Friday 28 December 2012

Europe: committed paticipant yes, but why leader?

In an interview in yesterday's Guardian on Britain's role in the EU Nick Clegg is reported to use the word "leadership" eight times, along with "leading," "leading role",  "major player," " major role," and "dominant role" once each.

I applaud Nick's  political courage and dedication to our Liberal principles in taking a positive stance so clearly on a subject which is not currently popular with the electorate, but why this obsession with leadership? Nick Clegg is a relatively young man and was presumably not, like me and those of my era, brought up to admire a map the land surface of which was one third red, and infused with the derring-do empire building spirit of the novels of Percy F Westerman and W E Johns (or maybe Westminster School is more old fashioned than I'd thought.)

As both  a former employee of the Commission and  member of the European Parliament Clegg must  be aware of  the effect such arrogance will have on the other members.  Surely they must be irritated by the concept that a condescending Britain will, when it gets round to it, be graciously pleased, by virtue of our superior instincts and political skills,  to lead them into paths of greater economic prosperity and political cohesion.

What they want, and what pro-Europeans in the UK want,  is a Britain  which is committed to he European ideal and prepared to work constructively and the other members to a achieve it, rather than sniping from the sidelines and appearing to take pleasure at every setback.

Monday 24 December 2012

Tax cuts for the comfortable.

Paddy Ashdown has nobly  accepted the poisoned chalice of  leading the Liberal Democrat campaign at the next election, and as a start has Emailed leading activists  with the information that " the tax cuts we have delivered in government" will be a prominent feature.

I am not included in this mailing, but my friend John Cole, described scornfuly as a "member of the Liberal elite" by his right wing Tory MP, and as a "throughly good egg" by an anonymous reader of this blog (John would love to know who) is, and respnded as follows.

Dear Paddy

I write as a paid-up Liberal Democrat who joined the Young Liberals in 1960.

I note in the 7th paragraph of your recent missive to local parties a phrase which caused me to puzzle.   It would seem a main plank of our platform is to proclaim " the tax cut we have delivered in government". 

My question to you is:  did we set out to be a tax-cutting party?  If I were to compile a short list of what I consider quintessential Liberal values I do not think that tax-cutting would be one of them.

I can give two cheers for one tax cut (that which raises the threshold at the bottom end).  I can give two cheers only because that does nothing to help those who are not in work. or whose earnings from part-time or low paid work are already so low that they do not pay tax.

Zero cheers for the tax cut at the higher rate from 50p to 45p.

How do I distinguish between the average Tory leaflet for the last umpteen decades, calling for tax cuts and the phrase in your letter?   It is the sort of phrase which sits us comfortably in the Conservative camp.

So depressing!

I want to hear more from you about social justice, the defence of civil liberties, a positive role within the EU (you were superb on this at the Birmingham Conference, September 2011 - I was in the room) and a responsible capitalism.  These are the themes which will get me off my backside and onto the doorstep.  Not the aping of Tory tax-cutting rhetoric.

Good luck in your endeavours.

Happy Christmas

John Cole

To John's surprise, and Paddy's credit, he received the following prompt reply.


Thank you for this. 

I do NOT think tax cuts are our main platform - very far from it. As Liberals we are about empowering people and as you will see when Nick announces over the New Year our core message that empowering/enabling people is central to what we are about.

But cutting taxes for the poorer in Britain IS one of the main achievements of our time in Government and I think we are right to trumpet this since it is a way to express that, although we want a strong economy to get people back to work, it can only be on the basis of a fair society (again something you will see prominently on display in our core message when it is announced) cf your point about social justice - lower taxes for the poor and the rich paying more is how social justice is
 is expressed in fiscal terms by lower taxes.

I agree about the lowering the 50%  tax band but we are in coalition and this was the price we had to pay to get agreement on tax reductions at the lower end - and BTW a very difficult thing for us to fight against since in reality the 50% tax rate yielded very little to the exchequer because it was so widely avoided. I am all in favour of higher taxes - but they need to raise money and this one did only to a very small extent. Also, please note that, despite the 50% reduction the last Budget saw the biggest shift of taxation overall from the poor to the rich of any Budget (including Labour ones) of recent years - thanks to us.

Thanks for writing. Be confident that I share exactly your priorities and hope that we will be able to make them centre stage in the General Election for which, from the New Year, we will have to start to prepare in earnest.

Have a great Christmas and thanks for your support for the Party.

Paddy .

I wonder that "BTW" means.

John comments:

If, as Paddy says, tax cuts are NOT our main platform, then why should they feature so prominently in Paddy's letter?   My guess is that the answer is  drafted by Danny Alexander and speaks for Danny.  I have no evidence for this - just a hunch.

Food for thought.

A Merry Christmas to all our readers.

Friday 21 December 2012

Nick Clegg - two steps back.

As I mention in the previous post, I am to play Cardinal Wolsey in an amateur performance of Bolt's "A Man for all Seasons" next month. Another of the things I say to Sir Thomas More (if I can remember - learning lines is no longer the cake-walk that it was)  is: "You are a constant regret to me. Thomas."

It would be unfair of me to claim that Clegg is a constant regret - in previous posts I've praised some of his initiatives, and I certainly think he receives more than his fair share of opprobrium, and bears it well -  but his speech on the fifth anniversary of his election as leader of the Liberal Democrats shows a disturbing lack of understanding of the nature of Liberal Democracy and life in the less fortunate layers of British society.

If his speech is correctly reported he states:  " The centre ground is our home."    Ouch! Has he never read any of our literature, any of the many publications, pamphlets, articles in our party newspaper?  One Liberal Democrat activist/philosopher after another- Tony Greaves and Michael Meadowcroft to name but two - have hammered away ad nausium that to be a "centre party" is to allow the other parties to define your position.

We are not a centre party, we are a Liberal Democrat party.  We have our own philosophy and policies independent of what positions other parties take.  Our guiding light is to create and preserve the maximum amount of liberty for each individual commensurate  with the liberty of others.  We believe in a society in which income and wealth are equitably distributed, in an adequate safety-net for those who cannot cope without help, in state intervention where necessary to maintain a balanced economy with full employment, constitutional reform and devolution to create a participatory democracy rather than one that can be bought, democratic participation in industry and commerce, and the preservation of civil liberties and the rule of law both nationally and internationally.

So Nick, please take that as your guiding light and yell it to the rooftops.  Never mind the "centre ground" and what the others do.  That's why thousands of activists over the decades have tramped the street and knocked on doors, served on councils and as lonely back-benchers, to put you where you are.

Equally alarmingly , for the leader of the party which is heir to Beveridge, Clegg defends the benefits squeeze and "tough sanctions to get (some people) active."  Well yes, I'm sure there are some, but I'm pretty certain that the overwhelming majority of the 6 000 who have just lost their jobs at Comet will be desperately looking for more work rather than rejoicing at the opportunity to live in idleness on the £71 a week job seekers' allowance.  Is he not aware of the estimated 32 people who die each week after having been certified fit for work by ATOS?   Clegg apparently justifies his stance on the grounds that ". . . .two thirds of people think the benefits system is too generous."  This from a member of a government that has just agreed to a salary of over half a million pounds a year, plus a housing allowance of over £4 000 a week, for the new Governor of the Bank of England.  You couldn't make it up.

Nick, we should not let the tail wag the dog.  With very very few exceptions people do not chose to be unemployed, and I doubt if anybody at all chooses to be disabled.  A rich society such as ours has the means to look after them and should do so. We must not let the Daily Mail and the Sun set the agenda.  If people are misinformed about the benefits system it is our job, your job, to inform them correctly. 

Thursday 20 December 2012

Comet - a sign for our times

The collapse of the electrical retail chain Comet seems, on the face of it, to be yet another example of the capitalist system having evolved to a state in which  profits are privatised and, despite the Thatcherite philosophy of their being no such thing, "society" usefully emerges to bear any losses. 

As I understand it, a loss-making Comet was handed over by its conglomerate owners to a private-equity group allegedly skilled in rescuing  failing businesses, To help in the turn-round they were given a dowry of £50 million.  In less than a year the rescue has failed, nearly 7 000 people have lost their jobs, £26million in unpaid VAT and payroll taxes is owed to the government , and, just to rub salt in the wound, the government, that is, we the taxpayers, must foot the bill for £23 million of redundancy payments.

So what happened to the £50 million sweetener, and how is it that the private-equity group turn out to be secured creditors and are thus first in line, before even the government, to receive any funds recouped form the débâcle?

I understand that Vince Cable is to set up an enquiry, but I think we're all a it fed up of enquiries.  In January I play  Cardinal Wolsey in a local amateur production of Bolt's "A Man for all Seasons."  The plot centres around Henry VIII's need for an heir and I repeatedly ask Sir Thomas More:  "What are you going to do about it?"

 So to Liberal Democrats in government I ask, "What are you going to do about this racket  in which  the rich seem again and again to walk away with the cream and those at the bottom of the pile get hammered?" 

Monday 17 December 2012

Nick Clegg flies the Liberal Flag

In the past few weeks Nick Clegg has given us incontrovertible evidence of the value of having Liberal Democrats in government.  He has supported the Leveson recommendation of a statutory underpinning of press regulation, opposes the "snoopers charter" by which the government would require the communications industry to keep records of all our emails and internet searches and give access to them to over 300 public and semi-public bodies, called for a Royal Commission on drugs  to develop an evidence-based policy in place of the present shambles, and , we hope, is about to give unconditional opposition to the proposal for secret courts.

