Saturday 31 May 2014

The squeezed bottom

When a barber asked a curmudgeonly customer how he would like his hair cutting the response is said to have been, "In silence."  I had the opposite experience earlier this week when the customer in front of me didn't seem to mind revealing details of his circumstances, without any sign of  rancour or self-pity, to the chatty barber and the rest of us in the queue.

He was having his hair cut ready for going on holiday.  This was the first holiday of any kind he and his wife had had for ten years.  No, they had not even been away at weekends as he usually worked at least one of the weekend days, and often both.  He worked as a fryer in a fish and chip shop and  had worked every day for the last past three weeks.  When he did manage a day off his fellow fryer had to do a double shift, and he had to compensate accordingly to give his colleague a day off.

He and his wife had long planned a major holiday when they reached  40.  There had been visions of a month or so in America or Australia, but they had had to cut this back to a week in Majorca.

He was very proud of his son, aged 17, who had a apprenticeship and was the envy of his mates at college as he was paid £1 over the minimum wage.  (He seemed to think that  this was over the £3.72 per hour minimum  for under 18s , though the minimum for apprentices is £2.68).

The son was not going to bother to find a girlfriend until he had finished his apprenticeship, when he would emigrate to Australia or America.  (It was not clear whether the lad would choose his girlfriend before or after emigrating.)

I have no idea for which party he had voted in last week's elections, or whether he was one of the two thirds who didn't bother to vote at all. His lifestyle contrasts starkly with that of our political class: think of those selected for the House of Lords, and their £300 per day just for signing in. And he is not really at the bottom of the pile: at least two members of his family are in work..

He and his wife should be in Majorca now.  I hope they're having a good time.

Thursday 29 May 2014

Liberal Democrats fratch like rats in a sack, aided and abetted by the Guardian.

On the theory that "no publicity is bad publicity" I'd have been delighted in most of my years as a Liberal/ Liberal Democrat to see us leading the news even on one day, never mind on four consecutive days, simply because at last someone was taking notice of us.  Some fifty years (longer for some) of toiling on the fringes of the political vineyard at last brought those days to an end at the beginning of this century and I  still get a mild thrill when I read or hear references in the media to "the three major parties.  That is my generation's achievement.

It is unfortunate that, after many years when "power" has been confined to local councils, we at last break into national government the "wrong lot,"*  from the economic point of view, happen to be at the top of the party, though put there legitimately by our very democratic party processes.

Current talk of changing the leader is pointless, rather like changing the label on a bottle but still flogging the same "snake oil" contents.  David Laws (our original number 2 at the Treasury) and  Danny Alexander are just as complicit in kow-towing to the Tory economic dogma as is Clegg, if not more so,  and Vince Cable is by no means simon pure.  The truth is admirably expressed by this letter which appeared in yesterday's Guardian:

• Lib Dems don't need a change of leader. We need a change of policies and direction. This starts with a total repudiation of the backdoor Tory war on the poor, waged through austerity and so-called welfare "reform".
We need to return to traditional policies and approach, pioneered by Lloyd George and Beveridge, Keynes and Jenkins, Gladstone and Grimond.
We don't need a new manifesto. We have excellent programmes from 2005 and 2010; Nick Clegg advocated these with great skill and eloquence just four years ago. He must do so again as we return to our true principles and beliefs.
Jonathan Hunt
Convener, LibsLeft; chair, Camberwell & Peckham local party.

The following letter, from me, was, alas, not published::

 Come off it, Guardian. On your front page last Saturday you report that, on the basis of the voting for the local elections "it was estimated last night  that this would translate  into ...45 (parliamentary seats) for the Lib Dems."  Although I feel the estimate is on the generous side it hardly justifies today's headline "Clegg taking Lib Dems to wipeout."  Don't even your headline writers believe your own reporters?

Today they report that estimates suggest we'll retain 30 seats, still a long way off "wipeout."  Probably something in between is the reality, providing the dissidents shut up and give both Nick and our traditional policies the support they both deserve.

