Friday 24 March 2017

Westminster atrocity

My computer has been "down" for the past 48 hours so I have been unable to give immediate responses to the atrocities committed at Westminster.

On reflection I still find my feelings are a combination of sympathy, admiration and embarrassment.

Sympathy, obviously, for the relatives of those who have died, for those who must live with life-diminishing injuries, and those with minor injuries or who are traumatised by the shock of what they have witnessed.

Admiration for those, and especially PC  Keith Palmer, who did their duty and ran towards the danger in order to help, rather than ran away.

But embarrassment  and some disquiet at much of the  political and media reaction.

Most disconcerting was the prime-minister's statement,  in which. she claimed that the attack was on "the world's oldest parliament."

Westminster is not the world's oldest parliament.  For what it's worth, that honour is usually accorded to the Icelandic parliament, the Athling, which dates back to 930.  Britain's  parliament is usually thought to have its origins in Simon de Montfort's Parliament of 1265, or maybe the Model Parliament of 1295 - either way, some three hundred years behind the Icelandics.  This may seem a small niggle, but there is far too much exaggeration of Britain's role in and contrition to the world,  much of which seems to fuel the ardour of the Brexiteers

Then Mrs May went on to speak of how no attack would  divert us from our devotion to democracy and the rule of law.  That's a bit rich coming from a prime minister who  refuses to give parliament a "meaningful vote" on the result of her Brexit negotiations, and did her level best to prevent the courts from ruling on whether or not parliament should have any say of triggering  Article 50. (Her supportive press went so far as to claim that the judges of our Supreme Court were "enemies of the people.")

So there's a clear case of our government talking the talk rather than walking the walk.

I noticed how quickly the attack was attributed to Islam.  This, said a policemen only hours after the incident, was their "working assumption." Given the delicacy of inter-faith and inter-racial relations at the moment, this was at the very least  tactless.  In these circumstances the police and media should wait until there is real evidence  rather than mouthing populist knee-jerk assumptions.

I'm in no position to make an informed  judgement, but do I wonder why the killer was shot dead?  Surely, with trained marksmen, it should have been possible to wound him sufficiently to disable him rather than to kill him outright.    Then not only could he have had a proper trial and received the justice which we hold so dear, but  the authorities would be able to question him to discover his motivation and contacts.  Instead they have to  mount the massive and expensive investigations which appear to be necessary now that he is no longer available to speak for himself.

So far, happily, the calls for further surveillance powers for the government have been subdued, but I'm sure they will soon increase in volume.  The fact that the killer was already known to both the police and the intelligence services, and yet they were not aware of his plans, shows the futility of collecting an indiscriminate mass of information.  Those who wish preserve our liberties, which Mrs May says she is keen to do, and so  limit, or even negate, the scope of the Snoopers' Charter, should contact:

It's perhaps inevitable that media coverage, like charity, begins at home, but is is disquieting that  my newspaper devoted its first five-and-a-half pages to this atrocity, and the killing of "at least" 33 by a coalition air-strike on a Syrian school received just half of page 23.

Monday 20 March 2017

MPs who let the side down.

Our former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is the latest  of our MPs to be accused of bringing parliament into disrepute by taking a second job (four days per week) as editor of the London Evening Standard, on top of earning a whopping salary (is it really £650 000 a year, as the Sun claims?) for advising a global hedge fund, along with £800 000 he's made this year for making a few speeches.

The point is not that he's earning (oops - no, "receiving" ) so much money - as an ex Chancellor I'm sure he's meticulous about his tax returns - but what time has he got left for representing his Tatton constituents in parliament?  There's a case for MPs continuing to involve themselves  in some aspect of the economy and society other than politics: lawyers continuing to do a little bit of legal work; accountants to keep their hand it by being on the odd board; journalists doing a bit of writing; academics a bit of lecturing; trade union officials representing a few cases on industrial tribunals.

This is alleged to help them keep in touch with the "real world."  The question is, how much, and this is where Osborne seems to have overstepped the mark, not just by a little but by a mile.  A maximum of 25% of the time, or ten hours a week if we think in terms of a 40 hour week, seems to me about right.

And as for remuneration, the parliamentary salary should be reduced by a proportion of their earnings, just as social security recipients have their benefits reduced when their earning increase.  In Osborne's case, that would lead to his paying to be Tatton's representative, but he can well afford it.

