Saturday, 24 June 2017

Brexit: where will it all end?


Oxford Professor Timothy Garton Ash has a whole article devoted to this in yesterday's Guardian and it's well worth a read.  Here's his somewhat dismal conclusion:

". . .my hunch is that Britain will probably end up. . .with some novel variant  of Norway's European Economic Area deal, Switzerland's customised free-trade package or Turkey's  membership of the customs union.  It may be dressed up  in Union Jack bunting, but it will effectively mean that we have second-class membership of the common market, that we must abide by rules  we have no say in making, that we will continue to pay into the EU coffers, that immigration from the EU is only slightly reduced,  [and] that we have to accept  legally binding arrangements in which the European court of Justice still plays a significant role . . . A majority in parliament  will probably swallow all this, in a very British game of muddling through."

In an article in the July edition of Prospect magazine  the former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, Gus O'Donnell (a trained economist, not , happily, via Oxford's PPE, but at Warwick and Glasgow Universities) concludes:

"Even if the[Brexit] talks go well, the long term effect of Brexit will be a smaller economy than previously  expected, which feeds  through to lower tax revenues."

That's it: " a smaller economy,"  no ifs, no buts.

Spending the next two years negotiating towards this nonsense is crazy.  MPs should pluck up courage, do their duty and put stop to it now.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Land and "The Archers"


Radio 4's soap opera, "The Archers," to which I am addicted, began in1951 as a vehicle for informing Britain's farmers of all the latest techniques and Ministry of Agriculture rules and regulations.. Whilst it continues to do this (you can easily pick out the boring bits) it has since explored various social issues, most recently the coercive relationship between Helen Archer and her husband Rob, which kept the nation, and me, agog for over two years.

In the last couple of weeks organic farmers Tony and Pat Archer, with their family Helen (above) Tom and recently discovered grandson Johnny, have been offered £1m for a three and a half acre plot of land on which rich property developer Justin Elliot hopes  to build 18 houses.


I've no idea whether this is just an "East Enders" style plot to generate a bit of inter-generational squabbling within the family, or if it will develop into a serious exploration of the iniquities of land holding in Britain. I hope it will.

Tony and Pat were initially tenant farmers but  some time  ago raised the money via a huge mortgage  to buy their land from the estate which owned it.  Presumably they paid agricultural land prices, nowhere near  the £1m (now reduced to £900,000 becasue of son Tom's interference) they expect to receive for this small corner.

So far in the script there has been no mention of paying capital gains tax on the massive increase in value.  Indeed the family have already had detail discussions as to what to do with the whole million (half to Tony and Pat's pension pot, the other half to the development of Tom's business).  Will CGT be introduced into the script at a later date, or don't farmers , largely Tory voters, (though Tony and Pat probably aren't), pay it?

I hope we shall be told.

Nor, as far as I know (I missed a few episodes while in Scotland) has Justin Elliot yet gained planning permission for the houses.  Will he be"assisted" by friends on the council's planning committee?

And, when agricultural land increases enormously in value when a change of use is granted, why  is not the resulting increase in value simply taken by the state?  Maybe it is, in which case the family's plans are delusional.  And if it isn't, why not?

We could even go on to explore why why supermarkets, builders and maybe others are able to sit on "land banks" hoping for better times, without paying any rates. According to the housing charity Shelter, there is at present  enough land which has already been given to planning permission to build around half a million new homes, yet the building industry claim they are held up by obstructive local government bureaucracy and busy-body Nimbyists.

There could also be interesting discussions as to how many of the 18 houses to be built are "affordable."  Will Ed and Emma Grundy be able to afford one?

There is a rich vein of instructive dramatic possibilities, even without going into the fundamental question of why land is privately held when "God gave the land to the people."  I can hardly wait.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

2010 to 2017: what a difference.


In the final days days leading up to the 2010 General Election we were warned by David Cameron and most of the press that if there were a balanced (actually they said "hung" ) parliament than the sky would fall in, the markets would collapse and the world as we know it would come to an end.  So to avoid the calamity  of a Labour government dependent on the Scottish Nationalist (horror of horrors) better vote Conservative.

Well, Gordon Brown's Labour government lost its majority, Cameron's Tories didn't win one, the Liberal Democrats, with 57 seats (oh happy days) held the balance, and the sky didn't fall in, the markets didn't collapse and the world as we knew it went on much as before

So promptly the mantra shifted that unless a "strong and stable" (though they didn't yet put it that way)  coalition was formed within hours then all these financial calamities would surely happen. The leaders of the three major parties (yes, we were one of them then),  all exhausted by their strenuous election campaigns, had frantic meeting, half heated offers from Labour came to nothing, David Cameron and Nick Clegg put together what looked like a good deal and within in less than a week the Conservative-Liberal Democrat  coalition was formed.

In none of this period did the markets even wobble.

However, in hindsight it has become clear that in all the haste the Tories had managed to run rings run round us.  We had not absorbed the small print, or lack of it, so our dreams of Electoral and House  of Lords reform, which looked to be assured, came to nothing, and we were trapped in an austerity regime which went against  all our traditions and heritage (though this seemed to worry  some senior Liberal Democrats less than most of the party).

To avoid similar fiascos in the future I suggested that we abandon  the expectation that the day after an election  the old PM would  leave No 10 by the back door as the new one entered by the front, and spend at least 10 days in a transition period from one government to another, even if the same prime minister continued in office.

