Monday 29 June 2015

Liberal Democrat Leadership:

Although Liberal Democrat Headquarters had no difficulty in contacting me when sending out numerous requests for money during the General Election campaign, unfortunately I seem to have slipped from thier list when they sent out information on the leadership hustings.  Hence I missed the Farron-Lamb dual in Leeds a couple of weeks ago.  However, those who witnessed that, and others, tell me that in policy matters there is not much to choose between them.

That being the case I have cast my vote for Tim Farron on the grounds that:

1.  Farron  is by far the better communicator.  Lamb, when I've heard him on the radio,  always strikes me as a little dull.

2. Farron kept his pledge and voted against the rise in tuition fees.  Since our major problem is to regain trust, then clearly he  has the advantage in trustworthiness.

Friday 26 June 2015

Northeren Powerhouse Paused

Before the election the Tories were promising to spread economic prosperity throughout the nation by  the creation of a Northern Powerhouse.  An essential feature of this was the upgrading of our Northern Rail Network.

Now, just seven weeks after the election, we are told that the electrification of the Trans-Pennine route from Leeds to Manchester is to be "paused."

It is difficult to express our indignation.  The shameless manipulation of the news (that the programme  was in difficulty was apparently known well before the election), the shameless abandonment of yet another promise, the shameless prioritising of London and the South East of over the rest of the country.

No hint that the costly and wasteful prestige project HS2, starting from the London end,  should be "paused."

In earlier posts here and here I've argued the case for abandoning HS2 and substituting more useful, and much cheaper, alternatives.  Interestingly these are among the most read  posts on this blog.

If this latest piece of political chicanery  helps  stimulate the campaign against HS2 then at least some good may arise out of our "pause."

 Post Script, added 29th June:A report by something called the Major Projects Authority, has concluded that the costs of HS2 have now risen to such and extent that the project is financially untenable.  See the Guardian report, published on the same day as the revelations of the pausing of the upgrading of the northern rail network.

I've also picked up on a TV news bulletin that for every £10 spent on public transport in London, only £1 is spent in Yorkshire.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Policies to reduce inequality

In his Guardian article on Monday Larry Elliot refers to a book by Tony Atkinson, published in May, which lists 15 separate policy proposals for the UK.  Elliot lists only eight  of them, namely:

  1. guaranteed public employment;
  2. a minimum wage set at the level of a living wage;
  3. a minimum inheritance when a child reaches adulthood;
  4. a sovereign wealth fund;
  5. a universal basic income;
  6. replacement of council tax by a regularly updated and progressive property tax;
  7. a wealth tax;
  8. a 65% top rate of income tax.
Eliot claims that these proposals "[give] the lie to the to the argument that in a global economy nothing can be done."
Tony Atkinson is no loony left-winger but no less than Sir Anthony Atkinson of the London School of Economics, on whose work the recently popular French economist Thomas Piketty bases many of his findings.  To find out what the other seven proposals are I should buy Atkinson's book, Inequality.
Sadly there are already several fairly weighty unread tomes on my shelf and I don't wish to add to my guilt complex by buying yet another, so if anyone can complete the list in a comment below that would be appreciated.

It is possible to quibble about  the list above, or at least ask for further and better particulars.  For example, what exactly is meant by "guaranteed public employment,"   and wouldn't a land tax be better than, or in addition t, a property tax?  But what is acutely disappointing is that Atkinson's proposals, or at least the first eight of them, are light years away from what any major British political party has the guts to propose at the moment.  Or, with he exception of Jeremy Corbyn, who is not expected to win, (but who, according to the New Statesman, may spring a surprise), the timid contenders for the Labour leadership.

And yet growing inequality is one of the major economic and social problems facing our society today. Inequality inhibits economic growth (wealth at the top doesn't "trickle down," it is syphoned up) and reduces the cohesiveness and well being of our society, as Wilkinson and Pickett  have demonstrated.

