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.

Thursday 23 September 2010

A Liberal Gamble

I have spent the last day or two watching pictures come out of the Liberal Democrat Conference in Liverpool, and I wonder if I am the only one who has my head in my my hands when I hear Nick Clegg speaking.

In contrast to the way that Vince Cable strains at the leash, mouth foaming in his restrained desire to put capitalism to the sword, Clegg seems limp and deceitful, a man who postured pre-election firmly at the side of the centre left that forms the backbone of his own party but knows all too well that he is now sleeping with the enemy and is in way too deep to pull out.

The chilly echo that greeted his keynote speech at the party conference is all too telling. Liberal voters have been swift to denounce the Orange Book cognoscenti within the party and many are now of the opinion that the party has completely sold out to the Conservatives. By moving away from the core of his own support, Clegg is now running a lonely three-legged race with David Cameron, and faces the likelihood that while failure to resolve the crisis within the country will see blame apportioned equally, credit for any successes is unlikely to be shared by the blue half of government.

These are unique and uncomfortable times for the Orange Book politicians. Regrettably for the Liberal Democrats, many of their big name politicians are not, in fact, big names at all. Chris Huhne, Mark Oaten and Susan Kramer are not the profiles that will save the party from rejection by its own faithful. In Vince Cable they have at least one extremely knowledgable and respected trump card; however, he is bogged down in the unpopular Royal Mail privatisation debate, and will not win internal political arguments about bank taxes and bonuses.

As the stakes are raised progressively higher in the coming months as those bank bonuses continue unabated and the real scale of economic cuts becomes apparent to the voter on the street, I believe that Clegg will begin to look increasingly like a man gambling in a casino at stakes where he simply cannot afford to lose. Clegg spoke earlier in the week about the 'quiet courage' of the party in choosing to form a coalition government with the Conservatives. These are fine words which fool no-one, and he will not genuinely expect things amongst his own party to stay quiet for long.

But then, this is a new kind of politics, and Clegg speaks of taking risks in government. His supporters will hope that he is aware of just what kind of risk he is taking. The very future of his party is at stake. However, rather than acknowledge this truth, it seems that Clegg has taken to the ether and started to believe his own hype. The Liberal Democrats are, after all, the new kingmakers - it just seems that somewhere along the line, they have begun to fool themselves that they are the kings.

Monday 20 September 2010

What Your Country Can Do For You

The newspapers have been full of a story today about Britain's so-called worst dad. This may be unduly harsh criticism. Growing up as I did in one of Britain's most deprived areas, I can confirm first-hand that Keith Macdonald, the dad in question, is comparable to any number of my former classmates who have similar numbers of children to whose futures they do not positively contribute. But I digress. I mention this story not because of the sadly predictable social implications of this man's activities, but because there is a cold political wind blowing in the background of this story.

Suffice to say, those with an eye for the bigger picture will look at such stories and already be able to see the Tory organised middle-class backlash against benefit claimants gathering pace with each passing moment. Yes, there are benefit fraudsters out there who need to be identified and appropriately punished. But there are also vast numbers of unfortunates, people who would love to work but whose disabilities make this genuinely impossible, or whose skills are non-transferable following redundancy. Perhaps they are people with close home ties who are simply born into towns with little expectation of growth or possibility of finding work.

A blanket approach to dealing communities with a high level of benefit dependency (e.g. by reducing the amount of benefits paid, for example) risks hurting those most in need more than false claimants. Someone claiming incapacity benefit or income support while working on the side will obviously suffer less from a benefit reduction than a genuine claimant. We should be wary of applying a sledgehammer mentality to a problem which would benefit more from a scalpel in skilled hands. There are cultural issues amongst certain sections of our society which must be addressed, and we will all benefit from innovative solutions that tackle the underlying problems of dependency.

The real battle for a government interested in reducing benefit dependency in future generations is not in the minutae of doctors' letters or in the semantics of amounts. It is in education - showing people the positive benefits of a life well-lived and giving them genuine aspirations to achieve.

Whatever your opinion of benefits claimants, a government so ruthlessly committed to free-market service delivery at the expense of the public sector has to take responsibility for the welfare of citizens in areas where the private sector does not offer suitable employment. With that in mind, it becomes even more difficult to associate the government's intentions to charge progressively more for a university education with a genuine desire to offer a better future to Keith Macdonald's children.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Money for Old Pope?

The media will once again be centre stage in the forthcoming days as a lot of interested commentators, myself included, are set to preside over the UK's first papal visit for nearly thirty years.

When I first mentioned the forthcoming visit to one of my more politically-informed friends, he immediately asked, 'Why's he coming then?' It was a question that took me somewhat by surprise. Does he need a reason? After all, he's the Pope. Head of the Roman Catholic Church, and in theory at least he is afforded all the rights of a head of state. However, his visit would not have created more controversy if it had been Robert Mugabe or Colonel Gaddafi strolling down the red carpet.

