Saturday, 30 April 2011

Calm down dear, the tumbrils aren't coming yet

Another weekend, another piece of hyperbolic grandstanding by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian.  This usually takes the form of a dyspeptic assault on the Coalition, but today she has gone to town on the wedding and the divisions that this has thrown up.  It's difficult to disagree with the hypothesis, but then she goes all hyperbolic and ushers in the French Revolution.

I suspect that the real radicalism would be unleashed if the "Yes" campaign loses later in the week.  Taken with the ersatz impact of the "national bonding" that had 24m people glued to their TV sets (allowing very useful and quiet trips to the shops for the rest of us) the shortbread-box view of the UK would be favoured by the mendacious snivellers of the "No" side prevailing.  The legitimacy of government would then come under fundamental scrutiny. 

Toynbee has, at best, jumped the gun.  For a former doyenne of the SDP and Owenite she has some chutzpah in her radical posturing - but at least the debate is now popping up.  What is not present is a convincing narrative of how progressive politics can realign to deliver constitutional change - the leading role of the Labour party is assumed as a given.  An anti-monarchist, radicalised Labour might fit the bill, but there are still far too many of the centre-right loons hanging round, hoping that Mr Ed slips up and the new Blair can be found and anointed.

In a week's time the future paths will be a lot clearer.  I may be sitting her slagging off the "Yes" campaign, or gasping at its last-minute audacity.  But I probably won't be reading La Toynbee again if I can avoid it.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Hypocritical scum - part one

Whenever you think that the intellectual septic tank that is the mind of the Tory grandee has been emptied, something like this comes along:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/av/tories-plot-to-overturn-referendum-results-2276388.html

Note that the idiot in question doesn't want to be identified.  Quite content with being elected by a minority on a less-than-full turnout, this backbencher's reasoning is so skewed that you have to wonder at what stage in his or her putrid, pointless existence what passed for brain-stem activity ceased.

If people can't be bothered to vote, then they get the result that those who can make the effort determine.  It's called apathy, and a perfectly legitimate response.  I don't expect that this cretin would regard the result as illegitimate if it was "no" on a 20% turnout.

If they weren't hiding behind a cloak of anonymity, intellectually-based bombardment of all channels of correspondence would be warranted. I shall certainly add this to the list of offensive idiocy from politicians.

Royal opiate - you'll need it

So the nuptials aren't a "state occasion", according to a spokesperson for the monarchy.  This is up there with Jesuitical casuistry as you could be forgiven for failing to see the distinction from a "private" service in one's personal chapel, the Royal Peculiar of Westminster Abbey, with most of London's police force deployed in case any of those unsporting republicans, malcontents and otherwise slightly-uppity serfs steps out of line.

The symbolism of the entire ritual is fascinating.  If this is the first manifestation of the Big Society then I am deeply frightened - the narrative that is being constructed is so majoritarian, so intolerant and so crass.  Hours of television and radio coverage, acres of tatty newsprint usually cheering on the illusion that this is a unifying, significant event, and a sub-text that those of us who don't get it should be strung up for treachery or at least disenfranchised and kept away from polluting the masses with anything approximating to rational thought.

Having been in London yesterday it was impossible to avoid the preparations and the crowds, wandering round slack-jawed and clad in artifical fibres, hoping for a glimpse of the second-in-line to an anachronistic constitutional monarchy on a day whose synethetic, saccharine "unity" is as specious as the smile on Andrew Lansley's face.  The BBC were out in force, obstructing rights of way, spending licence-fee payers' money to excess, and there were the usual gaggles of deranged American tourists, inventing a spurious historical narrative to make up for their perceived lack of national lineage.  So far, so dispiriting.

There seems to be desperation for royal "good news" - ever since Slimy Tony came out with the nauseous "people's princess" after a minor member of the aristocracy, married into the monarchy, died.  The acritical responses of the time failed to note that the unfortunate victim was no longer married to the potential monarch, and died as a result of drunken driving and the concrete reality that high-speed noctural chases across Paris do not necessarily co-exist with continued existence.  The narrative about the UK monarchy is so confused as it treats its protagonists as soap opera, while assuming that the constitutional myths around them provide a cloak of invisibility and inviolability from the mundane realities of human foibles, neuroses and derangement - an optimistic prognosis given the earlier tendency to inbreed with the right sort of royal genetics.

The apologists always argue that the alternatives are worse, and they do have a point.  The prospect of Thatcher, Blair or Cameron (let alone Major) having supreme power is always cited as the justification for maintaining a monarchic system.  So far, I agree.  However in a proper constitutional set-up, such as that pioneered by the US and the French, the separation of powers means that there is no fictional "Crown" in whose name the State can do more or less what it wants, and which denies the basic constitutional rights of the citizenry.  The "citizen not subject" discussion remains relevant today, and the asinine hyping of the wedding demonstrates why.

When there is no effective argument marshalled against the rights of the citizen, the determined royal lickspittle then resorts to the economic benefits.  Apart from the natural-fibre-free Septics alluded to above, who might be lured by the sight of the restricted gene pool, it is hard to argue that the tourist industry has suffered in countries where the head of state is at least nominally the choice of their citizenry.  Does the absence of the Bourbons undermine the number of tourists going to Versailles?  Most of the Windsors' wealth has emerged from at best dubious business practices and backstairs deals between the governments of the day, and they can't expect to go on taking from the state and retain private wealth - perhaps the first act of a reforming government would be to offer a deal of either expropriating their private wealth and putting them on a stipend related to a multiple of benefit payments, or removing the state subsidy.