But instead of proposals to tackle this issue all three major UK parties have just fought the election advocating greater or lesser degrees of government austerity, which will make our society more unequal.   And, alas, the winner was for the greater austerity, so we must endure five years of policies which will make matters worse.
It is surely the duty of our political parties to attempt to educate us to the realities of our circumstances, and the policies which could improve the quality of our lives.  Instead, with  the honourable exception of the Scottish Nationalists and the Greens, they cravenly follow the whims of their focus groups. 

Saturday 20 June 2015

Minor incompetances of the private sector.

This week I've changed my car: traded in the Renault that has served me well for twelve years in favour of a younger model ( though different marque, since Renault no longer makes the model I prefer.)

This nerve-racking experience  ( if you only change your car once every ten years or so you don't get much practice) has been made worse by the following irritations:
  •  the initial salesman, mature and presumably experienced, advised  me that the model I was interested in did not have reversing sensors, but they could be "factory fitted" for an extra £232.  It turned out they were fitted as standard.
  • this same "sales executive" told me that the minimum deposit required would be £500: when I went to seal the deal some days later it turned out to be £1,000.  Fortunately my card could stand that, but it could have been embarrassing.
  • the advertising blurb quoted a mileage of  3,971 (it is a "pre-loved" car, now the preferred euphemism for "second hand") which made it sound very attractive. When I clinched the deal and was given the MOT certificate, it recorded the mileage 4,631.  Admittedly the car had been traded in in Huddersfield and was to be traded out by me in Leeds, but over 600 miles to cover the 15 or so miles between the two  seemed excessive. It turned out the MOT certificate is wrong and the mileage on the odometer was a more reasonable 4,146.
  • the younger salesman  who supervised the final handover,  and who seemed to know quite a lot more than his more mature colleague (he justified his title of "product genius"), told me that when he unveiled (literally) the car I would receive a nice surprise.  This turned out to be leather seats, which was no surprise at all as they were mentioned in the advertising specification. Nor am I too enthusiastic about this embellishment.  In the Tropics leather car sets were the bane of our lives.  They got so hot in the sun that we had to wrap towels round them to avoid scorching the backs of our thighs.
This was not some fly by night back-street used car depot, but the dealership of a leading brand in one of the UK's major cities.  We may still be a "nation of shopkeepers" but we don't seem to be all that good at it.

None of these gaffes are really serious, but if our international salespersons are no more on the ball it is no wonder that our balance of payments accounts are in the red by nearly 6% of GDP.

Since I change cars so rarely the above, if not exactly a "one-off" experience, doesn't come round very often.  Much more serious is an annual irritation, the renewal of  my house and car insurances, both of which fall due in June/July.  I have come to dread this time of the year, as I am inundated with different offers, most of which are unsolicited, and two of which, from RIAS, are identical.  (Given that my bank claims it costs them around £20 to write me a letter, how can  such profligacy be justified?  Or maybe the bank exaggerates.)

So each year I am forced to go through the tedious pantomime of seeking and comparing quotes, then getting Saga to match the most reasonable, which they usually do.  Admittedly this only takes a couple of afternoons, but it is a chore which I could do without, and I'm sure many others feel the same.

The Tories  and triangulated New Labour assume that this "choice" is what we want, but I suspect that what most of us really want is a company, be it insurance, bank, building society, energy provider, or whatever which is not necessarily the cheapest, but which we can trust to treat us fairly.

At the local level I have managed to find such small firms for plumbing, joinery and car repairs.

 The big national and international firms, and the government, should take note.

Thursday 18 June 2015

The miners' strike: the turning point.

There have been may occasions in our history when the armed might of the state has been used against "ordinary people."  The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 is but one example, and I'm sure proper historians can think of umpteen more.

However from the end of the Second World War in 1945 the spirit of "all in it together" more or less prevailed and, on the whole, by and large and in the main, governments of whatever stripe coped reasonably benevolently with people who disagreed with them.  Demonstrations were allowed, albeit perhaps with  a few unjustifiable arrests.  Strikes happened and were sorted out.  If Labour were in power they were often settled over beer and sandwiches at No 10.  We rubbed along reasonably peaceably.

