Friday 30 June 2017

Corbyn, Labour and the Single Market

In her pre-election literature my Labour MP, Mrs Tracy Brabin, who was re-elected, made an explicit promise that she would fight for "full access to the single market, vital for jobs in our community."  I quote her words exactly.

Yesterday, 29th June, a senior Labour MP, Chuka Umunna, moved an amendment to the Queen's Speech calling for the government to try to obtain exactly that, full access to the single market.  Mrs Brabin did not vote for  the motion.  Some fighter.

Well, I suppose she's not the first MP to break an explicit promise, and in any case (I'll get this in first) who are we Liberal Democrats to cast stones?

But I am genuinely puzzled by Labour's attitude on this issue.  On this blog I have consistently praised Mr Corbyn for his honesty, consistency , integrity and ability to enthuse others, and especially the young.   I've welcomed his manifesto as "a  breath of fresh air" and rejoiced at the progress he made in the General Election.  I am still hoping that the tectonic shift he has achieved in our politics will lead to some form of progressive alliance and an end to the damaging Tory misrule.

The curious thing is that both Corbyn and the Labour hierarchy, including their responsible shadow minister , Sir Kier Starmer, have consistently argued that we should make  the economy and jobs in the UK a priority in the Brexit negotiations, and clearly full access to the single market would be a considerable help.

 Some Labour big-wigs could be anxious that some of their support could be disgruntled if access to the market involved a bit of a trade-off on immigration, but Corbyn himself has been refreshingly and , in my view admirably, relaxed on immigration, stressing the enormous benefits that past immigrants have brought to our economy, culture and society, and being reluctant to follow the Tories in their quest for draconian and unsustainable reductions.

It may be that the Labour establishment are timid about being seen to go against the so-called "will of the people"  as expressed by by a narrow majority in a seriously flawed referendum.  But even senior Brexiteer Boris Johnson assured us during the referendum campaign that voting to leave the EU did not imply leaving the single market.

So Labour don't have that excuse.

Yet Labour MPs were officially instructed to abstain on the Umunna amendment.  49 of them defied the whip and voted for it,  along with all our gallant band of Liberal Democrat, the one Green and I think most if not all of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. But not the doughty Mrs Brabin.

I am saddened but not surprised by Mrs Brabin's lack of fight, but genuinely puzzled by Labour's stance.  It is becoming increasingly clear that public opinion is moving against a hard Brexit.  Here was a golden opportunity to run the government close if not actually defeat them and Labour just didn't take it.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Spoiling the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar

We shall learn  in due course whether the Grenfell Tower conflagration was the result of saving £1.5m by using a less expensive cladding material, or turning down the preferred bidder because someone else was cheaper, maybe both or maybe something else entirely.

However, there can be little doubt that any savings will already have been far outweighed  by the enormous expense of paying for alternative accommodation for the displaced families, and the £5 500 per family grant to enable them to survive in the short run and re-equip in the long run.

Add to this  the further cost of finding and paying for temporary alternative accommodation for the thousands of families forced to leave other tower blocks because they are now discovered to be unsafe.  Doubtless the same firms that  put up the inadequate cladding in the first place are receiving premium rates for removing it and will in due course be the preferred bidders for putting up the right stuff.

The message is that the combination of deregulation, (the "bonfire of red tape" is a grimly appropriate metaphor), cuts in council inspection services and the penny-pinching temptation to save "public money" by going for the lowest bidder, (in fact I think, though an not sure, that in some cases councils are forced to accept the lowest tender),leads both to false economies and public danger.

The financial costs are, of course petty compared with  the horror of the deaths and injuries, and the massive anxiety and  inconvenience caused to the families affected, both at Grenfell and elsewhere.

This terrible tragedy merely helps us to highlight how other attempts to cut public expenditure to the bone have actually boomeranged. An article by  Frances Ryan, published in the Guardian back in April, lists the costs of various examples of Tory ineptitude.

