Monday, 20 October 2014

Total Recall

Anyone who secured a recall election ought to be required to pay for it. Much better to have no such provision in the first place.

We most certainly do not need recall elections. Those would be nothing but a charter for nuisance. Mostly by Liberal Democrat activists, and these days possibly also UKIP and the SNP.

Although not exclusively so.

Think of the MPs who voted against DRIP. Think of the MPs who voted against war in Libya, and against the recent bombing of Iraq.

Party machines, quite possibly by means of each other, would mobilise to recall MPs like that. Having to pay for the elections would be no deterrent there.

We must not go down this road.

Relax

Time was when buying a record, or a book, or whatever, meant that you owned the copy to which someone else might have been listening, or that someone else might have been reading, or whatever.


The most offensive thing about Mike Read's UKIP calypso is that he has adopted an imitation Jamaican accent. Calypso is from Trinidad.

Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse know what they have to do. You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet for Christmas Number One, say I.

A Qualitative Difference

Kevin Meagher, who ought to be an MP and who may yet become one once the round of last minute retirements commences after Christmas, writes:

“When the facts change” John Maynard Keynes famously remarked, “I change my mind”.

No such intellectual pragmatism informs the thinking of outgoing EU Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso.

He has been in valedictory mood, telling a gathering at Chatham House today that David Cameron’s wish to reform the EU’s provision for the free movement of people – partly responsible for Britain’s three million extra immigrants over the past decade or so – is “illegal”.

Moreover, an arbitrary cap on EU migrant workers coming to Britain “can never be accepted.”

Given all political change involves altering laws, he is technically correct on the legality point; but he’s also being obtuse.

For Eurocrats like Barroso, free movement is an inviolable principle and he will brook no dissent. His mind is closed to the possibility of change – and that there is even a problem to address at all. 

(Although I dare say it helps that he comes from a country like Portugal, not particularly noted as an economic powerhouse sucking in migrant workers).

It certainly used to be a benign enough principle, in the days when it meant handfuls of Belgian architects could go and work on French hydro-electric projects.

It was an affordable sop to Euro-integrationists in a union of 12 or 15 countries with economies that, while different, were not wildly so.

Not to the point where millions of people used to up-sticks and move countries to better their lot.

But in a union of 28 states, including many former Iron Curtain basket cases, the right to move and work anywhere within the EU is a cast-iron guarantee that millions will abandon the cold, prospect-less East and move West for a better life.

They can’t be blamed for doing so, especially when they get to access free healthcare, housing and social security payments, far beyond the standards of their countries of origin.

But Western Europe is now dealing with the consequences of failing to understand and respond to this overwhelming demand for self-improvement.

And Britain is more impacted than most.

Our (too) liberal economy, (over) generous welfare system and (relative) lack of racism – certainly compared to pretty much anywhere else in the EU – sees us bear the brunt of a policy now disastrously out of control.

Just like US gun nuts defending their “right to bear arms,” there is a qualitative difference between the original intention and the modern manifestation of this “freedom”.

Just as a single-shot musket is not the same thing as an automatic assault rifle, the pace and volume of migration in the EU over the last decade is not what the signatories of the Treaty of Rome and the Single European Act intended, or envisioned ever happening.

Our EU partners need to be reminded of this and David Cameron is absolutely right to seek to do so.

And a Labour government will face exactly the same dilemmas, so there is little for Ed Miliband to gain by seeing Cameron fail in his bid to restore some sanity to the free movement regime.

Of course, Cameron may be motivated because he feels Nigel Farage’s beery breath on his neck, but Labour should be concerned about defending the contributory principle on which our welfare state is based and about free movement underpinning a neo-liberal labour market that uses migrant workers to undercut our own.

Perhaps Senhor Barroso’s remaining time at the Commission would be better spent urging other Member States to improve the lot of their own people and offer them something more than life as a cheap export?

Around The Oversight of Responsible Lending

Carl Packman writes:

The payday loans industry has been on top of the news agenda again.

We have recently found out that the UK’s biggest payday lender, Wonga.com, had been in discussions with the regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), to establish a debt write-off, affecting 330,000 of its customers, and a freeze on interest and charges for a further 46,000 other customers who with new rules on responsible lending would not have been given such an expensive form of credit.

In the same period Wonga.com had drawn a profit loss, going from a record high of £62.5 million in 2012, to a relatively modest though still enviable £39.7 million in 2013, while the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also announced it would bring greater transparency to the market by introducing a price comparison website to help consumers.

In short, while the industry will not become extinct in the UK, it will change rather dramatically – and for good reason.

Before the creation of the FCA, the consumer credit market was regulated by the Office of Fair Trading. While strict rules and regulations about responsible lending practices existed in print, they were rarely put to use.

Save for some ‘mystery shopper’ exercises and strong words in the media, the regulator simply did not have the adequate capacity to monitor the behaviour of a relatively small, but controversial new sector.

The FCA came in promising to show “teeth” with the industry, and regulate it properly. To a degree it has done this.

A cap on the cost of credit, which for the first time will set a price limit on how much a payday lender can charge per loan, will be introduced and a good deal more oversight will occur – the upshot of which is that firms will have to abide more closely to the rules on responsible lending, which does mean a number of lenders will leave the market (playing by the rules is not quite so profitable).

But if international evidence on payday lending is anything to go by, we know that industries such as payday lending that are very often wedded to predatory practices will find ways to circumvent regulatory strictures.