Strangely that is more or less what has happened since 8th June.  There is still no sign of an agreement between Northern Ireland's  Democratic Unionists (apparently not such a horror) and the May government, the anachronistically named Queen's Speech (actually the announcement of the government's programme) has had to be postponed until today, and the sky has not fallen, the markets have not even wobbled (though the £ has dipped a bit) and, sadly, the world again continues much as before.

Although I have no sympathy whatsoever for the bigoted views of the DUP, the party founded by Ian Paisley, they are from their point of view quite right to hang on until they have cast iron guarantees from the Tories for getting whatever it is they want.

Lets hope this sets a precedent for the formation of future, and I hope, progressive, coalitions

Monday, 19 June 2017

Brexit madness


Negotiations for  Britain's leaving the EU begin today.  It is perfectly obvious and cannot be said too often, that any Brexit deal, be it hard, soft or somewhere in-between, cannot possibly be as good for the UK, our economy, our international standing, our independence, our culture or whatever, as the deal we already have if we remain members.  Generous European leaders have made it clear that that option is still open to us. If we had any sense at all we should take it.

Not a single one of the claimed advantages of leaving the EU stands up to serious scrutiny, be it £540m a week for the NHS, or a buccaneering Britain notching up trade deals with the rest of the world that somehow or other we are prevented from doing at the moment.

Our political class must be the most inept in history if they persist on this course of self-harm.  One is tempted to say they must be "Mad, literally mad" but, given how it was first used  a political context,  perhaps that phrase is best avoided.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Tower block fires and red tape


Official voices are rightly cagey about making pronouncements on the causes of the horrifying fire in Grenfell Tower, Kensington, but it seems to me that three options are available and one of them must be right.

 Either:

1.  The regulations regarding building tower blocks, their footings, fire precautions, materials, stairs, escape routes etc are inadequate, in which case we need some more and better regulations.

2.  The regulations are adequate but they were evaded or avoided, either deliberately, through negligence, or to cut costs.

3.  The regulations were adequate and adhered to, but the inspection system to ensure that proper standards continued to be maintained were lax or even non-existent.

In due course we shall find out which of the above, or even some of all three, put these poor people through such a horrible trauma and led to the unnecessary deaths of at least 17 and possibly 60 people living quietly in their own homes and minding their own business, something we are surely all entitled to do.

It should be noted that all three of the above scenarios involve the "red tape" of regulations and the employment of "officials" to ensure they are observed.

We need to remember this when right-wing market libertarians are for ever telling us that that less government regulation will free them to be more innovative, adventurous and profitable, which profits will eventually trickle down to the rest of us.

Maybe some red-tape is unnecessary, and certainly some is out of date.  (I believe that until recently there was a law forbidding the display of liqueur chocolates in shop windows lest the young be tempted to become alcoholics).  But most is necessary to keep us safe in our homes, on our streets, in our schools and hospitals, and at work.

It is hard to suppose that government cuts reduced the ability of a rich borough like Kensington to police adequately the regulations  for which it is responsible, but that will doubtless be the case in poorer areas..  We also need to remember that there are large and influential building companies which doubtless spend a lot of time and money lobbying ministers and councillors, and it may be that profit sometimes takes precedence over public safety in their urgings.

It is public servants and public expenditure, financed by taxes, which keep  us safe.  These poor people may be victims of our delusion that we can have a top-quality public services without paying for them.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Too many Tories in the Commons


(It's probably too late, but my apologies to readers who saw an unchecked and incomplete version of this post which was published by accident - or some malfunction - yesterday)
 
In total 42.5% of those who voted in the 2017 election opted for the Conservatives.  42.5% of the 650 seats in the Commons is 276, but the Conservatives actually won 318, so, in proportionate terms. they have 42 more than their real entitlement.

Labour polled 39.95 of the total vote and won 262 seat, just 2 fewer than their proportionate entitlement.

We poor old Liberal Democrats polled a miserable 7.37% of the vote, but even that would entitle us to 48 seats instead of the meagre 12 we won.  The even more  badly-served Greens won only one seat rather than the 11 their 1.63 share of the national vote entitles them to .

Of course, no one, as far as I know, advocates  a strictly proportionate representation in the Commons, but these figures show that not only has Mrs May's government lost its technical  over-all majority:  the majority it has over Labour  grossly over-exaggerates its true support, and lessens even further  its moral authority.

(I have not included the nationalists in the above calculations as they do not contest seats throughout the whole of the UK).

In the short run, this analysis explodes as myth the suggestion that the present electoral boundaries favour Labour.  They clearly do not.  So it is important that all non-conservative MPs get together to stop the boundary revision scheme which the Tories claim is necessary to restore fairness. This scheme would, in
fact, further distort the system in their favour. 

In the long run of course we need an alliance to introduce an electoral system which offers a better balance between fair representation and a genuine connection  between MPs and their constituents.  The additional member system would be better than nothing. PR by single transferable vote in multi member constituencies would be best.

An announcement from Mr Corbyn that he is in favour of electoral reform would cause  a further shift in the tectonic plates of British politics and produce  another giant leap towards a fairer and healthier society.   If, sadly, he deludes himself into thinking that Labour can, in the long run, win on its own (as did Tony Blair, after his dialogue with Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s) we shall be back to the sterile Punch and Judy politics of the past.

