Tuesday 27 December 2016

Customers or citizens: what's in a name?

 As a pre-Christmas treat I've been reading Alan Bennett's latests volume of diaries, "Keeping on Keeping on." I'm happy that I share a lot of his views and prejudices, not least his irritation at being called a "customer" by the railways and local government, and loud mobile phone conversations on public transport and the streets.

For me the issue re-arose recently when, trying to be helpful, I rang my local authority to point out that a replacement lamppost installed on the terrace where I live didn't actually light (it still doesn't).  The following letter to my (Conservative) councillor explains the situation.
  "Dear Cllr *****,
If you've seen the film "I, Daniel Blake" you'll know that it ends with his (posthumous) testimony that he is, among other things, "not a client or a customer. . .but a citizen."
A few weeks ago I had occasion to  ring the Council to point out that the replacement street lamp fitted on our Terrace was not actually lighting up (it still isn't).  I was forced to spend several minutes listening to a looped tape telling me that "all our operatives are busy dealing with other customers."
When I eventually did get to speak to an operative, after giving my message about the lamp, I asked her to pass on my protest that I expected to be treated as a burgess or citizen, but not a customer.  She replied politely that she was not allowed to pass on messages which challenged policy made by the councillors, but pointed out, reasonably, that not all those who contacted the council were necessarily burgesses or citizens: some were businesses and some were from outside the Kirklees area.
We could get round this problem by re-recording the tape to say that the operatives are dealing with "other people" or simply "others." Equally, you could employ more operatives so that we  citizens who are trying to be helpful don't have to waste so much or our time.

 I suggest you put these to the Council.  I'm sure there'll be plenty of support from your colleagues in the Labour Party who, even if they haven't yet seen "I, Daniel Blake" will be in sympathy with its messages."

The councillor's reply was bland and fails to engage with the point

Thank for your email
I appreciate your point of view but I disagree residents deserve to be treated with respect and as customers by Kirkleees."

No wonder people are losing faith in politicians

I'm happy to say that a former student from the 1960s agrees with me and writes:

 "The reduction of a complex repertoire of social roles - passenger, viewer and listener, student, even citizen - to that of customer is one of the more far-reaching and damaging side effects of neo-liberal economics."

Wednesday 21 December 2016

"British" values - again!

Our Secretary of State for Local Government. and Communities, Sajid Javid, is toying with the idea of making all civil servants and local government employees, and maybe all immigrants as well, take an oath to uphold British values.  This seems to me to be gesture politics at its daftest.

The "British" values Javid is keen to promote are not yet strictly defined but might include:
  • tolerating the views of others;
  • believing in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from abuse;
  • a belief in equality, democracy, and the democratic process;
  •  respect for the law.
The implication that these values are uniquely or even especially British is an absurd conceit, and an insult to most of our neighbours. They are the values of most  modern democracies and an essential qualification for being eligible for joining the European Union.

 It's a bit rich for a former banker who is alleged to have earned £3m a year before he switched to politics to demand we believe in equality, especially as he's member of a government  which rewards the rich and presides over the bullying of the poor.  And as for respect for the law, his party's chief cheerleader  in the press, the Daily Mail, has called our most senior judges "enemies of the people" when they were asked to consider whether or not his government is acting lawfully..

My own youthful perception of British values were assimilated not by taking oaths but from  low-grade adolescent reading, especially the Biggles novels of W. E. Johns the the Sea Cadet and Scout stories of Percy F. Westerman.  From these I picked up the idea that clean-limbed British boys (there want much reference to girls) were:
  • modest and unassuming;
  • quietly competent;
  • patriotic -  but in an understated way  (no brash flag-waving);
  • reliable -  our "word was our bond;"
  • decent and honest.
Not, alas, a recipe for winning "The Apprentice" or succeeding in politics, or banking, today

An American comic-book hero, I think it might have been Superman, was said to crusade for "truth, justice and the American way."  Substituting "liberalism" for the last one, I think that makes a good set of values:

  • TRUTH: about immigrants, foreign policy, Brexit and its consequences, the distribution of income, conditions in prisons, recipients of social security, the influence of lobbyists, etc. with policy according to facts rather than prejudice.
  • JUSTICE: not just before the law, but economic justice, equality between men and women, the protection of minorities, generous support for  the disadvantaged, removal of artificial advantages (private eduction, perhaps, or even grammar schools), justice for the World's poor.
  • LIBERALISM:  The philosopher Timothy Garton Ash defined this as " a quest for the greatest possible measure of individual human freedom, compatible with the freedom of others."  No more needs to be said.
If these three values permeated our society life would be very pleasant and fulfilling. They will not  be achieved through enforced oaths, but through the example of political and opinion leaders, through art, literature, drama and education.  They will be most quickly achieved if the example comes from the top.

So go to it, Mr Javid: give us a lead.

Sunday 4 December 2016

"I, Daniel Blake" and me.

Last week I saw this  film about a  man in his 50s in the North East  of England who, although he has a heart condition, is diagnosed fit for work by the the government's social security system, and his attempts to appeal his case.

It is a film that makes one thoroughly ashamed to be British and have a government so monstrously unfeeling - determined, it seems to massage down the figures of those unable to work through illness regardless of the human consequences.  I'd like to think that all Conservative MPs, party members and voters, members of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, and readers of the Daily Mail would see it.

My comments relate to three incidents of which I've had practical experience.  The consequences for me have been very minor - just irritation, rather than literally matters of life and death.- but nevertheless signify a downward spiral in the quality of our lifestyle.

The film opens with Daniel Blake "enduring" (that word is used advisedly) a telephone interview to assess his ability to work.  The motivation of the interviewer is  clearly: "Answer the question so I can tick my box"  No time for explanations, qualifications, just "Yes" or "No" to the way I'm required to think of things.