In my new book, Payday Lending: Global Growth of the High Cost Credit Market, I’ve highlighted what I call a lenders’ strategic interaction with national policy.

What I mean by this is the extent to which payday lenders internationally have been able to subtly run rings around the oversight of responsible lending.

In Australia for instance, when only a few states and territories had interest caps of 48 per cent, lenders in Queensland and New South Wales avoided state regulation by including contractual terms to avoid the statutory definition of a credit contract and requiring borrowers to purchase additional goods as a precondition to obtaining a loan. These included the obligation to purchase “financial literacy” DVDs.

In the US, research by Brian Melzer found that the number of shop locations is almost 20 per cent higher in zip codes close to payday-prohibiting states.

This suggests that lenders are opening shops on borders to serve borrowers in states where payday lending is prohibited. Further still, a significant proportion of online payday lenders in the US are partnering with tribes in order to benefit from tribal immunity, and in that way sidestepping existing state-level laws on lending.

Closer to home in some EU states, notably Poland and the Netherlands, there have been instances of lenders who would adhere to interest rate caps but recoup “lost earnings” by charging substantial fees and additional charges.

To a degree all of the above, the UK included, have been caught unaware by the potential reach of the payday lending industry.

It occupies a relatively small part of consumer finance, but contributes a large part of the financial harm felt by people who would be better served with a more responsible lender, like a community bank or a credit union.

What the UK regulator must ensure is that we don’t ignore the small gains of payday lending again, because extinction is not an option the industry will take lightly.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

New Nats

The SNP has experienced a huge increase in members. By definition, those people have no prior history in it. Mostly, they are well to the left of what has always been its internal norm.

The SNP is also determined to pick up a number of Labour seats that voted Yes to independence. Whereas the old Liberal or, especially, Unionist citadels that it already represents at Holyrood, at Westminster or both, voted No to independence. Swings and roundabouts?

Especially with Alex Salmond gone, the SNP is becoming a new party. And it is a very different party.

Obviously Outrageous

Robert Fisk writes:

So who is winning the war? Isis? Us? The Kurds (remember them?) The Syrians? The Iraqis? Do we even remember the war? Not at all.

We must tell the truth. So let us now praise famous weapons and the manufacturers that begat them.

Share prices are soaring in America for those who produce the coalition bombs and missiles and drones and aircraft participating in this latest war which – for all who are involved (except for the recipients of the bombs and missiles and those they are fighting) – is Hollywood from start to finish.

Shares in Lockheed Martin – maker of the “All for One and One for All” Hellfire missiles – are up 9.3 per cent in the past three months. Raytheon – which has a big Israeli arm – has gone up 3.8 per cent.

Northrop Grumman shares swooped up the same 3.8 per cent. And General Dynamics shares have risen 4.3 per cent.

Lockheed Martin – which really does steal Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers quotation on its publicity material – makes the rockets carried by the Reaper drones, famous for destroying wedding parties over Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by Iraqi aircraft.

And don’t be downhearted. The profits go on soaring.

When the Americans decided to extend their bombing into Syria in September – to attack President Assad’s enemies scarcely a year after they first proposed to bomb President Assad himself – Raytheon was awarded a $251m (£156m) contract to supply the US navy with more Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Agence France-Presse, which does the job that Reuters used to do when it was a real news agency, informed us that on 23 September, American warships fired 47 Tomahawk missiles. Each one costs about $1.4m.

And if we spent as promiscuously on Ebola cures, believe me, there would be no more Ebola.

Let us leave out here the political cost of this conflict. After all, the war against Isis is breeding Isis. For every dead Isis member, we are creating three of four more.

And if Isis really is the “apocalyptic”, “evil”, “end-of-the-world” institution we have been told it is – my words come from the Pentagon and our politicians, of course – then every increase in profits for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics is creating yet more Isis fighters.

So every drone or F/A-18 fighter-bomber we send is the carrier of a virus, every missile an Ebola germ for the future of the world.

Think about that.

Let me give you a real-time quotation from reporter Dan De Luce’s dispatch on arms sales for the French news agency.

“The war promises to generate more business not just from US government contracts but other countries in a growing coalition, including European and Arab states… Apart from fighter jets, the air campaign [sic] is expected to boost the appetite for aerial refuelling tankers, surveillance aircraft such as the U-2 and P-8 spy planes, and robotic [sic again, folks] drones… Private security contractors, which profited heavily from the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, also are optimistic the conflict will produce new contracts to advise Iraqi troops.”

This is obviously outrageous.

The same murderous bunch of gunmen we sent to Iraq are going to be let loose to teach our “allies” in Syria – “moderate” secular militias, of course – the same vicious tactics they used against civilians in Iraq.

And the same missiles are going to be used – at huge profit, naturally – on the peoples of the Middle East,  Isis or not. Which is why De Luce’s report is perhaps the most important of the whole war in the region.

I’ve always argued that the civilian victims of these weapons manufacturers should sue these conglomerate giants every time their niece or grandfather is killed.

In Gaza and the West Bank, the Palestinians used to keep the bits and fragments of US-made missiles that killed their innocent relatives, with the idea that one day they might be able to take the companies to court. Lebanese civilians did the same.

But they were given “compensation” – with whose blessing, I wonder? – and persuaded not to pursue the idea, and so the armaments manufacturers, made so palpable in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, got away with it.

There are many lawyers in New York ready to take up these cases – I’ve met a few of them in the US – on a pay-if-you-win basis.