In the meantime, I hope the apparatchiks of all the progressive parties are holding  informal discussions about some mutually advantageous electoral arrangements in case another election is called in the near future.  We should not let this moment pass.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen!


Well, last week's UK election result was certainly unforeseen.  I spent election week on a long-planned walking holiday in Scotland, cast a postal vote for our local Liberal Democrat before setting out, and took time out from holiday indulgences to watch the exit poll.  That the Tories were predicted  to lose their over-all majority produced an unexpected surge of euphoria, followed by almost instant  disillusion and a disconsolate retirement to bed when the first two results to be declared suggested that the exit poll was inaccurate.

Joy returned in the morning on discovering  that  the exit poll was right after all and the selfish Tory strategy had backfired on them with a vengeance.

However, given the disappointing performance of the Liberal Democrats, perhaps "modified rapture" (another quote from W S Gilbert) is a more appropriate response.

The main cause of joy is not the Tories' loss of their over-all majority, but the realisation that that our democracy is not, after all, up for sale, and not after all in hock to sycophantic Tory-supporting newspapers.

It should not be forgotten that the Referendum itself was called by David Cameron not in the national interest but in the hope of resolving an internal dispute in the Conservative Party.  And this election, similarly, was called not in the national interest, but in the expectation that the Conservatives, with Mrs May at their head, would steal a stonking  majority while the Labour Party appeared to be in disarray under an inadequate leader.

It was not to be.

Soon we shall find out how much more the Tories spent aver and above anybody else.(In 2010 it was £16bn compared with £8bn by Labour and £4.7bn by the Liberal Democrats).  Then there was the vilification and ridicule poured daily on the head of jeremy Corbyn by the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Express. And, it has to be said, the very public and much publicised  fact that 80% of Corbyn's parliamentary party had said they had no confidence in him.

Add to these the smears,and over-simplifications which appear  to be propagated by the Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby, and what appear to many of us to be the biassed reporting of the BBC* in a cack-handed attempt to be even-handed.

I suspect it did not affect the over-all result but I was personally impatient of the constant harassment of Tim Farron for his views as practising Christian on abortion and same sex marriage.  Both these issues are recognised as being matters of conscience not subject to party discipline so could be of interest to his own constituents but are of no concern  at the national level since he accepts the established views of the party he leads . I wonder how much we shall hear  much about these issues  in the Tory press with regard to the DUP, on whom  Mrs May's government hopes to rely,  and whose official policy is against both?

Another particular niggle among the miasma of misrepresentation was that both the Tory Party and  media went on and on about Corbyn's alleged support of the IRA  (he supported talking to them, not their terrorist methods) and never once asked Mrs May how she felt about having joined  the party which had called Nelson Mandela a terrorist?  Nor, given her Church allegiance, did they ever ask her about her attitude to the Magnificat, which, as a C of E vicar, her father would have chanted, recited or read daily.  Verses seven and eight are of particular significance:

[The Lord] hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.**

Happily, despite the distortions,  and unequal publicity and spending,  our electorate were not, for once, baboozled. Jeremy Corbyn's campaign, manifesto, leadership and honest personality have shifted the plates.  An end to the misguided economic policy of austerity and a punitive social security system, the glorification of privatisation and a business free-for-all regardless of employees' rights and welfare, to be replaced by public investment to revive the economy, public ownership where suitable and genuinely progressive taxation, have all now become politically viable.

Of course the plates have not yet shifted enough:  the Tories are still in office if not exactly in power, and we are still lumbered with Brexit. But  Britain is now a healthier and happier place, and hope is on the horizon.

I am of course disappointed that the Liberal Democrats have flat-lined.  Although I would have personally preferred us to campaign on an outright  "No to Brexit, let's stop this nonsense here and now and get on with tackling our real problems" the compromise of accepting that "the people have spoken" but giving us the chance to speak again was sensible, if timid.  However, it didn't take off.  We are, for the moment, back to two-party politics, but a viable  Liberal Party is an essential part of a Liberal democracy and we shall come back.

In the meantime we can sit back and enjoy the Tories tearing themselves apart, and try to make sure that the spectacle doesn't do too much damage to the most vulnerable in our society.



 *Today presenter and former BBC political  editor Nick Robinson , for example, helped in his  youth to found his local Young Conservative Association and was chair of the Oxford University Conservative Association.  Jeremy Paxman revealed, on his retirement form Newsnight, that he was a "one nation Tory."  there may be some BBC commentators with backgrounds in the far, or even soft Left, but I'm not aware of who they are.

** Way back in the 60s when we Liberals were looking for an anthem or theme song to rival Labour's Red Flag and the Tories' Land of hope and glory, the Magnificat was seriously suggested.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Corbyn and May v Paxman




The pundits and spin-doctors seem to have decided on a "no-score draw" for the Corbyn and May interviews with Jeremy Paxman and a studio audience.  Neither party leader suffered a gaffe, and neither produced a triumph.

Although a dedicated Liberal Democrat I cannot claim to be an impartial observer as  my sympathies are much more with the principled Jeremy Corbyn than the vacillating and opportunistic Theresa May. In my opinion Jeremy Paxman’s Rottweiler approach, his sneers and constant interruptions when interviewing Mr Corbyn were  a  stark contrast the almost jocular interrogation of Mrs May. 

Yes, he probed Mrs May repeatedly on her change of heart from Remain to harsh Brexit, but allowed her, again and again, to get away with the facile response that she was loyally responding to “the will of the British people.”   