So long as we have tuft-hunters, nostalgics and the kind of simpering imbeciles who believe that the worldview of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegrah is in some way aspirational, the debate on the modernisation of the state will be skewed on an emotional, reflexive "patriotism".  So the aim has to be to get through the next couple of days, and then to keep plugging away at the edifices.

I note that Transport for London have issued a special nuptial Oyster card.  Let us hope that it is prepared to issue the twin-set in time for the Royal Divorce.  And that we get a bank holiday to celebrate.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

The long weekend

Funny how the Tories have remained quiet about this year's May Day Bank Holiday, appended as it is to the festering nuptials. The constant parade of choleric Colonels who want it to be shifted to Trafalgar Day or to commemorate Hitler's birthday is not a spectacle that I can warm to, because after all the material comfort and wealth of the country has largely been founded on the efforts of the workforce.

I suppose it is better than nothing to be granted another day's holiday, albeit for a cause that is almost entirely irrelevant. May Day has so much more resonance of both collectivism and paganism that I'm sure it will disappear. But in the words of our dear leader we should all calm down and carry on.

It's so easy to blame "the cuts"!

The more reflexive members of the political class, principally the public-sector salariat hanging on to health, education and local government, are always worked up by talk of "the cuts" and seeking efficiency in the use of resources.  The idea of the state being there as a combined piece of blotting-paper, absorbing often undermotivated and unemployable people, while being a universal provider, disposing of largesse to the same, often self-defined deserving causes, remains one of the more pernicious myths.

Taxation is seen as some kind of universal good - rather than an enabler to permit the communal provision of service, social security and the promotion of the civilised values.  This leads to an uncritical, knee-jerk response to anyone who questions whether the level, nature and organisation of government activity is best-placed to deliver the requirements of a modern, civilised society.  Never mind the quality, feel the level of expenditure.  It's difficult to see how the NHS and education have significantly improved since 1997, let alone to the extent that should have been demonstrated by Labour's ability to throw money, outsourcing and platitudes at them.

Last month's demonstration showed that there is still a large number of interest groups with more or less genuine concerns.  The methods adopted by Osborne and his cronies to identify cuts and follow them through with continued leaching of public resource into the private sector are sufficiently evil and self-seeking as to raise real concerns, but the "March for the Alternative" would have had much more resonance if there was a genuine attempt to develop alternative policies with a radical justification.

The extent to which political debate has been atrophied in the last thirty years is a principal cause.  Instead of arguing for the state provision of services where there are clear benefits that cannot be quantified by individuals (health, transport, defence, security to name a few), and the most efficient means of procuring them to minimise the net cost to society, there is endless discussion about privatisation and outsourcing, forgetting that these are the very phenomena that drive up the costs and undermine the legitimacy of collective action.

A genuinely-radical position would be to question not what services are provided, but how they are secured - this almost gets down to the localism red-herring but not quite.  There is no moral good in taxation, although when taxes are levied, they should be proportionate and progressive.  So shouting about "the cuts" is playing into Tory hands, as they are only too happy to have a simplistic debate rather than facing scrutiny for the continued promotion of crony capitalism and large-scale snoutage that has fuelled their rise and the promotion of management-driven mediocrity as the ultimate aspiration.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Journalism and other infantile disorders

Michael Howard appeared on the "Today" programme this morning.  Unusually, he was not seeking to privatise the blood-banks, or campaign for reduced street-lighting around graveyards.  Instead, he was in a two-way interview with Menzies Campbell.  The interviewer was desperately attempting to create a spat between the politicians as they were analysing the cracks emerging over the AV referendum and the apparent discovery of testosterone by a few Liberals over the weekend.

Three days ago I posted on the Westminster parish-pump approach to political journalism.  This may have been generous.  The current crop appears to be primed principally to seek playground psychosis rather than giving anybody the benefit of an opportunity to speak or articulate ideas that are sufficiently complex as to require a subordinate clause.  Teenage scribblers would be ashamed at the intellectual level of the news coverage that emerges - it is absolutely ridiculous that it is more important to set up a row than it is to explore the deeper motivations of politicians.

This may well be a consequence of the way in which the media considers itself to be at the centre of the "story".  An interview on "Today" becomes the news lead for the BBC for much of the rest of the day - nicely sloppy and it saves money on actually investigating the world and its complexities.  It's cross-promotion at its crassest, and undermines the BBC's credentials as an independent organisation.  C.P. Scott's over-used aphorism on the nature of facts remains pertinent, as the BBC continues to behave as though it is only ever bidden to explain "the whole issue" for the hard-of-thinking, rather than challenging enough to make people go away and consider their own position on key issues.

The journalist shouldn't necessarily aspire to be the story.  Nor should the medium become the message to the extent that it has done. 

The BBC, Evan Davies in particular, has achieved something that I never believed possible: I felt sorry for Michael Howard.  And he's hardly the people's choice.

Milibland

Labour's performance in the elections, both in the districts and devolved nations, will be very interesting.  There is something of the post-1979 period in terms of the Micawberish assumption that something will turn up and fall into the lap of the mildly-reconstructed denizens of the court of King Edward (a suitably tuber-like epithet for a party with more chips on its shoulder than might be regarded as decent).

It's obvious that some of the mud about Labour's mess is sticking, but there is much more that they should be doing to pick holes in the Coalition's economic strategy, particularly the gap between rhetoric and reality with respect to public service reform.

Making the case for higher taxes, cracking down on evasion and avoidance, and a return to much more central control of public services might well be attractive, given the extent to which there remains a considerable level of resentment towards those at the top of the economic tree who appear to have been thoroughly insulated from the recession and the consequential policy interventions.

