Monday, 25 February 2013

Rennard, Clegg and the Tory lynch-mob

I hold no brief for Chris Rennard.  Nor do I know whether the allegations made about his conduct are true.  However, to coin a phrase much beloved by the sleazy hypocrites of the Tory tabloids, the great principle of British justice is that even the most odious are innocent until proven guilty, and entitled to a fair trial.  Repeating smears and innuendo achieves maximum reputational damage, especially as the speed and cost of defamation actions militates against the victim - allowing the highly-paid and resource-rich to continue their campaign even when allegedly defending themselves.

Yet so far, all the public has been presented with is a string of anonymous allegations and a statement by Nick Clegg that he was made aware of non-specific allegations in 2008.  If any proven events took place after he had confronted Rennard, then Clegg's guilt extends so far as to have accepted denials of previously-occurring harassment, rather than investigate - and he has correctly accepted that there may be issues with party processes and culture independent of whether or not the allegations against Rennard are upheld through a separate investigation.

There is a witch-hunt mentality in the air.  From the hysterical press coverage you would have thought that the Liberal Democrats had awarded honorary membership (and nominated for peerages) to Hitler, Savile, the Yorkshire Ripper and the Moors Murderers.  Were one paranoid, this smacks of the approach that the Tories will need to adopt, under their paragon of moral and political rectitude, Lynton Crosby, to smear their opponents and distract from their amoral incompetence.  Eastleigh as a dry-run for 2015, anyone?

The allegations against Rennard are both unpleasant and worthy of a proportionate investigation.  They are currently as substantiated as a putative and anonymous claim that the editor of a Tory tabloid is a foul-mouthed megalomaniac who has a penchant for sacrificing goats after dressing them up as French maids.  Were this the case, I cannot imagine that it would be front-page news, or would be spun as the great left-liberal conspiracy intimidating the true spirit of British expression.

Nobody comes out of this kind of situation well - but the time is right for a sense of proportion.  Clegg for once hit the mark with the phrase "trial by innuendo".  When investigation, conviction and punishment are dictated by the media then what passes for democracy is damaged and diminished; raising allegations is legitimate but then leaping to a convenient conclusion smacks of right-wing attack-doggery.  Now the allegations are there, then investigation needs to follow.

It still looks like a diversionary tactic given the state of Tory morale - the timing and the lack of real substance.  For the media, a salutary reminder is that the oft-repeated quotation of Baldwin on the subject of power without responsibility will apply in spades.  The harlots are very cheap these days, and riddled with poisonous diseases.  

Saturday, 23 February 2013

The Economic Consequences of Mr Osborne

The sound of roosting chickens is unwelcome, as it may even drown out the vultures swooping round the foetid corpse of the Coalition.  The expected announcement that the UK has had its credit rating reduced is hardly earth-shattering given the build-up (thirty years of neo-liberal economics, asset bubbles and the rampant selfishness that characterises contemporary capitalism).  Given that the ratings agencies themselves are as culpable as the policy-makers in the creation of the current Depression there is almost a sense of poetic inevitability.

History may be kinder to Brown and Darling than contemporary commentators.  Once it became clear that there was both a confidence and liquidity crisis that was not going to go away with soothing words, the actions they took were as calculated in the circumstances as they could be.  The scale of the crisis, and the unprecedented risks imposed by globalisation and unfettered rampant amorality in the corporate sector, meant that actions were uncharted.  The corporate blood-suckers were happy enough to take the handouts while at the same time criticising the administration that had permitted their landing to be much softer and less personally humiliating than they deserved.

Osborne has famously banged on about there being no Plan B - and will doubtless do the same in the face of the current reputational implosion.  I have remarked in the past that there is no Plan A, which is the real root of the current stagnation, beyond carrying on with a watered-down version of the Brown-Darling formula of printing money and desperately hoping that a policy of public sector cuts (popular with the ignorant followers of such leeches as the Taxpayer's Alliance) will not actually achieve the opposite of its intended impact.  Quantitative easing, Mervyn King's panacea, is fine if there is cash circulating round the economy - but in a climate of fear people are paying down debt, saving against the  possibility that they too will be consigned to the recycling bin so that bankers may gorge, leading to what Keynes identified as the paradox of thrift - what is good for the individual undermines the benefits for the country (to coach it in terms that the Daily Mail might be capable of interpreting).

