Saturday, 28 May 2011

The market as substitute for religion

Throughout my professional life, there has been a lionising of the free market with what appears to be the same disregard for reality as from those who were disappointed by the failure of the Almighty to launch Armageddon last weekend.  And where there isn't a market then we have a merry band of neo-con regulatory economists trying either to create one or (better still) to have a playground of their very own where they can judge what a market "should" look like in the absence of competition.

Britain's railways were a victim of Mr Major's misguided attempt to demonstrate that he had greater political virility than Margaret Thatcher.  He would probably have been better off admitting to his affair with Edwina Currie and leaving policy well alone.

Milord Adonis, the former Transport Secretary, conceded an inquiry into the costs of the railways as part of the Danegeld from the Treasury when he wanted (after 35 years of delay and prevarication by government) to electrify Manchester - Preston - Blackpool.  This was then taken up by the Chinless Petrolhead when the Coalition acceded to power, and produced 400 pages' worth of report a couple of weeks ago. 

If you read through the report, available on the DfT's web-site, then the first thing that the non-specialist reader should ask is: "if the railways cost so much under privatisation then why the f**k doesn't the government get on and renatinalise them?"  The entire premise of the report is that by opening the market and getting the contracts and incentives right then somehow you will free up lots of profits, sack the staff and somehow achieve the holy grail that three Acts of Parliament, countless ministers and regulatory experts have failed to locate while taking massive handouts from the taxpayer.

Bearing in mind that this report was co-sponsored by the Office of Rail Regulation (on whose watch, it must be said, Railtrack went tits-up and the costs of Network Rail have spiralled) it is hardly surprising that the creation of a regulatory illusion and a lawyers' playground is uncritically accepted. 

The salutory lesson is that of the National Health Service, which has been systematically pillaged by government and milked by doctors since the 1980s.  In Scotland, knowing that they would have faced riots and bedlam, the Tories did not marketise to the same extent, and costs are now lower than south of the border.  Where an internal market has been implemented, it appears that the combination of profit margins, confusion and the need to demonstrate that the public sector can offer as much opportunity for snoutage as private business has resulted in an unaccountable free-for-all.

It is dangerous to put forward any viewpoint that the emperor has taken up naturism, and that public services and infrastructure are best managed in the interests of the end-user, without thousands of transactions taking place between booking a GP appointment and being told that you have the Black Death and it will cost too much to treat.  The veneration of the market is a cross between Mariolatry and a cargo cult, the totem of competition or regulatory intervention used as a means of destroying common sense and practicality.  The danger is that the EU has been infected by this and has tried to implement similar reforms across member states' economies without regard to reality or empirical evidence.

The real reason for the market fetish, and pseudo-markets, is that it makes it much more difficult to find anyone to blame for the decline in public entitlements and rising taxes.  If the apparatus is supported by a panoply of regulators and "consumer champions" then the real culprits are always given the benefit of the doubt (which since it's politicians isn't surprising).    The Coalition won't do anything significant to dismantle this folly, so we are doomed to pay over the odds for public services until there is a radical change of government (and Labour certainly won't go down that route on the evidence of their zealotry and myopia in office).

At least we can worship at the church of stupidity a little while longer.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Illustrious gaffers

Is the Coalition the most gaffe-prone administration that we have seen since the last days of Major?  For the most part, Labour managed to avoid the most bizarre manifestations of the genre (excluding a certain Welsh Secretary's tendency to go out badger-spotting on Clapham Common), although there were the serial idiots such as Milord Mandelson and Blunkett, for whom no grisly fate could have been too exotic.

In the last year, we have watched the come-uppance of David Laws.  Laws, to be fair, had been a serial attention-seeker and his unravelling has a slight tinge of tragedy underpinning the farce.  There has been the slow and undiginfied effort to knife Dr Vince, for nothing more than not wishing to be the fall-guy for Slap-Head Willetts and his woeful apology for an education policy.  However the current crop of idiocy is very hard to credit.

Kenneth Clarke had been doing quite well as Justice Secretary until his recent remarks.  A tendency to inflame the bilious bourgeois hang 'em brigade had been noted - but given the flirty fishing techniques practised by the Torygraph to bring down Liberal wrath on the coalition he should have been wily enough to realise that a simple statement can be taken out of context.  To get Mister Ed endorsed by the Scum takes a certain skill. 