This is obvious nonsense. It cannot be said too often, but mainstream media hardly say it at all, that of the people entitled to vote, 27% didn’t bother, 37% voted to Leave, 34% to Remain, and 16 and 17-year-olds, thought to be overwhelmingly for Remain, were not allowed to vote. Taking account of those not on the register, only about 25% of the adult population voted Leave.

 The obvious questions would have been:

  1.  why she, as a member of the responsible government, allowed into law such a shoddy referendum bill, with no super-majority such as is normally required for even a modest constitutional change in a golf club. 
  2.   and why she is determined to pursue a policy which in the view of the overwhelming majority of “experts,” whom we deride at our peril, will make us economically poorer, politically culturally and scientifically less significant, and socially less secure.   
Maybe Paxman failed  to pose these killer questions because, as he confessed on his retirement from Newsnight, he is himself  a Tory

Friday, 26 May 2017

Brexit: handy doorstep quide for canvassers


Sadly the "pro-staying-in-the- EU from the 48%"  which was expected  to prduce a Liberal Democrat surge does not yet seem to have taken off.  There's still time.

Here's a simple guide  to enable canvassers to respond if the Brexit topic is raised, or to introduce it if it isn't.

Be it hard, soft or middling, if Btitain leaves the EU we shall be:

  1. Economically poorer.
  2. Politically less significant.
  3. Scientifically and culturally more isolated.
  4. Socially less secure.
  5. and, if we trade with anybody at all, still subject to international jurisdiction, including the European Court of Justice (ECJ)
That's it.

QED.
or, more poetically:

Of that there is no manner of doubt,no possible, probably shadow of doubt,
No possible doubt whatever.  (W S Gilbert, The Mikado)

Supporting material.

I.  Economically poorer.  Even though we haven't yet left the EU we already are.  The 14% fall in the value of the £ means that we have to export more of our "stuff" in order to buy the same amount of "stuff" from other countries. This is already showing through in dearer foreign holiday, less foreign currency for your spending money £s, and higher food prices.  It will get worse as our trading relations with the EU and other counties become less advantageous.
2.  Politically less significant. In my childhood and youth (1937 onwards) we still regarded ourselves as a "Great Power,"  with Churchill sitting at the same table as Stalin and Roosevelt and planning the shape of the post-war World.  This was probably a delusion even then, and was blown out of the water with Suez in 1956. But we remained, as a government study put it, "a leading power of the second rank "  Our membership of the EU helps is to stay in the "big league" in relation to the US Russia, the growing significance of China and India, and South American counties.  On our own, despite the bluster of Boris Johnson, we fall to the third or fourth rank.
3.  Scientifically and culturally more isolated. Along with the BBC, our universities are still among the World's leaders.  This is recognised by the EU, and our universities receive in research grants about double our contribution.  Yet many researchers are already finding that access to research funds,  less welcoming.  And scientific research in particular is very dependent on international collaboration, and the free movement of personnel between universities.  At the moment we really do play a leading role, but if we leave the EU we shall gradually move to the periphery.
4.  Socially less secure.  Whilst it is true that most of the so-called Red Tape which the Brexiteers claim inhibits British enterprise, actually comes from the British Government, that from Europe is particularly concerned with protection of the environment (eg clean beaches), health and safety at work, employment rights and, yes, human rights.  Protection in these areas is unlikely to be as strong if a Tory government is left to its own devices.
5. International jurisdiction. Almost all international treaties, and particularly those regarding trade, have some "shared" mechanism between the partners for deciding on whether the provisions of the treaty are being observed.  For trade with EU this is the ECJ, on which we are represented and for which  we shared in making the rules.  If we leave the EU but still want to trade with it (and at present it takes about half our exports) we shall still have to obey the rules (even though we no longer have a say in changing  them and making new ones) and be subject to its decisions, (even though we are no long represented on it.)  New trade deals, with for example the US, will likely be subject to the corporate courts  made infamous in the TTIP proposals.  These courts meet in secret and tend to act in the interest of the multi-national conglomerates rather than the consumers.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Social care: the dementia tax


The conclusion of my previous post, written a  week ago, that


. . . . Mrs May, far from being strong, consistent and a safe pair of hands,  is  a vacillating opportunist, quick to change her statements  to the advantage of her  party and herself. . . ., and skilful in the "dissembling and cloaking" against which she was warned in her Prayer Book upbringing


is amply borne out by her volte- face  on payment for social care.  

 (For those unaware of the details,  the Conservative Manifesto  promised that people would have to pay in full, without limit, for any necessary social care, mainly in old age, until their assets were reduced to £100 000.  This meant that property owners would, if necessary, have to to sell their houses, thus preventing their children or legatees inheriting what could be considerable sums.  This produced outrage, mainly from the wealthy, and Mrs May decided that there would after all be a cap on the total to be paid for social care - and blustered  this was not a change in policy,  just a detail.  A master-class in dissembling and cloaking.)

When the policy was published it was quickly dubbed the "Dementia Tax."  Serve the Tories jolly-well right - when Labour introduced a similar (but better - more on that later) proposal just before the 2010 election,, the Tories were quick to label it the "Death Tax." Just another example of how childish our politics have become.

Happy this U-turn  has  put paid to the concept of Mrs May as a "strong and stable" pair of hand. "Weak and wobbly" has taken over and bears constant repetition.