*  Wrong only in the area of economic policy. There's much more to Liberalism, and even politics, than economics, and I'm sure these people are very sound on other Liberal values such as internationalism, human rights, tolerance of minorities and their rights, enthusiasm (sic) for Europe, and, of course, proportional representation by single transferable vote in multimember constituencies.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

22nd May, 2014: a second reverse, or is it?

In my adult lifetime the first significant politic reverse occurred on 3rd May 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher.  Until then we in Britain had shuffled, sometimes hesitantly, sometimes taking one or two steps backwards, but generally progressed, towards a more mature, tolerant, and caring democracy.  Under both Conservative and Labour governments, as we became richer our health services improved, educational opportunities expanded, areas of personal freedom were enlarged, rights were protected and care for the less fortunate maintained.  Life wasn't perfect, of course.  Some flourished more than others and some still slipped through the net.  But the sense of being "all in this together" endured as we worked gradually towards a freer and more civilised society.

In the name of releasing the energies and enterprise of individuals from the allegedly stifling  arms of the state Mrs Thatcher put this process into reverse.  There was "no such thing of socity" and "devil take the hindmost"  lest too much cosseting impaired individual initiative. Conservative governments since then have followed this path and Labour has been too frightened to reverse it.  Effectively our society has been and is being handed over to the covetous worldlings against whom Cranmer prayed or protection as far back as 1553.

The European election of 22nd May 2014 may mark a similar reverse. An organisation established in 1957 to promote peace and international co-operation has gradually, and sometimes ineptly, expanded the areas of freedom and human dignity.  We can travel and work, buy and sell, where we like; students can study where they want and receive support; we share health facilities: our environment is better protected and our rivers and beaches are cleaner;, our food is safer; our health, safety and rights at work are better protected.

Now, with the surge in support for the anti union, nationalist, xenophobic, potentially racist parties, are we to return to the restricted visions of the past?  

Happily we need not.  The stodgy centre left and centre right parties still hold 70% of the seats, though sadly with less Liberal input to stiffen their sinews.  But if they hold their nerve and stick to the vision of Monet, Schumann and the other founding fathers,  rather than compromise with the populists, where is still hope that the EU can continue to progress towards a more civilised life for all its citizens.

That does not, of course, mean that there is no need for change.  Less ostentation (a cut in salaries and expenses for a start), less pettiness, more generosity from the "have" nations to the "have less", more urgent action to solve the crisis of youth unemployment, better communications, more concern for the lives of its citizens over the  demands  of business,  are all needed.  In a wider context Larry Elliot (Guardian 26th May) expresses it well:

"...make capitalism meet the needs of the people, rather than. . . make make the people meet the needs of capitalism."

Since it's now more difficult to have socialism (or even Keynesian-ism) in one country, here's a worthy  task for a supranational organisation.  But the wider founding vision of the UE should not be lost.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Holiday musings

I've spent the past week on a walking holiday in Anglesey: hence no posts.  (I leave my computer behind. Surely one point of a holiday is to provide  a break from normal activities.)

Northern  Rail Network.
The first leg of my train journey to Anglesey was by Trans-Penine Express  from Dewsbury to Manchester.  Although it was Saturday morning, (no business travellers) the train was absolutely packed and I had to spend the entire journey standing jammed with my luggage in the entrance area.  I understand that extra carriages have been acquired for the Northern Rail Network but someone has decided that the South has greater need so these have been passed on.  However, this journey provided  confirmation of my view that what we need in  the North is not a fancy and outrageously  expensive HS2 route to London, but a a much cheaper and much more necessary upgrading the network between the northern cities.

