Sunday 31 May 2020

P.M.Johnson: how much longer?

The Conservatives have always been pretty ruthless at dumping their leaders once hey have outlived their usefulness,(Edward Heath, then  Margaret Thatcher) or proved to be useless ( William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith, Michael Howard, Theresa May).

The Tory MPs and faithful chose Mr Johnson as there leader, many I suspect against their better judgement, becasue he could win elections.  Well, he's done that: through a quirk of our flawed electoral system system, on a minority vote he has delivered a stonking parliamentary majority of 80.

Sadly, but predictably, so far in office he has demonstrated that he is not up to the job of leading a competent government.  Bluff, blustering generalisations, wildly optimistic predictions about a world class this and state of the art that, flashbacks to our "glorious" past and flattering references to the supposed superiority of the British character just don't cut the mustard when the going gets tough, as it undoubtedly has been for the past five months.

Rather than being world leaders, in dealing with the coronavirus we have proved to be among the world's worst losers.  There will be plenty of bluff, skilful PR  and twisting of the figures to try and disguise this fact, but the truth must eventually sink in.

So far the voting public are giving Johnson and his government  the benefit of the doubt: they are still between 15 and 20 percentage points ahead of the Opposition..

But the tipping point must surely be very near. Abraham Lincoln's aphorism:  "You can't fool all the people all the time," is bound to kick in soon,even with a largely supportive  press (though the Daily Mail is at last showing signs of breaking ranks).

When the pandemic fades into the background,  and the damaging effects of a messy Brexit are apparent, and Labour under Keir Starmer's leadership are persuaded to stop fighting each other and oppose the government instead, and the poll leads begin to dent, Johnson's days as PM will be numbered.  There may even be a few spectacular Liberal by-election victories to add to the mix.

Of course, Johnson's exit  will be given a good cover  story (as Eden's was after the Suez debacle), probably on the lines that his health was more badly affected by his brush with the coronavirus than was realised.  He may even be given an Earldom

Unfortunately there is no obviously competent  replacement. The favourite poster-boy at the moment appears to be Rishi Sunak - we shall see.  It's a pity the genuinely one-nation Tory Rory Stewart is no longer on the front-line scene.  

Although this lack of anyone with obvious leadership qualities which will serve the whole country could be seen as favourable to the  successful emergence of the progressive left, we must recognise that, with a parliamentary majority of 80 going to need an awful lot of by-election triumphs and bad polls to shift them.  We are likely to be stuck with a further four years in which the majority, and particularly the poor, will pay for the government's misguided fantasies.

We need a decent Tory to save us from this worst case scenario.

Tuesday 26 May 2020

Danger: Cummings stil at work

Until this weekend the Johnson Government's handling of the coronavirus  pandemic  can best be described as incompetent.  

They failed to recognise its seriousness in the early stages, were complacent in their attitude to it, slow to react, headed off on a wrong tack, failed to learn from the experiences of other countries, missed opportunities for collective purchases  with the EU for vital equipment,  exaggerated the extend to our preparedness  and issued mixed and confusing messages.

Mr Johnson himself set a bad example by not only continuing to shake hands with people who might have been infected, but actually boasting about it, and attending as a spectator a crowded rugby stadium to watch an international match.

As a result Johnson himself caught the virus and, instead of receiving  the criticism he deserved for his arrogance, benefited from the respectful  approach of the Oppostion and his critics who observed the generous civilised custom of not hitting a man when he's down. 

 Some of the sycophantic press even managed to paint him as a hero for successfully "fighting off" the virus.

So far public opinion has given him and his government the benefit of the doubt.  The circumstances are unprecedented (yes indeed, as they remind us to the power of umpteen) and mistakes are bound to be made.

But the failure to sack Dominic Cummings for the flagrent breaches of the rules he helped to make are surely a failure too far.  

The precedents are clear. Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading member of the Scientific Advisory Group  for Emergencies (SAGE) resigned because he broke the rules and received a home visit from a friend.  Dr Catherine Calderwood, Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, reigned because she broke the rules by driving to her second home.

I've no idea  whether the above two offered to resign, were asked to resign or were sacked but given a civilised cover-story. The reason for their action, voluntary or not, was clear: there is not one rule for "them" in the in-crowd, and "us," the rest of humanity.  

