Wednesday 30 September 2015

McDonnell's economics not from Planet Zog

In an earlier post I've used this quotation from Owen Jones's excellent book, "The Establishment":

Those policies that challenge the position of the Establishment . . . are dismissed as a recipe for ruin: businesses will leave, capital will flee, tax revenues will collapse, and so on.

After his speech to the  Party Conference  on Monday Labour's new Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell was interviewed on BBC 2's "Newsnight" by Evan Davis.

Now, I have a great respect for Evan Davis.  He used to come to day conferences  for sixth formers studying economics and give us easy to understand talks on the state of the nation's economy, was a presenter  on Radio 4's "Today" programme, and has recently replaced the aggressively rude Jeremy Paxman as chief interviewer on "Newsnight."

Maybe I'm getting paranoid, but when he asked McDonnell about the possibility that a Labour Government might introduce a Financial Transactions Tax  or Land Value Taxation he did so with what seemed to me an air of incredulity  - "Surely you can't be serious?  Do you really mean that?"

Yes, I know, he didn't actually use those words, and even had he done so they are  well bellow the level implied by the Jones quote.  But a lot can be deduced from body language and facial and vocal expression.

In fact there  is nothing outrageous  or even novel  about either of theses taxes.  The idea of a Financial Transaction Tax was first put forward by the American economist and Nobel Laureate James Tobin  way back in 1972 and some of us have been advocating it ever since we heard of it.  The European Commission considered introducing one  in 2014 and is to make another attempt in January next year.  So there is nothing from Planet Zog about it: it is mainstream, and that the Labour Party should be giving it serious consideration is perfectly sensible.

And as for Land Value Taxation, we Liberals have  been banging on about it for over a century. (We used to call it Site Value Rating)

But, as Jones points out, the media, perhaps unconsciously in the case of Davis, is skilled at regarding anything that might upset the City, or the owners of prime pieces of land, (or land banks hoarded by builders and supermarkets) as outrageously beyond the pale.

Fortunately Mr McDonnell remained cool.  He is to set up commission to examine these, and other proposals.  Liberal Democrats should volunteer to contribute.  We have a lot of experience of  good ideas.

Saturday 19 September 2015

A wind for change

The late great Richard Wainwright, doyen of Yorkshire Liberalism and Liberal MP for the Colne Valley 1966-70 and 1974 - 1987, compared politics to sailing.  You could be in the Doldrums for ages, seeming to be getting nowhere, but when "the wind" came along, you needed to be alert to catch it and forge ahead.

Jeremy Corbyn has released a wind for change and, rather than catching it, our Liberal Democrat leaders  seem poised to miss it.  An article in today's Guardian headlined "Cable: Lib Dems and moderate Labour can take centre ground" reports  Vince Cable himself, and fellow ex-coalition ministers  Ed Davey and Norman Lamb, all urging that we unite with "moderate" Labour MPs unsettled by Corbyn's victory in order to occupy the "vast space space between Cameron and Corbyn."

This is completely to ignore the reasons for the Corbyn victory. To me it signifies a desire for an end to triangulation, timid moderation, the unfairness of making the poorest pay for the errors of the financial sector, dogmatic privatisations, and craven fear of doing anything that might frighten the bankers or upset the rich.

It is call for a challenge to the " market forces rule OK" Establishment dogma  (as described in the previous post) and  for genuinely radical change.

On the letters page of the same Guardian is a selection of indignant protests from Liberal Democrat activists (including one from me) pointing out to our leadership that we "have had enough of the party establishment seeking equidistance.  We are a left-leaning party of the centre left."

I hope Tim reads these and recognises his isolation from the main-stream of the party before he delivers his speech tonight. If not I fear we shall hear denigration of the"hard left" (only "hard" because the centre has moved so far to the right), siren calls to worried Labour MPs to join us in the centre and a recipe for decades in the wilderness.

There is a danger that Corbyn's wind may not blow for very long - Gleggmania barely lasted a week -  but while it does last we need to identify ourselves with it with a profound "me too" for those of his policies which overlap with ours: economic expansion rather than damaging austerity to reduce the deficit; non-replacement of Trident (I hope),  fairer taxation, a social security net that treats people with dignity;  house building;  green energy, constitutional reform; and a humane attitude to refugees and the many still poverty-stricken nations.

