Monday 31 January 2011

The Lords and the Referednum Bill

Today is said to be "crunch time" in the House of Lords, with an attempt to put an end to Labour's efforts to scupper the referendum bill by filibustering. As I understand it Labour's publicised objection to the bill is not so much to electoral reform as to the reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies for the Commons (although I suspect this may just be a convenient cover from their unreconstructed die hards.)

However, if their publicised objection is genuine I have some sympathy for them. The case for electoral reform, even the feeble AV version, is overwhelming, whereas the case for a reduction in the number of constituencies is much more debatable. I think Liberal Democrats proposed this as a rather childish and ill thought out knee-jerk reaction to the expenses scandal, and am sure that the Tory motive is to "adjust" (I avoid the term "gerrymander") the boundaries to make life harder for Labour.

When I first started serious study of British politics in the 1950s there was a pronounced bias in the electoral system toward the Conservatives, as Labour piled up huge majorities in densely populated urban areas, and the Tories smaller ones in more thinly populated rural constituencies, but that didn't seem to worry them and they never did anything about it. The size of constituencies has to be a compromise between population size and geographic size, and would probably be easier if we had multi-member constituencies. Certainly one of the less well appreciated advantages of STV is that changes in boundaries would need to be less frequent, as interim adjustments can be made by simply adding or taking away a representative.

An argument in favour of reducing the number of constituencies is that modern communications make it easier for MPs to keep in contact with a more widely spread electorate than in the days when they reached outlaying areas on horseback. Against is the fact that there are now such a large number of MPs on the government payroll that we are rather short of numbers in carrying out the vital task of holding the government to account.

So there are really two issues in the bill, one very much more arguable than the other. There is no really hurry about changing the number of constituencies, so from the electoral reformers' point of view the best outcome in the Hose of Lords today would be for the coalition to give in on the marrying of the two issues and allow separate separate bills. That would remove Labour's excuse for opposing the referendum, the support of which was, of course, one of their manifesto promises. Fingers crossed.

Saturday 29 January 2011


Secondary education in my area (Kirklees Metropolitan District) is now national news and featured on the BBC's "World at One" yesterday. Two groups want to set up "free" schools: the ruling group on the council pointed out that, if they are approved, then there will be 1000 surplus secondary places, which , in a time of cuts, is obviously idiotic. Michael Gove's contrition was to claim that there are always "vested interests, opposed to innovation."

The proposals for "free" schools come from a group of parents living in a mainly white area of an essential multicultural district, and a former grammar school which refused to take part in comprehensive re-organisation way back in the 60s and 70s, went private and, since the withdrawal of assisted places has found itself not viable and so wants to return to the state system (I had understood as an "academy" rather than a "free" school, but I may be wrong, and am not sure of the difference anyway.)

So, according to Gove, these two groups are "innovators" and our democratically elected (and pretty representative, it is a fairly evenly balanced three way split) council are a vested interest.

Newspeak indeed.

(As far as I know the above comment is accurate and unbiased, but in the interests of full and fair disclosure, I record that I was a pupil at the above-mentioned grammar school and spent some of my most enjoyable and fulfilling years as a teacher there.)

Friday 28 January 2011

Greens and Liberal Democrats

This post is in response to Andrew Cooper's "comment" on an earlier post , "Welcome to Ed Balls" (scroll down three.) Andrew suggests that disillusioned Liberal Democrats should join the Greens and then adds "just kidding." But it is not a joke: the Greens really are the only sensible alternative should Liberal Democrats decide to leave. Only those afflicted by what Andrew calls "elector amnesia" could possibly drift over to Labour, the party which, for 13 years, did so little to reform the constitution, broke its promise to introduce electoral reform, did so much to erode our civil liberties, were complacent about people becoming "filthy rich" and under whom inequality widened,destroyed our international reputation by taking us into an illegal war - and all this with a thumping majority and no need for compromises with another party.

Ed Milliband tries to suggest that we forget all about this, that it was nothing to do with the present management,and that future Labour will be different. It took the Tories 13 years and three election defeats before they managed to throw off their Thatcherite image, but underneath, in spite of David Cameron's sweet talk, they remain fundamentally the same. I wish Ed Milliband luck, but Labour, with its tribal "big beasts" will be equally resilient to change.

However, I shall not join the Greens. I have a great admiration for them,admire the leader, Caroline Lucas,and in particular their policy for a citizens' income. I think the Greens were right to form a separate party (as part of a wider European movement) and bring the state of the environment to the forefront in political discussion, if not, as yet, much action. They were and are right to criicise the Liberal Democrats for being still too reliant on economic growth rather than redistribution to tackle social evils. However, they are, electorally, now where the Liberals were when I joined half a century ago, and I like to think that I, and other "social liberals" are serious about government and not just purists permanently criticising form the sidelines.

