Sunday, 3 July 2022

Is hard--line Labour seeing the light?

 A "progressive alliance" of the centre-left parties (Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, maybe some Nationalists) to defeat the Tories is flavour of the month amongst many political columnists, though less so among the  loyalists of all these parties.  One of the major obstacles to a formal alliance is a clause in the constitution of the Labour Party which insists that their party must (must) field a candidate in every parliamentary constituency in every  election.

The reasoning behind that is perfectly logical.  Labour purists believe that they are fighting a class "war"  for  the workers against the capitalists.  This belief may be backed up by adherence to the teachings of Karl Marx and the inevitability of the success of the proletariat, or, les pedantically, the Fabians, or Social Democrats such as Anthony Crossland in  "The Future of Socialism."  Theirs is  a "cause"which must be fought for in every corner of the land. 

  With equal fervour the Greens believe, quite rightly, that life on the planet is endangered if we carry on behaving as we are, so their cause must be prosecuted in every corner of the world.  We Liberals believe that Liberal Democracy itself, the battle to achieve the greatest possible measure of individual freedom compatible with the freedom of others, is on the back foot (as in the US, UK, Hungary, Russia and China, to name but some) and needs vigorous protection where it exists and proselytation where it doesn't.

 Although neither the Greens nor the Liberal Democrats have clause in their constitutions demanding that they fight every seat, where groups of dedicated loyalists exist they are reluctant to stand aside, so the Tories, lacking any fundamental beliefs other than that they are the best rulers (and some believing that they are actually born to rule) grab, under our primitive electoral system, the reins of power more often than not in spite of their minority status.

 Fortunately, although a formal progressive alliance is for the moment not on the table, there are increasing signs, highly visible in the recent by-elections, that the parties least able to challenge the Tories, are wiling to to run low key campaigns and give the main challenger an almost free hand (as in  Wakefield, for Labour, and Tiverton and Honiton for the Liberal Democrats) 

 However these are by-elections: they may shake the government but will not change it. So habitual Tories are more likely to "lend " their votes to the challenging party, or deliberately stay at home.

 The big question is, will this "flexibility" extend to a General eEection, when there is the possibility of changing the party in power.

 Fortunately ,there are signs that it might.

 An article by Paul Mason in this week's "The New European" appears under the headline "Only a progressive alliance can rid us of these morally bankrupt liars" and concludes:

"Even an informal electoral pact  could wipe the Tories out for a generation.  A short parliament, delivering PR and re-entry into the single market without any recourse to referendums, could be followed  by the first general election in which everybody's vote counts."

This is important becasue Mr Mason is not just a journalist  nor an academic philosopher in an ivory tower such as A C Grayling, but a left-wing Labour candidate.


An article in last Friday's Guardian (1st July) which reports accusations that  Sir Keir  Starmer is operating a purge against left-wing candidates, claims  that his defenders point to 


". . .the  longlisting of avowedly left wing commentator Paul  Mason for Stretford and Urmston  in Greater Manchester, as proof candidates from that wing of the party  are not all being vetoed."

 Assuming it's the same Paul Mason, bring it on.


Saturday, 25 June 2022

Modified By-election Rapture


On page 382 of his "Modernity Britain: a shake of the dice,1959-62" historian  David Kynaston, picks out "Orpington" as "perhaps the most famous by-election of the century . . .where. . .Eric Lubbock . . . overturned a Conservative majority  of almost 15 000 into a stunning Liberal victory of almost 8 000."

Well, although we are still only in the first quarter of it, the 21st Century can beat that.

In Tiverton and Honiton we Liberal Democrats have overturned a majority of over 24 000 with a stunning victory  of  over 6 000.    Rapture indeed, and many congratulations to those involved in achieving it, along with relief that Labour has reversed its misfortunes in Wakefield by regaining the seat it lost in 2019.

The Orpington result led to the then Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan's "night of the long knives," in which he sacked a third of the cabinet in the hope of restoring Tory fortunes.

And, here's where the rapture is modified.  He, and his successor Sir Alec Douglas Home, very nearly did.  In spite of the low ebb to which Tory fortunes appeared to have fallen after 13 years of power and a dash of sexual scandal,  Labour under Harold Wilson won the subsequent general election by only four seats.  

The Tories are good at recovering and doubtless have not lost the knack.

In addition, a  numerate friend has pointed out to me that the combined  votes cast for the major parties in the two by-elections last Thursday were as follows:

Conservatives:          24 634

Liberal Democrat:     23 045

Labour:                     14 728

Green:                       1 651

It beggars belief that, even after 12 years in continuous power, and with the lies, sleaze incompetence and failures of the present administration under Johnson's amoral leadership, the Tory party can still muster more votes than anyone else, even in the hot- house atmosphere of by-elections, when party loyalists  are more  willing to stay at home, or "lend" their votes  to other parties just to make a protest and give the incumbents a kick in the backside.

