Wednesday 25 September 2013

Liberal Democrat integrity: a chance for redemption.

Britain's Export Credit Guarantees Department (ECGD) has long been notorious for underwriting loans to some of the dodgiest regimes in the world to enable them to buy our arms and thus keep our highly subsidised arms industry in business.  Even when the regimes which bought the arms are overthrown their long suffering public are still lumbered with paying off the loans clocked up by their governments in order to to repress them.

The Jubilee Debt Campaign, of which I am an enthusiastic member, points out that Liberal Democrat policy in 2010 was "to conduct our own audit of all existing  government and commercial debts, ruling invalid  any past lending that was recklessly given to dictators."

The responsible minister for the ECGD (now renamed UK Export Finance) is none other than our own Vince Cable, who now says "The government has no plans  to conduct an audit  of debts owed to UK Export Finance."

This boroken promise will not resonate with the British electorate as strongly as that on student fees.  But in terms of human suffering it will have far more serious consequences.

Please join in Jubilee Debt's Campaign (details here) to hold Liberal Democrats in government to our promise and do something to redeem our reputation.

Monday 23 September 2013

No point in a centre party.

Nick Clegg seems fond of anchoring the Liberal Democrats firmly in "the centre."  It's true that some  voters, and possibly focus groups, speculate vaguely about a non-extremist party that somehow contains the best of the others without the worst bits.  But on serious examination such centre ground, if it does exist, is not an ideal place for a party to position itself, and certainly not one to enthuse its activists.  

In effect anchoring ourselves to "the centre"  allows our opponents to define us, and there is a sense in which this has happened.  As neocon "market forces rule OK" economics has become fashionable, adopted by the Tories and imitated by New labour, we have allowed ourselves to be over-influenced by our "Orange Book" tendency and followed suit. How much better, and today more relevant, had we stuck to our Keynesian and Beveridgean credentials.

In a recent, but unpublished, letter to the Guardian my friend Michael Meadowcroft, wrote:

"The mythical 'centre-ground' simply does not exist. It is a mirage that parties regular chase after in vain. If it is intended to denote some gap between two major parties purporting to be on the Left and Right then it has the deeply unattractive attribute of depending entirely on how those parties shift around day by day. No self-respecting party should ever abdicate defining its political position for itself.
"There is, however, a much more formidable reason for rejecting any concept of a 'centre' position. The whole idea of 'Left' and 'Right' comes to us from the seating arrangements of the French revolutionary assembly and has only ever defined attitudes to economic control. Liberals historically have always rejected this as being a highly partial and inhuman definition of the kind of society we want.

In a letter which was published (19 September) Michael spelt out  succinctly what we're all about (and why Labour is not a suitable vehicle for our beliefes.)

"Labour has always been economically determinist, centralist and hegemonic. Political liberalism is precisely the opposite, supporting human values, devolution and pluralism." (my emphsis)

How I wish our leaders would take notice.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Loss, not profit, from the Lloyds Bank sell-off

By flogging off Lloyds Bank shares at 75p when,  in the 2008 rescue, it bought them at 73.6p the government claims to have made a profit for the tax payer of nearly £60m (actually, by long multiplication, since my calculator batter has run out, £58.8m)

However, since 2008 there has been inflation, not as much as in some five year periods but certainly some, and certainly more than wages have risen.  A useful site tells me that, after accounting for inflation, the present value of the 73.6p today is 83.4p.  In other words those shares, at 75p,  have been sold off at a loss of 8.4p per share.  Since 4.2 billion shares were sold, that's a real loss to the government /taxpayer of £352.8m.

This calculation is not rocket science so why aren't the media screaming that Osborne is lying and we, the public, are being robbed.

What's more, though perhaps not quite as costly to the public purse, the Chief Executive of Lloyds, Mr Antonio Horta-Osoria,  stands to collect a bonus of more that £2.2m if the shares stay above the 73.6p value paid in 2008, rather than the present value of 83.4p.  Those who make these contracts certainly know how to write them in favour of the "haves."

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Wave Power, but not ruled by Britannia

In an earlier post I've argued that it would be far more sensible to develop methods of harnessing our island's abundant wave power rather than  dump future generations with the problem of disposing of dangerous nuclear waste.  Happily, wave power is not being entirely ignored.  A company called MeyGen is to launch a project involving six underwater turbines in the Pentland Firth, where, apparently, the tides are particularly vigorous.