Tribute to youth.
Most of my fellow (and a few sister) standees were rugby league fans going to support Leeds Rhinos in a two-day competition in Manchester. They appeared to be in their early twenties and, although it was still only mid-morning, were cheerfully "necking" cans of lager.  They were consideration itself: helped lift my heavy bag onto the train, squashed up to make space for me, and one of the girls offered to let me sit on the pop- up seat against which she was leaning.  They carried on a cheerful and perhaps slightly raucous conversation but in the journey of nearly an hour I didn't hear a single swear-word.  I hope it doesn't sound too patronising, but I find this very encouraging.  I suspect rugby league attracts a better quality of support than soccer. I hope the Rhinos covered themselves with glory.

Road signs in Welsh
Apparently 70% of the  Anglesey population speak Welsh, so it is reasonable that their road signs should be in both Welsh and English.  However, since they rely so much on tourism I think it would be safer and more convenient if the signs were first in English and then in Welsh.  It is natural to read a sign "from the top" and, by the time you've realised  that the top isn't what you want and shifted down to the bottom you've often passed the sign and missed the necessary information.

I gather that May is the driest  month in Anglesey.  From our experience, heaven help them in April. 


We covered a good two thirds of the coastal path The views the northern part are stunning, rivalled only in my experience by the Cornish coast, especially  around Lizard Point.  There was a massive profusion of spring flowers: notably thrift, sea squill and bluebells.  The bluebells covered vast areas of open ground and cliff- side and were still at their best, whereas those in the woodlands around here reached their peak two or three weeks ago.  I was rapped over the knuckles by one of our party who is  an enthusiastic Welsh nationalist for referring to them as "English" bluebells.  They are "native" bluebells, darker than the intrusive Spanish variety and drooping over at the top of the stem.  Another distinction is that the stamens of the native variety are white whereas the Spanish are blue (or maybe it's the other way sound: I'll check next year)

It's a relief that  Pfizer have abandoned their attempts to take over Astra-Zeneca.  That saves the embarrassment of Vince Cable's having to upset the Tories by vetoing it, or rousing our fury by letting it go ahead.    It was annoying to read the sensationalist statement in the Guardian that the decision to withdraw had "wiped £9b from the value of the shares" without any mention that this really was "froth" because they'd gone up by double that  when the offer was made.  For once the carpet baggers have had their fingers burned.

I think we Liberal Democrats have not done quite so badly in the local council elections as the media make out.  Nationally we polled 13%, which is considerably more than the single figures the  opinion polls have been predicting.  Here in Kirklees we lost not a single seat, and the same applies in Bradford.  In neighbouring Leeds we lost only one.

I know that's no comfort to the 300 or so councillors who did lose their seats but, as we can no longer lay any claim to the protest vote we must expect times to be tough. Bigger disappointments could be in store on the declaration of the Euro results tonight.

Be that as it may, the calls for Nick Clegg to resign are ridiculous. Although, as regular readers of this blog will appreciate,  I don't agree with some of that we have done in the coalition, to offer Clegg as a sacrificial lamb is both unfair and pointless.   The entire party must take responsibility for what we've done,  learn from our mistakes, and emphasise in our campaigning the undoubted gains, must notably the fixed term parliament, we have achieved.

We must seriously question the judgement, I'm tempted to say the sanity, of those Liberal Democrat candidates who call for a leadership election at this stage. 

Not really a political point, but I'm so pleased to be told by our Christian Aid organiser that our door to door collection reached £1 801, up £300  on last year.  Another example of Northern grit in the face of adversity.

Friday 16 May 2014

A Euorpean election not about Europe.

In his splendid biography of Roy Jenkins, John Campbell quotes in some detail a speech made by Jenkins in 1967:

[To] cling on to our precarious position  as the third of the great powers [by maintaining a military capacity] which has to be paid for by others bailing us out is neither dignified  nor effective.. . . .  Europe. . . offers the prospect of living among equals, and exercising great influence through our co-operation with them, instead of straining ourselves into weakness by trying vainly  to keep up with the power giants of the world.  (Campbell, page 292)

Nearly half a century later little has changed in substance, save that rather than trying  to be "the third of the great powers" our jingoists are reduced to being content  with the role of lapdog to the US.

