Friday 24 August 2018

Austerity, prisons and long -term damage

Towards the end of this week's Monday Guardian column on economic affairs Larry Elliott wrote:

It is no real defence for those who so avidly embraced austerity to point to the return of growth as evidence that they were right all along.  All economies recover eventually: the question is whether a less damaging approach could have been adopted,  to which the answer is yes . . . As it is, extensive and permanent damage has been done. First there is the social cost of a decade of failed austerity: the closed libraries, the mothballed care centres, the increase in the number of food  banks.

Elliott doesn't mention  the shocking deterioration of conditions in our prisons because when he was writing the bombshell of the report on Birmingham prison (blood, vomit and faeces not cleaned up, infestment with cockroaches and  rats, staff hiding in fear of violent prisoners, other prisoner cowering behind their cell doors as urine and faeces were squirted at them, staff asleep)  had hit the headlines

The running of Birmingham prison has now been taken out of the hands of the private company, G4S, and my first reaction was indignation that this company, of known and proven incompetence (under their original name of Group 4 they "lost" some prisoners on the very first day of their contract to transport them, and they are the ones who failed to supply security for the London Olympics so the public sector in the form of the army had to be called in to do the job) was till being given government contacts.

I still stand by that.  Whatever the pros and cons of the relative efficiencies of the public and private sectors (and the evidence is there's not much to choose between them) there is no case for deeply personal services to be outsourced for private profit. The deprivation of liberty is surely a function which should be reserved to the state alone.

However, it has been pointed out by many (one example here) that the crisis in our prisons (and Birmingham is apparently one of many), is just one, and perhaps the most hidden and least susceptible to public indignation, result of the misguided austerity programme operated by our governments since 2010.  The Ministry of Justice, responsible for the prisons,  has suffered the deepest cuts of any government department - scheduled to be an astonishing 40% before 2020.  The number of prison officers had already been reduced by 7 000 by February last year. Today's figure is surely higher.

The mantra "doing more with less" is just a silly slogan snatched from a facile business studies textbook.  There is waste in all organisation, public and private, and there always will be.  But  there is a  limit to the extent that such "waste" can be squeezed out without serious damage to the effectiveness of the organisation, and that limit is reached well before the 40% mark.

Cuts to library services, neglected parks, closed Sure Start centres for parents and children, may be shrugged off by the comfortable as just the froth on the essentials of society.  After all, the comfortable can afford to buy their own books,  have their own gardens to relax in, and the very comfortable can afford nannies to bring up their kids in the paths of health and  virtue.  But the poorer amongst us  need those facilities.  Theri absence is a blot on our society.

 And the inhumane treatment of those society has decided to imprison, a huge proportion of whom are mentally ill, is a blot on our claim to be civilised.

Winston Churchill, that hero of the Tories, is on record as saying:     "The mood and temper  of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country," (though he was probably still a Liberal when he said that.)

Today's Tories could begin to make amends by dropping Brexit and  transferring  the 9 000 extra bodies  apparently now needed to organise it to the prison service instead.  That would be a start.






Friday 10 August 2018

George Cunningham showed the way

The  former labour MP. George Cunningham, who died last month,  is the one who who moved an amendment to the first Scottish Devolution Bill in 1979 to say that a referendum in favour would only be valid if at least 40% of those entitled to vote (my emphasis) were in favour.

In the event the referendum on Scottish devolution was "won"  by 51.6% to 48.4% (very familiar figures) but that 51.6% was only 32.9% of the registered Scottish electorate.  So the referendum result was "inoperative."

Had Cunningham's logic been applied to the EU Referendum  it would have suffered the same fate. In round figures, 52% voted in favour of leaving the EU and 48% voted against. Since the turnout was 73% that 52% for "Leave" represents only 37% of the registered electorate.  So the option to leave  would have failed the Scottish test.

And not only that, but the registered electorate excluded three groups most affected by the result:  citizens of other EU  countries working in the UK;  British citizens working in other parts of the EU; and the UK's 16 and 17 year-olds.

So the desperate trumpeting of the leading Leavers that "The British people have decided."" We must implement the will of the people," "We cannot ignore this democratic decision," etc. is simply ill-considered hot air.

The truth is that just over a third of the restricted franchise voted to leave, another slightly less more than a third voted to remain, and well over a quarter didn't express their opinion.

According to the Guardian's obituary: "[Cunningam's] lifelong  belief was that MPs should act according to their consistence and use their judgment in the interest of constituents."


We should follow Cunningham, take off the Whips,  give MPs a free vote in parliament, then we can get on with tackling the real problems facing the country - and the world.

Monday 6 August 2018

People's vote on Brexit is second best solution

Opinion polls tell us that the voting public have now moved very marginally in favour of remaining in the EU, and, according to this recent report in the Guardian, significant sections of the Labour party are now calling on their leaders to support a second referendum. I find this encouraging but also worrying.

Encouraging becasue, as the article makes clear, for trade union members (and working people in general?) "Brexit was a bad idea in 2016 and things have only got worse. The final agreement must go back to the people."  This from former union leader Billy Hayes.

A current leader, Manuuel Cortes, spells out: "Tory Brexit is an idealogical project  that will attack the rights of workers, deregulate the economy  and blame immigrants for the failure of the elite. . . there is nothing in this for working people.  That's why the trade union movement  is increasingly moving towards  supporting a popular vote on the deal."

It is just possible that such blunt speaking from this source, coupled with the increasingly shambolic  failures of the government in the negotiations, might just convince those "left behind" who chose voting Leave as a protest against a complacent ruling elite who  have neglected their needs for far too long, might just be persuaded to change their minds.

But:there is no guarantee, or even likelihood, that a second referendum would be any more fairly fought than the first.  Even if the rules are tightened:

  • Leave lied in the first and will lie again in the second, largely though unrealistic claims unsupported by evidence.
  • By overspending Leave broke the law in the first and will probably do so again.  Petty fines are no deterrent.
  • Their message will be simple - "We have already decided - how dare 'they' try to overturn democracy?
  • The pro-leave press, largely owned by foreign-resident tax evaders, will howl "Foul.."
  • From staffing our "Leeds for Europe" street stall a couple of Saturdays ago I get the distinct impression that the the public is now indifferent and that the "Just get on with it" view will either vote to leave even if they were originally remainers, or, more likely simply not bother to vote.
  • All  the worthy arguments by the trade unionists, quoted above, were made in the first referendum, and were ineffective.
  • How will the question (s) put on a second referendum be agreed?  Will it be "Accept the deal or crash out?" " Accept the deal or remain in?" "Accept the deal or re-negotiate?"  Or will there be more than two options - "Accept the deal, crash out or stay in?"  And if more than two options, will second preferences be permitted in the voting system?. For a more detailed analysis of the possibilities

Frankly, it is evident that a second referendum poses more problems than it solves. It is not the best  "way out."

We should remain true to our constitution, hammered out over the years.  It is not perfect, but it's the best we have at the moment.

We are a representative  parliamentary  democracy.

The easy promises of the leave campaign are now exposed as unsubstantiated hot air, all informed opinion points to the fact that the deal with the EU we already have is far better than anything else that could be agreed with us outside the EU,  and the vast majority of MPs recognise this.

 They should do their duty, grasp the nettle and put a stop to the whole nonsense.  If parliament were in session this could be done tomorrow, without wasting further time.  It can be done in the autumn once parliament resumes.  If some MPs with strong Leave voting constituencies lose their  seats surely that is a small price to pay for saving the nation.from folly?