Monday 28 June 2010

Does Dave Exist?

Busy weekend, so only picked up my New Statesman half an hour ago to find a gem of an article by George Walden, ex-Tory MP and diplomat. Mr Walden does a fabulous filleting job on our very own Tory PM, David Cameron.

In George Waldon's view,  Mr Cameron is not real personality at all, but a "simulacrum", an imperfect image of reality. Exactly how imperfect, Mr Waldon is keen to show us.

Prize quotes
"...watching David Cameron in the leaders' TV debates, Cameron posing in front of No 10, Cameron impersonating a commoner in Whitehall, a spectre among the masses, who has not experienced a hallucinatory feeling, a sense of insubstantiality?" 
"....Churchill wrote history, Harold Macmillan published books, Margaret Thatcher was a lawyer and a chemist. Cameron shovelled TV trash into the maw of the masses. His way of making a crust, and why not? Ethically it is fine, in the way running an escort agency or a pole-dancing club is fine: the mugs are there to be conned and someone's going to do it. Just don't moralise at us when you have." 
In two pages of incisive and splenetic prose, Mr Walden skewers Cameron's insincerity and lack of substance in some  of the best written journalism I have encountered in many a year....

Read it and weep, tears of laughter and tears of frustration.

Friday 25 June 2010

This Budget kills the recovery at birth...

A couple of days ago I posted this, showing some Newsnight footage and an interview with the Japanese economist Richard Koo. The basic message was the Treasury's new belief that exports will provide the growth to drag us out of recession, and a warning that the budget cuts risk delivering a Japanese nightmare of a decade or more of non-growth.

Today Professor David Blanchflower has an article in the New Statesman. It has the rather forbidding headline "This Budget kills the recovery at birth" .

I'm no economist, so I'll let you read it for yourself. Just let me quote a few sentences...

"I am now convinced that as a result of this reckless Budget the UK will suffer a double-dip recession or worse, not least because there is no room for interest-rate cuts, although lots of additional quantitative easing (QE) from the Bank of England could soften the blow."


"....on 22 June, Budget Day, the OBR produced a second forecast taking into account the Chancellor's new fiscal measures and showing lower growth in 2010 and 2011 but higher growth after that. The OBR's central projection is that growth will be 1.2 per cent in 2010, 2.3 per cent in 2011 and 2.8 per cent in 2012. That implies quarterly growth rates of 0.6 per cent from the second quarter of 2010. But these forecasts have large margins of error, and indeed in each of these years there is a significant probability in the OBR forecast that growth rates could be zero or lower, before the cuts have even kicked in."

Note that "before the cuts have even kicked in".....

Anyway, it seems clear that there is a large body of economic opinion that believes that Mr Osborne has greatly over-egged the cuts and that the danger of a double-dip or worse is greatly heightened by his budget.

You can't help hoping that these predictions are wrong, but the Conservatives have form in using ideological cuts to achieve political ends regardless of the costs to society...

They have always believed, after all the "unemplyment is a price worth paying".

Your unemployment of course, not theirs....

Thursday 24 June 2010

Canada or Japan...?

A fascinating piece of journalism on the budget by Paul Mason and Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last night.

Paul Mason showed a Treasury pie-chart of the factors producing growth in the economy for the last ten years, and then the same pie chart as a forecast for the budget period. In the budget forecast, the piece of the “pie” that previously represented “housing” is magically doubled to 20%, “investment” triples and, most bizarrely of all, the piece that represented “government spending” (about 25% of overall growth) has been replaced by a category called “exports”.

it’s here, at 25mins in to the programme;

In other words, the UK will grow by a growth in the housing market that is not yet evident in the figures or predictions, an investment boom (when banks are not lending and companies are not borrowing for investmemnt) and an export miracle that is not even a gren shoot in any economic model other than the governments.  There is absolutely no indication in any budget documents of how these changes will be achieved. And they are based on massive assumptions of changes in behaviour by individuals, companies and banks. Paul Mason made no attempt to explain it beyond saying that the government believed that Canada had used a similar model to get out of recession in the ’90s, but he looked as puzzled as I was watching him describe it……

The rest of the piece was a Paxman interview with a Japanese economist who said we were making exactly the same mistake they did in the 80s and they are only now coming out of recession…..”you don’t cut government spending when the private sector is deleveraging” were his words, and that is exactly what we are proposing to do…. he also mentioned an "economy in tailspin"...