In all of these Clegg is in open disagreement with the prime minister and our Conservative coalition partners.  This is as it should be. Coalition does not mean, as Clegg foolishly decreed in the early stages, that we should "own" every government policy.  Where we do not agree, and agreement is unlikely in many of these civil liberties issues, we should say so, and, although, because we have only 57 MPs and the Tories have 305, our views cannot always prevail in their entirety, we should  make it clear to the public where we stand, and the stance a government with a Liberal Democrat majority would take.

Unfortunately, and in my view short-sightedly, the issues above are not the uppermost in the electorate's mind.  For the overwhelming majority "it's the economy , stupid."  A pity that  the Liberal Democrats in government do not dissociate ourselves from the failed economic policy, and the lies to justify it, with the same candour that they do on civil liberties.

 Never the less, thanks be for some mercies.

Thursday 13 December 2012

On the buses - or maybe not.

It was announced on Monday that unemployed people are going to be given free bus travel to enable them to look for jobs or finance journeys for interviews.  This is an obvious move which has been part of my "measures to improved the mobility of labour"  lessons for about 50 years.  I wonder why it took so long.

Many readers will have lost touch, through possession of a car or an elderly persons' bus pass, of how much bus fares are these days.  I conduct a few tutorials at the Business School of a local university once a week. Unfortunately these tutorials start at 9am so I have to catch the bus before the 9.30 am "watershed."  The fare to the city centre , about five miles away, is £2.80, and the fare to the outskirts where the Business School is situated, about a 7 minute journey, is an astonishing £2.  That total of £4.80 would be a large slice of the Job Seekers' Allowance of £71 (only £56.25 if you're under 25).

So thank goodness that, at last, there is something which is genuinely helpful for unemployed people, though watch out of articles in the Sun and Daily Mail about job seekers joy riding on the buses to no purpose (just as many of we pensioners do.)

However, all is not sense. It has emerged that one of the major casualties in the cuts of grants from central to local government is the subsidies to buses.  So once again the government's austerity measures impinge on the poorest in our society, those who have to rely on public transport to get them about (often to get to work in the very early hours, for example the cleaners who make the working environment  ready for the more highly paid who will arrive later.)

At the same time the government has given in to the motoring lobby and cancelled the scheduled 3p rise in fuel duty.  Surely our long-term aim should be to price gas guzzling motorists off the roads  and promote the alternative of public transport.  There is much talk  about not burdening future generations with debt.  We don't seem nearly so concerned about  bequeathing them them a clapped out infrastructure and poisoned planet.

Monday 10 December 2012

Poverty, Pareto and trapdoors

On the evening of George Osborne's Autumn Statement, in which he announced an effective cut in welfare payments, Rachael Reeves, Labour Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, roundly and rightly condemned the proposal on television's Newsnight.  Yet when asked, repeatedly, whether Labour would therefore vote against the proposals, and reverse them if they regained power, she slipped into a predicable mantra of evasions:  that was a matter for  her boss, the Shadow Chancellor; she hadn't yet seen the details in the bill; no-one could predict the circumstances of the future; etc.  Asked a similar question of Radio 4's "Any Questions" Chuka Umunna, another member of the Labour  Shadow Cabinet, launched into an identical, presumably  "on message," evasive litany.

At the other end of the political spectrum Tory Treasury Minister David Gauke, interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme, found it impossible to condemn the Starbucks coffee chain for the astonishing fact that over ten years or so they have paid hardly any profits tax in the UK.

So the poor get hammered with no champion to stick up  for them, and the rich get  velvet glove treatment

Surely the time will come, if it is not already here, when the bottom 20% of our society,  the "underclass" (I dislike the term but can't think of another), will conclude that this "democracy" does not work for "us."

It's a long time since I studied  Pareto's Theory of Elites, but I remember being taught that society is in the shape of a large triangle with an elite at the top, who form  a smaller triangle which makes the rules.  If this little triangle is separated from the rest by an impenetrable barriers, the able and ambitious people in the lower part rise to the barrier but can't get though it , and they become rebellious  unstable as their ambitions are frustrated.  Historically the UK had  a "trapdoor" through which these able people could pass into the ruling group (Wolsey was the son of a butcher, Thomas Cromwell was a blacksmith's boy), so the British system survived. The French had no such trapdoor, so they had a revolution.

Perhaps the trapdoor into the elite still exists: after all Eric Pickles sits in the Cabinet among the Old Etonians.  And it would be wrong to claim that , like Tawney's famous "tadpoles of character and capacity" (see p142, Equality, Allen and Unwin, 1931), the more enterprising of the underclass cannot escape their  situation and rise to be the equivalent of frogs. Yet if the overwhelming majority feel trapped, despised and not only excluded from what is normal in our society, but actually forced to take the punishment  for its failings, then surely instability is on its way.

In the leaders' debates before our 2010 general election Nick Clegg warned  of riots if the inequality  and unfairness in our society persisted.  The low turnout in recent elections demonstrates that confidence in the democratic system is rapidly fading.   Political leaders in every party  need to take a long hard look at the society they are helping to create before the people at the bottom take some version of "justice" into their own hands.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Pension pots and welfare payments.

Our government is to freeze increases in welfare payments to 1% per year. which is below the rate of inflation, so effectively a cut.  This will save the public purse some £3.7bn a year.  To make it fair, and so placate we Liberal Democrats, the amount that the wealthy can put  into their pension pots  free of tax is to be reduced from £50 000 a year to £45 000, thus saving the Treasury  £600m a year.

I suppose the disproportionate savings to achieve this "fairness" can be justified by the fact that there are a lot more people receiving welfare payments than there are with £50 000 left over after current expenditure to put into their pensions.  However, the mater of "need" tells a very different story.

Contrary to the George Osborne stereotype that recipients of welfare are scroungers who lie idly in bed and twitch the curtains to watch the "strivers" go off to work, 60% of welfare recipients are actually in work, but paid so little that they cannot maintain a civilised standard of living without help.  Cuts will mean inflicting even further distress which should not be acceptable in a civilised society, whatever the alleged austerity (see previous post.)

At the other end of the scale we have those with high incomes  building up enormous pensions essentially at the state's expense.  If tax were paid on that £45 000 it would,  at the new highest rate of 45%, amount to £20 250.  So effectively, even after the reduction the state will still be contributing over £20 000 a year (an income which would probably be beyond the dreams of avarice for most welfare recipients) to people who are then likely to receive "lump sums" in the millions and annual pensions in the hundreds of thousands.

As I've argued before in this blog, the purpose of a pension is to avoid penury when one's earning days are over.  Tax concessions to achieve a pension  up to the average wage, about £25 000, are perfectly justified.  Beyond that, if people want to make an even more generous provision for themselves, in a Liberal society they are perfectly welcome to do so, but not at the taxpayer's expense.

Arguments that, as a result of the above, George Osborne has achieved some sort of "fairness" are risible: that Liberal Democrats in government mouth their support is disgraceful.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Austerity: what austerity?

Yesterday the annual survey by the ONS on UK household expenditure was released.  Apparently each household spends on average £484 a week, broken down as follows:

 Average weekly household expenditure on main commodities and services, 2011

What I find astonishing is that "recreation and culture" comes second, even though "alcoholic drinks, tobacco and narcotics" are classified separately, as are "restaurants and hotels."

Perhaps we should take these figures with a pinch of salt, as the "housing, fuel and power" section does not include mortgages, which seems a bit daft.  That apart, if our second highest expenditure is fun and games, we can hardly be said to be living in an age of austerity.  In fact, some 80% of us are living the life of Riley.

The sufferers are, of course the bottom 20%, whose expenditure pastern is probably very different.  Yet we shall probably hear today, in George Osborne's Autumn Statement,  of more cuts in welfare expenditure to make their lives even more miserable,  There will be lots of talk of "tough choices."  That's a lie. Providing a civilised standard of living for  the disabled, unemployed, elderly, does not mean the rest of us making serious sacrifices.  We just need to cut back a bit on recreation.

Incidentally, jogging is free, good fun, and makes you feel great.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Nick Clegg beginning to see the light.

An aptly named Mr Bone MP tried to prevent Nick Clegg's giving a different view to that of the Prime Minister on the Leveson Report, calling it "something that has never happened before in parliamentary history."  Actually he was wrong: it happened in an earlier coalition in 1932, but even had it been true  I'm sure the public is far more interested in politicians giving their honest views than they are of breaches in arcane parliamentary traditions.

Nick's response shows that he is beginning to learn from his earlier mistakes:

"(Mr Bone) still struggles to get coalition . . . .we have a government of two parties that must compromise. That is different to one party governments.  It might lead to anomalies, glitches and innovations in this venerable place that he finds unwelcome.  I suspect it will be repeated a lot in the future."

That's a far cry from the rose-garden love in.  You've been a slow learner, Nick, but now let's hear the distinctive Liberal Democrat voice on the disastrous economic policy and the shameful cuts in welfare taking place, embarrassingly on the 70th Anniversary of the publication of Beveridge Report.