Sadly, British entrepreneurship is curiously absent from the project: MeyGem is jointly owned by the US investment bank Morgan Stanley, the French energy company GDF Suez S A and the Australian Atlantis Resources Corporation.

So where are all those British entrepreneural go-getters, freed by Osborne from so much red tape, loaded with low interest and easy to come by credit, and anxious to fill the space no longer crowded by the unenterprising  the state? 

Monday 16 September 2013

Has the Liberal Democrat leadership got a death wish?

We Liberal Democrats have been praised in the media for being the only one of the three main parties which permits real debate at our conference.Well yes, but I suspect some of the the votes on these debates are based as much on sheeplike support for the leadership, with many a glance over the shoulder at a press eager to proclaim the leader's humiliation, as on the strengthen of the arguments.

I wasn't at this morning's debate on the economy so can't assess the strengths of the arguments, but I strongly suspect many of the votes in favour of the motion were in support of the leader rather than the policy.  Indeed it is, I understand, unprecedented, for the leader to lay his reputation on the line by personally summing up the debate.  Oh that he had followed Vince Cable's clear advice that there was no reason why the (very mild) Social Liberal Forum amendment could not be accepted.  Instead Nick Clegg chose confrontation and poor Vince, along with the a majority of the conference, was bullied into voting to support Osbornomics.

I apologise for being repetitive, because the truth of the economic situation, supported by a galaxy of distinguished economists,  has been hammered away at  in this blog since its inception, but, here it is again:

1.  The economic crisis was caused by the irresponsible activities of the financial sector, made possible by the deregulation introduced by the Tories.  Labour happened to be in charge when the crash came but to say they caused it is a triumph of "perception management."  True Labour did too little to rein in the financial sector, but the Tories were actually calling for  more deregulation and, apart from a few shots from Cable about debt (I think he was referring to the private rather than public sector debt), nothing much was being said by Liberal Democrats.   No one that I'm aware of had the courage to speak up for killing the goose which appeared to be laying endless golden eggs

2. The UK's public debt was not and is not at unprecedented and dangerous levels.  For the first several years the Labour government ran a current surplus and paid off much of the national debt still left behind after  18 years of Tory rule.  When the crash came the debt:GDP ratio was modest, and even when Labour left office was nowhere near dangerous levels.  We never were in a position comparable with that of Greece.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Tories seized on the misplaced  perception that we were  in order to implement their ideology of rolling back the state.  It is distressing that our people in government went along with this, and after this morning's vote it can be claimed that the party does to.

3.  The economy was in recovery when Labour left office.  Osborne's policies (particularly the raising of VAT) reversed this progress and have caused three unnecessary years of stagnation.  We must hope for the sake of the 20% of our people who have suffered most that the trend continues, but it does seem to have foundations based on sand: the seeds of another  housing bubble, yet more personal debt, and very unevenly distributed (ie mostly in London and the South East.)

Nuclear Power Staions: Liberal Democrat core vote receives another blow.ow.

Apparently our conference has decided to turn turtle and come out in favour of building more nuclear power stations.  The approval is hedged around with conditions.  A close eye is to be kept on costs and they are not to receive public subsidy. Ha!  Arthur Scargill, the "wicked" Miners' Leader, pointed out thirty years ago that if the coal industry received the same level of subsidy as the nuclear industry miners  could deliver coal to the power stations for free.

I do not claim to be well informed on this issue, and I didn't hear the debate so there may be points I'm missing,  but it does seem to me that, until an effective method of disposing harmlessly of the nuclear waste generated by these power stations, then projects should be limited to small scale experiments.

Right wingers are for ever obsessing about not bequeathing mountains of national  debt to future generations (that is to misunderstand the nature of national debt, but that's another matter):  they don't seem worried at all about bequeathing mountains of nuclear waste to their children and grandchildren, with, as yet, no known effective ways of neutralising it.

This Liberal Democrat decision further reduces the choice available to the electorate, and is particularly damaging to those activists and core voters who have supported us as the Greenest of the major parties.

One final puzzle: why, as a small island surrounded by seas, in which the tides come in and out relentlessly twice a day (and four times in the Solent, if my recollections of Percy F Westerman's sea cadet stories are correct)   are we not world experts on harnessing tidal power? That would be something worth subsidising and bequeathing to the next generation.