TBH, it was quite frightening ....

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Dr Dracula and the Lib Dem Blood Bank

Memo to my Lib Dem friends:

If you invite Dr. Dracula to perform the operation, don't complain if he drains your blood in the process.

George Osborne
Lib Dem Chancellor

During the election campaign both Labour and Tories used the formula that they "had no plans to increase VAT". Labour probably meant it, and would have worked hard to avoid increasing VAT. The Tories obviously did not mean it, as George Osborne has shown by his enthusiastic raising of VAT from 17.5% to 20%, a huge hike.

But the Lib Dems were adamant: they would not raise VAT. It was and is a regressive tax, it hits the poor much harder than it hits the rich. If you earn £200 a week you will spend all of it on subsistence. If VAT goes up by 2.5% it takes an immediate 2.5% out of your pocket, and if you spend all of your income just to survive, then it is  a very hard hit indeed. All of which was true then and is true now.

So who should we blame for the VAT increase? The Tories are the Tories, and the nasty party can be expected to act nastily. That's not to excuse, but to explain. If you invite Dr. Dracula to perform the operation, don't complain if he drains your blood in the process.

It's the Lib Dems that have most questions to answer: they opposed VAT increases with a vehemence that was wonderful to behold. Now they embrace it with exactly the same enthusiasm.

Simon Hughes, Vince Cable, even Nick Clegg, they all looked very uncomfortable as Harriet Harman challenged Lib Dem MPs to vote for the budget with its enormous benefits cuts and VAT rises. The question is: will the MPsfollow their leaders into the Tory lobby in the budget votes, or will they follow their conscience and their election promises and vote it down?

And as the Lib Dem blood drains away, will the Tories fatten on the feast...?

Friday 18 June 2010

Ach see them, they're all the same...

When the Tories are in opposition we often here the mantra "There's no difference between the parties"....and..."They're all the same". It's not true, of course, but it serves to keep a few wavering Labour voters at home when they might make the difference in an election, so it serves the Tories' purpose.
But yesterday we saw the real difference between Labour and Tory governments in a crisis, with the announcement of a further £2 billlion of cuts on top of the £6 billion already announced. Included in the  package of cuts is a new Hospital in Darlington, money for the Futures Job Fund and an £80 million loan to a manufacturing company, Sheffield Forgemasters.

No-one denies that difficult decisions have to be made in the current economic crisis, but these cuts highlight a crucial difference: Labour would have more concern in cutting for the economic health of individuals and the nation and an understanding that you cannot cut your way out of a recession. There has to be some care and concern for those who will suffer from any cuts, and mechanisms to alleviate that pain: you can't see Labour cutting a hospital just because it was announced by the Tories. And there has to be a strategic vision of how growth is created, defended, maintained and increased, because only growth will get us where we want to be: cutting job schemes for young people is short-sighted and wrong-headed.

The Forgemasters decision is particularly stupid: it saves no cash (the £80m is a loan), it generates no income, but it sends the message that this Tory government is just as indifferent to the needs of manufacturing as the last.

And we know where that ended....

Wednesday 16 June 2010

That Bloody Sunday....

There's only one story today. Plenty of news (Obama/BP, unemployment, the recession and spending, etc.) but the only real story is the Saville Report into the Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry in 1972.

Many years ago I worked beside a man who was in Derry on Bloody Sunday, a member of the Paras. He was never very explicit, but it was clear that he believed that things went seriously wrong on that day. He shared barracks and a command structure with the participants, he knew a lot of the facts on the ground, and hinted at some of the things he knew. I do not think that the findings of the Saville Report will have come as any surprise to him.

