Thursday 31 December 2015

Flood Defences: promises then neglect.

The previous post accused our government of "criminal neglect of the the duties of a government towards its citizens."  The following day the Guardian published an article by Damian Carington  which gives further and better particulars which in my view amply justify this accusation.  In summary:

  • In response to floods in 2007 the Pitt Review recommended that increased funding was needed.  The then Labour government duly hiked up the expenditure;
  • In 2008, in response to floods in his own Oxfordshire constituency, David Cameron, then in opposition, said in parliament  "Most people accept that, with climate change [floods] are likely to become more frequent":
  • So in his first year in power, in 2010/11 the government cut planned expenditure on flood defences by 27%;
  • In January 2012 the government's own research showed that flooding was the greatest threat posed by climate change in England;
  • But by the summer of 2012, when heavy flooding hit again, it was revealed that, following the cuts, 300 flood relief projects, including a £58m scheme for Leeds, had not gone ahead;
  • In May 2013 the government cut the number of officials on the National Adaptation  [to climate change] Programme, whose remit incudes flooding,  from 38 to six;
  • During the floods of 2013/14 advisers told ministers that there was a £500m hole in flood defence plans;
  • And in March 2104 the Meteorological Office warned that extreme rainfall was becoming more  common in the UK;
  • In November 2014 the National Audit Office found that the risk of flooding was rising as a result of the cuts, and that half the nation's flood defences had been left with "minimal " maintenance. (some of the flooding in York happened because machinery that was supposed to prevent the Foss flooding failed because of poor maintenance);
  • In June this year (still 2015) the Committee on Climate Change recommended  the need to "develop a strategy to address the increasing number of homes in areas of high flood risk."  The government's response was that  ". . .a strategy to address future residual risk  would not be appropriate at this time."
How can this be?  We are not (yet) a banana republic.  We have a highly educated electorate, a free press, and all the economic resources necessary to put things right.*

But we have a government obsessed with cutting public expenditure and an ideological reduction in the size of the state, a House of Commons in thrall to the executive and incapable of calling it effectively to account, and a sycophantic press largely concerned only with profits, happy to express outrage as each crisis  happens, then move on to  the next sensation which will sell the latest editions.

This applies, of course, not just to floods and similar national phenomena, but to miscarriages of justice, expenses scandals, election promises blatantly broken, mismanagement of the banking and financial systems, failure of business giants to pay their taxes, protecting the wealthy and demonising the weak.

Comprehensive constitutional reform is needed - but that neither sells papers nor, alas, until now, seems to win votes.  Yet the majority of people must be outraged by this scenario. It is the task of the broad left - Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP - to stop bickering and form the coalition which will wrest our democracy from the hands of slick profiteers and bring it back into the service of all the people.

*  Putting things right is not just a matter of building more and bigger defences, but requires a change in the way we treat the land, as George Monbiot explains yet again.

Monday 28 December 2015


Flood defences are a classic example of what economics textbooks call a "public" good or service.  These have two characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry.  Non-excludablity  means that, if the good or service were to be provided by the "market" - if for example a group of houses were to get together to subscribe to provide the facility privately, it would not be possible to prevent any non-subscriber from enjoying the benefit. Non-rivalry means that one person's or household's "consuming"  the benefit does not prevent anyone else from doing so.

Hence "the market" cannot provide the facility: it must be provided collectively by national or local government, or a charity, as were, for example, lighthouses in their early days. .

Street lighting  and national defence are further routine examples.

Clearly flood defences come under this category: only the government can provide them.

Yet after 2010 government expenditure on flood defences was slashed by almost 30%, and recovered only as a result of "exceptional expenditure" following the 2013/14 floods.  Oxford Professor Simon Wren-Lewis estimates a shortfall of around £1bn compared with the trend inherited from the previous government.