Actually "Dementia Tax" is not a particularly accurate description  as there are many reasons other than dementia for needing care in old age.  For the moment my own potential problems appear to  relate more to the bladder than the brain. And it's not just old age.   As this article  in today's Guardian points out, almost half of council's social care spending goes on  adults below the age of 65.

I can't say that I'm particularly comfortable with the idea of the state shelling out squillions so that the already privileged offspring  of owners of mini-mansions can inherit yet further advantages. It seems to me that there are two problems to be solved.  

The first is paying for the care.  If it is to be "free at the point of use"  from the beginning  or after a limited contribution from those able to pay, then this will require an increase in National Insurance Contributions  (NICs) or general taxation.  If health and social care services are to be merged, which seems a popular and sensible proposal, then increased NICs seem the logical choice.  If the politicians are too frightened to attempt this, then Andy Burnham's proposal  (the above-mentioned "Death Tax") of a levy on of some 15% on all estates, first put forward in a White Paper of 2010 seems to me to be perfectly acceptable.  The important thing is to fund the service properly and ensure decent wages and conditions for those providing it. If the service were returned to public or "not for profit" hands then priority could  be given to the quality of care rather than than profit-maximisation

The second problem is that of inheritance. The present threshold for liability to inheritance tax (formerly Death Duties) is £325 000, but rich people with assets well above this can afford clever accountants to find ways of avoiding paying. Given that inherited wealth is a major source of inequality I should like to see a revival of the good old Liberal proposal that the  tax should not be on the estate but the recipients, and should be tax free provided the estate is bequeathed to different people in  small dollops - say of £50 000 at today's values.

Just to show how even handed this blog is, I'll but on record that I welcome the Tory proposal to discontinue the Winter Fuel Allowance for comfortably-off pensioners (which I'd define as anyone still paying income tax, which incudes me) and would take much the same view of the free TV licence for the over75s (which also incudes me)



Thursday, 18 May 2017

Theresa the Misleader


I have received a large four-sided leaflet through the post.  It says   "THERESA MAY FOR BRITAIN" on the front page in very big letters, and devotes a second page to what purports to be a personal massage which concludes by urging me to "get things right by backing me, and voting conservative for my  candidate in your local area" (my emphasis.). A third page highlights  six debatable pieces of "progress" since 2010 (one is "WELFARE CAPPED to reward work") with the exhortation to "VOTE THERESA MAY ON 8TH JUNE."  The final page warns that the election may not be a shoe-in for the Tories (on that I hope she's right) so I should make sure I vote Tory to avoid having Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister.

The word conservative is mentioned only twice: once in modest print with a union flag at the side of it, and once in the very tiniest of print in the legally obligatory  "printed and published by " declaration.

This is by far the most blatant attempt in my lifetime  to turn our British parliamentary election into a presidential system: May v Corbyn.

Mrs May is not the Conservative Candidate in my constituency, but presumably by not mentioning the actual Tory candidate's name  the party can charge the leaflet up to national expenses, a trick  they used even more blatantly in the last election and sadly got away with.

The character of Jeremy Corbyn has been tested to destruction by the media, but Mrs May is routinely presented by the sycophantic press as some modern-day Boudicca well equipped to stand up for Britain against the wicked continentals.  This caricature does not bear scrutiny.

  • Not once, but repeatedly, after her ascension to the premiership, she assured us, openly, unequivocally, without prevarication or qualification, that there would be no snap election:  the parliament would run its course.  It would perhaps be pushing beyond the boundaries of politeness to call this well brought up middle-aged lady a liar, but this was beyond doubt misleading.  Why should we ever again believe a word she says?
  • There are increasing signs that coming to the decision after  clearing of her mind whilst walking in Snowdonia is a load of hooey, and that Conservative Central Office has been preparing for a snap election for some time.  All their plans seem to have fallen neatly into place whilst the Labour Party has been caught on the hop.  If this is the case Mrs May has been not just misleading but deliberately misleading.
  • Before the EU Referendum Mrs May was an avowed Remainer.  Here's just one snippet from one of her major speeches: "Remaining inside the European Union does make us more secure, it does make us more prosperous and it does make us more influential beyond our shores." You can read the entire speech here.  So why is she now burbling the fantasies of her arch Brexiteers and insisting on leading us  to the harshest of Brexits?  Does she actually believe anything she says? 
This twisting and turning is not confined to the EU debate.  Whilst Home Secretary she gave the strong impression that she was sympathetic to an inquiry about alleged police malpractice  in the Orgreave confrontation with the striking  miners.  After similar malpractices were confirmed in the Hillsborough inquest she told the Police Federation that they must understand: "the need to face up to the past , and right the wrongs that continue to jeopardise the work of police officers today.. . . We must never  underestimate how the poison  of decades-old misdeeds seeps down through the years and is just as toxic today  as it was then.   That's why difficult truths, however unpalatable they may be , must be confronted head on." 

Now that she is Prime Minister the Home Secretary has been permitted to decide that that there shall be no enquiry into Orgreave becasue:"Ultimately, there were no deaths."