At least it diverted attention from the Honourable Member for Eastleigh.  The noted Successor to Stephen Milligan's marital strife has been grist to the Tory press for the last year - the "Evening Standard" (a London parish magazine best used for the wrapping of fish and wiping the spittle off its jouranlists' faces) helpfully reminding us that his new partner is bisexual in a totally unnecessary way - but the entire episode is somewhat sordid and does not have any bearing upon his political skills.  Huhne's policies have received a ringing disendorsement from Sir Berhard Ingham, who I had fondly imagined to be the late Sir Bernard - the poor man's Geoff Boycott, which clearly means they are right.

All this should provide excellent coverage for the sacking of Andrew Lansley.  Perhaps Clegg should get the former member for Oxford West ennobled as he would do a far better job. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Language games

Isn't the BBC wonderful?  We spent an entire four-month period where "electoral reform" was off-limits, because they were impartially describing it as a "change" to the voting system.

Now that the Tory trash can see opportunities to privatise and suck profits out of healthcare the evisceration of public services is described as "reform" without any of the self-appointed tribunes of political debate batting an eyelid.

Rupert would be proud.

The unelectable in pursuit of the unspeakable

We now have a new-model Deputy Prime Minister - clearly Lapdog Clegg has lost its lustre, even though the media and the Tories are doing their best to ensure that his position is retained by default (the monstering of Chris "He's Not The Messiah" Huhne is a prime example) recognising that the Liberal position is fatally compromised by his continued baleful presence.  In the last 24 hours we have had fighting talk from Pitbull Nick on the NHS and even on Lords reform.

The former is interesting, given the tendency of Cameron to go back on Tory message whenever he can see a chance of giving his mates a slice of taxpayers' flesh through privatisation and outsourcing.  Perhaps this is deliberate news-mongering or even an unexpected conversion back to the social liberal tendencies that he claimed when he was seeking endorsement as leader.

The House of Lords is an anachronism in any terms - and it is highly amusing now to watch various Labour luminaries engaging in flexible posturing because the government is floating ideas.  Typical that the self-interest of a nominated chamber is taking precedence over even a small step towards eliminating a key democratic deficit and potentially paving the way towards at least some measure of accountability in Westminster.  Clegg will be damned on all sides for either letting the side down (Westminster Old Boys don't undermine the vested class interest, now do they?) or not going far enough.  For once this can be watched - with suspicion but without immediate condemnation.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Clegg's orphans and the "Yes" debacle

After a week in which we have had buzz-words aplenty, a new and failed dog-whistle of "muscular liberalism", and the report that one of Cameron's closest advisers sees the NHS as a great opportunity for the further extension of crony capitalism, there is a clear problem.  Labour are engaging in internal contemplation over what was, by all assessments, a drubbing in Scotland and a stalling outside their heartlands in England and Wales, and the media are more interested in Chris Huhne's alleged penchant for Tory-style blame shifting than what is going to happen next.

Time to reflect has now been had.  Clegg is now living on borrowed time - his shiftiness and his apparent preference for the Orange Book platitudes is evidenced by his continued delusion that Cameron will now do something decent.  If Lords reform is scuppered, and the privateers continue to bulldoze what's left  of social capital into the hands of outsourcing rapacious Tory funders, then there is no reason for the Coalition to continue - especially if by then there has been some contemplation by the left as to what it needs to do.  This one will run and run.

The real bile should be directed at the "Yes to Fairer Votes" brigade.  There has already been trenchant criticism on "Liberal Voice" and from others, although the sympathetic media has tended to be much more generous. I consider the "Yes" campaign to have been a betrayal of everyone who has been fighting for some measure of electoral reform for the last eighty years, populated by people seduced by a London-centric celebrity culture and who believe that securing sympathetic coverage within their own media community represents a far more important outcome than taking the argument into the heart of the enemy.

Despite having the carpet-chewing pin-up of Nigel Farage on board, which would have surely given the Daily Mail and Daily Express food for thought, they chose to avoid politicians at all costs.  As the Tories were clearly not playing by these rules, this was failure number one.  Demonstrating the breadth of political support across the spectrum was left until the last minute.