But so far, no takers. It’s time there were. Why should the merchants of death get away with it?

In the meanwhile, the Pentagon can keep pushing the bills through. “It’s awfully hard to say no when you’re at war,” a guy with “links” to the weapons industry said last week.

You bet it is.

He says, by the way, that BAE Systems is doing pretty well out of the current crisis.

Think about that.

And pray, of course, for the 200,000 dead in the Syrian war.

Home, Family, Community

Jon Cruddas writes:

There are two sources of energy that are currently firing up our broken political system.

The first is the popular anger toward the political class as immigration and rapid economic change threaten peoples’ sense of belonging and security.

And the second is the powerful desire for greater self-determination played out in both individual and national terms.

The insurgent forces which embody these two sources of energy are the independence politics of the SNP in Scotland and of UKIP in England.

They are also present in Wales and in the growing political confidence of English cities in  for greater autonomy.

They are driven by a politics of identity and belonging, and by people’s desire to transform their powerlessness.

Our political settlement is exhausted and Labour’s Policy Review has spent two years rethinking what Labour stands for as we build a new model party.

In our pamphlet, One Nation: Labour’s political renewal, of which I am a co-author, we argue that Labour’s renewal and electoral victory is best rooted in a radical and conservative politics of earning and belonging.

Labour’s traditions are conservative in valuing relationships, work, family and community.

And they are radical in defending the labour interest, and sharing out power, resources and opportunities between members of society.

At the heart of the labour interest has been a deep conservative instinct for the preservation of society and people’s mutual dependence.

Robert Blatchford’s Clarion Fellowship is an example of this conservative and radical tradition.

It was a big influence on English working class life at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It mixed of entertainment, sport and socialism.

The Clarion Fellowship brought people together to organise cycling clubs, rambling associations, glee clubs (choirs), theatres, socialist scouts, arts and crafts, and the local Cinderella Clubs that provided food and entertainment for children living in the slums.

Blatchford was an English patriot and a William Morris type of socialist who preached cooperation for the common good.

He was also a man who understood that politics was about people actively making their own culture and sense of identity.

He summed up his politics with the comment: ‘We were out for Socialism and nothing but Socialism and we were Britons first and Socialists next’.

Socialism was inseparable from love of country.

In his new book, How to be a Conservative, the philosopher Roger Scruton begins with his father’s socialism and  love of England.

But for Scruton, English liberty led him in another direction. He describes his Conservatism as a love of home.

By which he means the common life and inheritance that belongs to “us”, the people, and which grows out of everyday life.

Home is our customs, habits and language, our neighbourhoods and the landscapes we live in.

It is also the generations who have been and those to come, the history of our country, and our memories.

It is not ethnic in its origins, but it requires integration into its membership.

Scruton argues that the binding principle of society, “is not contract but something more akin to love”. 

It cannot be made by the state or by politics. It is made in the ordinary life of friendship, family, community and  love of place.

He believes the market has a corrosive effect on human settlement.

Global capitalism is a “kind of brigandage in which costs are transferred to future generations for the sake of rewards here and now”. Society, he says, should place constraints on the market.

Scruton is a Conservative, but he is describing the instinct of socialism.

However conservatism and socialism part company in their responses to politics, power, and the money interest.

For Scruton, society is a “true spontaneous order”, and so the constraints on markets are already there in the form of customs, laws and morals. If these decay, there is no way that legislation can replace them.

Scruton argues that we cannot escape from the “commodification” of life that prosperity has brought to us. 

All we can do is strive to discipline it through good taste, the love of beauty and the sense of decorum. We should acknowledge our losses, the better to bear them.

Confronted by the power of money and the destructive impact of the market, the Conservative response is to turn to libertarianism and aestheticism.

The response of socialism is democracy.

Creating power with people to resist and check the power of markets to commodify their labour and turn it into thing valued only by its price.

For Scruton, conservatism is a philosophy of attachment. But in life nothing stays attached forever, and so inevitably conservatism is a politics about loss.

It is a kind of pragmatic rearguard action to preserve and protect what it considers to be social and human value. It retreats, makes a stand, retreats, holds its ground, retreats.

Can there be a settled life when everyone and everything is in motion?

It is a question that also goes to the heart of socialism.

The politics of socialism is about self-determination. It is a philosophy of human action based in relationships and subject to reciprocity – the give and take which establishes a sense of justice.

Its conservative instinct raises the question of equality because each individual is irreplaceable in our mutual dependence.

Equality of worth is the ethical core of justice. It is the necessary condition for social freedom which is the basis of a settled life.

Edmund Burke describes it as “that state of things in which liberty is secured by equality of restraint”. In the past, we called it fraternity.

The Left has followed the liberal philosopher Friedrich Hayek’s disparaging view of conservatism in his essay, Why I am not a Conservative.

Conservatism, with its fear of change and timid distrust of the new, is dragged along paths not of its choosing, constantly applying the “brake on the vehicle of progress”.

But the destructive impact of liberal economics over the last 30 years requires that we reassess our prejudice and recognise the enduring presence and value of the conservative instinct in society.

It will allow us to better understand the importance to people of home, a sense of belonging and a love of country.

Labour built its history organising working people to defend the integrity of their family life, to struggle for fair wages and a decent home, and to create a better future for their children.

It was an aspirational politics about bread and butter issues. It is also about creating power together for individual freedom.

Our traditions of English liberty – say what you think, live as you will – run deep in our country.