The repeated misery foisted on families in, for example, Cockermouth, are poignant proof that the political choice of ruthlessly cutting government expenditure is not just getting rid of wasteful "fat" or unnecessary luxuries, but criminal neglect of the the duties of a government towards its citizens.  It is also economically wasteful. I think it was in relation to Cockermouth that I read that a flood defence project costing £4m had been delayed or abandoned.  The cost of the damage in the latest flood in that area was estimated to be in the region  of £400m. The total cost of this season's floods in all areas is now estimated to be £1.3bn. 

So rather than cheering on the government for promises of reduced taxes, we need to recognise a government's responsibility to provide these "public" goods and services,  and have the sense to be prepared to pay for them.

We also need to recognise that yet more artificial flood defences are no long term answer to the problem.  We must stop building on  flood  plains (if a river can't flood where it used to it will flood somewhere else), stop concreting over gardens to provide parking lots, and recognise the need for trees on high ground to increase the ability of the ground to absorb water.  That could mean eating less mutton,as George Monbiot explains.

Thursday 24 December 2015


Dai y Mirror.

That's how the Daily Mirror, the  UK's most respectable tabloid,  spells its name this morning on its masthead.

On the BBC's Radio 4 "Today" programme this morning there was much speculation as to why. Is it a mistake?  Is it maybe Welsh?

I think I've cracked it.  It's a coded message.

They've missed out the "L"

There's "No L"


Merry Christmas.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

A Reallignment of the Left (again)

The former Liberal Democrat candidate for Brighton, Chris Bowers, is, along with Caroline Lucas, Green Party leader, and Lisa Nandy, Labour's shadow energy secretary, putting together a book to be called "Power to the People."  According to details provided in the Guardian by Rafael Behr there are to be contritions by Mhairi Black of the SNP, Norman Lamb, unsuccessful leadership contender for the Liberal Democrats, and Steve Read, a Labour front-bencher.

Behr comments that "[their] biggest problem is finding a definition for 'progressive' that isn't a fancy euphemism for 'hates Tories,'"  and concludes his article: "A party that agrees only on what it is against , not what it is for, will leave much of the country cold."

Quite right, but Behr is either too pessimistic, or hasn't really thought hard enough about what the "progressive forces" are "for.|"

Way back in September the BBC published a list of "24 things that Jeremy Corbyn believes." These range from popular policies such as taxing the rich and cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion as a contribution to tackling the deficit, restrictions on the arms trade, and the return of rent control, to more obscure areas such as allowing the Chagos Islanders to return to their homes and giving every child an opportunity to learn a musical instrument.  Personally I'm very much in favour of that last policy as at school you learn an awful lot of such as chemistry, physics, and even maths which, if you don't use it, you quickly forget, whereas if you learn to play a musical instrument that is a gift which can give pleasure for life.

My own list of areas where I am sure the progressive left can easily find agreement includes:
  • a reduction in inequality;
  • fairer taxation, particularly of "bads" (eg land hoarding) rather than "goods" (eg employment);
  • encouragement of renewable energy and other green policies;
  • a less grandiose foreign policy;
  • restrictions on the arms trade;
  • housing, housing, and yet more housing;
  • decentralisation, "home rule" for Scotland and Wales, and the restoration of the powers and influence of local government;
  • an end to pointless privatisations and encouragement of co-operative, mutual and not-for-profit enterprises;
  • electoral reform;
  • encouragement of long-termism in banking, commerce and industry; employee participation and profit sharing;.
  •  committed and co-operative participation in the EU and UN;
  • support for the BBC and a more diverse media.
That's just a quick dozen off the top of my head.  I'm sure I've missed out something terribly important.

There is actually, as Behr recognises, a small majority among the electorate for progressive policies.  The main obstacle to making it effective is the Labour party itself and its attitude to electoral reform, preferably by proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies, but let's not be picky.  If their response  were an enthusiastic "Yes!" then a successful alliance would surely be  a winner.

