Thursday 27 January 2011

We're Agin' it!

There's a story about the old time minister of religion who, when asked his opinion on sin, replied "I'm agin' it!".

Older readers (not so old actually) will remember when the SNP was agin' Devolution. They said it wouldn't work, and it wasn't what the people wanted. Only after everybody else had worked through the Constitutional Convention for ten years, preparing the ground and grinding out the detail, creating the consensus and writing the bills and laws that enabled Devolution to go ahead, did the Nats deign to come aboard the Devolution train.

Even the YesYes campaign divided the SNP, with some SNP politicians and members campaigning in favour and many not (they were agin' it!). Once everyone else worked to make it a fact, the whole of the SNP accepted it.

Well, now the Parliament in Holyrood is due to get more powers in the Scotland Bill which is getting a 2nd Reading today. And you know what? The SNP is agin' it!

They have tabled a motion that states the new powers are unacceptable.. the Commons Order Paper reads;

SCOTLAND BILL: Second Reading 

Angus Robertson
Stewart Hosie
Pete Wishart
Mr Mike Weir
Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil
Dr Eilidh Whiteford

That this House, while recognising the need to further enhance the powers of the Scottish Parliament, nevertheless believes that the measures the Scotland Bill seeks to devolve are inadequate to meet the ambitions of the Scottish Government for the people of Scotland; considers the measures relating to air weapons, road safety and drink driving to be incomplete; regrets that the Calman Commission’s recommendations to devolve the aggregates levy and air passenger duty, and to devolve responsibility for the marine environment to match the Scottish Parliament’s responsibility for fisheries, as well as its proposal for a Scottish role in welfare benefits, have all been abandoned; regards the proposals for the Crown Estates Commission as inadequate; deplores the proposals in the Bill to re-reserve already devolved responsibilities; concludes that the tax varying provisions would embed a long-term deflationary bias in Scotland’s budget and that the proposed borrowing powers remaining subject to HM Treasury controls and limits render them insufficiently flexible; and therefore considers the Bill as a whole to be unacceptable. 

For the life of me I cannot understand why we put up with this bunch of chancers. The SNP adds nothing of value to Scottish politics, they oppose everything that anyone else suggests and, when there is actual work to be done, they let other people do it. Even when they get hold of power, as they did in 2007, they manage to achieve virtually none of their main manifesto pledges. They are intellectually and physically lazy and monumentally incompetent. On top of that they blame everybody else, Westminster, Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, for any problem they can't solve (quite a lot of problems in that category BTW).

The bet must be that, when this bill passes into law, when others have done the work and laid the foundations, the SNP will be queuing up to use whatever powers it transfers to Holyrood, and criticising any other politician that doesn't meet their "exacting" standards....

They won't be agin' it then.....

More Bad News for Ed?

 Ed Miliband has been the butt of criticism from Conservatises and their press poodles. Too young, lightweight, not up to the job, go the jibes. Not to mention "Wallace and Grommit" (not sure which he's meant to be the eccentric inventor or the genius dog).

But Ed is having, if not the last laught, at least a quiet smile to himself as the ToryDem government ploughs into problem after problem.

An Ipsos/Mori poll for Reuters News Agency has; 
Labour at 43% (up 4), 
Conservatives at 33% (down 5) 
Lib dems at 13%. 

That's a ten point lead for Labour. And, as the poll was conducted before this week's GDP data showed a dramatically shrinking economy, pessimism could now be even worse than shown in the survey's findings.

If this is bad news for a weak leader, I'm sure that Ed would welcome more of the same.....

Tuesday 25 January 2011

A Stitch-up in the Sky....

The other big story today is the sacking of Andy Gray from his job as football commentator. Lot's of speculation as to why, and why now?

My analysis, which may not be absolutely correct, but it fits the facts....

Gray sued the NotW, not popular within NewsCorp.

He then made a faux pas just as ole Rupe swaggers into town, under pressure from the phone hacking scandal.

Bad timing. Rupe wants to look tough and clean, needs to find an example, take some action...Gray makes his mistakes at the wrong time...