I think it's fair to say that, for the first 35 or so post-war years, albeit with many hesitations, and with a few  steps backwards as well as forwards, things did get better, both socially and economically, for the vast majority of people.  But form 1979, on the election of the Conservative government with Margaret Thatcher as prime minister,  the post war consensus evaporated and the homogeneity of our society took a distinct turn for the worse.

The crucial turning point was the Miners' Strike in 1984.

Admittedly the government was greatly provoked by the intransigence of the miners' leader, Arthur Scargill. However, Mrs Thatcher respond in kind, referred to the miners as "the enemy within," and used the police  and many tactics of dubious legality to smash the strike.

The worst episode of the strike happened exactly 31 years ago today , on the 18th June 1984, indeed, then as now, Waterloo Day, when a contingent of 6 000 police, recruited from all over the country, were sent to prevent  the miners from picketing a coking plant at Orgreave, near Rotherham here in Yorkshire.  At one point, with no evidence of a warning, mounted police charged the pickets on the pretext that miners were throwing stones  at them.  The miners claim that stones were thrown only after the police charged.  (It is also claimed that the BBC, yes, the BBC, reversed their film footage of the events in order to  to show the stone throwing before the police charge. )

Ninety-five miners were arrested and charged with riot and unlawful assembly.  None were convicted.  Tthe cases against them fell apart under cross- examination by the defence lawyers.  Evidence of police corruption is alleged.  Thirty-nine of the accused miners  sued South Yorkshire police for wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution, and were compensated by a total of £425 000, though with no admission of liability.

The miners have called for a formal investigation or, better still, a public enquiry into the allegations of police corruption. Last week their request was turned down on the grounds that it was all too long ago for reliable evidence to be collected and examined.

What utter nonsense.

Admittedly the Hillsborough disaster was five years later in 1989, but that, after a long struggle by relatives of the survivors, is at last being fully investigated, with allegations of corruption against the same South Yorkshire police.  And historians and other are perfectly willing  to investigate and find new evidence about, say, the death of Richard III in 1485.

It is no wonder that "ordinary people" are driven to the conclusion that the establishment thinks it is above the law, and by hook or by crook will remain so.  It was to overturn this concept that the barons of the thirteenth century  forced King John to seal  (not sign) the Magna Carta in 1215.  It clearly needs a refresher.


Monday 15 June 2015

The drip drip drip of distortion.

By convincing the bulk of our electorate that the world economic crash was all the fault of Britain's Labour Party, and that they themselves were economically competent,  Britain's Conservative Party has pulled off what must be the greatest PR coup in modern political history.  However, they are not letting the matter rest there.

I was in a walking holiday in the Lake District last week, so did not study George Osborne's Mansion House speech in any detail.  However, I did catch a brief news bulletin and I'm pretty sure he said that the Labour Party (or the previous government) had "nationalised" (my emphasis) the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and it was this government's duty to return it to the private sector.

The world "nationalised" must have been chosen with care.  Most people would have said that the previous, Labour, government "rescued" the bank. It might even and fairly be added that, by doing this promptly that government prevented an even greater financial melt-down, and that by persuading the Americans and others, through the G8, to take similar action, Labour prime minister Gordon Brown was instrumental in averting a greater financial catastrophe throughout the capitalist world.

But no, it was "nationalised":  perfectly accurate, but mildly pejorative in the UK context, and very much part of the Old Labour image which the present party is trying to shed.

So the drip drip of distortion continues. Nationalised bad -  private enterprise good.  Public sector bad - private sector good.  And all without any evidence, except that those in the private sector able to buy RBS shares at knock-down price will do very nicely out of it.

Sadly, Osborne is missing a golden opportunity to facilitate one of his own stated objectives, to promote prosperity throughout the nations and regions of the UK rather than see it concentrated in London and the South East. 

RBS, as a unit "too big to fail," could be retained in public ownership but split into a number of regional banks, each charged with the responsibility of  providing capital at reasonable rates of interest to small and medium-sized enterprises in their regions.  I understand such banks exist in Germany and have contributed considerably to that country's prosperity.