There is another way in which politicians are bringing parliament in to disrepute.  I haven't seen them, but  and pretty confident that in their campaign leaflets for the 2015 election both Jamie Reed, successful Labour candidate in Copeland, promised something akin to undying love and devotion to the people of Copeland, and Tristram Hunt, successful Labour candidate in Stoke, promised something akin to undying love and devotion to the people of Stoke. 

Yet both, less than two years after their election, jacked in parliament and went to what they presumably thought to be better jobs (maybe with better career prospects?) - Reed to work for the nuclear power plant at Sellafield and Hunt to be director of the V and A Museum.

Less blatantly, perhaps, Tony Blair resigned from his constituency on the same day as he resigned as prime minister, and David Cameron, having promised to continue in both positions whatever the result of the EU referendum, resigned as prime-minster the day after it was lost, and a few weeks later as MP for Witney.

No wonder so many of the public  believe that politicians are "only in it for what they can get ."  This accusation becomes more and more difficult to refute as the years go by and the evidence to support it accumulates.

It seems to me that when  MPs resign from parliament* without a good reason (illness, changed family circumstances) they should do so without any severance pay, and be forced to pay the public costs of the subsequent by election,

*  Yes, I know they don't technically resign, but apply for an "office of profit under the Crown" and so become ineligible

Thursday 16 March 2017

"U-turn" on national insurance contriutions

I do not see why it should necessarily be a cause for derision that a government reverses a decision, as our government has done in deciding not, after all, to increase the rate of some (my emphasis) National Insurance Contributions (NICs) by a modest 1% next year and another 1% the year after that.  Listening to people, and responding where appropriate, are essential aspects of democracy (aka "government by discussion") and should be applauded.

However, a great deal depends on which people are listened to.  For example, this government is turning a very deaf ear indeed to the 48% of those who cast their votes for remaining in the European Union.

I do not claim to understand  all the intricacies of National Insurance Contributions, or even why  there should be four (or possibly even more?) classes.  What I do know is that the increase was restricted to Class 4 contributions, that these applied to the self-employed, and that those self employed who earned less than £16 250 a year (I suspect most of the involuntary self-employed and those just starting out) would have had a reduction in their payments.  The increase would have applied only to those earning more than £16 250, admittedly substantially below the median wage, but  many would be earning very much more than the median wage.

The reasons for the change were, we were told, twofold.

1.  Historically  the self-employed received far fewer benefits (for example, in terms of pensions) from the  system  than those in normal employment (ie working for someone else), so it seemed right that their contributions should be less.  However in recent years the benefits for the self-employed  have moved upwards towards those in normal employment so it is fair that their contributions should increase too.  Our Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Hammond, was correcting an anomaly.

2. For employers, (eg UBER) declaring their workforce to be self-employed can be seen as a tax dodge, in that it relieves the employer of paying the employers' contribution of the NICs (as well as responsibility for sick pay, holidays etc).  For the employee too it can be a tax dodge in that he or she pays a smaller contributions, as in the scheme  dubbed "the lump" in the building trade years ago. Thus the move was part of the government's campaign to reduce tax avoidance.

These seem perfectly reasonable to me.

But a few well-heeled self-employed and 18 or so Tory backbenchers (and for some incomprehensible reason, the Labour Party) with the vociferous support of the right wing press  have caused a furore and described the move as a tax on enterprise. And the government has caved in in favour of their mates.

Would they had listened to those speaking up on behalf of the disabled, whose Personal Independence Payments are reduced as from today.

Wednesday 15 March 2017

Scotland - be brave!

In the 2014 Referendum on Scottish independence I argued that that the best result would be for Scotland to vote to remain in the UK, but for the Westminster government to grant the Scots full  home rule, that is full autonomy, including tax-raising powers, on domestic matters.

Now I'm not so sure.  Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon (who talks more sense on the economy than any other British politician except perhaps Caroline Lucas) is right that the Westminster government's determination to take us out of not just the EU, but also, in spite of contrary assurances during the campaign, the Single Market and the Customs Union, is a game changer.

But it's not just the economics.  I find to my surprise that, if I were Scottish, I'd rather be  in the EU than in the UK. 