And that is as it should be.

It beggars belief (how I over-use that phrase, but what else is adequate?) that Mr Cummings is allowed to stay in post as a (the?) senior advisor to the Prime Minister.

And it is also dangerous.

Mr Johnson defended Cummings becasue he "followed his instincts."

That is carte blanche for  the less biddable among us (and there will be many), whatever further advice the government  gives, to say in future: "Well, that doesn't suit me: I'll follow my instincts."

However many will take that view we cannot know, but whether it be single figures of tens of thousands, the risks to the rest of the public will be increased.  More people will catch the illness and some will die.

So long as Cummings remains in post, any future advice we may be given will, in the eyes of some, have lost all credibility.

The government has, possibly on the advice of Cummings, (why else would they have taken an entire weekend to decide what to do?) announced today that it is about to publish new rules.  This is presumably  skilful timing in the hope that the debate will move on and the  Cummings debacle fade  into history.

The Opposition and media should not let this happen.  If common decency, consistency  and common sense mean anything at all, for the sake of all of us he should  be forced to resign.

Friday 22 May 2020

Bank Holiday capers

The government is apparently considering  creating a new Bank Holiday "sometime in October."  It's not clear whether this is to be a permanent one, or just for this year to compensate us for the ones we've had  but have not been able to enjoy to the full because of the lockdown.

Neither is it clear whether this is to be an additional holiday, or to replace one of those that  occur at this time of the year, when there are three: Easter Monday, the May Bank Holiday, and the Spring Bank Holiday.  

The Spring bank Holiday was originally a religious festival, Whitsuntide, coming forty days after Easter.  As Easter, and therefore Whitsun, moves backward and forwards according to the phases of the moon, and the churches were and still are unable to agree on a fixed date for Easter, the  Labour government under Harold Wilson decided to "fix" the Whitsun holiday to the last weekend in May and call it Spring Bank.  

For a while lots of wags called it Wilsontide.  That's what we're having this weekend.

The UK's May Bank Holiday was introduced by  a later Labour government to coincide with the international celebration of the 1st May as Labour Day, or Workers' Day, though they adopted the custom of celebrating it on the Monday following the nearest weekend rather than on the actual day itself.  

The hard right has always been suspicious of the "workers' day celebration", particularly  as it was introduced here  on the initiative of Michael Foot, then Employment Secretary, whom the right have always painted as a "dangerous lefty."

It is entirely possible that the motive  for introducing an October Bank Holiday is a Tory ruse to abolish the one that has a connection with Mayday.  Worse, I shouldn't be in the least bit surprised if some advocate that it should be 21st October, the anniversary of Nelson's victory over  the French at Trafalgar. (A petition in favour of this was launched during the 2010-15 government, was open for six months, and gained all of 48 signatures - but that was pre-Brexit)

Whether as replacement or a new one , I do hope we get a Bank Holiday in the autumn, and that we hold it on the  24th October, United Nations Day.  If there is a new mood in the country once the coronavirus is past its worst, then a day to celebrate the UN would be a positive signal that we have put surly chauvinism behind us and now recognise the importance of co-operation with others in building a better world.

Monday 18 May 2020

Tories haven't changed their spots.

Whilst the overwhelming majority of media attention is being given to the coronavirus pandemic and the attempts of leading ministers to pretend that the government is making a good job of controlling it, others are, in the background, quietly implementing their tired and failed neocon policies.

One is to squeeze the life out of and transfer any blame to local government.  In an article in yesterday's Observer Andy Burnham, directly elected Mayor of Greater Manchester, reveals that, although the Westminster government promised to bear the cost of measures to take the homeless off the streets during the crisis, they have now reneged on the promise.  Apparently it applied only to those who were already homeless, and not those who become homeless during the crisis.  

So those local councils who jumped with alacrity to fulfil this humanitarian task are pushed even further into debt.

In the same article Burnham points out that in the same week that researchers have confirmed  the link between poverty and susceptibility to the virus the government quietly removed what is called  deprivation weighting from the way it calculates central government grants to local government.  The result, he claims, is that Knowsley, a deprived area of Greater Manchester, suffers a 39% cut and relatively affluent South Gloucestershire, presumably with lots of Tory voters, is blessed with a 30% increase.