There were no leaflets, precious few billboards and no real effort to explain why preferential voting represented an improvement on the existing system.  The campaign relied upon student union tactics, hectoring e-mails that were frequently patronising and belittling to those of us who have been round the block for the reformist cause, and a "luvvie" image that would not have played well with people outside a middle-class ghetto had they ever been aware that the campaign was ongoing.  It does beg the question as to whether the campaign was infiltrated by Situationist-inclined Cameroons.

For those of us orphaned by the failure of both Clegg and the AV campaign, there is now time to reflect, enjoy the summer and remember that most political changes do not occur at the first time of asking.  At least AV is now off the agenda - now we need PR along with a radical shift towards citizen power.

Bile on this blog will be less frequent.  However this does not mean giving up, just abandoning trust in those who have proved themselves both slippery and incompetent.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

No more shabby little compromises

From the triumphalist tone, you would be forgiven from thinking that the AV referendum result draws a line for ever under any attempts to change one iota of the ideal constitutional framework that we enjoy within the United Kingdom.  Indeed, when even the Deputy Prime Minister (for now), joins his feeble grunt to the stentorian barking of "back to business as usual" (i.e. the Liberals being shafted by the Tories) it is hard not to imagine that secretly he is quite relieved that he will draw a large salary and pension contributions a little longer.

For once, I agreed with Nick.  AV was a bastardised compromise, not proportional, not a significant reform but it did represent a faltering increment towards a more functional electoral system.  In the "best British tradition", no less.  And it was all that could be secured given the election result in 2010.  So I was happy to vote for a crack in the dam rather than a wholesale draining of the cesspool.

Now Clegg may be cannier than he looks, although for those of us schooled in evidence-based policy development there is a probability tending to zero.  However, he is now tainted in government and tainted in the eyes of his party.  What he forgets is that there is very little tribal Liberal Democracy to fall back on.  There are awkward old Liberals (of all ages) who believe that the liberty and rights of the citizen are the bedrock upon which all political, economic and social progress are defined by, and the self-styled "radical centre" - but many of them drifted back into Labour when Blair deracinated the party to such an extent that they could feel at home.  Neither of these groups are tribal to the extent that the Tories are, nor does it have the emotional connection that makes people stay Labour even when their leadership drifts off into the grip of Murdoch's neo-con lunacy.

Clegg's leadershup has already been questioned - and it's clear that there are many in the party who are waiting for his failure to be punished but who are probably waiting until after next year's local humiliations to determine whether it is worth throwing their hats into the ring or whether they would be best advised to retreat to their constituencies and distance themselves from the fiasco - with the possibility that with traditional Liberal patience their constituents might forgive their involvement in the denouement.  Hopefully he will be aware that he is under scrutiny and that there will be an unwillingness to take the consequences of Tory unpopularity, purely to stop some of the most outrageous Thatcherisms from being inflicted on the electorate.

Yet this is a side-show.  Reform doesn't disappear just because one vote is lost - and for those of us whose priority is to change the systems under which we are misgoverned it may well be that the time has come to migrate away from party politics into a clearly-defined progressive project which has a de minimis approach to electoral orgranisation but which tries to set out a navigable but speedy route to genuine change - supporting individual politicians and groups where appropriate but countering the simplistic disinformation and scaremongering that led to the defeat of incrementalism. 

Major reform is off the legislative agenda (at least until the next GB election) but there will be many issues that push it back onto the radar. Scotland's resounding vote for the SNP may not translate into support for independence at a referendum, but the constitutional set-up would be fundamentally challenged by this, and the possibility that the non-Tory majority in England are permanently disenfranchised needs to be fought at all costs.  Were the largest party Liberal or Labour the same logic would apply - before I'm accused of simple knee-jerk tribalism.  The hi-jacking of the unelected Lords and other less well-known Tory tactics need to be exposed.

Clegg and the Liberal Demorats in government need to be clear that they are there for the purposes they set out: dealing with economic policy and taming the excesses of the headbanging rightists.  There is no further "project" for them.  They have compromised to the extent where they have nearly sold out on the reformers' instincts, and they must make clear that they back the wider changes necessary to reform politics and economics.

And now I shall take a vow of silence on the subject for a few days; if I post anything else over the next week it will focus on the malodorous trashing of public services and the doublespeak we're having to put up with there.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The strange death of Liberal Scotland.

