Saturday, 28 February 2015

Straws in the wind - and Mister Ed flunks it

To watch the demise of Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind was an exercise in nostalgia.  The corruption and venality of rapacious MPs was a leitmotif in the descent of New Labour, even though the most outrageous cupidity was demonstrated by backbench Tories, so it is symbolic that the latest sting caught the arrogant and the insouciant.  At least Straw went quietly, even if his motivation was principally damage limitation to his post-political career.

Rifkind on the other hand gave a masterclass in clinging on until it became apparent even to the Tories that he was a liability.  His self-justification that seeking additional income was necessary because an MP"s salary does not maintain him in the lifestyle to which he feels entitled was one of the most hilarious ever encountered; possibly it doesn't go far in Kensington and Chelsea but to the vast majority of the population it would represent untold wealth.  As you sow, so shall you reap.

The timing of the revelations was interesting.  Following a week in which it became clear that the Daily Telegraph has become so craven to its advertisers that its one remaining justification for existence, that of decent news reporting, is as much a chimera as its owners' transparency and accountability to the tax authorities, the story smacked of being a smear that was being held back until the full-scale commencement of the General Election campaign.  The Torygraph has attempted to buy its way back to journalistic respectability, but the corruption of Parliament is a story that is now hardly a ripple, and the debate is moving on.

Miliband, on the other hand, has had a bad week.  Whoever is advising Labour on tactics to discredit the coalition is around four years out of date.  It is perfectly possible to argue that the tuition fees increase in 2011 was a mistake, but only in the context of a wider discussion on the role and size of higher education.  Instead Labour are committed to a reduction in fees rather than the kind of root-and-branch review that would probe whether there is room for more radical reform.  When even the politically-neutral are concerned that a reduction in future debt will redistribute wealth yet further towards the high-earning parasites and the already-affluent, it is sheer folly to reduce government receipts when the real issue is how to protect public services and prioritise infrastructure investment.

Again, the cynic might argue that this, like 1992, is an election to lose.  Asking the Tories why their economic policies have resulted in a huge shortfall in tax revenues, and why, despite a relatively strong economic performance, their prescription is to remove yet more of the basic entitlements of the citizen to civic society and economic security, would be a clear strategy.  Instead we have small-scale, interest-group politics, trying to play off one section of society against the rest of it - emulating the Tory protection of pensioners against all suggestion that the whole of society needs to contribute to it in order to maintain communal coherence.

With the unravelling of UKIP, Labour have much more to do to maintain a level of support that will create a post-election choice for government.  The timidity and incoherence of Miliband's current approach does not inspire - and unless he manages to articulate the frustration and the anger that exists amongst his potential supporters, the election will be both dull and handed to the right on a plate.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Taxing times - the rattled right

Whilst the pseudo-mayor of London was swanning his way around the United States, clearly demonstrating that he is no longer even remotely interested in a post for which he receives quite a lot of taxpayer subsidy, his mouthpiece, the oligarch toilet roll that is the Evening Standard, ran a headline from an aggrieved Tory grandee, called out on tax avoidance.  Apparently it is normal to avoid tax.

For most people, such ruses are neither available nor necessary.  Escaping tax liability through legitimate means is legal, and indeed can be beneficial - for example if it encourages household saving.  However, the moral blindness that the rich are perpetuating is hardly equivalent to providential planning - and the latest news of a property developer who fell through the HMRC net for 24 years, while spending £15,000 a month, does not exactly encourage the feeling of "we're all in this together".

The centre and left of politics is beginning to wake up to the vile chasm between the conduct of a small minority of the wealthy, and the assault on the welfare and security of the majority of the population.  We have been told that pensions are unaffordable, that education and health are expensive and that workplace protection is an obstacle to the perfect functioning of the market.  The Tories and UKIP are the prisoners of the plutocrats.  Instead of parroting the lies about being united in austerity, the right would be better placed examining its own conscience.

Equity of treatment is not too much to ask.  Whatever the outcome of the General Election, rule by consent remains fundamental.  The more the amorality and bare-faced hypocrisy of the international right is institutionalised, the harder sustaining any form of social and economic order becomes.  Wealth confers both privilege and responsibility - what is clear now is that accountability and scrutiny are hardly welcome additions.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Miliband should sink his teeth into the bankers and offshore charlatans

Labour are under attack; it goes to show how worried that the Tories are that the viciousness of the last month of campaigning is being ramped up three months before polling day.  The failure of Miliband to reclaim a radical narrative is clearing space for the Greens (rationally) and UKIP (hypocritically and despicably) to create an agenda where the corporate welfare recipients and the offshore chancers continue to be able to set the agenda.  The Rothermeres and Barclay Brothers of this world continue rank hypocrisy while misleading their core constituency as to their noble aims.

Screwing the most out of paupers is an unattractive model, but there are sections of the right who cling to the determinist approach.  The danger of spawning revolutionary insurgency doesn't really occur to them - but if you create a society where there are no defining threads that connect the financial elite to the remainder of the country then the perils are just the same as the insurgency that cost the East European Communists their power, and which has led to a rejection of the vile neo-conservative ideology by the Greeks and probably by other European nations as the electoral cycle marches on.

The grotesqueries of economic growth being parroted by Osborne while the Tory manifesto seeks to shrink the state to levels where even basic service provision will be a luxury would be risible if there wasn't a competing bid from Labour to lace the arsenic with a small helping of molasses to ease passage.  Since the impact of the mainstream parties' economic policies will be the equivalent to force-feeding the nation with laxatives this is at best disingenuous and at worst a blatant attempt to mislead.

Miliband needs to realise that the Blair approach of sleeping with the enemy is not going to do him any favours.  Instead, he should be working on the assumption that the real anger of people is targeted at the corporate beneficiaries of welfare and bungs.  It is not just tax avoidance and offshore venery he should be looking at, but the rates of corporate tax - it is thoroughly immoral and unjust where the public services that the financial services sector leeches off are being cut at the same time as there are tax cuts for both institutions and high-wealth individuals.

The economy is still reeling from bailing out the financial sector, both directly and indirectly.  Until this is restored, any further tax breaks for bankers and bonuses should be ruthlessly hunted down - if individuals and companies face extremely high marginal rates on income earned by parasitism, then tough luck.  Ring-fencing such receipts into a sovereign investment fund rather than reducing the general deficit would assist capital spending and demonstrate that this is not just about class warfare but extracting the obligations such institutions and individuals have to the community their cupidity has decimated.

More radical reforms, such as putting a stop to tax tourism and Rachmanism through buy-to-let, need to be on the agenda, as well.  There is nothing that would stop Labour from arguing that the balance of the economy is wrong - and that the chimera of private sector virtue needs to be exposed - nor that the vast majority of people have spent the last ten years shouldering the burden of the reckless amorality and vice of the few - most bankers would not have the wit to survive as professional gamblers if they were using their own money.

The alternative view of the world that economists and historians such as Stiglitz and Piketty have started to popularise should be the rallying-cry of the centre-left - fairness, unearned wealth and the right to a decent life are at the centre of what politicians should be trying to achieve.  Sadly, there is no place for this in the current discourse - and it would be brave and stimulating if major opposition figures suddenly decided that there was less to lose from empowering the masses than alienating the plutocrats.