Jenkins's vision of "living among equals, and exercising great influence thorough our co-operation with
 them " (my emphasis) remains as valid as ever.

I'm aware that even in continental Europe, and even among the founders, there is a certain disengagement, to put it mildly, from the initial vision.  Yet I understand that in those coutries the EU election is at least largely about the EU and what polices the various parties have to maintain it or modify it.

In the UK, apart from grumbles and misinformation about immigration, the EU hardly seems to feature in the election campaign at all.

My Tory leaflet for Yorkshire enumerates the wonders of their achievements in cutting the deficit, cutting tax, and capping welfare, whilst claiming that "Labour and the Liberal Democrats won't stand up for Britain."

Labour devote a quarter of their leaflet to a huge picture of Ed Miliband with he caption that "Only Labour  will tackle the cost-of-living crisis,"  which alleged crises occupies half of each of two other pages.  A third of another page proclaims that we " cant' trust the Tories with the NHS" (how true, but hardly a European issue), and matters genuinely pertaining to the EU (workers' rights, jobs, and Europe-wide legislation to limit smoking amongst children) each merit only  about a quarter-page inset.

Even the Greens, whom you would think would latch onto the importance of the EU in reaching international agreement on climate change, pollution  and the conservation of the  environment, barely mention these issues and devote space to a living wage, insulation privatisation, HS2 and Trident, all largely domestic issues.

Although we are clearly defined as "The party of IN", which is at least a step in the right direction, Liberal Democrat literature unimaginatively concerns itself mainly with the importance of Europe in maintaining jobs.

So where is the enthusiasm to further Jenkins's vision  of  working with our equals to maintain and improve this great achievement in the creation and preservation of democracy, the rule of law,  human rights, health, education, inter-cultural relationships, cross border justice, and links with other great powers to achieve a fairer, greener, more sustainable and more just  world for all humankind.?

No wonder the blinkered Ukip are tipped  to top the poll.

Thursday 15 May 2014

Meadowcroft on crime

The previous post deals with the folly of the Tory policy of mandatory prison sentences for  the second offence of carnying a knife.  On a broader front my friend Michael Meadowcroft has written to the Yorkshire Post outlining wider criticisms of right wing "get tough" policies.

                                                                                                                               10th May 2014
Dear Sir

Grant Woodward’s article (Get-tough over sentences won’t stop scepticism, May 8) is yet another repetition of the standard fallacies associated with crime and deterrence.

No-one doubts that there are heinous crimes that require severe punishment but this really should not be confused with effective combating of future crime nor of prevention of re-offending. The victims of violent crime and their families are, of course, entitled to see the perpetrators punished but it is the responsibility of the justice system, and of politicians, sensitively to explain to them the reality of what works and what does not work.

First, it is the likelihood of getting caught that is a deterrent not the severity of the sentence. Take burglary- which I am familiar with, having suffered fifteen of them - if we only convict 13% of the burglars, the odds of 15 to 2 are excellent and they will carry on, whatever the penalty. But if we caught 80% it would not be worthwhile, even with minimal penalties. The proof of this lies with motor offences. Why are all driving more slowly? Because penalties for speeding have soared? Not at all - it is simply because the advent of the dreaded speed cameras have vastly increased the likelihood of being caught.

Second, it is simply not the case that all murderers are dangerous. Many commit the crime in domestic circumstances that are highly unlikely ever to recur. A murder case I was personally closely involved with some years ago was one such. The otherwise respectable young man from a stable and loving family committed an appalling murder - a crime of passion - and was duly convicted. It was accepted by the prosecution and by the justice system that he was in no way dangerous but the mandatory life sentence meant that over ten years of his life was wasted in prison. It is also salutary to realise juries will not convict someone  who has committed the manifest “mercy killing” of a terminally ill relative if they believe that they would go to prison.