The evidence shows that Mrs May, far from being strong, consistent and a safe pair of hands,  is  a vacillating opportunist, quick to change her statements  to the advantage of her  party and herself, weakly submissive to the Brexit bullies in her party, and skilful in the "dissembling and cloaking" against which she was warned in her Prayer Book upbringing.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Hurrah for the Labour Manifesto


The Labour Party manifesto for the election has not actually been published but, but predictable scorn has already been poured on the leaked versions by predictable sections of the media (ie most of it).  But to the less partial eye there's a lot to like.  If the leaks are correct a Labour government will:
  1. Resume council-house building and make private sector house building an infrastructure priority
  2. Take the railway companies back into public ownership as their franchises expire;
  3. Ensure there is at least one publicly owned energy provider in each region;
  4. Guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK;
  5. Make no false promises about immigration;
  6. Establish a national and regional investment banks;
  7. Scrap the bedroom tax and punitive sanctions regime;
  8. Discourage short-termism and rocketing executive pay;
  9. Scrap university tuition fees;
  10. Adequately fund eduction, health and social care services.
This list is a breath of fresh air, and highly relevant to a country which has suffered too long from mistaken policies.  It is a list Liberals Democrats can work with.

Of course, we should like to see a less supine acceptance of Brexit, and in particular take with a pinch of salt the promise to "make retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union negotiating priorities." If that's the case why did they whip their peers to vote against such a proposal in the House of Lords on 28th February?

Personally I'd like to see a full throated promise to halt Brexit altogether, and to ditch Trident rather than retain it but be equivocal about using it.  However I doubt if even the Liberal Democrat manifesto will have the guts to propose either of these.

But what we have to be clear about is that this is a perfectly sensible list of aims.   It is a far cry from the much quoted "longest suicide note in history" of the 1983 manifesto.  That one promised to take us out of the EU (oops, the Tories are now doing that anyway), nationalise the banks (oops 2, the Tories have done that as well with two of them), cancel the Trident programme (see above) and abolish the House of Lords (ah well, that's been tried and must go on the back burner for a while)

If the present manifesto is to be criticised I regret that it gives the impression that everything on the list will be done at once.  True that the Attlee  governments of 1945-51 took and largely achieved such an approach, but times, though economically much more strained, were different then.  People were less cynical and much more confident of what the state can achieve.  I'd prefer to see a much more " softly softly " approach and more use of "we shall try to" rather than " we will."  That last point is even more relevant for the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

The alternative from the Conservatives of:

  1. Hard Brexit;
  2. Continued austerity ;
  3. Increasing inequality;
  4. Further privatisations;
  5. Bullying of the poor and disadvantaged;
  6. Reductions in the size of the state;
  7. Grammar schools;
  8. Toadying to the US;
  9. Endangered human,civil and employment rights;
  10. Unachievable immigration targets, along with an inhuman and  even illegal attitude to migrants and asylum seekers;
just doesn't bear thinking about.

And if the issue is competence, remember that it's the Tory policy  of deregulation which brought about the financial crisis, their  policy of "right to buy" which is  is at the heart of the housing crisis,  their  policy of austerity which has delayed the recovery and starved and continues to starve the health, education and social services.

Only skilful PR and a sycophantic press keep them in the frame at all.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Competition taken too far



Yesterday I went to the audiology department of our local NHS hospital for a minor adjustment to one of my hearing aids.  After she had dealt with it  the technician told me  I was due for another hearing test in July, but would not be sent for.  It was up to me to "initiate the procedure" and "request a new pathway."  (Who on earth dreams up this management speak?")

I would then be advised  that I could go to the private sector for this.  It is apparently mandatory that his option be pointed out to me.

Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green  initiatives are often subject to routine ridicule, but we are expected to take this  nonsense in our stride

Clearly this requirement has been imposed on the NHS by some fanatical neoliberal obsessed with the virtues of market choice.

But it is ridiculous.  Like demanding that, before  selling you a book, Foyles must tell you that you could buy the same volume at Waterstones.  Or that before pulling you a pint of Tetley's the barman should remind you that you could get a pint of Sam Smith's at the pub up the road.

And I wonder if the playing field is levelled by requiring the private sector hearing aid specialists  to tell their customers that equivalent support is available from the NHS free at the point of use?

Those why deny that further aspects of the NHS are up for privatisation if the Tories remain in government should take note of this straw in the wind.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

The myth of Tory economic competence.



I don’t watch Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning politics programme because I’m at church at the time it is broadcast and never seem to be able to find “catch-up” time. However I understand that  two weeks ago  (30th April) Theresa May persistently evaded Marr’s questions about nurses having to go to food banks because they couldn’t afford to buy food, but three times referred to the need for a “strong economy” and a government which “understands the importance of the strength of the economy.”

Well, who would argue against the desirability of a flourishing economy?  But the impression Mrs May gives, and clearly intends to give, is that Conservative governments provide this strength and Labour governments don’t and won’t.

Sadly I suspect that most of the electorate accept this, but it is the triumph of slick PR and a lick-spittle press rather than an objective appraisal of the truth.

Simon Wren-Lewis, a professor of Economics at Oxford University, has attempted to provide such an appraisal   on his blog Mainly Macro.  I strongly recommend  reading the entire article at

But in case you haven’t time here is an honest summary.  (My own additional comments in Italics in brackets). The survey looks at the major economic decisions by British governments over the past forty years or so:  1979 - 1997 (Conservative Chancellors of the Exchequer), 1997 - 2010 (Labour), post 2010 (Conservative)

1.       Geoffrey Howe’s (Conservative) 1981 budget.  Imposed tax rises in the middle of a recession.  Was famously opposed by 364 economists in a letter to The Times. Generally accepted to have delayed recovery by some 18 months.  (This was the period in which Britain’s manufacturing  capacity was reduced by a fifth, and unemployment rose to over 3 million, with the consequent  loss of skills and export potential – not to mention devastated communities and much human misery)

2.       The Lawson (Conservative) Boom in the late 80’s: a dash for growth (that produced little growth but lots of inflation).