Mister Ed would be well-advised to shift his focus onto the Murdoch/City duopoly, and the way in which it poisons and shifts the terms of political engagement.  Waiting for the Coalition to collapse is not a strategy, especially if the Tories see it as an opportunity to lay waste to the Liberals and Labour through gerrymandered constituency boundaries.  There is a collectivist, social solidarity message waiting to be articulated.  Whether Labour can do this may determine how far they can reclaim a decent vote share at the next GB election.

In defence of the public realm

You can always tell you're in the United Kingdom - you don't own anything...  Everything is sponsored - even down to public spaces and utilities.  Find yourself in London and the Parisian bike scheme is sponsored by one of the few banks not to be owned by the taxpayer.  There is branding everywhere, and it's easy to consider that any area owned collectively is ripe for the chop.

The assault on liberal values in education is echoed by this creeping privatisation.  Areas of instrinsic social capital, be they libraries, museums or arts venues, are now required to perform acts of intellectual prostitution to secure future funding.  If the benefits can't be quantified, then they can at least be a tax-loss.  The idea that a good society would provide such facilities for the greater edification of its citizenry is anathema to the backwoods philistines who dominate the political area nationally and locally.

Destroying social infrastructure is blamed on the "cuts", but it won't be rebuilt afterwards.

Another great piece of our neo-Tory tapestry.  Probably spray-painted.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Cable in limbo

One of the more reliable indicators of whether the Liberal Democrats in Government are doing well is when the character who hides behind "Vote Clegg, Get Clegg" on Facebook expresses his concern about the state of the world.  For much of the last year, the postings have resembled a performing seal on its hind legs, waiting for Nicholas to opine, and recently he has been deeply sceptical about Dr Cable.

It's difficult to remember, before the pre-pubescent, half-witted, third-rate university lobby got stuck into him, that Vince produced the clearest analysis of the UK banking and financial crisis, and was being hailed by all and sundry as some kind of saviour.  In our binary world this is all forgotten as he became the front-man for Bone-Dome Willetts and his attempt to smear the Liberals with the incoherent, self-seeking garbage that is Tory higher education policy.

Cable's recent indications that, firstly, all is not well in Cabinet (surprise, surprise) and, secondly, that AV might help keep the Tories out in future, are hardly ground-breaking analysis or liable to send the press scurrying to put forward the idea that the sky is about to fall in.  If he's being set up to be ousted in a reshuffle then that reopens the ball game entirely, but if not it's all part of the reality of Coalitions.

The more sinister assessment is that the Orange Book brigade have it in for Dr Cable, on the basis that he is too much antipathetic to the neo-liberal economic agenda.  If the party is briefing against him, this is very short-sighted, as despite everything he remains the figure of most consequence and is potentially a major rallying-point should the situation unravel in the next few months.  Clegg's cheer-leaders are presumably amongst those who thought Campbell was too old to lead.  It would be ironic if experience and the benefit of age triumph over the early-middle-aged, politically-identikit world that Clegg, Cameron and Miliband inhabit.

Windsor and Moth-Eaten Central

Grateful though I am for another public holiday, the prospect of the royal wedding does not make for mass enthusiasm.  The saturation media coverage, the idea that this is in some way a national opportunity for bonding being peddled by the Tories and the extent to which past experience does not encourage anything other than healthy cynicism and a desire to hide until it's all over.

You don't have to be a republican to note the symbolism of all this.  The marriage is that of the second-in-line to a throne of a semi-constitutional monarchy.  The disruption and the costs will, mostly, be borne by the taxpayer, and the resources devoted by the Windsor family themselves are hardly generated from spotless entrepreneurial endeavour.  However, it keeps people in their properly-deferential place and stops us from asking the question about the difference between citizenship and feudal tutelage.

The spoutings of the semi-feral, semi-literate right-wingers who suggest that an outdated constitutional settlement is in some way promoting "heritage" should be ignored.  The modernisation of the UK constitution may have proceeded piecemeal, but that does not excuse a reactionary hankering after jus primae noctis and the ability to keep the uppity proles in order.  Reformed government needs the separation of the legislature, the judiciary and what's left (after outsourcing) of the executive, along with a democratic revising chamber and the removal of the Crown as a substitute for the collective will of citizens.

I used to be unpersuaded that this was a matter that required republicanism, but now I am firmly of the view that the only way to eliminate the illogicality, sentimentality and skewed debate about citizenship is for the citizenry to be sovereign.

Friday will be fun...

Friday, 22 April 2011

Michael Forsyth's degeneration game

I had the misfortune to hear "Lord" Forsyth on the subject of how AV is terrible for Scotland.  He did not have an answer to the question as to how a two-way system works in a four-or-more party system, other than "strong government" and "people understand it" - to the extent where several seats were won on less than 30% of the vote.

Hopefully this is narrow sectrarianism rather than mere dotard-like posturing, although I have my doubts.

The Tories are hated in Scotland, still, so hopefully the "Yes" campaign will run this as much as possible - so that a high turn-out in the Parliamentary elections does something worthwhile for the wider UK.

We can't get beyond the binary

What I find intriguing is the way in which the BBC still can't cope with the reality of Coalition politics.  As Liberal Democrats go back to their councils and prepare for obliteration the mere fact that they may be campaigning against the Tories is seen with the kind of slack-jawed wonderment that makes me wonder whether part of the qualification for punditry is to have all your brains sucked out through a straw.

This gets me back to my general gripe about the way in which the coverage of politics is centred around the UK Government, as if nothing else exists.  This is partly the consequence of a centralising state and the way in which Thatcher emasculated local government, but also laziness. The reality of power-sharing, even under adversarial electoral systems, is that parties have to work together at local level where no majority exists, and virtually every permuation exists from full-blown alliances to tacit agreement to keep one party out of influence.