The report has taken 12 years to complete, it is comprehensive in its scope and its verdict is damning of the Parachute Regiment.....
...unjustifed and injustifiable actions, soldiers out of control, disregarding orders, disregarding rules of engagement, shooting of unarmed and unthreatening civilians, shooting in the back, shoooting while wounded on the ground, shooting while running away and then soldiers lying to cover it all up....
The report could not be more condemnatory, but I would question if any of it is a real surprise. The immediate investigation by Lord Widgery was discredited long ago, and I think that we all knew at some level that the findings in yesterday's report were the most likely outcome. Those who remember the actions of the Paras in other spheres - Aden, Cyprus and other remnants of Empire - had clues to the nature of the beast. Everywhere they have been they have left behind a reputation for thuggery and unjustified, sometimes even random, violence. There was (maybe still is) a cancer in the culture of the regiment that made it totally unsuitable for the "gendarmrie" style operations required in a civilian setting.

There is compehensive cover of the report in the press and TV, giving all the background, facts and analysis. But the one piece that cought my eye was a  vivid eye-witness piece by Simon Winchester in the Guardian. As a journalist covering the event he was caught up in the shootings and his memories are sharp and revealing of how it felt in that place and on that day. Recommended.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Don't be disappointed, George...

For weeks now the Conservatives have been painting as black a picture of the economy as it is possible to envisage: the UK is in as big a hole as Greece, the deficit is unprecedented and unsustainable, we are all off to hell in a handcart if we don't cut public services and cut deep and cut soon. George Osborne claimed in the Commons yesterday that an "independent" forecast provided "damning evidence that the UK's public finances were even worse than thought".

It has to be said that the "independence" of the source, the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), is not a given: Sir Alan Budd's organisation was set up as a Tory think tank and was already producing reports and analysis for the Conservative Party before the general election. Even so, and "independent" or not, the OBR has not endorsed Mr Osborne's claim the things are worse than previously thought. In fact the deficit is confirmed as much lower than previously forecast. The OBR report also confirms that decisions already taken by Alasdair Darling are sufficient to meet George Osborne's aim to "substantially reduce" the deficit by 2015, without the necessity for any further savage cuts. UK debt is mostly incurred at low rates over a long period, and should prove more sustainable than the debt of most other countries. The UK is not Greece, or anything like it.

One of the more astonishing aspects of the affair is that George Osborne seemed peeved and disappointed at the (relatively) good news produced by the OBR. It seems that our Chancellor would rather claim some party advantage from a gloomy forecast than accept that things are not as black as they could be.

The suspicion grows that the Conservatives wish to use the excuse of the recession to achieve the Thatcherite aim of repealing and dismantling the post-war consensus on the Welfare State. Maggie failed in her aim. But she did much damage in the process, drivin up unemployment, dividing the nation, selling off the family silver and wasting the oil bonanza on city booms and busts that ended in the ignomonious destruction of the UK economy on Black Wednesday.

David Cameron was a young adviser to the then Chancellor, Norman Lamont. If Mr Cameron really still does harbour the dreams of the Tory right of his youth, of  a neutered state, mass privatisation and a decimated public sector, then it is fortunate for us, the people of the UK who depend upon these essential public services, that the Tories' own "independent" consultants have failed to provide the cover for the savage cuts that this strategy implies.

Sunday 13 June 2010

To cut with gusto....

It is becoming clear that the Conservatives are relishing the "opportunity", as they see it, offered by the financial crisis to attack the Welfare State and effect the cuts and changes to public institutions that Margarat Thacher seemed to want, but failed to enact.

David Cameron's statement last week that the cuts he will enforce will "change the culture of the country" is barely veilled threat to destroy what is left of the post-war consensus on sharing the rewards and burdens of economic growth through democratic structures and institutions that deliver a measure of fiscal justice and public services to those that neeed them.

ConservativeHome has an article on an Adam Smith Institute (ASI) report. The main recommendation is that the NHS should not be protected from cuts, (as Cameron has promised) but in fact the NHS budget should be cut year on year. The ASI then nominates some candidates for privatisation.

What is interesting is the comments from Tory activists, and how enthusiastic they are to cut and privatise beyond anything their party will admit in public.