3.       Joining the  Exchange Rate Mechanism of the EU (The ERM) in  1990 (John Major, Conservative chancellor).  (Most of us welcomed this as a good move. The problem was that we joined at too high a rate – almost 3DM to the £.  John Major was not necessarily to blame: Mrs Thatcher is said to have decided on the figure unilaterally, and imposed it on her cabinet.


4.       Ejection from the ERM. Black Wednesday,16 September 1992,   Norman Lamont Conservative chancellor. ( The above rate proved unsustainable  Britain was ignominiously  forced to leave the ERM)
5.       The failure throughout  this period to use the revenues from North Sea Oil to set up a Sovereign Wealth Fund (as did, for example, Norway)  (Instead the bonus was squandered on tax cuts and the funding of the high level of unemployment)

The ERM debacle led to the loss of the Conservative's credibility on economic matters and,  eventually, to Tony Blair’s Labour landslide in 1997.  

 Wren - Lewis highlights three major decisions made during the period of the Blair Brown governments and  argues that all three were correct.  They are:


1.       The independence of the Bank of England (from 2nd May 1997).


2.       The decision, engineered by Gordon Brown, not to join the Euro in 2003. 

3.       The fiscal stimulus (Alistair Darling Chancellor of the Exchequer) after the crash of 2007 which stabilised the economy and restored some growth.

Wren-Lewis excuses the Labour government’s failure to regulate the banks and financial sector more tightly, and thus perhaps avoid the crash of 2007, on the grounds that they were following the consensus view at the time. The Conservatives were arguing for even lighter regulation.

(Wren-Lewis does not mention  the financing of public sector infrastructure projects, especially hospitals and schools, by Private Financial Initiatives, PFIs, which I believe is a major mistake for which we shall be paying over the odds for years if not generations)

On George Osborne’s tenure as Chancellor, Wren-Lewis praises the decision to set up the Office of Budget Responsibility, OBR, but condemns the decision to embark on austerity from 2010 as a “huge mistake.”  He also points out that the decisions to leave the Single Market and Customs Union are not mandated by the Referendum but are “down to the Conservative government alone.”.

All in all, it is hard to argue with Wren-Lewis's  conclusion that "[The track records ] show clearly that Labour tend to get things right  while the Conservatives  have created a number of major policy induced  disasters."

Monday, 8 May 2017

Liberal Democrats back in the frame.


Like most Liberal Democrats I was hoping our we would make significant gains in last week's local elections. After all the augurs were good. We'd polled above 30% and come second in the Witney by-election caused by David Cameron's breaking his promise to stay on and sort out the mess he'd made, and won the Richmond Park by-election caused by Zak Goldsmith's keeping his promise to resign and re-fight the seat if the Tories approved the third runway at Heathrow. These were on top of frequent gains in numerous local government by-election, all dutifully reported on Liberal Democrat Voice.

The only way was up, or so it seemed, and the loss of 42 seats, rather than net gains was a bit of a blow.  However, we've been on the fringe of politics for most of the past half-century so have become quite good at seeking consolation which belies surface  appearances.

And in this case the consolation is, it seems to me, quite credible.  In these elections our over-all share of the vote was 18%.  This is a substantial  increase on the 11% we achieved  when these seats were last contested four years ago.  An increase of a seven  percentage points form 11 ist an increased share of 64%.  Wow!

Another consoling factor is that these elections were essentially for county councils and we have never done very well in those.  In fact in the '60s and '70s we often left them uncontested.  Our activist were often more motivated by more local issues, derided by some as "pavement politics," and this indifference towards county council matters was shared by much of the electorate. 

In fact the only time the Liberals fielded a full slate of candidates  for the West Yorkshire County Council was in 1981.   This also turned out to be the last time as the Conservative government abolished  our  county council, along with all the other Metropolitan Councils and the Greater London Council, becasue Mrs Thatcher was needled by London's Ken Livingstone didn't like the fact that most others also had substantial Labour majorities.  So much for the Tory dedication to democracy.

Hence there was no election last week in the old West Yorkshire area, where we have so far successfully avoided being bullied into having a directly elected mayor. (For some reason the election of London's mayor is out of sinc with the rest and Labour's Sadiq Khan won that last year)

It is therefore not unrealistic to expect an even greater improvement in our fortunes in the coming general election.  This optimism is enhanced by the fact that both Labour and the Conservatives are so far fighting poor campaigns. Both are issuing promises about this that and the other what they will do when returned to government, and routinely rubbishing the promises of the other. 

I'm pretty certain few people believe any of the promises anyway and will be fed up to the back teeth of the whole patronising pantomime after anther five weeks.  A turnout as low as 60% is already predicted.

So far the Liberal Democrats have fought a god campaign.

On Europe we have made it quite clear that we are totally opposed to a hard Brexit, want to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, and want another referendum on whatever terms are achieved.

On taxation we advocate an extra 1p on all rates of income tax, ring fenced for the NHS.