It is hard to believe that this is a country with a Christian heritage where every  parliamentary day  begins with prayers.  Presumably they still do so at Eton. If so it hasn't had much lasting effect. 

Almost ignored now by the media are the post-Brexit negotiations for our future relations with the European Union.  We were promised a “best in class” Free Trade Agreement and a “fantastic new partnership. 

However, those who follow these things and in particular Professor Chris Grey in his detailed Brexit Blog, believe we are heading for the most damaging of all outcomes - leaving with no deal at all.

According to Grey the Brexiteers are beginning to believe their own lies. They  will most surely contrive to blame their non-attainment not on their own self-deception but on the alleged stubbornness of the European Union.
And the sycophantic press will swallow it.

There can nave have been a more depressing, indeed humiliating, period in the history of British politics.

Saturday 16 May 2020

Don't let the crisis go to waste

It is no surprise  that the Treasury's recently published options for economic policy once the pandemic is seen to be under control include continued government austerity, a public sector pay freeze and tax rises - but along with the Keynesian option of government-stimulated growth.

The proposal of yet another public sector pay freeze has received scorn. It  would  include the heroes of the moment: nurses, care workers, ambulance men and women,  and local government employees, including the bin men who still operate  with great efficiency here in Kirklees.

"They wouldn't dare: it would be political suicide."

Don't you believe it.  Actions which before Brexit  "No British prime minster could possibly contemplate," such  as a border between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, were implemented and even applauded as successes in order to "Get Brexit done."

We shall not be far out of the lockdown before the hard-line Tory voices begin mouthing that the government's deficit for this year has reached more than £300 billion (as against an anticipated £55bn) and we can't carry on spending money that we haven't got.

Well, we now know that the last part of that statement isn't true. There is a "magic money tree:"  The government can spend as much money as it likes because it creates it.

Now to nail another lie: that it has to be paid back by future generations.  Not true: this is largely* money that we owe ourselves.  I happen to own part of the UK's National Debt becasue I have some National Saving Certificates.  I pay taxes to the government to enable it to compensate me for the loan by paying me interest.  The same applies to anyone else who has National Savings, a managed pension fund or even owns Premium Bonds.  What goes round comes round .  In economic parlance we call it the "circular flow of income."

So what should the government do once medical conditions permit?

Follow the pattern set by by our government after the last major crisis, which had dimensions even greater than this one, the Second World War.  

Then the government had paid the wages of a huge proportion of the workforce, the people in the army, who contributed nothing  to the consumer goods and services the economy craved, not for a few months but for five years.  A huge proportion of industrial capacity was devoted to producing goods of no consumer value  and the government bought the products, armaments, in order to prosecute the war.

By 1945 the government debt was enormous.

But  the government  had the courage to continue spending to expand the economy, the tax take increased  and the massive accumulated national debt brought down to manageable proportions, generally accepted as below of 60% of GDP.

A government of equal vision and courage would continue to spend, rebuild and  sustain demand and expand the economy.  Key public workers at the lower end of the pay scale  should be given the rises we all now know they deserve.  The private sector (low paid carers in hedge-fund-owned care homes, for example,) will be forced to play catch up.

Taxes should certainly be raised, but the government should be careful which, as some take more demand out of the economy than others.  VAT could be lowered, becasue that affects the poor most.  

The standard rate of  income tax could remain as it is for the moment, but plans made  to raise it gradually to 25%. The higher rate of income tax could be increased because the people who get that kind of money are more likely to spend it abroad rather than in this economy.  More importantly, we should take a long had look at taxes which don't affect employment and income: land taxes and wealth taxes.  And we should take an even longer and harder look at those who make money in this country and pay only modest taxes, and those rich people  and companies who avoid British tax by basing themselves in overseas havens

Inequality should be reduced by improving the social security safety.  The best way to do this would be to introduce the idea for which the  time has come, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) . 

