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

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,