Tuesday 24 February 2015

Pensioners' perks

I hope and suspect that as many pensioners will be nauseated and put off by David Cameron's condescending tone as will be prompted to vote Tory by his latest bribe.

Cameron has promised that we can keep our perks (£200 annual winter fuel allowance and  free bus passes for all, and free TV licences for those of us over 75) because we have, as a block, "done the right thing, worked hard and saved for our retirement."

I am quite certain that there is just as big a proportion of idle layouts, incompetents and variously dysfunctional people in my generation as there are in in the 18 -25 cohort or any  any other.  Having survived to 60 or 65 is unlikely to be the result of virtue.

For those of us with no savings and with no income other than the state pension the above perks are very welcome.  However, many of us have additional public or private pensions and are quite well off.  In fact many, having paid off mortgages, no longer supporting children and with a reduced appetite for positional goods feel that they've never had so much money in their lives.  So these universal benefits are quite unnecessary and, at a time of savage cuts for those really in need, difficult to justify.

Generally I am in favour of universal benefits rather than alternatives which involve means testing.  However, in this case, I feel no means testing would be necessary.  The government knows which of us pay income tax.  That means that our state pension plus other income come to over £10,660 a year.  Not a fortune (and not apparently sufficient to keep the likes of Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw in the manner to which they've become accustomed) but quite enough to keep the wolf from the door.  It should be a simple matter to stop giving the winter fuel allowance and free TV licence to those of us in this category.

I would make an exception for the free bus pass, which I think should be universal because, if it were not, those with a pass would be forced to identify themselves as "poor."  (It's for similar reasons that schools contrive to disguise which pupils receive free school meals.)

For those without alternative means of transport the free bus pass is a godsend.  Most of those who do have alternative means don't use the pass much (unless, like me, they make token efforts to save the planet by travelling by public transport rather than by car whenever it's not too inconvenient) so the extra expense would not be great.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Democracy in danger, say our Bishops

The Bishops of the Anglican Church have written a pastoral letter.  I haven’t read it yet: maybe it will be read to us at church tomorrow morning, but if so there will be a few late lunches as it’s 52 pages long.

Pending reading or hearing it read I’ll content myself with comments on the Guardian’s headline, “Democracy is failing, bishops tell politicians.”

Well, if that sums up what they say, I think they are absolutely right.  In my view democracy is failing for the following reasons:

Politicians aren’t just seen to lie, they really do, routinely.

Labour promised not to introduce student tuition fees, they did, and then increased them.  We Liberal Democrats pledged ourselves to vote against any further rise, but we didn’t.  The Tories promised no top down re-organisation of the NHS, then within weeks of coming to office they introduced top-down reorganisation which was clearly already in an advanced stage of planning before the election when they made the promise took place.

Is it any wonder so many of the electorate say: “You’re all the same, we can’t trust a word any of you say.”?

 These are just recent examples.  There are many others, not least the case for  the  invasion of Iraq.  Over a long period both Labour and Conservative politicians have been pretending that we can improve the quality of our civic  society without raising taxes: in shorthand, have “Scandinavian public services with American levels of taxation. “ This is obviously  untrue, but no other party, no, not even the Liberals/Liberal Democrats have had the courage to challenge this undeliverable bribe.

One of the reasons for these lies is that politicians have an exaggerated idea of what they are capable of doing (or poor Alexis Tsipras of Greece is discovering this weekend.)  Whatever UKIP might like to think no nation is metaphorically an island, capable of  going its own way and ignoring the rest of the world. 
Another reason is that the electorate appear to be unprepared to listen to serious analysis of our choices, but prefer catchy sound-bites.  Until senior politicians of all the parties are prepared to renounce these and engage in serious discussion it is difficult to see the way ahead.

Our political system is patently unfair.

aa)      In the grossly distorted levels of funding available to the parties for  campaigning.  Things are not yet as bad as in the US where the presidency is “up for sale” but we’re moving that way.
bb)      The press is heavily biased to one party, the Conservatives.
cc)       The electoral system gives a biased result (more of this later.)
dd)      We are certainly not “All in this together.”  Bankers and business  tycoons give themselves hugely disproportionate financial rewards, mostly avoid any retribution for wrong doing, whilst people at the bottom of society are told that they’re lucky if they have a “zero-hours contract” and the expansion of these is hailed as a government success. 
      Someone in the riots a few years ago was gaoled for stealing  a bottle of water, whist people who swindle society out of millions get a slap on the wrist even if the “system” bothers to catch up with them.
ee)      Wealthy special interest groups exercise undue influence governments of whatever complexion.