They are conservative and radical in their origins, and this paradox is the source of Labour’s renewal as a political force in England.

The Government's Economic Fairytale

Ha-Joon Chang writes:

The UK economy has been in difficulty since the 2008 financial crisis.

Tough spending decisions have been needed to put it on the path to recovery because of the huge budget deficit left behind by the last irresponsible Labour government, showering its supporters with social benefit spending.

Thanks to the coalition holding its nerve amid the clamour against cuts, the economy has finally recovered.

True, wages have yet to make up the lost ground, but it is at least a “job-rich” recovery, allowing people to stand on their own feet rather than relying on state handouts.

That is the Conservative party’s narrative on the UK economy, and a large proportion of the British voting public has bought into it.

They say they trust the Conservatives more than Labour by a big margin when it comes to economic management. And it’s not just the voting public.

Even the Labour party has come to subscribe to this narrative and tried to match, if not outdo, the Conservatives in pledging continued austerity.

The trouble is that when you hold it up to the light this narrative is so full of holes it looks like a piece of Swiss cheese.

First, let’s look at the origins of the deficit.

Contrary to the Conservative portrayal of it as a spendthrift party, Labour kept the budget in balance averaged over its first six years in office between 1997 and 2002.

Between 2003 and 2007 the deficit rose, but at 3.2% of GDP a year it was manageable.

More importantly, this rise in the deficit between 2003 and 2007 was not due to increased welfare spending. 

According to data from the Office for National Statistics, social benefit spending as a proportion of GDP was more or less constant at about 9.5% of GDP a year during this period.

The dramatic climb in budget deficit from there to the average of 10.7% in 2009-2010 was mostly a consequence of the recession caused by the financial crisis.

First, the recession reduced government revenue by the equivalent of 2.4% of GDP – from 42.1% to 39.7% – between 2008 and 2009-10.

Second, it raised social spending (social benefit plus health spending).

Economic downturn automatically increases spending on many social benefits, such as unemployment benefit and income support, but it also increases spending on things like disability benefit and healthcare, as increased unemployment and poverty lead to more physical and mental health problems.

In 2009-10, at the height of the recession, UK public social spending rose by the equivalent of 3.2% of GDP compared with its 2008 level (from 21.8% to 24%).

When you add together the recession-triggered fall in tax revenue and rise in social spending, they amount to 5.6% of GDP – almost the same as the rise in the deficit between 2008 and 2009-10 (5.7% of GDP).

Even though some of the rise in social spending was due to factors other than the recession, such as an ageing population, it would be safe to say that much of the rise in deficit can be explained by the recession itself, rather than Labour’s economic mismanagement.

When faced with this, supporters of the Tory narrative would say, “OK, but however it was caused, we had to control the deficit because we can’t live beyond our means and accumulate debt”.

This is a pre-modern, quasi-religious view of debt.

Whether debt is a bad thing or not depends on what the money is used for. After all, the coalition has made students run up huge debts for their university education on the grounds that their heightened earning power will make them better off even after they pay back their loans.

The same reasoning should be applied to government debt.

For example, when private sector demand collapses, as in the 2008 crisis, the government “living beyond its means” in the short run may actually reduce public debt faster in the long run, by speeding up economic recovery and thereby more quickly raising tax revenues and lowering social spending.

If the increased government debt is accounted for by spending on projects that raise productivity – infrastructure, R&D, training and early learning programmes for disadvantaged children – the reduction in public debt in the long run will be even larger.

Against this, the advocates of the Conservative narrative may retort that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and that the recovery is the best proof that the government’s economic strategy has worked.

But has the UK economy really fully recovered?

We keep hearing that national income is higher than at the pre-crisis peak of the first quarter of 2008. 

However, in the meantime the population has grown by 3.5 million (from 60.5 million to 64 million), and in per capita terms UK income is still 3.4% less than it was six years ago.

And this is even before we talk about the highly uneven nature of the recovery, in which real wages have fallen by 10% while people at the top have increased their shares of wealth.

But can we not at least say that the recovery has been “jobs-rich”, creating 1.8m positions between 2011 and 2014?

The trouble is that, apart from the fact that the current unemployment rate of 6% is nothing to be proud of, many of the newly created jobs are of very poor quality.

The ranks of workers in “time-related underemployment”, doing fewer hours than they wish due to a lack of availability of work – have swollen dramatically.

Between 1999 and 2006, only about 1.9% of workers were in such a position; by 2012-13 the figure was 8%.

Then there is the extraordinary increase in self-employment.

Its share of total employment, whose historical norm (1984-2007) was 12.6%, now stands at an unprecedented 15%.

With no evidence of a sudden burst of entrepreneurial energy among Britons, we may conclude that many are in self-employment out of necessity or even desperation.

Even though surveys show that most newly self-employed people say it is their preference, the fact that these workers have experienced a far greater collapse in earnings than employees – 20% against 6% between 2006-07 and 2011-12, according to the Resolution Foundation – suggests that they have few alternatives, not that they are budding entrepreneurs going places.

So, in between the additional people in underemployment (6.1% of employment) and the precarious newly self-employed (2.4%), 8.5% of British people in work (or 2.6 million people) are in jobs that do not fully utilise their abilities – call that semi-unemployment, if you will.

The success of the Conservative economic narrative has allowed the coalition to pursue a destructive and unfair economic strategy, which has generated only a bogus recovery largely based on government-fuelled asset bubbles in real estate and finance, with stagnant productivity, falling wages, millions of people in precarious jobs, and savage welfare cuts.