My hope is that within not too many years the Greens and Liberal Democrats will merge. Liberal Democrats are, after all, acknowledged as the greenest of the three large parties, and a combined party will have the strength and enthusiasm to reform the political process, take the protection of the environment seriously, and wean the political debate away from its obsession with materialism and growth and towards a shared improvement in the quality of life.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Premature Conclusions

Those of us whose memories of economic and political data go back to 1970 and the freak Balance of Trade figures* which helped to scupper Labour's chances of getting elected for the third consecutive time know that it is unwise to jump to conclusions on data relating to to one period. Nevertheless Tuesday's figures showing that the economy has shrunk by 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010 is cause for concern. Another quarter of "shrink" (why do we call it "negative growth"?) and we are once again technically in recession - the "double dip" that the government has so confidently proclaimed their wisdom has avoided.

It is par for the course to hear George Osborne blustering about the effects of the snow and the possibility of an error - he is, after all, from the partly that so publicly declared in the 80s that the high level of unemployment we "worth it." But it is painful to hear Vince Cable so loyally (loyal to whom, to what?)protesting that the correction of the deficit must be the governments "first priority." It's as though the 1930s had never happened and that Keynes had never written. And Cable is from the party that is supposed to care.

Some commentators write that Cable is the the cabinet members most worried about the damaging effects of the economic policy. Let's hope so, that his loyal defence is just a public front, and that he is working hard at a plan B.

* If I remember correctly, the figures, announced just before polling day, showed a trade deficit of about £66million - peanuts by today's standards, even if adjusted for inflation. The figures were later revised (not a trick but a necessary adjustment as data is often incomplete and some comes in later)to show a surplus, but by then it was too late: the election had taken place, Wilson was out and the Tories under Heath in. That was also the election when the opinion polls first demonstrated their fallibility.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Two Easy Choices

Two of the friends I made during my "year abroad" as part of my recent French course were fellow singers in the little church choir I joined in order to try and improve my French. (It was not as helpful as I'd hoped, as the choir specialised in Bach chorales and, being purists, sang them in German.) Annie and Guy lived near me so would give me a lift home in their car after choir practice. They were both enthusiastic Anglophiles (though they spoke no English,which was good for me) and, I think to flatter me, told me proudly how they had listened to the BBC during the war in order to find out the truth as to what was happening. They did not strike me as a particularly brave or noble couple, but had evidently been prepared to risk death or deportation in order to obtain a service our government is now about to emasculate.

The BBC World Service, the successor to the European service to which Annie and Guy listened, is not perfect, as an article an article in today's Guardian by Mark Damazer admits, but its reputation for impartiality and truth remains second to none. "Voice of America" would give their ears for a similar reputation. Our politicians frequently huff and puff about this that or the other British insinuation being "the best in the world and the envy of the world" when it patently is not (eg our justice system). The one that does fulfill this accolade they set out to curtail if not destroy.

So there's one easy choice: instead of cutting funds to the World Service double them. The effect of the public finances will be negligible and the contribution to our national prestige incalculable.

And as a post script, the Oscar-nominated and much applauded film "The King's Speech" was funded by the UK Film council, one of the quangos the coalition proposes to abolish. So another easy decision is to reprieve it. Again a minuscule cost and, if the artistic advantages don't appeal to the government, apparently in this film the UKFC has spawned a "nice title earner." Why kill off geese that lay golden eggs just because they don't fit in with the monetarist dogma of "private sector good, public sector bad?"

Friday 21 January 2011

Welcom to Ed Balls

During the campaign for the Labour Party leadership Ed Balls contributed an article to the Guardian which aptly summed up the Keynesian position on the economy. He appears to be one of the few politicians in the country willing to spell out the truth about the economic situation, viz:

the public finances are not in crisis. The current deficit is large but not unprecedented

the deficit is largely the result of a fall in tax revenues rather than Labour profligacy

we are not in danger of an attack from the "markets." Our situation is very different form that of Greece et al

our major problem is of unemployment (especially youth unemployment) rather than the deficit

therefore the most urgent problem is to stimulate employment by tax cuts and pump-priming public expenditure. With interest rates at an all time low this is an ideal time to implement this policy

when recovery has been assured measures can be taken to reduce the deficit (which will largely reduce itself as the tax take increases. An article by an economist of the University of Shanghai, John Ross, published in the Guardian of 11th January, claimed that this was already happening when Labour left office.)