Many of us are experiencing similar blinkered thinking when trying to make sense of banks, investment companies, hospitals and  local government.  Very often the first "conversation" is with a tape recorder.  Press this, press that, listen to this message  (at your expense, because it's often a premium number)  about how you could do what you want on line,  and finally, do it our way or not at all. I get the impression that much of the harassment from the banks is to put us in the position of supplicant, so that in the end we feel grateful that the bank can do anything for us at all.  The reverse, of course, is true: they are dependent on our custom.

There is much talk of the advent of the robotic society.  These are robots, both tapes and humans, and they detract from the quality of life rather than enhance it.

Blake is ordered to pursue his case by computer.   The Department of Work and Pensions, he is told, is
"default computer," to which he responds, "Well, I'm default pencil."  Time and again I have replicated Blake's experience of spending more time than I care to on inputting information  only to find the system fails at the last hurdle.  Much of the  information required , especially on "mail order" systems, is irrelevant to the  request being made, but clearly there simply to enable them to pester us  with unsolicited offers and opportunities that we'd prefer not to be bothered with.

And finally the film closes with  Blake's "final plea" that he is "not a client, a customer....but a citizen."  Here here!  I'm pleased that Alan Bennett, in his latest very readable diaries, Keeping on Keeping, on makes a similar point.  As far as the banks and the supermarkets are concerned I am happy to be a customer because  I have the sanction to " take my custom elsewhere,"  But on the railway I am a passenger, with the health services I am a patient, and with both local and national government I am a citizen.  The attempt to reduce all our relationships to the cash nexus by calling us customers is a monetarist step too far.

I,Daniel Blake also has a sub-plot in which a single mother is driven to prostitution by the intransigence of the system.  Do see it if you haven't already.. 

Wednesday 30 November 2016

Reining in corporate greed.

There are clear parallels between the UK's vote  for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the US.  In both countries the "left behind" have taken the opportunity to take a swipe at "the establishment" regardless of the consequences.

In the US here is anger that the perceived effects of globalisation have left swathes of the country, the "rust belt" abandoned and with only a minimalist, if that,  welfare safety net. In the UK there is growing anger that, while those at the bottom of the pile have suffered the consequences of government-imposed austerity, the fat cats at the top have not only escaped unscathed but are become richer and richer.

Here are a few figures to illustrate the obscene and still growing gap between the rich and the poor.

  • Unemployment benefit (now ludicrously called "Job Seekers' Allowance) is  £73.10 per week for an adult, which is the equivalent of £3 801 a year, though I you only get it for six months;
  • the government's version of the Living Wage is £7.20 an hour, which for a 35 hour week is £252  or £13,100 per year assuming full-time work rather than zero hours contract.  Members of the House of Lords, who could be said to be on zero hours contracts, though they choose their own hours, receive £300 a day plus expenses;
  • the current median wage is just above £535 per week, or just over £28 000 a year.
  • the average pay of trading bankers at Goldman Sachs is said to be around £400 000 a year, which works out at around £7 500 a week (that's rounding down);
  • the average "compensation" (pay is to crude a word) for the CEOs of the FT100 companies is £5.5m a year, or over £105 000 a week (again rounding down.)  According to some calculations this is 128 times that of their average workers, whereas in 1998 it was only (!) 47 times.
In her opening speech as our prime minister Theresa May spoke of  her "mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone." This was effectively a tacit admission that David Cameron's government had failed to do that.

However, if her Green Paper on Corporate Governance Reform issued yesterday  is anything to go by, there's not going  to be much change. Early indications that Mrs May favoured elected worker representatives  on company boards have been rowed back to mean that  their "voices" might be heard via non-executive directors (sounds a bit like the Guardians ad Litem appointed by the courts to speak for children too young to represent themselves).  And it looks as though she's caved in to indignation from the corporate  lobby that companies might be required to publish the ratio of their  executives' pay to that of their average worker.

If the serious dysfunctionality of our political system is to be healed it is essential that the present system which allows a tiny minority (the one per cent?) to rape and pillage the economy while those at the bottom of the pile are so squeezed that they are unable to participate even marginally in what our society defines as "normal"  be seriously reformed.

In my half century and more in the Liberal/Liberal Democrat party we have proposed various schemes to produce a fairer system which really does "work for everybody."  The most promising, around in the 1960s, was that  company boards should comprise one third shareholders' representatives, one third employees' representatives and one third representatives of the customers and community served.  With such a composition any  "stakeholder"  would need  support from the others in order to achieve an aim.

It is unrealistic to expect a Conservative governments to implement anything so radical but here are a few suggestions for moves in the right direction:

  • company law should be amended so that, rather than the requirement to act solely or mainly in the interest of the shareholders, they should be required to act in the interests of all the stakeholders, defined as appropriate to the individual industry:
  • shares should held for at least six months with financial penalties for selling within three yeas of the purchase;
  • remuneration at all levels should be open and public, the lowest not falling below the living wage as defined by the Living Wage Foundation (not the fake one decided by the government)  and the highest not more than a given multiple above that (I would have thoght x10 to start with, reducing gradually to x5 but that might be a bit optimistic for the times):
  • there should be genuine representation, by election, on the boards, of the various stakeholders, starting with at least two for each interest, and gradually increasing so that no one interest has a majority;
  • the functions of each individual employee should be clearly defined and a fair wage paid for performing it.  There should be no bribes and bonuses, as these inevitably distort performance..
Further suggestions are welcome.

If our democracy is to survive intact I see it as an urgent matter for the Liberal Democrats, preferably in cooperation with Labour and the Greens, to be working on a model with sufficient flexibility to be adapted to different circumstances.  Such would not be a complete solution to the present disaffection, but it would be an essential part.

Saturday 26 November 2016

Our Christian country

Today is Advent Sunday, the start of the season of three to four weeks (depending on what day Christmas Day falls) when the church asks us to prepare, not for Christmas (though too many parsons don't seem to realise this, and Advent Calendars certainly don''t)) but for the Second Coming, Last Trump (now there's a thought), Day of Judgement, the  End Times, or whatever you like to call it or them.