It may surprise a few people who know me well, but I am supportive of the Pope's visit to the UK, even though it is likely to cost taxpayers £10 million. As well as being a comforting reminder to British Catholics that they are a welcome part of the church's future, the very presence of foreign heads of state (albeit in loosely defined terms) is a reminder to other countries that the UK still has a role to play on the world stage.

For the church too, this may turn out to be a more positive visit than many would expect. In much the same way that those without faith only find themselves tested in the presence of those that have it, the church too needs to confront twenty-first century attitudes and seek to adjust its principles to reflect modern realities. For example, it is only by meeting children ravaged by AIDS in Africa or lives blighted due to overpopulation in certain parts of Asia that the church will ever be forced to reconsider its stance on sexual health or contraceptives. The world is ever-changing, and if a religion is to survive, it must develop through the changing attitudes of its followers.

The news that one of Pope Benedict's closest aides would not be accompanying him after the story broke that he had described England as a 'third world country' and suggested that we were subject to 'an aggressive new atheism' is profoundly disappointing but not particularly surprising. England is simultaneously a welcome home to people of all religions and yet it remains proudly secularist - we remain profoundly suspicious of anyone who proclaims to act on behalf of a religious dictat. Having said that, we are all guilty of presupposition. If we were playing Family Fortunes and the question was asked of us, 'What things do you associate with the Catholic Church?', it would be inevitable to hear 'child sex scandals' as one of the top five answers.

Does the Catholic Church deserve better? Perhaps. There must be senior members of the church who have spent their whole lives working quietly and honestly for their congregations, genuinely unaware of the acts of their fellow priests yet inevitably tarred with the same despicable brush. In their position, some must wearily wonder where the next inevitable paedophile accusation is coming from. Even in organisational terms, it must be difficult to face the future when your whole past is forever centred on the worst acts that you ever committed.

This is the main reason why the Catholic Church must see this visit as an opportunity. They are set to reap the financial rewards of at least 65,000 ticket sales for a single event where Pope Benedict is set to speak. If the purpose of their visit is genuinely about more than the money to be raised, it is time for Pope Benedict to publicly excommunicate all of the priests who have been implicated in sex scandals and make a long-overdue apology to the millions who have suffered horrifying abuse at the hands of the church's representatives.

Monday 13 September 2010

Very Civil Disobedience

'Unrest on the streets!' cry the newspapers, discontent is the watchword of the day, and with a heavy heart I realise that once again, Britain is set again for a period of exceptionally civil disobedience.

Make no mistake, I am a union man and a very proud one. But when you hear TV channels spinning words like 'attacks' and 'militancy' (so very close to military, with all its attendant connotations) and you are subjected daily to multiple video slots of people stranded at airports, holidays untaken, it all becomes a little bit much. Trade Union Congress is underway in Manchester, and both sides of the domestic cuts debate are slinging mud at each other like there is no tomorrow.

The unions are handicapped somewhat by their close relationship with Labour, who are themselves handicapped by the fact that they cannot decide if they are Old Labour, New Labour or New New Labour. It looks increasingly likely that the next leader of the party will be named Miliband, but the ongoing saga of the leadership battle threatens to overshadow the union agenda, which can be summed up nicely with the phrase, 'Cuts? Not bloody likely!'

In place of grand schemes, there is rhetoric. The normally reserved general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, compared the forthcoming spending review to a second poll tax. Dave Prentis of UNISON pointed out that working people were not responsible for the unprecedented situation that the country finds itself in. RMT leader Bob Crow, fresh from a stint irritating commuters on the London underground, insisted that unions needed to work together to 'face the same enemy'.

Meanwhile in Westminster, as the economy continued to run despite the best efforts of bankers to stop it from doing so, hooded coalition generals cackled and trimmed zeroes from already pared budgets. If the trains weren't running, people shrugged and went to work on the bus instead. Hospitals are still dirty. Social care remains underfunded and underappreciated. The welfare state continues to provide for those in need and for a reasonable proportion who aren't.

Somewhere in the midst of this, a Liberal Democrat peer is expected to declare later this week that if the Inland Revenue could only reclaim the amount of tax lost each year due to evasion and avoidance, the country would not even be running at a deficit. Most likely, no-one will listen. The modern British spirit is not one of resistance, but indifference.

I very much suspect that there will not be a winter of discontent ahead. The unions will agree plans to work together on key issues such as coordinating strike days, and those strikes will then take place. People will be inconvenienced, but despite the hysterics seen daily in our national media, the country will not suddenly come crashing to a halt.

A budget for austerity need not be a bad thing if it really does cut away the deadwood that seems endemic in key areas of our society. Equally, the prudent agenda should not be used as a stick with which to beat public services for purely ideological reasons. There is still a convincing argument for increasing the taxes of the highest earners, and also increasing regulation to ensure that the behaviour of banks is more carefully scrutinised so that reprehensible profit-chasing behaviour does not threaten our future prosperity.

Tomorrow the papers will once again be full of battle cries as the respective combatants wheel out new angles and quote statistics that support their viewpoints while simultaneously obscuring the real underlying issues. Both sides need to get perspective and realise that we have more to gain by working together to find solutions to our problems.