The country is in desperate need of a counter narrative that shifts the terms of debate.

A government budget should be understood not just in terms of bookkeeping but also of demand management, national cohesion and productivity growth.

Jobs and wages should not be seen simply as a matter of people being “worth” (or not) what they get, but of better utilising human potential and of providing decent and dignified livelihoods.

Ways have to be found to generate economic growth based on rising productivity rather than the continuous blowing of asset bubbles.

Without a new economic vision incorporating these dimensions, Britain will continue on its path of stagnation, financial instability and social conflict.

Offside

Let us confine ourselves to the undisputed facts of the Ched Evans case.

He and an associate had sexual intercourse with a heavily intoxicated stranger, while other persons filmed the proceedings on their smartphones.

Even if his girlfriend is convinced that that activity was consensual, is it not ever so slightly odd that she is still his girlfriend at all, never mind that she is prominent in the campaign to clear his name?

But that is a mere trifle compared to the fact that that campaign is being bankrolled by her father!

This whole business is an insight into a world in which the rules are totally different from those which would be recognisable to anyone else.

Normal Service Is About To Be Resumed

Peter Hitchens is rehearsing his strange little theory that Labour wants to lose the next General Election. In fact, insofar as it is true that it is not trying terribly hard, then that is because it does not need to.

2010 was the first meaningfully contested General Election since 1992. From September 1992 (when only political obsessives had ever heard of Tony Blair), there had been no need for Labour to fight the three in between, and no point in any one else's bothering to do so.

Based on the very consistent polling in the key marginal seats, that normal service is about to be resumed. But without Blairism or the Blairites, the only people anywhere on the political spectrum who truly want David Cameron to win next year, and with the Conservative Party hit even harder than it was in 1997.

Yet still with about 200 MPs. Like Labour, that is its floor, its guaranteed bare minimum. It is about as many as it can expect any time before 2030, but even so. Next year will also show us where the Lib Dems' floor is. At least 25 seats, and possibly 30.

That latter is five times even the most unrealistically extravagant estimate of the number of UKIP MPs. UKIP would not be holding the balance of power even if there were a hung Parliament, which there is not going to be. It may even end up with fewer seats than the Greens, who have a far more concentrated electoral base. UKIP could quite plausibly have no seats whatever, even with over 20 per cent of the vote.

People who dispute any of this do not understand how First Past The Post works. Complaints about its unfairness are aired for a couple of days after every General Election. They have been so after every one for as long as David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage, who is far younger than he appears, can have had any political consciousness. Come the Monday, the world has invariably moved on. So it will be again.

The story of next year will not be the Labour win itself. Everyone always knew that whoever won in 2010 was bound to lose in 2015, 2020 and 2025, with a proper fight again in 2030. In hindsight, the same thing applied in 1992 in relation to the subsequent four General Elections.

No, apart from the fact that the UKIP representative will end the Election Night coverage with no more right to be there than any of half a dozen other people, and quite possibly with less, the story of next year will be the Labour win having stood explicitly against the Blair legacy, by then quite possibly including the findings of the Chilcot Report.

That, and the extraordinary tenacity of the Lib Dems. Followed, in 2020 and 2025, by easy Labour wins without the slightest suggestion of any "Tory threat" such as is sometimes claimed to be necessary in order to get the Labour vote out.

No wonder that the old Blairite ghouls, most of whom are retiring and none of whom will ever again hold office, are so anxious to plant toxic matter in the media. The present drivel about Alan Johnson is of the same species. But Peter Hitchens really ought to know better than to feed such weeds.

When Labour easily wins an overall majority, then will anyone in the media be sacked? No one was when the Conservatives failed to do so last time, another prediction that could only have been made by people who could not add up.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

See No Synod

No one in my normal (well-informed, fairly middle-class) parish was talking about the Synod last week, or will be talking about the Synod tomorrow, or would have been talking about the Synod if it had said anything different.

Did anyone at parochial level notice Vatican I? Hardly anyone would have noticed Vatican II if the Liturgy had not changed. To this day, any number of people think that it said or did nothing else. The Council did not in fact change the Liturgy, but that only goes to show.

The inhabitants of certain ghettoes, not all of them in the Catholic Church at all, clearly have no idea how She works or operates.

But If Freud Goes...

If Lord Freud were forced out, then Iain Duncan Smith's position would be untenable.

And with Gove already sacked, what, even in its own terms, would then be the point of this Government?

What would it be for?

Neil Clark I: The Big Issue

Our ubiquitous Leader writes in the Morning Star:

It’s general election night. Labour are on course for victory, with a small majority. The Labour leader is asked by the BBC interviewer if the size of the majority will hinder his party’s legislative programme.

“We shall carry out our programme — our manifesto,” the Labour leader replies. “We shall give priority of course to putting on the statute book all those things that we have said, like the public ownership of land…”

That exchange took place exactly 40 years ago after the election of October 10 1974. Public ownership was a topic that cropped up a lot in that election, but fast forward to 2014 and it’s a very different story.

The annual conferences of the four biggest British parties have come and gone, and while we’ve heard plenty about Europe, Isis, tax cuts, tax rates, mansion taxes and immigration, the issue of public ownership — except in relationship to the NHS and the privatisation of the British government’s stake in Eurostar— has hardly featured. 

This is despite opinion polls showing that a sizeable majority of people would like to see the railways and other privatised utilities, such as water, renationalised. 