The devolved nations have a different dynamic.  About the only decent analysis of Scotland I have seen was a thoughtful piece by Jackie Ashley in the "Guardian" last wekeend, and the potential for new alliances to emerge if the SNP can't continue.  My personal preference for anyone other than the Scottish Labour party (born out of experience, of both the Lab/Lib alliance and then the SNP minority government, before being taken up) is immaterial, but the realtiy is that Scottish politics have moved on since 1999 to the extent where the London-centric analysis doesn't work.

This tends to be ignored.  My current thesis is that this is a version of "marketing capture", based around the verbal tic I am trying to avoid of "narrative".  If you exclude the grubby compromises, the discussion and the electorate from the equation, you end up with a simple, contemptuous analysis that excludes all room for doubt.  It resembles Opus Dei run by Nathan Barley.  The BBC is meant to be a bit cleverer, but it fails dismally.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Revisionism, AV and the cretinous Tories

Osborne and Gove may be more slappable, but "Dave" makes me cringe.  His current pilgrimage through the client media (planet Rupert, the "Evening Standard" and other sycophantic Andrex substitutes) to promote his "gut feeling" (typed "git" but decided although deeply Freudian this ought to be corrected) that AV is somehow un-British.  We're bound to get the Major imagery soon, including cricket, evensong and spinsters flogging prescription ketamine to illegal immigrants.

It's intriguing that Vernon Bogdanor (Toffee-Nose's ex-Politics tutor) is opposed to AV on the basis that it would not have changed many election results since 1945.  If you examine the ones where it might then they would probably have vastly improved British polity.  In 1951 Labour would have retained a working majority, keeping Churchill out in his dotage, and would have won in 1964 slightly more convincingly (this would have avoided the 1966 election).  The real clincher comes with the suggestion that 1992 would have resulted in a hung Parliament and avoided the five years of drift, sleaze and incompetence that Major presided over. 

All this is obviously counter-factual, but it demonstrates a degree of doublethink that would have had the genuine Blair (the Eric variety) applauding.

The idea that the electorate are too stupid not to be able to work out that they won't have to vote tactically and can instead send a genuine political message, while excluding their least-preferred candidates from their ranked choices, continues to astound me.  Do the "No" campaigners really think that we're more stupid than Australians or members of the Tory or Labour party (not to mention trade unions and other organisations) who happily use AV throughout their electoral processes?

The sight of Cameron and Prescott sharing a platform, except as the front and back of a pantomime donkey, would be enough to raise alarm bells.  Their arguments are specious - as much as their failure to differentiate between the Electoral Reform Society (the clue's in the name, numbskulls) which exists to promote Electoral Reform, and Electoral Reform Ballot Services, which is a commercial organisation running ballots using any system the client wants provided they are prepared to pay for it. 

I have no brief for AV in itself, although I shall enthusiastically vote for a change.  However, the combination of patronising snobbery, ignorance and sheer cant should encourage active support.  If we'd not had the electoral travesty last year then a reformist Coalition would have been a real possibility, and I can't face the prospect of the same options being presented at some point in the future.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

A future for Liberalism? Locally? Maybe...

When will the media learn that a coalition in one level government does not imply life-long snuggling?  From the coverage of the Liberal Democrat local election campaign (watch this space for forthcoming debacle analysis) you would have thought that Naive Nick had signed away the Liberal identity in exchange for the family silver and the opportunity to crawl up Cameron's fundamental orifice.  It'll be crowded in there, as Murdoch and his cronies will desperately be trying to lubricate a passage away from criminal investigations of their papers' phone hacking.

If the Lib Dems are ever to revive in local government, there needs to be a distinct positioning away from the Westminister horse-trading.  Time to recover the community politics analysis, I think.  The Tories have no idea how to do localism, especially as it goes against the principles of crony capitalism, deranged outsourcing and removing accountability in case mistakes ever get found out.  As Labour have been captured by the client groups of local government there is a vacancy for a much harder oppositional party to emerge.

There are a number of questions that need to be posed:
1.  What exactly is local government for?  How does it differ from being an executive arm of central government, surviving on handouts and statutory intervention?
2.  If local government is to be a powerful force, how is it to be financed to ensure that decisions taken reflect genuine opinion rather than a set of statutory obligations?
3.  How do you elect it?  In Scotland, moving from FPTP to STV removed much of one-party hegemony - it will be fascinating to watch what happens this time round.
4.  How do you stop it being a playground for national hacks and wannabes and never-weres? 

The real answer is local engagement - using the electoral process as part of a strategy to make decision-making clear, transparent and genuine.  In the last thirty years local councils have been emasculated at the same time as their elected and unelected denizens have put their snouts in the trough to a level that if had occurred in the civil service there would have been national outrage.

So a modest proposal:
1.  All Councillors to be volunteers.  If they are in paid employment then their employers can be compensated for time off for duties, if they are not then the actual time on council duties should be paid for at the average wage level.  Legitimate expenses, interests and affiliations to be published and on-line.
2.  No Council Officer to be paid more than a Senior Civil Servant at the top of the lowest pay band.  No member of staff engaged on a consultancy contract should have his or her remuneration package costing more than the salary plus pension contribution equivalant of a SCS Band 1.
3.  All Council decisions to be public, and all supporting documentation to be in public unless there is a legal reason for withholding them.
4.  Councillors can be recalled by petition of 30% of eligible residents in their wards, and senior Officers can be reviewed by a petition of 15% of electors across the authority. 
5.  All Councillors to be elected by AV immediately, with a view to moving to STV in multi-member wards as soon as practicable.

A starting point - ideas for local regeneration are where the Liberals may have a future.  It will take a generation to remove the stench from local government that Thatcher and her disciples have saddled it with, and that Labour embraced enthusiastically (there are plenty of so-called Liberals with a similar level of culpability but they run fewer authorities).  But it may be the only way to go.