For years the Tories have dominated English politics, and we have needed the Scottish and Welsh Labour parties to hold, however imperfectly, some sort of balance.  But now that Labour looks unlikely to recover in Scotland in the foreseeable future and is maybe losing its grip in Wales, who wants to be in a Union dominated by a Conservative party which,  to all intents and purposes, is in craven hock to its right-wing, xenophobic fantasisers?

I am ashamed to live in a country that:
  • suggests we shouldn't rescue refugees and asylum seekers from drowning in  the Mediterranean because that might tempt others to try escaping from starvation, civil war or despotism;
  • promises to admit 3000 unaccompanied displaced children and then cuts the number to 350;
  • gives yet more tax cuts to the rich and further squeezes the disabled to below the poverty line, (Personal Independence Payments, PIPs, are reduced as from tomorrow);
  • is determined to spend up to £200bn on an irrelevant  nuclear weapon system the use of which is in not independent but entirely dependent on the good-will of the Americans, and will probably be out of date by the time it becomes operational;
  • presides with indifference over the disintegration of its health and social care services 
  • toadies to the most unfortunate president the Americans have ever elected; 
  • entrenches privilege and exacerbates inequality;
  • supported by a client press, survives on lies and distortions;
  • balances the books by selling off vital national assets, either to private profiteers in this country  or to private profiteers or state-owned (sic) operations in other countries; 
  • in spite of the evidence of the1930sand the last seven yeras, sticks blindly  to the counter-prodiuctive policy of austerity;
  • is determined to turn our back on the bravest and most progressive example of international liberal co-operation of the last century and turn our island into an insular, sulky, low-wage, low-cost arena for short-term predators..
If I had the option I'd opt out. 

The Scottish have. There'll be complications: not least the Scots need concrete assurances hat they can remain in the EU once they are independent. 

But  a divorce from the  backward-looking Tory dominated England  is something I'd want thoroughly to explore if I lived in Scotland.

Friday 10 March 2017

UK's Economy: a basket case.

As noted in the previous post the Tories are good at choosing effective words and phrases to disguise reality.  For much of the past seven years we've had their "long term economic plan" which most serious analysis demonstrated was getting us nowhere at all.  Now the buzz-word to describe the economy is "resilient," the use of which is justified by claims of a level of growth higher and level of unemployment lower than most of our immediate neighbours.

The key macro-economic variables I was taught, and have taught hundreds of others, to examine are growth, employment, balance of external payments and price stability.  A look at each of these in turn reveals fragility, to put it mildly, rather than resiliency.

Growth is now forecast to be 2% this year, and a little bit less in the following years.  Compared with the 3% with which we taunted Sir Alec Douglas Home in the 1960s because he  failed to achieve it this is hardly world-beating.  And, of course, much of the growth we have is due to  the immigration the government is trying to curb. ( Add extra productive workers to the economy, and most immigrants are,  and the over level of output rises.) On top of that the benefits of growth are not evenly distributed: most of the benefit is going to the top10%, even 1%, as asset prices, including houses, rise as a result of the extra money resulting from Quantitative Easing.  And furthermore, like the railways who complained of the wrong sort of snow, it's the wrong sort of growth.  "Good" growth is export-led growth, or investment led growth, not growth fuelled  by consumer expenditure based on unsustainable credit.

And all the above evades the real and urgent issue we need to be tackling: how to achieve sustainable growth and ultimately, "prosperity without growth"

Full Employment has been defined in most of my career as 97% of those wanting a job having one, hence a level of unemployment of no more than 3%.  The current level is 4.8%, which is certainly better than the 8+% reached in 2011, but it amounts to 1.6 million people, a great many more than the 250 000 or so usual  in my youth.  And, of course the figure is made to look more attractive by not including those involuntarily self-employed, those in part-time jobs who would like full-time ones, those on zero-hours contracts, and the highly qualified graduates and others forced to take routine jobs.

The over-all scene is far from healthy, featuring precarity rather than security, for a substantial number, professionals included, of those who feel lucky to be in work.