Another thing I, and I expect the bulk  of the public, fail to understand is why the government should spend £5 million or more on an enquiry that they themselves set up and then reject its central finding.  Time and again the press barons have promised to regulate themselves  more effectively and each time self-regulation  failed.  The right-wing papers are screaming that they must remain unfettered in order to be defenders of the freedom of speech.  What they are really defending is their ability to pry into people's private affairs in order to make money out of any salacious gossip they can find.  Legal underpinning of sanctions is necessary to haul them into line.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

New Governor of the Bank

I know little about Mark Carney, the Canadian appointed by George Osborne as the new Governor of the Bank of England, but am disappointed that my own favoured candidate, Adair Turner, has not got the job. I must confess that I don't know much about Lord Turner either, and haven't even read his book, "Economics after the Crisis," on which my preference is based.  But I have read Robert Skidelski's review of it in the Times Literary Supplement (28/09/2012).

In this review Skidelski claims that Turner challenges "the three main planks of 'instrumental conventional wisdom'" viz:-

  • that the chief objective of  economic policy is to maximise GDP per head;
  • that the way to achieve this is to create freer markets;
  • that the resulting increase in inequality is acceptable if it delivers superior growth.
These criticisms are totally consistent with the arguments expressed in this blog and which  in my view ought to underlie Liberal Democrat approaches to economic policy.

To elaborate briefly in support of Lord Turner's challenges:

  • We ought to be looking to increase well-being  per head and that is not synonymous with material GDP.  Greater sharing, shorter working hours, more leisure, more co-operation and less aggressive competition, more seeking to reach our own potential rather than outdo that of our neighbours, are all aims which will not only better conserve the earth's scarce resources but also lead to greater happiness.
  • Deregulated (ie "free") markets, rather than increasing welfare, or even material output,  are the major cause of our present economic problems.  Government regulation is needed, as our great economist Adam Smith, wrongly adopted as the icon of the neo-conservatives, explained over 200 years ago because: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends  in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."  (Wealth of Nations, p116, Everyman's Edition).  This is particularly true when the financial sector is so overcame by greed that it loses track of what it is actually buying and selling.
  • We should not be relaxed about some people becoming "filthy rich" as Labour politician Peter Mandelson is, because their affluence doesn't trickle down, they keep it to themselves and hoard it for their offspring. And, as Wilkinson and Pickett in "The Spirit Level" (Penguin), demonstrate,  unequal societies are more dysfunctional.  Emphatically, as present we are not "all in this together" and if we were there would be a lot less angst.
So I hope Mark Carney will take the opportunity to read Lord Turner's book whilst waiting to take over.

Friday 23 November 2012

New DG for BBC

Sorry for the title of  initials, but that seems to be the trendy way of communicating these days: these do have the advantage of a little rhyme.

The appointment of Lord (Tony) Hall as the replacement Director General for the BBC was swift and appears to be popular and appropriate.  I am, however, alarmed to see that, not only is he to be paid the full whack annual salary of £450 000, which we knew about because that was the pay-off for the last one, but in addition her is to continue to receive a pension of £80 000 a year.

Given the the average wage in Britain is around £24 000 a year,  that total payment of £530 000 a year is as much as more than half of us earn in 20 years.  Do we really want, or even need, to pay that kind of money to public servants?

I was fortunate to retire as a teacher on half pay.  After a couple of years a a volunteer teacher in Malaŵi and then some occasional lecturing for the WEA  I was, much to my pleasure and surprise, invited back to school teaching on a regular basis.  However, the rule was that I should work only part time, and should not earn more than a sum which, combined with my pension , would amount to what  I would have received if I had not retired but continues as a full-time teacher.  That seemed to me to be a very generous deal and I felt very lucky to have it.

Tony Hall's £80 000 pension (more than three times the average full time pay) is from the BBC, as he has worked for them before.  The same rule should apply to him.  Even with that restriction he would still be in financial clover, especially considering that, should he be short of a bob or two he can, as  a Lord, just pop into the Upper House, sign the register and receive his expenses on a daily basis (is it £300 a day?)

I have no wish to provide ammunition to the BBC bashers, who have their own agenda of wishing  to grab a slice of the service for their own profiit-maximising selves, but this absurd over-payment of people at the top, even in the public service, make a mockery of our being  "all in this together."

Welfare payments are, of course, about to be cut, along with many services which provide vital lifelines for those at the bottom of the pile.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Women bishops - the Church of England in the van

Like, thankfully, most members of the C of E, I am very disappointed by the failure of the General Synod to authorise women to become bishops.  However, I feel that some of the comment on it, both by participants in the debate and external reporters (suicide, disaster) are well over the top.

The Anglican Church is the third largest Christian denomination.  The largest, the Roman Catholics, have not  yet even given the slightest official consideration to women becoming priests, never mind bishops.The only sign of a movement in that direction is a fringe group, (called I believe MOW -Movement for the Ordination of Women,) which has, I believe, little support, and certainly no official encouragement.

The second largest denomination are the Orthodox. I am no expert but  Orthodoxy states firmly:

 It is not difficult, indeed, simply to state that the Orthodox Church is against women's priesthood and to enumerate as fully as possible the dogmatical, canonical, and spiritual reasons for that opposition.

What's more, when I visited one of their principal places of pilgrimage, the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, I discovered that not only were there no women priests, women were not even allowed on the peninsula at all.  Indeed they even discourage female animals, and don't have fresh milk because that would involve having cows (females)on the sacred territory.

I'm not entirely sure, and haven't at the moment time to look it up, but I suspect there are not many lady Imams in the Muslim faith.

So by comparison, having come within a hairsbreadth of authorising the consecration of women to the episcopate the  C of E isn't doing too badly.  I suspect that within a decade we shall have caught up with most of our non-conformist brothers and sisters.  Let those commentators and politicians who've jumped on the bandwagon to upbraid us, do a bit of cheering instead.

Monday 19 November 2012

A plague on all our houses

The abysmal turnout in last week's elections for Police and Crime commissioners, averaging below 15%, sends a raspberry to our political establishment.  There are in my view three reasons for the debacle:

  1. the posts, and thus elections for them, are unnecessary;
  2. the organisation was staggeringly inept;
  3. the election  continued the stream of misrepresentations, distortions and  and self-serving attitude emanating from all our parties.
1. I suspect that the Tories (and this was exclusively a Tory idea, opposed by the Liberal Democrats and nothing to do with the coalition) felt they could jump on the "Laura Norder" bandwagon so frequently whipped up by the red-top newspapers,  have elected some of their traditional "hangers, floggers and ban-the woggers" and so appease alleged popular concerns about crime (the incidence of which all  statistics show is actually falling.)    The low turnout demonstrates that the public is either not actually as alarmed as the red-tops pretend and the Tories hoped,  or takes the view that politicians can't do much about it anyway.

2.  It was incredibly inept to hold the election in November (no longer a regular time for elections) and allow the candidates no free-post literature.  Why on earth introduce a democratic  innovation and give it the participants no assistance in publicising  their views?  David Cameron blames the media for giving the campaigns little publicity, but this is not, in my experience, true.  Both Radio 4 and our local television news service, Look North, made frequent references to the campaigns and candidates.  I believe the candidates also had spots on local radio.

3.  a)  We were told that the existing Police Authorities had no democratic accountability.  This is is untrue.  As far as I can make out,  in my own area 10 of the 18 members of the Authority in West Yorkshire are elected councillors from the local authorities authorities making up the area, so they do have some democratic credibility,

b)  We were told that a directly elected individual could better represent the views of  the public in the area far better than the existing system.  Even with a a mandate backed by a strong majority in a high turnout this would be nonsense.  Surely the 10 elected councillors in  an area a diverse as West Yorkshire can together form a better picture of  the various concerns than one individual. Presumably the eight appointed members have some additional experiences to add to the mix, though a  return to the old  Watch Committees, comprising very local councillors and magistrates before the centralising, big is better, craze, would have been better still.

c)  Our Police and Crimes Commissioner is to be paid a salary of £100 000 a year.  How this compares with the cost of the current Police Authority, with its members presumably collecting expenses, I don't know, but in an era of alleged austerity, when provision for the disabled and others in need of help from the public purse is being cut, this rightly sticks in the electorate's craw.

So altogether an "own goal" by the Tory populists which merely adds to the discredit to which our democracy is currently  being subjected

Saturday 17 November 2012

Tax avoiders and trials.

Lord McAlpine has apparently settled out of court for his £185 000 damages and costs from the BBC for the alleged libel. However, the BBC  is apparently only the head of a "very long list" (Guardian 16th November) of others including  ITV and the wife of the Speaker, whom Lord McAlpine is likely to sue.  If any of these defend their case they will make us of a judge, courtroom, ushers and other officials, all financed by we taxpayers.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, as noted in my comment below, (Self-harming BBC) Lord McAlpine has registered himself as a non-domicile in order to avoid paying British taxes.  Surely in such cases it should be possible to deny the use of our our facilities, legal and otherwise,  to those who  deliberately avoid paying their share for them.

Monday 12 November 2012

Self-harming BBC

The priorities of the British establishment and media are baffling in the extreme.  The reputation of a Tory lord has been impugned, which is bad but not life-threatening, and no-one has died as a result, but the Director General of the BBC has been pressured into resigning,  the BBC is said to be in one of the worst crises in its history.,and both the BBC and other media  seem to have talked and written of little else else for days.

I am all in favour of those responsible for serious debacles being held to account, but the Director General's resignation is purely token.  He had held the job for less than two months and must still have been learning the ropes:  he can hardly be held responsible for whatever faults in the organisational structure led to this minor mishap.