Osborne's economic literacy has never really been in doubt, as its existence is about as certain as Richard Dawkins's belief in God.  Government economic policy appears to be influenced by a cabal of those entirely culpable for creating the mess in the first place, bleating that deregulation and removing the controls on "wealth-creators" (i.e. speculators, parasites and the spivs) will somehow gimmick up the holy grail of economic growth.  It failed before, and there is no reason why the current inept clowns  can demonstrate any changes in circumstances that would encourage the credulous to even consider believing their lies and hypocrisy,

Trickledown as a policy approach has been used by neo-liberals as an excuse for destroying social cohesion and increasing inequality.  Reagan, Thatcher and Blair were all apostles of accreting wealth to the already-wealthy - all should stand indicted.  The levels of inequality in the UK, both between regions and classes, are dangerous territory for the whole community.  I have never been of the opinion that equality of outcome is either desirable or achievable, but, and this is the complex argument that the right-wing sloganeers can never grasp, promoting further inequality is immoral, evil and counter-productive.

If Osborne, his cronies and advisors ever escaped from the vortex of the rich, pseudo-prosperity of the Tory, central London bubble, they would realise that their ineptitude is storing up problems for generations to come.  Their defence may be that they represent constituencies outside, but this is specious - they live hermetically sealed among Tory groupies and the new squirearchy of the nouveaux and the corrupt - and their social and political circle regards the world beyond as an unfortunate set of problems that challenge their divine right to rule.

Travelling around the country, there does not feel to be the sunlit uplands of trickledown-led growth.  Instead we have social insecurity, the rich retreating into gated developments and the rest waiting for the next piece of bad news.  Town and city centres being denuded of shops, the capture of the social space by the corporate, and the general hopelessness that permeates almost everywhere outside Gideon's cocoon are all clear manifestations of failure.  Through applying the neo-liberal orthodoxies, this bunch of fools has inflicted far more damage than they could have hoped for.

Saddling people with debt throughout their lives (from tuition fees through huge, lengthy mortgages to small-scale debt in order to maintain subsistence) is a thoroughly immoral and counter-productive policy.  Social participation depends upon having some feeling that there is a social system worth joining, which is not based on either altruism or the form of cynical noblesse oblige that means that the Tory right supports minimal welfare provision as a form of social opiate.  The language of stakeholding is ugly, but it is important - the abolition of universal benefits and entitlements and the destruction of communal services such as arts and libraries has the consequences (intended or not) of reducing people's willingness to contribute and the legitimacy of state support for society's good things.

If this is Plan A, then it sets out such a dystopian and hopeless vision that it is quite surprising that anyone bothers to get up in the morning.  The creation of the strivers/shirkers divide was symptomatic of an mindset that is desperate for soundbite over substance, while playing to the shrinking gallery of those prepared to assume that the current economic maelstrom is the precursor to a new paradigm of a low tax, hi-tech knowledge economy - the vacuous phrasings of the fiscally and morally illiterate.

It could have been different.  For a party steeped in history, the Tories are remarkably doltish.  The nearest parallel remains the 1930s, and the ineptitude of the National Government's response to the economic crisis.  Hardly surprising that the Conservatives led most of this - applying discredited conventional wisdom and consigning at least five years and millions of people to a miserable subsistence before rearmament produced an economic stimulus.  Osborne, a prisoner of his client class, bestrides zero influence, doing nothing to mitigate the impacts on the wider economy and playing to a gallery of selfish, pig-headed commentators who know that supply-side "reform" is in their interests.

Recently Miliband has been moving away from the blindly-acquiescent endorsement of the previous Labour government and towards a tactically-inspired, but nevertheless welcome, reappraisal of what economic policy should do.  There is much more spin than substance, but the mansion tax and the 10p tax rate are simple representations that, managed properly, can create an expectation that the tax system will be equitable and fair.  This is welcome as it creates the climate for the post-2015 debate to have more space to engage with wider social and equity issues.