The combined non-Tory vote is massively greater than the Tory vote but, unless we can replicate the informal non- aggression pacts  which operated in these two by-elections at a general election, the Tories are destined to yet another victory..

The "progressive parties" are not yet ready, or have decided that the electors is not yet ready, for formal pacts to avoid avoid fighting each other at all, so informal low key campaigning seems to be the best alternative we  can manage. 

However informal, the Tory PR machine will be quick to dub such understandings as wicked conspiracies.  To counter this we need to be ready and point out that their current 80 seat majority was achieved by their  persuading UKIP not to stand against them in 2019.  Maybe we should refer to the present government as the Tory-UKIP coalition, or even the Tory-UKIP Front.

 Be that as it may, it is possible that in fact the electorate is ahead of the party stalwarts in this, and that the common sense which has clearly operated in the by-elections will transfer to a general elections.  I sincerely hope so

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

Railway Strike: confrontation, not co-operation

The railway strike which begins today invites comparison with the 1970s. This is not, however, everyone's view, for reasons this constructive article by Will Hutton makes clear.

Whether or not these comparisons with the 70s are valid, what is clear is that we have learned so little in the last half century.  Britain's basic problem, than and still now, is that both our political and our economic institutions are organised to promote  confrontation rather than co-operation.

In our politics, our "winner takes all" electoral system  narrows our choice to two major sides, which sit opposite each other in parliament, jeer at each other and try to impress their sporters by acting tough.  Confrontation rather  than co-operation results.  This was damaging enough when the  winners' arrogance was tempered by deference to the largely unwritten rules of the "good chap theory of government."  Now that these conventions are routinely ignored by the present government, or, if they are written, torn up and re-written to suit the present incumbents, we are staggering further and further away from the  true democracy of which we are pioneers, and which, among other things, assumes the rule of law and respect for the views of minorities.

The same confrontational structure dominates our economy.  Put at its simplest, private company boards represent solely the shareholders, and have  the legal duty to maximise their profits.  Excluded from formal representation, workers band together in trade unions and unite to try to achieve better wages and conditions.

When I first campaigned as a Liberal way back in the 1960s we proposed new structures in both politics and economics in order to replace competition with co-operation.  In politics we proposed that our parliaments  should be chosen using an electoral system based on proportional representation achieved by single transferable votes in multimember constituencies..

 To promote co-operation in industry (and there still was lots of it) we  argued that company boards should, broadly speaking, represent not just the shareholders, but also the employees and some form of community representation. Each should have one third of the seats so that, crudely, neither owners nor employees  could have it "all their own way" but would need to gain the support of some of another group,  or maybe both of them, for their ideas to be implemented.

 This, of course, made little progress, though some companies, such as the John lewis Partnership, have adopted the allied idea of profit sharing with great success, and similar structures exist in the Scandinavian countries, Germany and France, all of which now have higher levels of productivity and standards of living than the UK.  

The present rail confrontation illustrates the weakness of the government's position.  It is a nonsense to claim that the issues are for the management and unions to sort out for themselves.  Of course the government has a stake and should exercise it.  After all, railways are a public service and are heavily subsidised from the public purse. 

The managements have the genuine case that railway usage now, party as a result of the increase in home working, has reached only 80% of its pre-pandemic level, and adjustments need to be made.  The unions argue that their members  have kept the service running in the dangerous times of the pandemic, their wages have remained static and need to reflect the present levels of inflation, and that adjustments should not involve compulsory redundancies reduce safety levels

The government, representing society, should be involved so that a suitable compromise is reached.

Instead of acting constructively in this way, one suspects that Prime Minister Johnson is delighted  to have a "national emergency" which takes attention away from Partygate and the shambolic performance  of his government, and the official opposition is terrified of any move which might enable the right wing press to identify it as on the side of the workers.

Both our political and economic structures need urgent reform.  Instead we are still trapped in the confrontational grooves which existed fifty years ago.  We have learned nothing and, sadly, there is little sign that serious ideas about reform are anywhere near the surface of current political discussion.