So let's hope, for the sake of those who will suffer from the cut-backs in the welfare state and the unnecessary "austerity," that Ed Balls puts the coalition's economics team on the spot and makes it harder for them to pursue the present ideologically driven and mistaken policies.

Another advantage of Ed Ball's return to the forefront of the political fray is that his abrasive , indeed tribal, approach is likely to make Labour less popular, and fuel press speculation about damaging rivalry with Ed Milliband for the Labour leadership. I admit these are ignoble thoughts for one dedicated to a purer form of politics, but this spin-off is not to be ignored.

Monday 17 January 2011

Keynes and the Coalition

Keynes and the coalition's economic policies are in the news at the moment but unfortunately I am too busy (marking exam scripts under a tight schedule) to comment.

However, for those who'd like to follow the argument at a higher level, Vince Cable has an article in last week's New Statesman arguing that Keynes would have approved the coalition's policies. Unfortunately you can't download this article, but have to pay £3.50 for the issue, which is a lot more than I used to pay as a regular reader in the 1960s, and the This England column seems to have disappeared.

Larry Elliot has a response in today's Guardian which says there is some truth in what Cable says, but not much. The big guns, Stiglitz and David Blanchflower, will comment in next week's NS (another £3.50)

Happy reading.

PS. (21st January 2011. The cable article is now downloadable for free by clicking or here

Friday 14 January 2011

Oldham and Saddleworth

Liberal Democrats in government are clearly getting may things right (on constitutional reform, civil liberties etc) and we shouldn't forget that, but I hope our drubbing in Oldham and Saddleworth will convince our leadership that we are getting things profoundly wrong on two counts.

First and most importantly, the coalition's economic policy is wrong. It is wrong to over-egg the allegedly parlous state of the public finances, blame this on the "mess" left by Labour, and use it as an excuse for cuts in the public services which are clearly ideologically driven by the Tories, along with a rise in the most regressive of taxes. Public service pump-priming should be the order of the day until recovery is assured and the private sector responds sufficiently so that, between them, public and private sectors can provide jobs for all who want them.

Secondly, Liberal Democrats in the coalition and parliament should not be seen to be defending.even embracing, those aspects of Tory policy with which we profoundly disagree. It has been stomach-churning to see Nick Clegg patting George Osborne on the back for a profoundly illiberal budget, Danny Alexander seeming to impose cuts with more relish than even the Tories, and Vince Cable reduced to impotence in a department which, during the election, he said he'd abolish.

There are hints that Nick Clegg now realises this, and it is said that , rather than insisting the Liberal Democrats "own" all aspects of coalition policy, he will in future be more "relaxed" about acknowledging disagreements. In "22 Days in May" David Laws makes a great deal of the negative body language of the Labour team in their coalition negotiations. We should take a leaf out of this book. Whatever the practical demands of governing by coalition, stony-faced silence with eyes firmly fixed on the middle distance rather than back-slapping should in future be our response to policies contrary to our heritage, traditions and beliefs.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

More Spinning (with accurate chapter and verse this time.)

On page 270 of "22 Days in May" David Laws attributes the success of the coalition negotiations with the Conservatives rather than Labour to: "...a growing emphasis on the (Liberal Democrat) party's liberal roots, not least on economic policy, (which) was expressed in the influential Orange Book...( which he) edited....Although the Orange Book provoked a strong backlash from small c 'conservative' Lib Dem activists , it helped to shift the centre of gravity in the party..."

Nice one, David. So Tony Greaves, Michael Meadowcroft, the late Maggie Clay and thousands of others who have toiled for years, many originally inspired by the great Jo Grimond, are all conservatives now, whilst you have the true inheritance.

Laws makes no bones about it.On page 271 he writes: "Out went higher taxes and in came tax cuts for those on low incomes. Out went a commitment to a higher top rate tax of 50%, in came a closing of unfair tax reliefs. Out went 'tax and spend' and in came 'save to invest.'...Out went a defence of all state run services and in came privatisation in areas such as the Royal Mail. Out went opposition to all provider reform in the NHS and education , and in came policies such as support for sponsor managed schools."

The inference that traditional Liberals uncritically defended "all state run services" is a re-writing of history that would do credit to the Kremlin. I shudder to think of the hours Liberals and Liberal Democrats higher up the hierarchy than I have spent in devising policies to reform, decentralise and democratise our public services.

It is unfortunate that, just as the party has achieved a small share in national power, this right wing economic tendency is in the ascendancy. Of course, Orange Bookers (who include Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne, Ed Davey and Steve Webb) could claim that our share in power is a result of this shift to the right. Others (now dubbed small c 'conservative' Lib Dems,) might argue that our current achievement is the result of Liberals' and Liberal Democrats' tenacity over half a century, the failure of the Labour party to make meaningful social, constitutional and economic reforms in spite of 13 years with massive majorities, and distrust of the Tory alternative.