Third, prison is not an effective means of preventing re-offending for the vast majority of cases. The prisons are now so overcrowded that the prison service is unable to do the rehabilitation work it very much wants to do. There are still a few specialist units that achieve significant results, at a high cost, but these are increasingly rare. So we lock more men and women up at an immense cost and wait for them to come out and re-offend! We need many more probation officers, within the public service, in order to reduce their caseloads and to achieve the changes in behaviour that we all want.

So, please Mr Woodward, if you genuinely wish to reduce crime, look at the facts rather than the slogans and be brave enough to campaign for what works.

Yours faithfully

Saturday 10 May 2014

Courageous Clegg

Shortly after the stabbing of teacher Ann Maguire in her classroom in Leeds Nick Clegg was asked on his London Radio phone-in programme if he supported having  airport-style electronic security machines to vet pupils as they entered school.  No, he didn't, he said, and felt that Mrs Maguire wouldn't have wanted that either.

Now Clegg and, as far as I can tell, most if not all of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary team, are refusing to support the Tory call for the mandatory imprisonment of anyone convicted for the second time of carrying a knife.  At a time of media hysteria generated by the Leeds stabbing, and with Labour cravenly supporting the knee-jerk reaction, this takes political courage.

I can see no case for mandatory sentences for any crime.  There is a Yorkshire saying which one of my uncles was fond of quoting:

                           Circumstances alters cases just as noses alters faces. 

(I'm afraid I don't know how to write this to indicate a Yorkshire accent)

That is why we have magistrates and judges to evaluate each case on its merits and decide, after hearing all the evidence, an appropriate remedy.  If that leads to something of a" post-code lottery" so  be it.  That's what democracy is all about.

Apart from mandatory imprisonment failing to take into account individual circumstances (eg a gang member spotting the police and quickly handing his knife over to a younger lad or an accompanying girl) Tories should be reminded that it was one of their Home Secretaries who admitted : "Prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse."  We should be making fa more use of non-custodial sentences, which are not only more effective but also much less costly.

So congratulations to Nick and our MPs for being a beacon of sanity  in the midst of pre-election populism.  That is what Liberalism should be all about.

 The opinion polls show our support down to 10% (bless them) but I believe our true  core support is at least double that, provided we stick to and have the courage to propagate our fundamental beliefs.

Thursday 8 May 2014

Cable sits carefully on the fence.

On Monday the Guardian headlined its article on the attempted take-over of AstraZeneca by Pfizer as: "Coalition rift over £69bn offer fro UK drugs company."

I find it sad that even the so-called responsible press describe  reasonable differences between the coalition partners  in the language of strife. Even single parties are, in the classic phrase, "coalitions of opinion" so it is reasonable to expect that when two or more parties form the government the differences of opinions will be wider. 

Grow up, Guardian, and report our democracy as working as R A Butler correctly described it: "Government by discussion."  There is every expectation that any differences of opinion can and should be resolved by "quiet calm deliberation"  as Gilbert and Sullivan put it in the Gondoliers.

Whilst both David Cameron and George Osborne  seem keen on the deal Vince Cable has expressed caution, trying to keep an "open mind" but not ruling out the possibility of using his statutory veto, though acknowledging this would be serious step.

Cable's  is a sensible approach because:

  •  it would be unwise tactics to be too openly opposed to both the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer
  • overseas investment in our motor industry is seen as a great success
  • Britain itself has not in the past been all that shy of establishing or taking over enterprises in other economies, and may wish to continue doing so.
Osborne in particular may be tempted by the idea of an influx of £69 billion worth* of foreign currency into our balance of payments accounts, which are in a parlous state.  However, if he looks at any standard A-level text book he will see that  the downside is a future negative flow of profits interest and dividends to the foreign owners.