Too bad. Heaveho Andy

Why did these things leak from Sky? I have seen not one, but three pieces of film and audio. Somebody released it.

Coincidence? mebbes aye mebbes naw.

Am ah right or a meringue?

He told you so

Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate, published this prediction in the New York Times in October 2010...

Entitled British Fashion Victims, it decried the fleeting fashion for austerity that was so enthusiastically embraced by the UK government and it predicted some dire outcomes.
"The British government’s plan is bold, say the pundits — and so it is. But it boldly goes in exactly the wrong direction. It would cut government employment a time when the private sector is in no position to provide alternative employment. It would slash spending at a time when private demand isn’t at all ready to take up the slack.
Why is the British government doing this? The real reason has a lot to do with ideology: the Tories are using the deficit as an excuse to downsize the welfare state. But the official rationale is that there is no alternative......
....... Never mind that British debt as a percentage of national income is actually below its historical average; never mind that British interest rates stayed low even as the nation’s budget deficit soared, reflecting the belief of investors that the country can and will get its finances under control. Britain, declared Mr. Osborne, was on the “brink of bankruptcy.”
What happens now? Maybe Britain will get lucky, and something will come along to rescue the economy. But the best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931, or the United States in 1937, or Japan in 1997. That is, premature fiscal austerity will lead to a renewed economic slump. As always, those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it."
I haven't seen the NYT blogs today, and anyway it's a bit soon for Mr Krugman to have composed a gloating reprise of his October epistle, (indeed I'm sure he's to nice a man to gloat openly), but I would not be the least surprised to find, in the next few hours, some gentle comment from the Nobel laureate to the effect of "I told you so"....

The wrong type of economic snow..

Just saw George Osborne on TV tryng to explain away the 0.5% shrinkage in the economy over the last quarter. If he had mentioned the weather one more time you would begin to believe he was Thomas Shafernacker.....

A few years ago the management of Railtrack had much derision heaped on it when it tried to explain away train delays by claiming that "the wrong type of snow" had fallen...

It's a ridiculous excuse for a rail company, but for the Chancellor to claim the economy shrank because of "the wrong type of snow.."

The mind boggles...

Monday 24 January 2011

More a warning than a model......

I know that, in the past, the SNP has lobbied for a lower rate of business tax in Scotland "to attract inward investment". I presume that's still their policy: that an independent Scotland would have very low rates of Corporation Tax, and that would bring more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI).

Unfortunately for the SNP, the evidence would seem to be to the contrary. In June 2010 the coalition announced a stepped reduction in UK Corporation Tax from 28% to 24%. This analysis of FDI in London has a few telling points to make, including the info that...
"...60% said the lower tax rate would not change the attractiveness of London as an investment destination, 13% said it would make them more likely to invest, but 22% said it would make them less likely to invest. Therefore a net balance of 9% said lower corporate taxes would make London less attractive to investors!..." (my italics)
"...US and Japan have business tax at 39%. Germany has a 30% rate. The lowest rates are in Iceland (15%) and Ireland (12.5%), which should be more a warning than a model!..." (my italics).

 So the  survey of potential foreign investors has shown that they are less likely now than before the tax cuts to invest in the UK, and those countries that adopted a lower business tax to attract investors (the erstwhile "Arc of Prosperity") are the same countries that are now chin-deep the an economic mire and in danger of defaulting on their debts. Which rather leaves this particular SNP strategy in tatters, don't you think?

Sunday 23 January 2011

BMJ calls NHS changes "mad"

Mark Twain said, expressing the view of many when faced with changing their modus operandus:
"I'm all in favour of progress, it's change I don't like"

The British Medical Journal has an entertaining and trenchant editorial analysis on this theme of Andrew Lansley's NHS changes. In short, they think that Lansley and/or his proposals are "mad".

Under the heading:  Dr Lansley’s Monster

and the sub heading:  Too soon to let it out of the lab

the authors ask: 
"What do you call a government that embarks on the biggest upheaval of the NHS in its 63 year history, at breakneck speed, while simultaneously trying to make unprecedented financial savings?"
Their reply is succenct:
"The politically correct answer has got to be: mad."