We the people want to talk about public ownership and how we can end, once and for all, the great privatisation rip-off, which means we pay far more for basic services than we need to, but it seems our political elite would rather talk anything but.

The Conservative Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin told his party’s conference “Britain deserves a transport system that works” — implying that the current one doesn’t work.

Nevertheless he thundered: “Only Ed Miliband could look at the success of our railways today and say, ‘you know what, all this growth, trains busier than any time since the 1920s, more punctual, safer…forget it … let’s go back to some version of state command.” 

“Take East Coast trains,” he continued. “Our plan: a new private operator from next year running more trains to Leeds, faster services to Edinburgh, new routes, new trains, growth. His (Miliband’s) plan: letting the RMT call the shots and leaving that route stuck in state hands.”

The Conservatives’ obsession with privatisation could be seen not only in McLoughlin’s speech but by the decision announced on Monday to sell off the remaining 40 per cent publicly owned stake in Eurostar. 

The public thinks our railways, easily the most expensive in Europe, should be renationalised — the Tories think they aren’t privatised enough. 

Which brings me to their coalition partners.

The Lib Dems did vote in favour of a party policy paper which called for allowing public bodies to bid for rail franchises and for the ending of the role of the Competition and Markets Authority in health, but there was no commitment to any form of re-nationalisation of the railways or any of the utilities. 

Not that we could really have expected one from a party which, while in government, has presided over the sale of the Royal Mail. Having flogged off the company for around £1.5 billion below its real value

It wasn’t too surprising that party leader Nick Clegg didn’t mention the words Royal Mail once in his speech, but instead gave us conceited waffle about his party being the “only party who says no matter who you are, no matter where you are from, we will do everything in our power to help you shine.”

At the Labour Party conference in Manchester one of the undoubted highlights was Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, declaring: “I am clearer about this than anything in my life — the market is not the answer to 21st-century health and care.”

In a stirring speech, Burnham went on to say: “We will free the NHS from Cameron’s market and, yes, repeal his toxic Health and Social Care Act. We will ask hospitals to collaborate once again and reinstate the NHS as our preferred provider. The public NHS, protected with Labour. Not for sale. Not now, not ever.”

It was great to hear such an unequivocal  commitment to a publicly owned NHS from Labour, but alas, on other public ownership issues the party’s line is still remarkably timid. 

Shadow secretary of state for Transport Mary Creagh rightly attacked Britain’s rip-off bus services, noting that while services had been cut, fares were up by an inflation-busting 25 per cent since 2010, yet didn’t call for them to be brought back into public ownership. 

On the railways, Creagh admitted that a “big change” was needed and reaffirmed that Labour would “allow a public-sector operator to be able to take on lines” but that public-sector operators would be competing to run francishes with existing train companies, showing that Labour remains committed to the flawed neoliberal franchising model. 

On energy, shadow spokeswoman Caroline Flint reaffirmed the party’s commitment to a 20-month freeze on household energy bills but again, didn’t mention the one thing which would reduce bills in the long term — public ownership. 

It was a similar story in relation to the water industry.

Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle lambasted the profiteering of the privatised water companies, but only recommended “reform of the industry” and  a “new deal” for consumers, and not the replacement of private companies with a publicly owned English Water.

Now on to Ukip. We all know the party’s line on the EU and immigration — and also its opposition to Blairite wars of “intervention” abroad, but its views on privatisation/public ownership are not so clear.

The party’s health spokeswoman Louise Bours did pledge at Ukip’s Doncaster conference to work with the Unite union in opposing the pro-privatisation Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership TTIP (a stance which led the party to be attacked by the Lib Dems’ Vince Cable), while Ukip leader Nigel Farage did criticise in a recent interview the outsourcing and privatisation of NHS services and PFI. 

But the party officially hasn’t said much about railway renationalisation or renationalisation of the utilities.

Nevertheless, despite that omission, the meteoric rise of Ukip can be seen as good news for public ownership campaigners. And here’s why.

It’s clear that the 2015 general election is likely to be a close-run thing. 

That last week’s two by-election results — in Clacton and Heywood and Middleton — showed was that Ukip could cause significant damage to the chances not only of the Conservatives but also to Labour.

To hold off the Ukip challenge in its heartlands, and indeed parties like the Greens and Respect, Labour clearly needs to up its game and adopt more populist economic policies. 

Making a commitment for the whole-scale renationalisation of the railways and the formation of a publicly owned English Water body to replace the profiteering water companies would be two very popular policies which would help win back traditional Labour voters who have become disillusioned with the party and who may be considering voting Ukip. 

In other words a commitment to renationalise could well make the difference between Labour forming a government next May or falling short.

The leading figures of Ukip may be ex-Tories, and the party’s first MP, Douglas Carswell, may be an uber-Thatcherite, but the party’s supporters are most certainly not neoliberals and are strongly in favour of public ownership. 

A poll in November 2013 showed that 73 per cent of Ukip voters wanted to see the railways renationalised, while an even bigger proportion, 78 per cent, wanted to see the energy companies renationalised. 

Support for public ownership among Ukip voters is actually stronger than support for it among Tory and Lib Dem voters. 

That should tell Ed Miliband that one of the most effective things his party could do to counter the Ukip threat is to embrace public ownership. 

Whether he does or does not will be highly significant.

For it will tell us whether Labour really has moved away from Blairism, or is merely offering us a slightly more “people-friendly” version of neoliberalism than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. 

