outspoken in their condemnation of violence;
  • in the UK, discontinue the creation of yet more faith schools, and gradually withdraw state support for those that exist.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Cameron's EU demands - much ado about very little

David Cameron has today sent his letter to the President of the European Council with details of the demands which he says must be satisfied if he and his party are to campaign for the UK to remain in the EU.  I certainly haven't read all the letter, and don't intend to, but from the BBC's summary of the contents, though embarrassingly  mean and petty, they don't seem to amount to much.

1.  Britain to "opt out" of "ever closer union."   Britain seems to be the EU member specialising in opting out, but "ever closer union" us an aspiration from a more optimistic age.  At the moment it isn't fashionable but I believe it should remain and, when the time is ripe, we should move in that direction, just as, when the time is even riper, we should move to "ever closer union" in the UN.  The politically independent nation state is a dangerous anachronism which has caused insufferable misery in the past, and the sooner we have politicians  with the vision to move away from it the better.

2."Cutting red tape."  This is an easy target which sounds great until you ask which regulations the proposer would like to be rid of.  I suspect what Cameron has largely in mind are those regulations which protect workers and families from exploitation.  Personally I'm anxious to keep these, and rather pleased that the EU's regulations have, for example, forced us to clean up our beaches and are setting targets for such desirables as renewable energy sources.

3.  No special privileges to Eurozone members above those available to those too chicken to join.  Well, the way to get round that is to join the Euro. Yes, I know Gordon Brown is much praised, even by the Tories, for keeping us out, but it is my belief that it and we would be stronger and have fewer problems if we were in.  And I'm pretty certain that, if it survives, which I hope it will, we shall one day be begging to join.  It's worth remembering that, although the £ is said to be currently  "strong" against the Euro, it is not yet  back to the price we had to pay for one at the beginning (70.58 p. - we have to pay 71.11p today and for most of the past 15 years, despite all the Euro's troubles,  we've had to pay more.)   My guess is that when the value of the £ falls so that we have to pay £1 for every €1 we'll come round to joining.

4.  Migrant workers form the EU can't claim "in work" benefits until they've lived here for four years.  This is ridiculous special pleading. Cameron and much of the business community want to have their cake and  eat it..  For them the "single market"  seems to mean that British manufacturers and financial operators should be free to trade with the rest of the EU on the same terms as everyone else, including the domestic traders.  but when it comes to labour, oh no, the free market shouldn't operate. What nonsense.  If it's a free market for goods, capital, and services,  especially financial services, then it should be a free market for labour, so EU  workers in the UK should enjoy the same conditions as British workers  If Britain wishes to dispense with "in-work benefits" then we should force employers to genuinely living wages.

David Cameron is a superficially nice man who is good at presenting his party's policies in a favourable light.  But it takes more than that to be a successful prime minister.  In particular he seems to lack judgement, or is it backbone?  By his mishandling of the Scottish quest for independence (making an unnecessary "vow" of further substantial devolution to avoid a "Yes" vote, then the morning after turning the issue to one of "English votes for English laws,"and now, according to the SNP, reneging on his devolution promises) he is in danger of being the prime minister who presided over the break-up of the UK.  And by caving in to his Eurosceptic back-benchers and in fear of UKIP he has made his silly promise of a referendum, he is in danger of removing us from on of the most exciting and progressive political ventures of modern times.

Britain has real problems: distressingly low productivity; sluggish and unbalanced growth; rising inequality; a desperate housing crisis; a staggeringly high balance of payments deficit; a health service teetering on the brink of financial collapse  It is disgraceful that, rather than focusing on solving these problems our attention for the next eighteen months or so will be distracted by nonsensical posturing about Europe.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Down and out poet

Yesterday St Martin-in-the-Fields, the church at the edge of Trafalgar Square, held its annual service to commemorate the homeless and destitute people who had died in London in the past year.  The number this year was a record 194.

Apparently the organisers try to find some personal detail to attach to each name, just to remind us that these are people, and not just a statistic.