Friday, 15 April 2011

How low can you croak?

I read that my prototypical Tory, Brian Coleman, is now jumping on the Zionist bandwagon as he has clearly decided that a retreat into fantasy-land will give a slight boost to this electoral chances - the miserable toad's demeanour is generally designed to alienate the normal, well-adjusted and generally sane.  Quite apart from being part of a Council group in Barnet that has just abandoned all attempts at local democratic engagement (to support the Pumpkin Pickles's localism agenda) and described concerned residents as "rabble" for protesting about the issue below, he is now playing the anti-Semitic card.

As usual, murky politics in London takes a bit of unravelling.  There is some land on the fringes of Barnet and Haringey that has been earmarked for an "eco park".  Sounds wonderful - but in the world of GLA Tory Newspeak this actually means one of the largest rubbish incinerators the capital has ever seen (Hindu-style self-immolation is probably too much to hope for). 

One of the contractors involved is Veolia - a French-based firm that is involved in outsourcing everything from bin-emptying to buses.  Veolia also have interests in the Occupied Terrirories - ergo anyone criticising the entire Pinkham Way project is anti-Semitic.  Somebody needs to explain to the Methodist-almshouse-dwelling amphibian the difference between criticising the actions of the Israeli state and anti-Semitism, but this may take words of more than one syllable and be a little bit complicated as it involves concepts beyond the Sun King's concepts of absolute monarchy and identification with the state.

Ironically, for those who like this sort of thing, Barnet Council discussed the issue earlier this week and determined that it was "too early" for protesters to raise concern - the "rabble" aforementioned - but were very concerned to use the occupation of Said Gadaffi's London pad as an excuse for an attack on squatting.  Clearly it's perfectly legitimate for the Israelis (beloved of Brian) to occupy land that isn't theirs, but a protest against a dictator's pad in Barnet is not.

This could be Nye Bevan moment of the week, if not the month.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Great alliances that never were

I was reading an extremely self-serving interview with Niall Ferguson in the Guardian the other day, proving that the paper remains the middle-class guilt-sheet of choice by my continued purchase thereof.

Reading about the publicity-hungry, moderately telegenic but lumpenly paternalist's travails and dislike for Britain and Europe, along with reactionary platitudes and the slightly less relevant details of his amatory exploits, made me realise that the perfect alliance he could have formed would have been with Melanie Phillips, the well-known rent-a-gob from the Daily Mail, the BBC and sundry media outlets, given the spew that emanates from her.  The combination of Ferguson's genuine scholarliness and Phillips's ability to cant at will would have produced progeny that could have taken over the world.

Or is this the stuff of nightmares?

Warsi, Dave, hypocrisy and cant

The definition of Tory Democracy doesn't appear to have changed much since Disraeli, except I can't imagine Dave or Georgie writing a half-decent shopping list, let alone a novel.  Cameron's recent effusion on AV makes me particularly amused - as it demonstrates, as if it were needed, the contempt which he feels for lesser mortals not propelled into the stratosphere by parental cash and connections at the Bullingdon.

The forces of darkness seem to have immense difficulty in accepting that nothing in this world is black-and-white, apart from zebras and the odd cat.  The idea that people might have a preference as to who represents them even if their first choice is not elected seems to be anathema to them, even though they use it in internal stitch-up elections within their own party and have made no move to repeal more proportional systems in Wales, Scotland and the bastardised system that gave London the Bouffant Buffoon.  Andrew Rawnsley's comment about electors being seen as too stupid to count beyond one does not give confidence in the education system after a few more years of this.

The real icing on the Tory cake is their Chairperson, the excellent Baroness Warsi, whose electoral track record is second to none.  She is expert at playing the "don't kick me" card while doling out utter drivel about how AV will let in the BNP.  This is hateful and totally irresponsible - as fringe parties will tend to lose out under AV even more than they do under FPTP - and someone with more tact than I possess ought to be calling her out big time.  I'm sure that the Tory spin doctors are playing on the belief that if an Asian woman tells lies about the BNP's chances then the electorate will swallow it out of a combination of naivety and the post-colonial guilt that has been so much in vogue over the last two decades.

Peddling the lies that AV gives people "more votes" - to exercise preferences rather than a binary choice - and "lets in the BNP" does the Tories no favours.  It is, as the Dear Leader, said, a "shabby little compromise" for those of us who would prefer genuine reform, but it is a step along the way to STV in multi-member constituencies, as my trade union policy defines proportional representation!  The Tories are seen to be heading back into the historical position that they have generally adopted since 1832 of resisting reform (with the honourable exception of the aforementioned Disraeli) until it is too late to resist.

AV is a tipping-point, I suspect.  The Tories won't like it if it happens, and the other parties will realise how much the redrawing of constituency boundaries will entrench the minoritarian system without it.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The inept leading the partisan

When any government wants to appear to do something, it tends to appoint an enquiry.  This can be dressed up as a review, or a study, or anything else that means that a Minister can safely ignore the findings if they don't like them.  For once, my sympathy is with the Ministers.

Most of these reviews are led by tuft-hunters, superannuated from other and more potentially damaging contributions to the wealth or happiness of the polity.  They seem to be routes to peerages rather than a genuine attempt to add to the stock of national sagacity.  A minor title here, and a greasing-up there, preferably with a track record of not doing very much tends to mean that government gets advised by "the right sort of chap" rather than a razor-sharp expert. 

This does mean that an intelligent politician, backed by a Special Adviser or two with a Malcolm Tucker tendency, can turn round and provide some good Anglo-Saxon epithets. One can but hope.