  • Yet at the same time bankers who failed properly to supervise their traders whose recklessness led to a global financial crisis with repercussions on millions remain in post.  
  • People are beaten up by policemen on demonstrations and there are deaths in police custody, but rarely is anyone found to be culpable.  
  • Warnings of the dangers of ash die-back disease have apparently been around for several years: who ignored them and why haven't they been sacked?  
  • The ministry of defence wastes millions on wasteful procuration deals and yet generals, rather than getting the sack, retire with honour and then hop nimbly into lucrative positions in the armaments industry. 
  • Newspaper executives who permitted the phone hacking which has caused distress to hundreds remain in post.
  • Of those who produced  an Olympics nearly 300% over budget,  one  is given a peerage and joins the government, and another is acknowledged in this morning's Guardian as a national hero

It has often been argued that the law in the UK deals more severely with injuries to property than it does with injuries to people.  Clearly that does not apply if the  person injured, if only in reputation,  is part of the establishment,  Lord McAlpine threatens to sue.  If he does I hope the damages are only token (after all, the money comes from our licence fee) and if they are large he donates them to a suitable charity, perhaps one trying to help real paedophiles control  with their unacceptable disposition.

In all this flagellation and self-flagellation of the BBC we need to remember that there are rapacious capitalists, who give priority to profits over balanced reporting, honesty and artistic endeavour,  who are very anxious to gain a slice of the BBC's place in the market: viz the Murdoch empire, with the Telegraph and Mail not far behind 

Monday 5 November 2012

Surprise - a cheer for Michael Gove!

When I trained as a teacher in the 1950s we were proudly taught that, whereas on the continent, and in particular France, control freak governments laid down exactly and precisely what was to be taught in their schools, here in the freedom-lovng UK, schools and teachers were trusted to use their expertise, judgement and local knowledge to decide on what the children in their care should be taught.

 In actual fact I suspect that it was good text books as much as anything that were the main influence on what was taught, especially in the junior and lower forms of the secondary schools.  When I began teaching, in a secondary-modern school, in 1959, one of the first questions I was asked by the head of the history department was what books were the college recommending.  I told her and she promptly bought sets.  Curriculum instructions rarely amounted to much more than to "get through" as much of the appropriate text books as possible in the year.  In English there was the expectation that there would be "some" literature, poetry, comprehension, composition and oral work each week.  This  left a considerable amount of latitude for the initiatives and enthusiasms of the individual teacher.and was great fun.

If anything, however, there was too much conformity.  This was especially true in the last two years before taking the 16+ examinations, which the majority were encouraged to stay on at school and take, although the minimum leaving age was still 15.  For these two years the curriculum in each subject was determined by the various examination boards.

English education suffered, and perhaps still suffers, from a "trickle-down effect" in which the universities, by their entrance requirements,  dictated what the grammar schools taught, and the secondary-moderns gained prestige my aping the grammar schools.  Unfortunately the third leg of what was meant to be a tripartite system, the technical schools, never really took off and technical education has never gained the status which I understand it enjoys on the continent, and in particular, Germany.

A Tory government destroyed this innovative hotchpotch in 1988 and introduced the National Curriculum, though, significantly, it did and does not apply to their own breeding ground the public (ie private, fee paying) schools .To our shame the Liberals leadership of the time accepted, indeed welcomed, it, though surely the concept is antithetical to liberalism.

From a Secretary of State who has presumed to instruct teachers on the method to be used to teach children to read. and has conceived  the ridiculously named and restrictive Ebach, Michael Gove's proposals to  "slim down" the curriculum  come from an unexpected source.  Never the less, the proposals,  leaked in a document last week, are  to be welcomed, Unfortunately but predictably the move has produced a knee-jerk reaction from the Labour party, who bleat that: "there is no mention of the importance of spelling ...for 11 to 14 year olds."

How patronising that our politicians think teachers need to be instructed to teach our children how to spell their own language.  Next they'll be telling parents to teach their babies to crawl.  Liberal Democrats should welcome these moves to reduce this draconian central direction, call for further moves in eduction and for similar principles to be applied in other areas.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Unprincipled Parliamentary Games

Last Thursday, the day after the Parliamentary Labour party  had allied itself to the Tory right-wing Euro-sceptics in order to defeat the government on the of the EU budget, I happened to run into my ((Labour) MP in our market place.  I told him that I thought the Labour Party's action was  deplorably opportunistic.  He grinned and replied that any opportunity to kick David Cameron was not to be missed.

Well, I suppose it goes down well in the Westminster bubble and gives the media, chattering classes and we political anoraks something to get excited about.  But it is just this sort of political gamesmanship played by our political leaders, (they can hardly be called statesmen,) which brings democratic politics as at present practised into disrepute.

Labour's parliamentary antics are disreputable on at least two counts.  First they pretend to be an internationalist party, keen to develop co-operation for the improvement  of the quality of life across national boundaries.  Tony Blair claimed to want to put Britain "at the heart of Europe" but never did much positive about it.  There were hopes that the party under Ed Miliband was made of sterner stuff.  Clearly short term fun continues to have precedence over principled discussion.

Second, the Labour Party preaches Keynesian economic stimulation to revive employment and growth.  That is precisely the purpose of the EU budget, 94% for which is returned to EU citizens, much of it in the less developed regions, and much of which is devoted to infrastructure development, research, innovation and creativity- exactly the policy  Ed Balls urges the government to follow at home, but not, apparently, via the EU.

We expect the Tory party to be Tory, we know they have a strong anti-EU element, and it is no surprise that Cameron's efforts to detoxify the party barely scratch the surface.

But  this parliament so far the Labour Party has failed to support electoral reform, in which it claims to believe, has failed to support the means to reform of the second chamber, to which it is committed  and has now done its best to torpedo a relatively positive and constructive approach to the EU.

No wonder people are turned of politics, say that none of us is to be trusted, and the percentage turnout in elections has fallen to the low 60s. 

Thursday 1 November 2012

Algorithms, an abuse of a good instiution

I don't normally read a Sunday paper as the Saturday one takes me all weekend to digest, but a friend  (dubbed a "Thoroughly good egg" by a reader of this blog and designated a "member of the Liberal élite" by his Tory MP) has alerted me to an article in the Observer a couple of weeks ago in which the writer, Simon Neville, reveals  how traders now operate on the US Stock Market.

Apparently 75% of all trades are initiated by algorithms on computers.  The shock statistic, to me at any rate, is that the average purchase is held for just 22 seconds (my emphasis).

I was taught that the "invention" of the limited liability joint stock company was as important to the industrial revolution as the invention of the steam engine, in that it enabled capital to be brought into economic and industrial development without endangering the entire assets of the investor.   Stock exchanges  are a natural extension of the concept, in that they enable stock to be sold without delay, though perhaps at a loss, should the investor need access to  his or her capital.

All good ideas are open to abuse, and it has long been the case that stock exchanges function as gambling casinos for those with wealth.  It has long been known that investors can act irrationally (the fall in the share prices when Harold Wilson caught a train to visit his sick father was a good example from my earlier teaching days)  but it is surely outrageous that the gambling can now be devolved to machines capable of acting with such speed.

I am insufficiently inducted into the mysteries of share and asset dealing to have precise solutions as to how to return stock exchanges to their original function, but something should be done.  For starters I suggest either a whopping capital transactions tax, not just the faction of 1% advocated by Tobin, or regulation that would require stock to be held for a minimum period, say six months, before it can be re-sold.

More informed suggestions welcomed.

Monday 29 October 2012

Olympic costs history re-writen

Last week a headline proudly proclaimed yet another "Olympic victory": the games had cost "only (sic) £8.921bn  against an  original budget of £9.28bn."  This represents a saving £377m, and is thus greatly to the credit of the Locog and, by extension, our government and British guts, grit, determination and organisational flair.

With accounting like this any project can be a financial success. The "original" original budget, in the bid put in by the then government in 2007, was £2.4bn.

We normally attribute the rewriting of history to the Soviet Union under Stalin.  That this should be happening, without, as afar as I have noted, so much as a murmur, in our own "free" society, is baffling.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Obama, Romney and George McGovern

By dying within weeks of a US Presidential Election George McGovern may have done America, and the rest of us, a great favour.  In the 1972 election McGovern was thrashed by Richard Nixon, largely because of  McGovern's opposition to the war in Vietnam.  Now that Americans have the benefit of hindsight, they may like to reflect that the idealistic peace-nick is to be preferred to the aggressive belligerent.

In the present election it would be over-generous  to dub Mr Obama as a peace-nick, but he certainly has ideals, for the US and the world, which most humanitarians share.  By contrast Romney's position on the aggressive right of the political spectrum, which secured him the Republican nomination, and which he now shamelessly modifies because the polls indicate he needs to appeal to the centre ground, speaks ill both for those Americans at the bottom of the pile and for the peace and security of the rest of the world.

Polls show that, whereas the rest of the world overwhelmingly supports the re-election of President Obama, in the US, where it counts, the candidates are neck and neck.  Maybe the closeness of the campaign is, as one commentator has suggested, exaggerated by the media in order to keep up the excitement and sell more papers, and in the end we shall see an overwhelming Obama victory.

I hope so, but am not so sure.  I was in the US during the Carter - Reagan campaign in 1980 and had no doubts that Carter was a pretty good president and would win hands down against the inadequate Reagan.  But poor Carter was damned by the failure, for which he could hardly be blamed, (though for which he would undoubtedly have claimed the credit had it succeeded) of a raid to rescue 52 American hostages held in Tehran.  The couple with whom I was staying at the time, both dedicated Christians, are now unreservedly enthusiastic about ex -President Carter's good works since he was forced from office, and conveniently forget that one of them voted for Reagan.