The government has put its toe in the water for this by paying 80% the incomes of furloughed worker, and extended the scheme for anther four months.  The details to extend this to UBI would need to be hammered out, but the principle is that everyone, babies and school children, students, those in work and those out of it, and the retired, receive just enough to get by.  Recipients of the state retirement pension allegedly already get it.  Miyabe the current rate would be a useful benchmark starting rate.  The rate for babies and dependent children would be lower, and there would be extra for disabled people and those with special needs..

When they first proposed the idea the Green Party argued that it could be financed by ending  all tax allowances, so that all income from the fist pound earned, would be taxed.  The arithmetic of this has been hotly questioned but the Treasury, Universities and Think Tanks could do some work on it and give us some idea.

The late and very great one-time Liberal MP for the Colne Valley, Richard Wainwright, argued that effective politics was rather like sailing: you had to "catch the wind." 

The wind of change created during the pandemic is blowing in the direction of a fairer, better protected, more equal society.  The opposition parties should get together and formulate proposals to achieve one.  We mustn't let the Tories, sadly for the moment in power with a fake 80 seat majority in parliament, far from representative of the people, revert to the "normal" which so favours their backers.

* This is true for debts which is internally financed, which the majority of it is.  If we borrow from overseas we gain a chunk of someone else's economy, so then future generations will have to pay it back if this one doesn't.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Conflict rather than co-operation

There seems to be something in either our British psyche or our system that pushes us towards conflict rather than co-operation.

It is right that the government should make proposals, and that the opposition parties should, where necessary, criticise them and propose alternatives.  I'm happy with that: it is our system.

 Sir Keir Starmer is treading a fine line between probing the the holes in the government's often vague and inadequate proposals and avoiding too bellicose an approach which could alienate the electorate which is still largely supportive of the government.  The Tories are still 20 points ahead in the polls.
 Personally I'd like Starmer to be a bit more aggressive, but that's a matter for him and his party to judge.  I'd also like the Liberal Democrats to be heard but we seem to have been squeezed out.

What worries me is that the government seems to present its proposals without appearing to have consulted the people most deeply concerned.

On Sunday evening Prime Minister Johnson used prime-time television to address the nations (sic) on how we would ease ourselves out of the lockdown.  Unusually for the Tories, who are good at effective PR, the timing was bad, coming at the end of a three  day weekend.  Knowing it was coming many people made their own decisions about what he would say and spent three days cheerfully breaking the existing regulations.

The overall presentation of the broadcast was, except for Johnson's excessive use of gestures (it's as though he's trying to encourage a team of eight year old  footballers to maintain their positions and not all chase after the ball) well done.  There were clear graphics to show, in different colours, five levels of danger, a pie chart with moveable arrow to show the importance of the Reproduction rate, and to my relief, the approach was to be very cautious. He's clearly learned from his own experience of the illness.

So a pretty god over-all picture.  But, as often is the case, the devil was in the detail.

The most glaring howler was that people who couldn't work from home should  report for work the following morning.  For those who start at 7am that's less than 12 hours notice, with no indications as  to:

  • if they were lucky enough to be receive the 80% of pay from the government, would they continue to receive it if they failed to report;
  • how the employers would, in that short space of time, be able to make their workplaces coronavirus proof;
  • whether the employees would have the right to refuse to work and return home if the necessary safety conditions were not in place;
  • if they needed child care and hadn't time to arrange it, would employees still get paid, or even retain their jobs., if they didn't turn up?
Had I been an employee under those circumstances, and anxious to "do the right thing," as is my wont, I should have spent a sleepless night.

The following (Monday) morning Dominic Raab, Johnson's stand-in, said that the prime minister had not meant Monday, but Wednesday.  This morning, Tuesday, another minister (Matt Hancock I think) when questioned on this point, said loftily that if that was all the "Today" programme had to worry about, then everything was really fine.

I've read somewhere that the officer class concentrates on broad strategies and leaves it to the NCOs to fill in the details. maybe that's the trouble.

In the 1960s  and 70s we Liberals argued as part of our economic policy that there should be a joint  council  representing the government , employees and employers (effectively the TUC and the CBI) to hammer our ways to make the economy work more effectively.

Surely the same principle is appropriate here.  