Some examples:

Sell the whole dammned BBC off lock,stock and barrel and of course abolish the Electronic Poll Tax of the TV Licence

1) All remaining council housing; 2) The BBC; 3) The NHS; 4) The Prison Service; 5) The London Underground (properly, not in the half cocked way labour tried and failed to do); 6) The Benefits Agency; 7) DfID (if a privte company can hand out lottery money why shouldn't one handle handing out international charity; besides it will still end up in some kleptocrats Swiss bank account anyway)
...selling C4 would provide the chance that its leftie news line may be forced to change under a private sector owner
I say: why stop there?
What about the Army? That must be worth something...just think what one of the smaller but more ambitious countries in Europe (Serbia say, or Ireland) could do if it had our millitary might and expertise at its disposal.... and of course there's the Royal Navy and Airforce to throw in to the bargain...

And the police force is huge, although it's not really clear if it is owned by the government or local authorities... Just think what you could do with that workforce at your command. It's obviously worth billions to an entreprenuer with deep pockets and a vivid imagination....

Then there's the monarchy...all those titles and palaces and tiaras..

And Gloucestersire... lot's of real estate there....

All that is required is a proper advertising campaign, and some city incentives. An imaginative PR company (of course it would need access to a generous bribe fund) could sell these and many other similar assets to the same international spivs businessmen who bought BT and the railways  etc. the last time the Tories had the chance to sell off our belongings.

Surely our Conservative brethren are being rather narrow in their focus, the possibilities are obviously endless if only we would use our imagination....

Other suggestions welcome....

Friday 11 June 2010

We're all this together...Not!

"We're all in this together" has been the slogan of Cameron's Tories as they seek to address the stark reality of the post recession recovery. They know that tough times lie ahead and that the government will need to take people with them if the cuts they want to impose are to be borne without civil strife and without lasting damage to the Tory Party.

Now a certain Bob Neill, who is the Conservative Local Government minister, has let the cat out of the bag. Mr Neill was announcing £1.2 billion in cuts to local authorities. When asked why northern cities were losing millions more than southern areas, Mr Neill boldly replied:
'Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt.'
Yep, that's right : rather than all being in it together, as Dave'n'Nick insist, the real truth of the cuts is that the Conservatives believe, and they have the policies to prove it, that...
"Those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt."
Even handedness? Justice? Equity? Fairness? Those with more will have to pay a little more? None of the above, is the Tory reply. Not on yer Nelly!

To be fair, this can come as no surprise to anyone: the Tories have always operated on the principle that those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of whatever Tory policy is being implemented.

It's just a little bit refreshing to find a senior Tory politician, someone who is actually in office, who is willing to say it loud and proud what all Tories keep in their hearts; "as far is the Conservatives are concerned, those in greatest need ultimately bear the burden of paying off the debt".

Time for Dave'n'Nick to do the same?

Thursday 10 June 2010

Oiks Out..........

How often do you here the complaint: "They're all the same, it doesn't matter who you vote for, there's no difference between the parties...".

Well read this...

The Tory Students Minister David Willetts reckons that..
"...the cost of hundreds of thousands of students' degree courses was a "burden on the taxpayer that had to be tackled"."
It's worth repeating that phrase: according to the Tory Minister responsible for students, more students and a better educated population is "a burden", on society. It's not a blessing, as it should be, to the people getting the education and the society benefiting from a better educated workforce. And Willetts has the reputation of one of the more intelligent Tories....

Who do you think will be damaged by the coming Tory attack on this "burden": kids from lower income backgrounds, or those from comfortable middle classes? No need to ask, is there?  With 17 millionaires in the cabinet, many of whom went to Eton and Oxford at the same time, we know where their sympathies lie.

When I was at school in the 1960s only 6% of school-leavers went on to university. There simply were not enough places and anyway it was thought more fitting for bright working class children to get an apprenticeship or a job in a bank or some other steady employment. University was for those and such as those, not the alunmi of Gasworks Senior Secondary. If your father was a doctor or a lawyer or a professional with a university degree, you would go to uni. If not, forget it. One aspect of there being so few students was that the country could afford generous government grants for those few attending university.

In other words, the vast majority paid their taxes to subsidise the the further education of the upper middle class minority, while being content to have lower expectations and aspirations. Of course the better educated middle classes then went on to snaffle all the top jobs. That was the established order of things, although it was changing slowly as the decade progressed.