The political system and its practitioners are subjected to persistent denigration, some of it  well deserved , but as senior Tory politician Douglas Hurd (I think it was) pointed out some years ago, it is so much easier  for people to succeed in our society be criticising those trying to improve it, than to try to improve it themselves.  Think of Jeremy Paxman and his sneer and bullying tactics.  I gather he is not to accept the invitation to “have a go yourself” by standing for the mayoralty  of London.   
The “fun” goes back a long way, I know, - eg the satirical cartoons in Punch in the 19th Century – and was refreshed in the 60s by “Beyond the Fringe” and “That was the Week that Was.”   To take the high and mighty down a peg or two has value, but when such denigration becomes the prevailing norm, then our democracy is indeed in danger.

The Electoral system.

Yes, I know, it had to be that for a died in the wool Liberal, but really, if the main engine of our democracy is faulty how can we expect good results?  Not only does the present crude system produce distorted results, and permits a party with the support of a modest minority of the electorate (40% of the vote translates to about only a quarter of those entitled to vote on the sort of turnouts we're getting today) to implement their whims against the overwhelming will of the majority, (eg opening up the NHS to privatisation) but it means that the major contending parties moderate their policies to try to attract the minority of “floating voters” in the minority of “marginal constituencies.”  Hence, give or take minor differences in emphasis here and there, we really are “all the same” (eg the slavish adherence to further austerity).

Only proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies will enable the parties to be themselves and give us a real choice.

Monday 16 February 2015


Over the weekend our prime minister, David Cameron, announced that the Tories, if they win the election, will conduct a  purge on people claiming benefits "who cannot work because they are obese or have alcohol or drug problems." 

An article in Saturday's Guardian noted that: " there are 300 HMRC employees investigative tax evasion of over £70bn, and 3 250 Department of Work and Pension bods chasing down £1,2bn of benefit fraud." 

What I find shameful is not just that we have a party with such such despicable values, but that over a third of  our electors are likely to vote for it. 

At a time when many of our population claim no religious faith, and many others adhere to faiths other than Christianity* it is perhaps now  tactless to cite the teachings of Jesus.  But it is Cameron's party which is for ever banging on about this being a Christian country and insist that schools must hold regular collective acts of worship which are "predominantly Christian."  

And of course, Cameron went to a School** with a Christian foundation, and which gets tax relief (avoidance?) on the strength of it.

The "goody" in last night's television adaptation of J K Rowling's "A Casual Vacancy" said "We must not turn our backs on those who need our help."

Cameron should call to mind what he learned at school.

* All of which, as far as I know, also teach some version of caring for our neighbour and the Golden Rule of "Do unto others as thou woulds't they would do unto thee."

Wednesday 11 February 2015

SNP right on the economy

On the radio this morning the new SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon pointed out what is patently obvious to almost everyone except the leaders of the other parties: that "austerity has failed." Yet all the others can offer is "more austerity."

Sturgeon  advocates that, rather than further cuts, there should be a "modest " increase in public spending of 0.5% which, she claims, will free up an additional £180bn  for "investment in the infrastructure, innovation and growing the economy."


 I'm glad the penny has dropped for at least one leading British politician. I could almost wish there were SNP candidates standing here in Yorkshire.

Alas, her interviewer ("Today's"James Naughtie?) pointed out that this would involve further public debt and would "ask future generations to pay for our profligacy " (or something like that).  And the Tories accuse the BBC of a left wing bias!

M/s Sturgeon didn't respond to these canards: maybe she didn't get the chance.  But here, for the umpteenth time:

  • with interest rates at an historic low this is a good time for governments to be in debt, and there are good reasons for being in debt as extra public expenditure will help revive the economy, create growth and jobs,  increase the tax take, reduce expenditure on social security and thus reduce the deficit.
  • public expenditure now will  not place a burden on future generations.  You can't consume  today what is  to be produced by the as yet  unborn. This, as Professor Paul Krugman puts it far more eloquently that I, is "money we owe ourselves," here and now, not at some future date.   If you don't grasp this* please, please, please see::http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/debt-is-money-we-owe-to-ourselves/
What a pity the chance to cast a Keynesian vote is restricted to Scotland and  the Liberal Democrats are not banging this drum loudly and clearly throughout the UK

*  I've tried to explain this in an earlier post by pointing out that those of us who have taken  advantage of Osborne's bribe by buying the pensioner bonds now hold part of the National Debt, and the interest we receive will be financed by the taxes we pay. In this particular case that does involve a generational shift since only the elderly can buy the bonds but almost everyone will pay the taxes.  However most of the Nation Debt is owned by "everyone" in one way or another, through financial institutions, insurance companies, pension funds etc