  • two private firms have been paid £700m  to conduct Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments on disabled  people.  Four out of five of their rejections are overturned on appeal:
  • the flagship Universal Credit system has been delayed seven times,  is now five  years behind schedule and has so far cost £16bn (sic)  In the areas where it has been implemented the six-week waiting period has led to the need for mass emergency food parcels, and to rent arrears and evictions:
  • councils have had to spend more than £3.5bn on temporary accommodation for homeless families in the last five years (that is, even before the tower block cladding scandal) 
The conclusion must be that, on top of the misery they cause, and the increased shabbiness of our environment, the cheeseparing approach to public expenditure, the lie that "savings can always be made through cutting waste" can often lead to more rather than less public expenditure.

A contributory factor must be running down of both local and national government personnel through he outsourcing of services.  This leads to the public sector being left without expertise and enables the well-resourced  private sector to run rings round them in the drawing-up of contracts.

Saturday 24 June 2017

Brexit: where will it all end?

Oxford Professor Timothy Garton Ash has a whole article devoted to this in yesterday's Guardian and it's well worth a read.  Here's his somewhat dismal conclusion:

". . .my hunch is that Britain will probably end up. . .with some novel variant  of Norway's European Economic Area deal, Switzerland's customised free-trade package or Turkey's  membership of the customs union.  It may be dressed up  in Union Jack bunting, but it will effectively mean that we have second-class membership of the common market, that we must abide by rules  we have no say in making, that we will continue to pay into the EU coffers, that immigration from the EU is only slightly reduced,  [and] that we have to accept  legally binding arrangements in which the European court of Justice still plays a significant role . . . A majority in parliament  will probably swallow all this, in a very British game of muddling through."

In an article in the July edition of Prospect magazine  the former Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service, Gus O'Donnell (a trained economist, not , happily, via Oxford's PPE, but at Warwick and Glasgow Universities) concludes:

"Even if the[Brexit] talks go well, the long term effect of Brexit will be a smaller economy than previously  expected, which feeds  through to lower tax revenues."

That's it: " a smaller economy,"  no ifs, no buts.

Spending the next two years negotiating towards this nonsense is crazy.  MPs should pluck up courage, do their duty and put stop to it now.

Friday 23 June 2017

Land and "The Archers"

Radio 4's soap opera, "The Archers," to which I am addicted, began in1951 as a vehicle for informing Britain's farmers of all the latest techniques and Ministry of Agriculture rules and regulations.. Whilst it continues to do this (you can easily pick out the boring bits) it has since explored various social issues, most recently the coercive relationship between Helen Archer and her husband Rob, which kept the nation, and me, agog for over two years.

In the last couple of weeks organic farmers Tony and Pat Archer, with their family Helen (above) Tom and recently discovered grandson Johnny, have been offered £1m for a three and a half acre plot of land on which rich property developer Justin Elliot hopes  to build 18 houses.

I've no idea whether this is just an "East Enders" style plot to generate a bit of inter-generational squabbling within the family, or if it will develop into a serious exploration of the iniquities of land holding in Britain. I hope it will.

Tony and Pat were initially tenant farmers but  some time  ago raised the money via a huge mortgage  to buy their land from the estate which owned it.  Presumably they paid agricultural land prices, nowhere near  the £1m (now reduced to £900,000 becasue of son Tom's interference) they expect to receive for this small corner.

So far in the script there has been no mention of paying capital gains tax on the massive increase in value.  Indeed the family have already had detail discussions as to what to do with the whole million (half to Tony and Pat's pension pot, the other half to the development of Tom's business).  Will CGT be introduced into the script at a later date, or don't farmers , largely Tory voters, (though Tony and Pat probably aren't), pay it?

I hope we shall be told.

Nor, as far as I know (I missed a few episodes while in Scotland) has Justin Elliot yet gained planning permission for the houses.  Will he be"assisted" by friends on the council's planning committee?

And, when agricultural land increases enormously in value when a change of use is granted, why  is not the resulting increase in value simply taken by the state?  Maybe it is, in which case the family's plans are delusional.  And if it isn't, why not?

We could even go on to explore why why supermarkets, builders and maybe others are able to sit on "land banks" hoping for better times, without paying any rates. According to the housing charity Shelter, there is at present  enough land which has already been given to planning permission to build around half a million new homes, yet the building industry claim they are held up by obstructive local government bureaucracy and busy-body Nimbyists.