It is uncanny the extent to which Liberal voters in Scotland endorsed the SNP.  I suspect that this is not a deep-seated desire for independence but a recognition that Scots politics are centre-left and that Labour have failed to engage since they lost their divine right to rule in 2007.  It also raises the issue as what happens next in mainland British politics, given the essential contribution that Scotland has made to anti-Tory majorities in the past.  The uncanny parallels between bland and boring Iain Grey and the Boy David are also becoming clearer - neither of them could galvanise much more than their core vote to come out and put their choices (democratically in Scotland) against the Labour box, and neither look as though they have positioned their parties well for the 2015 General Election.

That, of course, assumes that there isn't one this year.  The Tories may be tempted to cut and run, given the Liberal collapse and Labour's inability to restore itself sufficiently in the areas where Blair managed to pull off his new-right con tricks.

Salmond has been surprisingly successful as First Minister, and he did manage to run a minority government that got most of its programme through.  The Scots are generally fed up with Westminister politics and I'm sure that many of the people I know who used to vote Liberal Democrat have been quite happy to vote SNP given the hostility of the Labour Establishment (permeating local government, the civil service and the media) to the nationalist agenda.  There were confident predictions that the administration would fail, and in many respects the electorate have rewarded him for it.

What is most remarkable is the extent to which the Liberals have been eliminated.  Fortunately Orkney and Shetland return separate MSPs or there would have been only one FPTP seat won - and the regional list looks disastrous.  The Celtic fringe sustained the Liberal Party through the wilderness years after 1935, and this is particularly disastrous given the failure of the party to put down roots elsewhere.  Areas where the Liberals had been extremely strong, such as the Borders, are now no longer strongholds - and it is only the fact that the Tories did pretty badly too that masks the extent of the catastrophe.  The position looks irretrievable.

How the party political cards fall out over the next few years is subsidiary to the need to build up a consensus around a reformist agenda.  Tribalism is no longer valid - there are values and revolutionary upheavals to be progressed!  Labour will need to look to how it engages with the Nationalists at Westminster - adult politics require a constitutional reform agenda that most people to the left of David Blunkett can sign up to.

The other lesson to draw is that a PR system (the Additional Member System) can deliver a decisive result if the voters will it.  It is a key argument for the pro-PR campaign that the 2011 Scottish result was delivered in a two-plus-two party system where the electoral system would have dampened any unrepresentative landslide.  PR does deliver a clear-cut winner, but only when the electorate actually wants one.

Domestic abuse in Downing Street

There are many things for which I am thankful.  Not being Nick Clegg is one of them.  If I were in his shoes, I would be examining the behaviour of supposed Coalition partners with a view to contacting an abuse helpline.  The pattern of extreme aggression, belittling and then promises to kiss and make up is so repetitive that it might have been composed by Michael Nyman. 

As the final justification for the Coalition disappears into the fundament of well-funded, scabrous right-wing misinformation, Clegg will have to be able to demonstrate to his dwindling band of acolytes that something, anything is being salvaged from the wreckage.

Perhaps a shopping list including a PR-elected second chamber, a Bill of Rights, cancelling Trident to scale down the deficit and a timetable for withdrawal from the illegal wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be a starting point, along with no new policy initiatives beyond the Coalition agreement without ratification by the Liberal Democrat conference, and the withdrawal of proposals to redraw consistuency boundaries would be a start.

But I suspect his cojones are atrophied and he has still to wake up to the Tory serpent's inability to reform.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Now wash your hands

Now that the campaigning is over, and the result not yet known, it is still perfectly legitimate to call out the obnoxious, mendacious toads of the "No" campaign.  The backing that Cameron, Osborne and his merry henchmen gave it, including the gratuitous smearing of the Liberal Democrats, and the lies peddled by such luminaries as David Blunkett, John Reid and "Lord" Prescott were matched only by their contempt for the electorate.  No wonder they shared a policy position with Nick Griffin.

If the forces of darkness prevail, then the only realistic response is to shrug one's shoulders, and get on with fighting for genuine electoral reform, along with a toppling of the regime that permits the unchallenged abuse of the media with lying drivel, the monarchist fiction and the perpetuation of the notion of deference to the very "professional" class that is making a systematic job of screwing up public services, the economy and the liberty of the citizen.  The wind may be sowed by Cameron, but he will reap the whirlwind.  The scum will rise to the surface and be removed by whatever means are legal and necessary.