Here is a poem written by one of them, David Rose:

After a boom there's always a bust;
Ask who's to balm and they'll tell you it's us.
It's not greedy bankers or embezzling elites;
It's somehow the fault of those with the least;.
The old, the disabled and us on the streets

Perhaps one of the exam boards could include it in GCSE English Literature:  explain the context and evaluate.

I was at college in London in the late 1950s and can't remember seeing any beggars on the streets or people sleeping rough.  Nor can I remember seeing any in Leeds, the nearest big city to my home.  There was the occasional tramp or vagrant but they, perhaps wrongly, were seen as rather romantic figures.  They were said to have a secret sign language and we learned it in the Scouts.

Mass homelessness and destitution there was not. And we are as a society some three to four times richer now than we were then.  We should be ashamed of tolerating the present situation.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Constitutional Codswallop

The Conservative party PR machine tried, for once with only modest success, to divert attention from the nuts and bolts of the consequences of the proposed reduction in tax credits. Instead  they tried  to focus attention on the constitutional issue of whether or not the Lords had the right to block or defer the changes. There was even talk of a constitutional crisis and, would you believe, the danger of involving the Queen in a political issue.

Happily the Lords ignored them and went right ahead.

However, the PR machine keeps on trying.   Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP, son of the late Honourable William, spouts of the possibility of creating 100 extra Troy peers to bring the Lords into line, and David Cameron hints darkly  of a "rapid review" of their powers and functions. Well ,of course, he had his chance when his then partners in government, the Liberal Democrats, proposed democratic reform which his party  had promised to support, and he bottled it.  Cameron is quick to use what he sees as the pejorative term "unelected," but if the second chamber remains  "unelected" whose fault is that?

The Conservatives make much  of the argument that the Tax Credit proposals have financial implications, and the Lords do not normally interfere with these.  However, as explained in the previous post, George Osborne himself failed to include the proposals in his Finance Bill,and instead submitted them in something called as Statutory Instrument, presumably to avoid full scrutiny and debate in the Commons.  So serves him right.

Lords defeats and delays are not all that unusual but it is curious that they happen a lot more when there is a Labour government  than when the Tories are in power.  From 1975 to 1979 (Labour ) there were 240 defeats, an average of 60 a year.  From 1979 to 97 (Tory years) there were just two more, 242, but over 18 years that averaged out at only 13 per year.  Then  in the 13 years of Labour rule  from 1997 to 2010 the figure jumped up to 528, an average of 40 a year.*

So the Tories are getting a dose of their own medicine, and, like most bullies, when the tables are turned, they cry "foul."

*  Figures derived from

Monday, 26 October 2015

The Lords and the Low Pay Subsidy.

Way back in the 1960s we Liberals campaigned for what we then called Negative Income Tax. - if your income was high you paid tax to the state, if it was low then the state paid you.  It seemed a good idea.

Calling it Working Tax Credit Gordon Brown introduced it in the early 2000s.  The chaos of the initial introduction is amply described in Chapter 10 of King and Crewe's " The Blunders of our Governments,"  but most of the initial teething troubles have now been sorted out.  However, what we now realise is that, rather than being a clever way of administering a vital part of the social security safety-net, working tax credits are in practice a massive subsidy to employers to enable them to pay wages below the market rate.

So George Osborne is quite right to try to move  employers away from a state subsidy to paying decent wages.  The obvious and humane way to do this is to raise the wages first and then gradually lower the subsidy.  Typically Osborne has chosen to effect the process in reverse: the subsidy is to be reduced now and the (very slightly) improved wages are to come later, if at all..  All independent sources say that some three million of the lowest paid people, already on the breadline, will lose out, some of them to the tune
of over £1 000 a year (maybe peanuts to the well heeled, but a crucial £20 a week to those on a tight budget.)

With its Conservative majority, the Commons has already approved the proposals, but this afternoon the House of Lords has a chance to stop it.