Electorates can act very illogically, so fingers crossed.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Cameron on Crime

In tabloid speak David Cameron has moved form "hug a hoodie" to "mug a hoodie" in a a speech  carefully timed to re-assure the Tory faithful as we approach the first ever elections for Police and Crime Commissioners.  The description is not quite fair, as some of Cameron's proposals, emphasising prevention and rehabilitations, are quite constructive.  He has moved a long way from the days of Micheal Howard's "prison works" so lock 'em up and throw away the key, even if he has sacked Kenneth Clarke, the minister most likely to implement a more constructive policy.

What Cameron has failed to do is provide the funds to implement the more more constructive policies he espouses.

An article   in yesterday's Guardian, "How to hug a hoodie" spells out the facts - this paragraph in particular:

(...who is (the) criminal?  Mentally ill people, addicts, individuals who, through lack of care, have developed personality disorders, those with hidden head injuries, those who have been sexually and physically abused, and those with learning difficulties constitute the majority of our offenders...

Helping these victims of what Cameron is pleased to call our "broken society" can not be done without resources, and it is hard to see how bribing the private sector with "payment by results" is likely to be any more effective or efficient than properly resourcing the public services engaged in these vital areas.  Indeed, with  the example of PFI and G4s, the results are likely to be much more expensive and much less effective.  Do our politicians never learn?

These necessary costs arise in the short run, but in the long run will save money. Unfortunately our political system is so geared that our leaders find it difficult to look beyond the next election, in this case for  Police and Crime Commissioners in three weeks.

Saturday 20 October 2012

A Tale of Two Tories

So Andrew Mitchell has now resigned from the government as a result of his swearing at the Downing Street police (which he now admits) and allegedly calling them "plebs" (which he still denies, though it is hard to see how the police would have made that up.)  George Osborne remains in the government, at least so far, having travelled first class on a train (for while, anyway) with only  a second class ticket.

I must admit to some sympathy with Andrew Mitchell.  Most of us have "flipped" at some time or another when confronted with what we see as excessive bureaucracy  or obstructive officialdom.  I now feel the need to take tranquillisers before telephoning my bank, insurance company or other financial institution.  All that waiting, at my expense, then  pressing of umpteen buttons, more waiting, and finally, when contact with a human being is achieved,  answering interminable questions "for security reasons" when all I want is some simple information which may not involve access to my personal accounts or policies at all.

However, although I have sometime lost patience I have tried to explain that I realise  the fault lies with the management, and would they please pass on the message, and I have never sworn at the hapless "consultant."  But I do look back with nostalgia to the happy days when I could ring my bank directly and they recognised my voice. 

George Osborne's case is more mixed.  I supposed he is to be applauded for having a second class ticket in he first place.  However, having missed the train on which he had a reserved seat, and found the next one crowded, he move to a first class compartment.  Here the stories diverge.  Osborne claims that he took prompt steps to find the train "manager" (whatever has happened to guards and ticket collectors, and why are we customers now, and not passengers?) in order to pay the extra, but the witness who reported the event claims that he, or his PA, at first refused to pay the extra as "he couldn't possibly sit in standard class."  (That could have meant because there was no room.)

"Virgin" supports Osborne's version, but, with an interest in retaining the West Coast franchise, they would, wouldn't they?

Both stories reveal an arrogance about our rulers (as does the Speaker's pretence that it would damage security if the addresses of the MPs who are still cheating on their expenses were revealed).  David Cameron  made a good start by restricting the availability of government cars.  I'd like to see them taken away altogether, and that our rulers travel by public transport, the same class as the bulk of us, so that they remain in touch with the conditions the rest of us have to put up with, and then perhaps seek more urgently to improve them.

I hope that the additional £180 which was paid,reluctantly or otherwise, for the upgrade of Mr Osborne and his assistant, comes out of the funds of Tatton Tories, and not our taxes.

The sad thing is that it is on such relative trivialities as the above and not on their ministerial competence that the fates of our politicians are determined.  Andrew Mitchell put in a reasonably good performance at the Ministry  for Overseas Development and goes: as Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne is the greatest disaster since Winston Churchill, and stays.

Friday 19 October 2012

No to votes at 16

I know I'm out on a limb here, as both the Liberal Democrats and the Electoral Reform Society, both of which I am an enthusiastic member, advocate that the voting age be reduced to 16.  But I can generate little enthusiasm.

Most of my teaching career has been with the 16-18 year old age group - sixth formers generally preparing for university.  At 16 most of them have simply parroted their parents' views on social, political and economic issues.  By the end on the two-year course some were beginning to think more critically, but most still adhered to the family prejudices.  I myself was no exceptions: I was in my mid- 20s before I saw the Liberal light.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor, an "expert" on the constitution, argues in favour of votes at 16 because he believes that school pupils will still have in mind their civics lessons and so gain the habit of voting. If they have to wait for another two years they may never get into the habit. I find these arguments unconvincing.  As a  teacher of social sciences I have occasionally been lumbered (I use that word advisedly) with giving the civics lessons, and they have all been crass failures.

 I acknowledge that others may have been more successful, but I found the kids just weren't interested in how to vote, what local councils and councillors do, how parliament works and what a privilege is it to live in a democracy.  I also acknowledge that this may not be the most successful approach, but it is the content that the "man form the council" had in mind a few years ago when were were subjected to in-service training on the topic.  Some months later Tony Blair illegally invaded Iraq and hundreds of pupils in our area played truant in order to join protest marches.  The council were outraged.

Just as in the Third World you don't stop the drift to the towns by putting more agriculture in the curriculum, we shall not invigorate our democracy by tinkering at the edges with the procedures: longer hours for voting, polling booths in supermarkets, more postal votes, lowering the age, electing police commissioners.  To make democracy meaningful children need to participate in it in their homes and schools by sharing in a limited way in making the decisions that affect their lives, and adults in the wider society by devolving meaningful power to communities to make their decisions, and by electoral systems which make most votes count for something.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Cameron's delusions of grandeur.

David Cameron seems, like so may British fantasists, to be obsessed with the idea of Britain remaining a world leader.  In his speech to the Tory conference yesterday he warned us that without lots of "striving  ( a new buzz-word)... Britain may not be in the future what it was in the past."  In the past we were, among other things "The country that beat the Nazis."

I grant that the number of lives lost on the Allied side in the Second World War is not a completely accurate measure of the contribution made to the defeat of Naziism, but the figures below, taken from a plaque in  a French museum, give some perspective: 

      • USSR  26 600 000
      • Poland 6 000 000
      • France 580 000
      • Greece 460 000
      • UK 365 000
      • USA 340 000
      • Commonwealth 135 000

It is true that, for many months the UK stood almost, but not quite alone (if the film of the Battle of Britain is to be believed the Poles were a great help) but it is astonishing  that the massive contribution of the Soviet Union to the defeat of Naziism has been almost brushed out of British and American history, and certainly from our films and folk memory

It is high time we in the UK began to aim for modest competence in the future rather than attempting to retrieve  an allegedly glorious past.  Ironically, the one  area in which we can still claim world leadership, communication via the  the BBC, our politicians seem determined on destruction, and in one in which we can at least hold our own on the world stage, higher education, Tory obsession with immigration has tarnished our reputation.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

"Freebies" for the well-heeled: two solutions

At a time when we are cruelly cutting benefits for those who desperately need them it does seem stupid to be dishing out freebies, or "universal benefits,"  (bus passes and a winter fuel allowance for all the over-60s, free TV licences for the over 75s) not just to millionaires but also to the thousands of comfortably-off such as myself.  However, those who are familiar with social history know that making benefits selective, ie "means testing," is not only a humiliating but also an inefficient and expensive business.

There seem to me to be two simple solutions.

1.  Don't give these benefits to anyone who pays income tax.  This seems to be a rough and ready way of identifying those who don't really need the benefits, without putting those who do to the fag of applying for them.  It shouldn't be expensive since the authorities "know who we are" and I can't see any great harm in HMRC, who collect the income tax, communicating with whatever departments dish out the benefits.

Those allergic to simple arithmetic stop reading here, but:

2.  A more sophisticated solution would be to multiply the value each benefit  by the reciprocal of the marginal tax rate,  impute this sum to the income of the recipient, and tax it. 

The explanation for this is relatively simple whilst the marginal tax rate remains at 50%, viz:

  • the reciprocal of 50%  is 100/50 which is 2

  • thus the winter fuel allowance, at present £200, is multiplied by 2 to give £400

  • this £400 is addend to the income of every recipient, though they receive only £200

  • for higher band tax-payers, this £400 is taxed at 50% ie £200, so the entire benefit is taxed away and they receive nothing.

  • standard rate tax payers have their  £400 taxed at 20%, which is £80. so they retain only £120 of the £200 received
  • non-income tax payers  would retain the whole £200.
The sums will  become a bit more complex when the marginal rate falls to 45% but the principle remains the same.  I suppose there will be complications when the imputed value pushes a non income-tax payer into a tax paying bracket, but some clever chap with a computer should be able to work out a formula for coping with this.

I offer the above system to HMG for free: not all of us are motivated by the desire for more money. If HMG would like to reward me than a KCMG would be appropriate, but I'd happily settle for a blue plaque and a CBE. 