If, however, Labour cling to the possibility that they may yet win a majority by themselves under the present unfair system and thus be able to put their own exclusive prescription for the good society into effect, then we're stuck with the Tory hegemony for years to come.

Monday 14 December 2015

How open is "Open Labour"?

A non-factional faction called "Open Labour" has been created within the  Labour Party to encourage open discussion between the other factions as to how the left can progress without in-fighting and back-biting.

 Fine as afar as it goes.  It is perfectly obvious to we outside observers that by concentrating their fury on each other rather than the Tories,  Labour's leading lights are merely entrenching the Tories in power. They should stop squabbling and get behind their democratically elected leader who has succeeded in catching a progressive wind amongst the electorate.

But just how open is this new group within the party? Will  they be open to working with the Liberal Democrats, Greens, and other progressive forces in British politics - even the SNP, which is pretty progressive at the moment?

If the answer is "Yes"  then there is a real chance of bringing the Conservative hegemony to and end.  But if they stick to Labour's traditional attitude, that they and they alone have a monopoly of  wisdom on how things ought to be and how to get there, and the rest of us should get off their turf,  then we are doomed to the continued dismemberment of much of what is civilised in our society for decades to come

Monday 7 December 2015

Terrorism on the tube?

The police were very quick to designate the attack by one man with a knife at Leytonstone underground station in London as a "terrorist incident."  Whether this was on their own initiative or on instructions from on high we are not yet told.  There will be investigations which may  discover a network of fanatics out to cause similar mayhem in other London stations in the name of their religion.  Or maybe it was an isolated incident involving just just one person with a mental illness.

For the man suffering from "deep lacerations to his throat" this is certainly a very serious matter, though his  injuries are said to be "not life-threatening."  And for the bystanders who couldn't think of anything more helpful to do than take photographs, it will be a bit embarrassing.    Otherwise, on the scale of nasty incidents it hardly compares with the 13 (and, it is now thought,  possibly more) women killed by the Yorkshire Ripper, or the bombers who killed 56 in July 2005, or the 30+ innocents killed in October when the Americans "target bombed" the Médecins sans Frontières hostpital  at Kunduz .

Hyping the incidence of terrorism, if that is what is happening, is a ploy that may backfire.  The police may see it as a way of  avoiding cuts and perhaps even gaining more resources.  The government may see it as a justification for their joining the bombing of Syria.  But opponents of bombing may equally argue, as we did before parliament made its decision, that joining the bombing would be more likely to provoke rather than prevent terrorist attacks in this country. That would be very likely to be the case if this young man turns out to be "home grown."

Perhaps the wisest reaction to the incident would be to increase the resources devoted to caring for and curing the mentally ill.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Politics post Oldham

Even our supposedly neutral BBC seems determined to distort the true state of our politics.  Labour had "retained their set at the Oldham by-election, but with a reduced majority," we were told yesterday bulletin after bulletin.  Only as though as an afterthought did they add "but with an increased share of the vote."

What a different impression it would have created if they'd put it the other way round.  "Labour has won the Oldham by-election with an increased share of the vote."  Much more upbeat.

There seems to be a law to downgrade any success of the progressive side of politics, and upgrade any little local difficulties, of which there have been many, some of them not so little.

Even in the supposed centre-left Guardian Marin Kettle, writing before the result was known, spoke of real politics having to deal with " a big commons vote, a shabby reselection campaign in Walthamstow, a lousy byelecion result in Oldham."

Well, it wasn't  lousy at all: it was a resounding triumph for Labour under Corbyn's leadership.  Of course the majority was reduced (from 17 209 to 10 722) but that was because the turnout was only two thirds of that of the previous (general) election.  The all-important share of the vote was up from  54.8% to 62.1%, an increase of 7.1 percentage points, or, if you want to describe it even more favourably (but still accurately) an increased share of 13.3%.

So much for Labour under Corbyn being unelectable.

