Saturday 25 April 2015

Clegg drops two clangers?

If Nick Clegg has been correctly reported I suspect  he made two serious mistakes yesterday.

The first: he has apparently stated that the Liberal Democrats would take no part in a "rainbow coalition" which included the Scottish Nationalists.

There are, to my mind, two problems with this.  First, I think it is foolish to make statements as to what we shall or shan't do after the election.  I know he, and other leading politicians, will be pestered by the commentators to rule things out and declare red lines, but these should be resisted.

Such a response would not be evasive: it all depends, as Simon Hughes put it in 2010, on "the cards the electorate deals."  We should stick to campaigning on our policies and priorities: the things we shall press for if we are in a position to form part of or influence the next government.  These are the messages we need to get across: there is no time for the distractions of idle speculation on what we might or might not do in situations that are, as yet, hypothetical.

Then, I think ruling out co-operation with the SNP reveals incredible dishonesty in all three major parties.  Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband, all rushed to Scotland towards the end of the independence referendum campaign last year to tell them how much we love them and how desperate we are  to keep them in the Union.  So it is now illogical in the extreme for any to say that Scottish representatives at Westminster of whatever party are persona non grata and not to be accorded the status of other MPs.

Added to that, there is, or ought to be, a good deal of overlap between Liberal Democrat and SNP policy: doubts about the renewal of Trident, commitment to effective devolution and, at least by we Liberals who respect our Keynesian tradition, the need for an end to austerity and an  expansionary fiscal policy.

 "Home Rule" for Scotland, or "Devo Max" as it is now called, has been Liberal/Liberal Democrat  policy for decades, could be what will satisfy the short run aspirations of the SNP , and could even in the long run defuse the demand for complete independence..

 So what is there to loose? Clegg should not play into the hands of the Tories on this issue.

The second: Clegg has let it be know that he accepts that a coalition formed with the second largest party in the Commons would lack legitimacy.

I think he is quite right to say that the largest party should have first crack at forming a coalition,  but if that fails, or the second largest party makes more attractive offers to the minor part(ies), there is no reason either in law or in precedent why such a government should not be formed.

Whoever can command the confidence of the Commons forms the legitimate government, regardless of  how that majority is constituted. Putting this in doubt  is yet another red herring put out by the very effective and well resourced Tory PR machine.  It has been taken up with enthusiasm by the Red Tops in their sway, who, I suspect, would find nothing at all to criticise if the Tories are  second largest party and are  able to cobble together a coalition with minor parties of their own ilk, such  as, for example UKIP.

Not for the first time, I wonder who is advising Nick Clegg.

Thursday 23 April 2015

More on the case against HS2

In a post last June I made a ten point summary of Christian Wolmar's arguments against  HS2, the proposed High Speed Rail Link between London and the North.  Interestingly this is the third most looked at post on Keynesian Liberal, after "Scottish Independence Referendum " (I suspect the astonishing number of "hits" was a  freak) and "An Airy Fairy Measure" (I suspect the title is misunderstood: it's actually about David Cameron's inadequate proposals for assessing our level of happiness)

Last month the House of Lords issued a report which was also highly critical of the HS2 proposal.  You can see the full details at

The Committee's main criticisms rest rest on two grounds:
  1. HS2 is not the best, and  certainly not the cheapest, way of increasing the capacity of the present national network: 
  2. Rather than helping to rebalance the economy the project is more likely to drain energy and resources from the North to London, not than vice versa.
I note with some alarm that, whereas according to Wolmar, the project was estimated in 2011 to cost £17bn.,their Lordships, writing a mere four years later, estimate £50bn.  Maybe they're measuring different things, but to me it sounds a bit like the London Olympics which, I seem to remember, were originally estimated to cost less than £3bn and eventually came in at over £10bn, (with very few of the proclaimed likely "knock on" effects actually realised.)

So far I haven't noticed much debate about HS2 in the election campaign.  Whether the true cost is £17bn or £50bn, it seems absurd not to mention it when we are talking about a further £8bn needed for the NHS and there are proposals to slash social security expenditure, already pared to the bone, by a further £12bn.

If you are fortunate enough to be actually canvassed in the campaign, rather than simply inundated with leaflets, please press your candidates for their views on what looks like little more than a vanity project.

Monday 20 April 2015

Labour not an alternative haven

We read that much of the former Liberal Democrat support, dismayed by our performance in government, is transferring itself to Labour.

In her interesting account of her time in parliament, Green MP Caroline Lucas sums up very well why we need to be cautious.

Time and again - 1931, 1950, 1997, 2008 - Labour have been in power, yet have been seduced by the bankers and financiers, or backed down in the face of their threats.  Where communities and whole cities have pinned their faith in Labour it has led to cronyism and corruption, and the local equivalent of one-party states.  And when Margaret Thatcher challenged the post-war social democratic consensus, New Labour responded by adapting her agenda wholesale: competition, privatization, and the dominance of market forces.  Tony Blair gave Labour three victories; but hollowed out those victories  through the betrayal of Labour's true values. (Page 225, Honourable Friends?)