Friday 18 September 2015

Owen Jones pages 296 and 297

These quotations from Jones's book "The Establishment" in my view encapsulate the dilemma we're in:

New Labour's embrace of the Establishment [view that the market reigns supreme] reinforced its sense of invincibility. A compliant media happily goes along  with an agenda that furthers the interests of the wealthy as though it were simple common sense to which nobody in their right mind  could object.  

Those policies that challenge the position of the Establishment . . . are dismissed as a recipe for ruin: businesses will leave, capital will flee, tax revenues will collapse, and so on.

Opponents of the Establishment are ignored, dismissed as dangerous, or deluded extremists, and - if need be - humiliated.

The Establishment is also shielded by the deflection  of popular anger directed at those at the bottom of society, rather than those at the top. Low paid workers  are encouraged by the media and politicians  to envy  the supposedly luxurious conditions of benefit-claiming unemployed people . .

All the above from page 296

And on page 297:

. . . [T]here is an absence of a strong popular movement  attempting to deflect people's anger at their plight upwards.

Well, with the astonishing surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn, now there is.

Worryingly there are reports of disaffected Labour MPs contacting Tim Farron, and Tim seems pleased about this.


The last thing we need is a split in the Left:  the Tories would love it as they did in the 1980s, after which  they ruled for 18 years largely as the result of a similar split.

 Corbyn has released enthusiasm for genuinely radical change, and his anti-austerity stance in particular is more than compatible with the views of we Liberal Democrats who have remained loyal to our Keynesian heritage. 

Rather than encouraging defections, we need to  work together, bringing to the partnership our commitment to genuine devolution, workplace democracy, constitutional reform including proportional representation, land value taxation and real enthusiasm for rather than wary tolerance of the European Union.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Corbyn and the anthem

Sir Nicholas Soames, Churchill's grandson no less, has complained that Jeremy Corbyn failed to sing the words of the national anthem when it was played at a service in St Paul's Cathedral to commemorate the  How puerile can you get?

Yet this event, or rather non-event, has hit the front pages of many British newspapers.  The Guardian, to its credit, has relegated it to a modest half-column on page 8.

In my youth the main function of the anthem seemed to be to clear the cinemas quickly after the last showing. About two thirds of the audience would rush out before it started, the rest of us, unless we had a bus to catch, would stand in respectful silence, which exactly what Mr Corbyn did.  Very few people sang.  And how many of our footballers sing when this ritual is enacted before international matches?

Given that people claim to want honesty and sincerity in politicians, how can they expect  Corbyn to mouth that he wants the Queen and her family "long to reign over us"?  Rather he presumably would like them to go into modest retirement.

If we must have national anthems I think it is high time we found some words more suitable for today.  "For he is an Englishman" from "HMS Pinafore" might well suit  UKIP.  Perhaps Prince Charles could commission the poet laureate to compose some more inclusive words to that fine tune, or perhaps to the  BBC's "UK Theme."

As a former Wolf Cub I happen to know not one but three verses of the National Anthem. I wonder how many Nicholas Soames knows?   To save Mr Corbyn further embarrassment I recommend this third one which he can sing without compromising his beliefs:

Oh Lord our God, arise,
Scatter our enemies*,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics
Frustrate their knavish tricks
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all.

*mainly those in the Labour Party.

Monday 14 September 2015

Corbyn: the distortions start here

Barely had the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's stunning victory in the Labour leadership election been made than the Tories were on the airwaves with their demolition ball:
 "Labour are now a serious risk to our nation's security, our economy's security and your family's security."

I believe this was originally an obviously carefully prepared "tweet" from David Cameron, and it has been repeated ad nausiam by the (carefully chosen?) Defence Secretary  Michael Fallon.

In an earlier post I have discussed an article by Jonathan Freedland which describes the Tory PR department's tremendous skill in coining simple and attractive phrases to convey their message, however misleading, or downright untrue, the message might be.  That above is an excellent example.