This confirms my view that Corbyn is a "wind for change."  It is a vote of confidence  in progressive politics not just from the Labour party's supposedly hard left members, or their enthusiastic but naive newcomers, but from the electorate as a whole.

Two groups need to learn the lesson.

First is Labour's "New Labour old guard," if that's not too oxymoronic a description, who need to realise that it is their kind of politics: Tory-lite, on message, spouting platitudes, sealed in their own establishment, afraid to think out of the no-liberal box for fear of frightening the horses, that has disillusioned those of us hoping for a better and fairer and more honest future.

Second is our Liberal Democrat Commons rump, of whom two thirds shamefully voted for the Tory policy of  adding to the demonstrably unproductive bombing of Syria. They and other leading members  need to realise that Corbyn has been successful in unleashing the demand  fore more honest politics which Nick Clegg recognised, and briefly excited, in 2010, but on which we sadly failed to deliver.  So rather than joining the campaign to denigrate Corbyn, our party needs to concentrate on those goals on which we agree (from fairer taxation to justice for the Chagos Islanders) rather than joining in the sniping.

That does not mean that Liberal Democrats should leave and join Labour.  Labour's methods are very different from ours.  They are top-down, authoritarian, careless of civil liberties,  and, most dangerously of all,  believe they have a monopoly of wisdom on how things should be and others (ie us and the Greens, plus the SNP for the moment) should get off their territory.  We are bottom up, genuine devolvers, more tolerant of variety and more trusting of people.

But as C P Scott, great editor of the (then Manchester) Guardian pointed out nearly 100 years ago, Labour and Liberals are "two divisions of the party of progress" and warned against the possibility that "while Liberalism and Labour are snapping and snarling away at each other the Conservative dog may run away with the bone."

Sadly the Tories have the bone for the next four and a half  years. Our strategy in that time must be that when 2020 comes we have worked together to create a rainbow alliance ready and willing to undo the damage they have done and continue to do, and build the decent, civilised, dynamic and sharing  society which we crave.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Advent in Syria

Last night one of the choirs I'm in led  an Advent Carol Service.

The first reading included Isaiah 2:4

. . . and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

A later reading was a poem by John Morgan entitled "The Seven days of an Advent Calendar."  I can't find it on Google but the conclusion was on the lines of  "how many Advents do we need to get the message?"

I would have liked to have the whole House of Commons packed into the church to listen.

We have had Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. Just how many do we need to learn the lesson that military interference in matters we don't understand and can't control makes matters worse, not least by adding to the concept of "Crusader West" and fuelling antagonism towards us?

Proponents of air strikes claim "we cannot sit back and do nothing."  

But the alternative is not to do nothing.

 Energetic international diplomatic action to stop the supply of money, oil and arms to Isis, to encourage Muslim countries, especially those in the area, to "take ownership" of the problem, and a humane welcome to refugees are all positive steps that will do good. With or without air-strikes, we must redouble the efforts of the police and security services to discover and neutralise potential terrorist cells, though we must hope with rather more sensitivity  than that depicted on last night's BBC 1 version of John Lancaster's "Capital."  And, in the long run, before we really are all dead, I'd like to see this counter-productive notion of a "war on terror" replaced by international police action to catch criminals

Our Foreign Office claims to be full of "Arabists" with a special feeling for and understanding of the Middle East area,  based on long experience.  Well, let's give them a chance to show what they can do..

There is every sign that David Cameron is losing confidence in his own argument.  Why else should he rush the debate and attempt to smear opponents with the disgraceful description : " a bunch of terrorist sympathisers."?

I am deeply distressed that the Liberal Democrat MPs have announced they will be supporting the air-strikes.  This , if carried out, will be the first big mistake of Tim Farron's leadership.  

It hasn't happened yet.  I hope and pray for a change of heart, and that Cameron's intemperate language and inadequate arguments will persuade enough Labour MPs to follow their leader and so avoid this Tory folly.