Friday 13 September 2013

An Epitaph for Osbornomics

George Osborne claimed that his policies would rebalance our economy, away from services and towards manufacturing.

Herewith the evidence for the past twelve months:

  • Estate agent jobs:   + 77 000
  • Manufacturing jobs: -14 000
You couldn't make it up.

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Great Britain: a small island to which no-one listens.

Every now and again some politician, usually of the right, huffs and puffs about putting the "Great" back into "Great Britain," when,of course, in either of its true senses, it has never gone missing.

The two explanations for the "great" that I know of are:
  •  to distinguish us from the eastern region of France, Brittany: hence Bretagne (them) and Grande Bretagne (us) 
  • to distinguish between our main island, Britain, and the main island plus all the smaller islands around (such as Anglesey, the Isle of Wight, Isle of Arran, Orkney,  the Shetlands and many more,) which make up Great Britain.
Which of these is the authentic original I don't know, but the "Great" is not now ad never was, except in the minds of self-aggrandising xenophobes, anything to do with the size of our political clout.

David Cameron's riposte to the alleged Russian slur contains both truths and exaggerations.   He pointed out that "our island has helped to clear  the European continent of fascism."  Well yes.  But in that struggle Russia lost 26 600 000 of its citizens, compared with the UK's 365 000 (and France's 580 000 and of the USA's 340 000) so Mr Putin is unlikely to be impressed.  I make this point not to belittle the scarifies of the other allies, but just to put matters into perspective.

Cameron also claimed that "we" have invented "most of the things worth inventing (I wonder what he has in mind?  penicillin, the jet engine, television?  One has to tread carefully in this area: France for example not only has its own "discoverer of oxygen" to rival Joseph Priestly, fellow native of the same town as I and educated at the same school, but also its own inventor of the steam engine.)

Cameron is probably on stronger ground with respect to Great Britain's contribution to sport ["(we) invented every sport currently played around the world"], art , music and literature, but, again we have to be careful about that last one, since a lot of the great writers in English (Swift, Wilde, Shaw, for example) were Irish.  And Ireland firmly excludes itself from Great Britain. (Hence"the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.")

But although the above make interesting conversation topics, rather like picking members for an all-time greatest cricket XI, I have no desire to live in a country with is politically "great," "punches above its weight."  or has more than its share of "soft power." I'm happy to settle for a country with is modestly competent, whose citizens enjoy a high co-efficient of contentment, and whose leaders work harmoniously with our neighbours to promote  similar benefits for the rest of the world.

Wednesday 4 September 2013

The next coalition negotiations (2)

A balanced parliament still seems the most likely outcome of the next general election.

In an earlier post (  15th May, 2013) I have argued that we need to dispense with the convention that, after a general election, the new prime minister walks into the front door of No 10 and the  old one sneaks out of the back, all within 24 hours, and  suggested that at least ten days be allowed for the  formation of a government. 

I want now to suggest that it is rather silly to try to apply to a coalition government the same rules of collective responsibility as have traditionally applied to one-party governments.  I suggest that any new coalition agreement should divide issues into at least four categories:

1.        1. Those areas where both (or all)  the parties are agreed and on which they will work together and    support each other both inside and outside parliament.

2.      .2   Those areas on which the minority party(ies)   do not agree with the majority party, but promise to offer “confidence and support” whilst reserving the right to offer alternative courses.

3.         3   Those areas where the minority party (ies) do not agree with the majority party and reserve  the right to campaign on alternative policies and to abstain on any vote in parliament.

4.          4.   Those areas on which there is no agreement and on which the minority parties have the right to campaign and vote independently.

Such categorisation would avoid some of the embarrassments for Liberal Democrats which have arisen over the past three years, many arising from Nick Clegg’s na├»ve assertion that the coalition members must “own” all that the government does.  From my point of view the main embarrassment has been and continues to be Liberal Democrat support for Osborne’s economic policies: others may be concerned about other issues (support for the restructuring of the NHS, or the creation of “free” schools and extension of the academy programme, for example).

An attempt to categorise issues in the above manner in the 2010 agreement would, for example, have helped clarify the Conservatives’ intentions on electoral reform and reform of the second chamber -  that their promise to introduce measures to facilitate them did not, we realised too late, imply that they would actually vote for them.

