Friday, 22 October 2010

Don't Say It

A friend of mine just showed me a comment made by BBC political broadcaster Andrew Marr last week.

The quote was: "A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting.  They are very angry people."

This upset me a little bit, not least because I have no pimples whatsoever.  But I've thought long and hard about it and decided that it doesn't make a difference to our blogger-TV personality relationship.  Andrew, you may be rude to us, you may even look like the bastard love child of a daddy-longlegs and a tower crane, but I still think you're a great British institution.

Uncomfortable Sums

So, finally, it is here.  The Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).  A country on tenterhooks has finally exhaled as it realises that actually, maybe things aren't going to be as bad as they thought.  Say what you like about this government, but so far they have managed the expectations of the populace very well.  Of course, it makes it easier to get away with beating someone around the head if you've already told them to expect a kick in the crotch, but anyway.

I have decided to take a purely objective viewpoint to the CSR, which may be a little bit at odds with the anti-coalition stance in a few of my previous posts, but there is a whole lot of rhetoric out there about the changes, almost all of which comes with an unspoken political agenda and hardly any of which can be said to reflect all the facts.  I have taken a few numbers from sources I consider to be reliable, and where relevant below I will back my comments up with these.  You, dear readers, are of course free to agree or disagree as you choose, and I welcome your comments and criticism below.

Firstly, a few obvious points.  Figures from a number of sources suggest that between 490,000 and 550,000 local government jobs will be lost over the next four years as a result of ConDem policies.  This is clearly very bad news indeed for the staff involved, and is completely at odds with Nick Clegg's claim in the Guardian yesterday that by the end of their tenure, there will be another 200,000 people emplyed in the public sector. Quite how that goes hand-in-hand with Osborne's claim of £12bn savings in that sector is anyone's guess, but by my estimation this plan is already a victim of what the Americans might call 'bad math'.

Let's assume that this particular section of the Chancellor's calculation is correct, and the job losses do result in a reduced wage bill of £12bn.  Once again, taking into account the losses that can be achieved due to natural wastage and assuming that these jobs are genuinely lost rather than farmed out to the private sector at a premium, there will be redundancy payments for those staff at an average cost of a few thousand each, plus an increased benefit bill of between £60 - £80 per week for each member of staff.  These two factors alone come to nearly £3bn, and they do not reflect lost taxation and spending, massively increased housing costs, the extra costs of social protection other than direct benefits and the reduced social cohesion of entire communities.  By my estimation, George will be lucky to see half of those proposed £12bn savings in real terms, and I therefore tentatively suggest that the real reason behind the cuts to local government jobs is ideological in nature.

While we're on the sticky subject of ideology, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales can all expect massive cuts in the funding they receive for their devolved parliaments.  Given that these areas are generally highly nationalistic or pro-Labour, there are no surprises here, and a fair few of the English electorate will be supportive of those changes.

There will be further cuts to public sector pensions, which have already been ravaged in years past and subjected to further changes to their terms and payouts.  Trade unions suggest that the average public sector pension is less than £5,000 a year, which goes some way towards deflecting frequent media claims that local councils are being bled dry by fatcat staff members.  I will save this discussion for a future date, as I wholly expect to be blogging from Suffolk sometime soon, and I'm keen to do a full analysis of the UK's first 'virtual' council when I do.

Changes to pension age proposed by the former government are to be brought forward slightly.  Once again this is a good measure for Osborne as it is arguably not that controversial, affects only a minority of people and generates a small amount of money without ever actually being his policy in the first place.  The French are anything but universally popular on these shores but as they blockade another seaport and close the roads for the umpteenth day as a result of government proposals to increase the state pension age there from 60 to 62, I admire them more and more.

Rail fares are set to rise 3% above inflation - a move that by definition, penalises those on lower incomes who can't afford a car.  As a regular user of public transport, I am used to being discriminated against in a whole host of ways for being too poor to afford my own vehicle, and I am sure that anyone else in my situation will agree with me on this.  I will not comment further, except to say that I'm sure the quality and frequency of rail services will raise in kind (otherwise, I might start getting the bus.)

Finally we come to the matter which is now something of an old chestnut in post-apocalypse politics: the banks.  A new levy has been proposed which will see banks pay £2.5bn extra a year in taxation from 2012.  Just to clarify, that's in total, rather than each, and the levy doesn't even apply to smaller banks.  There is naturally an outcry from lenders here, who suggest that this could make the UK a less attractive place for banks to operate in future.  To which I really want to cheerfully reply, 'That's fine, feel free to leave whenever you want.  Oh, and we'll have our trillion pounds back before you go, please.'  Childish, I know, and not reflective of the jobs that these organisations provide in one of the few employment sectors still operating in this country.  But I still feel that every time there is a cut, the UK resident should be asking himself, 'would a tax on the banks have paid for this?'