Instead Osborne takes the opportunity for a short-term boost to his deficit reduction plans, and to further  fatten a few already  fat cats.

Friday 5 June 2015

Sellng the national silver

When Margaret Thatcher's governments began "privatising" publicly owned  assets (water, gas, electricity etc) it was one of her predecessors as Conservative  Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, who describe this as equal to the folly of "selling off the family silver " to make ends meet.

This is doubly foolish when what is sold is an income bearing asset rather  than  a non-productive treasure.

Yet at two levels Britain and its government continue with this folly.

Just before the election the government flogged off a 40% stake in Eurostar.  That gave an immediate £750m  boost to the deficit reduction strategy but means that "future generations" (people politicians pretend to be very concerned about when it suits them) will be deprived of its income for their governments.

Yesterday George Osborne announced the sale of the government's remaining stake in the Royal Mail.  Ditto.

But there is a "double whammy" with some of these sales.  The UK's most serious deficit is not on the government's internal account but the nation's external payments account, the balance of payments.  This is currently in deficit at the of almost 6%of GDP, way above any acceptable level.  And some of these sales go to foreign owners.  
Part of the sale of Eurostar went to the Canadian investment company Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, which means future Eurostar profits lead to an outflow of foreign exchange.  And of course previously privatised railways and water companies are now in foreign ownership too.

Yet who is there left to object to this folly?  Labour itself tried to privatise part of the Royal Mail, but failed.  It was a Liberal Democrat business secretary who succeed, at a knock down price.

The long term way to improve our performance on the balance of payments  is to improve our productivity.  The long term way to reduce the government's internal deficit is to revive the economy and thus increase the tax-take.  Instead of tackling these difficult issues we seem content to manage day to day with short-term sticking plaster measures.

All Britain's parties seem afflicted with this economic myopia. We need a party capable of lifting its eyes "unto the hills"  of the long term  The challenge for Liberal Democrats is to try to ensure that our revived party grows to fill that gap.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Dogma rules - but only when it suits them

The government is to force all  "failing" and possibly "coasting" schools as well, to be come "academies" whether they or the parents and local community like it or not, in spite of the fact that an all-party  parliamentary committee  found  no evidence that schools "free from local authority control" do an better than others.  Dogma triumphs over both evidence and democracy.

However in the field of  health care the government is, curiously, more flexible.  When Ed Miliband proposed a cap on the prices the energy companies could charge, the idea was scorned by the Tories. Such "interference with the operation of the free market" was totally beyond the pale  and would probably result in putting the lights out.

However, yesterday Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, decided to cap the rates that the agencies could charge the NHS for temporary supplies of nurses and doctors.  And a good thing too, but hugely illogical. How come such "interference with  market forces" is suddenly OK?

I am, however,  very uneasy about the concept of "agency" doctors and nurses, and, for that matter, supply teachers too.  In the medical sphere, as a youth I consumed voraciously the novels of A J Cronin and was inspired to read about young men (mostly) entering medicine and devoted to the concept of furthering medical knowledge and techniques, healing individuals and serving their hospitals and  communities.  Similarly the young teachers I trained and served with were, for the most part enthusiastic, dedicated to inspiring their pupils and helping to create good schools.

I'm sure there are good reasons why some doctors, nurses and teachers make the decision to become "agency" but it seems to me that the vision of long-term service and commitment to an institution, be it school or hospital,  is either reduced or lacking entirely.  Some, doubtless, will be working under such conditions as a prelude to finding a full time job. But I hope it's not unfair to suggest that for many it is an opportunity to avoid responsibly, and earn, per hour worked, substantially more that their co-workers who have that commitment.

Nor can I see that such working under such sporadic conditions can generate much professional satisfaction.

Mr Hunt's proposal is a welcome measure, but is essentially short term.  The long term solution is to train enough doctors, nurses (and teachers) to staff our hospitals (and schools) properly with permanent and dedicated professionals.