Monday, 13 June 2022

UK/EU:60 years of standing still

 I am somewhat belatedly* reading Volume 2 of David Kynaston's  "Modernity Britain" which covers the years 1959 to 62.  Regarding attitudes to the then EEC, on page 252 he quotes the Liberal luminary, Lady Violet Bonham Carter (Asquith's daughter, no less) in  a letter to her son (presumably Mark.), as follows:

"Both the major parties are split down the middle. . . Many Tories still don't realise that we have already lost "national sovereignty" - through NATO, UN,Gatt, IMF, etc.etc. . .The Labour party are Jingo Little Englanders, economic nationalists & xenophobes who dread the "foreigner". . ."

As in so much the Liberal Party was (and the Liberal Democrats now are) well ahead of the game.  

To be fair most of the Conservative Party moved on and it was Macmillan's government that tried and Heath's that eventually succeeded in joining the the EU, and eventually most of the Labour party came to accept membership, some with enthusiasm after their eyes were opened by Jacques Delors.

Unfortunately the anti-EU fantasists, whom David Cameron dubbed "the Bastards," have now taken control of the Tory Party and manipulate their former vote winner, PM Johnson, like a puppet on a string. The Labour Party lurk in the shadows for fear upsetting their former supporters in the "red wall" areas, whom they suspect of fitting Lady Vi's description.

Both major parties share the blame for the debacle of the Brexit vote.  Neither has espoused full-throated enthusiasm for the European ideal, both have been quick to blame any measure which seemed to be unpopular on "Brussels" even though for most of the period of our membership unanimity was required, so their governments must have agreed to them.

Public opinion has been so poisoned by the press that no political leader now has the confidence to lead the obviously urgently required fight to rejoin, even though the damage to our economy and international influence which result from our far from splendid isolation become daily more evident.

Surely this is a "call to arms" for the Liberal Democrats.  Political parties should be prepared to lead public opinion,  not cravenly follow grudging prejudices, or simply hide in the shadows until the "sunlit uplands" re-emerge by some mysterious process of their own.


* I read "Modernity Britain,"  which covered the years 1957-59,when it was first published in 2013, and assumed that was it. I've only just realised that a second volume had appeared a year later. Given that I was in my early 20s in that period Kynaston's meticulous research awakens many happy memories, and a few painful ones.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

The NIP: how it came to be.

 I am indebted to my friend and fellow Liberal, John Cole of Bradford, for this succinct analysis of how the UK government, apparently in good faith, signed the International Treaty containing the Northern Ireland Protocol.

1. In 2017 Mr Johnson, then a member of Theresa May's government, spoke vehemently against any customs sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

2. In an effort to avoid a sea border Mrs May negotiated a complex “Northern Ireland Backstop”. The Backstop became almost universally hated on the Conservative benches and in consequence:

3..When he became prime minister Johnson re-negotiated with the EU to get rid of the Backstop, but only by replacing it with a customs sea border between Great Britain and Ireland. (see 1 above)

4. The Northern Ireland Protocol (including sea border) was part of the agreement reached with the EU and signed off by both parties.

5. Johnson presented this “oven ready” agreement to the Commons where the Conservatives voted for it - and them went out to win the 2019 general election off the back of it - having “got Brexit done”.

6. Today Unionists in Northern Ireland plus our Conservative government rail against the Protocol and insist that the EU must now sit down and either amend it or scrap it.

7 . I [John Cole] acknowledge that the NIP is causing considerable damage to trade and making life difficult for exporters. But this was known in early 2016 when Sir John Major and Tony Blair jointly issued warnings.

8. These sage warnings were dismissed by Brexiters as part of “Project Fear”. Now their arrogance, wrong-headedness and unwillingness to engage with reality is reaping its comeuppance.

 So there we are: no ifs, no buts, no arguments about the EU being "inflexible" or "over-implementing."  They were told, they knew,  they signed it -  there is no point in their trying to blame someone else.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Security and the Queen's Speech

We British people, along with  those in  most  countries, face three serious threats to our security.  Two are immediate: the possible escalation of the Russia/Ukraine war into a Europe-wide and potentially nuclear conflagration, and a "cost of living" crisis.  The third,  global heating, is more long term but requires immediate action.

The Prime Minister likes to pretend that he is playing a leading role in averting war and is today visiting both Finland and Sweden, presumably to acquaint them of the joys of being members of NATO.  In fact his interventions, along with the bellicose utterances of our Foreign Secretary, are more likely to inflame matters further than lead towards compromises which will at least stop the killing.

 Fortunately, in this context,  Britain's international standing is now so diminished that I doubt if what either of them says or does is likely to make much difference.