Claiming that Corbyn's election is a threat to our economic security is a bit rich, to say the least, coming from the party whose policy of deregulation caused the crash in the first place,  whose policy of "expansionary contraction"  failed in its two prime objectives  (preserving our AAA rating and eliminating the deficit within one parliament) and resulted in the slowest recovery in modern times, whilst running, and still running,  a record and unsustainable balance of payments deficit (far more serious than the much publicised government internal expenditure deficit.)*

As for our families, those dependent on benefits have their security not just threatened but removed by the present government's policies, especially if they have a spare bedroom.  And even for the well heeled, there are calculations by respected economists that the reversal of the recovery, under-way when Labour left office, by the "expansionary contraction " policy,  has cost the average family some £4 000.(see Mainly  Macro, 15th February and 17th April).

But these truths are not what the clever Tory quote implies, and they are not what is reported and commented on by the right-wing media (or even, alas, the "impartial"  BBC.) Rather than standing to one side in carefully contrived  balancing acts, Labours sulking former front benchers should be storming the studios and ensuring that the facts are told.

The accusation of the threat to national security is more arguable because it depends on assessments of hypothetical situations.  The case for the  renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent has been admirably put by "Anonymous" in his comments  to an earlier post.  It can equally, and in my view more plausibly, argued that the British deterrent is now an irrelevance and that,  if the cost were transferred to more and more effectively equipped conventional forces, these would make a greater and more appropriate  contribution to the creation and reservation of word peace.  Similarly the benefits of our continued membership on NATO, created as a response to the cold war, are debatable.  The French left it and have survived intact.  Leaving it would be no guarantee that we would cease to coat-tail the US in their military adventures, though that would be less likely under Corbyn.

It may seem a cheeky comparison, but it seems to me that there are parallels between the euphoria created by Corbyn's victory and the "Gleggmania" which followed the first Leaders' Debate in 2010.  Gleggmania evaporated in a couple of weeks,  and, rather than gaining we Liberal Democrats actually lost seats.

Corbyn has created a new and exciting atmosphere.  Rather  that squabbling  and  thus giving the Tory PR machine free rein, Labour's "big hitters" need to get out and about and explain and support Corbyn's many perfectly credible proposals.

And Tim Farron and his band should join them.

*  For an informrf assessment ( published today)of Labour's economic record whilst in government, see:

Saturday 12 September 2015

Congratulations Corbyn.

Elected by 59.5% of the voters.  Wow.

His acceptance speech demonstrated that he is no polished performer, but his percentage demonstrates he is a game changer.

Yet within minutes of the announcement  one of his senior colleagues had resigned.

Yesterday Corbyn was quoted:

"[The Labour Party has] a big job to do in exposing the government's austerity programme and what it's doing to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, their bill on welfare reform and their bill on trade union issues, and the way they are actually systematically slicing up public services in Britain through massive cuts and local government grants."

So what's not to like?  Yet between seven and 12 of his senior colleagues are also reported to be contemplating refusing to serve on his front bench. Liz Kendaall has sad that her " differences on the economy and foreign policy [are] too fundamental."

Yet most of Corbyn's economic policy is mainstream, or it would be if the Tory PR machine had not so successfully distorted the truth to suit their own agenda. (See the respected Oxford Professor Simon Wren Lewis's  "mainly macro" on11th September for details of how.)

Cotbyn is also keen on taking the railways and energy companies back into public ownership, and retaining at least one of the bailed-out banks as a publicly-owned facilitator of regional investment.  All power to his elbow for these popular and sensible policies.  I'm not, however, too keen on his "People's Quantitative Easing,"  which is a confusing blur of monetary and fiscal policy, and should prefer that he stick to tried and tested fiscal stimulation.  (I concede that makes me a conservative (!) Keynesian.)

Of course the Tory PR machine won't waste a moment in tearing hie record, character and politics to shreds. We had a flavour only yesterday of what is to come, when David Cameron is reported as saying:

"It's as if the financial crash . . . never happened . . .[T]his is now a party that has completely vacated the intellectual playing field  . . .It is arguing at the extremes of the debate, simply wedded to more spending, more borrowing and more taxes."