The Tory Perception management machine is already in spate expressing outrage.  Former Tory leader Michael Howard (he of something of the night) says that Lords' interference in financial matters  upsets 350 years of tradition. (His own party blocked regularly Liberal financial proposals right up to Lloyd George's People's Budget in 1910.)  Nicky Morgan had a better perception of history (fortunately, as she's Education Secretary) when she brought down the period of non-interference to 100 years.

However, the truth is rather different.

First , the Tories were quite explicit in the general election campaign that thy would not reduce tax credits.  Michael Gove, then and now a senior minister, is on record as saying in the election campaign that they would be frozen for two years.  David Cameron said there were no plans to reduce them.  So there is no question of Lords frustrating the elected government  on a policy for which they have a mandate.  Rather the reverse - to prevent their breaking an election  pledge

Secondly, Osborne is hoist with his own petard.  The constitutional principle is that the Lords will not interfere with a Finance Bill.  But Osborne did not include his Tax Credits proposals in the Finance Bill, but , in order to avoid too much scrutiny and opposition in the Commons (even some Conservatives have their doubts about the wisdom of the policy) introduced the measure by a Statutory Instrument.

The Lords have every right to kick this out.  Lets hope they do

PS (added Tuesday 27th October)   Hurray, they did!

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Next blunder of our government.

A couple of years ago the political pundits Anthony King and Ivor Crewe published a book, "The Blunders of our Governments" depicting  major errors of British governments in recent years.  These ranged from Mrs Thatcher's Poll Tax,  Pension Mis-Selling, entry to the ERM at the wrong price so subsequent humiliating exit from it, the Millennium Dome, Working Tax Credits, and the attempt to finance an extension of the London underground through a Public Private Partnership.

If and when an updated edition is produced thee can be little doubt that the  Hinkley Point C Nuclear power station will be added to the list.

It :-
  •  uses, according to George Monbiot, who knows about these things and whom many of us trust,  outdated technology
  • is to be built by the 85% state owned French company EDF, who are already years behind-hand with similar projects in other countries
  • is expected to cost £24.5 billion, but will probably over-run
  •  is to be largely financed by the Chinese Government, not at present the most compatible with our government's much vaunted emphasis on British norms and values.  . .
  • . . .but, if the project falters, much of the Chinese expenditure is to be guaranteed by the British government
  • will produce electricity at double the current price, and this is guaranteed, with adjustment for inflation, for 30 years.
More details can be found at

An alternative use of the Hinkley Point area was to build some wind-farms, but locals objected on the grounds that a blade from one to the wind turbines  might be blown off and do damage.

Our  government hails this dubious  nuclear project, for which the foreign owned state sectors will take the  profit if it is successful, but for which the British taxpayer will pay if it fails, a great success.

At the same time our government  is cutting back on support for renewable energy projects on the grounds that  they are so successful we are in danger of exceeding our targets for the reduction of carbon emissions.

I shudder to think what our right wing press would be saying if a Corbyn government were making such daft decisions.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Labour's enemies within.

Too many of Labour's leaders, some of them even in the shadow cabinet, are vying to dissociate themselves from Jeremy Corbyn's policies. Could it be that they don't want him to succeed?  Could it be that Corbyn's success would demonstrate that New Labour under Blair was, not necessarily all but mostly, a terrible mistake?

Norman Warner, a Labour member of the House of Lords, this week went further than most and actually left the party, claiming  that under Corbyn Labour  "hasn't a hope in hell."

Lord Warner is a former civil servant in the Department of Health and (presumably after having left the civil service) was a Health Minister in the Labour Government from 2005  to 2007.

One of the great mysteries to me is why the Liberal Democrats  in the Coalition Government (2010 to 2015) went along with the Conservative policy of re-organisation of the NHS when this policy was not included in the Coalition Agreement and, indeed the Conservatives had expressly  promised  "no top-down reorganisation of the NHS" in their election campaign.

One of my (very few) contacts in the House of Lords explained to me that Lord Warner  had assured the Liberal Democrat group that the Tory reforms were "all right" and, since he had been a civil servant in the department, and even a minister, they presumed that he know what he was talking about, so they agreed to be re-assured.