Why is there no joint meeting of the government, unions and employers to work out an agreeable way of re-introducing normal economic activity?  Why is there no meeting of the Department of Education, the teachers' unions, and representatives of the many other workers involved in schools, to work out when and how and in what order to re-open the schools?

And why no "four nations" permanent council to devise a strategy for the whole UK if that is thought desirable? (though I think it isn't  - even in these circumstances  differences are possible and sensible.  That is what devolution is all about)

On the issue of re-opening the schools, as one who has taught every age-group from reception class (not for very long) to pensioners, I'd like to know the argument for starting the re-opening with the infants and year six.   Surely the  infants will be the hardest with which to enforce physical distance (not to mention their parents at the gate), and I'm not sure that 11 year-olds actually need special induction to transfer to secondary schools. Surely they could just watch "Grange Hill."

Maybe this decision to start with the infants is nothing to do with education at all.  Many countries with allegedly more successful educational outcomes than ours don't start school till seven.  But the infant group need looking after, so if they're back at school their parents or careers can go back to work, and the reason is the economy.  If so, we should be told.

Thursday 7 May 2020

VE Day in perspective

One of the very few fortunate consequences of the coronavirus lockdown is that we shall be spared most of the excesses of flag-waving, military "shallahumps and shallahoops," and  evocations of past glories which were planned for the 75th anniversary of VE Day.

I was eight years old, going on nine, on the actual VE day in 1945.  I don't remember remember much of it.  With my parents and baby sister, we were on holiday in Scarborough, so it must have been Whitsuntide Week.  My mother had an aunt who kept a beading house in Scarborough and that was our regular port of call  in the Whit holiday. I think we must have been to Scarborough at least once before, because I can remember rolled up barbed wire on the beaches in order to deter invaders.  Or maybe it was our first visit and they were still there even though European war was nearly  over.

I have vivid memories of the evening.  We spent it roaming the streets with another Birstall family and singing "Let him go, let him tarry, let him sink or let him swim,"  which the Internet tells me is an Irish folk ballad.  Presumably it was a popular song of the era.  I was not then and am not now "into" popular songs. As a choirboy hymns and psalms, and now anthems and oratorios, are more my thing.

There was a palpable sense of joy and release at what was seen as the culmination of "our finest hour," although it wasn't really a culmination at all as the war continued for several more months in the Far East.

The achievement was considerable, and understandably at the time, exaggerated.  The tragedy is that we have continued to exaggerate it ever since.

We never did "stand alone."  

 Australia,Canada,New Zealand, South Africa, India and many other parts of the then Empire, the Free French, Poland and other Europeans, fought with us from the beginning. We should probably not have survived  the Battle of Britain were  it not for the very significant contributions of the Polish and Czechoslovakian Air-forces.

Then , of course by far the major part in the defeat of Nazi Germany was borne  by  the Soviet Union, something that we far too readily forget. The Soviet Union suffered between 8 and 10 million military deaths, compared with 446 000 Yugoslavians, 416 000 USA, and 
383 600 UK (not including Commonwealth and Empire deaths).  A complete list of all combatants  is available here.

So it was a marvellous achievement, and a great relief, and a huge sacrifice for those families which had lost relatives and friends not just in the armed forces and merchant navies, but in the civilian bombings and other what we now call collateral damage.

But it was and is not a solid foundation for British claims of exceptionalism.

Yet, as Jo Grimond, a junior officer in the war  who became our inspiring Liberal Leader of the 1960s, writes in his Memoirs, (page 99)

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

We need now, after 75 years,  to see what was undoubtedly a very fine hour in perspective, and, perhaps, assess some of the humiliations we have as a nation experienced since. 

Which was the deepest:

  • the aborted invasion of Suez in 1956;
  • the belated recognition that we needed, after all, to join the the EEC, only to be rebuffed, not once but twice, by the French;
  • the ejection of Sterling from the ERM  in 1992;
  • the craven support of the US in their illegal invasion of Iraq;
  • the flawed referendum decision to leave the EU;
  • the abuse of our democratic  constitution by our government in attempting to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process;
  • our incompetence in  dealing with  the coronavirus, leading to our becoming one of the worst affected developed countries?
Take your pick, or make other suggestions.