I have I say: I agree. Having spent much of my working life in managing change, and knowing that a cultural and organisational change of this magnitude is the most difficult challenge for any management, I know that they will fail, and that there will be serious collateral damage along the way. Changes such as this have to properly handled, planned for and managed carefully through the many sensitive stages of communication, organisation and implementation.

The pity is our old Etonian masters, never having had a real job and having practically no experience of how change is resisted and frustrated in all organisations, have embarked on a monumental change to a huge organisation with no planning, no piloting and no preparation. And, crucially, no mandate.

The BMJ is right: it really is mad.

There's much more from the BMJ in the same vein here

Saturday 22 January 2011

The Small Society

There's an extraordinary item in the Guardian today, claiming that senior civil servants are having grave doubts about the ToryDem government's plans for government. Or more accurately, they fear that the ToryDems' plan to do away with government as we know it and abolish the principle of ministerial (and hence governmental) accountability.

The article claims that ....
The head of the civil service has ordered an inquiry into the government's localism reforms amid growing concerns that its "big society" plans risk eroding the basic democratic principles of transparency and ministerial accountability.......
.....parliament's fundamental right to hold the government to account for its actions is being tested by the scale of the coalition's ambitions to devolve power from the centre to local communities and outsource services to charities and the private sector.
....the head of the civil service, has asked a senior colleague to investigate the democratic impact of the government's localism bill, which is intended to end Whitehall's domination of the political system and devolve power to local people.

I have always harboured a suspicion (but thought it too ridiculous to really believe) that deep within the Tory heart their lurks a lack of comfort with universal democracy and a hankering after simpler times, when we all knew our place in society, and that place was not to question our betters. They have never fully accepted the fact of 100% franchise, the assumption that we are all equal before the constitution and that we all have the right to be governed in the way we want and to challenge government if we believe that we are not being properly governed.

If the suspicions of senior civil servants in this matter is borne out, I have not been far wrong.

The most interesting thing about this article IMO is the lack of attention it seems to have received in the other newspapers and broadcast media. These are astonishing revelations (if true). They amount to an accusation that the ToryDems are trying to undermine democracy in this country as it has operated for over 300 years.

Surely, if the very foundations of our democratic structures are in danger being undermined, our "independent" press and the nuetral BBC should have something to say? And if senior civil servants are so concerned that they are ordering investigations into the perils of "The Big Society", then shouldn't we all be aware and discussing and judging these concerns?

Friday 21 January 2011

The Spirit Level Part 2

In September last year I posted this about a book called The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Katie Jarrett, a book which presents firm evidence that every citizen, regardless of level of income, benefits greatly and in many ways from living in a more equal society.

The Institute for Public Policy Reaserch (IPPR) has posted a web page and a PowerPoint presentation by Richard Wilkinson to download.

I think the ideas in The Spirit Level are political dynamite, and would suggest, if you haven't already done so, you should have a look at the IPPR data and then buy the book.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Alan Johnson stands down.....

Alan Johnson has been reported as standing down from the post of Shadow Chancellor.

Ed Balls to take up the position.

Yvette Cooper to be Shadow Home Secretary and Douglas Alexander to be Shadow Foreign Secretary.

No reasons yet given, but Johnson has been criticised a lot for his lack of economic background.

It occurs to me that this is a great outcome for Ed Miliband. By employing Johnson in this position, he drew a lot of the sting from the Blairites. Now Johnson has gone, Balls is back, and the Blairites are left flat footed.

Can that have been the plan all along? Is Ed Milliband that clever?

Pontius Pilate Rules

From time to time over the last year I have been struck by the similarities between the fate of the SNP administration in Holyrood and the performance and travails of the ToryDem coalition. Both unexpectedly in government, and now both suffering in the polls.

The problems started before the parties "won" their respective elections. The Lib Dems and the SNP both made the classic mistake of promising anything to the voters: after all, neither of them expected to be in government, so they felt  able to make any reckless promise, appeal to any disaffected minority, to scare up a few votes here and there.