Later they discovered that Lord Warner had financial interests in private health providers.  As Wikipedia now puts it:

Lord Warner is a director of Sage Advice Ltd, and an adviser to Xansa (a technology firm) and Byotrol (an antimicrobial company) - all of which sell or are hoping to sell services or products to the NHS, according to website Social Investigations.[18] He also took up a position with Apax Partners – one of the leading private equity investors in healthcare, according to the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency.[19]

Presumable that information wasn't on the web at the time, or maybe the Liberal Democrat peers were too trusting and didn't bother to look.

I suspect that Lord Warner will be no great loss to the progressive side of politics.

That progressive side can be heartened by the fantastic victory of the Canadian Liberals, who have overwhelmingly won their general election on a promise to run a government  budget deficit for three years in order to  invest in infrastructure and help stimulate Canada's economic growth.

So Keynesian economics is alive and well, and electable, at the other side of the Atlantic. Maybe Corbyn (with Liberal Democrat, Green and SNP support) can pull of a similar coup here. Certainly he has a far better chance than any of the Labour spoilers.

They, and we, should get behind him.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Bully for the bisops

The 84 bishops of the Church of England who wrote to the prime minister offering to lead a national campaign for the welcoming and settlement of refugees from war-torn Syria were not grandstanding, as I believe the Daily Mail suggests, but making a constructive appeal for a humane response to a humanitarian crisis.

Their purpose was not to embarrass the prime Minister, as they initially wrote privately, more than a month ago. They published their letter only when, other than a formal acknowledgement, they had received no reasoned reply, though one had been promised.

The essence of their offer was and is as follows:

We stand ready to play our part as well. We will:
1.         Encourage our church members to work alongside the wider community in offering welcome, orientation, integration, sign-posting and support to all refugees who come
2.         Encourage, where possible and feasible, churches, congregations and individuals to make rental properties and spare housing available for use by resettled refugees.
3.         Promote and support foster caring among churches, congregations and individuals where appropriate to help find the homes needed to care for the increasing number of unaccompanied minors
4.         Pray for, act with and stand alongside your government, to rise to the challenge that this crisis poses to our shared humanity.

Surely this sort of response is what David Cameron means by  the "big society."

So far Britain's official response, or rather lack of it, must be one of the  humiliating in our history.  A minister suggested that those needing help while attempting the dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean by boat should not be rescued, because that would only encourage more to try.  The government has opted out of any attempt by the EU to share in the task of resettling genuine refugees equitably between member states.  Our current offer of 20 000 Syrian refugees  (over five years?) is paltry when compared to the hundreds of thousands already taken by Germany. We hang our heads in shame.

Humanitarian issues apart, I suspect that Angela Merkel has, despite the initial difficulties, been very shrewd in welcoming so many.  As Robert Winder notes:

There aren't many universal truths, but people do not lightly burn  their small hoard of money or burden themselves with loans merely to put their feet up at someone else's expense.  They do not leave their homes and families because they are risk-averse.*

In not too may years' time, and when their ageing population makes it most necessary, the German economy will experience the boost  resulting from the input of these enterprising incomers. 

Our government is right to point out that Britain is making a very significant contribution in international aid to sustain the refugee camps on the borders of Syria. 

But this is not a question of "either- or."  The migrants are both on their way and here inside Europe.  Conservatives are traditionally noted for being realistic, and it is folly to ignore this reality.   The sensible solution is for us to work constructively with our international partners to deal with the reality in a humane and compassionate manner.  The alternative of fortress Europe, or fortress Britain, is simply not viable.  As Winder further points out:

The opponents of migration are always up against powerful human forces - love, lust, curiosity,  hunger, fear and hope - and they are usually outmatched.  A nation historically wedded to freedom  would always have a hard time striving to curtail it. **

Let's hope that, with or without the government's backing, the churches, other religious bodies, and other pillars of civic society, redeem our reputation by going ahead with the bishops' plans
*  Bloody Foreigners, p 359
**          ''                   p 399