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Why Ed Should Stay Red

It didn't take long for the knives to come out for the new (note the significant small 'n') Labour leader Ed Miliband (or MiliE, as some of the less kind Conservative press have dubbed him.)

Within hours of his appointment, he had acquired several nicknames, with perhaps 'Red Ed' being the most insidious. The suggestion was made in several of the more militant Conservative newspapers that Ed was 'in the pocket of the unions'. Well, it was certainly their votes that put him in charge and consigned his brother to the political scrapheap.

It seems like every time that unions are mentioned in the mainstream press, we harp back to the winter of discontent, rubbish uncollected in the streets, miners being mercilessly crushed by Margaret Thatcher. Never mind that the reality - an odd hour or two's delay on the London Underground or at an airport in the name of safety and entirely deserved wage equality - is very different in the modern era.

And yet, it was Ed himself who was quick to distance himself from those who had pushed him over the line. He was, he said, very much his own man - the cannier amongst us might well see this as an attempt to distance himself from the Blairite days of Brown and Mandelson as much as an association with blood-red socialism. Then, days later, Ed admitted that he wasn't against cuts on principle, just the speed with which they were being proposed. The unionites who voted for him must have been spluttering into their morning tea.

Why then, have we absorbed the idea that red is bad? After all, we are not America, with its dyed-in-the-wool fear that socialism will destroy the 'free' part of the free market. Socialism remains one of our country's proud traditions, it being representative of the staunch backbone of England, the van-driving, street-sweeping, hospital-cleaning working classes. Union membership in this country numbers in the millions and militancy is at its highest level for years.

Their efforts are having an impact too. Chris Huhne, a liberal minister and economist yesterday admitted that planned public sector cuts may be 'scaled back'. This is political speak that the coalition have used a few times in the past week, and smacks of there being more public opposition to their plans than they expected.

William Dove in the International Business Times makes the point that Labour being affiliated to the unions invites the same derision that it would if the Conservative Party were to affiliate itself with private businesses. Certainly the Byzantine, undemocratic methods that the Labour Party uses to pick a leader should be revised - the current system sees individuals with multiple memberships of affiliated organisations getting multiple votes, and that does indeed call the outcomes into question.

Still, I feel that Dove misses the point somewhat. The Conservative Party was not born of big business in the same way that the Labour Party was girded from the loins of the labour movement. The Tories are more than capable of looking out for their own interests, while the Labour Party was created by necessity to give a voice to those who had none. Furthermore, given the donations received from businesses and the behind-the-scenes lobbying conducted by senior business figures, it is not a large leap to imagine that big business still has direct and influential access to ministerial ears.

The real challenge for the Labour Party and its followers is the need to evolve with the people who have made it so successful in the past. New Labour pitched itself firmly in the ground between the benefit recipients who drained it so thoroughly of strength and impetus and the nouveau riche who shouted proudly that they were still working class while also doing everything in their power to ensure that little Emily and Joshua got into that nice public school on the village green. By chasing two rabbits, they effectively lost both.

Remember that without the Liberal Democrats, this government would be struggling to achieve anything by majority. Ed Miliband can afford to wait for the cuts to do their damage to public confidence, and then like a master surgeon he can take a scalpel neatly to the clear divisions within the coalition. Best of all, he doesn't have to betray his faithful followers in order to take the party back to the people - he simply has to identify with their needs and struggles while acknowledging their concerns and their hard work, and he can do all of that while still proudly waving a red flag.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

What a Difference a Week Makes

I don't quite know why it is that I've needed such a long break from the blogosphere, but for those of you who have missed my input, I have decided to sum up events during my absence with a few brief bullet points. They are as follows:

1) Miliband the Younger wins Labour leadership contest, mainly due to support from the trade unions.

2) Miliband the Older throws his toys from the pram, giving up Cabinet politics at the time that his party needs him the most.

3) Coalition government continues to tell lies about the necessity to make swingeing cuts in any local government department that looks at them funny. They ringfence defence spending (contractors make fat profits, and it's a glorious throwback to colonial days to have British soldiers swanning around the globe) and also health spending (because cutting that would be unpopular.)

4) Gideon 'George' Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer and beneficiary of a trust fund estimated to be worth £4 million pounds, proposes cuts to child benefit. At the party conference, evident panic at the child benefit backlash causes David Cameron to hint that there will be forthcoming tax breaks for married couples, regardless of earnings.

I'm drawing attention to this little policy idisyncracy, as it clearly benefits the middle classes and the rich over the poorer members of society, who are more likely to be single parents and low earners.

Osborne will hold centre stage for the next couple of weeks in the news, at least until the inevitable bad news is released in the comprehensive spending review on 20th October 2010. Incidentally, Guido Fawkes ran a piece in his blog in August which stated that George Osborne was the most popular Tory Chancellor in modern history. I'll be running another piece about Osborne in the near future, as he is also currently topping the Old Statesman 'Smug, Dictatorial Rich Politician Most in Need of a Slap' poll.