Fast forward thirty years, and we find that one of Labour's greatest achievements has been the increase in the number of students from lower earning households that have managed to get a university place. The fee structure may be unpopular, but the over all target of getting 50% of young people into university has resulted in more working class kids getting a degree and the opportunities that entails.

A good thing you might think: better education and higher status for more individuals and a better educated workforce for the country. You might consider this as common sense and a necessary prerequisite for a modern economy to flourish: not so, apparently, the Conservative Students Minister.

And, BTW, the Lib Dems had a manifesto commitment to abolish student fees. Now their coalition "partners" are openly touting higher fees and more targetted fees. The predictable result will be that fewer people from poorer backgrounds will get to university and even fewer will get a place at our "elite" institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, the LSE..

During the election campaign there was much soul-searching and emphasis on the apparent lack of social mobility in the UK. The Lib Dems in particular thought that this was some sort of betrayal of the lower classes. Now even the so-called social liberals like Simon Hughes are silent as their Tory masters dictate that working class university entrants are a "burden" on honest tax-paying middle class professionals.

So, never let us never again hear this "they're all the same" mantra, although TBH, the Tories and the Lib Dems are becoming more and more indistinguishable with each passing day.

P.S. just came across this at PoliticsHome...
"Simon Hughes "hopes" student fees won't rise".
Yep. And Pontius Pilate hopes they won't crucify that nice Jewish lad he's just washed his hands of......

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Tae see oorselves as ithers see us......

The international edition of The Namibian newspaper reports on the serious issues in UK politics...

The Malawian judge must have been watching the love-in in the garden at Number ten...

And, with an eye on the World Cup,  Michael Gove practices his simulation  ...

Friday 4 June 2010

What's in a (Nick)Name?

On the political blogosphere you get all sorts of comments and namecalling. For  a certain type of contributor it is not enough to put the case, you have to rubbish the other guy by insult or name-calling.

So, when discussing politics, Labour is never just Labour or New Labour, it has to be "New Liebour" or  "Neue Liebour" or some variation. Similarly the Liberal Democrats are the Lib Dums or the Fib Dems or even the Fib Dums.

But for some reason there is no equivalent insult for the Tories.... Now why would that be? Maybe calling someone a Tory is considered insult enough in itself, like calling the Daily Telegraph the "Torygraph". It says it all and no need for extra emphasis........

I wonder, has anyone come across an insult you can use against a Tory that is worse than just saying what they are: i.e. a Tory?

Thursday 3 June 2010

FMQ's Revisited...

The SNP administration at Holyrood has had an easy ride. They achieve nothing in terms of the Scottish economy and public services, the Scottish press does not hold them to account, and the weekly knockabout at First Minister's Question Time has hitherto been a cockpit for Alex Salmond to avoid answering questions while pouring contempt on any idea that he could ever be held to account.

What with General Elections and Tory Coalitions and resigning ministers, it's a while since I had a look in at FMQs. What a change! Ian Gray, that apparently well-named grey man and supposedly inneffective questioner of Alex Salmond, has changed his spots since last I looked, and how. 

On this evidence Gray is a different man: strong, eloquent, scathing and dismissive, he attacked the SNP and Salmond and Education Secretary Michael Russell with aplomb and elan. At today's session, Gray tore into Salmond on the issue of teacher unemployment and education generally (with a bit of lost nursing jobs thrown in). And it wasn't just his eleoquence that shone through: he was passionate and angry and pointed. He ended with the demanding that Mike Russell should resign and with the charge that young teachers and nurses, who find themselves out of work, would have to emigrate to find work: a shaft to the heart of the SNP, the so-called Party of Scotland.

I've never seen Salmond so defensive. And the long shots of Salmond, Russell and Nicola Sturgeon revealed a baffled and  defensive trio.True to form, Salmond blamed the Westminster Government, and then he blamed the Councils, and then he blamed specific Councils, but he never took any responsibility on himself or his government. All in all, his whole demeanour, and that of his party, was downbeat and unconvincing. 

Gray, on the other hand, looks like a man who has found his form: he has lost his inhibitions, and is swinging verbal lefts and rights and uppercuts with abandon. Today he landed a few solid blows, and took none in return.

Interesting times at Holyrood.

Tax is Evil, isn't it...?