Oh for the days when parsons had the courage to stand out against populism and commercialism and forbid the singing of carols in church until Christmas Eve at the very earliest (though we choirboys could practise them  of course.).

Our vicar, who is German (just one of the many "immigrants" who combine to make my life more stimulating, comfortable and convenient) introduced us last Sunday to this poem by Malcolm  Guite:

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

I hadn't heard of Mr Guite before but, although yet another immigrant, he seems to have his finger very accurately on the pulse of British life.  The first 12 lines sum up the general population to a "T" and the final two twist the knife very accurately into that dwindling band of us who still turn up Sunday by Sunday and go through the motions. I often wonder if we follow the teachings and example of Jesus any more closely that anyone else.  It worries me that so many church-goers read the Daily Mail.

Monday 21 November 2016

Trial of Thomas Mair

The public trial of  Thomas Mair, who killed my MP Jo Cox, last June, has now lasted a week and is expected to continue for another two.  I cannot see what useful  purpose is served by this. The fact that Mair killed her is undisputed, and whether the verdict is murder, manslaughter, unlawful killing or something else should make no difference to the sentence, that he should be detained  in a secure institution and treated for mental illness until it is safe to release him, which will probably be "never." 

 A sensible system would sort this out in an afternoon. 

There is no sense in which "justice" is served by this protracted legal performance. Instead public money is being wasted on lawyers, who will not be on the minimum wage,  and the expenses of witnesses. The major outcome is the of feeding  the public's appetite for ghoulish details to the profit of the press. 

Sadly that bastion of probity and liberalism, my beloved Guardian, participates in full..

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Globalisation scapegoated

Our prime-minister, Theresa May,  has recognised that “globalisation [is] a force for good” but admits that there are “tensions and differences between those who are gaining from globalisation and those who feel they are losing out.” (Mansion House Speech, Monday 14th November.)

Well good for her: she “talks the talk very well”, but , as Aditya Chakrabortty points out,  we need to avoid the trap of attributing  the creation of a “left behind” class to the inexorable forces of globalisation  which, now we recognise the danger, just need  a bit of maternal tweaking  to make things better.
Chakrabortty attributes the growing inequality and creation of an underclass not to globalisation but to domestic political decisions dating back to the doctrines and policies of Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher.   He lists:

  •    the privatisations, particularly of public utilities, which ceased to be primarily public services but were and are squeezed for maximum profit by their hedge fund owners;      
  •  the reduction of UK manufacturing capacity by a fifth through the economic policies of the 80s;
  • draconian laws to limit the powers of the trade unions;
  •   the reduction of civil service personnel  by 80 000 (with a further 100 000 in the pipeline unless policies change;
  •   the deprofessionalisation of teaching and the substitution of a “tick-box mentality” in our schools;
  •   the development of precarity in employment.

To this list I would add:
  • the squandering of North Sea oil revenues on tax cuts and the funding of unnecessary unemployment  (rather than the creation of a Sovereign Wealth Fund as in Norway);
  •  the abolition of wages boards;
  •  the forced sale of council houses without provision for their replacement with affordable housing;
  •   the brutal and divisive treatment of the miners;
  •   tax cuts for companies and the rich on the pretence that this would increase enterprise, the benefits of which would trickle down to the rest of us;
  •  the failure to chase tax dodgers;
  •  social security cuts for those who need  help;
  •  the selling-off of UK assets, both public and private, to foreign owners for short-term gain but a long term drain on the balance of payments.

It would be idle to pretend that some of the above were not influenced by globalisation, but they were not caused by it, and could have been prevented or ameliorated had there been the domestic political will.

Chakrabortty’s conclusion is that the “[sink ]from semi-prosperity into pauperism” of the working classes, (and now a goodly portion of the middle and professional classes) was and is “not a one-off event driven by the magical, unanswerable forces of globalisation.”

In other words, we can, should and could  work together, preferably with our European neighbours,  to heal the rift which has led to Brexit and work together for a more equitable and co-operative (and thus probably happier) society.  All that’s stopping us is the political will.

Let's hope that there's some evidence of Mrs May's intention to put her talk into practice in the Economic Statement later this month

Monday 14 November 2016

US and UK both have simple solutions.

Both the US and the UK are  facing damaging futures but both have similar, and perfectly legal, solutions for avoiding their self-inflicted wounds

In the US Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for the Presidency: she received approximately a quarter of a million* more votes than Donald Trump.  However, through peculiarities in the electoral system Mr Trump has more votes in the Electoral College, which will actually make the legal decision.

In the UK the popular vote was for leaving the EU but the actual decision lies with Parliament, where the members of both houses are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining.

So, in each country, let the law take its course.

Donald Trump hinted during his campaign that he might not accept the result if he didn't win, with suggestions that the election  would be "rigged."  Who can doubt that, had the results been reversed and he had won the popular vote and  Mrs Clinton the Electoral College he would now be screaming  that the electoral college majority should not be observed?

For Democrat supporters to take a similar line now is not to descend to Trump's level.  The Founding Fathers introduced the idea of an Electoral College for just these circumstances.

This is no time to go ever the the details of the fraudulent campaign  he waged. It is enough to note that he either doesn't understand the truth or he ignores it when it suits him. Either can explain how, during the campaign he vilified President Obama and claimed that Mrs Clinton should be arrested, even hinted to his supporters that she should be shot.  Then  after his apparent victory, when unifying words rather than vilification were appropriate, he refereed politely to "Secretary Clinton" and admitted that President Obama was a "good man."

He is not fit to be President and the Electoral College should grasp the nettle and vote accordingly.

Parliament should act similarly, and promptly, in Britain. The justification for triggering Article 50, that "the people have spoken and should not be ignored." is plain nonsense.  Of those entitled to vote, a minority of 37.5% voted to leave, another  of 34.7% voted to remain, whilst 27.8% didn't vote.  This is a trumpet making an uncertain sound rather than a clarion call for committing hara-kiri which must be obeyed.