Truthfully, we should recognise that while some cuts are inevitable, there are other options for tackling the financial crisis and it is high time that these were explored. Sadly, opportunity may well be buried in newspaper headlines. It is perhaps the greatest shame of our time that a battle for hearts and minds is not fought on facts and well-reasoned logic.

Sunday 12 September 2010


How, oh how, Barack Obama must wish for the kind of popularity surge that formed the wave that he crested into Washington on in January 2009. His campaign had eerie similarities with our own Labour landslide in the 1997 general election that brought Tony Blair into power. However, unlike Blair, Obama is struggling to fill the shoes that the world wanted him to following his inauguration eighteen months ago.

Say what you like about Tony, he was certainly a 'big' politician in the sense of having a remarkable impact upon the country, like Churchill or Thatcher - regardless of whether you believe those particular ideologies. Obama, on the other hand, looks like a man struggling against the tide. This was epitomised for me in his weak response to manic preacher Terry Jones' planned 'Burn a Qur'an Day'.

In what was a calculated effort to further destabilise interfaith relations in a country which is still struggling with the possibility that a mosque may be built at the location of Ground Zero, the world needed Obama to stand head and shoulders above the controversy, and remind us all of us who was in charge. Instead, he mewled deferentially about getting Jones 'to understand that this stunt that he is talking about pulling could greatly endanger our young men and women in uniform.' In truth, it could have endangered us all. Internet rumour suggests that Jones only pulled the plan for a book-burning at the last possible moment when it was made clear to him how much he could be fined for violating local fire regulations.

Obama's inability to show strong leadership over the planned book burning was also evident in his clumsy mishandling of the Gulf Oil crisis (and still it continues). In scenes reminiscent of George Bush's failure to take action following Hurricane Katrina, Obama showed more of a tendancy towards hand-wringing than genuine leadership and his lack of decisiveness was evident as the administration showed plenty of willingness to criticise BP, but showed no real desire to step in and tackle the issues that arose.

What else then, has Obama done (or not done) to make himself so unpopular? The very same people-powered effort that propelled him into the limelight has evidently caused its own problems. Obama's campaign efforts were staggeringly effective, but this generated a lot of expectation from voters and so far, the safest of his policies have failed to live up to the hype.

At the other end of the spectrum, the most controversial of his policies have have a distinctly negative effect on his popularity. The healthcare reforms that he promised have been agreed, albeit in a watered-down form, and while this does mean that many thousands more people than before are now covered by health insurance, the monstrous cost (supposedly in the region of $900 million) could not have come at a worse time for the US, given that it is already in the fiscal mire.

Add to that the perceived weakness already discussed, the US Foreign Affairs department's inability to deliver any kind of coherent, positive foreign policy, the continued involvement in Afghanistan and the fact that even his own populace mistakenly believe him to be a Muslim, and you have the recipe for a Presidential-sized mess.

Nile Gardiner wrote recently that 'America at its core remains a deeply conservative nation, which cherishes its traditions and founding principles.' Obama may do well to remember this statement and look towards future policymaking with it in mind. With a likely pasting due in the forthcoming midterm elections, there is evidently much still to be done if Barrack Obama is set to convince the American people he is worth a second term.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

'We are not having someone who built their career on incompetence...'

So went the political epitaph of one Jenny Watson, former head of the Audit Commission, removed from post this week by the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles.

Pickles has made a few waves already since his appointment to his new role after passing the position of Conservative Party chairman to Baroness Warsi in May. As well as swiftly ending the proposed changes to unitary council arrangements in Exeter and Norwich, Pickles has declared plans to allow ministers to cap council tax rises where this is demanded by the local electorate. Given his reputation for forcing through his agenda regardless of opposition, I will be following Mr Pickles' career with interest in the near future.

The Audit Commission became ridiculously bloated under New Labour but under the auspices of David Cameron's Big Society, the work performed by the commission will be farmed out to private and voluntary, not-for-profit organisations. Opinions are mixed as to whether the new arrangements, due to come in 2012, will be more efficient or make the required savings that the coalition expects, but it does show the government's commitment to tackling the quango culture established under Blair and Brown.

Jenny Watson retains a number of other jobs including the head of the Electoral Commission, and has come under fire from many quarters for her refusal to accept responsibility for the debacle that occurred at the General Election earlier this year when voters arrived en masse at key times at certain polling stations and were turned away.

The phrase from a source in the Communities department, as quoted in the Times today, reads like a thoroughly unveiled insult. I quote:

'We are not having someone who built their career on incompetence continuing to milk the taxpayer. She is not fit for the role.'

Regardless of your feelings about Ms Watson, it is hard not to feel for her when the country's toughest performance reviewer makes their feelings plain in such a public fashion.

From a wider perspective, I suspect that like me, other political bloggers may be storing this quote away for future use and rubbing their hands with glee. For instance, if the new coalition is vehemently opposed to incompetence, it may wish to cast its eye over the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, who holds one of the highest offices in the land but evidently has a blind spot for the word 'Sandwell'.