Saturday 6 October 2012

Better Coalitions

 Ed Miliband's apparent triumph with his speech at the Labour Party conference may have, for the moment, dispelled thoughts of future coalition governments, but I suspect his glory will fade, just as Nick Clegg's did after the first debate of the last election, and the probability of another balanced parliament  will be back on the table again well before 2015.

If so we need to amend our constitutional conventions to help coalitions between  whatever parties to be formed and to operate more effectively. 

1.  We need to dispense with the expectation that, when there is a change of majority party, the new prime-minster walks into No 10 by the front door and the old leaves by the back on the day after the election.  A period of at least ten days should elapse to give time for an effective coalition agreement to be hammered out and thoroughly examined. After all, the Americans have three month "lame duck" period, and the French about a month, when there is a change of president, and he world copes quite adequately, so the sky is unlikely to fall in if the British take ten days to form a new government.

Many  of the problems with the present government arise from the fact that the coalition agreement was cobbled together in too great a hurry, under the spurious threat that the markets demanded it.  This gave insufficient time for proper examination of the agreement and to realise, from the point of view of the Liberal Democrats, that a permission to abstain on a vote to increase student fees was insufficient for a party that had pledged to vote against, and that an undertaking to introduce proposals for electoral and second chamber reform did not actually commit the Tories to remain neutral on the former and actually support the latter.

2.  Rules regarding collective cabinet responsibility need to be be revised to take account of the different circumstances of coalition rather than single party government.  We need to make a distinction between those policies  which all members of the government must support, and those in which there could be public argument, even if, after such discussion, they would be bound to vote for the final compromise.

3. We need to become more adult in the way that we regard public discussions of policy differences.  Revelations on the lines of "We proposed A , they proposed B and we settled on C," as Jonathan Freedland described recently in the Guardian as the modus operandi of coalitions in other European countries,  should be conducted and reported as civilised debates rather than in the militaristic language of wars, attacks, fights and struggles.

Thursday 4 October 2012

Tatty Schools

Both schools I attended as a child are  still standing and and are still in use, though they seemed already pretty old when I attended them   The secondary school is still a  school, though it has been much extended.  The primary school building, with its proud façade and castellated roof, is now used as a workshop for a Formula 3 motor racing team,.  However, the first school at which I taught, almost brand new when I started there in 1959, was pulled down about five years ago.  The school from which I retired from full-time teaching,  built in, I think the mid 60s by a Mr Poulson, who became notorious for substandard buildings , was also demolished a few years ago.

Michael Gove's Education Department seems determined to return to  the tatty strain. New instructions have been issued that all new schools should follow a "template."  They should be 15% smaller than those built by the Labour government,  have no curves, smaller dinning rooms and assembly halls and narrower corridors.  Ceilings should be left as bare concrete.

We shall not restore respect for education until we allocate a bit of dignity to the places in which it takes place.  The public (ie private) schools, with their fine buildings, attractive chapels with fine organs, dignified assembly halls and wide sweeping corridors (all experienced deputy heads know that corridors are where much of the trouble starts) are well aware of this..

Once again the government is showing contempt for public provision, and for we plebs who rely on it.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Balls on the ball.

The only thing wrong with Ed Balls's suggestion that the anticipated £3bn to be raised in the auctioning of some mobile phone licences should be spent on building 100 0000 houses is that he has made it in public.  Such a project would relieve the housing shortage, give a Keynesian stimulus, with multiplier effect, to the economy, and have no impact on the current deficit.  Three birds with one stone.

But because this excellent  suggestion  has been made by Labour George Osborne won't implement.

In our courts the adversarial system has frequently failed to produce justice.  In government it is an obstacle  to  common sense.

Sunday 30 September 2012

"Truth" and two "trusts."

During last week I caught a clip of David Cameron addressing the United Nations  and lambasting, without actually naming them, Russia and China for failing to support UN action in Syria.  I thought at the time that these two big beast of the current world stage were unlikely to be taking much notice of what this pipsqueak from a fading great power had to say about them. In much the same way I doubt if the UK's two big beast political parties are too worried about about the detail of what is said and not said at the Liberal Democrat Conference, and the public in general will be even less concerned.    So this is a warning not to take these matters too seriously.

In general Nick Clegg seems to have come over well, recognised by the commentators I read, who are not all necessarily sympathetic, as resilient and likable under fire, though getting more of his fair share of opprobrium.  This should put paid to the pointless and destructive distraction of a leadership challenge.

It was good that the Conference flexed its muscles and defied the government and party managers by voting against the  relaxation of planning laws as a somewhat puny, but potentially environmentally destructive, means of stimulation the economy.

Hugely disappointing, however, was the continued support , in the face of all the evidence as I see it, of the Tory economic policy.  This oxymoronic concept of "expansionary contraction" never did have much credence.  It is based on the theory (for which our economics text books of  more than a decade ago said the evidence was "scanty") that  public investment "crowds out " private investment, and that if we shrink the state the private sector will expand to  fill the gap.   Well, after almost two and a half years of much urging and massive injections of available funds through quantitative easing, it hasn't happened yet. How much more evidence do we want?

Vince Cable in his speech "talked the talk" by admitting that "no amount of push from supply-side reform can possibly succeed without the pull of demand", but incredibly failed to "walk the walk" by declaring his "continued support " for the current "deficit reduction plan" - that is, Plan A.

It was also disappointing to hear Nick Clegg, in his question and answer session, "shroud waving" the case of Greece.  This country is not and never was in a situation comparable to that of Greece.  Our public debt to GDP ratio is half theirs, most of it is held internally and on a long repayment period that averages 14 years.

Clegg's rallying speech at the end also showed that, nice chap as he is, his choice of words was  hugely mistaken and contained nuances that can hardly be described as honest. He said:

Then ask them (your electorates): are you ready to trust Labour with your money again? And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer? Because the truth is, only the Liberal Democrats can be trusted on the economy and relied upon to deliver a fairer society too.

All Liberal Democrats are well advised to avoid the word "trust" for the foreseeable future, because however unfairly, it just reminds people of the broken promise on student fees and that we have now forfeited our reputation as the party that can be trusted. 

The nuance that Labour financial irresponsibility is the cause of our present economic difficulties is unworthy. The cause was and, alas, still is, greed made possible by the deregulated capitalism introduced and so strongly supported by our present partners in government. If it was once expedient to hint otherwis it is no longer. George Osborne was booed at the Paralympics but Gordon Brown was cheered

Sunday 23 September 2012

Trust (this is not just about Nick Clegg)

I was brought up under the influence of the Church of England and the Book of Common Prayer, so each Sunday morning  and evening, as a choirboy, I was exhorted to confess my "manifold sins and wickedness" and not to "dissemble nor cloke them."  It's a pity this has gone out of fashion, because there seems to be a good deal of dissembling and cloking going on in modern society, among all sorts and conditions of men and women, and not just in the Liberal Democrats.

Whom can we believe?

Certainly not the police.  Individuals lied in the shooting of the innocent Jean Charles de Menzses in 2005,and again in the circumstances surrounding the death of Ian  Tomlinson in 2009. In the Hillsborough disaster not only did individuals lie but it is now revealed that there was organised and systematic deceit by senior officials to try to blame  96 football fans for their own deaths and exonerate the police from any responsibility.

Politicians?  David Laws lied about his expenses but is now back in the government.   Either the police or the Tory Chief Whip, Andrew  Mitchell, are lying about week's events outside Downing Street.

The media?  The lies and deceit of the Murdoch press have just been exposed.  We shall soon find out what, if anything,  the Leveson enquiry advises we should do about it, but I suspect that newspapers will still sail as closely as they can to the wind if they feel it will make them more profit. 

The great and the good?  But it was the most senior of all civil servants who publicised, if he did not invent, the phrase "being economical with the truth" to make lying more acceptable.

So dissembling and cloking has become an expected, even accepted, part of life, and poor Nick Clegg is not alone.  And if his apology is rather ridiculous, and I think it is, it is fair to point out that we still await an apology form Tony Blair about the illegal war in Iraq, and from David Cameron for breaking his much publicised poster campaign promise of  "no top-down re-organisation of the NHS" to name two equally serious betrayals.

Our problem is that we Liberal Democrats  made  great play of being more honest than the others: the party that could be relied upon to keep rather than break its promises.  I believed it, so did most activists and, I suspect, the majority of those who voted for us.  That trust has been lost and Clegg's late in the day "apology" is unlikely to retrieve it,or even to be a step along the way.  I am not even sure the apology itself is entirely honest. He's apologised for making the pledge, not breaking it.  And the suggestion that, on looking at the books, it proved to be unaffordable, does not really hold water.  In another letter to this weeks' Liberal Democrat News, former MP  Paul Holmes  points out that he "actively participated in all the Parliamentary Party meetings which argued out all the fully-costed alternatives in details" and "made this fully-costed policy a key plank of the Manifesto."

One particular piece of dissembling which is obviously fraudulent is any suggestion that the "no rise in tuition fees" promise could not be afforded because of the need to reduce the current deficit.  Yet the existing fees system did bring in money up front:  the new one does not. Hence the government has to pay now, thus increasing current expenditure and loading the repayment onto graduates in the future.