To repeat, but in brief:
  • there should never have been a referendum in the first place: it was called not in the national interest but for the Tory Party's domestic purposes, to curb a haemorrhage of support  to UKIP;
  • if we had to have a referendum , then on such a serious issue there should have been built-in safeguards requiring a higher bar such as a 60%+ majority based on a minimum turn-out rather than a bare majority of those who bothered to vote (as happens in organisations from  golf clubs to choral societies);
  • claims on both sides were misleading and in some cases mendacious, and there was no law to challenge this;
  • the claims made for our future outside the EU are unravelling daily.
So come on, MPs, take courage and do your duty.

Both the UK and US constitutions have these "trip switches" or "safety valves"to guard against folly.. It is criminally negligent not to use them.

* the figure I read on Friday 11th November was 235 181, but apparently some votes are still being counted, and the final total could be half a million or even more. See http://www.snopes.com/2016/11/13/who-won-the-popular-vote/

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Oh dear!

I happened to be in the United States during the later stages of the Carter-Reagan campaign of 1980.  Until the result of a Reagan victory, which to me was almost as big a shock as Donald Trump's victory today, Reagan had been treated by the "liberal" press as a lightweight candidate, not a serious contender, something of a buffoon.  However, as soon as he became President-Elect  he acquired some of the automatic dignity that goes with the office and even the media which  had been dismissive of him before became more respectful.

I suspect much the same will happen to Trump: perhaps is already happening (I can't say as I've spent the morning out walking in spite of the snow).  In addition, just as many of the ideas of left-wing governments, in the UK in the 1930s and more recently in Greece for example, have been neutered by the  established order, so inevitably will some of Trump's wilder proposals, such as his his "beautiful wall" on the Mexican border and the exclusion of all Muslims.  It is perfectly possible that Trump has already begun to row back on these proposals, much as the Brexiteers lost no time in doing when they won our EU referendum.

So maybe this is not total disaster, but can be "managed," as someone put it on a news bulletin I did hear this morning.

Nevertheless there has been a serious shift in the way democracies work.   The Enlightenment/Liberal  consensus of the last 200 years: that life is good, most people are well-intentioned, all deserve respect as human beings, peoples can live in harmony provided that the rule of law and human rights are respected, that rational argument can lead to wise government - has received a serious knock.  In the UK with Brexit, ("we've had enough of experts"), in Turkey with the increasing influence of fundamentalist religion, now with the absurdities of the Trump campaign, perhaps Marine Le Pen in France next year.

Literals with both large and small "l's" need to take a long hard look at what has caused our good intentions to be defeated by what looks very much like mob rule.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Please, America, please. . .

Please, Americans, please turn out and vote for Mrs Clinton and save the world.

I know she's not ideal but she's better than the alternative.

Don't be fooled by the opinion polls giving her a slight edge. " Remain" had a slight edge in our Brexit vote right until the counts started, and then we woke up in shock.

I understand turnout is normally quite low - around 50%.

So why not take a sympathetic friend to help clinch the deal?

If you and she/he want to give the establishment a kick in the teeth, do it via the Senators and Congressmen, or the State elections.  A bit rough on them I know, but better than a maverick with his finger on the nuclear button.


Monday 7 November 2016

Government creates more homeless people.

 Today the government's cap on welfare benefits comes is into force.  The government's own Department of Work and Pensions estimates that some 88 000 families will have their housing benefits slashed by an average of £2 000 a year (that's £40 a week).  Many will be unable to pay their rent and are likely to become homeless.  It is estimated that between a quarter and half a million children are likely to be affected.  (Figures from this article by Aditya Chakraborty)

During the summer I met an artist and poet, Paul Clark,  who had been working not with, but among, some homeless people.  He had spent some time restoring a cast-iron rose window in a listed building being used as a rescue centre for homeless men. He told me: "I'd take extra sandwiches and have my lunch-break  with them; listening.  And bit by bit I heard their stories, recording their tales and memories  in the form of this poem, called: The Shadow People."

I found the last three stanzas of his poem very moving and asked Paul's permission to put them on this blog.  He readily gave his agreement but insisted that the the poem should be be seen as a whole,  the earlier stanzas contrasting the rural experience with the urban one.

So here it is: 

The Shadow People

Droning ‘cross a field, away beyond
                the hedgerow flowers
Tedding  straw  - tomorrow’s bales
                a tractor counts its hours
On wings of wind is tinny music
                snatched out of its cab
Tuneless whistling in pursuit
                is muffled grey and drab
’Longside the field a shadow weaves
                a deeper pattern of light
No puddles ripple or briers cling
                to this early being of night
Blackbird cackle, rabbits thump
                ascending skylarks sing.

It stoops, it hunches, walks upright
                unseen from brush to thicket
A shadow on the undergrowth –
                is lost and past the snicket
The driver’s eyes are locked and glazed
                As up and down he treads
His mind has gone, it’s far away
with Rosie in the snug
Humid warmth with pints of ale
and embers on the rug.
Wraith-like it waits and watches
while the roaring drone goes by
Steps in the light is gone ag’in 
                the flicker of the eye.

Beyond the stream and in the bracken
                silent, looking down
A wary roebuck , nostrils flaring
                watches on the ground.
Cupped hands stoop beside the water,
                sip, a thirst to quench
Sitting, sighs of resignation,
                fallen tree a bench.
Shadows dancing with the trees
                a dappled figure make
An old young man ill dressed and stubbled ,
                slumped his rest to take
Before tonight a barn or byre 
                will make his day complete.

The wary folk of field and forest 
                watch this wraith go by
Tractor parked the driver homeward
                ’neath a setting sky
Behind the bales planking rattles
                swinging gently stop
Shuffling through the straw to reach 
                the tractor still and hot.
Arthritic fingers  grasp the smokestack 
                wrapping tightly ‘round
Body draped warm engine cowling 
                making not a sound
Tired and lonely, bales surrounding
                sleeps and fades away

A city’s streets are all the same
                when you have nowhere to go
Lying in your doorway
                watch the ebbing human flow
Leave the city still and empty
                to the homeless and the dregs
Circulation slowing ‘til
                you cannot feel your legs
People look the other way,
                why should they have to care?
You’re not in their reality
                and so, you’re just not there
Pulling from a bottle
                in a screwed-up paper bag.