This "broad brush" innuendo does not, of course,  bear close scrutiny
  • yes, the financial crash did happen - and it was  the result of the Tory policy of deregulation;
  • Corbyn is not at the extremes of the debate - his proposals for stimulating the economy are mainstream, based on both economic theory and historical experience, and supported by the majority of macro-economists;
  • more spending is needed to upgrade the infrastructure (not least the upgrading of out Northern rail network, which, after their unequivocal promise in the election, the Tories have now put on ice;
  • with interest rates at an historic low this is an excellent time to borrow - indeed it is akin to criminal negligence for the government not to borrow;
  • and most of us have the sense to realise that we can't have a decent society without paying for it.  As well as chasing tax evasion and avoidance, how about a land value tax, a financial transaction tax, and a reduction in tax exemptions for pension pots designed to generate more than the median wage?
Of course, the bulk of the press will not bother to analyse either Cameron's taunts or Corbyn's policies in this way, and it is a tragedy that so many of  Corbyn's own party, and indeed his three rivals, seem to have lost heart, and fail to defend Labour's economic record or advocate anything but Tory-lite policies.  Indeed, some senior figures even help the Tories along by adding to the smears.  Jon Cruddas yesterday referred to fears of " a Trotskyist tribute act,"  With friends like these . . . .? 

After the neo-con hegemony of the last 35 years, which, sadly, even the leadership of the Liberal Democrats  has failed to  challenge, I believe there is a very real chance of Corbyn becoming a game change for the entire country.  He has shifted the views of the Labour party grass-roots: now let him now reach out further.

In this it is desperately important he is not  tribal.  Martin Kettle has pointed out the dangers of "Labour's combination of blindness and disdain towards tradition other than its own."  To achieve the seismic shift we need in British politics he needs to be prepared to work with we Liberal Democrats, the Greens and, yes, even the SNP.

Corbyn has shown his willingness for a collegiate approach to policy-making within the Labour Party.  I hope doesn't triangulate away too much. At the same time I hope he will offer the hand of friendship to other parties of the left.  I wonder again what his views are on proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies?

Friday 11 September 2015

"One law for the rich. . ." - yet another example.

Yesterday the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority decided not to pursue 26 existing and former MPs for failing to settle their expences debts because the sums involved were all less than £500 so it wasn't worth the bother.

In 2011, following the London Riots resulting from the shooting by the police of Mark Duggan, a woman who was not involved in the riots was sentenced to five months' imprisonment for receiving a stolen pair of shorts.  I can't find confirmation, but I seem to remember that a boy was also prosecuted for stealing a bottle of water.

See previous post for another example of the different ways we treat the rich and powerful, and those at the bottom of the pile.  It is no wonder that so many people are alienated from the political process when we are so obviously not " all in it together."

Thursday 10 September 2015

Lords' expences - another world.

The newsletter of our local branch of the trade union Unison claims that during the last parliament (2010 to 2015) no fewer than 62 members of the House of Lords claimed £360 000 in expenses but never once voted.  These included the Bishop of London, (Richard Chatres), the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Well, to be fair, voting is not all that parliamentarians do -  maybe it's even their least important function.  Thy could all have used their undoubted wisdom and experience to contribute to debates, or spent many hours in committees, scrutinising government legislation or providing informed comment on issues of national importance.

And if we break it down, £360 000 between 62 averages less than £6 000 apiece, and spread over five years it amounts to less than £25 a week.

But remember, this is nearly half of the amount  we expect the unemployed to live on while they search for jobs, rather than just a modest extra perk.

Clearly some peers need expenses if they are to carry out their function properly, but surely not all.  I know little about Jonathan Sacks, but as a former Chief Rabbi  he presumably has a pension, and he's a successful author, which may be a nice little earner.  Andrew Lloyd Webber must be a multi-millionaire.

It may be unfair, but I'll concentrate on the Bishop of London, because I'm a member of the Church of England, and a tiny fraction of my own modest financial contribution goes some way to propping up the establishment of which he is Number 3 in the hierarchy.