It is important that, whatever the public rivalries and protestations of the possibility of outright victory, party managers should be getting together discussing these ideas now rather than leaving everything to be sorted out in the flurry of post-election exhaustion.

It is of course quite possible that haggling in such detail would take more than ten days, but I’m fairly certain that the “almighty markets” would soon get used to the idea, and the sky would not fall in.

Sunday 1 September 2013

A Twelve-point Manifesto for Economic Recovery along with Fairness

I first came across the Hon* Christopher Layton on a refresher course for economics teachers at the University of Bath in the late 60s.  He astounded us by pointing our that the peak years for the order books of BSA, which made machine tools as well as airguns and Bantam motor-bikes, were 1951, 1955, 1959 and 1964.

To understand the significance of this you need to know about the economic "accelerator,"  by which a change in consumer demand has a magnified effect on investment demand (eg machine tools).  Now those dates were the years of General Elections, so here was evidence that our governments were stimulating consumer demand in election years - in other words, abusing  Keynesian demand management by using it to create a "feel good factor" to  win elections rather than steer the economy on a steady course to maintain full employment, growth, stable prices and balanced external payments.

It is a testimony to the innocence of those days that we were surprised by this: nowadays of course it is a commonplace.

Chris Layton has come to my attention again through an article on the coalition's economic policies, "Hurting not Working,"  in issue 358 of the Liberal magazine, Liberator. In this Layton:

  • praises Vince Cable for "urging public bond issues to fund a house building programme, rejecting a further round of spending cuts, and arguing that future efforts to close the deficit should be split 50-50 between tax increases and spending cuts;
  • points out the obvious, that "less public spending means less consumer or investment spending and a lower tax take;
  •  acknowledges that, after 2008 "deficit financing  by Gordon Brown, the US and other countries  successfully prevented worse (collapse.)"
Layton calls for "fresh thinking" and gives detailed proposals for a "practical and ethical vision" as follows:

  1. Public investment in infrastructure, financed by long term  infrastructure bonds, along with the removal of the cap on local authority borrowing to finance house building.  If the markets were supportive further bond issues could finance building programmes for hospitals and schools.
  2. Royal bank of Scotland to be fully nationalised, stripped of its bad debts and turned into a public investment bank, and the capital of the Green Investment Bank  increased from £3 -10bn over two years.
  3. A Europe-wide Tobin or financial transactions task.  True the "turkeys in the City don't like Christmas but it makes sense  for the public purse to tax a share of the gigantic flows of parasitic  money that rush round markets..."  A more modest step would be a levy on banks' balance sheets  as proposed by the Economist.
  4. Taxing capital gains at the same level as income tax.
  5. A tax on land, including agricultural land.  This would have to be introduced gradually, but the coalition should "immediately" tax unused land with planning permission,  which developers sit on.
  6.  Bonuses to be limited to no more than twice annual salary (though he notes an MIT study which shows that whilst bonuses encourage output and performance among the lowest earners, they are counter-productive  when applied to higher earners.)
  7. The 50% tax rate to be restored, and annual incomes above £500 000 to be subject to a super-tax of 80% or more.  This "would help create a sense of justice and do no harm to management performance."
  8. Clamp down on tax avoidance, tax havens, and the non-domestic status which turns the UK itself into a tax haven.
  9. Regulatory carbon pricing, carbon taxation and a revived European carbon market.
  10. Abolishing national Insurance contributions for the under 25s and reducing them for the lower-paid.
  11. Increasing capital allowances.
  12. Restoring cuts in funding for renewable energy.
Well, there's plenty meat there for Liberal Democrat manifesto writers to get their teeth into, and it comes not from some wild impractical youth but from one of the party's most sagacious and respected elder-statesmen.

*Christopher Layton is an Hon because he's a younger son of the late great Walter Layton, among other things sometime editor of the Economist and three times parliamentary Liberal candidate, alas unsuccessful, who was given a peerage in 1947.  Walter Layton was part-author with Keynes of the famous  Yellow Book  of 1928 which set out Liberal proposals to climb out of depression and "conquer unemployment."  Hence by setting out the above proposals the Hon Christopher is following in his distinguished father's footsteps.

 Let's hope that this time the parties and electorate  take more notice.