The clocks are chiming midnight
                 and you’re far too cold to shiver
Lying like a corps that’s just been
                dragged out of the river
Drunks have had their fun
                and gone off, staggering home to bed
With luck or hypothermia 
                in the morning you’ll be dead.
Feel the numbing splintering cold
                of winter through the bones
Life on the street’s a torture
                when you haven’t got a home.
A police cell or a hospital,
                 a hostel bed or morgue

For God’s sake roll on Giro day
                when nanny State will deign
The milk of human kindness
                to anaesthetise the pain.
The pain of arthritis,
                the pain of being forgot
The pain of being pissed upon
                the pain of being shot
By farmers’ rock-salt cartridge
                and kids with airguns too
The pain of cheap raw cider
                as it rots your guts right through
So when you’re up the bar next
                to get another beer
Say "Cheers!" to  oblivion, and
                the pain of being here.

Maybe someone from the government  will read this poem, or similar,  and recognise  that benefits need to be paid according to need rather than a figure to humour the tabloids.

A concurrent  approach would be to build more houses and, in the meantime,  re-introduce rent controls and so limit the windfalls accruing to buy-to-let landlords

Friday 4 November 2016

Brexit, parliament and the rule of law

I suspect that most of the rest of the world is bemused and dismayed that almost (I hope) half of those likely to vote in the US Presidential election can possibly support a disingenuous maverick such as Donald Trump.

Yet we are experiencing similar irrationality here in the UK.

Yesterday the High Court ruled that it would be illegal for the government to proceed with Brexit without first gaining the approval of parliament.  This is a perfectly reasonable and rational decision based on the facts.

Since the 3rd June the following has been available in the House of Commons Library as part of Briefing Paper 07212 on what was then the coming EU referendum:

This Bill [on which the law authorising the referendum is based] requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, (my emphasis) nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.

Now why this wasn't made clear during the referendum campaign I don't know.   Not making it clear that the referendum was only a consultation - to enable the electorate to express an opinion - was a gross dereliction of duty.  What on earth do our MPs, who pay themselves £74,962 a year -three times the average wage, and with expenses in addition -  think they're there for?

However, three judges of the High court have done their job and made the legal situation clear: it's the Crown in Parliament that is sovereign, so Parliament should have a say.

In response a government minister Sajid Javid, claims on television that the judgement is "an attempt to frustrate the will of the British people" and the Daily Mail refers to "out of touch judges" under the headline "Enemies of the People."  Even the more staid Daily Telegraph headlines "Judges versus the People."

Whoever wrote this rubbish  (with similar nonsense in the Daily Express and the Sun) knows perfectly well that part of any democratic tradition is the rule of law, which states that all, including the government, are equally subject to the law, and it is independent judges, not the government, who decide what the law is.  Indeed, only last year we celebrated the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which made the first steps in establishing these principles.

So, in spite of the negligence of our parliamentarians, indeed to correct the consequences of that negligence, the constitution is working. Alas, hysteria from the pro-Brexiteers and their supporting media attempts to distort the truth and hopes to avoid the quiet calm deliberation which is desperately needed.

When the matter is debated many MPs and peers, the majority of whom favour remaining in the EU, may be too timid  to vote as they believe for fear of accusations of ignoring the "will of the people."

But just what does this will of the people amount to? On a turnout of 72.20%, 58.9 % voted to leave and 48.11% voted to remain.  So, of those entitled to vote, a minority of 37.5% voted to leave, another  of 34.7% voted to remain, whilst 27.8% didn't vote.

Hardly a resounding mandate for anything.

 MPs should remember that they are elected as our representatives to use their judgement for the good of the country.  Even if the electorate's opinion were clear, under no circumstances are they mandated delegates, certainly not bound by the opinions  of just over a third of the electorate.

So MPs of all stripes should do their duty, use their judgement and now, properly given the opportunity,  vote for what they consider is best for the good of the country.  Then, instead of obsessing for the next two years on something they hope won't happen they can concentrate on solving the real problems facing us: growing inequality, lack of affordable housing, a frightening balance of payments deficit, a poisoning planet and low productivity, to mention just a few.

Wednesday 2 November 2016

Poppy patriotism

This morning I failed to sign a petition, sent by Email, calling on FIFA to permit the England and Scotland football teams to wear poppies on their shirts when they play each other on Friday 11th November.  I also note with some irritation that all presenters on BBC television, interviewees and MPs when televised from parliament, are already sporting poppies and that in recent years we have moved to have not one Remembrance Day but two, one on the 11th November and another on the nearest Sunday.

It seems to me that our "remembrance" is taking a wrong turning and, rather than being an occasion for expressing pity and regret for the slaughter and pain caused by the failure of politics in the past, plus a reolve to avoid such tragedies in the future, we are veering towards using the anniversary to  "falsely glorify war" ( a phrase used in the first comment on and article on a Labour Party site which supports the petition), and even as an excuse for jingoism..  The Royal British Legion refer to their pre-Remembrance Sunday display as a "Festival," a misnomer if ever there was one.

In my view Remembrance Day should be on the 11th itself, non-essential businesses and other activities, including sports, should cease, theatres and cinemas, other than those substituting programmes of genuine remembrance, should close, and "normal" television and radio programmes be abandoned in favour special ones devoted to the horror and pity of war.

Unfortunately this  is unlikely.   France does "close down " on the 11th November, but I was sad to note that young people, and indeed most people I asked, regarded the day as "just another holiday."

What is practically possible, I believe, is that we should have just one Remembrance Day, either the 11th or the nearest Sunday,  cut out the marching , bugles, medals  and military music designed to sanitise war, wear white poppies  along with or instead of  red ones, observe the silence at 11am, and properly fund through the state the treatment and rehabilitation of soldiers damaged physical or mentally in recent conflicts, and their families.

