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 fa├žade 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.