We Liberal Democrats were obviously taken for a ride on this one (as on so much else.)  We are in a hole and we should stop digging.  In time the new system will be recognised for what it is, a graduate tax.  It does not create a debt in the normal sense,  but rather the obligation to pay additional tax,  but not  until a reasonable level of earnings is reached, and which will be discontinued after thirty years if earnings are  insufficient. 

Friday 21 September 2012

Strange contrasts.

Whether you shrug your shoulders and just accept the "It's an unfair world", or mutter the cliché that "There's one law for the rich and another for the poor;" there are various items currently in the news which defy rational explanation to the vast majority of us: perhaps not quite the 99%, but close.
    • the Murdoch empire commits the most appalling, not to mention illegal, invasions of privacy and is found to be a "fit and proper person" to hold a broadcasting licence.
    • G4s  fail to fulfil their contract to provide security guards for the Olympics, yet still claim their £57m "management fee, " and look as though they will get it, along with, incredibly,  further government contracts.

    Along with these are the further  "on running" sores, such as

    • bankers and financiers, whose ineptitude and greed caused the financial crisis, remain unpunished,  with their banks unreformed, and continue to award themselves massive bonuses. (According to a letter in this morning's Guardian,  "extra cuts of £14bn are needed to hit the spending target" whilst, "City bonuses totalled £13bn in the year to April." )
    • top rate tax payers have a 5% tax cut whilst those at the bottom of the pile, the unemployed and disabled, have their benefits cut.

    More controversially perhaps, though I cant understand why it should be:
    • a Liberal Democrat MP, yes, a Liberal Democrat, (to paraphrase slightly Neil Kinnock) complains that the government is slow to implement changes which would limit the cost of personal care for the elderly to £35 000 so that their children, grand-children, favourite charities, the Battersea Dogs' Home or whatever  can inherit the rest of their wealth (much of which will come from the unearned appreciation of the value of their houses.) 

    With these glaring anomalies, it is no wonder that the electorate conclude that their politicians are either incapable of altering the "way things are", or don't really care.

Thursday 20 September 2012

Much Ado about GCSEs

When I want to secondary school in 1949 the boys aged 16+ , in what was rather curiously called the Upper Fifth, were still studying  for  their School Certificate.  This was a school leaving certificate and to obtain one pupils had to pass in, I think, at least five subjects, which included English and Mathematics, although I feel the pass mark was only 35% in each subject.  Many boys, possibly the majority, left  school a this stage  to go into business, or train as bankers, solicitors, accountant, architects, or other professions.Those intending to enter higher education remained in the Sixth Form to take the Higher School Certificate.

Whilst I was still in the lower school this system was replaced by the General Certificate of Education, the GCE, usually taken at 16+ (O-level) and  18+, ( A-level). I remember some employers were very sniffy abut the GCE O-level because it was possible to obtain it in only one subject, whereas in their day passes in a least five had to be achieved.  The original pass mark was 40%, but this moved up to 45% the year I took the exam, much to the distress of one of my friends, who obtained 40% in at least one of his subjects.  However, he went on to make a pretty substantial fortune, though I believe he subsequently lost it.

When I started teaching, in one of the now much derided secondary modern schools, which had six streams, the top stream studied for O-levels and and the middle streams  for  a hotchpotch of qualifications, some awarded by the highly respected Royal Society of Arts.  The lower streams just studied.  In the mid 60s the "hotchpotch" was replaced by the Certificate of Secondary Education, or CSE, some versions of  which placed much more emphasis on course work than did the GCE.  There was an overlap in that a top grade in CSE was regarded as equivalent to an O-level

By this time the selection of primary school pupils for grammar of secondary modern schools at the age of 11+ had been abolished in most areas but the division of pupils into those taking GCE and those taking CSE meant hat we were still separating our pupils into sheep and goats.  So the two examinations were sensibly merged in 1985 into the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE.)

As I've pointed out in an earlier post, the continuing need for a nationally organised and validated  examination at16+ when everyone, academic or not, is now required to remain in some form of eduction or training until 18, is highly questionable.  There is certainly no need to rip up the whole system,  denigrate the achievements of pupils over the last decades by questioning the validity of their qualification,  and introduce something entirely new  with the pretentious and inappropriate name of  EBacc when a bit of tinkering  to iron out problems in the existing system is all that is required.

What is appalling is that this country has several dozen internationally respected universities, most with a department of education staffed by professors who know what they're talking about and  researchers who base their opinions on actual evidence, not to mention a a vast army of experienced teachers and examiners. These have hardly been consulted.  Thus the schooling and qualifications of the young for the next twenty years is to be based on a political fix,  not mentioned in the election and certainly not in the coalition agreement,  but cobbled together by an opinionated secretary of state who seems more interested in stamping his name, however ignobly, on posterity, (why else give every school a King James Bible inscribed with a personal message from yourself?) than in the genuine interests of the young.

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Keynes on the tele

A splendid programme on BBC2 giving  a very rounded account of Keynes, his life and policies.  A must. About the only disquieting comments are from David Laws.

Watchable for about a week on

Saturday 15 September 2012

Honesty is the Best Policy

Tim Gordon, the CEO of the Liberal Democrats, sends out an Email each week, telling us, among other things, that one of the five points Liberal Democrats should make on the doorstop is that (we are) 
  "Clearing up Labour's economic mess."  This statement is highly misleading, if not downright mendacious.  I have written to Mr Gordon pointing this out, but received no response, and a letter on the topic to the party  newspaper has not been published, or not yet anyway.  So this appears to be a point of view the party hierarchy would rather not acknowledge.

That the "economic mess" is Labour's is only strictly true in the sense that they happened to be in charge when the financial crisis broke.  We need to make it abundantly clear that the "mess" was caused, not by Labour profligacy, but  by greed made possible by the  excessive financial deregulation introduced by the Thatcherite Conservatives..

 True, Labour did little to oppose financial deregulation, but our present partners in government were loudly calling for yet more  and, apart from a few warning shots from Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats as a whole had little to say on the topic.  In fact the publication of the "Orange Book"  marked a significant shift in the direction of the then dominant "markets rule OK" economic fashion.

Thanks to clever PR  "the financial mess that Labour left behind"  had populist support for a while,, but the fact that Gordon Brown was cheered at the Paralympics, whilst George Osborne was booed, indicates that this piece of political misrepresentation is now past its sell-by date. 

It is surely time for Liberal Democrats to be honest (after all, we did promise more honesty in politics) and recognise that the economy was growing and the deficit reducing when Labour left office,as a result of the VAT cut and public investment.  We desperately need to temper our support for Osborne's failing policies and press hard for a serious Keynesian stimulus package now.

Thursday 13 September 2012


On most Wednesdays a friend and I go for a walk, sometimes with the local Ramblers,  sometimes on our own, and usually in the lovely countryside around here. However, yesterday we went independently and, for a change, chose to visit Liverpool for an urban walk which my companion had spotted in an AA publication..

Although I've visited Liverpool before I hadn't realised that it is built on such a massive scale.  It makes Leeds look like a village, and it's no wonder the people who come from there are so proud of it.  Our walk started at the rehabilitated waterfront, past the massive Liver Building and the imposing but now rather tatty-looking Town Hall..  There was remarkably little traffic, whether the result of good organisation or a still faltering local economy I can't say.

Our route took us through the "Beatles" area, most of which is interestingly preserved, though unfortunately half the famous Cavern Club has been pulled down.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral is an inspiring piece of modern architecture, with some interesting side-chapels, one of which contains the tomb of the former Archbishop,  Derek Worlock, who worked so closely with the Anglican bishop David Shepherd to heal sectarian divisions in the community and to promote economic as well as spiritual regeneration.

The walk from the Roman Catholic to the Anglican Cathedral took us to the pub our guide-book recommended for lunch, the Philharmonic.  This is a splendidly preserved late Victorian pub, a massive slab of a building which in its way is as interesting architecturally as the cathedrals.   As well as providing decent food it claims the only Grade 1 listed urinals in England.  Well worth a visit.

Our big disappointment was being unable to enter the Anglican Cathedral.  We were aware that a report on the Hillsborough disaster, in which  96 Liverpool football supporters were crushed to death 23 years ago, was to be published, and indeed that relatives and friends of those killed were to meet in the cathedral to discuss the report, but we did not expect the entire cathedral to be closed all day,  It was, after all, built to outdo all others and is the fifth largest in the world with a seating capacity of over 3 000. I am aware of the key role the present Bishop of Liverpool has played in chairing the enquiry, and can understand the Church's desire to be seen to share the pain of the city and the bereaved, but it does seem rather silly to close down entirely a major tourist attraction, or place of pilgrimage, if preferred, when so many alternatives are available.

Unfortunately the day was also marred by frequent showers, which culminated during the afternoon in heavy rain, so we retreated indoors to  the Museum of Slavery (on which much of Liverpool's prosperity was built.)  This is a moving record of our callous treatment of the different, and a reminder, that, in less obvious ways (international trade rules dictated by the rich, our prosperity built on  the export of arms, indifference to the effects of climate-change) we comfortable still exploit the weak..

Tuesday 11 September 2012

The Olympics and their legacy

I am not and never have been all that interested in sport so haven't taken much notice of the Olympics.  That doesn't mean that I don't admire the skill and dedication of those who have taken part (not just those who have won medals), and especially the way the Paralympians have overcome handicaps far greater than anything most of us have to face.  But I don't find it all that interesting, just as I admire, say,  the dedication of those who collect an classify butterflies, or the courage of those who sky dive, but I don;t want to watch either of them.