Labour will rue the day that it rejected gradualism and allowed tribalist dinosaurs to rule the roost.  The gerrymandered constituency boundaries will make some form of electoral understanding necessary to ensure that the Tories don't go unchallenged; whether this can be done within existing aligments or a Popular Front ranging from Nationalists, through Greens and Labour to the more sensible parts of the Liberal Democrats remains to be seen.

Hopefully the momentum will continue to a point where Reform goes hand in hand with progressive politics.  The lessons of British history is that it may take some time, but the argument for democracy and accountability won't be lost.  The old bigot tendency will try to bury the issue, but by fighting AV, a modest proposal and one which did not upset the existing applecart, they will make sure that the next assault on the citadels will be on a much broader front.


Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A moment of negative clarity

Anyone who is a regular reader of this blog may be under the impression that this is a home for pro-AV propaganda.  I woke up yesterday morning with a clear understanding that the time has come to recant.

Supporting AV suggests that the voters are to be entrusted with the responsibility of selecting their representatives, and, horror of horrors, being able to express a choice that is much more complex than a simple assenting to the least bad candidate put forward by political parties.  This would make elections much too unpredictable as it would give power to the kind of unwashed, semi-literate peasants who might suddenly start taking an unhealthy interest in politics if it made any tangible difference to their lives.

Politics should never be about democracy; far closer to the National Lottery.  The fewer people who select the winning number, the greater their reward should be.  The idea that they might prefer their second- or third-choice candidate to the prime selection of the dinosaur race suggests that they could be tempted into evolving into citizens, rather than subjects.

Giving power to the people, even with the tendency for the AV system to favour established political groupings, is dangerous.  We might never have had the strong government that has made this country what it is today.  That is why we should never even countenance it - after all we haven't had a revolution since 1649.  Repressing the demands of the uppity bourgeoisie has always led to success - just ask Louis XVI.

Just a shame that I voted postally last week ;)

Monday, 2 May 2011

Clegg - entered for the obedience class

Britain has now enjoyed one year of unalloyed Coalition government, although you would be forgiven for thinking that the Liberal Democrats have been doing nothing more than doing their patriotic bit in enabling the Conservatives to return to their natural home of government.  That is if you accept the somewhat puerile and at times totally myopic view of the Tory press and the cheerleaders for the Coalition within the Liberal blog community.  There are moments when I wonder whether the general experience and perception of the rest of the population is so completely alien to these people that an attempt to engage with them is doomed to futility - then I confirm my suspicion that it is.

The distorted electoral system, and the way in which Labour appeared to have a death-wish to the end, ensured that the Tories won a superb 36% share of those who bothered to turn out.  The arithmetic was always against a LIb - Lab deal, given the need for a Nationalist back-up, and the idiotic tribalism of the same neaderthal pillocks who are the backbone of Labour's "No" campaign.  At the time the Coalition looked to be necessity, born of desperation and the vile misrepresenation of popular opinion through a discredited electoral system.

Since then, there seems to have been enthusiasm for the Coalition itself expressed by Clegg and Alexander, while other Liberal Democrat ministers have tended to be much more circumspect.

This weekend I read a great deal of grumbling from the Orange Book/rightist fraternity that Chris Huhne had joined the reform camp and made the perfectly-reasonable observation that for most of the 20th century the electoral system favoured the Tories.  Apparently this is akin to a leadership bid (if only) as it undermines the credibility of the Coalition.  Personally, I can't see it, as the Coalition only works as a partnership of fundamentally-opposed parties.

Either Clegg's apologists are more disingenuous than they appear to be, and are preparing to be assimilated into the Tory party before the next election, or they forget that the role of leading Liberal Democrats is to protect and promote their own party.  Rolling over and having one's tummy tickled may be cute at dog shows, but it is not part of adult politics.  Just because the Liberal Democrats are supping with the devil doesn't mean that they have to ask for his favourite recipes. 

The Liberal Democrats may or may not be doomed as an electoral force - however the ideas, policies and values that propelled Liberals to continue their fight will not disappear overnight.  I've defined myself as libertarian left for 26 years, and there are many others in the same boat.  Clegg is transient, and will be all the more so if he allows himself to become part of the Tory conspiracy.