Our European stance  should appeal to the 48% of Remain voters,and not a few of the 52% who recognise how the promises of the leavers are unravelling.  And the penny for the NHS  should appeal to everybody.

Inevitably during the campaign we shall have to take positions on other issues, but if we avoid being distracted and hammer away at our two USPs we should do well.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

We should "Go for it."



On Tuesday of this week our former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said on Radio 4's Today programme words to the effect that Mrs May and the Tories are more or less bound to win the election.  Then on the same slot on Wednesday our present leader Tim Farron said she was "Slam dunk" (whatever hat means) for victory.

I find this astonishing  in any circumstances.  Whoever went into a competition saying they were bound to lose? In the present circumstances it is outrageously timid.  Throughout the "Western" world politics have never been so uncertain.

In France not one but both major parties, the Socialist Party of the incumbent president and the standard alternative right wing party, the Republicans, have been eliminated from the presidential election, and the final contest is to be between the Far Right and a man representing no party at all.  And although M Macron appears to have a 60/40 lead there are still fears that sufficient socialists and other on the left may abstain rather than put clothes pegs on their noses and vote to stop the Front National, who consequently believe there is still "all to play for."

And only last year world opinion had it that Mrs Clinton was a "shoe in" for the US Presidency, and that Donald Trump was an outrageous and unbalanced maverick whom everyone could see was totally unfit for any sort of public office.  And now he holds the most powerful position in the world.

In 2011 the Liberals, Canada's "natural party of government" were not just beaten but reduced to third place, but returned to majority and government in 2015

And in this country in 2011, at the start of the  referendum on electoral reform those in favour had a two to one majority.  But we lost. And last year a victory for leaving the EU seemed so improbable that no one bothered to  put in a requirement for the usual  super-majority which is standard when even such as golf clubs and music societies want to change their constitutions.  So now we're lumbered with Brexit.

With politics so volatile, why don't we "progressives" go all out for rejecting what must surely be the mast damaging and destructive, government n our post-war history?  ( Yes, probably even more so than Mrs Thatcher's, though she started the rot).

The conditions for this to happen include:

  1. Labour party stalwarts stop sniping  at Jeremy Corbyn, let him be himself* and get behind him;
  2. Liberal Democrats, Greens, nationalists and others also stop sniping and attacking each other and agree that they are prepared to work together with Labour and each other  to recreate our tolerant, generous and open liberal democracy;
  3. Stop the Brexit nonsense altogether;
  4. If the party leaderships won't make electoral pacts, use co-ordinated tactical voting to return progressive pro-EU members to the new parliament.
There isn't much time, but this will  replace a reluctant rearguard action with an exciting vision worth fighting for.

*  Here's an upbeat extract from Simon Jenkins's article in today's Guardian:

Corbyn should  . . .[go] for broke.  Invite a vote for moral outrage,  nuclear disarmament  and an end to neo-imperial wars.  Attack  chief executive salaries , crazy energy subsidies and vanity infrastructure projects.  Promote universal incomes, prison reform and drug legislation.

Well, not all Liberal Democrats, Greens, nationalists et al would agree with all of that (though I do) but surely it's something we can work with, and better than the destructive paths on which Mrs May seems hell-bent.


Monday, 1 May 2017

Government's gagging law restricts discussion.


 Last Saturday I attended  a day conference on "A progressive, sustainable and social future" splendidly organised by the students of Leeds Beckett University.  Clearly the conference was planned long before the calling of the general election, but the fact that it took place at the beginning of an election campaign made it all the more relevant.

But not necessarily more effective.The concurrence of events had the unfortunate effect of stifling the discussion. 

The contributors included representatives of such as Global Justice Now (formerly the World Development Movement, of which I regard myself as a founder member), Jubilee Debt Campaign, War on Want, Friends of the Earth, and many locally based campaigning organisations.

Most are charities, and  as the result of one of the more inept pieces of Conservation legislation, if during an election campaign they say anything that could be interpreted as being for or against a particular party, then their "comments" could be charged to the expenses of the relevant party and, I believe, they could also lose their charitable status.

The initial purpose of the legislation was the perfectly reasonable and highly desirable attempt to control the activities of "lobbyists" representing organisations with their own agendas unduly, and often in secret, influencing the government.  Indeed David Cameron had  presciently predicted that lobbying, after the "cash for questions" and MPs' expenses scandals, was the the next big scandal waiting to happen. 

However, the general consensus is that, far from limiting  the activities of big business (eg the Murdoch press, the fracking industry), their access to ministers and civil servants appears to continue much as before, and the main effect of the legislation is to tie the hands of campaigning organisations.

Many of the speakers in the workshops stressed  that they were limited in what they were able to say, although most succeeded in conveying their meanings via. figurative nods and winks.  However, I suspect it is not beyond the bounds of possibility for "spies" to infiltrate similar conferences and "report infringements" to their masters.

This curb on public discussion is not an isolated case.  A report issued last month, listing the level of press freedom in 180 countries, showed that the UK had slipped by 12 places in the last five years, to 40th out of 180 countries.

Shame on us.

Post Script.

In contrast to the gloomy devaluation of British standards mourned above, on 1st May 1840, Britain was at the cutting edge of progress by introducing  the world's first postage stamp, the famous Penny Black.

And, exactly 20 years ago, on 1st May 1997 Labour won the largest post-war majority of any party, it was sunny, and, even though we Liberal Democrats suffered a net loss of one,  we all thoght things could only get better.