Concentrating on the most recent history, it's not just

  1.  the Iraq War, but also:
  2.  the acceptance of growing inequality (Mandelson and being "intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich);
  3. caving in to lobbyists (eg Bernie Ecclestone);
  4. the absurd continuation of the totally illogical PFI schemes to finance hospitals and schools, thus borrowing at far higher costs than those available to the government and lumbering future taxpayers with the burden of repayment;
  5. failure ever to make the positive case for the European Union;
  6. introduction of student fees when they said in their manifesto that they wouldn't, and then increasing them when they said they had "no plans" to do so;
  7. commitment to the private sector over the public sector: eg the part-privatisation of Air Traffic Control (1998) and the re-privatisation of South East Trains (2006), even refusing to allow the successful publicly owned railway company even to bid.  So what price their indignation over the re-privatisation of Directly Operated Railways, the public company that successfully ran trains on the East Coast Mainline?
  8. the beginnings of privatisation in the NHS:
  9. no attempt to curtail the right to buy, thus exacerbating the current housing crisis;
  10. the illiberal regimes of David Blunkett and Jack Straw at he Home Office, with a casual attitude towards civil and human rights, the growth of the surveillance state, and attempt to introduce ID cards.
And if you think all that is in the past, that the tribal "big beasts" have been sidelined and  things will be different in the future, note that  under Miliband's leadership,  Labour has:
       11.  failed to support electoral reform, even though the introduction of  AV was in their  manifesto;
       12.  scuppered House of Lords reform by failing to vote for the parliamentary time to discuss the         necessary legislation.  How duplicitous can you get?
 Yes I know that Liberal Democrats have not behaved in government in the Simon-pure manner many of us would have wished and had every reason to expect.

The turn-round on student fees is our most derided error but, although we deservedly suffer from the loss of trust, its practical effects are not all that important.  Students from poorer backgrounds have not been deterred from applying for university, there are some good bits (loans for part-time students) and before long someone will realise that it was all a mistake and either revert to free tertiary education or introduce  a graduate tax long before most students have paid a  significant amount of the money back.

(Labour's scheme to reduce the fees to £6 000 a year will benefit only the high earners. Those in the low earning professions - teachers, nurses, social workers - will never reach even the threshold accumulated at the  £6 000 a year rate  so will not benefit at all).

Much more serious is our connivance at the Tory austerity policy.  We should have said that they have over 300 MPs and we have only 57 so we can't stop them, but were our situations reversed we should do things differently.  But we didn't.  But Labour were and still are committed to austerity too. 

So there may be a case for tactical voting in those constituencies where there is a chance of stopping the Tories (if for no other reason than to prevent their handing over the BBC to their profit-maximising mates).

But where there's a chance of winning or retaining a Liberal Democrat seat, please, please keep a hold of the Liberal Democrat nurse, because the Labour alternative will be even worse.

Friday 17 April 2015

Tories set the (wrong) agenda

George Monbiot puts it very neatly:

The dominant Tory frame. . . is that the all-important issue is the deficit.  The financial crisis, it claims, was caused not by the banks but by irresponsible  government spending for which the only cure  is austerity. (Guardian, 15th April)

Monbiot may be going a bit far when he claims  that: "In reality the deficit should rank somewhere in the low hundreds on the list of political priorities." I would tend to put it somewhere  in the lower end of the "top ten," after:-

  1. low productivity;
  2. the balance of (external) payments deficit;
  3. growing inequality;
  4. unaffordable housing;
  5. destitution and misery of those on the bottom rungs of our society.
Apart from housing, these key issues are not receiving much attention in what passes for election debate.  Instead, each party offers us a daily "sugar plum" which is soon forgotten as we go on to the next minor treat.

The primacy of the deficit is so well entrenched that  even Labour dares not speak up for the poor who suffer most from this over-emphasised obsession.  And even on housing Ed Miliband last night refused to rule out discontinuing  the "right to buy," one of the most damaging legacies of the Thatcher era which, astoundingly, the Tories propose now to extend to those in housing association tenancies.

Another part of the Tory frame which Labour are too timid to challenge is the revival of the Victorian concept of the deserving and undeserving poor, through "dog whistle" references to "hard working families."  Twice last night, Miliband borrowed this Tory mantra is defining the people he hoped to represent.

Being retired, I am not hard working and, being single and living (quite contentedly) alone, I am not a family either.  But I am a citizen worthy of representation, and I'd like there to be party which appealed for my vote on the grounds it would try to create a fairer society in Britain  for everybody, young or old, fit or disabled, responsible or feckless; was  honest about the true state of affairs and the limits on its capacity to alter them; pledged to defend our human rights and civil liberties; and extended its vision to include working towards a fairer world and a sustainable future.

That party ought to be the Liberal Democrats.  Sadly we too have bought into the Tory frame. 

Monday 6 April 2015

Life of a migrant on the margin

The church I attend in Leeds runs free classes in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, of which there are quite a lot in the area.  We have one professional leader and about half a dozen volunteer teachers, of which I am one.  Student numbers are irregular but we have about 70 on our books and I take the Tuesday session with an "intermediate" group of about a dozen.