In around a month's time, I shall provide some more specific examples of this.  Suffice it to say that I don't suffer other pompous nincompoops gladly, and whistle-blowing could turn into an immense pleasure.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Amphibious assault

The Scumday Times, last weekend, exposed how Bob Crow (the Derek Hatton of the present day) lives in subsidised housing while receiving a generous salary package from his members.  Leaving aside Comrade Bob having achieved a growth in membership and income in his union that would be the envy of most companies, let alone political organisation, and the reality that he is constrained by legislation in what he can actually force RMT members to do, this is typical Murdoch smearing that would be far more entertaining if he also raked muck about the neo-cons in his client Tory party.

Exhibit 1:  Brian Coleman, member of the GLA for Camden and Barnet, as well as Cabinet Member for Environment and Transport at Barnet Council - personal motto "we never knowingly undercharge".  Mr Toad is also Chairman of the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority, and takes home over £140k in "allowances" for his numerous public duties. 

Coleman is one of the prime examples of why the Tories will never change their spots.  He has already had two complaints upheld by Barnet Council's Standards Sub-Committee, and doubtless there will be further fireworks as he seems to regard the electorate as a contemptible mass who shouldn't know details about his business, including the fact the he lives in rent-controlled housing while trousering several times the average wage from the public purse - quite apart from his tendency to use taxis rather than London's perfectly-adequate public transport system and then claiming it back.  Bri, for example, did not wish to publish his Members' Interests on line, preferring for those who might express an interest to go to the Council's offices rather than having access to the information.

It's seldom that Boris finds anyone as embarrassing as Brian Coleman, and the continued choreography will only become more intense as the GLA elections approach next year.  Any pact with the Tories at a local level would clearly founder in Camden and Barnet, so long as people like Coleman continue to provide the bedrock of Tory attitudes and behaviour.

The idea that Councillors should be given reasonable allowances for out-of-pocket expenses is not a bad one, but this should not be a substitute for voluntarism around another career.  If there is to be genuine reform and democratic renewal then we should be looking to cap the allowance level from all public posts to an acceptable level - say £50k per annum including expenses - and ensuring that those who secure the backing of political parties have some form of moral sense.  Not sure that Cllr Coleman could spell "turpitude".

Cleggmania - one year on

It was the Liberal Democrat leadership debate in Edinburgh that first gave me doubts about Nick Clegg.  I was in Paris last year when the televised beauty contests first hit the screen in Great Britain and Clegg was hailed as a combination of Mother Theresa and Barack Obama, only for his party to claw a marginally-respectable result when people were left alone in the polling station.  It's not worth rehearsing the events since then in any detail; as it is very difficult to navigate the middle-class Labourites crying "treachery" on one side and the spittle-flecked shire Tories trying to work out why some of their old certainties have been discarded by their leadership.

Perhaps it's time to be kinder to Clegg than many feel appropriate.  Cameron was hardly the winner of a ringing endorsement after a government that in many respects was as disastrous as Major's - and he didn't outpoll Mister Tony's share in 1997.  Since then we have the fetishisation of "the cuts" as a promotion of Pigovian economics, and the failure to address the spread of crony capitalism.  We have the shibboleth of the NHS riding roughshod over practical politics, and the continued spread of the market into areas of society that really don't deserve such a shafting.

The real litmus test will be the AV referendum.  If a formal coalition fails to deliver that which was offered by Ramsay MacDonald in 1929 (and derailed by the Great Depression) then there is really not much point in propping up a National Government.  Clegg will need to be very careful should the referendum go the wrong way if the Liberal voice in politics is not to be assimilated by others - organisationally by the Tories and in terms of lip-service by Milibland.

Clegg spent the 2010 campaign setting up standards that he could never achieve in government, even if he had secured a landslide on a scale that Campbell-Bannerman would have been ashamed of.  Rowing back to realism is his greatest challenge - let alone presenting the positive impacts that the Liberal Democrats have actually had on government.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Auntie-Social Behaviour - and arrogance

Given the Murdoch monstering handed out to Dr. Vince last Christmas, with the rather back-handed connivance of the Torygraph, there is something that feels faintly dirty about even questioning the BBC.  It is, after all, a paragon of public service, and as a committed user of many of its channels there is a great deal to be defended.

When I was active last year in the campaign to stop the proposal to close 6 Music, it appeared to me that the market failure argument had got lost - the same applies to the World Service.  It is probably axiomatic that the BBC's radio channels, especially 3, 4, 6 and WS would not be replicated on a subscription-only model - but I do find the TV output increasingly insulting to the intelligence (save BBC4).   However, just because I value these services does not mean that others should be culled.

One of the most interesting proposals has been to decimate local radio.  This would not go down too well with tinpot politicions who are devoted to a 20-minute appearance to boost their media credentials - but it would reduce still further the BBC's commitment to what would be described by marketeers as a down-market, trending elderly audience.  Now they pay their licence fee too, and just because it doesn't appeal to me or to those who would describe them with an arrogance born of sitting inside the M25.

Mind you, there would be a strong case for just broadcasting "Today" on BBC London as its breakfast show - it does seem to be becoming rather frightened of the big bad world beyond London's Orbital Motorway.  Perhaps the producer has been reading Iain Sinclair...

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Education, education, flatulence

I was lucky enough to be a student in the 1980s, when fees were paid and there were still (means-tested) grants available.  Therefore, runs an argument beloved of the current teenage scribblers, I am in no position to comment upon either the current state of higher education or the fact that universities are likely to charge the highest level of fees that they can get away with.

The vast expansion of post-18 education that has occurred since my time was primarily driven by the need to drive down the numbers on the dole.  Yet an expansion from around 10% to 50% of the population in higher education creates a totally different beast to the system thirty years ago - it's now a sausage machine, and probably better described as consisting largely of remedial teaching to bring people up to basic standards of literacy and numeracy.  I'll say nothing about social graces as that would be very unfair.