There is, however,  a great deal the government can do to help the most vulnerable to avoid the worst effects of the cost of living crisis arising from the explosion in energy prices and the prediction that inflation could reach 10%.  The effects of these are serious and immediate.  Already three quarters of a million of our fellow citizens are experiencing destitution (insufficient means to secure adequate food, warmth and shelter) and a further quarter of a million are expected to join them as the year progresses if there is no meaningful intervention. Their social security is at risk, which is totally unnecessary and complexly avoidable in a country as rich and highly developed as the UK.

In the government's programme announced yesterday (and rather grandly called the Queen's Speech)  the government claims that there are no short term fixes and that the problem must be dealt with by long term growth.  This is half true.  

There is  considerable need (and has been for decades) for us to improve our productivity in order for us to be competitive with other economies.  But we need to define "growth " more carefully.  That which uses non-renewable resources or further pollutes the planet is not the answer (but likely to be on the cards).  Only sustainable growth, if it can be achieved other than by the exploitation of other people's resources, is the long term acceptable solution.

Sustainable or otherwise , the million destitute people need help now, not is in some distant fairyland future.

Here's how that  could be given :

1.  State subsides to all low-to-medium-income households so that they can afford their fuel bills and keep warm.

2.  Increase all social security benefits by at least the anticipated rate of inflation and preferably more.  Re-introducing the £20 per week Universal Credit boost would be a start and could be done immediately)

3.  Abandon the proposed and deflationary increase in national Insurance contributions.

4.  Join Europe''s  Customs Union and Single Market. This would not be a betrayal of the Brexit vote. The Leave Campaign  frequently implied that we should remain in both. Such an act would have the added bonus of solving the Northern Ireland Protocol problem "at a stroke."   If formally rejoining is too much to swallow, then we we could "re-align" to them (which seems to be Jacob Rees Mogg's practice anyway). What we need in the famous Keynesian  "long run" and before we're all dead (which for the destitute million may not be al that long) is an export-led boom, and hampering out exporters by splendid isolation is not the best way of achieving one.

The first three of these proposals will cost a considerable amount of money, and the government will argue that the "public finances" cannot afford it.

That is nonsense.

In spite of the incompetence and missed opportunities of the last half century we are still a very rich country.  If our national income were shared equally between every child, woman and man living in the country, that would produce an  income of over £30 000 per year each. Or £120 000 for every family for four.

Untold affluence.

I'm not suggesting it should be so divided, just using that as an illustration of how rich we are.

So there is plenty of scope for additional taxation (perhaps just to come up to the OECD average).

The aim should be cut the taxes on those things that will lead to deflation  (income of the lower paid, taxes on employment such as NICs, and  expenditure taxes ),  and tax the many things that make least impact on current incomes and expenditure (known in the jargon as the "circular flow")

There's plenty to choose from:

  • a windfall tax on excess profits (especially of the energy companies)
  • a wealth tax: say 1% of all wealth over half a million
  • a land tax
  • an effective inheritance tax
  • a financial transactions tax
  • effective capital gains taxes
  • carbon taxes
  • pollution taxes.
Don't panic: I'm not suggestion we tax all of them - just illustrating the variety available if we had a political party courageous enough to grasp the many golden nettles.


Saturday, 30 April 2022

The "Big Calls" right? Score 1 out of 10 (or 1+ if we are generous).

"Partygate" has gone off the boil in the last few days, replaced in the media by indignation (and salacious fascination) at the misbehavours of several MPs.  However, until this diversion (another "dead cat?") came to their rescue assorted ministers were trundling round the studios  cravenly explaining  that, compared with the "Big Calls" which their super-leader Johnson had "got right," a few parties were  a relatively trivial affair that shouldn't worry us too much.

Here's an examination of the"big calls."

 1.  PPE equipment.  It has been a constant theme by government apologists throughout the pandemic that this is an unprecedented situation which couldn't possibly have been predicted.  In fact it was most definitely both precedented and predicted.  In her vivid account of her career in post-disaster management, When the Dust Settles published earlier this year, Lucy Easthope claims that a pandemic has been top of the list of probable disasters in the UK for years.  More particularly Exercise Cygnus of 2016 examined how to deal with a pandemic, and made detailed recommendation to "be prepared."  Most were ignored, in particular the requirement to keep adequate stocks of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) . These were allowed to run down and NHS staff were consequently required to put their own health and even lives in danger without adequate protection.

2.  PPE Procurement.   Last minute efforts to secure PPE ignored routine procedures and were directed to private companies which  often had no experience of manufacturing or providing such equipment.  Personal connections with Tory MPs and party members secured access to a VIP line and billions of £s of public money were wasted. (A billion is an awful lot)*

3.   Insouciant beginning.  The government failed for too long to take the pandemic with the seriousness it deserved. Prime Minister  Johnson led the field in this.  He attended a crowded rugby match with his then girlfriend and  openly boasted of continuing to shake hands with hospital staff when such physical contact was discouraged. The "Glorious Goodwood " race meeting was allowed to go ahead. This attempt to shrug off the pandemic with casual lack of concern set totally the wrong tone for dealing with it.