The  topic last week was "holidays ": perhaps not the most tactful to choose for our clientele, but it was the next one in the book and I was too lazy to choose something more appropriate.  After dealing with the vocabulary and grammar involved ("will go,"  future; "went," past) I asked the class to work in pairs, discussing in English a holiday they had had, and then be prepared to report on what their partner had done.  There was one odd man out, let's call him Alfonso, so I "partnered" him.

When it was my turn to give a report I said that  Alfonso had been on holiday to Bridlington.  The weather was very sunny. He had walked on the beach but had not swum in the sea, nor paddled in it. He'd had a good time

When I had finished this brief account Alfonso looked at me sternly and said that I had missed out two things: he had bought an ice cream and taken a photograph.

Alfonso is usually  late to class, which commences at 10am.  This is because he gets up at five each morning, works for three  hours as a cleaner, then walks back home and goes back to bed for an hour before facing the rest of the day.

The trip to Bridlington was clearly the day trip the church organises with funds given to us be a charity.  This was clearly the only "holiday" he had had and the photograph and ice cream were clearly highlights of his year.

A different picture to that which Nigel Farage imagines for our immigrant population.

Friday 3 April 2015

103 business executives or two thirds of macro-economists?

It would be nice to think that one or a tiny group of business leaders thought that George Osborne had done  a cracking job on economic policy, told their pals, and  another hundred or so spontaneously  jumped in to offer support and  put their names to  letter which claimed:

"We believe the Conservative-led government  has been good for business  and has pursued policies which have supported  investment and job creation."

They then go on to advise that voting other than Conservative would be a terrible thing and lead to economic chaos and collapse (I paraphrase this bit as I have not read the actual letter -   it was in the Daily Telegraph, aka the Torygraph.

It is however more likely that this was a wheeze thought up by Conservative Central Office, which has the resources and time to concoct these media opportunities. (They out-spend Labour by three to one, the Liberal Democrats by umpteen to one and other parties by even more.)  It would be interesting to know how many business leaders were actually contacted and what percentage  signed.  There are hints in today's paper that some of them with they hadn't.

By what I believe to be a genuine coincidence the Centre for Macroeconomics (CFM) published the results of  its monthly survey on the same day.  This month the question was:

 "Do you agree that the austerity policies of the coalition government have had a positive effect on aggregate economic activity (employment and GDP) in the UK"

For detailed results see

In summary:
  • no-one at all "strongly agreed"
  • a third , however "agreed"
  • but another third "disagreed"
  • and yet another third "strongly disagreed."
Perhaps it's no surprise that leading businessmen, who tend to have leading incomes ( signatory Stuart Rose pocketed about £1.3m a year whilst at Marks and Spencer; Duncan Bannantyne is alleged to have a net wealth of £175m)* tend to favour the party least likely to put up the top rate of income tax and most likely to lower yet further the rate of corporation tax.  Whether this is good for the whole economy is another question.  The Tories pretend to the "trickle down effect":  the experience of the last couple of decades tends to show "trickle up" rather than "trickle down."

The Tories have no shame in repeating ad nauseum the alleged success of their "long term economic  plan," and the claim goes unchallenged, even by the BBC.  So, without embarrassment, though at the risk of seeming boring, here yet again is what I see as being closer to the truth:

  • the "world" economic crash was sparked off in Wall Street, not Downing Street, through the reckless behaviour of the financial sector  made possible by deregulation introduce and supported by the Tories in the UK;
  • Gordon Brown was not unduly profligate, and saved, if not the world, at least the western banking system, by his prompt action through the G8;
  •  the UK's key debt/GDP ratio, though high, was not dangerously so, when the coalition took office:
  • and the economy was already  recovering when George Osborne became Chancellor;:
  • this recovery was stifled by Osborne's policy of austerity, fancifully called "expansionary fiscal contraction;"
  • the justification for "savage cuts" to reduce the government deficit was the claim, almost certainly false, that without prompt deficit reduction  the UK was in danger of losing the confidence of the markets in the same manner as Greece;
  • the economy then flat-lined for two years;
  • things picked up again when this "Plan A" was quietly abandoned in 2012 and some Keynesian infrastructure expenditure was injected into the economy. This probably stimulated the present modest recovery;
  • Osborne's two stated policy priorities were to retain our AAA rating and eliminate the deficit in one parliament.  He has failed on both;
  • the claim that the UK is now "walking tall" and "paying its way" is demonstrably false.  The balance of payments deficit is at an historic  high at nearly 6% of GDP, and productivity is shockingly low.  These are the deficits that are really important.
The Tories are relieved that, on some measures at least, the average family is now richer than it was in 2010. Using this measure, this means that the government  achieved an average annual growth rate of 0.2%.  Those of us with long memories remember ridiculing someone, I think  Alec Douglas Home, as "Mr 3%" since 3% annual growth, regarded as a pathetic level in those high and far off times, was all his government could achieve.