There could also be interesting discussions as to how many of the 18 houses to be built are "affordable."  Will Ed and Emma Grundy be able to afford one?

There is a rich vein of instructive dramatic possibilities, even without going into the fundamental question of why land is privately held when "God gave the land to the people."  I can hardly wait.

Wednesday 21 June 2017

2010 to 2017: what a difference.

In the final days days leading up to the 2010 General Election we were warned by David Cameron and most of the press that if there were a balanced (actually they said "hung" ) parliament than the sky would fall in, the markets would collapse and the world as we know it would come to an end.  So to avoid the calamity  of a Labour government dependent on the Scottish Nationalist (horror of horrors) better vote Conservative.

Well, Gordon Brown's Labour government lost its majority, Cameron's Tories didn't win one, the Liberal Democrats, with 57 seats (oh happy days) held the balance, and the sky didn't fall in, the markets didn't collapse and the world as we knew it went on much as before

So promptly the mantra shifted that unless a "strong and stable" (though they didn't yet put it that way)  coalition was formed within hours then all these financial calamities would surely happen. The leaders of the three major parties (yes, we were one of them then),  all exhausted by their strenuous election campaigns, had frantic meeting, half heated offers from Labour came to nothing, David Cameron and Nick Clegg put together what looked like a good deal and within in less than a week the Conservative-Liberal Democrat  coalition was formed.

In none of this period did the markets even wobble.

However, in hindsight it has become clear that in all the haste the Tories had managed to run rings run round us.  We had not absorbed the small print, or lack of it, so our dreams of Electoral and House  of Lords reform, which looked to be assured, came to nothing, and we were trapped in an austerity regime which went against  all our traditions and heritage (though this seemed to worry  some senior Liberal Democrats less than most of the party).

To avoid similar fiascos in the future I suggested that we abandon  the expectation that the day after an election  the old PM would  leave No 10 by the back door as the new one entered by the front, and spend at least 10 days in a transition period from one government to another, even if the same prime minister continued in office.

Strangely that is more or less what has happened since 8th June.  There is still no sign of an agreement between Northern Ireland's  Democratic Unionists (apparently not such a horror) and the May government, the anachronistically named Queen's Speech (actually the announcement of the government's programme) has had to be postponed until today, and the sky has not fallen, the markets have not even wobbled (though the £ has dipped a bit) and, sadly, the world again continues much as before.

Although I have no sympathy whatsoever for the bigoted views of the DUP, the party founded by Ian Paisley, they are from their point of view quite right to hang on until they have cast iron guarantees from the Tories for getting whatever it is they want.

Lets hope this sets a precedent for the formation of future, and I hope, progressive, coalitions

Monday 19 June 2017

Brexit madness

Negotiations for  Britain's leaving the EU begin today.  It is perfectly obvious and cannot be said too often, that any Brexit deal, be it hard, soft or somewhere in-between, cannot possibly be as good for the UK, our economy, our international standing, our independence, our culture or whatever, as the deal we already have if we remain members.  Generous European leaders have made it clear that that option is still open to us. If we had any sense at all we should take it.

Not a single one of the claimed advantages of leaving the EU stands up to serious scrutiny, be it £540m a week for the NHS, or a buccaneering Britain notching up trade deals with the rest of the world that somehow or other we are prevented from doing at the moment.

Our political class must be the most inept in history if they persist on this course of self-harm.  One is tempted to say they must be "Mad, literally mad" but, given how it was first used  a political context,  perhaps that phrase is best avoided.

Friday 16 June 2017

Tower block fires and red tape

Official voices are rightly cagey about making pronouncements on the causes of the horrifying fire in Grenfell Tower, Kensington, but it seems to me that three options are available and one of them must be right.


1.  The regulations regarding building tower blocks, their footings, fire precautions, materials, stairs, escape routes etc are inadequate, in which case we need some more and better regulations.

2.  The regulations are adequate but they were evaded or avoided, either deliberately, through negligence, or to cut costs.