As London's bishop he has a salary of £56 460: not  a fortune by some standards, but nevertheless more than double the median wage. He also gets a house (no longer Fulham Palace but a nice little pad in Dean's Court) which is presumably rent free, and at 68 years old he presumably receives his Old Age Pension, which is all many people of his age group have to live on.  I am insufficiently familiar with the geography of London to know whether or not Dean's Court is within walking distance of the House of Lords, but if it isn't he could ride there for free using his pensioners' bus pass.

So where's the need for expenses?

To continue to be fair, it is perfectly possible, I hope likely, that the bishop's claim was well below the average, and equally possible that he uses the extra money to give additional support to some worthy project in his diocese.

But at a time when social security payments  for the most vulnerable are being reduced,  some  effectively fined for having a spare bedroom, and  pay for other  public sector workers, at the bottom of the pile, frozen, we must question why those at the top of the tree are treated with such munificence.

This is yet another example of "one law for the rich and another for the poor" or, as a Guardian leader put it recently, "Government of the club, for the club, by the club."

Roll on Jeremy Corbyn.

Saturday 5 September 2015

Refugees: Cameron changes his spots - or does he?

I suspect David Cameron's advisers and speech writers are desperately looking for verbal formulations which make his progression, from referring to refugees as a "swarm" to recognising that they are after all "people like us" and should be treated as such, as logical and consistent.

What has changed Cameron's public attitude is the public response to pictures of the little Syrian boy's body being washed up on a beach.  (Strangely we seemed to be unmoved by news of thousands drowning, and the horrifying reports of 71 being suffocated in a closed van.)  Even the Sun has now been converted and is calling on its readers to raise money to help

Oddly, Cameron's  change in attitude seems limited to Syrians in camps in the Middle East rather than those already in Europe, and he still refuses to co-operate in a pan-European strategy for each EU member to take its fair share of refugees.

A letter in today's Guardian from three Labour MPs calls upon Britain to "take the lead" in seeking an international response.  Why are we in Britain still so  obsessed with "taking the lead?"  We are no longer a leading world power, and I would be happy if we recognised this and were content just to take a co-operative role with our partners.   Instead, on this and so many other issues, we drag our feet.

If an appeal to the pocket rather than decent humane feelings will provoke a more positive response, Cameron's  government should recognise that whoever takes in a significant number of these desperate people will reap enormous economic rewards in the future.  The bulk are young, enterprising, dogged, innovative, courageous, and determined: just the sort of people we need to revive our flagging economies.   If we in Britain continue to sulk behind closed frontiers, we shall continue to stagnate  whilst others with more vision, prepared to overcome the immediate problems,  sew the seeds of even greater future prosperity.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Tonga rugby union team

An enjoyable (and possibly even improving) part of my holiday was spent as a participant in the  Cranleigh Choral Week, where we practised chamber music during the day, and the "major work(s)" for public performance at Dorking Halls at the end of the week, each evening.

Sharing the facilities of the boarding school  where we were housed and fed was the Tonga National Rugby  Team, here to train for the Rugby World Cup.  Before I discovered that they played the "other" code, I was eager to prime them with the information that I lived near Huddersfield, where the Rugby League was founded, and that our local team, Batley (of Gallant Youths fame) had just hit the national headlines because its captain had announced he is gay.

However, it turns out to be Rugby Union, so these conversational gambits became inappropriate.

Our choral week relaxes with a talent evening, in which individuals and groups who so choose strut their stuff.  The opening, and surprise, item his year was by the Tonga Team, who lined up in their  traditional dress and sang, in beautiful harmonies and with solo interjections, several verses of what turned out to be a hymn (at least, it ended in "Amen.")

I gather that a the end of each match they say a prayer:

"We thank the Lord for giving us the strength to  get through the match without anyone getting injured badly."

A far cry from our own Rugby Union ethos and its association with ribald and risqué ditties.

People of my age will always associate Tonga with their Queen Salote, one of the hits of our own Queen's Coronation in 1953.  She endeared herself to everyone by processing in an open carriage, regardless of the rain.  Our West Indian population composed  a calypso in her honour which became very popular.

The Tongan team's opening match is against Georgia at 12h00 on Saturday 19th September.  If it is televised I hope I shall be able to find a friend with the facilities to watch it.  I wish them every success.