Monday 9 February 2015

Hard-working businesmen who do the right thing

The Tories never tire of telling us how keen they are to support  "hard-working families" who "do the right thing,"  We of the left should be equally assiduous in making it clear how much we favour hard-working businessmen who also  "do the right thing," namely:
  • live in Britain rather than as a tax exile;
  • register their companies in Britain rather than in tax  havens;
  • have no truck with contrived schemes to avoid and evade paying their fair share of taxes;
  • give their employees proper rather than zero-hours contracts;
  • pay at least the minimum, and preferably the living wage;
  • run real apprenticeship schemes and offer in-service training and re-training
  • observe the laws regarding their employees' health and safety
  • recognise their employees' need for sick leave when necessary, and holidays with pay;
  • re-invest a large portion of their profits in research and development, and, where appropriate, expansion
  • run decent pension schemes.
It is surely a nonsense when parties which advocate the above, largely a matter of obeying the law, along  with a dash of decency and a vision beyond short term profitably, are accused of being anti-business. David Cameron goes further and writes that  Labour has " a sneering hatred of business.":*

It is even more ludicrous that one of the accusers,  Stefano Pessina, himself a tax exile in Monet Carlo who has attempted to relocate the company  he leads, Boots the Chemist, to Switzerland for tax purposes, gains front-page headlines in our right-wing dominated press.  Labour is consequently forced onto the back foot  and shadow cabinet member Tristram Hunt is forced to grovel that Labour is a "furiously, passionately, aggressively  pro-business" party on yesterday's Andrew Marr television programme.

Our Liberal Democrat election slogan, "Stronger economy, fairer society" enables us, if we have the courage of our convictions, to campaign robustly on the  list above.  If it is achieved our society will be fairer.  And if business leaders really do "do the right thing" our economy will be stronger because employees treated fairly work better together for the common goal.

Add a dash of profit sharing and democratic participation (whatever happened to those policies?) and we could be living in soar-away Britain.

* In yesterday's Sunday Telegraph, so I'm told.

Saturday 7 February 2015

The Fixed Term Parliament.

In my view the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 is by far and away the greatest achievement  of the Liberal Democrats in this coalition.  I believe it ranks with the Secret Ballot Act of 1872, the extension of the franchise to women on equal terms with men in 1928, and the limitations to the powers of the House of Lords in 1911 and 1928, as a major step in Britain's  slow progression to a fairer democracy

The situation before 2011,  when the existing prime minister could call an  election when he (or for one period, she)  thought he had the best chance of winning was an intolerable affront to fairness.  In what other circumstances would one of the contenders in a contest  be permitted to fire the starting pistol?  So all credit to the Liberal Democrat negotiators for their success in wrenching this prize from the leader of the major party as a condition of joining a coalition.

Astonishingly this achievement does not seem to figure in any of the proposed Liberal Democrat  election literature that I've seen so far.  I suppose focus groups tell our election gurus that voters are bogged down with concerns about jobs, the cost of living and the state of the NHS, and  that such abstruse concerns with the constitution don't resonate "on the doorstep."  So there is little point in flaunting our constitutional success: we must stick with  bread and butter issues.

I expect the same was said in the struggle for the secret ballot and votes for women. Our leaders should have more courage and trumpet this achievement to the skies.

It is, of course, a quirk of our constitution that  the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which requires a two-thirds majority in the Commons if the five year term is to be abandoned, can, like any other law, by overturned by a simple majority.  Many suspect that, if as is likely,  this year's election results in another balanced parliament, the largest minority party (probably Labour if they can stop making stupid mistakes) will form a minority government and then, in the autumn, propose that the Act be overturned and call another election in which they hop to win a majority (as Harold Wilson did in 1974, without then, of course,  the necessity of  overturning a Parliament Act).

 However, I think it is unlikely that such a move would be successful.  MPs in marginal seats will be desperate to hang on to them rather than put them at risk, the second in the minority stakes is unlikely to be keen,  all will be exhausted by electioneering and all but the Tories will be short of money.  Consequently I believe it will be difficult to obtain even a simple majority to overturn the Act and most practical and surest way forward will be another coalition.

Although the outcome of this election is the most uncertain since the war, a forecast by the psephologist  who got things right in both 2005 and 2010, Professor  Paul Whiteley  of Exeter University, and Director the the British Election Study  from 2001 to 2012 currently predicts  this outcome:

Labour:                     291
Conservatives:           281
Liberal Democrats:      48
Others:                        30


With such a result  a Liberal Democrat - Labour coalition would would be possible,  with 339 seats and a majority over all others of  14.  Another  Liberal Democrat coalition with the Tories would also be possible, but with a "tiny" majority.

Fingers crossed that Professor Whiteley is not too far off the mark.  There's everything for Liberal Democrats to play for.  Let's hope for some decent policies, thorough preparation of the terms and conditions for joining any government, and agreement now with other parties for sufficient time after the election, whatever the result, to form a government with a positive and progressive programme put forward by parties who thoroughly understand what has been agreed and within what parameters the new coalition  must work.