Whether or not it is our deepest humiliation, there can be no doubt that in tackling the pandemic we have have been far from  world leaders,  but laggardly clumsy  followers.

It is high time we put behind us the pretence that in this that or the other we are "the best in the world and the envy of the world" (except that is for the BBC") and just settled for moderate competence, which involves working as co-operative partners with others.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

Uses and abuses of statistics

Those of us interested in these sorts of things lost confidence in government statistics during  the years Mrs Thatcher was prime minister (1979 to1990). 

In the early years of her premiership the measure of people unemployed rose to 3 million.  This figure was alarming so the government set about manipulating the figures.  I can t remember all the details now and long ago threw away my notes, but there were something like 17 changes in the way the counting was done, and the effect of something like 14 of them was to reduce the figure.

Some of the devices were that school leavers were removed from the count, as were those not entitled to benefits (though of course they still had no job but wanted one.)*  Another ruse was to take people our of the potential workforce and place them on "Invalidity Benefit."  Twenty years later our government put a lot of energy into gruelling "fitness to work tests" to force them back in again, as tellingly depicted in the film the film "I Daniel Blake."

A hangover of this deception persists today when even the "impartial" BBC solemnly intones without question claims by  complacent ministers that unemployment is now the lowest for decades without mentioning that the count  no longer incudes anyone under 18, those in part-time work who want full-time work, those on zero-hours contract who would like something more reliable, and the hordes in involuntary self-employment (ie they have lost their jobs  and are hawking themselves round as "consultants" or similar and earning only a fraction of the minimum wage)

Be that as it may the reason for bringing this up now is the farcical claim that the target for 100 000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of April had been reached. 

The vital day was Thursday 30 April.  Earlier in the week the figure still stood at around 80 000.but Matt Hancock the Health Secretary boldly proclaimed that his target would be reached.

And lo and behold it was - not just reached but had leapt forward to 120 000.

A great national achievement , said Hancock., only for it to be revealed that this super figure had been reached by including 40 000 tests sent out in the post and not necessarily yet returned.  Over the weekend the figure fell back to the 80 000s

it is difficult to believe that this is happening, and now accepted as routine, not in a banana republic or emerging third world democracy with a largely illiterate population, but here in one of the most politically sophisticated and highly educated countries in the world.

Why are we not outraged?

Because, particularly since the referendum of 2016 and subsequent elections, political  lying has become commonplace.  We can no longer trust anything our government tells us.

I normal circumstances this is disgraceful.  At a time when the health of everyone in the country is seriously at risk, such "playful" distortions of the truth to achieve a PR hit are criminal.

*  My friend John Cole of Bradford has directed me to this detailed list of the changes:

Friday 1 May 2020

Airlines a danger to us and the planet

In an earlier post I have argued that the airlines industry should take a haircut (jargon for be reduced in size).  It surprises me that this point of view is receiving little attention in the mainstream media.  

Easyjet has received a £600m Bank of England loan, Virgin Atlantic has, so far, been refuses half a billion, and yesterday British Airways announced swingeing cuts in its operations at  Gatwick (for details see here)

I understand the air travel from Gatwick is overwhelmingly for leisure purposes.
 Air travel is a major contribution to the factors that generate the climate crisis, and the “hypermobility” it permits has been instrumental in the rapid transition of the coronavirus from China to the rest of the world.

 Surely we can no longer justify endangering both the future of our planet and the peoples on it just to facilitate the desires of the those of us in the more affluent parts of the world for sunshine, exotic experiences and sex.  

 The need for business travel is also rapidly diminishing as modern methods of distance communications such as Skype and zoom develop.

The axiom made famous by the Former White House Chief of Staff and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel : "Never let a good crisis go to waste" should surely be exploited by the Green lobby, yet they (we)  green seem to be missing out on this opportunity. 

All the talk is on how the airlines can be kept in business until "normal demand is resumed."

Of course we must sympathise with potentially redundant airline staff, from highly paid pilots to underpaid cleaners. However, if we accept that the size of the aviation industry should rightly shrink I’m sure those currently dependent on it will be able to negotiate better compensation  from their employers and  their governments than , say, the UK’s miners managed when their industry no longer met contemporary needs