3.  The regulations were adequate and adhered to, but the inspection system to ensure that proper standards continued to be maintained were lax or even non-existent.

In due course we shall find out which of the above, or even some of all three, put these poor people through such a horrible trauma and led to the unnecessary deaths of at least 17 and possibly 60 people living quietly in their own homes and minding their own business, something we are surely all entitled to do.

It should be noted that all three of the above scenarios involve the "red tape" of regulations and the employment of "officials" to ensure they are observed.

We need to remember this when right-wing market libertarians are for ever telling us that that less government regulation will free them to be more innovative, adventurous and profitable, which profits will eventually trickle down to the rest of us.

Maybe some red-tape is unnecessary, and certainly some is out of date.  (I believe that until recently there was a law forbidding the display of liqueur chocolates in shop windows lest the young be tempted to become alcoholics).  But most is necessary to keep us safe in our homes, on our streets, in our schools and hospitals, and at work.

It is hard to suppose that government cuts reduced the ability of a rich borough like Kensington to police adequately the regulations  for which it is responsible, but that will doubtless be the case in poorer areas..  We also need to remember that there are large and influential building companies which doubtless spend a lot of time and money lobbying ministers and councillors, and it may be that profit sometimes takes precedence over public safety in their urgings.

It is public servants and public expenditure, financed by taxes, which keep  us safe.  These poor people may be victims of our delusion that we can have a top-quality public services without paying for them.

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Too many Tories in the Commons

(It's probably too late, but my apologies to readers who saw an unchecked and incomplete version of this post which was published by accident - or some malfunction - yesterday)
In total 42.5% of those who voted in the 2017 election opted for the Conservatives.  42.5% of the 650 seats in the Commons is 276, but the Conservatives actually won 318, so, in proportionate terms. they have 42 more than their real entitlement.

Labour polled 39.95 of the total vote and won 262 seat, just 2 fewer than their proportionate entitlement.

We poor old Liberal Democrats polled a miserable 7.37% of the vote, but even that would entitle us to 48 seats instead of the meagre 12 we won.  The even more  badly-served Greens won only one seat rather than the 11 their 1.63 share of the national vote entitles them to .

Of course, no one, as far as I know, advocates  a strictly proportionate representation in the Commons, but these figures show that not only has Mrs May's government lost its technical  over-all majority:  the majority it has over Labour  grossly over-exaggerates its true support, and lessens even further  its moral authority.

(I have not included the nationalists in the above calculations as they do not contest seats throughout the whole of the UK).

In the short run, this analysis explodes as myth the suggestion that the present electoral boundaries favour Labour.  They clearly do not.  So it is important that all non-conservative MPs get together to stop the boundary revision scheme which the Tories claim is necessary to restore fairness. This scheme would, in
fact, further distort the system in their favour. 

In the long run of course we need an alliance to introduce an electoral system which offers a better balance between fair representation and a genuine connection  between MPs and their constituents.  The additional member system would be better than nothing. PR by single transferable vote in multi member constituencies would be best.

An announcement from Mr Corbyn that he is in favour of electoral reform would cause  a further shift in the tectonic plates of British politics and produce  another giant leap towards a fairer and healthier society.   If, sadly, he deludes himself into thinking that Labour can, in the long run, win on its own (as did Tony Blair, after his dialogue with Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s) we shall be back to the sterile Punch and Judy politics of the past.

In the meantime, I hope the apparatchiks of all the progressive parties are holding  informal discussions about some mutually advantageous electoral arrangements in case another election is called in the near future.  We should not let this moment pass.

Monday 12 June 2017

Oh joy, oh rapture unforeseen!

Well, last week's UK election result was certainly unforeseen.  I spent election week on a long-planned walking holiday in Scotland, cast a postal vote for our local Liberal Democrat before setting out, and took time out from holiday indulgences to watch the exit poll.  That the Tories were predicted  to lose their over-all majority produced an unexpected surge of euphoria, followed by almost instant  disillusion and a disconsolate retirement to bed when the first two results to be declared suggested that the exit poll was inaccurate.