Having passed through London on the eve of the games  I can vouch for the friendliness and helpfulness of the volunteers in purple and pink shirts,one of whom went to great lengths to get me to the right platform on a strange station.  It was also pleasant that, for a few weeks, the amount of "good" news in the media far outweighed the amount of bad, though the civil war in Syria, the world food crisis  and the economic recession didn't actually go away.  And I'm please that the nation as a whole seems to have had a great party, though I'm no sure that spending £9bn on it is the most sensible way of dispensing public money at the moment.

The crass failure of private sector G4s to fulfil its contract and the way that the public sector army stepped in to fill the gap so effectively should put an end to the monetarist mantra of "private sector good, public sector bad" but I don't suppose it will.

I am a little disturbed by the way  way the media drooled with such enthusiasm  over the British medal haul in both games.  This seemed to me rather rude for the host nation, and not appropriate to what my boyhood reading of low grade novels (W E Johns and Percy F Westerman) taught me should be the British character: quiet competence, modesty and self deprecation rather than triumphalism.

And I remain rather bemused by the assumption everyone seems to make that we all, and particularly the young, should be bullied into taking part in sport.  Why not music? After all, in the Proms we put on a "world class" music festival every year, not just twice in a lifetime, but no-one, as far as I know, is pouring lottery money into instrumental music teaching and insisting that every child should learn to play the trombone. Quite the reverse in fact. And science?  As a nation we've won more than  our share of Nobel prizes, but we seem to be cutting back rather than expanding our university science departments, not dishing out free chemistry sets for all.

Not that I believe that vast expenditure on the elite in sport is likely to generate a nation of participants.  The "trickle-down effect" doesn't work in economic and I doubt it will have much effect in sports participation either: just bring pleasure to a nation of watchers.

Although one of those whose poor eyesight, lack of hand-eye co-ordination and general slowness and clumsiness meant that I was always last to be picked by the athletic youth chosen as "captain" for one of the teams in my childhood, I cannot claim that compulsory sport and PE made my life a misery, but neither did it provide much enjoyment: just one of those things that had to be endured.  I suppose it may have been  character-building.

 I'd like to think that schools would devoted their energies to providing the means for and encouraging the young to discover creative ways of using their leisure, rather than bullying them into being reluctant participants in sports.

Friday 7 September 2012

Housing Plans Reveal True Tory Character.

Economists recognise that many private activities have "externalities." which can be positive or negative. In the pre-politically correct days when I taught in an all-boys school we used the example of the girl wearing a mini-skirt, who had the private satisfaction gained from the knowledge that she was in fashion,and we had the public benefit of being able to admire her legs, as a positive externality.  Unacceptably sexist today, I know, but they did remember it.

In housing, or any other building for that matter,  an elegantly designed  structure gives private satisfaction to its owner, and the rest of us have the pleasure of enjoying the sight of a well proportioned building from the street.  An ugly carbuncle of an extension (up to 8 meters in length!) badly sited conveys a negative externality to the neighbours and any passers by.  Planners exist, among other things, to ensure that private development activities have at least a neutral impact on the rest of us.  The Pickles proposals to scrap planning requirements, even for a limited period, illustrate the Tory attitude that the "haves" can do as they (we) like and devil take the rest of us.

Secondly, this "do as you like in your own back yard" policy shows that the government at last recognises the need for an investment stimulus to the economy, but is too hidebound by its ideology to finance it through effective public works on the required scale  If the relaxation of planning laws promotes any demand at all to the building industry, it will be  a sad little nibble at the problem rather than the massive bite of public investment which is needed, but which the government lacks the courage to attempt.

Thirdly , the proposal to remove the requirement for a proportion of newly-built houses to be affordable   means that the building industry can concentrate on houses for the haves but neglect the sector in which additional housing is most urgently needed - for those with more limited means.

Finally, the removal of the requirement for affordable housing  encourages the ghettoisation of Britain,with the well off comfortably in their enclaves and the less well-off kept at a safe distance, as  though the errors of the mass one-class housing estates  of the post-war period have never been learned.  I have not yet read it, but I understand that Professor (of geography) Danny Dorling's recently published "So You Think You Know About Britain" amply illustrates the folly of this policy.

Thursday 6 September 2012

You couldn't make it up.

Politicians, particularly from the right, are fond of claiming that this, that or the other aspect of British society is "The best in the world and the envy of the world" when it patently isn't, as our justice system or parliamentary system, to give but two examples, amply demonstrate. 

The one thing that clearly is the best in the world and the envy of the world is the BBC, so what do they do?  Weaken the main organisation to favour a predatory Murdoch, and emasculate the World Service with its world-wide reputation for integrity for which most other international broadcasters, and particularly the Voice of America, would give their right arms.

It would be going too far to claim that our higher education system is the best in the world and the envy of the world, but it is internationally respected, and is one of the few remaining areas in which the UK has what economists call a "comparative advantage" in international trade terms. The fees students pay, and the money they spend while they are here are equivalent in terms of international trade to the foreign currency earning of exports of pharmaceuticals or, alas armaments.  Then, of course, there is the "knock on" effect of the respect and sometimes even affection for the UK felt by former students who often become influential citizens in their own countries - providing , of course, that they have received a stimulating educational experience and been fairly treated while they are here

So what do we do?  Restrict the number of foreign students universities can take, and besmirch our administrative reputation by revoking at the last minute the licence of London Metropolitan University to admit any at all..

Clearly London  Met's procedures need to be sorted out, but surely the process with respect to new students could have been started earlier in the year, rather than a few days before the beginning of term, and the cases of existing students  well into their courses investigated on a case by case basis and only the sham ones sent away.

This ridiculous macho action by he authorities is hugely unfair on hundreds of individuals and damages Britain's reputation  in one of the few remaining areas where we remain internationally competitive.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

"How" should we teach?

Last week's Radio 4 Eduction Debate, still available on their "Listen Again" facility,   discusses how children should be taught.  Flavour of the moment from the "experts"  appears to be cleverly directed self discovery, and classrooms devoted to this aren't classrooms at all, but SOLEs (Self Organised Learning Environments).

 I have very occasionally seen lessons organised (and yes, well done, they are organised, not disorganised) in this way and greatly admire the teachers capable of  managing them.  However, it is not the style that suits all teachers.  Others can inspire by a more teacher-centred approach, generating a  love for their subjects and for learning by their own enthusiasm and erudition.  AJP Taylor's famous TV histroy lectures  were a god example, and there are thousands more in less publicised forums every day.

Our problem today, and perhaps in ather areas as well as eduction, is that our" masers of the universe" determine "best practice" (in education, what and how they were taught) and then impose it on everyone. Hence the National Curriculum, Standard Attainment Tests and "tick-box" examinations, all supervised by OFSTED.  We need the courage to move away from this supervisory aparatus and towards a system in which well-qualified and enthusiastic teachers  are trusted to inspire the young and not so young in whatever manner best suts them.

The programme's resident cognitive scientist, a Guy Claxton,  said:  "If we don;'t find ways of measuring what we value we end up valuing what we measure."  This was  in relation to the assessment of learners , but it applies to teachers as well..  It is very difficult to measure a teacher's capacity to inspire, so we look at the tidiness of his or her register, mark book, lesson preparation and mastery of the latest acronyms.  Education, instead of being exciting,  becomes a deadly routine, designed, as Claxton claimed, to produce obedient 19th century clerks rather than the explorers the 21st century needs.

Tomorrow-night's  programme (Radoi 4 FM only at 20h00, 05/09/12)) discusses "who" should teach.

Monday 3 September 2012

Investment or Consumption?

 Last week Simon Jenkins wrote a  article in which he derided the call for a third runway at Heathrow as "big-willy" politics and called for more consumption rather than investment to stimulate the economy.  Whilst agreeing with Jenkins's view on the third runway (and I should include HS2 as well,  not to mention the renewal of Trident) I believe, having taught the Keynesian multiplier effect ad nausium throughout most of my teaching career, that his preference for consumption over investment is mistaken.  Hence:
Letters to the Editor,
The Guardian.

Dear Sir,

While I sympathise with Simon Jenkins's hint (Big willy politics is the most dangerous politics of all, 29th August) that "An economic stimulus that puts money directly into the pockets of consumers through higher benefits and/or lower taxes," rather than being "possibly immoral," might be a good idea, I cannot agree with his assertion that "consumption,not investment, is today's absolute priority." 

As every A-level student of economics knows, investment induces a Keynesian multiplier effect because it creates incomes without, initially, placing goods or services on the consumer market.  Hence employment is created which generates extra income which creates demand for the products of other producers, which creates additional  employment which generates  extra income which creates extra demand ...not exactly ad infinitum but for quite a while, depending on the amount which leaks out of the economy

A Government "give away"  achieved by putting money directly into the bank accounts of consumers, the so-called "helicopter money", is likely to leak out pretty quickly through expenditure on imported products  and foreign holidays, neither of which will do much to stimulate our own economy.

There is no shortage of worthwhile  "pump priming" projects which will enhance our economic and social well-being in the future. As your letters page on 28th August demonstrates, there is ample opportunity for, and few constraints on, desperately needed investment in housing, and, if Mr Jenkins were to travel on our Northern Rail network he would soon appreciate the need for an upgrade.  To give just one example, the Trans-Pennine Service provided by FirstGroup is often grossly overcrowded even at off- peak times.

Peter Wrigley