Price stability for  most of my life was understood to be a low level of inflation.  This we have experienced since the finial crash, and it may seem churlish to criticise.  But the low level of inflation has been the result of a stagnant and listless economy rather than a vibrant and healthy economy in which productivity is  increasing at a higher rate than costs. And, with the depreciation of the £ sterling by over 12% as a result of the Brexit vote this stability is unlikely to continue.  We are likely in the coming years to be faced with the most dangerous cause inflation of all -  "cost push" inflation, as rising import costs resulting from the weak pound push up prices with no increase in productivity

The Balance of External Payments  is the issue which, above all others, occupied chancellors of the exchequer for most of the second part of the last century, yet now rarely gets a mention.  Yet its importance far exceeds that of the government's internal deficit.  We are currently buying goods and services from abroad at a rate of almost £100 billion a year more than we sell abroad.  As an economy we are living hugely beyond our means, and, unlike the government's deficit, which is mostly money we owe ourselves, this is wealth which will sooner or later, have to be paid back by us, our children and grandchildren.

For the moment, national bankruptcy is delayed  by flogging off valuable assets, from the high-tech company ARM to football clubs, to foreign ownership.  Each sale harms our potential for future net foreign earnings, so makes the long-run situation worse. But the day of reckoning will come.

Mr Hammond budget is essentially  limited to housekeeping matters on the Thatcher model (see here for a more sophisticated explanation) rather than designed to  tackle our fundamental economic problems.         Re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic springs to mind.

Resilient we are not, and nothing in the government's present mindset is designed to make us so.


Wednesday 8 March 2017

Two cheers for the House of Lords

I'm not too upset that the House of Lords  failed yesterday to support a Liberal Democrat amendment that, if and when the government has concluded the Brexit negotiations there should be a referendum on whether or not to accept the result.

A second referendum has a certain symmetry and  logic to it but there can be no guarantee that a second one would  be conducted with any more veracity, or reported any more fairly, than the first. There could also be an even greater temptation for those who wish to strike a blow against the complacent establishment to cast a "sod you" vote.  But the strongest reason is that referendums are not a good way of making decisions on complex issues.  We should have learned that lesson by now, and the sooner referendums are phased out of our political lexicon the better.

By contrast I find that fact that Labour sided with the Tories last week to vote against an amendment to ask  that the government to try to stay in the single market.  This was proposed by Peter Hain, former Labour cabinet minister and erstwhile Young Liberal digger-up of cricket pitches in the fight against apartheid, no less.  And even Boris Johnson is allegedly on record as arguing during the campaign that leaving the EU did not imply leaving the single market.

So what on earth is the logic of the Labour leadership whipping its peers to vote against this?  If Labour's purpose in life is to preserve employment and jobs (as they repeatedly argue - indeed one wonders sometimes if they are in favour of anything else) then continued membership of the single market is a sine qua none of their existence.

Presumably the Labour leadership feels there is some short term electoral advantage in this stance which escapes the rest of us, but, if there is not already such a thing as a Black Monday in Labour's history, then 27th February 2017 surely fills the bill, and they should not be allowed  to forget it if the British economy is left out in the cold as a result of this mysterious alliance with Mrs May and Hard Brexit.

Finally I am delighted that yesterday the Lords voted for an amendment that parliament should have a "meaningful" vote on the Brexit settlement when it is reached. 

With a lack of logic that beggars belief the government has promptly said it will try to overturn this in the Commons.  A main plank of the Leavers' argument was that the British parliament, and only parliament, and certainly not  Brussels, should make rules for Britain. (This is nonsense, of course since, with or without the EU we are inextricably sharing sovereignty with umpteen other nations and international institutions in innumerable treaties and obligations.)

Be that as it may we can presume the government will argue that, politically if not legally, the people and not parliament are sovereign and "the people have spoken!"

 How easily that phrase trips of the tongue.  Like the Devil ,who "has the best tunes," it is irksome that the misguided and misguiding Right seem to get the best slogans. It is so much easier to parrot this mantra than to point out that only 72% of the eligible voters actually voted, and so only 37% voted to Leave and 34 % voted to stay and 16 and 17 year-olds, presumed to be overwhelmingly in favour of Remain, weren't allowed to vote and if parliament had had any sense it would have required a two-thirds majority for a leave vote to be valid and even Mr Farage argued that a narrow majority would require a re-run (but that was when he though Leave had lost).

Yes, is easy to dub us as poor losers and "Remoaners." But the case for the future and greater health of our economy and our political standing remains with us and we must strive to the utmost to challenge the loud repetition by the blustering Leavers of the only argument they are able to produce.