I wonder if the protesters who are so anxious that footballers should display their concern on their shirts would vote for this?

Post script (added 4th November)  I see that the footballers are to wear their poppies anyway, in defiance of the FIFA rule. This is yet another example of our growing immaturity.  FIFA is an international body and presumably we have representatives on it. Presumably we have put our case and been over-ruled.  A mature response is to accept the ruling and carry on.  Defiance is akin to an adolescent tantrum,

Monday 31 October 2016

Faithless delgates - and faithful MPs?

I claim no special understanding of  the underlying rhythms of American politics. But it does seem to me that  the release of the  tape a couple of weeks ago demonstrating that Donald Trump believed that his wealth and fame enabled, even legitimised, his groping of women, and the opening of investigations over the weekend of yet more Clinton Emails, are both put up jobs, artfully  engineered by the respective party apparatchiks at the times their respective campaigns needed a bit of a boost.

Perhaps both parties still have quasi-revelations in reserve to be released in the final week of the campaign.

Both gimmicks have so far proved very effective  The "Gropegate" tape increased Mrs Clinton's lead to a level that seemed unassailable, the Email investigation has brought the contestants dangerously close (neck and neck, according to our Daily Mail.)

Happily there is a constitutional device, written in by the Founding Fathers, to avert disaster should Mr Trump win the popular vote.  It is not the popular vote which elects the president, but the votes of the delegates of each state,  numbered according to the population of each state and chosen by the parties,  who are sent to an Electoral College to decided who should be president and vice president.

Laws and customs relating to the delegates vary from state to state.  Some states have a winner takes all rule, so that even if the popular vote in that state is as close as 51/49 per cent the party with the popular majority takes all the delegates:  in others the delegates are shared proportionately.  Some delegates are "pledged" or "bound" to vote according to their mandate,  others are "unbound" and can use their judgement.  For more details of the variations see here.

 So in the event a Trump popular victory the world can be saved from the enhanced possibility of nuclear devastation by sufficient delegates rejecting the role of automaton and voting with their minds. There will be hell to play, but that's better than Armageddon.

There are parallels in Britain. 

Clearly Mrs Clinton, pretty obviously to the rest of the world the most suitable, or least unsuitable, candidate, though inevitably tainted by her long term association with power, is receiving the backlash vote of those who wish to strike a blow against the establishment.  This aligns to the apparent motivation of many of the Brexit supporters.  Similarly Trump supporters are attracted  by his populist bluster just as Leave voters were dazzled by the disingenuous panache of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.  The mendacity of both campaigns was and is dismissed as irrelevant compared with the satisfaction  of kicking the complacent powers-that-be in the teeth, even if this does turn out to be self-harming.

The Brexit vote is nowhere near as serious for Britain, the EU  and the World: all will survive, which may not be the case if  Donald Trump gets his finger on the nuclear button.

Nevertheless, as argued earlier, Britain, Europe and the World will be economically and culturally richer, our societies more civilised and healthier, and our planet safer, if Britain's MPs are faithFULL to their function of using their judgement for the good of the nation, and refuse to trigger the moves which will lead us out of the European Union.

Friday 28 October 2016

As others see us.

An article by a self described "London based Dutchmen,"  Joris Luyendijk, in the November edition of Prospect describes us as a "narcissist nation."  

My dictionary defines narcissism as a  tendency to self worship, absorption in one's own personal perfections.  Luyendijk gives a medical definition of narcissism which concludes:  They cannot consider others except as instruments to be manipulated  or enemies to be fought.

Both shed a good deal of light on the history  of our relations with other countries, and  particularly our delusions since 1945. Luyendijk applies the concept to the Brexit debate as follows:

  • For "Leave" Britain is a great country and if things don't feel that way it must be becasue of the European Union. Being special, other nations will rush to strike deals with the UK post -Brexit.  The UK, being a very special country, needs the EU far less than vice versa, so Europeans will give Britain a great deal too.
  • "Remain" grandiosity  was more implicit but still there: [the UK's membership of the EU] is a favour granted by the UK to the EU. . .[In support of this conclusion] Gordon Brown wrote a book called  Britain: leading not leaving and Edward Lucas  of the Economist let it be known that "Britain's size, experience and friends make us the continent's natural leader."
Luyendijk contrasts these grandiose delusions wit hthe realism of Jean-Claude Junker in his 2015 State of the Union message:

  • Today Europeans make up 8 per cent of the world population  - we will only represent 5 per cent  in 2050.  By then you will not see a single EU country among the top world economies. 
and concludes:

  • The case for European integration rests on the recognition of one's own country's growing irrelevance.  But this simple insight remains a national taboo in Britain.
Further demolished is our British illusion that the rest of Europe are sorry to see us go.  Luyendijk notes:

  • I am with the two thirds of Germans and three quarters of French who according to a poll taken in July do not, on balance, consider Brexit a loss.
So there we are: we, or at least our political class, are a bunch of self-regarding narcissists with a hugely inflated and totally unrealistic sense of our own importance.  This helps explain the obsession, by both Conservatives  and Labour, with the retention of an irrelevant but hugely expensive nuclear deterrent, and our humiliating coat-tailing of the US in foreign policy ventures.

 Internally it also helps explain why both Conservatives and Labour governments are so attached to grandiose "legacy" projects of doubtful (to put it generously) value such as HS2, the third runway, be it at Heathrow or Gatwick, and the Hinkley Point nuclear power station.

Recognition of our narcissistic nature is nothing new: it was noted by the great Liberal leader Jo Grimond who wrote in his Memoirs (1979):

 "[W] came out of the war being told that we had saved the world by a unique act of courage against fearful odds.  We naturally became convinced that the world must see that we were natural leaders of the West entitled by our deeds of valour and skill to rest on oars as far as work was concerned and owed a debt, indeed a living, by our neighbours. "

It is high time our "chattering classes" took their eyes off what they see as our national navel, recognised how others see us, and began to speak, write and act accordingly.