In addition it is a commonplace in the textbooks that foreign ownership generally means that high grade management functions, and high grade research, tend to be concentrated  the foreign economy, and any downsizing in the event of a recession tends to take place first in operations in the non-host economies.

I am no expert on the pharmaceutical industry, but it doesn't not seem to me that there are any scientific advantages to the proposed take-over, or synergy from a joint operation.  Rather this will result in an increase in monopoly power in an already oligopolistic industry, and a reduction in the competition that is supposed to be such a stimulus to enterprise in a capitalist system.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion  that the main motive in the take-over is to take advantage of the UK's disgracefully low profits taxes  (21%, soon to be 20%, compared to 35 to 40% in the US),  and, given Pfizer's recent closure of its factory in Kent, and the experience of  Kraft's broken promises after their take-over of Cad bury, any promises regarding the maintenance of research , development and employment, particularly high-grade employment, in the UK, are probably not worth tuppence.

So the argument for rejecting the offer seems to be overwhelming.  We desperately need a major "plus" from Liberal Democrat participation in government.  Let's hope this is it.

I have long believed that the pharmacy industry takes the rest of us for a ride, claiming  that it needs high profit margins in order to finance research, and then spending most time and money on research on minor "Western" problems such as erectile dysfunction and fripperies such as creams to remove the hairs on ladies' legs,  with not much on world killers such as malaria,  typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea. I believe there is a strong case for nationalising the lot of them, or at least setting up a government owned and funded rival which will become the preferred provider for the NHS.  That could be something for our next manifesto.

* If the deal goes through some of the purchase will be in shares rather than money, so the whole £69bn may not show up in the accounts.

Thursday 1 May 2014

Difficult, and not so difficult, decisions

It has become a commonplace that when our politicians talk about "difficult decisions" the difficulties they create impinge mainly, indeed almost exclusively, on those lest able to bear them.

In an astonishing article this week George Monbiot points out that whereas we humble have to pay the full whack of the cost  of a passport or driving licence, the price of gun licences,  which cost the police £196 to process, is to remain, at the personal diktat of the prime minister,  unchanged at £50.  And the subsidy for grouse moors is to be increased from £30 per hectare to £50 per hectare.  It comes as a surprise to me , and I suspect to most, that there is any subsidy at all for moorland.

And this, of course, at a time when the budget for welfare is being pared to the bone in order to eliminate the government deficit.

Monbiot concludes his article: There are a dozen ways in which [the government] could have discharged the deficit without inflicting cuts in social security or other public services,

and lists them as follows:-
  1. a land value tax*
  2. more council tax bands*
  3. a flat (presumably percentage) council tax*
  4. a Robin Hood (Tobin-type, or financial transactions) tax
  5. an effective clampdown on tax avoidance. . . .
  6. . . .and on tax evasion.
Well, actually that's only half a dozen, or five if  2 and 3 are alternatives.  So here, to fill the gap, are my own additions:
     7.  an effective inheritance tax*
     8.   capital gains tax on principal private residences*
     9.   restoration of the 50% rate of income tax, with provision for higher rates on higher incomes
   10.   an end to tax exemptions on pension contributions over and above that necessary to create a "pot"                      sufficient  to produce the median income.

We're still two short of a dozen so here are a couple based on my personal prejudices:
     11.  a fine of £1 000 for every time any politician uses the phrases " difficult decisions" or "clearing up the  economic mess left by Labour"
      12.  a fine of £100 every time anyone  says "Absolutely" when they mean "Yes" on Radio 4.

I suspect that few asked to pay any of these would find it all that difficult

 Given the current publicity surrounding the findings of the French economist Thomas Picketty that, since the return to capital exceeds the rate of growth, capital accumulation is a major cause of increased inequality, the taxes on capital , marked *,  would be particularly welcome.

And since land value taxation (which we called site value rating in my early campaigning days) has been on the Liberal/Liberal Democrat books for over a century, why aren't we shouting more about it, along with that timid step in the right direction, the mansion tax?