"We'll match Labours school-building programme brick for brick".

"We'll abolish tuition fees".

"We'll scrap PPP and replace it with a Scottish Futures Trust".

"We'll oppose fast and deep cuts to solve the defecit problem".

"We'll scrap the Council Tax and introduce a Local Income Tax".

"We'll keep the EMA".

"We'll abolish all student debt".

 Ho Hum.

 Another similarity is that, in government, they use the same tactic of offloading unpopular decisions to the local level while simultaneously starving local government of powers and the cash to solve the pronblems. In the case of the SNP it's the Concordat that allows them to point to the local authorities and say "nuthin' to dae wi' me pal", a tactic Alex Salmond has used contless numbers of times at FMQs.

With the coalition, it's the Localism agenda that forces decisions down to local authorities while the cut-deep-and-fast policy deprives them of the ability to actually address these problems. When challenged they can reply, "sorry old chap, isn't that the local authority fellas responibility?".

The case of Riven Vincent is another illustration of making rash promises and hoping someone else will pick up the blame. This family's personal tragedy is above politics, but the individual case provides a general rule: ministers and the government can only avoid blame for so long. The people know where responsibility lies and they expect ministers, in this case the Prime Minister, to keep meet their responsibilities. Waving your arms and saying "It's the local fellas' job" won't do it: we elected you, you made a promise (implicit or explicit) and we expect you to keep it.

The lesson is clear and it's for all time: opposition is easy, government is difficult. Glib promises are not the same as thought out policies And the people are not stupid. In the long-run they refuse to be fooled.

For the SNP the long-run has arrived and they've been found out.

For the coalition it's only the short-run and the troubles have already begun. The long run looks like very interesting from here.....

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Health Service Reel

An interesting post over at Carons Musings. The Lib Dems have lined up behind the Tory rehash of the NHS in England, but Caron's not convinced. She raises quite a number of reservations, many of which have been raised by Labour during the debate so far.

I'm not surprised that Caron is leery about her coalitions suppport for these changes. They seem to be, at the least, a very big gamble with the English NHS. IMO they are a serious first step to the creation of a health sector in the national economy, i.e.turning the Health into an industry. Whether the changes will work to deliver as good (never mind better) services to the people of England seems not to have been considered, such considerations being subordinate to the ToryDems' neoconservative beliefs.

They also raise the intriguing question of whither the Scottish Lib Dems. With a Holyrood election in the offing, will we see equivalent proposals in the Scottish Lib Dem Manifesto for the Scottish Elections in May?

The Lib Dems are engaged in a coalition waltz with the Conservatives at Westminster. Will Tavish and Anabell be tempted to take the floor for a Combined Scottish NHS Reel? If not, why not?

P.S. 17:20 It seems that the good Dr Death agrees with me on the marketisation elements of this bill.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Inflation, Inflation, Inflation....

The figures are out, and the news is bad (according to city and political types who know). Inflation is on the rise. The Consumer Price Index (CPI) up 0.4% to 3.7%. The Retail Price Index (RPI) up slightly to 4.8%. The Bank of England has failed to meet its inflation target of 2% for over a year, and the cries from the city for an interest rate rise to damp down demand is becoming shrill.

But Richard Murphy at Tax Research UK has a slightly different take on the detail of the figures. In his analysis much of the inflation in the system is the result of rises in indirect taxes in the last year. He points out that high interest rates are designed to hold down inflation by dampening domestic demand, and so would be ineffective against tax-induced inflation.

I'm no economist, but it's an interesting idea.

Monday 17 January 2011

Labour Soars Ahead in Poll

Labour is the only party that can take any encouragement from the latest TNS poll on voting intentions in Scotland in the Herald.

Top line figures for the constituency vote are;

Labour 49% (up 7% since August)

SNP 33% (up 1%)

Tory 9% (down 3%)

Lib Dem 7% (down 5%)

The Lib Dems and the Tories must obviously be worried about the collapse in their support to almost derisory levels.  Seven and nine percent respectively are almost unthinkable levels of support for parties that have ambitions to be "national" parties in a Scottish context.