Any party serious about economic policy should be clear that there are are a number of priorities that economic policy supports, rather than leads.  The nature of the society that they want to promote is clearly the starting point - but in terms of short-term economic intervention should be asking three questions:

  • How do we reform personal tax?  Progressive taxation is axiomatic and economically prudent, and it might be an opportunity to create stepped bands of all direct tax, removing National Insurance anomalies and potentially even creating much more accountability through funding local government more directly.
  • What is corporate taxation designed to achieve?  Osborne seems to regard a race to the bottom as a means to competitiveness, rather than recognising that the human and physical resources that companies exploit are wider goods.  At the same time, there may be a case to combine business rates and employers' National Insurance to reflect the costs that capitalism imposes, and potentially influencing regional disparities (for example through a central London levy for infrastructure on the lines of the successful Parisian example)
  • Where can the state do the most good?  This is a much longer question to which I will return, but the current assumption that the private sector is the default solution is a pernicious, self-interested canard.
The deficiencies of the Osborne years will take a great deal to unravel.  As the most incompetent Chancellor that can be conjured up, there is a certain schadenfreude in his humiliation by the ratings agencies, but this is temporary.  The real task ahead is for there to be a genuinely libertarian left economic and social strategy that reflects reality rather than the pinhead bonus-grubbing parasites of whom Gideon and Dave are the poster boys.  Serves them right.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Horsemeat, bullshit and the Tory disaster

For lovers of the 1990s, the speculation must now turn to which hapless Tory minister will feed their progeny food that may or may not have been contaminated with horse.  There are several nagging doubts as to which would be the most appropriate beneficiary of the largesse, but surely following in the footsteps of John Selwyn Gummer is a fate that any worthwhile member of the Conservative front bench would give their fetlocks for.

Food contamination is nothing new - and an inevitable consequence of the current mania for supermarket consolidation, "value" lines and the constraints on spending brought on by the impact of Plan A on the vast majority of the citizenry.  What is surprising is the extent to which this has permeated the consciousness - much as the BSE impact did during the reign of John Major.

This administration is rapidly resembling the latter days of the Thatcherite experiment - stalking horses, diehard semi-cretinous Europhobic knuckle-draggers, and constant reinvention and relaunch as Labour continue to demonstrate that the internal sorrows of the Tory right are not shared by the vast majority of the electorate.  Maintaining political engagement for internal purposes gives Dave the impression that fleeting success is equivalent to connecting with the wider electorate.

The Tories, however, are discovering their inner pointlessness.  As a party of homophobes - you would have thought from the reaction of backbenchers that gay marriage was not merely to become permissible but compulsory - and candidates for remedial exclusion from the mainstream, they do not even start to address the concerns that will actually determine a General Election.  There is no reason for the Tories to exist any more, given that their foaming shire dinosaurs are all infatuated with UKIP, and the City captured Labour under Blair and Brown.

So mechanically-recovered meat is a symptom of this downfall, rather than a major political issue in itself.  Watch out for more stunts as the Cameron narrative unwinds yet further.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Something in the Hampshire water?

Given that the perversion of the course of justice proceedings are still technically sub judice it is not appropriate to add to the obloquy and bile surrounding Chris Huhne.

However, Mid-Hampshire is rapidly becoming the equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle for politics - for both the Tories and the Lib Dems.  Over the last twenty years, neither Winchester or Eastleigh has been blessed with a peaceful or stable political environment, which is mildly ironic, particularly in the case of the former whose bourgeois smugness is constantly paraded by the media, particularly the property sections trying to encourage the spread of unaffordable housing well beyond its previous bounds.

To take Winchester first, its mid-80s Tory paragon, John Browne, was forced out by his constituency association over allegations of financial and marital chicanery.  In 1992 he stood, unsuccessfully, against Thatcher's favourite, Gerry Malone, who had been parachuted in to avoid the denouement that the Scots inflicted following the poll tax and deindustrialisation - unsuccessfully enough that he did not split the Tory vote.

The 1997 election, where the Liberals took the seat by two votes, and subsequently triumphantly in the by-election, brought Mark Oaten into national politics.  Enough said.

As for Eastleigh, the Liberal Democrats took the seat following the death of Stephen Milligan in the bizarre circumstances of autoerotic asphyxiation.  Greengrocers queued up to open in the constituency, but the now-ennobled David Chidgey took the seat and was a successful MP for some time and retired gracefully.  Mr Huhne took over and inherited a decent enough majority which is now up for grabs.

In the light of the fate of local MPs, there may even be some comfort to be drawn if Nigel Farage does decide to wave his banner in the forthcoming by-election.  Which of the fates of former local MPs awaits him is a matter for reader conjecture and taste.