4.  Discharge of elderly patients from hospitals to care homes. With typical boastfulness the govenmt claimed that care homes were "ring fenced" against infection.  This has turned out to be completely untrue and the High Court has now decreed the procedure that was followed to have been "unlawful."  The Health Minster at the time, Matt Hancock, has already been forced to resign  for cuddling one of his assistants when the rest of us were officially limited to elbow bumps for physical intimacy.  Maybe he'll now be prosecuted.

 5.  The Test and Trace System.  This was announced, again boastfully, as being "World Beating" and was to involve an (as yet not invented) App. It was farmed out to the private sector, was an abject failure and cost an astonishing £37bn.  Hired operatives spent days sitting by their computers doing nothing.  The existing expertise of the Local Government Public Health Authorities and the NHS's Sexually Transmitted Disease Clinics (surely the most experienced people in the country at tracing contacts in delicate situations) were ignored.

 I find the cost difficult to credit. ( Again, a billion is an awful lot). For comparison, a few days ago, say after five weeks of war, the total cost of repairing the damage to  Ukraine's buildings and infrastructure was estimated as being in the region of £47bn. .  What on earth did we spend £37bn on?

6.The Bounce Back Loan Scheme (BBLS).   This was a scheme to enable established businesses forced to close or reduce their activities during the pandemic to enable them to "bounce back" once the emergency was over.  A total of £47bn was distributed, much of it  apparently without adequate checks.  Some applicants were not even trading before the pandemic started, some never did, and there were multiple  applications  from the same addresses.  A total of £4.96bn has now been written off as "fraud" and a further £5.7bn lost as the loans were given to firms that collapsed anyway.  (To repeat, again, a billion is an awful lot.)

 7.  The Furlough Scheme.  This was not a complete failure, but far from the brilliant initiative it is claimed to have been.  The German and French schemes were arguably more generous, more flexible and lasted longer.  A further £5.7bn was lost through fraud in the UK scheme. (I have seen not figures for the German and French schemes, but I'm sure there would have been fraud there too.)

8.  Delays.  There were countless  delays in imposting lockdowns: at the beginning, for a "half term fire-break," before Christmas with only two days notice, to name but some.  The government can also be accused of lifting restrictions prematurely and recklessly.

9.  Control of our borders.Our "success" in terms of deaths per million population, compared with similar larger and more developed European countries is measured as follows.(as at 24th April 2022)

 Italy:          2 748

UK:             2 558

France:       2 362

Spain:         2 203 

Germany:   1 617 

Nothing much to shout about there.  In fact, given that we are an island, and with the much-lauded "control of our borders" which the Brexit victory allegedly achieved, we should expect a much lower rate of fatalities than our neighbours with land borders, some of them very lengthy.

10. The Vaccine Distribution. This is the great and uncontested feather in the government's cap.  We were, indeed, the first country to start distributing a viable vaccine. (I dislike the term "roll-out" - meant to sound modern and "sexy" but seems to me more properly to be something you do with barrels, and then "have a barrel of fun.") Other countries have now caught up and some have now achieved greater coverage.  it's also worth noting that we weren't the first to create and manufacture a viable vaccine: that was Germany (and by two descendents of  the much-scorned Turkish guest-workers to boot).  

 It's also questionable how much the vaccine success was due to the government and how much to brilliant scientists at Oxford University and the Anglo Swedish ( think - their websites seem reluctant to say where they are based - or maybe it's my poor research skills) AstraZeneca  Company.  It is also notable that the distribution was organised, not by the private sector,  as with the Test and Trace Scheme,  but by the NHS.

The frequently repeated government claim that we were  able to be quick off the mark with the vaccine becasue of Brexit is completely false.  There is nothing in EU rules or regulations which would have prevented our  doing exactly what we did if we had remained in the EU.

So, Prime Minister Johnson's total mark for the "big calls" is one out of ten, or one and a half if we give him the benefit of some doubt on the operation of the furlough scheme.

* PS Just to drive the point home, it takes over 31.5 YEARS for a billion seconds to pass.  A million seconds pass in just over eleven and a half days.  So the cost of £333.000 worth of weaponry which Mr Johnson is offering the Ukrainians today (3rd May, in a Churchill tribute act presumably timed to influence Thursday's  local elections,) is financial peanuts compared with the wastage and losses detailed above.