Joy returned in the morning on discovering  that  the exit poll was right after all and the selfish Tory strategy had backfired on them with a vengeance.

However, given the disappointing performance of the Liberal Democrats, perhaps "modified rapture" (another quote from W S Gilbert) is a more appropriate response.

The main cause of joy is not the Tories' loss of their over-all majority, but the realisation that that our democracy is not, after all, up for sale, and not after all in hock to sycophantic Tory-supporting newspapers.

It should not be forgotten that the Referendum itself was called by David Cameron not in the national interest but in the hope of resolving an internal dispute in the Conservative Party.  And this election, similarly, was called not in the national interest, but in the expectation that the Conservatives, with Mrs May at their head, would steal a stonking  majority while the Labour Party appeared to be in disarray under an inadequate leader.

It was not to be.

Soon we shall find out how much more the Tories spent aver and above anybody else.(In 2010 it was £16bn compared with £8bn by Labour and £4.7bn by the Liberal Democrats).  Then there was the vilification and ridicule poured daily on the head of jeremy Corbyn by the Daily Mail, Sun and Daily Express. And, it has to be said, the very public and much publicised  fact that 80% of Corbyn's parliamentary party had said they had no confidence in him.

Add to these the smears,and over-simplifications which appear  to be propagated by the Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby, and what appear to many of us to be the biassed reporting of the BBC* in a cack-handed attempt to be even-handed.

I suspect it did not affect the over-all result but I was personally impatient of the constant harassment of Tim Farron for his views as practising Christian on abortion and same sex marriage.  Both these issues are recognised as being matters of conscience not subject to party discipline so could be of interest to his own constituents but are of no concern  at the national level since he accepts the established views of the party he leads . I wonder how much we shall hear  much about these issues  in the Tory press with regard to the DUP, on whom  Mrs May's government hopes to rely,  and whose official policy is against both?

Another particular niggle among the miasma of misrepresentation was that both the Tory Party and  media went on and on about Corbyn's alleged support of the IRA  (he supported talking to them, not their terrorist methods) and never once asked Mrs May how she felt about having joined  the party which had called Nelson Mandela a terrorist?  Nor, given her Church allegiance, did they ever ask her about her attitude to the Magnificat, which, as a C of E vicar, her father would have chanted, recited or read daily.  Verses seven and eight are of particular significance:

[The Lord] hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away.**

Happily, despite the distortions,  and unequal publicity and spending,  our electorate were not, for once, baboozled. Jeremy Corbyn's campaign, manifesto, leadership and honest personality have shifted the plates.  An end to the misguided economic policy of austerity and a punitive social security system, the glorification of privatisation and a business free-for-all regardless of employees' rights and welfare, to be replaced by public investment to revive the economy, public ownership where suitable and genuinely progressive taxation, have all now become politically viable.

Of course the plates have not yet shifted enough:  the Tories are still in office if not exactly in power, and we are still lumbered with Brexit. But  Britain is now a healthier and happier place, and hope is on the horizon.

I am of course disappointed that the Liberal Democrats have flat-lined.  Although I would have personally preferred us to campaign on an outright  "No to Brexit, let's stop this nonsense here and now and get on with tackling our real problems" the compromise of accepting that "the people have spoken" but giving us the chance to speak again was sensible, if timid.  However, it didn't take off.  We are, for the moment, back to two-party politics, but a viable  Liberal Party is an essential part of a Liberal democracy and we shall come back.

In the meantime we can sit back and enjoy the Tories tearing themselves apart, and try to make sure that the spectacle doesn't do too much damage to the most vulnerable in our society.

 *Today presenter and former BBC political  editor Nick Robinson , for example, helped in his  youth to found his local Young Conservative Association and was chair of the Oxford University Conservative Association.  Jeremy Paxman revealed, on his retirement form Newsnight, that he was a "one nation Tory."  there may be some BBC commentators with backgrounds in the far, or even soft Left, but I'm not aware of who they are.

** Way back in the 60s when we Liberals were looking for an anthem or theme song to rival Labour's Red Flag and the Tories' Land of hope and glory, the Magnificat was seriously suggested.