Monday 24 October 2016

Batley and Spen by-election

Last Thursday we had a parliamentary by-election in my home constituency of Batley and Spen.  This was to replace our Labour MP Jo Cox who was murdered last June. Out of respect for Mrs Cox, and acknowledging that for this parliament anyway, or unless there was a vacancy for a "normal " reason, the replacement MP should be Labour, we Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, Greens and UKIP decided not to field candidates.  That didn't stop nine others, mostly right-wing minorities or independents, taking advantage of the free leaflet delivery to flaunt their creeds.

Top of the ballot paper was Mr, Mrs or Ms Corbyn Anti.  Since on ballot papers surnames come first she/he therefore came across as Anti Corbyn.  How he or she managed this I don't know.  I'm reminded of a Liberal candidate, Frank Davies who, in the days before party affiliations were allowed  on ballot papers, added "Liberal" to his forename by deed poll.  So this appeared on the ballot papers as Davies, Frank Liberal.  As far as I can remember he didn't win, but his ploy was a significant part of the eventually successful campaign to permit party affiliations on the ballot paper.  What Mr Mrs of M/s Anti's policies were other than to be against Mr Corbyn I don't know as I received no leaflet from him/her

Nearly all the others sent literature, all were in favour of "motherhood and apple pie" issues such as supporting the local hospital, the NHS and being a "strong voice for the constituency" (though most of them lived somewhere else), and most wanted to stop immigration, even ALL (sic) immigration.

The one exception was an Independent, Henry Mayhew, who stood "4democracy" and felt that the people of the constituency  should have a choice other than "Mr Corbyn's Labour."   He was the only one to put a local address on the ballot paper.  Most identified only an "address in the xxxxx constituency."  Things have changed since my day, when a specific address was compulsory.  Perhaps today they're afraid of having their privacy invaded, or worse, by demonstrators.

The best performing "other" was the English Democrat with 969 votes, not quite enough to save her £500 deposit.  Third was the BNP with 584 votes, way below the 5% deposit-saving level, and all the others were even further below.  The national Front managed only 87 votes.

Nevertheless it is disturbing that in our constituency  a total of 2 646 people gave their votes to no-hope far right candidates in an election which many regarded as an opportunity to show respect to the memory and idealism of Jo Cox, and the proper, decent and non-violent conduct of politics. It is also rather sad that, in in contrast to the outpouring of emotion when Mrs Cox was killed  only 25.78%  of those entitled to make such a gesture bothered to do so.

The Labour winner with 85% of the vote was Tracy Brabin, an actress who is well known as having appeared in several soap operas on television.  She is, like Jo Cox, locally born and bred and her literature, of which I've seen three different leaflets,  is almost entirely devoted to details of her career and the names and pictures of local people who are gong to support her.  There is little about her, or Labour's, policies, other than that she will protect services at the local hospital, ensure every single young person has "the best possible education and life chances" (a tall order), hold the government to account and"back our local police" -  (who wouldn't?)

Does  she back Corbyn or will she join the dissidents; is she keen on the closest possible relations with the EU, maybe even wanting to Remain, or is she inclined to be a Brexiteer; is she in favour of or against the replacement of Trident; will she raise taxes in order to support the local hospital and the rest of the NHS; how about fracking, HS2, renewable energy, renationalising the railways?

She can't be too concerned about  supporting local industry as two of her her leaflets were printed in Cardiff and the third in Manchester.  I also noted that her address on the ballot paper was "in the Chipping Barnet constituency" which sounds too close to Chipping Norton for comfort.

I know that normal party conflict was suspended for this by-election and support that decision, but a valuable opportunity for political education has been lost.

If mainstream politicians are wary of declaring their policies for fear of frightening off some people  then the extremists will flourish.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Happy results, and food for thought, at the Witney by-election

At this by-election to fill the Witney seat after David Cameron broke his promise to continue being their MP and resigned after all, the first surprise is not that the Conservative candidate won it, but that their share of the vote fell from the 60% they achieved in 2015 to a more modest 45%. The Theresa  May brand of Toreyism is not carrying all before it.

But the even pleasanter surprise is that we Liberal Democrats quadrupled (yes, quadrupled ) our share of the vote, from the paltry 6.8% received in 2015 to a healthy 30%.   I have been out walking in the Pennines all day so haven't heard many news bulletins but I'm sure Tim Farron and et al have been out and about trumpeting loudly and clearly that our  fight-back is taking off and neither Tories nor Labour can take anything for granted.

This is not actually the first "green shoot" of our recovery: We have won several local government seats up and down the country from both Labour and Conservatives  since May 2015, but these are noticed only by political anoraks. The Witney result will resonate much more loudly, even if it isn't quite another Orpington.

There is, however, another lesson, or perhaps two, to be learned from the Witney result.  The Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green votes combined would have beaten the Tory.  With Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party I believe we really are in a new era of politics.  If our three parties, with so many overlaps in policies, ethos  and intentions, had combined to put up a joint candidate we could have kicked out the Tories in the seat of the former Prime Minister.  Now that would have been another Orpington of cataclysmic proportions.  Our party apparatchiks should be quietly exploring this possibility ready for the next time.

An alternative approach, in the present circumstances, could be even more relevant.  The Tory candidate is a Brexiteer.  If our three parties, all  pre-Referendum in favour of Remain, had combined, perhaps even with others who share our views,  to field a pro-Remain candidate, a victory would  undermine the complacency of the Referendum victors who are making the running in the government at the moment..  A series of such by-election victories could put an end to the nonsense of continuing to dig a hole for ourselves in the basis of the narrow Referendum result achieved on a false prospectus.

Remain Tories could be co-opted into such a scheme, and the nation rescued, with dignity,  from its present self-harming course.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Refugees: can Britain fall any lower?