There is some merit in the argument that graduates will probably pay more in tax than non-graduates over their earning careers.  However, that does assume that the number of highly-paid jobs increases at least partly in line with the increase in the number of graduates.

If you view, as this government appears to, higher education as a means to an economic end, then there is a strong logic to testing the desirability of degree-level qualification through a fee structure that encourages people to think about the risks they are taking before they go through with their UCAS forms.  It may reduce the numbers of marginal students for whom "uni" is three years of semi-hedonism to which they have a right, and in turn this may reduce the number of universities - which is a good and efficient economic solution!

There is no magic formula that provides a percentage of people who should go to university - and the delusion that the higher education sector is peddling is that there is never a time to row back.  The real tragedy has been the blurring of insitutional boundaries - instead of the universities, polytechnic and college model everywhere is competing for university status (and the weaker institutions are peddling what can charitably described as a delusional equivalence with the stronger ones) - and the idea that only a seemingly-academic qualification is worth having.  For many people it is, but it also creates expectations and fails to recognise what the individual needs is the building block, not shoe-horning everyone through a lowest-common-denominator education system.

There's the liberal education argument as well, but enough on this for now.

Are you a market fetishist?

In these atomised days, about the only certainty that you will find is a political consensus that the "market" is in some way an end in itself.  There's something faintly creepy about the market apologists who resemble the fundamentalist evangelicals in their fervour that every transaction should be open to competition and preferably regulated by a team of self-appointed technical experts who are there, in fact, because their religious system is founded upon fallacy.

Reading Robert Skidelsky's excellent Keynes: the return of the master was an extremely helpful reminder as to why, precisely, economists have become quite so out of touch with the world.  Their constructions in the form of a supremely rational economic man, operating with perfect information in all dimensions, past, present and future, and with full awareness of the impact that their choices have upon the wider world would be risible were it not so dangerous.  Nowadays there remains a trend to elevate econmetricians as their mathematical posturing (with uncanny resemblances to the financial instruments that have brought us into a Great Depression), and to sneer at any economist who attempts to use the discipline to promote wider public good.

Labour were far worse than the Tories in their ability to swallow this whole, and to invent and promote marketisation across the board.  The amount of money thrown at health and education since 1997 has largely been diluted by the attempts to mimic a free-market world within services that are, by their very nature, most efficiently provided as a public utility through general taxation.  More and more complex theories are developed and implemented as each attempt to impose markets results in layer upon layer of pseudo-commercial transactions, and at every stage each party takes a healthy percentage profit margin to satisfy shareholders - usually investment banks and fund managers in thrall to the same false gods. 

Hardly surprising, therefore, that the public service bill goes up while quality at best flatlines - if every stage of health care, or transport, or defence procurement, or prisons, or indeed any of the myriad of government activities, has a contract and a profit attached to it.  The Tories believed that the private sector would open up efficiency gains in nationalised industries - the only unalloyed success has been telecommunications where the technology moved beyond the state monopoly that other utilities required. 

This isn't a rant about the private sector, but the misapplication of basic economic theory. 

Take a simple example: the Underground in London.  When Gordon Brown's idiotic Public-Private Partnership went through the Northern Line, for example, was operated by London Underground Ltd, using trains owned and maintained by Alstom, and over tracks and through stations operated and maintained by Tube Lines.  Tube Lines itself was a consortium of civil engineers, consultants and others - with its own internal trading.  So instead of "command and control" where LUL could manage on a day-to-day basis and take decisions that affected its running of the service, it had contracts and limited ability to vary them - and each contract was designed to provide a healthy profit - more or less guaranteed as if the private sector fouled up it could still gouge LUL for more money.

Added to the heady mix of illogicality was the fact that the Tube was crumbling away, and so each party needed firstly to be indeminified against catastrophic risk - and also priced into its margins its own view as to how much more it could get away with.  So the risk still lay with the public, but the private sector was still taking a cut anyway.  Hardly logical, the total cost and flexibility to respond to emerging situations would have been (and now is) much less in a classic public-sector model.

The real problem is the continued "something for nothing" mentality that we're peddled day-in, day-out.  Low taxes mean sleight of hand, as declining public services are not part of the narrative.  Unfortunately, as many individuals are now discovering, this means that once the credit card is cut off, then the world looks a much less friendly place. 

There is a case for high taxes, but only with good public services.  Britain can't work out whether it wants a European model or the American one, and pretends it can be low-tax, high-quality and marketised. 

Outsourcing, privatisation and "partnerships" are all weasel words for pseudo-markets, presided over by regulators and other bodies whose interests are several stages removed from the public. It's much harder to find a third-party, outsourced contractor that can be held to account than a national or local service governed by elected politcians.  That's one reason the politicians like it - not just because the parasites then offer them places on the board!  But leaking tax revenue into the private sector through unnecessary layers of transactions requires so much faith in untenable economic theories it's hardly surprising it continues, as the economists baffle the generalists with jargon and theory.  Common sense doesn't have a hope.

When the Coalition came to power, I had some optimism that the Whitehall mania for unproven waffle might wind back - but no such luck.  The Tories are probably too much in hock to the consultancy firms and the neo-con policy wonks - and it's too much to expect the Lib Dems to construct a principled opposition despite the best efforts of Dr Vince.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Voodoo logic and the "squeezed middle"

The Tories do a very good job of preserving the myth that a low-tax economy is necessary for enterprise.  I am reminded of Senator Al Franken's comments that the marginal tax rate in 1950s America was around 85% but economic growth still outstripped that of the Reagan/Bush years.  One of the key problems in the UK is that the binary choice model (see FPTP) is posited as the only valid option - so "low taxes" become a worthwhile end in themselves while at the same time there is constant bleating about the quality of public services (incidentally there is a good point to be made, but not the one that the Daily Mail would like you to believe).