One of the enduring legacies of the 1980s is the Thatcherite focus on cutting or lowering taxes. According the her doctrine, if governments take less of our wages as tax income, the economy will flourish and all will be for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Not that Mrs Thatcher ever achieved her Holy Grail of lowering taxes. The percentage of the countries wealth taken in taxes by the UK government (the "tax take") has varied in the 35% - 40% range for the past 100 years, only going above or below in exceptional circumstances (war, depression). The monetarist initiatives of the '80s did nothing to alter that fact: the tax take actually rose during the Thatcher era.

Even so, it has somehow become an orthodoxy, particularly among Conseratives, that not paying taxes is a "good thing", and a goal to be pursued by governments and individuals alike. 

Yesterday I was intrigued to come across two references on the web to the payment of taxes, and why it might actually be a good thing to pay our taxes. This poster tells a simple truth...

... a truth that seldom gets broadcast. The poster is from the website of Tax Research UK, which is dedicated to explaining what taxes are and why it is beneficial to us all to pay our share of the taxes imposed by society. The website has a number of similar posters, but even more interestingly it promotes a philosophy of fair taxation and "Tax Compliance". Among many other things, it explains why "Tax Compliance" is a good thing and "Tax Evasion" and "Tax Avoidance" are bad things for the economy, society and democracy. 

These are truths, truisms even, that many of us have always adhered to, but which get precious few airings in today's political climate, so I think it is certainly worth a visit. Or two.

At the same time I read this excellent article by Zoe Williams in the Guardian on Tax Avoidance and how it is not just illegal and unjust, but how the procedures used by the HMRC favour the rich, giving them more license to escape paying legitimate taxes than those less well off.  In other words, not only are the rich better off by definition, but they have more scope to avoid taxation, and have less likelihod of being pursued by the Revenue if they do attempt avoidance. In fact it is more likely that the poorer actuall overpay, while the rich underpay.

 In the coming years we can be sure that theTory philosophy will to cut services rather than raise taxes. The approaching war for our schools and hospitals demands that we have the ammunition to fight the instinctive Conservative bias against proper levels of taxation to fund public services. IMO, the information on these sites is  a valuable contribution to that debate.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Ripping Aside the Cloak of Secrecy (a wee bit...)....

The Daily Mail* is in its usual "Tory Grievance" mode as it reports on David Cameron's decision to release the salary level of the 172 top civil servants who apparently earn more than the PM. The details have been revealed in an attempt to try to justify an assault on mandarins' pay and perks as the Government battles to control the £157billion deficit. Mr Cameron has repeatedly said that those at the top must set an example if the Government is to justify reducing pay and perks across the entire public sector.

Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude will oversee the process – and the creation of a public 'right to data' – at the head of a Public Sector Transparency Board which will also include worldwide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee. Mr Maude said: 'Openness will not be comfortable for us in government, but it will enable the public to hold our feet to the fire. This way lies better government.'

But not all civil servants who earn more than the PM are named. As John Prescott says here, the promise to "rip off the cloak of secrecy" on public sector wages is not quite completely achieved. Some of the best paid servants in Mr Cameron's own office have somehow, by some oversight, been left off the publication.

For example, there is no information on the wages of one Andy Coulson, ex-Royal Editor at the News of the World, a man who works out of No. 10, who has a chequered career to say the least and who is believed to earn more than three times the PM's wages, has not been revealed.

Why is that, d'ye think? Is not Mr Coulson a public sevant? Do we not pay his wages? If it is right that we should be told the amount we pay the head of the Equality Commission or the Office of Fair Trading, why should we not know the pay level of Cameron's Press Officer (indeed all of his press officers)?

Mr Coulson is not the only member of Mr Cameron's private PR battallion, but we don't know what we are paying for the services of any of them. Maybe "ripping off the cloak of secrecy" is  too broad a metaphor, maybe Mr Cameron meant to say "exposing public servants earnings to prying eyes, so that we can claim to be transparent, but not may mate Andy".

St Augustine famously prayed to God to  make him holy, "but not yet": maybe that was Dave's prayer, "Oh Lord, make us transparent, but not yet...".

* ps. Just learned that the editor of the Daily Mal earns £1.9 million a year.....