Getting back to October 1974, the very fact that the public ownership of land was the first policy mentioned by prime minister Harold Wilson in his post-election interview tells us that those were more democratic times.

The hope is that the political changes currently occurring in Britain and the widespread disillusion with the neoliberal and neo-con Westminster elite can bring to an end an era in which genuine democracy is in retreat and put public ownership back to the top of the political agenda.

Neil Clark II: The Very Vicious Circle

Our ubiquitous Leader writes for RT:

If the UK government really sought to keep the nation safe from terrorism, it would stop meddling in the internal affairs of Mideast states instead of hyping the Islamic terror threat, and at the same time, doing everything for it to be in place.

Exactly 70 years ago this autumn, British civilians faced a very real terror threat - in the shape of Nazi Germany’s V-2 rockets.

While exactly 40 years ago, an IRA bombing campaign brought ‘The Troubles’ of Northern Ireland to the British mainland.

What is interesting about the events of 1944 and 1974 is that the government downplayed the threat to citizens, even though the threat of being killed or injured in the violence was greater than it is now. A V-2 rocket attack, for instance, killed 160 shoppers on one occasion.

Today though, with Islamic terrorism, the opposite has happened. The government keeps reminding us of the enormous dangers we face.

No one disputes that there is an Islamist terror threat in the UK, we remember the terrible 7/7 bombings in London which killed 52 people in 2005, but the government seems keen to hype the threat, whereas in the past it played such threats down and didn't allow terror attacks to change our way of life.

We have invasive security procedures at our airports, tanks appearing at Heathrow just a few days before the big anti-Iraq war march in London in 2003 and our private emails and phone calls intercepted in the so-called “war on terror.”

Meanwhile, truth-tellers and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are attacked by establishment gatekeepers for the help their revelations might give to “terrorists.”

Why this discrepancy? Why more is made of the terror “threat” today than it was in the past, when we were actually at greater risk from attack?

Of course, there have been cultural changes: we live in an age where many things are over-hyped and sensationalized- a trend which the modern media has had a lot to do with.

But I think there are other factors at play too. The current “war on terror” fulfills important geopolitical and domestic goals for the West's elite.

Back in the 1940s, the British government simply wanted to defeat Nazi Germany as quickly as possible. 

They didn't want to publicize the threat from terror rockets as that would damage morale. In the 1970s, they didn't want us to panic about bombs on the mainland either.

Now however, the elite want to “big up” the “war on terror” so that they can continue their interventionist policies in the Middle East and gain greater control over our lives, under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

The terrorism “threat” can be used as an excuse for them to clamp down on democracy, limit free speech and destroy traditional liberties.

To get a sense of the perspective about the current “war on terror” let’s go back to early September 1944.

Britain’s involvement in World War Two has now lasted exactly five years, but thankfully it seems that the end of hostilities is in sight.

The Allied liberators have made gains in Western Europe. Happily, from the point of view of British civilians, the V-1 rocket danger seems to be over. These “vengeance” rockets had killed over 6,000 people, but in August 1944, V-1 attacks became more sporadic.

“Rumors had begun to circulate among people desperate for the war to be over that Germany had capitulated and the war was over” notes historian Juliet Gardiner in her book Wartime Britain 1939-45.

On September 7, 1944, government minister Duncan Sandys told a press conference:

“Things have been moving, and all I can say is what is patently obvious to everyone, and that is except possibly for a few last parting shots what is coming to be known as the Battle of London is over.”

But the minister spoke too soon.

On the very next day, a new and even more terrifying Nazi weapon was unleashed on the people of London- the V-2.

The V-2 was a 46ft long by 5ft rocket which carried a ton of explosives. V-2s were more terrifying than V-1s because of the greater damage they could do. They could raze an entire street to the ground.

“The incredibly loud bang that heralded each V-2 could make people up to 10 miles away think it was about to fall on them. Though fewer V-2s fell than V-1s, their terror lay in their unpredictability, and their dreadful impact. A single V-2 could cause a crater as large as 50 feet wide and 10ft deep,” informs Gardiner.

Imagine the terror that civilians in London and the southeast of England felt that fall. You never knew when or where a V-2 would strike. At any moment your life could be extinguished. There was enormous damage to infrastructure too.

“In 1944, in a completely blind and indiscriminate attack on London, more schools, more hotels, more civil defense and fire stations and more post offices were hit than in the far heavier ‘aimed’ bombing in 1940 and 1941”, writes Roy Irons in Hitler’s Terror Weapons.

The worst single V-2 tragedy in Britain occurred on 25th November 1944, when a rocket hit a Woolworth's store at New Cross in London killing 160 shoppers and seriously injuring 108.

There was another terrible attack too on Boxing Day (26th December 1944) when 68 people out celebrating Christmas, were killed in a pub in Islington. Overall, 2,754 people lost their lives in V-2 rocket attacks.

But despite the V-2 terror beginning in early September, it wasn't until November 9 that the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, made a statement about the attacks.

And it was only on November 11 that the British press was finally allowed to report on the V-2s. Can we imagine such a situation today?

The government had not wanted to publicize the V-2 attacks as it was worried of the adverse impact it would have on morale.

They also didn't want the Germans to know their attacks had caused so much damage. They were playing down the terror threat- not hyping it up, like today.

It was a similar story in 1974. “The Troubles” had come to mainland Britain.

In June 1974, the Provisional Irish Republican Army, fighting for a united, independent Ireland free from British control, bombed Parliament, causing 11 injuries.