Alastair Darling had the right idea with introducing a 50% tax band.  The problem is that the way it is presented is that it is an average rather than a marginal rate.  If you're earning £100,000 per annum, you will probably notice a 10% marginal tax increase rather less than someone earning £10,000. 

The right are hilarious about this - for example the London "Evening Standard" last week ran a story about rail season ticket prices, in which:
a) they positied that some season tickets cost more than servicing a small mortgage; and
b) related them to the UK average earnings figure of £21,000.

A short period of reflection would yield two or three nuggets that take you a bit further than this.  In the case of housing and travel costs they are a trade-off.  If people have worked out that living in Swindon is cheap in comparison to Ealing, then they may want to pay more to travel to put their household budgets into equilibrium.  There is the slight disadvantage of living in Swindon, but if you're only paying a third to a half as much for housing in the first place your disposable income will probably be higher!

Secondly the people who will live that far out are not likely to be on average earnings.  Look at the station car parks and you'll see plenty of planet-destroying 4*4s and company vehicles lined up all day.  So a non-story, which is probably less interesting than the hidden middle-class subsidy of season tickets (more anon).

This leads me to the promotion of delusion that a high marginal rate of tax is somehow a deterrent to entrepreneurialism, innovation and all the things we are supposed to worship in the age of secular fiscal gods.  The number of people affected by this is small - especially when compared to the fiscal drag of frozen or falling margins between the 20% and 40% tax bands.  The readers of the bile-sheets would be forgiven for thinking that this affects everyone and all their earnings.  Boy George will have his work cut out to persuade people that merging employee NICs and income tax doesn't represent a stealth tax.

Spreading ignorance is all very well, but perhaps the time has come for the equity, essential nature and desirability of progressive income taxation to be promoted rather than apologised for.

Next up, some thoughts on public service reform.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Why I still hate Tories

Having joined the Liberals back in the mid-1980s, mainly out of disgust for Thatcherism and a recognition that libertarianism is more naturally-rooted on the left, the adjustment process to the body-language of being in league with the Devil is very disconcerting.

It is quite possible that the leading lights of the Conservative Party have undergone a Damascene change, but they are probably just as avaricious, grasping and repugnant as they always were - but richer as a result of opposition and the appalling tax policies of the previous government.

Below the surface, one of the most telling points of the anti-AV argument (in itself damning) is that there are people like Ken Clarke who think that it will lead to an upsurge in support for the BNP.  Presumably the argument is that the average carpet-chewing fascist already votes Tory as it's second-best to the real thing, and that freed from the shackles of FPTP they will put the Tories second rather than first. 

At least then we'll know what we're up against.

The problem I have is that Liberals and Tories are never comfortable bed-fellows - mainly because the utilitarianian/Rawlsian tradition does not really intersect with either economic neo-liberalism or patrician pseudo-largesse.  And when you meet or encounter the second- and third-division Tories it is not difficult to work out where Nye Bevan got his views from.  Not for them the traditions of public service or even a recognition that "society" exists. At some stage I'll get round to Brian Coleman and other London luminaries - the snoutage is truly breathaking and their contempt for democracy astounding.

Breaking down tribalism is a noble soundbite, but it takes two to engage, and the Coalition is far closer to shotgun foreplay than a firm purpose of redemption.

Fellow-travellers don't deserve an apology

One of the constant amusements of the post-Coalition world has been the realisation that at least some Lib Dem "supporters" who are now most vociferous in their oppostion are just those who have suffered an alarming form of projection.

For them, the Liberal Democrats were a convenient, conscience-free repository of their gripes with Labour - be it illegal wars or tuition fees.  Voting for the Liberals was seen as an easy salve as the party was seen as basically a nicer version of their own natural home, and they would naturally come to realise that the only way in which they would retain support was through a hydra-like embracing by the vestiges of the social democratic tradition.  Naturally this was utter b*ll*cks but this hasn't stopped them blaming everything on the electoral arithmetic and the anal nature of the average Labour tribalist.

Casting one's mind back to May 2010 Labour's revisionists are conveniently air-brushing the attitude of such luminaries as David Blunkett and John Reid out of the historical construct.  Any efforts made by the ex-SDP contingent and the managerialist centre to construct a fragile Commons alliance would have foundered on the reality of Labour's response to take its ball home and therefore, as a result of the failure to introduce even a minor electoral reform in three terms, there was only one realistic option open to Liberals.

This does not excuse everything that the Government has done and will do, but I am starting to enjoy reminding these rather pathetic individuals that Liberalism is a distinct ideology, and the role of the party was not to allow them to be anti-Tory while "punishing" Labour.  It didn't work, and won't work.

Next up, the Tories.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Blog background - post 1

No longer being a civil servant means that political restriction no longer applies - and as a sceptical Liberal I feel it's time to add to the blogging babble to counteract the Labour and fellow-traveller sense of betrayal, while remaining sceptical of the Coaltion and its works.

The Beckett and Howard show

I find myself increasingly drawn to the idea that the "No to AV" campaign has been infiltrated by somewhat Machiavellian figures or at the very least the Situationist International.  Quite apart from the presumption that the electorate is so stupid as to be incapable of counting beyond one, their alumni are almost calculated to remind us as to why we hated both the Tories and New Labour.  Margaret Beckett jumping on the "No" caravan was no surprise, but if they feel that the vampire of Folkestone and Hythe has pavement appeal then the undead can't be far behind.

We shall see...