As the economic crash post 2007 has so brutally exposed the inadequacy of deregulated and market orientated economics, it is time for we heirs of the party of Keynes and Beveridge to "fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love."

So to inspire us with the right spirit, here's some words of Lloyd George, quoted in today's Guardian as a contrast to Nick Clegg's somewhat timid request that the banks be "sensitive" in paying out their bonuses:

"No country however rich can permanently afford to have quartered upon its revenue a class which declines to do the duty which it was called upon to perform...I say their day of reckoning is at hand."

Up and at-em, says I

Monday 10 January 2011

Spinning out of control

Under a headline "Polls predict big Labour win in Oldham election" today's Guardian reports that "(a)n ICM poll in the Mail on Sunday put Labour on 44%, Lib Dems on 27% and Conservatives on 18%"

However an Email from Liberal Democrat party president Tim Farron cites the very same poll as predicting a narrow Liberal Democrat lead!

Mr Farron quotes the raw data on which the poll is based as follows:

The raw, unweighted responses were as follows for the 549 calls
Unweighted response
Refused to state intention 256 46.6%
Elwyn Watkins 89 16.2%
Debbie Abrahams 85 15.5%
Undecided 68 12.4%
Kashif Ali 27 4.9%
Another Party 24 4.4%

549 100%

The Mail on Sunday must have done same pretty imaginative "seasonal adjustment" to convert that into a Labour lead of 17 percentage points.

One of the most significant criticisms of the press in Nick Davies's "Flat Earth News" is that the media magnates have so pared down their reporting staffs that there is little time for anyone to check stories. It looks as though the Guardian is not exempt.

One must also question the reliability of conclusions based on such a tiny survey in which over half either refused to answer or hadn't yet decided.

I'm aware of the practical difficulties, but it seems to me that a ban on opinion polls during elections, and particularly by-elections (and also those dubious graphics in Liberal Democrat literature purporting to show that only we can win) would go some way to curb the herd instinct and improve the quality of our democracy.

Sunday 9 January 2011

Loose Talk

In his younger days Jack Straw was president of the students' union at Leeds University, but his name has now been chiseled out of the "honours" board which lists those who have held that post.

Whatever Mr Straw's finer qualities, tact and diplomacy are not among them. Some years ago his complaints about Muslim women wearing the niqab or full veil provoked quite unnecessary controversy, and now his linking of the grooming of of teenage girls for sexual abuse particularly to Muslim youths of Asian origin offers an open goal to the BNP and their ilk.

Several well-informed commentators, including Martin Narey, Director of Barnardo's, claim that the problem is a general one and any racial or ethnic link is highly unlikely. Given that Jack Straw is a former Home Secretary, we need to ask why he is not better informed and why, if he thinks there is a racial or ethnic link, he didn't have it investigated when he had the power to do so.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Post Ofice Privatisation

I seemed to receive a rather large number of Christmas cards this year featuring pillar boxes or post boxes, and assumed this was some sort of subliminal protest against their privatisation. However, in the end the robins outnumbered the post and pillar boxes by eight to five.

I expect I am not alone in thinking that the Post Office and the Royal Mail are one and the same organisation, but apparently they are separate. The Post Office is to be "mutualised" and it is the Royal Mail which is to be pivatised. As far as I know our local Post Office belongs to our postmaster who has some sort of licence to run it (as does Susan in The Archers) so presumably it is the big post offices in the cities, the Crown Post Offices, that are to be mutulaised. I'm not clear what that involves but it sounds reasonably in tune with Liberal thinking.

The privatisation of the Royal Mail includes a gesture towards Liberal thinking, in that ten per cent of the shares are to be allocated to the staff. However, this is only a pale imitation of the wonderful schemes the Liberal Party dreamed up in the 1960s with the aim of substituting co-operation for the capital/labour confrontation which did so much harm to British industry. I can't now remember the exact details but the general idea was that the boards of all firms over a certain size should comprise one third representatives of the shareholders, one third the employees and one third the community. Hence no one group would be able to force a decision without the support of at least some of the others. This would, of course, apply to the size and distribution of the profits, of which the employees could, if they wished, have a share.

Ten per cent share ownership is a rather tame step in this direction but, now that Liberal Democrats are in government it is surely time to revive interest in the revision of company law, which at present requires that companies act solely in the interests of their shareholders. Shareholders may invest only a few pounds in a company: employees often invest their lives.