Monday 6 March 2017

Labour's dilemma - and blind spot

There were two articles in last week's Guardian about the dire straits  the Labour Party have created for themselves . The first, by celebrated film maker Ken Loach, argued that Labour's MPs should stop stabbing their leader, Jeremy Corbyn' in the back and ended with the rousing coda:

"If [Corbyn and McDonnell] had a powerful movement to sustain them, Labour under their leadership  would start to cut back the power of capital, remove multinationals from public services, restore workers' rights, and begin the process of creating a secure and sustainable society  in which we could all share."

The second, by Owen Jones, ends with a desperate call to arms:

"Either we become a country  riddled with hatred and fear, a playground for billionaires that slashes support for the working poor and disabled people, that runs down and flogs off the services we depend on - or we become a country run in the interests of the real wealth creators: the workers."

but offers the solution that Mr Corbyn should should voluntarily step aside and be replaced by someone with similar views but better leadership qualities.

Given that Mr Corbyn, victor of not just one but two party elections, has said that he has no intention of standing down, and the identity of the alternative with similar views but better leadership qualities is not obvious, the solution to the dilemma seems to me to be unarguable: Labour MPs and other luminaries should stop sniping, unite  behind Corbyn and start fighting the Tories rather than each other.  This will, of course, require some contrition and mea culpas on the part of some Labour big-hitters.  Lent seems a suitable season for it.

A bigger pill for Labour to swallow is to recognise that, for the foreseeable future at any rate, they cannot win a general election on their own, and they must seek to ally with others on what can loosely be regarded as the "progressive left."

Sadly Labour's difficulty in acknowledging this solution is their blind conviction, at both local and national government levels,  that they and they alone have the one true vision of the ideal future, and the unique recipe for achieving it.  They therefore regard Liberal Democrats*, Greens, Nationalist and some others as interlopers who should get off their territory and leave them to it.  They refuse to recognise that Liberal Democrats with our emphasis on liberty and genuine devolution, Greens with their emphasis on caring for the environment, and nationalists, can all bring something useful to the progressive mix.

The figures show that a “progressive” candidate with the support of the Greens and Liberal democrats as well as Labour might, just might,** have held Copeland.

 As a veteran of the Liberal Party's Alliance with the SDP I acknowledge that arranging such a united front at a national level will be difficult and entail sacrifices by all involved. But  what other way is there of avoiding the dystopian future - Jones's " playground for billionaires which will emerge if we leave things to the present generation of Tories?

Let's hope that back-room apparatchiks in all the parties concerned are working on this right now.  We need a plan and a vision for 2020 which will come sooner than we think, even if it doesn't come sooner than that.

*  I acknowledge there are Liberal Democrats who take a similar  view, and probably Greens and Nationalists as well.

** The combined vote of Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens at Copeland was 14 368, against the Conservatives' 13 748.  Even this was no a progressive majority  since UKIP polled 2 025, and not all the voters for the "progressive " parties would have stuck to an alliance.  Some, even Liberal Democrats, would have switched to UKIP.

Thursday 2 March 2017

EU Aliens:foreign nationals in the UK - we did better 100 years ago.

Nearly 100 yeas ago (in 1922 to be exact, as a result of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921)  the Irish Free State "exited" the United Kingdom.  Compared with the legalistic shenanigans of the UK's departure from the EU, the Irish exit was achieved only after a bloody and murderous struggle, which in some ways still continues.

Nevertheless  the status of what became Irish citizens still living in the rest of the UK at the time was astonishingly generous and civilised.  They were and are welcome to stay, or go and come back, or bring out their relatives. Anyone still living in the Free State who wanted to come was welcome to do so, and still is. Not only that, but they could and still can vote in both local and parliamentary elections, and as far as I know enjoyed and still enjoy all rights of citizenship.

It is worth remembering that this generous and humane settlement was made at a time when many aspects of UK society were far from liberal.  Murderers could be hanged, prisoners subjected to hard labour, youths could be birched, male homosexual activity was illegal  and "offenders" could be castrated, women had only just received the right to vote, but not until why were thirty (the male age was 21)

Given our now more enlightened age, the government's ploy to use the the security of EU nationals of  countries living in the UK as a bargaining counter is mean and petty.

It was a younger Theresa May who in 2002 spoke of the Tories as the "nasty party."  Her determination to reverse the House of Lords' resolve to secure the rights of EU citizens already here and so maintain the liberal tradition exemplified by the Irish settlement, is nasty , illiberal and distasteful.  Our government puts us to shame.