It has been a bad couple of years for those of us believing that we lived in a country  imbued with a Christian ethos supplemented by the humanity of the Enlightenment.

In that time Germany has given a generous welcome to refugees. "We can do this" said Mrs Merkel.  True she is now receiving a domestic backlash, but is still odds-on favourite to win her next election.  By contrast Britain has renounced our long held reputation for hospitality to those felling hardship and persecution, and is at the back of the queue, having received  but a grudging trickle of refugees.

This year's EU referendum campaign has been tawdry in  the extreme and the Brexit result has been taken by many to legitimise hate crimes against an assortment of foreigners, here as EU citizens, migrant workers, asylum seekers refugees - or simply foreign.

For  months the government has dragged its heels  over the reception of a number of youngsters in Calais with a legal right to come to Britain becasue they have relatives here.

That the arrival earlier this week of a mere 14 of them made headline news is shameful enough.

But  to our deeper shame a Conservative MP, Mr David Davies, has claimed that some of the  youngsters look a bit old to his eyes, and so should  have their teeth examined to determine how old they really are. Our gutter press, the Sun and the Daily Mail in particular, have not hesitated to back him up

Here is a comment from the poet and translator Georges Szirtes,  who arrived here as a refugee from  Hungary in 1956.

"In August 2015 I returned to Budapest  again.  This time, rather than  people desperately fleeing , they were desperate to enter.  I saw mostly young families, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, sleeping on the cold stone floors  with their babies and small children.  

This didn't bring  back memories for me.  It is not how we were treated.  British people and the state were incredibly supportive - they were receiving a lot of desperate people from a range of backgrounds, who ultimately had a lot to offer the nation.  I believe Britain should remember its previous generosity now."

Yes indeed.

What on earth has happened to us?  It is precisely 60 years since 1956.  Materially we are approximately three times richer.  We have all enjoyed (or endured) universal primary and secondary education; we have a higher proportion in higher education than ever in our history;  in addition to the Red Tops we are served by some high quality media, especially the BBC, now freely available on the radio and for a modest fee on television.

We need to examine very seriously what is going wrong, and why?

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Antisemitism: where angels fear to tread.

When Billy Elliot's coal-miner Dad was asked if he were a supporter of the ballet he replied that he wasn't exactly and expert. I feel much the same  in daring to discuss antisemitism but it does seem to me, as a non-specialist, that the Labour Party is receiving far too much stick as the result of  the parliamentary committee report published this weekend.

In my view the problem arises becasue  it is far too easy to conflate criticism of the actions of the Israeli government with antisemitism.  Jeremy Corbyn, and some prominent members of the Labour party, have a long history of being critical of the Government of Israel.  That does not, in my view, necessarily make them antisemitic.

Unfortunately the standard definition of antisemitism:

a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

is ambiguous if  "criticisms of Jewish community institution" is taken to include criticism of the actions of the government of Israel.  Outside this definition there also seem to be instances in whcih support of the Palestinians can be construed as antisemitism.

The Liberal Democrat party does not have a good record in making a proper distinction..  Jenny Tonge, when an MP (she is now a peer and sits as a cross-bencher) was rapped over the knuckles for saying, after a visit to Palestine, that whilst she would not condone the actions of Palestinian suicide bombers, she could understand why they they did it.

 David Ward, one-time MP for Bradford East, was similarly reprimanded  and temporarily suspended from the party for criticising the Israeli government's treatment of the Palestinians.  He commented at the time of the "veritable tsunami" of public condemnation which resulted from any such criticism.

It is clear that there is a well funded and well organised lobby which is quick to organise in defence of the Israeli government  in the face of any criticism. It is also clear that parts of this lobby are not slow to distort legitimate criticism with the accusation of antisemitism.

The Israeli/Palestine problem  is a classic case of two wrongs  not making a right.   The  wrong done to Jewish people in the holocaust by Europeans was an enormity beyond description.

At the same time, the action of the ruling powers in the post war era of ignoring the second part of the Balfour Declaration, that in the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people it should be  "clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" was a wrong done to the people living there, compounded by the continues occupation of the Occupied Territories in defiance of UN Resolution 242, and others, whcih exacerbate the wrong.

A solution to the problem can only be achieved by both sides backing down on what they see as fundamentals and reaching a compromise.  Such a solution requires open discussion, and will not be helped by one side attempting to stifle  arguments made on behalf of the other.

I am not now and never have been a member of the Labour Party, but I'm pretty certain that the bulk of their discussions on this topic will be limited to political aspects of the Israel/Palestine situation, and not concerned with abuse of Jews as individuals or collectively.

I have not read it but assume that is the conclusion of Shami Chakrabarti's report. . I have been a member of Liberty for several years, have met Shami Chakrabarti,  heard her speak at least twice, and enjoyed many of her contributions to the BBC's  Question Time. She is one of our most respected  commentators on legal, social and political matters.  I only with she had joined the Liberal Democrats.  I find it nonsensical that she could have produced a "whitewash" report as a quid pro quo for a Labour peerage. That this accusation has received  so much coverage is evidence of the effectiveness of the pro-Israel lobby.

I have never looked at Twitter and don't really understand Facebook but am well aware that people, usually under a pseudonym or unanimously, can post vile suggestions.  An example, albeit nothing to do with antisemitism, was mentioned in the Guardian magazine over the weekend, of someone who had posted , with regard to a 14 year old Afghanistani refugee, Raheemullah Oryakhel, killed on the fringe of the Calais "jungle": "Can't they show it happening I would enjoy watching it one less to worry about."

So I understand that  disgusting things can be said on social media.  I'm sure some are said about Jews.  I doubt if many are by serious members of the Labour Party.  One method of reducing their incidence would be to insist that  the posters identify themselves properly, save in exceptional circumstances, as in newspaper letter pages.

Finally I find it a bit rich that the Conservatives are making such a meal of Labour's alleged culpability.  After all, in my lifetime among the last organisations to abandon bans on Jewish membership were the golf clubs.  Not many socialists there.