Nor can the SNP take any comfort from these results. Their support is roughly the same as it was in 2007. The article doesn't say so explicitly, but I suspect that, on these figures, the SNP looks set to lose seats in the Scottish Parliament, while Labour would gain substantially.

That would make Labour comfortably the largest party, and a vote of of around 40-50% would give Labour a strong mandate to govern as a minority or make them the overwhelmingly dominant party in any coalition.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Old and Sad.....

The Oldham and Saddleworth by-election result has prompted quite a lot of speculation as to its deeper meaning. Who "won"? Who "lost"? And what are the long term implications?

Kevin MacGuire of the Labour-supporting Mirror suggests that we shouldn't get too excited, suggesting that it was "... a vote against the coalition, not for Labour...".
"... no one should get carried away – Oldham will change little of real substance in the short run...."
"...Boil the result down to its bare bones and – wow! Labour held a Labour ­constituency....".
 The Guardian takes a different tack.... it's trouble for the Tories according to this editorial. 

And what's more,
"...Lib Dem MPs are likely to sleep easier about their own prospects after this by-election, and this will lessen the pressure on Nick Clegg, who may feel more confident that his party can hold its own when the general election comes....".
I have to say that I do not agree with either of these analyses. Comparing the voting patterns with May 2010, the obvious lesson to be drawn is that, given the Conservatives obviously did not campaign very hard and that they more or less asked their voters to support the Lib Dems, then Tory Votes leached to the Lib Dem candidate, keeping the Lib Dem vote "up". It is also obvious that many disillusioned Lib Dem supporters moved to Labour, increasing Labour's share of the vote substantially over the general election. So the Lib Dem vote stayed constant, not from a solid Lib Dem performance, but from thousands of "loaned" Tory votes.

The crucial question then becomes: how will these voters behave the next time they are asked to vote?

It seems clear to me that, at a general election, the Tory voters who have been "loaned" to the Lib Dems will revert to their first preference, i.e. Conservative. It is not nearly as clear that those Lib Dems who moved to support Labour will be quite so keen to return to the Lib Dems. The outcome will be, IMO, that the Tory vote will increase, Labour's will stay (more or less) the same, or drop slightly, and the Lib Dems will lose out. I would not be surprised if the Lib Dems slipped to third at the next UK Parlimentary election in Oldham and Saddleworth.

Contrary to the Guardian's encouraging words for Nick Clegg, this is a pattern that is likely to be repeated across the country, as Lib Dem supporters from May 2010 who feel "betrayed" by Nick Clegg's conversion to the Tory neocon agenda, move (or move back) to Labour while Tory support remains at 2010 levels.

If, I was Nick Clegg I would not be as relaxed about this result as the Guardian's leader-writer.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Labour's Economic Legacy....

It seems that government spokesmen are unable to answer any question about their cuts without beginning..".... dreadful economic mess left by Labour, there is no alternative, it was Labour wot done it...".

It's an obvious political tactic to place the blame for the cuts, to pretend that they have no choice and that the knife must go deep and quick or the country and it's economy is doomed. That's the ToryDem case. The question is: is it true?

TBH, I have always thought that the neocons in the ToryDem coalition have been using the economic crisis as a convenient cover for their political aims. Cameron and Osborne are sons of Thatcher. They cling to her stated philosophy the "..there is no such thing as society..". They want, just likr Thatcher, to cut the public sector and to privatise wherever they can. If the economy has  been left is such a damaged condition that we can no longer afford the "luxury" of decent Education, Health and other public services, then what better excuse than that to privatise these services and demolish the organisations that provide them?

The respected think tank, the  Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), has issued a report which looks at the truth or otherwise of the claims that the economy demands cuts of such speed and depth, and concludes that they " not stack up......";

"The Coalition government has sought to blame its Labour predecessor for Britain’s current fiscal position. There have also been accusations that the deficit was, at least in part, due to excessive spending by the last Labour government even before the recession of 2008 and 2009.