In July, a bomb at the popular London tourist attraction, the Tower of London, killed one civilian, and injured 41 others.

On 5th October 1974, four people were killed and 50 injured in bomb attacks on two pubs in Guildford, Surrey. 21 people were killed in pub bombings in Woolwich and Birmingham in November 1974.

While this was going on, ”The Troubles” were continuing in Northern Ireland, then, as now, part of Britain. Overall in the period 1968-1998 over 3,600 people were killed in “The Troubles,” either by paramilitary groups or by the security forces.

The British government urged citizens to be on their guard and look out for suspicious packages, but they didn't try to scare us senseless about the bomb threats faced on the British mainland.

We were encouraged to go about our daily lives and stay calm. We didn't have invasive security procedures at public gatherings, or statements from our leaders that we were involved in a never-ending “war on terror.”

Threats were played down, not exaggerated.

That’s even though the British elite themselves were often the target, as was the case with the bomb attack on the private home of Conservative party leader Ted Heath in December 1974.

Today’s “war on terror” though is very different.

It’s hard to go a day in Britain without being reminded of the dangers we face or hear of a new terror “plot.”

Since 2006, we've had UK Threat Levels, the current one is “Severe.” Interestingly, the threat has never slipped below “Substantial” since the system was introduced.

There is also an Office for Security and Counter-Terrorism set up in 2007, a National Security Council, established by David Cameron in 2010 and a new position of National Security Advisor.

In the last ten years, National Security in Britain has become a big business, as it has in the US.

No one doubts that Britain is a terrorist target due to our aggressive neo-con foreign policies, and that reasonable precautions need to be taken, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that politics and not security considerations are driving current policy.

The “threat” from Islamic terrorism has to be kept alive, in order to justify interventionist policies in the Middle East and the neo-con policy of “endless war”, which enriches a tiny few at the expense of the vast majority.

Recent developments involving ISIS illustrate the point.

It was back in June that Prime Minister David Cameron told us that ISIS “were planning to attack us here in the United Kingdom” - even though as the BBC’s Frank Gardner pointed out , there had been no “public threat” made by ISIS of an attack on the UK.

It’s a classic example of how our foreign policies create the terrorist threat which our leaders then use as a pretext for more military interventions in the Middle East.

We’re currently at “war” with a group of fanatics (ISIS), who would not have existed if Britain hadn’t invaded Iraq to topple a secular government there in 2003 or set out to violently topple the secular government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria; a country whose security forces foiled a suspected al-Qaeda attack against the US Embassy in 2006.

A sensible British government that really wanted to make us safe from terrorism would ditch our current foreign policy and stop intervening in the affairs of sovereign states in the Middle East, and in particular stop trying to topple secular governments which were enemies of al-Qaeda-style terrorist groups.

But for the current pro-war elite, hyping up the Islamic terror threat while doing everything possible to make sure that terrorists continue to thrive serves a very useful purpose.

A Minister To Tackle Inequality

Jon Lansman writes:

The gravy train rolls on reaching ever more sickening heights of greed, selfish gratification and disregard for the ever deeper miasma of poverty that disfigures our country.

The latest figures show that the richest 10% of the UK population, who already owned 52% of UK wealth just before the 2008 crash, have become significantly richer since the crash because of the rise in value of financial assets, during a time when averages income have fallen 8% in real terms.

Britain now has 2 million dollar millionaires, if the value of equity in houses is included, up by almost a third since last year. There are also now 44 billionaires in Britain, up from 8 in 2000.

The individual excesses continue apace, only getting ever more outrageous.

British Gas has just appointed a new chief executive, Helge Lund, previous boss of Norway’s Statoil company, with a £15m ‘golden hello’ and potential earnings of an additional £14m a year.

At the other end of the scale are 70 former NHS care workers for the disabled in Doncaster who have taken so far 85 days’ strike action resisting the further crushing of wages and terms and conditions for the lowest paid.

Their jobs were outsourced, holidays cut, and take-home pay cut by a third.

Care UK which won the contract and ousted them is owned by private equity firm Bridgepoint Capital and its chairman John Nash was recently made a peer after donating a quarter of a million pounds to the Tory party.

So what should be done?

The Labour party has focused on seeking to raise the lowest wages by committing to an £8 an hour minimum wage, though postponing this target till 2020 undermines much of its impact when it is so badly needed now.

But there is no clear strategy for tackling outlandish greed at the top.

Giving a binding vote to shareholders, the Vince Cable solution, won’t have much effect when shareholders are only concerned about their return on capital, not about the remuneration of the chief executive if he delivers those profits.

Guidelines from a High Pay Commission won’t cut much ice either if unaccompanied by sanctions.

There are only two mechanisms which are likely to be effective.

One is to introduce a maximum top:bottom ratio for salaries from the boardroom to cleaners on the shop floor, to be phased in over time.

In 1970 the ration was 40:1; it is now 185:1. A 10-year phase-in period should be set to reduce it back to 40:1 or preferably 25:1.

The second mechanism would be to give a say to employee representatives rather than shareholders.

If an Enterprise Council was set up in all large companies (say, those with more than 1,000 employees) composed of representatives of all the main grades of employment and meeting at least once a year, it could be tasked with reviewing progress on all aspects of the company’s activities, including assessing pay claims at all levels of the company right up to the top.

But these initiatives are only likely to be enforced if Labour appoints a Minister with the specific brief to tackle inequality in all its forms.

It would be a highly popular move.