This note looks at the numbers on debt, deficits and spending (relative to GDP) – over time in the UK and comparing the UK with other developed economies.

On the basis of these numbers, Labour’s ‘fiscal profligacy’ just ahead of the recession would seem to have been on a very limited scale, and charges that the Coalition is tackling ‘Labour’s debt’ and ‘Labour’s deficits’, or that Labour let spending run out of control before the recession, do not stack up".
The IPPR does not find the Labour government completely blameless, there could have been clearer foresight about the coming problems, but they produce a very convincing case that the ToryDems' claims that the public finances were in ruin when they took over, and that borrowing  was out of control, to be far from the truth.

Which means, of course, that the speed and depth of Osborme's cuts are not, as the government says "...all the fault of Labour". They are a deliberate and cynical political choice to cut public services and jobs to achieve the long term Tory goal of cutting the state. That countless public servants (many more than is necessary) will have to lose their jobs, and those dependent on the public sector, (the disabled, the elderly, the young),  will therefore lose vital services that they depend upon to give them some decent standards; all of that is nothing to the Tories (and their partners in the Lib Dems).  Magie's vision of a country where "...there is no such thing as society" will be achieved on the back of the ToryDems' political lie that There Is No Alternative.. 

The full report can be downloaded here. It makes very interesting reading, and it gives the lie to any coalition pretence TINA rules!

Thursday 13 January 2011

The Big Society

Although David Cameron is constantly pushing his "big idea" of the Big Society, he never seems to explain clearly what it may mean in practice. Let me have a go.

I think a reasonable definition of an organisation which promoted and encapsulated the Big Society would have several characteristics:

independent of local and national government: organising at local and national level for the common good; involving all interested parties in promoting common aims; self motivating; self financing; self organising: effectively representing your own group.

Any group meeting this definition would, IMO, be eligible for inclusion in Cameron's pantheon of concerned citizens acting independently of the state and for the common good.

I also think that is a reasonable defintion of a Trade Union. But the Tories, despite their devotion to The Big Society, seem to have trouble with Trades Unions, i.e. The Big Society in action. The Big Society in reality. The Big Society on the ground.

In fact the Tories hate the Unions, because they are independent of government and they do act in the common good. The Conservatives are always thinking up new ways to limit TU power and undermine the rights of workers. David Cameron hinted so at PMQs yesterday.

The latest is Boris, threatening the underground train drivers.

Now, I have no real knowledge of the Union's grievances in this case, and I have absolutely no opinion on the proposed industrial action. It just seems ironic to me that, at the very point when The Big Society manifests itself in action, the Conservatives do an about turn: they don't really want independent groups operating independently of government in the public good at all.

Either that or The Big Society is a fiction, a "we're all in it together" cynical joke on the public to try to fool us that the caring conservatism actually means something concrete, when it does no such thing.

Belated Happy New Year....

.....and apologies if anyone is still reading... Christmas and New Year have been stressfull, what with Swine 'Flu in the family and other medical complications. These are happily past now, and the new year has properly begun.....

Where to start? So much has been going on, but the big development seems to me to be that the gloss is coming off the coalition. The opinion polls are turning against them and their competence is being questioned at every turn, from the handling of the 'flu problems to bankers bonuses to in-fighting between the coalition partners. Much of the disillussion is caused by the speed and secrecy with which very big changes are being rushed through: changes to schools and education and local government which are designed not to improve efficiency and effectiveness, but to alter forever the relationship between the voters and these institutions.

Today we have the Health Reforms in England, the stated aim of which is to devolve power to GPs, but which has the un-stated aim of carrying privatisation ever deeper into the NHS.

Left Foot Forward has an interesting analysis of the language used to cover  up the real objectives of the changes.

And just in case you were in any doubt about the need to resist such changes and the effects of  a privatised medical system, there's this report from an The Commonwealth Foundation on the under-performance of the US medical system compared to seven other wealthy countries. The UK comes second on the table of achievements, which is quite good for what the Tories call "our failing NHS". The USA, with its mainly private medical provision comes seventh out of seven...